Monday, July 28, 2014

Monday Writing Guest Post: Where to Start

Jessica Iverson is currently working on her MFA in Children's Literature through Hollins University. She is particularly interested in reading and writing about diversity in children's literature.  Her short story "Tap" was recently published as part of a collection of stories to be used in Ethiopian classrooms in partnership with the Peace Corps. Her first picture book manuscript is set in China during the Moon Festival.   

Today's post is the second part of a two-part series on beginnings.  You can read the first one here.

Now, because we aren’t having this conversation face to face, or even via video chat, I can’t critique your WIP during this post. Also, that would be weird and very public. I wouldn’t do it. Even if you begged and bribed me with bars and bars of Theo chocolate. Well…No, no I wouldn’t.   

However, I will offer some specific thoughts on the experience I’ve had writing my own WIP.

Back in 2007, I had the first inklings of this story. I didn’t have much, but I knew the character was a young mom. As the years ticked by, I wrote a page here, and a page there but it didn’t feel right. But then it happened. My first breakthrough. Or what Han Nolan would call a small miracle.

I was writing the first moment of the first scene, and I knew it is where I needed to begin. My MC was waited outside of the college library, smoking a cigarette; the smoke mixing with her breath in the cold, winter air. Why was she standing out there? Well, it wasn’t just because she had been jonesing for a cigarette. She was waiting for her boyfriend. Waiting to break up with him, and he had no idea it was coming. Maybe there was a bit of denial there, but still it was going to come as surprise. The scene was going well enough, though the emotional climate was kind of a drag. He exited the science building as he was supposed to, noticed her across the sidewalk as he was supposed to and came up to her. But then something got stuck. My MC wasn’t answering his questions. She wasn’t acting how she was supposed to. And my MC was supposed to be my most cooperative character. After all I was giving, yes giving her the most story pages. She owed me. And then, right there, sitting at my desktop, hunched over my keyboard, I was hit with a truth. One that made me feel stupid and excited at the same time. She was Deaf. She was Deaf! Oh.

And then the pages came easier (this was after I asked if she really had arrived to her intended writer. She didn’t go anywhere, so I took that as a “you’ll do”). There was still a bit of slogging going on though, since the story started out so heavy. Also, I was writing it as a novel. Try constantly differentiating between signed and spoken dialogue through the written word. I used italics, dashes, dialogue tags. It was rough.

And then during the awful month of the Midwest’s February, the second small miracle happened. I wasn’t writing my story in its true form. My story was meant to be a graphic novel. Again, with the feeling stupid and excited. I wish I could pinpoint the moment and explain that I was reading an article on graphic novels or something, but it wasn’t like that. I hadn’t even read five graphic novels up to that point. Ready for a goosebump moment? A few days ago I looked back for the first time on a forgotten exercise I did for an online class in the fall where I listed MC personality traits and interests. Many of these traits hadn’t remained in my mind, and so were forgotten. One of the things I wrote was “likes graphic novels”. Reading this last week felt like a confirmation from my MC that yes, I had gotten it. Of course the story was going to be a graphic novel.

But I had fifty pages of novel written. They were pages that still had a true-ness to them. Should I just trash them though? Start at the same beginning, but write it differently? I was waiting for something. Another small miracle? Pretty please? Well, maybe it was one, or maybe it was the equivalent of an inspiring quote taken from a sermon, but here it was: You haven’t found your beginning. Yes the scenes in those fifty pages happened. But they happened before your reader enters the story.

Yes. Right. Okay. Now my current beginning introduces the MC as she is locking the door to the apartment she shares with her Gran. It’s drizzling out, and the MC is experiences waves of increasing pain. She is on the cusp of active labor.

I am so glad for you if you have found your story, but hopefully this post has encouraged you to ask yourself questions as you write, as well as where in the story you need to place your reader. Also, I wish you small miracles.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Life: Heirloom Tomato and Avocado Salad

I came across this recipe while staying the desert.  It was July, and due to the unrelenting heat I was in search of juicy, cool dishes.  This salad was so delicious that I could hardly believe it only had five ingredients (two of which were salt and pepper) but when I made it for myself at home it was just as good.  So easy!  And with the one-two punch of cancer-fighting tomatoes and creamy avocados packed with healthy fats (not to mention the olive oil) it's even good for you.

Because the avocado and tomatoes make up the main flavors, you want to be sure to get ingredients that are super fresh and (for the tomatoes) heirloom, home grown, or from a farmer's market.  Conventional tomatoes from supermarkets are often grown for color rather than taste and can be mealy and bland.  Also, because avocado is so high in fat it is best to eat it in moderation.  I like to do about 2 cups of tomatoes to 1 cup of avocado to balance out the salad.

Heirloom Tomato and Avocado Salad
4 heirloom or other ripe tomatoes (depending on size, you may need anywhere from 2-5)
2 ripe avocados
1-2 Tb olive oil

Chop the tomatoes into 1/2 inch pieces.  Scoop out the avocado and chop into 1/2 inch pieces.  You will want about two cups of tomatoes to 1 cup avocado.  Mix the tomato and avocado, then drizzle the olive oil over and toss gently until everything is lightly coated.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  (You may not even need the pepper, but some people like it!)


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wednesday Culture: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Exquisite cinematography is largely responsibly for the unique flavor of a Wes Anderson movie and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is no exception.  I came late to an appreciation of Anderson's quirky, cerebral films, but the cinematography is one of the reasons I got hooked.  Watching a Wes Anderson movie is like watching a Macy's display window at Christmas, with so many beautiful, intricate moving parts that you barely have time to marvel at one sight before another replaces it.  Every scene is a feast for the eyes.

"Budapest" is something of a departure from Anderson's usual troubled family dynamics in telling the story of a dedicated hotel manager and a family fortune.  Writers will particularly enjoy the set-up; the tale is bookended with a reader, then a writer, then an oral storyteller.  It's a lovely think-piece on the creation and impact of a story that mirrors historical change in a personal struggle.  The film is thoughtful but action-driven (watch out for a few gory moments) and will leave you feeling nostalgic for a place you've never been.

If I have one quibble with this movie - and, indeed, with Anderson - it is the overabundance of white men in his films.  "Budapest" features Anderson's first non-white protagonist (at least, when he's portrayed as young) but like the rest of Anderson's films, the movie is heavily populated with white men.  There are three notable female characters, all of whom are dead by the end of the film.  It's a different movie than Anderson's usual but unfortunately, not quite different enough.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday Writing Guest Post: Are You With Me?

Jessica Iverson is currently working on her MFA in Children's Literature through Hollins University. She is particularly interested in reading and writing about diversity in children's literature.  Her short story "Tap" was recently published as part of a collection of stories to be used in Ethiopian classrooms in partnership with the Peace Corps. Her first picture book manuscript is set in China during the Moon Festival.

I’m a sucker for beginnings. I love a story’s set up, backstory and the multiple plot promises in the first pages. Even if we, the audience, aren’t fully aware of it, we are waiting for the story to establish the structure of the world we are entering into, the status quo and how it might be broken or at least challenged by the protagonist. We are also waiting to be won over. In Orson Scott Card’s book titled Characters and Viewpoints, he suggests that the reader may unconsciously ask three types of questions while digesting the story.

The first point Card makes is that the reader wants to be shown why he or she should care. Why should the reader turn the next page, rather than finally fixing lunch or dropping off the package that should have been mailed a week ago? Why does this story matter? Card’s questions is: "So what?"

Second, even on a just for fun read, the reader expects the story to be believable. What about fantasy or sci-fi, you say? There are great texts out there. Classics! Yes. I agree. But in these well done stories, rules for the worlds are set up, and if those rules fall apart, then there’s…well, fall out. You with me? Now, you are an intelligent reader, I can tell, and you wouldn’t (without squirming) put up with a book which has you internally or externally exclaiming, “but that’s not how it works!” Cough. Sparkly vampires. Cough. Card dubs this issue “Oh Yeah?”

And lastly, pay attention, you who are creating new worlds: The reader wants to feel like they get it. Did I miss something? Who is talking? Wait. The fox and Deb were just at the grocery store and now, actually I have no idea where they are (completely made up, don’t rack your brain). The reader can handle being in the dark or confused to an extent. Heck, isn’t that why the mystery genre works? But the difference there is that the confusion is being used for the betterment of the story. The author isn’t just being lazy. Card eloquently calls this question the “Huh?”. Of course, there is a fine line between making sure the reader isn’t confused and beating. them. over. the. head. with. what. you. want. them. to. know. Also, it is best to piece into the story information that you know the reader will need, in order to keep following along. Beware of the infodump. Don’t let it happen to your story!

Next week: Where To Start?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Life: Kugelhopf

One of the foods I discovered during my sojourn in Alsace along with tarte flambée was the distinctive kugelhopf (or gugelhopf or gugelhupf; there are a thousand variations).  Kugelhopf was present everywhere; in bakeries, at home, and especially at wine tastings.  The dry, not-too-sweet cake is perfect for clearing the palate between wines.  It even made an appearance at Easter in the shape of a lamb.

Kugelhopf is not difficult to make, but as it is a yeast dough it is more time consuming than other cakes, and it has a more bready texture than most American cakes.  You can use an angel food cake pan or a bundt pan to bake it but to do it properly, use a kugelhopf pan.  The kugelhopf pan is taller than a bundt pan and will give you the traditional shape.  If you have a lamb-shaped pan, you're may use that for Easter.

(serves 8-10)

2 1/4 Tbsp yeast
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c warm water
4 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c butter, softened
1 Tbsp salt
6 eggs
3/4 c raisins (plumped in water or rum)
1/2 c sliced almonds

Mix the yeast, sugar, and warm water and let sit to proof (it is proofed when it foams slightly or makes bubbles).

Beat together two cups of flour and the softened butter.  Add salt and eggs, mixing until incorporated.  Drain raisins and add.  Mix in half the almonds.

Slowly beat in the remaining flour and the yeast mixture.  Stir until you have a nice strong stretchy dough.  Move the dough to a floured bowl and let it rise until doubled, about 1 to 2 hours, then punch down.

Thoroughly grease (preferably with butter) a Kugelhopf pan or your pan of choice.  Sprinkle the remaining almonds into the bottom of the pan and add the dough.  Let rise until doubled again, about an hour.

Bake at 475 F for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 F and bake until browned, about 45 minutes.

Remove from oven and let stand three minutes in the pan, then invert onto a cooling rack.

When the cake is cooled, turn upright on a plate.  You can dust the kugelhopf with powdered sugar or drizzle it with a glaze or soak it with melted butter and sprinkle sugar on top to create a crunchy crust.

Delicious with fresh fruit and a Crémant d'Alsace!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Symbol & Revolution (Fiction in the World)

The arts have a long history as symbols of a people, culture, or way of life, a fact which is particularly visible in the face of conflict.  The forced relocation of indigenous people, especially children, in the 1800s and 1900s, saw the restriction of traditional art and music in an effort to stamp out a culture and way of life.  During World War II, national music was seen as so dangerous that it was banned in Nazi-occupied countries.  And in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Singing Revolution led to the nearly bloodless independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from the USSR.

It's not too surprising, then, to find that residents of Hong Kong, in rallying for a free democratic process, chose "Do You Hear the People Sing" as a protest song.  Les Miserables and its promotion of social justice is fairly well-known world-wide thanks to a touring musical and the recent movie, and the song is one that resonates from the barricades of Paris to the streets of Hong Kong.  Given Victor Hugo's political fight for social equality and freedom, I suspect he would approve.

More interesting is the recent adoption of the Hunger Games salute as a sign of protest in Thailand.  Again, it's not too surprising that this symbol was selected - the movie is widely popular, easily available, and offers an example of the overthrow of a repressive regime - but it is significant that an international movie has provided a symbol of resistance.  Instead of local arts providing a rallying point, protesters chose a fictional symbol from a fictional world, and in doing so they made the salute a universal sign.  It's a sign of the power of fiction and perhaps more accurately, the power of movies.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Monday Writing: My Nine Authors

Reading is the single biggest reason why I am a writer today.  I read voraciously as a child and although my pace has slowed in later years thanks to, well, life, stories were such a big part of my growing-up years that it seemed totally natural to make my own stories and then to write them down.  I don't know if I could possibly name all of the stories that influenced my developing ideas about stories and characters and the rules of fiction, but I can bang out the top nine no problem.  If you're looking for ideas for young readers or if you're curious about my style, follow along!

1. Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura was the First, i.e. the first book I remember having read to me, the first chapter book I remember reading on my own, the stories that I lived and breathed for years.  She taught me a fascination with history and showed me a descriptive style that was difficult enough to challenge a young reader but clear enough to keep said reader reading.

2. Madeleine L'Engle
I read "A Wrinkle in Time" sometime in second or third grade and was both fascinated and confused.  I suspect L'Engle was my first sci-fi experience, and after semi-historical books and fairy tales, all this business with molecules and transporters was deeply intriguing.  I looked forward to the day when I could learn higher mathematics, just like the characters in the book.  L'Engle's stories entwined family dynamics with global threats and matched internal development to external plot.

3. Victor Hugo
In sixth grade I went to the library having finished "Gone with the Wind" and looking for a similarly hefty tome.  I walked out with "Les Miserables."  It was the first book to ever make me cry (or find a deep outrage at the state of French society in the early 1800s, for that matter.)  From Hugo I learned an enjoyment for gorgeous language and I witnessed a masterful example of how to draw the reader into the stakes of the story.

4. Steven Brust
Cynical Vlad Taltos and his wise-cracking jhereg showed up in middle school under the auspices of a friend who loaned me the books.  Vlad inhabited a world of grey morality and sarcasm, and he regularly negotiated complicated relationships with friends, "friends," enemies, and lovers - perfect for a budding teenager.  He was also one of the first first-person narrators that I can remember reading.  Brust's sparse language and urban setting introduced me to one contemporary fantasy blend that I've enjoyed ever since.  Plus, he had multiple kick-ass female characters.

5. J.R.R. Tolkien
Ah, Tolkien.  Does anyone ever leave him off a list of influential authors?  I'd heard "The Hobbit" via audiobook while on a roadtrip with my family and I think I'd read it, but I wasn't aware that there was more until a middle-school friend (yes, the same as the above; she also introduced me to Star Wars and now you know where it all comes from) talked up Eowyn and handed me "The Lord of the Rings."  It was dense and it took me some time to get through, even after Hugo, but I loved every second of it - the  rich language, the incredibly detailed setting, the bittersweet ending, and probably most of all, the juxtaposition of the individual and the epic.

6. Robin McKinley
I don't remember when I started reading Robin McKinley because her introduction into my reading list was so natural it felt as though she'd always been there.  I came through her fairy retellings, particularly her two Beauty and the Beast stories, before I made it over to Aeron, but I connected with her female characters and themes of internal strength.  Her characters and their struggles felt very real.

7. Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett is still my go-to comfort read when I'm having a bad day.  I learned a lot about archetypes and the power of story and language from his books, and in terms of humor it's hard to beat Pratchett.  He always manages to look at human nature with clear eyes, and sometimes it's funny because of the truth behind the story and sometimes he's sad because of the same, but there's always hope.

8. Agatha Christie & 9. Dorothy Sayers
I have friends who will rend their garments at the fact that I've lumped these two together, but the truth is that I tore through Agatha Christie before getting into Dorothy Sayers and I found that they had much of the same things to teach me, albeit in different ways.  Mysteries are their own special brand of story, and I enjoyed following the intricacies of the plot in both authors' stories.  And I suspect my love for twists developed in some part due to both Christie and Sayers.

Which authors influenced your writing?