Wednesday, August 31, 2011

If All Else Fails, There's Always IdeaMart

Sorry I haven't been as good with posting lately. I meant to get this posted over the weekend, but that didn't really work out. Oh well, better late than never, right? ;)

"Where do you get your ideas?" It's a question I come across in a lot of author FAQs and interviews. Popular answers include "my brain," "life," "everywhere," or, with a dash of irony, "that grocery store around the corner." I know it's a vague question, one especially difficult to answer for people who are constantly inspired, and yet I can relate to that sense of curiosity regarding writers' creative processes. I love reading posts about how people write. Sometimes I try to steal one or two of their tricks, and other times I just marvel at how personal and idiosyncratic the writing process can be. So here's my take on how I get story ideas, for those of you also fascinated by the writing process. I'm hoping this post will come in handy when I'm a rich and famous author and get asked that question all the time! ;)

When I was younger, my story ideas centered around characters I wished to be. I've mentioned before that I loved pretending to be a magical princess with my friend and sister, and we spun stories about our adventures that I tried (unsuccessfully, I'm afraid) to knit into a novel. Later stories I wrote featured wish-fulfillment protagonists, such as a recent graduate from the mages' university, a shape-shifter with golden eyes, or the new girl in town who wins the heart of the hottest guy in school (so yes, I can understand the appeal of Twilight).

I didn't stop daydreaming when I got older, but I did stop trying to turn them into stories for a while. By the time I began to consider writing again, my story ideas were no longer inspired by fantasies wherein I was a special snowflake. Instead, real life intruded, and traumatic emotional experiences became my muse.

Of course, "traumatic" is subjective. I'm fortunate enough to live a life that has been, for the most part, happy and trouble-free. I have not experienced the death or severe illness of a close friend or family; I have not been abused or assaulted; I have never been in want of food, or shelter, or love and support.  I am beyond grateful for the blessed life I live. Any difficulties I've encountered seem trivial in light of all the good I enjoy, but they nevertheless evoked emotional struggles that were real and significant to me. They marked me and forced me to grow. They inspire me to write.

There was the time I lost a close friend due to my own flaws. Maybe I deserved it, but it hurt, so much, to feel that I wasn't worth a second chance despite my apologies. It pained me that someone whose opinion I highly valued had deemed me irredeemable and found my worth as less than the obstacle of my imperfections.

There was that crisis of faith in my sophomore year of college, when I grappled with guilt and doubt and fought surrender. I tried to ignore the internal battle because I couldn't see how I could ever force myself to choose. It seemed impossible.

Or the time my family was on the verge of falling apart, and I hated myself for not being powerful or brilliant or strong enough to fix everything that was wrong. I cursed my helplessness and drowned myself in despair, unable to bear the burden I'd placed upon myself.

Small, perhaps, in the grad scheme of things, but these and other experiences mattered to me and shaped who I am. I saved up those feelings of hurt and anguish and anger, and amplified them by imagining greater stakes and harsher consequences. What if someone's crisis of faith could cause a war? How does someone face a responsibility, too great to bear, that could mean the life or death of hundreds? What would force someone to fight through feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness to save the world? Those heightened emotions become the heart of my stories, the dark moment my protagonists must face and conquer.

Some things flow easily from that kernel. Theme, for one, is closely tied to the greatest struggle the protagonist must face. I also consider what traits, values, personality, and experiences would make the decision the most difficult for someone, and thus flesh out my main character and her arc. These elements can influence certain worldbuilding decisions, and a few plot points come to mind, too, as the dark moment must be triggered by a crisis and bring about a climax and resolution.

Other aspects of developing story ideas are difficult for me, though. High-concept premises would be one; I try to come up with a cool-sounding idea separately and see if it can fit with any of the stories I want to tell. Settings have never been my strong suit, either, and beginnings tend to be nebulous since I essentially start with the ending.

I wonder what it says about me, that most of my story ideas come from inflicting an intensified version of my personal struggles on a figment of my imagination. Maybe I write as a form of therapy, as Biljana at LTWF does with her fiction. It's my way of writing what I know, and I hope that I can become skilled enough to take my readers on an emotional journey with my words.

So, enough about me. I want to hear how other writers come up with story ideas. Are you consistently inspired by certain observations, experiences, or media, or is it different for every project? What usually comes first when you get a story idea? How does that influence the way you develop the story? Feel free to leave me a link if you have a blog post on the topic!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Inky Linky Love 08.20.2011

Everyone was too busy with WriteOnCon to notice my lack of a post this week, right? :P I'd seen WriteOnCon around the blogosphere before but had no idea what it was. I was totally missing out! Once I found out how awesome it is, I deprived myself of sleep in order to go through all the vlogs and articles from last year, haha. Here are my favorite posts from this year's WriteOnCon, as well as some other blog posts I enjoyed recently.

  • Jodi Meadows on How to Write a Synopsis: love her idea for a verbal diarrhea pre-drafting synopsis!
  • Taran Hudson on Pacing: her Chapter Sandwich is a good trick for making sure there's lots of tension and excitement
  • Kendra Levin on Your Own Hero's Journey: how to balance your writing with everything else in life
  • Carrie Ryan on Revision: great tip about starting with the big picture before looking at detail
  • Martha Mihalik on Building Believable Romance: love her point that romance doesn't have to be stated directly
  • [Vlog] Lisa Schroeder on Novel Beginnings: great point about being intentional with your starting point
  • [Vlog] Lindsey Leavitt on The Debut Year: omg she's so adorable!
  • Marina Cohen wrote for Let the Words Flow about how thinking = plotting. I feel so much better about all the time I spend daydreaming!
  • Jennifer Hubbard talks about why middles are marvelous. I think openings and endings are incredibly difficult for me, too!
  • Patricia C. Wrede says you need to know where you are in order to determine if you can get to where your destination. Great analogy for plotting and knowing your story.

In other news, I've realized that I should've spent more time plotting and planning before diving into Camp NaNoWriMo. I make a terrible pantser. But participating forced me to think about my project more and I've made a lot of progress in figuring things out (if not actual word count), so I'm glad I signed up! 

I keep thinking up potential plot events and scenes, but because I hate how everything feels like a muddle in my head, I bought a ton of note cards and sticky notes in order to storyboard the plot. I'm hoping that organization and getting the structure down first will provide a smoother writing experience down the road. I'm excited to see how it goes! I'll blog more about whether the note card method worked for me once I've gotten a chance to try it out.

Oh, and here's an interesting post from Slate about how to write faster. Are you a Beethovian or Mozartian drafter? I bet you can guess which one I am!

Friday, August 12, 2011

YA Romance Pet Peeves

Some of my friends say I'm a cynic, but I say it's only because I am a true idealistic romantic at heart. I love reading about romance. I want to follow along on a character's love life and vicariously experience the thrill and giddiness and sweetness of budding love (probably because my own love life isn't so exciting). I want the romance to be something I can admire and aspire to — something that feels real and solid and steeped in truth, even if it is fiction. I want to root for the characters as they spend time together, find that they complement and strengthen one another, and commit to the effort necessary for the relationship to blossom. It makes me so happy and gushy when I come across a YA romance like that!

I suppose I love true romance too dearly to have much patience for the obsessive, lustful infatuations that frequently pass for romance in YA these days. And so I thought I'd share a few my pet peeves when it comes to YA romance. Of course, this is entirely based on my personal reading preferences, so your mileage may vary. It's not a particularly unique or ground-breaking list, but maybe you'll find yourself nodding along with a few of these points. Or shaking your head vehemently. (Feel free to speak out in the comments!)

Here are the things I'd want to avoid in my own reading and writing:

Love at First Sight
I know some people believe in love at first sight, but I'm not one of them. I don't think love is something that springs up out of nowhere the second you lay eyes on someone. Attraction? Intrigue? Fascination? OMG-I-think-this-person-might-be-The-One? Sure. But until the characters get to know each other on a deeper level and have a relationship built on something other than physical attraction and chemistry, I'm skeptical about their "love." True love, in my opinion, needs a foundation of trust and commitment, and that takes time to nurture.

Lust-Based Relationship
This is part of the reason I'm not sold on love at first sight. Physical attraction is a wonderful thing in a relationship, but it shouldn't be the only aspect. After all, appearances can be deceiving, and people are so much more than their looks. Sure, I've harbored crushes on guys who had more looks than substance, but I never kidded myself that it was love. I prefer reading about protagonists who are more self-aware and realistic. If a heroine declares herself in love with a guy because he is just soooo incredibly hot, fails to mention any other reason, and never realizes how shallow she's being, she will lose major points in my book for being superficial.

Obsessive Mooning
Another reason I hate reading about purely lust-based relationships is that I don't want to read the protagonist talk about "his dark, brooding eyes" or "his ripped muscles" or "this inexplicable connection between us" or anything else along those lines FIVE MILLION TIMES in the same book. And if she must think about him, why can't she think about something else besides his looks or how she's so mysteriously drawn to him? Why can't she be blown away by his kindness? His integrity? His courage? His intelligence? Why can't she admire those traits and be inspired to cultivate them?

Lack of Personality
Because some protagonists can really use a bit of self-improvement. I know some authors write with an everygirl in mind so the reader can slip herself into the place of the heroine, but personally I prefer reading about heroines I can admire and learn from. Sometimes I wonder why every guy in certain novels is infatuated with the protagonist when she doesn't seem to do much of anything. I want to know that the guy loves the protagonist for her strengths and personality and admirable traits. I want to see these traits in her thought process and actions, not by authorial decree.

Excessive Angst
One major tip-off that the protagonist has no personality would be if she spends all her time angsting about her relationship(s). As much as I love reading about romance, I'd prefer if the heroine has other things going on so she's not spending every. waking. moment. thinking about her love life. I'm not particularly interested in spending time in the head of a character who lets thoughts of a guy take over her entire life (particularly if she just met him). Even worse if it's a constant reminder that her relationship is made of nothing but lust and insta-connection.

Love Triangles
Protagonists in this category are the most likely to be guilty of the previous point, because two guys = double the angst. I know lots of people like to indulge in the fantasy of being fought over by two hot guys or cheer for a favorite team, but I'm not a fan of love triangles. It can be done well, I'm sure, but it's been overdone to the point that I'm relieved when a novel doesn't boast one. There are so many things that can go wrong with love triangles (and by "go wrong" I mean "annoy me to death"). I think it's awful when the female protagonist leads on two guys. I hate finding myself on Team Other Guy because I want to see him happy but I know he's doomed by the author not to be. And when compounded with other things on my list, the entire situation is likely to make me want to destroy something in frustration.

To me, this is the worst part of love triangles. I cannot stand reading about betrayals of a friend or a significant other and, worse, being expected to root for the guilty party. I know people make mistakes, but I wish there were more characters who did the right but difficult thing by telling the truth and facing the consequences, rather than giving in to their passions and then trying to hide it by lying to loved ones. I am a big believer in the importance of commitment, honesty, loyalty, and communication in relationships, and I find it hard to apply the label of "love" to anything that lacks those elements. That goes for friendships, too.

Selfish, All-Consuming Passion for No Reason
Basically, this sums up my gripe with many YA romances. Characters meet, fall in lust, become entirely obsessed, and throw everything else to the wind. They can't see anything else but each other, and make decisions without considering the bigger picture of other things going on in their lives, or caring if they will hurt the people closest to them, or taking into account the consequences of what they're doing. Or maybe they do think about it, but selfishly decide that their "love" trumps all. I get so annoyed with these characters I want to shake them and tell them to open their eyes and think about what they're doing. But I'm sure they wouldn't listen anyway. Sigh.

Examples of Classic Romances I Can't Bring Myself to Love
Since I don't want to bash any recent YA novels by name, I decided to list classics as examples (ok, I may have cheated on the last one). I know these are all widely-beloved stories and have heavily impacted our culture, but I cannot stand the romances in these works. Of course, you may feel differently about them, and if you do, I'd love it if you share why in the comments!
  • Romeo and Juliet: I have no idea what they saw in each other besides physical attraction, and their double suicide was tragic in its wastefulness and not my idea of romantic at all.
  • Tristan + Isolde: OMG I hated the movie version. I yelled at the characters for being so selfish and superficial and for betraying their king, who adored both of them. (I think I kind of alarmed my friends with the intensity of my frustration.)
  • Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot: Similar to the above. Another love triangle and betrayal of someone loved and admired by the lovers (well, depending on the version, I guess). Anyway, just not the kind of story I enjoy. 
  • Twilight: I think this is enough of a cultural phenomenon to count as a classic. Plus it's the one that spawned all the paranormal angsty love triangles so popular in YA right now. I neither liked nor hated the first book, but I couldn't get myself through New Moon without wanting to strangle Bella multiple times. So I never read the sequels.

Further Reading
  • Enjoy reading long rants? Here's one I wrote on my personal blog called In Defense of the Good Guy, in which I complain about how the romance plays out in the DreamWorks animated film, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (contains spoilers).
  • Here's a great post from Beth Revis about obsessive love versus true love. She makes thoughtful points about both, and I definitely recommend reading it for an interesting perspective on romance in YA.
  • Rachel Stark at Trac Changes talks about how YA romances affect teen girls and the kind of romances she'd want to acquire as an editor.
  • Sarah Furlong Burr at Starving Novelist writes about her pet peeves in Harlequin romances. Not about YA, but some of her points still apply.
  • Lisa Shroeder gave tips for writing great YA romance with the acronym CUPCAKE in this vlog for WriteOnCon 2010. Spot-on points for how to write amazing romance.
  • Want to know what guys think of YA romance? Here's a fun post by Bryan at Boys Don't Read on love triangles. (Thanks for the great link, Adam!)
  • I can't seem to stop myself from adding more links! Fun post by Nicole at WORD for Teens on Disney princesses and love. It's DISNEY! How can you not go check it out?

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject. Now I'm really curious about what you think! Do you also get annoyed by the issues and examples I've listed, or are there some you actually quite enjoy, and why?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Inky Linky Love 08.07.2011

Oops, kind of late with the linky post this time. But since I'd banned myself from Google Reader for much of the week, I had hundreds upon hundreds of posts to wade through, and that's basically what I spent yesterday doing. I think next week I'll go back to checking the reader when I have a spare moment; it's too daunting to tackle so many at a time.

But wow, there are so many beautiful posts on the writing journey in the blogosphere lately. These amazing writers are open about the struggles and challenges that accompany being a writer while being incredibly inspiring with their perseverance and hard work. I hope you'll check out these posts if you haven't already:

  • S.J. Kincaid wrote a beautiful post on Ellen Oh's blog about why she wouldn't have changed anything about her writing journey, despite being obsessed for years with a manuscript that would never be published.
  • In a similar vein, Natalie Whipple recounts her journey to publication on Adventures in Children's Publishing, sharing her struggles and heartaches and how she fought through them.
  • On her own blog, Natalie explains why she's not jealous of Kiersten White's successes and how to deal with jealousy in general.
  • Speaking of which, Kiersten is amazing as well. This week she wrote a post on talent versus hard work and why both are important. 
  • And the fabulous C.J. Redwine wraps everything up — the journey, the hard work, the success, and how to handle others' good news — in this post on what it feels like to get a book deal.

Amazing articles, right? And here are posts on everything else. It kinda kills me to throw them all together instead of organizing them into separate categories as I usually do, but if I did that I would mostly have only one link per category, and that would annoy me even more. Thus, this compromise:


Oh, and there's a new tab under my header, featuring awards and memes I've been tagged with. It's entirely Carrie Butler's fault that I had to make one of those. Thanks for thinking of me, Carrie! Though I'd appreciate a less awkward one next time. ;)

In other news, I am still horribly behind on Camp NaNo. But I don't feel all that guilty about it, haha. I think the best part about participating is learning to develop a consistent writing habit, so even if I don't make it to 50k (I'm pretty sure I won't), I'm happy as long as I'm making some progress on my WIP and knocking out a few hundred words every day.

Hope your writing plans are going better than mine, and have an incredible weekend! :D

Saturday, August 6, 2011


I'm a little bit (ok fine, a LOT) behind on Camp NaNoWriMo, but since I'm dying from my self-imposed Google Reader ban, I thought writing a post would help take the edge off blogosphere-withdrawal. At least I'm producing words, right? Can't wait until the weekend when I'll let myself catch up on blog posts (all several hundred of them — yes, I peeked a few times) regardless of word count!

I'm always on the lookout for great articles about villains and antagonists since I have such a hard time with them. I really liked the amazing Jodi Meadows' post about Villains You Like because it resonated with me and got me thinking more about the different types of villains out there. Here are some of my thoughts:

Generic Villainous Overlords
When I was in elementary/middle school, this was the kind of villain I thought up with my friend and sister. We'd play pretend and spin stories where we were magical princesses rebelling against an evil stepmother (so original, I know). I think she also had an evil sorcerer ally.

I've since discovered that evil villains out to take over the world for no good reason tend to fall flat and be utterly boring, so I'm glad I know better now. Imagine my surprise when I came across one in a recent debut! The one-dimensional villain actually claimed "I'm evil" as sole motivation for world domination, dashing all my hopes for an interesting and nuanced antagonist. It was hard not to groan or roll my eyes. (Oh well, the book pretty much nosedived into terribleness halfway through, anyway.) So yeah. No cliché, boring evil villains, please!

Sympathetic Villains
I guess it was so shocking to encounter such a lackluster villain because it seems that sympathetic antagonists are all the rage these days. And for good reason — characters that the reader can relate to are so much more engaging than cardboard cut-outs, no matter where they fall on the good/evil spectrum.

One way to add complexity to a villain is to give him or her a redeeming quality, vulnerability, or troubled past. A villain with motives that are understandable, or even almost noble, would make the protagonist's inner struggle that much more difficult (and who can say no to more conflict?). And who knows, maybe the villain actually thinks he or she is doing the right thing, even if the protagonist strongly disagrees. Jodi's example was Magneto from X-men: First Class; he's a likable character with an understandable motivation, but he's a villain because he wants to exterminate normal people (something I imagine most people would frown upon).

We (as in magical princesses) did later try to do this for our evil stepmother character. We decided she was our late mother's adopted sibling (heaven forbid we're related to her by blood!), jealous of our mother all her life, in love with our father, and basically out to take for herself everything her gorgeous, saintly sister ever had. Oh fine, I guess our attempts to bump her up to "sympathetic" wasn't all that successful, but we did try to give her some personality and motivation. (I think evil sorcerer remained irredeemably evil, though.)

Villains You Love to Hate
I think this might be where our poor evil stepmother ended up. These sorts of villains are dastardly, selfish characters who, through some twist of fortune, ended up with more power than is good for them to have, and then proceeded to annoy the heck out of everyone else. And you can't wait until this villain is defeated because he or she is just so despicable and pathetic. Not to mention rather useless once stripped of power. (I think they tend to be pretty wormy. You know, like Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings and Wormtail from Harry Potter. What is it about worms?)

These villains are probably best as irritants in the path of the hero and not as the Big Bad. I think I'd get pretty frustrated if the protagonist is fighting someone like that for an entire book. But maybe it's all in the execution?

Villains with Flair
These characters are not-very-nice people who become fascinating on the strength of their personality. Not a literary example, but I adored Regina George in Mean Girls. She's a lying, cheating, manipulative b— ah, witch who insulted and played everyone around her. But her confidence, charm, and determination to get what she wanted made her a lot more fascinating than Cady, the actual protagonist. (Plus, Rachel McAdams is gorgeous!)

Or take Artemis Fowl. He's a kidnapper who exploits the fairies for money and amusement. But because he's so brilliant, we can't wait to see what he has up his sleeves, even kind of hoping he'll succeed despite the fact that what he's doing is so wrong. It also helps that he's the main protagonist.

[*EDIT: Thanks to lovely comments from Mike and CanaryTheFirst, I think I'd put Artemis and their examples in a new category: Villains as Protagonist. What do you think?]

Villains can become attractive despite their moral flaws if they have personality traits the reader can admire. The danger with these villains is that they may steal the spotlight and become more interesting than the protagonist, so you'd have to make sure your protagonist is up to the challenge! I think it'd be a lot of fun to write such a character. :)

Villains that Give You Nightmares
These are the sadistic, genius serial killers of pure unadulterated evil. The crazed monster from the underworld who delights in bloodlust. The creepy clown, or alien predator, or that girl with the long hair crawling out of the TV... ok, I seriously need to stop before I scare myself witless.

Why? Because I am a total wimp. (I assure you, it pains me to admit it.) I avoid horror flicks and books as much as possible; even thrillers might be too much for me. I have an overactive imagination and do not appreciate having images of menacing evilness roaming my mind at night. So while others might love reading or writing about this sort of villain and enjoy the thrill of being thoroughly scared, I'm afraid (har, har) they're not for me.

Of course, not every book has to have a villain. Some stories have antagonists that are made of sunshine and loveliness, and so sweet you want to gag — except their goals happen to conflict with that of the protagonist. Or maybe the antagonist isn't quite that innocent, but more morally ambiguous than outright evil. A lot of antagonists fall into this category, but it's fun to think about evil characters once in a while and consider how to make them interesting to the reader.

What other types of villains can you think of, and which ones are your favorite?