Friday, January 28, 2011

I Don't Make the Awesome Alone

I know I gush on here a lot about my agent, Michelle Wolfson, and my editor, Erica Sussman.  And trust me, I don't gush for the sake of gushing.  They really are just that awesome.  I can't give you most of the evidence for Michelle (but go read her comment on the last Household Memos) because the majority of it is, uh, unquotable (in the absolute best possible way, oh my gosh I love that woman).  But I thought I'd give you a glimpse into an email exchange between myself and Erica.


Me: I wish I were done writing the third book.  Sigh.  My favorite scene is the one where I have in brackets "[insert description of dress and color scheme here based on cover of third book]."  But I might just leave it in as a choose-your-own-dress-adventure for the reader.  A little avant-garde, right?


Erica: If you decide to wear the strapless dress, turn to chapter 20.
 If you decide to wear the sparkly halter top dress, turn to chapter 25.
 If you decide to wear the khaki pants and cardigan, put this book down. You are fired.*


Yup.  I love her.  That's all.  And let me tell you, my job is so much easier and so much more fun because I get to work with like-minded and incredibly smart, funny people.  I'm a lucky, lucky author.

*Erica would like it noted that she has nothing against khakis and cardigans in real life, as zebra print and formals are not always appropriate.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Crafting the Perfect Story, or, I Gush About Veronica Mars

So I finally watched the first season of Veronica Mars after hearing too many times that Paranormalcy reminded people of it (and also that VM was freaking amazing).

(Kiersten, you ask, aren't you supposed to be, you know, writing a book?  To which I respond, SHUT UP I KNOW OKAY?)  (And then I apologize for yelling at you, and give you cookies to make up for it, but really, let's don't ask questions like that to the poor, stressed out, sleep-deprived author.)  (But Kiersten, you ask, wouldn't you be less sleep deprived if you were only writing, instead of also watching long-canceled television series?  To which I respond, NO MORE COOKIES FOR YOU GO TO YOUR ROOM YOU ARE GROUNDED.)

So, like I was saying, I watched the first season of Veronica Mars.  And it was, quite simply, perfect.  Or, to quote Joss Whedon, "Best show ever."  But since I've made a profession of storytelling I find myself asking why a lot more while thinking of stories in any medium--film, television, books, even songs.  Why I do or do not connect with them.  Why they work over the course of a season, why they work in individual episodes, why I lose interest halfway through the movie, why the story never felt alive to me, etc.

Here's why Veronica Mars absolutely worked:

Characters

Veronica herself was quirky but not obnoxiously so.  She was intense enough to pull off her obsessions, but so funny and smart-mouthed and sympathetic that it took the edge off of some very serious situations that otherwise could have gotten too intense.  Plus the actress was perfectly cast.

All of the big side characters--ALL OF THEM--were good and had interesting stories that only got more interesting as you got to know them better.  Each episode seemed to reveal another layer to these characters, and their interaction with Veronica and each other was one of the best parts of the show.  All of the major side characters honestly felt like they could have had their own shows and still been interesting.  That's the mark of incredibly good writing.  While you are writing, ask yourself: do each of your side characters add something to the story and stand on their own as people?  If not, you might want to consider cutting, combining, and developing.

I also really loved Veronica's relationship with her dad.  It was one of the best things about the show, and not a very common thing to see in shows about teenagers.  They had a healthy relationship and loved each other but still had conflict and tension that is unavoidable when you have a teenager who knows everything and a parent who knows everything better.  Another thing to note for those of us writing about teenagers.  Sometimes the easiest option is to have parents entirely out of the picture, but, if you can work it, that dynamic adds a lot of depth to a story.  (Yes, I know, I wrote an orphan.  But she has a mother figure, so that counts, right?  Right?  Fine, GO BACK TO YOUR ROOM IF YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE THAT KIND OF ATTITUDE.)

Another important relationship (although I loved loved loved Veronica's romantic entanglements) was her platonic relationship with best friend Wallace.  I've really tried to find GOOD portrayals of guy/girl relationships that are dynamic and interesting but without the romantic undertones or tension.  This one was perfect, and absolutely worth a case study if you want to write something similar.

And, okay, it needs to be said (spoiler free): I have never, EVER seen the "bad boy" done better than it was in this show.  Ever.  Never ever ever.  If you want to write a bad boy, please for the love watch this show and study everything they did with Logan.  And Weevil for that matter.

Overall Plot versus Episode Plot

Each episode had its own mystery to solve and was interesting in its own right, but they never forgot that there was also a season plot that needed to be moved forward.  Every episode added another element to the season arc, whether through a character revelation or a clue/piece of evidence.  This can be applied to books in that every chapter needs to have a point and stand on its own but also move things forward.  Also, if you are writing a series, don't forget that while making the best possible book you can, you also have to move things forward for the overall series arc (whether that revolves around an overarching plot or just character movement--there ALWAYS needs to be movement).

Kissing

There was a lot of it, but not so much that I'd be embarrassed to tell my mom to watch the series.  Just enough to be perfect.  And none of the relationships felt emotionally manipulative to me as a viewer, and it didn't seem like they took any easy or predictable plot points.  For example, when Veronica is in a casual, fun relationship and then ends up kissing someone else, instead of drawing it out and having her get "caught" to manufacture dramatic situations, she...resolves it with honesty.  Just like that.  And it made me so happy that the people behind the show understood they didn't need to resort to soap opera tactics to create tension or interest.  Drama is a good thing, but I appreciate a fresh approach to it.  They didn't make any lazy storytelling choices.


Just some things to think about.  If you haven't watched the first season of this series, I highly recommend you do so.  And pay attention--always.  The same things that make a story (in any medium) work or fizzle are the things you can use (or avoid) in your own.  Be an active participant in your entertainment.  Everything is a chance to learn and grow.

Oh, heck, who am I kidding.  I'm just in it for the kissing.

(You can come out of your room now.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Location, Location

(First, BUSINESS: If you wanted to go HERE, and write-in Paranormalcy as one of your top teen reads of 2010, I wouldn't be sad about that at all.)

Today I want to go to a centuries-old fortified city on a hill.  I want to wander the narrow, winding, cobbled streets between crowded and cheerful homes, and then climb up covered wooden stairs, uneven and graffiti-plagued, my eyes barely adjusting from the brilliant sunshine in time to avoid tripping on slopes and gaps.


I want to come out to find the wall, the same wall that has protected this city for hundreds of years, slowly giving in to time and revealing its crumbling brick-and-mortar soul.


I want to sit on a bench, letting the trees absorb the blinding blue heat, and drink a lemon Fanta while wondering how many generations of men have lived in this funny, slanting tower house next to the cathedral, and just how long it has until it finally slips off the edge of the hill, as it has been slowly, ever so achingly slowly, trying to do for the last few centuries.


I want to sit next to my husband on a bench while he sketches the slowly slipping tower and I scribble notes on stories and ideas and inspiration.  And then I want to walk with him through the centuries of the peaceful dead, entombed forever in the ground and the green.


And where the tombstones have fallen, or the graves have been replaced, the markers are lined up against verdant mounds like a fence of memories, names worn off by time, all that remains of someone's life a stone sentinel, guarding nothing.


People buried under hills and in the sides of them, all things made equal by time and creeping green things.


I want to wander, and then sit and write strange, sad, beautiful tales of things that never were or are no longer but may be yet again.  I want to play with language and create images that are surprising and wonderful.


Or, you know, I'll just go ahead and sit in the corner of this couch and write what I have to.  Because Transylvania is a bit far to commute, and I have a deadline.


But I still want a lemon Fanta.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On Advice

So, in my previous post I mentioned that I might stop answering emails asking for personalized advice.  And, as always happens when I post something like that, I immediately got an apology email from a very sweet and awesome reader who had recently written me for advice.

That was NOT the point.  It isn't about the people writing me--it is, as most things are, ENTIRELY ABOUT ME.  ME, ME, ME.  Ahem.  Sorry.  Okay, fine, one more: ME.

When I get an email that says, "How do I do this?  How do I write a book?  How do I take the stories in my head and commit to them and get them all out on paper?  And how do I overcome the terror that seems to accompany every aspect?" I don't think, "Gosh, that's so annoying, quit writing me."

No, I think, "I DON'T KNOW BUT IF YOU FIGURE IT OUT PLEASE FOR THE LOVE LET ME KNOW."

Because while I have all of the visible checkmarks of success--got an agent! sold my book as a trilogy! hit the NYT bestseller list! lots of blog readers! shiny hair!--when I sit down to write a story, you know what I still think?

"Oh my gosh.  This.  Is.  Impossible."

Every single time.  It always feels impossible to me, and hugely intimidating, and overwhelming.  How do you take an idea and make a book out of it?  How do you take a voice and fill it with 72,000 words?  How to you create characters and lives and stories out of NOTHING?

And, once you have all of those things in a Word document, how do you fix the horrible mess you've made out of them?

See, I've written enough books now that I have no more delusions.  I know that I'm not going to whip out an amazing first draft.  I know that it's going to take time, and be hard, and even when I "finish" I'm never going to be FINISHED.  (Until Paranormalcy is done being translated into Finnish, but that's a different story.)  And I know that my particular method (chapter by chapter by chapter, linearly, with minimal outlining, fueled by sugar and obsessive daydreams) is not your method, nor should it be.

And even when you have a book and you have success--wild success--more success than your very realistic dreams allowed for--it is still scary.  You still worry about the next book.  You worry that you've forgotten how to write, or that you've lost your voice, or that you don't have enough ideas.  You worry that whatever you write next that isn't in that world will lose the magic you tapped into.  You worry that your next book will flop and you'll forever be seen as a flash in the pan, some sort of one hit book wonder.  You worry.

And worry.

A lot.

And even when things go right, I don't know how they've gone right.  It's not really a quantifiable thing--so many different successes have to line up just so, and 90% of them are utterly and completely out of the author's control.  So when people write and ask, "How do you write a breakout first novel/bestseller/book everyone will love?" I think, "Heck if I know!"  I wrote a story I loved, for fun.  Everything else just sort of happened.   When they write, "How do you have a blog and a twitter feed that people will want to follow?" I think, "I have NO IDEA why ANYONE reads MINE, other than that MAYBE they REALLY LIKE random CAPITALIZATIONS that SHOW UP when I have had TOO MUCH DR PEPPER."

(Honestly: I have no idea why people read this nonsense.  But I'm glad you do.  I like you.  My only explanation for twitter and this blog is that I love doing it and have fun with it, and I think that communicates itself well.  Also, everything I write is littered with subliminal messages that I have studied a lifetime to be able to use.  So when, this August or September, Supernaturally not only breaks all sales records but I am also elected Supreme Dictator of the World, don't be surprised.  But I'm not telling you how I do it, because that would defeat the purpose of controlling your minds.)

To sum up, the real reason I cringe when people ask me for advice is because of the unspoken assumption that I have anything figured out.  Friends, dear friends, believe me when I tell you: I have nothing figured out.  I'm just muddling along as best I can, enjoying the occasional flashes of brilliance and trudging through the work--because that's what writing is, it's WORK, lots and lots of work, wonderful work, but WORK--and if it looks like I know what I'm doing, well, that's because I lie for a living.

And I am a very good liar.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Adventures With Presents

I got a Kindle for Christmas.  I'm not one that is terrified by the e-volution of reading.  Probably a lot of this has to do with the fact that my book has done really well as an e-book.  I like that.  I like paper, too, but so far I've quite enjoyed reading on my Kindle.  Observe:

 What's that?  You can't get Supernaturally on your e-reader?
NO, NO YOU CAN'T.  HA HA HA HA.

Ahem.

I also got a house for Christmas.  Observe:

 I love the stairs.  Is that weird?

One of the fun things about finally owning, besides all of the moneymoneymoney you have to keep shelling out for every little thing, is being able to decorate however you want.  And my decorating sensibilities leave nothing wanting.  I'm all about class and convention.  Observe:

 Lord of the Rings sword replica as jewelry holder?  CHECK.

 Dacchian Wolf-Dragon wooden spoon wall decor?  CHECK.

 The best quilt EVER in my still-being-put-together office, along with one of the cardboard floor stands?  CHECK.

I also got a brilliant television series for my husband, and the brilliant Steph Perkins got a toy for me.  Observe:

Sherlock! AND SHERLOCK!

But what's that, you say?  That doesn't look like a traditional Sherlock head?  No, no it isn't.  Observe:

Benedict!  It IS you!  Of course Steph would think of the only possible way to improve on a Sherlock Holmes action figure.

Sherlock is supposed to live on my desk and whisper snarky observations in my ear as I'm writing, but since I don't have my desk set up yet I decided to play with him.  Sadly, we didn't get very far.
Me:  "Wanna play something?"
Sherlock:  "The game is afoot!"
Me:  "I'll take that as a yes.  Let's play Clue!"
Sherlock:  "It was Colonel Mustard in the Observatory with the lead pipe."
Me:  "But I haven't even opened the box yet!"
Sherlock:  *annoyed stare that questions my intelligence*
Me:  "I hate you."

 Just kidding, Sherlock.  I love you.  But you're no fun to play games with.

So, what was your favorite Christmas gift?  Did you get a set of stairs with a big, bright window, too?  Or an action figure that questions your intelligence on a daily basis but that you love anyway because he's just so adorably brilliant?  Or an e-reader that you can't get Supernaturally on yet?

HA HA HA HA HA.

Whoops.  Sorry.  Sometimes that smug laughter just spills out and I can't help it.  Observe!  This is me, shutting up.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dumb Girls


What is wrong with being blond and liking the color pink?

No, seriously—what is wrong with it?

I know I say I don’t read reviews, but sometimes I catch snippets of them while looking at/for other things.  And nothing makes me madder than when reviewers dismiss Evie—MY EVIE—as a ditz.  (Okay, fine, one thing makes me madder: a reviewer who said Paranormalcy was a Twilight knock-off.  Umm, WHAT BOOK DID YOU READ??  Because it certainly wasn’t one I wrote.)

Their ditz rationale usually revolves around three things: Evie likes boys, Evie likes the color pink, and Evie likes to look pretty.

Umm, were you ever a teenage girl?  (My twelve guy readers simultaneously answer, “Umm, no!”  Smart alecks.  Shut up and keep reading.)  Because I was a teen girl, and let me tell you something.  Boys?  Pretty much 75% of my waking thoughts.  Boys, boys, BOYS BOYS BOYS.  I thought about boys all the time.  Cute boys, boys that bugged me, boys that were so cute it bugged me, how I could get those particular boys to notice me, what I would do if they did ever end up noticing me, etc.  And you know what?  I wasn’t a ditz.  I was kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum.  (You wanna see my medals from the Academic Decathlon?  Who needs sports when you are really good at taking tests!)  I was smart and motivated and mature and I LIKED BOYS.

Teen Kiersten! Far left. Odds are I was thinking about boys.
(Or about how pale I was.)
(Or how much I hated my prom dress.)
(But probably boys.)*

As far as the color pink, it’s a bit head-scratching.  What’s wrong with liking a color?  I love the color green.  I’m irrationally swayed by it.  I have been known to buy books JUST BECAUSE they featured green heavily on the cover.  I refuse to buy Maggie Stiefvater’s Linger on my Kindle even though it’d be cheaper because the ink is green in the hardcover and it wouldn’t be on the screen.

Yes, the color pink is “girly.”  But Evie’s obsessive love of it is more an indication of her desperation to conform to her idea of “normal” than anything else.  She loves pink, and teen television dramas, and fashion magazines because she loves the idea of being a normal teenager and those things, to her, represent that ideal.  And, quite frankly, with her coloring she looks fabulous in the color pink, and that’s a good enough reason for me.

And finally, wanting to look pretty.  This ties in to the previous issue of her loving such a “girly” color.  What on earth is wrong with being feminine?  I’m a card-carrying feminist (okay, not literally, no one has issued me a “100% Genuine Feminist Club” card yet, although I have been checking the mail regularly for the last twelve years) and I say getting to wear skirts is an advantage we have over guys.  Skirts are cute and comfortable.  Guys have to wear button-up shirts and ties.  It’s pretty much one of the only ways in which our fashion is easier than theirs.  Take THAT, guys!  Unless you wanna rock the kilt, we totally own you in this category.

I’ve noticed lately a trend where authors feel compelled to insert into their novels that the female MC rarely wears makeup, or feels uncomfortable dressed up, or doesn’t want to try and be pretty.  Like they want to make sure you know their MC isn’t one of “those” girls.

What is wrong with wanting to look nice?  If it makes you feel good, and you enjoy it, I say more power to you.  One of my favorite MCs for a book you can’t read yet is probably the toughest, most contrary, rebellious character I’ve ever written.  And she loves wearing makeup.  Why?  Because it makes her happy and she enjoys playing around with it.  She doesn’t do it for other people, or to impress boys.  She does it for herself.  And if that isn’t feminist, what the crap is?

If a teen girl likes wearing jeans and t-shirts and doesn’t like makeup, awesome!  If a teen girl likes wearing skirts and dresses and putting on makeup, awesome!  Neither makes you inherently a ditz, or stupid, or smart, or whatever else.  It just makes you you.

What’s interesting is that it’s never guy reviewers complaining about this stuff—it’s girl reviewers.  Why do we feel that we have to kick back against these things, or tear girls down who like them?  That’s a rhetorical question.  I don’t know the answer to why it’s “bad” to like girly things, or why it somehow makes you dumb.  But I do know that the vast majority of readers and reviewers love that Evie is girly, and she is boy crazy, and she is pretty, and she is tough, and she is smart, and she is brave.  Because you can be all of those things, it turns out.  You don’t have to choose to either be smart or like being pretty.  You don’t have to choose to either like pink or be taken seriously.  We can have it all!

Except sparkly pink Tasers with rhinestones, because they aren’t legal in some states.

*Special thanks to Amy, for posting old pictures on Facebook.  And special thanks for our ridiculous facial expressions to going to prom with a group of drama kids.