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The Analogy Machine

Since I’m in Christmas break mode, I kind of forgot that yesterday was Monday… and that I usually blog on Mondays… So we’ll pretend that today is Monday, not Tuesday, and that tomorrow is Tuesday (think Thrill Seekers) not Wednesday.

over the Alps at sunrise

The analogy (which is more a musing)

Did you know that, at any given moment, more than 61,000 people are airborne over the U.S.? We’re so used to defying gravity in our jumbo jets. Yet last week as my plane took off from San Fransisco International, I found myself encouraging the still land-bound plane: come on, you can do it, you can leap off the ground and soar into the air —

Sometimes, at least to me, it feels like the airplane I’m in is never going to get enough oomph to get off the ground. The runway seems to stretch forever as the engines groan and the wheels screech and the pilots get ready for lift off. What makes this (excuse the un-romantic description) pile of metal, nails, wheels, carpet, seats, engines, wings, and windows defy gravity?

The connection (which is more a musing, too)

I’m not a pre-engineering/physics major, so if you want a technical explanation, Google it.

But as I was prying the plane off the runway in my mind, listening to the engines roar and watching SFO disappear behind me, I thought: what makes a book get off the ground?

If you think about it, books are just words. Verbs and participles, names and places and things, sentences and paragraphs, strings of action and story lines and character arcs. But somewhere, somehow, all this things tangle together and come alive.

Your turn to muse.

When does a book stop being a pile of words — and become a story that readers love? What’s the magic oomph that makes the story soar?

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The Analogy Machine

When I’m not writing, you can probably find me singing or playing the piano or doing something musical. I am addicted to music. I’ve taken piano my whole life, sung in choirs my whole life, and actually sung all over the world (well, kind of: Austria, Slovakia, South Korea) with my high school jazz ensemble.

So I know that performers practice. In fact, I’m afraid of calculating all the hours I’ve spent at rehearsals because the number would be insane. Take the last few months, for example, as my college’s music department prepared for a monster-huge series of Christmas concerts (three sold-out nights to over 2500 people): my typical rehearsal week averages around 8 hours of choir per week, not including random weekend concerts, so figure five weeks of that plus the final week, which featured a couple 3 hour rehearsals…

That’s a LOT of practicing.

Except when you’re standing on stage, looking over a full orchestra into an audience of 800+ people (standing room only) and three TV cameras — every second of practice counts. Every second of practice counts as melodies and harmonies and rhythms and handbells and violins and altos and basses mix together to not only make music, but also to communicate a message of peace.

If you look close, you can see me!

And of course, as I was sitting in one of those 3 hour rehearsals, I was thinking about writing… and how writing relates to singing… Then in our first concert, something clicked as I nailed the alto line on the finale of Vaughan William’s Dona Nobis Pachem (only because of all that practice) — as writers, we practice, too.

We practice by writing countless rough drafts (maybe countless trunked novels, too), by reading other novels, by studying craft and technique, by exploring AW, by following blogs, by sending queries. And maybe we don’t want to tally up all the hours we spend practicing. In the end, though, all that hard work is SO worth it once we reach the performance (getting an agent? publisher? hitting the shelves? book tour?). Because without all that practice, our performance would be a flop.

So as you write and read and study, revel in your practice. The performance will come; for the moment, your job is to prepare.

Goodness, I sound like my conductor…

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The Analogy Machine (kind of)

I’m not used to getting bad grades. Case in point: I got a class journal back mid-semester with the professor’s notes, which basically said:

Good work.
B

I stared at this for a while. The professor’s first and last name didn’t begin with a B — so what could the B mean? This is kind of embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t realize until sometime later in the day that the B was a grade.

I don’t mean that to sound haughty. It’s just reality: we don’t like getting bad grades or bad critiques. We want everyone to love our work — although that’s an unrealistic expectation. At some point, if we’re actively sharing our work and looking for advice, we’re going to get negative feedback. And we’re going to have to deal with it positively. How?

1. Don’t explode

Usually my first reaction to bad grades or bad critiques goes something like this: WHAT THE HECK? What is wrong with this professor/critiquer/reader and why don’t they understand that (a) I am perfect and (b) this is Nobel-prize-worthy literature?

That’s bad. Don’t follow my example. Instead, take a minute to breathe. The world is not over.

2. Realize: it’s the work, not you

Which is true. My professor wasn’t giving my personality a B-average. Your beta-readers aren’t trying to shoot down your self-esteem. Your beta-readers probably don’t know you personally — and my professor definitely wouldn’t be able to pick me out of a crowd. So.

Paint a line of separation between you and your work. This takes time. Case in point: the first query I ever posted on AW for critique sucked, and everyone told me so. But I took all the (rather harsh) feedback like a couple punches to the nose, which definitely didn’t make me any friends. If you have a healthy sense of separation between you and your work (obviously it’s yours, so you’re going to love it, but don’t be attached at the hip) then you’re not going to fight back.

3. Also, your crit-ers are trying to help, not hurt

The goal of a critique is to improve the work: your crit-ers are on your side. They want the work to shimmer. They want it to catch an agent’s eye and they want to love it as much as you do — they really do.

4. Now. What are they really saying?

Focus on the good stuff first. The best critiques are structured like a sandwich: compliment, suggestion, compliment. Read the compliments and smile. They’re not lying; they really like it! Good job. (If there are no compliments, well… sorry. back to the drawing board? or get a different person to read?)

Then sort through the suggestions. Take time to chew on them. You might be turned off at first by some of the comments, but think them through. They might grow on you. They might be brilliant. After all, other eyes always see what you can’t.

5. And remember, you don’t have to listen

It’s a good idea to listen — or at least try to listen. But if you really can’t face some of the suggestions, ignore them. It’s okay. These are not mandates.

6. Ask for more

Once you’ve re-polished something, send it back to the crit-er. See what they say. You might need to do some more scrubbing — or they might adore your new, mad writer-skills. Whatever happens, don’t bite their head off.

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The Analogy Machine: Jigsaw Puzzles

First up: Got this email from Mary Kole over at Kidlit in my inbox this weekend:

Congratulations! I’m thrilled to let you know that I’ve picked you as my first place winner for the query contest.

Hurray! The post isn’t up yet over there, but it should appear sometime today. I won a critique of the first 20 pages of my manuscript by Mary Kole herself, who’s an agent with Andrea Brown. It’ll be interesting to hear what she says especially since I’m heading into revision-land right now.

Speaking of revisions, I love doing jigsaw puzzles. Sometimes my family would go skiing in Canada over winter vacations and we’d spend all our non-skiing time playing games. Or doing jigsaw puzzles. Let me tell you: jigsaw puzzles are highly addicting. Not sure why; they’re kind of annoying, too. But there’s something magical about them. The picture only works one way — one single way — and once you graduate to 5000 piece puzzles it literally takes magic to fit everything together.

Revisions are like jigsaw puzzles. Writing in general is like a jigsaw puzzle. Example: I wrote three major drafts of THE INBETWEEN. I mean, major drafts. Each one (althought they kept the same major characters and basic premise) had a vastly (HUGELY CRAZILY) different plot line. And with each one, I’d get to the end (or almost the end or pretty close to the end) and realize that nothing was right. Nothing. The picture wasn’t clear, wasn’t coherent, wasn’t perfect.

So I’d scrap. Think. Begin again.

Problem is, works-in-progress don’t have box-pictures to show the way. You gotta make up the picture as you go and hope it all fits together in the end.

In the end, THE INBETWEEN fit together. I found the right picture and finally dropped the last piece into place. (Some pieces are still kind of loose and sketchy so the puzzle isn’t quite complete. But it’s close.) Still, I’d rather avoid the whole scrap-begin-again process next time. How?

  • Make your own box-picture. (I don’t know what else to call the box-picture. The picture on the box? The jigsaw map? Anyway, you know what I mean). Look big-picture. Try an outline. Or (if you’re anti-outline), at least make some character maps. Sketch out some scenes. Know where you’re going so you don’t end up throwing your jigsaw puzzle out the window into the snow. This is also called —
  • Start with the framework. Remember how you always start jigsaw puzzles with the edges? They’re easy to find. Begin with the pieces that are easy to find: your premise, your main character and his/her motivation. Then see where those take you — hopefully they’ll lead to the center of the puzzle.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment — or backtrack if pieces don’t fit. Really, you are working with jigsaw-like plot pieces when you write. Sometimes you have to fool around. Test things out. Try to link up pieces that may or may not fit together. If nothing seems to be going right, if the picture isn’t shaping up, take things apart again. You can always put them back together.
  • Watch out for missing pieces, a.k.a. plot holes. Get someone else to look over your work — or talk out your ideas with them as you go along. New eyes will spot things your mind automatically skips over. And the worst thing ever is almost finishing only to realize that the final few pieces have disappeared into the couch.

Try this! Show off your jigsaw skill on this super-cool virtual puzzle (impossible to lose the pieces!). My time was 7:03 (because I got distracted half way through) — can you beat me? It’s really satisfying to hear the puzzle pieces click together just like they’ll click together in your book.

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The Analogy Machine: Hair

Normally T.A.M appears on Mondays, but I felt like blogging about it today.

My hair is weird. I supposed I’d describe it as naturally chaotic, always indecisive, mostly misbehaved (without a straightener or hair-dryer). So I like hair-product aisles. I like Herbal Essences conditioners (straightening! curling! anti-frizzing!) and John Frieda products (heat and weather protectant! shine-gloss! curl stuff!) and Pantene-ProV. Hair marketing gets me every time: walking down that aisle I have thousands of fantasies about my new, perfect hair . . . and how this product is going to change my life.

Does it change my life? Well, no. But that’s beside the point.

The process of revision reminds me of shopping for hair products. I have a million cool ideas (new ending! sizzling characters! awesome plot twists!) as I shop the aisles of revision-land. And every new idea seems so shiny and so full of potential.

And then I try the ideas, and not every idea works. Some ideas that claim to bring shine and snazz make the story as frizzy as my hair in the rain. Some ideas that seem like they’ll straighten out all the plot’s kinks and curls only make the story more crazy.

But.

Taming my hair is a constant process of trial and error. Maybe Herbal Essences doesn’t work, but I still have faith in John Frieda. Or…

The revision process is just like finding the right hair product. Trial and error. Shampoo and rinse and dry and — who knows? That new idea just might make your story PeRfEcT.

I’m working through revisions as part of The Call process right now. I think it’ll be a lot of trial and error, a lot of buying new ideas and trying them on for size (to mix metaphors). And it’s exciting. I think a lot of these revisions are going to make this story as sexy and irresistible as hair-model-hair on T.V.

How do you revise? Try new ideas? Make your story so bewitching that everyone (agents, readers, the whole world) just HAS to buy it?

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The Analogy Machine: Not Like Riding Rollercoasters

viper

Yep, be jealous. I went to Magic Mountain this weekend. Highlights: almost blacking out on Goliath because of the insane G forces…sprinting to X2 right when the park opened so we only had to wait 20 minutes in line…floating through spirals and corkscrews while laughing my head off on Tatsu… Lowlights: looooong lines and expeeeensive food (what a rip-off!).

My ever-present writer brain tagged along, too, and told me that writing a novel is not like riding a rollercoaster.

Riding a rollercoaster is:

  • all about waiting in long lines
  • all about wondering how much longer the lines are going to last
  • all about wanting to just get on the ride

Writing a novel is:

  • (all about waiting, wondering, and wanting, yes, okay)
  • BUT it’s not about wishing away the waiting, wondering, and wanting
  • NOR is it all and only about the ride at the end of the line

As my friends and I played our way through our tenth game of “Never Have I Ever” and sweated buckets while waiting to get on Riddler’s Revenge, I was helpfully reminded that unlike riding roller coasters — (where it’s all about the destination and the end of the line) — writing is about enjoying the journey.

Sure, the “ride” at the “end” (getting an agent, getting published, going on tour, and whatever else your wild dreams would like to insert here) is super cool, full of adrenaline rushes and moments where your stomach drops out of your body… But the process (the writing, the editing, the querying, the waiting) is super cool, too. Maybe cooler.

Often we (okay, often I) get so fixated on the idea of getting an agent, getting an agent, getting out of this in-between stage — that we (I) forget why we (I) started writing in the first place. The rides at Magic Mountain have these handy signs that say: expected wait from this point: 1000 hours… but life doesn’t. So enjoy the journey.

sunset

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The Analogy Machine

The Analogy Machine is back after a brief hiatus… Get ready to sweat, people.

Yesterday afternoon a bunch of friends and I did this beastly workout called Booty Boot Camp. It’s a 45 minute circut training workout aimed at (yes) the booty. And beastly is an understatement. Basically it’s a bunch of sets of lunges, squats, burpies, frog jumps, anything to do with the booty, plus a bunch of core work like sit-ups and planks. For 45 minutes straight. After only a few minutes my legs turned to dishrags. I couldn’t breathe. It was too hot. I was dripping sweat. Oh my goodness, I’ve never done anything so hard in my life.

But I did it. Of course my writing-brain instantly made a connection: that grit and determination that kept me from falling flat on my face is a quality that all of us writers can’t live without. We are fighters, teeth-gritters, winners. We battle sentences because we have to reach THE END, and we push through dry moments for the joy of success. Let me tell you, finishing that workout was joy.

What is that determination? What made me complete that impossible set of deep squats when my legs felt like they were on fire? What keeps you writing at the dullest, driest, darkest moments? Three things:

Dedication: Okay, so I am not a dedicated exerciser. I exercise, don’t get the wrong impression, but this 45-minutes-of-death thing isn’t something I do every week. I was dedicated this week because me and my friends were super pumped up to do it together (and because my booty will be rock-solid!). Are you dedicated to writing? Dedicated to not only finishing the job, but doing it with style and joy?

People: Dude, I could not have done that workout without my friends. If I had been doing it my room all alone, I would have stopped before the warm-up was halfway done. My friends kept me going. Encouraged me. Laughed with me. Groaned with me. We were in it together, and we were going to finish, no matter what. Who’s along with you for the ride? Who will support you as a writer and a dreamer? Who will dream with you and push you to get better?

Hope: Hope for water breaks, yes, and hope for the end of the final set of deep squats — and hope for your future as a writer, whatever it might be. Hope drives our determination.

Let me tell you, I am glad I finished the workout. That “runner’s high” was bomb; I cruised through my homework last night. This morning I am noooot so happy with the way my legs cannot move and with the way I can’t sit down or stand up or do anything, but hey, it’s gonna be worth it.

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