Monday, January 31, 2011

Where to Start a Story, and Where to End It

My dear readers, don’t ever be as stubborn as I am.

A long while back, an agent told me to cut the first two chapters of my book. I didn’t, because I knew he was wrong. Instead, I tried to make the first two chapters better. When I was done, they were good – really good – but they just weren’t good enough.

I’ve agonized over this for three years. I swear, three whole years, people have complained about the beginning. I knew what to do all along: I needed to start the book where my main character gets initiated as a priestess.

After I stubbornly refused for three years to start with the initiation, I hesitantly decided to write the initiation-beginning just as an experiment. I even titled it “Alternate Beginning.” I figured I could show people why it wouldn’t work, and then they’d all tell me to keep the first two chapters.

Yeah… I cut the first two chapters permanently. My “alternate” beginning is now my real beginning.

Here’s What I Learned:

A book should start as late in the story as possible. If you start at a point that makes the readers say, “Wait, I don’t understand how we got here,” take a step back. Example: I don’t need to talk about how Tuccia was nominated to be a priestess and what her life was like at home. But if I started the book after the initiation, people would wonder how she became a priestess. The beginning should be somewhere in the middle.

I should have known all this because I have a similar theory on how to end a book.

Events set a story in motion, like a rolling rock. You know where the rock will roll unless there’s a change. When something happens in the plot, it makes the rock roll in a different direction. At the end of the book, the rock rolls in one place for all eternity. A reader will know, without reading further, what’s going to happen for the rest of the character’s lives.

The place to end a book is at the last plot twist that sets the rock rolling in its final direction. The second your readers know what will happen next, that’s the end of a book.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is an interesting example.

Spoiler Alert: If you've read the entire Harry Potter series, you can highlight the text below to read about the ending.
After Harry conquers Voldemort, the book fast-forwards to Harry and Ginny living happily together with their children. When I first read this I liked it because I was invested in Harry and I wanted to see him be happy. Then I realized how pointless it was. We know Harry will live happily ever after. We don’t need to know his children’s names to know how the story ends.

Friday, January 28, 2011

I Love Short Films

A writer feeds off of inspiration. Every writer should explore, be adventurous, learn, and eventually come to the same conclusion: the world is an incredible place.

The shorter a work of art is, the more brilliant it has to be. The artist doesn't have much time to dazzle people with fancy scenery, reel people in with characters they care about, build up to a mystery, or energize with sex and action. They have a narrow window that they have to pack with as much useful information as possible.

That's why I love shorts. In only ten minutes, a short can engage viewers in a story that they rarely forget.

Here are some of my favorites. If you have any other shorts to share with us, please post the link in the comments. I'd love to see them! You can find more shorts by going to YouTube.

When a women got her morning cup of coffee, she had no idea she would be wooed by a crazy man.

This is a short about the magic of free parking.

There are all kind of ways to find love. Some are unexpected.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Old Tron was Better than the New Tron

I don’t watch movies for the special effects; I watch them for the story. People often use special effects as a crutch, an excuse not to tell a good story.

The new Tron movie is visually captivating, of course, but it doesn’t have any of the cleverness of the old one. It didn’t explain what a user was, what the games were, who Tron was, or even what The Grid was. As far as I could tell, The Grid was a mini Utopia in a computer. They never explained how The Grid related to Flynn’s company, or the world.
I’m unclear on how an ISO can solve mankind’s problems. Sure, an intelligent being springing up out of nothing is awesome, but haven’t humans done that already? (I’m on the side of Creationism, but you get my point.)

And by the way, I’m a little tired of the whole “don’t play God,” “there is no perfect world without flaws” theme. I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t ever make a flawless Utopia of robots, genetically engineered humans, or computer programs. I would, but sci-fi told me not to.

The old movie was brilliant. “The Grid” isn’t a contained program, but the entire digital world. Everyone in that world is a Program (such as an accounting program, a math program, an educational program, etc.), and a User is whoever designed and uses that program. A User is considered a deity in the digital world. It’s the program’s responsibility to discover the will of his User, or rather, his destiny.

Isn’t that cool?!?!?

This religion thrives until an artificial intelligence called “Master Control Program” comes along and tries to take over the entire digital world. He takes over government computers around the globe. As an artificial intelligence, he hates the idea of Users and forces all the programs to reject their Users and to submit to him instead. Any Program who refuses to reject their Users is forced to play in computer games.

Tron was designed to monitor the Master Control Program, which the Master Control Program doesn’t like. When Flynn first gets zapped into the Grid, he sees Tron fighting in a battle against the Grid’s security guards.

I love science fiction when it is more than just a flashy story, but an intricate idea that relates to our world and twists our minds in ways reality never could.

Click here to play the original game! I suck at it, but I love it.
Teralyn Pilgrim

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Crazy Man Chased Me

I was on the dance team in high school and I always took the bus to practice. One day, I was running late by about half an hour. My coaches were already upset over my past offenses, so as soon as I got off the bus, I broke into a run. I was five blocks away and it was pouring down rain, so I knew I would be dripping by the time I got to practice.  

I reached a stop light. I was so eager to cross the street that I was practically hopping in place like a jogger. While I was waiting, I heard someone shout, “Pretty girl! Pretty girl!”

A 300-pound man ran toward me… or bounced toward me, really. He reminded me of that white ball in The Prisoner. BUM-ba-BUM-ba-BUM. I would have run away, but I needed to cross the street and the light was still red.

He was out of breath by the time he got to me. He reeked of alcohol and cigarettes.

“Pretty girl,” he gasped. “Pretty girl, do you know what time it is?”

“It’s 6:30,” I said curtly, my eyes fixed on the eternally red light.

“Okay. Give me a hug. I’m in love with you.” This enormous stinky man grabbed me in his fat arms and gave me a huge hug.

The light turned green, so I squirmed away from him and ran across the street at top speed. The crazy man put out a reaching arm like they do in romance movies and cried, “Pretty girl! Wait!”

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How to Handle Plot Bunnies

A plot bunny is an idea that won’t go away. It bounces around in your head incessantly, like a bunny.

I have been plagued by plot bunnies in my time. When I first start a new book, it’s hard for me to sleep because I have to get up and scribble in a notebook whenever I have a new idea. It’ll be all I think about (and all I talk about) for the first few weeks.

I’ve discovered something imperative about my plot bunnies, something essential to my writing and something I want to ingrain in you so much that I’m going to write it in bold letters:

Plot bunnies need to be indulged.

Reason #1: The most productive writing time is in the first few weeks. You’re so excited that you can write longer and faster. The ideas flow easily, and because you’re so in love with them, they can do no wrong. Later once the idea settles in your head, progress slows.

Reason #2: If you tell your ideas to scram, they might not come back. When I went to college, I decided to put my writing on hold and focus on school, friends, guys, etc. I’m glad I did. However, when I tried to start writing again, it was grueling. It was like finding water in a desert. Creativity is a muscle: use it, or lose it. Now that I finally picked up my momentum, I refuse to lose it again.

We often think of ideas like a river; if you dam the river, eventually the dam will burst. It isn’t like that at all. It’s more like hosting a party and showing up late. Your guests will wait for a while, but they will get tired and they will go home.

Reason #3: You might lose your idea. It’s hard to imagine that something can consume all your attention one moment and you can’t remember it the next, but it happens. Even if you do remember the idea, it might lose its potency and you won’t be able to remember what made the idea so great.

Reason #4: It’s silly to ignore plot bunnies anyway, because they aren’t just annoying; sometimes, they hurt! I’m writing this article because I recently had an idea at work while I was busy doing something else. I couldn’t get back to writing for an hour. By the time I was free to work on it, I felt physically ill.

Have you never felt a plot bunny before? You will. My next article will be about how to encourage your ideas until they take over and become bunnies.
Teralyn Pilgrim

Monday, January 24, 2011

I Had a Query Revelation

I posted my query on Public Query Slushpile, and my dear new writer friend Karen Akins took a look at it. They all had the same complaint:

Tuccia sounds passive. The query makes it seem like she just sits in a cell and waits to be saved. Since Tuccia is the heroine, she needs to be the one to solve her problem (duh). The way the query is, it seems like Vesta is the only one moving the story forward.

I had already tried adding voice and flavor to the query to show why Tuccia’s quest for faith and courage is so monumental. I just couldn’t get it right. Finally, I asked my critiquers to look at a paragraph from the book that I felt packed the biggest punch and wrapped the story into a whole, and asked them how I could depict those themes.

And then it hit me.

Of course!

I’ve been sitting on this powerful paragraph all this time. All I had to do was change it to third person, present tense, and summarize it.

I’ve discovered again and again that the hardest problems are usually solved with the easiest solutions.

Here’s my new query. It's not as great as the exerpt from the book, which I guess is inevitable. I think this is The One (but I always think that, so who knows?) Below is the exert that inspired me.

Tuccia awaits trial knowing she will be executed for a crime she did not commit: losing her virginity. For other Roman women, this isn’t an offense, but for a priestess of Vesta, such a sin displeases the gods and condemns Rome to ruin.
Tuccia’s accuser is a vengeful priest who failed to seduce her. With a priest’s testimony against her, no one will believe Tuccia is innocent. Only the goddess Vesta has the power to save her life. If Vesta will allow Tuccia to perform a miracle, it will prove that she is favored by the gods. If she fails, she will be put to death.
Tuccia has distrusted Vesta ever since another Vestal Virgin was wrongly accused and executed for the same crime. If Tuccia puts her faith in Vesta for the first time and fails at the miracle, it will prove her guilt. The other vestals try to persuade her to go to trial instead, but she is tired of others deciding her fate for her. She is tired of living in fear and doubt because she doesn’t know if Vesta is there for her. Instead of waiting for the priests to judge her, she decides to prove to the people of Rome – and to herself – that she has the courage to perform miracles.
Sacred Fire is a historical fiction that is complete at 88,000 words.

Friday, January 21, 2011

An Insane Anarchy in Hong Kong

A writer feeds off of inspiration. Every writer should explore, be adventurous, learn, and eventually come to the same conclusion: the world is an incredible place.

I was almost giddy when I heard there was an anarchic city in Hong Kong only thirty years ago. (I have a soft spot for anarchy.) Kowloon, The Walled City, was densely populated and completely ungoverned. It was once a military base on the border between the British Territories and Hong Kong, but after it was evacuated, squatters went there to flee from communism, the law, debt, or whatever else made it impossible for them to live in normal society.

This city was insane. There were 33,000 people in a 6.5 acre area. They built buildings on top of buildings until the streets were covered in homes. There’s no light inside.

This video is a fascinating documentary. People actually went inside and interviewed the residents before the city was demolished in 1987.

I like anarchy purely for religious reasons. You see, if God were on earth with us, it would only make sense to make him the ruler of all governments because he’s perfect. Since he’s not here and we’re all imperfect beings, democracy makes the most sense. When we go to heaven we’ll all be perfected beings, so the government that makes the most sense is anarchy.

I leapt at the chance to watch this video because I adore Utopian and Dystopian literature, and I always wanted to write a fictional book about radical government. How cool would it be if my book was actually non-fiction? I was disappointed, though, because the city’s system didn’t function well at all. There were diseases, drugs, prostitution, poverty… It was a pretty sucky place to live. No revolutionary material there. Why can’t anyone come up with an anarchy that actually works?

It would be cool, though, to turn this history into a historical fiction that follows all the patterns of Dystopian literature. It could actually read like a fictional book and it would be shelved with other Dystopian fictions, except wait… this really happened. I seriously considered it, but it’s not really my style.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

When Your Writing is Too Short

We all know when our writing needs something more (or a lot more), but when we try to add length and depth to our work, writers are often at a loss. In a NaNo forum, I read a great comment on what to do when your work doesn't have enough meat. It's a long comment (which I suppose is inevitable, since she's never had a problem with writing too little).
Imaging how much color and depth a book would have if all these ideas were at the author's disposal. A writer can definitely err by writing too much, but most of us don't, and it's infinitely easier to cut material than to add it.

Here's what she said:

"After 45,000 words I am not even into the 4th week of a six month story!
"I keep describing each room the characters are in, what they had for dinner, the types of jewelry and clothing each of them wear, what they want to happen versus what actually does happen, the songs they listen to, the people they pass when they are walking, the cab driver and his point of view, what the kids are doing when their mom is talking to my character, what kinds of flowers are in that vase on the table and how the smell brings back a childhood memory of a garden his mother took him to when he was small, what the smell reminded her of, what the waiter thought when he saw them, what they thought of the waiter, how she adjusted his collar, what they talked about in bed that night, what they said on the phone several days later when he called to see how she was doing on her business trip, some little thing he bought in a store and his friends' discussion about whether or not it would make a good gift or should he just keep it for himself?
"I heard an interview with a published author who always added something new with each rewrite: each character got a hobby during one rewrite, then each character played a different musical instrument in the next, and then they each got a different pet, and the wrong people's pets liked or hated each other to create more tension. The world around your characters is full of smells, colors, walls, drapes, furniture, carvings, art, books, poetry, songs, dance, music, animals, pests, dirt, polished surfaces, mirrors, food, the areas under stoves, tables, couches, and potted plants, hardwood floors, grass, gardens, streets, cars, sidewalks, traffic signs and signals, noises from distant construction and aircraft, weather, carpets and rugs, and a bunch of different foods. People have clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, makeup, fingernails, shoes, underwear, dreams, plans, scents, hobbies, likes, dislikes, fears, recent memories, childhood memories, different textures and colors of skin, eyes, and hair, pets, roommates, landlords or tenants, kids, brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, (any of whom could drop in at any moment, or get sick, or die, forcing the characters to stop their urgent plans and pay attention to something perhaps even needing to go some place far away to visit or mourn or take care of the estate.) They interact with people in cars, buses, and cabs, buy things from people in stores, wash clothes, stand in line at supermarkets, go to movies (real, or make up a plot that could give a character an idea or clue--that worked in Roger Rabbit!) listen to music, the radio, TV, news shows, comedy shows, game shows, and dramas. People learn languages from recordings in their cars. Typos and misspellings can become names or new gadgets.
"I've got to stop. I hope that helps you or someone else. I think I'll post that list on my wall for when I get stuck!"

(For those of you who read all the way through, I'm impressed.)
Teralyn Rose Pilgrim

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Three Important Pieces of Query Advice

I’m mad. I’m not just a little mad, either. Smoke is billowing out of my ears. I submitted my query to be critiqued on Absolute Write Water Cooler, and I swear, it's impossible to make those people happy!

I noticed the people on the forum were saying mostly the same things, so I grouped all the comments into three categories. Hopefully, the advice will be as helpful for you as it (eventually) was for me.

Problem #1: Show, Not Tell

One person wrote: There is a huge difference between saying "Sergeant Riggs was manic depressive and a dangerous, loose cannon" (Lethal Weapon) and painting out the scene at the beginning where he wakes up next to empty bottles, stares at a woman's photo, and puts the pistol in his mouth, shaking and crying, willing himself to squeeze and finally giving up, unable to do so.

I think the reason show-not-tell is difficult is that I see it in my head, so it’s been “shown” to me. No matter how little I describe or how distant or convoluted my writing is, I still “see” it. But my readers don’t.

The people on the forums demonstrated this idea by rewriting a few of my lines.

I wrote: Tuccia has always been an adamant servant of the gods, but now she is angry at them for letting her friend die.

Someone else wrote: Disgusted with the senators, disgusted with the Gods, Tuccia storms from the temple. A marble Zeus watches her exit, and she stares up, feeling a newfound hatred coalesce inside her.

I wrote: She feels guilty for her anger, and this guilt makes her insecure.

Someone else wrote: In the weeks after the execution, Tuccia becomes a recluse. She gains weight and has nightmares where she tries to save her friend, only to be executed as well.

That is NOT what happens in the story, but they make a good point.

Problem #2: Don’t Tell the Story

Everyone in the forum kept saying, “Don’t tell the story, don’t tell the story.” I was confused because they had told me to cut out so many things that there wasn’t much left, and all of a sudden they told me not to even tell the story. This was when I changed from productive to fuming angry.

My fingers shook as I punched on the keys: If I can't tell the story and I can't tell the theme of the story, or the history, or the background, or the ending, what CAN I talk about?

They explained that when you tell a story, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. In a query, there’s not enough time for a complete story. Some of my query drafts talked about Tuccia getting initiated as a child, summarized the events leading to her trial, talked about the trial, and one of them even told the ending. That’s a full story arch.

In response to my despair, someone wrote: You can't TELL any of that stuff. You want to SHOW (not tell) the story, ideally a small snippet of it that will be enough to entice them. In your case, you're trying to cram enough in that you don't have the room to build up a few scenes adequately.

All you are trying to do with your query is make the agent want to read your MS. Give us a visual moment of your MS that makes us want to read more. Think of this as a back-cover blurb, not a full synopsis of your novel.

Problem #3: Answer the Three Questions

They said there are three questions a query should answer, and I shouldn’t write anything in the query that doesn’t contribute to answering these questions:

What does the MC want? (a miracle)
What is she willing to do to get it? (trust the goddess, Vesta)
What happens if she fails (stakes)? (she gets executed)

Some of my drafts talked about what a Vestal Virgin was and didn’t even address Tuccia’s trial. Some of my drafts talked about the trial but also talked about other parts of the story leading up to the trial. There was only one thing I needed to focus on: the trial. It sounds simple enough.

Why was this so hard for me? Because the trial isn’t what the story is about. It’s only the ending. The story is about Tuccia progressing as a person through challenges that test her faith, the last of which is the trial. Writing a query that only answers those three questions threw away everything I loved about the book. Now that I think about it, I see that this is necessary. I can’t put everything I love about a book in a query.

I’ve written another query and I'm going to have others critique it (again). Hopefully I can get a few stamps of approval.

Click below to see my most recent draft.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Magic Disappearing Toffee

I love to cook. A few years ago, I discovered a mouth-watering recipe for toffee. I’ve never been much of a homemaker, but I always wanted to be, so I was tickled pink that I could put a candy jar on our coffee table that was full of homemade candy.

The next day, Andrew’s sister came over to visit, and I was eager to have her try my amazing toffee. I ran to the candy dish to offer it to her.

It was empty.

Andrew said he hadn’t done anything with it. He told me I must have put it away somewhere, and even though I knew that wasn't true, I went ahead and searched the apartment anyway.

I couldn’t find it anywhere. We looked in the silverware drawer, under the kitchen sink, even in the bathrooms, but it was nowhere to be found.

I decided someone must have walked into our apartment and stole our toffee. Andrew said that was the stupidest thing he ever heard. We had computers and a TV; why would someone break in and only steal toffee?

He thought that if I didn’t hide the toffee somewhere and forget about it, I must have eaten it, but there was over a pound of candy. He decided I must have eaten the toffee in my sleep. I argued that I would have felt sick the next day.

We had a pretty heated argument about whether robbers or sleep eating was more likely. After a few months of wondering, we finally decided we would never know.

I told this story to a group of my friends while having dinner with them, and they thought it was pretty funny. Later I scolded my friends for not coming to visit me more often.

“We came by a while ago and knocked on your door, but you weren’t home.”

“Aw, that’s too bad.”

“But your door was open, so we went inside and watched TV and ate all your toffee.”

I should have been mad, but after we were done laughing, I felt a sense of triumph. I could finally call my husband and tell him, “I told you so.”

Click below to see my toffee recipe.

I'm Doing Something Wrong

My stats with agents are pretty low. 40 rejections, only two requests. I already suspected I was doing something wrong, but then another author emailed me and said, “To be blunt, if you're getting such a low request rate, your query still needs work.” At least he's honest.

I feel stupid, because I know one mistake I made: everyone says to send your queries in batches of no more than ten at a time. If you don’t get any responses, you’re supposed to rework your material before sending another batch.

But I didn’t think anything needed to be reworked. I’ve already had people help me with my query and my first chapters, and I thought they were perfect.

So I sent out all my queries at once. I modified each one to fit the agent, of course. I just didn’t see the point in waiting. I keep saying that we can never see our own flaws and we should always be open to criticism and improvement, but I haven't practiced what I preach.

Now what?

It’s most likely a problem with the query, but it could also be a problem with whom I submit to, how I submit, or worst of all, the story itself. While I’m willing to accept that all of that can be approved on, I don’t understand how any of it could be so wrong that literally no one is interested in me.

This has certainly been humbling.

I’m going to get more writers to critique my query – as many people as humanly possible – and try again. Unfortunately, I’ve already sent my query to so many agents, I’m afraid I might not be able to find anyone else to send it to. Almost all of my favorite agents have already said no.
Teralyn Rose Pilgrim

Friday, January 14, 2011

Happy, Not Crappy: A List of Blessings

A writer feeds off of inspiration. Every writer should explore, be adventurous, learn, and eventually come to the same conclusion: the world is an incredible place.

One of my dearest friends in the entire world, Ardis Smith, has started doing something amazing on her blog. Everyday, she is going to write one thing she is grateful for. She and her family have been an abundant source of positivity all my life (you might remember her mother's short story "Onions"), especially their family motto: "Happy, Not Crappy." I'm glad she's sharing some of that positivity with the world.

I've asked her to be a Guest Blogger and repost her article "New Year, New Blessings." I'm so excited to have her here, and I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Don't Hate on Bad Books

We’ve all done it. We read a book that is shocking in its awfulness, and we ask, “How on earth did this ever get published?” Many of us go on to say, “How could they publish a book as awful as this, and not publish mine? My book is so much better.”

I’m not as bothered by poor quality writing as you might think. Why?

  • If a person has a fantastic idea but doesn’t have talent to express it, should that idea be thrown in the trash, or should it be expressed anyway?
  • People don't read as much as they used to. Whenever people read a book, they support the industry. If they like the book, they’re more likely to read another book. That’s a victory for all of us.
  • A book only gets published if it speaks to someone. A book only becomes a bestseller if it speaks to a lot of people. You can argue that the public has terrible taste (and sometimes it’s true), but when all is said and done, isn’t resonating with others the whole point of writing? 
  • When you discover why a bad book is read anyway, you might discover a little kernel of truth you can use in your own writing.
  • Writing should be a dynamic community of people swapping ideas. It’s not static and exclusive. That makes it more fun, free, and meaningful.
  • We think our own books are better than the ones we read, but we can’t always see our faults. We should be humble enough to accept that maybe our books aren’t as good as the ones we criticize.
  • Art is a dynamic quest to find what is meaningful. Whenever you read a book and say, “That is bad,” you are contributing to the progress of art. That’s kind of exciting.
  • People often complain that writing isn’t as it used to be. Few of us consider that we only still read maybe a dozen books from each time period. In the past, there were probably just as many crappy books on the shelves as there are today.
  • This is a quote you will hear me say over and over: "The world would be a quiet place if only the best birds sang." We should never tell someone to stop writing. Even if they really do suck.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Time I Snuck Into an Art Museum

I always did well in school, but reluctantly. I didn’t go if I could help it. There was a policy at my school that if you miss 15 days in a semester, you automatically fail the class. My history teacher pulled me aside one day and told me with concern that I had missed 13 classes. So I skipped another class.

My art class was having a field trip to a museum downtown, and they all took the max train to get there. I arrived late and they had already left. I knew there was no way I’d meet up with them in time to get to the museum, but I had already got it approved to miss my next two classes for the field trip, so I certainly wasn’t going to go back to school.

I got on the train and decided to improvise.

It took me a while to find the museum since I didn’t know where it was (homeless people are really good with directions), but when I did, I sized up the museum and considered my dilemma. I didn’t have any cash on me, and my class was already inside. I considered telling the museum personnel that I was late for a field trip, but if they decided not to let me in, then what would I do?

I was standing next to a kindergarten class. The kids talked loudly, but their mothers had their arms crossed and coldly looked away from the group as if they all hated each other. I was watching them and also trying to decide what to do when the teacher brightly announced, “It’s time to go inside! Everyone follow me!”

I know the phrase “aha moment” is overused, but when I saw the chaperones waltz through the doors without tickets, that’s exactly what it felt like. I inched closer to the group, and then I waltzed in with them.

It was pretty intense. I was worried that someone would talk to me, so I planned out my husband’s name an occupation, where I lived, and even which kid I would claim was mine. The parents continued to refuse to look at one another.

I followed them for only a few minutes before I saw my class surrounding my teacher. When the kindergarten group got close to my class, I slid over and pretended like I was there the whole time. I even got full participation credit for that field trip.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Where Does Creativity Come From?

Nathan Bransford has a fantastic blog and many talented writers visit his forum. I recently discovered a fascinating discussion on his forum about whether authors are conscious creators of their stories or they give in to some kind of inner inspiration.

The person who started the thread defined it like this: Some writers think of themselves as... a channel through which a muse or a perfect platonic form expresses itself. It is common to hear this type of writer refer to the way the story wants to be written...other writers consider themselves the creators of the story.”

I highly recommend reading this discussion. Here’s my two-cents:

I tried the everything-goes, let-it-flow process with a book I wrote in high school, Black Tears, and what I ended up with was kind of weird. It evolved into a metaphor for my life experiences instead of focusing on the purpose of the story. Parts of the plot didn’t make sense for the story but made sense as the metaphor, and because the metaphor was so meaningful to me, I couldn’t bring myself to change it.

I was firmly and completely on the side of Conscious Creator while I wrote Sacred Fire. It was planned in meticulous detail, which I think is essential for historical fiction because the history tells the story just as much as I do. Writing deliberately worked well, so I decided that was my style.

One day I was at the gym on the treadmill. I was thinking about Toni Morrison’s Beloved and how much I hate vampires at the same time, when suddenly a book idea just popped into my head, fully formed. I could almost hear a pop! sound. This became my Nano novel.

I was in the habit of writing consciously when I started my Inspired Idea, and I realized half-way through that I was getting in my own way. The best stuff in that book happened when I wasn’t thinking.

Where does this sudden inspiration come from? I believe it’s solely based on the intricate nature of our brains. While we aren’t consciously thinking, our subconscious is actively working on any number of things. The more you write, the more active and assertive your subconscious becomes.

The key to writing books fast is logic. Your mind can make its own connections. If you set up a relationship and then put the characters in a situation, the dialogue naturally develops because your mind knows the logical conclusion of the situation. You might come up with the ending of your novel that’s unexpected because your mind knows how it has to end before you know how you want it to end.

I’ve decided that my creative process depends on my genre. Historical fiction naturally requires conscious thought in order to be authentic. Pure fiction, on the other hand, sometimes happens on its own.
Teralyn Rose Pilgrim Teralyn Pilgrim

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Phone Call that Almost Changed My Life

I almost had a heart attack today. Someone called and asked if I’d be interested in teaching at the Forest Middle School. Sadly, the job had a two-hour commute, so I had to say no. But this threw my whole life upside down. Let me explain why:
When I first moved to Mississippi, I planned to get a job as a high school English teacher. I was told that it would be easy, but no one in my area was hiring. I ended up working as a temp in an office, which is a good job that gives me time to write but pays next to nothing. I thought once my allotted time ran out as a temp, my boss would either fire me or hire me on as a full-time employee. It’s been over four months, and she’s done neither of those things. Any day now, she could hire me and solve all my money problems with the whisk of her hand, or she could fire me and throw my life into shambles.
As most of you know, I’m going through the query process. This means that any day now I could get an agent to represent my book, or I could wait for years before I get representation, or I could never get represented at all.
I had completely given up on being a teacher. Now I know that my resume is still floating around and people are still interested. I could get a phone call at any moment and get offered my dream job. I didn’t even know that was possible until today.
I’ve never been in a place of so much possibility and so much unknown. My paths range from unemployed to a poor temp, a well-off office employee, a high school teacher, or a published novelist. My future could take any one of these paths at any time, and it’s completely outside of my control.
I’m strangely okay with this uncertainty. I’m a recovering control freak, so I always plan my life years in advance and get upset when things don't play out as I expected. This turbulent experience is forcing me to sit down and let things be. I’m scared that I might lose my job, that the job I have now won’t pay the bills, that being a teacher might turn out to be a living hell, and that I might never get published. But a person can only freak out so much before learning to wait.
I’m tired of being a nervous wreck because I don’t know what’s going to happen to me tomorrow, or a month from now, or a year from now. Since I can't do anything for the future, I have to shift my attention to the present. I know how to handle my life today (which I feel is an accomplishment), and whatever happens tomorrow, I'm sure I'll learn how to handle that too. 

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim Teralyn Pilgrim

Friday, January 7, 2011

Mysterious Mass Bird Deaths

A writer feeds off of inspiration. Every writer should explore, be adventurous, learn, and eventually come to the same conclusion: the world is an incredible place.
Here’s a crazy factoid that got my imagination running: have you heard about the birds that are mysteriously falling dead out of the sky?

It started in Arkansas on New Year’s Eve. Around 5,000 blackbirds simultaneously dropped out of the sky within a 1-mile radius. There are dozens of theories, including lightning, hail, stress from fireworks, poison, disease, and so forth.

Scientists performed autopsies and found that the birds died from “internal injuries” and “blunt trauma to the organs” that caused fatal blood clots. That rules out disease and poison, but they still don’t know what happened. All they know is that the birds died in midair and the internal injuries happened before they hit the ground.

Mass bird deaths isn’t uncommon. It’s happened many times before, though the amount of dead birds is unusual. Where it gets weird is when 83,000 fish died from unknown causes in the same town. Scientists say the deaths are unrelated.

The plot thickened further when on Tuesday, 500 blackbirds suddenly died in Louisiana, also from unknown causes.

Then somewhere between 50 and 100 birds died in Sweden on Wednesday.

Then several hundred birds died in Kentucky and Chile, and more fish have mysteriously died in Brazil and Maryland.

Theories abound, and the most popular theory is that it’s some kind of precursor to the apocalypse. This is popular because of the event’s proximity to the Mayan’s prediction of the end of the world, which is supposed to happen in December 21, 2012.

This claim is ridiculous for two reasons: one, the apocalypse isn’t supposed to happen for another two years, so this is like awfully advanced notice. Two, I’d hope that the world would go out with more of a bang. I doubt God would end the world one bird at a time.

I also don’t buy into the government conspiracy theory because it’s happening all over the world, so multiple governments would have to be involved in the project. Also, considering our country’s deficit, I would hope the government has better things to spend their money on than birds.

It’s more likely that this is being caused by aliens, mad experiments, pollution, genetic mutations, or mysterious creatures that scare these birds into behaving irrationally. We can’t ignore the possibility of werewolves in this case, though I’m sure they’re keeping a low profile considering the amount of attention they’ve received lately in teen literature.

I also doubt it’s being caused by running into an invisible spaceship, as many have speculated, because after a few birds ran into the ship, the others would have steered their course.

My vote is on science experiments.   Teralyn Rose Pilgrim Teralyn Pilgrim

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