Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Seeing the Pope

When Andrew and I went to Rome to research Sacred Fire, we also spent a great deal of time delving into Catholic history. If there’s a major cathedral in that city we didn’t see, I don’t know about it. I’ve always loved Catholic art. Being inside those amazing buildings gave me an adoration for it. I didn’t know I could have such a spiritual experience from someone else’s religion.

I was particularly excited to see the Vatican. I had studied it in art history and was thrilled to see the enormous St. Peter’s cathedral, Michelangelo’s statue of Mary and Christ, Raphael's murals.

(Before we went, I bought the coolest souvenir I own: an apron with the paintings of the Sistine chapel. My husband doesn’t like it because he says naked men aren't appetizing.)

We rode a filthy bus coated in graffiti and slime for 20 minutes to get to the Vatican. I was thrilled when we got to the gates… until I saw the crowd. St. Peter’s square was filled to the brim with people while some voice boomed in Italian over the microphone.

“Do you think we could still go in?” I asked Andrew hopefully.

“No, it looks like they shut everything down.”

I was frustrated. What on earth could be so important that they would shut down the entire Vatican? I peeked through a protective fence to see who was the cause of my misfortune. On a large screen, I saw a gray-haired man in white robes wearing a flat white hat.

I pulled away. “Andrew, I think that’s the Pope.”

“Seriously?” He peered through the fence. “Geez, that is the Pope.”

“We have to get a closer look.”

The entry was closed. Maybe you had to buy a ticket or they only let people in at the beginning of the meeting. Andrew and I waited until the security guards weren’t looking, jumped over a waist-high wall, and disappeared into the crowd.

I marveled at how easy it was; in Utah if you want to hear the prophet speak, you have to go through a metal detector and get your purse checked. (You also have to make your way through groups of protestors, but that’s another story.)

We couldn’t understand what the Pope said, but we were there, and we got pretty close. Later on we were able to see inside the Vatican, which was incredible – I never imagined it would be so big – but seeing the Pope was one of the top highlights of the trip.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Writers Should Tell Their Stories

When I first started rerevising Sacred Fire (my book about the Vestal Virgins), part of me felt like this is getting ridiculous. If I have to rewrite a novel this many times, doesn’t that mean I should move on? There’s no point in forcing a story that won’t work.
Another author’s experience made me look at this in a different light.

Kathryn Stockett wrote The Help, a phenomenal break-out novel that was made into a successful movie. Goodness knows how much money she’s making off of it. But she didn’t experience success right away; she sent her novel to 60 agents before she found the right one.

You can read her story here.

Every author has stories about rejections (we've all read dozens of them). They make us unpublished people think, “If she can prove those agents wrong, I can do the same to the agents who rejected me!” But there is one huge difference between Kathryn Stockett’s story and the dream of putting agents to shame:

After each agent rejection, she revised her book.

She spent a year and a half writing the novel and a year and a half querying it. After rejection 40, she spent all her time rewriting it… so much time, she got embarrassed and started lying to people about it. She said she even worked on the book while she was in labor.

Her story taught me not about the value of perseverance, but the rather the value of revision. She didn’t prove agents wrong at all; back when she first submitted her book, it probably wasn’t good enough to publish. If she only persevered, she would have kept sending her query to agents until there was no one left to send it to. Instead, she was able to take a novel no one would accept and transform it into a novel that blew everyone away.

Her story helped me to make a vital decision. I’ve rewritten Sacred Fire so many times that I thought the novel could get better, but never to the point where it would make bestseller’s lists. Sometimes, it’s best to start over with a new novel to get a clean slate. I might have moved on to my second book if I hadn’t read about Kathryn Stockett’s experience. If she can do what she did, I can too.

Sharing our stories with other writers strengthens us and unifies us. I read as many author experiences as I can, and whenever I have experiences of my own to share, it's important to me to give back. I hope you give back, too.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Strongest Emotion You Can Evoke from Readers

I’m overly sensitive to books. Perhaps it’s because stories are my life, so they have a lot of meaning for me. This has caused me much grief. 

I’ll have trouble falling asleep because of a book, and I’ll even wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it. I can get disturbed to the point of needing to read scriptures to make myself feel better, and I can get sad enough to ruin my whole day.

Seriously, it’s a problem.

Peony in Love, for example, gave me many sleepless nights. I had to know if the main character would survive long enough to be with the man she loved. Even though I could guess how things would play out, I ached for it to happen differently. When it didn’t, I was upset both physically and emotionally.

Later in the book, an army attacked a city and butchered 80,000 people. The author described it in graphic detail. It bothered me, of course, but not nearly as much as what was happening to Peony. Why did I care so much about one girl’s happiness and not about thousands of lives?

Granted, I’m attached to the main character and I don’t know every person in the city, but my reaction to the book was too strong for this to explain it. The difference is one situation gives me something the other doesn’t:


In the city, the people were dead before I knew they existed. With Peony, I spent a hundred pages hoping things would turn out alright for her. Tragedy is terrible, but it has little effect because it’s a fact of life. Hope, on the other hand, is the strongest emotion you can make your readers feel.

The Lovely Bones is a very similar story about a ghost watching the lives of the people around her. However, while I enjoyed it, I didn't get as consumed or upset by it as I did with Peony in Love. It's odd because in Bones, a little girl is brutally raped and murdered, whereas in Peony, her fate is mostly her fault.

The difference is I knew what would happen to Susie in The Lovely Bones as soon as a strange man invited her into his fort. There was no hope for her. After her death she goes on a fascinating journey, but she's mostly just seeing things happening around her. Peony, on the other hand, actively pursues her own happiness and influences the lives of the people around her. Readers hope for Peony throughout the novel; with Susie, the damage is done.

If you want readers to be gripped by your novel, give them something to hope for. Don’t make your characters perfectly at ease; then readers can’t invest any emotion in them. Don’t shower your character with tragedy to make the story intense; show the readers there could be a light at the end of the tunnel.

If a story has the potential to go one of two ways – the character could either lose everything or get all she ever wanted – hope will drive readers forward.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Weighty Dilemma

I am a skinny person, and since this is considered a good thing, people think it’s okay to make comments about my weight. “How do you stay so skinny?” they’ll say, or “I wish I were that skinny.”

It makes me uncomfortable. Not only do I hate everyone in the room suddenly stopping to examine me, but what am I supposed to say in return? Am I supposed to argue that the person is skinny too? Do I just say thank you? Am I supposed to put myself down to appear modest?

I especially hate it when the person complimenting me is just as thin as I am. Some truly think they’re fat, but with others, I’m pretty sure they just want me to reassure them. I wish I could say, “Look in the mirror, sicko, and stop making me tell you what you look like.”

I got caught in a particularly awkward situation when I was in high school. Portland has a high population of Tongan people and for some reason they’re all LDS, so I had quite a few Tongan friends at church. One Sunday, two Tongan girls asked me to help them settle an argument.

“We need you to answer a question for us.” She pointed to her friend and then to herself. “Which of us is fatter?”

Now, Tongan standards of beauty are the complete opposite of ours. Not only is being large a good thing, but they dislike thin women. I’ve heard of men not wanting to date girls only because they’re too skinny. The two girls might as well have said, “Which of us is prettier?”

But I couldn’t be sure because they were second-generation Americans. They might have adjusted to our culture and changed their idea of beauty. They might have been asking, “Which of us is uglier?”

I had no idea how to respond to this question. I ended up saying the only thing I thought would apply to both situations: I shrugged and said, “I’m fatter than both of you.”

Then I ran away so they wouldn’t ask me more questions.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Books I Read in January

"When a novelist whose previous work merely has been admired suddenly has books vault onto the bestseller lists or even achieve a large jump in sales, publishing people say they have 'broken out.' The book in question is a 'breakout novel.'"

Donald Mass's knowledge of writing and publishing is god-like. He's so helpful that I plan on reading all his books. In fact, this book is part of what convinced me to rewrite my book; after learning what makes a novel breakout, I realized Sacred Fire didn't qualify. I'm glad this book came into my life at the time it did.

After a deformed creature brutally murders Jacob's grandfather, he seeks out to solve the mysteries of his death and finds himself at an abandoned school for children with odd powers... and finds the school isn't abandoned after all.

This book caught my eye because it's full of trippy pictures. Riggs collected old photographs doctored to look supernatural and integrated them into the plot of the novel. It makes the book seem creepy, but the story isn't just mysterious; it's also a lot of fun.

Scroll down to see the best book trailer I've ever seen.

Catching Fire (Hunger Games #2) by Suzanne Collins

After the Hunger Games are over, Katniss unwillingly becomes the symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol.

This book was even better than the first, if you can believe that! It was full of more unexpected plot twists than any book I've ever read. Definitely a page turner.

They're making a movie out of the Hunger Games. I am stoked! Scroll down to see the trailer. I don't think I can wait until March to see it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Describing Emotions

Sad, happy, jealous, excited, sympathetic, regretful, grateful, angry, alarmed... human beings experience a wide range of emotions. When you include many various feelings in your writing, it will strengthen the characters and the reader's interest. Here's the problem:

How do you describe emotions?

The obvious answer is to just say, "He was irritated," or "She was proud." That's well and good for the main character (albeit a bit bland), but what about the other characters? You MC doesn't know whether her sister is really irritated; she has to either guess, or the writer has to head-hop (switch to another point of view in the middle of a scene).

We've all heard "show not tell," but it's easier said than done. Here's some advice:
For practice, look over a chapter you've written and cut out every single "emotion" word. All of them. You can no longer say a person was bored, or disgusted, or annoyed. 

Now think back on your experiences with people. Let's say your husband came home from work stressed. How do you know he's stressed? Are you psychic? No; you're human, and you understand our signals.

Perhaps you cut the word "confused" out of your chapter. Now you have to say how the narrator knows the person is confused. Example:
  • She scrunched her eyebrows together and tipped her head to the side.
  • He looked from one person to another, back and forth, with a blank look on his face.
  • Her eyes were wide and she made several attempts to speak, but no words came out of her twitching lips. She shook her head.
These are different types of confusion. We can actually understand the emotion better if we read how the character expresses it. Readers are also drawn into the scene more if they can visualize what's happening. And, since your narrator isn't usually isn't a mind reader, it makes more sense.

Many writers tend to describe an emotion, then wimp out and say what it was they just described. Example: "She bit her lip and tapped her finger against her jaw, thinking." Or, "His face turned red and he clenched his fists, clearly upset." 

If you feel yourself doing this, it's either because 1. You're new at this and still unsure of yourself, or 2. The description wasn't strong enough to convey the emotion.

Still need help? The Bookshelf Muse is an amazing resource. It provides a list of actions to express every emotion. Sometimes when I write, I keep the site open and scroll through the pages whenever I need to. Check it out!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Is It Getting Hot in Here? Blogfest

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! This is my favorite holiday because 1. my birthday is the day before, so it feels like the whole world is decorated in red for me, and 2. being in love is fun. Even if we don't have someone romantic in our lives, everyone loves someone, and that's worth celebrating.

To get in on the festivities, I'm going to participate in a fabulous blogfest called "Is it Hot in Here?" where I write a kiss scene.

This scene is from my untitled paranormal romance, which takes place in present-day Portland. Sometimes when I read it it feels sappy, whereas other times it gives me warm fuzzies.

I hope you feel the latter.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Origins Blogfest: How I Became a Writer

It’s my birthday! Coincidentally, I get to celebrate it at home in Portland. I haven’t been home in a year, and I’ve been unbearably homesick.

Today I’m going to participate in an awesome blogfest called Origins. For this fest, you write about how you first started out as a writer. I love telling this story, so I consider this fest a birthday treat.

My Origins

When I was eight years old, my grade-school teacher asked us all to write “a book.” We had to type them up, format the pages, illustrate them, and make a cover. When we were done, she got them bound.

My story – The Haircut – was about a girl who was jealous of her twin sister when she got a rabbit for Christmas. They fought over it until the jealous one threatened to cut her hair. (Their long hair was symbolic of their relationship, so this was a betrayal.) They made up and in the end, the girl got her own rabbit for Christmas.

(In subsequent books, the rabbits were kidnapped because they turned out to be aliens with magic powers. I did a lot of genre hopping back then.)

Instead of just letting us take the books home, my teacher had us put them on the shelves with all the other books. During story time, we could read what the other students wrote. My classmates would approach me and compliment me on my book. I decided, “This is so much fun, I want to do it for the rest of my life.” And I did.

The rest is history.

Friday, February 10, 2012

I've Got the (Revision) Blues

Status update on Sacred Fire: Revisions are going much the same as they did seven months ago

I started making a to-do list like I did last time since it worked so well: I organized items on the list from biggest changes to smallest, starting with scenes to add and ending with technical stuff like "watch out for head-hopping." If this round of revision is anything like before, this should go pretty well. 

Yet, oddly, I have a heavy sinking feeling. Something's wrong.

Why do I feel so awful? Why do I feel almost... bitter?

For a long time, I couldn't understand it. I don't mind the work. It's not a blow to my ego or anything. I knew I'd have to rewrite it when I got an agent, so I don't mind making changes. I still enjoy the novel. I'm excited about making the book better. I'll admit to feeling a little lost and overwhelmed, but that's not what's making me squirm inside.

I finally realized what's bothering me; it's this constant sense of deja vu. The individual changes are different, but the process I'm going through is the same as it was seven months ago. 

Every step I take, my mind says, "Haven't we done this already?"

I know how much I've progressed as an author since my last revision seven months ago. But I don't feel like I'm progressing at all. I feel stuck. I'm ready to move on to a new stage, or a new novel. I feel like Sacred Fire is a bungee chord attached with a hook to my side, and it'll let me run forward just a little ways before snapping me back.

I shouldn't present you with my list of regrets. I shouldn't even be thinking about them myself. I can't help it. 

You see, there's a reason writers rarely publish their first books. Writing novels is impossibly hard, and you have to write a few to learn how to do it. I look at how much better Hunger and Fierce are than Sacred Fire in so many ways, and I wish -- with all my heart, I wish -- that my first book was one I didn't care so much about. I wish I was sitting here with a mediocre novel that I could throw over my shoulder and say to you, "Well, that's not going anywhere, but I have this idea about Vestal Virgins that should be good."

Instead, I'm stuck with a manuscript that I'm willing to put as much blood, sweat, and tears into as it needs, come hell or high water. I want this book to succeed. Not the next one, or the one after that, but this one.

I guess love is like that sometimes. It can feel imprisoning, and it can feel freeing. It just depends on where you're standing at the time.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Finding Your Voice

In any form of writing, having an interesting and unique voice is essential. I hear a lot of writers ask, “What is voice, and how do I get one?”

Voice is how your character views the world and how he expresses himself. It’s vocabulary, reactions, perceptions, etc.

Here’s are some example of distinct voices:

“The Deliverator’s car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt… When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens.” (Snow Crash)

“(The story) had a woman, you see, a strong, hard-black woman with skin like cocoa-tea. She two foot-them tough from hiking through the diable bush… when she walk, she foot strik the hard earth bump!” (Midnight Robber)

Okay, so we know what voice is and we know we need one. The next obvious question is, “How do I get one?”


The first step is to get comfortable with writing. Do you remember reading stories and essays by other students when you were in high school? Most of them had hardly written anything in their lives. They were nervous and uncomfortable. I could tell by the way they wrote; it was contrived and strained.

The only way to fix this is to write until you get comfortable. You can keep a journal, a notebook, or a blog. It doesn’t matter what and how you write; just do it until it feels natural.

Be Yourself

The best way to start is to learn how to write like yourself. You have a voice;  you use it every day. Write the way you talk. For example, I used the word “okay” earlier in this post. I wrote that because if I were talking to you, that’s what I would say.

Trust that your own personality is interesting enough to listen to and let it show.

Get in Touch With Your Characters

It's good to learn how to write like yourself, but your characters aren’t you. They have their own voices, their own lives and perspectives.

I’ve read writers who try to give their characters a unique voice – perhaps a different accent or an unusual attitude – and the first few pages are nice, but they can’t keep it up. I think the key to this problem is that they're trying. In order for a voice to be fluid on the text, it has to sound fluid in your head.

The more you get to know your characters, the clearer their voice will be to you. It will feel natural, and it will sound natural to your readers.

Relax and Let it Happen

Voice happens when you aren’t paying attention. You have to do the prep work – if you’re struggling, ask yourself if you need more practice and if you know your characters – but when you sit down and start typing, a genuine voice just happens.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Lisa See and My Thoughts on Book Tours

I just got an email from Lisa See, the bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, about her upcoming tour for her new book, Dreams of Joy. If you scroll down, you can see whether or not she’ll come to your area.

I decided to post her schedule for two reasons: 1. I loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and 2. She answered some questions I had about foot binding for Fierce, which I greatly appreciated.
(Yes, I put foot binding in my African retelling of the Greek legend of the Amazon warriors because the idea just wasn’t odd enough.)

As I looked through her schedule for her 3-month-long tour from one side of the country to the other, I fantasized about doing the same thing. Whenever I daydream about being an author, my thoughts always stray to two things: seeing my book cover for the first time, and going on a tour.
Touring sounds like the most amazing experience in the world. I’ll dress up all classy and sound all smart while people ask though-provoking questions and fawn over me. They'll stand in line that stretches to the bookstore's entrance to get their copies signed. I’ll meet interesting people and dine with them in restaurants where I’ll eat lobster and steak while we discuss literature and people tell me how I’m poised and amazing and they all want to be just like me.

It’s a pretty fantasy. I wonder what a book tour is really like?

I don’t know what book signings are like for famous people such as Lisa See, but I’ve heard the experience is often demeaning. People just pass you by without giving you a second glance. I wonder if I’ll ever go to a reading and only a handful of people will show up. I’ve heard book tours aren’t as effective as people think, and they’re expensive.

I don’t care. Maybe this is just me being green, but the experience still sounds amazing.

On November 2010 I started querying my novel before it was ready. I realized today that if everything had gone exactly the way I planned it (four months to find an agent and editor and one year to get my book printed because, as you can probably tell, I’m that optimistic), I’d be packing for my book tour by now. Instead, I don’t plan on querying again for at least six months.

Life never works according to plan.

I used to make meticulous life plans, but they’ve almost all gone awry – goodness knows, I never thought I’d move from Oregon to Mississippi and work at a call center. This used to bother me. It’s gotten to the point where when things take an unexpected turn, I just roll my eyes and think, “Here we go again.”

Anyway, click below to see if Lisa See is going to visit your area.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Reasons Not to Revise, but to Do it Anyway

Revising a “finished” book, like I'm doing now, is both exciting and terrifying. Eventually we're all faced with the decision to keep working or call a project "done." There are so many reasons to leave well enough alone, and just as many to keep going. 

Reason #1: I’m eager to make my novel better, but there’s always the fear that I’ll make it worse. I might go through months of work only to realize that I prefer the old draft.

Counterargument: Always, always, always keep past drafts separate from my current draft; never throw anything away. I have a file for Sacred Fire a, b, c, d, e, f, and now I’m starting a file for Sacred Fire g. (I can’t believe I’ve made it that far through the alphabet.) I can screw up Sacred Fire g as much as I want because I can always delete it and go back to f.

Reason#2: I’d hate to go spend dozens of hours on a revision and decide not to use it.

Counterargument: History repeats itself, and I've never regretted a single change I've made to my book, or a single minute I spent making that change. I have no reason to hesitate because I’ve done this before and I know how it’s going to play out.

Reason #3: I'm tired! How long is this going to take?!

Counterargument: Never shirk extra work. Writing a novel takes a long time. Let me repeat that: Writing a novel takes a long time. I’ll never make it as an author if I have a limit to the amount of time I’m willing to spend and then give up when I’ve surpassed the limit.

Reason #4: If a novel takes this long to perfect, maybe it's because the novel is too flawed to fix.

Counterargument: This is a distinct possibility. However, I've been shocked at how much I can change and keep Sacred Fire the same book, with the same themes, plot, and characters. Your novel might be eternally flawed, but you won't know until you try to fix it.

Reason #4: Maybe if I moved on to a different book, it'll turn out better than this one.

IfI don’t fix all the mistakes in this novel, I’ll have to learn how to fix them while writing my second. Even if Sacred Fire never gets published, it would be beneficial for me to finish revising this book so I can be as prepared as possible to move on.

Hopefully, I'm working my last draft!
…until I get an agent and she makes me revise it again. Then, of course, when I get an editor and she also has revision suggestions. What on earth did I get myself into?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Prize for Critique Blogfest

The Critique My Blog Blogfest was a lot more successful than I thought it would be! I've been having a great time looking at everyone's blogs, seeing what works and what doesn't, and getting ideas for how to improve my own blog. I've seen about 15 so far and can't wait to see the rest!

One thing I love about this is I can't just skim through a single post like I usually do for blogfests; I have to spend actual time getting to know the site and the blogger. I've found so many people I want to follow now!

Boy, it's taking a lot of time, though... as the host, I have to critique each one. A few other people seem to be visiting all the blogs. It made me realize that those of us who are working hard on this deserve a reward. 
If anyone gives thoughtful critiques to all 50 blogs who have signed up, I will post a photo and link to your blog in my sidebar for 50 days.

It'll be right under the "About Me" on the right-hand side.

There's no deadline. If you want to take this challenge, just let me know when you're done.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Critique My Blog Blogfest TODAY!

Have you ever wondered what your blog looks like to other people?

Today, you can find out.

I'm hosting a Critique My Blog Blogfest where you can click on the links below and give people advice and constructive criticism. It starts today, but it can go on for as long as people keep doing it, so feel free to sign up at any time.

Here's how it works:

To Get Critiqued:

1.      Include your name in the linky list below.
2.      On February 1, post your request for critiques. The critiques can come from anyone, even people not involved in the blogfest.
3.      If you want, specify what kind of critique you’re looking for.
4.      Specify where you want to receive the critiques: in the comments where everyone can see them, or in your email where it’s more private.
5.      You can delete comments after you’ve read them if you so choose.

To Critique Others:

1.      Click on a blog from the linky list and read what the writer wants you to critique.
2.      You can make comments on:
a.      Appearance: Does it appeal to you? Is it too busy, or too plain?
b.      Layout: Is it difficult to navigate? Is it cluttered, or sparse?
c.      Frequency: Does the blogger post too often? Not often enough?
d.      Content: Are the posts interesting? Unique? Are they focused, or all over the place?
e.      Quality: Are the individual posts too long, too short, too sloppy, or too generic?
3.      Be sure to check if the blogger wants you to post the critique in the comments or send an email.

Thanks! This should be fun!

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