Regrets – My Philosophy (with Advice from Rafiki and Grumpy)

I’ve been doing a lot of job searching as of late, and poring over every article on what you should/shouldn’t do during the whole job-obtaining process, and growing more and more baffled at how difficult it is to write cover letters.  (I know, you’d think the whole “B.A. in English” would have helped with that.)

Anyway, I was looking over some sample interview questions and this one came up:

What is your biggest regret and why?

This one, along with “What was your biggest failure?” really stumped me in my mental interview, because, to be quite honest, I don’t like going through life regretting things (or dwelling on failures, for that matter).

If I were go back through my life and think about every single stupid thing I did, every bad thing that happened, or every day I felt lesser than a dung beetle, I really don’t think I’d change anything.  No, I really don’t.

Yes, there were days that were painful.  Yes, I made mistakes, big and small.  But those are things in my past that have shaped me, and as Rafiki says…

“Oh, yes, the past can hurt…but the way I see it, you can either run from it, or, learn from it.”

I’ve learned something from every experience in my life, and those life lessons cannot be replicated.  Altering any piece of my past would mean a loss of a part of me.

Take a look at this clip from Sunday’s episode of Once Upon A Time: [*spoiler warning*]

“As wretched as it is, I need my pain.  It makes me who I am.  It makes me Grumpy.”

I have to agree with Grumpy.  As hard as it might be to feel the pain of losing someone, forgetting it ever happened – erasing it – is even worse.  Snow White was weak for drinking that potion.  Weak for wanting to forget about someone she cared about with all her heart.

I don’t try to forget my past or run from it.  I’m stronger than that.  Instead, I “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy” (Miss Frizzle), and most of all, learn from it.

(Besides, a resourceful girl like Snow could have found a way for them to be together and evade the evil ones. 😉 )

What about you?  What’s your philosophy on regrets?

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Resolutions…er…I Mean Goals for 2012

We are officially one week into the new year, so perhaps now is as good a time as any to get serious about some resolutions.  Or, better yet, goals.

Typically I shun the idea of resolutions – you either have goals for yourself in life, or you don’t.  And those who have goals generally don’t call them New Year’s Resolutions because, as Jackson Pearce points out in her latest video, resolutions are meant to be broken.  There’s no real social penalty for breaking a resolution because people expect that you’ll break them – people expect you to FAIL when you call something a resolution.  And most people tend to fail the second they declare their resolutions…

So instead, I call them goals.  When you set a goal, people don’t expect you to fail, they expect you to succeed, or at least hope that you’ll succeed.  If you call something a goal, people will cheer you on in your pursuit (unless you surround yourself with mean people who constantly “boo” your every endeavor, in which case you might consider “finding supportive friends” a new goal for yourself). And when you finally achieve your goal, the victory is that much sweeter.  (Seriously, who ever celebrates when you do keep a New Year’s Resolution?  Most of the time they look at you kinda dumb-founded, blink a few times, and mumble “oh…that’s cool…”)

With that in mind, I like to use a new year as a chance for me to reevaluate the goals I’ve already set for myself, and perhaps set a few new ones.  For example, last year, one of my goals was to publish something before I was 25, and this last November I accomplished that – my short story “The Escape” was published in Buzz Books’ Sleigh Ride: A Winter Anthology.  So what’s my newly revamped goal in its place?  To publish something again, naturally. 🙂

So, without further ado, I give you my goals for 2012 and beyond:

  • Get a full-time job (because the glamorous life of a writer doesn’t pay all too well until you’ve got a large number of books to your name).
  • WRITE!  As much as possible!  Stories, journals, blog entries…anything – but preferably stuff that will further my writing skills and keep me on the path to…
  • Publish a novel (or multiple novels) before I’m 30, which should naturally include…
  • Finishing a first draft of a novel (and maybe a second, third, or fourth draft) by the end of this year.
  • Submit completed short stories to writing contests/literary magazines.
  • Explore video blogging.
  • Devote more time to blogging – aim for one entry each week (at least).
  • Make time for friends.
  • Enroll in some group fitness classes.  (If I’m going to be doing so much sitting in front of a computer, I probably should make sure my muscles won’t atrophy.)
  • Read more (because it’s a serious problem when unread books sit on my bookshelf taunting me for months).

So there you have it.  Now I’ve shared some of my goals, what goals have you set for yourself?  Share some of yours in the comments!

Reading for Fun is Reading to Learn

I’ve been writing stories for what seems like forever, but I’ve been reading even longer.  Before I could read, my parents read to me, and once I learned to read there wasn’t a book set before me that wasn’t read (even if it was only to get a few pages in and realize I didn’t like it).  I credit my voracious reading habits for my vocabulary (which lets me use big words like “voracious”) as well as my writing skills.  Yes – reading helps you write!

A lot of people I talk to now and again whine and complain about how hard it is to write essays or emails or even punctuate correctly, and I’ve come to notice that a lot of this is because people don’t read.  If you read, you pick up on things – even if you’re reading throw-away paperback romance novels, or (dare I say it? *gulp*) Twilight.  Granted, the skill of writing may not be that of the writing greats like Mark Twain, but there are things to be learned from bad writing as well as good writing.

And if you’re one of the diligent readers, you can do as Maggie Stiefvater suggests and turn your “fun reading” books into textbooks (imagine that – textbooks that aren’t boring!)  As part of my New Year’s resolution to regularly post on my blog, I’ll occasionally be doing just that – turning my favorite books/novels and even some of my own writing into textbooks.  (I may be done with college but I’m not done learning!)  For starters, check out my post about writing dialogue here.  If you leave questions about writing in the comments, I just might make blog posts to answer them. 😉

Dialogue: An Important Tool in Your Orchestra

We all know that dialogue is the “he said” “she said” of our stories, but what some fail to realize is that dialogue itself is an art form.  Some writers are extremely talented when it comes to dialogue and convince us of their characters’ humanity through what is said and how the characters say it, but then there are those who just don’t seem to get it.  I don’t by any means purport to be a genius when it comes to writing dialogue, but it is, I feel, one of the more important tools necessary to reveal character, heighten the plot, and create a connection between character and reader within a story.  However, in order to be successful with dialogue, the writer must strike the right balance between dialogue and other story-telling elements, know the difference between real and realistic conversation, and understand the proper conventions when it comes to dialogue tags.

When you first look at the page of a story, you can see immediately how the writer has chosen to balance dialogue, description, and summary within his or her writing.  There are some writers, like Franz Kafka in his story “The Metamorphosis,” who can get away with hardly any dialogue at all.  Although his story is entirely successful, would it be as successful without the few instances of dialogue?  At the same time, writers like Ernest Hemingway in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” can convey an entire story with nothing but dialogue, but it has been my experience that very few are talented enough to get by with dialogue alone.  It’s like having an entire orchestra at your disposal and only making use of the woodwind instruments.  While those instruments may be able to make beautiful music on their own, the sound is so much richer and more complex when combined with the sounds of the strings, keyboard, brass, and percussion instruments.

For example, take this passage from Maggie Stiefvater’s book Linger:

“I’ve been seeing wolves near my house,” Isabel said.  She shook the liquid in the cup.  “This tastes like lawn clippings.”

“It’s good for you,” I said.  I fervently wished she hadn’t taken it; the hot liquid felt like a safety net in this cold weather.  Even though I knew I didn’t need it anymore.  I still felt more firmly human with it in my hand.  “How close to your house?”

She shrugged.  “From the third floor, I can see them in the woods.  Clearly, they have no sense of self-preservation, or they’d avoid my father.  Who is not a fan.”  Her eyes found the irregular scar on my neck.

On her blog, Maggie writes, “I will confess, that in my beginning writerly years, this page would have read like this:

 “I’ve been seeing wolves near my house,” Isabel said.

“How close to your house?”

She shrugged.  “From the third floor, I can see them in the woods.  Clearly they have no sense of self preservation, or they’d avoid my father.  Who is not a fan.”

Maggie continues to say, “The thing is, there is nothing wrong with that stripped down [version].  It’s just that it’s missing so many opportunities to play with mood, character, setting.”  (For more of Maggie’s advice, see her blog post here).  I find that the key to good dialogue is striking the right balance between dialogue and description.

Now, I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite ways to pass the time when I’m sitting around waiting is to eavesdrop.  How many of you have sat down in a classroom, waiting for the professor to walk in, and just listened to the conversations around you?  I like to refer to it as channel surfing – slowly tuning in to different conversations until I find one that interests me, and then settling in to listen to the story.  (You’re all going to be paranoid about what you say around me now, aren’t you?)

But really, if you’re a good writer, it means you’re also a keen observer.  In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says, “Dialogue is a skill best learned by people who enjoy talking and listening to others—particularly listening, picking up the accents, rhythms, dialect, and slang of various groups.  Loners […] often write it badly, or with the care of someone who is composing in a language other than his or her native tongue” (183).  The only real cure for this is to listen, and listen well.  To use Stephen King’s advice once more, “the key to writing good dialogue is honesty” (185).  As writers, it is our job to depict for the reader characters who represent what we observe in humanity.  If we are to convince our readers that our characters are real, then it’s only natural that their dialogue be grounded in reality.

However, there is a difference between writing “real” dialogue and “realistic” dialogue.  If you were to sit in Starbucks, for instance, and transcribe an entire conversation between two people, that would not translate well within your story.  Take this exchange for example:

“Hey Sara, what’s up?”

“Not much, you?”

“Not much.  I so hate Michael right now.”

“Ya, me too.”

“I mean, he’s like, SUCH a jerk.”

“I knooooooow, totally.”

“Ugh.  I just hate him!”

Total snore fest, right?  So two girls hate Michael.  So what?  The exchange tells me nothing more about the girls, about where they are, about what they’re doing.  Their conversation could go on for hours, and be transcribed across six pages, but if they don’t discuss anything of importance, or if we continue to learn nothing about the characters, we as readers won’t be interested.  Though the dialogue might be “real” and true to the way people speak, it does not mean it belongs in a story.  What we must aim for instead is “realistic” dialogue.  For example, this is a passage from my short story “The Escape”:

“So,” I said, “Rebec—”

“Beka,” she broke in. “My name is Beka.”

“Alright, Beka, would you care to explain why the Stable has suddenly become so popular?” I asked, slipping the rag back into my pocket and leaning against Clyde’s shiny flank.

She stood. Her red hair, now streaked oily black, clung to her face. The effect was rather grotesque, yet her posture was almost regal. “I thank you for your assistance, but it’s probably best for both of us if you know nothing.” She stepped forward, but I blocked her path.

“I don’t quite agree with that logic,” I said. “It’s far easier to lie for you if I know the full story.”

“I didn’t ask you to lie for me,” she said, crossing her arms. I was surprised to see her biceps were toned, like mine. “And what makes you think you’ll need to lie for me again?”

“First, you did ask me to lie for you, and second, while you don’t strike me as the kind of girl to hide in the same place twice, can you really afford to turn down a potential ally?”

Her eyes searched mine. “I have nothing to offer you,” she said.

“Maybe not, but I’m starving for entertainment.”

“Trust me, you don’t want my form of entertainment. I’d only bring you trouble.” Again, she tried to walk past me and I stopped her. “Do not make me hurt you,” she said.

While I don’t consider myself a pro at dialogue, the exchange between these two characters is, in my opinion, realistic.  It’s true to the way people interact with one another, but with something the coffee shop exchange lacks: every piece of dialogue here furthers the story purposefully, and it’s interspersed with what I call “stage directions” that reveal not just what the characters are doing, but how they are doing it, with clues as to the personalities of each character.  This bit of dialogue shows, whereas the coffee shop exchange merely tells.

Another thing to keep in mind when writing dialogue is what are called dialogue tags – the “he said”/“she said” at the end of each bit of dialogue.  Back when I first started searching the web for writing lessons I came across a document titled “Said is Dead” which listed all the myriad dialogue tags besides the usual “said.”  When I first stumbled upon this, I devoured it, going down the list, familiarizing myself with all the interesting words.  However, since then I’ve come to learn something important: said might be dead, but it’s dead for a reason.  When reading a story, “said,” paired with a pronoun or name, is the word that helps tell us who is speaking.  In the grand scheme of things, it is unimportant to our eyes, and we gloss over it, skipping to the name or pronoun so we can orient ourselves within the story, and then move on.  When a writer decides to put yelled, shrieked, cried, laughed, muttered, bellowed, and so on at the end of each piece of dialogue, it bogs down the reader so that he or she can’t fully appreciate the more important element – what each character is actually saying.

There’s still much more that can be said about dialogue and writing it convincingly and effectively, but I feel that striking a balance between dialogue and other techniques, being realistic in your portrayal of dialogue, and understanding that said is not dead are a good start to writing dialogue effectively.

Brant Flakes Book Review and a Recipe!

Hey everyone! Head on over to the Brant Flakes blog where Marilyn has posted a lovely review of sleigh ride, and a few things about me as well 😉

http://marilynbrant.blogspot.com/2011/12/its-lovely-weather-for-sleigh-ride.html

SLEIGH RIDE Release Day and Writing “The Escape”

Welcome to my blog!

Today is 11/11/11, and for someone who makes wishes whenever the clock reads 11:11, this is kind of a big deal.  But what makes today an even bigger deal is this:

I, Megan Barlog, am now a published author!!!

Today is the book birthday of Sleigh Ride: A Winter Anthology, which includes my short story “The Escape” as well as equally enchanting short stories by established authors Maria Geraci, Malena Lott, Maggie Marr, and Samantha Wilde, as well as fellow newbie authors Jenny Peterson and Dani Stone.  Though I haven’t received my physical copy of the book yet, I have read the pre-publication proof of the entire anthology, and I can say with utmost certainty that it is absolutely amazing!  I’m so happy to have been a part of this marvelous project!

The Making of “The Escape”

I first started writing “The Escape” back in April 2011.  All my friends were stressing their brains out working on term papers and final projects, but it was one of those weird semesters for me where I didn’t really have a whole lot to stress over in the final weeks of the spring semester.  And a part of me felt left out.

So, when I logged into Twitter and came across a post about the Sleigh Ride contest, it didn’t take much convincing for me to enter it.

  1. I had plenty of time to dedicate to a short story.
  2. “Sleigh Ride” is my most favorite Christmas song EVER!
  3. If I didn’t win, there was still the tempting thought of receiving my draft back with feedback from an established author.  What was the harm?

I wrote the story in two weeks, sending copies drafts and re-writes to some of my most trusted writing friends for some honest, tough-love feedback along the way.  When the May deadline came around, I wasn’t sure it was the best story ever, but I knew it was the best I was going to make it.  I emailed it in, hoping for the best.

Then came the wait for August.

Though at first the wait seemed an eternity, I soon found other things to occupy my mind, and so I wasn’t really expecting an email from the editor, Malena Lott, in my inbox on July 13th.  And I definitely wasn’t expecting her message to begin with “Congratulations!”

My eyes quickly scanned the email, reading the whole thing twice just to make sure, before screaming “MOM!”

It was 9 a.m., so perhaps I should have been expecting the panicked looks of my mom, sisters, brother, and the dog as they ran into the office.

“What?” asked my mom.
“I’m gonna be published!” I shouted.
My sister, ever observant, asked “Are you…crying?”
“Yes,” I said, grinning ear to ear.

Since that day “The Escape” has undergone some major revisions (thanks to Malena’s thorough editor’s letter and copious notes – how in the world did I forget to give my main character a clear motivation?), and it’s visited many a friendly editor’s/proofreader’s computer screen, but now, I am happy to say, my story is out in the world for more readers to enjoy!

Acknowledgements:

To Malena Lott and everyone else at Buzz Books, thank you for giving my story a chance, and helping me make it the best it could be!

To my first readers, especially Stephanie and Chris, a huge THANK YOU for reading the many rough drafts of my story and helping me make it amazing!

To all my writing teachers, especially Mrs. Hill, Mrs. Koff, and Mr. Duel, thank you for sparking my interest in writing, and teaching me all the basics of writing creatively.  It’s because of you that I chose to major in Creative Writing, and that I even thought my work might one day be published.

To all my family and friends, thank you for all the support and encouragement!  You guys rock!

And a special thanks to Hans and Beka – you’ve done me proud.

In closing…

As one of my creative writing professors once said, you can’t call yourself a writer unless you write, and as it is known in the realm of publishing, you can’t call yourself an author until you’ve been published.  For years I’ve been calling myself a writer, but now I am proud to say I am a published author! 🙂