The Mid-Year Check In

It’s already August?!  When did this happen?!

Well, obviously I haven’t been around for a while, and seeing as “Devote more time to blogging – aim for one entry each week (at least)” was one of my goals for this year, I thought it might be a good time now to see where else I’m failing (or perhaps excelling).  So here it is!  The mid-year report!

Goal #1: Get a full-time job.  Verdict: CHECK!

I most definitely did manage to get a full time job!  (Which is a large part of why I’m failing on some of these other goals – 8 hours is a huge chunk of time to lose in your day…)  I am happy to say that the job is exactly what I had been looking for – something that pays, comes with full benefits, and doesn’t give me homework.  It’s nothing glamorous or brag-worthy, but it is a job, and the pay is better than my last job, which is a lot more than many of my fellow recent college grads can say.

Goal #2: WRITE!  Verdict: um…I’ll give myself a C on this one…

Yeah, this one…not so much.  I attempted to do Camp NaNoWriMo in June, but the problem was I was attempting to use the word count goal while editing, which is counterproductive since the editing process pretty much requires you to delete stuff.  Needless to say things became far too frustrating and so I just threw in the towel.  However I have started in on a new story for the August Camp NaNoWriMo, so YAY!  I’m clearly out of practice though.  Writing is like a muscle that needs development.  If you use it every day, you only get stronger.  If you forget about it and ignore it for 6 months, then when you try to use it again it screams at you yelling “THIS IS SO HARD!!!” and it makes the whole process rather painful.  This first week is sort of my hell week right now.  But we’re going to push through!

Goal #3: Publish a novel before I’m 30.  Verdict: I haven’t failed yet!

Thankfully this was one of those long-term goals, so while there’s still plenty room to fail, there’s also plenty room left to succeed! 🙂

Goal #4: Finishing a first draft of a novel by the end of this year.  Verdict: can’t call it just yet…

Thankfully the year is not yet over, and I’m still only at the beginning of the August Camp NaNoWriMo (and there’s still the November NaNoWriMo which I’ve been DYING to participate in ever since I heard of it – this is the first year I won’t have piles of homework to keep me from it!), so there is still hope that I might pull out a complete draft of a novel that actually makes it all the way to “The End.”  I just need to, you know, write it.

Goal #5: Submit short stories to writing contests. Verdict: hazy…

I was totally gung-ho about this at the start of the year, but then I did a bit of research.  According to an article in Poets&Writers, most writers end up spending a ton of money on contest entrance fees and then don’t actually win the contests (or when they do, they’re maybe only breaking even instead of making a profit).  So that sort of deflated my hopes.  But lately I’ve stumbled on a few different sites/contests that don’t require entrance fees and yet still offer decent prize money, so I may give the whole contest thing another try.

Goal #6: Explore video blogging.  Verdict: Fail.

Video blogging is definitely something I’d like to get into (and when I stumbled across a few blogs/vlogs about VEDA I got really excited about the idea) but the thing is that I don’t have a whole lot of time on my hands as it is with my current work schedule, and I’ve been pretty much abusing the free time I do have watching Smallville and other TV shows I never fully appreciated when I was younger.  I figure I should probably focus a bit more on the writing stuff for now instead of getting distracted by every–ooh!  shiny!

Goal #7: Devote more time to blogging.  Verdict: so far, fail.

Half the reason I hopped on here again is because one of my friends has been keeping a blog of her summer adventures in Spain.  Now I don’t lead a terribly interesting life, and I don’t get to visit cool places every day of my summer, but that does not mean I cannot keep a blog.  On the contrary, I think keeping a blog might encourage me to do more interesting things with my free time.  That still leaves the problem of me finding enough free time for the blogging and the writing and things like laundry, washing the car, and running errands, however.  This whole life-juggling thing is a little tricky.

Goal #8: Make time for friends.  Verdict: I’ve got time…

Here’s the tricky thing about getting older and entering the “real world” with a full time job: it’s a lot harder to hang out with your friends.  Either your friends’ work schedules don’t mesh well with your work schedule, or they have significant others that take precedence over their limited free time, or they don’t have a job yet (a common theme in this economy) and have a rather tight budget, or they’re out of town (or even out of the country) for school/vacation.  All of these are totally understandable and I do not blame my friends at all for any of this.  It is, however, annoying when you go through your entire list of friends only to find that you’re going to have to go see the new Spiderman movie alone if you want to see it in theaters because no one is available to see it with you.

Goal #9: Enroll in group fitness classes.  Verdict: doesn’t count due to injury

I was actually doing really well with this – the new fitness center had opened up near my house and I was going to it as often as I could to take kickboxing, Zumba, cardio fusion, and a bunch of other group fitness classes.  But somewhere in all that, I did what I always manage to do – I injured myself.  This one, apparently, wasn’t entirely my fault.  Turns out I was born with feet way too narrow for their own good with arches much higher than the average person.  This combined with old workout shoes that didn’t have enough arch support to begin with meant that my feet decided to develop neuromas (the nerves were being pinched, didn’t like it, and decided to swell – I don’t recommend it).  So I got orthodics and things are on the up and up, but that cut out like 3+ months of workouts.  Now I’m slowly reintroducing myself to running, and hopefully come fall I’ll be back in gear.  At least I hope so.  I need more excuses to wear my sexy new running shoes.Yes, I just called my running shoes sexy.  For some girls it’s heels.  For me, nothing makes my legs feel sexier than a nice pair of running shoes and a bit of runner’s muscle toning my legs.

Goal #10: Read more.  Verdict: I’ll give myself a B.

I have definitely been reading, that cannot be denied.  Thing is the books I’ve been reading lately aren’t rapid page-turners.  They like to meander and take their time telling the story.  So, naturally, I take my time reading the story.  I’ve also noticed that while I would love to spend my lunch break reading, it’s often hard to do so when everyone else wants to talk during lunch break, and I don’t really want to be that loner who never socializes and always misses out on the inside jokes, but…at the same time…I want to read.  I may have to find some other way to strike the right balance here.  For now, I am at least reading.  I just know that I could be reading a lot more.

Total scores:

definite, no questions, passing score: 3

to be determined, disqualified, or otherwise uncertain: 5

definite fail: 2

Well that’s actually better than I thought – at least my definite fails are less than my definite successes.  Yes, there’s a lot in the hazy category, but we’ll think of those as the “needs improvement” category.

What about you?  How are your new year’s resolutions/goals holding up?

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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.