Friday, October 29, 2010

One crazy weekend

I come to you this evening from the lobby of the Portland Hilton. (Side note: I think it is absolutely ridiculous that the Hilton does not provide free internet access to guests in their rooms.) I've never stayed at the Hilton before... so why am I here now? Because this is where the 2010 JASNA AGM is being held.

The what?

The 2010 Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

Yes, I am one of "those women"--the ones who will debate if Captain Wentworth or Mr. Darcy is the best Austen hero, and who knows that even though Northanger Abbey was published after Austen died, it is actually one of her earliest works. I am a Janeite, and I wear that title with pride.

The conference thus far has been amazing. We began yesterday with an exhibit of Austen and Regency first editions that was... beyond words. I have only seen two other book exhibits that compare: the British Library and the Dead Sea Scrolls. One of the works was a first edition of an Austen predecessor. That particular book was published on subscription, which means people actually paid for it before it was printed. There is a list of all the subscribers in the front of the book, and there on the first page is one Miss Jane Austen, Steventon. For some reason, that meant more to me than the actual Austen first editions, of which there were four.

The first plenary session was given by Stephanie Barron. Her sense of humor was delightful, and I also appreciated some of the things she had to say about writing. I'd never thought of laying the constructs of a detective novel over the plot of non-mysteries, but it is an interesting way to look at fiction. It might be a good plot building exercise as well.

The conference continues tomorrow and concludes with a brunch on Sunday morning. I'll come home that afternoon to rest, because NaNoWriMo begins Monday morning at midnight. We'll be meeting at Shari's at 11:00 for our annual Midnight Write. My goal is to have my first day's word count in before I go home... though that might not happen if my dictating disturbs too many people. I'm not going to destroy my wrist just to be able to say I made it to 5K that night.

My NaNo goal this year is to write the rough draft of an entire trilogy. That means I have to write 5K in a day, rather than just 1667. It also means I'm crazy, but you know that already. I've had the first two novels plotted out for weeks, but the third escaped me... until today! I was doing a character profile and the plot just appeared. I love it.

And this is my weekend... Now I'm going back to my room so I can get some much needed beauty sleep. Breakfast is at 8 in the morning... I think. I'd better make sure before I go to bed, shouldn't I?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

NaNoWriMo and Me

I have participated in National Novel Writing Month every year since 2003. For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is a crazy attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in thirty days. There are no judges; there are no prizes; it is the biggest un-contest of them all.

So why bother? Why spend thirty days slaving over something no one will see but myself?

I believe the self-challenge is the key to NaNo's success. We all have things in life we would like to do, but oftentimes they remain empty dreams. NaNoWriMo comes with an international audience. People from around the world watch to see if you actually complete your novel. At the same time, you watch them and cheer them on. It is, in fact, the world's largest accountability group.

I wrote my first stories when I was in elementary school. With the encouragement of my middle school English teacher, I started an historical romance series. It was then I decided I wanted to be a novelist when I grew up. However, I approached this as if it were some kind of airy, theoretical future. I wrote fun stories for my friends, and, when pressed, I claimed these were practice for my "real writing."

NaNoWriMo taught me to take my writing seriously. When I told people I was going to write a 50,000 word novel in thirty days, all of a sudden I had a deadline. The theoretical future was now.

I won that first year. Even though the 50,000 words became 24,000 upon editing, I still look back on it as the turning point in my career as a writer. Since then I have had three false starts and written three more novels. Two years ago, I wrote the start of Mr. Darcy novel called His Good Opinion. I recently completed the rough draft and hope to be ready to send out queries by the end of next year.

This year will be my eighth NaNoWriMo, and it will also be a first: it will be the first year that I attempt to do more than one story. I know, I know. If 50,000 words this crazy then surely 150,000 is purely insane. Why am I doing this to myself? It will take a trilogy to tell the story, and that's part of it. However, there is another secret part of me which simply wants to see if I can. And that, my friends, is what National Novel Writing Month is all about.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Highlighting Banned Books Week

Last week I posted about Banned Books Week and Speak. I want to hit on the subject again today and take a bit more time to express why I oppose banning books.

My issues with censorship are two-fold:

First, no one has any right to tell me what I can or cannot read. What I read is a personal choice. Often times, censorship happens because we wish to abdicate that responsibility to others who "know better." Step up and take control of your life. Look at the books that are being challenged and think for yourself.

Second (and more importantly), censorship restricts knowledge. Books hold true power; new ideas can challenge even our most strongly held opinions, forcing us to grow, think, and change. That change is what most book-banners fear. 

When The Rejectionist and Taherah announced a banned books blogfest, I already had a stack of books ready to review. I finally chose one of my favorites to highlight today. You'll notice I haven't commented on why it was banned, and there's a reason for that. Books are about more than one person's narrow view of them, and when we focus so much on countering that one opinion we can miss what made them awesome in the first place.

I first read Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green during my World War II obsession. Patty's strong voice drew me quickly into her world--I felt like I actually lived in this small Arkansas town. With my youthful naïveté, I immediately decided my own small Midwestern town needed a prison. Clearly, that would be the only way to add some excitement into our lives.

The first person POV meant that I experience everything along with Patty. The loving friendship she shared with Anton became my own. I cherished those moments we were able to spend with him, and I was just as devastated as she was when he died. I remember closing the book and thinking, Maybe he didn't die... maybe he was only wounded and recaptured. Alas, that was not the case and I cried once more when Ruth visited Patty at the end of the book and confirmed his death.

Now that I'm an adult and a writer, I have new things to love about this book. Greene did a fantastic turning stereotypes on their ears. With the exception of Ruth, Anton--the Nazi--is the first person in Patty's life to appreciate who she is. In a perfect world, her parents would have loved her and affirmed her special abilities but hers instead seem to take pleasure in demeaning her. Her father in particular is both verbally and physically abusive, and it is only when she sees herself through Anton's eyes that she learns she has true worth.

Her use of first person is incredible. It keeps the narrative tight and completely focused on Patty and what she's feeling. Tweens and teens often complain to me that they can't relate to books. From this book (and others), I know that writing in first person is a powerful way to make the story real to them.

I suppose I should thank the people who've banned this book. I hadn't really thought of it for several years until I chose it to blog about, but now I have the chance to rediscover an old favorite.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Trying to speak naturally

By this, of course I am referring to Dragon, NaturallySpeaking. I have been plagued by wrist problems for the last 2 1/2 years. Given that typing is such a large part of my life, it didn't seem like this is ever going to get any better. In many ways, it is similar to somebody who has a chronic sprain. Because they continue to walk on it, the problem continues to get worse and worse rather than better. They need rest in order to heal.

With this in mind, I chose to take matters into my own hands. (Or perhaps I should say, my own voice.) I purchased the program about a month ago, but it is only in the last week that I have been able to to train it. There are still a few kinks; for instance, the software just tried to say Kenyans rather than kinks. However, I am learning to compose what I want to say in my mind before I can actually say it. This will take some time but once I have it down, I should be able to deliver a full stream of thought all at once without pauses. My hope is that I will be accustomed to the software by the time NaNoWriMo rolls around in November.

All the reviews for the software were glowing, filled with phrases like "I wrote this whole blog post just by using Dragon, and it was fantastic." I think those people must've had some experience with voice-recognition software. I am not as lucky. I did write this entire blog post using Dragon NaturallySpeaking. However, I had a lot of errors to correct--simple little typos that didn't take much time. The bigger issue for me was learning to think with the software.

I like to think of writing as an adventure, and I suppose this is simply the next leg on that journey.

PS: I am very amused that the software correctly transcribes its own name.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Speaking out on a tough subject

"Parents and guardians are responsible for the selection choices of their own minor children."

That quote comes from the back of my library card. It does three things: 1) It states clearly that the library will not stop anyone from checking certain books out based on age-appropriateness; 2) It places that responsibility squarely on the parents' shoulders; 3) It implies that this responsibility only goes as far as their own children, not to other library patrons. That last item refers to censorship, which is what I want to talk about today.

Every year, the American Library Association celebrates Banned Books Week during the last week of September. This year it runs September 25-October 2, but it got an early start thanks to Wesley Scroggins of Republic, MO. On Saturday, he wrote an opinion piece in which he highlighted three novels he wants taken out of the school libraries: Slaughterterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler. Though I don't think any book should be censored, I want to focus on Speak.

For those of you who haven't read the book, I'm about to spoil one of the main secrets. If you read Scroggins' piece linked above (which you should) you already know this anyway. 

Speak is about rape. The main character, Melinda, was raped at a party over the summer. She called the cops on the party but didn't tell them about the rape. That remains her secret--something she doesn't tell anyone, even when the whole school is shunning her because she snitched. The book is about her realizing that what happened to her was not her fault and that she needs to speak out.

There are teens who need to hear this. They need to hear it because like Melinda, they've been raped. They need to hear it because their parents abuse them, or because they cut, or or or--there are as many reasons teens need this book as there are teens. We want to believe that things like this will never happen to our kids, to the teens that we know, but unfortunately that is not reality. Aren't we supposed to be preparing teens for the real world? How can we do that if we don't let them read books that depict it?

However, my anger at this censorship stems from a deeper issue. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, 60% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police. These victims are afraid to speak out. Some fear retribution from their assailant, but many of them fear being ostracized by society. Even if we've moved past the mentality that rape is the victim's fault, which is debatable, it is still seen as something dirty that shouldn't be talked about.

This is why I was so angry that Speak, a book that is about finding the courage to report rape, would be silenced. How can we censor something that is about fighting self-censorship? The irony is deep. Scroggins' opinion piece equates the rape scenes in Speak with soft pornography, dirty and wrong. If I was a teen rape victim in Republic, MO, I would then assume that my own story is dirty and wrong. I said it earlier and I'll say it again: Teens need Speak. They need to know they are not alone; they need to know they will be heard if they will just... speak.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Writing annoyances and lessons

I've been spending a lot of time writing lately. I created a Twitter account, and there's a great group of writers over there. Thanks largely to their encouragement, I've made it through some huge scenes in His Good Opinion.

Tonight I hit a road block. I wanted to finish More Than Memory so I could really focus all my attention on Jane Austen and Darcy. I spent the entire day working on an epilogue... which I just realized I don't need. I've wrapped up all the main points of the story, the characters are together and happy, there is no point to an epilogue. In fact, it would really be quite superfluous.

There's a phrase writers use: Kill your darlings. It's something we have to do during editing--go through and get rid of all the extra bits in the story, even if they happen to be those pieces we loved writing. What makes me so angry right now is that I didn't want to write the epilogue! I wish I could have at least gotten the enjoyment out of it.

My frustration level is high. I could easily say this day was a complete waste of time, but there is a hidden lesson to be learned. I doubted the worth of an epilogue before I started. I've been struggling for four months to find the right way to frame it that will both make sense and add to the story. I should have trusted my instincts. If I had trusted my instincts, I would not be sitting here at 11:13 with no writing to show for the day.

Next time I find myself wondering, "Why am I writing this again?" I will listen to that little voice.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Turning over a new leaf

I think I'll spare us all the "I'm so sorry" song and dance. I've been a horrible blogger. I'll be better in the future. Here's my motivation.

Though you wouldn't know it to look at The List, my writing has really progressed in the last three months. I've taken solid steps toward creating a professional life, and I'm very excited by the progress I've made. (Big news? I'll be attending a Jane Austen conference in October, which will be my first attempt at professional networking.)

However, as you can see from the list, creating a writing blog is one of my goals. If I want to be a successful blogger, I must post on a regular basis. That doesn't necessarily mean daily, but it does mean more regular than once every three months. I won't start that blog until I've proven to myself that I can do that.

Things accomplished since last post:

19. Go to the dentist
63. Pay off my credit card
75. Read The Hobbit again
79. Get an iPhone
82. Backup my computer--flash drive or external hard drive
95. Get my passport 
The last was actually done in March (give or take), but I never got around to discussing that section in May. That, along with the iPhone, were the big ones. 
I hadn't planned to get the iPhone yet, but I was driven to it by a combination of writing and England. First, I realized that if I'm going to move overseas, I really ought to stop buying books. The idea was to use the Kindle reader on the phone to buy books. This... hasn't quite worked as planned, as the screen is really too small to comfortably read a full book. If e-book readers drop in price for the holidays, I will probably buy one.
Second, I wanted the ability to do the first read through of my stories on a portable device. I thought about an iPad, but I really can't afford one. I have the same problem here as I do with the Kindle app, but I think I can make it work. I've got Google docs on my phone, so when I'm ready to read a first draft for overall story flow, I'll upload the story to google and read it on my phone. It'll save paper, and I'll be able to make notes to myself as I go. 
Even though it hasn't worked out quite as planned, I'm glad I bought it. I've gotten so much use out of it in the past month, I can't imagine how I went so long without it. I don't think I would have survived this last weekend without it... the ability to read my email and tweet was really the only means of decompressing I had in a very difficult couple of days.
I think is long enough. Before a week passes, I'll come back and explain the things I've changed to "in progress"; there are some interesting stories there as well.