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Saturday, June 11, 2016

stops and starts, puppies and books

Sometimes it feels like writing flows like a river. My current book idea is not like that.

Two days ago I was writing (trying to catch up on my JuNoWriMo goals) and I realized I'd made a huge mistake with my character's motivation. And it was both exhausting and exhilarating -- exhausting because I had to go back and fix what I thought was settled, but exhilarating because I finally realized why I couldn't get over that 20,000 word hump.

When I finish this book, it will be the fifth one I've written. And yet somehow, it is different and no easier than those other four.

I think that's the funny thing about creative pursuits versus other pursuits. Every year so far in my legal career, I become a slightly better lawyer. My drafting gets better, my research gets more efficient, my confidence grows.

But every creative projects is like a whole new animal, something that has to be tamed in a different way.

I'm not sure I've ever blogged about this, but recently Gentleman Caller and I got a second dog--Scout. (For pictures of Scout, check me out on Instagram @cleverpseudonymgirl.) And not to make everything in my life relate to everything else, but the difference between Spencer and Scout could not be more stark.

Spencer was a naughty puppy, of course. All puppies are naughty. But Spencer, in his soul, is a snuggler. When he was little and needed to be walked at 5 AM, as soon as he did his business, we would fall back asleep for another two hours, resting on the hammock on the porch when it was warm, or with him curled up on the pillow next to my head if it was cold.

He loves going on runs with me. He loves riding in the car with me. He loves watching TV with me. Basically, whatever I want to do? Spencer wants to do.

Scout is not that way at all. In her heart, she's a ferocious hunter. When Scout needs to be walked at 5 AM, she is go-go-go-going after that. She wants to run and play, and if I try to put her back in her crate so I can sleep some more, she will wail like this is the worst thing that has ever happened to her.

Scout likes to run. And find sticks and rocks and hide them in her cheeks. And then run some more. And also run? And jump.

But even though she and Spencer couldn't be more different, I am so happy they are both my dogs.

In a way, I'm glad I am wrestling my new WIP into submission at the same time we are trying to train Scout. Because she reminds me that some little beasts just need more patience than others.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Pander Troll and Illogical Arguments

I've thought of a new genus of troll -- the Pander Troll. It looks like a really deranged panda, a panda that might live under a bridge.

The Pander Troll gets off on saying "controversial" things that (1) will offend pretty much everyone in the target audience and (2) will completely conform with what the Pander Troll's base of support already believes.

I don't like to say his name on the internet, but M@tt W@alsh is a prime example of this dual trolling/pandering behavior. He's never posted a thought online that he didn't know his extremely fearful audience wouldn't immediately hear and cry, "Yes!" He's never bothered posting one unless he thought he could get a bunch of people riled up -- if you can't offend, then what's the point, right?

Today I saw a Tweet from the Head Pander Troll that went a little something like this: Sad we aren't allowed to recommend that young women not get blackout drunk around a bunch of guys.

Thought provoking stuff, my friends. No one has ever made this argument before.

But even though it is pointless to address the inane mumblings of the Pander Troll, I'm going to give it a go anyway. Because I am feeling sassy.

The first problem with arguments like these is that they ignore the obvious -- that they put the onus of protecting oneself on the victim instead of the onus of not being an evil criminal on the perpetrator. Women in burkas get sexually assaulted. Sober women get sexually assaulted. It doesn't help anyone to suggest, "Dress modestly and don't drink!" Because when you're a woman in a world with rapists, you can never mitigate your risk down to zero.

People will counter this argument by saying, "Well yeah, but if I wander around with $20 hanging out of my pocket, it's obviously more likely to get stolen than if I had it safely tucked in my wallet, right?"

To which I say, FALSE EQUIVALENCE. Because rape victims don't just have to deal with the fact that they were raped -- they have to face the overwhelming fact that the vast majority of rapists are never caught, prosecuted, and punished. Whereas with your $20 example, sure, people might wonder what the hell you were doing with your money hanging out of your pocket, but literally no one is going to ask you, "Are you sure you even had $20? Isn't it possible that you gave the $20 away voluntarily and forgot?"

Because that's crazy. Because why would anyone ask that.

There is [almost -- we will get to the almost in a second] no other crime where the victim is almost automatically disbelieved from the get-go, and frequently by people who have never even met her, who have no idea what happened that day or what facts might already be in evidence. And the thing is, yes, there are false criminal reports filed in every type of crime, but that fact has never prompted a person to ask another, "Hey, why was your car just sitting outside your house when it got stolen? At night?"

The victims of financial fraud don't deal with this. Burglary victims don't deal with this. Arson victims don't deal with this.

Literally [almost] the only crime in which a victim has to put up with people doubting his or her very victimhood is rape. Which is why it is not at all helpful to offer "advice" that continues to feed into the very doubt that will plague victims after the fact.

To illustrate this point, let's get to that almost, shall we?

When I was trying to think of another crime where society was willing to turn a blind eye, where victims were blamed and disbelieved and regularly not assisted in any meaningful way, I did manage to think of one other.

Domestic violence.

Now, I will say there's been a marked improvement over the last 50-60 years in the way that society and the criminal justice system has dealt with domestic violence, which is why I said "almost." (But jeez, just take one look at the Amber Heard case, and you know the deck is still stacked against victims. I mean, the woman has photos, a recording, and witnesses, but let's wait until allllll the evidence comes out because she asked for spousal support, y'all. People who weren't there that day think Johnny Depp is a total gentleman! Also, she smiled at a party!)

Ahem. Getting back to my argument.

Since we're all offering helpful advice, let's think of some helpful advice for the future victims of domestic violence, shall we?

* I'd recommend never having kids. Kids will make it really hard to leave a domestic abuser.

* While we're at it, don't get a pet, either. Domestic abusers frequently threaten pets if the victim leaves, and you don't want to deal with that guilt.

* Once you're in a relationship, you probably shouldn't have male friends. Jealousy is a big trigger for the perpetrators, it's just smart to avoid it altogether.

* Yeah, I think that should go for your dad and brothers, too. Hey, I'm just helping you with some common sense suggestions here!

* Yeah ... actually, no friends is probably best. You never know what might set him off!

* You know, have you thought about not getting into a relationship with a man in the first place? Because you can't always tell who is an abuser on a first date.

You know why it's not helpful to tell girls, "Hey, just don't get drunk at parties!"? Because it's as ridiculous as telling women to just avoid romantic relationships in order to avoid domestic violence. 

The reason a girl gets drunk at a party is because she feels safe there. Because she was with her friends, in a place she felt comfortable.

She didn't wander around a shooting range getting drunk.

She didn't go skydiving drunk.

She didn't do anything that was inherently dangerous while drunk.

She went to a place where she thought it was safe to drink (because that is literally what a house party advertises itself as) and had some drinks.

And then a bad person violated that sense of safety by doing something that NO ONE AT THE PARTY EXPECTED TO HAPPEN. Something that was not an inherent aspect of the party. People go to parties expecting to have fun, get silly, hang with their friends, and maybe drink. They absolutely do not expect to become victims of a crime, and that is a completely fair assumption.

The fact that a rape occurred at a party doesn't make parties inherently dangerous any more than the existence of a domestic abuser makes the institution of marriage inherently dangerous. To suggest that women should just never get drunk around a "bunch of guys" to avoid getting raped is patronizing to women and flatly insulting to men.

If you want to give "helpful" advice, I guess that's your prerogative. But you're not actually helping women and girls avoid violence.

You're just telling them they should never feel safe.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Why publishing is a lot like dating

I have been wondering how to write this post for nearly six months. In case you're wondering why ye olde blog has been super pathetic lately, that is mainly why.

A long time ago, I wrote a cryptic post that suggested I had good news. April 2013, in fact. And at the time, I thought it really was good news.

We'll circle back to that in a second.

I met my husband, Gentleman Caller as he's known on these here interwebs, when I was thirty years old. That's not too old for life, but it's ancient for Mormonlife. Before I met Gentleman Caller, I went on a lot of dates. Like, a lot. I did the internet dating thing. I did the blind dating thing. I dated guys who were not right for me, and for whom I wasn't right. 

That doesn't make them bad guys. (Well, most of them weren't bad guys. I did accidentally go out with a drug dealer once. Whoops!) It just means that none of them were the right guy for me.

And then one day, I went to a friend's birthday party, and there was Gentleman Caller. And that pretty much was that.

I know some people will tell you, don't hold out for perfection. And that's good advice, because no one is perfect. But I do think you should hold out for perfect for you. Because when I think back to the relationships I tried to make work ... even though they were nice relationships at the time ... the fact was, I was sort of kidding myself.

I just didn't know it at the time.

Back to my aforementioned good news. In April 2013, I got an offer on a book I wrote from a small publisher that I really admired. The book was an LDS-themed romantic comedy--the sort of books I grew up reading from different local publishers here in Utah. I'd always dreamed of contributing to this particular niche market, writing something that Teenage Me would have liked to read. When I sat down to write this book in particular, I just had a few goals. Make it funny. Don't let it get preachy or cheesy. Hope for the best.

So when I got that email saying they had picked my book, I shut my office door and did a literal happy dance.

I called my dad. I called my best friends. I called my sister. I went out for sushi that night to celebrate.

I thought I had made it. After years of writing and trying and failing, one of my dream publishers had said, "Yes, we want you!"

Except, you've probably already figured out, it did not work out.

Here's the thing that I want to make clear. That publisher? They were not right for me. At all. Which was bitterly disappointing, because there are so many things I liked about them. But just like boyfriends of yore, there were too many dealbreakers.

That doesn't mean that publisher wouldn't be a good boyfriend to a different author. In fact, I know people who are currently very happy to be with that publisher! It just meant that they'd be terrible for me. And over the two-and-a-half years I tried to make it work with that publisher, it became increasingly obvious that we wanted very different things. Irreconcilably different things.

Without getting into the gory details, I agonized over that decision.* For over a literal year. I wanted to be published so badly, and even more than that, I wanted to be published by this publisher.

But like in any bad relationship, there came a moment where it was made perfectly clear to me that this was not going to work. And even though it was still sad, after that, it was also a relief to write to them and say that I was pulling my manuscript.

Much like you don't need to find a perfect person to be the perfect partner for you, I don't need a perfect publisher. But I do need one that is perfect for me. 

And when April 2016 came and went, three years from that original acceptance, I thought about my book that I still love, that I've subsequently paid to have professionally edited in case I want to self-publish it. And I thought about disappointment.

I'm sad that I spent so much time and mental energy on that relationship. I'm sad that I won't see that book sitting on shelves in local bookstores in my hometown, waiting for a teenage girl like my former self. I'm sad I have four other ideas for LDS-themed romantic comedies that I'm not even sure if I should start, because even though I want to jump into the self-publishing world, there are a lot of things to consider.

But I haven't had any doubts. Sadness and confidence are not mutually exclusive feelings.

Here's the thing about publishing and dating. If you had asked me, the day before I met Gentleman Caller, if it was better to be alone or in a bad relationship, I would have said "alone" with confidence. And that's true, even if I'd never met Gentleman Caller. I would have been sad, but I would have been right.

Here's the more important thing. Now that I'm married to Gentleman Caller? I can't even really remember the sadness over those other relationships, those disappointing first dates, the guys who didn't call. I mean, I remember that I was sad, but it's sort of, "Oh yeah, that was sad" sort of recollection. Because when you're in the right relationship, when you're pretty much happy every single day, do you even care about the relationships that didn't pan out? Not really.

So even if I never find a publisher who wants a book of mine, the decision to pass on that one opportunity was the right decision. And it will be sad, if I never get published. But it won't change the fact that it's better to not get published, than get published and regret it.

And it definitely won't change the fact that if I do find the right publisher someday, I'll be incandescently happy.

And I'll look back at that other opportunity and think, "Oh yeah. That was sad."



* Edited to add: I really have to give mad props to my agent, Maria Vicente, for helping to clarify a lot of these issues in my mind. She's the best! I can't believe I left her out of the first draft of this post. 

Folks, I'm an attorney, so (again leaving out the gory details) I recognized some problems and tried to offer solutions on my own. Even still, I didn't see everything I should have seen. Seek the advice publishing professionals when making a decision that could affect your entire career!

Friday, April 29, 2016

writing tips -- descriptions with RuthAnne, part 5

5. Trust your reader to understand context clues

If I said the following, would you know what season it was?

Salt-stained streets
Leaves crunching underfoot 
Heads of crocuses popped up through cold mud
Everything smelled of coconut-scented sunscreen

OF COURSE you would. So trust your reader will as well.

This is where I think the infamous "show, don't tell" advice helps a great deal. Beginning writers (even experienced writers) are frequently told to show the reader something, don't tell the reader something. This will immerse your reader in your story, instead of keeping the reader at a psychological distance. And when it comes to writing description, I think the easiest way to remember how to "show, don't tell" is to play Taboo with your reader.



Remember Taboo? It's that game where a person gets a card with a person, place, or thing written at the top. For example, "Christmas." You need to get your team to guess that your card says "Christmas" without using the five most obvious clues listed underneath. If you say those clues (let's say "snow, carol, Santa Clause, gift, tree), you get buzzed out. If you cheat and start saying stuff like, "Rhymes with..." you get buzzed out.

Need an example? Check out Rainbow Rowell's FANGIRL for an excellent one. Background information: Cath is coming home to visit her Dad, an advertising copywriter, from college. This is the scene she witnesses when she comes home.
“The papers in the living room had been sorted into sections. ‘Buckets,’ he called them. They were taped to the walls and the windows. Some pieces had other papers taped around them, as if the ideas were exploding. Cath looked all over his ideas and found a green pen to star her favorites. (She was green; Wren was red.)

The sight of it—chaotic, but still sorted—made her feel better.…

By Sunday night, the whole house was covered in onionskin sketch paper and burrito foil. Cath started another load of drinking glasses and gathered up all the delicious-smelling trash.”


Rainbow Rowell doesn't need to explicitly say, "Cath's dad has bipolar disorder. Cath is very used to his manic episodes, which means they've been happening for a long time." All of this information is implied by the scene (ideas taped up on the walls, multiple loads of dirty drinking glasses that need to be washed by a visiting daughter tell us about the mania; Cath nonchalantly wandering around the room to star her favorite ideas, the fact that the sight makes her feel better tells us that this has been happening for awhile).


Friday, April 22, 2016

Writing tips -- descriptions with RuthAnne, part 4

(Are you getting tired of this yet? I'm sorry. I do think it's helpful!)

4. Integrate your descriptions with your story.

No one wants a big block of text describing the socio-political background of a city unless it has some relevance to the plot at hand. Descriptions are important, maybe even the most important, but they have to serve the story.

Remember -- quirks are good, but they're better if they fit within your story arc and serve to give the reader information about the characters.

Consider this example from GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn.
“Our bar is a corner bar with a haphazard, patchwork aesthetic. Its best feature is a massive Victorian backbar, dragon heads and angel faces emerging from the oak—an extravagant work of wood in these shitty plastic days. The remainder of the bar is, in fact, shitty, a showcase of the shabbiest design offerings of every decade: an Eisenhower-era linoleum floor, the edges turned up like burnt toast; dubious wood-paneled walls straight from a ‘70s home-porn video; halogen floor lamps, an accidental tribute to my 1990s dorm room. The ultimate effect is strangely homey—it looks less like a bar than someone’s benignly neglected fixer-upper. And jovial: We share a parking lot with the local bowling alley, and when our door swings wide, the clatter of strikes applauds the customer’s entrance.”

Why does the description work? First, it addresses characterization. It tells us that our narrator (Nick Dunne, in this case) is bitter and cynical ("shitty plastic days") but also able to look on the bright side (the bowling alley is next door).

It fits within the story arc. It tell us that the owners of the bar cannot afford to fix it up and it subtly implies that they may not know what they're doing when it comes to running a business. It also arrives at the right time in the story--Nick has just explained that he lost his job as a writer, so he came home and opened a business with his sister.

Remember: If a description doesn't arrive at the right place in the story, it doesn't matter how good it is. It's just a paragraph in a brochure.


Friday, April 15, 2016

writing tips--descriptions with RuthAnne, part 3

3. Use all the senses

We all know the five senses, right? Sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Your characters experience these five senses, whether you describe them or not. The better you do at utilizing all the senses, the more alive your milieu will seem.

But there's one sense that, in my opinion, shouldn't be overlooked. That sense is memory.

Take a look at these examples from Harry Potter if you want to see what I mean.

Sorry for these crappy photos, by the way. I couldn't figure out how to integrate my Power Point.


Do you know what I think is the most important phrase in that entire paragraph? "...that Ron had mentioned;"

With four words, JK Rowling makes it clear that Honeydukes existed before Harry arrived there, and that it will therefore continue after he leaves. It's not just a set that Harry wandered through, it's a real place, full of fat toffees and peppermint creams shaped like toads.

If you can find a way to invoke all five of the sensory senses in your descriptions, great. If you can find a way to weave in a sense of memory, even better.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Writing tips -- descriptions with RuthAnne, part 2

Part Two of my writing tips on description is about using specific details.

It sounds obvious -- specific details are better than vague details -- but it can be easier said than done.


Look at the column on the left, then compare it to the column on the right. There's nothing wrong with what's on the left, it's just that what's on the right gives a much stronger idea of what is happening. 

If you want a great example of how to do this, go read Laini Taylor's DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE. I visited Prague last summer, and let me tell you, Taylor's fanciful language describing the city at night is picture-perfect. Believe me, if you just said "European city at night," it wouldn't come close to telling you about Karou's world.




Do you need a perfect verbal SAT to write a great description? Definitely not. The most "unique" or complicated word in the McCarthy passage above is either "disclet" or "lozenge." The question is not big words -- it's the right words. 


This is what I like to call the Project Runway rule. It's always best to start with way, way, way too much and then unleash your Inner Tim Gunn. If you don't start with enough, you may struggle to complete your look without starting over.

Part 3 forthcoming ...