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Losing My Religion

On November 8th, the New York Times ran an article by one of its religion columnists titled “Mormons Offer Cautionary Lesson on Sunny Outlook vs. Literary Greatness” … which, naturally, set off at least half a dozen “Are you kidding me?” reactions in my brain.

The none-too-subtle implication that genre and YA fiction are inferior forms of literature? As someone who writes (and loves) YA sci-fi, yeah, I have a problem with that.

The conclusion that all “Mormon authors” write cheery, sunny stories? Well, some do. Just like some non-Mormon authors do. And some (plenty) don’t. Stop with the generalizing, please-and-thank-you.

Speaking of generalizing, that reference to parents telling children to only journal positive things, never negative? An isolated incident as far as I know, because I have never heard of any parents teaching that … and I grew up in Utah!

More than the article itself, though, I was really interested in the ensuing conversation I was able to observe among several Mormon (or not!) Utah-based authors. One noted that at signings and events, people are always remarking on her religion or asking her about it.

A published friend of mine is Lutheran. Yet that doesn’t ever seem to come up in her professional dealings as an author.

It raised the question for me: Am I a Mormon who happens to be an author, or an author who happens to be Mormon?

When it comes to my writing, I’m going to go with the latter. For one, I don’t write “Mormon literature.” More importantly, yes, my beliefs and background have had some influence on my stories … but so has the fact that I’m the middle child, the oldest girl, a math teacher, and a cellist. These aren’t things that create an “agenda” in my writing. They’re just things that have contributed to the lens I see the world through, and therefore naturally filter in varying degrees into my work.

Here’s the thing. Even when I do have an element that could be taken as reflective or symbolic of one thing or another, I don’t actually care about the reader taking it that way. I’ve had people read one of my manuscripts and say, “Wow, (X) was such a great symbol for _______.” Annnnnnd it’s nothing I was aiming for when I wrote it.

And that’s cool.

Even before I started writing, I never cared as much about an author’s intent as I did about the meaning the reader finds. (This was a problem when it came to English class.)

So that’s what I’m going to keep doing.

The title of this post doesn’t mean my religion is going anywhere. It just means what we should already know:

That generalizations and labels stink.

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Patience Is More Than A Virtue

Several decades ago, a series of studies were done, known as the Stanford marshmallow experiment. Here it is in a nutshell: Young children are presented with a treat (such as a marshmallow) and told they can eat it now, or if they wait fifteen minutes for the tester to return, they can have two. Some children waited the full time. Some didn’t wait at all. Some tried to wait, but gave in and ate the marshmallow before time was up.

Over the following years, the kids who were able to delay gratification were more successful in a variety of life measures. Self-control puts us on better footing in society.

More recently, a follow-up study at the University of Rochester played with the variables a bit. Half of the children experienced the tester breaking a promise before the marshmallow experiment began. The other half experienced the tester keeping a promise. No surprise which group was able to wait longer during the experiment.

To me, this has implications for all aspects of our lives, including writing and publishing.

As far as I can tell, the most successful authors—on both sides of the traditional/self-publishing aisle—practice not only persistence, but patience. (And I consider “success” not only straight-up dollars, but also quality of product, strength of work, and longevity of career.) As both a reader and a writer, signs of impatience strike me as red flags. Some examples:

– A slapdash cover (or better, one with a stolen image) on a self-published book because “it’s what inside that matters.”

– Lack of editing because “the story is good, and who cares about grammar or craft if it’s a good story?”

– A query put up for critique, only to see that the writer self-published the book within the past few weeks.

– Queries sent out, only to have the writer self-publish before several agents even have a chance to respond.

– Querying every agent who lists that genre, without further research, and signing with a “schmagent” just because they offered.

– Submitting to every publisher who doesn’t require an agent (sometimes while querying agents simultaneously), and signing with any who offers.

I’m sure there are others.

Seriously, what’s the hurry? If you choose to go the traditional route, it’s a long process. Learn to love waiting, because you’ll do a lot of it. There will be times you have to rush—quick turnaround on copyedits, maybe—but the patience will serve you well.

If you’re still looking for an agent, it’s worth it to take your time and do your research, improving the odds that you’ll land with the right agent. In my case, taking my time and not giving in to the urge to bail and self-publish also ensured that my writing improved. Now it’s to a point where I’m fairly comfortable with the idea of it going out into the world. (It’s fine to switch tracks from querying agents to self-publishing. Just do it thoughtfully, not as an emotional act of desperation.)

If you’re self-publishing, have the self-control to take your time and do it well. Just because it’s easy to throw a first-draft out there doesn’t mean you should. If part of your motivation is that traditional publishing takes too long, that’s okay. Even taking your time, you can likely get it done well more quickly than a big publishing house.

There’s something to be learned from that second study, too, and the effect of whether the kids believed the promise would be delivered. We’re grown-ups. Don’t give in to excuses like “But this self-published book is crap and made a million dollars” or “But this Big Publisher book is crap and they made it a movie.” We shouldn’t be worrying so much about the promises of the market or the industry to make sure “the cream rises.”

We should worry about whether we can keep the promise to ourselves that we’ll BE the cream.

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In Defense of First Person

Recently I heard a well-known author state that (paraphrasing) writing a story in first person is a terrible idea, shouldn’t be done, and that writing it in present tense is even worse. Respectfully, I disagree. I’m addressing the “present tense” part over on From the Write Angle, so here I’ll focus on first person.

One criticism of first-person narrative was that it’s what newbie, amateur writers default to, and they don’t have the skills to do it well.

On the first count, well, that’s kind of a big generalization. I started my very first manuscript in third person, got 5-10 pages in, and knew something wasn’t working. I went back, changed it to first person, and it flowed from there. My friend Charlee Vale tells me her first two manuscripts were entirely in third person.

But maybe the majority of new writers automatically go with first person? Sure, I can buy that.

On the second count, let’s face it. Our very first attempts with any writing technique or tool usually suck. This author posited that everyone should master third-person limited before even considering first person. You know, that’s probably not a bad idea in general. At the least, we should learn the strengths and limitations of all our options and practice to maximize their potential.

Another criticism was that there’s a “falseness” to first person. Your main character has to narrate things they would never say about themselves, engage in an unrealistic level of self-consciousness, etc. Plus in first person past tense, supposedly any suspense the character experiences is false, because they’ve already survived the tale in order to “tell” it to us. They know exactly what happens.

Here’s where people divide into two camps according to how they experience reading. Some people read a first-person narrative and process it as an artifact, a memoir written by the main character, or a record of that character verbally telling the story.

I’m not in that camp. I don’t view stories in that kind of framework unless they’re explicitly placed in it—”Now, let me tell you about the time my grandpa gave me a birthday present that changed the world.” I view the story as simply happening. I don’t think about someone telling it or writing it—it just unfolds before me, and the book with written words is just the delivery vehicle.

Just like when I watch a movie, I don’t think about “Who’s following these people around with a camera everywhere?”

I don’t know if that puts me in the majority or minority, but there it is.

At any rate, why should we or shouldn’t we use first person? Some people find the constant “I, I, I, me, me, me” obnoxious. Fair enough. Third-person limited lets us get into our protagonist’s head just as much as first person, so why don’t we stick to that?

To me, there’s still just a little more separation between reader and protagonist in third person. A character in third can get away with withholding a little information from the reader that would feel forced and fake in first person. First person, on the other hand, delivers the protagonist’s experience a little more exactly. In that case, it’s easier to withhold information from the character.

First person is notably more prevalent in some types of fiction than others, particularly young adult (YA). Some have said this is because teenagers are so self-centered, so they gravitate toward that focus on the “me.”

That may have some merit, but it doesn’t feel quite right. I know a lot of selfless, generous, thoughtful teens. Rather than self-centered, I think of them as “self-centric.” (That may be a distinction with no difference, but it makes sense to me.) The world doesn’t revolve around them—they are simply their own anchor point in a world that’s expanded tremendously since their pre-teen years.

It still sounds like I’m saying the same thing two ways, I guess. If it makes sense to any of you, and you can explain it better, please let me know.

I think for me, when choosing between first and third person, part of the decision is based on the answer to a question. Is this a story in World X focusing on Character Y? Or is it Character X’s story, occurring in World Y? Essentially, it’s a matter of story ownership, and how tightly that ownership is tied to that specific character.

First person can be very limited and restrictive, it’s true. But sometimes that’s exactly what a story needs, and I refuse to believe it’s a bad thing in and of itself. Like all tools and techniques, it has its place, its function, its value.

What do you think about first-person narratives? Love ’em? Hate ’em? Share your opinions and experiences (respectfully, please) in the comments.

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Why I Won’t Tell You What to Do

This is one of my biggest guiding principles in teaching: I won’t tell my students what to do.

Okay, I will sometimes. Like when I tell them to clear their desks before a test, to get out a piece of paper, to work with their partner, or to stop playing games on their calculator when they’re supposed to be working (and I know they’re playing because no one uses their thumbs that much when they’re calculating).

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about when a student asks, “How do I solve this problem?” Sometimes I slip, but more often than not, I answer that question with a question. “What do you know about the problem already?” “What are we trying to find?” “How is this similar to/different from this other problem?”

Yup, I’m one of those teachers.

Even when I do “tell” a little more, it’s often with options. “What are the tools we’ve been using? Tables, graphs, and equations. You could try using any of those.”

It’s easier just to tell students how to solve the problem. Really, it is. (That’s why I slip once in a while.) So why don’t I just do it that way?

Because it’s not about what’s easy … especially not what’s easy FOR ME.

It’s about getting the student to the point of doing mathematics independently. And before anyone says most people never use anything from algebra or above in “real life,” that’s not what doing mathematics is truly about. It’s about thinking and reasoning and working out what makes sense.

Like so many things from my teaching life, it carries over into my writing life. People ask for feedback, critique, suggestions. In that case it’s peer-to-peer, but that makes me even less likely to say, “Do it this way.” I try to focus on giving my reaction as a reader, what worked and didn’t, leaving it to the writer to figure out how to best resolve any problem areas—if they even agree that the area is a problem.

Some people give feedback by saying, “What if you did it like this?” and proceed to rewrite a whole paragraph or query letter. I can’t say it’s wrong and no one should do that. Maybe that works for some people. Just me, personally … it makes me cringe. Once in a while I throw in a “such as” and give a possible sentence to illustrate my point, but I try to keep that really limited with a tone of “but in your own way.”

That’s the thing. When I tell someone how to solve a problem, they’re not really doing mathematics. When someone is writing, feedback is critical. Taking in that feedback, processing it, and deciding what to do about it (if anything) is a necessary skill. It needs to be their work, their writing, their voice. We can suggest and spitball and yea-or-nay ideas, but when it’s our writing, we must do the heavy lifting.

And yes, sometimes I slip in that department, too. But I try. I just want to make people think.

But if I said my way of giving feedback is the only way, that would be telling you what to do.

Have you seen or experienced benefits of the direct-instruction approach? Have you seen downsides to being left to puzzle it out, picking and choosing from more general bits of advice?

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Yeah, I Know You’re Jealous

I have next week off from school.

That’s right. A full week break in early February for no particular reason other than that our school always has this mid-winter break. Whatever shall I do with all that free time?

I’ll tell you what. Write. Write some more. Maybe read a little. Then keep writing.

I have a shiny new work-in-progress, and I’d love to crank out at least 10k words next week. 20k would be even better. If I can finish the first draft (or nearly) by the end of month, I’d be happy-happy-happy.

You see, Mindy McGinnis is working on a revision right now, and we have plans to swap that for my completed NaNoWriMo project when she’s done. I want to make sure there’s always one more thing in the R.C. Lewis Library waiting for her. 😉

So, for the week of vacation from the day-job, I’m hoping to let the “other” job go temporarily full-time. I’ll also be visiting my family, so hanging with them and a few random appointments will fill my time on the side.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to pack.

If you had a week off from your usual job and/or responsibilities, would you buckle down and write, or go off on a real vacation? (To be honest, I don’t remember the last time I had a real vacation … maybe I need to do something about that at some point.)

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Avoiding Authorial Convenience

This is something that’s bugged me forever.

When you’re reading along and something happens that makes you think, “Oh, Author, you totally wedged that in just because it’s convenient to the direction you want the plot to go in. Lame!”

Don’t get me wrong. We all do it. We all contrive events to shape the story. I’ve even discussed the joys of throwing wrenches into the works, just to mess with my characters. The problem is when the reader can tell that’s what you’re doing.

So, how to avoid? I think one key is consistency. If you get halfway through the rough draft and decide making Character X your MC’s brother (plus he knew it all along, but kept it secret) is going to solve all your problems, great. But realize you’re going to have to go back through and reshape Character X’s early behavior. Not enough to give it completely away if it’s a big twist, but enough that looking back, the reader can say, “Oh, yes, I see now!” (Foreshadowing/Hinting vs. Telegraphing … have I done a post on that yet? No? Hmm, I probably should.)

When things come out of nowhere—even when there’s nothing in the text to explicitly preclude them—it’s just annoying. As a reader, it makes me feel like I’m being jerked around. I don’t like that feeling.

What if the twist or turn comes in a later book in a series, though? What if earlier books are already published, thus establishing “canon”? That’s trickier. I guess all you can do is try your best to make character and plot choices that are reasonably organic to what’s already set in stone.

This is one of those things that I’m right on top of as a reader (and a hyper-critical one at that), but worry that I don’t know how to avoid/spot/fix in my own writing. So if anyone has other thoughts or suggestions on how to prevent your readers from rolling their eyes, please—let’s hear them!

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