Deadlines and Word Counts and Themes: Oh My!

Since November a huge amount of my creative energy has gone into my theatre instead of my writing. Which makes me neither happy nor sad, it’s just how it worked out — the focus went to one area and I produced good work in one medium instead of another.

At the moment I’m trying to ‘restore balance to the force’ (Happy Belated Star Wars Day by the way!) by picking up the pen and writing. Happiness!

Only it feels like this:

It’s not like I’ve forgotten how to write. I can still string words together good. Sometimes I even remember good words well. And I have the added bonus of knowing what I want to write and how I want to write it. But I feel super out-of-shape. Ya know? Like a marathon runner —

Okay. I know nothing about how a marathon runner feels. I hate running.

But I was a swimmer. I know how to swim. I haven’t forgotten the strokes. I know all the methods for moving through water. At the moment, however, I would get my ass handed to me if I tried to race anyone and/or participated in any kind of lap swim longer than fifteen minutes.

So it is with writing at present.

The remedy for lax writing muscles, I’ve decided, is the same remedy for the above sports analogy (the swimmy analogy, not the runny analogy): practice. Specialized practice.

To get back into the swing of things, I’m turning to Duotrope’s calendar of deadlines for magazines with themed issues. My thought process in this comes from my writing teacher David Keplinger — whose workshops always had a ‘box’ put around them. The idea was — whether the box consisted of a theme, particular subject matter, or a specific exercise — that if you put a box around the writing, you stop thinking about all the things that slow you down.

If you’re working within a box, you can’t waste time thinking about Am I good enough? Am I saying what I want to say? How long should this be? Those questions just kinda fall away and you work on staying within the parameters.

Generally, I’m pretty good about working within a box but the big-ass WIP I’m in the middle of is too big of a box to jump back into. I have a little too much playtime in there and I’d like to get back into the structural elements and I think Duotrope’s calendar is perfect for that because:

1. Deadlines. I have to finish in a certain period of time in order to submit my piece. I chose things with pretty up-and-coming deadlines so I don’t have time to think. Write fast. Write hard.

2. Word counts. The magazines have limits set for the words. I don’t have to debate within myself about how long or short I want it to be — there’s a definitive stopping place.

3. Themes. These make it simple for me to come up with a storyline. I can’t hem and haw for endless amounts of time about What Idea Shall I Write? With themes dictated, I’m forced to be creative in the idea department.

I feel like these are good little workouts to get back into shape. Once I’ve pounded out a couple, I’ll feel more comfortable jumping back into the big ol’ book that’s waiting for new words.

How to Avoid Being Too Dark?

On Monday, while discussing young adult literature, I utilized a ‘bedroom’ dark metaphor. The argument being that you can see in the dark if there is some light trickling in.

In my opinion, all young adult literature – all good young adult literature – has that little bit of light trickling in, even if it’s not obvious at first.

There is another kind of darkness though: total darkness. The darkness that makes people go blind after too long in an underground cave. There is no hope in this darkness. There is no light for your eye to catch and your pupils can dilate forever, but they’ll never grow large enough to pull light where there is none.

Rest easy. This kind of darkness doesn’t exist in kids literature at all. Editors just won’t let it happen. No way are you going to subject a kid to rape, torture, war, drugs, and murder without some kind of redemption in there.

However, let’s say that you’re writing a kids book, you’ve got some super-dark themes going on, and you’re concerned that the reason no one is picking up the book is because it’s Cave Dark.

For the Answer to Avoiding Being Too Dark, we shall look to our mentor, Neil Gaiman and The Graveyard Book for some pointers:

1. Humor helps. And not just humor, but where you position the humor. For example, in The Graveyard Book, you’ve got the man Jack creeping all through the house with a knife in his hand. You’ve got three dead bodies. DARK. Then, as you read the next couple pages, you discover that there’s a mischievous baby (Bod) who has jumped his crib, lost his diaper, and is gleefully crawling up the street naked. Not so dark. You realize that this little kid (who probably gave his parents several sleepless nights) is going to be the undoing of the man Jack…just because of his absolute nerve, even so young.

2. Explain the rules of the darker world. As Bod grows up he is exposed to ghouls, Hounds of God, vampires, and ghosts. For starters. These are the embodiments of most horror stories from the Dark Ages on up to now. DARK. Gaiman negates the spooky power by explaining how things work on the other side. There are still ‘town meetings’, there are days where you have to clean your crypt, there are children playing…but they’re all stuck to the graveyard. They can see in the dark. They can haunt. The problem with being dead, as it’s explained to Bod is that they can’t affect anything anymore. The ‘names have been written.’ Their potential is gone. Once the reader is exposed to the hows and whys of the place, there’s nothing left to be scared of.

3. Make your main character tough enough to handle the problems. No one likes a wimp. No one wants to read a book about a little boy whose parents died and now he’s all alone and being raised by ghosts and all he does is cry at the headstones all the dang day. When Silas – Bod’s guardian – explains what happened to Bod’s parents (they were brutally murdered = DARK), Bod flinches, but he doesn’t break. He gets angry. He wants justice. He may have suffered at this man Jack’s hands, but he is not his victim. That is a very hard distinction to make, and your characters will have to show their toughness in their own ways, but make sure they have some kind of tough.

Those are just a few ways to let the light in. So remember, if you have rape, war, murder, drugs, torture, and teen dating all in your book-cave…you really need to let some light in or your readers will go blind – they might even pluck their own eyes out in despair. That would be bad.

Seeing in the Dark: The YA Novel in General and The Graveyard Book in Particular

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal took a series of hits for this article by Meghan Cox Gurdon. Her argument is that Young Adult Literature is DARK: “Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.

A great many people have already gone off on this article and its overarching condescending tone toward today’s young adult literature. For the most part I agree with the bulk of the article’s dissenters, though, and I’m only going to say this so that you guys know where I’m coming from completely, I can see Gurdon’s argument if I look at how the subject matter is treated. Sex is a big deal. Cursing and language and expression are big deals. Violence is a big deal. Books and movies are currently how kids and teens learn to address their world and a blasé attitude towards these things is not to be lightly tolerated. And, quite frankly, I was unimpressed with the ‘gravity’ given to sex in the Twilight books – which millions of teens ate up – just an example, and just my opinion.

That being said, I can’t help but LOVE Sherman Alexie’s response to this article. (He was called out in it.) In his own Wall Street Journal reaction Alexie says that it’s too late to protect the kids. By the time kids read the teen books, the trouble has already hit them in real life. How do you tell a teen mom to not read about sex? Alexie says: “I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”

Sounds a lot like the G.K. Chesterton quote: “Fairy tales, are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book reminds me of those fairy tales. Here is the boogey man, come to slaughter a family, and only the chosen/blessed/selected child escapes. Sure, it’s dark. Sure, it’s scary. But I don’t think that anyone gets through life without suffering, without being frightened. By the time kids are old enough to read this book and understand what’s going on, they will have heard about horrible events on the news, they will have experienced fear of something. What’s beautiful about this book is that the main character, Bod, is raised by the very ghosties and ghoulies children fear when they are very young. Bod, a child, is given gifts that make him like them – he can see in the dark, he can Fade, he can Haunt.

And when he is strong enough, he must face his greatest threat – which is not a ghost or a ghoul, it is a man named Jack. A man. A person who is just like Bod. Living, breathing, and violent.

Not to give away the end or anything…but Bod defeats him.

So, as stressful as it may be to be a parent and have darkness facing your child from every bookshelf, it is a necessary thing. There are monsters in the world. That is real. There are problems in the world. That is real. But you always have to remember there is light on those bookshelves too – the dark is defeated, its power is negated.

The darkness facing a parent on the bookshelf isn’t real darkness. It’s like a dark bedroom. When the light goes off, you can’t see anything but the dark. But if you stay, if you keep your eyes open, if you pay attention to the dark, your pupils dilate, growing wider, larger, to capture the light that is hidden – a streetlamp, or the moon, or stars. Then you can make out the shape of the bed, a bookshelf, pictures on the walls. You see in the dark. And the things that were frightening, like the monster in the closet, turn out to be a pile of clothes spilling out of their basket. (I know, frightening in its own right!) There was nothing to be afraid of in the first place.

Those Little Bits of Insight

‘I was thinking,’ I said, ‘that when my time comes, I should be sorry if the only plea I had to offer was that of justice. Because it might mean that only justice would be meted out to me.'”
~The Vicar Leonard Clement in Murder at the Vicarage, discussing the necessity of mercy when considering a person’s fate
by Agatha Christie

I think that readers appreciate smart writers. Writers who can tell a great story are heroes without saying, but the ones who can also show a reader something about the world are remembered and returned to. Readers like writers who can make them think — not just about the puzzle in a mystery, but about the bigger world. Whether or not we agree with the writer.

Agatha Christie does that, in my opinion. I haven’t picked up one of her books yet where I wasn’t thoughtful at the end. The line above is the one that stuck out the most for me in Miss Marple’s first case. It reminded me of a Maya Angelou quote that goes something along the lines of “Don’t pray for justice because you might just get some.”

Great stuff to meditate on. Ya know?

I have read far more Agatha Christie than I anticipated while working on this mentor section. (Yep, I’d never read a word of hers until I did this….) A great part of that reason is that, every now and then, she brought me up short. Not to sound too cocky, but that doesn’t happen very often. (But it does happen.) I like it when someone can do that. I like being knocked around as a reader.

It’s a tricky thing to do without sounding preachy, these insightful bits. As it is, the one quoted above runs along that line…I just happen to agree with the vicar/Christie in the thought process presented here.

In my own stories, I don’t think I have pearls of wisdom like Christie’s. Part of the reason is my GREAT fear of sounding preachy in fiction. =)

(Or, you know, in blogs.)

In the end, I’m pretty sure you have to let the story tell itself, how it wants to be told. The little insights, and the big ones, will grow organically. Right? That seems to be the best way to do it. Like the vicar’s quote…it relates directly to the story being told. What is justice? How should it be delivered? Is mercy ever an acceptable alternative to inevitable ‘justice’? Justice is definitely a theme in the book and the quote is all about justice.

Didn’t even have to look far for that one, huh?

Plus, I think you have to emphasize the convictions of your characters. Declarative statements make stronger quotable material.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever been preached to in a story? Has any writer consistantly impressed you with their pearls of wisdom?  

Recurring Themes and You

We like to think that we’re saying something unique and original Every Single Time We Write…or at least, I do.

Such is not always the case. Our lives are limited to, well, our lives. Our passions are limited to (you guessed it) our passions. In general, these things don’t radically change. Patterns emerge and repeat.

Well, it’s nice to know that Virginia Woolf is no exception. You wanna know what her recurring theme is?

Time, and how it goes on by.

She could probably put it much more succinctly, and often does, in her writing. If you just take a peek at her titles, you can see the theme repeating:

Now and Then
The Years
Night and Day
Monday or Tuesday
“The Moment” (essay)
“Time Passes” (section in To the Lighthouse)
The Hours (original title of Mrs. Dalloway)

I could go on, but I think the point is illustrated. It shows up in her diary over and over again too–she is constantly wondering how much time she has left. It’s probably no quirk of fate that, when it came down to it, she chose her own time to leave.

We write about what’s important to us. What’s important to you? Does it show up in your writing?