Friday, June 24, 2011

What Writing YA is Really Like

Oh, my. It's the summer of Let's Insult YA Authors, Readers, and Teenagers in General.

First, there was this now-infamous article in the Wall Street Journal. It could have had some valid points, but if so, they got obscured in sweeping generalizations. (BTW, I shop at Barnes & Noble all the time, I live in the YA section, and I find all kinds of books that aren't dark or about "vampires and suicide and self-mutilation." In fact, I regularly walk out with books that just about any parent would find appropriate for a 13-year-old.)

Then there was this rather odd article titled "Writing Young-Adult Fiction" by Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix (co-authors of The Magnolia League). Their backgrounds are in literary fiction and journalism, respectively, and they got tagged to write their YA novel. The article seems like it should be about what it says—writing YA fiction. By the end, I wasn't sure what it was about, other than their book.

I began to feel like something strange was going on with this line:
It would be creepy if we included explicit sex scenes with glistening young skin and heaving young bosoms, but we keep it on the clean side. This isn't Twilight. No slutty werewolves here.
Um, I've read Twilight—the whole series, in fact. As I recall, there's one off-page sex scene in the fourth book. So I began to suspect that these authors haven't read the books. If they haven't read those, do they know anything about the YA market, really?

Then they mention how odd it is that they're "being paid good money to be literary predators and come for people's children." Now I get the feeling they don't know many (any?) teenagers in real life, either.

Overall, it seems their experience of writing a YA novel was a lot of giggling and silliness and hurry-up-and-get-it-done-ness. Writing their own wish-fulfillment fantasy, the "high-school experience we never had."

Okay, that's their experience. Good for them.

I haven't gotten paid for my YA writing yet, but I think I've done enough now to speak to my own experience. Here's what YA writing is like for me.

I live in fear of letting my students down. My students range from 14 to 21, and they read almost exclusively YA (aside from what their English teachers assign them). They are my little microcosm of the YA market, from voracious to reluctant readers, straight-A students to strugglers, jocks to theater geeks—with a ton of overlap within and between categories.

I've had students literally slam a book down during silent reading time. They hate it when characters do stupid things just for the sake of the plot—and yes, they do notice. They hate feeling talked-down to. They loathe dialogue that feels like a trying-too-hard adult wrote it.

You know what they like? Some actually like a clever turn of phrase, a well-crafted description. One girl asked me to recommend a book that would help push her vocabulary and comprehension. (I recommended The Monstrumologist.) Some want to be writers themselves. They like characters that are complex and twist stereotypes. They like stories that feel real, even (or especially) when they involve fantastic elements.

So I work my butt off. I draft, revise, run it by readers (both students and adult YA readers/writers), and revise again. Whatever I can do to make it real. If you didn't figure it out already, I talk to teens (students, cousins, whatever) about books. I talk to them about life.

I talk to them like they're people ... because they are.

There's the key, I think. I've known some (well-meaning) teachers who talk to teens like they're still in elementary school. Teens aren't adults yet, but they also aren't children. I've found they'll usually live up to high expectations ... or down to low ones.

The best YA authors (and I'm certainly not placing myself among them) have high expectations for their readers. The read can be light or dark, funny or intense, about mermaids or cutting.

Just respect your readers. They're pretty smart cookies ... even the ones who don't like math class. ;-)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Potential Pitfalls: Writing Blind (v2.0)

Perhaps some of you wondered why this post was labeled "v1.0" ... here's the answer.

There's another way of interpreting "writing blind" beyond an awareness of the audience—awareness of the plot.

If you've been hanging around online writers' communities, you're probably familiar with the terms planner and pantser. It's not so much "either-or" as it is a spectrum. On the extreme planner end you have writers who outline chapter by chapter, construct copious background notes, and have everything clearly laid out before they write the first scene. On the other end, you have writers who truly fly by the seat of their pants. They sit down with just the barest seed of an idea—maybe the main character, or a slice of a premise—and start writing.

At that extreme pantser end of things, we run the risk of writing blind. Having no idea where the plot is going, and thus writing scenes that go nowhere.

Even at that extreme, this pitfall is still only potential. If we recognize that major editing will be required after the first draft, once the story has found its shape, it can work out just fine. But there's a key:

Somewhere along the way, we're not writing blind anymore.

At some point, we have to figure out where we're going. Otherwise, we're going to end up with 200k words of episodic scenes and no end in sight. Characters may still throw curve-balls, unexpected twists may emerge, changes may be required. That's all okay and part of the fun. But we need to get a bead on the main conflict and resolving it.

Of course, being a super-extreme planner ... well, that's another potential pitfall.

All you pantsers out there, what methods do you apply to your madness? What's your editing process like once the first draft is done?

The Hunger Pangs—Bonus!

Thanks to those of you who've been reading "The Hunger Pangs" over the past couple of weeks. I'm sure my student appreciates the kind comments. She also wrote the following list of Eiffie's Rules of the Hunger Games. Hope you like it!

1. I will not call Katniss “Robin Hood.”

2. I will not ask Plutarch Heavensbee if his house is black and yellow.

3. Gale is not Taylor Lautner.

4. I will not sing “The Hanging Tree” to Katniss’s mom or the Gallows.

5. I will not call Finnick “Percy Jackson” or “Poseidon.”

6. I will not say “crazy” in front of Annie.

7. I will not ask Katniss where her band of Merry Men is.

8. No, Peeta will not make a free cake for you.

9. I will not ask the Gamemakers to play Chutes and Ladders with me.

10. Do not call President Snow “Snow White.”

11. Do not cross out Bird in the book To Kill a Mockingbird and replace it with “Jay” and give it to Katniss.

12. Do not call Glimmer “Britney Spears.”

13. Do not attempt to stand in the rain hungry outside Peeta’s house and hope he will give you bread and fall in love with you.

14. I will not set Katniss on fire and call her “the girl on fire” while she’s screaming.

15. Do not say, “Look! It’s Taylor Lautner!” to [redacted] when it’s actually Gale.

16. I will not call Katniss “Tweety.”

17. I will not wear my “Down with the Capitol!” T-shirt to the Capitol.

18. District 13 is not the setting of Resident Evil.

19. President Coin isn’t on the quarter, and don’t call her “George Washington.”

20. Don’t call Prim “House,” or her mother, for that matter.

21. Don’t tell Cinna that you like Ralph Lauren better.

22. I will not play with Katniss’s bow or Finnick’s trident.

23. Don’t tell Peeta that he can “frost your cake any day.”

24. Don’t call Beetee “Jimmy Neutron.”

25. The Arena isn’t a place to watch hockey.

26. I will not call the Mutts “Scooby Doo.”

27. I will not sell morphling to Johanna Mason.

28. Don’t call Darius “Darius Rucker” and expect him to sing country songs.

29. I will not call the Peacekeepers “hippies.”

30. Don’t try to see Finnick Odair in his underwear.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Nine)

And now, the conclusion!

Part Nine: The Beginning of the End

A bunch of centaurs with spears charge towards Pita and me, forcing us out of the cave.

“This is the entrance to Narnia! Do you guys belong in Narnia? No!” a centaur rants at us.

The centaurs keep chasing us until we’re by the Cornastupia. Pita and I hide in the golden horn so the centaurs can’t get to us. However, Baito and Blove come towards the Cornastupia since they’re being chased by a pack of werewolves.

“Aaah! We’re being chased by Jacob’s pack of werewolves!” Baito screams.

Sure enough, Jacob and his werewolf pack from Twilight are after Baito and Blove, and they quickly overtake them.

“That’ll teach you to mess with Bella!” Jacob yells.

“But we didn’t mess with Bella, we just asked who she was!” Baito screeches. Baito and Blove are both pretty bloodied up and they look miserable. I take out my bow and arrows. I head over to the pack of wolves and shoot both Baito and Blove in the head.

“Hey, thanks for killing them for us!” Jacob says.

I nod, and soon the wolf pack goes away. Pita and I are the only contestants left. I don’t want to kill Pita. He just stopped being annoying.

“Katnip, I don’t want to kill you,” Pita admits.

“I don’t want to kill you.”

“There can only be one winner,” the voice in the sky says.

I walk over to a bush of berries. They’re nightlock berries, and they’ll kill you when they hit your stomach. I hand Pita a berry and keep one for myself, and we both swallow them.

We die. Take that, Crapitol!

* * * * *

Hope you enjoyed it. And finally: Eiffie's Rules of the Hunger Games.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Eight)

Do I really need to link to the other parts? Just click "The Hunger Pangs" down in the labels area. ;-)

This is the penultimate chapter! I love the end of this one. Enjoy!

Part Eight: The Hunger Pangs is a Lot Better than Narnia

Pita and I arrive at a cave that should hide us pretty well. I go in to see if it’s safe, and after walking for a few seconds, I arrive in a forest, and there’s a lantern there.

“Huh?” I say, puzzled. Then a little girl on a white horse trots in front of me and stops. “Uh, hi. Who are you and where am I?”

“I’m Lucy, and you’re in the magical land of Narnia,” she tells me.


“Yeah, I know. This story sucks, I mean, we worship a lion named Aslan here! How stupid is that?”

“Okay, bye.” I take slow steps back, leaving Lucy and Narnia behind. I go back to Pita. “It’s safe if you don’t go too far.”

He shrugs. “Alright.”

“You know, Pita, you’re actually cute when you’re not singing those Justin Bieber songs,” I admit.

“Really, you think so?” he asks. “Glad to hear it. You know, I’ve actually liked you for a long time.” Pita crawls towards me.

“Okay, I don’t think you’re that cute.”

“I know, but we have to pretend to like each other for the audience.” He raises his eyebrows.

So we engage in this totally phony romance for the audience, and it’s a really boring story. So let’s skip to the part where we’re forced to get out of the cave and go towards the Cornastupia.

* * * * *

Next time, "The Hunger Pangs" concludes with Part Nine: The Beginning of the End.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Seven)

We're almost to the exciting conclusion! Prior parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Part Seven: Beaver Fever

I lost my ally so I just walk in the forest, awaiting any other dangers. My one ear is still deaf, so I make sure to be extra careful. Then I arrive at a stream, where I take a nice long drink and fill my Barbie water bottle.

“Baby, baby, baby ...”

I hear Pita. I look around the stream, and sure enough, I see Pita lying on top of a dam surrounded by beavers.

“Pita!” I shout. He stops singing.

“Katnip!” he says gleefully. “Come meet my beaver friends. They love my singing.”

I walk over to him and he doesn’t look good. He has a cut in his leg from the batarang and it’s oozing pus. Red lines spread out from it. He must have a blood infection. The beavers huddle around him, keeping him warm.

“Pita, you need medicine.”

“I know, I’m having these singing outbrea—I need somebody to loooove!” Pita sings.

I feel his forehead, and it’s dangerously hot. Then, I feel Pita’s lips on mine. Eeeww! I squeal in my head. I play along, though. Maybe we can get sympathy from the audience.

“There’s gonna be one less lonely girl, one less lonely girl,” he sings once he breaks away.

“Pita, it seems you have Bieber Fever,” I say. I look at the beavers. “Or beaver fever.” I hear a voice in the sky.

“Attention, tributes,” the voice says. “By the Cornastupia, there are backpacks with your district’s name on it, containing something you need.”

I’m already racing for the Cornastupia. Once I arrive, I see Baito running for the backpacks along with the huge guy from District 11. I grab Pita’s bag and I run for it, but the guy from District 11, Plush, is in front of me. He slams my head with his Tonka truck. I ignore the blinding pain and spring for the forest. I hear Plush scream until he falls silent. Plush is dead.

I see the stream ahead of me, and I hand the pack to Pita. I plunge my head beneath the freezing water to numb my injury. I grab a beaver and put it to my head. The beaver doesn’t protest.

Pita takes out a CD player and an AC/DC CD. He inserts the disc into the player and puts the headphones over his ears. The red lines emanating from his cut dissipate, and soon the cut is just a scar.

“Pita?” I check to make sure he’s okay.

“I’m alright.”

“Are you sure? You won’t sing Justin Bieber anymore?”

“Nope,” he tells me. “’Cause I am TNT, watch me explode!” he sings. Oh lord, now it’s AC/DC. At least it’s not as annoying as Justin Bieber. “I’m joking, Katnip.”

I sigh in relief. “Oh good!”

“Today’s announcement is brought to you by Oxi Clean!” the voice in the sky says. I look up, and there’s a projection of Billy Mays smiling next to a bucket of Oxi Clean. “Right now, the only tributes left are the District 2 contestants, Baito and Blove, and the District 12 contestants, Pita and Katnip. May the odds be ever in your favor!” Then, there’s a slideshow of the dead.

I turn to Pita. “Let’s run.”

* * * * *

Stay tuned for Part Eight: The Hunger Pangs is a Lot Better than Narnia.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Potential Pitfalls: Writing Blind (v1.0)

Like all great potential pitfalls, this one is tricky because it involves a balancing act.

First, my inspiration for this post.

Exhibit 1: Riley Redgate's post on writing what you know (or not)

Exhibit 2: Allison Winn Scotch's post on whether writers must be readers

These got me thinking about something I've come across, and a trap I hope I've steered well clear of—writing a novel with no knowledge of the genre/category.

Yes, I've seen writers attempting a fantasy without ever reading any. Others writing for teens without reading a single book from the YA shelves.

I'm sure if you look, you can find a handful of examples where an author did their own thing without any real knowledge of what came before, and yet was wildly successful. Perhaps I'll do another Potential Pitfalls post on acting like exceptions are the rule. More often, the writer's lack of reader-knowledge is neon-sign obvious.

How so? A common sign in YA is teen characters that feel like they were written by an adult. The voice is off, the actions don't fit—either coming across as a stiff adult in a teen's body, or falling deep into stereotype. Sometimes it's harder to put my finger on, but I have this instinctive feeling that the writer (a) has little-to-no meaningful contact with teens, and (b) hasn't read a YA novel published within the last five years (or even ten).

But like I said, it's a balancing act, because there's another pitfall right across from this one: Unintentional Rip-Off. Oh, and there's one in front of it, too: Authorial Laryngitis (Loss of Voice).

I know some writers that don't read fiction while they're drafting a novel (but may read non-fiction during that time). That's a strategy that makes sense to me. Some of us are susceptible to having another writer's voice seep into ours if we're reading and drafting at the same time.

I guess the bottom line is, know the conventions and requirements of your genre, but find your own voice and story. You know what they say, if it were easy ...

Any opinions on reading within your genre? I didn't discuss reading other genres, but there are benefits there as well. Thoughts?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Six)

The catch-up links: One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.

And now, we get some action and drama. Enjoy!

Part Six: Unlikely Allies

I wake up to a sharp sting on my cheek.

“Ow,” I murmur, rubbing my face.

“It’s about time you woke up, Dogbreath!” I hear a squeaky voice say. I turn around and find Rue.

“Rue? Why didn’t you kill me?” I ask. The little, dark-skinned girl glares at me.

“I could if you want me to!” she threatens. I shrink away from her.

“No, I’m good.”

“Okay. Well, I was thinking we could be allies,” she proposes.

“Allies?” I rub my head, which hurts like hell. “Why would you want to be allies with me?”

“Easy, you’re good at shooting that thing.” She gestures toward the bow and arrow. “And I am good with plant identification since I’m from District 11. We would make a good team.”

“Well, alright,” I agree. We shake hands.

“Now, let’s move, Toilet Licker!” Rue commands.

I grab my bow and arrows. “Uh, I have a question.”

“Well, out with it!”

“How many people died at the Cornastupia yesterday? And keep your voice down!” I whisper to her.

“Half, so twelve are left. Actually, now there are eleven since the Cracker Jackers killed stupid Glitter,” Rue tells me. “But I have a plan.”

“What’s your plan?”

“Let’s blow up the Careers’ stuff!”

“Why? The stuff they have is stupid.”

“True, but they’ll find a use for it, and it’s fun blowing stuff up!” Rue squeals, almost jittering with excitement.

“Also true,” I admit. “How will we blow it up?”

“The Careers had a guy from District Three activate land mines from the arena entrances and put them around their supplies. There are some Teletubby figurines hanging off a crate of apples. Just shoot the crate with your weapon and make the figures fall. Then, it’ll go boom!”

“Alright, I like it,” I say.

“Great, I will stay here with the stuff while you go do that. Sound good?”


“Then go do it, dum-dum!” Rue screams at me.

So I do. I march over to the Careers’ camp by the lake, and I spot their stuff. I will allow myself only three arrows to make the Teletubbies fall. I shoot the first arrow. It just makes them shake. I shoot the second arrow. They inch closer to the edge. I shoot the third arrow and they finally fall, making the stockpile explode. I’m thrown back and land next to a charred Barney doll. I listen for footsteps. I hear some in one ear, but the other ear is deaf.

I get up and run for Rue. I arrive at the spot where Rue is supposed to be and see her battling a guy in a Batman suit. It must be Marvel, the guy from District 1. Who else would wear a superhero costume?

“Katnip! Help!” Rue yells.

“Cat naps yelp?” I ask, confused.

“No, help!”

“No kelp?”

“No! He—”

Marvel kills Rue with a Batarang, and he throws one at me. I bend over. Marvel takes out another one.

“I’m coming for you!”

I hear singing. Pita! He gets the Batarang that was aimed at me and he throws it at Marvel, who falls to the ground dead. Pita runs away, limping while singing.

“I’ll never let you go!”

Wow, Pita saved me. I turn to look at him again, but he’s gone. I go over to Rue’s body and kick it.

“Sorry you died, dogbreath,” I say mournfully.

* * * * *

Next time, Part Seven: Beaver Fever.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Potential Pitfalls: Dead Horse Beating

I'm going to start an occasional series on potential pitfalls in fiction. Mostly things I've noticed (and am trying to eradicate) in my own work, or things that irk me as a reader.

First up, the over-explanation, telling readers what they already know. It can happen in a range of ways, including single line statements-of-obvious. I'm focusing more on full explanations in dialogue. It's sort of the opposite of As-You-Know-Bob syndrome. In this case, Bob doesn't know the following information, but the reader does.

And it's really, really annoying to read.

There are times one character needs to explain to another what has happened, what the plan is, etc. I can only think of a few times this should happen "live" on the page.

  1. When revealing information previously withheld from the reader. I have a little of this in one of my novels, where I've only hinted at things, until the MC reveals her secrets later on. Hopefully (if I've pulled it off right), this kind of explanation is rewarding to the reader, verifying their guesses or giving some surprises.
  2. When the explain-ee's reaction is important to the plot. Is this information going to prompt a major event? Divorce filing? Attempted murder? Okay, maybe something a little less extreme could work, too.
  3. When the explain-ee will have new information to add. Maybe the reader already knows the MC's half of the story, but another character may have info to fill in gaps that change the whole outlook.

(Could have sworn I had a #4 in mind. Will add if I remember it.)

An important note: #1 is often the only time you might need to play out the full conversation. Many of these are situations where tell-don't-show is actually the best course. (I summarized everything we knew so far.)

In most other situations where it's necessary to fill in another character, there's one strategy I find particularly effective: the art of the skillful scene/chapter break.

Character 1: "We have a lot to talk about."


Character 2: "Say WHAT?" (or other appropriate reaction)

Can you think of other situations where playing out information the reader already knows may be desirable? Do you have strategies for avoiding the for-Pete's-sake-we-already-know-this reaction from your readers?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Five)

For those just tuning in: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

I have to say, I adore the final line of this part. It's just so ... well, you'll see.

Part Five: Cracker Jackers

I climb a tall tree and hide my eyesore of a backpack. Soon, the voices take shape, and I see who they are—Careers, from the wealthier districts. Careers spend their whole lives training for the Hunger Pangs. They think it’s an honor to be chosen. Usually, the winner is one of the Careers. These Careers seem to have made a pact to work together until everyone but them is dead, and then they’ll go against each other.

“What did you get from the Cornastupia?” a guy whose name I think is Baito asks.

“I got this lousy bow and arrow set,” a girl named Glitter answers. I know it’s an odd name; her parents are celebrities.

I want her bow and arrow set, but I’m not sure how to get it. I see movement in the tree next to me. My head quickly turns in the direction of the movement. It’s a girl named Rue from District 11. Man, she’s an angry girl! She tells everybody they’ll rue the day, but no one ever did anything to her.

Rue points to something above me, and I see what it is. A nest of Cracker Jackers. The Crapitol makes these strange animals sometimes, like the Hamburjay and the Cracker Jackers. the Cracker Jackers are shaped like crackers, but they pack quite a sting. They make you feel terrible and hallucinate if you get stung by one.

“Thank you,” I mouth to her. I break off a stick from the tree, but the Careers never notice. I shove the Cracker Jacker nest so it falls on them. Baito and a few other Careers scatter, but Glitter isn’t so lucky. The Cracker Jackers are on her immediately. Hmm, they must hate Bradgelina, her celebrity parents.

I race down the tree and pry the bow and arrow set from her dying hands. Then, I run for it.

I notice I’m surrounded by butterflies. I dance with them, and they start to land on my arms, tickling me. I start giggling. Then, one lands on my nose. I cry out. The butterflies look like Donald Trump!

“Aaaaah!” I scream. Then butterflies cover me, tickling me so I collapse in a fit of laughter and screaming. Then I drown; I drown in a sea of butterflies.

* * * * *

Next up, Part Six: Unlikely Allies.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Four)

If you're late to the game(s), get caught up: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

Part Four: The Hunger Pangs Begin

The next morning, we are taken to the arena of the Hunger Pangs. I wave goodbye to the Crapitol and sit back in my seat. I’m being sent to my death, and worse, I’m being sent to my death with Pita Hellark. He’s humming the tune “Overboard,” so I plug my ears. After a while, the windows of the plane go black. We’re almost to the arena.

“Pita, you better pray,” I advise him.

Pita closes his eyes. “I close my eyes, and I can see a better day. I close my eyes and pray,” he sings quietly.

“Shut up!” I tell him. Miraculously, he does.

The plane lands, and we are put in tubes that take us to the arena, which is a forest similar to the one in District 12. I look at my outfit which consists of a green shirt that matches my skin color, simple pants, a thin jacket that reflects heat, and my Hamburjay pin. Haysnitch gave Pita and me some advice before we were sent here. I run his words in my mind again.

“Don’t get anything from the Cornastupia. Just run and try not to die,” Haysnitch told me earlier. The Cornastupia is filled with stupid, useless things such a matchbox cars, Windex, or pressed flowers. The list goes on. Sometimes, though, you can find a use for them.

I look at the arena. There’s a lake to the right, and the rest is just woods. Most of the contestants will obviously go to the lake because of the water, so I will want to head into the forest. I observe the items at the Cornastupia. There’s a backpack a few feet from me and a kid set of bows and arrows a bit farther. I don’t care what Haysnitch says. I’m going to get something, and then I will run for my life.

Then something like an elk’s mating call sounds. That must be the bell. Oh dear, I just lost a few seconds figuring that out, so I start moving. I sprint for the backpack, but I feel something hit me. A contestant behind me is pounding a stuffed animal that looks like Big Bird on me. I have to run faster. Death by Big Bird would be terrible!

I grab the backpack and sprint for the forest, but I slam into this huge, olive-skinned boy. He has a Tonka truck hoisted high. I duck before the toy can slam into my head. Then I run as far away from the Cornastupia as I can. When I feel too tired to keep running, I stop and check out my backpack.

“It’s hot pink with Barbie and Ken on it, eww,” I complain. I open it and find a Barbie water bottle, Barbie sleeping bag, Barbie camp chair, and Barbie flashlight. Oh, there’s also a Barbie tent. I think, overall, I probably got a good deal. Normally, few things in the Cornastupia are for camping. I continue hiking until I suddenly hear voices behind me.

* * * * *

Come back for Part Five: Cracker Jackers!

Boundaries of Bashing

My perfectionism makes me a little critical. (For evidence, see my opinion on eBook formatting or my breakdown of e-reader apps.) This extends pretty much to all areas of my life.

In my day job, I spend a lot of time around ASL interpreters. I frequently find myself feeling conflicted. On one side, I've known some seriously awesome interpreters, and I know without a doubt I can't do their job. In fact, I've had to in a pinch once or twice. One of those occasions sparked a near panic-attack. (There's a reason interpreters usually work in pairs and switch off every 20-30 minutes. When I got to around 45 minutes, I went into vapor lock.)

On the other side, mistakes drive me nuts. Or worse, when I see a completely unqualified interpreter botching up everything. When I'm in a position where I'm signing and an interpreter is voicing for me, I pray to have earplugs. For one thing, it's just hard to concentrate. For another, any little pause or minor misinterpretation convinces me my signing skills are really that terrible.

And I admit, sometimes after enduring something with a really poor interpreter, I have to vent a little to one of my colleagues.

Even then, I try to remind myself at all times that it's an extremely difficult job—one I cannot do. I try to keep my venting to appropriate venues. When I'm in a position to help an interpreter improve, I do what I can. At the end of the day, I respect their effort, their training, and the difficulty of their job. And by and large, the interpreters I've dealt with fall into the Camp of Awesome.

What's my point? Oh, look, here comes a writing connection!

It's likewise easy from the writer's side of things to criticize how others in the industry do their jobs. Gripe about agents' long response times. Claim editors are out-of-touch. Rant about the stupidity of anyone and everyone in the publishing business.

There are certainly valid criticisms and discussions to be had on many publishing topics. When it crosses into agent/editor/publisher-bashing, I get a yucky feeling. It just ain't pretty, and it's definitely not professional.

Yes, I'm sure they make mistakes. I'm sure there are things they could (and maybe should) do better. Everyone on this planet has room to improve, even (especially) in our areas of expertise. But respect the job, respect the effort, respect the experience and training. Bashing is never the result of respect.

And for more on handling ourselves professionally, check out this post. Yeah, I'm even critical about responding to criticism.

Where do you draw that line between criticism/accountability and straight-up bashing?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Three)

I'm back with another part of the parody by a student. Make sure you read Part One and Part Two first. Enjoy!

Part Three: William Tell

In the morning, Pita and I meet our mentor, Haysnitch Aberskunky. He is the only living District 12 victor. When we meet, he’s drunk and smells like a skunk.

“Yo! Aberskunky! What do we do for training?” I ask.

“Uhhhh. Don’t show off,” Haysnitch slurs. “Nobody should know your talents.”

“Okay, so I’ll go light on the archery, and you...” I look at Pita. “Don’t irritate anyone.” Pita nods. I guess he finally figured out that his singing sucks.

Pita and I march off to training, where some tributes are already practicing with the weapons. They scare me, so I drag Pita over to the plant identification training station.

“Helloooo! My name is Billy Mays! Would you like to see my ad for Oxi Clean?” the trainer inquires.

“Uh, unless Oxi Clean is a plant, no thanks,” I tell him.

“But Oxi Clean can make your green skin nice and white again.”

“No, thanks.”

“Awww...Okay, I’ll teach you some plant identification skills.”

Pita and I have to listen to his annoying voice for a full hour before moving on to the next station. We just move from station to station, awaiting our private sessions with the Gamemakers, which will be scored on a scale of 0 to 12. 0 is really bad and 12 is awesome. Of course, District 12 is last so I enter a room full of drunk and bored Gamemakers. I start shooting arrows at the target shaped like a hot dog, hitting the center every time.

“Hot dog, hot dog, hot diggity dog,” a gamemaker sings. I turn around and see he’s singing with an apple on his head.

“If I were you, I’d pay attention!” I scold him. I shoot an arrow at the apple on his head, but instead, I hit his Adam’s apple. Eh, close enough. The gamemaker chokes on his own blood and dies.

“Hey!” another gamemaker calls to me. “Good job! We hated that guy!” I smirk and go out of the room. Pita goes in next and is out of there shortly.

“Eenie meenie miney moe, catch a bad girl by her toe. If-if-if she holla let her go!” Pita sings. “I heard you were a bad girl!”

I think of how I shot the gamemaker’s Adam’s apple with my arrow. “Yeah, I had a William Tell moment.”

We wait for our scores, and I get an 11. Yeah! I rock! Pita gets an 8 and I’m surprised. “What did you do to get an 8?”

“I sang. They told me if I stopped singing, they would give me an 8!” Pita answers.

I can only shake my head.

* * * * *

Up next ... Part Four: The Hunger Pangs Begin

Monday, June 6, 2011

Wrenches! I Need More Wrenches!

Yeah, I know, everyone reads that as "wenches" the first time. I don't write that kind of fantasy.

You ever get that feeling that you just aren't making things rough enough for your characters? Like things are moving along a little too swimmingly and it's time to throw another wrench in?

(I know, it's called conflict. I find I do better if I approach writing in more figurative terms than analytical. I could analyze the crap out of my writing ... and in doing so, I'd analyze the life out of it, too.)

This has been particularly on my mind lately since my current WIP is an expansion of a short story. The short has ended up being just a launching point, more or less, and I know where the general arc is going. But to get this to novel length, I realized I needed to pull several wrenches that were still sitting comfortably in the toolbox. More speed bumps and detours for my MC, all tying together to shape the final conflict. (Hopefully.)

I've also noticed I tend to opt for smaller wrenches when larger ones would be more interesting, powerful, motivating, etc. Why do I shy off from making things really hard on my characters? Maybe because a part of me always wants things to work out and be happy. (Hello, optimist!) Maybe because I get mad at certain writers for doing things like killing off certain characters. (She knows I'm glaring at her right now.)

But a writer's gotta do what a writer's gotta do.

At the same time, I don't want to do things just to emotionally manipulate my readers. Annoyed as I am with that writer, I know she killed that character for a reason. There should always be a reason, even if it isn't glaringly obvious on the surface.

So my goal on this current project is to go ahead and make things hard for my MC. Give her reason to doubt, reason to despair, reason to possibly make the wrong choice(s). Because hopefully doing so will make the resolution that much more satisfying when she finally gets there.

Do any of you have similar struggles with getting your characters to, well, struggle enough? Do any of you tend toward the opposite extreme from me, using a hefty torque wrench when a little half-inch crescent wrench would be more appropriate? (Does doing so result in a soap opera?) Any ideas about finding that balance between way-too-hunky-dory and letting Murphy's Law become more fundamental than gravity?

Please, let me know. My MC is eyeballing the latest wrench in my hand, and I'm afraid she might try to wrestle me for it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Two)

For those who missed it last time, read Part One of this parody written by a student.

And now ...

Part Two: Oooh! Burn!

I’m whisked off to the Crapitol with Pita (a.k.a. Justin). I wear a Hamburjay pin that the mayor’s daughter, Padge, gave me as a token. Right now, we are getting prepared for the fashion show part of the Hunger Pangs. It’s a preliminary event where we have a chance to garner support from the audience. So we must dress to impress. District 12’s stylist, Cinnamon, along with his three assistants, Larry, Moe, and Curly, come in.

“Hello, we are your stylists, and I assume you two are my contestants?” Cinnamon asks.

Pita croons, “And I’ma be your one guy, you—”

“If you say I’m going to be your number one girl, you’re dead meat,” I warn Pita. “But yes, Cinnamon, we’re your contestants.”

“Great! So, I was thinking. District 12 is all about coal, right?” Pita and I nod. “So, I was going to set you two on fire!”

“We can’t go nowhere but up from here!” Pita sings. I roll my eyes.

“That’s what I was thinking, too!” Cinnamon exclaims. “What about you, Katnip? Do you approve?”

“Why not?” I give in to his plan. Pita resumes singing his Justin Bieber songs.

“He even looks like Justin Bieber!” Cinnamon notices. I agree; Pita does look like Justin with his mop-top but he has blue eyes and Justin has brown. If he wasn’t so annoying, I might actually like him.


The fashion show is later that night. Pita has a black suit and I a black dress. Both doused in gasoline. Cinnamon assured us the flames wouldn’t hurt us when he lights us on fire. I look at the other contestants’ outfits. District 4 has kiddie pools circling their waists. District 3 has matching Herbie costumes. The District 2 contestants look like two rubies; even the guy is wearing red lipstick. District 11’s contestants having matching apple tree costumes. Pita and I will totally kill these people. Each district marches on the stage, and finally, District 12 is called. We are always last. Cinnamon strikes a match and sets us on fire.

“Pita, do you feel hot?”

“You’re the coolest girl I know!” Pita belts out.

“I don’t feel really cool now.” Sweat beads on my forehead. People cheer for us as we float onstage. “Okay, now it hurts,” I exclaim. “Ow! Ow! Ow!” Pita is screaming as well. I search for a source of water and head straight for District 4’s costumes. I jump at their waists into one of their kiddie pools. Ahhh. I feel so much better.

“Thank you,” I say to the shocked girl from District 4. Pita is still on the stage flapping his arms like he has wings. “Pita, you dolt! Come over here!”

“I’m coming for you!” Pita sings/screams. He jumps into the other contestant’s pool.

“Oooh! Burn!” the girl says, but then the audience starts clapping. Pita and I get out and bow. I’m going to kill Cinnamon for this. What if those Crapitol idiots actually figure out it wasn’t an act? Pita and I would be so dead. The good news is that we had extra layers under our costumes so we didn’t get burned badly; it just felt like a sunburn.

* * * * *

Next time ... Part Three: William Tell.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part One)

And now for something a little different.

The busy stress of the last week of school was lightened when a student let me read a story she'd written—a send-up of The Hunger Games. I had to fight to keep myself from laughing aloud several times, since students were working on final exams.

She's given me permission to post it here and share the joy. I'll post each part separately over the next week or so.

(Remember, this is by a teenage student. Any nasty comments will suffer instant death.)

And so, I give to you...

The Hunger Pangs
by PAF

Part One: Wicked Bieber

Today is the day of the Reaping, and my sister, Nessarose, just had a nightmare. She hates the day of the Reaping.

“Katnip! I just had the same nightmare of when the Hamburgers are chasing me!” Nessarose screeches.

“For the last time, Nessa, they are called Hamburjays, not hamburgers!” I correct her. Sheesh, she can be so stupid sometimes, but I love her dearly. She starts rolling her wheelchair towards me.

“Whatever!” She rams me with her wheelchair, but I just shoot an arrow at her foot. “Ow!”

“Shut up!” I snap at her.

“Children!” my mother interrupts. “I swear, you two are the loudest pair in District 12! Katnip, did you go hunting with Gale?” She struggles against her straightjacket, but she can’t take it off. The doctors have told her to wear it ever since my dad died in a coal mine accident.

“Yes, Mother. I got a whole squirrel and two strawberries for the family. Gale took the deer and the bucket of blackberries,” I answer. Gale Rawthorne is my best friend who I go hunting with all the time. He is eighteen and two years older than I am.

“Wonderful! Now, let’ go to the Reaping.” So we head out the door, not bothering to dress up for it. I have my long, brown hair in a loose braid, and my sister has hers in a braid, too. We are both dressed in our blue school uniforms and mother in her straightjacket. We get to the square where they announce the contestants for the annual Hunger Pangs, a contest where a boy and girl from each of the twelve districts in the continent of Painem fight to the death until there is only one person left, who is the winner. The winner gets riches while the rest of the continent is left to their hunger pangs. Food is scarce on this continent, and almost everybody is poor except for the people who live in the Crapitol, where the government is.

“Happy Hunger Pangs!” Eiffie Trinket screeches from underneath her grim reaper costume. “And may the odds be ever in your favor! Ladies first.” She steps toward the Bingo wheel and pulls out a numbered ball. Kids from the age of 12 to 18 are required to compete in the Hunger Pangs, and each kid basically fills out BINGO and a free space as they get older. Twelve-year-olds just get a free space, and eighteen-year-olds get a full BINGO and a free space. I’m 16, so I have a free space and BIN. Nessa only has a free space since she’s 12. My friend Gale, though, is 18 so he has acquired a full BINGO and a free space.

“Free space 42,” Eiffie announces. A man gives her a piece of paper with a name. “Nessarose Evergreen.”

“What?!” I cry out. Nesa starts pushing her wheelchair towards the stage.

“Take her place, Katnip, you have a better chance than Nessa,” my mother frantically whispers in my ear. Nice to know my mom loves me.

“Wait!” I scream. “I’ll take Nessarose’s place.”

“Yes!” Nessa squeals. Well, don’t try to stop me, Nessa, I think.

“Why, yes, you’re her sister Elphaba, right?” Eiffie solicits. My skin is an evergreen color, and people still confuse me with Elphaba since my sister’s name is Nessarose.

“No, I am not from that damn play ‘Wicked!’ My name is Katnip Evergreen,” I inform her. “And no, I do not defy gravity!” They always ask that.

“Oh. Sorry! Next, our male contestant is I-56.” A man comes over to give her a paper. “Pita Hellark!” I know that kid from school; god, I hate his singing. I prepare for an onslaught of Justin Bieber songs.

“Baby, baby, baby, ooooooooooh! Thought you’d always be mine!” Pita sings.

Yep, the Hunger Pangs have begun.

* * * * *

Stay tuned for Part Two: Oooh! Burn!