Have a free sample!

This is a very short excerpt from my current project, the working title of which I dislike so much I’m now calling it Untitled P.O.S. Feel free to tell me what you think! In fact, please tell me what you think.

Leilah’s trembling hands skimmed the ornate carved lid of the chest and she longed for a cigarette but she knew even one, short drag would betray her. Adrian would smell it in the air and taste it on her breath and then it would be over. He had only let her smoke once while they were married and that was when Mr. Westwood’s blood was still staining the floor and their house was a den of analysts and forensic detectives. He had taken her out on the balcony while police boots tramped up and down the stairs, pulled a single Dunhill International out of his breast pocket, lit it for her, and disappeared back into the house.

And now she knew where the little red box was, tucked in his desk drawer with only one missing. She knew that even now when they were under siege he would smell the smoke and ask her if everything was all right, and she would be unable to lie. Even now when he thought at any moment the telephone could ring its shrill herald of their ruin, Adrian would wonder how she could be so bold or so desperate as to take a cigarette without his permission. Then the nicotine would not still her shaking hands or thundering heart and the truth would come spilling out of her mouth like blood out of a severed vein.

She had never been able to lie to him, not even on the first date when he said “How about sushi?” and she smiled and said yes and he smiled right back and said, “Italian, then?” She hadn’t been able to lie to him about his friends or the color of the drapes or which guests she could bear to be seated with or she couldn’t, and now she wondered if that hadn’t been the point all along. After all the things he’d said about her being more beautiful and more intelligent than the rest and how she really understood him when the other girls didn’t, she wondered if he had chosen her because she couldn’t lie to him.

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Featured artist: chernotrav

This post would more accurately be titled “Featured person who inspires Carly’s most profound jealousy,” but that’s a bit wordy. I have zero (and I really mean zero) artistic ability. I can usually content myself with creating word-pictures, but I greatly admire people who have the talent to share their imagination with the rest of us in colors and shapes. Ideally, I would like this to become a weekly segment, but it will depend on what sort of responses I get from the artists. It could be weekly, bi-weekly, once a month, or whenever the planets align.

Anyway, enough of that. I can’t tell you much about this artist (chernotrav is her deviantART username) other than she seems like an incredibly gracious, humble person from my short correspondence with her. One of my friends showed me her gorgeous Howl watercolor shortly after watching the equally gorgeous Howl’s Moving Castle (directed by the esteemed Hayao Miyazaki). If you haven’t seen the film or read the book by Diana Wynne Jones, I highly recommend doing both. I also recommend checking out more of chernotrav’s art because I think it’s absolutely splendid. I’m not usually drawn to watercolors (is that a pun?), but chernotrav’s work captures both the lustrous vividness of fantasy and the melancholy of what could be reality. I like to combine both when I’m writing fiction so her art is a multifaceted trigger for my creativity.

Of course, none of this art belongs to me. It belongs to chernotrav, who was lovely enough to give me permission to share it with you.

I’m a judgmental judge-y judge of book covers

Yeah, yeah. I’m not supposed to, but I do. I judge—and buy—books by their covers. If I had inherited my mother’s shopping savvy, I’d go for the bargain bin of paperbacks and read all the blurbs on the backs (she doesn’t do this with books but does the equivalent with clothes). Instead, I head straight for the shelf of shiny new hardcovers, find the prettiest one, and work out how many nights I’ll have to eat noodles if I buy one.

Okay, that’s not how I do it all the time. I’m often working through my “must-buy” books, but if I’m straying from that list I look at the cover first and read the blurb after. However, if Maureen Johnson’s fantastic Coverflip experiment proved one thing (it proved more than one thing, but whatever), it’s that I’m certainly not the only one who will pass over or pick up a book based on its appearance.

I’m not going to delve into the mire of gendered covers, genre covers, or even bed covers today (maybe later). Instead, here are five books I picked up purely because they appealed to my haphazard, dramatic sense of aesthetics.

 Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon

Photo courtesy of kobobooks.com

Photo courtesy of kobobooks.com

Because I love the colors and I have a thing for ravens, I was drawn to this book like an ant colony to that one speck of spilled juice the mop missed. I didn’t have any interest in Arthurian legends or the research and linguistics surrounding them so I knew I should just put it down and back away slowly. I bought it anyway, thoroughly enjoyed it, and was able to share it with my dad as well. It also sparked an obsession with the history of Britain and Wales, which in turn was one of the driving forces behind a main character in my current project.

 The Alchemist’s Daughter by Katharine McMahon

Photo courtesy of afewgoodbooks1.blogspot.com

Photo courtesy of afewgoodbooks1.blogspot.com

I may have mixed feelings about the story but I think the cover is absolutely stunning. If I ever get anything published, I can only hope the cover art will be half as elegant. Unfortunately, all the roses and gold leaf in the world can’t make up for a naïve, emotional protagonist and just enough womanly coming-of-age stuff to make the sixth-grade boy in me cover his ears and run away screaming, “LALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.” I know, that’s really immature. I don’t care.

 The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Photo courtesy of fanpop.com

Photo courtesy of fanpop.com

This one doesn’t really belong here because I wanted to read it before I ever saw the cover. However, this cover, with all its 3D paper-cutout contrast sparkly swirly-ness, almost made me forget about the rest of my Christmas gifts. The story is even more beautiful than the cover art and everyone in the whole world should read it. Everyone I know is sick and tired of me talking about and recommending this book, so I’ve started trying to find new people to talk to just to tell them about The Night Circus.

 The Thirteen Hallows by Michael Scott and Colette Freedman

Photo courtesy of dillonscott.com

Photo courtesy of dillonscott.com

The ultra-logical reasoning behind this pick? It’s blue and shiny. It may look pretty basic and unexciting, but let me tell you, it jumps out on a shelf full of campy, long-bearded wizards and quasi-gothic vampire girls. The story is a rather disjointed mishmash of gore, Celtic mythology, gore, sex, and gore, but I didn’t dislike it. I might even read the sequels, assuming they actually happen.

 When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Photo courtesy of hillaryjordan.com

Photo courtesy of hillaryjordan.com

I love The Scarlet Letter, so I was really interested to read something labeled “a powerful reimagining” of the same book, especially when it had such an attention-grabbing cover. While it wasn’t a bad read, the shadow of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s original proved far too long for When She Woke. Many of the same themes—religion, society, private versus public self, etc.—were present, but were used in a heavy-handed, juvenile way. Jordan also positioned Hawthorne’s recognizable images—like the rosebush—in blatantly obvious but contextually meaningless places. This would’ve worked as a stand-alone look at American society, but the invitation to compare it to such a significant classic made it hollow and pretentious.

As you can see, I’ve had mixed success picking books by their covers. Do I have any other cover-buyers here? I’d love to see some covers that grabbed your eye!

I’m taking off my pants

If you’ve ever attempted to write a fictional story, you’ve probably heard or seen something of the “pantsers versus plotters” debate. If you haven’t, it’s the discussion around writing by the seat of your pants (I’d love to know where that expression came from) and planning out your story ahead of time. Which is better? Does one method produce better stories than the other? Does being a pantser mean you’re disorganized? Does being a plotter mean you’re neurotic?

Most people who take on this subject come to the happy conclusion that writers should do whatever feels right to them. “Whatever is comfortable for you,” they say. “Whatever helps your creative juices flow. There’s no right way to tell a story.”

Now, I’m a pantser. My best friend is a plotter. I work from the inside out, starting with one detail or one moment and building a world around it as I go along. She works from the outside in, building her world and then filling in the details. One of these methods is obviously more logical (hint: it’s not mine), but I was pleased with the idea that we were both right so I wasn’t going to mess with it. Until now.

I participated in NaNoWriMo in 2011 and that was the ultimate “pantsing” experience. I had the barest thread of a story line and one vivid image in my mind, but I was determined to get a novel out of it. I had never written a novel before (apparently all the cop-offs of The Black Stallion I wrote when I was eight years old don’t count) or anything of length, for that matter. I was convinced I could overcome my experience handicap with talent and determination.

When I finished, I had 81,284 words of…something. It had a beginning, middle, and end, some characters and some conflict, but to call it a novel would be akin to ranking Twilight up with The Lord of the Rings. I told myself it wasn’t anything some good editing couldn’t fix.

“You just have to get organized,” I murmured feverishly, trying to imagine how character A got from point B to what I thought was point J but couldn’t know for sure because, as a pantser, I didn’t plot points. “Maybe it’s time to try an outline. Just a rough outline.”

This was the result.

outlineattempt

Yes, I know that’s a small, low-quality image and you can’t see what’s actually written there. Even if you could read it, it wouldn’t make any sense, and even without reading individual words you can see that looks nothing like an outline. It doesn’t look like a chart. It doesn’t look like anything.

I was overwhelmed. To say it was like herding cats would be an understatement. It was like herding cats, turtles, and bald eagles at the same time. It was like dropping a zoo into a vat of toxic waste and trying to fit the product into Noah’s Ark.

“I am the writer!” I shouted, frantically scooping up plot points as they tried to slip under the door. “This is my world! I control everything! I am in charge!”

“Sure you are,” said character D, who was swinging from my mother’s hanging potted geranium. “Have you figured out my motivation? What’s my back story?”

“Excuse me,” said character arc Q, who was sitting in the corner and trying to be good. “Do you know what makes me happen yet?”

I’m not going to make any blanket statements like “it’s fine to be a pantser but if someone threatens to burn down your house if you don’t write an outline, you ought to be able to do it.” There are people who are good at pantsing. There are smart people who write character-driven stories rather than mutant plot-monstrosities via the pantsing method. Can you imagine if J.K. Rowling had pantsed Harry Potter? Wait…that’s not what I mean…

Anyway. The lesson I learned from this is that I am not a good pantser. If I had planned that first novel, I might’ve realized the story had too many legs and tails and not enough eyes. I might’ve realized my secondary characters were doing all the work and my protagonist was reclining on a bed of lilies. But I did learn my lesson.

I’m starting a new project and I am plotting the pants off it. Every character has a physical description, back story, socioeconomic status, internal and external conflicts, and favorite ice cream flavor (that last one is a lie). My outline even has Roman numerals. It’s slow going, but I’d rather get it all down now than read the draft later and discover character B’s brother is long dead, dying slowly, and alive all in the same week. I’d rather not send the draft to my friends to read only to realize I never put in the really important thing that makes all that stuff happen. I feel much more confident and surprisingly comfortable now that I’m plotting. Maybe it’s not my first instinct, but I think it will be good for me.

Are you a pantser? Are you a plotter? Are you some combination of the two (which most of us probably are)? Have you ever had mutinous plots and characters rampaging through your house? I’d love to hear about it.

On reading and rereading the classics

I have mixed feelings about “the classics.” I love some of them, hate others. A few of them (Hemingway, I’m looking at you) I’ve put down and realized I had no idea what they were really about. I profess to love books, so I feel somewhat obligated to not only read but remember classic books clearly enough to bring them up in conversation and thus contribute to the impression that I am well-read. That’s why people read classics, right? Oh. We’re not supposed to say that out loud?

When I was a kid (I am now an old woman at 22), all I did was read. I plowed through the Redwall books faster than Brian Jacques could publish them. I devoured more than 50 of the Thoroughbred series. The Boxcar Children, Pony Pals, and the Saddle Club were no match for my voracious reading appetite. I read a lot, but the closest I came to a classic was Black Beauty. I like animals, okay?

It wasn’t until high school that I realized the value of a book was judged by something other than whether or not I personally liked it. Even though I had put the Pony Pals behind me, I never picked up something like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca until it was part of my ninth grade curriculum. I had never analyzed a book or considered what it made me feel or why; I just put it down and moved on to the next one. I did the same thing with the first couple in high school but, after a few classes spent pulling and picking and dissecting, I realized that these books had a lot written between the lines. I realized that my way of reading—wolfing down pages like this was some kind of pie-eating contest—wasn’t doing me any favors.

I read my fair share of the usual suspects for class; Animal Farm, A Farewell to Arms, To Kill a Mockingbird, so on and so forth. However, as I developed a reputation for being something of a writer, something of an English person, I became uncomfortably aware of the holes in my reading experience. I started to cringe whenever anyone asked “Have you read…?” because what if I hadn’t and what if I should have?

With my newly-acquired identity as an English person at stake, I went to the musty section of the library and tried to pick out the classiest classical classics. I read Anna Karenina, The Sun Also Rises, Jane Eyre, The Age of Innocence, and Beowulf on my own. As I’ve already implied, I was way out of my depth.

Without my teachers and their worksheets and pointed questions, I couldn’t grasp what I was reading. I couldn’t pick out the themes or recognize the character arcs or do any of the other things we English people ought to be able to do. I couldn’t read between the lines by myself.

I like to think I’ve made some progress in that area. I’m pretty sure I can get a handle on what most authors are trying to say. I can pick up some bits and pieces between the lines on my own, so I’ve been thinking I should revisit some of those classy classical classics. But I’m a little nervous. What if The Sun Also Rises still seems to be about drinking, smoking, watching bullfights and very little else? What if Anna Karenina is still the inexplicable combination of farming methods and affairs that don’t seem to include sex? Is there something wrong with me? Am I not literary enough? Am I a fraud?

This has not been the case with all classics. The Scarlet Letter was an experience that helped make me the person I am, that shaped my beliefs and the way I see the world. The themes of Lord of the Flies are present in my own work, albeit in trace amounts. I’ve taken ideas and styles from others even if I didn’t appreciate them as a whole.

So, what’s the verdict? What has been your experience with the classics? Did you love them? Did you hate them? Have you turned out all right without them? Am I just too dumb to “get” them?

Please (do not) feed the ego

How many other blogs are out there? How many of them are captivating life-journals written by people much more talented, dedicated, and interesting than I? How many of them are useful and helpful and give you something to take into your own life? How many of them can hold your attention for entire minutes because they consist purely of adorable animals? How many of them are better than this blog?

The answers, respectively, are: millions if not billions, whole bunches, probably lots, not enough, and nearly all of them.

These are the questions and answers that came rushing at me like alligators out of a swamp every time I sat down to “do the blog thing.” I’ve thought and talked a lot about doing it, but this new, global perspective technology has given us isn’t all that great if you’re an attention-seeker. I am an attention-seeker, so I don’t much like things that remind me of my relative anonymity. The blogosphere (which is apparently a real word) makes me feel very small and unimportant indeed.

And yet, here I am, writing my first blog post and pointedly ignoring the fact that I am an infinitesimal speck in the scope of the universe.

Now that I’ve no doubt inspired great confidence in my ability to create something meaningful and interesting, I’ll say this will be a lot about writing. It certainly won’t be hard-hitting, brilliant, hilarious writing advice; if you want that, check out Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds and stay there forever. Am I doing a good job of selling myself or what?

I think I’ve gotten most of the disclaimers out of the way, so here’s the reason I finally started a blog: I want to share with you, and I want you to share with me.

I’m not a sharing, caring kind of person. I am shamelessly selfish. But I love to see ideas flying about like confetti or shrapnel (whichever you prefer). I love to see reasonable people discussing stuff. I like finding new things. I love feedback, positive and negative, as long as it’s logical and rational and doesn’t say “OMG I TOTALLY HATE U CUZ I DO.” There’s no place for that here.

So, I’ll be posting bits I want to share. There’ll be some music I love, people I admire, art I wish I created, books and movies that make me feel lots of feelings, and some video games that make me wish I had better hand-eye coordination. All of these things connect to my writing, and I’ll be sharing bits of that too.

It would be marvelous if you—all of you, one of you, whatever—discovered some new things in this collection of shared pieces. However, what I would really love is to learn some new things from you. I would like to see your art and listen to your music and read your books. I’m not everyone’s cup of tea—thankfully—but there might be a few individuals out there who want to share with me.

I’m something of a cynic, so this all sounds a bit high-minded and idealistic to me. I’m still posting it, though, because I’ve been told people can pleasantly surprise you. If this isn’t the blog you were looking for, don’t worry. There are millions if not billions of more interesting, more useful, more adorable blogs out there waiting for you.