From Sarah, With Joy

Writer querying two novels and some other word babies. I tend to effervesce.

New post every Monday

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Made Easy, Part 4: Movies

Movies are a classic part of the Christmas holiday. The only hard part is that there are so many to choose from. So I'm going to make that choice a little easier and give you probably my favorite Christmas movie ever:



If you haven't seen this adaptation of A Christmas Carol, do yourself a favor. Albert Finney is the best Scrooge ever.

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Made Easy, Part 3: Oh the weather outside is frightful

So look for the beauty in the ice...

Or find a little sunshine in the backyard...

And most of all, don't forget to sing!



Sarah Allen

P.S. Why yes, I did take those pictures myself. I'm letting myself think it took more than just dumb luck.

Also, don't forget the $15 Amazon gift-card easy-peasy Christmas giveaway going on here at the bloggy blog. There's only two days left, don't miss out!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Made Easy, Part 2: Russian Teacakes

These are a tradition in my family, and well worth the effort.

Ingredients: 
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
½ cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 ¼ cups Gold Medal® all-purpose flour
¾ cup finely chopped nuts
¼ teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar

Instructions:
-Heat oven to 400ºF.
-Mix butter, 1/2 cup powdered sugar and the vanilla in large bowl. Stir in flour, nuts and salt until dough holds together.
-Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place about 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet.
-Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until set but not brown. Remove from cookie sheet. Cool slightly on wire rack.
-Roll warm cookies in powdered sugar; cool on wire rack. Roll in powdered sugar again.
*Makes 4 dozen cookies

*Changes: In my family we nix the nuts, and instead wrap the dough around a Hershey's kiss before we bake it. That way its like a little present when you bite into it. My mom buys tons of different flavors like mint, cherry, hot cocoa, candy-cane, and of course regular chocolate. It's become quite a game to see which flavor we get. It's important to wrap the dough fully around the chocolate so its completely covered, but not too much bigger either. Too big, too much dough, too small, the chocolate melts through when you bake. That's why we don't do Rolo's anymore, although those were my favorite. This is what we do for my entire ward, meaning we do it for two days straight. We put on Christmas movies and do an assembly line with the littlest unwrapping kisses, mom and sister mixing dough, and the rest of us rolling the dough around the chocolate. Then we wrap each cookie in tin-foil, bag them, and deliver them around the neighborhood.

Last year we made over 1600. 

Sarah Allen

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Made Easy, Part 1: Gift Shopping for Writers

This week, countdown week to Christmas, I'm going to feature a series of posts to hopefully take some of the stress and insanity out of the holiday season and bring things back to the fun and joyful side. First up, shopping for writers.

Really, writers are very easy to shop for. In fact, I'll just give you a list.

-Books. Always a good idea.
-Movies and music. Second to books, but a close second.
-Notebooks, pens, envelopes, stamps.
-Printer. Always need to print off stuff for editing and submissions.
-Time. (i.e. babysitting, cleaning, certificates to cafes, etc.)
-Fish or a turtle. Muses, you know.
-If not something live, a teddy bear. Someone to talk to. Or maybe that's just me.
-Plants. We need to get our oxygen somehow.

Not hard, right? Hope this helps!

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas Story Creative Writing Prompts

For fun:

Write about a reindeer other than Rudolph.

Write about the only present she didn't want.

Write about what elves do in the summer.

Write about the courtship of the Clauses.

Write about a Christmas tradition and where it came from.

Write about Christmas in China.

Write about Christmas at a fast food chain.

Write about Christmas from a pet's perspective.

Write about Scrooge from the Ghost of Christmas Past's perspective

Write about Christmas at a rest home.

Mix Christmas with another holiday, like Halloween or Valetine's or Presidents day.

Write about Santa in a ballet class.

Write about the sleigh stowaway.

Write about how Mrs. Clause spends Christmas Eve.
.
.
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Any other ideas?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How do they write like that?

There are some writers that make me ask that question a lot. Here are some examples of what I mean.

"Serve God, love me, and mend."
-William Shakespeare, "Much Ado About Nothing"

"Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense."
"Night and light, silence and difficulty, it seemed to me always rigorous and good."
-Marianne Robinson, "Gilead"

"I was not good at drawing faces. I was just joking most of the time. I was not decisive in changing rooms or anywhere. I was so late because I was looking for flowers. I was just going through a tunnel whenever my mother called. I was not able to make toast without the radio. I was not able to tell if compliments were backhanded. I was not as tired as I said."
-Jonathan Safran Foer, "Here We Aren't, So Quickly"

"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
-George Eliot, "Middlemarch"

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs."
-Norman Maclean, "A River Runs Through It"

"Think of the force of life, yes, but think of the component of darkness in it. One of the things that's in whale's milk is the promise of pain and death...I shall be richer all my life for this sorrow."
Wallace Stegner, "All the Little Live Things"

How brilliant are these people. Seriously. I mean, what does it take to be the kind of person who can write things like that? Inherent genius? Years and years of practice? An MFA?

It's not like I'm trying to write like someone else. I can only write like me, and that's that. And it's not like there's one guaranteed way to get to that level of poetic genius, or that there's even one set definition of what "genius" is. But still, these peoples writing blows me away, and I want to blow people away too. Or at least get as close as I can. Maybe just a little breeze, but something...

I guess its a combination of things: studying, practice, honesty, observation. And we just have to pray for the rest.

What do you think?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, December 1, 2011

December is the Bestest Month

I love December :) It seems like October and November went so fast they were almost never here, but I'm glad its December now anyway. There's just so much awesomeness in December. Christmas, The Osmond Family Christmas album (I know, I know, I'm such a Mormon), New Years Eve, my birthday. Snow isn't annoying yet. And I love the feeling of getting ready for a whole new year, and how it always feels like its going to be so much better than the one before. Which I really do think this year, because 2011 was rough. I'm expecting big things from 2012, and I don't just mean the Olympics.

I love the Olympics, especially gymnastics and ice-skating. I love midnight bowls of cold cereal. I love sitting in my room writing blog posts with the window open so my room gets really cold and then I shut the window and turn on the heat and snuggle in my blanket with my teddy bear. I love being 22, but I'm excited to be 23. I love snow, especially when I'm inside looking at it from the safety of a warm house. I love the word December. It's a cool word. I love polar bears. I love boots and coats and gloves, but not scarfs. I miss Postum (I know, I know, I'm such a Mormon). I love mountains with snow on them. I hate skiing, but I like ski lodges. I love icicles. I love count-downs, especially to Christmas. I love Clay Aiken and Barbra Streisand and David Archuleta and Josh Groban and Celine Dion doing Christmas on the radio. I like fireplaces and stockings. I like The Grinch with Jim Carey and Scrooge with Albert Finney. I love making Russian teacakes for two days straight with my family. I love being hijacked into my home wards Christmas pageant, even though I really don't. I love this:

What do you love about December?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fan loyalty and the Muppets

So I went and saw the new Muppet movie yesterday.

It was beautiful :) It made me smile and laugh out loud. The heart of the original Jim Hensen stuff was there, and the wacky humor, and the cameos by a cast of random and hilarious celebrities. I loved it.

The whole thing was about the Muppets as a brand, and whether or not they still had the backing of a loyal fan base. Obviously they did. And do. And it got me thinking: what does it take for something to have that kind of fan loyalty? Like, what makes the difference between someone buying your book and someone waiting for and looking forward to and buying all your books?

Obviously the most important part is having something amazing to offer, or people won't have the emotional engagement it takes to become a rabidly loyal fan. The Muppets are amazing. Harry Potter is amazing. That's why people care so much.

But beyond that. There are plenty of incredibly amazing things that don't have that same kind of widespread, devout fan base (Connie Willis), and also plenty of less amazing things that do (*ahem* Twilight. Sorry.) So what is it that makes the difference? I really want to get my hands on a copy of The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, but what are your thoughts first?

Here are some of mine: to try and get some kind of answer to my own question, I thought about what makes me personally a fiercely loyal fan of something.

First, past experience. I love the Muppets because I remember watching them as a kid. I will always consider Walk Two Moons one of my favorite childhood books, because I remember how strongly it effected me when I read it. I will always love Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, despite my knowledge of it's and Andrew Lloyd Weber's many musical flaws, because I remember listening to it while my sisters and I ran circles around the living room naked. (That was our form of dancing. We haven't progressed much since then.)

Second, because someone we know and trust recommended it. I've never washed clothes with anything other than Tide, because that's what my mother always used. I will always love Stephen Sondheim, because my mom loves him. A River Runs Through it will always be one of my favorite books, because it reminds me of Mr. K, my high school English teacher. I love Listerine and the '500 Miles' song by The Proclaimers because they remind me of my dad. So does Steve Martin dancing. (And you wondered where my family got our dance skills.)

Third, herd mentality. I hesitate to mention this one, because for me and I suspect for a lot of you, when EVERYBODY likes something it tends to make me like it less, at least at first, and if I love it then I love it despite what everybody else thinks. Like the play Wicked. I love it because it's awesome, not because every theater goer and their dog loves it. But still, whenever anybody goes to New York, they ALWAYS see Wicked and Phantom of the Opera, because that is what EVERYBODY sees. So basically, even though herds are sometimes annoying and often wrong (I still do not understand how Phantom is still there and Les Mis is not), if they're going to be there, they may as well be in your field, right?

Anyway. As far as it goes for us writers and artists, all that really matters is that we create the best work we know how. With work and some luck the rabidly loyal fans will follow. Hopefully not too closely. But yeah, the psychological and business aspects of this are fascinating, at least to nerds like me.

What do you think? What makes you a loyal fan of something, and how do you think we can maybe apply that to writing careers?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The End. Almost.


I've never written the end of a novel before. But now I'm 3/4 of the way through, and I'm starting to get to the wrapping up point. I'm trying to remember all the lose strings I've got dangling so I can tie up at least some of them, and have something somewhat complete. That will feel so amazing, to have finally finished a full-length novel.

The weird thing is confronting things I've only been thinking about for months/years and now actually having to confront them. Or at least just things I need to start thinking about for reals now. Major editing, finding good beta readers, researching and querying agents, trying my best to be contract-smart, that kind of thing. I mean, all that's still going to be a while yet, especially anything to do with signing contracts, but I'm getting to the point where I almost have something ready to try with. And that is exciting.

As far as actually writing, though, I could use some tips and advice from those of you who have actually done this before. Finished a novel, I mean. I want to make sure I wrap this thing up right. Of course it's not going to be perfect and it's going to need major changes anyway, but I want to get it as good as I can the first time around. So what can you tell me about making a successful ending?

I'm also finding myself arguing with whatever part of my brain controls motivation. I want this done so bad, and I'm working and everything, but I feel so...slumpy. It's still coming, but it's going slow again, and taking a lot more effort than usual. I hit that kind of thing before, at around the 53% percent mark, and then I got over it. I'm hoping that happens again, that I get even closer to the end and I get some kind of last cross-the-finish-line energy boost. I'm also trying hard not to think too much about what I'm going to do next. Because guys, I have so many ideas, and they are going to be awesome. Next year is going to be awesome. But in the meantime I've got what I'm working on now, and I still love it and will feel so much better about myself and my life and my presumptuous attention whoring from all y'all and people all over the interwebs when its done. So I'm going to just keep going and hopefully get it done this year, but any ideas on how to make that easier or get through it with more smiling and less teeth gritting would be greatly appreciated.

Those of you doing NaNoWriMo, I hope the ending is working out for you. We will make it to the end.

Sarah Allen

Thursday, November 24, 2011

101 Things I'm Thankful For (in no particular order)

1. Candied pecan yams
2. God
3. My yellow bedroom
4. Windowsills
5. My family. I wouldn't be without them.
6. Pansies. I like their faces.
7. J.K. Rowling
8. Chapter 33, 'The Princes Tale.'
9. England
9. Jane Austen
10. Jazz
11. Colin Firth
12. White Chocolate
13. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
14. Frasier
15. My luck with roommates. I've never had a bad one.
16. Black-Eyed Peas on the radio
17. Thursday night dinners with my mom
18. Reeses Puffs and Waffle Crisp
19. My computer
20. My car
21. Blogs and blogging
22. Being as far as I am on my WIP
23. The amount of butter and sour cream my mom puts in the mashed potatoes
24. Meryl Streep
25. My parents marriage
26. The letter Captain Wentworth writes to Ann Elliot at the end of Persuasion
27. Mathew Macfayden in the rain in the new Pride and Prejudice
28. Having ward prayer and FHE at my apartment. It forces me to socialize.
29. Sweaters
30. Farmer Hogget in Babe
31. Taming of the Shrew
32. My best friend who introduced me to awesomeness like TNG and Doctor Who
33. This poem
34. Friends who I can argue with and they still love me
35. Midnight showings of anything. Even Twilight.
36. Alan Rickman's voice.
37. Dr. Benjamin Linus. Don't think I'll ever get over him. Don't judge.
38. My cell phone.
39. My green leather purse I've used so long its chipping on the bottom.
40. Indoor plumbing. It's big.
41. Pixar
42. Josh Holloway's dimples
43. Hooker boots
44. Gum
45. John Green
46. Peach flavored Fresca
47. 100 calorie fudge bars
48. Dishwashers, especially because my apartment doesn't have one
49. Dollar theaters
50. The smell of Listerine and after-shave
51. Colin Mochrie
52. My adorable preschool kids
53. YouTube
54. This song. And this one.
55. My playbill of 'Gypsy' signed by Patti LuPone
56. Holly Flack for Michael Scott
57. Niles Crane
58. Vincent Van Gogh
59. Post-it notes
60. Converse shoes
61. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
62. The Book of Mormon and the Bible
63. Fingernail clippers
64. Rain
65. Sonnet 130
66. Zoos
67. Secondhand book stores
68. Construction. Not really, but I'm trying.
69. My ginormous Gone With The Wind poster
70. Brian Regan
71. This dance from Sasha and Twitch, or this one from Melanie and Marko.
72. Gustavo Dudamel's hair. Also Josh Groban's.
73. Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester
74. The part in Two Towers where a muddied, bloodied Aragorn bursts through the big double doors.
75. My teddy bear named Russ.
76. Having at least one X chromosome
77. C. S. Lewis
78. Pinterest
79. Laughing
80. David Tenant and Catherine Tate
81. Stephen Sondheim
82. Pajamas
83. Treadmills with TV's
84. Animal Planet
85. Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rain
86. Black trench coats
87. Google and Wikipedia
88. Paychecks
89. Duotrope.com
90. Brigham Young University
91. Disneyland
92. Eating frozen chocolate covered bananas, churros and funnel cake by the Rivers of America waiting for Fantasmic to start
93. Waking up ridiculously early on Christmas morning and talking with my siblings until it's time to go upstairs to open presents
94. Amazing high school teachers
95. Guys with beards or curly hair
96. People who need people
97. The Bronte sisters, especially Charlotte
98. Airplanes and road trips
99. The smell of sharpies (should explain a lot)
100. Jim Hensen
101. The word 'chimerical'

What would you add to this list?

Happy Thanksgiving!
Sarah Allen

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Five Cookbooks for Writers


So we all know what tomorrow is. Stuff our faces day. To help with the stuffing, here are 5 cook books made especially for writers and readers:

The Write Ingredients

The New Great American Writers Cookbook

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen

The Book Lover's Cook Book

The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook

Pretty fun, huh? I'm definitely not one for cooking, but I think if I had a few of these it might make it a little more fun for me. I may actually invest in that.

Do you know of any cookbooks for writerly people? What are your favorite general cookbooks and recipes? Any that you're going to be using tomorrow?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

So Nike Was Right

The past few days I've stumbled upon something that is quite a novel concept to me, though for the rest of you its probably very old hat. The concept is this:

Just do it.

Its so incredibly simple. I don't know why I've made things so complicated in the past. It's like I let myself float from thing to thing, distraction to distraction and do some writing here and there when it happens. I get some done that way, but only a little some. (Pun very much intended).

Here's the thing. This weekend and yesterday (and hopefully today) I just quit the goofing off. I've set aside morning writing time, which typically works out well, but I've wanted the after-morning time to be more productive too. So the past few days I get home from work, get a quick snack, and then say, ok, now its time to write. That's it. Nothing else. I turn on a classical iTunes radio station, turn off the internet, and just write. Doing that I've gotten 4000 words out in the last three days, which for me is huge.

See, the mornings work for me because I tell myself its writing time. But the afternoons its been more like "stuff" time. Like email and reading blogs and eating and going to the gym and maybe writing a paragraph and playing on Pinterest time. It's pretty obvious that, for me at least, I don't write unless its WRITING TIME. It's not that I didn't know that before, it's just that I'm discovering how much I can get done when I apply it across the board. Because I want this book DONE, dang it.

Its amazing what a little mental manipulation can do. Do you have any mental tricks to help boost your creativity or productivity?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Things I Miss

Zebra patterned bubble gum.

Dexter's Laboratory and Rugrats.

Benjamin Linus.

Eating desert without thinking about it.

Reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the first time.

My English 319 fiction workshop class.

Niles and Daphne.

Disneyland.

The smell of New York.

Being young enough to make my teddy bears age appropriate.

Staying home from school sick with a Jamba Juice and Animal Planet.

Being in high school plays.

There have been some good things and good experiences in my life. I'm grateful for them, I miss the ones that are gone, and hope and pray for more goodness in the future.

What do you miss?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

E.J. Patten and Popular vs Literary


MG author E.J. Patten (Return to Exile) came and spoke to the creative writing class today. It was pretty awesome. Seeing and hearing from authors in real life can be such a refreshing experience.

Anyway, he read a bit from his book (which I highly, highly recommend for the MG readers in your life. It's supposedly in the same vein as the Percy Jackson series, though from what he read I think its a lot better. You can check out his website here.) He also answered a bunch of questions that the students had.

He talked a little about his experience in the publishing industry. He has a lot LOT more of that then me, so I was listening. He said he had an idea for a YA book a while ago, but was told it was unpublishable just because of the way the YA market is. He obviously found a way to work it out, a way that worked for him and the publisher, but I asked him what he would suggest to people if what they want to write is "unpublishable."

He said pretty much everything is publishable, but you have to keep the market in mind. He got into the whole popular vs literary question, and said that to make a good living as a writer, you pretty much can only do that with "popular" genres. He mentioned Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen as a few people who are doing pretty well within the literary genre, but that it's just the way things are that in general literary fiction doesn't sell that well, definitely not as well as the popular genres.

You know, I used to get really bugged by the Popular vs Literary debate. I always thought, can't a book be both? Popular and well-written? I mean, take Harry Potter. One of the greatest literary achievements of our time, and one of the most popular. I still think they can, but I think its just a fact that we have to deal with that really literary books that sell well are the exception. Straight up that's just the way things are, generally.

It's unfortunate, but not disastrous. It just means we have to make some decisions as writers and accept and deal with what those decisions mean. Writing is hard and takes a lot of time and effort, no matter what genre you write in, and there's a lot of luck involved too. There's a little better chance you can make it big writing in popular genres, and if you write more literary fiction, you should probably be prepared with a second career/day job.

The most important thing, though, is that we write what we want. That's all it comes down to. Just write whatever the heck you want and write it the best you can. That's what's fun about being a writer anyway, isn't it?

Sarah Allen

Monday, November 7, 2011

So someone I know is going to read this?

As I get closer and closer to finishing my book, I've been thinking about this more and more. The goal is to get your work published, right? That means out there for everybody to see. And that everybody includes your friends and family.

Mostly, that's just fine. There's just a couple things that worry me about that. One that worries me a little, and one that worries me sort of a lot.

When you read something, you can't help but make judgments about or connections to the author and the authors life. So when people read our work, they make assumptions about us and our lives. Whether they are correct (which they probably aren't) is beside the point. And you know, that's all ok, that sort of comes with the territory of being an artist. Of course people are going to judge you and your work, but only we know where it all came from, and even that's a little iffy. It's a little more complicated when the readers know you personally. When they know your life a little more intimately, and they make connections or judgments or think that you're making certain points or using certain details based on your life and who they know you to be. Does that make sense? Basically what I'm trying to say is that by letting people in your life read your work, its a bit like letting them in to your head, and whether what they see is accurate or to the point, it can't help but shift/change/alter, even if its only slightly, the way they see you as a person, or the way they've seen you up to that point. And I kind of don't want it to change anything. I'm still me, I'm still the person I've presented to them, but now they know a little more. Or they think they do.

But all that is okay. I can deal with that. It's expected. The bigger deal for me, related, but not an aspect of this issue I've fully thought about until recently, is this: People in my life who read my work will not only make assumptions and judgments about me, but perhaps also about the other people in my life. Say I write about a father, a mother, a sister. Can that be kept separate from real life to people who read it and know my actual father and mother and sisters? Even on a more general scale. Say I address certain issues or topics: Does that mean people are going to make judgments about my family as a whole and the way I was raised or something like that?

It seems like those kinds of connections and judgments are inevitable. What bothers me most is that if this type of judgment is passed, which it will be, then I've dragged the people in my life into something they did not ask to be dragged in to. That seems a little bit presumptuous to me.

This is where I come to those of you with more experience then myself. Obviously this is something every writer and every artist has to address, somehow. How did you deal with this? Is it best to just be true to your own inner-artist, move forward, and trust the support of the people that matter most? I'm thinking that's the only thing you can do, if you're going to be honest and truthful with yourself and not compromise your inner artist. And you know, even if the people who matter most don't quite understand, which they might not, they still love you and support you. Sometimes it's scary to rely on that, but that's why they are the people that matter most.

What are your thoughts on this? How do you write without shaking up too badly your own real life world?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, November 3, 2011

3 Steps to Fame, Glory, and Eternal Life

Are you a writer disenchanted with blogging? Are you a new blogger wondering how you're going to make a difference anyway? Are you intimidated by all the social media outlets writers are supposed to know how to juggle, and juggle brilliantly? If you answered yes to any of these questions...

Ok, enough of that. But seriously though, there are so many posts about how different writers feel towards blogging. Like Roni Loren's post about the life cycle of a blogger from yesterday. I'll admit that's the post that got me thinking, but like I've said, I've seen similar posts all over the place. So I figured I might as well add my two cents to the conversation. Halloween was my two year blogiversary, so I have a little experience to back me up.

I feel like there is so much drama llama trauma that eventually pops up with blogging. Which for me, kind of defeats the whole purpose. I feel like things could be a lot more emotionally smooth and satisfying if people just kept three things in mind from the very beginning.

1. Set those lofty goals, but keep them personal. I am the first person who will tell you to dream big. Shoot for the stars. Go whole hog, go for it, all those cheesy, sentimental cliches. (I annoy people sometimes...)But I really mean it. Its no fun and just not as meaningful if you don't have buckets full of gold and rainbows as your end goal. But. Be self-aware and realistic in how you plan to move towards those goals. 3,000 followers on your blog? Sure, why not. But you're not going to get there in a day, a month, even a year, no matter how often you post or what marketing you do or whatever. Its a very slow building process, so know yourself and know what kind of pace and efforts you are comfortable making on a daily and weekly basis. Remember, you're doing this for you. The rest will come.

2. Determination. Stick to it. Grit your teeth. Suck it up. Just do it. Muscle through. However you want to say it. Even if you're very careful in how you set things up, and make reasonable short-term goals for yourself, there are still going to be times when you feel like chucking your computer at the wall. When you're sitting in front of a blank post at one in the morning with no clue what to write about. This is when you have to try and remember why you're doing this in the first place and just do it. This is where you show how badly you really want it, whatever 'it' is. Good things come to those who never give up.

3. Rejuvination. Sometimes you just get burned out, and sheer determination only gets you so far. Don't be afraid to take some time for yourself to get yourself feeling alive again. Sometimes for me all it takes is belting my lungs out to a really good song. Often going to the gym makes me feel better. Sometimes I just need a night of kettle corn, diet Dr. Pepper and a couple good chick flicks. It's kind of like filling up at a gas station, and then you've got the umph to get you through the next few hundred miles. Do what you need to do so you don't burn your engine out completely.

So there you have it. Those are my thoughts on the subject, take them for what they're worth. What are your thoughts on the whole writers blogging thing? Worth it? Too much effort? What have you felt about your own bogging experience?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NaNoWriMo: And the next plot point is...


So. Even though I'm not doing NaNoWriMo, I couldn't let November 1st go by without addressing what would be causing me by far the most grief, were I doing NaNo.

Plot.

It's never been my strong suit. I love characters and thoughts and dialog and description and scenarios, but putting those all together into a novel-length cohesive story is tough for me. I've talked about this before in various ways, but its definitely worth talking about again.

Let's say the first segment of my MS is plot points A-G. The way my mind works, I get the major plot points--A, D, G--down okay. But hitting B, C, E, and F along the way sometimes gets me stuck, even though I know they need to be there. Does that make sense? It's like crossing a river on stepping stones, and finding the smaller steps between the bigger, more obvious boulders is tricky.

This can cause problems during NaNo for people like me, who don't have the luxury of a long time to think things through and search and search for that tiny needed step. And its a problem for me in general, so I could really use your ideas.

I have come up with a few things. When I'm starting an idea, I start with a very basic outline with those more major, A, D, G points. I come up with as many plot points as I can just within the story in my head, but it still ends up fairly sparse. Then I start a kind of accumulation process. I start a list. I go through my old creative writing notebooks, see what ideas they can give me. I stare at my bookshelf and try and think what major plot points from my favorites could maybe give me ideas for something in my story. I take that list and integrate it with the outline and flesh it out a little more. Then I go through and see if I can spot any holes and try and fill those in. By then I've hopefully got something workable and its time to start.

Inevitably, though, new things are discovered as the story unfolds, more holes are uncovered, new ideas pop. Then the outline changes and you're left without a step, without an E where you thought there was one.

That is where I get stuck. That is the biggest problem I have personally so far encountered in the novel-writing process. After a period of thinking and agonizing I generally find a way to get myself unstuck, but if I could get your advice to make my unsticking a lot more stable and graceful, so I don't feel like I'm flopping my way to the next boulder, that would be great.

So what do you do? How do you get from A to D? I mean, some people--the "pantsers"--write whole novels just one step at a time, feeling their way forward with their characters, with only the vaguest notions of where they're going if any at all. It's that exact "feeling your way forward" process that I could use help with.

So. For my and the NaNo-ers sake. Help?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Slowing Down the Pace

When I speak, write, or drive, I have a habit of going too fast. I'm trying my best to slow things down, but sometimes it feels like, despite my best efforts, I still just end up with people who can't understand what I'm saying, an MS that doesn't flow, and traffic school.

As far as writing goes, how do I slow down the pace? I guess my habit is just getting from scene A to scene B, and I'm not good at the middle stuff that fleshes things out and makes it all flow. I typically go back and add more detailed description to try and help, but what else can I do? What do you do to round out scenes and fill in the in-between-scenes stuff?

Adding detail and description is one specific thing I've thought of to help pace my writing (again, let me know your other ideas), but I've tried to think of ways to counteract my break-the-speed-limit habit in a general way. Meditation. Daily gym-ing and veggie eating. Ambient nature sounds while I write. Telling myself its okay to slow the freak down .

I think its just going to take time and practice. Because a nice controlled pace is not my habit, I'm not even sure exactly how or what one specifically does to keep that pace in writing, so I could really, really use your advice and ideas. My hope is that once I work out how to slow things down, I'll be able to make it work for me better and better.

Of course, we don't want things too slow either. Then it's in danger of becoming dull. But there's a balance, and since I tend towards the speedy side, I thought I'd see if I can get your advice for pulling things back towards that balance.

So...help?

Sarah Allen

Monday, October 24, 2011

Making the News


There's a technique or strategy that I've been talking about with my dad in terms of my social media job; but I think it could be very useful for writers too. I thought I'd get your ideas on how to really make it work.

The strategy is this: keep a list of journalists in your field from online journals and newspapers all over the country and then contact each of them with a story when it comes out. For us writers I guess that would mostly mean book reviewers or journalists in the publishing industry. This isn't groundbreaking stuff. In fact its pretty basic publicity. A good idea, but pretty basic.

So I'm wondering how we use the media to the best advantage. Getting published is news, certain levels of sales is news...but is that it? How do we keep the buzz going in the interim?

I suppose we're getting in to publicity stunt territory here, but maybe that's not so bad. Our first and foremost priority is to our craft, of course. That's as it should be. But we might as well do what we can for marketing, yeah? So what kinds of things can we boring, average, middle-of-the-WIP writers do to generate a little media buzz?

This is where I need your ideas. I've thought of a few: maybe organizing some kind of event, like a read-a-thon, book drive, or even a blogfest or some kind of online event. You could do some really awesome things, and the publicity would just be an added bonus. What other kinds of big-event, news story type things can you think of that we writers could generate ourselves?

There are two key points to this, I think: First, to keep whatever you do writing/book related so that the publicity generated is about you as a writer more than some random thing. Second, make sure you connect directly with the journalists on your list so they're aware of the story you have ready for them. From what I've heard, what with deadlines and being lazy, journalists love being spoon-fed.

Social media is fun, fantastic, and amazing for connecting directly with people. But as far as getting some real buzz going, I think this is probably one of the best strategies we have short of having some really good luck. Do you agree? Do you think this could work, and what ideas do you have to put the strategy into action? Or is it all too mercenary and vulgar in the first place?

Sarah Allen

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dichotomy is good


One of my favorite stories so far from the New Yorker '20 Under 40' collection is a story called 'The Warm Fuzzies' by Chris Adrian. Its hilarious and kind of genius. Its somewhat of a coming of age story about a girl in a large Christian family who go around and play Christian music in a family band and have a slew of foster kids that come through for short periods of time. The dichotomy in this story is that this young girl wants so badly to be obedient and good and love her family; however, she also has this voice in her head that says nasty things and mocks everyone around her. What she says out-loud and what her inner voice says are sometimes very different, and that's what makes this story so interesting.

I think that's the key to interesting characters, and particularly interesting dialog. There should always be a little bit more to what they're saying. We're drawn in. We want to know where the two voices really are different, and where they're actually not as different as they seem.

Don't we all feel like that sometimes? An inner dichotomy? Sometimes its not even that we're pulled in different directions necessarily, but that we've got some seemingly mismatched things inside our heads? I'm a good, active Mormon girl who grew up in Provo and went to BYU. I also have a thing for grunge rock, skulls and guys with long hair. I like puppies and pirates, David Archuletta and Nikki Sixx, Jane Austen and Steven King.

We all have weird, quirky combos like that. There's no reason they have to be mutually exclusive. I think its healthy and exciting to embrace all sides of our personality. It's what makes us us.

What are your interesting dichotomies?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What does your muse look like?

I'm giggling just thinking about this question. Not quite sure why.

On good days, my muse looks like this:


On bad days, my muse looks like this:


I have no explanations. That's just how it is, I guess.

Now I'm curious...what does your muse look like?

Sarah Allen

Monday, October 17, 2011

Whats age got to do with it?


I'm kind of obsessed with writers' age. Like, how old they were when they got published, and when they wrote their big masterpiece. That's why I get really into stuff like the New Yorker's '20 under 40' thing. I want to know if I'm making okay time, or if I'm really behind in relation to other writers out there.

Some examples:

Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility at 36, Pride and Prejudice at 38, though I think she'd had them written for a decade or so before that.
Charlotte Bronte: 31 at publishing of Jane Eyre
George Eliot: Published at 40, Middlemarch at 52
J.K. Rowling: Published the first Harry Potter around 31.
Maureen Johnson: First published at 31.
Cormac McCarthy: 32
Amy Tan: 37
John Grisham: 34
Stephen King: 27
Stephanie Meyer: 32
Charles Dickens: 24
John Green: 28
Lois Lowry: 40 (The Giver, 56)
Judy Blume: 31
Nicholas Sparks: 31
Danielle Steel: 26
Amanda Hocking: 26
Louis Sachar: 24
Christopher Paolini: 19
Agatha Christie: 30
Nora Roberts: 31
Roald Dahl: 27
Mary Higgins Clark: 41

Ok, ok, I'll stop. I told you I'm obsessed. Its also fascinating to look at this list of the top fiction sellers of all time. It includes books in every language, which makes me want to see if I can get my hands on an English translation of the top Chinese, Japanese and French sellers. It would be interesting, I think.

Anyway. What's the point of all this? I'm not really sure. It seems like the magic age is early-thirties, which means I've got another decade or so. But I don't know. I'm so neurotic and I suppose freakishly competitive that people like that stupid Christopher Paolini make me feel a little behind. And I've only got a couple years if I'm gonna match pace with Dickens and Louis Sachar.

To be honest though, I don't think age really matters at all. Some of the best writers in the world didn't start till their fifties or sixties. And some people come out with something brilliant in their twenties or thirties and then never write again. Writing is so personal, and I think the timing of a writing career is too. I think what matters is where we go from here, wherever "here" is.

Thoughts?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, October 13, 2011

On Windowsills and Queen Victoria

I am not good at the whole sleeping thing. This is not new news. I've never in my life been good at it. It's mostly to do with my mind refusing to shut up. And so I've come to appreciate windowsills. After I've given up trying to sleep, or sometimes before I start trying, I open my window and sit and breath and let my brain run its course. It has become its own part of my nightly routine. This time of year is the best, when its cold but not frigid, and the air feels clean and your room and lungs feel cleaned out and then when you climb back under the blankets it feels nice and snuggly and warm.

I am good at watching movies. Tonight I watched Young Victoria. If you haven't seen it, you should. Emily blunt is beautiful. The movie is beautiful. Queen Victoria is inspiring, and there most definitely needs to be more Prince Albert's in this world.

I'm not quite sure what the connection is, except that I want me a Prince Albert and I really want me one of those Cavalier puppies, and as much awesome as there is in my life, and as much as I love it, sometimes I feel like there is a lot of waiting and waiting is hard, but it's made a little easier by things like windowsills. Victoria was strong, waited patiently for the future, worked hard in the present, and that seems a more than good enough example for me. We all have things we want, things we're waiting for, but in the meantime there is the moon and a windowsill.

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The 2 Levels of Plot: A Lesson from Up

Today I wanted to talk about a principle we've been discussing in the creative writing class. It actually really helps me understand better how to access a story, and make it relatable.

We've been looking at plot and story in two levels. The top level is the more overarching issue or problem, maybe the more abstract one, the larger one. The lower level is the day-to-day problem, the seemingly more mundane or less important one. It seems like approaching a story or character from the higher problem would be the best way to go, but actually its opposite. I'm sure there are a whole bunch of deep psychological reasons why, but as outsiders/readers we tend not to really care about the higher problem until we care about the character, and we care about the character through the day-to-day problem. Even if we do care about the larger issue, its just easier to get a specific hold on it when we've got a hold on the smaller issue.

To illustrate what I mean I'm gonna use one of the greatest characters ever created.

Russell's larger issue is that his family is somewhat absent. He's trying to do the best he can on his own, and doesn't get much attention. But this issue is only directly addressed a little bit, and only towards the end of the movie. We are introduced to and care more about Russell because of his day-to-day issue: he just wants his badge.

The two issues are related. He wants his badge, but is having a little trouble with it because he's not getting much help from his dad. The little kid wanting his badge is something we can all understand, appreciate and relate to. Not only that, but it helps us get a specific understanding of the larger absent family issues.

So when you're stuck, when you have a minor case of writers block, one of the best ways I've found to get unstuck is to bring things back to the day-to-day problem. It keeps the reader involved in the story, and moves it forward. Then its amazing how naturally the story itself leads to connections with higher, deeper problems. And you end up with an interesting, relatable and well-rounded story.

What do you think? Do you agree? What are some of the day-to-day problems in your story?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

First Forays into Children's Book Publishing

My sister is an illustration major. And not just any illustration major. She is super, super talented. Seriously. She has a gift. I mean, look at that mouse.

So, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity here and asked her if she would be interested in working on some children's books together. She said yes, which makes me very excited. I've got some ideas floating around in my brain, and I'm gonna try and solidify them and let her do some illustrating while I keep working on The Novel, and that will be extra awesome because then I'll feel like I'm getting two things done at once.

Anyway, I'm wondering what the next steps would be after we get something put together. I've done research into regular publishing, and I'm wondering how different it is with kids picture books. I'll do some research into that, of course, but I'm wondering if my wise readers have any beginning advice for me, or recommendations of where to start.

Is it pretty much the same submit-to-agents process? Do we just submit the words and illustrations together, and is that the norm? Can I have an agent and publisher for children's publishers separate from my adult stuff and will there be issues with that?

Yeah. That's kind of what's going on right now. Advice or pointers in the right direction would be fabulous :)

Sarah Allen

p.s. My sister said if I posted this picture I had to include a disclaimer that the photo of it was low res and bad quality. Consider it disclaimed.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Pen Names

I'm not planning on using a pen name. In fact, I plan on doing my best to defy the publishing industry and use my plain old name for everything I write, in every genre.

But. In the case of needing a pen name, such as competitions where they require one, I have one at the ready.

George Lewis.

George for George Eliot. Also for George Tate, my humanities professor from my Freshman year in college who my roommates all said I was like, and then when we were analyzing ourselves and coming up with boy names for each of us, because that's what college girls do, my boy name was George.

Lewis for the very obvious reason of C. S. Lewis.

So there is my carefully planned pen name that I have in my back pocket in case of emergencies.

What's yours?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, October 6, 2011

You know he's your mentor when...

Once upon a time there was a man named Mr. K. He was an English teacher at a small private school in a small college town in a very out-of-the-way state. He taught English to the eighth graders, ninth graders, tenth graders, eleventh graders, and twelfth graders, and he also sometimes taught stuff like improv and helped with drama. It was a very, very small school.

One young girl started at this small school in first grade, and after a brief stint in the comparatively very exotic Bay Area during fifth and sixth grade, came back to this small school in this small town in this out-of-the-way state and became one of Mr. K's students.

This young girl took English from Mr. K in eigth grade, and ninth grade, and tenth grade, and eleventh grade, and twelfth grade. She participated in such activities as reciting out-loud chimney sweeper poems from Victorian England and playing faux poker while the class studied The Virginian and borrowing his Kenneth Branagh...er, Shakespeare movies for nerd-fests...er, parties with her friends. He made her read Moby Dick. Not the whole class, just her.

Soon after this young girl graduated, three things happened:

1. This young girl became an English major at the university in that small college town.
2. Mr. K got a job as a headmaster at a cool new school.
3. The very small school closed down.

This young girl then graduated from the university with a BS...er, BA in English and aspirations of being a novelist, but soon realized she needed to eat too, and that diplomas in English did not pay very much, or taste very good either. After a chaotic, confusing and occasionally traumatic time, this not-so-young-as-she-once-was girl came to her senses and contacted her former high school English teacher at his cool new school and was relieved to hear that yes, indeed, he could use help in his creative writing class and sometimes Shakespeare too, as juggling teaching and administrative duties was rather...time-consuming.

(Note: The very small school also started back up about this time, with some administrative and financial changes that make for a bright and hopeful future, and they too were willing to hire this young girl. Now she teaches creative writing at cool new school on some afternoons, helps with preschool at very small school on the others, and does social media contracting in the mornings. With these powers combined, she can pay rent, and has after-school, evenings and nights to write the day away. She is happy.)

While she never expected to end up teaching (Her answer to "English major, huh? So are you gonna teach?" was always "No"), and really never expected to be teaching with Mr. K; despite a few disenchanted teens and snot-nosed tots; despite not knowing quite how to feel about going back to high school; she is having an absolute blast. The interesting thing, however, and the point of this long, rambling, self-indulgent story, is that in working with Mr. K, she is seeing just how much of an influence he has had on her life.

And its not only the obvious stuff. She loves Taming of the Shrew because he loves Taming of the Shrew and she learned the play from him. But now she is discovering that they share opinions she didn't even know they shared. Like in movies; they are both freakishly obsessed with Up [moment of silence for Steve Jobs. I cringe to conceive of a Pixar-less world. Thanks Steve.] and The Kings Speech, which both came out after this young girl had left Mr. K's tutelage. But he'll use Up as an example of ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT character in the creative writing class, and then use Kings Speech in correlation with Henry IV, which makes this young girl want to stand up and shout "And I love that movie too!" By similar means, she has found out that they both share an affinity for random things like Alaska and Abraham Lincoln.

This young girl has ideas and opinions separate from Mr. K's, of course, and recognizes that nobody is perfect. Still, she is grateful for everything she has learned from him, and would be a very different person in a very different place without his mentorship. A person and place she would most definitely not want to be.

These are the people and experiences that shape us as writers. That shape our tone and voice and opinions about what constitutes good writing. Recognizing the influences helps us see the strengths and weaknesses we've accumulated from these influences, and therefore grow as writers. As people too.

Who are the Mr. K's in your life?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Its my special pen.

So I go through pen phases. I had a black bic one that I used for a long time, but then I lost it. Now I use the one I got from the bedside table at Days Inn.

I always take the pens from hotels. That's allowed, right? Sometimes I even leave notes on the notepad. Something sophisticated and non-creepy like, "I'm watching you," or "It was like that when we got here I promise." But I have pens from the Luxor, California Grand, Super 8, and a few others. When I lose one pen or it dries out, then I go to another one. I've probably got six pens in my ginormous green leather purse, but for some neurotic reason I'll dig through all of them to find the one I'm looking for. Right now, Days Inn. After that, who knows. Maybe Excalibur. That sounds cool just saying it. ("Hey, can I borrow a pen?" "I shall fetch Excalibur!")

Anyway, do you have any objects you sort of attach yourself too like some kind of totem or magic feather? Its habit for me, if I'm sitting for any length of time, to dig my notebook and my special pen out of my purse just to have them at the ready. Its good to have a special pen, especially when your current notebook is not so special. I used to have this gorgeous leather-bound black notebook that lasted me for years, but I eventually filled it, and now I'm on to this weird floppy dotted one that functions just fine, but I hope I can fill up fast. Then I'll get another cool leather one. Anyway. Special pens and special notebooks. Special words and special computers. I actually named my computer Baby. My car's name is Little Dorrit.

We writers are such special people.

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

3 Essential Questions Every Author Must Ask Themselves

I cannot take credit for these questions. They were part of the post by Wendy Lawson that I mentioned a while ago. However, I think they are incredibly valuable questions to ask, in terms of self-analysis, creativity, marketing, and lots of other things. I would like to discuss them a bit, and get your thoughts on how best to answer them.

1. Who am I as a writer?

This one covers a lot. I think it has to do with the kinds of things we write, yes, but also why we write in the first place, and what we hope to accomplish by adding to the overflowing mess of words already out there. Writing is not easy, so why do we do it? What is it that you wish everybody else understood? What kinds of stories seem to fill up your soul? Ok, so I'm just asking more questions here, but I think answering these smaller questions might help on the never-ending journey to discovering who we are as writers.

2. What is distinctive about my book?

The two main ways I can think to get answers to this question is to read, read, read, constantly, everything, read, and also, ask someone else. The more you read, the easier it is to place your book into a category. But sometimes it can still be hard to know what kind of story you're actually writing. That's when an outside reader can help you decide how to label your book. This will also help in marketing, if you can take the distinctive features of your book, whether that's in character, plot, setting, whatever, and use it in a more specific marketing niche.

3. Who are my readers?

This is sort of a follow-up to number 2. Once you decide what type of book you have, its easier to decide what sort of people read that kind of book. I mean, romance has a different target audience then say, horror. There is always overlap, of course, but defining a target readership can be the key to successful marketing and promotion. Discover who your readers are, and figure out lots of ways to reach them. I'm actually having a hard time on this one, because I feel like my current project is a mix of a few different things. I'll have to think about it some more, and maybe eventually get some outside opinions. Have you found any effective ways to figure out who your readers are?

I would love to hear your answers to these questions, if you have answers you're comfortable giving. I think that actually helps the rest of us in our own figuring out. Or if you have suggestions for how to answer these questions, that would be useful as well.

Happy writing!

Sarah Allen

Friday, September 30, 2011

Growing Up

Is weird. I've decided that 22 is both very old and very young. It is old because all the sudden there is all this responsibility and pressure that hasn't been there before, and different things are expected of you, and people start talking to you a little bit different and telling you different things than they would have before. It is young because people start telling you different things than they would have before, and you realize how much you were oblivious to before, and how weighty the world is and you feel like you're finally seeing things for what they really are in a lot of ways.

And seeing things for what they really are can be hard. There is some truth to the saying that ignorance is bliss. People are hurt and abused and go to jail and have depression and commit suicide and starve and manipulate in truly horrible ways, and the older you get and the more you know, you start realizing that these things are not just abstractions, they really happen to actual people, sometimes (often) much, much closer to home than you ever expected.

Sometimes I have growing pains, and I just sit and think, how do I even take in all this? What am I supposed to do with it? Why have I lucked out, when sometimes it would be easier for me to just have gone through something myself than to see someone else go through it?

This is when I know I really am an incurable optimist.

I do not think its right to wallow in the bad. Life sucks and then you die just doesn't cut it. For so many reasons. Yes, sometimes life sucks, but even in the midst of everything terrible, there is beauty and redemption and hope. Always.

I do not think its right to pretend, to shy away, or to leave the bad in the world at the level of abstraction. We cannot pretend abuse and pain and loneliness don't exist. They do. We cannot pretend it won't happen in our personal world, because it will, and it already has, even if we don't see it. And above all, because from my perspective this is the easiest trap to fall into, we CANNOT gloss over it. We MUST face the world with absolute brutal honesty.

We have absolutely no right to judge. Nobody is perfect, and pain has happened to everyone. We cannot reach people or love them if we judge them. We must look them in the eye. God will always be there for people that hurt, but so must we. That means saying, even though God is the only one who can ultimately heal you and take care of everything, and even though this is dirty and messy and painful, if you'll let me I would like to stay here right by your side and go through it with you, every step. Because, people, that is life. Dirty and messy and painful. It doesn't have to be soul-witheringly lonely too.

But remember, too, it is not only dirty and messy and painful. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, the dirt and mess and pain is only a small part of life. That's why wallowing is wrong. Yes, mud needs to be addressed, cleaned thoroughly and not swept under the rug; but make music while you're doing it, even if you're singing through tears. The music is all the sweeter for it.

Thank you for letting me collect my thoughts out-loud. Its been a bit of a philosophical few weeks, in case you couldn't tell. Thank you, also, for letting me get a bit religious. Hope you don't mind too much. What does all this have to do with writing, you say? Think of it this way: Who do you think make the best writers? The people who won't acknowledge the mess? The people who wallow in it?

Nope :)

Sarah Allen

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Personal Editing List

[This is a re-blog of a post I did back in 2010]

Every writer has their own unique method, style, and voice, and with this comes unique issues. There are certain quirks, turns of phrase, and specific cliches that they tend towards in their writing. Recognizing these is the first step in avoiding them. It can be hard to figure out what they are, but having others read your writing is one way. Be humble and willing to accept feedback and apply it according as you see fit.

My suggestion is to make a list of your own personal writing cliches, make a "personal editing list", and keep it up by your writing area. If you know that you have certain bad habits, you can consciously keep from falling into them.

Here are some things from my own personal editing list. Some of them are specific, sentence level things, and some have to do with the overall, general idea.

-Struggle vs. slump: I have the bad habit of setting my characters in emotionally hard situations that they can't really do much about except passively accept it and try to be happy despite the problem. This can turn into simple "portrait of a saint" (as my creative writing professor called them) stories, which may show kind, generous characters, but they are passive and not interesting as characters. Every story needs active, immediate and relatable conflict, and this is something I have to consciously remember as I come up with my story ideas.

-Words that don't do enough: I have a list of words that I have a habit of overusing, which don't do as much as I want them too. Some of those words are smiled, laughed, sighed, cried and looked. Words like this are so generic that they don't really show whats going on. Its not that they're absolutely forbidden, but in general, for them to be effective they need context.

-A story isn't poignant/meaningful/significant just because its about infidelity/abandonment/abuse. These things are poignant and important, of course, but they are often such huge topics that they overwhelm the piece. An incredibly meaningful, successful piece can be about things as simple as sister jealousy, unmet expectations, or just the small things that make meaning in our every day life. I have a habit of picking topics like infidelity just because I assume that if its about something significant like that, the piece itself will be significant. That is not necessarily the case, and remembering that helps me steer away from sentimentalism.

What are your bad writing habits, and what are some good ways for getting over them?

Sarah Allen

Monday, September 26, 2011

Reading Supplemental

I've decided I want to do a little better on my supplemental reading. By that I mean anything other than fiction. I do okay with poetry, and want to stick with that, but I want to maybe get into some non-fiction too.

It just seems like this is a good idea. The more we read the more we know the more we have to write about, right? And its not like this needs to be a big project either. I'm thinking maybe a poem or two, maybe a short story, and a chapter of something like Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews or a fairy tale from the Grimm Brothers (though some might say that's cheating.) Maybe some books on Greek or Norse mythology would be cool. Maybe some biographies. Maybe the Qu'ran.

What do you think? Mythologies, folktales and biographies are what sound interesting to me right now, but what other suggestions do you have? Or are there particular biographies/books on mythology that are extra awesome?

Sarah Allen

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Someday


Someday I will be a published author.
Someday I will win literary awards and be published in the New Yorker.
Someday someone will come up to me on the street and ask for my autograph.
Someday I will earn enough money from books to afford trips to London and cruises to Alaska.
Someday I will have a house and a Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy. Tricolor.
Someday a boy who I love will love me back and we will get married in December and go on a romantic honeymoon to Alaska and live in a house with a big library and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy.
Someday I will adopt a little boy and name him Linus.

Today I will write.
Today I will submit my writing to competitions and to the New Yorker.
Today I will make sure my roommates know they are special.
Today I will not go over my budget.
Today I will read and look at pictures of puppies.
Today I will be happy with myself, my family, and my books.
Today I will play with my little sister and make lesson plans.

Oh today.

Sarah Allen

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Passion vs. Technique: Writing from the Heart and the Head

So I just finished Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Having quite enjoyed it (OMG ANN BRONTE IS AMAZING!!!) it got me thinking: why do books like the ones from the Bronte sisters and other writers hit you so hard and stick around so long, while others, if I may be so presumptuous as to suggest The Tigers Wife by Tea Obreht as an example, leave a little to be desired?

My conclusion is that the difference is in the passion. The passion the writer imbues into the story as well as the passion within the story itself. Anything written by the Brontes just oozes with passion, while Ms. Obreht's novel, though absolutely beautiful and technically stunning, feels a little manufactured. Passion is what grips readers and makes your story timeless.

Here's the catch: if the technique is too sloppy or obtrusive, the passion will not come across the right way. I don't doubt that Tea wrote her book with the same passion and feeling as any author; but her technique was so cerebral and precise that it kind of got in the way of a unique voice. On the other end of the spectrum, wannabe writers everywhere (and believe me, they are) who either don't know or don't care about technique don't give us anything but an abstract, angsty mess that is way too generic to be relatable or interesting. Readers want to be able to really see you, clearly and uniquely, meaning their vision must be neither pixelated or smeared.

Easier said then done. I think most of us err on the side of messy, but we can't beat ourselves up too much about that or we might over-analyze and over-write, and that's no better than if we left it messy. Writing is a delicate balancing act between being fake and being repulsive, which I guess isn't so different from real life. This is, I think, where knowledge and experience come into play. Knowledge of what the technical "rules" actually are, and lots and lots of experience reading different writers who keep them and break them in interesting ways. Then we can experiment and see what works. But the rules are there for a reason--they don't restrict our voice, instead with proper use they help our voice come across more clearly. That means that when the rules aren't used, its for a reason too.

Anyway, those are some more of my English-major-nerd-Bronte-sisters-inspired thoughts. But what else is new. Do you agree? Do you think I'm being the right degree of cautious about keeping the literary "rules"? And there are writing rules all over the place, so which do you think are the right ones?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How To Make Your Blog More Popular

Short on time today, so I thought I'd leave you with the video I made as part of the Dear Muse vlogs as an attempt to answer some questions I've been getting about marketing a blog. This is super important for writers, because blogs are one of the main means at our disposal for book publicity. These are just my ideas based on my own experience, and if you have additional ones, I'd love to hear them.



Sarah Allen

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How Do You Want To Be Remembered?


So I've been reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I am totally hooked. I'm just never swept away in quite the same way as I am when I read a Victorian novel. And its fabulous to be discovering a new Bronte sister. I mean, I've known of Ann, of course, I just haven't gotten around to reading any of her stuff until now. And its wonderful. I thought she was going to be much more cerebral and much less emotional then her sisters. She is definitely more sensible, realistic, and wry, but the emotion is just as strong. She can be quite hilarious as well.

Here's what's gotten me thinking: Jane Eyre does hold a very special place in my heart, as does Villette. But why is Ann the sister who has been historically brushed aside when the other competition is Wuthering Heights? Why has history chosen to emphasize one and not the other? Especially when Emily only wrote the one, and its not as good anyway? This is of course my personal biased opinion, and I'm not trying to discredit or invalidate Wuthering Heights. It is a beautiful book and for certain readers packs quite a hefty emotional punch, which is why it has stuck around for so long. What I'm trying to say here, is that I wonder why Ann is the one who has been brushed aside when she's just as good a writer as Charlotte and (*ahem* better than *ahem*) Emily?

Bit of a rant, but really the broader question is this: how do we want to be remembered and how do we create that legacy for ourselves? I'm sure much of it we can't help, and is just up to chance and history. I mean, its not like Ann would have chosen to be Bronte the Lesser. I think all we can do is create the best work we can, work hard at everything else, and hope for the best.

Me? I want to be remembered as an author who tried to show that its not easy or naive, but honorable and okay to be happy. That there is truth and beauty. That good art leads to faith and faith is power. Faith in ourselves individually and collectively, but also faith in something larger than ourselves. Like truth and beauty.

How do you want to be remembered?

Sarah Allen

Monday, September 19, 2011

Vertical Movement and the Pyramid of Abstraction

How many of you have heard of the Pyramid of Abstraction?

To me, this provides a great mental image of good writing. The base of your writing, the support, the majority, is specific, concrete detail. That's where the real connection happens, the true understanding.

Once you have these details, though, then something more needs to happen, something I call vertical movement, because in a way it is movement up the pyramid. You don't even need to get into abstractions, but somehow things need to be tied together in a way that gives the piece a connection to something more universal, or larger than itself. I'm going to use poetry as an example, but I think this applies to all kinds of writing.

A Spiral Notebook
by Ted Kooser

The bright wire rolls like a porpoise
in and out of the calm blue sea
of the cover, or perhaps like a sleeper
twisting in and out of his dreams,
for it could hold a record of dreams
if you wanted to buy it for that
though it seems to be meant for
more serious work, with its
college-ruled lines and its cover
that states in emphatic white letters,
5 SUBJECT NOTEBOOK. It seems
a part of growing old is no longer
to have five subjects, each
demanding an equal share of attention,
set apart by brown cardboard dividers,
but instead to stand in a drugstore
and hang on to one subject
a little too long, like this notebook
you weigh in your hands, passing
your fingers over its surfaces
as if it were some kind of wonder.


Amazing, beautiful detail. I love all the metaphors with the spiral wire. That is the biggest part of this piece. But do you see where it goes vertical? I would say its the lines "but instead to stand in a drugstore and hang on to one subject a little too long." It starts talking about something much, much more than just a spiral bound notebook, even though that's what its technically talking about. But it becomes more symbolic, more universal. Slightly more abstract, but you'll notice he's still using concrete, specific language.

Next example.

Break of Day
by Galway Kinnel

He turns the light on, lights
the cigarette, goes out on the porch,
chainsaws a block of green wood down the grain,
chucks the pieces into the box stove,
pours in kerosene, tosses in the match
he has set fire to the next cigarette with,
stands back while the creosote-lined, sheet-
metal rust-lengths shudder but just barely
manage to direct the cawhoosh in the stove—
which sucks in ash motes through gaps
at the bottom and glares out fire blaze
through overburn-cracks at the top—
all the way to the roof and up out through into
the still starry sky starting to lighten,
sits down to a bowl of crackers and bluish milk
in which reflections of a 40-watt ceiling bulb
appear and disappear, eats, contemplates
an atmosphere containing kerosene stink,
chainsaw smoke, chainsmoke, wood smoke, wood heat,
gleams of the 40-watt ceiling bulb bobbing in blue milk.


Again, amazing detail. This one is a little trickier to find where it goes vertical, but I would say its the line "appear and disappear, eats, contemplates an atmosphere containing kerosene stink, etc...". That is where it starts meaning more than its actually saying. Its not just describing things anymore, it mentions so subtly the way this man feels about all the things its just described, and it doesn't even go into how the man feels about his life of all these things because we've already gotten such a strong sensation of our own from all the concrete details that it doesn't need to. If he started saying, "the man was disenchanted with the kerosene stink..." that would be a gross oversimplification. Maybe that's it, but maybe it's comfortable, or it's exciting, or its whatever. Its could be any or all of them, and that's the point. Vertical expands the poem to mean more than its actually saying, but it still lets the reader find much of their own meaning.

What do you think? I hope I'm making sense here. It's ironic trying to describe an abstract principle of not being abstract. To me, though, this is one of the key principles that once people get, it takes their writing a gigantic leap forward. Then its a matter of figuring out how to do this and do it effectively, which is a much more painstaking, never ending process. If you start with that strong, concrete base, and just keep going, the vertical almost takes care of itself. You'll find the places where its starting to mean more, and you can go from there. Then you'll have something that just blows peoples minds.

Sarah Allen

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 and Why We Need Books

What is there, really, to be said on days like this? Though it might sound ironic coming from a writer, I think at its deepest level experience is beyond words, but its experiences like 9/11 that make it seem pointless to even try. What do Harry Potter and Jane Austen matter at times like this? I think that is a very fair question. What's the point of books and art when people are dying and hungry and poor and afraid?

Books can't give people food and water and shelter. For some people this is reason enough to consider fiction a waste of time. And its true, books don't fulfill those most basic needs. But I would suggest that books and art fulfill an even deeper need, and on the grand scale are even more important then food and shelter. Events like September 11th are symptoms of a much larger and more pervasive disease.

We humans are so stuck inside ourselves. Fear, greed, pride, bigotry, hate--all the reasons behind things like terrorist attacks and other crime--are a result of people not being able to see past themselves.

Basically, we need books to take us outside ourselves.

Reading and art gives us knowledge, experience, and understanding. We feel things we might never have otherwise felt, and see things through a very different perspective. I think that, often, just the experience of having an outside center of focus, no matter what it is, can be enough of a wake-up call and paradigm shift to get us to have even a moment of trying to see things from someone else's perspective before we act. This is a bit of a silly, tongue-in-cheek question, but I wonder how many members of Al Quaida or the Taliban have read Pride and Prejudice? And vice versa; how many of us have read the Quoran?

So sometimes things suck. Sometimes people hurt other people. Sometimes the world seems like its full of hurt and people who don't care. We need to care. As individuals we should try and comfort and give and donate, and do whatever we can to, in the words of nerdfighters everywhere, end world suck. But as far as a world collectively, you know what we the world could do to help and really get at the root of the problem?

Read.

Sarah Allen

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Getting Past The Wall

It's writing time. You put on a comfy t-shirt, turn on the Michael Giacchino station on Pandora, and begin. Starting takes a little while, but after about 50 or 100 words you start getting into more of a flow. The goal is 1000 words, but then at around 650, you hit the wall. It just stops coming. You try plodding, but nothing really happens and everything feels contrived. So what do you do?

The obvious answer is to take a break. I think this generally is a good idea. Go on a run, get something to eat, read, just get away from the computer for a while. Then you come back revitalized and more ready to keep going.

But what if you only have a short time to write to begin with, and can't afford much of a break? Perhaps mini-breaks would work; grabbing a granola bar, taking a quick lap around the room, reading a poem. Maybe. But, assuming I'm not the only one who experiences this, what do you do to kick things off again? How do you push through successfully? Maybe a change of scenery or something. I really want to make some good progress on my novel, and that means I need to be able to get past the wall.

Advice?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Downside to Being An Optimist

So I'm an optimist. Clearly. I believe that its better to be happy than not, and that when one is not happy, efforts should be made to change that. Not everybody believes that way. So there's a few things about being an optimist that I have to explain. That I want to get off my chest.

It makes us, or at least me, feel awful when someone assumes that we don't understand sadness or depression. We do. In fact, you'd be surprised. Yes, we're generally happy. When you come to us wallowing, our automatic reaction is to try and buoy you up, help you see the positives. That does not mean we don't understand the suck. That doesn't mean that we don't have times, long periods of it, when our utmost belief in and efforts at happiness don't work. Its terrifying. Sometimes the optimism of even genuine optimists is a facade, turned on as a reaction against the pessimism and depression of the people around them. Both to try and help them, because optimism is auto-mode, and also because they have to defend optimism with their whole soul, especially in times when its hard to believe in it, or they will crumble.

When optimists fall, they fall hard. In my experience, this is something pessimists don't quite get. Being an optimist can be painful. In general, we're happy and doing our thing, but that makes sad and depressed and overwhelmed that much harder to take. Both inside and outside of us. And because we're generally happy, we're not quite sure how to talk about the bad when it happens. We don't want to freak anyone out. Not to be harsh, but wallowers become used to being in a hard place, and used to talking about it and handling it. But when it happens to an optimist, it happens extra bad, and we're alone with it too. To sound totally cheesy and angsty, there have been many times when the closest people in my life have no clue how bad I'm hurting and panicking on the inside, because I'm the "happy one" and I don't know how to not be. Not anyone's fault, just how things are. And I know I'm not the only one.

Being optimistic doesn't mean being naive about or ignoring the ugliness and crap in the world. That's being naive and ignorant. Optimists take the crap and decide to be happy anyway. As much bad as there is, I believe there is also much good, much beauty, and much to be grateful for. I believe pessimism doesn't do anybody any good. I guess what I'm trying to say is don't make assumptions about someone because they're not on Prozac or in therapy. In a sense, they're the ones doing it on their own.

As a side note, I'm doing fine. I'm stressed (who isn't?), but actually doing pretty good. This is just something that's been on my mind for a long time, based on past experience and conversations.

I also hope I haven't offended anybody. I'm not trying to make a statement about depression or clinical drugs or anything like that, I'm trying to make a statement about the assumptions and stereotypes of happy people that frustrate me. I don't think any two people can truly, completely understand each other; for now I think we've got to leave that to deity. Everyone is a unique individual, and I'm talking in generalities here. I'm sure there are points I've missed, things I don't understand. But all this is what I do understand, or at least the way I see things.

I'm interested to hear what you think.

Sarah Allen
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