From Sarah, With Joy

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

New post every Monday

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Books My Younger Siblings Like

I took two of my siblings to the library last night. I took my little sister S, which is fairly normal. She and I are the bookworms of the family, and I take her to the library with me a lot.

I also took my brother J. That was a miracle. It seems like he's been having a rough couple days and he's found himself with a bigger chunk of free-time now that basketball seasons ended. He came and asked me for a book to read which, you guys know, is about the best question a person can get. He was almost shy about it. It was pouring rain but my mom looked at me with a take-this-chance-and-run look and said, "Take him to the library before he changes his mind." Of course S wanted to come too, and we went.

So, okay. S is eight years old, right? I was picking out books with J while she walked through the kids section. She hurried up to me with one of those white hardcover abridged-for-kids books, Great Expectations. I said, "I'm impressed you picked Dickens."

She smiled and said, "This is the one she reads in Matilda, right?"

I told her yes, sort of, but that this wasn't the real version. She looked crestfallen for a moment and then asked where the real one was. "It's long," I warned her. She wanted to see it. So we went and I pulled out some shorter Dickens, but she wanted that one. So I gave her Great Expectations and she took it to the kids section and began to read.

Now, J. In the past, he has really enjoyed listening to the Harry Potter audio-books. He has also enjoyed the Redwall series by Brian Jaques, the Percy Jackson series, and Levin Thumps. But he is fifteen, and its been a while since I've seen him pick up a book for fun. I've recently kept audiobooks going in my car and on the occasions when I'm driving him somewhere or picking him up from school, if I haven't turned it to the radio before he gets in the car, he'll turn it for me, or put up a fuss until I let him. Last week I had playing in my car The Witches by Roald Dahl. Maybe I was just feeling particularly stubborn that day but when I picked him up from school I told him we were listening to the book and he couldn't do anything about it. Whether it was Dahl's delightful writing or the fabulously British narration, he didn't throw too much of a fit. The next time I picked him up the radio was on. He switched it to the audiobook.

Last night at the library, with the very helpful recommendations of my go-to book recomenderer, we ended up with The Graveyard Book and Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman, and Enders Game. We'll see how it goes.

S ended up with Ingrid Law's Saavy rather than Great Expectations, but she'll get to Dickens eventually, I have no doubt. She has to finish Among the Hidden before she starts on Saavy, and she plans to finish all the books in the Shadow Children's series too.

Here's the quick-list of some books my younger siblings have read and loved.

Redwall, Brian Jacques
Percy Jackson and the Lighting Thief, Rick Riordan
Leven Thumps, Obert Skye
The Witches, Road Dahl
Among the Hidden, Margaret Peterson Haddix
Bud Not Buddy, Christopher Paul Curtis
Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Louis Sachar

What would you guys recommend, next time I rope my younger siblings to the library?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, February 21, 2013

10 Weird and Creepy Places to Set a Novel (Part 2)

Welcome to Part 2 of 10 Weird and Creepy Places to Set a Novel. In Part 1 we focused a lot on the creepy, and today we're going to focus on the weird. That being said, these places definitely still have a good amount of creep factor, and in many cases you don't have to travel very far.

6. Arthur Kill Ship Graveyard


Just off Staten Island, the bay has become a graveyard for old unused and dismantled tugboats. Over the years many ships that are no longer in operation have accumulated here and been left to rot. It makes me feel sad, a bit, and also curious. I imagine characters climbing barriers and exploring, and who knows what they might find.

7. Dead Horse Bay

An ideal place for collectors, Dead Horse Bay is hopefully not as creepy as it sounds. Once an area of horse processing plants (hence the name, I think) it eventually became a landfill until the cap burst, spewing trash onto the bay and into the ocean. Although you never know what you may find among the rubbish.

8. Republic of Molossia

So apparently some people can get away with being like, "Hey, I'm making my own country," and then it happens. Such is the case with the The Republic of Molossia in the heart of Nevada, founded by Kevin Baugh. It originated as a childhood game and then developed into an actual territory of about 1.3 acres. Allegedly, Kevin Baugh accepts cookie dough as legal tender, and his little micro-nation is still in a state of war with East Germany. And he doesn't pay taxes.

9. UFO Watchtower


In Hooper, Colorado, Judy Messoline has capitalized on the enthusiasm of Southwestern UFO enthusiasts. You can come here to camp and watch for UFOs, or at least the beautiful desert sky. The campground is complete with rock gardens, a gift shop, and Judy can even legally officiate a wedding. Now what type of characters would go for that?


10. Trinity Church, King George Island


A church in Antarctica? Sure, why not. In the 90's a charity called "Temple for Antarctica" began collecting funds all across Russia and the church was finished and consecrated in 2004. It is manned year round by two volunteer Orthodox priests (now they would be fascinating characters) who pray for the souls of Russians who have died on polar expeditions and service the spiritual needs of the people at the Bellinghausen Station. They've even performed a wedding.

There you have it! Ten weird and creepy places to fire your writerly imagination. Any others you would recommend?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

10 Weird and Creepy Places to Set a Novel (Part I)

1. Isla de la Munecas


Perhaps the creepiest place I've ever heard of. Apparently this little island in a canal in Mexico was home to one man, Don Julian Santana. He discovered the body of a drowned girl (whether in reality or in his mind, its up for debate) and decided to honor her memory by...hanging up dolls? The result, all these years later, is a island draped with armless, eyeless, decomposing dolls that you can only get to by paying tour guides to take a detour. I'll never feel the same way riding Small World again.

2. Winchester Mansion


So, I've actually been to this place. It is truly bizarre. Apparently a recently widowed Sarah Winchester was told by a fortune teller woman that she must travel west and build. And build. That she would live as long as she kept building, but that if she stopped she would die. See those stairs? Yeah, they go nowhere. Obviously this house is prime territory for ghosts. When we lived in California our house was almost 100 years old and had hidden rooms and a window downstairs with surgical tools embedded in it. So when we visited the Winchester Mansion it was a little too...close to home.

3. Sedlec Ossuary


The Sedlec Ossuary is your average Czech Catholic chapel. Just, ya know, with unique interior design. Yes that is an actual chandelier. Yes, it is made with actual human bones. Apparently in the 13th century holy land was sprinkled on the grounds of this chapel and then during the period of Black death so many people wanted to be buried here that it became sort of a mass grave that was exhumed centuries later to make room for expansion, and then the bones unearthed were used for decoration? The coat of arms is also made of bone. This place has been used in several movies and documentaries. It's easy to see why.

4. Hellingly Hospital

Is there anything creepier than an abandoned hospital? How about an abandoned lunatic asylum? This place opened in 1903 and was used off and on until it was abandoned in 1994. Which is incredibly recent, in my opinion, and, looking at pictures, looks like suspiciously fast deterioration. Sure vandalism hasn't helped, but I don't think spirits of the insane dead have helped either. And hello, it's called HELLingly.

5. Takakonuma Greenland Park

There are quite a few abandoned amusement parks, but not too many shrouded in as much mystery and cover-up as Takakonuma Greenland Park in Japan. It is not on any maps of Japan and there are very few current photos. It was built in the 70's, only opporated for a couple years before being shut down, and is associated with several mysterious deaths. And nowadays its too close to the nuclear meltdown at Fukishima to be readily accessible. Bumper cars, anyone?

Come back tomorrow for part 2!

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Are you a Long writer or a Short writer?


This is a major problem I have with every piece. Not necessarily a problem with the piece, per se, but a problem with my attitude towards it and stress about it.

I should say off the bat that this is not a good vs bad issue (despite the Glinda picture...sorry, couldn't help myself). Its not an issue of being a "good witch" or a "bad witch." We all just write differently, and each end of the spectrum comes with different issues.

Many of my writer friends are self-professed "long" writers. They fill scenes easily, find interesting new characters to work with along the way, and (I think?) don't typically feel at a loss for words. Their main trouble comes with editing, when they have too much and have to decide what to cut. It's like asking which finger they want cut off.

Then there are those of us on the "short" end of the spectrum. (No jokes, here, okay? 5'4 [almost] is a perfectly acceptable height for a lady). I am most definitely on this end of the spectrum, about as far as you can go. It used to give me doubts about whether or not I was a "real" or "legitimate" writer, because how could someone who wants to write for a living, and loves doing it, have such a hard time finding enough words? I've had lots of time to think about this, and how me being this type of writer is definitely okay and to be expected given other areas of my personality. I ADORE the editing process, and going through an already drafted piece and fixing it up is so much easier and so much more fun than the drafting itself. But in the first draft, I am always worried I won't have enough.

This is something I've talked about before, and its worth talking about again. I'm trying to learn how to not stress about word count at the beginning, and remember that editing is for adding too and I can make it work. I try to remind myself to slow down in the drafting process and feel all the grooves and twists along the path and so I don't end up skipping ahead, going too fast, getting everything in.

So anyway, those of you long writers have any advice or tips for us shorties? I realize that its an innate and ingrained part of our personalities and process that determines which side of the spectrum we're on, and that we can't necessarily explain it. But what are you talking about with all those words? What do you use to take up that needed space?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Some Awesome TED Talks

I learn so much from TED. I think its one of the greatest things the internet has given us. So here's some of my recent favorites:

I hope these help and inspire you as much as they did me!

Sarah Allen

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pete Docter, SNL and What I Mean by Happy

Fair warning: This post rambles. I'm still just waiting on stuff. Waiting on jobs, grad schools, agent queries, and still working on fleshing out my Novel #2 outline. So there's not much news to report. But lots to think about, and lots of time to do it.

I watched a documentary about Pixar this morning. It was a bit outdated (Steve Jobs was still around and they'd just finished Cars) and I did wish they'd talked about Up. But I didn't realize until now that Pete Docter is the one at least mostly responsible for both Monsters, Inc. and Up! which means THE BEST OF THEM ALL. He is officially my favorite and I want to marry him. Apparently he (with Pixar) has a new one coming out in 2015 and I am already freaking out. I want to write stories like he makes movies. I want to create characters like he created Sully and Carl and Dug. I would beyond happily make my living cleaning Pixar's toilets.

Also a documentary about Saturday Night Live in the 80's. (Ok, ok, so I love entertainment documentaries.) I'm going to say this and I hope it doesn't sound too...whatever. Am I allowed to have something like "Host an episode of SNL" on my bucket list? Because I kinda sorta do. Maybe that is completely horrifically ridiculous, but nevertheless. I want to write books and get a name big enough to maybe write movies and maybe tv shows and host an episode of SNL. Can I be crazy and want that and even hope for it? I also have this genius beyond genius idea for the producers of that show. They should totally start using YouTube stars as occasional hosts. Imagine. John and Hank Green hosting Saturday Night Live. Ok maybe it wouldn't work, and it would definitely be different, but mostly: YES OMG YES.

Sometimes I feel bad for being happy. Is that weird? I feel bad because I can see how I sometimes am not giving my sadder friends what they need, but I don't know how. I can do optimism and encouragement and hope and future-planning, but I get the impression that in the context of what my friends are sometimes feeling or going through, those things are not even in the vocabulary, like, they are completely irrelevant. But then I think, do you not see how these things would make your life better? And then its like, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, thank you for caring, but it is not about these things making my life better it is about how I am built inside and how the world is and how I am able to function within it and then I'm like BUT BE HAPPY. I've felt this way for a long time, with many people. I firmly believe that we were made and placed on this world to be happy. Maybe that is too simple for many people's life experience? Still, though. I don't believe it should be.

Then again, I sometimes think I give the very false impression that everything is peachy hunky dory and that I've never experienced depression and can't handle darkness and hurt. My dad works for Gallup on this Strengths Finder Test (incredible, the best I've ever taken and I'm not just saying that, and I'll definitely be talking more about it at some point.) This test gives you your top five strengths out of a list of 32 (I think?). Anyway, Positivity is my number 5. So I do think my natural reaction, when anxiety and fear and sadness and dark and hurt come, is to attack them with a ferocious smile and grit and beat until I've found a solution or the dark goes away. I have had plenty of times when this does not work. In the past couple years, particularly. For most of my life I think this has not actually been a very hard fight. Happiness is natural to me and I find it pretty easily. That is true. But these past couple years I have experienced what its like to struggle to even want to be happy and then I panic about not being happy which only makes it spiral. I freak out about happiness being a real fight, feel like it should not be, we should all just BE HAPPY. Which is of course ridiculous and unrealistic and frankly, unnatural. Happiness, often, is a fight. A bloody painful one. But that's okay. I think maybe my natural positivity doesn't mean that I struggle less than other people, but that I believe in the Ultimate Happy Ending outcome of that fight, that it is worth it, that this struggle for and eventual achievement of Joy is our natural state. This fight isn't over until we get there, and we WILL get there.

Hmmm, guess I needed to get a little philosophical on y'all today. Rambly philosophy isn't the easiest to get through, so thank you if you've actually read this.

I hope you are all Happy with a Capital H.

Sarah Allen

Thursday, February 7, 2013

What I Learned from Actually Writing a Novel

People say all the time that no matter how many craft books you read, how much writing advice you learn, there are certain things you just don't learn or grasp about writing a novel until you've, well, written a novel. So maybe its futile for me to tell you guys about my experience and what I learned because you probably already know this stuff and will learn other things from your own experiences and I'm going to have to figure out a whole new set of things for this next novel anyway. But maybe it might help a little, so here goes.

Logical flow in an extended narrative. What I mean by this is that as I've been getting feedback from readers, one relatively consistent comment seems to be that certain reactions or plot sequences are not natural. They don't flow logically from the situation. I believe this comes from having a long narrative that I've outlined, and knowing steps A to B to C, because then when step C needs to take a little longer or detour straight to step E, because that's the most natural flow, you don't see it as well. Does that make sense? Hopefully all the issues have been fixed, but now I know that you can NOT let an outline or predetermined sequence of events get in the way of natural character reactions.

Fluff scenes and Action scenes. This ties in to logical flow. I was so worried about reaching word count that before I even started I filled in my outline with "filler" scenes to make sure I had enough. So I ended up with several scenes I needed to trim down or chop entirely and a lot of other sparser areas that needed to be expanded. I think this happens in most first drafts, because we think we know what's important and follow our outline instead of the characters telling us what really matters. I'll try and give an example without giving away too much. My main character has relationships with characters A and B. Both are very important to him and say a lot about his character, but his relationship with character A is much more important to the forward action of the story. My outline was focused much more on character B, which means I had to take out a lot of B and add a lot more A. Hopefully all for the better. And I didn't need to worry about word count in the first place.

So those are two related things I learned via trial and error in the process of writing a novel. Hopefully I've fixed most of the problem areas, and will continue to do so. But this means that as I start novel #2, I will be very conscious of keeping my characters reactions and decisions very logical and realistic, and letting those choices and emotions guide the narrative. I still need an outline (I'm one of those writers) but I'm going to let myself be much more fluid with it, and add and delete scenes from it as I go. Because the character is the true director of the story. The outline will make sure we know where we're going, but the characters are the ones deciding how we get there.

Sarah Allen


Monday, February 4, 2013

Marketing Lessons from Doritos and the Superbowl

Just some quick thoughts.

This year what stood out to me was Doritos.

Not only were their commercials the most hilarious, they were fan-made. This means Doritos scored in two ways: They put less effort into the commercials and got more out of them. The fans were involved and excited and willing participants. That's a recipe for success right there.


So how do writers follow this lesson? What about putting together an anthology? Hosting a contest of posters and paintings and fanvids based on your book?

Do you think this would work? What are your ideas?

Sarah Allen
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