From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Green Lantern, and why Hector Hammond is (to me) the most interesting character

So I took some cute kids to Green Lantern last night. I'm not huge in to super hero movies (don't get me started on Dark Night minus Heath Ledger), but I actually quite enjoyed it. Graphics were cool, aliens were pretty cool which for me is saying something, the creepy villain monster was actually creepy, and Ryan Reynolds is of course adorable.

Here's my problem with super hero movies. The heroes themselves are just so one-dimensional and cliche, and the stories are always the same. Don't get me wrong, super heroes and their traditional plots are totally classic, which is why they've been around so long and generally work very well. I just prefer more complexity and unpredictability, I suppose.

Which is why villains are almost always so much more interesting then their hero counterparts. I mean, who would pick Jack Shepherd when you could have Benjamin Linus, or Harry when you could have Snape, or Shuester when you could have Sue, or Andy Sachs over Miranda get the point.

It's the layers that make the villains and anti-hero's interesting to me. When you realize that Snape and Ben and Hector are all just deeply in love, even if they can't help but be creepy about it. When you realize that Snape and Ben and Hector were all abused or mistreated by their fathers. When you see that Sue does have a heart in the form of her downs sister, and that scene when you come in on Meryl Streep/Miranda with no make-up...that scene is the quintessence of what I'm talking about.

It's the fact that under this:

there is this:

And under this:

there is this:

And that the good ones always have a pitiable and usually sympathetic reason for what they do:

Happy writing!
Sarah Allen

p.s. Whats that? I've mentioned Meryl Streep and Benjamin Linus a hundred times before? And Snape? I'm sorry, have we met? I'm Sarah Allen.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why Writing for Teenagers and Adults is the Same

One piece of writing advice I hear quite often is to keep ones readers or target audience in mind. It makes sense, right? I mean, Judy Blume, Steven King and Fyodr Dostoevsky probably all have very different readerships.

Lies. At least partly. I've read and loved all three of those authors, and know lots of other people who have too. I mean, you can make generalities, but since when have generalities been good for writing?

My point is this. The only real audience you can write "to" is you. And by you I mean everybody. Let me explain. (No, there is too much. Let me sum up.) When you are honest and very specific, and write things that you enjoy and that mean something important to you, then your readers are able to grasp that important meaning through those specific details. By being specific you become universal. People can relate to grass stains and cigarette smoke and the first day of school. Those things may mean something different to different people, but they have much more meaning than if you just said happy or anxious or sad.

That is why writing for adults and teenagers is the same. The point isn't to pander or adjust to any preconceived "level." The point is to tell the most interesting story you know in the most meaningful way you know how, whether the main character is 7, 17, or 70. You can't control what any given reader is going to take away from your work, because they will all take away something different anyway. Our job is to do our best to make sure they can take away something. No matter what age they are.

When you really get down to it, we're all just human.

Sarah Allen

Sunday, June 19, 2011

On Fathers and James Scott Bell's 10 Writing Commandments

I don't really know how to start a post about my dad. I won't get too personal/mushy, don't worry, and I'll try and keep things writing related, but what can you really say about the people to whom you owe your upbringing, character, values, habits, outlook, quirks, neurosis, not to mention your existence?

But dads. We are who we are because of our parents, impacting not only the fact that we are writers, but the way we write as well. Our whole perspective and outlook and style is shaped by our parents. It's kind of nice to take a step back and look at how our writing and writing careers are influenced by the parentals. Today, our dads.

I'm going to brag about my dad for a second, if that's okay. You know that little old geneology site called Yeah, he started that. Now he's with an equally awesome company, also geneology, called FamilyLink. He's got amazing ideas for increasing ease and efficiency popping in to his head all the time, is always on the technological cutting edge (the number of computers at my parents house is amazing, and I think he was one of the first few hundred people in Utah Valley to join LinkedIn), and has awesome ideas about marketing and networking. I get my fascination for that kind of thing from him. Getting the actual ink-on-the-page writing done is really a one-woman job, but for everything else needed to make a successful career as a writer, especially in today's publishing industry, I've had an incredible example and teacher.

Not to mention he's just a really, really great dad.

So what about you? How has your father influenced who you are as a writer?

Before I sign off, I want to tell you to be SURE to check out James Scott Bell's post giving his 10 Commandments for Writers. It's the sort of thing you'll want to put on a plaque in whichever room you do your writing.

Have a happy Father's Day and a pleasant Sabbath, and keep writing!

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

3 Ways to Be a Better Writer

People (meaning aspiring writers) often wonder if writing can be taught, and how much, or if its something you either have or you don't. I've been wondering about this quite a bit lately, basically because I've felt like I've reached a sort of plateau in my writing career, and have been looking for ways to revitalize my writing and give it an extra boost.

Here's how I see it. I think a person has to have a certain amount of instinct to see what works and what doesn't, and how to create things that lean more towards the working side, and a lot of that has to come naturally. But I think more can be taught then people realize or expect. If you're looking for ways to improve your writing, as we all should be, here are three things that I think can make all the difference.

1. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, and read. Oh yeah, and read. Even if you have little or no natural instinct about good writing, reading great literature from an early age can pretty much teach you all you need to know as far as that goes. I can't think of a better way to learn than by watching a master at his craft. This is advice you'll get from EVERY writer giving advice, and for good reason. I think most of us are voracious readers, but I want to expand the definition of that phrase. Read people and experiences and life and other kinds of art. They all have things to teach and stories to tell. Be voracious about everything.

2. Know the rules. Notice I said "know", not "follow" necessarily. Read all the good writing books out there (yes, more reading). On Writing, Elements of Style, Writing the Breakout Novel, all give super great and logical advice. Know the knit-picky rules about adverbs and dialog tags and grammar and cliches. Know the rules, know how to use them, and then do whatever you want. The rules are there for a reason, but they are tools, not chains. You can even break the rules in a bad way and still be not only published but incredibly successful. *ahem* stephanie meyer *ahem*.

3. Get to that thing at your deepest core. This one's a bit harder to explain, but please bare with me. See, the reading and writing rules are all well and good, but that only takes you so far, and its in going beyond that things get very personal. You can have a grammatically impeccable story based on Shakespeare, Dickens, AND Dostoevsky and still have it feel flat and meaningless. The reason Shakespeare and Dickens and Dostoevsky reach us so powerfully is because they let themselves be vulnerable and never let up in their dig into the deepest recesses of human nature. I'm being abstract, and I hope you don't mind if I use myself as an example to help get more specific. Like I said, this is where it gets personal and I can't think of another way explain.

Here's what I mean by "thing" at your deepest core. Everybody has something, a subject or emotion that shakes you and impacts you in a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts kind of way. So, my example: I've got a sister who is 18 months younger than me. She is gorgeous and smart and incredibly talented and organized and is one of those make their bed even on Sundays kind of people. She is kind and generous and has always been able to make friends easily, at least so it appears to me. Not so easy for me. In elementary school there were a couple of years when I had to wear hearing aids, and I remember a time when she had a friend over, and I was sort of tagging along until the friend pulled me aside and told me she just wasn't used to playing with kids with hearing aids. So I went and read a book. Obviously that experience and the emotions and thoughts and ideas about myself that come from that kind of thing have stuck with me like a barnacle, and shaped me in ways both good and not so good.

When I took my first creative writing class in junior high, my relationship with my sister, my feelings of inferiority (my problem, not hers), that was the main fodder I had to work with. It took a while, a few years even, for my teachers to get it out of me, because being that personal and vulnerable and honest can hurt. Even writing the hearing aids story in this blog post twinges a little bit. Fortunately I had teachers who knew how to get it out of me, who were patient and had more confidence in me then I had in myself, and who knew that utter honesty and vulnerability and self-exploration are what make for good writing. Even when I don't write about sibling comparison or self-confidence issues directly, the experience of feeling something and being impacted by it deeply gets you to a point where you can better understand and sympathize with all the other human emotions and human nature in general, and that makes your characters and stories and what you have to say something everyone else can relate to. Universal.

Everyone has something. You probably were thinking of your core issue as you read this. I'm still learning to not be afraid of it, and use it to reach other people. That's the key: if you can get to that core point then you can write from your core, and your writing will have a ring of truth and the superficial, cliche and abstract dilutions will be gone. It can be a little painful, but it is so helpful and worth it, and even personally can be so cathartic and refreshing. Do you have a barnacle?

I hope this makes sense and that it helped at least a little. Any other ideas for becoming a better writer?

Sarah Allen

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mark Rylance, Louis Jenkins and the Tony Awards

Mark Rylance is a genius. He was artistic director at the Globe for 10 years, and last night won his second Tony award for his performance in Jerusalem. I think you only get to being as good as he is by being obsessive and a little bit crazy. He is one of the most widely read people I know about, and can talk very intelligently on almost any subject. This is what I'm gathering from the bios and interviews I've been reading through.

Because I think they're awesome, here is Mark's acceptance speech for Boeing-Boeing, back in 2008, and the poem he read in his acceptance speech last night. Both are by mid-western American poet Louis Jenkins. The poem he recites in the video is called "Back Country."


Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, "Say, I want to try that." Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren't so good. They won't hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren't pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it's the molecular structure of the alloy or just the amount of give in a fence, I don't know, but I've torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences. The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it's a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry, cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side.

Awesome, right? Have any of you ever tried prose poetry like this? I took a class my last semester that involved a lot of mix genre stuff, such as prose poetry, and other stuff like flash-non-fiction and other crazy stuff. I appreciate Mark Rylance for introducing me to Louis Jenkins, and providing such a good example of literary crazy awesome. Read and study a TON TON TON and a TON more, and its ok to be crazy. When you read that much and are that dedicated to your craft, I don't know if its possible to NOT be crazy in some way. Maybe eccentric is a better word. And look what the possible results are: a nice shiny trophy and people thinking you're awesome.

I love the excitement and motivation I get from introductions to awesome people like my new buddies Mark and Louis. I want to learn more about writing plays. Now...what poem would I recite in my acceptance speech...?

Sarah Allen

Friday, June 10, 2011

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides

Ok. It's late, but here are my quick thoughts, after my second time seeing it.

Happy happy happy for any chance to see Johnny Depp and Geoffory Rush, and Captain Jack is sexy.

So relieved to be rid of Kiera and Orlando. Sorry, but its the truth.

The first pirates is still totally the best, and I still think they should have stopped there, but I think I actually enjoyed this new one more then 2 and 3.

Plot was not great, kind of sketchy.

Cleric dude and mermaid story was cute, they both provided the eye-candy they were meant for. Meh. Whatever.

Some great Jack and Barbosa moments, which is the main point for me anyway. "We shall need a cross-bow, an hourglass, three goats and one of us must learn to play the trumpet while the other goes like this." And come on, the whole movie is worth it just for the part when Barbosa puts on his really big hat.

Most of all I want that screen shot of Johnny coming up in the fog as the wallpaper in my room, with the famous grinning over his shoulder from the first movie for the other wall. And the music of course was awesome.

What did you think?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Breaking Through a Marketing Plateau

You know when you start a new diet, and the first 5 or 10 pounds come off in a snap, and then a few more pounds come, and then, without you changing anything, it just stops? You've hit a wall or a plateau, where one pound feels like a life or death struggle.

Well, I think the same thing happens with marketing. You start a blog, write often, comment on others, use Twitter to bring in readers, everything you know you're supposed to do. And it really does work, you can get some pretty good growth that way. But then after a while it almost starts feeling like your little market is saturated. You're doing the same things as before, but numbers start flat-lining. Not nearly as many new followers, not as many comments. When this trend happens too often or too severely in something like book sales, it can be deadly.

So what can you do? I'll give you some suggestions of what I think might work, but mostly I want to hear your ideas. Those of you who have been in this game for a while, how do you keep things growing, keep the life blood flowing?

First of all, keep going. It's definitely not going to go anywhere if you stop moving. Keep writing, commenting, tweeting, touring, networking, everything. Sometimes, fingers crossed, all you need is time before your next spurt.

Find new places. If your main tributary starts drying, look for new ones. Find websites that you're not already using and give them a try. No need to stress about it either, just add one at a time and see if they give results. Maybe get business cards, or look for local opportunities doing readings, signings, panels, lectures, that kind of thing. Go to conferences and network. Of course those things are more time and money intensive, but they may be worth it.

Change something up. Add something to your blog design or change the time of your posts. Try writing about something a little out of the norm. Try tweeting more often or You might catch the attention of people you wouldn't have otherwise.

Then of course there is always the publicity stunt type stuff. Plan a book drive, organize an event at your kids school, do a blog contest, something like that, and get the news to come if possible. Again, intensive, with potentially little pay-off, but who knows.

So what are your guys' ideas? Even just using your online presence, how do you revitalize it when it seems like the normal methods are slowing down? How do you keep finding new people, and keep them coming back?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

3 Writing Lessons from Chandler Bing

First of all, I just have to say that I loved having a reason for looking up pictures of Matthew Perry. He makes me happy. I know I just did this kind of thing with Steven Tyler, but I kind of like the idea of seeing what we can learn about writing from really awesome people. Like Chandler.

1. Humor helps. In real life and in writing. People remember you and you're writing more if you're funny or witty or entertaining. Think about it, the most quoted person on Friends has to be Chandler or Phoebe. Chandler's the one with the witty comebacks that you wish you'd thought of first. Even if what you're writing is serious, having moments of comic relief not only helps your audience breath for a bit, but the contrast allows the dramatic moments to stand out and mean more.

2. Awesome is a relative term. Most of the things you think you need to be awesome (ripped body, money, a British accent) Chandler doesn't have. He's got an unglamorous job, is sometimes immature and is always a total dork. And yet he's still totally awesome. He is what he is, and even makes fun of himself for it, and that makes him awesome. Write the best you can and always try to improve, but be yourself and write whatever kinds of things you think are awesome. Just be what you be and write what you write.

3. Don't take the people in your life for granted. Chandler did at first, always looking outside of his group for girls. But Monica was across the hall the whole time. Even if you don't have famous author friends or know a host of New York agents, which most of us don't, if you pay attention you can learn from everyone already in your life. Get to know them deep down, and hear their stories. That always helps with writing. Or one might have done an editing minor in college, or just be a really good reader. And who knows, maybe one of them actually does have an old roommate with an uncle's neighbor's twin sister who is an editor at Random House.

Happy writing!

Sarah Allen

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Character Before Bedtime

I have to credit my sister's friend with this idea. She's a bit of a writer, and my sister told me that every night before she goes to bed she entertains and lulls herself by developing a character. She creates someone, who they are, what they do, the color of their eyes and hair, their background and relationships. I'm a terrible sleeper anyway, and don't know if this will help me with that, but it could be a good use of the trying to fall asleep time. A new character every night gives you quite a stock for your current and future projects. You may even dream about the character, write a novel about it and become the next Stephanie Meyer. Or not. But it sounds like a cool idea, and I thought I'd pass it on. So next time you're lying in bed trying to sleep, instead of counting sheep, create someone in your head.

And speaking of sheep, here's a character to get the juices flowing. James Cromwell as Farmer Hoggett in Babe. Genius going on, right here.

Happy writing!
Sarah Allen

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Where do you discover the books you buy?

Yesterday at The Kill Zone, Michelle Gagnon told us the best and worst writing advice she's ever gotten. There were some great tips here, some I've heard before and some I haven't. I definitely think keeping ones day-job is a good idea, for both financial and social reasons, and I've heard several people warn against spending too much on a publicist.

One thing that I'll admit surprised me was the statistic Michelle gave about social networks. She said that only 4% of book sales come from Facebook and Twitter, and probably even less from writer-centered sites like GoodReads and Shelfari. 4% is tiny, insignificant, minuscule, particularly compared to the percent of marketing effort most writers put into these sites.

Assuming that these statistics are correct, here's my question: what other/better options do we poor writers have? If Facebook, Twitter and GoodReads only give marginal results, where are more useful places to put our limited resources? Social networks take a lot of time, but cost nothing and therefore seem like a good choice. I still plan on using them as best as I can, but I want to put my money and time where it will really pay off, so I need some ideas.

I'll admit, I'm not the best at the discovering books from relatively obscure sources thing. This is absolutely something I hope to fix in the future (with the help of my new kindle...eeeeh :), but the majority of my reading picks come from classic lists (Dostoevsky, Austen, Brontes, Dickens, Hugo, etc.) best-seller and critically acclaimed lists (Steven King, Rowling, Kaye Gibbons, Tea Obreht) and recommended from friends and family (Connie Willis, Joan Bauer, Sharon Creech, Louis Sachar). There are many, many fantastic mid-list and indie authors with incredible books just waiting to be discovered. And you have to be discovered before you can become a classic, be put on lists, or be talked about around the dinner table. Since I'm just beginning to dip into this whole new pool of writers, and since for us beginning, un-listed, not-yet-classics, less-talked-about writers doing our own marketing is absolutely crucial, I'm coming to you guys: where do you discover the books you buy? If not Facebook and Twitter, then where?

My two ideas about this are that the most basic thing success in this field requires is great writing, and the second is that as far as marketing goes, blogs have big potential. I'm pretty sure the first idea is correct. I don't think you can really get that far on bad writing, though there are a few exceptions. But what about the second idea? Do blogs really do that much? It seems like Amanda Hocking used blogs and blog tours more than anything else to promote her books, and look where she is now. Of course I could be wrong, but I'm looking for ideas here. I bet a lot of people find books the same way I do, via lists and word of mouth, but what course of action does that leave for us writers, especially if social networking sites don't really help that much? What are the best places and ways to help us get to that listed and talked about point?

Thanks for your ideas, and happy writing!
Sarah Allen

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Summer Writing Goals

Happy June 1st, everyone! The days are getting longer and warmer, vacations and family reunions are looming, all great stuff, but sometimes the crazy, lazy, spontaneous nature of summer can make keeping up with the writing a little difficult. Here are a few summer goals that can help keep all of us on track.

Be smart about scheduling writing time. You may not be on a normal schedule, and things might be changing every day. But its still possible to make things work by taking them a day at a time. Plan just a day in advance, and you can be prepared to take advantage of any spare moments you can grab.

Always have a book. While your driving to the beach, waiting to pick up from soccer camp, take the spare minutes to read a page or two. It will keep words and ideas flowing through and rejuvenating your mind.

Learn from and take advantage of all your fun and exciting summer adventures. Vacations are a perfect time to people watch. Learn about and explore the new places you're visiting, you may be able to use the details for plot, characters or setting. Be observant, and don't be shy about promoting your work either.

I hope this helps. What other ideas or plans or goals do you have for your writing this summer?

Sarah Allen
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