From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Friday, July 27, 2012

Film Friday: Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog

It's a little bit hard to talk about Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog, mostly because there is nothing else even remotely like it. I don't know how familiar y'all are with this, but it's basically a short little 45 minute movie-lette that Joss Whedon put together on basically no budget during the Hollywood writers strike, which is basically already enough for it and Joss Whedon to be considered Totally Awesome in my book. But that's not even taking into account the fact that what they put together is unique, intelligent, and insanely amazing.

There is basically one thing I want to say about Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog. Yes its a bit of a musical. Yes it's ridiculous, yes its hilarious. Yes Nathan Fillion and Neil Patrick Harris are two of the awesomest people ever. What this mini-movie does so well, though, is use the music, the comedy, the ridiculousness, to get at something much, much deeper.

My creative writing teacher in high-school once said that when you really want to get at the core of something, really describe it, it's kind of like looking at a star. If you try and look at it directly, it gets kind of fuzzy and unfocused. It becomes much more focused and clear if you look slightly off to one side and look at it in your peripheral vision. This is what Dr. Horrible does so brilliantly. The ridiculous humor pulls our vision slightly to one side, and what we really see underneath is one of the best portrayals of the quirky desperately lonely underdog I have ever seen. Thanks to both the writing and to the general awesomeness of Neil Patrick Harris. All the proof you need is in the very last frame.

And lucky for us, it's all on YouTube! Take a moment this weekend and bless your life, if you haven't already. You won't regret it.

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Pantsing and Word Count

So I'm trying something new with my current novel. For Keeper, I had a basic outline for each chapter and I knew about how many words needed to be in each chapter to add up to the 70,000-120,000 word count range that is generally considered best for the average novel. Basically, I had the word count thing outlined so I knew it would work out.

With New Novel, I'm taking more of a pantser approach. I have the basic storyline, but I'm having a really good time just kind of letting the story take its own course. Like I've said, I've got the basic storyline and a time-frame within the story so hopefully it will still end up with fairly sound structure. And of course, any plot holes can be fixed in the editing phase.

My main worry is that I'm going to end up below or above the market word-count range. This one is YA, so it would be more like 50,000-70,000, but since I'm doing it more organically and just writing my way forward, I don't want to end up with 30,000 or 150,000 words. I definitely err on the short side, and I suppose with edits you can add scenes and fill in things to build up word count if you need it, but I don't want to have to add things just for the sake of word-count.

So here's my question: those of you who typically pants your way through novels, how do you work out the whole word-count thing? How do you make sure you're going to have enough for a whole novel, and hit within the target range?

I know that the important thing is to just write the stories you want to write and worry about this stuff when you need to. But still, I stress about things like this, and any advice or tips would be helpful.

Bequeath your wisdom, oh wise readers :)

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Lessons Disneyland Taught Me

So I'm finally back. It has been a crazy, fun, busy month. We had relatives over for the 4th and it has been madness ever since. Going to Disneyland with the fam was a very needed break. Here is what I learned:

Nostalgia is very powerful. Much of the joy my family and I experience at Disneyland has to do with nostalgia. Mickey Mouse shooting off and directing fireworks at the end of Fantasmic means so much to us because it has meant so much to us for years and its something that has been a form of bonding for us many, many times. My favorite rides are the simple ones, Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, rather than the more thrilling Screamin or the flashy new Radiator Springs because the classic rides and stories have been with me since I can remember. What I think this means is that people may be entertained by flash and thrill, but what they will care about and what will stay with them are stories and characters that mean something to them. And what means something to people often has to do with their experiences growing up.

Go with the flow. Because there are ten of us, if you are super stubborn, whiny, or opinionated, you are going to be miserable, because you're not always going to get what you want. We do our best to hit on the things everyone cares about, like Tower of Terror and Fantasmic, but moment to moment, its best to just go with the flow. I was reading Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut while waiting in lines (nerd moment) and one of my favorite quotes says, "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." I would amend that to say, "Peculiar travel suggestions are story ideas from God." Or the universe, or both. I don't know. But its worth it to say yes, be happy, and see what happens.

This includes the 3 times the car engine overheats while driving through Nevada desert, the car rental that wouldn't rent to us because my dads license had a misprint saying that it expired three months after it was issued, the 3 or 4 times Dad has to call the bank because they've somehow messed up something on the credit card, accidentally leaving the debit card at The Bear Paw restaurant, the flash flood that reached above our car tires in St. George, and the stomach cramps that may or may not have come from the shrimp gumbo I ate at Farmers Market in LA. Life is a wonderful, happy, fun adventure, and I'm learning that looking at it that way and just going with the flow is so much less stressful than any alternative. Write what you want to write, use the popular marketing tools, follow the stories and trends that interest you. Because other than overheating cars and lost debit cards, it might also mean eating ice-cream next to Alan Tudyk outside Ghiradeli Square in California Adventure. It happened, I promise.

Detail, detail, detail. If real estate is location, location, location, writing is detail, detail, detail. They don't miss one thing at Disneyland. There is never any trash, the ginormous crowds are well directed, and even the garbage cans match their respective areas. Its a hard standard to live up to, and I'm not trying to say that every other paragraph in our novel needs to be a setting description paragraph. But what I am saying is that if we take as much care and precision in our words as Disney does in their parks, it can make the difference between being a professional and an amateur.

I could say more, but I've gone too long already. I know not everybody has the same experience and love for Disneyland that I do, but no one can deny that they're successful. Might be smart to take a few leaves from their very large book.

Sarah Allen

Friday, July 13, 2012

Book Trailers

So I think eventually book trailers, once I've done a little more research and had a little more experience, deserve a very in-depth post of their own, but since I'm in a bit of a rush today I thought I'd just leave you with three of my favorites. Three very different styles, everything from very high-end studio produced to very do-it-yourself, but all super fun and effective as marketing tools:

Have a wonderful weekend! And if you have any particular favorite book trailers, link to them in the comments. I'd love to see them!

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why Writers Should Always Be Waiting

I am one of the most impatient people in the entire world. Like, for reals. About an hour after I submitted to my first agent a week ago I texted my friend that I was anxious that he hadn't written back.

Writers always are, and should be, waiting on someone, and I'm trying to see it as a good thing.

Agents. Waiting on an agent means you've accomplished something wonderful. You've finished a huge project and polished it until you can see your reflection in it. Good work.

Critique partners. Waiting on critique partners means you're working. It also means you are brave enough to put your words (your soul) in front of people. Good work.

Competitions. Waiting to hear back about writing contests means you were brave enough to submit, and serious enough to cough up the cash for the entrance fee. Good work.

Publishers and literary magazines. If you are waiting on publishers and literary magazines, you taking some pretty serious, major steps. You are showing the world you mean business. You've worked hard, and you're ready to put that work in front of people. Good work.

Really the hard part about this is knowing what to do while you wait, and the only answer I can come up with to that is to keep writing, keep studying, reading and improving, and keep submitting. We just can't slow down, and eventually something good will come of it all our bleep bleep waiting.

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My Inner-Sadist's name is Dave

There was a boy in my high-school class. My entire graduating class totaled a grand 21, so we all knew each other pretty well. I will just say that this boy got himself the nick-name Eeyore and leave it at that. One day in English we got into a fight about pessimism versus realism that went something like this:

ME: You're such a pessimist.
BOY: Realist.
ME: Pessimist.
BOY: Realist.
ME: Pessimist.
BOY: Realist.

You get the idea. We had similar arguments involving words like naive and optimist.

I like happy things. I like puppies and rainbows and libraries. I hold on to every glimmer of hope I can find, meaning I do my best to consider The Road a happy, hopeful book.

So realizing that the ending of my book was going to be more intense and ambiguous than I originally thought it out to be was strange enough. What was even more strange, though, was how thoroughly I enjoyed writing it.

Maybe it's my tendency to see a lot of hope where there is barely any, but writing my sad(ish) ending rejuvenated rather than depressed me. And getting feedback from my English major friends that basically added up to "I totally loved it, jerk-face" made me nearly giddy with glee. It also made me want to evil laugh like Vincent Price.

Now I am left trying to reconcile this happy, optimistic, humorous real-life side of me with this somber, harsh, somewhat sadistic authorial part of me. And now that its come to my attention, I'm realizing how far back it goes. All the way to high-school, in fact, where my subject matter consisted of a lot of single moms and old men whose wives had left them. When I'm talking with my friends its generally about happy stuff like the Lizzie Bennett Diaries and Chris Evans' butt and I don't know why such a major shift happens when I sit down to write fiction.

So, basically, I've been reading a lot of Dave Barry and Steve Martin to try and see how funny people do it on the printed page. It may not be natural for me, but I want to experiment with and try out some happy, funny stories. Maybe they'll be total crap, but the point is to stretch muscles anyway, right?

Do you have a disparity like this between your real-life and writer selves? If you write funny, how do you do it?

Sarah Allen

Monday, July 9, 2012

Play to your freak side

There are seven billion people in this world who do not share your experience. Nobody else has your perspective and specific knowledge.

C. S. Lewis said "We read to know we're not alone." This is why we write. Maybe it seems incongruous to say that our writing becomes better and more relatable when we write from our own specific and unique experiences, but its true. Readers relate to us and our characters as individuals, not as general abstracts. 

There are 14 million Mormons in this world. That maybe seems like a lot, until you realize that that is only .002 percent of the population.

One in 2500 girls is born with Turners Syndrome, which makes one in every 5000 people. That is a .0002 percent chance. That means the chance of being born both with Turners Syndrome and being a Mormon is .0000004%. Correct me if my math is wrong (I was in English major, remember) but I'm pretty sure that adds up to about 2800 people in the entire world.

Maybe you have a mentally handicapped brother. Maybe you went to juvy for shoplifting when you were fifteen. Maybe your father was a National Geographic photographer. Think of what makes you absolutely unique, and there is something. Everyone has something.

Ok. So that's one thing I mean when I say play yo your freak side. I would love to write stories about Mormons and girls with Turner Syndrome. But I am of course not going to restrict myself to that either.There are other things about our experience that are still interesting if not as unique as other things. Maybe you're the youngest child. Maybe you're grandpa ran a farm. Maybe you moved as a child. These things still play into our experience, and a lot of people relate to these kinds of things because they've experienced it themselves. 

This is my point: maybe these types of experiences aren't especially unique in and of themselves, but the way we experienced these things absolutely is. Maybe there are a lot of oldest children, but nobody was an oldest child like you were an oldest child. Or maybe lots of people visited their grandparents farms in the summers, but not a lot of people visited your grandparents farm. This is why specific and concrete details are so important. Show us the height of the cornfield and give us the smell of the slaughterhouse. We want to feel this place and experience it with you. 

I'm not saying everything you write has to be directly autobiographical, because obviously you are going to write things happening to characters that never happened to you, and characters themselves that may be as opposite to you as it is possible to be. However, I think in a lot of ways the details that really bring our stories to life and the subtle themes that we discover as our stories grow are almost entirely autobiographical.  At least that's how it is for me. My main characters end up being my main characters because they have something important to say. When I describe a room it is often based on a room from a house I lived in as a child, even if I'm not consciously trying to base it off of that house. 

Basically, we are trying to draw our readers in and we do that through making our details as concrete and as specific as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to use details we know first-hand. Not big things, just little things like smells and textures. 

And the way we make a name for ourselves is not by writing the same kinds of stories everyone else is writing, but by writing the stories that nobody else is writing. There is no one in the world like you. Use that to your advantage.

What puts you in the .002 percent? Do you find yourself drawing on your own experience for details and themes?

Sarah Allen

Monday, July 2, 2012

So I wrote this thing and now what?

If you write every day, that's a lot of words. Maybe most of it is geared towards a bigger novel project, but what about all those other, smaller projects like poems and short stories and flash fiction and maybe just a creative essay of your thoughts? What do you do with those?

It's been on my mind, because I want to write lots and lots and experiment with all types of genre and form and subject. I've come up with five main routes to go with the pieces that turn out well enough to publish:

1. Literary magazines. This is for your top-notch work. There are magazines for every type of project imaginable, so if your proud of your work, don't be afraid to submit. The best places I know of to find magazines are Duotrope and NewPages.

2. Competitions. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like competitions give you the chance to submit to places you wouldn't be able to submit to otherwise. It also comes with a money prize, prestige and potential connections. For writing contests check out Poets and Writers and FreelanceWriting.

3. Self-Publish. There is so much being said about this option, whether its a good or bad one, how one goes about doing it in the first place. My point here is just to say, it's an option. Definitely do your research if you decide to go this route. That goes for every option, but this one in particular. If you have a poetry collection, short story anthology or novella that you just want to get out there, this might be a good way to go.

4. Small Press. This is one I haven't seriously considered until recently, and so my research on it is less extensive than the others. However, while you're querying agents and trying to go the traditional big publishing route, this might be a good choice for the collection of short stories you've been wondering what to do with. There are quite a few small presses that accept unagented submissions, and it might just turn out to be a wonderful experience. You never know until you try.

5. Blog. I've seen several people post short stories and even entire novels via blogs. Honestly this isn't my favorite option, but I can see some uses. If you have a short little something you came up with, incomplete but promising, putting it up on a blog might be a fun way to get some feedback. Maybe the piece doesn't go anywhere or turn into anything, but you can apply the comments you receive to your writing in general, hopefully improving it as you go.

So yeah, while I'm trying for the slow traditional big-publishing route, which I really want, these are other good options to keep in mind for my other projects. Throughout my writing career I would love to use every single one.

Which options are your favorite, and can you think of any I missed? How do you decide which option is best for any given piece?

Sarah Allen
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