From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Zen

So, I am pretty much an expert on zen because I once took a yoga class and could almost hold tree pose without falling down. So yeah, I know zen. Or at least I have some things that sometimes work to calm me down slash bring me peace and happiness when I need it because let's face it, writers are not known for being the most emotionally stable of people. Everybody ready? Ommmm.

1. Actual yoga. Or exercise in general: So one of the apartments I lived in in college was literally right behind a Golds Gym (like, I might have been able to touch both if I laid flat, or at least gotten pretty close) and that was kind of the best thing ever. I am by no means an athletic or even fit person. At all. In fact I hate exercise and sweating. Just ask anyone who has ever ever made me climb a mountain (you know who you are). However. Having an air conditioned room where I could watch TV while getting my blood flowing every day did serious wonders for how I felt about myself and felt in general. However it works for you personally, exercise makes a huge difference.

2. Movies: Not much to be said about this. A good movie or TV show is the best decompression ever. We need that time to unwind and destress. Not to mention, get some creative and artistic inspiration.

3. Music: Nothing changes my mood faster than music. It can intensify happy moods and give me comfort or hope or release when I'm sad or angry. I think that's part of the glory of music. I listen to Michael Giacchino or Rachmaninoff when I write, because I can't have words, and it provides excellent background music that sort of signifies to me that it is writing time. It sort of gets me in the zone.

4. Taking walks: I need to do this more often. I always think I don't want to go outside and then I do and I come back feeling so good and refreshed. Even just sitting in a park on a sunny day can be like a spiritual experience. Maybe it's been said over and over again that we help ourselves by reconnecting with nature, but it is a truth.

5. Chocolate: Or pizza. Or banana bread or candied sweet potatoes my mom makes at Thanksgiving. Food is a very visceral experience, like a lot of these other things, and sometimes that helps reconnect us with our bodies. This one is another good reminder for me. Sometimes it is nice to eat a very slow meal and just savor every bite.

There you have it! Five things that might help bring peace and relaxation and renewal. And with that we also close out April and the A-Z Challenge. We made it! What a crazy month :)

Sarah Allen

Monday, April 29, 2013

Y is for Yoda

That's right. Er...Right that is.

Some characters are so wonderful they become part of our cultural consciousness. Yoda is just such a character. So, what makes Yoda a character everybody loves?

1. Yoda is all wise: There is something appealing about characters who know what they are doing, or who are masters at whatever they do. Yoda and Obi Wan are in this group. They are leaders you can follow. If it is possible to use the force to do something, Yoda can do it. There is no question that he is the master, and you never know what will happen with those kinds of skills.

2. Yoda is subtly kick-butt: Not much explanation needed. You are someone who is not Yoda. Can Yoda whip your trash? Yes he can.

3. Yoda is quirky: Quirky he is. Think of him we do when speech patterns passive strange become. So unique and strange he is, forgotten easily he is not.

So many reasons to love Yoda. Being voiced by Frank Oz doesn't hurt either :) So, yeah, what else can you think of to love about Yoda?

Sarah Allen

Friday, April 26, 2013

W is for Waiting

W is most definitely for waiting.

That is one thing I think a person just doesn't get until they start pursuing this crazy glorious chimera called a writing career. There is so much waiting involved. So much waiting.

You just can't move forward, in many ways, without the support and say-so of someone else, or many someone else's. You are waiting to hear back from that agent or the agent is waiting back to hear from that editor. You're waiting to hear back from the cover designer or the publicist or one of the other many people involved. Even if you self-publish, you're still waiting to hear back from that book reviewer or that journalist or that critique partner or, of course, basically like everyone on the planet to BUY YOUR BOOK.

The thing is, it doesn't ever go away. At least I don't think. And that's frustrating, because as much as you try and speed up the waiting time or find things to do in the meantime sometimes you're just past the point of patience and you just want it taken care of NOW.

That's sort of where I'm at. Almost. I have been querying agents for a while now, and I just want to get my yes. I've been submitting short stories to magazines since high-school and you never stop waiting for yesses on that one. I'm just at that point where I can't really do anything more in terms of moving forward in a writing career without partnering with some industry professionals. And I want that to happen yesterday.

All this, though, brings me to the most important W word. Pretty much, to move forward in your career, you must wait. For other people. Pretty much there is just nothing you can do about it. There is one thing, though, that you never have to wait for. The most important part of your career is the thing you have complete control over, the thing that is totally up to you that you can work on and do anytime you want. Writing. The waiting will always suck, but you can always write. While one project is in the wait for everyone phase, write another one and another one. That is how we succeed.

Sarah Allen

Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for Volume and Variety

I've heard it said in many places, and in several different ways, that the key to a successful career as a writer (or any type of artist) is two-fold: volume, and variety.

Basically this means to write lots of different things and put them lots of different places. Here are ten different ways we can try and incorporate that advice.

1. Publish novels in different venues: The options for writers are only expanding. It is no longer necessary to be in one "camp," or one side of the publishing fence. Rather, you can focus on traditional publishing while also working on self-publishing projects and submitting to small publishers. Or any combination you choose. All within contract boundaries, of course, but the point is that we can put even our big projects in lots of places.

2. Submit short pieces to magazines: There are so, so many magazines out there. Whether personal essay, short story, flash fiction, poetry, whatever--leave a little portion of your time and energy to these smaller projects and finding them homes in the many fabulous literary magazines available.

3. Submit to contests: There are contests going on all the time for books, short story collections, poetry chapbooks, individual pieces, everything. The Poets and Writers website has a fantastic list. I like the idea of continually working on those shorter pieces until you have something ready to submit to one of these awesome competitions. And then keep submitting.

4. Query articles: Even for us fiction writers, occasionally branching out into non-fiction and article writing could be a good idea. It expands our writing, our readership, and our credentials. Find something you're passionate about, an idea you want to explore, and then magazines that feature that subject. Query, and keep querying. You never know what cool experiences and networking opportunities you will find.

5. Try script: Screen and playwriting come with their own set of rules and guidelines. However, after some research and practice, they could also present some great opportunities. There are also competitions going on all the time for plays, and why not submit a movie script to Hollywood and see what happens?

6. Experiment with genre: This is where I think self-publishing could be fun. I think we all have a genre we like best, that we normally work in. But sometimes you want to try something new. If you write contemporary, try science fiction or a picture book. If you write science fiction, try historical or romance. Often your editor at a traditional publishing house won't want you going too far outside your genre, but within contractual bounds, writing something in a new genre perhaps under a new name and self-publishing could potentially get you a whole new readership. Or if you self-publish anyway, then its just a matter of expanding your circle.

7. Collaborate: I don't think there is any better way of introducing yourself to a new group of people. The group is already there, listening to someone they trust, who is now working with you. This can work for anything from books to YouTube videos. This also includes submitting pieces for consideration in anthologies. Collaboration is a great way to add volume and variety to your work.

8. Experiment in unusual venues: With shorter pieces, (and again, within contractual bounds of course) this could be fun. There are so many cool ways to do this. Make a video poem and put it on YouTube. Make a Tumblr blog or Pinterest board dedicated to your photo-poems. Produce your own mini-script and put it online. Tweet flash-fiction. Anything you can think of, why not try it out?

9. Say it out-loud: Speaking engagements have become, in a way, the modern day writer's bread and butter. This is particularly true for non-fiction. But I think any writer can only benefit from looking in to this side of things. Contact everyone: libraries, schools, book fairs, local colleges, book clubs, conferences, etc. Not every contact is going to pan out, and in fact most of them won't. But in this case I think its best to be like a dandelion, spreading your seeds as far and wide as possible until a few of them stick.

10. Write every day: This is obviously the key point. Whatever you end up doing with your writing, whatever the piece turns out to be, you can't do anything with it if you don't have it. So get those words down. Work on those big projects, the novels and screenplays, and on days when you're not feeling those, work on a short story or poetry chap book. A little bit every day goes a long, long way.

Anyway, hopefully this can get us all started on keeping volume and variety a part of our writing career. Do you think these ideas are worth the effort? What other opportunities would you add to this list?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

U is for Unarmed

An unarmed writer does not intimately know her characters.

An unarmed writer does not know her target reader.

An unarmed writer has not researched agents before she submits.

An unarmed writer does not read craft books such as Stephen King's On Writing to try and improve herself.

An unarmed writer does not have a library card.

An unarmed writer does not have another project in the works.

An unarmed writer does not carry a notebook and pen with her ALWAYS.

An unarmed writer believes she doesn't have to do any marketing.

An unarmed writer thinks her writing needs no help.

An unarmed writer does not study the career paths of other writers or seek out advice from industry professionals.

An unarmed writer does not consider as many publication opportunities as are available to her.

An unarmed writer only ever reads one genre.

Such a huge arsenal of heavy artillery at our disposal. Let's just make sure we're as armed as possible.

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for Three

Three has become my magic number.

There are all sorts of artistic studies that show how groupings of three are the most aesthetically appealing and I believe it. Not just in art, but in literature. Think how many stories involve the number three. The Three Little Pigs, Golidlocks and the Three Bears, The Three Billy Goats Gruff.

I don't know why, but structurally, three is a good number. If your protagonist succeeds on her second try then it may seem too easy, but if it takes four, you may have lost us. For some reason, three is the sweet spot.

The number three has helped me in a lot of my plotting troubles. Although the normal story structure is to have one climax that you're building to, I have found it helpful in this novel to think of it more as the third step in a series of events. Still building up to that big scene, but providing stepping stones along the way.

It has also helped with some of my own problem areas. In my first novel a common bit of critique was about wanting more explicit emotion. I tend towards the sparse side of that spectrum. I don't like it when people spend paragraphs using cliche to describe their characters emotion. So, I developed for myself the rule of three for emotion. When there is something my character is feeling that the reader needs to understand, I try and express it three different ways. For example, a metaphor, a physical thing, and maybe something more explicit. That sounds very formulaic and obviously its not like I take a ruler for all my characters emotional reactions. However, it does help when I feel stuck, wondering how to get something across.

Thoughts? Do you agree that three is a magic number that can help you out of stuck places?


Monday, April 22, 2013

S is for Stranger than Fiction

The thing about growing up, you realize how many crazy things you think happen mostly just in stories have actually happened very close to home. Or maybe other people are less oblivious than I am? It's happened more and more often since I graduated from college, and the last few months have been biggies.

It's...some of it's stuff you can't really talk about except with the people involved. Partly just because its private, but also because anybody outside wouldn't nearly understand why it's so big of a deal. Sometimes they would, but sometimes it's just little things that put a crack in the way you've been seeing the world up till now, like hearing a story about how your look-up-placid-in-the-dictionary grandpa beat up and nearly broke the back of the vicious dog who jumped into the car with his daughters. Even just watching your siblings go through emotional stuff you never thought they would have to go through is like an Oxford English Dictionary size lesson in new feelings. Stuff like that.

Then sometimes it really is big deal stuff happening to your family or friends and you just think, how is this happening in real life? I am so used to giving people the benefit of the doubt, trusting that they mean well, and then every once in a while something happens that makes you think how could a human being do this to someone? And not just in the what's on the news sense, but like, to your brother sense. On the bright side happy things happen too, and all of it is a learning experience.

Then there are times when the situation is just so ridiculously chaotic or so unbelievably coincidental or weird that it does seem something straight out of fiction. There is a special brand of this kind of experience that comes when you are raising 8 kids, and I think part of the reason that I feel this way about getting older is that I am privy to more and more of these stories, increasingly in depth conversations with my mom about the past covering all these types of stranger than fiction moments, from the weird to the hurt. It is a little bit paradigm shattering, but the more it happens, and the further I get from when it first started happening, the more I realize how much I've learned because of it and how different of a person I was and would be without it.

I do warn people that telling me stories is dangerous and comes with a I'm-a-novelist caveat, but even if we don't use experiences like this directly in our fiction, I think our writing absolutely is informed by what we learn. To me writing is all about working through those emotional lessons and trying to figure them out and seeing if anybody out there feels the same way you do. Because there are a lot of them out there who also think that they're alone. Life really is stranger than fiction, but I think fiction is what helps us make sense of it all with a friend by our side.

Do you feel the same way? What stranger than fiction things have happened in your life that you're open to sharing with us?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, April 18, 2013

P is for Pettigrew

So I'm sitting at work reading Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and I'm pretty sure I looked ridiculous because I'm sitting there grinning like a maniac trying to keep from laughing in pure giddiness as people walk past the front office.
"Toothbrush," he said with difficulty. He held it out by the very tip of the handle because he knew it was important, if he was to keep his composure, that her fingertips not touch his.
 I have not felt this giddy about a book since Captain Wentworth's letter to Anne at the end of Persuasion.

My friends know me so well. If the book they're recommending is not one in my typical genre it expands my horizons and becomes one I love anyway. Or like with this, they recommend it to me because they were thinking how much I'd love it the whole time they were reading and then I read it and I'm like YES YOU WIN OH MY WORD YES.

The characters are so real, a few so despicable. But the Major (as he prefers to be called) is completely wonderful. Conservative old curmudgeon. I will always adore those characters, because of both their conservatism and their curmudgeonliness. And their age. All the things. He is fabulous and hilarious and sweet and you are totally rooting for him the whole time.

I admit it did start off rather slow. But I loved the two main characters from the very beginning and that's what kept me interested and then about half way through things started picking up and then at the scene I quoted from I was just like THIS IS THE BEST THING.

So yes. Read Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. I highly recommend it.

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

O is for Outlining

I used an outline for my novel, and I am using one again. As an outliner, I have learned a few things.

1. Follow the characters first, then the outline. An outline is important. But I have found that the best way to keep the story flowing naturally and organically is to look at it as little as possible. I know roughly where I'm going, and I know my characters, so when I get to the end of one scene and am ready to start another, I listen to my characters first. What is the next natural point in this story? What is her natural reaction to what just happened? Usually that works just fine, and in fact, its usually the next point I have on my outline anyway. If for whatever reason I get stuck and can't figure out organically what happens next, thats when I go to my outline.

2. An outline is moving pieces. Following the strategy above, this means I do sometimes end up going from point A to point D or bringing point E and putting it in between B and C. This is allowed. In fact, sometimes I will be stuck between scenes, and I've checked my outline but it still seems like there is a gap between the scene I finished and the next scene in my outline. When this happens and brainstorming a new scene doesn't seem to be working, sometimes I'll look down my outline and find a scene to bring up, and it turns out to be exactly what was missing.

3. An outline is a hand on all threads. This is sort of the other side of the first point. Its good to keep your plot flowing naturally and organically, but its also nearly impossible to keep track of all the things that need to happen and have happened and all the plot threads you've got going on without writing them down. At least it is for me. Before I even start writing I like to make sure I have in my outline everything filled in as far as I can tell for each plot line. This always ends up being total bologna and there are always major holes you don't see until you've started writing, which is why you follow your characters and not the outline. But its nice to be able to keep track of all the balls you've got thrown in the air.

This all sounds a lot more intensive and structured than it really is. I mean, my current outline is basically a bullet point list of about 25 plot points sorted into the seven days in which my story takes place. The outline for the other novel was pretty similar. And they're pretty quick, one sentence points. Obviously every writer has their own way of doing things, and for some, an outline stifles them from the very beginning. So yeah, this is just how I do it, and maybe it will help a few of you.

Other outliners out there? Do these ideas help, does this process sound similar to your process?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

N is for Nighttime

Night is what has taught me the meaning of a love-hate relationship.

I love the moon and the stars more than the glare of the sun. I love black and blue yellow-flecked skylines of big cities. I love being the only one awake. Breezes feel so new in the dark. And nothing beats reading in bed with a quilt and a bed-lamp. 

I am terrified of the dark. I am terrified of being alone. I hate being the only one on the road between my parents house and mine. I hate the blackness of my room before I turn on my too-dim lamp and above all, hate the quietness that leaves me with nothing but empty space in my skull for panic to bounce around in.

That is when I want the sun back. That is when I miss any music or the voices in the show I was just watching and I crave someone with whom I can pillow-talk and decide for the umpteenth time I need a dog.

Nighttime is how I imagine Alaska--the best place to be hunkered down with your soul mate and the very worst place to be alone. Even when you can mask the dark and the quiet with lamps and reruns of Frasier there is still the necessary moment of turning it off. At that moment the TV power button is a hard one to press.

And while you're terrified and driving home alone there is Jim Dale reading you Harry Potter from your car speakers and the green light from the stoplight streaked across the asphalt when it rains. And you're still terrified and alone and it is still too dark and quiet but the moon is often full and that is enough to pull you forward. 

Then when you've made it past the drive home and the walking into a dark apartment and the brushing your teeth in silence and clutched your teddy bear to you and clicked off the last lamp then your heart rate finally begins to calm down and you are grateful for thick quilts that signal safety in darkness. One night feels like every night and perhaps that is what is the most terrifying, but as imminent as that fear is, you can relegate it to a realm outside your quilt, which is what quilts are made for. Quilts are boundaries between nations.

Eventually all nights merge in to one and a dream runs through it--maybe it's the nightmare about a swollen and scarred clan of face-eaters, maybe the fragmented image of a piglet pulling the wagon of Yosemite Sam, maybe it's your constant fantasizing about whether the next scene in your novel will or will not take place at a baseball game.

At night, it's hard to tell the difference.

Monday, April 15, 2013

M is for Movies

Though we writers work primarily with words, it has to be acknowledged that movies have changed the way stories are told, including in literature. I think this is good in a lot of ways. Not to mention that movies are simply a fabulous and awesome medium in and of themselves. So today I want to talk about a few movies that I adore. Not a list of favorites, I could no more do that for movies than I could for books. But these are movies I love, that tell the kinds of stories I want to write. So here we go.

5 Movies I Wish I'd Written:

1. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: This is one of those movies I came out of with a giddy smile on my face. I didn't even need the exotic part. But really, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith all in a retirement home together? DEFINITE YES. Which is to say that I just loved loved loved the characters in this one and the situation. I don't know what it is about old folk romance but this movie is my happy place.

2. Another Year: Mike Leigh has become my favorite director. I have felt more understood and validated by his films than by any other director, this one included. I really appreciated the simply good protagonists in this movie and their very real life struggles. They are a happy, settled couple trying to negotiate relationships with unhappy people in more complicated situations. That is a very tight balance to walk, and its not often portrayed. As in, we typically see the other side. So this movie and these characters and their story felt very refreshing to me.

3. Dan in Real Life: This movie is very underrated to me. Again, I love the real-life ness (ha ha) of it. How the central focus is the family dynamic. This kind of subtle, simple story is so rarely portrayed, and in my mind, so much more poignant and urgent than a lot of the big blockbuster thrill stuff that comes out. Adorable and sweet. And I don't just mean Steve Carrell, though he's a big part of that.

4. The Truman Show: I am not natural at plot. Which is probably evident in the movie choices I've given so far. They are all very character driven and quiet and many people don't like them for exactly those reasons. The Truman Show is a good example of how I've ended up sort of solving my plot problem. I take a real life situation and then add weirdness. A normal middle-aged guy at a job he doesn't like who wants to travel an then HIS LIFE IS A TV SHOW. Plus, Jim Carrey...I'm a fan.

5. Babe: Another very underrated movie. And James Cromwell is an underrated actor. Really I think he's what makes it for me, the character of Farmer Hoggett. Hmm, this one is harder to explain I guess. I just will always, always love those characters who are quiet and subtle (Hoggett hardly says a thing the whole movie) but who are this well of strength and humor and love underneath. Atticus Finch is a perfect example. And no, I don't think its too much to compare the two of them. And we see them through the clear, wide eyes of a pig or a little girl. And it is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

There's my list! Do you like these movies too? What movie above all illustrates the kinds of stories you like to write most? What movies do you wish you had written?

Sarah Allen

Sunday, April 14, 2013

L is for Lonely

I took a C. S. Lewis class in college. I've mentioned it before. But in that class, there were several days throughout the semester when I was doing the assigned reading and would come to certain parts (particularly in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy) when I would have to pause and just sit there and think to myself how well Lewis understood me, how he was giving me the words to describe feelings I'd never been able to describe before as well as feelings I didn't know I had. I'm not even talking about the religious stuff, although I do adore everything Lewis writes. I'm talking psychologically and emotionally. I finished that semester with the impression that Jack Lewis and I would have been very, very good friends.

This has happened other times, but I don't think as strongly as it did with Lewis. I also feel like I'm good friends with Wallace Stegner and Charlotte Bronte and Van Gogh and...okay, Meryl Streep.

So yes, it is Lewis who says perfectly what it is that books and other art do for us. We read to know that we are not alone. We experience and make art to know that we are not alone. In the transaction between creator and audience there is an openness and vulnerability on both sides that allows for a more quick and deep understanding than you almost ever get in real life.

Good writers and good books are the friends for the parts of us that are lonely.

What about you? What books have been your books, have understood you more deeply than most people can?

Sarah Allen

Friday, April 12, 2013

K is for Kill your Darlings

I think this is one of the most common bits of writing advice thrown around, second only to "Write what you know" (which, incidentally, I think is pretty close to rubbish--it should instead be write what you want to find out.) The mandate to "Kill your darlings," though, I think has something to it.

We don't want to take any writing advice without a grain of salt, I don't think, and any tip taken to extreme becomes detrimental. We don't necessarily want to slash out every part of our novel that we love simply because we love it and it's our "darling." I don't think that's the point.

The point of this bit of advice, in my mind, is about willingness. Keeping this in mind has helped me in the editing process when I start feeling whishy washy. For example, if there is a scene that I spent a lot of time on but it just does not end up moving plot or character and simply isn't necessary, that needs to be cut. Or if there's a phrase or sentence that I fall in love with but it is in a paragraph that ends up being hard to understand or just sort of out there, then that paragraph needs to be cut. Those are the kinds of things that happen to me in the editing process where I feel like the reminder to "kill your darlings" is a good one.

So I think what I'm saying is that in general its probably not a good idea to either hack at your babies willy-nilly, or keep them all locked in immovable stone cages. I think it needs to be more organic then that. Some darlings will shine and can stay, some darlings will only be mucking up the whole and maybe its not so much killing them but saving them for later. I think the key is just to be willing to do what it takes, because the real darling is your book as a whole.

What do you think? Is it harder or easier for you to kill your darlings?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, April 11, 2013

J is for Jester and Joel

Anybody seen that old Danny Kaye movie, The Court Jester? It always reminds me of my grandma because every time we went to her house we would always have strawberry milk and watch that movie. Here is proof of Danny Kaye's genius:

Also, Billy Joel may be the greatest lyricist alive.

"In every heart, there is a room
A sanctuary safe and warm
To heal the wounds from lovers' past
Until a new one comes along."

How genius is that? Here is my other favorite Joel song.

Hope you're having an excellent Thursday!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I is for Improvisation

My high school improv class was taught by the same man who taught me English for the last three years of high school. Yeah, my school was pretty small. We only had the improv class because Mr. K decided we needed it.

I think he was right. In English and creative writing we used a lot of the same principles that we talked about in improv.

Always say yes.

Don't be afraid to look stupid.

Go with what comes, editing is for later.

Have fun.

I think rules are important. Structure, procedure. When you are writing an essay or short story or article or anything else there are guidelines you need to follow. But I think it is easy to get stuck in a rut. And improv is how we get out of it.

I know most of us aren't part of an improv group or anything, but there are still some fun games to play with friends, and I think letting ourselves go every once in a while and seeing what we come up with on the page could end up being pretty awesome.

Anyway, I'll leave you with my favorite improve game of all.

Have a good one!

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

H is for Horror

So this post comes to you from someone very inexperienced in the horror genre. I've seen a handful of horror movies at like parties and sleepovers and stuff, but its never been something I really go for like some people. It just doesn't usually do much for me.

So what I'm going to talk about probably the hard-core fans would not qualify as true horror. I do like The Stand a lot, but my favorite King novel is The Green Mile. Probably not straight-up horror. My favorite "horror" movie is Signs, and I've definitely heard people question its status as true horror. But that's the kind of thing I'm talking about here.

So why am I talking about this today? There's always been a little bit of fascination there for me. At its most superficial I think it's just morbid curiosity, but where horror does well, and I think where its real value is, comes from a more philosophical level. I think I liked Signs and I think the reason Steven King has found wide-spread and even commercial success is because it adds that philosophical side.

Here's what I mean. Horror, at its best, at its most philosophical, strips everything down to its most carnal, and shows you the things that stay, that you can rely on, and have faith in, when everything else is gone. It forces you to confront your most basic faith and fundamental beliefs when the worst and most terrifying is staring you in the face.

I think the stakes are higher, the horror more horrific, when its more than life and death. When its life and soul. If that makes sense.

Signs does this directly. He confronts, out loud, the question of whether they are alone or not. And its effective because its not a simple black and white question for him, and we watch his beliefs and faith evolve as the story progresses. And that is a beautiful thing.

What do you think about the horror genre? What value do you think it has for us, and what are your favorite examples?

Monday, April 8, 2013

G is for Goals

Ya know, there is so much associated with that word, goals. I think in large part its pretty positive, but I also think for many of us its full of pressure and anxiety and feelings of guilt and impossibility. I don't think it needs to be that way.

There are lots and lots of things we're working on in all areas of our lives, but we're just gonna focus on writing here. I think the negative side of our feelings about setting goals comes because of the goals we set themselves. It just doesn't work when we make goals about things we're not in control of, or things that are beyond anyone's control. So today I want to talk about three areas for writing goals that we can control.

1. Putting Down Words: This is the most important area. I think its more nebulous and pressure-ful to just say, "I'll have this done by this date." Deadlines are good, yes, but I think its more helpful on a day-to-day level to make the goal more about a certain number of words a day. 2000 a day if you're Steven King, maybe more like 500-1000 for us more normal people. That way you're making progress every day, and if you miss or fall short one day, you still know what you need to do tomorrow.

2. Submitting: By this I mean querying agents, submitting to literary magazines, applying for freelance gigs, all that good stuff. Its not in our control to make goals like "Have an agent by this date" or "get published by my birthday" or anything like that. Its just not something we can control. But we can make goals like do one query/submission a day, or three a week or something like that. That we can control.

3. Networking: I think this one stresses people out more than anything. There are just SO many websites and social networks out there and SO many things we feel like we should be doing to market our books. I think it can become a lot less nebulously anxiety inducing when we make some concrete goals. I like to use a spreadsheet of all the networks I use and what my goals is for each day. So for example, on Monday a blog post, commenting on three new blogs, two tweets and a picture on Tumblr. When you break it down like that, you can turn your social media stress in to like, fifteen minutes a day.

Well there you have it. Three writer goals that I think can be made pretty manageable for just about anyone, and that really are in our control most of the time. Do you think these are manageable goals? Any others you would add to this list?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, April 4, 2013

D is for Death

A really interesting analysis of some classic novels turns up an interesting result. As morbid as it sounds, death is the most common theme, the subject the selected novels have in common over any other.

I think there may be something to be said for this. Part of the purpose of art is figuring out what we're doing here, what we even are, where our value lies. That means thinking about not only where we "go" after we die, but if our lives have purpose or value beyond that point and if so, how do we do the most with the life we have. All this is to say, part of the human experience is wrestling with the concept of Death.

Great books can help us do that.

This also extends beyond just physical death, I think. Think of Holden Caulfield. To a certain extent we are worried for his physical life, worried he might even kill himself at some points. But beyond that, even if his body continues to live, one could say that he's on the verge of suicide of the soul. A sort of emotional death.

In that sense, one could say that all the books we write, all the struggles our characters are facing, should be life or death. Maybe its actual, physical death, maybe its the death of a dream or a belief or an idol. Thinking of it that way may help get the tension we're looking for.

What do you think? Does this apply to your favorite book?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

C is for Collaborations

Sometimes we create things that would have been impossible on our own. Writing may be a solitary endeavor, and sometimes that's what it needs to be. But other times the best work is created by more heads than one. Here are some of my favorite examples.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett: So I haven't actually read this, to be honest, but my roommate once read us like the first chapter on a road trip and it was freaking hilarious. I WILL get to it soon.

A Softer World by Emily Horne and Joey Comeau. Sometimes its just plain weird, but when its on, its spot on. Poignant and often hilarious photo-poetry comic I keep coming back to.

Vlogbrothers. I almost don't need to say anything more about this one. John and Hank Green are just pure awesome and I've talked about them a bunch already on this blog. I've said it before and I'll say it again. Watch their videos. Subscribe to their channel. You will be blessed.

So, there are some of my favorite collaborative projects. Especially for things like videos and artsy stuff I think this is particularly awesome.

What are your favorite collaborations?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

B is for The Beatles

So once upon a time four British guys changed music forever. No one has been able to duplicate not just The Beatles' popularity, but their direct impact on music itself. Although many, many have tried. I'm not even someone who would list The Beatles in my top ten bands, and I don't really listen to them regularly, but I can listen to my definite absolute favorites (*ahem* Billy Joel *ahem*) and see--or rather hear--pretty clearly how The Beatles paved the way.

So what made them so explosive and so seminal? How did they achieve the success that they did, and get away with shifting the music industry so significantly? That's a book-length topic right there, and many have been written, but here are a few leaves from their book I think we writers might be able to usefully incorporate.

1. The Beatles were genuine: If being themselves, being genuine, meant writing a song about yellow submarines, then they did it. Gritty lyrics had been done before, but I think they took it to a new level. And of course the music itself was totally new. I think they wrote music they wanted to hear, and it connected with that generation more deeply than any other music at the time. I think writers are doing this all the time. Think Ernest Hemingway or James Joyce or Hunter S. Thompson. Basically, don't be afraid to be yourself. Your readers will appreciate it.

2. The Beatles were prolific: How many albums did they make? How many songs? I don't know exactly, but it's a lot. I think this had a big part to play in keeping them on the forefront of peoples minds. Their was always something new from them to check out. And if someone maybe didn't like one album so much, they might fall in love with another. Example from the literary world? See Stephen King.

3. The Beatles were varied: The Beatles had everything from more hard-core rock to soft ballads to just plain weird. I think it not only kept things fresh, but again, gave them the opportunity to have something for everyone. They experimented and not just with...recreational substances. Sometimes their experiments were more successful then others, but they all helped shape The Beatles as a group and allowed them to change music the way they did.

4. The Beatles were British: Yeah, there's just no hope for some of us on this one. Bad luck us.

There's some quick thoughts on why The Beatles were so explosive. And I'll leave you with my favorite of their songs, one that I do listen to quite often:

What's your favorite Beatles song?

Sarah Allen

Monday, April 1, 2013

A is for Antagonists and Anti-heroes

Welcome to day 1 of the A-Z April challenge everybody!

So my little sisters have a thing with the show Psych. It is their absolute favorite show. So much so that on weekends my mom will come home from a date with Dad and we'll be watching and she'll be like, "Ugh, guys, really, Psych again?" We were talking about the characters we love and I was talking about how much I liked Lassiter and my sister was like, "Sarah, you always like the people you shouldn't like, like Snape and Benjamin Linus and stuff."

They know me so well :)

Anyway. It's true. I know I've talked about this many many times here  on the bloggy blog (and I know I've said I've talked about this many many times) but certain characters are simply so endlessly fascinating that I will never get tired of talking about them. The heroes are attractive and smart and often funny, but there's just something...layered, I guess one could say, about the antagonists and anti-heroes. Yes Carlton Lassiter is obnoxious, domineering, tactless and self-important, but then he writes a note for his girlfriend in prison or gets re-jilted by his ex-wife and you realize what a total sweetheart he is too.

Yes Snape is a rude, conniving, greasy know-it-all, but then you read Chapter 36 and you realize how brave and desperately lonely he is too.

Yes Benjamin Linus is a manipulative, lying, creepy, merciless cuss, but then you see his daughter shot or hear him desperately claim ownership of the pretty girl or see him help Hurley or watch season six and you realize how lonely and intelligent and frightened he is too.

I think that's what it comes down to, the layers. I think its satisfying to see seriously and blatantly flawed characters struggling to understand and become the better person in there somewhere, because that is ALL of us. We're all seriously flawed, and I think frustrated by the disparity between where we are and where we know we could be.

We like watching these characters and waiting for those moments when they reveal how utterly human they are.

Maybe this is just the character trope I personally like the most, but I still think we have a lot to learn from them about flaws in our characters and how that makes them relatable.

What do you think about this type of character? Can you think of other examples?

Sarah Allen
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