Sunday, April 27, 2014

Tragically Flawed...or Not

Crafting the perfect female heroine isn't easy. She can't be all I WILL conquer the world and mow down any who stand in my way! or OMG! I broke a nail! Lovable, relatable, and readable characters must be a healthy mixture of girly and fierce, strong and weak.
At my first writing conference, LDS Storymakers (that's right, I am the exuberant newbie!), I attended a phenomenal class by author Sara B. Larson called Kicking Butt & Kissing Boys: All in a Day's Work. Since her advice on crafting a heroine is so fantastic, here are some of the highlights of her presentation (with side-notes from yours truly):

1. Showcase inner strength as well as overt awesomeness:
When we talk about strong heroines in young adult fiction, let's celebrate the quieter strength of realistic characters as well as the dramatic, death-defying strength of sci-fi, action/adventure, and fantasy heroines. Strength is more than physical prowess or fighting skills. There's no universal way of being "strong," and a character's weaknesses are often what allows a reader to relate to him or her. 
The Hub, YALSA

2. Instill human weaknesses as well as strengths:
Seeing characters with flaws is at once endearing and reassuring. Humans are flawed, and characters should be too--it helps us as readers feel more comfortable in our flaws when we see a character we love do something we'd deem foolish or petty or dumb, because then we can say, "Look! That character did this and we still love them."  If we can accept characters, flaws and all, it helps us accept our own flaws easier. That is what makes me love YA heroes so much--when they have that perfect balance of human flaws and fierce strengths.
Sara Raasch, Snow Like Ashes

3. Characters' minor, major, and tragic flaws and how they overcome or succumb to them is the heart of the story:
In my opinion, strong heroines are dynamic: they struggle, and through those struggles, they change. They are agents of action, rather than passive or reactive. Female characters can fall in love and still be strong. They can be bold or reserved. They can be feminine or they can be tomboys. There is no way of being strong, just as there is no way to be a girl. When we talk about what it means to be a strong heroine in young adult fiction, let's make room for all the ways girls to exhibit their strength.
The Hub, YALSA

4. Stop trying to make women and girls into men and boys. A girl can take down the bad guy, save humanity, snag a prince, overcome her inner demons, and still get her nails done:
I like to show strong female characters who are also proud to be female. They like to wear dresses; they have a fondness for jewelry. [Another aspect is] not rejecting other women or women's roles.
Tamora Pierce, Fantasy Author 

Rather than perpetuating misconceptions about the meaning of womanhood, we must stand together as readers, writers, and above all as women, and search out, create, and support the best female role models available.
Here's a place to start:

If you'd like to learn more about Sara B. Larson, follow the link to her website and check out her amazing book Defy on Amazon. (It's already beckoning eagerly from my shelf, so I'll report back when I have a minute to delve into it!)

Or, for a refresher course on my take on flawed heroines and fostering your girliness, revisit A Beastly Beauty and Fairytales & Fancy Footwear.

And, join me next year at LDS Storymakers 2015 It's a wonderful writer community waiting to welcome you with open arms!

Reality Smackdown

The moment I realized I was grown up was not when I turned 21 and became "legal." It wasn't even when I <<wince>> turned 30.  The moment I knew I had grown up was when I became the only authority figure in children's lives. That's a terrifying revelation for a singleton with no children of her own, but I pulled up my big girl panties and got to work anyway.  Here I am today, still showing to work with my little people.

Isn't that the way of things generally?  We're thrown into situations that stretch our abilities and grow our skills, and only recognize the progress we've made in retrospect. Life is about the journey. How we arrive at the destination--the unexpected twists and turns--is as important as the destination itself.
Is there any story that isn't about a journey, either figurative or literal?  I can't think of one. And if I've ever encountered one, I'm sure I tossed it aside long before reaching the final page. Personally, I am uninterested in people that don't face drama, challenges, or struggles. And I am equally unimpressed by anyone who comes out the other side unaltered for good or ill.  

Our character is defined by how we respond to the plot twists in life.

Good books tutor us on how to react to life's twists and turns. Either consciously or unconsciously, we relate with the characters we read. Hand in hand, we complete an emotional journey, facing impossible odds and emerging victorious.  

Since girlhood, heroines like Anne Shirley, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett, and a variety of twisted fairytale princesses have taught me bravery, patience, strength, self-worth, morality, and kindness. Why is that? What does fiction have to do with reality? Like the Hobbit's tale, going There and Back Again with these characters lends me the strength to carry on when adversity comes. 

So, here's my invitation: whether you're a writer or reader, find exemplary characters to follow, open your heart to the lessons you will learn, and take the journey together. The world grows harder and colder each day. Only a soul steeped in hope and filled with the vision of what is possible will be strong enough to withstand the onslaught.
With years of goodness stowed in your heart, thirty sugar-induced five-year-olds with mommy issues (or any other equally daunting task) becomes a walk in the park. 

As long as your walk in the park includes muggers, screaming babies, and naughty toddlers.  Happy reading and writing!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Embracing the Fangirl Within

My addiction to fairytales started early in life and has never really abated. Whenever life feels complicated, disappointing, or too sad to handle, I turn back to fairytales. Getting wrapped up in everything from Once upon a time to happily ever after tends to put things in perspective.

No, I don't harbor the belief that I'm a Disney princess with nothing more important to do than wait around for Prince Charming to make his appearance. And no, I don't believe in happily ever afters that don't require a lot of work.

But I do believe in fairytales. And I love sharing my take on them.

My current project is Twelve, a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. For those of you unfamiliar with the original German tale, it goes some thing like this: A king is disgruntled when night after night his twelve daughters wear out their new dancing slippers.  In an attempt to put a stop to their taboo behavior, he offers the hand of one of them to the man who can solve the mystery.  Imagine twelve mischievous princesses escaping to a magical land every night and various suitors from all stations of life who are desperate to bag one of them, and you already have the makings of a great adventure. (To learn more about the beautifully illustrated version pictured above, follow the link to Amazon and grab your own!)

Based on the original, but with a magic all its own, my version features Ari, the eldest daughter of Lord Bromhurst, and Jonas, the gardener who is in love with her.  Theirs is a friendship born of years of shared confidences, as you'll see:

Excerpt from Chapter One of Twelve:

                “Where can he be?” Ari asked no one in particular as she plopped pebbles one by one into the pond.  She sat on the bank, her legs curled up and her skirts spread around her.  The straight nut-brown hair parted over her intelligent brow and framed the slim oval of a face.  Her soft pink lips tucked into a frown, and the warm caramel-colored eyes carried a look of concern.
                “Ari, are you talking to yourself again?”
                She hopped up at the sound of my voice, turning with a smile and reaching out to take my hands.  “Jonas, what took you so long?  Didn’t you understand my message?”
                I chastised myself for wanting to take her in my arms, and made myself hold her fingers lightly instead. “It was Gregor again.  He’s rather ruthless with a rake handle.”
                “Oh, my poor Jonas.” Her tone was teasingly sympathetic, but a part me thrilled to the possessive my.  So annoying.
                “Come sit by the lake,” Ari continued, “and we’ll have our talk.”  She motioned for me to sit beside her on the bank.  I longed to place myself close enough to sling an arm around her shoulders, but I made myself take a seat a safe half-foot away and fold my arms tightly over my chest to keep them in check.
                “So, we have a plan,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
                This came as no surprise—something was always brewing in that clever mind of hers.  “When don’t you have a plan, Ari?”
                “Fine, have it your way."  The twinkle vanished, replaced by narrowed eyes and pursed lips. "When I’m not making plans, I’m planning to make plans.  Satisfied?” 
                Unfolding my arms, I put them behind me and leaned back to more fully take in the flash of anger in her eyes.  I’d never met a woman more beautiful or intelligent, and with her family, that was saying something.  Unable to stop it, a grin crept over my face. 
                She rolled her eyes.
                “If you don’t want to hear what it is, why don’t you go back to work?” She made shooing motions, like a queen dismissing her underlings.  “I’m sure Gregor has missed you by now anyway.”
                Of its own accord, one of my hands reached for hers, closing over the slim fingers before I could pull it back.  I cleared my throat, hoping the hand clasp would only serve to add sincerity to my declaration.  “I’d love to hear about your latest plan, Ari.”
                Her cheeks pinked as she dropped her lashes, her lips curving into a gentle smiles.  My heart stopped for a second, before she lifted her eyes once again, and sailed into recounting her latest scheme. 
              “Father’s being a perfect barbarian.  It’s always: ‘Young ladies should do this’ and ‘Young ladies should do that.’  I’d have no objection except they’re the most tedious things.  Needlepoint, lessons in Latin, and such nonsense.”
                Pleased that it was no longer aimed at me, I watched the play of annoyance across her face, animating her calm features.  
              “It’s enough to drive a woman mad,” she concluded.
                “So?” I prompted.  
                “We’re going to trick him.”
                Raising my eyebrows, I tried my best to convey silent incredulity.
                “I know what you’re going to say.  We always try to trick him and it never works.  But you’re wrong.  This time, we’ve considered every scenario.”  I loved when she talked like that, unveiling the exceptional mind behind the placid good looks.
                “Something always happens,” I reminded her.  “Like the time Larela tied all the embroidery thread into a great knot to get out of finishing her sampler.  True, she didn’t have to do needlework for a month, but only because he made her untangle every last strand.”
                “That’s Lari,” she tipped her gaze skyward in a silent plea for patience with her youngest sister.  “You know she’s far too impetuous to think things through.”
                “Then what will you do?” I asked.
                Her lips curved up into her widest grin, the mischief-filled one that affected my pulse more than I cared to admit.  I hoped she couldn’t feel it thrumming in my fingertips.  “You’ll know when it happens,” she said airily, drawing her fingers from mine and tilting her chin to look down her nose at me, even though I was a good head taller.
                “Then why did you ask me here?” I asked, mildly exasperated. 
                “Perhaps if you hadn’t made me wait a quarter of an hour, I’d have revealed the whole thing.”
                I shook my head ruefully.  Being the confidant of a clever woman was a tricky endeavor.  Almost as tricky as being in love with said woman while professing only friendship.  I eyed the pond glumly, thinking I could put an end to my misery by leaping in.
                Interrupting my thoughts, Ari leaned close enough to whisper in my ear, “I’m glad we’re friends, Jonas,” her breath tickled my neck and her flowery perfume enveloped me.  Momentarily stunned, I couldn’t move, even when she stood to leave.  “I have to go, Bree will be waiting.  But I promise to tell you everything soon.” She treated me to the impish grin again, “Trust me, this plan is foolproof.”

* * * * *
(Excerpt from Twelve, rights reserved by the author)

For more of Twelve, check out Arguing with Myself & Twelve for the Fourteenth. Rampant fangirling is encouraged.

Fan Fiction & Fairytales

Outside of my teaching career, I am many things: author, partner in crime, avid reader, musician, and--I'll go ahead and own it--fangirl. I haven't gotten into the vast collection of fan fiction available, but while watching BBC's Sherlock, which Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat created out of their love for Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories, it hit me: this is fan fiction.
Which started me thinking, who else does that?

How about Peter Jackson? The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies are his tribute to J. R.R. Tolkien. Jackson read the series of books as a youngster and was quoted as saying, " I can't wait for someone to make a movie of this book, because I'd love to see it!"  Sounds like something I'd do. Uh, wait...
It was somewhere between fangirling over Sherlock, Loki, a bunch of hot dwarves, & the majority of the Avengers that I realized my favorite genre was also a form of fan fiction. If you hadn't noticed, I'm slightly obsessed with fairytales. And like Gatniss, Moffat, Jackson, & the entire Marvel Universe, I can't seem to keep my hands to myself.

Hey, at least I'm in good company.
So here I am, reading and writing twisted fairytales left and right. And why is that? Because I'm a fangirl and I'm proud to say it.  You're welcome to join me.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Underdog

Why do we root for the underdog?  Time and time again our hearts become tied up in his battle for a better world. But why?
Essentially, we are all flawed characters acting out our own stories, none of which would be classed as fairytales. I know, because my story is something like this:  Since youth I've battled a negative self-image which still causes me to doubt myself in social situations (especially where men are concerned). Day after day, I refuse to let that keep me from stepping to the front of the classroom or sitting down at my laptop, because I believe I can change the world one naughty kindergartner or handcrafted romance at a time.  

It comes down to this: 
We are all the underdog and we all have a story to tell.
Captain America's is one of the best underdog stories ever created. Steve Rogers begins as nothing more than a boy who detests bullies. Battling his own demons--a lack of stature and a myriad of health problems--he's denied the chance to fight for what he believes is right.  But, when opportunity calls, like a true hero, he jumps to the front line without a moment's hesitation.

No wonder we love him.

(Okay, it doesn't hurt that Chris Evans is smokin' hot either, but my point is, hot or not, everyone has a story.)

A speaker I heard recently had some valuable points to make on the subject:
Storytellers shape history:  He who picks up his pen determines what future generations will know about the past.
The telling of the story reveals the people: Our perceptions and opinions about individuals, be they heroes or villains, are flavored by what storytellers have put in ink.

It's the same with each of us.  Real or fanciful, stories uplift, inspire, and comfort. They needn't be epic or grandiose. Like Steve Rogers, they may simply be the tale of one person standing for what they believe in and refusing to back down.

Someday when the world is crashing down, perhaps it will be our story--the one we have taken the time to share--that will strengthen others in their time of need.

Dealing with Divas

Sometimes smack in the middle of crafting a novel, characters get bossy. They demand a new scene, a fresh perspective on their lives, and, on occasion, a story of their own.
Let's face it, women are bad enough in real life. We throw our weight around, and act like Who, me? I'd never do a thing like that.  Innocence is our currency.  We interchange it freely while doing precisely what we like.  In all fairness, I won't saddle all women with this particular characteristic, but I'll admit I do it. The real question is, how did I expect my characters to be any different?

My first experience with bossy characters occurred when I finished writing Sam James. Early in the morning, it hit me that Samantha's boss, Vanessa Sumers, had her own story to tell. I was surprised as anyone to learn that Hitler Barbie (someone not unlike Meryl Streep's character in The Devil Wears Prada) had something more than her collection of designer handbags and bad relationships to talk about.  But she did.

The idea of characters leading the author is exciting. Who knows where they might take you.
Here's where patiently dealing with divas took me:

 Excerpt from Vanessa Sumers:

Normally, it was good to be the queen.  Vanessa Sumers had the largest office on the floor, an imposingly massive mahogany desk, sleek silver chairs, and a spectacular view of the city.  Even though her desk faced away from the view, it gave her a feeling of superiority to have the city behind her.  As the queen, she was obliged to turn her back on the carefully laid out streets and shops she loved and keep an eye on her minions instead. 
Today, they needed it.
With an inner sigh, Vanessa gazed out the bank of windows and open glass door separating her inner sanctum from the main office.  The front desk—set perpendicular to Vanessa’s—was the home to her secretary.  Samantha—completely engrossed in whatever she was doing on her computer—pointedly ignored the man in a white short-sleeved shirt and tie standing on the other side of the desk. 
He cleared his throat.  When the secretary still didn’t acknowledge him, he began drumming his fingers on the desktop.  Noisily. 
This is what drives catholic nuns to rap schoolboys’ knuckles, Vanessa thought in irritation.
After a moment, the secretary glanced up. “Is there something I can do for you, sir?” She asked in a flat tone, her eyes were already back on the monitor.
                “As a matter of fact, yes,” the man replied. “I’m looking for my fiancĂ©e.  Perhaps you’ve seen her.” 
                “That mousy old thing?   I don’t know what you see in her.”       
                Vanessa saw his lips draw into a grim line.  Here we go, she thought.  Leaning over the front desk, the man thrust a finger into the secretary’s face.  “You’re talking about the woman I’m going to marry!”
                As if his outburst made him more interesting, the secretary turned to him, lifted her chin, and looked up at him through long lashes.  Wrapping her fingers around his tie, she pulled him down until their faces were inches apart.  Her voice filled with naked invitation, she said, “She doesn’t have to be.”
                Shock registered in the man’s frozen form.  Then, as if throwing caution to the wind, he pressed his lips over hers.
                Vanessa tapped furiously away at her keyboard.  The secretary’s computer emitted a loud tweet.  Without releasing her grip on his tie, the secretary flicked her gaze to the I.M. on the corner of her screen.  With a soft chuckle, she first made eye-contact with Vanessa as if they were sharing a joke (a look which Vanessa returned with disapproval) and then turned back to the man.  “Apparently this is ‘inappropriate office behavior,’” she reported.
                Tossing a crooked grin in Vanessa’s direction, he shrugged and turned to the secretary.  “Is that so?  Then she’s really not going to like this.”  With that, he placed both hands on the secretary’s face and kissed her firmly on the mouth.  Firmly and loudly.
                With lightening speed, Vanessa typed another IM. 
                Sam pulled herself far enough out of the man’s arms to glance at the message.  “She says she may vomit.” They both snickered and smiled sappily at one another.  Ick.
                “Seriously, though, Sam, is it just me, or do you keep getting better looking?” he asked, grinning in his classic lopsided manner.
                “It’s probably in direct relation to how ridiculous your ties are getting, Chris,” she said, the fabric still clasped in her fingers.  Vanessa couldn’t help be agree. Sam smoothed the tie out, her brow furrowing as she tried to make out the pattern.  “Really?  Is that a hobbit?”
                Chris yanked the tie out of her hands, a wounded look flickering across his face.  “My fashion sense is completely unappreciated here.”  He added in a mutter, “They love my ties at Dungeons and Dragons...”
                That was too much.  Vanessa attacked the keyboard once more.  Sam, already snickering, read the message aloud.  “Vanessa says she’d like to set fire to your whole collection of ties.”
                “Fine,” he said resignedly, tossing his hands in the air. “I know when I’m outnumbered.  I only came by to remind you of dinner, Sam.”
                “Perhaps I won’t be able to make it,” she replied breezily, lifting her chin in defiance.
                In a quick movement, he snatched up her left hand.  “This,” he said, indicating the diamond, “means I have first dibs on your time, missy.”
                Vanessa shook her head.  Really, what was wrong with men?  Luckily, Sam had been well-trained in how to respond to that sort of possessive behavior.
                “No, no, no, no,” Samantha replied, “That means you have great taste in jewelry.” She gazed down at the ring.  Vanessa could almost see her eyes twinkling.  Girls and diamonds, she thought.  
                “And apparently women,” Sam added, almost as an afterthought.  “Now, get out of here before Vanessa finds a legitimate reason to sack you.”  She stood up to kiss him on the cheek. 
                A feeling of pride blossomed within Vanessa at the interchange.  This certainly wasn’t the same mousy secretary who had manned the office a year ago.  Samantha was completely transformed.
                Chris made his way out of the office, Sam watching him with a small grin.  “I do enjoy watching that man walk away.” 

* * * * *
(Excerpt from Vanessa Sumers, rights reserved by the author)

Like all strong women, female characters demand our attention.  Acting on their direction may cause the plotline to spin in a completely different direction than we planned at the beginning. However, following their lead can also open new vistas that take our breath away. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Hope Grows In A...

Book Club: the place where people force you to spend precious reading time with books they're interested in (and you couldn't care less about).

Generally, I'm not a huge fan.  After reading something from book club, I typically shelve it and never pick it up again. But sometimes--when I swallow my pride and/or inner whiny monologue--I have a genuinely positive experience with authors and genres outside of my comfort zone.
This months selection, The Rent Collector by Camron Wright, was just such a read.  Though the story is ficticous, it's based on the lives of individuals who lived in and made their living in a city municipal waste dump in Cambodia.

I'm the first to admit this is a rather grim setting, but as I hit the last page today, a quote from The Office came to mind:
Granted, when Michael Scott and Dwight Shrute, who are conversing at the city dump, drop this one-liner, it's meant to be funny.  Or at least ironic. (Seriously, it's The Office, if your funny bone's not tickled, you're due some sort of refund.)  However, in terms of The Rent Collector, this quote rings true. No matter what the family's circumstances, parents want the best for their children and will sacrifice what is necessary to make it a reality.

…the desire to believe, to look forward to better days, to want them, to expect them—it seems to be engrained in our being.  Whether we like it or not, hope is written so deeply into our hearts that we just can’t help ourselves, no matter how hard we try otherwise.  We love the story because we are Sarann or Tattercoats or Cinderella.  We all struggle with the same problem and doubts.  We all long for the day when we’ll get our own reward. (The Rent Collector)

Stories of good versus evil, of characters struggling through their journey to reach their happily ever after, are universal.  No matter the culture, these sorts of tales are passed from generation to generation to encourage hope. So, yes. Hope Grows in a Dump.  And anywhere else it can find ground fertile enough to take root, all it needs is a little encouragement.

To learn more about The Rent Collector, Camron Wright's other projects, or The River of Victory video that inspired Camron's story, please follow the imbedded links.