Writer’s Blergh

This is how I know my ideas are good, mleah mleah.

This is how I know my ideas are good, mleah mleah.

The other day I was at a barbeque with a few friends and plenty of strangers, and when I mentioned that I was a writer I got the usual barrage of strange and slightly insulting questions. Questions like “Where do you get your ideas, and how do you know if they’re any good?” and “If you’re not published yet, are you really a writer?” I’m mostly used to this kind of thing by now, and have a collection of stock answers up my sleeve that satisfy even the most inquisitive soul. But this time one guy asked me a question that gave me pause. “What do you do,” he queried, “when you get writer’s block?”

Now, I think this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But there were a few things about the way it was phrased that struck me as unusual. First, he said when you get writer’s block, as opposed to if–he clearly assumed that all writers, at some point or another, are struck by the affliction of writer’s block. Second, he asked what do you do when this happens. Not when does this happen, or why does this happen, but what do you do. I’m not sure exactly what answer he was looking for (“I chant arcane incantations to the Nightmare Gods for inspiration”) but the question got me thinking a lot about writer’s block, and peoples’ perceptions of what exactly that means.

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American Radiator Building, seen from Bryant Park. Photo belongs to me.

American Radiator Building, seen from Bryant Park.
Photo belongs to me.

This past weekend, I took the bus from Boston to New York City to meet up with my husband, who was there for work reasons. Now, I know this probably isn’t the most common view in the world, but I kind of hate NYC. I’ve never lived there, but I usually find myself visiting once every couple years, and every time I arrive with high hopes and depart feeling angry, stressed, and overwhelmed. I hate the ubiquitous skyscrapers that block out the sun, darkening the streets even when skies are blue. I hate the garbage piled on sidewalks; the smell of piss and trash in alleyways; the scaffolding and construction on every other street. And most of all, I hate the crush of humanity elbowing me aside, reminding me that I am nothing, as important as a single drop of water in a vast ocean. In New York, I am anonymous, meaningless, and hopeless.

But something about this visit was different. Maybe it was because the weather was perfect. Maybe it was because we had no stressful itinerary, nothing we had to do or see or visit. Maybe it was because we avoided Times Square like the plague. But for whatever reason, I actually enjoyed myself in New York City. Relaxing in Bryant Park, I could close my eyes and hear the rhythms of New York: the steady heartbeat of a million footsteps on pavement; the thrum of a thousand subway trains rushing through underground tunnels; the syncopated beeping of hundreds of impatient yellow cabs. Gazing at the skyscrapers, I didn’t see ugly monoliths but the syncretism of history, architecture, and industry. Instead of a pockmark on the face of a nation, I saw instead a beating heart, vital and alive.

I wasn’t always a city girl–I grew up in a small town in the South. But since I graduated college I’ve lived in Washington DC, London, and now Boston. I’ve come to love cities, with their contradictory personalities and fast-paced cultures. And the longer I’ve spent living in cities, the more I’ve realized that each one has its own identity, individual and unique. They are like people, complicated and hypocritical and beautiful, and you never stop learning new things about them.

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I remember the first journal I ever had. I was in 4th grade, and the journal was a gift for my 10th birthday. Square, slim, and emblazoned with a photograph of a beautiful horse on the cover (I was really into horses at the time), the journal was initially something of a mystery to me. What does one write about in a diary? I wondered as I flipped through sheet after sheet of blank, unlined paper. Is there anything going on in my life that’s worth journaling about?

(Okay, so I’m paraphrasing. My thoughts probably ran more along the lines of: Ooh, horsey! ….What now? Words are hard.)

Although I would never, ever dot my i's with hearts.

Although I would never, ever dot my i’s with hearts.

Either way, my journaling habit got off to a rocky start. I remember my first ever diary entry consisted of a laundry list of what I’d had for breakfast. Snoozers. I also spend an inordinate amount of time naming all the horses I would eventually own in some distant, unrealistic future. But eventually, I got into the hang of it. I started writing about the interesting or funny things that happened to me at school. I discussed my hopes and dreams for the future: professional show jumper; jockey; equine veterinarian. (I was really into horses.) I even penned my first work of fiction in those pages: a tale about an orphaned warrior princess named Jade and her trusty unicorn, who roamed the Forbidden Forest in search of the lost Wizard Bendar. Although the story was repetitive and heavily (and I mean heavily) influenced by Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, it was a start.

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How (Not) To Be a Good Writer

So, you think you want to be a writer? Have you read a few too many mediocre novels and subsequently thought to yourself, I bet I could do this whole “writing a book thing”? Have you gone so far as opening a Word document on your computer and staring at it for a few minutes? Perhaps even searched Google for ways to be a good writer? Well, today is your lucky day, because I have a few fail-proof ways to turn you into the best writer ever.

How To Be a Good Writer in Five Easy Steps*



1. Wait for inspiration to strike. Everybody knows that real writers have oodles of inspiration that comes blazing down from the sky like the lightning of imagination. None of your ideas or words will be worthwhile unless you wait for this moment. And no point in practicing until this elusive moment arrives–you wouldn’t want to waste any of your words. Save them up for your moment of brilliance.

2. Ignore the world around you. Pop in those headphones and hide yourself behind sunglasses as much as possible. As a writer, the most important world is the one inside your head, so don’t bother studying human behavior, listening to people engage in conversation, or observing the ways of the real world. Furthermore, never take note of your own experiences or emotions. This is all useless when it comes to crafting believable characters or building a fictional world. It’s better if you make it up entirely and don’t base it on real life.

3. Put down that book!!! What are you, crazy? Who told you to read any books other than the one you’re trying to write? This is madness. Other writers will only confuse you with their differing literary styles and unique structures. Remember, brilliant literature only occurs in a perfect vacuum. How else can you hope to be unique?

Don't let that bother you. Use it anyway.

Don’t let that bother you. Use it anyway.

4. Verb adverbly! I’m going to quickly introduce you to adverb. She’s your new best friend who will help wonderfully. Use her eagerly after every verb. In fact, I’ve heard rumors that you can even adverb nounly and adjectively. Just try it carefully. You’re not a writer without a big bag of adverbs helping you faithfully.

5. Never revise. Since you’re waiting for inspiration to strike before you write, then it stands to reason that your first draft will be pure creative genius straight from the mouth of the gods. You wouldn’t want to ruin that masterpiece by changing any of it, would you? Of course not. What if you accidentally removed one of your precious adverbs? Quelle horreur! Your writing should be perfect the first time. If it isn’t, then you probably shouldn’t be a writer.

Adhere to these simple steps and you’re well on your way to becoming a real writer! Now go stare at that open Word document a little bit longer. You never know when inspiration might strike!

*Yes. Clever girl. This advice is 100% tongue in cheek. Please do the reverse of this advice if you actually want to be a decent writer.

Open Sesame: Great First Lines

Maybe be a little more creative...

Maybe be a little more creative…

Happy Monday, folks! This Monday has afforded me the dubious pleasure of starting work on my third round of revisions now that most of my beta-readers have gotten back to me with edits. Although I gotta say, so far work has been going very sloooowly. On the upside, I’ve been able to take a long hard look at the way my novel opens: first line, first paragraph, first chapter. And it’s got me thinking a lot about openings in general.

There are so many amazing first lines in literature. No two are the same, but all share one important feature: they hook the reader’s attention, and then make the reader ask questions whose answers only lie in the following pages. Some begin with a musing or a remembrance from the main character. Others employ the technique of beginning a story in media res, dropping the reader right into the middle of the action without any context or background. But all great opening lines make the reader want to continue reading.

So, with no further ado, I present to you my top 10 favorite opening lines from literature!

10) “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

9) “I’d always welcomed war, but in battle my passion rose unbidden.” Nightshade, Andrea Cremer

8) “A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins of a word of praise in exchange for a story … a writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.” The Angel’s Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafon

7) “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” Holes, Louis Sachar

6) “Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.” The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater

5) “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

4) “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

3) “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984, George Orwell

2) “Birthdays were wretched, delicious things when you lived in Beau Rivage. The clock struck midnight, and presents gave way to magic.” Kill Me Softly, Sarah Cross

1) “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” The Gunslinger, Stephen King

Do you have favorite opening lines in literature? What do you think makes a successful opening? Leave you thoughts in the comment section below!

To Judge a Book

Have you ever wandered through a bookstore or library, your fingers trailing lightly along the spines of all the quiet books waiting to be read, only to pull one out, take a quick look at the cover, and shove it back onto the shelf without bothering to even read the inside flap? Making a snap judgment based solely on the series of images emblazoning the jacket? I know I have. Judging a book by its cover is a fairly trite idiom in the English language, but I think that as an idea it stands up well under examination, both literally and metaphorically.

Bet you wouldn't even watch the HBO adaptation of the girly one.

Bet you wouldn’t even watch the HBO adaptation
of the girly one.

A few months ago, author Maureen Johnson posed an interesting question to her readers and followers. After receiving numerous letters from male readers asking her to please change the covers of her books so that they wouldn’t feel embarrassed to read them in public, Ms. Johnson came to the conclusion that while men and women “can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, the woman is simply more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.” To subvert this notion, she asked her Twitter followers to participate in an experiment called Coverflip–first, take a well-known book, then imagine the author of that book was of the opposite gender, and imagine what that cover might look like.

You can read about the full experiment here, and I recommend looking at the slideshow of the resulting images. I found them both hilarious and upsetting, for a variety of reasons. Maybe some other day I’ll rant about gender inequality, but today I think I’d like to talk about something even more basic: people judging people by the covers of the books they read.

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Dream a Little Dream

If you know me well, or have been reading my blog long enough, you have probably realized by now that I’m a leeetle bit obsessed with dreams. Not in a “Oh, dreams are pretty cool I guess” way, but in a “Why can’t I eschew the real world and live perpetually in the nonsense realm of my sleeping brain” manner. You may think this is strange, and that’s okay. It is. I’m generally a fairly strange person.

Yeah, a Nazi AND a wizard. Trust me, it's scary.

Yeah, a Nazi AND a wizard. Trust me, it’s scary.

My dreams are nearly always vivid, but they run the gamut in terms of subject matter. Complex. Silly. Terrifying. Trippy. Occasionally, I’ll even have dreams with recurring themes. Anxiety dreams are the most common of these themes; it’s finals week and I’ve just realized I haven’t been to calculus all semester. Harrison Ford weirdly appears in many of my dreams; more often than not he’s a Nazi-wizard and he’s chasing me. But recently, I’ve started having a new recurring dream. Nearly once a week for the past two months, I’ve dreamed that there’s a tall black stallion, wild and untamed, and I’m the only one who can ride him.

Whatever could it mean?

Before I continue, I’d like to say that while I’m not sure what purpose dreams truly serve, I do think they have the capacity to be symbolic. Jung hypothesized that our dreams contained universal archetypes derived from a collective unconscious; I think this may be going a bit far. Our minds are, however, bombarded with culturally significant symbols and images from a very young age, and it seems entirely plausible that these patterns would find meaningful expression in our dreams. It also seems likely that our own individual experiences could lead our unconscious minds to assign meaning to otherwise meaningless minutiae.

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The Story Paradox

“Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.”   –Terry Pratchett

The first thing I usually do upon finishing a draft of one manuscript is to start thinking about what to write next. I have notebooks full of half-baked ideas and infant plot-lines, but the challenge when beginning a story–short- or long-form–is to judge whether or not it’s worth telling. And one thing I’ve come to terms with–as both a reader and a writer–is that not all stories are worth telling. And even if they are worth telling, they shouldn’t all be told the same way.

Why build a regular house when you could build this house? Habitat 67, Montreal, Canada

Why build a regular house when you could build this house?
Habitat 67, Montreal, Canada

I like to think of a story as a house. In the simplest sense, a house has four walls and a roof. Similarly, a story must meet some bare structural specification before it can even qualify as a story: some semblance of a plot, perhaps a character or two, maybe some dialogue. (James Joyce might argue that this is not the case, but let’s leave him out of it for now). But beyond those basics, a lot of variation is possible. How the story is created–what devices and structures are employed–that’s what makes the house a home, so to speak. Just as there are log cabins and chateaus and open-plan lofts, so there are a thousand and one ways a story may grow into something unique and compelling.

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This Is Crazy…Beta Maybe?

If y’all have been paying attention you’ll know that I’ve spent the last few months revising the heck out of the manuscript I completed this past spring. Now, the only step left before I can release this project out into the big, scary universe is to let people actually read it. So far I’ve let my mom and my husband read it, but that’s it. And they’re not exactly the most objective readers in the world when it comes to my work.

Not that kind of beta, silly.

Not that kind of beta, silly.

So, Uncle Lyra Wants You! Yes, You! Do you like words printed on paper? Do you like reading brand new manuscripts that haven’t yet seen the light of day? Are you a critical thinker and a careful reader? Are you bored with summer yet? Then you are the perfect candidate for being a beta reader!

Here’s a little bit of information about the novel in question:

Title: Blood King

Genre: Young Adult Urban Fantasy

Length: 106,000 words (that’s about the length of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, just to give you a comparison)

Synopsis: Dez Ashwood has only been King of the Blue Bloods for a few months when a spate of undead revenants threatens to upset the delicate balance between Life and Death. A stolen artifact, an ancient prophecy, and rogue necromancers owing fealty to a wraith bent on destroying the world; all are pieces of the puzzle that Dez must solve before time runs out. Will she be able to keep the streets of London safe from hordes of the undead? Or is it just her destiny to die trying?

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Q&A with Author Kourtney Heintz

Today, I’m interviewing author Kourtney Heintz about her new book The Six Train to Wisconsin, out now in print and e-book. Hope you enjoy this insight into another writer’s process and decisions, and make sure to leave a comment at the end to be entered to win Kourtney’s exciting new novel!

The lovely author in the flesh!

The lovely author in the flesh!

Q: First off, tell us about you! Who is Kourtney Heintz?

I’m a former Wall Street girl, who took advantage of the economic downturn to try a new career as an author. I’m a firm believer in living the life you want and doing whatever it takes to make your dreams a reality. Even moving into your parent’s living room.

Q: When did you first start writing, and what inspired you to continue?

I’ve been writing since I was a kid. Fan fiction mostly. My own takes on the Wizard of Oz series. It wasn’t until 2006 that I decided to seriously write my own novel. It was the end of the Harry Potter series that brought it all about. I was so sad to part ways with Hermione and Harry and I realized if I wrote my own books I could stay with the characters as long as I wanted.

Q: Your debut novel, The Six Train to Wisconsin, has just come out in print and ebook. Tell us about the book!

The Six Train to Wisconsin is a work of speculative fiction. It focuses on a married couple, Oliver and Kai. When Kai’s telepathy spirals out of control, her husband Oliver brings her to the quiet Wisconsin hometown he abandoned a decade ago, where he must confront the secrets of his past to save their future.

Q: Where did the idea for the novel come from? Did anything in particular inspire you?

I was recovering from disk replacement surgery and thinking about how bad off I had been. How much care I needed. And the people who had to care for me. I wanted to tell that story. Both sides of it–the caregiver and the care-needer. The husband and his telepathic wife were born in that moment.

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