An Anniversary

Yesterday I wrote this little entry about how I wasn’t going to write anything not related to school… being that I have a five-page essay, a forty-page essay, and a final to worry about until Thursday. Except that I was working on that forty-pager and realized I couldn’t really add anything until my partner and I had tested a couple more people.

(Coincidentally, if you happen to be a native speaker of Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Thai, or Vietnamese, passed the TOEFL or other such exam, and are currently working or studying in the U.S., we would love to interview you! 😉 )

Anyway, seeing that I was rather stuck on this paper, I did what any responsible student would do and moved on to the next one.

Ha. No, I lie. Replace “student” with “writer” and “moved on to the next one” with “totally drafted an outline of that extra story I want to put in the back of my published novel!”

Fortunately, it’s a short story, so it didn’t take that much time to do — maybe fifteen minutes, but probably less since I was really excited. Heck, I’m getting bubbly now just thinking about it.

The best part is that, like I mentioned yesterday, today marks exactly one year since the initial concept of the novel popped into my head. Now I have something to commemorate a year’s worth of Cipher’s blunt honesty, Bridget’s workaholism, and Gard’s bipolarity! What will the next year have in store for them? If things go well, I’m hoping to be a good way through the sequel by the time anniversary two comes around. Not to mention on a publisher’s “Newly Acquired” list. 😀

(For the moment, though… I really should get back to my other day job of being a student. Or else I’m going to have a lot of people coming for a graduation ceremony that I’m not in…)


Just Stopping By

My frustrations with a certain 40-page paper are tempting me toward working on my novel instead. What sucks the most is that tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of me starting this book, and I was hoping to have something cool to show for it. Well, I guess overall I’ve achieved a lot with this project. A couple weeks ago I hit 50k (out of an estimated total of ~60k) so the end is in sight!

I’ve also been playing around with the idea of slipping in an extra story for the published book to provide some insight as to how a certain character’s parents met each other. In fact, I’m having to force myself not to start writing it right at this very moment. The characters are just that alive to me right now.

I suppose my mantra for today is going to be “one more week; one more week; one more week…”

On Thursday, I can start writing for real again!

The Art of Time Travel

Or, “How I ‘Find’ the Time to Write”

A friend of mine recently heard that I’m only three or four chapters away from completing my current novel, and immediately asked, “Where do you find time to write a novel during grad school? I swear it’s like you’re hiding a time vortex from me.”

No, I’m not hiding it. I’ve got it parked at the meter. 😉

Obscure Doctor Who references aside, this is a pretty good question. Most writers I know personally — pretty much all of them, in fact — have to prioritize school or work or both. Many, like me, are working toward their Master’s degrees. At one point I was a full-time grad student, working 27 hours a week as a teacher and a tutor, AND the president of a student organization. This also happened to be the time I was applying for the JET Program and the Fulbright ETA, as well as learning how to maintain a long distance relationship across thirteen time zones.

Yeah, looking back on it, that wasn’t much fun.

But did it stop me from writing? Admittedly, it did, occasionally for a week or more at a time; nonetheless, writing did get done, without too much sacrifice to my other priorities.

Some of the following suggestions overlap a bit with an earlier post (How I (usually) Manage Not to Procrastinate), but some new additions and a bit more detail make this list a bit more useful than the other, in my opinion.

Anyway, before I ramble any more, it’s time to present May’s 5 Tips for Time Travel!


1. Make an outline.

This one I’ve said before, and will say again. If you want to save time in the writing process, know where your story and characters are going.

Yes, some write better by pantsing; the thrill of writing without a plan can allow a writer to tap into vats of inspiration which might be lost when following a more familiar road. To be honest, I always start new projects this way, and don’t really see any other way to go for that initial spark. HOWEVER, I don’t think pantsing is conducive to writing on a tight schedule. Let’s say you finally get an hour to be creative in the middle of a busy day. It’s all going well the first twenty minutes — your characters do their thing, it’s interesting and unique and poetic. You finish a paragraph and hit “enter” to start the next one — and can’t think of what to write. The scene that had flowed so perfectly until now just dries up.

No big deal; you make it a new scene. But of what? More dialogue? Or is it time to jump into the action? What would work best here? Now you get sidetracked thinking about all the possible things that could happen. Which is more likely for your characters? Maybe you feel that option A is more natural for your hero. But are you sure? Who is your hero, anyway? Beyond “brash, stubborn, and fatally clever,” you don’t really know much about him. In fact, up til now he’s basically done nothing but be an ass to everyone he encounters. How do you turn that into plot?

And just like that, your hour’s up. Lunch break is over, the customers are waiting, the kids need to be picked up from school.

An outline, contrary to popular opinion, does not need to have a lot of detail. Sometimes just knowing how you want the story to end can help a great deal. Of course, filling in the gaps little by little until you do have a lot of detail works wonders.


2. Have a writing tool (paper, laptop, phone, napkin) with you at all times.

And I mean ALL times. Minds tend to wander as we go about our daily routines, to the point where ideas pop up when we’re in the shower, brushing our teeth, eating, walking/driving to school, sitting in important staff meetings… It’s only recently that I’ve started remembering to carry an actual notepad around that is specifically dedicated to my current WiP. Before that, and actually even now sometimes, my notes would wind up in all sorts of places: on class notes, handouts, restaurant napkins, the back of my hand, sometimes even on my laptop or cellphone (go figure). I also carry a thumb drive so I can use a school computer if I have to. Unfortunately, though, I can’t really trust those any more because my last one suddenly died, taking about five chapters worth of outline with it. After that happened, I started using a program/app called My Writing Spot. I’ll admit that the interface isn’t that great; it’s kind of like Wordpad in its simplicity. But it’s convenient because I can sync everything I type between my laptop and my iPhone with the touch of a button, meaning all of my data is backed up on multiple platforms.

3. Make every minute count.

It’s easy enough to say “I’m going to write a thousand words every day this week” and then barely write ten because of a busy or unpredictable schedule. For me it’s now an unconscious habit to take out my notes when it looks like I won’t need more than 50% of my concentration on something. Even if I end up writing nothing, I have triggered a mental state of preparation — which we all know is half the battle. For example, when I need to attend a staff meeting:

(My notebook and pen are out and turned to my most recent page of notes.)
Boss: Blah blah blah students blah blah policy blah blah final exams.
Me: *I wonder how Character A feels about staff meetings. She’d probably bring in her code-cracking stuff and get wrapped up in it. Character B would… Actually, B would never get invited to a staff meeting. Too many documents he might set fire to.*
Boss: And these kids from Country A are ridiculous! They go around saying “Teacher, you please raise my grade!”
Me: *I should totally have a character from Country A.* (cackles)

And so on. Often I come up with ideas entirely unrelated to my focal WiP.


4. Learn to Deal with Distractions.

I know the trauma of wanting (or needing) to be creative and just not being able to focus. Maybe the A/C is too cold and you can’t control it, or your workspace is crowded and noisy, or your chair is too hard. Maybe you’re annoyed because the waiter brought you oolong when you asked for pu erh…

Letting these things get to you can kill your writing time. Granted, sometimes it’s just impossible to get past a certain distraction and it must be rectified before any progress can be made. But if we keep focusing on this and then that and then the other thing, we may feel better at the end of it all but our novel/story/poem feels neglected.

Over the past ten years, I’ve learned to work in noisy public places because sometimes, there’s just nowhere else to go or not enough free time to get there. “But May, you have an office now! You don’t have to work in those other places any more.” Actually, I have prioritized even my distractions: since I’m used to noise, I’d rather have to put up with that than the icicles hanging in my office! 😉


5. Screw inspiration.

I’m sure everyone’s heard the saying “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.” Out of everything on this list, I think this is the most important factor to keep in mind: sometimes, you will be able to write pages and pages without pause or effort, the words leaping from your fingertips as though by their own will.

And sometimes, everything you force out will feel wrong, look trite, and sound like literary nails on a chalkboard.

But the sad fact is that those awful, awful words and passages must be written. A writer who works only when inspiration strikes will likely find themselves going for days with little or no productivity, especially when life is hectic. As long as you make the effort to squeeze out at least a few words during those precious few moments you get, you’ll have at least a starting point that you can go back and edit any time you want.

Essentially, just get the words on the paper (or on the screen). Fix the crappy ones later, and don’t risk losing a good idea because of a misbehaving lexicon.

The Major Issue with the Hunger Games Movie

Or, “How I Procrastinate on Studying for My Exit Exams”

I try to remain open-minded when a book or story I like makes it to Hollywood. I’m much less likely than my friends to rip on the movie for not being wholly accurate or for a few instances of silly acting.

That being said, I actually enjoyed the Hunger Games when I saw it last weekend. Jennifer Lawrence and Elizabeth Banks were spot on, and I love how they showed a little bit of the game control room. I thought that making Seneca Crane a bigger player was great for his character. And thank god, they did Rue right! Some of my friends were much harder on it for the changes that were made — changing the significance of the Mockingjay pin, cutting out small events that really affect character development — but while I can agree that I wasn’t happy with those things, either, they weren’t complete deal breakers for me.

BUT. There was a deal breaker.

I’ve been a writer for more than a decade now. (I’ve known I wanted to publish since eighth grade.) More importantly, I’ve been a reader since before I can remember. So while I may not be able to do basic math problems or explain the political causes of high gas prices during an election year, I do know something about how to tell a story.

A GOOD story.

Now, the Hunger Games movie does achieve some good story-telling. Most of the scenes in the arena were done really well — I’ll give it a check mark for “good action story.”

Good suspense story.

Good coming-of-age story.

Hell, good socio-political commentary.

NOT a good love story. And I mean love on any level. In the book, we know that Katniss loves her sister, but can’t bring herself to forgive her mom or to love anyone else. Now, let’s forget, for the moment, about the whole bread scene — which lacked all the context that made it important!!! — and focus on the cave scene. It’s clear that Katniss likes Peeta, but until this scene she refuses to let herself get close to him. And even then, she won’t admit her feelings to herself. In the book, we can clearly see the difference between

1) Katniss making the audience believe she’s in love with Peeta,

2) Katniss actually beginning to fall in love with Peeta, and

3) Katniss making herself believe she is not in love with Peeta.

This triad makes the cave scene one of the most important moments of character development in the whole novel. And yet somehow in the movie the whole scene just looks like a big jumble of “OMG Peeta suddenly I LURV you!” with 1 and 2 smashed together and none of the subtlety of 3.

In fact it’s SO bad that we don’t even get the gut punch at the end of the movie when Peeta realizes she’s just been ACTING all this time, and Katniss realizes HE’S not been. In fact, as far as the audience can tell, they’re a couple… Maybe? There may be a sense that something is off, or I could just be perceiving tension that isn’t there because I know it should be. In any case, the development of Katniss as a human being and an adult with romantic emotions just doesn’t seem happen, and that whole internal struggle gets left out. And guess what that means for Peeta’s character? He doesn’t get one. He effectively becomes an Object.

Again, this may just be me, but it looks like Twishite tropes are worming their way into the Hollywood subconscious.

At this point, I can’t think of a way this bad story-telling can be fixed in the second movie. As a friend of mine said, it’s not even a time issue; thirty seconds here and there can do a LOT for character development, and the movie wouldn’t be that much longer. And if it is? Take one more action that can make this a better love story: cut out the random shots of Gale. Because, frankly, those should have been shots of Prim — you know, the only person Katniss is sure she loves? The one she sacrificed herself for in her first defining scene as a character?

I’m not saying that fixing these bits would have made the movie perfect, but it definitely would have been far better. As it was, I left the theater thinking that a good job had been done, but also that there was just something off. And I’m willing to bet that even viewers who haven’t read the book felt that, too. That’s exactly what happens with bad storytelling: everything seems alright on a technical level but there’s just something you can’t put your finger on.

What do you think, lovely readers? Have you seen the movie/read the book/both? I’d love to hear your opinions!

%d bloggers like this: