Search Terms That Found My Blog


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I am especially baffled by “archery pizza,” “miami naju paris baguette,” and “mt fuji swollen ankles.”

But I love that other Korean Fulbrighters and their friends seem to be finding my blog by accident.

Why I Started Hyperventilating in the School Staff Room


I’ll just cut to the chase here: I got my first manuscript request yesterday.

I was used to waiting two weeks or more, only to open my email and see a preview for a reply with words like “unfortunately” and “while we understand…” Polite words. Words that, however gently, began to scrape at my rejection-proof shell of determination.

So imagine my surprise when a response came only seven hours after I’d sent my query. But the usual words didn’t leap out of the preview panel. Instead, there were words my brain literally couldn’t register. It was like reading a language I’m not fluent in, or reading a dull passage in a book: you don’t see what you’re expecting/dreading and so you effectively see nothing at all. It wasn’t until I actually opened the email that synapses started firing again:

“I’d love to take a look at your manuscript. Please email it to me when possible.”

I sat at my desk for a good five minutes, unable to do anything but stare and hyperventilate.

To date, I’ve sent out exactly twenty query letters for my novel, Ciphers. Eleven of those received form rejections, while another five or so are assumed rejections (no replies for three weeks or more). I’ve written, I think, at least four completely different drafts of my query letter throughout the process.

But finally I have some proof that my hard work paid off.

No matter what happens from here on out — whether the agent offers representation or passes on my novel — I at least know that I have an eye-catching query. It’s enough to get at least a handful of partial and full manuscript requests. And at that stage, even a rejection is beneficial. If there’s a technical reason for the rejection, the agent will explain it. If they can’t explain it well, that just means it wasn’t their particular cup of tea — and someone else will surely like it.

A Floridian’s First Snowfall


Many people (Koreans especially) tend not to believe me when I tell them that I’d never seen snow before coming to Korea. The concept seems just as foreign to them as that of stepping foot outside in anything less than 50 degree weather once was to me.

And to be fair, the above is something I’m still fighting to get over. “What is winter like in Naju?” I used to ask people. They would always release the same heavy sigh.

“Ah. So much snow.”

I’m a Floridian with poor blood circulation and the apt title of Miss Tropical. Getting this as a consistent response terrified me. December loomed closer and every day the sun shone weaker. The warmth around me dwindled, pulling closer and closer like light around a dying candle flame even as I wrapped myself in more and more layers. Meanwhile, my friends from Maine, Michigan, and the other freezing M state laughed. #Floridianproblems became the new hashtag trend.

Then, on Wednesday, I stepped into the chilly corridor outside my office at school, and white diamonds were glistening in the sunshine as they drifted past the window. My friend and I watched. She explained that people tend to feel warmer when it snows, even though the temperature might be the same as a snowless day. I thought about how easily things can be taken for granted; for all that my fingers were turning blue, I felt it a fair tradeoff for the serenity I took with me afterward. I was experiencing snow for the first time in my life, and my friend’s amazement made it all the more potent that life has so much to offer.

I was later to be told that this first encounter “barely counted as snow.” The thunderstorm I walked home in afterwards, with its confusion of pouring rain and gentle snowflakes, didn’t seem to count either. But overnight that storm became a true snowfall. Thursday morning I awoke to a world of white.

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This is the pedestrian bridge I cross in order to get to school. I fear it on a typical rainy day because it’s made of metal. Add ice to that, and it becomes a promise for a bruised tailbone.

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And this is Geumseong Mountain. My school sits at the base of this.

So now that I have experienced “real” snow for the first time, as my Maine friend has finally conceded, I feel it may be worth sharing my thoughts on it as a Floridian.

1) Falling snow is beautiful.

2) Iced-up snow on hills and pedestrian bridges is not.

3) Flowers can live through snow. WHAT. I can barely do that!

4) Wow, real snow looks just like the fake stuff they put in the shop windows!

5) Fresh snow is SOFT. I was not expecting to put my finger through it and immediately compare it to a cloud, but I did. I also took the opportunity to write “English rocks” on the hill outside my school.

6) The lifecycle of snow would seem to be: fall, compact, melt, refreeze into ice, melt, evaporate, and fall again. This should have been obvious considering we all learned about precipitation in first grade, but being Floridian I’ve never had cause to appreciate it before. This stuff spends a lot of time on the ground.

7) I wonder if snow ever piles up on telephone lines, then melts into icicles and spears people through the head.

My northerner friends find my naiveté endearing. But I feel I’ve come a long way since asking whether one could bicycle in the snow.

Too Much Depth


If you’ve ever taken a class (or gone to a workshop, or browsed online articles) for writing advice, you’ve been subjected to the Laws of Character Development.

§ 18(2) art. 12: Thou shalt not have cardboard characters.

§ 327 art. 96: All characters shall have motivation for their actions.

§ 843 art. 2: No character is to ever have the name Bob, Bella, Mary Sue, or Vagastagnakor — unless it is a means of making their lives utterly traumatic or to bring the joy of irony to the reader.

No amount of awesome plot can make up for lack of character depth. No depth means no motivation, no sympathy, no interest.

Okay, I don’t need to repeat what innumerable others have already said. I’ll be hitting this topic from the opposite side of the field.

Some character-building worksheets go into excruciating detail. They want you to know your protagonist’s favorite brand of cereal, or what flavor gum they carry in their backpack. And while this is nice for discovering little attributes that you never would have considered otherwise, it can also lead you down a dangerous road of over-developing your character. Is knowing that Bridget likes watermelon bubble gum important to anything in the story? Is there even any reason why she should prefer watermelon over every other flavor?

Sometimes too much development, and hence too much depth, can actually… tangle up the story.

This is exactly what happened to me, even though at the time I wasn’t even consciously developing Bridget’s character. I had her strengths and her weaknesses; I had her flaws, her ticks, her dreams and hopes and fears. Her backstory grew organically from these; I realized only after finishing the second draft of Ciphers that I’d been hinting at a milestone event in her past all along.

As soon as this revelation occurred, however, certain actions of hers that didn’t stem from how this event changed her stopped making sense. I found myself thinking, “Why would she do this? True, I gave her this character trait early on, and it’s not like this trait and that one (the one influenced by that major event) are mutually exclusive in real people…”

Ah, in real people.

Real people are seldom defined by a single event in their lives; we take in millions of little influences every day, from friends, family, strangers, and celebrities. A thirty-second ad on TV can be the difference between going out and ordering in, as well as every little thing we’re exposed to as a result of that decision. Sometimes these little things define us more than the big things. At the very least they define us just as much.

Fictional characters don’t have the luxury of experiencing a ton of little things off-screen, or even on-screen really. So they can only be defined by the milestones: big achievements, big failures, traumatic events, the most influential people around them, like parents. And because we have this limitation, our view of them must be appropriately limited so as not to confuse the readers.

And trust me, if your character has a certain personality trait, there had better be a good reason for it — even if that reason is never fully revealed to the reader. As long as the author knows the character’s backstory, the readers will find hints to it in the writing, and they’ll still be able to feel like they can relate to the character.

But the character’s backstory, motives, and actions must be coherent. And coherency is easy to lose when you start bringing out personality traits that don’t fit in with the defining event of their lives, or vice versa. It can also disappear fast when there are too many defining events squeezed in, making for a set of traits that you may as well have chosen by throwing darts. Now, keep in mind that you can have multiple events if they all contribute, as a group, to a single set of traits. Or a secondary event sealing in the character a trait which the first one had only set to budding.

So here are some new entries for that law book:

1) All major personality traits and motivations should be coherent with the character’s backstory.

2) Backstory should consist of one or two defining events.

3) Multiple events should serve only to reinforce the same set of resulting traits or motivations.

 

Thoughts? Questions? Rebuttals? Give me your words in the comments section!

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