Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, January 31, 2011

On Getting Old, & What to Do if Your Book Sounds Too Familiar

First, thanks so much for all the birthday wishes! I still don’t get about half of what you can do on Facebook. But it is such a kick to find like fifty “Happy Birthdays,” from so many of my friends.

Trying not to feel too old here. And for the most part I succeeded. The only thing that broke the illusion briefly was that I was showing my boys different bands from my era on YouTube. I was okay as long as I stuck to Def Leopard, Supertramp, Asia, Jeff Beck, etc. But when I found myself listening to some of my favorite old Barry Manilow songs, I suddenly flashed back to being in the car with my parents and groaning when the pulled out the Time Life eight track tapes with singers like Johnny Horton.

So I just explained to my children that BM was music my “older” sister listened to and all was well again.

Anyway, great day and all your well wishes just made it that much better. I was going to blog about getting old, but you were saved that enlightening unusual stomach-churning experience, by another of my faithful minions who asked a great question.

David Glenn asks, “What can someone do when they’re trying to write a story, but people say it sounds too much like another story? What can they do to make it different?”

Great question! I’ll answer it in two parts.

Part one:

If I told you I recently read a story of a child whose parents were dead, who was being raised by mean relatives, who met a magical person, and who had an adventure, what story would you think I was talking about?

Harry Potter? Orphan. Raised by mean aunt and uncle. Meets Hagrid. Goes to Hogwarts. That would qualify right?

But there’s another orphan who also fits those exact qualifications.

James and the Giant Peach.

Switch the race, and swirl the circumstances a little, and you might have this well known pair.

And if we change the boy to a girl, we could have . . .

Sorry, my bad. I meant . . .

The lovely, charming, and rodent-speaking Cinderella.

In fact if you think about it long enough, I’ll bet you could come up with at least another dozen examples. That’s because this is a pretty common beginning. In order to isolate our protagonist, we kill off the parents. Then we use a magical figure to send him or her on a hero’s journey.

Now I know what you are thinking, those are just the beginnings of the story. Once you get past the start, they are nothing like one another. And that’s true.

But do you think Twilight was the first romantic vampire book? Was Harry Potter the first book where a kid gets sent to a school to learn magic? Was The Maze Runner the first book where kids are taken on an elevator to a strange place and run through tests? No, no, and no.

Start reading book reviews and you will quickly discover that people like to compare a new book to things they’ve read before. Thus you’ll get descriptions like “Lord of the Flies meets Secret Garden.” Or “Twilight with zombies.” Or “A mix of The Giver and Gulliver’s Travels.”

This is not a bad thing. people like to be able to put books and movies into context. It allows other readers to think, “Well I liked Twilight and I’ve always kind of thought zombies were cool, so maybe I should read it.”

It also helps stores and publishers to know how to position your book and where to place it on the shelves. Someone who loves regency romances will look for other regency romances. Someone who is a fan of Lisa Gardner might very well like Janet Evanovich. Someone who liked Hunger Games is probably going to read other dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels.

Where you run into trouble is when someone reads you whole book (not just a description) and complains “That was a total rip off of . . .”

This takes us to Part 2

It’s okay to have a story that kind of sounds like XYZ, or starts like ABC. But there are certain storylines that have become almost too prevalent. It’s very difficult to not sound like a rip off when you write a book about a girl who falls in love with a vampire and has to chose between him and a werewolf. Can you create a world where children go to a boarding school to learn spells? Yes. And both magic school books and vampire romances have been done since Twilight and Harry Potter came out. But it’s extremely difficult to sell to a publisher.

You not only have to write an amazing story, but you have to be so good that people will stop calling it a rip off of whatever novel it sounds just like. Again, it has been done. Before Harry Potter came out there were books with wizard children who went to a boarding school and played a game flying on brooms. Before Hunger Games came out there was a book about kids sent into an arena and forced to fight to the death. By Rowling and Collins created such strong stories that they succeeded despite the similarities.

So do you do what if you’ve come up with a great idea only to discover it’s been done before? Well you could try changing the setting. Move your laser-wielding hero into 16th century France. Turn your dragon-riding boy into a girl who tames animals that emerge from a sea of flames and soars over fiery infernos.

Or maybe it’s not your story, but your character. If everyone who reads your book says, “That girl is exactly like Katniss,” look at motivations, habits, voice, appearance. Are you inadvertently copying a character you loved from another book? It’s really not that hard to change enough to avoid the comparison.

Mostly though, I would just say, ignore the comparisons and write a great story. So what if your friend tells you your story sounds a lot like Uglies? Uglies is a great book. If you write an awesome story that reminds people a little of another book they loved, isn’t that a good thing? And if your voice, style, characters, and plot are ultimately different, people will soon forget about how it was kind of like Uglies and love it for what it is.

Hope that answers your question. Keep sending more. this is a lot of fun!

Also, if you are a teenager and like to write, sign up for the Teen Writer’s Bootcamp in April at UVU. Here’s a video about it.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Writing Mother

As I've had such a difficult time trying to mesh writing with living in a basement and taking care of my family, I wondered how other women did it. Do you get up early in the morning to write? Snatch small amounts of time where you can? Write after the kids go to bed? Write only on weekends?

What is your writing schedule like? (Share all the gritty details - I'm trying to get some inspiration here!)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Achieving Your Dreams When You Want to Give Up

by Julie Coulter Bellon

When you are staring at that rejection letter, have you ever felt like giving up? Like maybe you just weren’t meant to be a writer, or maybe your skill and talent just weren’t enough to take you to the next level? Have you ever felt like there was something holding you back from achieving your dream of getting that book published?

I want to tell you about a young man who experienced that very same thing, but his chosen field was basketball instead of writing. From the very beginning he was told that he was too short, too slow, and too chubby to really be a good basketball player. People wondered how tough he really was, and not many colleges looked at him despite his stellar high school record. No one seemed to see his talent and abilities no matter what he did. But even with those challenges, he didn’t give up. He worked on his game, coming up with moves, toughening himself up by playing in physical games where there were no fouls called, and willing himself to find ways to win even when it looked like there wasn’t any way to win. When people said he was too slow, he started with a trainer to make himself faster, both in his running and shooting. Of course he kept working on his other skills of dribbling, footwork, and shots almost constantly. Yet, he also worked on his mental game. He pretended every shot had the game on the line, he ran a gauntlet in his LDS church hallway where he turned off the lights and would dribble down the hall as his friends would pop out of doorways and try to rattle him. Improving very aspect of his game became a focus, but it was still fun for him. He slowly became faster, tougher, and more skilled. And that perseverance has paid off for Jimmer Fredette.

Jimmer Fredette is currently the leading college basketball scorer in the country. He will likely go into the NBA and several NBA players sing his praises. He has scored over forty points in clutch games, and last night he was the major impetus in BYU’s win over previously undefeated SDSU. Audiences are amazed that he can make a shot from almost the half court line, he has circus scoop shots, and he can shoot with both hands---you just never know what kind of defense to use against him because he is so good. He has achieved almost celebrity status and even coined a new term in the basketball world—you just got Jimmered. He has a bright future ahead of him in his chosen field because he didn’t let himself give up, even when he was told he couldn’t do it. He didn’t let the doubters get him down. In fact, he still has his doubters, but it’s not something he focuses on. “I’ve never worried when people said I can’t do it,” he said, “but it does fuel me.”

As writers, I think that we can have a similar experience to Jimmer’s. We can have people doubt our abilities. Rejection letters may paper our mailbox, but we can do the same thing Jimmer did. When people say you can’t do it, make that your fuel to improve. People said Jimmer was slow, so he worked on becoming faster. People said he wasn’t tough so he started playing no foul games and running gauntlets. He worked on improving himself day after day, in spite of the doubters and their opinions. When he had success in high school basketball, but was still overlooked by colleges, he didn’t give up. He continued to work on his moves, but most especially on his mental game. He made himself mentally tough and didn’t let anything take his focus off of his goals. We can do the same thing in our writing. When you are overlooked and rejected, use the feedback you get to continue to improve, but never take your focus off of your ultimate goal. Keep on preparing and practicing like Jimmer did, because the perseverance will pay off. Jimmer is in the running for Player of the Year, he is being interviewed in national magazines and on national sports shows, and his name is achieving a legendary status in college basketball. But what if he’d believed those first people who told him he was too short, slow, and chubby to ever play ball and had given up? His dream would have died when those words were spoken to him. But he didn’t let it die and neither should you.

Be a Jimmer Fredette kind of writer. Don’t give up. Focus on your goals. Use the rejection and doubt to fuel you to be a better, tougher, and focused writer with improved skills and there is no doubt in my mind that you will be successful writer, achieving your dreams of that next published book.

So, every time you think you can’t do it, “Fredette” about it and go to work.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dear Diary vs. Dear Blogosphere

If someone were to sneak onto my computer and start reading my journal, they might be mildly interested, or curious, or intrigued for, oh, maybe two posts, at which point they’d start withering with boredom and go watch Psych reruns. Mind you, I like my journal and find it interesting, but it tends to be extremely repetitive. Reason why: I often use my journal to vent.

I know. I’m not sure my posterity will find it very inspirational. But I’m a writer. When I’m feeling stressed about something, it helps me if I can pour words onto a computer screen. Thus I end up with stretches where, post after post, I’m wringing my hands over the same thing, over and over (maybe I can do a “best of” series and leave that for my descendants so they don’t have to wade through the whole record, bless them).

When I’m worried about something writing-related, I write about it. For instance, when I’m waiting to hear back on a manuscript, that’s prime journal venting--er, journal writing time. “They’ve had the book for (fill in the blank) amount of time . . . will I hear back soon . . . will they like it . . . what if they don’t like it . . . here’s my plan for what to do if they don’t like it . . . will they like it . . . what if they reject it . . . what if my sales numbers aren’t good enough . . .” repeat, ad nauseam. Well, nauseam for anyone else. I like to hear myself talk about it.

As any writer could tell you, worry is one of the occupational hazards of being an author. I write, therefore I worry. I seek to publish, therefore I worry. I check Goodreads too often, therefore I worry. I worry, therefore I vent—but I’m careful what I say in public. I can vent my stress in my journal to my heart’s content, but my angst-filled entries aren’t floating around out there for anyone to see. Say I’m stung and annoyed about something a reviewer said and think she missed the mark—but no way am I going to challenge her in public because that’s just plain dumb, and bad author manners to boot. Instead, I can dump some stress into my journal (and complain privately to people I trust, like my husband).

When I was dealing with a particularly painful rejection, two successful, established authors gave me the same advice: don’t advertise it. If I started talking publicly about how my book was rejected, it was going to give the wrong impression. People who didn’t understand the publishing industry would assume the book was rejected because it wasn’t good enough (in this particular case, that wasn’t the problem). I took their advice to heart and was careful about what I said publicly and how I said it.

Recently, an agent or editor—I’m sorry, I can’t remember who it was; if someone saw the post, can you remind me so I can link to them?—was advising authors to be careful about detailing their path-to-publication saga by posting things like rejection letters, rants about agents, or what have you. You don’t want a bunch of negative stuff sitting on your blog when a potential agent googles you. Save the vents for private venues—which is not to say you can never publicly express any frustration or disappointment. But I think we want to be careful to present ourselves online they way we want potential/current agents or editors to see us—and that includes being careful of what we say on social media sites such as Facebook. My editor mentioned to me once that things authors post on social media sites often get back to the publisher. So make sure when you say something publicly, you don't mind if your publisher/potential publisher hears it.

So be wise, and I promise to never make you read my journal.

(For an article from business columnist Evil HR Lady discussing Facebook in the business world, click here).

Implausibility, or Why I Hate Most Cop Shows

This blog is a rant disguised as writing advice. Therefore, when I say "When you're writing something, be sure to do your research", what I really mean is "Man, don't you hate TV shows that assume we're all idiots?"

I realize that there is a necessary balancing act between too much research and flying by the seat of your pants. A story too concerned with 100% accuracy can often appear infodumpy, and if the writer includes too many details it can really bog down the pacing of a story. I also understand that you're never going to make every reader/viewer happy. (If you're ever looking for people who care too much about minutae, read the "Goofs" sections on IMDb. My favorite is this gem from Bourne Ultimatum: "In the opening minutes of the film, Bourne has his nightmare in Goa and goes to the bathroom. We hear the fluorescent lamp ballast (choke) buzzing at 60Hz, however if Bourne is in Goa, India like the film says then it should be buzzing at 50Hz." Obviously, you're never going to please these types of people.)

But, despite that caveat I want to firmly declare: there are times when you simply have to have your facts straight.

The most egregious genre (or, at least, the genre I'm thinking about at the moment) is cop shows. We Americans are raised from little kids to know what's in the Constitution, and when we're in the fifth grade we study the Bill of Rights, and we all know what an illegal search is. I'm not complaining about the little-known trivialities of police procedure--I'm complaining about when a cop breaks into someone's house to search it. That's illegal. They may find evidence that catches the bad guy, the TV show ends happily, and everyone in the audience is thinking "ALL THAT EVIDENCE IS GOING TO BE THROWN OUT OF COURT, YOU MORONS."

This is likewise a problem when a cop beats a confession out of someone, which is done all the time in stupid cop shows, generally when something is time sensitive, like a bomb is going to go off, or a kidnappee is locked in a box somewhere. If a real cop did this, the criminal would sue, the cop would get demoted or fired, and the bad guy might not go to jail after all.

This drives me crazy.

Lots of cop shows get around this by making a private detective do the dirty work: they're not cops, so they can do whatever they want! True, a private detective cannot perform an illegal search and seizure (because he can't even perform legal search and siezure), but that private detective can definitely go to jail for breaking and entering. Of course, that would never happen, because the ultimate message of cop shows is: as long as the bad guy goes to jail, the ends justify the means. Beat up a criminal, break into a house, coerce a confession, entrap a suspect--that's all okey dokey.

Which leads me to my real point: yes, we all know these laws, and yet we ignore them (with few notable exceptions) when it comes to our entertainment. Is this a sign of deep philosophical rumblings, where we Americans view our society with a kind of Old West justice--shoot first, ask questions later? Or is it, perhaps, that we catatonically gobble up any lazy piece of writing slapped on the screen?

(I know there's a third option, which is "Sheesh, Rob! It's escapism! Calm it down, fatboy!" This, I suppose, is a valid point. It's still apathetic--it assumes that escapism can only be found in lazy, crappy writing, when that is most definitely not the case. But I will concede that there are worse things in the world, like genocide, maybe.)

So, after all that, I guess my point is this: man, I hate Castle.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Your Protagonist Compass

What? No boat load of questions for today’s blog post? You mean I have to come up with something myself? Remember, I don’t make pirate ship floats, I didn’t just recently have a book accepted by Covenant, (although we are very close on my horror novel), and I know nothing about Canadian New Year. So you’ll have to blame yourselves if you don’t like today’s post..

Last week I was asked to do a workshop at LTUE. For those of you who haven’t been, it is an amazing writer’s conference primarily based around SciFi and Fantasy writing, and it’s really inexpensive. More info here. One of my more popular classes lately has been on creating a Character Bible. I’m teaching that at Storymakers with my awesome sister and fellow author Deanne Blackhurst, as well as at the UVU Teen Writers Conference in April. So it seemed like overkill to teach it again at LTUE. Instead I’ve been toying with the idea of creating a much more specific tool, I call a Protagonist Compass.

Here’s the basic concept. One of the biggest complaints I hear about books is that the main character is unbelievable. Janette Rallison had a great post about unbelievable teen romances on her blog. I think the biggest issue is that, while real people may be all over the board on what they do and why, readers expect more from a book. Books are not like real life. Our lives don’t have a clear plot line. We do have a start and we do have an end, but the rest of it is often more of a jumble than a progression. Books require much more precision. You can’t have a chapter where nothing happens, even if you do feel like you need it to connect two plot points. Each chapter must stand on its own.

It’s the same with characters. Readers may not realize it, but they want a clear understanding of what makes your protagonist tick. What drives her? What motivates her? If her motivations change, there needs to be a clear reason why. In order to do that, you need to understand where your protagonist is coming from and track where they are headed. In Scouts and in the Army, we used to go on a compass course. There were different points you had to locate by starting at one and using your compass to site in on the next. I think you could do something similar with a protagonist.

Let’s start with history. When your book starts, your character is at a certain point. Let’s call it point C. As you know from math classes, a point has no direction. It is simply a coordinate floating in space. Until you connect it with another point floating in space. Let’s call this point A. If you draw a line between point A and point C, you can track where your character should go. All things being equal, any decision they make should generally lead them to a point D along that line. Still with me? Let me give you an example.

In Demon Spawn, Blaze has grown up her whole life assuming certain things. Hell is just. Humans are sent to Hell for being evil, and have therefore earned any punishment they get. Her primary goal in life is to be successful in Hell. (i.e. get a good demon job, and continue the status quo.)


In our compass course, point A would be her normal demon spawn upbringing. Point C would be her first day of demon training—specifically her first day of meeting damned humans and sending them to their fates. Now you might ask, what about B? Or you might just figure that, like most authors, I’m either 1) Somewhat less than attentive to specific details, or 2) leaving a spot open for rewrites down the road.

But no. There is a plan to my apparent lack of attention. Point B is left for a life altering experience that happened sometime in the protagonist’s life that changed its course significantly, but that occurred before the start of your story. For example:

Hopefully you’ve read Hunger Games. If not, go get a copy and read it. Some very good story-telling there. I won’t ruin too much of the story for you by saying that before the beginning of where the book starts, an event occurred in the life of Katniss—our protagonist. Let’s say that in Katniss’ life point A was being raised in a post-apocalyptic future where life was hard, children are sacrificed to a reality game every year, and her father teaches her how to hunt and gather wild plants and animals. Had life continued on its course, her biggest concerns would have been those of any teen in her town. Avoiding the games, making a living, meeting a guy, etc.

But when she was younger, a major event shook her life. Her father died. That would have been a traumatic event for any child. But to make matters worse, her mother had a total breakdown, leaving Katniss to feed the family or let them all starve. This event so scarred her that now the biggest motivating factor in her life is protecting her family—especially her little sister, Prim. This is point B.


If we look at our compass course, we can see that this single event altered the course of her life. Any decisions she makes after this point will be affected by this event. Should anything threaten this direction, it will immediately create conflict. The more it threatens to alter this course, the bigger the conflict will be. Now remember that point A has not gone away. She still does not want to be part of the games. And she is somewhat attracted to a guy. But even the guy she is attracted to comes more as a result of a desire to provide for her family than a physical attraction. And she has taken a greater risk of being chosen for the games purely to provide for her family. So it is clear that while point A still exists, point B overrides it.

One of the interesting things about Katniss’ life changing event is that we don’t learn about it until after point D, which I’ll get to in a moment. Many authors would be tempted to either begin the book with a prologue where we see what happened to her father and how her mother reacted. Or they would show a flashback prior to point C, so the reader would understand clearly why Katniss makes the decision she does. This is not necessary. You actually have two better options. One is implied history. For example, if an eighth grader’s first reaction to his new school is that he will fit inside the lockers, we can surmise that he has been stuck in a locker before. It is implied that not only has he been picked on, but that he expects to be at his new school as well.

Another method is through actions. Collins actually uses both methods. We learn that Katniss’ father made the bows she is using and that he is no longer in her life. We also see her out hunting to provide food for her family. We don’t know all the details yet, but we “get” that Katniss is about protecting her family in her father’s absence.

Knowing points A and B, it is pretty easy to surmise point D. (Spoiler alert) Point D must be a decision where points A and B come into direct conflict, and that once more changes the course of Katniss’ life. And sure enough it is. Katniss doesn’t want to be chosen for the games. She isn’t. But Prim is. Now, had Katniss’ father not died, we don’t know for sure what Katniss would have reacted to this event. But knowing that her desire to protect her younger sister is more important than anything, it is clear what she must do. Point B overrides point A, and she takes Prim’s place. This is perfectly consistent with Katniss’ prime motivation.

Once her decision is made, we get the back story. And along with it, another key point on our compass course. One that also took place before the story begins. Let’s call this point B2. When Katniss was near to dying—and failing her family, a boy tossed her a loaf of bread, causing himself suffering. Katniss hasn’t thought about this a lot over the years. B1 is clearly not as strong as B. But it suddenly becomes an issue when that very boy is chosen to go to the games as well. He may very well have saved her life. And she definitely owes him. But only one of them can survive the games, and her prime motivation is still providing for her family—which can only occur if she survives, meaning the boy who saved her life must die.

What the casual reader sees is that almost immediately Katniss and Peeta begin to argue. Like many romances, it seems impossible that they can ever get together. What they make not actively think about is that this back and forth arguing—occasionally broken up by moments of friendship or even actual tension—only work because the correct motivating factors were put in place first. If Peeta had not saved Katniss’ life we wouldn’t buy the romance, at least on her part. If he didn’t already love her, we wouldn’t buy the self-sacrificing behavior on his part. If Katniss’ prime motivation wasn’t saving her sister, we would hate her for being such a jerk to him.

Occasionally, Katniss can be pulled off track. She can start to fall for Peeta, or decide to help out another person in the game. But protecting her family must come first. Unless outside circumstances change. Sensing the romantic tension, we hope and expect that Katniss and Peeta will get together. (Even though this is not a traditional romance.) But no matter how much we might want it, we will not accept it unless there is a major event that is strong enough to alter the course set in place by point B. These outside influences must be strong enough to alter the protagonist’s course. They must be believable and to some extent the reader must be prepared to receive them.


Of course if you’ve read the book, what know what Peeta did in order to change things. Had that not occurred, readers would have been unhappy with the major decision Katniss makes near the end of the book. They might not have known why they were unhappy with it—especially since they wanted it to happen all along. They just would have said it was unbelievable.

Going briefly back to Demon Spawn, the life altering event doesn’t always happen before point C where the story starts. Blaze’s point B takes place shortly after the story begins, when she discovers a young human girl has been sent to Hell. This event doesn’t have an immediate impact on Blaze, but it opens her up to outside influences. In the story, she has two outside influencers tugging at her. Cinder, her roommate, is all about immediate gratification—mostly in the form of guys. Onyx, her best male friend, believes in change and questioning authority. These two outside influencers have various amounts of success, but ultimately which one wins out is the result of the events Blaze experiences herself.

Had she not seen the human child and questioned what the girl could possibly done to be sent to hell, she might not have been open to Onyx’s influences in the way she eventually is.


Hopefully you get the general idea here. Each major decision in your protagonist’s story must be checked against the compass of his past decisions. If you want the girl and the guy to get together, you must either give them back stories that lead to this, or create strong enough outside influences to swing the compass one way or another. If you know your main character will finish the story with a different view of life than they began it with, you must create believable events to shape that change, or your readers will not believe it when it finally happens.

For more detailed examples and some hands on class work, come to my workshop at LTUE.

P.S. If you are interested in LDS fiction, you have a great new column to follow by Andrew Hall called This Week in Mormon Literature. I've followed him fro years and he does some amazing research. And I don't just say that because he called the Frog Blog one of, "the best LDS literature discussion blogs."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tron: Legacy is Bad

So, I don't know if it's just being a writer that makes you notice these things more than you might were you not a writer (I have this problem reading books - I'm constantly dissecting) or if it's just because Tron: Legacy was not a very good movie. (I'm leaning more towards the latter explanation.)

WARNING - this contains spoilers so if you haven't seen it and don't want to be "spoiled," (although, in all honesty, I'm pretty sure I'm doing you a favor by telling you about the lameness that is this movie) then stop reading here!

Also be aware that the reason this movie irritated me was all the questions I had while watching it, and will pepper my recap with some of those questions.

I admittedly have little to no familiarity with the original "Tron" movie. I have vague recollections of people in light-up suits riding around on motorcycles from the Disney Channel when I was little. I had no idea what the plot was or why everybody had glowing outfits.

My husband insisted we see this sequel, and I agreed to it as it looked like some good special effects eye candy, and I'm always up for that.

The premise is this - Jeff Bridges, back while he was still young - got into his computer in a landscape called "The Grid" and wrested control away from an evil program that was keeping the programs living on The Grid (who all look human, and take on the appearance of their Users) from interacting with their Users. Jeff Bridges, being The Dude that he is, stops the evil cyber-program that made the programs participate in gladiator type death matches which seemed to consist of motorcycle races (where light trailed from the machines and for some reason if you ran into the pretty ribbon of light you disintegrated) and chucking Frisbees at each other. Jeff Bridges stopped all this, and when he got back to the real world, he took over a major technology company and wiped The Grid clean to create a "perfect" world.

"Tron: Legacy" starts a few years after the events of that movie, where Jeff Bridges' character is played by a guy who wears a really bad, rubbery Jeff Bridges mask (okay, I understand that it was actually CGI in a "Benjamin Button" sort of way, but I found it SO distracting. It didn't look cool or real. It looked like a really bad, rubbery Jeff Bridges mask, or RBRJBM as I will now refer to it). He has a kid named Sam. RBRJBM disappears, never to be heard from again. Sam becomes the richest kid in the second grade.

We flash to present day where Sam is now breaking into his own company to pre-release his Windows type software which isn't any different than the last version - it just has a new number on it or something. Sam thinks the technology should have been given away for free. Seeing as how he's the actual majority shareholder he could have just, oh, I don't know, pre-released it legally, but instead he must break into the building, get past security, hack into the mainframe (which, if you play World of Warcraft, is easily one of my favorite quests) and give it to the whole world, flummoxing his conservative, uptight, greedy board of directors (which includes Bruce Boxleitner, the original "Tron" character, but no one gives him a really bad rubbery face mask. I wondered if he felt cheated at not getting de-SORASed. (For those that don't watch soaps, SORAS is Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome where a kid is five years old one day, and the next he's an angst-filled emo teenager. Thus, de-SORAS would be the opposite of that.) Cillian Murphy is on the board in an uncredited part and I kept wanting him to do something Scarecrow-like that was cool, but he didn't. Anyway, to escape the out-of-shape security guards, Sam has to base jump off the top of his building just so that you understand what a cool guy he is (he drives a motorcyle. Need I say more?).

To further illustrate his coolness, he eschews his billions of dollars and instead chooses to live in a converted garage in a junkyard instead of the penthouse at Trump Towers or something. Regular age Tron guy encourages him to go looking for his dad as he got a page (why would Tron still carry around a pager? Just for old times sake? Seriously, he works at a technology company).

Sam drives his rad motorcycle to his dad's arcade, where he finds the old man's secret entrance to The Grid and teleports himself there.

Lots of fun CGI things going on there. Cool machines, cool city.

Sam gets picked up as a rogue program (like a virus? A Trojan horse? I wondered) and has to participate in the previously abolished gladiator type games. He is prepared for these games by four insanely hot female programs who have to undress and dress him (and lets me know this movie was, indeed, written by a man). They give him a Frisbee disk on his back which is able to essentially download him (despite the fact that he is a human and not a computer program) and is something HE MUST KEEP WITH HIM AT ALL TIMES as it is very, very important.

So of course, the first chance he gets, Sam starts chucking it at people. The disks are apparently not family-friendly Frisbees, since if you get hit by one you "derez" (or deresolution - you basically disappear). So I wondered if these are spinning circles of death, how can people catch them so easily? Why didn't Sam have any issues throwing and then catching his disk? Wouldn't he have needed a warm-up or something? I'm pretty sure I would have lost a hand.

Sam also seems to take the whole thing in stride - the spinning circles of death that he was supposed to keep with him but used to make people disappear - the shiny motorcycles that suddenly materialized and de-materialized, the Daft Punk soundtrack. All of it.

The new bad guy is RBRJBM guy. In the show he's called CLU, but whenever they said that all I could think of was Tim Curry. Anyway, because Sam's so awesome and cool, he's able to survive everything until Olivia Wilde, playing another insanely hot female program, breaks up the boys' club and rescues Sam.

I kept wondering why all the girls had so much eye make-up and platform boots. I would understand if this were like a Sims type world, but it wasn't. Also, most of the men are equally good-looking (but with lower shoes and not as much make-up). If these people were supposed to represent their Users, I'm sorry, I've been to a lot of "Users" Christmas parties. They do not look like the people on The Grid.

Olivia Wilde is a character named Quorra, not Cora like I imagined through the whole movie. She takes Sam to see his father, the appropriately-aged Jeff Bridges. Poor Jeff Bridges has been trapped on The Grid for 20 years, despite being the creator of the entire world and having godlike powers. He creates a Zen world for himself (big surprise, right?) and somehow has food and water that he feeds to his son and to program Quorra. I wondered whether they had to go to the bathroom with all that eating and drinking (nobody stops and does this, in case you were wondering).

Jeff Bridges had wiped The Grid with the intent of making a perfect world. Unfortunately, he got trapped in there before he could watch any cautionary movies that probably would have changed his programming choices. He creates RBRJBM and tells him to make a perfect world. Does he program RBRJBM to not hurt people? No. (Have we learned nothing from "I, Robot?") He creates an autonomous, self-aware, highly intelligent program. (Have we learned nothing from "Terminator?" Don't you know what happens when you make machines smart?) RBRJBM then proceeds to wipe out bad programs that are imperfect and has his sights set on eradicating humans because they are also imperfect. (Have we learned nothing from "Virus?")

Also, there's apparently a group of isomorphic algorithms that are spontaneously created (i.e., they have no User or creator). For some reason they also look human. Why, I don't know. The show doesn't tell us why either. We find out Quorra is the last of the ISOs because RBRJBM decided they were imperfect too (at which point I'm thinking, doesn't Jeff Bridges deserve some of the fault here for making such a crappy program?).

Jeff Bridges is fine with his fate, but Sam wants back into the real world. He finds Michael Sheen, who is playing a bipolar program who runs a bar. And I'm thinking, what would you do if Microsoft Word became crazy? And started spewing random junk while you were typing? And for all the programs that were hooking up in the bar and getting drunk - what would you do if Outlook was hung over? What was the point of all that?

Sam escapes RBRJBM as Michael Sheen is playing a bad guy and turns them over to RBRJBM (shocking, I know). Quorra loses an arm from a flying Frisbee, but since she's a program, Jeff Bridges just reprograms her. He also stops their plummeting elevator by simply hacking into it (not with an axe, just his hand) where at the bottom awaits a transport ship that will take them to the portal! Which is where Sam must go! Isn't that AMAZING?

Big fight scene in the end, stuff blows up, Quorra wants to get into the real world and see the sun.

Jeff Bridges takes one for the team and uses his godlike powers to stop RBRJBM (at which point I'm wondering why he didn't use those awesome powers to take out the bad guy in the first place and get out of the computer, but whatever) destroying them both. Sam and Quorra escape.

Sam decides to take control of his father's empire and change the world. Disappointingly, Quorra is still in human form outside The Grid. I was kinda hoping it'd be like in "Stardust" where if the star crosses from the land of Faerie into the real world she turns from a beautiful human into an actual star (i.e., a piece of rock). Didn't happen.

Sam takes Quorra to see the sunrise. There is no romance or smooching. I know, I was disappointed too (at which point my husband said, "What more did you want? They literally rode off into the sunset(rise) together." Bah, not enough).

I don't mind if a movie doesn't answer my questions as long as they entertain me. Take The Joker from "The Dark Knight." I never knew how he got those cuts on his mouth - every time he told the story he gave a different explanation. But that gave me insight into his character and I got caught up in the story. Tron does not do that.

So after watching this movie, I came to the conclusion that it is not okay for your viewers/readers to be asking so many questions that you can't just enjoy the CGI. Have a little story to go with your eye candy, please. Thanks.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What I've Noticed About Being a Writer

by Julie Coulter Bellon

I love being a writer. I’ve written stories for as long as I can remember and there is just something so satisfying about getting a story from my imagination down on paper.

However, being a writer has changed me in some ways. For example, being a writer means I can never throw away a piece of paper, program, or napkin until I’ve checked to see if I wrote a scene or dialogue on it. I usually carry a notebook, but there are times when I don’t have it with me and have to make do with what’s available. (And no, I’ve never written on toilet paper. Just to be clear.) I used to try to tape all of the little pieces of paper etc., into my notebook to keep them all together, but it made my notebook look more like a scrapbook, so I just tuck them all into a little folder now.

Being a writer also means that when my children are late getting home from a date or something, I always think of the worst case scenario---they’ve witnessed a crime and are on the run and can’t call or they accidentally picked up movie popcorn that a government agent hid a microchip in before he died and they’re trying to hide it, or they’ve been the victim of an EMP device and their phones and/or car isn’t working---well, you get the picture. (I know, I know, my poor children. Oddly, none of those things have ever happened. It’s usually just that they lost track of time or something very normal. In case you were wondering.)

I’ve also noticed that writers generally have more people that stare at them, especially if you talk to yourself in a public place or suddenly laugh out loud when you think of some funny dialogue to put in your story. Not that I’ve ever done that.

You would be surprised where writers can get their inspiration. A lot of my scenes come to me during a relaxing bubble bath, or while I’m walking on the treadmill. Dialogue ideas get really interesting whenever I’m at the grocery store. You would be surprised what people will tell the checker/bagger/person on the phone while they’re at the grocery store. The people on cell phones are always the most funny/annoying. It’s like they think they’re in this little bubble and no one can hear them discussing how she didn’t feel like going to work today because she hates her boss, so she lied to him and is currently at the grocery store for popcorn and chocolate so she can have a Castle marathon at home. But what if she went home and her door was open, and her boss was found dead in her living room? How would she explain her lies? (Love the TV show, Castle, by the way, and Rick Riordan, the author of The Lightning Thief series tweeted last week how he loves it, too. If you haven’t seen it, you really are missing out!)

Being a writer, for me, means that I think of weird things (in case you hadn't gathered that already). Possibly one of the weirdest was when I was sitting in church and I began wondering what I would do if terrorists suddenly took over the chapel and I started making a list of the people in the room who could be an asset and who I thought would be hiding under the pew. (If anyone from my ward is reading this, I think you know which group you’d be in.)

Of course being a writer means people have weird expectations of you, too. I mean, I’m always expected to write the family Christmas letter, and not only write it, but make it sound creative and fun. Which is harder than it looks sometimes!

People also seem to think that I have read all the latest novels in every genre and can recommend great reading material for toddlers, teenagers, adults, seniors, and of course it must be appropriate for each person. If I haven’t read the latest picture books,YA novels, or newest historical or whatever, I always feel like a failure, too. What is it about writers and people pleasing tendencies?.

I've also noticed people believe that writers are innately good at public speaking and having witty remarks for every situation. Of course, since I’m a teacher I’m not too shabby at public speaking, but my brain freezes in the witty remarks department unless I have a lot of time to analyze the situation and write a few ideas down. Which doesn’t help a whole lot in the moment.

I don’t make spelling or grammar mistakes very often, but I’ve noticed that my friends gleefully point out any grammatical error in my emails, no matter how small, and they scoff at my excuses that I was trying to quickly type them something with one hand while feeding my baby so it doesn’t count.

Probably the weirdest thing I’ve noticed that people think about writers is that somehow we are more organized than normal people since we have time to write. I don’t think that’s true at all. For me, it just comes down to priorities. I make writing a priority in my life. I don’t watch a lot of television. I don’t have very many hobbies. And sometimes dinner is late when I have to write just one more scene. It’s not a matter of organization, it’s just a matter of what you can make time for, in my opinion.

No matter the quirk or expectation that being a writer brings, however, I wouldn’t trade being a writer for anything. It’s the best job in the world where you can share characters, stories, world views and perspectives and if you don’t change the world, you can definitely change one person’s world, even if that one person is you. Writing is the synthesis of a person’s experience all wrapped up in beautiful words and given as a gift to the world. Accept it. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Especially with all the quirks that come with it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Four Stealth Issues. And Good News.

First, the good news: my new suspense novel, working title Rearview Mirror, has been accepted for publication. Yay! (Plot summary: a protagonist with an eerie resemblance to Billy Joel struggles to save the world and defeat the Space Monkey Mafia, a deadly secret society run by Harold "Hula Hoops" Castro).(Bonus points if you can guess what song I heard in the car this morning while driving back from the high school). (And an actual blurb about the plot is here).(And apparently it's National Parentheses Day!)

Now, for the stealth issues. I want to discuss a few writing glitches that are very sneaky about slipping into manuscripts. And yes, you’ll sometimes see them in published books, which means they sometimes sneak past editors as well. How can we avoid these stealth issues? As Mad-Eye Moody would say, “CONSTANT VIGILANCE!”

1. Tiny point of view slips. These can be oh-so-insidious. We’re writing along, solidly in Jane's viewpoint. We’re thinking her thoughts, feeling what she feels, seeing the world through her eyes. We would never dream of all of a sudden telling the reader what Bob is thinking, or that his foot itches--we know we're in Jane's head, not Bob's. Then, we type this line: “Anger darkened Jane's eyes.” Whoa, baby! Hold the presses! Whose POV are we in? Jane's. We think what she thinks, right? When was the last time you thought to yourself, “Man, I am so ticked. Anger is darkening my eyes.”? We don’t think about ourselves with that kind of outward observation, and neither does Jane. She can feel symptoms of anger—maybe she notices her face is getting hot, or her heart is pounding, or her stomach is clenching, or her muscles tightening, or whatever—but she’s not going to notice how her own eyes look, unless she’s staring at herself in the mirror. Rule of thumb: if you’re in a character’s POV, don’t describe reactions that she wouldn’t be able to see or think or feel.

2. I confess, I’m bad at remembering what grammatical errors and constructions are named. It’s more intuitive for me—I can tell you this is wrong, but I can’t tell you what the error is called. I had to Google around and try a couple of things before I could finally put a name to my next stealth error (and Annette Lyon of Word Nerd Fame can tell me if I got this right or not): dangling modifiers. Here’s the type of sentence I’m talking about: “Trembling with fear, Sarah’s skirt rippled around her knees.” Okay—we get it—the writer means Sarah is nervous, and her knees are shaking. “Trembling with fear” is supposed to modify Sarah—but the sentence doesn’t say that. The way it’s set up, “trembling with fear” is modifying “Sarah’s skirt.” Apparently, Sarah’s apparel is sentient and it’s scared (no telling what her shoes are feeling). So when you’re setting up a sentence like this, make sure you say what you mean: “Trembling with fear, Sarah felt her skirt ripple around her knees.” Or whatever you want. Just make sure your modifier matches up with the word you intended it to modify. No dangling! Constant vigilance!

3. Unintentionally whackadoodle –ing constructions
: “Locking the door, he raced across the street.” Ladies and gentleman, meet your protagonist—Gumby! No one else would be able to twist a key in a lock and cross the street at the same time. Yeah, okay, I know what the sentence is supposed to mean—first, he locked the door and then he crossed the street. But that’s not what it says. Grammatically, it says he did both at once. “Tying her shoes, she ran down the stairs.” I wonder how many bones she broke. Yes, a protagonist can do two things at once—real people do that all the time. “Sipping bacon grease, Rob read a few more pages of Jeff’s new romance novel, A Time to Sigh.” But when your grammatical construction indicates that a character did things simultaneously, make sure those things actually work if you do them together.

4. Emotional tone.
Characters are people too, and should react to events emotionally like real people would. When someone traumatic or strange happens to a character but he keeps sailing along cheerfully, seemingly unshaken, it can jar me out of that fiction-reading suspension of disbelief so important to enjoying a story So, because it bugs me when I read it, I automatically avoid it in my own writing, right? Heh. Did I mention these are stealth errors, creeping in when you’re not paying attention? In my new manuscript, someone is murdered (Spoiler! Bet you didn’t see that coming). Another character—we’ll call him Tom--knew the victim quite well, and there are some issues surrounding the death that ought to upset Tom (in addition to the fact that the victim is dead). But when I show Tom after the murder, he’s all cheerful and joking—he doesn’t show distress; he doesn’t mention the victim. I don’t know how many drafts it took me to realize that Tom ought to be visibly troubled by what’s happened, but I know it slipped through at least the first two drafts. I think it’s easy to do this, because sometimes we’re just moving the story along, and we forget to stop and let our characters worry or mourn or react, like a real person would.

After all, characters are real people, right?

Monday, January 17, 2011

From Idea to Story

Okay, I know I live in Utah. It’s SUPPOSED to snow here. I get that. But it doesn’t have to mean I like it. What bugs me most is that I drive up I-15 and every other city has no snow left, while here we still look like a new polar bear exhibit. Oh well. At least it hasn’t snowed for almost a week and the warm weather is melting some of it.

One of the things I hate most about blogging is not knowing if anyone cares about what your are writing about. So I love it when someone asks a question. This is the second one from Julia “Jeuls” Wright. Which means the rest of you slackers are falling behind. So if you have questions about writing, publishing, strange airplane stories, or the mating habit of obscure Australian omnivores (wonder how many hits that last one will generate), e-mail me or just drop a note in the comments.

Here is the question from the lovely, charming, talented, and inquisitive Jeuls.

What do you do when you get stuck. When you have a great story beginning or start, but no idea what happens next or where a story is going? When you need answers and they're not coming? Is there a name for that (writer's block?) or a therapy that has worked for you (or your author friends)? Coming up with the whole skeleton of the story is something I'd like your ideas on. Just in case you had anything to share with your minions, thought I'd ask :-)

Great question! I especially like the minions part. I’ve always wanted minions. I asked for some for Christmas once, but all I got was Legos. Side note, Lego minions are pretty cool, but when they begin asking you questions, your parents take you to a special doctor.

This is one of my favorite questions to answer. And as a bonus we get to use examples and cool pictures. First of all, how many of you are in the same situation as Julia? How many of you have stories you’ve begun, but didn’t know where to go with them? Don’t be shy. Raise your hands. Okay, actually put your hands back down. I can’t really see them. Unless I can, in which case you should probably be wearing more than that while you sit at the computer. Yeah.

There are a couple of possibilities here, but let’s start with the most obvious, and common issue. The problem is that what you have is actually an idea, and not a story. Let me give you a for example. You’re standing in the shower one afternoon, eating a Milkyway Dark Chocolate (sorry, most of my stories involve food) and scratching your back with one of those loofa sponges on a stick, when suddenly a great idea for a middle grade book pops into your head.

What if this kid got on his school bus one morning, just like every morning? But this time, when he got on, he looked around and realized he didn’t recognize anyone except this girl he really hated. And then she gave him a really scared look and all the other kids on the bus turned into aliens.

The idea is so strong, you can actually see the aliens and the little girl. (Although in your mind, she’s giving the boy a kind of come hither look, so maybe there’s going to be some romance in this story.)

This is going to be the best story ever. So without even turning off the shower (the muse has no time for things like conserving water) you jump out of the shower, run to your computer, and begin typing.

It’s possible this story—and your story—might have a happy ending. Sometimes an idea just clicks. You see the whole thing from beginning to end and all you have to do is capture it the best you can, complete from your imagination.

For some authors, this is the only way to write. Stephen King claims he just chucks some characters into an odd situation and watches them to see what happens. But for most of us, this doesn’t work. Why? Because we are heading out on what will probably be a long hike without the first clue of where we want to end up.

A story generally has a least four elements. They are:

1) A likeable hero that your readers will care about and hopefully root for. This hero can be anything from a blade of grass to a wooly mammoth. But it’s important that you have a hero or protagonist of your story. As readers, we want a main character we can root for. We may not agree with her at first. We may dislike parts of her. But we need to care about her and root for her.

Okay, take a moment to channel your inner Robin Hood, enjoy the Retro Friday music I didn’t post on Friday and think about the hero of your story. And while you’re at it, put something on and finish your candy bar. We’ll wait.

I’m holding out for you to come up with a likeable hero

Great. Now back to our story. In the case of The Boy and the Bus (catchy title , eh?) we do have a hero. Is he likeable? That’s going to be up to you. Are we rooting for him? Well that’s another question completely. You see, in order to root for your hero, I, the reader, need your hero to have a goal. What is he trying to accomplish?

2) That’s the second element of a story. The goal. What your hero’s goal will be depends totally on the type of story you are writing. And the goal can change. Don’t go for the obvious here. In a romance, don’t decide the woman’s main goal is to find a man. That’s okay, I guess. I mean, I don’t want your poor lonely heroine to die alone and sad. But is it noble? Will I stand up and root for her? “Get a man! Get a man!” Probably not. Unless the man is a really cool, handsome super-powerful vampire. And then . . . Nope not even then. I want something better, bigger.

I want Meg Ryan trying to save her independent bookstore. I want Katniss shooting an apple out of the judges’ pig’s mouth. I want Superman going back in time. (But please for the love of all that is holy, don’t have him die of a broken heart clutching a penny.)

Does our bus story have a goal? Not really. We could probably come up with one, and that’s part of turning an idea into a story. Let’s say that Bob (the boy) and Sadie (the girl) are snatched away to a faraway planet because it turns out that they are the only ones who can save the likeable, but slightly smelly Fergrulians from a terrible plague. Now we have a hero and a plot. The next thing we need is . . .

3) Obstacles

The idea that you need obstacles seems kind of obvious. I mean imagine that in our story Bob and Sadie get to Fegrulia, stop the plague, and leave. Not much of story. Most authors get that they need obstacles. What they don’t get is how important it is that the obstacles, are hard, big, impossible even. Think about The Fellowship of the Ring.

Here we have this happy little hobbit. The only thing he has to worry about is what kind of fireworks they are having at his Uncle’s party. Until a wizard tells him he has to take the ring, he gets chased by Nazguls, discovers the wizard isn’t at the inn, gets taken by a cloaked stranger, gets stabbed, almost dies,gets recued by a hot elf chick, is nearly caught, makes it to the elves only to realize he must take the ring, tries to go over the mountains, gets hit by an avalanche, tries to go under, gets attacked by a giant freshwater squid, hopes for help from the dwarves, discovers they are all dead, is stabbed by a cave troll, gets attacked by things that can crawl on walls and ceilings, get’s chased by a huge fiery demon, loses the wizard . . . and that’s just in, like, the first third of the first movie.

Whether you are writing a thriller, a romance, a mystery, or a story about an alien school bus, you must put your character in situations where the reader feels empathy for him, fears for him, and wonders how he will possibly manage to succeed.

4) Which leads us to the fourth element. Consequences. We almost have the four parts of our bus story now. We have the heroes. They have a goal. We are going to give them big hard obstacles standing between success and failure. Now all we need is to set the clock ticking. What happens if they succeed? What happens if they fail?

In Demon Spawn, I knew my main character and her friends were going to try and help Visala, the seraph. cross the outer circles of Hell to get to Judgment. But I needed a really god reason. The carrot part is that if they do this, Visala can clear their names in an attack on the Trans. And Onyx—Blaze’s friend—demands they also get angel-fire. That’s the positive. But if they fail, the seraph dies, they will be thrown in prison for life or worse, and they might get killed by the denizens of outer Hell along the way.

And to increase the tension, there is something odd about Hell and Judgment, they only have a limited time before the seraph dies, and our hero doesn’t trust anyone’s motives.

In our bus story, we must have some pretty drastic consequences. Obstacles and consequences help the reader root for your hero. Especially if the consequences are not just to them, but to someone they love. I would root for our heroes in the bus story just because the Fergrulians are likeable, if slightly smelly. But what if the plague’s next victim will be Earth? What if Sadle’s little sister will be the first to die? What if the plague will hit Earth in less than five days? Get the picture?

So the first thing you do when you get an idea is wait. Let the idea muddle in your brain for a while. Give it time to germinate into a full story. Who is the hero? What’s she trying to accomplish? What stands in her way? What if she fails?

Once you have all four of those elements, You can give yourself the beginning (how it all starts) the middle (what they are trying to do and what stands in their way) and the end (success or failure, or something in between.)

Another thing that helps is letting the first idea meet, date, and hopefully mate with a second idea. Take the story of Shrek, you know the big green Ogre. The first idea is that an ogre has to recue a princess to save his swamp. Fun idea, but not all that unique. However, when you combine the second idea—that the princess is actually an ogre at night due to a curse that can only be broken by love’s kiss—lots of new baby ideas are born.

Way back at the top of this post, Julia asked if what she was facing was writers block. I don’t think so. Writers block can and does happen. But it is generally when your story has hit a snag and your subconscious needs time to work it out. In our trail analogy, you know where you came from, you know where you are going, but you’ve temporarily lost your way.

What I think Julia is facing trying to force a story that isn’t quite ready to be born yet. It’s only an idea, waiting to turn into a full blown plot. Give it time. Imagine the characters. Explore the setting in your head. Start to hear dialogue. Don’t tell anyone yet. Just wait. And when it finally demands to be set free put it on paper as fast as you can.

Of course there are a whole slew of ways to ways to do what I’ve described above. if you’re an outliner, outline away. If you’re a researcher, start looking things up. If you’re visual, draw pictures. I like to start a character bible. What about the rest of you? What is your tried and true process for turning an idea into a story?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Dreaded Bio

by Julie Coulter Bellon

I had to write a bio for my publisher this week and I was instructed to write something unique about me. You wouldn’t think that writing in any form would be hard for a writer, but this was hard for me. What can you really say about yourself?

I sat there at my desk, just thinking. What is unique about me? I’m pretty average. Being a writer was sort of unique, but since people would be reading this bio in the back of my book, they would already know that. Strike that one. I’m a mom. Still not that unique. I realized that I don’t leave my house a lot because I’m usually home taking care of kids or writing or whatever. But that’s not the type of unique you probably want people to know in a bio. “Julie is a hermit who takes care of kids and writes books and rarely leaves her house except to shop for food.” Yeah, I don’t know if my publisher would think that was a good idea to tell people.

Maybe part of the problem is that I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble about a writer’s life. I mean, my husband has been asked several times when he’s going to retire since his wife is a published author, because, of course, being a published author means we have oodles of money lying around and we fill the tub with hundred dollar bills and roll in it before bed every night, right? Wouldn’t that look great in my bio (and my bank account)? “Julie loves to take a dip in a cool, money-filled pool each night.” Oh, man, I laughed myself silly even just writing that. (Not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong with rolling in your royalty money in your tub, if that’s what you like to do.)

But I also don’t want to be someone like my daughter’s BYU professor who introduced himself to the class by going over his resume. Although she did find out where he went to school and what jobs he’d had, it was pretty boring. I’m assuming my readers don’t care much that I worked at a tomato stand for a summer job once. Maybe they care that I earned a degree at BYU. I thought I wanted to put that in, even though it may be boring, because I worked hard for it, so it just seems right that I could have that there at least.

So my list of unique things about me was pretty short. I’m a mom. I’m a hermit. I’m a writer. (Not necessarily in that order.) So I expanded my list to things I’ve done. I got to meet Princess Diana. I’ve been able to travel to places such as London, Paris, Athens, and Ottawa. I teach a journalism class. I’ve had eight children. I’m working on my eighth book. I play the flute and I’m learning the bagpipes, (but I sort of stink at the bagpipes. They’re hard to play!)

Of course that’s the list I ended up using for the bio, mostly because it made me sound unique and interesting whether I am or not. I threw in that I teach at BYU to balance the unique with the boring, but all in all, I was pretty happy with it. Here’s how it turned out:

Julie Coulter Bellon loves the number eight, which is probably why she has eight children and is excited to see her eighth book taking shape. Her claim to fame, besides being an author, is that she got to meet Princess Diana when she was twelve years old. Julie loves to travel and her favorite cities are Athens, Paris, Ottawa, and London. She’s learning to play the bagpipes and she’s not very good at it, yet, (she thinks she sounds like a sick moose), but she’s working on it. She teaches a journalism course for BYU Continuing Education, and loves to stay up with current events and our changing world. You can keep up with Julie and all her projects at

What do you think? Will my publisher be happy? When you read a book, do you even read the author’s bio? What kind of things do you want to see there if you do?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Time for the Whitney Strrrretch

Whitney finalists will be announced February 1st. I don’t yet know when ballots will be due, but I’m guessing sometime in April, since the Whitney gala is May 7th. Thus, I’m trying to get a jump on Whitney reading by targeting books I think might be finalists, which beats trying to read a zillion books in two months. Last year I ALMOST read all the Whitney finalists. I missed it by two books (as Agent Maxwell Smart would say, "Missed it by that much."). Last year there were 30 books. This year, there will be 35, since there are now seven categories. The Whitney Committee has decided to split YA into two categories—YA General and YA Speculative. This was an excellent decision, since even with the split, both YA categories are sizeable—there are 13 nominees in YA General, and YA Speculative is the largest category, with a whopping 26 nominees. Other bits of Whitney nominee trivia: the smallest category is Historical, with seven nominees, and the second largest is Romance, with twenty nominees.

So far, I’ve read a grand total of eleven of the nominees—four in General Fiction, one in Historical, one in Romance, three in Mystery/Suspense, two in Speculative. One of those two Speculative books was Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, which was AMAZING. I figure Way of Kings will be a finalist, and I figured I’d better read it—all thousand pages of it—before the finalists were announced, or I wouldn’t have time afterward.

I’ve also read two books that were nominated but weren’t eligible—Devil’s Food Cake and Key Lime Pie, Josi Kilpack’s mysteries. Josi is the current Whitney President, which is why her books aren't eligible. But I still get credit for reading 13 nominees, right? But no matter how I juggle the stats, I’ve still got a lot of reading to do. I’m currently reading Matched, by Ally Condie, and thoroughly enjoying it. And for my Kindle (I want to have a paper book and an e-book going at the same time), this morning I bought Wrong Number, Rachelle Christensen’s highly praised debut mystery novel.

Matched and Wrong Number are two books that appeal to me (dystopian YA fiction and mystery fiction), but as I read for the Whitneys, I’ll end up reading many books that I wouldn’t have chosen to read otherwise, which raises the question of the day: is it possible to admire a book and deem it an excellent book without particularly liking the book? I say yes, it is. Liking a book isn’t necessarily the same thing as thinking it’s a well-written book. For example: sometimes I have difficulty with books in the romance category because I’m not much of a romance fan. I enjoy a little romance in the books I read, but when the romance is the center of the plot, I sometimes have a harder time with it. I think of one book I read last year that was painful for me—not because it was a bad book; it was well-written, and I’m sure romance fans loved it, but it just didn’t appeal to me. But objectively, I could see it was a skillfully written novel. Another book I read—this one in the historical category—was a book where my personal enjoyment of the story ranked about three stars. But it was a superbly written book. In fact, I even nominated it for a Whitney.

I like the way Whitney reading pushes me into trying new authors and different genres than I normally read. It’s good to stretch, even if I occasionally struggle with a book that's just not to my tastes. How about you? Have you read books that you admired or respected, while not particularly liking them? Which genres do you read in most often—and if you’re a Whitney Academy voter, which categories require you to stretch the furthest from your usual reading?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Writing YA Dystopia: Two different thoughts

In a couple months I have to teach a class about writing dystopian fiction, so I'm reading as much as I can on the subject. The question that everyone seems to be asking is: why do teenagers love it so much?

While I don't think that there's a single answer, and I don't mean to claim that all readers have the same motivations, some answers seem much more likely to me than others, and one answer in particular bugs me.

Before I start pulling out the quotes from other stuff I've been reading, let me tell you my theory (which, admittedly, isn't terribly original):

Dystopian fiction is almost always about oppression and control, and there is no group of Americans who views themselves as more oppressed and controlled than teenagers. They're at an age where they are becoming more and more capable--physically, mentally, etc--and yet they're still not allowed to make many choices about their lives. They are in a very structured environment, moving every hour at the ring of a bell to a different room where they learn things they're required to learn, whether they want to or not. Depending on their school, they might not be able to wear what they want, sit where they want, or even set foot off campus during a certain period of time. After school they may work at a job which gives them responsibility, but still no real choices--they can use their minimum wage salary to buy some consumer goods or some fast food, but they can't use that small amount of money to change their situation in life. At home they have to follow their parents' rules, continue studying things they don't appreciate, and do chores--forced labor--for a system they have little or no say in (kind of a taxation-without-representation scenario).

I'm not saying high school or parents or homework are bad. I'm just saying that it's easy to see how teenagers view themselves as oppressed and controlled.

I remember when I was in high school we'd protest everything. The school was less than a mile from the state capitol building, and there was more than one occasion when students would walk out and march up the hill shouting something or other. And it seemed like I was school board meetings every couple of months, joining my friends in the only way we could make our displeasure known. And lest you get the wrong impression, I wasn't much of a hooligan--half the time I was protesting in favor of the status quo, protesting against other protesting teenagers. But the point is: teenagers want to fight for something. They want choices, and they want a voice.

Consequently, it's not at all surprising that teens suck up books like Matched and The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games as though they were the last drops of water in the desert. These books are metaphors of the teenage condition, yet they all have heroic teens who break free from their oppressor's controls.

So, that's my theory about why teens love dystopia. Here's the theory that bugs me:

As author Paolo Bacigalupi put it in a recent New York Times article: "I suspect that young adults crave stories of broken futures because they themselves are uneasily aware that their world is falling apart."

As my brother, Dan Wells, put it on his blog: "Dystopia is huge right now, especially in YA. This is probably due to the fact that we live in one–or, more correctly, this is due to the fact that YA readers are finally paying close enough attention to realize that we live in one."

I have no quibble with either Bacigalupi's assertion that the world is falling apart, or Dan's claim that we live in a dystopia. Both of those claims are subjective, but I'd tend to agree with both, to some extent. No, my complaint is with the idea that our political and cultural climate is what's turning teens on to dystopian fiction--and I especially worry that if you write a story with that mindset it could easily lead to pedantic, plot-driven fiction.

Teens may be paying more attention to world events, with knowledge more readily available at the click of a button, I think they're also more media savvy, and if there's anything that teens DON'T want, it's to be preached to. I have many friends who read James Patterson's Maximum Ride series with pleasure, until it became clear that the book's underlying message was about the dangers of global warming, at which point they quit reading (and some of these friends are environmentalists themselves).

It's not that this second theory about dystopia (from Dan and Bacigalupi and others) is wrong--it's that it's a dangerous mindset for authors to have as they approach their writing, because it implies the most important aspect of the book is the plot: that teens want to read dystopia because they want "What If?" scenarios and extrapolated futures. And I think that's just plain not true. Above all else, most readers want (and teens especially) to be able to relate. They want an emotional connection to characters and situations. They want to say "This character is like me!" not "This corrupt government is like my corrupt government!" If that's lacking, then no amount of frightening, not-too-distant-future dystopia will make the book worth reading.

Disclaimer: both Paolo Bacigalupi and Dan Wells are both fantastic, award-winning authors who write great books with great characters, and I'm sure they'd agree with me that emotional connection is extremely important. I'm merely saying that, as advice to authors, I don't think you should approach YA dystopia with that kind of top-down look.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Great (or Not So Great) Expectations

Several years ago at a big Utah writing event, I was sitting beside an author who had published several novels nationally. As I mentioned that, along with my Farworld novels, I had published several novels with LDS publishers, she looked surprised. “But those writers aren’t very good are they?” she asked, referring to authors writing for LDS publishers.

Now I’m not going to post about whether LDS fiction is good or not. That topic has been hammered to death a million times over. And the truth is that whether LDS fiction is good and getting better all the time, or cliché-filled drivel where everyone does the right thing and joins the Church, is purely in the eyes of the beholder. What I do want to discuss is how big of a role expectations play in how we judge what we read.

Let’s take Ally Condie for example. She published multiple novels before her breakout YA, Matched. Those novels were published by Deseret Book, an LDS publisher. That would place her—in the eyes of many readers—in the “not very good” category. And yet her book that came out this fall with a national publisher has received rave reviews by many of the very same people who look down on novels from LDS publishers.

Admittedly, Matched is very different from her other novels. The story is different, the voice is different. But what isn’t different is the author. An aberration? How about James Dashner, whose first six novels were published by Cedar Fort and Shadow Mountain, an imprint of DB? Or our very own Rob Wells who published with Covenant before selling a national three book deal? Janette Rallison? Also published with LDS publisher under the pen name of Sierra St. James. Instead of an aberration, it sounds more like a trend to me.

An argument could be made that as these authors became better writers they transitioned to the national market. An argument could also be made that bigger publishers have higher paid editors with more time to work on each project. So perhaps the quality is better. And to some extent both of those statements are true. Any author who values their craft usually improves their writing over time. But this is true of both national and regional (which is what most LDS publishers are) authors. Rob’s second book was absolutely better than his first book. James’ 13th Reality was written better than his Jimmy Fincher series. They didn’t magically leap tall buildings when they signed with a national publisher.

As far as editors, in general, editors from bigger publishers do more thorough edits. They don’t have nearly as many projects to work on at the same time as LDS editors who are seriously overburdened, even by today’s tightened publishing standards. But I can say for a fact that I would gladly have any of my national projects edited by Kirk Shaw or Lisa Mangum, who edit me at Covenant and Deseret Book. And I specifically asked Lisa, who read Ally’s book before it was even submitted nationally, if it had been significantly changed by the national editor who worked on it. Her answer was no.

So if these are the same writers, and if the edits are more detailed, but not enough to make a huge difference, what explains the different ways their stories are viewed? My theory is expectations. To a large extent, you read what you expect to read. If you expect to read a story filled with clichés and poorly developed plots, your mindset going into that book makes you jump on the flaws and miss many of the great parts.

In a recent e-mail exchange with another author, the author recalled how back in high school she was working on a student poetry anthology. To teach the students a lesson, the teacher allowed several lesser known poems by famous authors to be slipped into the submissions. Did the students recognize the greatness of what they were reading? Or did they let their preconceived notions influence them? Considering that I’m using this as an example, you can probably guess. They ripped the masters just like they did their fellow students. Because they expected to read crap, they got crap.

Clearly there are exceptions to this rule. I’ve read submissions to an unpublished author contest that blew me away. And I’ve read books by some of my favorite authors that I hated. Ever have a friend tell you’ll love a book, only to find yourself bored to tears? High expectations don’t guarantee we will love something and low expectations don’t guarantee failure. But you can’t deny that they seriously color your view.

I think the same applies to Julie’s recent post about DB banning The Maze Runner. As Mormons, we tend to look at books by our own differently. Would so many members of the church really have made such a fuss about Twilight if it hadn’t been written by a fellow Mormon? “She’s LDS and she put a boy and a girl in bed together.” While at the same time, non-Mormons were complaining the make out scenes were too tame because “the author is Mormon.”

I am 100 percent fine with Deseret Book putting Maze Runner on Special Order status. I suspect that if Demon Spawn is published they will probably do the same thing with that. It doesn’t have any fake swear words or even real swearwords used as expletives. But it is a story about humans who have been damned to Hell and the Demons who guard them. By its very nature there are some pretty dark parts. Human heads on spikes, games played with humans as live grails. There is violence. And although they are used in the context of place, damn, hell, and damned are sprinkled liberally throughout. Is it gratuitous violence? I don’t think so. But it will probably not be placed on DB shelves, and like I said, I am totally okay with that.

But here’s the kicker. I know of many, many books carried right now on DB shelves that have either worse language than Maze Runner, more sex than Twilight, or are darker than Demon Spawn. Why haven’t readers complained about those? I believe it is for the exact same reason that many readers look down on LDS fiction. Expectations. They don’t expect non-LDS authors to have the same morals (although many of them do) so they overlook a swear word or a racy scene. They don’t expect a novel by an author who is Mormon to have a cuss in it. So when it does, they are shocked and complain to store employees.

I said at the top of this post that I’m not trying to convince the unbelievers that many, many LDS authors are every bit as good or better than national authors. James Dashner, Ally Condie and the rest are great authors. And they were before Entertainment Weekly started mentioning their names. There are some LDS authors who I think are still perfecting their craft. There are some publishers who could spend more time on editing what they publish. But I know for a fact of more authors than I could count on both hands who are every bit as good as the authors that publish nationally.

And I am absolutely not trying to convince anyone to change their standards on what they think is and isn’t appropriate in the books they read. But next time you are offended by something you read in a book by an LDS author, go back and think about the last few books you read by national authors. Were they less offensive? Or we were wearing a different shade of lenses to view them through.

What I am suggesting is that some people might want to reevaluate their measuring sticks.

Let me finish by clarifying that I am not suggesting LDS authors shouldn’t have high standards. With what we know about who were are and why we are here, we absolutely have a lot to live up to. And with national exposure comes even greater opportunities to let our lights so shine. Mt greatest dream is to succeed nationally and to use that success to place even more focus on the LDS novels I will continue to write. I like to imagine what Stephanie Meyer could do if she wrote an awesome LDS series. How many lives could she influence?

But there’s another part of me that worries that many people would judge her unworthy to write to or give firesides to the LDS market. I worry that if Demon Spawn sells, people might wonder if someone who writes about demons and Hell, should be writing church history time traveling novels for Deseret Book. I can’t speak for any other authors, but I can tell you that I will never write anything that I would be ashamed to have a General Authority read. Would they like all of my books? Probably not. You know how poorly edited those LDS novels are. (Just kidding!) I am doing my best to create exciting, uplifting, well-crafted novels. And I think most of my peers are doing the exact same thing.

I am thrilled to death that Whitney nominees this year cover everything from serial killers to corny LDS romances. I am proud to be affiliated with the kind of writers who have the talent to break into the national market, whether they ever choose to or not. And the next time that someone asks me if LDS authors are any good, I’ll tell them, “That all depends on what you are looking for.”

This Dedication Goes Out To...

So today in Sacrament the speaker talked about how when you open up a book, very often you'll find a dedication from the author to someone special. It had the whole spiritual hook, as in when we write our "Book of Life" that the book should be dedicated to the Lord, but it got me thinking about dedications. The way the speaker talked about it, the dedication, when you were writing that book, was one of the most important things - that as you write your "Book of Life," if it's dedicated to the Lord, the book will be different.

But as an author, I realized that my books are never written around my dedication. They're typically an afterthought, instead of the prerequisite to the rest of the book.

I do always read dedications, even though most of the time I have no idea who that person is or why the dedication was given. One of my favorite authors dedicates all of her books to her husband. Another never has any dedications.

My first book I dedicated to my parents, my husband and my kids. The next one the dedication got left out accidentally. With the third, it was for my brother and his wife for something they'd done for my family, as well as my daughter.

When I write a book, often the dedication is the last thing on my mind and I don't write it until I'm sent a copy to edit.

It made me wonder though about other writers - when do you decide who to dedicate a book to? Who do you typically dedicate books to? For those that aren't published, is it something you've thought about? Who would you dedicate your debut release to?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Power of Thirty Minutes

by Julie Coulter Bellon

If you haven’t voted already, today is the last day to vote in LDS Publishers Annual Cover contest. Go here to vote for your favorite cover!

It’s a brand new year and I’ve made some New Year’s resolutions. I won’t bore you with all of them here, but one of them was to take thirty minutes a day as a gift to myself and write. Now some of you may say pshaw, what can you do in thirty minutes? Why would that be a gift to yourself?

It’s because I’m a parent. I think most parents are alike in that everything else seems to come first before yourself. Parents are concerned with helping Johnny do his homework, and making sure Janey has dinner before she heads out to her volunteer work, or that the baby is fed and changed. There is always something to do and at the end of the day I pretty much just fall into bed exhausted and think to myself, I’ll get that writing done tomorrow.

The thing is, I’ve had ideas for two non-fiction books come to me in a really strong manner. I also have another fiction novel idea that I’d like to dive into. But without taking time for myself, and giving myself permission to have that gift, they will never get done. And I don’t think that God would have given us talents and inspiration without wanting us to do something with them.

Now, I’ve been told in the past that there is a time and a season for everything, and that maybe this isn’t my season for writing. Unfortunately, I have also realized that if I don’t write, and don’t take that time for myself, I start to feel smothered somehow and burdened. There is just something so freeing and stress-relieving for me to be able to sit down and write. And, honestly, I don’t think there is any particular time in my life when it will be my season for writing. Writing is just a part of me and a part of my life. It’s more of a need and not something I can wait to do when my kids are older or when a different “season” comes along.

So, while thirty minutes may not be much, it’s all mine, and I know if I can really focus, I’ll be able to get on paper the stories and ideas that are coming to my mind, and I’ll also be a happier person who is developing talents and pursuing dreams. Who knew thirty little minutes could do all that?