Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Guest Post: You Must Write High Concept!

Today we welcome the always insightful Laura Pauling to the blog.  Laura's blog is a must-visit for me because she covers the vastly changing field of publishing with a balanced and understanding approach to varied points of view -- and does all this with a spin uniquely her own.  She frequently posts terrific movie and book reviews where she breaks down story structure and helps writers analyze what works, and what doesn't, and why.  On her Twitter stream, Laura keeps her followers linked in to a wonderful assortment of craft articles, news on publishing, and recent releases from across the Internet.  And if all that wonderfulness isn't enough -- she's incredibly generous with her knowledge and just a nice person! :-)

So, please, welcome Laura with me and read below her own insight on high concept:

You absolutely must write high concept stories.
Yeah, no. Hopefully you reacted to that statement with a bit of healthy rebellion.
But, I’ll admit. I love reading high concept.
Ally Carter’s spy series starting with I’D TELL YOU I LOVEYOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU could have been just a sweet high school romance. But no. The story is set at a private girls’ school for spies.
High concept.
Beth Revis’ series starting with ACROSS THE UNIVERSE could have been a murder mystery set in a small town. But no. The story takes place on a spaceship in outer space. High concept.
Harry Potter – you all know HP if you’re reading this blog – could have been a heartfelt story about a boy whose parents were killed and his journey to find himself. But no. It’s set in a castle-like school for wizards and Harry is the target of an evil wizard. High concept.
Do you want to create high concept stories? I could throw around words like irony, compelling mental picture, universal appeal, primal emotion, high stakes, logline, character arc, unique premise but I’m sure you’ve heard them before.
If you haven’t, then google high concept! You’ll find posts by Roni Loren, Story Fix, Rachelle Gardner, and even one by me that I wrote during the A-Z challenge last April.
These days it seems like high concept is the magical train that will carry you to the Hogwarts of traditional publishing.
Do you have to write high-concept? No.
If you want to write that quiet but powerful and literary story – then go for it. You can still add in some elements of a high concept story, like a strong character arc and high stakes.
If you want to write high-concept then take your ideas and go bigger. Add higher stakes. Add bigger conflict. Change the setting.  You can train your brain to start thinking this way. Come up with five different high concept ideas every week. You’ll find one you love that hasn’t been done and is unique.
You decide. Write the stories you want to write. Put your heart into it. Put every aspect of craft you’ve learned into it.
What about after the high concept idea? Creating the high concept is just the beginning. All the elements of craft: structure, character, plot points, dialogue, voice, tension, conflict, narrative, exposition, setting, description – all need to be in place.
You story will need a character the reader can root for, emotion pulsing through out the pages, and masterful storytelling.
So fellow scriveners, pick up your wands, er, I mean keyboards, and create magic. And in the words of Donald Maass – GO BIG! Because even “quiet” books should have BIG moments.

Thank you so much, Laura, for helping many of us set our minds at ease about whether our beloved story has to be high concept or fail. I also love her point that even with a high concept, the execution has to carry the story through.

What do you all think? Do you seek to write high concept stories? Or do you write the story you want and then try to find a high concept in it later? Or not bother about high concept at all?

Please be sure to visit Laura's blog for more fabulous insight and follow her on Twitter to keep up on the latest writing posts and publishing news!


Laura Pauling writes middle grade and young adult novels, sometimes funny, sometimes dark and twisty, but always with heart. On her blog, Laura Pauling, she breaks down published novels and movies to discover the secrets of story structure and likes to open discussion on publishing industry trends and issues.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Looking Back on Seven Special Posts

Last week, the incredibly thoughtful Laura Marcella gave my blog the "7 by 7 Link Award"!   As Laura said on her post when answering this award, it's a fun way to look back over your links and figure out which matches each category.

In looking back over my posts, I couldn't believe I'd reached 150 posts in 14 months!  Some of these categories were a bit hard to answer--it's just my opinion, after all, and you may think differently. I'd love to hear it if you do.

But, here goes:

MOST SURPRISINGLY SUCCESSFUL: I think the post that surprised me the most (aside from the massive Pottermore hits) was one I did early on: The Godric's Hollow of Backstory.  It surprised me because it's one of my simplest and shortest posts (maybe I should get a clue from that!), but it got lots of hits.

MOST CONTROVERSIAL: Likewise, I think it's another backstory post that has been my most controversial, but much more recent. I decided with Was the Pensieve Foul or Fair to for once not present a post from the slant of everything JK Rowling did was right, but to rather open it up for discussion and disagreement from you all.  But, everyone who commented had no problems stating the Pensieve was most definitely not only fair but fabulous. So I was crazy for even questioning it! :-)

MOST BEAUTIFUL:  There's two that appeal to me for this category. The first was a summary of the beginning of the Pottermore experience, Follow the Owl. I especially liked this post because it summed up for me so much what had made Harry Potter the beautiful experience that it was.  Then, on a more personal note, my recent Family Stories is one of my favorites because of the memories involved.

MOST POPULAR:  This is the only easy one to answer because the popular post widget does it for you. In fact, I'd taken the widget off because my Pottermore posts all dominate it, with The Quill Quest is On having garnered the most hits with 35,339 pageviews. (Truly, it's not me, it's the insanity of Pottermore!).  It's not that I'm not proud of these posts, but most of them were attempts to figure out the secrets of the mysterious Pottermore before it was opened, so they are now a bit old news.  The first non-Pottermore post to appear on my popular post widget is That Deathly Hallows Symbol.

MOST UNDERRATED:  Maybe it was that I posted this one right before the July 4th weekend, but The Secret Handshake, JK Rowling Style, got fewer comments and hits than I was expecting, because in my POV, it's one of my most important posts. I think if we as writers can understand the "engage the reader concept," most everything else falls into place along with it. (Along with a lot of hard work, of course!)

MOST PRIDE WORTHY:  Probably the post I have the most pride in is One Potent Word.  I think I love this one so much because it was such an insight for me to see the power one word can have, and that one word being one I'd overlooked for so long while studying the text!  Also, as I'd put this post together originally as a guest post, I'd sought out and gotten permission for the fanart I'd used to highlight the points. And the fanart is really awesome! I need to do that more often.

MOST HELPFUL: For this one, I'd almost like to say -- YOU tell me! I don't know, what's been the most helpful post to you?  I'll toss out one I think was helpful -- The Shining Moments of Character Development, because of the study of how JK Rowling developed character arcs even for her secondaries --  but, truly, I'd love to know what you think.

Thank you, Laura, both for the award and the opportunity to look back over some posts I'd not remembered in a while.

And now, I'd like to send this award on to the following fabulous bloggers:

Jami Gold
Laura Pauling
Melinda Collins
Ava Jae

Finally, please be sure to come back tomorrow when Laura Pauling will be our guest blogger.  You'll want to be sure to hear what she says about high concept, because, as usual, Laura brings her own interesting spin to the topic!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Telling Your Own Author Bio Myth

I'm thinking a lot about myths this month as I teach the Conflicts of Myth online workshop with SavvyAuthors.  Actually, I think about myths most months with my own writing, but this workshop has got me thinking about one slant of myth-telling which we haven't covered in regard to JK Rowling. Her own personal life-story myth.

Now, don't misunderstand what I'm saying. "Myth" is not a synonym for "lie," as many people today believe. Myths are ancient stories, usually involving gods and goddesses, that use metaphor and allegory to tell a deeper truth that's harder to convey with pure historical fact. They are the ancient novels of their day.

JK Rowling's rags-to-riches story has been told and retold so many times because it touches on a a theme that is universally appealing, especially in the United States. And thus, this goddess of authors and children's literature has been immortalized in our time. Which, if you haven't noticed, has been very good for sales.

You can look back to the earliest interviews with JKR in British papers in 1997 and they almost always had the same slant--welfare mom makes it big (or, "on the dole," in British terms). Of course, her “big” then wasn’t as big as it is today. But most of those early newspaper articles were written after she’d accepted the six-figure deal with Scholastic--an unheard of advance for a children’s author.

While I do not believe JKR deliberately crafted her bio as “welfare mom makes it big,” as she was working as a teacher at the time Sorcerer’s Stone sold, she obviously had to have mentioned her prior situation in those early interviews in order for the reports to sensationalize it. The reporters hit on the one item in her bio that they saw as the most marketable, and whether she liked it or not, she had to live with it.

Telling your own author myth is about taking the reins in crafting and discussing your bio. If you prepare yourself in advance, you can guide the media to the parts of your life you want emphasized and away from those you want out of the public eye. Take some time before your first interview, before creating your website, to determine what aspects of your life you don’t mind being put on public display and would make good copy for marketing and promotion. What angle can you play-up to give yourself a hook, an appealing myth that can be easily remembered?

Remember--myths are not lies! As myths are stories that represent a deeper, inner truth, a bio is a summary of the deeper meaning of your life designed for marketing. How can a full life be summed up in a couple of paragraphs? It can't. But a good bio will represent that part of you which is best presented to the public.

So, take a moment and think about your bio myth. What story about yourself best sums up who you are, what you write, and why you write it? Is there a slant you can truthfully give your life story that will appeal to the mass reading public? Determine your myth and present it everywhere that requires a bio, starting with your website and blogs, etc.

You might also want to determine what areas you’d like best left out of public scrutiny--such as the privacy of your children or your past life as an IRS agent. Communicate your wishes to anyone in your circle of influence who might comment on you publicly as well: your agent, editor, critique partners, spouse, best friends, parents, etc. You may not always be able to succeed at this, especially if you make it big, but you can learn to play the politician and stay on message, your message, when presenting your bio to the media.

Remember, your bio is one more arm of your story. It's a way for readers to connect with the storyteller that they most want to listen to. It's wise to craft your bio by keeping in mind appeal to future readers.

For an excellent post on more specifics for writing a bio, I heartily recommend checking out Jami Gold's post What Does Your Author Bio Say About You?

Have you thought about your author myth when constructing your bio?  What aspect of your life story do you think will most appeal to your readers?

Also, if you're almost ready to send out a manuscript to an editor or agent and need a professional read, or if you've decided to publish direct and need a final professional edit, remember that I offer editorial services!

Persephone graphic credit.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hermione Sneaks a Clue

We've been looking at a lot of examples for how JK Rowling plotted her mysteries and hid her clues.  However, most of these have involved examples of very important clues toward the primary plot mysteries.  I thought it might be fun to look at an example of a simpler clue that gives a hint toward a secondary plot to show how Rowling works these mysteries across various levels of plots and characters.

Today's example comes from Order of the Phoenix (Bloomsbury edition) Chapter 16, "In The Hog's Head," page 309, where the group that will soon become known as Dumbledore's Army is meeting for the first time.  They are all rather nervous, what with Umbridge's crackdown at school, meeting in a dodgy place, and a nearby heavily veiled witch whom Harry fears may be Umbridge.  The atmosphere is set for a risky venture and Hermione is about to provide an important clue.

She rummaged in her bag and produced parchment and a quill, then hesitated, rather as though she was steeling herself to say something.

'I - I think everybody should write their name down, just so we know who was here. But I also think,' she took a deep breath, "that we all ought to agree not to shout about what we're doing. So if you sign, you're agreeing not to tell Umbridge or anybody else what we're up to.'

Bolds and italics are my addition.

In this short passage, JKR laid a critical clue that there would be a traitor within Dumbledore's Army and how Hermione would reveal her.  Of course, in hindsight, we all know that this is the parchment Hermione had placed a binding oath upon, which later pox-marked Cho's traitorous friend. None of that is obvious here.  However, with subtle wording, JKR played fair with her reader that something was afoot, giving three words/phrases showing Hermione's reluctance for asking people to simply sign a roster. Hermione even warned the students, and thus the reader, that they were signing an agreement--she just never said it was bewitched.

Another hint of what is to come lies a few paragraphs further into the text.  JKR diverts her reader from the true traitor with Ernie Macmillan's reluctance to sign.:

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Quest for That Final, Missing Element

Okay all you people who did not vote for Egyptian Mythology when I polled earlier on what you'd most like to see next on the blog. I'm going to subject you to one post of it anyway! Because, you know what? I love it!!! And it's my blog!!!!! Mwahahaha ha!!

You know another thing I love, and you can ask my kids to verify this, saying "I told you so!"

In putting together this Conflicts of Myth workshop that I'm currently teaching, I revisited one of my ancient writings on Harry Potter from...can you believe this...4 years ago! Before Deathly Hallows came out! Yes, I'm that obsessed, I was even writing then.

I carefully, lovingly pieced together a magnificent theory on what was to come in Deathly Hallows involving the revealing of One Last Memory -- the crucial knowledge of what actually happened at Godric's Hollow from one who was there...Severus Snape!

My theory was brilliant.  It was detailed!  It filled in every loophole!!!  Alas, it was also totally wrong. :-(  Sob!

(Actually, my current theory is that JK Rowling read my brilliant editorial, knew that I was on to her, and quickly had to replot and rewrite the whole last section of Deathly Hallows because she just couldn't accept having been found-out beforehand.  Plus, we DID get one last memory involving old Severus, just not in the way I foretold.)

Ah, hum.  So, anyway, where was I?  Oh, yes, the Egyptian Mythology thingie.  In reviewing this ancient bit of bullet-riddled theory, I came across one section that actually appeals to me even more now that we know the full revelation of Voldemort's Horcruxes.  And it involves one of my other favorite theories, the Eye of Horus.  Since I've already covered that one in depth on the blog, I'll simply refer you to that post for background.

But, knowing that most of you will not click that link and read, very simply, Mad-Eye Moody's magical eye seems to be a link to the Eye of Horus.  The Eye was an amulet that provided protection for its bearer, until it cracked; it would turn back any evil directed its way -- much as Lily's charm did for Harry.  Lily's charm, an amulet, get it?  Metaphorically speaking, Lily pinned an Eye of Horus on her beloved son, just as mothers in Turkey still do today.  (Though they tend to pin it to their clothes rather than their skin.)

JK Rowling has worked several of these Egyptian myths into the Harry Potter series, and one day I'll tell you the underlying reason why I think she did so, but for today...I just want to focus on the Eye (get it, focus, eye). (Yes, I know it seems like I've been drinking and I'll probably erase half of this in the morning, but for now it's fun.  And no, I haven't.)

Anyway...here's one of the interesting meanings of the Eye of Horus.  You'll not see this coming, I can guarantee it.

It was an ancient mathematical calculator!!

See. Told ya you wouldn't foresee that!

Each part of the eye was a fraction, that when added together equaled one.  Here's an image that shows each part of the Eye with its fraction:

Now, the funny thing about this ancient fractional calculator is that it doesn't quite work.  At least it doesn't work by modern standards.  See, if you add all those fractions together you don't get the whole number one...exactly.  And, no, it's not because the ancients couldn't do math.  It's because they thought a bit differently than we do.  It's because they valued something beyond pinpoint mathematical accuracy.

The element of the spirit.

The six parts which made up the Eye of Horus were used as mathematical symbols to represent decreasing fractions progressively halved (1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64). Each of these Eye symbols and fractions also represented a sense (smell, sight, thought, hearing, taste, and touch respectively). The six parts together embodied a whole, a complete--except that they total 63/64, missing one small fraction, 1/64...the 7th missing  magical element.

There was an esoteric meaning associated with this missing fraction. “The eye is the part of the body able to perceive light, and is therefore the symbol for spiritual ability.”[45] The missing fraction of the eye represented a magical element supplied by Thoth, which cannot be quantified, but without which nothing, and no one, is complete.[46].

Because this missing magical element is so important, JKR left us two direct clues regarding it within the Half-Blood Prince text--Golpalott’s Third Law and Quintessence: A Quest.  But more on that in a minute.  First, let's look at these six fractions and how they relate to the Horcruxes.

Let’s see--Tom Riddle's teen voice was recorded in a diary for a young girl to hear and follow years later, a ring is worn on fingers which touches things, a locket holds something you can look at, you can drink (taste) out of a cup, and Nagini, well, snakes are known for their keen and unusual sense of smell. In fact, in the CoS book as opposed to the movie, after Fawkes blinded it, the basilisk had to sniff Harry out. Coincidence? I think not!

Here's the parts of the Eye of Horus and how I think they played out in JKR's Horcruxes:

Eye of Horus partCorresponding HorcruxFraction
HearingTom Riddle's voice thru his diary1/16
TouchPeverell ring1/64
SightSlytherin's locket1/4
TasteHufflepuff's cup1/32
ThoughtRavenclaw Diadem (wit beyond measure)1/8

I'll be honest with you, while this is fun to speculate, even I'm not sure that JKR intended these connections.  One of the key doubts I have always had regarding this theory is due to the order of the fractions related to the Horcruxes.  If I were the author writing it, I would have the Horcruxes created in the fractions' descending order starting from 1/2, to 1/4 until 1/64.  That makes perfect sense in keeping with the decreasing divisions of Voldemort's soul as he rips it apart with each new murder.

However, JKR always plays rather loosely with her mythical links, and there is one final piece of evidence that strengthens my belief that she was at least giving a nod to the Eye, if not quite as literally as I would like to interpret.  Golpalott's Law and Quintessence, a Quest both point to the Eye's same final, missing element.

In HBP, Golpalott’s Third Law is a potions’ law that Harry, and many readers, find quite difficult to understand.
Hermione recited at top speed: “Golpalott’s-Third-Law-states-

Then Slughorn clarifies, somewhat:

“...which means, of course, that assuming we have achieved correct identification of the potion’s ingredients by Scarpin’s Revelaspell, our primary aim is not the relatively simple one of selecting antidotes to those ingredients in and of themselves, but to find that added component which will, by an almost alchemical process, transform these disparate elements--”[47]

What all this means is that there’s an intuitive, almost alchemical knowledge which comes to bear in creating an antidote to a blended potion. Secret knowledge of an important missing element, so to speak.

In Chapter 15 of HBP, “The Unbreakable Vow,” Harry, while trying to avoid being dragged into Ron’s grumblings against Hermione, is reading a book for Charms, Quintessence: A Quest. I believe this is a very sly reference from JKR, to reinforce the Eye of Horus analogy and the stated Golpalott’s Law. Just to make sure we get the point.

Quintessence is an alchemical term for the mystical fifth element. Earth, air, water, and fire are the traditional four elements which make up everything that exists. In Harry Potter, JKR has confirmed that each Hogwarts House represents one of these elements: Earth = Hufflepuff, Air = Ravenclaw, Water = Slytherin, and Fire = Gryffindor.[48] And each of these elements is represented in the Horcruxes, with Gryffindor's sword being the most common item of destruction.  But there is a fifth element, quintessence, which I think plays an even stronger role in the series, indeed is the embodiment of Harry’s personal quest.

From The Alchemy Lab:
The Quintessence is the fifth element with which the alchemists could work. It was the essential presence of something or someone, the living thing itself that animated or gave something its deepest characteristics. The Quintessence partakes of both the Above and the Below, the mental as well as the material. It can be thought of as the ethereal embodiment of the life force that we encounter in dreams and altered states of consciousness. It is the purest individual essence of something that we must unveil and understand in order to transform it.
Essentially, quintessence is spirit, it is soul. Quintessence, for JK Rowling, is embodied in Harry.

Voldemort didn't intend to make Harry a Horcrux.  Harry's the missing element.  He's the fraction of the equation which Voldemort could not comprehend, and thus did not take into account.  He's that most important final element that brought about the failure of Voldemort's dark magic to secure eternal life.

As writers, this is the part of my post where I turn to how we can use these lessons learned from studying JK Rowling in our own stories...blah blah blah.  Honestly, I doubt there's many of us that obsessive who will plot a subtextual reference to this extreme.  And if you are one of those, you don't need me to point out how to do this yourself!

But, I'd love to know what you think.  Am I off on a wild crumple-horned snorkack chase here? Or do you think, just maybe, JKR may have been pulling the Quintessence over our Eyes?

P.S. - Need a professional edit on your manuscript before you submit or publish direct? Be sure to check out my services!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Guest Post: Every Writer Has a Bit of Harry Inside ‘Em

Today I am thrilled to welcome Melinda Collins to the blog.  Melinda is a writer and music lover who also happens to live in my home state!  (Though we haven't met...yet!)  Although she just started blogging and Tweeting a few months ago, she's already made a huge impact.  She shares her love of music and writing on her blog Muse, Rant, Rave, but one of her posts I love the most is her weekly Friday Favs where she sums up all the great articles and entertainment from the last week.  She also sponsored the recent Week of the Writer with a whole week of posts crammed full of writerly goodliness.  And her Tweet feed is is always a source of good links and interesting news.

Did you know I wrote my first novel with a writing partner, passing the book back and forth by e-mail?  Well, so did Melinda.  She and a friend in high school completed three (count them, 3!) books by passing back and forth between classes...when they should have been studying!  But truly, we all know writing is more important.

So, please welcome Melinda as she shares with us what we all have in common with each other and with Harry Potter:

Every Writer Has a Bit of Harry Inside ‘Em

Believe it or not, writers have a lot in common with young mister Potter than we may not want to admit sometimes.

Now, while I could probably wear out my welcome here on Harry Potter for Writers by listing upwards of fifty of those similarities, I’m just going to stick to the more important ones….for now. J

1.      We’re all a little lost until we figure out where we belong. Do you remember feeling like you didn’t quite fit in when you were younger? I do! I felt like a total nerd as I walked around with a Muse on my shoulder and ten different stories in my head. Though I wished it happened earlier, it wasn’t until adulthood that I figured out where I belonged – and that is in front of the keyboard, staying up until the wee hours of the night, arguing with myself my Muse. Until he started receiving the mysterious letters that Uncle Vernon wouldn’t let him read, Harry knew, on some small level, that he didn’t belong with the Durleys. Granted, he had no clue how important he was to the world of magic, but as I learned more about Harry in those first few chapters, I could instantly tell he felt just like me – a nerd that hadn’t found their niche yet. As artists, until we find an outlet for our creativity, we’re lost. As writers, until our characters – or Muse – find us, and we come to fully understand our creative potential, we’re getting pushed about by Dudley and sleeping in the cupboard under the stairs. 

2.      We wave a wand to produce magic. What? You don’t have one? I do. *ahem* While I would like to believe that my pen – or keyboard – is a magic wand, it’s just never going to happen. But, wait! Technically, these items are a wand for writers. The magic that happens while we’re writing a story is being produced by a wave of our ‘wands’. They may not be able to make a feather float in thin air, or rid ourselves of annoying distractions, but magical words appear on the page and have the power to enchant our readers from beginning to end. 

3.      We each have a circle of friends that have our back. Yes, Harry had quite a lot of friends. Even though he wasn’t very close with all of them, they were his friends regardless. They were even willing to stand by him and face the darkness they knew would be coming. As writers, the friends who have our backs no matter what are our fellow writers. Be it those you meet online through Twitter or blogging, or those you meet in critique groups, those writers know and understand what you’re going through better than anyone else. And when it’s time to face the demon, they’ll have your back and encourage you through every revision, every re-write, and every rejection. And, just like Harry, we have that smaller, more close-knit group of a select few – Hermoine and Ron, anyone? – that we share everything with. These special people are our spouses, best friends, siblings, or – dare I say it? – our pets. They are the ones who know our deepest darkest secrets and fears, and they are the ones who encourage us, more than anyone else, to keep moving no matter what.

4.      We look to our ‘Professors’ to show us how our spells can be improved. Right now, I’m taking a four-week workshop on Savvy Authors titled ‘Advanced Dialogue’. Similar to the boy who lived, we all crave to learn more about the craft we’ve come to know and love. At the moment, my Dumbledore is Donald Maass, and my Snape is a certain workshop teacher that is seriously kicking my butt while teaching me how to become a better writer. Everyone has one, just like Harry. Who is your Dumbledore and Snape? 

5.       We each have a piece of the Dark Lord within us. C’mon, admit it. Your inner critic is just as bad, if not worse, than Voldemorte. And guess what? That Dark Lord lives within you. He sits on the opposite side of the fence from your Muse. He taunts your Muse as you write, reminding it that only one of them can live forever inside your brain. When you meet him face to face, sometimes you’ll run in terror, and sometimes you’ll walk away triumphant. But, unlike Harry, we never ultimately kill our Dark Lord. He still lurks in the shadows and only comes out when he finds us second-guessing the grand idea we just developed into an outline, or doubting the scene we just spent two hours pounding out. Only with the most awesome back-up that money can’t buy (aka: CP’s, editors, etc.), can we truly defeat our Voldemort once and for all.

So, please tell me: What do you have in common with the boy who lived? Or am I the only one letting their geek flag fly today? J

Susan here: I LOVE the idea of my keyboard as a magic wand! That just makes me feel all magical inside! And it's so true. What else do we do as writers but conjure bustling worlds, intriguing characters, and exciting plots out of the thin air of our imaginations?  And though I hate to think I have a bit of Voldy inside me, I guess he's left his mark, because doubts, worries, and second guesses sure do haunt all writers.

Thank you so much, Melinda, for this fabulous insight!  And everyone -- be sure to check out Melinda's blog and Twitter and share your thoughts below!

Bio:  Melinda S. Collins is an admin assistant by day, and an avid reader and aspiring author by night. Anything and everything Paranormal, Fantasy, and musical interests inspires her.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Was the Pensieve Foul or Fair? One Method for How JK Rowling Revealed Backstory

This post is a little different than my normal. In exploring this craft technique that JK Rowling used, instead of hitting on how it worked and why, I'd instead like to question whether it was her best choice, or if she could have chosen a more powerful technique for the same purpose.

And it all has to do with one of the aspects of writing that we struggle with the most: backstory.

Memories play a key role in the revelation and withholding of information throughout the Harry Potter series. We have memories that are clear, and some that are fogged, memories that are shared, and some withheld, a memory that has been tampered with, and one sucked out of the holder’s body (along with his soul) through a Dementor’s kiss. Through it all, the reader learns new backstory that is relevant to the unfolding mystery...and is teased with what is yet to come -- until the final, and most potent, memory is revealed in Snape's dying breath.

In the course of Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore opens eight crystal bottles of memory (counting Slughorn’s twice). As the thoughtful, wise man he is, Dumbledore proceeds methodically and logically to reveal memories of Tom Riddle to Harry, and thus to the reader. He starts at the beginning, the circumstances behind Riddle’s birth, proceeds through his young years, and finishes with the adult Voldemort returning to Hogwarts to request a teaching position.

GroupingsWho's MemoryScene/ActionPurposeDate**
1Bob Ogden, Department of Magical Law EnforcementVisit to Gaunt family hovel to notify Morfin of his upcoming hearingTo see Voldemort's parents, the situation of his birth, the two Horcruxes (Slytherin locket and Peverell ring)1925
2aCaractacus Burke, co-founder of Borgin and BurkesBuying the locket off MeropeTo see the locket ended up at Borgin and Burkes and how bad off Merope had become1926
2bDumbledoreVisit to Tom Riddle at the orphanageTo see how he terrorized other children, scorned death, his penchant for secrets and privacy, and collected trophies, among other traits of his personality1938
3aMorfin GauntMorfin’s encounter with Tom RiddleTo see how Tom came into possession of the ring, apparently murdered his family and neatly placed blame on his uncle; also Dumbledore’s skill at obtaining difficult memories1943
3bSlughorn's tampered memoryIn Slughorn’s office with Tom Riddle and friendsTo show Tom Riddle with Marvolo’s ring; to start the thread on Horcrux, giving Harry, Hermione, and Ron time to investigate it and see how almost nothing is written or known about Horcruxes1943
4aHokeyDon't knowVoldemort's obsession with collecting remnants of the Hogwarts Founding Four; how he obtained Slytherin’s locket and another possible Horcrux (Hufflepuff's cup)1947
4bDumbledore (ten years after Hokey’s)Voldemort requesting a position at HogwartsVoldy’s interest in Hogwarts as a place to find or place more Horcruxes (which gave Harry a reason for returning there in Deathly Hallows); to explain how the position of DADA instructor got cursed, and to show Voldemort appearing less human, meaning he's already formed several Horcruxes.1957
5Slughorn’s correct memoryIn his office with Tom Riddle and friendsTo show the magical #7; also discussion afterward revealing Horcruxes used as a weapon as well as a safeguard1943

**These dates supplied from the Harry Potter Lexicon's timeline

All these prior memories build on each other, helping Harry and the reader to understand who Voldemort is and why he became the darkest wizard of his time.  These memories also present the necessary clues about Voldemort’s Horcruxes to propel the action forward. We are therefore prepared, with the revelation of Slughorn’s memory, to understand and accept that Voldemort has killed time and time again in order to create immortality for himself and that for Harry to defeat him, he will have to seek out and destroy every last Horcrux.

However, even with the final bottle opened, the correct Slughorn memory, certain crucial questions remain:

  • What items have been made into Horcruxes?
  • Where will Harry have to look for them?
  • How will Harry destroy them?
  • Who will aide Harry in his quest to eliminate the pieces of Voldemort’s soul, and, finally, Voldemort himself?

Dumbledore begins to reveal key elements of these final questions to Harry, but dies before all is divulged. He can no longer share memories to aid in Harry’s quest... or can he?

One of the key mysteries that remained of the series going into the final book was the question of Snape's loyalty.  Dumbledore had taunted Harry and the reader with the knowledge that he held proof of Snape's allegiance, but had never revealed the details.

   “Professor…how can you be sure Snape’s on our side?”
   Dumbledore did not speak for a moment; he looked as though he was trying to make up his mind about something. At last he said, “I am sure. I trust Severus Snape completely.”

At this moment, this pause in the exchange between Harry and Dumbledore, it seems that Dumbledore seriously pondered whether the timing was right to truly answer Harry’s question, perhaps whether to uncork a final memory. A memory that would finally reveal the truth about where Snape’s loyalties lie.
Snape’s loyalty had been the million Galleon question that had kept fans speculating since the release of HBP--well, actually since the very beginning. Why did Dumbledore trust Snape, and was he correct in doing so?

Unfortunately for Harry, this final memory resided in a living body (at this point in time).  And Dumbledore, through his own loyalty to Snape, would not break that bond and reveal Snape's truths.

No, JK Rowling saves this final memory to come out in Deathly Hallows at a most touching point in the story...as Snape lays dying, having given his all to save the son of his lost love and fulfilling his pledge to Dumbledore to share this final memory when it would do the most good.

As writers, we discuss a lot about how to carefully reveal backstory during the course of our story.  Lisa Gail Green had an excellent post about it up earlier this week.  Backstory should be doled out carefully, in small pieces throughout a story, woven into the current action of that story as best as possible, and not in lumps that will slow down its forward pace.

Wherever backstory is discussed, there are usually warnings to not show it through flashbacks, dreams, or long, boring narratives.

While JK Rowling definitely aces the holding off on backstory until the reader is dying to know and not doling it out in a boring narrative, she does violate the dictate to not use flashbacks or dreams.  The Pensieve, as creative as it is, is still a flashback technique.  And we've seen her use of dream sequences in other places to show information that cannot be obtained through Harry's direct POV.

So, as a writer and a reader, what do you think?  Was JK Rowling's use of the Pensieve and Snape's wisp of memory a creative and powerful method for imparting the backstory she needed at that point in the story to propel the forward action?  Or were they merely flashy creative flashback tools that slowed the action?  Could she have used a better technique?

It seems to me that the one memory reader's adore was Snape's final.  Would his memory have been as powerful if we hadn't seen the sharing of memory technique earlier with less touching memories?

I'd love to know what you think!  Share your ideas in the comments below!

(Check Out JK Rowling's Newest Release -- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here!)  

Monday, September 12, 2011

Curiosity Killed the Cat but Captured the Reader

As I was coming in my backdoor last night returning home after a meeting, I heard a frantic meow out of nowhere. I listened, trying to pinpoint which of my three cats it was and where he was at. It took me a while to realize he was trapped inside our backporch shoe cupboard. When I opened the latch, he shot out, yowling at me for having left him in there for who knows how long. He must have wandered in when I was getting my shoes out earlier in the day, he's done it many times before, and I'd failed to notice.

Curiosity almost got Crookshanks killed!

But what can be lethal in a cat is the most important characteristic of a reader that a writer needs to embrace. Curiosity truly is the most potent magic for keeping your reader's attention.

For the last few weeks on this blog, we've been looking at techniques JK Rowling employed to hide her clues. To me, these are some of the most powerful techniques we can learn from studying JKR's work because 1) she did it so well, and 2) she has shown over and over again how loyal fans will be if you capture their curiosity and never let it go.

It's simple, really. Readers (aside from your mom) stay with your story only as long as their curiosity is engaged. The minute they cease to care to discover what happens to your character, or their curiosity is satisfied, the book goes down. That's why you must build a story question from the very first, and keep a story question going until the very end, never letting that curiosity waver.

A story question, simply defined, is a question presented to the reader early on in the story that drives the characters and the action forward in order to answer it. Examples of some story questions include:

  1. Will Dorothy get back home?
  2. Will Indiana Jones recover the lost Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis?
  3. Will Katniss survive?
  4. Will Robert Langdon and Sophie discover the Holy Grail before the "Teacher?"

With Dorothy, her main story question did not begin until we were several scenes into the story and she'd landed in Oz. However, the viewer's interest was captured immediately by a couple of preliminary questions -- would Miss Gulch take Toto away from Dorothy? And then, would Dorothy get back safely to her Auntie Em?

Similarly, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the viewer is presented with the first question of whether Indiana Jones will escape with the golden idol and his life, before we are presented with the primary story question of the film.

Dan Brown works with yet another compelling story question technique. Although the question listed above is the overall question in that story, it is presented by way of a step-by-step progression of consecutive smaller story questions. Each question is presented in the form of a clue, that when solved, leads to the next one, and so on, so that the reader is never left without a burning desire to know the answer to a current riddle or clue.

As writers, we can work with single, double, preliminary-subsequent, or multiple story questions, in whatever way works best for our particular story. But what we have to be sure of is that even if one question is answered, another must be already in place, grabbing the reader by the eyeballs so that they MUST find out what happened.

But, what kind of questions work? And how do you creatively work these into your story?

For some specific examples, I thought it might be fun to look at the story questions JK Rowling employed in each of the 7 Harry Potter books:

PS/SS:  Why did Voldemort try to kill baby Harry?

Notice that this is the first question proposed in the series and one of the last ones answered. It's therefore more of a series question than this story's question. As JKR has no intention of answering this question off the bat, she quickly proposes another one:

Who is sending all those letters to Harry?

Like in Wizard of Oz and Raiders of the Lost Ark, this question is a preliminary one that is answered quickly and designed to lead us to the point where the main story question takes over.

What was in that package in Gringotts that is now at Hogwarts? And who is trying to steal it?

You'll see from this first example and those that follow that JKR generally uses the two-question approach to each story. She has an introductory question that first presents itself at Privet Drive. This preliminary question lasts long enough to get Harry to Hogwarts, when the main story question takes over.

CoS:  Preliminary: Why does Dobby not want Harry to return to Hogwarts?

Main: What lies within the Chamber of Secrets and who opened it?

PoA:  Preliminary: Who is Sirius Black and why did he escape from Azkaban?

Main: Why is Sirius suddenly out to get Harry?  And what made him betray Harry's parents years ago?

GoF:  Preliminary: Who is Voldemort using to trap and kill Harry?

Main: Who set-up Harry to be a champion? And, how will Harry suvive the tri-wizard tournament?

OotP:  Preliminary: Will Harry get expelled?

Main: What is the weapon Voldemort seeks that he did not possess in the last war?

HBP: Preliminary:  What is Draco's mission that Snape has made an Unbreakable Vow to protect and assist?

Main: Who is the Half-Blood Prince? And is he good or evil?

You'll notice that with this preliminary question, it is not solved early on as the prior ones were, but continues and folds into the main question.

One thing that's really cool about this main question is that even though the reader does not know who the HBP is, the question about his true nature is the same one readers are asking about Snape throughout this book and the series.

DH: Preliminary: Now that Harry's blood protection has worn off, how will he safely leave Privet Drive?

Main: Where are the Horcruxes? And why did Dumbledore hide so much from Harry?

Even if Harry is able to kill all the Horcruxes, How will he defeat a wizard more powerful, more experienced, and much less noble than he is?

You'll notice that, as this is the last book, there are several critical story questions remaining to be resolved.

JK Rowling's reader is never left without a compelling question to propel their interest in the story until it is answered very near the end.  While curiosity may kill the cat, it's the lifeblood for an author.

I read a story once where the author started off with a great story question which I was very curious to have solved. So, I read non-stop, until about half-way through the story, when the question was answered. My curiosity was assuaged and I set the book down to never finish.

Now the author, of course, did not intend this reaction. She had introduced a second question that was supposed to carry forward until the end, but the problem was that she only introduced it AFTER answering the first, and since my curiosity had not yet extended to the new question, and I did not find it as appealing as the first, it was very easy to set the book down.

Don't do this!

If you must answer one question before the book ends, be sure you already have the second one well under way and that it is more captivating than the first.  Like with The DaVinci Code, subsequent story questions should become increasingly more compelling and complex.

Finally, one more note about story questions -- it's usually not sufficient to want to know in a mystery will the murderer be caught, in a romance will the hero or heroine end up together (duh!), or in a fantasy, will the Light Side defeat the Dark Side.  These are foregone conclusions.  What is compelling is the specific question that makes YOUR story unique from all the others of your genre.  And your unique story question will be more powerfully portrayed if it comes forth from your main character's own personal goals, motivation, and conflict.  Thus, your story question should not resemble any others.

Capture your reader's curiosity from the very beginning with a powerful, fresh, engaging story question, and never let it go until the very last page! This is the way to keep your reader's nose in your pages and have them coming back for seconds.

What is your story question in your current WIP? Are you using a single question, or multiple? At what point is it resolved? (Hint: should be as close to the end as possible!)

(Check Out JK Rowling's Newest Release -- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here!) 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

As the Wife of a Muslim-American, My Memories of 9-11

Like most everybody above the age of six, I clearly remember what I was doing on September 11, 2001 when our world forever changed.

I was at my work with a regional office for Habitat for Humanity when it happened. We must have had a TV in the office somewhere, because I remember that after the first plane hit, we were all glued to the screen.  None of us could believe what we were seeing as we watched the second plane strike, and then the towers fall.

As a staff, we were in the midst of planning for the annual Jimmy Carter Workcamp and Habitat's 25th year celebration and were due to fly out to it later that week.  It was because of this trip that my boss did something I will never forget.

He took me aside and told me he thought I should not go. He was afraid that there would be a backlash against Muslims in the country and that I should stay close to my husband.

His perspective shocked me, not as much as the attacks, but still, in a very personal way.

See, I know my husband, had known him for many years at that point.  There was no way, in my mind, that anyone could align this honest, caring, and somewhat goofy man with the types of men who directed planes as weapons of mass, and blind, destruction.  The men behind those attacks were not like any of my many Muslim family and friends.

I'd lived with my husband in his homeland of Turkey for many years.  I'd woken and gone to bed to the call to prayer.  I'd watched my mother-in-law, a woman as generous as my own beloved grandmother, cover her head and pray faithfully for her family's welfare five times a day.  I'd visited my husband's aunts, uncles and cousins on festival days and shared in the coffee, tea, and sweets.  I'd celebrated with his friends during Ramadan at the evening break-the-fast meals. The people, the customs, the holidays were as happy, peaceful, and loving as those I celebrated growing up in the Southern Bible Belt.

I'd also witnessed the "other side" during my time in Turkey.  I'd received missives from the Embassy every few weeks alerting Americans to new threats against Westerners.  And I'd watched on TV the Turkish news reports of terrorist attacks committed against Turks in Istanbul, or eastern Turkey, and once, Antalya where we were living.  We walked by the charred remains of the restaurant two days later, still smoldering, a child's stuffed teddy bear (I kid you not) in the rubble.  Those committing this violence were not like the Muslims I knew.  They were mad men hurting the innocent families of people I knew and loved.

Turkey has a large and varied population.  It always made me smile to hear them call themselves the melting pot, just like I'd always been led to believe was the domain of the U.S. -- except Anatolia has been melting together people of various origins and beliefs for thousands of years.

And that's just it.  No American would assume to think that we could label all Americans with one stroke.  Nor can it be done to Turks, or to Arabs, or to Persians, or Malaysians, or wherever Islam is practiced.

But, still, my boss' worry that my husband could be targeted by people who did not understand this simple truth became my own.  And so I stayed at home.  Along with the rest of the world, my husband, young son, and I watched the news every spare moment for the next couple of days.  Together, we went to give blood, joining with others in wanting to do whatever we could to help.  But, soon, he had to go back to work.

And that's when it happened.  My husband DID get a reaction.  He reported to me after a couple of days that people WERE treating him differently.  They were going out of their way to be even nicer to him, to let him know that they were not blaming him, nor any other Muslim, for the act of a few mad men.

See, the world is filled with beautiful people with shining souls.  Their acts of kindness just don't often make the news.  And while an act of terror can destroy many lives in the blink of an eye, the generosity of countless more good-hearted people, whether Christian, Muslim, Atheist, or Jew, western, or eastern, or some melting-pot in between, can restore the hope and faith of a world filled with people who love more than hate.

It is because of my faith that I join in the wish and commitment of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and pray, "Peace at home, peace in the world."

PS: I know that many Muslim-Americans did suffer repercussions in the days and years following 9-11.  But we live in a fairly progressive community, and what we experienced is just as real and true, if under reported.  My husband says that only once since that terrible day has he faced someone's prejudice against Muslims and he's heard stories from friends of a couple of other incidents.  But overall, we've experienced more the generosity of the human spirit rather than the dark side.

PPS: Update 9/11/2015 - I wish I could say that all the positive reactions that my family experienced and that I witnessed when I wrote this piece four years ago were still as positive. But times have darkened and the negative backlash against Muslims have grown--especially towards those who wear their faith heritage more visibly than does my family.  Fear and lack of personal contact twists people's minds. As a person of faith who seeks truth across borders, I stand with proactive people from all communities who seek to reach out and get to know each other...to unite across borders rather than divide. For me, writing leads the way to creating and being the change I wish to see in the world.

Friday, September 9, 2011

5 Points to Ponder on Pottermore (for Writers)

JK Rowling's Pottermore site has been open almost four weeks now to a few lucky beta-testers. I was one of the very lucky early entries getting in on the second day, and thus have had time to thoroughly view the site and watch the reaction of people getting in as well as those still anxiously awaiting their owl.

In an earlier post, right after Pottermore opened, I speculated on what JKR's new endeavor would have to offer for other authors in the way of an example of how to interact with readers online. Now that I've had more experience with the site and its visitors, I'd like to share some concrete thoughts and examples.

Let me acknowledge from the start, as I did before, that most writers, myself included, will in no way be able to afford the kind of money I'm sure JKR has put into the site for design, administration, and publicity. Still, there's always creative methods of manipulating someone else's examples to suit your own ideas and purse strings.

So, here's some tips to get you thinking.

1) Engage Your Reader (or follower, or visitor):

As in everything else Rowling does, reader engagement is the key. The Pottermore site is fully interactive. It does not have the gaming power of a MMORPG, nor all the gadgets of a massive social media site. What it does have is enough elements across several formats to keep members happily engaged for a few hours and enough planned into the future to keep them returning.

Points to Ponder:
What have you done in your site to actively engage your readers or followers?
How many different formats have you implemented to do so?
What are your plans for the future to keep them coming back?

But let's get specific and look at these engaging formats in detail.

2) Presenting the Story:

The heart of Pottermore is a visual, interactive presentation of the Harry Potter series, book by book and chapter by chapter, with only the first book active to date. Viewers navigate from one chapter to the next, one scene to the next, exploring special moments of interest along the way.

Points to Ponder:
For most writers applying this to themselves, it would seem to be limited to books that have already been on the market for a while. However, I can envision other possibilities.

What if my upcoming story involves a backstory that may entice new readers to give the book a try? Or, what if I've spent a huge amount of time in world building? Could I slip some of this stuff to the reader in an engaging manner ahead of release to entice them further?

Or, if I'm writing a series, the possibilities of using a site like this to keep one book alive and hint at those to come are endless.  The goal is to find a creative, new method of engaging readers AROUND your story without simply repeating your story.

3) Visual Stimulation:

The graphics on Pottermore are luscious and detailed. One of the most appealing aspects is that we know these graphics were overseen by JK Rowling directly, which gives them a sense of authority even over the movies. Of course, I'm sure they also cost a ship-full of galleons.

Points to Ponder:
Maybe you have artistic skills yourself. However, even if you don't that doesn't mean you can't offer visual insight into your own stories. Many authors are designing their own trailers and discovering sources for free or cheap art online as they do so. Tap some of these sources to make your website more visually appealing for your reader and to bring them into your world.

Or, if you have older kids, check with their friends or school art teacher and see if there's a budding young artist in the community who might be willing to share some of their talent with you. My daughter and her friends sit around drawing pictures all the time just for the fun of it, and a couple of them are incredibly talented.

Finally, there's massive communities of young artists online who may be willing to do some artwork tailored to your site for a reasonable price of for trade.  Check out DeviantArt for a start.

4) Interactive Gaming:

In Pottermore, members can brew their own potions, duel another member with spells, and search and collect special items along the way. All of these activities not only earn the member points, but also earns points toward winning the cup for their House.

Points to Ponder:

The crux here is not that you need to have a game, which may or may not be appropriate to your genre, but that you need some form of entertaining, engaging reader involvement that preferably links them to other readers as well.


  • a scavenger hunt for clues to your story you've hidden about your site
  • collectible cards of information scattered about.  These cards could relate to the research you used to build your world, or to character backstory elements that never made it into the story.
  • small snippets of excerpts that you create exclusively for your online reader to find, or bits and pieces that were ultimately cut out of the story, but your reader may still find engaging
  • use all these items in a point collection system toward earning a prize
  • better yet, have your followers/fans divided into teams to gain points to earn this prize!

5) Social Media:

Fandom is always more fun when there are other fans to squee along with. In Pottermore, fans have the opportunity to engage with other fans not only through the games mentioned above, but also through certain portions of the site set aside for fan chat and feedback. While not offering a fully-functioning social media experience, fans CAN leave short messages for each other or the Pottermore admin in either their own House or the Great Hall. Fans can also upload and share their own fanart work and receive comments.

Points to Ponder:

How many opportunities have you provided your reader to not only engage directly with you, but with each other? How can you do this?

  • A forum, or bulletin board
  • An interactive feature on your site where they can upload and share their own short stories or works of art (whether fanfiction or otherwise) for feedback from others
  • Maybe a regular interactive chat that includes items of interest to your greater fan/follower community

As Pottermore goes along, (remember it's only in its beta-testing stage), I'm sure there will be more for me to share. But would love to hear for now what you think.

How many forms of interaction have you used to engage your followers, readers, or fans? Have you got any ideas as to what more you can do to bring people into your world in a compelling, entertaining manner?

And if you're really curious about what's inside Pottermore, or already a beta-tester, be sure to check out my Pottermore Forum and Wiki for more!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Guest Post: Is Fear Holding You Back?

Please welcome to the blog today Ava Jae, a YA Paranormal/Urban Fantasy novelist who blogs at Writability.  I first met Ava when she guest posted at Lyn Midnight's fabulous blog on Six Things that Made Harry Potter Special to Me and loved her humor and writing so much that I started following her immediately.  She was one of the awesome bloggers in our awesome week of PotterChat back in July with her Top Five Harry Potter Moments, and I've learned quite a bit about the art and science of writing and blogging by following her wonderful Twitterfeed at @Ava_Jae.

A couple of things you should know about Ava are that she has a wicked sense of humor which is coupled with strong insight into what makes a story work.  Besides being a Harry Potter fan, she also seems to have an ability to think along the same lines I do.  Before I even posted Family Stories earlier this week, which confronted one of my fears of writing, she sent me this insightful article below sharing the same theme.

So, please, welcome Ava.  If you haven't yet, visit her blog, and enjoy her amazing talent.  Thanks Ava for sharing with us!

Starting any new venture is a terrifying experience, and beginning your journey as a writer is no different. The doubts set in the moment you even consider the idea—Are you really qualified to do that? No, that’s a terrible idea. You’re going to be awful. You’re not ready, maybe in a few years when you have more experience...

The funny thing about fear is that it’s really good at convincing us it knows best. If you’re a logical person like me, it’ll put up a sound argument that’d make an attorney proud. If you’re more emotional, it’ll attack your nerves and whisper doubts until you’re thoroughly convinced it's right.

For writers, it often begins with comparison. You see books on the shelves, articles in magazines, brilliant blog posts and think, I can’t do that. You see the charisma, the confidence on the page, the way the words just flow and marvel at their talent.

Here’s a little secret: what looks like talent, 9/10 times isn’t talent—it’s hard work; it’s hours, months, years of practice; it’s an unquenchable thirst to improve and a drive to succeed. But fear doesn’t want you to know that. Hard work is something you can do; the thirst to succeed is something you already have if you’re worried about your skill set, and a drive to succeed is something most people encounter in at least one aspect of their lives.

But talent. Talent is something you’re born with. You can’t fake talent. At least, that’s what fear wants you to believe.

Truth is talent can’t carry you to success. I won’t deny that some people start with a little more of a boost than others, but from there it takes perseverance and work and more work. But if you let your fear control you, if you allow the doubts to keep you from trying, you will never reach your dreams.

It’s a little hard to swallow, I know, but I hope it’ll motivate you to start. To push fear aside and begin that story you’ve always dreamed of, or that blog that you’ve been too nervous to launch, or whatever it is you’ve been too afraid to do.

Confession: I put off starting a blog for something like two years. Why? Because I was scared. Because I was convinced that I had nothing to say, that no one would want to read what I wrote anyway, that I’d be just another whisper in the clamor of the internet.

In short, I was afraid of failure. What I didn’t realize was that by not even trying, I was failing already. I allowed fear to hold me back.

I’m not going to pretend that I have some massively successful blog now, but in the short months that it’s been live (I launched in May) I’ve developed a nice community of readers and a steady flow of hits. What’s more is I’ve learned something about myself—I do have something to say. A lot to say, actually, that I never would have discovered if I continued to listen to the doubts.

Are you allowing fear to hold you back? Maybe it’s your first novel (or second, or third, or fifth for that matter). Maybe it’s a new blog, a guest posting opportunity or a hundred other new endeavors.

I challenge you to kick your fear to the curb and go for it. After all, you will never succeed if you are too afraid to risk failure.

Has fear ever held you back? How did you overcome it?

Ava Jae is a writer, Photoshop enthusiast and X-men geek. You can find her weekly musings on her blog Writability, follow her on Twitter or check out her Facebook page.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Family Stories

When I was growing up, my father used to tell me stories.  I do not recall him or my mother reading to me, though I am sure that they did when I was very young, but I hold many fond memories, especially on long car rides, or sitting on the porch at Grandma's, of his telling me, my sister, and brother tales of his youth.  Some stories were his, but others were those his father told him or the tall tales that his grandfather was known for.  Great yarns of family ghosts and buried treasures and renegade cowboys from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.  All these stories involved family, and telling them to yet another generation was a way of holding onto those who had gone before.

I never knew my grandfather.  He died before I was born.  I only vaguely remember my great-grandfather as he died when I was three.  But because of the tales I've heard all my life that they told, or stories that were told about them, I know them both very well.

For the last couple of days, I have been alone with my parents at their lake house repairing damage from Hurricane Irene.  No Internet, no children, just my parents and their stories.  My father is heavily into geneaology.  He took a class on memoir writing recently and has been busily typing away all his old tales and his memories into his computer.  So, I helped him start a blog where he could easily share these treasures with the rest of the family -- including his many grandchildren who will read only if it is on the Internet.  We've spent a lot of time the last couple of days discussing his memories, along with my mother's.

And through recounting my father's well-loved stories, I remembered one of my own.  My grandmother used to tell me how she and my grandfather had met.  It was a story I always cherished, perhaps because it involved such an unusual way to meet, perhaps because my grandmother was so dear to me, or perhaps because it helped me feel closer to this man that she obviously loved and I'd never known.  But, for whatever reason, a few years ago, I decided to turn that family story into a book.  I pieced it together with another story from my grandmother's youth and a memory from my father about a rumor circulating in the small-town he'd grown up in during World War II.  Together, the three intwined into a plot, which would not have been a fictionalized biography of their lives, but would have had touching points.

In a fevered rush of excitement, and with memories of my grandmother raining down on me from her picture on my parents' mantel, I wrote the first three chapters of that book in a few hours.  I then plotted out the synopsis.  Reading over it, the intended story brought tears to me.  The couple of times I've picked it up and read it since that night a few years ago, it has always done the same.

But, I set it aside.  I never pursued writing it beyond the first three chapters and synopsis because I thought no one but my immediate family would ever want to read it, and I was pursuing publication.  New York publication.  My story did not fit into a neat bookstore category.  It was not YA, not fantasy, not romance.   Aside from one aspect, it was a quiet story, but one of emotional depth.  It was, is, unlike anything I've ever written before or will likely ever write afterward.

Last night, I spent two hours talking with my father, answering his questions about self-publishing his memoirs and family history.  The good news, I told him, is that now it is easier than ever to get stories like yours out.  Stories that may not have the large market New York is seeking, but still deserve to be published.

Then today, my mother took me on a road trip to visit with aunts and uncles.  My 86-year-old uncle lives beside a key setting in that story I abandoned long ago and he remembers when it was still in operation.  We talked about it, and he gave me insight to help me visualize the setting better.  At another home, my aunt shared pictures and memories of my cousin who died way too young this past year.  The stories help her remember him and keep his spirit alive.  With both visits, we retold old family stories, of loved ones long gone, but never, ever forgotten because of the stories we tell.

JK Rowling has said many times that Harry Potter changed significantly after her mother's death.  If her mother had not died, Harry Potter would not have been the story it is today.

She incorporated bits of personal and family hsitory throughout her series.  The Ford Anglia which Ron and Harry hijaked to Hogwarts in Chamber of Secrets was exactly the car owned by one of Rowling's best friends which used to carry her to freedom in her teen years.  Snape teaches potions because Jo never cared for Chemistry.  She and Harry share the same birthday.  The Dementors, we know, were born of her personal experience with depression as a single mother living on the British welfare system.  Like Harry and Ginny, Jo's parents met on a train platform.  And as any fan can tell you, Jo put a lot of herself into Hermione.

As writers, is it possible to ever write a story that we pour nothing of ourselves into?

And yet, I had pushed off one of the stories into which I had poured so much of my personal history because of fear of the market.

To me, this is the beauty of the e-book revolution.  The journey my father has unintentionally taken me on the last couple of days, back into the memories of the beloved tales of my childhood, has reminded me why I am a storyteller today, like my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather before me.  My fathers told tales of their lives, of people they knew and loved best.  I tell stories of fictional characters inspired by those I know and love.  They told stories to keep memories alive, to pass along heritage.  I tell stories to awaken spirits and remind us of our connection, even if it is not by blood.

Because from one culture to another, from one age to the new, from my family to yours, Story is what unites us all.  Story is the power of meaning that flows eternally through the human blood.

And now, once again, my little family story that I love so dearly, but abandoned out of fear that it would never sell, is once again beating in my heart and filling my mind with possibilities.  I sit here, at 12:30 a.m., instead of sleeping, with ideas clammoring to get out, bits and pieces of dialogue, snapshots of setting, whisps of emotion.  (Of course, my lack of sleep could also have something to do with the coffee my mom serves which I am unused to. :-)

Coffee or not, my family story is running through my veins.  This time, I will open myself to it.  I am no longer afraid.