Frosted with Originality: How a Good Story is Like a Good Cupcake

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Nobody likes stale cupcakes.

My favorite time to eat baked goods is right out of the oven.  In fact, it takes a bit of willpower for me to keep myself from trying to frost it as soon as I pop them out of the oven (and sometimes I do anyway).  Nothing tastes quite the same as homemade and freshly baked.  There’s the anticipation – sneaking tastes of the batter, the sweet smell of the kitchen as they cook.  The thrill as the timer beeps.  The tease of the cupcakes cooling on the counter.  It all leads up to a big, delicious treat at the end.

1I think of this because this week, New York City joined the growing list of cities to install a Cupcake Vending Machine.  Already appearing in other cities – including Dallas, Atlanta, and Beverly Hills – these little machines are more or less an unattended store where you can pick up a cute boxed cupcake without the hassle of making it yourself.  In America, Convenience is our middle name: anything we can make easier or get more of for less money, we are all about it.  We are – and understand, I say this as a lifelong citizen and am equally guilty – a lazy, lazy culture.

For me, there will never be any joy in buying a vended cupcake, despite the promises of freshness and quality.  I want my cupcakes to have half-melted frosting because I couldn’t resist the temptation.

I feel the same way about my writing.

It’s far to simple to take the “easy” road.  We all learn in school that a good story has to follow a template or pattern.  The traditional fairytale is the best example of this:  girl meets boy, they fall in love, something terrible happens to girl, boy rescues girl, they kiss, happily ever after.  That doesn’t leave a lot of room for originality; or, at least, most people don’t seek originality.  The reasons why these templates exist is because they work.

Why bake cupcakes when you can get them from a vending machine?

My answer: because homemade cupcakes are delicious.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Both are messy projects.  Flour gets spilled all over the counter.  Post-it notes attack the walls.  You put in too much milk and now you have to start over.  Your character has no depth and you have to rewrite everything.  It’s not easy to do.  If it was, everyone would be doing it the long way.  But there is something to knowing that you slaved over something that makes the quality better.  Baking a homemade batch of cupcakes teaches you the importance of quantities, following instructions, patience – it makes you a better cook.  Writing a book carefully, with attention to detail and intricate plotlines makes it a better experience for you and the reader, and you become a stronger writer through the process.

But, what if I like processed cupcakes just fine?

A secret?  I do too.  And that fairytale template?  My favorite.

But can we honestly say that the quality is the same?  What would the Lord of the Rings series be like if Tolkien had followed a traditional Arthurian fantasy template?  What would To Kill A Mockingbird be without challenging the genre’s boundaries?

And, believe me, you’ve never truly known how delicious a cupcake can be until you’ve tried them homemade.

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Don’t Quit Your Day Job

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It is an undeniable fact that breaking into the entertainment business is a tough road.  When most people talk about the “Biz” they are talking about show business – think film, television, and stage performing.  In reality, entertainment is so much more than that.  After all, outside of acting, there is comedy, music, and writing.  Yes, I said it – writing.

I don’t understand why some people get pretentious about writing being referred to as a form of entertainment.  We write to tell stories – true and fictional – and we may consider it to be “an art form of the highest caliber” but actors usually feel the same was about their craft.  Try telling Mr. DiCaprio that what he does is frivolous in the face of your melodramatic memoir and see what he says.

I digress.

The point is, most of the country’s population glamorizes the Biz and don’tchaknow, we’d all rather be “telling stories” and “playing around in front of a camera” than ringing up burgers at McDonalds and sweeping floors at the elementary school across town.  Putting aside the fact that the Biz isn’t all fun and games, it’s incredibly difficult to break into.

You need, at the barest observational level, three main things:

  1. Talent.
  2. Ambition.
  3. Connections.

If you are missing any one of these three elements, it ain’t gonna happen. Bada bing, bada boom, you’re done.  If you’re like me and are void two or more, then you’re up sh** creek without a paddle.  You might self-publish or make it a while in community theatre, but schweetheart, at the end of the day you’re still a waitress/dental assistant/accountant.

One of the first pieces of advice you will get from a literally agent, editor, publisher, and your mom will be that if you want to be a writer, don’t quit your day job.

But I won’t have any time to write!

Poppycock.  You make time for the things you love.  If you view writing with all the dread and time-consumption of your day job, it may not be a great fit for you.  Yes, it is hard work.  Besides finding time for writing and querying, you need to connect with a lit group, do your research, and maybe even take a few English, Writing, and Literature courses at your community college.  Once you’ve done all that, you’ve got to edit, proofread, edit and proofread for the people in your lit group, make dinner, and go back to work in the morning.  Writing, like any craft, requires a commitment.  But it does not require going broke.

So listen to all those professionals and also you mom – write hard, write passionately, and get enough sleep so you can go to work in the morning.  The life of a writing isn’t glamorous, but it’s a worthwhile one.

And hey, when you get your first 6-digit royalty check… quitting the day job and retiring to the Hamptons for a peaceful life of writing and beach-walking may be just the ticket.

The Literary Alphabet

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This is stolen right out of My So-Called Chaos, but it seemed like an appropriate addition to this usually dormant blog.
A: Author you’ve read the most books by:  Tamora Pierce.  All of her series, save one or two.  Multiple times.
B: Best Sequel Ever: I positively loved Prisoner of Azkaban, by JK Rowling.
C: Currently Reading: Mastiff, by Tamora Pierce.
D: Drink of Choice While Reading:   Hot tea.  Period.
E: E-Reader or Physical Book?  I tried a Nook and couldn’t get hooked.  Physical book, please!
F: Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Dated in High School:  Oh goose.  Let me see.  I believe the question is less “who I would have dated” and more “who would have dated me,” but without ado, I believe I’ll have to cast my vote on Will Parry, of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
G: Glad You Gave This Book a Chance: Blue Bloods, by Melissa de la Cruz.  I didn’t mean to love them, but I did.
H: Hidden Gem Book: Time Cat, by Lloyd Alexander.  I grew up on this book, and most people don’t even know it exists.
I: Important Moment in Your Reading Life:  Forever.  I have a very vivid, heart-warming memory of sitting in the forest behind my house on the stone wall the bordered the property reading Sandy’s Book by Tamora Pierce; and equally fond memories of re-reading Prisoner of Azkaban under my covers at night.
J: Just Finished: Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton.
K: Kinds of Books You Wont Read:  Non-fiction, in-your-face.  That’s non-historical religion, self-help, politcal, blech.
L: Longest Book You’ve Ever Read: I can’t be sure, but I bet it was something by George R.R. Martin.
M: Major Book Hangover Because Of:  I can’t think of any book that broke me.  Excited me, yes, but nothing negative.
N: Number of Book Cases You Own:  Presently, three.  I’ve had five, in the past, but got a couple taller/wider ones and consolidated.
O: One book you have read multiple times:  Just one? Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (all six books) by Douglas Adams (and Eoin Colfer).  Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton.  Harry Potter by JK Rowling.  Attack of the Clones by RA Salvatore.  Trickster’s ChoiceTrickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce.  I could keep going.
P: Preferred place to read:  I used to have a big grey cushy chair, and THAT was the place… since I no longer have that… the bathtub.
Q: Quote That Inspires You/Gives You Feels From a Book You’ve Read:  I couldn’t pick one.
R: Reading Regret:  Dune by Frank Herbert.  It was required summer reading in high school, but… blech.
S: Series You Started But Still Need to Finish (All Books Are Out):  Sookie Stackhouse by Charlaine Harris.  A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett. Plus a handful of trilogies and the like.
T: Three of your Favorite Books: An Abundance of Katherines by John Green.  Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling.  Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton.  The latter two seem to come up a lot….
U: Unapologetic Fangirl For:  Tamora Pierce.  I don’t care if her key audience is young adults.  Her books are exactly the universe I wish I was born into.
V: Very Excited for This Release More Than Others:  I’m not jumping up and down for any new books at the moment since I have 150+ on my “To Read” list!!!
W: Worst Bookish Habits:  Destroying books in my purse accidentally because I like having a book with me at all times and my purse is a book-death-trap.
X: X Marks the Spot, Start at the Top of Your Shelf and Pick the 27th Book: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Just read that this month, actually, and it was FABULOUS.
Y: Your Latest Book Purchase: Blue is for Nightmares by Laurie Faria Stolarz.  Next on the “To Read” list!
Z: Zzzz-Snatcher Book-(The last book that kept you up way too late): I haven’t been up late reading since I moved in with Matthew, so the last was probably the 3am read of Catching Fire back in 2009-ish.

That’s a Wrap.

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For me, there is never a point where the story is over.  Whenever I think I am writing the next chapter, I always know what is going to happen next.  In the case of my latest NaNoNovel, The Eden Experiment, every time I reached my intended stopping point, it felt like I hadn’t told enough of the story.  They power shut down because of the riots on the outside.  Did I give enough “footage” of the destruction?  They got back to the Garden.  I finally ended the story with their promise that they would live out the five year plan, as they were supposed to anyway, before venturing out into the world again.

This wasn’t the finishing point, either, but for my purposes, it had to be.  The problem is, to me, all these characters have lives and futures.  They do not cease to exist after the five days of the story.  This protagonist – Opal Finch – has a relatively bright future.  She is going to marry her partner Erik in an unconventional, barefooted ceremony, and have two little boys.  She is going to finish raising her little sister Rhian, who is going to grow up and become one of the leaders of the new world in her late adulthood.  Her boys will explore what is left of America and discover food and other civilizations that outlasted their own and have not fallen into a state of chaos.  Even when Opal is gone, her story goes on.  But it would take a lifetime to tell her story… and of course, Opal is not my only character filled with life.

However, it is important that I step away from this incredible future and focus on the present.  What is happening now to Opal and where is the ending of this chapter of her life?  For me, I always choose an ending when things may not be perfect, but everyone is on good terms, and there is a sliver of hope.  It’s not happily every after, but perhaps it could be.  The problem with this approach, however, is that I always feel pressured to write a sequel.

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How do you end a story that seems to go on forever?  Do your characters take on a life of their own?  Let me know in the comments below!

50K & Still Running

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This is the fastest I’ve every ambled my way to 50,000 words in NaNoWriMo, and that includes last year where I stumbled over about 10k words in a day as Sparky excitedly discovered the delights of a traditional greasy diner.

This is one of the hardest parts of NaNo for me… when the word count stops being the central focus and my new goal becomes “oh crap, where is my ending and how do I hog-tie it before Thanksgiving?”.  This is where, like in Strange, I see that I need to hurry things along and my descriptors fall off the face of the Earth.

My goal?  Not this year.

I have discovered in a moment of pure delight that I am capable of writing 1050 words in 20 minutes when properly focused and motivated.  That tells me there is no reason for me to stumble my way to the end like a zombie, grabbing for a few half-baked ideas to make sure my “once upon a time” gets tied to a “happily ever after”.  I am a prolific writer when properly motivated, and I think that maybe, just maybe, I can give Opal Finch a little bit of dignity.

So, here it goes, blogosphere.  50k and counting.  We’re going to make sure this one ends with a bang.

Procrastination Station

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I came on here to write a post on how I am illogically participating in NaNoWriMo again until I saw my last post and went, Aww, last time I was here, it was also NaNoWriMo!

And then I scrolled down more.  And discovered it was NaNoWriMo a few posts before that, too.  After that, I came to a moment of self-realization:  my blog is the place I go when I am procrastinating on NaNoWriMo.

I am okay with this.  I think I enjoy a little procrastination, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t affect my word count.  Yep, that’s right folks!  I am a proud Six Time NaNoWinner!  This means I am very good at piling up lots of words, and not much else.  But hey.  I can pile up words like a boss.

So, as per tradition, I am going to tell you about this year’s novel.  It’s called The Eden Experiment.  It’s sci-fi, based in a post-apocalyptic world, and the main character is named Opal.  Things happen at the beginning which causes chaos to ensue, which leads her to a fork in her life path where is is given the choice to end her life, or continue forward in a rebuilding project run by scientists.  She isn’t too hot on either of these but decides against the whole “dying” thing.  More chaos ensues, but I haven’t written that yet, so I can’t tell you about it.

Also I will give you an image of the book cover that I created two years ago, because book covers are also tradition.  I will be changing this, though, so you may get another cover later on.

Eden Experiment

Other than NaNo-ing, I feel the need to defend myself and say that the second draft of Strange went out to proofreaders this summer in a terrifying (for me) leap of faith and of the three copies I sent out, already one of them has come back.  Which will lead me later in the month to discuss my appreciation and frustration alike in the editing process and the difference between how I edit verses how other people edit.  Basically, lets just say that I think I should have been an editor at a publishing house because I am merciless.  Mais c’est la vie.

I think I’m done with the writing procrastination now.  I had a delicious Cinnamon Roll Mug Cake for breakfast, and it’s got me in a cozy, fall mood.  I think I may make apple crisp now.  Or, you know, do something useful.  Like laundry.

Ciao.

NaNoWin #6

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Forcing myself to write a story under fierce deadlines with no forgiveness is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do.  Some days, it’s fun.  I certainly enjoy the challenge, and I thrive for the weight of half-a-ream of paper, with words I have written, to sit in my hands.  However, there a moments where I hate everything to do with writing, my characters, and I completely doubt myself.

I daresay that this term of Camp NaNoWriMo was the most difficult I have ever endured.

About halfway through the story, I realized that the plot line was very similar to another story, one which I was much prouder of, with far more development.  Additionally, I struggled with the fine line of original story vs. fanfiction in this one.  Typically, I go above and beyond the 50,000 word suggested goal – with Sparky Jones, I annihilated it at about a 20% increase – but the last week or so of my most recent work, there was a certain level of plodding along, for the want of a better word.  I woke up at approximately 6:30am on July 31st with a mission in mind.  You know what that mission was?

“Screw this.  I just need to finish the novel so I can win.  I’ll fix it later.”

Even as I was writing some of the worst writing I have ever contrived, I was unhappy with it.  There is a sickening feeling about finishing a book and knowing you are capable of better.  It’s like finishing a dinner, but serving it without beverages.

After much ado, I am not-so-proud to present Beyond the Silver Screen: the tale of Hattie, a flutist from the golden years, who finds herself running through sixty years of cinematic achievement in search of her friend, who seeks to breach the portal between fiction and reality.

Beyond Cover v2

Meanwhile, I rest at ease knowing that no NaNoNovel sees the light of day without my permission first, and she will be well edited before being released to any of my peers.

Have you ever found yourself in the position to choose between a deadline and preserving the quality of your work?  What did you pick?