I once told my kindergarten teacher that ‘W’ is blue

21I learned to read with the help of a children’s program known as “The Letter People.” I remember finding the videos dull and the puppets ridiculous, but the weirdest thing about the Letter People was that all of their letters were the same color.

Knowing that each letter has its own particular hue, it was strange to me that the puppet-makers couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to such an obvious detail. I let it slide, and when it came time to color a Letter Person each week, I made sure to select the right crayon to at least make mine correct.

When it was Mr. W’s turn, I colored him a light blue because obviously that is Mr. W’s proper hue. That day, the rest of my homework assignment involved cutting out pictures of items that start with “W” and gluing them around Mr. W, so I cut out watermelon, windows, wings and an assortment of other objects and then coated the paper and myself in Elmer’s glue.

At school the next day, when I was called on to present my homework, I explained that “W” is blue and listed the items that start with this wonderful letter.

“‘W’ is blue?” Miss Tinga asked. “Why would you say that?”

I was baffled. She was teaching me and she didn’t even know the colors of the alphabet?

But it wasn’t until second grade that I realized maybe my reality wasn’t the same as other people’s. I was doing homework at my best friend’s house when I commented on how strange it was that every math textbook printed numbers in black instead of their proper colors. She gave me the strangest look and asked what I was talking about, and I realized I’d clearly said something really weird. So I shut up about the numbers because I wasn’t about to ruin the life plan we’d mapped out where she’d marry Jonathan Knight and I’d marry Jordan Knight and we’d officially be sisters by marriage. (Spoiler: This did not work out.)

It took another two decades for me to figure out that I wasn’t the only one whose numbers, letters, days and months had colors. I stumbled across an article on synesthesia and my brain was all, “This is a thing! I AM NOT BROKEN!”

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 1.07.08 PMHaving a name for it and realizing it was totally normal (OK, maybe not totally normal, but at least totally real and not a symptom of a neurological disorder), changed the way I thought about it. Now instead of it being a thing I don’t talk about, it’s something I love to talk about. And talking about it has helped me find other synesthetes and learn about the unique ways they view the world.

Since defining why my world is a little more bizarre and colorful than other people’s, I’ve Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 1.07.26 PMlearned SO MUCH about synesthesia and every year, I take the synesthete battery — which is where I got these nifty little colored examples to the right — so I can see my associations mapped out. (If you think you might be a synesthete, head over here to take the battery and find out.)

I have grapheme-color synestheisa, which is one of the most common forms. It means my perception of numbers, letters, etc. is associated with an experience of color — but it’s all in my mind’s eye. For example, I can see that “ABC” is written in black here and that’s how I actually physically see it. However, I inherently “know” that the letters have colors similar to this: ABC. I also have what’s known as spatial-sequence synesthesia, which is a fancy way of saying that, in my case, my mental calendar roughly resembles a “Z” with the summer months falling in that vertical line.

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 1.07.49 PMThere are numerous types of synesthesia, which I find absolutely fascinating. People can see music or taste words. They can feel a sensation on their skin when they hear certain sounds. Their numbers might have personalities, or they could smell something when they see a specific word.

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 1.06.47 PMAnd get this: Up to 4 percent of the population has some form of synestheisa — that’s a not a small number, kids.

The more I learned about synesthesia, the more I became fascinated by the idea of writing a teenage character with it and exploring how this neurological condition affects her relationships and her beliefs about the world.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College who studies synesthesia, summed it up well when he said, “We all accept the reality presented to us, so synesthesia is a really direct way to look at how individual changes can lead to different beliefs about reality.” <— That’s exactly what I wanted to do with my story, and I hope I’ve pulled it off.

To learn more about synesthesia, watch Eagleman’s short video below. And if you’re also a synesthete, I’d LOVE to hear about it.

My interview with Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan_Maberry_and_RosieI’m not too great about keeping my own blog updated, but I have been blogging for the Dallas Fort Worth Writer’s Conference.

At the conference, I taught a class on interviewing experts for research, and since then, the lovely people in the DFW Writer’s Workshop have been sending some truly fascinating interviews my way with everyone from newly agented authors to New York Times bestselling authors like Jonathan Maberry.

You can check out my interview with him here.

Thanks for stopping by!

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Quick update: DFWcon and class notes

DFWConOver the weekend, I sent my PowerPoint presentation, notes and handouts from the DFW Writers’ Conference‘s “Art of the Interview” class to those who’d requested them. If I forgot to include you on that email (sorry!) or if you missed my class and would like notes, let me know.

Also, I’m now contributing to the DFWcon website, so you can find my posts there throughout the year. I’ll be writing about…well, writing…as well as the conference, querying, publishing and maybe even cats. (OK, I lied. I probably won’t be writing about cats.)

My first post will be about an exciting DFWcon success story from the 2013 conference. I’m talking to the agent and newly signed writer and will share their story soon. It’s a unique one — the agent actually offered representation during the writer’s pitch session — so be sure to check it out!

Have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend, everyone!

Photo: courtesy of DFWcon

Writing research: Why interviews are better than Google

sledIt’s easy to think of interviews as something reserved for journalists or nonfiction writers, but I’d like to make the case that fiction writers can benefit from them as well. This week I’ve been working on my presentation for DFWcon‘s “The Art of the Interview” class, and one of the things I plan to cover is how interviewing someone can not only bring realism to your writing, but also life and depth.

(We’ll also go over finding sources, interview techniques, helpful apps and what it means to go “off the record,” but I digress.)

I tend to think of there being two types of interviews: the get-the-facts interview and the in-depth interview.

When you’re simply on a fact-finding mission — you need to verify historical data or understand a process — an interview can be pretty short and sweet. A get-the-facts interview is one of the few times I think it’s OK to correspond with an expert only via email.

But if you’re talking to someone with the purpose of developing a character or building a world, then you need to meet with that person. Maybe you’re writing about an FBI agent, but all you know about agents is what you’ve Googled or seen on TV. Maybe you have a character who grew up in a war-torn country, faces a terminal illness, won an Olympic medal or chases polar bears for a living — experiences you’ve never had yourself. Or maybe you have a unique setting — real or imagined — that needs details to help it come to life.

In these cases, it helps to talk to someone who works at Quantico, survived a war or traveled into space. You need to get to know them. You need to see how they talk, think, move and interact with their world. You need to hear their stories. In journalism, we think of this kind of interview as “putting a face to the story,” and it applies to both writing a news article and writing a novel.

signFor example, a few months ago I was working on an article about a tiny Canadian town called Churchill, which is known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” Every year some of the planet’s most deadly predators migrate through Churchill, a town with a population of fewer than 1,000 people. By November, sometimes 60 polars bears can be seen on a given day.

Bears wander up to homes and businesses, and the local “bear catchers” chase them out — and sometimes lock them up in “polar bear jail” or fly them away on helicopters. Tourists flock to the area, blatantly ignoring “Danger: Polar Bear” signs. Clearly, this is an interesting place.

Now, I could’ve written about Churchill by just reporting the facts: how many bears are captured annually, how residents prepare for bear season, etc. But the real story here — as with any story — is the people.

bearsWhat I wanted to know was what life is like in this place. What’s the daily schedule of a “bear catcher”? What do kids think of trick-or-treating alongside an army reserve unit? What’s it like to have a polar bear stick its head through your car window?

Sure, I can Google polar bear facts and email wildlife experts to get the bones of the story, but to really make it interesting, I had to find real people who lived there and get them to talk to me — which is often easier said than done, but we’ll cover that in the session. If I hadn’t talked to Churchill residents, I wouldn’t have learned some of the most fascinating aspects of life there.

For instance, residents leave their car doors unlocked so that anyone can jump inside in the event a bear shows up. And the natural resources officer I spoke with once had a bear charge his truck and total it. Can you imagine? But it’s details like these — memorable, interesting details — that make a story truly come to life.

I love Google as much as the next writer, but it’s no substitute for people.

“The Art of the Interview” class will take place Sunday, May 5, at DFWcon. You can read my story about “The Polar Bear Capital of the World” on The Huffington Post.

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Photos: (sled, bears) courtesy of Manitoba Conservation; (sign) em_j_bishop/flickr

Twitterbloc’s first writers’ retreat

485918_10101349782382207_992160150_nAt this time last week, I was at the beach with a group of incredibly talented writers, cranking out words, brainstorming story ideas and eating an impressive amount of pad thai and curry. (I was also fighting off a serious cold aka “the death rattle,” but I’ll save that story for another time.)

The very first Twitterbloc Writers’ Retreat, which we named ILM13 because we held it in Wilmington, N.C., was four days of writing bliss. I got to spend time with some of my favorite people in the world, and I wrote thousands of words in two different manuscripts.

Yes, two. You see, I had a bit of an affair with New WIP. I hated to cheat on WL, but New WIP was looking mighty fine at the beach and I just gave in to temptation. Luckily, WL forgave me and I’m back on track with revisions now.

ILM13 was exactly what I needed to remind me why I love writing and re-inspire me about the project I’ve been slugging through. At one point, I declared WL on hold while I started New WIP, and one of my crit partners sat down next to me and said “Well, if you’re not going to finish WL yet, can you tell me how it ends?” I agreed and ended up laying out my entire plot before her, and I saw her excitement about the story and it reminded me why I wanted to write WL in the first place. Thirty minutes later, New WIP was on hold and I was back to writing WL.

733855_10101349782621727_1320906909_nThis is what crit partners are for. I’m SO lucky to have such amazing people in my life.

In addition to morning walks on the beach, daily critique sessions and thousands and thousands of words written among us, we also had dinner (not Thai food this time) with author Rebecca Petruck. I met Rebecca at Yallfest last year and was thrilled when she agreed to meet with us and answer the millions of questions we hurled at her about writing and publishing.

71942_10101349782477017_2135792573_nRebecca’s debut novel, “A Weird Kind of Normal” will be released by Abrams/Amulet next spring, so she took us through her journey to publication — from writing and querying to submissions and signing her contract. Hearing about the details of her contract and her editing process was absolutely fascinating to those of us on the outside, and she gave us each such great advice. Talking to her about agents and querying was especially helpful to me, and I feel a whole lot more confident about the process now.

735220_10101349782566837_1322178608_nClearly, I’m still glowing from my experience at ILM13. I’m re-commited to my story and I’m excited about it again. Plus, I have a whole new book under way (Oh, New WIP. You temptress, you!). In short, a writers’ retreat was exactly what I needed.

Thinking of planning your own writers’ retreat? Here are some tips:

1. Get someone organized and awesome like Deb to handle all the difficult stuff like booking the perfect beach condo, negotiating security deposits, etc. (If you have a Deb in your group, count yourself lucky!)

2. Set up committees to spread the work around and get everyone involved. We had people in charge of food and menus, scheduling, and transportation, and we set up several Google Hangouts so we could talk through the finer details like dietary restrictions, airport rides and who was bringing the blender. (We love to blend!)

3. Make a schedule. When we all get together, it’s easy to wile away hours catching up and talking about books and cute fictional boys, so we had a schedule to keep us (mostly) on track. If you’d like to see the rough schedule I made for ILM13, I’ve pasted it below.

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Back to the blog: New Year New Book

I realize I’ve been blogging a little inconsistently lately. I wish I could say it’s because I was off doing fabulous things — partying like a kpop star in Seoul, napping in a fuzzy bed of purring kittens, floating in a pool of hummus on a raft made of baby carrots, etc. But alas, I’ve just been writing and writing and writing (except for the month of December, which I might have spent watching kdramas and weeping over my lack of motivation to finish revisions.)

But now here I am, and I’m super excited to tell you about this awesome project I’m participating in called New Year New Book, which was the brainchild of the talented Kayla Olson. It’s basically just a way for us to make our writing goals public, track our progress and motivate each other via email and the #NYNB hashtag.

It’s not just for those of us lucky enough to know Kayla though — anyone can get in on the NYNB magic! Want to set a writing goal and have a pretty little blue progress bar of your own? Tweet Kayla and she’ll tell you how to set up an NYNB community of your own!

While we’re currently finishing up our January writing goals, we’re going to kick off February with new ones (*crosses fingers I get to start my newshiny*) and we’d love for you to be a part of it.

Regardless, happy writing and best of luck with your 2013 goals!

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NaNoWriMo 2012: Wish I were there

This is the first year in a while that I won’t be participating in NaNoWriMo and it breaks my heart. While you’re losing yourselves in new stories and wildly caffeinated nights of literary abandon, I’ll be plugging away at revisions — and longing to start a new story of my own.

However, there is a light at the end of the Revisions Tunnel: New Year New Book. Most of Twitterbloc is in a similar must-finish-revisions state, so we’ve decided to kick off 2013 with a little novel-writing month of our own!

If you’re missing out on NaNoWriMo this year, or if you simply want to embark on a new project on January first, join us! We’re working out all the details on how we’ll track progress and motivate one another and we’d love for you to be part of it!

Good luck, NaNoWriMoers! I’ll be (kind of) joining you in the new year!

Photo: nanowrimo.org

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A few thank yous

I’m extremely lucky to be part of an amazing writing community that offers me daily support, lots of laughs and long virtual grope-y hugs, so I thought I’d write a quick post thanking a few of them.

Thank you, China, for reading every single first draft, second draft and seventeenth draft of my book and always having something kind to say — even about those cringe-worthy first drafts.

Thank you, Liza, for being my accoutnabilibuddy, throwing badgers and getting me to cut that flashback from chapter one.

Thank you, Corey, for being the first person to get really truly excited about my story — that has kept me writing. Oh, and thanks for the kdrama addiction.

Thank you, Melissa, for being the first (turtle-loving) writer friend I met on that crazy place known as Twitter. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be part of this awesome Twitterbloc.

Thank you, Kayla, for incredible feedback, for reading multiple versions of my query in one day and for that “random bit of encouragement.” I read it often.

Thank you, Deb, for making me take a hard look at my characters, their motivations and their interactions with each other. Oh, and for being my wife, of course.

Thank you, Nicole, for your always-honest feedback and for getting me to finish that damn e-book already.

I ♥ you, Twitterbloc!

Photo: muffintinmom/flickr

What comes first? Plot or character?

My head is dripping with story ideas. Overflowing with them. Exploding with them. I’ve never once thought “I have no idea what I’ll write after this book.” It’s always more like “New idea! New idea! Let’s quit the current WIP and start on this one.” (If you only knew how many first drafts I’ve abandoned around the 50,000 word mark.)

And if I ever get to a point in my writing where I wonder where to go next, it’s not because I’m out of ideas. No, it’s because I have an endless supply of possible paths for my character and I’m always desperately trying to make ALL THE IDEAS work. Even when they clearly don’t.

My friend China, on the other hand, has a nonstop list of characters running through her head and speaking to her throughout the day. She sees them, hears them, knows them … just not what they’re going to do yet.

When I get an idea for a book, 99 percent of the time it’s a plot idea. When China gets a book idea, it’s usually a character idea. It’s not so much that she writes character-driven stories or I write plot-driven ones. It’s just that there’s a big difference in how our stories come together. So today we thought we’d share with you the pros and cons of both.

When the plot comes first (Me)

I get story ideas everywhere: interactions I witness, things I see on TV, interesting articles I come across at work, stuff that’s happened to me in the past, etc. If it’s a good idea, but not an OMG-this-is-all-I-can-think-about idea, it goes into my file. If it’s the latter, I just have to accept the fact that I really will be thinking of nothing else for the next few weeks.

My current book was inspired by an image I saw on the Web while researching an article. I was mesmerized by this image. I saw it and suddenly my head was filled with endless “What If’s.” What if someone lived there? What if she were trapped there? What if the one thing she wanted was impossible to attain?

Who is this “she”? I don’t know. And at this point I don’t care. I’m too interested in the fact that she’s going to be solving mysteries, taking names and kicking ass. I can figure out her name, her past and her demons later. Right now, I have a story taking shape.

When I’m at this point in my mental plotting, there’s no structure to it. I don’t think in terms of inciting incidents, plot points and pinch points. I usually don’t even write the ideas down for quite some time. I just let the ideas percolate, multiply and take on a life of their own — and sometimes it rather feels like they’re taking over my life.

Showers, commutes and that hour I lie in bed before finally falling asleep are all dedicated to these events unfolding in my head. (A story-inspired soundtrack is a must for the commutes. Water Lily was a whole lot of Chuck Ragan and Brandi Carlile mixed in with some City & Colour and a little JamisonParker.) My every thought is so devoted to what’s going to happen next that it’s honestly amazing that I haven’t walked into oncoming traffic yet.

This time where the ideas flow is nothing short of amazing. I love it. I live for it. But sometimes there’s a downside to too many plot ideas. Take WL for example, I had so many plot points and twists in my head, and in my first draft I threw them ALL in there. Then I come back a month later and realize I had a confusing jumbled mess. It’s like I’d tried to write a song, but there were too many musicians and too many instruments. I had a killer drum solo queued to come in at the exact time I’d scheduled the didgeridoo, the xylophone and the sitar. Separately, they might sound pretty awesome. But all together? Your brain is confused. And your head starts to hurt. A lot.

At this point I have to replot and start cutting. I realize I can’t have this character or that subplot, and it hurts — it hurts so bad — but it has to be done. When I started revising WL, I realized that I had to cut a whole lot of stuff, including several subplots and about seven characters. It felt so wrong to be taking all these wonderful things out of my story. After all, I’d been thinking of this story for months and all of these things were a part of it. I didn’t want to kill my plot darlings!  But I did. And my story is now stronger because of it.

But just because I didn’t get to use those ideas, doesn’t mean they’re dead and gone. I can keep them in my file and use them in the next story. Perhaps they’ll sound and feel just right in that new book.

Great, now I’m thinking of the new book again. Hopefully I remember to pay attention to the crosswalks.

When the character comes first (China)

I have a large cast of characters roaming around in my head. In fact, there are so many that I keep several documents on my computer that contain character ideas. One is simply a list of names that I like. Another is names plus a few characteristics (eye color, a hobby, etc.).

But, more often than not, a character will leap from my head fully formed, like Athene springing forth from Zeus. This typically happens when my mind is relaxed and not focused on writing, i.e. when I’m driving, taking a bath, watching TV, etc.

Once a character appears in my head, I immediately grab my notebook or computer and write down everything I know: name, hair/eye color, age, hobbies/interests, dreams, goals, sexuality, job and any unusual facts (Is she being haunted? Does she have a superpower?). As I jot down facts about my MC, I start to learn things about other characters as they relate to her: family members, best friend, love interest, rival, etc., and I start making notes about those characters as well. I try to devote at least one page to every important character.

These are the characters who make it into my books (the other, half-formed ones languish in computer documents in perpetuity). And while I know, logically, that I’m creating them, that isn’t how it feels. These are fully-realized people who are telling me their stories. I don’t name them; they come to me named. They tell me what they look like, what their jobs are, what their dreams are, and it’s my responsibility to carry that to the page.

Which is, in many ways, fantastic. It’s a bit like meeting new people without ever having to leave the house, and it’s exciting to get to be the person who tells their tales. HOWEVER, there is a slight problem with this method. Because my stories develop around characters, not plot, I often have no idea what these people are DOING. Yes, I know who they are and what they want, but not what their paths are.

I have no idea of the drama, conflict or tension that they will have to tackle in order to achieve their dreams. This has always been an issue for me: I have all these people who are demanding that their stories be told, but I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE STORIES ARE. I have no plots to go along with these people.

And to make matters a tad more challenging, I’m an unrepentant pantser. I love the idea of plotting the entire story before I write, but unfortunately, that’s not how I work. These characters live in my head like real people, and it’s only by observing them that I learn their stories. So that means plotting can be tricky, but I work around that the best I can.

Once I have all the “whos” sketched out, I try to tackle the “whats”: What does the MC want? What is standing in her way? What’s the conflict? What’s the resolution? I work out as many of these answers as I can and try to outline the book as much as possible, in terms of hook, plot points, pinch points, conflict and resolution. Since I’m a pantser, this is generally not as detailed as I would like, but it does at least provide a framework.

Once I have all of that outlined, I dive in and see where the characters lead me! Naturally, they change and evolve as I go, and I find myself discovering new things about the characters with each chapter and each revision.

So for me, this is the process: I have to think about these people, what their lives are like, and then come up with a plot that both suits their circumstances and will hook a reader. And that can be tremendously hard to do. Unfortunately, I don’t have book ideas floating around in my head. I don’t see pictures on the Internet that inspire fanciful plots. All I have are these fascinating characters, and I have to create my stories around them. I think (I hope anyway!) that this results in interesting, quirky characters with strong voices. I have to work really hard to come up with believable challenges for these people, which can often mean seemingly-endless revisions. But when it works, it’s magical.

Thanks for sharing, China!

So I’m curious. What comes first for you? Plot or character? Or are you…divergent?

Photo: qisur/flickr

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