Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Paper Dolls and Inspiration

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, one of my FAVorite things to do was make paperdolls. I’d collect some good paper and a new box of crayons and spend the next several hours (sometimes days!) happily coloring and designing an entire world full of paperdolls and, of course, their wardrobe. Of course, filling in the details of the wardrobe could be a bit tedious, so that is when I inevitably began telling myself the story of these dolls’ world and who they were and what was going on in their lives.

Fast forward some ::mumble mumble:: years later and I’m still doing the same thing! True, the order is different, but as I was doing some pre-writing activity, I became aware as to just how little I’ve changed my process since I was seven years old.

I am a very visual person and it really helps jumpstart my creativity if I can SEE the world and people I am working with. In addition to collages, because these teen assassin books have such an enormous cast of characters, I’ve created, well I guess there is no other word for it, a kind of paperdoll for each of the main character.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I collect pictures of interesting or compelling faces and keep them in a file. When I start a new book, I often go through the file looking for pictures that can act as a touchstone for the characters. Oftentimes it won’t be an exact image of the character in my mind, but will capture a specific expression that is key to the character’s attitude.

Instead of drawing my current paperdolls with crayon and pencils, I simply paste the magazine pictures on 3x5 cards, but they serve the same purpose: a visual anchor into the world of my story.

Sometimes, if I’ve chosen my pictures accurately enough, just putting some of the cards together immediately sparks a sense of what interpersonal dynamics will be at play.

And no, I do not think of this as procrastination, but more like feeding the muse.

Monday, June 27, 2011

New Book! New Blog! New Me!

Well, okay, maybe not so much a new me, but rather a slightly different aspect of the old me. My publisher decided it was best if I used a slightly different version of my name for GRAVE MERCY.

So here I am: Robin LaFevers, YA author rather than R. L. LaFevers, middle grade author. It felt as if the occasion called for a new blog so I could get used to my ‘new’ name. ☺

Also? There will likely be kissing. That is one of the upsides to writing YA!.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Tarot Collage

I've talked before about how I make collages for my books using pictures from the web or magazines or my inspiration folder (where I have hundreds of images from old magazines that I save because they speak to me for some reason.)

One fun thing I did that made a great artist's date/writing exercise was create a tarot collage of my hero and heroine's journey. There's no real trick to it. You just pick a tarot deck with imagery that appeals to you (this was The Secret Tarot by Marco Nizzoli*), spread the cards out on the table, then pick those that resonate with your vision for your protagonist. That's what I did for GRAVE MERCY.

So the top row was the major influences impacting the two main character's lives, and then the second row was the  hero's journey and the bottom row was the heroine's.

Or, you could be even more official and do an actual tarot reading for your characters or story. 

Mostly just a fun way to get in touch with the story at the intuitive level. Sometimes the cards you pick can surprise you.

*I have used my paltry photoshop skills to cover up some of the images so they would be work (and MG!) safe.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Looking for Themes In All The Wrong Places


I was going to come back here and tell you all how I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had two seconds to rub together, let alone time to blog, but you know what? You all are smart cookies. I bet you figured that out on your own. Plus? It is fairly boring to talk about.

So instead I thought I’d talk about something that’s been occupying quite a lot of my mental space lately, namely themes. As in the core themes of our work.

[Warning: Possible navel-gazing ahead.]

Part of this was brought about by the fact that I am having a teensy bit of an identity crisis, genre-wise. I was able to straddle a young middle grade and an older middle grade series fairly well. But I am now pulling a dark, older YA into the mix and it kind of tipped me over in terms of understanding who my audience is, what my relationship to my readers is, how I pull all of those various wildly different parts of the authorial me together. Do I talk about the book that’s out now or the one that I’m working on? Does it matter if they’re two separate age groups?

The inside of my head has felt far too much like a hamster wheel for my liking. However, one can only flounder so long before it gets way old and all that’s left to do is get over it and move on. So here I am. I will be having my identity crisis in public and hope that it will be a learning experience for the rest of you.

My website is also due for a massive makeover, and before I could do that, I had to understand the answers to some of the above questions. Actually, I had to figure out the right questions to even ask.

When looking for a story theme, the questions I use are:

What life lesson does your protagonist need to learn?
Where, in her/his emotional landscape, will this journey take her? Will she/he be facing old fears? Discovering new ones? What will they be?
What issues will most of the book's conflict be arising from?
What direction is her/his growth going to take? Learning to accept, forgive, redeem oneself, stand up for what they believe in?
What will they have struggled with by the end of the book?
Also, look at your protagonist’s goals and motivations. What direction are they pointing in?

And while those questions work well for finding themes in a given book, they weren’t helping me step back and get a better picture of how all the various themes I work with tie in.

So I had to go looking for new questions.

What truth am I telling? What is my core truth, the one I go back to time and again. I searched my books, the school talks I give, my work on Shrinking Violets and over on GeekMom. Hell, I looked high and low. I kept stepping back, further and further away thinking if I could get a distant view, I could see the patterns and landscape better.

But I neglected to look deep, deep inside, to that place we all try to hide from the world. Which is highly ironic since that’s one of my biggest messages to kids when I do school visits—that their unique quirky self is their biggest most powerful weapon. Even if it’s the part of themselves that gets them in the most trouble or they find most embarrassing—that core is where all the best stuff in their life will come from.

And then I stumbled on this quote from Caroline Myss (found via Justine Musk's Tribal Writer blog) “You cannot live for prolonged periods of time within the polarity of being true to yourself and needing the approval of others.”

And my immediate thought was, you can’t? Because I have been doing that since I was old enough to breathe.

And it occurred to me that I have been engaged in a battle between being true to myself and pleasing others my entire life. An epic struggle for self acceptance.

Duh. There’s my core theme. Once I named it, I could recognize it in all of my work. It wasn't just about accepting our quirks or turning our weaknesses into strengths, but the constant polarization of opposing needs: that for self acceptance and that for pleasing others. Poor little Nathaniel Fludd, struggling between his innate timidity and wanting to please the intrepid Aunt Phil; Theodosia, needing to do something about all the magic that swirls around her, but not wanting to upset the apple cart with her parents.

Gawd! No wonder I’m exhausted all the time!

The other thing that occurred to me was that I will likely never have this fully mastered. Like a recovering alcoholic, it will be a one day at a time kind of thing. Maybe, at some point, it will be a week at a time or I will even be lucky enough to have a month long reprieve from this struggle. But I suspect it will always be a part of me, and even more, that that is a good thing because that is where my core story juice and passion come from. Putting characters in situations where they can experience transformative change that brings them one step closer to true self-acceptance.

So that is my core truth and one that all of my characters struggle with as well. I also think it’s why my stories tend toward middle grade and YA—because those first steps towards self acceptance and separating ourselves from our family and peers’ expectations for us come at those ages. (Also, clearly I am emotionally stunted. But in a productive way at least.)

The thing is, by recognizing our core journey, every daily challenge can have deeper meaning and be one more step on an ongoing path to the next stage of transformational change.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot the last couple of weeks. How about you? Are you guys all way more evolved than I am and have known for a long time your deepest, most core themes?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Writing is a Harsh Mistress

I was cleaning up a pile of papers that has sat next to my computer forever, and stumbled upon this quote that I'd printed out. I had not made a note of where it came from, so spent half an hour googling and searching and found out that, of course! It was from the brilliant Barbara Samuel//Barbara O'Neal's speech that she gave at RWA Nationals in 2004. If you haven't read it, please do. If you have read it, go ahead and read it again. It always moves me--often in new and different ways.
"She wants your experiences. Your brain. Your heart. Your soul. She wants to know that you will give her everything you have, whatever you have, when she needs it. She wants that secret you’ve never told anyone, ever. She wants that wound that can still bleed if someone brushes it by accident. She wants your pain and your bone marrow and your joy and every desire you’ve ever known."

Yes. This. Every time I read this I am reminded that I truly must give everything to the page in order to produce my best work.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Peeking Out of My Hermit Cave

It has been brought to my attention that I have been very quiet lately, and yes, I have. This book is being a bit of a bear to start—for many reasons. A primary one being that it is dark, dark, dark. And I shrink from all that darkness. But try hard as I might to pull it in other directions, that’s where it wants to go. So it has taken me the last two weeks to give myself permission to write the first draft as dark as I need to then, I assure myself, I can lighten it up in subsequent drafts. I mean, that IS the advantage to being a multiple drafter, right?

But I feel like I’m stumbling along in fits and starts, feeling awkward and cumbersome. To help me through this clumsy, graceless stage, I am rereading the classics: BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott and ON WRITING by Stephen King. They are hugely helpful and I am very much enjoying and soaking up these gentle encouraging voices full of bone deep wisdom. It is wisdom that I seem to need right now. Lamott, in particular, seems to be speaking right to me.

But also, as I struggle to hear the faint glimmerings of these new characters in my head, I need to tune out some of the voices on the outside because that noise and commotion draws too much of my attention. When I turn down the volume of the external world, it is much easier for me to hear my emerging characters. So I am alive and well, just…pensive. And quiet.

I’ve never needed quite this much psychic exclusion to start a book before, but I’ve also never written anything this tortured, so it makes sense. It is probably not surprising that these books did not demand to be written until my children were grown and self sufficient. To counteract all this sturm und drang, I am spending lots of time walking in this world, enjoying my family, reminding myself that old wounds do heal, lives that seem dark can find hope, essentially doing whatever I need to do to keep the nature of this book from overwhelming me, while still giving it the nurturing attention it needs to be born. A bit of a juggling act, actually.

Also? I am trying to be ergonomically savvy. The older I get the more aware I am of the wear and tear the act of writing and mousing and typing and sitting for hours on end has on my body. I had an ergonomics specialist come the other day and evaluate my process and stations and retweak everything. I want to be able to do this for another twenty or thirty years, so I need to make sure I’m not over stressing various joints, tendons, and muscles. Which is pretty much guaranteed if you spend nine hours a day on the computer, so I’ve just been cutting back in general.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bag of Tricks

I talked the other day about my handy dandy back of tricks that I use to coax my characters and stories to reveal themselves to me. As promised, I’m going to detail some of those in this post.

One of those is the brilliant old faithful by Debra Dixon, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.

It’s a simple concept, one that is often overlooked due to its very simplicity. If you haven’t read Deb’s book, do try to find a copy to check it out because the depth with which she explains the concepts are very worth it.

Basically, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (GMC) is making sure you know your characters EXTERNAL goal (what she wants) MOTIVATION (why she wants it) and CONFLICT (what’s standing in her way). IN ADDITION to knowing and understanding her INTERNAL goal, motivation, and conflict. The thing is, lots of us might want to be writers or senators or nurses, but chances are we all have very real, very unique, very private reasons we want those things. Doing this exercise ensures that you know what makes your character tick.

When thinking of an INTERNAL goal, it helps me to reframe that as the question, What is lacking in my character's life? What does she need to be fulfilled as a person? What Life Lesson does she need to learn?

I think of the internal motivation as the reason she needs to learn this lesson or the reason she has this great, gaping emotional hole in her life. What bad messages or poor choices she’s made in the past that have kept her from achieving fulfillment. And lastly, the internal conflict can be a couple of things: It can be what is compelling her to hang on to those old messages/lessons that keep her from moving forward, or what event/catalyst has to occur in order to move her forward emotionally.

Make a grid on a piece of paper and see if you can fill in those elements for your character. Even if you think you know them, oftentimes they change or solidify or evolve over the course of the story.

The second tool I use to suss out my characters is a cheat sheet I made from Donald Maass’s book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. He poses some great questions in that book, questions that really help me grow my plot from the seeds of my main character. One of the questions I work with in the beginning is: Define what truly matters to my character. Does she have a tortuous need, consuming fear, aching regret, passionate longing, burning desire, inner lack? (You can probably see that this ties directly into the INTERNAL goal from the above GMC.)

And next I begin character journaling. I begin writing about that character’s emotional scars and wounds. I poke around in her distant past to find out what might have caused them, how they developed, why they didn’t heal. The truth is, often two different people can experience a similar event--or the same event--and only one person is affected or traumatized by them. Because we all have different emotional baggage we're carrying around. I try to get at the heart of why THIS problem is so cataclysmic for THIS character that it tilts their world (either their inner world or their external world) on it's axis.

I try to become that character and see what my subconscious sends up in the way of character memories—often very surprising things bubble up—things that I did not consciously plan or think of, but are perfect nonetheless. Some questions I use to get started are:

When did things begin to go wrong for her? In what way? What were things like just before they went wrong? How did she try to fix things--if she tried at all? 

Another big benefit to journaling is that it helps me get familiar with the character’s voice. It’s like warm up drills on the piano keys before busting out into Rachmaninoff.

But for the last few books, I’ve been using other resources besides writing and plotting tools; I’ve added psychology books into the process and boy, is this helpful when I’m flailing around, trying to define my characters and their problems and their ultimate arcs. As I mentioned a few months ago, THE HERO WITHIN was invaluable as I wrestled with Ismae’s story in medievalteenassassin#1. This time around, it is Clair Pinkola Estes WOMEN WHO RUN WITH WOLVES that is saving my bacon for this second assassin book. Having said that, I think WWRWW works especially well for me since I write fantasy. Not sure how much help it would be if I wrote contemporary, realistic fiction.

As I leafed through WWRWW, I found invaluable clues to my character and not only what is at the root of who she is and why she behaves how she does, but what she will need in order to heal and grow. One thing I stumbled on this time around that I don’t remember reading before was the author’s descansos exercise. The book—and the exercise—is intended for individuals but I’m going to do it for my character. And that is, to make a timeline of all the little deaths of spirit and psyche my character has suffered (and she’s had a LOT—her past is very, very dark). Note each huge heartbreak and betrayal—whether actual or emotional, pay attention to where she felt abandoned or ignored, where she was forced to do things that were totally against her nature. Because all of those things that happened in her past inform who she is in the NOW of the story. They will give me the knowledge I need in order to understand how she will behave and react during the events of the story.

So now I’ve got all the subconscious juices flowing—and in the direction I want them to be flowing—and words and pages are accumulating at a satisfying pace. However, lest I end up with too sprawling or shapeless first draft ( I need something to let them flow into. That’s where the SAVE THE CAT template that I talked about a couple of weeks ago comes in. And I’m going to talk about how I marry those two together next week. But while you’re waiting, go and try a couple of these exercises and see how they work for you. Especially if you’re stuck or having a hard time bringing a character to life. Or if any have a similar types of exercises you use to help bring your character to life, I’d love to hear about them! I am crazy for writing exercises and processes. ☺