What Are Novels? (HTWYA 3)

This is an excerpt from a work in progress called How to Write YA. It’s a companion to my next book, Afterworlds about a young novelist living in NYC. Afterworlds launches Sep 23 in NYC, and you can pre-order it at the bottom of this page.

Also, I’m on tour soon! Click here for dates.


What Are Novels?
I’m not going to talk much about the history of the novel. Your local high school, university, bookstore, and library all have departments devoted to that subject. If you want to be a novelist, you should be reading lots of novels, new and old.

Go do that. Keep doing it your whole life.

For now, though, suffice it to say that the novel was invented somewhere between four hundred and a thousand years ago, and in the last century has superseded poetry, short stories, essays, and the rest to become the dominant form of literature.

Novels are powerful. They can help reform corrupt industries (The Jungle), start civil wars (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and provide touchstones for decades-long political movements (Native Son). Novels are so successful that their DNA has invaded other forms, such as narrative history, true crime, and memoir.

So what are novels?

My favorite definition is “a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it.” I don’t know who came up with this, but its point is clear: novels are lengthy and lack the shiny perfection of shorter works. They are usually written in the rhythms of natural speech, also known as prose.

But not always! There are many novels in verse (in YA, most notably Ellen Hopkins’ bestsellers about troubled teenagers). And novels that are mostly prose often include other stuff: poetry, song lyrics, mathematical equations, computer code, “realia” like score cards and bus schedules, and even words twisted and transformed into visual art (Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, 1953). Before the twentieth century most fiction was illustrated. So, yes, novels can have pictures too.

In other words, novels are big and imperfect and supremely rugged, like a battered old trunk that can hold pretty much anything.

Young writers ask me all the time, “How long should my novel be?”

The lower bound of the novel is fuzzy. Science fiction folks (like me) tend to use the Hugo Awards’ definition: forty thousand words or more. In lay terms, a novel should be more than a hundred pages. Of course, the Hugo categories below that length are “novella” and “novelette,” terms that simply mean “little novel.”

Far more important: there is no upper bound to the novel. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is four thousand pages long. It was published in seven volumes from 1909 to 1927, but it’s all one novel.

I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s answer to the question, “How long should a man’s legs be?” He quipped, “Long enough to reach the ground.” In other words, your novel should be long enough to get to the end of your story.

The artist in me doesn’t care how long your novel is. (But the commercial hack in me suggests that you stay between fifty thousand and a hundred-fifty thousand words. Okay? Are you happy now? You made me be a commercial hack.)

Here’s a much more interesting question: What are novels good at?

Every art form has its specific “affordances,” a fancy design term that asks of an object, “What can you do with it?”

Ropes are good for pulling things, but not for pushing them. Coffee mugs are good for hot liquids (the handle keeps your fingers from getting burned) but desultory for champagne (you can’t see the bubbles!). FaceBook is good for finding old friends, but terrible for keeping old friends (and advertisers) from finding you. Twitter is good for snarking at the Music Video Awards, less so for nuanced discussions.

So let’s compare the affordances of the novel to other narrative art forms, to find out what novels are good for.

Imagine the opening shot of a film: a dirty and decrepit room, years’ worth of old newspapers stacked against the walls, opened and half-eaten cans of beans everywhere, and one wall covered with newspaper clippings about the president of the United States, the eyes scratched out of every photo.

Within seconds, we know that we’re in the house of a crazed assassin. Tension!

This is something films are good at: establishing settings more or less instantly. A film can open in an alternative steampunk Bangkok in the 1930s and, even if you don’t know anything about Thailand or steampunk or the 1930s, you are there.

A novel would require a lot of text to create a setting of that complexity. The writer can’t upload a whole image straight into your retina, but has to introduce the elements one by one. Novels have no audio track; they can’t give the viewer direct experience of the music playing next door, or the tone of a person’s voice.

On the other hand, a written word can do things a movie can’t. Many details escape the camera’s view: the etymology of a phrase in Thai, the construction history of a Bangkok Airways zeppelin passing overhead, or the text of a newspaper clipping that the assassin tore from the wall yesterday and burned. And novels can engage smells, tastes, and textures in a way that films, being audio-visual, can only suggest.

Another cool thing about novels: they have infinite budgets. You can build a whole city for a one-page scene, then burn it down. Your only limit on extras and special effects is your imagination and ability. (Comics also have infinite budgets, with a combination of novelistic and filmic affordances. But that’s another book.)

Here’s a similar, but more subtle, affordance: novels can compel aesthetic reactions across boundaries of taste. What I mean is, a skillful writer can convince readers that a group of musician characters is the most awesome band ever. But in a movie a real band has to appear and play actual music, which will not please everyone.

We novelists reach into our readers’ head and make them create their own perfect music.

The same thing happens with descriptions of beauty and charm, which is why when books are made into films, the casting decisions invariably cause dissent. Novels co-opt the reader’s imagination to create whatever the story requires. Every reader constructs their own version of that graceful waltz, that gorgeous sunset, that irresistible face.

On top of what novels can show the reader, they’re also very good at hiding things. If we need to, we writers can mention “a car” without any brand, vintage, or state of repair. If a detail isn’t important, we can make it disappear. We can walk around in a character’s head for a whole novel and not find out how old they are, what they’re wearing, or what they look like. (In first person, we can even decide not to disclose their gender.)

Sure, filmmakers sometimes avoid showing the main character, but it’s clunky and obvious what they’re doing. In a skillful writer’s hands, the reader might not even notice.

Let’s be clear about something: you can attempt any narrative trick in any medium, and as a young writer you should be stretching the form. But the fact is, some things will work better in film, some in writing, some in comics, and some on the stage.

If you find yourself using a coffee mug as a champagne glass, or as a hammer, you might want to rethink.

Okay, we’ve talked about what novels are good at, but what are novels best at? What’s the thing they do better than any other medium?

Here’s one answer: When you read a novel, you can know the agony of a character’s stomach ache, the limitations of their colorblindness, what bacon means to them, or the way they feel when a loved one comes through the door. Their fears, hatreds, beliefs, prejudices, and the exact words they’re thinking can be laid out on the page. All the fragments of a character’s memories and knowledge can be accessed as easily as the facts in the reader’s own brain.

I would argue being inside people’s heads is the grade-A, number-one affordance of the novel. To never access anyone’s thoughts or feelings in a novel is like using a champagne glass as a hammer. (Artists like to do that sort of thing, of course. But if you try it, you should be ready for the broken glass and severed fingers.)

Here’s a crazy theory for you:

We humans have a superpower. We can look at another person, observe their facial expressions, words, and body language, then add this data together with everything we know about them and all the other humans we’ve ever observed, and make guesses about what’s going on inside that person right now.

Are they sad? Angry? Hungry? About to stab us?

This trick, called empathy, is a very useful day-to-day skill. It helps us know when to comfort someone, when to make a joke, and when to run away. But its long term consequences are far bigger, because empathy turns us into social creatures, who can cooperate to build tribes and cities and the internet. It’s the basis of art, ethics, and civilized society, not to mention a crazy little thing called love.

The novel is the outgrowth of this ability, because to read is to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. Just as movie cameras are modeled on the human eye, the novel is modeled on our empathy. It’s not about watching someone, it’s about being in their head. In other words:

Novels are machines for becoming other people.

As we read, we become someone else. Often this person has a more exciting and glamorous life than we do. They may wield magic or posses awesome technology, live in another era or on another planet. More important, they may think differently than we do, and see the world in radically strange ways, and yet we are still drawn into those ways of thinking and seeing. To read is to travel, not just geographically, but into other minds, other lives.

This is what the novel is best at. And that’s because—more than any other medium—novels are an art form grounded in point of view.


Next week, Part 4—“POV”
Click here to read Part 1, “What Is YA?”
Click here to read Part 2, “What Are Stories?”

What Are Stories? (HTWYA 2)

Between now and November, I’m posting excerpts from a work in progress called How to Write YA. You can’t buy it yet, but you can preorder Afterworlds, my book about a young novelist living in NYC, on the bottom of this page.


What Are Stories?
Okay, it’s time to get to the writing advice part of this book. Almost.

First we must talk about stories. Like, what are they?

Stories are a technology.

They’re a tool, one invented to inform, persuade, and entertain other humans. This technology is very old, probably created not long after humans came up with language itself.

Stories are also very powerful. Someone who remains unconvinced after a thousand pages of scientific data can often be swayed by just the right anecdote. Otherwise sensible people will believe absurdities as long as they appear in the context of a compelling tale, like an urban legend. We often recall the stemwinder version of an experience long after we’ve forgotten what really happened that day.

This is why some of the oldest things we posses as a culture are stories.

Here’s a little story with a very long pedigree:

There was once a donkey who found itself exactly halfway between a bale of hay and a bucket of water. The donkey was equally thirsty and hungry, so it couldn’t decide which to consume first, the water or the hay. As the day went on, the beast grew hungrier and thirstier in equal measure, so it stayed paralyzed, unable to choose. In the end, the donkey died of thirst and hunger, its decision still unmade.

News flash: this isn’t the world’s best story. It’s kind of silly (or sad, if you’re Team Donkey) and there’s not much rising action or character development. And yet this story has been told for over two millennia.

Back in 350 BCE, Aristotle used the donkey story to talk about physics. In his telling, the donkey’s desires represented the balance of forces in the world. If the donkey chose one way instead of another, nature itself would fly out of equilibrium.

In the twelfth century, the Islamic scholar Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali used the story to talk about free will. He argued that people can break stalemates like the donkey’s even if they have no reason to make one choice over the other. That’s what makes us humans special.

In 1340, the French philosopher Jean Buridan used the story to make the opposite point, suggesting that when facing two equally good choices, the only rational thing to do is wait until circumstances change.

Three centuries later, Baruch Spinoza disagreed with Buridan, but took a different tack than Al-Ghazali, saying that a rational person can always see a distinction between two choices. In other words, the world is complex and nuanced and full of differences, and if you don’t see that, you’re an ass.

Many other thinkers have weighed in since. I first heard a version of the donkey story in 1980, in a Devo song called “Freedom of Choice.” Devo’s retelling (featuring a dog with two bones) suggests that these days people have too many choices, and might prefer fewer. My teenage self could relate to Devo’s version, that the choices offered by present-day consumerism aren’t really the same as freedom.

Such is the power of this one very short story. It has been used to make countless distinct and contradictory arguments across two dozen centuries. And given that no actual donkey in that situation would hesitate for a second, this tale has managed all this despite being patently unbelievable! (This is an important thing for us novelists to remember: stories don’t have to be credible, true, or even to make logical sense, to have lasting importance.)

So why is this tale is so persistent?

Perhaps we all recognize ourselves in the donkey. We’ve all had the experience of being unable to make a choice, and of paying a price for our indecision.

And check this out: we never find out what kind of music the donkey likes, or what its politics are, or if its parents loved it enough, or what it had for breakfast. And even though the donkey isn’t involved in a hot paranormal love triangle or a million-dollar jewel heist or a revolution against a dystopian government—even though it isn’t a character at all in the modern psychological literary sense—we somehow still identify with this beast.

Crazy, right? Why should we care?

Here’s my theory:

We are all creatures who make decisions (or fail to make them) and then suffer the consequences. When you tell us stories about other creatures who make (or fail to make) decisions and then suffer the consequences, we listen.

We listen hard.

It’s like we’re scared not to.

And that’s why novels are really important.


Next week, Part 3—“What Are Novels?”
Click here to read Part 1, “What Is YA?”

What Is YA? (HTWYA 1)

My next novel, Afterworlds, is about a young writer reworking her first novel after NaNoWriMo. I thought a fun and useful promotion for it would be a series of writing advice posts. I got carried away.

So between now and November, this blog will host excerpts from a non-fiction book I’m releasing next year, called How to Write YA. You can’t buy it yet, because it’s not done, but you can preorder Afterworlds on the bottom of this page. It comes out September 23.


What Is YA?
Young adult fiction has exploded over the last two decades. Once a small and sleepy corner of publishing, YA has become a major part of the industry, the only category to have grown by double digits every year since the mid-1990s. YA is now a profit center that helps keep the rest of the industry afloat, and the primary engine for creating new readers. The massive sales of YA mega-hits like Twilight, Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars have also help kept a lot of bookstores from going out of business.

I have some theories about why this sudden explosion of young adult literature came about, but I’ll come back to those later. First, let me clear up a really important misconception: The genre of YA is not “fiction for teenagers.”

Partly, this is a matter of fact. Studies suggest that about half the YA audience is adult. But more important, the idea that YA is for teenagers is a conceptual error about the definition of genre itself. Genres are sets of practices, techniques, and stylistic conventions. Genres consist of shared assumptions and shared canon. In other words, a genre is not an audience. When someone tells you that they write “novels for men,” or “novels for old people,” or “novels for urban youth,” they aren’t talking about genre.

So what are YA novels, then, if not books for teenagers?

They are novels about teenagers, from a teenage perspective.

It’s pretty simple, really. YA is the set of all stories about what it’s like to be a teenager. Not from an adult looking on (or looking back) but from inside the teenage years while they are happening. YA is literature (or movies, TV, comics, video games, ballet, or whatever) that takes us into the hearts, minds, and lives of teenagers.

So how did this particular genre get so huge? Why would so many readers want to inhabit the lives of people who aren’t quite children, nor really adults?

To understand that, you have to know what a teenager is.


What Are Teenagers?
A couple of hundred years ago, there was no such thing as teenagers. The word did not exist, nor did the concept. There were only children and adults.

When people turned thirteen or so, many joined the navy, or got married, or went into the mines and factories. Many young people worked sixty-hour weeks, and child soldiers were common. (Some were rather good at their jobs. In the US Civil War, an eleven-year-old named Willie Johnston won the Medal of Honor, the highest his country bestowed.) I spew these facts not to outrage you, but to make a simple point: teenagers didn’t always exist. We had to invent them.

It happened slowly. Britain, in the throes of industrial revolution, often led the way. There, the workday for eleven through eighteen year-olds was shortened to a mere twelve hours in 1833. (Progress!) In 1844, the age for joining the navy as a midshipman was raised to 14. The minimum age of marriage was raised to sixteen in 1929. Over two centuries, a space opened up between the complete dependence of infancy and the rigors and responsibilities of adulthood. We had to give this space a name.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first appearance of the word “teenage” as 1928. The word “teenager” did not appear till 1949. By then, things were changing quickly. In the decades after the Second World War the industrialized world created nothing less than a new stage of life. We invented teenagers.

So what the hell are they?

The legal definitions are too long to list here. In most countries, at some point in the teenage years citizens reach the age where they are allowed vote, consent to sex, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, sign contracts, leave school, drive cars, marry, gamble, join the military, or work at other dangerous jobs. Exactly at what age these all happen depends on geography, and is the subject thousands of pages of law. These laws change all the time, buffeted by social mores, by new technologies, and by moral panics whipped into existence by some of the silliest people on the planet.

In other words, it’s all a bit of a muddle.

The cultural aspects of being a teenager are just as tangled. Whatever teens flock to—skateboards, file sharing, hoodies, rock music, rap music, MySpace—will soon become the subject of a moral panic. This is because teenagers frighten adults.

Five little kids in a store is cute. Five adults, good business. But when five teenagers gather, it’s loitering. It’s time for a curfew, or closed-circuit cameras, or a device that emits annoying high-pitched sounds that only teens can hear. (Seriously. Just google “mosquito teens.”) To put it simply, adults see teenagers as big enough to be dangerous, but not old enough to have been civilized yet.

They are uglies, if you will.

Here’s the weird thing: Despite this underlying terror, popular culture celebrates the teen years as carefree and happy, a time of consequence-free exploration. And in our youth-worshipping commercial world, teenagers (those with perfect skin and symmetrical faces, at least) are put on a pedestal. Images of teens are used to sell everything from clothes to food to music.

And let’s not forget the drama of those years—the time of firsts. Somewhere in all this muddle is when most people experience their first sexy kiss, tell their first meaningful lie, and suffer or commit their first real betrayal. Often for the first time, someone close to them dies. Most people drink their first beer, break their first law, and have their first political awakening as teenagers. These years see our first jobs, our first glimpses of independence, and our first life choices so serious that we can never completely undo them. And, of course, our first loves.

So let us recap. We have a global culture inventing an entirely new phase of life, engaged in a messy, noisy conversation about what it means to be an adolescent. We have an oppressed class, whose passions are harassed and banned, whose rights are curtailed, even while their customs are celebrated and their images ever more glorified and sexualized. We have an age of drama and emotion and reversal, where good days are transcendent, and bad days can feel like the end of the world.

Seems like there might be some pretty interesting stories in there.


Click here to read Part 2, “What Are Stories?”
Click here to read Part 3, “What Are Novels?”

Donate to Young Writers

As you guys know, I’ve been matching donations to NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program. Today, Tuesday June 17, is the best time to donate, because folks who donate between noon and 1PM US Eastern (9AM-10AM Pacific) will be automatically entered to win one of five signed copies of Afterworlds.

That’s right, you get to read it NOW.

The YWP is revamping their website, refreshing their already excellent (and free!) curriculum guides for schools who participate in Nano, and expanding their outreach to correctional facilities, halfway houses, and juvenile detention facilities.

Click here to donate and support young writers.

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Writing, Community, and the Alpha Workshop

Last July, Justine and I taught at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, a science fiction, fantasy, and horror writing camp for people 14-19. It was tons of fun (pic here) and we learned a lot. So when Alpha asked me if I would lend space for their fund-raising and young-writer-recruiting blog tour, I said yes.

So here’s a post by Sarah Brand, an Alpha alum, talking about how workshops and the communities they form help us all to become better writers.


In the summer of 2006, I attended the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers for the first time. As I boarded the plane to Pittsburgh, easily the farthest I had ever traveled on my own at that point, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Being a somewhat anxious, awkward girl, I didn’t know whether I would make friends. But maybe I would learn more about writing, or how to get published. Maybe Tamora Pierce, who teaches at Alpha every year, would look at my novel. (I had brought a printout of all 300 pages just in case.)

I was right about some things, and wrong about others. I did learn a lot about the craft and business of writing, enough to recognize that my novel still needed a lot of work. (Tammy didn’t look at it, which was definitely for the best.) And though I was anxious and awkward, and though minor disasters kept happening to me—getting stung by mysterious bugs, making my parents worry by forgetting to call home, and the like—I felt completely at home with the workshop’s staff and the other students. Something magical was happening.

After ten days, the workshop ended, and I went home. But something was different, something that had never happened to me after any summer camp before: I kept in touch with my fellow Alphans, regularly, via LiveJournal and email. We commiserated about school and traded drafts of stories for critique. Even months after the workshop, I felt as close to some Alphans as I did to other friends I had known all my life. Maybe geography had cruelly scattered us from California to New Zealand and everywhere in between, but we were united by our love of making stories happen, and bringing strange new worlds to life.

In 2009, after I had returned to Alpha twice more—once as a second-year student and once as a staff member—fellow Alpha graduates Rachel Sobel and Rebecca McNulty founded the alpha-crits community, which soon became the way many Alphans stayed in touch. In addition to trading critiques, we celebrate each other’s writing accomplishments and publishing successes. For four particularly memorable months, the moderators ran the “700 words a day or shame!” thread, which resulted in Alphans collectively writing 875,799 words in that time. Also, every year as the deadline for the Dell Magazines Award approaches, eligible Alphans frantically write and revise stories for the contest, and everyone pitches in to give critiques with an extra fast turnaround time. (A couple of months later, we all join in the nail-biting until the finalists are announced.)

Importantly, the members of alpha-crits encourage each other to write things and send them out, continuing the time-honored Alphan tradition of treating rejections from agents and editors as a badge of honor. (Rejections, we have all learned, mean that you are writing things and sending them out, and that is always a step forward, even if it doesn’t feel like it.)

Even if I had never attended Alpha, I think I would still be writing. The entire course of the last eight years of my life would be different, sure, but in the end, telling stories is part of who I am. But being part of a community of such fabulous writers—not only brilliant and talented, but also uniformly encouraging and kind—has made the journey much easier, and a lot more fun.

And lest you might think I’m the only one who feels this way, I reached out to other Alphans to get their thoughts. Alpha graduate Marina Goggin had this to say: “One thing I hear a lot that I would never expect out of a two-week workshop is that Alpha changes lives. This is absolutely true…  Being part of Alpha makes you a part of the writing world—even if you haven’t been published yet, someone you critiqued probably has been. Someone you know just got an agent, or a job at a publishing company. While I’m working to improve my writing, I’m encouraged by the fact that other Alphans have already been through the same process and are there to help me through it in turn.”

“I have a whole community of writer friends who I can go to for advice or encouragement should I ever need it,” added Alphan Mallory Trevino.

***

If you are between the ages of 14 and 19 and love writing science fiction, fantasy, or horror, you should apply to Alpha! This year’s workshop will be held July 25-August 3 in Pittsburgh, PA, and applications are due March 2. Everyone else: if you like the sound of Alpha and want to help the workshop, please consider donating to our scholarship fund, which helps students who couldn’t afford to attend Alpha otherwise. All donors receive a flash fiction anthology, written and illustrated by Alpha graduates, as a thank-you gift.

Sarah Brand attended Alpha in 2006 and 2007. She writes young adult science fiction and fantasy, and her fiction is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Uglies Is Free in the UK

If you live in the United Kingdom, you can acquire the e-book of Uglies for the low cost of FREE from iTunes.

[Alas, this offer is no longer.]

Hope all your NaNoWriMoings are going well. Today’s NaNo hint is: Don’t forget that visual aids can help you organize your novel!

Here’s my Action/Tension plot from the first few chapters of Behemoth. Each index card represents one chapter. I add the chapter description, the Action/Tension labels, and the color-coded POV pushpins (red for Deryn, blue for Alek). This is all really easy in Scrivener:

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 9.35.27 PM

Rather than software, some writers use physical objects to help organize their novels. Here is Lauren Beukes’ “murder wall,” which she used to keep the serial killings in The Shining Girls straight:

Murder-Wall
photo credit: Morne van Zyl

Image ganked from this interview in Zola Books.

I can just imagine the South African police busting into Lauren’s home on an unrelated matter, seeing this murder wall, and being all, “Check the basement.”

Diana Peterfreund also uses a physical medium for plot tracking, color-coded sticky notes!

rampantplotboard

Her blog post about this “plot board” is here. This one is for the book Rampant, which I blurbed.

Those of you with more monochromatic tastes should check out Justine’s post about How to Write a Novel, which includes this spreadsheet for word-count and POV tracking:

mormss

Of course, it doesn’t matter what combination of yarn/software/post-its you employ. Whatever helps you visualize your novel’s structure, and gets your eyes out the trees so you can see the forest, is awesome.

Just remember, a good novel isn’t just a piece of text; it’s a terrain, a country, even a world. As its ruler, you should probably have a map.

Take a Writing Class with Me

Writing boot camps are workshops where you live for a week (or several) and focus completely on the written word. It’s a very intense experience, one that can change your writing style, your relationship to books, and even your life. Some famous camps like Clarion list many famous writers as their alums.

The most well-known SF and fantasy writing camp for teenagers is called Alpha, and takes place every July in Pittsburgh. It’s ten days altogether (July 10-19 this year) including eight days of workshops and two days of attending Confluence a literary sf convention nearby. You have to be age 14 to 19 to attend.

I’ve blogged about Alpha before, but this year, I willl be teaching there, along with Tamora Pierce and Theodora Goss. If you want to apply, submissions are open now.

alpha

To quote Alpha:

We’re looking for enthusiastic, talented young writers who have a strong interest in science fiction, fantasy and/or horror and a passion for writing. Students from anywhere in the world are welcome. In the past, students have attended Alpha from Canada, the United Kingdom, all over the United States, and even as far away as New Zealand.

Learn about writing and publishing. Meet other teens who share your interest in writing speculative fiction. Talk about short stories, novels, and films. Have your submission story critiqued. Brainstorm new story ideas, write a first draft, receive feedback, and rewrite. Attend readings by the authors. Do a public reading. Learn about submitting for publication, and send off your story at our manuscript mailing party.

2013 will be Alpha’s twelfth year. Previous attendees have placed in the Dell Magazines Award and Writers of the Future contests, and have sold stories to Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Cicada, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Nature Futures, Pseudopod and more.

Workshop tuition is $1100 and includes all workshop-related costs, but does not include transportation to and from Pittsburgh, or hotel/meals at the Confluence Convention. A limited pool of scholarship funding is available for students in need of financial aid.

Here are some testimonials from previous students.

Click here for more info and to apply.
Click here to donate to Alpha.

I hope I’ll be seeing some of you there! It’ll be great to meet you in person and talk about writing for a few days.

(Also: I will be more blogging soon, including some Uglies movie news.)

Goliath Word Cloud

Back in 2009 I blogged a word cloud of Leviathan as a NaNoWriMo tip.

Word clouds (made easy by the lovely and clever people at Wordle) are graphic representations of which words appear, and how often, in your novel, blog, or whatever. The words are sized, of course, in relation to how many times they pop up.

Word clouds great for spotting words that a writer uses too often, like my terrible habit of people frowning before they say something, or my once-rampant obsession with the word “effulgent.”

They’re also kind of fun for creating quasi-spoilery anticipation. And with that goal in mind, I offer you the Goliath word cloud five months before the book comes out!


Click here to see the full-size version. You know you want to.

Your sharp young eyes will no doubt note that I had to remove one word from the results. It was just too spoilerizing, and rather big as you can see. But the rest remains unaltered.

Of course, certain words that are missing (or quite small) can be just as spoilery as the ones that are there. So don’t look too close unless you want to suffer from S3krit Knowledge You Cannot Forgetz.

For my own purposes, I’m glad to see that “frowned” is very wee, and “effulgent” nowhere to be found. Sadly, “barking” is smaller than I thought it would be, and “perspicacious” totally missing! (But don’t worry, “Bovril” is happily medium sized.)

Best of all, the dreaded “just” is either not there or too tiny to see, so that’s another bad habit of mine expunged. Yay.

If you’re a writer, this old NaNoWriMo post of mine will give you a few more hints how to use word clouds in your own work.

See you on Fan Art Friday!

Writing Excuses

Hey, sorry it’s been so long since I’ve blogged. I plead tour exhaustion. But here are things for you to listen to and look upon!

For the listening, while on tour I did two long interviews with Writing Excuses, a weekly podcast on the craft of writing.

The first interview is appropriate to the Leviathan series, because it’s all about the visual components of writing. Maps, diagrams, character sketches, floor plans, and full-blown illustrations—all those things writers create to help them visualize the world of their books. (And for those of you who are visual learners, or who hate the sound of my voice, here’s the transcript.)

The second interview is more generally about steampunk, the subgenre of which I am now the resident expert/bore (but not high priestess, waah). Listen here or check out the transcript.

And now for things to look at. As I’ve toured, I’ve talked a lot about the books that inspired me to make Leviathan series illustrated: the 1910s-30s teen novels that had cool pictures in them. But I didn’t make a point of showing examples to my audiences, and I haven’t put any here on my blog. This seems like an oversight.

So here from my research bookshelf, recorded by my iPhone with craptastic lighting, are a couple of these inspirations.

First is A Trip to Mars, both the cover and an interior illustration:

greatairship

greatairship2

And here’s the cover and illustration from the glorious “boy’s own adventure,” A Trip to Mars.

triptomars

triptomars2

Note the similarities and differences from Keith’s work. Some of the stiffness of Edwardian illustration is visible in these, and the caption on A Trip to Mars could totally go in Leviathan. The spilling off the frame isn’t present here, and these are in color, which is interesting. But the spirit of them is, I think, the same.

Also, you can see that Keith is much better than these old-fashioned dudes. Seriously.

But I will admit that, whether they’re pen names or not, Captain F.S. Brereton and Fenton Ash are the most awesome author names in history. Evar.

Okay, I’m about to transit hemispheres, so there may be another long pause in my blogging. But thanks for dropping by, and thanks again to all of you who made my tour so much fun.

Ciao for now.

Nano Tip #27: Word Clouds

We all have words we love too much.

Maybe for you it’s something fancy, like “effulgent” or “apodictic,” or something sillier, like “smellypants.” And because we love these words, we will use them too often, until our readers begin to snicker quietly at us.

But those big, obvious words are easy to spot. We’ll whack them in the second draft. And even if we fail to do so, our friends will probably slap us the fiftieth time they encounter the word “prognosticate.”

It’s the little overused words that kill us, that quietly undermine our text without us ever noticing.

My big overused word was once “just,” as an adverb. “He was just happy to see you.” “She was just standing there.” It cropped up everywhere. After this was pointed out to me by a wise editor, I went through an entire novel, deleting it everywhere it didn’t completely change the meaning of the sentence. That cured me.

But how could I be sure that there weren’t other overused words mucking up my manuscript?

Then I discovered the word cloud.

nanotips

“Word clouds” are graphic representation of the words in a text, scaled by how many times each word occurs. You’ve probably seen then in blog sidebars and Amazon listings. They’re software-generated, and therefore reveal common words that humans might overlook. (Though the software ignores super-common words like “the” and “a” automatically.) They’re also a great place to start when you begin work on your second draft.

This is what the word cloud for my latest novel, Leviathan, looked like after my first draft:

Lev wordmap
generated by the excellent Wordle.net software

As you can see, my two main character names, Alek and Deryn, are the biggest words by far.

Now, you can use word clouds to check relative importance of character names in your text, but I’m not interested in that here. (Alek is a bit bigger, but only because Deryn often goes by other names, like “Dylan” or “Mr. Sharp.” So no surprises there.) So let’s check for any overused little words.

The first thing that seems to be dominating is “eyes.” That may mean I’m relying too much on eyes for emotional cues, which could get boring. I definitely checked that as I worked on the second draft.

“Looked” is also a bit big, and got some scrutiny, I’m sure. If your characters are spending a lot of time looking at things, you probably got lazy at some point.

I also would have taken a search-pass on the word “voice,” which is often used as a shortcut to convey emotion. Too many phrases like “said Scott in a strained voice” is not a good sign.

“Feet,” “head,” and “hands,” are all big, but they’re all equal, so that doesn’t bother me as much. It’s a very physical book, after all, with lots of jumping and grabbing, and whacking of heads.

Note that I’m also ignoring interesting words, like “engines,” “walker,” and “hydrogen.” Those are just part of the world I’m writing about—airships and walking machines. I’d be worried if some cool words like that didn’t show up big.

See how it works? One glance at a word cloud can make all the difference.

To create your own word cloud, just copy and paste your entire text into this text field here at Wordle.net. Enjoy!

That’s it for today. Don’t forget to check out Justine’s Nano Tips on the last two remaining even-numbered days. See you on the 29th with my final entry!