Friday, October 28, 2016

Cast Your Vote In The Tenth Annual Pumpkin Carving Contest!

Long ago, in a land far far away, my now-husband and I were young college students flirting with the idea of taking our casual friendship a step further. It was October, and he invited me to his parents' house one weekend just before Halloween. "I bet I can carve a better pumpkin than you," he boasted, in the true spirit of our very competitive flirtation.

And thus, a contest was born. Nine years later, we still celebrate Halloween with a carving contest; these days, we have a theme that we both have to carve to. And each year, we allow all and sundry to cast their votes via my blog. (Previous years can be found at my old blog, here!)

I'm going to warn you, folks: This year was, um, not our best year. We tried some new things, including a dremel (long story, but we're not big fans, actually!), and neither of our pumpkins quite lived up to our visions for them. They definitely don't hold a candle—pun intended—to some of our truly great years. And this year, I think we're both starting to feel the potential for a change in the breeze, the inkling of a time when this pumpkin carving contest will have run its natural course, as it were, and be consigned to past tradition instead of present.

But for this year? It's still on, baby. And this year's theme is Harry Potter! 

As always, all descriptions are written by me, and all photos are a joint effort between us both. This years rules, as in previous years, are:

1. Just ONE vote per person... no cheating! If you don't have a Google or OpenID account and so you're voting anonymously, make sure to sign your vote. Unsigned anonymous votes may be deleted.

2. DO NOT reveal who carved which pumpkin! If you suspect that you may know which pumpkin was carved by whom, DO NOT share that information in the comments. Any comment that tries to spill the carver's identities will be quickly deleted. (Also, we really DON'T recommend attempting to guess whose pumpkin is whose. In the past, guessers have tried to swing the vote for one person or another, and guessed wrong, with disastrous [but hilarious] results. So really, just vote for which pumpkin you actually like better and leave it at that, okay???)

3. Get all your friends and family to cast their votes too! Share on social media! Bug your co-workers!

And now, for the pumpkins.

This year's Pumpkin A is a spooktastic take on one of cinema's most horrible (and marvelously Halloween-ish) scenes, as far as I'm concerned: Harry's and Ron's run-in in the Forbidden Forest with Aragog, the massive and horrible Acromantula and former pet of Hagrid's, who might bear Hagrid himself love but holds no compunction about eating Hagrid's friends. Carver A truly broke the bounds of pumpkin carving this year, creatively using two pumpkins to create a 3D masterpiece. The jagged skyline recalls the trees of the Forbidden Forest that hem Harry and Ron in as they prepare to do battle with Aragog, and Carver A even used specialized tools to suggest the branches of the trees above them (visible in the daylight pictures). Harry and Ron stand back to back, wands raised and aglow, as Aragog crashes toward them. Especially noteworthy in this year's Pumpkin A is the expert level of detail on Aragog: minute pincers that grasp for the beleaguered boys as they try to make their escape, the texture along his back suggesting bristly hairs. What it lacks in traditional pumpkin glow, this work makes up for with innovation and emotion; without doubt, this year's Pumpkin A is a unique masterpiece.




This year's Pumpkin B, not to be outdone, takes a different tack: this expertly-rendered and traditionally carved tableau depicts Harry's climactic battle with Salazar Slytherin's pet basilisk, deep within the Chamber of Secrets. Using simple-looking but fiendishly difficult outlining techniques to dramatic effect, Carver B has shown us Harry in his final, heart-stopping moment, as the basilisk rears above him to take deadly aim and deliver the killing stroke. Gryffindor's Sword glows with purpose as Fawkes the Phoenix swoops down from the top right corner, and Harry, nearly defeated by still undaunted, prepares for his last stand. Especially of note in this year's Pumpkin B is the lifelike reality of the basilisk, complete with minute fangs, ready to pierce Harry's upraised arm and very nearly turn the Wizarding World over to Voldemort once and for all.



All right—it's time to head to the polls!
Leave your vote in the comments. 
Voting will remain open until Wednesday, November 2nd, at around 8pm Pacific time.
(Unless Kate is having a fit at that moment, in which case it might be a little later. But you know, pretty close.)

Friday, October 14, 2016

Interview: Shari Green, Author of ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES

Today I have the incredible privilege of sharing a chat with Shari Green, author of the debut middle grade novel-in-verse ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES. Thanks to an Amazon goof, I had the chance to read this a little bit early, and it was so good. Definitely one of my favorite reads of 2016! The verse is light and lovely, the setting is perfect, and the plot deals with major issues in a sensitive, gentle, and ultimately hopeful way. If you're a fan of Sharon Creech, you should definitely give ROOT BEER CANDY a try!

Here's Shari's summary of the book:

It will come to pass
that a stranger from the sea
will change
everything.

The locals in Felicity Bay shake their heads at the ice cream man’s prophecy. “Crazy old Jasper,” they say. But Bailey isn’t so sure. She’s found something special down at the beach: a driftwood mermaid, a gift washed up from a storm. Could she be the stranger from the sea who has come to change everything? Bailey hopes so. Because this summer, she could sure use a miracle.

Where did you get the inspiration for ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES?

I’d been thinking a lot about the extraordinary in the ordinary—Frederick Buechner said “all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace”, and that quote had been tumbling around in my thoughts. Meanwhile, I knew I wanted to write a “beachy book” someday—something in which I could really indulge my love of the sea. And then a driftwood mermaid showed up in my imagination, and the pieces started coming together.

I'm a big fan of verse novels in general, and especially for a middle grade audience—somehow they seem to work so well with the struggles of that age group. What made you decide to write ROOT BEER CANDY in verse? Is this your first verse novel?
Yes, it’s my first verse novel…but it didn’t start out in verse. At first, I struggled to find Bailey’s voice—after a few false starts I finally tried it in verse, and there was Bailey! As I wrote, I realized other reasons to keep going in verse: I felt complete freedom to use imagery to weave the setting throughout the story, and the format allowed me to use white space to give readers room to ponder ambiguities and unanswered (unanswerable?) questions. Above all, verse just felt right for me and for Bailey’s story.

One of the things that really drew me to ROOT BEER CANDY was the inclusion of a side character who has cystic fibrosis, like I do. CF isn't something that comes up a lot in fiction; what made you want to write a character with CF?
I’m not really sure why Daniel appeared in my imagination the way he did. I haven’t met many people with CF. And yet, there was Daniel with his chest physio and his eleven-year-old version of a seize the day attitude, and I loved him. It meant I had a lot of research to do, though! I knew I wanted him to have an important role in the story, because, like all kids, children with chronic illness need to see themselves in books. They need characters they can connect with, that maybe help them feel not so alone in what they’re dealing with. I hoped Daniel might be that character for a child somewhere, someday.

I also appreciated how authentically and sensitively you handled the issue of Daniel's life expectancy as a result of his CF, something that is definitely the elephant in the room for most of us. I love that it's not a focus of the story, and that Daniel is allowed to be a regular kid, but that it's clear that it's something Daniel thinks about. What made you want to include this, specifically, in Daniel's storyline?
I think one thing I love about a lot of children’s literature is that it doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. So often kids are impacted by the hard truths of life, but adults whisper, censor, try to ignore those realities. This comes from a good heart, I think—from wanting to protect kids. But kids are smart and so very observant. They’re aware of the tough stuff, and they’re developing compassion for others and coping skills for themselves as they deal with it. Including the bit about Daniel’s life expectancy was a way of validating his experience, a way of saying your reality matters, your worries matter, the tough stuff you think about matters.

In your dayjob you work as a nurse (right?)—do you feel like that background helped you in writing authentically about CF and childhood illness?
Yes, I’m an LPN. My background probably helped somewhat by allowing me to be comfortable tackling the subject of chronic illness (and maybe especially the life-and-death aspect). However, most of my experience as a nurse has been on the surgical ward—not at all the place for childhood illness! Ultimately, I had to rely on research.

Since the beach is my #1 happy place (mine is the Outer Banks!), I love the setting for ROOT BEER CANDY. I know that you live near the coast and visit often. Is Felicity Bay based on a real beach town you love, or is it straight from your imagination?
Felicity Bay is completely fictional, but the island—Arbutus Island—was inspired by a real place: Gabriola Island, which is between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. I spent childhood summer holidays there, and have wonderful memories and a serious case of nostalgia.

I love the thoughtful but not heavy-handed exploration of religion and faith in ROOT BEER CANDY; I think you hit a perfect note and have a story that really will appeal to children of all (or no) faith traditions. What made you decide to include faith as such an integral part of the storyline?
I wanted to include faith partly because it felt like the most honest way for me to tell this particular story, and partly because it isn’t often addressed in books. Kids think about this stuff, just as adults do, so let’s talk about it! To get more personal for a moment, I’ll add that including a spiritual element was also very true to who I am—and maybe who we all are. Don’t we all hope for miracles sometimes? Don’t we long for things that help us keep hoping, keep believing that we’ll be okay, that life will turn out all right? For me, ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES felt like the right place to explore these ideas.

Thank you so much for hosting me on your blog, Cindy. And thanks for the great questions! Wishing you and your readers an abundance of everyday miracles…

Check out ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES on Amazon here

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Overcoming A Fixed Mindset In Editing


Every time I get ready to dive back into a draft of a book a round of edits after feedback, I feel slightly paralyzed. Maybe you've forgotten how to do this, an insidious little voice whispers inside me. Maybe you're not up to the challenge.

Maybe you just wrote a bad book, and you're not good enough to fix it.

It feels a little bit like sitting at the top of a roller coaster: You know that once it gets going, it'll be fun. You know that you won't regret buying your ticket, and you know that when you get off you'll feel charged with adrenaline. And, in the case of a book, you know that you'll emerge with a stronger and more vibrant manuscript, a book more closely aligned with your vision for that story. You know that rewriting is the heart of writing and that you've successfully edited books in the past, taking them from crappy first drafts to solid—maybe even moving—final ones.

But still, right up there at the top of the coaster? It's kind of a stomach-flipping, scary, actually-I-don't-want-this-ride-to-start place to be.

Since I'm currently stuck at the top of this roller coaster—I've gotten some initial CP feedback back on my latest manuscript, and while I'm excited about diving back in and making it stronger, I'm having a hard time shaking off that naysaying little voice trying to convince me I don't have a prayer—I've been thinking a lot about this the last few days. The epiphany I landed on tonight was this: Really, all of this boils down to one issue.

A fixed mindset vs. a growth mindset.

These two terms have become pretty commonplace in the last decade, so I won't define them at length, but suffice to say they're exactly like they sound—seeing skills as things that are either innate (fixed) and stop at a certain threshold, or as things that are flexible and can be learned (growth). Research has shown that not only are people who have a growth mindset better at learning skills and adapting to new situations, they're also happier and more likely to take on challenges with excitement instead of being paralyzed by fear of failure.

If you're old enough to be reading this blog, it's very likely that you, like me, grew up in a fixed-mindset culture. We praise prodigiousness and overnight sensations (ignoring the fact that prodigies are really just kids who manage to put in the roughly ten thousand hours required to become an expert in something very young, and that nearly all overnight sensations only become so after a years- or decades-long slog behind the scenes) and make a big deal out of things that come easily. We reward and sensationalize "natural talent" and focus much less on hard work and effort, to the point that many of us have the innate and often unrecognized feeling that if something doesn't come quickly to us, we'll never attain mastery.

What I realized tonight is that each time I get ready to plunge into a round of edits, that fixed-mindset upbringing is what's responsible for that little voice whispering in my ear, the conviction that maybe I just wrote a bad book and I'm not good enough to fix it. Fixed-mindset culture assures me that this is true—that I don't have the skills to take my book from crappy first draft to polished finished draft, and that I'll never be able to learn them. My own fixed mindset keeps me mired in fear, unable and unwilling to step into the revision trenches and do the work that needs to be done.

In essence, every time I hit this point, I find myself needing to pep talk my way back into a growth mindset. I remind myself that I've revised successfully before, and that I can do it again. I remind myself of how many finished manuscripts I've got behind me now. I tell myself that it's okay if I don't get it right the first time, because it always takes multiple rounds of revision before things are as strong as they can be.

That last idea—that it's okay if I don't get it the first time, that struggling with something isn't the same as failing, and that it's just fine if it takes me several tries to get it "right"—is an especially important one for me to hold on to when I'm at the top of the revision coaster. Other things that are important for me to remind myself are:

—I'm always learning. Just because something seems like a daunting fix doesn't mean I won't be able to adapt and learn the skill I need to fix it.

—Challenges are fun! As much as part of me would love to be able to write perfect books with minimal effort, I also know from experience that diving in to a challenging round of edits and then seeing how much stronger the book has become is a thrilling experience.

—I can take as long as I need.

—It doesn't have to be (and never will be) perfect; it just needs to be strong, dynamic, and hitting the right emotional notes.

—I'm surrounded by friends and critique partners who can help me identify my book's weak spots and give me a pep talk when I'm feeling down.

—It's okay to be scared. As I'm constantly telling my three-year-old, being brave means doing hard things even when you're scared.

What are some of the ways you overcome a fixed mindset when you're writing or revising?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

I love sharing your friendship. I don't want to share your germs.

How I dress for church in the fall/winter
months to try to stay cold-free

For many years, I've shared a post about the importance of staying home when you're sick as soon as the first autumn colds start to circulate. As a cystic fibrosis patient, my immune system is compromised, and I have a tendency to pick up any viruses within a hundred-mile radius—at least, that's what it often feels like! Not only am I more likely to get colds and other illnesses in the first place, but those illnesses are nearly always much, much worse for me than for a regular person. What may be a case of the sniffles for you typically turns into a lung infection for me, nearly always requiring antibiotics and frequently requiring a hospitalization or course of home IV antibiotic therapy.

And don't even get me started on more serious viruses, like influenza, which can be a literal death sentence for CF patients. In 2007, while I was engaged, I caught the flu; I was almost immediately hospitalized, and ended up going into the hospital something like 7 times over the next 18 months. It took me at least that long, if not longer, to feel like I was back on my feet health-wise.

Every winter, I personally know far too many peop

le with CF who die—and quite often, the infection that leads to their decline is caused by a cold, influenza, or other virus. And death is only the most dramatic result. Every winter, I also see far too many friends spending months in the hospital, enduring cycle after cycle of body-destroying extra-strength antibiotics, and, like me, finding themselves unable to engage with life at all because their strength is so totally zapped by dealing with persistent infections.

CF patients aren't the only population at risk, either. Cancer patients, transplant recipients, and medically fragile children and adults all can have life-threatening reactions to a virus that, for you, manifests as an annoying case of sniffles.

Every year when I blog about this, I get push back in two primary ways: from people with kids who are sick all the time, and from people who don't have the option of taking sick leave from work. I get that, I really do. I've been that parent before - there have been times where Kate was sick over and over for months in a row. And I understand, also, that there are lots of jobs where a worker is penalized or let go for missing work, regardless of the excuse.

In light of those issues, here are some things that you can do to mitigate the effect of your illnesses.


1. If you can stay home, do so. Postpone the shopping trip. Get takeout instead of eating at a restaurant. Stay home from church—truly. Church is one of the big danger zones for me, because people have a tendency to come regardless of how they feel. Really truly, you can nearly always find someone to fill in if you have something to do, and those of us with compromised immune systems will thank you. If you really cannot get out of a responsibility and must go sick, see #2 and #3.

2. Be honest. If you're going to a gathering where you know that someone with a compromised immune system (or a baby) will be, let them know how you're feeling. Describe your symptoms and let them tell you what they feel comfortable with. Work out a plan you both feel okay with.

3. Wear a cheap mask. You can get inexpensive disposable surgical masks at any drug store. Did you know that wearing a standard paper mask won't actually protect the wearer from viruses? That's why I don't wear one when I'm out during cold and flu season (I actually just purchased a pricey fitted mask in the hopes that it can help me stay safe this winter, but that's not an option everyone has). However, what those paper masks do very well is protecting the people around you from your germs while you're wearing it. If you have to go out while you're still symptomatic, consider wearing one. Also, use hand sanitizer, wash hands frequently, try not to sit close to anyone else, and make sure to cover a cough.

4. Learn to tell the difference between allergies and a cold. If you or your kid has a stuffy or runny nose that isn't going away after several weeks but has never been accompanied by a fever, body aches, or a cough, it's probably allergies... But if that runny nose just started, give it at least a few days before deciding it isn't a cold. Contrary to popular wisdom, a clear runny nose is no safer than a green one, and it actually usually comes at the point when a cold is most contagious (ie the beginning).

Remember how Smoky the Bear said "only you can prevent forest fires"? The same might be said in this case: only you have the power to help make public spaces a safe place for those of us with compromised immune systems to be!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Adding Sensory Details (Plus a Postscript)


Here we are, writers, in our final post in this descriptive writing 101 series! And I've saved one of the most important—but also, in many ways, the easiest—techniques for last.

We all of us experience life through our senses, and some senses in particular have the particular power to evoke memories and emotions—both in real life and as we read. Few things can ground a reader more deeply in a character's POV, and in a setting, than the author's use of well-rounded sensory details, especially if those details are combined with some of the other techniques we've discussed, like metaphor and relationship-based description.

As writers, it's easy to fall back to using only one or two senses; often, we rely heavily on sight as we're describing what a reader should see in his mind's eye. One of the things that I like to do as I'm revising is keep an eye out for how often I'm bringing in descriptors that call on all five senses. Not every scene will need to have all of the senses invoked, but being mindful as I revise of how often I'm using them is very helpful.

This passage from Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races is an excellent example:
My father gives me the reins so that he can saddle the war horse with a red cloth. I lick my teeth—they taste like salt—and watch my father tie the matching armband around his upper arm. Every year I have watched him, and every year he has tied it with a steady hand, but not this year. His fingers are clumsy, and I know he is afraid of the red stallion.
I have ridden him, this capall. On his back, the wind beating me, the ground jarring me, the sea spraying our legs, we never tire. 
In these two paragraphs, Stiefvater has given us so much sensory detail: The color of the cloth and the armband, the salty taste on Sean's teeth, the clumsiness as Sean's father ties the armband, the physical sensations as Sean remembers riding the stallion (wind, jarring ground, sea spray, the energy implied in "we never tire"). Right there, we have three different senses involved, each one of them pulling us deeper into the scene and helping us to feel it, the way the very best writing does.

It's also helpful to me to think about what kinds of sensory experiences I have in my own life: What times and places do I tend to notice scents? What about sounds? Colors? Textures? Sensations in or outside of my body? What emotions tend to be associated with different senses? (Scent, for example, is tied in pretty heavily with memory and nostalgia for me.) As I think about these questions, it helps me to hone in on which senses are going to be the most evocative in any given scene.

And just as certain people tend to pay more attention to certain senses, your characters will behave the same way! An artist might see things as textures and light, while a musician might notice the tones and resonance all around her and a baker might be more likely to fixate on scents. In Sarah Addison Allen's The Sugar Queen, the sweets-obsessed protagonist imagines that she can taste the winter weather:
If she could eat the cold air, she would. She thought cold snaps were like cookies, like gingersnaps. In her mind they were made with white chocolate chunks and had a cool, brittle vanilla frosting. They melted like snow in her mouth, turning creamy and warm.
This is an excellent example of sensory detail being combined with other descriptive techniques (in this case, metaphor) to produce a paragraph that is as delectable as it is immersive!

Your assignment for today's post, if you choose to accept it, is simple: Write a brief scene, trying to incorporate all five senses.

And this, my friends, brings us to the end of our series on descriptive writing! I hope that these posts have been helpful and given you some ideas for new things to try to bring your descriptive writing to the next level.

As a little postscript, I will add one thing that I didn't write a post on because there's not a ton to say about it, but which is also important in good description: I know I began this series ragging on adjectives, but they're (obviously) still an important fundamental when it comes to descriptive writing.

However, not all adjectives are created equal. As with other descriptive techniques, adjectives are stronger the more unique and specific they are. Just like picking metaphors, it's a good rule of thumb to use in selecting the right adjective for your descriptions is that the first idea is almost never the best one. Let things percolate. Use a thesaurus. Try writing the scene from a different angle and see what you come up with.

And most of all? Have fun!

Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors
Part 3: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives


Let me preface this post by saying that I'm a little bit intimidated by addressing this particular topic, only because my brilliant friend (and former Pitch Wars mentor!) Rosalyn Eves has done it so well and thoroughly in her own wonderful post on objective correlatives. Check it out here! Rosalyn explains and breaks down the objective correlative in a terrific and easy-to-follow way, and you'll understand my take much better if you've read hers first.

That said, I couldn't in good conscience do a blog series on the things that are crucial to me in descriptive writing without addressing objective correlatives—a tricky, cerebral concept that can be hard to grasp but adds so much power into a narrative when used well. The use of objective correlatives is a way to communicate emotion (and induce emotion in the reader) without ever actually naming that emotion, or describing it in more traditional ways like physical reactions. As such, objective correlatives may at first glance seem to have not that much to do with descriptive writing—but as far as I'm concerned, they've got everything to do with each other. The goal of immersive descriptive writing, in my opinion, is to emotionally invest your reader in your narrative to such a point that they feel like they are there, living it, breathing your POV character's breath; objective correlatives can be a great way to do this. And, depending on what sort of objective correlative you use, it can also reinforce your setting, strengthening it until it's a character in its own right.

I was first introduced to the topic of objective correlatives at the 2015 LDStorymakers conference, in a presentation by author Martine Leavitt (the same presentation Rosalyn mentions in her post). An objective correlative is, essentially, kind of a grand-scale metaphor: rather than being a sentence-level structure where you implicitly inform the reader that one thing is standing in for another (for example, "he was a rock, the kind of man who would move for nothing"), an objective correlative is something that is usually woven into the text in such a way that the relationship is implied rather than stated—though, as with any rule, there are exceptions, as (confusingly enough) regular metaphors can be a type of objective correlative in certain situations. (Rosalyn goes into more detail about this in her post above!)

Often, though not always, an objective correlative is carried throughout all or part of a story, like a sort of extended metaphor. In the Harry Potter series, for instance, Harry's phoenix-feather wand functions as an objective correlative, symbolizing his sense of belonging to the wizarding world, the first place he's ever felt at home. In the final book, when his wand breaks during a confrontation with one of Voldemort's creatures, we feel Harry's shock and grief—not only because the wand itself was so beloved to him, but because it carried a deeper meaning in the narrative, and its shattering represents the breakdown both of Harry's innocence and of his beloved and safe wizarding world. And at the end, when Harry has vanquished Voldemort and gained the most powerful wand in the world—a wand that could earn him glory for the rest of his life—instead of choosing to keep it, he uses the Elder Wand only to repair his old phoenix-feather wand before breaking the Elder Wand and tossing it off a cliff, showing that the sense of belonging he's found in wizarding culture is far more important to him than fame or glory.

Think of all the things that little objective correlative, which is a relatively tiny plot in the overarching Harry Potter series, has described to us: We've learned about wizarding culture and its quirks ("the wand chooses the wizard!"); we've learned about Harry's deepest motivations and desires (belonging, acceptance, a safe place to call home), we've viscerally felt Harry's emotion at the peak of his distress in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. Without ever telling us "Harry was sad because of what the breakage of his wand represented to him," Rowling has pulled us deeper into her story, her character, and her setting through this objective correlative.

Last year at the Storymakers conference, I was really intrigued by Martine's brief explanation of objective correlatives, and since I was at that very moment outlining a new WIP, I decided that I was going to pick an objective correlative to use throughout my novel as a way to show my protagonist's sense of overwhelm with the situation that she was in. That book takes place on a farm, and an important subplot revolves around the fact that the area is in an unprecedented drought that's placing great stress on its rural inhabitants. As such, the weather—the heat and crush of an unusually rainless North Carolina summer—seemed like the perfect thing to use as an extended metaphor. As I drafted the book, whenever I found myself wanting to describe my main character's emotions, I would describe the weather instead, specifically choosing descriptors that evoked the sense of heavy oppression that fit not only the actual temperature but also Della's sense of hopelessness at trying to care for her mentally ill mother. Here's one of the more obvious examples:

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I said over and over again, but Mama didn’t act like she’d heard me at all. She just kept on crying, not making any noise, her eyes puffing up and turning as red as her hands. I clumsily unscrewed the spray bottle and dumped everything inside it down the sink, my own eyes watering—it smelled like straight-up bleach, not thinned out with anything at all. 
“You gotta wash your hands, Mama,” I said, remembering what Mrs. Gregory had said last year in science lab about touching bleach, but Mama didn’t answer. I reached into the sink and grabbed a washcloth off the faucet, running it under water till it was as cold as the sink could get it, and then crouched down and wiped Mama’s hands off one at a time. It might not be enough to stop her hurting, but it was all I could do while still holding crying Mylie on my hip. 
The heat of the kitchen pressed down hard on me, warming up that washcloth till holding it felt just like being wrapped up in the humid air. Mylie rubbed her face into my shoulder, her arms holding tight onto my neck like she was afraid of what might happen if she let go, and whimpered. 
“Stowy?” she whispered. 
“Not now, Mylie.” I wasn’t sure I’d ever be ready to tell another Bee Story again. Instead I just held Mylie and looked out the window over the sink and wished, more than ever, that the sky would just open up and cry all the tears I couldn’t.
That book—called WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW—ended up being the book that earned ten agent offers, and without fail, to this day every single person who has read it has commented on how vivid the heat was, how they felt hot reading it, and how the extended metaphor of the drought helped to pull them deeply into the story and really feel what Della felt as they read. My hope (which, based on that reaction, seems to have succeeded!) was to ground a reader both in Della's emotional overwhelm and immerse them in the setting in such a way that they seemed to be right there, experiencing all that heat and frustration along with Della.

An objective correlative can also be used on a smaller scale, though, in just one (or just a few) scenes, to illustrate a certain concept or emotion. In my last WIP, one of my favorite objective correlatives was one that was mostly confined to a single scene:

“You know, Annie Lee,” said Mama, and I jumped a little. Her voice was strange and floaty. “I knew a girl once, back when I was in high school, who got herself stung by a Portuguese Man’o’war while she was swimming out in Wilmington.”
A Man’o’war was a jellyfish, a horrible kind with lacy tentacles that could be thirty feet or longer, and if it caught you it would wrap those tentacles around your arms and legs, tangling you up in it and stinging over and over again. I stuck my hand into my pocket, the warm familiar smoothness of George Washington’s faces calm and comforting.
“They had to cut it off her, there on the sand,” Mama went on, “and she spent the next five years getting plastic surgery over and over again to get rid of all those hard red scars. But you know the thing that’s never made sense to me?” 
I waited, but she didn’t go on. “What?”
“She kept swimming after that day.” Mama shook her head. “Her family went to the beach a few weeks every summer, and she said she still kept swimming.” She paused. “I don’t think I could’ve done that.” 
I turned the quarter over in my fingers. Daddy had been able to make it pass over and under every finger of his hand before disappearing it, poof, into the air.
“Losing your daddy,” Mama said, her face tired and grey-blue in the light of the computer screen, “it was like being wrapped up in those tentacles, Annie Lee.” She looked back at the screen, at whatever she’d seen there.
“Sometimes, it still is.” 
If you're feeling a) confused and or b) overwhelmed by this whole concept at this point, don't despair. It's a tricky idea, and one that can seem hard to wrap your brain around! If you'd like a practice exercise today, I'm totally stealing from Rosalyn's (fantastic) class on objective correlatives at LDStorymakers 2016. The assignment is simple: Pick an emotion and then pick an object or image (anything will do!). Write a paragraph, or more, using that image or object to try to make your reader feel that emotion. The above jellyfish excerpt was actually based on what came out of that class exercise for me—if I remember right, my image was a picture of a jellyfish and my emotion was sadness. Now it's one of my favorite passages in that book!

Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Building Strong Metaphors


Any lover of lush prose will tell you: There is no more valuable tool in a descriptive writer's box than a well-placed metaphor. Good metaphors are like a book's salt—they can draw out all of the other flavors of the narrative, adding punch and depth in just the right places, turning fairly run-of-the-mill descriptions into things worth pausing over and savoring. (Want proof? I'm still, weeks after reading it, in awe over Julie Berry's fabulous grape-crushing metaphor from the excerpt I quoted in yesterday's post!)

Few things can bring a description to life the way a metaphor can... at least, that is, as long as it's a good one. Weak metaphors, like weak adjectives, serve at best as merely-adequate sentences, the kind of prose a reader skims but doesn't become immersed in. At worst, weak metaphors (also like weak adjectives!) can pull a reader right out of the story. Metaphors that are too out of left field, or that attempt to combine too many different ideas, or that are simply over-used, definitely don't earn you any extra reader investment.

So how do you make sure that you're writing the good kind of metaphors, and not the bad? Here are my own personal rules for writing metaphors (of which I'm quite fond—as you've probably noticed from the fact that I've used several in this post already!):

Rule #1: The first idea is almost never the best one.

This applies to a lot of things in writing, and metaphors are no exception! For me, at least, I've found that when I'm trying to describe something, the first metaphor that I reach for is usually one that's clich├ęd and common. You know what I'm talking about—her eyes were like stars, his jaw was set like stone, it was as soft as a pillow, etc. etc. etc. While these metaphors are a step up from just using a weak adjective like "bright," "hard," or "soft," they're so embedded in our cultural consciousness that they become invisible, entirely lacking the power to make a reader see things with that pop and fizzle you'd like to evoke.

Both while drafting and in revision, I try to keep an eye open for these overused metaphors when they pop up. I've been paying attention to them for long enough now that I often catch them as I'm drafting, but inevitably a few sneak through to be caught later—and that's okay. This kind of thinking takes practice, and it's 100% all right if your descriptions begin fairly simple and unevocative and build over time during revisions.

When I do find that I'm about to use, or have already used, a weak metaphor, I pause for a bit of brainstorming. This is actually a game I love to play while I'm falling asleep at night: I pick an image from my WIP that I know I'll be describing the next day, and then I try to think of as many metaphors as I can to describe it until I hit on one that feels right! I do something similar when I'm mid-writing-session.

In my just-completed WIP, for instance, I knew that I'd need to describe early on one of the characters, an elderly homeless man. Initially, in thinking about the sorts of metaphors I'd use to show what he looked like, I hit on two: his skin like paper, and his bones thin and birdlike. Both of those were unsatisfying, though, because both of them are metaphors that are used relatively often to describe people who are old with weathered skin. So instead, I spent one of those before-sleep brainstorming sessions trying to come up with other things that worked well. What I ended up with was this:

He was old, with a mostly-grey beard and skin like the bark on the birch tree by my apartment, as thin and saggy as if it had seen a hundred years of sun and wind. 
It's still a first draft, and it's entirely possible that in the future I may punch that metaphor up further or take it out entirely. But for right now, it's a much better option than paper-thin skin or birdlike bones!

Rule #2: The best metaphors fit well with the overall story and its setting.

In high school, I spent a semester building my own creative writing course (the perks of being a homeschooler!) that was comprised largely of reading and underlining my favorite books to try to figure out what made them tick, and writing lots of short stories to use the tools I'd learned. This is an approach I both recommend and don't recommend—had I been a little less clueless I would've thrown some good craft books in there, too, but at the time I was kind of snobby about craft books—but that's beside the point. One of the big epiphanies from that class was the day that I was reading Shannon Hales' THE GOOSE GIRL and realized, with a minor thunderclap, how much power Hale's metaphors had because they were tied in so well to her story and its setting. For a character who could speak the language of birds, Hale used bird metaphors. For scenes that took place in a stable, she used stable metaphors.

Often, the most powerful metaphors are ones that evoke and strengthen an aspect of the story itself—the setting, a specific relationship, a character's feelings. Early in THE GOOSE GIRL, for instance, Hale describes her main character, Ani, coming into her horse's stable like this:

Ani entered the first stable. The familiar smells of warm bodies and clean hay greeted her like a friendly touch.
At this point in the book, Ani is a princess, the daughter of a permanently-disapproving mother; Ani feels caged and awkward in her life, unable to ever do anything that makes others proud of her. Her one refuge, which she mostly isn't allowed, is her connection to animals, and the metaphor that Hale chooses to describe the smells of the stable—like a friendly touch—immediately brings home to us just how much of a relief it is for Ani to be away from the perpetual stress of the palace and into the one place she feels peace and friendliness.

This rule isn't hard and fast, of course; there will definitely be times when the metaphor best-suited to a specific description doesn't have much, or anything at all, to do with your overall story. (Birch trees, for instance, aren't ever mentioned by name again in my WIP that I know of, though there are scenes in a forest.) But it's often worth pondering, as you're sitting down to describe something, whether or not your choice of metaphor can tie in to a larger theme.

Rule #3: Good metaphors are unique without being strange.

Every now and then if I'm having a hard time finding a unique way to describe something, I'll say something about it to my husband (my best brainstorming buddy). Inevitably, he comes up with something super whacky, like "The food was so bad I felt like a dinosaur choking on a planet", which is the real true example he just spouted off when I told him to give me a weird metaphor. And, while that sort of over-the-top silly description can be perfect for a madcap adventure or a zany, voicey satire (which goes right back to rule #2!), usually this isn't the kind of metaphor that's going to work best for most books.

The strongest metaphors manage to strike a balance: They're unique, but they don't cross the line into strange. You want something that is fresh and new enough to make your reader pause, but not so far out of left field that she's left scratching her head about it. In general, you want to make sure that your metaphors match your story's tone—you wouldn't, for example, have a bunch of violence-centric metaphors in a quiet MG, unless violence was important to and consistent with your story's plot and tone. Metaphors should build and enrich your writer's voice throughout the book, not detract or distract from it.

Unofficial Rule #4: It's okay if it takes time.

For me, at least, learning to write with metaphors this way has been a long work-in-progress, a process of years of teaching my brain to recognize when my description is weak and figure out how to brainstorm my way into a solution. If you're feeling overwhelmed at this point in our Descriptive Writing 101 series, that's okay. Good descriptive writing takes time—time to absorb and practice techniques from book-to-book, and time to add layers and depth to your description from draft to draft.

On that note, who's up for a challenge? If you'd like to practice the techniques I talked about in this post, here's your assignment: do a little metaphor brainstorming of your own! Think of a character, setting, or object that you'd like to describe, and then make a list of as many potential metaphors for that thing as you can. Look at your list to see if any of them have particular resonance with any of the characters, plotlines, themes, or settings in your story—or if any of them just seem to fit with the thing you're trying to describe, whether or not they echo your overall story. Give yourself permission to take some time and let your brain marinate over the assignment a little bit. There's no rush!


Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description