How could we let April pass without sending up a whoop-whoop to the great Poetic Muses in the Sky? So here, on that last day of National Poetry Month, we are celebrating all things poetic by writing synopses of our debut books in haiku form.
Enjoy, ye mortals and goddesses of inspiration alike!
Spirits have no place
hunting these child murderers
– but she is hungry.
A tattooed boy has
poison underneath his skin
and she is the cure
How do you fight an
evil revenant, you ask?
Dead girls make good blades.
— Rin Chupeco
Means learning she’s a faerie.
Know what’s kind of hard?
Having a faerie-boyfriend
Who’s now imprisoned.
Poor Selkie’s got a
Mother who’d prefer she’s the
Girl who never was.
– Skylar Dorset
A powerless witch
Fighting some demons and then
Like magic, she wins!
FOLLOW ME THROUGH DARKNESS
A girl on the run
Through a dead world only forty days
To arrive or everyone dies.
The truth is a lie
There is death on both sides but
Only one is life.
– Danielle Ellison
Where Words are used for power
One must flee or die
– AdriAnne Strickland
Dream boy becomes real.
But when your dreams come to life
so can your nightmares.
I was not destined to be obsessed with The Walking Dead. To misquote Shakespeare, “Some are born to love The Walking Dead…, and some have The Walking Dead thrust upon them.”
I, friends, am a member of the later (and perhaps lesser) group.
It started when I was teaching a literature & ethics course at Roanoke College a few years ago. In different classes, and in the midst of different conversations, students would pointedly ask (as if their question were 100% relevant to the topic), “Do you watch The Walking Dead?”
“No. I don’t like scary shows,” I’d answer. “They make me want to wet myself.”
“Well, you should watch it,” they’d respond with youthful enthusiasm, not to mention an unfounded confidence in my post-pregnancy bladder.
I’d smile and say “perhaps”–thinking, not a chance in hell–and steer the conversation back to the matter at hand.
After about five of these classroom exchanges (plus another when I was interviewing a renovation specialist for a feature in a business magazine), I began to wonder what the universe was trying to tell me.
Apparently it went something like this:
Ok, Universe. Message received. I got my bum to the library and checked out the first season on DVD. And watched it in one sitting.
Now, a few short years later, my in-season Sunday night ritual goes something like this:
foist kids on husband…
lock self in room…
consume new episode of Walking Dead without blinking…
check twitter for #TheWalkingDead during commercials…
scour message boards for conversation about just aired episode…
check Tumblr and Deviant Art for new Daryl fan art…
check out all posted previews of next episode…
tweet about how seven days is just… too… long… to… wait… for… next… gasp… episode…
ignore husband’s attempts to stop me from talking about about characters he doesn’t know…
drift to sleep for next six nights in puddle of melted brain matter…
dream that Carl walks in front of a bus and I have no way to stop him…
So, as I approach the long, hot summer (or as it is known to Walking Deadheads, “the black hole between Season 4 and 5”), it occurs to me that this zombie drama has fed not only my zombie-ish appetite for complex moral dilemmas involving the undead, it has also enriched my understanding of what it takes to create a good story.
So with no further ado (and yep, I am aware this entire post has been nothing BUT ado up to this point), here are a few of the writing tips I picked up from watching The Walking Dead:
1. Everyone’s gotta suffer.
Suffering distills a character traits into their purest form. And nothing shows that better than The Walking Dead. We don’t get people, we get people in the raw.
If life didn’t suck and the world wasn’t glutted with all those eager, innard-munching zombies, the characters might not ever show their greatest kindness. Or greatest weakness. Or greatest courage. Or all three. (And sometimes all three at the same time.)
This suffering notion is probably something I should have picked up long ago when I read all that Greek drama in college. I remember my beloved professor repeating pretty much daily “we must suffer, suffer into truth.” Yet, somehow it never occurred to me that the reason freshmen were still reading about Agamemnon and Clytemnestra all those thousands of years later was because of the suffering as inextricably as the truth.
2. The more resonant the character, the more dramatic the swan song.
Hershel’s beheading. Andrea and Milton’s barber chair pas de duex. Lizzie and Mika’s twisted and senseless deaths. Think of anyone you’ve cared about on the show. Now think of the way that character ended their time on screen. There are almost always more bangs than whimpers. By his final curtain call, I was even bawling my eyes out over Merle (or really Daryl’s loss of Merle).
Big characters deserve a big death. It’s a mark of respect. Of course, since we’re not all writing about a zombie apocalypse, this big-for-big equation can translate into all kinds of big equivalents: big love, big failure, big discovery, big regret, big ball of string, big dream of becoming the best tutu seamstress on the east coast. Whatever.
3. Let the enemy surprise you.
Yeah, zombies are tricky b@*$tards who sometimes pop out of dark corners or rise from the mud in flash-flood areas. The point that has been made continually about this show, however, is that other humans, not zombies, are the real threat. So in some respects, the enemy itself is more nuanced than at first glance.
People aren’t just fighting zombies; they’re fighting humans. Beyond that, those human enemies can be downright surprising.
After seeing the Governor massacre his own townsfolk following his unsuccessful attack on the prison, for example, we find him wandering around like the grand poohbah of hopelessness. He has, to quote the poet Fred Chappell, let his life “grow bearded and strange.” When he then takes up with Lilly and Tara and little Meghan, it seems possible that the newly shaved “Brian” will go forth in the world as a transformed man, sharing SpaghettiOs and letting kids beat him at chess.
But lo and behold, no matter how he tries to avoid his worst self, a few episodes later, he–surprise!–amasses troops and goes all psycho Governor on the prison yard.
What can this teach us about writing? First, our villains are much richer and more interesting when other, different lives seem entirely possible for them. Simultaneously (and contradictorily), there is a satisfaction of sorts in the reader’s understanding that a character inevitably fulfills his or her ultimate path.
Plucking the cord between those two opposites (the many paths/the single path) is one of the difficulties and joys of writing.
So let your protagonist’s enemy do something surprising. And then let them do what they were born to do.
4. Let the hero surprise you.
When Rick chomped into Joe’s jugular vein, I was, among other things, surprised!
(Perhaps this belongs under the “let your heroes learn from their enemies” column, because the neck-biting thing was a technique Rick must have picked up from some zombie along the way.)
How does that relate to writing? Again, it’s the cord thing. Some tension about where exactly your hero belongs on the moral spectrum isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There can be questionable acts which are justified, just as there can be the veneer of civility (aka Woodbury) over the most savage of hearts.
What situation that will allow your character to do something unforgivable–and still be understood and forgiven?
5. When in doubt, “kill” someone.
In an “Ask Me Anything” interview on Reddit, Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman was questioned about his process for approaching a character’s death.
His response: “Sometimes it’s something I’ve planned and built to for many issues. Other times it’s just me thinking ‘it’s been a while since something really interesting happened’ and killing a character on the fly.”
Cold? You bet. Effective? That too.
Along the same lines, Kirkman had this to say in the same interview:
“In my opinion, I feel like characters ripen like fruit. So while I wouldn’t say the more popular a character is the more likely they are to die, they do have to reach a certain level of popularity before they’ve ‘earned’ the death.
No character is too popular to die. (Suck it, Reedus!)”
And while we’re at it, no killing Carl and no (though this may be the futile wailing of the Greek chorus here) killing Rick!
Now, on to the actual objective of this post: how does all this relate to writing?
Killing off characters has long been considered one of the cheapest tricks in a fiction writer’s bag. And of course, it doesn’t–and shouldn’t–make sense for every story we write to end littered with a Hamlet-esque pile of bodies. (Of course, the bodies in The Walking Dead tend to take care of themselves–either being reanimated or devoured–so no littering there.)
That said, there is freedom in the notion of “killing a character on the fly”–whether we’re talking literal or (better in most cases) some metaphorical type of death.
The take-away? Interesting things can happen when we let go of the idea that the characters we love in a story must prevail.
And those metaphorical deaths can take many interesting forms: the loss of their humanity; the separation from whatever matters to them; the death of their dreams.
So, now it’s your turn to tell me: What have YOU learned from The Walking Dead? About writing? About life? About the zombie apocalypse? Post it in the comments below!
Mary Crockett is coauthor with Madelyn Rosenberg of the zombie-less novel DREAM BOY. Sadly, she suspects she would be among the first to turn in a zombie apocalypse.
It’s spring! And what better way to celebrate the season than to give away a big ole stack of books! Not just any books, but four–count ’em FOUR–beautiful ARCs of 2014 YA novels!
The BookYArd’s AdriAnne Strickland is kindly offering up these novels for your spring reading pleasure.
by Jennifer Donnelly
Disney Press (May 6, 2014)
Deep in the ocean, in a world not so different from our own, live the merpeople. Their communities are spread throughout the oceans, seas, and freshwaters all over the globe. When Serafina, a mermaid of the Mediterranean Sea, awakens on the morning of her betrothal, her biggest worry should be winning the love of handsome Prince Mahdi. And yet Sera finds herself haunted by strange dreams that foretell the return of an ancient evil. Her dark premonitions are confirmed when an assassin’s arrow poisons Sera’s mother. Now, Serafina must embark on a quest to find the assassin’s master and prevent a war between the Mer nations. Led only by her shadowy dreams, Sera searches for five other mermaid heroines who are scattered across the six seas. Together, they will form an unbreakable bond of sisterhood and uncover a conspiracy that threatens their world’s very existence.
The Murder Complex
by Lindsay Cummings
Greenwillow Books (June 10, 2014)
The Murder Complex is an action-packed, blood-soaked, futuristic debut thriller set in a world where the murder rate is higher than the birthrate. Meadow Woodson, a fifteen-year-old girl who has been trained by her father to fight, to kill, and to survive in any situation, lives with her family on a houseboat in Florida. The state is controlled by The Murder Complex, an organization that tracks the population with precision. The plot starts to thicken when Meadow meets Zephyr James, who is—although he doesn’t know it—one of the MC’s programmed assassins. Is their meeting a coincidence? Destiny? Or is it part of a terrifying strategy? And will Zephyr keep Meadow from discovering the haunting truth about her family? This is a dark and compelling debut novel that will appeal to fans of Moira Young’s Dust Lands series, La Femme Nikita, and the movie Hanna.
Prisoner of Night and Fog
by Anne Blankman
Balzer + Bray (April 22, 2014)
A gripping historical thriller set in 1930s Munich, Prisoner of Night and Fog is the evocative story of an ordinary girl faced with an extraordinary choice in Hitler’s Germany. Fans of Code Name Verity will love this novel full of romance, danger, and intrigue!
Gretchen Müller grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her uncle Dolf—who has kept her family cherished and protected from the darker side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf’s. But Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler. And Gretchen follows his every command.
When she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen who claims that her father was actually murdered by an unknown comrade, Gretchen doesn’t know what to believe. She soon discovers that beyond her sheltered view lies a world full of shadowy secrets and disturbing violence.
As Gretchen’s investigations lead her to question the motives and loyalties of her dearest friends and her closest family, she must determine her own allegiances—even if her choices could get her and Daniel killed.
Where Silence Gathers
by Kelsey Sutton
Flux (July 8, 2014)
In this companion novel to the critically acclaimed Some Quiet Place, Alex must choose between Revenge and Forgiveness.
Seventeen-year-old Alexandra Tate sits outside Nate Foster’s house, clutching a gun. After serving ten years for the drunk driving accident that killed Alex’s family, Nate has been released from prison. Every night, Alex waits out of sight, building up the courage to exact her own justice. There’s just one problem: Forgiveness.
Alex has been able to see personified Emotions for as long as she can remember, and Revenge is her best friend. But when Forgiveness suddenly appears, he offers Alex a choice—getting even or moving on. It’s impossible to decide when Revenge whispers in one ear . . . and Forgiveness whispers in the other.
Wow! Quite the haul!
So how do you enter for a chance to win such awesome book-age?
(Note: The giveaway is open to those residing in the US only.)
AdriAnne shares a home base in Alaska with her husband, but has spent two cumulative years living abroad in Africa, Asia, and Europe. While writing occupies most of her time, she commercial fishes every summer in Bristol Bay, because she can’t seem to stop. Her debut YA sci-fi/fantasy, WORDLESS, is coming August 8th, 2014 from Flux Books. You can follow her on Twitter and like her on Facebook.
This is probably the second thing most writers hate to do, right after a novel synopsis. Like it or not though, a lot of agents are going to want to hear what your pitch is – after all, they go through a billion query letters a day, and they want the meat of your novel in just a couple of sentences or three so they’d have the time to do other things. Like, you know, eat or sleep or breathe.
But that’s impossible! How could my awesomely complex, masterfully layered novel be distilled down to just a few flippant sentences. How can I convey nuances of character? The stunning execution of plot? The vivid descriptions of my hot anti-hero brimming with the wit and the snarkiness and the abs and the arms and things?
Like it or not, you will have to. Pitches can also be a way that agents assess how well you know your own book, and how well you are able to summarize, pick out the important elements of your novel and convey it in the simplest, easiest, and in the most comprehensible way possible. If you can’t do this, then they may have doubts regarding just how succinct or organized the rest of your novel is – because if you can’t even explain the plot of your novel in a few short sentences, how is the rest of your novel going to sound like?
the worst reaction agents can get while reading your novel
the second worst thing
If you’re new to pitches, or just pretty stumped, here’s a handy dandy formula to remember:
Character + Obstacle + Possible Solution to overcome Obstacle + Surprise Twist Hindering Them even More from Accomplishing said Obstacle = Pitch
I’ll use a sample pitch of my book for reference:
Character = female ghost and a boy with tattoos
Obstacle = an evil spirit wants to harm the boy
Solution to Overcome Obstacle = dolls and a possible exorcism can rid them of this
Surprise Twist = the strange presence appears to come from inside the boy
Detailed Pitch : A female ghost meets a boy with strange tattoos haunted by the presence of a masked woman in black. Together, their search will take them from dolls and exorcisms to remote valleys in Aomori, Japan where they will make a terrible discovery: there is something inside the boy, and it would absolutely kill to get out.
But! The number one thing most people forget when it comes to writing pitches is that the agents don’t need to know everything about the book yet. You need to figure out the essential parts of your novel that makes it unique or compelling, then disregard the rest for now.
The Getting-there Pitch: A dead girl who kills child murderers discovers that a new boy in her neighborhood with strange tattoos harbors a strange secret inside him- one that would absolutely kill to get out.
Still too wordy? Preen it down more!
Final Pitch = A vengeful spirit who kills child murderers discovers that when a boy with strange tattoos moves into the neighborhood, so had something else.
Take note of some of the things I decided weren’t actually necessary to the pitch. I decided to forgo some of the elements, such as the Possible Solution to Overcome Obstacle because my novel is horror / suspense in nature, which means a solution isn’t necessarily what an agent might want to know upfront. It’s a really good way of breaking down the important bits, if only to find out which parts are important and which parts aren’t technically necessary, and then summarizing where you can.
How do you know when you’re done? Try reading the pitch aloud to yourself. Does it sound awkward or overlong? Are there too many details that lessens the impact of the surprise twist at the end? Does it make sense?
Everyone loves an updated fairy tale, a rewritten myth. Ella Enchanted is one of the greatest children’s books of all time. Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles are rabidly popular. C.S. Lewis used the story of Cupid and Psyche as the basis of Till We Have Faces, and Shakespeare started with Pyramus and Thisbe for Romeo and Juliet.
And Wicked, if nothing else, gave the makeup artists of the world a chance to use up their green face paint.
But the realm of mythos is fraught with peril. The forests of Grimm are black. Here are a few stories that — I beg of you — should never be reimagined as YA novels.
A girl loves her red shoes — loves them so much that she wears them to church (an obvious no-no). The shoes take on a life of their own: the girl can’t stop dancing! They dance her into the dark woods! They’ve melded with her feet! “You’ll dance till you’re dead,” an angel tells her, “and even when you’re nothing but bones.”
Desperate, the girl asks an executioner to chop off her feet. He does so — yet the shoes (and feet-stubs) keep dancing.
I can’t even imagine how draconian high school administrators could fashion this into a morality tale. “Your skirts must be to your knees,” they’d say, “or we’ll cut off –” No.
If you’re strong-stomached, go read the Wikipedia page.
Otherwise, all you need to know that the YA novel from this story would involve cheating, a traumatic break-up, and an even more traumatic revenge plan. And that plan would center around a burger. A burger made from the cheater’s dog.
In the final chapter, naturally, they would all turn into birds.
We all have so many commitments. Life is busy, and we let all these things get in the way. Especially when you’re a writer.
For me, this month and next are really insane. My roommate and I have to find a new apartment, I’m in the middle of a job search and all these BEA preparations/Really Big Things. In the midst of this, my roommate and I realized we need to get some life things on track. So, today my we are starting two 30 Day Challenges.
1) The 30 Day Ab Challenge (It’s an app!)
2) C25K (Another app that helps you get up from the couch and build endurance to run a 5k.)
We’re doing it together because things work better when we have accountability and community. A support system. Every day we can make sure the other person did what she had to do in order to reach a goal. I love that.
The same is true in writing. I let life get in the way of me writing. “I’m too tired today.” “I have more time.” “But look at these other 400 things I could do…” “But Game of Thrones is on.” It’s sort of ridiculous how much I let get in the way of writing.
So I’m adding a new challenge — and I’m inviting all of you to join in!
The 30 Day Writing Challenge.
This is by no means an original idea, but right now it’s exactly what I need to do. And I’m sure I’m not alone!
My writing life is nearly as busy as my personal one, and I could use the accountability and community to stay on task. I’ve just turned in the first pass of Salt 2, and now book 2 in the Boundless trilogy is due in a month! It’s the PERFECT time for me to embrace this challenge, especially because it will end right before BEA. And, since I have these other little goals, I think it’s very doable to give up one hour a day for writing. I’m going on into the challenge with 37k words. You can start something new, something old, or revise.
How to join in:
Use the hashtag! #write30
Write for an hour a day (if you’re so inclined, you could do 1k instead of hourly, but I like the time chunks.)
Tweet at the end of each day (#day1, #day2, etc) how many words you wrote or chapters/pages you edited. (I’d love to keep a running tally)
Encourage other writers and reach out while you work toward the goal
That’s it! I’m trying to keep it all simple by doing it on twitter, but you can also keep track however you want.
Are you in??
Leave a comment with your twitter name, and I’ll make sure to follow you and your progress. (I’m on twitter @DanielleEWrites.) It starts today! Pass it on and jump in.
April 17 is Pet Owners Independence Day! To celebrate, here’s a look at some of the BookYArd writers’ beloved little pets!
Mr. Smokey Paws (shown here in a babydoll tutu) is a reluctant participant in our many dress-up extravaganzas.
Daisy (in a babushka headscarf and my garden shoes) is all around a better sport.
Our other cat, Sweetie Pie, is far too neurotic to partake in dress-up, or even sit still long enough to have her picture taken.
Name: Shakespeare (aka Shakey) Breed: Shih-Tzu/Lhasa Apso mix Quirky Trait: He likes to climb things and stretch out along the tops of chairs and couches…. And he likes to snuggle between my husband and me in our bed and lay his head on the pillow because he thinks he’s people.
My faithful writing buddy
He climbs things like a cat.
Name: Princess Breed: chow-chow pedigree Quirky Trait: has no real function other than to exist as an unwanted fur rug. Also fond of sneezing, then rubbing her nose against you like she’s being affectionate instead of using you as her portable napkin.
Name: Cookie Breed: spitz / golden retriever mix Quirky Trait: fierce little guard dog when strangers are around, yet has a habit of running away and hiding when the little chihuahua down the block comes a-barking.