Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Never Enough

Dang, that's one emo post title...Sorry about that.

Anyway, it has a point, I swear, so just hold on tight and we'll get there.

Some my readers may already know that I am engaged to an amazing, wonderful man. I'm not being sentimental or gushy because we're engaged; I've known him for 4.5 years and we've been a couple for just under that time. He is really a great guy who is both loving and willing to put up with a lot. That and he's been mistaken for Prince William (who is not as good looking as my man. Sorry Kate.)

Okay, so I'm engaged. Ever since a) some good friends of ours got engaged and b) I went to Disney World at Christmas time, I've pretty much been planning my wedding, mostly for fun. I've had a hundred different ideas for food, venues, my dress, my friends' dresses, whether my dog should walk down the aisle with me, and other such things. Now that I'm seriously planning a wedding for approximately a year from now, I'm getting serious about the little details such as food and locations. What I do know: I'm getting married to an amazing man, the cake will be chocolate, and Chick-fil-a food trays are great for any party. I'm happy to get married at my church, or a church in town, and I have picked three options in my hometown for the reception venue. But for a while there I caught it.

Yes, the wedding bug. No, this is no cutesy animal that makes you excited about centerpieces and favors and such. This particular species of wedding bug injects an otherwise safe neurotoxin that leads women to think things such as "I must get married at Cinderella's castle" (that was me y'all...totally was gonna rent the coach and everything) and "$9,000 isn't that outrageous for a gown...." Suddenly, it becomes necessary to have live circus acrobats at the reception (gee thanks, David Tutera) and fine caviar for every guest, just as a wedding favor. The wedding must culminate in an all-night blowout lasting until two in the morning. $70,000 is a potential price, though $100,000 weddings for normal, non-famous people, are not unheard of. Inviting everyone in your zip code, whether you know them or not, or like them or not, is the thing to do.

Suddenly, a simple dress with a simple church wedding, where just your family and friends are there and where you dance and eat delicious cake is not enough. It seems painfully inadequate to have a simple, old-fashioned wedding with good food and great music and just plain fun. Wedding magazines inform you that the sub tray at your reception is cheap instead of nice. You feel shamed into spending far too much to impress people who a) already know you or b) don't really know you well at all.

Yeah, for a while I bought into this. I was going to have a reception at an outrageously expensive location, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh (great place, though. Gorgeous.) The ceremony, in order to cut down on traveling time so that people would come to the reception, would be held at the All Saints Chapel, a block away from the museum. The total would have come to $3,000, only for the venue. Not terrible, but then you have to use the approved caterers, and they're expensive, because they're good. And let's just be honest, photographers charge way too much for a service in which they keep the pictures and all rights to said pictures.

Recently, I've decided that I don't want all that extra stuff. I just want to get married. I want it to be special and elegant, not over the top and stupidly elaborate. Namely, I want to be able to pay cash for it. It's mine and my fiance's wedding, not anyone else's.

You'll run into the exact same thing with your writing, but usually it's not even as intentional as it is with weddings. Most writers inflict that feeling of inadequate awesomeness on themselves.

It starts this way. You pick up a good novel and start reading. Maybe it can even be a guilty pleasure book with good elements (Twilight, for example, has some solid dialogue between various characters. It flows naturally, and I appreciate that in any book. Harry Potter and Elantris both also are forefront in my mind and have examples of natural flowing dialogue.) You're going to see something you like in a book that you feel you lack in your own fiction. Rules of magic, cool dialogue, an air of suspense, or a fantastical setting are only a few examples. So you start tweaking what you don't like, only you tweak it according to someone else's work. This is not plagiarizing by any means. You just tend to lose your unique voice by trying to live up to whatever author you've picked. Eventually, your book becomes unwieldy and brimming with main characters who suddenly develop a natural ability with swords, or the always popular nation of Pseudo-Germa-France. Chosen Ones who aren't chosen by anyone in particular drop in from nowhere, or from a tiny village, or from a sketchy intergalactic neighborhood, and dangit, I've never seen an ugly elf. (Someone please invent one. Please.) Eventually, your book becomes little more than a copy of something else. A real life example? Eragon, by Christopher Paolini. It's been criticized as being very much like Star Wars, and as much as I like the series, I agree. Turn the elf forest from the second book into a swamp, and you've got Dagobah with a taller mentor and metal swords. There were enough differences to keep my attention, and I do enjoy the books. The fourth one, called Inheritance (really? Inheritance: Inheritance?) debuts November 8th. I'll be buying it, because Paolini's writing has matured with him, and that's nice to read. But for anyone who's seen Star Wars, the first book generates a voice in the back of your mind going "THIS IS STAR WARS FOR THE DARK AGES." It means that somewhere, the author's voice was drowned out just a tad. Letting that happen too much will hand you the big fat stamp of "RIPOFF." (I'm not yelling at you, I swear. But can't you just picture that word, stamped in big red letters on a book cover?)

So while I'm seeing that the other girl over there has a full orchestra booked for her ceremony and serves gold-leafed cake on china plates, I have to remind myself that I don't really care. It may be beautiful, and wonderfully done, but it's hers and her fiance's wedding. So-and-so may have an amazingly detailed world where the sky is green and purple and fairies fart magic and it may be awesome...but it's not mine. I'm happy with two teenagers, best friends, discovering something they'd never suspect and dealing with all the changes that come.

I've said it many times before: be you. Find your voice and project it in your own work, and you won't be disappointed.

And if anyone's wondering, my wedding favors will be homemade chocolate chip cookies, because the ones I make are awesome. Just saying.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Seriously, It's Just an Armpit

Today's Quote: "Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it." - C.S. Lewis

I remember when Dove debuted their line of deodorants that contained, like other Dove products, 1/4 moisturizer. With each use, according to the commercials, the deodorants were supposed to nourish and protect that most hidden of skin, that skin of the underarm. After a time using it, reportedly, your armpits would be smoother and more beautiful.

But see, that's what I never quite figured out. Regardless of how much you shave it and moisturize it and nourish it, an armpit is an armpit. It is one of the least attractive (in looks and probably smell) parts of the human body. Everyone has at least one; most people have two. Dark, thick hair starts growing from them at that lovely age at which one reaches puberty. An armpit gets wet with little exertion on the part of the owner; it is simply enough that a human's normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. With the exception of keeping it hair-free (for women) and properly cleaned and deodorized, the armpit is a thing that is usually ignored. It's a little thing, really, existing only because of the presence of the arm and torso. Yet for a little while, when Dove ran the beautiful armpit commercials, people focused on the aesthetic aspect of this body part rather than the arm, torso, or body as a whole, buying an item not because it was effective or smelled good, but because it made them feel better about a largely ignored area that no one would see 24/7. It made them feel, well effective.

I was once someone's armpit as well.

When I started college in the fall of 2005, I left the comfort of gorgeous Eastern North Carolina and enrolled in an upstate South Carolina university. I knew three people in the entire college, only because they had gone to my high school at some point in the past (and I had graduated with one of them). So yeah, I was eager for friends. One of the first friends I made was in the same sorority that I joined. It started out cool. She was nice, also a freshman, and a science major like myself. She had also been to a Christian school and was very welcoming in a figurative sense.

As fun as a new friend was, it became apparent rather quickly that I was a project of sorts.

See, I made other friends too. Good friends, with whom I am still close today, though we all live miles apart. Upon meeting my friends, she decided later that they were all "very negative" to be around, as well as somewhat "odd." Clearly, having two sets of friends would be my practice. Then she critiqued the fraternity that three of my guy friends were in, because it was "nerdy." My accent (Eastern North Carolina) was so often critiqued (usually when I was speaking mid-sentence) that it hardly bears mentioning, but it did happen. When one of my guy friends in the "nerdy" fraternity asked me to a formal event on campus, and I mentioned that he had asked me over instant messaging (since we were good friends) she decided that he had asked me "the wrong way." When I said that he was an Eagle Scout, she scoffed and said that growing up, young people had Awana, not Boy Scouts (and at the time, she didn't have a boyfriend). I was told that my hair should not be preferred frizzy (I can rock the Hermione Granger look, people), that my striped socks were eccentric, and that I was an "odd duck." I remained friends with this person, but drifted towards my other friends, who never judged me, except for the time I conducted a caffeine withdrawal experiment upon myself. With them, I would go on to play many hours of Apples to Apples, spend afternoons in the mall, participate in many happy evenings of text roleplay, discover bubble tea, laugh a lot, get through my nightmarish sophomore year, and eventually be in a wedding. Eventually, I stared dating the Eagle Scout, then going steady. He was in the same wedding. We're now engaged. But, ladies and gentlemen, for a short time in 2005-2006, I was an armpit, slathered with Dove deodorant in an attempt to "fix" things that really didn't matter at all.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Quite a bit. I was so excited to discover that I do in fact like a bit of mystery in stuff I read that I tried to make my novel into a mystery/fantasy story. The whole thing involved the main character's family being mysteriously from *GASP* another NC county and a dry account of them driving to the courthouse in said other county's seat to find out information. Sitting in the laundromat (long story short: broken dryer) and working on the scene really really frustrated me. If I'm bored trying to fix this little tale into something that others would find exciting and, heh, novel, then the readers really will be. I crossed out the whole page. I don't regret it. I was led to change a few things after that. I don't have to make my book into part LOTR, part Lifetime movie by the introduction of a mysterious mystery and long-lost friend who moves into his old house because the family never sold it...oy. Trying to fix a stubborn thing in order to make it more like other big sellers did not work. The little armpit remained pale and clammy, stubbornly refusing to be "nourished" like I wanted it to be. I stepped back, and I'm letting it be what it is. There's still a bit of mystery, but it's so unfussy and simple and I love it.

Moral of the story: armpits are armpits. They are what they are. Clean them up, make them fragrant and polished if you want, but they will always remain the same: a clammy, pasty white reminder that we are all human and that silk shirts are a bad idea in the summer. Armpits have a purpose, if only for making jokes or even the occasional singsong armpit noises. If you're writing something and you just can't get it to work one way, the way you want it to and the way another writer did it, then maybe you're trying too hard. If an idea gives you the warm fuzzies and you like it and it works better, accept it and include it. Unless you do, you'll probably regret it big time, later on down the road, when some review says that your book didn't make much sense when it said that elf-ninjas "just could" change color because all is magic and wonder and idealistic speeches on a horse, and all the while you were thinking "TOLKIEN/JAPANESE SQUEE!!!" and inserting strangeness for the sake of such instead of letting anything make sense.

Now go out there and shave some armpits.

Unless you're a dude.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ah, Self-Righteousness, the Spice of Life

This blog's mostly about fiction and various forms of it, such as writing. Y'all knew that already, so I'll move on.

Writers always get stuck with a version of typecasting. We're always the quiet ones who don't want others to read our stuff and fiercely guard it with our lives and hide journals under stuff. Sometimes, we're also in pain and we write to make life better or something, usually with the use of beautiful and tortured (i.e. horrible) poetry. And ultimately, we write for the sake of writing. It is an art form, and to make our art into anything but would be selling out.


Maybe I'm especially unique, but I'd personally like to write a bestseller and make money from either book sales or subsidiary stuff, such as books and related merchandising. Does this make me a sellout? Not really. As a skill, writing is very marketable. Your options range from writing website copy to penning the next Harry Potter, and it is hard work. As a writer, it's easy to fool yourself into thinking that your unedited work is just gold in ink form, but that's the farthest thing from being true.

My degree comes from a very conservative university. I minored in creative writing, and I took some great classes that didn't only focus on the skill of writing, but also on the marketability of a finished product. In fact, not one but two professors pushed a focus on making your work publishable. If you want to use your gifts, you shouldn't limit yourself to writing stories and poems for friends or your own personal pleasure, and you really shouldn't scoff at those who are published, because they've been willing to do the work that you will need to do to get published.

I think one of my favorite reactions is the "I've seen and write better than that" that tends to come up. A good example that I once read on the internet was the laughable statement that Twilight is unoriginal because...wait for it...Buffy did it better the first time. Reasons being? Buffy had a vamp boyfriend too. This is true, but that doesn't grant Joss Whedon's hit series any more originality than Twilight. In all honesty, Buffy kinda sucked. (Whedon hit the mark better with Firefly, a great show that regretfully lasted only one season.) The title character's ability to sort of use something that resembled a sappy stage version of fake martial arts was, I think, the reason so many were fans of the show, or something like that. (Granted, this was the 90s, the era of empowered women in leather bikinis, and fanboys went nuts for stuff like that. Throw in the romance with a tortured vamp-guy, and you have a hit series.)

All this to say, don't get too much on your high horse. Take criticism. I once knew someone who had a near breakdown at her on-campus job because some guys in her creative writing class had given an honest critique on her story's characters. It deeply bothered this person that someone had noticed that her characters went through very unsubtle, sudden changes. Look at examples around you, and please stop comparing apples to oranges. For example, comparing the Chronicles of Narnia to the Harry Potter series is probably something you should avoid, just because the styles are very different. True, they're both fantasy, and neither are allegorical. They do have a couple of things in common. For example, England. And words.

One more thing: give yourself credit. You may be a fan of Harry Potter, a loyal Narnian, a Twi-hard, or a respectable citizen of Hobbiton, but you are not any of those authors. You don't have to be them in order to write good books of your own. I'm reading through the Harry Potter series right now and it was tempting for a bit to knock a few years of the ages of my main characters and give them adventures at the age of 13 or 15. I admire Rowling's work and I think she's a good writer. She's certainly a strong writer, and that could easily become a problem for myself if I let her series overcome my work. I can't let that happen. All I can do is work out discrepancies and issues in my book and let it be what it already is. What sets me apart from the writers of any books I own? They're already published. Instead of concentrating on my intellect, I'm going to sit down, shut up, and work, because they're all way ahead of me already.