Monday, August 29, 2016

Yes, But What's the Point?

by Kasey Tross

This week I have been reading a book that's been on my radar for over a year now: "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less," by Greg McKeown (who is Mormon, by the way).

I'm only about halfway through, but it's one of those books that's giving me 'aha moments' on almost every other page. And one of these aha moments made me rethink my writing.

In his book, McKeown tells the story of a journalism teacher who started class by explaining the concept of a "lead:"

"He explained that a lead contains the why, what, when and who of the piece. It covers the essential information. Then he gave them their first assignment: write a lead to a story. 
"Simms began by presenting the facts of the story: 'Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund 'Pat' Brown.' 
"The students hammered away on their manual typewriters trying to keep up with the teacher's pace. Then they handed in their rapidly written leads. Each attempted to summarize the who, what, where, and why as succinctly as possible: 'Margaret Mead, Maynard Hutchins, and Governor Brown will address the faculty on...'; Next Thursday, the high school faculty will...' Simms reviewed the students' leads and put them aside.  
"He then informed them that they were all wrong. The lead to the story, he said, was 'There will be no school Thursday.'" 

If your reaction is anything like mine, you may be smiling, laughing a little, and raising your eyebrows in awe at how accurately that one sentence nails the exact information the reader needs and wants, despite the fact that it excludes the majority of the specific details that had been outlined. This made me think:

What's the point of my story?

As writers, we are creative people, and we can so easily get caught up and swept away in details: a character description, a personality trait, a plot line, scenery, symbolism, etc. But what we really need to ask ourselves in all of this is: What's the point? What is the main objective you want the reader to take away from your book?

And then when you're writing that character description, ask yourself: is it furthering that objective?

When you're crafting that plot, is it clarifying the objective?

The scenery and the symbolism- how are those contributing to your objective?

It can feel virtually impossible to distill your book- your masterpiece- down to a single objective, but it is oh-so-important. After all, without knowing where you're going, how will you know whether or not you get there?


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

When Hollywood Gets It Wrong, part 2: Into the Woods

- a post by Jeanna Mason Stay
Here’s venting session #1, in which I complain that Hollywood really watered down the moral message of Harry Potter. Now get ready for venting session #2, in which I make the same complaint about Into the Woods. Then stay tuned next time for how Hollywood ruined the message of If I Stay in approximately ten seconds.

Warning: Spoilers for Into the Woods are contained herein. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Let’s start out with something I should have suspected but hadn’t really thought about: Plenty of people have already complained about the Disney film adaptation of Into the Woods. In fact, plenty of people have already complained about the very thing I’m complaining about. They did it so much that one of the actresses and even the director commented on it, both saying they didn’t think it was a big deal. The director makes the most compelling argument for cutting it because of pacing, but I just think he’s still wrong.* So we’re gonna make this short today (that might also have something to do with me being on deadline for a gazillion things and being way behind).

So what am I complaining about? The cutting of the song “No More.” Okay, so a quick recap if you’re not familiar with the story. Into the Woods mashes up a whole bunch of fairy tales, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. The pertinent character here, though, is the Baker, whose wife has committed adultery then gotten smooshed by a giant, leaving the Baker with a baby to raise (a baby that he and his wife had gone on a huge quest to be able to conceive, by the way). In this song, he is grieving and just wants to run away from his responsibilities. He has a history with this response—his father abandoned him and his mother when things got hard. So when his father appears and, musically, points out all the difficulties with running away, the Baker goes back to his baby and decides to stay.

To me, his father’s words are an important message:

Running away, let’s do it.
Free from the ties that bind.
No more despair, or burdens to bear,
Out there in the yonder.

Running away, go to it.
Where did you have in mind?
Have to take care, unless there’s a “where,”
You’ll only be wandering blind.
Just more questions, different kind.
Where are we to go?
Where are we ever to go?

Running away, we’ll do it.
Why sit around, resigned?
Trouble is, son, the farther you run,
The more you feel undefined.
For what you have left undone, and more,
What you’ve left behind.

Without this song, the Baker pretty much just goes back to his responsibilities without much deep consideration of why it matters. Without this song, we miss the message: Sure, life is hard sometimes, but running away just makes it harder.

You want to know the truth? This message is part of what grounded me in life when I was struggling (in an admittedly very mild case) with postpartum depression. There were times when I thought it would be so much easier to just be gone, but I was blessed to have that inner voice of the Spirit tell me that running away wouldn’t solve anything. I’m so grateful for that.

A reviewer for the Washington Post also complained about this omission, though in my opinion
her review had two faults: 1. She states that the change ruined the movie. I don’t go that far. I think it made the movie less powerful than the stage production, but I don’t think it entirely ruined the thing (which, on the whole, I truly enjoyed). 2. In my opinion, she missed the greater meaning behind the story. She is hung up on a bleak, nihilistic sort of interpretation about how life sucks, but to me, the truth that got weakened in the film version of the story is one of moral courage in the face of despair. It isn’t that life sucks and you just have to get over it. It’s that when we do the hard thing, when we make the decision to stay instead of running, we have power.* At least that’s what I think.

* A personal note: Yes, I know there are times you have to leave. I quit grad school, after all, because it was (as I melodramatically put it) crushing my soul. Abusive situations, truly dangerous places, and such—yes, feel free to run.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Boring Secondary Characters - Line Up Here

By Lacey Gunter

As my kids and I were debating this afternoon about whether a certain character in a book we are reading is about to die in order to save a loved one, my son asked me "Why do characters have to die? Why can't they all just live and be happy?"

It was a simple enough question to answer, and it didn't take much explanation to convince my son that conflict, adversity and challenges make stories interesting and compelling. But reflecting on the question afterward, there seems to be an important life lesson here.

Most of us would like to think of ourselves as the hero or heroine in the story of our life. Perhaps a few might like to be considered as the villain. But none of us wants to be thought of as a boring side character with little importance to the story. Yet in the course of our life we are often prone to ask ourselves, why me? Why do I have to face this challenge? Why did God have to give me this adversity? We may even pray to God and ask, for the challenge to be taken away or easily solved for us. We just want everything to go the way it is supposed to and everyone to just live and be happy. Wow, doesn't that reek of boring secondary character, or what?

So here's where we look to literature for another important life lesson. Stop asking why me, why God please just take this away. Start praying for knowledge, blessings or opportunities to learn that amazing something special about you that will help you overcome your adversity.

I'm not saying we should go chasing down trouble. But at the same time, let's not cower to the margins of our book of life hoping to avoid it. This is your opportunity to grow and demonstrate just how awesome you can be.  Challenges and adversity aren't just what make a great story, they're what make us great. Be the heroine, not the boring secondary character.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

What Do You Create?

by Jewel Leann Williams

I have a new hero. Her name is Sharon Eubank and she is one of the most inspirational women I’ve listened to since Sherri Dew. Heck, dare I blaspheme and say that she inspires me MORE than Sherri Dew? Or maybe they can be the Hawkeye and Black Widow of my own personal Avengers. I don’t know. Maybe I need to watch less Marvel property entertainment. 


Anyway, Sister Eubank is the She is currently the director (or is it Director with a capital D?) of LDS Charities, the humanitarian arm of the church. She has been active in the world as a giver of aid to those in the most desperate need. She has spent much of her life in the trenches. She also has made presentations to the United Nations, to international coalitions, and various other outlets.  She is the epitome of that LDS woman that Spencer W. Kimball prophesied of in 1979, when he said:

“Much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days will come because many of the good women of the world (in whom there is often such an inner sense of spirituality) will be drawn to the Church in large numbers. This will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that they are seen as distinct and different—in happy ways— from the women of the world.”

She is certainly articulate, and I would add fearless and about a hundred other superlative adjectives. I just—I want to add her to my posse of BFF’s because man, I can’t imagine anyone who has her for a friend can do anything but be awesome.  I’m gonna post some links to some of her talks below, just because.

But, this isn’t about her, but just about something she said and how it got me thinking. In one of the addresses I watched, Sister Eubank, my new secret best friend, mentioned a statement made by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf in 2008 General Conference, in a talk titled, “Happiness, Your Heritage”:

The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul. No matter our talents, education, backgrounds, or abilities, we each have an inherent wish to create something that did not exist before.
Everyone can create. You don’t need money, position, or influence in order to create something of substance or beauty.
Creation brings deep satisfaction and fulfillment. We develop ourselves and others when we take unorganized matter into our hands and mold it into something of beauty—and I am not talking about the process of cleaning the rooms of your teenage children.

Sister Eubank asked a question:  “What do you create when you feel the Spirit of the Lord?” She talked about making a quilt for her nephew, even though she couldn't sew and didn't have the slightest idea how to make the pattern correctly. She learned techniques, picked stitches out and did them again, and muddled along until she got it finished to her satisfaction. It was a labor of love that expressed her love for her nephew, and she was proud of what she'd done. 

In many ways, writing is much like that quilt. Some of us have advanced degrees in writing, and many of us would have advanced degrees in writing if we were writing in college instead of in chairs soaked with what we hope is water because it's now soaking our own trousers by osmosis. Not that that has happened lately or anything.  Many of us have learned and continue to learn the art of writing through trial and error, picking out our missed stitches, so to speak. 

The point is that when we write, we are reaching up and snatching ideas out of the ether and shaping them with words, sentences, paragraphs and pages into something greater than the sum of its parts. Unorganized matter becomes a thing of beauty that can bless other people. It is even more so when we take the time to ensure that we are writing while under the influence of the Spirit of the Lord.

That is no small thing. Remember what President Kimball said above, and then think about your own efforts to be articulate and to use your creative powers to influence the world for good. 

Is it worth it to pick at the stitches of your writing, to mold those words into something again and again, until they become the form you desire of them? Is it worth it to ensure that you are feeling the Spirit when you write (even if it's a story about zombies)?

Well, of course it is! 

Your words can be the words that reach someone's heart and teach them truth. 

Your words can spread the light of Christ. 

It is worth it. Keep creating, keep molding, keep working at it.


PS here are some of those links: 

talk to read:

talk to watch:    FAIRMormon conference address 18 June 2016 in Sweden.   TedxBYU talk, about slowing down

Monday, August 8, 2016

What Writers and Olympians Have in Common

by Kasey Tross

I don't know about you, but I LOVE the Olympics. I just get the biggest kick out of learning about the competitors and watching them do their thing, knowing they're the best of the best in the world. It is absolutely awe-inspiring to me.

Last night I was watching the swimming competition, and they were interviewing one of the swimmers after his race. They asked him something about how he prepared and he talked about things he did when he came to "training every day." It suddenly occurred to me that for these Olympians, their training is like going to work every day. Half the battle for them was just showing up- not once or twice a week, but every. single. day.

And that's how greatness is born.

It's not always about natural talent as much as it is about working really hard. I was really impressed by the story of U.S. swimmer Lilly King. When she was 8 years old she attended a swimming clinic with world-record-setter Janet Evans. King said, "I was the slowest one there." But she worked hard, and last night I watched her win a semifinal in the Olympics! The Olympics, people!

(Funny side story- King said she was so nervous as a kid to meet Janet Evans- just recently, King learned that Janet Evans' daughter Sydney, an aspiring swimmer, is a huge fan of Lilly King's and was nervous to meet her!)

So how are Olympians and writers alike?

If we want to succeed, and we want to be great, we have to show up and work hard. Every. Single. Day.

I am being a total hypocrite as I write this, because I don't write like I should every day. But the Olympics is just reminding me yet again that if I want to succeed, I have to put the work in. There are no shortcuts. Natural talent can only take you so far. The rest requires daily, consistent effort, even when it's hard.

Well, that's the work part of what writers and Olympians have in common- the other part is the fun part. It's the part where we're reaching for our dreams. I think that's the other reason I'm such a huge fan of the Olympics, because how often is it that you get to see someone realize their lifelong dream right in front of you? To watch them achieve the goal they've been working for as long as they can remember? It's a pretty amazing thing, I tell you, and it's an incredible feeling to not only watch it, but to be a part of a group of people who are constantly striving for it.

That's one of the things I love about the writing community. It's great to be around my friends and family and other moms, but there is a different feeling when I am with other writers (even if just online), because I know I'm with a group of people with some of the same dreams and ambitions that I have, and it's thrilling to see others progress and to be able to cheer one another on. Pursuing a dream is a very personal thing, and it's reassuring to know you're not the only one with big goals.

So as you're watching these incredible athletes over the next few weeks, just remember that you're made up of some of the same stuff. You understand goals and hard work, and while you might never go to the Olympics, if you keep working you will have some of your very own gold medal moments to celebrate- and we'll all be right here celebrating with you.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Talking Heads, Dialogue and Picture Books

By Lacey Gunter

The role dialogue plays in a novel can be complex, but is usually necessary. It is difficult to write an entire novel without dialogue. At the same time good dialogue takes skill and practice for it to effectively move the plot forward and help us to connect with the characters.

As with most things, the rules are different when writing a picture book. There is no rule for or against including dialogue in a picture book. In a little informal survey I conducted on a sample of newly published pictures books, I found that about half of the books contained dialogue and the other half had no dialogue. Moreover, among the books that did contain dialogue, a small portion of them only had dialogue through speech bubbles within the illustrations which were not a necessary part of reading the text. So, less than half of the books actually had dialogue that was integrated into the text. At the same time, some pictures books are classified as dialogue only picture books.

So what exactly are the rules for dialogue in a picture book? There are really only two rules that I know of.  The first rule is don't let the dialogue detract from the visual experience of the book. That may seem obvious, but it is easy to violate if you are not actively considering it. A section of dialogue that sets up a conflict or reveals aspects of a characters personality may work great in a novel. But in a picture book it can turn out to be just a bunch of pictures of talking heads, not very much for the illustrator to work with and not very fun for the reader.  There is a fine balance required between dialogue and action for a picture book to still be a satisfying visual experience.

The best way I know to recognize when dialogue is a problem in a picture book is to put on your illustrators hat and ask yourself, "If I were an illustrator, how would I illustrate this?" One technique is to break the text of your picture book into the 24-28 pages of text and then describe or sketch an image for each page of text. This is called story-boarding and you don't have to be an illustrator or good at art to do this. It will help you recognize if a section of text is going to be difficult or boring to illustrate.

If all you can think of to illustrate the text are two people sitting or standing together talking, this is a problem. Even two or three pages of this will get old quick. If this is the case, time to edit. Consider condensing or removing some of your dialogue. At the very least get your characters moving. Get them doing at least a few other actions while they are talking like baking cookies, or planting a garden.

The second rule only applies to nonfiction or nonfictionesque books, picture book or not. When using dialogue in a nonfiction or historical style picture book, be open and honest when dialogue is invented or assumed rather than an actual quote. This really should be open to the reader, meaning the child, not just a parent who might have to hunt for it in a bibliography or small side note at the end.

So play around and have fun with dialogue in your picture books. But remember, picture books are more than just a short story or a beautiful sounding section of text. Picture books are a fully visual experience. Talking heads, move along.


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