Monday, February 25, 2013

Lessons From The Shawshank Redemption

This past month, I've been doing a series, What I've Learned about Writing Through Movies. In each post, I feature a different movie, discussing the effectiveness of its story elements as well as what can be learned from the film as a whole. Previous movies include The Matrix and The Princess Bride.

The final week's feature is The Shawshank Redemption. It's a fantastic movie,  and I learn something new every time I watch it. I also alluded to it in this previous post.

The movie itself has an interesting history. No one could pronounce the title, and it was relatively little known in theaters. It wasn't until people caught the movie on video and DVD that it turned into a cult hit. And I believe it did so because of it's excellent storyline (based off a short story penned by Stephen King).

Why The Shawshank Redemption works as a story:

For mystery writers (or any writers) wanting to perfect their slight of hand, who want to produce effective, believable red herrings, this movie is definitely one to watch. The Shawshank Redemption does a brilliant job of introducing objects and elements that aren't fully explained until the very end, thus reshaping the viewer's perception of what they thought took place. Examples include a movie poster, a rock hammer, a false identity, and a six-foot section of rope.

So, if you introduce an idea, it better mean something. And if it has a higher purpose that cannot be deciphered until the story fully unfolds, that's even better.

What writers can learn from The Shawshank Redemption:

1.There are places in the world that aren't made of stone.

This is for the day-job workers out there, eking a writing life outside their main source of income. Sometimes it seems there's nothing outside the dead-end of the the day-in, day-out workplace.

But I've found my writing is the catalyst that keeps me going. It leads me to opportunities that  keep me learning and growing, even if some of the other elements in my life seem stagnant.

This is also important to remember when rejections come your way. Just because one editor or agent rejected your material doesn't mean everyone will.

Similarly, if you aren't accepted into that MFA program of your dreams, keep putting yourself out there anyway. You'll inevitably improve.

2. Some birds aren't meant to be caged.

For many years, I limited myself to what other people thought I was capable of. I am trying to undo this now, by letting my inner colors shine freely, by living my life on my terms. Because if you aren't free in your own life, then what do you have?

So let yourself go. Give yourself a break. Drop those invisible chains, and stop standing in your own way.

3. Salvation lies within.

But it has to come from within. You can't rely on what other people say about you or your writing. Critiques are helpful, but ultimately it's you, your life, your story, your writing. Find the inner fire that drives you amid all the pitfalls that are thrown your way.  

4. No good hope ever dies.

One of the best defenses a writer has is hope. Without it, any external barriers will knock you flat. They'll make you give in, make you settle for what you don't deserve. I've experienced this cyclically--I'll go into a project with all the optimism in the world...and gradually, painfully, I'm beaten to a pulp.

But, even then, I make myself get up. To keep standing, even when all I feel like doing is lying down. Hope is what makes this possible.

So keep on, and always, always--keep hoping.

Your turn: What has The Shawshank Redemption taught you?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why "The Matrix" Has You

To liven things up in February, I've decided to do a series: What I've Learned about Writing Through Movies. In each post, I'll feature a different movie and discuss the effectiveness of its story elements as well as what can be learned from the film as a whole. This week, I decided to focus on the The Matrix, since I watched it recently with new eyes, dissecting how different story aspects were introduced. Coupled with some recent feedback from a critique partner, it did wonders for my revisions.

Why The Matrix works as a story:

World-building elements are explained gradually and succinctly (fantasy and sci-fi writers, take note).

Instead of hitting the viewer over the head with every single aspect of the post-apocalyptic "desert of the real", story elements are introduced bit by bit. Not only does this avoid the over-explaining that sometimes occurs with sci-fi, but it also mutes the story's sci-fi tropes, therefore highlighting the unique elements of the world and making them more clearly visible.

Some examples, through dialogue:

"The answers are coming, Neo."
"Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony."

"The body cannot live without the mind."

What The Matrix teaches writers:

1. Follow the white rabbit. 

A writer's path can often take unexpected twists and turns. The book you were hoping to publish doesn't, but the second one you wrote does. Or, that screenplay you wrote fizzled, but that novel you had in waiting just found the right agent. The journey isn't without pitfalls, and often, things don't turn out as planned. But the journey is still necessary, and important--especially when it takes you to unexpected places.

2. I've shown you the door, but only you can walk through it.

I used to think that a career in writing was dependent on getting to know mentors, authors, and agents so that they could help us newbies avoid pitfalls along the path. But I've since realized I have to blaze my own trail, and that no one else will pull me along to where I need to go. I have my own two feet, and I need to trust them. Everyone's journey is different--yours is unique, and you need to make it your own.

3. There is no spoon.

The page is where you get to say what you want. Stop writing to appeal to others--your friends, a publisher, even an agent. Stop restricting yourself.

Because that's when the magic happens. When I've let go of my own constraints (and believe me, there are many), that's when the writing pops off the page. That's when I final in contests. That's when I get partial requests.

4. Don't worry about the vase.

One thing I've learned is that if I over-worry about one thing, a much bigger problem falls by the wayside. When I first started as a writer, I was very concerned about line-edits--if the words fit together on the page or not. I later realized, with a lot more writing and reading, that concentrating on the words made me neglect more key, important, big-picture things. Character development. Plot. Theme. Believability. Don't hyper-focus on just one thing--make sure you are aware of a novel's bigger picture flaws too--because ultimately, those will have to be fixed before any line-edits can be touched.

5. Knowing the path is different than walking the path.

Similar to #2.  (Addendum: Also applies to knowing that you need an effective inciting event, good character development, and an intriguing plot. But actually exceuting these things can be a lot harder than it seems.) I know my goals as a writer. But obtaining them will not be as simple as mapping them out in my brain. I will plan as much as I can, but ultimately, things will turn out the way they're meant to. And that may mean having to readjust my original expectations. Not to sacrifice my dreams--but to ensure I make the most of my potential.

I now pass along the proffered red pill--what has The Matrix taught you?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

MY EPIC FAIRY TALE FAIL by Anna Staniszewski

I'm really excited to feature Anna Staniszewski, who I've followed ever since her novel MY VERY UNFAIRY TALE LIFE debuted in 2011. I even posted about it, and it was one of the favorite books I read last year.

And now (drumroll), the sequel, MY EPIC FAIRY TALE FAIL just released!

 Fairy tales do come true. Unfortunately.

Jenny the Adventurer is back, and this time she's off to the Land of Tales: the crazy place that all fairy tales come from. If she can defeat an evil witch and complete three impossible tasks--all without getting eaten by blood-thirsty monsters--Jenny might finally get some answers about what happened to her parents.

This is one adventure Jenny can't afford to fail.

Here are Anna's answers to my questions:

Your website bio states that you have an MFA in Writing for Children. Has this impacted your writing career in any way, and can you tell us more about your journey toward becoming a writer?

I got my MFA from Simmons College back in 2005, and it's definitely impacted my career. Not only did the program connect me with other people in the field, but it also made me determined to get published. I won't lie; it was a looong journey. I wrote, got rejected, wrote some more. Finally, after a lot of ups and downs, I found my awesome agent. Then it took us a year to sell my first book. It was a  stressful journey, but it taught me a lot about myself and about my writing. Now, I'm lucky enough to be teaching in the MFA program at Simmons (they can't get rid of me!) and I love getting to see other budding authors working on their craft.

I've heard Simmons is a great program--and your experience definitely demonstrates that perseverance is key! MY EPIC FAIRY TALE FAIL is the second in the series that started with MY VERY UNFAIRY TALE LIFE. What inspired the original idea, and what do you want readers to take away from both books?

 About five years ago, I was working on a dark YA project that was really bringing me down. I needed something fun to work on, so I sat down and wrote a pretty bizarre scene about a girl and a talking frog. I loved the girl's personality, and I wanted to find out more about her. I kept coming back to the project when I was stuck on other things, and I think it helped to keep me sane.

Working on the series has really brought me back to fairy tales, which I've loved since I was very young, but it's also been fascinating to see Jenny's character grow and change. Ultimately, her story is about identity and family--and about wacky adventures--which is what I hope readers take away from it.

Jenny does have a great personality--and she's definitely fun to read. On your website, readers have the option to sign up for your newsletter. How does the newsletter benefit you and your readers, and do you recommend newsletter writing to other authors?

The newsletter is a new feature--I actually just sent out my first one yesterday. I wanted to try it out because I love getting newsletters from other authors so that I know what they're up to and what's new with them. And if they can include fun extras, that's always nice too. I have a feeling my dog, Emma, is going to be a recurring figure in my newsletter.

It will be exciting to see what develops! I love the design of your website and blog. Do you have any advice for other writers wanting to develop an online presence?

 Thank you! My husband is a techie, so I had him help me set it up. But I really wanted something that I'd have an easy time maintaining, which is why I went with a Wordpress site. My advice is to keep your website current--if you don't blog, have some type of changing content that will keep your site kicking. But most importantly, have fun with it. Don't do anything that feels like a chore.

Excellent advice! It's so important to have fun, and it's something I forget too often. What are some of your current and future projects?

Right now, I'm working on the third book in the UnFairy Tale series (which will be coming out in November 2013). After that, I'll be digging into my next series with Sourcebooks, The Dirt Diary, which will be released next year. I also love picture books, so I try to sneak in working on one here and there in between deadlines.

Thank you, Anna!

 Anna's Bio:

Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. She was named the 2006-2007 Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library and a winner of the 2009 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award. Currently, Anna lives outside of Boston, Mass. with her husband and their adopted black Labrador, Emma. When she's not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. You can visit her at

For those looking to purchase MY VERY UNFAIRY TALE LIFE or MY EPIC FAIRY TALE FAIL, feel free to click on the links below:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What "The Princess Bride" Can Teach Writers

To liven things up in February, I've decided to do a series: What I've Learned about Writing Through Movies. Each week, I'll feature a different movie and discuss the effectiveness of its story elements as well as what can be learned from the film as a whole.

I chose The Princess Bride first because I came across an awesome post from Snagglebox, a website for parents with autistic children. 17 Things The Princess Bride Taught Me About Autism Parenting offers a ton of great advice, both for writers, and anyone else looking for inspiration when life gets tough. So, without further ado:

Why The Princess Bride works as a story (it was also a novel first, which always helps):

Effective inciting event: Inciting events must a) occur in order for the rest of story to happen and  b) spur growth in the characters.

When Westley is presumed dead, Buttercup agrees to marry Prince Humperdink. a) Without Westley's presumed death, Buttercup would have no reason to marry Humperdink. b) Buttercup is now forced to make a choice.

Clear and believable motivations: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Inigo's main motivation is to avenge his father--and he never deters, even at the very end, when the killer, fatally wounded, offers him power and riches. Inigo's response? "I want my father back, you son-of-a-bitch." A clear and believable motivation not only makes a character relatable, but also endearing. Even if he's a murderer.

What writers can learn from The Princess Bride (adapted from the Snagglebox post):

 1. Optimism can get you through the fire swamp

It's important to take a step back and assess a seemingly overwhelming problem (or a ROUS--Rat of Unusual Size). On a listserv I administer, someone was masking advertisements for their company in their posts. The question then became--to ban them, or not? It became quite the touchy subject on the listserv, and quite a bit of vitriol emoted from the online masses. After taking a day or so to deliberate, I decided to keep this person, with the stipulation they'd be banned if the behavior was repeated. It was a problem I hadn't encountered, but that didn't make it unsolvable. Which brings us to...

 2. You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles

Honing a skill, especially writing, requires patience and time. Allow yourself room to grow, and don't rush into anything. I used to think, "If I can just get a publishing deal quicker..." But now, it's more along the lines of, "I want to make sure I'm the best writer possible when that happens." Which means it's easy to forget that...

3. You may already have a wheelbarrow

In my strives to improve, I sometimes forget about my assets. Yeah, I need to improve my plot and structure...but I've also been told I write good action scenes. Some of my secondary characters aren't as 3-D as they could be...but I'm already taking strides to connect them to the main conflict. For every improvement needed, there is usually a hurdle already jumped over. And speaking of hurdles...

4. Success means using the right moves for the terrain

I've said this before in other posts--just because a strategy works for one writer doesn't mean it will work for you. This is especially true regarding revision. Some writers embrace the "crappy first draft," where you just get the words out and worry about how they'll play out in revisions. However, while I'm drafting, I try to find big-picture problems and fix them, even before the first draft is done. Then, I'll at least know that the bones of the story are more likely to fit together when I start to revise. Just find your own process and stick to it.

5. Wiggling a finger is worth celebrating

Small victories mean progress. Last year, I published a non-fiction article about YA books in libraries, and recently, a book chapter from one of my novels was accepted at a conference. Be sure to list your own accomplishments often, especially when you feel discouraged--they are good indicators of your inevitable potential.

Your turn: What did you learn from The Princess Bride?