Monday, February 6, 2012

My Top 5 Fictional Couples

In honor of Valentine's Day, I've been thinking about what makes certain fictional couples so memorable. Is it the chemistry they have together? The snappy dialogue? The meaningful looks? Or is it the obstacles they must overcome on the way to love? There are some movies I can watch over and over again and certain books I've read dozens of time primarily because they contain a magical and timeless romance. Here are 5 of my all-time favorite fictional couples and their most memorable scenes:
5. Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund (Casablanca)
I love the sense of history and sacrifice in this romance, the acknowledgment that there’s something bigger at stake than two people. So often, love is portrayed in melodramatic fashion—two lovers who would do anything, risk anything to be together. But here, Rick does the right thing while delivering one of the most romantic speeches in cinema.

Favorite scene:
Ilsa: But what about us?
Rick: We'll always have Paris. We didn't have; we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you.
Rick: And you never will. But I've got a job to do, too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. (Ilsa cries.) Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.

4. Benedick and Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing)
This is a relationship that begins in verbal wordplay and ends in a dramatic climax that tests the lovers’ mettle. For all the laughs, the love between Beatrice and her Benedick is no joke; when Beatrice asks Benedick to kill for her, he’s ready to do whatever it takes to prove his devotion.

Favorite scene:
Beatrice: Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.
Benedick: Fair Beatrice, I thank you for your pains.
Beatrice: I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pains to thank me: if it had been painful, I would not have come.
Benedick: You take pleasure then in the message?
Beatrice: Yea, just so much as you may take upon a knife's point ... You have no stomach, signior? Fare you well. (Exit.)
Benedick: Ha! 'Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner;' there's a double meaning in that...

3. Han Solo and Princess Leia (Star Wars)
I’m not usually a fan of the cocky, arrogant love interest, but no one does swagger quite like Harrison Ford. And this is no insta-love; Han and Leia have to overcome some serious obstacles in order to be together. Plus, for a PG-rated film, the chemistry is pretty sizzling.

Favorite scene:
[Han kisses Leia and is taken by storm troopers to the carbon-freezing chamber.]
Princess Leia: I love you.
Han Solo: I know.

2. Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice)
The verbal fireworks alone are worth the price of admission; all that passion simmering under a veneer of 19th century politeness makes for some compelling reading. And Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth’s performances were spot-on; the scene in which they make googly eyes at each other across the piano is so romantic and lovely.

Favorite scene:
"I remember, when we first knew her in Hertfordshire, how amazed we all were to find that she was a reputed beauty; and I particularly recollect your saying one night, after they had been dining at Netherfield, "She a beauty!—I should as soon call her mother a wit.'' But afterwards she seemed to improve on you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time."

"Yes," replied Darcy, who could contain himself no longer, "but that was only when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance."

1. Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester (Jane Eyre)
Of course, you knew this was going to be my first choice. But seriously, the slow burn of passion between Rochester and Jane is full of such restraint, angst, and poignancy—it’s just a brilliantly executed romance. When they finally get together, Rochester has redeemed himself, and Jane has become a strong, independent woman. Only after Rochester has paid for his mistakes does Jane give in to her feelings. There’s no more satisfying line in literature than: “Reader, I married him.”

Favorite scene:

 “Am I hideous, Jane?”
“Very, sir; you always were, you know.”
“Humph! The wickedness has not been taken out of you, wherever you have sojourned.”
“Yet I have been with good people; far better than you: a hundred times better people.”
“Who the deuce have you been with?”
“You shall not get it out of me to-night, sir; you must wait till to-morrow.”
“Just one word, Jane; were there only ladies in the house where you have been?”

Rochester’s insecurity in this scene is just so adorable!

Who are your favorite fictional couples? If you haven’t already, stop by my website and take the quiz to find your literary soul mate!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

How I Write a Fast First Draft (Which Doesn't Necessarily Mean How YOU Should Write)

If you watched Danny Marks's video on How To Write Book, he said that he starts the writing process by coming up with an idea, several key scenes, and then percolating ideas for several months before writing a first draft. I take a completely different approach that I'm going to outline here. My hope is that it will illustrate for you that there is no one "right" way to write a book. So for all you hyper-organized, list making, compartmentalized types out there, I present to you HOW I WRITE A FAST FIRST DRAFT:

Every genre has a standard word count. MG may be 45k. YA may be 75k. Fantasy may be 120k. I first figure out my standard word count and divide it in half (more on that later). For this example, I will use the YA average of 75k and come up with 37,500 words. Then I apply these percentages:

1. Introduction,wherein characters and current situation are introduced: 10% of the total word count (or in this example, 3,750 words);

2. Rising Action, wherein protagonist faces a change of plans: 15% (5,550 words);

3. Progress, wherein protagonist works toward his/her goal and things go well:25% (9,375 words);

4. Raising the Stakes, wherein things go awry, conflict sets in and all seems lost:25% (9,375 words);

5. Final Push, wherein protagonist puts it all on the line, faces the climax, and reaches the goal: 20% (7,500 words); and

6. Denouement, wherein I wrap up loose ends and convince the reader that the exercise has been worthwhile: 5% (1,875 words).

Seem rigid? It is. Sometimes I break my own rule. But paying attention to this formula provides excellent pacing, and pacing is tricky business.

Next, for each of those six sections above, and keeping in mind the word count parameters, I outline the action in each section in short bullet points. Essentially, asking myself what needs to happen to get me from point A to point B.

Then I write every chapter I’ve outlined solely in dialogue. I don’t even put in the tags. Character A says “X” to B, B responds, C questions, A responds, go, go, go, as fast as I can. As the action points occur, I insert them like stage directions. It might look like this:

Oh you did not just say that.
I most certainly did.
Take that back.
[A slaps B, and B falls over]

Another trick I learned from my daughter, who’s blind and incredibly insightful: I can better “hear” my characters talking if I close my eyes and don’t look at the screen as I type. Try it sometime and let me know what you think. Typos be damned.

Then I go back in and flesh out out where the action and conversations take place, what the time of day is, what the weather is like, what people are wearing–ideally making the setting and details significant to the action and characters. I don’t necessarily do this in a chronological way, but rather hop around within the draft–writing the parts I feel inspired to tackle at that particular moment, thus avoiding the dreaded “writer’s block.”

If I get to some detail I have to research, I don’t stop writing to do it. I throw down an @ as a place marker. The @ sign doesn’t show up in your typical narration so they’re easy to do a Search for later. For example: @length of Lake Superior lakeshore.

What I have now is a rough first draft. The word count is about half what the finished product will be because there is still much to be explored and added, but because the initial framework is in the right proportions, future drafts will grow within that well-paced frame.


But, you see, once the story is trapped on the page, it isn’t going anywhere. That’s the trick: The quick capture. Once trapped, the story is my play thing. It’s time for the first of many, many revisions. It's time for me to do what Danny described. It's time to PERCOLATE!


*The Frame is my own modification of a formula I learned from Michael Hauge, who writes and teaches about effective screenwriting.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

How To Write Book: A Guide for the Insane

Okay. So the title is only a little tongue in cheek. This video is basically a run through of how I take an idea and turn it into a first draft.

Any questions?

How many ideas did you have during the video? Hmm?

Monday, January 23, 2012

That Beautiful White Page

The blank page seems to be a popular phobia for lots of people—right up there with public speaking and choking on melted cheese. (Okay, so maybe the latter is just me.) Writers and non-writers alike talk of freezing up in the face of all that emptiness. On the other side there are those who swear that the empty page is full of possibility, the freshness of it symbolizing all of their optimism about what this story will be.
I think beginnings should be approached with neither fear nor too much hope. No fear, because you have a delete key. At any point, you can always erase and start over before committing. Or you can start an alternate version. The point is that you are not carving this thing in stone and even if you were you could probably sand it down. Not too much hope because of course you have the best intentions for your writing, but no need to smother the little darling with your expectations like some helicopter parent before it's even out of your head. In the end your writing is always going to be its own thing, hopefully better, but not quite what you initially imagined, so it seems wiser to save yourself the anguish and not get too attached to that ideal now.
No, the best way to start a new piece of writing is to take it as it comes. Slowly but not tentatively. Focused but not closed off to other creative possibilities. Confident in your own skill, but fully aware that a book is a long-ass journey and there will be some rough spots along the way. Pace yourself. The middle and the end are yet to come.


My debut young adult novel PRETTY CROOKED (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins) will be released in March. Even though I had to extensively research pickpocketing techniques to write it, I remain a law-abiding citizen. I live in Philadelphia with my husband Jesse and cat Beau a.k.a. Bread. When I'm not writing for teens, I'm cooking and/or writing about food for The Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Jess's Favorite First Lines

This week we're talking about first lines, so I thought I'd take a look at some of my favorites. These are the first three that came to mind, two new favorites and a perennial one:

Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. -- GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

This tells us straightaway that our heroine knows how to get what she wants. She's not conventionally pretty but she can make men think she is. Scarlett O'Hara is canny, in an era where clever women are not respected or appreciated; she has to manipulate men to get what she wants because she has precious little agency of her own.

I've confessed to everything and I'd like to be hanged.
Now, if you please. -- CHIME by Franny Billingsley

This immediately has the reader asking, Good Lord, what did the narrator do that she thinks is so awful? Why does she feel she deserves to be hanged? People usually have a healthier sense of self-preservation. This sets up Briony's self-hatred but also her impatience. It's a curious and intriguing combination, just like our narrator.

It starts with a crack, a sputter, and a spark. The match hisses to life. -- THE NEAR WITCH by Victoria Schwab

Read this one aloud, please. It has a gorgeous sound to it, like the rest of the book -- fitting for a book that explores the power of stories and myths. It's the sort of story you'd like to read out loud in a dark room by candle-light, and that's what the narrator's doing here at the very beginning, isn't she? It's perfect.

What are some of your favorite first lines? Tell me in the comments.

Jessica Spotswood is the author of BORN WICKED, the first book in the Cahill Witch Chronicles, coming Feb. 7, 2012 from Putnam. She likes reading stories about independent girls who still get in a fair amount of swoony kissing, so that's what she tries to write. She lives in Washington, DC with her playwright husband and a cuddly cat named Monkey.

Currently on her nightstand: GILT by Katherine Longshore

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Stop Online Piracy Act - Blackout

In support of the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) blackout, I'm giving you only the dry bones ... The SOPA bill, which was introduced in November, gives Internet Service Providers the power to deny us access to sites that host any copyrighted material. To give an idea of how devastating SOPA would be, sites that would be taken down would be: YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, WordPress, CheezBurger, Vimeo ... virtually all online social media would be removed. You would not be able to read this blog because Blogger would also be taken down.  
Here's the actual bill:

Here's how to write your government officials and let them know what you think:

Monday, January 16, 2012

To Infinity and Beyond

Or, what I think of trends and what I want to see more of.

Before I looked at writing as a business, I was only a reader. YA wasn't what it is now with endless books and beautiful covers. It was this tiny shelf on the library mostly covered with Animorphs, Nancy Drew and The Babysitter's Club. It seemed like overnight Young Adult because this massive life force and one of the biggest sellers in the market. All of a sudden everyone starts thinking of trends. It is a big giant TREND crazy train. Vampires, werewolves, were-unicorns, zombies, witches, bears, monkeys with infectious diseases taking over the planet, mermaids, steampunk.

We put so much effort in finding the next trend that we forget to write the stories we love. In my unprofessional and nobody-asked-me opinion, trends should kiss my sparkling mermaid ass. For writers who want to get published so bad it keeps them awake at night, this is the best way to make a career. Write what you love and it'll show in your story. Don't keep chasing trends. Make your story new and give it your own personal brand of awesome.

That being said, there are some things I would like to see more in YA in general. Not as a trend, but as an underrepresented group. And I will do it using images and let you all come up with the answers to my twisted brain.

trendless like,