Amber Morrell

writer, reader, librarian

Category: Writing (Page 1 of 2)

My #PitchWars 2016 Bio

pitchwarsThis year, at the recommendation of some amazing author-friends, I’m submitting my manuscript to Pitch Wars. Pitch Wars is an annual contest held by Brenda Drake in which unagented, unpublished authors with finished manuscripts are mentored by agented and/or published authors. You can read more about Pitch Wars here on Brenda Drake’s website. 

In preparation for this year’s Pitch Wars competition, I’ve created a bio about myself and my writing. You can find more contestant bios here on Lana Pattinson’s website.

And so, without further ado…

About Me

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My demonspawn daughter and I.

I’m a writer based in Southern California, though my heart truly belongs in the forest. I’ve been writing stories since elementary school, and in high school I went to Idyllwild Arts Academy where I studied creative writing. While I haven’t been published, my biggest writing achievement is making someone faint from a gruesome short story I read at my school’s annual creative writing reading. I’m currently a senior at California State University, Fullerton, where I study English. I also work as a library page at my local library.

I enjoy long walks at the renaissance fair, candlelight games of Settlers of Catan, and sipping hot mulled mead. Mostly the mead.

I enjoy long walks at the renaissance fair, candlelight games of Settlers of Catan, and sipping hot mulled mead. Mostly the mead.

I’m very active in my local writing community, O.C. Writers, where I host a weekly write-in, and every November I participate in National Novel Writing Month in the North Orange County region. I try to go to as many local author events as I can because I truly love the community of writers here, especially in the LA area. Festivals like YALLWEST and Ontario Teen Book Fest make my heart swell with joy. I love the writer community on Twitter, too, and you can find me at @atmorrell.

About My Book

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When 12 year-old Gracia Boyd finds a dead man in her backyard, it’s up to her and Zoe, the dead man’s cyborg daughter, to find his killer before the killer finds them.

The duo find themselves stuck in the city of Splint, a strange mishmash of times and cultures that exists separate from the linear time stream. Everyone in the city of Splint has a Kytherian Device — a strange amulet that works as a sort of magical multi-tool, allowing the user to pick locks, light fires, freeze enemies, travel time, and more. But the Department of Temporal Transactions has a lockdown on time travel functionality, preventing anyone from traveling unless they have authorization. Gracia and Zoe have to find the Key that will let them time travel freely — a Key that will get Gracia home to her own time, and give Zoe the freedom from Splint she’s always wanted.

If they don’t find the Key before the killer does, time will be unlocked forever, an event that would wreak havoc on the time stream. But with a secret society out to stop them, an evil bureaucratic government agency out to kill them, and traitors among their friends, freedom seems a long way off.

SPLINT is a middle grade fantasy adventure complete at around 55,000 words. Think S.E. Grove’s THE GLASS SENTENCE meets Neil Gaiman’s INTERWORLD, with a little bit of DOCTOR WHO and FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST thrown in.

Diverse characters are very prominent in this novel. The main character, Gracia, is a biracial girl with vitiligo — a condition that affects the pigmentation of the skin on certain parts of the body. Gracia befriends Zoe, a girl whose arm and leg have been replaced by cybernetic pieces, and whose parents came from two different time periods. They bond over the parts of their bodies they’ve lost, and the parts of themselves they hold on to. While these aspects aren’t part of the main plot, they serve as a very important backdrop to the action.

Miscellany

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    The line between magic and science is optional.

    My favorite authors are Neil Gaiman, V.E. Schwab, and Diana Wynne Jones.

  • I almost studied nanoengineering because I was obsessed with idea of one day creating a space elevator.
  • I minored in geography because I love to learn about the world, especially places and cultures we don’t see in fiction often.
  • On that note, I really want to travel to Madagascar. It’s my dream.
  • My clothes are black, my car is black, my coffee is black, and my soul is probably black, too.
  • I left my bones heart in Northern Idaho — one day I want to move to a farm and raise mini Pygmy goats. Because come on, have you SEEN those things?
  • I try not to watch too much TV — most of the TV I do watch is whatever my three-year-old watches. I’m basically a Daniel Tiger expert at this point. However, I do have a soft spot in my heart for Arrested Development, Parks & Rec, 30 Rock, and Archer. (If you wanted to know what my sense of humor is like, that pretty much defines it.)
  • Girls rule, boys drool.

UPDATE: Obligatory link to a gif. Promise me you’ll watch it. It’s funny.

Staging the Story: Film Techniques to Engage YA Readers

AWP16ThumbnailTwo weeks ago I attended AWP 2016 in Los Angeles. This three day conference features panels, lectures, discussions, readings, and a huge exhibit hall filled with small presses and lit mags. I felt like a kid in a candy store, ready to gobble up as much delicious writing wisdom as I could fit in my mouth. I went to roughly a dozen panels and filled an entire notebook with notes. I can’t recapture the magic or the energy of the conference in a single blog post, but I will try to recount some of the wisdom I acquired. This will likely be the first in a series of posts, each one recounting a specific aspect of the conference.

This first post is about an amazing panel I attended on the second day called, “Staging the Story: Film Techniques to Engage YA Readers,” featuring authors Cori McCarthy, Ingrid Sundberg, Jennifer Bosworth, and Amy Rose Capetta. This captivating panel discussed using screenwriting techniques in order to create a tight, engaging work of fiction, especially in the realm of YA. Of all the panels I attended, this one featured the most thorough and in-depth craft talk and left me feeling like I had tangible, concrete tools to make my writing better. I couldn’t help but start scribbling down my new ideas while simultaneously trying to take detailed notes–it was that inspiring! Here are a few of the main points touched on in the panel and my major takeaways.

Don’t Be Afraid of Structure12417794_10207689812656583_6309576477689884822_n

A lot of writers are afraid that they are stifling their creativity or making a “cookie cutter” plot if they use traditional story structure. However, the rigid structure of screenplays can actually create a tighter novel–one where your audience anticipates the story in an engaging way. It’s not cheating on “falling back” on a cheap trick when you use structure, either. The panelists quoted the wise Joss Whedon on the issue of structure: “Anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.” Structure is a framework for keeping your writing–and yourself–under control.

Ingrid Sundberg noted in the importance of of “The Midpoint.” When we think of plot in the typical 3-act structure, most writers focus on the inciting incident and the climax as the most important plot points of the story. However, the midpoint–which serves as its own de facto act break in the middle of Act II–can be just as important.

Ingrid used a lot of famous movie examples to push this point: In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs escape at the midpoint; in The Hunger Games, the actual games start at the midpoint; in Back to the Future, Marty McFly ruins his parents’ relationship at the midpoint; in Toy Story, Buzz realizes that he’s a toy at the midpoint.

You get the idea. The midpoint is important. Ingrid says that by moving a major emotional revelation to the middle, you energize the rest of your novel. This is a great tip for avoiding the dreaded “murky middle.”

quote1Cinematic Motifs and Visual Imagery

While movies are very visual, it seems counterintuitive that books would be as well considering they’re just text. But there are actually a lot of cinematic techniques you can use in order to add important visual representation to your novel. Jennifer Bosworth suggested creating elaborate Pinterest boards for everything; adding concrete and specific details to your writing helps the reader visualize and fill in the blanks.

When we think of cinema we often think of action movies–big elaborate fight scenes and Michael Bay-level explosions. But the panelists urged writers to find the cinematic nature of the story beyond fights. Cori gave the example of using metaphors as emotional language–for example, in her novel Breaking Sky, she would describe the characters’ emotions as being “revved up” or “stalled out,” which fit in thematically with the novel’s overall theme (it’s a school for elite fighter pilots).

Another good tip is to use film cuts in your writing. This is knowing where to clip off emotional scenes in order to preserve tension. For example, instead of resolving a fight, clip off the scene before it’s finished. Leave bits and pieces in the subsequent scenes so that readers don’t know exactly what happened.

And if you need to reveal major information, don’t do a “walk and talk”–where characters simply word vomit all over each other while walking down a hallway. Make it more active. Show the reader more and tell them less–use visual and physical cues as well as objects to show what the characters are thinking and feeling and what they are trying to convey. And don’t resort to mundane actions, either: “shrugging” and “nodding” can almost always be cut because the actions are implied in the dialog.

Cinema in Genre and Contemporary Fiction

quote2When it comes to genre fiction, the panelists talked about the use of constraint and creative limitation. By limiting the magic, you carve the story. Don’t try to do everything at once. As Jennifer Bosworth suggests, don’t try to write, “Buffy meets The Ring meets the Bible meets Twilight.” Focusing in on one idea and confining yourself to its limitations will help create a stronger story.

But when it comes to contemporary, how do you make real life interesting? According to Cori, “Contemporary writing is cinematic in nature because memories are cinematic.” When we remember an important moment in our lives–our first boyfriend, senior prom–we remember very specific and vivid moments, not a play-by-play of everything that happened. Think about how the character will remember these moments fifteen years from now, and that should be the root of your scenes. And don’t forget that contemporary isn’t just straight real life–it can feel whimsical, too. “Fantasy has to be relatable, but contemporary can be fanciful.” (Cori’s one liners were totally on point during this panel.)

It’s hard to convey how amazing and informative this panel was, so I hope this post passes on some of the great tips I got from Cori, Ingrid, Jennifer, and Amy Rose. It was difficult trying to take detailed notes of everything they were saying while writing down all of the ideas for my own novel that were simultaneously whizzing through my head. Thank you so much to these amazing ladies for such a great panel!

Everyone Starts Somewhere

I’m still toiling away on edits of my MG time travel project, which I’ve decided to call (for now) SPLINT. I gave myself a deadline of the end of January to finish all the rewriting I planned, and I actually seem on track to meet that goal, perhaps even a bit early. I really want to try to finish before the semester starts on Monday, although that’s complicated by the fact that I’ve already received reading assignments for classes that haven’t even started yet.

After I’m done with those revisions I’ll have an actual, complete “first draft” which will, of course, need one (or more) additional passes before I can give it to my very lovely and very patient beta readers. But because the semester is starting and I won’t have the time to devote as much attention as I’d like on the project, I think I might shelve it for a while. It’s been in my brain for so many months now that I’m starting to feel exhausted by it. I’d like to take a step back and let it simmer. I want to forget what I wrote so that when I go back and read it for further edits I can see it more objectively–see what works and what doesn’t without being so entrenched in the details as I am now.

Plus I think I might only be able to work on personal projects on Monday nights, when I go to my writer’s group. Two to three hours one day a week is hardly enough time to devote to editing, and I want to be able to give SPLINT the attention it deserves, and a few measly hours once a week aren’t enough.

So I’m going back to my old project. One I’ve been working on since 2013 and has, since then, taken on multiple forms that are all very, very different from each other. My writer group friends know it as my Griffin project, but it needs a new name since the creatures aren’t really griffins at all anymore–they’re something different. I’ve spent the last few months that I haven’t been working on it thinking about it from time to time, and today I wrote some notes about the direction I want to take it. My scope in previous drafts was much too big, so I have to simplify the story or split it up. Right now I’m leaning toward the latter, so we’ll see how it goes. I hope getting back in the trenches of playful word vomit will be a nice break from schoolwork and from SPLINT.

The fact that my writing hasn’t really gone anywhere or been ready to do anything other than sit in my brain and on my hard drive gets me down sometimes. Yesterday I really needed some inspiration, so I decided to read some blogs by authors I admire to see if I could glean any insight from them. Specifically I was reading V.E. Schwab’s blog, because I love her writing and she’s extremely prolific on the novel front and I basically want to be her. I especially admire that she writes across categories, having releases in MG, YA, and Adult, which is something I see myself doing.

Anyway, I absolutely loved her blog and after I was several pages in I wondered when she started it. Did she start it as a way to market her books? Or did she have her blog before she ever even got published. Turns out her blog goes way back to before she even landed an agent. And for some reason, reading through her frustrations at the publishing process gave me hope. Because we all start somewhere. And I made a tweet about it, which was pretty well received on Twitter.

I’m not sure if this post was supposed to depressing or inspirational. I guess it just is what it is.

Collaborative Writing

Barmy Drapers writing diligently... or just posing for the photo, which is exactly what I'm doing.

At first glance, writing and reading are inherently solitary acts, often as a way to escape the stress of social activity. I love the idea of curling up all by myself with a good book and a hot cup of tea on a rainy day. I don’t need anyone–just myself and the words on the page. There’s a similar romantic notion about writing: who doesn’t dream of moving to a cabin on the coast of Maine and disconnecting from all technology to write the next great American novel? Even if you’re not that specific, when most people imagine writing they imagine doing it alone. And for the most part, much of it is done alone–even if you’re part of a writing group, or in a public cafe surrounded by people, writing is your hands on your keyboard typing your words.

This is the way I’ve approached writing for most of my life: as something I have to do–to finish–before I can share it with the world. But recently my perceptions of the writing process have been changing. Over the past year and a half I’ve been meeting weekly with my local writer’s group. We’re lucky that we meld with each other so well. We have similar tastes and interests. We exist on the same wavelengths. And we get excited about each other’s work. Every Monday we get together and sit side by side at the community table in the local Panera bread and we put our heads down and we write.

But more than that: we make goals. We encourage each other. We challenge each other. At the beginning of last year we created a communal goal sheet, so we could set our own goals and then encourage each other to actually meet those goals. My goal last year was to read more books: done. Finish a manuscript: done. And to be honest, I only accomplished those goals because of the pressing guilt that I was letting my friends down, not for a deep down desire to finish. Some nights I dragged myself to my keyboard even though I was tired, grumpy, and didn’t want to write–but my group’s encouragement made me continue ever on, and once I got on a roll I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop reading. I couldn’t stop writing. I took their book suggestions and devoured them and suddenly reading wasn’t so solitary: I was talking to people in real life about books that we both loved and didn’t have to read for school. It was–and continues to be–intoxicating.

Writing developed a similar feeling. The more comfortable I got with my writer’s group, the more I opened up about what I was working on. I always had a fear (still do) that saying what I’m writing doesn’t convey what I’m actually writing. That it will sound stupid and clunky on my lips compared to my (obviously beautiful, perfect, poetic) words. But I was met only with encouragement! And genuine excitement! And people asking me, nearly every week, “So how is your gryffin story going?” or “I can’t wait to beta read your novel when it’s done.” Writing left the realm of the solitary. I wasn’t writing just for me anymore. I wasn’t writing for money or fame or any of those things you dream up late at night as you roll around in your bed, not actually writing, but dreaming about once your book is released (and of course it’s always the next Harry Potter). I was writing for all of us.

And then something amazing happened: my writing got better. Whenever I was stuck or needed an idea, I had a group of willing and excited people there ready to banter back and forth about what would work best. Whenever I was feeling discouraged, I had friends who could share their dirty tips and tricks on how to keep going even when the going gets rough (i.e., reading something in a different genre, reading a bad, bad book, or eating a pound of chocolate to keep your spirits up). Beta reading for my friends in my writer’s group has been extremely rewarding, because I help them accomplish their goals while learning a lot about my own writing and style through the critique process. And once I was comfortable enough to talk about my writing to people I could trust, I became less afraid of talking about it with others. With my school friends, with my family, with my professors. And even though I feel like there’s a stigma around aspiring writers, you’d be surprised how supportive and interested people actually are when they realize you’re actively working on writing, not just saying that one day you will.

So when I say collaborative writing, I don’t mean tag-teaming chapters or making a group story. Although that would probably be awesome. I mean finding a community, in person or even online, that you can trust to be excited about your ideas, to encourage you through the tough times, and to hold you accountable for what you want to accomplish. People that are also toiling through their own work that you can encourage too. People that will trust you enough to share their work with you, and vice versa. Writing doesn’t have to be done alone–and who knows what friends you’ll make along the way.

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