Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Story Behind The Story; or, Why Are You Telling Me This Now?

My WIP has taken a strange turn.

My brain has suddenly insisted that I stop what I'm writing and set down a (fairly detailed) account of the main character's eighteenth birthday. Chances are good that 99% of these scenes will never see the light of day. But I appear to have decided that I need to write it all down anyway.

I'm discovering, as I get deeper into editing some of my WIPs, that there are some scenes that need to be written not because they need to appear in the final story, but because I, as the author, need to assimilate that information about my character(s), and the best and most effective way to do that seems to be by writing out scenes that will never appear in the finished story.

The trick is to recognize the difference between the back story bits that need to appear in the finished work, and the ones that don't. In my current story, I know that there are two bits of information from the "birthday" section that do need to be worked into the final story. One is that the MC's grandmother, gave her and heirloom pendant for her eighteenth birthday, and the other is an interaction between her and her stepfather that occurred later that night and prompted her to move out of her parents' house the next day. I'll probably be able to work those bits in without too much trouble. But the other 3,500 words...well, I guess I'll save them for the "director's cut" version.

I've been having problems making forward progress on this story anyway (see previous blog entries), but the fact that this is happening now tells me that I have a problem with my story: I don't know my character well enough. Writing this bit of backstory helps me understand her and her motivations better, as well as those of her older sister, who is another key player in the story. I knew that the character owned a pendant that had been given to her by her grandmother. But now I know that:

- The pendant should, by rights, have gone to the MC's older sister. But it turns out that her older sister is really just her half-sister. Grandma knows this, but the MC does not. The trick will be for Grandma to justify her bequest without revealing the reason why the legacy is not passing to the older sister.
- The MC had more than sufficient reason for wanting to move out of her mother and stepfather's house when she did.
- The MC's sister was completely unaware of how the MC was being treated by their stepfather.
- When the MC left her parents' house, she moved in with her paternal grandmother for the remainder of the school year.
- The MC went to Iowa State University on a full scholarship, and majored in English. (Now if she would only tell me what she did for a living before she was laid off!)

Could I have finished writing the story without knowing all of these details about the MC. Sure, just like I could make spaghetti sauce without putting in eight or ten different herbs/seasonings and a tablespoon of sugar. I could make spaghetti sauce with just garlic and oregano, and it wouldn't taste bad. But with all of the subtle flavors added by the additional herbs and spices, it has a richer, deeper flavor--just like knowing all of this information about my MC will give my story a richer, deeper flavor.

How do other folks approach back story? Do you write it all into the story and edit it out later? Do you write it all down before you even start writing the main story? (I don't, but maybe I should!) Got any tricks for recognizing back story that doesn't need to appear in the final product?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Working Through The Rough Bits; or, What To Do When The Words Just Won't Come Out

I've been plugging slowly, stolidly away on my current WIP, working title "Fairies Living At The Bottom Of The Garden." But it's going slowly. Very slowly.

I know why it's going slowly:

1) Inner Editor won't shut up. She's read the first three chapters and thinks they're pretty good...and wants to know why the rest can't be up to that high standard.

2) Other People have read, or will read, parts of what I've written on it so far. (This is the piece I submitted to the WorldCon workshop, I also read parts of it to Beloved Husband and some friends.) That's as bad as letting Inner Editor out of her cave, if not worse. Because now other people have expectations for how the story is going to turn out, and what if I don't live up to them? The weight of those expectations can be crushing, sometimes.

3) Vacation Happened. We went out of town for a week, and while I thought I could get some writing done while Beloved Husband drove, turns out when he was driving, he wanted to listen to Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (we only recently discovered that they made more than just the twelve episodes). It's impossible for me to write while listening to something like that. And then, once we were there, we were involved in activities from 9:00 am to 1:00 am every day. So, almost no writing got done.

4) Motivational Challenges: I'm working on this story as part of my summer writing challenge, which is a Good And Fine Thing, but somehow I'm having problems motivating to stay interested in it. Probably because last year, my friend Branni was also taking part in the challenge, and she helped motivate me. Since she's no longer with us, I'm finding it difficult to stay focused.

So, now that I know what the problem is, how can I fix it?

Inner Editor is notoriously hard to jam back into her box once she's been let loose. I just have to convince myself it's okay to do things like use the word "unfamiliar" twice or even three times in one paragraph, because I can go back later and fix it. But that's not always easy to do. So perhaps I need to start posting daily word count updates on my LJ, so my friends can help guilt me into keeping the words flowing.

Dealing with the fact that others have read parts of the story is harder to deal with. What if they come up with an obvious and glaring problem that requires me to go back and do an extensive re-write? Wouldn't it be better to wait until I have the critiques back before I finish? Worse yet, what if people read it and think it's not even worth finishing? No. I just have to convince myself to trust my instincts, that this is a good story, and that it'll be worth finishing, for my own satisfaction if nothing else. But that's easier said than done.

As far as coming up with the time to write, that'll be more difficult. It being summer, the yard demands a certain amount of my time. Also, we have various projects we'd like to complete before heading off to WorldCon. But perhaps I can go back to getting a few hundred words done in the morning before work, and a few more at lunchtime. That would make a difference.

When it comes to motivation, I'm hoping that posting my daily word counts will help with that as well. After all, it's mighty embarrassing to get out there for several days in a row and have to admit that I've written nothing. Hopefully, that will provide enough incentive to keep me writing.

What do other people do when they hit a writing road block?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Workshops; or, How To Let The Air Out Of Your Ego In One Easy Step

I've gone and done it again.

I've submitted three chapters of my current work in progress to the Writer's Workshop at the World Science Fiction Convention.

What does that mean? It means that a couple of other budding writers, as well as one or possibly two published professionals, will be reading the novel excerpt I've submitted and providing a critique on it. And, in turn, I'll be providing a critique on the excerpts submitted by the other budding writers.

I did this two years ago, when the convention was held in Montreal. It was an eye-opening experience for me, mostly because I was sure I had written the next best-seller, and everyone was going to lavish praise on my story. Only I hadn't, and they didn't.

I'm able to look back at it more objectively now. To be fair, my style and voice did earn praise. But the folks doing my critique felt there was too much of a disconnect between the beginning of my story and the rest of it. They felt it was too gritty and almost photorealistic compared to the almost farcical chapters that followed.

I was, at the time, heartbroken. I couldn't even think about writing for about a month afterward. But I can see that their criticisms were valid, despite the fact that I still haven't figured out how to really fix the story. I've plotted out an alternate beginning that might work, but I'm lacking the motivation to write it. One of these days, I'll probably get around to it and see how it goes.

So why am I doing this again, you ask? Well, for a couple of reasons.

First, while my initial experience was not all I had hoped for, as a result of it, I did end up in a great on-line writing workshop, with some of the best critique partners on the planet (including one person who was in that original critique group). Second, I do feel as though I've grown as a writer as a result, and now I'm absolutely positive I've written the next best-seller. (Okay, just kidding about the second part of that last sentence.) But I think I have a more realistic idea of what to expect this time around. And third, I firmly believe that in order to grow, one has to challenge oneself. Even if it's scary (and this is). This is me, challenging myself. Hear me roar.

Renovation (this year's World Science Fiction Convention) is in Reno, August 17-21. I'll let y'all know how it goes.

What scary things have other people done to further their growth as writers?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Exercises For Writers; or, Keeping Your Fingers -- And Brain -- Nimble

I've been doing some yardwork recently -- trimming the seriously-overgrown hedges, which had gotten up to 15 feet tall or more, back to a more reasonable 6 foot height. As you can imagine, such an exercise generates more than a little bit of what we in suburbia euphemistically call, "yard waste." We are fortunate here in that our usual trash pickup service will happily pick up and haul away "yard waste" that has been either a) neatly bagged, or b) tied into bundles of sticks that are not more than six feet long. Since we're talking branches that are potentially ten feet long or more, we went with option b) (especially since option c) rent a wood chipper from Home Depot and turn the branches into mulch, was foiled by the fact that our trailer hitch has gone AWOL).

In the process of turning all of those loose sticks into bundles, I had a chance to practice my long-disused macrame skills, knotting twine around them. I was pleased to see that my fingers still remembered the skill they had learned at age nine, but somewhat troubled to find that those same fingers are not nearly so nimble as they once were, now that it's some number of decades later. And that got me to thinking that perhaps practicing my mad old macrame skills might be A Good And Useful Thing, because it might help keep my fingers nimble. And nimble fingers are a good thing for a writer to have, aren't they?

And that, in turn, got me to thinking of other sorts of non-writing exercises that might be good for writers. I participate in a biweekly icon contest on LiveJournal, where the object is to create 100 x 100 jpg or gif images for use as userpics on LiveJournal. (For some examples of ones I've made, as well as some I've, er, "collected" via the internet, check out my Flickr account.)

I think working creatively in another medium, especially a visual one, is a good exercise for a writer. Not only do you get to flex mental muscles that don't get used for writing, but you get to express yourself in an entirely different way. I take photographs for the same reasons.

But another way my icontest helps keep my brain nimble is because I'm using it as a way to teach myself how to use graphics editing software (in my case, GIMP, because I can't afford Photoshop). Two weeks ago, the contest challenged us to use textures, which I had never used before. So I learned something new, which in turn has me looking at graphic images in a different way: Now I'm constantly on the lookout for images that would make good textures. I can't help but think that exercises that make me look at things differently are good for my brain.

Related to photography, I have an exercise that I've been wanting to try, but haven't gotten around to yet, and that's a "photo scavenger hunt." As I've seen it described, participants are given a list of words, and are challenged to take photographs that embody each of the words. So, for example, the list might contain the words, "red," "happy," and "new." In response, the photographer might present the following pictures:






New (a young friend playing with the new telescope he got for his birthday)

I think it sounds like fun. Perhaps I'll try to come up with a "scavenger hunt" list to pass around at an upcoming group outing, just to see what people do with it.

The other thing I've been doing lately is playing strategy games, like backgammon, against my computer. A month ago, when I started playing, I lost most of my games. But over the course of a month, I've remembered some of my old favorite strategies, and learned some new ones. Now, well, I still don't win them all, but percentages have improved.

These are just a few examples of exercises I think would be good for a writer. What sorts of other things do people do to keep their creative and/or physical muscles in shape?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Multitasking; or Can Writer Head and Edit Head Ever Work Together?

It's summer, and I've agreed to take part in a summer writing challenge.

The problem is, my brain got stuck in Edit Head.

You see, at the same time, I was also trying to wrap up a second draft of "The Daughters of August Winterbourne." I thought to myself, "Well, I'll write every day until I meet my word count quota, and then I'll spend a little time editing. No problem."

Yeah. It sounds easy enough. But in practice...

In practice, my Edit Head took over and was trying to edit every new sentence to death as I wrote it, bringing progress on my new writing to a grinding halt. In the meantime, it was also getting distracted by the new story, and losing focus on the editing tasks at hand. Which meant that neither project was getting very far very fast.

In fact, for a couple of days, I opened up both documents, stared at them a bit, and then went off to play backgammon with my computer instead. So, yeah, not very productive. (Well, I did hone my backgammon skills a bit. But it was a loss from a writing standpoint.)

I finally gave up and focused on the editing task first. As a result, the second draft is all but finished (I'm debating whether to add my chapter breaks back in yet, or whether I should wait until I've finished the next round of edits; I'm currently leaning toward the latter).

And, not surprisingly, once I'd finished that, the next section of the new story fell out of my head and into my keyboard, with only a minimum of fuss from the Edit Head.

Which makes me wonder: Are the two modes, writing and editing, truly incompatible? Or is it simply that I haven't practiced switching back and forth between the two very much? Would more practice improve this ability? Or would it just make me want to tear my hair out?

Obviously, there aren't any easy answers to these questions. But it is something that I will continue to ponder.

Has anyone else had a similar experience? How did you resolve the issue?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Decisions, Decisions; or How Do You Know When You're Doing It Right?--Part 2

I discovered I had more to say on this topic, so we're revisiting it this week.

My second edit of "The Daughters of August Winterbourne" is all but complete. I have to edit the epilogue, and then I'd like to give the last couple of chapters a once-over to make sure I didn't take out anything that should have been left in, or vice versa. During the course of this edit, I've trimmed out almost 40,000 words, to bring the total words down to around 150,000. I was aiming for 100,000, but this may be as close as I can get, at least for now. On the whole, I'm reasonably pleased with this edit; the writing is now much cleaner, and a lot of excess verbiage has been cleared out to let the story shine through better. After letting it rest for a couple of weeks, I plan to skim through one last time looking for superfluous passages. Then another couple of weeks of rest, and I can hopefully start going through on my "beauty pass", wherein I add back in some of the small details to help with setting and characterization, things like smells and sounds and such. And then, maybe, the book will be ready for the light of day.

I'm still struggling with two important questions, though:

1) Am I starting the story in the right place?

I begin the story with Celia Winterbourne landing her father's airship the day before she goes off to college. Would it be better to skip that and go right to her arrival in Oxford? If so, how do I work in some of the detail from the current beginning? I think it's important to show up front how passionate she is about airships and flying them. One thought would be to have her fly the airship to Oxford, but since she's supposed to meet two of the characters with whom she interacts throughout the book at the train station, I'd have to figure out a different--but equally effective way--to introduce those two characters. It's a bit of a puzzle. For the time being, I'm inclined to leave things the way they are, but I may end up changing my mind after all.

2) Am I telling the story from the correct POV?

So there I am, 9/10ths of the way through my second edit pass, when I start to wonder...would this be a better story if I told it in the first person? Would Celia be a more compelling character if we could see the world through her eyes, instead of at one remove?

Part of me says that yes, it would be a better story if written in the first person. I'd be able to tell you more about Celia directly, instead of having to rely on what she shows the world. But part of me likes the third-person POV for this story; plus, in the next volume, the narrative track splits between Celia and another character, with a few other characters stealing a scene here and there. If I switch to first person, I'll lose that.

But just for comparison purposes, here's the first draft of the first two paragraphs as originally written:

The airship Sophie's Lightning gleamed golden in the late afternoon sun as it hung over the grassy meadow just outside the village of Windmill Hill. The errant breezes from the ocean would have made landing the craft a challenge for a lesser pilot, but Celia Winterbourne had been piloting her father's airships since the age of eleven. Eight years of practice had made her skilled in all the craft's nuances. Her fingers flew over the control panel, pulling levers to make minute adjustments to the rudder and the seven small propellers that helped guide the airship.

The control deck was open to the warm August air, giving Celia excellent visibility on three sides. There were window panes that could be put up in case of inclement weather, but the day had been so fine that she felt no need for them, even when the ship was cruising high above the English countryside. Taking careful note of the landing markers as well as the windsock, she made yet another adjustment to the starboard-side propellers, swinging the tail of the ship slightly to port. Perfect! A touch to another control, and the graceful ship set down precisely beside its dock, with only the most gentle of bumps to tell her they had landed. She grabbed a green flag and waved it out the front window as a signal for the waiting attendants to come anchor the ship in place.

And here are the same paragraphs re-written in first person:

The grassy meadow outside the village of Windmill Hill looked lush and soft in the late afternoon sunlight as Sophie's Lightning hovered over it in preparation for landing. Seated at the pilot's station, I kept my hands close to the ship's controls. I've been flying Papa's airships for the past eight years, since I was eleven, so I knew from experience that no matter how clear and still the day, breezes from the nearby ocean could always cause problems on landing.

As if reading my thoughts, a stray gust caught the Lightning's tail and swung it to port. I touched the control to send increased power to the aft port steering propeller, and the airship obediently swung back into line. I smiled. "Good girl," I said, patting the control panel in front of me.

The control deck was open to the warm August air; I'd decided that it was too nice a day to put up the glass window panes, even when we were at altitude. Besides, having the windows down gives me better visibility, at least on three sides, and when I'm piloting, I like to see as much as I can.

I looked down and took note of the landing markers, as well as the windsock, and noticed that the ship's tail still wanted to swing to port. I made another adjustment to the control; then, before the breeze could catch her again, I set the ship down precisely on her landing marks. I felt only the gentlest of bumps to let me know that we were down, and I sighed. Our summer idyll was over; I grabbed the green flag to signal the ground crew to come tether the ship down, but at the same time, I couldn't help feeling a little melancholy. In all likelihood, it would be next summer before the Lightning and I would be aloft together again.

Which is a really rough draft, but enough of one to show me that the story could conceivably be told in first person -- but that it would change the character of the story. It would still be a good story, but it would be a different story. Since there are a lot of things I like about the story the way it is now, I think I'll leave it in third person (unless someone comes up with a compelling reason to do otherwise).

Again, how do you know for sure whether or not a decision is right? The answer is that you don't always. Sometimes, you have to try it both ways and see which you like better.

What other sorts of decisions have you faced as a writer? How did you make your decision? Have you ever changed your mind later?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Summer Writing Challenge 2011; or, How I Plan To Spend My Summer Vacation

June is here once again, and with it, the Summer Writing Challenge. My friend Branni got me into this last summer: it's a "set your own goal" writing challenge, with two teams competing to see which group can have the most members meet their goal. We both thought it would be a good challenge for us. She was having trouble getting motivated to write due to health issues, and I had finally recovered enough from NaNoWriMo to want to start writing new stuff again.

Sadly, Branni passed away this past March. I almost decided not to take part in this again this year because she wouldn't be here to do it with me. But after some soul searching, I decided to do it after all, because I know that if she were still here, she'd want me to do it with her. Perhaps I'll ask her husband if it's okay if I come over and spend a couple of hours writing under their apple tree, where she and I wrote last summer.

I've upped my word count goal a little over last year's--then, I aimed for (and completed) 50,000 words. This year, I'm shooting for 60,000, which, over the course of three months, comes to a little over 600 words a day. That's not a bad goal, and it's one that will hopefully still leave me enough brain power left over to complete my edit of Book 1 of the "Daughters of August Winterbourne" series.

I have two projects in mind for this summer. The first is to complete the "suburban fantasy" story I started last year. It involved a tribe of fairies who move into the garden of a widow who's trying to sell her house, and the effect of a faerie circle on property values. I'd originally thought this would be a novella, but I'm thinking it's headed more for novel territory. It was at about 20K words with a third of the story told, so I might actually be able to bring it in under 100K for a change. (Stop laughing, Beloved Husband! I know where you sleep!)

Should that piece come in shorter than I expected, or should I get really ambitious and wrap it up before the end of summer anyway, I'd also like to continue to work on my response to one of our writing prompts from last August, which I blogged about here. It was an intriguing beginning to a story, and I'm frankly dying to know how it all comes out. And the only way I'll ever know is if I write it. Right?

So that's how I plan to spend my summer. How about you? Does anyone else have writing goals for the summer