Thursday, May 27, 2010

Research; or How To Justify A Road Trip

In the latest installment of my ongoing saga of how to use up my surplus PTO, today (later today, after I've slept, that is), I'm going off to do some research.

A friend of mine and I are heading off to Kimball, Nebraska, which is two and a half to three hours northeast of here. And it just happens to be the hometown of Phoebe Caldicott, the MC of my space pirate series. Phoebe's a librarian who stayed behind in the comfortable security of her hometown, rather than venturing forth into the wild world (at least until the day she got on the wrong plane at the wrong time).

So I have plans to visit the library where she would have worked, and the store where she would have bought her groceries. With luck, I'll find a house that could have been the one where she grew up, and an apartment or duplex where she lived up until that fateful plane crash. I might even cruise past her high school.

I'm hoping the trip will give me new insights into Phoebe's character and provide the impetus I need to start working on the story again. I suppose if nothing else, I can also take notes and pictures to use for a setting for something else sometime.

In theory, I also have relatives in the town (which was one of the reasons I picked it), along the lines of second or third cousins. I wouldn't know how to go about looking them up, though, and I doubt I'd recognize any of them if I saw them on the street. I have vague memories of going there as a child for the 50th wedding anniversary of an aunt and uncle of my father's (which would make them my great-aunt and -uncle if they were still alive, but since that was back in the 70's, I'd guess not).

I'll be happy to report back on what I learn that I didn't already know. It will be interesting to make comparisons between using the internet and Google Street View and actually going someplace to soak it all in. And I have to admit that I'm kind of excited by the idea of my first "real" research trip.

Has anyone else ever gone to research a location, or even made a trip to a library or museum to research a character or setting?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Idea Shopping; or, My Day On The Mall

As I mentioned last week, my goal for this past Tuesday was to hang out somewhere besides my living room and do some brainstorming for story ideas. I ended up on the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver, where I spent six or seven hours just wandering around, taking pictures, making notes, and enjoying the spring.

So how many story ideas did I come up with? Two that I'm adding to the queue, so far. But I also jotted down descriptions of numerous people, places, and sensations, all of which may appear in future stories. And after spending about an hour hanging about in Union Station, I now want to write a story involving trains, train travel, and train stations.

I also took a couple dozen photographs, at least some of which have the potential to spark more ideas: A girl, sitting alone on a bench near one of the light rail stations; the guy on the Mall who stood holding an alto recorder as if he were either just about to play or had just finished playing ... for the entire twenty minutes I stood there; the lady who handed me a free bible verse ... that read more like a fortune cookie (Romans 8:25: But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.).

I ate lunch in an Irish pub, and mused on how much better American football would be if it were played to a soundtrack of Irish fiddle music. (Also had a darned good pint of cider while I was there.) Later, I had cream tea and a cookie down at the Tattered Cover. What an amazing place to hang out and people-watch!

In all, I wound up with about eight pages of notes, character sketches, and random musings. Oh, and some photographs. Let's not forget them.

And a bottle of verjuice. That's very important.*

So ... was it productive? I think so. Am I glad I did it? Heck, yeah! Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. This was one of the most refreshing days I've spent in a long time. I found it very freeing to give myself permission to just roam around and let my mind wander and take pictures of dorky things like racks of bicycles and train stations.

Has anyone else ever dedicated a day, or even part of a day, to brainstorming? What were your results?


* For those who are wondering, verjuice is the juice of unripened grapes, a frequently-used ingredient in medieval and Renaissance cookery. Not easy to find nowadays, but I spotted it in a downtown market.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bad guys, bad guys everywhere

A couple weeks back, I talked about how I was struggling with which opening for my WIP. Well, I settled that one. I went with the opening that dropped my MC into the mystery of the story. I added a wrinkle to the opening in that she also has to interact with someone that causes her quite a bit of conflict. As I was writing (or should I say rewriting because I somehow lost a couple pages from the other night), I added in a couple lines about another person in the room.

This person wasn't anyone of any significance at this point in the story, just someone on the fringes of the scene. Immediately, this person sprang to life in my head. I knew what he looked like, how he acted, and what his true motivations were. Three seconds ago he didn't even have a name, now he has dreams of world domination.

Uh oh. He wasn't supposed to be my villain. I had my villain all laid out. I loved my villain (is that bad to say?). And his revelation was going to be devastating to the MC. But now there's bad guy #2 standing there yelling at me that he's equally evil and could have come up with the same evil plot if only I had thought of him first.

Well, damn! Now I have two possible villains to play with. I already know that my original villain is still my villain, but now he has a cohort to assist if necessary.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What the Dickens

A few months back, Colleen sent me a link to the Scare The Dickens Out Of Us short story contest sponsored by the Clark Library in Lockhart, Texas. The rules: A ghost story of any strip, 5k words or less and entry deadline is October 1. The monetary prizes aren't too shabby either.

While my fellow bloggers are all old hand at writing contests, I have never entered one (too busy obsessing over my first few pages, remember) but I am going to enter this one. Not only is it a fun contest, but it also coincides with my number one goal of completing a short story to submit for publication. I won't receive any feedback from the judges, but then again that's what my crit group is for, so I think the ultimate satisfaction will be in knowing I finished something and sent it off into the world.

I know some of you are working on contests now; I hope you keep us updated on your progress!

And now, I write.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Getting My Work Done

Wow – have I been a bad blogger. I’d give you my excuses (moving, work, life) but this isn’t about that. Or is it?

I’m always amazed at the writers I know, especially the published ones who are always on deadline, that have families, jobs, etc that they have to juggle. As a single gal, I really shouldn’t have as many excuses as I do to not get my ‘work’ done. Because that’s what this is for those of us who want to be published – it’s work.

A while ago I posted on my other blog a quote that Nora Roberts once made about how she wants to bitch-slap anyone who wines about their muse – this is a job, do your job she said. It caused some….let’s just say mixed feelings among those who are friends on that blog who write for pleasure and who write for the purpose of being published and who are already published. And as much as every artist, writers included, need inspiration, we need to do our work more.

This week I began work on a new project I need to finish by October. The first couple thousand words I have are rough to say the least. But I’d rather have rough than nothing at all. I can fix rough, I can’t fix nothing. That’s the hardest part for me – because I want what I produce to be perfect right out of the gate. I need to resign myself to understanding that will never happen. It doesn’t happen for La Nora, it’s certainly not going to happen for me.

So with that, my goal is an average of 2,000 words a day. It doesn’t have to be pretty – it just has to be words. Oh and one other goal – to make sure to post here on Friday like I’m supposed to!!!

So what about you – how do you make sure to get your work done?

Brainstorming Day; or Can You Catch Ideas By Going Out And Hunting Them?

I find myself in a situation that's unique in my life so far: I have more paid time off from work than I am allowed to carry over into the next fiscal year. I'm in a "use it or lose it" situation. As a result, I've scheduled several days off for various purposes.

I'm planning to use one of those days for "writing research" -- a friend and I are going to drive up to Kimball, Nebraska to visit the hometown of Phoebe Caldicott, the MC in my space pirate series. I've been to Kimball before, but not recently, so I thought it would be fun to go up, have a look around, maybe even pick out the "house where she grew up" and "the place where she lived at the start of the story." And of course we will visit the Kimball Public Library, Phoebe's place of employment.

Another day (next Tuesday) is blocked out as "writing brainstorming day". Since I signed up for a summer writing challenge, and since I decided to make it a real challenge for myself by writing short stories (or perhaps novellas, knowing me), I need to start stockpiling story ideas and writing prompts now. The problem is, as everyone knows, that ideas can be elusive little critters. The surest way I know of to draw a complete and total mental blank is to sit down at my keyboard and say, "Okay, I'm gonna have an idea now."

So this is going to be an experiment for me. I'm going to see if it's possible for me to generate ideas "on command". My plan -- such as it is -- is to take myself out somewhere, outside my usual routine, and see what happens. I plan to go somewhere where there are lots of people to watch -- perhaps the 16th Street Mall downtown* -- and just watch people interacting with each other and with their environment. I'll ride the mall shuttle and eavesdrop on people's conversations (sometimes snippets of overheard conversations make the best writing prompts!). I'll take my new camera and try to take pictures that tell stories, or at least ones that could inspire stories. And hopefully, I'll come up with at least a few new story ideas.

I've never done this sort of thing before, so I have no idea whether it will work or not. I'll report back next week and let you know how it went.

When you try to generate story ideas, what works best for you?

* For those of you who aren't familiar with downtown Denver, the 16th Street Mall is a pedestrian mall that runs from Broadway to Union Station. Basically, they completely closed down the street to motorized traffic, except for the mall shuttle buses that run more-or-less continuously along its length. When they created it, back in the early '80's, a lot of people were sure it would never work, that it was just going to finish the already-advanced decay of downtown Denver. Boy, were they wrong. Thirty years later, it's a bustling, thriving part of downtown. It also has free wi-fi.

Monday, May 10, 2010

It's Like This

Now that we are five months (!!!) into the year, I think it's time to check in with my writing goals for the year and see where I'm at.

In one sense, I'm way ahead of the game: I've read a lot of short fiction. I've always been a fan of the short story, so it's not hard for me to read, read and read some more. Over the past five months, I've focused mostly on horror fiction- and horror doesn't automatically translate into blood and gore, a subject for a future post, eh?- and it's been an eye-opener to see the myriad ways in which horror can be defined. I've also revisited the work of Shirley Jackson and Roald Dahl, two of the absolute best BEST short story writers ever published. Just brilliant, those two. Harlan Ellison is another master. Oh, there are so many! It's beyond humbling to read all of these wonderful stories- and even the occasional clunker or two- and wonder if I have a snowball's chance in hell of ever writing something good, something that will stick in a reader's mind long after they read the last sentence. And that, right there, leads to the part where I suck.

My goal is three submissions. Doable, yes? Yes. But. One must have something to submit and therein lies my dark secret: I have no finished story. Not even a half-written one. Nada. So I clearly have work to do. Ideas are percolating and I am constantly reminding myself that the goal is to get something written, not necessarily perfectly from the get-go, but just down on paper. The perfectionist in me has a hard time with that, hence my obsession with getting the first paragraph just right before moving on, but I will never make it if I don't tamp that fear of failure down.

I plan on checking back in with this goal in two months. The year will be more than half over by then; I want to have a workable first draft by then.

To all of you, how are you doing with your own writing goals?

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Writing Challenge; or, Keeping a Long Story Short

This week, I signed up for a summer writing challenge with some friends. It's a challenge where you get to set your own goal for how many words you will write between June 1 and August 31 (15,000 minimum). One of my friends chose 30,000 words as her goal, so I signed up for that, to keep her company.

Okay, so I can hear at least some of you thinking, "Yes, but haven't you done NaNoWriMo, which is 50,000 words in one month? Isn't 30,000 in three months a little, well, lame, at least for you?" And it is true that my last project, The Daughters of August Winterbourne, came in at 180,000 words in about three and a half months.

So in order to make it more of a challenge to myself, I decided that I will reach my word count by writing shorter works of fiction. I don't know that they will necessarily be "short" stories, but I've decided that in addition to the minimum word count, I will deliver at least two complete stories of less than 30,000 words total -- and preferably more than two.

Writing short has always been a challenge for me. I did take creative writing classes in college where we were required to write short stories, and some day perhaps I'll even post the stories I wrote then, just for giggles. And I've entered a couple of contests since then -- even earned an "honorable mention" in one -- but short stories have never been my forte. It's one of the reasons I was so surprised that when we had our little exercise writing to a prompt here a couple of weeks ago, I actually produced a complete story in 7,500 words.

So this summer, you'll undoubtedly get to hear more about my trials and tribulations as I struggle to write two or more works of short fiction. I'm already starting to think about story ideas, because even though I've got a whole file of story ideas squirreled away on my hard drive, those are almost all novel-length ideas. Short stories require a different kind of idea, and I've almost none of those stored up. Perhaps my best idea would be to solicit a number of writing prompts and see where that takes me.

Hey, that's an idea: If anyone has a writing prompt they'd like to throw me, would you be so kind as to post it as a comment to this entry? I won't promise that I'll use all of the prompts I receive, but at least it'd be somewhere for me to start. Thanks!

So since summer is coming, is anyone else setting some kind of summer writing goal?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Where to start?

I have an idea in my head for my next WIP. It's a fledgling idea that I've been playing around with. I've written a couple of scenes that would take place later in the narrative but I'm stuck on where to begin the story. I have two ideas right now on places to start:

(A) The first idea follow the Hero's Journey idea of showing your main character in their ordinary world before the call to action. We'd see the heroine interacting with friends and not so friends, giving you a glimpse into her world. This opening would also give the reader an insight into her internal GMC.

(B) The second idea would show the heroine's abilities put into action and set up the heroine and hero's external GMC. This would also start up the mystery/action arc of the story.

I see advantages to both but haven't been able to decide which way to go. At this point, I might just write both scenes and see which one is stronger. And on the topic of openings, here's a blog post from agent Kristin Nelson on starting your story off in the wrong place:

Starting a novel in the wrong place