Thursday, June 24, 2010

Summer Writing Challenge; or, How Am I Doing So Far?

Thought I'd take a few minutes this week and let everyone know how I'm doing with my summer writing challenge.

For those who were out of the room back in May when I announced it, I'm taking part in a summer writing challenge this year. The challenge runs from June 1 - August 31. Participants are allowed to set their own goals. I selected 30,000 words as my goal, which doesn't seem like much for someone who has done NaNoWriMo (50,000 words in one month), but I added a twist: All words that count toward my goal must be in the form of shorter works of fiction. So, short stories, character sketches, even novelettes and novellas would count. Just nothing novel-length.

Earlier this week, I completed my first "short" story, which may actually be more of a novelette at 12,200 words. But still, for me to complete anything in less than 100,000 words is something of a triumph. This is in fact the second shorter work I've completed this year, the first being a short (7,000 word) piece I threw together in response to a writing prompt here back in April.

I experimented with a few things in this story. It's written in first person, but the POV shifts between two different characters. I wanted the two POV characters to have distinctive voices, and I think I've succeeded for the most part. And I wanted the story to end with a twist; I think I achieved that as well. It is a bit longer than I'd planned (I was aiming for 8.000 words, so it's only about half again too long -- like everything else I write), but I don't know how much it could be trimmed and still make sense.

I also made use of research I did on my recent field trip to Kimball, Nebraska, since I decided to set the story there. In fact, it's sorta-kinda-but-not-really the story of my trip. Or rather, it's my trip, but the way it would have been if someone else took it -- someone with ulterior motives for visiting a small Nebraska town one day in late spring. (I feel as though I should be twirling my mustache here or something...)

However, because I want to try to submit this story for publication, I'm not going to post it on one of my blogs. I may run it past my critique pals, and of course I'm always looking for more beta readers. So if anyone who isn't part of The Melt-Ink Pot or anticiworkshop wants to provide feedback on the story, drop me a comment here (or via LJ, Facebook or Twitter if that's how you came to be here), and we'll see if we can work something out.

What's next? Well, I'll tease you a little and post the first paragraph of my new WIP here:

Edna stomped into the kitchen and threw her gardening gloves onto the counter with more than her usual vehemence. "There are fairies," she announced, her nose wrinkled in disgust. "Living at the bottom of the garden."
Yeah. It's a fairy tale. Of sorts.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Next Big Thing; or, What Shall I Write Today, Brain?

I saw an article today that made me laugh. It was about "The Next Big Thing In Publishing."

(Of course, it comes from The Onion, so you have to consider the source...)

Wouldn't it be great if we could predict The Next Big Thing? Don't we all wish we'd been working on great vampire novels five or six years ago, so that when Twilight came out, we'd all be ready to jump on the vampire bandwagon? Or how about literature/monster mashups, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Don't we all wish we'd thought of it first? (Well, I know I do -- I could have had a lot of fun writing that book...)

The problem is that nobody knows what The Next Big Thing is going to be until it happens. Even things that are predicted to be Big Things don't always turn out that way. I read an article today that said that the movie Robin Hood, with Russell Crowe, had just passed the $100 million mark. Which, I'll grant you, would be a lot of money to me, or to anyone I know, but in terms of what was supposed to be a summer blockbuster movie, that's considered "disappointing."

So what's a writer to do? Especially when, as budgets grow tighter, big publishing houses (like the major Hollywood studios) seem to be ever less willing to take a chance on something that is new and different.

Yet everything I've read suggests that "writing to the market" is pointless -- unless you're a known factor whose work is being fast-tracked, there's a long lead time between the day a book is accepted by a publisher and the day it appears on shelves. And that doesn't even take into consideration the time it might take to find an agent, and for the agent to market the book. And even going from blank screen to finished novel -- via multiple re-writes -- is not generally a quick process. So by the time I could get my Great Vampire Novel out there, the fad will have passed. (Though if I wait just a little while longer, it will be time for another vampire revival, won't it? After all, I've been seeing the vampire wave come and go since Dark Shadows. Now Barnabas Collins, there was a vampire! No sparkles on him!)

But wait, there may be hope yet. In yet another article that I read today (I know, I've turned into one big news synthesis machine this week), there are signs that maybe, just maybe, Hollywood is starting to figure out that the reason we're staying away from the box office in droves this summer is because we're tired of sequels and bad remakes of '70's shows and movies based on comic books -- sorry, graphic novels.

So the best advice would seem to be to write to your passion. There's always a market for good stories. I think I'll go try to finish one up now, in fact. Now if I can just figure out how to work a minotaur and a labyrinth into it...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Show - Don't Tell

Hopefully my fellow Melt-Ink Potter won't mind me jumping in for a quick second post this week. One of the blogs I read is Magical Words, which is done by a host of authors (Faith Hunter, C.E. Murphy, Mindy Klasky, etc etc). Today's post on the blog is by Faith Hunter and entitled "Show, Don't Tell - Conveying Emotion".

In the post, she gives us a scene with too much telling, a better version of the scene and then breaks down how it was done without telling the reader what the character was feeling. Regardless of what genre you write, this is an excellent post and highly recommend that you go check it out.

Show Don't Tell - Conveying Emotions

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Editing and reworking

Last year, I wrote a SFR novella and submitted it to a publisher. This particular publisher had a call out for space opera novellas for an anthology. Mine was rejected. Fast forward to now, almost a year since I finished. I haven't really looked at it since then. I've been busy working on other projects. But the other day I decided I wanted to pull it out and do some revamping on it.

I still love the story and my two main characters. But I've been thinking that the non-romance subplot (colonialism, racism, classism) might have been too much for a 25,000 word piece. The experiences and attitudes of the main characters will still be colored by those issues. But the focus will be much more on these two ex-lovers coming back together (and if they join forces to help the little guy, then all the better).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Edit Head vs. Writer Head; or, Shifting Gears

One thing that I've discovered about myself is that it's very difficult for me to be editing one piece while writing another. I think it's because when I'm writing, I have to work so very hard to keep my inner editor leashed that when I finally let her out she wants to edit everything in sight. {sigh, yes, including this blog entry...}

I've been in "edit-head", as I call it, for the past couple of months, trying to trim some of the fat from a Regency romance I wrote a couple of years ago. The good news is that I snipped out about 42,000 words, which is a significant accomplishment. The bad news is that the story still stands at about 189,000 words -- which is, unfortunately, about 89,000 words too many for a historical romance. However, I'm told by someone who has read both versions that the new version is much improved. That's encouraging. Now if only I could find a publisher or agent who thinks a 750 page romance novel would work!

The past few weeks, however, I've been desperately trying to switch back to "writer head" so I can get to work on my summer writing challenge. So far, I've only had limited success, especially since my summer challenge involves writing short stories. It's much easier when I'm writing a novel to tell myself that I can wait until I've finished to go back and reread and start making changes. But when my current work-in-progress is only about twelve pages long, it's hard not to go back and tweak and tighten and question every single word. And that makes it hard to get more writing done.

To make matters more complicated, I'd really like to dive in and give my latest novel, The Daughters of August Winterbourne, a first edit before November rolls around and I get to work on the sequel. And I'm going to want to start on that before the end of summer. Which means I'll probably be trying to write and edit at the same time. I'm not entirely certain my head won't explode.

Incidentally (and perhaps not too surprisingly), moving from writer-head to edit-head usually isn't that much of a challenge. It's just going back that gives me fits.

So does anyone else have problems switching between editing and writing (or vice-versa)? What strategies (if any) have you developed to make it easier to shift gears?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Road Trippin' For Research; or What I Learned

Last Thursday, my friend R. and I went to Kimball, Nebraska, to do research.

Of course, I did a little homework beforehand, so I knew that Kimball is a town of about 2,500 people, and that it is laid out on a grid centered around the intersections of Highway 71 (north-south) and Highway 30 (east-west). I knew from childhood trips that there is a Catholic church, and I looked up the location of the library and a list of restaurants (there aren't dozens but we won't starve) and shops (ooh, antique mall, yep, we'll need to go there!). I discovered that there are two elementary schools and one combined junior/senior high school. There are even two grocery stores.

When I told my cubicle neighbor where I was headed, his Google-fu discovered that Kimball is home to a wind farm. Okay, good to know.

Those are the sorts of things you can learn from the Internet. And they're good things to know about a town, if you're setting a story there (or even just having a character that comes from there). Technically, there's probably not a lot more that you need to know.

But there are lots of details you can only learn by going there.

DSCF0258For instance, you can see the wind farm from several miles away. It's up on a hill to the north of the town, on the "wrong side" of the railroad tracks. (99% of town is south of the railroad tracks.) You have to drive on a dirt road, past the hill that they're strip-mining for gravel, to get there. There's no visitor's center, just a sign telling about the project, and a locked gate. But the windmills are huge and majestic and graceful, spinning lackadaisically in the breeze. I don't know why, but I'm drawn to them.

Depending on your timing, you might drive into town, see a lot of boarded-up windows and damaged siding, and think that the economic downturn has hit this little town especially hard. It's not until you realize that only the windows on the south sides of buildings are either broken or boarded up (which has the unfortunate effect of making it appear as though the Super 8 Motel has completely gone out of business), and that a lot of cars either have plastic over their rear windows or lots of cracks in their windshields that you figure out that what you're seeing is actually hail damage. The proprietor of the antique mall told us that the hailstorm happened three days ago, and that the tornado warning sirens went off, and that the hailstones were the size of golf balls.

DSCF0285The library was built in the 1950's, and technologically-speaking, it hasn't progressed much since then. You still check books out using paper cards, and there is still a card catalog. And a microfilm reader. And a microfiche reader. The few computers you can see look like they're vintage 1995. Flatscreens? What are those? We didn't check to see if there was WiFi, but I'm betting not.

But you'll also see two display cases near the front door. One contains a collection of salt cellars, the other, cream pitchers. And there's an ongoing used book sale, like just all libraries have these days. You have to walk through the staff room to get there (a bonus for me, since this is the library where Phoebe Caldicott supposedly works!), and when you do, you find all sorts of fun things, like a book on soapmaking.

DSCF0268In the ladies room, someone has left a sachet of cloves instead of a commercial air freshener, and it smells ever so much nicer than Glade in any scent.

You see churches on practically every other street corner, a lot of churches for a town this size. We counted twelve or thirteen, including two different flavors of Baptist (though one of those was for sale). [The picture is of the Catholic church.]

DSCF0264As you drive up and down the quiet streets, you see a lot of very cute houses, most in well-kept yards (though the hailstorm definitely hurt the early flower crop). You even find one that looks a bit like an old southern manse (though smaller). There are some less-attractive houses, too, and a share of trailers and even a few apartment buildings. But mostly, it's a pretty little town. There's a bowling alley, but no roller rink (that we could find) or movie theater (there probably used to be one). There is a country club on the outskirts of town, complete with golf course; the signs directing you to it are hand-lettered, not professionally done.

There are two parks, with the requisite playground equipment and tennis courts. But one of them also has a…ummm…feature we were unable to classify. Is it a rocket? A missile? A weather station? We don't know. DSCF0306

When you talk to the lady in the antique mall (which consists of four small rooms and a hallway, and half of one of the rooms is given over to a display of cell phones, because it seems as though most businesses do double-duty in these parts), you find out that the humidity that you've been finding oppressive really is unusual for these parts. When you take a closer look at the items she has for sale, you also discover that not everything here is politically correct. DSCF0299

The food at Greg's Grub is very good, but the service is ... rather leisurely. (It took us an hour and a half to eat our late lunch). We could have tried the new restaurant in town, the one that went in where the Frontier used to be (which is rather obviously where the Burger King used to be), but it didn't open until the next day. Timing is everything.

On the other hand, if you had a preconceived notion in your head that the grocery stores would be small, poorly stocked, and expensive, you would be wrong on all three counts. The local co-op market may not have had as much of any one item as my local supermarket, but they have a better selection of items, at prices that are competitive with what I'd be paying in Denver. (In fact, ground beef was cheaper.) They even carry a flavor of tea I'm not able to find anywhere in the greater Denver metro area. (Yes, I bought some.) And when you're done shopping, they transfer your groceries to special two-wheeled carts and the bagboy takes them out to the car for you, just like they used to do at Steele's Market in Fort Collins. No carts cluttering up the parking lot, and they're providing entry-level employment to boot. Nice!

Everyone we met was easygoing and friendly. Even the ones like the librarian, who probably thought we were batty.

DSCF0308While we were there, I picked out a house that could have been the one Phoebe's parents owned, and another that could have been the house she was renting (see picture) until she got swept away on her great adventure. It's not really necessary to know that about a character, and I doubt it will ever come out in a story, but I found it very satisfying to have that kind of grounding for her.

And, as sometimes happens when you travel, you might even learn things about yourself. I learned, if I didn't know it before, that I felt like a real dork slinking around trying to take surreptitious pictures in a small-town library. I'm also way too shy to walk up to the librarian and say, "Hi, I'm an author, and I'm doing character research for a book I'm writing. Would it be okay if we took some pictures?" (I mean, how pretentious would that be? Maybe once I've published something, it'll be different.)

Still, it was a productive trip: not only did it provide character background for an existing work, but now I have the seeds for a couple of other stories kicking around in my head.

Anyone else up for a research road trip?

(Note: Click on any picture to link to a larger version on my Flickr account. Or click here to see the whole series.)