Thursday, July 29, 2010

Finding The Path; or, Which Way From Here?

The Internet is a big and wonderful place, full of websites that are helpful, useful, or just plain strange. It's like a library that's hyped up on caffeine, speed, hallucinogens, and maybe a rum-and-coke, all at once. Anything you want to know how to do, just ask the Internet. Someone, somewhere, will have advice for you. Probably several someones.

So it's not surprising that when you're an aspiring author, the Internet has plenty of advice to offer. "Success will be yours," says site after site, "if you only do this one very important thing."

The problem is, no one can agree on what that one thing is. Some say, "Find your voice." Others say, "Write every day." Still others say things like, "Write only what you're passionate about," "Eschew adverbs and dialogue tags," and "There is no good writing; there is only bad writing and good rewriting."

Can all of these helpful, well-meaning, earnest advice givers be right? Well, yes, they can -- just not all of them, for everyone. Each one has found his or her golden rule, the one thing that works best for them. The problem is that what works fabulously well for one person can result in utter failure for another.

This is because, as I am finding, no two writers are alike. They don't work alike, they don't think alike, and they sure as heck don't write the same way. So one writer might swear by outlines, while another is stifled by them. One might write a nearly-perfect first draft, while another depends more on mad editing skills to turn a sloppy first draft into something magical.

So what I -- and every writer on the face of the Earth -- have to do is to winnow through the piles and heaps of writing advice out there on the Internet in an attempt to find the path that works for me. When I've done that, I can share what I've learned with others, all the while fully aware that my Holy Grail is another person's Sinkhole of Despair.

One of the things I'm learning about myself is that it is possible for me to read and try to follow too much advice all at once. The symptoms of that are pretty clear: Inner Editor picks the lock of that cage I keep her in and hovers over my keyboard, questioning every word choice, every punctuation mark. "Because if you write the first draft carefully enough," she murmurs seductively, "you don't have to go back and do as much editing. Look at all the time that will save!"

And yes, it's true. If it really did work that way, I could save a lot of time. But what is more likely to happen -- and is, in fact, what has happened with my current WIP -- is that the story stalls out, too self-conscious to continue. Inner Editor is trying to make me follow all of the advice at once. And it's just not working.

So maybe it's time to step back from all of those enticing Twitter feeds, the ones with siren-like links to article after article about how to better one's writing skills. Maybe it's time to lock the Inner Editor back into her clean, comfortable cage for the time being and get some writing done.

Maybe I need to focus on what works for me, for now.

Anyone else suffering from advice overload? Anyone else have an Inner Editor who's been getting a little too sassy lately?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Let's do an exercise...

Okay, we're going to have a little interactive exercise here at The Meltink Pot. A few months ago, I told you about an exercise done at the Mary Buckham workshop. Basically, we were all asked to list three characteristics of a character on a sheet of paper. That sheet of paper was then given to a random person in the group. They would list things about what that word meant to them as to what that person might be like.

If someone wrote 'silent' - the response might be thoughtful or emotionally distant.

Another example: impatient -- could mean decisive or acts on impulse

We were asked to think of each word as both a strength for that character, as well as a weakness. So I'm going to give my fellow Meltink Potter and any readers out there a couple key words that I think are representative of main characters in a WIP. I'll ask you to tell me to give me responses on what those traits could mean about the characters. I'm not going to tell you anything else about the characters, not even gender.

Character 1:
easy going

Character 2:
risk taker

Friday, July 23, 2010

Plotting, Pantsing, Plotsing –

There are probably as many different ways to come up with a story and commit it to paper as there are story ideas. Some authors plot, some “Pants” (as in “fly by the seat of your”) and others do something in between. There are workshops and blog posts a plenty about them all. And when you’re a newbie it can be overwhelming trying to find just the right way to come up with your story elements.

I’ve attended workshops on elaborate story boarding complete with poster-board and multi-colored post-it notes. I’ve also attended workshops given by successful authors who didn’t plot a thing, they just sat and wrote and out plopped a best seller.

I am not an organized person – I try to be. At work I’m Little Miss Anal but in my personal life I’m neat, but not organized. I used to live with someone who alphabetized their books and CDs – mine just landed on a shelf in an arrangement that seemed nice. In my writing I’ve tried both plotting and pantsing and I’ve come to a conclusion – I’m neither, and both.

Last year I wrote a short story that I plotted out chapter by chapter. I will say that did make things easy when I sat down to write. It turned out okay and the story is finished (although needs to go through the editing phase). It worked out so well that I decided to do it for my novel length project. Turns out, plotting a novel chapter by chapter is very different from plotting a short story. But what I realized during my plotting frustration was that I was writing the ‘wrong’ story. My plot just wasn’t working and, to make matters even more frustrating, a bit of research brought up a whole new story idea that I just wanted to write. Not plot. But write.

So, that’s what I did. I set aside Novel #1 and began writing the current WIP I’m calling “Montana Groom”. The first few chapters are rough at best – there’s plenty of telling and not showing, characters who are one way and then another and we won’t even talk about the grammar issues. But yesterday at lunch I had a writer’s “ah ha!” moment. I figured out my major internal conflicts for my hero and heroine. This of course means re-writing the opening chapters (but like fellow Melt-Ink Potter Samantha said, better that than the whole book!) but it also means that from here on out I know how I want the story to go. And I’m going to plot – kind of. I’m going to write out the main scenes that I want to have happen (if only so I don’t forget). I’m not to the halfway point yet but I do feel like it’s all down hill from here on this novel.

So will this approach work on another project? It’s hard to say. What I’ve learned is that each story is different. What works for this project might not work for another. I’ve also learned that’s okay. Getting the words down is what matters in the end.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Homonym Traps; or, I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Homonyms. They're sneaky little words, really, slinking their way into sentences where they don't belong, hiding from the spell checker, and then, WHAM! There it is, glaring out at you from the text (usually right after whatever it is has gone to print), and you feel like the biggest doofus ever.

I had two different friends get caught in the same trap this week: the infamous "discrete/discreet" conundrum. Both used "discrete" (separate, individual), when what they really meant was "discreet" (tactful, confidential). They both knew better, but that didn't stop them from picking the wrong member of a homonym pair for their sentences.

Sometimes you can't help it. Your fingers are on autopilot, and they simply type the wrong word. (Mine often want to type "to" where I really mean "too".)

Another homonym trap I saw someone get caught in today was illusive (deceptive, misleading, in the nature of an illusion)/elusive (evasive; hard to catch/grasp). They meant to say that someone was hard to catch up with; instead, what they said was that he was deceptive. Hmmm, that's not quite the same.

Past/passed is an especially tricky one because the words can be used similarly. The train went past the station vs. The train passed the station. The trick to remember is that passed is the past tense of the verb pass, whereas past can be a noun, an adjective, an adverb, or a preposition -- in short, anything but a verb.

A couple of others that I see fairly frequently:

reign: What a king does
rein: Leather strap used to control a horse

Populace: The inhabitants of a place
Populous: Densely populated

vice: A bad habit
vise: A device for clamping things

How can a humble writer stay out of homonym traps? I'm afraid there's no easy answer. Sometimes a grammar checker will catch them, but not always. Spell checkers are definitely not helpful. About the only thing you can do is to just be aware that a word has a homonym, and when in doubt, pull out a dictionary to pick the right one. (Or you could check this list first, to see if the words are on it. It's a pretty extensive list.) Having a second set of eyes to look at something often helps, too.

So which homonyms plot to trap you? How do you catch them?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why yes, I am still alive...

Eeek! I've been terribly bad about posting over here the last few weeks. I blame visiting relatives, vacation, and being very very sick (still suffering from bronchitis). With all going on, I've also seen little time to write. I've still been plopping down a few words here and there when I have the chance but no big concentrated times to plow ahead on any projects. I'm also a little torn on what projects to work on. There are about three that I actually would like to concentrate on but have been struggling on whether to try and work on all three at once or steadily concentrate on just one of them.

I saw this link and found it amusing:
Excerpts from One-Star Reviews on Amazon - These are from novels that are part of Time Magazine's Top 100 Novels from 1923 to Present.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Stay On Target; or, Did I Set The Bar Too Low?

Okay, first things first:

If there's anyone on the face of the planet who hasn't yet seen the pictures (hard to believe because I've been babbling about it all over the place), my office is more-or-less finished. You can take a little tour of it over on my LiveJournal account (which in turn links to my Flickr account).

Yes, I am all squee over it. It's a warm (okay, at the moment, a little TOO warm), welcoming space. If we ever get to turn off the fans(1) again, I'll be able to hear the babbling of the water circulating in the fish pond outside the window. There are actually two windows and an exterior door, so there's at least some airflow.

But frankly, I don't care that it's a little warm. It's my space, and I'm happy in it.

Which is good, because I really need to find my Happy Writing Place. It's now July 15, halfway through my summer writing challenge, and I'm just over halfway to my goal. The problem is that with my energies focused on finishing the office, I haven't had much left to give to my writing. Last week's word count was not even what I would put out during one day of NaNoWriMo; the week before was half of that, and this week is on target to be even less impressive. Granted, this is short story writing, which is harder for me, but I'm still feeling pathetic and unworthy.

I could say that I'm having writer's block. Or I could say that the muse just isn't inspiring me at the moment. But I know that's not the problem. I know that I'm capable of putting out 1,500 words a day without much effort, muse or no muse.

I'm beginning to wonder if part of the problem was that I set the bar too low on my challenge. I have another 14,900 words to write by the end of August. I know -- because I've done it -- that I am capable of writing over 10,000 words in one day. If I had a couple of really good days of writing, I could blow past that goal and coast for the next month and a half.

Maybe I just need to up my goal. If I were to write just 500 words a day for the next 45 days, that would give me 22,500 words. Five hundred words a day is certainly do-able; if I would just quit spending my lunch hour catching up on Twitter and write, I can easily do 500 words at lunchtime.

I know that another part of my problem is that my brain has been mulling over The Daughters of August Winterbourne for the last month or so. I've had four beta readers finish it now (Beloved Husband finally finished it on Sunday), and I've gotten some constructive feedback from them. So I want to dig my fingers into it and start editing. Now.

Perhaps what I need to do is offer myself a reward of editing time once I get my 500 words per day written. That could work.

I'll give it a shot and report back in a couple of weeks. As I've mentioned before, I have a hard time swapping back and forth between writer-head and edit-head, so this will be yet another challenge for me.

And now, time to go see if I can find 500 words to say about a fairy invasion of the garden...

(1) Our house does not have air conditioning. It used to have a big whole-house fan, but that stopped working last fall and we haven't gotten it fixed yet. And daytime temps here in sunny Colorado have been in the mid-to-upper 90's for the last couple of days...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Long And Short Of It; or, "Right-Sizing" Your Ideas

I'm challenging myself to write short (or at least, shorter) stories this summer. However, one of the things I'm struggling with is how to tell the short story ideas from the novel-length ones.

Two weeks ago, I started on a fairy story. I was pretty sure that was a short story. Until I started writing it. Now I'm thinking it might end up being a novel. I'm going to try to write it as a short story or novelette anyway, but I don't hold out much hope.

I think one of my problems is that when I get story ideas, what I really get are characters and scenarios, and not complete plots. So my story idea looks something like, "A woman who is trying to sell her house discovers a fairy circle at the bottom of her garden, which is going to have a large negative impact on the sale of the house." I may even know things like: The woman is a widow, in her fifties, and just got laid off from her job recently. Her sister has been living with her to try to help make ends meet. The woman's name is Beryl and her sister's name is Edna. The house is in Connecticut. Lots of good and useful details. I'm only missing one important thing.

I don't know how the story gets resolved.

That's not quite true. I'm beginning to have a glimmering of an idea. But when I look at the idea, I think to myself, "That's gonna take more than 10,000 words to set up, percolate, and resolve." Then I start thinking that maybe I should save this for a longer story after all.

The one "short" story I've completed so far this summer has been critiqued, and one of the questions some of the readers asked was, "Is this really a short story, or the start of something larger?" And I can't honestly say that I wouldn't come back and add more to the story at some point. (Actually, I think it reads like the pilot for a TV series, but I don't know that it's interesting enough to sell in that market, so perhaps I should consider alternative media. Web serialization, perhaps?)

I'm not short on story ideas. During a network outage at work today, I started writing yet another new story, about a princess who is "sturdy" ... and I'm already wondering if it's not a novel. Hmm, maybe it's YA? Those are supposed to be shorter, aren't they?

But what I do seem to be short on are short story ideas. Ones that can be told in fewer than 5,000 words.

Anybody have any suggestions for telling when an idea is suitable for a short story? (At this point, I'm beginning to think that "write porn" would be a valid option...)


Oh, and for those who were wondering, no, I have not managed to move into my new office yet. The painting is done, though, and the curtain rods are hung in the other room that I am finishing. But the office is not yet done. Don't worry, I'll happily (giddily) post to let everyone know when it is. (I bought a rockin' cool desk lamp for my big wooden desk, though. Very Victorian-looking.)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Office Space; or Maybe, Finally...

Having a dedicated place to work on my writing has always sounded like a Fine And Wonderful Thing to me. In my house-buying fantasies, there would always be the perfect little nook that I could turn into A Writing Space Of My Very Own, with a big ol' wooden desk and a big comfy desk chair and inspiring pictures on the wall and a stereo -- or at least, a boom box -- where I could play music. In a really ideal world, the place would come with windows I could open in order to hear the babbling of a nearby stream, or the wind soughing through pine boughs.

Then we bought our house. It was built in 1961 and is very ... square. Four rooms on the ground floor. Four rooms upstairs. Unfinished basement. Sadly, no nooks of any kind, really.

So we started allocating rooms. There are five bedrooms in the house. The downstairs one is being allocated to bookcases and a daybed for occasional guest use, while its closets will be used to store games and, um, our Lego collection. Upstairs, we have an obvious master bedroom, check. Another room, one with two closets, we decided to dedicate to storage of our SCA and other costumes and accessories. There'll be bookcases in there, too, for storage of historical reference books. A fourth room is obviously "the guest room" -- there's about room for a bedroom set in there and that's it. Which leaves one room to be my cozy writing nook ... except Beloved Husband wants office/computer desk space, too.


Obviously, compromise has to happen sometimes. So I (reluctantly) agreed that I would share the space with him. It will be a tight fit, but I decided that we could make it work. (Yes, I'm still a little pouty about it. But I'll get over it.)

And then we moved into the house and started The Endless Painting Project. (We were at least smart enough to do the Long But Not Nearly So Endless Floor-Sanding-And-Refinishing Project before we moved in.) So here we are, more than two years after "moving in," still camped out in the guest room and the dining room, with most of our stuff still in storage.

But now, at last, at looooooong last, the end is within reach, at least for two of the five rooms we're still painting. The SCA room just needs touch-up paint on the new baseboards and quarter rounds we put down, to cover the nail holes. And the Office only needs a final coat of paint on the smutch I got on the ceiling when painting the walls, and a last check to make sure the nail holes in the new quarter-round are all covered there.

I'm thinking I can finish that up in about half an hour on Saturday morning. And then...and then...

I want to move into my new writing space.

It may not be exactly what I wanted. But I do have the big wooden desk, ready and waiting (a legacy from the house's former owner). I have a reasonably comfy chair (donated by friends who were moving and didn't have room for it). The walls are a soothing green color, and I have curtains that should match nicely. I have inspirational pictures all picked out for my side of the room. Thanks to modern technology, I don't even need that boom box anymore, just a pair of speakers to plug into my computer so I can play music from our shared network drive. There's even a door that opens out onto a lovely, tree-shaded deck.

But best of all ... if I open the windows, I can hear the waterfall babbling into the fish pond below. And the wind soughs very nicely through the enormous pine trees just outside.

I can hardly wait.