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

Monday, May 30, 2011

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

I'm about 3/4 of the way finished with my second draft of the first volume of the "Daughters of August Winterbourne" series. And in the course of editing, I've had to make some pretty tough decisions.

One decision I made just today was to delete a small section that was told from the POV of Nicholas Fletcher, the main character's love interest in the story. I really loved the section, and it ended with one of my favorite lines from the whole story:
As Sophie's Lightning sailed on through the night, Nicholas Fletcher tried to convince himself that it was the cold wind that brought tears to his eyes. He almost succeeded. Almost.
It's a great line, one that shows us a great deal about Nicholas' character, including the fact that he is not good at lying, even to himself. that point in the story, being in Nicholas' head would force me to reveal information that I was not yet prepared to reveal. It lessened the impact of a later reveal, one that is pivotal to the story. So in order for that bit to work, this bit had to go.

Editing is a difficult process, one that isn't made any easier by the fact that there are no signposts, no maps to point me in the right direction. Unlike the Sudoku game I have loaded on my computer, the text does not light up red to let me know when I've made an incorrect choice. It's all based on one of two things: My own instincts, and the advice of my critique group.

I'll write more on the second in a week or two, but let's talk about the first for a few minutes.

I found this quote today, and it really seemed to fit:
“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words. “
--Mark Twain
How does one develop the instincts to know what changes to make, and which bits to leave alone? As with most skills, practice helps. I find that the more I edit, the easier it is to spot things that just don't belong in the story. For me, this happens on two levels: Whole scenes/subplots that aren't needed in order to tell the story, and lines or paragraphs within a scene. I may not get everything on the first pass--in fact, I'm guaranteed not to--but with each subsequent pass, I weed out a few more things.

For me, distance also helps. I don't know about anyone else, but when I finish a story, I'm convinced that if it's not the best thing ever written, then it's at least the best thing I've ever written. Every word is perfect. Nothing about it should ever be changed.

This is why I believe in letting things "settle" a bit before even attempting an edit. When I finish a story, I'm just too close to it. Depending on the story, I've spent the last several weeks or months eating, sleeping, and breathing this story. I've done my best to bring it to life, with characters and plots and consequences, oh my!

But after I've let it settle, it's easier to see that this bit of dialogue nearly duplicates that bit of dialogue over there, and that this scene is very cute and amusing, but does nothing to further the overall plot.

Sometimes, though, even after a story has had a chance to settle, it's not always easy to tell if the decisions I've made are the right ones. At the moment, I'm angsting about whether my story even starts in the right place. I currently begin the story with my main character, Celia Winterbourne, landing her father's airship on the eve of her departure for the Royal Academy of Science in Oxford. It's a great introduction to Celia and her father, August Winterbourne, and their airship, Sophie's Lightning. I've tweaked it such that it has at least some tension in it now. But is this really where the story begins? Or does it begin when she boards the train to Oxford the next morning? Or when she gets off the train a few hours later? Or is there some better place at which to begin the tale?

Sadly, I don't have the magical answer to that question. If I did, I would share, I promise.

In the meantime, the only advice I have to offer is this: Bits are cheap. If you are trying to decide between three possible points at which you could start your story, why not make three copies of it and try all three possibilities, then choose the one that works the best?

How do other people approach editing decisions?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Suspense; or Raising The Stakes

I must admit, I'm in a certain amount of suspense at the moment.

You see, I watch one television show on a regular basis (Supernatural), and because I had plans that kept me out past 8:00 pm last Friday, I missed it last week.

Ordinarily, that wouldn't be so bad. But this week was a double-header--two episodes--AND the season finale.

I. Missed. The. Finale.

Fortunately, these days, we have the Internet, so I won't have to wait until the episodes are re-run in August, or until the DVDs come out in September. But my Beloved Husband and I still have not yet had the chance to sit down and watch the episodes. So we are still in suspense.

As with most television series these days, there needs to be suspense within each episode, but there also needs to be suspense involved in the season's arc. The shorter-term suspense is often, "Will our heroes solve their current case?", but the overarching suspense often involves things that affect the characters more deeply and directly: "Will Jane and John hook up?" "Will Sally get pregnant?" "Will Tom keep his job?" Grave consequences, or at least significant ones, will result for the characters as a result of the answers to these questions, possibly changing their lives.

The trick is that if you want to lure watchers--or readers--into watching more episodes (or reading more chapters), you can't tie things up too neatly at the end of each episode/chapter. You need to leave a few questions unanswered, or at least, have the answers be sufficiently ambiguous that people want to keep turning pages/clicking the remote.

Thanks to my on-line critique group, I've come to see that I don't do that as well as I could. I have a tendency to want to introduce a conflict, and then tie it neatly up before I move on to the next chapter/conflict. And yet, when I don't, the story becomes more interesting. Characters interact less predictably, scenes become more loaded with subtext and subtle meanings, and the pages turn more quickly. The stakes are higher for the characters, and readers are consequently more invested in the outcome.

So that's something I'm working on: trying to keep from draining all of the suspense out of my story at the end of each chapter. How do other people manage suspense in their stories?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Writing Tips from Charlaine Harris; or, The Secrets of Writing, Revealed

Thanks to a friend of mine, this week I found myself in possession of a ticket to see Charlaine Harris, author of the True Blood series, at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver.

The True Blood books have been a guilty pleasure of mine for the last couple of years, ever since my Beloved Husband first pointed them out to me in a bookstore. I've been rationing them out slowly to myself, trying my hardest not to read them all in one gulp. I've been enjoying the television series as well, though since I don't have cable, I'm forced to wait for them on DVD.

So when I had a chance to go and hear Ms. Harris speak, I jumped on it. And I'm very glad I did. She was entertaining and charming and willing to share tips on writing with the crowd.

So here's what I learned from listening to her talk:

  1. If you want to be a writer, the first thing you have to do is to read. A lot. Read everything you can find. Keep reading.
  2. And then, you have to write. A lot.
  3. You have to be fond of your own company.
  4. People who spend all of their time talking about the book they're going to write never actually get the book written.

All of which is excellent advice.

And a couple of things I learned by observation:

  1. When you love what you do, it shows. When Charlaine Harris talks about writing, she practically glows. You can tell that she loves what she does. She would probably be doing it even if she didn't get paid for it.
  2. If you're going to be a bestselling author, it helps to have a great sense of humor and a lot of charm and grace. Ms. Harris has all of these things.

After listening to Ms. Harris, I feel newly inspired to go out and write great things.

Have other people been inspired by meeting authors? What's the best advice you've ever gotten from a writer?

(Thanks again to David Boop for the ticket!)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Why I Didn't Buy "The Hunger Games"; or Reading Pet Peeves

I was out shopping the other day, waiting for Beloved Husband to return from wherever he had gone off to, and I saw a rack of current Young Adult bestsellers. Among them was "The Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins.

Since this is a book that has been getting a lot of buzz lately, I picked it up and read the back cover blurb. It sounded intriguing--just the sort of dystopian future story I loved as a teenager.

I almost put it in my shopping cart, but something inspired me to open it to the first page and read the first line: "When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold."

Aw, crap. First person present tense.

I put the book back on the shelf.

I know there are many reasons authors, especially those writing for the YA market, choose to write in first person present tense these days. They like the immediacy, the intimacy they claim it brings to a story. And, I'm told, it's better suited to the short attention span of today's teens. They don't want to know what happened yesterday, or even ten minutes ago. They're only interested in NOW.

The problem is that I guess I'm just too old school for that. I like my books to be in good, old-fashioned past tense. If it was good enough for Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, it's good enough for me. I can and have struggled through a few FPP novels, but it's generally just that for me--a struggle. My brain trips and falls on it just as surely as my feet find and trip on the curled-up edge of an area rug. It's reading, but it's no longer fun.

I know I'm not the only one to have these sorts of prejudices. I prefer to write in first person past tense, but I have a friend who has an intense dislike for any first-person story. Other friends dislike stories with non-human main characters, too much romance, or any four-letter words whatsoever.

As a writer, I already know that it's impossible to write a book everyone will love, and that if I were ever to try, I'd be far more likely to end up with something that everyone hated, or, at best, something that left everyone feeling indifferent.

In the end, a writer has to be true to his or her story, and tell the story in the way it needs to be told. But I have to admit that I wonder how many authors are writing in first person present tense because they truly believe that their story calls for it, and how many are doing so because they want to sound hip and trendy?

Hmmm...I suppose in the future, e-reader technology could advance to the point where a reader could select the tense and POV in which they would prefer to read a given story. That might be kind of cool, actually.

But until that happens, I'm afraid I'll be leaving "The Hunger Games" on the shelf.

[Addendum: As I finished writing this up and posting it, my music player application chose to play Jethro Tull's "Skating Away (On The Thin Ice of a New Day)". Which includes the line, "Well, do you ever get the feeling that the story's too damn real and in the present tense?" I think that's what we call "irony."]

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What Have We Learned?; or, Charting Our Growth As Writers

[No, your eyes aren't deceiving you. This is, in fact, my second entry for today. Which, by my reckoning, catches me up to last Thursday. Sorry. I'll try to do better in the future.]

Continuing in my series of posts inspired by going back to read some of my earlier works, I decided that it would be a good time to evaluate my progress as a writer. So here is a list of things on which I think I've made progress over the last few years of writing:

POV: As mentioned in previous posts, my preferred POV is first person. So when I made forays into third person, I didn't always get that, unless I'm writing in an omniscient POV (and so far, I haven't), POVs should be one to a scene. But in my latest completed novel, I found myself deciding, at the beginning of each scene, who should carry the POV ball for that scene. Which means that I've made progress there.

Starting and Ending Scenes: I have a tendency to either start a scene too early, or let it run on too long. or both. I don't necessarily need to know that Annalise went to bed, fell asleep, woke up the next morning got out of bed, and got dressed before going down to confront her Uncle Jacob at breakfast. I can just say, "The next morning at the breakfast table, Annalise confronted her Uncle Jacob." Poof! The reader assumes all of the sleeping and waking and dressing things have happened while we were away. Which is helpful when one is trying to reduce one's word count... (who, me?).

Showing instead of telling: My older works are rife with phrases like, "Annalise was nervous." "The Earl was frustrated." Now, Annalise stares down at the reins in her hands, wishing that her palms were not wet with sweat. The Earl grinds his teeth as he looks at his enemy. Which (hopefully) makes the characters more vivid and the story more interesting.

Using active verbs/active voice: Instead of writing things like, "Just then, there was a rap on the door", I'm now writing, "Uncle Jacob rapped on the door, interrupting them."

Reducing "weasel words/phrases": Weasel words are words that suck the life out of a sentence, like a weasel sucks the contents from an egg. These are words like: Appeared, suddenly, seemed, a bit, just. (If I had a dime for every "just" I've taken out of either of the pieces I'm currently actively editing, I could afford cable television, I think!) Also on the list are what I'm coming to think of as "weasel phrases". My characters have an appalling tendency to "make their way" from one place to another, and they keep "finding themselves" doing things. I'm getting better at stomping those out, but I still have a ways to go!

Improved editing skills: I'm getting better at editing what I've written, even when it means deleting a scene I dearly loved, or even a particularly witty turn of phrase.

So I think I've improved as a writer in the last few years. I know I still have much to learn, and many skills to perfect, but it's good to be able to look back and see the progress I've made.

How do other people measure their progress as writers?

Doing the (Head) Hop; or, Whose Line Is It Anyway? (Part 2)

In my last entry, I commented on how I had gone back to read one of my first third-person pieces, a Regency romance, and found it rife with head-hopping. I discovered that I hadn't quite exhausted the topic, so I'm back for more.

I've started to revise the novel (in between working on revisions to one of my other WIPs), and for the most part, it has been going fairly smoothly. There are a couple of scenes that are going to need a bit of work, but I seem to have discovered a few tricks that are helping a lot.

First, when I look at a scene, I have to identify who owns it. Most are pretty obvious, but some seem to have group ownership. For those, I've been asking questions like:

  • Who stands to lose/gain the most in this scene? (If Uncle Matthew tells Cousin Sarah that they will have to skip their daily ride in the park, but Sarah was looking forward to seeing her friends--especially the guy she sorta-kinda likes--then Sarah has the most to lose, and the scene should belong to her.)
  • Who is the most active character in the scene? (If Annalise is riding a horse, and the Earl is watching approvingly, Annalise is more active, and we should see the scene from her POV.)
  • Who has the most thinky-thoughts that can't be shown through their actions/reactions? (If Lady Featherspoon, the failed chaperone, is worried about how she is going to lose her position, and plotting her revenge, but keeps a smile plastered on her face the whole time, it might be her turn to carry the story ball.)
One thing that I've discovered is that on my latest WIP, the second volume in the Winterbourne series, I've been unconsciously considering these questions up front, instead of after the fact. Every time I sat down to write a new scene, I asked myself whose POV I should use. There was always an answer that made the most sense. And I've gotten a lot better at picking one and sticking to it. (Though I have to admit that in the first volume, there were still a few--fairly obvious--head hops. I've edited most of them out, and I'll get the rest as I finish this edit pass.)

Going back to the Regency romance, I've found a few scenes where I started to revise in one point of view, only to discover that I still had an irresistible urge to head-hop. Which seems to mean that I've chosen the wrong POV. Going back and looking at the scene again usually shows that I haven't really found the correct POV character yet.

What are some other tricks people have learned to fix/prevent the dreaded "Head Hop"?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Doing The (Head) Hop; or, Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

(Sigh. This is actually last week's entry. This week's entry is still to come.)

Yesterday, I got out one of my older works-in-progress, a Regency romance that I started way back when years started with "19" instead of "20". It's so old that the original filename had only 8 characters, because that's all DOS would let you have. Yeah, that old.

Now, this story has some problems. Problem #1 is the length. The original version came out to be about 230,000 words. That's about 130K-150K more words than any Regency publisher -- or even any romance publisher -- will even look at.

I went through and gave it a pretty stringent edit pass, but it's still at about 188K.

In a sci-fi/fantasy story, the solution would be simple: Split it into two books. There's even a spot where it might make sense to do that. However, Regency readers are not usually well-disposed toward series. They want the tale told in one story, from the once upon a time to the happily ever after, and that's that. In rare cases, you can come back and revisit a world, maybe focusing on different characters the second time through, but the main characters from your first story should be peripheral characters in the new work, at best.

So that won't work.

I'm still trying to trim the story down. I think there are places where I ramble (who, me?), and places where scenes start too early or go on too long. I'm hopeful that I can make more edits.

But Problem #2 is even more insidious.

One thing that going back to read older works does for me is to show me ways in which I have grown as a writer. Like most writers, I developed some bad habits early on. One of my "bad habits" is to write in first person. I really do feel more comfortable in that POV; it just comes naturally to me. And with first person, you only have one POV to worry about. If it didn't happen where the POV saw it, or could learn about it some other way, then you can't show it. Your MC doesn't know what other people are thinking. He/she has to discern it from their speech and actions.

The Regency story was one of my first attempts to write in third person. I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't very good at it when I started out, though I think I've improved some since. (Practice, practice, practice!) And one of the most egregious sins I committed, back in this earlier work, is Head Hopping.

I've since learned that, while a story can be written in an omniscient POV, meaning that there isn't really a main POV character, and the story is told from a narrator's perspective, this is not what I had done. A story can also be written with a shifting POV, meaning that in one scene, the reader is seeing the story from one character's perspective, while in the next, they may be seeing it from another's.

I had done neither of these Instead, in almost every scene, I moved from one character's head to another, showing what he/she was feeling at the moment. In other words, Head Hopping. Thanks to my on-line critique group, I'm much better at recognizing it when I do it (they won't let me get away with even the tiniest little hop!), but back when I wrote this story, I obviously didn't have a clue. It's made even more complicated by the fact that the female MC (Annalise) spends the first third of the story dressed as a boy (I know, I know, but I did it anyway). So in one line, I have her employer/love interest (the Earl) referring to her as "lad", and then the next line will start with something like, "She thought..." Very confusing.

Here's an example, where I move from one character's head to another, to another, to another, in the space of about five paragraphs:

There was no telling how long the two of them would have sat there, gazing into each other’s eyes, had Latham not chanced to spy a pair of riders approaching them. [LATHAM's POV] Blast the man, he thought to himself. Did he to be so damnably prompt? Before he could think of a way to explain the Earl’s presence to Miss Mannerly, the two riders were upon them.

The two men exchanged greetings. Then the Earl noticed Miss Mannerly’s presence for the first time [THE EARL's POV] and tipped his hat to her. “Miss ... I apologize, I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Latham jumped in. “Miss Mannerly, please allow me to present William Waverley, Earl of Farlsborough. Farlsborough, this is Miss Sarah Mannerly.”

Sarah felt a cloud of doom settle over her. [SARAH's POV] An Earl. She would never be able to complete the day’s ride without making a spectacular fool of herself. Preoccupied, she missed the Earl’s cursory introduction of his new tiger.

Annalise, meanwhile, had recognized Jasmine from afar, and quickly identified her cousin Sarah as the mare’s rider. [ANNALISE's POV] She pulled her cap down over her eyes as far as it could go and tried to shrink down into her saddle. Fortunately, a tiger was expected to follow along well behind the other riders, and Sarah’s attention seemed to be absorbed by the two gentlemen riding on either side of her. Annalise could only hope that she would escape detection after all.

Yup. Almost every paragraph starts with a new POV character.

It can be fixed, of course. What I'll probably do, in the case of the scene above, is take the preceding material up to "the two were upon them" and put it in Latham's perspective, and then put in a scene break and recast the rest from Annalise's POV.

Doing this will probably help with the word count problem, too. Instead of having a paragraph on how Sarah feels a sense of impending doom, I can have a single line where Annalise sees her cousin fidgeting nervously, and let the reader draw her own conclusions. It'll be stronger writing, too, because I'll be showing you what Sarah feels, instead of telling you.

So has anyone else committed the sin of Head Hopping? How did you go about fixing it?

Hoppy Easter!

Monday, April 11, 2011

And They Will Come Home, A-Wagging Their Tails; or, Stating The Obvious

When I was a kid, my brothers and I had a record player with which we were allowed to play. It would only play 45 rpms--and it played them at about 42 1/2 rpms.

For the most part it didn't matter. We didn't have very many records we could play, anyway. Mom and Dad had more, but they were the good records, and we weren't allowed to play with them. The ones we had were mostly novelty records.

One of the records was titled, "It's In The Book," by a fellow named Johnny Standley. Side A of the record (yes, this was still when you had to turn records over to hear the other side. By hand.) was a line by line examination of "Little Bo Peep."

Thanks to the magic of the internets, you can listen to it here:

Johnny Standley - It's In The Book .mp3

Found at bee mp3 search engine

(You might have to enter a code to hear it.)

Feel free to stop listening when the singing starts. Unless you want to hear the B side, which is a somewhat amusing ditty called "Grandma's Lye Soap." I thought it was hysterical when I was six.

But the part I wanted to discuss today was the dissection of "Little Bo Peep."

Sometimes, when I'm writing, I get carried away with the rhythm of the words, with how they sound in my mind. I'll write long passages full of repetition and extra verbiage, when I didn't really need to. And sometimes, that's nice. It helps define my voice, and keeps what I've written from turning into a bare recitation of facts.

But sometimes, it just makes me look silly. Kind of like:

The man said she lost her sheep, turns right around and boldly states, "she doesn't know where to find them", and then has the stupid audacity to say, "Leave them alone.", now, think for a moment, think! If the sheep were lost, and you couldn't find them, you'd have to leave them alone, wouldn't you?
So for me, at least, the challenge lies in finding just the right balance between enough description to be interesting and not so much that it bogs down the story.

It's something I'm still working on.

How do other people approach the problem?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Blog As Writing Tool; or Making My LiveJournal Earn Its Keep

Anybody besides me out there still using LiveJournal? Blogger's cool and all, and Facebook and Twitter have their uses, but I still love LJ. Because it lets me do things none of these other tools can do.

Confession time again: I've been using my LJ to keep track of my story ideas for a couple of years now.

It started one day when I was at work, and a really cool story idea popped into my head. It was in the B.N. days (Before Netbook), so I couldn't just whip out my netbook (which does come with me to work most days) and add it to my existing ideas file. (Everyone has an ideas file, right? Someplace to keep notes about all of the cool ideas you haven't had a chance to write into stories yet? If you don't, you should start one.)

Now, I had choices. I could have e-mailed it to myself, or saved it in a Word document and put it on my data stick, or even just written it down on a sticky note. But all of those things required that I follow up later and take the idea from wherever I've left it and put it into my ideas file.

Instead, I jotted a quick sticky-note to myself, and then on my lunch hour, I went out to my LiveJournal and posted it as a private entry. So I can see it, but nobody else.

This also has the advantage that I can add a tag ("Story Ideas") so that I can later sort by that tag in order to see all of my ideas. And it means that as long as I'm in range of a computer, or have a few data hits left on my phone for the month, I can save my story ideas before they wander off.

Private entries are good for other things as well. I've written entire story chunks as blog entries, as well as story outlines, when I couldn't get to my netbook for some reason. Handy stuff.

Another LJ feature that I've used a couple of times in the past is polls. It's fairly easy to create an LJ poll and use it to poll your friends list to get input for a story. In the past, prior to NaNoWriMo, I've put up polls of story ideas and asked which should be my NaNo project for that year. And for those who missed it, there was the whole saga of "Naming Nicholas Fletcher," where one of my characters expressed dissatisfaction with the name I'd given him. I used LJ to garner suggestions, and then ran a poll to see what the final name should be.

Nicholas still shows up once in a while to kvetch about how I'm writing him. And the dialogues we've had have been an excellent way for me to get to know his character better. So that makes another handy way to use LJ as a writing tool.

Finally, I also participate in an on-line critique group where all of our work is done via LJ. LJ works really well for this sort of thing; you can create a community, and then post entries that are only visible to the community. That keeps our work private, and allows us to avoid the whole question of whether or not first publishing rights have been violated. And then, we leave our critiques for each piece in the comments.

So I guess, aside from word processing programs, LJ is my favorite writing tool.

Do other folks have favorite software/utilities/applications that weren't designed as writing tools, but that you find handy anyway?

(p.s. This entry? Written ahead of time and stored on LJ until it came time to post it here...)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Airships and Boilers and Gears, Oh My; or Getting My Steampunk On

Beloved Husband and I are spending the weekend at a steampunk convention. It has been a good convention, if a bit less busy than most of the conventions we attend. But it has been very inspiring to see all of the energy and creativity people are putting into this. Nearly all of the attendees are in at least some attempt at a costume, and some of the costumes are incredible.

There have been some good panels, too, ranging from one on Weird West Tales to one on Bartitsu (an obscure but wicked-cool Victorian martial art).

I love coming to conventions like this, because after a while, when I've been toiling away on whatever writing project is at the forefront of my mind, I reach a point where I simply need some outside stimulation. I may not come up with any new story ideas directly, but I might find a new way of looking at the work I've done, or the characters I've created.

So while I haven't had any earth-shattering epiphanies this weekend, or had any conversations about my writing with anyone, I do feel as though my creative batteries are being recharged. I have some thoughts about changes I should make to the first Winterbourne story, and (after seeing the bartitsu demo) I want to re-vamp a fight scene from the second book, and write some notes about one for the as-yet-unwritten third volume of the series. I feel energized and ready to go on my current round of editing for Book 1.

Not to mention that I've been enjoying the almost-endless parade of gentlemen in top hats and well-cut tail coats and yummy waistcoats!

Where do other people go to recharge their batteries? Do you get more benefit out of an activity related to your writing, or something totally unrelated, like a spa day?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dealing With Distractions; or, Of Course I Can Write With A Video Of Goats Singing 'The Blue Danube Waltz' Playing In The Background!

Sometimes, it's just hard to focus on writing.

Whether we like it or not, Real Life™ can raise its ugly head when we least expect it. And at least for those of us for whom writing is not our sole means of income, it's okay to set aside the writing for a time while we deal with the curves life throws us. The story will be there waiting for us when we come back to it. We might even find that we've discovered new insights into plot or character problems in the meantime.

But sometimes it isn't the big, life-shattering crises that keep us from channeling our best energies into our work. Sometimes it's the guy two tables over in the coffee shop, with the obnoxious ring-tone and the near-constant, over-loud cell phone conversations. Sometimes it's the television playing in the background while the dishwasher's running and the kids are either about to kill each other, or they just did. Or maybe it's just too quiet you can hear the faucet in the downstairs bathroom going drip ... drip ... drip ...

I'm trying to learn to work through these kinds of distractions, but it isn't easy. It doesn't help that some days, I have the attention span of a gnat to begin with. Nor, sad to say, does it help that I share my office with my Beloved Husband. I love him dearly. Really, I do. But it's really hard to stay focused on a story amidst intermittent snorts of laughter as he pages through the day's LOL_Cats. Or watches the occasional goat video*. The fact that, when I'm trying to visualize a scene, I will either stare off into space (in hopes that the scene is written there), or close my eyes (because someone might have posted the key to my scene on the insides of my eyelids) only contributes to the problem. Because if I'm staring off into space, I'm obviously not writing. Right?

There are ways of dealing with distractions, of course.

  • While my headphones are not the noise-canceling kind, with the "Pirates of the Caribbean" soundtrack blasting through them, I'm not certain it makes a lot of difference.
  • At times in the past, I've designated a certain hat to be my "writing hat," a portable "do not disturb" sign that says, "Please don't bother me just now."
  • It's also nice that our sleep cycles are not quite in synch. Bedtime for him is usually around 10:00 pm, while I'm more of a night-owl and usually can't get to sleep anytime before midnight. Those two hours? They're mine! {insert evil mad scientist laugh here}
  • If I find that I keep stopping to check e-mail, Live Journal, Facebook, or Twitter, I'll either shut my browser, or give myself limits: Can't check Facebook until I finish this chapter, can't open e-mail until I've met my word count for the day.
  • And sometimes...well, sometimes, I just let the distractions happen. As Beloved Husband points out, "You need some breaks. You can't just work straight through." (Though he also claims that he only distracts me "a little bit," a statistic that has yet to be proven!)

These methods aren't always successful, of course. But they're the best I've come up with so far.

What are other people's strategies for dealing with distractions?

* What? You thought I was kidding about the goats? I wasn't. I swear. There I was, trying to write, when Beloved Husband discovered this:

I couldn't make that up if I tried!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In The Home Stretch; or Are We There Yet?

(I know, I know. This is actually last Thursday's posting, running a little late again. I'll try to do tomorrow's on time...)

So here I am, closing in on the end of my current Work In Progress, the second volume of the now four-volume Winterbourne trilogy. (I know. Shut up.) And, as usually happens at this point in a story, I just really really want to be done with it. I love these characters, love spending time with them, love making their lives ever-so-interesting. But even loving them as I do, there comes a time when I just want their story out of my head and down on paper (or at least in electronic bits), and to say that it is finished.

I want to spend a little time with some of my other stories and characters, and spend some time editing (because Inner Editor has been more-or-less on a leash since November, and she's getting REALLY cranky). So part of me is tempted to just get it done any old way, so I can set it aside for a while and use my few brain cells for other things for a few weeks.

But of course, the other part of me wants to get it right. I know it can (and will) be edited later, but I have to at least capture the essence of each scene, even if the details change. There are seeds I need to plant for later development, and I have to make sure I at least get them in there, even if I want to bury them a little deeper before the story sees the light of day. And one of the few remaining scenes I have to write is a confrontation between Celia Winterbourne and her father. There are reasons why the two sides are mutually incompatible, and no compromise can be reached. My challenge is to present it so that neither side appears to be totally unreasonable or overly emotional. Nor can either side appear to give in. (Yes, that "appear to" is very important.) At least not until the very final scene of the story.

So in some respects, I feel as though I still have a long way to go, while in others, I can almost reach out and touch the end of the long dark tunnel of this story. It makes me feel like a little kid in the back seat of my parents' station wagon again, asking every five minutes, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?!"

And Mom keeps answering, "Five more minutes."

I just wish I could tell, at this point, whether it'll be worth the trip. Because, yes, I have also reached the point where I'm certain the entire story sucks and no one would ever want to read it. It happens. I'm aware that it happens. That doesn't keep it from happening.

What sorts of challenges do other people face in completing a story? Are endings easy or hard? Are we there yet?

(Anyone care to take a guess as to what the final word count for this story will be? Hint: > 150,000 words and < 200,000. Yes, really.)

Friday, March 4, 2011

You're Out Of Order; or Writing The Ending First

I have another confession to make. (I seem to make them fairly frequently on this blog.)

I've already written the last scene of my current Work In Progress. Even though I have not yet finished all of the scenes that lead up to it. And in fact, I've just pasted two scenes into the story that I wrote a month ago, but hadn't added in because the story hadn't progressed that far yet.

This -- writing out of order -- is something I rarely do, and for a couple of reasons.

First, I usually find that when I know how a story is going to end, it's difficult to generate spontaneity in earlier sections. If I know I'm writing a character out at the end of Chapter 29, and I write her demise before I write everything else leading up to her demise, I'm likely to treat her differently than I would have otherwise. Perhaps I'll have her pull back from a relationship where she really should have moved ahead; or perhaps I'll make her take a foolish risk that she would never have taken in a million years.

And the second reason is that there is a risk that once you get to the section you wrote ahead of time, it just won't fit into the story anymore. Your characters may have grown in unexpected ways, or you might have found a way to fit the key parts of the scene into the story in another, better way. Though that also happened to me recently: Two of my characters had had a fight with each other, and I had a long, drawn-out, wordy reconciliation scene planned out for them, but at the end of the previous scene, it was just right for the two of them to say, "I'm sorry," and move on.

Of course, one school of thought says that you should outline the story you want to tell, and then just work on whatever section strikes your fancy on a given day. Unless you're a more thorough outliner than I am, though, this could be frustrating, as it might prove difficult to keep your characters consistent and to keep them moving along their arcs as they should. I did try this method once, back in my early writing days. It's probably worth noting that the story never did get finished, mostly because I never seemed to get around to writing "the boring bits": the scenes that filled in the background and provided transitions and held the story together. One might argue that if the missing parts really were that boring, perhaps they did not belong in the story at all; but it's just as likely that what they really needed was someone to write them who was better at incorporating necessary information into the story without getting all info-dumpy.

So if writing out of order is so problematic, why did I do it this time? Mostly, I'll confess, because I was otherwise stalled on one of the two main tracks of the story, and I hoped that if I pushed ahead on the other one, it would break things free on the first one. (And it did!)

But another reason was because there were certain character moments and certain turns of phrase that I wanted to make certain to capture while they were still in my mind. All too often, I think about a scene ahead of time, and work out just how the dialogue will go, until it's just perfect...only to have it completely disappear out of my head when it comes time to actually sit down and write that scene.

And the final reason, in this case, was the weather. I can see you wondering: What does the weather have to do with it? Well, we had some painfully cold weather here in January and early February (high temperatures that never got above 0 degrees F), and two of the scenes I wrote were set during cold weather. So I wanted to write them while my toes still ached from having been outside in that kind of weather. I wanted to capture the feeling of frigid air in my lungs while it was still fresh in my mind. I know that if I had waited until now to write those scenes (we've been having highs in the 50s and 60s F), it would have been more difficult to distill the essence of that kind of cold down to a few paragraphs.

So do other people always begin at the beginning of the story and write straight through to the end, or do you skip around, depending on how you feel on a given day?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Music To Scribble By; or What's On Your Writing Playlist?

So as I mentioned in last week's entry*, this week's topic is music for writing.

What makes good writing music? Each of Carrie Vaughn's "Kitty Norville" books includes a playlist of music that inspired her during the writing of that volume. That's one way to select music, of course, by choosing songs that invoke one of your characters, or a setting, or a plot point. I have certain songs that fit in with my stories that way. When one character was torn away from everyone and everything she had ever known, another character who befriended her at that point became her "Bridge Over Troubled Water." When I was writing a particularly painful love triangle, "Torn Between Two Lovers" popped up on my playlist, and as cheesy as it was, it fit my story perfectly. At another point, when one character faced possible death, VNV Nation's "Beloved" was so poignant that it hurt.

Another trick I've done during NaNoWriMo is to skip to a random song on the iPod or music player, and incorporated that song into the next chapter somehow, either literally or thematically. So "Smoke on the Water" inspired a battle scene, while Glenn Miller's "In The Mood" led to an interrupted sex scene.

But while finding inspiration in music can be productive, or at least amusing, most of the time, when I'm writing, I just want some good background music. For me, that generally means that it needs to be instrumental. Sadly, vocal music, even vocal music that I know and love, is just a little too distracting for me to have playing while I write. If I don't get carried off with singing along, the lyrics sometimes get tangled in what I'm trying to write. (As I write this, I'm listening to Loreena McKennitt's album, "The Wind That Shakes The Barley," and it's proving to be more than a little distracting. I may have to switch to something more instrumental for a few minutes, just so I can finish this.)

So instrumental is the obvious answer. And there's plenty of it out there, which is a good thing. But as I've discovered, it can't be just any old instrumental music.

Things that don't work (for me, anyway):

  • Most classical music. I don't know why, but trying to write while listening to classical music is difficult for me. Perhaps it's because the composer is trying to tell me one story while I'm trying to tell another.
  • Music that's too soft and soothing. Because it will put me to sleep. Duh.
  • Music that's too raucous or jarring. Hard rock instrumentals and some electronica fall into this category. If it distracts my brain from what it's trying to write, it doesn't work.

So what does that leave? Well, in my case, a lot of new age/ambient music, some world music (instrumental Celtic music seems to be a win, as does Andean flute music), soundtracks (Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Narnia, and the latest Zorro films all seem to work), and stray bits of light jazz and space music.

I have to admit that one of my favorite composers, as far as good writing music goes, is David Arkenstone. His album "In The Wake Of The Wind" (samples here) is one of the best albums of all time (at least on my top-ten list). And while his latest album, Ambient World, represents a departure from most of his previous work, it's excellent writing music. Go have a listen to some sample tracks if you don't believe me.

Of course, my ideal writing music will be different from anyone else's. So what do other people like to listen to while they're cranking out words?

* which was only written two days ago. Oops.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fishing For Ideas; or, Brainstorming 101

So it's Tuesday, and I still haven't written last Thursday's Melt-Ink Pot posting. I have what I think is a good excuse: My Beloved Husband and I spent all of last week off on a road trip to celebrate 25 years of wedded bliss. And while you'd think a road trip would offer lots of inspiration and plenty of time for writing, the truth of the matter is that even if I hadn't been the one doing all of the driving, I'd still have been pretty busy gawking and trying to run the GPS and fiddling with the iPod, so I probably wouldn't have gotten any writing done anyway. Having cable TV in our motel rooms didn't help, either. Wow, is the Food Network distracting or what?

So here I am, back home, at my desk, in my home office, staring at a blank screen and wondering where I'm going to find an idea this week.

Which brings up the question of where I get my ideas for this blog, anyway.

The answer is that ideas can come from just about anywhere. Sometimes, I have a "eureka!" moment while either writing or editing one of my several works in progress, and I feel a need to share that. Sometimes it's something that comes up at work. A few weeks ago, it was a line from a movie that I saw, and before that, a book I was reading.

When I get really desperate, I ask my Beloved Husband. Who, one must admit, nearly always responds with the ever-useful, "I dunno." But it's surprising to me how often the mere act of asking him for an idea causes my brain to spontaneously come up with one.

Today, however, I resorted to truly desperate measures. I called up my Twitter feed -- the vast, howling, unfiltered one that would eat my soul if I let it -- scrolled down thirteen screens, and scanned for an inspiration.


Thirteen more screens.

Still nada.

Come on, Twitter, don't fail me now!

Thirteen more screens.

Aha! A link telling me how to improve my writing. I follow it, eagerly...but there's no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

But wait! All is not lost! A list of other blog entries down the right side of the screen contains the word, "Brainstorming".

And I'm off and running!

Of course, while I'm in the middle of composing this entry, the CD drive of my computer bumps against my leg as it auto-ejects the CD I'm currently ripping, and I find myself thinking, "Good music for writing, that could be an entry..."

Think I'll just tuck that one away in my "ideas" file for next week's entry...which is, after all, due the day after tomorrow.

It's odd--or perhaps it's not, actually--but I find that ideas seldom travel alone. So once I've come up with one, finding one or two more usually isn't difficult. Remembering to write them down, or at least keep track of them somehow* is another matter entirely.

And so are the rules for safe brainstorming. Which I also think I'll save for later. See how productive this entry has been?

What strange sorts of places to you look to find ideas?

* I often use private entries on my LiveJournal for this--and there's another topic for another week, "Ways To Use A Blog As A Writing Tool," see how easy this brainstorming thing is once you get going?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Advancing The Plot; or, When Darlings Have To Die

(Pretend this is last week. I got busy getting ready to go on vacation and never quite got around to posting this until now. Sorry!)

I had to kill some of my darlings last week.

No, not characters. But in the process of editing Book 1 of "The Daughters of August Winterbourne", a couple of my favorite scenes had to die.

One scene was particularly painful to cut. It involved having my characters go to a concert conducted by Johann Strauss II, and, because my lead character, Celia Winterbourne, is somewhat famous in her own right, they all get invited back stage afterward to meet the composer, who has written a piece in honor of Celia and her sisters.

One reason it was painful to cut this scene was because I had put a fair amount of research into it. While there is no evidence that Strauss came to Oxford in 1873, he did tour England that year, before going off to America to give a series of concerts there. And it appears that he did tend to compose waltzes almost "on the fly," as it were, in honor of the places he visited. I'd also worked hard on his accent, trying to give the flavor of an Austrian accent without going too far overboard on it. The scene also had some very nice interaction between Celia and her sisters, and between Celia and her suitor, Nicholas Fletcher.

But in the end, despite all that, when I went back and re-read the story, I concluded that the scene did not advance the plot one iota. And so, with greatest reluctance, I deleted it from the story.

I console myself with the fact that it still exists in the saved file of the first draft, and if I ever want to go back and visit it, I can. And perhaps someday, if this story ever gets published, I'll put it (and a few other deleted scenes) out on a web page somewhere for people to read and laugh at and say, "Yep, you're right. That really didn't advance the plot at all, did it?"

Has anyone else ever had to kill a "darling"? Have you read stories where you found yourself thinking, "Okay, that was fun, but what did it have to do with the plot?"

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Exposition Done Right; or, I Saw What You Did There

Just got back from seeing Tron: Legacy. Yes, I know. The movie's only been out for what, two months now, and I'm finally getting around to seeing it. I don't know why the studios think the holidays are such a great time to release their big-budget blockbusters, because I'm always too busy to go see them then.

So anyway, Tron: Legacy has one of the neatest examples of exposition in it that I've seen in a long time. In the beginning of the film, our young hero, Sam Flynn, has a run-in with the law. The next scene shows him walking out of the police station to the adjacent parking lot, which is labeled "Towing Impound Lot" (or something like that). He hands a slip of paper to the gate attendant, who greets him with, "Hiya, Sam."

And with those two words, we know that this is not the first time Sam has needed to retrieve a vehicle from this particular impound lot; that in fact, his visits have been frequent enough for him to be on a first-name basis with the lot attendant, and that the attendant is not especially surprised to see him, but is in fact almost bored.

I was in awe. Not only was it a great example of exposition, but it was also "showing, not telling." An author could easily spend a paragraph or two conveying the information contained in those two words.

I think it's something all aspiring authors (and even some published ones) could stand to keep in mind.

Does anyone else have a good example of Exposition Done Right?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Too Much Of A Good Thing; or, Writing vs Overwriting

As apprentice writers, we're told that we need to make every sentence sing. We should choose our words carefully so that each can have maximum impact, making every verb and noun count. We should avoid passive verbs and colorless language at all costs.

But sometimes, I think it's possible to try too hard, to veer to the opposite end of the spectrum, so that rather than neat, concise prose, you end up with paragraphs that are working a little too hard to achieve the desired effect.

This week I picked up "How To Wash A Cat," by Rebecca Hale. The cover blurb sounded promising--first in a new mystery series, set in an antique shop in San Francisco, and of course, there are cats. Great recipe for a cozy mystery, in my book.

And so far, the story has entertained me, but every once in a while, a paragraph jumps out at me. Like this one:

I drug myself up the polished front steps of a high-rise office building and squeezed into a crowded elevator. My empty stomach lurched as the stifling cube zoomed skyward, finally pausing to hover at the 39th floor. My head woozing, I stepped gratefully out into the refrigerated air of an expansive lobby. A wall of windows spanned the left side of the room, framing an opulent view of the bay.

Now, as paragraphs go, it's not the worst one I've ever read. The sentences are all active, and the language is colorful.

But in many ways, it also reminds me of pictures I've seen of Victorian front parlours. I'm sure you've seen them: rooms where every surface that can have a fussy little doily, does. Only in this case, the surfaces are nouns, and the doilies are adjectives. So we end up with "polished steps" and "stifling cubes" and "refrigerated air".

Then, too, our POV character cannot seem to ever just walk anywhere. She drags, she squeezes, she hovers, and she lurches. I'm not sure I even want to think about the woozing.

Is it overwritten? I think it is, but then I've been trying to pare down paragraphs that started out far wordier than this one, so at the moment, my mind is more disposed to see words that can be removed rather than ones that could be added. Though too much of that isn't necessarily a good thing, either; taking out too many words would rob the author, and her character, of their "voice."

I guess the difference, in my mind, is between prose that sings versus prose that tap dances while wearing a costume covered in spangles and sequins, using all of the trickiest, most difficult steps, and ending in a grand flourish. Both can be entertaining. Which one is "better" depends very much on the tastes of the reader. Apparently, there were enough people who liked this book to put it on the New York Times bestseller list.

Will I finish reading the book? Probably. The story is an entertaining one so far, and lurching stomachs and stifling cubes aside, the author has a knack for a witty turn of phrase. Whether or not I pick up the sequel has yet to be resolved, however.

Have you ever encountered prose you felt was overwritten? What, in your opinion, are the symptoms of overwriting? Is it necessarily a bad thing?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Doing The Splits; or Maybe You're Not Writing One Book, But Two

I have a confession to make.

I've really been struggling with my current WIP, the second book of the "Daughters of August Winterbourne" series. It's not that I wasn't enjoying writing the story, because I was. But before I'd started, I'd put together a rough outline of things I thought ought to happen in the book. And after three months and almost 90,000 words, I was only about a third of the way through my outline. Which meant that the finished product was headed for...way too long.


On top of which, at about 75,000 words, one of my characters did something unexpected but perfectly logical. But it was also something that was sure to add a good 20,000 to the word count.

That was when work on the piece slowed to a crawl. Inner Editor was making loud growly noises and refused to shut up about it. "Why are you writing this scene? You'll just have to cut it out later anyway," she kept saying.

Then, one night earlier this week, as I was driving home from work, I was pondering the new developments in the plot, and trying to figure out what I could cut out and still have the story make sense. And I realized that the new plot twist I had added had changed the dynamic of the story, creating an arc that could be resolved nicely at a point about halfway through the outline I had originally laid out. And that what was left after that would make a nice story on its own.

In other words, the story had just neatly divided itself in half. And when I looked at the plot arc for each was much neater, cleaner, and more interesting, and allowed for some development of key characters and their relationships.

Well, then. My neat, tidy trilogy just grew into a four book series. I suppose worse things have happened.

(Note that I felt somewhat better about this revelation when, at a convention this weekend, a published author admitted to having had the same thing happen to her.)

So how do other people to tell what makes a book a good complete story?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Shine A Little Love; or, Secondary Characters Need Attention, Too!

Sorry for the late posting this week. I've been fighting off a cold. Still not sure whether I'm winning or losing, but that's beside the point.

This week, I want to blather on for a bit about secondary characters. You know, those characters in your story who need to be there to make things work -- the sidekicks, the younger sisters, the best friends, all those characters who help us reveal plot and give our main characters someone to talk to besides each other (and themselves) all the time.

Secondary characters don't generally get as much attention as the main characters, for obvious reasons -- if they did, they'd be main characters, right? But it's still important to flesh them out enough to make them real, so that it makes sense for your main characters to interact with them.

So since they don't get as much screen time, so to speak, it's even more important that the time they do get really counts. Some things I've found that help are:

1) Keep descriptions concise. You don't need to describe every last freckle on your MC's best friend's nose, but it might be nice to know that she has freckles. And a nose, for that matter.

2) Stereotypes = cardboard characters = boring. While it might be tempting to paint the county sheriff who just pulled your hero over in Dukes of Hazzard colors...hasn't that been done to death? Why not try something a little unusual? Give him an Aussie accent, or make her look like she's seventeen -- with a steel core.

3) Give them a little backstory -- even if it's just in your notes. The orphan your heroine just pulled out of the rubble of a building after an earthquake might look like an ordinary twelve year old -- but what if he has a slide rule collection, plays the theremin, and took first at last year's county science fair? All of a sudden, he's a different kid, right? Which is not to say that you should be quite that extreme, but give the reader a mental tag to attach to the character, so that when he shows up again later, they can think, "Oh, right, Theremin Kid, I remember him!"

4) Have a clear vision of who the character is and what they're doing in your story. Dad's new wife might come on like a wicked stepmother at first, but what if there's more to her than that? What if she turns out to be the one person who can help the MC solve the mystery? Or what if she's really a spy? Keep these things in mind whenever this character is "on screen," so you can keep the character consistent.

But, you ask, how do you keep track of all of these things? Well, for every story I write, I start an Excel spreadsheet with columns for the character's name, age, hair and eye colors, distinguishing features, and a brief history. In my current WIP, which takes place on a college campus, I added extra columns showing everyone's major and what year they're in (if they're students). You still probably won't catch everything on your first draft, but as you edit, go back and revisit these notes to remind yourself what you planned to do with this character, and check to see whether all of his/her actions still fit.

What are some other tricks and tips people have for working with secondary characters?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Dear Mr. Bowdler; or Cleaning Up Huck Finn

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last week, you've probably heard that there's a new edition of "Huckleberry Finn" being published that has been "sanitized for your protection." Most notably, the "N-word" has been replaced with the word, "slave" (though there are supposed to be some other changes as well.)

The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. I couldn't figure out why, until I looked at it from a writer's perspective.

"Huckleberry Finn" is written from a first-person perspective of the title character. In other words, this is the world as Huck Finn sees it, and the only way we get to know Huck himself is through his "voice". The words he chooses tell us volumes about his background, his social class, his level of education, and his age. By changing his vocabulary to words that are supposedly less demeaning and offensive, the publishers are changing the voice, and therefore his character.

As an author (even an unpublished one), I hate the thought that someone could do something similar to my stories once I'm no longer around to defend them. An author puts a great deal of effort into creating the most subtle of nuances for their characters. Changing a character's voice would be like touching up the Mona Lisa with neon-paints, because those old-fashioned color schemes, while true to their day, are too dark for modern audiences.

It's not a new problem, of course. In the early 1800's, Thomas Bowdler decided that Shakespeare was too racy and improper for his wife and children to read aloud -- heavens forfend that passages such as, "Out, damned spot!" be uttered by a lady of refinement. So he published an edition that met his moral standards. It met with the approval of many morally-inclined people in its day, but was Lady Macbeth ever the same afterwards?

My other concern is that, having decided to make these changes to Huckleberry Finn, what work of literature will the sanitizers decide to go after next? Certainly there are a lot of works from the past that do not measure up to today's standards of political correctness, and not even always the ones you'd suspect. But where do we draw the line?

Case in point: One of my favorite authors is Gene Stratton-Porter, an early-twentieth-century author whose books usually combine a strong love of nature with elements of romance and coming of age. They're sweet and uplifting and generally wholesome reading. Except for "Her Father's Daughter"--which combines these same elements with a large helping of anti-Japanese paranoia! (The link takes you to a free Kindle download on I'd like to think that we're more enlightened about such things now. But does that mean that the anti-Japanese parts of the novel should be excised so as to avoid contaminating young minds? Or should they, like the racist terms used in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," be allowed to remain so that we can study them, learn from them, and try not to repeat our mistakes?

And what of contemporary novels and works of literature? Many books today contain language that some consider offensive. Should it be cleaned up so that those who don't wish to read those sorts of words don't have to, or would it change the stories so as to make them unrecognizeable? To use another metaphor, what if you cleaned all of the swear words and potentially offensive content out of a Kevin Smith film. Would there be anything left?

I guess when presented with questions such as these, I have to come down on the side of protecting the author's original intention. Because it's a very short trip from "sanitizing" to censorship, and I, for one, don't want anyone to tell me what kinds of characters and situations I can have in my stories, or to have someone "fix" them for me later.

What's your take?