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?