Wednesday, April 11, 2012

And So I Went and Got a Mountain Dew and Stayed Up Through the Night

Every now and then, young writers contact me for advice on writing and publishing and/or to interview me for a school assignment. In these cases, I try very hard not to terrify them. Recently, one of these young writers asked me a question that resulted in me ranting a bit. I hope I didn't terrify her, but it was an important rant on a subject I myself often need to be reminded of. So I'm going to repeat my rant (in expanded form) here.

She asked me of procrastination and how it would effect her goals. And I said:

Well, yes. Procrastination is bad. But you already know that! I'll put it plain and simple: Procrastination means you don't get things done. If you don't get things done, then things don't get done. That sounds stupid but it's true. Here's the thing about writing that a lot of aspiring writers weirdly don't seem to understand. They seem to think that all they have to do is THINK about writing. No, seriously. You wouldn't believe how many people never get beyond this point. But if you want to have written, you first have to WRITE. It doesn't work any other way. Little elves do not come into your room at night and write your book for you. Believe me, I've left out cookies for them and they never show up. Unless you are a famous celebrity and can afford to hire ghost writers, the only person that is going to write your book is you.

So. To overcome procrastination, you must decide what it is you want the most: Do you want to write a book, finish it, get it published, have people read it and e-mail you and tell you how much they adore you and your work and also get a check from a publisher that you can cash and use to buy yourself things like food and other lovely stuff? Or do you want to play Farmville?

For a writer, this is entirely up to you. You do not have any boss but yourself. Nobody is going to stand over you with a stick and force you to write. The world is not waiting for you to write your Great American Novel. The world doesn't particularly care if you do or not. There are plenty of other writers out there who are writing and getting things done. So if you want to be one of those people, you must do this on your own. There is simply no way around this.

Here is the expanded part: I actually had a revelation about this years ago. Is it ridiculous that I would need to have a revelation that in order to write, you have to Well, I did.

The revelation came during a particularly brutal revision on my first published novel, Raising the Griffin. I was so horribly stuck on a particular problem my editor had raised and that I could not find a solution for. I remember actually, literally banging my head on my desk because I couldn't figure it out. I was working late into the night, bruised forehead and all, writing and rewriting the same scene from one dead end into another. The rest of the family had long gone to bed and the house was quiet and I was pretty sure I would never be able to do what needed to be done. I was done. I was quitting. I even said it out loud.

"I can't do this!"

And this is where I begin to sound delusional, but remember, it was quite late at night and I had recently suffered a self-inflicted head injury. But I swear I heard a voice quite distinctly say:

"If you don't do it, it won't get done."

There it was. The plain, simple fact. No one was going to do it for me. And nobody but me was really going to care if I didn't do it. And why should I care? Because I'm not afraid to admit that I'm one of those writers who loves having written. I love having written because I love to be read. To be read, you must be published. And 99.99% of the time, unfinished books don't get published. And so it must be done. And so I must do it. And so must this young writer. So far, nobody has figured out how to get around this. Except rich celebrities, that is.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Where am I?

I'm still here! Just taking a bit of a blog break. Back when I have something more interesting to say!

Monday, January 30, 2012

HOSvision Revision

So for the last little while, I've been working on revising HOS. To do that, I had to finish up HOSvision. (What the heck is HOSvision?)

I'm so glad I set this up because it's been enormously helpful for revision. It gives me both a broad view of the balance of the plot but also a very quick chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene accounting of the story. So as I'm going along revising, I can track just where certain things happened without relying on memory or flipping through 500 pages.

The chart is color coded by the characters that dominate each scene. For some reason (and it would probably be a good idea to figure out why,) this made more sense for me, helped me keep things clear. There are little star stickers in a variety of colors to give me the emotional feel of the scene. The larger dark stickers are actually cat stickers because I could not for the life of me remember where the cat was in this story and it was important to know where she was.

Of course, the thing that jumps out is the long string of blue stickies near the end. That's the climax (and the lead up to the climax.) This seems long, right? Six chapters of buildup and climax. But it's a fifty-chapter book. Also, this is when my MC is drawn almost completely into the world and secret hell of the character represented by the blue stickies.

In the end, this method helped more as an organizational tool than an aid in helping me move forward as far as figuring out the plot. But since I am a massively disorganized mess at the best of times, I'm definitely going to try this again with the current WIP, especially since that is from two different POVs. I'm going to need a lot of stickies.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Five: Where Have I Been?

1. Uh, nowhere, actually.

2. I have, though, been head down in revision on HOS. It's gone very well and I'm so excited about this book. I love it dearly, dearly, dearly. My first two published books had male MCs and while I adore them still and loved writing them, I feel a kinship with Eddy (the female MC of HOS) that is different. Well, there is a difference between adoration and kinship.

3. I've also been working on a new WIP. Bits and pieces and trying to plot as much as I can. I've got two MCs this time, a boy and a girl, and this girl is a little slow to let me in, so I'm giving her time to reveal herself.

4. And eventually, I will relaunch WIP Diary 2.0, if only to help me keep track of what I'm doing. Hopefully next week.

5. And I am embracing the digital age. I was given an ereader for Christmas and I love it. For me, it does not replace physical books. There are pluses and minuses to it. Chiefly--and this may be a quirk of my own--I miss flipping through pages with ease. Ereaders do not flip. Other issues include protecting it from extremes in temperature which aren't all that extreme, like ninety-eight degrees. And a sudden new concern that it could be stolen, so I can't leave it in the car, something that never worried me with physical books. And many of my old favorite books--the books I love to reread--are not available in ebook form. (Hello, Dorothy L. Sayers estate, get on the ball.) But on the plus side, as a multi-book reader (reading more than one book at a time,) I do love carrying a truckload of books around with me in the palm of my hand.

Monday, October 17, 2011

WIP Diary 2.0: Into the Woods

We went on a little research expedition last week, hoping it would trigger some inspiration and help me figure out what project to work on next. We visited the closest "old growth" forest preserve, this one at Snyder-Middleswarth State Park. It had rained all day the day before and was overcast, foggy and with a steady mist the day we went. And you know what? In some weird way, walking in the woods in the rain (which I have somehow never done before) was an oddly addictive thing. I really want to do it again, soon. Maybe it was an elemental thing. Here you had earth, water and air all around you and pretty much nothing else.

Old growth was not what I expected. I expected a dense, dark forest, but the big trees inhibit sapling growth. And unfortunately, deer overpopulation has decimated the undergrowth in a lot of these forests. Still, it was very different than many of the other state forests we're familiar with. For one thing, there was no dirt visible. As rainy and wet as it was, we emerged without a spot of mud on us, even though we slipped and fell and had to clamber over hillsides and rocks and fallen trees. The trail was either rock (so covered in lichen they were solid green) or a black peat of hemlock bark and needles so thick and soft, it was like walking on a sponge.

Oddly, it didn't smell like anything. I had gone prepared to collect sensory details and fully expected a catalog of fragrances and odors to take with me. Especially in the rain, you would expect the place to be redolent of earth and moldering leaves, spicy with the scent of fern. What it was, instead, was utterly clean.

The place was lush with ferns and a rich variety of mosses, including this wonderful shaggy moss that covered an entire hillside of rocks:

The mist and fog were perfect for the story I have in mind, almost like it was intended. We only had this one day for our trip and it turned out to be perfect weather:

The trail was challenging and made few concession to ease of hiking. You wanted to see this forest, you had to work for it. Here the trail disappears into a spring. You had to figure out how to get around it.

In other places, we hopped from rock to rock (wet rocks) and had to figure out if it was easier to go over or under trees. In some cases, neither option was ideal. And then there was this:

On the stump of this fallen hemlock, other hikers have left a cairn of stones. I don't know why or what it means, but if there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's to take note of details like this because sometimes, they are a gift from the universe. And so, we'll see....

Hoping to go out again to another old growth preserve in a couple of weeks (if it isn't freezing cold.) This one definitely shook something loose and the ideas are starting to simmer. Setting was definitely a strong connection in Funny How Things Change, a connection that built the plot. And I think it will be with this idea as well.

Now as for the other front runner idea, that research is quite a bit different, and I'll be doing some of that this week.

Monday, October 03, 2011

WIP Diary 2.0: Begin Again

I took a week off to wallow in the plight of Dante and Lulu over at General Hospital*. (Please, General Hospital! Please stop putting holes in Dante! I can't take it!)

I'm so out of practice in sending mss out into the world, but I do remember how important it is to become invested in a new project as soon as possible. So today is going to be "What Next" day. I've got a file full of ideas but nothing that's really jumping up and down and saying "Write me! Write me!" Maybe it's too soon after finishing TDB to have that excited feeling. It will come, I'm sure. Maybe I just need to open a couple of them and work on each one a bit until one of them takes off. That sounds like a plan. And right now, a plan sounds good.

The problem is that the three front-runner ideas are sooooo sketchy, and that terrifies me. See, TDB (aka HOS) started out very sketchy, just an assemblage of pretty things I wanted to toss into a book and twirl around with. Plot? Who needs a plot! We have carriages and balls and pretty dresses! Yeah, that didn't work out so well.

So this week might be about taking each idea out for a test drive, a little waltz across the floor and see if one of them takes off.

*And one of these days, I have to write about what I've learned about storytelling from soap operas. But right now, I feel like I'm learning more from reading the message boards than from the shows themselves. It's so interesting to gauge what works for viewers and how they interpret the characters and their actions and motivations, what works for them and what doesn't.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

WIP Diary: We're Through!

You know why? Because I finally finished This Damned Book!!! That's right, at 9:00 last night, this monstrous, out-of-control thing finally wrapped up. I'm thinking it might have one of the longest, most drawn-out endings in YA history, but I don't care. I love it. It makes me happy to see it all tied up in dozens of pretty pink ribbons.

And I managed to finish it while distracted by day job angst, Christopher Plummer's loin cloth, a jackwagon neighbor who seems to believe that the way to fix a car is to repeatedly rev the engine right outside my window all flipping day long, and my deep concern over the fact that Dante Falconeri currently lies bleeding to death on the floor of Sonny Corinthos' coffee warehouse! That, my friends, is dedication.

At this point, I choose not to think (too much) about how many years I spent writing this thing. (Because A#1, I choose not to make myself any crazier than I already am.) Though I do wonder why I stuck with it. It's not like it's going to rival War and Peace or change anyone's life or anything. It ain't that kind of a book.

But it is my book and my characters and once they had taken life inside my head, I couldn't walk away from them. Oh, I tried. There was a whole year in there where I just completely abandoned them. But I kept thinking of them, home alone, living off of saltines and ketchup, and I had to go back and take care of them. Because that's the thing my writer friend keeps telling me. You are your characters' only chance. If you don't care about your characters, nobody else will. You owe it to them to give them every chance to live and breathe.

At this point, I'm not going to think in terms of revision or the possibility of having to cut drastically. (Maybe it's a blessing it did take me this long because if I'd finished a book this size five years ago, no one would have considered it. Now, a door stopper like this doesn't raise an eyebrow.)

But it's hard not to wonder if it will sell, if anyone but me will love not just the characters, but the frivolous details, the relatively pointless asides and extraneous interactions.

Whether it sells or not, it's done. It pleases me. It pleases me that I finished it. And now my terrier brain can move on to the Next Damned Book.

Final Statistics:

506 pages
125,089 words
6 kisses
1 death
3 sisters
1 cat
2 balls
1 muselar
3 handsome men
1 cold mama
3 dresses made out of curtains
1 snippy housemaid
and a curse

Monday, September 26, 2011

WIP Diary: La C'eran Baci

So stuff keeps happening to draw this ending out. I am violating every rule and tenet of structure here but I don't care. I'm just letting TDB roll out the way it wants to.

But I must say that at this point, I am rather tired of describing kisses. You see, there's been a bit of a pile-up of kissing in the last quarter of this novel. All of a sudden, everyone wants to kiss my MC.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy kissing. It's a very nice thing we humans have lit upon. But after about the fourth or fifth one, you run out of ways to describe the texture of lips and the spreading warmth of sensation a really good kiss can provide. In short, breaking kisses down into technical description gets annoying after awhile.

Today, I'm going back through the last couple of chapters to add in some details that I skated over. Oh, I know, you're not supposed to write this way. But you know what? This is the way I write. My mind won't be happy until we go back and make sure we've made it clear that James's shirt has been ripped open there in chapter forty-eight.

And then...and then...I might be able to finish today. Do you think I will??? Is this E-Day? (Ending day!) Stay Tuned.

Friday, September 23, 2011

WIP Diary: It's a Surprise Party In Here

So the other day, I'm all angsty about how there won't be a happy ending to This Damned Book because I was so smugly certain it just wouldn't work out that way.


I was wrong. Once I shut up, let go of the anxiety of rushing to the finish and just let my characters do what they wanted to do, guess what they did? Well, I probably shouldn't tell you, but it wasn't what I fully expected to happen, what I was actually planning to write.

Once again, this is the kind of stuff that makes you sound like a prime candidate for the laughing academy, but it's not as freaky weird as it sounds. It's about listening to the characters. Wait, no. That still sounds freaky, like you think they're actually real people or something. But that's getting closer to it.

Look, I know they're not real but the thing is, I want them to seem like they are to the reader, so I have to remember that when I'm writing, remember that they have reactions according to their own feelings that may not necessarily fit into where I think the story should go and I fail to listen to them at my peril.

Must go to the day job. Hoping to get to the end by early next week!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

WIP Diary: Give Me Just a Denoueminute

(I know these entries are coming fast and furious now, but that's because I'm nearly done!)

So, as feared, the denouement is spinning out of control, heading into the third chapter of tying things up. The big problem is all the explanations. There was so much my MC didn't know that the reader also didn't know and it all needs to be explained clearly, quickly and realistically. Man, I hope this works.

And then there are all of the relationships to resolve. There is no room here for a romantic happily ever after. It wouldn't be realistic anyway. It would take a whole 'nother book. (And no, I ain't writing no sequel to TDB!) So I have to somehow set up a satisfying close that is really an opening, that will let the reader know that yes, this will happen in the future. Is that going to be satisfying enough? I don't know. I guess I'd better go work on that and see how it turns out.

Monday, September 19, 2011

WIP Diary: Dear Brain, Remember Me?

One of the great things about writing--the things you can never admit to non-writers because they will look at you oddly and back away very veerrrrrrry slowly so they don't startle you into a violent act--is when your brain knows more than you do. When it does stuff without telling you why. You know what I mean? (Please don't say "Nooooo, Melissa. Nobody else is this weird.")

So here are a couple of examples from this damned book (which I'm thinking of abbreviating as TDB) I'm working on:

Early on in the book, a cat showed up. I like cats a lot (I just can't live with them--the hair, you see.) So I figured a cat was a good thing to have in a book and I'd let her stay. I didn't think she was important and from time to time, I'd consider just cutting her because it was sometimes difficult to remember to keep her in scene. But my brain knew she was important and wouldn't let me cut her.

And damned if my brain wasn't right. Come the climax, the cat was a key to getting my heroine out of a sticky situation.

And then there was the cloak. At the beginning of the climax, one of the characters put on his cloak. Now this is a big old bloated book and I'm looking to trim words anywhere and wherever I can, so I was going to take out the bit about the cloak. It wasn't important. It wasn't needed. Who cared if he was wearing a cloak or not (sexy as cloaks may be.)

But no, my brain said. Do not touch the cloak on pain of screwing this thing up yet again! So I left the cloak. Now it didn't turn into some pivotal plot point, but there is a moment that would be far less poetic if this guy hadn't been wearing a cloak.

So you see, my brain knows more than I do sometimes. I try not to take it personally and I'm learning to just do as my brain tells me as much as possible.

I had this happen to great effect in Raising the Griffin, too. I had provided Alexei with a horse because I like horses and guys on horses are very sexy. But again, the whole horse thing was taking up a lot of room and I started wondering if it was really all that important. Then I reached a point in the story where I needed something that the people of Rovenia could give to Alexei and whoa! There it was! The horse! They could give him back the horse he had to leave behind.

If you read that book, it looks like I had that all planned out, doesn't it? Maybe I'm being stupid for publicly admitting that it was a huge surprise to me. But there it is. This is one of the cool cool things about writing for me, these secret brain surprises.

But back to the WIP (TDB), this week, I am working on the denouement and trying to ignore the feeling that it is spinning out of control. I was comfortable with the idea that it would be a long denouement that would nicely tie up all of the loose ends of the story into pretty little bows. (I think it's the kind of story that calls for that. You can't leave nearly 500 pages of painstakingly detailed fluff on a spare, stylistic question mark.)

But right now, I seem to be in a mire of explanation and that feels a little deadly. But I'm going to go ahead and write it all out and then go back and see how it feels. The problem is that it's a kind of secondary character who is doing all of the explaining and it just feels weird for some reason. Just not quite sure why, yet. But we'll see.

So today is "work my way back in" day. I work three days a week (the horror, I know) and there is little time to think of writing on those days. Work consumes me entirely. And it's hard for me to just leap back into the writing after a break of several days like that. If anyone has any tricks on how to do that efficiently and quickly, I'd love to hear about them!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

WIP Diary: The End is Near!

I finally finally finally worked my way through the climax of this story. I think shifting a load of coal would have been easier. Dirtier, but easier. This was bloody hard work.

I was trying to describe the process to writer friends, thinking there ought to be a very good analogy for it. The best I could come up with is having a massive snarl in your hair where you have to go back and comb and comb this bit and that bit until you get it all worked out. But that's not quite accurate either.

See, here's how my process works. (And "works" is a very loose term.) I write largely linearly. In that I start at the beginning and write to the end. Ideally, that is. I do occasionally write out scenelets and snippets out of order as inspiration strikes. And I do spend an awful lot of time backtracking. This usually happens when I get stuck. I get stuck because something I've written previously is wrong and I just have to go back and rewrite until I figure it out. This is why the shitty first draft has never worked for me. My brain just doesn't work that way.

Now the problem with the climax is that it's not only the point where the action of the book leads, the point where the problem posed to the main character is resolved (or not, as the story desires,) but it is also where the theme of the book--er--crystallizes. Or something.

My problem is that I almost never know what my theme is. No different with this project. Naturally, that complicated figuring out how the climax should play out. I had to keep writing out thoughts and dialogue that weren't going to end up in the scene in order for me to understand what was really going on with the characters.

The climax was the first time we really "see" this pivotal character. Her presence has been felt all along, but now she finally gets a voice and the opportunity to give her side of things. I don't think I realized until I started writing it out just how important that was. Suddenly, I couldn't make her do what I thought she had to do in order to bring my climax around to a resolution.

Instead, I had to go back to this event that had happened long before the action of the book, an event that I had already described from another character's POV. I had to understand it from hers. Even though she takes up such a small amount of page space, understanding her is important. Understanding why she is doing what she's doing is crucial for my MC because the final choice is going to come down to her.

One of the great challenges of this book has been letting go my notions of what a book should do and be (structurally, mainly) and allowing this book to roll out the way it needs to roll out. Be what it wants to be. I think I've been resisting that all along. First, I've been resisting the length the book needs to be. And maybe I've been resisting what the book is really about. That I'm not sure of because I think that will be revealed as I work through the denouement.

So that's the next challenge. I'm still not sure what my MC thinks about all that has happened! If I can figure that out, I may very soon be able to write "The End!"

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Untitled poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Deep in the muck of unregarded doom,
Where none can make a conquest, none have room
To stretch an aching muscle,--there might be
Interstices where impulse could go free...
There, where accomplishment cannot achieve,
Valour defend, religion quite believe,
Or vengeance plot behavior,--there may still
Be cracks, uneasy instinct well might fill
And even worm it's way along, until
All might begin again; and Man receive
In prospect, what he never can retrieve.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

WIP Diary: Unsubconscious

Had a major breakthrough on a plot element that had been hanging over my head for a good part of the book.

Conventional writing wisdom says to jump over it and write on, come back and figure it out later. This approach has never worked for me. I wish it did, but I have to work with what I've got. And for me, I need to know how things work before I can move on.

In this case, the solution is so beautiful (I think so, anyway) that it changed the way I felt about the whole scene and my approach to the next plot element. If I'd jumped over it, I'd have screwed up the rest of the scene anyway.

I wish I could articulate how I finally figured out the solution to this particular problem, but I can't. I have to put this one down to the subconscious again. Or, to be fair, a combination of the subconscious and staring at the page while thinking through various scenarios until one of them clicked. That sounds like it should be easy but it's not like leafing through a handy selection of story solutions. It meant thinking through every character's motivations and possible reactions to what any of the other characters might do. I did write out little bits of those reactions and things so they were there in front of me to help me along. Okay, so this isn't very subsconscious-y at all, is it? Except I do think my subconscious did a lot of the work while I was doing other stuff. Like sleeping.

Now I'm hoping that over the last week, my subconscious has been at work on the next hurdle in this scene. Someone's gotta die and I'm not quite sure who is going to make that decision. It could be any one of three characters and each one would change the meaning of the book itself, maybe.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

A Day of Writing

I have a day (well, possibly five hours) to myself today and I mean to make the most of them. So I thought I'd keep a running log of my writing day here, hour by hour, to keep myself honest. I've done a couple of chores so that "There are so many other things I need to dooooo" feeling is at bay. I've had a slice of blueberry quick bread. I've got a big bottle of water, three peanut butter creams and the TV is OFF. Time to start.

11:00 AM: Where I am (in the story, that is. Physically, I'm at home)

It's the climax, at last. But I'm going to backtrack to where the literal "journey" to the climax starts because I've got that itchy feeling that I've been pushing my characters around again and that always leads to disaster. If I don't get that right--if I don't go back and let them say and do the things they would naturally say and do rather than what I think they should say and do in order to move my plot forward, I'm going to hit a brick wall. I know this from bitter, repeated experience and I'm going to try to avoid it this time. I'll be back to update in an hour (unless I really get caught up in what I'm doing.) So here we go. Eddy and Hugh are in the subterranean cavern beneath the castle...

12:00 PM:

Making slow progress. Smoothed out the kiss scene. Specifically, Eddy's reaction to the kiss. The scene still leans heavily on Hugh's POV, which is odd since this is first person from Eddy's POV. Memo: don't forget your main character. Duh. Back to it.

1:00 PM:

Scene working well enough to make forward progress. Two new pages into the climax. There's a ton of backstory that has to be worked in here. And more backstory to be worked into the denouement, but I'll worry about that later. Right now, I'm going to focus on action, the actual physical events that need to happen in this scene.

2:00 PM:

Wrote actual new words, even leaping ahead in the story as a character reveals herself and her motivations. I write those bits out and stick them at the bottom of my file so they're handy when I need them. There are about three pages of such notes at the moment. They might not all be used in the finished text, but they help me think through understanding the characters, so it's useful to have them at hand.

Took a lunch break. (Peaches are divine this year!) Now back at it.

3:15 PM:

Got caught up in the scene. Lots of good stuff happening. I have given myself shivers. (Delicious Man-in-Jeopardy shivers!) Characters are saying unexpected and delightful (awful, but delightful from a literary standpoint) things that have brought the POV back around to my MC and I think and hope may actually relate to some sort of theme. See, I never know what my theme is while I'm actually writing and I don't worry about it too much. Sometimes, even when I'm done, I still don't know what the theme is and leave it up to the reader to decide. Still, it's very hard to juggle dialogue between more than two people while keeping the MC's thoughts, reactions, emotions in mind. But it's falling into place in that mysterious subconscious kind of way. I love this kind of crap. Back to it!

4:30 PM:

Well, my men are home, so my writing day is interrupted. I'm still hoping to get more done after dinner. I'm not going to post a word count because I've cut a lot of notes from the bottom of the file that I incorporated into new writing today, as well as rewriting that journey scene, so no way of knowing the real word count. But in terms of forward progress and discovery, it was a very good day. The climax is moving forward at a good pace. But more importantly, what the characters are doing makes sense. This is such a bugger of a complicated book with its own mythology that my first person POV MC doesn't know about that it's been a massive mess to bring in all of the information necessary while still keeping the MC and the reader guessing. But it's making sense! Hallelujah and pass the potato chips.

Wrapping up:

So I managed a little more work this evening, but must admit that I am stuck on something that needs a little thinking time. Plus, it's late and I want to watch the rerun of Friday's episode of General Hospital, so. Y'know. There is that. But I'm quite pleased with what I accomplished today. More forward motion than in a long time. Keeping track of my progress like this was really helpful, too. Might try it again.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Importance of Pants

A writer friend once pointed out to me one of the greatest cinematic moments ever. It's a bit of business from the 1958 Western The Big Country, a movie I never much liked because I disagree with the overall theme. But this moment is so packed with meaning, everyone needs to see it. Trust me. This is relevant to writing, I promise.

The bit in question is a lead in to what is considered one of the greatest Hollywood fights ever filmed. (Maybe so. But again, I disagree with the message.) But the fight isn't important. What we're looking at here is a point in the lead-up to the fight.

To briefly set it up, Gregory Peck is an Eastern "dude" who has come west to marry the daughter of a wealthy rancher. There he locks horns with Charlton Heston, lead ranch hand who also has the hots for the rancher's daughter. They've been on the verge of fisticuffs the whole movie, only Peck's character doesn't believe in violence. At least, not in front of other people. But this night, he goes to Heston's bunk house to wake him up for their long-overdue confrontation.

Now again, it's not the fight that's interesting. It's this one tiny moment where Charlton Heston puts on his pants. No, really. I'm going to steal my friend's description of this moment because I love it so much:

"CH gets out of his bunk and, in about one-and-a-half seconds, Puts On His Pants before heading outside to fight. By g*d, it's the manliest, toughest putting-on-of-pants since men have had pants to put on. Charlton Heston is not messing around. This guy is mega-macho, and he's ready to kick Greg Peck's @ss."

You don't have to watch this whole clip. The putting-on-of-pants occurs around 2:32 and lasts only a scant few seconds.

There it is. In just a few seconds, the actor and director tell you so much about the character and his state of mind. He doesn't have to say anything. Nobody needs to explain anything to you. It is all done in one and a half seconds of pants-putting-on. The fight itself goes on for about four minutes, only to underscore the larger theme of the movie. But this business with the pants is such a beautiful expression not only of economy of characterization but also of knowing when and where to use "business" to inform character.

That's where this gets back to writing. I think this scene perfectly illustrates an important writing issue. Sometimes you put on your pants and sometimes you Put On Your Pants. And a writer needs to know if his character is putting on pants or Putting On Pants and treat it accordingly.

See, if William Wyler had shown Charlton Heston putting on his pants like this in every single scene, it wouldn't mean anything. If he'd shown Heston Putting On His Pants in the very first scene--before the tension had built between the two men--it would mean something totally different. But in this moment, in those few seconds, it brilliantly lets you in on who Heston's character is and what he is feeling at a pivotal point in the movie. What would we miss in that scene if it had cut from Heston telling Peck that he'd meet him outside as soon as he put on his pants, thank you very much, right to the fight? The whole balance of the fight would be lost because we wouldn't understand Heston's character as well as we do now. That's how you use pants in fiction.

Think of the difference between a stage play and a movie. In a play, your eye is free to wander across the stage and look at any character at any time. It's different in film (though it took filmmakers a few years to figure this out.) In film, the director "directs" the eye of the viewer to what is important in the story. And the writer is the "director" in the book. You decide where to turn your key light, where to let the "camera" of the narrative linger or zoom as aids to telling the story. But if you pull your camera in on something that doesn't do something, that doesn't move the story or inform character or build tension or portend or something, you risk losing the attention of the reader or even annoying them.

Example: In the British serial Larkrise to Candleford, there is a lot of Putting On Pants when they really should just be putting on pants and mostly keeping that private. The problem with this is that it's extremely distracting because I keep waiting for Stuff to Mean Something and it never does. A recent episode included a number of dramatic shots of unattended blacksmith forge fires, and so I kept waiting for something to burst into uncontrollable flames, but it never did. So why call my attention to the unattended fires? Why say something so loudly when it has nothing whatever to do with your characters or the story you're telling? What do these blacksmith fires have to do with anything? Nothing beyond the fact that this character is a blacksmith, which we already know. Therefore, they don't require this level of notice. It's not only a waste of space, it is a distraction from the real story.

So it's something I'm trying to think about when writing. Am I showing my character Putting On His Pants when he is really just putting on his pants? Or am I missing the opportunity to have him Put On His Pants and tell the reader something very important about him?

WIP Diary: The 2:00 PM Moments

So the other week I was all about the glories of the subconscious in writing, manifested in the "2:00 AM moments" when your subconscious miraculously takes over your writing snarls for you and works them out.

Yeah, that's wonderful stuff, those moments. Mystical and magical. But unfortunately, you can't write a whole book that way. Most of the work has to be done consciously, word by word, like a bricklayer building a house. You can't get around the brutal hard work sometimes. And those are the 2:00 PM moments.

It's that time in the afternoon where the caffeine buzz has worn off, you're a little sleepy from eating lunch and starting to wonder about dinner or what the kids are up to and your brain just isn't interested in the made up people on the screen in front of you. What do you do? The easy thing is to get up from the computer and go do something else. But you'll never finish the book that way. Trust me. Why do you think I'm still working on this damned book after all this time?

Let me let you in on a little secret: when you walk away from your computer, little elves do not show up and finish the book for you. It's shocking but true. You actually have to write the book yourself.

But it's hard at 2:00 PM when inspiration just isn't there. You sit and stare at the same line with the cursor blinking, unmoving, at the end of it until the words dissolve into a jumble of letters that don't mean anything anymore, you've read them over too often.

It can be so easy to quit when that happens. How can you write when your brain won't function? Well, you just have to make it function. First thing you have to do is let go of the idea of inspiration. Remember Thomas Edison and how this is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

We have this odd notion that writing is this ethereal activity when most of the time, it is bloody hard mental work. Don't buy into the idea that every word must flow through you like some gift from above or otherwise it's no good. Sometimes, you have to plunk words down on the page.

This is where I am right now. Plunking words down. It's not fast and it's not fun but it's progress and I'll take it for now.

WIP Diary: The 2:00 AM Moments

You know what those are, right? That's when your brain wakes you up at 2:00 in the morning because it just had the most brilliant idea for either a new story or a solution to a plot problem or a more clear character motivation. Your brain can't wait until a civilized hour to have these revelations. No. they always happen at 2:00 in the morning. And you ignore them at your peril. (You also--at your peril--fail to write them down immediately, thinking you'll be able to remember them later. You won't, you know.)

Well, I've been having a lot of those 2:00 AM moments with this WIP. And it occurred to me this morning that one of the reasons is that I've been pushing the writing instead of letting it roll out organically. I've been pushing characters to do things to move the plot along rather than taking the time to figure out what they would really do. Then at night, when I'm sleeping, my subconscious apparently has access to my files and noses through them (yes, my subconscious has a nose) and comes and tells me how I've screwed things up.

Usually, my conscious knows something is wrong. It knows it in that down-dragging, grump-inducing "Crap, I know something is wrong but I don't know what or how to fix it" kind of way that makes you stomp petulantly through the house and take your mood out on the chicken breasts.

It also makes moving forward in the story tough because you know that somewhere behind you, you've done your characters wrong. And while maybe they won't tell you flat out, but they keep looking reluctantly over their shoulders like actors who know the director has gone nuts.

Example: Here's what woke me up at two this morning:

So I knew that these two characters had to kiss at some point and I figured Chapter 43 was a good a time as any. We had the "big reveal." The MC knew most all there was to know. A kiss would help her decide the next step to take. Right? Right? Of course right.

Wrong. I wrote through the whole next chapter--where my MC was actually walking from one place to another--and I could feel her dragging her imaginary little feet the whole way. She knew something was wrong. I knew she knew but I didn't want to admit it because.....

Okay, let's just admit it. Because I didn't want to have to think too hard about where that kiss really belonged and why.

There. I am lazy. Okay? The problem with that is that I always always always end up working harder when I try to take a short cut because I always always always end up screwing things up.

Thank goodness I still have a functioning subconscious to keep me in line and figure things out for me. At the end of chapter 44, there is the perfect place for the kiss. It's not even really a "place," like I went looking for a parking spot for it. It is what would happen. It is what these two people would do in the course of events. And I would have figured it out, maybe, if I hadn't been pushing so hard to fit everything in that I thought needed to be in there.

So memo to me: just write this @#$%& thing out first. Follow the characters. Worry about where everything fits later. Because we are getting too old to be awakened at 2:00 AM every day.

I'm going to need a nap.

WIP Diary: Let Me Explain This To You

I am at the point in this novel (fina-freaking-ly) that I have been thinking of as The Big Reveal. It is at one and the same time a huge relief and a massive pain in the posterior.

Because this means it's time for all of the backstory to come out. Yes, I know there are many nifty techniques to weave backstory into a novel, even if your novel is written in first person present tense and your POV character is utterly ignorant of said backstory. Yeah, you can still get it in there.'s important to keep the reader ignorant as well.

Keeping the reader ignorant without pissing them off has been one juggling act. Now I have to tell the reader everything I've been withholding from him and make it seem natural. And you know what? That's not even the biggest problem!!!

The biggest problem is that there is a supernatural aspect to this story and I am constantly resisting the urge to over-explain it. This is because I am of a pragmatic turn of mind, myself and like everything to have a logical explanation.

But there's that thing called the willing suspension of disbelief and I think in fantasy, it's even more willing than usual. A reader who picks up a fantasy book is already halfway suspended. Not that you can get away with the completely illogical, but you don't need to dissect everything, either, and that's what I have to keep stopping myself from doing.

But it's hard! It's like expecting me not to pester my kids about picking up their dirty clothes! It requires sheer force of will. As I am writing along, I have to keep explanation alert on full blast. When I find myself explaining too much, I cut out the explanation and stick it to the bottom of the ms. That way, I know it's down there if I decide I truly do need it later.

But you know what? So far, it's all still down there.

Idle and Possible Pointless Thoughts on Storytelling and Old TV

So I've been watching old TV shows on YouTube and because I like to try to justify my time-suck activities, I will now draw a comparison between 70s action shows and writing. Ta da!

One thing I notice (besides the crappy music) is the use of copious and lengthy establishing shots. You know, like the camera will linger lovingly over the exterior of a hospital so that you, the viewer knows for damned sure that we're in the hospital now.

The director takes the viewer very gently by the hand and leads you along in this manner. It's quite sweet, actually, but it serves to seriously drag down the action.

Weirdly, though, back in 1976, I didn't notice it. It didn't feel draggy. But now it makes me want to scream. I wonder if this is symptomatic of a general shift in the way we live and think, with information instantly available at our fingertips, with life lived at a faster speed, we expect stories to move along at the same clip. Or maybe we've been trained to accept more abrupt transitions in stories. It's not just in establishing shots, either. In modern TV series, I think the viewer is expected to infer more than in older shows. You have to be able to keep up and fill in blanks on your own.

One thing you notice when you watch these things on YouTube--with the commercials cut out--is that the running time for hour-long series from the sixties and seventies is about eight minutes longer than hour-long series today. So maybe the precise editing is more about expediency than storytelling choices, making room for more commercials to offset increasing production costs.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting and it made me wonder if it's one of the things that drives the current popularity of YA fiction. YA--in general--employs a different pacing than adult fiction, a different focus and highlights different aspects of story. It "cuts to the chase" and maybe in our impatient new world, people are more comfortable with that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

WIP Diary: Another Brick Wall

Yeah, I seem to keep hitting them with this book. And every time, I think "This is it. I can't figure it out. I'm giving up." And then something will occur to me and I'll figure it out and move on until I slam up against the next brick wall.

One of the things that "occurs" to me is to call my friend Shelley Sykes. Shelley is the award-winning author of the YA mystery For Mike. And mystery writers have a way of looking at a story as a puzzle. So when I've got a particularly nasty snarl, I know I can put it before Shelley and instead of wanting to gouge her eyes out (which is the way I'm feeling about the problem,) Shelley will go "Oh, look! What a marvelous little mess you have presented me with. Let me fix it for you." (Actually, Shelley sounds nothing like that at all, but in essence, this is what she does.)

This current brick wall involved a massive motivational issue with the mother of my MC. Dear old Mama had made a pretty dastardly arrangement. And when you have the mother in your story do something dastardly, she had better have a really supremely excellent reason for it. Mothers--in stories as in many arenas in real life--are held to a certain standard of behavior. When they deviate from that, you've got to make sure it's believable and understandable or you will hear the dreaded phrase "But mothers don't..." It doesn't matter that mothers actually do dastardly things all the time in real life. If you haven't heard this before, here it is: this isn't real life. It's fiction. And fiction has to be more real than real life.

But anyway, because of other events in the story, Mama's motivation fell apart and I couldn't get it back together. Now my initial response to plot problems like this is to write like crazy and introduce all sorts of new elements to try to bolster my point.

This is almost always a disaster. It's like trying to find something you've lost by going out and buying lots of other things you don't really need. Kind of stupid.

So I call Shelley and she can almost tell by the ring tone that I'm calling her with a problem because she goes "What's wrong?" And I try to lay out my problem to her. It's such a jumbled up problem, even I don't understand it while I'm explaining it. But Shelley's going "Mmm. Mmm. Mm hm." And then she says "Let's go back. What was the conversation like, when Mama made this arrangment?"

Now I know that even though this book is in first person from the POV of my MC so that she would not have been present to hear that conversation, I also know that I--as the author--most certainly should know. But I didn't. I hadn't thought it through. Sometimes you need someone to remind you of these things. Sometimes you need someone to tell you that the answer isn't something in front of you that you don't know. It's already there in the story, even if it isn't in the existing text. You just need to go back and find it, rather than creating all kinds of new bits of story.

And that's what Shelley did. She rooted through the musty old root cellar of my brain and pulled out this and that and shook them out and held them up in front of me until she picked up one specific story point and said "How about this?" It was a genuine eureka moment. The solution! Right there. Simple, clean, direct and already part of the story. And while you may not like Mama for what she does, you will understand why she does it. And that's all I need.

Can I just say what a massive feeling of relief that is? When you have got a story issue that is blocking your brain, like a wad of hair in your bathroom sink. (I know, I paint a picture, don't I?) And then whoosh! The drains are clear again and you can think. My friend Shelley. She is like literary Draino.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

WIP Diary: Gutted

This is one of those times when I wish I was an outliner, a plotter. That I had some sort of organizational and planning turn of mind. But I do not, and so I spend a lot of my writing time in musing, thinking things through, writing down blind alleys and into corners and backtracking.

I like to tell myself that none of this is wasted effort. That I always learn something, no matter what I write. At the very least, I learn what doesn't work. But sometimes that isn't a terribly comforting thought. Like when you've spent a week writing gangbusters and quite sure you've figured the whole thing out and are zooming along towards the climax and the ultimate ending of the Book That Wouldn't End, only to have to sit back and admit to yourself that sorry, but those last three chapters are pointless meandering, serve no purpose in the narrative, offer no needed information and in fact pull the story in the wrong direction. Three chapters. And I write long chapters. They've got to go.

To which I say right now: Crap. Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap. I think I may even have stomped my foot.

But it's back to that gut feeling thing. In this case, the more the chapters piled up without getting any closer to the climax (like one of those nightmare scenes in the movies where someone is running down a long hallway lined with doors and the hallway just keeps getting longer and longer,) the more I knew I had a problem. I was circling the climax, trying to write in all of the stuff that was still hanging out there in space that I thought needed to be laid out in preparation. I was writing like your mom who keeps stopping you on your way out the door to make sure you have your scarf and your hat and your gloves and a quarter in your shoe. Enough, Mom! Just let me go already!

What's worse is that when I look back to where I went from the direct line of the story to where I started mincing around writing chapters of nothingness, I had something really hot and dramatic going on right there. That's where to make the leap into the climax. You want emotional peaks and valleys in your narrative, but this close to the climax is no time to take things back down.

Worse still, I thought I was so clever in moving from that scene to those dull, dead chapters. Oh, how we can fool ourselves. Sure, maybe I wrote in complete sentences. Maybe some of them are even beautiful or entertaining. But they aren't doing what they need to be doing, and so.....

There. They are in the "cut" file now. And I am flung back 25 pages. In the immortal words of Dorothy Fields, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again. Or at least, start at page 383 again.


Sunday, October 03, 2010

WIP Diary: Going With Your Gut

In general, I classify myself as a plunger-type of writer. I start with a situation and/or a character and write from there to see what happens. I usually have a vague idea of the ending, so I know where I'm heading. I'm just not sure how we're going to get there.

But somewhere around....maybe the last eighth of the book, I suddenly start plotting. Or something like plotting. What I do is start to make lists of things that need to happen. Because now suddenly, I can see the things that need to happen in order to get to the ending that has become more sharply focused in my mind.

Sometimes, though, that kind of thinking can lead me astray and that's when I have to listen for and trust my gut.

I don't know how you learn about the gut. Some writer friends and I were discussing this. I think it has a lot to do with what you have picked up about storytelling through lots of reading and--for me, anyway--other forms of story, like movies or TV (or plays and opera and blah blah.) And also what you know about people. Because story is the story of people. It's not a story about what happens. It's a story about what people did. So if you don't understand why people do things, you're going to get all tangled up.

But anyway, trusting your gut feeling on story can be really tough. Why? Because usually your gut is asking you to work harder. And me, I want things to be done. So sometimes I will shut out my grumbling gut and just plow forward and it always always ends in frustration and I have to go back and work hard to fix things anyway.

But more importantly, gut-level reactions--following the story where the story wants to go instead of where you intellectually think it ought to go in order to get where you think you need to be--that's where the cool stuff is! If you shut that out, you can miss great opportunities in your story.

The other night, I was struggling mightily with a scene where I had this idea of what I needed everyone to say in order to get from that point to where I wanted to be in order to kick-start the climax of the novel. This, this and this had to happen.

But the scene didn't want to be that. It read okay. It worked in its own way. But my gut was saying "Nope. This isn't right." I could have ignored that and let it go and kept writing, but I'd probably have ended up in a hopeless snarl anyway or wouldn't have really made the point I wanted to make.

And I thought I was doing really well because I was thinking "Okay, I can do a chapter about this and I can have him pop up here and say this and then she can go over here and hear that," etc. But it was like moving dolls around in a doll house. And it was all turning out to be expository dialogue that didn't have any real purpose behind it. Like nobody was saying things because they were feeling like they had to tell someone or were reacting to what someone had said or done. They were saying things because I stood them there and made them say it because I thought it would get us from A to B.

One thing that was going on is something I have a very bad habit of doing to my female characters. I tend to make them behave like therapists, where their sole function in certain scenes is to ask questions that will draw out the other (usually young male) character and get him to talk about his problems. This always ends up sounding really stupid because people just don't do this (unless they're being paid $250 an hour.) Teenaged girls whose hearts are aching and who want to fling themselves on their beds and weep don't stop and do this.

And then you've got this guy over here who ends up looking like a total jerk because he is unloading his problems and never noticing that the girl in front of him is hurting and confused. No, he's like someone with a social disorder who only wants to talk about their problems, it doesn't matter that you're a trembling basket case standing before them. Oh, he said things that seemed important and would make sense later when All was Revealed. But it was boring and had that repetitive feeling.*

So I went back and tried to think in terms of reaction. How would he react on seeing her all upset? How would she answer him out of her own emotional turmoil? They could still talk but I couldn't forget the other stuff that was going on.

And you know what? They didn't say what I wanted them to say, what I thought they needed to say. They said stuff that was better. And wow. Drama happened! Something I don't think I could have intellectually planned out without working it through this way. It will take the story to the climax with a bit of a ticking clock effect, rather than a series of polite conversations.

As my writer friend put it, when you feel something is off in a scene, step one should be to go back and try to connect with each character in the scene. Try to figure out where they are at that moment and what they are feeling.

But you have to listen to your gut. And I think that takes practice. See, I personally recognize three different gut reactions, and it's important to learn the distinctions between them, which ones to listen to and which to ignore. I've got one that goes "Ugh, I'm tired." And more frequently, one that goes "Ugh, I'm scared!" The first one you can either ignore or heed and take a nap. The second you just have to ignore because it has nothing useful to offer you.

But the third one goes "Uuuuuugh, this isn't working." It comes with a heavy feeling because it means you have to go back and rework something. It means you have to think again and rethinking something is hard. But if you don't listen to it, you're either going to end up in a dead end or a snarl and have to work your way back anyway. Or you're going to end up with something that could have had much more impact. It might be okay, but it could have been a lot better, that's what your gut is telling you.

*Even though I went back through the ms and couldn't find other places where he said the same thing, this feeling of repetition is an important clue to another problem I have, the tendency to not trust the reader, to want to bang them over the head with things. It felt repetitive because it was stuff the reader will figure out on their own. They don't need me to tell them. Over and over.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

WIP Diary: Dip! Just Dip!

So this book is a romance. But it's 1810 and my MC is a rather innocent, prim little miss. So the romance is quite chaste. A glance, a word, palpitations, that sort of thing.

How is my little romance going to hold up to the steam of other YAs out there? So I'm trying to inject as much steam as I can, trying to step out of Jane Austen a little bit. But sometimes when I'm working on it, it feels quite like the first two and a half minutes of this clip from the film version of the musical Gypsy:

I've got this voice in my head, yelling "Dip! Just dip! Take something off!" Now, I'm getting palpitations writing it, so it feels pretty rooty tooty to me. But then, I am an old lady of German extraction. Are the scenes that seem steamy to me going to seem like the mere drop of a shoulder strap to experienced YA romance readers? We'll see.