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.

Monday, September 06, 2010

WIP Diary: Words from the Unwise

So I know that chapter titles are not in vogue for YA novels. Possibly they never were and never will be. But for some reason my brain is keeping to itself, I started giving the chapters of this blessed WIP titles.

Oh, and not only titles, but clever (I thought, anyway) little bon mot-based puns. Sounds fun, right? Well, yes and no. See, we're at chapter thirty-six and counting. Do you know how hard it is to come up with thirty-six plus bon mot-based puns that apply to what's going on in each chapter??? Well, I hope you will take my advice and never find out! Don't do it! It's evillllll!

But in happier news, we are now making forward progress. Revision-on-the-run is done. Love interest properly (I hope) in place, and we are proceeding with new actual words. I love the new words. I dislike the revision, so I am a much happier me today. I like the thrill of the sense of discovery that writing new stuff gives me. I don't know where these people are going or what they're going to say or do and that fascinates me. Revision is a little too clinical and calculated for my tastes. I do it because I have to, but it always makes me feel like a mother, spitting on a hankie to wipe her child's face down before he goes to school.*

*Actually, that's not exactly how I feel, but I like the sound of that, so I'm going to leave it there for now. No revising today!!!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

WIP Diary: Divine Inspiration

So I'm still working out these scenes between my MC and one of her love interests as per massively helpful comments by dear friend (see this entry.)

I'm not gonna lie. I've been having a bitch of a time with it. I was talking about it way back here on August 11th for pete's sake. Two crummy little scenes and three weeks down the road, I'm still struggling.

This is why I hate revision. (Although this isn't really revision. This is just patching things up so we can move forward. And don't give me any of that shitty-first-draft crap either. No can do. Certain things have to be in order for me to move forward. We all have our own methods. Which won't stop me from giving the shitty-first-draft line to other people. Ha! I don't know. Sometimes it isn't so much as a method as it is a freeing thought, the SFD thing. But I'm drifting. Back to my problems.)

Why I hate revision--and I've said this a billion times--I just have a terrible time rethinking what is already there. But when the original thinking has been incomplete, you have to come up with another approach.

One of the things that has always always helped me and that for some idiotic reason I keep forgetting is pictures. I'm a visual thinker. I see the story on a little movie screen inside my head. (I know. You wouldn't believe what goes on in there.) Many eons ago, I used to draw pictures of my characters. These days, I need photographs of real people. And it really has almost nothing to do with having the photographs so that I know what the characters look like. It's about knowing that they are real people.

It started with my first published novel Raising the Griffin. In the first few drafts, I had been head-over-heels in love with the idea of my MC being all tortured and stuff. And so those were the only reactions I drew out of him. You know, the sort of reactions one would have to being tortured. Miserable grumpiness. The kid didn't have a pleasant moment in nearly 300 pages. I loved him. Other people found him to be a pain in the ass.

But as hard as I tried, I could not see him any other way. He was my tortured darling. Maybe this goes back to my need to be in love with my characters. (Yes, I know. I don't have time for therapy.) I get a bit of tunnel vision about them. I could only see this one side of Alexei, as he had been created on that movie screen in my brain.

What it finally took was for me to fall in love with the face of a real person, someone who reminded me of my MC. In this case, Russian-born-Canadian-figure-skater-sometimes-A&F-model Fedor Andreev:

Look! He's smiling! I don't know how stupid this sounds, but that was all it took to pry open my closed little mind and insert the idea that Alexei could smile sometimes. That in spite of being in a miserable situation, nobody is miserable 24/7. (Okay, not many people. I could name one or two.)

But it's more than just that. It's like being on a jury in a murder trial and being shown a picture of the victim in happier times. The prosecution can talk and talk about the poor victim but all you see is the torture of the defendant, who is right in front of you. You see their face and you see their humanity. You need to see that for the victim, too, to remember that this was a person like you, going about their life, feeling happiness and sorry and above all, hope for the future.

So that's what I get out of pictures: the humanity of my characters. And so the other day, stuck stuck stuck on this blasted scene, unable to figure out how the character would really react, what he would say in the situation I'd plopped him in, I was idling on the internet, cleaning out my bookmarks and came across a forgotten webpage I'd bookmarked. A picture. A picture of a guy who looked the way I thought my MC's love interest looked. (This is British actor Joseph Morgan. And no, it never really crosses my mind to consider how these people might feel about me hijacking their faces for my own ends, which actually sounds pretty callous now that I've typed it out, but anyway.)

Ta da! Inspiration. And divine, isn't he? Sigh. But no, really. It isn't about that! I swear. It's about looking into that face and seeing a person, a whole and rounded person. This only works with a face that suggests that kind of activity and life. Here, it's in the eyes. He's got things to tell you. That's what I need out of my character and that's what this photo gives me.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

WIP Diary: Fitting In

This is not a post about the Hunger Games or Catching Fire*.

So now that I've figured out the proper heart of my story, I've had to go back through and try to find places for a couple of much-needed scenes that will show the reader what to want for Eddy and also (I dearly hope and desire) move the story toward the climax and bring about the proper ending.

The problem is, this is--by my writing standards anyway--a bloody big book. And it's not even finished yet. We are at 372 pages at the moment, nearing 94,000 words. It is.....difficult to keep every one of 94,000 words straight in one's head. Very hard to remember who said what to whom and where and when and who else was there when it was said and how whosis reacted.

I've outlined the story on a calendar, a trick I learned from my FSG editor, who made me account for the whereabouts of the MC in Funny How Things Change on a day-to-day basis. So in anticipation of having to do that again, I figured it would just be easier to keep track from the start and it has saved me countless hours of rooting back through the ms trying to find what happened when.

And of course, HOSvision is a big help.

This is always one of the hardest things for me, to reimagine what is already there. To take scenes that already exist and alter them, imagine them happening in a different way, in this case, allowing Eddy to have meaningful conversations with this guy. So I have to move everyone around in different ways and try to bring this guy into a scene where he didn't exist before.

And the problem with that--for a linear writer in particular, someone who starts at the beginning and writes the story sort of "as it happens--is that you get this sense that the story is "flowing" and going back in and monkeying with it interrupts that flow. What Eddy says here at the end of this scene moves her into the kitchen where she has a scene with this person and that's very important. If I try to put in another scene with this guy, I lose the point of the last thing she said over there that moved her over here. So sometimes it's hard to let go of what's there and try to get it all flowing again.

And then there's always a little line or something that gets messed up by the addition that I'm thinking "Oh no! I really LIKE that! It works so well! I can't lose that!" Or something. Or I just can't make myself see it in any other way. It's like trying to reshape a clay sculpture after it's been fired. You have to get out the chisel.

Not to mention, then you have to go all through the rest of the thing and see if there are going to be any repercussions--even slight ones--to adding that scene. Because see, she was really mad at this guy and that carried through something like fifteen chapters. But if they have this talk, then I have to go through and take out all of the little bits where she sniffed and turned up her nose whenever he walked by.

But anyway, I think I have actually found two spots in this ms where I can see a conversation happening. So now I'm going to go see if they will.

*Heh heh. I discovered that my blog gets a ton more hits if I mention any of those titles.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

WIP Diary Archive Link

Getting ready to make this a mirror blog to my livejournal. In prep thereto, I refer you to this archive of posts on my livejournal regarding my current work-in-progress, affectionately known as HOS. Not telling what that stands for because it's a spoiler. Which kind of makes it a bad choice for a title, but that's where it stands right now. Don't ask me to be too logical in a first draft!!!