Friday, May 29, 2009

Meta Musings

I read an interesting article the other day about places people write from, motivations for writing, that sort of thing. The author of the article said that in general people either write to repair their psyche, or because they have a story to tell. (Yes, I am paraphrasing like a bandit.)

I asked another person about the article and they were less precise; over their shoulder, they tossed: writers write. For this person, that was all it came down to.

Who is correct? Does it even matter?

I don't know.

What I do know is that I have a villain (throne stealing cousin), a princess (abducted at birth and raised in a country not her own), and now I need a hero to set things to rights. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Goals and Rewards

I don’t think anyone would disagree that goals are important, but I think a lot of people discount the value of rewards. Writing a book is accomplished one word at a time with a final goal of telling a complete story. One could argue that the reward is having a finished book at the end, but honestly (at least for me) writing the first draft is far from having a ‘complete’ project.

I’m a fan of smaller rewards along the path of the writing progress. Also of smaller goals. I’m a procrastinator with time management issues, so having set goals (and dangling rewards) gets me writing. Some days, if I’m really struggling, the goals are small and the rewards disproportionally large. I would never suggest complete overkill, like a piece of chocolate cake every 100 words--not only would you be the size of a house by the time you finish a 90k manuscript, but you’d be sick to your stomach before the first turning point. But, if I’m having a really bad day, I might promise myself I can check my email after I write 200 words (or write without distraction for X amount of time.) other days, after 1k words or 2k words, I promise myself a night off to read.

I also typically have big rewards for big goals. Currently my big goal is to finish the first draft of HB2. My big reward for finishing will be a week of guilt free time to play SIMS 3. I’m moving along at a nice pace, but it’s going to be close. The game releases next week (and the hubby preordered it for me back at my birthday,) so I know I have to finish soon. Very soon.

I’m nearing the goal, the dangling reward is within reach, and my productivity has tripled (maybe I should set shorted deadlines in the future.) Just days left now . . .

Do you reward yourself for reaching goals? What kinds of rewards?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Showing, Not Telling, and Not Trusting

Any writer who has serious ambitions about writing wants feedback on their work. I have never heard of anyone who wrote a perfect manuscript and sold it without ever showing it to anyone for some kind of critique. It's just a part of the process; as writers, it is impossible for us to read our work the way a normal reader is going to. We're too close to the story and we know too much about the characters and the background. We don't spot inconsistencies, we miss gaps in logic, darlings wink at us and bat their eyelashes and we follow them wherever they might lead, even if they do run the plot right off the rails. Constructive criticism and feedback do not indicate that you failed as a writer, just that you are human.

But constructive feedback, though very necessary, can be hard to take. We all have certain things that we hate hearing. Perhaps my least favorite piece of feedback to receive is "show; don't tell". I hate that little phrase, probably more than any other phrase in the English language. And not just because I hear it so often I feel I should know better by now. For a long time I hated it because I simply didn't understand what it meant. Now I hate it because hearing it means that I have, on some level, failed my potential readers by not trusting them.

Most of the time when I slip up and start telling rather than showing, I can usually track the cause back to my not trusting the reader. There is an emotion or feeling or thought that the reader simple MUST understand, but I don't trust them to puzzle it out on their own. So instead of saying "Nikki slumped in her chair at the computer and sighed, one hand massaging the back of her neck as she glared at the blinking cursor until the page of text faded to black and random ribbons of color prevented the image from burning into the screen", I say "Nikki was frustrated because she couldn't think of a good example for showing instead of telling".

Now somewhere in the back of my mind, the lessons of Strunk and White that were beaten into me in high school cry out "OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS!" and insist that the second sentence, conveying the same idea in far fewer words, must be better. But the key word in that sage pearl of wisdom is needless. You should almost always omit needless words (and I threw that example out there pretty quickly and tend to over-write, so I'm sure both sentences are full to bursting with needless words), but that doesn't mean shorter is better. If it did, I have no doubt that the rule I remember from Elements of Style would be "Shorter is better" rather than "Omit needless words". The second sentence is shorter, but the first sentence shows what's really going on. The second sentence is just me yanking the reader out of the story and telling them what's happening.

("Omit needless words", incidentally, is one of only two things I remember from my study of Elements of Style. The other is the proper usage of the words "nauseous" and "nauseated" because I thought the advice "unless you truly feel you have that effect on people, you should not say you're 'nauseous'" was amusing.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Screenwriting for Better Novels

One of my smaller works in progress is a short story adaptation to film that I am undertaking for a friend. I have some (basic and quite pretentious) experience in writing screenplays, including a foray into the annual Script Frenzy, but screenwriting for me is nowhere near a honed skill. However, I do love the challenge of writing for screen as it forces a writer to impart character, plot, and setting through visuals alone. I am always amazed at how my writing improves through the experience.

For example, in novels, the writer is the director, location scout, camera operator, editor (for the most part), etc. You as the writer, are virtually the only name in the credits of your novel (unless you're like Sarah and have your own live-in craft services chef). However, when writing for screen, the writer only serves a small part in the creative process. While screenwriters are allowed to describe the general appearance of their characters and settings, they can only put in the few details salient to the plot. Even though you have to show the world you building, it's not your job to dress it fully. Your job is to get the foundation laid, and the rest of the crew will put up the walls and the plumbing and the crown molding. And you have to be prepared for the house to look completely different from your vision.

Also, there is no interiority in screenwriting. You can't go on and on in an internal monologue about how the salt shaker on the restaurant table reminds Dan of his favorite stones to skip during childhood summers with his now-dead drug addict uncle. We have all read and written interiority like this, and it can work in a novel, but a screenwriter would have to creatively attack this idea in another way. For example, there could be a scene showing Dan and his uncle in flashback, or Dan could talk about his childhood in expository dialogue, or, because Dan is a secondary character anyway and we are talking about salt shakers here, the writer should leave it out and use precious space for more important details.

Screenwriting challenges a writer by restricting choices and forcing new paths of creativity. These restrictions are not appropriate for every story or tolerable for every writer, but they do focus fiction writing in interesting ways I have learned not only to see my world more clearly, but to focus on the most important parts of it. If you want to join me in the screenwriting world, check out Celtx for open-source screenwriting software and go to Script Frenzy's resource guides for a crash course in screen formatting. It's definitely worth a try.

Monday, May 18, 2009

I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.

When I was a child, I loved the book "The Little Engine That Could." When my mama would read it to me, I would say the words along with her. "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can." The little engine faced her mountain with the knowledge that she must cross it to get the toys to the children on the other side of that mountain. She could have given up when the other engines told her that it was too hard, but instead she put her head down and started on the journey up the mountain. She could have given up when the other bigger engines laughed at her and told her that she couldn't do it, but she put her head down and continued on her journey up the mountain. She made it to the top of the mountain and back down the other side, and soon the toys were in the hands of the grateful children. She got to say "I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could."

I love that story. There are some moralistic bores that think this story is a metaphor for the American Dream. (They seem to think that the American Dream is a bad thing.)

Bah! I say.

I learned about life from "The Little Engine that Could."

It taught me about doing the right thing. If no one will do a job that needs to be done (such as getting the toys to the good little girls and boys on the other side of the mountain), then you should at least try. A valiant effort by a tiny engine is infinitely better than no effort at all by a large engine. As writers, this is simple application. Writers write. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don't write you will never get over your metaphorical mountain.

It taught me about facing down detractors and self-assurance. The other engines made fun of the little engine, but when it was time to do the job, the little engine had enough faith in herself to say "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can." The little engine's self-worth came from inside her heart. This one is hard for me. I've faced people who've criticized my writing in a non-constructive way. They attacked my inner self and caused me to lose my faith in my ability to write. It took a year, but I started writing again. I regained faith in my abilities. Whenever I write today, I'm saying to myself "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can."

The last thing I learned from the little engine is the value of persistence. The little engine could have stopped halfway up the mountain and said "I'm too small. I can't pull this heavy load the rest of the way. I just can't." The little engine didn't do that. The little engine kept going until the job was complete. This is the one that I struggle with the most today. I have two unfinished writing projects sitting there staring at me and giving me the evil eye. Finish me. Finish me. Finish me. I'm hearing those words in my head and I know I must be persistent and finish the job.

With that last one in mind, I'm back working on TDC. I hope to finish it by mid-June and then I will be able to say "I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could."

Friday, May 15, 2009

Frogs Abounding

Apparently there are between 3k and 5k different species of frogs. I've seen frogs the size of half my finger's length, and I've seen frogs the size of a large dinner charger. Frogs can be all sorts of colors, singular and plural even. Some have poison skin, and some are cannibals. I find frogs endlessly fascinating, and I find people endlessly fascinating also.

There are so many types of people. They have their own distinct reactions to events, so are often unpredictable, and yet humanity as a group seems quite predictable. Given something horrible, humanity will venerate it, while given something precious, humanity will desecrate it. Writing about humanity, staying true to humanity's spirit, is easy. Writing about the individual is hard.

And yet, writing the individual is easy, because the writer is never wrong. Individuals are so different and there are so many permutations possible in their behavior, that anything is possible. The trick is writing a believable individual. As I develop my individual I need to make their actions (horrible or venerable) believable.

I'd love to close this post with some strong, yet pithy conclusion, but the only mental image I have is of a man carrying a severed head with him on a flight from Boston, MA to Bristol, UK... So I'll leave a question instead: How do you make your characters believable?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Writers Write

When I was teenager, I was a member of a ballet company. One of my teachers was once told me that a ballerina could go three, maybe four days without practice, but every day after that, she was less of a dancer. I took her words to heart, maintaining a rigorous class and training schedule along with my rehearsal and performance schedule. When I stopped dancing, I felt what she meant as my muscles and flexibility suffered.

What does this story have to do with writing?

Well, I think my teacher’s advice can be applied to writing as well. Writers write, and if you spend a large gap of time not writing, you become less of a writer. Writing might not take hours of training and practice to build strength and flexibility, but writing regularly does develop skill and voice. It also builds a routine (even if your writing time isn’t set) and encourages the muse to make daily visits.

I think most people know someone who can tell a pretty good story. This person might have written a short story or two, (maybe even published them,) maybe they wrote a couple of chapters you are foaming at the mouth to read more of, or they wrote a book that is gathering dust in a drawer—whatever the case, they wrote something, but now it’s been months or years since they wrote more. The question is, are they a writer? Surely he or she was a writer, after all, something was written. But, writers write. Maybe they don’t write every day, but they write most days. (Or edit, or plot, or do other writing related activities.)

Did you realize that if a writer wrote only 250 words a day (approximately one manuscript page) she could take off major holidays and still write a first draft in a year? A little bit can go a long way, and as they say, the muse visits those at the keyboard, ready to write.

So, if you want to write, remember to (you guessed it) write!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

I'd Like to Thank the Little People

The original intended post has been preempted by the resolution of a major plot problem in StarStones. Said problem resolution was celebrated with a toast and according to my hubby, I must dedicate several pages of acknowledgments in the following manner:

I would like to thank my personal gourmet chef, gardener, electrician, dish-washer, garbageman, plumber, computer repair guy, network technician, database administrator, and home inspector, without whom this book would never have been possible.....

.....I would be remiss if I left out my live-in plothole-catcher, logic-finder, devious-thinker, procrastinateling-slayer, and corkboard-alternative....

....and in closing, I would like to again thank my wonderful, darling husband for everything he puts up with, from the endless chattering to my own imaginary friends to the random spontaneous critique meetings to the "leave me alone, I'm blocking a fight scene" (or the "hey honey, hold this sword for a second. Okay good, now swing it at me from this direction...") wee hours of the morning.


I will have sparse real estate indeed. But how to convey one's gratitude in a single sentence for someone who married you AFTER already putting up with you through not one, but TWO novel-in-a-month adventures? Through the day-to-day grind of the writing time management crises? Does "to hubby, with love" seem too abrupt for gratitude?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Attack of the Procrastinatelings

Writers are the best procrastinators on the planet. We are creative people, so we can come up with some great excuses for it, but it usually comes down to fear and laziness. We fear failure, (what if I'm really just a hack?) and we fear success (what if I never have another good idea again?). Add to the fear a general state of malaise and you get a sweet breeding ground to grow procrastinatelings--all those fun, creative excuses we use to avoid writing.

Procrastinatelings come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. They even talk. There are the procrastinateling peoples--friends, family, knitting clubs, critique groups, etc. Then there are the necessities--sleep is the biggest drain, cleaning house always seems so important when you sit down to write, and eating comes in a close third in this category. Moneys are procrastinatelings that always seem to disappear right when you need them so you have to go out of your fictional worlds and get a job to breed more. My favorite procrastinatelings are the entertainments, including, but not limited too, gchat, facebook, movies, television, walks in the park, reading books, knitting and, of course, blogging. The most painful, but also most effective, procrastinatelings are the obligations--usually caused by peoples or moneys, they demand your time and they want it all right now. Actually, all procrastinatelings eat time. It's their favorite food.

There are many procrastinatelingocides in the world (duct tape is a key tool in some of them), but I procrastinated too long to mention any in this blog post. I'm tired (necessities), Mom wants to chat (peoples), I need to look for another job (moneys), I am at the climax of a book I'm reading and I really want to get back to it (entertainments), and I should be writing my short story instead of blogging (obligations)*.

What procrastinatelings are eating your writing time these days? Have you developed an immunity to any of them? If so, please share your recipe.

*Note: Two procrastinatelings can act against each other. Usually this has the effect of canceling each other out and nothing get's accomplished.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The ”Why” Factor

I believe in fairy tales. I don't just say this because I'm a romance novelist and believing in fairy tales is part of the job description. Nope, I believe in fairy tales because I hold to the belief that one day the market is going to turn and romances set in World War II will become popular. Keep your guffaws and groans to yourself. I don't want to hear them. I plan to cling to this belief like a barnacle clings to the hull of an aircraft carrier. You see, in addition to paranormal romance, I write historical romances set in World War II. Cue the big band music. Go cat go.

Unfortunately, my World War II novel suffers from the same problems that my paranormal romance does. I'll call it the "Why " Factor.

Below is a conversation that I had with the TriMus at one of our weekly gatherings.

"Why does Carly want to be with Austin?" asked the Tri Mus as we talked how I was going to revise Carly and Austin's story.

"I don't know." I whined. "She had a hard childhood. He's good for her."

"I don't buy it." This was Vert. The rest of the Tri Mus agreed with her.

I wanted to argue, but I couldn't because they were right. I needed to know the why and it was very clear that I didn't. I put my head on the table and mumbled. "Clearly I'm not a good writer. I should just stop now."

Fortunately, the Tri Mus persuaded me to keep working on it. I think by changing the pacing of the romance and Austin's motivation, I can make this work. This interlude is the perfect illustration of what is a huge, huge problem for me. I know the who of my novels. I know the what. I know the where. I even know the how, but the why eludes me every time.

Character motivation. It vanquishes me in every first draft, but I will not let it defeat me in the long run. This draft will be better than the first one and the next will be better still. Carly and Austin are not letting me give up on them. I'm glad of that, but I do wish they would make it easier for me to discover why they do stuff because this is like pulling teeth.

Do any of you guys fight with the "why" of your story?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Proust vs. Eisler

Oh yay, I get the first post of May!

The topic of today is criticism, constructive criticism. I took part in contest judging recently and part of my job was to say the good, and the bad, in each entry. The instructions did not mention the ugly, and while I think that lack was important, it also made judging difficult. If I couldn't say simply that the writing sucked, what could I say? Yes, I am speaking tongue-in-cheek.

Giving a critique of someone's work slaps me with a couple nagging questions:

1. How do I separate the person from the writing? Or rather, how do I direct my criticism so that I speak to the writing rather than the person?
2. How much of what I think is bad in someone's writing actually relates to stylistic differences between that person and myself? Related to that issue (call it 2B), how do I keep my criticism from deleting the other person's voice and substituting my own?
3. How useful is it for me to critique a genre that I don't write? Or, if I am not familiar with the differences between genres in things like pacing, event structure, and grammatical expectations, how can I offer useful direction?

Those questions stop me in my tracks. I'd like to think that they don't matter, but I get the nagging feeling that they do. ...Especially since the literary landscape is not some homogenous slough, no matter what impressions come off the bog.