Monday, June 29, 2009

On Wearing Whore-Red Lipstick and other Stylistic Choices

Horrible kinky curly perm. Big bug shaped glasses. Flannel shirts. Pearls. Tapered jeans. Horizontally striped shirts. Colored jeans. I could go on and on. These are the bad, bad fashion choices that I shared with the world as teenager. Why did my mother let me walk out the house in those clothes? Why didn’t my friends tell me that I looked hideous? Probably because they all looked equally hideous at the time. However, if I made those same choices today, I would hope my friends would stop me.

Writing is like fashion. Choices that worked in the past no longer work today. In the 1970s, the hero-heroine rape scenes were “fashionable” in romance writing. Writing a hero-heroine rape scene today would be the equivalent of wearing MC Hammer pants or 1970s leisure suit -- something that you should try to avoid at all costs.

Once upon at time, it was ok to have your characters look in the mirror and describe themselves. These days it is considered a cliche. To be sure, there are exceptions to this rule. A writer can do anything if they do it well. It’s sort of like pairing vintage sunglasses with an ultra modern outfit or wearing a vintage jacket with anything. To steal the words of Tim Gunn from Project Runway, “Make it Work.”

Then, there are what I call the “should-nots.” This is where a good critique group comes into the equation. Your critique group/partner are the fashion consultants of the writing world. They are the people that say “No sweetie, that works for Nora Roberts. It doesn’t work for you. You should not do this.” Let me give you some examples of a fashion “should-nots” that I’ve seen in my life. The floral "house dress" and curlers in public. (Can you tell I'm from the south?) The college student wearing the pajamas and house slippers in walmart. (I am guilty of this one.) And the most recent and possibly worst. Drum roll please. The short, tight pink satin and black lace number worn with hooker heels by the large woman who walked into the grocery store ahead of me on Sunday. I could see her butt cheeks. It was very, definitely a “should not.” Someone should have told all of these people that they should not be wearing those outfits. Critique groups/partners have a responsibility to prevent their critique partners from making a writing “faux pas” like overuse of adverbs (which in my opinion is liking someone wearing Tammy Faye Baker makeup), overusing to-be verbs, overusing commas, em dashes, and other puncutation, excessive head hopping, etc. Stylistic choices that could annoy the reader.

I hope that the TriMus will be my writing fashion consultants and tell me not to wear that leisure suit rape scene or backless tank top head hopping. I also hope that they will be my real fashion consultants and remind me that perms, tapered jeans, flannel shirts, and bug-eyed glasses are very bad ideas should I ever consider them again.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Meta Musings_3

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Joel. He is tall and looks gaunt in the face, as if he never got enough to eat as a child and still feels the lack. Under his signature brown and gray robes, his arms and legs are full of viney muscles and veins. He has a slight hunch to his upper body, and walks with a long staff.

Joel is old, and has survived the intrigues of court by cultivating the attitude of indifference plus increasing deafness. He is the Assistant to the Archivist, and has seen countless Archivists come and go. Joel believes in the power of history like others believe in the power of a god.

What will take this man from the rolls of paper and make him an active participant in history, instead of just an observer?

The inciting incident is the theft of some botanical texts dealing with the myths of plant warriors.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Inconvenient Muse

I had my eyes closed. I’d recently gotten back from a strenuous two hours of hooping, and now I was lying on three inches of memory foam. My brain had already begun drifting on the waves of sleep, and then there were words.

Initially I ignored these words, but they had changed the current of the waves, dragging me closer to consciousness. I was tired. I was comfortable. It had been a long day.

But there were words.

So, after the words charged through my mind a second time, I peeled back my eyelids, rolled over, and fumbled for a pen. Once captured on paper, the insistent words were trapped, unable to bug me, and I slept.

That is how my muse chooses to show herself sometimes. At inconvenient moments—close to sleep, in the shower, operating a vehicle—my muse will appear, dangling a clever snatch of dialogue, the perfect description, or the missing piece of plot. Not all the time, mind you, but every once in a while. It’s why I keep something to write with near my bed. Because, while the muse might have been kicking me in the head last night, when I woke this morning, I’d not only forgotten what the words were, I’d forgotten I wrote them at all until I stumbled over the handful of paragraphs this afternoon.

It happens like that sometimes.

Typically, the muse comes to those who are at the keyboard, already working. But, once in a blue moon, she shows up with no warning at all. Often she picks what seems like random and inconvenient moments, but take heed of the words she leaves in her wake. Write them down. They are not all gold, but they tend to be slippery suckers. If you ignore the words, they may drift back where they came from, leading to a frustrating, and many times fruitless, search.

Ever know you thought of something, figured something out, stumbled on the perfect idea/phrase, but not be able to remember what it was? Terribly frustrating. So, bad timing or not, record the words.

Anyone else have an ill-timed visit from the muse recently? Did she leave you with good words?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Feeling Twitchy?

Today two of the agents at BookEnds, LLC started a pitch contest on Twitter. They're calling it Twitch* Week and if you want more details, click here.

There have been several of these types of contests over the past few months. The Knight Agency did their Book In A Nutshell pitch contest a few months ago. Colleen Lindsay over at FinePrint Literary Management did a Query in 140-Characters or Less contest on her blog back in January. (Our very own Darlene got a nod in that one!) These contests are all over the place if you keep your eyes open.

I love them.

There are a number of skills you must have to be successful in publishing. First, most importantly, you must be able to write. Some people will quibble over the degree of skill you must have here in order to be published, but I think we can all agree that, to at least some extent, you must be able to string together various words in a form which conveys some semblance of a story. I'd like to think you need to be able to write really, really beautiful prose in order to be published, but the cynic in me is forced to admit this isn't always the case. (The self-doubting pessimist in me is secretly glad!)

Also, because the days of over-the-transom submissions have pretty much passed, you must also be able to write a good query letter. People hem and haw over the nature of the query letter system, but right now it's the name of the game. If you want anyone in publishing to look at your manuscript, you have to sell it with a solid query letter first.

Another skill you need is the ability to pitch, succinctly and yet still coherently. Some people call it the elevator pitch, the quick little plug for your book that you could communicate to someone in the time an elevator takes to reach its destination. It's a very important skill. As writers, we attend conferences and conventions and the like and try desperately to get thirty or so seconds with our choice editors and agents so we can convince them that our book is their next big thing. It's also a skill that very few people tell you that you need when you set out to be a novelist.

I realized the lack in myself of this particular skill almost right away. Here's how: once I started telling people I was a "novelist", the following conversation invariably took place:

Me: I'm writing a book.
Oh, wow. What's it about?
Me: *blinks blankly, twice, before taking a deep breath* Well, you see, there's this guy. And he thinks his life is. . . but then this other thing happens. . . and then he finds out this. . . and he has to do this. . . and this. . . and there are these other people -- they're the bad guys -- who want to do this instead. . . so then they. . . *voice trails off as previously interested person wanders away into a wall with a glazed over expression*

Oh dear, I would think. I need to come up with a better answer to that question.

Contests like this week's Twitch Week do just that. When you can only explain your story in 140 characters (actually 123 for this one, since you have to add the @reply tag in there somewhere) you learn to boil your plot down to its bare necessities while struggling to hang onto its unique voice. The first time I entered one, it was like an epiphany, a lightning bolt striking my brain. So that's what my book is about! I get it now!

Several of the Modern Myth Makers are participating in Twitch Week. I've already entered two of my projects. What about the rest of you out there? Anyone else feeling twitchy???

*For those who don't get it right away, I think the idea behind the name is something like this: Twitter + Pitch = Twitch

Friday, June 19, 2009

FullTime DayTime Jobber, HalfTime NightTime Writer

Working full time and stuffing in enough writing/editing time in to feel like an actual writer is quite difficult for me. I don't know how people manage it successfully. Except that they've had a lot more practice at it than I have. At times, I feel as though there's so much to be done with the bills, paperwork, and housewifely cleaning that I don't have enough time for me, let alone the myriad of characters plunging around in my gray squishy matter. And if it's this bad now, how in the universe am I to cope when I have kids? Fretting like this does me no good, serves no purpose. So the hubby and I had a chat over budgeting and longterm future goals. An agreement and compromise was born. The Plan.

The Plan involves a more rigid schedule during my weekdays to help me find both destressing time and writing time. During the weekend it's more fluid, to allow me to write during my best part of the day and be home administrator as needed. The Plan involves only one social outing a month (for the time being). I keep my critique meetings Sunday afternoon but I lose my TriMu meetings on Wednesdays and instead take on choir rehearsal. The daily schedule builds in time for my Morning Pages (The Artist's Way), plotting and planning time, and THREE hours of writing time after dinner.

A Typical Plan Day:

Morning Routine
AM Commute - Morning Pages
AM Break - Daily Writing Goal Spreadsheet
Lunch - Blog Reading/Composition
PM Break - Calendar, Email Reply-To List
PM Commute - Vent, Rev Up Blocking
After Work Routine
The 3 Plan Writing Hours
Before Bed Routine

The hubby has declared that I may continue to read all the publishing blogs and articles I would like - but not during my Plan hours. I may no longer research for my "agent wish list" nor submission guidelines until I have completed this latest editing run-through of StarStones. (Yes, by "run-through" I mean complete rewrite of several chapters, and pokey fixins of others.) No more work on short stories or smaller subs during Plan hours until this is done. Now, I can still scribble on the outskirts of those hours, but unless I meet my goals on the bigger work - the shinies and short stories get taken away. So I guess I better bust tail and get on it, huh?

Our priority goal?

To allow me to finish this run-through of StarStones by September 1st.

The Plan's 2009 Schedule:
September 1: Latest StarStones revision complete
September 2-7: Revision of query letter, research of submission takers, and the mailing of the first official query
September 8-30: Preparation of material for the October writer's conference
October 1-4: Writing Conference
October 5-23: More revisions
October 24-31: Pre-NaNo Plotting Week
November 1-30: National Novel Writing Month
December 1-31: Short Story Bonanza

A 2 hour session of new writing consisted of a 15 minute prep/outline, then writing for 15 fast minutes, exercising for 5, etc. until time was up. A 2 hour editing session would be a straight word binge. Until I do a week of the new 3 hour sessions, however, I won't know the flow. So expect the next update about this fulltime day job halftime night writer Plan to cover how I've managed to make it work for me.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Help! My Hero Sounds Like an Old Maid Aunt!

So, I’ve been reading the first draft of my historical romance and I’ve discovered a bit of a problem. My hero is a bit of a wuss.

Yes, the HERO of my romance novel is a pansy.

This is not something that you want to happen. Let me give you an example of this. This is a line from my hero’s POV “He wasn’t overly fond of lascivious overtures made by women of dubious honor.” Lascivious overtures. Dubious Honor. Great phrases for an old maid aunt. Not so much for a hero. I’m reasonably certain that this is something that I have to fix.

Revisions….They bring great joy to the writer. If I’m honest, this is my first real attempt at revisions. I’m not sure how to do it so I’m rewriting. I’m re-plotting, rewriting, re-crafting, rebuilding my characters. I wonder if I’m the only person that has to do this.

So how do you revise?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Meta Musings_2

I'm playing around with structure for the next few posts, not rambling completely, defining the parts of the ride as I plot through.


Ladies and gents, meet Gale. She's shorter than average, of average build, and has nondescript, faded brown eyes, one of which is slightly higher than the other. Her remarkable feature is her shoulder length, white blond hair. It stops people in their tracks the first time they meet her because everyone else in the villages around has brown hair.

Gale's mother works in the dying business, and so does Gale. Both their hands are perpetually odd colors from dealing with the dyes and the drying product.Gale enjoys dying and also enjoys drawing.

Here is the basis for Gale's inciting incident: She begins to hear voices after her family moves to the neighboring country because the war is getting too close for comfort.

The inciting incident: Gale can no longer function normally because the voices are so loud and insistent that they block out her other hearing and some of her sight. Her parents move her to/keep her in the dying house (and she works the physical processes while her mother does the dye powder making), as the repetitive and familiar process calms her more than anything else.

Now: how do we get her out of the village and headed towards the castle and her destiny?...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Eyes Open: Characters

This is one of those “Where do you get your ideas” posts. I write on this topic once in a while because this is honestly the question I hear most. Again I would like to mention that ideas are everywhere, and writers should always pour what they see into that churning pot of plot soup in the back of their heads. Today I would like to highlight a couple ‘characters’ I encountered in the last twenty-four hours.

I saw the most interesting chef/waiter yesterday. He seemed almost a caricature of a person—or maybe like a muppet. His nose was large, the size further exaggerated by a thin, dark mustache, but his head was almost bare, just a few wisps of hair over his ears and around the back of his skull. He wore dark dress pants and shoes with a long white apron that started at his waist and fell to his ankles. His shoulders slumped slightly, his head craned forward as he carried a silver tray over the brick walk. He was, in a word, fascinating—not in a I-wonder-who-he-is-and-about-his-life kind of way, but in an eccentric extra in a movie kind of way. He just didn’t seem quite real.

Later, I saw two boys dressed like they were headed for the gym. They found a spot on the grass and proceeded to practice stage fighting. They were clearly working on a set routine, and were quite good. While it looked like the blows hit, that was an illusion caused more by the person reacting to the punches/kicks/tosses than the guy acting as the aggressor. Very interesting. Who were they? What were they practicing for? How did they get started?

Walkers often carry ‘weapons’ to either defend themselves or scare off muggers. Walking sticks, long umbrellas with metal tips, and golf clubs are all items I regularly see walkers carrying. This morning, while driving in traffic, I saw a gentleman in his late fifties carrying nunchucks. That was a first. I really wanted to stop and talk to him. Was he actually trained in martial arts? How long he had been studying? I of course didn’t, so I guess I’ll have to make it up myself.

In the stairway to my office, I ended up behind a woman in her early twenties. She was dressed for success in a cut-for-corporate skirt, sleeveless silk blouse, and power pumps. But, as she climbed, she rubbed her palms down the front of the skirt and tugged at the collar of the blouse. Her ankles wobbled with each step, as if she wasn’t sure of her balance and didn’t wear heels often. Interview? First day on the job? Defending her thesis? I’m not sure, but she was nervous and though she looked great, she was out of her element.

These are just a handful of people I observed recently. Strangers are fascinating and are both a good source for characters, and a source for picking up mannerisms and action tags. Sometimes writers get stuck in their own heads, imagining their own worlds, but we need to remember to look around once in a while. A fun exercise to do is to take a notebook, head to a public place (park, restaurant, ect.,) and jot down short notes on the people you see. Explore the ‘why’ and ‘what if’ about people you know nothing about beyond what they are currently doing/saying/wearing. You might pick up something interesting.

What interesting characters have you encountered recently?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Working Vacation

As I write this blog post, I'm sitting in the passenger seat of a car speeding toward the Port of Miami. In just a few short hours, I will be boarding the Majesty of the Seas for a four night cruise to the Bahamas. Commence jealous muttering now. I'll worry over it while I'm having a pina colada on the pool deck on your behalf.

Vacationing is something everybody does, but I find my vacations to be different from "normal" people's vacations in that I actually work more on vacation than I do at home. I can't speak for other writers, but a tour of an exotic destination, a brief immersion in a new place, or even just a little change of scenery does wonders for my creativity.

It's more than just a chance to relax my mind and recharge my batteries. Whenever I go somewhere new, I instantly become more aware of my surroundings. I look at everything with, as Jimmy Buffet might say, "a novelist's eye".

I find myself looking out at the view or catching the scent of a new flower or tasting a new food and trying to describe it in my head the way I would in a novel. The ocean isn't just blue, it's liquid sapphire swirling around silver and diamonds.

I pick up the quirks of strangers I meet and assign them to my characters. The guy at the table next to me isn't just sitting there. His eyes dart around the dining room, completely unaware of the obnoxious gurgling sound the straw his empty cup is making.

I steal conversations I overhear, tweaking them into appropriate dialogue. Random bystanders don't gossip; they chatter like magpies about the extramarital affair they suspect a coworker is having, not even thinking about that fact that they're subjecting everyone within earshot to their lurid speculations.

If we strive to write what we know, and to inject reality -- rather than just a sense of realism -- into our fiction, then a vacation, abounding with opportunities to increase our body of knowledge, can be better sometimes than an intensive master class.

And, of course, there's still something to be said for recharging the batteries and relaxing the mind. Now about that pina colada. . .

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Points of View - Part 1

I feel like being a bit school marmish with today's blog post. -- Stop passing notes! No chewing gum in class! Stop picking on the boys! -- Do you feel like you're in grade school again? Good. Here we go. Point of View is one of the most basic aspects of writing fiction, however it has enough complexity that it can change the whole course of a story. In a recent post, Kalayna described how she had to change points of view to find the right voice for a story. I experienced something similar with a short story I am writing. I started to tell it from more than one character's perspective, but I lost the tension and, in the process, the plot.

There are four key aspects of POV--person, ensemble, distance, and omniscience. Each of these categories contains a range of possibilities with itself and the combination of the four makes for wildly varied creative choices. Most writers make these choices intuitively while they write a story, but being aware of the options will allow a writer more creativity, help them be more aware of POV inconsistencies, and possibly reveal to them why a particular scene or scenes don't work the way and author wants. I will tackle the two simpler aspects of POV today--person and ensemble--and wrestle with the more obtuse ones on my next blogging day. Why do hard work now when you can put it off, right?

The first key to POV is person. Person refers to the grammatical categories of first person (I, we), second person (you, y'all), and third person (he, she, it, them). Contrary to appearances, person in fiction does not define whether the reader is inside or outside of a character's head. Person does dictate perspective to a degree, but distance affects it much more. Person really comes down to pronouns--to what pronouns you use when you are writing. Most fiction is written in third person. Third gives the writer a greater choice in the other three aspects of POV, as well as being well known and well tolerated by the reading public. The next most popular person is first. First gives the reader full access into the mind of the character. First is limiting though, because it must be by definition close in omniscience and subjective in distance (see Part 2). Some readers are uncomfortable with first person because it is close to a loss of self or an invasion of someone else. Second person is rarely used in fiction, and it usually meets with poor results. People don't like being told what to do. Well, unless you're reading a blog. I personally write and read just as well in either first or third person. I attempted a second person story once, but I think I purged those files from my computer (I hope).

The second factor in POV is ensemble. Ensemble deals with how many characters will define your POV. We call the characters the POV character of the scene. The simplest ensemble choice is to go with one POV character--the writer follows one character all the way through the story. This can be done either through first or third person. Another popular tactic is to have an ensemble cast written in third person. This means that the entire book is written in third person and each scene or chapter follows a different character. The writer decides how many different POV characters they swap back and forth between. The POV character usually changes at the scene break. In omniscient view (again, you'll have to wait for Part 2), a writer can change POV character within the scene because the narrator keeps a distance from the action, but I'll get into that later. I wrote my first Nano novel in first person with an ensemble cast--the whole novel was in first person but I switched my POV character every chapter between the two main characters. Their voices were fairly distinct, so I think it worked most of the time, but the stronger, more sarcastic of the two definitely overpowered her sister in some chapters. She was just so fun to write.

The class bell is ringing, so you'd better stuff all your junk in your backpack and get out of here. I'll warn you, if you leave something behind, I'm keeping it. And if it's a caricature of me with dragon wings and snout, spewing fire, I'll hang it on my fridge, you sweet thing you. See you next time for more lessons in points of view!

Monday, June 1, 2009

On Getting Older and (Hopefully) Wiser

In the more information than you need to know category, I was born at 1:17 pm on June 1, 1978. Today is my 31st birthday and I’m feeling philosophical so without further ado, I’m going to share the best pieces of writing advice that I’ve ever heard.

1. Writing takes commitment. Ok, to a seasoned writer, this would seem to be obvious, but as a relative newbie, it wasn’t. I had always written, but I only wrote when the muse visited. I would start something and not finish it. I wanted to write. I just didn’t commit to it.

2. Treat your first few years of writing like an apprenticeship. It is very rare that a writer gets his first book published so write your first book, then your second, and then your third, but while you’re writing them concentrate on learning the craft and getting better and better. In theory, by the end of your “fourth year” of apprenticeship, you should start seeing some success. I really hope this is true and I think it almost has to be. I can tell that I’m getting better as I write.

3. Find a support group and/or tell people what you are doing. Be accountable to someone other than yourself. People think that writing is a solitary pursuit and to some degree this is true, but it is easier to be successful if other people know what you’re doing. The Tri Mu have been a godsend for me because I have people constantly asking me about my writing. They are there to bounce around ideas when I fall in a logic hole. They’re my first readers that tell me “Yes, let’s see more of this” when I’m walking through the bogs of despair. I couldn’t do this without them.

4. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. The only way we get better at anything is by doing it. Elite athletes practice. They train. They eat, sleep, and dream about the sport that they play. Elite writers write. Keep writing to get better at writing.

So now that I’ve blogged, I’m going to enjoy the rest of my birthday and hopefully, give myself the best present ever, writing The End on TDC.