Monday, January 31, 2011

What is The Point?

So you're a writer. Which means you spend a lot of time sitting alone in front of a computer. It's just you and the pain, as they say. (g) You'll need fortitude to keep going. Because at some moment -okay, at many moments- in time you will wonder to yourself, "What is the point?"

This may happen when you can't get past a plot hole, or get your wip to come together in a cohesive way, can't shave thousands of words off the word count, can't add 25k to the word count, can't find an agent, can't find an editor, get a bad review, get dropped from you publisher...

The list is grand and varied and I've heard all these issues before. I've heard of writers who writes ten books only to have each and every one of them get rejected, never to find an agent. I've heard of writers who get an agent yet never sell. I've heard of writers who sell but their numbers fail and their publisher doesn't pick up that next book. It's a hard place to be, and inevitably, these writers ask themselves, "what's the point?"

Behind each of these examples lies a writer who never gave up, who stuck in despite adversity and made lemonade out of lemons. They dug deep and came up with an answer to, "what's the point?"

So the question of the day is this: what is the point? What does it mean to you? Why keep going? Find the answer and hold it up during those dark hours, because believe me, there is a point. (g)

--something to keep you going:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Shout out- The Novel: Live

A quick note to point your attention to a fascinating project that was put together in Seattle toward the end of last year.

The Novel: Live saw 36 authors, including such literary bright lights as Elizabeth George and Robert Dugoni, amongst others, come together to write a novel in six days. Each author did a different chapter of the book, and you can see more about it at their website, here.

The organisers are currently looking for a title for the book, and having just closed submissions on their Facebook page, they're now looking for people to vote in the poll to decide between the top three options. Head over there and check out the first chapter, then sling your vote toward your favourite.

Personally, I'm partial to Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices. How about you?

The finished e-book will be published in May 2011, so keep an eye out. We love our collaborative stories around here- with the calibre of people involved in this one, it ought to be good.

On war and trolls

I've been reading Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, after hearing it recommended by lots of different people, including fellow CompuServe Forumite and all-round awesome writer Lori Benton.

It's all about Resistance, the shadowy, negative, internal force that stands between you and your goals. I'm not quite finished reading yet, but it's making a moderate amount of sense to me. And it's making my ears perk up in particular places- for example, where Pressfield emphasises that Resistance is greatest as you near the end of your project. The closer you are to reaching the pinnacle of your journey, the more internal mental tricks your subconscious plays to keep you from it.

Once upon a time I would have perhaps rolled my eyes at an assertion like this, but not at the moment. It's all too familiar. And that little hissing voice in my ear reminds me of a very early-career archaeological field trip I went on, where I visited a remote and deeply spiritual place with a group of Aboriginal elders.

We'd spent the whole day there, and ended up running a bit late, so it seemed no big deal when we decided to camp the night. But all of a sudden, all the elders were telling us no, we couldn't stay there at night. It wasn't a women's place, and bad things could happen. Completely inexperienced at all this and painfully ignorant of Aboriginal culture, 19-year-old me piped up and asked why everyone had so suddenly gone from cheery to deathly serious. And one of the old men turned to me and asked, "Can't you hear them on the wind?"

We all went silent, and in the next moment, the wind came rushing again through the valley, and there they were. Voices. Whispering. Not on the wind, but part of it.

We cleared out rather promptly after that.

But I digress. Those whispers on the wind are what Resistance sounds like. They tell you you're not good enough. They ask why you should bother. They suggest more important things you could be doing, or berate you for all the things you left aside to get some writing time.

The funny thing is, as soon as you become aware of Resistance, it begins to fade. It begins to feel a little less absolute.

I'm still working on fading mine right down to a point where I can fold it neatly into a little square, pack it in a box and drop it off the end of a long jetty. But in the meantime, I leave you with a passing thought on Internet trolls, and how Resistance might just play a part.

Resistance, Pressfield contends, can prod you into behaving badly toward other human beings. It can make you do crazy things in your search for a little acceptance, a little love. He doesn't give a scale of crazy, which is probably a good thing. Some people's behaviour would just shoot right off the top of that en route to the stratosphere.

If you reach a point in your life where you feel your only validation comes from other people, it's time to take a deep breath and look inside, especially if you feel like your own true self isn't worthwhile without embellishment and drama. It is, and in fact all the embellishment and the drama just brings you down, more and more every time. Each of us can learn a lesson from watching others flail around, desperate for attention. It's a reminder that ultimately, you're accountable to yourself for the way you act, and in the end you reap what you sow.

Trolls aside, that self-accountability applies strongly to writing, too. At the end of the day, you're the only one who can write your story. Nothing else matters- it's all down to you. My favourite quote from The War of Art:

It makes us nervous going off into the woods alone. Here's the trick: we are never alone. As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our Muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly.

Love it :) I'm fighting my Resistance. How about you?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lazy Linkage

Have you ever been in one of those writing slumps, the kind where you know you are being a big fat downer of a rain cloud, not a lot of fun to be around, and want to kick your own self in the behind, because even you find yourself annoying?

Yeah, well, that’s me. Frustrated that I’m not writing, not being able to summons the enthusiasm to do so, and being an all round pain in the ass about it to all concerned.

So, rather than abusing my blogging privileges and taking my angst out on you undeserving readers, I’m buttoning my lip on my whining and giving you some food for thought in the form of a blog round up, from others in better frames of mind …

At Murder She Writes, Roxanne St Claire blogs about good writing days, bad writing days, and taking the path of least saneness when faced with a writing road block.

Alison Janssen at Hey There's A Dead Guy In The Living Room discusses the perils of letting your concept overwhelm your characters.

Being a writer in the middle of the maelstrom of life is food for thought from Nichole Bernier at Pimp My Novel.

And, on lighter notes, Writer Unboxed gives us the four stages of writing by Debbi Ohi (oh boy, do I relate to this!), and via Pimp My Novel, the quiz you CANNOT afford not to take ...

That's all, folks. Hoping to be back in a better frame of mind next week!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Spielberg and Melodrama -a love story

Melodrama: a dramatic form that does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion and emphasizes plot or action at the expense of characterization.

It’s a bad word in story. In college I took a screenwriting class and my professor had an intense dislike for melodrama. The worst offender to succumb to using melodrama, in his forceful opinion, was Steven Spielberg. In my professor’s mind, Spielberg was particularly bad because he used melodrama to evoke a reaction out of the viewer that was patently false. That is to say that Spielberg set out to play us all like fiddle and that was a foul thing to do. Because an emotional reaction from the viewer (or reader) should be an organic reaction, not based on manipulation –or at least a manipulation that sacrifices the truth of the story.

Then again.

Spielberg isn’t exactly known for his flops now is he? I mean people love Spielberg films BECAUSE they evoke such strong emotions. But is it melodrama? Melodrama done right? Can one do melodrama right?

One of my professor’s favorite examples of Spielberg playing us was Saving Private Ryan. If you haven’t seen the movie, it goes something like this. One mother has just found out that she’s lost three of her sons to war, on the same day. There is a fourth son but he has been declared missing in action. This makes for bad PR and a unit is formed to retrieve Ryan. This mission is dangerous and men will die. All in an effort to save this unknown man. All good. Only Ryan turns out to be something worth saving, which in my professors mind, makes everything just a bit too pat. Wouldn’t it be better if Ryan was an asshole? Wouldn’t that up the moral ambiguity? But no, because Spielberg always falls to the feel good, sympathy card and takes a hard story into the realm of melodrama. Honestly, I think my professor was a bit cracked in his Spielberg hate. (g) But it does make you think about melodrama and its uses.

Personally, I think Spielberg sort of fell into using melodrama. There is the infamous story of his work on Jaws. The spectacular mechanical shark they had made wasn’t working. Spielberg was tearing his hair out and in danger of losing the whole film –his big break. So what does he do? Not show the shark and rely instead on the viewer’s imagination –well that and some really good mood music. And it worked brilliantly. So much so that I think Spielberg learned a big lesson about emotional manipulation and proceeded to use it throughout his career. But is this wrong?

Take one of Spielberg’s other hits, The Color Purple. For some inane reason, I decided to watch this movie when I was pregnant. I’d seen it before but it was on cable… yeah, my husband came home to me sobbing. Shocking since I never cry at movies. Damn you, Spielberg!!!


The Color Purple is based on Alice Hoffman’s brilliant book of the same title. If you haven’t read it you should. If only to compare the book to the movie. If you’re unfamiliar with TCP, the story goes like this, Celie is a quiet, meek girl whose been repeatedly raped by her father and bears him two children, both of whom are taken away at birth. After all of this, she’s married off to Mister –a man who needs a maid, and a nanny for his out of control children. Mister is in love with Shug Avery, a vivacious and often bitchy blues singer. Celie’s only love, her sister Nettie is taken away from her after Mister tries to have his way with Nettie. Then there is Sophia, the proud, headstrong wife of Mister’s oldest child, Harpo. Sophie makes the mistake of standing up to a white woman, and ends up being beaten within an inch of her life and ends up that woman’s maid. In short, these people are beaten down or beat people down. It all sounds quite depressing. Celie let’s herself get trod upon for much of it. None of the characters are perfect. Each of them can act miserably. Yet each of them has great hurt and disappointments in their lives. And that is what saves this story from being a melodrama –because each of them act like real, fallible, rotten, people. (g) And in the end, each of them face this, and overcome their issues in some sort of way.

All of this, however, is Alice Hoffman’s story. So what does Spielberg bring to it? Because, as my professor loved to point out, there is SO much material for Spielberg to twist into a saccharine, overwrought melodrama. But he doesn’t. And for all of my professor’s ranting, I kind of like the movie a bit better. Here is why. Because Spielberg adds a layer that the book didn’t have. With all the sorrow that is going on, we need to breath a bit, we are in danger of drowning under it. Spielberg gives us this breath. And he does it by going to his trademark use of music. Now here is the thing, this use of music takes us just to the border of melodrama. It is a tool to evoke emotion. There is no doubt, he is forcing emotion on us, both joyous and bittersweet by using this music. But it works. It is a trigger for that emotional explosion that the rest of the story has wrung tight. So that when he pulls out the use of music, we go off. To me that’s quite brilliant. Here is one scene in the Color Purple that highlights what I'm talking about. I can't watch this with out choking up. Damn you again, Spielberg!!!

Which begs the question, was it wrong of him to use it? Even if it is blatant emotional manipulation?

For me, it points out a truth in storytelling, whatever works, works and things are never black and white. Glimpses of melodrama, purple prose, etc need not be bad if used correctly. I suppose it comes back to knowing how to use it. Fail at it and you’ve got people groaning and gagging such as when I was stuck in the theater watching that god awful melodrama, Mission to Mars. I swear, some guy was supposed to be dying and people were actually yelling, “Just die already.” Not. Good.

So while I would in no way promote the use of melodrama, or blatant character manipulation in an effort to make your audience feel, I do think there is a time, place, and use for every trick in a writer’s arsenal. Just learn how to use them is all. (g)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Perfectly Flawed

It seems contrary to define a good hero as flawed. Yet the best of them, the ones who linger in our memory long after others have faded and been forgotten, are the ones with a flaw, a weakness, a foible that pricks like a thorn in the flesh.

Rachel recently mentioned the same idea. She wrote that characters, in order to become real to the reader, should be given human needs and failings. They should have the same problems the rest of us have.

I want to explore this a little more in-depth. John Truby writes about weakness and need in the hero as absolutely essential to a good story. In fact, in his list of Seven Key Steps of Story Structure (in his book Anatomy of Story), he lists it as the number one step, or stage, of growth in the story. (It comes even before desire, which we know is the driving force of the story.)

From the very beginning of the story the hero’s flaw must keep him from achieving his desire. Truby says that the flaw is so profound that it’s ruining his life. The journey your character takes over the course of your story should see him overcome his weakness. He writes that “need is the wellspring of the story and sets up every other step.”

This is logical and very sound advice because first, your hero is human and must overcome his own foibles, and second, everything your hero does is based on his flaws, based on what he will, or will not do, according to whatever weakness you’ve given him.

But Truby takes this idea even further and cautions that your hero should not be aware of his flaw at the beginning of the story. He says that if your hero is aware of his weakness, the story is over. The time for self-revelation is at the end of the story, after having made the journey.

Not only does your hero need a psychological weakness, he should have a moral one too. Truby makes a distinction here - a psychological weakness is one that hurts only the hero. A moral flaw is one that hurts others. A character with a moral deficit is, at the beginning of the story, hurting others but learns to treat others decently.

Most stories, he says, have a character with just a psychological weakness and not a moral one. But here’s the thing: when a villain lacks morals he quickly gains the upper hand with a hero who does have them. The story becomes predictable at this point. If your hero is morally flawed, he’s going to keep the reader and the bad guys guessing.

Truby, bless his heart, doesn’t leave his readers hanging here. He offers a few guidelines on creating a moral weakness for your hero. He suggests first finding the psychological weakness and then figure out what kind of immoral act might naturally result from that weakness. The source of that action is the “deep-seated moral weakness” of your character.

Only now do you introduce desire. Seems rather backward, at first, until you realize that desire and need are interconnected. Desire is what your hero wants, his needs/weaknesses/flaws are what keep him stumbling, they are the Achilles heel your villain will use against him. Put another way, need is internal and desire is external. At the end of the story, when desire is met, the hero has also met his moral and psychological needs.

One last caution from Truby: your reader should believe the story is about your hero’s desire. Need is hidden from the reader, even though it is the “foundation” of your story. Flaws give your character a chance to change, and this change - the internal journey of your character - makes the story meaningful. And that, Truby says, “makes the audience care. Don’t skip that first step. Ever.”

If you want to read more about Truby’s method, I recommend his book, “The Anatomy of Story, 22 Steps To Becoming a Master Storyteller.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


It's very quiet in my head at the moment. Nobody's talking, nobody's fighting, nobody's going to war.

This is a bit hard to get used to, but after almost two weeks of deliberately not writing, not thinking about writing, not doing anything writing related, I'm getting used to it. I've found myself with free time that I never noticed before, which must have previously been filled with writing. I've read four books in the last week. I've baked banana cake. I've watched missed episodes of Dexter and Top Chef and Bones.

I don't feel like both my arms have been chopped off anymore. That's how I normally feel when I'm not writing, and it fills me with panic. How will I ever get back into it?

The panic is what stops me taking a break, most of the time. Besides, why would I need a break? I'm in the zone. I wrote more than 50,000 words in each of June and November last year. More than 20,000 in each other month. I was at a point where I knew my characters and my plots more intimately than ever before, and I was ideally placed to smooth it all into a final draft.

Wasn't I?

Turns out, I wasn't. Not because the story and the characters weren't ready, but because I was lacking the perspective to edit this thing objectively. And at this stage of the game, objectivity is what you need. Being submerged completely in the story is brilliant, when you're writing it. But when you're done, there's no way you can see the forest for the trees without taking a big step back. Even if you think you can, you'll always be looking at it from a particular angle. You might need a new one.

The major reason for this, I think, is the emotional attachment you have to the story. You're committed to the plots and the characters as they are. You think they're pretty good. They might well be. But pretty good still isn't pretty great, and to get there, you just might have to kill a few darlings. You need to keep re-examining everything that happens in your story, and sometimes you need to rewrite. Sometimes you need to re-route in a different direction.

Can you do this when you're in the thick of things, convinced you already know best? I'm not sure you can. To use the old saying, it's a little like trying to do an engine check on an aeroplane while you're in mid-flight.

But here's me, who throughout university used to infuriate my husband and other friends with my lofty, "I don't do drafts" attitude. I believed that the research came first, then the planning, and what went on the page was final. This worked for me throughout my undergraduate degree, but when it came to a thesis, I had my first stumble. Turns out that a lengthier work needs more consideration than that, and there's always something to improve. Putting down one idea is one thing; putting down a string of connected ideas for a coherent whole is another. Without perspective and distance, it's hard to see what needs to change.

Because the first-draft-is-final mentality is still lurking away in the back of my brain, I find it hard to just walk away. So I have to trick myself into it, in the end. I tell myself I'm taking a weekend off to read a book, and I'll go back to it next week. Next week, I tell myself I need a holiday from writing, and I'll use it to play with another hobby for a few days. By the end of that week, I can start to consider when I'll get back to it. Not yet. I'm finding other things to distract myself- including research for the work in progress- but I'm not writing.

I can already see the benefits. For the first time in a while, the idea of making a major change to the novel feels neither scary, or immediately necessary, for that matter. I don't feel the urge to run in and rewrite- I can sit back and keep thinking it through, without worrying that it's the wrong way. The idea that parts are sub-standard at the moment doesn't sting the way it did a fortnight ago. The idea that particular characters Must behave in one way or another no longer carries the weight it did before.

I'm not sure when I'll get back to it- within a fortnight, I think. But when I do, it's going to be from the top down, and it's going to be objective.

In the end, writing tens of thousands of words is a great thing to do- but writing none can be just as powerful.

The Importance of Being Human

We’ve been talking a fair bit about characters lately. A good topic as your character can make or break your book.

The thing is, it is easy to forget what character really means. A character is a person. Well, duh, you might say. But we writers tend to forget this basic truth and think of a character as a bundle of traits, a list of physical appearances, little quirks that make them unique, and so on. We get hung up on this, and suddenly the character becomes flat, predictable in his “uniqueness”, because something is suddenly missing. Usually it is the human factor. At the core, a character is simply a person.

As a species we are more alike than different. Most of us want the same things: love, security, companionship, health, and happiness. We are afraid, we get angry, etc. There is a saying that the villain is the hero of his own story. Because most people believe they are in the right. We operate under our own truths. It is rare that a person will simply let others live and let live. We want people to see things our way. Usually that means debate, discussion, an attempt to persuade others into coming round to our truths. In the case of some extreme individuals, force is the method of choice. (g) This all sounds sinister but really, it’s not. We don’t do it (usually) with ill intent. It's usually a mode of self-protection because we've been taught that being wrong is bad. We are supposed to be right. But what all that really means, though, is that there will be times when we are right and we are wrong. Because we can’t all be right all of the time (g)

And what THAT means, is that a real character cannot always be in the right. Even the hero. A hero that is never wrong isn’t a real person. It means too that even the villain will have desires that are valid. Even if his outward desires seem unfathomable to the rest of us. Because a villain that is never right is just as unrealistic.

To me, what makes a character compelling is that we understand them, we identify with them. And the simplest way to achieve that is to let your character have these base human needs and failings. In other words, yes, you character can have a lofty goal –say, save the world, but at the end of the day, what she really wants are the same things we all want. Similarly, while your character may be larger than life, kick ass, extraordinary, he is also, on occasion, a pain in the butt, wrong when he thinks he’s right, needy when he believes his strong… you get the idea.

To sum up: (g) if we see something of ourselves in a character, a basic humanness that we instinctively identify with, we will be entranced, and root for them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In Search of Dexter

So, the weather here has been pretty crap lately. It makes me tired, grumpy, and a bit of a lump. This past weekend, when I _could have_ been writing, I wasn't. I was being a bum instead. And well, I decided to try to catch up on Dexter. I remember DEVOURING the first season, starting the second, and then getting caught up with life or what not. Umm, that was at least two years ago. Probably longer. Dexter is now on season ___5____!!! Yeah, I'm way behind.

For those of you who haven't watched this show... ummm, why not? LOL. Dexter is a GREAT series. The basic premise is this: Dexter grew up knowing he was different. He doesn't feel emotions the way others do; he doesn't feel anything except a desire to kill. His stepfather, recognizing this urge in Dexter, "trains" him to hide in plain sight by unleashing his murderous intentions on those in society who deserve death..i.e. other murderers. Hence, a serial killer who preys on other serial killers

Oh My Goodness. What is not to love about that premise??

Oh, there are other great things going on. The fact that Dexter works for the police department--blood splatters are his specialty. LOL. The fact that Dexter is involved with a woman with children, who in turn, has NO idea what Dexter is doing on the down low. I could go on. The tangled life Dexter leads is....well, uproariously hilarious. And yeah, I'm aware of how twisted that sounds. But it's true. Not only do I LIKE Dexter, but I darn well root for him to not get caught.

There is nothing more twisted than watching Dexter about to kill someone while knowing someone is right outside, steps away from discovering him--and FREAKING OUT--not because you hope this person might fly in and rescue Dexter's intended victim, but because you DO NOT want Dexter to get caught. You WANT him to kill the person and make a quick getaway. How sick is that? But that's exactly what I do each and every week. I cheer this flippin' maniac on.

What's my point in this?

Well, I realized while watching this that Dexter is truly one in a million. It isn't often that a writer hits gold with someone like him -- a lovable psychopath. Someone who engages in the most heinous acts imaginable, but who you kinda can't help liking anyway. :)

He's the dream, I'm telling you. That memorable character that I think we all, as writers, strive to create. Further, he's proof that sometimes we really need to stretch our imaginations and not pin ourselves down to the cookie cutter hero/heroine. That being "good" isn't always the most interesting path we can have our characters take.

After all, why be boring? :)

Dexter has an imaginary sit down with his sister... proof of how awesome this show is.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Well here we are, halfway through the first month of the brand new year. Sadly, and to my growing frustration, I have yet to do any significant work on my WIP.

By now I had hoped I would be much, much, further along in this book-writing process than what I am … like, at the stage where I have a draft as good as I can get it, out in the hands of beta readers, stage of the process. And from where I am sitting, that goal is still looking a very long way off.

Of course, I have very good reasons why I’m not there yet. Kids home on holidays, health issues, plot and character revelations that I’ve put on the backburner but nevertheless will take a lot of time and hard work when I get round to tackling them, the fact I’m still climbing that writing learning curve … and life, in general, getting in the way.

But still, I find myself wanting to beat my head upon the wall. Other writers manage to tackle obstacles of all degrees and variety in their lives and still get their books written; why can’t I?

I have to keep reminding myself – be patient. My journey is my own. As long as I am making progress, it’s all good. I will get there, in the end.

To make sure I keep this in mind - and to prevent me from pulling out all my hair in frustration - today, I’ve printed out a few quotes and stuck them above my desk where I can see them every time I sit down to tackle my writing.

Have patience. All things are difficult before they become easy.

~ Saadi

Have patience with all things, but chiefly, have patience with yourself.

~ St Francis de Sales

Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties and obstacles vanish.

~ John Quincy Adams

You can learn many things from children. How much patience you have, for instance.

~ Franklin P Jones

(Heh, that last one is on the list just because it makes me chuckle … wryly.)

Are you patient with your writing? How do you keep going, when you’re frustrated and far from where you want to be? How do you keep perspective?

For the final word on the topic, I give you that great bard of the 1990s, Mr Axl Rose, and his musings on patience, that most elusive of human qualities ... so knot your bandanas, slip into your tight leathers, and enjoy … and remember to have just a little patience.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Get a Little Backbone, eh?

When he walks he casts a shadow of purpose.
~Terri Guillemets

I was recently thinking about the plot of my story and found myself getting more muddled by the moment. Then I found John Truby's advice in The Anatomy of a Story.

Truby is a screenwriter, director, and teacher. Here's his advice on the backbone of your story, the thing that drives your protagonist forward, makes the reader care, and gives your story a reason to be:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Everything in moderation

I've stepped back from my revisions to let the story rest a little while in the hope of gaining some much needed bigger picture perspective.

In the meantime, I saw a great movie this week and finished a great book, and something different struck me with each of them.

The movie was My Boy Jack, made for TV in 2007 and starring Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe as the son of the great poet Rudyard Kipling. Based on a true story, as the First World War got underway, Jack Kipling wanted to enlist and fight, and his father was all for it. But Jack had terrible eyesight and could barely see without glasses, and this should have ruled him out of the fighting. Instead, Rudyard Kipling pulled strings with friends in high places, and his son was allowed to enlist regardless. Rain, mud, accident or injury, anything that compromised Jack's precious glasses could spell the end for not only him, but for other members of the platoon he was commanding.

What impressed me so much about this film, besides Daniel Radcliffe's acting (man, he is *really* taking off) was that it showed fantastic restraint, which allowed the emotional impact to build and build instead of dumping the tragedy on the reader all at once.

This is a difficult thing to manage sometimes. Knowing how much to show or say, holding back a little detail for greater impact later in the story- this takes a very strong fiction instinct, and a lot of practice. I'll happily admit I'm not there yet myself- I want to give the reader everything I know as soon as possible, but the mystery is, after that, gone- and there's not as much to hang on for.

In My Boy Jack, the story followed Jack and his father through the beginning of war, the signing up process, and followed Jack all the way to the trenches of France. It went along at a nice, steady pace, and about halfway through the film, it was time for Jack's platoon to go over the top at the Battle of Loos, the day after his 18th birthday.

Well, because it had all been so nicely paced and set up, I was feeling pretty nervous for poor Jack. We all knew how important those glasses were. Second-guessing the plot, I thought I knew what was about to happen, and when all the soldiers began to climb the wall, I held my breath...

And then instead of following them over, we were back in England with Rudyard Kipling and family, and there we stayed until close to the end. I don't want to go into too much detail, but the film-makers could have stayed with Jack. They could have shown the destruction and devastation that the platoon encountered in their charge. They could have followed Jack minute by minute, and only later cut back to his family to show the eventual ripples reaching them.

Instead, they cut away from him at the point of highest tension, and from there built it back up beautifully to the end, except with added layers on layers of emotion. It was truly excellent, and it reminded me that sometimes, especially when you're writing about war (and oddly enough sex, too), it's all too easy to want to show the most dramatic moments in as much detail as you possibly can, laying it all out for maximum impact.

But sometimes, the strongest impact comes from what you don't show. It's quite the juggle knowing when to do what.

The book I finished reading was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larsson (I may be the last person on earth who hadn't already finished it). I spent the whole first half of the book grinding my teeth, putting it down, picking it back up again, and moaning to my husband about how awful, awful some of the writing was. And for God's sakes, don't anyone ever ask anyone else a question if you rock up in Hedeby, Sweden, because even the simplest bloody ask generates twenty more pages of backstory. Gah!

But I must concede that the backstory and the exposition and the excessive detail and the awful dialogue still held my attention, and the characters were always compelling. And by the second half, my patience was rewarded as all the little details began to coalesce into a bigger picture, and by that point I really couldn't put it down, and stayed up til 2am on two consecutive nights reading.

My observation about this book actually comes back to parts of it I didn't like- in particular, bits of the ending. There was a double storyline running through it- on the one hand, journalist Mikael Blomkvist and hacker Lisbeth Salander are tracking down details of a cold case murder; on the other, they're trying to unravel the truth behind a crooked industrialist who has all but sunk Blomkvist's career. I was pretty satisfied with the way the murder plotline wrapped up, though I saw it coming from the first page.

But the industrialist storyline- well, I was satisfied with how it concluded, but in the end it got pretty contrived and excessive, just IMO. Went on a little bit long, was overly complicated, and the actions and behaviour of several people were barely realistic.

Except that none of this affected how much I enjoyed the book in the end- I came away from it feeling completely satisfied. And in an odd way, I think the reason was this: Larsson had his characters act with complete conviction for what they were doing. If they rushed off on an implausible overseas trip one minute, you knew the trip was implausible, but you didn't care, because the characters were completely convinced of the need to be doing what they were doing.

I guess what I'm saying is, in this case, it hardly mattered what happened in the plot, because the characters were so fully realised that if they were doing something, the reader just had to accept that it was what it was. So part of my brain squeaked, "Yeah, right!" but it was never the part that was concentrating on the overall book.

The lesson: Vivid characters with absolute conviction (and behind them, authors with the same) can keep a story from sinking regardless of very rough seas. Not something you want to try out for the heck of it, but I think it's a valuable point to remember.

In any story, characters with conviction, with intent and desire and need, will pull the reader onward.

May the Best Book Win

Contests. Many writers enter them. They are a way to gain clout and recognition in the writing world, even once published. In fact, a number of contests are geared toward published writers. Earning the title of "Best Book" or "Reader's Choice" can help a book entice new readers. All and all a good thing.

But I wonder about some of these contests. Specifically ones in which the judges are readers. You know the type, readers vote online for the the best book out of a group of entries. The book with the most votes wins. Simple. And yet not so.

Often, a writer will call upon their friends and associates to help them out by voting. Which is fine. Unless these people haven't read the book. Unless they are simply voting to help a friend. On the other hand, if all writers do this then what's the harm? But are these contests really a reflection of the best book, or of the writer who has the most friends?

Does it matter? Should we care? And as a writer, is this a hollow victory? Would you, as a writer, be happy winning a contest knowing that your friends and associates put you there? Or would you rather win based on the votes of total strangers?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Dream a Little Dream

I woke up this morning with the perfect line sharp and clear in my sleep-muzzy brain. It was perfection, it was everything I’d been searching for, and in the time it took to hear it in my sleep and realize it was THAT perfect, I lost it. As I emerged from that dreamy wake-up state to full consciousness, I grasped greedily at the fleeing line, grabbing at the words as they floated away on the ether of dream sleep. It got away, but I managed to hold onto a few words like a fistful of feathers from a bird that took sudden flight.

Those few words are enough to reconstruct the line and go forward with the tone, the intent, behind the words. But as I mused about how badly I wanted to keep the line and how easily it was lost I began to wonder…

Was it really the best line ever? Or was it all an illusion? Do our dreams have more truth than what we struggle to say in the bald light of day? We struggle sometimes to find just the right words and then, ironically, they come so easily in our sleep.

I don’t know the answer. I only know that some of my most productive moments are just as I fall asleep, or wake up, and I’m not going to jinx it by digging too deeply into why it works for me.

How about you? Do you ever dream your story? Do you remember the words and keep them long enough to write them down? Do your dreams point you in the right direction, or just mess with your head?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Revision rollercoaster

I was writing a nice blog post about this week's procrastination experiment, but somewhat appropriately I got sidetracked, and it'll have to wait to next week.

I'm now in the thick of my final draft revisions. I started out wallowing around in the mud three weeks ago when it came to this. There was much discussion and gnashing of teeth at the CompuServe Forum endings thread here, and I started a new discussion on final revisions here. I hassled the ATWOP ladies by email, wailed about it on Facebook, and just generally thought that this process was a little bit more complicated than I ever realised.

Which it is, but all that was part of getting my mental processes in order, and now I've done it, things are rolling on like never before. I don't think I've enjoyed fiction writing more in the last four years than I have this week.

What's changed?

Most of you know that I'm a very process driven writer. That may be an understatement (grin). I need my little ducks in a row before it's clear to me how to move forwards.

At the end of my second draft, I had 170,000 words of story. About a quarter of them followed a subplot that's now going to be eliminated from the story. About a quarter of them still fitted, but headed off gradually in the wrong direction. About an eighth need to be completely rewritten. And the remaining 3/8 are fit for purpose.

This might not sound much like I have a complete second draft at all, but actually, the story itself has never been so coherent. Not on paper, quite, but in plot- I spent all day Tuesday running through the plot, creating a huge map of the rise and fall of tension, and at the end of that very useful process, I could finally see the story as a whole, and understand the place and purpose of every single scene. And that meant I had a very clear view, suddenly, of exactly what needed to happen with each and every one of those existing chapters, be they finished, half-finished, or a total mess.

The plot tension map has made several people gasp with horror over the complexity of it all, but it was actually very easy to do, and not really all that complex. Check out my rollercoaster (it's intentionally a bit fuzzy so as not to give away all my secrets- mwahaha):

I drew horizontal lines across four divided sheets of A3 paper- five of them, representing levels of tension from Lowest, through to Moderate, ending with Highest. I then drew vertical dividers for each scene. After that, easy as can be. I went back to my completed outline, and put each scene down against a level of tension. Totally arbitrary decision on the tension level of each, by the way- I just thought about what happened and took a guess.

After that, all I had to do was join the dots to have a visual representation of the rise and fall of the tension throughout the whole novel. I then went through and drew two more connect-the-dots lines- one for each of the two major subplots in the story. Here's a close-up, conveniently cut short just before it hits the good bits:

It's the first time I've been able to "see" the story as a whole and know that what I've written does what it's supposed to, on a structural level, at least- it takes the reader on an up and down ride of rising tension, through a nice, coherent story.

One of the things that seems to horrify about this kind of process is the idea that anyone might do it before they write, thus boxing themselves into a by-the-numbers approach that doesn't allow the story to flow. All I can say to that is, this comes after the writing is done. There's no boxing whatsoever. It's simply a way of organising my thoughts and viewing how the story unfolds, and that allows me to go back to the actual writing without worrying about whether it fits a bigger picture. I don't need to look at the forest anymore; I can hang out with the trees, knowing I'm not lost after all.

In conclusion, I'll leave you with a thought from the lovely Zan Marie Steadham on revising- we were discussing the dilemma of to rewrite, or simply revise, and how for many of us, rewriting is another form of procrastination (it is for me)- the easy way out to avoid the hard work of revising instead. I suggested that the temptation to rewrite entire scenes can be strong, but that if the curtains don't match the decor, there's no need to knock down the whole room just because you're better with a sledgehammer than a sewing machine.

Zan Marie's subsequent version of the serenity prayer for revising writers:

Let me take a sledge hammer to the scenes that need to be rebuilt from the ground up, and use a sewing machine for the ones that need only new curtains, and give me the wisdom to know the difference.

Happy revision to those riding the same rollercoaster!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Fine Art of Procrastination


It seems to be plaguing a few of us here at ATWOP at the moment. I know Claire has been busy trying to pin down where her time goes in an effort to shame herself into setting aside the distractions and getting down to the writing; last week, Jen blogged about being distracted from her current writing projects by ideas and inspirations for new WIPs. And at the moment, I’m also doing battle with a form of procrastination myself.

See, I’m usually not a huge procrastinator when it comes to writing. During a run-of-the-mill week, with no one home on holidays to interrupt or distract me, I tend to be able to make myself stick to a daily writing schedule without too much procrastination in the lead-up, or in the duration. But at the moment, my routine is out the window. All five of my household are home on summer holidays, and I’m trying to squeeze in writing time in between trips to the beach and cousin's pools, and lazy lunches and dinners with friends, and keeping the fridge stocked for the hordes of children that are constantly through the front door … writing time is hard to find right now. But when I do find it, I find that I’m procrastinating. BIG TIME.

My procrastination routine is probably not too dissimilar to yours.

The laundry and dishes and weeding begin to look attractive, the clutter in my study that I have put up with for a year suddenly has to be cleared away NOW. Then, when I finally plant my butt on the chair and switch on the computer, it’s the usual … the checking out of Facebook, my favourite internet hangouts, the blog reading …

All garden-variety, easy-to-spot, procrastination. And IMO, a little procrastination before facing down the writing does have its place, and can even be helpful; I find that surfing through Facebook and writing blogs for ten minutes or so tends to limber up my brain for the writing that is to come.

The deeper problem arises when you get really good at procrastinating. When you learn to disguise it as something you NEED to be doing with your writing, instead of doing the writing that needs to be done. It’s a highly developed form of procrastination – procrastination in disguise. And this is the form of procrastination I’m dealing with now.

See, this week, I’ve had a great idea for a way to re-order my opening chapters to make the story stronger, tighter, and I’m sure it’ll work a treat. I just have to re-write several thousand words to make it all work … but there’s something all too familiar about this. I’ve re-written those opening chapters more times than I can count, and I always seem to get the strongest urge to do so at the exact same point of my WIP – the middle.

It happened countless times when I was writing the shitty first draft (and is much of the reason why it took me so damn long to complete that SFD!) ... hit the middle, the sagging mattress, swiss-cheese plot of a middle, and bingo, off goes my brain, thinking up some wonderful way to improve the beginning.

I’ve just hit the middle with my revisions, and it’s still sagging and ridden with holes, and I just don’t want to face it. Frankly, it’s bloody hard work to wade into this section and figure out the revisions and fixes I need to make … so what do I find myself doing, in the few windows of writing time that I have? Yep. I’m going back and re-imagining those opening chapters.

Thankfully, after going round this merry-go-round more times than I care to remember, I can now see what I’m doing. I’m running away from the hard work, going back to the comfortable, familiar territory of my opening, to soothe my panicked mind. I know it for what it is – just another form of procrastination. Finely tuned, and disguised as necessary for the writing of my book, but really, it’s not. In fact, it’s anything but; because if I don’t stop this cycle, I know I’ll never roll up my sleeves and face down the hard work of getting through the middle. I’ll never get my second draft done.

This means that for now, I’m making notes of the changes I want to make to my opening … and as notes, they will stay, until I’m back for round three.

So, if you find yourself endlessly going over the same ground in your writing, and not moving ahead at a rate that you’re happy and comfortable with, I’d suggest stepping outside yourself and your processes and having a close look at your writing and how you go about it. If you see yourself repeating patterns over and over without making the progress you think you should, there’s a chance that some of what you’re doing is actually procrastination in disguise. And if so, just look the beast in the eyes, know it for what it is, and walk away.

Your book – and your sanity – will be the better for it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A New Attitude

Oprah says, "I geeeeeeeeet it!!!!!!"

Your girl, Tuesday, here.

If you follow me over at Random Thoughts, you know that I decided NOT to make any New Year's resolutions this year. I think Kristen pretty much nailed it in her post yesterday (today?) about how we make them and always let them fall to the wayside long before the year is up. I couldn't agree more. Some people are good at setting and making their goals. I am not. Why play the game? lol

Anyway, that said, I'm taking things one day at a time, trying to get back into the groove with FAKING IT. And guess what? It's working. For the first time in a long time, I'm rolling right along with the revisions I had imagined I'd be making months--even years--ago. I don't know what's going on exactly, but trust me, I'm not taking too much time out to ponder it. I'm just going with it, and hoping it lasts.

The best part is that I'm so fired up to keep going. In the last three days, I've worked on one particular chunk that's been giving me problems for-ever. I just couldn't seem to make it work, no matter what I tried. Well, I'm getting there. I'm making progress. No way am I saying it's perfect, but it's a solid start. I've got one more bit to get through and this chunk will be finished until I go back through for final revisions. In the end, it should weigh in at about 8-9K -- probably about 7K of that new. CRAZY.

I don't want to get all Oprah here and declare, "I geeeeeeeeet it!!!!!!" (You know, how she thought she finally knew how to keep her weight in check??) Yeah. That's not what I'm doing. At all.

I simply feel REALLY good about where I'm going with this book, and I want to share the joy. :)

So...what measures am I taking to keep going?

1. I'm making a date to write each and every day. I schedule two hours. So far, I've done more each day. But if I get two solid hours in, I'll be happy. (Some of that time IS spent playing Mahjong. I'm a procrastinator, people. And I'm out of practice when it comes to writing on a regular basis. I swear, though, it DOES help me think. And I never play for long. Honest.)

2. I'm brainstorming what I'll write the following day. Nothing real concrete, but just a general idea of where I want to head. Right now, for instance, I know exactly WHAT I want to happen to finish off the scene I'm working on.. I'm just not sure HOW I'm going to accomplish it. Hopefully by having it in my head that I need to write it tomorrow, I'll be able to come up with something during the interim. Chances are I won't, and it will all happen during the writing process...but whatever. I think my brain is working on it on a subconscious level.

3. I'm not letting all the end game stuff into my head this time 'round. No thoughts (or at least I'm trying) about what happens when I finish. No thoughts about how much more I have to do in order to finish. No thoughts about 'what happens next' at all. I'm just taking things one day at a time. You. Would. Not. Believe. how much stress this has taken off of me. It's unbelievable. I know there will be times my thoughts will stray to the 'what if's' of the future, but honestly, there's nothing I can do about what happens tomorrow. I can't predict it. I can't control it. I hold no sway over it whatsoever. The only thing I have full control over is the book I write today. And I'm going to try to make it the best damn book I can.

4. I'm taking time to read each and every day. Even if it's just 15 minutes. I need to charge my brain with words.

And that's really about it. I haven't moved all of my files over to Scrivener yet. It was taking too much time, so I'll move them over as I go. I didn't want to be standing still during the time it would take me to do all of that work. Bugger it, I say. LOL. I'm putting my new scenes in, and will fill in the rest as I go.

Anyway -- that's where I'm at. And I'm loving it. :)

A small tidbit from the new stuff:

Gabe moved around his kitchen with an ease and familiarity that had me absolutely fascinated. At least, that’s the reason I gave myself for why I couldn’t seem to tear my eyes away from him. The reality was that like the gravitational pull of the sun, his ass held me captive. No matter where I looked or what I tried to do to distract myself, that’s where my gaze always landed.

Happy writing, everyone!

Oprah says, "I don't think she gets it at all."

New Year, New Day

So it’s a new year. Everything is fresh, a new slate. It’s a lot like that first day of school. Anything can happy. You could even become a different person. This could be. The. Year.

Except it’s all smoke and mirrors.

What is a new year except a change in date? And what power does a shift in numbers on a calendar really have? None.

Like Susan pointed out, resolutions mostly fail. How can they not? A year is a long, LONG time. (Oddly, a year can also fly by. Go figure) But to set a goal in which you have a whole year to play with? First off, it’s a procrastinator’s playground. We procrastinators have MONTHS to get started. What’s the rush? I’ve got a YEAR. ;)

Even rigid taskmasters can find themselves floundering with such a far off end date. Not much motivation in a year’s wait for self-congratulations, is there? And taskmasters usual need those pats on the back. :)

And yet, that New Year allure is there. We all want things to get better. We want to get better. The thing is, with resolutions, you are usually trying to change/fix a fundamental feature about yourself. Lose weight? Make more money? Finish that novel? Write EVERY DAY? Let’s face it, if we naturally had it in us to do those things, we would have done them already.

Should we not try? Of course not. But let’s not set ourselves up for failure before we even begin shall we?

Instead, I propose the New Day resolution. When you wake up, make one: today I’m going to write 1500 words. Today, I’m going to get on the treadmill for twenty minutes. Today, I am going to put away twenty dollars for a rainy day. Today, I vow to be civil to that assmunch in the office, even if she is not!

A 24hour deadline is a small window. You either put out or shut up. And the good thing about it is that if you fail, you’ve got tomorrow to start all over. It need not be the same thing every day either. Mix it up. This isn’t for a long term goal. This is just about today. What are you going to do today that is a challenge?

By making small, daily goals, putting one foot in front of the other, it soon becomes habit. Habit means a fundamental change in how you live.

We don’t live in the future. We live now. Dealing with now is much easier. In reality, if there is only now, the only true change we can make for ourselves is how we operate in the now.

So, what are you going to do today?