Monday, December 28, 2009

2010 ... A Writer's Odyssey?

Can you believe it's almost that time ... a new year? And not just any new year, but one that, like 1984 and 2000, has been historically celebrated by society's collective zeitgeist. Isn't it weird to think that things we take for granted now, like Skype and sending Russian billionaires into space, used to be the stuff of sci-fi movies?

And look at all the tools currently available to us as writers ... super-fast computers and manuscript formatting software (not to mention my personal favorite - that million "room" research library known as the internet.) But shave away the fancy trimmings and writing is still writing, just as it was for Jane Austin, Herman Melville and all the rest. It's the same impassioned, draining, exhilarating, daunting experience as it ever was, and no new technology is ever going to change that.

I originally wanted to do a post about new year's writing resolutions, and I may still do one, but I have to admit that, at the moment, I'm not really in a good space for such a topic. I was afraid this might happen (more on that in a moment.) We're still "on holiday," as my husband calls it, and I've allowed myself a little time away from my writing. My beta readers are hard at work back home, and hopefully they'll have some initial feedback on Part 1 of my WIP when I return in January.

Theoretically, everything is on track, but psychologically, something is amiss. I find that when I take a step back from my intense daily writing schedule, my Inner Demons start to rear their ugly heads. At this moment, I am feeling very down in the dumps about my potential career as a writer. I can't put my finger on exactly why I'm feeling this way, but that lingering "lump" is definitely in my chest. Do you ever feel that way? And do you find that re-immersing yourself in your writing generally cures these ills, or does it require something more?

I don't have a FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO for today ... I welcome YOUR tips on how to overcome these writer's humps that seem to constantly creep up in our paths ...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Are you using ALL your senses?

I remember a passage in Elizabeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover which said that writers often only focus on the sense of sight in their first drafts, and that all the other senses have to be worked into subsequent drafts. Isn't that odd? I mean, that sure describes the first draft of my novel. Only now am I thinking about how a place smells and sounds. Why is that? And why is it that the problem is so common that Ms. Lyon could make such a generalized statement with confidence?

I don't have the answers to these
questions, but I find it comforting to know that I'm not alone in my sensory short-sightedness. So now I'd like to do a little exercise with you - one that you can do at home, or wherever you might be spending the holidays. At the moment, I happen to be in a fantastic place for sensory overload - Australia. I've never been to a subtropical continent before, so this is all very new to me. We touched down in Sydney yesterday morning (which is technically tomorrow for all of you in the States ... I think ... ? :-]-). I took a long walk through the area where we're staying (Bronte) and here was my sensory response (an abridged version, that is, because I could go on and on ...)

SIGHT - I was thrilled by the sight of rainbow-colored "lorrikeets" flying out of stu
bby, waxy-leaved trees so they could perch on low, red-tiled rooftops.

SOUND - I found myself startled every time I heard what sounded like a toddler babbling, followed by a monkey shrieking, only to realize I was listening to bird calls.

SMELL - I couldn't get away from the fragrant odor of eucalyptus oil mixed with a hint of sea brine, and I didn't want to!

TOUCH - It started to drizzle on my way home, and I felt as if I was being followed by a personal assistant continually spraying me with a fine lukewarm mist.

TASTE - When I got home, I opened a bottle of Australian Cab-Merlot and swished the fruity, woody liquid around in my mouth before swallowing.

I'm going to try and do a new five senses exercise every day I'm here (but I promise not to bore you with any more of them!)

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO: Do you have trouble bringing all 5 senses to the forefront of your writing? Maybe this is because you, like me, don't always make the time to be aware of all that you're sensing in your own life. Try this little exercise wherever you are and see if it sharpens your writing ... I'd love to read YOUR sensory experiences!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Feedback: Friend or Foe?

I've been getting so much fantastic feedback on my last two posts (which can be found here and here.) I now know I have a ton of rewriting ahead of me on Chapter 1, but this is not a bad thing. I actually find it quite inspiring when people tell me I need to rework my writing (am I crazy?! Maybe ... ) I generally take it to mean that my beta readers are engaged in what I've shown them, and that they think I have it in me to do better. However, I don't respond positively to all feedback, which leads us to the subject of today's post ...

If you're like me, you're careful to show your writing only to people whom you trust, i.e., people who you believe will give you strong, constructive feedback. But sometimes one can get blindsided. I want to tell you a little story about something that happened to me when I sent my first unpublished novel around for informal review.

I sent a copy to an individual (let's call the person Sam) who runs an independent publishing company. Sam is a very nice, helpful person in general, and a friend of one of my good friends/BEs. I had met Sam before and found them to be warm and intelligent. (All the markings of an excellent beta reader, right?)

That's why it shocked the socks off me when Sam ripped my manuscript apart (not literally, although they might as well have.) Now here's where I want to pause and deconstruct exactly why this person's critiques were so jarring, and in my opinion, detrimental. My novel was a faintly auto-biographical coming-of-age tale with a criminal trial in the background (that part was pure fiction!) The nut
s and bolts of the trial were not so important as how it affected the family. Sam's comments were along the lines of, "I wasn't at all interested in the family's dramas; why didn't you make the trial the center of the book?; I think you should have gone into detail about the politics behind the case," etc.

My first reaction: "Sounds like a fascinating book, but it's not the one I'm writing." I think I actually told Sam that, along with thanking them for taking the time to read my manuscript and to give me feedback. But in all honesty, I wished I'd never given my writing to this person. I felt numb, and in shock. And most
of all, my instincts told me that something wasn't right about what I'd just been told.

I shared the
experience with my friend who knows Sam, and she was immediately sympathetic. She pointed out that Sam publishes mostly politically-oriented non-fiction, and it did not surprise her, in restrospect, that they would be so focused on the criminal trial aspect. But my friend, who used to work in publishing, also acknowledged that Sam's critiques were just plain out of line. She validated my hunch that a good beta reader/editor should respect the genre and goals of the author, and not try to impose their own literary vision of the world on the writer. (I later met a professional copy editor who said the same thing.)

So what can we take away from all this? See below ...

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO: Does the feedback you're getting pass the "smell test," i.e., are your insti
ncts telling you there's something foul about it? I'm not talking about getting all touchy when someone tells you something you don't want to hear about your writing (fyi, one of the best critiques I ever received was from a BE who said, "Your protagonist is completely mechanical, you can do better than this, Cammie!") It's key to remember that your reader/editors' role is simply to bring out the best in YOUR writing, not to try and turn you into a ghost writer for their own ideas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cyber Beta Readers Rule!

Without further ado, here's the second part of Chapter 1 of my untitled WIP. (May I suggest that you read, if you haven't already, the first half, so as to get some context.) I've decided to save my analyses of the art of critiquing for the next post, so stay tuned ...

(Brief formatting note re Chapter 1 - the section you read the other day is separated from the one below by "***").

Marcus awoke with a start. He tried to open his eyes, but there was something covering the left one, and the right one was having difficulty focusing. Light flooded into the room, exacerbating his throbbing headache. He closed his eyes and reached for the top of his head, which was covered with a bandage.

“No, no, don’t touch that, Darling.” That doting, chirping voice, bathed in a faint vapor of gin and vermouth, could belong to none other than Marcus’s mother, Minnie. He wrenched open his right eye and could almost make out her diminutive frame, haloed by the deluge of light all around her.

“Where am …”

Birdlike fingers were now stroking and tugging at the bandaged cap on Marcus’s head. “Your beautiful hair, all mashed down like that. You’ll look a fright when they take this thing off, but don’t you worry. As soon as they let you go, we’ll run you right over to Alfred’s to get it washed and cut and …”

“Mother, where am I? What …”

“Hush now, my angel. Don’t get yourself worked up. Everything’s going to be fine. The doctors say you’ll make a full recovery.”

“What happened?”

“Oh, there was some kind of trouble down on Wall Street today, a bomb or something.”

Minnie’s nonchalance in reporting a bomb explosion, especially in light of her sincere anxiety over her son’s mussed hair, might have seemed odd, disturbing even, to a passerby, if there had been any. But not to Marcus.

The world was rapidly coming into focus through his right eye now, although his mind still felt somewhat mired in a fog. As suspected, he was in a hospital bed, in a hospital room. It appeared to be a private room, for which he was grateful. The only other person in the room was his mother, who perched on a metal chair at his foot. She must not have been there long because she was still bundled in her fox-tail coat, the one she wore from September to May because of her tendency to get chills.

Marcus attempted a smile at his mother to show her that he was glad she had come, but the tension in his face muscles triggered a painful jolt to the back of his head, and he yelped. Minnie was out of her chair and hovering once more.

“Darling!”

“I’m alright, just a little pain in the back of my …”

“Well I should say. You suffered a nasty blow to the top of your head. But don’t worry, it didn’t do any permanent harm. There was a nice doctor in here just before you woke – I can’t remember his name, unfortunately – anyway, he said at the very worst, you might have the teensiest little red scar underneath your hair, but that’s it. You’ll be back at Yale in no time.”

Yes, of course, I have to get back to school, Marcus thought. Life has to return to normal. No time to stop and take stock of what had just happened. That’s the way Minnie had raised him: you put on a smile and act as if everything is just fine no matter what blows life deals you. As a boy, Marcus had admired his mother’s ability to maintain a stiff upper lip after his father had left them, and again after Edgar, Minnie’s second husband, ran off right after the twins’ birth. It was only in recent years that Marcus realized his mother’s stoicism was made up of about twenty percent personal resolve, with the rest being attributed to some combination of gin, vodka, and whisky.

There was a light rap at the door, which stood ajar. A pale-faced, be-speckled man of indeterminate age entered the room. Marcus noticed his mother sit up straight, pushing a wayward auburn curl back behind here ear and straightening her feathered cap. She then stood up, flashing the doctor her brightest smile.

“No need to get up, Mrs. Beaulieu. Good afternoon, Mr. Torrington. How are we feeling?”

“Alright. My head hurts a little, but that’s about it.”

“That’s what we like to here. That little lug nut came at you at an alarming speed. It could have killed you had it hit a few inches lower. Thankfully, all it did was knock you unconscious. And here we are now, wide awake.”

The doctor smiled, not in anyone’s particular direction, and Minnie smiled at him. According to them, that was about all that needed to be said.

“What exactly happened?”

The doctor shook his head, half-smiling, half-frowning in a way that made him look like a circus clown. “There was an explosion downtown, a bomb they think. Probably the work of the Bolsheviks, the Anarchists, maybe. I’m sure the IWW had a hand in it somehow.”

Minnie clucked in distaste at the mention of the radical socialist trade union. Marcus’s mind was slower to process the doctor’s words. Anarchic unionists bombing the stock exchange. His grandfather would have been the first to say, “Let’s not jump to any conclusions. Just because someone’s working class and a unionist, it doesn’t make them a terrorist.”

Suddenly, the misty fog in Marcus’s mind dissipated and he bolted upright in a panic. “Where’s Grandfather?”

Marcus felt his mother and the doctor’s hands pressing him back against the bed. Minnie was cooing “there, there”s and the doctor was mumbling, “Take it easy, champ.”

“Where is he?”

“Don’t worry, champ, he’s in good hands.”

“Good hands?” Marcus sat up again, but this time, he was not going to be pushed back down. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Marcus, please.”

Marcus didn’t give a damn at that moment about his mother’s embarrassment in front of the doctor. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” The last word got lost deep in Marcus’s throat. He fell back against the bed and shut his eyes, squeezing them tight to stem off tears. His head was pounding so hard that he did not recognize the pulsating beats as coming from his own body.

“No, your grandfather is not dead, son.”

Marcus opened his eyes. “He’s not?”

“No.” The doctor hesitated, and then smiled like a fool. “Mr. Torrington, your grandfather is in good hands down at Broad Street Hospital. They’re keeping him in the intensive care unit there.”

Marcus sat up slowly. “Intensive care? In a different hospital?”

Minnie chimed in: “That’s where they took everyone after the blast. It was a ghastly sight. I absolutely insisted they transfer you up here, so you could be near home. Unfortunately, your grandfather’s condition didn’t allow for him to be moved.”

“Yes,” the doctor said, “your grandfather apparently sustained some rather substantial injuries from the blast. I had my nurse telephone over to Broad Street, and she reported that Mr. Torrington is in stable condition at the moment, although it’s difficult to say how soon, or how completely, he’ll recover.”

“What are you saying? Can he talk? Can he see? Can he walk? What?”

“There, there, no need to shout, Darling.”

“Answer me!”

“Mr. Torrington, I’m sure the good doctors at …”

“Answer me!” Every muscle in Marcus’s body seemed to be twitching, so much so that he couldn’t move. He could not do what he wanted, which was to climb out of the hospital bed and shake this grinning idiot until the facts fell from his gaping mouth.

A secret button must have been pushed, because a slim young nurse in pristine white appeared, her arms draped beside her shapeless hips. In her right hand was a syringe. Marcus decided not to fight. He glanced calmly from his mother’s pitying expression to the doctor’s condescendingly serene gaze, and then looked up at the serious young woman, who whispered, “This won’t hurt, Mr. Torrington.”

“Sure, whatever,” Marcus said, offering up his left arm. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to drift into downy nothingness. For years to come, when the anxiety gripped his throat at night and threatened to choke the life out of him, he would try to remember this deep sleep over all else that had happened that day.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Holding my breath and jumping off the high-dive ...

That's how I feel about what I'm about to do. I just sent out the first third (possibly fourth) of my untitled WIP to my trusted Brilliant Editors (or Beta Editors ... whatever their official title, they're the "BE"s I'm always referring to). But I don't plan to stop with them. I want YOU ALL to read it too. Okay, not 15 chapters (36,000 words)-worth, but the first chapter, at least. I'd love your initial reaction, or if you're more of a minutia-oriented reader, feel free to pick it apart line-by-line. It's your call.

Stay tuned for my next post, which is going to be about good v. bad feedback. Like everyone, I've had my share of both. (Actually, that's not true - I have only ever had one experience where I felt the critique was so off the mark that it truly jarred me. I later learned from industry professionals that this person - an editor - went completely against Literary Editor Etiquette 101. But that's a story for next week ...) Can you tell I'm stalling? Alright ... *sucking in breath* ... here goes ... *BIG SPLASH!!!*

Chapter 1

That September morning had been so eerily bright and blue that Marcus would later wonder if some cosmic force had been trying to warn him, and everyone else ambling along Wall Street that day, to be on high alert. He would chastise himself for running early, for once, that morning. His grandfather had made a luncheon reservation at Fraunces Tavern, just around the corner from his William Street office, but that was for twelve-thirty. Had Marcus arrived closer to the appointed hour, they would have gone directly to the restaurant by way of South William, instead of strolling up William and down Wall Street to kill time. However, these thoughts did not yet occupy Marcus’s mind that day when he met the tall, commanding figure whose dark eyes and thick, wavy hair - no longer chestnut but ash-colored - looked so much like his own, add forty-seven years.

Even though he had been to his grandfather’s office at least a dozen times over the years, Marcus still found himself awed and humbled by the grandiosity of it all. His eyes darted from intricately molded ceiling to gilt and mirrored wall as the two men walked from the office of Torrington Wilke Baker to the elevator bay. They stepped into the elevator and Marcus’s grandfather nodded to the short attendant wearing a crisp red suit. The operator punched and pulled the cage’s brass buttons in a deliberate way that made him appear very proud of his role in controlling access to and from this megalithic granite tower.

“I feel honored you decided to spend your day off down here with me, Marcus.”

“I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the day.”

Oliver Marcus Torrington the First laughed in that low, rumbling way that had always made Marcus feel safe and secure as a child. “The last thing I would have wanted to do on a day off from my first week at Yale would have been to spend time with my family. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my father. But he never seemed to want to stray more than half a mile from the Edenbrook campus.” The creases around Oliver’s deep-set eyes multiplied as his lips tightened. “Seven years at that damn place was enough for me.”

Marcus and his grandfather rode the rest of the way to the lobby in silence. Marcus knew better than to make some glib comment when his grandfather brooded about the past. Oliver’s peers at Edenbrook had made it clear to him at an early age that the son of an Academy history teacher was not, and never would be, one of them. Marcus suspected that graduating top of his high school class, going on to Yale with many of them, and then building a financial empire, had not, at least in his grandfather’s eyes, completely erased this hierarchy.

The elevator arrived in the lobby and the man in red opened the cage door and bid a good day to his two passengers. Marcus admired the swirling Japonica designs on the mirrors which paneled the lobby. This was the third office building Oliver had been based out of in his almost forty years as founder and chief financial officer of the ever-growing Torrington Wilke Baker. The brokerage firm had moved into this turn-of-the-century tower just days after the last stone had been laid. It was the only one of his grandfather’s offices that Marcus had ever been to. The building itself had long been branded in his mind as an appendage to his grandfather’s hearty physique.

As if reading his grandson’s thoughts, Oliver said, “I hope you’re prepared to say good-bye to this old girl.”

“What?”

“This building – she’s been good to us over the past two decades, but I don’t know how much longer she’s going to be able to hold us. Torrington Wilke Baker is expanding.”

“Moving?”

“Yes sir. We hired six new accountants over the past few months, and right now they’re sitting two to a cubicle.”

Marcus and Oliver passed through the brass and glass revolving doors and out onto the damp, narrow street. Marcus inhaled the pungent odor of seawater, freshly-washed stone, burnt coal and just a hint of horse manure, any combination of which would forever trigger thoughts of this day in his mind for years to come.

“So when might you make this move, Grandfather?”

“That I’m not sure of. Winston has been looking into office spaces in the area, but has yet to find one that meets all our needs. Hopefully sometime next spring.”

Marcus wanted to ask his grandfather whether he himself would follow his firm to the new location, or might he see this as a good time to retire. Oliver was, after all, about to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday in a few weeks. But Marcus thought better of this question. Mortality – even slowing down – was not a topic of conversation ever entertained by Oliver Marcus Torrington the First. So as the two men turned left onto Wall Street, Marcus decided to steer the conversation to something light and inoffensive.

“I’m getting hungry. What do …” The reverberant gonging of Trinity Church’s noon bell absorbed the last part of Marcus’s question.

“Yes, me too. Fraunces Tavern has the best …” The church bells swallowed the dish which Oliver proposed to Marcus.

As they continued ambling down the cobblestone street, Marcus was struck by the larger-than-life quality of the view before him. Straight ahead was the pink spire of Trinity Church, one-time spiritual home of Alexander Hamilton. And coming up on the right was Federal Hall, where the country’s first president was inaugurated, and where the Bill of Rights was passed – the spiritual home of democracy, one could say.

Marcus mused that, were someone to drop down out of the sky in front of this impressive structure, they might think they were in Ancient Greece, but for the austere bronze face of George Washington peering down on them from his pedestal on the steps. And finally, Broad Street came into sight on Marcus’s left, and with it, the Corinthian topped columns and highly-ornamented pediment of America’s temple of finance – the New York Stock Exchange. Across the street stood the temple’s high priestess - the office of J.P. Morgan & Company.

The twelfth and final gong sounded, and the low hum of busy bankers chattering on the street could be heard once more. Marcus glanced at his grandfather, whose brown eyes danced as he took in the neighborhood that had nurtured his ambition all these years. Marcus was about to comment on their good fortune at having such lovely weather when a deafening noise, unlike anything he had ever heard, roared through his head. And with it came a strange new odor, one that was acrid, thick, and just a little sweet.

In years to come, Marcus would not be able to remember with any clarity the order of events which ensued. They became like items for sale in a retail catalogue – detached from one another, adorned with romanticized illustrations. Because Marcus’s eyes were soon filled with scratchy bits of dust, he would have to rely on his imagination to create these pictures.

First there was the sound of metal shrieking and crunching. He saw this as a steel-jawed giant waking from a long slumber, bearing its teeth as it half-yawned, half-screamed itself into consciousness. Then there were the shards of glass which cut into his back as he doubled over in the street, trying to stay small. The catalogue illustration for these would depict tiny prisms hailing from heaven, drowning in an ocean of dust and debris. And then there were the chunks of hot metal which beat all around Marcus’s feet. These were pictured as sunbursts shooting from the sky.

And then, when an object (which Marcus would later learn was nothing more than a two inch lug nut) made contact with his scalp, he added the final picture to his catalogue. A wash of bright white, followed by black.

***

There ends the first half of Chapter 1 ... I'll include the 2nd half in my next post ... ;-)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Blog-to-Blog: What we all can learn from Amy March ...

Take a look at this wonderfully provocative post from Megan Rebekah Blogs. So what's your initial reaction? When I read that "Tweet" about metaphorically burning one's manuscript, I instinctively cringed, as I think any writer who has slaved for months (or years) over a WIP would. And then I had this delayed reaction: "More brilliant words have never been written!" I realized that I myself had basically "burned" the first draft of my current WIP. Here's the back story ...

After I finished the first (personally revised but without beta input) draft of my 160,000 word (roughly 400-page) novel, I sent it around to my BEs for feedback. I got some great critiques - overall, everyone thought it was an enjoyable read. However, a number of people pointed out lags and sags in certain subplots, a couple of dead-weight characters that got too much page time, and some personality inconsistencies. Oh, and let's not forget that little exposition problem I keep mentioning ... ;-)-

After sifting though all this feedback, I felt confused. It was as if I was standing at a multi-pronged fork in the road. One road (a dead-end, really) led to abandoning the novel completely and moving on to something else. This was the road I took with my first novel. However, I had no desire to go there again with this one. So that left two other paths not-yet-travelled ... one leading to the revision of what I'd already written, and the other to a rewrite from scratch.

Of course, the latter sounded like such a monumental undertaking that I didn't even consider it, at first. The sensible choice would be to simply revise my current manuscript, right? And then I thought, what if I spend the next 3-6 months patching up holes and cobbling together new passages with old ones, only to end up with a disjointed Frankenstein monster of a novel?

So what does all this have to do with Amy March, some of you may be asking. (Others of you may be saying, "Who is Amy March?") As a child, Amy March was, in my opinion, the most dastardly villain in all of young adult fiction. Yes, I am referring to Jo's youngest sister in Little Women. She got on my nerves from the get-go with her princessy ways, but the moment she threw Jo's novel into the fire, she became my arch-nemesis. Even as a child of 9, or however old I was when I read Louisa May Alcott's classic, I identified with Jo's trials and tribulations as an aspiring writer. And even when Jo forgave her bratty little sister, I didn't. I mean, how dare Amy burn the manuscript that Jo had toiled over for months?

If I recall correctly, Jo came to realize that rewriting her book was not the end of the world. In fact, it might even be a blessing in disguise. So, nobly, she set to recreating the entire story (and staying on her sister's good side!) Of course, Jo's literary struggles didn't end there. When she finally got a professional editor (her eventual true love ...) to read her book, he dismissed it outright and told her to go back to the drawing board!

So how does this tale fit into our lives as writers? Perhaps it reminds us that we can always improve, and that no time spent writing is ever wasted. Does this mean we should never be satisfied with the work we produce? Of course not! (Goodness knows many of us - myself included - revise our work into the ground to the point that someone just needs to pry the computer out of our hands and put an end to the cycle!)

But I think we all know, deep down inside, when a piece truly does still need work. Start by listening to your beta readers - what are their first impressions? I'll save my detailed analyses of "constructive verses detrimental feedback" for another post, but for now, let's just assume that you have received enough helpful feedback to know that your WIP misses the mark in some way(s). Now it's time to ask yourself, are these critiques minor enough that reworking a few lines here and there (rewriting a couple of passages, or perhaps one chapter, at most) will suffice? Or is what lays ahead of you a major overhauling of plotlines, characters, and writing style?

If you answered yes to that last question (as I recently did), I strongly urge you to go down Burn-That-Book Road. Just remember, we're talking about a metaphorical burning here. Tuck that first draft into your "writing graveyard" folder and open up a brand new Word doc. Do just what that Tweet said and launch into your rewrite from memory. I think you'll be pleasantly shocked, as I was, by how freely and quickly the ideas flow, and by how much more you like the words falling from your fingertips the second time around.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Walk the Walk!

So my husband and I came down to the city for our annual gorge-fest with loved ones, and to spend the weekend. Aside from hanging out with friends, catching a show and eating all the wonderfully exotic foods that are so lacking upstate, another thing I was looking forward to doing while here was "walking in my characters' shoes." My novel opens on Wall Street, on a mid-day in September. I hadn't been down to Wall Street in quite a while, and the last time I was there, I certainly wasn't studying it through the eyes of a writer.

So that's where I headed late afternoon yesterday (perish the thought of getting out in time to actually be there at noon, when the lighting and general mood of the place might be more akin to how it would be in my book.) It was probably just as well that I arrived right before sundown, because there were only 25 or so tourists loitering about, as opposed to the usual 200. I was free to whisk between streets, craning my neck and talking to myself. (Yup, that's exactly what I did - I was in full-on eccentric writer mode!)

I'm so glad I made the pilgrimage; while what I currently have written would certainly pass, now that I have sharper visuals of where the opening events take place, I can add heightened color to each moment leading up to the catastrophe that sets my book in motion.

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO: I often wonder how much artistic license we writers are allowed to give ourselves when it comes to place-setting. There will likely come a time in all our writings when we'll have to rely on diligent research and imagination alone to bring a certain locale to life. However, when visiting the real thing is possible, I strongly urge every writer to do so. There's something extremely inspiring about walking in your characters' footsteps!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Finding Your "Zone"

No, this is not gonna be an adult-themed post, I promise!  I think you fellow-writers know what I'm referring to ... that time/space/mentality (somewhat akin to nirvana) that you somehow reach - when writing becomes pure (or close to pure) joy, as opposed to a loathsome task that depletes your self-esteem.  I believe the key to finding your "zone" is by getting to know yourself as a writer, and this takes trial and error.  

I want to digress for a moment (but this digression will lead back to my main topic) and talk about Nanowrimo.  As you may recall from an earlier post of mine, I credit Nanowrimo with kickstarting my writing "career."  I had been boring my friends to death for over a year saying, "I really want to start a novel."  The problem was, I didn't know how.  I'd had several "false starts" since college ... cracking my knuckles and sitting down to the computer to feverishly tap out 10 or 15 pages, which I would then revise, despise, and promptly dump.  This seemed to be my destiny - to be a mouthy, wannabe-writer with nothing to show for it.  

And then Nanowrimo came into my life ... it revolutionized my way of writing because it went against all my instincts.  "You're telling me I just need to sit down every day and write?  No time to stop and critique, cry and self-flagellate?"  It kinda sounded like a crazy waste of time, because surely all I'd produce under such an intense schedule would be drivel, right?  Well, yes, sort of.  But I also produced some kind of brain chemical (adrenaline, maybe?) that popped me out of bed every morning at 5:30 and powered me through my 2+ hour daily writing frenzy.  By the time I met my 50,000 word goal (the LAST DAY of November), I had gained several things:
  1. 25,000 words-worth of somewhat interesting writing, which would later be developed into my first finished (unpublished) novel;
  2. an amazing work ethic I didn't know I was capable of ... okay, that's not quite true ... I'd just spent 6 miserable weeks (11 hours per day) the previous summer studying for the New York State Bar, so I knew I was capable, but perhaps it taught me that I was capable of diligent work when the deadline was arbitrary; and
  3. confidence in myself.  Shortly into the process, I realized, "Hey, I'm doing it.  I'm actually writing a novel!"
As I continued working on my WIP after the contest ended, I carried the skills and discipline I'd developed during Nanowrimo with me, tweaking them to fit into my normal daily life ('cause, as all you Nano veterans know, there is no way you can keep up that break-neck pace and stay out of a mental institution!)  So now, two years later, I still get up early in the morning (even on days when I'm not going into work) because I know that's when my mind is freshest and most creative.  I no longer hold myself to a word count goal, because my own inner motivation sees to it that I don't slack.  

Bringing us back to today's topic, it's thanks to this "zone" I've created that I can proudly announce the completion of Part 1 (15 chapters, 36,000 words) of my novel rewrite.  The next step is to give it another revision, and then ... gulp ... send it out to my (ever-growing list of) Brilliant Editors for the first big beta!

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO:  What's your "zone"?  Don't try to force a routine that doesn't work for you, because it'll ultimately end in disaster.  Go easy on yourself if you're having a bad day - give yourself a break and take a day off from writing.  But just remember how good it feels when you get into your rhythm.  So if the bad day becomes a bad week, try to revisit your writing as soon as possible, before a grand funk sets in ...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

When do "suspenseful clues" give way to paint-by-numbers predictability?

I'm currently reading a book by an author who shall remain nameless ... (Can you tell this is leading up to a criticism? I'm trying to keep this blog positive, so I'll only name names with books I love. The cruddy ones will be granted anonymity.) Anyway, this was someone whose books I read during college (before I became a "serious" - and critical - writer.) I always thought she told a good story, so the other day I picked up one of her bestsellers which I'd never read.

As I began reading, I found the how-husband-and-wife-met set-up a little rote, and was not really taking to the protagonist-wife's character, as she didn't seem to have much character, other than being the guy's wife (argh ... I might be coming dangerously close to revealing the book's identity ... well, at least my heart was in the right place!) So I'm reading along, with the suspense around the central issue in the book building, when I come to page 100, where the protagonist's daughter randomly blurts out the fact that she had sex at 13.

Now, all along, the author has been dropping little clues about the protagonist's troubled marriage, like how her husband started to grow distant when their daughter was about 11. There are also lines about how close father and daughter have always been, while the protagonist and her daughter have had trouble relating, especially since the girl became a teenager. These subplots remain in the background, while the suspense around a tragedy involving the husband stays in the foreground.

So there I sat, only one-third of the way through the book, and all of a sudden, I knew exactly what I was going to read in the remaining 200 pages. As the mystery around the husband slowly unravels (thanks to a dashing, doting, divorced man assisting in the investigation), we the readers are going to learn that the protagonist's husband was molesting their daughter. Hence his depression, hence the tragic act on which the novel is centered. Protagonist and Daughter must come to terms with the horror of it all, thanks in no small part to Dashing, Doting, Divorced Man, who will end up becoming a permanent fixture in their lives. The End.

It's a complete cliche. I personally steer clear of pedophilia in my writing because I hate when it's reduced to a "big reveal" climax, which is what I'm afraid is happening here. (Compare this to a book like Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," which treats this horrific subject with the depth and sensitivity it deserves.) But I digress ... this post is not an admonition against putting sex crimes in suspenseful novels. It's an admonition against paint-by-numbers predictability in anything one writes.

I hope it goes without saying that I don't consider myself an expert on avoiding predictability. And in all fairness, while my BEs complimented many of the twists and turns in the first draft of my current WIP, they also pointed out a couple of "I could see that coming"s. So how do we writers skillfully intertwine foreshadowing clues into our narrative without giving away the whole plot? I doubt there's a simple answer, but incorporating reversals into your work is a good start.

I have always been a big fan of reversals (even before I learned they had a name at Gotham.) Here's how I would define a reversal: you have your character(s) going along one path, and maybe the reader can sense by the too-good-to-be-true nature of the storyline that something's about to go awry, but they certainly have no idea what. And then BOOM! You hit your reader with a dramatic (but plausible) change of course. The reversal doesn't necessarily have to be a big "boom" moment - if you're writing a literary, emotion-driven piece, it could be as subtle as an overheard conversation, a letter which was supposed to arrive but didn't, etc. The key is to take your reader in a new direction, one that keeps them turning pages and thinking, "I can't possibly imagine what's going to happen next ... but I'm dying to find out!"

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO: I think reversals are one of the best "weapons" against monotony and predictability that a writer can arm themselves with. Reversals should be frequently employed, and should vary in size and gravity. Most importantly, they should always be plausible, which is not to be confused with predictable.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Rewrite Update

I don't have a lot of news at the moment - I just wanted to check-in with my progress on the re-write.  I currently have 25,000 words and am definitely getting back into the flow of my story.  I still have some concerns about my writing style, though.  Because I've been through all this twice before (with my first novel and the original version of my current piece) I am starting to detect distinct patterns in my style.  I'm not sure if this is good or bad.  I mean, I've already identified my writing flaws, but beyond those, even the good stuff seems a bit predictable at times (at least to me).  

A concrete example of this would be the way I structure my chapters.  I try to start with a scene so that the reader is grounded in place and time.  Then I usually lapse into a flashback, which might be a few paragraphs or a few pages long, in order to give the reader a better sense of context of what's going on in the present time.  I'm working hard to cut down on chunks of exposition (my #1 weakness) by replacing them with scene (even in flashbacks).  

I guess the reason I feel that my writing is becoming predictable and formulaic is because I have analyzed it to death in order to continually improve.  I'm just hoping the unsuspecting reader will be too entrenched in the narrative to be as aware as I am of all the thought I put into structure.  I suppose that's every writer's goal - to make their labor-intensive work look effortless!

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO:  Before I started seriously writing, I never really took the time to think about how much intense planning and scrutiny go into producing a half-decent piece of fiction.  It really is a fine art.  I suppose we writers just have to remember that non-writers reading our manuscripts/books simply want to be engrossed and entertained.  They probably won't care whether this is accomplished through flashback, (well-written) exposition, or whatever other "crutch" we tend to employ.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Blog-to-Blog: Selling YOURSELF on your book

So here are two more terrific blog posts to get you thinking about your writing (and of course, by "you," I also mean "me" ...)

They both basically deal with the same question, which might be distilled as follows: "What motivates you to write, and is it, at the end of the day, sellable or strictly personal?" I shall answer this question re my own writing in my characteristically tangential, long-winded fashion ... ;-)

As a child, I spent a lot of time writing because I loved to write. As a teen and young adult, I spent a lot of time thinking about becoming a writer for the fame and glory of it. It should be noted that I did not actually write very much amidst all this day-dreaming. When I hit 30, I started thinking more seriously about becoming a writer because of my original love of the craft, and within a year I was actually writing again.

Why did I do so much thinking and so little writing between the ages of about 14 and 30? Well, I could write an entire blog around this subject, but here's a quick word-blitzkrieg: boys, distraction, immaturity, insecurity, identity, education, career, friends, boys ... i.e., the standard rights of passage that one has to go through once they let go of their childhood I-can-be-anything-I-wanna-be-when-I-grow-up outlook. At some point, you realize that you have to take proactive steps to reclaim that sense of possibility if it's ever to be reclaimed.

So back to why I write. When I started to seriously write again, I somehow got it in my head that I was going to be the next Harper Lee. My writing style, however, told a different tale. Literary genius I am not. But I can tell a good story, that much I believe. And that's why I write - I love to give deliciously layered accounts of human interaction. I love the subtle and not so subtle ways in which people please and deceive one another. I don't write graphic sex scenes because I'm not interested in the physical act of sex, but all the manipulation, ruse, vulnerability, fear, lust, hope, etc. that's behind the act. I think these basic truths woven into a well-told story make for a very sellable book. (Mind you, I'm not saying I've "arrived" at this point yet, but this is my aspiration.)

Re the inspiration and personal connection aspect, one little "trick" I've found that not only enthuses me to write, but which hopefully translates successfully onto the page is what I like to call "writing your own extremes." In other words, think about something you would never do, or maybe something you almost did, but sure are glad you didn't follow through with. Reflect on a thought you had at your lowest or highest moment - one that you might be too ashamed to say out loud. And then have your characters live these things out.

As I write this, I'm not harboring any deep, dark secrets that I'm dying to get off my chest and onto a printed page. However, like everyone, I've experienced a whole slew of extreme emotions in my life, most of which faded away as soon as they arose. I must admit that I'm rather curious as to what might happen if someone were to ever act upon those emotions ... I'm hoping Lila, Rosemarie or Marcus will indulge my curiosity!