Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Blog-to-Blog: What your tastes can teach you

I'm starting a new feature within My Mental Marathon called Blog-to-Blog. It'll come up from time to time when I run across a particularly thought-provoking post. I found a couple of them during my weekly blog surf the other day, and will dedicate the next few posts to discussing what I read, and how it applies to my own re-write.

First up, Booknapped. Click on the link and see why I thought this was a worthwhile post to blog about. So I tried to come up with my own original list after reading this, and found myself searching the far reaches of my mind for the most impressive-sounding works of literature I've read. Then I thought, hey, what better way to keep it real than to take a list of favorite works I'd already created on my Facebook Info page. And I decided to go with movies, not books, because I think my movie list might be easier to make overarching assessments about. So here goes ... I'm going to cut and paste the list, and then start grouping the films by category and describing their appeal in a few words.

Okay, now to synthesize all this ... so I like the 80s, that much is clear.  Putting on my psychoanalysis cap, I take that to mean I enjoy extremes and larger-than-lifeness, which is what that decade symbolized.  I've often thought of the 1920s as the 1980s of the 1st half of the century, which is probably why I always gravitate toward both eras.

Let's see - I like quirkiness and strong supporting characters (both supporting in the literary sense, and supporting in the emotional sense).  I want to see some kind of triumph or redemption of spirit (or conversely, degradation of spirit), and I want to really feel it in my bones, but at the same time, I don't want trumped up sentimentality.

Argh, I don't think I'm very good at this self-analysis stuff.  Anyone out there with a psychology background want to help me out? ;-)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Plodding Along and Plotting Away

Before I get into this week's topic, I want to take a moment to revel in this amazing online community of writers (YOU GUYS!) which I am now a part of.  As I stated in an earlier post, the only reason I started blogging was to keep myself on track throughout my novel rewriting process.  In essence, I was simply creating an online diary for myself, and a handful of friends and family generous enough to take a few moments out of their week to check in on it.  What I ended up with was a fantastic support system of fellow writers with intimate knowledge of the agony and ecstasy that is producing a work of fiction.  So consider this a shout-out to all you writer-bloggers out there - you help keep me going!

There ends the Hallmark card.  Now back to my weekly update.  I've been reading Flapper by Joshua Zeitz, and it has provided me with more detail about certain elements of life in the 1920s that Frederick Lewis Allen's book touched on.  As you can probably tell from the title, this book takes a close look at women in the '20s, but it also analyzes women of prior eras to give the reader something to compare these "modern" women to.  Once again, I'm finding my current reading is giving me inspiration for whole plotlines and characters.  Who knew non-fiction could be so much fun!

Oh, and here's a post-script on last week's little motivation meltdown.  I think I'm over the hump (at least for now.)  I implemented the dreaded edits, and am back to writing.  Plus I'm doing something which I find extremely helpful in laying the groundwork for my book - I'm plotting out upcoming chapters.  My husband actually suggested I do this before I started my rewrite, but at the time, I didn't want to constrain myself.  However, now that I've completed 7 chapters (about 17,000 words), I have a better idea where my rewrite is going.  When writing the first draft, I found chapter plotting extremely useful, especially once I was in the "home stretch" (about 10 chapters from the end of the book.)  

For me, writing consists of a delicate balance between following a road map and allowing myself to be open to my characters' wishes.  Any writer knows what I mean by that last comment.  At some point, your characters begin to find their distinctive voice and take on a life of their own.  You might plan for Bob and Sue to fall in love in Chapter 5, but in Chapter 3, you find Bob's eye wandering across the room to that cute new girl, and there's not a darned thing you as the writer can do about it! ;-)  I mean, I suppose you can try to steer him back to Sue, but it might seem forced and contrived ... something your reader is likely to pick up on.

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO:  It's good to have a general plan as to where your book is going, and this will likely become more and more specific as your story unfolds.  However, don't be afraid to follow the natural flow of your characters' lives, which may require a dramatic change of plan along the way.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Roller Coaster Ride of Writing, or "The Post I'll Regret Having Written"

This blog post can be likened unto those emails (letters pre-1990-something) that you sent in the heat of the moment and then regretted the minute they were out of your hand.  I say that because I shouldn't even be writing this post - I should be implementing the handwritten changes I made to the first 5 chapters of my novel rewrite.  But I don't feel like doing that.  I feel totally uninspired.  I look at my red scribbles and think, is this what I have to look forward to for the next 6-9 months?

If I'm sounding generally whiny and non-sensical to you, you're probably not the only one with that impression.  See why I shouldn't even be writing this?  Here's what I think is happening:  I'm doing what I did the last 2 times I wrote a long-form piece (and which generally works for me) ... I write for a week or 2, and then I start to edit.  It's not my definitive edit, just a first pass in order to clean up syntax errors, and add exposition and dialogue that come to me after I've finished the chapters.  It's an amazingly time-consuming task, and very uncreative-feeling.  Plus, when I start marking my work up, I see just how flawed what I had initially felt was fantastic during the writing process really is.

Like I said, I've been through this before, so why is it suddenly draining me?  Who knows - gloomy weather, hormones, it could be attributed to anything.  And yes, it will pass, I know that.  That's kind of why I hesitated to post this ... best to keep a stiff upper lip when writing, and not mope and moan at every turn, right?  Well, this blog was created to reveal the good, bad, and ugly sides of writing, so I suppose nothing is off-limits.

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO:  Feeling fussy.  Going to go clean my messy kitchen instead of typing up my edits.  No words of wisdom to share at the moment. 

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The "Flow" & A Short Retrospective on My Writing "Career"

Call it mojo, inspiration, muse, whatever you'd like - I finally got mine back!  I call it my "flow" because that's what it is, literally: words flowing out of my head and down through my fingertips onto the page.  I got over the hurdle of my introduction.  Is it flawless?  Likely not, but once I got it to a satisfactory place, I decided to move on.  I can always go back and revise it later ...

I'm going to spare you a play-by-play of my week's worth of rewriting.  Suffice it to say that I feel like I'm in a good space - I'm happily getting to know my old characters, and a few new ones, all over again, focusing on their subtler mannerisms and ideals this time around.  And guess what, I'm having fun writing once more!

I've decided to take a short stroll down memory lane for today's topic and talk about how I got started "seriously" writing.  Perhaps of more interest is how I'm managing to keep it up on a regular basis after 2 years.  This is the kind of discussion I would have craved 3 years ago, when I would bore anyone who'd sit still long enough with my angst over wanting to be a novelist.  (They would, of course, say, "Well then why don't you just start writing a novel," to which I would reply, "Yes, I plan to do that someday.")

"Someday" came when I got sick of hearing my own voice.  It was Fall of 2007.  I had a good job with reasonable hours, I was engaged to be married, and I had a wealth of wonderful, supportive friends in my life.  My excuse in my 20s for not writing had always been, "I'll do it once my life is in order."  (Whatever that meant!)  It hit me that autumn that this was about as orderly as life was ever going to get.  Plus, I was 6 months shy of turning 31.  (So much for being the next Francoise Sagan!)  I had not time to lose ...

So I decided to take a class - but which one?  Living in NYC, there was no shortage of choice. 
Naturally price was a consideration, but most importantly, I didn't want a course that focused on theory and the blah-blah-blah of great literary works.  I wanted something practical, hands-on ... a workshop.  I soon stumbled upon Gotham Writers Workshop.  There happened to be a class just down the street from where I lived (although, FYI, they also have a very successful online program for any of you in the market.)  The price was extremely reasonable considering that the course was 10 weeks long, 3 hours a week.  In fact, that much time commitment scared me at first ("What if I decide I'm not that serious afterall?" my @#$%^& Inner Demon whispered.)

With a little push from my Guardian Angels, I signed up for Fiction I and was in heaven for the next 10 weeks.  I met some terrific fellow-writers and produced some first class drivel that got torn from limb to limb (in a constructive way!)  The instructor was terrific, and one little comment he made at the end of one class quite possibly changed my life as a writer.  The course focused on short stories, which have never really been my thing, either as a writer or a reader (Having read "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" in Junior year English, my bar was set very high at an early age!)

So back to what the instructor said at the end of class:  He said, "For any of you interested in longer form writing, there's this online contest called National Novel Writing Month. Check it out." 

Now, many of you are already intimately familiar with the madness that is "Nanowrimo" so I won't go into it here.  Let me just say that I rose to the challenge, got up every morning at 5:30 or 6 (I'm a morning person, so that wasn't so difficult), wrote my 1,750 words or whatever, and by the end of the month, could proudly claim to be the author of 50,000 words of ... well, first class drivel.  Half of which promptly went into the garbage, and the other half was developped into After the Rowhouses ... which after being critiqued by my Novel workshop peers at Gotham in the spring, and my 1st set of Brilliant Editors in the summer, also promptly went into the garbage!  (By "garbage," I of course mean a writing graveyard folder on my desktop, with the possibility of "idea-zombie" reemergence someday ...)

I'll stop there, because you get the idea.  Once I got into my "flow" as a bona fide (although unpublished) writer, it was hard to imagine a time when I was ever not this engaged in my writing.  Sounds like a good segue into ...

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO:  The hardest part about writing, I've found, is getting started.  This was true for my initial push into doing any kind of creative writing, and again when I knew I had to start my novel rewrite.  I guess it all just comes down to the human tendency to procrastinate and dread the unknown.  You know you should "just do it" (Nike, please don't sue!) but sometimes those words aren't motivating enough.  Having community (like a regular workshop or writers' circle) and structure (a class or writing contest) definitely helped me set to the task at hand, and eventually, my own inner-motivators took over.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Starting My Rewrite with a BANG

Ok, let me fess up - the title of this post is more aspiration than reality.  It all started after my last post, when I sat down in front of a freshly created Word doc and set to the opening scene of my novel.  I chose a very dramatic moment in history, and was confident that my now-honed (or so I believed) writing skills were going to create an amazing first scene.

I wrote the opening - less than 2 pages, double spaced - and read it to my husband.  His face grew confused and he had to stop me before I had finished.  "Wait, where is this taking place again?  And who are these characters you're introducing?"  

I had done it YET AGAIN ... I had launched into exposition about characters the reader had not even met yet.  A very dark, sinking feeling crept over me, and even my husband's statement that I shouldn't worry, I just hadn't gotten into the flow of rewriting yet, did not comfort me.  

Shortly thereafter, I had to go to work.  I got in my car and turned on the radio.  Crowded House told me to stop dreaming, it was over.  I spent the rest of the day yearning to crawl into bed and put the covers over my head, indefinitely ...

But like many a writer-type prone to melodramatic bouts of victimhood, I snapped out of it the next day and set to reworking my intro.  The task is proving a lot harder than expected, but maybe that's a good thing.  I am fully aware - maybe too aware - of how important the first few pages, heck, the first few lines, of a novel are.  And so I am really running myself over the ringer to get my book off to a powerful, well-crafted start.  I sure hope I pick up momentum though, because at this rate, I might not finish this rewrite for another 5 years!

Which leads me to a brief announcement re how I plan to conduct this blog over the next few months.  My legal workload is ramping up, and this rewriting process is proving more arduous than I had expected (and I had already expected it was gonna be rough!)  So I'm going to go back to my original plan of "checking in" here once a week.  And of course, I will also be reading posts from all your blogs to learn the latest tricks of the trade, and ways to cope with the stresses of being an aspiring published writer!

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO:  Ok, so maybe revising your novel or short story or memoir isn't going to be as easy as you'd hoped, despite all the how-to's and insightful writers' blogs you've read.  That's life!  Good things take hard work, right?  If you find yourself in a rut, just re-read the helpful tips that you know you should be following, and eventually these techniques will become 2nd nature.  Here are 2 excellent blog posts that I have benefited from recently: Me, My Muse and I and Caroline by line

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Jumping off the Diving Board

What's the meaning behind my title, you ask?  Well, I've decided that today is the day to put pen to paper, or rather, to open up a new MS Word doc and launch into my opening scene.  It's been exactly one month since I started blogging (and as a side note, this whole process, including reading all of YOUR blogs, has benefited me 100x more than I could have ever imagined.)  So it seems fitting to bite the bullet, and start my rewrite today.

Do you sense a little trepidation in my "voice"?  If so, you're right.  It's all fine and good to muse and muddle over how you're going to rewrite your 400-page-not-quite-a-masterpiece; it's a whole other thing to actually do it.  The ID ("inner demon") is whispering, "Look out world, here comes another 400 pages of endless exposition and unrealistic dialogue!"  Thankfully, my GAs ("guardian angels") are murmuring, "Just think how much your writing has improved since After the Row Houses [1st unpublished novel] ... it can only continue to get better!"  So I'm setting to work with the GAs on my shoulder, and the ID kicked out into the cold.  

Let me conclude with an update on my recent preparatory accomplishments.  I finished that fabulous Frederick Lewis Allen book (I was practically sweating as he recounted the final days before Black Tuesday), and am about 3/4ths of the way through my character attribute exercise.  The latter is taking a heck of a lot longer than I'd like, but perhaps that's a good sign ... I've found myself staring at a few of the prompts (especially the ones dealing with character motivation and attitudes) for minutes thinking, "How would So-&-So behave?"  

In addition to the suggested attribute prompts in Manuscript Makeover, I added a few of my own, which are as follows:
  • Most vivid childhood memory
  • Perfect day
  • Favorite food
  • Most guarded secret
  • Closest confidante
  • Most shameful/embarrassing moment
  • Most prized possession
  • Political affiliation/leaning –
  • Says prayers (e.g., “when …”/”never”) –
It's amazing how much you can learn about your protagonists by fleshing out their family members.  On that note, here's another edition of ...

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO:  I'm going to do something a little different.  Instead of coming up with my own worldly wisdom on pre-(re)write character development, let me send you to an excellent post on the subject ... An Ulterior Motive: Characters Are People Too

Monday, October 5, 2009

So what does it all "mean"?

The actual question my Brilliant Editor asked was, "What is your book going to be about?"  He went on to say, "I want to know the hook you'll pitch to an agent."  Okay, let me answer these questions in reverse order:
  1. I have no idea yet how I'm going to pitch this new version to an agent.
  2. That's a really good question ... let me get back to you in a few days ...
So you're probably thinking, oh god, poor delusional writer wannabe-person.  If you can't answer those 2 simple questions, why not give up now?  Well, from the supportive feedback I've gotten so far, I know you're not really saying that, but of course, my "inner demon" is!  But my guardian angels of writing (I commented on someone's blog that that's how I think of all those supportive elementary school teachers who encouraged my creative writing endeavors through the years) keep whispering, "Ignore that d@#n demon!"

So here's the deal:  it's not that I'm completely in the dark as to the theme and story structure of Draft #2.  It's just that, at the moment, it's sort of like a fascinating dream I've just woken up from.  I know it was good, and that it captivated me while I was having it, but upon waking, the edges become blurred, and I can't articulate exactly what it was about that dream that made it so enthralling.  That's pretty much how I feel about my current storyline.  It's embedded in the recesses of my mind right now, but each day, I come a little closer to being able to put it into words.  So I'm confident that, once I work through a few more characterization exercises, and eventually get around to putting "pen-to-paper," I'll be able to share the wonder and glory of what's going on deep inside my head with all of you!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Literary Lightening Bolt

I'm so excited about my latest burst of creativity that I just had to share it.  You all know how I've been going on and on about the necessity of research ... well, I keep finding my imagination jolted into overdrive by what I'm reading (I'm on the 2nd to last chapter of Only Yesterday.)  Remember how I cut Lila's current adopted father, Arthur, in favor of a living, breathing (still highly flawed) biological father named Herbert?  Well let me tell you a little bit about Herbert Payton ...

He was initially inspired by a chapter in Frederick Lewis Allen's book exploring the rise of salesmanship in the U.S. during the 1920s.  As the country prospered, the average citizen found themselves in the position to buy more of the many new-fangled technologies and modern conveniences coming down the pike.  Advertising boomed and salesmen were finding themselves pressured by their bosses to outsell the competitor (or even the next guy in the company.)  I'm sure you fellow-writers can already see a wealth of potential character development in all this (hey, Arthur Miller did, right!?)  

So then today, I'm reading another chapter in my trusted tome of the twenties about the real estate boom in Florida.  And while Mr. Allen doesn't go into great detail about the sordid side of the speculation business, he does mention how ready and willing the average Northern Joe was to lay down 10% on "gorgeous beachfront property," sight unseen, which in reality might lie deep in the heart of an inland mangrove swamp.  

Does this kind of sordid speculation and risk, just years before a devastating stock market crash, sound at all familiar to any of you?  (I hope my Brilliant Editor who's reading this - you know who you are - is proud of me for injecting some much-needed contemporary relevancy into my novel.)  I can see so much potential for drama and conflict between Lila and her father, and of course, Herbert and his own inner demons (insecurity, desire for success and recognition, etc.) come to head because of this that I can hardly wait to write about it.  But everything in due time ... I still need to finish those character attribute sketches first!

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO:  This post goes out to all you period-piece writers (and I'm using the term loosely for anyone writing about an era which they did not live through personally.)  Get to know your time period!  What were its socio-political nuances and eccentricities, and how might your characters and storylines reflect this?  Obviously there is no rigid prescription that says every novel must be a direct reflection of its time setting, but I find as a reader that I get so much more out of a book which shows great sensitivity and awareness to the era in which it's set.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Questions Answered & Characterization Exercises Explored

I'm taking a break from extolling the virtues of research to clear up a few ambiguities from my last post.  As expected, some of you were shocked by my decision to nix Cora altogether.  One of my BEs also commented that it looked as if I was attempting to rise to the challenge of rewriting Ophelia, despite my earlier inclination not to.  So I wanted to "clear the record" on both decisions ...

I decided to cut Cora Morse, my ailing co-protagonist, and her husband Arthur for one very simple reason: the feedback I've been getting has led me to the conclusion that this storyline, and the characters in it, are simply not compelling enough to sustain as much space within my novel as they currently take up.  So then I had to ask myself, how would they (and their story) work if they were relegated to the "background"?  And the answer was, "not well at all;" the Cora/Arthur/Ophelia subplot either needs to be front and center, or taken out completely.  Anything else would just become distracting noise.

Which leads me to Ophelia.  I have no intention of bringing Ophelia's life to the forefront in Draft #2 the way I did in Draft #1.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have no plans, at least not at this time, of trying to perfect my ability to tell a story through a southern African-American woman's eyes.  (The Lord knows I'm having enough trouble perfecting my storytelling through the eyes of an average white girl.)  I do still believe, however, that Ophelia is a potentially compelling character, and my goal is to give her a lesser role in this new version, but to hone and craft it in such a way as to do her justice.

On a related note, my next proactive step toward starting my 2nd draft is to complete the list of personal and emotional attributes set forth on p. 266 of Manuscript Makeover.  I plan to do this exercise for each of my 3 protagonist/viewpoint characters, as well as for their family members.  I also stumbled across an interesting blog the other day entitled 52 Weeks of Wordage where the host puts up a new writing exercise each week.  I'm definitely going to tune into her blog throughout my rewriting process, just to keep me on my toes re my characters' depth and believability.

This was a rather hodge-podgey post, so I don't have any all-encompassing words of wisdom to leave you with.  Just, "keep writing!" ;-)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Cut

My brain feels like it's about to explode with all the new ideas and inspiration I've been having lately (which I suppose is a good thing, considering the alternative.)  I'm about 2/3rds of the way through Only Yesterday, An Informal History of the 1920s and I cannot rave enough about this book (however, this blog is not for book reviews, so I shall keep my raving to myself.)  Suffice it to say that having a better understanding of the era in which my novel takes place has opened my mind up to the potential for new characters who reflect the "zeitgeist" of that period.  I'm not talking about 2D cameos, but flesh-and-bones individuals with unique quirks and values which will be enhanced and reflected by the spirit of the times.  

Am I being too vague?  Probably, so here's a concrete example:  Frederick Lewis Allen's book highlights the wave of materialism and aggressive salesmanship that arose during the 1920s.  My manuscript is completely devoid of any allusion to this because, well, I knew nothing about it prior to reading Only Yesterday.  So the idea came to me, what if I put a salesman character in my novel?  And suddenly I had a clear vision of him - Herbert Payton, Lila's father, will be that salesman.  There are so many ramifications and character development possibilities with this, for both Herbert and Lila, that I'd be here all night if I started listing them.  The bottom line is that this is a good example of how a little research can go a long way in inspiring characterization.

For those of you who have read my first draft, you might be asking, "Wait, isn't Lila's dad's name Wilfred, and isn't he dead?  And what about her adopted father, Arthur?"  That leads me to my next point of discussion ... I've decided that a few (drastic) changes are in order for Draft #2.  Remember when I told you that I was on the hunt for any signs of weakness within my characters (as in, weakness in my writing, not their personalities)?  Well, after careful consideration, I came up with a short list (which turned out not to be so short) of characters who aren't pulling their weight.  And here it is [BEs, you may be a little shocked by who didn't make the cut ...]

  • Cora Morse [yup, former protagonist Cora]
  • Arthur Morse
  • Edward Whitaker
  • Tobin Whitaker
  • Lila Payton
  • Rosemarie Dauber
  • Marcus Torrington
That's right people, I'm cutting my two title characters.  So now "The Whitaker Boys" has become "Untitled Work in Progress" yet again.  Why am I doing it?  Because Elizabeth Lyon's wise words about consolidating characters have been haunting me for weeks.  Why have four love interests between Lila and Rosemarie (Edward, Tobin, Clayton Starwell - the politician, and Marcus) when I can have two, who will be reworked in such a way so as to bring out essential character revelations and narrative thrust.  I am also going to consolidate and trim down families as follows:

  • Lila will live with her widowed father, Herbert, and Ophelia (the one you know, but don't exactly love ... yet.)
  • Rosemarie's family remains the same, essentially, although I plan to flesh out her parents' characters to make them more 3D and compelling in their own right.  I'm also toying with giving Rosemarie a younger brother, but only if the storyline justifies this.
  • Marcus's whole family has been scrapped, except for the grandfather, who will be alive during the first part of the novel.  I am also transplanting Marcus into Edward's old family, because I'm quite attached to Minnie, his alcoholic, soft-hearted mother.  I'm still on the fence as to whether or not I should keep the younger brothers, Barton and Clyde, because, as of now, they're dead weight.  Farris Whitaker (Edward's philandering father) will be revamped and renamed Oliver Marcus Torrington II, and will become Marcus's hard-nosed businessman father.
  • And Assemblyman Clayton Starwell is going to be tweaked and given a much more significant role which may cause a lot of upset amongst all three viewpoint characters ...
That's probably more detail than you cared to know; the upshot is that my changes were motivated by a desire to minimize bodies and maximize conflict, tension, and most importantly, reader interest!

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO:  Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and take a hatchet to your manuscript.  For some writers, this may require chopping away at characters, while for others, it might mean chopping down plotlines.  (It looks like I'm going to be doing a bit of both.)  A novice writer might be inclined to think that this kind of massive editing is a sign of failure, but I believe it's the exact opposite.  How many times have you read an interview with a published author who says something along the lines of, "After working on a novel for a year, I realized the story was lousy and the characters were 2D and boring, so I ultimately decided to scrap the whole thing.  Then one day, I got the inspiration to write [insert Pulitzer Prize-winning novel here] and the rest is history."  So take heart, Novice Writer - if you're scrapping huge chunks of your first draft, you're in good company. :-)