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!