Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pace Yourself

I just finished reading a book that's gotten rave reviews from writer-friends of mine.  About a third of the way through, I was starting to wonder what was wrong with me.

I didn't like it.

I muscled through the rest, and while there were parts I enjoyed, overall, it just didn't do it for me.  (Nope, I'm not naming names.) Now, a good part of my musing over this book was just me letting myself admit that I didn't care for it, plenty of other people did, and that's ok.

Let's repeat that.

It's ok to not like The Book that everyone is raving about.

Then, being an overanalyzer, I started thinking about what it was that got the pass from me.  It wasn't the characters (loved them) or the plot (the basic concept was great) or the setting/world-building (I want to go to there).  It was the pace.

And isn't that just the worst?  The thing that I hate--HATE--trying to fix in my own manuscripts is pace.  It's hard.  Pacing is hard.  But a pair of little lightbulbs went on for me dissecting what didn't work for me in the pacing of this book.  I thought I'd share.

1) Isn't It Ironic?  Well, maybe not.  Dramatic irony, unlike the "ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife" colloquial irony, is defined as a literary device in which the audience knows or understands something that the characters do not.  The killer is in the house.  The soldier with amnesia was the prince all along.  You get the idea.  And the upshot is, it's brilliant for creating tension and engagement with the audience.

What went wrong in this book was, I felt, the dramatic irony not lasting long enough.  The clues came tumbling out in a few pages, and within another few pages, the characters had teased out the truth.  Come on, writers!  Let your reader feel superior and feed on the tension for a little while!

The other sticky part of dramatic irony is that you can't simply assume that your reader just happens to realize the reality of the situation before the characters.  Characters are not stupid.  If something is obvious to the reader, there needs to be a reason it's not obvious to the characters--they don't have all the information, they're limited in their understanding by cultural norms, they're under an evil spell.  Whatever.

2) Exciting =/= Driving the Plot.  To me, filler is killer.  Yes, I just coined a truly awful 80s style catchphrase.  But it's true--everything that happens in your story needs to further the plot.  It may be feeding into a subplot, developing a character, or even sending your protagonist on a deliberate wild goose chase, but it has to drive the story forward.  Anything that happens that doesn't drive the story is filler.

Here's the rub--filler can be exciting.  Your protagonist can battle a rabid wildebeest in a fight to the death.  He can built a tower of toothpicks eight stories tall before the hourglass runs out.  She can charm her way into a royal ball and steal the crown jewels.  But if it's not driving the plot?  It's pointless.

Sometimes cutting exciting filler can be a kill-your-darlings moment.  That scene may be beautiful, compelling, edge-of-your-seat, emotional gold. But it also may be filler.  And if it is, it needs to go.

What say you?  Is pacing a sticky wicket for you, too, or does it come naturally? Do you find ways to improve your own writing in the books you love--and those you didn't care for?

Monday, October 14, 2013

NaNoWarmUp Halfway Point

The month is close to half over (where did the time go!), so the big question is--how is this on-the-clock writing experiment working out for me?

Not bad, as it turns out!


The first week I shot out of the gate and surpassed my goals.  That. Was. Awesome.  Everyone talks about how keeping tabs on your word count goals and progress makes you accountable to yourself--in a sort of "Tsk, tsk, Self, you didn't hit your goal yesterday.  Back to the grindstone, now, Self.  Get crackin'."  But I feel like the awesomeness of seeing yourself meet and even surpass your goals isn't talked about enough.  It's a great feeling.  I think I may start keeping a spreadsheet just to see those tallies, because it's inspiration enough to come back tomorrow when you reflect on how well today went.

The second week--not as great.  I had my excuses.  One big one.  It was this little imp's first birthday party:

Photo by Sweetest Impressions, Heidi Hauck

and that kind of took over my life for the better part of the week.  Baking, cleaning, making a ridiculously froofy outfit for her to wear...

Now I'm looking at the start of week three, and it's time to get back on the writing wagon--I have a spreadsheet, darn it, and I want to see it fill up!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Staying Focused (or, Avoiding Shiny Things When You're a Magpie)

Today's NaNoWarmUp community question is a really good one--how to stay on task with the WIP when shiny new ideas crop up at the rate of mushrooms after a spring rainstorm (or in my downstairs bathroom, but that's a different story entirely).

I've touched on this before, and I stand by it--writers are mapgies. Creativity magpies, at any rate, and we're drawn to the shiny things our own minds create.  And create they do!  Because I think most writers are creative, imaginative, layered, interesting people whose minds are constantly churning and probably look a lot more like that shack in A Beautiful Mind than the "after" pictures of an organizing makeover.  I tend to think that ignoring those creative impulses isn't beneficial--bury them too long and they start to atrophy.  But you can't go running after every sparkly new idea and expect to finish everything, either.

What to do?

I give in--but only a little.

When an idea strikes that I can't shake, I write it down.  I have a big blue notebook devoted to the purpose. (Savannah Foley writes an ode to these wonderful notebooks here, by the way.  Scrounge the Barnes and Noble clearance section and discovery why they have such a loyal following!)

You know what?  Having that reserve of ideas comes in really handy.  For one thing, letting an idea marinate is a great test--I put it in the notebook, and if I'm not so jazzed on it when I pull it out again, the likelihood I ever could have spent the months and pages upon pages it would have taken to develop it into a novel is very low.  For another, it gives me a place to go for inspiration, a sort of idea candy store that I can go pick something out from when it's time to start a new project..  My WIP--which just crested (YAY!) 50K--started as a shiny idea of just one scene that I jotted down over a year ago.

Another thing to keep in mind--if your intention is to be a lifelong writer, to make a career out of this thing, there may come times when you're going to need to put one project aside for a while.  And it's not wise to just sit on your hands at that point, so having a cache of ready-to-go ideas gets you in back into the writing game quickly.  For instance, while my agent had the draft of the manuscript I'd finished, and I was waiting on her revision feedback and notes, I started on a Shiny New Idea.  That Shiny Idea is now that 50K I mentioned.  I love it.  And working on it while I let my other project settle refreshed me and gave me better perspective on the revision than if I'd tried to stay in the trenches with only one project.

How do you resist the Shiny?  Do you write it down, or let it marinate, or follow it where it leads right away? 

Monday, September 30, 2013

NaNoWarmUp--I Joined, How About You?

Confession: I've never NaNo'd.  I'm not a very quick writer.  Now, I'm not slow, really--I'm not the tortoise here.  I'm just not a hare, either.  I guess maybe I'm a camel.  Or some other animal that makes decent but not terribly sprint-y time.  (Hint: the WIP involves camels. Hence why "camel" comes to mind here.)

Which is why NaNoWarmUp sounded like a brilliant idea to me.  Instead of 50K words in a month, you aim for 25K.  That, to me, is a hefty but attainable goal.  (Especially with the baby underfoot.)  It works out to about 800 words a day--that's my usual steaming through at a good pace writing.

It also helps that I have a project that needs, nearly exactly, another 20-30K or so words.  If all goes well, I'll finish this puppy up, accomplish the NaNoWarmUp goal, and meet some new friends all in the same process.  Love it when you can multitask!

If this sounds like fun to you, pop on over to nanowarmup.blogspot.com and read up on the idea, or follow #NaNoWarmUp on Twitter.  There's still time to join--the challenge begins Oct. 1.

And I'm ready!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Friday Reads: Prodigy



Genre: YA Dystopian

By: Marie Lu

What's it about?  Picking up where the first book in the series left off, Day and June are now working together toward fomenting rebellion...at least, at first they're on the same page.

Why did I pick it? I really enjoyed Lu's Legend, especially how it was told in alternating viewpoints.  I wanted to see what happened next--could this unlikely duo really make a difference in the bleak world Lu had created?  Also, I wanted to pick something at the library, and they had this in.

Who will like it?  The alternating viewpoints are unique, and the storyline crisp though in many ways typical of a dystopian (typical in a "fits the type" way, not "boring" way).   Dysttopia and soft sci-fi fans will probably enjoy this, and the rich relationships in the book make it appealing to less diehard genre fans.

Judging a book by its cover: Can you for this book?  It certainly carries the flavor of the first book, but I admit--it's a little static and vague in terms of capturing the tone, storyline, and active characters of the book.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Our Bodies, Ourselves...On Paper

Note: I included images of famous nude artwork later in this post.  Nothing to be embarrassed by, but if you prefer avoiding nude images, skip this post :)

When you have a daughter, you find yourself suddenly plunged into the world of Discussing How to Raise Daughters.  This is complicated business fraught with nuanced emotional complexities derived from history, social norms, and, probably, fairy dust and unicorn farts.  Also, the fact that your daughter isn't even a year old yet makes a lot of this more theoretical than practical in nature.

Anyway.  

Body image is a big thing that gets tossed around, and though the issues surrounding body image can be just as difficult for men as women, we really emphasize then when talking about raising daughters.  Which is how I end up paying attention to stories and articles like this one: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sarah-koppelkam/body-image_b_3678534.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009

The gist?  Don't talk about bodies with daughters except from the perspective of their wonderful functionality.  Not "You've lost weight!" or "You look great!" but "Look how strong you are!"

At first I wanted to love this advice.

Then I thought about it.  And I thought about how I write about bodies.  And it chafed at me.

Here's the thing.  Bodies are more than functional.  They are expressive, beautiful, sometimes complicated.  And though I can wax poetic about this from a non-writing perspective, as a writer, the idea of reducing bodies to their mere functions unnerves me.

Because my character who is a dancer uses her body to express herself whether she means it or not.  A teenage athlete might think about himself in terms of what his body accomplishes in relation to what his teammates' can, how the muscle under the skin isn't just functional but expresses who he is.  My historical characters have taught me that body as form is a reflection on fashion and societal mores.  And let's be honest--when the 16 year old who still lives in me tries on a dress, she's worried she's going to look like a pudding pop and hoping to feel like Cinderella, not considering how that dress is going to help her body function.

Bodies aren't just function--they're form.  And I like it that way.  I think that Waterhouses' lithe lily maids are beautiful.  I also think that Rubens' porcelain and rose nudes are gorgeous.   We spent a lot of time working ourselves away from unhealthy views of The Body as Vulgar, and I don't think it's beneficial to start thinking of The Body as Function is a replacement.



Let me be clear--I'm not about fat-shaming in literature, especially in YA, but I don't think that paying attention to the many ways bodies can be beautiful is a bad thing.  The problem, as I see it, in discussing body image isn't in discussing how bodies can be beautiful, but in picking one body type to elevate and thereby degrade all the others.  Pretending bodies can't be attractive, alluring, expressive, or artistic sweeps the issue under the rug without really addressing it.

For me?  I'm going to pay more attention to bodies, not less, in my work.  I'm going to stop letting readers assume that my characters are all ideally shaped and perfectly sized--ideal and perfect, of course, from a preconceived and very limited cultural standpoint.  I'm going to love the fact that we come in all shapes and sizes and the fact that bodies do so many awesome things.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday Reads: Insurgent

Image from amazon.com


Genre: YA Dystopian

By: Veronica Roth

What's it about?  Picking up where the first book in the series left off, the breakdown of a faction-based society, urban warfare, scientific experiments gone torturous, and what makes people tick.

Why did I pick it? I read Divergent last year, enjoyed it, and wanted to see what happened next.  Also, I downloaded it onto my Nook as a beachy-fun-vacation read for our trip a couple weeks ago, but we were so busy taking long walks in the sand, playing with the baby, and staying up late laughing with my extended family that I didn't even open it! 

Who will like it?  Yeah, it's in some ways your typical YA that's going to appeal to typical YA readership--young girl is the only one who can save the world, adventure ensues, dash of romance.  Feels like a lost cause with a glimmer of hope.  But here's the thing--Roth does characters well, zeroes in on questions of identity, and seems like the kind of person you could geek with about your MBTI results and StrengthsQuest categories.  What I mean by that is, if you like characters, thinking about what shapes identity, and that kind of nerdy stuff, you'll probably enjoy this series.

Judging a book by its cover: Can you for this book?  Absolutely!  The swirling symbol looks like change and unrest over a murky cityscape.  Kinda sets the tone for the whole story.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Worst Blogger Ever Award

They don't have one of those floating around the webbernets, do they?  If they do, someone give it to me, stat.

No?

Ok, I made one.


I have been a very bad blogger.

But I have been a very good writer.  Since I last posted, I've been very busy and pretty productive.  This isn't the most productive I've ever been as a writer--having a nine-month old does kinda wreak havoc on your time management.

As proof that I'm writing, learning, and generally being a productive human being, both as a reminder to myself and an update to you fine people, a modest list:

  •  I revised the MS that my agent and I are currently working on.  This was huge--for some reason this revision was mentally very difficult for me.  So I count it as a huge victory that it got done.
  • Related: I worked with my agent on this revision, which meant a level of collaboration I really haven't attempted before.  Obviously, it's still my work--but I've never had someone this close to my work.  It was awesome, but of course a learning curve.
  • I knocked out about 20K on a new project, and am still chugging away at it.  It feels really nice to be drafting again.  And I love this project--the characters just make me smile!
  • I have a rough plan in place for the rest of that project.
Also, fair warning--my time is, I'm learning, extremely limited.  I have time to care for my kid, do some minimum housecleaning, and write.  Blogging is going to have to take a backseat.  I'll probably update when I can, when something important happens, when I have something to say that I just can't keep to myself, but probably not terribly often.  I debated announcing a full-on radio silence, but I want to leave myself open to pop on and blather if I feel like it.  That said--I am on Twitter and try to pop on there once a day or so to do a really quick browse and catch-up.  Say hi if you come around.

So what have you been up to?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Kicking the Bucket List

Recently a "getting to know you" question was posed at a (non-writing) online group I frequent: Three items from your bucket list. I was surprised how many women posted, as one of their top three bucket list items, some variant of getting published.  (I am assuming most meant traditional publication, not self-publishing.)

"Publish a book."

"Be a published writer."

"Publish something, maybe an article if not a book."

I shouldn't have been surprised that there are so many hopeful writers out there--after all, NaNoWriMo was conceived to help the millions of people who have said "Gosh, I would love to write a book" give that goal wings.  But I was, for a couple reasons, surprised how prominent writing and being published was on bucket lists.

One, I admit, was prideful.  I have worked darn hard to get where I am as a writer--and I'm not even published yet.  To put "publish a book" alongside "swim with the dolphins" and similar "experience" list items seems to misunderstand what it means to publish.  It's work.  It's hard, long, slogging, discouraging work.  It's not saving your money and planning a trip.  It's not screwing up the courage to skydive.  It's day-in, day-out working toward a goal.

But the other is less me being a jerk, more me being compassionate.  It's in the same vein--misunderstanding what it means to publish.  Because here's the thing--you can work day-in and day-out and still not publish.  You can make it your life's goal and never get there, through no fault of your own.  You can try, try, try again, and never achieve that external marker of success we call publication.

There's a difference between putting "write a book" on your bucket list, and putting "publish a book" (assuming you mean traditional publishing).  In the first, the onus is on you.  Either you write your book or you don't.  Either you take the time and put in the effort, or you don't finish your book.  But the second--you have much less control over that.  Yes, I do believe in hard work and dedication and perseverance, and that most of the time when combined with talent they will yield results.  Not always, though.  Sometimes a lifetime of striving still doesn't reach the goal.

And when that's the case--in my world, that item doesn't go on your bucket list.  Your bucket list is about what you can accomplish, not what might or might not be possible because of circumstances outside your control.  Those items--the ones you need a pinch of luck and/or a lot of help with--can go on your "lofty goals for my life" list, but, in my view, leave the bucket list for the things you can do on your own.

What do you think--are there writing goals that belong on the bucket list?  Am I off-base with how I see bucket lists?  Is the whole idea kind of dumb?

For fun:  Three things on my bucket list:

Learn classical guitar or another instrument that doesn't involve making space for a piano.
Make and wear a vintage "capsule wardrobe."
Learn enough of one of the many "I would love to learn [fill in the blank language]" to function on a trip there--and then take a trip that forces me to use it.

What are yours?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Getting Stuck

So my child has learned a new trick.  She can roll over from her back to her tummy.  For non-parental types, this is to the parenting world a giant leap forward, a huge accomplishment which moms at play groups toss back and forth--"Oh, is Timmy rolling over yet?"  Your pediatrician will ask after rolling at your child's appointment (right before your child gets jabbed with three hypodermic needles).

It's funny, because the giant broohaha over rolling over usually fails to mention the fact that your kid learns to roll...but not to roll back right away.

So E rolls over, situates herself, and remembers--she hates being on her tummy.  So she squiggles around like a turtle flipped on its back, ticked at the injustice of the world until I come to rescue her and help her back onto her back.

Then she promptly does it again.

And gets stuck.

Again.

The weird thing is, I think we all do this.  We learn how to get halfway where we want to go before we learn how to push the rest of the way there.

As writers, have you ever noticed that the place you get stuck is often the same place every time? That you bog down the same way over and over again?  You roll onto your tummy and just can't budge?

I know I do.  I find myself spinning my wheels, trying to amplify the tension in a scene...by rewriting the same scene through a different window.  I realize that my boring character shares traits with the last boring character I wrote.  Most of all, I discover that the way I've written something, the way I've approached it, is the same as before.

After a round of revisions, I found myself taking a breather and some perspective.  The way we write gives us our voice and our originality and distinctiveness, but it can also provide a minefield full of boring or ineffective that we step on every time.  The key?  The mines are always in the same place--we have to learn where we misstep in order to try something new.

At some point, my child is going to have to figure out that mashing her face into her playmat doesn't get her anywhere--that she'll have to move her arm and roll, or get those knees up and scoot into crawling.  She doesn't get it yet.  As writers, we have to figure out that we have to push ourselves a little differently, exercise  some different writing muscles.

Do you have stuck spots?  How do you overcome them?


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love Stories

I like Valentine's Day.  I know it can veer towards cheesy and Hallmark-y, but the thing is, I kind of like cheesy.  Plus I'll take any excuse to bake something.  And buy a goofy card.  And tell people I lurve them.

That said, I'm not a huge hearts and flowers romance person.  Maybe it's because of that that I don't really get into the romance genre.  Nothing knocking it--I just don't enjoy reading romance.  But I do love reading love stories.  I tend to find that just about every book I read is a love story.  In fact, I'm hard pressed to find a book that isn't a love story in one way or another.

And I think I know the reason why. This is where I know I go a bit off the grid, but here it is: Every life is a love story. I decided this, strangely enough, at my grandfather's funeral. Before the mass, there was a family-only visitation, to give us a reprieve from the hundreds of people at the open visitation the night before. And there had been hundreds. My grandfather was a professor and author, very active in his political and religious communities, and I suppose I had always defined his life that way. He wrote thirteen books, hundreds of articles, founded a university newspaper. There are Wikipedia entries that mention his work. He was successful.

But during that family-only visitation, I watched while my grandmother knelt by his casket in well-rehearsed Catholic posture, as she had in church every week beside him, and said her farewells. It struck me--my grandparents' life was a love story. People who I never would have thought of as the hero and heroine of their own love story were, in fact, the central characters in a romance. 


And so it is for everyone. Some peoples' love stories might veer toward the parental or to friendships or even to a life's work focused on helping others or academic progress.  One of my favorite works by C.S. Lewis is The Four Loves, which of course, being by C.S. Lewis, explores the concept of love from a Christian perspective. But it also makes the point that love is not an emotion defined by romance--love can also be familial, camaraderie, and the elusive God-like charity of giving without bounds. And of course, our own lives inform us of this, too--we know by experience that love is not merely romance and lust. Our first loves, after all, were our parents, our siblings, even our pets.

I've tried to think of a book that didn't have love in them, love driving the characters to act and pursuing their thoughts. All Quiet on the Western Front, one of my favorite books, has no male/female interaction, but though there really isn't any romance in it, it's a story of brotherly love and camaraderie. The Picture of Dorian Gray--narcisistic self-love gone horribly awry. And others--The Life of Pi--that beautiful illusion is created out of love, isn't it? The Little House books--even before Almanzo, Laura's life is driven by the love she has for her family. And so it could go on and on.

(Though I do maintain that wedged in everyone's life is a seed of romance that sprouted at some point. It may have grown slowly and beautifully over time as my grandparents' did, it may have bloomed brilliantly and flourished briefly, it may have been only a tiny seedling that never grew beyond a few leaves and that no one ever saw, but it was there.)

So, believable fiction must imitate life and be motivated by the same things. So, if every life is a love story--not necessarily a romance, but a love story--so then, fiction follows.

What do you think--is every life a love story, or am I off my nut? Can you think of works of fiction that aren't threaded through with love of one kind or another?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Worst Part

I've always thought that the worst part of the writing process is the waiting.  Sure, rejection is awful.  And writer's block stinks.  And my least favorite task is probably formatting queries.  But the worst?  Waiting.

I'm learning that the bad news is, waiting isn't a part of the process that goes away.  When I was unagented, I associated waiting with the waiting for replies to queries--waiting to fill in my spreadsheet of emails sent with dates of replies and, inevitably, mainly rejections.  I thought of sending requested partials and--joy of joys!--fulls as the zenith of waiting.  Longer waits, but with higher stakes.

Then I signed with an agent and realized...waiting isn't over.

There's still the same waits you had before--the waits for crit partners or beta readers to get back to you.  Now there's the wait for your agent to let you know what she thinks, too--and even when you have the world's most encouraging, patient agent, there's a nagging voice in my head, prodding me, "What if it's not good enough?  What if she hates it?  What if she dumps me by the side of the road to publishing?"

(See...confidence doesn't magically geyser out of the gutter just because you're agented.)

And then there's the flip side, with each draft sent.  What if it *is* good enough now?  What if this is it--and a new kind of waiting is about to start?

So, waiting never leaves a writer alone.  Maybe it's because I need to cultivate patience, or maybe it's just human nature to obsess over things like this, but I'm starting to feel that I don't have much to fear in the writing game save waiting itself.

What about you?  Is waiting your worst part--or does something else trump it?  What's the worst wait you've ever suffered through?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Friday Reads: Fire in the Blood


Genre: Literary Fiction

By: Irene Nemirovsky

What's it about?  Rediscovering forgotten youth.  And scandals.

Why did I pick it? I love Irene Nemirovsky with a love that knows no bounds.  If there was any writer, dead or alive, with whom I could have coffee, I'd pick her.  Beyond that, I'm a bit of a Francophile and I love pre-war anything. 

Who will like it?  Nemirovsky writes about rural France in this book, but she's really writing about people and the way they tick in general.  Not in an obvious, preachy way, but in a pretty, blooming, "Oh I get it!" sparks of understanding kind of way.  It's like people-watching.  Quiet. Not much action.  You can guess what's going to happen next.  But if you like people-watching, you'll enjoy watching Nemirovsky's characters.

Judging a book by its cover: Can you for this book?  Aside: I love the lady's hair.  End aside.  It's indicative of the period during which the book takes place.  Beyond that, not really--the cover feels very urban and very feminine, neither of which describe the book's setting (very rural pre-war France) or the narrator (an aging male farmer). 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Thoughts on Revising with an Infant

I'm working on revisions.  This is kind of like delving into a detail-rich logic puzzle in which there are no answers except the ones you make up.

I also have an infant.  This is like having a time bomb that screams at random intervals.

These two things aren't great together.  But we're making it work.  A few thoughts on the process:

1) Work when the baby naps.  Duh.  But this involves the baby napping.  This baby has decided that naps are for wimps.  So, hold your baby and read your book to her.  She will fall asleep from boredom and you will have the bonus of hearing aloud the crappy portions of your writing so you can fix them.

2) If you can't do it all at once, do it a sentence at a time.

3) You can still have coffee while nursing.  Praise the Lord.

4) Same with wine.

5) Cats make crappy babysitters, and they make worse critique partners.  Because they truly do not care about anyone who is not, at this moment, offering a lap for them to sit in.

6) When you can't actually work, you can plan.  And untangle plot knots.  And think of ways to deepen characters and clarify wonky situations and all that jazz.  Take advantage of the times you're pacing the floor with your nap-fighting infant to ponder.

7) When your husband or partner or friend offers to watch the baby, don't give them time to reconsider--get out that door so fast you leave skid marks and take your laptop with you.

So that's my week in a nutshell--how's yours?