Friday, July 30, 2010
The small Alaskan town I live in holds a rustic little festival each summer called the Bear Paw Festival. The festival activities include Running with the Bears (a patent rip-off of Pamplona’s Running with the Bulls), with a course that is only 300 yards long because after 300 yards “running just isn’t fun any more.” There’s the Chalk-a-Palooza sidewalk chalk drawing contest, the dog and owner look-alike contest, a teddy bear picnic and a rubber ducky race among other amusements. The carnival rides and parade draw big crowds from the surrounding wilds and suburbs alike.
It’s fertile ground for a writer who loves to people-watch. The bottle-blonde blessed with a healthy dose of self-esteem crossed my path several times that afternoon at the Midway and while my boys whirled through the air on the carnival rides, I had time to ponder the woman and the message on her shirt. Was the shirt a joke? Was it a gift from her love-blind boyfriend? Did she honestly think she was a ten? If she did, what were her standards, and God forbid, what did a three look like on her scale of attractiveness?
As the boys pulled cottony puffs of spun sugar from an over-priced bag of cotton candy, the woman once again crossed our path. She was having a riotously good time by the looks of it, completely oblivious to the little white lie on her chest. (I would have said huge lie, but her chest wasn’t that big.)
No matter. She got me thinking. Maybe it was just a sugar rush from the cotton candy, but I began to see how this wonderfully clueless woman was a metaphor for nearly any character a novelist could create.
She was memorable, which is the first rule of creating a good character. But why? Because she was perfect? Or because she was imperfect? Well, neither. It was because she was so blissfully unaware of her imperfection.
Much has already been written about character flaws in fiction. Flaws are human, we all have them and so should our characters. With flaws, a character becomes multidimensional or “real,” and so much more interesting. Flawed characters are catalysts to conflict and tension. More importantly, imperfect characters have room for growth.
I could talk more about character shortcomings, but what struck me about Miss T-Shirt wasn’t her imperfection, but her unawareness of it. How often do we have a character with a flaw that he is completely unaware of? Other characters see it. Readers spot it. But the character might go on his merry way through much of the story unaware that this flaw either causes a great deal of humor for others, or causes himself much grief, or gives him away when he least wishes to be found out.
Barbara Rogan at Compuserve's Books and Writers Community recently hosted a writer’s exercise in undercutting. Barbara’s premise is that in real life we constantly judge people, particularly by their own words. We don’t necessarily take them at face value and we don’t always accept their own assessments of themselves. The same is true of characters we encounter in a book. She says, “To a discerning reader, a character will often reveal more about themselves than they intended.” In short, some flaw, some blindness to self, can add depth to a character and provide a richer tapestry in which to weave your story.
I challenge you to take a look at the characters in your own writing. Do they unintentionally reveal themselves? Do they know they’re imperfect, or suspect they are? Do their flaws create tension in just the right places? Have you given them room for growth, for revelation, for redemption? Perhaps they’re even like the woman at the carnival, completely, blissfully unaware of their own imperfection. If so, you may just have a “10” in your story.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
It was summer 2009, and I was standing there at a crowded book launch, ten people away from one of my all-time favourite authors, Tim Winton. I'd been eyeing him off the whole time he was speaking, just like the other ten hungry-looking people in my way. I was running ideas through my head of things I'd say to him when I got my turn to meet him. Or maybe I was just thinking about running up, tackling him to the ground, and snuggling him. Or maybe not. Probably not. Did I mention how much I love him?
Anyway. I was thinking furiously, trying to decide what one thing was the most important thing to say when I got my chance, and in the meantime I was watching him. The first thing I noted was that he was incredibly generous with his attention. No matter who came up, no matter what they had to say, he listened with full interest, and he didn't cut them off. He waited til they were finished. We all waited til they were finished. I was fidgeting impatiently when I noticed a good friend of mine standing nearby, and I squeezed closer to talk to her.
Bernie* [names changed to protect the innocent!] was herself a guest of honour at the function- she was the Aboriginal Elder who gave the Welcome to Country address before Tim spoke. But I wasn't thinking about that when I went for a chat. I sidled up to her and gave her a hug. We had a chat about my new baby. And then I laid it out.
Me: "I am so nervous."
Me: "I love Tim Winton so much. So so much. I love his books, I love his writing- he's had such a huge influence on me and *my* writing and I'm dying to meet him."
B: Scans the crowd, noting ten-person queue. "Well, then. Come with me."
So, Bernie got me by the elbow and dragged me through the crowd toward my idol. She nudged her way through the queue until she got right to the very front (VIP coming through! Nobody argues with a VIP!) and then the two of us were standing right in front of Tim Winton himself. She waited until he finished the conversation he was having, and then the next person in line opened his mouth to start talking, and before he could utter a sound Bernie jammed out her elbow and shoved in front of him, dragging me with her.
B: "Tim, I've got someone for you to meet. This is Claire. She's a writer."
And then she gave me a shove, and Tim Winton gave me an encouraging smile, and I pretty much died. Mentally. Verbally.
Me: Giggling like a demented schoolgirl. "Hi! I love you. Your writing, I mean."
Him: Smiling. "Thank you."
Me: "I just had to tell you what your books mean to me, because I'm a writer too. And I love them because I'm an archaeologist..."
Right about there things get a little hazy, and I can't remember exactly what I said, except that he had one of those looks on his face that got a little bit more quizzical all the time, which means you know you're not making sense. I just spewed out a whole bucketload of crap about his themes and character development and stuff that should probably never be spoken aloud, only written about in writing textbooks and English lit classrooms, and it was like there was no off-valve in my brain.
When I finished talking, he just looked at me kind of sideways, still nodding politely, then asked, "D'you ever get out to the [*] Hotel? Great drinking spot."
And- erm- that wasn't an invitation. That was like the number one, biggest ever right-angle change-of-topic I think I've ever had in a conversation. I (almost) laughed. And then I told him about the mysterious hidden room purported to be under that hotel, and how I'd been applying my archaeological knowledge to try to locate it for the owner, and after that we had a good chat without me sounding like an idiot any further. Much further.
Oh, sigh. Love is a wondrous thing.
But I was just compelled to tell this guy what he meant to me. I was thinking about it author-style, and I figured it didn't matter if I sounded like an idiot- I just wanted to tell this person that his words had made a difference to my life, and that I appreciated it. I'm still glad I said it, even if he didn't understand a word.
Last week, Diana Gabaldon, the other favourite author I've had a chance to meet in person (though in this case we had a much more social and convivial couple of hours to talk over dinner!), posted on her blog about influences. She talked about needing to read other writers to absorb the excellence of the written word and to draw inspiration.
I will admit that in the early days of writing, I had a panic moment every time I picked up a book that had vaguely similar themes to mine. Merry Go Round in the Sea (by Randolph Stow) was a WWII book set in the Geraldton region- oh no! Jessica (by Bryce Courtenay) was a WWI book featuring treachery, siblings and shearing. Eeek! Even my favourite Tim Winton novel, Cloudstreet, featured characters doing some of the same things as mine, and some of the same settings.
Was I copying them unintentionally?
The simple answer to that is, of course not. Once I had a good chunk written, I could see with ease that my stuff was by no means similar to any of theirs. My voice was completely different. My characters were completely different. My settings and events were completely different. And I had a completely different book.
By putting those books down, I wasn't saving myself from unintentional plagiarism. I was robbing myself of inspiration.
Now, in recent weeks, I've written so much of my own work that I haven't had time for reading. But as a result, I keep coming across parts of my story that are a little sub-par, and I feel the urge to remind myself what amazingly perfect writing looks like.
(Re) enter Tim Winton's Cloudstreet. I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago, and read 150 pages in one big gulp. Words can barely express how much I love that book. From the very first page, I'm in that world. Submerged, dragged along, unable to look away. It's told in multiple points of view, and more than that, it throws every conceivable literary convention out the window to achieve what it does. Present tense and past tense mixed together? Heck, why not. On the same page, even. In the same paragraph. Quotation marks around some dialogue and not others? Sure! Smooshing words together to invent new words? Bring it!
These are all things that I'm quite sure would annoy the living daylights out of me in any other author's work, but for some reason they all come together for perfection in Cloudstreet. They're approaches to writing that I would never take myself, but what I do take from them is the way those words make me feel. The way the characters stay with me weeks, months and years after I first read the book. The intense feelings of despair and joy and everything in between that are brought to life so convincingly that they take your breath away. And above all else, the passion the author has for his home- Western Australia- and the way place becomes a character in his tales. Now *that* is something I like to think Tim Winton and I have in common.
All of this is, of course, subjective opinion. And I was out to lunch with my two best friends last week, talking about this exact topic, and my friend of nearly two decades (OMG, we're so old!), lifelong debater and WIP-critiquer extraordinaire Ricki just looked at me and said, "I hate Tim Winton's writing."
Cue shocked hand to the heart.
And as we talked about it, we discovered that all the things I love, Ricki hates. All the reasons his writing resonates with me are the exact same reasons it puts her off.
So, we decided the blog post I was thinking of would be a lot more interesting if we presented both sides of the story. Next week (note: *probably* next week, unless life gets in the way), I'm going to talk about the techniques used in Cloudstreet and a couple of other Tim Winton books, and why I think they work. I'm going to talk about how he throws out every possible convention and still makes it brilliant. And Ricki is going to counter-argue with her reasons why those same things don't work for her.
It should be good. Stay tuned!
(NB: That debate never did happen- maybe sometime in the future :))
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
You know how people tell you that you need to take time to stop and smell the flowers? Well, in my case, I really need to take time to stop and look at the moon. I know that sounds weird, but the moon has to be one of the most powerful cues/reminders of one of my characters. In fact, whenever I see a full moon--and have gawked at it until I have had my fill--I want to rush inside and visit with my cast of characters from BY THE PALE MOONLIGHT. With one character in particular--Ty.
Oh how I miss my little werewolf when the moon is full. Sigh.
Life has been nuts as of late. I mean, really nuts. You'd think that without my second job things would've slowed down. No, not really. In fact, the more I think of how I managed to survive all of my 70-80 hour work weeks, frankly, I'm stunned. I was a madwoman, apparently, and I think my body and psyche are still making up for what amounts to two years of pure exhaustion. I have no idea what I was running on all of that time, but apparently I've tapped that well and now I just need rest. And fun. And just good ole' vegging out time.
That said, I've spent very little time writing. It's one of the last things I want to do. I have been making my way through FI, very slowly, and trying to recapture the energy of the book. It's coming...though at a snail's pace, and I'm still scared as all heck to jump back into actually producing words. I'm not really sure why that is, but the longer I go, the worse it seems to get.
The thing is, though... I miss my characters. I MISS my stories. I'm not really sure when this little dry spell/phase is going to end, but the good thing is that I know my stories are there, waiting. Impatiently, I might add. My little run in with a full moon last night just goes to prove it. Ty--excuse the pun--is barking like mad for my attention. And honestly, you don't want to know what Maddy is saying in my head. She's not at all happy about being ignored. :)
Anyway -- I know I've been very scarce, and it all ties into just needing Jen time at this point. But I do hope to be around more. I know my lack of being in the blogging world, etc. is directly connected to my low energy--i.e. pure fear of writing--so I know eventually I'll get my butt into gear and you'll see more of me.
Hope everything is going well for everyone. :)
Monday, July 26, 2010
[Hi! Rachel here, doing my best to fill Kristen's Monday shoes (and enjoying the comfort of her Nike flip flops, let me tell you!) Kristen will be joining us on Thursday, blogging from a secret location about a super experience she's right in the midst of ... so stay tuned.]
I’m looking at my almost six-years-old daughter, head down, tongue poking out the corner of her mouth, as she scribbles away at what must be the fifteenth “book” she’s created this last fortnight. She’s been at school for a year now and adores reading and writing; hence the flood of homemade books about her friends, and fairies, and zoo animals, and, believe it or not, her wedding (which, hilariously, is chock full of details about her wedding dress, her flowers, her diamonds, the cake, but not a single mention of the groom – I can sense an “it’s all about me, sweetie" Bridezilla in the making! J). The other day she even announced, very confidently, that she is a writer, and that when she grows up she wants to write and illustrate children’s books – but not under her real name. Oh no. She’s already decided she’s going to write under a pseudonym - “Mrs Moo.” LOL!
I reckon I’ve got a budding author on my hands, and she most definitely identifies herself as such, and it made me stop and think; when did I first think of myself as a writer?
Certainly not at the tender age of six, like my daughter. But she’s not unusual; many writers say that as young children they just knew they were destined to write. And I wonder what it was that made them so sure of themselves, so early on, because I’m definitely a late-bloomer in this respect.
Oh, I wrote my own books, as my daughter does, but my output was nowhere near as prolific; then, when I was about eight, I had my first taste of publication when a five line poem I wrote about my cat was printed in the “Sunshine Club” section of my local newspaper. Ah, the thrill of seeing my own words in print (a teeny, tiny, corner of print!) As I moved into my teens, I wrote stories long-hand in the car to kill time during the family’s annual driving holidays; I managed to write the first ten chapters of an execrable fantasy this way, plus half of a ridiculous spy novel … so the writing-seed was there, no doubt about it, but the overwhelming urge to write had yet to take root. In fact, once I reached my mid-teens I really didn’t write anything at all for the next … twenty years.
Well, that’s not completely correct; through high school and university, and later, with my work as a lawyer, I wrote an avalanche of essays and assignments, and drafted copious legal documents and reports. So I was still writing, just not fiction. I’m not entirely sure why this happened. My guess is that the technical writing I had to do claimed every spare brain cell (yeah, I KNOW it did!), and left nothing over for creative work.
And no way did I consider myself to be a writer. The thought never even entered my head.
Even when I first joined Compuserve’s Books and Writers forum three and half years ago, and offered up my fist crappy snips for critique, I was just doing some “tinkering.” Some “typing”. I wasn’t really a writer …
So, what’s changed?
With the critiques that pointed out the (many!) things I was doing wrong came enough positive feedback to fire my desire to continue to “type" and "tinker”, to do better.
Then, I won a writing contest; a very small, amateur contest, to be sure, but again, enough to push me along.
These things helped change my perception of myself, but in the end, what has finally made me think of myself as a writer is having confidence in myself. Confidence in my ability to manipulate words on a page, in my ability to grasp the craft of writing and put it to good use, and, every now and then, to produce something that others seemed to enjoy reading.
I know I’ll always be learning and (hopefully) improving, but not being wracked with self-doubt each and every time I sit down to write has finally made me believe - “I am a writer.”
What’s your story? When – and how - did you know, really know, that you were a writer?
P.S. And here’s a sample page of my daughter’s finished product. Her love of high-drama is clearly evident!
Thursday, July 22, 2010
Why do I write? I could lie to you, give you lofty reasons, tell you I’m driven to do it, that it’s my gift, my calling, my Reason For Living. Honestly? I write because I’m selfish. It’s all about me.
You see, I’m defined in many ways - daughter, sister, wife, mother, communications consultant, church treasurer, homeschool teacher, dog-fish-lovebird-parakeet keeper… the list could go on, but the point is I’m defined by my relationships. Writing is the only thing I do for me and me alone.
Even though writing is a solitary thing, I don’t write in a void. My writing journey started a loooong time ago and continues because of the encouraging words and advice I receive. My confidence grows in proportion to what I’m willing to share and have critiqued. It’s scary every time, but I come away with feedback that's like fuel -- feeding my greedy need for having something that is purely mine. So I write some more. (I told you I was selfish…)
What do I write? Literary fiction best describes my work-in-progress. I also write for a non-profit agency that serves frail elders and their families. I also journal my life in Alaska, the adventures of raising two sons on the edge of the wilderness, of my husband’s many projects and harebrained ideas. (Thankfully, he’s a man who can do just about anything he puts his mind to.) I write all the time.
My current literary work-in-progress started as a germ of an idea when I was a twelve year old penciling away in spiral-bound notebooks. About fifteen years ago the story grew into a screenplay. Its current re-incarnation as a novel has been the most rewarding, best learning experience I’ve had with fiction writing.
Requiem for a Warrior is the family saga of the three Rivers brothers and the woman they love. As deeply connected as they are - bound together like the tendrils of grape vines that grow in the Rivers’ family vineyard - they are torn apart by events beyond their control and by unforgivable acts of their own doing.
Requiem is Nathan River’s story. He’ll tell you life’s not fair, that it’s a bitch, even. He’ll tell you, without a hint of self-pity, that life was once good and sweet and tender. He would also tell you, if he could speak of it, when life ceased to be all that.
In April of 1967 his mother opened the door to find an awkward young Army lieutenant standing on her doorstep. She had two sons in Southeast Asia: her oldest and her youngest. The Army doesn’t send men to your doorstep for social calls. The Rivers’ ordinary world crashed that evening as she gripped the door frame, looked the young soldier in the eyes and quietly asked, “Which one?”
Requiem is about loss and redemption, about a man caught up in secrets he can’t share from a war he chose to fight. It’s about a love he can’t forget. It’s about having the strength to face the things that make him run and about finding love again.
Look for an excerpt of Requiem soon. I’m still figuring out the finer points of posting work at ATWOP. Meanwhile, I’ll be selfishly grabbing a few moments to call my own, to do what I’m driven to do: write.
We've added blogger number five to our ranks, to bring you more musings on writing every Friday.
So, please welcome
Susan is, like the four of us, a member of the Compuserve Books and Writers Forum. She's also one of the most talented writers I've come across, and her characters are so real you'll feel like you know them personally within a few paragraphs.
I know you'll enjoy getting to know Susan and her world, so look out for her first post tomorrow, in which she'll introduce herself and her writing.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Erm- make that six days spent working my butt off from sun up to sun down, gathering fire wood, cooking and cleaning for 12 people, and otherwise, you know. Working, day and night. Also possibly the longest time I've spent without my computer in a couple of years. Which is very good in some ways- hey, no Facebook to distract me!- but also frustrating, because I'm in the middle of a very big roll here when it comes to writing.
So, what's a girl to do when life gets in the way of writing?
First, I had a lot of good time for thinking. Thinking is always good.
But second, it made me sit up and take extra notice of the world around me, and that's where it's important to grab hold of the serendipity that comes your way.
I was out on a former sheep station on the edge of Western Australia's desert region. It's about 400km to the north-east of the area where Bill's story is set- but it's still a lot closer to that area than I usually am. As such, I came across dozens upon dozens of helpful little moments and places that I could see through my characters' eyes, and I had a whole bundle of revelations as a result.
The great outdoors
He stood for a long while kicking divots in the rusty dirt with his borrowed black shoe. Battalions of black ants scattered under his assault, fleeing this way and that across the miniature valleys and plains of the drive. The rutted road stretched ahead of him up the hill to the old farmhouse, flanked on each side by an honour guard of stiff ghost gums. It was all just as he remembered, from the golden sweep of the wheatfields, to the brush of wattle-scented sea air on his cheek, to the weathered grey wood of the fencepost that was holding him up.
From emus bobbing past our camp in the morning to the palest violet sky as the sun rose and sank, being outdoors and in the bush put me so much closer to my characters' world than I usually am that it couldn't help but inspire me. Bill and co have a nice homestead on the farm, but they spend a lot of their time outdoors. There's something about the Australian landscape that seems alive. It's as much a character in the story as the people.
It was an unseasonably warm winter afternoon in the valley, and Bill was down to his shirtsleeves as he rounded up the ewes. He pulled off his hat and swiped an arm across his forehead to clear the sweat, pausing for a moment to catch his breath as the last of the woolly grey buggers bounded bleating into the pens. He watched as Tom Barnes swung the gate shut behind them, whipping off his cap and waving it in the air with a hoot that made Bill grin.
It wasn’t a job for two blokes, reining in a flock this size. It was supposed to be a team of half a dozen or more. But they’d done it anyway, bugger Len and his lazy mates, got it all finished, and not before time if the black clouds boiling on the horizon were any sign.
As I mentioned, the station we were staying on was formerly used for sheep, and as such there was a large shearing shed which hadn't been used for a long while. We drove past it a few times before I was coming back past it alone, and thought to stop and have a closer look.
Good move, me! Grab hold of these opportunities with both hands, I say, especially if you're writing historical fiction- never miss a chance to connect with history.
This place looked like everyone had just taken their lunch break in about 1930, and never came back. It was still in such amazing condition- though the floor was falling in all over the place- that you could almost smell the sheep, hear the whole mob of them milling and bleating in the holding pen, and imagine all the men in there with their sleeves rolled up, shearing away and gathering the wool.
Relevant because Bill's family farm, Edenvale, is a sheep-and-wheat farm, and I have a couple of shearing scenes. They've mostly been based on a school trip I took to a farm in the Wheatbelt when I was 13, where we watched a shearing demonstration. Seeing this place was a brilliant way to connect with the past.
He didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the words. He said what he was supposed to when he was supposed to, but none of that mattered. They stood there holding onto each other’s hands, and they didn’t need words to swear they’d be together for all eternity.
At the last, though, the priest read out the words. “I promise to love you, until the end of my days.”
And when he opened his mouth to repeat it, the words wouldn’t come out. He was struck suddenly with the fear that the end of his days might be soon. He wanted to tell her he’d love her beyond that, forever. But in the end he had to say it after the priest just as it was, and hope she knew.
At last, the priest asked for the rings. His father came forward and placed the a single little circle on the cushion, while Kit watched him. “With this ring, I thee wed…”
As he slid the smooth metal over her finger, she looked up at him with quizzical eyes. “I thought you said…” she whispered.
“It’s your grandmother’s,” he whispered back. “Tom… Tom kept it for you, all these years. He wanted to surprise you.”
Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at the ring on her finger, speechless.
So, in Between the Lines, Bill's best mate Tom (who also happens to be his brother-in-law) is the son of a pastor, and he's training to be one himself. His intended path is derailed after his sister is assaulted, and he follows her assailant into the war and is killed at Gallipoli.
I haven't done a lot of work on Tom, but I've been thinking about him a bit more lately- what makes him tick; what makes him want to be a minister at such a young age; what makes him give it all up to join the Army.
And while I was out bush, I came across this rather remarkable outdoor church which the station owners set up more than half a century ago for the people who lived there. It immediately struck me as amazing inspiration, and I could just see Tom standing there at an improvised pulpit, delivering sermons to Bill and Kit, when they're all young enough to make a good game of it.
And in remembrance Bill and Kit, after Tom's death, getting married at that place- or at least exchanging a significant part of their personal commitment, required actual church ceremony notwithstanding.
Gave me the shivers just thinking about it- I've already written Bill and Kit's wedding scene, and I like it as it is, but I think this could add a big bit of punch to the story, to acknowledge Tom's absence like that. This church will definitely be appearing in my story in one form or another.
He gathered her up one last time, and took her to her rest. Out past the room where her son lay sleeping. Out of the house she’d come home to as his brother’s bride. Out past the room where he’d ruined her, and himself. Only himself still ruined, now. Ruined forever by how stupid he was.
He took her out into the blinding day, where the undertaker’s cart sat waiting, plain wood coffin sitting in the bed. His dad and old Smithson shuffled the box down together and opened it up. Lined with white satin, like he’d asked.
He went down on his knees and laid her down. With her head on the pillow, wrapped up like that, she looked comfortable. Safe. Asleep.
When they slid the cover over her, he turned away. He stood there staring at her beloved rosebushes as he listened to them hammer in tack after tack. And when he turned back, she was gone, and there was only a closed-up coffin.
I stopped off at an old Goldfields cemetery on my way home, just to break up the 800km drive a little. And there I unexpectedly ran into a whole slew of headstones that came from the time period I need- 1916, when Kit dies in childbirth.
Until that moment, I hadn't thought hard about her burial. I'd already written her death scene, and I already have a scene in which Bill visits her grave for the first time when he comes back from the war (which comes from a few drafts back and now needs major updating). Until now, all I've had on her tombstone is her name.
But looking through the wide range of tombstones in the graveyard, the cogs began to turn in a major way. Very, very few of the tombstones have just a name and a date. Almost all of them have a little poetry, or a few words about how loved that person was. The thing is, Bill's not there to put up Kit's tombstone.
Len is, though.
That one whacked me right between the eyes- here's Len, who two years earlier assaulted Kit. He went to war, lost his leg, and came home a changed man. He and Kit eventually made an awkward kind of peace, and by the time he died he had to admit to himself that part of his original actions and everything since has been motivated by one thing- he's always loved her, but could never have her, because she's always loved his brother.
And now Len has to put up her tombstone. He has to get it just right for the son Kit's left behind, and for her husband. But at the same time he's driven by his own feelings for her. If he puts a verse on there, he's going to have to say he did it for Bill. But it's going to have a double meaning.
It's just a conundrum and a craziness and I *love* it. And I've written most of the scene now, but I still don't quite have the right words. I have dozens of very helpful suggestions from Facebook and the Forum, though, so I'll get there. But when I write the scene in which Bill sees the tombstone for the first time, I know it's going to be an absolute corker- and all because I saw the little sign on the side of the road, and decided to follow it out to Menzies cemetery.
So! Keep your eyes open and find ways in which the world around you can inspire your writing. I always find inspiration in such unexpected places that I hardly ever see it coming until it hits me between the eyes. But I've written more than 10000 words in the five days since I came home, so it just goes to show that it pays good dividends to keep that eye out.
We had permanent houseguests arrive yesterday afternoon, and they are FAR too distracting for me to even contemplate blogging about anything wise and sage ... so instead let me introduce you to Max and Leo:
Leo is the grey gremlin, Max is the little black devil. They’re twelve-week-old Devon Rexes (kinda odd looking critters, but the only breed of cat to which the DH is not allergic), and they are mentally, hilariously, hyperactive … when not snoozing in a cat-pile, that is. What a life!
The kids are over the moon about their new companions … and rest assured, their writing-buddy training will commence anon. J
Monday, July 19, 2010
During a routine bout of exercising my procrastination muscles, I came across some sample pages a writer had put up on an open forum for critique. Brave soul! One who probably, deep in her heart of hearts, wanted to hear that her writing was brilliant. Don’t we all?
Unfortunately, it was quite the opposite. Comments ranged from helpful to nitpicky to petty. Poor soul. It’s hard to bounce back from that. Yet we all will be there at one point or another. I don’t think there has ever been a writer who has coasted through life without a bad review. There is always someone who will say the work sucked. Better to get used to it now, toughen up the skin and all that.
Only it makes me wonder. It’s easy to lambast bad writing. Okay, there are those who do it so well that it becomes it’s own entertainment –for better of worse. People have made a living tearing others down. And I admit to having a good chuckle now and then upon reading a scathing review.
Only one day that might be my writing someone is slashing to bits. Sure, I’ll have a thick skin by then. Already my skin has taken on a nice leather-like quality. Kid leather, perhaps. Strong enough to protect, but still supple. If one uses a sharp enough knife, slashes with enough gusto, it will tear. Perhaps someday I’ll have skin like pure rawhide.
I mean, beside the obvious errors of craft, what exactly qualifies as good or bad?
Case in point. My husband loves seafood. Oysters being on of his favorites. Raw oysters. Gak! I am often forced to sit there and watch him slurp down those glistening globs that resemble dead labia –yeah, I said it- and try to NOT vomit. Yet every time, every stinking time, I have to hear, “God, this is so good. Want to try?”
No, for the ten millionth time. I do not. Yet my husband can’t understand why I don’t. How can I possibly turn my nose up at one of nature’s most perfect foods?
Dude, CHOCOLATE is one of nature’s most perfect foods. Oysters are not. That is why they are protected by barnacle-covered shells. It’s nature’s way of saying, “Stay out! Only attempt if you are really, really, on the verge of dying from starvation, hungry.” Which, as anyone who has seen my ample butt can tell you, I am most certainly not.
Ahem. And then there is TV. My husband can happily spend hours on the couch watching Formula One racing. While I fall asleep next to him.
Whether an artistic work good or bad is really begging the question, thus one that won’t be solved by you or me. But it does lead to other slippery questions. *bg* Such as, how do you know if this writing gig is worth it? How do you know if you suck or not? The word of your critics? What if you simply haven’t found the right critics? What if you get a room full of oyster haters when you’re serving up a raw bar? If you’re published? Hello? Been on Amazon lately? A book might have a world of five star reviews and one star haters.
Yes, I’m aware that I’ve veered into sweeping generalizations here. But if one’s crap is another’s treasure, then what do we make of bad feedback? More importantly, what keeps us going?
Because this really isn’t about bad or good reviews. I’m more concerned about when to say when. Sometimes I think about how it took Deanna Raybourn fourteen years and multiple shot-down books to get published*. Would I have that sort of perseverance? I just don’t know. The idea of facing that makes me want to cry.
The truth is I am still in awe of Deanna for that. And thankful, because that never-die attitude brought us Julia Grey –a wonderful character –and brought me hours of entertainment. She just as easily could have said, “That’s it! I give up. Agents and publishers are telling me no. I must really suck.”
So I’m asking all of you: when do you give up? And why do you do keep at it?
Friday, July 16, 2010
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Anyway! I've been pondering agendas for a few weeks- I've talked about agendas in novels before, in the broadest sense (the "theme" more than anything) way back here. This time, I'm talking about much more detailed stuff- the agenda within each chapter of your novel. My theory is this- in every chapter, there are two agendas that must work together for a complete story:
The character's agenda (what they want to achieve within the events depicted in the chapter); and
The author's agenda (the reason that particular scene needs to be in the novel).
These are not always the same thing.
What I've realised recently is that in chapters I've written in the past where nothing much seems to happen, I've not taken into account both agendas when I've sat down to plan. I either know why I want the scene in there, or I know what the character wants, but I fail to mesh the two of those things for a complete picture.
I'm going to give you an example from my ongoing second draft of Between the Lines.
I recently rewrote a chapter in which the following happens:
Bill's fiance Kit has been assaulted by his brother, Len. Bill takes her home the morning after, then goes after his brother, who's fled to the nearest city to join the Army and skip town. Bill takes his best friend, Kit's brother Tom, with him, but can't tell Tom what's going on because Kit doesn't want him to know. When they get to town, they split up to find Len, and Bill speaks to the military recruiter and discovers that Len has already left.
The first time I wrote this chapter, it was a whole lot of nothing. The main reason for that was that Bill's agenda is very clear indeed: he wants to find his brother, and make him pay for what he did.
But he fails at that objective, because his brother gets away. And so the chapter kind of petered out with a whimper instead of a bang, and the tension within it went down instead of up. In the end it was Bill and Tom wandering around town not doing all that much, then going home.
What I was missing was my own agenda as an author. I hadn't originally sat back and looked at why I wanted this scene in the book. After all, they don't find Len- surely I could skip straight from Len's escape on the night of the assault to the next scene, which is Bill and Kit trying to deal with what has happened. Why do I need Bill and Tom wandering around town together, looking for someone I already know is gone, even if they don't?
I needed to get a good handle on my objectives for the scene. I listed 'em out, and these are what I came up with:
1. To show Bill taking active steps instead of sitting passively by and waiting for something to happen. This was a major flaw in my first half- things happened TO Bill, instead of Bill doing things. Who can really root for a hero who doesn't act?
2. To show Tom getting suspicious of Bill's/ Kit's weird behaviour, and to have him realise that Len has done something (what, and how bad, he can't imagine yet).
3. To give more information about Len and his background- the military recruiter knows him personally because he's been in a local militia for a number of years, and is well-respected. I need this ambiguity to make Len a real person and not a cardboard cutout villain- and I need it for undisclosed things that happen later in the story, too...
4. To amp up the tension and heartbreak even further for Bill when he discovers that Len spent the rest of his night at a local brothel (see the snippet below).
5. To show the beginning of the process by which Bill and Tom will be sucked into the war themselves- at this point, they're just looking for Len, and he's used the Army as a means to get away. But though they don't realise it, as young men in this time, they're already caught in the machine. Bill's refusal to sign up on this day will be the beginning of the negative view townsfolk develop of him- and that negativity is what will eventually grow into a threat to his family, and cause him to have to sign up.
So, you see, my agenda with this chapter is considerably more complicated than Bill's- but this makes it infinitely easier to write. Bill brings a particular level of fury and motivation to the scene, and I just have to put the players in the right places and tweak away to get it flowing right. Of all of the above, number 1 and 5 are the most important- they're part of the much bigger picture. Numbers 2 to 4 are more about driving the small scale action, but all of them are essential.
I now write every scene with a little list of what the POV character wants to achieve, and what I want to achieve, side-by-side to help me focus.
Here's a small snippet from that much longer scene to conclude.
Think of me this week- I'll be out in the desert without my beloved computer, back to writing longhand if I want to get anything done! But I'll be having a ball, too- I'm going on an amazing trip for work. And when I get back, we'll have an exciting announcement to make here, too. Stand by!
He slowed down and stopped as he reached the front verandah at Freemason’s. The recruiter had his wooden stall set up under the overhang, surrounded by madly waving Union Jack flags. He was a fat little man with a sandy mustache over his top lip, and he was scanning the crowd with mean eyes. He turned his gaze Bill’s way, and he straightened up.
Bill obliged him by walking over.
“Here, son! Come to sign up and fight?”
Bill shook his head. “Not today.”
The man’s expression changed to something far less friendly. “You’ve only got today, ‘less you want to sign up in Perth next month.” He sat back, thumbs through his braces. “Plenty of others already signed up.”
Bill crossed his arms. “Yeah? Didn’t think you’d get much interest. Harvesting season is coming up.”
The recruiter let out a belly laugh. “No need to worry about that. You’ll all be home by Christmas. Bit of adventure for you. Get out of this dull old town and live a little. King and country and all that.”
“Dunno.” He made a face. “I’d be more interested if I knew who was going. Maybe you’ve seen my best mate already?”
The fat man perked up. “Maybe, maybe. If I find his name, we’ll send you after him. How’s that?”
Bill shrugged. “Check for Lionel Cutler.”
The man had a stack of pages in front of him, but he didn’t move a finger. He was grinning.
“Son, I don’t even need to check my papers to tell you about Len Cutler.”
He forced himself to keep a straight face. “Oh?”
“Oh, yes. Had him in my regiment a couple of years back, the [?] militia. Top bloke, recognised him right away. Hard to miss, eh?”
He was hard to miss, with his height and his golden hair and his handsome face. Too bad they’d have to miss him when Bill got hold of him. Bill nodded. “And?” he said, through clenched teeth.
“And he had quite the night last night, let me tell you.” The man gave him a big wink, and it took everything Bill had not to punch him right in the face. The man leaned forward, confidentially. “You know Elise? Over on [?].”
Everyone knew Elise. Best madam in town, the blokes at the pub were always saying. Bill didn’t like where this was going.
“Reckons he got the urge… you know, the urge… last night. Got on his horse and rode down here in the dark, in the middle of that bloody storm.” He roared with laughter. “Mad bastard! Rocked up at Elise’s place at three in the morning and slammed open the door. All the girls thought it was some kind of raid. Scared them senseless. So he had to make it up to a few of them, you know? You know?”
Bill could almost hear his teeth grinding together. “You’re telling me he spent the night at Elise’s place. With more than one…” He couldn’t bring himself to say it. Whores. Len had spent the rest of his night with whores. After… after…
“Jesus. Jesus!” He turned away.
“Here, now! Are you all right?”
He jammed a fist against his mouth, but he couldn’t stop it bubbling out. “Wasn’t she enough for him? Wasn’t she good enough? Hadn’t he already had his fair share of… Jesus!”
The other man was looking at him, agape. “I… well, all right.”
Bill set both his hands on the table. “Just tell me where he went.”
The recruiter opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, like he couldn’t quite think what to say. And then he looked down at his papers again, and shuffled them. “He didn’t sign up here. Said he had to go to Perth, anyway. Had things to do first. He was catching the first train out.”
“Shit!” He held his head with both hands, hoping it might make the ringing in his ears go away, but no luck. “Shit.” He looked up at the recruiter, who he doubted was going to press him to sign up anymore. “Thank you. Thanks. Maybe I’ll catch him in Perth.”
He turned and walked away without another word.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
This is a question I’m asking myself at the moment. My book is not a romance, but a love story threads its way through it as a subplot and being in hyper-critical, dissect everything to the nth degree, revision mode, I’ve been asking myself – why? Why the romance? Is it necessary? What does it add to the story? Conversely, does it detract from or weaken my book?
I’ve read more than a few books where the romance seems tacked on, included as an excuse to add in a sex scene or two for titillation purposes or (and I’m afraid this sounds sexist but I think it’s common enough to be true) to show how virile and manly a male lead is (Wilbur Smith - yes, I admit it, I’ve suffered through a handful of his books - is a pretty bad offender in this, IMO. Yeah, he’s published a trillion books to my zero, so what do I know, but hey, this is a subjective business and it’s my opinion!)
The tacked on romance fails because there has to be a point to the romance for it to ring true. Without a point, readers will see it for what it is - window dressing, for voyeuristic or prop value only. And if we don’t explore the romance themes in our books as fully and honestly as we explore every other theme, readers will feel we’ve cheated them, and the romance – if not the whole book – will leave them cold.
Below are a few examples of love subplots that really work (and I’m afraid this list exposes how narrowly I’m reading these days, but meh, I’m on a historical mystery jag, what can I say?):
The Sebastian St Cyr mysteries, by C.S. Harris.
A murder mystery series beginning with WHAT ANGELS FEAR, these books include a love story that explores the pain and agony of insurmountable obstacles that threaten to keep star crossed lovers apart (and without wanting to be too spoilerish, OMG, the obstacle in this book is a whopper!)
The Lady Emily Ashton mysteries, by Tasha Alexander.
Beginning with AND ONLY TO DECEIVE and billed as “novels of suspense”, the ongoing love story between Emily Ashton and her late husband’s best friend is a graceful study upon the way love can bloom from friendship.
The Adelia Aguilar mysteries, by Ariana Franklin.
Set in England during the reign of Henry II and commencing with MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH, this series is the story of the anomaly that is Adelia Aguilar, a woman trained in the art of dissection and forensics. Beyond the murders she investigates, however, is a love story that explores the difficulty and heartache in choosing between a hard-fought-for career – a calling, really – and the possibility of love.
But movies really show this best.
MY FAIR LADY, starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.
This is one of my all time favourites films, not least because the romance is so not the usual fare. There is not a single kiss, not one “I love you”, and Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins are pretty much at each other’s throats the whole movie – not your standard romantic couple at all. But the love relationship serves to show the growth of the Professor; through being exposed to larger than life, heart on her sleeve Eliza, Henry, the curmudgeonly old bachelor, self-satisfied, self-righteous and set in his ways, comes to see he’s been lonely for a long time without ever realizing it, and in the end does something totally out of his usual pattern of behaviour when he decides to take a chance on the woman whose gotten beneath his skin.
THE (FIRST) STAR WARS TRILOGY
Han Solo and Princess Leia. Oh boy, do these two zing! (Side note - I always loved Han. Luke and his wide-eyed, “howdy-doodyness”, just never cut it for me.)
This love story really is all about feeling love and not knowing what to do with it – hence the trading of all those witty barbs:-
Princess Leia: Let go.
Han Solo: Shh.
Princess Leia: Let go, please.
Han Solo: Don’t get excited.
Princess Leia: Captain, being held by you isn’t quite enough to get me excited.
Han Solo: Sorry sweetheart. I haven’t got time for anything else.
But even when they do fall for each other, their love is more than just that. They have a solid respect for one another, they’re partners, and they depend on and support each other without question.
These love subplots work because they address love honestly; they have something to say about romance, rather than just tacking it on; and the particular romance in each story adds to and deepens the overall theme/s of the book or film.
So, looking at the romance in my own story … well, there’s a bit of Han and Leia in there, a tad of Henry and Eliza, and a helping of career vs love, a la Adelia Aguilar. All of which supports some of the themes in my book … identity, knowing your true self, and how, very often, you are the very last person to know what it is you really need. So I think I can safely say that in the case of my story of serial killing, blood and suspense, love has everything to do with it!
And since I’ve inflicted my list upon you … what are your all time favourite romantic couplings, book or film?
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
People who like this book have had the cheese knocked off their crackers.
There. I said it. And yeah, it's not even close to how cringe-worthy my actual thoughts are on the matter. That said, the sentiment is the same.
I. Don't. Get. Why. This. Book. Sold.
To an agent. To a publisher. To the reading public.
It's a study of what NOT to do in a novel. It's a study of how to NOT get your readers to give two wits about your characters. It's a study of how to have a tangle of "moments" that are supposed to move the reader but in reality serve to hide the fact that there is absolutely NO plot.
WTF is this disaster before my eyes? I want to get off this train post haste. I want to bury my copy in a deep hole so no one else will stumble upon it and be subjected to this torture.
That said, I. Cannot. Turn. Away.
**Pause for clarification**
Despite the fact that I want to continue reading, there isn't a single good thing about that statement. It's not a matter of hoping it gets better at this point... not 250+ pages in... it's a matter of needing to know how truly bad it gets.
Case in point...
*cough* Now, I really don't want to disclose which book this is. Seriously. I'd feel bad for blasting it so egregiously. That said, some of you might guess. Especially if you've read this scene. It's one in a million.
For the sake of explanation, let's say there are monsters in this book. What kind doesn't matter. Monsters. And these monsters attack regular ole' humans and make them into monsters, too. One such monster was made, and her brother has set out to figure out what happened to her. Enter the hero and heroine. Hero is a monster, too, btw, and he's hiding out at heroine's house. The pair KNOW what happened to this guy's sister, so they meet to explain it all.
And wtf.. they decide to make a pizza while they explain. And turn on the music, too. They need to get their groove on for this pizza party. Hell, I know it's a heavy subject figuring out if this guy's sister is dead or alive, but holy smokes... a really good song just came on the radio. Hero and heroine REALLY like this song and decide to have an impromptu grinding session in the middle of the kitchen. I mean, why the hell not??
*cue the end of the song* Now...now it's back to business and back to their sombre moods. As sombre as they get, that is.. which is just shy of boinking on the kitchen counter.
Seriously, PEOPLE. WTF??
I wish I could say this is but a bump in an otherwise smooth road. It is not. This is merely one example of how truly bad this book is. I'm rendered speechless by it. (Figuratively)
If you take anything away from this, know that real crap can sell. It's disturbing, confusing, and just plain ole' scary on just about every level, but it's true.
There is hope for us all. Remember that.
That said, I'd like to give teenagers more credit than this author seems to be. Yes, teenagers are mildly *cough* interested in sex and relationships. But they're not automatons who have sex and ONLY sex on their minds. That's what this book is. It's the hero and heroine goggling at each other Every. Friggin'. Minute. Of. The. Day. And when needed, an important tidbit will come up between glances at each other's butts. Gah. It's a waste of good ink and paper.
Yeah, I'm done now. There's no real point. Just general whinging.
That is all.
Monday, July 12, 2010
Thursday, July 8, 2010
This time, what's been occurring to me is how much of a punch a song has to pack in a very, very low number of words. Same as poetry, though I haven't listened to much of that in the car lately.
And in that short number of words, there are really only two approaches you can take to maximise the emotional impact- you can either be very direct, or very subtle.
I've been thinking about both this week, and I thought I'd give a few examples of song lyrics that I think tell a story very well in a few words. These are, to me, so good that I'm not going to say another word myself- I'll just let you read 'em, and I'm sure that like me, you'll finish five or six lines knowing all about that person or situation (or both) almost as well as if you'd read a story about them.
So, while you're not expected to be this brief in fiction, I think it's a great demonstration of how much you can achieve in a short space- imagine how powerful your story would be if you applied this kind of vivid characterisation throughout your novel.
The first one is my favourite- in just three lines, you get a whole world of information. The whole song is brilliant- it's about Kurt Cobain, apparently.
Foo Fighters- Friend of a Friend
He thinks he drinks too much
'Cause when he tells his two best friends, "I think I drink too much."
No-one speaks. No-one speaks.
The Killers- Mr. Brightside
Now I'm falling asleep
And she's calling a cab
While he's having a smoke
And she's taking a drag
Now they're going to bed
And my stomach is sick
And it's all in my head
But she's touching his
Chest now, he takes off her dress now
Let me go.
I just can't look, it's killing me.
Crowded House- Distant Sun
Still so young to travel so far
Old enough to know who you are
Wise enough to carry the scars
Without any blame
There's no-one to blame
Sarah McLachlan- Building a Mystery
You live in a church
Where you sleep with voodoo dolls
And you won't give up the search
For the ghosts in the halls
You wear sandals in the snow
And a smile that won't wash away
Can you look out the window
Without your shadow getting in the way?
Beth Orton- Stolen Car
You walked into my house last night
I couldn't help but notice
A light that was long gone still burning strong.
You were sitting
Your fingers like fuses
Your eyes were cinnamon.
Any favourite stories in songs you'd like to share?
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
You know those vows you take on your wedding day, “for better or for worse, richer or poorer …” well, I should have included, “regardless of whether you suck dry my monthly internet allowance by downloading your stupid movies …”
Yes. The DH has used up my entire month’s allowance, already. My plan still allows me internet access, but sloooowed … riiiiight … dowwwwwn … it’s like they switched me over to the version of the internet that’s powered by a little hampster running on a wheel. Means I can’t visit a whole ton of websites, emails come through hardly faster than the letters delivered by the postman … and that Blogger just ate up the post I had ready to go. Fume!
(However, without the internet to waste my time on I've actually got a decent amount written this week, even with the kids home on holidays. Silver lining, I guess.)
So I do apologise, but this whinge is all you’ll get from me this week. I’m hitting “publish” now – and crossing my fingers it works!
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
I did a bit of reading over the holiday weekend. For the purposes of this post, I will not be discussing the specific titles. Let's just say that one of the books is from a long running series that pretty much always delivers. The other is from a relatively new young adult author who has been getting many, many kudos in the writing world. I have to say, both were HUGE disappointments. I'm actually still in the middle of the YA, and let me tell you, it's a struggle to keep going. In the end, though, I'm determined to push through. I'll tell you why.
I can't remember which agent said this… Kristin Nelson, I think…but someone once said that it's important to read what's popular. I'm sure I'm getting the exact reason wrong, but it had something to do with understanding what people want to read. Obviously, if a book is selling well, there's SOMETHING about it that is attracting people. So, if you can get some sort of understanding of what that is, you can take that knowledge and apply it to your own work. Blah blah blah.
I agree with that general idea behind that, but at the same time, disagree. Mostly because I don't think there's a sure-fire formula for what will hit it big. A lot of what makes a book popular is timing, a lot of it is the particular mood of readers during certain periods… LUCK LUCK LUCK…and MORE LUCK, in other words.
That said, I have my own set of reasons for reading bad books. And trust me, I have to force myself to do it. Most times I say to heck with it and that book hits the wall. But with certain books—particularly ones I know people LOVE—my curiosity wins out and I just have to keep turning those pages. Even when the book is a big ole' hot mess.
To put it bluntly, I do it for one reason, and one reason alone: It teaches me what NOT to do.
Now, I'm not saying my writing is all that and a bag of chips. I have my issues just like any other writer out there. Certain blind spots that I need to have pointed out to me. I use crit partners to help with some of that…but lately I'm finding that reading less than stellar books is equally useful. When I see something that amounts to bamboo shoots up my nail beds, I KNOW I'll work double time to make sure I don't repeat the same thing in my own work. I'm sure some people might argue that I see these trouble spots because they're things I struggle with in my own work. (I wasn't really going to get all psychological in this post, but whatever.) It could be true.. some of the things I've noticed in these two books ARE things I've given a lot of thought to during the course of writing my books. So yeah, maybe there's something to that argument. Perhaps I'm just bitter that they got away with it when I'm struggling so hard to eradicate the problem in my own work? Perhaps, indeed! J
Anywho – I know people always preach that in order to write well you need to READ READ READ… especially good writing. Books that move you. Books that paint vivid pictures in your mind. Books that are well-plotted and just overall superb. Yeah…that's great. But sometimes in order to see the bad stuff, and to KNOW what to avoid…you gotta dig your heels in and read some CRAP. Yeah, I said it. J
So… a few things I learned this past weekend:
- Comedy. It's a hard, hard, hard, HARD thing to pull off. There's a line that can't be crossed in my opinion. That line is when reality takes a backseat to unreality… When you push the line too far towards the ludicrous, you risk people rolling their eyes and saying, "Yeah, right!" to the heavens. I did exactly that this past weekend and it's just not a good thing to do. My comedy will always border on the ridiculous—I know that—but at the same time, I never want anyone to say, "That can't happen!" Therefore, one of my feet will ALWAYS be planted firmly on mother earth. If it can't happen in real life, it ain't happening in my book.
- Relationship driven books are wonderful—but relationship books with nothing else going on are too much for me to stomach. I need a plot, people. Is that so wrong? One of these books is literally so focused on the relationship between two teenagers (when it's supposed to be a paranormal mystery of sorts—I assume, anyway) that there's no time in the book for plot development. I swear to all that is holy, every "clue" that is found is heard second hand from some secondary character. Mostly recounted while the two teenagers are alone, lusting after each other and staring at each other's butts… There isn't any real time action that tells the story for them… OH GAG. Seriously. I suppose the author thinks all the flashbacks are a cheat around this particular problem, but trust me, it ain't working. I want to throw this book at the wall so bad, there's practically a dent in the drywall already.
- I'm never, ever…EVER going to tell a story in alternating first person POVs. Especially if I can't make the voices distinctive. The book I'm reading is told from both the male and female MC's POVs. And honestly, I can't tell them apart. All I know is that "listening" to two separate MC's lusting after the other character is EXHAUSTING. And that's all they've done for 200+ pages. I'd rather be in the head of the bad guy. Whoever that might be. I'm not really sure WHO the antagonist is supposed to be at this point because I'd say about a page or two of that 200 has been devoted to the plot of the story. Yes, 'tis sad, but true. And no, I won't tell you what this book is. LOL. You get suckered into buying it, sucka. (Kidding. Sort of. I do regret the duckets I shelled out, but them's the breaks, kid. Hey, you might like it. A lot of people do.)
- This goes for YA: The absent parent thing is GETTING OLD. And this is DEFINITELY something I think a lot of YA authors struggle with (myself included): How to get the parents out of the picture without making them totally absent from the lives of their children. I have to tell you, though… the flighty artist thing…OLD. The workaholics… OLD. The dead parents…OLD. Do something crazy, people. Have the parents be an active part of their lives… and..excuse my language…F*ck a duck…have them get in the way of whatever the teenager is trying to achieve. Isn't that REAL?? I know my parents foiled more than one of my teenage spawned plans. I don't know about you, but I was pretty much a normal teenager on a lot of levels. I did some pretty whacked out things like spending time with my parentals. I sat down to dinner with them on occasion. Hell, I even had whole conversations that didn't involve them ignoring every word I said because they were too involved with work. On occasion, they even busted me doing something wrong! And—gasp!—I got in trouble. Parents aren't the problem in a young adult book. The problem is the tendency to want to treat and draw teenage characters that are more adult than child. Get over it, people. Kids are kids. Let them be kids. Nine times out of ten, that involves a parent occasionally popping in.
- Personal growth over the life of a series is a MUST. If you're going to write the same book over and over, why bother? If a character doesn't change in some way over the course of a book…let alone a crap load of books…what's the point? I can read the first book over again if that's all you're going to give me. I want to see characters who make mistakes and learn from them… or DON'T learn from them and end up spiraling into some fucked up existence that could've been avoided had they made a different decision somewhere along the way. Even a character that's completely messed up is interesting to me. If nothing else, I can root them on to getting back on their feet. Just because you've reached a point of huge success, doesn't mean you should stop pushing in your writing. Try something new… surprise us. I want to be surprised, all right?
There are more things…oh so many more things…that I learned from these two books. But I feel myself getting all grumpy. I'll stop here.
The point is… these books are bad. (At least in my opinion.) And while I wouldn't want to emulate them in any way, I've taken many 'a lesson away from them this weekend. Do I wish I had read something I absolutely loved? HELL YES. YES, I DO. But then, sometimes it's easier to deconstruct what doesn't work in a book than it is to figure out what an author did right. Because when they DO do it right, doesn't it seem flawless to your eye? Almost impossible to replicate? Yeah, that's how I feel sometimes… so even though they're painful, a bad book—occasionally—is a very good thing.
Monday, July 5, 2010
Friday, July 2, 2010
20 Questions with Joanna Bourne
She was willing to die, of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen...
And thus the world was introduced to the breathtaking talent of Joanna Bourne and her brilliant novel, The Spymaster’s Lady. A feeding frenzy began, accolades and awards bestowed –and none of it a surprise to those who have read her work. TSL tells the story of Annique, an elusive French spy who carries sensitive military information, and of Robert Grey, British spymaster. Theirs is an uneasy alliance –cooperation born of necessity, and a growing passion that neither can deny.
TSL was followed by My Lord and Spymaster, the story of Jess Whitby, daughter of a suspected spy, and Capt. Kennette, the man responsible for arresting her father. As each set out to prove the other wrong, love and passion get in the way.
And now Jo has a new book out, The Forbidden Rose. This goes back in time to tell the story of secondary characters featured in The Spymaster’s Lady –Marguerite de Fleurignac (Maggie) and William Doyle. Maggie is a noblewoman –a dangerous position in revolutionary France- and Doyle a British spy. Neither of them are who they claim to be, each leading double lives that could get them killed. Yet none of that matters when it comes to the heart.
Jo’s stories are heady mixes of action, adventure, history, and passionate romance. These books are gems, magical finds that sweep you away to other worlds. And the words. The words she weaves are poetry, like fine wine, or decadent chocolate. To read one of Jo’s books is to be swept away by voice. I remember first reading TSL and thinking, no one writes like this! But they should!
And we are so happy to have Jo stop by and play 20 Questions with us! So take a seat, grab a cup of coffee and enjoy!
On Writing and Craft:
1. A lot of us know you not as Joanna Bourne, romance writer extraordinaire, but a Jo Bourne, Books and Writer’s forum mate and conveyer of writing wisdom. In fact, for years I’ve been in awe of how well you “got” the craft. And how well you can break it down to its simplest parts. This is a natural gift, but who would you say are your best writing teachers?
JB: Y'know . . .
Teaching is not just a different skill set from writing -- it approaches writing differently.
You got this dual character to writing. The elephant in the playpen of fiction writing is story. It's dreaming stuff up and imagining. That's the magic. The hocus pocus.
And that's about impossible to teach.
It's the other half of writing, the craft part, the editing, reviewing and analyzing, that can be taught. That's what reviewers and scholastic types look at. That side of writing.
So the important thing to remember is that just about everything important, you can't teach.
As to how I learned to write . . .
I learned non-fiction at school, of course, like everyone does. All those essays on Clara Barton or how to tell a fish bone from a whale bone.
Non-fiction is a great place to learn to write fiction. They're both pounding words into shape to convey meaning. Most important, non-fiction teaches you the parsimony of expression that removes all the clutter from underfoot when you want to talk to somebody.
I am just about absolutely self taught in fiction. Never took a course in it. Really, I never read any of these writing books. I learned by looking at what other writers do and figuring out why it worked and then trying to do the same thing.
Late in the process I came across McKee's STORY and Maas' WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. Both of these -- I won't say they are strictly 'craft books' -- give me lots to think about.
2. What made you want to write?
JB: I think of myself as a 'storyteller' more than as a 'writer'. If we still told stories around the fire in a cave, I would be sitting cross-legged, doing that.
"Writer' versus 'storyteller' is an important distinction, because storytelling is not about the perfect words. Not about language. Nobody says, 'oh what a beautiful turn of phrase' when it's just storytelling. And the words are going to change a little each time the story is recast. Storytelling skips over the words and goes to the emotion you want to evoke.
Anyway, I started storytelling before I could write. Used to tell stories to my dolls, and to my little sister when she didn't wriggle away. And to the cat . . .
So that's the 'when' of writing.
I don't know exactly the 'what made me want to,' except that the stories are there.
I was all the way, not only grown up but middle-aged, before I realized that not everybody walks around all the time with their heads full of stories. Apparently they don't.
3. When you started writing The Spymaster’s Lady, did it feel different than any of your other work? That is to say, was there anything about it that made you think, “Yes, this is something special.”
JB: Different? Not so much. Leading up to Spymaster's Lady, I'd done two or three manuscripts to very late draft stage and become dissatisfied with them and consigned them to the dust bunny generation facility under the bed. I was trying to learn to plot, you see, and not making much progress.
The last of these trunk novels introduced the intelligence group I ended up calling the British Service. Adrian and Doyle appeared as secondary characters. It was a paranormal. And the plot just didn't work.
So I pulled up those two characters and moved the action to France, where I was living at the time. I got a toehold in Anneka's head. After several tries, the plot fell together. And that manuscript became SPYMASTER'S LADY.
4. Getting published has to be one of the best moments in a writer’s career. How did “IT” happen for you?
JB: Getting published is very cool indeed.
I'd been fairly brisk finding an agent, and that was also cool because she is a great agent.
It took longer for the agent to locate a publisher willing to take on the manuscript. Months. Close to a year. It is hard, apparently, to sell Romance genre stories set in France. So I worked on a second manuscript that wasn't set in England -- that was the Jessamyn manuscript and ended up titled My Lord and Spymaster. See how flexible I am?
My agent's insider knowledge of the industry told her when a new opportunity opened for the manuscript. She sent it out one more time. And it sold.
I was very pleased. *g*
Great editor. Great publisher.
Life is good.
ATWOP –good for all of us too, who are so very glad it sold.
4a. TSL took off like a rocket with both reviewers and readers. Did you and/or your agent, publisher do anything special by way of promotion/pre-promotion or was it all word of mouth (which would be no surprise seeing how extraordinary the book is).
JB: The publisher sends out Advance Reading Copies to reviewers -- twenty or thirty of them.
I made a website. I'd advise everybody to do that and to do it when they first submit their manuscript, before they sign the book contract because once you do you have deadlines and you don't have any time to go putting together websites.
Many Forum Folks who read the book liked it and were kind enough to SAY this on their blogs. It really, really made a difference in getting folks to buy the book. I am unendingly grateful.
5. Since The Spymaster’s Lady came out people have commented on your gift for creating authentic character voices. Smart Bitches wisely and accurately said of TSL, “linguistics students could study this narrative as a representative work on how to accurately portray the differences in languages and dialects without actually USING those dialects.” This is no easy thing. How does character voice work for you? Do you hear them in your head? Is this something that comes easy or something you must work at every step of the way?
JB: I do 'hear voices', which is very nice.
I don't know how anyone writes without voices talking to them. I just about cannot get the words down until I hear what my character sounds like. That is to say, I can get through a rough draft or two, but it's all lame and stupid till I hear what folks sound like.
Three thoughts on dialog:
You can put the words through a translator . . . twice. Bring the words out of English and then bring them back into English. That gives you the foreign syntax.
You can listen to a language without understanding it. This lets you pick up the cadence a little. There's a whole gestalt of body movement and facial expression and pauses, too. You try to add that to their dialog.
And you find TV and movies where you got yer French or Spanish or Japanese or Cockney or Scots native speaker talking. You listen to that for hours -- it helps if you listen to the same movie over and over again -- till it gets inside you somehow.
I'll bet actors have tricks for creating accents. I should do the research on actor's methods.
ATWOP – love, love the translator trick! I’d say you’re already a bit of a method actor, Jo. :)
6. To add onto this, some writers “see” a scene as it plays out, some hear it. How is it for you?
JB: Can I say, 'both'? When the scene is coming smoothly, it's like landing in the middle of a movie. It's happening all around me. Sight and sound and wind blowing off the fields into my face. Everything.
ATWOP – it definitely shows on the page!
7. Diana Gabaldon has these nice categories for characters: Mushrooms, who pop up fully formed; Onions, who have layers which you must work through to discover who they are; and Nuts, who are hard to crack and understand. What is your favorite type of character to write?
JB: I'd say they come to me like onions. I see the most obvious parts of the characters at once. Then they surprise me.
Every redraft, I learn more and more. Sometimes, it takes months before I 'hear' a new character's thoughts.
Like, right now . . . There's the character standing by a door, holding a knife, getting ready to attack if anyone walks through. I know what happens in that scene. I know how it's lit and where everybody is and what happens and what they all say. But I need to know what the character is thinking and feeling. I'm far from satisfied with what I have.
8. And as a follow up, do you have a favorite character, and was he/she a mushroom, nut, or onion?
JB: It's tough. We're supposed to be most fond of our protagonists. And I am, of course.
But the character I'm proudest of is Lazarus, the King of the Thieves. He was hard to put together. Just plain hard to write. I'm satisfied with what I made of him.
And he is, oh dear, another onion.
9. We at ATWOP are always interested in the process of writing. As every writer is different, can you describe your process for us? In other words, what gets you into that chair and the words flowing?
JB: Routine, routine, routine.
That's the only way I can do it.
I like to go to a coffee shop. I block out a long space of time every day. I sit down and set to work. I'm very fortunate in that when I do sit down, the words come to me. If I can't work on one scene, I go work on another. If I can't write, I work on the outline.
There's always something useful to do.
I can work for five or six hours straight, and then I generally stop. That's about all the brain will attempt.
10. We all know that first drafts are never perfect, but how much of the story comes together for you in that initial stage, and how much of it really shapes up during edits?
JB: Any more, I outline. Not just an overall plotting thing, either. I have every scene listed and planned out at the beginning.
Ok. Before that, there will be a few scenes I have in mind before the outline, while the story is still utterly fluid. Maybe I'll write them down, knowing they'll fit into the story someplace.
These are often just lovely scenes.
But most of the scenes I write after the outline and because I know what happens in them. They are 'purpose-built' scenes.
It's like I have the kitchen cabinets to install and I know where they fit. Then I put stuff inside them.
That said, the plot is not cast in stone.
I'll be writing along in the first or second draft and I will have a Moment of Enlightenment at Four In The Morning. I will realize how to Simplify Everything and make it all fit together better if I just add this thing or subtract that thing.
For instance . . . in the manuscript I am working on right now I just tossed out the last 20% of the plot because I Don’t Need It.
So I make huge changes in the first and second draft. After that I have so much invested in the text I don't want to mess with big chunks of it. After that, we're not so fancy-free and flexible.
11. And the all important question when it comes to writing: In the great debate of method… chunkster vs. linear? Seat of pants vs. outline?
JB: Outline. I think this is 'cause I have complicated stuff going on and I have to lay clues in Chapter Twelve for stuff that's going to be revealed in Chapter Twenty and maybe even vice versa.
So it has to be organized, however much this strikes at my free-spirited, flower-child heart..
I write some chapters out of order. That is, I'll see them clearly and go ahead and write them. But it's mostly linear. I got no reason not to be linear, really.
12. Your books form a series, in that although they are not written in chronological order, they involve many of the same characters. Is this how you intended to write these books from the start? Why?
JB: I always did intend to set a number of books in the same fictive world -- this 'world' being a period of time and a geographic place and some real history and a lot of fictive history and some characters.
I didn't feel I had to go all the way back to the beginning of the timeline with the first book. For me . . . it's almost as if all this stuff is happening at once, because I know about all of it. I see the characters' whole lives, so I can write about them at any point in that life. I could write Adrian as a young boy or an old man, because I know his whole story and 'see' him simultaneously as all these things.
I try to make each of the books standalone. You can read just one.
13. Let’s talk about your newest book, The Forbidden Rose. What was the hardest scene to cut from Forbidden Rose? And why did you cut it?
JB: The first scene in the book is Maggie and the rabbit. I cut that scene out.
Then I put it back in again.
Did this five or six times.
Eventually they come and take the manuscript away from you and you have to stop doing that. It ended up with the scene 'in', but it could have just as easily ended up with the scene 'out'.
Think of all the things writing teachers say about how to start a story. Do not have Talking Heads giving introduction, they say.
And that's what I'm doing.
I was still thinking about cutting the rabbit scene when I did the copyedits, but it just stuck on like taffy.
14. What major surprises did your characters give you when writing this book? Did they do/say things that you’d never intended them to, but then seemed just right? (without being too spoilerish, obviously!)
JB: I was surprised that Jean-Paul carried a knife. I really didn't know he had it on him till he pulled it out.
Jean-Paul reached smoothly to his jacket where it was hung over the back of the chair. He came out with a long knife, the sort used in kitchens.
Jean-Paul with a knife. “Stop that.” She turned the other way. “Guillaume, do not hurt him. I mean it.”
“Me?” Guillaume spread his hands. They were empty, which made them no less dangerous. “I’m not carrying weapons.”
“And do not look stupid. I am all out of patience with you looking stupid. Jean-Paul, will you put that away before Guillaume tears you apart.”
“He won’t tear me apart,” Jean-Paul said.
“When did you start carrying a knife around with you? We are not bandits and Mohawks upon the streets. What do you need a knife for?”
“I use it to pry open specimen boxes,” he said, being Jean-Paul and literal. “And to separate rhizomes.” He was watching Guillaume, not her. She had not realized Jean-Paul could look so cold.
“Then you should leave your knife to prying boxes and not wave it in people’s faces. What do you think you will do? Hold off a column of dragoons with it? You are being ridiculous.”
“I’ve used it twice, Marguerite.”
She knew, then, that he was saying he had killed. He held the knife the way that boy did. Hawker. He cradled it close to his body and pointed upward. Jean-Paul had changed one day, when she was not looking. He had become a man she did not entirely know.
I didn't see any of that till I was in the scene. It happens that way sometimes.
15. What will you be working on next?
JB: I'm writing Adrian and Justine's story. This one happens way down at the end of my timeline in 1818. And I have some further complicated action that falls in 1802
More historical research, she sighs.
And the silly:
16. Most delicious thing about the Napoleonic era?
JB: The clothing. The wonderful clothing.
Look at what we got. We got light, pretty dresses made of beautiful fabrics, complementing and complimenting women. Clothing without prudery. Democratic clothing, that allowed simple, cheap imitations of the best fashion. Comfortable clothing. Clothing that caressed and appreciated the human form, rather than attempting to extinguish it.
This was fashion's little respite between bum rolls and bustles.
ATWOP – I’d have to agree; clothing always pulls me in. *g*
17. Maggie and Doyle - who would they be if they were celebrities?
JB: Not so much movie stars, because I just don't watch movies to any extent.
Doyle is like Odysseus -- canny, cynical, a shrewd observer, a survivor, always trying to make it home.
Maggie is like a young Eleanor Roosevelt. Principled, strong as steel, aristocratic, unbeautiful, compassionate, practical, realistic.
Maybe that doesn't sound like a Romance genre couple. Heck.
ATWOP- actually…it does. *g* Because you know they’ll be unstoppable together.
In the world of epic spy heroines:
18. Mata Hari vs. Annique
JB: Oh, Annique would whup Mata Hari's butt, collecting intel.
There would be Mata Hari doing the hoochie koochie dance in the parlour. But Annique would have snuck off to the back room to open the safe and go through the desk drawers. Or she'd be down in the kitchen, charming ALL the secrets out of the servants.
Nothing obvious about Annique.
19. Annique vs. Jess vs. Maggie
JB: They're very different sorts, those three. Annique is the field agent, Jess the forensic accountant, and Maggie the operations manager. If I had some little problem to clear up, I think I'd send them in together, actually.
20. I keep my RITA…
a. On my living room mantle with strategically placed spotlights to enhance her golden glow.
b. Discreetly tucked away on my office bookshelf.
c. She has her own pillow on my bed and tends to hog the covers!
JB: Actually, she has her own Malibu Barbie's Beach House. And a Pepto-Bismol-coloured corvette convertible.
I loved this interview. And it is no surprise to me that I learned so much just by reading it. I want to thank Jo for playing, and as an extra treat, leave a comment and you’re entered to win a copy of Jo’s latest book, The Forbidden Rose. Deadline to enter is 12PM EST, Saturday, July 3, at which time a winner will be randomly drawn. Enter early and GOOD LUCK!