Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Happy New Year!

I cannot believe this year – this decade - is about to end. Ten years ago, I saw in the year 2000 with a bunch of friends at a 1930s-themed “Host a Murder” dinner … most of which I missed, due to my then thirteen month old Child # 1 coming down with gastro and vomiting on me all night. Ah, the joys ...

This time round we’re seeing in the new decade at the home of some of our dearest friends, who also happen to have a pool in their back yard; a huge blessing, because 2009 has decided to go out on a nasty old high of 42C (that’s 107F, for anyone shivering in the depths of winter!)

Kristen’s terrific post got me thinking over the year that was. I have much to be thankful for in my life – my wonderful DH and kids, good health and great friends, including the three awesome gals with whom I blog. I am truly blessed and content; and I know a large part of feeling this way is down to my writing. It is not the be all and end all of my life, and there are days when I wonder why I ever decided to do it; but nevertheless, writing is the one thing I do that is just for me, and it gives me a great measure of happiness and satisfaction. I’m especially proud of the fact I set out to write a book amidst the craziness of raising a young family, and have done just that.

I agree with Kristen that New Year resolutions are usually overrated and destined to fail; still, I think it can be a good time to sit back and quietly ponder what you may want to achieve with your writing in the coming year. That may mean nothing more than deciding the coming year is going to be so totally insane that you won’t set any writing goals at all; that you will write purely for pleasure, if and when the desire strikes. But it could also be that 2010 is the year you decide to really give writing your all, especially if you have dreams of publication. 2009 was the year I decided to give all I could to my writing. I set some goals I pretty much stuck to, which I know were a big part of why this was the year I finished the first draft of my book. I’m going to do the same in 2010, but this time the focus of my goals will be revising my current manuscript to make it beta reader-worthy, and to make a start on my new book.

Now, I know the reason goal-setting worked for me has a lot to do with the fact that I’m just wired that way - I was once an anal, goal-oriented lawyer, after all – and I know setting goals doesn't float everyone's boat … but still, if you’re thinking of setting some writing goals for yourself in 2010, here are a few tips:

The trick with goal setting is to be optimistic, yet realistic. There is no point setting goals you’d have to be superman/woman to meet. All you'll do is fail, which is not what you're aiming for at all. Conversely, I think you need to challenge yourself a little. Push for something you may not be sure you can do, such as aiming to submit an article or short story for publication, or add an extra 100 words to your word count goal. You’ll probably be surprised by what you can actually do.

Break down your goals. Say your goal is to write a novel this year. A novel is around 120,000 words – that works out to roughly 330 words a day. Not so scary when you look at it like that, plus it gives you an achievable goal to aim for each and every day.

Set goals you can actually measure and track. Rather than setting myself a goal to write a certain amount of time each day, I set a word count goal. I knew if I dithered around for two hours each day, only to produce a measly 100 words, I would be old and grey and senile by the time I finished my first draft. So I set myself a certain number of words to write and most days I would not let myself get up from my chair until I'd written that number. Then I logged how many words I actually wrote, which really helped me to pinpoint those days when I didn’t make my goal, and to work out why and fix the problem. I’ll be doing the same when I start revisions, but this time I’ll be setting a certain number of pages I want to revise each day. No idea what that magic number will be yet; I suspect it will depend on how much I groan when I do a first read-through of my SFD.

Tell someone your goals. It could be your significant other, your writing partners, your next door neighbour … anyone who will actually ask you “So, how are you going with your writing?” Over at the Books and Writers forum, posting your goals in the monthly goals thread I run is a good way to make yourself publicly accountable for what you set out to do. Oh, and printing out a simple statement of your daily goal – WRITE 330 WORDS – and sticking it somewhere you can see it when you sit down to write, is also a good reminder. Especially if it’s in a twenty point font, capitalized, and red. (g)

Rewards. I promised myself that if I did indeed finish my book by the end of 2009, I could then enjoy a few weeks of guilt-free, non-writing … which is what I am doing right now. I'm spending my extra time reading books that have been on my TBR pile forever ... it's bliss!

So, that’s how goal-setting worked for me; I hope it continues to do so as I head off into the uncharted territory of revision land in 2010. What do you find works for you when it comes to setting writing goals? And where do you plan to go with your writing in 2010?

A Hard Year

So the year has come to an end. I remember when it started. I remember telling Rachel and Claire that 2009 would be a great year. Then came the illnesses, there was always someone in the house who was sick –flu, cold, etc. Then my DH got laid off for a time, putting us thousands of dollars in the hole. Recover from that and my dad dies unexpectedly. Not good. Not easy, either.

I’ve capped this year off by falling and breaking my wrist. Never mind all the things that happened to my good friends. LOL. Had I seen what was in store for me in 2009 would I have been so optimistic?

I can’t be so sure. I still have a roof over my head. I have good friends, a lovely and loving family. 2009 saw the birth and completion of my second novel, a story that I love and am very proud of. In 2009 I took the plunge and hooked up with an agent that I am very excited to work with. So conversely, if my future self told me, “hey, Kristen, you’ll soon get to work with your number one pick agent”, what would I have thought of 2009 then?

This is why I can’t call 2009 a “bad” year, but a hard year, and why I’ve decided not to make too much of New Years and the grand sweeping resolutions that usually go with it.

The past is a memory, the future a dream. The present is where I live and breath.

As a writer it is so easy to get swept up in dreams, build sandcastles in my mind. And miss my whole life in the process. Living in the now, taking every day as it comes without immense expectations, or thoughts of self-pity, suddenly seems a whole lot healthier and an easier dogma to live by.

So today, when 2009 is taking its last yawns, climbing into bed to curl up for that final sleep, I’m thinking about the things I have. As for this blog, I am grateful for the friendship I have with the beautiful, wonderful, talented women who inhabit this space with me. They are my partners in crime, and a huge part of me being the writer I am today.

I love you, ladies. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

As for you, dear reader, take time to enjoy the now. Breathe, and be happy that you are here.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Check Your Ego At The Door

As a writer, you'll have the biggest ego in the world, and no ego at all, at the same time.

--JA Konrath

I can't tell you how this sentence resonated with me. It's something I've been wanting to blog about for a while, but for whatever reason I haven't been able to nail down my thoughts in a coherent fashion. It's a hard concept to grasp—the idea that you can have all the confidence in the world when it comes to your writing, yet no confidence at all. It's one of those things that when spoken aloud raises eyebrows and earns you "the look" from family and friends. But say it to another writer, and hopefully he/she understands exactly what you mean. If not, you may be in trouble. (kidding) Rest assured. I get it. Boy, do I get it.

I've even coined a term for this "disorder."


And boy is it a wild ride on the crazy train.

By nature, we as writers have to have a certain level of confidence to do what we do. After all, we're basically saying to the world that we have stories to tell that people will WANT to read. Sure, we write for ourselves because we enjoy the experience of telling a story…but at the same time, most of us ultimately want to be published. Let's face it…we all started out thinking we were the shit when it came to storytelling. Don't apologize for this. It's only natural. You could say it's a requirement…an asset you need in the bank before you start down this path.

I remember I blogged a couple of years ago about one of my aunt's friends. It was early in my writing journey—as I recall I had just come out of the writing closet with my family. This woman found out I was writing and pulled me aside during a party to tell me how much she envied me. That writing a novel was her secret dream. At the time I think I had just finished my first book and I was riding the high of making it to The End. When I urged her to go for it, she quickly backed down and said it was too late in life for her to try. I'll admit I was kinda self-righteous at the time. I remember saying on my blog that even if my book went nowhere, even if it was never published, at least I had the courage to try. That I didn't let fear stand in my way of living out my dream. I, unlike this woman, showed some balls.

What I realize now is that I didn't give her feelings enough consideration. I WAS this woman at one point in my life. We all were. Remember how downright scary it was to decide to write a book? Remember the insecurities – the worries you had? Is this story going to be good enough? Will it be interesting – will people like it? Will I be laughed off the writing stage if/when I show it to people? I mean, raise your hand if you kept quiet about what you were doing, not telling anyone for some time. Heck, there may be some of you who still haven't told anyone. Wherever you are in your writing career, you must admit those initial steps were SCARY. Quite honestly, I can't pinpoint with any certainty what pushed me though that barrier of doubt. What prompted me to say to hell with fear, I'm going for it. All I can is that I am SO grateful that I did. It isn't easy to take that leap, so be proud of yourself if you have. And if you haven't – DO IT. It isn't easy, but trust me, you'll be so grateful if you do.

Want to know something really terrifying? It doesn't get any easier.

Oh, you grow in confidence when it comes to the basics of storytelling. The more you write, the better versed in the mechanics you become. I can say with all certainty that I'm a better writer than I was when I began. I know this. I have confidence in it.

But deep down I'm still plagued with so many insecurities. They rear their ugly heads in all kinds of situations—even some surprising ones.

Think back to the first time you showed your writing to another person. I'm talking _the first time_ you printed out, emailed, whatever…your work to another living human being and waited for his/her response. Are you having an anxiety attack the way I am right now? Remember the nervous anxiety you had – the knots in the pit of your stomach? Remember how excited and proud you were that you had created something that before was just a blank page – a jumble of words that you organized into a coherent (at least that was the hope) story with a beginning, middle, and an end? Remember how at the time it felt like everything was riding on what this one person had to say? How with a few negative or positive words that person could impact your entire future?

Well, that's me every time I show my work to someone. Every Time.

I set out to show my work with Complete Confidence. I know it's good. Damn good. Only…

Somewhere in that millisecond between when my finger hits the 'send' button and I realize it's actually winging its way out to a reader or readers…there's a flip of the switch. Anxiety kicks in. Oh shit…

My Writing Is Crap!

All I want to do is pluck that email/blog post/whatever out of existence and go hide under my bed. I'll be safe there. I won't have to worry about whether or not people like it. No one will laugh at my poor grammar or the fact that that scene I thought was SO funny is SO not.

Friends often laugh at me. They say, 'Oh Jen, why do you always give these long disclaimers when you send me something? You always say it's going to be bad and it never is.'

I'll admit, I do have my mantras.

"Remember…this is first draft. It needs a lot of cleanup."

"Ummm….I just whipped this out, remember? Go easy on me."

"I still need to flesh this out a bit…it's just the bare bones…"

In reality what I'm saying is: Please say you love this!

I'll admit these disclaimers probably sound like a heap of false modesty. That I'm fishing for compliments. But in reality, I'm scared shitless that someone is going to say… "Yanno, Jen…you really can't write for shit." It's my biggest fear. That I'll be found out for the fraud that I am.

Oh the neurotic life I lead.

So yes, when JA Konrath made the statement:

As a writer, you'll have the biggest ego in the world, and no ego at all, at the same time.

I Got It.

I live in fear when I write, but the important thing is, I do it anyway.

Who's with me? Shall we start holding NWS-anonymous meetings? J

Monday, December 28, 2009

Breaking the drought

I've been through a couple of periods in my life where writing went on the backburner in such a major way that I completely lost my mojo.

You know how you feel when you get into the swing of things, and you can't stop writing? Words flow freely, ideas pop up all the time, and your characters live and breathe inside your head (and on the page!). It's wonderful!

And I'm sure you all know how the opposite feels- you sit in front of a blank screen for hours on end, no words even remotely close to your fingertips, and then you give up and surf the Internet instead because it's easier than trying to squeeze blood out of a stone.

My droughts go another step past that- it's like I've been kicked out of the mental building by security, and I can't even get back in the door. I can barely remember what I was writing about in the first place; my characters don't "talk" to me any more than the dog or the cat do; and even the idea of opening up my word processor makes me sigh with reluctance.

During these times, I don't just not want to write. I hate writing. I feel like writing is the hardest thing anyone has ever done, and I'd rather die than do it. Not such a great way to look at your favourite hobby, huh?

I'm smack in the middle of my second-biggest writing drought ever. I haven't sat down in earnest and attempted to write any of my WIPs in any major way in about 18 months.


Mostly it's because I had a baby last year, and she's one of those super-active, crazy kids who needs constant stimulation. Getting three minutes alone is tough- and before anyone tells me to write while she naps, well. She only sleeps if she's sleeping with me, day and night, and she still wakes eight times a night. I think the exhaustion of that is the biggest factor. Attempting to even think about my writing brings back a loud, "DOES NOT COMPUTE" from my brain. All I want to do in my spare time is SLEEP.

But you know, I've been here before (not the sleep-deprived, perpetual parenting place, but the writing drought). And every time, I've found a few things that help me bust out of that awful mindset, and eventually get me back on track. The reality is, no matter how hard things are you can find things to do that keep you in the game, whether it's actual writing or not.

So, without further ado, here are my tips for breaking the drought (or surviving it, at least, until your life calms down enough that writing is fun again). And I feel qualified to talk about this again because I managed to churn out a brand new first chapter for Between the Lines last night, measuring in at just over 2000 words, plus a completely reworked (and IMHO significantly better) plot outline while my husband took my daughter to build sandcastles at the beach. Huzzah!

1. Write, write, write.

Don't stop. If you can't stand the sight of your WIP and if fiction full-stop turns your stomach, then start a blog. Start a diary. Just keep writing. I can't even begin to tell you how much of a huge factor this blog has been in recovering my mojo, partly because of reason number 2.

2. Set yourself goals and (dare I say it) deadlines, and don't make excuses.

The reason this blog has been so good for me is that I know I MUST post every single Monday, no matter what's going on in my life. I don't have the excuses I usually make- baby, work, watching a marathon of Dexter- I've committed to write every Monday, and come hell or high water, by God I'm going to do it. Ditto the serial story- every four weeks, I've got a chapter to do, regardless of nappy changes and teething. It's teaching me that if I took this approach to my writing *all the time*- if my obligation was to myself, instead of my friends- then I'd be getting places with my story. So MAKE yourself your own boss. Set yourself deadlines and goals, and stick to them.

3. Reconnect with your story

Read parts you loved in the past with a positive eye. Look for things you love about your writing. Remember why you enjoyed your story in the first place, and why your characters were people you liked to spend time with.

4. Write your WIP for fun

This might seem contrary to the deadline approach, but I find myself least likely to write if what I'm writing is something I "have" to do. In the interest of keeping on with your writing when times are tough, give yourself permission to muck around with your characters. Visit a house party at the CompuServe forum (the first one ever held is here; the sixth is due in February, taking all our characters to ancient Egypt). Write backstory that will never appear in the real thing. Write a diary for a character you're having trouble cracking. Do a SOC exercise.

5. Give yourself a break, and quit the guilt thing

I hate that I haven't managed to write anything much at all in the last year and a half, but you know what? I have reasons. Good reasons. Real life is tough. A lot of us try to approach fiction writing as if it were a "real job", or we at least think about it. That's why we curse ourselves when we have extensive down-time. But think about it like this- imagine if writing really was your full-time job, and then you just happened to get a second full-time job as a hobby. What if that second job was the job you currently do full-time? Do you think you'd be able to spend your off-hours working as a lawyer/ researcher/ manager/ teacher/ whatever you do without dying from exhaustion?

I'm going with a no here. So, take it easy on yourself. You're already working hard enough without adding guilt over your writing. You'll finish when you finish, as long as you keep your own interest and work through the hard times.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas, Everybody!

It's been quite an unusual Christmas for me this year. Due to a severe winter storm warning, my family decided not to travel to my grandfather's house until Sunday. While I sort of bemoaned this decision at first, it was probably the right one as this morning I can barely open my door -- the snow is that heavy outside. It's beautiful and all, but I don't see myself going anywhere today. big plans do NOT include a big yummy dinner or time with family or friends. I've decided to go to my other "home away from home." I will be catching up on some reading.


Okay, I'm trying not to get down at about this whole thing -- it's weird being home-locked this way. But I'm trying to remind myself that Christmas will just be a little late this year.

At any rate, I have plenty of books to read (lord knows I have PLENTY of books) and already dug in yesterday by finishing off THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold and BLISS by Lauren Myracle. I think I'm going to tackle CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins next. I'm almost afraid to read it, knowing the final installment doesn't come out for several months. After that, who knows?

I should probably be working on my own book -- but it's Christmas. No need to do any sort of work if you ask me. Even writing. :)

I've decided to post a music montage (you know I love me a good music montage) of the movie Home Alone. (How fitting!) This has to be one my all time favorite Christmas movies--I know it's not overly sentimental, but it totally hits my giggle button every time I see it. Macaulay Culkin is so dang cute and it always puts me in the Christmas mood. Plus, it always makes me miss CrunchTators! (Remember CrunchTators??) Yummm.

Have a very Merry Christmas everyone! :)

The giving season

Merry Christmas, everyone! Like Rachel, Christmas Day happens a little earlier for me since I'm in Australia- I'm presently slumped on the couch in a food coma after an amazing lunch with every relative who lives in this state (this is so rare, I can't even begin to tell you). I made all the food (and I loved every minute of it), and they did all the washing up- the world is as it should be! We've been spoiled rotten with lovely presents, and just now I'm thinking this might be one of the best Christmases we've ever had.

Last year was not so good- we'd been out of hospital for only eight days after spending an awful month in there after the birth of my daughter. While things were looking pretty good for her, they were also very uncertain- there was a chance that the severe brain injury she suffered at birth might leave her completely disabled.

Needless to say we have a lot to be thankful for this year after Sophie proved them all wrong and turned out perfectly healthy.

But feeling thankful doesn't seem like enough after all the things people did for us last year, and on our minds this year were the nurses, doctors and midwives of the neonatal intensive care unit who have to spend Christmas holidays apart from their families in order to look after very sick newborns. So, not being able to give much, I decided I'd make a big platter of Christmas treats to take to the hospital for those working the holiday shifts.

The staff were delighted to see it, but even more delighted to see my walking, talking, bright-as-a-button bundle of joy (who gave her old nurses high fives and big waves hello and goodbye). I felt really pleased that we'd been able to bring them a little bit of Christmas joy.

Now, I know not all of you have miracle babies and medical professionals to delight, but just saying- if you have the time and the baking inclination, this could be a good thing to do for a hospital (or a Ronald McDonald House, or something like that) in your area next year.

Anyway! Here's my platter:

And here are the recipes for the goodies, as a Christmas present to you :) If you need to convert from metric to imperial, I recommend this awesome page at Diana's Desserts. I hope you all have a wonderful day full of love and laughter.

Cranberry white chocolate shortbread

250g butter
125g icing/ powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
300g plain flour
75g dried cranberries, chopped
100g white chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius.
Cream the butter, sugar and essence until very pale.
Stir in flour, chocolate and cranberries.
Roll tablespoons of mixture into balls and place on baking trays. Flatten each ball with a fork, then place the trays in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, until slightly golden.
Cool 5 minutes on the tray then transfer to a cooling rack.
Try not to eat every last one there and then.

Scottish tablet (a kind of slightly hard fudge)

1kg caster sugar
1 tin (c. 400g) of sweetened condensed milk
100g unsalted butter
100mL fresh milk

This recipe is so easy (no candy thermometer required!), but at the same time there are some technical steps which are best illustrated with photos. So go here for the whole story.

Peppermint bark

200g milk chocolate
200g white chocolate
9- 10 candy canes

The easiest of the lot.

Melt the milk chocolate (in the microwave or in a bowl over a pan of boiling water), then spread it out on a baking tray. Place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Crush the candy canes (I placed mine between sheets of plastic wrap, then wrapped that in a tea towel and hammered the crap out of it with a meat mallet :))
Melt the white chocolate (as above). Spread it over the milk chocolate, then sprinkle it with the crushed candy canes and press them slightly into the chocolate.
Return to the refrigerator until ready to serve- then break into pieces.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

It's already Christmas Day in Australia. Presents have been unwrapped (unbelievably, the kiddies all slept until 8am - bliss!); about a million batteries have been installed in various toys and devices, and it looks like everyone is happy with their gifts - phew!

So here's a little something for you. It's not "Christmasy", and you may well have seen it before, but damn, it always makes me laugh - I hope you do, too!

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Let your mind wander ...

This will, by necessity, be a short post. Not because it’s Christmas, funnily enough, but because I have done something incredibly stupid and inconvenient by managing to well and truly throw out my back. Heck if I know what I did, but all I’ve been able to do for two days is lay flat on my back, with no sign of improvement. Sitting or standing is just craptastic, to say the least, and my chances of getting into a physiotherapist at this time of year are zilch. Thank God for Voltaren and white wine! :-P

(ETA - and I just saw poor Kristen's post. We should both be locked up, for our own safety! LOL)

But I am happy to say there is one serious silver lining to my predicament. Beached on the floor, kids preoccupied with various electronic gaming devices, I’ve actually been able to start thinking and daydreaming - not about revisions, but about my next book. And by George, I think I’ve got it!

I woke from one of those half-sleeps with a scene in my head and a few lines of dialogue, and thank God I managed to haul myself up from the floor, wipe the drool from my chin, and bash it out on the computer. This is what I got:-

Victorian London, 1890s. A woman (Lucinda) is in a very masculine looking study, seated at a vast desk, spectacles perched on her nose as she rifles through paper work. A man bursts in. He’s agitated, has pushed past her butler, Norris, and without introduction or taking off his hat, he addresses her:

“Where is Mr Stone?”

She ignores him a moment, then carefully squares the papers she was persuing and sets them to one side.

“Not here.”

His sideburns seem to bristle. He strides to the desk, plants his palms on its polished surface and looms over her.

“Where. Is. He.”

She removes her spectacles with exaggerated care and puffs a circle of fog on each lens. “He is on client business. Confidential client business.” Holding his glare, she slowly polishes her spectacles on her cuff.

His face darkens. He reaches into his coat. He thumps a thick, cream-coloured envelope upon the desk, then picks up the empty glass tumbler at her elbow.

“See that he gets this,” he growls, and slams the tumbler down upon the envelope.

He stalks from the room, unaware – or uncaring – that he has caused her tumbler to craze with a spiderweb of tiny cracks. A smile plays upon her lips as she settles her spectacles on her nose. “Oh yes, Mr Stone will read this,” she murmurs, taking her razor sharp dagger from the clever nook carved in the edge of her desk. “In fact, I will make sure he does so immediately.” The blade flashes as she runs through the envelope’s seal, and leaning back in her chair with a creak of leather, she begins to read.

Literally dreaming up a scene rarely happens with me, so I was a little freaked to have a character pop up, with a name of her own (and one for her butler! LOL.) I've been ruminating about it ever since, and I have what I think will be the beginnings of a Victorian mystery/suspense, and I'm excited!

So, the bad back is not all bad. And I am again reminded that when it comes to writing, it is completely necessary to back away from the computer in order to daydream and let the subconscious do its thing. I tend to try to park my butt and force the words, which is OK; but this time round, before I start to write, I really want to let my subconscious run wild and see where it leads.

Hopefully I won’t need another rotten back in order to do so!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Christmas Story

Hey all.

Well, I broke my wrist tonight so I won't be able to do a proper post.

So, in light of Christmas, and the fact that I'm missing my dad -who passed away this year (cuz this is SO my dad!), here is a clip that might as well have been stripped verbatim from my childhood. :) As another artist might work in oils or clay...snort! Anyway, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and enjoy!

Pop! Goes My Heart!

As a follow-up to Claire's post yesterday, I'm going to be covering "modern voice."

I attended a workshop this fall about humor in fiction. Specifically, balancing humor with a darker subject matter. i.e. a crime thriller that has Evanovich tendencies. Needless to say, it was like the clouds of heaven parted for me that day. PERFECT class for me to take, right? What I found interesting was that in the end I didn't learn a dang thing. Oh, I did my fair share of nodding and agreeing throughout – YES…that's how I write comedy – but there were no great epiphanies. It just reaffirmed my work habits: I don't plan jokes, I don't say to myself that a scene is getting too serious so therefore I need a joke within the next line or two to lighten it up. I simply write and let my characters' voices carry the weight of trying to decide what comes next. It's organic. I just do it.

Not exactly helpful, eh?

Well, in a way, the same sort of principle applies to writing in voice. There's really no piece of advice that I can offer up that will be the one answer to nailing character voice. It all comes with time. Practice. Listening to the voices in your head and figuring out what they will or will not say. At this point, I can pretty much write Madison into any scenario. I know her. I hear her voice clearly, and I actually get a huge kick out of putting her in strange, new places. SO much fun to put the modern girl in a different time and see how she reacts. In all truth, she's Madison no matter where she lands. Why? Because she takes her modern day POV with her wherever she goes. Her sayings, her vocabulary, her cultural reference points.

In a lot of ways, contemporary writers have it much easier than historical authors. Our cultural context is all around us. We can literally pull a character's voice from the weird cat lady that lives down the street…or from that funny Caucasian guy you went to school with who sounded like he grew up in the hood (he's appearing in FAKING IT 3, btw), etc. If we're in need of inspiration, it's just a matter of opening our doors to the world and soaking it all in.

We also have it tougher in some ways. Mostly because if we get it wrong, there are a LOT of people out there who will know. Plus what we may think of as a popular reference, others may say is too obscure for people to get. Historical writers are dealing with things most people wouldn't know—on a big picture level. There's probably a little more wiggle room for artistic license. Of course, I say that, completely disregarding the historical sticklers out there that will point out even the smallest flaw.

Hell…we all have it tough.

But the thing is, no matter what time your character inhabits, you have to feed the story with details that he/she would know, say, have experienced, etc. If your character is a cop, he darn well better know how cops talk—to each other, to suspects, to their higher ups. That doesn't even begin to touch on the lingo used in the profession, the procedures they follow to conduct investigations, etc. We've all seen enough cop shows to get the general "flavor" of who and what a cop is… but unless you want your character to be a copycat of one of the detectives on CSI, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. Plus..*cough* Don't believe everything you see on TV. Just sayin'.

Imagine if I had Madison, a modern day undercover drug agent, saying… His unwillingness to come away with me in an orderly fashion vexed me greatly.

No, no, no…that simply wouldn't do. Now… The shithead was pissing me off. He kept struggling like a kindergartener doing the potty dance… THAT would make sense.

Try to get inside your character's head…and STAY there.

One point in particular I wanted to touch upon is cultural references. Should you or shouldn't you use them? Let's face it…publishing is a slow business. If I were to turn FI in tomorrow and dream agent jumped on it right away, read it overnight, and started shopping it as soon as the sun came up… chances are it wouldn't hit the shelves for a year…two years…possibly more. Making a reference about…say Tiger Woods and his many trysts (I'm so behind on this bit of gossip, btw), chances are it wouldn't resonate with readers years down the line quite like it would in a book today. But obviously, people aren't going to forget his name anytime soon. So take a chance and put it in? I'd say do it. Especially if you can get a good laugh out of it. (grin) But the thing is, by putting that person's name in your book, you risk several things.

What if…

  1. He's proven innocent after all of this hullaboo?
  2. He makes a "comeback" and two years from now people LOVE him. (Hey, happened with Slick Willy)
  3. Two years from now people are OVER Tiger Woods jokes. In fact, they will burn whatever book makes another reference to TW.
  4. Two years from now some teen picks up your book and says, "Tiger who??"

To put it bluntly, you could be up shit's creek without a paddle if you start offending/annoying/confusing all of your readers.

Ironically, I posed a related question to the panel I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I'm rather…erm, shy, when it comes to asking questions in front of a large audience. So for me to raise my hand and take the plunge is a pretty big deal. My question dealt with pop cultural references in books – whether they use them and whether or not they would recommend others do.

I think only one woman answered. (been a while) Her answer was that her books sell in mass market trade paperbacks…in and out of print so quickly that she never really worries about the longevity of her work.


I can dig the realist approach, but MAN. Not what a newbie writer wants to hear! (grin) I, like most of you, have dreams of being on the shelves for many, many years. I want my stuff to last. That said, I'm not really afraid to put a more obscure pop culture reference in a book. Why would I do this if I know beforehand that a lot of readers won't get it? Well, to put it bluntly….if making a specific reference is the only way I can get across the point/thought/feeling/image I want to convey…then I'm gonna use it.

I recently did a beta read for a friend, who I ironically met at this same conference. In her book, which is FAB-U-LOUS, she has a sort of crotchety, condescending and judgmental woman attending the main character. The character thinks something along the lines of: Oh great, my own, personal Mrs. Danvers.

Show of hands of who got that reference.

I'm betting a good number of you, especially if you're under say 30, didn't. (Hint: REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier. Read it. Rent it. Both the book and movie are fantastic.) But dang it, I got it. And I totally giggled when I read it, thinking of the stern faced Mrs. Danvers and how she scared the bejesus out of me. But I'm fairly certain I'm the minority in this case. That said, I'd tell said friend to keep the reference. SOME people WILL get it..and some people will think the reference absolutely wonderful and humorous. In a way, it's a reward made special for that select group. Nothing wrong with that in my book… the rest can wiki it.

In my books, I make pop cultural references all over the place…some fairly recent, some a little more obscure…

I tested the heft of the pack. Not as good as a barbell or a lead pipe, but it would do a fair job at bashing his brains in. Yeah, that's what I'd do. "Bash them right the fuck in," as my pal Jack Nicholson would say. Then I'd drag his carcass into the police. Let him explain how he got igloo-whipped by a girl.

--A little reference from THE SHINING and being 'pistol-whipped.'

My mind scrambled for some way out of the predicament. There was only the one door to the room. Even if I could somehow escape the man beside me, I would still need to contend with Reynolds.

I could always pull a half-hearted Helen Hunt and pretend the drugs had made me completely bonkers.  Not that there was a two-story window I could jump out of, or that I had a shot in hell of pulling it off as well as she did.  But crazy couldn't be that hard to fake.  I mean, consider the source.

--Probably one of my more obscure references. DESPERATE LIVES has one of the best "don't do drugs" messages out there. Plus it's hilariously funny at the same time. Can't go wrong with that. (Bwhahaha…Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee)

To say we were hoochified was an understatement. The thin strips of material we were calling skirts barely left anything for his perverted mind to flick away. And our blouses…well, let's just say my girls were getting a good view of the room. As were Brynne's.

--An example of Madison's voice. I think she owns the trademark on the word "hoochified."

The contents of my stomach lurched as I watched David walk an embalmed frog across the dissecting tray in some weird marionette dance.

He sang along. "Walk this way, talk this way. I told you to…"

--Makenna from BY THE PALE MOONLIGHT. Come on, everyone knows that song, right? Well, I've been given flack over this one. Go figure.


A bit of a longer excerpt from FAKING IT:

    I'd never bothered to step out this particular door before, but I'd had my eye on it for some time. During the card games, several employees regularly went in and out of it. Now was my time to seize the moment and see where it led.

    It opened to a small area that ran along the perimeter fence of the property. The spot reminded me of a junkyard. Various discarded parts lay strewn about, cushioned by layers of cigarette butts and beer cans. It was overgrown with weeds, and it smelled like rotting garbage left out in the sun too long. Rundown and disgusting—that's what it was. Boy was I surprised to find two men sitting in the middle of the rubble smoking a joint.

    Ironically, the pair seemed to fit the place. From the shabby look of them, it could've been one of their backyards. How in the world did this little gem of a place go unnoticed by the upper brass?

    One of the men was Jimmy Rotham, a forklift driver I'd seen around on occasion. The other guy was new to me. He eyed me suspiciously as I approached. "Who the fuck are you?"

    The guy looked similar to Jimmy. Both had shaggy long hair that hung in their eyes, a mother's nightmare no doubt. Even I felt the urge to brush it away from their foreheads and tell them to get haircuts. While Jimmy's hair was dark, this guy's was blond. They both wore the standard issue overalls similar to mine, and I suspected they spent most of their time in the greasy duds.

    "I'm Madison. Who the fuck are you?"

    "How's it going, Madison? Ignore Rory here…he's an asshole when he's stoned." Jimmy pointed to a vacant seat. "Come, sit with us. You cool?"

    "Sure I'm cool, but only if you're sharing."

    He laughed. "Hell yeah, girl. Get on over here then." He passed the joint to me, and I took a hit. Rory watched me closely. There was always one in every group. Hopefully he would chill out after a while. Sometimes they did and sometimes they became royal pains in my ass, scrutinizing my every move. I could always hope for the best. Simulating marijuana is easy, but one could never be too careful.

    "Where you from, anyway?" The guy wanted to dig.


    I took a second hit from the joint and slowly exhaled. "What the fuck's it to you?"

    "You a narc?"

    I passed the joint to Jimmy. "Aww, damn. You caught me. Who are you, Perry fucking Mason?"

    Jimmy laughed and socked Rory in the arm. "Perry Mason!" The guy was stoned out of his mind. I tried hard not to giggle at him.

    Rory stood, face red. "I'm out of here, man. You're gonna get busted if you start trusting every piece of tail you see walking around this place."

    The two of them were the equivalent of Bill and Ted from that crazy movie I'd seen years ago. Neither looked older than twenty-one, and I highly doubted either had finished high school. They had lifelong potheads written all over them.

    "Chill, man. She's cool," Jimmy said.

    "You stay if you want. I'm out of here." With one backward glance at us, Rory stepped inside.

    Jimmy watched him go then burst out laughing. "Told you. Fucking asshole."

    "Yeah, you told me."

    We sat in companionable silence and passed the joint back and forth. Occasionally one of us would cough, but that was the extent of our conversation. I was relieved, but felt pressure to carry the moment forward. I sat with the words on the tip of my tongue for the longest time, unable to open my mouth and say them aloud. It was like that sometimes, especially with the users I ran across. Most of them were just looking to have a good time and weren't big time dealers. It was my job, though.

    "This is some pretty good shit. Know where I might score a bag?" I'd said it and it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my chest.

    "Hell yeah. How much you want?"

    This just might be my day, after all. "How about a quarter? I'm kinda low on cash right now."

    He coughed as he took another drag off the joint. "Hell yeah, no problem. I know a guy who can get you that for thirty bucks."


    He nodded as he flicked the cherry out of the joint. "Tell you what. You meet me after work. I'll get you hooked up."


    We made arrangements to meet by the entrance to the plant, and I went back inside like I owned the place. Gabe's eyes followed me once I entered, but I ignored him. Right now I felt like a million bucks. Reynolds was gone, but even his absence didn't bring me down. As I saw it, this was the first step toward nabbing my man.

--Two things from this. One, Madison's 'narc' voice is much tougher than her regular voice. She cusses a lot, tries to act tough. Basically, she puts on a "druggie" fa├žade. It's a lot different from her usual voice, though her thoughts usually go along the same lines. Two, hopefully everyone got the Bill & Ted reference, allowing you to picture these two surfer type dudes that are sort of dim bulbs.

Okay, I've prattled on for a while. Hope this helps in some small way – or at least that it gives you a little food for thought. So…question. Do you use pop cultural references or do you try to stay away from them as much as possible?

 BTW, if you got the obscure pop cultural reference in the title of this post, you have earned my pop girl respect.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

I'm flat out like a lizard drinking

Which means, in Australia, that I'm busy as hell- which I'm sure you all are, too, coming up to Christmas!

What's the relevance of this, you ask? Well, today I'm going to talk about using idiomatic language to create authentic character voice.

I did a short course last year on writing dialogue. It's one of my weaknesses, and I felt the need to do something about that. Unfortunately the course was pretty terrible- for one, I was the sole and only student who enrolled. For another, it was aimed at playwrights, and the instructor didn't quite know what to do with a novelist. And lastly, the guy was determined that I had to cut back on my Australianisms, because they just didn't sound right to him.

There are a lot of things I'm prepared to compromise on, but authentic language is not one of them.

I'm writing about English speaking people who lived in the 20th century, but the way country dwellers and soldiers in Western Australia talked between the two World Wars is a long way from the way your average city-dwelling modern English playwright speaks today.

How do I know that? It's a combination of reading widely and doing my research. By reading stories, poems and novels set in the same time period as mine, I get a feeling for the language of the time. By reading diaries, newspaper articles and other historical references from the same time, I get an even stronger understanding of language and common references. Every time I see something mentioned so casually that it doesn't warrant further explanation, I know I'm looking at a piece of cultural information that was well known at the time.

As an illustration, here's a page of Thomas Lockyer's diary on which he uses a little of the Australian language common at the time-

For example:

He had a feed (he ate)
He had dinner (lunch) and supper (dinner!)

(Tom recorded every meal he ate in 1916 as if it were a new religion of sorts)

There are lots more terms that were in common use at the time but are no longer heard- cobber, for example, was something you called your friend (or your mate, as you'd call him both then and now). There was a lot of rhyming slang, which you still hear in the country today but much less commonly in popular culture- your trouble-and-strife, for example, was your wife. And there was a lot of food which, due to drought and tough economic times (not to mention rationing, not to mention a much less privileged view of the world) was common then but not now- mutton, tripe, sweetbreads- today's average 18-year-old (the age Bill is when he goes to war at the start of this story) would probably not even know what those were.

Another interesting factor is that Australia switched over to decimal currency and measurements from imperial in 1966. Before that time, it was all pounds, shillings and pence. These days it's dollars and cents. Measurements were discussed in pounds and ounces, feet and inches and miles, compared to today's kilograms and grams, metres, centimetres and kilometres. Though today's Australian readers might not understand the exact measurement of a quart or a bushel, it would be completely inaccurate for my characters to talk about anything else.

There's also a whole military lingo as used by Tom Lockyer in his diary- falling in, going on parade, and the like. This is just part of the story, but the language has to match.

I believe that no matter what language or accents your characters employ, you need to make them understandable. Get too busy with idiomatic phrases and altered words and you risk limiting your audience only to those who have the same background as your characters (since they're the only people who'll understand what you're on about). But I think that for authentic voice, you have to at least capture the spirit of the language and the time by using idioms, time-specific phrases, and cultural reference points.

I believe this applies whether you're writing historical fiction or contemporary, and tomorrow Jen's going to demonstrate how she does it in her modern story.

Someone once suggested that writing was like painting- you start with a blank canvas; etch in the outlines of the major figures; paint the background, and then the detail. I tend to see writing like that, too- don't worry about getting it dead right the first time. You can always go back and paint in more detail later.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

You've Spoken!

Due to the holidays, the next installment of A KILL IN TIME is postponed until New Year's Day...Sorry!!! (sheepish grin) I have a ton of stuff to do, and well, you understand, right?

At any rate, when we next hear from Sam, perhaps...just perhaps...she will actually meet up with Frank again, and perhaps we'll be able to solve the mystery of Dr. Lipsenard. You never know, tho.

Muhahahaha. :)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Kill in Time: Part 5

Sam stared off into the darkness long after Frank's tail-lights disappeared, trying but failing to stop the tears. "Stupid man!" she sobbed out loud. God, he thought he could handle this all by himself! He didn't understand. He was doing just what they wanted him to do, and he hadn't even given her the chance to warn him.

She leaned back against the wall of Chronos and tried to think through the panic that threatened to choke her. Frank had taken the car. All she had was her bike, and she didn't have the half an hour it'd take to get to the other side of town.

"Perhaps I can be of assistance?"

"Holy shit!" Sam jumped back against the door, hand to her heart, as a man stepped out of the shadows to share her pool of light.

"I apologise for startling you. So sorry." He stepped closer, and she groped for the door handle. The guy had the look of a used car-salesman, slicked back hair and a suit so expensive and new that it almost shone in the dark. He gave her an equally oily smile and adjusted the cuff of his shirt.

"What... What are you doing around here at this time of night?" Her voice came out reedy and weak, so she cleared her throat and upped the volume. "Are you lost?"

He shook his head and grinned again. There was something just... not quite right about this guy. Above all else, he'd managed to sneak up on her in the dark, and she hadn't heard a thing. What the hell was that about?

"I own a factory on the next lot. I was checking on a security alarm when I heard..." He inclined his head apologetically. "Well, I heard someone weeping, and I came to investigate." He took another step forward, now well and truly in her personal space. He was so soaked in heavy aftershave that she almost sneezed. "Are you all right?"

She forced a smile. "I'm fine, I'm good. No problem." Her wits were coming back to her, and she remembered a self-defense class from years ago. "My boyfriend is just coming to pick me up."

He raised one dark eyebrow. "Your boyfriend? Not Frank, then?"

Her mouth fell open. What the hell? "It's not really your business."

"I didn't mean to offend. I couldn't help but overhear your argument with... uh... Frank."

All she wanted right now was to turn around and let herself back in the building, but she didn't dare look away from the man. "I'm fine, really. My boyfriend is going to be here any second, so you can just... go. Thanks for your concern."

He gestured around them. "I'd feel so much better if you'd just let me wait til he gets here. I wouldn't want to leave you... alone. It's not safe." He smiled again, and she almost shivered.

The lot was emptier than empty, pitch black as far as the eye could see. She couldn't even hear a car within five miles. It was like this part of the city had been abandoned by human life. And she was locked outside of her building, with no way of communicating with anyone, and she had an overdressed slimeball right up in her face with a smile that made her skin creep. Holy shit. Was she about to be the victim of a garden-variety murder- oh, hell, probably a rape, too- in the midst of all this bizarre craziness? Frank was with Lipsenard, too far away to help. Cold panic swam all over her.

In an instant the smile dropped off his face, and something black and ugly swarmed behind his eyes.

Adrenalin kicked in and screamed at her to fight. She lifted her arm and swung with all her might- and stumbled forward into emptiness. She got her footing back and spun wildly, chasing the darkness for any sign of the man who had been standing there only a second before. Standing right there.

A low laugh echoed out of the parking lot. She staggered back against the warehouse door, heart in her mouth. Where the hell was he? What the hell was he?

There was a breath of wind and a whisper in her ear. "You already know the answer, my sweet."

She spun again, but she was looking at empty air. She took a deep breath and tried to stop shaking. She was just not up for this kind of crap right now. "Show yourself!" she shouted.

There was a moment of complete stillness, and then the night itself shifted, and he was right in front of her again. "As you wish."

The air erupted into flames and she threw up an arm to shield herself. Squinting through the heat and the glare, it took her a few moments to process what she was seeing. Standing in place of her used car salesman was something from her darkest nightmares- a monster on animal legs, huge, horned and...

The thing clicked its fingers, and just like that the fire was gone and the man in the bad suit was back, the same too-wide grin on his face. Through perfect white teeth, he hissed, "You're mine. Then Frank."

After that, a lot of things happened at the same time, all within seconds.

The thing lunged at her, and she felt anger boiling up from inside, a white heat she'd never experienced before. She opened her mouth and screamed- and the air around them seemed to shatter into a million pieces, echoes of the sound going on and on until she had to put her hands over her own ears and crouch down to get away from the buffeting waves of noise. When the sound finally dimmed to a faint ringing in her ears, she looked up.

The beast lay twenty feet away, sprawled motionless on the bitumen. The lights were all out, but she could see it all clearly- smashed glass everywhere, every window in the area rattled to pieces.

Her self-defense teacher would have been so proud. A half-crazed giggle escaped, coming out as a sob.

And there was a car, parked not ten feet away, as if it had been there the whole time. A silver convertible, top down, all the windows totally intact. Two people sitting in the front seats, mouths hanging open- the driver a younger woman with oddly silver hair swept up in a beehive; the other a guy who looked like he might have escaped the gorilla enclosure at the zoo except for the gold tooth winking out at her.

She took a shaky step forward as the driver opened her door and stepped out of the car, pushing aside a long gown of black. The gorilla hopped straight over his door. All three of them had eyes only for the inert body of the man in the suit.

"Is he...?" Sam didn't want to get any closer than she had to.

The gorilla shuffled closer and gave the suit a kick. No movement. He looked back up at her, grinning, and spoke like he had gravel caught in his throat. "I think he is." He turned to his companion. "I think she did it!"

The other woman had her arms tightly folded across her chest, lips pursed. "What I want to know is how she did it."

Sam wouldn't have minded the answer to that one, either. "Just who are you, anyway?"

The gorilla jostled forward, holding out a giant hand, but just as she reached for it he yanked it back. "I'm Brahman," he said. "Sorry, but..." He nodded from her hand to the dead guy. "You know."

Sam nodded, numb. She hadn't even touched him. She hadn't even had to. "And you?"

"Midnight," the woman said. She didn't make a move to unclench her arms.

"Brahman. Midnight." Sam looked between the two of them. "I'm guessing you didn't just get lost on the way home from the theatre?"

Brahman snorted. "We came for you. We thought you might need some help, but..."

"I do. I do need help." She waved an arm. "I need to know what the hell is going on here."

Midnight tapped her elegant stiletto against the pavement. "I'd like to know that, too." She turned to Brahman. "You know, I've only ever seen one person who could do what she just did. One person."

Brahman nodded, thoughtful. "I know. I just don't know how it could be possible."

"I do."

All three of them spun toward the voice that rang out of the shadows. Familiar, deep and smooth. "Simon!" Midnight exclaimed.

He walked towards her slowly, almost limping. The beautiful face she'd seen only in her dream was stretched with tension and sadness, the blue eyes deep with despair. Grief radiated off him as he reached her and stood looking down into her eyes. "Livy. Oh, Livy." In an instant, the shell broke and he collapsed against her, sobbing. By instinct she put her arms around him and held him while he cried. For such an elegant man he had surprising bulk; broad shoulders and strong arms. Behind him, she could see Brahman and Midnight staring in stunned silence.

"Simon. Simon!" He was squeezing her so hard she could barely breathe.

Finally he let her go and stood back, holding her by the arms, examining her face. "It's you. It really is."

"Samantha," she said softly. "My name is Samantha Nichols."

He nodded, and smiled a sad smile. "I know, my dear." He put an arm around her shoulder and turned back to his friends. "You understand what this means?"

Midnight nodded, terse. "She's gone, isn't she?"

"She... she is. I lost her in the rip, I don't know how. And when we landed here..." A shudder ran through him. "Her body was the only thing left. Empty."

"I'm sorry," Sam said. "I'm so sorry." He squeezed her shoulder in acknowledgement.

"So..." Brahman was scratching his big ape head. "Are you saying that Sam's powers..."

Sam answered herself as the realisation hit her. "Came from Livy." She turned to Simon. "Is that it? You're saying I've somehow taken on these powers? I just don't see how that's possible."

He smiled gently at her. "Samantha, dear. You haven't just taken on Livy's powers. You have her... essence, I suppose. Her..."

"Her soul? Is that what you're saying? I've been... I don't know, possessed?" She rubbed her face with both hands, then sat down promptly on the concrete step. "This is a lot to take in."

Simon settled next to her. "It's the tip of the iceberg, I'm afraid. You see, we are all special- but Livy... well, Livy is something else." His jaw clenched. "Was something else. Was."

"I saw. What I did..."

Simon nodded. "Her powers are unlike anything on earth or beyond. You must understand that she posed a great danger to Them. And now so do you."

"Who is 'Them'?"

Brahman chuckled. "That over there was just one of them. Just a soldier in the army."

Midnight rolled her eyes. "What does that make us? Are we each "just a soldier"?"

"They are like us," said Simon. "They are special, too, but they choose to use their powers for nefarious purposes. That.. thing... is one of their most elusive hunters. Was."

They all looked over at the body.

Or at the empty space where the body had been before Simon arrived. Empty.

Sam jumped to her feet. "Oh my God. Where is it?"

They all rushed over, but there was no sign of the fiend. Sam watched as the other three exchanged worried looks.

"I could hear her three streets away. Thinking." Midnight didn't bother to hide her scorn.

Sam bristled. "Hey!"

Simon shook his head. "She didn't even know he could hear her."

"He could hear me? Thinking?"

"He could. You must receive training in how to use your powers correctly, my dear, and as soon as possible."

Sam nodded. "Yes. Okay. I should. But not right now- you said he could hear me thinking? Well, I was thinking about Frank. He said he was going to get Frank next, and now he knows just where to find him." The cold panic was back, and Brahman and Midnight each backed up a step.

Simon smiled. "You're glowing, my dear."

She looked down at her hands and found them swathed in translucent blue. "Holy shit."

"You understand that anyone can see your emotions when you are like this. All of your vulnerabilities are visible, to anyone."

"Including them."

He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "You must receive the training, my dear. Frank will be fine for now- the beast must return to his lair to regain his energy, and besides, Dr. Lipsenard knows what to do."

Sam sighed. "Of course he does. Everyone does."

"Let's get her to Nemo, then," said Brahman.

Simon looked up sharply. "No. We must train her ourselves, somewhere safe."

Midnight raised one slim eyebrow. "No Nemo?"

Simon took a long, deep breath. "They have him. He and Sneedly."

Midnight and Brahman gasped.

"It is not Nemo I'm worried about. I fear Sneedly will have told them all our secrets before we can get there."

"Then we must go there right now!" shouted Midnight.

"We need Olivia's powers, Magdalena." Simon's tone was soft, but authoritative. "And we need Sam to have full control of them before we throw her into a confrontation."

"It will be too late by then!"

"I will not risk her again, Midnight!"

They were up in each others' faces, shouting. "You risk all of us, every single one, if you delay!"

"Stop!" Sam cried. They both looked at her. "I am the one with the powers." She pointed at Midnight. "I am the one who decides where we go next." She turned to Simon. "You can't do it without me, right? Well, you'll have to do what I choose, and I'll tell you what we're going to do next."

Holiday Reality-Check

It’s five in the afternoon and I’m sitting at the computer on another blistering, Aussie summer day, trying - without success - to think of something sage and coherent to blog about. It’s a disgusting 40C (104F) outside, which in my book warrants the ice-cold beer sitting within easy reach on my desk; plus, I was rather hoping the amber liquid would lubricate the wheels of my creativity. Sigh. No such luck. In this weather, all my mind can do is wander … in particular, to January and the holiday planned for my tribe and I.

At the last minute we were lucky enough to book eight days on a pristine stretch of beachfront on Kangaroo Island, a mere 45 minutes by ferry off the South Australian coast. Forget the palms and coconuts – a tropical paradise, it ain’t. But it’s just as beautiful, in a rugged, untouched wilderness kind of way. Like this:

Water, sun and sand … the perfect ingredients for a summer holiday.

And, although I’m sure none of my family will appreciate this fact, the very best part of this trip is that the booking includes a cleaner, who’ll come through and clean up our beach house after we leave! Oh, the bliss! So, for eight whole days, I will have very little to do in the way of housework (except maybe concocting a meal or two a day, and let me tell you, I’m working very hard at skipping out of that obligation!), and the kiddies will spend virtually all day, every day, on the beach - which all means I will have a lot of free time on my hands.

Now, how should I spend said time? Sleeping, novel reading, sipping champagne while watching the sun sink into the ocean … these all hit the top of my holiday “to-do” list. (g) But then again, I really should use that extra time to start revisions, shouldn’t I? It’d be kinda cool to sit beneath a beach umbrella, manuscript in hand, editing away …

In a word – NO.

Because I know that in reality, there really won’t be as many peaceful hours as I think. In reality, my family will at some point want to see mum, with her vampire-white legs, down on the beach building sandcastles with them (and mum actually really wants to do this – erm, not flash the eye-blinding skin, but muck around with the kiddies.) There will be day-trips, movie-nights, sleep-ins …

Sigh. I’ve done this before (and I’m sure I’m not alone); I see the holidays, with their lack of routine and the DH around a bit more to help with the kids, decide to use the extra time to tackle the writing, and then set my sights too high. During the holiday season, it is inevitable that real life will take over - as it should, IMO - and trying to achieve lofty writing goals only leaves me frustrated, not to mention extremely peeved at the people and/or situation cramping my writing-style.

No one wants the Grinch around at Christmas!

So, instead of diving into revisions, I think I'll finish reading through all the useful revision advice I’ve printed out from the Forum over the past few years; or maybe work through a bit of Don Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook; or re-read a couple of books I want to study for their use of suspense and structure; or begin to sketch a rough synopsis … or simply daydream about my book and see what gems of inspiration the old subconscious may send up. Nothing *has* to be started; nothing *has* to be finished.

So, if you’re looking at your holidays and rubbing your hands with glee, desperate to get stuck into the writing now you actually have some time … I’d recommend you take a reality-check and make sure you’re not setting yourself up for disappointment.

Think about simply editing existing scenes, or doing rough sketches of new scenes, or reading a book on the craft of writing, or doing a bit of research on the net. Don’t abandon all writing related activities; just scale down your expectations and set goals that match your circumstances. You’ll feel good because you *will* achieve something; plus, your friends and family will like you a whole lot better when you’re not a seething mass of frustrated rage. (g)

So, how about you? What do you plan to do with your writing, with any extra time you have these holidays?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009



They’re a bitch. There’s no doubt about that. We as writers agonize over openings. For good reason, as our first words are the first impression we give to the reader. As the saying goes, you’ve only got one shot at making a first impression.

Agents, editors, and readers are going to read your work from word one and, based on your opening, decide whether your story is worth reading. Readers, I think, are probably the most kind. They will usually give you the benefit of a couple of pages before they put you down. Not so for agents and editors. If you want a peak at the tedium that is reading through opening pages, take a look at Nathan Bransford’s opening paragraph contest. He received about 2600 entries, which is pretty on par with what many agents see in a month, sometimes in a week. Could you read through all of that? The thought of it makes my eyes cross.

So how to stick out from that crowd? And more importantly, how do you create that opening that is perfect for YOUR book.

Now, I realize a lot has been said on perfecting your opening. Advice goes that it should be in media res, or in the middle of the action. Start with a bang not a drizzle, introduce characters not scenery, etc.

The problem being for a lot of openings is that this idea of starting with action, in media res, is taken too literally. We get lines on blood shooting out, a murder in place, some chick hanging off a cliff, or mid-conversation between two people. And no one cares because the reader does not yet know these characters. There is no vested interest in what happens to them. Conversely, there are openings in which we are treated to a whole lot of babble and info dumps in which nothing happens. I call them the Holden Caulfield rambles, deep reflections of pondering angst. (g) They seem especially prevalent in literary works. And believe me, I’ve been way guilty of the Holden Caulfield openings. (g)

But we know all this. So why is it so damn hard to get that opening right?

I’ll confess here that openings really tied me in knots for a long time. And out of all of us here, Claire is probably the best at openings (go read her opening to Behind the Lines; it is amazing). But I’ve found a technique that has really helped me and I wanted to share it with you.

You’re telling a story. So tell it. In the simplest terms.

One good tip is that the story starts on the day when the person’s life is altered by such and such events. Good plan, save a lot of us will start that story at the wrong point. For instance, we start at the point where the event occurs.

Let’s say DH comes home tonight and at dinner, I say,

“I got mugged.”

He’s immediately going to say, “What?! How! Are you okay? What were you doing?”

(Why? Because we have a natural need to know how some big event went down, not just the event itself. )

To which I’m going to say, “Well, I went to the bank today –you know you forgot to deposit your check yesterday and we almost bounced three bills….”


“Hmm…I’m sure you are –again! Anyway, the bank covered it. As I was saying, I went to the outside ATM because it was lunchtime and the bank was full. There I was trying to remember my pin number.”

Snort from husband.

And” glare,this guy walks up to me….” Blah. Blah…

Do you see my point? I can’t start my story with the guy walking up to me. That leaves the listener (reader) confused, slightly irritated. Nor can I start with getting up for breakfast, reading my emails, pondering life and why my husband keeps forgetting to deposit his check, and why doesn’t he get direct deposit like a normal person? And so on.

How did I get in the situation to be mugged? That is the natural starting point to my story. We know how to start a story better than we think. We do it all the time. We’ve been telling each other stories throughout human history. We have conditioned ourselves to want a build up. The key is to find the natural point in which to start that build up.

I.e. Alice did not simply fall down the rabbit hole, Dorothy didn’t immediately get sucked into a tornado. Their stories started just before that point. We the readers were grounded in their lives, given a glimpse of Alice’s boredom and forced propriety; Dorothy’s gray listless Kansas life.

So try it yourself. Write a paragraph or two telling, yes TELLING, what your story is about.

My story is about a young girl who, in a fit of boredom, curiosity, and slight rebellion, follows a little white rabbit down a hole and ends up in a world where everything is upside down and down side up. To get back home she must learn to adjust to this crazy thinking and learn to govern her own wits.

Now, once you’ve got that part down. Write the whole of your main character’s day. From the time they wake up, to the time the action/event occurs. Write it as if you were starting your actual book:

Alice awoke to the same view every day, the painted clouds of a grey London sky upon her nursery room ceiling. Suppressing a sigh, she tossed back her covers, got out of bed and padded across the cool floorboards toward the door that connected the nursery to her nanny's rooms. Quietly, she peaked through the keyhole, hoping to discover if Nanny Fran had arisen. If not, she might have ten perhaps twenty minutes of uninterrupted play. “Spying again, Alice.” She jumped at the strict tones of Nanny Fran coming from behind her…

This part may -or may not- appear interesting. But it is a false start –a little trick we the writer play on ourselves. We feel that we ought to give a nice long background of the character. Too long.

Imagine it, going through the ins and outs of Alice getting dressed, eating her milk and bread, doing her lessons, getting invited by her sister to go outside with her sister, making daisy chain, become disgruntled by books without words, seeing a white rabbit with a suit on… ho! It has suddenly become a bit more interesting.

As for the overkill of in media res, what if it started like this?

“I’m late, I’m late.” The white rabbit in the red waistcoat pulled out a pocket watch and glanced at it again. “Oh, I’m late!” He ran off. Alice, blinked in surprise and followed…

Sure, there is a strange occurrence, and, yes, I’d want to know why there is a talking rabbit in a waistcoat, who is also consulting a pocket watch, but I’m also confused. Where is this? Who is Alice? Are they in a fantasy world where rabbits always go around dressed and talking? I find myself too tense. And the writer then has the problem of convincing me that this isn’t a normal occurrence for Alice by restoring to what? Backstory. The writer now has to somehow have Alice follow the rabbit into this world, AND make us understand that this is going to by quite strange for her. A lot of work, no?

So, if Alice were to tell it, where would she start? By telling us that she was outside with her sister, quite bored and sullen. Her sister was reading one of those dull books with only words, which really, she couldn’t quite see the point in that! When what did she spy but a talking white rabbit in a waistcoat, looking at a pocket watch. How very curious! Well naturally she had to follow something like that!

And thus we have a grounding of Alice’s character, how her days usually go, and then the strange event that pulls us in right along with her. More importantly, this makes sense from the CHARACTER’S point of view. This is where the character finds her day becoming interesting as well.

By writing the whole of your character’s day, you will find that a natural start does occur. And that is where you start your opening. Easier said than done, obviously, but try it. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.