Friday, December 31, 2010

A New Year, A New Page

We will open the book. Its pages are blank.
We are going to put words on them ourselves.
The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year's Day.
- Edith Lovejoy Pierce

I’m not a resolution maker. I’ve done it and then promptly broken the resolutions before the fizz was off the champagne. Instead, I like to think about what the next year has in store. Like the verse above says, it’s a new book, the pages are blank, and I have the opportunity to fill them.

As writers, we’re all well-acquainted with the blank page. Most of us have greeted the clean white page with the excitement that comes with freely-flowing ideas and the abundance of words that wait to spill from us. Alternately, we’ve watched the cursor blink, blink, blink, on the blank page as we struggle to find a way to begin. The blank page is both a blessing and a curse.

Here are few ways to keep your writer's enthusiasm in the coming year -a few ideas for keeping the blank page filled:

Write everyday. We’ve all heard this advice countless times because it’s true. Have a goal and stick to it. Make a time to write every day. Meet your muse at the appointed time and she’ll reward you. Some of us work better with word-count goals, some of us with set-time goals, and some of us with rewards. Whatever works, use it, and watch your story grow.

Read everyday. If writing is your passion, make it your business to know how others do it, how the craft is used, or abused, by others. Be entertained, be inspired, be educated. Step out of your comfort zone and read in new genres, find a new author to rave about, read, read, read.

Finish a project. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a project to completion, whether it’s a work-in-progress, a sweater you’re knitting, or taking down that hideous velvet wallpaper in the front hall… Finish something, and when that project is done, find another to finish. The momentum gained as projects are conquered will spill over into your writing life. Success breeds success.

Connect with other writers.
There is nothing better than the company of like-minded souls to encourage you and give advice. Find a writer’s group this year and join in. Or start your own group. There are good writer’s groups on-line, such as CompuServe's Books and Writer’s Community.

Try something new. Just for kicks, try writing in a different genre, or write a poem, or a love letter, write something different that sparks the pathways in your brain, shakes up the monotony and gives way to the extraordinary and the imaginative.

Enjoy the process and welcome the adventure. We write because we have a passion for a story we want to tell. Enjoy the journey along the way and greet the process as an adventure in discovery - discovery of character and plot, discovery of our strengths and weaknesses, discovery of new ideas, new lessons learned. Every time you sit down to write, there’s something to be discovered. Sometimes a character will show you what that is. Sometimes you’ll find it yourself, but the journey is amazing.

Learn about the craft.
Knowing the craft can only make you a better writer. Read at least one book on the craft of writing, take a class, or attend a writer’s conference. Not only will you be inspired, you’ll go forth armed with new techniques, a wiser and better writer, for having educated yourself.

Dream big, don’t get discouraged. Keep your goal in sight. What writer doesn’t want to have a best-seller? But don’t be overwhelmed by that thought. Instead, tell the story within you and leave the niggling doubts and inner demons at the door.

Take care of yourself.
A healthy writer is a happy writer. Plan some exercise in your day. The endorphins from exercise are a natural high. You may find that ideas and inspiration strike while you’re out on a bike ride or taking a walk. Get out of the desk chair and meet your characters in the gym.

May the coming year be one of inspiration and a never-ending flow of words. You have a year’s worth of blank pages just waiting to be filled.

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
- T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best Reads of 2010

So I sat down to blog on my regular Wednesday this week, but then came the interruptions, both good and bad - the bad being a sick cat, who so far has needed three trips to the vet in four days - the good, the neighbours who popped in for a quick chat and ended up staying for a very late and lingering dinner in our back yard on a balmy summer night. Ah, I do love the holidays!

Anyway, here I am, better late than never, squeezing in between Claire and Susan to talk about the books I read in 2010, my favourite ones … and to do you a deal. You see, I’ve had a bit of a book drought of late – tons of books in my TBR pile, but none of them really grab me – so I was hoping that if I shared my favourite reads of 2010, then you might share yours. Deal? Great! (g).

First up is WOLF HALL, by Hilary Mantel.

This book would have to be my all out favourite read of 2010. A big, fat, work of literary historical fiction, and winner of the 2009 Man Booker prize, it is the story of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s marriage-fixer, and his rise from being the battered son of a violent blacksmith to becoming one of the most powerful and wealthy men in England in his day. The story is written from Cromwell’s point of view, and is written in the present tense, which works wonderfully well in that it lends an immediacy and intensity to the story, and really lets you worm right into this man’s mind and heart as he navigates the political intrigues of Tudor England and tries to reconcile his conscience with the things he must do in the name of, and because of, the King. The amount of research Mantel must have undertaken is truly staggering, and has resulted in a vibrant, rich and beautifully written tale.


This is the story of two men, opposite and unalike in so many ways, and the often hilarious results of the entwining of their lives.

Olivier is a French nobleman whose family decided to ride out the French Revolution in France rather than flee … only to find themselves despised by their class when Napoleon is ultimately overthrown. Parrot is a rough-hewn Englishman of dubious and shady background - footman, artist, spy – and the book covers their very different childhoods – one of privilege, one of poverty and hardship - and their unlikely paring when circumstances see them thrown together, and they travel to America. Olivier is sent off to America by his mother, ostensibly to review the country’s new prison systems, but in reality to remove him from harm’s way when he comes too close to a political intrigue that could see him lose his head; Parrot, on the other hand, is strong-armed into accompanying the haughty nobleman by the mysterious and sinister “Monsieur”. The result is a rollicking adventure, with nods to both Dickens and the life of Alexis de Tocquville, French historian and political thinker … but mostly it is an exploration of the nature of friendship, and democracy.


This is the fourth in Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey mysteries, and a fantastic and humorous read it is. Exotic and lush, the story unfolds on a Victorian-era tea plantation in India, where murder awaits Julia and her enigmatic detective husband, Nicholas Brisbane, as they travel on their honeymoon. Lots of subtle and witty humour, spiced with rapier-sharp repartee and the antics of Julia’s eccentric family members, the story is a satisfying read, with a surprisingly poignant ending involving Julia’s sharp-witted sister, Portia, that brought a tear to my eye. A wonderful world to escape into.

FINGERSMITH by Sarah Waters

Sarah Water is a brilliant wordsmith, and this cracking-good Dickensian tale, with a HUGE twist in the middle that will make your jaw drop, is a fine example of her literary prowess. Set in 1862, Fingersmith is the story of Susan Trinder, an orphan who grows up in the slums of London amongst an adoptive family of petty thieves who are all under the care of their matriarch, Mrs Sucksby. But unknown to Susan, her fate is linked to another orphan, growing up in altogether richer and stranger circumstances … and this dark, twisted tale begins in earnest when Mrs Sucksby decides it is time for the two girls to meet. This is a thumping good read - long, deliciously dark, and very satisfying.

THE UNSEEN by Alexandra Sokoloff

And in a departure from my historical fiction obsession (g) …

The Unseen is the story of Laurel McDonald, a young psychology professor who accepts a posting at Duke University in North Carolina after a seriously life-changing event – she experiences a precognitive dream that leads her to break her engagement, while at the same time seriously unnerving her. Trying to forget her troubles, she delves into the archives at Duke and uncovers files from a 1965 psych experiment – one that left the entire research team either insane or dead. Run to prove whether ESP really exists, Laurel becomes obsessed with these old tests - whatever answers the research team uncovered could help to explain her own flashes of precognition – and with the assistance of a male colleague, she locates the house where the final parts of the 1965 experiment were performed … and sets about performing them herself. And this is where the book gets seriously creepy. The house itself becomes a central, disturbing, character in this tale – an abandoned, Southern Gothic mansion, once owned by a family with many dark secrets - and what happens to Laurel McDonald and the university students who accompany her to this house for these experiments … well, it’s serious, “sleep with the lights on” material. I was SCARED. Big time. And I loved it.

So tell me, what books did you love in 2010?

And Happy New Year!!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The final countdown

I've wandered my way through the wilds of the first draft, conquered Second Draft Land, and now I'm into new territory- The Final Draft.

Scary new territory at first- what do I do? Where do I go? How do I get from a passable-but-still-not-complete-or-for-that-matter-great second draft, to a polished, pretty, perfect final draft?

Well, here's what this obsessive outliner, plotter, planner and deconstructor is doing.

Here's what my main Scrivener window looks like at the moment:

Click on the picture to enlarge, and you'll see a whole range of components that explain how I'm tackling the conversion of my second draft into my final draft (click on any of the following pictures to enlarge).

First up- the chapters are listed down the left. You can see from the following close-up that some are blue, some are red, and some are brown.

The blue ones are my friends- they're the finished chapters that already do just what I want 'em to. The red ones are friends-to-be- chapters that I haven't tackled yet, having either skipped over them or having added them after my final draft plotting bonanza.

The brown ones are not my friends. They're the chapters that were written with a particular goal in mind- before the goal posts shifted. They're great chapters, but they're no longer useful in the story, and need rewriting before they work again. The work on these ranges from minor to very extensive.

Here's a closer look at the start of a blue chapter.

It's got the setting and the time, and the writing is solid. Nothing too major to change- plenty of reviewing, adding and tweaking, that is, but all the action and the dialogue is so far taking the story where I want it to go. I do, of course, have a little tack-on at the end outlining anything that *does* need to change in this chapter, just to remind myself.

Here's a closer look at a red chapter. This is unwritten, and only has a couple of lines that remind me what I want to do with the chapter, and why I need it.

And here's a closer look at a brown chapter. The writing is there, and it's solid, except it's not all useful anymore. At the top, I've outlined the new direction I need to take, and this is what will guide me in revising it.

Next, this shows you one of my Collections. It's close to my favourite feature of Scrivener 2.0- you start a collection, then choose the chapters you want to include. The highlighted example in this picture is my War Subplot- and I've gathered together all the chapters that are relevant to that particular part of the story.

Doing this doesn't affect the order of the chapters in the main binder. In fact, I can shuffle the chapters in my collection around without having any impact on the way they're organised in the main list. This is brilliant, because I can try out different configurations without having to commit to moving everything. I can also draw into this collection any relevant research. When you change something within one of the chapters, however, it changes in both the collection and the main list.

Next, my synopsis index cards. I summarise each chapter on the little card in the top right corner, and eventually I'll be able to collate a complete synopsis from these without needing to write it all out all over again. Doing this now also helps me take a big picture view of each chapter.

Speaking of which, the following shows the document notes I'm also writing up for every one of my 47 chapters:

I start with the purpose of the chapter and the author agenda, intending to identify why this scene belongs in the story, and what it achieves.

I then move on to whose POV I'm using, and their agenda- what do they want to achieve in this scene? What's the driving force behind what happens?

I'm also looking at what comes before and after each chapter to make sure it's all working together. And then I'm listing out the beginning, middle and end of each chapter to make sure there's a good story flow.

Lastly, I'm talking about scene/ sequel- a very useful bit of advice I came across while putting together information for the CompuServe Books and Writers Forum December/ January Toolbox exercise on writing endings (including chapter endings). I've come across this advice before, but it never really stuck until now- effective scenes in novels often occur in a pattern called scene and sequel. In the first chapter of the pair, a problem is introduced- but not solved. No, the chapter ends on a question that keeps the reader wanting more. The second chapter of the pair is the sequel, in which the question is answered- and another asked. In this manner, the story keeps moving forward. I've been looking at all my scenes in this way through the final draft, checking to make sure the tension carries from chapter to chapter, and so far so good.

Very lastly, I have a couple of documents now sitting at the top of my research folder- one's a strategy, in which I've brainstormed how to do all the things I've just explained- I've also used that to brainstorm major plot points that need reworking or strengthening. The other's a relationship document, in which I've teased out and clarified all the aspects of the love triangle that is the core of my story. Of all the things I need clear right now, that's top of the list.

So, there you have it- one more highly organised approach from me to give the chunksters/ pantsters amongst us a heart attack :) People have, now and again, considered me insane for the extraordinary amount of pre-planning I undertake before I start writing- but it works for me, and that's what counts.

Back to it! I'm already enjoying the results of all this work- several key plot points and character arcs have now fallen neatly into place, and await their tweaking to become better versions of themselves.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Seductress, Thy Name is Inspiration

If there is one universal truth I've learned during my writing journey, it's that when the going gets tough, my thoughts start going. In other words, when I need to be concentrating, need to be working like a proverbial dog to finish one project, another one always floats to the forefront of my mind.

i.e. A bright and shiny book idea pops into my lil' noggin' and OH how I want to work on it!

I've found myself in this situation so many times over the years. I've tried various approaches of dealing with it.

1. I'll run with the new idea. Eventually, I always figured, it'll burn out. And yeah, it usually did. I've dropped projects to work on something new -- will churn out a HUGE chunk of said idea in a very short period of time, and then my energy will...fizzle. That's the best way to put it. Granted, this leaves me with a huge chunk of book that's just laying in wait for my attention to return. My computer is riddled with literary roadkill of this sort. Books and ideas that I absolutely love but can't seem to find the time to return to. Sigh.

2. I'll squash the idea. Nope, I don't have bugger it. Yeah, this is my least favorite option. For one, it bothers me to no end to not explore what might come out of a midnight epiphany.... it could be something GREAT, something GENIUS. What if it's _the one_? write is to dream. (g) But I love taking a thread of an idea and running with it to see where it gets me. It's scary and exciting and humbling, all at the same time.

3. I'll journal about it as extensively as I can so I can come back to it later. I've tried this out, and yanno what? I've never once come back to a project in this manner so I can't say it actually works. But then, I can't say it doesn't either. LOL. Someday I'll have to experiment. (g)

4. I do nothing. I let the idea pass into the etheral space between my ears and carry on. I've found that the really powerful ideas always stick. I started a book a while ago called The Braeden, based on a dream I had a LOOOOOOONG time ago. Long before I decided to take pen to paper, let me tell you. For whatever reason, one particular part of my dream really stuck with me through the years and every now and then it would float to the surface. In full technicolor, so to speak. I could FEEL the story...see it play out in my head. And when I couldn't ignore it any longer, I sat down and pounded out a huge chunk of it in a week's time. It got the story out of my system for the time being, but it's still there...waiting. (g) I DO intend to get back to that one -- I LURVE it. :)

Anyway -- The reason I'm pontificating on this point is that I find myself ONCE AGAIN having this problem. I've officially declared this FI time, but find myself being tempted by a new bright and shiny idea. Oh, the possibilities of it. But no, I will not cave... I WILL NOT. Must work on FI.

Hint: It has to do with witches of all things. I know NOTHING about witchcraft, but not knowing about a subject has certainly never stopped me before. (g)

No no no... I will IGNORE you, bright and shiny idea.


Thank you for humoring me in this post. (g)

Does anyone else have this problem? What do you do to cope?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Good Book Hunting

“Wait, I have good taste.”

“Everybody thinks that they have good taste and a sense of humor but everybody couldn’t possibly have good taste…” Jess and Marie, When Harry Met Sally

There is no accounting for good taste, is there? And like the lines say, we all think we have good taste, but how can that be when we know a good number of people with bad­ taste. (g)

Taste, of course, is subjective. Never more so than now, in the season of gift giving, do we encounter the subjective nature of taste. I mean, Aunt Bertie couldn’t possibly have thought you’d like that sweater with the singing snowmen on the front. Could she? I mean retailers are banking on this divergence of taste –that and a lack of sales receipt- as they immediately mark down every item in their stores for the after Christmas gift exchange rush. They know you are going to hate half of what you get. They are salivating over that particular fact.

Some people give books for gifts. I cannot. Unless it’s to my little sister, I know I’m going to fail in a big way if I give someone a book. That’s not to say that I won’t recommend books to people but I always do so knowing that they might hate it. Because taste, especially taste in books, is that varied.

The thing is, I am one of those people who actually DO read book reviews. I visit lots of review sights. When I go trolling for a new book, I hit Amazon, read what the people have to say. I find it an invaluable resource.

So how to sort the gold out from the dreck? Well you can’t always rely on good reviews. Honestly, some books get rave reviews and I’m left wondering if those people were paid in advance or just jumping on the popularity band wagon. No, if you want to really find out if a book is just up your alley, you have to be a bit more determined.

Read a good cross section of reviews –both one stars and five stars.

Some books get low reviews because a particular low life variety of reviewer (the complainer) has brought it down. Ah The Complainer. I’d like to stick my foot up their ass. These are the people who give a book one star because they don’t like the price, are mad because the book isn’t available as an ebook, don’t like the cover… essentially, things that have nothing to do with the book’s content and which the writer has NO CONTROL over! Gah! I hate The Complainer. But by reading over both low and high reviews you can figure out who has a legitimate beef and who is whining because the paranormal they picked up was too “paranormal” and they don’t like “paranormal” books. :P

Find like-minded reviewers. If you find yourself coming across a reviewer that has similar tastes, go and have a look at their other reviews. Chances are you’ll discover some finds.

Visit review sights. Just as before, it will take some time to find a review sight you can trust. The same rules as above apply here. But beware of the Swelled Head phenomenon. This occurs when a review sight gets very popular. Writers woo these reviewers, make their own comments on other books. Suddenly the reviewer isn’t quite so stringent on some books. I don’t mean to imply that this is some nefarious plot. More so, just another faucet of human nature. The closer we get to people, the harder it is to be objective. But in regards to you, the reader, getting a pure review, well you might find yourself holding a dud.

Read sample pages. This is the number one thing I love about my Kindle. I love being able to read sample pages. Yes, if you are actually, in Church (as Jen calls it), the you can read pages to your heart's content. But if you are shopping on line, nothing beats being able to read sample pages. But please, publishers, for the love of all that's holy, please resist the urge to post sample pages that consist of 80% copyright, book reviews, and acknowledgements, and 20% actual content. You know who you are! Grrr...

But it’s all in the name of fun. I love books. I love finding gems, new and awesome writers who I can trust to turn out good stories. Trolling reviews sights is like a treasure hunt.

So what about you? Do you read reviews? Rely solely on the back copy and/or pages? What review sights do you trust, if any? And CAN everybody have good taste? (g)

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Small Success Story

Charles Dickens, 1842.

On a cold and drizzly winter day in December, a small novella, A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, debuted in England. The book, known far and wide now by the name, A Christmas Carol, was to become a huge best-seller for Charles Dickens.

At the time of its writing, however, things were bleak for the young writer. His last book, Martin Chuzzlewit, was a commercial failure. Dickens, broke and without a publisher, cast about for a new story. Since Martin Chuzzlewit was a cynical story, he decided his next book should be the opposite. In October of 1843 he began the story of cold-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge, a man who is shown the true meaning of the Christmas spirit.

First edition title page, 1843.

Dickens scrambled to complete the story before Christmas. Since he had lost his publisher, he published the book himself, giving it a merry red cover and gilt-edged pages. The novella sold for five shillings, making it affordable for nearly everyone and nearly everyone, it seemed, bought a copy. It was released on December 19, and was a sell-out within the first few days, selling all six-thousand copies. It went into a second, and a third, printing that season.

A Christmas Carol is a holiday tradition these days. It has spawned plays, movies and television dramas. The very name “Scrooge” is synonymous with penny-pinching miserly behavior. Did Dickens ever dream his story would still be captivating readers one-hundred and sixty-seven years after he wrote it? I think if the Ghost of Christmas Present were to visit him and show him where his little novella has gone, he’d be astounded.

Happy Holidays from all of us at All The World’s Our Page. May the Christmas spirit be with you all year long.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


I've had a sick toddler for the last week and a half, and in between losing my mind, I've been watching the same kids' movies on DVD on high repeat (oddly enough, those two things are related :P). When she's not well, little Miss Two loves to snuggle down with mama and hang out with her favourite animated friends. Over and over again.


A wise friend told me years ago that you should always invest in movies that adults can enjoy as much as kids, because that way you won't find yourself screaming (in your head), "DIE, Elmo, you furry little red bastard! DIE!" on constant loop. And it's just a good thing for all parents that Pixar and Disney have risen to the challenge in recent years and produced some absolutely amazing films.

One thing I've noticed while watching these movies is that they have such a strong sense of story satisfaction, from the very beginning to the very end. I pondered and pondered exactly *what* they had done to be so engaging and fulfilling, and in the end all I could come up with was one word: Unity.

From the very first frame to the very last, everything that happens is relevant. From the smallest detail to the largest, it all means something in the bigger plot. And the bigger plot is driven, almost invariably, by a strong, clear theme. At the end of the movie, you feel like you've both had a good time, and learned something about life. There are obvious reasons why this works in kids' movies- the point needs to be simple and direct- but I think they work everywhere, with a touch of added complexity where necessary.

I wanted to run through a few of my favourite kids' movies at the moment to illustrate my point, because I think it's something all fiction writers can learn from. I'd argue that the following will create a satisfying story that people will remember for a long time to come:

1. A strong, core theme, supported by all aspects of the plot and characters
2. Unity of plots, subplots and character- nothing is in it for the sake of it. Everything means something in the bigger picture; no thread is started without being finished.
3. Characters with extremely clear motivation and strong personalities

So, onto the movies. I picked a couple- there are other brilliant ones out there, like Up (which I only saw last week, and was blown away by), Monsters Inc, and many others, but these three come to mind for being particularly well put together as far as unity is concerned.

1. Finding Nemo (2003)

My daughter's first favourite film has her yelling, "'Emo! 'Emo!" whenever she sees a fish of any kind, or indeed when she goes swimming herself.

The core theme of this movie is about letting go of fear and living life.

In the first scene, Nemo's father Marlin and mother Coral swim about, admiring their new anemone home and sharing their excitement at the impending hatching of their thousands of first baby eggs. But tragedy strikes suddenly in the form of a barracuda attack, leaving Marlin a widowed, reclusive father of just one.

From the very first scene or two, there are dozens of little references that get picked up and carried through the movie. First, Marlin wants to name half the eggs after him, and half after his wife. But Coral likes Nemo, and asks him to keep that name for just one. In the second scene, we see the sole surviving baby fish about to start school- and his name is, of course, Nemo. Immediate emotional punch.

Second, the little egg that survives is damaged in the barracuda attack. Nemo is born with a dodgy fin on that side- they call it his lucky fin, and it becomes a subplot all in itself that mirrors the main story- Nemo must learn, with the help of an older and more experienced reef fish (played by Willem Dafoe- awesome), that there's nothing he can't do for himself, disability notwithstanding.

Third, during the conversation Marlin and Nemo have on the way to school, Nemo is full of excited questions that his dad dismisses- how old can a sea turtle grow? Has he ever met a shark? Both of these questions become major parts of the plot later on.

And fourth, the main plot itself is set up brilliantly- Nemo, tired of being told what he can and can't do by his worrywart father, takes up a dare from some other school kids- and is promptly kidnapped by a diver and taken far away to a tank in a dentist's office. It's everything Marlin has ever feared; his last hope gone. But it's the beginning of a life-changing journey for him as he teams up with an unlikely new friend and pushes every boundary in his life to get his son back.

All in all, the messages in the movie are strong, the characters are perfect, and the subplots are linked to the main plot for maximum impact. I love that movie.

2. Cars (2006)

The theme of this movie is an old classic- pride comes before a fall. Rookie race car Lightning McQueen has natural talent- enough to take him to the top three in his first racing season, challenging the veteran and the pretender for the prestigious Piston Cup. But his talent has made him cocky and arrogant, and his commitment to his sport has left him surrounded by other cars- but all alone when it counts. A wrong turn on the way to the race track finds him stranded in a little backwater town where for the first time, he has to help others before himself. The payoff comes in the final scenes, when Lightning finally learns that working with a team is better than going it alone.

I love the way the opening scene in this movie, as shown in the clip above- a high octane race in which Lightning ignores the advice of his pit crew and suffers two blown tires, causing him to tie instead of win- leads to the final scene in the movie, in which the same three cars race it out again. By the second race, Lightning is a different car- and the outcome is completely different to what he thought he wanted in the beginning, but shows that he's truly changed his old ways, and is much happier for it.

3. Kung Fu Panda (2008)

This movie has a very powerful message- that everyone is special, and you can achieve anything if you just believe in yourself.

At the beginning, panda Po spends all day thinking about his beloved kung fu, and the Furious Five who are the best fighters in the land. His dream is to be one of them, but it's just that- a dream. Po is big, clumsy, and destined for life as a noodle maker, not a kung fu champion. That is until fate intervenes, landing him in the middle of the ceremony to choose the next greatest fighter of them all- the Dragon Warrior- and to the horror of all, Po is the one selected.

Nobody believes in him. Not even he believes in himself. But from the minute he arrives in the halls of kung fu, it's clear to the audience, if nobody else, that Po knows more about kung fu than anyone. He's studied it, absorbed it, loved it from afar- and after that, all he has to do is develop the skills and the self-belief to find his special talent. In the end, his strengths come back to his weaknesses- specifically, food.

One of my favourite parts of the whole movie comes toward the end, when Po is fighting it out with his kung fu master over a bowl of dumplings, finally showing that he's learned the right skills. At the very end, for the first time ever, he bests the master and gets the last dumpling- then says he's not hungry. In a previous scene, one of the Furious Five had told him that the true dragon warrior doesn't need to eat, and this had seemed the proof that Po would never make it.

I also love the fact that he manages to defeat the Big Bad in the end with his other physical skill- being so clumsy that he falls down/ runs into things continually, but gets right back up again.

All in all, these movies are great examples of stories that captivate from beginning to end, with strong characters who have definite goals, and everything portrayed moves toward the conclusion of a clear theme.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Videos

Three more sleeps!

That's the constant refrain in my house today. The kids are getting very excited ... and I am about worn out, from dashing to the shops in the madhouse traffic, then navigating said shops, in which the frantic loading of the shopping carts makes it seem more like the apocalypse is coming instead of a guy with a white beard and a red suit. LOL

So, to lighten the mood, I give you a couple of Christmas video snips.

First up, we have some Eddie Izzard and his version of the Christmas story (oh, and a language warning applies to this one, especially for those of us who don't want the kids surprising grandma with the new additions to their vocabularies (g))

And then ... do you remember Seinfeld? And George Costanza's family's whacky alternative to Christmas - "Festivus for the Rest of Us"? (bg) Enjoy ... and Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Fun Videos -Christmas Style

Yes, this is Susan's day, but I couldn't resist this one. (g)

Christmas is coming. I've been out shopping. Fun times. Mother's cursing, driver's weaving, toys that suck but for reason your kid MUST HAVE IT!!!

I kid. Actually, Christmas is my favorite holiday. Love it. Warts and all.

How about the rest of you? Are you done with your shopping? Crawled into bed to ride out the storm?

Here is a little video to get you all in the proper Christmas spirit. ;-)

Stringing Beads

I once saw a quote about writing that compared it to stringing beads. It was a nice quote - something along the lines of fragments being strung together to form a sequence of richness. That’s deep, I thought at the time.

Since then, I’ve wondered what kind of string I’m making with my collection of beads - words sometimes come easily, but sometimes they don’t. Then they feel awkward or chunky or not quite right. When I look back at what I’ve strung together it looks like this:
It’s the work of a babe in writer’s land. A simple string of large chunky words, just so the beholder won’t miss the point and the writer won’t get lost on her journey. It’s a learning experience, like a toddler with chubby fingers working hard to string a bead on a lace, I bumble around with fat words and shapeless ideas.

But eventually even the toddler grows more skillful, her fingers gaining dexterity, her sense of space and order and color giving her strings of beads some artistic merit. Eventually, even the beginning writer grows more accomplished, stringing together more carefully selected words, forming her ideas into a story with order and color and depth.

I'm somewhere past the toddler stage of writing, but like an artist who isn't sure which bead goes where, I string my words together and take them apart again, endlessly, critically, looking at the "necklace" they create. Happiness is finding a well-strung run of words, and paragraphs, and scenes.

I look forward to the day when I'll have the finished necklace, the beads, each of them carefully selected and placed, following each other on the string, their colors and forms, their interesting shapes, their rise and fall, creating a complete work.

Until then, I'm still sorting through the bin of beads.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Be Your Bad Guy

I’ve been spending a lot of time with a serial killer of late. With Philippe-Jean-Baptiste de Cheverny, to be exact - my antagonist, my villain. And although I love my main character, Dr Isabel Knight, I really adore my bad guy.

Philippe knows exactly who he is and has no doubts or qualms about it. Sophisticated, a lover of art, proud of his noble lineage … and with a passion and talent for killing. But he’s intelligent enough to know that this last skill needs to remain hidden. So he keeps in the dark, creating a mysteriousness about him that, coupled with his title, automatically instills a measure of fear in those around him. And he likes this. It’s powerful, being a shadow, an unknown. In the absence of knowledge about him, others fill the void with their own fears and worst imaginings that come nowhere near the truth … just the way he likes it.

But how do I know all this?

I’ve spent a lot of time with Philippe. I know what makes him tick, the reasons behind his wrong-doing and his evil deeds. I know the reasons behind why he does what he does. And I think this is the key for any of us writing antagonists of any persuasion of badness. We need to understand why they think they are right and completely justified in doing what they do; even if the reasons behind their actions don’t make sense to us “normal” folk.

How to do this?

Well, the answer is simply that you have to put as much work into your villain as you do your protagonist. All the work you do with your protagonists – the figuring out of the backstory and the character analysis - you need to do the same with your villain, especially if he or she spends any decent amount of time on the page. Get to know them, inside out. Learn what his past was, what happened to him, why he does what he does.

This involves getting to know some pretty disturbed, albeit fictional, minds. Creating villains can be a not nice experience. But you need to go deep and ask questions that may have unpleasant answers … Why do they do that? Why can’t they not do that? Why that particular thing, not something else? Why does he enjoy doing, or need to do, something most of us could never do, even with a gun to our heads?

Because if you don't have that same depth of understanding of your bad guy as you do with the rest of your characters, then you run the risk of having a generic, two-dimensional, moustache twirling villain who is about as scary as a piece of wet cardboard. Once you, the writer, understands the motivations of your antagonist, you’re able to give your reader enough insight into your villain’s actions so they can connect with him or her – just as they would with any character, for that matter.

But apart from knowing what motivates them, you need to know their weaknesses, their blind spots. The things they fear, the things they want – and the things that are going to eventually get in thir way. What their ruling passions are. Knowing that your bad guy is the butt of every joke at work, or fears daylight, or has to flick the light switch fifty time before he can leave his apartment, will give him a human flaw, something that will serve to humanize the bad and make him real … and he becomes all the more frightening. He could be anyone. Anywhere. Living next door, even …

It also doesn’t hurt to have a bit of psychological backing to your bad guy. My antagonist is on one end of the spectrum, the sociopath, and I’ve read a number of books on the topic. One of the best is "WITHOUT CONSCIENCE: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us” by Robert D. Hare. If you have a character that is absolutely without empathy for anyone, you absolutely have to read of this book. It'll scare the pants off you, but it's worth it.

By now, it's obvious - I have no secrets, just common sense advice; when developing you characters, don’t forget your bad guy.

In fact, if you try to be your bad guy – only in your head, that is, - your story will be so much more substantial. Not only will your readers have another fascinating character to become absorbed in, but a villain with meat on his bones will amp up the stakes your protagonist faces and will make their struggle all the more heroic and nail-biting. And that can only mean a better story, all round.

You may have to sleep with the lights on, but you won’t regret it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Living inside the Monkey House

Living inside the monkey house has to be one of my all-time favorite analogies to describe when you're a little too close to your writing. I first heard it on Project Runway – did you see the episode? The one where Tim Gunn goes to check-in with one of the designers who, of all things, decided to use human hair in his designs? Tim Gunn very astutely described what it means to live inside the monkey house (I'm paraphrasing): When you first step inside a monkey house, the smell is horrific – it overloads your senses. But after a while, you start to become accustomed…and after a long while, you no longer smell the doo. That my friends, is living inside the monkey house.

Tim Gunn says, "Step outside of the monkey house!!"


How does this pertain to writing?

Well, sometimes, we as writers get a little TOO close to our work. So close, in fact, that we no longer smell the doo stinking up the place. I.e. the bad writing, the contrived plotlines, the cardboard characters walking around, the authorial intrusion permeating the entire thing. When this happens, we're not even aware of it. In fact, we're convinced that what we're writing is absolutely genius, and no matter what we do, we can do NO wrong.

Woah. WOAH.

This…this is when crit partners come in very handy. In short, you need someone to tell you… "Yo, this place smells like shiite."

It's very easy to get caught up in this. I've been there, and chances are, you have, too. It's not a sign that you're a bad writer. It's just a sign that perhaps we ALL need to take a few steps away from our work and get an aerial view. Look at the entire picture. Give ourselves some space and time away from our projects so that we're able to come back to it with our senses fresh and alert. You'd be surprised how something that seemed fine—great, even—will set your eyes a' waterin' the moment you step back to the project.

So, I guess my advice is this: Don't be afraid to step away from a project. Allow your senses to air out, and send it to people you can trust to tell you if you have indeed been living in a doo-infested stinkhole. The world and your book will thank you.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Random Friday Video

It's cold here in D.C. Cold, cold, cold. I don't think I've been completely warm since last week.

So, cold, dark, dreary, I don't know about the rest of you but I need a Friday fun video. This one cracks me up. :)

Eddie Izzard

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The eight stages of writing an ending

A couple of months ago, former literary agent Nathan Bransford posted on his blog this amusing rundown of the nine stages of dating a novel.

This week, I find myself sitting only four chapters from the end of my second draft, about to dive headlong into the climax of the whole novel, and slightly wetting myself in fear. What if it's not right? What if everyone hates it? What if... what if... Oh, wait- I actually have to write it first...

Anyway! Over at CompuServe, several of us are getting to the end at the same time, and we've been having a vigorous discussion about writing endings. As part of that, I did my own list- the eight stages of writing an ending :) Enjoy.


OMG, there it is. Right there, the end of my novel. I'm here. I've made it. Just a few more chapters and it's all finished.


Squeeeeeeee! Endingendingending!!!


This is going to be the best ending EVER. I totally ROCK. Holy moses, look at all those plots, subplots and themes coming together! GENIUS! I'm going to start clearing a space on my shelf for the Pulitzer/ Booker/ [insert appropriate accolade] right now, just to save myself some time later.


Oh wait, I actually have to *write* it. Right. Well, back to the keyboard. Hey, is that another Facebook notification? No, no, back to the ending. It was all so brilliant when I thought of it; how come it's not just... you know. Already there on the screen, just like I imagined? Don't tell me I have to do something to make this happen...


Whoa, this all looked like a good idea before I wrote that first 53 words. And now... well, it... it kind of... sucks...


It looked good. Now it doesn't. I hate it. They'll hate it. Readers are going to start bonfires with my books- WITH MY BOOKS! I'll have to throw it all out. But I have to write it first. But I don't know where to start. I did yesterday. Now I don't. Maybe my brain is dying. OMG MY BRAIN IS DYING.


*Firm slap to the cheek* I just have to knuckle down, shut up, and write. One word after another; there, not *so* hard, is it? One...word...after... another...


I'm done. Please hand me that bottle of gin immediately while I sob for hours.


And after that, onward to the final draft for me :)

Where Do Great Ideas Come From?

Mes amis,

Well, for all the lofty goals of my last post - writing every day, and scads of words at that - life has gone and poked me in the eye this week, and for many reasons, the writing is not happening, neither with the WIP or this post.


But to make amends - here, at least - I give you a very thought provoking clip about one way to answer the question, "where do great ideas come from?"

It makes me feel better about the long gestation period of my book; and makes me feel much less guilty about the time I spend connected to the net.

Have a look. What do you think?

Monday, December 6, 2010

People Behaving Badly

Watch out, rant ahoy!

The holiday season is upon us. Which means a lot of people are out and about in the streets in pursuit of presents. Which also means that most wonderful phenomenon, road rage, will rear its ugly head in greater number.

Road rage, we’ve all be there. Either as the one raging, or the one feeling the love.

Last year, while shopping at Target, I was driving down the exit ramp when, what had to be an eighty-year-old woman, barrels out of nowhere and almost smashes into to me. I stop, honk to alert her of my presence and for my effort get an obscene finger gesture –from the eighty-year-old grandma with spun sugar hair and half-moon glasses. Frankly, it was just a shock to know that her knobby middle finger could lift that straight. But enough was enough. I rolled down my window and asked, “Sorry, could you repeat that?”

Can you guess what happened?

She recoiled as if I’d brandished a gun and shot down the ramp like a bat out of hell.

Why? Because as we all know, people like to think they are insulated in their cars. That they can do, say whatever they want to their fellow drivers because they don’t really have to face them. Hence, road rage.

And it’s sad.

But what’s getting sadder is that road rage has oozed onto the internet.

I troll many blogs in my morning procrastination routine. I love reading them, reading the comments, making comments. But really, enough already, people!

More and more, I see little clicks forming on large blogs. If a person dares make a dissenting comment the pack will take them down like a lamb to the wolves. The thing is, some of these marauded commenters ARE acting like asses. They DO say silly things. But is it any better when people retaliate with vitriol? Act the snide jerk?

Really, I try to imagine these conversations going on at a cocktail party and just can’t. People just don’t do that face to face. Politeness is pretty much ingrained into us that even if we don’t agree with a person we make an effort to state our case with civility. Why are we forgetting that behavior online?

Then there is the situation in which a person actually does behave reprehensively. And yes, they SHOULD be called out on it. But again, the “internet,” which here means that snarling beast of the masses, descends on the person with such viciousness the response becomes akin to a public stoning.

I’m all for debate. I think we should be free with our opinion and free to disagree with people. And I’m certainly not one to moralize -well, not much (g). But I do wish that we’d all try to remember one thing: whatever you say on the internet, or in your car, should be something you are willing to say to a person’s face.

And be honest here. Really think about it when your fingers fly to comment. Would you truly say this to a person’s face? Are you willing to say, “fuck you, you blind fucking idiot!” to the person who accidentally bumps their cart into yours at the grocery store? When you are at that holiday party and Guy A tells you he thinks your favorite cozy mystery is tripe, will you tell him that he is an utter moron and he needs to get a life? Better yet, IF Dan Brown happened to stop by said party, would you have the chutzpah to tell him you think he's a crap writer who just got lucky? (assuming you actually think that. (g))

Somehow I don’t think you will. And somehow, I think that if you DID, people would be looking on in horror, not jumping on the bandwagon.

Okay, rant over. :)

Friday, December 3, 2010

So You Want To Write A Novel?

Just dashing through today, kind of like Santa's reindeer, only I'm not that fleet of foot and I prefer a more exotic diet than alfalfa. Just to tickle your funny bone, here's a clip entitled, "So You Want To Write A Novel." It's hilarious in a sobering kind of way. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

NaNo numbers

Here's my NaNo month in numbers, a little early for Thursday, but I'm striking while I have the time.

The book:

Total words written in November: 60,675
Total words sitting in my draft folder right now: 153,871
New words I still need to finish: c. 30,000
Amount of editing I'll have to do when I'm finished: !!!

Number of days I wrote zero words: 7
Number of days I wrote less than 500 words: 3
Number of days I wrote more than 7000: 1
Average words on each other day: 2825
Number of days it took me to hit 50000: 19

Total chapters written in November: 24
Total chapters technically left between me and The End, according to my outline: 7
Chapters *really* left to write, if I include those I skipped at earlier stages: 14
Highest number of completed consecutive chapters in the story: 30
Absurdly high number of sex scenes written: 4, with at least 2 more to go

The other stuff:

Number of blog posts I wrote: 12
Number of NaNo regional forum posts I made: 70
Number of NaNo threads I managed at the CompuServe Forum: 29
Number of posts I made in those threads: Well over 200+

Number of emails sent between the girls of ATWOP: 514 (yep).

Number of NaNo buddies I had: 30
Number of those who cracked the 50K: 14
Total words written by members of the CompuServe Forum: Over 910,000
Total of those words written by the ATWOP ladies: 223,065, or over 20%

The rest:

Number of days worked in the day job: 16
Number of commercial cake/ cookie orders baked and decorated: 3
Number of playgroup committee meetings attended: 2
Number of times I came down with bronchitis: 2
Number of times antibiotics actually helped with that: 0
Number of days on which my unwell toddler vomited at least once in November: 12
NaNo days I managed before my official The End came when my toddler barfed all over my laptop: 26
Number of words I'd written since my previous backup, pre-barf: 58,000
Amount of gratitude I feel to my Apple Genius brother for reviving my vomited-on laptop and all the writing therein: Infinite

Amount of enthusiasm I currently feel for writing: ZERO.

I'm going to be taking myself a little break, just like Rachel, and I think I'll read a good book or two to soothe my frazzled brain. I can safely say that I've never known my characters or my story better than I do right now, and of all the things NaNoWriMo was great for, bringing together all the plots and subplots and letting me see how they worked as a whole was the best of them. Well, that and making me write every day (okay, almost every day).

All in all, a great experience, and I'll most definitely be back next year for more. In the meantime, a little space and perspective is required before I quietly go back to writing my final chapters, revising all the others that need it, and then turning this second draft into a final.

Hope you found it worthwhile, too, and thanks for coming along on the journey with us.

Pens Down ... Now!

Ah, December 1st - the last month of the year, the beginning of summer Down Under, and the end of NaNoWriMo 2010!

I’m feeling a little shell-shocked today, I must say. Very glad that I've got a whole heap of new words to add to my manuscript, for sure, but writing like a fiend for a solid four weeks very much lost its appeal by week three; and keeping up the writing once I’d hit the 50K mark early was especially hard. I think the other gals at ATWOP experienced much the same reaction, which really is only to be expected - writing at sprint-pace is far too exhausting and draining to keep up for too long (unless you’re our incomparable Kristen, whose modus operandi is to pump out words at NaNo-rate anyway!)

So, what do we do now all the crazy writing is over?

First, pat yourself on the back for all that writing you achieved, regardless of whether you reached the 50K or not. Dedicating any substantial amount of extra time to your writing is always to be congratulated.

And then? Well, if you’re anything like me, first on the list will be the neglected housework. I didn’t live like a total slob for the month of November, but my already low standards slipped considerably and there’s a mountain of dusting and vacuuming and laundry and general putting away of crap to be tackled. After that, I’ll be dragging my butt back into my daily exercise routine. I tell you, it was very nice to have those gym free days every week, but the newly snug fit of my clothes tells me I loved those days just a little too much.

But there’s also the fun stuff to catch up on ... like reading. I haven’t had a good cup-of-tea-on-the-couch-with-a-book session all month, and I’m in desperate need of one. Reading is one of the most pleasurable things to do in life, not least for the fact that reading other people’s finely crafted words fires up my own desire to write … and I will be in need of a boost in that department because even though NaNo is done, I plan to keep a few of my NaNo habits in place.

I used to write nearly every day pre-NaNo; now, I will make sure I DO write every day, come hell or high water. Why? A few reasons.

Firstly, I want this draft done by December 31st and I’ll need to write every day if I’m to do that. But more importantly, the NaNo-enforced writing every day has been quite a revelation for me. I now see how much better grip I keep on my plot and my characters if I’m delving into their world every single day. And how the words - the right words - come so much more easily when I’m not trying desperately to pick up from where I left off after days of neglect.

Another NaNo habit I’ll be keeping is the setting of a daily word count goal. I'm not nuts enough to think I can continue the NaNo level of daily wordage, but I think between eight hundred to a thousand words a day should be achievable. But by far the best habit I'm going to keep is the firm enforcement of the "no editing allowed" rule. I think it's the main reason I managed to pump out 65K that I did because it prevented me from falling back into my very bad habit of procrastinating-by-editing, which in the past has often stopped my writing dead in its tracks.

So after the cleaning, the exercising and the reading, I'll be giving my new habits a healthy work out; but only after I've had a break. And I suggest that if you've just come down from NaNo, you do the same, even if you're simply dying to get back and revise all those shiny bright words. Just stop. Switch off the computer. Walk away from the words.

And if your NaNo words are for a completely new project, then do not look at them, not even a paragraph, for at least a month. Longer, if you can stand it. Time and distance are your friends at this stage of the game, and you will need them in plenty if you, the creator, are to be as unbiased as you can when it comes time to revise your NaNo draft. If you wait, by the time you get back to you work you will have fallen out of love with it just enough to give you the objectivity to see the all the pimples and warts ... to see that the scene you laboured over for days, the one that you love and adore, actually drags the pace of your story to a screeching halt; to see that there is no way your heroine would do what you have her doing on page thirty-nine; that the subplots you thought were flashes of inspired brilliance are just not pulling their weight.

And on the flip side, time and distance may make you view something you immediately think of as rubbish, a little more fairly.

It’s just a fact of the writing life that objective judgment calls can only be made once the dust has settled, when you’re ready to be ruthless, and coming off the NaNo writing high is simply not the time to do it.

And if, like me, your NaNo words were for an existing draft, you still need space before you judge the results. You might allow yourself a shorter break between finishing and starting revisions, just to keep the momentum up, but still, take that time away from the work, if only to recover your sanity after the shock and awe that was NaNoWriMo 2010!

So, they're my post-Nano plans. What are yours?