Friday, July 29, 2011

Wordless Messages

Painting by William Bouguereau

Some women flutter their eyelashes as a form of communication with the opposite sex. The problem, mused a fellow recently, is that a guy can never tell whether the woman is flirting or has something in her eye.

Men can be dense, can’t they?

They can’t be entirely blamed for the confusion, however. Communication is a real art that takes many forms and flows from many sources. The chances of something going wrong in the translation is fairly high, particularly if the communication is between the opposite sexes.

In the book, Louder Than Words: Nonverbal Communication, author A. Barbour notes that only 7% of communication is verbal. The rest of the message is made of vocal characterizations and body language.

Words, in other words, make up only a tiny fraction of the messages we send. The rest of the message is transmitted, either intentionally or unintentionally, through other means.

What does this mean for fiction writers? It means there is a huge opportunity for layers of subtext and subtlety. There’s room for characters of such depth and richness that they nearly walk from the page into your room.

Dialog is only a fraction of the communication taking place in your novel. Here are other ways your characters send messages:

Personal Space - every culture has acceptable limits for this. Characters who abide by the rule of personal space, or who violate it, are making a statement. Conversely, characters who feel their space being crossed have opportunity to react.

Facial Expression - probably the easiest and favorite method of authors to describe how their characters are feeling or what they’re thinking and for good reason: facial expressions are one of the most powerful channels of nonverbal communication. Facial expressions also include eye contact and the length of gaze. People routinely search another’s eyes to gage their level of interest or emotion.

The Body - another favorite of authors because with the body of our characters we describe movement, posture and gestures. During dialog, pay close attention to these and use them to either reinforce or contradict what your character is saying.

Touch - includes why a character touches another. Handshakes, back-slapping and caresses are all examples of that, but don’t forget it also includes how a character touches himself. Does he scratch an itch, adjust his privates, lick his lips? Much of how and where a character touches himself actually becomes a “tell” for the reader, revealing intentions or emotions.

Smell - a person’s smell, pleasant or unpleasant, can be employed by the clever author. Don’t forget to have your character get a whiff of someone. Or himself.

Voice - not only does this include the choice of words your character uses, but his accent (if he has one), tone, and loudness. Don’t forget vocal characterizations - laughing, crying, whispering, grunting, and others. But a word of caution: use these sparingly, if at all. It’s much better to convey emotions through the actions of the characters. (That old rule Show, Don’t Tell applies here.)

One last tidbit to keep in mind when writing dialog. The nonverbal aspects of the dialog can cleverly do several things for you. It can compliment what your character has said or it can contradict it. Don’t be afraid to have your character say one thing and do another. It’s human nature, after all.

I love to write dialog. I hear the words my characters speak quite freely. But I now have a new challenge to employ more of the nonverbal methods humans use to send messages. I can use those ways in my work to make it better, to make the subtext richer, the tension tighter, the meanings more layered.

In other words, if a woman in my novel bats her eyelashes, the man is going to know without a doubt what she means by it.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Practical magic

The writers out there will know what I mean when I say that the creation of fiction in full flight is not a process you can pin down and understand completely- there's a certain level of indefinable magic or alchemy involved in spinning a story.

When you really hit your stride on a particular scene, when you look up and find that two hours have passed and you can't remember a minute, when you read back over your work and think, "Did that really come from me?"- those are the moments where you know there's something beyond the craft and technique that really can't be identified or explained.

For me, I'm often looking for the magic to hit before I start writing, and if it doesn't, then I feel a bit stuck on the runway. I feel like I can't get into the nuts and bolts without the alchemy occurring first.

But when it comes down to it, the nuts and bolts are necessary to begin almost any magic. Without the practical preparations, the alchemy can't commence.

Like pretty much everyone else on earth, I saw the latest Harry Potter movie last week, and I've also been watching some of the earlier films on cable. In the earlier ones, the nuts and bolts of the magic were plainly spelled out (if you'll pardon the pun). You need your spellbook, your ingredients, your wand, the right words, the right order, the right person to pull it all together, and abracadabra!

You have magic.

Which is, when you think about it, just what happens with fiction, too.

Can you conjure up the magic on a whim? Or do you need to start with the practicalities- like getting words on the actual page- before you feel yourself take flight?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lazy Linkage

Well, I'm happy to say that finally, finally, the light is glowing brightly at the end of the vacation tunnel, and school is back tomorrow! *fist pump* Whilst I've really enjoyed the company of my offspring the past three weeks, once they walk out the door tomorrow morning I'll definitely be doing me a happy dance ... and then crawling straight back into bed to try to rid myself of the sinus infection that has definitely outstayed its welcome. >:-|

But the imminent return to school has meant this week has disappeared in a flurry of last minute organisation (nothing like being on the ball, ahem) such as shoe shopping (Child #1 very inconsiderately grew a whole shoe size in less than eight weeks and is now well and truly into men's sizing, to the pain of my credit card) and the purchase of school supplies (Thumb Drives! I've lost count of how many the kids have lost this year - or how many have turned up in the washing machine. Grrr) and new lunch boxes, and food to put in said lunch boxes, and ... well, you know where this is going. There's no blog post from me today. :-(

But I do have links.

How To Wield Backstory With Panache via Nail Your Novel - really useful practical tips for analysing how well (or otherwise) you've layered the dreaded but necessary backstory into your book.

Lisa Kilian's amusing take on how she managed to take the pressure off by refusing to stress about being published, on her blog, What Not To Do As A Writer

And the slightly silly ...

From BibliOz, find out which books were NYT best sellers the day you were born (The Day of The Jackal and The Exorcist were on the list when I drew my first breath. Who did you score?)

And for those of you who, like my household, are pining for the return of Dr Who to our screens, a little something to get you through - the Tardis Cafe!

Have a great week!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Parenting your novel

A quick post from me today- it's cold and rainy and I'm cuddled up on the couch with my toddler, watching The Lion King and thinking about my novel.

I'm getting back on the revision train after a six month break, and this week I did something I've been avoiding for quite a while- I sat down and re-read the whole thing from start to finish. I've been avoiding this because I've been convinced that there was about zero logical flow to the story as it was, and I thought it would only be painful to face the fact that yet again, I haven't managed to make my story coherent.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually quite coherent, and, dare I say, not too bad at all in places. In fact, I cried at the end, and I already knew what was going to happen.

I'm in a very zen place with my parenting at the moment. I'm often telling other parent friends to give themselves a break. We had the roughest start possible to our journey and nearly lost our daughter before we even had a chance to get into the territory that so many parents inhabit- the self-criticism of believing you're not doing it right. Why doesn't my kid eat? I love vegetables, I swore I'd never have one of those little monsters who screams the house down if you dare to suggest a bite of broccoli. I must have done something wrong! Why doesn't my kid sleep? I love sleep! My bed is my best friend. What did I do wrong to set her on this track?

I'm sure all the parents reading this have been there. It's so easy to blame yourself for just about anything that goes wrong- but all you can do is put in your best, and trust that your best is good enough. Everything else is out of your control.

I can accept this with my parenting because I can see my daughter growing up to be a smart, funny, caring little person, and I know we're doing it right, whether or not she thinks broccoli is poison. And yet I don't give myself the same leeway with something else that I hope will one day grow up, go out into the world, and make a difference- my novel.

My plot arcs keep running off on a tangent! Why can't I get them under control? I keep making the same mistakes with my characters- what's the matter with me? I can't ever seem to get this thing straight enough to finish it. Maybe I don't have what it takes.

If I put the two things up against each other, I can see the similarities. We care deeply about our kids, and we care deeply about our novels- we have to. Our stories come from our deepest psyche; they represent our thoughts, feelings and views on the world. We want them to be just right. We're convinced that we're the only ones who can make it so. And yet the same advice applies- we can only do the best we can do. Often other things will influence those stories before they get out there- agents, editors, publishers. It's not always all down to us.

The good difference in writing is, we get an extra opportunity at the end to shape and reshape- to go back to what we've written in all its imperfection, and to tweak it into something better- something closer to our original vision.

In the meantime, I'm enjoying the fact that looking at my novel with new eyes shows me I've done a better job than my self-criticism allowed me to see before. Now that I've got a better view of the bigger picture from my time away from it, I'm full of renewed enthusiasm to shape it into what I'm actually looking for in a story.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Don't Play It Safe

I’ve been working on a scene for a week or so. One of those pivotal ones, one of the big ones. A major turning point type of scene, in which my main character, Dr Isabel Knight, comes across the body of one of my villain’s victims, for the very first time.

I sweated bullets writing this scene. And when I was done, I sat back and discovered I’d totally wimped out.

In essence (and skipping a few spoilerish nuances) all my character did was the standard find the body, react (which boiled down to her freaking out), the police appear and she’s suspected of the murder.


So I’ve mulled it over. And realised I went with the easy, top-of-my-head option with this scene. Why? Partly because I’m very squeezed for writing time at the moment, so I spend my teensy bits of free time working on my revisions, forgoing the thinking and pondering time necessary to let the subconscious work its magic.

Silly me.

But I think the real reason I wrote what is essentially a very safe-option scene is plain old fear. See, I always had a bit of an inkling in the back of my mind about what my main character just might actually do – an inkling that grew into a full-blown, slap-in-the-face, realisation once I did step away from the keyboard and think about it.

So, I now know exactly what my MC would and should do in this scene (and no, sorry, I’m not going to tell you what it is, or why she does it, because (a) I’m sure a ten page post on the inner workings of my character’s mind (and my mind!) is not what you’re here to read, and (b) I think every lady needs to be a little mysterious, don’t you? LOL)

But for a day now, I’ve still been too scared to write it.

The scene I have envisioned is … well, a little disturbing. And what’s twisting my gut in a knot is worry – if I do this, will I have gone too far? What if readers are turned off by my character and what she does? Should I not write it, and stay with the safer option?

After another round of pondering and navel gazing, I think I have the answer.


Stories pushed over and beyond the limits stick in readers' minds. Think of those who regularly venture where others don’t – Stephen King and Thomas Harris, yes, they push both the fear and the ick factors, but my goodness, do I remember those books. And then the likes of Isabelle Allende and Louis de Bernieres, or Joanne Harris, and the supernatural and just plain “out there” elements of their books that, for me, make their stories so memorable. Books by authors who strike out into dangerous or uncharted territory stick in my mind long after the cover is closed for being amazingly creative and original, for going off the beaten path and surprising me, for unsettling me. And aren’t these the reactions we novelists want our readers to experience?

Why, then, are we (I) afraid to write like that?

So I’ll be rewriting that scene. My little life-rope, if indeed I have gone too far, is that I can always change it. Phew.

How about you? Do you worry you play it too safe? Or do you quite happily play with the matches?

Letting Go

I often wonder why letting go parts of your book—bits of dialogue, parts of scenes, characters even—is so difficult. It seems common sense. If something isn’t working, get rid of it. Despite this, I still struggle with just…letting go.

I’ve been focusing on revisions of BTPM recently – and I’m so, so close to the end. YAY. Thing is, I had some pretty major sweeping revisions that I wanted to complete. Snip this out, add this there, rearrange and rewrite this. It’s a good amount of work and I’ve managed to make it through most of the big changes without so much as a hiccup or pause. I saved the “obvious” changes for last. I knew I wanted to rewrite one major chunk of the book because it literally seemed to go on FOREVER. Mostly narrative, with little dialogue to break it up. It’s written well, generally speaking, but it’s just too much and I knew it would need a lot of attention.

I’ve had a general idea of what I wanted to do with it…just how I would lead into the changes…in my head for well over a year, if not longer. I left it to the end, because it seemed a no-brainer to me. Why start with the easy stuff, when I had all of these other changes I needed to worry about, yanno?

Finally, I was left with this one last big change. I started the section with the image I’d been seeing in my head for so long – it was the perfect way to lead into it. It would give a sense of time and would accomplish everything I needed it to.

Ha. Wasn’t I in for a big surprise?

It sucked. It sucked bad.

I don’t think I realized this right off the bat, mind. I worked on it for a bit, looked at everything it was accomplishing, and YES…it was perfect. I worked on it some more. For some reason, I couldn’t find the right way to transition out of the scene. Nothing seemed to be working. But still, I was convinced it was the correct way to begin. The only way that I could picture it beginning. WHY wouldn’t it work?? I had had it knocking around in my brain for so long, obviously it had to be right.

Eventually it dawned on me. It was boring as all get out. True, it was accomplishing what I wanted it to accomplish…but in an almost clinical, boring manner. It didn’t have any OOMPH that had me excited to continue writing. It was basically a thousand words of dead air, and that dead air was choking my writing engine.

Needless to say, I was a bit freaked by this at first. I mean, I’ve been writing for so long now, shouldn’t I know whether something will work before I waste so much time and energy working on it? I mean, shouldn’t I?? Is this a sign that I’m completely clueless and a total hack?


Of course not.

I just had to let go of an idea that I’d held on to so long. It wasn’t easy and my mind definitely resisted, thinking maybe I could make it work if I tried this and this… maybe. No, but it had to be cut. Simple as that. I scratched the scene idea, opened a new doc, and began afresh. I had no idea where I would go when I began—just started writing, hoping something would appear out of this primordial goop of words.

And it did.

Proud to say an even better idea appeared on the page – one that accomplishes all of my original goals and then some. And one that’s much more interesting and actually adds to the story rather than simply being a filler to impart some important tidbits I felt the reader needed to know.

So yeah, lesson learned. Sometimes you just have to let go.

Monday, July 18, 2011

In the Beginning

In the beginning…there was a blank page, and thus the opening chapter was born.

Every story has one. Every story needs a good one. Yes, we’re talking about openings. We writers know the necessity of a killer opening. It’s what hooks an agent, editor, or reader into wanting more.

I’ve done a piece on openings before –mainly on where you should start your story. But I think the discussion can be expanded, because not only is important to learn where one should open at story, one should understand just what IS the function of an opening chapter.

Claire did an excellent post on derivatives, the focus being that there are basically seven main types of stories. We, as a culture, through generations of storytelling, have learned to recognize these story archetypes, and thus have an understanding of what is to come when we recognize one. This is actually a good thing. As a readers, by having a feel for the story structure to come, we also know if it something we want to read, we can feel the anticipation of watching it unfold and wondering how the hero/heroine will over come certain obstacles.

NOT knowing leaves us confused and, often times, irritated. It may seem strange, but we are creatures of habit, pattern. We like to know what we are in for, not the whole story, mind, but the TYPE of story, the basic pathway. Tropes are like old friends. We like seeing them. We like knowing where we are headed.

But let’s take it further. There is a theory that a good opening chapter is like a microcosm for the whole of the book. So then, in reading an opening, you have the all the answers. The set up, the conflict, the main character’s issue that she must overcome all there in the beginning.

For example, let's use a familiar story (and I’m using a film because there is a greater chance more of you have seen it than if I picked a book). Star Wars.

Star Wars opens thusly: A princess is in trouble. The Imperial forces have invaded her ship, including the main villain. She sends a distress message on a droid out into space. A young farmer is bored with his life, he wants more, he wants adventure. He finds the droid. The droid takes him to an old hermit who hides a secret and will give the boy knowledge. The farmer’s family is killed, and now he must join the hermit on the adventure of a lifetime.

There, in the opening you have the whole of the story. You learn the stakes, meet the main players, and know what conflicts will arise. Does it spoil it for you? No. It makes you want to see how it will all play out.

But to go even further –because I think it needs to.

For me, a good opening absolutely lets you know what TYPE of story you are in for. To go back to Star Wars. When you see this opening, you know that you are going to watch a hero’s journey. This is extremely important, because if you don’t want to submerge yourself in that particular type of story, best you know it now.

Letting the reader/watcher understand what type of story you plan to tell isn’t giving anything away. It is falling back onto the basic tradition of storytelling. We expect certain tropes. Indeed, knowing doesn’t dampen our excitement, it heightens it.

A good opening should make certain things clear. Is this going to be a love story? An adventure? A mystery, thriller, quest, coming of age, what? Of course stories can have more than one trope, but there ought to be a main trope that guides us along.

Just as a good pitch will tell an agent/editor what they can expect with the story, so to does the opening.

The challenge then is for you to look at your opening chapter. Have you set us up for the journey? Have you cleverly woven in your main players? Main conflict? Main desire of your hero/heroine? We need to see a glimpse of this or we lose interest. These are the things that make us care about a story. If these things aren't there, it is a good indicator that you haven’t started in the right place.

Have you shown us what type of story you are taking us on? If we don’t know, we feel lost. Deep down, we expect and want to know what trope we are entering. Not knowing makes most readers feel disoriented. And that snaps a person out of the narrative quicker than anything else.

I often say that, as the writer, we are master manipulators. Every word we put on the page, every choice we make must have a purpose. Yes, you want to tell a story that flows from your heart and soul, but it is your job to tell it in the best way you can. You need to be aware of the reader in as much as you need to take control of your story. To do that, I think you need to understand what you are trying to accomplish with the story.

So think of the opening as the whole of you story –the mini version.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Rules For Writers

William Safire’s Rules for Writers

In twenty-five short rules, William Safire has managed to nail down what all good writers should know.

1. Don't abbrev.

2. Check to see if you any words out.

3. Be carefully to use adjectives and adverbs correct.

4. About sentence fragments.

5. When dangling, don't use participles.

6. Don't use no double negatives.

7. Each pronoun agrees with their antecedent.

8. Just between You and i, case is important.

9. Join clauses good, like a conjunction should.

10. Don't use commas, that aren't necessary.

11. Its important to use apostrophe's right.

12. It's better not to unnecessarily split an infinitive.

13. Never leave a transitive verb just lay there without an object.

14. Only Proper Nouns should be capitalized. also a sentence should.

15. begin with a capital and end with a period

16. Use hyphens in compound-words, not just in any two-word phrase.

17. In letters compositions reports and things like that we use commas

18. to keep a string of items apart.

19. Watch out for irregular verbs which have creeped into our language.

20. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.

21. Avoid unnecessary redundancy.

22. A writer mustn't shift your point of view.

23. Don't write a run-on sentence you've got to punctuate it.

24. A preposition isn't a good thing to end a sentence with.

25. Avoid cliches like the plague.

Writers like to think they can break the rules. Rules are made to be broken, right? I think so - especially if the author is clever enough to get away with it. But I tend to agree with Mr. Safire here. Good writers, really good ones, play by the rules.

What about you? Do you play by the rules? Do you know an author who breaks 'em well? If so, give us an example of how they got away with it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Glass Half Full

There have been a number of occasions in the last few years where I've described my novel in progress and had people say that it sounds a bit depressing. Depressing is a word that I often hear associated with literary novels, as it happens.

But depressing is not what I'd call my novel, and it's interesting that I often disagree with that assessment of other books, too. Maybe it's my individual perspective- I'm a glass half full kind of girl- that pushes me to see the positive in every negative; and that, in fact, is specifically what I'm aiming for in my own story.

I was watching my favourite TV show yesterday- Air Crash Investigation (which should be your final proof that I'm just weird, if you needed it). Weird or not, I love it, and yesterday's episode was a perfect example of what I like about stories that do feature loss, tragedy and heartbreak, but end with hope.

The featured accident was Air Canada Flight 797, which made an emergency landing in Cincinnati in 1983 with a fire raging behind the cabin walls. Though the plane landed safely, only half the people on board were able to escape before the oxygen drawn in through the now-open exits created a flashover, and the plane erupted into flames. Tragically, 23 of the 46 people on board died in the conflagration. There's nothing good about the accident itself, besides the fact that 23 people were lucky enough to escape with their lives.

But what fascinates me about this particular incident is the ongoing impact it has on current airline safety. As a result of the things that occurred during the accident, several safety measures were introduced that are now standard. Just as one example, you know those little strip lights that run along the floor between the seats to show you the path to the exits? They exist specifically because of this accident. I've seen numerous other incidents and accidents described where those lights saved people's lives.

And so the unexpected positive impact of such a negative event is still going on.

My novel is set during the First World War, in a time where a generation of young men lost their lives, and a nation lost innocence. I'm using my three different characters to illustrate the impacts, and each of them carries one more than the other- Len, who returns from the war with disabling wounds, represents the physical damage of war. Bill, who comes home barely able to function due to shell-shock, represents the mental damage. And Kit, the girl who waits for them both, represents the emotional damage felt on the home front.

People die, people lose everything. People cheat, deceive, turn to drink and violence, give up- I'm representing everything negative in human nature.

And yet I'm also representing everything hopeful- new life, the unconditional love of a child, the strength of friendship, forgiveness, unexpected strength.

And without the negatives, I wouldn't be able to represent the positives. All the growth comes as a result of the adversity.

So, these are the reasons why I love books like Atonement, Room, Bereft, The Hunger Games, and many others- books that encompass the tragedies of human nature, but always leave room for the hope that is, ironically, also such an intrinsic part being human. I've noticed that not everyone sees the same level of hope that I do in the same stories, so maybe it is just my rose-coloured glasses at play. I should probably have a crack at a book like The Road to see how positive I feel at the end of that.

In the meantime, what's your personal threshold? Are you happy to read about tragedy and heartbreak as long as you're left with something to hope for at the end? Do you even need that last bit of light, or are you right into the apocalyptic stuff? Or do you find yourself switching off once the poor characters have been through the wringer and back more times than is strictly reasonable?

What keeps your reading (and writing) glass half full, or half empty?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Guilty Pleasures

This will, of necessity, be a short post. I’m suffering from a nasty head cold, the kids are home on three weeks of school holidays, and it’s winter and it’s bloody cold. Humph.

But really, I’m secretly very happy with this situation. Because due to this alchemy of sickness, lack of need to rush out the door each morning and absolutely no desire to do so because it’s freaking freezing, I have been discovering – and positively wallowing in – the pleasure of writing in bed.

*Disclaimer - not my actual bedroom. You can tell because this one manages to be white without being covered in cat hair and dirty, child-sized fingerprints.

Warm quilts plumped around me. A cat or two curled against my side. A steaming cup of mint tea on the bedside table … ah, bliss! I wrote in bed until a very obscene hour today, rising only to throw cat food in the cats’ bowls and cereal in the kids’.

Very Barbara Cartland of me ...

... but I’m loving it.

So tell me. Where is your most indulgent, most enjoyable, place to write?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


First, I have to apologize for my prolonged absence from ATWOP. Things in real life have been keeping me very busy as of late. Most of it isn't very exciting, but one very good thing is that I'm closing in on that ever-elusive "the end" to one of my manuscripts. It's going a bit slower than I had hoped, but I'm trudging forward a bit at a time. If I just had a few extra hours in every day... :) You know how it goes.

One of the more interesting things I've had on my plate these past weeks is finishing up putting together a cookbook of all of my grandmother's recipes. My grandmother was a wonderful cook, and when she passed three years ago, her recipe boxes were somewhat of a hot commodity. Everyone wanted to get his/her hands on all of the goodies she had in there, and my aunt and I took it upon ourselves to compile them all together into one book.

Well, this is definitely one of those projects that you take on without knowing how much work it really encompasses. I'll be honest and say that I didn't type a single recipe until this last week or so. My aunt did some work right out of the gate, but the project very quickly fell to the wayside as real life pushed in. Much easier to focus on the "have to's" than the "when I have time's." We all know the drill.

Fast forward to almost three years later, and the book still isn't finished--something I've heard a lot about--mainly from my mother and sister. My mother not only wants the book, but she's also the one who will be keeping the original recipe boxes and books. So I guess you could say her impatience level is at a high because she can't wait to get her hands on all of the hidden treasures she remembers from her childhood. We're holding that all up, so my aunt and I decided we would get it all done before she arrives here in August.

So yes, add one more thing to my already hectic schedule. Typing what feels like a gazillion recipes into a word doc. It wasn't a chore I relished, but I was determined to finish what I had committed myself to.

It was mostly pretty boring work. My grandmother collected a lot of recipes from people over the years, and after you type so many, you start drifting off mid 1/2 C. of sugar...

Then, I hit some of the more...loose recipes. :)

My grandmother was, like I said, a wonderful cook. But getting her to sit down and actually write out the recipes for her various dishes was quite a chore. The woman didn't measure things...and heck, she probably never made a dish the same way twice. When I first started typing recipes, I was covering some of the more "structured" dishes -- cakes and the like that are pretty rigid in details because they have to be.

Towards the end, my grandmother's flair really started to come out. Soups, and sauces, and random salads. Heck, there were "recipes" that were simply lists of ingredients (Actual directions, order or amounts..who needs those, Grandma?)... "recipes" that had lines such as "a bunch of sliced spuds" or "a handful of carrots"...

You can tell right off the bat when you see recipe cards that someone made her sit down and write, trying to capture the essence of a specific dish. But being as she didn't measure, etc. they're just convoluted gobbledygook.

Reading through these cards, I felt a rush of memory and joy. Captured in these cards is the essence of who my grandmother was--her unique voice that I never thought I'd have the chance to hear again. These recipe cards made me smile at times and laugh out loud at others--I can't tell you what a wonderful and special experience it was putting this book together.

In truth, I'm glad we put it off until now. I'm not sure I would've been ready for this when we originally began. But with time, I'm able to simply enjoy her memory without the sharp sting of loss getting in the way.

As a writer, I got to thinking about how this relates to my own work. What distinct footprint will I leave with my writing? What nuances do I have that someone looking back over my career would say, "Yes, of course, that is sooooo Jen. She always did X and X?"

Hmmm. It's definitely one to ponder. Perhaps it's not up to me to decide. All I can hope is that people look back at me in fondness and hear me when they read my words. That's what my grandmother achieved--and I guess I can't ask for more than that.

Monday, July 11, 2011

RWA 2011 Round up

I recently attended my second Romance Writers of America National Conference, held this year at the Marriot Marquis in NYC.

First, I want to say that every time I get around romance writers and industry workers, I am utterly impressed with their intelligence, generosity, and passion. These are people who support each other, who write, represent, and help produce damn good books.

The RWA is a huge conference. Four days filled with workshops and talks from industry leaders, with a huge representation of agents and editors.

Focus is usually split down the middle, with three main interests: that of the unpublished writer in search of an agent, the agented writer waiting for a publisher to snatch her up, and the published writer who is networking and/or interacting with her fans.

Given that the main interest for two of these factions is getting published, I’m keeping my focus on that particular aspect of the conference.

So then, this is what I picked up at the RWA in regards to publication. Or, to put it another way:

The RWA, in which one hears a plethora of contradictory information


Agents and writers say:

Have your manuscript as polished as it can be. Mistakes lead to rejection. Don’t send it out too early. Polish, polish, polish!

Editors say: (as quoted from Dear Author)

“Editors think that authors self censor too much (and that critique partners may be doing more harm than good). I heard more than one editor say that the manuscripts that they like best are ones where they can see the raw voice of the author. Many times, submissions come in that are polished so much that they are too smooth to be interesting. Write with raw passion, authors. This is an industry built on emotion and the manuscripts have to show this.”

(I heard much of the same from my own house.)

Subject material


Write the story that calls to you but keep the market in mind


Ditto –but make sure you are writing what you love


Ditto as well –add to this: take a new spin on an old tale


What agents and editors say off record: we know when we know. If the story has it, if we love the voice, we offer.



XYZ is hot right now. So hot the market is flooded. Don’t try XYZ unless you’re really good.



ABC is not hot right now. You may have problems selling it.

Editor’s sudden aside:

Except I just bought an ABC book and we’re really excited about it.

To which agent adds:

Yes! Too true, and I just picked up a writer who does excellent ABC.


In answer to the question: I’m working on a manuscript that has X,Y, Z elements. Will it sell?


We’ll know when we read it.

Yeah. It’s a wonder this question still gets asked because the answer is always the same.

In answer to the question: how long should my manuscript be?


I won’t look at a manuscript over 100k, not matter how good the story and writing may be.

Same editor:

That said, I recently purchased a manuscript over 100k and love it.

Sensing a pattern here?

It really isn’t my intention to come off as snarky here. What I am really trying to get across is that there is NO formula for success. None. Writers often search for it because we want some sort of control in a world where our success is often decided by outside parties. But we only end up spinning our wheels.

The only thing we have control of is the moment we sit down to tell our stories. Some stories will succeed, some will fail.

Your query or manuscript may fall on the desk at the precise moment an agent/editor is having a crap day and doesn’t want to read another thing. Whoosh, out it goes.

OTOH. It may be the precise moment an agent/editor has had her favorite sandwich for lunch, discovered a twenty in her pocket, and is dreaming of reading a really good dark, Orwellian novel featuring a pink pony and, would you look at that! Here is a plot with those exact elements. Whoopie!

Yes. It can be that fickle. Yes, it can. Or it could be that your story and craft aren’t there yet. It’s hard to tell. And you may never know.

So, keep doing what you’re doing. Write. Get better at the craft. Gut it out. Write. Get better. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Some day, with a little luck, and a lot of perseverance, you may hit it. :)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Can You Hear The Silence?

Imagine hearing nothing but the waves on sand, the breeze through tall grasses and the cries of shore birds.

Think of all the noise you hear every day, the noise you’re hearing right now. Much of it is background, white noise, sounds that you’ve tuned out but that continue to bombard your system. Think of all those sounds, those decibels of man-made noise.

Maybe you thrive on it. You’ve got the television on all day, just for the company. You’ve got the mp3 tunes pumped through stereo speakers. Your music inspires you, energizes you.

How about the sound of silence? Do we hear it anymore? Is there any place not touched by human noise?

I’m headed to one such place today. For the next few weeks I’ll be camping on the sand inside a remote bay on Kodiak Island, Alaska. There’s a creek that burbles, the ocean waves that rumble and shush, breezes that tickle the tall beach grasses, insects that buzz the riot of wild flowers growing there in profusion, and the musical sounds of little birds in the brush.

In all our time there last year the only human noise we heard was an occasional small plane flying overhead and the diesel rumble of a fisherman’s boat in the bay as he checked his crab pots.

The solitude did wonders for me. It was time away from everything distracting, everything rushed and unimportant. I was able to think about my writing in a detached way. When the urge to write became too much, I wrote in the sand - just names, but seeing them gave me a thrill. I knew I’d return to write their stories and be better for my enforced writing break.

And so it is that I look forward to the next few weeks of silence. I’ll be walking the beach and picking up whale bones, sitting beside the fire made of driftwood, hiking the hills and exploring the creeks.

I’ll see y’all later.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Art of Living and Dying

In the Tibetan philosophy, Sylvia Plath sense of the word, we're all dying.
Fight Club

Death is stalking every one of us from the moment we're born. It's all around us, whether we notice it there or not. The first time we're touched by death, truly affected by it, something changes in us forever- we suffer a loss of innocence, we gain an awareness of the fragility of life. And writers, I find, are often made by that experience. After their world has been changed, born writers are often the ones who turn and look death in the eye- confront it. Expose it. Try to make sense of it. Use their writing to try to understand what it means not only to die, but first, to live.

Rachel talked about something quite similar only a couple of weeks ago. Kristen talked about death in her family with gut-wrenching openness last year. And last year I looked at using writing to explore my own mortality, too.

Not all writers are writing about death. But there are those, like me, whose stories are inextricably woven through with it. Death is not the point of my story, but everything in it turns on the passing of people who are loved and missed. Such is the way of things in a time of war.

A small fact: You are going to die.
Does this worry you?

Marcus Zusak,
The Book Thief

Before modern antibiotics and modern medicine, death was a much more familiar face than it is today. At one point, toothache was one of the most fatal illnesses you could contract. Childbirth, a winter cold, epilepsy- situations that are now largely treatable were entirely unpredictable before the 20th century rolled around with all its medical innovations. That familiarity with death led to different ways of thinking about it, and different ways of mourning. Archaeological studies of gravestones reveal patterns of ritual behaviour that people tended to follow en masse through time, when death was a daily, shared experience in smaller communities. Spiritualism, the effort to contact those now beyond the veil, has risen and fallen in popularity at different times over the last couple of centuries.

Today, death is in many instances more predictable. Many people get to see the writing on the wall well in advance. Death can be delayed, pushed back by medicine. But it can never be defeated entirely.

So, we'll never stop trying to understand it. What is it like to die? What happens afterwards? Who's going to miss us when we're gone? For those left behind, how will we survive? How will we live with the ever-increasing awareness that we, too, are walking the same path as those we've farewelled?

And that means we'll never stop writing about it. We'll never stop killing characters we love, and devastating those who love them. We'll never stop pushing the emotions of our readers and ourselves. We'll never stop asking questions and attempting to answer them. We'll never stop exploring what's great about life, what it all means, why it has to come to a close.

From the hour you're born you begin to die. But between birth and death there's life.

Simone de Beauvoir, All Men Are Mortal

Even though my story is not about death, death motivates me to write it. I've been lucky in my life, and I've only lost a few precious loved ones so far- the death of my much-loved grandfather when I was 11 years old was the first of those, and his passing rocked my world and changed my perspective on life. Ever since then I've been trying to make sense of death, trying to comprehend the reality that we will all one day die- but before then, must live and live well. And in writing about war, I'm making headway. I'm making peace. But death, when it comes for those we love, is never easy.

A dearly loved friend of mine died on the weekend. She was just 26 years of age, and she was absolutely one of a kind. For five years she had been fighting tooth and nail against Hodgkins Lymphoma, and for most of that time, she and all of us believed she could beat it. She was stubborn, fierce, and extraordinarily determined, as was her whole family. If anyone could beat the damned cancer, it should have been her. She did clinical trial after clinical trial over the years, in between conventional treatments and bone marrow transplants, and there were times where she was mostly better. In the end, her form of the disease was resistant to all treatment, and she couldn't fight any more.

We humans are born with this assumption and an almost sense of entitlement to grow old. Isn’t is just lucky and amazing that we were born at all?

Anne van Riel
(1984- 2011)

A couple of months ago Anne made the decision to accept that she was going to die. Her gift to so many of us was to talk openly about this on her CaringBridge website. Her perspectives on living and dying, also shared in a magazine article this year (go read it), are a blunt and honest reminder to all of us.

Shit happens. Get on with it. Don't make excuses about waiting to live because you might die one day; you WILL die one day, and you don't even know how much time you have. So make the most of it right now, before it's too late. Don't go to your grave regretting a single moment you could have spent being happier, kinder. More patient, less self-critical. Chasing the dreams that make you who you are instead of doing the things you think you should. Don't live in fear of what you could lose- live in celebration of what you have. Every minute you have on this earth is a blessing.

I will not forget my beautiful friend Anne, and I will not forget her lessons. I will keep searching and thinking, creating and exploring, and I won't stop trying to understand life and death through my writing. But through her, I now understand so much more than I ever did before, and it's not the art of dying that she has illuminated above all else- it's the art of living.

Be grateful when you wake up tomorrow morning. The world is an amazing place, and we're all blessed to have the chance to live in it.

So, make the most of what you've got. And writers? Go write something. Today. No more excuses. You're the ones making sense of all this for everyone else.

This life that we call our own
Is neither strong nor free;
A flame in the wind of death,
It trembles ceaselessly.

And this all we can do
To use our little light
Before, in the piercing wind,
It flickers into night:

To yield the heat of the flame,
To grudge not, but to give
Whatever we have of strength,
That one more flame may live.

Fire, by Dorothea MacKellar

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Musing On Revisions

I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter.

James A. Michener

As you might know, I’m revising what is probably the second draft of my book. My revisions have been more than a little stop/start/stop/start, so it’s hard to determine exactly what number I’m up to. So far, this draft is shaping up to look like a good, solid, book-like draft, and after so many false starts and screeching halts with my revisions, I’m starting to become quietly optimistic. And in an effort to avoid the circling round and round the drain of futile revisions for another eighteen months (yikes!), I’ve been pondering what, exactly, I was doing wrong in the first place … and what I might now be doing right.

I finished my SFD in December 2009 and did the recommended “set aside of the manuscript” for a solid two months. So far, so good. Then I dusted it off, did a read through … and ugh. Bits were good, but a lot was blah. Worst of all, the middle was as bloated as a pensioner in stretch pants rolling up for a fifth attack on a cruise ship’s buffet (my in-laws, bless them, are cruise aficionados, and I know of what I speak.) Confronted with this rambling mass of words, I did the worst possible thing - I panicked. Oh, I had a plan of attack for my revisions, but it was so BIG and complicated (to match the big and complicated SFD) that I became overwhelmed and did what I always do in such situations – embark on an OCD campaign of rewriting my opening chapters over and over and over and over again.

It was NaNo 2010 that jolted me out of this rut. For NaNo, I wrote only brand new scenes, and after being in the seventh circle of opening chapters hell for so long, it was a joy. And looking back at what I’d revised so far, I realised a lot of what I’d been doing, while not making my book any worse, was not really making it better. Which is kinda the whole point of revisions, right? Duh. I decided I really needed to step back and immerse myself in the fundamentals of my genre before I could get my plot problems ironed out, and did so (and blogged about it here and here.) After that I analysed my manuscript within an inch of its life, trying to identify big picture themes and messages, all of which allowed me to attack the re-plotting that needed to be done with much more knowledge and confidence than before. And since about March 2011 the revisions have been going well. In fact, I hope to be done with this round by the end of August, and, fingers crossed, have a final version to inflict upon my beta readers by the end of the year.

So, studying and nailing down genre elements was a big help. Identifying and clarifying my core messages and themes was another. It helped me see the story that was there, lurking between the lines all the time. And a lot was crammed in there, I tell you! But knowing the driving questions in my book, and knowing the expectations of my genre, helped me to identify what to cut and what to keep, and also what to add.

But there’s more to it than that. I think the main reason why my revisions are actually getting me somewhere this time round is, quite simply, that I decided I had to get over myself. I forced myself to step outside and give myself the eyeball and brutally, honestly, work out what it was that I was doing to mess up my attempts to write this book. The self-sabotage. Like the obsessive opening re-writes and the pitiful hand wringing when a scene just wouldn’t work; the stupid self-inflicted pressure to aim for perfection each and every time I write; the hanging on to a word or a sentence or a whole scene just because I liked it, not because it was right for the story; the letting in of the paralyzing self-doubt far too many times.

Battling these demons is an ongoing process. They never go away. But naming and shaming them, and being on guard for the times they will inevitably raise their ugly heads, is vital. In a way, revisions really are all about self-observation without judgment, self-observation of both me and my work, so that I can get out of my own way and one day do what I’d so dearly love to - finish my book and see it published.

And really, no matter how hard revisions may be, I do love them. Because with each revision session, I learn more about the craft of writing, and about myself. Which means next time round my writing will be stronger. And so, I hope, will I.