Friday, December 31, 2010

More on plot outlines

I use the narrative plot outline to jump from scene to scene, to bring out the basic story but without the dialog or details I'll insert in the actual writing of my novel. Since I've already written out several pages of the book, my outline includes those scenes and some notes for planned scenes.

Though this is a partial outline that I have to finish in the days ahead, I learned a lot from it. I could see where I needed to bring in more about one of the characters I've mentioned but not had a scene with. I need him to be on the page earlier. I also need to introduce another character who, although not apparently a key player, will provide the key to action later on.

I can see where I've been thin on info my reader will need, and I can see where I have already thought through some issues pretty thoroughly.

The outline gives me sort of a birds-eye view of my story. From there I can see where I need more peaks and valleys for excitement, and where I need to slow the action to pick up on a side issue I'm dealing with.

So forget any phobias about outlining you may have picked up in grade school and give yourself that aerial view of your novel. It's not a horrible administrative-type task--it's just another way to tell your story to yourself before you embellish it for the reading public.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Outlines and other planning issues

I finally broke down a while back and spent a whole day doing a narrative plot outline for my book. I got about two-thirds of the way through my story, and have yet to finish that outline, but it still helps an amazing amount.

For those of you who haven't been exposed to what this outline is, it's not like those horrible topical outlines we had to do in grade school (did you have to do that?). I once had a science teacher who outlined the whole book, day by day, on the black board. What do you think I learned in her class? I learned that Tommy S. could make his belly bulge out like a pregnant lady. That's about it.

A narrative plot outline is writing up a summary of the story in present tense. I will give you an example or two from mine, but I am not claiming I'm an expert. This is just the way that works for me.

The opening of the outline for my latest book reads: "Cody Caulfield, recovering alcoholic and attorney to losers, find herself with a case that's turning messy. She and her faithful sidekick Janet Engles watch petty criminal Nate Diggerson walk out of the courtroom a free man, thanks to their efforts. But his freedom is short lived."

Later on, I have a section that reads "On the phone Montgomery states that he and his boss had no need to do in Nate, because they've already retrieved anything of value he'd taken. Montgomery warns Cody to butt out or alcoholism won't be her only health problem."

What I learned from writing the plot outline is fodder for another post.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

To end, or not to end?

When is it time to end it? I don't mean, when is it the end of the book, or when have you finished your manuscript. I mean, when is it time to put the manuscript you've been diddling with away and work on something else? I'm finding myself slogging along in Book #1 because my heroine was not well formed at the outset. That is to say, she was not created with enough angst, enough crises in her life, enough personality to survive the first draft. I need to start all over. Remembering that I started this more than 10 years ago as an exercise to see if I could write a book, I am not taking this too badly. After all, I have two more books simmering away, with partial manuscripts in the computer. And I MAY pick it up again some day. It turned into quite a good learning process.

Book #2 has much more life: a more interesting main character who has enough flaws and personality quirks to get us through more pages. Cody is an accident waiting to happen, as the old saying goes. In this case, the "accidents" include at least two murders, a bit of romance, and a lot of saying nasty things to unlikeable people. Cody does all the stuff I'd do if I weren't too polite. Except for the alcoholism--that's not one of my vices, thank God.

And there's also book #3--a totally different kind of mystery, involving identity issues, "who's your daddy," and the horrible experience of becoming an adult.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

In praise of praise

It's been too long since I blogged anything about my writing--or anything else, either. Chaos occasionally takes over. We have family traveling, the holidays coming (not related to family travel, actually), and all sorts of deadlines for each family member. Makes me think of that old song lyric, "Every thing runs in a circular motion, bobbing like a little boat upon the sea..." although little boats bobbing don't, as a rule, run in a circular motion. But I digress, which seems to be my pattern these days.

I've been going through my manuscript like someone reading a diary. "Oh, I remember writing that," "This part is so lame, what was I thinking," and, of course, "This is pretty darned good." Writers generally labor in solitude, so, when my critique group isn't around, I must praise myself. As long as we aren't delusional, I think we writers ought to praise ourselves. I don't mean run around the streets telling everyone what a great writer you are. I mean just read your stuff and pick out what's good. After all, if you hate your writing, how can you expect anyone else to want to read it? So praise. Take a moment out of the chaos to remember your manuscript, and to pick out the really good stuff. Let the bad stuff sit for another day. First praise, then get back to work to make the whole thing praiseworthy once you're energized by your own good reviews.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

of reading and baby books

Yesterday, I spent a whole day at a seminar swamped with info on unschooling teens, college acceptance, and the risks and joys of "delight-directed" learning. Thank heavens we aren't quite at the point of college applications. It's been a rough year, but also enlightening. Dear daughter, who has always claimed she had no interest in writing (not having time for it due to shark studies), suddenly announced she'd started writing a story and asked if she could read it to me. Of course I was delighted, and astonished that the kid has a terrific grasp of dialog, setting, and the gripping scene. No character development yet, and the plot has not been revealed, but doggone it, I'm so proud of her.

How did she learn this wonderful stuff? She reads. Book after book after book. Many of them she reads over and over and over (Harry Potter books at our house have extremely frayed covers). She reads mysteries, romance, history, horse books, funny books, and books on sharks and oceanography. She's well known by our local librarians.

When she was an infant there were just a couple of things I wanted to see in her life as she grew: a love of God and desire to be his intimate friend, and a love of books. The first, of course, is a lifelong goal for us. The second was apparent from a very young age.

When she was a few months old, I used to take her in her stroller into a large bookstore near us and roll her over to the children's books. I'd hold up a book and if she showed any enthusiasm for it, that was a take home. Sandra Boynton was a fast favorite, and still is, for both of us. My baby loved books and wanted me to read to her for hours, something I was happy to do for a large part of each day.

What makes a book interesting to a baby may be pretty close to what appeals to adults. The covers may get us to pick it up, but the rhythym, the emotion (Boynton's humor and the sweetness of her books like The Going To Bed Book, for example), a story that engages us, and a character to whom we can relate make it an experience we want.

That's the kind of book I'm aiming for. I just hope I can keep up with Boynton.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Good grief, I just killed off another character!

The problem with writing without an outline is that you may, as I did recently, get the bug to kill off a character, which leaves one, me anyway, with a problem. I just killed the guy who was supposed to be the big bad dude, the one responsible for the first killing and of whom everyone is afraid. Now who do I blame?

Well, I find this rather invigorating, because I have someone in mind. But it also brings me back to the fact that I really do need to sit down and make a map for my books so that I've got the road laid out, though not yet paved. I really do need to do that. My problem may be the same as yours if you're struggling to finish a writing project--time.

Time used to snail by, but now that I'm nearly ancient (according to my teenager), it moves like a bullet train. I know that one doesn't find time, but makes time. If I want to get these books done, I need to make time. And I feel like I need to make a huge block of time. And huge blocks of time do not just lie around waiting to be picked up and used at my house. I need a weekend retreat. And I'm going to plan one. Soon. I promise. I'll get back to you on it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

how to increase your writing time

My daughter and I recently visited family in both the Northwest and in the Northeast. It was a long trip. We returned to find a DVR hooked up to the TV. Because I am technologically challenged, this has increased my writing time by about an hour a day. I have to ask my 13-year-old child how to turn the TV on. Yes, there's a booklet I'm supposed to read, but I'm still doing laundry from the trip while pulling everything I can out of the living room so the painters can get to the walls. When do I have time for the booklet? So most of the time, I just forget it. It's probably better anyway to spend my time doing more creative stuff than watching Perry Mason.

Like making some sort of skeletal outline that would keep my books moving along. Since the second book is taken from excerpts of a fictional book that I included in the first book, I have these little vignettes to serve as "fenceposts" for the story that I'm stringing out. This is a huge advantage over the first book, which began as a class project and has been sculpted and trimmed as I write along. Still undone, I do think I know where I'm going, but I haven't set it on paper. That would be good--to draw myself a map.

It's gotta be easier than reading the DVR booklet.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Letting the characters lead

I am loaded with energy and optimism tonight. Critique group this morning went really well. Heard some great stuff from my buddies: poetry, biography, mystery. We're all progressing, albeit slowly, toward publishing real books full of good stuff.

Robert Frost wrote about The Road Not Taken, and I think about that a lot as I write. I made a choice this week to have one of my secondary characters, Barbara, step into a situation that revealed more about her, and in the process, it revealed a bit more about Anna, my MC. I had intended for Barbara to veer into something different, but she didn't want to go there. She wanted the road NOT taken.

Come on, you fiction writers, you know exactly what I mean. You create a character, and non-writers think you "make" them go where you want them. But once a character has been defined to a certain degree, and she begins to "live" for you. Like the Velveteen Rabbit she becomes "real" and then look out! Characters do lead writers along. As Stephen King says in "On Writing," you uncover the bones of your story--and your characters are the ones who do the real work for you. So make them strong and give them a variety of tools for their job--physicality, personality, spirit, and all the other strengths and weaknesses that make them resonate with your readers, then let the story unfold!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My name is Karen and I'm a library-aholic

Right now, I'm having a hard time working my way through my writing. I would rather write something short and funny than keep my behind in the chair long enough to finish my books. A huge obstacle this summer is that my daughter is volunteering to sign up kids in the reading program at our nearest library. That means I have to run her there and pick her up, so I am around the library almost every day. And libraries, in case you aren't getting this, are full of books. Other people's books. Some of the writing is not so good, but there is so much good stuff that it's hard to walk away with just my daughter and her books. I have to pick up a couple more every time I'm in. I think I've read a dozen books in the last week, and at least one of them wasn't worth reading, and another couple were marginal. The rest were actually good books. Joanne Dobson's latest with her Professor Karen Pelletier, Death Without Tenure, was a book I'd been pining to read.

Now that I've read all these books, I think I need to contribute to the library system. I will finish my own books and hope they are added to the shelves and that others will find them better than marginal. As we have said in our critique group, "Friends don't let friends write mediocre books." God willing, mine will make it through the gauntlet to bookshelves in homes and libraries across the country. I just have to keep my bottom in the chair.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Good grief!

It's summer already. My critique group will be splitting up for travel plans, coming back together when we can--we never totally knock off for any length of time. We've already had a couple of members take trips to spend time with family in other states. The rest of us have stayed put, for now, and all my energy seems to have gone into making brownies for all the end-of-the-school-year stuff. Yes, even homeschoolers celebrate that. Three or four batches for the various co-op classes, potlucks and recognition night. Whew. I do not want to see any more brownies for a long time.

The books are simmering. After my great time visiting an AA group for research on my recovering alcoholic MC in book #2, I'm just letting all that settle. Those folks are incredible. Such poignant humor about their situation. They were all upbeat and looking to the future. One of the women really seems a lot like Cody, my MC. She was at least six feet tall and athletic, although she didn't show any signs of being as irascible as Cody. The meeting gave me a lot to think about as I craft that book.

I need to re-do the outline for The Fictional Writer--the original has long since been changed so much that I dumped it. Better ideas rule. And I have NO outline for The Big Kissoff, the Cody book. I've been far too organic with that, and it's not going to work for long. Although I fully believe in letting the story unwind, I've concluded that if I don't have a destination, I'm going to be like the Israelites wandering in the desert.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Marketing hints for magazine articles

I just got both a phone call AND an email from an editor who wants to publish the humor article I sent her. Pretty fast, since it just went out to her last week! I'm remembering what someone at a writers conference told us about selling magazine articles: You send the same piece out to similar publications in different markets. For example, regional parenting magazines, or different denominational publications--non-competing markets that may pay less than a huge national publication, but for which the total payoff will be higher. If I can sell this same piece to four or five different small publications, I can make as much as by selling it once to one national behemoth. Such a deal. Although the pay is less, the competition is also less, and total sales MIGHT make up for it.

Besides getting a little money out of the deal, I also have a nice fresh clip for my clip file. That's always good. And the pay will help cover the toner for printing out my novel's pages for critique group. That's also good. But the best thing about getting back in print is that it helps to boost my morale. I must be a real writer if I'm getting in print. And that's VERY, VERY good.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Why is it funny, and does it matter?

Today, I read through some excerpts of the novel I'm working on about a recovering alcoholic attorney, and they made me laugh again, so I think I may be able to get back to work on it soon. It's important to me that my work makes me laugh. Most of what I write, even if it's sort of serious nonfiction, has a bit of humor. I sometimes don't even mean to be funny--it just happens. When I'm speaking at a podium that happens sometimes too. I don't plan to say anything funny, but then I hear people laugh. It pleases me to hear it, but I wonder if I ought to be concerned about how out of it I am that I'm not sure what I said that was funny?

But for now, I'm not going to worry about it too much. Worrying about being funny would be pretty deadly, wouldn't it? I think it would kill any creative influence you had leading you in a humorous direction. Things are funny because they take you by surprise, and if anything I write is even a little funny it's because a thought took me by surprise. Sometimes even as I type it. I like that. It lets me laugh, too. I don't know how stand-up comics do it. Having your living depend on being funny would make me very unfunny.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day, distractions and skiving

Yes, it's Mother's Day and I'm in here, typing away because, frankly, it's more fun than I've had all week. I like writing. I love my child and my husband, but a treat for me is taking time to write. We celebrated M-Day yesterday by wandering around an antique collective for more than an hour. By the time we left I was completely relaxed and ready to face dinner out. I love antique stores, and I told my newly teen-aged daughter, "Remember, we aren't going to buy anything. It's like a museum, and we just enjoy the great old stuff." My husband, who obviously feared he might have to live with some more "great old stuff," visibly relaxed. My daughter was disappointed. Somehow, in her pre-teen years, she developed the idea that she can't go into a store without buying something. As if she might offend the management. I disabuse her of this idea at every turn, to no avail. Each trip to a store, I invoke the gods of thriftiness. So far, it's not taking.

I did get my humor article off via email, in hopes of great riches--like maybe $50!? We shall see. If they don't like it, I begin anew the search for a worthy home for it. The article grew from a thought I had a few years back when news reports came out about the state considering outlawing cellphones while driving because they contribute to distracted driving. Here in CA, they have limited car use of cellphones to hands-free. But seriously, you're still distracted by the conversation, right? And cellphones aren't the WORST cause of distracted driving. Check your back seat. Is there a small person sitting there, tossing around the cheerios and yelling about a dropped water bottle? There's the problem.

My "problem" was four when I first began this piece, and the article has been revised, lengthened, shortened, published on line, and in both the newsletter and in the anthology of our South Bay branch of the Calif. Writers Club. It's seen some changes, as have we in eight years.

Okay, this post is not about writing a novel, but I obviously have been skiving off on that duty. But the pots still simmer away, hopefully brimming with new plot twists that will rise to the surface as soon as I can open those doc files again.

Wish me luck on the $50.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

to market, to market, to sell my funny stories

Okay, it's confession time here. I really am dedicated to being a writer. I am dedicated to each of the stories I'm writing. I think about my books throughout the day, in the midst of daily duties as a wife, mother, CEO of our household. But, doggone it I haven't written anything new all month!

I've been writing, yes--rewriting. Reworking a short story with the help of my brilliant critique group and getting it ready to send off. This is a huge challenge to me. The marketing side of things, and the time it takes to hunt down good markets and send stuff out, generally overwhelm me. It's so much easier just to write, but unfortunately, I'm one of those crazy people who actually want somebody to READ my stuff.

I do intend to send off two pieces this week: the short story, and a short humor piece. One publication said their only criterion was that it make them laugh out loud. I read their archived humor pieces and mine is really, honestly MUCH funnier. So I take heart. I qualify. But there seem to be some restrictions on what they accept--like coming from their home state. Sigh. Foiled again.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Universal themes, tapping the emotional bond

I recently won a wonderful book in a challenge on R.L. LaFevers blog. A 12-year-old heroine, in a primitive culture created totally in the fertile mind of Frances Hardinge, proves something more than just the sister of her village's most important person. "The Lost Conspiracy" is beautifully written, mystical, and entirely engaging. If Ms. LaFevers hadn't sent me that book I might never have found it on my own, and that would have been a loss. Here is a heroine who rises to every challenge with cleverness, perseverance, and courage. And an author who weaves the story skillfully from various angles, and with gorgeous language.

What do I have in common with a 12-year-old child under incredible stress, pulled by duty and torn loyalties? On the surface, not much. But when I finished the book I realized that I was completely on board with Hathin as she tries to keep her sister safe while also seeking revenge. I admire her intelligence and creativity. And I completely understand her struggle with her own identity and value.

To create a character who is both so different from the reader, and yet so like us at the heart, is something to strive for. To be able to tell that character's story in such an lyrical manner, rooted in a whole world of superstition and tradition, is an absolute God-given gift. That's a gift I always pray for.

Friday, March 19, 2010

I come to praise...

It is once again time for me to praise my critique group. They never fail to encourage me. One of our group told me a couple of weeks ago that I had no idea what a gift I have. Is that wonderful? Even my mother doesn't praise me like that!

And I enjoy praising their work, too. What an honor it is to encourage other writers, young or old (or in our case, middle-aged, mostly). To see someone's work improve and their confidence grow is a wonderful gift. How many of us miss that in our lives simply because we're afraid to share OUR stuff? Opening up to one another, reading those sometimes dreadful drafts, brings us so much freedom--freedom that shows in our ongoing work, and the ability to reach out to others.

This has been a year of many opportunities for me to praise and encourage others in the arts. And that has made it one of my most productive years--I think because the simple act of praising the creativity of others seems to open up my own creativity even more. May you be blessed with praise--both to receive and to give.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A season of productivity

For some reason, late winter in my family seems to lead to a flurry of production. My niece is even making her own laundry soap, I have planted a myriad of seeds and created little greenhouses of two-gallon plastic zip bags to protect the fragile growth, new closet doors are in, rugs have been cleaned, and...and my book's main character is nurturing her own productive fantasies, about which I must write with joie de vivre and lucidity.

For inspiration, I re-read a couple of Rett MacPherson's books, an Anne Perry (my favorite, her first book about her Mr. Monk), and am looking longingly at my Donna Andrews collection. But somewhere inspiration ceases and procrastination takes over, so I won't go there this week. I think and talk about my fiction all the time, to my writer friends mostly. I am constantly writing scenes in my head while I wait to pick up my daughter at junior high Bible study, then scribbling them in the little notebook I carry in the car. Then I come home and they become the bones of my next chapter or segment. What a crazy life I live! How fun is this?

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Slowest Writer on Earth?

I really must own that title. Who writes more slowly than I? As a copywriter, and later as a journalist, I churned out copy like a meat grinder. Chewed up all those ideas, and g-r-r-r-r out they came onto the plate, fully formed, coherent (mostly) stuff by the ream. But in fiction, I have spent too much time fretting about the fact that I don't know what I'm doing. I've never written a book! My specialty is generally 800 words or less. 1,200 words per article when a certain magazine asked, and I found that number daunting at first.

Now, I'm working on tens of thousands of words, for pete's sake, and have to worry about arc, characterization, dialog, subplots, and a number of other things I don't even have names for. Things have to make sense when I first put them down, and also a hundred pages or more later on. This is frightening! When I first started the story, it was just a paragraph that popped into my mind with a "what if" attached. Then a few scenes began to bug me, so I put them all down on the page and over the years cut out half of the copy and moved around most of the rest. I can't even remember when I started "The Fictional Writer." I think it was sometime before my daughter was born and she's 12 now! It was in very different form then, too, of course.

But the bottom line is that I think I've learned enough now (I sure HOPE so!) that I have a better idea where I'm going. I mostly need to flesh out the bones I've uncovered. (See previous post re. Stephen King.) And the second novel, begun recently, is moving much more easily. Writing the two in tandem is proving helpful because they are interrelated and sort of feed off of one another.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The call of the divine...maybe

What is it with the need to write? Every time I sit down and start tapping out my stories, I move into a "zone" where a little movie plays in my head. I see my characters running around, doing their stuff, gesturing and stomping, hugging and hissing--sort of like a silent movie. Then I type the dialog and put those actions into context and the story begins to move ahead. We learn a little about my MC and her thorn in the flesh, as well as about the current pain in the behind. I am learning, right along with my future readers, who seem to hang over my shoulder, waiting with bated breath for the next installment. I need to write this out so I can see what happens, too.

Oh, sure, I have a plan of sorts, but I am not the kind who can outline in the formal sense. I know in general what sort of things will happen, but when the movie starts in my head, it sometimes takes me some place I hadn't thought of going. When authors talk about their characters taking over, I can see where that comes from. There is a mystifying aspect to writing--the story reveals itself as we, to quote Stephen King ( check out his book "On Writing"), uncover the bones. And I NEED to uncover those bones. And for pete's sake, if you own "On Writing," don't lend it to anyone because you'll never see it again.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What are first drafts for?

Right now, I am simply forging ahead on my novels, including notes here and there where changes will have to be made (I use a series of capital Xs to mark the spots), but I won't make those changes now. In my last post, I mentioned that Anna in The Fictional Writer needs to be more complex--more stuff bubbling up to the surface. She has a lot of undercurrents of angst and ambivalence, but so far, I haven't made them big enough to truly trip her up. That will happen in the rewrites, but it is soooo hard to keep on writing and not go back to the beginning and start putting stuff into the story.

Patience is the name of the game. I put on blinders, in a sense, and keep advancing. Once the first draft is completely done (by the end of the year, God willing) I can go back and rework all the stuff, stick in the details I still need to find through research, and look for the holes in the structure. I will probably bribe a couple of my critique members to read through the whole book for me and give me their comments. One of them is particularly susceptible to brownies.

some times you feel like a nut....

Okay, now that is a really OLD commercial, but today that's what I feel like. Since I'm working on two novels at once (with one, maybe two simmering in the background for later), I am bouncing back and forth between my main novels. Today, I felt like writing for Cody for a while, then I felt like working on Anna's story. On The Fictional Writer, I mostly tweaked some stuff based on comments from the last trip to the critique group. On The Big Kissoff, I finally got Cody's no-good client, Diggerson, into her grimy office so she can "chew him up and spit him out." Cody is so much fun. All those nasty feelings I've ever had toward employers or horrible neighbors, or people who cut me off on the freeway--all that energy goes into Cody. She's just fun/mean and I truly love her, alcoholism and all.

Anna in The Fictional Writer is not yet as complex as Cody in The Big Kissoff. I started The Fictional Writer over a decade ago, tossed half of it out a couple of years back, and I think Anna may be too nice for me to relate to, which probably means she's too nice for readers to relate to. Not that I want her to be as troubled and irritating as Cody, but I really need to bring out the ambivalence she feels about her father, about romance, about being a fiction writer v. a journalist. All her issues are undercurrents and I need to get them boiling to the top. I understand Anna better than Cody, because like her, my issues are mostly undercurrents, not obvious stuff like alcoholism and really poor people skills like Cody's. So, because she's farther from me, I can write her more easily. Still, I hate to think how much like me both of these characters are.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Burn out

I don't know about you, but when I try to do too much, I burn out quickly. Up the number of pages I'm working on, increase my posts here on the blog, as well as get the cat to the vet (twice in one day last week, doggone it!), homeschool, shop and cook (you notice I didn't mention cleaning, which I pretend doesn't matter until I can't stand the level of dust on the bookcases), and I'm ready for a long nap.

I like working on two novels at once, but I really can't push for more than a few hundred pages a week or I just explode. My life is too crazy.

Let's be real. I live with a 12-year-old and a husband who works long hours, so I have responsibilities that require my attention. I need discipline, but not draconian rules. Pile me up with requirements and I fade immediately. As it is, I just put one foot in front of the other and keep plugging away at the books. As long as I do that frequently and stick with it, if only for 15 minutes at a time, I can keep the story moving. Time, personal limitations and family interruptions may keep me from the novel, but not forever. Writing is a priority for me--not just to produce the books, but for my sanity. I need the creative outlet and those characters keep jumping around on my brain. They want out, and I can see the next ones in line ready to come in and jump around for at least another couple of books, so I have to keep moving.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Praise the Lord and send in the critique group!

Okay, I know I'm constantly yammering about my critique group. I can't figure out why we all clicked so well, but these women hold me accountable and tell me terrible truths about my writing--things I need to pay attention to if I want my book to really zing along.

Since I'm switching around and working on two novels actively, with a third simmering on a back burner (is your brain like a stovetop, too?)--I need a group that will hang with me as I alternate between the novel excerpts I bring to the group each week. I had one character tossing a tennis ball around, so of course, somebody sharp had to ask, "Where did the tennis ball come from? What's the story with that?" The others chimed in--they want to know, too. I had to give that some thought, but it came to me pretty quickly. When I got home, I began my editing--adding in suggestions from the group, including the story of the tennis ball. I sort of ignored some of their ideas about what it might mean (she was a former star tennis player??) and used it to help create a picture of her office environment. She's come down in the world from being on her way to a partnership in a huge legal practice to a crummy building where former tenants leave things behind (dirt, chipped light fixtures, and tennis balls) and nobody cleans it up. I see her office as a reflection of the crummy life she now has to climb out of. Now, what would I have done without them insisting they needed to know about the tennis ball?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Learning writing from reading fiction--good and bad

Besides the enjoyment we get from reading a good book, there's nothing more delightful than coming across an author who has used some of the same approach YOU have. In my first book, I include excerpts from the book my MC (main character) is writing, so it was fun to find an author who included excerpts from a book her MC was reading. That book was written by another character in the book.

I experienced a sense of vindication when I stumbled upon Joanne Dobson's The Maltese Manuscript and saw those excerpts. I liked her writing and MC enough that I will now go back to the library to read the earlier books in the series. I thank God daily for the public library, otherwise I'd be broke. I enjoyed Dobson's skewering of academia, as well as the mystery. Her MC is a professor working toward tenure in the literature department of a small, elite college in the East.

Another book I read recently I will not name. It was one of those not so good books. The writer had alternated chapters between two characters, both speaking in the first person. I felt like a ping pong ball reading that one. It reinforced advice I'd been given not to split my book between two characters, although I was writing first, then third person as I alternated. I finally figured it was diluting the impact of my MC's POV. At least I picked up on that before I tried to publish the thing.

If you're writing fiction, read it. The good, the bad, but not the ugly. No one has to go that far.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Time stealers or transformers?

There are so many wonderful distractions in life--things that relieve the moments of stress by making me laugh. Is it a waste of time to stop and laugh? How about crying? Staring out the window? Fretting over things that can't be changed? Some distractions are more valuable than others.

Today I was distracted by my daughter's poor choice in a matter that affected her trustworthiness. A 12-year-old cannot always be counted on to behave wisely. Then she makes some wry, insightful comment about the neighborhood and I'm laughing again. I'm saving all these moments for my second novel, which will probably end up being finished third. :) The main character in that book is based on my daughter in some, but of course not all, ways. Letting her steal my time is good for that novel, as well as good for us as a family.

I'm trying to transform the things that steal my time into things that inform my writing, as well as my life--to lighten up. Maybe I need to think about wasting time as simply restructuring my use of time. I'm not advocating spending ALL DAY staring out the window or at the ceiling, but some down time renews us creatively. See Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, which I've mentioned here before. Waste some time creatively today.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Window time pays off!

The window time (or out-of-window staring time?) has been good today. The sky is gray and the birds are very quiet--a perfect, somber atmosphere in which to write about a cranky, alcoholic lawyer who's trying to get her life back on track. Today, her craving can be hot chocolate, just like mine. She may want to add a shot of something else, but she won't. Not today. Maybe not tomorrow either.

I have to kill off her client, but first I have to let him wreak havoc for her, lead her into a nest of vipers, prance out of a courtroom too freely, then end up--well, dropped onto Portland's Marquam Bridge? We shall see. The interim leading up to his demise is my next fun part. And he can't die until the romantic lead gets involved because he's going to be the cop who investigates the death. I need to get some input from a local police detective. Hmm, I think I know one. More research! I love it.

The trick with research is to be willing to leave big holes in my manuscript while I carry on with the story. Otherwise, I'll still be doing research when my kid finishes her PhD and the book will never be written.

Of revisions and 100 words a day

Okay, I wrote a few hundred words today, passing that daily goal of 100 words. I also did a bit of revision on yesterday's stuff because, frankly, it needed help. It was all "telling" so I inserted a whole telephone conversation with dialog and asides to convey the same info. More fun for the reader, and also for me. I do find that what is going to be more interesting for a reader is actually more fun for me to write. I sometimes write long descriptions of activity, then go back and edit so the characters slug it out or talk it through, instead of just me telling the story.

As I think about the number one thing I like about certain writers, it's that they keep the action moving. And I'm not talking about thrillers here, either. Every book needs to keep the MC (main character) moving along, toward a goal, around obstacles, in the wrong direction, back toward the goal--head'em up, rawhide! Sorry, I grew up on Westerns, but actually herding cattle is a bit like rounding up your story elements and moving them along in an interesting direction.

An expert's view of procrastination

I never thought of myself as a procrastinator until I tried writing a novel. Now, as the years have rolled by, I can find a lot of good reasons why I don't get that butt-in-chair time, but I'm also smart enough to know there's still time for writing if I really want to do it. In my paying jobs, I wrote a dozen different projects in the course of a week, and I learned not to wait for some airy muse to float in and dump a bucket of inspiration on me. I thought, because I wrote all day long in a paying job, that I would do that at home. HA!

Every time I raise my eyes from the monitor, I see the dust I need to get at, the mess that needs straightening, and the laundry spilling over in the baskets in my office closet. My office is the staging area for nearly everything that needs doing in the house, which makes it a nest of distractions for anyone willing to be distracted. That means me.

I hear my child watching TV when she's supposed to be finishing her lunch. Therefore, I have to stop occasionally to offer input on her activities, guidance on her assignments, and answers to questions that seem to arise from nowhere.

The only cure for procrastination is to face the fact that we are doing it, sit ourselves at our computers, and start writing. I will not try to prime the pump by typing "I will not procrastinate" a hundred times--that's just more procrastination. I will write the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next get the idea. The mess will always be there, so get to it after you've written the number of words you've set as your goal each day. Borrow my motto: Dust is my friend.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How to write a novel, 100 words at a time.

Writing a novel has proven a much longer commitment than I initially expected. I started my first book about 12 years ago, before my lovely daughter was born. Of course, the book as I started it is not the book I have today. I have long ago tossed zillions of words, and changed characters around. After 12 years, when you re-read your stuff, you can really tell what's bad. The way I write, and the time I invest in it has changed, so the book did, too.

Evelyn, the wisest member of our critique group (I don't think anyone else in the group will disagree with that assessment) suggested we try to write 100 words every time we sat down and faced those pages. One hundred words is a pretty piddling amount, so of course, if you set that as your task, you will always succeed. Well, nearly always.

This challenge breaks things down into very tiny bites. One hundred words easily becomes 300, 600, or 800. Still not a huge volume, but at least the work progresses. And because it's an easily handled amount, it's not terrifying to sit down to work on. Paragraph by paragraph, page by page, I'm getting there.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

More on the virtues of staring out the window.

I believe we don't spend nearly enough time staring out windows. My main windows to stare out are in my living room--watching the street, waving to neighbors, seeing what my child is up to, looking for the cat--and in the home office upstairs in the back of the house. Upstairs, I can turn from my computer a quarter of a squawk (old oak office chair) and see the green leaves of the pittosporum trees that line our back fence. If I lean a bit, there's the orange tree--sour oranges, but a nice bit of color.

The squirrels and birds seem to be wrestling for power inside the leafy pittosporum--the leaves are nearly always in motion. And in the right-hand corner of the yard is the shed. Its roof provides a lounging spot for a white, feral cat who suns and sleeps there peacefully when he's not foraging for sustenance.

Something about looking out at all that green gets my creative juices bubbling again. I also get ideas from the people I see on the other side of the front window. A stranger jogs by with his dog--what's their story? Cars rip down the street with teenagers honking and waving at a friend who lives a few doors past us. There are a whole bunch of stories, or a huge cast of players for a coming-of-age novel.

Don't let yourself become short-sighted. Look out at the world, pull in some nature, stare out the windows and let the ideas roll around for a bit.

What do sitting, reading, and staring out the window have in common?

Sitting at the computer is the one place I really need to be if I'm ever going to finish my novels. B.I.C.--butt-in-chair time is obviously important. If I'm not there, doing it, it certainly isn't going to get done.

Reading? Reading about writing, reading other people's writing, reading my own stuff with an editorial eye--heck, I'll read nearly anything. Any magazine within reach at a doctor's office, a newspaper, a booklet--some are better examples of good writing than others, or course. But I recently picked up some really good advice from a very poorly organized book.

Staring out the window? I read recently (I cannot remember where) that Woody Allen can't work in a room with a window. I don't know that it's true. I can't work in a room without one. I once wrote all the publication materials for a nonprofit organization, where I had a cubicle in the middle of the building. Not a window within my line of sight. Then, they shuffled us around and I worked in a cubby by a big window. I figure my production during that period (I was later moved back, doggone it) was up at least 30 percent.

I now work in a home office on the second floor, looking out into the tree tops lining our backyard. I see the sparrows on the telephone wires, squirrels on the fence, cat on the shed roof. Without that view to stop and stare it, I don't know that I'd ever get anything done. Instead of distracting me, it gives my mind a nature break and re-energizes me as I sort through my ideas.

So sit, read, and stare a bit. More about staring out the window later. I am convinced they'll all help you become a better writer.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A license to be nosy

One of the best things about being a writer is that people actually EXPECT you to be nosy! What a marvelous thing it is, too. Because of my research on alcoholism for the mystery novel, I had a couple really delightful emails from Peggy, whom I "met" through emailing the AA website. She is very candid and opinionated, and gave me a some valuable pointers right off. I also have a master gardener in Oregon who answers my ignorant questions about what my heroine's landscaper should be putting in her yard. A couple years back, I emailed one of the city engineers in Portland, Oregon about the bridges that crisscross through that city, and I got a wonderful rundown of traffic patterns and which bridge would best suit my purposes (a murder that clogs up rush hour traffic). What a life a writer has!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

moving along

Last week, I took a bunch of stuff (fairly decent stuff, too) to my critique group. One thing was the opening of the novel (Number Three) that is excerpted in novel Number One. It was ridiculously fun to write, knowing I had several bits that will serve as sort of an outline for where the book is going. It's a mystery, so now I have a romantic comedy, a coming-of-age story, and a mystery in the works. It's honestly helping to juggle at least two of them at once--I sort of feed off the energy of one in writing the other. The coming-of-age story will have to wait a bit, I think. It requires me to put myself in a sort of sad place of rejection and middle-grade angst that I don't want to do right now, just as my daughter is dealing with that sort of thing.

The key point is that I'm finding that while I can read about how others work, or talk with other writers, this odd way of working seems to do it for me. Keeps the juices flowing and the prose coming along. Time is still an issue, but the energy is up, which is essential for me. I cannot write when I'm exhausted or over stressed, unless I'm doing nonfiction on a deadline. That I can pull off.

If you're working on a project that has gotten stuck, think about what's been your pattern in the past when you've been chugging along. It may not fit anything anyone else would advise, but seek out your own path. Just like finding your voice in writing, we need to find our own rhythms and ways to discipline ourselves into getting the work done. I wish you all many blessed days of production, finding your own way to get there. Chocolate may help, too.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The experiment is working...sort of.

My experiment with writing three novels at once is working pretty well. I managed to take a few pages of each of two novels to my critique group this morning. You remember them--the ladies who let me know that I have used the world "really" a dozen times in three pages. So I had to come back home and rework the stuff, delete all but one of the "reallys" and crank out a couple more pages before my wild child required my attention. Why did I think I needed a couple of hours to be in the zone to get some writing done? My life is forcing me to write faster in shorter time spans. I think the limited time works like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in that you are forced to shut down your natural editing tendencies and just write if you want anything to end up on the page. The stories are beginning to move along again, so I guess the switching around among the three novels is, indeed, working to my advantage. I've focused on the two novels that are connected. Maybe next week I'll work on the third novel. Or not. Whichever calls my name at this point.