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.