Into the Breach

Into the Breach

Good afternoon, gentle viewers, and a Happy Halloween to you! Or a joyous Samhain, if that’s how you roll. Or you know, Dia de los Muertos is tomorrow, I reckon. Holiday season is in full swing! And I have the tea to prove it. Nom nom nom.

Twelve short hours before NaNo begins. I looked around for a midnight write-in, but the closest one to me was downtown D.C. (snore), and I’m not driving over an hour to hang out in a Starbucks at midnight. It does look like there are some serious NaNo events throughout the month in Maryland, though, so I should be able to find something. In fact, I am going to a write-in on Thursday because it’s close and my day off. Woohoo!

Apart from my NaNoRebels challenge goals (1,500 words a day, an hour or more a week refueling), I’ve set a few goals for myself for the month. Here they are!

1. Finish the first draft of book two (almost there!). This is so that when I pitch to agents in January, I will not only have one bright and shiny work to show them, but two! That’s right, people. For the low price of ink on paper, you get two — count ‘em — two finished works! If this woman can write two, she can probably write more.

Salesman Jesus wants you to publish my books.

2. Get a start on book three for the same reasons as Goal #1, if you change “two” to “three.”

3. Behind Goal #3, we have one last little thing to say on my goals! While in general the idea for NaNoWriMo is quantity  and not so much quality, my personal goal is to write lucid and cohesive work this month. I don’t want to have to spend another month making it readable when I go back and edit.

Anyhoo. I wrote almost 3,000 words yesterday, finally pushing book two forward in plot and action. That’s a huzzah moment. I also went back and read it and liked what I had, even though I wrote it with my pink earbuds glued to my ears rocking Daft Punk at 3 a.m.

Right now I’m at about 87,000 words, which should be right on track for the end to be at around 120,000 for the first draft. It’s long, but I wanted hefty books. They’re supposed to be chronicles, for FSM’s sake, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t be 250-pagers.

The fun thing about this trilogy is writing different characters who are also different species. The first protagonist was a seer and a shapeshifter (she’s still around), and the second is a witch who was forcibly turned into a vampire against her will. That gives me some fun things to work with and to explore the magic of the world a lot more in the second book rather than having to look at it solely from an observer’s point of view. Anna gets to be actively involved in the magic aspects of things.

My chunk from last night also introduced a new character who will be awesome. He is going to be tricky to write for a lot of different reasons (not the least of which that he is completely batshit insane), but he’s got a lot to offer the story and the other characters. Plus, I got to hear him say, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty” to Sarah. Ha. She deserved that.

It’s Halloween time, gentle viewers! Get your spook on!

Make Them Beg For More

The best compliments I have ever received about my writing were all some derivative of the following: “I want more.”

That is the bit of ambrosia all of us yearn for. If we write for an audience, we spend our time willing life into the empty whiteness of a blank page and searching and sifting through life for those bits of magic to put in our jars, hoping that’ll be enough to coax our work to live.

The goal is an insatiable lust for our work, for the worlds and characters we funnel onto the page. How do we do that? Originality. Creativity. Skill. Luck. Any number of things go into it — I’m probably not alone when I say that I rather hope luck plays less a role than skill, but I don’t make the rules. And speaking of rules, here’s one from The 25 that sticks its fingers all over that “originality and creativity” thing:

17. Avoiding Clichés
Everyone “gets” clichés. That’s why they show up virtually everywhere. Clichés may be thought of as overused and predictable, but few people complain about movie car chases. For every person who doesn’t want “same old,” hundreds continue to enjoy stereotypical hard-boiled dicks helping dames in distress. Depending on your audience, a well-placed cliché can be more effective than an explanation.

Nevertheless, we need folks like you to buck the trend. So here are some ways to spend a half-hour:

  1. Create a cliché-free protagonist: you. Choose a career you once contemplated. Change your age, gender, race. Investigate something that intrigues you. Invent a situation that boosts your heart rate. Send your character to a place you’d like to visit. Now write.
  2. Remove from a work unnecessary parts of speech—such as replacements for the perfectly acceptable said, and words like angrily to reveal how someone slams a door. Say no more than readers need to know; let their imaginations work.
  3. I’ve intentionally loaded my five contributions to this article with more than my usual share of clichés. Circle them. Do it now. The early bird gets the worm.

I think it’s perfectly acceptable to use cliches if you use them sparingly — about as sparingly as you might sprinkle salt on your ramen. What I mean by that is that if you’re going to say something verbatim like, “Her skin was as soft as silk, as white as snow. She was as pretty as a picture.” — if you’re going to say that, turn it on its head somehow. “Her frozen body would occupy a place in my memory that amnesia couldn’t touch, cocooned forever by winter and premature death.” There. It’s not the best example perhaps, but the cliches from the first bit get flipped at you with a catapult in the second bit. Yeah, her skin is soft and white. She froze to death in the middle of winter. She’s pretty as a picture? Yeah. A picture of a loved one, dead. Forever.

I think the masters of the craft manage to tease us with something familiar and then jerk us round the bend so quickly that we end up somewhere we didn’t expect to go. They disturb our expectations in words so tantalizing and succulent that we can’t help but follow. They make a cliche into something tangible and create art from contrast. If you can learn how to continually surprise and delight (or horrify, or titillate) your readers, you will spark that insatiable hunger for more.

All writing serves to forge a connection. If you’re reading this, I’ve taken my thoughts and implanted them into your brain without ever opening my mouth. (Except to breathe, because I’m a little stuffy right now.) It’s almost like telepathy — in fact, I’ve heard a writer describe writing as such. I can create an image of an elephant with one tusk wearing a fez, and you’ll see it when you read that whether you want to or not. It’s a connection, and if you feed enough magic into it, you’ll start to feel a tug on the other end. A pulling sensation that means your readers want more. More story. More characters. More of the beating thrumming heart you created from that blank page.

A well-timed cliche can create a basic connection with a reader, but it’s like communicating with two cans and a ball of yarn. It’ll only be so long before your readers search for something to keep that feeling going, and if you deliver something original and alluring, that connection changes to fiber optics.

Use your jar of magic to infuse your words with bait — bait that will hook your readers to your stories for as long as you write them.

 

Pawing the Ground

Pawing the Ground

Picture me as I look ahead at the month of November. It’s getting cold outside. The challenge is before me, waving its little red flag. My feet start to paw the ground in front of me. I might even snort a little, bursts of steam in the chilled air. The arrival of November will launch me forward to tackle that challenge. So what am I doing to prepare?

I’ve focused myself on the fact that no matter what, the challenge of writing 1,500 words of fiction per day plus spending time actively nursing my psyche each week and working and planning for the holidays will be just that. Challenging. It’s going to require discipline more than anything — to get up early and write before work if I’m going to be working a double close (which they have me scheduled for next Sunday), to get my body back in shape, and to continue posting here every day to cheer the rest of you on who have decided to travel those thirty days of insanity with me.

I get to wave the flag for you to paw at the ground. I hope all of you end up ripping that red waving flag to bits with your horns as you conquer the challenge.

Rar.

As many have said before me, writing can be a lonely calling. We spend a lot of time closeted with our thoughts in our own little world and don’t necessarily interact much. But I’ve seen a trend pop up toward social writing, where writers involve one another, support one another, and ultimately help each other grow. That kind of community is as precious as a golden septum piercing.

Well, I think it's hella tight.

So in addition to the personal pep talks and being my own personal cheerleader, I’ve tried this week to get practical. To figure out what my goals are for NaNoWriMo and give myself more focus than just “getting through” the thirty days of November. For those of us participating in the NaNoRebel group (or even if you’re doing it classic style), there are some questions to ask yourself before the first comes up and gooses you.

1. If your goal is to work an existing story, do you know where it’s going? This can mean an outline if you’re the plan-y type, but if you’re like me it can mean immersing yourself in your story and feeling it out. Watching your characters unfold in your head to see what lies beyond the turns. That can help stave off writer’s block before it starts.

2. Are you trying to finish a story or just get one started or to do a big push in the middle to get stuff out? (That sounded like toilet humor, but it wasn’t. I promise.)

3. If you’re starting from scratch, do you have a feel for your story from start to finish? Any notes you can jot down can be helpful if flying blind scares you.

4. If you’re re-writing this month, what are  your goals for your new draft? Write them down and keep a list of your insidious first draft foibles that always need editing out (some examples: passive voice, use of adverbs, issues with dialogue attribution, a tendency to let the readers see you set the scene instead of lifting the curtain on an already hot set).

5. Are you aiming for just quantity or do you want quality as well? I’ve heard many people say they end up with 50,000 words of crap at the end of the month. This doesn’t have to be true, especially if you do some of the above.

6. Are you doing this just because or are you doing it because you feel the tug of the words? Regardless, this is a big commitment and a lot of work. As long as you’re doing it for yourself and your story, you’ll get something out of it. And if you share your whiz-bang awesome progress with me, I’ll give you a cookie. (Or some other prize. See this post for details.)

All that said, I’m spending the rest of the day before I have to go sling beers reading what I have of my second book. So far, so awesome, but I have a ways to go, and I need to get to the end to decide what my goals are for NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words would easily take me to the end of book two and partway into book three, which is most likely the goal, but we shall see.

See you all later, gentle viewers. I’ll be here pawing the ground.

Keep It Simple

Once upon a time, about a century ago (okay, more like a decade) when I was a junior in high school, I got traumatized by a book. That book was Heart of Darkness. My best friend and I used to have these little contests to see who could hate that book better. We began to use it as a litmus test for every other book.

“I hated reading That Other Book.”

“Oh? Was it as bad as Heart of Darkness? Did you want to strangle yourself afterward?”

“No, not quite that bad.”

“Ah.”

To be fair to Joseph Conrad, I haven’t had the courage to pick up the book again in a decade, so it might not be as bad as I remember. I do recall that the brunt of my reading pain came from the interminable dissection we were forced to perform day after day after day.

For genre fiction writers (and I would argue most fiction writers or just writers in general), subtlety and complexity aren’t necessarily your friend. Here’s what The 25 have to say about simplicity:

16. Simplicity
The great film director Billy Wilder was once asked if he liked subtlety in a story. He answered along the lines of, “Yes. Subtlety is good—as long as it’s obvious.” The same can be said about complexity and simplicity. Some stories are so complex that it’s frustratingly impossible to understand them. But others (like Wuthering Heights or Bleak House) are complex in a way that we don’t find difficult to understand, and actually find enjoyable because of the complexity. Conversely, Hemingway’s famous simple style is in fact very complex.

What really matters is whether or not something is clear. Each day, as you revise the pages from your prior writing session, take a few minutes to ask yourself, “Is this clear? Will the reader understand it?” If you’re not sure, revise until the answer is yes. Don’t be afraid to deal with a complex topic in a complex way, but always keep in mind that clarity will make you the reader’s friend.
—Morrell

I’ve read books with plots that were so complex it infuriated me. I’ve also read some with the simplicity of “See Spot Run” that bored me to “Ooh, look! Something shiny!” The issue isn’t whether or not something is complex, as Morrell says, but if the reader gets it. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is very complex. There are multiple plotlines, easily a score of POV characters both major and minor, a veritable tapestry of political and social webs, and a story arch that spans fourteen monsters books. In the middle of the series, they get off track. Clarity gives way to useless detail and superfluous story threads that grab onto your ankles till you can’t go any farther. I stopped reading for about seven years until the newer books started to come out, and after I forced my way through Crossroads of Twilight, they got a lot better again.

The point is, it’s possible to write intense and complex books full of subtlety, but it takes a master to do that with a sense of clarity and vision. When I read Jordan’s books, a world springs up around me. That world is consistent and almost flawless. That’s no easy task. If you write any form of fantasy, you are asking your reader to suspend their disbelief. To buy your story without looking for a price tag. You owe it to them to be meticulous in your creation of your world. Even if you’re not a planner or a plotter (and I am not at all), notes are your friend. They can help you keep track of the subtleties and convoluted mysteries your world holds so that you don’t miss a gaping unraveling of your plot that would make a reader stop to scratch her head.

Other pairs of eyes are great for this — even if you think it’s clear, readers might not. If you want something to be deduced from a scene, and a reader tells you he doesn’t get it, that’s a cue to rewrite. Too much complexity or subtlety can bog your readers down when you want them to move forward unencumbered.

There should always be some sort of surprise or twist — no book should be as predictable as a fairy tale, but you also don’t want to blindside your readers with something that doesn’t fit the story. Build your world and make it creditable, and you’ll build a world of devoted readers who can’t wait to see through your eyes again and again.

That’s all for now, gentle viewers. Happy Friday!

Magic in a Jar and Other Creative Tales

Magic in a Jar and Other Creative Tales

I know, I know. Double post action today. However, first of all, I need to celebrate getting draft two of book one finished. Yep. Done-zo. Even untangled the snarl at the end of the yarn ball into a perfectly awesome ending and a snazzy epilogue. It’s lookin’ like a book, folks. Onward to book two!

So as I plunge back into the first draft of book two (it’s about 85% done) and try to digest the Big Mac that seemed like a great idea for a celebratory dinner (I didn’t say I was thinking clearly), I thought I’d jet back to The 25 for a little post on creativity. Plus, I stumbled across another blog earlier that inspired some of the other stuff I want to write about before it disappears back into the ether.

Here’s what they have to say:

15. Creativity
Creativity is the secret sauce of the writing life. Its ingredients are different for everyone, and may change over time, which can make it difficult to keep the cupboards stocked. When you get stuck, take 30 minutes and try one of these:

  • Switch genres. Write a poem before diving into a narrative piece.
  • Review incomplete writing for a scrap of idea or language; let it lead you in.
  • Burn kindling. Keep a file of art, poems, quotes, pressed flowers—whatever ignites your imagination. Sift through it when you need a spark.
  • Grow your own list of triggers. Repeat what works until it doesn’t; then try something new.

Creativity isn’t always a formula. There isn’t always a zing poof of inspiration (that sounds suspiciously like dusting a vampire on Buffy) that leads to the ultimate creative endeavor. As Sarah Toole Miller mentioned on her blog today, sometimes when you write you discover that you “stumbled upon a tiny bit of magic.”

That sums up what I feel about creativity. I feel like my life finds me wandering about the day to day collecting bits of magic in a jar.

Perhaps this jar.

When the time comes to put ass in chair and write, I get out my little jar and see what’s floating around in there. Sometimes one bit of magic shines brighter than others. Sometimes one or two have already died in captivity. Regardless of how shiny they stay or how quickly the shine fades, I keep filling that jar. Whether it’s scribbled on the back of a pay stub that never made it out of my work check presenter or a receipt or a napkin or occasionally my skin, the jar gets filled whenever I spot a bit of magic.

Gotta write book two now. Get your write on, gentle viewers.

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