Structure — December 8, 2011

Structure

I used to watch Project Runway.  I stopped watching because I pretty much never agreed with the judges on what was the best or worst look of the night.

Occasionally someone would make a strapless dress and it usually ended in disaster.  Why?  Because the designer hadn’t taken care in creating the underlying structure.  I distinctly recall one of the judges complimenting one of the successfully made strapless dresses for its underlying dress.

Basically, what had to happen in order for the dress to be made successfully, to where it looked well-done and fit the model well, was that the designer had to make their dress twice.  First in muslin and other fabrics and second with the actual fabric they chose out of the fabric store.

What does this all have to do with writing?  With each book I write I have to discover just how much underlying structure I need prior to beginning the first draft.  Depending on the genre and sub-genre it can vary widely, for me.  With Mirror, Mirror I spent a week and a half building the world it’s set in.  Histories, maps, ruler lists, character sketches, magic systems, et al.  Eventually, I needed to upgrade the project binder to a 1 1/2″ size.

But then with a couple of the romance books I’ve written, I just started with an idea then picked names and researched places as I needed them.  These are the worst books in the spectrum of the five under my belt at this point.  I’m not saying Mirror, Mirror is my best work yet.  I would hope so since it’s the most recently written and I like to think I improve book to book.  But it was the one I had the most structure for prior to writing the first word.

All this to say, I suppose, that I’m a pantser-plotter and proud of it.

I don’t believe it! — November 10, 2009

I don’t believe it!

I want to talk about suspension of disbelief.  We all know that in our writing, especially in fiction, we need to push the limits of what could really happen in order to tell a compelling story.  This is also necessary so that we can ensure that our readers know what is needful to follow the story.

This requires a sometimes significant suspension of disbelief on the part of our readers.  We have to convince them to say, “I’ll buy that.”  It’s a tough balance to strike.

Take last night’s episode of Castle as an example.  (I know I use the show a lot, but I do watch it pretty close to when I write up Tuesday’s blog posts.)  The show started out with a murder that eventually (spoiler warning) led to our intrepid group of detectives re-opening a decade-old murder.  In the course of the new investigation, and the investigations into the two present-day murders, they begin to interview people connected to that original murder.

They start asking these characters for their alibi from a night 10 years in the past.  And the characters can give alibis that are capable of being corroborated.  Everyone sure has an amazing memory in the world of this show, don’t you think?

While watching the show, my mom asks me, “What were you doing ten years ago?”

My answer, “You could have been in Boston.”

Except, that whole ordeal was a 11 years ago.  Sigh.  I guess we should all just live in the fictional world where everyone remembers everyone and has perfect recall of every minute of their lives.

What’s my point in all this?  We have to watch ourselves and watch where the limits are.  I’m not saying that those lines can’t successfully be crossed, but when you cross them you risk losing your readers’ suspension of disbelief.  Suddenly, they’re pulled out of the story and repeat to themselves, “That would never happen.”

Q4U: What were you doing 10 years ago?  For those of you who journal regularly, try to think it up on your own, then go check the journal and see how memory compares.  Do you struggle with suspension of disbelief in the plot twists you throw at your readers?

I won’t be around much today.  I’ve lots to do before work starts.  I’ll swing back through tonight, though.  Have a great day everyone!

Ideas — September 22, 2009

Ideas

The philosopher Carl Jung discussed at length the concept of a universal consciousness.  This consciousness is a well-spring of ideas and memes that are as old as the universe itself.  Within it are various archetypes that we as humans encounter on a daily basis.

I’ll spare you the specifics of Jung’s philosophizing.  The point here is this: There really aren’t many original ideas.

Some quotes to kick us off:

“Don’t worry if you’ve seen the shot before–you can still make it your own.”  (My apologies to the author of this quote.  I didn’t get the chance to write it down.  The man who said it was doling out a nugget of advice for aspiring directors during a bit at the Emmys on Sunday night.  And I might not even have the quote completely right.  But you get the point.)

“Nothing can be so amusingly arrogant as a young man who has just discovered an old dea and thinks it is his own.”- Sidney J. Harris

OK, so that last one’s a little harsh sounding.  But work with me here.

The first quote goes along with Jung’s theories.  There are universal memes and ideas that we encounter regularly.  I’ve had this struggle in my own writing.  In fact, the genesis inspiration of my short story that I’m publishing here on the blog was a TV show.  I was curious as to how the concept they worked with on the show would work if the characters were Mormons.  Now, while the characters in my story aren’t overtly members of the LDS faith, I wrote them as being such.

This is an example of taking an idea or concept that may be more universal and putting your own spin on it.  So while the second quote is harsh, it’s really a warning against plagiarism.  And a nugget of sage advice to work to put your own spin on an idea.

Two weeks ago almost I had thoughts that my novel, Oracles Promise, and the trilogy to which it belongs would have to be scrapped entirely.  This was because there’s a certain plot element that bore eerie resemblance to something else I’d read in a book.  But as I thought about it, I realized that it was one of those universal consciousness ideas that float around, but that I’d put my own take on the bones of it all.

What’s my point?  “Don’t worry if you’ve seen the shot [idea] before–you can still make it your own.”

And don’t let the fact that you may have seen a small bit of your concept before deter you.  You never know, you might come up with some twist on it that will make it completely fresh and original!

Writers’ Golf Bag — September 3, 2009

Writers’ Golf Bag

Golf and writing are actually two very similar pursuits. Don’t believe me? Stop scoffing and laughing into your hands. I’ll explain.

Here’s my golf bag. Ain’t it pretty?

I have 11 clubs, not quite a full set legally allowed under PGA and LPGA rules. Legally you can carry 14 clubs in your bag at any given time on a course during the round of play. The head covers are just to keep the woods, hybrids, and my putter looking nice. My soft-spiked shoes, glove, balls, tees, and a towel for cleaning the club heads are there as well.

Golf for the most part is a solitary pursuit. Sure it’s more entertaining to go play nine holes in a foursome, but the majority of your golfing life will be spent on the driving range. Alone, you and the ball that defies you to make it move (to paraphrase from Golf for Dummies) just sitting there on the grass at your feet. There are the goal markers, the poles which tell you how far you’ve hit the ball, should you knock it that far. The course I play at has a first marker at 102 yards. It’s a good goal to aim at as a beginning (and I do mean beginning) golfer.

Each club serves a different purpose. (My apologies to those who golf. I don’t want to lose anyone by getting caught up in jargon.)

The 1 wood is your driver. It’s what you will usually tee up with, but that depends on the course. If it’s a par 3 course you’re more likely to only need your fairway woods (the 3 and 5 woods or metals). These are the clubs with the big heads that make a very satisfying hollow thwack when you hit the ball right. The driver and the woods are for distance. Your goal when you swing these is to get the ball in the way of the club face at just the right moment so that it goes the farthest distance it can possibly go.

The 5 and 6 hybrid clubs are for an entirely different purpose. They’re designed with the best features of your woods and irons. This gives you distance with a certain dose of accuracy.

Then there are your irons. My set contains a 7, 8, and 9 iron. These are your accuracy clubs. You want to use these when you’re within sight of the green; when you can see that flag stick and know the hole is in reach.

I also have a pitching wedge, a sand wedge, and a putter. These are your short game clubs. Short game is just the part of the hole (which should be the majority of the hole) where you’re trying to move the ball less than 75 yards (an arbitrary, made-up number I am throwing in). Well, the sand wedge is really for getting out of the bunker. This is when you’re on the green and you see that cup sitting there in the ground, taunting you.

Your ball marker is for marking the position of the ball on the green so you can pick the ball up, clean it, or keep it out of the putting line of your playing companions. It’s a placeholder. But it’s very important to the game as the green is the only place on the course you’re allowed to pick up your ball.

Shoes are important for keeping traction while not destroying the fairways and greens. Soft-spiked shoes are especially useful for this.

The towel is important, particularly on wet days. Grass and mud interfere with proper interaction between club head and ball.

The tee is the starting point. It helps you position the ball right for a good launching point.

The ball is the point of the entire game so a golf bag would be useless without a plethora of balls. (Especially considering you’re more likely to lose a ball than play through an entire round of golf on the same ball.)

Still awake?

How does this relate to writing?

Well, writing is solitary. Especially in the early stages when you’re not a published author. When you’re working towards that debut novel, or biography, or memoir, etc.

Here are the tools that these beginning writers need:

1 wood: It’s your story that is screaming at you to be told. It’s what makes you write. It’s your muse.

3 and 5 wood: These are the outlines. The plot that runs through your head. You can see the far distance because you’re knocking it that way.

5 and 6 hybrids: Critique groups and beta readers. Your crit group is there for the accuracy. They help you to hone your craft, improve your prose, and generally help you make your work the best it possibly can be. Beta readers comprise the distance component of the hybrid because while they should be helping catch gross oversights in continuity and such things, they’re also to give you encouragement and keep you going through the revisions. They’re the ones who can see the spark and will help you see it too. That way you keep writing through all the constructive criticism and the harsh realities of publishing.

7-9 irons: Research, world-building, and careful crafting of characters on multiple levels. In essence, the mechanics of the craft.

Pitching wedge: Drafts. The first time I ever learned to swing a golf club, we started on pitch shots. It’s really half the swing of the full that you’d normally do. It’s a warm-up, but it’s also a good training tool. Drafts are essentially the same thing. Through pitch shots you develop muscle memory. Through drafting you develop muscle memory. Through both you improve your abilities.

Sand wedge: Butt in chair. The only way to get out of a tight spot is to sit and write. You’ll eventually find your way out of it. Then you can go back and use that pitching wedge to get yourself back on track.

Putter: I find myself writing little bits of future chapters, the end of the book, etc. just as a motivator to keep going. These little tidbits are the flag stick on the green and you use your putter to get you that short distance ahead of yourself. You don’t have to go very far so you can easily read (and mis-read) the green. Your story may break further to the left or right than you anticipated, but you’re at least aiming for the intermediary goal in sight.

Glove: The writing pen. Or your keyboard, depending on how you go about writing. It’s essential once you start using it and helps to keep the process going smoothly on your hands. And in general.

Tees: The initial idea that sparks the solo journey of writing.

Shoes: Your support group, whomever it may be. (Or is that whoever?) It can be your family, if they’re the ones who encourage you most on your crazy path in life. You decide. But it’s an essential part of this writing life. Just as a good pair of shoes is essential for keeping your balance on the golf course.

Ball marker: Your progress. Whether it’s a status bar you put on your blog, checking off one more thing on your outline, or writing “The End.” You put them down to mark where you are, but they’re non-intrusive so you can putt right over them and move on to the next item of business.

Towel: Editors and/or agents. They help you shine the manuscript beyond what you can do yourself. They are there to make sure there’s minimal interference between the manuscript sitting on the desk and getting put through the printer and shipped off in published form to booksellers everywhere.

Balls: Ah, the most important and critical tool of all. A writer’s golf ball equates to the words we use to tell our story. And that is the most crucial aspect of all.

So, still awake? OK. Good. Now you can quibble with me all you want over whether you agree or disagree with me on these points.

Rabbit holes — August 25, 2009

Rabbit holes

Well, really, plot holes.

I was watching a rerun of “Castle” last Monday (boy do I ever covet that man’s office) and I got to thinking: They never resolved one issue in the case they dealt with.

My knee-jerk reaction to this: “It must have gotten left on the editing room floor.” Happens a lot in movies and television.

But sometimes it happens in best-sellers. *coughtwilightcough*

So that’s when you need a really good reviewer/crit buddy.

The plot hole in Castle goes like this: The case they were working on involved a woman on the lam for years following a bombing on an oil tanker that she was involved in. Said woman turns up dead in the opening scene of the episode. Eventually we come to learn that one of the accomplices, the only one ever found because the third was killed in the blast, was turned in to the FBI by a female caller. The cops that Castle shadows assume it to be the woman whose murder they’re investigating.

Then they discover that the woman presumed dead in the original explosion wasn’t so dead after all.

And then the plot hole hits. They never resolve whether it was the woman who was murdered in the beginning of the episode or the woman who was presumed dead but turned out to be the killer was the one who turned in the other accomplice.

So, how does this relate to writing a novel or to crit buddies? Well, we need them so little threads like this don’t end up on the editing room floor. Readers aren’t stupid and they will pick up on the little plot holes and things we leave dangling. If we’re writing a series, they’ll forgive us the occasional dangle because they’ll assume it will get wrapped up before the series ends.

But if we’re writing standalone works and there won’t be any crossover beyond characters from book to book then we have to make sure we plug the rabbit holes and don’t cause our readers to fall through and disbelieve anything we’ve written because of one little thing.

Exorcising the Inner Critic — August 7, 2009

Exorcising the Inner Critic

My inner critic loves to come out and play. A lot. Especially when my overactive brain starts to kick in and read far too much in other peoples’ actions, reactions, and speech. The harshest blows to my psyche from this inner critic come in relation to things that happen involving the opposite sex. It’s stupid, I know, but I can’t help it. I know I’m not the only one who deals with her inner critic. Natalie over at Between Fact and Fiction posted about it today as she’s gone back into writing mode after revising for a good while.

I could label my inner critic a “he,” but I’ve never known a guy as catty, cynical, snide, or debasing as my inner critic. But I’ve known plenty of girls that were that way. So it may be a bit cliche, but my inner critic is a she.

We have to exorcise our inner critic, at least in the early stages of writing. We have to learn to recognize the critic’s destructive comments from the constructive ones.

How?

I took a class in graduate school called “Meditation and Writing.” Or something like that. (Sorry, Michael.) It was a one-week course (easiest 3 credits I’ve ever earned), five days for 8 hours or so. We spent the morning doing free-writing exercises, meditating, and discussing the textbook for the course. (I know, right? A textbook for a 1-week class? We didn’t read the whole thing.) This book is titled The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I’ve yet to go through the entire 12 week process she outlines in her book. But there’s one thing she discusses that I’ve done consistently for nearly the last 2 months.

Morning pages.

What are morning pages you ask? To quote Ms. Cameron: “Put simply, the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.”

I write them first thing (usually), before I even get out of my bed.

These pages are most often filled with random ramblings about various things, sometimes I’ll put in my latest number of blog followers if it’s something that runs through my head. The general idea is to just get the negativity out onto paper first thing in the morning so that it’s not with you so much in the day.

When I first started out with the morning pages I really couldn’t see a benefit. They were still so negative and directionless. I often would put in a to-do list or a to-read list just to fill the pages faster. It does take a long time to do this. Usually about 45-50 minutes or even longer depending on how much is running through my head.

Today I realized that the pages aren’t as negative any more. In fact, now I mostly ramble about what I wrote or accomplished writing-wise, where I need to go, questions that I need to answer for myself so that my book isn’t completely directionless, etc. There are still the occasionally snarky comments from my inner critic, but I’m slowly silencing her and exorcising her presence from my writing life.

The Writing Process Then vs. Now — August 6, 2009

The Writing Process Then vs. Now

I thought I would take some time today to discuss my writing process. I’ll begin with a compare/contrast of the way I wrote when I first started out 6+ years ago and my writing process today.

Then: Sit down to write, knock out a few sentences or paragraphs, stop when “stuck” or bored.

Now: Sit down to write, know I have a minimum goal of 2,000 words to reach, break when I feel stuck, but come back to it an hour later with new inspiration.

Then: Write thinking it’s the best ever.

Now: Write knowing it’s utter crap but will get revised later.

Then: Longhand first, in a fancy journal purchased at Barnes and Noble.

Now: Longhand first, in a fancy journal purchased at Barnes and Noble.

Then: Derivative.

Now: Maybe not so entirely derivative after all.

Then: Hobby.

Now: Passion.

As you can see, not much has changed in my writing process as far as the physicality of it, but so much has changed in my mentality. Really and honestly, in high school I was so excited about Sunstone but it was for all the wrong reasons. Now I’m excited about it because I can see where I’ve grown but I can also see my weaknesses. I know where to find resources to help me strengthen those weak spots when it comes to revision, too.

And of course the most important one of all is that it’s more deeply ingrained in my psyche to write now than it was through high school and most of college.

My first draft is never truly my first draft. Let me explain. When I write in my fancy-schmancy journal purchased from Barnes & Noble (weird, I know) it’s my first draft. I’ll cross some things out as I go along, sometimes as much as 1/2-3/4 of a page, but generally what is written is what’s in my head. (Except for those glorious moments where a character takes over their story and you hear their voice for the first time.)

But the first draft anyone might ever see in printed form is not my first draft. It’s the second draft. For whatever reason, my mind likes to revise as I transcribe my longhand version to the computer. Usually it’s a matter of tweaking the word order in a sentence so it actually makes sense as opposed to the jumbled mess on paper that resulted from not knowing where the sentence would end when I began it. (Long sentence to explain that, huh?)

My senior year in high school I got to chapter 5, titled “Logan” (now currently chapter 6), and completely stalled. It took me months, most of the summer in fact, to finish his chapter. When I finished, I moved on to a completely new fancy-schmancy journal just to get past the mental associations I had with the one Logan’s chapter was written in.

To show how much my process has improved, and how much my mentality has changed, I’ll just say this: In the five days I’ve spent writing so far this month, I’ve written a prologue and 3 chapters. That’s a far faster pace than I ever wrote before. Granted, it’s probably because I’m really just re-writing from scratch what had been written previously, but it still feels like such a huge leap in my ability as a writer. I’m trying not to care about the quality of this first (second) draft because I know I’ll spend loads of time revising in the coming months and years. Which is a vast leap over the chasm that separates my writing abilities from then and now.

This is a very long, rambling post, but what I’m trying to explore here is that I really have improved as a storyteller. I abandoned this series of novels once because it felt too much a conglomeration of books I’d read in the past. But then I struck gold and came up with a brilliant idea to fix the most prominent of these sorts of derivations. The rest, I’m seeing, are just my use of genre devices that are interpreted in various ways by a lot of different fantasy authors. Is this derivative? Maybe, but it’s less so than I was originally thinking.

What do you find works best for you in your writing process? How have you improved now vs. then?