Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Happy Birthday, Cheesemonkey!

Today is Child #1's (a.k.a. Cheesemonkey's) thirteenth birthday.

Yep, I now have a bona fide teenager living beneath my roof. Kinda scary ... though so far, he's looking as though he'll be a pretty low-stress teenager. Low stress for my husband and me, that is. Child #2 could be a little more challenging when he hits his teens (he's the one who, earlier this year, informed me he's going to take a year off - a "gap year" - between high school and whatever he does next. Hello? You're only in 5th grade, honey, a bit early to be planning "my life as a bum"!) And Child #3? Well, she's only seven, but she's one dynamo of a kid and I have no doubt she will do something spectacular with her life. The only problem is, I know it will come at the cost of my own sanity.

But I digress ...

All that Child #1 wanted for his birthday was a Kindle, and that's what he got. Consequently, we've been talking books - what he reads, what he likes. Books such as The Hunger Games and Christopher Paolini's Inheritance series, and anything by Terry Pratchett. He's also a big fan of Scott Westerfeld, and has made his way through Tolkein's The Hobbit and all the The Lord of The Rings books.

Frank Herbert's Dune series and Isaac Asimov's books fill out the substantial fantasy and sci-fi collection on his shelves, as do Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels and a bunch of Neil Gaiman's offerings.

He also enjoys Tintin comics, and an Asterix and Obelix or two.

I'm afraid - no, scratch that - GLAD he's not at all into the Twilight books. He did give the first one a try. His conclusion?

"That story is just SO dumb."

:-)

I've been trying to remember what I was reading when I was thirteen. It's a bit of a stretch for the old memory, but I'm fairly certain that was the age I became hooked on the Trixie Belden series. Oh my. I remember, so well, saving up my pocket money to buy each new instalment, and that feeling of holding the next book in my hands, knowing that very soon,  I'd once more be sinking into the world of Trixie Belden, girl detective .. sigh.

I was thirteen when I discovered Judy Blume's Forever and Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, and when I first cracked open some of the more "serious" leather-bound books on my parents' shelves -  Mutiny on the Caine, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights. I can vividly remember devouring  Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe one long, wet Sunday, too.

Thirteen was the age I began to dip into fantasy and sci-fi in the form of Anne McCaffrey's Pern series and Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama. And not long after, Anne Rice and her non-sparkling vampires, and Stephen King and his gloriously creepy imagination, well and truly hooked me ...

I guess I started off much as I have remained - an eclectic reader. I'll give most books a go, no matter the genre, because I truly believe great stories are to be found everywhere.

So how about you? What books were you reading when you were a teen? And have your tastes remained the same, or have they changed?


Monday, November 28, 2011

Good beginnings

This month's exercise at the Compuserve Books and Writers Community has been a really interesting one- we've been looking at the opening pages of everyone's novels, and what makes a great beginning to a story.

We've talked about this from a few different angles here at ATWOP before- see here- so I won't rehash too much. We all know what makes for a great start to a book for us as individual readers.

But what has been *really* interesting in this exercise has been the effect of reading a whole lot of different novel openings one after the other, mimicking slightly what a slush pile reader must have to do. There were about 30 participants in the first part of the exercise, so 30 novel openings to read, and another ten or fifteen in the second part. When you need to read a lot of different and varied openings in a row, you find that things start to stand out fairly starkly in terms of what makes you want to stop reading instead of carrying on.

For example, the obvious- bad spelling, grammar and word choice. While I wouldn't expect to find this in a published book (assuming everyone is doing their job right!), I'd give it a whole lot more leeway in an average critique. In this case, though, it tended to draw an instant "no" for me- as in, if I were an agent reading that, I wouldn't even care what the story was about. I wouldn't get that far.

Another thing that probably wouldn't bother me in individual stories but drove me nuts when reading in volume was the slow start. I don't mean that I'd pass on anything but a car chase/ nuclear apocalypse/ sex scene (actually, I can't imagine any of those three making me want to read more unless they're really well done)- just that if I don't feel a critical sense of movement in several openings, I start to get impatient. Who are these characters? What are they doing? What do they want? It doesn't all have to be on the first page, but I need a little hint of it and a definite sense that I'm progressing through a story-in-progress- not just waiting around for one to start. And the interesting lesson in this is, it might work okay in your story- but if your story lands on a slush pile full of similar beginnings, there's a good chance it won't get through.

There are lots more interesting lessons to be learned from the exercise- though the real trick is, figuring out how to apply it all to your own work, and not getting lost in the immense wealth of varied personal opinions.

With fairly good timing, I happened to start reading a book this week that in my opinion has one of the best opening chapters I've read in a while- Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants. Kind of appropriate, since it's also the most famous NaNoWriMo novel in existence. I think the opening of this story is a really good example of a couple of the most important things that make a good opening. The first paragraph doesn't do anything spectacular, but I already knew I was going to want to keep reading after only this much:

Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. Grady and I sat at a battered wooden table, each facing a burger on a dented tin plate. The cook was behind the counter, scraping his griddle with the edge of a spatula. He had turned off the fryer some time ago, but the odor of grease lingered.

For me, the best things about this paragraph and the rest of the first page are the strength of voice from the first line, and the way the author has managed to seamlessly stitch in lots and lots of great detail to set the scene and paint the background of what's going on. Voice came up over and over again in our November Exercise as a major factor in what made a good opening. And for me, my favourite openings all had lots of small detail that didn't attempt to steal the spotlight from what should always be the main show- the characters, their interactions and their actions.

If you haven't read it, you can read the whole first chapter of Water for Elephants here- just scroll down the page to Read an Excerpt and expand it.

All in all, lots of food for thought.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Writing - How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count The Ways ...

Have you ever noticed how much we writers love to talk about how hard it is to write? How much space in so many blogs and books is devoted to the tricky and hair-pulling things that go hand in hand with writing and the writing life? It's a lot, I tell you. From craft to voice to the psychological games we must play to force out those words; from the sting of critiques to the excruciating pain that is composing the perfect query letter; the nerve-wracking tension of being on submission, the strike to the heart that is opening that package and seeing the ocean of red ink covering your edited manuscript ...

This devotion to shining a light on the hard stuff is all good, by the way. Not talking about how tough we find these things would be much worse. We need to be honest so we know we're not alone, and to remind us that whatever we're going through is entirely normal. Those who do keep quiet - or worse, pretend writing is a complete breeze - remind me of those parents you sometimes come across, the ones who fervently insist, all glassy-eyed and in-your-face, that they positively revel in EVERY single aspect of parenthood - be it cleaning up vomit or sleep deprivation or the tantrums or the complete lack of a life of one's own -  and not only that, they enjoy it EVERY single second of every one of their blissful, child-centred, days. Yeah. Right. Either they're lying or they're taking some damn good medication. And the same goes for writing. If you can't be honest and admit that sometimes, things are just darn hard, you'll never find a way to deal with them.

However.

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of what we love about writing and being a writer. To balance the scales, and to keep in mind on those dark days when we wonder what brand of insanity prompted us to think we could write anything more than a grocery list. Things like this:-

I love getting lost in worlds all of my own creation. I love dreaming up characters and letting them loose in these worlds. And I really love seeing what happens next.

I love the mental stimulation and challenge that writing brings, from pondering the exact right word to describe a particular shade of blue, to coming up with plot twists and reversals that (hopefully!) no one will see coming.

I love it when someone tells me they enjoyed something I wrote.

I love that writing allows me to indulge in some serious solitude.

I love imagining my book on a shelf one day.

I love that writing has allowed me to connect with so many like-minded people in this world, especially the ladies with whom I blog.

But most of all, I simply love telling stories.

So. My reasons why I love writing.

What are yours?


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Make Them Care


On Monday, Claire had a terrific post about giving your characters convictions. Because readers connect with characters who have them.

I totally agree with this, yet Claire's post got me thinking -as all good posts are wont to do- about the writer's role in all of this. Now, there is a popular belief that the writer should be totally absent from the narration. In other words, no interference should come from the writer. I don't believe this. Yes, we tell our stories through the characters, and the deeper a writer goes into that character's point of view, the better the portrayal will be. However, the writer is the one controlling the show. We plot, and we use our crafting skills to tell the story.

So then, when we give a character a goal, a dream, or convictions, we need to manipulate certain things so that the reader cares deeply, and is invested in seeing the character reach these goals.

Because in good, lasting stories, there definitely is writer manipulation going on.

Let's take The Wizard of Oz for example. Before I go on, I'll admit here that I've read the book and watched the film, and I tend to like the movie better, only because it was the first experience I had with the story. Hate me if you must. :)

Anyway, you have Dorothy who has been whisked out of dry, gray Kansas and into the colorful world of OZ, and all she wants to do is get home.

Here's the thing, the reader has seen her dull, boring life in Kansas. What's to say that Dorothy isn't really better off just staying in colorful OZ where she has friends? Where she can rule by their side? Why is Kansas better?

Because of her family. Because of Aunt Em.

Dorothy wants to get back to them. But that wouldn't be enough if the author hadn't done a bit of slight of hand with this idea. What he does is this: he shows us a few key pieces of information. One, he shows Aunt Em and Uncle Henry sticking up for Dorothy when good old Toto is threatened. Then he shows their terror when they can't find Dorothy during the tornado. Finally, we see poor Aunt Em calling for Dorothy in the crystal ball.

So then, it isn't just about Dorothy and what she wants. It is about her family as well. The reader knows how devastated her family will be if she doesn't return, and how much she is loved in her own home. Thus we want her to achieve her goals just as much as she wants them.

This is the key. The writer must show, from various angles and points of view (if they can), why it is important for the hero to get his heart's desire, or succeed in his quest.

In genre stories, there is a certain element of expectation that can lead a writer to be lazy. IOW, we expect the hero and heroine to get together in a romance, so we don't need to work so hard in explaining why they need to be together. Wrong. That is the whole point of the romance. Show the reader why these two characters are better together than apart.

We need to know why a villain must be stopped in a thriller or mystery too. It isn't enough just to think, because he is evil. The reader must be as desperate to see the villain get his as the hero is.

And that is where we, the writers, come along with our nice little bag of tricks.

But truly, it is imperative in any story. Motivation, but the hero's AND the plot's, it what keeps us reading.

So keep this in mind when you are crafting your story. Be prepared to tug at your reader's emotional heart strings here and there -and not just from your heroine's perceptive, but throughout the entire story. Make it clear why she needs to win. Why we need her to win.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Redefining Success


As writers, it's very easy to get swept away by the idea of The Big Deal. We've all dreamed of the day when a publishing house plucks us out of the rubble, hands us a big fat advance, and continues to pay us enough money so that we're able to quit our day jobs and write full-time. It's the ultimate goal. Writing full-time. Letting our imaginations run wild without the constraints of time and money to hold them back.

The reality, however, is that most writers will never reach that point. Even semi-successful writers find it necessary to keep their day jobs because...well...this whole writing gig is a fickle beeyotch. You may sell today, but that doesn't mean you'll sell tomorrow.

How many times have you heard a writer say that unless you love writing, don't? I've heard it more times than I can count. And despite that, I've pressed on. Why? Because I DO love it. But the reality is, I may never be a "success." At least not in a conventional way.

It's just shy of a full month since I published BY THE PALE MOONLIGHT. Sales are steady...but slow. I've found myself struggling to get my name out there in any way possible. I have about a dozen reviews set in motion, some interviews sprinkled in here and there, and I'm praying that I'm able to push past the "family/friends" sales and hit readers who have stumbled across my book due to word of mouth or what not. It's a scary time because I have no idea whether or not I'll be able to push past this point and keep selling. I have no idea what the actual threshold is--perhaps it's all conjecture on my part--but it feels like I'm hitting it. Hey, I'm a writer. I fret.

Despite this general level of worry surrounding this entire venture, I'm finding myself quite satisfied with the process. I'm my harshest critic, and I constantly worry about whether or not readers are going to be satisfied with the story I've put out. I don't ever want to upset someone or make them feel like they've wasted their time or money. I know it's inevitable--it's just the way things are--but I want to have readers walk away from reading my book with a feeling of satisfaction.

Having my book "out there" has freaked me out more than I can possibly say. Because all of my hard work...all of the struggle and love that I've put into my book...is now open to anyone who stumbles across it. And therefore, open to be judged. Yes, I knew this going in, but let me tell you, there is NOTHING scarier than sending out your book for that first book review--no matter how much you may love it. The only thing that may possibly rival that first review is the first time you place your book in the hands of a friend who has never sampled your work before. *nail biting commences* Hell, at work one day, a group of co-workers got a hold of my Kindle and had a little "reading circle." They read the first couple of pages aloud, while I quietly FREAKED out on the sidelines, trying desperately to keep my outward cool. To be blunt, I've been a mess.

All that aside, I've been rewarded with some very special moments over the past weeks. There was the review from the girl who was HIGHLY doubtful I had any talent whatsoever--the one where she gushed and gushed about how good the book was. :) There was the reviewer who downloaded and read the book in one afternoon, and followed it all up with an email saying I needed to hurry up with book 2. There is the EXTREMELY surreal experience of having people list me as their favorite author on Goodreads...

I've had many doubts since publication...followed quickly by many highs that have made me pause mid-fret and remind myself that Big Money isn't necessarily the end all/be all of success. Success is knowing you wrote a story that people love. Created characters that people care about. Characters that they want to follow into the next book.

I'm by no means knocking it out of the ballpark with this novel...yet, I am. In my own small way. For now, that's enough.

What about you? What would define success for you?

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Courage of Your Convictions

What do you believe in? And more importantly, how deeply do you believe it? Enough to live by every day? Enough to die by, if it came to that?


Something interesting finally clicked with me this year when it came to my characters and their core beliefs. For a very long time, I thought it was enough for them to go through their fictional lives with an average amount of care for the things that were important to them.

Bill, my dedicated and dependable family man, cares about the land he and his father have worked for more than a decade. When it comes to war, there's no way he'll leave all that hard work behind. It's his passion, his personality, his true belief.

And yet throughout all the drafts of the story, Bill has managed to come across as kind of weak. He has this strong commitment to his land and his family's livelihood, but he's still seemed aimless compared to his brother and his fiance.

Why?

Innumerable drafts and critiques later, I eventually came to understand that while Bill's determination to keep the farm going through drought and war is admirable, it doesn't have enough to do with the core of the story- and more importantly, it doesn't have any direct opposition from anyone else in the story. Just from circumstances, and those do not a story make.

Or then again, maybe they do- I could probably write a great literary tale about an Australian farmer trying to overcome drought to keep his family's livelihood intact against the backdrop of war. But that's not the story I'm writing- and it can't be, because ultimately, for the purposes of the plot and the story I want to tell, Bill has to go to war. And if he can walk away for any reason at all, then he doesn't believe in it enough to make that the centre of the story.

This all became clear to me when it was thrown up against the desires and drives of Bill's antagonist, his own brother Len, whose determination to get away from the boring farm life he's expected to follow is so strong that nothing will stand in his way- not his brother, and not the girl he loves. War is the perfect vehicle for his escape- and when war turns around and sends him straight back home, now invalided and unable to chase his dreams of footballing glory, the inner conflict is as neatly stitched up as can be.

So where did the key lie to changing the perception of Bill, not only for me, but for readers? In the end, the answer was fairly simple. Though it's not *necessary* in every story out there, it helps if the core conflict of the book comes from the opposing convictions of the hero and antagonist (or in my case, all three of my ensemble of main characters). And each of them, ideally, needs to believe and want strongly enough that they'll do almost anything to get what they're after.

Without that kind of conviction, you still have a story- but with it, you have one people can't put down, because they have to know what's going to happen next between these people. And those beliefs need to be tied to the story you're telling- absolutely integral to it. If they're not, you're not telling the right story.

In Bill's case, his driving passion can't be the farm, though the farm will always be a factor in the choices he makes. No, the single most important thing in his world has to be the one thing his brother's drive could take away- his girl, Kit. He has to be willing to do anything for her- even go to war, and even if war itself is something he doesn't believe in.

Each character needs that dichotomy- what they want, and what circumstances throw in their way (often the direct opposite). And when you line your characters up against each other, ideally they're all going to be in conflict- even the ones who are friends, allies, and lovers- because that's where story comes from. Friction between people- these particular people in these particular times.

So, what do your characters believe in strongly enough that they'll live or die by it? What are the great passions and desires that push them to make the choices they do? And what's standing in the way of them getting what they want? If your answers don't align with the story you're trying to tell, it's time to go back to the drawing board and find out what motivates these people to do the things they do, deep down.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Worth Spending Time With




What makes someone beautiful to you? Is it physical, like the curves of their body or the steely feel of their work-hardened muscles? Is genetics, such as the softness of their hair, the color of their eyes, the shape of their face? Is it personality: their humor, their loyalty, their love? Is it a little of everything, an indefinable mix of character and physical traits that makes a person uniquely beautiful?

I suspect all of us would readily agree that beauty is subjective. Beauty is also dependent upon the whims of society, on culture, on time and place.

Last summer, while parked on a bench at the Alaska State Fair, I observed the fair-goers and I was struck by just how few people would fall into the “beautiful” category. We humans are really, um, unattractive. (Can I say that out loud?)

I looked through the crowd of families, teens, lovers-in-arms, and oddities, gauging each person on the Hollywood Scale of Beauty. Shallow of me, I know. But I wasn’t being judgmental in that I thought I was better looking than any of them. I was a curious writer deep in people-observation-mode wondering what memorable character I could find here and cache away in my memory bank for later use.

Had I asked the fair-goers if they thought their husband, or wife, or lover was attractive, I’m sure most would say, “To me they are because…” The answers would be heart-felt and the stories behind the reasons probably better than any fiction.

But fiction is where my thoughts wandered to that day at the fair. I thought of the heroes and heroines of my favorite novels. The protagonists in them are almost always appealing in some way, either physically or by force of personality. It could be that I gravitate toward a certain genre, but I suspect that nearly all novels have characters that readers deem attractive. After all, not many of us like to spend time with people we don’t like.

There are very few physical descriptions of characters in my own writing, something I thought was a weakness. The descriptions are absent, not because I don’t know what they look like, but because I can’t seem to find the appropriate places to insert them. But an odd thing began to happen whenever I shared my writing: people not only liked my hero, but some thought he was sexy. Huh? How, I wondered, did they come to that conclusion?

Claire, with her ever insightful way told me why she thought others were attracted to Nathan Rivers. It was a matter of his personality, his actions, his beliefs, and his personal code of honor. I was deeply pleased with her reply, for it meant that even with my inability to describe a character physically, I had managed to create one that was admired.

What about you? What makes you want to spend time in the company of certain characters? Is it physical beauty, or some part of their personality that gives them their appeal, or both? Is it their journey that keeps you reading? How do you know a character is worth spending time with?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Let Me Explain

You know how it goes, you purchase a book, settle down in your favorite reading spot, and then the doorbell rings. It's the author. She's come to explain any confusion you might have with her book, as a kind service mind.

What? No? This doesn't happen to you? Heh. Me either.

And yet how many times have I seen writers try to explain away confusion a criter has with his or her writing? Or query letter, for that matter.

Too many.

Here's the thing: if you have to explain yourself, then you have failed in your mission to communicate with that reader. Now we cannot reach everyone. Some people won't get your work regardless, but if a group of people are saying the same thing, it behooves the writer to shut up and listen. Not explain.

This may sound harsh. Indeed, feedback, and growth from said feedback, can be daunting. But feedback, learning how to accept a crit, what to take away from one, and what to ignore is as valuable task as plotting, or character crafting. Because if you do go the way of publishing, you'll be working with an editor at some point. Depending on your frame of mind, working with an editor can be hell or very helpful.

For me, crits can be divided into two categories: learning crits and editorial crits.

Learning Crits

With learning crits, you the writer are putting your work out there to be critiqued in an effort to improve your craft. So these crits should be more nitpicky. Is your sentence structure working? Are you focusing too much on one aspect, such as description, when you should be focusing on another, such as forward movement?

A learning crit can be hard to take because you're apt to feel like a boob at some point, and start to wonder if you're just a hack. My advice for receiving such crits is to look at the source. Is this a writer whose work you respect? If so, then listen to her. Put your ego aside and try to see what she's trying to tell you.

A caveat of this is to beware of the writer how wants you to erase every so called "no-no" of writing. Is she spouting Elmore Leonard's 10 writing rules as if it is canon? If so back away, that way lies the removal of your unique voice.

Editorial Crits

This is more involved as there are many types of editorial crits. In general, however, we are talking about the critique you are going to get when you've mastered basic craft and are looking to publish. This is where you're getting beta readers, editorial comments and the like.

So here's the thing, an editorial crit is not for feeding your ego. You are not getting it to hear how awesome your book is and how much the reader liked it. Yeah, it's great to get praise. Who doesn't want it? But really, you need to stop viewing a crit as the place for praise -that's reserved for reviews (g). An editor won't do it. She'll be looking at what doesn't work, not what does. Why? Because she already bought the book. It's a given that she likes your writing and your book. Now it's time to fix the bumps that's keeping it from greatness.

Therefore, you need to concentrate on what isn't working. This goes to offering a crit as well. Do the writer a favor, be honest and tell them what failed. :)

Remember, if a reader says, hey, I really didn't get why you went into all that backstory; it bored me and I skimmed. You need to drop the impulse to explain. If a reader skimmed or got popped out of the reading experience, that is a huge red flag. Know it. Respect it.

Conversely, if a reader says, "I don't like heroes who cry, don't make your man cry." This is a place to ponder. Because this is a preference. You aren't writing a book to cater to everyone's preference. This goes for editors too. My editor and I have differing opinions on certain things. Now, since she's my editor, I do explain why something is a certain way, and then I explain why I want to keep it. :)

All of this is really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but what I want to impart is that a writer has to be able to put aside her ego when it comes to crits -either in receiving them or giving them.

A crit is not about how awesome a writer you are. It is about assessing what works and what doesn't so that you, the writer, can make your manuscript better. That's ALL it is. You put your work out for critique so that you can grow as a writer, because at some point, you can no longer judge where you are in the story. You need help and the crit is your tool to move forward.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Forty ... And Fine With It (Truly!)

It was my birthday on Monday. A rather significant one - I turned forty years old - and I was massively spoilt by so many people, and felt very happy and blessed. Not at all how I thought I'd feel upon reaching this milestone! But there's something to be said for ageing. Yes, things do become greyer and saggier, the old memory can take a while to crank into gear and birthdays you once thought made a person positively ancient are now only just around the corner ... but to balance all that is the absolute comfort with which I find I now wear my own skin. The confidence I have. The realisation that there's no need to rush through this one life we're given, trying to do everything, be everything, all at once. That things will happen when they're meant to.

And I also deeply appreciate that the more years there are under my belt, the more I have to draw upon as a writer ... and the closer I just might get to working out my writerly neuroses.

I was going to blog about these last points today ... but then found I was recently pipped at the post by one of the very talented Murderati bloggers, David Corbett, who writes so much more eloquently on the topic than I ever could. So instead, I'll be very lazy and simply direct you to his post, The Outer Limits Of Inner Life , for my offering today. (Besides, my neighbour just called to say she's about to bring round a bottle of champagne for a belated birthday drink. Cheers!)

Where was I?

Oh, yes. David Corbett's post.

Read it. Please.

It's brilliant.




Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sequel Conundrum

Like Claire, I'm finding myself backing away from my original NaNo goal this year. I very optimistically said I wanted to complete a rough draft of WALKING IN SHADOW. Did I really expect to have a completed manuscript at the end of it all? No. What I hoped for was a bare bones story where I at least had the main events hammered out, with some fillers needed here and there, etc...

Yeah, I'm not sure that's going to happen.

I'm not altogether ready to say I'm not going to meet the 50K goal--even though I'm at about 1K total so far (talk about optimism!), but I am willing to finally admit that if I don't hit 50K it will not be the end of my world. And it doesn't mean the month will not be productive in other ways. For now, I'm going to keep striving to get words on the page, realizing and giving great credit to the fact that I have A LOT on my plate. No beating myself up, in other words. I have two jobs. I work hard. And I'm trying to do as much promotion as I can for BY THE PALE MOONLIGHT. Add to that the fact that I'm friggin' tired from getting BTPM out there on the market to begin with. From September until now, I've been working non-stop with revisions, etc... Yeah, I'm pretty much worn to the nub at the moment. If I take a day off--or two or three--to help recharge the proverbial batteries, no big.

At any rate, on to the topic of this post. SEQUELS.

I'm wrestling around with a couple of things right now as I dive into WIS full force. One being backstory.

Ah, backstory. I tell you what, if you think backstory is a pain in the arse in a first book...it's even worse with the second in a series. Where do you put it in? How much do you put in? Are you going to annoy the hell out of the people who read the first book if you put too much in? Will you confuse the hell out of new readers who have no clue what happened in the first if you don't provide enough information for them in the second? It's a fine line to walk and I'm finding that the more I ponder the beginning of this book (Nope, haven't written it yet), I'm undecided on how much to throw in.

I have been told by a well-known agent *cough* that my opening to FAKING IT was completely without backstory... that it was the complete opposite of what most authors do in their beginnings. Rather than err on the side of too much, I went the extreme opposite. I think you could say I may have done the same thing with BTPM, though I don't believe it was to the same degree. At any rate, I hate backstory. I don't like to include it -- probably because when I first started writing I threw in every last bit of backstory I possibly could (yes, including the kitchen sink). I was chastised, and dang it, I paid attention. Well. (g)

I have to admit I sort of enjoy books where the author gives "credit" to readers who have followed along with the series up to that point, and use backstory VERY sparingly. And I have to admit that I get a little tired of constant backstory rehashing in long-running series. My goal with WIS will be to walk a very fine line between just enough/no backstory at all. It's what I prefer. Perhaps I'm crazy?

One of my friends suggested I start off book 2 with the ending scene of book 1. *blink* Isn't that cheating?! That's how it feels to me. (g)

What are your preferences with series?

At any rate, I am giving great thought to the opening for WIS. I hope, if I can get something on the page, to share it over in exercises at Compuserve. Here's hoping I can wrangle this nasty backstory stuff. :)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Own It

How's November treating you out there? I hope the Wrimos of the world are enjoying a productive NaNo month, and everyone else is appreciating their own sanity!

It only took me three days of NaNo this year to figure out that I'm not in the right headspace to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Sure, I probably could have pushed on and done it anyway, but I think it would have been counterproductive. I wouldn't have enjoyed it. And I doubt it would have encouraged me to write on next month the way it did last year.

So I stepped back and took a look at what I was really hoping to get from NaNo this year. The answer was pretty simple- not a lot of words; just a bit of my mojo back. The desire to write, to finish the story. The enjoyment of getting words on the page without feeling like it's all too hard.

And I can achieve that without needing 50K to do it. Instead, I'm going to make sure I write something, anything- or research, or plot- on three days each week.

In looking at what I really wanted, it got me thinking again about all the roadblocks we throw in our own path, and all the tricks we pull out to try to get around them. This year, for example, I haven't written much at all, and I had it in my head that writing a whole lot of words in one month would be the deal-breaker to fix that situation. I already know that this is a placebo. I already know that the only thing I need to do to keep writing is, well, write. I've been doing this for a long while now, and I know all my own mental tricks.

So why do I keep on falling for them?

I think it's because the better you know your own avoidance tactics, the more you begin to accept them. Sometimes, as long as you're being honest with yourself, that's okay. I'm a bit over six months pregnant and dang it, I'm tired. If I dawdle on the internet for an hour in the evening instead of writing, I'm not going to beat myself up over it.

But other times, I think you have to be realistic about where you are in your journey. It's all to easy to say, I haven't been published yet, so I'm just an amateur at this. Who cares if I write or I don't? Kristen wrote a great post recently about treating your writing as a job- because if you're at all serious about it, that's what it is.

I'd add to that and say that the further down the writing path you travel, the less excuses you have not to be professional in your approach- to combat your avoidance tactics, and get on with the job.

It's all too easy to say you're still learning as you rewrite that chapter for the twentieth time. It's simple to say that you haven't changed that one thing you hate in your writing (too many adverbs, telling-not-showing, bad punctuation) because you'll get to it eventually but you're focussing on other things at the moment.

At some point, though, you need to own your own journey. Take responsibility for your own abilities. Forget this idea that you have to put down your own skill level to be appropriately modest. Don't go around acting like a jackass, of course, but recognise where you are. If you've been writing for a good many years, if you're turning out work that you *know* is quality, if you're sick to death of people (not just your Aunt Flo or that annoying guy at work) repeatedly asking when you're planning to start querying your novel, then maybe it's time you took a really close look at what you still have left to learn.

The answer may be, not as much as you think. The answer may in fact be, nothing that finishing a book and sending it out into the wide world can't fix.

And the only person standing between you and that goal, is you.

Me? I'm going to remind myself of that daily from here onward, and I'm not going to make the same tired excuses to myself anymore. Time to get writing, keep writing, and finish what needs to be finished. It might not take me one month, but I'll get there sooner with words on the page than I will with none.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Hum Along to NaNoWriMo

For you dedicated WriMos, here's a song to kick off your writing weekend. The clever music video had me laughing at the young writer and her determination to finish the month with 50,000 words. Can you relate to her?



Thanks to Lauri's Blog for bringing this catchy little tune to my attention.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

All the other kids

I had a really nice, coherent post in mind for today, but then NaNoWriMo began to eat my brain, and now I'm not sure you'll get much more than mush. But I shall try!

I've been hearing the Foster the People song Pumped Up Kicks on high repeat on the radio lately- it's been in the top ten here for a while. I'd been tapping my fingers on the steering wheel, whistling away, for a good couple of weeks before I heard a DJ mention that the song was slightly controversial because it was about a Columbine-style high school shooter.



Say whaaa? I'd actually been singing bits of the song- you'd better run, better run, outrun my gun- without ever noticing what it was about. The catchiness neatly hid the lyrics, which apparently was intentional on the part of the band, to make a bit of a point about the acceptability of violence amongst teens these days.

As soon as they mentioned Columbine, my mind landed automatically on a few of the things I know about that event- even though it happened on the other side of the world, more than a decade ago now, I still remember the names of the killers.

Which, wow. Those names are really seared in my memory. And it got me thinking about what exactly resonates with us when it comes to powerful moments in history. I can think of many in the last two decades that I remember with similar depth.

The answer for me was pretty simple. I could give two figs about the guys who took guns to school that day and killed a lot of people. The ones I care about are those who were impacted. And I think that almost every event that has stuck with me has been the same- in 1999, I was one year out of high school, and Columbine rattled me because it was all so familiar. All those other kids? They were just like me.

I can think of so many other examples. In 2001, I was only eight months home from a working holiday in the US, and studying (from a distance) the Five Points archaeological material that was stored at the World Trade Centre, when September 11 happened. In 2002, boys my husband went to school with were amongst the dead in the Bali bombings. In 2004, I watched mind-boggling video footage of a tsunami sweeping into the grounds and swimming pool of a Thai hotel in which I'd stayed only a few years earlier. And speaking of tsunamis, in 2011 I watched similar footage from Japan, numbed by the vastness of the devastation. It wasn't until I heard about a school full of children still waiting for their parents to come pick them up days later (the parents not having survived the impact) that I really lost it and found myself a sobbing mess.

You get my point. Everything I mention above was a tragic event, but besides a basic sense of global empathy and community, these things really resonated with me specifically because I could identify with the people who were affected. In widescale tragedies, this means many, many people find themselves affected, even if they don't have a direct connection, because of the range of people and circumstances caught up in the event.

The way I've responded emotionally to these things has changed over the years, too- from simply feeling an understanding of what normal life was like for Columbine students before it was all shattered for them, to being in a relationship and feeling extreme empathy for those who lost their loves to a horribly unpredictable event, to having a child and feeling greater love and greater fear than ever before.

All this comes back to what makes good fiction really good, for me. Your circumstances don't have to be tragedies, nor do they have to be global in scale. But you have to make me as a reader identify with your characters enough to empathise totally with them and what they're going through. If you can do that, you'll have written a book I can't put down.

You'd have a very narrow demographic if you took the concept too literally. But making your characters identifiable and understandable to the reader isn't only about their age, race, circumstances, or any of those outward things. It's about being very in tune with the way they think and feel, so that anyone who picks up your book will come to know the person they're reading inside and out. Make them people with lives and desires worth caring about.

Like a moment in history, a book that gets this just right can stay with you forever. The outward events must have the impact, yes. But the inward effects are the core of what makes a great story.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

To Blog Or Not To Blog


I’ve noticed a slew of blog posts of late that discuss whether blogging really is a worthwhile endeavour for writers. I think these two posts cover the issues surrounding this question rather well: author 
Roni Loren’s post, Is Blogging Dead? and Anne R. Allen's Duelling Agent Advice On Blogging. The main argument against blogging appears to be that as a marketing tool, it doesn't work. Blogging just doesn't sell huge numbers of books. And - and this is just my opinion -  I do think there is truth in this point. Speaking as  a reader, I am much more likely to buy a book after reading a review of it, or when it's endorsed by someone other that its own author on their own blog. Word of mouth does sell books, but only when it's not the mouth of the book's creator shouting its virtues to the world. But I’m not convinced it’s time to stop blogging. Far from it, for a blog is so much more than just a marketing tool.

Blogging connects you to the writing community and helps you build relationships with other writers. This is so very important, especially for new authors (published and unpublished) who might feel daunted and alone in the world. Finding people who understand what you do really does help you find your feet and gain confidence in yourself and your writing, which takes you a long way to becoming a successful writer, no matter where you are in the game.  

Blogging is also a good way to showcase your writing and your personality, and what makes you tick. I don’t think there’s an agent alive who wouldn’t google a writer’s name if they’re interested in their manuscript, and a few lucky writers have even been signed by agents solely because of their blogging. And I’m convinced blogging makes you take yourself more seriously as a writer. Your name is on what you write, and what you write is being sent into the blogosphere for anyone and everyone to read … so you'd better do it well!


But most importantly, blogging about writing forces you to really analyse writing and the writing life, to dig down deep into issues you might otherwise have skimmed over or not given a thought to at all. I know that I’ve nutted through some of my writerly neuroses by blogging here at ATWOP, and have connected with others experiencing the exact same issues (always good to know that no matter how mad or messed up you think you are, you’re never really alone. :-) ) 

Some bloggers - Nathan Bransford springs to mind - say that it's the time-suck of blogging that has made them tire of the whole show, and they do have a point. Which is why I am grateful for the day our Kristen suggested we blog as a group. She says she was just being lazy; I say she was one smart cookie. :-)

In the end, the decision whether to blog or not depends on why you’re doing it and what you get out of it, and how much of your time it takes up. And if you’re happy with what you're doing, then just keep on bloggin'!