Tag Archives: reflection

NaNo Update and PoV

I actually stayed up late last night and wrote! I didn’t quite hit my 2,000 word goal, but I got close (1818). I fleshed out my outline while waiting for trick-or-treaters on Monday night and I’m feeling pretty good about the overall structure of my novel.

While opndering my outline, I was reading through some articles that Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files, The Codex Aleria) put on his LiveJournal a few years ago and it got me thinking. I love the Dreseden Files (urban fantasy) with a consuming passion, but I was way less enthusiastic about the Codex Aleria (fantasy). I think part of the difference in my reaction is about genre – I’m out of the fantasy mood the last few years, even though for the bulk of my life it’s been my preferred genre. But as I ponder these books with a writing eye, I realzed that it’s more about HOW the two series are written.

Each series shows Butcher’s characteristic complex plotting – multiple story lines, insurmountable odds, everything coming together at the last possible minute when the hero grasps victory. But the Dresden Files is first person and the Codex Aleria is third… And I think that’s my issue.

The character if Harry Dresden is engrossing. He’s witty, irreverent, sarcastic, and kind of a jerk. But he’s still a hero. And he makes heroic choices at great personal cost. And that’s just so attractive! And from a first person perspective, I feel like I really get to know him through the books and so I’ve really invested. But in the Codex Aleria, there are multiple points of view and I don’t think I ever really commit to any of them. By the second book there’s a clear “main” character, and I like him and his story, but Butcher switches back and forth between him and his story line and a handful of other characters and I just don’t care about them enough to sustain my interest. So I found myself skimming through those sections and that’s never good.

So, I started thinking about my other favorite books and I realized that many of them are first person – or at least, third person limited. And I write in first person (I started my current project in third, but every time I went back to re-read I discovered that I’d slipped back into first person. So I gave up). So clearly I’ve got an ingrained preference. But I think it’s a good observation about reader investment and splitting that investment between too many characters. I feel like my interest is totally focused in the Dresden Files – I like the other characters but they aren’t fighting over my affections. In the Codex, my affections are split too many ways and so I never love any of them enough to really commit. So, I guess I’m a literary monogamist.

That being said, I still bought all the Codex Aleria books. I guess my love of Jim Butcher is focused enough to sustain me through books I’m lukewarm about. Another lesson on reader loyalty? Good for you, Jim Butcher.

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Filed under NaNoWriMo, Reflection, Writing Craft

A Tantalizing Opening

You know how you meet someone and then you can’t remember their name later? And you keep meaning to ask, but eventually it’s too late and you’re too embarrassed to admit that you can’t remember? That’s how I feel about this blog. I got distracted and stopped posting and when I finally remembered that I HAD a blog, I realized that to start posting again meant admitting that I’d stopped in the first place. So I’m sucking it up and admitting it. Here goes:

Sorry, I got really distracted… But it was for good reasons, I promise. Reasons like a new novel. And a 4th birthday (I got carried away with the fairy theme). And my daughter’s daycare getting shut down unexpectedly. Lame. I feel especially bad about my timing as I had joined a blogfest thing and completely chumped out on it.

I went to this great conference, I got all these ideas, I decided to scrap my (mostly) completed manuscript (that I got critiqued and actually pitched and everything), and I spent a ton of time researching and fleshing out this idea for an urban fantasy that I am so, so, SO pleased with. The planets have totally aligned with this idea and I just can’t stop thinking about it. Unfortunately, with my eldest daughter NOT in school two days a week and some major teething going on with the baby, I haven’t had as much time to write as I’d like. On either my project OR the blog (obviously).

So here’s a random topic that is marginally related to both my new project and to the RMFW conference. Sara Megibow from Nelson Literary Agency said that she wants to see the genre within the first few paragraphs of a novel. And I though, dang. That’s tough, especially for an urban fantasy where I want to introduce the creepy stuff slowly. I’m working on it, though – I’m trying some intimations of creepy in preparation for the actual creepy. But as I was thinking about this problem, I finally got to have a date with my husband.

You see, I have these two little kids and no baby sitters. But my mom came to visit for the aforementioned birthday party and my husband and I took the opportunity to go see a movie. Now, I know many writers are rabidly opposed to using movies as models for novels, but I feel like structure is structure. I think there’s something to be learned from any artistic genre – movies, tv, music, art, whatever. They’re all trying to communicate a story, right?

So anyway, we finally got to see “Cowboys and Aliens”, which I found delightful. And that opening scene was so perfectly aligned with Megibow’s discussion of the first pages of a novel, which I’d been thinking about anyway – a perfect storm of circumstances. I’m pretty sure the opening was in the trailer, so hopefully I’m not spoiling anything here:

The camera pans across a western landscape, complete with dusty scrub and towering orange mesas (sets location). A man sits up suddenly, dressed in grubby 19th century western clothes – complete with bloody patches (inciting incident – sets time period, characterization, and intimates the circumstances). He looks around, confused, noticing a big, weird looking metal cuff on his wrist (sets sci-fi genre – obviously there’s something more than a western going on here). Then he sees a photo of a woman in the dirt next to him and you can tell that he doesn’t know who she is. Then he kicks the butt of three mounted, armed ruffians (intriguing action). This is, what? The first minute of the movie? Amazing.

Now, I understand that you can’t convey information this quickly in a novel. It takes a lot longer to create this kind of setting in writing than in a visual medium. But still, dang. I was so impressed at how quickly the movie established everything you could want in the opening of a story – everything Sara Megibow wanted, in fact. Genre, inciting incident, setting, time frame, character, mystery, action… Again, amazing.

So the take away is about details. The judicious allocation of pertinent details can immediately submerge your reader in your world – details can establish your character, your motivations, your setting, etc. Not too many or there’s overload and tedium and slow pacing. Not too few or your reader has no connection or investment. But just enough and just the right details can set everything up while still leaving the mystery intact. Tantalizing. That’s what you want, right? Tantalizing while still building expectations for your reader.

I like the word tantalizing. It’s underutilized. And doubly appropriate when talking about Daniel Craig.

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Punk musicians are smarter than you think. And older.

I was just watching an episode of “Guitar Sessions”, which is a performance/interview show. I just caught the end of the interview with Bad Religion and I was so impressed. If you are not familiar with them, they’re  a punk band with great lyrics about politics and world issues. I love them.

The interview was with lead singer Greg Graffin, who is also a part time professor of biology and paleontology at UCLA (his undergrad degree was in anthropology and geology – how could I NOT love him?) and the guitarist Brett Gurewitz, who also owns Epitaph Records. There are two reasons I found this interview impactful:

1. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many seamlessly used multi-syllabic words in a live interview. Dang, those guys are smart. It’s one thing to have beautiful language in a song lyric where you’ve had time to address construction and get feedback. It’s something else to have that kind of language at your disposal in a conversation. And not to knock musicians, but really. They aren’t the most erudite bunch.

2. The interviewer asked Gurewitz about how he chose which bands to represent and he said that he had to listen with his heart and not be afraid to like something because he thought it didn’t match the market or that it might make him uncool. He said he couldn’t explain what made great music, but that it somehow stirred his soul. He didn’t use those exact words, but that was the gist of his comment.

This really grabbed me, especially with my recent decision to scrap the project I’ve been working on for the last three years. I want to invest my time in a project that stirs my soul. In fact, I want to write that phrase on my wall in fancy calligraphy.

An additional point is that these guys are not cool looking. They must all be in their late 40s or early 50s now and they just looked so normal. Like, balding, glasses, normal-guy clothes… And then they performed a great punk standard like  that. It was jarring. In fact, it was kind of like watching my nerdy geology professor playing. Or my dad. Very weird.

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What one agent looks for in the first 30 pages…

One of the sessions I attended at the RMFW conference was on the first 30 pages of a manuscript. It was led by Sara Megibow from Nelson Literary Agency. I thought it was very interesting – in addition to being very entertaining. She basically just talked for 2 hours but it was such an engaging presentation. She had four main things NOT to do and one thing TO do – based on the understanding that she represents genre fiction and that she isn’t looking for the exceptions. These were her rules and she said that if you didn’t want to follow those rules that was fine – but she wasn’t the agent for you.

DON’T fight the formula. She says the formula exists for a reason – becasue that’s what sells. It’s what a reader is expecting and so you need to meet that expectation. To find the formula for your genre, she recommended reading books in that genre – how novel!

DON’T hide the inciting incident. She wanted it within the first few pages.

DON’T info dump. Duh.

DON’T hide the genre. She said she wanted to guess the genre within the first few paragraphs. Whew – that seems tough, especially for a genre like urban fantasy where you’re starting in the (mostly) real world. But I guess she meant that you should set a tone early on.

These “don’t”s don’t mention the obvious things like writing correctly and following the submission guidelines. Her point was that these four points are things that will prevent her form having an interest in the project. She then gave lots of examples of books that fulfilled these criteria – and a few that didn’t and why it was OK. Then she answered lots of questions that centered around the idea that the questioner’s project was so awesome that they should be able to defy these rules with impunity.

The only DO rule she had was to have “effortless” writing. This one was a lot harder to quantify, of course, but I know all of us can think of books that match that adjective. How to achieve it is something else, though.

Anyway, that was the jist of it. It was neat hearing an agent talk about her process – and I really enjoyed listening to her. She had a ton of energy. I think that was my last session of the conference and it was a great note on which to end.

I’ll try to make some notes about he other good sessions the next time I take a break from research – don’t you love it when a project works so well you can’t stop working?

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Filed under Conferences, Reflection, Workshops, Writing Craft

RIP WIP

Whew! I’ve been so busy working since I got back from the conference that I totally forgot to update here – I also missed the first writing challenge for the Platform Builder’s Campaign so I hope any visitors from that will forgive me.

So the RMFW conference was totally awesome. As with all such conferences, some sessions were better than others but I got a ton of inspiration/ideas/confirmations/exposure and I’m feeling re-invigorated and ready to work. But there was one unexpected ramification: I have decided to scrap my current project.

I’ve been working on this project for three years or so. I took two years off in the middle and when I came back to it, I just didn’t love it any more. I still think it’s a cool story and, with some of the plot revisions I’ve been working on over the last several months, I think it could still be a viable project. But I have to admit that my characters are just a touch boring. It’s not that they aren’t three-dimensional… they just aren’t that cool. You know those characters that are vibrant and sexy and you just can’t wait to read more about them? My characters aren’t like that. I really liked them when I first wrote the book but they just haven’t stayed with me like I wanted. So I am going to shelve it and start on the urban fantasy that has been nagging at me for the last month. It’s based on Russian folk lore and I found some serendipitous history that turned my cool idea into a bad-ass world-concept that I just can’t get over. I love it so very, very much. But I have so much research to do…

When I wrote my first book it was based on science and politics that I already had in my head. I went back after the fact and fixed/added in details, of course, but it didn’t stop my writing. My research was primarily after-market. But this project is different. I just don’t know that much about Russia. Or russian-american settlement. Or US Geography. Or Russian geography. Or… I studied russian for four years in college so I know enough to get started with research but I need so much background information before I can start. And it’s a testament to how excited I am that I’ve spend four days doing fairly boring statistical research without getting discouraged or loosing steam. I’ve got a really neat historical context for my family, I’ve got basic character sketches done for everyone, I’ve got a basic premise for my antagonist (she is going to be SO cool!), I’ve got an outline for a modified medieval marriage ceremony, and I just decided on a location for my family estate (dang, that took forever). So I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot, but I have so much more to do!

I promise I’ll write up some reflections on the better sessions I took at the conference (an agent session on the first 30 pages; designing deliberate secondary plots, characters, and villains; publishing research for profit; building a brand/website; and writing a pitch). It’ll help me crystalize my impressions, anyway, but I need to loose my new-idea-high first.

I will say that I had a group critique session that went really well – I got a lot out of critiquing the other five projects and listening to the editor who was running the session, but I got very few criticisms. There was only one small suggestion from the editor and, while two people in the group had criticisms, everyone else disagreed with them. So that was nice! Even though I’ve decided to shelve that project, it’s reassuring to have such positive feedback. It means that my writing, itself, is on the right track. I also had a pitch with a New York agent (who was the most adorable person) and, while she did agree to look at my first two chapters, she seemed far more excited about my russian project. I just need to get a move on with writing it! She actually told me I was a tease for telling her such a great idea without having a book for her to read! So, a good weekend for my ego. And I feel so good to have finally admitted that I don’t want to finish the thriller. I’ve been fighting with myself for months – thinking that I just didn’t want to do the re-write because it was hard or it wasn’t as exciting as a shiny new project… but I feel really good about switching projects. It’s better for me and, conveniently, it’s better for the market right now. And much as I love the process of writing, I also want to sell a book. Shocking, right?.

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I don’t want to write because of books. Weird, right?

So there was a blogfest going around about what book sparked your desire to write. I wanted to participate but I couldn’t think of a single book. Not one. And I thought that was weird. Then today I was watching the morning TBS syndicated showing of “Supernatural” (which I totally love, by the way) and the title sequence song was “Carry On My Wayward Son” by Kansas. And it struck me that Kansas was why I wanted to be a writer.

If you aren’t familiar with Kansas, they were really big in the ate 70s (I think?). I was born in the late seventies, so my exposure to them was due to my father. He was a guitarist, you see, and he listened to music all the time (just like me – so is it nature or nurture, do you think?). Anyway, he loved Kansas. And the Beatles and Dan Fogelburg and lots and lots of classical music. It didn’t occur to me until I reached middle school that I could listen to anything else.

But I digress. The thing about Kansas is that, like many similar bands in that decade, they wrote story music. It was poetic and LONG and had lots of electric organ solos (which I hate). But I remember being on a girl scout trip when I was maybe 10 years old? And I was listening to a Kansas mix tape on my walkman. I was bored so I was really listening to the words instead of the tune, which was more normal for me. It was “Closet Chronicles” and it’s about a king who disappears. I can’t even summarize it or pull out a few salient lines because the whole song is the story. And as I listened to it and stared out the car window at the high desert landscape, a whole story unfolded in my head and I though “this is it”. And then I listened to “Nobody’s Home” and “The Wall” and they just evoked such vibrant images in my mind as we drove – images that interwove with the landscape and even now when I hear “Coset Chronicles”  I see the dusty colors of the mesas and scrub – I think we were driving near Lake Havasu. And when that story plays out in my mind, it’s set in a castle that looks like a towering rock formation.

So I don’t want to write because of books. I want to write because of music. I think that’s weird, but what can you do? I guess it’s all about living in an imaginary world, whether of words or images or harmonies. They’re all linked together for me, anyway. And Kansas has a lesson on story structure, too, but maybe that’ll be my next post.

So let me leave you with a few lines from “Carry On…” that still give me chills:

“You will always remember, that will equal the splendor. Now your life’s no longer empty. Surely Heaven waits for you.”

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Filed under Music, Reflection

When Words Fail Me

So, I have really cinematic dreams. Some of them are cohesive and I jot them down to use as stories later. But some of them are just scenes that, once awake, never resolve into something useful. Like last night. In this dream there were four people (I was in the perspective of one person but it was third person omniscent, like most of my dreams) exploring some magical cave. As the narrator, I understood that this system was a series of connected caves, all of which were diffrent. It was magical or something – I’m not sure. And the idea was that no one had made it past the first few caves and returned to tell the tale.

The part of the dream that is pertinent to my thoughts today is as follows. The POV character wakes up (the four had gone to sleep in an abandoned farm yard – in a cave. Remeber how I said it didn’t make sense?) and the other three are gone. She walks down a short passage and sees the next cave through a hole in the rock wall. Through the hole is a huge cave full of steaming water with a massive rock formation in the middle. In reminded me of “Kubla Khan”, which is a column in Kartchner Caverns in southern Arizona (If you’ve never heard of this cave, you should totally go look at some pictures. It is unreal). Anyway, the other characters are diving off the rock formation into the water and the POV character just stands in the opening watching them.

So, this sounds kind of dry but what it got me thinking about is how can I possibly describe this scene? It was hours ago and I can still see it in my mind. It was so vivid – I could feel the heat from the water and the damp steam. I could smell the wet rocks and hear the splashing water. And the colors were these vibrant browns and reds in the rocks and the water was this neat steely blue and the lighting was really moody. I can see it, but I know I’m not describing it right and it’s frustrating. So maybe I need to start trying harder to capture the imagery that pops up in my dreams as an exercise. It’s just so hard to put those sense memories into words – it’s like trying to describe music or dance. It seems so clinical and didactic when compared to the images in my head.

So, to taunt you, below is the opening scence form White Nights, a lovely movie from the 80’s starring Mikhail Baryshnikov. Describe this scene. I dare you. I guess that’s why music and dance and art exist – to describe images and feelings that transcend language.

 

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