Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Revisions, Or...What Was I Saying?

Boy howdy, Christmas slowed down writing on all fronts for me. No editing, no blogging, no new chapters...not even any reading, for that matter. It’s probably no excuse, but it’s what I’ve got. So, here you go:

*hands over excuses* Mea culpa.

Anyhoodle. I said in my last entry that I might talk about revisions this time. Turns out, that’s a swell idea because I just so happen to be in the middle of the revisions process as we speak. Er...type. Well, except, I’m obviously not revising as I type because I can only type in one document at a time. (Ahhh, would that I could type in multiple documents at once...)

I’ve lost track again, haven’t I?

Well then. Let’s begin with the fact that I am emphatically pro-revision. This is one of the few areas of writing in which I actually have a process--namely, chronological order.

I start at the beginning of a book and write my way all the way through to the end. Even if details emerge that will require changes in the beginning, I DO NOT go back until after I’ve come to the big, fat THE END. Why? Well, the first reason would be that I’m easily distracted. If I stop concentrating on the flow of the story it’s entirely possible that I’ll forget it. The second is that I could drive myself nuts making every minor change in the beginning dictated by the middle, but the end could very well make all those changes moot. (Or is that Moo? It’s like a cow’s opinion. It doesn’t matter.) I need the big picture before I can concentrate on the details.

After I reach THE END the first time, I shut the project down for a bit. Sometimes a short time, sometimes a long time. I need this time to forget all the little things that were going on in my head when I wrote the story in the first place. I need to read it with fresher eyes. Often, the best solution is to head straight into another project. Start with a brand new Once Upon a Time, if you will. If that one comes easily, I head for THE END. If it doesn’t, I wait until I’m thinking too hard about it and then put it on the back burner.

Then it’s back to the beginning on an older project that’s been left to mature in an oak barrel in my basement. (By the way, are you enjoying this hearty serving of mixed metaphors? Yum, yum.) And once again, I go from page one to THE END. In the revision process, I’m a little more capable of moving around in the chronology, but in general it’s a front to back order.

So, what am I looking for when I revise? Everything. But, if you want data, I’ll give you a list.

  1. 1. Technical errors. Grammar, spelling, missed words, typos, formatting mistakes, rogue italics...you get the idea.

  2. 2.Weak writing. Repeated phrases, repeated words, passive voice, unnecessary wordiness.

  3. 3.Characterization. I want a consistent personality among my characters. Sometimes I find that they’ve said or done something out of character and I have to get rid of it, or reassign it.

  4. 4.Insufficient backstory. This includes beefing up the role of any minor characters that turned out to be more important in the end than the beginning.

  5. 5.Humor. I think I’m hilarious. But, sometimes my jokes don’t work. This is an area where I rely heavily on other readers, because I always think I’ve gotten the humor across. As I’m sure any comedian would tell you, the audience never gets all the jokes. Those that sail over their heads should be revised or eliminated.

  6. 6.Information dumps. Or as Maureen Johnson calls it, “fact-meat.” This is when a writer tries to give you all kinds of salient facts on a subject in a very short time. Often in an unnatural way that completely stops the action and makes readers yawn, or skim. Information is best revealed in small doses, by characters interacting, without resorting to lecturing or weird, stilted dialoge. (“My, it’s unexpectedly warm here in the Taj Mahal in India.” “Alabaster is an excellent insulator, my dear.” “But how did the ancients know that, Peter?” “Well, darling, for that answer, we must turn to the pages of Herodotus.” Etc, etc, ad nauseum.)

  7. 7.Page closers. This is the opposite of a page-turner. In a book that you can’t put down, every chapter ends with a feeling of promise. The reader should find it nearly impossible to stop reading, even to eat. If I finish a chapter without a sufficient tease, the reader is going to put in a bookmark and come back later. Page closers can crop up in the middle of a chapter, as well. No matter when it happens, I want to get rid of it.

I could probably go on with this list until I was curled up in the fetal position beneath my coffee table. But, I think you get where I’m going with this. A first draft is NEVER good enough. No matter how great you might feel when it’s done. No matter how many first drafts you turned into your teachers for History, English, or Journalism. What you wrote the first time is bound to be full of errors of all kinds.

It takes some serious humility to admit that you didn’t do it perfect the first time. It takes even more humility to let someone else tell you that. The ideal scenario would be to write a first draft, go back through it yourself to find everything you’re capable of finding, then hand it off to some trusted beta readers who will find everything you couldn’t. Because YOU ARE TOO CLOSE TO YOUR OWN WORK. You will not find all the mistakes--even the spelling errors, trust me. You will never see what jokes don’t work. You will never know what crucial information you left out because it’s all inside your head. Every sentence you write is based on knowing what you know. Your reader doesn’t. So, your beta readers will tell you when they are left holding up mismatched puzzle pieces.

A writer never has to follow every bit of advice given by a beta reader, but she should most assuredly take it all in and do some considering. This is an area I see a lot of new writers falling down on. They are happy to fix technical errors, most of them are even willing to rephrase a confusing or wordy sentence, but a lot of them will fight with beta readers who suggest that an area is confusing or weak. They will defend their writing, and say “You just didn’t get it.” That may be, but if your readers don’t “get it,” you’ve failed. The whole point of writing is to share a story, a world, a new idea. Communicating. If the message isn’t being received, you might as well print it out and read it aloud to yourself, or use it to wallpaper your bedroom, because you’re the only person who’s ever going to want to read it.

Wow, that was soapboxy. I think I should probably walk away from the keyboard before I get riled.

Stay tuned. In the new year, I’d really like to start using this blog to share a bit more about myself as a person, not just a writer. Not everyone is hear to “listen” to me drone on about a craft they may never want to pursue. Of course, there’s not guarantee that anyone will want to “listen” to me drone on about anything else, but we’ll give it a shot.

So, Happy New Year! I’ll catch you in 2010!

- Liz

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Plot and the Lazy Girl

Before we get started today, I just want to announce that I’ve taken Third Place in a small contest sponsored by ReviewFuse.com. I entered the first chapter of A Game of Risk (book 1) and that chapter will be on display at the site’s blog next week Tuesday. Click here if you want to see the site. If you’re really interesting in honing your reviewing skills for other writers, this is a great place.

Now where was I...?

You’ve heard of Attention Deficit Disorder? Well, I have the opposite problem. My cousin has lovingly diagnosed me with Excessive Grooviness Disorder, but what it boils down to is that I am truly skilled at putting off ‘til tomorrow. And why put off ‘til tomorrow something that I can not do altogether? That’s my motto.

Oh, I’m very reliable with things I’m interested in. And at work--forget about it, I’ll take half the patient load if they let me. Housework on the other hand...yeah. I’m not going to end up on Hoarders anytime soon, but if cleanliness is next to godliness I’m about as mortal as they come.

So it is with writing. I am not a plotter. (This may explain my continued work in the romance genre.) I like to think that my version of the writing process is legitimate because it’s somewhat similar to Stephen King’s. Whatever you may think of the man--and I happen to be in the worshipful acolyte camp (Stephen, your shrine lacks only a lock of hair in my house)--he certainly can produce a story. And in his book On Writing (which I wholeheartedly recommend to any aspiring writer) he explains how he comes up with his ideas. He thinks of a situation and puts some characters in it to see how they’ll react. For example, what would a bunch of people do if most of the world’s population was killed off by a super flu? He got The Stand out of that. (Excuse me for a moment, I need to stop screaming “Why can’t I do that?!” and beating my head on the table.)

I’m back.

Anyway, my version of plotting goes something like this: Does anyone even answer wrong numbers anymore now that everyone has Caller ID? Maybe if you just wanted to shut your phone up. Or maybe if you were expecting a call from a Doctor’s office or something... Could you meet someone that way? And once I have a concept, I find a couple characters who might want to star in my schizophrenic show.

I usually only know one or two key things about a character when I first conceive them. In the example above, I knew I had a dancer on my hands (don’t ask me why, ‘cause I don’t know). I also knew she would be very hesitant to meet a stranger. That’s it. But, I put her on the receiving end of a wrong number and let the rest play out as it wanted.

Now comes the part where you very slowly reach for the phone and try to find the nearest mental health facility that might be able to come and pick me up. See, in my experience, characters know what they’re going to do. Any interference on my part results in stilted, painful scenes where the quality of the prose suffers and the action all but dies. If I simply open the mental window on their world and watch the scene as it happens, I get natural dialogue and action. I once heard writing described as “socially acceptable schizophrenia” and I couldn’t help but agree. That’s kind of how it feels.

There are a few things in the process that I cannot explain, no matter how hard I try. Like, the fact that I have an internal clock that tells me when a chapter is ending and that clock always goes off between pages twelve and fifteen. Rarely do my chapters fall outside that page count. That’s apparently how long it takes me to get through the action.

I also can’t explain why a tiny change can make all the difference. In one of my novels, I tried like hell to make the main character a brunette. I wrote it in a couple ways. I fought hard for that brown hair. But the story was hung up in my brain. It wouldn’t come out. I couldn’t get her or the other characters to do anything but hang like marionettes with no puppeteers. Finally, I gave in and let her be a strawberry blonde. Suddenly, it all broke loose and I told the rest of her story in six weeks.

When I get to a point where the story seems to run out, I just think “What if?” What if something changed? What if they got separated somehow? What if she decided to stop fighting? And then, I consult my characters and they agree to pursue that particular bit of improvisational theater and we all nod and take notes and move ahead with the parts that worked.

The other thing I can’t explain is the almost preternatural way I have of laying out bits of nothing at the beginning of a story that end up being helpful in the conclusion. I’m sure somewhere in my brain, I’m keeping track of all the breadcrumbs I’ve laid out and subconsciously working them into the conclusion, but believe me I’m never thinking far enough ahead in the beginning of a story to know that 150 pages down the line, I’m going to be really glad I said that so-and-so is afraid of heights, or what’s-her-face is getting married in a few weeks.

A writer friend of mine talked about “dead herrings” once. That’s his name for all the false foreshadowing that can be left behind if you change course in the middle of a story. He suggested that in revisions, you have to make sure that you account for any clues that readers would have had for an ending that didn’t come to be, and that you’ve satisfied everyone’s curiosity about any tantalizing teasers you laid out. I guess that’s what I’m talking about here. I just find that most of my “dead herrings” end up re-incorporated somehow. It’s probably because I’m too EGD to do the housekeeping once the story is done.

Perhaps we’ll dabble on revisions next time. Maybe not. We’ll have to see what my brain feels up to.

Monday, December 7, 2009

To Genre or Not to Genre

I’ve fallen in love. With a literary agent. I haven’t even queried her, but according to her blog, we’re a match made in heaven. Of course, that declaration will also fall to her opinion, but I’m dreaming anyway. So, how does my newest publishing crush have to do with genres? Believe it or not, I’m going to bring this around.

I’ve said in the past that one of my life’s ambitions is to write something more meaningful than light romance. In a way, that’s true. Who wouldn’t like to write the next Great American Novel? Well, okay, me. But, I would love to write some fabulous crime novel or a really great piece of literary fiction that lands on Oprah’s Book List. What I’ve learned through experience, however, is that you can only write what you can write.

Thank you, Captain Obvious.

But, I’m serious. In the vast, rattling space that is the inside of my oversized head, I have two glimmers of thrillers in my head. One of them, I’ve attempted to write, the other I know better than to touch. Here’s what happened: the one I attempted to write turned into romance. Sure, it was a little angstier than my usual stuff, but other than that--romance. The ideas that come to me are romance. The characters that come to me are not detectives, killers, or 40-something professors with a penchant for stumbling into globe-trotting historical mysteries. The long and short of it is, I can only write what I’m “inspired” to write.

Which leads me to my next point: you have to target your work to the right agent and the right readers. The internet is a beautiful place filled with equal parts fiction and fact, but one thing you can rely on is anything that comes straight from the horse’s mouth (Good God, could I fit more cliches into this blog? Mea culpa, mea culpa...). What I mean, is that if an agent is kind enough to tell you exactly what he or she is looking for, believe it.

I would be foolish to send my queries to anyone who categorically does not represent Romance, Chick-lit, or Young Adult. There are plenty of agents in the literary sea, and all of them have opinions about what’s worth representing. Know your genre, love your genre and only go after those people who feel the same way about it.

It has taken me some time to get comfortable with being a genre writer. It was all in my head, of course. There is no stigma against writing whatever it is that you write--provided you write it well. There are readers out there who are exclusive genre devotees and they will wait just as eagerly for the next best thing in Mystery/Romance/Thriller/Horror/Inspirational/etc. as English majors wait for the next great piece of literature (which they probably think can’t come out of the modern era, but that’s a rant for another day). My point is: there is a skill set to writing each genre, and if you ain’t got it, you ain’t got it.

My writing group/ad hoc group therapy session has been invaluable to me in this regard. We are a pan-genre group and everyone brings their unique perspectives to the weekly conference calls. While I am amazed at the fantasy writers’ world-building capacities, the thriller-writer’s sprawling political knowledge and air-tight plots, the poets’ command of rhythm and rhyme, the comedy writer’s endless wit, and the horror writer’s creativity, they are in awe of the romance writer’s ability to base a plot entirely on the minutiae of human interaction. That is the romance writer’s forte--to capture the everyday successes and failures of ordinary people. To walk the line between reality and fantasy. How else can we make readers want to be our heroines and fall in love with our heroes? They must be rooted in reality, but just that degree or two more desirable, lucky, or gifted. Just enough to make us green with envy and turning the page.

To make a long story even longer, write what comes to you and don’t worry what anyone else will think. If you love it, and it inspires you, you will tell the story so well that anyone could read it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Process? We Don't Need No Stinking Process

I promised you I would touch on my process in this blog. It will be an interesting exercise for all of us, since it’s not something I really think about. As with most things, I suspect that I will unearth a wealth of truth behind my presuppositions. Let’s begin, shall we?

It would be ideal if the writing process went something like this:

  1. 1.Inspiration Strikes

  2. 2.Sit down to write

  3. 3.Finish the story as initially planned.

  4. 4.Run Spell Check

  5. 5.Query

  6. 6.Sign contract with agent

  7. 7.Sign contract with publisher

  8. 8.Sign books at a well-attended personal appearance

  9. 9.Wave to Paparazzi at premier of movie based on book

  10. 10. Rinse and repeat

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t work like that.

In lieu of any real method to my madness, I’ll begin with inspiration: Where does it come from and how do I get some?

The answer I think you will get from most writers is, “I don’t know, and I wish I did.” In all honesty, it is a lot like that lightning strike cliche. For example, I was watching my son ride the toddler roller coaster at Menards one day when out of the blue, the entire plot for my current project Last Call came to me. I happened to be listening to my iPod at the time, and maybe it was something I heard--I’ll never be sure. What I am sure of is the fact that I carry a notebook in my purse and I promptly jotted down enough words that I’d remember what was in my head.

That’s the rare case. Often, I get a kernel of an idea from a song lyric, or from another story (real life or fiction). One of my bad habits is to try to predict the end of movies I watch. I’m frequently right, but when I’m not, it inevitably leads to my little brain churning over what would have happened if I had been right. That can be enough.

After that point, writing is a game of what if for me. I start writing and just keep asking myself, “What if...?” I usually know the general direction I’m headed, but there are a lot of questions to be answered in the middle.

So, I guess I don’t really have any suggestions on where to find your own inspiration. The only advice I do have is to carry a notebook with you. You never know when a character name, an eloquent turn of phrase, an image or an entire plot will hit you from out of the sky. And although my brain seems to have a limitless capacity for TV theme songs and song lyrics, the storage capacity for inspiration is finite and small. If I don’t get it down on paper, I’m likely to lose it.

If you’re curious about the inspiration for something I’ve written, feel free to drop me a message. Otherwise, until next time, I bid you adieu.