Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Some authors do begin with the ending and write backward from there. This certainly wasn't the case for the screenplay for Casablanca. I was disturbed the first time I watched our DVD and discovered that the filmmakers didn't know how the story would end until it came down to a point in filming where a decision had to be made. Would Ilsa stay behind with Rick, or choose to do the right thing and honor her duty and her husband by leaving with Victor Lazslo? I have to admit that I wasn't so surprised at their flexibility with the moral dilemma as I was with the fact that they couldn't see that the personal sacrifice and growth in the characters of Ilsa and Rick WAS the story.
How important is it to know the ending of a story before putting it on paper? Most of us have at least a vague idea of how our stories will end and structure them toward that. There are many factors to consider when choosing an ending. What do you consider the most important? Has an ending ever gotten away from you despite your bestlaid plans and forced you to change course?
Monday, September 28, 2009
Then comes the moment you must begin to think logically about your grand ideas. You fall from the clouds of inspiration and land on the road of logic. How can I make this work? Writing, it seems to me, is the marriage of excessive imagination and cold hard logic. Spinning dreams, then tacking their feet to the floor. Before I started my current work, my editor told me she wanted me to try outlining the novel. There are a great many complexities in my next book and outlining made sense. Now that I've finished outlining, I can see the merit in outlining for any kind of novel regardless of complexity. It helped me think about character and plot elements ahead of time that, left on my own, writing scenes and narratives, would have taken much longer to think about and develop. At first, I was nervous that outlining would "squelch my muse", cramp my style. But I got over that soon enough. I was the one outlining - so I was calling the shots, and deciding how it would work. I'll be outlining my next novel as well.
Actually, I've been using and talking about "controlling images" for years in conjunction with writing non-fiction. It is a concept or image that, true to its name, controls the content of the chapter or section (or more rarely) the non-fiction book I'm writing. The structure of the actual written piece is dictated by the strength and nature of the image.
Am I weird? Does anyone else start this way?
Latayne, you're such a global thinker! For me, I get my ideas from...wherever, and I definitely need to nail them down. I'm not proud. I'll expand a concept from a podcast (as for Seeing Things), snatch my friend's royalty (she was the queen of Sleepy Eye, really), or noodle over my worst fears (all of my books).
And I'm very much an outliner. Here's a picture of my cumbersome method. Every column is a chapter. Each character has his or her very own color of sticky note (no sharing or I lose the pattern). I write what happens in each scene on a sticky note. As I place the notes, I'm mindful of rising antagonism and tension. The nice thing about the sticky notes is their flexibility. I can shuffle those puppies around until I like what I see. This works well for me because I'm so visual. I've never tried to travel with this method of outlining, for obvious reasons.
I think and stew over a book idea for a long time before I put anything on paper. I keep a notebook with me for ideas for plot points, settings, occupations, symbolism, motivations. I do research until the information starts repeating itself. Then I make a rough, loose outline and flesh it out more and more, each section impacting and expanding the next, until the story is told. At this point, I make Excel spreadsheets like family trees and a timeline, plugging in plot points, births, deaths, dates etc. to make sure that it is all logical. When I'm sure that I have all my facts straight and know where the story is going, I can relax and enjoy the freedom to be creative because I know the bones are solid and strong.
I don't want to give the wrong impression. I may have been one of those kids who always colored inside the lines, but the colors were out-of-the-box. I once made my third grade teacher angry for using vibrant pinks, turquoise and purples on a special fall leaf project that she chose for me to complete. Didn't I know leaves weren't that color, she demanded? Well, apparently not!
I'm getting some great ideas here. I like Patti's post-it board especially, being a visual person, too.
My muse is neurotic, driving me to outline obsessively, and then flying off in new directions, disregarding the spreadsheet I so carefully crafted - on excel, like Debbie. Still, I like having an idea of the big picture, and an outline helps me do that, even if I ignore it.
The advantage is that I can stop writing the outline if I get bogged down, knowing that by the time I get to that part of the book, everything will be different anyway.
But all the while I'm thinking, there has to be a better way. Maybe I'll get myself a poster board and some sticky notes. What's a flaming creative like me doing with a spreadsheet, anyway?
PS: No Latayne, you're brilliant.
Oh, man, it's confession time. I'm only admitting to this because it's how I've done it with each novel I've written, and I couldn't pretend I've done it any other way. So, here goes: I start a novel with a beginning and an end in mind, and only a vague idea of how I'm going to get from the first page to the last. What's more, I work out the plot points as I go along. Spontaneity is the name of the game. Outlining scares me more than writing the novel, and, Patti, much as I love you, your method would cause me to hyperventilate.
When they say there's no right or wrong way to write a novel, this probably isn't what they have in mind. I know, I'll never be asked to teach a workshop.
But there may be hope for me. My WIP is an experiment, because I'm using Jeff Gerke's How to Find Your Story this time around. It's a multi-page worksheet that helps you consider plot points, theme, characterization, and all the things that outlining does for you. But for someone like me, who hates even the thought of outlining, spreadsheeting or synopsizing, it holds my hand through the process, prompting me to nail down details at the outset, with the intent of making the writing more smooth and efficient, and eliminating loose ends, etc. etc. I like the fact that I can be as detailed (or not) as I want to be with each specific point, and I can skip points altogether if I so choose.
Patti's post on Friday really hit home with me. Because I'm fearful every time I start a new book. And I stay afraid until I get to the last page. And until someone reads and validates it. Maybe Jeff's worksheet will eliminate some of the fear -- but I doubt it. But if it makes the story more cohesive from the get-go, which it has, that's a good thing. And anything that makes this process easier, is extremely welcome.
So, authors, which of us do you most relate to? And, readers, have we blown our cover?
Friday, September 25, 2009
Latayne and Katy, thanks for the wonderful discussions. I've been following with great interest as I travel through the deep, rainy, flooded, humid south. Send water wings!
I'm a good distance into my sixth novel, my first historical fiction, and I hate my first line. In fact, I'm not at all sure where the story begins, although now that I'm over a thousand miles from my manuscript, I'm beginning to see things differently. A little cut-and-paste. A new first scene. That's all it needs.
And fear kills creativity.
And so, I'm done with fear. Fear of disappointing my publisher and readers and myself. I'm headed for the pirate life, at least when it comes to my writing. (My dog will still expect morning walks on schedule.) I'm reckless. A carouser with words and ideas. I swing my sword and jab. Dialogue. Description. Narrative. Take that!
I never expected to be dealing with fear at this stage of the game, but with three of my books already out of print and the publishing world obsessed with the bottom line--as I know they must be--well, I'm c-o-n-c-e-r-n-e-d (Christian-ese for terrified.) I just can't get this story right.
Am I so different? I'm most bold when I feel safe. And this world is not safe.
But Jesus is. He is the one I write for, the one I long to please. I'm sorry to say that I've let things go topsy-turvy now that I'm a "player" in the publishing world. It's time for a course correction. As one of my favorite Sarah Groves songs says, "I live and breathe for an audience of One." That's my goal, anyway.
Is fear keeping you from moving ahead with a writing project? How do you deal with fear of failure? Do you have a writing ritual to remind you for Whom you write? Share!
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
"I grew so impatient with the book that I stuffed it down into the seatback pocket along with the airsickness bag. I was going to leave it on the plane." "Maybe someday I'll force myself to trudge on through it." "I don't want to waste the time I have." "Truthfully? I toss a book aside if I'm not loving it."Ouch! How better to describe a writer's nightmare? Our characters can roll their terrible eyes and gnash their terrible teeth and show their terrible claws like Maurice Sendak's Wild Things, but it's no use: the readers say "no," then climb in their boats and sail away.
As Bonnie said, it's intensely personal stuff. Those authors who wrote the books we didn't read - if they notice this post at all, if they even find their computers under all those royalty statements - they can console themselves with the knowledge that they are in terrific company. PD James? Anita Diamant? Barbara Kingsolver? I neglected to mention that it took me years to get past page one of The Hobbit.
Still, Latayne has reviewed both of my novels, and I can tell you that she is a very kind reader. What could induce this sweet lady to leave a perfectly good, well regarded novel in the pocket next to the vomit bag?
For answers, I looked up Original Sin by PD James on Amazon and clicked on "Look Inside the Book," to read her first sentence:
"For a temporary shorthand typist to be present at the discovery of a corpse on the first day of a new assignment, if not unique, is sufficiently rare to prevent its being regarded as an occupational hazard."Are you bored already? Me too (and the rest of the page is no better). Because the book is a mystery, so of course it begins with the discovery of a dead body, and of course the body is found where bodies are not usually found, by people who don't usually find them. Please, Ms. James, take a break from answering your piles of fan mail and say something that surprises me. Make that first paragraph sing!
Because, as Sharon said, if the writing is bland or cliche, or if the characters don't engage, we can lose our readers before they get to the good stuff. There has to be something wonderful - something surprising, compelling and delicious - on the very first page.
Ah, but how to do that? I'm going to open the question for discussion: what makes a first page sing for you? What method do you use to make your own first paragraphs memorable. We want to know your thoughts.
Monday, September 21, 2009
I once asked Andy McGuire, who at that time was editing Latter-day Cipher, for a book recommendation. He told me that I should read P. D. James because she wrote literary mysteries; and also because she was a Christian.
So I selected a James novel, Original Sin, for airplane reading since I am traveling to present seminars a lot recently (I’ve been on three trips in the last three weeks.) I say airplane reading because of those rules against portable electronics – you can’t use a computer, e-reader or even audiobook player unless a plane is over 10,000 feet in altitude. So it’s low-tech reading for those of us who want to continue reading while the airplane attendants describe how to use your seat cushion for a flotation device and then take your drink orders.
On the second leg of my trip to Montana I grew so impatient with the book that I stuffed it down into the seatback pocket along with the airsickness bag. I was going to leave it on the plane. Too many characters, I thought, action too slow; and though there were some delicious murders and some yummy descriptions, the whole thing seemed pedantic.
But someone I respected had recommended this book, and so I trudged on. Little by little the plot began to both thicken and engage.
By the time I neared the denouement, I was re-reading each paragraph, then going back and re-reading the last chapters. It was like a dessert whose last bite I did not want to take – instead I scraped around the dish, licked the spoon, smelled the last wafting aromas, searched between my teeth for morsels before finishing it off.
It was one of the most memorable climactic scenes I have ever read. I was so glad I gave the book a chance. It deserves every accolade it has received.
Have you ever been tempted to dump a book that you nonetheless went ahead to finish? What made you want to abandon it? What kept you reading? Are you glad you did? Why?
Friday, September 18, 2009
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
I once attended a seminar taught by a Hollywood screenwriter who said that her company was looking for Christian stories, but that, unfortunately, Christian writers usually wrote small stories about small characters. The conflict was generally internal and the story slow on action. Hollywood was looking for big stories with big characters. Small characters and small stories generally do not sell movie tickets or TV pilots.
I was reminded of this while revisiting one of my favorite how-to books, Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. He makes a very sobering statement: "I have seen talented writers hurt their chances of publication because they persist in writing about "perfectly ordinary people"...characters who are seemingly no different from the run of people we meet who do not seem in any way distinctive." He goes on to say that readers do not want to meet or read about the same boring people they know in real life. But what does it take to make characters extraordinary? Since as Christians we strive to insinuate God's truth into our world, shouldn't our characters be as real as we can possibly make them? And the real people that I know are pretty...normal. Maybe predictable. Even boring. (Did I say that out loud?) But come to think of it, while I love them, I wouldn't necessarily want to read about them.
How many times have you tossed aside a book after reading the first chapter or paragraph, because of an uninteresting hero/heroine? You saw a predictable character with no spark of anything that would make you want to follow them around for awhile. To remedy this in our own writing, Mr. Stein points out that, for the most effective characters, "their eccentricities dominate the reader's first vision of them." A great example would be the opening scene of Leif Enger's Peace Like a River when his father performs a miracle at his birth, commanding him to breathe. It is one miracle among many, we find. The dysfunctional family in Anne Tyler's book, The Accidental Tourist, refuse to answer their house phone because it could be bad news. At this point, I would like to point out that Anne Tyler's stories are about everyday people with lots of internal conflict, but they all have wonderful defining traits and quirks that make them memorable. The dog trainer in this story is another superb example.
So, the challenge is to give our characters some defining, eccentric characteristics that reveal something significant about them and also set them apart without presenting them as clownish or over-the-top. This requires that we know them so well that it seems only natural that this bit of information would manifest itself in that way and not seem contrived.
What characters do you remember due to some eccentric quality? What authors are especially good at accomplishing this? Do you have a character in your manuscript that displays an eccentric quality? We'd love to hear!
Monday, September 14, 2009
"And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve."
Friday, September 11, 2009
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
This is my last post before the ACFW Conference in Denver. Are you going? I'll be there and I'd love to meet you. Please say hello.
Katy opened a great conversation on Monday. Writers tend to be passionate, wanting to squeeze the last minute out of their writing days. Not surprisingly, we get lost in our fiction worlds, and leaving is like saying goodnight after a lovely date. We want to linger with our characters. They're bolder than us and get out of the house more.
It's true and you know it.
Our bodies pay the price. Sitting bones weren't meant to be parked in front of a computer all day. Hands weren't meant to endlessly tap on a keyboard. And a neurologist with a New York Times best-seller says multitasking is tough on creativity.
Personally, I've had my struggles with headaches and backaches. You name it; I've tried it. I'm still tweaking things, but here are the things that have helped the most. I hope you'll share what you've learned too.
1. I walk 2-3 times a day for 10 minutes. My physical therapist claims this keeps good blood and oxygen flow around my spine. My dog, however, suggests 4-5 walks a day. You'll have to set your own goals.
2. I stretch the medial nerves that run through my wrists. I had carpal tunnel release surgery seven years ago and still wear my splints for extended times at the computer. (They do not come in fashion colors!) For exercises, Google stretching exercises to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.
3. I keep bite-sized veggies in the fridge. My personal preference is baby carrots. I'm hoping to turn orange before the end of my current WIP.
4. I take breaks to get off my bum that don't disrupt creativity. Katy had it right. Cooking works but so does meditation, prayer, and gardening. Red alert! Dusting is the death of creativity. So is the television. I learned this the hard way.
5. Since my husband developed heart disease, we're more mindful of eating a balanced diet. This used to mean eating something caramel for every chocolate delight I slipped past my gullet. And that was after I took a college-level nutrition class. Now, I choose my nutritional resources carefully and pay attention to my protein intake as much as my fiber or dairy. I feel better and more alert. To prove it, my eyes are open past 5 pm.
6. My husband works weekends 10 months out of the year, so we take two weekdays off. For some reason, it is harder for us to relax on a Tuesday or Wednesday than it is on a Saturday or Sunday. After many years of marriage, we've finally figured it out. Each week we choose Tuesday or Wednesday to be our sabbath. We're not legalistic about it, but it has helped us to say, "This is a special day. Let's give our hearts to God and kick up our feet." Try it. It's okay. You won't spontaneously combust--at least, we haven't yet!
7. The Bible is the mind of God in book form. I try to explore Him daily.
How do you keep healthy? Have you found a magic pill? Why is staying healthy so difficult? Is there a perfect chair? keyboard? desk? monitor? Is heaven our only hope?
Monday, September 7, 2009
Is there a writer on earth who hasn't, in one way or other, compared the production of a book to childbirth? Can we not see how cliche it's become to refer to a novel as "my baby," or to say we are sending our children out into the world when we really mean we are submitting our manuscripts for publication?
Maybe we see it, but the cliche persists for the reason all cliches persist: it's true, so very, very true.
For instance, one way writing a novel is like having children is that it is all-absorbing. You go to sleep thinking about your characters and wake up the same way. Day after day they disrupt your life, demand attention, wear your patience, and yet you love them, and the proof is that daily you submit yourself to their abuse.
The other way writing a novel is like having a baby is that you gain weight - at least if you're not careful.
My first time, I was not careful. For six months, we ate Hot Pockets for dinner. That's only a slight exaggeration. Sometimes my husband brought home hamburgers.
I am not a person who ought to gain weight on purpose, so when I began to write a second novel - on purpose - I figured I needed a better plan.
It turned out to be chicken breasts. Where I live, you can buy skinless, boneless chicken breasts in what they call "Family Packs." Someone at the store has assumed we all have enormous families, because there are about seven or eight big-enough-for-two chunks o' meat in there.
So the idea was, at the beginning of the week, to put all of those breasts into a Pyrex baking dish, dump a can of broth or onion soup on top, and bake. Then, throughout the week, we would have:
- Chicken tacos
- Chicken and veggie stir-fry
- Chicken wraps
- Chicken and bean soup
- Chicken Caesar salad
- Chicken over pasta
- Chicken surprise (Bet you've already guessed what the surprise is.)
However, a couple of recent events have me rethinking my plan once again:
1) I watched Julie & Julia, a wonderful film. Now I have Meryl Streep on my desktop wallpaper, I've got the soundtrack playing on iTunes, and I have a new desire to cook sensually and joyfully. But not lobster - this girl doesn't drop living creatures into boiling water, though she's happy enough to eat the results when someone else does. And not boef bourguignon - I do want to get my writing done as well.So I thought I'd put the question to you. No, I'm not asking for recipes (though I'd be loath to refuse them), but for your thoughts and best ideas for surviving well this life of writing stories. What difficulties have you faced and conquered - or not conquered? How do you keep your house decent, your family loved, your boss happy? Or maybe just: how do you keep your health?
2) In simultaneously cooking dinner for friends and finding a use for a gigantic zucchini I'd been given, I rediscovered the recipe for ratatouille. I'd forgotten how much I loved chopping fresh vegetables and herbs, simmering a big pot on the stove, tasting, adjusting seasonings, and tasting again. And to think that it was all vegetables! A person like me needs a lot of recipes for fabulous vegetables.
Please, do tell.
Friday, September 4, 2009
After a stimulating week of discussion about what you’d like to keep, I want to turn our attention to those things we’ve written and published that we wish would go away forever.
When I was in my 20’s I wrote an article for a Christian women’s magazine. It was entitled “How to Squeeze More Time Out of Every Day.” It detailed how I had two children, helped run a political campaign, had several church ministry jobs, wrote books, baked my own bread, cooked everything from scratch…
What was one of my brilliant solutions to lack of time? It was to wean yourself back from sleep until you were only sleeping five hours a night. I did it, why couldn’t everyone else?
I look now at the photo of myself and think, how did somebody so young get so stupid so fast. I hate whoever wrote that smart-alecky article and think now that most normal women who read the article should have hated me too.
Oh, I wish that article was never written. Thank goodness it’s not on the Internet. That’s one big reason I love the Lord so much – He can wipe away all our sins and remember them no more.
What have you written that you regret?