Thursday, September 29, 2011

BUT WHY?

Following is my three year-old son's story of his life:

First I was a baby in momma's tummy.

Then I was a little boy.

Now I am a big boy.

Then I'll be a grown up...

...and then I'll be a duck!

I don't think that way. Most people, even the most creative people I know, don't think that way. We have certain constants, such as: human children don't grow up to be ducks.

But what if they did?

I will admit to coming to him when I've written myself into a corner, explaining the story so far - with no simplification - and then asking his opinion on where it should go. Sometimes he just asks questions about a few things that stuck in his mind. Other times he'll continue telling the story, usually with an expanded cast, and swords. And ducks. Sometimes he'll do that thing that all parents know and dread.

Tabitha rode her motorcycle to the end of the road, looking for Hester. She wasn't there so Tabitha burned the shack to the ground. 

Why?

Because she was so angry at her sister, and her sister loved that house and had put years into rebuilding and filling it with things she loved.

Why?

Because when they were growing up, they were moved from one distant relative's house to another, living jointly out of a suitcase full of clothes they were quickly outgrowing. So she wanted to have a place full of her things, and walls that were always the same.

Why?

Well, their mother passed away when they were born and their father was sent off-planet, after which the force fields locked so that spacecraft couldn't come back.

Why?

Well, it was actually a conspiracy. A heroic general and the most powerful politicians in a party went off-planet to great fanfare to christen a new colony. They were supposed to be gone a month. But while they were gone, two ambitious businessmen and a young chemist who desperately wanted to prove himself, arranged for a coup following the release of a chemical that would obscure the sky.

Why?

You see where this can go? How broad or how deep you'll be forced to drill down if you just keep asking why? How you will start thinking about aspects of your characters or plot that you never would have explored on your own? I just hope I remember these lessons when I achieve duckhood.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

THE LIBRARY IN HEAVEN

It must be massive, Heaven's library. I thought at first that maybe everybody got their own, full of the crispest, most beautiful editions of all their favorite books. But now I think it must just be the one library, so that the denizens can roam the endless rows during their endless stay, tracing their greaseless fingertips (even if they just ate chocolate and barbeque, because there must always be chocolate and barbeque in Heaven, but nobody will ever be smudged).

They can discover any book or all the books or just peruse.

Imagine days spent stringing together first lines together into a story unto itself.

Weeks learning about the river deltas of the world below.

And of course, all books would be instantly translated and understandable, 'cause Heaven's a little bit Star Trek, too.

Monday, September 19, 2011

THE FUTURE, IT KILLS ME

So I clicked on the NPR link to hear about a robot talking to a robot, and then my head exploded.

I hope your experience is similarly delightful.

NOSE TO THE FRELLING GRINDSTONE

I'm throwing myself a little party. This is what happens when 1) I have no other topic to blog about, and 2) I've cracked 40,000 words on a manuscript that I have abandoned three times because it was Too. Flipping. Hard.

This is the opposite of a pity party. It's a "Oh Holy Carp, I Didn't Know You Had It In Ya, Kid" party (I play both the person saying that and the "kid"). So, bring your folding chair and dancing shoes, your drink of choice and snack of first resort. Shall we listen to some records, maybe smoke some of the funny stuff (I am, of course, referring to candy cigarettes or those old school clown cigarettes that actually spray water - funny, right?), or streak through the virtual streets? I'm up for it!

I'm not done, of course. Nowhere near it in fact. I'm thinking this draft will wind up somewhere around 75,000 and will require extensive editing as well as some after-the-fact research to clear up some details I've only glossed over (but highlighted to attract future attention).

But I've overcome my fear of something new (sci fi) and broken a few of my own rules (outline, write first and edit later) and the words are still flowing. The characters are denser and crawling deeper into the rabbit hole.

So, to all of you grinding through this chapter, that scene or them thar plot point, please know that you're en route to smoother waters. Just keep working.

Also, as a PSA, don't google images for "party time". It's...disturbing.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

THE LAST BOOK

Death row inmates get a last meal.

I'd be more interested in my last read.

If you never got to read another book again, what's the last one you would choose?

A worn favorite to lose yourself in one last time?

The longest book you could find, to draw things out?

Would you risk something new and untried?

Monday, September 12, 2011

5 STEPS TO SURVIVING THE SOGGY CENTER OF YOUR BOOK

There are hundreds of instructional books for writing stories and novels.  Many of them are even good. And yet, writers continue to moan about falling into the purgatory that is the center of their book. Plots that start off with a bang and end with a boom ramble and stagnate through the middle.

Faced with this very issue the other night, I climbed onto the treadmill. If I wasn’t able to conquer the shapeless middle of my book, I might as well work on my own.

Five minutes in I was fine. Feeling good about choosing to exercise instead of cruise the Internet or eat the rest of a pan of brownies (there weren't that many left). Hopeful that I’d soon be in good enough shape to go on a decent run with my son in the jogger without inspiring good Samaritans to call emergency services.

Ten minutes in I was sweating and my muscles were straining. It was hard. It was repetitive. I wanted off. I could count at least eighteen things I’d rather be doing.

And that’s when it hit me. That is what a reader feels like when the book sags. When the writer decides that now is the time to reveal the entirety of the characters’ massive and surprising (!) backstories. When the writer dispassionately plods down a contrived path toward red herrings in an effort to complicate the story. When the writer loses her or his way and wanders aimlessly through clever dialogue and sudden-onset “tension” between characters with Nothing Else Happening.

So, to toss out a metaphor, while writing a novel might be a marathon, writing the middle of that novel is a single workout that you don’t want to complete.

Here are my five steps (order up to personal preference):
  • Change up your playlist. Parallel: Change the location to a place your characters don't know. Where they will be uncomfortable or surprised. Add or remove a character. Has the all-knowing crutch stopped answering his phone, leaving your peeps to fend for themselves. Has the supportive, fatherly supervisor been replaced by a hard-ass more interested in properly completed paperwork than results? If your character doesn't know what's coming up next, neither will the reader. This is what makes readers turn the page.
  • Think of the end goal. That hike you want to be able to complete without passing out. The pants you bought two years ago that still have the tags on them. Those target numbers your doctor sternly lectured you about. Parallel: When you started the book, was your goal to type out a certain number of words, or to finish a story that would entertain and satisfy the reader, even if you plan to be the only reader? Aren't you eager to type "the end" on a book that horrifies or delights or makes your first grade teacher tear up (in a good way - don't write books for revenge on primary school teachers. That's just petty)
  • Monitor your progress in two-minute increments rather than staring down the next thirty. Parallel: Work scene by scene. Don't worry about hitting three thousand words a day, or completing a chapter. Worry about ramping up this scene, having your characters emerge further down the plot path than when they entered it.
  • Look at the runners around you. Parallel: Think back to similar books and see what the authors did to keep you reading to the magnificent end. I'm not advising copying other books. That would lead to a very sad state in literature. I'm saying look at the devices, where and how tension was turned up, and see if there are opportunities for derailments and re-railments (let's play "is it a word!") in your story.
  • Tough it out. Just keep going. One foot in front of the other. Parallel: One word after the other. Sometimes no trick in the known universe will help. Sometimes it's just a matter of grinding through the process until it gets easier. Eventually you will hit a smoother patch, you will finish and, even if you don't love the story, you've completed it. That's a phenomenal accomplishment. And the rest? The tightening up, the transitions, the de-triting of the dialogue? That's what revisions are for. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

THE MORE YOU KNOW

I asked my husband to put together some quirky things about me that I might be able to use for a humorous FAQs post. He must have misread the question because he sent me back a random list of physical abnormalities and symptoms of severe mental illness.

I can't believe we've been married all these years, and I only just found out he has trouble reading.

Friday, September 2, 2011

HAPPINESS IS HARD WORK

I started to read an article the other day* about slightly depressed people seeing the world more accurately than non-depressed people (and also severely depressed people). Something about the lack of "positive illusion", from self-image to understanding of conditions in the world. I was interrupted and didn't finish the article.

But it got me thinking.

I mentioned it to a coworker. Rather than asking more about the theory or expressing an opinion regarding its truthfulness, she shook her head and raised a hand. One of those do-not-pass,-do-not collect-$200 moves.

"I don't think about things like that." She launched a smile. "I just accept the world as it is. That makes life so much easier."

I looked at our charcoal and taupe office, the mundane tasks we repeat hundreds of times a week. I understood the glazing over, driving past and tuning out of the truths of the world or our own situation (which likely little resembles the dreams and aspirations we had in our early years, our formative years, our experimental years). I understood, but the statement also blew my fucking mind.

I consider looking at something, whether an object a person or an idea, and asking what else it could be to be the highest form of hope. And I think that accepting the world as it is is tantamount to saying you've run out of hope. That you've given up. This is one of my biggest fears, along with having my appendix burst and kill me, or having my hamstring sliced by so shadow-dwelling foe.

Of course, by accepting the world as it is - free of menacing appendices and knife-wielding fiends laying in wait - my coworker is probably more content than I. I like to think that, by recognizing flawed and incomplete things and working to improve them, I can occasionally elevate myself from content to truly happy. Even if it's only for a moment.

* Please note that my definition of "the other day" spans from three days ago to thirteen years ago, give or take about a month.