How does one salve one’s conscience when one doesn’t actually feel like writing? I’ve begun to think the answer is books on writing. Maybe not creating them because that’s, like, writing, but COLLECTING them is certainly one of the best forms of procrastination going. I have shelves of the suckers. But how useful are they? Once you’re past the “how to format a manuscript” stage, and you know all about grammar, spelling, and punctuation, what can these tomes do for you besides make one look very writerly?
As far as I can tell, these books fall into a few categories. There are reference works for writers: handy-dandy guides to poisons, what happens at a crime scene, how to survive in the Regency era, etc. It’s pretty easy to figure out which of these you need and they are by far my favourite type. Just the facts in small words that even writers can understand. Here are two I go to again and again:
Then there are writing guides that are structure-focussed books. How to write mysteries/horror/romance/bestsellers, etc. Mileage on these varies hugely. I’ve yet to find a really good one on horror. And, even when these guides are good, they need to be applied with common sense. Take romance for instance: Are you really going to use the same approach for writing a Harlequin Presents as for a dark paranormal romance? Hmm—the Cowboy Vampire Firefighter’s Secret Baby Werewolf Surprise?
For good genre-fiction techniques in general, I personally like Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Bob Mayer’s incomparable Toolkit.
There are books about finding one’s writing inspiration, but I’ve never been inspired to pick them up.
There are also myriad books about individual issues, like dialogue, description, character and so forth. I suppose that one could fill a book with a minute examination about one of these topics, but I’m not sure I’d want to read it. The best straight-up advice I’ve found is in Stephen King’s On Writing. He has a fabulous way of getting right to the point. I’ve pulled more nuggets out of this volume than any other, and only half of it is how-to.
I’m sure there are plenty of other fabulous choices, and some might be gathering dust, unread, on my shelf. The point is that I think once you’ve found those craft guides that resonate with your process, those are the keepers. It won’t be the same list for everyone, and that’s okay.
As you watch the video, it becomes very clear that she’s not afraid to share her emotions—in fact, she pours them into her songs, heart and soul.
There’s no holding back, not when she’s writing the songs and not when she’s singing them. Her words and her performances are intensely personal—she even admits to having cried as she performed Someone Like You at the 2011 BRIT Awards—yet she doesn’t shy away from the feelings they evoke. She openly bleeds as she sings, and her feelings reach out and grab you by the throat.
As a writer, especially a writer of romance, tapping into real emotions should be your aim as well. Don’t be afraid to reveal a big part of yourself in your writing. Dig deep, find those emotions that wring you out and pour them onto your pages. If you want your readers to feel, make your characters feel. To make your characters feel, look inside yourself. The truth is there.
Currently working on: Chicago booksigning tour
Mood: Easter candy overdosed
I’m in Chicago for the Easter weekend, touring most of the bookstores within 50 miles. [Side note: If you live in Chicagoland and want a signed copy of VOWED IN SHADOWS, check with your local bookseller to see if I blew through.] I spent two solid days on the drive-bys, hitting as many stores as I could, signing the books in stock, and handing out goody bags filled with bookmarks and romance trading cards from fellow writers along with my book. Stock signing tours are fun, but tiring.
Yesterday, I spent Easter with my family. Woozy with exhaustion and excessive sugar intake, I listened to the priest’s homily and contemplated the Easter story of resurrection. I was also thinking about chocolate Easter eggs as well as the surprise elements and features on websites, DVDs and other electronic media which are also referred to as Easter eggs. The common element to all these Easter moments is rejoicing, whether that’s rejoicing in the promise of eternal life or rejoicing in the discovery of a hidden chocolate or digital treasure.
As tired as I was after all the running around, I might have forgotten for a moment I should be rejoicing about having a book to sign. But even worse than that, sometimes I forget to rejoice in the writing itself. Just as eternal life shouldn’t overshadow that “This is the day the Lord has made” (emphasis mine), so I have to be careful that the joys (and trials) of being an author don’t overshadow the writing.
As I move forward with Book 3 launched and Book 4 almost a year away (yeah, yeah, it’ll be here before I know it) I am going to remember to rejoice. I will:
Write anew and write a new…something
Try something short and fresh as springtime
Find the heart and spirit of my writing and set it free
Which aspects of writing or your other favorite pastimes continue to surprise and delight you? Leave a comment any time this week for a chance to win one of the goody bags I handed out this weekend.
It takes me forever to write a proposal. I’m fairly sure my agent just doesn’t believe me anymore when I say that I’m going to produce one.
It’s not laziness on my part, nor is it lack of ideas. It’s trying to connect my germ of a concept with the finished product. There are a lot of obstacles, not the least is which requiring great tracts of time to ponder the whole thing and answer some key questions.
One number one: what genre is this? For some, this is easy. For me, not so much. I tend to write in between, around, or hopping to and fro genres because that interests me. It tends not to interest industry professionals quite so much, despite their vaunted love of mash-ups. Eventually one has to settle on what a proposed book MOSTLY is, just so folks know where to file it. If one colours too far outside the lines, the marketplace tends to shy away. Sucks, but true.
Two: who is the main character? The standard answer is “whoever changes the most.” I’d rather say: “whoever I think I can stand hanging around my head for the next six months.” The point is things get a lot easier if you have one focal character, even in a romance. If, like me, you are prone to ensemble casts, it becomes critical. One very important reason is that readers like to have a character to cheer for. The more time they spend with the protagonist, the more sympathy has a chance to build. It’s not that the other characters aren’t nice people, but readers like that familiar touchstone.
Three: how much world do I really need to build for just a proposal? Um, all of it? The more unfamiliar the landscape, the more work has to be invested. This is what sucker punched me on the current WIP. I finished the first draft of the first fifty pages last night and realized those gaping holes were due to bad preparation. I hadn’t made enough decisions about the universe, so (shockingly) it didn’t manifest on the page. I had created universe lite (all of the cosmos, none of the gravity) and it worked about as well as artificial sweetener. An easy fix, but it goes to show sloppy doesn’t pay.
So, yes, it is possible to spend hours working on your book without actually writing a word. You need to dream up a world, decide on your market, research your market, and ponder your cast list before much else happens. This is why it is entirely permissible to sock someone who sneers at your paltry page count and says, “Gee, you’ve been at this for ages and is that all you got done?” Grrrr.
Better yet (and more productive than outright homicide), keep a notebook of these decisions so that progress is still measurable. Check off what choices you’ve made and jot down why. Word count isn’t everything, but work accomplished certainly deserves reward.
Currently working on: Revising back cover copy for Marked Souls 4 (March 2012)
Mood: Time warped & future shocked
On Sunday, there was actual sunlight in Oregon! At one point, I was down to one single layer of clothing! Must be spring!
And spring means spring cleaning in the garden. I’ve noted before that many writers have gardens. I think a garden is sometimes an excuse to get away from the computer, to go outside, to see that blazing ball of light in the sky. It’s also a good time to think about stories. And today, as I pulled weeds, I was thinking what a lot the garden has taught me about writing.
Bloom where you are planted
Not every place is perfect. In fact, I’d hazard to say that most places aren’t perfect. Most life situations, most writing schedules, most publishing opportunities aren’t going to be perfect.
But like these balloon flower seedlings show, perfect isn’t a necessity. They found an opening in the gravel path, and they will happily sprout and blossom there. Even more impressively, not only will they bloom in the gravel, they will slowly build up dirt around themselves and make an even better situation for themselves next year.
Find the inner beauty
Oregon winters are relatively mild, but I have some plants that need to be protected through the coldest months and so I bury them in autumn leaves. In the spring, I’m always thrilled to find how some of the old leaves have been carved away to the intricate structures within. Sure, most of the leaves are a cold, wet, rotted mess, crawling with red wiggler worms, but a few are treasures.
I find the same is true of my writing efforts. Some leaves of pages aren’t going to grow into a grand novel oak; they are more suited for composting. But those are worthwhile too. And the skeletal structures that do stand the test of a winter’s rain might be the outline for that grand spread.
Think big, think small
The hairy bitter cress has to be one of the most weedy weeds ever. It’s one of the last things blooming in early winter and one of the first to shoot up in late winter. What I find most amazing about the hairy bitter cress (besides the remarkably unlovely name) is that it makes the most of every situation. Given light, space and a bit of dirt and water, it grows into an airy bush several feet across. (Pictured left, with my boot for scale.)
But in poorly lit, cold, hard soil, it will still sprout, blossom and go to seed at sizes even smaller than a quarter. (Pictured right.) Left to its own devices, it makes dry seed pods that explode at the touch of the wind, sending seeds in all directions.
I’m always tempted to think big in my writing, but the small can have just as much impact and throw its seeds just as far. Sometimes I need that reminder to focus on the intimate details.
This too shall pass
When I was a kid living through the Cold War threat of global thermonuclear annihilation, I sometimes comforted myself (and I admit I still use this technique) with the knowledge that no matter what we did, the world would keep spinning. (Although maybe slightly skewed on its axis if all the bombs were dropped in a certain pattern… Okay, TMI.) The plants NOT in my garden remind me that the best-laid plans are just that; plans, not reality. Even though I clear the patio pavers every year, every spring the Mexican feather grass, mullein, spearmint, and assorted other creepers have found nooks in the pavers and gotten a merry start on running amok.
And I kind of like the green invasion. No matter how clean-swept and barren those pavers are, new life will find a way. I know no matter how empty my writing hours sometimes feel, new stories will set root and bloom.
Go deep & aim high
Two years ago, we put in a marionberry bush. People who live outside berry country may never encounter a fresh marionberry. This is because Oregon grows most of these berries…and then eats them all. Marionberries are called the “Cabernet of blackberries” for their rich, intricate sweetness.
For all its elegant name, our plant is a monster. Last year, it sent out runners that could entangle a smallish elephant. Where the 10-20′ vines touched down, they rooted and are sending up new sprouts. (Diving and sprouting viciously-spined cane pictured right.)
What a great inspiration for my writing: beautiful and ferocious, sweet and thorny, strong and spreading, unstoppable. (And highly commercial!)
When I’m out there in the damp, filthy, slug-infested spring garden, pulling bent grass with roots two feet long, there’s a certain amount of growling and cursing. Sometimes I have to take a breather and remember why I’m doing this. Right now, I’m doing it for the tulips, but also for the strawberries and grapes, the dogwood and the purple smoke bush, the weeping cedar and the white birch. I’m doing it because I love my garden.
And despite the brain-bleeding brainstorming sessions trying to find the ideal story concept and the late-night revisions, I love my writing too.
Are you going to have a garden this year? What lessons do your other hobbies teach you about life?
Lately I’ve been dipping into my someday-I-gotta-read list of classics and catching up on gems like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Valley of Fear and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. They’re novels written for pure entertainment. Sure, some things about them are dated, but as adventure yarns they stand the test of time. There’s ticking clocks, secrets, comedy, conflict, exotic scenery, betrayal and heroism.
These books break a great many “rules” espoused by today’s fiction-writing experts. Not that Doyle and Verne would necessarily care. They must have been doing something right to stay in print for at least a hundred years—but we do see some things in the nineteenth-century novel we don’t see much of in today’s pulp fiction.
Point of view is one. The Victorians weren’t shy about using the wide-angle storytelling lens, aka the omniscient view. With that, an all-seeing narrator sets forth long passages of description about a location, society, or milieu. It makes me think of an opening sequence of a movie, where the camera lovingly pans over the countryside to set the scene before the star enters the picture. Today, we’re told get into the action and deep POV as soon as possible. That’s great, but there’s something to be said for taking time to set the scene.
Another interesting difference is that the authors way back when weren’t shy about what we’d call authorial intrusion. That is, the author expresses their opinion about what’s going on in the story, sometimes very directly. While I’m less tolerant of this, I’m forced to admit that part of Dickens’ unmistakable touch is his personal opinions—be it around social injustice or the right kind of Christmas office party. Though these interjections would be chopped out now, his exhortations add a huge amount of character to his books.
Another custom fading into the sunset is a certain level of narrative complexity. Even in the seventies, there were sprawling best-sellers with a bazillion characters, all with their own points of view and story arcs. In genre fiction, these days (and, yes, this is a sweeping generalization with significant exceptions) we get the hero, heroine, maybe villain, and rarely anyone else. And, they’re generally focussed on one main storyline with only piddling subplots. Even juicy double couple romances are becoming hard to find. Why the push to keep it simple? After all, readers aren’t stupid and surely could follow more than one story arc.
Probably there are many reasons, and some of it is undoubtedly just our current tastes. One, I’m sure, is the price of paper. More complex = more pages = more expensive. Not a good thing unless you’re an ebook.
Anyway, I’m not saying these older practices are better or worse, just that it’s interesting that some very successful and long-lived stories don’t adhere to the current concept of “good” writing. This may seem obvious. However, my experience reading some older works was a bit of “wow, this is different” combined with “huh, that works okay.” And it also reminds me that storytelling comes with a very full toolkit. Surprise and variety are good. As writers, we shouldn’t forget that.
If you’ve never seen the series, but think someday you’ll want to, turn back now. There are a few spoilers in this list…
1. Throw them a curve ball: Take an ordinary high school cheerleader and give her an inescapable destiny as a vampire slayer.
2. Pit them against villains capable of killing them: Such as an ancient vampire who not only sucks the slayer dry, he leaves her face down in a puddle. Caveat: If you do this, you also need to give her friends who can conveniently save her life…
3. Make their nightmares come true: Afraid of spiders, clowns, or public speaking? Good. Because all the bad guys can’t be demons. Welcome to the slayer’s world.
4. Stomp on their hearts: Let her fall in love, only to discover that love can cause serious, earth-shattering problems, like awakening the soulless vampire buried in her boyfriend.
5. Kick them when they’re down: Ensure the only way to save the world is to run said boyfriend through with a very sharp sword.
6. And then just for the heck of it, kick ‘em again: When she finally gets up the courage to date again, have that guy dump her after one night of sex.
7. Take away all their support: Mentors? Fire them. Friends? Turn them into hyenas or magic-addicted dark witches. Mother? Make her a zombie, have her do the nasty with the mentor, then kill her.
8. When in doubt, make them sing: Literally, for a whole episode. And while she’s singing, have her blurt things she’d never say otherwise, wound all her friends, and almost go up in flames. Then blame it on a tap-dancing demon.
Fortunately, Buffy’s ego is never completely shattered by all that happens to her–she’s a terrific example of what doesn’t kill you (or does kill you but you come back to life) makes you stronger.
Currently working on: Preparing for Chicago book tour
Writing rules start the moment you pick up your first pencil and stare at your first blank wide-ruled notebook when you are, what?, in kindergarten? Hold the pencil like this. Stay within the lines. Make the letters the same way as everybody else.
How is this creative?!?
Ah, but if you don’t make your letters the same as everybody else, if you make up your own alphabet (Tolkien aside) nobody will be able to read what you wrote.
So already, we see that some rules exist for a reason. Here’s a good example. I recently received my box of new books from my publisher. Yay! I opened the box and…
Oh noes! They sent me a bunch of books without covers! How tragic! Jonah is such a handsome fellow too. Weep.
Now if I’d followed the rules a little more carefully, I would have seen this:
“Open Other Side.” This particular rule existed for a good reason. If I wanted to see my covers.
But the rules accumulate so quickly, it’s hard to know which are hard and fast and get you closer to your goal (“This Side Up”) and which (“Open Immediately” and “Rush”) are more like friendly suggestions.
I think there are a few rules we can all agree on:
1. Know the rules so you can break them properly.
Breaking rules “properly” seems oxymoronic. But the jazziest freewheeling jam session can be ruined by one out-of-tune instrument, and even the wackiest concept car needs to actually carry a passenger from point A to point B.
2. Do nothing to get in the way of the story.
This includes haphazard or intrusive writing issues (from big picture elements like theme vs. preaching to line edit problems such as spelling and grammar) that might interfere with the reader’s enjoyment of the story.
3. Tend toward the clear and concise.
When I look at the books I put down (and the biggest difficulties in my own writing) I see that muddiness is often the deciding factor. Muddy writing leads to slogging. Clear and concise writing (not necessarily short; concise means free from superfluous detail) moves along.
Just like Tolkien had a lot of rings but only One Ring to bind them all, I think there is One Rule of Writing:
Compelling is a free pass past a lot of rules. Without compelling, even following every single rule gets you nowhere. What is compelling? Ooh, look, I’m out of space That’s a post for another day.
First off — Happy Release Day to Jessa!Vowed in Shadows officially hits the stores today. Although I make most of my purchases via Kindle these days, I think I’ll take a trip to the bookstore so I can see that hot cover in all its glory.
Okay, now that I’ve got you all pumped up, on to my blog topic for this week: editing.
I divide each book into two very distinct phases—the writing part and the editing part. For some people, writing is fun and editing is like pulling teeth. Not for me. Writing is hard, hand-wringing, blood-sweating work. During the writing stage, I leave the computer completely drained and notoriously cranky. I drink too much coffee and eat too much junk food.
But the editing phase is a complete turn-around. I love tweaking and tightening my prose to deliver more punch. I love finding a powerful verb to replace those seven adverbs. I love layering in emotion, conflict, and clues.
Almost everything about editing makes me feel good—except ripping out whole sections, which is rather like pulling off a large Band-Aid. Ouch. But I digress. There’s something very satisfying about the improvement process.
I use two books to help me edit my novels, both of which I highly recommend: