It currently weighs in at about sixty-five thousand words -- a good five thousand below my goal. It's probably publishable at 65K, but it's definitely a little light, so I'll be looking to add those extra five thousand words during editing (that's about fifteen pages to you civilians).
It's quite a good feeling to have a draft, and I think the last scenes were some of the best. There are still a lot of problems with this draft, but that's something I can work out in revision. For now, it's time to celebrate!
- 1 (10 oz.) bag of spinach, torn
- 1 (16 oz.) container of strawberries, sliced
- Store bought raspberry vinaigrette +
- 1 spoonful raspberry jam
And those 15-18 pages are KILLING me! For some reason, I'm having the worst time trying to sit down and write them. Maybe it's that I'm afraid they won't be as awesome as I picture them in my head. Maybe I'm afraid of the revision stage that will follow as soon as I put the last word on the page. But whatever it is, I have run into some serious resistance.
So, I'm taking a day or two to reconnect with my love of writing.
The first thing I'm going to do is stop reading anything that feels like an assignment. Most of my reading material lately has been writing textbooks, period research, and successful novels in my genre. Well worth the time spent, but maybe not worth the loss of reading as a recreational activity. I'm going to make a trip to the bookstore and pick up a few books I want just for the pleasure of them.
We'll see if that makes a dent in the doldrums. If not, it should at least be fun.
"Why don't we skip the meal and just go right to the leftovers?"
It was brilliant. While we both enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, in our minds it is primarily a vehicle for acquiring a large quantity of leftover turkey with which to make sandwiches over the following week. So this year we bucked tradition, and as soon as Mark had carved that breast, the pieces were immediately designated "leftovers."
My best leftover turkey sandwich tip is one I learned from Friends. Soak a piece of bread in gravy, then put that in the middle of the sandwich. This gives you a nice juicy sandwich without letting any gravy seep out of the sides or, worse, soak through the bottom. Just be sure to use a piece of bread slightly smaller that what you're using for the sandwich itself. I used a drinking glass to punch out rounds that were slightly smaller than the hamburger buns I was building sandwiches on. A perfect fit!
Fast forward to the 2000's. (The Aughts? The Zips? How did we let this decade slip by without giving it a decent name?) Most of this language has now been downgraded to cutesy, juvenile slang. Problem is, my characters aren't supposed to sound cutesy and juvenile when they say it. They're, like, for serious.
So: opinions? Can the 20's slang, or stick it only in the mouths of characters who can reasonably be a little bit cute? Any ideas?
If you don't, you're luckier than me. That's how I feel pretty much every day when I sit down at the computer. And yet by the end of the day, I've managed to build some momentum; words are flowing, ideas are humming, and in general, all's right with the world. Fast forward to the next morning, though, and it's back to ho hum, morning already, say this game of solitaire looks fascinating.
So when I was browsing through Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit recently, my eye lit on one of the techniques she recommends: Building a Bridge to the Next Day. Basically, it means you develop some little trick or technique for carrying some of your creative energy from one day on into the next, thus sidestepping the morning blues.
Ernest Hemmingway famously never stopped writing until he was sure he knew exactly what was coming next. That was his way of carrying his energy forward. I'm not sure this would work for me, but I've developed a little trick of my own.
For the next two weeks, whenever I'm done for the day, I plan to write a little note to myself about what I'm looking forward to in the next day's work. Something I'm excited about, something I'm writing toward. The more specific the better: "Kitty learns she's Koko's guardian," perhaps, or "Kitty and Gallo nearly kiss."
I'll write the note on an index card. Then, for the rest of the day, I'll use that card as a bookmark. This should result in me touching it several times a day, and hopefully smiling and picturing the moment I'm writing toward. Then, if all goes according to plan, I'll sit down the next morning and all that anticipation and excitement will translate to a productive morning at the keyboard.
Maybe it'll work, or maybe it won't and I'll have to examine another method of bridge building. Either way it should be fun.
Step One: Two Defining Characteristics. They don't have to go together naturally. If possible, one of them should be a flaw.
The two Defining Characteristics for Kitty, my series protagonist, are Insightful and Self-Absorbed.
For Gallo, my series love interest, they are Curious and Solitary.
And for Fiore, my series antagonist, they are Romantic and Sadistic.
Step Two: Invent a Major Mannerism. This mannerism should be the direct result of at least one, or ideally both, Defining Characteristics.
Kitty's Major Mannerism: Manipulating people.
Gallo's Major Mannerism: Reading everything he can get his hands on.
Fiore's Major Mannerism: Well, this one is a pretty major plot point. Suffice it to say that it does in fact combine Romantic and Sadistic in what I hope is an interesting way.
Step Three: Color everything with a Mood. The Mood doesn't refer to the deep characteristics of their personality, but rather to their surface persona: how someone observing them from a distance might describe them. It isn't at all necessary for the Mood to be related to the Defining Characteristics; in fact, it can be pretty interesting if it's at odds with them.
Kitty's Mood: Ingenue
Gallo's Mood: Hard-boiled
Fiore's Mood: Refined
Step Four: Give the character a Unique Perspective. This is the way the character sees the world. It should be at some way at odds with reality. Giving two characters warring perspectives really amps up the potential for interesting interactions between them.
Kitty's Unique Perspective: It's all about the glitz and the glamour.
Gallo's Unique Perspective: Life is full of pain.
Fiore's Unique Perspective: I'm a good guy.
Step Five: All the rest. On top of this skeleton you layer additional characteristics, minor mannerisms, and quirks. Some of mine are:
Kitty: Loves hats, hates her figure
Gallo: Hates alcohol, takes obsessive notes
Fiore: Loves to eat, bullies his older brother
And there you have it: my character creation method. It's not perfect, and I don't even follow it exactly with every character. But it helps.
For help, I looked to Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, which was rated reasonably high on Goodreads. It had a bit of advice which every writer has heard before. I paraphrase: "Treat it like a job. Show up every day. Don't miss a day because of your other responsibilities; people in other industries work those in around their jobs, not vice versa."
And it had a bit of advice I hadn't heard before. Paraphrase: "Go ahead and be miserable. Take pride in it. Be proud to say, 'Yeah, I stuck it out in front of that keyboard, and it was a rotten, rotten, rotten day, but the work's done.' "
Now, for me this was a novel thought. Most of my efforts toward improving my work output have had to do with making myself happier at work, with making it a less painful process. Maybe I'd be happier with some cocoa. Maybe I'd be happier with a change of scenery. Maybe I'd be happier in the morning/afternoon/evening.
You wouldn't think it'd be so hard to be happy while fulfilling my lifelong ambition and dream, would you? And yet, so it is. There's the fear, for one thing. The fear that what I'm writing won't be good enough/successful/long enough/brilliant/worthy/etc. And then there's the fact that while spinning story ideas is fun, cranking them out on the page is often just hard work.
So I like the idea of embracing misery. It has a sort of macho, hardnosed appeal. The idea that it's ok to just sit down, and let the fear wash over me, and still Not. Get. Up.
Anyway, I'll be trying misery on for the next few weeks. At least until I get these final scenes cranked out. And if it works, who knows? I might be miserable for the rest of my life!
Or, at least, an idea that you thought was really good -- until the sleep haze wore off and you realized that the storyline that was so captivating in your dream doesn't... well... make any sense whatsoever?
This happens to me occasionally. I wake up thinking, OMG! This story is going to be awesome! I am so fantastic I am a virtuoso in my sleep!
Then, around noon, I start to spot some flaws. By late afternoon I'm a little embarrassed by my early enthusiasm. And by evening I'm like, "What was I thinking? A story about clown assassains? That would never work!"
Yep, usually it's a big bust. But the morning is fun. Like this morning, for example.
I had a sort of sci-fi dream about two girls, one of whom had used some sort of psycho-kinetical powers to leave the other girl in a permanently cloudy mental haze. I'm not sure why. It was one of those post-apocolyptic dramas, so presumably there were some compelling political reasons.
Anyway, Girl #1 (we'll call her Joan) had been captured by Girl #2's (Wanda's) allies. And they were trying to compel her to restore Wanda to mental health. It was slow going, though; Joan was resolute. But during her captivity, Joan and Wanda began to connect. So much so that Joan decided to go ahead and release the psychic hold -- even though she knew doing so would restore Wanda's previous personality and thus destroy their friendship.
As I write this, it's late afternoon, and the root of the idea still seems halfway solid. Basically, it's about what you could sacrifice for another person. We talk about sacrificing our lives for those we love -- but would it be somehow harder to sacrifice that person's love for you?
Whether anything will come of this idea, I don't know. It's not for a genre I usually work in. But I like the core of the idea, the emotional seed. And frankly, that's more than I usually get out of my dream epiphanies.
Seven Facts About Jane
1. My husband, Mark, is precisely nine months older than me. We like to joke that I was made for him.
2. I am not a creative writer. I am an analytical writer. Fun for me is not cutting loose and riffing on some crazy creative idea; it's analyzing what works, and why, and how to reproduce it. I like textbooks. I like Excel. I like saying things like, "The three elements necessary for an unforgettable character are.."
I read fiction with a very careful, critical eye. And if you sit down to watch TV with me, prepare to listen to me expound on the Principles of Story, at least a little bit.
3. I can't get enough reality TV. Wife Swap, 17 Kids and Counting, Boot Camp, Kept. No matter how pointless or how trashy, at some point, I've been addicted to it.
I think what I like best about reality TV is that it's TV that spurs conversation. Mark and I have had discussions about everything from parenting to management to the meaning of life in front of the tube.
My favorites are the really well judged contest shows, like Project Runway and Top Chef. And because I am analytical, I can tell you exactly why Tom Colicchio is the best judge evah!
4. I also can't get enough Remington Steele. You want to know the one person in America who actually bought Remington Steele on DVD? Yeah, that would be me.
5. I get wildly, if briefly, enthusiastic about all sorts of projects. In college, it was quilting. In my early marriage, it was orchid growing. (Dude, you can distill and mist and fertilize all you want, but those things are stubborn!) When we first moved into the house, it was upholstery. During the last season of Project Runway, it was fashion design. And currently it's sushi making.
I will read and research and pour my heart into it. And at some point, more than likely, I will just let it go. I know enough about myself at this point in life to enjoy the upswing, and not get too hung up on the inevitable downswing. It is just who I am.
6. I love living in the South. I really, really, really do. I love the food and the friendliness and the casual joy in life. And everything it between.
So if you make a comment about how stupid or racist you think Southerners are, I will give you a pained, tight smile to politely remind you who you're talking to. And nothing more will be said. But I will never forget your comment. And unless we're already close, I will never forgive you, either.
7. I eat bologna and mustard sandwiches. I know, I know. They sound gross. I'm gonna be honest with you: they kinda taste gross. But what can I do? They are my childhood flashback food.
And there you have it: seven facts about me. I'm supposed to tag someone else, but I don't really know anyone else who blogs, so... I guess I lose?
Over the past several months I’ve been toting my laptop out to the Borders and working there. It’s been a big win for me, productivity-wise. I don’t get distracted by the chores that need doing around the house. There’s no refrigerator to poke around in. And I’m about 100% less likely to curl up in a blanket, settle my computer in my lap, and drop off to sleep.
Problem is, the productivity bump is starting to taper off. Partly it’s that the novelty of the bookstore has worn off; partly it’s that I’ve discovered I can leech free wifi off the Applebee’s next door. I suppose I could consider moving down the street to the Barnes & Noble, where there’s no free wifi. But that would mean giving up Borders’ sweet hot chocolate with a ridiculous amount of crap on top for B & N’s slightly bitter hot chocolate with next to nothing on top. Bummer.
It would also mean giving up the relationships I’ve been cultivating with the Borders staff. These relationships aren’t exactly a linchpin of my social network, but they allow me to engage in some brief small talk when I hit a lull in my work, and to “rent” my café space on the cheap: I only buy drinks when I’m thirsty, instead of feeling obligated to pay into the coffers each time I visit.
I cultivated these relationships quite deliberately, mostly just by being nice, and by over-ordering slightly in the initial weeks, especially when the manager was in. After a few days, everybody working there knew my name, and now I think I’ve basically become their mascot, sort of a writer-in-residence. They ask me about the book, wish me luck, and when I come back after a few days’ absence, they tell me anecdotes about what I missed. I think I can count on being a "Staff Pick" if any of these people are still working there when my book comes out. And they’re nice guys; they often brighten my day.
Long story short, I’d hate to give all that up. So, the question is, do I have it in me to refrain from logging on to the web? Or is this another distraction I need to eliminate in my life, the same way I eliminated my household distractions by heading out to Borders in the first place?
"Honey, can you believe we've been married nearly six years? It seems like it was just yesterday. Wasn't it romantic? I was so happy and in love, just twenty-fi-... wait a minute."
I can't keep track of the passing years, but I can do basic math. Much to my sorrow. I thought I had made my peace with being 30, but losing a whole year right off the top like that really stings.
And of course it brings up the question of whether my life measures up to this new, adjusted number. It doesn't help that I'd already been feeling a touch... behind. At least in the career department.
I find myself looking at successful writers and saying, "Ok, sure, she's a huge success. But she's 38. I've got 8 (oops, 7!) years on her. I can still beat her!" And other such nonsense that shouldn't really mean a thing to me -- and yet somehow, in one insecure little part of my heart, does.
Because I've been responding to "What do you do?" with "I'm working on a novel" for a long time. And it sounds good and people act impressed, but there's a part of me that wonders "For how much longer?" How long can you really be "working on a novel" before you have to just go ahead and admit that you're a failure?
Never mind that it's the second novel, that I shelved the first one for good reasons, and that this one is immeasurably better. Never mind that it says things I've been trying to say for a long time. It ain't done, and it ain't published, and so in a very real way I don't have a career -- not yet.
And I'm 31. And it scares me a little.
One of the things that really makes it work is the trail of tension Patterson lays out for us. I don't just mean that the scenes are tense, I mean that whenever they aren't, there's a little bead of tension drawing us forward, making us read just a few more pages.
One example is when the protagonist, Alex Cross, begins his relationship with the love interest, Jezzie Flanagan. They swim in a hotel pool, chat, and begin to get to know each other. It's not uninteresting, but neither is it particularly tension-fraught.
But the reader already knows that when Alex gets up the next morning, he's going directly to the ransom payoff. So if you think you can put down the book during that pool scene, think again.
This happens over and over again in the book, turning it into something you're not too unlikely to read in one go. It may be an event we know is coming up, like the ransom payoff, the trial, or the hypnosis of the kidnapper. Or it may be an unanswered question: "What did she see that freaked her out?"; "Is someone working with the kidnapper?"; "What's his long term plan?" Patterson lets us know that there are things worth knowing, which he isn't telling yet.
And for me, at least, that's enough to keep the pages turning.
So I decided to mix in some Breakout Novels: books that were such a sensation that they rocketed the author to a spot on the bestseller list and a place in the common consciousness. And the one I've started with is... wait for it... Along Came A Spider, by James Patterson.
A bit of background here: when I attended a mystery writers' conference a couple years back, the words "James Patterson" were pretty much synonymous with "hack." They also worked their way into a number of pithy comments said with a raised eyebrow and a superior air, as in, "Sure... if you're James Patterson!" "Maybe... to James Patterson!" or the less common, "That's what James Patterson said!"
You get the idea. Now, a big reason for all this drama is that Patterson's prose... well, it ain't too good. And writers care about prose. We have to. But it shouldn't surprise any of us that readers often care more about other things, such as character and plot.
(The other reason I suspect is that Patterson is, in fact, wildly successful, far beyond most writer's wildest dreams. (And unfortunately we writers aren't above a little professional jealousy (especially when the person we're jealous of seems demonstrably worse than us (like Audrey Niffenger.))))
So I went into this book expecting, you know, not to be blown away by the writing. But just looking to identify that spark that made so many readers cleave to Patterson, that has made him a bestselling writer for the past sixteen years.
And I think it's the stakes. Quite simply, on every page we have gut-wrenching stakes. Children kidnapped, then killed, lawmen murdered. Patterson isn't afraid to turn up the heat. And those high stakes whisk me right along, so quickly that, on page 173, I hardly notice the poor prose anymore. I just want to find out what happens.
Is it the most exciting book I've ever read? No, not really. But the stakes are high, and that's what keeps me glued to it.
(These stakes are actually a little too high for me. I want to live in a world where great dangers are weathered successfully; a world where kids don't die. So this may be my last James Patterson for a while.)
... Laugh at the funny parts, I mean.
That's how I often feel about online gaming.
I kick the habit again and again, but it never seems to stay kicked. And every time I get into another online jag, it seems, for a brief shining moment as if I have finally managed that crucial integration. As though I won't decide to spend a beautiful day hunched over my computer, as though I won't get sunk into a tournament when I have a perfectly good book lying around.
Time to kick the habit again.
On a side note, how sucky was that last season of Sopranos? I knew it was going to be bad when four characters spent an entire scene sitting around talking about how one of the neighbor's kids drowned in a pool. The scene is shot in front of a lake, and one of the character's kids is off camera somewhere, playing on another part of the estate. Dread seizes the viewer with cold, icy fingers, and we all sat up a little straighter on the couch.
What happens at the end of the episode? Big ol' nothing. Much like the series finale.
One of the fun parts is trying to think of names for the scenes: names that are evocative enough that I can just read quickly through the list and recall the plot. Some I've come up with so far:
- Father, I Have Sinned
- Desperately Seeking Koko
- Save My Child!
- Can I Trust You?
- Whir, Whir, Whir, Whir, Splat!
Basically what really appeals to me about this book is its incredibly high standards. Your character must be not just good, but heroic. And not just any old time either, but in the first scene. I like that. This book is not about writing half-assed fiction. It's about holding yourself to the gold standard, and really pushing for everything you can give.
I really needed to catch up on my reading anyway. I have a massive backlog of things I need to read, including a deadly dull historical tome about regular life during the early part of the century (it's informative, but dry as dust).
Basically, I don't think I'm going to read anything NOT related to my book until it's done. Which is a shame, because I also have rather a backlog of things I'm itching to get at. But for now, if it's not relevant, it doesn't go on my nightstand.
I'm beginning the planning for Arc III, which will go from the mid-point to (nearly) the end. Arc IV is the climax and conclusion.
I'm optimistic about it. Things have been going very well lately, and I just thought of a new, wonderful twist...
I'm feeling so lucky; fifteen feet over and I'd be calling roofers right about now.
You can't learn about prose from watching television and movies, but you can learn about a lot of other things that are important to storytelling: pacing, tension, character, and more. And you can do it in far less time than you'd invest in reading a book. You can watch an entire movie every night if you want, and still have time to do the dishes. God, I love efficiency.
Plus, you can watch your friends and family respond to visual stories in a way you can't watch them respond to a book. I suppose you could sit near a reading friend and ask "What's so funny?" every time they chuckled, but there are two problems with that: (1) you'd never be able to detect their subtler responses and (2) you'd soon have no friends left to try it on.
But you can certainly invite your buddies over for a movie night, and pop in a couple of flicks that you have seen but they haven't. Then watch them as they lean into the screen, gasp in dismay, or get bored and decide to go make popcorn.
I recommend low lighting for this, and a seating arrangement that does its best to disguise your true motives. After all, people watching is at its best when the watchee doesn't know he's being watched.
Here's how it works: you list the books you want to give away. People request them, and you mail them out. Then you receive points, with which you can request the books that other people have listed.
Looks like I've finally found a home for that copy of The Other Boleyn Girl.
You can search for popular baby names by decade, birth year, and (to a smaller extent) state, meaning that you can get a list of suitable character names based on when and where your character was born. Useful!
I've posted the best of our Morocco pictures on Flickr. You can click the "Slideshow" icon in the upper right to view it as a slideshow.
If you haven't already heard the story, it goes like this: Carnegie Mellon has a lecture series of long standing called "The Last Lecture," in which it invites faculty members to give a lecture on any topic that has meaning to them. "If you could give one more lecture before you die," the rhetorical prompt asks, "what would it be?"
Except for Dr. Randy Pausch, computer science professor and father of three, it's not so rhetorical. He has been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, and has less than one year to live.
The resulting lecture is a work of such joy and optimism that it has created an internet movement. "Inspirational" is a word we've quit using here in the 21st century, but it's the right word for Dr. Pausch's final work.
I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book, or watch the lecture itself. It may just make your day.
I'm talking about pain. Well, pain, and a few other emotional situations that amp up the stakes and get the reader's blood pumping. They are:
I came to care about John Locke quite deeply in the very first episode about him. It wasn't particularly because of anything he was, or anything he did.
It was simply that I saw how much he was hurting--from the loss of his ability to walk, from his inability to hold onto a relationship with a woman who didn't really think of him as her man. And it broke my heart. And ever since then, I have been on his side--even at times when he's done some pretty crazy things.
Okay, so all the characters on Lost are in nearly constant jeopardy. But since we'll have to be more specific for this exercise, we'll talk about Kate. Kate is in near constant jeopardy, especially in her flashback sequences, when she's practically always running from the law. Watching her in deadly jeopardy, not knowing exactly what's going to happen to her, is a thrilling--and moving--experience.
Watching Charlie struggle to overcome his heroin addiction has been similarly moving. Even though he often made the wrong choices--when he hid the heroin filled statues, when he stole his girlfriend's heirloom for drug money--I was watching that struggle and feeling very attached to him. When the character struggles, it gives the reader something to root for--a way to get engaged.
Back to Locke here. In the episode where we learn that his own biological father had perpetrated a devastating con on him, I could have wept for Locke. Sure, it was the pain of the situation, but it was also the sheer bloody injustice of it. It was wrong, dammit! Wrong! I was able to get righteously indignant on the character's behalf, and never had I felt more engaged with him.
All the characters on Lost have complicated storylines, with frequent doses of pain, jeopardy, struggle, and injustice, which is one of the reasons it's such a gripping show. We can't watch these people without feeling for them--without coming to love them.
While a character can have any number of virtues, there are a few that are nearly universally essential. These break down into two categories: Capability and Good-Guyness.
If your character is capable, he can get things done. The main virtues in this category are:
- courage (the character acts, even when scared)
- cleverness (the character can figure out what he should do), and
- a sense of responsibility (the character doesn't look for somebody to pass the buck to).
Your character may have a hard edge and some serious character flaws, but the reader has the sense that, deep down, he's just a good guy. For me, for me, is comprised of two things:
- fair-mindedness (the character judges all others equally--though not necessarily kindly or respectfully)
- compassion for the weak (the character will not stand for seeing the little guy beaten down)
There are exceptions to everything, of course, and each of these qualities has a well-known and much-beloved character who lacks it. But, in general, I believe these virtues are the cornerstone to building a character readers can love.
We love characters not for their virtues, but for their flaws.
Imagine if you will a light beaming down from heaven and illuminating the world around you, while simultaneously an angelic chorus lifts their voices in a melodic "Ahhh!" That's about how I feel about this statement. It's the thing that makes everything click for me.
It's why I smile when Remington Steele does something shamelessly lazy, when Amelia Peabody blithely ignores anyone's viewpoint but her own, or when Kelli Copur of The Office says something brainlessly ditzy and self-absorbed.
The next time you find yourself smiling about a character, in a book or on TV, ask yourself whether that character is being good -- or being bad? I'm willing to bet it'll be the latter a good 75% of the time.
This doesn't mean that a character doesn't need virtues, or that we don't like those virtues when we see them. If flaws are what causes you to love the character, virtues are what make this love possible in the first place.
Or, if flaws are the chocolate in your triple layer fudge cake, virtues are the flour. Not wildly exciting, but boy would you miss it if it were absent.
- Create map of 1928 landmarks
- Research Eastern religions
- Research 1920's gangsters