Thursday, September 29, 2011

Exploratory Draft Part Two

A while ago I blogged about calling my first draft an "exploratory draft". This idea came from Laini Taylor, who blogged about the same thing here.

Today I am revisiting the idea. I've wanted to write a post about this for a while, but I didn't feel like I'd come out to a place yet where I could.

The problem was letting go. I've finished a major rewrite. I've been working on developing an idea, but no matter how hard I tried the plot wouldn't come together. Suddenly I started to feel like a failure. I started to worry that the book, tradition urban fantasy, would just get lost among the hundreds of other urban fantasy books out there. 

Then I thought about my other ideas, the weird ones. The ones that are like urban fantasy but set on another planet. Or even weirder than that, the ideas that approach being considered cyberpunk. The little voice worried that a market would be hard to find for those ideas because they are so strange. And what if the book does well? I'd been stuck in the genre. 

Then of course the guilt set in, because I know I should not be worrying about agents and publishing at this stage; I should be focusing on the novel. 

This little cycle of emotions made me realize some things. First, writers are crazy and I am no exception. Second, my doubt masquerades itself as a reasonable voice only looking out for my future. Do you see what it did there? First my idea was too normal and then it was too weird. I couldn't win either way.

So I tried to get back to that feeling, of just having fun with an idea. Allowing myself to write a really, really crappy first draft. Of writing scenes I knew would never make it. Of exploring the idea.

It's not as easy as it sounds. There's a lot invested in the idea after all. And for me, I have to have some idea of the primary conflict before I head off into writing land. Otherwise the idea fizzles after a few scenes. 

I wish I could tell you that I had a magical breakthrough and the novel is now flowing off my fingertips like water from a stream, but that's not the case. I started something last night, but I don't know what the primary conflict is. I plan to spend time today figuring some basic things out, and hopefully I can start up again. 

The point is to just keep trying. You're going to enter weird slumps and phases of your writing life, and sometimes you have to get really creative with the solutions. 

Anyone have any horror stories to share? What about that nagging voice? How do you manage to ignore it enough to make it go away?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Brevity is the Soul of Wit

Chuck Wendig has a flash fiction challenge every Friday. He frequently picks out his favorite and gives them some sort of awesome prize, like one of his ebooks.

This week he's done something interesting: the limit is three sentences. Yes, he means for you to tell a story in three sentences. You can post your entry on his blog in the comments section, and or on your own blog.

You can read the entries in the comments section now, and it's really interesting to see what people do with just three sentences. 

It's made me analyze what goes into a story. What absolutely has to be there. Books are thousands of words long. At first I think, "Madness. You can't tell a real story in three sentences." But as I read though the comments section, where you post your entries, I realized you can tell a good story in just three sentences. It's amazing to look at a story at the barest bones. 

You'd think you need to load each sentence with words, description, action. But as I read through the entries, most of those stories don't work for me. It's too much detail. I can't hold it all in my head, and the story becomes muddled. 

Then you have the really simple sentences. "A boy was hungry. So hungry. He ate the world." It's a story, sure. Problem presented, problem solved. But there's nothing else to it. It doesn't leap alive in your head. It doesn't have movement and weight.

Read through some of those entries, and you'll get an entire story. It flows towards a conclusion, even in just three sentences. There's a quickening, the words paint a tale of more than just what's there. There's subtext, and most importantly to me, it feels complete. It's not just a quick character sketch. It feels like it's as long as it needs to be.

For someone who is long winded, this is an interesting revelation for me. What if after writing a rough draft, I told myself I had to cut X number of words from this chapter? This scene? This paragraph? How would I tell the story differently? How could I make my point without bogging the story down with needless words?

It's something I want to try in the future. Not cutting away the important pieces of the story, but challenging myself and really making sure that every single word needs to be there, is pulling it's own weight. 

What about you? What works and what doesn't for those very short stories?  

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Plot Your Way to a Bestseller!!!!

Guys, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we've been doing this writing thing ALL WRONG.

You know how we all keep toiling for years at our craft? Trying to shape an amazing idea into a well executed story that will win us both literary and commercial acclaim? Also, land us on the bestseller's list for three thousands years and earn a boatload of cash so we can retire to the tropical island we just bought?

But that "toiling away for years" thing sounds like a lot of work, am I right?

Lucky for me, I've found the solution. And since I am nice, I will share it with you.

Feast your eyes on the Genre-Fiction Generator 2000. *dramatic crash*

Go to that website, and pick out your plot. Write the book, and then the rest is in the bag! Easy!

I haven't decided on anything else yet, but I know my next novel is going to feature "the help of a female who inexplicably becomes attracted to the damaged protagonist for unstated reasons" and her "cleavage", "culminating in convoluted nonsense that squanders the reader's good will".

Feel free to share your future masterpieces in the comments section.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When Life Gives You Lemons

You often hear that writers should borrow from their personal lives (and sometimes the lives of others) to fuel their writing with a sense of reality. After all, truth is stranger than fiction. I've heard a lot of stories from people over the years, partially because I ask the right questions, and partially because most of the time people find me easy to talk to, so they are confessing things to me they say they've never told anyone before. 

I know this shared knowledge of pain, joy, anxiety, hunger, and ecstasy helps my writing. It helps me shape characters with realistic emotions and believable problems. But for me, the best occasions that I mine for emotional dept are my own experiences.

Saturday night I went to bed having some chest pain. I figured I was just sore from work, and went to sleep. When I woke up, the chest pain was still there. Worse, even. It started underneath my left breast and cut diagonally up to my left shoulder. It felt like someone was stabbing me with a knife, and I couldn't inhale deeply, cough, sneeze, or laugh without making the stabbing pain infinitely worse.

Since I am a writer, I went immediately to the worst case scenario. "I am having a heart attack. Pain in my left arm, classic heart attack. Or it's an ectopic pregnancy." (you're thinking, how can you have a normal pregnancy (where the egg is fertilized in the uterus) AND and ectopic pregnancy five months later? But my panicked brain was convinced I'd had twins and one got stuck in my fallopian tubes. It had now ruptured, and I was bleeding internally. This makes no sense, I realize that. But when you're having weird pain, your mind wanders. And in my case, sometimes knowledge just fuels the fire.).

But on the other side of the panic, was me thinking it was nothing. Pregnancy does really, really weird things to your body, and I know that. I didn't want to be one of those woman who freaks out when she has a slight twinge in her stomach. My body is doing it's werewolf impression: ligaments and muscles are stretching. I've gained weight, and I am a tiny person to begin with. So I also thought it was nothing. 

After talking to a friend of mine, I called my midwife's office. The midwife says to take some Pepsid AC and tums. Sometimes heartburn can manifest as chest pain. Heavens knows I've had some wicked heartburn lately; sometimes it feels like I've swallowed a volcano. She says wait two hours. If the chest pain hasn't gone away, then I need to go to the ER to get checked out.

See folks, chest pain is sort of a big deal in the medical community. There are plenty of normal reasons why someone might have chest pain, but there are also lots of immediately life threatening causes behind chest pain, a blood clot being at the top of the list. Especially in pregnant women, blood clots can be an issue because you literally have more blood in your system. You can increase your blood volume up to 50% of what you had prior to becoming a baby incubator.

Two hours later, it still feels like a knife has magically found it's way into my ribs. My best friend (who also happens to be a nurse, lucky me) takes me to the ER to get poked and prodded. The only upside to going to the ER is "pregnant" and "chest pain" gets you back pretty quickly. They take a bunch of blood, do a chest X ray, and then I get to sit and wait for the results. 

While we're waiting, the ER doctor comes back to tell me this blood test they've done to check the likelihood of a blood clot is almost always high in a pregnant woman, blood clot or not (it's back to that increased blood volume). In the event this test comes back positive, they will recommend a CAT scan. She then says that plenty of pregnant women who have had CAT scans give birth to healthy babies.

My brain completely stops at this point. I felt like I needed to press pause or something. Wait, what? She explains there's minimal risk to the baby, and even says she's pregnant herself. The risk of having a blood clot that will rupture and kill me is bigger than the risk of all that radiation and the dye they inject into my blood stream to see the blood vessels to the baby.

The doctor leaves and I proceed to cry. I was terrified. I was between a bottomless pit opening up to swallow me, and going numb. Suddenly I had this major decision to make. I hate making quick decisions like this, especially based on fear. How much of a risk is "minimal"? The same risk caffeine poses? Or the same risk, as say, crack cocaine? Crack addicts also give birth to perfectly healthy babies, as people like to tell me when I worry about something affecting the baby. But people, I am shooting a little higher than "baby born not addicted to crack".

I left a message with my midwife so I could find out more information, but the meantime was hell. I didn't want to hurt my baby. I also didn't want to be stupid and refuse some test that might find a blood clot. I also wondered what the chances that I actually had a blood clot versus the risk to the baby was. I would feel awful if it turned out I didn't have a blood clot, and I put the baby at risk for nothing.

It was awful to realize absolutely everything that happens to me happens to my little boy. I knew that already. It's why I am taking prenatal vitamins every though the fish oil makes my burbs taste way nasty. It's why I am avoiding tuna fish, sushi, and sweet tea. 

But those were all things I could personally control. I couldn't control these chest pains, they were just there.

Added to the confusion was my prior ER experiences. I've had great ER doctors. I also have TMJD and a few years ago when I yawned, my jaw dislocated itself (yes, that can happen. Fun thought!). I went to the ER where the doctor was CONVINCED it was a muscle spasm. No amount of me telling him I literally cannot close my jaw, and I know what a muscle spams feels like, made him believe me. He said wait three days and then see an Ears, Nose, and Throat doctor. He gave me some muscle relaxers (which did NOTHING) and some heavy narcotics for the pain (which made me hallucinate) in the meantime. So for three days, my jaw stays locked open. I go see the ENT guy who wants to know why the hell the doctor didn't send me right away, or to better yet, an oral surgeon who's job is to deal with TMJ.

So I also have this scenario playing out in my head as I weigh the risks and benefits of having a CAT scan while 5 months pregnant (for those of you wondering, the ENT doctor manually put my jaw back into place, which hurt like nothing I've ever felt before. I imagine labor will be worse, but until then...). 

The happy ending to this story is the blood test came back normal, despite my current state of baby incubating. So I didn't have to have a CAT scan. They figured I must have pulled something at work and told me to take it easy for a few days. 

It was awful to experience that sort of indecision, fear, and worry, but let me tell you, it makes great writing. You take experiences like I just had, and you give them to your character. She doesn't have to pregnant with a possible blood clot for it to work. I've never felt that mixture of protectiveness over my baby, anxiety, indecision, and fear before, but that doesn't mean a character wouldn't feel the same way when faced with a tough decision regarding her child, sister, mother, or best friend.

Likewise, you can go through your life. Did you ever make a really big, dumb mistake? How did you feel? How did you try to fix or cover that mistake? Have you gotten married? What did it feel like the exact moment you stood at the altar? Have you ever feel deeply in love with someone who didn't even like you? How did you deal with the joy of love and pain of loneliness at the same time? These are experiences that we've all felt in one way or another. You don't have to copy the exact event in your life to apply it to your character, because emotions are universal. Maybe your mistake played out okay in your life, but in the character's life it's just made everything worse.

Red Smith once said, "Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter, open up a vein, and bleed it out drop by drop."

I feel like that's what he meant. You take your life, your happiest moments, your deepest sorrow, your greatest pain, and you put that in words on the page. If you do it well enough, your reader bleeds along with you.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Link Salad

So for today I had this really awesome post planned about Spike, a character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and how cool he is, yet how badly they mess with his character.

But then Blogger ate it. 

I am still bitter, so I don't feel like retyping it. So instead, I noticed today there are some cool blog posts that really resonated with me as on the nose, or helpful, or just amusing. So, here are the links, but also my commentary.

1. Do You Limit Yourself? 

I have two people I thought of when I saw this post. I have a friend who likes to read, but is always complaining about the book she's reading. For some reason, she refuses to stop reading in the middle of the book if it still sucks. She will finish that book no matter what. 

I used to do that. I used to just have to find out what happened, even if the book was slow, boring, and poorly written. Now, I just don't have the time. I have too much other stuff demanding my attention, stuff I actually want to do. Also, she's the sort of person who won't watch a show because of the actor playing a minor character, and doesn't like to eat certain foods for various reasons that have nothing to do with how they taste. 

You know, that's her life. She is the only person who can live it, but sometimes I see how she allows her feelings and prior experience to taint possible new experiences. She reads a bad book in a certain genre, and suddenly she can't read that genre. 

What I try to do is allow myself to experience something new. Even if I've had a bad experience with it in the past. Because you never know.

Someday, I may even come to enjoy coffee.

2. Twisting in the Wind: Plotting Red Herrings

I love Janice's blog, but this post is especially helpful. Have you ever wondered how books and movies set up a twist ending that leaves you feeling excited and amazed? Well here, Janice talks about how you can achieve just that in your writing by using specific examples. 

3. Shouting from My Social Media Soapbox

Tawna Fenske is always funny on her blog, but today the post is funny and very helpful. If you feel like you're lost when it comes to social media, if you're trying to make it work for you but it's just not working, I would suggest checking out her post. Even for those of you who are bending Twitter and Facebook to your will might want to check it out. The advice is very simple, but extremely insightful. It really helped me gain perspective on the whole Twitter/Facebook/Blogging thing. 

And that's all I have for you today. Feel free to comment on the posts, or post your own links in the comments section. And have a happy Friday! I will be back complaining about Spike on Monday.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


So for the last few weeks I have been working on my next novel. I definitely need a break after that extensive rewrite, so it was time to work on a new project.

The idea came easily. The characters too. It's just this darned plot that I seem to be having troubles with. At first I was shocked, and then I thought something was wrong with me.

And then I realized it's just part of writing. We tend to forget how hard certain parts of the process are after we've moved on. Or we approach a new project with a "this time it will be magical" frame of mind. I know I do. I get so excited about my idea and the characters that when I stall out, it baffles me. 

"What a second? Wait...this is starting to feel like...yes, yes that's it...WORK."

But it is. As fun as writing can be, there's still a process. Even if you're a panster you still have to come up with the idea. You have to think about the characters, and then figure out how to start the book. Even if you sail through this, you're bound to get to a part in the middle where things start to feel like work. 

But that's as normal as feeling like your writing is blessed by the Book Fairies (they do so exist, and you can't tell me otherwise). If everyone who could make coherent sentences could write a book, there would be tons of them.

Funny slightly off topic observation: there are a lot of people out there who don't know how to write well.

I am not talking about perfect grammar and complex sentences. I am talking about writing a short paragraph that puts their ideas together in a coherent fashion that reads better than something a third grader could write. 

I noticed this when I started getting emails from people (not my writer friends, so no one out there feel guilty). These people from my everyday life know how to speak proper English. They are relatively intelligent, educated people. Yet when I received an email from them, it sounded like something a third grader might write.

Some of the mistakes are just my pet peeves. Over use of text-speak (lots of LOL!!!!!!!!!!!!! for example). Not capitalizing the first word in a sentence. Cramming the sentences together without rhyme or reason. 

But most of it was the way those sentences read. I don't know how else to describe it, other than it looked like something you'd write in third grade. At first I thought these people were just being lazy, but then it dawned on me: they didn't write a lot in their daily life. These are people who didn't have to write something longer than a grocery list in years, and now suddenly there's this magical email thing. 

And just because you can talk well, doesn't mean you're going to automatically be able to write well. 

All of this is to remind us that writing is a skill. It truly is. It's a skill we hone every time we write blog posts about Book Fairies, every time we think about our character's conflict, every time we, you know, write. 

P.S. I have valiantly checked, and rechecked, this post for typos. I always do, but since I was talking about writing skill it seemed extra important to make sure I didn't do something silly. Yet, it is early and I am so very tired. So I apologize for any typos in this post, and shall submit myself to the Grammar Police if there are any typos that escaped the purge. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

My Weekend... musical form. Make of it what you will. 

Besides, everyone needs a little extra epic in their Monday.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

That Day

I was in tenth grade. I walked into History class early, because my previous class was right next door. The teacher had the TV on, and after see the smoke and the buildings I thought it was part of the days lesson.

Until the teacher told me, no, this is happening right now. This is New York City. We sat and watched the entire period as the two towers fell. As we tried to make sense of what was happening. People with family in New York City left to call their parents; I felt guilty and relieved that my extended family lived two hours away. They were safe.

A lot of other people were not. 

We went to our next class. The TV was on, even though the principal officially said the TVs were supposed to be off, he didn't want to scare the children. We thought it was stupid; we were already scared, more scared than we had been in our lives.

People talked in clumps in the hallway. It was hard to really finish a thought or sentence. As the day wore on, we tried to think of other things. But it always came back to those two towers crumbling before our eyes.

I went to work after school, even though I didn't want to be there. I didn't know where I wanted to be; I felt numb, but I didn't want to be waiting on people. We were slow that night. I guess most people didn't want to leave their families. 

The entire day was like someone close and personal to every single one of us had died. It wasn't just the borrowed grief of the families who lost someone in the attack.

That day, we all had a loved one who died.

Our sense of security. Our innocence. Americans get a lot of grief for it, but there's no denying that we're raised to think we're the best. We're America; we kick ass and take names. We're invincible. We're going to live forever.

We found out otherwise on that day. 

Thank you for listening to my thoughts. I was luckier than some; I lost no one close to me. But that day I grieved with everyone as a sister. The people who lost someone, who gave up their lives so others could live, they are forever in my heart and mind.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why Your Main Character's Age is Important

I was talking with my friend Liz the other day about genres among other things like her cats, my baby, and our books. 

She mentioned the reasons why she enjoyed writing about YA. She included things like the main character having to deal with parents, and feeling like an adult and having responsibilities, but also being stuck as a kid in many situations.

Which got me thinking about why I like to write about main characters who are in their early twenties. I like writing about character who vividly remembers being in high school (or the fantasy equivalent thereof) but now they are considered adults. They are suddenly in charge of their own lives, but often feel really unprepared. In my experience, most teenagers don't spend a lot of time learning how to budget, how to balance their bank accounts, and don't actually realize how much stuff costs. 

They are in college or just starting their new job. As a senior in high school, you're at the top of the heap.

As a young twenty something, you're right back at the bottom.

Their love life can be tumultuous. Maybe they had some significant others in high school; maybe not. Maybe they are trying to reinvent themselves, as they realize no one no longer cares if you were the class geek or the captain of the football team. Maybe they still don't know what they want their career to be, and they're feeling a lot of pressure to figure it out soon. 

And their family. As a new adult, they are suddenly no longer bound by what their parents say (if they obeyed as teenagers), but there's a long history of obligation to do so. Some people still fall in lock step with what their parents want, while others go in the opposite route and rebel now (this seems even more likely if the new adult didn't rebel as a teenager, and is attending college). 

To me, writing about "new adults" has every bit as many interesting challenges and obstacles as writing about teenagers. It's just a different set of problems and expectations. 

And I don't think it stops there. Writing about a character who is thirty carries it's own host of expectations. It says as much about a thirty year old if he's still living in his parent's basement as it does if he is instead is married with 2.5 kids, one dog, and has a house with a white picket fence. 

Same goes for any character at any age. You can mine the age of the character for minor conflicts (or entire book ideas, a la Literary fiction) at any point. What's more, I feel like it makes the book a richer experience. I've read tons of urban fantasy where the main character is a woman in her late twenties, early thirties, but it feels forgettable. She has her own place, has a job, and might be dating, but there are no other markers of her age. It's forgettable.

Sometimes this is the desired result, but perhaps consider your character's age the next time you're writing. After all, why should the Young Adult authors have all the fun with the challenges that come with a certain age?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Happy Labor Day!

Happy also Not-in-Labor for me as well.  I keep whispering "labor day" in case my unborn son gets any ideas.

I should return to normal posting schedule this week. It's been crazy and hectic and my brain felt like a pile of mush. Rather than subject you to said brain-mush, I instead laid on the couch and vegged out.

Enjoy your probable day off (I have a half schedule today) and see you later!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The gender of my baby is......

a boy!

I now return you to your regularly scheduled Thursday evening. :D