Archive for the 'Craft' Category
Tuesday, January 1st, 2013
It’s New Year’s Day. As is tradition, we eat black-eyed peas and cabbage. The husband is in the kitchen with the peas in the pressure cooker and putting together Smitten Kitchen’s cabbage roll-ups (minus the parsnip because I didn’t have any, plus jalapeno and ancho peppers, feta and parmesan cheese). (On Sunday, I made Deb’s Jacked-Up Banana Bread (minus the bourbon which I did not have) and it was great! I’m noshing on a chunk while I type this!) The smells coming out of the kitchen… Mmm-mmm. There’s a reason I married this man. :) Oh, and now he’s making pecan pie (registration required to view that recipe, sorry)!
The last several months have been insane around here, so there has been no blogging, very little posting to Facebook, and only recently have I been active on Twitter after taking a break. There were SO many family things happening, immediate family, extended family, that I’ve had time for nothing but work. Almost no TV or movie watching (though we did see The Hobbit), and very little reading at all (finished The Quiet Game (LOVED all 640 pages) and am currently loving The Survivor by Gregg Hurwitz).
I’m working on BENEATH THE PATCHWORK MOON, the second Hope Springs book, and I finished UNFORGETTABLE, the third book in the Dalton Gang series. Everyone here is fine, but I’ve been inside too many hospitals lately, visiting folks following surgeries. And I did every bit of my Christmas shopping online this year because I’ve been nursing an injured knee now for weeks and walking sucks. And that sucks because I’d been walking three or four miles a day when I hurt it. And the suckage increases because this is the best time of year for walking because there is no risk of heat stroke!
While waiting for the fireworks to die down last night, I read a sample of a new romance, one by a very popular author readers love. The sample bothered me a lot. If the book was edited, it was done poorly. If it wasn’t, well, I won’t even go there. Yes, we all miss things. I don’t read my finished books for this very reason. But this was no more than ten pages, and these ten pages should’ve seen copious use of a red pen.
Obviously, this author is a great storyteller because readers eat her up, but as a reader and as an author, I want great storytelling done with clean, exacting, polished prose. I strive for that in my own work, though I know I don’t always succeed. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of my first sale, and yet I am still learning how to write with every word I put on the page. Which brings me to the piece I’ve been posting every New Year’s Day now for seven years. I love this piece, what it says about craft, about reading everything (ergo, my midnight sample) with “grinding envy or weary contempt.”
This is John D. MacDonald’s introduction to Stephen King’s NIGHT SHIFT. Enjoy!
I am often given the big smiling handshake at parties (which I avoid attending whenever possible) by someone who then, with an air of gleeful conspiracy, will say, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to write.’ I used to try to be polite.
These days I reply with the same jubilant excitement: ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to be a brain surgeon.’
They look puzzled. It doesn’t matter. There are a lot of puzzled people wandering around lately.
If you want to write, you write.
The only way to learn to write is by writing. And that would not be a useful approach to brain surgery.
Stephen King always wanted to write and he writes.
So he wrote Carrie and Salem’s Lot and The Shining, and the good short stories you can read in this book and a stupendous number of other stories and books and fragments and poems and essays and other unclassifiable things, most of them too wretched to ever publish.
Because that is the way it is done.
Because there is no other way to do it. Not one other way.
Compulsive diligence is almost enough. But not quite. You have to have a taste for words. Gluttony. You have to want to roll in them. You have to read millions of them written by other people.
You read everything with grinding envy or a weary contempt.
You save the most contempt for the people who conceal ineptitude with long words, Germanic sentence structure, obtrusive symbols, and no sense of story, pace, or character.
Then you have to start knowing yourself so well that you begin to know other people. A piece of us is in every person we can ever meet.
Okay, then. Stupendous diligence, plus word-love, plus empathy, and out of that can come, painfully, some objectivity.
Never total objectivity.
At this frangible moment in time I am typing these words on my blue machine, seven lines down from the top of my page two of this introduction, knowing clearly the flavour and meaning I am hunting for, but not at all certain I am getting it.
Having been around twice as long as Stephen King, I have a little more objectivity about my work than he has about his.
It comes so painfully and so slowly.
You send books out into the world and it is very hard to shuck them out of the spirit. They are tangled children, trying to make their way in spite of the handicaps you have imposed on them. I would give a pretty to get them all back home and take one last good swing at every one of them. Page by page. Digging and cleaning, brushing and furbishing. Tidying up.
Stephen King is a far, far better writer at thirty than I was at thirty, or forty.
I am entitled to hate him a little bit for this.
And I think I know of a dozen demons hiding in the bushes where his path leads, and even if I had a way to warn him, it would be no good. He whips them or they whip him.
It is exactly that simple.
Are we all together so far?
Diligence, word-lust, empathy equal growing objectivity and then what?
Story. Story. Dammit, story!
Story is something happening to someone you have been led to care about. It can happen in any dimension – physical, mental, spiritual – and in combinations of those dimensions.
Without author intrusion.
Author intrusion is: ‘My God, Mama, look how nice I’m writing!’
Another kind of intrusion is a grotesquerie. Here is one of my favourites, culled from a Big Best Seller of yesteryear: ‘His eyes slid down the front of her dress.’
Author intrusion is a phrase so inept the reader suddenly realizes he is reading, and he backs out of the story. He is shocked back out of the story.
Another author intrusion is the mini-lecture embedded in the story. This is one of my most grievous failings.
An image can be neatly done, be unexpected, and not break the spell. In a story in this book called ‘Trucks,’ Stephen King is writing about a tense scene of waiting in a truck shop, describing the people: ‘He was a salesman and he kept his display bag close to him, like a pet dog that had gone to sleep.’
I find that neat.
In another story he demonstrates his good ear, the ring of exactness and truth he can give dialogue. A man and his wife are on a long trip. They are travelling a back road. She says: ‘Yes, Burt. I know we’re in Nebraska, Burt. But where the hell are we?’ He says: ‘You’ve got the road atlas. Look it up. Or can’t you read?’
Nice. It looks so simple. Just like brain surgery. The knife has an edge. You hold it so. And cut.
Now at risk of being an iconoclast I will say that I do not give a diddly-whoop what Stephen King chooses as an area in which to write. The fact that he presently enjoys writing in the field of spooks and spells and slitherings in the cellar is to me the least important and useful fact about the man anyone can relate.
There are a lot of slitherings in here, and there is a maddened pressing machine that haunts me, as it will you, and there are enough persuasively evil children to fill Disney World on any Sunday in February, but the main thing is story.
One is led to care.
Note this. Two of the most difficult areas to write in are humour and the occult. In clumsy hands the humour turns to dirge and the occult turns funny.
But once you know how, you can write in any area.
Stephen King is not going to restrict himself to his present field of intense interest.
One of the most resonant and affecting stories in this book is ‘The Last Rung on the Ladder.’ A gem. Nary a rustle nor breath of other worlds in it.
He does not write to please you. He writes to please himself. I write to please myself. When that happens, you will like the work too. These stories pleased Stephen King and they pleased me.
By strange coincidence on the day I write this, Stephen King’s novel The Shining and my novel Condominium are both on the Best Seller List. We are not in competition for your attention with each other. We are in competition, I suppose, with the inept and pretentious and sensational books published by household names who have never really bothered to learn their craft.
In so far as story is concerned, and pleasure is concerned, there are not enough Stephen Kings to go around.
If you have read this whole thing, I hope you have plenty of time. You could have been reading the stories.
Thursday, May 10th, 2012
I can’t even tell you how much I love this PowerPoint slide show about book beginnings. Let me count the ways:
1) Common 1st Page Troubles: Backstory, Info Dump, Character Dump
2) Biggest Bad Advice: Start with “action”
3) Action But No Character: Offers an action scene for the sake of excitement, but without any connection to the real plot, conflict, or story arc
4) Parting Wisdom: Writing is rewriting
5) Resources: ANYTHING by agent Donald Maass
Monday, March 14th, 2011
I had a wonderful time on Saturday at my local RWA chapter’s meeting. I love visiting with old friends and meeting new. I got to hear Robyn DeHart talk about building characters, and it was as if she was describing the way I work to a T. No multi-page character charts. No interviews or questionnaires. Just discovering what I need to know FOR THE BOOK, most especially the goals, motivations, and conflicts.
During her talk, she mentioned that she tends to write the same type of character (heroine) over and over. I don’t remember exactly what she said, something about librarians, but it was funny. :) She also asked everyone to think about their own body of work, and look for their own common thread or theme, that we most likely all have one.
I’ve actually been doing that a lot lately with my own projects because similarities have been popping up like whac-a-moles. I’ve written several stories where the hero or the heroine build things, furniture, houses, or sew, or bake, or garden, and the theme is often crafting a family together, a patchwork extended group that is more closely knit than any of its individual members are to their own blood relatives.
Robyn also discussed the character arc, and she broke it down so simply that it was like a light bulb going off. She said at the beginning of the book, the character has an “error in thinking,” and by the end of the book, the character has “learned a lesson” or corrected that error. And wow. That really struck a chord. Especially since I just finished writing a synopsis where several characters had BIG errors in thinking, heh.
This is why after forty-something published works and many unfinished ideas, I still love listening to authors talk craft. Yes, we talk a lot about the market and what’s selling, and about promotion and what works, but in the end, none of that matters if the craft isn’t there to support the book. I can’t remember ever sitting in a craft session and not coming away with a tidbit to use, a trick to try, a way to look at something I’ve never before considered. Craft is everything. I want to say books live or die by craft, which should be the case, though I have read some which are very popular and yet could have been SO much better had the author delved deeper.
In a recent post at Tess Gerritsen’s blog, author Julia Spencer Fleming talked about having three years between releases in her Clare Fergusson series, saying:
Here’s the thing: I think it’s one of the best novels I’ve written. (It’s not the perfect, Platonic-ideal book in my head, but they never are.) Those extra months gave me the luxury of expanding the story, to look into every nook and cranny of the characters’ lives. Then, I had still more time to pare it down and polish it to a shine.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful piece of writing,” my agent said when I turned it in. “Just please, don’t take so long next time. They want a book a year.” I know they do. And I need to get back on that merry-go-round. It gets hard, reintroducing yourself every three years. But still, I can’t help but realize I couldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t taken all that time. And I wonder, what stories aren’t getting told because of that book-a-year clock ticking away.
Let me emphasize that last bit: And I wonder, what stories aren’t getting told because of that book-a-year clock ticking away. Something to think about, isn’t it? And that’s in hardcover mystery/suspense/thriller. In romance, authors are writing three, four, five books a year. It boggles to think what isn’t getting told. Sigh.
Friday, February 11th, 2011
Here’s the thing, and it’s true, and a lot of creatives don’t like to hear it, or admit it, or accept it, but that doesn’t make it any less the way of things. We don’t like knowing those morning donuts we enjoy so much will pack on the pounds if we keep eating them, and we don’t like being reminded by said pounds that the treadmill is our friend. Truth is truth. Facts are facts. And here is a fact some folks have problems accepting:
Books are a product. As with any product, when they leave the producer’s factory, they belong to the consumer who has paid for them. The consumer can do anything with them he wants. Say anything about them he wants. Books are not sacrosanct. Books are not above reproach. Yes, books are art, but so are Picasso’s paintings. If a consumer wished to buy one and allow his child to fingerpaint on top, that’s his right.
Here’s something else. The author cannot dictate the reading experience. Oh, she can try. She chooses carefully the words she hopes will evoke what her mind’s eye sees, what will draw forth from readers the emotions she herself experiences during the creative process. But she can only try. Reading is not the author’s purview.
Reading belongs to the reader. And no reader can see what the author sees, feel what the author feels. Listen to readers discuss books if you don’t believe me. All can enjoy a story, but the take away can be different for each. While one sees a story of redemption, another sees a character whose crime was too heinous for forgiveness.
A reader brings her own prejudices and preferences to a book. And no matter how well-crafted a story is, no matter how highly an author thinks of her creative effort, the end product is meant for the consumer, and the consumer determines its success or failure. It’s like two diners sharing a dish of pasta. One loves the cheesy goodness. One loves the blend of spices that season the sauce. The chef can only do his best for the dish. He can’t control the reactions of those who order and indulge.
And he shouldn’t want to, no more than an author should want to control those of a reader. An author can only do her best for the book. Saying a reader “just didn’t get it?” Please. How arrogant. First of all, if a reader didn’t get it, the author failed somewhere along the way. But seriously. See above. Again. The author cannot dictate the reading experience. Again. Reading belongs to the reader.
The reader has every right to her opinions. And opinions can change. I’ve seen readers admit they didn’t give a book a fair shake because of things going on in their lives at the time of reading, and a second read at a better time turned it into a fave.
Books are products. Books are NOT babies. We love them as we create them. We nurture them along. End of shaky comparison. If a dish does not please a diner, she sends it back, or she posts a review to make other diners in the area aware of the problems she had. If a book does not please a reader, she returns it (yes, some do) or she blogs about it to let other readers know why it didn’t work for her.
Readers are not stupid people. Just as a diner searching for restaurant reviews can tell the difference in a mention of a dish being too soggy or salty and a posting that says, “This restaurant SUCKS like rotten eggs,” a reader can tell the difference in a well thought out analysis of a book’s shortcomings and a posting that say, “This book SUCKS like rotten eggs.” And who’s to deny a diner who loves soggy and salty from giving said review five billion stars? Reviews are for consumers, not for creators.
Do I read mine? Sometimes. I get Google Alerts for my name, sure. I may read and smile, or read and frown, but that’s it. I wrote the book. I did my best. The only time I’ll challenge a review is for revealing spoilers. Beyond that, it’s out of my hands. I’ve sent my
baby product out into the world. Now it’s up to readers and their word of mouth to give it legs – or to bury it before it does more harm than good. ;)
Thursday, September 9th, 2010
I’ve been writing on a new project, and it’s going well enough, but something about it has always felt a little . . . distant, I guess. Like I was outside looking in instead of telling the story through the eyes of the characters. Though, really, it was just one character giving me trouble. The other two viewpoints zinged. I loved writing their scenes. And I loved writing most of the third character’s scenes, too, but they didn’t feel right. Which, in a way, is okay. This character is the one with the most at stake, the most to come to terms with, so she’s not exactly comfortable in her own skin as the story opens.
Then I got to a scene where her shell cracks a bit, and I still wasn’t warming up to her. And after about four days spent writing around this scene, rather than diving in – and it’s not even a particularly emotionally draining scene – I realized her name was all wrong. It was too stiff and formal and old-fashioned. Or something. I thought it was perfect when I started. I did see her as someone who set herself apart. Not because she thinks herself better than others, but because she doesn’t know how to fit in. Part of me says I should leave the name and show how she can . . . not grow into it exactly, but not let it define her either. She needs to own it and mold it to fit who she is. Except the minute I changed it, she warmed up.
Giving my characters their names is the first thing I do when I start a project. Naming them opens their personality. They’re no longer blank slates. They have a history. Someone in their past gave birth to them and thought this name would see them through their lives. (Yes, I know they’re imaginary, but it’s what I do.) So to change a character’s name 15K words into a project . . . it’s not like me, and yet, it’s the only thing I could do in this case. I can see her and understand her now that she’s more approachable. I want to tell her story. I get her now and am excited to finish this scene.
If you write, how do you feel about character names? I had to change the name of Trey Davis in A LONG, HARD RIDE and that was tough. Obviously, I got through it, but it wasn’t easy. This one was more so. And it’s been an interesting lesson!
Thursday, September 2nd, 2010
Conventional writing wisdom advises authors to write their story and use the “to come – TK” reference to mark places in their manuscripts requiring research for period details, or for facts to ground the reader in the setting, or for directions on how to do something or get somewhere, or even for added political or societal verisimilitude.
The thought is to get the bones of the story down, and to fine tune during the editing stage. To not let the trees get in the way of the forest. I can’t argue with the fine tuning part, but in some cases, I disagree that the research can be woven in later.
It makes the husband nuts that I can’t get the words down until I know what seem to be trivial tidbits. (Most recently I spent an afternoon researching wool and weaving.) Just write it, he says, as so many others do. Fill in what you need once you’re done.
Thing is, so much of the research I do isn’t something that can be added in later. Instead, it flavors the story from the beginning, and drives much of the forward motion. Especially when said details are at the core of world-building. It would be impossible for me to write without knowing everything I can about my world, whether that world is an alien spaceship, local law enforcement, or wool and weaving.
This isn’t a big deal if you’re one who doesn’t mind getting to the end and having to rework everything you’ve done because a single missed detail negates everything that’s gone before. But I can’t work that way. My story becomes etched in my mind as it develops, and reworking it from the ground up . . . well, I might as well write something completely new. The husband is seeing some of that now as he helps me work out the logistics on a project. If we don’t get the details right from the get go, the whole thing will fall apart because of faulty science and / or logic.
What about you? If you write, when do you do your research? Do you line it all up before you start? Do you mark places to add details? Do you stop as you’re writing to find out what you need to know to make a scene work?
Tuesday, July 13th, 2010
Earlier today on Twitter, Lynn Griffin, author of Sea Escape, asked:
Writers–what novels or books on craft see you through when the writing gets tough?
We all have our favorite craft books, but I really loved how she used novels to illustrate what they’ve helped her with. Here’s her list (though she may have added more after I grabbed these):
For theme and use of symbols I turn to John Irving’s PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY
For strong execution of multiple points of view, I turn to THE HISTORY OF LOVE by Nicole Krauss
For anchoring my novel premise to my character’s transformation, I turn to BETWEEN THE LINES by Jessica Morrell
Writers-Looking for great characterization through use of dialogue? COAL RUN by Tawnie O’Dell
For scenes layered with subtlety, EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE by Margot Livesey
So I got to thinking. What romance novels / novelists, do the genre writers turn to to be inspired? Jennifer Crusie for great banter? Barbara O’Neal for her way with words? I was once told by a friend who is also a creative writing teacher:
I think one of your greatest strengths as a storyteller is social commentary. (…) I have always believed you have a particular ear for capturing a contemporary pulse – whatever it is that lends a certain time its flavor and uniqueness.
I like the idea of bringing that to the table. ;)
Who do you think is great at what they do? Whose novels do you turn to and what do you take away from their work?
Tuesday, June 29th, 2010
Originally posted May 13, 2009
Today at Paperback Writer, Lynn Viehl is talking about poetry and Sage Cohen’s book WRITING THE LIFE POETIC. I know next to nothing about poetry, not about iambic pentameter or modernist and post-modernist, though I do love me a good Haiku and for awhile was Twittering in Haiku form. That said, PBW’s post reminded me of my discovery of Kim Addonizio. Her work is gritty and raw and real, and it’s the same tone that I find in many of my favorite fiction authors, where prettiness isn’t used to cover up the truth, but potent words are used to convey it.
Since I’m such a blogging failure these days, I thought I’d share a couple of her poems that are available online at Poets.org and PoemHunter.com, and urge you to check her out. (Disclaimer: The poems aren’t necessarily included in the covers of the volumes shown. I just grabbed those for illustration purposes.)
You Don’t Know What Love Is
You Don’t Know What Love Is
but you know how to raise it in me
like a dead girl winched up from a river. How to
wash off the sludge, the stench of our past.
How to start clean. This love even sits up
and blinks; amazed, she takes a few shaky steps.
Any day now she’ll try to eat solid food. She’ll want
to get into a fast car, one low to the ground, and drive
to some cinderblock shithole in the desert
where she can drink and get sick and then
dance in nothing but her underwear. You know
where she’s headed, you know she’ll wake up
with an ache she can’t locate and no money
and a terrible thirst. So to hell
with your warm hands sliding inside my shirt
and your tongue down my throat
like an oxygen tube. Cover me
in black plastic. Let the mourners through.
What Do Women Want
I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.
Tuesday, May 18th, 2010
So one day last week I opened my email program to find a note that said, “Check out your new cover!” I had no idea The Icing on the Cake was getting a new cover treatment, but after consultation with buyers, including Borders’ Sue Grimshaw, it was decided the look needed to be heated up a bit, and apparently brides make for good sales. And this time instead of cookies, there are cupcakes!
What do you think? You can click for a larger version, and the original’s still on the left sidebar and I’ll get to replacing that soon. In other news, I’m not doing much, heh. I’m reading a LOT, as you can see from my right sidebar. Or I guess it’s a lot for me. Now that I’ve got the iPod Touch and my new HTC HD2 phone with a B&N ereader (first book to download, Sarah Addison Allen’s THE GIRL WHO CHASED THE MOON) I can plop down and read anywhere without worrying about light. We’ve entered the monsoon season here on the Texas Gulf Coast, so taking print books to the backyard isn’t feasible. I’ll get back to my massive print library at a later date, but for now I’m doing all my reading electronically. Yes, me. The person who said she would never read digital books. I’ll talk soon about my two reading devices and what I’ve been reading.
On the writing front, well, yeah. There’s some of that. I’ve got a project on submission, and am working on a big fat synopsis on another and am not loving that part, but since I wasted time and words starting that book in the wrong place, I accepted the fact that I’ve got to write the synopsis or all my twists and turns will be limp linear lines. It won’t be a super detailed synopsis, but I’m determined to work out more of my characters’ arcs than I’ve done in the past. And there will be surprises, though obviously they won’t surprise me since I will know them in advance, heh, but a recent rejection on another project pointed out my narrative trajectory was too predictable, so I’m working on that. All these years in, and I’m still learning how to write a book!
BTW, here’s a really good synopsis writing article.
The biggest mistake most people make when they try to write a synopsis for the first time is to create a bare bones plot summary, along the lines of “First this happens, then this happens, then this happens…” Synopses written this way tend to be so dry and boring even the author would have trouble understanding why anyone would want to read the full novel.
Imagine, for example, if a sports writer described a hockey game as “First one team scored. Then the other team scored. Then the first team scored twice. Then the game ended.” Pretty boring, yes?
What makes a hockey game or a novel mesmerizing is not a step-by-step description of what happens, but the emotions that accompany the actions, the anticipation, fear, hope, excitement, and disappointment at each turn of events. The elation of victory at the end, or the agony of defeat. It is the emotional twists and turns that make a novel or a hockey game appealing. Just as a good sports writer can describe a game in terms that capture the emotions, the secret of how to write a synopsis is to incorporate the emotional twists and turns of your characters – especially your main character – at the same time as you describe your sequence of plot events.
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