Thursday, September 6, 2012
What really matters: Today I wrote 1201 words and reached 70.7% of the way through this draft. (This sounds good, but I think by the time I finish, the point at which I currently am will actually be about 30% into the novel. I have got a lot more words to write and even more to excise. I'm trying not to think about this.)
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Saturday, August 18, 2012
On one hand, if you're consistently putting out a thousand words a day, you know that you're definitely not becoming stagnant and passive as a "writer."
On the other hand, quite frequently when I follow that advice, what I write (often vast chunks of thousands and thousands of words) just end up getting tossed. That's what's going to happen to everything I wrote in the last couple weeks before I decided I was wasting my time and spent three days reading HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD THRILLER instead of writing a word. Then I put the book down, replotted, started writing again, and now I'm back on track.
Did I waste all those hours, like a snake swallowing its tail? Maybe. I'm leaning toward yes. Hard to say.
Thursday, August 16, 2012
Anyway, he's having a contest: ARCs. I love ARCs and I never seem to win them. (In fact, the basis of my desire to become a published author is to become part of the regular ARC-exchange community.) Check out the contest. I'd ask you not to enter, but that's not very sporting of me, so I'll take my chances.
Awesomeness is here: http://www.robisonwells.com/2012/08/the-big-three-arc-contest/
Saturday, July 28, 2012
Friday, July 20, 2012
Saturday, June 30, 2012
As it happens, I'm reading Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz, who is pretty much the master of relentless pacing, and one thing I've noticed about his book is that the action is extremely compressed. My action is often slow and spread out because I want my book to be realistic, and in reality, major events rarely happen on the same day as each other; characters usually dink around before they get around to doing things; and important discoveries usually occur over time rather than at the most convenient, interesting moment.
But let's take a look at what happens in the first 24 hours of Odd Thomas.
I MEAN IT. LOTS OF SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVEN'T READ ODD THOMAS, YOU SHOULD REALLY LEAVE THIS POST AND GO GET THE BOOK RIGHT NOW. IT'S QUITE GOOD.
AND MORE SPOILER WARNING . . .
'Nuff said? Okay, then.
In the first 24 hours of the book, Odd Thomas identifies a child killer, chases him through a house, saves another child, and turns the killer over to the cops. (That's in the first hour of his day.) Then he slings hash for several hours. Then he spots a suspicious character, breaks into his house, and discovers a portal to hell and the character's shrine to mass murderers. He reports that to the cops, and then he sees the suspicious character again and tries to chase him down, picks up his girlfriend for dinner, gets chased from a church by a rampaging poltergeist, gets engaged, tucks his girlfriend into bed, goes home to find a dead body in his apartment, disposes of the body, confronts a pack of coyotes, releases a hooker's ghost from limbo, discovers that his contact on the cop force has been shot, and finds a meditation card that is basically meant to summon the devil. In addition to this, he makes about 6 social calls, describes 6 different locales, and interacts in about 10 different major relationships (7 of them with the living, 3 with the dead). And I don't think he's even hit the 24 hour mark yet.
Now, I realize that not every book is suited to be a Dean Koontzian novel, but this is an excellent example of how time and events are tightly compressed so that bam, bam, bam. There's never a down moment.
Of course, there's a lot more to relentless pacing. There's the variety of setting and character dynamics. There's the variety in types of conflict. There are reveals that dangers were misunderstood or underestimated. There are the introductions of new dangers and new disasters. There's the overall sense that this world is alive and moving on, with or without the reader. I'll probably write more about those later as my brain works through them, but for now--compression of action. This is one of my biggest weaknesses, and Odd Thomas is a great example of how to take it to the extreme, and pull it off.
Monday, June 18, 2012
Friday, June 15, 2012
Thursday, May 10, 2012
Remember that time in first grade when I hid my nightgown in my backpack, wore it all day at school, told everyone that I was a fairy princess and could grant them wishes if they drank water from an old spice bottle, and signed all my homework Rose?
If it's any consolation, I am now trying to raise myself. I tell BookBoy to brush his teeth, and fifteen minutes later, he's still in his room with an old shirt wrapped around his face. Why? He's being a ninja. I tell him to go to bed. He can't because he's a mad scientist and has figured out how to make himself nocturnal. I tell him to get dressed. His shirt and shoes end up backwards because he was thinking about what he would do if he lived 125 million years ago and a dinosaur was chasing him.
So don't worry, folks. There is justice in the world. It's served every night at bedtime, courtesy of your oldest grandson.
(Your now remarkably pragmatic daughter)
Sunday, May 6, 2012
On the other hand, I know that as soon as I start trying to implement the idea or apply the structure, the entire idea (or at least some part of it) is going to fall apart like a card house and I'm going to have to re-invent swaths of plot, character, and dialog, and that even then, I'm not sure I will get it right.
Before I dive back into PHOTO FINISH (which has a partial request on it), I need to reorder my plot according to Elana Johnson's Storymakers presentation on beats and strengthen some of my characters and scenes based on Annette Lyon's presentation on the Hero's Journey
I rarely get discouraged when I have to grade a huge stack of papers or clean a phenomenally messy room or weed an hugelovergrown patch, no matter how big the task is. This is because it has a seeable beginning and a seeable end, and I know that one step after another will inevitably get me where I need to be. This is different. One step after another could just send me trudging in circles. However, I can't see any other way to approach this. I'm just going to have sit down, start doing the work, and hope that somehow it takes me in the right direction and gets me where I want to go.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
I suspect that there are several culprits: stress, exhaustion, the deep immersion in choppy academic writing (I'm grading a lot of papers right now), and the fact that I haven't read anything good for a few days. I know a lot of writers suggest staying away from good writing, especially within your genre, when composing or revising, but for me a great novel is like a drink of water or lube for an engine or a spark for a fire. It gets things started, keeps them going, and gives them the energy to run.
And of course the mounting panic that comes from realizing that I have to pitch in 8 days and feeling like my novel is total garbage is not helping.
I need sleep, chocolate, water, melon, watermelon (as long as we're on the topic), sunshine, new flowers, a good book, and an hour long massage. Ah, man. A girl can dream.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
This year it's more stressful because I'm going to LDStorymakers during the weekend between finals week and when final grades are due, which means that I also need to do in advance all the grading and scoring that I usually do that weekend. And on top of that, I also need to revise another 45,000 words of my own writing before then. Also, I have three young kids at home. Their need for attention, food, clothing, help with homework, tooth brushing, and play time are, shockingly, not abating in the face of my stress. Also, I'm pregnant. Also, since I won't be returning to work in September and we keep encountering huge expenses (1200 bucks on the van this month and Storymakers in May), I'm worried about money. (I've been worried about money since I was six, so this is not new. I sometimes think that I could win the lottery and still worry about money. I'd love to try it.)
Bottom line, well, actually a few bottom lines:
1. I'm probably going to die of a heart attack when I'm 65. I've come to terms with that.
2. I remember being this stressed out before very frequently, and I survived every single one of those times with no casualties or epic failures. I know that this time will be the same, and while that doesn't necessarily make me feel better, it does prevent me from curling up in a ball or making hysterical phone calls to my mother and husband.
3. The world has chocolate, nacho cheese, and melon for times just like this.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Saturday, April 7, 2012
In college, simply looking pensive in public ran a 50/50 chance that some guy would stop and say, "Smile, beautiful! It's a gorgeous day!" I wondered why they thought I needed to be cheered up (fixed?) if I was looking thoughtful. It bugged me.
Other times I'd let loose with some crazy thought or question or wild imagining ("What if aliens are a more highly evolved version of us, and the reason they keep abducting people is because they're collecting specimens of the evolutionary chain for a huge living museum?"), and my friends would stare at me and then give an observation: "You're way weirder than you look." "Ooookaaay. TMI." Or by far the most common, "You think too much." The observation would often be followed by a prescription. "You need to get sleep/eat chocolate/pray/get laid." (Mixed bag, my friends.) So I kind of stopped having those conversations, preferring instead to stay in the shallow end of the pool, perhaps even more shallow than most people stay in. I don't know.
Now don't get me wrong. I think that trivial social exchanges have a very important survival function. When I hear people (usually college students) speak with scorn of the "How are you"/"Good how are you" call and response, I kind of roll my eyes. Those conversations are not, as is so often implied, the mindless blathering of thoughtless sheep. Rather, they are efficient reaffirmations of a casual and non-intrusive social web. We take it for granted, and sometimes it can even feel chafing, but the "How are you"/Good how are you" relationships are the ones that show up to stack sandbags when the river is flooding. Those exchanges are important. They have to be shallow and efficient in order to serve their purpose.
But sometimes I wonder what would happen if just once I were honest when someone asked me those daily, mundane questions like, "How are you doing?" I don't mean honest as in whiny, but honest as in truly introspective.
"How ya doing?"
"Great. I feel light-hearted and upbeat, and at this exact moment, I feel certain that amazing things are coming my way. It's probably because of the sunlight and the way things smell and the fact that my family was just here to visit, and I know it won't last long, but I'm trying not to think myself out of it because it feels really great."
"How are you?"
"Thoughtful. I'm wondering if Thoreau was right. Do you really think that most men will, when they come to die, discover that they have not lived? Or do most of us actually live our lives pretty well, at least as far as our natural dispositions are comfortable living them? Do you think that Thoreau himself changed how men live?"
Or even this:
"How are you?"
"Oh man, my head is in a freakin' weird space right now. I just finished reading a Peter Straub novel and we've been in the middle of the dry, dark winter for three months, and I'm pregnant so I'm nauseated and hormonal all the time. The total effect is that I feel like a strange and relentless evil is stalking the world, and right now I feel like I've never been happy and I'll never be happy again. My kids are annoyed because I keep grabbing them and giving them hugs. But, I'm old enough to know that these feelings will pass, so I'm trying not to indulge them. That's why I cleaned the house and graded my papers and am out for a walk. Just trying to jump-start the mood boost I know will come eventually. How are you?"
What would happen, I wonder? Probably somewhere out there, there's someone who would stare at me in astonishment for a moment and then say, and mean it, "Oh my gosh. I can totally relate," and then I'd have made a friend, which would be great. I have a hard time making real friends. But I think most people would just stare at me, shift uncomfortably, and then say, "Oh. Is there anything I can do to help?" because these are good people and if something is wrong, they really do want to help fix it. Then I'd say, "No. Nothing really needs to be done. That's just how I'm feeling right now," and they, feeling greatly relieved, would scurry off. And I wouldn't blame them one bit.
But later they might say jokingly to a mutual acquaintance, "Tell you what, just don't ask Heidi how she's doing. The other day she dumped on me with way to much TMI. I don't even know what she was talking about."
And then the acquaintance would say, "Really? She always acts so put-together."
And then the person I'd talked to would say, "I know, I'll tell you what, that girl thinks way too much."
I know that could happen, plus, I truly don't want to intrude on someone else's rhythm by breaking the call and response, but I'm still so curious. What would it be like?
So here's the deal: if I see you and ask you how you're doing, you have my permission, if you feel like it, to tell me what's really on your mind. I'm not talking about a gripe-fest, just a simple conversation about the things you're wondering and thinking and batting around in your head. I'd like to see what it's like, and I promise not to tell you that you think too much.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
It's been more than a year since I looked at this novel, and last I knew, I hated it. Loathed it. Despised it with the bloody rage of a thousand swirling daggers. When I typed THE END, I thought, "Good freakin' riddance," and shut the laptop on it, sure that I would never see or think of it again.
And then a few months later, I thought, "I wonder if this would work." And a little while later, "Oh yeah. I've got to add that." And then, "That's definitely a good idea."
But I let all those ideas percolate for months because a) I was in the middle of another novel and b) I wasn't prepared to face the total garbage I knew I would find when I once again opened the file. But a couple nights ago I typed THE END at the bottom of FIRST HAUNT, and I knew that I was out of excuses for avoiding PHOTO FINISH. (Plus, I have to have something to pitch to Weronika Janczuk at LDStorymakers,* and I figured it'd be nice if I had something I'd actually edited at least once.)
So I braced myself, opened it up, and thought, "Whoa. Some of this is actually really good. Like, printed material good." Not to worry. I'm not so delusionally in love with my own prose that I thought it was fine as-is. I eviscerated most of it, rewrote whole swaths of story, added scenes, removed scenes, reassigned and re-wrote dialog, and changed characterization (and all that was just in the first 3,000 words). However, I sensed potential and the possibility that the story might not be the suckfest I remembered, and that was nice.
*I knew that signing up for a pitch session when I had one and one-half finished rough-drafts to my name was colossally stupid, but I did it because I knew it would force me to get my act together. It appears to be working.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
*Very small spoilers that I don't think will ruin your enjoyment of this book at all follow.*
Within the first few chapters, you realize that there are several things Amy is gong to have to do before she can reach her emotional resolution. These things aren't abstract or metaphorical, like "resolve things with her mother" or "realize that she's not at fault for her father's death"; they're specific, concrete actions that symbolize these larger concepts.
In no particular order, I'm pretty sure she's going to have to:
- Tell Roger what happened to her dad
- Let Roger listen to her playlist
- Listen to Elvis again
- Buy sunglasses
- Change out of her jeans and tee uniform
- Have a verbal conversation with her mother
- Reply to her best friend's emails
- And, of course, drive.
I'm sure there are more that I'm forgetting, but those are a lot.
I've noted how Morgan handles these milestones:
- The events don't all happen at once. They're spread throughout the book, largely in order of increasing significance. For instance, the first thing Amy does is start wearing some slightly nicer clothes. I think the last thing Amy will do is drive, or at least acknowledge that she will drive again someday.
- They're not brought about by all the same person or situation. The changes occur slowly as Amy is thrust into different circumstances with different strangers who, wittingly or not, cause her to do these approach these goals. She then moves on to a new situation where she'll grow in a new way.
- Some of the major changes occur in stages instead of all at once. For instance, I'm sure that Amy will eventually tell Roger what happened to her dad, but before that, she has brief snippets of conversation with other people, people she'll never see again, people with whom she can practice, though she doesn't realize it, telling her story.
- These events don't always work out well. For instance, when she actually has a verbal talk with her mother, it's not a pleasant experience. I haven't finished the book, but I'm guessing that this is a stepping stone to the real conversation they need to have.
I haven't finished the book yet, but I'm loving it. It's an excellent read just for the story and the characters, and the great externalization of inner conflict is a great lesson for the aspiring author.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
I've heard a lot about try-fail cycles, of course. I knew the basics--the protag keeps trying and failing until something works--, and I could probably even have recited some of the basic principles of a good try-fail cycle if asked to, but I didn't really get it. In fact, the try-fail cycle in my own novel was killing me.
So instead of writing, I spent several nights watching Breaking Bad. (I would not recommend watching TV instead of writing, and normally I wouldn't have done it, but I was stuck, yo) and suddenly there was an episode that illustrated try fail cycles incredibly well. I think it was because the objective (to get the RV to start so they don't die in the middle of the New Mexico desert) was clear and simple and each cycle was so discrete that it allowed me to easily identify and analyze each component of the cycle. While watching, I realized that each cycle had several important characteristics.
Now an analysis of those cycles, and a total spoiler alert for Breaking Bad 2.9, "Four Days Out."
I learned that good try-fail cycles have at least four important characteristics.
- First, each attempt increases in either the level of sacrifice or the level or resourcefulness, possibly both, that it requires.
- Second, each try-fail period has a failure penalty (usually foreshadowed in some way) that makes the situation worse, either by using up a needed resource or introducing an additional complicating element to the situation. The failure penalty is different from the sacrifice required. The sacrifice required to make the attempt is known to the character in advance, and they choose to make it. The failure penalty is an unexpected outcome of the attempt that complicates the situation further.
- Third, each attempt comes progressively closer to succeeding but ultimately fails.
- Fourth, the attempt that finally works requires either great sacrifice or great resourcefulness in ways that are unique to the protag's situations and ability and that, ideally, the audience does not predict.
Using these four characteristics to increase the narrative tension makes it so that when the solution ultimately comes, it's satisfying to the audience. Solving the earlier, lower-risk version of the problem with any of the earlier low-sacrifice, low-resourcefulness attempts results in a low-satisfaction ending. (Personally, I think this is why so many readers were dissatisfied with the end of Breaking Dawn. They say it's because it lacked a battle, but I think what they really mean is that it lacked a satisfying try-fail cycle.)
So here's how that played out in this episode:
Attempt One: They siphon gas out of the trailer into the generator so that they can use the generator to jump the RV's battery. When they start the generator, it bursts into flame because Jesse has unwittingly spilled gasoline on it. In order to put out the flame, Jesse dumps their drinking water on the generator.
Sacrifice required to make this attempt: Low. (Walt gets a little gas in his mouth, but it's no big deal.)
Resourcefulness required to make this attempt: Low. (Pretty much anyone could think of that.)
Closeness to success: Low. They couldn't even get the generator started.
Failure penalty: They lost their water and, one assumes, damaged the part of the generator that uses gas to create power. The penalty, running out of water, is foreshadowed earlier in the episode where Walt asks Jesse if that's really all the water he brought and Jesse asks him how much water he thinks they're going to use.
Audience satisfaction if that solution had worked: Low. No one wants to see a low-risk situation resolved with little resourcefulness and little sacrifice.
Attempt Two: They use Walt's cell phone to call for help. Unfortunately, the person they call gets lost and the phone's battery dies as a result of the phone call.
Sacrifice required: Moderate. (Walt has resisted using his phone to call for help because he believes his wife tracks his cell activity. Now he's forced to take that risk.)
Resourcefulness required: Low.
Closeness to success: Moderate. They believe for many hours that their buddy is on the way and that they're out of trouble.
Failure penalty: The phone battery is dead. This penalty is foreshadowed during the first phone call when Walt briskly warns Jesse to make it fast because roaming drains the battery. Therefore, we are not surprised when the battery dies during the second phone call. They now no longer have that option even as a last resort.
Audience satisfaction if that solution had worked: Low. I would have been relieved that they were alive, but I would have expected another complication or some other larger plot to define the episode.
Attempt Three: They spend all day in the blazing sun with no water manually winding the generator. After exhausting themselves and pinning all their hopes on this attempt, they are able to start the RV engine, and they burst into cheers, but the engine immediately dies. Since it took all their physical energy to generate enough power to start the engine once, they have no hope of being able to try again.
Resourcefulness required: Moderate/high. Only through Walt's scientific expertise do they get this idea. Most people wouldn't think of manually winding the generator or if they did, they wouldn't know how.
Sacrifice required: High. The video makes it clear that this is an exhausting, dehydrating process that takes many, many hours and all of their physical energy.
Closeness to success: Painfully high, but not quite there.
Failure penalty: They've taxed themselves to the point of dehydration and extreme exhaustion. They are now many hours closer to dying and there's no chance of them being able to walk out of the desert. Additionally, because they had pinned all their hopes on this succeeding, they pay a high penalty in loss of morale when it fails. Both of these penalties are foreshadowed when Walt says to Jesse earlier, "This has to work. Do you understand me?"
Audience satisfaction if this solution had worked (which I thought it would): Moderate. It would have felt acceptable, but not really triumphant.
Attempt Four: Walt has given up, but Jesse gives him a frantic talk about doing "something scientific" to save them. In a flash of inspiration, Walt realizes that they can build a battery from scrap metal and parts of the trailer. They build the battery from loose coins, nuts, and bolts, and hook it up. The engine starts. They make it home.
Sacrifice required: Low, though they are required to have one final rally.
Resourcefulness required: Extremely high. It's important to note that the resourcefulness relies on the protag's specific strengths. This solution is exciting only because it draws upon Walt's scientific knowledge, which is his distinguishing trait. It's not easy for Walt to execute this solution (that would be unsatisfying), but it would be impossible for almost anybody else.
Audience satisfaction when this works: High. At least good enough for a single plot element. I suspect that series satisfaction will require a higher level of sacrifice, but for a plot resolution, the high-risk, high-resourcefulness solution works.
If you've stuck with this post this far, thank you. I'm not a published author, so you have no reason to think that anything I have to say about the craft of writing is worthwhile. In truth, I wrote this largely for myself. It helped to clarify my understanding and even generate some additional insights. But if you've already done me the favor of reading this, I'm asking one more: before I plunge into outlining my own try-fail cycle, I'd like to know if there are any other elements I'm missing. Is there anything else that's vital to a successful cycle that I should make sure I include? If so, I'd love to hear your explanations and examples of those elements.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Case 1: I will pay for expensive products if I think they'll work, but there has to be a money back guarantee. If I don't get results, I want my money back.
Case 2: Two days after giving (all-natural, because it's the only way to ensure that there are no lingering side-effects to mom or baby) birth to my last baby, I rose at 5 am and went outside to tackle a landscaping project that my husband had given up on because he thought it was impossible. It was brutal, exhausting, miserable work that left me doubled over and clutching my back in pain, but I didn't care. Why? I knew I'd get results. (And I did. It was awesome.)
Case 3: Remember all those ads you used to see for getting gift cards by trying certain products? I actually made between 3 and 4 thousand dollars (that's profit, after paying for the products) on those things. I read the small print, tracked the cost of the products, and found the ones that would actually yield a profit. Then I wrote articles telling other people how to do the same thing and gave them my referral link. It worked (for all of us). Results.
Case 4: Graduate school. You go. You put in the time. It's hard, but if you're halfway competent, you'll get a degree. Results guaranteed.
Here's what I have no time for: Anything where the results are uncertain.
Most Important Case: Writing. My results-guaranteed orientation is precisely why I spent all of my twenties trying to not want to write. I thought it was a total waste of time. I still think it's probably a total waste of time. But the urge to write wouldn't go away. Won't go away. It appears that in this case, my guaranteed result is that I'll be restless and a little unfulfilled if I don't at least give writing a shot. (Which, by the way, I bitterly resent. If I could turn off the part of my brain that wants to write, I'd do it in two heartbeats.)
It's unfamiliar territory. I don't like doing things that don't yield results. I don't like giving up entertainment, sleep, and family time for something that probably won't pan out. I'm worried that in five years I'll still be restless and unfulfilled, but I'll also be bitter that I wasted so much time (and looked like a total idiot) chasing this delusion. But I don't know that will happen, and I do know I'll be unhappy if I don't try, so I'm giving it a shot.
At least in the end, no one will be able to say I didn't try. I guess that's one result guaranteed.