Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
It’s one of those apples or oranges sort of things: stand alone or series? After nine years (eleven years if we count back to when I first started writing Pink I– how scary is that?) of working on the same series, I’m in the odd position of working on both at once. Right now, I’m in a series/stand alone/series sandwich: revisions for Pink X, writing the new stand alone, and a proposal for Pink XI. It’s going to be a busy November.
The plus side of this cognitive dissonance is that it provides an interesting opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of stand alone versus series writing.
Series: There’s the comfort of coming home to a familiar world. It’s like a great big Thanksgiving dinner, greeting old characters, finding out what they’ve been up to, learning things you didn’t know about characters you’ve known forever.
It’s not just a familiar world vis a vis characters and setting; there’s a familiarity of tone as well. When you write that first book, you’re committing yourself to a particular style and form as well as to those characters.
The down side to this? It can feel limiting at times. And there’s always the worry that you might start to repeat yourself.
Stand Alone: There’s something terribly freeing about writing about characters you’re never going to meet again. You can set the book anywhere you like, explore new places, new time periods, take risks. You’re not tied down by something you might have thoughtlessly mentioned in a prior book. There’s the joy of discovery.
Of course, there’s also a lot of uncertainty. As I work on my second stand alone, both the joy and the curse is that it’s a whole new learning curve. Writing one stand alone doesn’t necessarily prepare you for writing another: unlike a series, the tone, the characters, the place are all different and must be explored from scratch. The Ashford Affair and this new stand alone have some superficial similarities– both have thirty-something modern protagonists, both narratives go back and forth in time, exploring two sets of characters– but otherwise, they’re entirely different. Ashford dashes from London to Kenya to New York over a multi-generational time span; this new one clings very closely to the London suburb in which it’s set, both in 1849 and 2009.
Writers, do you think you’re a series writer or a stand alone writer? Readers, which do you prefer to read?
Wednesday, October 10th, 2012
I just had one of those lightbulb moments that are simultaneously wildly helpful and just as wildly inconvenient. I realized that I was trying to start my book in the wrong place.
By which, of course, I don’t mean the wrong locale, but the wrong spot in the plot.
I’ve found that for me, the two greatest sources of writer’s block are (1) starting in the wrong place, (2) trying to write in the wrong character’s viewpoint, and (3) sheer laziness– wait! The three greatest sources of writer’s block are…. (Okay, I’ve got Monty Python out of my system now.)
Leaving aside the sheer laziness factor (and item #4, pure blinding fear that the book on the page will never be as good as the story in my head), one of the things that gets me most stuck is starting at the wrong jumping off point. With some books, it’s easy to know where to begin. In Emerald Ring, my heroine had an elopement into which to stumble; in The Orchid Affair, there was a crucial job interview that put my heroine and my hero exactly where I needed them to be.
Other attempts at a first chapter set me back months. The Garden Intrigue initially began very differently, down on the banks of the Seine with the murder of a young operative. I pounded away at the infuriating chapter for weeks, cutting and pasting, tinkering with the prose, before realizing that it wasn’t that flawed sentence on page three that was the problem: it was the wrong place to start the story. The story had to start with Augustus reciting poetry. In retrospect, that seems obvious. I only wish it had been obvious to me a few weeks and several gallons of coffee earlier.
I wish I had a hard and fast algorithm for determining that pesky “where to begin” question, other than pure gut instinct and several weeks of banging my head against an unresponsive Word file, but, as you can see, I’m still trying to wrestle it to the ground. I have figured out a couple of things from these false starts, such as: the first chapter must fit the tone of the book as a whole. With Garden Intrigue, I was trying to graft a cloak and dagger noir beginning on what was essentially a novel of drawing room repartee. Bad idea.
Another lesson? Make sure your characters are in character, right from the very beginning. Although I’m still working this one out, I think the problem with my false start on the current manuscript was opening the story in a way that forced my heroine to behave inconsistently with what I know of her character. And if she’s not in character in the first chapter, how will anyone believe her for the rest of the book? What was happening in that scene needs to happen, for the sake of the plot, but by changing where I’m starting the story, I give both my readers and myself time to get acquainted with my heroine before getting to that point– so we’ll be able to figure out exactly why she does what she does. In character.
Mostly, though, I wind up relying on trial and error. If the story moves forward, I’ve started it in the right place. If the story doesn’t move forward (i.e. many weeks of tinkering with the same few paragraphs) then it invariably means that I need to rethink where I began.
When I was very, very stuck on one of the books, my editor, to comfort me, told me that one of her other authors (a rather famous one) had once gotten so stuck on the beginning that she had written the book backward: starting at the end and working her way back to the beginning. I gather, via my editor, that the author didn’t recommend this as a technique, but that it was something she needed to do to get her through that particular book.
How do you break through those beginning blues?
Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012
Does anyone else remember that old story, stone soup? My recollection of it is hazy, but the basic gist is this: a man shows up with a stone, saying he’s going to use it to make soup. The villagers are fascinated by the notion of soup made from a stone. One by one, they each add something to the soup, until it’s a rich, simmering stew of meat and vegetables. The stone is the catalyst for the addition of the rest.
You could make all sorts of comparisons between writing and getting soup out of a stone, but I had something more specific in mind. Like the stone that formed the base of that soup, when I start a new book, there’s always a run of writing that feels Particularly Deep. It may just be a few paragraphs, it may be fragments of several chapters, but whatever it is, I prize that portion. Usually, this happens while I’m still finishing up the previous project. I cling to those paragraphs. They’re my reassurance that the next book will get written.
Then a curious thing starts to happen. I write towards them; I write around them. I cut and paste them. I slice and dice them. Bit by bit, however I try to save them, those initial, much-loved paragraphs disappear. Some wind up in my “old chapters file”, others get parsed into pieces of new prose. For the most part, like the stone in the soup, those original paragraphs get lifted out as the new material settles in around them. Suddenly, I have a full chapter or chapters, with nothing of that initial inspiration spurt remaining.
It’s not entirely a pointless exercise. Those early paragraphs, those paragraphs that always seem to get deleted, serve a dual purpose. They help me write my way into my characters. And there’s nothing like words on a page to help produce more words on a page. The knack is knowing when it’s time to hit delete, rather than writing myself in circles trying to keep those precious early paragraphs. After all, if you leave the stone in the soup, you might split a tooth.
Wednesday, September 5th, 2012
The other day, I received an email asking for advice on how to deal with a fragmented schedule that necessitated constantly putting down and then picking up again that work in progress.
I’d say that’s a real concern for all of us who write around other things, whether it’s family, work, school, or, in my case these days, other books. It’s hard to find uninterrupted chunks of time, and certainly not an uninterrupted chunk of time in which one can write that whole book, from start to finish.
Maybe it’s just making a virtue out of necessity, but I think there are positive aspects to fits and starts writing:
Wednesday, August 8th, 2012
While plotting my RWA workshop with Sarah MacLean, I had two major epiphanies (the fact that both coincided with the arrival of the waitress refilling our coffee cups has nothing whatsoever to do with it). Here they are:
1. We want our heroines to be likable and our heroes to be lovable;
2. We love our heroines for their flaws and our heroes for their strengths.
Feel free to quibble with either or both of these. I’ll be talking about the heroine side of that equation this week and the hero portion next week.
So let’s discuss the heroine, shall we?
Wednesday, August 1st, 2012
At RWA last week, Sarah MacLean and I gave a talk together on creating memorable heroes and heroines. Some very interesting things came up in that workshop planning session (I’ll get to the Orca Test shortly), so it seemed like a good idea to share some of it with you here, with due credit to Sarah, to whom most of the credit is due.
For the next three weeks, I’ll be talking about character. Today’s post will be about building character in general, next week will be the specific challenges related to creating a compelling heroine, and, the week after that, crafting a dynamic hero.
Ready? Here we go….
Wednesday, July 18th, 2012
Yesterday, as I went to drop off the marked up proofs of The Ashford Affair at the UPS store down the block, it occurred to me that there might be some interest in the stages a manuscript goes through as it makes its way towards book form.
You know that bit where you type in THE END on the manuscript and shout “Done!”? That’s only the beginning.
When my first book was acquired back in 2003, I had no idea what came next, or why it was going to take over a year to get that book from manuscript to shelf. This post is the “why”.
Wednesday, June 13th, 2012
A lot of you have asked me to talk about juggling work and writing or writing and social media. I can’t help feeling a bit like it’s the blind leading the blind here (my time management skills are far from stellar), but, for what it’s worth, here are my two bits, in a do as I say, don’t do what I do kind of way.
Since it’s a huge topic, I’m going to talk about time management and the day job today and save time management and social media for next week, even though the two intersect at points.
My first and only rule: know thyself.
Your efficiency will be predicated on your ability to understand your own writing patterns and habits. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise: you can waste a lot of time trying to follow someone else’s “more efficient” methods. You know– or you can figure out– what works for you. Are you most productive early in the morning? Late at night? Are you good at writing in short, interrupted bursts? Do you need a clump of time? If you do need a clump, how substantial does it have to be? A few hours? A few days? Don’t fight your own instincts; make them work for you.
I’m a clump-er. I need a solid block of time, preferably a whole day, in order to get real writing done. This doesn’t mean that I write for all that time, but it takes me a while to get back into my world. When I was in law school, I knew that days on which I had class were dead, writing-wise. I arranged long weekends. When I was at a law firm, I tried the early morning and late at night methods and completely crashed and burned. I hoarded my weekend time for writing instead.
Are you a write in small chunks person? In that case, try to maximize those little moments. I know people who write while waiting in the dentist’s office or driving the kids to soccer practice. (I envy them that ability to shut everything out and plunge back in. I get very picky about my own writing space and time. And very cranky if someone takes my favorite table at Starbucks. But I digress.) Most of them have very particular requirements for writing tools. Some work on iPads, so they can pick up seamlessly wherever they are; others use notebooks and transcribe from longhand later. I have friends who still swear by dictaphones. If you’re a writing at odd moments person, figure out what you need to make it easiest for you and do it.
Try to figure out how to use fragmented moments of time, or unexpected moments, for auxiliary tasks. Social media (more on that next week) is great for those weird little between times. Have a half hour between meetings and need to grind out a website post? Waiting for someone to turn a document back around to you at work and have some tweets to send out? These are generally tasks that can be accomplished in small bits of time with a distracted mind.
Then there’s daydreaming. So much of writing isn’t about the writing itself: it’s plotting and character development and generally thinking things through. You can do that while you’re walking to the grocery store, or taking a shower (note: a dry erase board next to the shower can be a very useful thing) or watching mindless television to unwind after work (I keep a clipboard next to me when I watch TV, so I can scribble down thoughts about the book as they come to me). Your brain needs these dead times to transition from work to writing, to rejuvenate and get back into mode. Even if you’re a clump-er like me, and need a solid block of time to really write, it’s useful to spend those fragmented moments thinking through things that have bothered you, scribbling out impulsive bits of dialogue, or reading other peoples’ books to refill the creative well.
Let’s face it, refilling that well is important. Sometimes, no matter how tight you are for time, you need to take that break and watch a movie or read a new novel. That might be just the thing that catapults you back into your own story. It’s not time wasting if it’s priming the pump. Beating yourself up for wasting time can waste more time than the original time wasting.
One good exercise is to think about your average day. There’s more time in the day, when you look for it, than readily appears. When I sat down and thought about it, I realized I was frittering away an hour or two each morning just scrolling around the industry blogs. (I’ll talk about this more in the social media post next week.) Half the time, I wasn’t even paying attention. I was just, as a Southern friend of mine calls it, messin’. We all have random, repetitive things we do, particularly internet-involved, that add little value to our day. My theory is that some of these are necessary brain down-time– but not all. By cutting my morning messin’, I won myself an extra hour of writing time.
Your commute can also be prime book time. As a city dweller, I never had a drive to work, but I did have a forty-five minute walk to work. (It was that or multiple buses and subways; I chose to walk.) I used that walking time to think through plot problems. I’d keep a notebook close at hand and scribble things down in unintelligible shorthand while waiting for red lights to change to green.
Primarily, be flexible. Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to do everything, all at once, all the time. Juggling is hard. Jobs are draining. Writing takes a certain level of emotional commitment. Sometimes, the stars just don’t align. But they will. And the best way to make sure they do is not to dwell on all the times you didn’t keep your schedule. Keep yourself open for opportunities, learn what works for you, and make sure you let yourself have time to rest and think.
What are your time management techniques? Particularly those of you with kids, since that’s not a topic I’m competent to address yet…. (If anyone wants to do a guest post on juggling writing with offspring, let me know!)
Wednesday, June 6th, 2012
The French are the masters of contradictory concepts, such as the belle laide: the ugly beauty. Then there’s my personal favorite: the idiot savant, the learned fool.
These concepts are always hard to translate, but the idiot savant is someone who manages to perform brilliantly at something without really knowing the how or why. Sometimes, I feel that way as a writer. (Without the brilliantly bit!). An even better analogy might be ice skating. Have you ever glided happily along until you realize you have no idea what you’re doing, look down, get tangled in your own feet, and fall?
This is all a very long way of saying that a lot of writing happens on the level of pure instinct. Most of us who write do so because we read. We grew up as readers. The basics of narrative are imprinted in the pathways of our brains. We don’t necessarily know why a story works, but we can tell you when it does.
When we write, we call upon everything we’ve learned from all those books we’ve read. I’ve heard many writer friends refer to an intuitive sense of pacing and structure. When we talk about how we do what we do, it’s often a case of reverse engineering. We write it that way because it sounds right to us– but if someone asks, we have to stop and figure out why it sounds right.
All this is to say, maybe, like ice skating, it’s best not to look at your feet too much. If you’re a lifetime reader, you probably know a number of the tricks of the trade subconsciously, even if you may not have the exact technical terms to describe them.
I remember, years ago, as a teenager, reading a Writer’s Digest article on viewpoint and thinking, “That’s what they call that!” I’d been managing viewpoint in my manuscripts, using it for dramatic effect, limiting the number of viewpoint characters, because that was what I had seen done in the books I admired. It made sense. The article simply gave it a name.
This may sound counter-intuitive in a series of posts about writing, but… if you’re comfortable with what you’re doing, don’t over-analyse it too much. If it’s working, there’s no need to pick it apart. The point of the exercise is to put words on the page. If you’re already doing that, stopping to think about how you’re putting them on the page… well, it kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
On the other hand, it’s when you do stumble over your skates that the technical background comes in handy. That’s when you want your toolbox of writerly tricks. But the rest of the time? If it ain’t broke….
Wednesday, May 30th, 2012
Fundamentally, the topic of the day is Getting to Know Your Protagonist, Getting to Know All About Her, but that was too long to fit on the subject line, so let’s just call it Character Development: Part I. (I’ll talk about developing side characters another day.)
The best advice I ever read on creation of one’s protagonist came from a Writer’s Digest article long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away: do not attempt to create Every Man. Every Man equals no man. The characters who call to people, who intrigue them, infuriate them, keep them reading are always highly specific. Don’t leave your character vague or generic in the hopes that that very vagueness will allow more people to relate. The key is specificity.
That specificity applies in multiple ways: experiential, emotional, physical, verbal.
Yep, we’re talking dialogue here. We’ll get into dialogue as an art in another post, but, for now, it’s time to think about what speech patterns can tell you about your protagonist. How does your character sound? What’s the cadence of her (or his) voice? Accent, diction, verbal tics? Does he speak in long, flowery sentences or short, terse ones? Do his external and internal monologues align? Does he say what he means or does he dissemble? Try to hear your character’s voice in your head. Sometimes, just listening to your character talk to you can tell you a great deal about that person. As an exercise, try free-writing monologues for your character. What does she have to say? And how does she say it?
When I say physical, I’m not talking about the mole on your character’s left shoulder. (Although, hey, if it’s there….) What I mean are the traits that your character conveys physically, traits that reveal something about your protagonist’s personality. Does she hunch her shoulders? Is her walk bouncy, mincing, sure-footed? When she sits on a chair, does she drop down on it or seat herself more delicately? It’s a bit like method acting. You need to observe your character to figure out her means of movement. Sometimes, you might not have fully figured out yet what these specific traits convey. That’s okay. What you do need to know is that these are the specific ways in which your character interacts with the physical space that he or she occupies.
This is a clumsy way of getting at the heart of what makes character character. You and I, when placed in the same situation, will probably react to it in different ways. Thanks to a combination of innate character and experience, we’re each wired a certain way, no two of us the same. Your mission is to figure out what makes your character tick, primarily vis a vis how that character reacts to certain triggers. When insulted, would she fly off the handle? Take it with quiet dignity and then go cry? Give back as good as she got? Grin and say “thank you”? A good way to get at this as you get to know your character is to try to imagine him or her in various situations and try to figure out how that specific person would react. Another good exercise is to figure out how they might have reacted at different ages: would your character have responded the same way at eighteen as at twenty-eight?
I’m talking back-story here. You don’t have to know everything about your character’s back-story (often, I figure it out as I’m writing it), but you do need to know that it’s there. Are there major experiences that have shaped or scarred your character? Sometimes, the lack of experience can be as much of a character marker as a scarring experience: the sheltered or cloistered character, blithely unaware or arrogant, makes an excellent target for Harsh Life Experiences over the course of the plot.
As you may have noticed, I think of character development more as excavating than creating. Michelangelo used to say that in sculpting, he wasn’t creating the work so much as freeing it from its enveloping marble. I feel the same way about my main characters. They’re already people, full and entire in my head. Usually, when I start a book, they’re still mere acquaintances. As I write them, I get to know and understand them. (Which is why the first three chapters are usually the hardest for me.)
Don’t worry if you don’t know everything about your main characters the minute you start to write them. Sometimes they just need to reveal themselves to you as you go along. I’ve found that some characters are harder to get a handle on than others. (Ahem, Arabella from Mistletoe, ahem.) In those cases, I’ve found it helpful to free write: bits of dialogue, descriptions of the character, other characters talking about the character, straight-out exposition about the character’s back story (generally in the character’s viewpoint)… in short, anything that keeps me focused on and hammering away at what makes that person unique.