Saturday, April 30, 2011

"I lie"

I was asked what my favourite quote was last weekend and it didn't even take me 2 seconds to think before I was blurting it out.

I'm going to ad lib it, since I'm not sure if I have the words exactly right:

'When a man says "I lie" does he lie, or does he speak the truth? If he speaks the truth, he lies, and if he lies, he speaks the truth.'
Mark Twain

In a former post, I mentioned that I generally don't write in first person. One reason is because I don't like being so 'intimate' with my characters (since usually they are quite dark) but the other primary reason I don't write in first person goes back to my somewhat *obsessive* nature.

I have a detached writing style (let's call it my *voice* since it's something I've worked at intentionally) and when I do jump into character's heads, it's usually because they are observing someone/something other than themselves.

Perhaps having a background in animation is a part of this, but I love the challenge of showing how/why a character is reacting a certain way only through their dialogue and body language, yet always filtering this information through the mindset of another character. I do this because I think we lie to ourselves more than we realize and often those closest to us have a better understanding of how we truly are through observing our actions and reactions.

We are usually unaware of our own hypocrisies... so the only way a writer can show such complex things is through the eyes of another character.

When a character says, 'I lie', often that character is unclear whether he is actually telling the truth or telling a lie. This subtlety is something I think would be quite impossible to convey to a reader in first person.

What do you think? Are there types of stories you've started, then had to re-write when you discover the limits of that particular POV?

Monday, April 25, 2011

What we don't like and what we're selling

I ran across this today.

I get it. It's a great idea to help people by listing what not to do on their blogs/websites ...but after reading the comments, there doesn't seem to be a universally accepted list of what does work. It is just me, or does this feel eerily similar to the numerous *lists* of what not to do in writing and the lack of a concrete list of what does work.

I've been reading a LOT of blogs in the last couple of weeks. I am NOT going to list the reasons why I didn't like many of them.

In a general sense, I am leery when it comes to negativity, especially online. It grows, creeps, expands and infects, much like the common cold. Negativity sells for many reasons, but often that's all it's doing. It rarely ever improves or fixes what is wrong.

Many things people said they didn't like were common sense, like loud music you can't easily turn off or author rants filled with swear words. Blatant self/client promotion and cluttered or poorly organized layouts (either the site layout or the actual blocks of text).

The things they did like were more subjective. Humour. Voice. Some readers loved random tangents that give a glimpse of the author/agent's behind-the-scenes-lives. Some hated that.

This may be an odd perspective on things, but I see sites/blogs as another kind of sales tool. Think of it like speed-dating where you've got two minutes to convince the person across the table that you're worth a second look/meeting/date.

On a blog, you've got two minutes before a viewer closes the window, clicks on another one of your other posts, or bookmarks/follows you.

Maybe two minutes.

You're selling yourself as a person, the good, the bad, the aspirations and the memories that make up who you are. It doesn't matter if it's an agent trying to promote his/her client's books or a personal blog about music preference. It's still selling something, it's just not always as obvious as a book.

Here's a twist on that. Any piece of art you've ever looked at is selling something, whether it be in a gallery, a church, a government building, or hanging on your wall. And the reason that particular piece is hanging in that particular location is an important piece of the sales-game.

...and another twist. The book you're reading right now is selling something.

The book you are writing is selling something.

So, do you know what it is you're selling? Take a look at that first draft you're editing, or re-visit your old blog entries. What is the overall message? What things are you promoting (knowingly or otherwise)?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Edits, New Writing and Taking a Break

Since I started this blog (not long ago) I've been trying to find and read blogs of other writers, or those who travel within the writing/editing/publishing sphere. I have never had much interest in blogs before, other than keeping up with a few of my writing friends that I already know quite well.

I ran across this (older) blog entry yesterday and it got me thinking about a previous entry I wrote about weeds and avoiding edits.

Writing for me is not an outlet that I escape into.

I need to escape from my own writing.

Don't get me wrong, I love writing and editing, otherwise I wouldn't do it in the first place, but I find writing to be intense. Sometimes it feels unbearably heavy, like being dragged down into dark water.

Let me say again, I love writing, I just always write extremely dark worlds and even darker characters. No, I don't write horror, I don't write suspense or murder mysteries. I don't read them either.

For years I haven't been able to think of a category that my writing fits into. I was devouring the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and Franz Kafka before I was ten. I read Bram Stoker's Dracula about a dozen times before I became a teenager and I read Mary Shelly's Frankenstein so long ago that I barely even remember what it's about. When I was fourteen, I read The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner three times in a row without taking a break. My favourite books, that I have read and re-read, are ones I hesitate when recommending books to people because they are so incredibly dark. ...and I haven't included them in my profile, so don't bother checking :)

Now, after saying all of that, what I do write is YA.

Project #1, that I referred to in the Weeds post as one I'm avoiding at the moment, is incredibly dark. It takes place in a survival-of-the-fittest world. The characters are going to a school where kids have to form packs/alliances because other students might very well drag them into the desert and devour them (literally, not figuratively). Injures, broken bones, nearly being beaten to death, these are all things the teachers ignore because students are expected to take care of themselves. They're at the school because they are strong, they are there to get stronger, and even their alliances with other students are filled with mistrust and fear.

Add on top of this that I have a large cast, essentially 7 main characters, all with their own issues and character arcs.

...and that this is the first of three books set in this world. The first draft for the first story is done, the second two are roughed out with major scenes written, often in point form, but all the planning is there.

When I start working on this story, on this world, it's exhausting and it sucks up every bit of my energy and attention. I forget to eat. I can't sleep. The dog needs to practically climb onto my lap to remind me that she exists and that she doesn't have the brain power to comprehend indoor plumbing. The number of characters, the darkness of the world, the complicated arcs that extend over all three stories... I have to escape from it or it will swallow me whole.

I don't consider this to be procrastination and I'm not avoiding it 'cause I'm afraid of tearing it apart, hacking off scenes or re-writing entire characters.

Thankfully, how I escape is to write (or work on edits) for other stories. I can take my much-needed mental break, yet I am still improving my writing skills, still getting new words down and letting my brain reset.

I just wish I could somehow reset my own brain so I can writing lighter stories/characters :)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Trying something new

I get bored easily.

I'm not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing, because ultimately it is both.

On the bad end of the spectrum, it means that once I feel moderately competent in something, I either stop doing it entirely, or stop improving myself in the obsessive way that I tend to run after shiny new things of interest with every speck of my energy invested.

On the good side, this means I'm rarely afraid of trying something new and I'm really not afraid of failure. I tend to self-teach, so I'm used to tripping, falling, re-thinking, then re-doing in a more efficient manner.

So here's my new thing.

I have always written in third person limited/subjective. Okay, I've dabbled in other perspectives, but I haven't even written an entire short story in anything OTHER than TPL/S. If it's a short story, I stick with one character, but in longer stories, I usually swap back and forth between characters (when a scene changes, not in the middle of one).

Is it weird to admit that, as a reader AND a writer, I don't like being locked into the close-and-personal-intimate-thoughts of every character?  I find it really difficult to connect to first person narratives. I never think, "I wouldn't say/do that!" Rather, I think, "You shouldn't have said/done that. You're pretty stupid." It's as if I am the uncomfortable (and unfortunate) victim when a random stranger traps you and vomits up their life story on your brand new pair of shoes.

Note I said "stranger" in that last bit.

I have never been able to commit just a portion of myself to something/someone. It's all or nothing. 0 or 100%. I connect very deeply and very closely with those I let into my inner circle and just don't have the energy (or stamina) to keep up with a lot of people in their daily ups and downs.

And it's the same thing with characters. When I do connect, it's deep... terrifyingly deep.

Another thing I've never done is written in present tense.

So what am I doing now while taking a break from edits/re-writes? I have thrown myself into a first person present tense story.

And yeah, it's hard to keep slapping myself upside the head and changing those "I bolted" to "I bolt" etc. It's even harder to chain myself into one character's head and *live* there, especially as it's a young boy who has recently suffered a major trauma (emotionally and physically) and is being bullied at school.

I may not finish this story, or it might be the only one I ever write, but even though I'm stumbling around, I'm having fun with it. And that's enough :)

What about you? Do you tend to swim in the safe, familiar waters when it comes to POV and tense, or do you play around a bit?

Friday, April 22, 2011

City Planning, French Style

I just got back from spending a week in Washington DC. Before travelling there, I really only knew one thing about the city (other than the obvious fact that the capital building, white house and pentagon are all there). What I knew was that it was a pre-planned city. President Washington hired the French artist-architect Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant to create a plan to physically lay out the city before construction began.

Now, while his plan was never fully realized due to L'Enfant getting fired a year after he was hired (according to Encyclopedia Americana, he "forged ahead regardless of his orders, the budget, or landowners with prior claims."), there is no doubt that the core style and layout of Washington DC is still L'Enfant's.

L'Enfant's original plan was inspired by the city of Paris, which also had a famous architect. Napoleon III hired Prefect Baron Haussmann to *figuratively* bulldoze the slums and re-build Paris with the wide, beautiful avenues that it is known for today.

I won't bore you with all the reasons that Paris and Washington DC look the way that they do (stylistically, especially) because this blog isn't a lecture series on architecture and spread and influence of Western culture.

What I'm interested in is the idea of planning for these two, specific cities, and how it is linked with writing, at least in my mind.

Paris grew up on its own, neighbourhoods, communities and random buildings going up when needed and a little haphazardly. Then long, straight boulevards were ploughed through what was already built. People were evicted, neighbourhoods were burned (with no compensation given to the inhabitants) and Napoleon got his city, his beautiful propaganda-rich city.

Washington DC is no less a propaganda-rich city... in fact, that's what shocked me the most about visiting. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, I'm not being sarcastic or condescending when saying that I believe it's a true mecca for the people of America. As a Canadian, I don't think it's wrong to have pride in your country... in fact, I think Canadians could certainly stand to have a little more national pride.

So back to the idea of planning. A capital city is not just a city. All the ideals of the country should be displayed, the core values, what is important to the people should be so shockingly clear that it feels, to a visitor, like they are being slapped in the face with it. It's like the thesis statement of an essay, or the abstract of a scientific paper.

So how is this like writing? Paris is like a rough draft manuscript written by a pantser... everything kind of falls out and build up with no clear plan, no roadmap, no civil engineers. At a certain point, the person in power (the writer) must figure out what it's really about, and then destroy his own city, his own manuscript, tear back the shambles, the slums, strip away all the stuff that does not belong. What did Napoleon III want to say about his city? Well, there's a lot of speculation, but much of it can be guessed from the city itself. Power, strength, forward-thinking. He wanted to tie himself, and his city, back to the glories of Rome and the beauty and wisdom of Greece.

...and like I've said, Paris was a model for Washington DC... so does that sound familiar? Do those core values that were important to Napoleon III sound similar? The symbol for wisdom, a snake coiled around a column, is something I saw all over Washington DC... not only that, the style, the porticos, freezes, the statuary, the paintings of the former presidents, the columns...

...oops, sorry, no more lecture :)

Washington DC would be like a pre-planned manuscript where all the core values, all the important themes and the road-map of plot and character arcs are all laid out before construction begins. Sure, it may not always go 100% according to plan, but that's okay. Everything important about the idea remains, instilled into every scene, paragraph and sentence of the manuscript.

Anyone who sees these two cities will be amazed, overpowered by what the cites says about themselves and the people within.

Shouldn't a great story do the same?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Cherry Blossoms

Cherries are blooming
Against the green glass city
Scatter in the wind

A 30 second haiku written for the ephemeral beauty that are cherry blossoms. Sure, I could have written a better one if I'd taken more time, but that would defeat the purpose.

Standing on the seawall looking back at the city, they stand out amazingly against the sharp, linear towers of Vancouver.

In this perfect moment, I love this city.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Building Characters in Reverse

I was doing some research this morning on a particular developmental disorder (well, several actually) and stumbled upon an amazing blog. The author of the blog is a child psychologist and wrote a fascinating post on writing characters with emotional or mental disorders.

I've seen many sites and talked to a number of writers who advocate getting to know their characters by making character worksheets, interviewing them, listing their likes, dislikes and personal goals. I think it's wonderful if that works for other people, but I've never found those exercises to be helpful. It feels more like making a grocery list. Sure, I could decide that a particular character likes the colour orange, slept with a stuffed animal until they were 12 and prefers football to basketball, but that doesn't tell me who they are.

Perhaps because I'm coming into writing from animation, but I can't get a feel for a character (or person) unless I can see them, their body language, all their little quirks and ticks as they speak and listen. I view talking on the phone as only slightly above e-mail because I feel I'm only getting about 35% of the information that I would get in a face to face conversation.

I usually get laughed at whenever I submit the first chapter of a new story to my writing group. That's because our conversations go something like this:

Writer 1: "Why is <character a> behaving/speaking this way?"

Me: <shrugs> "I have no idea!"

Writer 2: "Then, what about <character b>? What is his/her relationship with <character a>"

Me: <shrugs again> "I don't know, they might be related, but I don't know yet if they are family, friends, back-stabbing enemies or they are secretly plotting to take over the world together."

Writers 1 & 2 look at one another, then look at me as if I'm crazy.

...and often I think they are right in their assessment.

(By the way, re-play this conversation but substitute in questions about world, setting and plot to fully grasp how frustrating I am. Now appreciate how wonderful my group is 'cause they put up with me)

I'm not only a pantser when I plot, I'm a pantser with the characters within the plot. I figure that somewhere in the folds of my brain all of the information for the story and characters exists. I just need to trigger it, like how a scent can trigger a flood of childhood memories. So I sit back and watch the characters run around and the longer I watch, the more information I find out. I don't plan, I don't ask myself 'what if' questions, I just let them do their thing and try to faithfully write it all down. I couldn't tell you what their favourite colours are... no idea if they hate their middle name (or if they even have one) or if they like cats better than dogs and I really don't care if their childhood dream was to become a ballerina or a fireman.

This seems to be working in reverse, but I write to find the story, to find the characters. I don't have a message (or lesson) that I want to impart, no political statement or even necessarily a desire to create a fun/interesting story. I never open a blank file with anything in my head other than a flash of a scene with one or more characters. They might be standing around or maybe fighting, they could be drinking a beer at a bar and complaining about the weather. This is all I know, this is all I have, and it's only when I start writing that the plot and characters begin to emerge.

Maybe this is more common that I think... well, actually, I'm positive that this is more common than what I am currently aware of.

All I know is, I'm no further ahead in understanding a character on the first page of a new story than I am in understanding a random stranger on the street I have just bumped into. Looking at a fully filled-in character sheet makes me want to run far, far away... like when you meet someone for the first time who feels the need to tell you every detail of their life. Too much information, right?

So back to this character I'm doing research for. Initially she seemed to be a self-imposed shut-it and I thought she was doing it to make some kind of a statement or to vent her anger/frustration. Then as new scenes flowed onto the page, it seemed like there was something more, that I wasn't quite *getting* it. It wasn't that she was simply ignoring people when they came in, it was as if they didn't even exist in whatever tiny world she had created for herself. I was surprised when she suddenly reacted with violence upon being touched. She bit, she screamed, and as I kept writing... her dialogue began to disappear. More and more she would simply stare at the person speaking, ignore them completely, or the rare occasion when something caught her attention, she would repeat back words or sentence fragments that another character had spoken.

So, just as if I met someone and while getting to know them, began to recognize the quirks of their reactions and personality, I have, over the course of writing this first draft, began to understand this character. A lot of her behaviour makes sense (psychologically) after figuring out her history, specifically, her interactions with the people around her during childhood, but I don't see a reason to stick her under any particular development-disorder-umbrella. Not everything this character does is due to her condition, or a reaction to the condition. So many other factors go into our own emotional, physical and psychological development, that I see no need in simplifying this character into a diagnosis checklist.

So yeah, I'm going to do my research, I'm going to make sure her behaviour is realistic, but the story is about the characters, not the disorder. So even if it feel like I'm working in reverse, I'm going to keep at it until I finish, until I faithfully represent this character to the best of my abilities.

What about you? At what moment does a character feel *real* to you, whether in your own writing, or when you connect to one in a book, tv show or movie?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


I've been out all morning doing spring cleaning, picking up branches, edging, mowing the lawn and weeding the garden.

Weeding is a job I absolutely hate even though I love having a garden. I tend to ignore it... out of sight out of mind, right? Until one day I go out and there is no garden, there is only a large patch of weeds. As I'm standing there, one thought runs through my mind.

I should tear everything out, spray weed killer and then go and hide in the house until everything is dead and I can start over from scratch.

Real mature, I know.

Then I look to the corner where I know all those beautiful lilies I planted last year will come up soon. Or they might be up already and are simply lost among the ugly weeds. I find where the plants should be that my mom dug up from her own garden and gave to me... the Solomon's Seal, the irises and those bright yellow flowers that I love, but can never remember the name of. Somewhere in the mess is the white Bleeding Hearts plant that took me two years to finally find, the Trillium bulbs (my favourite flower) and the black and green Gladiolas that I bought and gave half the bulbs to my sister so we both have the same flower.

And I give in.

I know that no matter how much I don't want to, I'm going to put on my gloves and dig out every last growing thing that I don't want in my garden because there are a precious few things that I do want and I can't give up on them.

I've been thinking about weeds a lot lately because I am alternating between writing a new story (project #3) and working on re-writes for a story I started about a year ago (project #2). I started that project #2 so I could avoid doing re-writes on another story (project #1), promising myself that when I finished the first draft of project #2, I would go back and do my re-writes on project #1. So I finished project #2, my writing group tore it apart about a month ago and I was all ready to go back to project #1.

...and then I started writing project #3.

I know project #1 is absolutely packed full of weeds. Whenever I open the file, I sit there and one horribly familiar thought runs through my mind...

But I also know that there are treasures hidden within that mess, things I love that I don't want to give up on. So maybe when I'm done with my spring cleaning outside, I might open project #1 and read through it once to see if I can see past the weeds.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tangled & Comedic Timing

So, on a cold, wet, overcast west-coast afternoon, I'm watching Disney's 'Tangled' and thinking about comedic timing.

I love animation, even more than I love movies/tv with real people... the main reason is that I love to over-think and analyze and animation has something special that regular film does not. Every visual jerk, twitch, pause and hesitation is intentional. Every moment of movement has been planned out, not only of arm and legs, but the wideness of the eyes, to the length of time the lashes are closed during a single blink. And every one of these tiny, intentional movements has to look natural.

...and I haven't even touched on framing, use of colour, shape, size and when to pare or overemphasize ratio and movement... all tools and tricks an animator can play with to better tell their story.

Animation is truly an orgy for the over-thinker.

When I was a kid, 'The Little Mermaid' came out in theatres. I can clearly remember staring at the screen with intense concentration... while not following the plot at all. What I was watching was how different Arial looked in each scene, essentially, when she would go 'off model'. After that movie, my dream job was to be a cleanup-artist in animation... that's the person who goes over every single hand-drawn frame and makes sure each character stays on model.

Boring, eh? Well, there's a point to this, I swear.

As an actor, having good comedic timing is something you either have, or you don't have. An animator has the ability to tinker with a character's actions to the microsecond. This attention to detail is something that can be trained into you, but I do think it's a real skill. Whether you're born with it or learn it later, some people have an almost perfect instinct for timing.

The visual information of characters in regular film (or animated films) is a large part of how we know what they are all about. Their body language is important, their ticks and twitches, the turn of their heads, the lift of their jaws, all of this can fill out a character in a few seconds without an info dump about their history, preferences and unique characteristics.

So what about when you read about a character in a book? What about when you are writing a character, a character you can see so clearly in your mind that you could act out their scenes with every single one of their micro expressions and muscle contractions?

Description is a dirty word for many readers/writers. For the reader, seeing one of those dauntingly enormous paragraphs that takes up an entire page where you know, you just know, you're going to be wasting several minutes walking through a character's dreamscape when all you really want is for the character to wake up and get on with the story!

So where is the happy medium? To build a world, to build characters that live and breathe in that world, you can't have a white room with white cardboard characters... but then no one wants to do a Jane Eyre either and fill an entire chapter with the description of a swamp.

Comedic timing might be something one is born with, but it can also be learned. Playing the balancing act between giving too much and too little information about your characters... I think some writers are born with that skill, but there's no reason why it can't also be learned.

To learn timing in acting or in animation, you act (or draw) out a scene without using words.

So when you're writing a scene, how much information can you cram in without using *words* (as in dialogue or narrator/descriptive info-dumps)?

If you've got time, throw on 'Tangled' and watch Pascal the chameleon and Maximus the horse... they are both fully rounded characters who doesn't have a single line of dialogue. Can you do that?

Monday, April 4, 2011

I am that dog

Yes, that's right.

Everyone has seen that one dog in the park who is chasing a ball or frisbee with such single-minded devotion that you can't help but laugh. Maybe you even feel better about yourself because it reminds you that humans are so much smarter than a silly dog running after a hunk of dirty rubber.

Today, while emailing back and forth with another writer friend, I hit a zen-like state when I realized, and accepted, that I am that dog.

We were talking about a story she is working on and I confessed to her that I was biting my lip to avoid bombarding her with a tidal wave of questions. She laughed and asked why... and then this was my response (edited for length, and yes my grammar is usually that horrible in emails):
YOU know what i'm like... when i get my teeth into something i get so enthusiastic it's like wrestling a bone from the mouth of a starving dog.

so, basically, i don't want to ask something, then ask more and more and more... and you're like, 'stop! i'm not even there yet!!' and get all panicky 'cause i'm asking you about the inner-workings of things that you've just barely scratched the surface of yourself...

'cause i don't know how to stop... now you will forever visualize me as a stupid dog that is so set on chasing a tennis ball that it runs itself to exhaustion... so just be warned that if you throw me a bone, you're going to end up with a lot of slobber on your hands.
So yes, I am that dog...

When I find something interested, I devour it. I tug, tear and shake it until there are pieces everywhere. I want to know everything about how it works, why it works and if there's something I can do to make it even better.

I could run with this and joke about how we humans choose to stay in jobs we hate so we can chase after that next meagre bonus, useless paper award or the promise of two extra vacation days when we hit five years of employment, but to be honest, that would be getting away from the point of writing this blog.

In that eureka-like moment of acceptance, I was stunned by the fact that I don't mind being that dog in the park. In addition, realizing that the off-hand confession to my writer friend was long overdue and probably the most honest thing I've said about myself in years. I think I generally come off as a calm and laid-back kind of person, but when I find something new that I'm interested in, that persona flies far, far away. In the last couple of years, the members of my writing group have seen that side of me, and it's something I've always been a little embarrassed about. Losing my cool in front of others. I try to control myself, to hold back, but it's oh so hard when they hand over a shiny new story. I can't help but just tear into it to find out who the characters are and why they are behaving the way that they do.

But I've been thinking today that maybe it's okay to be that dog. 

As a reader, one indulges in the characters and learns about their motivations and their interests, but that is a passive experience. A writer is on the opposite end of the spectrum, convincing readers of the legitimacy of their characters through the actions and reactions, innate preferences and hypocritical or selfish desires. To be an editor (or a beta reader) is a complicated marriage of the two where you have to weigh what you want as a reader, against what the writer wants, then once again against what the story wants (or demands). 

As someone who loves both reading and writing, I want to show the same respect to my writer friends as I would like them to give me. I want to honestly and enthusiastically support their work without it coming across as either flattery or unjustified criticism. I want to continue to chase that ball or frisbee for as long as they have the energy to throw it.

As a person who wants to grow, I'd like to expand my own little world by seeking out others with enthusiasm for the same kinds of things that interest me and I want to know more about things I have yet to learn about. Hence this blog, my first adventure online.

All that is good, but as for right now, I think I'll start chewing on the bone that my writer friend threw me. I say she's had fair warning that there's going to be slobber.