Monday, May 30, 2011

Character traits and the evil black cat

I was reading this blog post, and this caught my eye, because it's absolutely true for me too:

Characters, relationships, and feelings come first. Then setting, plot, and so on tend to filter in around it. The details of the plot, the bones that hold it together, are often the last things I work out; there are parts of the plot I don't know until I get to them in the book, and they happen.

Characters are similarly elusive. A conversation I'm writing may veer off course or get out of hand; I can intend a character to say something, but it doesn't mean she will. My characters often surprise me. And then I realize I was wrong about who they were, and I adjust my perceptions.

I wrote an older post on building characters where I said I pretty much don't plan anything, and often end up having to re-write stories after getting to the end and realizing what the characters are actually about. While I don't intentionally base characters on anyone I know, sometimes tiny aspects can seep into a story accidentally.

One of the strangest times this happens is when personality quirks of my cat claw their way into a story without my realizing. Parts of my dog will occasionally wander in and sniff around, but primarily it's my cat. Not only in characters, but in odd bits of description like this (from Project #3):

One of the weights on my chest stands, stretches, and lopes off on padded feet.

Yeah, it's weird.

It might be 'cause I work from home, so I'm not often around a lot of people. 

If right now you are nodding your head, frowning and thinking, 'she needs to get out more and interact with actual humans,' you are most certainly correct.

But I don't think that's the real reason.

I've mentioned before that my evil black cat is a rescue animal with *issues*. He bites, he yowls, he growls, he attacks. He has repeatedly thrown his body against a sliding glass door for 20 minutes straight because a dog wandered onto our patio and the cat was trying to get out and kill the dog. When a friend of mine came to visit, he stood on the stairs and hissed and spat, absolutely refusing to let her in the door.

So, he's very territorial. He also has major trust issues.

There are very few people who he lets touch him, even people he's known for the seven years we have had him (like my own sister or mother). For the people he does trust, that trust is absolute. When I'm standing, he will flop like a rag doll over both my forearms, so his legs and stomach are dangling in mid-air. From that position, I can roll him to my chest, then roll him out again to my hands... and he doesn't resist. He trusts completely that I will not drop him. He is the only cat I know who actively listens when you speak to him, will stop dead in his tracks and turn if you say his name (even when he has just escaped from the car in a gas station parking lot at 2am at the end of a 14 hour road-trip from Airdrie, AB to Birch Bay, WA), and who will instantly stop panicking or fighting the moment he sees your face or hears your voice.

...he's also the biggest suck for attention/love... but only when no one else is watching, even the husband.

His personality is fascinating to me, especially since one of the primary themes I explore/write about is the nature of trust.

For the first time, I'm including a cat in a story, though he did just pop up without me planning to include a cat in Project #3. So, for the first time I am whole-heartedly, and intentionally, basing a character on someone/something I know in real life. Note I said *basing*. Not everything about him is the same and certainly not the name. My evil black goblin was named after a philosopher (since he had such a rough *childhood*, I felt he deserved a good one), thought both names do start with the same letter.

So, what about characters in your stories? Are they an amalgamation of people you know, do they arise from a character sheet of questions? Have you looked back on something you wrote and it clicks in your brain that they are actually based on someone you know?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Six Sentence Sunday

If you haven't heard of it, here's the link.

It seems to be mostly romance writers, or maybe I just had bad luck when clicking on random people's links :)

Since I didn't mean to offend anyone, what I meant was I wasn't sure if this was something open only to Romance writers and I was unknowingly barging in 'cause I thought it was such a cool idea.

Mine is decidedly not romance.

This is taken from Project #3 which is fresh, un-shiny, first draft writing. Basically it's my *relief* project that I pick away at when I want to take a break from editing Project #2. The main character is in grade 6 and it's my first time writing first-person, present tense, and my first time writing MG (so be brutal, but also be kind).

Here's my selection:

Mom sighs and stands up. She takes my plate and hers to the counter, then climbs the stairs to the second floor. She never cried in front of me, not even in the hospital when they were stitching up my head and Kaitlin was in the morgue with a sheet over her face. I never actually saw Kaitlin, but they show dead people like that on tv and I see her like that when I'm trying to fall asleep at night. I hear mom’s door squeak shut and know that she won’t come down until her tears are gone and her eyes are no longer red.
Mom never wants to share her pain with others. Not even dad.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

So, it's been a bit of a bad day...

The hard drive on my laptop suddenly died.

...and along with everything else, I lost a significant amount of my edits on Project #2 including a complete re-write of the most problematic scene in the entire story.

Just that one scene was about six hours of work.

I feel really crappy at the moment, but thankfully I have an old laptop (my old MacBook from university days, circa 2006!) and all the backups of my stories, excluding this last week of work. Because of moving, I have really only been working on it during the long ferry rides back and forth between Vancouver Island and the mainland. And have been so exhausted from packing/loading/unloading boxes that I have not had the attention span to remember to back it up.

So yeah, I'm my own worst enemy. After I beat myself up a little more tonight, tomorrow I'm going to take my poor, limping laptop in to see if the data can be recovered.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Nature of Time and Decisions

Okay, so look at this and tell me what you see:

      1.   2.   3.
A.  O   O   O
B.  O   O   O
C.  O   O   O

Believe it or not, this is a diagram to explain how we make decisions.

No, I'm not telling a bad joke. This is an actual, real thing that I'm ripping off here...

Column #1 is past, #2 is present and #3 is future.
Row A is superstructure, B is structure and C is substructure.

The bolded 'O' in the centre is where you are in this precise moment and the problem you need to make a decision on.

Let's just get it out in the open right now that this post is based on a conversation I had with my father, who is an HR guru and Philosophy major in university (we often have strange conversations that no one else can, or wants to, understand). A much prettier version of the diagram is something he's used before as a guest speaker and when consulting for different companies.

The columns are pretty self explanatory, but the rows probably need a bit more... When you make a decision, you not only take into account the actual problem/circumstances (the structure), you also draw from your core values/beliefs (the superstructure) and also all the small things that contributed to the problem at hand (the substructure).

Clear as mud?

Well, now back to the columns. Not only are you drawing from the sub and superstructures, you are also looking back to the past and forwards to the future. Looking back is easy, but the future? Yup. We do it all the time. We project a number of hypothetical futures based on each choice we MIGHT make, then try to decide which hypothetical future looks best.

...even for simple things like buying a movie.

Y'know, right now you've got a normal DVD player... but soon you might get a Blu-ray player, but maybe by the time you are looking to purchase that new player, a new technology will be sitting all shiny and new on the shelf.

So you're standing with 4 copies of 'Alice in Wonderland' in your hand... the regular DVD, the Blue-Ray DVD, the combo pack (with both discs) and THEN there's the 3d edition with a total of three discs, or even four discs if it's a Disney movie!

Then while you're standing there holding 4 copies of the same movie, you start thinking back to that weird conversation about time and decision making and suddenly everything about this specific moment seems absolutely absurd. So you drop all the discs, walk out of the store and just watch the damn movie on iTunes or Netflix. let me skillfully shoe-horn in a writing comment into this page of weirdness...

So your characters... when they're making a decision, they're also under the influence of the cute little diagram at the top of this post. Sure, the reader isn't going to want to read a 20 page internal monologue of the character agonizing about every aspect of each tiny substructure pieces, the overarching substructure that influences how the character makes decisions and why, or the past and future projections... but the more pieces that you, as the writer, think about and try to slip into the story through subtext and other hints, the more real your characters will be.

There's nothing worse than a good plot, a good set-up and good characters... who suddenly make a decision that makes the reader scream in frustration and throw the book across the room.

Don't be that writer.

Since I'm editing project #2 at the moment, I'm thinking about this a lot. The older brother's *substructure* is that protecting his younger brother always comes first, no matter the cost to others, or to himself. Though the course of the story, this shapes every decision he makes and, while at times he seems to be contradicting himself in the *structural* decisions he makes, they are always in alignment with his core desire to protect his brother.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fur, Fire and Grass

Okay, so before leaping into moving-hell with both feet, my husband and I went up to my family's cabin for the long weekend. It's on a small lake about an hour outside Vancouver and it's a pretty old cabin. My grandfather built it when my mom was a little girl.

Granted, it has slowly gained a few *luxuries* over the years (like hot water, a shower and an upper floor with double bunk-beds so everyone doesn't have to sleep in the same room in sleeping bags) but I was actually kind of irritated by the latest change.

The wood-burning fireplace had been replaced by one that uses propane.

Okay, there's a good reason for it... *insurance*, but if you know anything about west coast Canadian weather, you'll know it rains a whole heck of a lot here. Half the time when we go up to the cabin, it pours the entire week and we all just sit inside reading... but the smell of the wood burning fireplace STILL made the trip worth it for me :)

Thankfully, we had nice weather this past weekend, but to feed my fire-loving-needs, we had campfires every day outside on the beach.

So, Sunday afternoon, I was sprawled out on the cool grass with my beagle curled up beside me and my evil black cat asleep on my stomach, their tiny bodies keeping me warm. The only sounds were the lapping of waves, the chirping of birds, the rustling of wind through the trees and the snap and crackle of the fire... and its gloriously smoky scent.

That, my friends, was a perfect moment.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

This is pretty awesome...

A 30 page manuscript critique by Elizabeth Law from Egmont.

I don't know about you, but I'm submitting!


I'm going to be a bit scattered for the next couple of weeks. Right now, my husband and I live in two cities split between three residences... and the stress has nearly killed us, so we're getting rid of two and moving into the third, which is a very old house that I affectionately refer to as 'the witch's hut' or simply 'deathtrap'.

I'm going to be going back and forth between two cities (involving ferry travel = 5 hour journey each way from point to point), packing up, coordinating movers, then I need to bring in a number of trades to fix the witch's hut to a livable state... like someone to fix the roof which is currently crumbling like gingerbread in the wet, west coast weather. I also need an exterminator to kill the carpenter ants, a plumber to check the copper piping which is about 15 years past its prime, and a painter to cover up the gloriously repulsive turquoise and pink walls.

Somewhere in there I have to convince my evil black cat to go willingly to the kennel for a week so I can retain what little sanity I have, and to not bite anyone while there. The dog is easy since she can be bribed. The cat... not so much. He's a rescue cat, so he has major issues around people and animals. Seriously, one time he cornered a 120 lb Labrador. The dog was whimpering and cowering and ended up jumping OVER a queen sized bed just to get away.

...I'm also near-obsessing on my edits for Project #2.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Buying Books

I was thinking today that I can't remember the last time I actually bought a book in a physical book store.

This disturbs me, but not for the reasons you might think... I'm not worried about the disappearance of small businesses or how we can go an entire day/week/month without ever seeing/interacting with a real life person due to our increased reliance on technology.

This disturbs me because it has drastically changed the types of books that I read.

In a bookstore, I am drawn, no, I am compelled to pick up that one single book on the shelf. You know the one... where there's only one copy and there are no other books by the same author. I've picked up some really interested books that way... discovered new authors, read genres (or subjects) I never would have otherwise.

Seriously, most of my favourite authors are ones no one else I know has ever read or heard of... like Kris Kenway. Edward Carey. Nicholas Christopher. Banana Yoshimoto. Jostein Gaarder. Joe Coomer. Helen Oyeyemi.

Now, I find out about books from websites, from reviews, from Amazon's recommendations. I don't find that new author who has only written one book. Or that obscure subject I picked up with no idea what I was getting into. I am only reading what most other people have read and promoted.

And I think that's sad.

I feel I'm missing out on a ton of good books. maybe I need to get off my computer and find a bookstore ;)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

'The Art of Subtext'

'The Art of Subtext', by Charles Baxter, is the first book on writing that I ever bought.

I picked it up about a year ago.

The notion of buying a book on how to write has always seemed odd to me. Sure, there's the basic grammar, paragraph, sentence structure rules and all... but is that really teaching you how to write?

Let me be the first off to say that I can't tell you the difference between an adjective and an adverb. I immediately get lost when people start throwing around words like 'syntax'. My knowledge of grammar is... well, let's call it *instinctive*. But I can just glance at a page of writing and tell you if it's high or low quality. I learned to read early, voraciously, and from all types of books. I know good writing, I just can't tell you what all the technical terms are. If I wanted to know, I'd probably go here.

So books on *how to write* have never really been of interest. I'm much more interested in learning how to edit my writing. Hence the book on subtext that caught my eye. I bought it online, so I didn't get to flip through it. No one had recommended it to me, and I hadn't seen any glowing reviews. In fact, I don't remember how I even found it in the first place.

But subtext... ah, again, a playground for the over-thinker :) Of course I was interested. I didn't even consider the practical implications... that it might help me refine my own writing... nope, it was a true nerd moment where my interest was piqued and I just wanted to know.

The first line did not disappoint:

This brief book examines those elements that propel readers beyond the plot of a novel or short story into the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken.

I read it through in one sitting. It's not a long book... 175 pages that are 5"x7" and it's 1/2" thick at best. It is not a heavy read.

If you've never thought much about subtext, this is an excellent little book. It has clear examples and even clearer explanations. If you're like me, and writing rules make your head hurt, I find it's much easier to learn from analyzing good writing than from a list of *do and do nots*.

I don't know if I could clearly say that it has or has not helped me become a better writer... I am not intentionally calculating and adding subtext. I don't ever think about subtext when I write my first drafts... but it has definitely heightened my awareness for finding the subtext in my own writing. And when I can find it, I can more easily enhance it and make sure that all those layers carry through the entirety of the text in a consistent and logical manner.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Nicknames: love->hate->delete

Okay, I don't like spreadin' the ol' hate around, but let's be frank.

There are 3 things I hate when it comes to books.


I'm sure there's many a writing site with rants on the first two, so I'll relax my *no hate* policy for the third one.

I. Hate. Nicknames.

In real life, sure, tons of people use nicknames. Thankfully, my name can't easily be shortened into anything weird or rhymed with anything obscene, so I made it through my childhood and adolescence without nickname-related-scars. But for most people, yeah. There's no problem there.

My cat responds/answers to... hmmm, I'd say close to 40 nicknames that he's acquired in the seven long years of his life with us. The dog, who turns three on June 1st, probably has around 20 nicknames. As the less intelligent of the two, (or perhaps I have it backwards...) she only responds to about half of those names.

So yes, I'm guilty of nicknames myself... but that's in real life.

On a page, in a book, I want simplicity. I don't want a character named 'Kimberley-Anne' where some people call her 'Kim', some call her 'Anne', or 'Kimmy', 'Annie', 'Kannie', 'Kan-Kan', and then others use her full name. I especially don't want an entire cast of characters, each with several names to keep track of.

If you're going to use nicknames, use them sparingly... please, only one character max per story.

And if you love to use a truckload of nicknames, please don't ask me to beta-read for you... I tell you, it's murder for a dyslexic person to keep track of so many names...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

When you just run out of words

So, a week ago, I mentioned a frustrating afternoon.

I won't say why I was frustrated, or at who. The point is I got frustrated. For me, that's rare. Despite being a <near-clinically> obsessed person, I'm really laid back when it comes to other people. Crap just kind of rolls off my back. I don't dwell, I don't vent, I don't hold a grudge or plot revenge. Usually I just forget about it.

...and that frustrates the hell out of a lot of people...

On the rare occasion I do get frustrated or angry, I stop talking. I run out of words. The moment I realize that I'm not in full control of myself, I just shut up 'cause I know there's no point in trying to effectively communicate while in that state.

This'll probably sounds like an odd admission from someone with a writing blog, but I'm not good with words.

What I mean is, I'm not good with expressing myself verbally. When emotions run high, all eloquence tends to disappear and the words just dry up.

Which frustrates me further.

I get this ball of tension in my chest that just sort of grows and squeezes. A chaotic flurry of thoughts and emotions that are stuck. That I can't explain away or tear out.

I also get frustrated when I write, or when I'm trying to write and the words just won't come.

What always makes me feel better is a walk or run in the rain. Better yet, a storm. There's just something about the driving energy, the slash and cold of the rain, the howl and tug of the wind... a greater whorl of chaos that's larger and infinitely more important than myself and my own tiny frustrations. It calms me down, it pumps me up, it raises my mood and brings a goofy grin to my face. There's just something so amazing about the rawness, the uncomplicated and unemotional surge of sensation that you get from being chilled, battered and soaked to the skin. I always feel alive again. It puts the fight back in me and washes the numbness from my bones.

Last week when I got back from my walk, I dried off, warmed up, then sat down and fell into my story (project #2) until I looked up and it was 2am.

Sometimes getting frustrated is a good thing. It can kick you out of that slump or push you to beat your head until something makes sense.

It's a good thing I have a waggly-tailed little partner who's willing to head out into the storm with me, and I'll happily tolerate the wet dog smell when she sleeps on my lap after getting back.

...and it's good that I live in a part of the world that sees a lot of rain :)

Friday, May 13, 2011

I am disgusted with myself

As of this morning, my Amazon wish list (which is essential my TBR list) has hit 13 pages, which is 306 items, all books except for 2 movies.

On my bedside table I have 6 books (lent by friends and family) that I have not touched. I also have an entire bookshelf of unread books in my office/library.

There's a very good reason for this... well, okay, there's a reason for this.

It may have already been established that I'm an obsessive person, and that carries through into all aspects of my life. Especially my reading. "Eclectic" is a nice way of describing my bookshelves... I could think of a few less nice descriptors, some of which have been uttered by my ever-patient husband who (I think) tries never to go into my office/library because he's terrified of the next inevitable move when he has to help me box and cart this collection to a new location.

Most of the unread books on my shelf are the lonely stragglers let behind after I have ended one phase of interest and started another.

...and here are just a few of those leftovers... and MANY of these are ones I've started, half-finished, or put down a few pages before the end. One book was lost in a freak, rogue wave in Mexico last year (The Golden Ratio)... and is on my wish list to remind me to re-purchase/finish it.

Fairy-tale/Mythology/Ancient Literature phase:
Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters (Kathleen Ragan)
Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (Jack Zipes)
Oxford Dictionary of Ancient Deities (Turner & Coulter)
Many Ramayanas, The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia (Paula Richman)
Arabesque, Narrative Structure and the Aesthetics of Repetition in 1001 Nights (Sandra Naddaff)
Harun al-Rashid and the World of the Thousand and One Nights (Andre Clot)
Early Japanese Literature: Kojiki or Records of Ancient Matters (Charles F Horne and BH Chamberlain)
Mythology of All Races (13 volume set of hardcover books)
Literature of Ancient Egypt (Simpson, Faulker, and Wente)
The Legend of Etana and the Eagle, or the epic poem The City they hated (S. Langdon)

Philosophy Phase:
Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Karl R. Popper)
The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays (Albert Camus)
The Analects (Confucius, Penguin Classics Edition)
The Book of Dead Philosophers (Simon Critchley)

Ultimate Nerd Phase:
The Big Bang (Simon Singh -> I love this guy, have read all his earlier works)
Alpha Beta (John Man)
Spoken Here (Mark Abley)
Curious and Interesting Numbers (David Wells)
The Golden Ratio: the story of PHI, the world's most astonishing number (Mario Livio)
Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World 3000BC to 500AD (Rob S Rice)
Geography of Religion: Where God Lives, Where Pilgrims Walk (John Esposito)
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Douglas R Hofstadter)
Ancient Inventions (Peter James)
E=MC2: a biography of the world's most famous equation (David Bodanis)

Classics Phase (including one intense reading of Russian literature):
The Idiot (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
Martin Chuzzlewit (Charles Dickens)
Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
The History of Thirteen (Honore de Balzac)
Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained (Milton)
Metamorphoses (Ovid)

World Comics Phase:
Amulet, book 3 (Kazu Kibuishi)
De:Tales (Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba)
Flight, volume 4 (various artists)
Wondercity, books 1-4 (Giovanni Gualdoni, Stefano Turconi, Emanuele Tenderini)

And that's only a fraction of the books/phases I have moved in and out of in the last 8 years... I haven't even listed any of the general fiction books on my shelf, or mentioned that I will read/love one of an author's books, then buy all of them... and not read them <cough, cough> Matt Ruff, Joe Coomer, William Wall, Kevin Brockmeier <cough>. This is why my Amazon wish list is obscenely large and why the oh-so-clever *recommendations* feature never works for me.

...this is also the reason my husband badgered me into getting a Kindle (which I now love). He claims that every book on my shelf has been paid for 1000 times in accumulative moving costs, and I would have to agree with him.

Now I wish that all the books on my virtual TBR pile would come out in Kindle editions... so there's no physical evidence of this obsessive book-hopping habit.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Learn to hurt yourself... and love it

sadism |ˈsāˌdizəm|nounthe tendency to derive pleasure, from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others.• (in general use) deliberate cruelty.
masochism |ˈmasəˌkizəm; ˈmaz-|nounthe tendency to derive pleasure, from one's own pain or humiliation.• (in general use) the enjoyment of what appears to be painful or tiresome.
So, we did S on Monday. Now it's time for M.

For those writers who claim they love editing, congratulations! You're already a natural M!

For those who hate editing, don't worry. No razor blades are involved. Editing is a whole different kind of self-inflicted pain.

When you learn to do it right, you'll get an unbelievable rush of pleasure when your critique partner or writing group tells you your characters are flat, they inhabit a *white room* world and your plot is deathly boring.

So how do we get pleasure out of editing, having beta-readers tear our stories apart and (eventually) get a high off of rejected query letters? Well, I can talk about the first two at least... 'cause my experience ends there.

There's nothing worse for a new writer than handing over a story that we love. It's perfect, it's amazing, everyone's going to love it and praise it and it's going to be so easy to sell. And then we get the feedback. And not all beta-readers are created equal. Some don't soften their criticism with well timed compliments, clear examples of what parts did work and ideas/suggestions for the parts that didn't.

Some beta-readers won't say anything helpful and instead will make statements like, "If I wasn't part of this group, I wouldn't have read beyond the first paragraph." "Scrap it, this isn't working." "This reads like bad fan-fiction." "I couldn't even get through the first page, so I don't have any feedback."

...and their statements may be 100% justified, but without helpful/constructive comments, they are essentially useless.

Good beta-readers will not only help you write better, they will help you learn to love being an M.

The thing about M vs. S is that they overlap, so it's not that difficult when you get right down to it.

Now, let's pretend you've all got good beta-readers. You've got that e-mail, or that page of scrawled notes. They tell you you need to re-write your first three scenes. They tell you your main character is unlikable or two dimensional. Your main love interest is the allegorical figure "perfect boyfriend". You're all tell and no show. Your ending terrible, either disappointing, boring, or it feels like it just dropped in from another story without warning.

It's hard to love comments like this, comments that point out the huge glaring errors, missing chunks of the plot or characters that you think are awesome, and they think are terrible.

But wait, here's how you learn to love being an M.

Big problems in your story means big re-writes. Big re-writes means you get to let your sadistic tendencies run full force over these same characters again! Do you get me? You've already spent 70,000 words torturing them and getting high off that torture... and now you get to do it all over again. Those characters are already tired and ragged. They're exhausted. They just want to lay down and go to sleep. Now you get to jab a pointy stick in their backs until they stand up, then you steal their shoes and coat, and march them through the mud, the hail, the sleet and the falling rock. You get to inflict more pain. Maybe even drop a spider down their pants when they're not looking.

So take another look at those comments from your beta-readers. Look at them and ask yourself, "So, if an alcoholic step-father is cliche, what would be worse? Maybe an abusive sibling but the parents think he/she is the golden-child?" "If the love interest is too perfect, what new conflicts would arise if he/she were a cheapskate who wouldn't pay for, or offer to pitch in, for anything? Or what if one of them is a vegan? Or a Buddhist? Maybe a pet allergy and the main character has attachment issues with his/her dog?" "It seems whipping my character isn't good enough... what about water torture? Or perhaps something to do with burning or peeling off the nails or skin?"

If you can feed your sadism through the comments from your beta-readers, soon you'll be salivating every time you're waiting for feedback... all those *easy* fixes that used to raise your spirits will now frustrate you 'cause what you're really after is an excuse to hack off someone's limb, kill off your MCs cute three-year-old cousin, or trap your claustrophobic character in a dry well for a week.

When you've advanced enough as a M to enjoy feedback from your beta-readers, you'll start to re-read your own work looking for that same rush, that delight when you find the problems in your writing. You'll revel in seeking out those horribly contrived plot-lines, you'll take pleasure in discovering useless characters and you'll chortle with glee at that flat dialogue and over-written description.

And that, my friends, is when you're a true writer. When you have a healthy balance of S & M.

...and yes, I think I might need therapy...

Monday, May 9, 2011

Are you an S or are you an M?

sadism |ˈsāˌdizəm|nounthe tendency to derive pleasure, from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others.• (in general use) deliberate cruelty.

masochism |ˈmasəˌkizəm; ˈmaz-|nounthe tendency to derive pleasure, from one's own pain or humiliation.• (in general use) the enjoyment of what appears to be painful or tiresome.

So, are you an S or are you an M?

I've read a lot of posts about whether writers are left/right brained, how to bring out creativity or meeting deadlines, writing vs. editing and the concept of writer's block.

...but don't writers write 'cause we love it? 'Cause we derive pleasure from it? do you see where I'm going with this?

Getting around those blockages, those aspects that we put off or avoid altogether, I think it comes down to what parts of writing get the serotonin flowing for each of us as writers.

Let's do S today and M next time :)

Writing is a sadistic process. You create these characters you love, you raise them up with family, relationships, success, love, happiness... and then you do your best to destroy them piece by piece. You have them lose their job, you kill their family, you have their spouse sleep with the coffee barista from around the corner.

...and as writers, we learn to love this. Sure, at first it's hard... so hard to do this. We want them to be happy. We want everything to go perfect and conflicts to be small and easily resolved... but when we work to become better writers, we quickly descend into the most depraved practices.

And that's okay. No one wants to read about perfect characters in a perfect world doing perfect things. That's boring. It makes readers angry 'cause life and people aren't perfect and we shake our heads, grip those pages hard enough to tear and we say, 'NO, this isn't real...', and at that moment, the writer has lost the reader. Sometimes for good.

So as writers, we learn to be sadistic. And we learn to love the rush of sadism, of the characters we love feeling as much pain as we can throw at them... and every time, every story, every re-write... we up those stakes. We inflict greater pain in more creative ways.

Sadism is the easiest to learn because it doesn't hurt us.

It becomes addictive, and so we write.

This is why there are so many writers. We're junkies for this rush, this ability to create beautiful worlds and beautiful characters and then burn them all to the ground.

Then we become just a little more human, a little more socially acceptable... and we write the climax where the main character succeeds in some way, is redeemed. And then we write the ending. Happy or not, either way, it has to be satisfying.

...and then we look for a new character to hurt, a new world to destroy. We look for that next hit of serotonin and we keep writing.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Compliments and Criticisms

Can you think of the best compliment you ever received for your writing? I'm not talking about your best friend, your significant other or your mom telling you that you're going to be a best seller... I'm talking about something that spurned you on to want to write or gave you the sense that you could actually write.

I have a very distinct memory of mine. Well, I have three actually, this was really the second.

I was in high school and it was two days after I had turned in a (required) short story. I was wandering the empty halls when my English teacher stopped me and, for a moment, I thought I was going to get in trouble since I was, so very obviously, skipping one of my classes... just not his.

He had this really weird expression on his face... he didn't say "Hi" or "What class should you be in?" He just looked at me, then out of nowhere, he said, "I don't understand that story you turned in."

...and, being the smart-mouth I was, (and primarily concerned with avoiding trouble for skipping class) I answered back, "Well then you should read it again." And I trounced off as fast as I could without looking like I was running away. After all, I didn't want him cluing in that I probably wasn't supposed to be roaming the empty halls in the middle of the school day.

Doesn't sound much like a compliment, does it? Well, I did get an A+ on that story and until I graduated all my English teachers were overly interested in what I was writing to the point where two of them *borrowed* my Grade 12 Provincial English Exam from the officiating examiner so they could read the essay portion of my exam. I suspect they could have gotten into a LOT of trouble for that... since the Provincial exams are taken very seriously...

(okay, that particular incident was the third compliment. The first I'm still not going to talk about 'cause it's bitterly embarrassing)

The reason I found it to be a compliment is because the professor wasn't a stupid guy. Sure, I may have been a bratty immature teenager, but I respected some of my teachers and this guy was one of them. His comments on the story... I'm not going to share them, but that is one of the few things I have kept from my high school years. Because of his reaction in the hallway and because of what he wrote.

So that's my idea of a compliment. Does that seem a little warped? Strange? Incomprehensible? Sure, I wouldn't disagree on that point. The story was pretty weird, I might add. Enough to get the school councillor calling me into her office at random times for a *friendly chat about anything that was bothering me*, of which I usually spent it sitting silently in full-on sullen-teenage-glory until I was eventually released.

As a general rule, I hate compliments. Especially when it's to do with writing.

So what do I like? I like criticism. My usual tag-line when I e-mail sections to my writing group is, "Shred it!" (figuratively, not literally as that would be counterproductive). I want to know what's wrong. I want everything torn apart into tiny ragged pieces, with nothing spared or left intact. I want ruthlessness. I want the masochistic pleasure in being taken down a peg (or several), of having pointy objects shoved into the softest parts of my writing until it bleeds. I will eternally ask, "but what's wrong with it?" until they're ready to throw me out.

I'm in a dilema, at the moment, where I'm looking for that next level of pain. I want a limb hacked off, an organ removed, a good, old-fashioned scalping.

Today I had a very frustrating afternoon where I *tried out* a writing group in a city I don't live in, but visit at least once a month. Don't get me wrong, I love my local group, but none of them write YA and I want good, hard criticism from people who live, eat and breathe the genre. I want my weaknesses pointed out. I want to improve, I want to grow. I am not content with the level I currently write at and my own self-instruction has reached the limits of what is feasible. I need that critical second-eye.

But right now I need a hot bath. To ease the frustration of my afternoon adventure, I walked my dog (who is clearly a trooper) in the pouring rain for an hour until the both of us were soaked clean through.

Friday, May 6, 2011

New Reading?

...on the *dark characters* note, I've never read a lot of YA before, but one of my writing group members recommended Hunger Games to me a couple months ago and, when I did buy/read it, I was ecstatic to find a book (and characters) that I really enjoyed!

I made a short list of the YA books that I have read (after being recommended to me) on the right, but if anyone has any suggestions for dark books (without heavy romance) I would LOVE it!!

...especially some with male main characters ;)


Dark Characters

I think we all have different ideas of what a *dark character* is.

I don't like writing characters that fight against a super-bad-take-over-the-world-antagonist. I prefer when the plot is pushed forward by a character fighting against their own dark nature. I think everyone can relate to stories like that on varying levels.

So here's an example of what I mean when I say 'I write dark characters'.

I'm doing re-writes on a story where two brothers are the main characters. The older brother is 15 years old and is totally obsessed with keeping his younger brother safe. In his mind, everyone else in the world is expendable, including himself. Out of desperation, guilt and *duty*, he lets another character beat him repeatedly, he will fight, lie, betray and nearly kill to protect his brother. At the beginning of the story he is already in a bad place, but as the story progresses he is slowly driven into a corner until he's nearly sociopathic and so tired that he just wants to lay down and die.

In a way, this character is the simplest character in the story. His single-minded devotion is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. In his character arc, it is necessary to *break* that obsessive focus on his younger brother. At the very end of the story, I wanted the impression to be that he has been stripped raw, all the rotten flesh has been torn from his bones, all the burdens (both real and imagined) have splintered and fallen away and he is left empty.

This may not seem like a happy ending, but I think it's a hopeful one. Emptiness suggests an entity that is waiting to be filled and, after this character has had his darkness stripped away, I would hope that he is filled with better things. That the reader feels that this character can and will heal himself given enough time and a new focus.

What do you consider to be a *dark character*?

Writer envy... or not

here's the link to the original page

Ever get this feeling of frustration while reading a book? Or beta-reading for someone else?

I get this, even when reading books I love by writers I wish I was.

I've also been there during life-drawing classes like this, especially after I switched over from a *real* post-secondary institution into one for animation/game design & programming/etc.

Oh. My. Goodness. I don't even want to rehash memories of the Japanese-obsessed-fandom that was rampant in that place. Note to single-guys: wearing a 'Decepticons' t-shirt does not make you a bad-ass and gushing about the complexity of dating-sim games is not the best way to pick up chicks in a place where only 2% are sporting a double-x chromosome.

...but I'm getting off topic.

It's great when you love a particular writer. It's not so great when you try to be that particular writer. I've always thought it was a little weird when I ask someone what they write, and they list off ten published authors. Sure, maybe you like those authors, but you don't write like them. Just because I like Haruki Murakami, doesn't mean I'm going to write in his style... in fact, I'm going to do my darndest not to.

I've seen this a lot, mostly when beta-reading. I've heard (or read comments from) many writers who admit to *slipping into* whatever style of writing they are currently reading. My biggest complaint on this (since I don't like spreading negativity) is that I get frustrated.

Point 1 of frustration: I want to read that writer's voice, not a vapid, wavering semblance that tries to emulate ten different author voices all at once.

Point 2 of frustration: It is difficult enough to slug through an in-progress story with disappearing or 2d characters, plot holes (or chasms), bad dialogue, huge info-dumps or purple-prose... the usual *first-draft* problems without also being jarred out of one voice and into another. This is especially a problem in 1st person stories.

Point 3 of frustration: This is even worse when the writer mixes genres... the snarky female voice in a heavily-descriptive setting accompanied by technical (or humorous) tangents.

If you have this problem as a writer, please, for the love of your beta-readers, leave your story for a month, then re-read it with fresh eyes before sending it off to your writing group! Not only will you get better feedback, you'll also get a beta-reader willing to read more of your work in the future.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Beta-reading = what the story wants

This is one of my favourite sites. Not only does it have helpful advise for revising your own work, but I have found it invaluable as a beta-reader.

Right now I am 3/4 through a first-draft manuscript for someone who has never written a full-length novel before. I also know that I am the first non-friend/family member who will have read/commented on it...

As you can imagine, there are a lot of problems. Most of them are typical for a new writer's first manuscript.

Which is why that site is so awesome. Along with my comments, I can link to a bunch of helpful articles that hopefully this writer will read and will learn something new that will not only help them write better, but help their read their own work with a more critical eye. Over the last 6 or 7 years, I've (conservatively) read more than a dozen full-lenth manuscripts, an uncountable number of single chapters and many, many first chapters of new work or short stories.

Beta reading is hard. As a reader, I know what I do like and what I don't like, but beta-reading is not about that. I can comfortably say that out of every story or partial that I have ever read, maybe only one or two of those would fall into the category of books I would pick up in a bookstore to read for my own personal pleasure, so if I was commenting based on like/dislike... I certainly wouldn't be a very good beta-reader.

When I have agreed to read something far, far outside my *preferred* genre (and believe me, that's happened... <cough, cough> 280,000 word epic fantasy/sci-fi combination... <cough>), I always let the writer know in advance, but I don't think it impacts my ability to give a thorough read-through and list my comments. In fact, I find that when I read something in my preferred genre, I have a much harder time being objective because I am more emotionally involved in the story.

Objective? Is that even possible?

Okay, if you're sceptical about the notion of absolutes or the ability to be objective, believe me, I've been there and over-thought that.

So when I say *beta-read objectively*, this is what I mean:

I think any beta-reader has to constantly keep three things in mind.

1) what they, as a reader wants
2) what the author wants
3) what the story wants

...and I see this as a circular issue. What I, the reader, wants may not be what the author wants, but what the author wants may not be what the story wants AND what the story wants may not be what I, the reader, wants.



But I've had a lot of time (and reading) to think about it.

As a beta-reader, I have the duty to tell the writer what I, as a reader, wants from the story they have offered. I also have to understand what they want, because often the author knows what they want to say, it's just not coming across clearly. It's my duty as a beta-reader to always remember that this is not my story, and I think this is where most beta-readers get caught up. They get emotionally invested and can sometimes demand that the author re-write the story to their preferences. The beta-reader can think they know best and the author should listen to them.

That part of the problem is easy, right? It's the 'what the story wants' that's more complicated.

I know as a writer how easy it is to get bogged down in your own story and lose sight of the bigger picture. Sometimes where you want to go with a story is not necessarily where you should go with it. Often, I think, writers play it too safe. When you like your own story, when you like your own characters, sometimes it's really hard to maim (or kill) that one character, delete a side character that you love, or even start (or end) the story in a completely different place. I think, as a beta-reader, it is my duty to point out places where limbs need to be hacked off, whole sections amputated and discarded, if I think it will make the entirely of the story better. Even if the writer doesn't want to hear it and doesn't agree.

Even if, as a reader, I love that particular character that I'm advising to cut, or I love that first scene with the awesome back-and-forth cutting dialogue that... that really should be cut.

It doesn't matter what kind of story, I always take it seriously if I've committed to being a beta-reader. Sometimes it's complicated, or I'm gritting my teeth (hating myself) while writing out my comments, but I always try to do what works best for the reader, the writer, and the story.

What are your thoughts on beta-reading, both as a reader, or a receiver of those comments? Are there places in the commentary that fall short of your expectations? What areas could you improve on, as a beta-reader, and what areas do you wish your beta-readers would improve the feedback they give, or the way they give it?

Sometimes all it takes is writing out a list of things you want looked at...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Description on the first page

I'm not planning to post writing snippets very often, but I woke up this morning fixated on the opening image of a certain story.

Sure, there's a ton of  *Don't do this!* lists out there that say to never start a YA story with description, but in this particular case, the setting is extremely important... not only because it isn't *our world* but because of a main character's arc in the story (so, subtext), and because the world/setting is one of the main characters.

So, here was my original (written May 5th, 2010):

In the city of glass, there was one stone tower. No one knew how long ago it had been built, for the city garden had encroached on the odd building, throwing long arms of ivy and morning glory up its walls, their tiny fingers finding holds in the give of the stone that they could not find in walls of glass. No one remembered who had built the tower, or why, or how, for the people knew only of melting sand and minerals to pour moulds of glass and iron upon which to raise their city. Very few went near the garden. The erratic roots and branches of the plants terrified them, that the irregular leaves and flower petals that grew in oddly regular spirals would somehow invade and corrupt their safe, easily measured life.

...I made almost no changes to this over the last year because I was still writing the story (on and off) up until January 2011. Then I set the whole thing aside so I could look at it with fresh eyes. Here's the updated version from this morning (May 3rd, 2011):

In the city of glass, there was one stone tower in a garden grown wild. Abandoned and feral, long tongues of ivy and morning glory were devouring the walls, their hungry roots finding holds in the stone that glass could not provide.
No one remembered who had built the tower, or why, or how, for the people only knew how to pour moulds of glass and iron upon which to raise their city. Very few went near the garden, and those that did hurried past it, their eyes averted from the erratic maze of roots and branches. They feared that the irregular leaves and flower petals that grew in oddly regular spirals would somehow invade and corrupt their short, easily measured lives.

Is this a little better, or not? ...I hope it is, but I know it still needs work ;)

I'm going to skip over my first two reasons for beginning this story with description and just talk about how the *world* is a character... or to be more precise, how I am attempting to show the world as a character.

This takes place in a very stagnant society, a once great civilization sliding backwards. The garden and tower are important to the story (plot-wise) but also as a metaphor for the city itself. Abandonment. Starvation. Feral, unchecked growth overtaking lost knowledge. Citizens displaying superstition and willful ignorance. I also wanted a slightly lyrical beginning, like you would see at the start of a fairy tale, for that is a lighter side of superstition, a dangerous setting and childhood fear.

I want this particular atmosphere to hang over the story, to cast a shadow over every scene, every new character, every piece of dialogue uttered. I don't want the reader to forget, even for a moment, the world in which the main characters inhabit. That is why I introduced the setting before the characters.

Now, while that's all well and good, there's something you can't see in this example. In my first version, the next two paragraphs were also description. This morning I deleted these two paragraphs and littered the information throughout the next three scenes.

It was important for my writing process to get all the description down at once because having it in a big block at the beginning made it easy for me to flip back and remind myself where my characters were living. Once the first draft is done it's no longer necessary and it is highly detrimental to keep long paragraphs like that right up front. I mean seriously, the first 350 words were description... there is no way a reader would have turned the page to see what kind of characters lived in this world...

In the new version, the description is 122 words, then in the very next line/paragraph two characters are introduced. If there are approximately 250 words/page, I've used up half my quota on the world. That leaves me with 128 words for the characters. Since this story is written in third person rather than first, I'll need to work even harder on those 128 words to keep the reader's interest because they are not immediately jumping inside the head of a character.

I find breaking it down to numbers (very analytically) helps me step away and assess it from a much more objective viewpoint.

How much do you think about your first page? Are there tricks or techniques you use or think about when writing a first draft or re-writing?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Marshmallows, fear and popping your query-cherry

Okay, this is too awesome.

I am not yet at the stage where I am querying, but I have sent out one query, so I guess I'm like the kid that licked the marshmallow, but didn't bite it.

In the second week of January, I promised my writing group that I would finish my rough draft (of a 65,000 word story I had, at that time, only written 30,000 words of) and hand it over before I left the country on January 25th. So I got to work. I had about 3 weeks to write 35,000 words.

...and I wrote, a bit. I knew if I was late, my writing group wouldn't care (we're pretty lax about deadlines), and this looseness had slowly worn off on me over the years. I know I can write fast and hard when I need too, I just had to find a way to kick-start myself into *obsessive mode*.

And I found it about a week later when an online writing-buddy asked me to beta-read her submission for ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award)...something I'd never heard of. She told me about it and that the deadline was 3 days before my promised deadline to my writing group., y'know that obsessive part of my personality? Well, I figured holding myself accountable to an even earlier deadline would probably make me write faster.

And it did. I wrote those 35,000 words in 10 days (including 6,500 words on the day the contest opened), gave it a quick grammar check, then submitted it and didn't once look back. I was not going in with any false/elevated expectations. I was handing in a first draft in which I already knew the first two scenes needed a drastic re-write. I didn't care. I had sent myself an insane goal and I had accomplished it (and did manage to make it through the first round in the contest, when the VINE feedback nailed everything I already knew had to be re-written).

While I was half-insane/bleary-eyed at 12:10am on the day the contest opened, I haphazardly e-mailed off a query to an agent.

No, this wasn't an accident. I meant to do this and I even felt a pang of self-loathing when I did indeed receive that rejection e-mail.

When I first found out about the ABNA contest, I didn't immediately leap at it. In fact, I think it was almost a week after hearing about it that I decided to sign up. During that week I kept asking myself why wasn't I leaping at it? I mean, the deadline was only a few days earlier than I had originally planned. I wouldn't be doing more work than I was going to do in the first place. It was a first draft, so I didn't have any *great expectations*, so there was nothing to lose by not proceeding to the next round of the contest... so why not? Why was I hesitating? When I actually thought about it and laid everything out in this way, I realized that if I didn't enter, the only possible reason was that I was being a coward.

I was afraid of submitting and being rejected in some way.

So I submitted.

Then I submitted a query to an agent picked almost at random. Okay, not at random. That person seems really awesome online and I would have been ecstatic to work with them, and even though they rep YA, I think what I write is not exactly what they like... and that's okay, but I still don't recommend this. If I wasn't so caught up in facing my fears, (it's called tunnel-vision. It's the reason I will forget to eat for an entire day or why the dog has learned an intricate and annoying tap-dance to alert me when she needs to go outside), I would have realized the absurdity of doing so. I was wasting someone's time, and I hate wasting people's time. It's rude.

So, yeah, I did wrong, but I don't think of it as burning a bridge and at least I learned from my own mistake and won't repeat it in the future. Silver-lining folks. Even the bad has good.

The point is that I needed to face my fear and get it over with. Next time, when I send it to an agent I truly do want, when I get that rejection, it won't hurt quite so much. When you analyze a situation and the best reason for NOT doing something is fear... that's what I can't stand the most. I can handle a lot of things, but fear of something so silly as another person not liking my writing... all I could do was shake my head and tell myself to grow up and submit (yes that was intentional) :P

So how do you deal with fear?