Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Learning new tricks

I think we like getting comfortable. Too comfortable.

As humans, we don't like to feel out of our element, don't like to be second best, one step behind everyone else, the only one at the office water cooler who doesn't get the punchline, but laughs along anyway.

It's fear that's holding us back.

Fear of looking silly, stupid, slow and incompetent.

It's great to feel pride in what you know, what you can do, your successes, the goals that are close you can almost guarantee you will attain them. It's horrible to admit that you failed at something, or that you gave up. It's humiliating.

I think it's one of the reasons a lot of adults who quit college/university to work never go back. That people will stay in jobs they hate, or stay with partners long after the relationship has died. There is comfort in the familiar, comfort in knowledge, comfort in understanding tomorrow's expectations.

I have a near-masochistic hatred of this kind of fear.

Let me clarify, I'm not saying I'm immune to these fears... 'cause I am riddled with them...

I just hate being a slave to fear, so I will willingly throw myself into impossible situations the moment I realize that's the only thing holding me back.


When I read this blog post, I immediately got that sinking-stomach feeling, that flush of embarrassment across my face, that oh-crap-I-missed-the-boat-mental-head-slap as I realized Project #3 sucks. Yup, I fail at 1st person perspective. Filter words? Oh yeah, I got 'em in spades.

So, after that first punch to the gut, I console myself (poorly) by remembering this is my first attempt at 1st person perspective. I remind myself that this project is supposed to be *fun*, a mental-break from editing Project #2, a sandbox to play in when I've finished my homework.

...but it just doesn't help. That raging feeling of inadequacy can't easily be glossed over.

Then I think of the one thing that makes me smile again.

I've come up against worse, I've prevailed, I've overcome.

A year ago, I would not have dared start an online blog. Four years ago, I wouldn't have thought I could attain an Honours university degree because it required a second language. Six years ago, I wouldn't have considered quitting my job and returning to university to finish my degree. Ten years ago, I wouldn't have volunteered my editing services to anyone, certainly not as part of my job. Twenty-some-odd years ago, I couldn't have ever imagined letting someone know that I was dyslexic (though I didn't have the word for it at that age).

When I was seven, fear of being *outed* as silly, stupid, slow and incompetent made me so sick from stress that I missed a ton of school. At one point, I had a fever of 107 degrees for almost two weeks and had to have twice daily ice baths to lower my temperature. They were afraid I might die. I was always in and out of the doctor's office, having blood drawn, getting checked for anything and everything my GP could think of. Stress was not something they would normally diagnose for a seven year old child.

In light of overcoming that, worrying about filter words seems pretty ridiculous, right? Remembering all that, now I can just shrug and say, "I can improve. This isn't the end."

I'm not one for dwelling on the past, except in cases like this. When you are trapped by fear, the best thing you can do is look back and see everything you have accomplished.When the future unknown seem daunting and insurmountable, looking back on your past successes will remind you that you're not standing on a flat plain looking up at the Himalayas. You're already 60 or 80% of the way there.

Don't let fear trip you up and stop you from pursuing something new, something different, something a little crazy. Even if you're an old dog, you can still learn a new trick. Take a look back at what you've already accomplished if you need a reminder of just how far you've already come.

How do you handle fear?

Monday, June 27, 2011

The alarm clock in the box

Today is my last day to pack/move stuff from the old house and haul it to "the witch's hut". I brought over another load late last night and out of sheer exhaustion, left the un-opened boxes stacked in the hallway.

Bright and early (well, not so bright, 'cause it was 5am), I heard a noise. Yup. In ONE of the 6 large boxes in my hallway, an alarm clock was going off.

Can you imagine it?

Bleary-eyed, I'm searching for an exacto knife to start the hunt 'cause I can't go back to sleep with that going off, but since I've turned the light on, the dog is now up and doing her beagle-dance around the kitchen 'cause she wants to be let out on the grass and have her breakfast, the cat thinks I'm playing a game of stacking and unstacking boxes for him to climb on and keeps trying to rub his face up against the hand that's holding the blade... and I'm almost beside myself 'cause I'm just so tired, every muscle in my body feels weak (including those in my hand) and I can't seem to cut the tape properly, but I'm committed now and I just have to keep going.

Yup, that's really how I started my day.

And that's also what it feels like when inspiration hits and you just gotta write, despite everything else going on around you.

So, I've got a house full of boxes, the other house that still needs to be packed up, then properly cleaned up for the new owners, two pets who are still leery and skittish about the new house and all the new/old/ancient smells and sounds, and yet I want to ignore everything and just sit down on my computer and immerse myself in writing. I want to do everything possible to find that alarm clock in the box 'cause the incessant ringing of new ideas is driving me insane.

What about you? How do you deal with that driving urge to write that always seems to come at the most inconvenient time?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Six Sentence Sunday 4

Six Sentence Sunday: give in to peer pressure... click the link, read, comment, enjoy.

I'm in the middle of moving, so I'm a little frazzled at the moment, but I have noticed that many SSS contributors have started at the beginning of their stories and post 6 consecutive sentences each week. That way, people can follow the story along.

I think that's pretty cool and wish I'd figured it out sooner rather than just posting random snippets. I'm going to steal it :)

As a bit of a lead up, this is only 5 sentences, but they are set apart from the rest of the text. The reason is, this story is kindof like a dark fairy-tale, so I wanted that sort of stylized, story-time opening. I may or may not keep the entire thing, but for now, this is what's there.

Okay, enough chattering... here are the first 5 sentences of Project #2 :

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.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Breaking things

So, still caught up in the process of moving... well, unpacking I guess.

And I literally have not touched my writing/editing since this. Partially, it's 'cause moving is, well, a difficult and all-consuming thing... so many people to call, changing hydro, phone, gas, etc, organizing the movers and, in this particular case (since it's a 1953 house we're moving into) dealing with a heck of a lot of trades to make the thing livable and safe.

I may have already mentioned that I refer to this *new* house as, "the witch's hut". The first time I saw it was in mid-winter on a dark and dreary day. It backs a nature reserve on two sides, so it's surrounded by enormous trees and ivy had taken over the one-acre yard, encroached onto the moss-covered patio and half-devoured a built-in barbecue/cooking area. Now, in the light of summer, the backyard has turned into a field of four-foot tall grass, a buck (young male deer) almost charged me last week and the dilapidated pool is housing a pair of wild ducks who have four newly-hatched ducklings.

...and that's saying nothing about the house itself...

Seriously, there's a lot wrong with it, both the house and the property... so this move has been doubly complicated because I have been waiting for tradesmen to finish their work so other tradesmen can come in so that I can move stuff in...


In our first five years of marriage, my husband and I moved seven times. This is move #8, but it seems much harder this time around.

So, why is this post called 'Breaking things'?

I wasn't referring to going smashy-smashy with a sledgehammer, or an unfortunate accident with the movers. Nor about the rotting roof caving in on us in the night (still gotta get that fixed). Actually, I was thinking about the yard.

I grew up on an acre property. Across the street was a farm with about 15 acres of natural trees/forest. Across the street on the other side was another farm that raised meat cattle. The next street over was a mink ranch (I know, weird, right?).

My parents, when they bought their property, were one of the first *houses* on the street. Their yard originally looked very similar to what I'm moving into. Something that's wild. Now it's almost completely manicured except for a strip of natural trees/plants/etc for privacy on two sides. Other than the farm directly across the street, all the other farms have been turned into subdivisions. A private school (Kindergarden to Grade 12) has been built where the mink ranch used to be.

The natural wildness of the yard is what originally hooked me on the witch's hut... even with the overly aggressive deer. I grew up playing hide-and-seek in untouched forest, camping out with sleeping-bags inside ancient, rotten tree trunks that were about ten feet in diameter. I've milked cows, watched calves being born, bottle-fed them, petted them, then a few weeks later, seen them hanging off the barn wall, blood draining and eaten their meat for dinner. There's not a lot of things that make me squeamish.

The witch's hut needs a lot of *breaking* to make it livable. That field of four-foot tall grass has to go, the water in the disgusting pool needs to be pumped out, everything cleaned, and a new filter and pump installed... but only AFTER the duck family has moved on. Some of the enormous trees need to be cut down or thinned because of safety. The ivy needs to be tamed, a fence needs to be put up to keep the aggressive deer out, and keep my little beagle in and safe from predators.

The trick is to break things without destroying what you loved about it in the first place.

I love the wildness of the property, and I want to preserve it as best I can, but compromises have to be made. If my dog isn't safe, if the pool turns into a mosquito-infested West-Nile-virus breeding ground, if the trees fall on the house in the middle of a wind-storm... all of those things have to be planned for and prevented.

It's the same with *breaking* things in a story during the editing process. We have to compromise and try to keep the aspects of what we love while also planning for and preventing the disasters.

I know somewhere in that field of grass are original old stone walls that are currently hidden. The overgrown, weed-filled gardens are harbouring flowers. There are beautiful ferns growing amongst the ivy, and there are treasures in every first-draft that are just waiting to be rediscovered, rescued and allowed to thrive once again.

My fingers are itching to get outside, but also to get back to editing.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fragile, ephemeral and full of hope

Isn't this amazing? This is done by a Swedish photographer named Erik Johansson.

Now, I've always been a big fan of MC Escher and the illusionist artist Kurt Wehner who uses the street as his canvas, but this picture by Erik Johansson holds a special place in my heart.

I like this particular image because Project #2 takes place in a glass city. No, it's not a fantastical world in which magic holds everything together. There's like a zillion reasons I chose this particular setting, but one of the main reasons is the fallibility of glass. It breaks, it shatters, it splinters. It's not forgiving, nor is it everlasting. It's hard, it's cold, it's dangerous, but it's oh, so very beautiful.

I've never thought of myself as a fantasy writer and my reading tastes have never included dragons, wizards or elves, except in the occasional fairy tale. I like mythology. I like sociology. I like cultures and the stories that first arose when people tried to explain the world around them.

So why did I end up writing about a glass city?

Because it's so fragile.

Because my characters are fragile.

I read this fabulous interview with Beth Revis, who reiterated her stance on dystopian novels stating,

"They are all, at their heart, hopeful. Create a dark setting, but populate it with characters that are willing--are fighting--to rise above it."

My characters are fragile, their world is fragile, but they are doing their best despite it.

...and since the movers are coming today to haul everything to the *new house*, I am certainly worrying about the fragility of things...

Monday, June 20, 2011

Subtly in silence or in-action

This is something I always think about when writing.

...I'm not claiming to achieve it as skillfully as the author highlighted here, but it is something I am actively aware of.

Again, this tendency (awareness?) may partially be a product of my earlier training/work in animation. Body language fascinates me. How far apart people stand when they talk, where they look, what their hands do, preoccupation with personal space in elevators, on public transit or in movie theaters... I'm interested in all this kind of stuff and I often try to incorporate it into scenes.

Here are a couple snippets (in chronological order) from Project #2 where (hopefully) what's important comes across. One of my critique pals says my writing is too subtle, but the other one gets it.

 Feel free to add comments/make suggestions.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Six Sentence Sunday 3

Six Sentence Sunday. Go, read, comment. know you want to :)

For something different, how about 6 sentences from Project #2?

The sun was directly above and there was nowhere to hide from its unrelenting glare. It pounded down onto the streets making the smells stronger, the tiles hotter and the merchants in the marketplace grumpy and intolerant.
Simon’s clothes had almost dried, but the lingering dampness from the river seemed to hang in the material, its humidity like a furnace. The sun was magnified in every drop of moisture on his skin and the heat of Faith’s body against his back only increased his discomfort.
Simon hitched Faith a little higher. It wasn’t what he wanted. She was supposed to be afraid.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Wrestling with character motivation and Faith

...I'll admit it. Like Winnie the Pooh in the honey tree, I'm stuck.

In Project #2, I have a problematic character. She's so problematic that when I wrote my first draft, she essentially disappeared for the second half of the story. No, not literally. She still appeared in most of the scenes, but her character arc ground to a halt and she just... felt stuck. Like she had suddenly turned into a placeholder, a 2-d cut-out. An 'x' marked on the floor of a stage so an actor knows where to stop and turn.

Three scenes into my first draft, I fully understood the two main characters and their arcs... but this girl... oh, she's constantly been giving me trouble.

Lately I've done a lot of research and I think I finally have a grasp of what she's like and how she is going to change, but then I got up to a scene near the half-way point and... and... and...

...and I'm stuck again.

Now that I know more about her, I have to change one tiny action in one single scene. Logically, it makes sense. According to all my research it makes sense. My brain is screaming at me to make this change...

...but it throws a monkey-wrench into the plot. A monkey-wrench bolted to a crate of C-4 with a lit fuse and an open canister of gasoline.

Yes, this one tiny action within one single small scene will mess up something HUGE later.

But I have to change it. I can't not change it. But I know if I do change it, a major character's motivation for making a rather large/important decision will make absolutely no sense, but the last 1/4 of the story and the two main character's plot/character arcs hang on that decision being made.

In short, I am screwed.

Or at least that's what I'm feeling like right now.

It would be easy to just let this tiny thing go... I mean, if you knew what I was agonizing about right now, you'd probably slap me across the face and tell me to leave it alone and keep going. You might laugh because I'm making a big deal out of such an eensy-weensy little thing, but it's important.

It's important because it's the truth. This character's truth. If I don't change it, I'll know that I have compromised what I believed to be right, and I can't do that. It would be like betraying this character I've worked so hard to understand, to just throw off her earnest expression of thought/feeling.

Honestly, I feel a little sick to my stomach right now, but I know what I have to do.

I think I'm going to leave it alone for today, sleep on it tonight, and hopefully a brilliant solution is lurking somewhere in the dark crooks and corners of my brain.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Symbolism. I needed a little help...

Alright, so I'm a self-admitted over-thinker, right?

So why didn't I put this thought together (on the actual front page of my blog):

I favour survival-of-the-fittest worlds, and I won't lie, there is always a literary seasoning on top.

...with the fact that Project 1 & Project 2 both take place in desert settings...

...until I read the following selection from this blog article on drought:

Mood: Water is one of our most basic needs. When it stops appearing in the form of regular rainfall, and existing water slowly starts to disappear, desperation is spawned. People turn anxious as they wonder when it will rain again and if it will happen before the crops fail or grocery bills skyrocket or someone's future disintegrates. Because it is entirely out of our control, drought also can produce a sense of helplessness.

Symbolism: Need, desperation, survival of the fittest, barrenness, failure

Project 1 and Project 2 are both set in deserts. Both stories take place in extreme survival-of-the-fittest type worlds, although in both cases, access to clean drinking water is one of the few things the characters don't have to worry about. In Project 1 and Project 2, even though drought is not directly influencing the characters... the desert setting implies the same characteristics/symbolism of drought.

...and I didn't even put this together until reading that article...

So, now I'm thinking hard about the setting of Project 3, which is never specified directly, but takes place in a setting similar to where I live on the west coast of Canada. Rain is heavy and ever-present in the dull grey overcast skies. A sunny day can feel like a miracle, an unexpected chance, a new beginning.

Now read over my *blurb* or Project 3 and tell me if the implied meaning/symbolism of that setting fits with the story.

Sometimes it just takes another person's thoughts to click two things together for you.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sisters and Brothers

"Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten."

If that quote is unrecognizable, I'm watching Disney's "Lilo & Stitch" for like the millionth time.

There's a lot of reasons I love this movie (even though it bothers me that Jumba keeps going off-model, especially in the last 1/3). I love the humor, the animation style, there are no *Disney songs*, no evil villain, it takes place in Hawaii, the fact that it's Chris Sander's brain-child (and he does the voice of Stitch!)... but my favorite parts of the movie are the interactions between the sisters Nani and Lilo.

In the movie, you meet Lilo (the younger sister) first. She's adorably strange, yet there are dark threads that you can see under her freakouts, like when she professes that Pudge the fish controls the weather. Something about this little girl is off. There is a hunger in her, a need for control, understanding and stability. When you meet Nani, she is desperately searching for Lilo because the social worker is on the way to their house.

Let's just skip over the social worker, whose visit does not go well...

As soon as the door closes, Nani runs after Lilo, who is shrieking her head off. After Nani catches her, there's this great scene between them. Nani grabs her arm and asks if she understands, if Lilo wants to be taken away, and Lilo keeps yelling, 'No!' and it's not entirely clear what she's responding to. There is an obvious difference in the way they view the reality of their situation and Nani clearly protects Lilo, not only by fighting to keep them together, but by occasionally lying to her... like when Nani loses her job because of Stitch.

Even while they're screaming at each other, you can see the close ties between them. I love the timing of the scene where they are both smothering their screams in separate pillows, in separate rooms, but in the exact same way. There is desperation and love. There is a theme of loss in this movie, of being lost.

Later in the movie, the social worker says this:

"I know you're trying, Nani, but you need to think about what's best for Lilo. Even if it means removing you from the picture."

It's the opposite idea from *ohana*. At what point do you give up on the idea of family?

Until I watched this movie again, I didn't realize what a big influence this was on Project #2. The themes are very similar: the importance of family, loss and the question of when to give up. When to stop fighting to stay together. My favorite parts of Project #2 are the interactions between the two brothers, especially when Simon is trying to protect Hector... even when his methods are not entirely logical or ethical.

"This is my family... It's little and broken, but still good. Still good."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Six Sentence Sunday 2

Well, last time was fun!

It was great to read so many other writers' six sentences :) Go read the others if you haven't yet.

So, I know I'm going out of order... last time I posted a snippet of Alexander's mom, but these six sentences happen just before and focus on his dad.

Edit: Oh, the green bean comment -> they had stew for dinner and the mom forgot and put green beans in (she always put them in for Kaitlin, but Alexander hates them).


I hear the tv click on and the disembodied jumble of voices as he channel-surfs. When I hear a crowd cheering, I know he’s found the Monday night football game. The volume gets noticeably louder. Seattle must be playing and I wonder if he’s feeling lonely ‘cause of the green beans. Kaitlin always used to watch football with him and cheer really loudly for whatever team was playing against Seattle. I don’t think she really liked the game, ‘cause she didn’t have a favorite team or anything. I think she just liked to make him mad.

Friday, June 10, 2011

YA Romance

Since I put my foot in my mouth (mmm... sheep socks...) and may have accidentally insulted some very nice people who let me into their playground, I thought I should say a bit about why I tend to shy away from romance-based novels.

I don't *hate* books with romance. I don't shake my head disapprovingly at people who love them, and some of my favorite books have a lot of romance in them. If the premise is good, if the characters look interesting, I'll most likely still pick it up and read it. In the past month and a half, I've read 13 YA books, 3 fiction, a ton of comics and a few completely nerdy books that I doubt most people would be interested in even knowing the titles of.

Now, I've put a list of YA books on the front page of my blog that I have read recently and *love*. You'll notice it only includes 7 out of those 13. I'd say most of the YA books that didn't make my list fall somewhat into the romance-based category, and by that, I mean the romance is the main point of the story.

What I don't like is when the main romance overwhelms the other characters in the story. This was a common feature in about half the books that didn't make my list. Usually the main female character has a best friend who only exists to listen to the main character complain about a lack of romance or brag about her new-found romance. Then the best friend vanishes from the pages and only appears again to console the main character when something bad happens or to somehow figure into the climax/ending of the story. If not the best friend, then the wiser-than-her-years younger sibling (or cousin) or older sibling (or cousin, or cool aunt) will fill this role. In some stories, it's the gay best friend.

It is a pet peeve of mine when characters pop in and out at convenient times. No matter what genre of book. It just seems especially prevalent when Romance IS the main point of the story.

Make sense?

Every YA book I picked to read seemed (from the set-up) really interesting. Either an interesting world, situation/problem, or the characters seemed to be ones I'd enjoy following around for a couple hundred pages. And for the most part, I did enjoy the books. I just didn't love them. If someone asked me for a good read, I wouldn't recommend them... if fact, I wouldn't even think of them. I can say that with confidence because I was looking in the YA folder on my Kindle (yes, I do categorize...) and on four of the titles, I drew a complete blank. I couldn't remember what they were about, or even who the main character was until I flipped to the first page. And I read all of these books in the last month and a half.

That may not seem significant to most people... I mean, I have read over 20 books in a month and a half, plus edited a full MS, several short stories and several first chapters, in addition to following a couple hundred comics and working on my own writing.

It's significant to me because I have an amazing memory when it comes to reading. It took me three years to get through Ilf and Petrov's, 'The Twelve Chairs' (the book that killed my interest in Russian literature) and not once in those three years did I ever use a bookmark, note down the page or chapter I was on, nor did I ever have to go back and re-read to remind myself what was happening or who the characters were. I can pick up a book months later, even if I stopped mid-page, mid-chapter and flip through the pages until I recognize where I last ended.

Now, do you see the significance of my not being able to remember 4 books that I read in the past six weeks?

I think the major problem is that I remember relationships between characters better than I remember plots. For books that heavily lean on the two main characters falling in and out of love... that's simply one relationship. When books are like this, there are few other significant relationships that are memorable... 'cause the side character who is only there to prove the main female character isn't a friendless loner and to serve as her cheerleader... those aren't memorable for me. I forget them almost instantly after I close the book, or hit the 'menu' button on my Kindle.

Here's an excellent post on friends.

So, what books am I looking forward to reading next? Well, a physical copy of the second 'Orphan's Tales' book should arrive at my house at the beginning of July and I have pre-ordered 'Imaginary Girls' on my Kindle, which I think comes out the first week of June... My Amazon wish list has also grown to 340 items... so I'll probably read a few of those in the next couple of weeks AFTER I finish moving. I have been waiting for a while for the Kindle edition of 'Hundred Thousand Kingdoms' to become available for Canadian residents. It was recommended to me by a writer friend who said it is *similar* to Project #1. for romance-centered books? I've heard 'Anna and the French Kiss' by Stephanie Perkins has a really interesting voice, so that's one of the books on my TBR wish list.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Curse of Knowledge

I'm reading a somewhat nerdy book at the moment called, "Made to Stick: why some ideas survive and others die" by Chip and Dan Heath.

There is one specific piece I would like to quote:

"Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has 'cursed' us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind."

The text goes on to say that this plays out every day "...between teachers and students, politicians and voters, marketers and customers, writers and readers. All of these groups rely on ongoing communication, but . . . they suffer from enormous information imbalances."

I don't know about you, but I have never though of this before, that having great hoards of stored information can be a bad thing when trying to communicate with other people.

Well, okay, I have thought about it, but in tiny bits and pieces, in different situations, and have never connected it as one coherent thought.

The relevant example of where I have thought about this, is of course, writing. Specifically in my writing group.

I'm a sparse writer. Feedback from my group members usually consists of them asking for more information, primarily world-building or backstory (I love visceral description too much to fall prey to the *white room syndrome*). Realizing that facts exist in my head that haven't made it onto the page... this is something I am keenly aware of and have thought about and try to plan for in advance before handing off material to my group.

I would classify it under one of the known *problems* in my writing that I am working to correct.

So, in this book by the Heath brothers, what is their solution?

"Reversing the process is as impossible as un-ringing a bell. You can't unlearn what you already know. There are, in fact, only two ways to beat the Curse of Knowledge reliably. The first is not to learn anything. The second is to take your ideas and transform them."

...and the book promises to teach the method of transformation.

Should I be skeptical?


But I'm still going to read it.

Honestly, half the reason I'm eager to continue is the hilarious notion of beating the 'Curse of Knowledge' with more knowledge...

...and no, I don't think they intended on that being funny...

...and yes, I do have a strange sense of humor.

Monday, June 6, 2011

I wrote, it sucked, I wrote some more

I read this today. The article is good, about hard-work, diligence and not giving up.

But this paragraph in particular struck a chord:

Years ago, I wrote a novel and it sucked. I wrote another one, it sucked a little less. I wrote another one, and was almost there, and then, I wrote a fourth one. It was different.

I've heard/read this so many times. Write a story, it sucks, write a new story, it sucks a little less... and so on and so forth.

Am I wrong to think that any story is redeemable with enough work?

If you've looked at all at my 'what I'm working on' page, you'll notice that it starts with Project #2, next is Project #3, and finally Project #1 is the last one on there.

Project #1 was my first *book*. I wrote the first draft in 2004 when (newly-married) I had just moved to Calgary, Alberta where I knew absolutely no one and worked in a satellite office by myself. I was lonely, I was bored, and because I was in the satellite office instead of the main office, the work that found its way to me was about half of what it had been. To keep myself sane, I started writing.

And yes, it sucked.

I re-wrote it, scene by scene (I jumped all around) and it got better. I put it aside when I moved back to the west coast about a year later, back into the main office. I picked away at the story in little chunks, only when I felt like I wanted to work on it or when an idea was keeping me awake at nights. And yes, it still sucked. Then I moved onto Vancouver Island and about 8 months after living there, quit my job and went to finish my university degree. During that time, I picked away at the story. I re-wrote parts here and there. I even joined a critique group.

And the story sucked a little less. Then I put it aside going into my fourth year of university. I was offered a fully paid for spot in the Masters program and, a week before classes began, had to bow out due to health problems.

And I picked up the story again. I re-joined my critique group and they agreed with me that it sucked a LOT less than when they had previously read a few chapters. I finished my edits, I handed the whole thing over and they tore it apart about a year ago. I put the story aside and wrote a new one (Project #2).

But that isn't the end of Project #1. Instead of writing story after story and learning something new each time, I re-worked the same one over and over again. I looked at it like practicing letters on a slate tablet. I could practice my craft, re-working the same thing (well, the same characters and mostly the same plot) over and over again until I could recognize my mistakes, my errors in pacing, my tendency to flip into different character's heads within the same scene (a leftover from my animation training, I am sure), and everything else.

I hate not finishing something. I hate not following through on what I've started or promised.

I'm sure I could have abandoned Project #1 and written a slew of bad novels between then and now, but I'm glad I stuck with it because I can clearly see the advancement in my own work. I can go back to that first draft, or a draft from two years ago and compare them. I've worked on this story so long and so hard that I learned to be ruthless. I learned to break down scenes or characters I loved, tear away my emotional attachment to them, and re-write them into something better.

When I finally needed a true break from the story and started Project #2, I didn't just see a little bit of advancement. It was like a babbling child reciting a line of poetry, or the old adage of 1000 monkeys eventually typing  the works of Shakespeare (yes, the inspiration for this blog title).

To me, writing is not about talent or some kind of mystical muse. Writing is about a lot of hard work. Perhaps a little more because I'm dyslexic. Writing was not originally about loving to tell stories or escaping into wonderful imagined worlds. It was about hiding the fact that there was something wrong with me. It was about not having my teachers mock me in class and make me re-write my schoolwork on the blackboard in front of my jeering peers. Writing was my own personal battle to first become average, and then to become better than average, then finally to become the best.

...and I'm still working.

Maybe I feel so strongly about not giving up on first drafts 'cause I know I could have given up on myself when I learned there was something wrong with me. I've seen it. Kids (and adults) who wear their disabilities like badges of merit, they flash it around, they demand they be treated differently, to be given extra consideration. They snarl at the *averages*, complain how their lives have been so difficult, and condescend when someone else mentions a difficulty that seems *minor* in comparison to their own. Just this weekend, I heard someone say they, 'played the dyslexic card' to get out of doing something...

I hate this. I hate the attitude of victimhood, no matter what the situation.

Why can't we strive to be something better? Something more than what we are? Why can't we reach higher instead of dragging others down just so we can step on their backs and feel better about ourselves?

I remember a scene from a book called 'The Lily Theatre', which was about a girl growing up in China during the time of Chairman Mao. In the scene, the girl is being taught Math by an ex-professor in one of the work camps. He says that only in China can the number 6 can be greater than 10. Basically, he was referring to how in the university/school systems, the lower teachers would denounce the respected teachers so they could take their place.

I don't want to compete with other writers. I don't want to trash their books, their first drafts, their ideas, just to make myself feel better. My blog name doesn't only have to do with diligence and not giving up, it also reminds me that I am just one of many. One nameless monkey typing on a keyboard. It is not one monkey that writes the works of Shakespeare, it's the combined effort of all of them.

Okay, that was really long and rambly.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Compartmentalization, Solitaire and Red Herrings

*Warning* this will get a little nerdy.

So I'm sitting in my truck waiting for the ferry and I'm killing time by playing solitaire on my phone (the regular 3-card-deal Klondike game) and when my *wins* tick over 300, I don't feel victorious... I actually feel a little pathetic 'cause I know before I got the new model of phone (not even a year ago), I had almost 500 wins on the old one.

So what does this have to do with compartmentalization?

We as human have an amazing ability to take in a glut of information and compartmentalize it in such a way that we ignore the majority of it.

We have to, otherwise we'd go crazy.

One tiny example is that the nerves in our skin will shut down/stop recognizing stimuli if it persists for a period of time. In proper english, this is why we don't go nuts from the constant feeling of our clothes touching our skin.

If you sweep your eyes over a garden of flowers, most people would probably be able to list a few of the colors they saw. Gardeners, on the other hand, would probably be able to list a number of the plants by name by that same quick glance.

If we feel the information is important, we remember it. If it isn't important, we ignore it.

So back to virtual card games...

If you don't know the game, you have seven stacks of facedown cards with the top one turned over, the first stack has one card, the last stack has seven. From the remaining deck, you flip over three cards at a time and, when possible, build onto the face up cards by placing them in descending order and alternating colors.

So, on a Jack of hearts, you can only put a ten of spades or a ten of clubs.

Moving along...

I have no logical reason to do this, but I always play the same way. In my brain, the suits go in order of importance... spades as most important, then hearts, clubs and finally diamonds. When I locate each ace, I place them in that order and, if accidentally they go out of order, I will actually waste a turn to put them in the correct order. When building onto the face up cards, I always try to pair hearts with spades and diamonds with clubs. This makes the game much harder to win because I'm cutting my options in half.

Like I said... there is no logical reason for this, but I still do it.

Now, I've been playing this game since I was like 5 or 6 years old. I've played it so long, I don't care if I win or lose and I can play on auto-pilot, even while following/engaging in a conversation or listening/taking in new information, like in a classroom setting (which used to drive my professors nuts when they would try to catch me out for not listening, and I'd snap right back with the correct answer).

My brain is so used to the game that it has compartmentalized certain aspects of it. It has decided that the specific order and pairing of cards is important, so I play this game without even realizing that I'm doing it. I actually have to actively be aware and change my automatic behavior to play differently.

Isn't this absurd? But I do it... and everyone does it.

And this is the reason why red herrings work.

Just like in the silly solitaire game, we are so used to taking in information by reading that we compartmentalize it. In every book, in every chapter, every scene, there is so much going on that we can't remember every little thing. So we organize the stimuli, our brain picks what it thinks is important and discards/ignores the rest. Murder mysteries in particular take advantage of this by describing a room, and hidden within that description is the murder weapon or some clue as to who the criminal is. The author tricks the reader's brain into seeing one thing as important so it will forget/ignore the rest of the information that is clearly there.

For some people, it can be fun to go back after the murder has been solved and re-read it to see where all the clues were laid out. For others, they get irritated if they can't figure out the solution on their own. I've heard a similar complaint from people who first pick up an Agatha Christie book. They say it was annoying, or that the author cheated because the clues were so ridiculously hidden/subtle that there's no way anyone could figure it out.

I've had people have this attitude to classic novels as well, stating they are too hard to read, but that's a topic for another day.

So, when you write, do you intentionally think about red herrings? Do you think about the reader and try to lead them along so they can discover *who done it*, or do you try to keep them in the dark until the twist/climax?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What's Broken?

If anyone hasn't heard of the site, Miss Snark's First Victim, she sometimes hosts contests and critiques. It's a fun site.

So right now, she's hosting another edition of 'What's Broken?', and I managed to weasel my way into being a participant.

Mine is #5.

Feel free to comment! I have NO IDEA if my description in this passage works or not... essentially, what Hector and Simon are looking at is an old overgrown garden (they have never seen plants before) with a stone tower being slowly devoured by vines/etc.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chapters and Pacing

When writing Project #2 (or anything for that matter), I never break the story into chapters until I'm at the editing stage. Sometimes I break it into *parts*, and Project #2 seemed to naturally split into four parts while writing it.

So, one of the questions I'm asking myself now is, where do I insert chapter breaks?

I suppose there are rough conventions I could look at... comparing other books in my genre for average pages per chapter... but this post outlines a different way of thinking about chapter breaks.

In fact, I think it's just about the most comprehensive post I've ever read on pacing. problem is, it's made me insanely curious to analyze the chapters of some of my favorite books... which is probably a very nerdy thing to do...

3 today!

My cute little beagle (who is so good natured that she puts up with me when I drag her outside into the pouring rain for a run) turns 3 years old today!

No cake for her, but she will be quite happy to flop on the grass and eat a frozen, raw goat bone

And no, she probably won't offer to share with the cat.