Archive for the 'The Writing Process' Category

19
Oct
10

Workshop paralysis

Sorry for the long hiatus.  I have excuses, but that’s all they are, and after a while all excuses sound the same.

At the beginning of the month, I spent the better part of a week at Viable Paradise, a one-week writers’ workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. I’d originally attended in 2004, at VP 8, and this time I was back for my second year as staff.  It’s a fun, if intense, experience, and it’s always strange to see the workshop from the other side.  One of the best parts of being staff is meeting all these new writers, some just starting out, some with a few stories under their belt, all trying for the same goal: to write something really good.

Of course, because it’s a workshop, all of these fresh-faced shiny new writers are there to meet the same fate: a crushing, soul-wrenching critique not unlike the mighty stompy foot of a stompy guy.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an overstatement; crits vary, and reactions vary with them.  But one thing I remember well, not just from my time at VP8 but from discussions with other alumni (and Clarion alumni as well) is the feeling of paralysis after a workshop.  It doesn’t happen to everyone.  Nor should it; since all writers are different, there’s a wide range of reaction to an intensive workshop.  But there’s a certain range of responses that many people have, and for me it was one of the hardest parts of a workshop — and it didn’t even take place until I was off the island and away.

When I emerged from Viable Paradise, I had a brain that was fizzing like Diet Coke with Mentos dropped in.   (Slightly less messy, but you get the idea.)  Lots of new ideas, new skills, new resources for work and revision and chasing down that elusive great idea.  And that wasn’t even touching the work I’d had critiqued!  (For the reaction to that, see here.)  I had a whole new toolbox with which to assemble a story!

And I sat down to write and…nope.  All of a sudden, every time I started to write something out, I could see not only the stylistic flaws — which I had trained myself to overlook, knowing that I’d fix them next time through — but the plot issues, the pacing problems, the characters who swung wildly between flat and cliche.  Hell, I’d spent so much time concerned with how a story should begin that I couldn’t for the life of me begin one — every beginning seemed too slow, or too didactic, or not nearly the right place to start!  I’d spent so much time learning that for my process, the most important thing was getting that first draft down, and now I couldn’t even start that first draft.

I had a bad case of Workshop Paralysis.  And I suspect I’m not the only one to have gone through it.  There’s even a learning model that explains some of it: moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence (with conscious competence just barely and perpetually out of reach).   Now that I knew all the errors I was prone to, I could not for the life of me unsee them.  Every story I started had them, and had them to a crippling degree.

There are many ways of getting through this.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of letting the data settle in one’s head.  Sometimes there are other factors in your life affecting your creativity.  Sometimes you need to work around the problems — write something silly, or useless, or just to remind yourself what you can do.  I’ve got a notebook full of vignettes that will never go anywhere, but are the result of “lunch break and either I write something stupid or I combust…or I check the internet again, but what’s the point?” moments.

For me, some of the solution was time.  Some of it was remembering my strengths and how I wanted to use them — plot, and the intricacies of it, and thus the need to be more rigorous in how I revealed a story.  And some of it was sheer mind-trickery.  I still have trouble beginning a story, and so if I’m just trying to get that first draft on paper, often I’ll either write a few lines for the beginning and then jump ahead, or I’ll just not write the beginning until I’m well into the rest.  By then I have a better idea of where the story’s going, after all.

But that sudden task of having all these new methods of critique, that moment of realizing that your work is a lot more difficult than you’d thought…that can be paralyzing, and worse still if you turn those delicate tools for critique into blunt instruments for beating yourself up.

Writers, did you have this workshop paralysis as well?  How did you get over it?   (Did you?)

Next time: technobabble can be your friend!

 

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13
Aug
10

when it all comes back around

First off, my official website and blog are live! Yay! More Rachel than you could ever want, but hey, there’s free chapters of my books, so there’s compensation!

In the meanwhile, when I’m not wasting time making the links on my blog the right shade of orange, I’m slogging through novel 4. I’ve posted about middles before, but seriously, it’s the worst part of any novel for me. In the beginning everything is shiny. I always know how my novels start! And at the end, you’ve got climax fever and everything’s exploding, plenty of action to drive you along. But the middle is where you’ve got all those pesky details to nail down between point A and point Awesome-it’s-the-end. I’ve never really been a details person, and so middles are where I flounder. Lately, however, I’ve realized what I think may be a fundamental truth about series writing that’s making things easier. It goes like this: though I’m on book 4 of 5, there are several things I still don’t know about the series. I have some ideas about how things will go, but I don’t have scene by scene breakdowns or anything. Still, I’m not worried. You see, all though my books, through the 4 middles I’ve now written, I’ve been dropping threads for myself. Mentioning little things about the world that may have had no real bearing on the story that was happening right then, but they added flavor and, as I get closer and closer to the point where I have to tie everything together, they provide much needed spots for the knots to go.

To give an example, my husband watches a lot of Stargate SG1. Like, a lot a lot, I think he’s on season 11. One of the things he’s constantly raving to me about the show is how it will use things from waaay back, like season 1, as major plot points for later. When he first told me this, I was so impressed. What amazing foresight those writers had! Dropping hints so early about things that become important later! It’s genius! But, now that I’m managing the book equivalent of a five season show, I am slightly less dazzled, because I’m doing the same thing. See, I didn’t know I was going to be writing five books, and I’m pretty sure the SG1 writer team didn’t know they were going to be making 11 seasons of the show. I will bet cash money they didn’t sit around in the writing room in season 1 saying “Ok, be sure to lay out all these hints for season 6, 9, 10, and 12” any more than I looked at my draft for book 1 thinking “Ok, I’ve got to put down all these clues for book 4…” No, I was thinking (and I’m pretty sure the Stargate team was as well) “I will make this story interesting my world deep by throwing in all this cool shit!” And low and behold, when more story was requested, that cool shit, all the interesting asides and chance comments on the world, then became vital future plot points.

Once I realized this about my own fiction and Stargate, I started seeing it everywhere. That’s because it works both for the writer and the audience. People, especially fiction readers, loooove finding patterns. They love it when something mentioned in book 1 becomes the key plot turn in book 4. As a reader, it makes you feel smart, special, like you and the author are in on some awesome secret. Everyone likes feeling special. Even better, they remember that awesome thing you mentioned in book 1 as soon as it becomes important in book 3 and feel very clever for doing so, but they don’t remember the 5 other cool hints you dropped around the one you used. It’s like the opposite of the Friends, Romans, Countrymen speech. People remember the good bits, and the ones that never really took are interred with your bones.

From an ego standpoint, I would like to think that some alligator brain in the bottom of my subconscious had everything planned from the beginning. Maybe it did, but so far as my conscious mind is concerned, I’ve always tended to treat my novels like soup pots. Anything that could possibly make the soup better without ruining the flavor goes in. It is often sheer serendipity that later, when I’m stuck in a middle with no idea how I’m going to jump this plot hole, I look back and there’s my answer, danging from the loose ends of book 2. Sometimes you just have to throw it all in and see what sticks.

So, do you ever notice/participate in this phenomenon?

PS: Has anyone else encountered this monstrosity? (har har useewhutididthere) Seriously, though, you tell me. Is this a victory for the popularity of urban fantasy or the embarrassing, corporate cash-out tail end? I am both strangely attracted and utterly repelled.

09
Aug
10

5 things I’ve learned about writing — writing is a business

Today’s blog is the fifth of my posts on the 5 Things I’ve Learned About Writing — Writing is a Business.

When you’re at your computer, notepad, or wherever you write, all you’re thinking about is the scene you’re writing, the scene you’re going to write — and occasionally drifting off to imagine what it will be like to see your baby on the bookstore shelves. You imagine yourself getting THE CALL from an agent offering to represent you, then getting THE BIG CALL from your agent saying that a humongous NY publishing house is clamoring to buy your baby. Those thoughts make you feel all warm & fuzzy and inspire you to finish that chapter that’s been giving you fits.

Then one day, all of these things happen, and you start to realize that writing is much more than you, your muse, and your computer. It’s a business. And your book isn’t your baby; it’s a product — and so are you. Of course, you knew this to begin with. Kind of. On some level. Your book sells and you get paid. That makes it a business, right? You know this. But what you probably didn’t realize (I certainly didn’t) is the extent that you must be involved in the business aspect.

There’s not much that’s more intimidating and thrilling for a brand-new author than opening a big FedEx envelope and pulling out your first publishing contract. Of course, being the control freak that I am, I sat down and read the thing (savvy business move). I understood some of it, got the gist of some of it, and the rest left me completely clueless. Fortunately I could rest easy (and sign easier) secure in the knowledge that Kristin (my agent) would answer any and all questions that I had, and that she and her contracts person had gone over the thing with a microscope and made certain that every paragraph, clause and sub-clause was as much in my favor as it was possible for a new author.

Then there’s promotion. If you’re at one of the big NY houses, you will be assigned a publicist. Mine is great, but the nuts & bolts of promoting my book were up to me. Getting promotional materials (postcards, bookmarks, etc.) designed and printed. Getting the best website you can afford designed, up, and running. Getting pages on as many social networking sites as you can juggle. Networking with other authors, networking online, and getting your name and your book’s name in front of as many people as humanly possible. I have no idea how authors promoted themselves or their work before the Internet. All I can says is: all hail cyber space. Then there’s the conferences. With traveling expenses, you have to pick and choose which conferences will give you the most bang for the buck.

And how can I forget deadlines? Before I was published, my deadlines were self-imposed, which meant that I could take all the time I wanted to make my manuscript as perfect as possible. Now, I essentially have nine months from typing that first word, to turning in a final manuscript to my editor. The deadlines are in your contract, so they might as well be graven in granite. Depending on your publisher and editor, there may be some leeway, but the date on your contract is the date that book is expected. Try telling that to a fickle muse.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. So yes, writing is a business. And yes, a lot of it I had no clue I’d have to do for myself. And if I did know about it, I had no idea how much time it would take, or what all was involved. All I can say is thank God for Linnea Sinclair when I was first getting started out. She was my author mentor/mom. She took me under her publishing-savvy wing and taught me everything. That’s another piece of advice I can give: when you get published, find yourself an long-published, experienced, savvy author who is willing to answer your panicked and/or clueless emails, and who will take away from her own precious writing time to introduce you to all the right people, and give you the benefit of her hard-earned wisdom. Linnea, hon, what would I have ever done without you. HUGS! : )

04
Aug
10

if you tell the truth, you don’t have to have a good memory

I have not posted in a long time, and I offer a solid dogeza in apology (see below).

So my series, starting with The Spirit Thief, comes out on October 1, followed by The Spirit Rebellion in November and The Spirit Eater in December. So many books! But don’t they make such a lovely little set? Anyway, while all this is going on, I am busy at work on Book 4 in the Legend of Eli Monpress, and I am running into some interesting situations. See, back when I wrote the Spirit Thief, I knew it was the first in the series, but I didn’t actually know much about the series other than how it ended, which was very far from where it began. Over the course of three books I’ve had to get a lot more specific and detailed.  This has caused a few problems because I’ve never written a series before and I was wholly unprepared for the level and amount of detail I ended up having to keep track of. Thousands of little decisions made over years of writing that have to be kept in mind because, in the world of the books, they are now history, irrefutable, and completely un-fudge-able should I find them inconvenient later down the line.

Some of this was alleviated by my wiki, especially the dry, bookkeeping kind of detail, but more and more as I dig into book 4 I find myself face to face with decisions I made about my characters months or years ago, and worse, decisions I made and now don’t remember making. I remember hearing a story about J.K. Rowling writing her later HP books and having to go into bookstores to buy the earlier ones to check things because she didn’t remember what she’d written. At the time I first heard this, I thought it was stupid. What kind of author doesn’t remember what she writes? But I own Ms. Rowling an apology, because I’m now in the same boat (albeit a far smaller, less grand boat). I have an ARC of the Spirit Thief on my desk at all times that I use to constantly check things, and search is my favorite feature in Word. But as my story grows, the process of self checking gets trickier and trickier. But though I do check all the time, I often find that, especially for things like character decisions (who did what when), my first intuition is the right one. I’ve been wondering lately why this is. Does some deep part of me remember? Am I clairvoyant? That would be nice, but I think the actual reason if far simpler and, by extension, more reliable.

One of my favorite ladies ever, Judge Judy, always says that if you tell the truth, you don’t have to have a good memory. Tuns out this is equally applicable whether you’re suing your neighbor over a fence on TV or writing fiction. My characters are the most interesting part of writing for me, and I put a great deal of thought and consideration into keeping them true to themselves. Sometimes this has the unfortunate side effect of characters bucking the plot when it asks them to do something they wouldn’t do, but while that can be annoying (read catastrophic while it’s happening), I think my books have always been better for it. But another lovely, unforeseen side effect of this is that, by staying true to my characters, telling the truth of my people, as it were, I don’t have to have a good memory about what they’ve done in the novels. I just think of the situation in question and I know how they would have reacted, even if I can’t remember exactly how I wrote it.

What have I learned from all this? That it’s worth the time to really know your characters for practical reasons as well as artistic ones. Because sometimes you end up writing a fourth book when you only really expected to write one, and you should always build on a firm foundation. Especially if you’re like me and Diet Coke has eaten your memory and you need all the help you can get.

Mmmmm… diet coke…

02
Aug
10

Part 4 of 5 Things I’ve learned about writing: Momentum matters

Momentum matters and persistence pays — no truer words were ever spoken (or written) for a writer.

As I discover every day, no daily writing session stands alone, each hour of work, each day of work ties to the one before–and connects to the one to come after. Writing builds on itself.

With everything we all have going on in our daily lives, brains can only be expected to hold on to a plotline for so long. Let’s face it, life gets in the way of writing. I’m a walking/talking example — I’m about a month behind my personal schedule as a result of real life (and two colds) keeping me from writing. Life has an annoying tendency to take our minds away from our characters and make us talk and actually interact (gasp) with living, breathing people. When this happens and I get back to my writing, what momentum I’d built up has gone bye-bye. Dang it! Then I have to take valuable writing time to go back over what I’d done before to bring myself back up to speed.

And it’s not just the words that we lose our grasp on when we don’t (or can’t) write every day. A particular character’s emotional state, the emotions they had in the scene where you stopped were right there, bubbling on the surface of your consciousness, ready to be tapped again. If you lose a day or two, needless to say, the bubbling has stopped.

And to write every day (or every day that you can) takes discipline and persistence. Discipline to do it, and persistence to see it through to the end of the book and beyond (to getting an agent and publisher). For those who want it badly enough, the thoughts and dreams of reaching that final goal are enough to keep us moving forward. And there are plenty of roadblocks: life, family and friends who don’t understand (or worse yet, who don’t believe in you), and just the cold, hard truth that writing is hard work. It’s lonely work. And if you want to be a published writer, you have to trudge on dispite all of this.

As most of you know, I have a full-time job, so carving out time to write wasn’t (and still isn’t) easy, but I really wanted to be published, so I found the time. I started writing on a more regular schedule, and I could see the improvement. And when I saw the improvement, I wanted to write more. With that came confidence and a determination to reach my goal.

I’d still be writing even if I wasn’t published, because writing isn’t just what I do — writing is who I am. It’s like an addiction, you can’t stop, and you don’t want to. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. When I’m writing, I’m happy. When I’m between projects, I can get a little cranky. Just ask my fabulous (and patient and supportive) husband.

Writing for publication is like any other goal worth working and fighting for — you have to put your nose to the proverbial grindstone and just do the work. Believe me, after struggling for it for over 20 years, it is SO worth it. ; )

19
Jul
10

Part 2 of “5 things I’ve learned about writing” — You gotta want it BAD

Today is Part 2 of the “5 Things I’ve Learned About Writing” — the second thing I’ve learned is if you want to be published, you gotta want it BAD!

Today’s post isn’t meant to discourage anyone; I’m just stating the cold, hard truth about writing that anyone who’s ever sat down to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard already knows. Writing is hard work, it’s lonely work, and a lot of the time it’s unappreciated and misunderstood work.

Some authors are literal overnight successes — they hit pay dirt and even the “big time” with the first book they’ve ever written. We’ve seen their stories — six- and seven-figure advances, press coverage out the wazoo; heck, sometimes even Oprah.

Then there’s me — and 99.99% of writers. The first book we have published isn’t our first or second. Mine was my third. For me, it took over 20 years of hard work to get to where I am. I’m grateful as hell for everything I have now. I just don’t understand diva authors, the jerks of the literary world. Okay, I’m going off on a tangent; I’ll save diva authors for another day. I personally don’t know any (every author I know is gracious and grateful and the nicest people you’d want to meet). But I’ve heard the jerk stories.

Anyhoo, back to what I’ve learned. For the vast majority of writers, success (i.e., reaching the goal of being published), takes a couple of manuscripts that are more than likely stuffed in a closet, before we write something publishable. I’m grateful for the “no, thank yous” I got early in my career. At one writers’ conference, I even thanked one agent for turning me down. From the expression on his face, I’ll bet he hadn’t heard that very often.

After producing something worth printing, there’s the struggle, the waiting, and the waiting some more to finally land an agent, and then waiting for your agent to sell your precious to a publisher. In the middle of all of this is hard work. There is no easy way to do this. You have to want it so badly that you’re willing to write every day, even when you don’t want to, even when you don’t feel inspired, or even when you’re just too danged tired. You have to write regardless of everything. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take the occasional day off. It’s a good idea, for you and for those who have to live with you.

Writing for publication is kinda like training as a professional athlete. They have to work out every day, training and honing their skills if they want to improve. As a writer, your challenge is to find the time to write, which very often means sacrificing something else you want to do.  Also, when you write, you write alone. Some writers have critique groups; I don’t. It’s just not something that works for me. I’m a lone wolf.

Then there’s the biggest problem that most writers encounter: family and friends not taking them or their work seriously. They think that if you haven’t been published, that you’re not a real writer. That’s a load of bullpucky. If you write and work hard at it, you are a real writer regardless of whether you’ve ever signed your name to a publishing contract or not. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise; and if they do, don’t believe them. I always told people that it wasn’t a matter of if I got published, but when.

Keep telling yourselves the same thing. And like me, if you tell yourself often enough, you will believe it. Believing in yourself is half the battle.

12
Jul
10

Part 1 — Things I’ve learned about writing

Sorry if it seems that I dropped off the face of the earth.  Just the usual writer stuff — a book launch, immediately followed by a book deadline, on the heels of a book revision.  Okay, I’m back now.  Over the next five Mondays, I’m going to revisit a series of posts I did quite a while ago on “Five Things I’ve Learned About Writing.” They were true back in 2007 when I wrote them, and they’re just as true now.

I thought I’d start with what every writer has to wrestle with — taking a book one sentence, one scene, one chapter at a time. Some people are intimidated away from writing a book because they think we authors have the whole book in our heads when we start. Heck, most of us don’t have the whole book in our heads when we finish. They think that it’s all there, we write it down and we’re done. Don’t I wish.

Some of us (like myself) prefer to work with an outline. I’ve discovered that I like to work with a VERY detailed outline. Of course, I can change it (and I always do), but I know it’s there like a security blanket. Other brave souls come up with an idea and just strike out on their own, no outline, no nothing — they feel that to write anything down would sully the creative process. Most authors are somewhere in between. But all of us have one thing in common: we all have to write our books one sentence, one scene, one chapter at a time.

I absolutely MUST work this way. While of course I have my outline, when I’m actually doing the writing I have to force myself not to think much beyond the one moment in that scene that I’m writing. When the sheer enormity of what I have to accomplish pushes its way into my thoughts, my poor little brain just shortcircuits — actually it panics. How am I going to get from here to there? Oh crap, I forgot to include that character. Do I really need that character? Should I save him and his subplot for the next book? How is that subplot ever going to fit in? In short, I try to do what I don’t think any author can do — have the entire thing in your head at one time. It’s kinda like looking at deep space pictures from the Hubble telescope. Your jaw drops open at just how vast the universe is. The same is true (on a much smaller scale) of your books’ universe. It’s just too big to comprehend all at once.

And when you do that, you lose the immediacy of the sentences you’re writing, the intimacy between the characters in that scene. You lose that emotional human (or elf or goblin) touch. The realness of two people who care about each other, or hate each other, or one is about to betray the other — their intimacy/connection/animosity is lost unless you immerse yourself in their moment, get into their minds, and understand what they’re feeling. Only then can you accurately convey your characters’ emotions and make the words come to life on the page — one sentence, one scene, one chapter at a time.