Falling in Love With Your Own Writing

Joe’s Post #177

Listen to what Boromir says.

Listen to what Boromir says.

Is there anything better than falling in love? What about falling in love with your writing? Is that a good thing?

Well, no. No, it’s not.

It’s something I’ve been struggling with as I rewrite my novel, Yager’s War, for submission.

Set in 1940, it tells the story of a Chicago detective in Holland trying to find his missing sister before the Germans invade.

When I first wrote it, it had more of a mystery feel. Dead bodies. Gun battles. Lots of tough guy talk. Some hot sex. But from my writing group and my dedicated readers, it became clear that I needed to shift it a bit, and focus on the humanity of the story. Less Jack Reacher and more Gorky Park.

Why? Because I’m trying to write a deeper story. A story with emotional weight.

I spent a TON of time reworking my first 50 pages to see if I could hit this goal, and after many tears, much staring off into space, and a lot of bugging a published writer friend of mine, I think I finally got the right feel to the story. Good pacing. Some heart. Compelling characters in a compelling story.

If my novel was a kitchen, this is what I would like it to look like.

If my novel was a kitchen, this is what I would like it to look like.

For most of 2017, I’ve been hard at work recrafting the rest of the novel to be as good as those first 50 pages. It’s been hard and, frankly, a lot of the novel has been totally rewritten. It’s sort of like doing a kitchen renovation where all you want to do is replace the sink and end with redoing the counters, cabinets, floors, lights and adding a 75” TV, cuz every kitchen should have one.

But perhaps the toughest part has been letting go of some of my best writing. There was one scene that I loved. I loved writing it the first time. I loved reading it the second time. And the third.

It was powerful. It was emotional. Hell, I think I even gotz all the grammar right.

But here’s the horrible truth, a truth that we writers must face sometimes.

It no longer works.

The story has evolved in such a way that this beautifully written passage was no longer relevant.

It’s very sad.

It was hard to let it go.

But then I remembered what someone told me about letting go of things I’d collected in my house. You know, the sentimental things – the ashtray that my mom used to use, the chair my grandfather made that was now nearly in tatters, the 10,000 VCR tapes that I’d collected over the years… the things to which you attach memories, the things that have meaning but take up an awful lot of space and you no long need.

Well, someone said take a picture of those items so you’ll always have the memory. And, you know what? That worked like a charm. A friend saved me from being a hoarder.

So I applied the same principal to that nice bit of writing. I didn’t take a picture of it, but cut it out of the story and pasted it into a file called, “Things Joe Can’t Delete but Loves.” Like my original Sim City from, like, 1989 which hides somewhere in my computer games file.

Doing this allows me to move on.

And, hey, it can be resurrected.

And, hey, it can be resurrected.

In my mind, I imagine my kids looking at this after I die and saying, my goodness, Joe REALLY could write. Who knew?

Rest in Peace, Good Writing.

Rest in Peace.

Banish the beast

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Helga’s Post #122 —  The start of a new year is upon us, the symbolic signal to push the reset button. It’s an opportunity to let go of last year’s failures and disappointments and to embark on new beginnings. As Joe put it so succinctly in his recent post, whatever happened last year, simply ‘fuggetaboudit’.

New beginnings are always good. Imagine if we wouldn’t be able to have them. It would feel like being in a swamp with your feet stuck in mud, unable to move forward or back. Just stuck in untold misery and boredom. Even those who lead a satisfying life or believe they have a happy life, would do well to push that reset button. Just like nature, we all need renewal of some kind to keep us engaged in life and to experience it to its fullest potential.

I too have pushed that reset button on a number of levels. Getting used to single life in all its implications, for one. On a practical level it meant to acquire skills I never had, and to learn them in a hurry. Using tools that I never held in my hand before, learning about the mechanics of running a house, and chasing elusive plumbers, electricians, and my all time favorite, cable technicians. I am not complaining (too much) though. In fact, I get satisfaction from becoming self-sufficient and realizing, hey, I can do this too, on my own.

A new writing project is also part of the reset button. It started last year, but I decided to abandon it after the first three chapters. The characters were one-dimensional. They were in their mid-thirties, which is the age of a high percentage of characters in commercial fiction. I decided to start something different. More mature characters. That too is a reset button. I spoke to the local librarian recently, asking about the demographics of patrons. Not surprisingly, it’s people over sixty and up. And what kind of books do you think they most likely want to read about?

Romance. Yes, romance, was the overwhelming answer. Not necessarily strictly books in the romance genre, but any book that has romance as an important component. It can even be a mystery, or a suspense novel, no matter. To my mind come John LeCarre’s books. Inevitably, his novels have a beautiful, intense love story embedded in his hard-hitting espionage theme.

This caused me to reconsider my choice of demographics for the main characters in my work in progress. No thirty-somethings this time. Aside from the cookie-cutter cliché, at that age people haven’t yet acquired the hard life experience that shape and define more mature characters.

Have I made the right choice? I will know as I continue writing the story. I realize it’s risky, but to quote George Burns, I’d rather be a failure at something I enjoy, than a success at something I hate.

With that in mind, I will keep my post short so I can get back to real writing.

I wish you all a successful reset for the year ahead. Above all, don’t forget to live. Dance as if no one’s watching; sing as if no one’s listening, and live every day as if it were your last. And write as if no one will ever read your work.

Banish the beast, your internal editor. That’s when we can truly write with abandon.

Keep your promise to your readers

Helga’s Post # 106: During our recent downsizing from house to condo I was forced to part with a multitude of boxes containing heaps of notes and articles about writing. I lovingly and dutifully collected this treasure trove over years at writing workshops and conferences. I had even hoarded term papers from writing classes of my university years.

A painful process, judging what to keep and what to shred. Most of it went to the shredder. I did not want some dumpster diver getting his hands on my early manuscripts, basic though as they were.

I still recall some of my creative writing classes at Simon Fraser University, and the first year I attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Like a dry sponge I absorbed every word of dispensed advice! I made copious notes of everything my professors and workshop leaders offered. More importantly, I believed every word from my classes and conference workshops. Passionately.

Then came the second year of the Surrey International Writers’ conference, and the third, and more after that. They turned out to be still interesting, but much of the information was by now repetitive, and quite a lot of it contradictory. The most obvious that most of us are familiar with: Always outline. You can’t ever finish a novel without. Never outline. It will stifle your writing. Each camp has its devoted disciples.

Gradually, I sifted through all the learning from my early writing years and applied what sounded most practical for my style. Not only ‘applied’, but relied on it. But here’s the rub: I got increasingly stuck trying to squeeze the multitude of ‘rules’ into my writing. I tried to use them all. I spent more time trying to write to the ‘rules’ than letting my story flow. After a while I felt like getting buried in an avalanche.

Until I realized that it wouldn’t work for me. Time to change tactics. To find a better way.

I am not suggesting that new writers should disregard writing rules. Every writer needs some rules. But the key is to be selective. Just as some writers absolutely have to outline, it would stifle the writing process for others. We need to apply the rules that suit our individual style and preference. Cherry-picking, rather than one-size-fits-all.

Nonetheless, some cardinal rules apply that have stood the test of all writing styles. Take those related to starting your story. Mountains of books have been written about the pivotal ‘First Chapter’. If it doesn’t start right, nobody will read your novel. Those rules are ironclad. Ignore them at your peril.

Some of the cardinal rules that have been most useful for me are also the most basic. They continue to serve me well. Here they are, in a nutshell:

Start your story with an action scene. That applies to all genres from romance novels to thrillers. Start with the ‘real’ tension and conflict. Don’t start with the main characters reflecting on life, thinking about their current or past situation, or contemplating doing something.

First chapters are a bit like speed dating. A reader knows within a few minutes if they will be interested enough in your story to continue. They might hold a really good book in their hands, but your story has to grab them or they’ll drop it and never buy another book you wrote.

Avoid backstory on your first pages at the fear of torture. Don’t spoon feed your reader with detailed explanation. Let them guess – less is more. Use dialogue instead of narrative. And by all means, use conflict. Ideally the main conflict of your story should be clear at the end of the chapter.

In my early attempts at writing I made the mistake of introducing my protagonist in a way to ‘force’ my readers to like him/her. I did this either by ‘telling’ a heroic quality early on, or by giving her/him some kind of flaw, counting on the reader’s empathy. Reading through my first manuscripts I notice how hard I tried to have my readers ‘like’ my main character in the first few pages with all kinds of backstory, when instead, I should have focused on an action scene to keep my readers turning those crucial first pages.

Consider this: Your first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they can expect to get. Without going into details, or worse, backstory, the reader should know the main conflict of the book and have some sense of the main character’s personality.

headhunters

Headhunters: How did we get from this…

Keeping the promise to your reader is of utmost importance. We can all think of a book or movie that broke that promise, and we feel cheated at having wasted our time. For example, I watched ‘Headhunters’ on Netflix the other day, a movie based on Jo Nesbo’s book by the same name.

I was intrigued the way it started: Stylish Scandinavian setting and actors, beautiful house and art exhibits, great theme (high-end art thefts to support a lavish lifestyle), all the right things. Our protagonist gets in trouble, finds his wife cheating him, etc. But then the theme gets derailed and confused.

.... to this ?

…. to this ?

Suddenly I find myself watching a horror movie, with some disgusting scenes including when he has to hide inside the dump hole of an outhouse. All the way, deep down, and then we are forced to watch him emerge in glorious detail. And on it goes for most of the film. So where’s the theme? Suddenly the lavish lifestyle is gone, and all we get is blood and disgusting other stuff. To me, this is a good example of a broken promise. If the film had started differently, fine, I knew what to expect. But that way I felt kind of cheated. As an aside, book reviews praise this standalone work by Nesbo. I assume the filmmakers used his theme as a platform for the gory version.

After all the lectures and conferences I’ve attended over the years, the first and most useful rule then, is this: If you’re writing a murder mystery, don’t start your first chapter like chick-lit. Or vice versa. Set the tone and stick to it.

Once you got your first chapter down and you haven’t lost your reader, things will get easier. And more fun.

(Until you get to the sagging middle)

How we write about love

Helga’s Post #104:  Love is of course the theme du jour. Chocolates, flowers, kisses and all manners of other romantic gestures abound. But Valentine’s Day is also fraught with dangers: husbands and boyfriends, and girlfriends too, beware, you will be judged! Relationships are known to have blossomed if you do the right thing.

Or soured if you failed. Frequently worse. Much worse.

So how can I write about love today without repeating clichés and boring you out of your wits? I hope to do so by sharing with you an article about love that relates specifically to writers. It offers some surprising insights about this most basic and precious of all human emotions.

I am presently on the road to southern California all the way from Vancouver (with my own Valentine), so am deprived of time and technology to write my own post. That’s why I am taking the easy way out and quoting someone else’s words of wisdom. The article is by Daniel Jones of the New York Times. The picture is compliments of the talented Brian Rea.

Sweet Valentine’s Day to all of you and may the miracle of love last all year.

Brian Rea-Love

Credit: Brian Rea

Modern Love By DANIEL JONES

A few months ago, I read several articles touting the health benefits of writing in a deeply personal way. Studies had shown that writing introspectively on a regular basis can lead to lowered blood pressure, improved liver function and even the accelerated healing of postoperative wounds. The study’s subjects had been told to write for short periods each day about turbulent emotional experiences.

I bet a lot of them wrote about love. As the editor of this column, I have spent much of the last decade reading stories of people’s turbulent emotional experiences. They all involved love in one way or another.

Which isn’t so surprising. Who hasn’t been stirred up by love? But these writers had spun their experiences into stories and sent them here, where more than 99 percent must be turned away.

Although the would-be contributors may be happy to learn of the surprising health benefits of their writing, I think they hoped for a more glamorous reward than improved liver function.

Lately I have been thinking about those tens of thousands of passed-over stories and all the questions and lessons about love they represent. When taken together, what does all this writing reveal about us, or about love? Here’s what I have found.

First, and most basic: How we write about love depends on how old we are.

The young overwhelmingly write with a mixture of anxiety and hope. Their stories ask: What is it going to be for me?

Those in midlife are more often driven to their keyboards by feelings of malaise and disillusionment. Their stories ask: Is this really what it is for me?

And older people almost always write from a place of appreciation, regardless of how difficult things may be. Their message: All things considered, I feel pretty lucky.

In writing about love, the story of how we met looms large because a lot of us believe, validly or not, that a good meeting story bodes well for the relationship.

What do we consider to be a good meeting story? When it involves chance more than effort. You get bonus points if the chance encounter suggests compatibility, like mistakenly wheeling off with each other’s shopping carts at Whole Foods because your items had so much overlap, you got the carts mixed up.

“I get those beets all the time!” “You like Erewhon Supergrains, too?”

Pretty soon it’s time to get a room.

It seems the harder we work at finding love, the more prone we are to second-guessing the results. High-volume online daters worry about this, along with those who routinely attend singles events.

The fear is we may force things or compromise after pushing so hard for so long. We may admire hard work in most endeavors, but we admire laziness when it comes to finding love. (If you manage to stay together over the long haul, however, it will be because of effort, not chance.)

When some people write about love, they can’t find the right words to capture the intensity of their feelings, so they rely on stock terms that are best avoided. These include (but are not limited to): amazing, gorgeous, devastating, crushed, smitten, soul mate and electrifying.

Popular phrases include: “meet cute,” “heart pounded,” “heart melted,” “I’ll always remember,” “I’ll never forget” and “Reader, I married him.” Then there is everyone’s favorite stock word regardless of subject: literally. As in, “our date was literally electrifying.”

Women and men may feel love similarly, but they write about it differently.

A lot of men’s stories seem tinged by regret and nostalgia. They wish previous relationships hadn’t ended or romantic opportunities hadn’t slipped away. They lament not having been more emotionally open with lovers, wives, parents and children.

Women are more inclined to write with restlessness. They want to figure love out. Many keep mental lists of their expectations, detailing the characteristics of their hoped-for partner with alarming specificity and then evaluating how a new romantic interest does or doesn’t match that type.

They write something like, “I always pictured myself with someone taller, a guy with cropped brown hair and wire-rim glasses who wears khakis or jeans, the kind of person who would bring me tea in bed and read the Sunday paper with me on the couch.”

Men almost never describe the characteristics of their ideal partner in this way. Even if they have a specific picture in mind, few will put that vision to paper. I wonder if they’re embarrassed to.

Another list women frequently pull together is “The List of Flawed Men,” in which they dismiss each man they have gone out with over the last year with a single phrase. There was the slob with the sideburns, the med student who smoked too much pot, the gentle Texan who made felt hats but couldn’t commit, and the physically affectionate finance guy who always dropped her hand when he saw his friends.

This series of bad encounters has left them exasperated to the point of hopelessness, so they try to see the humor in it.

Men rarely compose that kind of list, either. In this case, I wonder if it’s because they’re afraid to, not wanting to be seen as belittling women. In general, men write more cautiously about women than the other way around.

Love stories are full of romantic delusion, idealizing love to an unhealthy degree. But in the accounts I see, men and women delude themselves in opposite directions.

A woman is more likely to believe her romantic ideal awaits somewhere in the future, where her long-held fantasy becomes a flesh-and-blood reality.

A man’s romantic ideal typically exists somewhere in the past in the form of an actual person he loved but let go of, or who got away. And he keeps going back to her in his mind, and probably also on Facebook and Instagram, thinking, “What if?”

I don’t know if men are worse than women when it comes to romantic rejection; they are clearly worse when it comes to literary rejection. Even though only 20 percent of submissions come from men, they send more than 90 percent of the angry emails I receive in response to being turned down. To these men, no does not mean no. No means the start of an inquiry as to how this possibly could have happened.

One man sneered at me: “You didn’t even read it, dude.”

To which I replied, sincerely: “Dude, I totally did.”

Writing about love can be similar to falling in love in that we must be as vulnerable on the page as we are in person when revealing ourselves to someone we hope will love us back. That means exposing our flaws and weaknesses and trusting we will be seen as more appealing, not less, for having done so.

Good writing about love features the same virtues that define a good relationship: honesty, generosity, open-mindedness, curiosity, humor and self-deprecation. Bad writing about love suffers from the same flaws that define a bad relationship: dishonesty, withholding, defensiveness, blame, pettiness and egotism.

It has been remarkable to watch the evolution in stories I have received from gay and lesbian writers. A decade ago, their stories focused on issues of marginalization, identity, coming out, and of strains with family members. Within a few years, their focus had turned overtly political in the fight for equality and marriage.

Today, gay writers have largely shed that baggage. They write about looking for love, marrying, starting a family, being a parent, even getting divorced. Sexual orientation that had once been central is now incidental. Which seems like a nice change.

With Valentine’s Day near and the right words about love always so hard to find, let me close by simply wishing you an amazing celebration of electrifying romance you never forget and always remember.

 

Basically, you have to write

Karalee’s Post #90

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Our writing group is busy preparing for our fall two day retreat meeting starting tomorrow. We do have a long to-do list and it does have a lot to do with writing fiction.

 

On the other hand, we need to stay focused in order to make sure the list doesn’t remain in the to-do category.

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I’ve recently gone back to the basics in outlining a new manuscript and already feel a bit stuck.

 

 

If you believe in karma, meant-to-be concepts or in sheer luck, it does happen at times.

I follow a blog by C.S. Lakin called Live Write Thrive and she sent a title today called ‘Ramping Tension to the Max in Your Novel’. Now I don’t know if you experience this phenomenon, but when I’m stuck, or on the verge of understanding a concept, or need to learn about something in particular, often the solution arises from unexpected places. Sometimes it is downright eerie, but maybe every so often my stars align or something.

So when Live Write Thrive popped up in my inbox today it must have been meant to be. Not only does it address the topic of tension, and the concept suddenly became clearer to me, she also gave a her checklist at the end of the blog to go through in designing and writing your novel.

All in one place! My lucky day, but then, I was ready to delve into the whole topic and much deeper than before as my learning continues.

Her checklists are as follows and each are definitely worth a close read:

  • concept with a kicker
  • protagonist with a goal
  • conflict with high stakes
  • theme with a heart
  • plots and subplots in a string of scenes
  • secondary characters with their own needs
  • setting with a purpose

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I’ve discovered that learning about writing also teaches yourself much about, well, yourself. Me, I have a whole book in my head at once, but have difficulty talking it through out loud as well as having my story flow like a movie on the page.

 

So thank-you this week C.S. Lakin, I will definitely work through your checklists!

Last week I touched on the release of Kindle Unlimited. This week in the blog Build Book Buzz  readers are encouraged that when they download with Kindle Unlimited to read 10% of each book. Why? If they don’t then the author doesn’t get paid.

Just another little point for us aspiring authors to understand in the self-publishing world.

Happy writing!

 

Does theme matter?

Karalee’s Post #78

How gossiping makes you a good friend.  #deviousmaids

When I first started reading books on the craft of writing, theme seemed to be a distant concept to consider once the first draft was written and you could contemplate what your story really is trying to convey underneath all the plot and characterization.

For years I’ve put theme on a shelf like a pretty ornament to be looked at and dusted off once in awhile.

But, as I continue to struggle pulling my stories together I’m finding that for me, theme has become a concept that needs to be addressed up front. What is my story really about?

Oh, I’ve done my outlining and character development, leaving plenty of room to allow a new character to pop up from under the covers or the exploration of a different subplot that pulls my characters in interesting directions. But no matter how much I think I’m writing ‘my story‘ somehow I don’t seem to tell the story in the way my mind feels it.

What I’ve concluded is that I need to know the theme of my novel before I start writing. What is my story really about? What pulls everything together and makes all the characters act the way they do so that together the story not only makes sense, but feels the way it should?

I need to go and explore themes.

I find it very interesting that a blog I’m following is doing just that. You may want to check it out too:

livewritethrive.com

Happy writing!