Retreat, revitalize, re-writewritewrite

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With a view like this, how can you not be inspired?

Silk’s Post #131 — Two of the greatest letters in the alphabet: RE. They’re magic. Adding this little prefix to every imaginable action verb reminds us that life is full of do-overs.

There is a huge collection of old saws, clichés, quips – whatever you prefer to call truths we all know but nevertheless have to remember again and again – that elaborate on the power of restarting …

  • If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
  • It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.
  • Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries. — James A. Michener
  • If you never fail, you’re not trying hard enough.
  • Never, never, never give in! — Winston Churchill
  • A few fly bites cannot stop a spirited horse. — Mark Twain
  • It’s never too late to start over.
  • Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit. — Vince Lombardi
  • It’s like deja-vu, all over again. — Yogi Berra
  • Every strike brings me closer to the next home run. — Babe Ruth
  • It always seems impossible until it’s done. — Nelson Mandela
  • Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
  • It’s always too soon to quit. — Norman Vincent Peale
  • If you can quit, then quit. If you can’t quit, you’re a writer. — R.A. Salvatore
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Karalee captures the Sunshine Coast scene.

So, that’s what we did this past weekend.

At our 5/5/5 writers’ retreat, we reconnected with our writing colleagues, recharged our batteries, renewed our commitment to the writing life, resurrected old manuscripts, revived our enthusiasm … but mainly, we took step one again: we just wrote some stuff.

5writer Paula (who herded us cats), her ever supportive husband, John (who baked us cookies), and her entertaining poodles (who took us for beach walks), were hosts extraordinaire. We ate well, slept well, read to each other, drank a little wine and a lot of coffee, and thoroughly got our heads into writing.

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Paula, Karalee, Loulou and Gryphon. Trusting you can figure out who’s who.

If it must be quantified, we did pretty well production-wise. I think Joe did about 20 pages of wow. Karalee rewrote her opening scene twice; she aced the last version. Paula went berserk and wrote at least 30 pages on a brand new story. I wrote one of my main character’s mysterious backstory, desperately needed to drive the whole plot – 10 pages of blood, sweat and tears. Helga continues with her journal. She is our saint for finding time to join us and for keeping her writing close to her heart.

More important, by miles, is the qualitative measure of our writers’ retreat. We’re excited. Can’t put a measure on that. It’s too huge. The proof? We’re getting back into a schedule of monthly cyber-critiquing. Just to keep us honest.

We’re back, baby!

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Dust off and write

Karalee’s Post #113

Next week the 5Writer’s board a ferry to travel to the Sunshine Coast and meet in person for three days of writing. No arms full of paper files (or the electronic equivalent) to critique and prepare ahead of time.

No strict agenda.

We arrive to dust off and write. Apparently it takes about a month to change a habit or to create new ones. Joe has succeeded in doing just that this month – sticking to a routine and hitting a deadline.

It’s doable. Simple, but oh so difficult too!

Back to writing productivity means to set a consistent daily routine with a self-imposed word count or dedicated hours in the office chair, NO distractions allowed from social media or family/friends, and work diligently towards an arbitrarily set deadline for completion (unless writing to set submission deadlines).

Simple to do.

Simple not to do.

No one looks over your shoulder. No one to be accountable to except yourself. Yet everyone in the 5Writers has completed a book, some of us a few more. After all, we are writers!

And we have three days of writing with no reason not to and every reason to. Paradise really.

After all, a writer is self-discipline fueled by passion.

Do you agree?

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Writing Goals: 2 scenes/day at our retreat.

Keep in mind: 

  • The Slight Edge philosophy (do a little every day consistently and over time and you will succeed) can definitely be put towards writing! Stick to a routine. Know my goals!
  • daily meditation and exercise keeps me centered and healthy
  • have gratitude
  • a positive attitude leads to more happiness

Perspective Photos:

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Meeka closeup

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!

 

 

Déja vu all over again

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Silk’s Post #103 — I love new beginnings. For some people, the year begins on January 1. Others are in tune with Spring as a time of rebirth. I was a Halloween baby, so for me the year has always started with autumn. It’s a new cycle and we’re on the start line once again.

Our 5Writers mini-retreat in Vancouver last week was a perfectly timed re-start for me. If you’ve ever belonged to a writers group – or any kind of small-scale, informal professional circle – you’ll know how this kind of support and encouragement kindles new enthusiasm for your work and kicks your energy up a notch.

And there’s nothing like a new challenge to wake up the competitive spirit. As a group, we have just embraced an ambitious common goal to write and self-publish five new books. If “competitive” seems like an inapt word to describe our cooperative efforts, it’s used deliberately. As unpublished authors, we’re a bit like a team that’s training together. We egg each other on. Put any five people on the same track – whether they’re running or writing – and the natural competitive human spirit turns it into a race. At the same time, we have an unwritten rule, born of our mutual respect and loyalty: Leave No Writer Behind. So it’s a genteel “race” of 5 cooperative competitors designed to produce 5 winners.

Over the next months, this blog will be sharing our brave new journey. It’s less brash than our original 5Writers challenge to write 5 novels in 5 months two years ago. In 2012 we set out at a furious gallop, hell bent for leather. Yee-haw! It was a terrific exercise and we learned a lot from it – about writing, and about ourselves.

I’m one of the two who didn’t finish the novel I started for that challenge. I may finish it one day because I love the characters and I think it has potential, but it’s a book that was conceived to fit that 5Writers challenge. It’s not the book I absolutely must write – at least not right now.

This new challenge is different. I like to think we’ve matured together as writers. Life has thrown us all many changes over the past couple of years. Our nice comfy schedule of meeting once a month or so for critiques is out the window, with two of the five now spending winters in the desert, three going through house moves in the last year, and one taking up Dad duties with his wonderful new family.

We’re all very aware of life’s ticking clock. It’s time to get more serious about writing – and publishing. Even if that means doing it for ourselves. No Cinderella stories have been forthcoming – what a surprise! So we’re not waiting for someone to knock on the door with a glass slipper in hand. But I think we’ve become realists about what we can accomplish as indie writers, and how much work and time we will need to (and are able to) put into it.

Here’s the box score from our lively review last Friday of our 5 book concepts:

  • 5Writers who had completed a full synopsis for review: 1
  • 5Writers who completely switched what book they’re planning to write after review: 2
  • 5Writers who are contemplating major changes to characters after review: 1
  • 5Writers who are now at work on new synopses: 4
  • Fabulous Thai dinners consumed during retreat: 1
  • Fabulous fellow bloggers who joined us for said dinner: 2 (Alison and Don of Adventures in Wonderland, the first time most of us had met these superstars in person!)

Onward!

Helga and super supportive husband Emil

Helga and husband Emil

Don and Joe

Don and Joe

Paula and Silk

Paula and Silk

Karalee and Alison

Karalee and Alison

Alison and Don

Alison and Don

 

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!

 

Confessions of a NOP

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Silk’s Post #63 — I’m looking forward to outlining my next book the way a cat looks forward to a visit with the vet.

Can someone remind me why I thought it would be a wonderful idea to start outlining, and even worse to make outlining the focus of our next 5writers challenge?

That’s right, in the first week of February next year – the 5th to the 8th, to be precise, if all goes according to plan – the 5writers will be hunkered down somewhere ripping apart each other’s outlines for our next books. Hopefully someplace warm. With a well-stocked wine bar. And another one of those giant bowls with half a candy counter dumped into it like the one Paula brought to Whistler. I estimated the bowl contents totalled about 15,000 calories.

See? I’m already wandering off the subject of outlining. That’s because – I admit it! – I’m a confirmed NOP. No Outline Person. Uncouth people call us “pantsers” – as in “flying by the seat of your pants.” And the closer our new deadline gets, the twitchier I’m becoming. By January, I’ll be hiding under the bed with the cat.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Suck it up, Silk. If anybody needs the discipline of an outline, it’s you – the 5writer who still hasn’t finished her book from last year.

I know you have a point. And I’ve listened to all the arguments about why outlining is the way to go.

Paula became a convert last year, whipping out her first action-packed YA novel in, like, two weeks thanks to her well-planned outline. Okay, maybe not two weeks, but fast. And no one has more story concepts than Paula, so the faster she can write, the better.

And Joe is keen because he’s tired of rewriting rewriting rewriting all his books. But then, Joe – our resident overachiever – has actually written many books (note the plural), so no wonder he’s tired of rewriting. I’m still stuck at one-and-a-half books, myself.

Karalee is enthusiastic too. But Karalee is congenitally enthusiastic – don’t I wish I had her energy! And she has the determination of Superwoman. She runs, she rows, she climbs mountains, for Pete’s sake! She’ll take to outlining like a duck to water.

And Helga … well, no one loves a cunning plot more. She aims high, emulating her idol, John le Carré, whose plots are famously complex, dense and intellectually challenging. Outlining is the perfect methodology to combine Helga’s favourite story ingredients in a meticulous recipe for intrigue. 

Yes, I get the logic, I really do. The case for outlining as a writer’s discipline that will help us get the plot job done – hopefully the first time. My angst about it isn’t coming from my cortex. It’s radiating up from my limbic brain. Feral fear of captivity. And, if I’m honest, a streak of cat laziness.

We all started as NOPs. Following the scent of our stories with our noses from the opening lines to sharply – or hazily –  imagined endings. But at some point in all our books, we’ve occasionally lost the trail and become mired in the Swamp of Saggy Middles. That’s why we’re trying to become OPs instead of NOPs. At least this once.

In his indispensable book Plot & Structure, writing guru James Scott Bell looks at the “longstanding feud between the NOPs and the OPs.” Here’s what he says about NOPs:

“The NOPs are the … happy folk [who] love to frolic in the daisies of their imaginations as they write. With nary a care, they let the characters and images that sprout in their minds do all the leading. They follow along, happily recording the adventures.

Ray Bradbury was a NOP. In Zen in the Art of Writing he says:

footprints‘Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. That is all Plot should ever be. It is human desire let run, running and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic.’

The joy of being a NOP is that you get to fall in love every day. But as in love and life, there is heartache along the way.

The heartache comes when you look back and see nothing resembling a plot.”

Okay, so the OPs must be doing it right then … right James Scott Bell? He says:

“The OPS … seek security above all. They lay out a plot with as much specificity as possible. They may use 3″ x 5” cards, spread out on the floor or pinned to cork board, and rework the pattern many times before writing.

Or they’ll write a plot treatment, 40 or 50 pages written in the present tense. Then they’ll edit that like they would a full manuscript. And only then will they begin the actual novel. 

Albert Zuckerman, an OP, says in Writing the Blockbuster Novel

house-plan‘No sane person would think of setting out to construct a skyscraper or even a one-family home without a detailed set of plans. A big novel must have the literary equivalent of beams and joists strong enough to sustain it excitingly from beginning to end, and it also must contain myriad interlocking parts fully as complex as those in any building type.’

The value of the OP approach is that, with experience, one can virtually guarantee a solidly structured plot …

The danger, however, is the lack of that freshness and spontaneity the NOPs are known for. An OP may get to a place where one of the characters is screaming to do something other than what’s written down on a scene card. The OP fights the character, whipping him back into submission. But in doing so, he may have missed the exact angle that would make his plot original.”

All to say that there are multiple ways to fail with your plot – all of them easy to see in retrospect and easy to describe. But how to build a successful plot is much more elusive and difficult to prescribe.

What I know is that I’ve signed up for the outlining tour-of-duty and I’m going to march forward with determination towards that goal. Just the idea of 3″ x 5″ cards literally gives me hives, though, so it looks like I’ll be writing the 50-page plot treatment.

Hopefully I won’t have to have someone put me into an overlarge cat carrier, stick me on the back seat, and drive me – yowling – to the Great 5writers Outline Retreat in February.

That candy bowl better be there, though.

Why are secondary characters so much easier to write?

Philip Marlowe

Silk’s Post #44 – We asked ourselves this question more than once in our Whistler discussions. It should be no surprise that most of the characters who got a few rotten tomatoes thrown at them in our 5 Writers retreat were protagonists. For some reason, many writers with a bit of experience seem to sail through the test of developing brilliant, interesting secondary characters with ease. But when it comes to the stars of the show – our beleaguered, ever-striving protagonists – well, they don’t always shine quite as brightly as they need to.

This has led, more than once, to suggestions that the writer being critiqued change the protagonist from the current one (who seems to fall short) to a secondary character (who everyone loves to pieces). But I started thinking … how soon after assuming the protagonist role would that fabulous secondary character succumb to the same problems, dilemmas and shortcomings as the current protagonist?

Is it just that we writers are daunted by the pressure of writing a protagonist that readers will immediately bond with? Do we invest too much of our own personalities? Do we try to make them so different and memorable, so “larger than life”, that they come off as phoney baloneys? Do we make them too perfect, then graft on some personal quirks and failings that, instead of humanizing them, feel like bad plastic surgery? Do we attempt to make them all things to all people, thus ensuring that they fail miserably?

Or is the problem really the inherent difficulties any protagonist has to overcome to play the lead role?

Let’s face it: “the buck stops here”, as Harry Truman once famously proclaimed, could easily be the motto for any novel’s protagonist. These characters really have to be up to carrying the load. As discussed in earlier blog posts, we writers make them suffer endlessly. And we require them to make themselves irresistible to readers, bond with them, entertain them, elicit their sympathy while simultaneously earning their respect. If that’s not enough, we also demand that they perform feats – mental, physical and emotional – that most of us could never accomplish ourselves in a million years.

You want to live, Mr. Protagonist? Well then face down this heavily armed evil villain! Hahahaaah! And that’s just a simple feat compared to the things we force our protagonists to do to survive … or to rescue the baby, or stop the horrible event that’s about to happen, or defeat the enemy, or bring the guilty to justice, or save the world from destruction, or just keep body and soul together.

But then, that’s the point, isn’t it? Whether our protagonists succeed or fail in attaining the hugely challenging goals we set for them, it is through their actions when faced with difficulties that they make our stories work.

The very best ones leap right out of the books where they were born and into popular culture to become iconic characters with a life of their own. For example, the mystery-suspense-thriller genres have a particularly rich array of enduring icons – each of them unique – from Nancy Drew to Philip Marlow, George Smiley, V.I. Warshawski, Travis McGee, Sam Spade, Stephanie Plum, Jack Reacher and my personal favourites Dave Robichaux and Harry Bosch.

These characters are not “types”. They soar above types. No matter how often someone tries to create a “Philip Marlowe type” for their protagonist, there is – and always will be – only one Philip Marlowe.

So how do we get there? How do we create the DNA of a memorable protagonist? In our Whistler critiques, our protagonists were subject to potshots from all directions. Most of the criticisms suggested that the protagonist was not quite up to the challenge in some way.

My protagonist sometimes behaved like a nitwit. Helga had two apparent protagonists, and the one everyone related to best was not the primary one. Joe had three main characters, and got dinged for not making it clear which one was the real protagonist. Karalee had two main characters, whose stories didn’t braid together early enough in the plot. Paula had a clear protagonist who was sometimes hard to empathize with. None of us got it perfectly right in the first draft.

The bottom line: being a protagonist is a hard job. (Yes, anti-heroes do seem to follow different rules). You have to be larger than life, but down to earth in some way. You have to be consistent at heart to have character integrity, but you need a character arc that demonstrates change and growth. You have to be likeable, but not goody-goody or bland. You have to be driven, but not uncaring or totally obnoxious. You can be a rule-breaker, but not immoral. You have to be self-directed, but not ego-centric. You have to be deep, but not remote or unreachable. You can be a clever scamp, but not a malevolent scoundrel. I could go on.

I think there should be a Nobel Prize for wildly successful protagonists. They’re like national (or international) treasures. Imagine creating the equivalent of a James Bond. What an achievement. And what a franchise.

No wonder secondary characters are so much easier, and arguably more fun, to create. They have a much easier job to do.

I think it’s the heavy lifters that really challenge us as writers.

An elevated level of critiques

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Silk’s Post #40 — Hey, here we are! The 5 Writers’ big Whistler Mountain adventure has begun. Don’t we look like happy tourists? This was our first night, Saturday. We’re going out to dinner. We just drank a bottle of wine. No one has been critiqued yet. No wonder we look so happy.

helga-and-paulaAnd are we ever prepared.

We have nutritious, healthy snacks, courtesy of Helga and Karalee. The fridge in our suite is filled with wholesome raw veggies, fruit, hummus, cheeses and sparkling water. Just in case we wear ourselves out talking and really need some vitamins, minerals and fibre.

We have delicious, unhealthy snacks, courtesy of Paula and Silk. A gigantic bowl of candy looms on the table, just in case a recently-critiqued writer needs a high-calorie hug after a hard day on the hotseat. And we have a homemade apple pie from Silk’s orchard, ready to be baked as a last-night reward for our bravery.writer-treats

We have champagne for a wind-up toast courtesy of Joe, and the loyal and uncritical companionship of our critique week pooch, Vegas.

We have our critiques and margin notes written, printed out and ready to go. Mostly. Well, some of us do. There’s a rumour that one of the critiques runs to 44 pages, which is more than 10% of the length of the novel itself.

Oh, yes. We are sooo prepared.

Today, Sunday, was our first critique day. Paula the Lionhearted was the first to step up and offer herself for judgement. Not that she actually did that willingly. We drew straws. But still, you have to give her full credit for showing up, all dressed in orange (a courageous colour), and sticking it out all day without ever locking herself in the bathroom. She’ll be telling you about her special day in her post tomorrow.

Tomorrow is my day for rotten tomatoes. I take courage from the fact that Shakespeare himself (or at least the long-suffering actors performing his plays) apparently had all manner of no-longer-edible foodstuffs pitched at them onstage, as was the jolly practice during Elizabethan times. Having no one else to push into the footlights in my stead, I will be forced to play myself tomorrow. I look forward to raiding the candy dish afterwards.

One thing we have already learned, and are happy to share with all our writer friends and followers: if you want to elevate your critiquing, one sure approach is to simply increase your altitude. Pack your laptops and get thee to a mountain retreat, where you can breathe in the clean, evergreen-scented air and commune with nature.

Brilliant.

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Ready, Set, Go…

 Helga’s Post #34 – The results are in. Three completed novels, two more well in progress. 1,500 pages to date since kick-off date September 5 last year.

The 5 new arrivals now await their ‘Judgment Day’ after their respective godmothers, and one godfather, dispense their wisdom. Starting June 15, the 5 writers will be ensconced for 5 days in the picturesque village of Whistler, to become judge and jury. To help the parents decide if any or all of the 5 new arrivals are ready to face the brave new world.

Image credit: Fantasy Embroidery Design

Image credit: Fantasy Embroidery Design

Like any new parent, we love our offspring unconditionally. We are convinced they are perfect and therefore we are willing to overlook their blemishes. We love them even if they have an ugly dark birthmark smack in the middle of their forehead.

Because of that unconditional love, that dark birthmark isn’t even visible. The ugly duckling isn’t ugly at all, even if everybody else thinks so.

What then will happen when the three fairy godmothers and handsome godfather do point out that ugly birthmark, or the fact that the offspring only has four fingers and three toes, and seems to be missing a voice? Or conversely, the offspring screams incessantly and never , ever shuts up. How will the parent react?

Let’s say one of the godparents thinks it’s a terminal case. ‘Kill off the ugly brat, it’s beyond hope. Give birth to another one.’

The parent will bristle. Probably go for the godmother/father’s throat.

What if they put it differently. Like ‘This baby has huge potential, but you know, it’s a finicky world out there. It needs some major surgery before you can release it. There are those great surgeons who can tell you how to fix all those shortcomings, but you have to be prepared to wield the scalpel. Not only wield, but cut. And cut deep. With everybody’s help you can even grow those missing fingers and toes. You have no idea what they are able to do nowadays with deformed offspring.’

Who are some of those surgeons, the parent may ask. Well, you know a lot of them already. You met them a the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. You’ve read their books. In case you forgot, look at their website. For this year’s conference, registration opens June 5.

Alternatively, the parent instinctively knows that the offspring has been naughty. Maybe too much drawing of blood and gore. Or the opposite: a docile offspring who constantly yawns and never gets out of its usual surroundings. Doesn’t want to get off its butt, only sits there like a bump on a log, thinking inside its head.

The smart parent knows this can only be cured by Baptism of Fire and is willing to ask the fairy godmothers/father for help. Not only ask, but is willing to really listen without being defensive and taking it personally.

Granted, dispensing feedback and advice requires diplomacy, tact and respect. Even fairy godmothers/godfather do have some earthly traits like an occasional dash of sarcasm. Sometimes they just can’t help themselves. But these 5 have formed a great working relationship where such things rarely happen, and if they do, they’re self-correcting. These 5 have a bond based on trust and a genuine desire to kick our respective offspring out the door in the direction of an agent or publisher willing to adopt it.

So for the next four weeks each of us will read four novels and prepare critiques for our retreat. Who knows, it might turn out to be a mini version of the Academy Awards sans the red carpet.

Or a Baptism by Fire. Maybe a bit of both. Regardless, it will also be a party. When all the work is done after each day, we will coddle the writer who was in the hot seat, and make sure we apply soothing balm, love and copious amounts of good wine.

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A Grimm tale

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Helga’s Post # 30 — Something odd happened as I read through my manuscript. No, that’s not quite truthful. I  knew it was always there, whenever I sat down to write. In a subliminal sort of way. But now, as I start editing the first draft in anticipation of our group’s retreat, I let it bubble to the surface, unbridled.

It’s about the persona of my protagonist. Not only my protagonist. Any fiction writer’s protagonist. I asked myself whether we are creating characters in our own image. Are we hiding our autobiographies inside our manuscripts?

You bet we do.

I didn’t realize that when I started writing my story, I was unsure what kind of person I wanted to create. I guess I wanted her to be many things, and I endowed her with different traits, depending on whose ‘How-To’ book I was reading at the time. Donald Maass put it aptly in ‘The Fire in Fiction’:

‘Heroes who are nothing but good, noble, unswerving, honest, courageous, and kind to their mothers will make your readers want to gag.’

Duly noted. So I aimed for my protagonist to be heroic, but with flaws. Yet flaws not so serious as to render her a wuss or be fatal.  She should be able to feel deep emotions, without being melodramatic. She should be capable, but not boisterous. She should be unique, without flaunting it.

She should be… she should be… oh bloody hell.

Fine lines, all of them. I made changes to my protagonist time and again, with the result that she ended up being three or more people all in one. She was a total scatterbrain, without focus or conviction. I ended up with a flimsy character. The kind that may prompt the dreaded question, “Why should I care about this person?”

I sort of knew it when I started writing the first draft, but wasn’t ready to confront it.

Common wisdom dictates to ‘just get the story down’ and don’t spend time on details in the first draft. Makes tons of sense, but I believe it cannot extend to character development. This is where most of the groundwork has to be done, before writing the first sentence of Chapter One. The story begins and ends with the characters, and the plot is the excuse to write about them.

So what did I do before I realized the errors of my ways?

I tried to hide her imperfections with clever plot twists. And with lots of secondary characters, to shift the focus away from her. And with planting enough little traps so the reader may not notice just what a nincompoop my protagonist really was.

It backfired of course. I had to reinvent her. Not just with little things like voice, or colour of her eyeshadow, or her preference for men with six-packs rather than six (high) figure bank accounts. This girl had to acquire a moral compass and a steely determination among other things. Her ‘angry outbursts’, her ‘tear-streaked cheeks’, all met their just destiny: the  delete button.

Triage was in order.

I had to get into my character’s head. And she into mine. Pleased to meet you. The real YOU that is. It’s taken a while.

“What made you decide to show the reader that deep down I am really insecure?” She asked me.

Me: “I wanted to make you honest. Before I changed you, I couldn’t tell what made you tick. Not even I, your creator, knew who you were. So now, I can see through you. I can read you like a book, pardon for putting it this way. I can tell how insecure you are by the way you try to hide it. By being cocksure. In your face. Especially to your boss.”

“Interesting. What am I so insecure about?”

Me: “Well, you know, you always feel inadequate when you meet people with status. Especially people who had a higher education. You always want to run with the fast crowd, but you were scared shitless they would figure out you’re an imposter.”

“You mean I wanted to break out of my social class, my background?”

Me: “Yeah, that’s it. You  put your finger on it.”

“Wow. That sounds so Freudian. And it sounds like an image of yourself.”

Me (long pause, clearing throat): “Well, you know, the more I wrote about you, the better I understood you. On one level I really wanted you to break out of your mold, and you did in a way, with your ceaseless ambition. Yet, how shall I put it, you never quite fit in.”

“I know. Because I feel your tether on every page. As soon as I think I’ve been accepted as one of the ‘beautiful’ people, meaning the smart and the powerful, you pull me right back again on that leash of yours. But the really cruel thing you did to me is something different.”

Me: “I’m not cruel! Not deliberately anyway.”

“Well, you are. Because by now you’ve moved me so far beyond my poor background, that they’ve closed ranks back there. They don’t want me any more. Calling me a social climber, a traitor to my kin. You’ve placed me squarely in no-man’s land. I’m an outsider. I don’t belong.”

Me: “There’s no denying that. But understand, I’m not writing Grimm’s Fairy Tales. You are never going to ride into the sunset on a white stallion with your handsome prince.”

“Can I at least have sex? It doesn’t have to be on a stallion.”

Me: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You already had some in the past, and what good did that do you?”

“But that was back story. Your readers hate that. Let’s do it in real time. Please?”

Me: “Let me think about it. I still have to write The End anyway. Just don’t you ask me what’ll happen to you, okay? Keep in mind though the world is a cruel place. It’s a jungle out there.”

“You’re gonna kill me. Right?”

Me: “Now don’t jump to conclusions. It’s not healthy to harbor such morose thoughts. Think positive. Whatever happens, I will be fair. And I will try my best to avoid a lot of blood and gore. There has to be some, you understand, because we want to sell the book…”

“Please, don’t. Otherwise…”

Me: “You’re threatening me? Listen, sweetheart, all I need to do is stretch my pinkie and push that button in the upper right hand corner of my keyboard. The button that all you characters hate with a vengeance.”

(Laughter): “You won’t. Because you want to sell your damn book, don’t you?”

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Image: Book Cover for ‘Grimm Fairy Tales Volume 12’
(Joe Brusha, Ralph Tedesco)

Out of the frying pan …

iStock Photo licensed image

iStock Photo licensed image

Silk’s Post #28 — You know what comes next in that old saw. That’s the beauty and the curse of clichés: They’re useful shorthand for things commonly experienced, and therefore instantly understood. But because they’re so familiar, so normalized, so predictable, they’re like the cold, dead planets of literature – all the heat sucked out of them, devoid of life.

My mission in this post is to re-animate, in gut-wrenching detail, the second half of that old nostrum. And explain what it has to do with the 5writers5novels5months challenge.

Because we’re definitely into the fire now.

Let’s switch to a somewhat more evolved device in the writer’s tool kit and replace cliché with metaphor: the shift from our initial 5 month frenzy of first-draft writing to the next phase of reviewing and rewriting is like travelling from a hot, steamy, fertile jungle of a planet to one that’s burning under a relentless sun, where every warty pebble is starkly illuminated by the harsh light of critique.

Aaaargh, cough, cough. Too. Hot. Can’t. Breathe. [Brief delay, scrambling noises]. Gulp. Whew, that’s better. I just had to go get myself a glass of water.

Last Friday, the 5 writers met in person for the first time since we embarked on our (for us) epic challenge on September 5, 2012. We hugged. We chattered. We toasted ourselves with a bit of bubbly. And then we re-oriented and plotted the renewed course of our shared writer’s journey.

The easy part is over.

Easy? It certainly didn’t feel easy. In fact, as the self-admitted Tortoise of the group (and you can hold the Tortoise jokes, thank you), I’m still busy catching up. With new zeal, mind you, and a new drop-dead deadline of May 15. But the first draft stage – Act I if you will –  is the part of the journey when you can let your creativity run free and everything seems possible. You’re writing a book!  It’s work, but it’s fun. It overheats your brain, but it’s liberating. And at the end of it, you have this beautiful thing – your story, your creation.

The end of our Act I came February 5, 2013. And, yes, we took a fairly generous intermission. But now it’s time for Act II, where we subject our newborn stories to judgement. And even though our first critics, our fellow 5 writers, are a friendly and supportive audience, we’re committed to helping each other actually get published. That means some hard truth telling is in our near future, here on the Fire Planet.

Our come-to-Jesus meeting (or substitute the saviour of your choice) will take place near the end of June, in a venue yet to be chosen. No place too distractingly recreational, yet no place too familiar. No place our respective partners would be jealous about not being invited to. No place too luxurious, yet no place too cramped or spartan for at least a modicum of comfort. We’ll need it. We have work to do.

This is where a great writers group really proves its value. It takes a lot of trust to give, and take, criticism. As a group, we’ve embarked on this journey as companions with a common destination. In addition to our individual aims and ambitions, we also share the goal of helping each other succeed. We walk the fine line of encouragement versus criticism, teaching ourselves to be good teachers. In the process, the teachers learn a lot about themselves and the strengths and weaknesses in their own work.

But we don’t pander to each other. We don’t let precarious plot structures teeter without insisting on renovations. We don’t allow clichés to stand, or beginnings to stumble, or sub-plots to remain unresolved, or adverbs to run rampant, or middles to sag, or characters to lose their way, or endings to disappoint. So even when delivered in the most supportive of terms, this process is still a trial by fire – make no mistake.

All criticism is personal. And it’s not valuable if it isn’t genuine. If you want to forge a great book, you need to learn to stand the heat. Uncritical feedback, the kind you might get from a non-writing friend or relative who’s wowed by the fact that you actually wrote a whole book (and knows how much sweat you put into it), is a wonderful ego boost. But it doesn’t help prepare you for the next (and even hotter) circle of hell: the criticism of the agent or publisher, which most often comes in the form of a rejection letter. No critique. No rewrite advice. No hints as to why your manuscript is, in their opinion, not worthy of publication.

And if you do pass through that fire, you get to submit your work to the ultimate critic: the reader, and that particular kind of armed-and-dangerous reader called the book reviewer.

Because the publishing business is a pass-fail system. You get published, or you don’t. (Or you self-publish, which is a whole topic for another far-off day). And if you don’t get published, the only thing to do is tuck that manuscript into a drawer and let it cool off, then get started on a new one. If being a “writer” is your calling, the curtain has to go up on Act I all over again.

Back to the frying pan on that cosmic stove.

When the 5 writers began this journey and launched this blog, we were totally focused on the challenge of trying to get a book written in 5 months. Clearly, that was just the beginning. Our challenge continues. We’ve now refocused and recommitted to the next phase of that journey, and we hope you’ll stick with us as we jump out of the frying pan and into the fire (last cliché, I promise).

On to glory. We hope.

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© 2013, 5 writers image