Writing waves and embarassing English majors everywhere

Well, today I made my goal.  7,061 words, to be exact, which is actually the most words I’ve ever written at one time.  One thing I discovered was that there is a definite wave to my writing process.  I don’t know how anyone else works, but I had periods of a lot of productivity interspersed with periods of just slowly grinding out a few words. 

I noticed that I’d have some success, and then I’d reach a point where I felt I could stop for the day, but if I kept pushing it, I’d get through a slow word grinding period and into another productive flow.  This makes me think that writing is similar to running a marathon, or any other physical  activity; you might think you’re at your limit, but if you just ride it out, you’ll actually discover that you’re capable of doing a lot more than you originally thought. 

That’s my only thought for the day.  Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I ended up going to happy hour with my sister and her friends, and found myself the only english major at a table full of physicists.  Naturally, that meant I had to drink enough beer to understand what they were saying, which lead to the one english joke I know, which is “how much does a Hemingway?” Heh, heh.  Alright, so not so funny, and I think I think I misrepresented engish majors everywhere.  Sorry, guys. 

Anyways, tomorrow’s the last day of my writing-cation, and if I’m going to make my goal of 20,000 words, I’ll have to write another 7,000 words, which honestly I’m not sure is going to happen.  I’ll keep you posted.  Until then, happy writing!

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Published in: on May 13, 2010 at 10:07 pm  Comments (1)  
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A bad writing foundation is better than no foundation, right?

Alright, so I just finished my  first writing-cation day, and let me tell you, it was pretty successful.  After a rough start (i.e. 6:30 am train ride), I arrived in Davis, ate some crepes, and got started.  I set a goal of 7,000 words, which I didn’t quite meet, but I did make it to about 6,000, so all in all not bad.  Tomorrow will be even better, I’m sure.  Hopefully.

More importantly, I’ve managed to advance the plot quite a bit, even though I came to the realization that a lot of my sentences were pretty terrible.  Not the nicest realization, but when you’re trying to slap down as many words as you can, it’s not always going to be pretty.  But, I decided that the goal is to get a foundation in place, and then after that’s complete, I can go back and fix up everything. 

I first tried this method when I did NaNoWriMo a couple years ago–the goal of this is to write a whole novel, or 50,000 words and a complete story arc, in a month.  It’s actually really fun, but when you’re done, you’ll have a pretty ugly first draft.  This was how I wrote my first story, and it was awful–I usually try to pretend it never happened.  I decided there was nothing I could do to salvage that sad wreck of a first draft, but the next year I did NaNoWriMo again, and that’s actually how I wrote my current complete novel.  Of course, it took me another year and a half to make it readable, but I don’t think I would have ever gone back and fixed it up if I hadn’t had something finished to work with.  So, even though it’s not November, I’ve decided to take this same mentality on vacation with me.

I’d be interested to know what other people think of this method.  Is it better to carefully type out a decent first draft, and take a longer time with it, but have a lot less work to do on subsequent drafts? Or is it a good idea to write as fast and as furious as you can, ignoring  plot holes, bad dialogue, and character inconsistencies, to be fixed later? Since I don’t outline ahead of time, as mentioned previously, I feel like if I can just write fast enough and allow myself to be in the flow, the story that comes out will be better and more consistent then if I spend a lot of time perfecting words.  Everything else can be improved upon later, but I’m curious what other people think.  Happy writing!

Published in: on May 12, 2010 at 11:29 pm  Comments (6)  
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A Writing-cation

It’s going to be a short post today.  Sorry, people! I’m actually headed out to Sacramento, and I still need to pack.  I’ve decided to see if it’s possible to go on a writing vacation, or writing-cation for short.  Clever, I know.  😉 Anyways, I’ve heard that sometimes if you go away somewhere and just focus on your writing, you can get a lot done, so I’m meeting my sister and I’m going to spend the next three days just trying to add as much as I can to my word count while she works on her thesis.  My goal is to add 20,000 words by the end of the weekend, but honestly I’ll be happy with 15,000.

I’ve kind of reached a stand-still a little bit with my current WIP.  It’s a sequel to the novel I’m currently trying to get published, and I feel like it isn’t going at all how I originally pictured.  I know in my last post I talked about intuitive writing, but I’ve been having trouble getting into the flow with this work lately, and I’m hoping a change of scenery will help.  Plus my sister has the most recent episodes of Dr. Who saved…but that has nothing to do with my decision to go out there.  Honestly.

I’d be interested to know what other people do when they feel like they’re stuck on a piece.  Do you still force yourself to grind out the words, even if it’s like typing through wet cement? Do you work on something else? Any suggestions would be great! It’s always interesting to hear how different people handle their own writing dry spells.  Thanks, and happy writing!

Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 9:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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Clueless Writing – Is it bad if you have no plan?

Proof that you don't need a plan to be happy

I’ve decided to veer away from villains and protagonists and all that fun stuff for now and talk about the writing process in general.  It is my opinion that there are two types of writers: the planners and the poor saps who never learned how to write a friggin’ outline.  Guess which category I fall into? It seems like some people can carefully plot out their whole storyline, occasionally jotting down particular scenes that they see in their head during their planning stages, giving little notes about the different characters along the way, and generally being annoying with their tightly plotted stories and ridiculous organizational skills.  Clearly, I am very envious of these people.

Then there are the other people, like me, who just start writing without a plan.  Sure, I start off with a vague idea, or really more of an impression, but I usually have no idea where I want my story to go, or what’s going to happen along the way.  I just write and try really hard not to think about what I’m writing, because as soon as I start thinking, I realize I don’t have a clue what I’m writing about and I freeze, panicked, the whole process crashing down around my ears.  While this doesn’t seem like the best system, there are definitely pros to it as well.  For instance, since I have no idea where my story is going, it feels more spontaneous to me, and I’m never really bored while working on it.  In fact, writing without a plan is like reading, only at the end of a couple of hours you’ve gone through much less story and you’re exhausted.

I was thinking about this today, while working on my current WIP.  I call unplanned writing “intuitive writing,” and it’s actually pretty neat how it works.  Usually, the first draft has gaping plot holes the size of Kansas all over it, but in between these sad, terrible pieces of writing, there are some really good things that just come together.  Even without a plan, my subconscious seems to know what it’s doing, at least a little, and if I’m in the flow and I listen, occasionally I’ll get little nudges, like, “you need to bring back this character in the next scene,” or “here’s where she needs to find out x information.”  Little hints like that.  Which makes me wonder occasionally who’s really writing these stories…I heard that Robert Louis Stevenson had little people in his dreams that he molded into a story factory, and they are the ones who gave him the idea for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and wow that last sentence sounds really crazy written out like that.  I’ll go into that idea more in a later, crazier post…

Anyways, I’ve decided not to be envious of people who can actually plan out a story ahead of time, because I think both styles of writing will get you where you need to go in the end.  The key is really trusting yourself enough to complete the story, whether you’re using an outline or are just throwing yourself into it NaNoWriMo style.  But, as an experiment, I’m going to try to outline my next story before I start.  I’ll let you know if it turns out to be an abysmal failure…

More Fun With Protagonists

The flawed protagonist

So the other day I went all Joseph Campbell on the idea of the protagonist, and all characters in a story, as a part of the inner workings of the author of said story.  And while I still believe that, I realized I kinda went off the topic I originally wanted to discuss, which is how to create a realistic, fully fleshed main character.  So I’m just going to pick it up where I left off here…

As I mentioned, my trick is to use parts of my own personality for the base, but if I did that for all my main characters and didn’t do anything else, they would be super lame.  Let’s face it, I’m not that exciting of a person.  So, I take pieces and tinker with them a little, and then add traits until I have a character I can understand, but who is no longer really like me. Some of the traits I add or embellish intentionally–for instance, I gave the main character in my current WIP a short temper because in my own life, I generally try to avoid confrontation, but in a story, the more confrontation you have, the more drama you can put into a situation.  My character doesn’t like to back down, and will actually say all the snarky things that I normally just think at people, which makes her a very fun character to write about, and creates all sorts of interesting situations that carry the story along.

There are a lot of traits that will slip into a character’s personality unintentionally as well.  I know when I write, sometimes something just seems like it would be funny, or interesting, so I add it.  Again, for my WIP (which is sadly all I think about lately), my main character is a little bit immature, and a little bit of a cry baby, which she tries to cover up by being a tomboy.  I didn’t start off trying to create someone like that, but it just felt right with the story, and I think you should always trust your first instinct when creating a character.  I know someone whose main character has a strange fascination with teeth–she didn’t originally intend for this bizarre little trait in her first draft, but it just sort of developed and she went with it.  Which leads me to my next point.

People are weird.  Everyone you know is weird–trust me on this.  Everyone has their own strange little habits, or beliefs, or mannerisms, so it’s important that your characters, and particularly your protagonist, have their own crazy little tics and OCD moments.  These are the little details that will make your character feel like a real person to your readers.  And not just a real person, but someone they can relate to and cheer on.

In addition to the occasional strange habit, your characters have to have some sort of flaw.  And I’m not talking about freckles, or a terrible tennis serve, or anything silly like that–I mean a real, jarring, unpleasant flaw.  Like, they secretly hate their best friend, or they have an addiction to pain killers, or they can be extremely selfish.  The list is endless.  The worst thing you can do is create a character who is too perfect–every time I read about someone like that, I just want the villain to win because the idea of a perfect person winning is just too depressing.  And maybe that’s my cynicism talking, but generally I think a character with some sort of flaw who is able to overcome said flaw and triumph and grow at the end of the book is a character I can believe in.  These are the characters who will live in the reader’s mind outside of the pages of the story.

That’s about it.  If anyone has any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.  I think a lot of writing is intuitive, so it’s hard to really make a set of rules, but I’m sure people have their own tricks that help them set the foundation for their characters before inspiration kicks in and enables them to flesh these characters out.

Published in: on May 9, 2010 at 11:12 pm  Comments (5)  
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The protagonists within us (or why that stupid character is actually you)

Hmm, not really a protagonist, is he? Oh, and these are not the hammer...

Yesterday I talked about the difficulties in creating a truly evil villain, so today I thought I’d look at the other side of the coin: the protagonist.  A good, strong villain is important, but I know, as a reader, I won’t make it to the villain if I don’t like the hero of the story.  It’s the writer’s job to create a realistic, unique, and somewhat likable protagonist to guide the story along.  The writer has to know and understand their protagonist frontwards and backwards and inside out, which, from a writing standpoint, can be surprisingly hard to do.  I thought I’d share one trick here for how I go about creating a realistic main character in my own work, but I’d be very interested in hearing how other people go about doing this as well.

When beginning a story, I usually take my own personality as the starting base for my main character.  I think about what I like or don’t like about myself, and then I try to exaggerate the characteristics that I think would create an interesting character.  This way, I’m beginning with a real person I know fairly well, myself, and building on that, rather than creating a whole person out of thin air.  This plan can backfire, though, as first of all it is depressing to do that much soul-searching every time you write a story, and secondly, it can open you up to some harsh comments about yourself.  For example, I wrote a short story in college about a girl who is slowly starving because she’s too lazy to hold down a regular job (sound familiar?), so she answers an ad to do some psychological tests for money.  Madness ensues, and the rest isn’t too important, but during the critique of this story, my professor said, “Heidi is obviously having some fun with a stupid character,” and everyone else in the class laughed and agreed.  Meanwhile, I’m sitting there, feeling like crap because the main character was based loosely on myself.  True, I exaggerated her, but still!

Anyways, harsh personal criticisms aside I’d argue that every character in a book, from the protagonist to the villain, to the annoying sidekick and random passing characters, are all taken from parts of the writer’s own personality.  It might not be deliberate, as mine is, but these characteristics have to come from somewhere.  And I know that sounds like I’m parroting Joseph Campbell, but if you think about it, while you (the writer) are creating and fleshing out these little figures in ink and paper, you’re using your own experiences, memories, and emotions to judge how they would react, or what they desire.  It’s really bits of you that are motivating the whole book, and that to me is what is so amazing about writing in the first place; you’ll finish a story and realize you had all this inside you the whole time, and it’s amazing and also kind of terrifying.

Published in: on May 7, 2010 at 7:39 pm  Comments (5)  
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Why is it so hard to write really, horribly, truly evil characters?

"Excellent."

I was just reading an interesting post by KT Literary about villains–the merits of the truly evil vs. the understandable, possibly redeemable evil, and which is easiest to write about.  From the comments, it looks like most people (including myself) have trouble writing about completely 100% no redeemable characteristics evil characters, which got me wondering why.  Here’s my best guess:

Truly evil characters have no good qualities.  They are doing everything for their own selfishness, or greed, or malice.  They don’t love anyone, and they don’t want anyone’s love.  These are the true villains, characters like Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter, Duke Roger from the Alanna series, and It from A Wrinkle in Time (to name a few YA examples).  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that truly evil villains like these are fun, and almost admirable, at least from a story viewpoint.  You can joyfully hate them and root for the protagonist whole-heartedly without any twinges of guilt, like you might have when faced with those wishy-washy good intentions villains.

However, from a writer viewpoint, these characters are hard to create because they are hard to understand.  As soon as you understand someone’s motives, you can usually see some sort of good in their original intentions, or some tragic background that warped them and set them on the dark and ugly path they are now traversing.  As a writer, it’s your job to understand your characters, to figure out their backstory and motivations so that they become three-dimensional, and as real as ink and paper can make them.  And once you understand your characters, how can you find them evil without realizing why they’ve become this way?

This is why most really evil characters aren’t necessarily given a lot of backstory, because it’s hard to see that and not find something good or sympathetic in the character.  The exception would be Lord Voldemort, who is given a sad past and a lot of backstory and yet is entirely unsympathetic–there’s nothing good in him and there never was.  Otherwise, I think if you’ll look at most villains, the ones with backstory and clear motives beyond the purely self-serving are always shades of gray, and the pure black are almost mysteries to the reader, existing only as the villain they are and not giving the reader a glimpse into who they used to be, or why they really want the destruction of the world/protagonist/etc.

And in personal news, the police found our car.  Yay! Surprisingly, nothing was stolen, which is unfortunate, actually, cause there’s a whole lot of crap in that car…but I’m very thankful to have it back!!

Published in: on May 6, 2010 at 8:42 pm  Comments (4)  
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Missing Hands and Other Gaping Plot Holes

Courtesy of MC Escher

I just met with my critique group last night–it was my turn to go this week, so everyone had copies of my third and fourth chapter.  Now, I have edited, revised, edited, revised and edited the stupid thing many times over, and I was reasonably confident that all my gaping plot holes had been fixed.  At this point, I just wanted to make sure people liked it, and that the characters felt realistic.  Unfortunately, it turns out I had a few completely crazy contradictions that I had failed to notice the seventeen times I went through the thing.

There is one scene where I have a demon’s hands melt.  My exact phrase it that her hands become “a melting, mangled mess.”  Yes, I’m a fan of the occasional alliteration.  Anyways, about two pages later that same demon is holding a knife.  In her hands.  Now I’m stuck with a dilemma–I like both scenes, but neither can live while the other survives…er, sorry.  Harry Potter flashback.  FYI I finally finished the series again and I’m swearing off books for a little while so I get in some good, quality writing time.

Anyhow, the point I’m trying to make is that no matter how many times you read and re-read your work, it always helps to have a good, hairy eyeball go over it.  Several hairy eyeballs, in fact, because I’ve had a couple other test readers who missed the same thing.  And granted, one case of disappearing/reappearing hands probably isn’t going to get you rejected by an agent, but it certainly doesn’t help your credibility, either.  The real problem is that since you’re imagining it out in your head, sometimes when you read your own work you see what you meant to put, and not what’s actually there on the page.  Also, if you’ve done a number of revisions, you might forget what you’ve changed in previous drafts, and what scenes you’ve added, which I think was what happened in my story. On the plus side, my critique group seemed to really like my characters, so that’s one worry down.  Now I need to comb through the whole manuscript, again…once more, with feeling…

Published in: on May 3, 2010 at 9:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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Harry Potter and the loss of my ambition

Sorry for the long delay in posts–I was spending some time hiking in Arizona, and then being lazy when I got back.

Hiking in Sedona

Anyways, today was my first official “writing as career” day, which was awesome! Too bad Harry Potter almost ruined everything.  How, you ask? Well, about a week ago I decided to re-read the first HP book, just to get in the flow, and wham! Suddenly I found myself reading all the time–I’m now halfway through the fifth book and my desire to do anything other than read Harry Potter has faded away.  My husband is especially annoyed by this.  Direct quote: “whenever you start reading Harry Potter everything else goes downhill; you stop writing, the house gets messy, you ignore your husband, etc., etc.”  I realized he was right, and last night I reluctantly put the book away.

This morning, I got up at 6:30 am, prepared to put in my first long day of writing in a long time, when I just happened to glance at my bedside table to see book five staring over at me.  I tried to ignore it as I packed up my computer.  Hem, hem, went the book.  I turned my back on it and started making my lunch.  Hem, hem.  Well, I decided, one little page won’t hurt.  Maybe I’ll read for five minutes and then go…and before I knew it, it was almost 8:00, and suddenly I was battling the parking lot that the highway is at that time to get to a coffee shop.  Why couldn’t I just work at home? Well, see above about the problem with reading Harry Potter, and imagine what your house would look like if you stopped putting away laundry, or doing dishes, or anything, for a week and a half.  It’s not a pretty picture, trust me.

Anyhow, that’s one of my big problems–when I get into a book or series, I get really into it, and I find it hard to do my own writing.  I know that reading is an important part of being writer, so I’ll just have to learn some self-control.  However, I did manage to put in three hours of work today on the sequel to my first book.  I now have the first chapter and a half done (3,267 words).  So, all in all, not a bad start.

Hem, hem

 

Published in: on April 19, 2010 at 7:24 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Heart in Conflict With Itself

The other day I listened to an interview with George R.R. Martin on iTunes “Meet the Author,” and it had a lot of good advice for aspiring authors.  Granted, this was an old interview that came out on 11/07, but the advice he gave was still very relevant.  Since he’s one of my favorite authors, even if he does have a disturbing habit of killing off main characters, I listened carefully, and these were the three main things I took away from it.

  1. Persistence: When George R.R. Martin first decided he wanted to make a living as a writer, he realized he’d have to produce a lot more stories, so he organized his time in order to write for half a day every day.  This enabled him to finish a story about every two weeks, which is impressive by itself, but he also used the same mentality to get his work out there.  Whenever a story was rejected, he would just put it in another envelope and send it on to the next place, never stopping, never looking back.  Some of his stories were rejected many times, but he just kept sending them out until they found a home somewhere.
  2. Keep Moving Forward: When one of his stories was rejected, George R.R. Martin didn’t waste his time going back and tinkering with it.  If it was done, it was done, and there was no use going backwards.  Instead, he kept producing new work, which is what a writer needs to do in order to succeed.   Meanwhile, he’d still be sending out the old, but his focus was on the new.
  3. Appreciate your fans: He said there were times early in his career when he’d be doing book signings at the mall, and only five people would show up in an hour and he was happy because he thought maybe no one would show up.  So now that he is so popular, he really appreciates his fans, and therefore he makes the time for them, and keeps a blog in order to keep them informed of his work and appearances.  This extra step is important, and remembering who is effectively supporting you is important as well, and something I’ll definitely keep in mind if I ever have fans of my own.  Someday, hopefully.

George R.R. Martin also made a comment about the nature of stories that I really liked.  He said the only thing worth writing about is “the human heart in conflict with itself.”  And yes, he said he borrowed it from Faulkner, but it was good to hear this from a man who writes sci fi and fantasy.  Too often genre work is considered somehow lower than literary work, which is frustrating because it’s just another way of expressing the same themes.  Personally, I love the freedom inherent in fantasy works; you can do anything, as long as you follow the rules you set up for whatever world you’ve created, and if you do your job right, your characters feel just as solid and real and important as any “literary” characters.  But that’s just a personal grudge of mine, so I won’t rant about it too much here.

Anyways, if you’re looking for some really excellent epic fantasy, you should check out “A Game of Thrones,” the first book in his Songs of Fire and Ice series.  George R.R. Martin doesn’t believe in black and white characters, and you’ll get to see a land torn by political intrigue and war from all different sides, until you’re not sure who you want to win, or if there even can be a winner.  Great stuff.