Tuesday, September 28, 2010

When to take a step back

Ask any author whether they have novels they’ve shoved beneath their beds or buried in the deepest hole in their backyard, and you’ll have more than a few cringing visibly and telling you about that novel they never want to think about ever again.

Sure. I have a number. None of them were bad stories. In fact, some had some pretty memorable characters and some lovely descriptive passages. But they were flawed and, in most cases it was because the plot just didn’t happen. Kinda like a lead balloon, okay? My earliest pieces were thinly veiled fanfiction, but now we’re talking about the material I wrote during my teen years, which I’ve thankfully put far behind me. If I even get a vague urge in that direction, I write fanfiction. I do not try to dress something derivative in original trimmings.

As much as people love to pooh-pooh fanfiction, it has its place. It’s fun, and it gets any ideas of clones out of my system if I happen to fixate on an existing setting. Mind you, I don’t write this kind of stuff often, but sometimes I do feel the urge to play in Pern a while, or spin a yarn based on The Crow’s milieu… Hell, I even wrote a Highlander fanfic recently. It was fun and a bit of a holiday from my commercial fiction, which I needed to remind myself that I write primarily to offer entertainment, not only for my readers, but for myself. It clears my head and I move on. Writing is supposed to be fun, okay? Remember that. Tattoo it on your left hand. WRITING IS FUN.

But, it brings me back to my stories I abandon. Mind you, this is not a decision I take lightly. Usually by the time I shelve a piece, I’ve already invested hours of my life in a story—hours I won’t get back. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that sometimes it’s the best thing to pull the plug. It’s not as if I’ve thrown away the story or the characters. These lie fallow for me to return and dig out the gems among the dross and, at times, I do recycle characters or routines I like.

And realise this, none of the writing you shelve is wasted time. I have no idea who said it but there’s this statement that a good writer will need to churn out a million mediocre words before they write a great novel. Okay, I’m probably paraphrasing horribly but hell, it’s true. When I think back to all those abortive short stories and partial manuscripts I’ve hidden in boxes to eventually find their way into the trash, I don’t weep for those “lost” hours. No matter how dreadful the execution, these malformed creations were an important part of my development as a writer.

It took me a year to write my first novel and the initial manuscript was well over 100 000 words long. My crit partners and editor helped me pare this down to just over 96 000 words and, since then the logic behind constructing a novel seems to have taken hold. I get my ending first, work in approximately three climaxes then look for a suitable beginning. I work backward now, embroidering around the core of an idea. I'm not scared to throw away words.

Because I’ve written enough clunkers, I have a better idea of how to structure the novels that will sell. So, my advice to beginner authors: Don’t be afraid to put something aside if you’re starting to get feedback that the piece isn’t working. Establish why it’s not working then create something new you can invest your time in. I’ve seen good writers get bogged down because they fixate on a magnum opus they’ve reworked so many times they’ve gone word-blind, and all that joy has fled from the writing, resulting in ponderous prose that just doesn’t sing.

So, ja… go on, take the plunge. It’s a breath of fresh air that may just communicate through your new writing. And, given a few months, you can go back to that old manuscript and you may just have the key to unlocking that story.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Celebrating Banned Books Week

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." ~ George Santayana

That's one of my dad's favorite quotes. He had gone to college to become a history teacher before he took a "life-turn" to become a police officer.

As I was growing up, Dad and I had many conversations about history and personal responsibility. I don't remember Dad asking a lot of "what would you do if..." questions, but rather pointing out that Hitler's army was able to defeat a number of European countries because they knew where all the guns were thanks to the mandatory registration laws. Dad's philosophy was to work within the system to make changes for society.

What does that have to do with writing? Maybe nothing, but it does have something to do with reading. Especially this week—Banned Books Week.

I've often wondered what would make a book "dangerous." I'll admit that I've been rebellious enough to read a number of the books which have made the list. I've even encouraged my children and nieces to read such books. Heck, I've even encouraged other people's children to read banned books.

Don't get me wrong...I don't think every book is appropriate for every person. My nephew, for example, probably shouldn't be exposed to George Orwell's 1984 just yet. Then again, he's not even a year old and the theme of the novel would be lost on him. My nieces are older and might be able to grasp some of the concepts. (Though the rat scene is really creepy and still gives me the heebie-jeebies.) I'm sure they would understand Orwell's Animal Farm, though, and it would spark some interesting discussions between the girls and their parents.

Isn't that what books are supposed to do? Spark discussion? Engage imagination? Teach something? Whether a book is fiction or non-fiction, there is something to be learned in each and every book. Even Harry Potter taught us something—good will triumph over evil.

The freedom to read is similar to so many other freedoms we have. In America, we have the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech, the freedom to assemble. Each of those freedoms can be lost if we don't exercise them. With those freedoms come some responsibilities.

So this week, take some time to exercise your freedom to read. Grab a banned book and read it. Share it with someone else. You just might learn something. Oh, and let me know what your favorite banned book is. A list of classics can be found at the American Library Association's web site.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Banned Books Week

Today is the start of Banned Books Week in the US. Every year the American Library Association holds this event to celebrate the freedom to read. You might think something like this wouldn't be necessary in the twenty-first century. After all, censorship, book banning, and book burning are all a thing of the past, right? Unfortunately, that's not true. Attempting to and succeeding at removing books from public schools and libraries is still happening with shocking frequency. It's all well and good for someone to decide they don't want to read a book because they find the content and/or themes objectionable, and to also make that decision for their children. But do you want others deciding what you and your family can have access to in a public library?

It's almost as if the universe wanted to bring extra attention to Banned Books Week this year. The book blogosphere fairly exploded last weekend with discussion of a man in Missouri whose children do not attend public school writing an opinion piece in his local paper advocating the removal of several books from local schools. One of those books is Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. This man included Speak - a book about a teenage girl dealing with rape - in a diatribe about books that he considered "soft pornography." This was the first time I'd ever heard of rape being considered pornography, which by definition is something "intended to cause sexual excitement." I never want to be alone in a room with a  man who thinks of rape like that. Ms. Anderson wrote a blog post about this and it's one of many you'll find. I write fiction that is meant purely for entertainment. I do not have the emotional strength it would take to immerse myself in the emotions needed to write a book like that, but I am deeply grateful there are authors out there that can do it. There's nothing to be gained from pretending horrible things like rape don't happen, and anything that might help a survivor in their recovery should be lauded. I have no idea why people think their children need protecting from books. If I were a parent, I would be far more concerned about protecting my kid from the man who finds rape titillating.

The ALA's website has some great info about what books have been challenged and why. The list of Banned and Challenged Classics is quite illustrious. The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Color Purple top that list. Catch-22, one of my old favorites, is also there. There's also a list of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009. At the top: the Harry Potter series. I think that fact alone says more about the type of people who attempt to ban books than just about anything else that could be said. There's a PDF about the event that features information on the most banned/challenged books from May 2009-May 2010. The Stephenville, Texas school district has the distinction of banning not one but two paranormal Young Adult series that aren't even finished yet, which means they've banned books that haven't even been published yet. (That's the House of Night series and the Vampire Academy series.)

Take a look at these lists and see how many of them you've read. Even better, see what's on there you might like to read. I've got a copy of Kerouac's On The Road, number 31 on the classics list, that I never got around to reading. Banned Books Week might be the perfect time to take it off the shelf.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Psychology of a predator: big cats

As a keen reader, author and editor, if there’s one thing that gets my goat about some paranormal shifter stories, it’s the representation of the big cats as pack animals, as though they were wolves. Big cats are not wolves and their social structure is very different.
I am a South African who has always been fascinated by the big cats of my land of birth. I’m understandably quite passionate about this topic. I’ve been fortunate enough to go on a number of game drives. I’ve spoken at length with game rangers and folks involved in big cat conservation. Hell, for a long time I was even planning on taking up a career as a game ranger, so I consider myself relatively well informed on the ins and outs of Mother Nature.

So, here’s my take on wild kitties, running through some of my favourite felines.

Majestic hunters, lions are probably the most social cats, and the closest you’ll get to a “pack” cat. In this case, it’s a pride of lions, not a pack. Their social structure is hinged around a dominant male or pair of brothers, who stake out a territory and are attended to by a grouping of lionesses, who are generally related to each other as mothers, sisters, daughters and aunts. The males make sure no other males encroach on their territory. The females tend to do most of the hunting (lucky men!) and the boys get exclusive rights to mate with the females. When rogue lions do encroach, serious fights occur and if an existing lion is ousted, the new male will come in and kill all the youngsters the old lion sired so that the females will come into oestrus sooner. Sounds harsh? That’s nature. She’s red in tooth and claw.

Oh, and here in Africa, spotted hyenas and lions are mortal enemies because they’re competing for the same prey, so there’s another interesting dynamic to follow if you’re looking for a good point of conflict for your shifters.

Leopards are solitary. They’re also very elusive. Males tend to maintain the largest territories overlapping with those of a number of females but they usually don’t hang out together unless they’re, well, getting down to do the dirty. It goes without saying that lions (and other predators) will kill a leopard’s young if they find them, hence the reason why leopards tend to den in inaccessible areas and tree their kills. Did you know one leopard can carry an antelope that weighs almost as much as it does into a tree? A female tends to raise between one and three cubs, who stay with mom until they are able to hunt, but when she’s ready to raise the next cub, the elder cub has to go on out and find his or her own territory. That’s just how the cookie crumbles.

I absolutely adore cheetahs. They’re possibly one of the most underrated species I’ve yet to see in shifter novels. The fastest land mammal, they’re capable of speeds of up to 120kmph (75mph), which they can maintain for short bursts. They tend to borrow the best of being sociable with being solitary. Siblings will often band together shortly after going out to find their place in the world, so you’ll have a pair of brothers or sisters teaming up and co-operating for a while until they’re established. Mom tends to raise her cubs on her own, and will have anywhere between one and five (yes, five!) youngsters. Problem is they’re incredibly vulnerable to pressure from other predators. Often lions and other predators will drive them off their kills. More dog-like than feline, cheetahs have historically been kept by royalty and used for hunting. They hunt chiefly by sight, stalking prey up until a point where that critical short burst of super speed will prove an advantage against the gazelle or prey animal they want to take down.

As an editor, here are some plot bunnies I’m setting loose into the wider world. What if a pride of lion shifters runs a small town and a rogue male decides he’s going to take on the big cat in charge? What unique challenges does a young male lion shifter face when dad tells him it’s time to leave the home range? How does a female lion shifter deal with the situation when her lion man gets ousted? How about a lion shifter who’s a gang lord? Or a fun-loving rogue male who gets into way more trouble than he’s capable of dealing with?

What if a leopard shifter hasn’t found one of her kind in more than five years? What if someone starts bumping off the few leopard shifters who are known to maintain a large selection of territories? How do two leopard shifters resolve a territorial conflict? Leopard shifters could be awesome private investigators or thieves. Can anyone say “Catwoman”?

And here’s one that made me laugh: what if a cheetah shifter becomes a famous catwalk model? (I’m almost begging for a submission from an author for this one.) What about two cheetah shifter brothers who go out into the world for the first time and have to work together to solve a mystery? How does a cheetah shifter deal with a pushy pride of lions? How about the cheetah shifter who is employed by a business tycoon to act as a spy or even an assassin?

Our shifters stand with their paws in two worlds. I often feel that innate wildness, that frisson of danger when associating with these creatures, is often lacking in shifter stories. Get to know the animals you want to portray then find ways to marry their true nature with the human side so that you can build a complex and fascinating creature that marries the best aspects of both species. I feel of late too much emphasis is placed on just the “finding mates” theme. Boinkfests can be fun but, really, I’d like to see more.

What sort of spirituality would big cat shifters have? Think beyond the obvious Lady Sekhmet or Bast of Egyptian cosmology.

There is so much more to play with if we would just look deeper and conduct more research. Shifters as protagonists can do so much more than just have absolutely earth-shattering encounters of a carnal kind. I’m not saying we should cut back on erotic content. Cats are amazingly sensual creatures but hell, we’re missing out on an epic adventure.

And, as an aside, I suppose I’m adding that yes, I’d love to chat to authors about a shifter novel with a difference, so drop me an email at nerinedorman@gmail.com if you’ve an idea or two.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Marketing ideas

We talk a lot about writing here, but there's another aspect to this journey that's pretty dang important, too. Welcome to the world of marketing.

Gone are the days where an author's only job was to stay locked in his or her attic room, smoke cigarettes, drink whiskey, and type on the manual typewriter. Frankly, I'm not sure those days ever really existed for the majority of authors (Hemingway doesn't really count for so many reasons....)

Today there are authors with the big publishing houses, with small ones, authors who write every word themselves and don't even let a copy editor see it, and authors who probably don't even write the stories their names are on. Heck, you can even see authors playing poker on television!

The one thing they all have in common, though, is that they are marketing their work.

And for many of us, that's harder than writing the novel to start with.

So how do we do it? Sadly, there's no black and white answer. But here are some of the more common ways to get the word out.
  • Blog tour. Many authors tour the country from the comfort of their homes. Guest blogging is a quick way to reach readers. Think of it as a virtual "lecture tour" where you meet potential readers you may not have thought of. (By the way, if you write paranormal, feel free to contact one of us for a guest blogging spot!)
  • Website. Who doesn't have a website now? The biggest thing to remember with a website is that it needs to "feel" like your novels and be up to date. It's all about branding.
  • Speaking of branding, don't forget newspaper ads. Have a "real world" book signing? Take out an ad in the local paper.
  • Press release. Even better than an ad, because it's free!
  • Book trailers. I'm not sure what I think about these. For those who don't know, a book trailer is a mini-movie which advertises your novel. I'm fortunate that my publisher does this for me, since I don't have the patience to produce something like this.
  • Talk it up! This has got to be the most important part of your marketing plan. Tell everyone you know that your book is out. Make sure they know where to get it and how much it will cost. Seriously, word of mouth is the best advertising you'll ever find.
I know there are other ways to market your novel, but these are the ones which have worked for me. What's worked for you? What avenues have I forgotten?


Saturday, September 18, 2010

The way we write

My oldest short stories were written long hand, the two oldest in pencil (second grade, there's also a scratch and sniff popcorn sticker from the teacher on one of them). My earliest attempts as an adult were also long hand, albeit in pen (usually black but sometimes blue ballpoint). If I tried that now I'd barely be able to read my own handwriting. I'm so used to typing, my handwriting - which was never all that great to begin with - is now nearly illegible. I do still make notes about works in progress with pen and paper, but the real writing takes place on the laptop.

I don't print anything out for editing and revisions anymore, either. For one thing I do a lot of editing and revisions while in progress, fiddling and making changes. I've changed names, appearance, location, reordered scenes, rewritten scenes, changed the point of view, turned the story inside out and upside down long before getting anywhere near "the end." If I get to, say, chapter five and come up with something that needs to be referenced or changed earlier in some way, then I can go back in the document and work on that right then, weaving in revisions as I go. It astounds me that writers got anything done before word processing and the wonder that is copy/paste. And the ease of saving multiple versions of scenes so that you can decide whether a scene should be in This character's point of view or That one's - whoa. That's some awesome stuff right there.

I'd never used the track changes feature in Word before the editing process of Bring On The Night. Now I love it so much I use it on my own. Why in the world would I want to waste paper and ink by printing something out when I can take a virtual red pen to my work with track changes? It's made the process so much easier, not to mention cheaper. I'm sure I don't have to tell anyone how costly ink can get.

Email has been great for writers too. I think there are still places that only take paper queries and submissions, but they'll never hear from me. The internet allows us to connect with fellow writers all over the world, something that has been very valuable to me as I don't know any other writers in real life. The internet's also given me a virtual classroom, teaching me how to do a snowflake outline, how to be a sex writing strumpet*, and how to make a mojo hand.

My laptop, Word, and the internet have become invaluable to my writing process. Taking advantage of this technology has made many aspects of writing easier, giving authors more energy to focus on the heavy lifting - the actual storytelling. I, for one, love it.

Has technology changed the way you write, and how do you feel about it?

*Okay, I'm still practicing that one.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Changing my reading habits

I have a problem. The house I share with my husband, two cats and two dogs, is too small for all the books we own. It got so bad a few years ago we had to sell our cottage and move into a bigger place. I’m not kidding. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but we do own far too many books, many of which we’ll probably never read but own for the sake of having the title.

To say that I love books is an understatement. But it’s not so much for holding paper in my hands, it’s about reading the story and the easier it is for me to access the story, the better. That’s why I absolutely love electronic formats. It’s easy to get to the last page I was reading and, the other bonus: electronic files don’t take up a lot of space or constitute a fire hazard. I keep a few ebooks on my hard drive at work so I can read during down-time. I keep ebooks on my netbook, so I can read when I’m hanging around my husband’s photo- and film shoots. That’s when I’m not busy editing and writing, of course. Or mopping up the fake blood, for that matter (not kidding on that one).

There will always be “keepers” as I call them, that I absolutely must own in physical form but I’ve found over the years that reading physical, as in “that rectangular object with paper pages in it” becoming more and more difficult. I like being able to zoom in on text, scroll down or press a button to get to the next page. So, I keep a few “paper” books in my backpack and try to read on the train in the afternoons. I find, however, that it’s taking me longer to read physical books than their electronic counterparts.

But this shift to electronic publishing has gotten me thinking. I buy most of my physical books second hand. This means the author doesn’t get paid royalties for this sale. Some books, if looked after, change hands several times, the sellers often making a tidy profit, none of which goes to the authors.

As someone who is passionate about writing, I’d like to show my support to authors and what better way than now, with ebooks? Yes, the publishing industry is changing, and not all of us can afford to buy new books in print, which means in the old days, it was difficult to pay tribute to favourite authors. This is changing now. And more of my favourite authors’ writing is coming available electronically. I have an opportunity to thank them for the hours of enjoyment they’ve given me. The other benefit: no stressing about a package getting lost in the mail, and no postage fees. Instant delivery instead. Instant gratification.

This is not going to be a rant about how bad piracy of electronic books is. But think of it this way. An author has written a story they are in a position to share with you. You wouldn’t go to a music concert and slip in through a back door to skiv off paying the performers, would you? In the same way, we can show our support to authors by buying their books electronically. The benefits? You’re saving trees. You’re supporting creative people. There are fewer middlemen and more of the money goes to the person who deserves it, your favourite author who, I can guarantee, often slaves away for many hours crafting his or her words so you can have hours of enjoyment.

Think of yourself as being a patron of the arts, like in the olden times when musicians and artists were often attached to noble houses. By becoming a patron of the arts and supporting creatives, be they musicians, authors or artists, you are bringing more beauty into the world by helping these people pay their bills.

Don’t forget also the people behind the scenes: the publisher and his or her team of dedicated professionals—cover artists, technical support and editors. These folks deserve to be thanked for the often unnoticed support they offer authors so you can carry on reading the latest fiction. They are the quality control so neccessary in this industry where the world and his wife can claim to be published.

Things are definitely shifting in authors’ favour with the advent of the smaller presses, and what better way to feel warm and fuzzy knowing your favourite author has a roof over her head, a shiny computer that works and some nommy biscuits to feed her muse?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Making time

Are you busy?

I am. In addition to working on my second mystery novel, I own a web site design business. I'm a wife and mother—both full-time jobs. I'm involved in a number of community organizations. I have hobbies.

Making time for writing can be tough.

I like the phrase "making time" because sometimes that's what it feels like. I know there are only 24 hours in a day, but at times I feel that I'm stretching that to 25 or 26 hours to get it all accomplished.

I know there are authors who write first thing in the morning, but that doesn't work for me. I can't speak coherently, let alone write well, before my first cup of coffee. Sometimes not even before the first POT of coffee. Because I'm the boss and chief web designer, sometimes those "paying projects" take the next bit of my day. Hey, I have to pay the bills, right?

I often manage to get a few hundred words in during the afternoon—somewhere between returning phone calls, sending out invoices, and making dinner.

But it's the evenings where I really "jam" on my projects. I'm a night owl. My creative juices are on fire sometime after dinner. As long as my family obligations don't sidetrack me. And that happens.

Thankfully, I have an understanding family. They support me and my writing goals and do their very best to make sure I can get my writing done. I couldn't follow this path without them!


Saturday, September 11, 2010

On Writing: What's it all about?

From Stephen King's On Writing:
If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it both to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you've finished and ask yourself why you bothered - why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important. In other words, what's it all about, Alfie?

Because you're not really writing about vampires, or shapeshifters, magic users, ghosts, zombies, whatever. Or even lawyers, for that matter. All these monsters are a metaphor for something. The trick is to know what. A disturbingly high number of people go through life blissfully lacking in self-awareness. They have no idea why they do anything, and lack the curiosity to figure out the reasons. Writers are constantly asking questions about everything, looking under the surface of things for the truth and for hidden meaning. There's more going on here than just a paranormal investigator who can see auras getting mixed up with a sorcerer who summoned a demonic entity. So what is it? What are all these monsters a stand-in for, and what is fighting monsters with magic all about? A writer may never want to share publicly what all this craziness is really all about, but they know. They know exactly what part of themselves that both the monsters and the magic come from.

A writer also knows what obsessions and interests keep cropping up in their work story after story. For me, one thing is outsiders - how they function without slipping through the cracks of society, why they still give a damn even when they are told over and over they aren't good enough. For reasons I can't begin to understand, people are scared of anything too different, too foreign. I can't make sense of that, mostly because I have such a low opinion of it, but I am interested in how those that are too different manage to navigate their way through a world that doesn't want them. I keep seeing little echoes of that turning up in one story after another, sometimes just a small hint of it, sometimes as part of the main plot.

Another thing that interests me and keeps popping up in my writing is gender roles and how they're changing in the twenty-first century. My vampire in Bring on the Night is female because of this. I'm also interested in technology so if I ever manage to write cyberpunk, you'll know where it came from.

When you look at your work, re-reading scenes for the umpteenth time trying to tweak the dialogue or the action, or lie awake at night thinking about  your characters, what recurring themes do you find? What are you really writing about that you cover up with vampires and sorcerers?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

So, where do you get your ideas?

This has got to be one of the age-old questions most authors dread. Writing’s a funny kind of business, especially when the bug bites you at a tender age, like it did with me. I must have been about twelve or so when I first figured I wanted to write novels, and it all started with getting excited about a story.

I remember that night all too well. It was December 28, and it was the year between me finishing primary school and starting high school. Don’t ask me which year, ’cos I’m not telling, okay? I watched Highlander for the first time and the movie blew my mind. It wasn’t the first movie that had excited me that much (that dubious pleasure belongs to Ladyhawke a year or so earlier) but the conflict between Connor McLeod and the Kurgan worked on my imagination on some primal level. Back then I was still very much concerned with dualistic good vs. evil scenarios and I quickly set about starting to write my very own tale.

Back then ordinary folk couldn’t afford computers, so I painstakingly started writing by hand and my dad’s secretary typed the piece out for me. I got about as far as chapter three. Thanks be to all the mercies I never finished, because what I was creating was thinly veiled fanfiction. I wanted to recapture that same sense of magic and excitement I felt the first time I watched Christopher Lambert in action.

After that I’d get very inspired by some of the authors I read, particularly Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern but then later also Poppy Z Brite’s Lost Souls, and I so wanted to write stories and I’d sometimes get these ideas of scenarios: a girl riding a horse across a desert plain; shape-shifting aliens embroiled in an ages-old battle; a young man who vanishes at sea; and so on and so forth. These occurrences were random. I’d be sitting in class and I’d “see” in my mind’s eye and “feel” what these characters were experiencing, and I’d want to tell their story. I’d have vivid, tactile images. It was a helluva lot more exciting than algebra, that much I can tell you.

I wasn’t a very successful story-teller until I reached my mid-twenties, however. It’s all fine and well to have great ideas but unless one is able to think them through and find a story’s conclusion, it’s like setting out on a treasure hunt without a map. That’s why so many of my notebooks had the first three chapters and nothing more. I didn’t possess much of a knack for following a story through to a conclusion.

For a while role-playing games ameliorated some of that itch, but I soon got frustrated at the turn some of the tales took in the hands of another story-teller. I started creating games of my own, but then the players would never quite do what I wanted them to. It was time to start writing novels.

But finding that idea that sparks a novel is a magical process, and it requires an author to be a “waking dreamer” while going about his or her daily business. Sometimes it’s a newspaper article, or a lunch hour spent browsing in a library, or a conversation with a friend. Whatever the source, a story kicks in when an author asks two words, “What if…” And it’s usually because some esoteric process has started deep within an author’s subconscious when identification has happened.

An author identifies with a situation, which resonates with likes/dislikes and an emotional hook occurs. An author, liking the idea will start asking more questions, thereby finding points of conflict for a character, who slowly gains a name, a face and an identity. At the end of the day, the characters that are born are fragments of an author’s psyche, who embark upon adventures an author may never experience. Or, perhaps these adventures are born from something that has occurred in an author’s past. No matter where the germ of an idea originates, writing a novel is a journey, a life-changing experience, which is highly personal.

And in a world full of restrictions, there is a certain magic about being able to shape a setting according to one’s personal whims, and being able to say how an idea can be nurtured then harvested. What’s even better is being able to share these stories with readers.

The worst part of my vocation is that I have more ideas floating about on my hard drive as twenty-word summaries than I can stab a ballpoint pen at.

Monday, September 6, 2010

From a book to a cemetery to a book

If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, Of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?
Albert Einstein.

Mr. Einstein would never have thought I had an empty mind, I'm sure of that. I'm not a neat freak. I never have been and I never will be.

My desk is very much like my mind. There's a little of this next to a little of that. The things which may not make any sense to you are deeply tied together for me.

Let me explain. As I look at my desk, I notice a book my teenager suggested I read. The book, Amen, Amen, Amen, is about a girl with OCD. Next to that, I have a copy of the DSM-IV, which I used for my minor in psychology. Next to that, is a zen garden to remind me I need to make time to de-stress.

Then comes the knitting magazine. Knitting is something I enjoy doing as a de-stresser. My mother enjoys knitting. She taught me a lot of different crafts. My parents live about 450 miles from me, and I should call them.

Actually, much of my family has lived and died in that area for generations. That reminds me of the latest search I did on ancestry.com Oh, and then there's the book put out by that historic cemetery where much of my family is buried.

Wait! A book... I have this book I've been meaning to read about a girl with OCD....

Things are really on my desk like that. And they are in my mind that way, as well. I think a lot of "creative" people have these wacky associations. It's what makes them creative.

Or maybe I'm just a little crazy.

Where did I see that DSM-IV?


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Questions about voice and rules

I'm the first one to admit grammar and sentence structure are important. They are the rules that bring order to what might otherwise be chaos. I wonder, though, at that point where the rules collide with a writer's voice, what's the best choice to make? A writer might bend or even break the rules for emphasis, for style, or because it suits the story. If you're writing a story in first person, you are not the narrator. Your point of view character is the narrator. Should the narration sound like that character? And if it doesn't, will that difference pull the reader out of the story? Even when you're writing in limited third person, drilling down into just one character's head and heart, shouldn't the narration sound like that character? I'm not talking about throwing the rule books out. I just think that maybe there's got to be some room for an author's voice - a character's voice - to come through. If not, then why don't all the books we read "sound" the same?

These are just some things I'm thinking about lately and I wanted to post  this to get some opinions and input. This whole thing of voice versus rules is something I'm still figuring out. My instinct is to follow the rules as much as possible, but ultimately to obey the story. What do you think?