Details…Details

I have been embroiled with my current novel for a few months now. For some reason, I keep hitting areas of writing that feel like trudging uphill through mud. I discovered in my last re-read of chapters one through eight that when I hit these lovely areas of molten sludge, I tend to add details.

Details like, oh, I don’t know… “the red carpet fiber wrapped itself sinuously around the blue one next to it” and “her fingers gripped the pink and purple toothbrush with enough force to break it in two.” Unless the carpet fibers are also drenched in blood (they aren’t) or the toothbrush is about to be used as a highly unlikely murder weapon (it isn’t) these fanciful tidbits of word-smithery are bold examples of how lost I had become trying to find the thread of this story.

Having recently read Stephen King’s book, On Writing*, I found myself cursing the fossil I was trying to excavate from concrete. In order to solve this problem, I took a piece of advice from Mr. King and committed myself to writing a thousand words a day.

At first I found I was writing page after page of moons glinting on pine boughs (silvery, moulton light poured through the uppermost branches of the tree… oh no) but as I wrote, something else seemed to be happening too. My point of view character began to whisper to me. I’m here, she said. Listen to me. One night, while writing about the shifting shades of brown on the pebbles at the beach, something else appeared.  Her footprints, leading me through a completely different story than the one I thought I was going to tell.

I followed her, and she began to run. That night I found I had to force myself to stop writing and go to bed. The old familiar pull toward the keyboard started again the following day, along with the scribbled paper notes filling my purse and appearing on yellow pads at work as I heard her whispers. She spoke to me and the words flowed through my fingers.

As the words flowed, the details softened, leaving passages that I found myself revising by adding stronger, more meaningful details. Passages filled with sunlight and shadow were supporting a story arch that had a lot more meaning. They were often necessary and beautiful words that expressed the time of day or the subtle shifting of the clock as something more important occurred.

I love detail. I love description. When I read a book or see a movie, there is beauty in the way a writer and a director use the subtle clues of setting, lighting, and costume to tell a deeper story than the dialog can tell. I understand now from my experience with this novel, details are also capable of killing everything else on the page. I understand that for me, at least, it is an effective crutch, useful when avoiding truths about the stories I am telling.

The best details vanish into the arch of the characters or the twisting turns of a tight plot. They are there to be relished later, when the story is complete, as a part of a strong supporting cast. Telling stories is a joy and a pleasure. It is also challenging and demanding and time consuming. Writers face so many walls. I am aware after this experience that I need to watch for the rough-hewn stone ones covered in creeping olive-green moss that run along a crystal clear river filled with thriving orange fish…

*Stephen King: On Writing A memoir of the Craft  (Scribner 2000)

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Blogs and Tweets and Novels…Oh My

What is so hard about adding your voice to the internet? For some that  question doesn’t even make sense. “Nothing!” they say. “It’s easy, who cares? ” they shrug. But for the sworn social neurotic who grew up with whispers of “What will the neighbors think?” as an undercurrent to every conversation, the answer is—everything!

What if someone reads it?

What if no one reads it?

What if I someone doesn’t like what I have to say and tells me so in a scathing comment?

The questions are endless and each is more horrifying than the last. So when a lovely coworker asked me if I had a blog, I told her I did and then I had to tell her that no one on the planet knew about it but my mother. I have a Twitter account too—where I never post anything.

I. Am. A. Writer. I even get paid to do it by a fabulous nonprofit. I go to work every day and throw down pros about everything from public speaking to writing a blog—a plethora of  powerful educational content I would have no problem defending through a world war. I have thrown open my files and my brain to executives and Ph.Ds, but that is education. I have a degree and a half worth of expertise, plus years of experience in education. Fiction is different.

Fiction is personal. It is drawn from me. From the very darkest inner workings of my mind and soul. Blog posts also dwell there and have the added trauma of lacking a character I created to hide behind. It takes courage to write fiction, and post blogs, and tweets. Courage I am working to build.

One of my favorite writers is Carrie Jones. Carrie writes beautiful stories about amazing things and woven through them are powerful truths about growth, and loss, and finding power when you feel powerless. She does it all with a charmingly quirky sense of humor. Carrie Jones has a big heart and a lot of insecurities. She also has a blog that she posts to with the the erratic consistency of rain in the desert (carriejonesbooks.com). There have been times when she posted every week (I loved those times). But usually I visit, only to find something I read three months ago.

I can relate to that part of Carrie Jones. She is a best selling author, but she also seems to worry a lot about what people think of her. I certainly aspire to the title of best selling author, but I want to be confident in any format. I long to regularly post witty commentary in a hundred and forty characters. I would like to have the prolific career of Stephen King and the supercharged media presence of Katy Perry. Is that too much to ask?

Probably.

In the time being  I am taking the advice of Lady Macbeth and screwing my courage to the sticking place, or at least throwing up a few Tweets to see if they stick.

Patience

When I started my journey as a novelist, I was incredibly naive. I knew how to write. I had stories to tell…badda-bing, badda-boom, published. Right?

Turns out, I had a lot to learn. Not only about how to write, but how to tell a story. There were passive verbs to deal with, the dreaded hyphen and the sheer challenge of facing the truth that all those stories running circles in my head were probably already told by someone else—better.

I could have quit. Many people do. Many continue to write, but get discouraged with the process and self-publish. A few are highly successful, others have books that sell on Amazon to their mother and their Aunt Peg. Nothing against Mom and Aunt Peg, but I’m more ambitious than that and I have a teensy problem with taking no for an answer, especially without a reason.

That’s the rub in the publishing world. When you most need the feedback—when you are new to the industry and learning—you are least likely to get it. If you are tenacious and willing, there are critique groups a plenty all over the world. Some of them even function online. In these fabulous playgrounds for writers, you can have a person who has never published eviscerate your work—FOR FREE.

You can also find out that your habit of over-explaining emotional content is annoying. That readers want a little mystery, even in a romance, and that you are really good at building characters, but your grammar sucks (as in—even if you hate the rule, you can’t ignore the rule—that’s the rule).

So… in my desire to get feedback, to find out if I was heading in the right direction and to discover people struggling in the same way I was, I joined critique groups. I found that writers ran the gamut of expertise. One gentleman in my favorite group writes the most amazing science fiction. He underlined every form of be used in my writing. The result? I never use the word “was” without exhausting the thesaurus for a verb that says it better.

Another was young, a brilliant fantasy writer who is highly adept at hammering run-on sentences and useless words from a manuscript (even when they were my favorite).  Many others came and went from our group over time. Some of them brilliant, most of them attended one night and never came back. But Monday night after Monday night I got there.

I got better… and better. I remember the first time I presented a chapter, read it aloud and got the hard copies handed back to me with a couple of commas moved or added and nothing else. I remember the first time I made the rest of the group cry when I had constructed a moving, pentacle scene. I remember the night I drove thirty minutes and paid tolls to tell the group in person that I had signed with Liza Fleissig at LRA.

I would love to end this post with the dramatic and moving story of what it was like when I finally signed the contract with a major publisher, but the title of this post is Patience for a reason. Publishing is a waiting game and I am still waiting. Liza is amazing and supportive. My manuscript is sitting with a publisher as we speak. I hope it is being read.

In the mean time, I write. I present my work on a regular basis for review and critique with people I trust and I keep telling stories.

Sharing a Good Laugh

I am not necessarily a cat person. I realize this is a minor form of sacrilege for a writer.  The comfortable stereotype of authors sitting at a large desk, sipping tea,  surrounded by the company of at least two fluffy kittens is embodied by many who make a career or a hobby of writing fiction.

That may be changing with the ever present coffee house and the prevalence of  writers groups and retreats. Still, its a nice image—big desk, hot tea, fluffy kitty. Though I do not have a cat, I ventured into the world of the cat video last night as I sat with my feet dangling over the edge of my most recent plot hole.

The particular set of videos that caught my attention was a collection of very short snippets of terrified cats. Cats terrified by shopping bags that got caught on their feet. Fluffy beings scrambling away from toys that looked a little too much like something menacing instead of the fluffy bunny that they were. My favorite, perhaps, was the cat who vaulted itself straight into a wall at the sound of a rather ferocious sneeze.

I howled with laughter. Really, howled. This is an odd thing to do when home alone, but I laughed until my sides hurt. I had to ask myself as I disintegrated into a puddle of gasping mush, what makes these videos so hilarious?  I realized after  a particularly riveting video of a cat running full force on a polished hardwood floor only to stay in one place,  the videos were hilarious because I could relate.

How many times had I been in a situation where I had a reaction that was way out of line with the reality of the circumstances? So, so many. I am not capable of a vertical leap of three or four times my height as some of the more agile cats I watched are, but I am certainly capable of seeing something menacing in the mundane. Guilty of being terrified by a normal sound that surprises me, or believing that some shadow on the floor across the room is actually an escaped sixty-foot python.

As I slid down the rabbit hole of Internet cat videos, I also began to think about the value of humor in literary work. How delicately the masters balance humor with drama and terror. How that is, at its heart, the human condition.

That inexplicable quality of people to find humor where there isn’t much to see but a dark pit of despair. The profound impact of resilience in a character’s personality that gives a writer a place to go when there is only loss and sadness. It is delicate and golden.

Sometimes that humor flows effortlessly from the story, sometimes it has to be teased out. It always has to rise organically to the surface or it feels contrived and doesn’t elicit the desired response from a reader. Nothing is more un-funny than a writer trying hard to be funny.

As I moved on from the cat videos and back to the plot hole I was avoiding, I realized that I had hit on my problem. I was jumping ahead, trying to reach the humor, the payoff for a particular scene, before I had done the groundwork to support it. The reader didn’t know my characters well enough to laugh with them instead of at them, so I went back.  Several thousand words back, and built them up.

I added heart where I had rushed through to get to the next scene. I added fallibility where I had made a character too perfect. I added self-deprecation where I had made it too easy so the character seemed arrogant.

When I reached the same spot in the story a couple of hours later, the plot hole was gone. I had filled it in with character and circumstance and now I could laugh with them as they solved this minor problem on their way to solving the larger issues that created the story arc of my current novel.  It was fun, and interesting, and everything writing should be.

Whatever the Weather

I grew up in Southern California and still make it my home. Why wouldn’t I? The weather is awesome (except when it’s not, but that’s another story). Even though I have never lived anywhere else, I don’t set my stories here. I set my stories in Wisconsin and Upstate New York. I have placed one in the far northern reaches of California, near the Oregon border, but never here.

I don’t set my novels in the golden sunlight and sandy beaches of Southern California because I would lose one of my most important and powerful characters.

I would lose a character that weaves through the lives of everyone and everything. It can chill, warm, frighten, and secure any other character in a story. The weather can scream, howl, moan, laugh, and lilt. It can form a baseline through an otherwise peaceful tale that causes the reader to feel an unreasonable fear of turning the next page.

It can cause the world to shatter under a character’s feet.

Weather is, of course, an integral part of a story’s setting, but when I write I think of it as another person to react to a situation. Kind of like having a crazy grandma in the corner who sets everyone on edge because she cackles uncontrollably out of nowhere. It can be ominous or foreshadow an upcoming scene.

One of my favorite scenes in a movie is in North by Northwest directed by Alfred Hitchcock. If you haven’t seen this movie, go find it. Find it now. The way Hitchcock builds tension is miraculous. In North by Northwest, there is a famous scene where Cary Grant is standing on the side of a road surrounded by nothing but low grass. The sky is a clear, vibrant blue, the road is empty, except for a car or truck passing on occasion. Each time a car passes, you become more sure that something terrible is going to happen, and then it doesn’t, adding to the anticipation for Mr. Grant and the viewer.

Instead, the cars whiz past, kicking up dust and leaving the star lonelier than before. Twice during the scene, we are shown a plane in the distance. It emphasizes the emptiness of the place, the heat, and the dry, dusty day in the middle of nowhere. We, like Mr. Grant, are watching the road, waiting, but a car is not the problem. That innocent looking crop duster flying in that perfectly blue sky, that is the menace, and Alfred Hitchcock works the terror of a person being chased by a low flying plane like the master that he is.

In this scene, the clear blue of the sky is as important as the crop duster and Mr. Grant. Everything about it is neutral, except for the profound sense of aloneness that is conveyed by the open, cloudless sky.

That is how I see using the weather as a character in a story. It is the subtle voice in the background that is telling the reader to relax, or to worry. To feel alone or to feel oppressed. It is a powerful tool in storytelling and one that should never be overlooked.

I choose to set my novels in places that have bitingly cold winters because I like the imagery and I love the challenges that coping with weather can create for the actual characters in my novels. I’m not an author who has it rain because my characters are sad. I like to use changing seasons and foul weather to set the mood and create tension. It can be a subtle, yet pervasive story line that helps you propel your characters forward and create tension without overwhelming your humans with drama.

I love living where a cold day is 68 degrees fahrenheit and it’s way to hot when it’s 85, but when I write, I invite Old Man Winter and Mother Nature to join me on my journey—just to add a few bumps in the road.

The New Age of the Rant

I write fiction about teenagers. I love writing about teenagers because they are idealistic, make horrible mistakes, and most of all, have a massive potential for recovery. When you are young there is always hope.

In any YA story set in the modern world, social media must play a part. Just think of all the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries that would be destroyed in a nano second if one of those boys or Nancy had owned a smartphone. You can imagine the text, “Mom, come quick. This place is creepy. I’m sending you my location.”

Done. Story is over on page 3. After Nancy or one of the boys posts the video of the perpetrator committing the crime, of course.

I am constantly astounded in real life when adults forget, or neglect to learn, the power of their words. This week there have been several transgressions of note, but that doesn’t really matter. Pick your week, choose your transgression.

Back in the olden days, say fifteen years ago or so, when a person was annoyed with another person or with a news story they saw or read, they might talk about it at work. Even if they were hard out of line, someone who cared about them could discreetly point out that they needed to shut the hell up and the story ended there. Not so when you put it in writing and share it with the world on social media.

Yo…people! If you decide to post your rant on social media, you are too late for a discrete “You might want to think that through…” You are done. By Monday you may have lost your job and been run out of town by your neighbors.

We are forever admonishing teenagers to think about what they post online. It will follow you, we warn them. Once it is posted on the internet, it will not go away. Why, then, is it a daily occurrence that some fool posts something in a stream of consciousness sort of way that completely decimates their lives?

The idea that for the rest of your life, every time you google your name what comes up is something you posted when you were fifteen is really frightening, but you were fifteen. The chances are excellent that even if that quote were to come up ten years later when you are looking for a job, the person doing the interview would give you the opportunity to show what you have done since. Hence the hope and promise of youth.

When you post something without really examining the consequences at forty or forty-five (or thirty…you get the idea) you tell employers (both current and future), friends, and colleagues: I have no filter, therefore I cannot be trusted, and I have no foresight, therefore I am unlikely to bring any real innovation to you as an organization or group.

So…here’s my suggestion. Each time a person of any age is about to post something online on their social media site of choice, let that be the test: Has it been filtered—for humor, sincerity, wisdom, accuracy? And, does it show foresight for how it will be perceived by total strangers or those who know you only in a peripheral way?

If your post passes both of those tests, I will add just one more question…Does it build the world or tear it down? Not the world at large, but another human being’s world, or your own. If it doesn’t pass this last test, put it away. Be your own good friend and tell yourself to think it through before you say it aloud.

Finding a Character’s Soul

I love critique groups. I am a member of two. One has been the stalwart supporter of my existence for the last four years. It is where I go when no one else can stand to listen to me. It is the place I know I will get called out for my passive verbs, crappy analogies, confusing character arcs, and plot holes (not just the ones the size of Australia, but the small ones, like Montana). I can freely express my frustration with the time it takes to get published and how I wish every day had forty-eight hours just so I could actually get everything I need to do done and write too.

Recently though, I struggled with the feedback. Why, you ask? Well, in a nutshell, it is because several members of my groups despised the central character of my newest novel.

I understand this girl. She is angry. She is weighted down by self-loathing and fear. She is confused and cold and unapproachable. “She can’t help it,” I say. “Of course she has a sense of humor,” I defend. “How would you behave if all this rotten stuff had happened to you?” I ask. I left the groups annoyed, but knowing my writing is my own and I can write a character any way I please. That is the effing point of being a writer.

My world.

My people.

Mine.

So what if you don’t like it.

I returned to my groups week after week with the same story, extended, built out, stronger, but still I got this-is-great-I-wish-I-liked-your-character-better responses. It was annoying, but I trudged on. Then something happened I couldn’t ignore. One of my critique group mates made a comment that hit a nerve. At the end of a review of my newest chapter, she said, “I get it. Her life sucks. That doesn’t mean I want to read about her.”

Ouch and oh no. The one true comment I couldn’t overcome with explanations or excuses. If people didn’t like this girl, they weren’t going to read about her, no matter how compelling her back story. In other words, Bellatrix Lestrange and the Dark Mark would never have sold as well as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

On the drive home I found myself asking, so what now? How do I fix this? How do I take a character I believe in, one that repels a lot of readers, and make her relatable in a meaningful way that does not completely undo the path of the novel I am nearly done writing? And why, WHY did she turn out this way? I write young adult for heaven’s sake. These people have to get along with others or the book fails.

I decided I needed to step back and look at my choices for the character, who, incidentally, I love. I started by reassessing who this person was and why she was so hostile. I realized as I began to dissect her character that, like all characters, she was a reflection of a part of me, and not a very flattering one. In one agonizing reading of my work, I understood that I had siphoned all of my most terrible feelings into this poor girl and shared with her none of the positives.

In all fairness to her and to me, she was written at a time when I was going through a very difficult time with my oldest child. In some ways, I think she reflected my loss of hope that I could do anything to help someone I loved more than my own life. That said, I have a lot of resilience and so do my characters, including this one. Her resilience showed, but not her joy. I realized as I reviewed her life that she had no joy because every microscopic piece of joy I had left was in reserve, saved for my children, especially the one who was walking through hell—barefoot.

All of my joy was committed to helping my daughter believe she would get well. I walked with her, sometimes I carried her. There were times when I had to carry her and catapult my two other children ahead of us so we could catch up.

I realized this little character, this poor girl born of a difficult time in my life, was on a leash that I had tied around my waist and dragged with me. She was bouncing along, banging off embers and cracking her head on graphite boulders. She was suffering as I suffered, terrified as I fought the urge to scream out in the night for my child, for myself. No wonder she had no sense of humor or hope. I had none left for her.

Once I understood why my character carried such a burden, I went back and looked at all of her interactions. I let her have some love, allowed her to laugh and to feel real hope, not just the platitudes I had poured into the world around her. I didn’t change her, I gave her permission to live.

Once I gave her that little piece of hope, she ignited. She laughed. She stopped seething in silence, she got angry instead, and as she did that she healed. As she healed, the story took shape with a much more positive trajectory. I had always known that at the heart of this book was the resilience and hope of youth and how no matter how bad the pain, people can heal and have whole, full lives. As I reviewed her character, I realized that she wasn’t well-rounded. She was missing pieces—one dimensional in the worst way. I had inadvertently made her a narcissist. She thought about how much she cared about the people in her life, but she didn’t act like she cared at all. And so I revised.

I re-submitted chapter one to my critique group without explanation. I wanted their reactions without sharing the journey I took to get to this revised version of my character and my book. The result was phenomenal. They still needed to point out where my commas were missing, where I could have made better word choices, and broken my own rules for how the world was supposed to be, but instead of the “Meh.” responses I had been getting, they asked questions. Why questions and what questions, questions that made it very clear they not only wanted to know what was going to happen to this character, but they cared.

Telling stories has always been my escape, my refuge. This experience has taught me that there are times when separating what is happening in my life from the lives of my characters is not always possible. Maybe it never is. If I had to do it again, I would have waited to tell this story. I would have given myself time to get through the challenges I was facing and develop enough perspective to create a character and a story that reflected more than my grief and fear.

Then again, that grief and fear made this character who she is, and I wouldn’t change her. Not one bit.