Friday, May 29, 2009

Fail Gloriously

I watched the Susan Boyle You Tube again today, and was just as moved as I was the first time I watched it. It also put me in mind of this quote from Lois McMaster Bujold, a paraphrasing from something one of her characters says in one of the Chalion novels.

God is not interested in perfect souls, but glorious ones.

This resonates with me in a big way, reinforced by the nearly unanimous reaction to Susan’s performance. Each of us is created to be able to do big things. Many of us are removed from the running, by circumstance, accidents, or the grim reality of unhappy lives, but for those of us who are left, for those of us who still have that possibility within us, we owe it to everyone who’s lost their chance to at least try.

Not for the prestige or for a five minute You Tube clip, but for the sheer experience of fully flexing our muscles, for dreaming and reaching big, at least once, to have faith in ourselves and our dreams.

The thing is, to have attempted something great, even if it fails, changes our internal landscapes in a way that nothing else can, so that even if we fail, we gain. Not only that, but by merely attempting, we give others the courage to try.

One of the reasons this is rolling around in my head these days is that I have this sneaking suspicion that I am going to have a Major Fail on this project I’m working on. If it doesn’t work, it will be the SPLAT! heard around the world (or at least throughout the halls of my publisher.)

But there are also some really big things I want to say about love and death and duty and honor, so big, I can’t even articulate them, except through this story. The chances I will fail are good, but there is a chance--a tiny chance--that I might not. That I will in fact, be able to say what I feel driven to say. I’ll never know if I don’t try. Epic fail, possibly, but it will be a glorious failing, not a small one.

Give yourself the gift of a few minutes this weekend and allow yourself to dream BIG, not about the affect (winning an award, reaching a list) but what you would attempt to accomplish…

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chronological Order is Way Overrated

Well, I’ve been stumbling along on the wip, at first eeking out 500-700 words per day for the last few days, which I was not happy with. Part of the problem is this constant reweaving and smoothing thing I’m doing, trying to graft two old drafts together, as well as add new stuff to make it work. I sometimes wonder if it would easier to just toss everything out and start fresh. Except I just can’t toss out 65,000 words. The mere idea of it makes me break out in a cold sweat. Especially since there is quite a lot of it that I’m very happy with.

So instead I’ve been stumbling along, trying to weave everything together and making only small inroads into new page territory.

Until Sunday, when I woke up and gave myself permission to jump ahead two acts to a scene I wasn’t even sure would be in the book—it certainly wasn’t on my outline--but it was calling to me. Vividly.

And Bam! 3,000 words came tumbling out, just like that. And it’s an absolutely pivotal, critical scene. There’s no way it couldn’t be in the book. I just didn’t know that until I wrote the darn thing.

Which reminded me of two important lessons.

1) It’s perfectly okay to write out of order. I know that, I preach that, and yet, I also forget that. ::le sigh::

2) I often outline or jot down upcoming scene ideas just so I can be moving in a forward direction/momentum. And the thing is, I can only write these new scenes because I’ve spent so much time reimmersing myself in the story. There’s no way I could have started out there. BUT, I am always happy to cheerfully disregard that when my muse leads me down a (seemingly) random garden path. Always follow your muse, or at least, that’s been my experience. I can honestly say I’ve never regretted it.

So now what I’m doing is jumping forward and writing a new scene from later in the book each morning, then turning to the grafting/revising part. Seems to be working well. But for how long? That’s always the question. What works today, may not work tomorrow.

Friday, May 22, 2009

My Current Obssession

Because the truth is, I become obsessed with my projects and I need to absorb them through all of my senses. Since I am very visual, I often create a collage of images that helps put me in the world of the story. Here is the collage for the one I'm working on now:

Yes, it's fairly ironic that there are so many old men in there when it is a YA, but what can I say? Most of the men of political power in Medieval France were old. Or at the very least well-seasoned. Some of the images are thematic, the masks for example, and obviously many of the images evoke the decadence of a royal court rather than feature the correct historical costume, but it works to get me in the story when I need a jump start, a touchstone, if you will.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Revealing Character

So as a follow up to my post about reading Orson Scott Card's book, I thought I'd talk a little bit about revealing character versus having a character growth arc.

I think, especially for childrens books, characters aren’t going to always have a huge growth arc because in childhood we’re always growing to new awareness, new life lessons, mastering new skills. In general, kids are more malleable, their growth more ongoing and continuous until they reach their adulthood. Then, dramatic or profound occurrences or situations are usually required to propel us adults toward change and growth.

In fact, I've heard it said that a book should be about a person's most profound and dramatic life experience. And I would argue that kids have so many, each coming rapidly on top of the other, that that doesn't necessarily apply to kid's fiction.

Which is why I was so struck by Card’s reminder that some characters are revealed rather than grow. But how do we resolve that with today’s reader (and agents and editors!) who tend to look for a growth arc of some sort? How can one satisfy that readers longing for an internal journey and yet remain true to our character's core if they don’t change significantly over the course of the book?

I think having the character come to terms with who they are, which is a form of personal growth, can also make for a satisfying growth arc. In order for a character to do that, they have to recognize who they are, they have to strip away all the pretenses—the persona they cloak themselves in—and meet themselves face to face. They sort of have to see themselves, warts (emotional scars) and all, and come to terms with that. So if they aren’t going to change, consider having them learn to accept who they are or their role in their family or school or whatever.

But that needs to be developed over the course of the entire book. We have to feel we know more about the character at the end of the book than we did at the beginning. Which makes sense since it is the crucible of hard choices that the character goes through that enables him to finally reach a higher level of understanding.

One really effective tool can be to peel back the layers of a character, like an onion, to reveal his innermost nature to the reader. By doing that in stages, it gives a sense of internal movement and forward momentum as the reader comes to learn more and more of the character.

If you think about it, there are things about all of us that we wish the world didn’t see, but is often plain to most people who know us well.

Then there are the things that only our best friend or close family members know or understand about us.

And finally, there are those parts of us that are so painful, we can hardly stand to admit them to ourselves. For some, facing these painful truths will cause the entire world to shift. For others, it will shift only a little bit, but in a vital way that helps us continue on.

So for Theo, in Book I, she was lonely, anyone could see that. (First Layer) And on some level she worried it was because she was doing something wrong, that she was lacking in some fundamental skill needed in order to form friendships. (Second Layer) But the thing she was terrified of acknowledging, was that she was so flawed, that something was so wrong with her that even her parents couldn’t muster up the emotional connection necessary to love their child. In fact, that’s part of what propels her to such huge risks, trying to earn their love. (Third Layer)

Of course, in the end, this is proved wrong and Theo learns her parents do value her more than she realized.

So while Theo didn’t change, her understanding of the world and her place in it and her value to others did.

And I think, to address another point that was brought up in the comments, it can be smart to mention in a synopsis or summary that the character is wrestling with trying to come to terms with a particular emotional issue so that it will be clear that there are two layers to the story.

And thus endeth today’s lesson….

iSuck Redux

So Sunday was a miserable day, one of those days when I slammed smack into the wall of my own limitations and realized I was never going to be able to write this d@mn story. Majorly stuck in iSuck.

And then I awoke Monday morning to find I was riding another white hot writing streak that hasn't let go since. Odd, no?

Of course, I'm grateful! But puzzled a bit, too, and wonder if this is part of the process. I think it must be, hitting the bitter bottom, realizing that we suck, but we are so stubborn and obsessed and insane that we don't care and keep going anyway, even if only fueled by sheer determination. Eh, the mysteries of the writing life.

So the good news is I now have 55,000 words of a good solid draft--probably a 2nd or 3rd draft quality at this point. I also have another 25,000 words written. Unfortunately, I'm guessing only about half of those words are useable. The bad news? It's looking like this sucker could swell up to around the 120,000 word mark. I'm hoping not, but it's hard to tell at this point. I know that's borderline unacceptably long, so I'm guessing I'll have lots of choices to make when I go back in to trim it. ::sigh::

But that is why I haven't posted anything meaty in the last day or two. I am working on a post for tomorrow, though, about methods of revealing character and how to do so in a way that makes if feel as if there is a growth arc involved.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Tools, Not Rules

So this Orson Scott Card book is really working for me.

So one of the things I’ve had pounded into my head throughout my writing apprenticeship (and that I have in turn pounded into other people’s heads) is that stories are about character growth and conflict. Which can be true…

Except when it’s not

One of the things that Card explains better that I’ve seen before is the different types of stories. Sure there are character driven stories, but also event stories, idea stories, and milieu stories. And after years of focusing on one kind of story, it was helpful to be reminded of this. In fact, one of the things I’ve argued with some of my writing instructors (with varying degrees of success) is that the need for direct conflict in every scene pertains only to a certain type of story, that not all stories need that specific sort of tension to create a narrative drive.

Which I think goes a long way to explaining why some stories leave some readers cold while others rave about them, they’re not our type of stories.

In the same vein, just because stories with character growth speak to me more vividly than other stories doesn’t mean it’s the only type of story out there. (Although, Card does make the point that a greater level of characterization is currently the fashion now, just as “Dear Reader” was the fashion in the late 19th century, and that is true.)

This was yet another thing I needed to hear right now, especially as I ruminate on additional Theo books.

The truth is that Theodosia doesn’t have giant growth arcs in each book, but quieter, smaller episodes of personal growth. Card put it really well; he said, in some stories characters are revealed, rather than grow. Another aha! moment. Theo isn’t hugely unsatisfied with her life or needing to move out of the emotional place she was in, she just needs to understand it better and her role in it. With each adventure she faces she learns more about herself, but she doesn’t undergo some monumental change. I do challenge each book to go deeper than the one before or to shade different elements of her development; in Book II for example, she had to stand fast to who she was in spite of the formidable influence of her grandmother and a bevy of governesses. And in Book III, we see her “tribe” of fellow odd ducks beginning to coalesce around her.

Part of the reason for this less steep growth is that she started out strong to begin with. Nathaniel Fludd on the other hand, does have quite a lot of growing to do. His emotional scars are greater, partly because his life experience has been more extreme, and partly because he had a more tender nature to begin with. So the Beastolgoist books are very much about him growing into a different, healthier, more emotionally secure and balanced individual.

It occurs to me that I really need to have Tools, not rules, tattooed on my forehead!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Managing A Cast of Thousands

So here I sit, struggling with my overwhelming cast of thousands. When I drew perilously close to tearing out my hair, I pulled a writing book by Orson Scott Card off my shelf today, CHARACTERS & VIEWPOINT. I only have it because someone gave it to me instead of the used book store and I’m a pack rat where books are concerned. However, in true gotta-love-it fashion, I found exactly the information I needed to help me through this.

The thing Card said that was exceptionally powerful for me was that characterization is a tool, not a virtue.

Wow, did I need to hear that. When one’s novel is populated by hundreds of people, not every one of them can stand out, nor should they. It would be exhausting to have them all be memorable. It is perfectly acceptable to have some characters in one’s novel simply be part of the backdrop, the bodies that populate the room for realism’s sake while the true drama unfolds among a select handful of your characters. For those walk-ons and stand-ins, its okay, necessary even, to use quick broad strokes, perhaps even, dare I say it—stereotypes—since their actions have no bearing on the plot.

Because their actions have no bearing on the plot. Gah! Of course!

This is a prime example of me not being able to see the forest for the trees. It’s a matter of selecting the right tool for the right job, and complex characterization isn’t always the right tool. In pursuing some abstract concept of "good writing," I got so wrapped up in wanting every character to be meaningful, that I lost sight of the simple fact that it isn’t necessary. Or even desirable. Brilliant characterization for every single human being in a novel would be exhausting and would not even serve the story.

I love it when I get permission to do exactly what I needed to do . . .

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pick a Card, Any Card

So, after wrestling with my plot and trying to figure out where in the hell I am with it and the many threads I have going, I gave up and went back to the basics: index cards. And not just any ol’ index cards, but colored ones. Perhaps I am more visual than the average author but boy, nothing screams obvious plot holes to me like seeing all the threads laid out in brightly colored hues.

It’s an incredibly simple system, I merely write a one line description for each scene on an index card. The one trick is that I choose different colored cards, depending on what plot thread or subplot the scene pertains to.

So here you can see my first and second acts laid out on the kitchen island (and yes, every writer needs a spouse who will build them a kitchen island for laying out plot cards). The first act is in the background and the second act in the foreground.

It becomes immediately clear that the pink, yellow, and green scenes are on the skimpy side. That most often translates into: I have dropped those plot threads or not fully developed them.

Here is the second act:

While all the colors are present in the second act, the pink ones indicate scenes which focus on my heroine's personal growth. And since this is a 1st person book about her, uh, clearly I need to look at that. And while it's true that all scenes should accomplish multiple tasks, if nothing else, I have to go back and review some of the other colored scenes and be sure that my heroine is the one driving the action, even if they pertain to one of the other threads. And that green card, well, that represents actions taken by my antagonist, and while his identity is hidden from the reader until the last act, he does need to be engaging more with the heroine, even if his hidden motives remain unclear. So, not too bad, but definitely needs some tweaking.

And then we get to the first act. Oy!

No green, at all, which is a real problem because I need to get that antagonist acting and engaging in the first act, and he is completely missing. I also like to at least mention all the plot threads that will be in play during the book in the first act, so I also need to get at least one yellow card in there.

But the beauty of this system is, it all becomes immediately clear what is missing. Of course, I still have to figure out how to fix it...but now I know what to concentrate on.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Concrete Objects or Giving Your Protagonist a Blankie

Anyone who's ever been around young tots has surely heard of blankies, those foul, nasty, must-bribe-in-order-to-wash-it type rags that toddlers hang on to with such grim determination. A concrete object is kind of like that--a transference object--but for your hero. Clear as mud, right?

Let's try this: a concrete object is a physical object that becomes imbued with emotional meaning during the course of the story and is a tool that allows the writer to "show" emotional progress rather than "tell" it.

A classic example can be found in the movie Citizen Cane, with the mysterious "Rosebud" that turns out to be the sled from Cane's childhood that represents all that was good and lost.

Warning: there may be mild spoilers ahead...

In Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out Of A Tree, Lauren Tarshis makes great use of this concept. Emma Jean has a quilt left to her by her father. It is a much treasured object and when she's missing him, she has this quilt to remember him by. Tarshis doesn't overuse the emotional connection here, mentioning it only two or three times (I don't have a copy of the book at hand--I lent mine to someone). During the course of he story, Emma Jean has to wrestle with a family friend becoming closer to her mother than she is comfortable with. However, when this family friend must leave to tend to his own ill mother, in a moment of deep emotional resolve, Emma Jean sends the beloved quilt with him.

So right there is a great physical way of showing just how very much this man means to Emma Jean, without having to get all tangled up in awkward or too spot-on words.

And later in the book, when Emma Jean has been through a few more emotional growth experiences and has had to face the fact that her mom and this guy really do make each other happy, the family friend comes home. She is a bit stunned to find his mother has mended the quilt for her, blending the bright colorful fabrics of her culture with the older, faded fabrics of the original quilt, and although the new pattern is different, she finds it is pleasing all the same. Again, the author uses this physical object to show the emotional impact of trying to weave together new family relationships, as well as the conflicted feelings involved, and she is able to do it very sparingly, with clean elegant strokes because she has this wonderful object that has become so imbued with emotional impact.

Now I don't really think concrete objects can be forced. Like I said, one hasn't materialized in the Beastologist books, or the medieval France one, so I'm not going to manufacture one. But often times I think our subconscious will leave a trail of breadcrumbs for us. Perhaps you have an article or possession that's shown up in your story once, twice, maybe even three times. If so, I would take the time to examine that and see if it can't be massaged into a concrete object.

In Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, I found that Father was always scolding Theo about her stupid hat. He always remembered to notice when she wasn't wearing hers, but never managed to notice the important stuff. Until the end, when he is so concerned about her well being that he not only forgets about her hat, but tells her to forget about it, too.

Okay, it's no where near as powerful as Emma Jean's, but it was what showed up. What can I say? It served as a nice underscore to the lesson Theodosia was learning about her parents.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Strucutre: Where You Least Expect It

Lots of times when talking about plot or structure, some writers recoil, feeling as if such aspects of craft are merely devices, templates, if you will, for those who are not skilled enough to write a character driven book.

Obviously, I don’t hold the same opinion. But what is also true is that structure can be so integral to the story and so much a part of its very fabric, that the reader is never even aware of it. I thought I’d use a couple of picture books as examples, as people often (mistakenly) assume that something as short as picture books don’t really require structure or plots.

One aspect of structure is the concept of causality—of the events of the story building on themselves, creating a tighter and tighter spiral that the main character must deal with. [A] happens, then the character tries [this], which makes things worse, because

There really is no better illustration of this concept than If You Give A Moose A Muffin by Laura Joffe Numeroff. (Her If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, works well to illustrate this, too.)

In the book, our protagonist gives the moose a muffin in a misguided attempt to get rid of it. But this makes things worse, because then the moose wants jam to go with it. But that makes things worse because they are so tasty he wants more and more. Until they are all gone and it’s time to go to the store, which is even worse because now he needs to borrow a sweater, then needs to mend it, and on and on in a great big rolling snowball of complications. That, my friends, is structure. It is subtle; a charming, integral element of the story, but structure, nonetheless.

A second terrific example, and perhaps my favorite, is Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. That simple, less than 500 word book, encompasses the entire Hero’s Journey. Check it out:

1) The Ordinary World. Max dons his trusty wolf suit and gets into trouble
2) The Call to Adventure.Max is sent to his room, where a forest appears
3) Refusal of the Call. But Max doesn't do anything until it grows even more
4) Mentor. Whoever sent the boat...
5) Crossing the First Threshold. Max sails away in that private boat that shows up
6) Tests, Allies and Enemies. Max sails for over a year
7) Approach to the Inmost Cave. The most dangerous place in the Story World. Max arrives where those scary wild things live
8) The Ordeal. And they do their level best to scare the bejeezus out of him. But he stands up to them, see…and stares them down.
9) Seizing the sword. The hero often receives some reward for surviving. And the Wild things make him their king.—the most wild thing of all.
10) The Road Back. The hero must deal with the consequences of all that he/she has done in order to gain the reward. And now the real rumpus starts!
11) Resurrection. This is the second Ordeal, the final confrontation. Then Max, grown lonely and homesick, stands up to them and makes them stop. Not only that, he punishes them--just as he was punished.
12) Return With the Reward. Then a wiser and calmer Max arrives back in his room and found his supper waiting for him.

I just think it’s so interesting to see just how much things like three act structure or the hero’s journey are a part of our storytelling patterns, even before there was a book that talked about it as a guideline for writers. It’s important to keep in mind that the hero’s journey was recognized rather than invented, recognized after analyzing thousands of years worth of myths and legends and tales. It was merely putting a label to the way man had told stories for generations.

Now I think that it’s absolutely true that some writers don’t have to think about structure or plot in order to have it appear in their work (and I try not to hate them too much for that) but neither is plot a four-letter word. I’m just sayin’.

Edited to add:

In honor of Buy Indie Day, I'm going to my local bookstore this morning and buying a copy of Donald Maass's newest book, The Fire in Fiction, to give away in a drawing this month. All you have to do to be entered is leave a comment. How easy is that? Maass's book, Writing the Breakout Novel is one of my bibles, so I'm very excited he has a second book out.