Monday, November 30, 2009

Pass the Alleve, Please

I long for a simple plot. I long for the kind of plot where the protagonist wants this, but can’t have it because [fill in the blank] and so must spend the rest of the book struggling against the antagonist or antagonistic force in order to achieve her goal. And of course she’ll triumph and live joyfully ever after.

But instead, my plots tend more toward: Protagonist wants this, but can’t have it because of a trick within a ploy, hidden in a stratagem, deeply embedded within a subterfuge, sprinkled liberally with deception and a dollop of double cross on top.

The ever tightening concentric circles of my convoluted plot makes my head ache. Although, I suppose that's progress. At least now I have a plot to b!tc# about...

Also, for any of you who are feeling discouraged over not finishing NaNo this year, Maggie Stiefvater has a wonderful post about breaking up with NaNo--a must read if your NaNo experience left you feeling less than satisfied.

Today is also the last day to enter the contest to win an ARC of Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus. Check the contest out here on Hip Writer Mama's blog.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Vanities...

Phew, copy edits are in the mail. Now I can let the official Thanksgiving festivities begin!

It has also been frustrating to be up to my elbows in deadlines when a hot discussion is swirling around the internet. At last I can weigh in.

Is it just me or do the recent Harlequin Horizons and Thomas Nelson’s WestBow Press Vanity press ventures strike anyone else as the publishing equivalent of credit default swaps?

Sure, every business wants to make money, and rightly so. But there is a point when the legitimate desire to find revenue streams crosses over into predatory behavior. Not only is this bad for the parties involved, but over time, it threatens to topple the entire business model and crash economies.

Just like Wall Street, publishers are now wanting to hedge their bets. They want to continue to take only professional, agented, submissions, but with these vanity press ventures, they also want to take out credit default swaps on those they’ve rejected just in case they’ve missed their guess. But sometimes, when we hedge our bets, we remove the impetus needed to make the original enterprise a success.

It is also hugely frustrating to have those who oppose this move called Luddites or be told they are standing in the way of progress. No one has managed to convince me that this step is progress. Exploitation is not progress. Nor is what these companies are doing part of a legitimate publishing model. Publishing involves paying a fee to license intellectual content, enhancing it with editorial input and professional book design, marketing it, and distributing it. With this existing model, the publisher definitely adds value to the original content. In this new scenario, they do not. They act as a print broker, hooking up eager writers with a printing service, a service they could just as easily access on their own—and keep more of their profits to boot.

It also strikes me as the very opposite of a sound economic model. When you are looking to increase the value of something, is it really wise to flood the market? Everything I’ve heard has lamented that there are far too many books published every year already. Does it really make sense to add more? And books that, by and large, were not able to cross the bar of existing standards?

I am so proud of RWA for moving so swiftly and decisively to repudiate HQ's move, and am equally pleased that the other writing organizations (MWA, SFW, and NINC)
have their backs.

If the internet is becoming a more and more critical factor in publisher’s book promotional and marketing strategies, are they not now flooding those same channels with even more choices and distractions? They have basically just polluted their own stream. It’s similar to the current phenomenon of how there are 763 available channels these days, but one can never find anything good to watch on TV. It seems to me that when businesses spend so much of their energy trying to capture market share and cover all the bases and hedge their bets by being involved in too many ventures, they end up diluting the initial spark and value that so many got from their product, and consumers give up.

This coupled with the recurring meme out there that information wants to be free worries me. Not simply because I love being a writer and being paid for what I do, but because it is one more step in a long line of steps of devaluing everything except the bottom line. Those who do the actual work or create the content are diminished or expected to find or create other revenue streams to support their art, while the ability to shuffle paper and come up with ways to charge money for nothing are praised. Personally, I think they need to shuffle paper for free and find other revenue streams to support that enterprise.

Yes, the current publishing model is far from perfect. The inefficiency can be staggering and the distribution expensive. But let’s work on improving the current model instead of blowing everything up. We already did that with Wall Street, and look how well that turned out.

Now lest I get accused of elitism, please understand that at one time my books could not cross that bar either. (And as far as some readers are concerned, may still not cross that bar.) But that’s part of what separates published writers from those that don’t get published—that huge drive and commitment to do what it takes to produce a well-crafted, saleable book. The tools to do that are available to anyone—especially here on the web. You can give yourself a master class in novel writing techniques by a judicious visiting of a number of great, informative sites.

Will it be quick? No. Will it be easy? Hell no. But it is part of what is required to produce work of a certain quality.

Another huge downside to this of legitimizing of vanity presses is that budding authors will shift their focus. Once they have that unsaleable manuscript in book form, they will likely spend all their time flogging a new book that has little chance of furthering their career instead of spending that time improving their craft. Why should they? They already have the carrot! But there is a reason a butterfly has to struggle its way out of its cocoon or a chick has to fight its way out of the egg—there are huge lessons and great skill building in the struggle.

Even, I suspect, for publishers.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jump Starting a Novel

Alas, I keep priming the pump but only dribbles are coming out. Time to bring out the big guns. Er, index cards.

I've talked about index cards before, and how I use them to help me see plot holes. They do, however, have other uses. They can also be a terrific tool to help me build or jump start the novel's plot.

Usually when I begin a book I have some key scene ideas and events that I know will need to be in the story. (This is especially true when working on series and sequels.) That in turn, means I usually have a pretty good idea of how many plot threads or sub plots I'll have.

When I'm trying to take this info and massage it into a plot, here's what I do. I take a fresh stack of colored index cards and assign one color for each plot thread. Then I write down all the key scenes that I know will happen in that thread.

Now some of the scenes ideas might be pretty well formed, and others might be unbelievably vague: Theo's first sighting of Chaos in Egypt. But they work as both a place holder in the overall structure of the plot, as well as a jumping off point for brainstorming. How does Theo become aware of Chaos's presence? And then I begin running through possibilities for those.

Some of the scene notations might not just be vague, but also unbelievably mundane and boring--not the least bit dramatic. Theo and Mum visit Antiquities Service to obtain permission to dig.

But once I know that, then I can begin thinking of how to turn that scene into one with dramatic action. How can that scene become a vital part of the plot? How can I add drama? Tension? Is there the opportunity for a reversal of some sort?

So listing what I do know about the scene, however sketchy it might be, shows me where I need to begin to excavate in order to find the right story bones I'll need.

Once I have those, I can begin to assemble those very raw and sketchy bits into some semblance of structure, because the structure of the novel will also help focus my brainstorming.

So my (very raw, very sketchy) first act looks like this:

In my second act, things really start to happen and I have a lot more cards:

So now I have some raw material to work with. I have an idea of the ebb and flow of the scenes and activities that will need to happen, and where those scenes will fall, and I can now try to beat them into submission breathe some life into them.

(And uh, yeah, I am very well aware the yellow cards petered out in act two. I can't decide if there are two plot threads, yellow and blue, or if they are both really the same thread, but I'm not worrying about that at this stage of the game.)

And yes, this is VERY left brained, and NO, I don't do this for every book. Just the ones that are being stubborn and won't come out to play.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Collaging: A Novel Approach

So you all know I like collaging as a way to help bring my story world to life, and I've shared some of the past collages on the blog. This time, however, a regular collage didn't seem to be working for Theo Four. For one thing, collages are big and tend to evoke a story world rather than represent it, and for this Theo book, I needed factual specifics. It takes place in Cairo and Luxor in 1907, both real places and real times, so I am somewhat constrained by, you know, reality. And in order to write about it, I need to see it. But if I paste the old photos I find on a collage board, they become lost or overwhelmed.

Well this weekend, I stumbled upon a fix to this conundrum. I decided that instead of creating a collage board for this Theodosia book, I'd create a travel journal such as Theo herself might have kept to record her trips.

(Sorry about the glare.)

So now I've been cutting and pasting all the old photos I've found in my research into this book, then making notations and observations in Theo's voice next to each picture.

This is doing two things. It's a great way to accumulate all the research visuals I need in one place and in chronological order, and it's allowing me to focus on seeing them through Theo's eyes. It's really helped me "get into the mood" for writing this book.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Looking for Arcs in All The Wrong Places

Since this blog is basically a big, fat window into my writing and my process, there is a good chance I will begin to repeat myself since I tend to struggle with similar issues with each book I write. However, the solution to those issues shifts slightly with each book, so hopefully there will be something of use to people in seeing those different solutions.

For example, one of the reasons I’m floundering with Theo Four is that I’m having a hard time pinpointing her internal arc. Frankly, it’s one of the challenges when writing a series with the same MC, giving that person an internal growth arc for each subsequent book. However, I think it is a vital part of the story.

I do have a bunch of internal things she learns. For example, she’s now seeing the world with her rational blinders off (due to what happened in book three) and she is hungry to understand WHO she is, how she got to be the way she is, and she begins to see the human cost of political actions, but I don’t have one cohesive umbrella under which to put all those things, such as there is no place like home, or she learns to accept herself. I wish I did, but I don’t.

So then I decided to rummage around looking for a theme, then see if that could lead me to a possible internal arc. Book Four is about Theo’s full initiation into the Other, her wandering in the desert/going into the woods and learning the answers to the mysteries that only she can provide.

It also occurred to me that this is the realization of all that she longed for in Book One. She’s going to Egypt with her parents and being asked to participate on a dig—to bring her talent to the project. Maybe she’s clinging blindly to that old goal, not realizing that she has outgrown that goal. She’s changed too much over the course of the last few books and she will never be in that simple or innocent place again. So while she’s gotten what she wished for, she herself has moved beyond that now.

Hm. I’m going to just keep plodding along and play with what I’ve got for a while. Maybe I’ll find a way to tie all these elements together under one internal arc umbrella. Heck, it could even be staring me right in the face and I’m just being too obtuse to see it.

Or maybe I’ll just pray that the big final scene at the end ties them all together. ☺

Monday, November 9, 2009

Out of Nothing…Something

So there is this concept I am really taken with and I've been rolling it around in my mind, exploring the shape and feel and heft of it for a few weeks now. It was something someone said a couple of months ago in a comment on my FB page (I’m thinking it was Shevi, but I might be misremembering—speak up if it was you!) They said something to the effect that unlike the sculptor who starts with a stone they can turn into something, writers must first make the stone, then use it to build their stories. It has resonated with me ever since. Particularly in the last week or so as I try to jump-start this newest book.

I am struck by the clear delineation between the two parts of writing—creating the material for the story, then building that story. And I think that’s where a number of beginning writers stumble. They think that what they’ve created IS the story, and it’s not—it’s the material from which they will create the story.

I also think this is the key to effective revision—being willing to see the first draft(s) as the base material you will be working with to create the actual story, rather than simply polishing a first draft. (Whether you do this scene by scene or draft by draft is less critical than the fact that you are willing to take things apart and look for clues and breadcrumbs in your first drafts rather than feel they are cast in stone.)

Then because life often loves to be sure I really GET the lesson it’s sending me, someone forwarded me a link to a NaNo pep talk Neil Gaiman had given about writing being like building a stone wall, and again I was struck that as writers we need to create the d@mn stones from which to build our walls, not to mention that we have to shape each piece so that it fits in the whole without huge gaps or worse—threatens to tumble at the first big breeze.

Anyway, it helped me realize that a big part of my writing process, my pre-writing process to be exact, is not about outlining or planning so much as it is about creating the material I will need to tell my story. Collaging, research, reading other books, journaling, note-taking—these are all the tools I use to give birth to the rocks I will need to build my story. And yes, that's a wince-inducing metaphor, but honest to gawd, sometimes that's what it feels like. Not always, by any means, but definitely this week.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Highly Suspicious...

When I got home last Saturday, my son had just contracted the Creeping Crud; either a bad chest cold (his vote) or swine flu (our vote). He was sick, but not deathly ill. So guess who started to come down with it yesterday? Yes, yours truly. I cannot believe I managed to fend off every single germ in the Katy Texas School District only to be felled at home.

The highly suspicious part? I started getting sick the day after my Muse went on strike. See, she thought I was rushing the writing part of the new book; she needed a bit more pre-writing and world-building before she was ready to get on with the show. I rushed it, then boom; I start to get sick.

Probably not a coincidence. So we made a deal, my muse and I. I will spend the next four days drinking hot tea, taking naps, popping Vitamin C & zinc lozenges, and reading research books, and she will be sure this doesn't develop into full-blown swinegitis.

There! I feel better already. Never bet against your muse...