Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Paper Dolls and Inspiration

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, one of my FAVorite things to do was make paperdolls. I’d collect some good paper and a new box of crayons and spend the next several hours (sometimes days!) happily coloring and designing an entire world full of paperdolls and, of course, their wardrobe. Of course, filling in the details of the wardrobe could be a bit tedious, so that is when I inevitably began telling myself the story of these dolls’ world and who they were and what was going on in their lives.

Fast forward some ::mumble mumble:: years later and I’m still doing the same thing! True, the order is different, but as I was doing some pre-writing activity, I became aware as to just how little I’ve changed my process since I was seven years old.

I am a very visual person and it really helps jumpstart my creativity if I can SEE the world and people I am working with. In addition to collages, because these teen assassin books have such an enormous cast of characters, I’ve created, well I guess there is no other word for it, a kind of paperdoll for each of the main character.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I collect pictures of interesting or compelling faces and keep them in a file. When I start a new book, I often go through the file looking for pictures that can act as a touchstone for the characters. Oftentimes it won’t be an exact image of the character in my mind, but will capture a specific expression that is key to the character’s attitude.

Instead of drawing my current paperdolls with crayon and pencils, I simply paste the magazine pictures on 3x5 cards, but they serve the same purpose: a visual anchor into the world of my story.

Sometimes, if I’ve chosen my pictures accurately enough, just putting some of the cards together immediately sparks a sense of what interpersonal dynamics will be at play.

And no, I do not think of this as procrastination, but more like feeding the muse.

Monday, June 27, 2011

New Book! New Blog! New Me!

Well, okay, maybe not so much a new me, but rather a slightly different aspect of the old me. My publisher decided it was best if I used a slightly different version of my name for GRAVE MERCY.

So here I am: Robin LaFevers, YA author rather than R. L. LaFevers, middle grade author. It felt as if the occasion called for a new blog so I could get used to my ‘new’ name. ☺

Also? There will likely be kissing. That is one of the upsides to writing YA!.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Tarot Collage

I've talked before about how I make collages for my books using pictures from the web or magazines or my inspiration folder (where I have hundreds of images from old magazines that I save because they speak to me for some reason.)

One fun thing I did that made a great artist's date/writing exercise was create a tarot collage of my hero and heroine's journey. There's no real trick to it. You just pick a tarot deck with imagery that appeals to you (this was The Secret Tarot by Marco Nizzoli*), spread the cards out on the table, then pick those that resonate with your vision for your protagonist. That's what I did for GRAVE MERCY.

So the top row was the major influences impacting the two main character's lives, and then the second row was the  hero's journey and the bottom row was the heroine's.

Or, you could be even more official and do an actual tarot reading for your characters or story. 

Mostly just a fun way to get in touch with the story at the intuitive level. Sometimes the cards you pick can surprise you.

*I have used my paltry photoshop skills to cover up some of the images so they would be work (and MG!) safe.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Looking for Themes In All The Wrong Places


I was going to come back here and tell you all how I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had two seconds to rub together, let alone time to blog, but you know what? You all are smart cookies. I bet you figured that out on your own. Plus? It is fairly boring to talk about.

So instead I thought I’d talk about something that’s been occupying quite a lot of my mental space lately, namely themes. As in the core themes of our work.

[Warning: Possible navel-gazing ahead.]

Part of this was brought about by the fact that I am having a teensy bit of an identity crisis, genre-wise. I was able to straddle a young middle grade and an older middle grade series fairly well. But I am now pulling a dark, older YA into the mix and it kind of tipped me over in terms of understanding who my audience is, what my relationship to my readers is, how I pull all of those various wildly different parts of the authorial me together. Do I talk about the book that’s out now or the one that I’m working on? Does it matter if they’re two separate age groups?

The inside of my head has felt far too much like a hamster wheel for my liking. However, one can only flounder so long before it gets way old and all that’s left to do is get over it and move on. So here I am. I will be having my identity crisis in public and hope that it will be a learning experience for the rest of you.

My website is also due for a massive makeover, and before I could do that, I had to understand the answers to some of the above questions. Actually, I had to figure out the right questions to even ask.

When looking for a story theme, the questions I use are:

What life lesson does your protagonist need to learn?
Where, in her/his emotional landscape, will this journey take her? Will she/he be facing old fears? Discovering new ones? What will they be?
What issues will most of the book's conflict be arising from?
What direction is her/his growth going to take? Learning to accept, forgive, redeem oneself, stand up for what they believe in?
What will they have struggled with by the end of the book?
Also, look at your protagonist’s goals and motivations. What direction are they pointing in?

And while those questions work well for finding themes in a given book, they weren’t helping me step back and get a better picture of how all the various themes I work with tie in.

So I had to go looking for new questions.

What truth am I telling? What is my core truth, the one I go back to time and again. I searched my books, the school talks I give, my work on Shrinking Violets and over on GeekMom. Hell, I looked high and low. I kept stepping back, further and further away thinking if I could get a distant view, I could see the patterns and landscape better.

But I neglected to look deep, deep inside, to that place we all try to hide from the world. Which is highly ironic since that’s one of my biggest messages to kids when I do school visits—that their unique quirky self is their biggest most powerful weapon. Even if it’s the part of themselves that gets them in the most trouble or they find most embarrassing—that core is where all the best stuff in their life will come from.

And then I stumbled on this quote from Caroline Myss (found via Justine Musk's Tribal Writer blog) “You cannot live for prolonged periods of time within the polarity of being true to yourself and needing the approval of others.”

And my immediate thought was, you can’t? Because I have been doing that since I was old enough to breathe.

And it occurred to me that I have been engaged in a battle between being true to myself and pleasing others my entire life. An epic struggle for self acceptance.

Duh. There’s my core theme. Once I named it, I could recognize it in all of my work. It wasn't just about accepting our quirks or turning our weaknesses into strengths, but the constant polarization of opposing needs: that for self acceptance and that for pleasing others. Poor little Nathaniel Fludd, struggling between his innate timidity and wanting to please the intrepid Aunt Phil; Theodosia, needing to do something about all the magic that swirls around her, but not wanting to upset the apple cart with her parents.

Gawd! No wonder I’m exhausted all the time!

The other thing that occurred to me was that I will likely never have this fully mastered. Like a recovering alcoholic, it will be a one day at a time kind of thing. Maybe, at some point, it will be a week at a time or I will even be lucky enough to have a month long reprieve from this struggle. But I suspect it will always be a part of me, and even more, that that is a good thing because that is where my core story juice and passion come from. Putting characters in situations where they can experience transformative change that brings them one step closer to true self-acceptance.

So that is my core truth and one that all of my characters struggle with as well. I also think it’s why my stories tend toward middle grade and YA—because those first steps towards self acceptance and separating ourselves from our family and peers’ expectations for us come at those ages. (Also, clearly I am emotionally stunted. But in a productive way at least.)

The thing is, by recognizing our core journey, every daily challenge can have deeper meaning and be one more step on an ongoing path to the next stage of transformational change.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot the last couple of weeks. How about you? Are you guys all way more evolved than I am and have known for a long time your deepest, most core themes?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Writing is a Harsh Mistress

I was cleaning up a pile of papers that has sat next to my computer forever, and stumbled upon this quote that I'd printed out. I had not made a note of where it came from, so spent half an hour googling and searching and found out that, of course! It was from the brilliant Barbara Samuel//Barbara O'Neal's speech that she gave at RWA Nationals in 2004. If you haven't read it, please do. If you have read it, go ahead and read it again. It always moves me--often in new and different ways.
"She wants your experiences. Your brain. Your heart. Your soul. She wants to know that you will give her everything you have, whatever you have, when she needs it. She wants that secret you’ve never told anyone, ever. She wants that wound that can still bleed if someone brushes it by accident. She wants your pain and your bone marrow and your joy and every desire you’ve ever known."

Yes. This. Every time I read this I am reminded that I truly must give everything to the page in order to produce my best work.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Peeking Out of My Hermit Cave

It has been brought to my attention that I have been very quiet lately, and yes, I have. This book is being a bit of a bear to start—for many reasons. A primary one being that it is dark, dark, dark. And I shrink from all that darkness. But try hard as I might to pull it in other directions, that’s where it wants to go. So it has taken me the last two weeks to give myself permission to write the first draft as dark as I need to then, I assure myself, I can lighten it up in subsequent drafts. I mean, that IS the advantage to being a multiple drafter, right?

But I feel like I’m stumbling along in fits and starts, feeling awkward and cumbersome. To help me through this clumsy, graceless stage, I am rereading the classics: BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott and ON WRITING by Stephen King. They are hugely helpful and I am very much enjoying and soaking up these gentle encouraging voices full of bone deep wisdom. It is wisdom that I seem to need right now. Lamott, in particular, seems to be speaking right to me.

But also, as I struggle to hear the faint glimmerings of these new characters in my head, I need to tune out some of the voices on the outside because that noise and commotion draws too much of my attention. When I turn down the volume of the external world, it is much easier for me to hear my emerging characters. So I am alive and well, just…pensive. And quiet.

I’ve never needed quite this much psychic exclusion to start a book before, but I’ve also never written anything this tortured, so it makes sense. It is probably not surprising that these books did not demand to be written until my children were grown and self sufficient. To counteract all this sturm und drang, I am spending lots of time walking in this world, enjoying my family, reminding myself that old wounds do heal, lives that seem dark can find hope, essentially doing whatever I need to do to keep the nature of this book from overwhelming me, while still giving it the nurturing attention it needs to be born. A bit of a juggling act, actually.

Also? I am trying to be ergonomically savvy. The older I get the more aware I am of the wear and tear the act of writing and mousing and typing and sitting for hours on end has on my body. I had an ergonomics specialist come the other day and evaluate my process and stations and retweak everything. I want to be able to do this for another twenty or thirty years, so I need to make sure I’m not over stressing various joints, tendons, and muscles. Which is pretty much guaranteed if you spend nine hours a day on the computer, so I’ve just been cutting back in general.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bag of Tricks

I talked the other day about my handy dandy back of tricks that I use to coax my characters and stories to reveal themselves to me. As promised, I’m going to detail some of those in this post.

One of those is the brilliant old faithful by Debra Dixon, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.

It’s a simple concept, one that is often overlooked due to its very simplicity. If you haven’t read Deb’s book, do try to find a copy to check it out because the depth with which she explains the concepts are very worth it.

Basically, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (GMC) is making sure you know your characters EXTERNAL goal (what she wants) MOTIVATION (why she wants it) and CONFLICT (what’s standing in her way). IN ADDITION to knowing and understanding her INTERNAL goal, motivation, and conflict. The thing is, lots of us might want to be writers or senators or nurses, but chances are we all have very real, very unique, very private reasons we want those things. Doing this exercise ensures that you know what makes your character tick.

When thinking of an INTERNAL goal, it helps me to reframe that as the question, What is lacking in my character's life? What does she need to be fulfilled as a person? What Life Lesson does she need to learn?

I think of the internal motivation as the reason she needs to learn this lesson or the reason she has this great, gaping emotional hole in her life. What bad messages or poor choices she’s made in the past that have kept her from achieving fulfillment. And lastly, the internal conflict can be a couple of things: It can be what is compelling her to hang on to those old messages/lessons that keep her from moving forward, or what event/catalyst has to occur in order to move her forward emotionally.

Make a grid on a piece of paper and see if you can fill in those elements for your character. Even if you think you know them, oftentimes they change or solidify or evolve over the course of the story.

The second tool I use to suss out my characters is a cheat sheet I made from Donald Maass’s book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. He poses some great questions in that book, questions that really help me grow my plot from the seeds of my main character. One of the questions I work with in the beginning is: Define what truly matters to my character. Does she have a tortuous need, consuming fear, aching regret, passionate longing, burning desire, inner lack? (You can probably see that this ties directly into the INTERNAL goal from the above GMC.)

And next I begin character journaling. I begin writing about that character’s emotional scars and wounds. I poke around in her distant past to find out what might have caused them, how they developed, why they didn’t heal. The truth is, often two different people can experience a similar event--or the same event--and only one person is affected or traumatized by them. Because we all have different emotional baggage we're carrying around. I try to get at the heart of why THIS problem is so cataclysmic for THIS character that it tilts their world (either their inner world or their external world) on it's axis.

I try to become that character and see what my subconscious sends up in the way of character memories—often very surprising things bubble up—things that I did not consciously plan or think of, but are perfect nonetheless. Some questions I use to get started are:

When did things begin to go wrong for her? In what way? What were things like just before they went wrong? How did she try to fix things--if she tried at all? 

Another big benefit to journaling is that it helps me get familiar with the character’s voice. It’s like warm up drills on the piano keys before busting out into Rachmaninoff.

But for the last few books, I’ve been using other resources besides writing and plotting tools; I’ve added psychology books into the process and boy, is this helpful when I’m flailing around, trying to define my characters and their problems and their ultimate arcs. As I mentioned a few months ago, THE HERO WITHIN was invaluable as I wrestled with Ismae’s story in medievalteenassassin#1. This time around, it is Clair Pinkola Estes WOMEN WHO RUN WITH WOLVES that is saving my bacon for this second assassin book. Having said that, I think WWRWW works especially well for me since I write fantasy. Not sure how much help it would be if I wrote contemporary, realistic fiction.

As I leafed through WWRWW, I found invaluable clues to my character and not only what is at the root of who she is and why she behaves how she does, but what she will need in order to heal and grow. One thing I stumbled on this time around that I don’t remember reading before was the author’s descansos exercise. The book—and the exercise—is intended for individuals but I’m going to do it for my character. And that is, to make a timeline of all the little deaths of spirit and psyche my character has suffered (and she’s had a LOT—her past is very, very dark). Note each huge heartbreak and betrayal—whether actual or emotional, pay attention to where she felt abandoned or ignored, where she was forced to do things that were totally against her nature. Because all of those things that happened in her past inform who she is in the NOW of the story. They will give me the knowledge I need in order to understand how she will behave and react during the events of the story.

So now I’ve got all the subconscious juices flowing—and in the direction I want them to be flowing—and words and pages are accumulating at a satisfying pace. However, lest I end up with too sprawling or shapeless first draft ( I need something to let them flow into. That’s where the SAVE THE CAT template that I talked about a couple of weeks ago comes in. And I’m going to talk about how I marry those two together next week. But while you’re waiting, go and try a couple of these exercises and see how they work for you. Especially if you’re stuck or having a hard time bringing a character to life. Or if any have a similar types of exercises you use to help bring your character to life, I’d love to hear about them! I am crazy for writing exercises and processes. ☺

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thinking, Stewing, Fermenting, and Percolating and the Joys Therein

For the past week I’vebeen cogitating on what an active part thinking plays in the writing process—or at least MY writing process. And then a few days ago I came across a blog post where someone was talking about how what people NEEDED to do to be a productive/professional writer was to sit down and write one page in an hour. They had done the math, you see. They figured out how long it takes to write an email and computed that into how long it would take to write a page, and if you did that three times during the day, voila! You would have a book—or three—by the end of a year. Mind you, this was a professional writer who made his/her living at writing. They firmly believed that all this thinking and researching and note-taking were simply procrastination measures and by and large useless and not-necessary.

It was all I could do not to pull my hair out by the roots and scream at the computer screen.

It would be one thing if this person had made it clear that it was THEIR process—but to extrapolate it out to the writing public at large was, at best irresponsible, at worst egotistical.

I have written over twenty books, and published thirteen of those. The longer I am involved in this writing gig the more convinced I become that the actual writing—putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard—is sometimes only 20-30% of the writing process. Not because I’m avoiding anything or letting myself be sidetracked, but because good pages don’t just happen. They are thought about and pondered over. They stew and ferment and percolate. This is especially true as my books become longer and more complex. Depth and nuance doesn’t (usually!) just fall from the sky in a burst of inspiration while I happen to be pounding out my 250 words per hour. It can, but it doesn’t always. Most often, you have to go out and hunt depth and layers and subtext and club it over the head, drag it home, and then finesse it into your WIP.

Their point was that fast writers were much better and more likely to be true professionals that slow writers. Gah. Of course, that doesn’t even address the issue of those of us who write some books slowly and others quickly…

The funny thing is, I was wrestling with this very issue before I even stumbled upon this blog post. I had set my Start Date for the medievalteenassassin#2 as Feb. 1. As I said, I’d been gathering research materials and making notes and blocking out the big picture plot things. But try as hard as I might, the story egg was NOT ready to crack yet. Was. Not. Now sure, I wrote a couple of pages. And I could very easily have forced myself to stay there and write X number of pages until I have five pages each day. But what sort of pages would they be? The wrong ones, ones leading into a story I didn’t want to tell. Now sure, you can always fix a bad page—but sometimes committing too early to the wrong story is not helpful. Besides, I could have blindly put words on paper that had no depth, no nuance, no layered meaning, and no subtext, but whatever is the point?

So instead, I pulled out my bag of tricks that I fall back on time and time again to help dig around until I find my character and story. (My next post will detail those tricks—I pinkie swear!) Some, like the above referenced blog poster, would call that procrastination. I call it assembling the material from which I plan to craft my story. Sure, one can build something using any old materials one has on hand. Or. One can look long and carefully for the right materials, the ones that compliment and contrast, provide shadows as well as illumination, and are the best quality—the strongest and most aesthetically pleasing materials one can find.

All this ruminating and mulling bore rich fruit. I quickly realized I had started in the wrong place. Once I made the adjustment and backed up, the pages came much, much more easily. Where I had been eking out two painful pages a day, when I backed up and did the necessary story and character work, I was able to write 20 pages in three days. Not a record, by any means, but much more free flowing when they came from the right place. They are still first draft pages, but they have the bones and sinew of the story I am trying to tell, rather than no relation to anything I’m trying to convey.

So the point I am trying to make is that, no, there is no one formula or approach one has to take in order to be a professional working writer who can support themselves with their writing. Ignore anyone who tells you otherwise.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Historical Accuracy

I have been thinking a lot about historical accuracy as I work on these medieval French assassin books. Lucy had asked (quite a while ago—sorry Lucy!) if I would talk about historical accuracy on the blog, and since I was discussing historical research in general, I thought it would be a good time to address it.

But first, a warning: I am not a purist. If you are looking for someone who holds up pristine historical accuracy as the One True Shining Purpose, I am not your girl.

For one thing, I think historical accuracy is an elusive beast, especially the farther back in time you travel. But that very elusiveness is exactly why so many historians tackle time periods that have been written about before: because things change. Sometimes it is the actual information and facts that change—new discoveries are made, new methods of dating or interpreting old facts emerge. But other times it is merely US who have changed, our perspective on history. A great example of this was the influx of histories in the seventies that were told/viewed through the eyes of women or minorities who’d been involved in the historical events, but whose side hadn’t yet been told.

There is also great disagreement on a lot of historical concepts and facts. Just trying to define the middle ages or medieval time period for example, can lead you on a long and twisting goose chase. Some declare it ended in the middle of the 14th century, while others claim it ended in 1450, where still others claim it ended in 1492. You can find solid historical arguments for each of those dates. The truth is, you can often find a variety of sources that will support an even wider variety of interpretations.

So which does a writer choose?

The one that serves the story they are trying to tell.

Some writers are writing in order to convey absolute historical detail and accuracy and take great pride in that, as well they should because it is so tricky. But others (like me) are mostly interested in evoking the sensibilities and flavor of a time period. I don’t mean that we slap historical costumes on 21st century characters and calling it historical, but rather we try to explore the mindset and worldview of earlier times, but in a way that is accessible to readers.

This is especially true for me since I write historical fantasy. I am already drawn to the murky, under explored parts of historical periods—their folk beliefs, superstitions, relationship to Other, and their spiritual anomalies—things that most real historians have traditionally steered clear of.

Then there is the added layer of conveying the history in the story as the people of that time understood it, or so that it is accurate when viewed through our 21st century lens. A great example of this is that I’ve been dinged in a view Theodosia reviews for being inaccurate about mummies, and I so want to ask this person to please point me to their research. Not because I want to argue, but because the four sources I consulted all supported my dealing with mummies and the researcher in me would love to examine this source that disputes that. Or is her source a more 21st century source rather than the information Theodosia and other Egyptologists would have access to in 1907?

Another example is that even now, they is still disagreement and dispute as to who really reached mountain peaks first or who the first man to discover the north pole truly was.

You begin to see the complexity.

My medieval France book is proving the most difficult, not only because the time period was recorded in such a subjective manner, but because most of the earliest sources are in French! Middle French at that, and I simply am not dedicated enough or willing to wait long enough to learn that language before I write this story.

What I am doing for this book is dipping my hand in the cauldron of what we know of the events at that time and pulling out those that are most relevant to the story I want to tell. There are vast amounts of historical facts and details I am not even touching—to do so would turn an already huge book into an encyclopedia! But even more important, they aren’t relevant to the story itself.

My own guidepost, touchstone, call it what you will is that the history serves the story. (Again, I want to reiterate that this would never fly if I were writing historical fiction rather than historical fantasy!)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pre-Writing: Research

Ah, research. One of my own personal versions of crack. Whether writing historical, fantasy, or contemporary, solid, judicious research can make a book come alive.

It can also be one of the easiest areas in which to become bogged down due to 1) becoming overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of information and a desire to get everything perfect and 2) it’s a lovely way to procrastinate and avoid doing any actual writing.

The way I keep from getting overwhelmed or lost in a never ending maze of historical research is that I break it down into stages. In the prewriting stage, the point of my research is to get a broad overview of the major events, players, and temperament of the historical time period in question. If I’ll be using or referring to real people or events, I make sure I know enough about them so that I can adapt accordingly. In fact, early on, I will often make up a timeline incorporating those historical events that will be happening during the course of the story.

But perhaps more important than the major events and players, is the thing I called temperament. This incorporates not only the mood and tone of the historical period, but also the worldview of the people who lived in those times. I thinking trying to capture the worldview and convey it somewhat accurately is one of the keys to making historical fiction feel like more than a costume drama.

The mindset of those who lived in the Victorian Era was different from those who lived in the Edwardian Era. Medeival men and women had wildly different ways in which they viewed the world when compared to those that lived during the Renaissance. As writers, I think one of the most important research tasks we have is to be able to capture the essence of those views.

However, that worldview must be tweaked in such a way as to make sure the characters are relatable for today’s reader. I think the exception to this is if the main focus of the story is to capture a particular historical milieu and have it be the point of the story, but my own personal feeling is that character and story take precedence over historical accuracy. (Which I will talk about in my next post.)

Another really important point about historical fiction (including fantasy) is this: the story should be so integral to the events and constraints of the time period that it could not take place any other time. It could not be plunked down in another historical time period and work. So if you have a character and plot idea and you’re trying to choose between a Colornial, Renaissance, or Victorian setting, the chances are your plot and character are not fully grounded enough in their time or place. If you’re just at the idea stage and still fleshing out the plot and character, then that’s different.

For example, I get asked a lot about why I set Theodosa in Edwardian times, and the answer is, very simply, that particular story couldn’t have happened at any other time. A hundred years earlier and travel was much slower and women traveled to Egypt much less frequently and a woman archaeologist—while scandalous enough in 1907—would have been nigh impossible in 1807. Plus the Rosetta Stone hadn’t yet been cracked and no one knew how to properly read hieroglyphs, so Theo couldn’t have translated the various texts. Plus, the general view at the time was that it was perfectly fine to acquire artifacts from lands not one’s own and take them to a museum and archaelogical digs were minimally supervised.

If I were to have set it in modern times—well, the story couldn’t have happened in today’s world. Egypt is very much in control of its own excavations and discoveries, travel and access is now nearly instantaneous, and modern politics would have provided a huge barrier. Plus, we know so much more now that we did then and nearly all the really big archaelogical finds have been made.

Thus 1907.

So that’s what I look for in the first round of research, learning enough to anchor both the story and the character’s worldview in the time period. And then it’s a stop and go sort of thing. I’ll begin writing until I run into something I don’t know. If it totally stops the story from going forward, then I’ll stop and research it. If I can keep going without it, I put a note in brackets. [what were some games Edwardian kids played and what toys did they have?] and keep going. That way I avoid the procrastination game.

Oh, one other thing I do in these early, pre-writing stages is that I do the research necessary to assemble the setting of the book. Determine what cities or towns I’ll be using, or make some up based on real towns. I pour over old maps and photos of old towns and castles, trying to get a vivid picture of the setting in my mind and then create enough of a map or blueprint that I’m not constantly having to stop once the writing begins to figure out where in the heck I am.

(And the reason I’m talking about research now is because I do it before I create the template that I referred to in last week’s post. I’m pretty much doing these posts in the exact order that I do them for a book.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On Writing A Novel

Okay, that title should probably really be, On Writing THIS Novel, since each one of them ends up needing something a little different.

But basically, since it is the beginning of a new year and I am starting a new novel, I thought it might be fun/interesting/entertaining to kind of do a loosey-goosey year long workshop and show what tools I use when writing a novel and when I apply them and what I do when I get stuck. Some of this stuff is elsewhere on the blog, but this will present everything in (relative) chronological order.

Or is that too writerly oriented for the readers who stop by here? Maybe I’ll put up a poll to see…

Right now I’m kind of puttering in the pre-writing stage. I’m giving myself a couple of weeks off of the actual producing pages part, but I’m getting ready in other ways, mostly seeding the ground of my subconscious.

First, of course, is to clear the decks of all the detritus of the last book, file away all my loose papers and notebooks and mss printouts. Not only is this good feng shui and organizational practice, it’s like erasing the chalkboard in my writing brain.

Next, I gather all the research materials I know I’ll need. I will always need more, but I won’t know which ones until I get farther in. I begin reading the research books and taking notes. I also go around the house looking for and collecting any and all random notes I may have made about this particular book and read through them once.

I also usually have a vague kernel of a sense of my main characters which I will be able to dig around in and coax into some sort of personage. Although with this particular book, I do have a decent loose sense of who they are as people since they were secondary characters in the last book. This is also the stage wherein I pull out two fresh, shiny unused notebooks. Not sure why I always start with two; sometimes one is for my official ideas and the second one is for playing around with ideas, or sometimes one is for the stuff I know is absolute, not-changeable, and the other is more of an evolving canvas.

Even though I still consider myself to be in the pre-writing phase, the next thing I need to do is to get a sense of the shape and heft of the book. Some people determine that as they go along but I find it really helps to get it firm in my mind now. Part of this may be because I write books of such different lengths and complexities, from 20,000 words to 135,000 words, long, complex books with five acts and lots of twists versus short, early books with linear plots, only a few layers, and a handful of twists. It’s like knowing whether you’re going to make a single, layer 8” x 8” cake or a triple layer wedding cake. Knowing that up front helps my brain gather the materials it will need to create something of that magnitude, or conversely, ignore things that are less central to the smaller sized story.

The tool I use for this is a template I’ve adapted from Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT book, which I highly, highly recommend. At this early stage of the process, this is the perfect template for me as it is vague enough that I don’t feel forced to ink in actual scenes and turning points yet, it mostly just reminds me what each section of the book should feel like and encompass. A brainstorming template, if you will. And while it might seem a bit left-brained to bring in at this stage, I have learned that by seeding some soft, left-brained stuff in early, it actually becomes incorporated by my right brain's more creative process.

The template looks something like this:

Setup 1-40

Catalyst 48

Debate 48-100

Break into Two 100

Fun and Games 100-200

Midpoint 200

BadGuys Closing In 200-300

All is Lost 300

Dark Night of Soul 300-340

Break into Three 340

Finale/Climax /Resolution 340-400

Those are the target page numbers I’m using for a 400 page mss, but if you were working on a 50,000 word novel, you’d just cut those numbers in half. Next time I’ll show you how I fill that in and begin massaging it into the material for the book.

And what about you guys? Do you have a pre-writing phase to your process or do you just jump in? If so, what does it include? Do you have a new book you’re starting this year? An old one you’ve vowed to tackle? Care to tell us about it…

Monday, January 17, 2011

New Beginnings...

So in the next couple of weeks I’ll be starting a new book, pretty much from scratch. Even better, I have an entire year to write it.

One of the things that strikes me as I peer into the near future is the utter, nerve-jittering uncertainty of it all. I have started enough books by now that I know I can start—and finish—them, but I also know that no completed manuscript is ever quite as wonderful as the shiny new idea floating around in my head. Once you take a hold of that idea and begin stretching it and shaping it and contouring it into a story—it shifts. It is no longer an idea full of infinite possibilities but begins to become concrete, with finite edges and form. For every story action or character element we choose, we have to release a hundred other possibilities.

Story ideas sometimes remind me of butterfly’s wings in that once you touch them, some of the magic dust comes off and prevents them from flying quite as perfectly as before. That sounds sad, and I don’t mean it to be, but just as in fairy tales, there is a cost for becoming real, for stepping out of the ephemeral into the finite.

With new stories we stand at the edge of an abyss. If we’re lucky, we can look across the gaping chasm and actually see the other side. And we know we have to get to there somehow. Usually by leaping out into the abyss while trying to build the glider we need to make it to the other side while in mid air.

Exhausting. Exhilarating. And oh-so-exciting.