Saturday, June 30, 2012

Reading/Writing meet Yin/Yang

This week, I have been catching up on my reading. It’s funny because I just read a post on Twitter. It was from the topic “what not to say to an agent.” The quote he had overheard was of an aspiring writer who proclaimed they did not read because they wanted to be original. I think most people in the business believe reading and writing go hand in hand. However, I have found—especially in my own experience—many writers are not avid readers. I hate to keep blaming the time factor, but I think that is the main cause.

Let’s examine how I divide my “free time.” Reading: Doing nothing else but reading, it takes me two days (give or take) to finish a book. But, it is the rare day I can devote to only reading. I watch shows, do chores, market my published work, and of course, write my own novels. Therefore, this year I have read a grand total of…wait for it…eight books this year. Compare to my mom, who has read about a book a week since May.

What makes us different? Not our love for books. I envy her ability while hating my to-read pile! No, it’s simpler. Since January, I have finished editing one novel and finished writing another. I am in the planning/research stages of my fifth novel and wanting to re-edit an older piece to pitch. Think about it. It took me about 24 hours to read each of the first three Twilight books, but how long did it take her to write even the first book? I think most writers shy away from reading due to the time factor. When forced to make a choice, we love to write more.

But we can’t settle on not reading, excusing it with striving to be unique. That thought is ludicrous. Why? Books are valuable to writers. It can spark an idea (not rip off an idea!). But, more importantly, it can be a valuable tool to pick up tricks of the trade. How did they describe this or that? How do they deal with dialogue? How do they pace their plot? While reading how-to books on the topics have a place, I think actually observing an author at work is better than any lesson.

I love to read because the writing experience is dramatically different. I know the ending in most cases. Which means that twist in the plot you didn’t see coming…yeah, I not only saw it coming I planned it out. In another author’s work, I don’t have that foresight. I can experience the ride instead of always constructing the path. More importantly, I can define what I love as a reader and place those elements into my own work. What better way to define and explore than through the world of books. If only the day was just a little bit longer!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Searching to avoid the bobble-head

When I first started writing, I began by using a typewriter. I don’t know why, but I have never been a pencil-to-paper sort of writer. One of my writer friends once shared how the scratching of her pencil against paper somehow stimulated her creative process. I would call her weird, but then again I feel the same about my fingers typing across a keyboard. The methodical clicking of the keys, the feel of them against my hand…it somehow oils the wheels turning in my mind.

I finished my fourth novel last week. This week, I spent most of my time going through a first edit. I did this a little different. Typically, I go through the manuscript by myself before giving it to my readers. However, I questioned the logic of a piece of the plot. It wasn’t enough to stop my creative process and finish the book, but it was enough to make me know I needed an outside opinion. Therefore, the first edit and the first read coincided. It pressured me forward to finish the book, but it skipped me going through to make sure the prose sounded okay. That really only effected one chapter, but still showed the value of reading through a piece first.

Anyway, as I was editing, I began thinking about that typewriter. If I made a mistake…even an out of place comma, I would have to retype the entire page. And if entire paragraphs needed to be moved…forget it. I would really weigh how important that change was. Did it warrant the hours spent rearranging and retyping. I think back to writers like Jane Austin and Charles Dickens. How did they deal with edits? More importantly, my computer has this awesome tool called “search.” For example, I discovered the excessive amounts of nodding, shaking of heads and taking deep breaths. I think it was one of those easy things placed in the heat of creativity to break the dialogue but still let me continue with the thought. The result was bobble-head characters with breathing issues. Instead of searching hours upon hours for these instances, I could search them.

Better yet, because I was searching for the same thing in the same setting, I was able to diversify my description. I pushed my prose and challenged myself on how to best strengthen the scene. I feel like I learned a lot through the process. I always feel my greatest growth comes from editing. I have been blessed with people who will tell me when something is lacking…or when my characters are bobble-heads. Then, I set about fixing the problem. I learn so much more about myself as a writer that way. I learn how to avoid the same mistakes in the future. I would recommend self editing to any writer looking to improve….but just not as a last stop. There’s too much I can miss when I know what was supposed to be on the page!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Father...the Cricket

Given my Mother’s Day dedication, I thought it only fitting to continue my praise on Father’s Day. People who have met my dad will probably agree that he is a hard man to describe. I can tell you, however, that he is my inspiration in many aspects of my life. For instance, his strength and dedication helped create the character Nicias in The Curse of Atlantis. My father is the only one I would want to stand by my side if I am in trouble. Advice? There is no one else. Nicias does not follow the crowd. He offers life changing advice and, while tough on the outside, his love is stronger than any challenge. He will fight to the death defending his family. I know, I know, this last piece is not realistic in comparison, but my father has “fought” for me in many other aspects of my life. As a teenager, I felt like the scared, insecure child that defines Pandora. I think the story of a father and daughter came due to the value I place on my own relationship. Many believe mothers should be close to their daughter, but I know it is just as important to have a strong relationship with my father.

Besides inspiring unforgettable characters, my father is my push through life. Geppetto had his conscience in the form of Jiminy Cricket. I have the same, only mine is a little louder and more forceful. This is good. Because for someone stubborn and content writing alone in a room all day, I need a kick into movement sometimes. The first kick was in the 7th grade. I had been writing stories for my mother. I had just written a fifty page story about a killer who murders a prominent family and leaves behind a mystery. We were camping at the time I finished. I distinctly remember walking into the camper and seeing my father at the table reading. I don’t think I have ever seen my father read a book that wasn’t a textbook. English, I know, was not his favorite topic in high school. I, as the English major, had discussions with him about his lack of appreciation for Shakespeare. But, there he was reading my work and taking an interest in it. Why? Because he knew it was something that I loved.

After that point, my cricket was born. “Why don’t you publish?” He pushed me toward a woman writer who was a friend of a friend. He paid for creative writing classes she suggested. He even paid for and accompanied me to San Antonio for a writer’s conference where he talked to magazine editors and established contacts, trying to learn the mysterious business. When my first book was published, he was the first to place it in his office and sell it to clients. We even had a back and forth about who sold more books. I must admit that he is a far better salesman than I am. He helped set up newspaper interviews and even a TV appearance in Bisbee.

I don’t know if I would have seriously pushed for publication without him. I know I wouldn’t currently be pursuing the business without him. This is a cutthroat world. People come around proposing they know the best way to success. Others contradict everything someone else says. And, at least once a month, I hear or read from some author about how unlikely it is to be successful enough to make a living at the profession. I listen to this and marvel. I don’t know how other writers become NY Times bestsellers. I have to wonder if they have their own Jiminy Cricket kicking at their ear, telling them not to listen, to buck the system and force your way in if necessary. He looks out for me. Makes sure I don’t even consider giving up. People congratulate me on the things I have accomplished. I have come to accept their praise, but know, deep down, I would be nothing without the support of my family. Blood is truly thicker than water and I am lucky to have such an amazing support system behind me. I can only hope they will help me drive into dreams deemed unrealistic.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

I want to FEEL it!

“I felt like I was there.” Most writers want their readers to say this. They want the description to be so crisp and clear it transports the reader into the world. They want to participate in the adventure. I just finished reading Morrell’s Lesson from a Lifetime of Writing. In it, he brings up an interesting point about description. Sight is the weakest of all the senses. After thinking about this for a while, I would have to agree. Looking at a friend’s vacation pictures does not make me feel as if I traveled to those places. At best, they bring a smile to my face, making me wish I had gone. It is the feel of the air on my skin and the scents in the air that let me experience a place.

I have to be careful with this. Looking at my writing, most of my descriptions are sight based. I think this is because I see a movie playing in my head when I write. Having the movie creates other issues I won’t discuss here, but it ultimately creates a sight-rich prose. Therefore, I needed to become mentally aware of my other senses. The more senses I encounter, the more I feel connected to the piece, which is fun. Another reward to the change is that, in an attempt to strengthen my descriptions, I have been sensing my surroundings more. What do I hear? What do I feel? What do I taste? How would I describe that? I find myself enjoying life a little more through the process of strengthening my own work.

I do think there is a limit to description. Any avid reader has encountered a book that drones on and on. I read a book for my BA where the author spent two pages describing a bird that had absolutely nothing to do with the plot. In fact, she spent so much time describing, the plot didn’t begin for one hundred pages. Now, this is a published book and I know many people who appreciate the beauty of the language. Yet, I suspect most readers would join me in skimming the paragraphs of prose until the action develops again.

A quote by James Patterson has bombarded many conferences (and books) recently. “Leave out the parts that the readers tend to skip.” I was confused by this saying at first, although it wasn’t the first time the writing industry latched onto a slogan that seemed to contradict their foundation. Over the last few months, I have come to make sense of the trend. Paragraphs of description do nothing to bring readers into the story. Either the information will overwhelm them to the point of not really “seeing” what’s going on or they will just skip it altogether. Yet, leaving out description does nothing to solve the problem. A good compromise is to scatter description throughout the scene. Let the character experience the detail and the reader will as well. As with anything else in life, it’s all about the balance: balance the senses, balance the quantity. But figuring out how it all works is what makes writing fun.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

What Inspires You?

One of the top questions I am always asked is “where do the ideas come from?” Another version of this might be, “What inspires you?” It is a question I’ve found plagues writers. Most of us simply shrug. JK Rowling had the idea for Harry Potter while riding a train. In an interview I saw, she said she was sitting there and just saw him walking down the aisle. It was as simple as that. No fuss, no comment, nothing; just saw him walking there and a multimillion-dollar idea was born.

That is part of the thrill of being a writer. I never know where an idea would strike. The Curse of Atlantis came about because a world history teacher in high school predicted we would discover Atlantis in the next seven years. The story started as the discovery on Earth with a portal to another world. That soon became complicated, and too much like a previous story I had written, so I ditched the whole Earth encounter altogether. The Lord of Nightmares was much more subtle. I had a pet rabbit. We had already called him Bunnicula because his eyes glowed red when I was searching for him one night in the backyard. I was out feeding him, looked up at the moon, and envisioned how creepy it would be if the whole thing turned red. The story I’m currently writing came with just a random thought. What if a family could manipulate fate, but when they do bad things happen? I sat on that thought for about a month before the plot finally unfolded to something interesting.

So far, it has never failed. The moment I am finishing one story, and idea sparks for another. This lack of control on ideas also makes them a little scary. What if they don’t come anymore? What if the ideas run out and I’m left…gasp…normal? I used to worry about this when I was growing up. While I still wonder if the ideas will ever grow stale or stop coming altogether, it is no longer a fear. I rest on faith that this process is a part of me. My mind will always twist the real into something more interesting. What if…?

I can only say two things for certain. Thunderstorms and showers always help accelerate the flow of ideas. The moment dark clouds start to build, I feel a twitch in my stomach. My fingers almost crave to feel the plastic keys of my computer. When the sweet smell of rain mixes with the clap of thunder…look out because I will be searching for a place to sit and write. While this one seems unique to me…although I would love to see if other writers feel the same, another spark comes from showers. Don’t ask me why. I used to not talk about it except with family. The idea sounds completely weird. But then, I was listening to a radio station interview a member of the band The Script. He even talked about ideas coming in the shower. My chiropractor claims it’s the electrical charge of the water hitting our head. I just shrug and say whatever works!

“I live to tell a tale,” that’s what I wrote for my senior quote in high school. Couldn’t be more true and I look forward to the sudden impact of new ideas, wherever they might come from.