Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The More Things Change, the More They Change Some More

I've been working my way through James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure book. I'm one of those that needs a little instruction to feel confident. So far, it seems I'm on the right track and it's forced me to sit down and ask some questions that have pulled key elements of my story out of my head. I've always known this needed to be done, but wasn't sure what questions to ask or how to go about putting the pieces together in a way that it's engaging.

An aside: when I added the book to my Goodreads account, I couldn't help but notice the first review of it was a rather dismissive one from a guy who at the time was an aspiring author (wonder if he ever got published). He scoffed, saying he believed writing comes from the imagination, not from this formulaic process of wringing ideas out of your brain and then applying a paint-by-numbers approach to making that idea a story. He sited Tom Robbins, one of his favorite authors (and mine too, the one who wrote the crazy book I blurbed last week) as saying he didn't outline. I would buy that. Totally! But, I can't possibly assume to be such a master wordsmith as Tom Robbins, with his witty and off-the-wall metaphorical prose, on my first venture out the door and this guy shouldn't either (unless he wants that door slammed in his face... repeatedly). Tom Robbins' style is something that works for Tom Robbins. It's not going to work for everyone. Not without a lot of practice. And Bell says repeatedly in his book that throwing the formula out the window is totally acceptable, but only after you understand the formula enough to recognize what exactly you're throwing and why and can defend it. Also, he says, you've got to have the talent to back it up. This guy might be the next Tom Robbins, who knows. But if he lacks rich characters, an engaging plot and an interesting setting, well he's going to have to make up for it with his writing, BIG TIME!

This sort of mentality is what bugs me the most about being a creative person and interacting with other creative people. It doesn't seem to matter what industry I'm working in, there's always this art vs craft debate going on and there is never a resolution. I just don't see why the two can't reside together, inside the same person even. I don't see why it's unacceptable to work with both simultaneously. But whatever, good on him for being such a unique and special snowflake. The rest of us are going to go take our original and creative ideas and pound them into something useful.

*steps off soapbox*

That was not at all what I wanted to post about, but it's been bugging me for over a day now and it needed to be out of me.

So what changes? Everything. If you're just joining me, I've recently suffered a catastrophic hard drive failure & am in the process of shipping it off to see if we can salvage my files. As in everything I've ever written. D'oh. So I'm flying blind right now, working on my outline without my old notes or various documents to which I can refer. Mostly it's been liberating because I can break out of that thought that I've put work into something and need to try to salvage it. Sometimes it's incredibly frustrating because I can't remember what I named my main evil dude. Also, when my head bounces around in the story, I just have to make a note in the margin instead of being able to jump to that spot in my outline and add it real quick, then jump back and continue on.

But things are changing in huge sweeping ways and I think it's all for the better. I'm even thinking of a pov change to help drive home a point that is going to be the subject of a twist in the story later. I thought I was beyond thus point in development, but I'm glad I'm doing it. My story is going to be so much richer for it. I see layers developing and themes being born. It's all very exciting. If my pen would just keep up with my head...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Off-the-cuff blurb. Can you guess the book?

It's Road Trip Wednesday again over at YA Highway & this week's prompt is:
You're re-reading one of your favs when someone asks the dreaded question: "What's that book about?" Give us your best off-the-cuff blurb of any book, any genre, and have your readers try to guess the title in the comments!
It's about this modern day European princess, whose family is displaced to Seattle. She emerges from her solitude only to go to Hawaii to see her hero Ralph Nader but instead meets an outlaw bomber & they do crazy things together. He's eventually caught back in Seattle for previous misdeeds and they're separated. She's then betrothed to an Algerian prince in an attempt to save her family's legacy (which her father gambles away). It all comes to a head when her beloved outlaw boy tries to free her from her obligation leading them to have to escape a pyramid using explosives that leave them both deaf.

So, can you guess it in the comments?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Before it's suddenly Road Trip Wednesday again...

I should check in, I suppose. I wanted to thank those who gave feedback on my last post about how I obsessively outline. I also wanted to add that I had been in the habit of not allowing myself to add new stuff to the outline until I worked through a chapter in the draft (my meager effort at pushing myself out of the nest). I'm not sure that I'm over-preparing necessarily, since I don't even really have a plot nailed down yet. And one last note on the subject before it becomes a string of excuses (if it hasn't already), I suppose saying I've been working for two years isn't accurate. It has been that long since I started, but I do a lot more than just write and I go through long spans of time when I don't even open my documents, let alone work in them in favor of other projects. I've got a spreadsheet with word counts and dates that would tell me exactly how much time I've spent on it. Unfortunately, that is all on the harddrive that died on me last week.

Yes, a day after that last post, my Linux partition where I keep absolutely anything and everything developed disk errors and no longer shows up, even in repair mode. It will not boot up, period. It's like it's not even there. The worst part is, I am an idiot and did not have backups in place. I'm sending it off to a data recovery service to see if I can get my files from that partition. They seem confident, but can't tell me for sure until they take a look at it.

That means I'm back to outline land, in a notebook, with a pen.

But it's not all bad. Facing the very real possibility that I might have to start over has made me look at my story with fresh eyes. There were a lot of things, particularly about the beginning, that were not working for one reason or another. I contemplated scrapping the first six chapters or so. Last night, I outlined the first three chapters using only the elements I thought deserved rescue from my original. The plot is coming together and I feel there is coherent direction this time, rather than just a bunch of scenes.

Another thing I realized, even before the harddrive fail, was that the early encounters between my main two protagonists were throwing the story into paranormal romance territory and that is a place I'd rather avoid at this time. So, I've given them a greater need to come together than just romantic entanglement. Something that drives the plot forward, which was not happening before. I'm very happy with the progress I've made and also very happy that I didn't waste time drafting those useless chapters.

This is why I outline. But there does need to be some balance and I have languished in outline land perhaps too long. My problem before was that I was just jotting down scenes as they came to me, which is fine. But in between that work, I need to be pushing the story along. So, my outline was turning into an unformatted draft instead of a true outline. Last night I put two chapters on the front and back of a single page of a journal sized notebook. My old outline may have taken 4 single-spaced, typed pages for that much story. My map was becoming too much of a detailed guidebook.

So, I've found my silver lining and am enjoying the fresh perspective and a truncated approach to outlining.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Best Laid Plans Are Not Enough.

If nothing else, this blog will contain a bunch of Road Trip Wednesday responses. No really, I have some other stuff to post, but this will have to do for now...

Today's YA Highway Road Trip Wednesday question is:
"Do you like to make a detailed plan before you start a project? Or do you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants and make it up as you go along?"

I'm an outliner and a list-maker. I spend a million times* more effort, energy and time into planning than I actually do executing a plan. In fact, if I would balance out my planning efforts with my execution efforts (of the doing stuff variety, not the murderous kind), I'd probably be the world's most productive person**.

I do this in all the various aspects of life. I download complex list-making applications for my phone and computer. I keep an unreasonable collection of notebooks for making lists and notes to cover every aspect of my life. I make lists of lists, for godsake! I am two years into writing my novel(s) and I have barely ventured out of my outline in order to begin the draft (I have two chapters of potentially three books drafted, that is all). Granted my outline reads like a draft, but it's organized, similarly to a list, and I can move things around and make adjustments very easily. I'm a little bit scared of working in my draft, actually, because I don't have that structural safety net.

So, my take on it: planning is essential for me. I can not venture out without a map and a clear idea of where I'm headed and how I'm going to get there. When writing, my outline is my map. But, I have a very hard time leaving the security of that plan, where I know everything that is going to happen, to traverse the path where things that I encounter along the way may bring unwanted changes and challenges. As any good adventure story has taught us, you never know what you might encounter along your journey. But almost always, the struggles to overcome the obstacles and challenges along your way make your story richer and make you a stronger person (or a stronger writer) in the end.

I just need to learn to shove myself out of the nest and fly.

*numerical values may be are definitely exaggerated
**hyperbole is the greatest thing ever

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

FOR SCIENCE! Or novel research... whichever.

Today's Road Trip Wednesday question on YA Highway is:
"What is the strangest/weirdest thing you've ever researched?"

It's been a long time since I was in a research phase of my novel(s). I did it long enough to sort of get an idea of where I was headed and to build up a lot of bookmarks on Delicious, and then I set to writing, promising myself I'd return to refine details later.

I researched setting to decide where I wanted to place my story. I researched name origins, making sure that characters had regionally and historically appropriate and meaningful names.  But all that stuff is pretty commonplace and I'd assume even the laziest of authors have probably done at least that much for their stories. But there were some moments I remember thinking, "if someone took a snapshot of my open browser tabs right now, they'd probably think I was crazy or deranged."

The most notable topic that comes to mind is the research I began on Druidism. I was looking for any rituals that could be construed to be human or animal sacrifice. I was looking for anything, from the offering of blood to cannibalism to consumption of raw animal meat that I could bend to the mythology I was creating in order to give it something in reality with which to be grounded.  This is what happens when you write about Druid vampires.

But I suppose even that isn't too far of a stretch. I think what really made me sit back and giggle at my craziness was the shear breadth of topics I had in a multitude of simultaneous browser tabs. Ship records from the 1680s, the Wikipedia page on the Edict of Fontainebleau, a list of Celtic kings from the fourth century, Google maps satellite images of the highways around Denver to see if they had center dividers or medians, a list of French words with meanings that could be construed as macabre, a list of Catholic saints and their patronages looking for one relating to exorcism (it's Saint Francis Borgia, in case you wanted to know and his attribute is a skull with a crown, which serves my purpose perfectly), the list goes on and on.

Seriously, online research can get so manic in the way you can impulsively jump from one topic to the next with the ease of simply opening a new tab and spitting out a phrase into a search field. At some point, you just have to sit back and laugh at yourself with how far down the rabbit hole you've fallen as the information before you gets so unmanageable and more than you could possibly process in the time it had taken you to reach it all. I'm only just starting to expand my research past online sources and I could imagine myself hunched over stacks of dusty library books and printed off pages from reference journals. At some point, I'd stand to get a cup of coffee to come back and see the scene with fresh eyes, realizing I've duplicated the insanity of my online searches in print media.

But I get that way. Nothing fuels me more than a quest for information. And if standing behind that natural inquisitiveness is a strong desire to get what I need out of the research so I can get back to constructing my story, my will is like a runaway freight train. Nothing can deter me and it's likely I won't eat or sleep or go to the bathroom until I'm satisfied with what I've found.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Life Through a Writer-eye Lens.

I am thoroughly, THOROUGHLY enjoying David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames. I can not believe it's taken me three years to finally pick up this book.  It reminds me of the sorts of things I might write if I had the talent. His descriptions and off-the-wall metaphors remind me of Tom Robbins, but they're applied to his real life observations rather than a fictional story.  It's not that he's lived a significantly interesting life, but his ability to turn even the most mundane of experiences into a vignette of humanity and to paint the characters in his life as though they're actors on a stage is a true talent.  I'm sure it's a talent he's worked at for many years, but he's good at what he does and it's very refreshing to read a writer who is really good at what he does.

I'm not saying all those YA authors that I've been reading lately are garbage.  But their flaws are often plain to see and hard to ignore.  With his sort of writing, I get wrapped up.  I'm not reading with my editor hat on. I'm reading like a reader, fully engrossed in what the writer is feeding me.  Maybe I just have a preference for non-fiction. That's not entirely true, because there are definitely fiction writers that engross me just as well.  Maybe it's inherent of the YA age group, though there are also exceptions to that rule that I could name.  Maybe it's just good writers versus great writers.  Additionally, I'm inclined to think the difference may be those who go over their work one more time after they think it's finally finished and those who say, "good enough" and rush it off to press. 

I'm sure talent plays a role, though.  Some people are born with an eye for design, though certainly design principles can be taught.  But if pitted against each other, a designer who is taught versus one who is born with a penchant for it, the latter would likely have the upper hand, if all else was equal.  I'm sure the same is true of a writer or any other profession for that matter.  Writing follows some of the same patterns as designing. As someone who knows a little about both, I can see the correlations.  As one would say you have an eye for design, one might also say you have an eye for writing.  It takes a certain type of vision to see the world in such a way to make ordinary tasks seem riveting.  Okay, maybe not always riveting, but to make something like hemming a pair of pants seem comical or ironic or depressing or... anything other than just hemming a pair of pants.  You have to be able to look at something as it's happening and turn your head at a forty-five degree angle and see what's going on behind it.

I've caught myself doing this lately.  I can get completely lost in an infinite loop of "what ifs" in a room full of strangers.  On a completely booked flight, I think about every person on that plane as little galaxies in a greater universe.  Each head contains its own running story and for a brief time, their stories intertwined with mine and mine with theirs.  Even if we only play extras in the background, we provided each other with a richer experience than if the plane had been empty.

In a cocktail bar with a speakeasy theme, I wonder if I'm the only one in the room who notices how the bartenders appear as sculptors, hunched over their work with such care and deliberation, it's a shame their masterpieces are so rapidly consumed.  From there I wonder what's so important to every other head in the room that they can't sit back and marvel at the spectacle before them.  Then I wonder if I'm just being dramatic and am certain I'm being neglectful of my company.  I wonder if somehow during my periods of reverie to observe life around me, I'm missing out on experiencing my own life.  And then I snap to, but I never know what to say to truly bring myself into the moment and out of the realm of the silent observer.  Note to people I hang out with: keep me distracted.

And it is like hopping realms for a moment.  It's looking behind the curtain, peeling back the layers of all that's put before us which we're supposed to take for face value and finding a reason behind it all.  A passing stranger accidentally meets your eye and flashes a friendly smile rather than a scowl; that's never just an incident.  There's always a reason behind it.  Maybe his grandmother always insisted he be friendly, even to strangers on the street.  Maybe he received a piece of good news recently and can't help but spread his infectious joy. Maybe he's on his way to a place or person he really loves and nothing will deter his good mood.  Maybe his favorite candy bar is in his backpack.  Maybe you don't realize that it's actually your friendly expression to which he's reacting.

I like to guess at the whys behind every seemingly insignificant act.  I'm hoping this little psychological and sociological hobby of mine infuses my writing with believable characters and realistic social interactions.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I suck at juggling.

In November of 2009, a story struck me.  It started as a scene in my head and I had to get it out.  As I typed out that scene, context for the scene emerged and I just kept typing.  Typing begat more typing; story begat more story until suddenly I realized: I'm a writer.

A writer friend of mine has compared the writing process for her as being like a detective or an archaeologist, constantly uncovering more pieces to a greater puzzle.  I share her imagery as I've begun this process of telling a story which feels as though it is not even mine at times.  I'm uncovering pieces and characters and places.  It's as if the ghosts of my characters are lingering on the fringe, huddled over my shoulder, whispering in my ear, "here's another piece for you, my gift, so long as you tell my story properly."

But it hasn't even stopped at that story (that story being my first novel, which seems to have actually turned into a short series since it's beginning).  More stories are coming to me, begging to be told.  I'm inspired by the lyrics of songs or the silly ramblings of my four-year-old son.  A single line can bloom into a vivid picture in my head of a modern fairy tale.  So now, in fact, I have a backlog of stories all vying for my attention and yet I still have trouble convincing myself I'm more than a hobbyist.

That's the other catch: hobbies.  I haven't written in months.  It's not a matter of block or anything, though I do feel a slight stall when I sit down to write these days.  The truth of the matter on that front is that I'm beyond the bits and pieces that come serendipitously and down to the nitty gritty that I'm going to have to muscle out.  I've got to build a world now around these pieces of scenes and characters.  I've got to give it meaning and direction and purpose.  But I've consciously set it all aside in favor of other hobbies.

It is spring in Nashville, TN where I make my home and my gardens beckon.  My husband and I are fierce do-it-yourself-ers and we've kept ourselves busy for every weekend since the groundhog didn't see his shadow.  I'm also an avid costumer and I have an event later in the year for which I'd love to complete a couple of outfits.  Finally, on the far back burner is my languishing jewelry business which has been sadly neglected since I picked up the writing.  Throw all of that on top of a foundation as a stay-at-home mom and I'm looking at a lot of balls to juggle.

I fail at juggling mostly, so things tend to leap frog, as it were.  My house might stay spotless and my child well attended for a stretch of time while I never set foot in my office to sew or write or make jewelry.  I might keep up with my online presence and my project du jour while my house falls into ruin and my husband paws through a load of unfolded laundry in the morning.

It's all about balance and it's a constant struggle, particularly when inspiration strikes and demands my attention toward something that I had not included in my schedule.  I can't ignore inspiration.  It's what's given me my story and so many other things in life.  I just have to keep going and do the best I can.  I'm determined to make it all work. 

So, here I am, with another blog and another identity and another facet of myself coming out into the world to be recognized.  I'm M.L. Hamilton.  I'm a writer.  This is the beginning of that journey.