Process #6 – Learning

The sad reality of blogging is that the deeper I get into a book, the less I focus on blogging. My brain’s constantly absorbed with the new characters, leaving fewer neurons for interesting topics of discussion. My bad.

For a week or so now, I’ve been thinking about learning. And actually learning, which is a good thing. I used to work in Human Resources and for a while I wrote job descriptions. It was an incredibly tedious, repetitive job, but I learned something valuable from the work. The system we used to evaluate jobs used several factors to come up with a number (utter insanity) that ranked the job against other jobs in the organization, supposedly to guarantee salary parity. (I’m Canadian. I like parity. And hockey. Yeah Canada!) Anyway, one of the factors was called “Know-How”. It was comprised of education and skills necessary for the job, and a subset of Know-How was Problem Solving. This was, like, 15 years ago, so I can’t remember what went into problem solving, if that section detailed the kinds of problems to be solved, or the techniques necessary to solve problems. I do remember eating enormous smiley face-frosted sugar cookies every day to cope with this completely insane job, and having to wear pantyhose. The way my manager summed this up was that Problem Solving was a subset of Know How because you can’t solve problems in a job if you don’t have the basic knowledge necessary to do the job.

In other words, you can’t think with what you don’t know. Think about it. It’s true.

One of the problems I faced in the new book is that if I wanted to keep growing as a writer, I needed to tackle something different. I decided I wanted to maintain the character development and emotional depth in my books but increase the complexity of the plots. I like to learn (aka procrastinate) so I’m usually taking a class or reading a book on some element of the craft of writing – storyboarding, character arc, plot structures, turning points, plot points. Some people decide to learn something, read up on it, and bang, they’re smarter. Not me. I’m not an organized learner. My methodology, refined over twenty-five years of education, is to cram stuff into my brain and let it all compost in there. Eventually something usable comes out. I’m unable to predict when or where this will happen, but it does make for interesting conversations at dinner parties and the like.

Usually something acts as a catalyst to turn all the food rinds and newspapers and coffee grounds into compost. In this case it was a conversation with Kristin Gabriel, a Harlequin and Guideposts author, about how she comes up with turning points and plot points. With one simple sentence Kris tossed off so casually (she’s an expert plotter), she turned all the inputted garbage turned into compost gold. She said she gets her turning and plot points from the characters’ goals and motivations. Add that sentence to several months of pondering new characters, themes, possible situations, story boards, etc etc etc and BOOM. Head explosion.

This is not news to anyone who’s been in this business for more than one book. It’s stunningly, painfully obvious, and at some level, I knew this. As I’ve said before, my first technique for developing a new book is to find a character who appeals to me, then figure out the worst thing I can do to him. This means, for example, giving a newly divorced woman a younger man who doesn’t fit anywhere in her life, or giving a writer the man her muse wants her to have…then taking him away – the plot for my most recently sold Spice Brief, CHOOSING LUKE. I start with a character and mess up his or her (but usually her) life.  It’s impossible to tell decent stories without knowing that you have to take a reader on a journey through ups and down, and the ups and downs have to make sense to give a good emotional ride. But I didn’t know it at a conscious level, which is the level where a craftsperson can consciously choose to manipulate a technique to her advantage. I do now.

The last component to the dreaded job descriptions was Accountability. This basically covered the daily tasks and expectations in the job, from delivering mail to delivering the business unit results expected by the shareholders. Having the knowledge, the education and experience, doesn’t guarantee a good book, much less one a publisher might buy. A million things could still go wrong. But I do love to learn…which made last week a killer fantastic week.

15 comments on “Process #6 – Learning

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