Process #5 – Ubiquity

When I was a brand new mother I read somewhere that new moms talk about sleep like starving people talk about food. I might be able to remember where I’d read that little gem if I wasn’t so sleep deprived the first four years of my son’s life. He didn’t sleep through the night until he was four years old. My friends with equally sleepless children tried to reassure meĀ  with the obvious – that he would eventually sleep, or he would leave the house, and the far-reaching – that kids who didn’t sleep well were smarter than other kids because they were so curious and restless, there were days when I would have done almost anything…anything at all…to get eight hours of sleep.

I’ve discovered that writers talk about process like new moms talk about sleep. I spent an hour on Skype with my best friend, who is a professor and a poet and children’s book author, and we talked about process for at least 50 minutes of that time. When we write best. What helps us write, and what hinders creativity. Husbands wandering around looking for glasses or phone or keys or files are not helpful. Neither are small children who wander in. This snippet of dialogue documents the appearance of a five-year-old in my doorway:

Him: “Mommy?”

Me: “Yes, baby?”

Him: Silence.

Me (more impatient): “What is it?”

Him: “I forgot.”

Yes. As did I, and now that perfect piece of prose is gone, gone, gonebabygone, forever. I’ll have to start locking the door when his reading gets fluent. I have a big monitor I use rather than my laptop monitor, and I keep my font settings at 150%, so many of the words I write (but do not speak aloud) are in gigantic text on the screen. I do not want my son sounding out slang for the male anatomy, or for the female anatomy, for that matter. He’s familiar with fuck already. We’ve decided it’s a bad word and Mommy must stop using it and he may never use it, not even in the song that goes truck-truck-bo-buck-banana-fana-fo…you get the idea.

Where was I? Process, and how ubiquitous it is when writers, likely any kind of artists, gather. The struggle to get what you see inside out of you, into your chosen medium, is a complex, changeable thing. I’ve written from 2-5 a.m. but that was a bad period, one I don’t hope to relive. I think I naturally write more easily in the afternoons, but I have mornings free now, so that’s the time. I write and edit differently. One’s a typing process, the other is a handwriting process. And I love to hear how other people work. Artists are superstitious people. If writing after praying to the muse works for one person, golly, it might work for me! Just like that lavender bath might entice your infant to sleep through the night!

Or maybe not. Maybe each book and writer are as unique as each new mother and child. Maybe we just have to find our way through, recreating ourselves with each successive book or painting or comic strip or dance. Maybe it’s the process that matters, not the end result, and if we miss the process, we’ve missed the joy in it all.

Something to consider. In the meantime, I’m off to take a nap.

Oh, Happy Day!

I arrived home from lunch with my hero at the same time the UPS delivery guy pulled up, and oh, happy, happy, happy day! My author copies of Liberating Lacey have arrived!

It’s very strange, a bit like the world’s a little off kilter, to hold my own book in my two hands. I’ve read this book on my computer hundreds of times. Reading it again like I would read someone else’s book, sitting in a chair with a cup of tea and a biscotti…that’s going to be special.

Process #4 – Enough?

As a writer, how do I know when enough is enough?

It’s a big question, covering territory from “enough for today” to “enough prework” to “enough mucking around with that sentence/scene/chapter/book”. It’s a tough question, too. Perfectionists among us always want one more pass, one more read-through. Others, those working under deadlines perhaps, say, “Good enough” and move on. Sometimes time constraints limits me, sometimes physical issues limit me. But whatever the stage, there is always a point of diminishing returns. I just hit it for today, and while I can try to fool myself into thinking, “I can do some research, or twiddle that storyboard a bit more,” all I’m going to do is rearrange territory and let time slip away from me.

Robin Rotham loaned me three Laura Kinsale books from the early 90s. They are 500 pages each, full of lush, rich detail and enough angst for anyway, including me. It’s time for tea and chocolate and reading.

Enough.

Blogging on Writing…Paula Graves

I’m not the only author who blogs about writing…and I’m certainly not the most talented, or the most eloquent, either. Paula Graves, a Harlequin Intrigue author, is running a series of posts called Wednesday Writer’s Workshop. Her first post is about the three act structure, aka “the formula”. Genre fiction critics like to deride the “formulaic” nature of romance or mystery or even sci fi books. The truth is that the formula comprises the basic structure for movies, plays, and yes, genre fiction, has been around for a couple thousand years. Paula’s first post is succinct and well-written, as you’d expect from someone who’s broken into one of the most competitive houses around – yes, that’s Harlequin Enterprises (rumor has it they get around 40K unsolicited manuscripts a year…and that doesn’t include rejected proposals from current authors).

Plus, her blog name just rocks. Spinstersandlunatics.blogspot.com? Come on…brilliant!

Stop by and check it out. Writers love to talk about writing. Some of us do it better than others – well done, Paula! – and it’s well worth the read.

Process – #3 Emotional Arc

I just…and I mean just…as in 38 seconds ago…sent revisions for a particular project to my editor. It wasn’t a long story, or a complicated one, but working on it reinforced two things for me.

The first is that it’s absolutely, utterly, completely vital that I understand the main character’s emotional arc before I get too deep into the story. Romance usually has two main characters, the hero and heroine, but in my case the story really belongs to one or the other. In Liberating Lacey, it was Hunter’s emotional arc that drove the story, Lacey’s less so. In my first person POV stories with Spice Briefs, the heroine’s emotional arc drives the story. We may see change or growth in the hero (okay, not really – they’re pretty kick-ass to start with) but it won’t match the heroine’s. I’ve written these shorter stories without a good grasp of how essential the emotional arc is to the writing process…and paid for it in revisions. This time I got it. I wouldn’t have had to rework the story if I’d thought that through before I wrote 14,400 words.

I define emotional arc as “from x to y”. As in “from wounded soldier to healed lover” or “from fearful victim to strong survivor”. It’s how your character grows as the story progresses, and you can’t tell a good romance story without it. Romance is driven by character growth. We want to see how accepting love has changed the characters. Hence the need for an arc.

The other thing I learned is that there is a moment, a tangible, memorable moment when I know I’ve internalize the main character’s arc and the story runs on its own. This moment often comes after 95% of the work I’ll put into a project and lasts anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of hours. This is not much of a reward for weeks or months of work, but it stays in my gut and motivates me to start something else.

Which is what I’m going to do right now. The novel I mentioned a few posts ago? It’s time. The kid’s back in school, no more travel for a few weeks, unbroken days of silence in which to work. It’s time and I’m ready. Let’s do it!

Good Stuff

Just spent 5 days in Florida with some fam. The weather was awesome, temps in the mid 70s, sun and clouds and just the right amount of humidity. It took me three flights to get to my final destination, but I come prepared for trips like that. I bought books, the old fashioned kind, for long flights and longer layovers.

I’ve been very blessed to meet artists from a variety of fields, including a woman named Jen who used to dance with Robert Battle’s Battleworks Company in NYC. Jen recommended my most favorite book on the artist’s life, The War of Art. She also recommended Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, which didn’t read for five years but purchased for the trip, and devoured. Absolutely devoured. Tharp’s a dancer/choreographer but really, creating art is creating art, regardless of the format. Her first god is discipline. Her second is her process. I’m working through the book again and will post snippets as I work her ideas into my own process.

Let’s see. Working on (and learning from) some revisions. I’ve said elsewhere that if you approach them in the right frame of mind (ie: sensibly, not author-zilla), revisions can teach you quite a bit. One thing I learned from this round is to read through my editor’s suggestions first, identify the suggestion most likely to affect the story’s core, and start there. I’d gone through and done the piddly little stuff (you used “dirty” four times in three sentences…please revise) then got to a big thing (Can you expand this scene, please?). In the process of writing the expanded scene I’ve discovered a completely different motivation for the main character, which will require a second round of revisions to the rest of the story. Sigh. Live and learn. I really should make a revisions check list.

Right now I really should get back to work on the revisions.

Holidays

Yeah, so, we had a bunch of snow, then a major holiday, and now a cold snap. I’ve got my kiddo at home with me for the next week. Writing some, but mostly thinking about what I accomplished last year, and what I want to accomplish next year. Getting motivated, getting caught up on some reading (if you like mysteries try Julia Spencer-Fleming whose awesomeness I currently worship), working through a stack of magazines, drinking lots of chai lattes, thinking about the next book. I’ve wanted to write this book for a little less than a year. The timing wasn’t right for a while, and I wasn’t ready to write it for a while, but now it’s game on. Bring it baby, bring it.

In a week, of course. Not now, when I’m up to my eyeballs in Legos and Keva Planks. Thanks.

Process #2 – Word Count

The reality of writing is that some days I get 5 pages in an hour. Other days it takes all day. Today was one of those days. I ended up with 2400 words only because I switched from the scene I should have been working on to the one jumping around in my brain. In rough draft work, that’s usually a sign I’m not well-connected to the emotions in a scene. I have tools for dealing with that, which I’ll discuss in a later post. Right now it’s time to go look at Christmas lights with the fam.

Process #1 – Format

You’d think writing was just writing, that the tools wouldn’t matter. Words on the page are…words on the page, right? Handwritten on a legal pad, typed into a computer or AlphaSmart or whatever…just write, right?

That’s true…to a certain extent. I’ve found in three years of pretty steady writing that different phases in my process require different tools. For example, when I’m storyboarding or brainstorming plot points, I use the 4’x8′ whiteboard in my office (it’s actually a piece of the water resistant paneling you’d put up in a shower, but it’s coated with the same stuff as a whiteboard and cost $13 compared to about $200). I need big spaces to brainstorm. Lots of storyboarding classes talk about either post-it notes or index cards…great idea…doesn’t work for me. Getting an idea on a post-it note gives me the shudders – TOO SMALL! My brain shuts down and I end up mainlining chocolate.

When it comes to the “5 pages a day or else” work, I draft and edit best in the format Ellora’s Cave requires for all their submissions. It’s a single-spaced .rtf format and I am just happier working in that format rather than the traditional double-spaced, 25 lines per page, Courier or Times New Roman 12 pt formatting. I suspect this also has something to do with space…I can see more of the story on one page if I use the single-spaced format, and it’s no big deal to cut and paste into a traditional double-spaced document if I’m submitting elsewhere. I can’t find the link on Megan Hart’s website anymore, but I think I remember (how’s that for confident?) that she drafts in a 14 pt font, and revises on paper in a single spaced format. Or maybe not…don’t quote me on that. I also do my most thorough revisions on paper, so if I’m stuck, or smoothing out the bumps in the 15th or 20th draft, I print out the scene in question and work on it away from the computer. This also tricks my brain into thinking it’s working on something new and has the added benefit of stopping me from tweaking a word or punctuation.

There’s no right way to do this. Some people handwrite on legal pads. Others write when and where they can – AlphaSmart, laptop, scraps of paper while waiting in line or on the treadmill and pull it all together in a couple of marathon sessions each week. Stephanie Bond talks about writing in her car on her lunch break when she was a programmer. Laptop or typewriter, paper or all-electronic, just find a format that works for you!

Mining Real Life for Fiction

One of the things I love about being a writer is how you can completely manufacture people, situations, experience and a world, and how you can use your own life experiences to strengthen the veracity of that world. I think of how the characters in Battlestar Galactica played Triangle – a completely manufactured game (I think) – but yet that physical, athletic ability gave Starbuck and Anders another dimension. Lee wouldn’t have played Triangle. Helo would have…but not cared as much about the game’s outcome as Starbuck. I’m guessing someone in the BSG development team played something – soccer, basketball, whatever – and used that experience to deepen the BSG world. As I’ve mentioned before, in LIBERATING LACEY Hunter plays Ultimate Frisbee because I played it once about 10 years ago. I’d never heard of it before joining a pick up game after work one day, and I’ve never played it since (I’m a sofa/book/cup of tea kind of girl). But it was there, in my subconscious, and Hunter played. Who knew?

Plucking events or details from your own life to enrich your stories isn’t limited to games. We got a Christmas card this year from one of my husband’s colleagues. It was a photo card, very nice, with one photo of the new baby and another, larger family shot. I flipped it over to see where it was made: simplytoimpress.com.

Not Shutterfly. Not Wal-Greens or Target. Simplytoimpress.com.

As a writer, that’s the kind of detail I adore. I guarantee that one day I’ll use something similar to tell you everything you, the reader, need to know about a character. A person who chooses simplytoimpress.com for their photo cards is a person with a very specific agenda on how to present him/herself to the world – an agenda not met by shutterfly.com. And I could use a ton of verbiage about being a Homecoming Queen married to the hottest neurosurgeon in the region. I could talk about designer labels on clothes, or the handmade lace christening dress, or hundred-dollar-a-place-setting wedding china with the gold edge and the rose in the center of the plate, or the Acura minivan.

Or I could have the heroine get an invitation, turn it over, see the website address, snort, and go on with her life. She’ll go to the party and meet the hostess and before I’ve said one word about her the reader will have an impression of who the hostess is and how she views life. There’s no judgment implied in any of this. It’s just a detail, one of the hundreds we see every day in the choices people make…and those details build a richer, more vibrant experience for the reader. So note them and file them away. Ultimate, Triangle, where someone buys their greeting cards…it’s all grist for the mill!