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.

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 me  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!