August Wrap Up and Heading into September

Tonight is the CWC meeting–the last one in Colorado Springs. Ali decided to up and move, so that puts us down in Pueblo, since that’s the halfway point for most of us. I’ll miss Panera….

Anyway, instead of mourning the loss of my favorite sandwich every month (I blame you Ali!), I shall think of all the great things that I accomplished this month. Namely:

1. Made good with the Great Writing Race of 2010 winner-John. (Yummy Old Chicagos–can you tell I like food?)
2. Acquired several bits of knowledge from school, which I started a week ago. I’m already tired from the amount of textbook reading. It’s just not the same as getting to read Mockingjay, which you should go out and buy. I’m re-reading the first two books before I jump into that one.
3. Finished CWC 50 pages for tonight. Though I was participating in the Great Writing Race of 2010, I still needed to add some pages.
4. Saw Inception. Go DiCaprio!
5. Finished reading Old Yeller with my son. Say it with me: tear-jerker.
6. Read and critiqued all of the wonderful writing from my two critique groups.

Heading into September, here is what I want to accomplish:
1. Keep up with my school work. Which is a challenge in and of itself at the moment. I do have my big papers’ topics in mind already though. Half the battle won!
2. Write, write, write on La Llorona. Plus edit a particularly tricky spot so that I have it correct in my head.
3. Read Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series–all of it! Did I mention Mockingjay is out and that you should go get it?
4. Critique stuff.

And you?

The Process as a Process

There is a lot of focus on the process of writing as being the important element of writing. That when you’re creating, it’s all about the process, not the product that’s there at the end. You have to enjoy it while you’re in the middle of it, as a writer, otherwise: What’s the point.

Professional writers must get tired of the constant questioning: What’s your typical day like? How many pages do you write a day? Do you outline or free-pants it? Do you revise as you go along? By the end of the day, the professional writer, who has figured out how they like to write and go along, must be really frustrated by this endless repetition of the same bunch of questions.

The beginning/mid-level writers who are asking these questions are really trying to figure out, not what the pro-writer’s process is, but how to refine their own process.

The question of process is really a question of trial and error. One author will love outlining because it gives structure and a road map. Another will hate that kind of ‘restriction’.

Currently, I am attempting a new piece to my process. Through the writing of my last two books I have had mini-outlines that get me a few chapters/scenes ahead, so that I know the purpose of the scene. I’ve also waited until the end, finishing the big, hunking rough draft before going back to revise. This process, for me, feels a bit unwieldy.

The other major issue that I’ve come up against is the issue of leaving things out. So then I have to go back and insert pieces after I’m so tired from writing the whole big monster that I pretty much just want to throw the whole thing away.

The result of these two issues: I’m revising my process.

Here’s what I’m going to try out this time. (See? This is why it really takes a few novels under the bed before anything gets published–it takes that long to figure out what the hell you’re doing…even when you think you know what you’re doing.)

I’m going to put everything into it. I’m going to follow King’s advice (who else?) and just put lots of stuff in. Words and words and words. I’m thinking about 120K. Then I can cut, and refine things, rather than having to write them all from scratch again. Though I am sure there will still be some from-scratch writing going into the revising process–which brings me to my second point:

Big problems recognized early enough will be rewritten and edited at time of recognition. No just plowing through, because all that’ll happen is me having to write more from scratch again. I’d rather write all of my first draftish stuff in the first draft.

After I’ve finished the rewriting of the problematic things, and I have a complete and less-rough rough draft, then I’ll sit on it for a little while. After the waiting period, I’ll go at it again with fresh eyes. And probably cry because there’ll be more stuff to work out than I thought.

How’s about you guys? While you’re writing, to revise your process? What big changes have you had to make because you realized what you were doing wasn’t working for you?

Mentor of the Month: Justin Cronin: The Twelve, and worries on a lengthy series

The excitement continues for Justin Cronin fans. The Twelve is the next book in The Passage trilogy – and the release date is October 16, 2012!!! See the cover and up-to-date info at EW.

I am as big a fan of never leaving a world I enjoy as much as the next dude/dudette. After all, I was thrilled that the Harry Potter series stretched on for seven lengthy volumes. But I feel I must address my concerns over this particular trilogy.

Sure, the first book was a knockout. There’s a lot of literary bents in there that slow the pacing down a bit, but all-in-all a fun read. I can even see where the second book would be fantastic. An epic sequel. At the end of the first one, Cronin hints at where he’s going.

But a third book?

Right now I’m not seeing it. That makes me nervous.

Partly because I like to be the know-it-all intuitive reader that can tell all my friends where an author is going before any of us read it. (They hate me for that–Harry Potter was a trial, particularly for my husband, until that seventh book came out.)

Partly because I’m scared of a long, drawn-out story with no foreseeable end. From the first sentence of the first book we understand that Amy lives to be 1,000 years old. An ungodly, or rather godly, long time. When you think of it that way, it’s a miracle that the series would be only three books long. The length makes me worry that the author doesn’t have an end in mind.

In my opinion, if the author does not end a piece strong, then the story–no matter how world-wallowingly-happy we are while we’re in it–didn’t work. There has to be some pay off. Something to tie it off.

So there’s my concern. However, because The Passage was so awesome, and because he’s ended his other two novels in a satisfying way (though the literary style may not work as well with The Passage) I’m definitely picking up the next book.

Aside from Harry Potter (which is, of course, a granted and may not be besmirched in my presence), what other lengthy series have had satisfying endings for you?

Weather and Writing

William Wordsworth wrote this wonderful poem called “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (also known as “Daffodils”)–and all of the emotions he felt while walking out in nature. He was inspired by the wind and the clouds, and the peace that they produced. Wordsworth is commonly considered one of the early conservationists, concerned with nature and how it was handled right at the beginning of the industrial revolution. As a man who was outside more often than in, it seems natural that the weather should have influenced his writing.

What about writers today? With all of the television and amusement parks and malls, does weather influence us?

I think it does, if in nothing else but mood setting. I’m sure we all have a favorite weather to read in: summertime on the pool, curled up by a fire when it’s snowing.

My favorite weather to write in? Thunderstorms. Doesn’t matter what I’m writing, whether it’s something funny or sad or tumultuous like a thunderstorm. There’s just more energy in the air itself. I like the hum of it. Plus, it doesn’t happen that often, so the rarity adds a certain appeal.

How about you? Do you like to write on your back porch in summer, floating along on your swing? Do you like to write during clear nights with lots of stars shining into your window? What inspires you about the weather that you write in? And, conversely, what weather can you absolutely not write in?

Office Supplies–The Real Reason We’re Writers

As I’ve gone through August, buying school supplies and whatnot for the kids (and myself!) and after a couple recent-er posts from buddies Deb and Ali, I have figured out the real reason that we’re writers.

You would think that it would have something to do with the fact that we were all big readers growing up and, therefore, we fell in love with the written word and stories. You would be correct, that certainly played a part.

You might also think that the bookstore holds a certain magical quality for us. The rows and rows of books written by people alive and dead…the dead still able to speak to us even now. (Though we can’t understand a word of what Joyce is saying, he is still talking. Sorry, with one exception: Deb understands him.) Your assumptions would be correct here also.

However, there is a tipping point for all things. That proverbial straw of hay that breaks a camel’s back and, in turn, changes mere mortals to writers. That straw was an Office Max/Staples/You Name the Big Office Supply Store for me, and it looks like Ali and Deb too. I suspect that we are not alone.

Imagine it with me now:

  • The reams of paper boxed for my printing pleasure.
  • The rows of ballpoint, inkjet, and gel pens lined up for my hand to pick the perfect fit!
  • Don’t forget the file folders to organize my legion of rough drafts.
  • The corner of Post-its just waiting for me to stick the important note regarding the major plot point of my novel next to my computer screen.
  • White boards with multi-colored dry-erase markers waiting for me to write notes and goals, only to erase them again and write more notes and goals.
  • Notebook paper gathered in spirals and three ring binders filled to bursting with my brilliant prose!
  • Paperclips and binder clips in decorative designs to keep my critique submissions in order!
  • Manila folders and manuscript mailing boxes to send my novel to the DREAM AGENT!!!

WHY ON EARTH ISN’T EVERYONE A WRITER?! It’s like perpetual Christmas.

August is here–’tis the Back-to-Writing season! Go forth and find that perfect rollerball to make you happy!

Mentor of the Month: Justin Cronin: The Summer Guest and The Passage, a small critique on repetition

One of the things that writers are warned against is repetitiveness: Don’t repeat words too often if you’re not going for an effect. Don’t be repetitive in how you structure your sentences. Don’t start too many sentences or paragraphs with the same word. Don’t you see what I did there? (Hee hee. But it doesn’t count because I was going for effect. So there.)

Well, I was reading The Summer Guest, Cronin’s second novel and the prologue (Oh no! Another don’t among writing advice!) covers a family coming to a run-down summer camp that they’ve purchased. It’s been abandoned for years. Running water is questionable. Heat is a luxury. The wife, a character named Amy, stays inside while Joe, the husband, chops wood.

And you ask: What’s the big deal?

Nothing really. It’s just that I had to put the book down for a second and go: Wait. Didn’t I already read this?


Yep, in The Passage. Wolgast and Amy arrive at the run-down summer camp in order to hide from the glowstick vampire zombies that are hunting down the world. It’s been abandoned for years. Running water is questionable. Heat is a luxury. The girl, Amy, waits inside while Wolgast, her guardian, chops wood.

It was a little freaky to read. Had the sections been in the same book, I would have thought that there was some kind of parallel that I should be looking for. As it is, when reading through someone’s published body of work, or at least a sample, as I try to do for these Mentor of the Month posts, it just feels like a really awkward mistake. Like the author expected no one to read both books. Or like he forgot about writing the Summer Guest scene when he wrote The Passage scene.

Sure there are differences. But does setting one run-down summer camp in Maine (The Summer Guest) and the other in Oregon (The Passage) really make it that much of a difference? And then you have the issue of the character names…Amy in this case.

Now, a question: When you’re writing, going from one story to the next, how concious are you of repeating scenes? Either in character reactions in the scenes or in the building of the scene itself? Do you figure: Hey, no one’s gonna read this story, so I may as well use this bit over here and gamble that no one will see the similarities? Is it even that big a deal?

And, as writers, how do we even guage where to put these scenes when the publishing order and writing order are not the same? In this case, the similarities were so striking that it threw me out of the story pretty quick. And Cronin had written this scene before the scene in The Passage, which I’d read first.

The Artist At Work

I’ve been trying to keep in mind that this year my focus is: “Stuff I Learned From Other People” and who better to learn from than my very own little girl?

She’s two and precocious and doesn’t care what other people think–not yet anyway. Which can be frustrating in restaurants, but is wonderful in life. She creates things with reckless abandon and that’s refreshing. There is no inner editor or heckler or anyone to tell her no (except her mommy when she sticks a finger in a light socket). Here is a small sampling of her art and her method. We should all embrace such reckless delight:

Finished vs Completed

In Jack Canfield’s (of Chicken Soup fame) The Success Principles he discusses the difference between finishing and completing. *Yes, I read self-help books occasionally. Quiet.

The argument goes something like this: finishing something is not the same as completing it. Basically, you can finish a novel and put all the words on paper and print it out and type The End. But is it complete? Has it been polished? Are all the kinks worked out?

You can have a stack of finished novels, but only one that’s complete will do you any kind of good.

I was thinking about stacks of ‘finished’ work recently. I pored through my computer files and looked at short stories that I considered finished. I debated within myself which ones I should call complete. Only two. Two out of a whole lot–and those were just the ones on my computer. The rest could definitely use some polish, others could use a jackhammer, some we should just ignore forever.

I also have two novels that are ‘finished’ and my third is in-progress-to-finished. The first one that I wrote is questionable at ‘finished’ even. The second one I am tired of looking at, though I know the solution for completing that one. The third one will need some close work for it to come off the way I want it to.

So here I am, a writer who is writing (see Progress post). But my work isn’t done. I haven’t been completing things. There isn’t much there over-all. (Trust me when I say it stings to write that…after having written sooooo much, learning that there’s not one big project complete is rather a downer.)

In the spirit of completion, I have determined my goals for the rest of 2010 and leading into 2011. First off, 2010: finish what I’m currently working on because that’ll get me ahead for CWC submissions. Being ahead of CWC submissions buys me time to complete my not-yet-completed projects. Including heavy revisions of short stories.

2011: Complete the pieces I finished in 2010. Including: FJR, La Llorona, and The Line. In that order.

Is there anything that you need to complete?

Mentor of the Month: Justin Cronin: Taking Your Time and Character Motivation

I’m currently reading Cronin’s Mary and O’Neil, which is his first published collection of stories. The stories are interconnected and revolve around these two characters and their relationship–and that of their family and friends.

One thing that has been going through my mind now that I’ve been exposed to Cronin’s ‘know what your characters don’t want to tell’ mentality is that exact question: What secrets are these characters keeping? It’s not all that hard, because Cronin doesn’t hide their secrets from the reader. What I’ve noticed is the way that these secrets/hiding places are revealed.

He takes his time.

I’ve noticed in my own short stories that I think the word ‘short’ and that ultimately leads to ‘rushed’. Just because a piece has a smaller word count does not mean that I should sacrifice character development, good dialogue, or scene setting.

In the first story in this collection, Cronin introduces O’Neil’s parents, who are going to visit O’Neil at college soon. Cronin spends a good deal of time in the kitchen with the couple, establishing their relationship. Pertinent details are revealed. Then, we switch to just O’Neil’s dad. Something else is revealed while he spends time in his office and then a restaurant. And so on until the conclusion of events.

Sound slow? Sound boring? Maybe. Noothing moves too quickly, a lot of information is given out, and it’s still short. By the end you understand the characters, their motivation, and the why of things. It’s satisfying. I think this pacing element ties to the keeping secrets element Cronin discusses.

I recently read a brilliant short story by a friend of mine. There was a fascinating situation involving a boating accident that results in a death. As I was reading it, I fell into the story. When I got to the end, though, I was strangely unsatisfied and I think I figured out why from Cronin.

When I was doing the critique I called the main character’s ‘arch’ into question. She just didn’t seem to grow or change or any of the other words that we writers use to describe a character we just don’t understand motivationally. But I realized, after reading Cronin, that what I was missing was the main character’s secret. What was it she wasn’t telling anyone? I need to know why she was acting the way she was–and while there were hints, nothing was stated outright. I think with just the addition of that piece, my friend’s short story would work beautifully. (Because it was super close to begin with.)

Between Cronin and the epiphany over my co-writer’s story, I’m going back to look over the short stories that I haven’t sold yet to see if maybe that’s why. Perhaps the reason my short stories aren’t working quite right is two-fold: I need to find out what the characters aren’t telling anyone, and I need to take the time to reveal that secret once I know it. Gotta remember there’s no rush–tell the story how it needs to be told.

Make the Bartender More Interesting; or, Side Character Names

This one should seem pretty obvious:

Character names matter. And they matter the same way that accurate details matter in a piece of writing. They add a level of meaning and depth and interest that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

I also argue that it matters more for side characters. Sure, you can have a bartender named Bob. Bob is a good solid name. I have many friends who are named Bob. But is ‘Bob’ saying what you need the name to say?

So let’s imagine that you have a bartender named Bob in your story. He comes in, let’s say, two scenes. He gives a key piece of advice to the main character. Not a life-changing event now, he’s just making the Main Character think. I imagine that Bob, being a good solid name, would give good solid advice. If that’s what you want as a writer, great! Mission accomplished.

Now name the bartender Lacey (he’s still a he).
Now name the bartender Chad.
Now name the bartender Alexander Who Calls Himself Great.
Now name the bartender Adolph.
Now name the bartender Michelle (she’s a girl).

What happens to the flavor of the piece? Even if they all give the same solid Bob advice, there’s another layer at play. Do you listen to surfer Chad the same way you listen to some whacko calling himself Alexander the Great?

A fun exercise is to go into a smaller scene in a novel, and switch around the side characters’ names. Or even name a character that wasn’t named before. See what happens. See if there’s a layer that can be added, what depths there are to be explored.