Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Back to Writing...
So. You’ve written a manuscript. What do you do next? Frankly, let it sit for a while, because chances are good, it’s not entirely the best you can do.

Don’t scream at me. Everything and anything can be improved.

Step 1: Put your manuscript in a drawer, just for now
Step 2: Write something for your next manuscript

After two months, you’re allowed to go back to the first manuscript for purposes of editing, unless you’re now so involved in the new manuscript that you want to continue writing that. In fact, I usually don’t break in the middle of a manuscript. I finish it, then I go back to the first manuscript.

Two or more months later: I’ll bet you’ve made notes to yourself about things you realized needed to be added or changed in your first, completed manuscript. Some things you wished you had done. Aren't you happy you didn't already send it out?

Here are some ideas which may assist you in your quest to create the perfect manuscript ('perfect' meaning it is publishable and some impressionable young editor half your age will see the beauty in it and pay you outrageous sums of money for the privilege of turning it into a real book).

1. Print it out (I print on both the front and back of the paper--manually flipping the paper so I use less)
2. Read it through - but don’t mark anything yet
3. Make a Scroll - this may sound weird but often there are continuity problems. This is going to help you identify the problems. So...get a large sheet of paper, or maybe a roll of FAX paper. FAX paper is cheap and one roll will last through many manuscripts.

The notes you make on it can be as brief or as lengthy as you wish. This exercise always pinpoints issues like: putting too many events in one day in the story; changes in character basics such as eye color or clothing; and other continuity problems.

So now that you're ready, flip to Chapter 1 and on this long roll of paper, write down:
a. Chapter 1
b. Character names and descriptions
c. What characters were wearing
d. Locations - i.e. are they in a townhouse in London? The library of a townhouse in London?
e. Movement to/from locations
f. Time of day, Day of the Week, Month and Year
g. Sequence of events
h. Important things, these can be clues if this is a mystery, or anything of significance that will crop up or be referred to later, e.g. the name of the ship they are on, or anything along those lines.
i. Continue the timeline with small notes for each large scene (when did it occur, where did it occur). Write down if they just ate supper, because you may have them eating lunch in the next scene, which would be out of sequence.

Then, do this for each chapter, with a big line demarking the end of one chapter and start of the next. Soon, you will have a long scroll showing how your story unfolds. It will help you see not only continuity problems, but also events that happened in one chapter which would work better in another chapter.

Some people use index cards for this, but I find index cards are prone to getting lost and you end up, at some point, affixing them to something anyway, so rather than wasting my time fiddling with a bunch of loose cards that I'm going to lose and can't sequence properly from one day to the next, I just write the stuff out on a scroll.

Once you’ve done this and know what changes you want, if any, you can tackle the major overhauling and minor, ticklish word edits.

Then, send it out. Don’t sit on it anymore, don’t wonder if it’s good enough. If you’ve gone through this, it’s most likely the best you can do at this point, and you should go ahead and test the waters. Send it to a few writing contests, if you wish to see a some reader reactions from people who don't know you. Then, send out partials to agents and/or editors. Whichever route you decide to take. Just be sure you do something with it.

That’s it for today!

PS: For those who want a faster track, I actually cheat a lot of the time and start my scroll as I'm writing. I use it as my "active" continuity sheet, so when a character mentions an Uncle Bob, I write down 'Uncle Bob' on the scroll so later, if I have to mention that rich uncle again, I actually know what I called him. It also helps to keep track of time, place, and all those other little annoying details.

Because I have a paying job during the day, and I don't have the mental capacity to remember all the stuff on *that* job, as well, as what was going on in my manuscript last night.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Just Another Hotdish Recipe
This is my blog, so I can do what I want. I forgot that I was going to tack a recipe on to the end of my last blog, and it's not a leftover turkey recipe, either. This is one of my favorite hotdishes, or casseroles for you uppity people, and although it may sound odd, go with me on this one.

It's old. Maybe close to 100 years old, and I'm going to update it slightly. I know it's that old because it's been floating around our family kitchens for that long.

We call it the Nelson Hotdish because my grandmother, at one point, had neighbors of that name, who gave her the recipe.

1 package of egg noodles (you can use the No Yolk noodles, just fine)
NOTE: You may want a little less than a package - they've
changed the sizes of things and soup cans contain less
so if you use an entire package, it may be a little dry.
1 can of kernel corn
2 cans of tomato soup
1/2 to 1 full lb of bacon (it's up to you how much you like in there, I like the whole package)
NOTE: The original recipe called for frying the bacon, onions and
green peppers all together in one pan and then, complete
with the bacon drippings, adding that all to the hotdish.
You can do this, if you want. It's probably very good.
We've never had the guts to try it that way, however.
1 onion, chopped
1 Green pepper, chopped
1Tbsp butter or margerine (or olive oil - it's to fry the onion and green pepper)

Chili powder - to taste - I usually use about 1 Tbsp
Salt & Pepper to taste
A spoonful of sugar - optional, but it does make it tasty

Cook the noodles according to the package. Microwave the bacon and crumble or cut it up.
Chop up the onions and green pepper, fry in the butter until the onion is clear. (NOTE: You can get extra flavor if you fry the bacon and then in the drippings, you cooked the onions and green peppers, and then drain the drippings. This is a modified version of the original directions, and very, very good, but most people don't like to cook in bacon drippings anymore.)

Mix the corn, seasonings, tomato soup, and then add the veggies and bacon. Mix all this with the noodles and place in a greased casserole dish.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 40-50 minutes - you only need to heat it through and make the flavors meld a little bit.

VERY GOOD EXTRA TOUCH: crush some corn flakes in a ziplock bag. About ten minutes before the hotdish is done, sprinkle the crushed corn flakes on top of the hotdish. Sprinkle THAT with a little melted butter. Stick back into the oven and let it bake another 10 minutes or so, until the cornflakes brown a little bit. (You don't really have to sprinkle the corn flakes with the melted butter, but it really is very, very yummy if you do that. You can just go with the crushed corn flakes, or even those canned, fried onion bits people use on green bean casserole.)

That's about it. I *love* this hotdish. Leftovers are fantastic and easily microwaved. In fact, the leftovers are often better the second day.


Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving, or just, Happy Holidays!

I have to admit, I love the holidays, although not for any normal reasons. I love the holidays because starting in October, my very favorite sorts of movies start coming on television, and they aren't the kind of movies most people, except a nutjob like me, would consider good, solid holiday movies.

But really, the tradition for these sort of things started way back in the mid-nineteenth century, if not earlier. I'm speaking of the grand tradition of ghost stories during the holiday season. Or, more recently, horror movies. Naturally, there are always a new crop of horror movies around Halloween, then they sort of die back a bit, but if I'm very lucky, another bout of horror movies comes back around Thanksgiving. And if I'm very, very lucky, there is a full day of horror on Thanksgiving, so I can properly give thanks and totally gross out any and all guests who may have been unwise enough to join me on this extremely festive day.

Unfortunately, after that, instead of continuing the grand tradition of ghost such as The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, we are then left with those disgustingly heart-warming tales of yuletide joy, instead. I relentlessly avoid any book or movie described as heart-warming. They make my skin crawl. Although, Jean Sheppard has done a lot to help with his wonderful writing and what has to be one of the best Christmas pictures of all time that doesn't involve spilling a lot of blood: A Christmas Story.

Personally, I think despite his oft-times sickeningly sweet characters, Dickens had a soft spot for horror, and in fact made quite a good deal of pocket-change writing traditional ghost stories each year for publication at Christmas time. There is something about that season from Halloween through Christmas that just inspires...horror.

Now for a few recommendations for those who are similarly inspired to watch dismemberment around the Christmas tree during the holidays, instead of having to put up with all that nasty good cheer.

I don't normally like werewolf movies, with the possible exception of An American Werewolf in London, but I saw a movie done in 2002 which I loved. I'd never even heard of it until it popped up one day on our satellite dish, and I'm now considering giving in to my degeneracy and buying the DVD. And sure, addicts are already guffawing up their sleeves, trying not to blow pumpkin pie out their noses, it is:

Dog Soldiers
Released in 2002, with a cast including Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma Cleasby, Liam Cunningham and Thomas Lockyer. The plot is rather silly: a British squad is sent into the Highlands of Scotland and they come across the remains of a Special Ops Squad. There, they are hunted by...well, who knows what? It certainly howls a lot and there is a lot of disembowling going on.

Still, I love this movie. It had tension and a great bunch of guys, and there was this absolutely fabulous moment where one of the squad goes to try to get their vehicle to try to escape the terrible pickle they are in. He drives it up to the door of the house where they are hiding, and...he hears something behind him. With the sangfroid the British do so well, he remarks, "You're behind me, aren't you?"

Rip, gush of blood.

How could you NOT love that?
It doesn't hurt that Sean Pertwee is in this movie. I adore him, and he also played in The Event Horizon, another terrifying horror movie that you can't help but watch, mesmerized as it all goes so agonizingly wrong out there in deep, cold space... No to mention that the lovely Sam Neill also starred in The Event Horizon. Sigh. On an even more thrilling note, I'm looking forward to the upcoming Bermuda Triangle stuff on the Sci Fi channel, although it's a little annoying that I wrote a Bermuda Triangle manuscript about three years ago and could never sell the dang thing. (Let's be honest, it probably needs a wee bit of work, but still, it's just irritating to have missed being at the crest of the wave on this one...)

Right now, Sci Fi is running Bruce Campbell's The Army of Darkness, another gem I have on DVD because...well, what's not to love? A pit geysering with blood, a guy with a chain-saw instead of a left hand, honestly, you've got to see it. It's priceless. You also get to see Bruce Campbell with his shirt unbuttoned/ripped open at various opportune moments.

I'm a sucker for a cheerful attitude combined with a nice, manly chest. Stiff upper lip. Do or watch-others-die-in-an-absolute-orgy-of-spectacular-mayhem. That's really what holiday movies are all about, isn't it?

Have a great holiday season and don't worry. It'll all be over soon.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Wounds are licked, and I'm climbing back on that writing horse again...
I'm still aiming to finish NaNoWriMo by completing 50,000 words in one month. I love NaNoWriMo. One day, I even hope to publish, although I'm not sure it will be something produced from these marathon, novel-in-a-month sessions. I highly recommend NaNoWriMo if you've:
a) Always wanted to write a novel [quit talking about it and do it!]
b) Do write, but it takes you forever to get one book done [NaNoWriMo will break you of dawdling]
c) Are stuck in the "always editing the same thing" rut [you can't edit and win at NaNoWriMo]

So, writers everywhere, jump on the NaNoWriMo wagon next November and write for the fun of it. Write for the glory of it. Write for the practice of it. And write just to say you've done it!

However, back to my own personal quest for publication...

No, wait, time for a commercial break.
Why am I doing this blog? Am I insane?

These questions may never be answered.
Wrong. There is an answer, at least for why I'm blogging this. Because I think there may be other writers out there struggling with similar issues (okay, it's highly unlikely that any other nutcase has been trying to write for nearly 30 years now without getting published, but hey...). There is an important lesson, and I think it is worth talking about. And I'm not doing this for purely altruistic motives. I've found if I *don't* write this out and communicate it with others, it festers. The old, "write it in an email, send it to yourself, and then delete it," just doesn't work for me. I need to communicate. With others. Not to myself. I talk to myself plenty, already.

This need to communicate is why I'm trying to be a published writer.

The Lesson to be Learned
No matter how hopeless your quest becomes, do not remain tethered to people who are not helping you just because you hope they will. Fish or cut bait. Remember that.

Once upon a time, I got an agent. In fact, a great agent. She worked in New York City, she hobnobbed with all the right people, she's got tons of people published, including some I personally know. But then she got a new job. And I just waited for her to contact me. I was afraid to find out the answer.

However, no matter how long I delayed the inevitable, the answer ultimately came (after I got the courage to bug her about my status) and I lost my first agent. These things happen, but I would have been better off finding out four months ago, rather than waiting because I was afraid of the answer. I didn't want to hear the truth.

Don't do that. Do let time go. You can't get time back. Don't be afraid of getting the truth--even if it hurts, you're better off knowing. And you may find that after you recover, you can do better, you just don't know it, yet. And for heaven's sake, if opportunity (in the form of another agent) calls you, don't say 'no' until you've really thought about it for a couple of days.

So, here we are, back to the continuation of my saga...

Three months lost. Time is still a-wasting while I fumble around trying to figure out what to do, now. But, I finished one more manuscript and I'll keep working on it.

Maybe this, then, will be a path into the promised land of publication. Or maybe not, but it's a damn sight better than sitting on my arse.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

After a sleepless night, I've come to the realization that I'm...well...there is not really polite way to say it, so you can use your imagination. After trying to contact my agent via emails and phone calls, I've received an email terminating our arrangement. After nearly a year and four meager submissions. I hesitate to use the word "unsellable" however she did, so I guess it's appropriate. Somehow it seems so unfair that I would be considered unsellable after only four submissions, but there it is. I used to do better racking up rejections from publishers before I tried the agent route. I had entire fistfuls then, not just four teeny weany ones. That's not even a decent stack.

Maybe the real reason she dropped me is that I annoyed her by leaving a message, asking her to call me, about once every two weeks or so over the last two months, until the last two weeks, when I actually called her, uh, I think it was maybe 3 times, and left messages. Due to my detail-oriented personality (certainly better than calling it anal) I counted these calls and it was 5 in a two month period. Anyway, enough self-justification. I only left 5 messages because I was hoping to have my manuscript submitted to a few more places. But I was honestly trying not to bug her so that she wouldn't think I was some kind of crazed stalker constantly phoning or emailing her. I had nightmares of the police confiscating my PC and slapping me with some kind of restraining order if I bugged her too much.

Is one phone message every few weeks (remember, that totaled 5 messages since last August) too much? How much is too much? How much is too little? Am I just stupid to think four submissions don't make you unsellable? Note: I do think that no talent, lack of ability or even the rudiments of grammar, poor plot development, and anti-social tendencies may make you unsellable, but hey, what do I know? And I'm desperately hoping I didn't just describe myself.

However, back to my original reason for a sleepless night. After much gnashing of teeth and pillow-thumping, I realized this entire situation has...well...not to be rude, but to put it another way, has gagged me, duct-taped my hands and feet, chained five cinderblocks to my ankles, and thrown me into the East River.

Other agents don't like it if you previously had an agent and terminated your agreement while you are still an unpublished wannabe. So I'm tainted. Although in my case, I was pathetic enough to take the lack of responsiveness and no evidence of any activity on the part of my agent, and just wait for her to terminate me. And rule number one is that if you are looking for an agent and previously had an agent (or still have an agent) you have to admit it up front, or the next agents you query eye you with even more suspicion and dread. Because they will find out.

And just to clarify this, in case you think I happened to get a rotten agent. No. Sorry. I don't even have that excuse. I had a fantastic agent who has gotten other newbies published quicker than you can write a query letter. This agent has done wondrous things...for other writers. Just not moi--er, me. writing or plots or characters or some combination thereof must really stink on ice.

So let's say I get past that mind-crushing defeat. Just when I'm searching for that silver-lining, an even uglier black lining enfolds me in it's musty, damp grip. My manuscript, probably the best one I've written so far, is now "shopped". Yes, that's right. Even though it only went to four publishers, it is shopped and other agents are going to be leary about trying to sell it. Particularly since the four places it was submitted to were the ones that pay the best advances. Any future agent could only send it to places that give smaller advances, and hence the agent's incentives are correspondingly minimized.

Therefore, where is any other agent's incentive to pick me up, particularly for this shopped manuscript? I'll tell you where. That incentive is duct-taped to the back of my neck, drowning in the foully polluted East River along with me.

Did I tell you that I'm scr*w^d? F%ck*d, perhaps? Thank you so very much. I so appreciate wasting all of 2005 waiting for submissions that were never done and communications I never got. Oops, my honesty compells me to modify that. Four pathetic submissions were done in March of 2005. Just enough to shop my manuscript and thereby ensure no other agent would ever be interested in it, or me, within the forseeable future. I stand humbled and corrected.

Of course, just to sink those cinderblocks dragging at my ankles just a little bit deeper into the muck, I've written this blog, which, if any literary agent reads it, will tell them that if they ever, ever get a query or manuscript from this grumpy old woman, they will run frantically in the opposite direction, flinging instructions over their shoulders to their assistants to burn the dratted things, immediately, and don't forget to fumigate.

Having now, quite publically, committed seppuku (ritual suicide for those who have never tried it) I guess this blog is complete. It can now be published, where it will serve the mighty purpose of making sure no agent or publisher ever, ever considers for a nano-second dealing with me, ever. Really, ever, ever. Never.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

On Writing...
Yesterday, I attended a wonderful class called Presenting Story Magic by Laura Baker and Robin Perini, hosted by the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers. I highly recommend this workshop if it comes to a writers group near you. It focuses on how to write a story based upon who the characters are, which resonated with me. Their approach (which I won't describe totally here) is to create a grid for each character, including most of your secondary characters, and the grid basically forces you to answer a lot of why questions that are central to who your character is, and why, therefore, the story progresses as it does, based upon who those characters' essential forces.

Deb Dixon's book on Goals, Motivation and Conflict, is also useful, but I felt it focused too much on externals, such as conflicts, without addressing the why. Even the internal conflicts don't necesarily get to the why of someone does something, and that's what you really need to understand.

The why is probably the most important thing to understand when you write and edit fiction. Why does your character act the way s/he does? What is that person's driving force? Once you know the person's driving force, then you can set up your other characters so there is a dynamic between the driving forces that basically sets the stage for the story.

Here's an example. Okay, it's a stupid example, but it's still an example:

You have a protagonist who has a deep-seated need for stability. Once you identify this core personality force, you can then extrapolate to identify how this trait will be both positive and negative. Sort of like the old Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk was split into two: Kirk 1 was a really nice guy but lacked decisiveness and aggressiveness. Kirk 2 was aggressive and decisive, but he wasn't very concerned about other people. Both were halves or views of a character who needs to be a leader. Leaders are concerned about people, but they also must be aggressive enough to make the hard decisions.

So, back to the protagonist. If this person, let's say it's a man, needs stability, this can express itself positively through traits such as being systematic and careful, good at weighing alternatives and selecting the one with the least risk. Good at risk management. Could be very good in a job involving security.

On the negative side, this person could also be perceived as too rigid, or a stick-in-the-mud, unwilling to take risks. May even be domineering in order to suppress activities going on around him that may cause change. Can be very uncomfortable with any kind of change.

Already, you can see how this guy is a prime target for a story involving the necessity to accept change.

Now, for an antognist, you have a couple of interesting paths you can take. You can do the opposites attract thing, like Dharma and Greg (I never watched that show, so forgive my spelling), or even more interesting, you can use a character which also resists change, but force the two into a deadlocked situation where one or both of them is going to have to take risks and accept change.

What I found interesting about this, is that once you start going down this path, plotting becomes ridiculously easy, because you have a built-in theme (some risk and change is necessary: Life is change) and you can build secondary characters who will actually have a purpose in highlighting this change or even forcing the protagonist's final realization that Life is Change.

Cool, huh? Sure, it's still not easy, and I've left out a bunch of stuff from the class, but this was the major bullit-idea. Robin and Laura called this the character flaw, but I don't like that term, although it does harken back to the basics of writing as expressed by the Greeks. I don't like this term, however, because it has negative connotations and it doesn't really encompass all the functions it is serving.

This isn't so much a flaw as the essential force within a character. It is:
  • The Character's essential quality, the source of what is both good and bad, strength and weakness in the character. It answers the question of why this character is who s/he is, and why this character acts the way they do, and will act in a certain way in a given situation. I think of this as a character force because it is so intrinsic to the character's personality, that they have very little control over it, if any. It is a driving, essential force to the character, and the book.
  • The Theme's basis, the source of the overall theme of the book will derive from the dynamics of the essential forces in the protagonist and other characters playing against each other.
  • The motivator: it's why the character does what s/he does and why the subcharacters even exist, in order to expose this essential quality and prod the main character to achieve some enlightenment or realization (or the reader may be the one enlightened, if the main character fails to achieve realization in the end).
  • The goal in each scene: Each scene in the book will then "fall into place" as a necessary scene in order to force the character to come to terms with this essential quality and either change the case of literary fiction...just get deeper into the hole because the charater never realizes what is wrong, or right, with them. There are always multiple aspects to an essential force, good and bad, strong and weak, so it is the job of the writer to generate sympathy for the character by exposing the good aspects of the quality while still forcing the character to change or control some of the bad aspects of the essential forces driving them.

Remember, this is an essential force within the character, so they can't completely change it, however through the story you weave, they can come to realize this quality and move toward the more positive end of the spectrum. In the case of the example I gave, you could never really have a character who completely "overcomes" his need for stability and become an Evil Knieval risk taker, but you can have him realize that some change is inevitable and instead of resisting it, s/he can view it with an open mind and accept or even strive actively for change, while still maintaining a core of stability within.

So that's it for today. I'm going back through my manuscripts, making sure that I have clearly defined essential forces in all my characters and that they give meaning to the stories woven around them, instead of plots just "happening" to them.

In the beginning...

Everyone's doing it--blogging, that is. So, I thought maybe I ought to try it. Mostly because I have a lot of random and sometimes very odd thoughts in my head that need to escape once in a while to relieve the pressure. Like steam in a pressure cooker, it's got to get out one way or the other.

I also have some vague notion that someone may find something of use in some of the things I intend to write about. Here are some topics I might cover (or not) depending upon my mood:

  • Computers (I couldn't help placing that first, they pay the bills around here)
  • Writing (At least ATTEMPTING to write. I have over ten manuscripts completed in rough draft, if not polished, form. I've also got an agent. What I don't have is a publishing contract or the self-esteem this would undoubtedly net me.)
  • Gardening (I grow roses, ad nauseum)
  • Birding (I try to go bird watching, although lately it's gotten short shrift)

Other oddities as I think of them. I have opinions, you see. Often strong, often mistaken, but they're my opinions, the poor little bastards.