Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

CRAFT: Give Yourself a Break

Two posts in one night? Can anyone say...procrastinating?

Just thought of another thing I wanted to mention, because it's taken me a long time to allow myself to do this, and I still have to remind myself that it's okay. In fact, I'm trying to remind myself right now that this is okay, because I've reached the point in my novel, Grave Mistakes, where I need to take my own advice.

But it's so hard, she whines, because I want to write in an orderly fashion...

You see, I have this idea that you start writing on page one and you continue writing sequentially until you hit page 400 (or page 400 hits you, whichever comes first). The problem is, this doesn't always work. And yet...I keep trying to toe-the-line and be a good girl and write each page one after the other. Because I know all the reasons why you should do this particularly since I write mysteries.

Because you need to know what happened first before you can say what happened next. Because if you write out of order, things may not hang together properly. Because plot shifts happen where what you thought was going to happen doesn't happen because the characters don't cooperate.

Well, shut my mouth. Maybe that works for some people. Maybe it doesn't.
Everyone has to find their own winding little overgrown path through the dark, twisted woods.

I think my problem is that I may have some old-timey director partially reincarnated in about 20 or 30 brain cells in the back of my head. Because I can follow the rules and do about the first 150 pages in a perfectly linear, sequential form and then my brain short-circuits. Because I see my book in scenes and like some directors, I don't necessarily film those scenes in the order in which they will appear in the final movie. Or book. In fact, my brain wants to see those scenes in some weird order that only it can comprehend. Sometimes I wish it would let me in on the secret.

So around page 150, I stall because my brain wants to write some scene that is pages or chapters away from where I am, but I resist. I don't want to do that. I want to write page 151. So I struggle. I write maybe a line or paragraph a day instead of pages. My mind balks. My creativity resists and starts a protest march, complete with banners proclaiming: Resist! Resist the tyranny of a small mind! Ignore the rules! Jump ahead! Jump backwards! Jump diagonally across a river you didn't even know was there!

It takes a while before I finally give up and start writing out of order. Where I can just start to write the scenes that need to be written. Ironically, sometimes I find that when I do shove the scenes where they belong in the book, they need very little connective tissue generated between them. Sometimes, none at all. Sometimes, just a little. Rarely do I have to rewrite what came before, or after.

Here's the real irony. The scenes I write this way are the BEST ones. It's the easy-to-write scenes that just flow from my fingertips in a linear fashion through the first 150 pages that have to be rewritten, gutted, rewritten, overhauled, sent to the moon and back, and then redone. The hard ones later which are written out of sequence and feel like I'm trying to dig my way through the walls of Sing-Sing with a plastic spoon that end up needing very little, if any, revisions. Weird.

Therefore, all you writers who stall out, I propose that you consider this as an opportunity to discover if you are just revolting against some pre-conceived notion of how you are supposed to write your novel. If so, stop. Don't be so revolting. Allow yourself to write out of order if that's what it takes. Or allow yourself to write IN ORDER if that what's what you need to do. Do what you need to do.

The point is, no one can tell you what the RIGHT process is to write a book. That's for you to discover. It's a journey, enjoy it while it lasts.

CRAFT: Addendum to S-E-X Scenes, Part 2

This is going to be exceptionally short because I made a deal with my husband that he would cook dinner and I would write. He held up his end of the bargain, but I've yet to write this evening and I HAVE to get back to Grave Mistakes but I also realized that I made very few, if any, points in my previous post about writing s-e-x scenes.

There was one point that I wanted to make. I think I alluded to it, or even said it in passing, but I wanted to drive it home with a sledgehammer.

If you want sizzling tension, make it realistic. Well, of course, you say, rolling your eyes. But you see, that's one of the biggest problems I see in a lot of romances. They go in for all this purple prose or have these characters with physical characteristics that are just so over-the-top that it's like watching some computer-generated, comic-book action. The closer the characters are to real, live, flawed, not-so-perfect physical specimans, and the closer your descriptions are to reality (and not some flowery, poetic stuff) the hotter the tension. It's hotter because you've made it something others have felt and know about. They understand it on a gut-level. They feel it, or at least have felt it at some point in their lives. Or will feel it. (Does that cover, past, present, future and plu-perfect?)

Believe it or not, all that poetic jazz is mostly intellectual stuff and that's why it skims the surface without really getting in under the skin the way a more realistic description would. It doesn't create the same level of tension. It, in effect, divorces the reader from feeling the action even though the writer is trying their darndest to make it really, really feel-able.

It's sort of like that kid you end up knocking upside the head because they're annoying you by trying so frickin' hard to get you to like them.

Have you ever noticed that the most popular person in the family is the one who is never there, never comes to family gatherings, can't be depended upon to help anyone, and yet, when they show up, it's like - Oh, WOW, s/he's HERE! This is great! Let the Par-ty begin!


Because they don't try so hard. They may give a darn, but it certainly doesn't show. Paradoxically, this is what makes their sudden, unexpected appearance so wonderful. They're not TRYING so hard. Their presence is not the usual, hum-drum everyday occurrence. They're not the drudge doing their familial duty, day-in, day-out, ho, hum.

So, stop TRYING so hard. Stop trying to make your characters and love scenes utterly unique and unusual. By trying so hard, you're making them, well, ho-hum, purple-prose fodder good for those "it was a dark and stormy night" contests and not much else.

Reality is so much easier on everyone.

Of course, that may be just me. Hmm. No, maybe not. I mean, when I get that feeling I'm generally not interested any more in just reading about it. I have a husband who is quite handy and it's far easier to go grab him than to hunker down with some book to try to get my jollies. So I don't think it's just me, although I suppose it could be. Or, no, I really meant it. Okay, enough waffling, second guessing myself, and general mental torment.

Oh, sure, there are plenty of readers who like that flowery jazz, but I repeat: if you really want to hike up the tension, make it as realistic as possible. Don't use a lot of fancy, cutsey terms for things. Stay away from the emerald green eyes, heaving, melon-like breasts, and erections like foot-long sausages. I certainly plan on staying far, far away from those things.

So, I'm curious, what do you like to see that really turns up the tension in a book for you?

Sunday, February 26, 2006

CRAFT: Writing S-E-X Scenes, Part 2 - Tension

I'm back from the frozen north and ready to tackle the next part of this subject: writing s-e-x scenes that don't make you wince or just flip over them.

Disclaimer: Remember, these posts are my opinions and only my opinions. I say this because too many people think I'm trying to write rules. I'm don't write rules. I'm pointing out things that worked for me as a reader and writer. Your mileage may differ.

So, tension. Tension, tension, tension. This particular piece of the puzzle actually should have come before my previous post, because it's about leading up to "it", although in a way, it is also about "it". Because I don't believe describing "it" in glorious technicolor detail is all that exciting. It's what leads up to it that is exciting. Yet another reason, in my opinion, to either just keep leading up to "it" or interrupting "it" or shutting the door on "it" because that way, you can keep the tension going. Think of it this way, there are any number of guys and gals who flirt, manipulate and seduce each other with great excitement, only to lose interest once the conquest is made and they've gone to bed with their target. The old, "I'll call you tomorrow" syndrome.

This is true of a great many readers, too. It's the chase that is exciting. That's why they call it tension, or s-e-xual tension. Once you have s-e-x, the tension is released.

I'm a big fan of coitus interruptus, particularly when it occurs right before the actual deed gets underway. However, this may be because I truly like to make my characters suffer for what they eventually get--off camera.

So, how do you do this tension stuff without sounding idiotic or sophomoric? I have to admit that I throw away a lot of books because they handle this so poorly. I'm so sick of all these longing glances and throbbing/wet/hot body parts, and on a seemingly unrelated topic, I have to tell you that if I read one more book where either the hero or heroine has green eyes, I'm going to vomit. Please avoid adding gratuitous unusual characteristics to your characters hoping to make them more attractive.

I'm going to say this once, and once only: Green eyes are a cliched joke. This is the sort of thing that gives romances a bad name, because the authors try too darn hard to make their characters over-the-top, uniquely attractive. For crying out loud, stop with this already! And I'm particularly sick of things like a hero/heroine who is of Oriental/Spanish/Native American/African American extraction and yet has green eyes! Stop, stop, stop with the over-reaching cliches to make your characters unusual. Please. I'm begging you. I'm not saying that it isn't genetically impossible, I'm just saying everyone is doing it and I'm sick of it.

I had to get that off my chest because it really was making me crazy. I long for a hero with nice, normal brown eyes. Or gray eyes. Or blue eyes. I don't even really mind green eyes, if they genetically go with his appearance just not when they are due to over-reaching for the unusual.

People can be attractive with quite normal physical attributes.

Now that I've reduced my tension, I'm going to briefly go through a masterful example of s-e-xual tension created by Theresa Monsour in her book Cold Blood. This is a great suspense and I highly recommend it (and hope I'm not going to violate any copyright laws with what I put below). One of the things I like about this book is the great s-e-xual tension and the restraint with which she presents this. She's one of the few authors I can read now that do this well, don't make me wince, and don't include long-winded s-e-x scenes that bore me and kill the plot's momentum.

Enough flattery. Her lawyers ought to now be happy enough to let me get by with the few quotes I've included below.

What makes s-e-xual tension work? Well, it isn't wet panties or an embarrassing bulge in the pants. It is how it happens in life. There are two ways the magic can occur: barely perceptible, growing slowly over time; or wham! Both ways are valid and we've either experienced both ourselves, or know others who have.

For many of us, it may be a sort of unperceived thing that just hit us, all of a sudden, wham-right-between-the-eyes. This seems to happen a lot to co-workers, who are working with someone closely and may either get along, or not get along, until one day you're working late and your eyes meet over that pizza you just ordered because you know you're going to be there until midnight to get that project finished, and wham! All of a sudden you realize how attractive your co-worker really is.

This is kind of what happens to Paris Murphy and Duncan. Their relationship starts out a little strained, with both sniping at each other. Paris thinks Duncan may be a dirty cop who either has taken drugs in the past or is still taking them. The tension between them is done so subtly and with such grace that you don't even realize it is happening until it hits you when Paris realizes how attractive Duncan is.

So here's the way Theresa Monsour does it. This is not a complete analysis, nor do I try to include all references, I just selected a few to show you the gradually heightening tension.

He wore an oxford shirt with sleeves rolled up, dress pants and a tie--Christianson ordered all his commanders to wear ties--but his clothes looked as if Duncan had slept in them for a week. He had sneakers on his feet. Murphy recognized the brand. Pricey running shoes. The tread was worn. Did the slob actually exercise? The blazer he'd brought to work was on the floor next to his desk and there was a dirty stripe across the back; he'd run over it with the casters of his chair.
She got a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Had Yo-Yo [note: Murphy's nickname for Duncan is "Yo-Yo"] cooked up some theory and sold it to the cops up north? Duncan craved being in the middle of all the action. She hoped he hadn't dragged her into the middle with him.
She wanted to bolt out of the chair and tell him to go f-ck himself. Leave the room. Slam the door behind her. He'd love it, though. A big scene in the office.
"It's not our case."
"Not it is. Get your butt up there, Potato Head." [note: Duncan's nickname for Murphy is Potato Head and it really irritates her.]

Okay, what did we learn from that scene? I chopped out some parts because while they were important to the plot, they were not critical to how she is working to create the tension.

The scene above establishes Murphy's view of Duncan, that he is a slob and loves to create scenes. This drives many of her actions. But the real jewel is highlighted in green. Monsour is inserting a small idea that Duncan isn't the complete slob/waste of air that Murphy thinks he is, and Monsour is doing this from Murphy's view, so Murphy knows this, too.

See what I mean? No overt drooling or hard, throbbing things in anyone's pants.

Next bit.
Her cell phone rang while she was loading her bag into the Jeep. She pulled it out of her purse. "Murphy."
Duncan: "...Every time you pick up the phone you sound worse than the last time."
She silently cursed his perceptive ear.
... She appreciated Duncan's concern, but wasn't ready to spill her guts about anything personal.
She wondered if she could run her theory by him. ...

Hmm, he "might" exercise and he's perceptive. And Murphy is starting to think about running ideas by him. No heaving bosoms and longing glances, but something positive is going on here. Now, we are a little unsure if Murphy's just seeing him as less of a jerk and bonding with him as her boss, or if something a little more is going on here, mostly because she's seeing someone else at the time (although we don't care much for the current boyfriend). So again, we're taking slow, easy steps. The sort of steps that occur in real life. That's what makes this work. It's not over-the-top.

Next. [I've skipped a few more scenes that build a bit more on the positive, but I think you've got that idea now.]

"Sorry," he mumbled. "Been saying that to you a lot lately." He took his feet off the desk and stood up. Unbuttoned his left shirt cuff and started rolling up the sleeve while he talked. "I take it Mason is the one slipping us the copies of the treads and prints."
She stared at his left arm. No tracks. "Yeah. Erik," she said distractedly. ...
"What time should I pick you up?" He unbuttoned his right shirt cuff.
"Seven," she said. "Cocktails and appetizers at seven, dancing at eight."
"Dancing, huh? I better warn you. I'm a damn good dancer. Better keep up." He rolled up his right shirt cuff. "Where's it at?"
She studied his right arm. Again, no tracks.
He sat back down, rested his arms on the desk and caught her studying them. A tight smile stretched across his face. "You heard that bullshit story, too." Her mouth fell open; she didn't know how to respond. "I'm surprised you swallowed it. A smart cop like you. How long would I have lasted on the streets if I was doing that shit? Who fed you that crap? Your new boyfriend? Tell Mason he can kiss my ass."
She stood up. The cordial meeting had turned ugly. "My turn to say it. I'm sorry." She picked up her purse, threw the strap over her shoulder and turned to walk out. She put her right hand on the knob, pulled the door open a crack.
He bolted out of his chair and was right behind her. Pushed the door shut with his right hand. "Not so fact," he said in a low voice. "That hurts, Paris. That really fucking hurts. We worked together."
She kept her back to him. ... She said again in a low voice, "I'm sorry."
He planted his left hand on the other side of her. "Well 'I'm sorry' ain't gonna fix it."
They were standing too close. She felt trapped. Wished there was someone else in the office. At the same time she noticed he smelled good. Irish Spring soap and a cologne she recognized but couldn't place.
She turned and looked at him. He was genuinely hurt, and she felt bad. For the first time she noticed he had blue eyes. Not dark blue like hers. Light blue. Then she silently berated herself for noticing his eyes. Noticing his scent.
With her facing him, he suddenly realized how close they were and it seemed to embarrass him. He quickly took his hands off the door and lowered his arms. Took a step back from her. Folded his arms across his chest. "My record speaks for itself."
She couldn't keep from looking in his eyes. Bloodshot. Angry. Incredibly blue. If Jack was young James Caan and Erik was old James Dean, Duncan was Robert Redford after a rough weekend.
That's when she realizes it. Oh, she's not in love, but she's now fully aware of him. I'm not a big fan of dropping the names of actors in by way of describing someone - it has a tendency to date your writing. Nonetheless, this scene does double, triple time to advance the plot (for the sake of brevity, I cut out the plot-related stuff), make her aware that Duncan is NOT a drug addict like she thought, and finally, to make her aware of him as a man.

This scene was unbelievably full of sizzle. You don't get the full effect because you don't have the full context, but it was incredibly full of tension.

After this, Monsour has Duncan come pick up Murphy for their undercover "date" and Murphy gets to see him dressed up and realize how physically fit he really is, and how good he looks. Their relationship progresses step by step from there, complicated by her old boyfriend.

I highly encourage you to buy the book to see a primo example of how to do this development of a relationship and turn up the sexual tension in a realistic way. In fact, you might buy two copies so you can mark up one with a highlighter. *Grin* Now that ought to make the copyright Gods happy enough to overlook my "stealing" of Monsour's scenes!

What are some books you've read with good examples of s-e-xual tension?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

CRAFT: Writing the Dreaded S-E-X Scenes, part 1

It's lame to start with an excuse, but get over it. This is only part one because I'm getting ready to go on a trip (for work--not pleasure) and haven't had time to pull together all the references I wanted for this article--er, blog.

As some of you may have guessed many of my blogs on writing are meant to encourage *me* or help me work out some kind of issue I'm having. I don't actually have any issues with s-e-x (why am I writing the word like that? Because I don't want all the Internet search engines to think this is a p-o-r-n site, that's why) but on the whole, I'm bored when I read about it. What goes through my head at the point in the book where "this sort of scene" happens is (variously):
  • If I want titilation, I'll go rip off my husband's clothes. Get on with the action.
  • You can't possibly make me believe that a normal human being would have s-e-x at this point when they: a) have a crazed murderer/monster/serial killer stalking them just feet away; b) the man and woman don't even like each other and haven't stopped yelling at each other since page 5; c) are doing it on a rug/rock-strewn ground/other really uncomfortable place that's totally hard on the knees/back/elbows; and c) have no bathroom facilities for washing up afterwards (okay, this last is my own issue, I'll admit that)
  • *Wince* throbbing manhood? Oh, my *wince* this is just embarassing to think someone wrote this, and someone else edited it, and a whole lot of someone elses published this!
  • When are we going to get back to the action?
  • Oh, the heroine regrets this? Well, duh. Then why did she do it? Is she not an adult? Is she not in control of her own actions? Okay, now really when are we going to get back to the action? Flip, flip, flip, oh, here we are...

Think of the s-e-x scene as a fight scene. The first thing they have in common is that if they go on too long, even though you think it's exciting, it stalls the plot or real action in the story. That's right. Even the most exciting thing, if too protracted, gets to be a drag. There are only so many right fists to the jaw and judo throws a hero can do before readers start flipping pages. There are only so many laves of tongues a reader will endure before they get bored.

So, keep it short and exciting. That's sort of a broad point, but it's a relatively easy one to make, before we get to the harder parts. Ahem. Focus, please. Now, you're all prepared, right, to make this scene short and intense so that the action moves right along and you don't stall. Because that's the other problem with so many love scenes. It's also why you will find hundreds of articles about how to pick up the tension post-coitally. It's because a lot of authors have long love scenes that bring the tension and entire story to a screeching halt.

So, I would ask you to think about it this way. If you were editing something, say, a manuscript and there was a scene in it which stalled the story to the point where you had to figure out how to restart it after the scene is completed, would you leave that scene in the book? Why would you leave a scene in a book that kills the action and tension? You wouldn't. Now, a lot of people are screaming at this point, that this is a love scene so they have to leave it in! S-E-X sells! Yes and no. Lots of books sell without it, or with the actual "doing it" taking place off stage. It's a lot worse to have a book stall in the middle which gives the reader a convienant place to stop reading, than it is to not have s-e-x in the book. For many of us, that's even a relief, because the physical actions don't really propel the story any further and it's an unwanted digression. However, there are some exceptions where it does become, if not necessary, than at least helpful.

So, you want your scene to accomplish something and not be so protracted that you lose your readers. What to do, what to do... Well, you already know one thing: keep it short. Let's look at the other way(s) to keep your scene from stalling out. (One way. The other ways will be in the other articles I write on this subject, sometime after I get back from the frozen north.)

Don't do anything stupid. Don't have them make love when Jason, Michael Myers, and Jack the Ripper are standing outside the door conferring on the relative merits of dismemberment versus simple throat cutting.

And decide what the scene is going to accomplish. Because of the nature of s-e-x, this is going to have to be something emotional (much as that may make many of us very uncomfortable). It is not, however, about lust. So let me say that again. It is not about lust. The scene should be about one of the components of the conflict between the man and the woman. This man and woman, the ones in the book (not the generic Man vs Woman, Mars vs Venus thing).

When you know what the scene should do in terms of the characters and their journey through your story, then make the scene accomplish it. It's that easy.

Here's one example. It's from The Knight and the Rose by Isolde Martyn. In this story, the woman has been completely abused by her husband and now has a distaste for s-e-x (sorry, but I really was serious about avoiding Internet censors). Martyn has shown us very graphically the character's torment at the hands of her husband, but now we have a new guy on the scene. A kinder, gentler guy. However, we know the heroine, Johanna, really does have this problem. It's not going to be quick and easy for her to get over it. There are a few scenes leading up to the one I have below, where the hero, Gervase, woos her, so this scene comes on page 307 (in my copy of the book) so it's not at the beginning. Johanna is already beginning to slowly get over much of the abuse thanks to the previous wooing scenes...

"I--your hand is like ice."

"Warm it for me. Breathe on it." He held his palm to her lips. She complied. His mouth curled in a smile. He bent his fat to hers again, his lips urging hers to part for him while his hand moved to touch the tip of her right breast. He did not grab like Fulk had done. [Note: Fulk was her abusive husband - already we have a reference and understand why this is an important and necessary scene.] This man's touch was gentle, tantalising, teasing.

Johanna began to feel the magic. Sensations swirled with the casing of her hips. She was trying to fathom how it was possible that by caressing her nipple to a pieak, he could unleash a sense of softness between her thigs. Then she gave up the labour of thought and surrendered to the feelings flowing through her.

"That is wondrous," she murmured.

"You like it? Welcome news. We may progress further."

He stroked a finger down over her belly and drew battle plans across her skin; sorties and forays took place.

"Hmmm." She would have purred, had she been a cat. "I shall go to sleep if you do that much longer." His fingers tormented her breast again and she wriggled.

"This next part is important. It could take a while but you will enjoy it, I promise. Lie still." His fingers slid over the nest of hair between her legs. She tensed. He stroked the hair, soothing her and then slid his whole hand between her legs to palm her. Surprisingly the feeling that he was setting a hand of ownership upon her stirred her pleasurably and Johanna, who had sworn never to let a man's hand near her thighs again, was astonished at her own reaction. Then he parted her and began to gently caress her.

She tightened her defences instantly against him.

"No, you are becoming too intimate," she protested, pulling at his wrist to stay him.

The remark was somewhat late but he complied. "Then you will never know. It is your decision."

"Very well, a little longer then."

It only goes on a few more lines, but you see the point. This scene was the next step in his seduction of her (I mean that in a positive sense) because she needed to be seduced. Her reaction when she "tightened her defences instantly against him" was critical and necessary. She did not just forget all the previous abuse. What woman could? This made it believable and a necessary next step in her recovery. In fact, Gervase is intelligent and sympathetic enough to know he needs to help her first and he actually walks away from this scene unfufilled, himself, although Johanna is quite satisfied.

This book makes the love scenes take the normal small steps, petting, kissing, almost-did-it, did-it, which make them a believable sequence and not only are they believable, but they are critical to Johanna's journey from scared, abused woman to a strong woman who can once again enjoy all aspects of life. In other words, these scenes were necessary steps in the character's journey.

That's all I have time for tonight. I have to pack.

I'd love to know what makes s-e-x scenes work for you and why you do or don't include them.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Stuff and Nonsense

Link to another very down-to-earth blog about writing which everyone should read:
It's JA Konrath's site and he has excellent advice for all writers, but especially newbies.

Whew. I just put another issue of the Wilmington Cape Fear Rose Society newsletter to bed so instead of writing the mildly coherant blog I've been thinking about, which would have been on writing s-e-x scenes for those who aren't so thrilled with the idea, I'm just going to babble for a while. Spring is coming, which means it's time to get out there and try to get control over the poison ivy, Virginia creeper, Beauty Berry, jessimine vines and other weeds that have completely taken over the garden while I sat inside writing. Since moving here, I've come to LOATHE vines. There are no good vines. They entwine my roses, azaleas and other plants and eat everything. ARGH! Sometimes when I look out at our overgrown gardens, I think a scorched earth policy is not such a bad thing.

You know, I need to quit my paying job so I have time to actually garden and write about gardening. And write about writing. And then actually write. There is not enough TIME. I can't even remember the last time I went out birding, although I'm seriously glad I've learned a few bird calls, since most of my birding these days consists of whizzing around in a car on errands and hearing some bird call through my open window and screaming, "Oh! There's a Red-Tailed Hawk...somewhere around here!" I don't actually have time to see them anymore, I just hear them. But, I'm told that counts, too.

I did manage to write a few new pages, though, this last weekend thanks to the rain which kept me from doing the serious trimming that needs to be done in the garden.

All of this babbling is really leading up to something that is actually critically important to writers (although it sort of applies to gardeners and even birders). No matter how hectic your schedule becomes, or how depressed about your writing you are, you need to sit down at least once a day, every day, and just write. But not that journal stuff. That journal (or blog) stuff can wait until after you've written your real writing stuff, your fiction (or non-fiction, if you're writing non-fiction). Doing a journal, or blog, is on the nice-to-do list. It's not on the must-do list. The things on your must-do list are items like: shower (yes, you really must), eat, write, and sadly, one day, die.

If you don't write, you're never going to be a writer and certainly never a published writer.

Here's a secret. If you're really, really depressed and you've just gotten a handful of rejections back that say things like: "You're the worst writer I've ever had the misfortune to encounter" or "Never submit anything else to me again, you pathetic hack..." then what you need to do after you go out and scream with rage for about twenty minutes, is come back inside, sit down at your favorite writing medium (e.g. a computer, typewriter, or pen-and-paper) and write. Just write. The more depressed you are, the more you think you'll never publish, the more you need to sit down and force yourself to write.

It doesn't matter if you only manage to write one sentence. Just the act of writing will begin to lift your depression. Why? Because you are doing something about it. Let's face it, you're depressed because you've worked long and hard and submitted your best work and gotten your face smashed into the wall. The process is essentially like the lottery. What you're trying to do is find that one editor who understands your message and appreciates your writing. This is not easy and like the lottery, other than keeping up the submission process, it is largely out of your control. Your depression most likely stems from this "out of control" issue.

However, you do have one thing under your control. Your writing habits. So you go back to what you can control and you write. Every blessed day. I, personally, try to set aside the hours of 8-10PM to write. This is after my paying job hours, it's after dinner, so it doesn't conflict with the things I feel I gotta do. When things really get bad, I even write in other rooms on other things, like an AlphaSmart or a pen-and-paper--anything, really, that let's me write. It takes a while to work out of a depression, and believe me, I *know* depression, but it's amazing what focusing on your writing will do for your spirits. Not to mention, you will definitely improve your writing.

Oh, and there is one more thing you can do. I keep one shelf entirely full of really, really bad, and I do mean bad novels. Ones written in such a sophomoric style that it is hard to keep from laughing when you read them. When I get really depressed, I read them so I can sneer at someone else and think: You know, if this schlock can get published, it's only a matter of time before I get published.

You'll see. It'll make you feel much, MUCH better! There's nothing like a lip-curling sneer to lift your spirits.

Okay, I've shown you mine, what are YOUR methods to keep writing despite rejections, depression, and the economy?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

CRAFT: JIT for Writers

Before I start, I want to mention a blog. Tess Gerritsen. What a classy web site and blog. I encourage folks to visit her site. Even if for some mysterious reason you haven't read any of her books, she has a beautiful web site and an exceptionally interesting and entertaining blog. If you are at all interested in writing, you really should read it.

Her web site is:
Her blog is:

And yes, I have to admit that one of the very best things I like about her blog are the creepy facts. Maybe it's because when I was young, I studied to be a biologist, although when I grew up I married one instead. Or maybe I'm just weird, but I *love* her site.

Okay, now that that is out of the way (for now - I can't promise not to revisit the topic of Tess' blog in the future) let's move on to JIT.

JIT. What is it and what does it have to do with writing?

JIT is Just in Time. I learned all about JIT when I was working for Federal Prison Industries (from the outside, not from within the Federal Prisons,, let's not go there). It's an idea from the manufacturing arena where you only get the materials you need to make your finished product at or right before the point where you need the supplies, because storing materials is expensive (warehouse space, security, investment of capital before you get reimbursed by selling what you're making--you figure it out).

JIT for writers is not wasting your time with meaningless research. Think of your research as the material you need to manufacture your finished product: your manuscript. Sure, you need enough to get you started, and maybe enough to germinate some ideas, but there is no point in spending days, weeks, months researching every nuance of something you may only include in one character's off-handed comment on page 212.

Personally, I have an overload sensor. I've used it for years when developing plans to install/upgrade/develop computer systems. I'll do a certain amount of research and then my overload sensor goes off. It says: ENOUGH! It is time to start doing something with all this information. Then I begin work. Inevitably, I find there was something I forgot, or something I still needed to look up, but I could get answers to those questions relatively quickly because I had already established a foundation. Once you establish that foundation, stop.

You have to work with information for it to be useful, so at a certain point, more information is just more garbage you're trying to stuff into the dustbin of your brain. Stop.

This is particularly relevant to writers of historical fiction who get lost in history, or writers of mystery/suspense that include a lot of law enforcement/forensics or other technical information. You can get so caught up in the research that you never write.

So how do you avoid that? I'm hoping that you all have an overload sensor and that if you're having this issue of non-stop research, it's because you've tampered with, shut off, or otherwise disabled your overload sensor. If you have, you simply need to listen to yourself. At some point, some wee voice in your head will say: Enough, already. I can't take this anymore, do or die. Write the darn book. Let me work with what I have now.

If you don't have an overload sensor, it is much harder. I would recommend then, that you simply set a time limit on your research. Certainly no more than a month unless part of what you're researching requires interaction with other humans and you have to stretch out your schedule to meet their schedule.

The point is, all you are trying to do is get your foundation poured. Once the foundation is there, you can just start writing. As you write, you'll find that you're missing some critical pieces or have questions, e.g. What did the cells in Newgate look like in 1820 again?

When you come up against a question, do this.
1) Look it up in Google. If you can find an immediate answer within 1 hour (that's GENEROUS so stop whining) then get your answer and move on.
2) If there's no immediate answer in Google, start a hot sheet. That's a pink (color is your choice) piece of paper on which you write questions you are going to have to research when you FINISH your rough draft.
  • Number your questions on your hot sheet.
  • Put a symbol (I like the * myself) and the corresponding question number IN YOUR MANUSCRIPT so that later, you can do a search for the symbol (i.e. *) and you can find all these places that will need to be fixed/answered when you edit.
  • When you FINISH your rough draft, THEN you can research your questions, get your answers and go back through your document (using the search function for the *1 and *2 and so on, and insert the pertinent facts).
  • If you require the fact to know which direction your story should take, well, gosh. I'm sorry. Write it anyway. Be flexible. Because you know what? After you write it anyway, you can usually find some way to bend your fiction to fit whatever facts you discover, after the fact. For example, if you say it takes 3 days to get lab results back and then find out it's more like 3 months, all you have to do is find an alternative, like, well, they could send it to a private lab because this is so urgent that they need it NOW. Or there is some experimental procedure they decided to use, to get the results faster. And you don't have to go on, and on, and ON about it in your manuscript, trying to excuse it. One sentence is usually enough to dismiss the discrepency and move on (Oh, Ms. Garner, we got the results back faster because we used my brother-in-law's lab...) That's all. You can usually find a way to work it in without too dramatic a change in your storyline, and besides, that's what edits are for.

Oh, I forgot to mention, I use the '*' because an '*' has no business being in a normal manuscript, so it's something I can search for without fear of finding things that aren't questions (0r questionable).

You should seriously consider using JIT in your writing if you have problems controlling the amount of time you spend doing research. Manufacturers use it to control costs. Writers should consider using it for the same reason. Every hour you spend researching and slithering down rabbit holes is an hour you are NOT writing. You're goal is to write, finish, and publish your book, not do endless research.

Your brain will also thank you for your newfound restraint in trying to stuff it full of things it doesn't really want or need in order to be creative. There really is a limit to how much information you need before you begin to work with it. And despite what you think, no matter how much research you do ahead of time, you'll have just as many questions as you write as you would have had, if you had stopped wasting time researching eons ago. Think about it. Or rather, stop thinking about it and start writing.

Show-and-tell time: if you've developed other strategies to avoid the dreaded over-research phenomena, let us know. JIT isn't the only technique but it's certainly a useful one.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Encouragement to All You Writer Wannabes

Sometimes, you just want to quit. Sometimes, you look around and see that the genre you love has changed and is no longer what you love and you are feeling lost and lonely out there, trying to write, and darn it, trying to be published, even though you know that what you're doing is no longer what anyone seems to want.

Or maybe it's really something different that no one wants.

Sound like you?
Sure sounds like me.

I've pretty much always wanted to write, heck, I wrote a charming little story about a germ in first grade, complete with illustrations (in LIVING COLOR) and even went so far as to bind the darn thing, myself. I joined Romance Writers of America when they first formed and maintained that membership because they are one of the few writers groups that permitted non-published members to join. Right now, I've got over ten completed manuscripts, and I have great hopes for the last five. I got an agent on the 6th manuscript, so there are four more even newer (better?) ones after that.

So why, you ask, are you depressed?
Well, I'm not published. Sure, I have an agent, but oddly enough, in my fearsome mind, that means I now disappoint TWO people when I get a rejection, instead of just little old me.

However, that's really not the REAL reason. The real reason is that the romance market has changed. The books I love have morphed into something I no longer relish quite so much. All the forums seem to talk about is how to make your books hot, hotter, HOTTEST! when all I want is a good story. I don't want explicit body parts/exchanging of fluids -- the mechanics stopped being interesting to me after I found out how it all worked for myself (oh, sure, you crazy thing - I *meant* me and my boyfriend--duh!). So what interests me now is the story. I don't mind a little nooky. I don't mind a brief interlude of closeness if someone realizes something or shows something relevant to the story, but going on, and on, and on about throbbing members and the hot, wet lips of heaven (chose your metaphor) is just too much.

To my sadness, I've even stopped buying a lot of genres I used to enjoy, e.g. historicals and romantic suspense, because I no longer trust authors not to make me wince with pages of entirely gratuitous engorged cucumbers-and-ripe-tomatoes in some Duke's pants.

When I read them, I wince for the same reason I wince when an actor entering on stage accidentally trips--because I'm embarrased for them, not because I'm shy (just ask my husband, or read my earlier blog, to whit it would be hard to call someone shy who is willing--for whatever reason--to stand outside in January in the pouring ran, naked, and to calmly lather up, rinse, and repeat). Those agonizingly long scenes seem like the author has made some huge mistake and their editor was too embarrassed to point it out to them.

Oh, sure I guess readers do like this cucumber-and-tomato stuff, but for those of us who'd rather gloss over it and concentrate on the emotional life of the characters and the story, it's a bit of a bore.

So, anyway, the reason I mention this is because as a writer, I feel increasing pressure to put those sorts of salads in my manuscripts. To make them more sensual (that's what they're calling this purple prose stuff).

I don't do purple prose and I don't do rules. But I do get depressed when I'm told what I write--romantic, historical mysteries--maybe won't sell unless I add more sensuality (i.e. purple prose). It isn't my style and sadly, even though, sure, I could toss in a few salacious salads, if I did that and for some reason one of my manuscripts sold, I wouldn't want to read the darn thing post-publication.

Here's the thing. I like mysteries and science fiction because even the boys like Heinlein tend not to go in for the throbbing cucumbers when they write the salacious bits. Strangely, I like Chick Lit for the same reason. Sure, they have sex scenes, but the prose is considerably less purple and they don't go on about it for days. And usually the scene makes some point so it serves a purpose other than titilation. I used to like romances until they took a 90 degree turn and headed off down past the belt line.

And sure, I can add sex scenes. In fact, I've done it (where appropriate and the characters both agree) in a *few* of my manuscripts. I just don't do it in *all* my manuscripts because in some, it isn't important to the story and the characters violently object. And after all, as a writer, you're relying on the cooperation of your characters to strip and coordinate the action. If they won't do it, then to force the matter just makes them...boring. And wooden.

So. Do I quit Romance Writers, because the only thing anyone talks about anymore is making "it hotter"?
Do I just quit, period, because clearly I'm not in step with the times?
Will times change - frankly, on this last question, I think folks misunderstand "change" and cycles. Yes, things cycle in and out, but each cycle morphs so it never cycles back to precisely where it was before - it's similar, but different. So I don't expect it to ever really cycle back to the good old reassuring days when the hero and heroine kissed at the end. The best you can hope for on the cycle back--if it occurs--is a shorter sex scene without a lot of explicit descriptions. But, I'm good with that.

For writers who also feel lost, abandoned, out of step with today's markets, and generally depressed, I will point to another blog. Miss Snark is reportedly an agent. She's got a fascinating blog and she continually makes one point. No matter how out of touch you are, how bad you think your writing might be, whatever the case, Don't Give Up!
Don't stop writing just because you're feeling a little out of touch.
Here is a link to her blog. Use it.

Finally, don't feel alone out there. There are a lot of reasons to feel things aren't going your way as a writer. I'd love to hear from you about why you think your work isn't selling or won't sell. Misery loves company.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Getting What You Want

This is not going to be a post on how to get what you want. Let me make that absolutely clear, right up front. I don't get what I want, so I don't see why you would think I could advise you in this area.

It's just that I find it curious that I seem to get what I want, when I no longer want it, or when I didn't know I wanted it. But I never get what I want, when I want it. I find that interesting. It makes me wonder precisely what mechanism is at work there, because I've gone through all kinds of positive thinking seminars (forced on me under the guise of work-related training by my supervisors...hmm...does that mean they think I'm a pessimist?) and all the positive thinking seminars tell you to, well, think positive. Envision your goal. Envision yourself successfully attaining your goal. Envision hurling yourself off the balcony of your apartment building because you can't stand even ONE MORE person telling you in a chirpy voice that if you would just visualize it, you could attain your goals.

On what planet does that work? The blonde, peppy cheerleader planet?

Sporadically, I DO envision myself attaining my goals. And I do that, not just for a day, or a week, but years at a time. My limit seems to be five bloody, long years of envisioning a goal before I give in to my natural pessimism and realize it just ain't gonna happen, babe. And I give up.

So, still wanting to be a successful writer, I started envisioning that. Oh, not the walking through the airport and having people thrust books for you to sign into your hands, but the nice, you're gardening and get a new idea for a book you just know your editor (you have an editor!) will love sort of envisioning. I did that envisioning in college, but quit when I realized I needed to earn money if I was going to live long enough to continue envisioning anything. Then, ten years ago, I started envisioning again. This is the longest envisioning I've done. I think ten years is quite long. I wonder what those chirpy-voiced seminar instructors would say. I mean, were they able to keep envisioning something positively for ten freakin' years without any success?

What worries me and yet give me a strange feeling of hope is that I'm starting to feel tired with all this envisioning.

This gives me hope because it seems whenever I give up, I get what I want. Not through envisioning--no, but through simple despair.

When I first started working for a living, it didn't take me long to realize that I liked computers, and specifically operating systems. I wanted to be a systems administrator. So, I worked for 25 years in the computer field with some intersections with systems administration, but not as the enterprise systems administrator. Okay, so I finally get...tired...and realize I'm about 8 years away from retirement and I don't want this anymore because it's a lot of responsibility and for the first time in my career, I'm thinking it would be nice to slow down a little and not be the one responsible for digesting all the constant changes, planning out the deployments and then being up late at night and on weekends getting new operating systems installed and working, or answering HELP! calls from lower level systems administrator.

So, what happens? Right when I'm ready to throw in the towel and enjoy my last few years of work at a slightly less frantic/overworked rate, I get a job as an Enterprise Administrator. And here I am, planning a large project where I'll be working 18-20 hour days over the weekend and up-coming holiday, to get the first phase of a project completed. This is the job I always wanted. I have a dream boss. I'm a member of a great team. But, this isn't what I really want anymore, because I'd like more time to devote to other things such as gardening and writing.


Then, I remember back in the early 90's, I realized, very belatedly, that I actually would like to get married at least once in my life. I frantically dated for a few years, got completely burned out, and just quit. I just couldn't take the dating anymore, trying to be freakin' nice and not quite so intelligent, and all the rest. I decided this was it, I was going to be alone until I died. Then I met my husband and got married. What is with that?

So now here I am, reaching the end of my writing tether. I'm tired of working long hours on my paying job, then logging back onto my computer to work several more hours writing. I'm tired of trying to make my heros and heroines "sympathetic". I'm exhausted trying to "tone down" my voice so that it's not quite so obnoxious and smart-ass, and I'm trying to include enough descriptions and internal dialog so that readers actually know what is going on. (I, personally, believe that the readers get enough from the dialog and actions to know what is going on, if they chose to think about it, but apparently most chose not to think--see--I'm trying not to be a complete intellectual snob, but there it is. I am. But, not the type of intellectual snob who thinks flinging paint at a canvas makes ART and if you can't see that, then you're simply not understanding what the artist is trying to convey. In that instance, I believe what the artist is trying to convey is that they want to get a lot of money for minimal or no effort, and convince everyone they are a genius when in reality, they have a hard time remembering how to flush the toilet. So, at least I'm not that kind of an intellectual snob.)

Interestingly enough, I also now have an agent. Sigh. Does this mean that the week I chuck it all in and go out and play instead of spending an extra 3 hours each night writing at the computer, I'll get a call from my agent telling me that she's gotten an offer?

If I chuck it all in now, will I get that call faster?
Ahhh, the power of pessimistic thinking...

Maybe I should teach a seminar on chucking it all in. Maybe I could become rich and famous.
Want to be Successful? Forget it! The Pessimist's Guide to Success!
Tired of working long hours with no rewards or recognition? Tired of rejection? Just plain tired? Then you need this course! All you have to do is QUIT TRYING! Park your lazy butt on the sofa and watch a few hours of television! Take a nap! Forget trying to excel! Believe in the zen of despair! Give it up NOW! Why wait a minute longer? The faster you give up, the faster you'll get what you no longer want! It's a miracle!

For just $19.95, I'll send you the complete kit: The Pessimist's Guide to Success! including the poster of your choice from, a mug (to hold all that coffee you no longer need to drink), and a book with a complete life plan on meeting your goals by giving up on them. But hurry - this is a limited time offer. By the time you read this, I'll have already given up on this plan and resigned myself to an old age riddled with despair and cans of cat food (or maybe dog food, because I think you get more for less with dog food...)