Writing

front garden in November, decline, brown

Faith to the Finish

The work in progress is at a crucial stage. Not only is the protagonist about to face a really big challenge, but the author (that would be me) is being attacked by thoughts such as these:

Why would she wear that dress while crawling through the tunnel? That’s just dumb.

The photos can’t be in two places at the same time. Uh-oh.

Okay, she finds the cello in the underground room. No, she doesn’t. Because it’s the reason she decides to meet him in the wadi. Even if she knows what he did? That’s just dumb.

Aaargh, let’s think this through again.

There should have been more foreshadowing.

This doesn’t make sense. Any of it. Even with foreshadowing.

This novel is a pile of crap.

Trouble is, I’m at 75K words, and until now I’ve been pretty happy with the thing. It’s too late to call it a false start (especially since I’ve been beavering away on it since January).

Can’t quit, can’t go back. The only way out is to keep moving forward. It’s sure to look better when I’m done.

This is where faith comes in. Faith that I can realize the vision for this novel I’ve been carrying around for the last three years. I wrote the first 17 pages and then abandoned it for more than a year, but I never stopped thinking about it.

There are few things worse than being haunted by an unwritten novel. At the beginning of 2017, I resolved to go back and write it. Now that I’m getting to the climax scenes, a kind of performance anxiety has arrived. These are the crucial scenes! What if I mess up? But I’ve learned a lot by now…

The handwritten proto-draft always feels like crap. The real first draft (Word doc) is always better.

Overthinking details is pointless at this stage. Just write ’em down.

Keep pushing the pen and don’t look back.

You’ll work out the kinks later. You’ve done it before and will do it again.

The earlier sections can be tweaked, adjusted, added to and, if necessary, totally rewritten.

Focus on the key elements of the original vision: that which must be preserved, and and that which must be sacrificed.

Focus on how great it will feel to lose this albatross realize this vision.

KEEP WRITING!

 

winter jasmine, yellow flowers, Jasminum nudiflorum

Winter jasmine in bloom: little yellow sparks in the darkest time of the year.

 

 

 

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Why the Divide Between Speculative Fiction and Literature?

Here are some thoughts on speculative fiction (a term that embraces much) by Kyle A. Massa.

Kyle A. Massa

Floating Castle

Literature | ˈlit(ə)rəCHər | noun | Written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit. – New Oxford American Dictionary


According to a certain stuffy pocket of the literary community, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, collectively known as speculative fiction, don’t qualify as literature. Decent stories? Maybe. Cool ideas? Sure. But in the eyes of this snobbish literary elite, speculative fiction just doesn’t measure up to stuff like The Grapes of Wrath and Moby Dick

Would you ever read Moby Dick willingly? Yeah, neither would I.

Take the 2003 National Book Awards as an example. That year’s winner was none other than Stephen King, who of course mainly writes horror. The literary elite wasted no time in attacking him, no doubt because he’s just a lowly genre writer. Here’s a quite from critic Harold Bloom.

“The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for ‘distinguished contribution’ to…

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Logic and Logistics: Writing a Plausible Plot

The Work In Progress is approaching The Crisis. This is where all the plot points are drawn together to produce the climax and conclusion — the whole point of writing (and reading) the novel.

Having written five pages of #12 — I’m not going to worry about chapters until a later draft, so each of the fifteen 5-to-7-thousand-word sections is called #1, #2, etc. Back to #12 — having written five pages, I wasn’t happy with where it was going. The characters were sitting down to yet another meal! Forget that, guys — it’s time we had some action here!

clock mechanism plus numbersAfter a productive thinking session in the shower, I wrote a Revised Sequence of Events list for #12. My mind cleared as the sky after a rainstorm, and I now have a much better outlook on the WIP. (We’ll see how long that lasts).

I’m beginning to understand the Rushed Ending which plagues many a novel, if reviews I’ve read are any indication. The author has been juggling a bunch of balls for 70 thousand words, and now must speed up the rate of ball movement while dancing on a tightrope. All the details, hints, foreshadowing, red herrings, symbols and themes must fit together in a way that makes sense and produces thrills, excitement and satisfaction for the reader. No wonder there’s a certain urgency to get it all done before the balls go bouncing all over, or the whole thing collapses.

rubiks cubeI think I’ll be all right if I keep asking myself these questions: Why would she/he do that? And: Does this make sense? If the honest answer to the first question is “Just ‘cuz,” and to the second is “No,” I’ll have another look at what leads up to that point and make the necessary changes. (Of course, fiddling with one part of a plot can mess up another, sort of like Rubik’s Cube).

Plot logic is especially important when supernatural elements come into play. Up to this point in my WIP, they have lurked in the background, occasionally peeking out to generate interest and hint at future developments. I have to resist the urge to invoke the supernatural as a quick fix for plot problems that should be dealt with in realistic ways. “Oh, hey — I guess I can fly now!” On the other hand, I don’t want to spin things out to the point where the magic, diluted with too much realism, becomes irrelevant.

Well, having made these observations, it’s back to writing the WIP. Now, where’s that list?

cosmos

Images from Pixabay.

table, teapot, plates, candle

Savouring the Plot: Food In Fiction

People in movies hardly ever eat. Drink, yes, eat, no. Even in a movie that’s all about food, like Babette’s Feast. Consider — it’s pretty hard to look gorgeous, sexy, or heroic while chomping on something, or with crumbs clinging to your perfectly plumped lips. Never mind the horror of a smile revealing a chewed up glob stuck to a tooth.

But in books, this doesn’t matter. Readers edit their own mind-movies, and most enjoy a meal or snack now and then.

Remember The Hobbit? Bilbo Baggins is always thinking about food, even when dealing with trolls and giant spiders. Readers relate to that, for who hasn’t suffered from hunger pangs? And when those pangs are relieved (in Beorn’s house, for example) the reader shares vicariously in the feast. Come to think of it, Tolkien created many such occasions. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are full of food-related scenes, from Bilbo’s birthday party at the beginning to Sam’s rabbit stew near the end.

My fictitious characters eat a lot. Or rather, many plot-propelling conversations in my novels take place at meals — dinners, lunches, impromptu snacks or afternoon teas.

But is the writer obligated to supply their characters with three squares a day, plus snacks, from page one to “The End?” In my current WIP, mealtimes are interfering with the meat of the plot. I’m getting tired of figuring out what to cook up for these folks in Luxor, Egypt, in 1962 — in a cafe, in a hotel restaurant, in the “dig house” of an archaeological team. What about a bag lunch for the trip to the mysterious wadi? Give me a break! I’ll furnish enough food for plausibility, but don’t intend to get bogged down in irrelevant culinary details.

Now I’m (finally) at the stage where dire discoveries and amazing revelations are more important than the next meal. Physiology being what it is, though, my young, healthy protagonist will get hungry even while trying to escape the clutches of the villain, and figuring out the Secret.

Well, if she survives, she might get a cup of coffee and something sweet.

coffee-2458300__340

 

Writing Contest Idea – Feedback Please!

Now here’s an idea worth looking into! Your chance to suggest the prize for a contest!

Fiction by Rachael Ritchey

I’ve been working on design techniques and making more pre-made book covers. Now, keep in mind, I’m more than happy to make changes to my pre-made designs if such differences will better suit an indie author’s needs. I mostly make them for practice and to give an idea of what I’m capable.

But what we’re really here to talk about today is an idea that I had while staring at this fantastic cover I designed last night, one that cannot be sold to anyone as is but is still too cool to let it collect virtual dust in a file on my hard drive.

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All the pictures are CC0 public domain photos, but with the faces and not knowing if there are model releases, I cannot use them for retail sale of the design. I am sure I could ask the photographers, but at this point it didn’t seem worth…

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Zeke the Cat sleeping on pond bench,

“Boring!”

A cat would rather sleep than read a book.* So would many readers, if the book they’re reading is boring.

This is the ultimate condemnation of a piece of writing. It’s OK (sort of) for a book to be gross, disgusting, crude and even lame (well, lame isn’t so good), but to be labelled boring means a book is a dead duck. Review sites are full of comments like, “If you can’t sleep, take this book,” or, “The only time the story moved along was when I threw the book at the wall.” Accompanied by single stars.

So, authors — don’t write boring! Easy peasy.

But…

What is boring, anyway?  “Boring,” like “fun,” “profound,” or “disgusting,” is a judgment, not an absolute.

Words and phrases often seen in reviews along with “boring” include: slow, too much description, too complicated, doesn’t go anywhere.

So, to many readers, “boring” = slow, wordy, confusing, pointless. But some readers describe slow-paced books as engrossing, with vivid descriptions, complex characters and intricate plots. Questions, puzzles or mysteries engage readers and make them eager to go on the journey created by the author, even if it’s 700 pages long.

For examples of diverging reader opinions, have a look at Goodreads reviews of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

The deciding element seems to be purpose — slow or fast, wordy or terse, simple or complex, if a story doesn’t present a destination, however distant, many readers are not willing to put in the time and effort to read it. To put it crudely, there has to be a payoff.

July 2, 2012

Where?

A book must offer something worth the reader’s time, a path with promise. If the path heads into a dismal swamp or an arid wasteland, instead of climbing to gorgeous views and dramatic heights, the reader will turn around and go home.

Beautiful prose alone isn’t enough reason to keep reading. A plot full of twists and turns won’t keep the reader’s interest if it wanders around aimlessly without a resolution. Fulsome descriptions, extensive backstory, and philosophizing by the narrator put demands on readers’ patience, but they are willing to do the work and put in the time if there is a question to be answered, a mystery to be solved, a revelation to be revealed. The author must acknowledge this and keep the story moving, even if it’s slow and complicated.

Some readers appreciate books that require a bit of intellectual effort. Others demand pure escapism, effortlessly absorbed. The cover image and book description should accurately signal the book’s genre and tone, but, like body language at a cocktail party, there may be room for misinterpretation. If a book’s exterior says “I’m a thriller,” but the story inside is actually romance or another genre, readers feel deceived.

Once annoyed with a book, readers may detach from the story and start to notice things they wouldn’t otherwise: overused phrases or reminders of character quirks; writing that calls attention to itself  (“Hey, check out my strong verbs!”); potentially confusing complications such as chronological and p.o.v. jumps. And, of course, typos, misspellings and grammatical errors.

At this point, the reader closes the book never to open it again. Or maybe throws it at the wall and writes a one-star, one-word review: “Boring.”

Finally, “boring” may be short for “It wasn’t my kind of book.” Reading, after all, is a two-way process. Just as publishing has become easier, so has reviewing and commenting on books. Not all reviews and comments are thoughtful and eloquently expressed.

Authors, be aware of the expectations your book creates, and make sure it delivers what is promised.

Readers, if you think a book is boring, try to figure out why, and put those thoughts into your review. They might help the author write a better book.

* Of course, cats would rather sleep than do just about anything.

frog on toilet

Unmentionable?

“Write what you know.”

And something everyone knows is you have to go to the bathroom several times a day. When you gotta go, you gotta go. It’s non-negotiable.

So why do fictitious characters hardly ever need to do this?

Not that I’m keen to know every time someone in a novel needs to take a whiz, but considering how awkward it is to be “took short,” wouldn’t authors who want to make their characters suffer take advantage of physiological realities? Especially when you consider the amount of coffee imbibed by some characters and their creators. What about a detective hot on the trail of a suspect who has to stop and look for a washroom? Or a romantic scene short-circuited by a call of nature?

And what about villains? There may be other ways to foil their evil plans.

Hmm.

Seriously, I’ve read advice to the effect that readers relate better to characters with real human imperfections than to flawless types who never mess up or encounter any of the annoying little problems of life. Like running out of TP. Or making an entrance trailing some from one’s stiletto heel.

So what prompted these scatological speculations? The main character of my current work in progress is right now in a situation where the facilities are minimal and basic. No hot shower, no triple-ply TP, and maybe no toilet as such — awkward for a young American woman visiting a village on the west bank of the Nile in 1962. And things are going to get worse.

I suppose the reason for the absence of bodily functions in fiction is obvious: “Eww, who wants to read about that stuff?” Well, hardly anybody, including me. As a fictional device, this is one where “less is more” applies. Which is why my character will have to cope with the lack of facilities off-page. Besides, if I do my job right, she’ll have a lot more to worry about.

 

washroom sign

Images courtesy of Pixabay

 

 

SWCF manuscript and notes

Slogging Through the Mushy Middle

Nothing is as easy as not writing.

My current work in progress is at the 60% point, based on my scribbled outline. The word count is approaching 60,000, with a goal of 90,000 to 100,000, allowing for trimming off 10,000 words in rewrites. The crisis and climax are crystal clear in my mind, glowing like the Arkenstone in the dragon hoard of Smaug.

So what’s the problem? Or am I just gloating?

No gloating here. Sixty thousand words in eight months doesn’t warrant it. (“Gloat today, grieve tomorrow,” as someone said, or should have). The problem is I have only the fuzziest notion of how to get my character from ‘here’ (the village of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna near the Theban Necropolis) to ‘there’ (the… oh, wait — can’t reveal that. No self-spoilers!)

This is the manuscript that was abandoned on page 17 for a couple of years. Almost a year ago, I decided to go against advice and offer it to my critique group at the first draft stage, section by section.

So far, I’ve written ten of fifteen sections (five to seven thousand words each). I scribble each part in longhand first, just to splash something onto the page. Keying it into Word, I make it real, adding material as needed and changing details. After a bit of polishing, off it goes to the group, to be critiqued at our next monthly meeting. This creates a deadline, which has worked well to keep me slogging forward.

It’s a scary feeling, as each critique meeting winds up, to know I have to create at least five thousand more words of coherent narrative in less than a month. Somehow, during the summer, I managed to get ahead by one chunk, which lessens the panic a little. Of course, if I fail to deliver, it doesn’t really matter. The group won’t mind; it’s one less thing to read before the meeting, and allows more time to discuss the pieces put forward. But it’s still a public no-show — same idea as exercising with a buddy. You don’t want to look like a quitter, so you show up.

But the mushy middle part of a novel — that’s perilous territory. Self-doubt migrates to it and lurks there. Little imps pop up and whisper things like, “Boring!” “Slow!” “Too much ‘telling,’ not enough ‘showing’!” “Why bother writing this? You’ll just have to cut it.” And the biggest imp of all comes up with, “Just give up already. There are already too many books out there. No one’s going to read this, so just give up.”

This recent post from blogger K.M. Allan was really helpful.

Like a mudhole, the mushy middle isn’t the place to stop and brood. I tell myself to keep slogging and just get through it before I sink. I’ll bet many novels are abandoned at this stage. Never mind if it’s not my best writing, never mind if I get all the details right. Just get the plot line laid out. Once the climax is in sight, the magic will take over and I’ll run, leap, fly to the scintillating conclusion! (I hope).

 

purple-2721502__340

I’ve said it before, and think it every day — plotting is hard. This novel, like my others, contains elements of the supernatural, but it’s set in the real world, which means I can’t routinely invoke magic to get things done. I have to pay attention to details like distances between real places, modes of transportation, weather, and technology circa 1962.

I have no problem writing scenes I find compelling. They arrive fully formed in the cranial inbox. All I have to do is sit down and render the mental pictures into prose. Then I go crazy trying to stick them together in a coherent sequence without resorting to tedious glue-like (i.e., boring) prose.

The best way is to move directly from one high-interest scene to the next, adding the minimum of transition text, just what’s needed to avoid confusion. I’m going to do that! If more glue is needed, I’ll apply it in Draft #2.

Then there’s the plausibility issue. I don’t know if this happens to other writers, but it’s amazing how easy it is to lay aside logic and reason to get my characters into the situations I’ve planned for them. I have to keep asking myself, “Why?” Why would she decide to leave Situation A and seek out Situation B? Why would something of vital importance in Chapter 3 become totally irrelevant in Chapter 7? If the answer is something like, “Well, it just has to happen, because they have to be in the…” it’s back to the Plot Plan and Character Profiles scribbled in blunt pencil on the back of a piece of junk mail.

Keep slogging! The ground seems to be rising a bit here. The crisis and climax will soon emerge over the horizon.

balloons luxor

The scene of the WIP: west bank of the Nile, near Luxor. (Image from Pixabay)

3 Reasons Why You Need to Finish Your Writing Project

At the 2/3 point through a first draft that’s getting to be a tough slog I found this inspiring. Writers, read this before you think about quitting!

Knowledge is Power

Have you ever wondered why starting a project can be so full of ideas, motivation, focus, and commitment, only to later on land into an overwhelming state of pressure, agonizing middle, and a completely dispirited end? This scenario occurs more often than not, and am moved to refer to it as the curse of the writer.

Stumbling blocks characterize almost all writing projects, so badly in some situations that they completely disorient what was once a comprehensive research, sleepless nights, sincere effort, and immense sacrifice, just to name a few. Ranging from lack of time, family issues, writers block, running out of ideas to fear of rejection, stumbling blocks can easily lead to an incomplete and stagnated end.

Every writer’s desire is to start writing a book or an article, and most importantly to finish it. Here are 3 reasons that should make you reconsider completing your project.

  1. You Owe…

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knitting, yarn, lavender purple

Unpicking and Re-Knitting

At a recent meeting of my critique group, it was brought to my attention that something should happen at an earlier point in the narrative. I sort of knew that already, so didn’t need to go through all five Stages of Receiving Critique (denial, argument, brooding, grudging acceptance, rewriting). I jumped right to rewriting. And swearing and hair-tearing.

Rewriting a completed scene, especially one that’s mostly dialogue, is HARD, even when you want to. It’s got that finished look, prettied up, polished and (you thought) perfect. And even when you have to admit it isn’t perfect, taking it apart and remaking it is a painful process.

In this scene, the characters do things and say things. There’s an internal logic to the sequence of actions. The last words spoken by one character cue the first words of the other. Yanking globs of text from one spot and moving them to another requires a rebuild of the receiving area to rejig that internal logic.

After a couple of minor fits, I decided a logical approach was needed.

First, I identified all the bits of text to be moved and highlighted them in different colours. Topic #1 (turquoise) had to be dealt with before getting into Topic #2 (green). Stuff I didn’t know what to do with was yellow. Directions to self were in upper case purple text.

Well, at least it was colourful. (And so was some of my language).

Once I identified the relevant pieces of text, I had to decide where to move them. Then I adjusted those areas so the incoming text would flow seamlessly into what was already there.

Then I started CTRL-Xing and CTRL-Ving. Some sentences changed colour several times and moved enough times to earn frequent flier points before settling into their final spots. My head started to spin and ache, and certain short words spiced up my internal dialogue.

“No, you can’t put that there! She doesn’t know that yet!”

“He can’t start talking about that until she’s asked him about it!”

“That doesn’t make any !@#$ sense!”

AAARGH!

A number of metaphors sprang to mind — taking apart a piece of woodwork held together with dovetail joints and moving the pieces around, or unravelling parts of a sweater, re-knitting them with a different pattern, and ending up with something that’s still a sweater.

In the end, of course, my efforts were worthwhile. The scene works better, and a reader won’t have any idea of the strain and pain that went into its creation.

rubiks cube

Which is how it should be.

Now back to reading about the geology of the Valley of the Kings, and whether the sediments include concretions.

They do! Another plot point nailed down! Progress!

Images courtesy of Pixabay.