Thursday, May 29, 2014

Writers paying it forward

I've been tagged in a meme that asks some pointed questions of writers. It's a neat "pay it forward" idea put out there by Frank "Chip" Etier, who's been a steady contributor at Weekend Writing Warriors. Some peeps I've come to think of as good friends were first encountered on WeWriWa or its predecessor, Six Sentence Sunday. Writing is, at its core, a solitary pursuit but there's no way you can do it effectively by being 100% alone, IMHO.

What am I working on? --not a simple question! Define "working on". I'm currently engaged in plot wrangling on the novel I started for NaNo 2013. The working title is Night Shift. It involves demons, humans, and angels. I'm currently redefining it because I wasn't able to do any planning or plotting before having to jump into NaNo; 34 chapters in, I had to admit that I simply can't write a novel without any planning. I mean I had some general ideas on what to do with the plot but that's nowhere near enough planning. 

In the process of learning how to write better, I joined two online critique sites: Critique Circle and Scribophile. Each has slightly different things to offer and both are worthwhile. The more I learned about the writing process in general, the more I would think how to apply the various lessons to to the novel that's on my back burner, Street Glass. Neal and the boys have been in my head for some 30 years. I badly want to write that story when my skills are improved, not when I'm still a writing newbie. I kind of think of Street Glass as my fine wine--and you know what they say about wine, do not open it before it's time. Or something like that! 

So I could make a case for saying I'm working on two projects more or less at the same time, though I'm only actively plotting one of them.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? --also a tough question, even if I stick to Night Shift because I haven't read other stories with demons and angels. I do that on purpose. I don't want to accidentally pick up anybody else's plot, characters, or writing voice. Whatever I write, I want it to come from my weird brain only! But I will say that my demons and angels, while having certain things in common with Christianity, do not reflect any existing religion. My angels always refer to God with ambiguous titles like Holy of Holies and One Without End. I try to even steer clear of using a gender pronoun when referring to God. 

Even the demons are not meant to depict Christian ones. Kazimir explains to Devorah that the being she's familiar with as "Satan" is actually much older than that title (and Satan is really a title, not a name). I'm basing my demons on those found in a particular ancient mythology. 

Why do I write what I write? --holy cow, pun intended, how do I know? If I want to wax philosophical, I could say that people like me who felt ignored and belittled as children turned to books for comfort because those "people" were always welcoming. They always invited me into their world without any hesitation, it seemed. Once I realized how wonderful it was to get lost in books, it was a short hop to creating my own stories. 

Because now, I hold the power! muwahahaha! Of course most fiction, particularly the fantasy sort I like best, tends to need the main characters to suffer somehow in order to keep increasing the tension--this isn't something I made up, it's advice given by well-published authors, and successful agents and editors. I not only bring my characters to tears, I chase them up the proverbial tree and plop snarling wolves at the base of the tree, then I fire flaming arrows into it! 

I can put them through heart-breaking times and help them find love everlasting. Bringing these people to "life" is the most amazing thing I've ever done. They're all different facets of me and I can see myself in them sometimes, but other times, I swear I've tapped into some other dimension :D

How does my writing process work? --well, I wish I knew :D I can say this much--I cannot pants a true story. No, going down that road only leads me into a hedge maze. A story is more than just a string of events--there has to be a coherent plot; a start, a middle, and an end; there should be some sort of climax or high point; and I think the whole thing should mean something. Without some plotting, I just have a narrative of events and emotions that don't lead anywhere. 

I can also say that my stories are character-driven. I'm not really into troop movements across the continent, hard-core science, or predictable plots. What grabs me first is a fascinating person--why they're fascinating is subjective, but overall I'm attracted to characters who are different from most people around them. 

In Street Glass, Neal's a card-carrying gang member who desperately wants out of that lifestyle. What traps him is the rule that if you leave and the gang catches you, you are very dead. His opposite in almost every way, Sandy is the drummer in a rock band. He lives the high life but also carries a secret guilt. When Neal kidnaps him, Sandy thinks all he wants is to get back home safe and sound, but then he sees a chance for personal redemption--or is it more than simply personal? 

For Night Shift, as I said I'm retooling the plot, but the basic idea is that Devorah is the "point of view" character. She comes from a mixed Jewish-Christian family and isn't strongly drawn to either faith. When her father, the police chief, is gunned down she feels she's lost her biggest supporter and the person who helped her make sense of the craziness that is life. But she doesn't take anything lying down, so when she's recruited into a group of demons who are also servants of the Light, she willingly reinvents herself. She has to maintain her cover as a demon and finds that sometimes, she likes it. 

I get seed ideas by asking the age-old question "What if?" For Street Glass, I got the initial idea from the first verse of the song Baba O'riley by The Who. To me, the verse sounds like two different people talking, and I wondered, What if those two people met? 

With Night Shift, I was drawn to stare at the front porch of a house, shadowed by a fully leafed-out tree. The emptiness seemed to be waiting for somebody. What if that spot was where some dodgy guy came to meet somebody, and what if one of them was up to no good? That led to a scene in draft 1 where Devorah first meets Kazimir in a cemetery, and he does look pretty dodgy to her. I may ditch the scene in the next draft, but without having thought of it, I wouldn't have the story at all. 

So there you are :) I think all good writers are basically nosy people :) I'm off to tag three writer friends of mine to keep this thing going. Although before I go, to bring this back around to where I started, I've been able to progress with both novels because I've given and received critiques. Getting them has obvious benefits in that readers point out things they feel don't quite work well, and things that work great. Giving them has more subtle benefits; you gradually train your "ear" to what sounds good and what doesn't, and you realize that some of the mistakes you see in other people's work are the same ones you make yourself--and then you realize that you need to start taking your own advice! 

I've gotten some truly wonderful compliments on my writing. That would never have come about without the give and take that happened when I got active with other writers. One of them, when she found out my laptop died and I couldn't replace it, sent me a mini laptop she was no longer using. For free. Simply offered it to me. Writers have kind of a bad rap, people think of them as loners who drink too much and talk to themselves. But they're some of the most generous people on Earth. I'm so honored and humbled to be part of that group. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Weekend Writing Warriors 5/25/14: the weight of utter hopelessness

Can you believe it? Not only another Sunday, but it's almost June :-) I live in a cold-winter climate and am ecstatic that there are leaves on the trees again!

Picking up with my NaNo story tentatively titled Night Shift; the last excerpt I posted is here. Devorah has found the room where Kazimir is attempting to trap the demon Thaumiel. She's gotten in a bit over her head, though, as a large shadow drops into the middle of the circle she's facing. Kaz and his two friends, all in their demon forms, are inside the circle.

Turns out I've got 7 sentences this time! I seem to be having issues with going all the way to 8, but at least I'm staying within the guidelines this way. Collected excerpts for this story are here.
The shadow rose up to brush the ceiling with two curved horns and a pair of wings made of black fire. It turned to nail me with bright red fire eyes. 

My breath caught in my throat. Almighty God, please help me! The weight of utter hopelessness pressed me closer to the floor.  Try as I might, I couldn’t take my eyes off the dark terror only a few feet away.

Devorah Moore, said a deep rolling voice in my head, your soul is mine.
This whole thing is Draft 1. I've run into problems with the plot and am considering what to do about that. At this point, I'm thinking Draft 1 may end up being backstory. Wish me luck :-)

For some fabulous excerpts from pretty creative writers, hit the WeWriWa blog hop. We have a lot of fun with a huge variety of stories. There's never a dull Sunday with this group!

It's Memorial Day weekend in the States. Please spare a thought and a prayer for all the soldiers who have given their lives in service to their country. If you know a veteran, take the time to say "thank you" in person -- they may never have heard that before, and they really deserve to be thanked.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Learning all the time

The interesting thing about actively working on one novel-in-progress and having another in the back of my mind is that as I get help on the active one, I sometimes think of things that will help the inactive one. I can't really give a specific example. It's more of a cumulative process. Sure, sometimes I'll remember something a character said or did and the thought will pop into my head: Oh, I see why that's weak. I'll have to change that. But more often I'll remember the thought process that went into having a character say or do something, and realize that the process itself is lacking.

My other novel-in-progress (maybe I should start using NIP instead of WIP? *laff*) is kind of a self-discovery/coming-of-age story. One of the main characters is 18 when the story starts and is 24 or 25 when it ends. This is Street Glass. I got most of Neal's motivations and goals figured out, but when I put most of the first draft up for critiquing, people had a lot of trouble with Sandy who came off as just too nice of a guy without a good reason for wanting to pull Neal out of a dead-end life.

I put a bit of an edge to Sandy's personality and gave him a temper. Then I gave him a personal reason for wanting to help Neal (in the form of a cousin whose death Sandy felt was his fault). Both of those changes helped but still didn't feel like enough to readers.

That had me perplexed and even annoyed for quite a while. Annoyed because it was all so clear in my head and I couldn't understand why I wasn't conveying it to readers.

Now though, I can see the problems I had with Sandy were because I don't know him as well as I need to. Neal has always been easier for me to get emotions and thoughts across to readers. The thing is, I've written many scenes with Neal just for myself, because I like him so much I wanted to watch him react in scenes that are not intended to make it into the novel.

I did that a little with Sandy but decided I had him all figured out so didn't need to find anything else out about him. Oh, youth and inexperience!

Ironically, it's the same problem I currently have with Devorah in Night Shift. I like her well enough but have never felt I know what makes her tick. Kaz became much more interesting; bits of his backstory kept popping out at unexpected moments, pulling me right into his character. Devorah, well, not so much. Again I like her (quite a bit) and it didn't seem like I needed any more motivation for her.

Surprise! Then I got well-meaning advice like "pretend Oprah is interviewing your character". Sure, in general I can see how that could help. But I have no idea what Oprah would ask my character! Any real-life interviewer is a distinct personality that I can't just pretend to be. Generic, static lists of questions don't help me either because they're not tailored to my character.

So I got myself into the Plot Busters group at Scribophile where the purpose is to fix plots gone awry by looking at specific elements of character and plot (as well as story, which is different than plot).

What are some things you've gotten stuck on? Do characters give you more trouble than plot? Can you "pants" a story, or do you need to plot the whole way? I can't "pants" anything coherent. Do character interviews work for you? Do you use plot templates? This inquiring mind wants to know :)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Weekend Writing Warriors 5/11/14: What's just dropped in to visit?

Hi again, everybody. Wishing all moms a Super Happy Wonderful day, whether your kids are human or animal :) Myself, I have a bunny named Miss Mousie and a parakeet named Herschel. Hope you all have the very best day imaginable!

I'm picking up with my NaNo story (working title Night Shift) directly from two weeks ago since I got so many requests to continue from where that one ended. It's pretty cool  that you guys are enjoying this! Collected excerpts for this story are here

Left out of the post two weeks ago is the mention of a tangle of black, writhing shadows on the floor. They have a human shape, roughly. They are inside a circle drawn on the floor, along with Kazimir who is now in his demon form. BTW, the story is told from Devorah's point of view. I'm posting six sentences again because I don't want spoilers!

A loud humming filled the room. Unable to even move my hands to cover my ears, I grimaced as the high-pitched sound drove into my brain. One of the writhing shadows slipped free to ooze across the floor. Vaguely human-shaped, it covered something round and glowing in the middle of the circle.  Kazimir let out a roar at the same instant that a large shadow dropped into the center of the circle. The humming quit with a snap. 

This is not really a "feel good" type of story! For some of those, some introspective stories, some romance, some fantasy, and well okay, one or two more that are kind of scary, visit WeWriWa. I know it's Mother's Day in the U.S., but if you have some time today, tonight, or tomorrow, do visit our participating authors' sites. They put a lot of thought and effort into their stories. It's a labor of love. I guess you could say the stories are our children, so Happy Mother's Day to all us authors! :D

Miss Mousie :-)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Retooling in a nutshell

Have realized I don't know where I'm going with this story, and am not even really sure where I'm at right now. It's become a sort of octopus with a multitude of arms flailing around. Or --

What am I talking about? The story I started writing for NaNoWriMo 2013, working title Night Shift. I've discussed before that I got an idea two weeks before NaNo began, lost the outline I'd started when my laptop imploded, and had to plunge in typing for a solid week on the touch-screen of my iPad. Lousy way to start one's first NaNo, but hey, I was on fire with an idea so I ran with it.

How the hell did I write 51,000 words that month, without hitting this brick wall?? The upshot is that without having planned out the plot, I've been basically grabbing whatever idea comes into my head that doesn't conflict with what I already wrote. I'm sure some people can pull a coherent novel out of that but I can't. Nope, sadly, pantsing does not work for me. Too bad, because I could bang out 100,000 words a lot faster without having to plan anything first.

So, still hoping I could save my really big pile of words without too much surgery, I went to the good people at Scribophile for help. Only about four pages into the thread I realized that nope, the fix did not have anything to do with using more figurative glue, it had to do with all those unanswered questions that popped up as I wrote to which I would answer, I don't need to know that now, maybe not at all.

Silly me. You'd think I'd have learned to fully trust my gut about stuff like this. If I'm not sure about how or why somebody did something, I cannot gloss over it. Even if it's a secondary character. Because secondary characters affect the plot too, so if I don't know why they do certain things, that represents a hole in my plot. I do not like plot holes, I much prefer donut holes.

So, I'm going to do what I wish I'd had time for last October: ask myself a bunch of questions till I've figured out everybody's motives for starting the story in the first place. I'm going to understand the characters' backstories going back to when they were born, if I have to. Then I'm going understand why they -- all of them -- did certain things that set the plot in motion. I'm going to uncover exactly what they want, short and long term, and what's stopping them from getting it.

And, I'm going to discover what they do to try to knock down that wall, why it won't fall down (or why it falls on their heads), what they do then and why, and a whole long series of whys and hows until I'm confident I've reached The End.

I've got some coffee, chocolate-covered almonds, wine when it becomes necessary, a computer, and some time. I'll still post bits from the project. Wish me luck :-D

Image courtesy of Flickr CC

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Weekend Writing Warriors 5/4/14: No one will ever look beautiful again

Thought I’d share something I wrote much later in the story than the scenes I’ve been using for WeWriWa. For those new peeps, those who haven’t been by in a while, and anybody else who needs a reminder, this is from the novel I started for NaNo 2013. It’s still in Draft 1 and is tentatively titled Night Shift. Collected excerpts for this story are here. In a nutshell, this is a good-vs-evil story with demons, angels, and humans.

For this scene, our heroine Devorah watches as a large group of angels assembles into the shape of a triangle, standing in a large warehouse room. She knows what they’re going to do, but not how. The angel standing at the triangle’s forward point calls out an invocation, using titles that Devorah realizes with a chill are ones commonly used for the Archangel Michael.

I give you six sentences, because in this case, less really is more.
A mist of unearthly whiteness settled onto a spot in front of the triangle’s point. Within the mist, a tall figure formed. Even from a couple hundred yards away he was the most achingly beautiful being I’d ever seen. It wasn’t just his features, though if I ever saw a human who looked like that I’d probably pass out from ogling. No, the closest I could come to describing him was regal but that fell short. The tilt of his head, the way his bright hair swept back, the glorious arc of his feathered wings as they curved behind and above him, the way the blue sash fit snugly from shoulder to hip--on my knees before I realized it, I knew no human would ever truly look beautiful to me again.
I’m kind of stuck with some of the plot points, but am having quite an enjoyable time with descriptions J

Have you hopped around the Weekend Writing Warriors blog hop yet? Please do, you’ll find a whole bunch of that are hard to walk away from! Trust me, I’m picky about what I read and I’ve found 6 or 7 stories I can’t wait to read. More get added to my “must read” list every week.

Happy May to everybody, and thanks so much for coming by!