Revisions are stalled, every word seems trite, and the entire premise seems mediocre. Is it time to give up? Not yet. This is what I’ve been doing to get back in the groove.
Step away from the computer. Every relationship needs a break sometimes.
Have fun with the manuscript. Yesterday I had a writing day with some friends and fellow writers. TimInMich brought a brilliant exercise that involved describing our protagonists from other characters’ points of view. Yes, I’m sick of my main character, but focusing on some of the secondary characters is lifting me out of this rut.
Take a different approach. One member of my writing group is outlining her novel with poetry. Hmm, I wonder if I could come up with a synopsis in Haiku.
Do the creative thing. One of my writing friends gets her best ideas during bubble baths. Another claims that housecleaning inspires her. (Honest) I prefer long walks.
Last winter my Sunday nature series was frosted over. Remember picture after picture of ice formations? So far this year, my hunting expeditions have not yielded great photo ops, but while I tromp through the snow, I’ve been thinking about the weather conditions that make the best ice photographs.
1. Moving water – like a river or a fountain. No splashing – no stalactites. 2. Temperatures just below freezing. This year we had a hard freeze right after the first snow, and the Red Cedar River crusted over. 3. Sunshine. Yeah, it’s all about light. Unfortunately in this part of the world, when the temperatures warm up to freezing, the sky is often overcast.* 4. Lower water level. As the water freezes, the river level goes down, leaving ice formations high and dry.
I’ll keep searching.
*To be honest, that sentence should read: Unfortunately in this part of the world, the sky is often overcast.
Almost every novel I start to read then reject* has the same flaw.
The protagonist doesn’t care about anything or anyone.
The novel may have a killer voice, and a beautifully twisted plot, but if the main character is devoid of passion, I don’t care about the book. Some people argue that the teenage experience is Brownian motion. (Actually, since they were English majors, they used a different term.) I’ve never met a teenager who cared about nothing. It may be buried too deep to see at first, but I have to believe it’s there. Even characters at the pit of depression need a flicker of hope to lead them out. If a protagonist is indifferent to everything, why write a book about him? After all, passion is the bottom line.
Why do you give up on a book?
*The exception to the rule is any book that has a vampire in it. Uh, uh. No way. I won’t read it.
This mystery photo contest was so much fun. I loved every answer. Three cheers for all the guesses involving frost. Those little white furry things are hoarfrost growing between the planks of a wooden bridge.
If you haven’t checked out Darcy Pattison’s 30 Days to a Stronger Scene, take a look. I’ve been following this series, and I promised to write my own post on scenes this month. Hmmm. Looks like I’d better do it today.
For revising scenes, the bottom line is simple.
CUT THE BORING PARTS.
I’ve been wondering how dull stuff gets into a novel in the first place. Perhaps it happens because living people need downtime more than characters. Quiet interludes recharge our bodies and give us time for creative thinking, but characters cannot be given that courtesy. They have to press on.
When my sons were little and stuck in an uninteresting situation, they made their own fun – usually in a disruptive, loud and parentally-challenging way. Yep, when things calm down, it’s time to cause some mayhem.
These photographs were taken with a flash around noon on an overcast day. I used creative autofocus and slightly increased the depth of field to get the curving stems in focus and the backgrounds blurred.
My brother recently moved to a large ranch in northeastern Texas. Before Thanksgiving, he sent me a bag of shelled pecans from trees on his property.
I was touched by the gift. In this era of busy lives and scattered families, it seemed almost like a reunion. Our families were separated by a thousand miles, yet we’d both be eating chocolate pecan pie. On Wednesday, between picking up the turkey, making cranberry sauce, preparing the stuffing, fetching one son from college and juggling cars with the other, I made a pie.
As a baker, this was not my finest hour. I hadn’t realized that the pecans, machine-hulled at my brother’s local feed store, still contained small fragments of shell. The pie, while tasty, was a minefield of tooth-cracking hard things. A metaphor for sibling relationships lurks somewhere in that chocolate studded sweetness. The gifts are unexpected and interesting, yet it takes some work to remove the shells.
The week is flying by. The YEAR is flying by. My Thanksgiving dinner preparations are almost on schedule, so maybe I’ll post something yet this week. Perhaps, with luck, I’ll get out with my camera this weekend …
(That was as close as I could get to pumpkin color.)
Writing is all about what will attract and hold the interest of the reader.
I get that.
Lately I’ve read or started to read a couple books that were intended for adult readers even though the story began when the protagonist was a child. The authors chose to present the young part of the story as an adult looking back. The language was sophisticated, and life-experiences of the adult were apparent in the telling. These authors apparently believed their adult readers would relate more readily to a young voice if viewed through the lens of memory.
I get that too.
But for someone who’s in the trenches, striving day after day to make my teenage characters’ voices sound realistic and young (without appearing to work at making them seem realistic and young), this approach seems too easy.
For one of my manuscripts, I need the names of a few imaginary rock bands. No problem. I assumed I could string together a few goofy or relevant words then google them to see if a band already used that name.
Just about every band has a web presence, and just about every word or short phrase in the English language has been used to name these bands. I even tried some geeky scientific terms, but they are some of the most popular. Eventually, I came across a band name generator that was helpful, but I still don’t have a stellar name.
When faced with suggestions for major revisions, all writers feel the earth tilt a bit with the realization of how many changes will be required. Eventually our planet regains its orbit and the work begins. Ruth’s revision plan is simple and brilliant.
1. Put the manuscript aside for a few days to provide time for celestial shifts. 2. Brainstorm ways to implement the changes. Take several days to do this, working for a couple hours each day and simply jotting down ALL ideas. Sometimes the concepts that seem the most offbeat at first turn out to be the best. 3. Brainstorm without the written word staring you in the face. Do not look at the manuscript or you won’t be able to see the forest for the trees. 4. Choose the best ideas and start revising.
“Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky” Thanks to William Shakespeare (As You Like It) for that description of winter. For the next few months, Michigan will be gray, brown and occasionally white. Skies will be overcast. As Emily Dickinson wrote:
There’s a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons — That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes —
I’m not going to promise a photograph every Sunday. If I encounter something good, I’ll certainly share it.
I took a lot of pictures of this pumpkin stem before I captured the ringlets to my satisfaction. In the process, I learned something about the Creative Autofocus function on my camera and its depth of field adjustments. This picture was taken about 4:00 PM when the sun was slanting over the treetops.
Usually when I design the Write Night exercise, I post it in my blog, but last week I forgot. The idea for this one came from the skillful writing of two authors. Both Judy Blundell in What I Saw and How I Lied and Sara Gruen in Ape House let their protagonists uncover secrets gradually. After each discovery, the protagonist is faced with events so earthshaking that she doesn’t have time to process the new information.
I’ll post my exercise here. During Write Night, we only completed parts 1 & 2.
1. Think of an essential secret, clue, fact or tidbit of information that your protagonist needs to know in order to finish the novel. (You don’t have to tell us what it is – yet.)
2. Write a scene in which your protagonist discovers this secret. Provide a bit of setting, show how your protagonist discovers the information, and a hint of his/her initial reaction. Be sure you actually get to the discovery. (We can allow extra time if needed.) No limit on the number of characters.
3. Before your protagonist has time to process this information, make something happen. It has to be big, distracting and exciting. Consider the emotional, physical and psychological implications of this event on your protagonist. Write the scene.
4. Independent Study: (We probably won’t have time to write anything else.) a) Will your protagonist be faced with further dilemmas before finding time to process the information? b) How will your protagonist cope with the information once he/she has a minute to think?
I hope to have a nature picture up on Sunday, but it all depends on the home computer situation. My new camera will not interact with my venerable computer, so I’ve been downloading photos onto my husband’s newer laptop. That worked until Sam’s laptop battery refused to recharge, and we learned the hard way that many online computer companies post false information or fail to ship ordered products. Sam and my husband have been sharing our one functional battery, but last week Sam took the battery to Ann Arbor so he could complete his midterm projects, and my husband borrowed a computer to give his lectures at State. I’ve felt that photos for my blog are a less important concern.
Sing along with me:
Four weeks of waiting Three follow-up emails Two insistent calls And a dead laptop battery
I hope the situation resolves itself before we get to five – or at least before Christmas.
(There’s an excellent reason why I don’t write in rhyme.)
Don’t you hate when you’re reading a book that is absolutely riveting – and then the author runs out of ideas? Subplots fizzle, plot devices repeat, and each chapter seems endless.
The last thing any writer wants is for readers to start singing this song.
At some point, all writers get becalmed in a sea of motionless prose, and, like the sailors in that endless section of Moby Dick, we get desperate. Some writers try to move the story out of the doldrums by cranking up the action, but the new action must be essential to the plot. Adding random acts of violence, disconnected scenes involving bad people with bad manners or lengthy chase scenes won’t fix the problem. The story needs a big new idea.
Learning curves always look steepest from the bottom. One of my physics professors used to say, “Everything is easy once you know how.” That was true of his homework problems, but my life provides many exceptions. The local high school has a prominently displayed banner that reads, “At first all things appear difficult – Chinese proverb.” As a parent, I was relieved they didn’t use the Russian version, “Even vodka is unpleasant the first time.”
"We’ll call in the experts then do whatever we want."
Note: I changed my overheard statement this morning. The first one was meant as a joke between two people who respect each other. However if taken out of context, it could appear mean spirited. There is no cyber bullying on this blog.
Every morning while I’m enjoying a cup of coffee, I open The Writer’s Almanac and read the poem of the day. It isn’t possible to read poetry when the news is on, so I turn off the clock radio first, but sometimes, even in the early morning stillness, I can’t concentrate on the poem. The day’s responsibilities hammer in my head, postponed chores clamor for my attention, and doubts whimper in the corner.
Writing is like reading poetry because it requires a quiet mind and total focus. Every writer has good and bad writing days. The less productive times are blamed on our muses, our jobs or our families, but I wonder how much of a bad writing day is due to the lack of a quiet mind.
I’ve been recruited to make a music video for Jeremy’s band even though so far I’ve done only still photography. In my manuscript G&CBS (fka TAoCBS), Troy, the protagonist, makes a short film, and he has the entire novel to figure out how to do it.
I have a week.
Troy’s approach was to film everything in his life then cut, splice and edit a bunch of random footage into a video. Probably the band will want a more specific approach. I think practice is the answer – practice for everyone. Tonight, when Jeremy plays his guitar, I’ll start figuring out lighting and camera angles.
“China's High School Musical wasn't actually set in a high school. It had to be transplanted to a college. That's because Chinese high schools involve such a huge workload, it would be impossible for students to take part in the singing contest around which the film revolves.”
Graduate students from the lab used to talk about the long hours they studied in high school. I’m glad that despite budget cuts and hard economic times, extracurricular opportunities are still available at my son’s high school.
Jeremy is particularly lucky because he is able to take private voice lessons at school, during his choir hour. He records the lesson so he can sing along when he practices at home. The other day during physics lab, he bumped his backpack and accidently turned on the digital voice recorder. His bass voice blasted out:
Novel writers seem to fall into two categories: those who plan/outline/diagram their story before they start writing, and those who take a deep breath and plunge into their novel.
I’m a planner.
There. I said it.
My friends who are plungers explain they never make outlines because if they knew how the novel was going to turn out, they’d be too bored to finish it. That always makes me feel like a pedantic plodder – or at least someone who is easily entertained.
When you wake up at 4:00 AM with the sure realization that the story in its present form DOES NOT WORK, it’s easier to modify a bunch of chapter notes than already-written, interlinked scenes.
Lately, as part of my head-cold-recovery-program, I’ve been watching movies on TV. Most were truly disappointing because they had too much repetition.
A plot cannot succeed as slightly varied reiterations of the same interaction. Sure the protagonist can try to solve one problem throughout the entire story, but the plot gains interest if he or she tries different solutions and improves even more if the problem changes with the protagonist.
Other movie plots failed because an exciting and well-conceived segment was used twice. Space ships can collide only once per movie, and then we need another plot device. The man and woman who are destined to be together can miss their rendezvous one (1) time. After the evil villain stalks the heroine through a dim and scary setting, he has to think of a different approach.
As I plot my new project, I’m reminding myself that change is good.
There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know – and much of it pertains to my work-in-progress. Fortunately, I stumbled across the How Stuff Works website. What a wealth of information! The articles cover a broad range of topics and are easy to understand. Check it out; it’s worth a click.
My new project is threatening to become a whodunit. I started with my usual chapter outline, but soon realized that unless I planned in a different way, I’d end up with a hopeless muddle. I needed to start with the crime.
So far my note headings include:
The Suspects for Motive #1
The Suspects for Motive #2
The Suspects for Motive #3
How the Kids Discover Clues
This last section is turning out to be a bugaboo. Transportation is often a problem for teens, and my protagonist is no different. Plus, high school kids are frequently saddled with well-meaning adults, a situation that is not conducive to covert investigations. My first step is to get them a better car, and the second is to ditch the chaperones.
I bought these “pumpkins on a stick” at the farmers’ market. They’re intended to be decorative, not edible, and when the picture was taken, they were starting to wrinkle with age. The photograph is taken with a shallow depth of field, and the gray background is our deck, seen through a window. Reflections of other “pumpkins” are visible in the glass.
When close to 40,000 undergraduates descend on our community, they can’t help bringing a few germs along with their mini-fridges and flat-screen TVs. It’s my turn for the Students Are Back Head Cold, and consequently my new project isn’t exactly zipping along. I do have two book recommendations, though.
I read this book as research for my next project, but since this is not a political blog, I won’t say much. However, if you believe in the Bill of Rights, you may find this book disheartening. (The Fair Gamemovie is coming out this year.)
How great is it to research a new novel? I can spend my time armchair traveling, web surfing or reading and call it work.
Taking a cyber vacation to the setting of my work-in-progress isn’t really wasting time on the Internet. Web cams remind me that the skies over Mackinac Island are often overcast, and even in summer, visitors wear sweatshirts. Travel blogs point out that the bus ride from Avalon to Two Harbors is slow, dusty and bumpy, and if my characters had any cash, they’d travel a different way.
I get to search the web for new knowledge, like how to play darts (you don’t try for a bull’s eye every time) or how to crack a safe (if possible, steal the whole safe and move it to a secure location).
I love a good nonfiction book, especially about a subject I’m unfamiliar with. I expected intrigue and clandestine adventures from Femme Fatale, a biography of Mata Hari, but I ended up feeling sorry for her. From reading More Money Than God, a book about the stock market, I learned about selling short and leverage buyouts, and that it takes a lot of guts to operate a hedge fund.
I know something about the automatic functions on my camera.
I’m trying to learn some basic photography concepts beyond, “Isn’t that pretty? Hang on while I point the camera at it.”
I can resize photos to a web-appropriate dpi. Don’t you hate it when you try to zip over to someone’s blog, and it won’t open or takes a few epochs to click into view? That can happen when picture files are too large.
I’ve learned I need a USB media card reader to load my photos on my computer. My new camera and my aging computer don’t play nicely together.
I’ve viewed the tip of the iceberg of photographic manipulation and realize that someday I’m going to have to learn a whole bunch more stuff.
I tried to go on a photo-shoot today at Sessions Lake and discovered you can’t see the water from the trail. I could hear swans paddling on the lake. I hope you can visualize graceful white birds on sparkling blue water, green leaves, puffy clouds because I couldn’t get close enough to the lake to take a picture without leaving the trail and trampling through the local flora.
In parting, here’s a butterfly – not a perfect photo, but it’s something.
When children ask Patricia Polacco if her stories are true, she says, “Yes, but it might not have happened.”
As a writer, I appreciate the importance of truth in expressing emotion, rendering dialog and detailing description – whether the story is fiction or nonfiction.
As a former scientist, I think of truth in a different way. Textbooks relate facts, but working scientists rarely speak of truth. We talk about replicating controlled experiments and data that are consistent with a larger hypothesis because often it takes a long time to figure out how nature actually works.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about truth in a political sense. In America, we expect truth, and find fraud, cover-ups and misappropriation of funds scandalous. But this isn’t true of every country. My friend, Fang Shimin (net name Fang Zhouzi), has devoted his career to exposing scientific corruption in China. Last weekend Shimin was attacked by two thugs, apparently in retribution for his role as a whistleblower. Fortunately, he escaped with only minor injuries.
Today, I’m thinking of freedom of speech, the privilege of living in a place where truth is expected, and the great gift of a legal system equipped to fight dishonesty.
For years now, I’ve managed to come up with some image of the natural world every Sunday morning. Not today, though. I recently purchased a new camera (Canon Rebel T2i), and I’m trying to figure out how to use it and manage the files. My previous photos were taken with a Sony Cyber-shot which is basically a point and shoot. Now I need to learn something about photography.
I will have a mystery photo up tomorrow – taken with my old camera. I think it’s an easy one, but then I know what it is.
I walked toward the pond at Fenner Nature Center. Plink. Plink. Plunk. My footsteps had scared several frogs and maybe a turtle into the water. I turned on my camera. Plip. Plop. More were frightened by the electronic whir. I stalked a sleepy-looking fellow, floating with his head above the surface. I focused, wondering if reflected sunlight would spoil the picture or make it more interesting.
“Is there anything in there?” a woman shouted as she came up to the pond.
The frog disappeared into the murk. I turned so she could see my camera.
“What are you taking pictures of?” She yelled even though she was standing next to me.
“Frogs,” I whispered, hoping she’d turn down the volume.
“Oh, I see ‘em now.” She hadn’t taken the hint.
Plunk. Plop. I put my finger to my lips.
“They’re all over the place,” she shouted.
“Could you please be quiet?” I whispered. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re scaring the frogs.”
“They’re all over the place! They’re all over the place!” Her voice kept getting louder.
I sighed, and eventually she left. Then I managed to photograph some of the braver individuals. Stop by tomorrow to see more frog pics.
On Monday, NPR did a piece on teen-parent relations that I found interesting both as a parent and as a writer. The examples mentioned in the article didn’t seem real to me as neither my kids nor my characters get hysterical about what they’re going to wear on school photo day. The part about teens not foreseeing the consequences of their actions is golden.
Recently my kids have been living out some of the dramas I’ve written about. In Chapter 6 of my WIP, Michael lost his keys, and last Monday, Jeremy lost his wallet. Fortunately both boys recovered their possessions. In Chapter 20 of one of my previous novels, Lia parked near a college campus and returned to find her car vandalized. Unfortunately, Sam had the same experience in July. The repairs on Lia’s car were fast and inexpensive, but in reality, quick, cheap auto repairs are totally fictional. In Chapter 14 of my WIP, Michael flagrantly exceeded the speed limit and didn’t get caught. Jeremy was not so lucky.
You might say this is coincidence, or I could claim I’ve nailed the teenage experience. Either way, I seem to be predicting the future. I’m tempted to change the mom’s career so she’s a highly successful novelist.
Why is it okay to spell some words in more than one way? Just decide already. Don’t tell me that ocher is just as good as ochre. How can gallivant, galivant and galavant all be correct? One spelling should be enough for any word.
In a fit of pique, I looked up ocher and gallivant.
Merriam-Webster likes gallivant better than galavant and doesn’t even mention galivant. The Free Dictionary prefers two Ls and an I, but lists galivant before galavant. Microsoft Word only accepts gallivant.
When you think of a writing retreat, perhaps you envision peace and quiet, a respite from the responsibilities of family and work. Maybe you see long stretches of uninterrupted creative time, solving thorny plot problems and finding new insights into characters. You might imagine time with good friends, belly laughs and shared ideas. Or does the idea of a writing retreat summon fears of having nothing to say?
The retreat I just left was wonderful. I worked hard on revisions and made good progress. There is something about sitting across the table from another hard-working writer that keeps me on task. I solved some problems with my WIP and discovered other issues that need to be fixed. I enjoyed the time with great friends. Thankfully, writer’s block left me alone.
This was my fifth writing retreat and the third with my awesome critique group. It occurred to me I have never done new writing at a retreat. I always spend the time revising. Okay, my process involves lots of revision, but still …
This week, I’ve been volunteering at band camp. This is a six-day stretch of early morning to late night days at which the high school marching band learns next the new halftime show. The maturity difference between the incoming freshmen and the soon-to-be seniors is astounding. Five minutes with the incoming freshmen totally validates the concept of the Tween novel.
I was appointed photographer of Jeremy’s metal band. I need a better camera.
On Thursday, The World’s Greatest Critique Group goes on our annual retreat. I hope to finish the revisions of my current work-in-progress.
Next week is Band Camp. The kids practice from early morning until late at night for six days, and miraculously the halftime show falls together. I signed up to help all day on Tuesday. Somehow, my name also appeared on the volunteer lists for helping all day on Monday, baking brownies, picking up eleven dozen bagels and helping with activities*.
How could this happen?
I knew when I was supposed to work, so I didn’t look at the volunteer assignment sheets until it was too late to bail out.
Monday and Tuesday are pretty much toast, but I’m likely to gather enough data for a couple more novels.
*Man, I hope I get water balloons instead of word games this year.
Jeremy: How’s the novel going? Me: I got back comments from Amy. She’s an English teacher. Jeremy: Were they constructive? Me: Yes. Jeremy: Did she tell you to use more metaphors, similes and personifications? Me: No. Jeremy: They’re the only things that are important – other than overlying themes.
I admit I like Vikings. Their behavior was often unacceptable by today’s standards, but still, they have a certain romantic appeal. Plus, Vikings are the local high school’s mascot, and my maternal grandparents were Danish.
Horned helmets: I already knew the horns were a myth. No warrior involved in hand-to-hand combat would wear a hat with handles that could be grabbed by the enemy.
Longboats: The fanciful beasts carved on the prows could be removed when the ship was used for trading. Many of these trade missions were reconnaissance designed to identify the richest villages to plunder later.
Vikings: Back in the day, these folks were known as Danes or Norsemen. The word viking was a verb. To go viking was to go plundering, pillaging and burning.
Me: What song are they playing? Sam: It’s the one Jeremy wrote last night. Me: He wrote a song – while they were moving the drum set? Sam: They were talking about how irritating it is when Katie calls them Hon so I suggested they write a song called Attila the Hun. I think that’s it.