Resisting the Lure of the Shiny New Idea

8942564359_3a88d3523d_zThis past weekend, I had a business trip to St Louis, and something happened that almost never does when I’m traveling: I wrote in the shuttle on the way to the airport. It’s a fairly long slog, about 90 minutes, and often I have a whole bench to myself, but I’m not one of those writers who feels she must work at all times. Nor did I this time—I just…er…wanted to.

When I got to the airport, I had more time to kill and…wait for it….I wrote some more. On the way home, I actually opened my laptop in my crowded seat and wrote another thousand words, which means I wrote nearly five thousand over a weekend in which I wasn’t planning to write at all.

Every book is a lot of hard work, and between that seductive moment of conception and the finished offering there is a wander through the desert.

Anne Stuart used to exuberantly post on a loop we were on together, “it’s alive!” and I’ve always loved the visual. That moment when a book takes its first gasping breaths, and sits up and starts to breathe on its own without me propping it up in a thousand ways. This book has been difficult to get up and breathing. It has gone through a number of incarnations. I just couldn’t see where it needed to go, but the main character wouldn’t leave me alone. Frustrated, I shoved it on a back burner for a year and went off to write other things.

I don’t often do this. Everyone who has written for any length of time knows that the best part of a book is when it first comes to you, dressed in gossamer scarves, as shimmery and magical as fairy godmother. “Write my story,” she says in her sonorous voice. “I will not be any trouble at all, not like that—“ she casts her eyes toward the current book “well, you know. With me, your fingers will fly across the keyboard, and we’ll enchant everyone who reads us, and we shall rise to the top of the lists and sell everywhere in the world and —“ [Read more…]

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Scars and Shame– The Secrets of Female Characters

Last month, I talked about the cornerstones of building a strong female protagonist. This month, we’re going to dig a little deeper.

In Wild by Cheryl Strayed, the main character is a young woman who is at the end of her rope. She’s lost her mother and she can’t find her footing in the world, and on a whim, she decides to go on a hike on the Pacific Coast Trail, 1000 miles.

In many ways, it’s a classic quest story. She’s called to do this crazy thing. She’s woefully unprepared. She suffers and finds mentors and friends. She struggles through, meets bad guys. And finally reaches her goal.

But the actual story is internal. This is a very important part of building a female journey. A male journey often takes place in the external world—in battles and tests against actual physical enemies. Women’s journeys are more often about the internal road to herself.

A male journey often takes place in the external world—in battles and tests against actual physical enemies. Women’s journeys are more often about the internal road to herself.

Let’s backtrack a little to talk about why. Men and women approach the world differently. It begins very early.

Girls are often more dominant than boys as toddlers and all the way up to middle school (that hell of us all). They are more socially adept and able to manipulate the world more adroitly, and that gives them the advantage until they’re about 12 or 13—basically puberty. At that age, even a very mighty girl often starts to feel less sure of herself and her place in the world.

By high school, boys are much more certain of their place in life than girls. They’re bigger, stronger, and they’ve internalized the message that it’s a man’s world. Even with affirmative action and Title Nine and all the things we are struggling to put in place, most boys are pretty certain of their superiority.

What happens at age 12? [Read more…]

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Creating Strong Female Protagonists

4036462091_b548c428b2_o I’ve been happily immersed in the new seasons of Outlander and Game of Thrones, as I’m sure many of you are. I also recently binge-watched every available episode of The Fall, a wildly popular BBC thriller.

The trio of shows have many things in common, but as I’ve been pulling together a talk about female protagonists, I noticed in particular that all three of these shows boast very powerful female protagonists, some of my favorite in recent years. Stella, in The Fall, is a British police detective, called into a Belfast police department to help solve a crime. Claire, in Outlander, is a WWII era nurse who finds herself back in time in Scotland in the 18th century. Daenerys Targaryen, in Game of Thrones, is the last of a line of of royals who ruled dragons. The dragons have been extinct for hundreds of years, and it appears her family line is going to be extinct as well. (There are many examples of strong females in GoT, but I’m going with my personal favorite.)  I’m going to use them as examples here, but don’t worry, there are no big spoilers. I’m only speaking in general terms.

What are the steps to creating a strong female protagonist? What are the pitfalls? How do men and women protagonists differ?

She has goals for herself.
Stella, in The Fall, wants to catch a serial killer
Claire, in Outlander, wants to get home

She is conflicted.
Stella is thwarted by officials, by her own nature, which we’ll go into in a minute, and by the killer himself

Claire wants to return to her husband in the twentieth century, but she also falls wildly in love with a Highlander she is forced to marry.

Daenerys faces many many challenges over time, but her first is survival, which means making peace with the barbarian king, and winning him over.

One of the great flaws I see in female protagonists is that they are often so very good.

She acts to reach her goals.
In other words, she doesn’t just let events happen. She makes a decision to go forward and then faces the consequences of those actions, right or wrong. Claire makes bad choices for the 18th century at times and is beaten for it, but she doesn’t cower afterward and feel apologetic. No, she’s furious and stands up for her own beliefs, even when others don’t agree with her.

Stella is a complex character, but one of the things that makes her very interesting is her unapologetic sexual tastes. When she sees a detective on the street changing his shirt, she gives him her hotel room number, and he comes to have sex with her, but the whole thing is kind of bewildering to him because the culture is still quite sexist in the way Catholic countries often are. When she’s later questioned about him and asked what he was doing there, she says clearly and without apology, “Sexual intercourse.”

We don’t expect that. Her fellow officers really don’t expect it. She refuses to apologize for having the tastes she has.

When Daenerys is married off to a barbarian king, she’s nothing more than a beautiful child. But as sometimes will happen, she bonds with him, [Read more…]

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Becoming a Better Writer in 2015, part 2

In December, I wrote about setting goals for being a better writer in 2015. As it is now March and we’ve hadCrazy Train three months, it seemed a good time to check in. How are you doing? (If you want to check what you wrote, go to the comments here.)

Leaving out my usual quantitative goals, which are particular to my own writing style and won’t be interesting or inspiring to others, I wrote that my goals this year were:

–to do something that scares me, take a chance on the work in a way I haven’t done before
–to choose a particular aspect of writing to study
–to find writers I haven’t read and classics I haven’t explored
–come up with new ways to fill the well, “maybe take a class in watercolors or something.
–think about what would make my work more joyful, stronger, exciting to me

[W]e as creators are born to take things apart and blow them up and play with new visions and see what makes our own souls sing.

One thing worth mentioning is the fact that my output has been quite slow. We traveled in early January and I’m still healing from two knee surgeries, so my brain is not functioning at full power just yet. This is part of life, too, that we are not always writing under perfect conditions. I was happy to have written 13000 words in February, mostly in short stints sitting in my chair with my leg propped up and piled with ice. It’s not enough to meet my goals for the year, but it’s okay for a month when life was compromised.

–That book is fulfilling one of my goals—to take a chance, to try something that scares me. I have no idea where it will go from here, or how, but I’m glad to be leaping off the ledge again. It’s exhilarating.

–I haven’t chosen any particular thing to study this year. [Read more…]

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

The Shiny Everything and The Long Game

After reading Therese and Porter’s posts on the digital world and its effects on our thinking and productivity, I’ve been thinking a lot on the subject. How does all of this affect my life, my creativity?

Confession: despite my reputation as a flighty Gemini, I am not a multitasker. It’s precisely because of my scatteredness that I can’t be—I must focus on one task at a time or I lose things, break them, get lost in the Shiny Everything. In college, after losing my keys for the 400th time and having to call someone to be rescued, a friend said, “You need routines.”

Turned out, he was right. As a very scattered, always-thinking, always dreaming creative type, the only thing that makes it possible for me to manage life is to keep a set of pretty rigid routines. That means one thing at a time. I cook when I cook—if I try to do anything else with it (apart from listening to music), I will burn everything. I can’t walk away. If I walk my dog, I walk my dog. I don’t listen to music or podcasts. We just….walk. The notifications on my social media and email are turned off and I check one thing at a time. If I am going to write, I don’t open my web browser, and on distractable days, I use Freedom to lock myself out. I’m still reading an average of five or six novels a month, sometimes more, and I do read on an iPad, so the Internet is there. The one exception is if I watch TV, I might have my iPad open and flip around, but that’s down time and I feel it’s okay to not really focus on anything.

This is not to demonstrate my superior skills of concentration. It’s just that I didn’t realize I don’t multitask at all and that seemed so weird in the modern world that I had to give it some thought.

So I don’t multitask, but I am still absolutely, completely immersed in the modern world. I love technology, connectedness, social media, and access to everything I want, when I want it, now.

Last night, Christopher Robin said that he’d never seen The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and he might like it. Since it has become my favorite movie (and our cross-over points for fiction of any kind are very small), I was delighted, so we settled in to find it. We looked through On Demand. It wasn’t available as a rental, only a $16 purchase. Tried NetFlix, and Amazon Prime, ditto. Not available yet. Undaunted, he tried iTunes and there it was, so we pulled it up and settled in to watch. Now apart from the slightly bloated size of our entertainment budget, it is kind of miraculous that this is possible. I don’t have to go anywhere. Whatever I want is right there, at the end of a mouse or a remote.

The thing a writer who is focused on the long game will do at that moment is….wait for it….write the next book.

 

If I want to talk to one of my sons, I can text them or check out their Facebook profiles, send an email, even just call. If I want cat litter or shoes or art supplies, I pull up the appropriate screen, tap in my numbers, and it will arrive at my door in a day or two. If I want to read and don’t like what I have around the house (hard as that is to believe, given the towering piles of reading that await), all I have to do is go find another one online in two seconds

This extends to nearly every arena of life. If I want to find out about a city, I check out Google Earth. I can see the street my hotel is on , and get a 360 degree view of it. I can travel with some clicking, find a cab, a restaurant, a movie, reservations, tickets, artists. I can research almost anything, in great detail, from my armchair.

Everything. Instantly. The Shiny Everything is right in front of me at all times. [Read more…]

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.