Bombing Through It

dickens

Back in the nineties, before social networking or even blogs had been invented, I belonged to a chat list for published writers.  You carried on a slow conversation with like-minded people by sending e-mails to a central server, which then sent them out to all members of the list.  Tom Clancy, another list member, used to give a piece of advice to writers who were stuck at various stages of the writing process: “Just write the damned book.”

I think of that advice whenever potential clients ask me to read over the first few chapters of their work in progress, to make sure they’re “on the right track.”  They don’t seem to realize that there is no track.  When you write your first draft, you lay the tracks as you go.  As you follow your story, you may find out that a minor character moves to the center of the action, or that a plot twist you’ve been building toward for a hundred pages just won’t work.  Or your story may simply transform into something else as you write it.  In its original draft, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was magical realism, with Simon having genuine mystical visions and sacrificing himself willingly at the end.

The process is a little different if you work from a detailed outline, but not much.  True, you do have an idea of where you’re going when you actually begin writing.  But some of the creativity and surprise – the getting to know the story and characters – that other writers experience with the first draft, you get with the outline.  And no matter how detailed your outline might be, you should still treat it more as a guide than a rulebook.  The actual process of getting the story down on paper has a unique intimacy and particularity.  Stories are organic.  You’ve got to let them grow as you write, even if you’ve already built a trellis.

Still, the problem those clients are looking to me to solve is real — a lot of writers get lost in the middle of their first draft.  One reason may be a lack of confidence and drive.  I find it’s usually second novels that I’m asked to keep on track.  Many writers enter the field because they’re burning to tell a particular story.  But after the first novel is done and they launch into the second one, they often lack the passion for the story that got them through the first novel.  After The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan began and abandoned seven different second novels — at one point breaking out in hives — before writing The Kitchen God’s Wife.

You can also trip up on your first draft by focusing on the mechanics of writing – like the beginning writer who recently complained on the Writer Unboxed Facebook site that, whenever she read a how-to-write book, she felt like she was going about it wrong.  It’s easy to get so obsessed with the technical details – how you’re managing your micro-tension, if you’re giving your readers enough physical description to imagine the scene, whether your antagonist is sufficiently balanced or your dialogue is pithy enough – that you can’t find your story.  You’re like the centipede who was asked which leg she lifted first when she walked – and never walked again.

On the other hand, not having a firm enough grasp of the basic skills of storytelling can also run a first draft into the ground.  If your descriptions are inept, then your locations will never take on reality.  Flaws in your management of point of view can keep your characters from coming to life.  So what you’re writing may feel flabby, impotent, just plain wrong, which makes it hard to keep going.

So how do you thread the needle between being aware of the mechanics of writing and ignoring them enough to focus on your characters? Continue Reading »

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Lean Writer, Fat Word Count? Engineering Your Environment for Default Success

fruitIt is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good premise must be in want of a functioning brain with which to execute it. Said brain is best nourished by blood pumped by a healthy heart contained within a healthy body, yes? Unfortunately, we Westerners live in an environment which discourages activity and encourages overeating. Indeed, some have gone so far as it label it “toxic”. The result? More than 70% of us are losing the battle to stay trim and fit.

On WU we’ve had several conversations about staying active and reducing sitting time. (Don’t Take Author Obesity Sitting Down and Becoming a Stand-up Writer.) That’s excellent. Unfortunately, it’s also insufficient. It takes me 15 minutes to consume a grande Carmel Macchiato with soy milk, but 1 hour and 10 minutes of brisk walking to work it off.

In the hierarchy of lifestyle medicine, this is why diet is proclaimed king to exercise’s queen.

Hope for Science-based, Simple Solutions

We all know that diets don’t work. We can talk about the science of this in another post, but willpower is a finite and easily exhausted resource. Turns out it takes as little as 15 minutes of mental effort to diminish the brain’s supply of glucose, thus undermining the part of the brain which weighs the desires of our future self against the present-day temptation.

Nor does it help to frame food choices as a moral decision (i.e. apples = good, chocolate bars = bad). If we do, it’s not long before we:

1) brew an outright home-grown rebellion or
2) deal with the Healthy Halo Effect—having made the morally superior choice to eat a salad, we feel entitled to eat the burger and cookie, thus consuming more calories than we would have otherwise done, all while living in denial about the outcome.

So if white-knuckling doesn’t work, and morality-based decisions backfire, what can move us forward?

If only it was possible to tweak our environment so that healthful food choices could be made by default. If only there was a research team dedicated to disseminating science-based recommendations on how to mindlessly reduce caloric intake on an incremental basis.

Happily, there is such a group. But before we pay them a quick visit, care to take a brief quiz on your food-environment literacy?

Pretest

  1. The maximum size of my dinner plate should be ___ inches.
  2. Assuming two glasses have the same volumetric capacity, which shape encourages me to pour less liquid: short and wide, or tall and skinny?
  3. What object should be given a prominent place on my kitchen counter?
  4. True or false: When asked to estimate the calories contained within a specific meal, heavy participants are less accurate than their skinnier counterparts?
  5. In a kitchen designed to facilitate slimness, the freezer will be in which position on the fridge: top, side, or bottom?
  6. My fridge should contain no more than ___  juices or soft drinks (diet or regular) or energy drinks in single-serving containers.
  7. On average we control what percent of our family’s nutrition?
  8. What item should be placed in the front center of a breakfast cupboard?
  9. True or false: When it comes to measuring out food portions, food researchers and professional cooks—the experts—are able to compensate for cues like bowl size, spoon size, etc.

What Is in the Drinking Water of Upstate New York?

Continue Reading »

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It’s Important to Give Back: Q&A with Brenda Novak

brendanovakToday we are excited to have a Q&A with New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Brenda Novak, author of more than fifty books, including This Heart of Mine. A four-time Rita nominee, she has won many awards, including the National Reader’s Choice, the Bookseller’s Best, the Book Buyer’s Best, the Daphne, and the Holt Medallion.

Brenda also runs various fundraisers for diabetes research. To date, she’s raised $2.4 million.

Since my son was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of five, I’ve been compelled to do something to help him and all people who are fighting a similar battle. Every year, I orchestrate a big fundraiser. This year, I’ve curated three box sets, Sweet Dreams, Sweet Talk, and Sweet Seduction, that I’m selling to raise money for research.

Connect with Brenda on her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

It’s Important to Give Back: Q&A with Brenda Novak

Q: How did you come up with the idea—fundraising for diabetes—in the first place? 

A: My youngest son was diagnosed with Type 1 at five years old. When that happened, I knew enough about the disease to realize that he’d need constant care and that care wouldn’t be comfortable for him. But I didn’t realize the number of terrible side effects that go hand-in-hand with this dreaded disease. I don’t think a lot of people are familiar with that aspect (I had a friend tell me, right after he was diagnosed, that it wouldn’t be a big deal—I just had to give him insulin). Once I knew what my son was up against, I decided I was going to do all I could to protect him—to fight back in an effort to improve my son’s life and the lives of all those who are suffering as he is. So for ten years I ran Brenda Novak’s Annual Online Auction for Diabetes Research at brendanovak.com, through which I raised (with the help of all those who supported me) $2.4 million. 

Q: What made you turn the focus from an auction to a book sale?

A: With nearly 2,000 items being auctioned off every year, my annual auctions were big events. They had a lot of moving parts and required a great deal of coordination—not to mention that it wasn’t always easy to go back to my friends and associates, year after year, to ask them to donate an item I could put up for bid. Now that the digital age has come into its own, other options—options that require much less time yet have just as much or more potential—are now available to me.

Q: You decided on boxed sets—three of them. What was your thinking behind this choice? Continue Reading »

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Awesome Combo! The 10 Keys to Writing Killer Fight Scenes

HfHWarning: Hacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.

Story is driven by conflict and action. This, of course, does not necessarily mean fisticuffs and car chases. But it should. If books weren’t meant to have lots of violence, then they wouldn’t have coined such a high-fallutin’ literary word like “defenestrate” to mean “chuck somebody out a window.” Here are the steps you’ll need to add some punch to your fight scenes.

Wisecracks are standard in the curricula in most martial arts, so make sure your character uses them when showing off what she’s learned.

Before We Begin

First, how about giving me a high-five for that “add some punch” segue right there? Was that on point or what?

Get Fired Up!

To write a proper fight scene, you need to be in a fightin’ frame of mind. Queue up Guile’s Theme from Street Fighter II to set the mood. (Side note: I’m listening to Guile’s Theme as I write this column. It’s the soundtrack to everything I write. Sonic boom!)

Research

Those three months of karate you took after school in fifth grade are finally about to pay off! Learning a martial art is the culmination of years of practice, discipline, and hard work. If you had that kind of work ethic, you’d have already finished writing this book by now. When it comes to turning your hero into a martial artiste, here are some basics:

  • Wisecracks are standard in the curricula in most martial arts, so make sure your character uses them when showing off what she’s learned.
  • When in doubt, just imply that your hero knows ALL martial arts. How or where your hero found the time to learn them all while getting straight As in school, raising her kid brother by herself, and inventing a time machine is beside the point.
  • If you don’t know enough details about any particular martial art, just make up your own. The Spinny Flip Kick is a common move for a black belt in flip fighting. That’s the martial art my characters use in my WIP, Flip Fighting.

Continue Reading »

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The Dreaded Training Debate: What If It Can’t Be Taught?

Image - iStockphoto: User2547783c_812

Image – iStockphoto: User2547783c_812

No, this is not about talent vs. skill.

Let’s just set that aside for today, shall we? There’s no need to engage the ineffable this time.

“Like toadstools,” one seasoned observer called it in a note to me recently — this sudden proliferation of “author services,” especially the ones there to teach you, instruct you, train you. They’re everywhere, these kitchen-sink companies, and many of them seem to be peddling (or claiming they do) parts of the job we’re not even sure can be taught.

Provocations image by Liam Walsh

Provocations image by Liam Walsh

Today’s provocation is about this booming industry on all sides of us. And about expectations in a tight market. Expectations that it can all be learned.

It’s prompted by a recent column at The Bookseller in London from the literary agent who writes for us there from time to time as “Agent Orange.” As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not fond of this use of a pseudonym. But I have verified that this is a prominent, working agent on the UK scene. We’ve spoken about this. And he or she writes (very well) under that pen name because she or he fears retaliation. The industry might strike back.

In Vanity fair?, Agent Orange is, as usual, supportive of writers. (After all, the job is to advocate, negotiate, and agitate for them, he or she is a literary agent.) But those many, damp-eyed, Kleenex-clutching “never been a better time to be a writer!” people among us — and they do love that exclamation point — might be heard gasping with alarm at Agent Orange’s opener:

On the face of it, it is paradoxical that while it’s never been easier for authors to get their books into print, there has never been a worse time to be an author.

The explanation for what she or he means:

Author earnings are down and the number of writers able to make a living out of their work is at an all-time low. But perhaps that is because there have never been so many people making money off writers.

There has never been a worse time to be an author. — Agent Orange

Granted, there are opposing viewpoints we respect here. Hugh Howey and “Data Guy,” for example, have issued their sixth quarterly Author Earnings report. They’re focused on proving that a career in self-published ebooks is viable, remember. And they again see what they interpret as ample evidence to support their promotion of this route as a worthwhile alternative to traditional publishing, writing:

What does this report show? Higher ebook prices from publishers continue to erode their market share of ebook sales. Drastically. When you read industry reports on the health of ebook sales, keep in mind that these reports are discussing a mere 14% of the ebooks that show up on Amazon’s bestseller lists. That’s it. Indie ebooks account for 26%. Daily unit sales of self-published titles are now greater than the Big 5 publishers, combined. And indie authors are taking home more earnings from readers every day than those same authors, combined.

Some of us, however, are detecting a tonal shift in the independent sector’s palaver overall. Continue Reading »

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Flipping Perspectives: Turning Troubles into Blessings

photo by Vaughn Roycroft

photo by Vaughn Roycroft

Do you ever get the post-project blues? I’m only now starting to see the pattern. It begins with the euphoric rush of typing the words “The End.” I float for several days, elated by a sort of nostalgia born of what felt so right about the finished project. The high often opens the idea spigot, releasing the next project’s story flow.

Then the feedback starts to trickle in. With it comes the realization that there is more work to be done, and suddenly the flow feels tainted. Even though I know this will be the case beforehand, there’s nothing quite like hearing specifics from readers to cause the revision hammer and chisel to thump down on your desk, jarring the euphoria of skilled creation back to the cold reality of a still-misshapen chunk of granite. This is a time when I’m feeling caught between my excitement for book two in the series and the lure to begin fussing with book one again. I know I should wait until I’ve collected all of the feedback, then let it ferment and distill into a unified spirit before diving back in. The crossfire has left me feeling immobilized and melancholy.

Stasis Interruptus: As of the writing of this post, I am resolved. Today I’ve grown weary of the writerly haze in which I’ve allowed myself to wallow. I knew I needed a jolt, to get my mind off of critiques of my work—my own as well as those of others. I needed refocusing, a positive spin on my situation. I understand that I am lucky and blessed, but I wanted to make that understanding more tangible. So I decided to take a hard look at what seemed to be troublesome issues, then challenge myself to flip my perspective of them. In other words, turn my so-called troubles into blessings. I share them here in the hope that you might be inspired to challenge yourself, too.

Issue #1 – Finding the aforementioned manuscript still needs work. Quite a bit of it.

Flipside Blessing – I have a wonderful group of writers who are willing to read and critique my work. They are gracious enough to use their valuable time and experience to help me. Talk about a blessing! To top it off, several have already expressed their belief in the project’s potential. How could I ask for a better post-project circumstance?

Issue #2 – I feel like a slow writer, and each rewrite of a manuscript takes so long. Continue Reading »

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That Is the Question

This kind of hook is not as scary as they kind I mention later.

This kind of hook is not as scary as the kind I mention later.

When my son was small and not overly-verbal, he went through a phase where he’d point at something (or at nothing) and ask one of journalism’s Five W’s (plus one H). Just the one, single word. “Which?” he’d say, jabbing a stubby finger at the sky. Or he’d point in the direction of a worm wriggling blindly on the sidewalk and ask, “When?” While we’d be driving along I-5, he’d spot a 747 in the clouds and chirp, “How?”

The sky and the worm questions were tough to answer, but the airplane one? Pshaw. Piece of cake.

“Hold on,” I would say. I’d slam on the brakes, pull the car over to the I-5 shoulder, hand him a container of Goldfish crackers and a latte, and begin my lecture-length explanation of how a 747 can fly, using my vast knowledge of physics, plus scientific terms like “magical powers” and “caffeinated rocket boosters” and “millions of invisible dragons.”

My husband and I got a kick out of his vague, minimalist desire to make sense of his world, and I miss the innocence of his one-word questions; these days my kids ask about AIDS and war and homelessness. Sex and mean-girlness and legalized marijuana. September 11th. How a 747 gets off the ground without the help of invisible dragons.

But why do we enjoy reading the questions of strangers? First, we are voyeurs. Second, we want to understand our world.

We humans do make sense of the world through the asking and considering of questions. And it seems we have for quite some time. Take a look at this article from The Atlantic, in which we see quaint questions taken from an advice column in a 17th century British periodical:

Q: Why is thunder more terrible in the night time?

Q: If I [am thinking of committing] any great and enormous crime and sin (as adultery), but do not personally and actually commit it, am I guilty of the crime and sin?

Q: What is the cause of the winds, and whence do they come, and whither do they go?

The genre of the advice column was alive and kicking in the 1600s, and it has flourished ever since. But why do we enjoy reading the questions of strangers?

1) We are voyeurs.

2) We want to understand our world.

I think we read fiction (in part) for those very reasons.

And, I think we writers write fiction for those very reasons. There is no better way to comprehend something than writing our way to a greater understanding. So without further ado, let’s look at the power of questions in our fiction.

I consider two types of questions when I am writing a novel. First, there’s the all-important Dramatic Question.

In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn reeled me in with that creepy first sentence (“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”) What?, I wondered. You think of her head? Not her face or her eyes or her tush? That wondering led me to ask what the fancy-pants literati call a Dramatic Question: What weirdness is taking place in this couple’s marriage? The search for an answer to that Dramatic Question urged me (and apparently sixteen zillion others) to keep reading until I arrived at the next in a chain of additional Dramatic Questions. Did he do it, and if so, why? From there, I found myself asking, Hold on. Who is the real bad guy here and what is his/her goal? and then, Wait a minute. Who on earth am I rooting for? Notice that the Dramatic Question isn’t, “What’s going to happen next?” It is much more specific, and it relates to how things will turn out, which of course relates to whether the protagonist will make the right choice, get the girl, catch the fish, outsmart the bully, find redemption, find forgiveness, find the missing clue, have an affair, have a baby, have courage, have a chance at survival. From the conflict that generates these Dramatic Questions, suspense is born.

While the Dramatic Question must be obvious in the story, the Meat Hooks Question may or may not be.  

More examples? Yes. Shakespeare, like Gillian Flynn, was pretty good at creating suspense through his Dramatic Questions: Will Hamlet find his father’s murderer? Will Romeo and Juliet make it as a couple? Will Lady Macbeth go nuts imagining imaginary blood on her hands, or will she get away with her evil machinations? 

The Dramatic Question keeps the reader glued to the story (as does the Dramatic Situation, a topic for next month). But what keeps us writers glued to our works-in-progress? For me, it’s not the Dramatic Question of my story but what I call the Meat Hooks QuestionContinue Reading »

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Agonizing Over Antagonists

writing_bad_500

Like most writers, I keep a backlog of story ideas that I revisit from time to time, trying to decide what to write next. To help me with my choices, I analyze each idea, testing whether it has what I consider the essential components of a compelling book-length idea: a clear protagonist, strong primary conflict, high stakes, character transformation, etc.

In doing so, I found an area where my ideas consistently fell short: most of the ideas did not have a clear antagonist.

I know that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker – there are plenty of books that don’t have a specific character acting as an obstacle or an opponent to the protagonist. Particularly with books that emphasize self-discovery, the protagonist herself can sometimes be her own worst enemy. But when I look at a lot of the books (and movies and TV shows) that really sweep me away, almost all of them have a clear – and usually very memorable – antagonist.

For example, consider the antagonists in this literary dozen:

I may not remember all of their names, but I damn sure remember the characters, and the hell they put their respective protagonists through. So if we hate these characters so much, why do we want them in our stories? I have three theories.

1. It amps up the conflict.
Ideally your protagonist is facing some challenges. Those challenges can be made infinitely worse by having somebody whose goals and desires are in direct opposition to those of your protagonist. Suddenly, what was simply a challenge has now become a contest – a test of wills.

2. It makes things personal.
Suppose your protagonist’s primary problem is money: she needs a job. Okay, the job market is tough, so she’s got some conflict ahead of her. But what if she finds out her former best friend is competing for the same job? Or what if she finds out the HR director she’ll be interviewing with is somebody whose boyfriend she stole in the 9th grade? Or, to get more into the larger-than-life area, what if that HR director is a psychopathic killer who has decided to kill the next green-eyed job applicant he encounters, and your protagonist has green eyes? Continue Reading »

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Dream Come True: Bringing a Great Classic Back to Life

Flickr Creative Commons: Ulrike

Flickr Creative Commons: Ulrike

The changes in the publishing industry in recent times can seem really daunting and, like most writers, there are times when I’ve thought dark thoughts about just what the future might hold. But if there are many challenges in the new landscape of publishing, there are also great new opportunities. The rise of self-publishing is one of those opportunities that has been discussed at length, but another that hasn’t been quite so prominently discussed is the fact that the fall in printing prices caused by the advent of digital-based typesetting, design and proofs, as well as new methods of raising money, such as crowdfunding, has meant also a rise in small presses: people, sometimes authors and artists, sometimes not, following their passion and taking on publishing projects that in the past would simply have seemed like a pipe-dream. For me, one of those dreams is actually coming true: being actively involved in reintroducing to English-speaking readers a classic French novel that was one of the great books of my own life.

As a French-speaking child living in both Australia and France, Jules Verne’s great adventure novel Michel Strogoff was my favourite book in the world when I was around 12. The book was enormously influential on me, both as a reader and a writer, leading to a lifelong fascination with Russia and a lifelong love of both reading and writing adventure fiction. I’ve re-read the book many times over since then and love it just as much. An epic chase novel set in Tsarist Russia, it’s also beautifully written. With its mix of vivid characters (including, unusually for Verne, strong and interesting female characters), cracking pace, colourful settings, non-stop action, adventure and suspense, leavened by deft touches of romance and humour, it’s reckoned in France to be Jules Verne’s best novel, and not only has it never been out of print, it’s also inspired dozens of film and TV adaptations.

The one that started it all off: my childhood copy of Michel Strogoff!

The one that started it all off: my childhood copy of Michel Strogoff!

But it always frustrated me that when I mentioned it to English-language friends, they had never heard of it because the only English translation had been done back when the original French edition was first published. That translation was very much of its time, and in my opinion did not capture the liveliness and freshness of the French original, as 19th century popular French novels are much more ‘immediate,’ pacey, and less densely wordy than was the prevailing literary taste in 19th century English-language novels. ‘Michael Strogoff’ as it was titled in English, had been popular in its day—indeed, in the US it was popular enough for not only the first film ever of the book to be made there, in 1914, but also for a small town in Texas to be named after one of its main characters, Strogoff’s tough and indomitable mother, Marfa.

But the translation had dated quite badly and by the time I was growing up, the novel had fallen out of favour in English speaking countries, though in France its enormous influence continued unabated. There, not only writers speak of being first turned on to the love of reading by Michel Strogoff, but people in many other walks of life do as well, including the former President, Nicolas Sarkozy.

As I’m bilingual, I had toyed with the idea of creating a new translation myself but other books and other projects got in the way. And then one day I met the wonderful translator and writer Stephanie Smee, who had just translated the works of another great classic French author, the Countess de Ségur, another childhood favourite of mine.  Continue Reading »

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Happy Mother’s Day!

mothers

 

Comic by Debbie Ohi

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