Friday, May 28, 2010

The Dialogue Is Taking Over!

First off, can I just say that bloggers are the best community of encouragers one could ask for?  Thank you so much for your personal notes empathizing with my aqueduct dam of writer's block, sharing your own stories, and telling me it wouldn't last.

I'm so glad to say it didn't. I woke up yesterday with a million errands to run and no time to write. When I finally hit the swimming pool for my daughter's swim team practice at 5:00, I opened my computer for the first time and in 45 minutes, I managed to write somewhere along the lines of 1500 words. Which is pretty good for me. I focused on one of the scenes I'd started and couldn't move forward on, and finally the dam burst. Today I'm hoping to finish that scene.

I tried to figure out what the problem was with writing. Or the not writing, as the case happened to be. I'd spent Tuesday off in a beautiful place with a great friend taking pictures. There's nothing more cathartic and freeing than that for me. I thought I'd come back refreshed.

And I started another book, which I let go of my interior editor and just let myself read and enjoy, and usually that inspires me to write.

Instead, I felt like someone had put a wall between my brain and my fingers. The story was there, it just couldn't escape.

I think part of my problem was that the dialogue has started taking over the book. Every nice little paragraph of narrative leads to pages of dialogue. This book has the most chatty characters in history. I try to get them to shut up, but they won't. Talk talk talk talk talk.

It's driving me crazy.

And to heap guilt upon guilt, I read a quip from an editor that said nothing kills a good book faster than using dialogue as exposition.

And I went through the book I've been reading and it's nearly all exposition and narrative. Dialogue sprinkled lightly as needed, but mostly narrative.

And I began to panic.

I felt like donning a 16th century wig and riding through Boston on a horse screaming, "The dialogue is taking over! The dialogue is taking over!"

(I don't know where that came from. My 2nd grade lunch box I think, where there were comic strips about 1776 and the British redcoats and cartoon Paul Revere in a wig screaming "The British are coming...")

I digress...

Anyhoo - I was trying so hard to write narrative without dialogue that I couldn't move forward. I was trying to add in reflection and observation when the characters just wanting to keep moving forward.

In short, I was trying to force the story to be something it wasn't ready yet to be.

I've given over to the whims of the characters.... for now. What I've learned is that I'm pretty darn good at revisions, and adding in details and reflections after the scene is done, and it's a lot easier to revise if there's something on the page to begin with.

What about you? Is there something that keeps you from writing? And how do you feel about a lot of dialogue?

(and why does blogger and my email program not recognize dialogue as the correct spelling??)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

An aqueduct dam: a dam built by ducks instead of beavers?

Well, it couldn't last forever - those pouring of words that piled up day after day, making the end of the book look inevitable. They gushed onto the page with such force and power I thought I'd surely have enough momentum to see me through that final page with relative painlessness.

Ah....silly me.

Wherever there is a flood, drought is soon to follow.

Today was that drought. Or maybe more aptly a dam, because the story is there. Beautifully crafted scenes and characters with hope and challenges and relationship all right there, so close I can see them dance through my head.

And yet... and yet...

I spent hours today staring at the computer screen getting nothing. I wrote, I deleted, I wrote a few more words, I deleted those as well. I think, in the end, I might possibly have come out with a negative word count today, and I wasn't even revising!

I have no idea how much I wrote because I had three documents open, working on four different scenes. I could see each one so clearly. I knew what I wanted to happen. And yet I couldn't get the words down. It was as if I'd had a writer's stroke. From my head to my fingers, the book would not come out.

I cannot even begin to explain how frustrating that was.

So I'm shutting the computer down and hoping tomorrow is better. Tomorrow there will be a crack in the dam and the words, like all that water in the photo above, will come crashing through. Fingers crossed, anyway.

(And the title of this post? When I came back from Great Falls where I took the above photo, I told my son, "You can hike trails all the way up the river to the aqueduct dam!" To which he replied: "Is that a dam made by ducks instead of beavers?"  I laughed my head off!)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Good Book, Bad Book

I've discovered something in the last few years, the years that I've been purposely pursuing writing and publishing. I've discovered that I enjoy books much less than I used to.

That probably isn't exactly right. I still enjoy reading. I get obsessive about it, really. You can ask my husband and kids, who often deal with burned dinners and missed buses and late appointments because I'm unable to get my nose out of a book until I finish it.

No, I still enjoy reading. I just "enjoy" it in a different way.

I complain.

I complain about the overuse of similes. I complain about stilted dialog. I complain about flat characters and pointless plots. I complain about predictability and repetitive words. Even if I am the only one in a room, I complain. Even if I am so drawn in by something in the story and cannot put the book down, I complain.

Studying writing, working at developing my own, has made me so much more critical. Critical to the point that I don't find many books anymore that I love and can rave about. I've nearly stopped doing reviews, because I find so many more things I think are wrong with a book than things I love about them.

In the past year I've read maybe three or four published books I would qualify as really great books: the total package of great writing and great plotting. The rest have somewhat disappointed me.

But I've found myself lately thinking about stories I've read that I complained about the writing, but somehow, for some reason, have stuck with me. And I've discovered that some of the beautifully written books are ones I enjoy while reading, and then put on a shelf and never feel anything about again except for a warm glow.

Others, though... ones that I complained bitterly about...ones that I literally threw the book in frustration... something in them has crept into me and burrowed in my heart. At random times I think about them. I remember a character that suddenly I connect with. I think about an issue - social, political, romantic - that was highlighted in the book that suddenly seems relate-able to my own life. Over time, with distance from the actual words on the page, some of these books I hated have become some of the stories I've loved.

I'm not sure what that means, except that perhaps the value of a book isn't immediately understood. And that a great story is more than just the way words are strung together, and yes, even sometimes great despite the way the words are strung together.

Have you read books like that?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It's 3:22pm

I have eight minutes until I walk out my front door into the not-quite blazing sun and walk my puppy up to the corner to welcome my son off the bus. In eight minutes, the part of the day where I get things done ends, and the part of the day where the house explodes in a fountain of papers and books and endless chatting and defrosted meat begins. By 3:30, I already have to surrender getting anything else for myself done.

It's now 3:24. I have my Word document open and my story has been buzzing along. I like it. I'm not having trouble writing. There are, of course, the niggling doubts that seem to hover when I get going too well on something. After all, if I'm writing, it must be bad, right? The only good writing I do is in my head.

But nevertheless, I ignore the voice that tells me my main character is swinging wildly from love to hate like a woman in menopause. I like her. I like the way she is changing. I know whatever is wrong with the mood swings can be fixed on revisions.

I have made notes as I go about what I want to write but don't want to break from the chapter to do. Conversations I realize I need in the last chapter. Details in the next. For the last fifteen minutes I've been typing well, and am half-way to my goal for the day.

Now it is 3:28 and I stare at the page where I know what I want to write, where I like what I am writing, and find my fingers gradually grazing the mouse button, switching screens to check email, to re-read a blog, update a twitter. I check Amazon. I watch the clock on my laptop tick another minute off.

I'm down to one minute. I could still eek out a few words. Words which would come easily if I just stayed on the document.

I want to write, but my mind is floating elsewhere, as though it knows the end is coming anyway and I should just surrender now. I had eight minutes and I squandered every one of them. Though I like the book, though I love writing, though I like this scene and know where it's going...

still my mind wandered off into a different screen, out into the vast internet, meandering lazily.

And now the precious minutes are gone.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Need for Grace

(Page a day challenge Sunday: 1 page) 

When I started my current novel, I gave it the working title of Grace Like Rain. The first chapter I wrote was one of the last in the book. I have a tendency to do that, maybe because I need to see how the journey ends before I begin.

In any case, the book had more false starts than the Olympic short track speedskating finals, and when it finally took off again after a long, long hiatus on the back burner, I changed the working title to something that fit a little better.

Still, I find this book, and I, need our share of grace.

For instance, several weeks ago I signed up for the page-a-day challenge. Usually when I challenge myself, I am pretty ruthless on myself. But this time, I knew there might be a few days I wouldn't make it. I'm a mom. There's always that chance as a mom. Someone throws up. Someone spills their science project all over their clothes at school and needs a new set of clothes. Another kid gets sick. The piano teacher's husband has a brain aneurism and I'm needed to take over organizing all of the students for piano guild competition. A husband has a birthday. Another kid gets sick. A class needs a supervisor for a field trip. One child discovers the soles of their school shoes have completely broken in half. The second kid who got sick and then got better suddenly spikes a temperature of well over 100.

This was my last week.

So knowing this, I got a head start on that page-a-day challenge, not to substitute pages not done this month for pages done last month, but just so that I would know, if I failed in the month, that it wasn't a pattern of failure. In the last two weeks, I have not missed one day of writing, and not had one day where I have written less than six pages.

Which is good, because yesterday, the first day of the challenge, I racked up ZERO pages.


You see, yesterday was the Joint Services Air Show at Andrews Air Force Base near where we live. We try to go every year, but last year it rained and the year before that we couldn't get on base and had to watch from a field across the highway.

So this year it was 80 degrees, sunny, light breeze, and we had passes to park on base. So bright and early we were up and out, and not to get home before late, utterly exhausted, sunburned, and with a daughter who somewhere between leaving the base and getting home developed a fever and nasty cough.

So no writing.

But you know what? I'm giving myself a little grace here. Today, I only managed one good page, but it was good, and that was the goal. So instead of feeling frustrated, I'm feeling proud that even though events today and yesterday conspired against me, I made it priority to write just one good page.

And I stopped in the middle of a scene I can't wait to finish, with all of Monday stretched out in front of me. Even with one of my little ones home sick, I'm sure I can manage at least one more good one.

And anything else is icing on the cake, so to speak.

Did I mention how much I love this contest?  :)

Oh - and this is what I missed the goal for:

Friday, May 14, 2010

Page A Day Challenge

It's finally here. The challenge I can actually probably do. And achieve. And not neglect family, myself, and home doing.

Weronika Janczuk, teen writer extraordinaire, has devised a deliciously doable challenge for all of us writers who think that every time we sit to write we must write a ginormous amount of words or it's not worth it. (Raise you hand, anyone?)

The challenge is here if you want to participate, but in short, this is it: Pledge to yourself to write a page a day from May 15 to June 15. No more, no less. Not that you can't write more if you want, and if you get on a roll by all means, write your little heart out!! But if you can only squeak out a page, you get to pat yourself on the back because the idea is that a page written is a page written. It's not overwhelming, but it's something. It's something you didn't have yesterday, and all those little somethings add up. They do! Like proverbial drops in a bucket. Because what is a book but a series of pages with words on them?

I thought this was brilliant, because I'm one of those who berates myself if I can't come up with a ton of wordage in a sitting, and I get utterly frustrated reading tweets of writers who regularly rack up 7,000 words in a day. I have never done that. I can't imagine ever doing that. And so, if I can't get much done, I feel like I wasted my time.

BUT Weronika's point is so great! 

The main purpose of this is to get you writing, but I also like the idea of raising some awareness: that, realistically, you don't need to set unrealistic goals AND that writing a page-a-day (or a derivate of that goal) will make your writing better if you take your time with it.

And what's the worst case scenario? You spend one year writing a novel.

I'm so on board with this!

She suggests we keep a calendar and track it in this post, but I'm going to keep a log of my writing on the sidebar, since it's easier access to me.

Join me if you're up for it! Today is the last day to officially sign up on her blog, but you can do it even if you don't sign up. All you need is a teensy bit of commitment, and a whole lot of optimism that every little thing we do is working towards the end.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Letter to my Future Self

I know soon this book is going to be finished. In a few weeks, you are going to be holding a 300+ page manuscript that you will call your new baby. And then you will continue to tweak it and rewrite it, and eventually you will send it out into the world again.

This letter is for that time.

You will think this book came easily. Writing-the-end-amnesia will erase most of what I'm about to tell you, so I want to remind you when you start on another book.

This book was hard. Hair-pulling, nail-biting, nightmare inducing, gave-up-at-least-three-times hard. From beginning to end it has taken over a year. You started two other novels in between. You said it was boring. You said you didn't like the characters ( I know!! What were you thinking??). You were convinced you lost your mojo. You were sure no one would like it.

What you will remember is the moment that spark hit again, the way you one day woke up totally in love with your characters and realized you'd been dreaming of them all night. You will remember that you thought about them in the car, doing dishes, in the midst of long, long conversations your children are having with you over school projects. You will remember how the words flew across the page at times, and how there were so many things you wanted to write, you had to start jotting notes in the margins so that you wouldn't forget the new scenes you saw dancing through your head. You will remember sneaking the computer up to bed and writing until one in the morning and hoping you can still be functional enough to get the kids off to school in the morning because you must write. You will remember when you thought 100,000 words was not enough to tell the story that needed to be told.

You will not remember that 80% of those words were like trying to catch a mouse with your bare hands as he skitters across a wide and expansive floor. You will not remember when you had no idea what the next scene was going to be about, or how to finish the one you were in. You will not remember when reaching 10,000 words seemed like a milestone worth celebrating because you were fairly sure that was as far as you were going to get. You will not remember that you thought this book was crap, and you sucked as a writer. You will not remember when the characters were blank names with no history, no personality, no real story to tell. That at times, they bored you.

In a few months this process is going to begin again. New book. New story, New characters. You will look back on this book with dewy eyes, lovingly adoring this story, sure that this is the last good book you will ever write, that it can't be done again, that this story was never as hard to write as the new one.

When that happens, read this. Because it wasn't as easy as you remember. It was hard. Hard hard hard. This was the book that made you say you were going to give up writing.

But you didn't. And eventually you fell in love. It didn't happen over night, but it did happen.

It will happen again.

Stick with it. Sometimes we are stuck in a bad place, but the good place always comes if we're willing to fight for it.

Love, me

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reading and Reviewing As A Writer

I read a book this past weekend, in between cleaning up after my stomach-flu ridden children (so much for a mother's day!). It's a book I've been wanting to read for at least six months, one which I had every intention of loving and reviewing.

It's probably the fact that I was hoping – no, expecting – to love it that set me up for such disappointment. But when I thought about what it was the frustrated me so much about the book, I realized it was the things I notice as a writer that maybe the ordinary reader doesn't notice.

Things like overdosing on similes. Half-way through reading I looked up at my husband and said, "someone needs to give this author one of the dozens of writing books that says, use similes sparingly." They came at a rate of almost one a page, some of them really reaching, and some making no sense at all. One gangly boy was described as having legs that "splayed like a stickbug."  Seriously? I actually stopped reading to get a mental picture and ended up busting out laughing. I'll wait now while you imagine it with me.

In the span of less than half a page, a girl has pills swimming in the fishbowl of her bulging cheeks, sobbing seeps through the grout and soffits and plaster and becomes part of the brick and mortar, and her mother searches for answers like they are a visible tattoo instead of a scar on the heart. Any one of these? Maybe they would have worked. One after another? Too much.

Some comparisons I'm sure sounded good, but I didn't get it. Sharpies that smelled like licorice. I've smelled sharpies. They don't smell like licorice. Kids markers, maybe, but not sharpies.

The simile that literally had me thinking for days: music that beat like blood. Maybe I'm dense but for two days I went around thinking about this, convinced it meant nothing. It was senseless. Nice alliteration but meaning-wise? I finally figured it out. but in my opinion, anything you have to think that hard about is detracting from the story.

There were other things that bugged me. There were small, brilliant words that had a wow factor the first time they were used. Then less so the second, and by the third time, I thought, okay this is now overdone. I know as a writer it can take months – years even – to write a book, and so when you find a brilliant phrase one month and want to bring it back four months later, it doesn't seem too soon. Trust me, as a reader who reads an entire book in one or two sittings, it's too much. If you find a great phrase or word, a great description or comparison, once is enough. More dilutes it, and even mocks the greatness of it.

Also, most scenes were less than three pages: hardly time to get to know a character or let anything really develop. It was like a series (a very long series) of vingettes that showed tiny pieces but not ever a fully developed one. And yet, almost every one of those scenes had to end with some dramatic and thought-provoking sentence. One of those meant to make the reader stop and think. One of those, "wow, that was an amazing bit of writing right there" kind of things. Except every three pages ended up being more funny, in an eye-rolling sort of way.

Some things that bothered me were purely opinion that I'd never criticize knowing others might prefer otherwise. For instance, the characters were extremely stereotyped, there was not a likeable character to be found in the book, there was no happy ending, parts of it felt lifted directly from news reports instead of fiction.

Maybe readers don't notice these things. After all, this is a best-selling author, and this book is a best selling book with far more positive reviews than negative. I think writing has made me a much more critical reader, but in turn, I hope, reading has made me a much more careful writer.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How Facebook Saves the Day

I'd like to clarify that statement by saying something like, "well, that's really quite the hyperbole..." but the funny thing is, it's not.

You see, my husband doesn't have a facebook account. He teases me about the time I spend on mine. He says he doesn't have one because of something to do with his security clearance and his business contacts. Yeah right. Like the congressmen he briefed yesterday would know whether or not he updates a facebook status. They're probably all twittering behind his back anyway.

In any case, since I have one and he doesn't, I can write whatever I want there and he won't know. It's kind of a joke in our family. He does something that might be considered embarrassing to himself and I say, "Well that'll make a great facebook status."

Which has, in turn, been the way we salvage moments that might make us cry. The dog locked me out of the car when it was running and my only set of keys were in the ignition? That'll make a great facebook status!  The kid spills his plate of spaghetti on the white rug? That'll make a great facebook status!  I stood out in hurricane force winds to gas up the car and then forgot to put the cap back on and had to stop on the highway and get out, totally drenched, on the side to replace it? That'll make a great facebook status!

In the craziest, most absurd way, facebook status updates have let us laugh at situations we might otherwise cry at. And yes, sometimes this makes it feel like Facebook is saving the day.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Living In the Dark Places

Sunday afternoon was gorgeous here. Mid-80s with bright sun and a warm breeze. The birds were singing and the puppy was chasing bumblebees (which is his new favorite past time, something I'm guessing will fall far down on his list of favorites the first time he catches one), and I decided to catch up on some writing.

The kids were playing in my usual writing space, so I took my laptop out to my front porch to enjoy the weather while I wrote. The section of writing I'm working on is probably the hardest part in the book to write: the aftermath of a murder – and I thought the bright sun would balance the darkness of the book.

As is typical, the kids gradually discovered I was missing and came to find me. They are like moths to a flame when I'm writing. No matter where I go to get some quiet, they manage to seek me out to play around me anyway. As a writer, that's frustrating. As a mom, it's kinda cool.

So my two bookend kids decided to ride bikes, and my middle child decided to read a book on the bench next to me: a book she had just borrowed from the library the day before.

I'd warned her it was probably too easy for her. The problem with her is that she's a fourth grader reading at a sixth grade level, and books at her level aren't really her subject cup-of-tea. She like the things written for her age. So she sat and read and I wrote, and in less than 30 minutes she'd finished the book. THE WHOLE BOOK!! 

And you know what my first reaction was? Not "Wow! Good job!"  Not "You're an awesome reader!" 

No, my first response was: "Do you know how long it probably took that author to write that book? It probably took her longer to write the first page than it took you to read the whole thing!"

She rolled her eyes at me and decided to go ride her bike.

But this is where I am right now, in that middle ground between writing like a writer, and writing like a reader.

My book has a dark part. A murder. It's not the crux of the book. It's a turning point but not the central part. This is not a crime book or mystery book. And my hope is that when a reader reads it, they will flit over these pages so they are but a drop in the bucket of the story. They won't wallow in the darkness of it but it will merely be a catalyst for getting on in the journey of the main characters.

And yet.... as a writer, it takes more than flitting to make the pages work. Everything in me is screaming, "get in, get out!" as I'm writing it. I don't want to stay in this place anymore than my characters do.

I started having nightmares about it two nights ago. Gory, terrible, graphic nightmares. And I woke up and thought, I have to change the murder weapon. Not that the reader will care. Not that the reader will even know what the murder weapon is (I haven't decided how in depth to go about the deaths...I'd like to keep it more to the characters that live and less about the crime). But I know. I care. And even though I'd already decided what happened, I changed my mind because I couldn't live in that space while writing it.  Even if it takes the reader only minutes to read those sections of the book, it is taking me longer to write them, to research them, to make sure I'm getting the details right.

My hope is, if I do it right, the reader will get the weight of the scene, but not stay there.

As for me, I'm hoping to be over this scene today or tomorrow and move on as well. After all, this gorgeous spring weather can only last so long.