Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Method To the Madness

So today, I'm over at Writer Unboxed, chatting about how I juggle my various hats (mixed metaphors there, sorry) and stay sane through it all. (If, in fact, you'd call this sanity!)

Check it out!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Literal Pain in the Neck

You wouldn't really think that writing comes with occupational hazards, but guess what? It does! I mean, I know that I'm not hauling concrete or mine-diving or anything like that, but it turns out that sitting in front of a computer all day has severely screwed up my body. For years, I've had terrible neck and shoulder pain and have tried to cope with massages and, more recently, acupuncture. (Unfortunately, my husband is quite possibly the worst masseuse in the world. It gives me no pleasure to say that, but since I say this to his face, I'm okay with also announcing it publicly. Sadly, nightly rubdowns aren't an option in my house. Those of you with finger-talented spouses, consider yourself lucky!)

Anyway, I recently saw my doctor about my pain, and it looks like, yup, I can thank this job for the knots and jolts and inability to rotate my neck in nearly any way. (Think of a movie in which the character, sore from sun burn, has to turn his entire torso to talk to someone. That's me.) So, I'm headed to physical therapy to find a way to fix what both my doctor and my massage therapist call, "the curve" of my shoulders. I'll be curious to discover what the PTs can do to alleviate my problem. And will certainly let you all know!

I know I'm not the only one out there who is suffering for her art. :) So fill me in, what changes have you made in your workspace or your habits to ease any work-related pain?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Shaping the Story

Question of the week: How do you learn to do it? I realize this is a huge question, and that there are many books written on this subject, but I'd like some personal responses too. I just finished a beautiful book (Blue Diary, by Alice Hoffman) and it reinforces the fact that I have no idea how to do that -- how to shape and tell a story from so many angles, how to illustrate characters in such a way that they're living and breathing people. I have the basic outline of an idea, and I'm working at it, but I have no idea how to shape and mold it into something beautiful.

(Disclaimer: this was posted on one of my fiction forums, and I responded to the poster with my answer. A lot of people chimed in that my answer was really helpful, so the poster gave me permission to share both her question and my answer here.)

Very, very good question. I can only speak from my experience, which, I think, is different from a lot of other people's. I learned on the job. I didn't read any book on how to write, though I'm sure those would have been helpful, but frankly, I'm just not a "here's how you do something" reader. Self-help books have never appealed to me.

Instead, I wrote a book that, looking back on it now, wasn't particularly good. But it got me an agent who showed me how to revise it to make it better. One thing that we really worked on was showing, not telling, and I think that this is a huge trap that new fiction writers can fall into. Exposition is so easy to write...and SO boring to read. No one wants or needs to be inside of the head of your character all the time; what they want instead is to read about how your character's actions translate into what is going on inside of her head. Don't write an entire chapter about how she's so pissed off, and how's she's thinking about how she's so pissed off. Instead, show her going to the gym and blowing off steam or snapping at her significant other because she doesn't have another outlet for it. Or whatever. So...I trained myself to really be on the lookout for any instances in which I told, not showed. And every time I saw one of those moments, I edited them into actionable scenes, usually by putting in dialogue and drawing the reader in that way.

Another thing that I didn't realize I had to do, and thus the ms stagnated at times, was add more conflict and obstacles for my characters. Your characters need to be on a journey, and the only way that they can get from point A to point B is to deal with problems and difficulties. So you have to throw the book at them: relationship, work, family, emotional, etc, problems. If you sit down with your characters and do this, often times, plots can emerge because you have to figure out how to resolve these issues for your characters...and that becomes the story.

For example, in The Department, my heroine decides to take a look at the wreckage of her romantic life. Her boyfriend has just left her (problem) and she has no one to lean on while undergoing chemotherapy (problem) and is oddly attracted to her good friend's ex/OBYGN (problem). So, I sat down with my character and thought, "How would she come out of this with new knowledge that can make her a better person and partner, and thus allow her to potentially be in a thriving relationship at the end of the book?" And for me, what emerged was that my protagonist was going to retrace her romantic history by tracking down her former loves to see where things went wrong and what she might learn from that. So that was the story arc for that particular problem in her life. (Which, of course, also opened up other issues as she went along.) As I wrote the book, I wove in these scenes and the plot/story arc created itself.

Does that make sense? I hope that helps!

Oh, I should add that the manuscript that this agent took on never sold. And in hindsight, it shouldn't have. I reread it recently, and man, it sucked. Sometimes, you just have to write to improve your skills, and I look at that book as my minor league helped me get to the majors, even though the book itself lead nowhere.

So, writers and authors out there, how do you mold and shape an idea into a bigger story and concept?