Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book Club, Part One

Today I joined a book club.  Okay, well, technically I joined a book club a month and a half ago, because I had to read the book, The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy, before today.  I didn't want to comment on the book here, although I will say that it's nothing like what I usually read and that I found it to be very compelling once it got going.  Instead, I'm pondering the book club experience.

The book club is an interesting group of people.  They all work at my day job, and with the exception of one, none of them have any clue that I lead my super-secret double life as a fiction writer.  (This certainly sounds more glamorous than it is.  Maybe I need a cape!)  Anyway, it was an interesting experience listening to the things they enjoyed, the things they disliked, what they thought about the characters, and what they thought about the ending.  A few of us thought the book was well done, while others hated it and one put it down after the prologue because she just couldn't get through it.  It was a good reminder to me that the things I fall in love with as a writer may not be the things that readers would love, so I shouldn't be afraid to edit and cut things that I'm particularly pleased with if it will make the work stronger.

Next month we read Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, which I've heard good things about.  It will be interesting to see how freely the adults discuss a YA novel in a work setting and whether they enjoy it more than The Black Dahlia.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Things I Learned This Week

This week has been a zoo, but I swore I'd post something every week so I'm due.  Thus, these are the things I learned this week:
  • My new full-time job provides precious little free time for writing, particularly in the first week on the job.
  • Gone with the Wind is a great read when you're thinking about third person POV, how to show the passage of time in a book, how to write descriptive narrative, and just generally how to make an historical period come alive.  (Debate all you want about some of the other, less wonderful aspects of the book and I probably won't disagree.  But it's been a good read for a writer.)
  • I need to revise my NaNoWriMo book before I rewrite it.  Even though I know I'm going to rewrite the entire thing, I think the act of revision would be a helpful exercise.  Fortunately, that's the assignment for my writer's group over the next two weeks.
  • You cannot put sixteen hours of work into a ten hour work day, no matter how hard you try.  And when you try, you will not feel like cooking dinner when you get home!  Time to come up with a new plan for that whole dilemma, because this week wasn't terribly successful.
This weekend I'll be working on some things for work and possibly going vintage clothing shopping with an old friend.  Probably no writing.   *sigh*  Maybe the coming week I'll have more time?

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goals for 2010

Getting together a few writing/reading goals for 2010 has definitely been on my mind for the last two days, and I feel like it's sort of a contract with myself.  If I put it in writing, and post it in public, I'm somehow more accountable.  So here are my goals, and hopefully by next December, I can report back favorably!

  1. Read more books -- Lost Wanderer threw down the gauntlet, and I'm accepting the challenge.  I'm committing to five books per month.  It's not a lot, but I'm really not sure how much time I'll have in my new job, so I'm starting slow. 
  2. Read more new authors -- If I want to be a new author someday, then I should be reading new authors, right?  One of the books I read each month will be from a new author.  If you have any suggestions, particularly for plain old fiction, please post!  I haven't picked my January books yet.
  3. Read more blogs -- I read a lot of blogs.  Many of them are written by professionals in the publishing industry.  Some of them have to do with my day job or my other interests.  Some of them are just for fun.  Few of them are written by other writers like me, although the number of these blogs I'm reading has increased since I started participating in Absolute Write's monthly blog chain (a great experience so far!).  I resolve to read more of these, post more on these, and if possible, feature a favorite quote of the week from these on this blog for a little shared inspiration.
  4. Keep a blog schedule -- You get out of it what you put into it, and I need to put more into it.  I'm going to post at least once a week, with an aspiration of twice a week.  If I can get a good rhythm going, maybe more.
  5. Write!  -- Oh, yeah, that too.  I'm not going to set any crazy goals for writing fiction this year, other than participating in NaNoWriMo and attending my writer's group.  My only goal is to write regularly, and I like the idea that Helen has:  I'm going to write 500 words before I'm allowed to play on the computer at night when I get home from work.  Hopefully, I'll get a first rewrite of Crossing Lines done, do some of the research I need for two of the stories that are kicking around in my brain, and maybe get started writing those as well.  But, baby steps.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Absolute Write December Blog Chain and Year-End Wrap Up

Note:  I typically try to be an upbeat person, or, failing that, at least a fairly sarcastic one.  Any way I approached it, though, looking back on this year was bound to be a little rough.  So, for this installment of the December Absolute Write blog chain (a year-end wrap up), forgive me if I'm a little more reflective than enthusiastic.


2009 has been circled on my calendar for a long time.  When my husband and I got married six years ago, we knew that he'd have three years of graduate school and then I'd have three years of graduate school after that.  While our friends all got married, bought nice houses, had babies, and then had more babies, we would still be eating ramen soup and waiting for 2009.  That's when all our careful planning, all our patience would pay off.

It was really, really hard.  Six years is a long time to wait for kids and houses, particularly with a mother and a mother-in-law double-teaming us (mostly good-naturedly) to start cranking out the grandchildren.  We had a series of bad apartments that made us desperately wish for a house of our own.  By the time we hit January of this year, though, we were in the home stretch.  My husband had a good job.  I had accepted an offer for a great job, to start after my graduation.  The money would be enough for a house.  We would finally be able to afford kids and have a place to put them.  Jobs, houses, kids -- everything was finally on the horizon.  Everything was falling into place just as promised.

Then in February, I got word that my job was a victim of the economy.  Instead of starting in August, would I be so kind as to start in January 2010?  Well, hey, what's a little more waiting after six years?  We signed another year's lease on our apartment and pouted about the wait, but decided that having a job in January was still better than no job at all, so we got over it.  Apparently, 2009 was not to be the year of the job or the house, but 2010 was looking up.  Of course, the other effect this had was that we would have to wait to have children so that I could ge tthe time off from work.  No sweat.  We have time.  We're still young.  2010 is a good year for kids, too.  A nice round number.  Even with my woefully deficient math skills, I'd probably be able to calculate their age.

As it turned out, the waiting had other intended consequences.  We had known about my mother-in-law's cancer for a few years, but she was doing so well until the bottom dropped out over this past summer.  She fell desperately ill for a few months and died in October.  The family was devastated, and I felt suddenly selfish for putting off the kids until after school.  The waiting was no longer merely a purely personal torture for my husband and I; it had worked to deprive my future chlidren of a truly wonderful grandmother that they would never know.

By the time the end of October hit, I found myself working part-time to help make ends meet until January.  Originally, the limited schedule had been nice because it allowed me to help take care of my mother-in-law and my uncle, who died of cancer shortly after my mother-in-law.  Once they were both gone, however, I found myself with too much time on my hands.  The plan I had started with at the beginning of the year was floundering.  I was becoming depressed and needed some new goals before things got too off-track.

Earlier in the year, on a whim, I had joined a writing group with a friend to rekindle my love of writing, and they were gearing up for NaNoWriMo 2009.  I decided the project was a perfect distraction and threw myself into it.  As it turns out, it was exactly what I needed.  Not only did it give me a routine to get me up out of bed and keep me going, but it also gave me an escape.  I could spend time in my own little world, with my own little characters, free from depression and guilt and more waiting.  Well, almost free -- the characters spent an inordinately large amount of time dealing with hospitals, doctors, and death themselves.  But still, it helped.  I crossed the finish line early, and I'm still working on the story, revising and rewriting as I have time over the holidays.  Writing is now a part of my daily life, and the infusion of creativity into my day has done wonders for me.  Connecting with other writers gives me an additional kick in the pants on the days when I really need it.

Ultimately, 2009 did not bring much of anything that it initially promised.  It did not bring a job, a house, or a baby for me and my husband.  Instead it brought disappointment, impatience, and grief.  But it also brought rebirth -- it brought a writer into being -- and as the year closes, everything that is yet to be is finally within reach.  For that, I am blessed and thankful, and I am learning to appreciate this past year for all it has taught me.

But, believe me, I can't wait for 2010!


Other participants in this month's year-end wrap up blog chain are listed below.  Please stop by their blogs and see what they're up to!

Lost Wanderer -- http://www.lostwanderer5.blogspot.com/
Claire Crossdale -- http://theromanticqueryletter.blogspot.com/
coryleslie -- http://corrinejackson.wordpress.com/
bsolah -- http://benajminsolah.com/blog
DavidZahir -- http://zahirblue.blogspot.com/
RavenCorinnCarluk -- http://ravencorrincarluk.blogspot.com/
Ralph Pines -- http://ralfast.wordpress.com/
shethinkstoomuch -- http://shethinkstoomuch.wordpress.com/
Lady Cat -- http://www.randomwriterlythoughts.blogspot.com/
truelyana -- http://expressiveworld.com/
misaditas -- http://misaditas-novels.blogspot.com/
collectonian -- http://collectonian.livejournal.com/
laharrison -- http://lesleyharrison.wordpress.com/
beawhiz -- http://beawrites.wordpress.com/
razibahmed -- http://www.blogging37.com/
FreshHell -- http://freshhell.wordpress.com/
AlissaC -- http://alissacarleton.blogspot.com/  ME
Aimee -- http://writing.aimeelaine.com/ NEXT UP!
Forbidden Snowflake -- http://queryshark.blogspot.com/

Thursday, December 10, 2009

How To Write "Da Vinci Code" Part 4

There's been a lot of random chatter lately on how to be "the next Dan Brown."  Particularly enjoyable is the "Dan Brown Sequal Generator" from Slate, which is hilariously, and unfortunately, accurate.

I started reading "The Lost Symbol" when the book came out three months ago.  I loved "The Da Vinci Code," so after reading that I went back and read "Angels and Demons," which I thought was pretty awful in that it was identical to "The Da Vinci Code."  Anyway, I wasn't going to buy "The Lost Symbol" right away because I feared it would be yet another "Da Vinci Code," but my husband brought a copy home from the grocery store so, what the heck.  Usually I fly through books, so my husband let me read it first.  After struggling through the first seventy pages at a ridiculously slow pace, my husband took it from me.

By the time I finally got it back, it was almost painful to read.  First, because it was ridiculously obvious who the bad guy was and second, because this was now the third time I was reading the same Dan Brown book.  Halfway through, I was livid that I now owned the thing. Since I'm sure Dan Brown will be writing another of these, I thought I'd "reveal" Dan Brown's "secret code" on how to write a book.  Take it and run with it -- beat him to the next storyline so that he can't inflict this punishment on anyone else ever again.  Understand that I am usually very tolerant of other writers and other styles, but this time, I feel like I got screwed out of fifteen bucks for purchasing part three of "Dan Brown's Greatest Hit."

To begin:
  1. Introduce the main character, but be careful when doing so.  It is important that he have absolutely no endearing or even memorable characteristics.  He is merely the narrator, the blank slate upon which the rest of the story revolves. 
  2. Create a victim.  They should be very powerful, suddenly unavailable, and preferrably mutilated in "symbolic" ways.
  3. The victim has to have a close female relative within a romantically-plausible age range, who falls in love with the main character due to circumstance.  (I cannot fathom why else any woman would fall in love with this main character since he lacks a personality.)  She is allowed to have a high-ranking position of power, but she must vacillate between dumb and dumber, except where you need tension at the end of the scene, at which point the woman can suddenly and brilliantly solve the riddle but not tell you about it until at least the next chapter.  Also, the two characters don't need to have any actual chemistry, so long as there is a promise of "hooking up" in some way at the end of the book.  Note:  Do not talk about the chick from the last book.  We don't care about her anymore.
  4. There must be an investigator with great power and questionable motives.  Preferably foreign, so we can interpret some of this as cultural divide if we so choose.
  5. Oh yes, the bad guy!  You definitely need one of those.  They are seeking something to acquire ultimate world-wide power, and of course they must belong to a cult.  Preferrably a secret religious cult that had at least one artistic member at some point.  Better if they will kill you to obtain something or protect something -- your choice.  Even better if it somehow relates to the Catholic church.
  6. You must have an explainer, possibly the victim or the bad guy -- someone other than the main character who knows all the "answers" and can reveal all the "truth."  Then you need pages upon pages of "truth," the preachier the better.
  7. Riddles.  You need lots of them, and of course they must involve symbols.  The obvious answer is not the solution.  When your characters do solve the puzzle, do not reveal the answer immediately.  I hear this is called tension and it has something to do with plot.  Every riddle should lead to more pages of explaining and more pages of "truth."  Since, as you know, more tension makes for a better book, you have to keep repeating this over and over again. 
  8. Another way of creating tension is to make half-page chapters.  That half-second it takes your reader to turn the page will really build your plot.  (Also, has anyone considered a NaNoWriMo that sets a chapter goal instead of a word goal?  Because your Dan-Brown-type novel will win on Day 2.)
  9. Descriptions of architecture.  Pick several well-known buildings in a city, along with a few that have to do with the aforementioned evil cult.  Choose the weirdest "symbolic" portion of the building and focus on that in your description.  I suggest walking through the building and looking for odd art, then making that the centerpiece of one of those riddles.
  10. Did I mention pages of preachiness?  You really should add more of this.
The great irony of this post is that this formula is available to anyone who has read Dan Brown's books.  So, it's like a code where the answer is in front of your face the whole time!  Look at that!  Now I will have to go ponder New Age philosophy or something on my way to Half Price Books to get this thing out of my house.

The other great irony of this post is that on some level, I want to be Dan Brown or at least find myself as successful.  Insert sigh here.  I guess I'd better get back to writing some fiction of my own so that perhaps someday, someone I've never met can trash my plot formula in a blog.  After they've bought my best-selling book, of course.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Gender and POV

So apparently I am not done with my NaNo work because it seems to still be sucking up a lot of my brain power.

Tonight's procrastination exercise (posing as pseudo-experiment) was with "The Gender Genie," a fantastic little gizmo that analyzes passages of text and predicts whether the author is male or female based on the words used.  My NaNo work started with three different points of view (two men and a woman) that would alternate by chapter, so I thought it would be interesting to see whether my male points of view sounded like men, and whether my female point of view sounded like a female. 

To run the test, I pulled 500-550 word samples of dialogue and internal reflection from each POV, then put the entire POV into the system.  I also ran all four of my previous blog posts through individually, as well as a memo I wrote for work (non-fiction) and the U.S. Constitution, just to see what the Genie would say.  The Genie actually has different settings for fiction, non-fiction, and blog entries, so I wanted to test out each setting. 

First off, all of my characters, when looked at overall, came off as women.  Not promising since, as I mentioned, two were men.  The only one of the samples I ran for the NaNo work that came back as male was the main character's internal relection, so at least I've got something going for me.

More interesting were the results from my blog, my memo, and the Constitution.  My memo came back as male, and so did my two of my four blog posts as well as all posts lumped together.  This surprised me because, as you may have noticed from my picture, I'm a chick.  Apparently, my own inner dialogue is more male than one of my male POVs?  How disturbed should Hubby be about this?

But the best was the U.S. Constitution.  I put the text in, both with and without the signatures at the end, and both times it came back as being written by a FEMALE.  This makes me smile.  :)

Now I'm curious as to whether certain styles of text are more likely to be male or female.  Is it that more descriptive text tends to be female and more action-oriented text tends to be male?  Or is it really the nouns versus relationships idea that the New York Times article that inspired the Gender Genie says?  I'm going to pick up a few samples at the local library and run them through to see whether this is true, and also whether I'm unusual with my fiction-as-a-woman, non-fiction-as-a-man. 

If you try this for yourself, I'm curious to see the results!

Monday, November 30, 2009

So I win. Now what?

Last night, one day early, I “won” NaNoWriMo with an official word count of 50,023, in a story with a working title of “Crossing Lines.” I have to admit that as much as I struggled with the validity of the project, particularly around the 20,000 word mark, I have learned a lot about myself, my writing, and what works for me during this past month.

The story that I originally set out to write ended at 20,000 words, and at 40,000 words I was running out of ideas, but NaNo pushed me to keep asking, “Okay, what happens next?” The twists and turns that my characters took gave me new ideas about what the book was really about, and although I started with a simple story, I now realize that this work is much more complex.

I originally wrote a Part I from three different characters’ points of view, and then wrote a Part II (twenty-five years later) from one character’s point of view. The story was originally about a love triangle, but it morphed into two love triangles, and now I realize it is really about the man I followed in Part II and his quest for happiness. This means that Part II is really Part III, and I now have an idea for a Part II covering the middle twenty-five years. A 20,000 word story is now a 50,000 word manuscript with potential for another 30,000 words, and it will need extensive rewriting and revisions to clean it up and make it work. But the process of continuously and regularly writing helped me to develop characters, themes, and storylines that I never saw coming when I started the project. It has also made me excited to find out what comes next for this story, as well as other stories that bubbled up through my consciousness while I was writing this one.

My plan for Crossing Lines is to put it away for a few months, then pull it out, read it over, and reevaluate what I want to do with it. In the meantime, I’m going to be starting two stories. One, tentatively called “Lucky Lucy,” is a story about a librarian that speaks with the dead. The other, tentatively called “Like a Saint,” is about a young woman’s move back home to live in the shadow of her deceased mother. I figure that I’ll work on both stories at the same time and see which one attracts my attention after the first week, and I’ll go from there.

I’ll be applying what I learned from NaNo, which is essentially that I need a general story line but not a detailed outline to write a first draft. The more detailed an outline, the more problems I seem to have with pacing, descriptions, and tensions. When I use a more general outline, as I did with the last thirty thousand words in Crossing Lines, I seem to get more out of the writing process. Hopefully, by the end of December, I’ll have determined which story has more potential for the time being and can take it further in January, which may or may not be a project for JaNoWriMo. We’ll see if I have enough energy after surviving the holidays to take it this far.

In other news, my self-imposed ban on reading has been lifted, which means I can continue my slog through "The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown.  How unfortunate.