Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Variety is the spice of reading

I hear a lot of advice about the importance - no, the necessity - of reading in the genre you're writing in or want to write in. That's absolutely true. If you don't know what's current, how that genre is evolving, what award winners are being awarded for, then you have no business thinking that your book is going to be ready to do battle in the crazy competitive industry that is publishing. But why don't I hear more about the necessity of reading across many genres? That is also, absolutely true. And, in my opinion, also absolutely necessary.

Right now I'm reading an historical romance (WICKED BECOMES YOU), a literary novel (SOPHIE's CHOICE) and re-reading a middle-grade novel (one of the BEST MG novels I've ever read: FLIPPED by Wendelin Van Draanen). Each one of these novels gives me something that I can add to my still evolving skill set as a writer.

The historical romance centres on two strong main characters - hero and heroine - and gives me some solid motivation about why they are who they are and why these two people need to end up together. I always have a romance sub-plot in my novels and I believe well written romance novels give some of the best studies in character development ever. Hint: give me the right motivation and I will suffer through any number of silly plots that give the characters something to do just so I can read the scenes between the two main characters.

The literary novel gives me the lush language and description that while I may not employ in my own writing I can still learn from and absorb. Word choice, nuance, fluidity, in-depth immersion in narrative - all things that will, in turn, help me (hopefully) become a better writer.

The MG/YA novel gives me voice. Especially FLIPPED. It gives me both male and female first person POV and rings so true that it feels like these kids and their parents are actually whispering in my ear. Dialogue and narrative so real that it's like I'm eavesdropping on their conversations.

Characterization, language, voice - now I just need to start reading a mystery/thriller and I'll have plot too. And lets not forget non-fiction. You can get the most amazing fiction ideas from newspaper and magazine articles.

Yes, variety really is the spice of reading. So ... how eclectic is your reading these days?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Living with Your Decisions

Well, she finally did it. My daughter chose.

It wasn't easy. There was a daily battle and, depending on the hour you asked her, it could have gone either way. But my baby - my oldest - made her first decision as an adult: she chose her university. Now, for the next year, she will be living with that decision. Right now the strongest feeling is one of relief. No more angsting, no more pros and cons, no more eenie, meenie, miney moe. Later will come the hardest part: the living with it.

Living with a decision is hard only if things are going wrong or if you're unhappy with your choice. Since oldest had two good choices the likelihood of her being unhappy with either of them is slim. But there will always be niggling questions and considerations. The main one being "What if I'd chosen the other way?"

As writers, this is easy for us to deal with - we can always write a scene making the characters go in that different direction. We can read both versions and say - this is the way to go. This is where I want my characters to end up. It would be so much easier if, in life, we had a button to press that showed us where our decisions would lead us. But we live our lives not as writers but readers - life (like a good book) is exciting precisely because we don't know where our life (and the book) is leading. And, as I told my oldest, she's still so young she can change directions a number of times or, if she likes the path she's on, then she can continue with that storyline for awhile. She is the maker of her own fate. But if she believes in destiny then the things that are destined for her will happen no matter what path she's chosen.

Either way, she shouldn't stress. The decision is made and all I can hope for her is that the living with it will be easy.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Decisions, Decisions...

There are just some weeks where your life has a theme to it - whether you want it to or not. Just like a novel, sometimes that theme is apparent only after some minor or innocuous scene or comment from a character that suddenly crystallizes everything that's been happening and gives it a cohesive underpinning. Like the 'why' of a characters actions, the theme is the 'why' of the book. Why are these things happening? To what purpose? So when my friend and fellow writer, Cynthia Reeves left a comment on my last blog post about how much she hates making decisions I knew that this had been my life's theme lately. Well, at least my family's theme.

Daughter One is going to university in the fall. Going, that is, if she ever decides which offer to accept. She's narrowed it to two excellent universities both with equally impressive pros and a minimal list of cons (she likes to make lists). She is paralyzed with indecision. The deadline to make a choice is May 28th. I've shortened that to this weekend so as to give us a cushion of a few days should there be any technological glitch with sending the acceptance and paying deposits on line.

Daughter Two is angsting over whether to continue to participate in a team sport that requires her to miss more classes than she's comfortable with (yes, she is that concerned with academics. She's the only teen who's parents encourage her to slack off).

The Boy can't decide on what to have for breakfast. God help us all when he has to make a major life decision.

The Husband loves to discuss, analyze, dissect, weigh, and plan out every major decision in our lives to the point where it might take months or years to come to a decision that's to his satisfaction. Yes, it drives me that nuts. Our home reno has to be done this year - let's hope decisions are made quickly and painlessly.

Me? I hate agonizing over a decision. Makes me physically ill -really. It does. So, if I can cut to the chase and say "That's what I want to do" and be willing to live with whatever consequences afterward then I know I'll be a happier person. Over-analyzing, not moving forward, indeciveness is not a healthy thing for me. Is it for anyone? Of course, there's the risk of making hasty, not well thought out decisions. A lot of people - Daughter One especially - doesn't like making decisions because she's worried about making the wrong one. Making a decision is such a relief but only if you are willing to live with and accept the consequences of it. Only if you can handle any potential regrets from that decision.

I told Daughter One that's the way I make decisions. When I was angsting over whether to have a third child, I asked myself the following question: "What would I regret more? Having a child or not having a child?" I knew I might regret not having another child but I would never - ever - regret having a child. No matter the hard work and sacrifice involved.

So, I said to her, "Which university would you regret NOT going to more?" A light went on in her eyes. I think I know which one she's going to pick. We'll see. I'll let you know.

Anyway, so that's the method I use to make a decision - thinking about which would be my greater regret. What helps you make those hard to make decisions?

Monday, May 17, 2010

The In-Between Time

Writers fixate a lot on the different stages of the writing process. We're starting a book. We're in the murky middle. We've Finished - YAY! Nope. We haven't. We're revising. And revising. And revising...

Until we finally send it off - to agent, editor or critique partner. It's gone. Out of our hands. It's this time, the time after we're done our project and before we start another that's sort of an in-between no-man's writer's land - for me at least. I feel a bit at loose ends without the weight of a project in process on my shoulders. At first it's not a bad feeling. Kind of like when you finished your last exam and it's the first official day of your vacation. The freedom! The endless days of nothing to worry about, nothing to do. Your mind is a nice, exhausted blank. You can finally concentrate on everything you've let go for so long. Eventually, though, I know the itch will start. The need to get back at it and tackle the beast of a story that is inside our heads. But, for now, it is a blessed quiet time.

Right now I'm thinking about all the things I can do around the house or with my kids that have been pushed to the side (and with a massive home renovation to get started on this year there are A LOT of things to deal with). I don't have a burning idea for a novel simmering in the back of my brain. All I have now is a niggling worry about that still neat idea that I have in a very rough half-draft written state that I need to go back to - but I'm not ready to deal with it yet. So it's easily pushed back. I also have a niggling worry that I'll never get another good idea ever again. But I push that to the back of my mind, as well. Right now, for a little while at least, I am officially "In-Between". That place can be a very good place to rest, rejuvenate, and concentrate on other things in life - like supporting my oldest daughter as she chooses which university to attend in the fall, like going to my son's Track and Field competition and cheering him on, like watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs, like going to a couple of movies with the family, like reading the stack of books I've been meaning to, like talking more with my mom - maybe even visiting her more often. Like living life.

In-between is not stagnant. In-between is a resting place on the journey forward. Hope all you writers stop there once in a while and enjoy a rest there too.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Writer's "Would You Rather ... ?"

I became aware of a little game called "Would You Rather …?" a while ago on the radio where the hosts would ask listeners strange questions that had them make choices between two equally disgusting or silly things. For example, "Would you rather eat a dozen hard-boiled eggs in twenty minutes or one uncooked snail in a second?"

I was surprised at what people would choose to do when my choice would have been the opposite. It got me thinking of some questions to throw at writers and what 'rather' I'd pick. I'm going to try and stay away from disgusting food choices (although a debate between cheesies and M&M's might be fun) and keep them slightly realistic. I know the temptation will be to answer some of them "Well, I want both!" But that's the agony of the game! So, ready to play? Okay, here we go.

Writers, Would You Rather …

1. have your first published book take off like wildfire or have a slow, steady build?

2. have a fascinating, complex, page-turning plot or fascinating, complex characters that make you want to learn more about them?

3. write your first draft all in one, frenzied, three week rush or take a slower, steadier pace over a year?

4. have a universally panned book but have great sales or get universally good reviews but your book lives in obscurity?

5. blog twice a week or twitter daily? (remember you can't choose both!)

6. date Johnny Depp or Ryan Reynolds? (okay, for this one you can choose both)

I'll be fascinated to hear your choices. Oh! You want to know mine? Okay.

1. I'd want a slow, steady build not a first time flash. I need adjustment time!
2. Hard one, but even though I love my characters and, if they're done really well I would root for them even through a silly plot, I think I'd rather have a kick-ass plot. It's the engine that drives the whole book.
3. Even though I don't do it, I wish I could spew out a first draft in 3 weeks. Get that sucker over with.
4.I'd love the sales but if my writing sucks that bad that everyone pans it I'd find it hard to keep going.
5. Argh. Hard one again. I guess, Twitter. Writing blog posts is hard!
6. Sigh. Thank God I relented on the choice here. Both, of course.

So, are there any other difficult "Would You Rather…?" questions you can suggest?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Virtual Writing - Writing When You Can't Write

Yes, Virginia, it is possible to write when you can't actually write. I'm not talking about using some neat Wii game or iPod app, either. It's a more ethereal thing. And it doesn't cost a penny. It's called writing in your head. What a concept, eh?

For example, when you find yourself with a long road trip ahead and you're the driver there's not much choice but to discover the virtual writer inside yourself. I've had the opportunity (well, over the years many opportunities) to discover the joy of writing in your head - especially when there's a huge expanse of Highway 401 in front of you (the stretch between London and Windsor in southwestern Ontario is one of the flatest, most boring and deadly stretches to drive. They don't call it Carnage Highway for nothing). That four hour ride from Toronto to Windsor has been the impetus for generating quite a few ideas in this writer's brain. But, you say, that's just daydreaming, Nelsa. That's not real writing. How exactly can a writer write when they're not using their fingers to grip pencil or type keys?

I would suggest that without daydreaming there can be no actual writing. There is a certain sense of freedom in daydreaming when you have an empty road ahead of you. I've created many stories in my mind when stuck driving or doing something that is relatively mindless. I also grew up on a farm and spent many years picking cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. Besides getting a great tan, those hours spent on my mom and dad's farm were hours I spent weaving fantasy worlds and characters to keep me from going suicidal with boredom. Looking back on it, daydreaming those stories was my early apprenticeship in being able to eventually write the stories. In fact, I would argue that the time spent not physically writing is probably the most important part of the process. The freedom to go anywhere in your mind is not yet constrained by the difficulty in finding the perfect words to describe that journey.

The other thing I love about those times when I know I'll be staring at the long and winding road ahead, is if I'm stuck on a plot point or when I'm doing revisions to a book. I know I'll have some uninterrupted time to figure out the problem. I've heard writers say they get their "Aha!" moments in the most ridiculous places like the shower or doing the laundry - when their mind is free from the pressure that having that keyboard and screen in front of them or that pen and journal on their lap. I absolutely believe that's true. When I can play out the draft I've written in my head like a movie, I can see where I need more of something in a particular spot and then try and work out what that something is. Virtual writing makes me feel the closest to being inside the story - to help me feel out the story so that, hopefully I'll be able to remember those feelings and pictures in my head so that I might then be able to describe them in actual words written on an actual screen.

So, the next time you're stuck doing a mindless, boring task don't groan about it. Use it. To write your next story.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Simplifying Your Novel - It's a GOOD Thing

What you say???? Simplify? You're mad. Mad, I tell you!

To write a great novel you must include complex and varied numbers of characters, multi-levelled layerings of themes, plot lines, and a world building of huge, momentous proportions. To make a story BIG - and don't we all want our stories to be big? - we need, well … MORE. Right?

Well, um, sometimes … not so much.

I'm living that 'not so much' right now with this revision. When this YA paranormal went out on sub a couple of years ago I got back one particular comment from an editor that really resonated with me - the plot was just too confusing for her. Too much of this and that just left her scratching her head and taking away her enjoyment of the characters and an idea that was pretty cool. Hmm, I thought, was it too much or had I just not executed it clearly enough? But when I dove back into the story again I realized I needed to focus on the strengths of the book - some great characters and the relationship between them and a neat hook that could work quite simply - without a lot of the backstory world-building I thought needed to be thrown in there.

So, instead of three 'organizations' involved in searching for a particular object, I've pared it down to one. I've removed a sub-plot about my main character wanting to attend a girls prep school and made her core desire just to get out of the dead-end town she's stuck in (which, of course, will be thwarted. Mwahahaa) I've pulled up one secondary character up front faster and made her more integral to the plot. I'm deepening the characters and their inter-relationships - my strength as a writer - and paring back the once convoluted plot to, hopefully, one strong main plot line with a couple of secondary plot lines that relate specifically and tie quite directly to the main plot.

Lesson learned? Making a book bigger doesn't mean making it overly complicated. Yes, have a main plot line that has a strong engine driving it forward, yes have those sub-plots be the oil and gas that help feed the engine. But don't make that main plot so convoluted readers will have to flip back and forth among chapters to try and keep what's happening straight in their minds. All that does is just stall the car and the passengers will get out before arriving at the destination.

It's a lesson I need to keep in mind: like in life, simplifying - de-cluttering, if you will - makes everything so much more clearer in the end.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Guilty Pleasures

Geez. That sounds like a wicked, hot Harlequin romance doesn't it? Well, sorry to disappoint but I'm not going to write a post about writing today. This last month has been such a whirlwind of being out there talking about ILLEGALLY BLONDE (and I don't mind it!) that the overwhelmingness of the promo side of things has worn me down a bit - and I really didn't even do that much! But the head cold from hell still lingers and I've decided - and my horoscope agrees - that I'm taking some much needed me time to relax more this month. As much as a working mom with 3 kids can relax. Which got me to thinking about what it is I do for relaxation. Specifically, what is it I do that - even though it relaxes me - that I'm just not that proud of. I'm telling you right now, it's not healthy. No morning jogs, or evening swims. Nothing that I can point to proudly and say, "Not only does it relax my mind, it improves my body." I wish.

So, are you ready for my confession? *Deep breath* Here goes:

I read trashy gossip magazines like the National Enquirer and each copious amounts of junk food when I doing it (preferably Humpty Dumpty bar-b-q potato chips or peaunut M & M's. If I'm really in a sleezy mood both at the same time)

That' right. I admit it. I'm a closet (well, I've just outed myself here) trashy magazine reader. There's just something about reading celebrity gossip that makes me feel all relaxed inside. My favourite issues usually have pictures of the celebs in their bathing suits with their eyes blocked out and arrows pointing to cellulite thighs and beer bellys. Is it my subconscious pulling me towards the magazine stand and telling me, "See, you're not in that bad a shape. Look at that actress right there."

So, I'll fork over the more than five bucks for that throwaway mag and snuggle down into a comfy chair (or if I'm at the cottage, the hammock) with a favourite junk snack and spend a mindless hour devouring mindless gossip. It's relatively cheap entertainment and a sure fire way to de-stress. I think more people should try it actually :)

So, what's your guilty pleasure (keep it rated G people!)