Thursday, July 29, 2010

Summer Blog Post Re-runs

We're about to head off for our two week stint at the cottage so the blog is going to go dark for a while. So in the spirit of summer laziness and because I just don't have the wherewithal to come up with a scintillating post because my mind is filled with pre-vacation, pre-renovation and pre-moving-out-for-a-year plans, I'm leaving you all with a few of my favourite posts from the last year and a half that I've been blogging. These are the posts that, for whatever reason, generated the most hits or searches and for that reason alone, are maybe worth a re-visit or a visit if you haven't seen them before.

Sandra Bullock, Characters and Likeability (I know the reason this one got hits was because everybody's been interested in Sandra this year, however, I do think there is something to think about here in terms of writers developing their protagonists)

Wanting It Badly Enough (This one was based on the idea that you can make it in this crazy publishing business if you add a key ingredient to your success recipe: a bigg wollop of desire)

Virtual Writing - Writing When You Can't Write (Every writer has periods of time when they just can't be sitting in front of a computer or with a pen and paper. But you can still use this time well!)

Why Waiting is Sometimes a Good Thing (Every writer hates waiting. But it's part of the business. Here's why I - the biggest hater of waiting ever - have decided it's not all bad)

Boys, Books and Diary of a Wimpy Kid(I know this post gets hits because everyone is trying to figure out how to get young boys to read. I tried to figure this out using my own ten year old son and one of his favourite series as an example. It was also a really cool experience to get a comment from the author - Jeff Kinney - on the blog post. Too bad I only noticed the comment months later! Lesson learned. Now I have an alert go to my email every time someone comments on the blog. Total techfail.)

Failure Breeds Success - So Says Michael Jordon (Again, it doesn't hurt to have a famous name mentioned in a blog post. But I do think a lot of people are trying to learn something from their set backs and Mr. Jordon had some very good advice we can all learn from.

I Can Haz Writing Process? (This was a blog post done in conjunction with some amazing writers - Tawna Fenske, Cynthia Reese, Kiersten White, Linda Grimes and Sean Ferrell where we all talked about our different writing processess. For some reason, how writers write is an endlessly fascinating discussion for other writers. It is very cool to see how different and similar we all are. But the thing all of us agreed on was you have to choose a process that works for YOU.)

There you have it. Some blog post re-runs to get you through until we return to our regularly scheduled blog line-up. See you in a few weeks and enjoy your summer!

Monday, July 26, 2010

The End

Two such simple words yet they're so definitive, aren't they? I mean what meaning besides finishing, knowing there is not more, it is done, Finis, Finito, nothing further, can there be? Well, for some novels a lot more - and I'm not talking about a sequel.

I just finished reading THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin. I'm sure you've heard of it? It's received a ton of hype and publicity and for excellent reason. It's a fabulous book. It's more than just a suspense-filled, post-apocalyptic, virus-takes-over-the-world story. It has deep and complex characterization, layers of religious meaning and symbolism and the theme of whether humans have the ability to continue in the face of a hopeless future can resonate with everyone. I was definitely caught up in the story, the characters and I thought I could see the end but when I read the last few lines it left me wondering about the future of these people. It made me question what I believed would happen to them. It could mean This or That (sorry I can't be more specific because I don't want to ruin it if you choose to read it). I finally decided that I wanted it to mean This. My belief was imposed on the ending. It may not be what the author knows will happen but it is my belief and hope. And I wonder if that isn't exactly what Mr. Cronin wanted the reader to impose on his story.

THE PASSAGE has many biblical themes and influences and several chapter titles are called The Book of Sara. So, as when people read the bible, some will believe it to be a true accounting of what happened thousands of years before, others believe the stories to be an allegory that may or may not be reflective of actual events, others don't believe it at all. What you have as a reader is your own beliefs and faith imposed over the words on the paper - the story they are telling. I think THE PASSAGE's ending makes allowances for a reader to choose whether to believe in hope or despair.

As you can probably tell, I'm a fan of endings that aren't exactly clear cut. My own novel has an ending that leaves it open for the reader to decide what the main character will do in the future. The plot and story are definitely wrapped up but the future isn't. I know some readers prefer to know exactly the outcome for the characters. Some even enjoy Epilogues that take place years later showing the evolution of their story (Harry Potter anyone?). But I like the open-endedness of the unknown future. I like imagining future scenarios. But, again, others may not. I remember talking to my brother about the ending of The Sopranos and how it just went to black with the family sitting at a restaurant table about to order dinner and the viewer not knowing if Tony Soprano would be killed or if he could finally live a normal life. My brother said after all that time and investment spent watching the show, he felt gypped. He wanted to KNOW. Yet I thought differently. I liked the ambiguous ending. I thought, this is how Tony will live his life - never knowing what's behind a door. It may be nothing more than a waiter about to bring him his food or it could be a hitman. Tony, like the viewer, will never know what will happen to him. Just like we don't know what will happen in real life. But we live in hope that our future will be a certain way. And it is hope that, once extinguished, means a true end.

So, what about you? Do you need a definitive ending to a story or are you intrigued by the possibilities of the unknown and unwritten?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Chaos is about to Descend

So the rest of the kids come back tomorrow night. Not gonna lie, it has been fairly restful while they've been at the grandparents. I haven't had to worry about getting the boy to various sports lessons or summer camps, the girls haven't been at each other's throats in two weeks so the house has been blessedly quiet. Hubby and I have had a (more or less) stress-free relationship (remember, the oldest one is still at home so it hasn't been a complete picnic). All in all, quite nice. So as of tomorrow night that will all change.

Laundry will start accumulating the minute the front door is opened. Dishes will pile sky high. Beds will remain unmade, bathrooms left as if a tornado has ripped through the room, milk will run out in a day and a half (if not sooner), whining will intensify and Advil will be popped in ever increasing dosages.

Sigh. Life will be back to normal. Maybe then I can actually start to write more than a page or so every few days. Chaos and my writing output seem to be symbiotically connected. Or maybe, that missing, messy, noisy tumult that is my family is my muse.

Welcome back kids. Mommy missed you!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Fun Art of Brainstorming

Brainstorming a story is one of the best parts of writing and after having an impromptu and fun brainstorming session with fellow Torkidlit writer Jo Swartz (twitter @joswartz) on Sunday over Dim Sum I thought the area of brainstorming deserved its own blog post.

Now notice my title did not say "fine" art - because brainstorming is not really an art but it's definitely not a science either. What brainstorming can be is spur of the moment or planned, methodical or messy, solitary or with friends. You see? It's what you want it to be. The only rule is that it should be fun because what you want to do is "play" with your story idea. Brainstorming is a way of testing out a whole bunch of leads to see where they take you and, above all else, is an opportunity to ask a heck of a lot of questions about your story and characters. Like many games, it's sometimes more fun if you play it with others but you can brainstorm on your own if that's your preference.(What writer doesn't like playing online solitaire?)

I personally love brainstorming with writer friends but usually I like brainstorming their story ideas (I brainstorm mine doing the solitary version of the game). I love it when a writer pal has a nugget of a great idea but is still trying to flesh out the plot and characters to make it a deeper story. The role I love to play is almost like a Devil's Advocate. I LOVE asking questions (to the point where my writer friends sometimes get overwhelmed because they may not have all the answers to them yet). For example, say my friend tells me she wants to write a ghost story about a very fearful child who's fascinated by ghosts and the story opens with 12 year old Susie, going to explore a burnt-out, decrepit, reportedly haunted house? Hmm, I say, "But I thought you told me Susie is a cautious, fearful kid? What would make her go into that spooky old house?" My writer pal might have a very logical reason why Susie would do that but, more often than not, it's still so early in the story development phase that they haven't thought about linking their characters traits to plot points. If the writer pal doesn't have a solid reason for this character action I usually ask, "Okay. Can there be a compelling reason for Susie to have to overcome her fear and caution in order for her to step into that scary place?" That question usually springboards us into a discussion of one of the most important questions to ask about your story: Who or What does your main character care about/want the most? i.e. the core goal of your character. That core motivation leads to plot and action and, if all is well with the story, should be inextricably linked.

If the brainstorming on character and plot is going well there might be an epiphany of sorts - something you never realized about your character, some inner emotional conflict that will make it very difficult to make a choice. For example, going back to Susie who's standing in front of that scary house, as a fearful and cautious child, but maybe she'll follow her beloved dog in to that house to get him back. But, a few other questions then. Why is that dog enough to make her push through her fear? Why is Susie a fearful, cautious child in the first place? Why is this dog so important to her? Did that dog wake her up when he smelled smoke and saved Susie even though her parents died in a fire? Is that old house her old home that the neighbourhood kids say is still haunted by the spirits of her dead parents? Did Susie start the fire accidentally by playing with matches in the basement and is now riddled with guilt? Is that the reason she can't go in - not even for the dog who saved her? Is that why she's fascinated by ghosts? That is a definite, nail-biting conflict.

Wow. Even I'm getting caught up in Susie's story now.

My point is, if you keep asking questions in the brainstorming game and they lead to more questions - that's good! As long as you can answer them or are intrigued enough by where the questions are taking you you're winning the game and having fun in the process.

So, go ahead and play Brainstorm. Trust me, it's fun!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What Makes a True Hero?

So, as you know, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months ago. With each step through the process we've all wondered when she'd break down, become that anxious, worry-prone person we all thought she was all her life and be unable to cope with whatever comes next. We were all prepared to have to prop her up through this - to help her face her greatest fear. Well, you know what? She's surprising us all. Somehow she has come up with the inner strength to stay calm, focussed and, most importantly, panic-free. I guess what none of us realized all these years was that she always had this inside her. We underestimated her strength and resolve. As I've done my whole life, I'm still learning from her and about her.

This strength in the face of adversity is what makes you root for someone. It is the ability to consciously know that even if the foe is the scariest thing in the world to you (or you've made it the scariest thing in the world) you won't run and hide from it. You face it. You deal. This is, I believe, the core of a true hero. This is what so many of us wish to be yet so few of us are.

If we've lived a charmed life we may never have to face what truly terrifies us. I wouldn't wish anything but a life filled with rainbows and butterflies for my kids (well, maybe not butterflies because my ten year old is truly terrified of them) but that would be selfish of me. I want my children to be able to face their fears. A life of ease isn't what builds great character. Your true self shines when things are at their worst and you have to come up with a way to push through the dark. When all seems lost the true hero does not give in to despair but finds the strength, somewhere, somehow, to go through another hour, another day. That is what I hope for my children - that they have the ability - like my mom - to push through the dark.

I hope I capture the elements of a true hero when I develop the characters in my writing. But even if I don't, it doesn't matter. I've been blessed and inspired to actually know a real life hero. You go, Mom.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Limbo and What it Does to Your Head

And I'm not talking about the dance game.

I'm IN limbo. So many things are up in the air, waiting to hear about things, waiting to start things, just a general state of limbo. Not just with writing but with homelife too. And it's seriously messing with my head and my already less than patient attitude.

I've mentioned before that we're on the cusp of a major renovation. We've been on this cusp so long I've worn a groove in it from the pacing. I've also got a few things out there in the writing arena and with the expected summer slow down in publishing I figure I'll be waiting a while on those things too. I swear, some days the groove is quickly becoming a pit. Sometimes it feels like I'll never get out of this limbo. I even looked up the definition of the word to see if it captured this frustrated, helpless, trapped feeling I'm living with:

LIMBO (of limbus limbo, fr. L, border - more at LIMP) 1 often cap: an abode of souls that are according to Roman Catholic theology barred from heaven because of not having received Christian baptism 2 a: a place or state of restraint or confinement b: a place or state of neglect or oblivion (proposal kept in …) c: an intermediate or transitional place or state

Oh, yeah, baby. Captured what I'm feeling times a bazillion.

Sometimes I do actually feel like I am physically constrained and, in my worst moments, believe I am being neglected/obliterated. But what I really should focus on is that Limbo is also that last definition: an intermediate or transitional place or state. In a real life example I can relate to: Limbo is the time you spend in an airport waiting for the flight to get you to that really awesome island vacation destination. I hate airports but they are a necessary evil in order to get me to that ultimate destination. They may be boring, even stressful, maybe downright uncomfortable but they are, above all else, TRANSITIONAL. Which leads me to another definition:

TRANSITION: a passage from one state,stage, subject, or place to another.

Or, better yet:

a movement, development, or evolution from one form, stage or style to another).

Yes, I like that. I'm not in Limbo. I'm in Transition - my house will evolve from its old leaking, dysfunctional shape to a beautiful, made for our family work of art. My writing is evolving from one form (submitted proposals) to one day accepted, publishable, real life books.

Now if only someone could tell me how long I'll be in Transition. And what I can do to make this airport more comfortable...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

My Love Affair with T.V. and Why it's Ruining My Writing Marriage

Yes, I'm admitting it. I've been having a love affair with my favourite T.V. shows.

And, you know what? I'm still in love with them. I adore Glee, I de-stress with Say Yes To the Dress, I'm happiest watching my shows On Demand where I can fast forward through the commercials and get to the good stuff. But I'm married to my writing. I don't have the time to devote to both this crazy love affair and to my writing partner. I know I'm hurting my writing by spending time with the T.V. so why do I waste precious hours watching Hell's Kitchen when I could be finishing the next chapter in my WIP? Why??

I ask this now (after months of being embroiled in the affair) because yesterday my husband found out and did something about it. He did something to the cable so that when the kids came home from various summer camps they wouldn't mindlessly veg out in front of the boob tube all night. I'll admit it. I was a bit ticked myself. I had a date with So You Think You Can Dance and had settled in at 8 p.m. ready for a couple of hours of pure mindless entertainment. When I didn't get it I fumed for a bit. But then I realized - when was the last time I sat for an hour at home writing? Sure I write on the subway or at lunch hours or in snatches of time but those aren't the deep, meaningful hours of time I used to spend with writing.

When I first started writing I stopped watching late night T.V. so I could take the time to write. From 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., almost every night for a few years I wrote. Now I know that intensity is normal when you first meet someone special and fall madly, passionately in love with them. That intensity is necessary when you're trying to figure out how to do this writing thing. It's the whole first love affair insanity. I know it's not sustainable even though that passion makes it easy to give up old habits to create new ones.

But I've been writing for eight years now. I'm (more or less) comfortable with my writing partner. But maybe I've taken it for granted lately and now, instead of spending time with it, I spend more time with that T.V. Let's face it, T.V. is Fun. It's easy to get along with and doesn't require a lot of effort on my part. So, last night, for the first time in a long while I curled up with my writing and got to know it again by spending more than 15 minutes or a half an hour with it. Like any relationship, I needed to take some quality time, give up the less important things in my life and not let those things suck me in because they're just easier to do.

Sure writing is hard and ornery. Sure it's way easier to ignore it and watch TMZ instead of writing that scene that's been bugging you for days. But if I want my relationship with writing to work I have to shut off my T.V. and pay attention to my writing. Last night I did that (well, hubby did) and the writing rewarded me. Big time. All it needed it seems, was just a little bit of attention...

Monday, July 5, 2010

Serenity or Chaos - What Works for You?

I'm back from a five day vacation at the cottage. Sun, sand, water, hammock and the slow, peaceful days that stretch ahead with nothing more pressing on my mind than what to have for lunch. Sounds like a perfect recipe forgetting a good chunk of my WIP written, right? After all, I had no day job to rush to, no appointments, no being pulled in seven different directions that is my life on a daily basis. Yup. Perfect recipe for writing.

Except, sometimes, recipes don't quite turn out the way you expect. Sure, I lay in the hammock, I stared into a beautiful blue sky and gazed at a peacful lake. The Kids were doing their swimming, kayaking, watching movies/reading thing. So then why did I come back with only a couple of chapters outlined instead of 10,000 words written?

I concluded (on the normally 2 hour drive home that turned into 3 1/2 because of the traffic!) that I write best when I'm surrounded by chaos. Maybe it's my lifelong habit of needing pressure to produce. When the crunch hits (mostly to do with time) is when the adrenaline rushes and when my brain clicks into overdrive. I also learned over the last few years to write during rush hour subway rides and buses, at noisy children's sporting events, in waiting rooms and cars in between appointments. I trained myself to tune out the outside world and tune into the inside one. So when I am faced with quiet and time - two things I'm not normally privy to - I shut down, not gear up. And maybe that's a good thing - for me anyway. Shutting down is necessary so that when I'm back in the crazy routine that takes up 90 per cent of my life, I can produce words when I need them. Maybe it's my way of staying sane in the insanity that is my life.

However, it does make me worry that when the craziness of my life slows down (when children leave, when I finally retire) will my words slow down too? Hmmm. Maybe I'll just have to keep riding the subway when I'm old and grey with no particular destination but surrounded by noise and crowds so that I can retreat into my inside world.

How about you? Do you need quiet, serene surroundings to produce or do you write best when life is crashing down around you?