Monday, June 27, 2011

How Many Risks Are You Willing To Take?

I was pointed to this article via Debbie Ohi (@inkygirl on Twitter) written by the always brilliant Ms. Jane Friedman. It was full of helpful questions and thoughtful observations about what it takes to become a successful writer. And it's not always about talent. It is a lot about how how many risks you take and how you respond to failure.

There is one line that really caught my attention. Ms. Friedman says

"It’s the old cliché: Nothing risked, nothing gained. Playing it safe as a writer will lead to mediocre writing at best. If you’re not failing, you’re not shooting high enough."

Which made me think about the kind of person I am and whether I have enough courage to take the risks I need to challenge myself - both as a person and as a writer. I'm a cautious person by nature. I think things through and weigh the pros and cons of every decision. I'm a slow and steady wins the race kind of gal who is comfortable with a certain level of routine and a need to plan ahead so there are few to little surprises in store (did I mention I hate surprise birthday parties, too?) Makes me sound pretty dull and boring, no? Yeah, that's what I think too. But there is one thing about me that balances that cautionary nature out: once I make a decision, there is no looking back and re-assessing or regretting that decision. It is what it is and I will make the best of it and learn and grow from that decision.

Lately, I've been feeling the need to challenge myself more - and not only in writing but with other areas of life. I have felt that lack of challenge creating a restlessness within me. Now, with so many changes happening on the home front I am also looking to challenge myself on the writing front. How that will turn out, I don't know. But I do know that if I don't risk some things nothing will change and human beings have survived and dominated because they have adapted best to change.

Change, risk, failing, getting up again, trying something new, challenging the status quo, facing your fears, leaping into the great unknown - however you wish to describe it - is necessary and vital to keep you from becoming complacent and bored. And is that how you really want to feel on a daily basis? Not me. So, say it with me folks, a little risk is a good thing. If I fail it meant I at least tried.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Diary Writing and What it Can Teach You

How many of you were diary writers as kids? I know a few people who kept diaries but I wonder out of the writers I've met what percentage kept a diary and for how long? The reason I'm asking these questions was because I recently did an interview on Deb Marshall's blog and one of the questions she asked me was what advice I would give to young (and young as in 8-13 years old) writers. The first thing that immediately popped into my head was writing in a diary.

I used to keep a diary from about 11 years old until I was maybe, thirteen or so. Then I kept a diary all through my late twenties until I began writing fiction. I still have those diaries. I remember when I was in Grade 7 I wrote - whether I wanted to or not - in that diary every night for months. I often wonder whether that was the inception of my later discipline for writing regularly? What I am sure of is that it was the development of not only a good habit but it was also the early stirrings of developing craft.

Diary or journal entries allow us to describe our inner feelings, our daily activities, our friends and families, the events in our lives. Basically, it helps you to write character, emotion and plot. Kind of essential skills for a writer. I know it's hard (for some kids) to create a story out of thin air but they can all describe what happened to them on a given day. They can all describe how they felt at a particular moment or how someone looked when they dropped ice cream all over their new shirt. Diary writing skills are not self indulgent, navel gazing that is a waste of time. Diaries can tell us a lot about ourselves and our world. And, for this writer anyway, writing a diary was the start of a long, long love affair with the written word...

I guess I'm still writing a diary all these years later. We just call them 'blogs' now! :) How about you? Did you or do you still keep a diary? And what has it taught you?

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Hardest Writing Lesson to Learn

Of all the things that make up a good book - active dialogue, believable and empathetic characters, kick-ass plot, strong narrative structure, increasing conflict, external and internal goals, etc. etc. (put the next hundred important things in writing a book here ___) one of the most important is probably one of the simplest - yet hardest - to do.

Putting the book aside after you've drafted it and waiting.

I think waiting, and all its subtle torments, is especially hard for writers (see my older posts tagged 'waiting' and my own struggles with that elusive virtue). But, like the proverb says, good things do come to those who wait. Especially when you've finished your first draft or when you're about to tackle an editor's or agent's revision letter. I know, I know. It's so, so tempting to send the thing out there once you've drafted it. You can feel it. It's so close to perfect! You feel the passion of that book. You want it to be read! Why wait to revise after you've already spent months working on it? What more could you possibly do to those thousands of words? Well, in the immortal words of Yoda (who never said this but totally could have!) "Oh, young Skywalker. More you can do, yes."

Would you advocate your son or daughter marrying someone after only two or three dates? Heck, even two or three months worth of dates? No, you say. Of course not. To know someone - really know someone - takes time. How can you learn all the nuances of this complex person in such a short time? You only begin to understand someone through exploring their layers: first the superficial - the looks, the sound of the voice, the physical mannerisms. Then, after a time comes the deep conversations, the surprise revelations, the knowledge that there is good and maybe not so good in this book - I mean person! Anyway, you get my meaning, I hope? Time and distance can make you see a person more clearly. The same thing applies to a book.

I'm thinking about this now because I'm about to enter into my editor's revision for The Break. Since submitting and receiving word that it was accepted for publication I have not opened it. Not once. In 9 months. Because I knew that the time away from it would make me see it more clearly. So now I can look upon it with a slight detachment that will make it easier to make choices about it. That will, hopefully, make me fall in love with it again.

And as for the WIP I finished a couple of weeks ago? We're on a break right now for a couple of months. My WIP understands. It knows how important it is to explore other novels for a time. That way when we start seeing each other again, I'll know it's the one for me and what we have to in order to make the relationship work.

So, what about you? Do you take a break from your draft? And for how long?

Monday, June 6, 2011

The "Y" of Character in "X-Men: First Class"

I saw the latest installment of the X-men franchise on the weekend and I can't gush enough about it to people. Smart, funny screenplay. Great sets and action sequences. Love the 1960's setting. But the best part, for me, was the way the screenwriters developed the characters so that for those of us who have been fans of the whole franchise and have seen the older versions of the characters, we now get to see not just the "X" but the "Y" of the way they are. It's all about the motivation - why ("Y") a character does what he or she does sells the story - for me anyway. And the X-Men writers did a great selling job.

The two characters whose motivation are best revealed in First Class are the two that are the villains in the original movies: Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Magneto is given such a rich history - Nazi concentration camp survivor, what the villain in this movie did to his mother, how it was done and how it affected Magneto, how the young Magneto's mind and emotions now work because of it, his complicated yet respectful friendship with Professor X. All of this was backstory in the earlier movies but now becomes its own story here. Each facet of this character's emotional make-up is done with action/tension and we are shown how all of what preceded in his life leads directly to his later actions. Because we are shown all of these bits and pieces of him - many not very pleasant - we understand "Y" he does what he does. He's not a typical hero character - how could he be when he becomes a villain later on? Yet he is definitely the hero of this movie. Nothing he says or does makes the viewer think, "Well, where did THAT come from?" We absolutely believe it when he finally becomes the Magneto we know at the end of this movie. And though we know he will do despicable things, we still have sympathy for him because the writers have shown the complexity of who he is - the good and the bad. THAT is great character building people.

Now, Mystique. Wow. I so loved what happened with this character. I was so surprised to find out what she was like as a child/teenager. The role in the earlier movies was so much more one-dimensional and, had I known her backstory in those movies, I would have been more sympathetic to her. I knew Mystique had this obsession/love/commitment to Magneto. But I never understood it because it was never really explained that well. "Y" was she was so devoted to this villain? In X-Men: First Class we are shown "Y" she became who she became. It was done in two or three small scenes with Magneto, it didn't take up a lot of screen time, but because the writers had shown her insecurities - had shown her weak spot - we could understand "Y" she would turn from the 'good' to the 'bad'. She did it because Magneto saw and loved the real her when everyone around her wanted her to 'fit in'. Magneto encouraged her to embrace her mutation - to be herself and proud of it. So we believed it when she made her choice. It was a natural evolution of her characters thoughts, feelings and, eventual, actions. Just so well done.

I love it when movies teach me how to evolve characters in writing. X-Men: First Class is a master class in character motivation. If you haven't already seen it go forth and enjoy.