Monday, August 22, 2011

Take Cover! Fall is Coming!

You've felt it haven't you? The slightly cooler nights. The change in the sun's angle. The crankiness from your children. The opening of the CNE(the Canadian National Exhibition for non-Canucks out there). The slight, inexplicable feeling of anxiousness seeping into your skin. Oh, yes. You know what it is. All the signs point to it. It may be a month away but Fall is definitely coming. And no one is safe.

Don't get me wrong. I love Fall. In fact, my favourite month is October. I love the cooler days, and the changing season. But I also know what that season means. School will start soon. Clothes will have to be organized and laundered on a more frequent basis (the Boy cannot go to school in a swimsuit and flip flops no matter how much he might argue for it). Hockey season starts right after Labour Day with an early bird tournament. Homework commences. Food for lunches will need to be ready (*shudder*).

Any one of those things might be enough to send me into a tizzy. Put them all together and I feel a fainting spell coming on. Put them all together with the last three months of a reno thrown in, then a move in November plus a personal deadline to finish the revision to a wip and also send THE BREAK off to my publisher as spic and span as I can get it (just got my line edits a few days ago) I have a sudden desire to follow the very sensible bear population and go into hibernation for six months.

Alas, I'm not a bear (except for a few hours very early in the morning) and no matter how much I wish I could sleep away the busy season I know that for some weird reason I tend to be WAY more productive when I have absolutely no time to do anything. Is that some kind of scientific phenomena? Less time = More product? Who knows, but once Sept 1st kicks in I seem to get a sudden burst of can-do energy. Maybe it's a primal survival instinct. I'm running on adrenaline because I know if I don't keep ahead of the tidal wave about to crash over me I'm a goner. Man, I knew I should have started that exercise regime earlier…

How about you? Have you thought about Fall? Or are you still sipping a wine spritzer and dipping your toe into the pool?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Surprise! And Why It's Good for a Story

I hate surprises. Seriously. Hate 'em. Don't like people jumping out at me yelling 'Happy Birthday'. Don't like someone putting a dish in front of me for which I have not ordered and don't know what it is. Don't like someone not telling me something because "It's a surprise". So you'd think, then, that I'd also hate when a book or movie has a surprise in it, right? Well, um, no actually. Surprise! :)

Writers know that if there are surprises in a story a reader is more likely hooked by the story. In the last month I've been made aware of how important this element is to story telling in two very different stories and mediums: the George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and Fire book series and the movie Crazy, Stupid, Love.

I just finished reading the fourth installment of the book series a couple of weeks ago and I saw the movie last week with my daughters so they're both fresh in my mind. In both cases, the author and the screenwriter, used surprises very, very well and those surprises are what I keep thinking about when I think back to the stories. Martin is known for killing off characters that a reader expects to survive but he also throws in some unexpected character actions that make a reader perk up and say, "Whoa! He did not just DO that!" But those surprises, while coming where and when you least expect them, are not OUT of character - ever. That's the key to a surprise. It must be set up properly (without a reader or viewer) being aware that it is being set up. So that when the surprise happens, all these little 'clicks' happen in your brain that take you back through the events of the story and you realize that while this is a surprise to you, all the stepping stones were there - all the little clues to the character or the storyline - that you cannot (or should not) be aware of while you're reading the story. This kind of intricate, subtle story-telling leading to a surprise (or twist or whatever you want to call it) was also done exceptionally well in Crazy, Stupid, Love. I can't reveal the surprise (one minor one and one major one) but it's a beauty and it throws all the storylines together. It elevated an already highly enjoyable movie into an excellent one for me.

The other thing that a surprise can do for your story is save it. I'll be honest, by the middle of the third Martin book my interest was flagging. Too many characters, too many stories, taking too long. But then in the third book … the author does something to a character I was not expecting. It changes the character and the story and immediately my interest is peaked again. That kind of thing can make the difference between a reader putting down a book and never picking it up again or hanging on to see what else might be thrown at a character.

Understandably, you can't have a story filled with surprises and twists on every page and just for the sake of 'throwing something in there'. However, I would recommend having one or two surprises, set up nicely, timed to be revealed at a critical point in the story and making it a game-changer - where everything you thought about a character or a storyline now needs to be re-thought. As a writer, I've found the best surprises in a story are not necessarily planned. In ILLEGALLY BLONDE I have a surprise towards the end that when I wrote it I went, "Seriously? SHE's the one??" and it was perfect. Same with my current wip. I thought I was writing one character in a certain way and "Bam!" she pulls something on the hero and it's a game-changer - for her and the story. I had to go back and carefully re-read the story to that point and, in many instances subtly change some of her actions/thoughts in order for the reader not to say, "Okay. That is totally not in character." For, above all else, a surprise must be BELIEVABLE.

What about you? Hate or love surprises? And, if you're a writer, do you plan them or are you, you know, surprised when they happen?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Obsession: Good for Reading But What About Your Writing?

I'm back from a week at the cottage and, like every year, I planned on doing a lot of reading and, hopefully, some writing as well. Alas, I failed miserably on the writing front and I blame it entirely on my current reading obsession with George R.R. Martin's SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series. Most everyone knows it by the title of the first book A Game of Thrones.

I have been completely OBSESSED by this series. I devoured the first book, kind of went 'meh' on the second book, LOVED the third book and trudged through the fourth book. I am taking a pause before beginning the fifth book. My obsession may be waning - much like a torrid love affair that's run it's course. I still have interest, I'm still curious but ... I need a break. Reading four books with that many characters, that many story lines, that many PAGES ... well, I'm an avid reader, yes, but I'm a bit burnt out.

After finishing the fourth book and reading the first line of the author's acknowledgement page I wonder if his obsession wasn't getting to him too. The fourth book was a bit meandering, bringing in new characters, remaining totally silent on others and just seemed to have less, I don't know, spark? than the previous three books. In his acknowledgement page, Mr. Martin said "This one was a bitch." I had to laugh because I figured he suffered through it more than his readers did. He explained why he wrote the book this way and promised our old, faithful characters would be back in the fifth book.

The fourth book was written in 2005. His fifth book only came out this year. SIX years. That's a long time to spend with a book. You kind of need to be a bit obsessed to stay with a story this long. Which leads me to the question in the title of this post: is obsession with a story always a good thing for your writing? I know that when writers start off with a story idea that initial burst of obsession doesn't always stay. I know I can get tired of my story after working on it for a few months. I can't even imagine working on it for years! I know it's different when you build a world as complex as Mr. Martin has. But I wonder does he ever feel like chucking it all and writing a completely different story set in another world with other characters? Is he still obsessed or does he even need to be to write a good story? Can the passion for your story come through when you are sick to death of it?

A lot of questions I pose and I have no answers. What about you writers and readers out there? What do you think - is obsession with your story necessary to make it good?