Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Getting Crafty

Not crafty as in arts-and-crafts. I dabble in that but really, I'm not very good. I'm talking crafty as in writer's craft. And craft books.

As I'm going through revisions on not one, but two WIPs, I've been consulting a couple of my favorite craft books: Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass and Don't Sabotage Your Submission by Chris Roerden. I also like Hooked by Les Edgerton and The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, but I've yet to crack those open again - I'm still working on plot and characters, not worrying about how beautifully the first few pages shine yet.

I've realized I should do more reading on craft. There are several books I still want to read (The Art and Craft of Fiction by Victoria Mixon, Architecture of the Novel by Jane Vandenburgh, The Art of War for Writers and Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and others...) and I'm sure I can learn something from each of them. We should always be working on improving our skills and although writing itself is the best way to improve, so is learning from the experts.

On the other hand, we can't go too far with "expert" advice. I learned this the hard way with Promise. Experts give all kinds of great advice and various sets of rules we must follow (although they often conflict with each other). Doing so will make our stories so much better. Our writing will glow like a hundred-watt light bulb. Our characters will pop off the page. And not doing these things will cause ultimate failure.

My lesson: With Promise, I followed all the experts' advice in the multitude of books I read. I revised, rewrote, edited, proofed and spit-polished exactly how they said to do it. I took out the big no-no's. I replaced them with what "really makes a story good." I was a model student. And when all was said and done...I hated my story. Hated it. Following all their rules and advice created an uninspiring narration that was the equivalent of cardboard pizza.

I also realized that I had come to the point where I was changing things just to change them - I wasn't making the story any better. Despite what the experts said.

So I went back and revised again. No, I didn't undo everything they suggested. Many of their recommendations did make the story better. But I did undo/redo the lifeless parts. I took my story back and made it mine. And I'm so freakin' glad I did.

Craft books, conferences, professional critiques/editors...they're all great. We need them. We must continuously grow and learn or we start dying. But we also need to know how to apply what we learn, know when to take something and when to leave it. Because all those experts only know what works for them, their clients/students/friends/past successes/etc. They don't know our story. And every story is unique.

Keeping that in mind, I'll be making a point of reading more craft books. I have a ton of fiction to read (did I tell you we cleaned out Borders' paranormal section? And there was a lot still left at 80% off!) but I need to make a point that for every two or three novels I read, I must read something about craft or the business of writing.

So...what are your favorite crafty books? Have you read any of those I mentioned? What has been your experience when applying what you learn? Do you do any arts-and-crafts?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Let the Revising Begin...Any Time Now

After a few days of no writing or revising - not even a peek into a file - today was the day to start revising Book 3. I've been excited to get back to Alexis and Tristan's world after six weeks in the world of the novella and I made allowed myself a break over the weekend, upping the can't-wait-to-get-started factor. I expected to bound out of bed this morning, too excited to sleep and ready to get to work.

Except I couldn't. I awoke and just lay there, wondering what on earth I was supposed to do. I drew a total blank on the revision process. I've been thinking all along that I need to start by simply printing it out so I can read through the story - the plot - without editing the writing along the way. But, for some reason, that made no sense to me this morning. I already know some parts that need to come out and others that need to be developed better. Why waste the paper and toner now?

So I thought about just diving in. Open the file and get to work. But that made no sense either. It's been a while since I've worked on this project. I've never read it start to finish. I don't really know the story as a whole - not well enough to know what parts should be moved around, what's been repeated, what's not necessary.

I felt so lost. I felt like a writer-baby who'd never done this in her life. Was this reviser's block? Is there such a thing?

If there is, the answer to overcoming it is the same as overcoming writer's block. Just do it. Do something. Get started. Once you get going, it eventually comes to you. It's physics - an object in motion stays in motion and one that's not in motion...well, isn't doing anything (very scientific there, I know - brownies in place of cookies, please).

Whether writing or revising, we have to put ourselves in motion. We have to type out some words or scrawl them in a notebook. We have to simply start reading and thinking about the story and how to make it better. At some point, momentum builds and we overcome that block. We get down to business. And before we know it, we're on our way to accomplishing great things.

Well...I don't know if I'm on my way to the great things just yet, but I did finally get started today. I decided to stick with the plan and print it out and read through it. This phase of the revision process allows me to absorb the entire story and make notes on what needs to be changed, only focusing on plot right now. Reading it on paper prevents me from actually changing anything yet, because there's no point in rewriting something that might not be there next week.

I just had to make the decision to do something and then put myself in motion by starting to read. Once I started to read the first couple paragraphs, I knew what I needed to do and the momentum has built. So...I'm off to do some more reading and scribbling.

How do you overcome writer's block? Have you ever had reviser's block?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Novella Done! And Now for My Next Trick...

Finally! The novella is done!

It took a lot longer to finish this novella than expected. I mean, it's barely 60,000 words. It took me longer to write it than it did to write the 124,000 +/- words of the first draft of Promise & Purpose. But it's done. (Did you feel that breeze Wednesday afternoon? That was me letting out a major sigh of relief.) And hopefully it won't need nearly as much work as Promise and Purpose did.

Because, of course, it's the best thing I've ever written. I'm allowed to think that for now. I get a few days to bask in that glory. But that's it.

Then it's time to move on to the next trick. Well, actually, to go back to the previous one. Back to Book 3 for rewrites and revisions. Since it's had to sit and stew for much longer than expected, my brain should be good and ready to work on it. After the brain gets acclimated.

I had fun meeting new characters and learning about them and their world, but it'll be nice to get back to the "known" - Alexis, Tristan and all the other characters I know so well. Also the "known" as in today's world. The novella takes place over 2,000 years ago. So now I have to fast-forward Get re-oriented with the modern world. Remind myself that they have cell phones and running water and don't eat with their fingers. Well, most of them don't. Some just eat with their fangs. Haha!

Anyway, I expect it might be a bit of a challenge. I've never done such an about face. And it's been a long time since I've started revisions from the first draft. Since I shared all my woes and joys of new writing methods with these two stories, I imagine next I'll be sharing what I learn with new revising methods. I go! Wish me luck. And speed. I need speed. Definitely getting behind on deadlines.

How do you handle switching between such different projects? Do you enjoy the change-up? Or does it take time to get back into each world? Or do you stay with the same story from beginning to end and avoid the confusion altogether?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Love for the Little Guy

Our Main Characters get all the glory and all the love and not just in the book. When we discuss our stories, we usually talk about the MCs. When we're doing dishes or standing in line, we think mostly about what happens next to our MC. When we share writing tips and talk about character development, we tend to focus on how to make our MCs more real.

Our MCs can include the hero/heroine and, possibly, their love interest, as well as the antagonist. But what about the rest of the cast? Our MCs have friends, neighbors, parents, children, etc., that may or may not have roles in the story, and those who do need to be just as three-dimensional as our MCs.

These characters don't just give your MC someone to talk to while on the big adventure or someone to help her fight off the bad guy. A character's sole purpose in the book shouldn't just be to deliver a vital piece of information - if that's the only reason that character is there, find someone else who can do it. Just like every scene, paragraph and word, every character should serve more than one purpose. The more purposes a character has, the more memorable he becomes.

The best secondary characters have their own motivations and the best motivations somehow conflict with the MC's. Maybe they both have the same goal, but arguing about how they achieve it creates tension. Even better, maybe they agree on the same plan, but each hopes for a different outcome, possibly even an opposite outcome.

"Secondary characters can serve to amplify what is going on, of course, but they are more useful still when they disagree or produce friction with your main character or, even better, add unforeseen complications to the main problem." - Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

In Fellowship of the Ring, the fellowship's main problem is to destroy the ring, but each member brings his own complication to achieving that goal. They each have different perspectives and motivations they bring to the quest. And they each serve multiple purposes throughout the series (even those who die early on!).

"Most interesting of all are secondary characters that have their own trajectory and outcomes, meaning subplots." - Maass He adds later about the importance of letting readers see the different sides of these characters, their complex motives and how they can surprise us.

The cast of Harry Potter is a gigantic one, but nearly every character serves multiple purposes, perhaps not in the same book but throughout the series. We also get subplots about Hermione, Ron, Luna and even Draco and Snape that add depth to these characters and the overall story. Would the story have been the same if Draco was always the one-dimensional bully? How did our thoughts and feelings about Dumbledore evolve after learning of his youthful aspirations? We probably still love - or hate - the character, but we see them in a different light and can appreciate their complexities, just like people in real-life.

Our MCs drive the story and as writers, we must project them as complex, real and relatable. But they aren't the only ones. Our secondaries might not play as large of a role, but they need just as much development as the MC. The best way to round out our secondaries? Know them nearly as well as we know the MC - at least as well as we know our best friends.

Need help getting to know your characters? I'm happy to share my character sketch worksheet that I've compiled using tips from Maass, Building Believable Characters and various tips I've garnered online. It's really detailed and you don't need to do the whole thing for every character, but it's especially helpful when you feel like you really don't understand a character or they seem to be feeling flat. Drop me an email at kristie (at) kristiecook (dot) com and I'll send it to you.

How much love do you show your little guys? What's the biggest struggle you have with creating fully rounded sidekicks and secondaries? What other examples of books with great seconds can you think of? How did the author round out all those characters?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Plot Thickens...Into a Big Mess

Or you could call this when a pantser tries to plot. I used to be a pantser, or, really, a hybrid. With Promise and Purpose, I let the characters tell me the story, but I had an idea of where it was going and some of the major plot twists. I kept a notebook with scribbles so I wouldn't forget my ideas when the time came.

With the third book of the series, and probably the rest, however, I had to plot. Switching teams was a big step for me because it terrified me, but it turned out well. I finished the book, which I was afraid I wouldn't be able to do if I knew everything that was going to happen. (I've learned that the author, at least this one, never knows everything.)

I'm currently working on a novella and for a long time it had really been beating me down. I've known the story since I got a few chapters into Promise, so I wasn't worried about plotting or pantsing. I could tell you what happened in about five pages. But actually creating a story out of it has made me feel like I've done a round in the boxing ring. I tried to let the characters tell me, but with alternating POVs, I realized I needed a chapter outline. Then that wasn't even working. I still kept getting tied up. Then I did this:
I had to blur it up so you didn't see any spoilers. Also, note my reward for figuring this out. It's gone now. It tasted yummy.

This is the second half of the book. It looks like a huge mess, I know. But you know what? That's exactly what I needed. Although what's on this page is basically spread out on three pages elsewhere in nice, linear format and narration, I guess I had to see the pieces all together and how they fed each other.

This mess is kind of a mash-up of earlier note-scribbling-pantsing days and my more recent foray into outlining. I don't know. It works. And that's what we writers have to do with every single story we sit down to write. As I've learned, a successful method for one book might not be the right one for the next.

Have you ever had to turn your ways upside-down and inside-out? Or have you been able to find a single tried-and-true method that works for you? Do you ever get pages of notes that look like mine? Or worse? I do have worse. Maybe we can have a blog fest for messiest notes and outlines.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

MarNo Fail?

I started March Novel Writing Month with an attainable goal: Write my novella or, at least, 40,000 words. Based on my past first-draft writing experiences, I thought it would be easy and I'd even be done ahead of time so I could go back and start rewriting Book 3. Ha! Man plans, God laughs.

Life went a little crazy. Day-job business got slammed. And then there was the horrible disaster in Japan and I couldn't just sit by and think, "I wish I could do something" when I actually could. So I poured myself into the Indie Author Relief Fund auctions. Not that I think God laughed at that - heavens, no! - but He did laugh at my original self-centered plans.

So, I didn't get the novella done. I didn't even get 40,000 words written. I DID get 33,296 words on the screen. Just a little shy of one goal, but far from the other (finishing). But with everything else I accomplished this month - things much more important than word count and release dates - I don't feel it's a fail.

The rest of the weekend, however, I'm doing a writing marathon. The house and the family are prepared. Housekeeping on blogs and Facebook is done - or at least as good as it's going to get. So I'm going offline and getting this story out of my head.

Did you do MarNo? If so, how did you do? Are you writing this weekend?