Monday, July 31, 2006

Oh! M. Night...

Husband and I called in the grandmas and went out Friday night for dinner and a movie like real people. Real exhausted people who only talked about why doesn't our kid poop?

But we had been anxiously awaiting this little date night because the annual M. Night summer movie is here - and I am a fan. And despite the terrible reviews and the backstage drama and what seems like some strange ego maniacal posturing by the writer/director/producer -- I am still a fan.

Night has gotten more and more difficult over the years - he requires more and more from his viewing audience. The pace of recent movies is downright glacial. Characters say sometimes ridiculous things just so they can be referenced later. And while we've always had to suspend a reasonable amount of disbelief to invest in the stories (kid's who see dead people, men who are superheros etc...) now we're doing some serious heavy-lifting just to get involved and with Lady In The Water if you can't get past the fact that an eastern fairy tale has erupted from Paul Giamatti's pool and odder still that Giamatti's character doesn't seem to doubt it for a SECOND...well, as the guy ahead of us said... "That might just be the worst movie ever."

But I love it more and more. The more work he requires of me - the more I like him. I love that in the first ten minutes of Signs - no one said anything and yet, we knew everything we needed to know about Mel Gibson's character. I loved the first half of Unbreakable as Bruce Willis SLOOOOOOOWLY figured out his powers. Lady In the Water had a long and sort of clumsy introduction to every character that would play a part in the movie. It was (I thought) very well handled by the greatest shlub actor ever and by a few lovely little moments of humor - which I think Night has gotten more and more skilled with every movie.

I feel like I learn something about writing after every movie of his (the best being Signs - I think Sinead said it - I was drunk but I'm pretty sure she said Signs is a movie that can be watched one Sunday a month and never get old.) Character in particular is something I think he does so well -- with what seems like zero effort. All of his leading men are complex and secretive and trying their hardest and I love who they all unfold in small moments of action. The lesson being - stop trying to explain everything. Show us textured real characters and we'll go with it all the way to village of people hiding out in the middle of the forest. Of course he gets some of the best actors we've got around these days - which helps. And better still his movies just get better the more you watch them. I look forward to a Sunday on the couch with Lady In The Water.

The dialogue in Lady is pretty taxed. And I am not sure why Night is giving himself bigger and bigger roles. Hitchcock never did and he avoided pissing off his fans. But those flaws aside - I was scared. I laughed. I might have cried - but that's easy these days. I walked away thinking -- which is rare during summer blockbuster season.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Editing - A way to create the unexpected in your story

I had to think long and hard about what I could add to this discussion. Truthfully, I love writing the first draft, editing is the part I find hard.

But I have come to realize that there’s no getting out of it.( And I’ve really, really tried to find a way to write a clean first draft)

I remember going to a great talk by Lisa Gardner(smart lady and brilliant writer) at Nationals, where she discussed the editing process for her first single title. She came up with a system where she wrote a brief description of each scene on cue cards and spread them on the floor. (I’m paraphrasing here) She allowed herself two scenes for character development, but the rest of the scenes had to move the plot forward. Any scene that didn’t got cut.
Ruthless – yes. Effective – definitely.

It sounds really simple, almost intuitive, but on examining my own work, I came to realize this is really, really hard. Every scene has to tell the reader something new. No repetition, no rehash of what happened before. All new information for the reader. I’ve looked at the books I love, and they all do this, no matter what the genre. It sounds so simple, why then is it so hard?

Not only should we tell the reader something new, but hopefully advance the story in a way they weren’t expecting, but still makes perfect sense.
Essentially – giving the reader something unexpected, but completely satisfying.

This is really hard. I occasionally stumble into this in my 1st draft, but most times, I create this in later drafts, if I manage it at all.

Why did the Lisa Gardner talk resonate with me? Because, and I’m not picking on any particular books, or authors. Too many of the books I’ve read are far too predictable in their structure, the outcomes, even the characters.

As a reader I love nothing more than to be pleasantly surprised. Taken on a journey where I can’t really predict what’s going to happen. My favourite books and movies do this and I strive to do this in my own writing. (It’s most definitely a skill in progress)

It’s rarely something I manage in that 1st draft, so as well as editing for character development, and flow of writing, I also edit to add the unexpected into my story.

(AAAAGGHHH) this is my lazy attempt to add something unexpected into this blog. Can you see now why we need to edit…..

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Editing On My Mind or What You Can Do To Make It In This Business

It's been a crazy week. Line edits due on Friday for a Valentine's Day Anthology I'm part of (WHO NEEDS CUPID? - It's gonna be cute). Final galley read for the November Superromance (HIS BEST FRIEND'S BABY - oh! We'll talk about titles another day) also due on Friday. And last, but not at all least, the big, meaty, juicy edits of a single title that I've been spending the last week on - due beginning of August.

Obviously - I've been thinking a lot about editing. Like Maureen I really love it. It is a jigsaw puzzle and I think that through editing I really get to know my characters and make my conflict and plot work together to make the best possible story. But there's nothing I can add to Maureen's post - she said it all. I read those books and every writer should.

But once you are done with your edits - polished it up as well as your perspective will allow - I hope you are lucky enough to have a great group of writer friends or even better an editor who will push you to try HARDER. To get the story in your head to match up with the story on the page. And in an effort to get you to try HARDER they are going to tear your heart out and throw it on the floor and criticize it's pacing and dialogue and black moment. And how you handle that has a lot to do with finding success in this career.

I think there are three things you need to do to make it or get ahead in this business (besides be lucky...that's a big big part of it).

1. Write. Write. Write.
2. Study your craft and make every effort to get better.

If I had a nickel for every new writer I've over heard say that they wouldn't change their book. Or WORSE for every time I've heard a writer argue with the feedback in a rejection letter or a contest score sheet or a critique session - I'd be a rich rich gal. It's hard to take criticism. Some days really really hard - and you can let your self have those days. But most of the time you have to take that stuff on the chin and work with it. If you don't want to publish -- fine. You can write whatever you like. But if you harbor dreams of holding your book in your hand than you had better get used to swallowing your arguments and listening to the criticism.

After all Editorial feedback is criticism.

My first Harlequin - I had no rewrites. My second and third were so extensively rewritten they were hardly the same books. Fourth not so bad. My fifth had rewrites SO big and terrible that my book got pulled from the editorial calendar. ONE SCENE remained that I originally wrote. I hated it - I felt stupid and embarrassed. I thought my editor was wrong. But I did them and that book just won the Romantic Times Best Flipside of 2005. I learned a lot in that process and my editor (Wanda Ottewell - fantastic editor!!) talks about it every time we see each other.

Taking criticism and making the edits to create a better book - is hard. But we all have to do it. And if you're not doing it - and not getting requests for fulls, or partials, or at least slightly detailed rejection letters - your inability to take criticism is probably at the root of it.

I'll see you at the booth in the corner!!!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Editing—A love affair

How’s this for consistent? The second week of our blog and we’re already switching spots. You’d think we were drunk.

(Boring truth is that Molly’s out of town for a long weekend, and I’m off to Atlanta on Tues, so switching days made sense.) For those of you keeping score... Molly will be back with a fresh post on Wed.

This week, editing’s been on Molly’s mind (I’ll let her tell you why), so we thought it’d make a fine blog topic—one big enough to revisit at some point, I’m sure.

Not having had the privilege of working with an actual editor yet, self-editing is all I can comment on.

First, let me say, contrary to some (most?) writers, I LOVE editing. While there’s nothing better than those magic moments when fingers are flying and words are hitting the page and turning into characters and eventually a story, my first-drafting-fun is tempered by that terrifying, uncomfortable thing called the blank page. Also by a ferocious beast called self-doubt. Yes, I can work through those things and get books written, but I’m much more at ease once I’m working with something I know works on some level—or I can make work.

Pulling apart a manuscript and putting it back together is hard often frustrating work, but most days it’s like doing a puzzle to me. Actually, more like debugging a computer program. Not that I’m a computer programmer, but I have done some programming. (Actually, I was the focus of an article in Business Week, some time in the early 1990’s, called “Programming Without Tears”. Article was about not-formally-trained-in-computer-science business people, who programmed for a living. But I seriously digress.)

Editing to get the story right is like debugging, because you have to come up with a hypothesis of why it’s not working, formulate a solution, execute your plan and then test it again (read it) to see if the problem’s fixed. You can also make changes for purely esthetic reasons—to make it look better, easier to use, more elegant in its design. And once things are running smoothly, it’s like detective work to find those well-hidden bugs that might only trip power users, I mean careful readers.

I admit manuscripts don’t crash, so it’s harder to deduce there’s a problem in the first place, but the more experience I have under my belt, the more I know when my own stuff isn’t working. When I don’t know? Well, that’s another reason I love Molly and Sinead. They’ll tell me. Especially when they’re drunk.

In the editing stage, I’ve deleted characters, added characters, split a single character into two, changed the identity of the antagonist, added major plot twists and changed the book’s structure. In one manuscript, I didn’t even know a pivotal secondary character was gay until I was revising his part of the book. And this was for a book I’d plotted in advance. I've done more detailed plotting on my current work in progress, than I've done in the past. I expect (but not with certainty) that this will mean fewer huge revisions, but I’m glad to have discovered I'm capable of a major overhaul. That knowledge will, I hope, take the fear out of facing a real editor someday--soon, I hope.

Beyond editing for story, I’ve also come to realize that editing is where a lot of my voice goes into my work. I know this goes against what many writers think. It goes against what I thought at first, too and I do believe you can edit the voice out of your work. Still, I'm the opposite. I find that when I’m in first-draft-mode, except on those rare "magic days", everything comes out either too wordy or too flat and I need to invoke my secret super-power identity, Anal-Wordsmith-Girl, to mold it into something interesting (I hope) to read.

The books, Make Your Words Work, by Gary Provost, and Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Browne and King were pivotal in helping me discover this facet of my “process”. I knew early on (had a good teacher) that it was best to avoid really’s and usually’s and very’s, but like many writers—particularly of chick lit, I think—I thought those extra words were what created my voice and the voice of my characters. It was kinda thrilling to realize they weren’t. That by trimming my words to the bare essentials, by working with sentence structure and strong verbs and rhythm and beats, I could create a voice all my own—without those extra words.

But every writer is different, which is why talking about this stuff over drinks is such darn fun.

I’m ready for a drink. Order me a Smithwicks.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Why write, why drink, why blog.

Why Write

Hmmm…. Not, because I’m a masochist, although it sometimes feels that way. Rejections suck, but I’ve been doing this a while and to be honest, I’ve sort of at peace with them. They no longer throw me into fits of despair.
I sure as hell don’t write for my sense of self-esteem, cause when a book isn’t going well ( and we all know when what we’re writing is only fit to line the cat litter box) it gets under my skin and burrows there until I convince myself I am the worst hack out there.

I write for the possibility. Not the publishing possibility, although that’s part of it. I am consumed by the idea of what a book can be.
I come up with the core concept and it’s bright and shiny and brilliant, and then I see certain scenes vividly, (only a few, sadly). At this point the concept swirling in my head is even more intoxicating than that third cider. The book feels perfect. Cause I haven’t written it and reduced the possibility of that initial concept with my lack of ability to find the perfect phrases, the right pace, or the depth of characterization the story idea demands.
So the short version is, I write, so that someday, the book will match what’s in my head.

Why drink? This one is so easy…. Because as Molly put so eloquently, we’re all brilliant with a couple of drinks in us. And writer talk never flows so well as when I’ve got a couple of pints of delicious cider in my system. And as Maureen and Molly know, drunk writer talk has saved all our lives on occasion. And definitely our books.

Why Blog… I guess because everyone else is doing it isn’t a good reason….
Because talking about books, and movies and writing is pretty much one of my top five favourite things. And Molly and Maureen are scary smart about why certain books and movies are so good.
In which case, who wouldn’t want to blog?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

On Writing, Drinking and Blogging… Part Deux

How do writers handle the huge heaping piles of rejection that come with this business? We drink, we talk and then we blog. :-)

Drunk writer talk has saved my life a few times. Okay, I’m being a total drama queen, but it has pulled me from the depths of self doubt and/or confusion on many occasions.

One example that comes to mind was well over a year ago when I was in the early stages of revising the first draft of the manuscript my agent is shopping right now. This ms was a pretty big departure from my previous work—it’s written in first person present, told with multiple timelines and has a protagonist who isn’t your run of the mill girl-you’d-like-to-be-your-best-friend type. It was scary for me. Some of my CP’s didn’t know what to make of it at first and their well-meaning comments fuelled my worst fears of “YOU CAN’T DO THAT!”

After one frustrating critique group meeting, I was really upset. I don’t even remember why… just that by the end, I was jumping out of my skin, wanting to punch people—anyone—and thinking of giving up writing. Not a pretty picture. I don’t even think I’d received a particularly rough critique, I had just lost confidence and no longer trusted my ability to write or to distil multiple conflicting opinions on my work into something useful.

On the way home, I told Molly I needed some writer talk (Sinead was super pregnant at the time and couldn’t join us). Like a true friend, Molly got off the subway with me. Two bottles of wine and a box of chocolates later, I was feeling better about my work and was able to push through and finish the revisions and snag an agent—a great agent. The next morning Molly and I both wanted to die from our hangovers… but it saved my life—or at least my sanity. Sinead has saved my sanity countless times too.

What is it about drinking and writer talk that makes this happen? Whatever it is, it’s magic. If I could bottle it, I would. We become more open with each other, more honest, less afraid to give 100% honest opinions. Less afraid to receive them.

Now, I’m not advocating drinking here… Not at all. But I do think every writer needs his or her own version of drunk writer talk. Maybe it’s a hot bubble bath. Maybe it’s hugging your kid or walking your dog. Maybe it’s junk food. Maybe it’s a long run or hot sex or a back rub from your honey.

But if you’re a writer, I highly recommend finding what we 3 have found—your own drunk writer talk equivalent.

Drunk writer talk rocks!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Why Write? Why Drink? Why Blog?

Good questions. Important questions.

As far as the writing goes, unlike most authors, I don't do it for the rejection. Don't get me wrong I love a good "Dear Author, thanks but no thanks" letter just as much as the next guy. I write for the pleasure...nay the joy... of the wait time. Those three to six months to a year of checking my emails and mail and voice mail with near religious fervor. I adore the wild mood swings between "I'm good at this, I really am" to "What the @$?! do I think I'm doing?" Those mood swings - my husband will tell you -- make my marriage something akin to a Cambodian Mine Field. I've grown terribly fond of Patty - my ulcer.

Those months are the breeding grounds for self-doubt and worry and fear. And I LOVE it.

Joking aside, there are some aspects of this profession (calling? - don't know) that are truly blissful. Sitting around a table with like-minded (and far more intelligent and savvy than I am) writers, hashing out an idea, is a really good time. And I do enjoy the jigsaw puzzle of editing. I love the moments of magic when I am able to surprise myself with a particular plot point or character reveal. Those things keep me going through those crazy months of waiting and doubting.

Why Drink? Is there anything better than getting a really good booth at your favorite watering hole and being half-way through the transforming second drink? I say transforming because I know I get a little smarter with a pint and half in me and I can GUARANTEE the other two on this blog get smarter. We peak in the middle of our third and then the wheels fall off at the end of the fourth...and yet...some nights...we have five and the real genius is coaxed out, but we can't remember it in the morning.

Why Blog? Actually, I'm not too sure about that one. Because everyone is? Because Maureen thinks it's a good idea? I know I'm doing this to see what Maureen and Sinead have to say... they are savvy folk. Drunk or not.
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