Thursday, June 28, 2007

Revisions – Will the book ever be what I initially conceived in my mind

Reading the new romance writers report this eve, and there’s this really great interview with Vicki Lewis Thompson. She quotes Barbara Samuel on revisions, basically saying the book is never going to be as good as she initially imagined, so at some point, she stops revising and lets it go.

I feel very much the same. I know the book is never going to live up to my initial concept and expectations, and I usually realize this during the revision process. Not to say I’m not proud of my work, but this is where the real self doubt hits, and I start to sweat the small details, the big details and focus on what’s wrong and not what’s working.

This is the part where I procrastinate, worry, doubt and lose some of the love of the process.

I’ve written enough to know it’s coming, to muscle through it, and finish the book, but in the past this certainly has derailed me for a couple of books.

But I know other writers that love this process, that fall in love with their books during this part of the writing. I’ve always wondered, is this because they know they can match their work to their initial expectations?

I would love some insight into this. Most writers I know are a wonderful mass of self-doubt and worry, and most second guess their books long after they’ve started submitting them.

Someday I would love to send a book into the world confident it was as good as I could possibly make it.

I’m a ways away.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Revisiting Revisions (and cooking pasta)

I know I've blogged about revisions before, and so have Molly and Sinead, but for some reason I keep going back to this topic.

Okay, it's no big mystery. I know the reason. It's because I'm not only revising right now--like Molly, I'm revising something I've already revised at least once before. But unlike Molly, I'm not feeling so confident about how it's going right now.

I think the last time I blogged about revising I claimed it was my favorite part of the writing process. (Well, maybe second to those days where my fingers just fly and things happen on the page I didn't see coming, but those days are few and far between and hard to predict.) I think I've always liked revising because I felt like it was easier to control.

But I want to take back my "I love revising" claim. It seems, like so many other things about writing, that whether or not revising goes well, depends on the book.

The manuscript I'm revising right now, on the surface, would seem to be a much simpler story than my previous work which had multiple timelines and lots to things to juggle. But I'm actually finding this one harder. It's a story where it's all about the subtle changes in the character's attitude. Little by little they have to change and I'm only in one character's POV, but what's going on with the other characters is very important and has to show through, and I keep moving things around and then realizing the move's messed up what a character was thinking or doing somewhere else. (And to complicate matters, the two main characters' minds are in each other's bodies for 99% of the book... Yes. That's right. I'm insane.)

Right now, I can't even seem to keep order of the book's events straight, and having problems like that isn't like me. Before these past few weeks, I'd have said that sort of thing was my strength, not my weakness...

Of course, I know there are lots of tools I could be using (outlining, storyboarding, index cards, etc.) to help with this process, but I feel like I'm in a rush so I've been reluctant to step back to do the work I know I should be doing...

And that's actually what I had been planning to blog about before the huge preceding digression.

Why are we in such a freakin' hurry all the time?

I've spent so much time beating myself up about the fact I haven't had anything new out on submission with editors for a year, and I obviously I can't sell if I'm not getting new work to my agent, and obviously if I want a career in popular fiction I need to be able to produce at least a book a year, but sometimes I feel like, especially at this hunting-your-first-contract stage, that it pays to take your time, to make sure you're doing your best work, to make sure you're telling stories that will stand out with high quality writing that stands out, too...

I've heard several people give the "spaghetti" advice line to unpublished writers. That is, to write as much as you can in as many genres as you can, get lots out there and see what sticks. And I certainly know people who've done very well with that strategy, but for me, I think my work, like pasta, needs to be fully cooked before it'll have a chance of sticking to the wall.

All that said, I'm still determined to get this manuscript completely revised before I go to RWA Nationals in two weeks. Previously, I'd been hoping for much sooner, so that my agent could read it before I see here there... but I gave up on that pipe dream a few weeks ago...

Do you feel pressure to write quickly? Do you think it affects the quality of what you do?

Gotta go. I'm in a hurry. Back to work...

Monday, June 25, 2007

Hey, you know what really works...?

Beer. Works wonders. But so does the Sangria at Sarah's on the Danforth -- holy smokes - that's good sangria. That Tide To Go pen. A cool shower before going to bed on a hot night -- my mom was right. Macaroni and Cheese - my kid's not eating anything these days and last night he was shoveling that stuff in by the fist ful.

Oh, and that advice we always hear about putting your finished work aside before going back and editing. This is advice I always hear and never take to heart and always think it's simply a luxury. But, I've been working on a project for over two years now - and I work on it and send it to my agent who sends to publishing houses and most of the publishing houses reject it but someone likes it - not enough to buy it - but enough to say "What's the deal with the mother?" So, then my agent says - why don't you do something with the mother. And since it's been 2 years and any burning passion I had for this book is so gone I say -- why not? I can give it a go. Lo and Behold - I open up the file and I can see it all so clearly. Yes, of course. The mother. And here's where she will go. And this is what she means. And by God the book is better - why didn't I think of that?

Now, two years is a bit much, but being able to go back to something long after your all tied up in it -- it is a luxury but it's something I think we should try to make a reality. The book just gets better.

Friday, June 22, 2007

What are bigger books?

Stupid title for this blog, but my sleep deprived brain can’t think of a better one. I’m reading a book Molly loaned me, (ages ago, and I should have read it long before now), by Elizabeth Lowell. Tell me no lies, it’s a contemp, and I’m only 100 pages in.

And really, at 100 pages in, we’re not really into the action yet. It seems as if most of the major characters have been introduced, but you can tell this is build up for the story to come.

Popular, current wisdom would say the book should move faster, but this is a big book, close to 500 pages, and smaller print, and it was written about 20 years ago. Lowell has taken her time setting up the characters, you can tell she’s done a lot of research into ancient Chinese artifacts, and Washington, which is where the book is currently set, certainly it feels like she knows these two areas really, really well.
While the book is a romance, there’s a plot and storyline that seems equally as important as the romance, and the combination of both has really drawn me in.
(thanks for the loan, Molly)

It’s a bigger book in tone and depth than a lot of the romances I’ve read lately, and you can tell this book took her a while to both research and write.

I’m wondering if anyone knows of other more recent romances that read like this? Either historical or contemp.
I also believe in today’s market it would be really tough to write this book, given published authors need to be more prolific and don’t usually have a year or more to spend on one book. But if there are more out there like this, I would love to hear recommendations.

On another, unrelated note. Friday Night Lights. I’m three episodes from the end of the season.
Amazing show. I’ve been trying to figure out what they do best, but I think it’s to portray the small, perfect moments. The brilliant character reveals in small details that show us everything and tell us nothing.
Anyone else watching this? It does live up the hype.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Grammar in popular fiction

Okay, so this is a post that's been percolating in my mind for a while and probably isn't fully perked yet, but something I read this morning in a national newspaper made me consider it again.

First the disclaimers. I'm not a grammar guru. I don't pretend to have perfect grammar and know I make mistakes all the time. But I did have a few pretty good English teachers in school, and both of my parents were English speakers from birth, as were their parents and their parents, and one of my grandmothers was a teacher. (An aside... one of the aforementioned English teachers was Chinese-Canadian. So I don't mean to imply one needs to have been a native English speaker to have a good grasp of grammar. I just think it gives you a leg up if your parents used good grammar at home.) All that said, I suppose I have a better grasp of grammar than many, but by no means am I an expert. I look stuff up all the time, and even then, I'm often not sure... I mean, does anyone understand the rules for using which vs. that? (Okay, maybe it's just me with that one.)

But one thing I discovered when I started to write popular fiction, is that the rules seem to be looser in that piece of the publishing world. Either that or no one cares, because I've read a lot of published fiction with pretty loosely applied rules of grammar in my book.

One thing I think my very first manuscript had going for it was pretty good grammar. That manuscript boasted commas around every phrase, had zero sentences ending with prepositions, used the past perfect tense where appropriate--and was, well, stilted and dry.

So I loosened things up in my own writing. I probably went too far at first, shunning commas to the point my writing became hard to read, and overusing sentence fragments etc. (Still love sentence fragments.) But I started purposefully ending sentences with prepositions. (And starting them with conjunctions. LOL.) I started using "like" in places I felt sure "as if" was technically correct. I stopped being so hung up on grammar in my own work, and even cut back on marking up my critique partners' stuff.

So why am I blogging about this? The thing that set me off this morning, (or should "that" have been "which"?), was this sentence found in an in depth, hard news story I was reading on the subway:

"Nicole Richie's lawyer announced yesterday that her client will try and beat the driving under the influence rap...."

Now, correct me if I'm wrong... but shouldn't it be "try to beat" not "try and beat"? Don't know why that one sticks in my craw. I mean... wouldn't "and" only be correct if it were joining two separate actions the lawyer was taking? For example if he were both trying and beating? Doesn't the verb "to try" always need an infinitive after it? Something the subject of the sentence is trying TO do?

Grammar gurus out there. Am I right or wrong about this one?

Everyone else... Whether I'm right or wrong, does it matter? Does anyone care? How do you feel about grammar in popular fiction? Is it better to write the way the majority of people speak, or by doing that, are we adding to the problem by making readers assume it's correct? Am I the only one who thinks about this?

(Before someone says this in a comment... I think dialog should be written the way people speak, using the grammar the character would use, correct or not. But what about the other stuff???)

Monday, June 18, 2007

Am I the last person to discover Suzanne Brockman?

I read my first Suzanne Brockman book this weekend. Read it in two big gulps. A friend loaned me Brockman's first of the Navy SEAL series because I wanted to see what authors did to really stand out in catagory romance. Now, of course I know who Suzanne is. I've seen the droves of people lining up to get thier books signed. I even know someone (Maureen) who won a ticket to go to a special dinner with Suzanne Brockman where there was a spoof of her books performed by other list-making authors. I totally got that she was a big deal.

Now I get why.

Was Prince Joe the best catagory book I ever read? Nope. But it was really really good. Sexual tension. Attention to detail. Interesting external plot - some sort of old school internal plot stuff that wouldn't fly today - But man, those male character leapt off the page. And catagory romance has been and will probably always be about the hero. And she writes a hell of a hero. She also writes a bunch of them -- all connected so people can't wait to go get that next book.

Anyone know which book comes after Prince Joe? Because I am addicted.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Books books books books books

Okay, I should be sleeping right now, so if this post is completely incoherent (or more incoherent than normal) please forgive me.

I spent most of Monday wandering around BookExpo Canada. What fun. My friend Danielle Younge-Ullman, whose debut novel FALLING UNDER, will be published next year by Plume, got some free exhibitor passes for us from some dude she met on Craig's List. Go, Danielle!

Anyway, I had to pretend I was a published author, because that was the closest I came to any of the boxes I had to check to actually redeem my pass for an entry badge, but luckily no one questioned it.

What is BookExpo you may ask? Well, the Canadian one is a small version of the US one, and it's basically a marketing venue/trade show for the publishers (and people in related industries targeting bookstores) to show off the best of their wares for the upcoming season. In addition to the publishers' booths, I was interested to see a very large booth sponsored by a book distributor I'd never heard of before. They had a huge list of the houses they represent in Canada, and basically it seemed to be all the US publishers who don't have Canadian offices/counterparts and some smaller presses, too. So, from what I could gather, instead of those houses having a sales force in Canada, this company basically acts as an agent for them. (I really should have found out more... Maybe I'll do a little research and get back to y'all. Sorry about the y'all. Warming up for Dallas, already.)

The most popular feature of the show seemed to universally be the author appearances. Basically authors show up for about an hour each and give away signed copies of their new or upcoming releases. Free books!

Fellow Toronto Romance Writer, Kelley Armstrong, had one of the longest lines for signings on Sunday, from what I heard, but sadly, I could only go on Monday. (Jean Chretien was there on Sunday, too... Not to mention Clive Barker and a few stars like that.)

The attendees of BookExpo are mostly booksellers and librarians. I'd say at least 2/3 of the name badges I spotted were people who worked at a Chapters or Indigo.

But some other business seems to get done, too. Danielle managed to meet the woman at Penguin Canada who'll be handling her Canadian publicity when her book comes out which was pretty exciting. And I pumped a few people I met to try to improve my understanding of the biz.

I got a HUGE bag-o-books I can't wait to read, including Tom Harpur's new one WATER INTO WINE which looks fascinating, and Jan Wong's RED CHINA BLUES. (Although, true confessions, with great non-fiction like that, I always love the idea of reading the books and buy quite a few that interest me... and then I never seem to get around to actually reading most of them. Most of the non-fiction reading I do these days is writing related and I admit I'm still in the second chapter of Harpur's book THE PAGAN CHRIST.)

The funniest thing I picked up? A little teaser booklet thingy (I'm sure that's the proper marketing term) for a new one of those Chicken Soup books. What's this one called? Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soul. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. They are little stories written by past contestents on the show. And some bonus words of encouragement from Paula Abdul. Gah! What is the world coming to?

Another highlight for me was getting a signed copy of NYT Bestseller John Connolly's THE UNQUIET. I admit I'm not a big thriller reader, and have never read Mr. Connolly before, but I'll read this one. What a charmer. He was too good looking for it to be legal, and when he noticed my name he asked if I was Irish, and I started babbling like an idiot and basically told him my entire family tree. I think what came out was:

MM: "Actually, I'm only 5/8 Irish."
JC: "Well, that's pretty good."
MM: "I've got some Scots blood, too."
JC: "We can forgive that."
MM: "And some Welsh."
JC: "Oh, can't forgive that."
MM: "And some Flemish."
JC: "Now the Flemish is interesting."

Witty banter. We're opening in Vegas in 2 weeks. LOL. Anyway, while I was embarassing myself, he was busily signing my free book with what I assumed was his stock book signing "happy reading" or whatever. What I actually got was: "To Maureen, my fellow Irishman (5/8)
Peace and Happiness, John." and a big smiley face.

So sweet.

Also got to say a quick hello to Tish Cohen again, author of TOWN HOUSE, and got a copy of her upcoming middle-grade release THE INVISIBLE RULES OF THE ZOE LAMA which looks like a very fun read.

So, all in all, in terms of days I should have been writing but wasn't, I don't feel too guilty about this one. A day well spent.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Late to the party…. Heroes

Hey, Speaking of bad bloggers.. I’m way overdue for a new post. Been catching up on the series I should have already been watching, rather than American Idol, and possibly Prison Break. Still torn on that show, but now that Kellerman’s dead, my interest is gone.
Still love that magnificent bastard!

But I did watch the entire first season of Heroes, and loved it. It’s not my fave, that honour still belongs to BSG, but it is fast paced, wonderfully plotted, has offered some great surprises, twisted my expectations and kept me thoroughly entertained.

Why does it work?
It’s got a great cast of characters and they do a nice job of raising two questions, everytime they answer one. They layered in backstory beautifully, while keeping the plot moving forward.
Not all of the story lines are equally successful, the Nikki storyline seemed extraneous to me.
But every character, no matter how minor, has a purpose, one which often doesn’t come out until several episodes later.
And funny enough, my favourite character isn’t one of the heroes. Jack Coleman, the man we are supposed to hate in the first few episodes, became the most fascinating character on the entire show.
His backstory was the highlight of the entire first season for me and his scenes with Claire(the cheerleader) were really affecting.
I’m really trying not to give away spoilers here, because as writers, this show is great to watch, if just to pick up pacing and plotting points and how to integrate a large cast seamlessly.

So weeks after the season ended, I’m finally caught up, and really glad I did. Next on the list, Friday Night Lights. I’m a few episodes in and totally gripped..

Monday, June 11, 2007

Richard Price and the Season Finale of the Sopranos

Hey so sorry I've been blogless lately. I've been finishing up a contracted book and trying to get proposals together all for a deadline at the end of the week. This is always the most stressful time finishing and starting and keeping three things in mind at once...yikes. My brain - it hurts.

Went to a family wedding in Pennsylvania this weekend and got to listen to a lot of NPR. Richard Price the novelist (The Wanderers) and screenwriter (Clockers, some episodes of The Wire among many others) was being interviewed and oh! the fun.

He said the difference between writing novels and writing screenplays is the difference between chess and speed chess. You're getting from A to B you're just doing it differently. I thought that was very interesting. He also said that novel writing is more art and screenwriting is more craft and while writing a scene in a screenplay he writes it like he's on a hot burner and can't get off until the scene is done. Because it's about immediacy.

Now, I don't write the novels he writes but the way he looks at screenwriting is the way I look at writing the books I'm writing. It's about the immediacy of the scene. How cool is that?

Sopranos? Hated it last night -- love it this morning. I felt manipulated last night but today I realize that all that stress I felt, all the angst and gut wrenching nervousness -- that's how Tony lives and it's perfect that instead of being relieved of his life he's going to have to just keep living it.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

More random backstory thoughts...

Okay, so I'm reading Kristy Kiernan's impressive debut novel Catching Genius right now. It's really gripping. Definitely the sort of book I enjoy reading.

And it may be ill advised for me to make a comment/observation while I'm still 3/4 of my way through a book, but I'm making this observation not only on her book but based on other "women's fiction" novels I've read, too. (And an aside... anyone who reads this blog and my own with any regularity probably knows how I feel about the term "women's fiction".)

My observation is about back story. In many types of stories, it's considered bad form to include too much of this stuff. The wisdom goes that you slow down your story by telling us what happened in the past versus "the real story". Donald Maass goes so far as to suggest you should have zero back story in your novel. I've taken his class.

But what if "the real story" is what happened in the past?

My "big revelation" this week is that having the "real story" be the back story is super common theme (okay, not a theme... a device? a structure?) in commercial women's fiction. That is, there are many commerical women's fiction stories published about characters coming to grips with something in their past. The craft, the skill, comes by way of the writer carefully controlling how and when that information is dolled out -- not necessarily chronologically, but in such a way as to maximize impact.

When I think of it that way, I guess the back story principles in that type of past-heavy book aren't that different from those for books that are more "in the present". It's all about controlling what you let the reader know and when... It's just in some stories there's more of it to control.

I think Kristy did an amazing job of this with Catching Genius. There are "present time" stories/character arcs for both the main characters, but (at this point in the book, anyway) I feel like the present day stories are subplots and the "real story", the part the reader (me) is dying to learn more about, the part that's pulling me through the book, is wanting to know more about what happened to these sisters in the past.

Thus, the main story is, well, back story. (Is it still back story when it's the main story???)

Don't know why recognizing this past-heavy story telling structure was such a revelation to me. I mean, one of my ms's (the one in this year's GH) actually has two timelines, and what happens in "the past'" is pretty key to the resolution of the overall story... but I guess what I simply realized is that back story isn't necessarily an evil word -- especially in some types of books.

Back story. Wisely used, it can be your best friend. I think this revelation will really help me with my current WIP.

(Now, all you romance writers who read this blog. Don't take his as permission to include more of your hero's and heroine's backstories in your romance novel. (Not that, "one of the drunk writers said I could," would get you very far, anyway.) Romances are about a couple falling in love. Sure, both main characters probably have to get over stuff from their past to get there, but since the main action is, and must be, in the present for them to fall in love... back story should be used quite sparingly in romance in my humble opinion and mostly show up in the subtext and the characterizations... But I digress.)
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