Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Eureka!

Writings of The Muse
One afternoon last week, a character Renee thought up a while ago but didn't really have a story for yet accidentally wandered into the Guardian room, where those characters have been tossing worldbuilding and plot ideas at the walls for the last few months, and the poor girl got herself splattered right into the story.

Everything stopped. We all cocked our heads to the side and looked at the shape of things now that she was standing in the middle of it all. Someone gasped. Some swore (quite colorfully and not entirely in a language I recognized). And then we all started to giggle and clap and it turned into quite the party. It's possible even the Inner Editor cracked a grin when she came to investigate the disturbance.

I might have done a little jumping up and down and squealing like an overexcited preteen fangirl until Renee sat up and took notice.

She did that bit literally. She woke up from a dead sleep and wasn't even mad about it, despite the fact that she was freaking exhausted and it was one of the rare, rare days when both her kids were napping at the same time for more than half an hour. This was that big a deal.

Because just like that, Guardian clicked into place and started making sense. A couple of ideas for new scenes unrolled and the rough arc of a plot popped up where only the hazy cloud of a potential idea had hovered before.

Which is really good timing, since we'd really like to start writing it during NaNoWriMo this year and we were all starting to get a little edgy about having let it percolate for so long and still not having much clue as to what it was going to be about. With Familiar's deadline extended, Guardian isn't actually going to get any dedicated plotting time between now and November. Renee has always been a pantser, but she's trying to change that.

The whole incident got me thinking about my job around here and how best to explain what I do to the blog reading public. According to the Idea Salesman, we haven't been blogging enough lately, so hopefully this will get him to shut up and just let me do my actual job already make him feel better.

There are a lot of random ideas floating around here in the background of Renee's mind. My job as her Muse is to constantly stir them up, getting them to jump around and turn in new directions to see what can be best used where.

People are forever asking storytellers where they get their ideas and by and large storytellers have no idea how to answer that question. It's a question with an unsatisfyingly simple answer. Ideas are everywhere, just lying around waiting for someone to notice them.

Try this: look away from the screen you're reading right now and take a mental picture of something completely random. Doesn't matter what. I guarantee you, there are stories waiting there.

That pale ring marring the surface of your wooden coffee table? It's just a random stain, right? Someone put down a glass without using a coaster and let it sit there too long. It's nothing. Happens all the time. Background gibberish you ignore every day.

Except that it's not. How did it get there? Who left the glass there? What was in it? Why did they leave it?

Maybe it was just an ordinary glass of water you got yourself and then forgot about because you spent the evening spacing out in front of the television and wanting to cry but not having the energy to bother. It had been a long shitty day of listening to yet another string of complaints from your obnoxious customers and daydreaming that one of those lottery tickets you buy every week religiously, but without any real hope, would just hit already so you could quit the damn job and tell the assholes to stuff their toll receipts where the sun doesn't shine. The ring on the coffee table was just one more thing you didn’t have the energy to care about. Thank goodness you got help and managed to pull yourself out of that cycle of depression.

Hmmmm... that's not terribly upbeat, is it? Maybe instead you forgot about that glass of ice water sitting on your senile grandmother’s coffee table because you started making out with the inexplicably funny accountant who was just supposed to be there to help you figure out why she suddenly owed so much on her taxes.

Or maybe the stain is something you don’t really noticed anymore; it’s been there for a long time. You left the water sitting there because you were twelve and you just found out your parents were getting divorced and your whole life was about to change and who gives a shit about water at a time like this?!?

Maybe the glass got left there because the cops wouldn't let you into the room until they were done processing the crime scene three days later.

Perhaps it wasn't really water at all; some of the nastier potions in a black witch's spell book can look quite innocuous right up until they kill you.

Hell, while we’re venturing into the realm of the fantastical, maybe that circle wasn't made by a water glass at all, but instead marks the place where the first ship of an invading race alien nanobots bent on world domination landed.

That's what? Half a dozen stories--a literary fiction and/or women's fiction, a romance, some young adult, what looks to be the beginnings of a mystery or maybe a thriller, urban fantasy, and a little science fiction tossed in just for kicks--from one little stain on the coffee table?

So you see, where writers get their ideas isn't much of a mystery. They get them from all over the place. The trick is that instead of glancing right past ordinary things like coffee table rings and dismissing them as miscellaneous nonsense, storytellers take those little bits and bobs and mentally photograph them and file them away. They let them drift around in the background until one bumps into one another in a way that clicks right (the image of the table ring gets snagged on the nanobot aliens someone talked about seeing in a made-for-SyFy tv movie that one time, for example) and Poof! A story is born!

My job is to keep the ideas swirling around and to make sure that when one does finally show up in just the right spot, Renee knows about it. Even if I do have to do some rather undignified squealing along the way.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Write Something New

I was talking to a friend the other day about revising. She’s finished several first drafts, but she’s never managed to get to the querying stage because she just can’t seem to get herself through the revisions process. She’s been slogging through the latest round of revisions for a while now and she was getting really discouraged and thinking about just giving it up as a lost cause.

I suggested she start writing something new. Not abandon the current revisions and start writing something new, mind you. I told her she should start writing something new while continuing the revisions on the current project.

Revising, at least for me, is really boring work. I mean, it’s intellectually stimulating and ultimately yields a very nice sense of accomplishment. But compared to the frenzied act of creation that comes before it, revision looks a little drab.

There’s a reason most people worship their Muses and chain up their Inner Editors. It’s hard to win a popularity contest when your main job is pointing out the things someone did wrong and suggesting improvements. I’ve never known of a nitpicky mother-in-law being in the running for Miss America.

I got the idea for writing while revising almost by accident. A few years back I was a member of this great critique group. It was the first time I’d ever worked with a critique group and, while I know some of them can be toxic, the one I fell into turned out to be fantastic. I think I grew more as a writer during that year than at any other point before or since.

At the time I was working on my epic high fantasy trilogy of doom and I was so excited to be learning so much that I wanted to bring pages every single week. (I didn’t know about the doom part until later, you see.) I pushed myself and managed to get together at least 5 pages almost every time. It was great.

But it was also kind of awful. I started writing seriously during NaNoWriMo and the chaos and wonder of that event had reminded me what I’d forgotten in the years since I’d first gotten the idea about being a novelist: writing was fun. Revising, on the other hand, sucked. It was all highlighting action lines and chopping extraneous exposition, keeping tabs on adverbs and cutting out unnecessary thats and justs, and waging an endless, bitter war against passive voice. I kept at it, because I really wanted to keep bringing those pages to critique, but I was starting to think I just didn’t have what it took to be a serious writer.

And then over one holiday weekend that we’d arranged into a slumber party/pseudo writing retreat, I got this flash of an idea for a new story. I woke up one morning and it was just there, completely consuming my brain. I tossed the trilogy of doom aside and dove into the shiny new idea, pounding out over 10,000 words in less than two days. I wrote until my fingers cramped up and the cooling fans in my laptop threatened to go on strike.

And then the weekend ended and I was faced with a dilemma. I didn’t want to stop working with the critique group. I mean, I could have gone into a kind of inactive status, not bringing new pages but still showing up to help everyone else, but I didn’t want to. The learning and improving was something I’d never done like that before and it was fun.

Plus, I lived out in the sticks over an hour away at the time. If I was going to spend half my Sunday in the car, I was damn well going to come home with something to show for it.

But at the same time, I needed to write this new story. (If you’re wondering how strongly that idea took root in my brain, it was what eventually morphed into Familiar. Yeah, that Familiar. The story I’m giving one last go around to now, years later.) I couldn’t just file it away while I finished revising and querying out my current project. I mean, that was an epic high fantasy trilogy. I could have been looking at several years of working and waiting.

So I did what all crazy stubborn people do. I refused to decide one way or the other and instead decided to just do both. I divided my time right down the middle. I’d spend half the week writing the new story and half the week revising the trilogy. I’d have to work a little harder than I had been doing if I still wanted to keep up my pace of turning in 5 pages for critique every week, but I vowed I could do it.

And it turned out I could. In fact, I got such a charge from writing the new story that I didn’t end up having to work that much longer on the revision days after all. Strangely, things like organizing my spice rack and rearranging the books on my bookshelves weren’t as tempting as they had been starting to seem when I was revising full time.

Eventually there came the point when the trilogy had moved on to that big library in the sky and what was then Familiar was due to be revised. And, having apparently learned nothing the last time, I tried to just work on that full time. And once again reached that point where it was awful all the time and I found myself wanting to do anything but work on revising.

NaNoWriMo rolled around again and saved me from myself before I gave it all up and decided to take up underwater basket-weaving. I spent that November dividing my time between revisions and writing another new story, this time a truly awful paranormal romance of which we shall never again speak. It was so bad I couldn’t even bring myself to finish it and in no corner of my brain have I ever once been remotely tempted to toy with it again.

But while the story turned out to be a bad one, I was still writing, toying with silly characters and following plot bunnies hither and tither and yon. Sure enough, the revisions picked up again.

And then it clicked for me: This is my process.

Some writers need to lock themselves in absolute silence and others have to form a specific playlist of alternative rock or Italian opera in order to bring a rough draft to heel. Some have to chug endless cups of green tea mocha swirl cappuccinos before rolling up their sleeves and diving into the fray. Or maybe they have to turn three times counterclockwise while standing naked under the full moon and burning an offering of a box of No. 2 pencils in order to be granted an exclusive audience with their Inner Editors. Some just have to be able to clear their desk and devote all their brain power to one world and focus on one story at a time.

Thankfully I don’t have to do any of those things. Over the years I’ve found I can revise under any conditions. Ten minutes at a time or hours on end, with the children screaming in the background or while singing along to the Disney Princess radio or in the whisper quiet darkness before the dawn when everyone else is asleep, fueled by coffee and doughnuts or just plain old water. Which is lucky since I’m not all that wild about green tea and I’m fresh out of pencils.

But I have to have something else to be writing at the same time. If I don’t have that kick of euphoric energy I get from the creative side of the process, procrastination becomes all too easy. After all, I never did get around to reorganizing my spice rack. It’s just sitting there on the kitchen counter, half full of spices I never use, waiting for the day when I don’t have a new writing project lined up in the queue.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Favorite Character != Main Character. Oops.

Have you ever read a book and had a favorite character who wasn’t the main character? Even though they’re just a sidekick or a love interest or a barely-there subplot, you love them. You wait eagerly for the next time they’re going to wander onto the page. Maybe you don’t even like the rest of the book, but you keep reading, just for the possibility of seeing them again.

Would it surprise you to learn that this happens to authors sometimes too?

Probably not. It happens a lot. Things like favorite characters are usually emotional decisions, not logical ones, and we’re all human. Our emotions don’t always follow the most obvious path and that means we don’t always love the main character best.

(By the way, if an author tells you they don’t have any favorite characters, you don’t necessarily need to believe them. At the same time, you probably shouldn’t be asking if they have a favorite. It’s like asking a parent if they have a favorite child. They may well have one, but they probably don’t want to admit it.)

Anyway, we’ve all read books where that one side character just electrifies every scene he or she is in and you can tell the author was having so much damn fun during the writing. Sometimes, that kind of thing can be what takes a book from meh, it was okay to OMG that was awesome!

Sometime, though, it can go awry. Sometimes, the author gets too wrapped up in the side character and the rest of the story ends up falling flat. It’s a chore, just a vehicle to get us to that next scene with their favorite character in it.

Now, you might be wondering why the author in question doesn’t just change the story and write a book about the favorite character instead. That sounds like the most obvious solution to me and I have actually done that before.

But sometimes that doesn’t work. The side character becomes our favorite because the story isn’t about them. Maybe we like them because they’re mysterious. Mystery is always a nice draw, but if the story was about them, the mystery would likely end up getting dispelled.

For example, I watch the television show Doctor Who and there is a certain special guest whom I absolutely loved when she first turned up on the show. She was all mysterious and exciting and the little hints we got of her backstory captured my imagination. I won’t say more; that would involve SPOILERS. But in the years since that first episode, we’ve seen a lot more of her and, while I still like the character and respect the hell out of the actress, I’m just not as intrigued anymore. The more we see her, the less mystery there is, and now I don’t get as excited when I hear she’s going to be on the show again.

Sometimes the side character becomes our favorite because they’re loyal and strong and dependable and we want to see more of them because they make us, and the main character, happy. This usually happens, in my experience, with the best friend, and their relationship with the main character is what draws us in. Best friends are great and necessary, but they can’t be main characters most of the time. Being strong and loyal and dependable are lovely qualities, but they’re not very dramatic.

I read a book recently where the author tried to make the best friend the main character. (No, I’m not going to name it.) I liked the best friend and identified with her. But she couldn’t do anything half of the time. The author whipped the whole story up into a frenzy and kicked off this epic cosmic battle. And the character I was stuck with wasn’t a warrior. She couldn’t even watch the battle. She just sat around worrying and feeling sorry for herself and waiting for everyone to come home. And this happened over and over again in the book. It was obnoxious. By the end of the book, the character wasn’t my favorite anymore. I barely even liked her.

There are other reasons the idea of making the favorite character the main character might not always work, but this post is already getting long so I won’t get into them here. Enough to say, sometime we have favorite characters and they can’t be the main characters. The challenge then, is to balance that great energy we get when writing our favorite with the rest of the story.

I’m having this problem with my current WIP. My favorite character in Familiar is not the main character. He’s major character and he’s important to the plot, but he’s not my narrator. The story is happening around him, but it’s not happening to him. I could write his story instead, but on its own, his story is pretty… average. I just don’t think there’s enough there.

So I have to work on my balance. I have to watch every scene he’s in to make sure he’s not taking over the page. And I have to work on building up my main character. Tweaking her personality here and there to make her more fun for me to write. Because even if I don’t have that same irrational draw toward her, I need her to be just as interesting. After all, even if she never becomes my favorite, I want her to be other people’s favorite. And that’s not going to happen if I’m bored while I’m writing her.

Have any of you had this problem? How did you deal with it?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

My Influences: Lilith Saintcrow

I'm starting a new feature on the blog. Every time I see/read an author interview, someone always asks the author who they consider their major influences. I figured that as long as I'm sitting here telling you all about how I write and what I think about writing, I might also talk about who gave me all these ideas. I probably won't do these posts very often. Just when I notice something I feel is worth talking about.

Figuring out who has influenced your writing is a tricky thing. Because you have to really look at how that works. I mean, I suppose I could track my reading backward until I found the first urban fantasy novel, the one that introduced me to the genre. Or I could look for the ones who have characters that sound like my characters or jokes that sound like my jokes. I'll probably do that at some point. But I wanted to start off with people who shaped not just my voice but also what I'm actually doing here.

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will probably already know this, but I think if I was ever asked who my influences were, I'd have to put Lilith Saintcrow at the top of the list. So it made sense that my first post in this series be about her.

I stumbled upon Ms. Saintcrow's novels in what I consider to be a somewhat roundabout way. A few years back when I was trying the full-time novelist thing the first time around, I was following a lot of agent and editor and author blogs in order to keep up with what was going on in publishing. One such blog, which was recommended to me by one of my critique partners, was Deadline Dames. I had, at that point, heard of exactly one author who contributed to the blog, but I figured I'd give it a go.

(That was Rachel Vincent, incidentally, not Lilith Saintcrow.)

After reading the blog for a few months, I noticed that I always got a kick out of the posts by Lilith Saintcrow and I thought maybe I should see if she had a blog of her own that I could follow too. She did, and it was also very good. Maybe I should check out her books?

And then my brain exploded.

I read the Danny Valentine series and loved it. I blew through the whole series in a week. I couldn't put it down. When I was finished, I picked up the first two books in the Jill Kismet series (that was all that had been published at that point) and loved those even more. A little while later, Saintcrow took a stab at YA fantasy and I followed right along and snapped up all the Strange Angles books as they came out too. Romances of the Arquitaine, check. Bannon and Clare, reading it. Tales of Beauty and Madness, already preordered book 2. Basically, if there's anything out there that Lilith Saintcrow has written, my response is "GIMME!"

And that's the thing I love about Lilith Saintcrow's writing. She's consistently entertaining. Whether it's on her blog or in her books, I've never read anything that didn't grab my mind in some way. Her writing advice is brilliant. Her take on publishing issues almost always lines up with mine, and if not, her arguments always make me at least think about the issue in a new way. And her fiction is fantastic. Hilarious and engaging and dark and brave and pretty much everything I could ever hope to write on my own someday.

Even The Bandit King, which was narrated by a character I hated listening to with just about every fiber of my being (even thinking about it now I still want to go pick up that book and try to reach through it to smack Tristan upside the head), was too interesting for me to put down. I hated the character, but I still needed to know what happened next.

Um... A steampunkish cowboy zombie-hunter vampire story... That sounds... quite frankly awful. But I trust you, Ms. Saintcrow, so I'll give it a shot.... How did she make me like that book??? Not only did I like The Damnation Affair, I keep waiting for the characters to pop up in the other Bannon and Clare novels.

She never lets me down. I have a very limited book budget these days, but Saintcrow is always on my auto-buy list. I trust her. That's probably the highest compliment a reader can pay a writer.

And that's my goal as a writer, to be able to inspire that kind of trust in my readers. To be not just entertaining, but consistently entertaining. I want to build a relationship with my readers that is constantly growing and evolving. I want to be able to take on new challenges and have my audience willing to go on the journey with me. People often talk about how writing is a lonely art, and in some ways it can be. But at its core, it's really so much bigger than that. At least it is for me.

I don't want to be a one-hit wonder or a fluke. I don't want to publish one book or trilogy or whatever and have it do fabulously well and get made into movies and television shows and turn out a whole bunch of newfangled slang amongst the kids and then never sell anything ever again.

Sure, that kind of success would be great and all and I'm sure it would be fun while it lasted. But how God awful must it be when it's over? Those folks that burn so bright so fast and then burn out must be so bitterly cold in the darkness left behind. I can't even imagine the kind of heartbreak that follows something like that.

I could get into so much more here about how much I love the characters she writes, or how I love her mix of humor and darkness, or how the woman writes action like nobody's business. Those things are also things I'd love to be able to do someday. But the trust is what I want the most. No matter what else I achieve in my life as a writer, that is probably always going to be my ultimate goal.