Thursday, March 31, 2011

Finding beauty

I spent the past week exploring the UK with an old friend. Lots of beautiful places, inspirational art, sunshine, good conversation and food. After my friend left yesterday, I was itching to get back to my writing, and to pour all that inspiration into Project Demo. But instead I spent the day cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, and catching up on billions of emails. That evening I had a big rehearsal for my community orchestra, the last full rehearsal before our concert Saturday (7:30 in the Victoria Rooms, if anyone happens to be in the Bristol area!).

I dreaded going to the rehearsal. I hadn't practiced in a week, I was dead tired, and there was so much more to do at home. But, as so often happens for me when it comes to orchestra, I was blown away when we actually got into the music. It was the first rehearsal with the full orchestra, including percussion, harp, and keyboard. We were in the midst of Mars, the first movement of Holst's Planets, and the room was vibrating with this incredible ocean of sound.

So often I get overwhelmed by the number of emails I need to answer, or the number of words I'm behind in Project Demo, that I don't take the time to relish the beauty around me. After all, that's what fuels my writing. Is it too formulaic to institute for myself a required regular inspiration? Perhaps. But I do think I need to get outside more often.

Do you regularly seek out inspiration in your writing life?

Next week I'll be back to my regular blogging schedule, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. I've missed you all!

*The pictures are all my own. In order: The river Avon in Bath, the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in Glastonbury, and the Tate Modern in London.*

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Undiscovered Voices One Year On

Okay, I lied... one last post before I go on break!

Nick Cross blogged at Notes from the Slushpile about Undiscovered Voices 2010, our reunion last weekend, and all the good publishing news we've generated thus far. I feel humbled to be part of such an amazing group.

From left and round the table: Anne Anderson / Leone (me!), Nick Cross, Emily George, Paula Rawsthorne, Claire O'Brien, Graham, Lisa Joy Smith, Abbie Todd, Jane McLoughlin,
Jude Ensaff

Stepping away from the computer

As I mentioned last week, I'll be taking a break from writing (and blogging) for the next week or two. Coincidentally, the sun's actually shining in England, so it's a good time to get away.

Hopefully I'll come back ready to face the beginning of Project Demo (again), and with some faith that this story might turn into something worthwhile. We'll see.

In the meantime, good luck on your projects, writing and otherwise, and on getting out and enjoying spring.

Bath Spa University, Newton Park

Monday, March 21, 2011


I grew up in a small town, and went to college in an even smaller town. But during my junior year I spent a semester studying English literature and theater in London.

It was the first time I ever lived in a big city. I lived in Bloomsbury, the home of Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Charles Darwin, and the the British Museum. I read Dickens, Woolf, Austen, and wrote a play inspired by the Tube and various Cathedrals. I went to the theater regularly, saw Joseph Fiennes, Nicole Kidman, George Wendt, Tom Stoppard. And every day I discovered more of London. For me, it had a magic to it, as if anything was possible in the city that had already seen so much of art and history.

Last February, all of my dreams about London were reinforced when I was invited to Foyles Bookstore in London for the Undiscovered Voices launch party. An excerpt of my novel was being published, numerous editors and agents were eager to meet me. And I wouldn't have wished it to happen anywhere in the world other than London.

This past weekend, the twelve of us who won a place in Undiscovered Voices 2010 had a reunion get-together. I savor every opportunity I have to visit London, but this one was especially magical.

I arrived early to give myself time to enjoy London. I took the Tube to Embankment and walked across the Hungerford Bridge. From there I walked along the Thames, bumping elbows with all the tourists. A trumpeter and percussionist were playing Zydeco music. An acrobatics group was performing somersaults and twists around the top of the National Theatre. I could see St. Paul's in the distance, I passed the Tate Modern. Our group had decided to meet at the Globe Theatre's pub, The Swan, as it seemed suitably literary.

And when I arrived I was met with hugs, kisses, talks of writing, publishing, agents. The last time we met we were busy, stressed, and encouraged not to talk to each other (but rather the industry people who were there to see us). So it was wonderful to actually get to know each other, share our war stories, and also our celebrations. Some of the group is being published this year and next. Some have agents, but haven't yet received publishing contracts. All of us are writing, revising, dreaming.

I have to say, especially when London holds so much promise for me, at moments the day was a little hard. I wished I had a book coming out, a cover to share, an agent to read my drafts. But I couldn't be happier for my friends, and they couldn't have been more encouraging.

This won't be my last visit to London (strangely I'll be going twice in the next two weeks!), but I may be returning to the US this autumn (my life is still very up in the air at the moment). So I intend to relish my time in London as much as possible.

On the way back, I walked a bit out of my way with some of my friends from the UV group. I passed the Millennium Bridge (which I've always loved, and really enjoyed seeing destroyed in sixth Harry Potter movie). Then we wound our way into Southwark, full of narrow Dickensian-like streets, a touristy Prison Museum, a reconstruction of Sir Francis Drake's ship (and several kids dressed as pirates waiting to board). While my friends ran off to catch trains home, I explored Southwark Cathedral and Borough Market, both new to me. Then I looked at my watch, couldn't believe how late it already was, and hurried to the nearest tube to catch my own train back to Bristol.

I know I'll return to London in my life. Not just in the next two weeks, but whenever I have the opportunity, no matter where in the world I end up. And someday I hope I'll be a published author and be able to say thank you. Perhaps enjoy some champagne in my old stomping ground.

*UPDATED: Nick Cross at Notes from the Slushpile has blogged about Undiscovered Voices 2010, our reunion, and the beginnings of our exciting writing careers*

Friday, March 18, 2011

Update on Project Demo: Something funny happened on the way to the end

For most of its creation, Project Demo has seemed the book that doesn't want to happen.

I completely gave up on it once, only to restart it when I couldn't get the idea out of my head.

In January I was nearing the end of the worst rough draft I had ever written when I decided I couldn't go any further. I outlined the climax and jumped back to the beginning.

Lately I've been going through the draft again, trying to make it tell a consistent story. I've been writing / revising a scene a day, along with Karen at Musings of a Novelista's Operation 50/50. I'm not even worrying about things like subplots and secondary characters yet.

But Wednesday something funny happened. I was almost 2/3s of the way through the second draft, and had just finished a major climactic scene. I intended to spend some time sorting through and planning the next section. So I started reading that awful rough draft I had written months before. And for once it was good. The characters' actions made sense. It had twists and turns I had completely forgotten about.

So remember that unfinished climax? I went back to my notes and on Thursday wrote the first half of it. Today I'll write the second half. I've also outlined the final two chapters. I should have the entire draft finished by early next week.

No one could be more surprised (and pleased) than me. Though I did say in Wednesday's post that middles and endings are my strengths!

The timing's perfect. Next week a close friend is coming to visit. I had been worried about taking time away from Project Demo, but now I think I can use the time to let the novel sit, and come back to it refreshed, ready to start again (and continue 50/50, since it has been so good to me!).

If this were a story and not real life, Project Demo would end up getting me an agent, a publisher, and a major prize. Or it could be a tragedy and after a year I'd decide I was right back in November to give up on the whole thing. Could go either way.

How is your writing going? Any minor miracles?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Muddling through beginnings, middles, and ends

It was Aristotle who said that every story should have a beginning, middle, and end.

What's fascinating about the writing process is that most writers I know have a weakness in one of those areas. You'd think the one would flow into the next, but some writers write brilliant beginnings only to flounder in the middle. Other writers can't write an ending unless you count ending the story, world, and all their characters with a massive, unexpected bomb.

I've been thinking about beginnings, middles, and ends since fellow blogger Mary at Resident Alien posted about her ending that wouldn't come together. I was sympathetic, but hardly empathetic. I couldn't get over Mary writing, "Beginnings always write themselves." First I sputtered, then I choked, then I ended up in a coughing fit. Later I may have cried. If only MY beginnings would write themselves (I blogged last fall about how much I hate beginnings).

Monday we talked about our strengths as writers. I especially found it interesting how some of you posted not only about your strengths, but why you had those strengths, given your childhood, your life experiences.

So to continue the conversation, what are your strengths when it comes to beginnings, middles, and ends? And do you have any idea why?

As I said, I struggle with beginnings, usually writing an entire novel before I have a clue how to begin it. But middles make sense to me, perhaps because I'm a fairly linear thinker. I used to work with a teacher who taught history through different themes, rather than in narrative order. It made my head spin! As for endings, I'm good at tying up themes and characters' arcs. Perhaps that comes from my English major background, being used to thinking in that big picture, critical analysis sort of way. Or maybe it just takes me some time to catch my stride.

What about you?

*Please consider bidding on some of the AMAZING items offered at Authors for Japan (chapter & query critiques, signed books, naming a character, etc). All donations will go to the British Red Cross.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Celebrating our strengths

"Ugh, I hate writing action scenes."

I've heard that from two different writers this past week. And both times I experienced a glowing sense of schadenfreude. I'm good at action scenes.

Okay, I feel a little obnoxious gloating. But on the flip side, I think writers (or at least, the ones I hang out with!) don't celebrate their strengths enough. We complain about how hard writing is, we complain about stilted dialogue, flat characters, action scenes with complicated choreography. But do we post about how we wrote a really swoon-worthy love scene? Or a beautiful description of the waves washing in on the beach?

I guess, especially as unpublished authors, we don't want to sound arrogant. But we should be proud of the things we do well, especially when we work so hard.

So what are you proud of in your writing? What types of scenes are you good at?

For me, I do like action scenes. Or rather, I'm good at dialogue. I can hear it in my head, the rhythm, the speed, the emotion. I love nothing better than two characters screaming at each other. Or big family dinners with several different, competing personalities thrown in the mix.

I also do setting well. Perhaps because I'm such a visual person. My settings correspond to the mood of my story almost without thought. I'm always conscious of where my characters are, so it's easy for me to add in those details and make them important to the story.

What about you?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Perfect questions

When I was in the midst of writing Project Sparkle, my tutor asked me about two adult characters in the book, a husband and wife. While some of my fellow students found the wife funny, my tutor was concerned that she was too mean and nasty, while the husband was too good. "Why did they ever get married?" she asked me. "What do they see in each other?"

At first the point seemed rather nit-picky. All couples grow and change in their relationships. These characters had grown apart. Besides, the story wasn't even about them.

But Julia's question stuck with me. And every time I wrote another scene where one of these characters appeared, I found myself asking, "Why are they still together?"

And because Julia was my teacher, and I wanted a good grade, I dug a bit further. I did some journaling on the characters' backgrounds, how they had changed, why. I discovered, rather surprisingly, that the wife was quite similar in personality to my main character. No wonder they fought with each other so much. I also explored the good aspects of the wife's personality, why her husband first fell in love with her, why he still loved her, and why they were a good match for each other, even though she could be mean and nasty. I realized the wife could go through her own small transformation at the end of the book. It's a scene I love, and several of my beta readers have loved it, too, including Julia.

I think that's one of the things that can make a novel really work: all those little details, minor characters who are made fuller, rounder, given opportunities to shine (in good or bad ways). But that's not what this post is about!

Rather, I've been thinking about the question lately: "What do they see in each other?"

You see, it hasn't been a one-off question. Project Demo also has one parent who is difficult (difficult parents, dead parents, all staples of teen literature). So I started wondering why the couple is still together. Do they gossip about each other? Complain to their kids? Avoid each other? File for divorce? Sure, they're minor characters, but exploring their relationship has helped me to flesh them out, and their stories.

A few other Julia questions have popped up while I've been working on Project Demo. Is this OTT (Over The Top, Julia's abbreviation for scenes that are a too dramatic or cliche)? Is it clear what the character's feeling here?

I like to think I'm building up a toolbox of great questions, and with my toolbox becoming a better self-critic. Do you have any questions you always ask of your writing?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Buying books

Between temporarily living overseas, not working, and being a little obsessive about libraries, I don't buy many books. But whenever I buy gifts for others, or receive gifts, it's usually books. And any extra money I come into is usually spent on more books.

So I was thinking this week about some birthday money I had stashed away and started compiling a list of books I've been hungering after:

Young Samurai: Ring of Water by Chris Bradford (this is the latest in Bradford's series; I reviewed his other Young Samurai books here)

Jazz in Love by Neesha Meminger (both this book, and Meminger's previous book, Shine Coconut Moon, have received excellent reviews)

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (I could easily get this from the library, but I've really loved Waters' previous books, so I think I'd like to own this one. Fingersmith was one of my top ten books of 2010).

Red Glove by Holly Black (the sequel to White Cat, which I reviewed here).

I'm a little torn about Red Glove. I'll need to preorder it. I can get the hardcover cheaper and earlier. But look at the UK paperback's cover! Love!

Have you read anything good lately? What books are you hungering to buy? Anything I should add to my list?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Update on Project Demo: Operation 50/50

When last we blogged about our fated book, Project Demo, we were in the Slough of Despond. So today I anticipated my faithful blog readers might be in need of a writing update with some good cheer.

Lately, I've been working through my second draft. I don't believe I've ever written such a rough rough draft, so I've been following the main plot line through, deleting scenes, rewriting scenes, and adding scenes. I'm giving myself permission to skim over anything I don't fully understand at the moment. If I can finish with a coherent single plot, I'll use my third draft to flesh out characters and subplots.

But it's been a lot of work, and it still has a long way to go. So when Karen, at Musings of a Novelista, blogged at the end of February about Operation 50/50, I knew I had to get on board. Her plan? 50 scenes in 50 days, beginning on the 24th of February, ending on April 15th (apparently she's an accountant's daughter, go figure).

Operation 50/50 has been perfect for me. As 2/3s of my scenes are already written, it's not such a challenge to revise a new scene every day. But that also includes writing new scenes, and planning what's going to happen next (which is still pretty hazy in this rough draft of mine!). But every morning I get up, knowing I need to produce a scene by the end of the day. It's been a great impetus to get on with it. And even though it's just scene by scene, I've been amazed at how quickly Project Demo is growing into a real book.

I'm just under halfway through this draft, and beginning to chug ahead (this past week I did two extra scenes!).

How are all of your projects (writing and otherwise) going?

Friday, March 4, 2011

On being a pantser

The husband and I have been on a puzzle kick lately (currently we're working on a tricky 3d St. Basil's Cathedral). It's a good non-work-related activity, an opportunity to spend time together, and it gives us a nice sense of accomplishment. At least one thing our life is coming together smoothly!

But like any other couple, we can get on each other's nerves, too, and that's because, even when it comes to puzzle building, we have very different ways of working.

Phil will study the puzzle cover, figure out which orientation he's working from (remember, it's 3d). Then, based on the geometry of the section we're working on, he'll figure out what shape pieces he'll need, and search for those specific pieces. In other words, he starts with the big picture and moves inward.

I tend to start with a specific piece. Then I choose other pieces that are the same color, and look for ones that will fit with mine. Only when I get stuck do I look at the box to see how my little bit corresponds with the bigger picture.

In the real world, this results in us fighting over the puzzle box, stealing pieces from each other, and complaining about who got hair on the puzzle.

But later I was thinking about our different ways of working, and how, even though hubby's a scientist, not a writer, it's a classic illustration of the difference between plotters and pantsers.

For those of you who haven't heard those terms before, a plotter is someone who plots out her entire novel before she starts writing. A pantser, on the other hand, tends to fly by the seat of her pants, figuring the plot out intuitively as she writes.

Plotters can be a little dismissive of pantsers. I've often heard a confident plotter (or non-writer), assuming that the most complexly plotted books (mysteries, for example), must have been planned out beforehand, whereas those character-driven, philosophically wandering books must all be written by pantsers.

I wish I could remember which mystery writer (Val McDermid?) admitted to being a complete panster.

Regardless, in working on the puzzle it's occurred to me that no matter what method we use, in a few weeks, Phil and I will have a 3d St. Basil's Cathedral. And I think it's the same with plotters and pantsers. Some of us start with a seed, watch it grow into a tree, add a few more seeds, and end up with a forest. Others start with a forest, arrange it into an appealing shape, then figure out what that means for each tree. Either way, when we're finished we end up with a book. Or a forest. Or a puzzle? I think I lost my metaphor back there somewhere.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Did you choose to write that way, or does it come naturally to you?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

When do you shut the door?

I wrote Project Sparkle in a hothouse of writing. I started brainstorming the idea during a workshop on character creation. I wrote the first three scenes for different class assignments. Every other week last spring, I brought a different chapter in for my classmates to critique.

The constant feedback was both useful and difficult. I believe it gave me the courage to write a very challenging story.

However, I haven't been required to show Project Demo to anyone. I haven't needed to polish any chapters for evaluation. I've shared small pieces of it with my Chicago writing group, and a few more with a critique partner. Recently I did some critique work for a published friend, and she insisted I should let her return the favor. But I'm strangely hesitant to share anymore.

Logically, I don't want any feedback right now because I already know many of Project Demo's flaws, mostly that its plot is still fluid. So at the moment I'm working through my second draft, trying to fix that.

But there's an illogical side to this. Even though my critique partners are wise and encouraging, I fear that any feedback will overwhelm me with everything that needs to be done. Worse, maybe they'll tell me something that makes me question my main character, or doubt my entire premise.

I don't think I've ever been so careful about revealing a piece of work. Am I being smart? Or do I just need to get over myself and bust my door wide open?

When do you shut the door to your writing?

And because I've loved this choral number ever since I first heard it in high school...