Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Apples to Oranges

Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving holiday (those in the USA). Mine included an unexpected blessing, getting to indulge in a few hours of great conversation with two new acquaintances, a screen writer and a photographer/filmmaker (the latter who happened to have a bit of footage on his phone he shot on the set of Chuck, one of my favorite shows), both of whom I met at dinner on Thanksgiving.

But now I'm back to work, editing The Quiet in the Land. On a break this morning, surfing my usual blog haunts, I came across a reassuring and, for me, timely post from agent Rachelle Gardner cautioning writers to refrain from comparing themselves to other writers, particularly in their writing process. I expect this wisdom holds true no matter what creative sort you happen to be.

"Some people write a novel a year. Others need two years to get out a good novel. Still others write two (or even three) novels a year. Wherever you happen to be on that spectrum—it’s okay. It’s who you are. Don’t let anyone try to talk you into being something different." ~ Rachelle Gardner

Visit Rachelle's blog to read the entire post. If you've ever struggled with how fast others write while you feel like you're plodding along at a turtle pace (like me!) or if you've ever wished your process was more like another writer's, head on over and be encouraged.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Quiet in the Land

"Lately I've been the quiet one." Or so begins one of the songs on Illuminations, the new CD from Josh Groban that's getting a lot of play time in my house just now. And I have been quiet, especially here on this blog. Maybe it's the season I'm in, a sort of waiting with breath held season, while my projects are shopped around and I wait for news, and I fit in editing of Willa and Neil and Joseph's story around the increased activity and demands that attend the holiday season.

But this morning it's snowing here, coming down in the graying dawn in big slow flakes to coat the street, the lawn, the hedges, and the footprints of my husband and dog, who have already gone out into it for a walk around the neighborhood. I had plans for this morning that included an early trip to the grocery store, before it gets too hectic and crowded, to pick up a few last minute items for our Thanksgiving, which will be celebrated up in the mountains with friends this year.

I'm snowed in for the moment, since I don't have a car that handles snowy roads well. And I've decided to be okay with it. In fact, I've decided to be thankful for it. There's something about snow falling that I still find magical, almost as much as I did as a child. So I'm headed to the window now to watch it for a while, and sip my morning cider. And wherever you are, I hope there's something magical about the season that touches and blesses your soul too.

There's a lot to be thankful for.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


A quick post to redirect you over to Novel Journey, where author J. Mark Bertrand has a post today on capturing a sense of place in writing fiction. Good, solid craft advice here. Don't miss it!


Coming back to add an encouraging post to all artists from Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My confession

I'm a failure at simply reading through my manuscript without changing a single word. Complete and utter failure.

That's my confession.

With that off my chest, I will say I haven't let myself do such a thorough line editing that it's slowing me down. I divided the number of chapters I need to read per day to finish this read through by the end of the day Friday, and so far I've read the allotted. I can at least claim that much mental discipline.

And I'm of the opinion that if some bit of writing or editing technique is simply going against the grain and making one miserable, or just not working no matter how hard one tries, throw it to the wind and run onward.

I tried reading without editing even the clunkiest of sentences, but it's like submitting my fingernails to bamboo splint torture.

Okay. Not that bad. But bad enough.

Despite my best intentions, to the wind the notion of a pure read-through goes, and I am free.

Friday, November 12, 2010

In The Beginning

How is a novel born? What's the first step? Get ten writers in a room and probably each will have a slightly different answer to that question. Since I'm in the very early stages of story-weaving Jesse, working title for my up-next novel, here's my answer:

It all begins with character. I'll be going along with life, writing most days, reading a lot (fiction as well as historical research), heading out to church once or twice a week, hiking on the weekend... when across the stage of my mind will come a flash of a character doing something. I might not know his (or her) name, or anything about them save what I can see in this flash.

In the case of Jesse, I saw him running out of deep forest into a small mountain clearing at night, where a fire burns, either chasing someone, or being chased by someone. He didn't burst onto the scene with a name or back story or love interest or motivation or goal (these early glimpses of character almost always adhere to the "show, don't tell" axiom). I was given this vivid glimpse, a sense of personality and that something is desperately important to this young man.

I don't know where these initial glimpses come from. Most likely they're born of a combination of the books I read, photos I see, movies and television I watch, and historical research along the way for other stories. But when such a vivid image as I just described visits me, I'll linger over it, and usually in very short order (minutes or even seconds) something about the character's situation will attach itself to the image. In this case, I noticed his clothing was fringed buckskin--he's a frontiersman. His surroundings felt mountainous, densely forested, and for some reason southern. He's in Kentucky then, or maybe Tennessee, or if it's early enough in the 18th century then western North Carolina or Virginia.

At this point I begin a file, named for the character if he happens to come with one. If not a name, then a word that evokes that glimpse I had. In this file I describe what I saw. Often as I begin this brief description, more details come. A story situation, maybe a little bit of back story, some physical attributes, another character or two I see connected to this main character. I type furiously, getting it all safely out of my head and into written form. This seems needful in order to make room for more. If I write it, more will come.

I usually don't have to do much at this point, as far as conscious brainstorming, for the questions I have about the character to be answered. More supporting characters start popping up. The setting starts to sharpen in focus. I find myself looking at maps for likely settlements or villages or towns (or frontier forts, in this case), or research books with historic timelines of the late 18th century for a likely year, or span of years to place this character and his story.

Somewhere in this process his love interest will show up, and the same waiting/forming process will begin with her and the people and places she's connected to. And the antagonist... I start to think about who he, or they, might be, and what goal he could have that would stand in opposition to Jesse's.

Then comes a fun part. Scenes. They come in a flood, in bits and pieces, in swift silent montages or in clear exchanges of dialogue. I might see the scene where hero and heroine meet, or perhaps a scene between them later in the book after they've been together for a while. These early scenes are vivid, and hit with such impact that I don't question them. I'll refine them later, but for the most part these kernels remain intact all the way from this early stage to the finished first draft.

All the while I'm running to my file as often as possible to get these scenes and snippets into words. I'm looking for photos of people who resemble the characters, if any can be found. I'm writing detailed back story for the main characters and many of the secondary ones, as I've blogged about here.

Mostly I'm doing a lot of daydreaming, following mental trails marked "what if." Some turn out to be dead ends, and I retrace my steps. Many of them lead to more trails, and eventually to the the next step in my process, plotting out the external and internal story arc for the main characters, grappling with spiritual arcs, and the moral premise (what, in essence, the story is about). But that's no longer the beginning of the process.

And since that's the point where I'm going to leave Jesse until I'm finished editing The Quiet in the Land, that's where I'll leave this blog post.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Few of my Favorite Things (that I'm looking forward to)

Thought I would share a few things I'm looking forward to in the coming days, weeks, and months.

On the writing front, I'm looking forward to printing The Quiet in the Land in hard copy and reading it for the first time ever, straight through. I'll print it on Sunday and start reading Monday the 15th, hoping to catch any macro edit issues I'll need to address in the coming weeks.

I'm also looking forward to a trip this weekend to the Oregon Caves, with my husband and some of his Boy Scouts. I've lived here nearly 18 years, have stayed overnight at the rustic inn there, hiked in the mountains surrounding them, but have never actually been inside the caves.

A few more things I'm looking forward to:

Josh Groban's new album, Illuminations, releases November 15. Four of the songs have already released on his website. My favorite of the four is Higher Window. Scroll down to the "soundcloud" to listen to them all.

Tangled, in theaters November 24. This one stars (voice of) Zachary Levi, one of my favorite actors, and model for my character, Neil MacGregor, in TQITL. He's going to sing!

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in theaters December 10. The effects on this one look incredible!

Last but not least, Laura Frantz's next Kentucky frontier novel, The Colonel's Lady, releasing summer 2011.

Laura gave me permission to share her gorgeous cover here. Visit her blog to read more. Having been blessed to read this book in its early stages, I'm so pleased with how Revell designed the cover.

What are you looking forward to? Music? Movies? Trips? Books? Share them in the comments!

Friday, November 05, 2010

In Medias Res

My brother called on my birthday and during the conversation asked me what was my favorite part of writing a novel. That's hard to pin down, because when something goes perfectly right at any stage of the process, then of course that's my favorite part. But one thing I do find intensely enjoyable is writing the back story for each of my main characters before ever a word of the story is written.

I'm working on that today for Jesse Spencer (I think he's a Spencer; names are turning out to be quite fluid in this story, with characters going back and forth across the white/Native line and gaining a new name just about every time they do, and for other reasons I'm going to keep off the record).

Jesse's history is taking me back to his birth and even a generation or two beyond that--all the way to the 1730s and the Scots-Irish migration to the Virginia and North Carolina back country. There are several crucial events back there that will have an affect on the plot in the present story (which is probably going to be set in 1787-88).

Writing a detailed narrative back story for a character is important to me, no matter how little of it ends up in the novel. I want my characters to feel like people who've had complex and interesting lives and been busy living them long before Chapter One opens a window into their world. I want to give the sense of dropping a reader down in medias res at a particularly crucial turning point in my character's life, one that's going to change directions for him or her, offer a new and enticing goal, or present some serious obstacle to overcome (preferably all of the above), but also one that flows naturally out of the choices they've made leading up to that point.

In other words, they aren't born into existence on page one of the story. Careful back story construction helps give my characters the sense of being fully formed human beings, with all the layers and depths a person gains through life--where they've been, the legacy they've inherited from parents and grandparents (material and emotional), what they've done, the choices they've made or had made for them.

So I'm off to write all those things about Jesse, and I'm sure he'll surprise me along the way. That's another thing I love about writing that's connected to this detailed back story weaving process. By taking the time to do this, I'm learning more about my characters than even I'm aware of, so that on the day I'm writing a scene and they say or do something I hadn't expected, still I'll sense when it's in character, or if it seems out of character why they've made the choice; I've taken the time to know them inside and out and if I look hard enough at their past, I'll be able to explain what motivated even the most surprising of actions.

in medias res, (Latin: “in the midst of things”) in narrative technique, the recommended practice of beginning an epic or other fictional form by plunging into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

On Editing

While I'm trimming ivy and brainstorming ideas for my next novel (working titled: Jesse), and reading an eye-crossing (but interesting) research book about the early history of western North Carolina/eastern Tennessee, I'm keeping thoughts of editing the first draft of The Quiet in the Land stewing on the back burner.

I'll start a macro edit in a week or so; that's an edit where plot and story and character arc issues are addressed. This is not my strong suit, so prayers on the subject ascend from my house every morning these days. Toward the goal of making this edit as successful and productive as possible, aside from praying and gathering my writing craft books on the subject* ready for quick reference and refreshing, I've also signed up for the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) November Novel Editing email loop, in which author Camy Tang will be presenting editing tips. Via email, participants can ask questions, offer advice, or discuss various editing related issues. If this sounds like something you could use right now, it's not too late to sign up. It started November 1st, but you need to be a member of ACFW to participate. If this month doesn't work for you, there'll be other Novel Editing loops throughout the year.

More thoughts on editing. Several weeks ago over at one of my favorite places to hang out, The Books & Writers Community, author Beth Shope posted a reply in a discussion on editing. Her advice on how to look at the sometimes daunting process is so full of inspiration, insight, and encouragement, I got her permission to reprint it here (thanks, Beth!)

Don't call it editing. Don't even think of it as editing. Call it writing. Call it creation. Because that's really what it is. The initial sentence, scene, draft you put down on the page represent only the first step. What you do with the words once they're there is not mere "editing"; it's the bulk of the creative process. 

Think of it as sculpting. You've got this ugly block of marble sitting there, roughed out into a vague shape you fondly think of as "story." The critic is telling you it's hopeless, that Michelangelo never produced anything that looked like that. Which is, of course, a laughable lie, because even Michelangelo had to start with the raw material and besides, the misshapen stone is not finished. It's very important to recognize that. You're only just getting started. You stomp on the critic like the cockroach she is, and proceed to carve and shape that marble into a thing of unique beauty. What emerges from the stone may even surprise you.

Editing and revision are where the real art happen. The sentence that you write only once and never revise because it came out right the first time is serendipity. A gift. It represents one the those moments when you were deeply connected to your subconscious and to the story. But either way, it's an exception and a rarity. 

So when you're looking at a first draft and the critic is telling you it sucks, you should be rubbing your hands together and chortling madly with anticipation, because the critic is an idiot who doesn't know the first thing about writing, and you're about to prove that. And the more often you prove the critic wrong, the less power she'll have over you.


*Books I'll be referring to include Self Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Brown and Dave King, The Fire in Fiction, by Donald Maass, and Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell