Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Giving thanks today to the Giver of all good things.

"Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning." James 1:17

"And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose." Romans 8:28

This morning I read a blog post from author Jody Hedlund (The Preacher's Bride), about why we (Americans) need to go on a diet.  

"We’ve become overweight with our possessions." With that one sentence she's managed to put succinctly what's been weighing on my heart for years about our culture. Consider this my resounding AMEN, Jody.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Music to inspire

I can't listen to music while I write. Many writers do. I wish I could. I need absolute silence, even to the point of wearing earplugs while I work (at least on the first draft), in a house with no one home but me and the dog, who is asleep 99% of the time. But I do find music inspiring during the hours I'm not writing. Especially in the car. Especially in the car while driving through mountains. Or the glory of autumn foliage.

While writing a novel I like to find a certain CD or maybe a few of them that put me into the story. This will be music that kindles the landscape and time of wherever and whenever my current story is set. That makes me see the characters. That tugs the strings of my heart back through time to some moment in their lives I'm either writing, or have written.

While writing a story set on a North Carolina plantation in 1793 it was a collection of songs called No Man Can Hinder Me, The Journey from Slavery to Emancipation through Song.

While writing a story about a woman coming back to her home in frontier New York, 1784, it was the soundtrack to Last of the Mohicans.

This past year, writing about western North Carolina, 1787, it's been the soundtrack to Ken Burns' Lewis & Clark Documentary. I think Burns' documentaries are some of the best out there, and this one tops my list of all his work. Some of my favorite musicians took part in the making of the soundtrack, notable among them John and Phil Cunningham, of the Silly Wizard Band.

If you haven't yet seen it, or it's been a while, you can watch the first part of the documentary here:

And here is a solo mandolin player's rendition of "Beech Spring," one of the main themes from the Lewis & Clark soundtrack. This takes me right to the over-mountain frontier, 1787. Every time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I have an idea....

It's that time in the cycle of my writing life when I'm nearing the completion of one novel and casting about for potential new story fodder for the next.

Maybe "casting" isn't the best way to describe it. I don't go looking for story ideas. They find me easily enough on their own. Because I often absorb them subconsciously while in the act of play (reading, researching, watching good films), it's often a surprise when story ideas pop up later, seemingly out of nowhere. A mushroom is a great analogy for them. I mulch and water the creative soil with great storytelling in all its forms, and a hefty dose of research from the time period I write about (the 18th century), as well as with settings and scenery that inspire, with Scripture, and with the richness of human nature observed. What I get in return is a crop of interesting ideas.

It's at this point in the writing process, with a first draft done and a major edit nearly half done, that my mind is freed up to pay closer attention to the story ideas that have been coming my way for the past few months. 

Ideas come to me usually in one of two forms. Either a character is paramount, along with something compelling about their personality or desires, and all I know is a sketchy fact or two about his or her external life. Or the kernel of the idea is a situation involving a group of individuals--an inciting incident intriguing enough that I can see a possibility of a story spinning out of it--in which I know little about the characters other than gender, age, and type, or the path they will take beyond the choices they make in that moment in time. Whether character-based or situation-based, not every idea that comes along has the complexity or substance behind it to expand into a novel-sized story.

How can I tell the difference? While I'm writing a first draft I'll start a file for each idea that pops up to make sure I don't forget it (though if I did, it wasn't an idea I'd have expanded into a novel anyway). And then I'll let it rest while I go on writing or editing the current work. Maybe I'll get a few more flashes of ideas that seem to be related to one of those initial story kernels I filed away, and I'll open the file and add them.

It's like having several pots of stew simmering on the stove, now and then lifting the lid to add some ingredient to one, something else to another. Eventually, the nearer I come to finishing the work in progress (the one on the front burner), one of those pots on the back burners will start to boil up and demand attention. When the front burner is clear I'll bring it forward and spend time experimenting with plot ideas, asking countless "what if" questions, prodding the characters to find what makes them tick and if I care about them and their conflicts enough to spend at least a year with them. Either the passion will take hold and I'll dive into the necessary research and the storytelling, or it won't and I'll slide them onto the back burner again and open another file. Or pot.

So what's cooking on the back burner now? Two possibilities. Both take place during the Revolutionary War, a slightly earlier time period than I've yet written. One is set in the southern colonies, one in the north. Both would require a lot of new research. I don't know yet which I'll pick. Or if I'll finally be able to write the story I want more than anything to write, a sequel to two finished novels, set in the late 1790s. I've decided not to push that one beyond the proposal stage until and unless both of the other books find a home.

But it's hard to keep from lifting that lid, just to take a taste. I won't write the story. I won't. But I could add a little salt there in the first scene, and some carrots conflict to spice up chapter three....
~flickr photo by farleyj 

Monday, November 07, 2011

Posting at Colonial Quills Today

Come visit me at Colonial Quills for more about the frontier stories of William O. Steele, one of my favorite authors, newly discovered.Be sure and check the comment section for updates on more of his stories I've read since that post was written. I continue to be entertained, instructed, and impressed with Steele's stories for children.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A new (to me) trick for line editing

I'm deep into the first major edit of my WIP. This is meant to be a macro edit, where I make sure I've developed my characters well, given them strong goals and believable and conflicting motivations. I'm making sure I've used my settings to full advantage, that they aren't stagnant or repetitive or lackluster. I'm adding in a few chapters of a third point of view character. I'm paying attention to things like pacing, tension, and character arcs.

But I've learned over the years that no matter what my focus is on any given editing pass, I can't pass up the opportunity to line edit along the way. There's something hardwired into my brain that won't let me read over a clunky sentence without rewriting it, or delete a redundant phrase, or snip off an unnecessary dialogue tag or bit of stage business creating a hiccup in the rhythm of the prose, or beef up a weak, lackluster word or phrase that could be made vivid and precise. And I've found a new way in which to smooth out these rough patches. New to me, at least.

Several months back I upgraded my computer. Along with it came a new version of Word (2010), the program I use for writing. Most likely this little trick I've just "discovered" was available in some of Word's former incarnations, but being the non computer savvy person that I am, I never noticed it until I began to muddle my way around this strikingly new Word layout (grumbling through the first week of it, let me tell you).

It's the nifty little option down at the bottom right of the screen (when you have a document open) called Full Screen Reading. When you click on it, your document is displayed very much as it would look as a published book, with two pages side by side on the screen. When I clicked on this the first time, something magic happened. Loads of awkward prose sprang out at me as if it had been highlighted--this, after having read that very page in hard copy, then on the screen as I typed in all my changes, then again out loud to catch the rough spots I still missed after all that editing.

This Full Screen Reading feature might not have made a difference but for one crucial change it makes in the document. It changes the layout of the page, making it slightly narrower than it appears in the standard 1 inch margin document in which I normally work. The lines are shorter, the paragraphs longer. Perhaps I'm more visually oriented than most, but this makes a huge difference for me, seeing these by now familiar words arranged differently on the page. I really SEE them. It's even better than changing the font style or size for catching those rough edges that still need smoothing over even after so many passes.

So, there you have it. Full Screen Reading. One more weapon I've added to my editing arsenal.

Writers, do you already use Full Screen Reading for line by line editing? Have you found it helpful too?