Thursday, March 31, 2011

Life Imitating Art

There are stories everywhere.

That's the most obvious thing in the world to a writer, right? But until the maniacal urge to write fiction hit me, I managed to wander through most days without examining every person I met or everything I saw for a story or book idea. Now, though, it's like they're in the air, floating around at all times, waiting to be noticed.

I've learned through years of feature writing that everybody has a story. Some are more fascinating than others, but with any person, if you dig deep enough or happen to hit the right nerve, the story will come pouring out. With fiction, though, I get to make the story up - a fascinating concept in and of itself for a journalist (someone who's used to substantiating or attributing every single fact). And the newest part of this phenomenon for me has been creating stories in my head around people I meet in real life.

Seeing someone in the grocery store and wondering, "What's his story?" Then walking around tossing items in my cart and working it out in my head. "He's the type of guy who lives _____, drives _____, probably does/doesn't/doesn't want to have kids, cheats/doesn't cheat on his wife, only eats meat, doesn't eat meat, yada, yada, yada."


I'm probably completely wrong, but that's the beauty of it - it doesn't matter. That person gave an impression, instigated an idea, and that idea was the launch pad for a good story. And some of those stories stick. They're the ones I jot down in my journal for future use. Others get fleeting play in my head, then forgotten. Or lost in translation ... sometimes an idea that seems amazing in the moment loses its impact on the page. And sometimes it's the littlest things that trigger an idea - not a person or a situation, but a phrase that jumps out at me, a song. I have a few random book titles scribbled in my journal, no plotlines attached, just titles.

For future use.

I often wonder, now that this writing bug has stung me, how it stings other people. Did you always know you wanted to write? Is it something you decided, like, as a career choice? Did you have an idea first and chew on it for a while before you started putting words on the page? Or did you sit and stare at a screen and brainstorm ideas for the Next Great Novel? Is it people who inspire you? Situations? What-if questions?

This topic is kind of a dangerous one, right? I've read lots of blog posts and tweets from writers complaining about the fact that their neighbors/friends/relatives fear they might someday, somehow turn up as a character in a book. So is it true? Is anyone with the fortune or misfortune of living with or around a writer at risk of being fictionalized and put on public display? Of. Course. Not.

And yeah, maybe. Not that they'd ever know it.

The truth of the matter is, real life is strange, but fiction is stranger. And making stuff up is way more fun than telling the truth.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Rules

There are SO MANY of them.

Avoid adverbs. Vary sentence length and structure. Don't attribute quotes with verbs other than "said." Don't shift point of view. Don't open with the weather. Show, don't tell. Tell some, but show more. Don't tell and show in the same scene. Don't use omnicient perspective. Don't use omnicient perspective unless you're really good at it. Don't use repetition. Don't use repetition unless you're doing it for emphasis. (See what I did there?) Set the scene. Avoid superfluous details. Make every word count. Don't use flashbacks. Don't use flashbacks unless you're really good at it.

Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrggggggghhhhh!!!

Are you kidding me? There's so much advice out there, it's impossible to figure out who to listen to and what to believe. Sure, a lot of it's good advice. Sure, a lot of the widely accepted "rules" make for great writing. But then there's the rule that trumps them all: Rules are made to be broken.

I haven't had a lot of time for writing and revising lately. But I have managed to fit in a lot of reading, which, in my opinion, is an important part of the writing, revising and learning process. And if there's one lesson I've learned more than any other while studying the work of a wide variety of writers and genres, it's that if a rule has been recorded, there's a (best-selling, prize-winning, critically acclaimed) writer who's broken it.

That said, I do hold to the theory that to break the rules - successfully, at least - you have to know the rules. As an example, I offer my art analogy. How many times have you heard this complaint about an abstract painting: "My dog/3-year-old/grandmother could have painted that?" My answer - at least for work that wasn't created by a dog/3-year-old/grandmother - is this: That artist probably could have painted a recognizable landscape or a detailed still-life or even a realistic portrait, but that wasn't how he chose to express himself. If he's getting paid to paint (and I realize this can't be true in all cases, but run with me here), he probably knows "the rules" of painting. The elements of design. Color theory. The effects of light and shadow, the importance of form and technique. Maybe he hasn't studied them in a classroom, but he knows them.

On that note, I'll give you another theory - one I believe applies to all forms of art, whether it involves painting with watercolors, chords or words. To some extent, the process is instinctual. If you're an artist, you should know the rules. But just because you know the rules, that doesn't make you an artist. Or a writer. Sure, practice makes ... improved. But somewhere, somehow, to find success as a writer, you just have to have it in you.

And I think that's what allows all these writers I've been reading to break the rules. Because they just know when something works and when it doesn't.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Big Picture

I really need to read my book.

I've been hit or miss with revisions lately, which means that each time I go back to it, it's a struggle not to go back and read parts I've already worked, to edit and edit and edit scenes I've already picked apart. But I just realized, while working on it, that it's been a loooong time since I've read the whole thing from start to finish. I've been revising now for almost a year - longer than I spent writing the first draft. I'm sure I've read the whole thing in its entirety in that time ... or haven't I?

It's been so long I don't remember.

That's a little scary. I know the story so well that I'm fairly sure the individual parts still fit together as a cohesive whole, but I think now - now that I'm close to having produced a critque-ready draft - I'd better stop, take a breath and be sure. Take a look at the big picture. Kill a tree, unfortunately.

(That's not just me, right? Do other writers find there's a great difference between reading your work onscreen and reading it on-page? I know in this age of the Kindle a lot of reading is done onscreen, but when it comes to my own work, I see it differently on paper. Little things I didn't notice with the cursor blinking somehow jump off the printed page. Plus, I don't get distracted as easily. Word changes I'd be quick to make on-screen I'm forced to read past, live with ... if I sit down with a stack of pages and get comfortable, I've got to really want that edit to bother reaching for a pen.)

Anyway, I know this seems counterintuitive. I've had little time to edit lately, so on one hand, it seems silly to interrupt those precious few hours by rereading what I've already done. On the other hand, though, seeing how far I've come might be just what I need to motivate myself to finish.

Friday, March 4, 2011

What Not to Do

Gee-eesh. February was a busy month. And by that, I mean it wasn't.

At least not from a fiction writing standpoint.

No, I'm sad to admit, I have not been following my own advice. I haven't been fitting time into my daily schedule to revise my manuscript. I haven't been fitting in time to blog. I haven't been fitting in time to organize my notes or think about my characters or create a plan of attack for all of the above.

And I certainly haven't met my self-imposed deadline for revisions.

In my defense, what's happened in the past month has been fairly unexpected. I didn't realize, when I made the switch from full-time interior design to full-time freelance writing, that I'd be flooded with work. (If I had, I might have done this quite some time ago. And trust me, I'm not complaining about it. A writer's gotta eat.)

But now that it's happened, I do need to figure out a way to juggle it all in a way that doesn't push out my time to revise. My time to blog. My time to contemplate my characters and hear their conversations and live inside their heads. It was a lot easier, I must say, to live and breathe writing in my spare time when I wasn't living and breathing writing in my work time. During the months that I spent churning out a 100,000-plus word draft, I got plenty of reprieve from the computer screen during my 9-to-5's at the design firm.

Of course, the only time I had to churn those words out was late, late, laaaaate at night. So it's all a give-and-take, really. I have more flexibility in my schedule now, but not as much variety. So when to write fiction? When to revise? I've found that I can't stare at the computer screen for hours each night when I've already stared at it for hours each day. I have, have, have to push fiction up on my priority list.

Because really, the whole reason I've chosen writing as a full-time gig is because I love it so much. And I've learned in the past two years that fiction is what I love most. It's kind of like giving all your best time to co-workers and strangers, then coming home at night and being bitchy to your spouse and kids. I'm giving my best hours to my less interesting, less passion-filled paid writing work and being bitchy to my WIP.

And I love my WIP. So all that said, here's my best go at a list of what NOT to do while working to become a published author, gleaned from my own hard-fought experience:
  • Don't expect the process to be quick or easy.
  • Don't set unrealistic expectations, goals, or in my case, deadlines.
  • Don't forget that real life comes first, fiction second. In other words:
  • Don't try to wait for that "perfect moment" to write, because it never comes.
  • Don't get discouraged. Even when you go two weeks without opening your WIP or posting to your blog, all isn't lost. Pick yourself up, figure out what needs to change and plunge ahead.

And that's what I'm doing. I'm back in the manuscript tonight, and it feels great. Like coming home after a long, exhausting business trip. This blog is about the whole of my writing process - the highs, the lows, the triumphs and the setbacks. I've had a good run lately with non-fiction, a disappointing stretch with fiction. So what? That just means I'm due for a good stretch of revisions.

I'm itching for it. Aching for it. Loving that I'm back. And I am back, baby.

Photo credit Abulic Monkey