AUGUST 26, 2009
DEBORAH CHESTER'S BLOG IS TEMPORARILY SUSPENDED AS SHE WORKS ON CREATING A NEW, MORE INTERACTIVE WEB SITE. PLEASE CHECK ON THE PROGRESS SOON.
JULY 30, 2009
My goal is to finish the rough draft of my novel by the 31st of this month. Am I going to make it? I’m not sure.
I think I’m within a couple of chapters of the finish mark. In terms of page count alone, I could quickly hammer out some kind of finale and say DONE!
Only that’s not how writing a novel works. The conclusion of a book is a tricky structure and should not be rushed if you can avoid it. There’s the obligatory confrontation between protagonist and antagonist to deal with in some poetically satisfying way. There are all the hanging questions to answer. There’s the emotional punch to deliver. There’s all the built-up suspense to satisfy. If the book is part of a series or a trilogy rather than a stand-alone, then there are the hooks to position that will point readers to the next book.
Plot concerns aside, there’s the wretched last line of the book to write. It has to be smooth, polished, simple, well-expressed, and brief. It needs to deliver the emotional tone you want to leave in a reader’s mind.
Endless questions rise up over this final sentence:
Should it be funny? Should it be laugh-out-loud funny or quietly humorous? And if I’m going for humor, will the tone suddenly be too light and flippant after the near-tragic events in the climax?
Should it be sad? Should I strive to make the reader cry? That is rarely what I want to do, but I’ve read fabulous books that achieved a tragic ending that was exactly right. Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen comes to mind. A few years ago, I wrote a science fiction trilogy called The Alien Chronicles, and in the final novel of that trilogy (WARNING: SPOILER!) the plot called for my protagonist to die. I’d never written that kind of death scene before. I’d never before – or since – had my protagonist meet death in a story. Yet it was where the plot had to go.
Should the ending be stirring, pointing to new adventure to come? Ah yes, those bothersome hooks pointing forward to the next installment. Hard to do without leaving the book hanging and readers angry because they feel manipulated into having to buy the next one. Granted, I always very much want readers to buy the next story I’ve written, but I want them to do so because they’re compelled by their curiosity and interest in the plot and characters, and not because they’re tricked or coerced into it.
Ah, that final sentence. Poorly written, and it can be a turn off, perceived by readers to be a casual snap of my fingers at them. Well written, and it can lift readers’ hearts or haunt them for a few hours.
JULY 29, 2009
A few days ago, I came across another writer’s blog http://blog.bookviewcafe.com/2009/07/20/when-life-calms-down/ and thought he expressed very well the problems and interruptions we writers face just in ordinary living. Yesterday, I had my day planned out: finish chapter 14 in the morning; take a lunch break; resume writing in hopes of starting chapter 15 in the afternoon. It was a rainy day so I was thankfully exempt from my usual yard chores and my daily swim. I was looking forward to a quiet, peaceful day at the keyboard, happy in my story world, busy with word choice, scene development, characterization.
All went well until the lunch break, and then the afternoon was shot by a minor domestic crisis that couldn’t be deferred until later. So I spent the afternoon dealing with that. Chapter 15 did not commence. I’m not even entirely sure that chapter 14 is satisfactory as yet. And as I coped with minor-domestic-crisis-that-couldn’t-be-deferred-until-later, I resented the time stolen from my book.
Still, writers or not, if we choose to life with other people or animals, then we must deal with them. They bring us their problems – some small, some large. They interrupt, deliberately or unwittingly. Sometimes those interruptions are infuriating and we swear that when this dog dies (of natural causes, eventually) we’ll never get another one, or we start counting the days until our 12-year-old can leave for college and we’ll be free to get on with our book in peace! At other times, when those interruptions force us to pause the book, in that pause we realize that what we’re writing has taken a wrong turn and should be changed. If we hadn’t stopped, if we hadn’t been interrupted, would we have noticed the problem? Or would we have plowed on, glossing over the error, and then been forced later to fix it and amend a large number of pages in consequence?
Interruptions are never welcome, but I’ve grown to realize that some of them are useful in unexpected ways. I try to hope that each of them will help the book and not simply hinder my flow of words.
JULY 25, 2009
You can’t hear me, but I’m growling in frustration. The book has stalled, and I am stuck in a story event that’s caught me like quicksand. For almost a week I’ve struggled to stick a pair of scenes together, and I might as well be trying to eat soup with a fork for all the progress I’ve made. So what’s wrong? The plot is solid. No problem there. But having a plot outline is far from having the actual scene or chapter written. Compare it to holding a road map in your hand. You see the squiggle between two towns. You know your destination and which turn to make, but you still have to drive the distance and catch the correct exit.
No, plot is not the problem. Diello and his sister are in trouble. Some big, rather tragic events have blown up their lives, and now they’re trying to pick up the pieces. That’s all perfectly straightforward. But the story remains stuck. I have emotional fall-out to write, and I’m making a mess of it.
Well, okay. Emotional reactions are always challenging for me. What do my characters feel about what’s happened? How do I nudge them forward and make it look as though that movement is their idea?
I am a professional, which means I plant my backside in my writing chair and I type words. I wrote a scene – hated it. Wrote it another way – hated it, too. Pushed forward and wrote the subsequent section. Still unhappy. Went back and developed material, expanding the story event to two chapters. Okay, happier now with one chapter. Loathed the next chapter. Hammered out a scene despite everything in determination to push on. Thought it over and decided that in accordance to their personalities Diello should be having his sister’s reactions and vice versa. Artistic fit at this point. (Temper, temper.) Decided to sit out the weekend and try again in a couple of days when feeling more professional and less temperamental. On fresh, new writing day, obedient to plan, flipped the character reactions. Scene still bad.
Finally light dawned. I remembered a rule I developed for myself years ago when I was writing my first few published novels. That rule is as follows: if something doesn’t work after a couple of attempts to revise it, delete it.
I came up with that formula for myself during revision work. If I was trying to smooth out a problematic, awkward sentence and I couldn’t make it work, I’d simply cut it. Same thing for a paragraph, or a page, or a scene, or a chapter.
And of course, like all the best principles of writing, it can be applied in any direction. Why not apply it to plot development?
My scenes weren’t working because I was making the mistake of writing from a checklist of points I felt needed to be mentioned in the plot. I was forcing my characters to stand around and argue about something that worked better as a given. So today, this afternoon, finally I tossed the whole argument.
What a difference! My characters suddenly became intelligent, reasoning beings instead of bratty snots. My imagination kicked itself to life and provided me with an exciting magic show that spiced up the action and was far, far more fun than my having two kids standing around bickering.
Life is good.
JULY 20, 2009
Despite numerous interruptions this summer – adding up to approximately three weeks’ worth of lost time – the book is proceeding well. I’m growing more comfortable with my young characters. You might say we’re getting better acquainted.
My experience has been to set up my characters, especially the primary ones, as best I can in my mind, designing them around whatever parts of the plot I’ve devised to that point and exploring whatever personality traits I’m intrigued by at the time. But once that initial development is done, I never feel truly comfortable with my protagonist until I put him or her into the story action and watch what happens.
How is the character going to react to trouble? What quirks and fears and habits will start to spring forth as the story unfolds? In real life, I believe that in order to know someone well, you have to see that individual under duress or witness how that person copes with problems. Even someone having a really bad day can show you much insight. Same thing goes for my characters. I have to get them in trouble, see how much stress they can withstand, dig at them until I know how they tick. Do they have true grit? Are they weak? Will they fail in the story’s crisis? Or will they grow and find courage they didn’t know they had?
So today, during the writing, Diello – my thirteen-year-old hero – surprised me with an instinctive reaction he exhibited during some tense scene action. Hurray! That tells me that my characters – not to mention the story itself – are coming alive. They are starting to exhibit dimension and depth. Although they are far from perfect or polished yet, they are starting to interest me, and by extension, I hope one day they’ll interest readers.
JULY 9, 2009
The short story that plagued me last week is written, polished, and submitted. Now I get to wait for the editor’s verdict. Thumbs up or thumbs down. Either way, it was a good challenge for me and a chance to stretch the writing muscles a little. It’s never easy using someone else’s characters, and I’ve either hit the right tone with them or I haven’t.
As Inigo Montoya says in the movie THE PRINCESS BRIDE, “I hate waiting.”
And yes I’m being coy about what this project is about. That’s because although I’m a pro I’m also human. I’d rather boast about my successes than moan about my failures.
Until the verdict ….
JULY 5, 2009
More work on the short story. The rough draft is coming along, but this is obviously not going to be an easy one. My past experience with most short stories is that I let that creative steam build up and then I write the first draft in one sitting.
Hah! The muse decided to trick me this time. Or, you might say I’ve been hoist with my own petard.
As I said in my concluding sentence from the previous entry: you can’t build steam from an idea-less mind. How very true. This story has stumbled because I tried to cheat over some of the foundation work every decent piece of fiction requires. But of course you can’t cheat on the muse. She always knows. Sometimes she just steps aside and lets you fall on your face. Sometimes she jabs you – hard – as you go down.
So I’m doing more thinking about my plot today, trying to make it better.
JULY 3, 2009
For many years I kept a yellowing comic strip of Shoe that I’d cut from a newspaper. In it, Shoe was leaning back in his chair, whistling and staring at the sky. Finally someone approached him, and he exploded with temper, shouting, “Can’t you see I’m writing?”
There’s a little anecdote about James Thurber. He would be attending a dinner, not saying a word, and his wife would elbow him at some point and whisper, “Thurber! Stop writing!”
Papa H. advised young writers to not talk about their writing project. He felt that discussing it let off too much steam, but if it remained bottled up sooner or later it would force a writer to put the story on paper.
Now with my short story, I’m not being “artistic” or temperamental or simply lazy. I’m letting the soup in my subconscious simmer. Or, to mix my metaphors with wild abandon, I’m waiting for enough steam to build. I want to write my short story in one session at the keyboard, get one entire draft written before I come up for air. Ray Bradbury advises that, and I think he should know, don’t you? So I’m building steam. I’m shutting off possible distractions before they can get to me. I’m letting the moment come.
That’s not blindly waiting, and passively hoping, that inspiration will fall on me from the sky and award me with a brilliant story. That’s a prepared writer, with a plot and characters actively seething and teeming in her brain, picking the best moment to focus on a story and give it her best shot.
You can’t build steam from an idea-less mind.
JULY 2, 2009
All through June I’ve been trying to figure out the best time to sit down and write a short story. My deadline is rapidly approaching, and I’m starting to get antsy and nervous about the whole thing.
That’s a good sign. It means I’m almost ready to write.
Nonwriters don’t always understand this process. They may observe a writer of their acquaintance and see nothing being done. They watch the writer sit and daydream, perhaps type a few paragraphs and then fall idle for several days. Or maybe the writer is collecting information, calling it research when to the nonwriter it looks like a lot of aimless Googling on the Internet. (Of course those forays into eBay listings are research!)
So nonwriters get huffy or disdainful or worried or fretful. They see the deadline approaching and nothing visible being done about it.
Key phrase: nothing visible.
Writers, however, know the process of creativity. They actively generate an idea, examine it from all sides, research it to make sure it’s viable, thump it to make sure it doesn’t have any holes, let it rest and simmer a while. Some writers make this prep process visible. They type up outlines. They interview people, visit libraries, search the Internet, take pictures, generate notes, and create inspiration boards. Other writers hide the process, not out of paranoia but because they simply do their development in their heads.
JULY 1, 2009
More exciting stuff: I have an article published in this month’s THE WRITER magazine. It’s on an aspect of pacing that we don’t come across too often. Maybe you’ll find it useful in your work.
And if proximity is of any benefit, my article is placed right next to one by Clive Cussler. I met Mr. Cussler several years ago at a conference. He was funny, charming, fascinating, and sometimes outrageous. He chatted about a salvage project where a search was being conducted for a Civil War iron ship that had gone down in the Mississippi River, and how they had no luck locating it in the treacherous undercurrents. Then someone realized that the Mississippi had changed its course since the 1860s, and they located the ship in a farmer’s cotton field.
Imagine underwater salvage as your hobby. Makes my needlework and rose-growing hobbies seem tame and boring by comparison.
JUNE 30, 2009
Exciting things are happening this summer. Got the galley proofs for my Twilight Zone short story, “The Street that Forgot Time.” When I read the table of contents for this anthology and saw the names of the other authors, I felt intensely lucky to be in their company. Here’s a sampling:
Carole Nelson Douglas
Lucia St. Clair Robson
I feel thrilled and honored to be among these talented folks, plus the others I haven’t mentioned. Look for the anthology, coming this September.
JUNE 29, 2009
Unless we shut ourselves away in a hushed, soundproofed room with no window, perfect ambient and task lighting, no phone, no email chime, and a stout lock on the door, chances are we’re going to be interrupted during our writing time.
The key to coping with interruptions is to acknowledge that they will happen to us and to stop as many of them as possible from becoming distractions. So during writing time, deactivate the email chime that lets you know you have incoming messages. Locate your phone outside your office and let voicemail take your calls. Stock up with groceries and take care of necessary errands and bill paying promptly so you don’t have to break away from writing time to deal with these mundane, distracting tasks. Avoid getting caught up in friends’ troubles during a writing project. Maybe by the time you’ve finished your Great American Novel you won’t have those friends anymore, but between writing projects you can always make new ones.
And, yes, sometimes despite our best intentions life happens. So the professional writer deals with it and gets refocused as soon as possible. So easy to preach and so hard to do.
Do I turn off my email chime for incoming messages? Yes. I go one step further and do not even write on a computer that’s online. No viruses coming for my novel, thank you!
Is my phone located outside my office? No.
Do I let voicemail pick up? Yes.
Do I stay stocked with groceries? Whenever possible. I try to run errands between intensive writing sessions where I need a break and can mull over something I’ve just written. I keep a freezer supplied with frozen dinners that are bad for my waistline but helpful at the end of a long, hardworking day of writing when I leave the keyboard too limp to know which end of a skillet to hold.
Do I avoid my friends when I’m writing? Yes & no. I select one day a week that I’ve designated for social activities, and that’s when I schedule lunches or chats. The rest of the week I’m firm about being busy.
Figure out what you need to help you best concentrate on your story and characters, and stick with it.
JUNE 27, 2009
When I’m concentrating on a new manuscript’s opening chapters I don’t want any other distractions.
I once read an interview about the very successful author Barbara Taylor Bradford where she discussed how a writer should avoid distraction at all costs. When I read it years ago, I thought yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m teeming with ideas. I work fast. I multi-task with no problem. Sure, no distractions, okay whatever.
Now I know what she meant, and I believe she’s absolutely right. Distraction is a tremendous enemy, whether it’s a construction crew pounding a new roof onto your neighbor’s house during your writing time, or a phone call just as your scene is coming together, or the knowledge that you’re going to have dinner with friends that evening. Each of those circumstances – or a myriad of others – results in chipping a little off your level of concentration. Sure, any professional knows there are going to be interruptions and can refocus as quickly as possible, but momentum gets lost and has to be regained.
Now the scene flows a little differently than it did before. Your protagonist’s internalization … can’t remember what you intended her to be thinking? What was that precise phrase? Gone? Okay, come up with a substitute and keep going. But it’s not as good, not as good, not as good. The dialogue was really snapping between your villain and his lover and now you can’t get that momentum, that fire, that sharp-edged exchange going again. What was it you intended to write just before that email chime sounded?
JUNE 25, 2009
Blog entries are resuming after a two-month hiatus. I don’t expect anyone’s been pining for my next entry, but if you recall the last sizable gap in my blog happened when I was working on a book proposal.
So here’s the update on that. Marshall Cavendish purchased three books of my proposed YA fantasy series (thanks, MC!), and I’ve been hard at work getting the first manuscript underway. Once I sent in the proposal a few months back, it had to sit until I found a buyer. That’s rough on the writing process because it allows the project to grow very cold. So I’ve been not only trying to get on a firm writing schedule for the summer but also to get reacquainted with my characters and story world.
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