Thursday, December 31, 2009

The astounding truth of Twilight

A friend sent this to me today:

And be warned, I see no literary merit in Twilight and agree 100% with this 'sketch.'

But it does remind me of one pivotal truth... As authors, we all send our characters on the same classic mythic journeys. Characters must change and grow and push boundaries. No one has a truly new concept.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

On Refrigerators

If you read that title twice, you're not losing your mind.

It clearly states: On Refrigerators

What do refrigerators have to do with writing?

I was almost late to work today because I was picking out a refrigerator for the home of one of my characters. Really. Google was working overtime.

When I needed a refrigerator, I went to my local family-owned appliance store (Shaffers, in this case in 2002, I believe, they're closed now. The former owner is working for another family-owned appliance store) and picked a nice, middle of the line Maytag. A Performa. I also got the matching washer and dryer, oversized capacity. (Smartest move I ever made. Laundry piles to the ceiling do NOT intimidate me. Floods do NOT scare me.)

But... When Étienne needs a refrigerator... Well, it needs to work well, really well. It needs to look good, no, fabulous! It's for his American house, not his European one, so it will be bigger than those and that might freak him out. (Who would think we Americans make our refrigerators as big as we make everything else...)

As a man very adept in the kitchen, would he want one of those fridges with the clear door? As a wine collector, would he want some of his vintages on hand? Would he use a water dispenser? He has a very sensitive nose, and he might have the same problem I have with water/ice dispensers-- I can taste the "staleness" of the freezer in those dispensers... I also can't stand "old" ice. Only fresh ice for me.

Side by side? Freezer on the bottom? I wish the house was newer than it is because then I'd have him get one of those fridge's with TWO freezer drawers on the bottom.

Stainless steel? Blended with the cabinets with wood front? Black?

Bosch? Sub-Zero? GE? Electrolux? Maytag?

Is this character development? Or wasting time? Depends on the scene I guess... And since this house, and this refrigerator, enters several scenes in two novels, perhaps the selection is important. Off the top of my head:
  • Adelaide gets a bottle of Perrier out of the refrigerator in chapter one of book one.
  • Adelaide retrieves dessert from the fridge in the middle of the first book, while preparing dessert for her date.
  • Étienne gets ice/frozen peas out of the freezer for his fresh black eye in the second chapter of book two.
  • No doubt Jules (the chef) will be using this sucker at some point.
  • The initial return in book two to the New York office did list the contents of the refrigerator, which would be very basic and maybe even a dorm fridge. That fridge epitomizes the unhealthy attitude toward food and weight in the fashion industry.
  • The fridge may serve as a good compare/contrast between Étienne and his wife. Basilie has a New York apartment, where she picked the fridge and I bet it's no where near as fancy as the one in this house.
  • The fridge in the Pennsylvania house that I am researching right now becomes a source of cultural irony. If Étienne buys this big, fancy, expensive, and American-style refrigerator, and continues to shop in his French style, procuring fresh ingredients almost daily, then this big monster will usually be empty.
And I am no closer to selecting a fridge...

I have spent an additional hour or so researching this refrigerator and I have decided upon a Sub Zero 632. It is a stainless steel, side by side refrigerator. Boring but efficient. I would prefer the one in the photo way up top... That's a $12,000 refrigerator that debuted it 2005, and the renovations took place in this property in 2001/2002.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


I attended a writing related gathering tonight, spearheaded by Ellen Roberts of Where Books Begin/Woodley Books. We all gathered at her home last December in these final days of the years to chronicle our writing goals for 2009. Now, close to 2010, we met to review our goals and see how we did.

Mine was to get my web site up. I think I had other goals too, and perhaps in the interest of time she didn't read them all, or maybe she wanted to stick to the one she knew I 'achieved.' I say that in quotes because I'm not content with where that project has gone. I have registered the domain, and we made a site, that was exactly what I asked for but I didn't like it.

But the important thing is what we set as our goals for next year.

I encourage you all to take a moment and write down some goals for yourself, all things you think you can achieve in 2010. It helps give focus. And post them somewhere you can see them.

  1. Continue networking, looking for people that will help me get where I want to be with agents/editors. (I'm a big believer in querying people you know versus blindly mailing them.)
  2. Finish revisions to book two, maybe revise book three. But I cannot skip the revisions to book two and move straight to book three. MUST FIX TWO FIRST.
  3. Promote myself for my creative activities over my practical ones.
  4. Beef up the bad guys.
How about you? What are your goals? Goals keep us focused and motivated. Even when we fail to meet our goals, we learn something...

Monday, December 28, 2009

Swirling brain

My brain swirls, or perhaps ripples like the water on a still pond. As each thought breaks the surface, it extends outward...

I have wanted to write for days, but fatigue and holiday obligations have prevented this. And now, with the opportunity finally presenting itself... I can't focus. I couldn't even settle on a topic for my blog, so I'm going stream of consciousness. Lucky you.

I seem to dwell on what could be termed the epilogue of book three of my series... And wanting to research Post Traumatic Stress Disorder... doesn't that make you wonder what I'm planning for my poor characters, or at least for one of them. Several die, one becomes a victim, and an unlikely hero emerges.

Part of me wants to spend some time with the bad guy from books one and two, because I'm sensing the shallowness in him. Other people have told me they didn't get into him enough, and I see him as distant from the world. But I fear this contemplation, because "fixing" him and allowing myself to see more of the greater world from his perspective will, no doubt, change the first book as well. And this is the one I am marketing.

Well, or I was. I fell down on the job lately. I have no queries out right now.

I was really getting into the revisions for book two, and had finished more or less the first third when I determined it still wasn't working. So I tried a new chapter one, as I mentioned a few weeks ago. I think I might be on the right track with this one. So...

I suppose what I have to do is reread my revised chapter one and evaluate it and see how far I got with the latest chapter two.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

On Character Development

My husband and I are both reading books right now. Doesn't seem like a big, important thing but for us it is. Since I'm working on a second bachelor's degree most of my free time is occupied by homework. My husband isn't a big reader, and most of his free moments are spent reading Dr. Suess.

My husband is reading Eragon. He reports that after a slow start, he finally liked a "cool character" and then that "cool character died, bringing in more cool characters."

I'm reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Like his assessment of Eragon, I thought it started slow but with such an usual opening I was compelled to keep reading. Somewhere between the first quarter and the end of the first half, it became captivating.

What first attracted me was the mystery of the pressed flowers, but what kept me turning pages was the character development of Lisbeth Salader. Early on you realize she's massively intelligent, but then in the middle, the reader discovers she's been named incompetent by the state, suspected of being retarded, and has a state-appointed guardian controlling her money despite the fact that she's 24.

The novel has several (at least three) subplots converging, slowly but steadily. The reader has no choice but to surrender in awe to the natural behavior of the characters, which unlike the Jacqueline Susann novel I read last week, unfolds as it would to real people.

Meanwhile David Sedaris has disappointed me. I have found myself knee-deep in his short stories about growing up gay in a dysfunctional family and I'm bored.

This leads me to several questions about characters and plots, for examination in my own work:
  • Does the character develop with enough twists and depth that he/she becomes a real person, complex and well-rounded?
  • Does the text foreshadow this depth?
  • Why should a reader care about this character?
  • Is any character in the story a two-dimensional "stock" character?
This leads me to ponder my "bad guy" more... never a bad thing, but potentially dangerous to my existing novel I'm trying to market.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

On Books and Funks

A good book always provides an escape, doesn't it? Especially for those who write them as well as read them. It's amazing how a story can help us avoid cleaning the toilet, occupy us on a rainy day, and help us overcome boredom or the everyday.

And then there's that sensation of the world halting when we're reading a good book. That no matter what happens around us our desires and our cares are in that book. Until it's done. And we devote ourselves to it until it's done.

Our writing operates in a similar fashion. It offers escape that often borders on obsessive. We also give our angst and our joys a home in our writing.

So what happens when the emotional down funk halts our writing? For me, a reading binge can be energizing or it can be a form of avoiding writing. But sometimes, like today, the writing feels insurmountable because my emotions feel like they cannot be overcome. On typical days like this I give the torment to my characters and let them work it out for me. But the occasional day comes where I cannot lift my fingers to share my pain.

And I wallow.

I read until I'm sick of the words. I nap. I stare at my iPod, and rebuke it. I do the same with a bottle of wine knowing that will intensify my pain.

Eventually, my husband will probably drag me to some plebeian place like Wegmans or the mall. Dear God I hope not... not on the day after Christmas. But I feel like some of my Christmas presents: big and bulky (like the clothes that don't fit) and oddly half-functional (like the coffee pot I received without any coffee).

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Personal tales

As a little girl, I used to spend a great deal of time at my neighbor's house. I probably told her everything, probably in more detail than a should have.

But she laughed at my stories. I have always liked telling stories and making people laugh, or feel, feel anything.

This came back to me last night, when I told a friend the very personal tale of what happened when I brought my Jacqueline Susann novel to the gynecologist's office. I also realized too many of my recent tales have involved work and the people I work with. I have the traditional child stories, too. But it's been a long time since I had a fun personal story to tell.

Here's an excerpt:
"I walk into the office today, and strangely, I can't find any magazines other than Highlights. And I read enough Highlights at home. I brought a book, but I feel weird getting it out, because it's Jacqueline Susann's Once is Not Enough. Bad literary choice. I should have brought The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or even David Sedaris. But I didn't.

I open the book carefully, on my lap so no one can read the cover. Normally, I wouldn't hide it, but who brings SMUT to the OB/GYN's office? And I open it to the chapter where Linda is telling January what she needs to do to get a man aroused, and then January goes for a vitamin shot that makes her horny.

They call my name. "

Which also reminds me. Since we're in between semesters, I took some books out of both libraries-- public and college. I'm currently working on:
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
  • Naked by David Sedaris
  • Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Sedaris
  • The French translation of Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris
  • Once is Not Enough
  • some novel with Cézanne in the title
  • A history of the bra in America
  • A fashion reader (okay, two fashion readers)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dark Secrets

I've been working recently on a new secret for Étienne. It's not exactly "new" and it's not exactly "secret" but it deepens the emotional reaction he has to a friend's suicide at the end of the first book in my series.

Everyone in my fiction universe knows that Étienne was quite the ladies man in his youth-- everyone except his mother. His grandmother, his wife, his mother-in-law, his friends, most of the media. They all know. His older brother often jokes, with a certain jealously, that Étienne's adolescence unfolded like a porno.

Comments like this peppered their conversations in younger days:

“I can’t help it,” Étienne said. “If they would just keep their clothes on I could say no, but once they’re naked, my resolve falls apart and I make love to them.”

“This is what I don’t understand,” Edmond replied. “How do you manage to get them naked without trying?”

That's why everyone was quite shocked when 19-year-old Étienne fell in love with Basilie Saint-Ebène and settled down. He directed all that sexual energy toward his wife and whatever was left over he funneled to clients as flirtation to make them feel beautiful and buy the clothes.

Most of the women in Étienne's life still talk to him. Many of his former lovers are now clients who receive deep discounts. This bothers his wife somewhat-- that he surrounds himself with these women to which he has such emotional bonds.

And then there's Ghislaine. Étienne was 17 or 18-years-old when he met Ghislaine. They were friends and lovers for several years and had a very open relationship. Ghislaine had been the one who cooked the stew for Étienne and Basilie's first date (and seduced Étienne on the kitchen floor the night of). But the antics stopped when Étienne realized Basilie was "the one." And he and Ghislaine parted ways, mostly because Basilie made her uncomfortable. She died in the early 1980s when she ODed on heroine.

That's the established "what was."

But what if Étienne didn't break it off so cleanly. What if Ghislaine loved him deeper than she cared to admit? While engaged, Basilie and Étienne spent a great deal of time apart, on separate continents. What if, occasionally, Étienne visited Ghislaine "for old time's sake."

Now, in the story line, Basilie gets frustrated with her family and shortens her engagement and marries Étienne a year ahead of schedule. The pending marriage is announced in the paper. What if this is Ghislaine's only notice that the marriage has been moved? She'd be livid. And what if, two weeks before the wedding when the announcement appears, she confronts him and he takes he to dinner to talk it out and somehow they end up in bed again.

They agree it's over, afterwards, but Ghislaine misses him and in her search to fill the void, meets new friends-- the ones who introduce her to heavier drugs. And what if Étienne, with his wife still primarily living abroad (after erroneously assuming Étienne would apply for a visa and join her), watches this disintegration.

Étienne and Basilie married mid-August 1979. Basilie left in September, returning for "Thanksgiving" (which of course isn't Thanksgiving for her). What if Ghislaine ODed the first week in November and Étienne blames himself?

Similar to how he feels about his friend committing suicide now... Oh, yes, that sweetens the conflict. Because it's as if he were killing the women he loves... And he can't complete confide in his wife...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Remember the time... Oh, wait.

Does this ever happen to anybody else?

Maybe you're having dinner with friends or reminiscing with someone older than you. Someone says something that triggers a memory, and it's a funny story, so you open your mouth and begin to talk and suddenly realized... That it never happened. And you quickly close your mouth before anyone notices.

The "memory" was an incident you invented for some character.

This happens to me all the time. And backstory is particularly haunting. I have lots of friends that are older than me, and some younger, but it seems that I never pass these off as "that happened to me" but more as "that reminds me of something that happened to a friend." I've already been caught in the middle of one of these stories before I realize my story is untrue, but I never admit that... I just keep talking.

I guess it's a testament to the fact that my story might have happened and that someone in the world, as another friend likes to say, my characters exist.

The series I am marketing "takes place" in August 2002 through November 2003. But today, my main characters are in their early 50s. Making them older than me by a good 15 years. And their memories can be as vivid and real as my own. Which is scary. When I honestly get them mixed up.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

How many drafts?

Socializing with other writers-- whether it be at writers' groups meetings, open mic style venues, or more intimate critique groups-- drives home, for me, the necessity of revision. I have a gut feeling that the more you progress along the writing path, the less likely you are to track closely your drafts.

I think every manuscript requires three drafts, minimum. Now, some journalistic-style or disciplined professional writers may do it in one or two, but these writers have decades of experience that allows them to pull this off. And I also think they form their ideas very completely in their head before they begin work.

I believe a work needs three drafts before you can share it. With anyone other than close friends whose sole purpose is to keep you motivated to complete the task at hand. In my current critique group, one member has brought us a first draft. Another, a second. Another has a manuscript that seems like a third draft, and the other member has a tight manuscript that bears the marks of one of those fifth or sixth drafts.

I could be wrong, but that's my evaluation.

The first draft has the signs of a good story, but it can be painful to read as you accompany the author on their quest to find and contain the plot. There's also those vague details that don't seem fleshed out. "Toiletries on the dresser" tells me nothing. There's a big difference between lye soap and red lipstick. Which would this character have? I respond to these scenes with the same question to the author:

How does this scene and how do these details advance the plot?

Because everything must advance the plot.

First drafts are supposed to ramble, steer off course, and employ those random solutions that pop out of nowhere. (Sarah's Key used many of these convenient plot devices.) That's why the first draft, in my mind, should not be revealed. It's the childhood of a manuscript.

The manuscript reaches an awkward adolescence upon the second draft. It's 90% of the product it will be in the end, but zits and hormones blemish the text. This is when some good friends can help you find your style and encourage you and tell you what works and what doesn't. Some people lock themselves away even at this stage, reading books by other writers and pouring over their words fixing this draft in solitude. This can also work.

But the third draft has addressed these small bumps and can withstand the input of others. Like a young adult, the manuscript has its own feet, its own flavor, a defined sense of purpose. But it still gets confused.

Now, I have a friend whom I adore, and she's working on a third draft. She has already proclaimed that when she finishes this draft, she will ask someone to proofread, do one set of changes/line-by-line and never look at it again/make changes unless a publisher asks her to.

That's healthy, I guess. Not to dwell and move on. Write more and better projects. But to proclaim so boldly that she's done seems dangerous to me. What if she looks at it two years from now and thinks, after a pile of rejections, that she could fix it with another round of edits? Is that not allowed?

To me, the process never ends. Until that book is in my hands, the possibility for change is there.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Contemplations on Contests

So, I've never entered a writing contest. Until last night. Last night I sent an entry to the North Texas Romance Writers Great Expectations. Not sure why. Perhaps because I plan to join our local RWA in another week. Perhaps because it's time to do something and I'm not sure what.

At the same time, an agent blogger I read talked about Amazon's breakthrough novel contest and knocked it, because the winner is "stuck" with a $15,000 advance and a publishing contract with Penguin. As an agent, he feels an author could do better with representation.

Now, I'm a newbie. I've only been rejected about ten times and I don't even have a manuscript "out" at the moment. My queries are all tucked nicely here at home for the holidays. I'm trying to meet people and make that personal connection to get the right agent because mailing out unsolicited queries seem like a waste of postage in today's environment. But, I could be wrong.

But if I entered's contest, and I won, would I "be content" with what Penguin has to offer. I thought about this, for about five seconds, and realized the answer.

A resounding "Hell, yes."

$15,000 isn't much. But it's more than I made at my job last year. It could pay for that extended vacation in France. It would not mean quitting my job. It would not mean a Mercedes convertible. But it IS more than I've made it writing thus far. I think the total from my fiction career weighs in at about $1500 and that's from editing other people's books, not mine.

And it's Penguin for God's sake! Penguin could offer me $20 as an advance and I'd treat the family to a meal at Sonic and we'd celebrate. We're not talking about a POD publisher or some small press. It's Penguin.

The alternative? To keep sending out queries to people I meet at conferences, networking in writers groups and with published authors, and reading and researching and praying.

That $15,000 sounds pretty sweet.

But one thing about the Amazon contest bugs me. Even before they determine the first round of survivors, they want the whole manuscript. This makes me very uncomfortable. First chapter, I'm okay with that. But the whole kit and kaboodle. To Amazon. Not happy with that.

Is it worth the risk?

I'm not sure.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A little piece of me

I started today thinking about how my writer friends all have a tendency to lose themselves in whatever is the topic/interest of the moment. I'm specifically thinking of someone who recently spent a day researching Jane Austen. For no reason.

This random knowledge always comes back somewhere.

My stories have grown with me. Some are mere outlines waiting for me to pay them attention (the serial killer and the journalist; the ugly inner workings of a non-profit The Devil Wears Prada style). Others have influenced who I am.

Sometimes I can just research that tidbit I need and let it go, but other times these bits of information stick to me. I find myself approaching my 35th birthday with the alter-ego of a 50-year-old (straight, male) French fashion designer. And I really wish I could own my own French fashion house, but even though I could theoretically become French, I will never have the ability to sew...

This got me revisiting a familiar thought of mine. Each of my characters represents a different part of me.

Adelaide: my naive, lost side that always lacks confidence and feels like I'm failing.

Basilie: my smart, bitchy self

Étienne: my artsy, easygoing, charming self (the self I really want to be)

Galen: my selfish, mean self

Flidais: my powerful yet defiant self

In other stories I have alter-selfs that are more obvious. The housewife who buys herself a new outfit at Saks and cheats on her husband, for one. I have never done what she did, but her actions stem from exactly the ennui I experienced a few years ago. I can't imagine a writer who doesn't use their characters to do the things we really want to do but never would... That's part of the fun.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reading Out Loud

The first critique group I ever belonged to had an amazing chemistry. There were some traveling members who came and went. There were some unpublished writers who needed some polish on their craft. There was a talented reader. And a couple of English majors, one a working journalist. (Okay the last one was me.)

My current critique group has a different mix of people, and a mix of genres. In my current group, everyone sends a chapter or twenty pages. We read them all every month and discuss. We aim to keep discussions about 30 minutes and fail miserably so we have some late nights.

My old group only one or two people were on the schedule for any given meeting. Those individuals had to email their submission, so those of us who wanted to could read it in advance. Then, the writer had to read the submission out loud. This allowed people who did not have time to read it earlier to hear it.

People protested this policy at first, but I think everyone grew to like it. Not only is it good practice in presence and poise to read your work, but it's a good sign of comfort. If you're uncomfortable reading your work out loud, maybe it's a sign there's something wrong with it.

In addition, listening to the author read the piece allowed all of us to judge how we read. The author's voice could convey sarcasm in a character's dialogue, for example, that we might have perceived as mere stupidity. I remember one of my character's speech patterns coming off very differently when I read them out loud (Étienne's unnatural English became more lyrical, even if 'his' word choice was bad.)

You can fix many problems when you read a work out loud. It becomes obvious where language is clunky. You become more sensitive to the pacing.

Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, GLVWG, tries to find venues for authors and writers to share their work. We used to host a special event several times a year with Touchstone Theatre on the southside of Bethlehem. A committee screened the applicants and then members got to read. The attendance was abysmal and I'm told no one applied, yet I know from experience that the committee rejected many applicants. Attendance waned, and location and night of the week contributed.

We have monthly spotlights at our meetings where writers have ten minutes to read. We also participate in festivals.

Some authors read the same chapter every time, whether it be chapter one or one they've rehearsed and honed. They're good chapters, but since the same members of GLVWG tend to make up the audience, I get sick of hearing them. So, when I'm asked to read, I do something different.

And some of my fellow GLVWGers enjoy the concept.

The manuscript of my first book has 400 pages. I let the audience call out numbers, and then I read the page numbers in order. I usually start on the first full paragraph and read until the end of the scene. It has never failed me. It has never landed in a chapter in the French guy's POV and it has never landed in a violent scene or a scene with sexual content. This weirds me out a little.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Writing Contests & Writing Goals

I have several writing goals for 2010, after having made progress but not considerable success on my 2009 goals.

I'm going to join RWA-- Romance Writers of America-- for two main reasons:
  • I have attended meetings of the local affiliate (Pocono Lehigh Romance Writers) and I like them. They also seem to encourage each other and prod each other.
  • My work has romantic elements, and I know I could write more romantic fiction, and be good at it.
In the past, I was a member of HWA-- Horror Writers of America-- but they have time limits on how long you can remain an associate member. This of course means you have time limits to get published, or lose your membership. As someone still seeking a genre, or perhaps of mixed genre, I haven't done enough work to get published to make that kind of leap. The HWA does offer a superb network of information though, so I'd like to get reacquainted with them some day.

I'm a paranormal chick lit writer. No doubt that what I write is aimed at women. And I tend to include that fashionista style universe that flies well in chick lit. But with lots of sex, paranormal, violence and some suspense.

So, I've saved some info on contests. I want to enter a few. Why? I'm not sure. For exposure? Practice? Feedback? To say I'm doing something? (To waste money?) To get closer. To motivate myself.

I need to renew my subscription to Poets & Writers. That magazine was chock full of real info for writers. Not just how-to tidbits and wanna-be writing info like Writers Digest. I always hated Writers Digest. I liked the Writer. It was a good middle-of-the-road publication.

But I digress. These contests. I haven't read some of this potential submissions for probably eight months or more. My (first) manuscript was originally 167,000. It's now about 92,5oo, and I can't even tell they're missing. I say "about" because it's 92,646 I think... but I've already cut about 50 words from the first five pages.

The process never ends. Writing means constantly facing your inadequacy or your victories every day. What seems like a victory one day can seem grossly inadequate six months later...

Monday, December 14, 2009

One of those nights

I'm procrastinating. I have a final exam in my economics class tomorrow and I'm sick and tired of studying.

So here I sit. I dallied on my facebook page, checked my email and read some blogs of friends. I ate Christmas cookies until I felt sick, drank some decaffeinated coffee and made a list of things to do tomorrow.

Part of me knows and understands that I should do well on this exam, regardless of whether or not I study more. Part of me really wants to write. The exam-- and the effort I put into it-- may mean the difference between an A and a B on my transcript. Writing feeds a vicious little part of my soul.

What is the answer?

Perhaps the better question is: What is the complication? I'm not sure I can write tonight. My eyes hurt. I'm tired. I struggled over writing a thank you letter today.

Many writers will tell you, "write." Write everyday, as much as you can, never stopping. Not me. I'm tired. And sometimes when I get in this kind of funk, I go to bed early or I take a nap. But I don't rush sleep. I'm sure any of us who write have worked out plot problems or scenes on the cusp of falling asleep. I sometimes take it one step further and stare at the ceiling or curl under the covers and dwell in their universe for a while. You know who. The characters.

I don't let myself sleep but allow myself to daydream... Again something normal. But something I don't often STOP and do.

And maybe tonight, I'll indulge.

Or I'll go back to elasticities, unemployment, marginal product of labor, economies of scale, etc.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What do your characters do for you?

I can't sew to save my life, yet I understand the entire process and can write about it convincingly for my novel. I credit this to my journalism background. The ability to study something and convey it to someone else is a special skill.

But sometimes our characters teach us skills.

Sure, if you do research you may learn some knowledge you never had, but can your characters really teach life skills?

I think so.

First example: I never cooked meat. Our meals at home were vegetarian, sometimes vegan. I could not sully my hands with animal flesh. But then I came upon a scene where Étienne cooks... and he can cook... He learned to cook when his wife divorced him. No one would ever believe that an affluent French male in his forties would prepare a meal of broccoli pasta with ricotta salata or Hungarian style paprika tempeh or vegetable stir fry with toasted sesame seeds or hearty macaroni and cheese with sundried tomatoes.

In order to decide what he would make for himself, I had to cook meat. I experimented with beef burgundy stew, pepper steak with brandy cream sauce, chicken in lemon butter sauce, and peppered chicken with rosemary. (And some less 'offensive' lovely desserts like tarte tatin and honeyed fruit in white wine sauce.)

Second example: Basilie is brilliant with numbers. In the 80s, she had a stunning career as a corporate raider. In the 90s, she worked as an investment banker and wealth manager. Educated in the U.S. and abroad, a stellar performance on the French bac, and she speaks five languages-- but she's only fluent in four (French, English, Spanish, German). She has yet to master her Japanese.

Basilie is helping me survive economics this semester. Econ is far from exciting, and my introductory course is not hard, but Basilie sometimes motivates me to study and do a good job.

And I need that right now.

My final is Tuesday.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Overcoming "Writers Block"

When writers come from the journalism industry, we're much less prone to indulge in "writers block." I refuse to even make the term possessive, because the idea of a writer owning a block contradicts everything in which I believe.

Writers block, as I understand it, happens when a writer suddenly finds him/herself at a point where he/she can no longer find the words to put on the page.


When a writer finds himself/herself in such a situation, the choices become (and which choice the writer makes says a lot about the writer):
  1. Keep writing, even if it's awful, fully intending to cut what doesn't work later. In writing through the problem, stream of consciousness may provide a solution the brain could not.
  2. Turn to a different project, for an hour or a day, allowing oneself to turn the problem around and think about it. Writing something different could open new areas of the brain and refresh the brain cells and the spirit.
  3. Schedule a break. Finding yourself "blocked" simply means you're pushing too hard. Whether you schedule 15 minutes, an hour, or a day, take a break. Anything longer than a day is not a break. That's procrastination.
  4. Reread what you've written. Avoid the urge to edit, but reread what you've written, and about 20 pages before to set the scene (depending on the length of the work). Your "block" may be a subconscious single that something in your structure is off and not working.
  5. Skip ahead. If you can't write chronologically, allow yourself to write that scene that you've been looking forward to... Sometimes that will refresh your energy and remind you why you love these characters.
  6. Last but done least, if you really just can't write anymore... Do what my husband always suggests: Try a different art. When words are getting fumbled up, try the visual arts. Seriously. Sketch, take pictures, paint. It doesn't matter how good or bad the result is; the point is to exercise a different section of the brain. I do fashion illustrations (which I later use as outfits in the novel) or I work on this oil painting I have of a rooster. The rooster is actually symbolic, partially because it's a French rooster, but also because it appears in the novel. Étienne goes to the market for something, and has to pass the bird market in Paris. He sees this rooster and falls in love with the colors. And buys it. This is at the end of his bout with depression and signals the return of his joie de vivre. So, in my house, we have all sorts of jokes about Étienne's coq.
How we approach obstacles is as much an art as the words we write...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Defining a character's sexuality

Yesterday, I started talking about the how I use sex in my writing. When we think sex and writing, normally people think of two things:
  • Erotica (like good old Anais Nin, The Story of O, etc.)
  • Romance novels (gotta have that perfect love scene where the characters climax in each other's arms after having that orgasm that made them come alive in new ways...)

As I mentioned yesterday, my characters have healthy libidos. I also talked about sex as a way to reveal how characters feel about each other. For the English major geeks out there, I see my main supernatural bad guy as a bully, and I see the woman who falls in love with him as a victim of domestic violence. This is intentional on my part, because if a mortal man *hurt* her in the ways he does, the reader would never finish the book. And when you look at their relationship, the bad guy only manipulates/hurts her in private. In public, they look like the perfect couple. Isn't that usually the way with domestic violence?

But this entry is not about that.

This entry is about the love of my life, Étienne, and his girls, Adelaide and Basilie. Étienne married Basilie in 1979. Basilie divorced Étienne in 1993, but she forgot to leave. They moved into separate domiciles, but life became a great big sleepover game of who would stay at who's house what night. To end it once and for all, Basilie moved to New York City in 2000 on a work visa. She assumed Étienne would stay in France. Instead, he applied for an O-1 visa followed her.

Now, Adelaide works for Étienne. She's worked for him since she was 13. (Actually she was 12-and-a-half but Étienne prefers that she round up, sounds better if she were 13 instead of 12.) She spent her school years modeling, then moved into the PR department after high school, and when Étienne moved to New York, he brought her along, figuring he'd need an American around to start his New York office.

None of that tells you how these characters feel about each other.

Chapters three and four of my first book involve a large party. Chapter three is the bad guy's perspective. Chapter four is Étienne's.

This is the first time we see Étienne and Basilie together:

Étienne kissed [her]. He angled for her lips, but she nudged away redirecting his effort to her cheek.

Without even delving into Étienne's POV, we hear this about him and his ex-wife:

"Mon jeune ami," Étienne said. "I have papers... papers say we are married, others say divorcés. Paper means nothing. Rien. Je ne crois pas les papiers.”

Now this is the very first paragraph from Étienne's POV. It's not sexual, per se, but it does set up a great deal of his sexuality:

In the farmhouse’s dark, cool basement, Étienne maintained his cellar. He fondled his 1921 Château d’Yquem Sauternes, brushing off the dust, turning the bottle, and leaving it. Nothing compared to a good woman or a quality wine. Since he no longer collected lovers, he shifted to fine vintages, almost as enjoyable a hobby.

And his first interaction with Basilie (or as he nicknames her 'Zélie') shows us something about each of them, even though it's his POV. I wanted a scene that would show his devotion to her without having him go through a diatribe of internal dialogue. I wanted to show you, not tell you:

Étienne placed his arm around Zélie’s waist. He moved a hand into the hair cascading past her shoulders, tumbling in tight curls. He pinched one. The spiral crackled under his touch, crispy with the hairspray from the stylist. He sniffed it.

L'ananas... The English challenged him… Pineapple and Chanel No. 5. The combination always signaled a celebration.

"I’m sure your wife is here, Bob," Zélie said.

Her words sounded as crisp as her hair. The sentence slid off her tongue with ease, her English enunciation perfect. He couldn’t have said it, not like that, not even when sober. Yet she was as French as him and she could… Zélie flinched, swatting at his hand. He lowered his head toward her bare shoulder. His lips brushed her flesh...

"Étienne, stop it," she commanded.

He pulled away with a devilish smile.

But the very next line shows us his different attitude for his young employee:

Adelaide burst into the room, apologizing as she knocked into several guests. Her head jerked. Her gown shed feathers. In her clumsy distress, Adelaide’s lips puckered. Her eyes pleaded. Her cheeks and jaw hung with anxiousness. Even so, she remained the most beautiful fixture in the room.

The most beautiful fixture in the room. The phrase gives me chills. But wait, you say, how does this all relate to sex? Well, from here we progress to sexual tension.

Adelaide unzipped her boots. She stretched her legs across [Étienne's] lap. The weight of the beads pulled the dress away from her thighs. Her garters poked from beneath the fabric. Zélie never wore garters, no matter how much Étienne wished she would as his chouchou did. He rested a hand on Adelaide’s ankle.

But it isn't the magnificently beautiful Adelaide who truly captures Étienne's attention, but his ex-wife, as they dance:

“Chut,” he whispered.

He brought his lips to hers to quiet her, and they danced, tenderly tasting each other. In the final measures of the song, Étienne stepped away, twirled her to the end of his arm, then pulled her back, and dipped her across his thigh where he kissed her, this time long and thorough.

The black silk sash had fallen covering her breasts. Her creamy skin set off beautifully the strand of black pearls he had given her earlier. He liked how the pendant sparkled, though now it hung upside-down making a cloverleaf instead of a heart. He squeezed her hand and roamed her body with his eyes. His outlined her jaw and her cheekbone with his index finger.

"Étienne, let me up, chéri," she said, interrupting his visual consumption.

"I was just—"

"I know exactly what you’re doing," Zélie said. "Let me up."

She takes him to bed. As he is very drunk, he requires some assistance. But once his teeth are brushed and his clothes removed, they do tumble into bed. Every touch and every breath (I hope) shows their desperation for each other. In their care and their enjoyment, the familiarity of the moment shows how long they've been together. But as I mentioned yesterday, in a way, this is a "baseline sexual encounter" so that the reader can detect changes in their relationship later and also know later when Étienne gets accused of cheating, whether or not 'the other woman' is telling the truth...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Characters with a healthy libido

In my spare time, I serve on several non-profit boards. One I truly enjoy is my role as trustee at my local library. My family and I helped with the book fair this year, our big fund-raiser. My daughter even did her share.

At the book fair, one woman carefully looked through all the fiction in hopes that we might have an author recommended to her. She was a big fan of Nicholas Sparks and his love stories. (He makes me cringe.) Someone had told her this other author had similar stories of love "without all the intimate stuff."

I almost laughed. But then I bought the Anaias Nin books from the sale tables.

My characters have a healthy libido. There is a very good reason for this. Two fold.
  1. My stories involve a supernatural element. This means magic. And whether you draw on magic or religion, the obvious and universal truth is sex = creation. My magical characters exploit this creative power. My mundane ones also manipulate it, though they know not what they do.
  2. Each character's sexual relationships reinforce who they are. And their attitudes toward one another. Not a single one of my sex scenes is gratuitous. They all serve a specific purpose.
For example:
  • The supermodel exudes sex and attracts men. Obvious on one level. But because she has this tendency to attract men, she also can't have a healthy relationship, because they seek her merely for sex. This destroys her self-esteem, despite the fact that she's a supermodel.
  • Étienne and Basilie. The divorced couple who never stopped acting married. In the first book, they have sex. (In the office, at home, even a reference to conceiving their child in a car at the airport.) In the second book, they can't. This has been a central focus of their relationship for 25 years and suddenly it's gone. How do they reconnect?
  • Étienne. For him, alcohol increases his desire for sex. Which actually plays into the plot line when alcohol plays into the confirmation or the dismissal of charges of his misconduct. Especially when you add the problem of the supermodel listed above.
  • Flidais. My evil female witch, a smaller character, but an important one. When she conducts blood rituals, she uses the blood of an aroused male. More creative power.
  • Galen, the main bad guy, manipulates desire to gain feminine power from his victims.
When you look at characters, they can hide so much of themselves in their actions. If you want to convey how two characters feel about each other or reveal something about their true natures, put them in bed. They won't be able to hide.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Challenging your knowledge

I'm still in the "tearing up" stages I mentioned yesterday. I got fabulously inspired with my new chapter one, and had a healthy start to chapter two. But my text is now meandering. I know exactly why I have chosen to move in each of these directions, but the word count is stacking up and the chapter still hasn't covered what it needs to do.

I try to structure each of my chapters like a short story, with a finite piece of action that almost works on its own without the rest of the novel. Thus far, that structural trick has escaped me in most of this volume, plus I've had unclear transitions between the chapters. Enough so that when I go back after a few weeks rest and read it cold, I get jarred by what's happening.

Not good.

But now this chapter seems to be spending its forty days in the wilderness... I have a good chapter one (I think, it's resting and I'm uncertain how it will read after a break) and I know I have a good chapter three (my husband has insisted for years that it is chapter one in disguise; plus my critique group liked it). So, why the problem with #2?

I listed the items that this chapter needs to establish:
  • The layout of the house/ the real setting (Étienne comes home from the bar)
  • Slowly include other characters (so far we have met Étienne, our hero, and Galen, our bad guy. Since Galen punch Étienne in the face twice in the initial chapter I think it's fair game to mention that here)
  • Lay the groundwork for the relationship between Étienne and his wife/ex-wife/fiancée (yes, these are all the same person, Basilie, or as he calls her, Zélie)
  • Have Étienne find Adelaide's sketchbook and her collection of his drawings (in the past, the finding of the sketchbook happens 'off-screen' and really should be a pivotal moment)
  • Link the middle of the night with the day, and the following evening, as Chapter Three begins at bedtime the next night. Chapter one: Friday night/Saturday a.m.; Chapter two: Saturday; Chapter Three: Saturday night/ Sunday a.m.; Chapter Four, Sunday a.m.; Chapter Five, Sunday a.m.
That's a tall order. And later I will have to tear up this chapter and evaluate how each scene contributes to each of these goals.

At the midpoint in the chapter, Étienne grows tired of everyone commenting on his black eye and uses Adelaide's make-up kit to cover it. In looking at my goals, I realize there's a good chance this scene might get cut (unless I later determine it's necessary to establish Étienne's weight in the fashion world) but for right now, I'm running with it.

A scene like this is where my journalism background comes in handy (now I'm getting to the crux of my entry: the challenging your knowledge bit). I know next to nothing about make-up. I also know covering a bruise like a black eye is hard. I've read enough fashion magazines religiously to know some basic concepts, but overall, when it comes to make-up, I'm a failure. I just don't use it.

And here's Étienne, about to attempt something I would never do. And he's supposed to understand how to do it. Now, for more academic topics, like daily life in Paris after World War II, I would turn to the college library and the article databases I can access as a student. For make-up, not so much...

I know this much:
  • the task at hand is hard
  • the colors he puts on his face must not only 'match' his skin tone, but they also must counteract the colors of the bruise
  • luckily, he could have almost any tool at his disposal, since we have the make-up kit of a former supermodel who has also done some styling over the years
So, I turn to the internet and some books I have, trying to hit the right key words for my questions:
  • What's in Adelaide's make-up kit?
  • What should he apply and how?
  • What are the details that will make it sound like he knows what he's doing without getting too deep?
I'm reluctant to share my first draft... especially since I know I'm going to cut some/most of it... but should I share what I learned? Hmmm...

Okay, rough draft, reminder, this is a rough draft (I can tell while I copy and paste I want to change lots of words here, but I won't. Not now. I have other things to do):

Never the type to fight, not even when his older brother had him pinned to the floor, Étienne hadn’t ever seen his face this swollen and mottled. Even after his car accident, with his head embedded in the windshield, he hadn’t seen this much discoloration. Suddenly, that fact struck him as odd.

He unscrewed the Kevyn Aucoin Sensual Skin Enhancer and applied some to the back of his right hand. Once convinced it wouldn’t turn his skin an unnatural color, he dabbed it on his skin with a sponge. He could have used his finger, but the sponge offered a lighter touch on his tender face.

He needed something with more gold, maybe some green to really hide the vivid bruise, so he rummaged through the kit for Adelaide’s RCMA foundation. He prayed she had the right colors, or he’d have to use other pigments to blend the right hue. Luckily, she had a KO sample palette. On the second guess, he determined the right base hue and piled some on the back of his left hand. With a small brush he mixed in some extra color to make the match and then added golden tones. When the heat from his hand had softened it enough, he layered some onto his eye, from under the eye to his cheek and then from the middle of the eyelid up and delicately toward the eyelashes.

He fished out Adelaide’s bottle of 244 and added a drop to what remained on his hand. After a good stirring of the thinner/remover and the foundation, Étienne used the sponge to apply another coat.

I can't believe I shared this. Off to run and hide...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Tearing up a page

As writers, we can't be afraid to completely destroy our work. In my case, I'm currently working on "draft two" of Courting Apparitions, the second volume of my Fashion and Fiends series. I don't like this book as much as my other books because it's a problem child. Originally, half of the book passed before the haunting really started and it's a ghost story so this was a huge issue in pacing.

I call this my "second draft" because I've lost track of how many times I've rewritten the first six chapters trying to restructure.

As of today, my main male character, Étienne, (insomniac) French fashion designer extraordinaire, is sleeping. His very pregnant fiancée/ex-wife has woken and discovers his face bruised and swollen.

Now, this scene is from Étienne's point of view. The chapter is new. The premise is new. Last chapter Étienne got punched in the face, something that has never happened before but works very nicely now that I thought of it.

But his significant other (much simpler than explaining their relationship here) does not realize he "sneaked" to a bar in the middle of the night and got punched in the face. So, she's a little freaked out.

I escalated this into a scene, where she rouses him from sleep and demands to know what happened. Now the reader was there. And Étienne has already recounted it once to his friends. Does the reader really need to see it a third time? No. So I deleted the approximately 400 words between Étienne and his beloved Basilie. I reduced it to this:

Screams woke him at the first light of daybreak.
“What happened to you?” his wife yelled.
“Fight,” he muttered groggily as he rolled away from her.
“Very funny, Étienne. Did you fall?”
“No,” he grumbled as he returned to sleep.

I hope this works. My husband originally voted for Basilie not to notice. That she sees the poor insomniac finally sleeps and leaves him alone, all curled in the covers, and she doesn't get close enough to see.

I don't know if that would work, because he sleeps facing her... and how can you miss a purple face?

One of my girlfriends thinks she'd shake him awake and demand an explanation but in light of his insomnia, that seems rude if it's clear he's not in danger.

Because he's a bit of a carefree sort, I have Basilie think he's joking. And she'll approach the topic again at breakfast.

But if it doesn't work, I'll tear it up again...

I have been at work all day and haven't looked at the passage in question, but I did come up with a "typical" Étienne quip for his response when she asks if he fell. I probably won't use it, because I don't think anyone can be this witty on a couple hours sleep. But here goes.

Setup: In addition to the barfight, it is important to note that Étienne has spent the last six months walking with a cane because his leg healed crooked after he broke it in a car accident.

Screams woke him at the first light of daybreak.
“What happened to you?” his wife yelled.
“Fight,” he muttered groggily as he rolled away from her.
“Very funny, Étienne. Did you fall?”
“No,” he grumbled as he returned to sleep. "I hit myself in the face with my cane."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The value of setting

Yesterday I reflected upon first chapters, and today I thought I'd ruminate on something equally as important (and often daunting) and pivotal to the success of any story: setting.

The right setting will make or break a book.

When I first started my book, before chick lit existed, some of my characters worked in fashion, primarily so they could wear cool clothes and go to Paris. Yes, this was a 'deep' decision. Without any knowledge of the TGV or basic transportation system in France, I decided that the main female character would frequent the Strasbourg area to visit her German aunt. (I don't even remember if the aunt lived in France or Germany.) The bad guy now was just a love interest then and he lived in Germany selling antiques and making stained glass.

As the story changed and the fashion grew more pivotal, Paris became the obvious setting. But even after I had spent time in Paris (about a month), the city remained illusive in my writing. She seemed nothing more than a shadow of herself. Another contributing factor was the obvious realization that I speak French, not German. Along the lines of the old adage 'write what you know'... I find myself often fighting with my story. Why on Earth would I do anything in Germany when I'm a Francophile?

So, to avoid a two-dimensional Paris, I gave the fashion house a New York office. Problem solved right? I've spent lots of time in New York. I can create an accurate New York. Nope. My New York is a day-trip New York. Yes, I have traveled the subways, the cabs, and different neighborhoods, but I have never lived there.

My story continued to stumble and limp because New York didn't work. But how could I fix that? I couldn't move to New York (ah, but what an idea!).

I gave the main characters a weekend house in rural Pennsylvania. And it happens to be the house I grew up in. Rural Upper Mount Bethel Township. River Road. Half way between Tuscarora Inn and Driftstone Campground. Now these rich Parisians have mounted substantial renovations to the humble farmhouse where I lived... but that's also something I dreamed about as a kid, "fixing" the dilapidated house my parents rented.

But I didn't stop there. The bad guy lives in the outskirts of the school district where I live now. I can drive you down his road.

The characters visit the familiar country bar where I've been a million times.

The story soared.

Have I abandoned New York and Paris? No. Office scenes in a New York Italianate brownstone. Basilie has a fabulous apartment in the Ansonia. (And another fabulous apartment on the Place des Vosges in Paris, which we never see until book three, I think.) The office in Paris. Étienne's Ile St. Louis townhouse. But most of the story, at least 70 percent I'd say, happens in Pennsylvania.

I never thought I'd find a feasible reason for my artistic French character to be in rural Pennsylvania, but when you think about the geography of France, it makes sense. France is primarily rural and their towns are very small. Cities and small towns. Very few medium sized towns. If Étienne wished to leave the city, which he hates because it is not Paris, where would he go? Pennsylvania. And at the time he bought the old farmhouse, he probably paid $120,000 for it which is downright laughable to him. His car cost $250,000.

Never underestimate the setting.

I had a similar problem with book two of my series. I kept trying to open with the bad guy and the good guy working together in New York. My husband kept asking me WHY would the bad guy agree to work for the good guy instead of just killing him? After years of resisting, and the rejection of my critique group, I moved them to neutral territory: the country bar. Where they could casually run into each other.

And then, after their scene, I got to offer this (first draft) depiction of my former home:

"River Road originated on other side of the Portland-Columbia toll bridge. Cross the railroad tracks, pass the coal-fired electrical generator, and follow the Delaware River another four miles and there stood Étienne’s weekend house, a renovated 18th century farmhouse he had purchased as a getaway for his wife. He had spent a year with the architects and contractors overseeing the transformation from crumbling relic to country estate. His idea of a romantic hideaway didn’t quite materialize, since Adelaide sliced her wrists in the master bathroom occurred less than a month after the official housewarming.
He drove his wife’s sedan past Jules’ Volkswagen Touareg to the upper end of the driveway, parking right beside the massive deck that spanned from the house to the three car garage. The crisp air burned Étienne’s lungs. The dark sky showed a breathtaking magnitude of stars and across the street, the river lapped at its banks with a rhythm as reassuring as that of a old woman’s rocking chair. His breath materialized in foggy wisps, but the chill didn’t bother him (except for his protesting leg) because the first day of February in Pennsylvania couldn’t match the bitter damp of winter in Paris.
Climbing the stairs slowly, he lingered on the deck, chasing constellations across the horizon. The pain in his face subsided a bit in the coldness, and he knew he should head into the house and ice his wounds, but something about the night felt good and quieted his soul. The lights from the kitchen spilled into the cedar entryway, casting gold across the deck from the large window and the portes-fenêtres."

Saturday, December 5, 2009

First chapters

I hate first chapters. I'm a notoriously critical reader. It took me years to get past page eight of Wuthering Heights... I think it was Wuthering Heights... because the beginning was so dry. Once I got past page eight, I loved the book.

I go to the library or the bookstore, I open the book and look at the first couple paragraphs. What is the opening sentence? What 'person' is it? If it's first person, that's a hurdle the author will have to overcome.

I hate the first person. Now, there are exceptions. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games. But in general, authors who rely on the first person for their voice never fully developed their characters/writing enough to construct a well-crafted story... but that's an argument for another day.

I judge the authors I read on their sentence structure, their word choice and what happens on that first page. Perhaps I should be an agent... or a reader for a publishing house.

Some friends had posted this link on their facebook page:

Seven reasons agents stop reading your work

Now, I don't think I do any of these things. (Although right now, I do have dates in the beginning of my chapter as a simple reminder to myself to keep my chronology straight. My work depends on moon phase for some events, and I have a pregnant woman who's going to give birth in this novel so I have to be careful with the time sequence. The dates will disappear in later drafts...)

First chapters are hard. It's hard to find that balance of tight writing, exposition, character introduction and compelling action. Agents and editors judge on that first five pages and what happens there sets the pace for the whole manuscript. As an author, there's nothing worse than the intuition that your first chapter doesn't measure up to the rest of the book...

So, the word count mentioned in the link above, doing a "writing idol" contest based on the first 250 words interested me. Now, I'm cautious about posting my work on the internet, but I have been mulling this over for a day and I want to address this question of openings...

This is the current first paragraph (66 words) of book one of my Fashion and Fiends series:
"A drunken jumble of bleached blonde hair, cheap denim, and tight tank tops crashed from the unlabeled door. Inside his car, he reached for his cigarettes, tapping the box with his finger. The blondes stumbled, arms tangled and bodies barely upright, to a Firebird. They exuded their intoxication as a dreary fog that blurred the defining lines between them. He only needed one for the ritual."

This is its predecessor, the former first couple paragraphs of the same book. I was pitching this book to agents with this paragraph at the lead and I hated it the entire time. That should have been a sign that these 144 words didn't work:
"Galen could kill her so easily right now. He could wrap his fingers around Adelaide’s throat and suffocate her, quickly and directly as she slept. He inhaled sharply, meditated, and sprinkled cleansing herbs across her bed.
Galen didn’t want to kill her. If he had, he would have done it as soon as she opened the sliding glass door to her balcony. But he didn’t. He had plans. Hopes. Instead of destroying her, he ushered her sleepwalking figure back to bed, not distracted by her nudity on this humid summer night. She had a toned, muscular figure and shapely bosom uncommon in other fashion models, but Galen recognized assets beyond those that might attract mere mortal men."

This is the former first paragraph (89 words) of book two of my Fashion and Fiends series:
"Something orange and translucent clung to the cuff of Galen's sleeve as he swapped lenses on his Nikon. Étienne hobbled closer, index finger and thumb pinched to grab the offending scrap but a sudden flicker stopped him. The vivid orange-and-red object moved toward the hem and over Galen's hand. A flame. Fire. As it licked Galen's fingers, Étienne's chest tightened. His throat swelled, blocking the air. He fumbled for a chair, but someone had moved the furniture to accommodate the clothing racks, the lighting equipment and the make-up stations."

Now I've determined my proposed chapter one is too fast past and unresolved to anchor the story, so I've mounted my umpteenth revision and this is my current first page or so (255 words) for the second book:
"Étienne d’Amille clung to the steering wheel of his wife’s Mercedes, his fingers grip tight enough to stretch the supple leather of his favorite old driving gloves. The keys laid in his lap as he surveyed the other cars in the parking lot from his rear view mirror. The typical array of dusty pick-up trucks and nondescript Chevrolets and Fords surrounded him, except for one gleaming black sports car with white racing stripes.
A Dodge Viper. His eyes remained nailed to the spot. Or, how did the Americans put it? Glued. Glued to the spot. The heavy emptiness that had dwelled inside him since September now ached, even worse than it had inside the house.
He couldn’t sleep inside the house. He hadn’t gone into the bathroom where Adelaide committed suicide, where he had his heart attack, but yet somehow his wife slept in a bed in the next room. He couldn’t. But then, these days he barely slept anywhere...
He thought he would sneak out, have a beer, and go home. This tiny town had a population of 400 people and in that respect, it reminded him of rural France. Not much to do and not much there. This particular country hamlet had one option at this advanced hour of the night: a bar
péquenot... peasant? redneck? He hadn’t expected to find anyone he knew, let alone the Viper.
Galen’s Viper. The aspiring photographer had dated Adelaide. She was completely infatuated with him. Étienne hadn’t heard of him or seen him since her death."

In my revisions, I have moved the location of the opening of the second book to the same setting where book one opens. This makes for an interesting parallelism and I'm intrigued to see if structurally it will work...

I guess I don't have much of a point for this rambling but to say that first chapters are hard. Eternally. Because as authors we know what we have to say and it's bursting from us, but to try and control that initial flood of information... It's hard. But therein lies the fun and the frustration.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Reflections Upon Critique

When a writer brings a piece to a critique group, I feel it's necessary not to defend the piece.

It does not matter what you intended. It either works or it doesn't.

My critique group did not "get" what I intended from the chapter last night. I could consider them all stupid and move on, but when the general consensus consistently missed the point on why the details were there... Then the problem is obviously not them.

It does not mean my idea is bad. It just means my implementation failed.

Speaking of implementation that failed, they spent some time telling me the story/ central conflict as they understood it. Another chapter that had failed miserably was chapter one. (There's a blog entry for another day: The agony of finding a chapter one that is both captivating and effective in regards to plot.) What I found interesting of this discussion was how "close" their interpretation was to what I desired, but that they were right-- I had bogged the story down in some areas with important details that were misplaced. And I also realized that the reason my original chapter one failed is because I let the mystery continue for too long. Upon further reflection, I never resolved it at all. Bad author.

So I lay in bed last night pondering this. I wanted desperately to get out of bed and write. But it was after midnight and as a mom, I can't indulge whims like that. (I don't do well on lack of sleep.) But I developed a new concept that might work and give me the plot structure to construct AND resolve the mystery.

This is a lot of rambling. And today I have important but mundane things to do: bathe child, work for the office, study for my economics quiz, but this new concept obsesses me. I can't indulge my writing frenzy, but perhaps I can reward myself throughout the day...

My concepts for chapter one of this "sequel" book have been many. I wrote one from the bad guy's point of view, and that revealed too much too fast and didn't quite make sense. I wrote one from the good guy's point of view that was too long and poorly paced to suck you in.

My chapter one submitted to the critique group was so fast-paced and action driven that it became difficult to process, and the melodramatic nature of it lead my readers to believe my protagonist was on drugs or a complete nutcase and later chapters did nothing to explain what happened. Which made the manuscript disjointed.

So, my new concept, of which I have about 500 words is slower. The point of the chapter is to set the emotional duress of the protagonist, a character who, in the first book, was vibrant and full of life, and has now experienced a myriad of physical problems, depression, and grief that has changed his joie de vivre. And since it's a paranormal book, when the weird stuff happens in chapter one, he thinks he has imagined it all because of those things and in the next chapter, everyone around him starts experiencing it, too...

In the new chapter one, in my current attempt, Étienne begins the book in the exact physical location where the bad guy begins the first book, in a similar physical posture, doing something similar. I did not plan it or engineer it this way on purpose. But the setting is identical... and that could end up being a strength if I do it right/well...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Multi-faceted Writer

Do writers natural multi-task better than their peers? Or do we all have ADHD?

I was at a conference this fall where I heard your IQ drops by 10 points as you multi-task. In comparison, this speaker said, your IQ drops by 4 points if you smoke marijuana.

This hit me like a slap in the face. Not in the way you might expect. I constantly multi-task. I don't think I can do one thing at a time. I realized that if this little tidbit was true, I might be a genius but never slowed down enough to notice.

I don't think every writer is a natural multi-tasker. My husband is not. But writers, in order to write, must perceive the world in a different way than their peers. We don't simply take the world at face value. Our minds constantly ponder the "what if"s. We stare into a beautiful scene and either drown ourselves in emotion or imagine something unfolding in that scene.

We have conversations with ourselves, our loved ones, our children, our pets (anyone who will listen, really) about what our characters-- our imaginary friends-- are doing. These conversations turning what has existed inside of us into real words. When did we dream them? In our sleep? Occasionally. More often than not the plotting happens in a far corner of our brain while we're vacuuming, showering, driving, worrying, whatever.

Because when you're a writer, whatever you are writing never leaves you. Even if you think it's gone, it pops up when you least expect it.

So, for us, isn't all life multi-tasking?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Me and My iPod


Most of my writer friends use it in some form. Except for one. She writes while she watches TV. But, in general, my writer friends all utilize music in their writing.

My iPod has my (and my daughter's) entire music collection. So, I often put in on shuffle and listen to the random selections as I work through a literary problem. (Doing it right now... Sixpence None the Richer is on, Salt N Pepa before that.) Some times being out of control of the music leaves me to look at a problem from a new direction.

I also have playlists. These are usually for the car, when I'm brainstorming a scene. I have playlists for romantic scenes (usually dedicated to a specific couple, like good, old-fashioned mix tapes), others for sex scenes, others for fights and others for making up... I have playlists that bring to mind certain characters, and help me get into their POV; and playlists that those characters would listen to.

For example: Adelaide, my 25-year-old former American supermodel-- born in 1978, listens to Placebo, Depeche Mode, Noir Désir, Cake and Salt N Pepa. But her boss, 40-something Étienne d'Amille prefers Jazz, some Norah Jones, Melody Gardot, Django Rheinhart and Juliette Gréco, and anything from the James Bond movies. And Carla Bruni's music amuses him to no end. Now, his wife, Basilie, she likes Jazz but prefers classical. She adores Joshua Bell.

I've purchased CDs because I thought these characters would like them.

Now, the playlists geared at helping me write about these characters are different. When I write about the bad guys, I listen to a playlist my husband made: Chevelle, Prodigy, Nine Inch Nails, Limp Bizkit, Radiohead, Pixies, Tool, The Toadies, Alice in Chains...

And these are all different from the soundtrack for each book, which is usually compiled after the first draft of a novel to keep me focused during revisions. In some cases, they creep into the story, some more clearly disguised then others.

For example
From the opening chapter of the first book of my Fashion and Fiends series:
Competing with the country music from the bar, distant rock music assailed his ears screaming ‘dazzled and doused in gin' about changing tastes in men. A convertible zipped so close by him it lifted his shirttails. Galen broke from his prey. The music blared from a powder blue Mercedes with top down.

It's "Taste in Men" by Placebo from the album Black Market Music.

More later...

Monday, November 30, 2009

I wrote last night

Once upon a time, a long time ago...

I was a prolific writer.

I wrote in my journal most of the day, constantly scribbling as if an observer of the world outside of it. These days, I regularly misplace my journal and write, on average, once a week. Facebook seems to have replaced those journal entries and I'm not sure how I feel about that.

I used to write 10-12 articles a week for the newspaper. In those days, I never had the energy left to write anything else.

One summer, I thought I had found the best job ever. They fired me after a month, because they had hired me to be their in-house writer and the VP decided he'd rather have an artist. I boosted my confidence my writing a third volume to my paranormal chick lit series (series nicknamed Fashion and Fiends) -- 170,000 words in about 35 days.

I can write a press release in 20 minutes, but my own résumé stumps me.

I wrote a ten-page paper in French on the political parties of the moderate right in three days during my Thanksgiving break.

But I have not written a single word on my second volume of Fashion and Fiends since June? July? Whenever we launched our critique group via GLVWG. I had about six chapters then, and since we were submitting 20 pages a month, I knew those six chapters would last through December. And here I am, in December (almost), with no more chapters. This book has my favorite tentative title (Courting Apparitions) but the hardest plot. It's a ghost story and ghosts present a lot of limitations. In addition, the first draft spent the first 200 pages with the main character moping around doing nothing, because of his grief for the dead person...

Of course, Stephenie Meyer's New Moon has the main character moping for 200 pages. Maybe Étienne just needs to rebuild a motorcycle and hang out with a werewolf...

Well, last night, I wrote about 400 words. The novel I wrote after I got fired... That one needs to be split in two: one half for the ridiculous fairy plot line (which will get saved for another project) and the other half for the actual plot line where evil witches destroy the balance of the universe and a non-magical woman has to stop them. I've dickered with the plot and did a scene last night where the heroine waits for her missing husband, in a venue where she thinks he has to attend and her disappointment when he doesn't...

In my "old days," before returning to school and raising a five-year-old daughter, I could polish off 5,000 words a night, almost every night of the week.

I miss those days, but the other activities-- school, work, parenting, the non-profit boards I'm on-- indirectly do make me a better writer.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Contemplations on Writing

Today I attended the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group meeting ( Our member Kathy Kulig gave an informal presentation on social networking for writers. I also got to hear the usual round of success stories, welcome some guests and chat with some friends.

I'm president ex-officio this year, having done my term July 2008-2009. It's a good group, currently with 155 members, and what makes it magical is the combination of published and unpublished fiction and non-fiction writers of different abilities and different professional backgrounds.

But lately, I've found the group disheartening more than inspiring. Many of us have remained in similar places for the entire time I've participated in this group. Others have progressed, others perhaps given up on the craft.

With all this talk of social networking and marketing, it's a reminder to me of how this business has changed: from the rising oil prices and the effect on page counts in hardcover books to the rise of small, independent press... I find it dizzying. Every time I feel like I'm on the right track, something leaves me feeling derailed.

More and more people I know are pursuing small presses or self-publishing. Yet, others have not deserted the dream of a New York publishing contract.

I find that actual writing skill has less to do with success than marketability.

I find that recognizing your talent isn't enough for an agent. It's more like finding a spouse, someone who loves you and your work and can conjure great lust for your prose. Personalities have to mesh AND the writing has to demonstrate that special sparkle.

That's how my rejection letters can refer to my work as "very visual" and "highly commercial" yet still be rejections.

Writing brings us on a journey, and it's a journey where our hearts and minds will be tested. It's a journey that leads us to doubt. It's a journey where we learn to write for ourselves. It's a journey we make because it fosters happiness.

So, this blog, which will meander and have irregular posts as I search for my voice and what I have to say (yes-- they can be different), allows me to talk to others about the conversations I have with my imaginary friends. Call them characters if you must but if you're a writer on your journey, maybe my highs and lows will remind us all we're not alone.