Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ghosts of writing past

A friend visited the other night and offer a big pitcher of my purple margaritas, we started talking about the benefits of a critique group and how writers learn from each other. We started talking about our own writing journeys, and how we have seen our styles change, and more importantly, we discussed how we see signs of that progressive journey in other writers.

Then we went into the discussion of how bad some of our drafts are.

And I bared my soul.

I went into my closet and grabbed the true second or third draft of the story that morphed into the Fashion and Fiends series. I wrote it in 1993. I used every cliché available and had the Anne Rice-style "misunderstood vampire" angst oozing from every other sentence. Now, my vampires are witches who practice blood magick.

I wasn't even 18 when I wrote this manuscript. It got shelved for several reasons.
1. It sucked.
2. It obsessed me and I could not move on with developing my real life.
3. I had no real life experience so the characters were cliché and two-dimensional.

When my friend, who is also a member of my critique group, saw this manuscript, we had a few chuckles. In the end, she recognized certain elements of my style and certain writing practices that I was good at then and how they're my strengths now.

It took me seventeen years to improve my writing, and those seventeen years brought a literature degree, foreign language study, raising a family, finding more of myself, and lots of reading and writing.

Writers who work together can achieve similar growth a lot faster, but we all travel the same road and have some point struggled with the same problems in writing growth.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Presidential letter for GLVWG October newsletter

As writers, we have ideas we think stand out from everyone else’s. We strive for difference. That’s why we do this. We believe that on some level we experience the world in a manner unlike anyone else and that we can articulate this.
Or maybe we think we have a special view of the world, that we can show society as it really is.
Either way, we have an addiction to the idea, to the thrill of manipulating words, and to the freedom of our own expression.
A recent email from a friend who is a bookseller, not an author, caused me to reflect upon what image we send into the community as writers. The email quoted Flavorwire and mentioned that author photographs often portray us as a certain type:
"In an attempt to look uniquely profound yet accessible, or convey some novel combination of deep thoughts with good times, a lot of writers end up looking exactly the same as their peers."
As artists of the word, do our representations of ourselves match what we convey on the page? For some of us, the answer is a stark no. Perhaps we use the written story to express the exact opposite of what we are. But who are we? Visual artists and performers have a great opportunity to live their art, an opportunity writers don’t necessarily share. Some writers may have no interest in being a character. Writing characters offers enough satisfaction.
It’s something to think about. Do we want to blend with our peers? Do we want to stand out?
If we had one opportunity to tell people who we really are, do we want to play it safe?
Who am I? The very question poses a challenge. I had to face this question when I restyled my business cards this summer. A friend picked a template that really gave them color and spice. When we finished them, she added a reluctant “or maybe you want something more conservative.”
I rejected conservative. How often do I play conservative and where does it get me? I am a tad colorful. I can be loud. I am honest, dedicated and dependable. Those of us who have worked/ still work in the corporate world can often feel chafed by the idea of fitting into a mold, trying to be the perfect employee. We have too many ideas for that.
So who are you?
What message do you have for the world?
And, if you had one photograph to convey it, would you should your tattoo? Have the photo taken in your favorite reading spot? Share the spotlight with your muse? Visit a location that inspires your stories?
As authors, we have to sell ourselves as well as our stories.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Character Politics

Do you know your characters' politics?


My stepmother loves George W. Bush. She is not a fan of Barack Obama. This is central to her identity as an intelligent business owner, a Christian and a conservative. It also was very hard for her to talk about anything with my liberal hairdresser. They both respected each other, but neither could be dissuaded from the gospel of their politics. And they both had a lot of passion about the topic.

Now, before you dismiss this bit of character development by saying, "My character is not interested in politics," let me remind you that we're all political in some way-- even if it boils down to one of two philosophies:
1. The "Why vote? It doesn't make a lick of difference" people
2. The "If you didn't vote for anyone, you can't complain about anything" camp
(a variation of the "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" mentality)
That's step one. Do your characters vote? Why or why not?

Let me ask my mortal characters:
Adelaide~ She votes, primarily liberal, but often forgets elections, can't remember when the primary is, and couldn't tell you who her congressman is.
Étienne~ VOTES. Religiously. Liberal, and because he's French, votes primarily socialist, though does get into the oratory tricks of French politicians.
Basilie~ VOTES and has had a high-ranking political career depending where in the series we're talking about. Despite her Frenchness, she's very conservative. HATES the French social welfare state, and has had a career as a cutthroat businessman in the United States (and a Harvard MBA) so she's a savage capitalist.

Now. Step Two.
Why does this matter?

Character's political leanings (and their religious attitudes/practices) can provide key insights as to how they will treat others.

Each one of the character's above runs into someone begging for money on the streets of Manhattan. They are each alone, so they have no one to impress or influence their actions.

~ gets overwhelmed. Hands the guy some cash. Moves on and feels guilty on and off for the rest of the day.
Étienne ~ Hands the guy all the cash in his wallet and goes to the store and gets him a new pair of shoes
Basilie ~ ignores him.

Now, if they were talking amongst themselves about what had happened... how would the conversations go?

If Adelaide told Étienne that she felt guilty, he would tell her she did the most she could and then he'd go find the guy and buy him a new pair of shoes. Okay, maybe not with the shoes, but it could happen that way.

If Étienne was late for a business meeting because of his outing with the beggar, his staff would murmur and Adelaide would adore Étienne all the more for his compassion.

If Basilie heard that Étienne was buying shoes for homeless men again, she would call him an idiot and threaten to take his charge cards away.

And Étienne would consider Basilie's approach cruel.

On election day, there's some heated arguments in my universe.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Query... or not to query

I queried a major publisher today that is having an open submission period. Querying can be thrilling, it reminds you of the juicy parts of your work and why you like it, but it's also draining. Most queries of even the best writers end up rejected. That's the nature of the beast.

So, there is something troubling about putting those words together, writing those letters and a synopsis. Every once in a while, there's a line that inexplicably feels weak, and you can't label why and you dicker with it. In some cases you "fix" it, in others you merely improve it.

Queries are like waving your arms in a crowd of people yelling "PICK ME!" when everyone else is waving their arms and yelling "PICK ME!"

And I imagine myself, as I peruse the tweets by agents and editors, reading others' queries and snickering or wondering if something could have merit. How can you tell by a letter?

Some interns, agents and editors are picking through the coins looking for treasure, and we all have an idea what we consider treasure.

Everything we all write is treasure. Problem is finding someone who is seeking that treasure.

In the 16th century, salt and gold were treasures. Pepper and rhubarb before that. Everyone-- even today-- will agree that gold is a treasure. But salt? And pepper? Needed to preserve meat for the winter.

Spices, coffee, chocolate, all once luxury goods. As was sugar. Europeans grew accustomed to the new sensation of "sweet" in the 17th century, thus sugar became a treasure.

A diabetic would not agree with that treasure.

Don't lose heart. Even if your manuscript is the "rhubarb" of queries. Which ironically, rhubarb was prized for its laxative qualities. But I'm not saying your manuscript is poop.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Two weeks

I have faced this still blog for two weeks, the automatic calendar item on my iPhone reminding me to write. I have ignored it. But today I could no longer ignore it.

I have written about 400 words in Courting Apparitions since school began. I have also written in my journal. I also wrote a 900-word essay on perceptions of North Africa today and the remnants of colonialism and imperialism.

I have edited for clients.

I have read Edward Said and textbooks.

I finally started Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games, while my husband reads Mockingjay, the final volume. Suzanne Collins rocks.

I have met with my critique group and "felt" problems with my pacing.

So, all of this non-creative writing activity has left me with time to organize my plot weaknesses and improve those pace problems. Even if merely in my head.

I hear a major publisher has opened up temporarily to queries from unrepresented authors, unsolicited manuscripts. I'm tempted. But part of me is less than thrilled.

I'm torn right now, because I want to write, but I also want to do a lot of other things-- like read. I can absolutely be the disciplined writer. It's hard for me not to write. But after this summer... my struggles with anemia and finally regaining my strength, I'm not sure how hard would be proper to push myself.

That is today's question: How hard should a writer push? Are those self-imposed deadlines and goals really the key to success?

I don't know, but Suzanne Collins is looking might attractive right now.