Thursday, June 25, 2009

What’s the Big Idea?

I feel like I’ve been working on my WIP in layers. I’m trying to really challenge myself and question everything in the novel. But every time I get one layer figured out, it makes me see through to the next one to wrestle with. For example, I recently spent time figuring out what my character wanted. Hooray! But then I got stumped when I had a good-but-not-great answer to the question “why does she want it?”

This story is an office drama, but in workshop last week my instructor Jill made a comment that stories don’t really take place in a stinky old office, do they? Okay, Jill did not use the word stinky, but that’s how my MC Sadie would describe it.

So Jill then asked the question, what’s the story about? Short answer: it’s about how a naïve, smart-but-not-as-awesome-as-she-thinks young woman deals with a re-org that puts her job in jeopardy.

But Jill pushed further. She asked, “What’s the big idea?” To which I wanted to respond, “Hey, what’s the big idea with you, punk?” But Jill is not a punk so I figured she meant something smarter than that. And she did.

She meant, what’s the big concept I’m trying to examine in this novel? It’s not just about office politics. While that’s all fine and good, Jill was looking for a big idea like love, loss, redemption, self-discovery. Oh boy, did I get worried. I did not want to write another love story. Don’t get me wrong, I love to write about love, but I also want to challenge myself to move beyond my usual box of tricks.

But then, Jill said, “What about hope? This character, she’s a big cynic. Can she maybe be hopeful too?” Bingo. That was it. Wouldn’t you know it that I talk about hope in the very last scene of the book. Can I make that a theme -- a big idea -- that I weave throughout the story? You better believe I can.

I don’t know how I’ll pull that off yet, but that’s okay. I know I need that layer, and that’s a big step. I’ll figure out how to make it work somehow. At least I hope so.

So what's your story’s big idea?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Writing Practice

A week from today, I’ll be leaving for India for forty days. My husband is going for a business trip, and since I’m “self-employed” I’m tagging along to write. While this is first and foremost a work trip for both of us, we do have a vacation tagged onto the last week.

But I’m trying to figure out how I’ll handle the work part. And by that I mean what are my writing goals? Goals keep me motivated and give me a sense of accomplishment when I cross something off a list. I pounded out the first draft by hitting a daily writing goal. I rewrote the second draft by refusing to focus only on the opening chapters and making sure I did a walk-through of the entire manuscript.

A few months ago I thought my goal while in India should be to complete the manuscript. But I realize now that is way too aggressive. While I think my gushing it out by the seat of my pants sans outline approach really worked for my first draft, now it’s time for the manuscript to marinate. I need to listen to what my novel is trying to say, question my characters, and figure out what big ideas I want to investigate in my story. I can’t rush this.

When I finished the second draft a few weeks ago, (which I realized I never blogged about, probably because I didn’t know what I was going to attempt next), I knew I needed a break before I dug back in. But I’m now considering not touching the book at all when I’m in India.

Instead, I might do some practice writing. Just write for fun, write with no goals, create little scenes that may never see their way into a full story. And one thing I stink at is setting. What better place to practice that than in the color-infused, chaotic world of India?

We’ll see if I pull this off. I’m most worried about making sure I still feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day. But I’m ready to shake up my process a bit and see what happens.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Writing Without a Blueprint

The past few weeks as I’ve been struggling with the mess of the first draft, I’ve questioned if my organic, writing by the seat of my pants with no outline or idea where I’m heading approach was really a good idea. But now I think it is. I never, ever would have sat down and dreamed up this story. Or these characters. They just kind of happened. And then stuff happened to them. As I got to understand my characters, I could put more story around their lives, finally build some tension, understand their goals and figure out what the big climax they’re all heading toward actually is.

I really did like the ending of the first draft. The beginning was slow, as early beginnings tend to be in my world, but it had potential. Actually, I liked the whole first draft, the way you love a four-year-old’s weird crayon self portrait that is really just two squiggly lines, because hello, the kid is just four.

So I say to my first draft, you are just a first draft, you don’t know any better. But you will grow up into a final draft, one of these days. You just need a little time and practice.

Anyway, as I’m deleting and moving so much stuff in this next draft, I wonder if I could’ve made life easier for myself by writing under a more structured plan – i.e., an outline. I hear that people do this, yet I’ve never ever tried it. It just doesn’t feel, well, creative.

My husband Mike suggested that how I write a first draft is like building a house without a blueprint. I know a house needs some basic things: kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room. I know a story needs some basic things: inciting event, conflict, voice, characters, climax, resolution.

So I kind of built a house that has all the basic elements, but not so much in the right place. The structure of my first draft is kind of like a house where the front door opens right into the bathroom, and you have to step over the toilet, into the tub and then through the kitchen to get to the living room. My inciting event was on page 74 or something like that.

On the second draft, I’m tearing down walls and really thinking about if I want an open floor living space or a separate kitchen and dining room. And I’m patching up that big hole in the roof. And I’m taking down the four by four room in the middle of the house with no windows or closets because who needs something like that?

It’s pretty fun, this rehabbing of my story. Would I build a house this way? No, that would be super expensive and there’d be a heck of a lot of dust. But for a story, building it without a blueprint works just fine.

So after I get the layout of the house in the right shape (plot), then I have the future drafts where I’m painting and buying furniture. And the final draft of polishing where I’m decorating and finding just the right piece of art to hang on the wall and candlesticks for the dining room table.

And then I’ll have a real house, built in stages, little by little, nail by nail. And inside it will be my book that I wrote, also in stages, little by little, word by word.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Check out my post at Listen UP! about why I heart twitter. I mention both Oprah and John Mayer. Also, some things about writing.

Don't forget to follow me at

Friday, June 12, 2009

Blog Goodness 6/12/09

Here are some interesting things I read this week on -- I was going to use the phrase the “interwebs” because everyone does that to be funny and I want to do it too. But then I worry there’s going to be one person who doesn’t know it’s a joke, and think I’m stupid, or worse yet, leave a comment that says “I think you meant internet.” No, I meant interwebs. Plural. There, I got that out of my system.

Anyway, here is this week’s blog goodness:

A sad but true tip from Janet Reid: “It’s too soon to query if … it’s your first novel.” I think she’s right and I wish I learned this a year ago.

Great post on word count from Moonrat. I’ll pull out two comments here: “I would say that the absolute upper limit of OK is 100,000 for a debut novel, but you'll find some people turned off to it if it's anything above 80,000” and “Probably the most universal flaw in early-career writing is overwriting or over-inclusion of material.”

Query Shark, who is Janet Reid, but the woman really has a knack of spelling things out for you: “Your job as a writer is to make me care about the protagonist even if I do want to smack her upside the head.”

Via QueryTracker, some positive thoughts on the economy courtesy of Beth Fleisher from the Barry Goldblatt Literary Agency: "I am a huge believer that good books will always sell. I would be crazy to pass up a book I love and an author I want to represent because of the economy."

From FinePrint Literary Agency: "Peter Olsen, the former boss of Random House recently wrote an essay on the future of e-books which is fascinating. Click here to read the whole essay. In part, Olsen says: 'Book businesspeople are about to make the same mistake that has devastated the music and newspaper industries: worrying about whether a new digital format will cannibalize their traditional business rather than focusing on how to make the new format more competitive with other digital media.'"

At Editor Unleashed, a post by Jordan E. Rosenfeld that gives a different point of view to my take on Character, Story, Language. I love differing points of view! “So rather than trying to write character first, then going back to see if you’ve got a functioning plot, or hoping that you built a convincing setting, and so on, you’re better off learning to write integrated scenes.”

And over at Bookslut: “If you had asked me if the world needed another 6-page examination of the usefulness (or not) of creative writing programs, I would have made obnoxious puking gestures. But surprise, surprise, the New Yorker manages to make it entertaining.” I haven’t read the full article yet, but as a proud MFA dropout I'm sure I will eat that one up.

And that's what I call blog goodness!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Character, Story, Language

I’m tinkering with my writing process, figuring out what is most effective, motivating, efficient, practical, productive, etc. Last night, my shiny new critique group talked about our writing process. I am still a firm believer in writing draft one without an outline or even an idea.

For this book, I used draft one to discover my character, Sadie, and figure out what she was like, how she talked, where she lived, how she spent her weekends. I found her voice.

In the second draft I’ve worked on the story. I asked myself questions about Sadie. Now that I know her personality, what is it that Sadie wants? Why does she want it? And what’s the obstacle that’s getting in the way of this? What’s at stake if she doesn’t get it? This helped me develop the story I was telling about Sadie, aka the plot.

The questions I answered (which I really forced myself to think about in this novel) are important and, frustratingly connected in different ways. I was happy when I was certain that I knew what Sadie wanted, then defeated when I realized I didn’t know why. I had an obstacle, but wasn’t sure what was at stake that motivates her to keep moving in the face of conflict. I’ll be spending at least one more draft (I wasn’t going to count them, but here I am doing it) working out the story.

And then, once I my character is strong and my story is in the right place, I’ll focus on language. That’s when I’ll tinker for hours over one paragraph. That’s when I’ll search for opportunities to add metaphors and similes. That’s when I’ll decide if someone’s face is beet red or wine red.

This is just one type of process, and it works for me right now. I may evolve into another process. Some people swear by outlines but that approach just doesn’t move me. Although, I’ve never seriously tried it, and someday I should to see if it works for me or if there’s anything I can take from that approach and apply it to my writing process.

I don’t think it matters how you write, just that you keep writing. Whatever tricks you need to do to keep those fingers dancing across the keyboard is just fine.

What's your process like?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

South Asian Author Night

Hey, hop on over to Listen UP! to check out my post on a South Asian Author Night reading I attended. Listen UP! is the blog of Story Studio Chicago where I’m a long-time student and a new staff member. They are full of the awesome!

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson is now available on paperback. I know Joshilyn from her so-hilarious-you-will-spit-Diet-Coke-out-of-your-eye-socket blog, Faster Than Kudzu. Joshilyn doesn't blog so much about writing, but a lot about funny things that go on in her household and I would definitely say that she has a higher ratio of funny to non-funny than the average household. Maybe this is because she has kids.

Anyway, she also is very talented at using all caps for emphasis instead of italics and NOT making it sound like she's screaming at you. I think this is very interesting skill and I'm not sure how she pulls it off.

I have a copy of her book Between, Georgia here in the living room. It's in my "To Read" queue, and if the book I'm supposed to be reading next for book club doesn't come in from the library soon, I am going to have to dig into this thing. I was excited that I read Joshilyn's blog, went to my local library branch (yes, I'm in Chicago but the branch near my house is just teeny) and there was her book on the shelf. I felt famous just for checking it out.

I feel bad that I didn't buy her book, since that's what authors really like you to do. But with the economy and all, I imposed a no book buying rule at the start of this year, and let me tell you that I am reading more books than ever.
Courtesy of the fabulous Chicago Public Library (and likely any library near you), you can request any book you like online and the library will send you a nice email when it arrives at your local branch.

So even though I haven't started Between, Georgia (okay, I read the first page when I checked it out and I was hooked and it also made me laugh) and I've never read The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, I can still heartily recommend Joshilyn's books solely by the quality and high level of fun in her blog.

Because we all know a good blog means a good book.

P.S. Joshilyn is hosting a little contest where if you visit her blog and make a comment, you'll be entered into a drawing for a free book. And if you post about The Girl Who Stopped Swimming on your blog or Facebook or MySpace, you'll be entered twice. Check out her blog for the details. And spread the word about a nice and funny lady who writes books for a living.

Update: The Girl Who Stopped Swimming just made the 7/7/09 New York Times Bestseller list!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Marketing = Work

Just a test post. More details later.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Blog Goodness

I read brilliant things on blogs (you have a blog reader, like Bloglines or Google Reader or something, so you only have to go to one place to read them all, right?). Sometimes I think I should just re-post what other people write on their blogs, since they are smarter, funnier and more successful than me. So, here are a few things I liked that I read on blogs this week:

"When you're considering what to write about, you have to start with the assumption that everyone you're up against in the slush pile can write -- it's your idea that will set you apart." -- Super Agent Nathan Bransford, and this is even a re-post 2007.

"Dialogue made up of nothing but words rarely works." -- Agent Jessica Faust at Bookends . Sounds so obvious, but think about it. What else is the character up to while talking? Give the reader that stuff too!

"Wanting to meet the author who wrote your favorite book is like wanting to meet the cow that produced your hamburger. Basically, you’re only going to be disappointed." -- The prolific and adorable author Meg Cabot.

"So every scene should in some way show the character (I mean, the scene's protagonist or central character) acting and reacting with the motivation or goal in mind. Their ambition/desire doesn't take a vacation. And if he should find himself going several hours without thinking of the goal or acting to fulfill the motivation, then it should be a conflict." -- Editorrent, a blog that I love but don't quite know how to pronounce. Editor rent? Edit torrent? Edit or rent? Anyway, it's written by two editors and they give lots of good craft advice.

Now that's what I call blog goodness.

The More You Know

Hey, remember those cheesy self-help public announcements NBC used to do on Saturday mornings with the soft music and rainbow? Some star would talk to you about self-image or whatever and the tagline was “The More You Know?” Are they still doing those? I also heard a rumor that Saturday morning cartoons don’t even exist anymore. Thanks a lot, Saved by the Bell.

Anyway, I had one of those learning moments about writing where I realized “Boy, the more I know about this, the more I learn how much I don’t know.” The longer I spend searching for things to fix in this draft, the more holes I discover. This is a good thing, I tell myself. The last thing I want to do is try to write a book thinking I know it all. I realize that I do not; but I still continue to amaze myself by learning exactly how much I don’t know.

How about an example? I realized that my character doesn’t really change in the end! How dare she! There is a nice climax, a payoff for the reader, and a decent resolution. But this stuff happens to her. It’s not quite deus ex machina; the climax has been set up pretty decently, following a series of events leading it up to be believable. But Sadie isn’t the one calling the shots in the climax. She should be.

The climax is the place in the story where something’s gotta give; something absolutely has to happen to change the course of events. My character is backed into a corner, and someone has to make a move.

But what I realize is that Sadie has to be the one to make that move. She should be the one to affect change, not someone else. And the choice she makes should be evident of how she’s changed as a character since she embarked on this journey at the beginning of the story.

This all seems obvious as I write it now. I’ve read it in countless writing books, heard it in plenty of workshops. But I didn’t know it was missing from this book until I sat around and stared at my story, going over and over it in my mind.

Does this mean the climax of my story is going to change drastically? No, the end result will be pretty similar. There are only a few options on how the story can end (at least without getting aliens involved).

What I need to do now is figure out how Sadie will change in the end. This is a very big question. It ties into the one I’ve nailed down recently of What does Sadie want? But I’m still fuzzy on the Why does she want it? I have to spend more time with her figuring out her motivation.

To learn more about Sadie, I have to write more scenes for her and see what she does. Then once I know more about her, I can decide (or she will show me, really) how she’s changing or where she needs to change and why. Then I can decide which option for my climax would fit her actions, and go on from there.

And then, hopefully, when Sadie is backed into the corner, she’s going to be the one calling the shots and we’ll all understand why she makes the choice she does.