Thursday, December 30, 2010

So Long 2010

I haven't blogged the second part of 2010 as I was busy cooking up these nuggets!

I did manage to read a few books, and a list of my favs are on StoryStudio Chicago's blog, Cooler by the Lake.

Here's to a happy new year and a return to writing in 2011!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Trying a Story on For Size

I've been tinkering with my writing process, hoping to learn what works for me as a writer and what doesn't as I (hopefully) grow in my writing skills and process. I'm halfway into a new novel, but when I reached that midpoint I hit a bit of a standstill. I wondered if my seat-of-my-pants approach might be doing me a disservice and I should try a different method. I thought it might be time to *gasp* plan.

But when I tried to think out the rest of my novel, it just didn't take. I had ideas in my head of a few ways the story could end, a handful of obstacles I could throw at my characters. But that was about as far as I could take it. When I sat down with the intention to plan major plot points, or draft deeper character sketches, I came up with nothing. So much nothing I stopped writing anything at all.

And then one day, while reading, an idea popped into my head. I wrote a scene, short but sweet. A couple days later I wrote another one. And it all started to gather momentum, and I've gotten back on the writing horse. I'm quite relieved, and really glad to confirm that those thoughts of "I should just give up writing" were temporary moments of insanity.

So I realized yesterday that I have a certain writing style, and that style keeps me writing, and writing makes me happy, so maybe I should just stick with what works instead of trying to invent something new.

The best way I can describe my writing process -- just sitting down and typing and seeing what comes out -- is that it's like shopping. When I go shopping, I often have an idea in mind of what I'm looking for. A dress for a special occasion, new shorts for the summer, cute weekend tops. That's all I know, and that's enough. Then when I get into a store, I grab anything and everything that I might even consider draping on my body.

I go into the fitting room with clothes spilling over my arms. And I try it all on for size. Some clothes that look adorable on the hanger look terrible on me. Too boxy, color washes me out, pants are too long. And then some clothes are okay, take a few turns in the mirror to consider, and get temporarily assigned to the "maybe" pile. And then there are those gems that are a perfect fit. You know with that first glance in the mirror that the dress is to die for.

And that's what my writing style is like -- I just can't tell what will happen next until I sit down and type it out. I need to constantly try my story on for size. Some scenes are awful and need to be deleted. Some scenes have potential, but you know they need more work. And then there are those scenes that push the plot forward, reveal deeper layers of your character, and burst with beautiful language.

I'm not a plotter. I can't order clothing from a catalog either. These are things that I know and accept about myself, so there's no sense in fighting them. As long as I keep writing, I have to believe that some great story somewhere is bound to evolve. I'll discover the story that's a perfect fit.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Writers Group Guest

What would get me driving through the crummy Colorado snow on a day when it hit 83 degrees in Chicago? A writer's group. I've been on a family ski vacation in Steamboat Springs this week, and as I'm not a skier, I've been looking for other ways to pass the time when everyone else is up on the slopes.

So I've spent the week reading and writing, just like at home. As I was looking through a visitor's guide, I found a listing for the Steamboat Springs Writer's Group. They welcome drop-ins and visitors, so I schlepped through the snow to hang out with writers.

The group was wonderful. About 10 or 12 members attended today, but they sometimes get up to 20. This group has been around for more than 25 years and they meet every Thursday. Folks read their work -- up to ten minutes -- and there's a brief discussion of their work afterward. It's not a hearty critique like I'm used to in writing workshop, but people offer off the cuff reactions and insights.

I read the opening scene of my current novel, just three pages. I received feedback that I should get to the crux of the story sooner. Even with three pages, they wanted the story to move faster. Some folks disagreed with that, but the topic was debated enough to signal that it's something to think about it.

And I've heard so many different ways of saying that an author owns her work, and you can certainly ignore any critique comments you like. But in this group, Cesare gave a unique interpretation of this rule that I will never forget. He said, "If you don't like our comments, just flush 'em!"

They invited me to coffee afterward, and I sat and chatted with these writers who live on ranches or ski every Sunday -- a completely different set of writers than I'd ever met. It was a wonderful experience. If you're ever in Steamboat Springs, check them out on Thursdays at noon at The Depot. They'll be happy to have you.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

All About My Writing Home

I'm excited to share this article about StoryStudio Chicago, my writing home that I often gush about here. I've taken creative writing classes at StoryStudio Chicago for about three years and work there part-time as the Events Coordinator.

And did you see that great nugget of news at the end of the article my non-Chicago writer friends? StoryStudio Chicago will be offering online classes in the future! So even if you're not local to Chicago, you can soon take part in the supportive and challenging writing community that StoryStudio provides.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Olive Kitteridge

I just finished reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, and it was one of my favorite reads in recent years. I read Strout's debut novel, Amy and Isabelle, years ago, and found it breathtaking.

Olive Kitteridge is a novel in stories, mostly centered around the oafish and oblivious Olive, a schoolteacher and pharmacist's wife, but also the folks who live in her small Maine town. I love character-driven stories and this book is all about character. Each short story has its own story arc, and is beautiful independently.

But through the collection of stories, the reader follows Olive wading through life with oblivion, anger, and sadness. Yet it's her brief moments of self-awareness -- she is very observant, but about everyone else and rarely herself -- that are startling in their simplicity.

Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for this beautiful book. I think it's a must-read for writers who want to study the art of characterization.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Story Ideas: Do You Find Them or Do They Find You?

A writers group I belong to asked to do a profile on me, and one of the questions was, "Where do you get the ideas for your stories?"

I didn't have a glamorous answer, just that sometimes I have a fuzzy idea of a character, or maybe an opening line. I sit down and type and see what happens.

I've been sitting down and typing and seeing what happens to my current WIP, although this time I have a few more ideas of what I want or need to write about next, a rough bulleted list of plot points I know the story will hit. I just don't know how the story will get there or what the characters will do at those points. I just write and hope that these folks I've created know enough by now to keep causing trouble.

How about you? Do you get ideas for stories, or do you show up and see what happens?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Out of Order

I'm 27,000 words into my current work in progress -- over a fourth of the way complete with a first draft. One might say this is a minor milestone to be slightly proud of, but I'm skeptical. Instead of jumping up and down and glowing about how many words I have on the page, I know (and it took me two other novels to learn this) that now is a pretty good time to stop and see if I need to do some course correction.

I've done a lot of experimenting with this novel. I'm writing this draft super slow, with these long, leggy sentences. So my word count is not shooting up that high, which makes me nervous. But, I know that this is the best first draft I've ever had.

I'm also writing from multiple points of view. This story revolves around two couples, and I'm telling the story from each of these folks' POV. I did this at first as an experiment, to get to know all my characters better. But then I liked the concept and decided to stick with it. I've had fifty pages in front of my workshop group, and the jury is still out on whether or not this is effective. The most helpful feedback is that I'm not spending a long enough time with each character, and that's been an easy fix. I'm sticking with it for now.

But the thing I'm doing most differently with this WIP is that I'm writing my scenes out of order. I've heard people talk about doing this before and I thought they were out of their minds. But now I get it. I have, for once, an idea of the plot of this story. So I wanted to write out key scenes and see what they felt like. Then I've been going back and filling in the gaps.

Yet now I wonder if this is harmless and I can keep drafting this way, or if it's a lousy idea and I should just knock it off. Does anyone write this way? Have you tried and it found it to be a disaster? Or has it been an effective writing technique for you? I'd love to hear any and all advice!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Waiting Out Winter

The romantic part of winter in Chicago is long gone. I’ve forgotten the excitement I felt at the first fresh snow. How smoothly it blanketed the streets. I loved looking out the window, past the Christmas tree and onto the snowy streets.

Now, it’s just a game of endurance. Now it’s the days where the snow squeaks under your shoes and it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. Or days when it’s so cold, too cold to snow, and the trees are bare and the air feels blank except that it’s biting your cheeks. The new scarf that was cute and warm in November now smells like mildew and snot.

And maybe, if you’re like me, you question why you even live in a city with such awful weather. Why do you even put yourself through it? But maybe, on a good day, you can summon up memories of the perfect summer day where you linger at a beer garden with friends, or have a nighttime picnic, or go for an extra long run along the lakefront. And you remember why you’re willing to wait out winter.

So as I begin the querying process, I wonder if it’s just like waiting out winter. Those cold days, weeks, months of waiting to hear a response from an agent. Of hoping for a request for a partial, or better yet a full, or, the dream of dreams, representation. But some weeks, all you get are more rejections. Some weeks, all you get is more snow.

And you wonder why you go through it all. But then you remember that if you work hard enough, if you keep at it and don’t give up, an offer will arrive. Summer will arrive.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What Reality TV Can Teach Us About Writing

I'm a fan of reality TV. American Idol, The Biggest Loser, Project Runway, Tabitha's Salon Takeover, Tough Love, Hoarders. And when I spend time not writing, I try to think about what my current procrastination activity can teach me about writing. And reality TV has four things going for it that we can apply to our writing: casting, editing, trouble, and high stakes.

The folks who go on reality TV are recruited usually for one of two reasons. They have extreme talent (American Idol, Project Runway) or they are a hot mess (American Idol, Project Runway). The characters on these shows are selected because they are extreme. They are not run-of-the-mill, easy to get along with, happy, well-adjusted people with no special skills or obstacles to overcome. Those people (average folks like you and me) don't make good television. They don't make good writing either.

So make sure your characters are fighting for a dream (American Idol), have awful social ticks they need to correct (Tough Love), or are facing death if they don't get their act together (Biggest Loser).

So many people who come onto these shows thinking they are nice, normal, run of the mill folks complain that the show is edited in a way that makes them look worse than they are. That the show only televised their worst moments and left all the sweet stuff on the cutting room floor. So while I feel bad for these characters because they are real people, I don't feel bad about doing the exact same thing to fictional characters!

You need to show the worst of your characters. You need to show them when they are sweating through an uphill climb, their large flabby belly flapping in the wind. When they lose their shit and start screaming at someone who broke the sewing machine. When a strong, well-composed young man cries like a baby when Simon tells him he's not a good singer.

One of my favorite episodes of Project Runway is the group challenge! In a game where folks usually design their own garments, the group challenge creates a protagonist (team leader) and antagonist (not the team leader). The team leader gets to call the shots and wants to show their vision on the runway. Well, the other guy wants to show his vision too, but he's not in charge. Instant conflict!

High Stakes
On Tabitha's Salon Makeover, she's not just visiting salons that give bad haircuts -- the show also looks for salons where the owner is facing bankruptcy. Usually without the staff's knowledge. But when everyone learns that if they don't start doing better business, the owner might lose her house, everyone becomes invested in a single goal and bonds together. And what higher stakes could their be than death? The Biggest Loser has everyone literally fighting for their life.

So with some careful thought to what type of characters you include in your story, crafty editing, lots of trouble, and high stakes, you have the ingredients for a story that will pull readers in and keep them turning the pages.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How Soon Do You Start Critiques?

I've been workshopping a new novel, one that has less than 20,000 words so far. I haven't let so many people see my words so early before. I always thought that I needed to get a story into decent shape before people could have something solid to critique. However, now I realize that showing an early draft to critique partners can help you create that shape.

I sent my first two chapters for critique last December, and I asked the group to focus on character, not plot. I had an idea of how the plot would reveal itself, but at I wanted to know if my characters were compelling. And my workshop told me who they liked and who they didn't. What they were curious to know about each character's background and what details they didn't need to get weighed down in.

At the end of the critique, the group speculated about where the story was going and what could happen next. A few folks picked out the plot path I was heading on, but what was more interesting to me was hearing new possibilities of what could happen to these characters that I'd never dreamed of. They gave me some potential directions to investigate.

I'd been hesitant to toss pages out for critique so early before, but now I'm going to get early stuff out there sooner. And in my notes I submitted with my pages, I asked the group to focus on a certain aspect (character) that I needed the most help with, and the group kindly obliged.

Once you have a full first draft, it might be harder to change direction and press that delete key so often. It has been for me at times. But now that I'm sharing these early pages, I feel like making changes won't be as gut-wrenching because I'm not tossing away so much time and effort.

What have your experiences been with getting critiques at various stages in your drafting process?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Homer Simpson & Character Development

I was watching The Simpsons Twentieth Anniversary Special this weekend, and a quote by creator Matt Groening struck me as a tip to apply to creative writing. If you're not familiar with Homer Simpson, he's kind of a doofus. He's lazy and terrible at his job. He often shirks parental responsibility. He wastes the family's money on crazy schemes. He spends too much time at the bar and often forgets the name of his youngest child.

But, viewers love him. At the end of the special, they addressed the question of why, when Homer does so many awful and destructive things, does everyone love him? Matt said that someone suggested that viewers love Homer because Marge (his wife) loves Homer. Well, isn't that sweet?

But, Matt contradicted this assertion. He said that he believes that viewers love Homer because Homer loves Marge. And that, my friends, is how you offer your audience a well-rounded character. If you know The Simpsons, you also know that Homer and Marge are crazy in love. When Homer gets in a jam and Marge gets mad at him, Homer makes his sad, Homer whimper and realizes he's been a doofus. And he feels bad about it and know he's disappointed Marge.

If Homer went through all his hijinks not caring about his consequences, he wouldn't be so appealing to an audience. But because he balances out his screwballness with sincerity, because he loves his wife and hates letting her down, he's likeable. He's relatable.

And when Homer and Marge walk off into the sunset together, you know he's truly in love. And that makes for a character we all can root for.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Creating Trouble for Your Characters

I love my story's characters. Even the mean ones. I want the very best for them, and I want to see all their hopes and dreams come true. And with fiction, this is very easy to do.

Lose your job? Hey, how about you pop by the 7-11 and I'll make you buy a lottery ticket on a whim. I'll even make it a winner. Striking out on the dating dance floor? Well, I can whip up a man who meets all your requirements. Want to bop around Europe? Wouldn't you know it, the value of the Euro just plummeted and I can get you there for a song.

Problem is, all these easy outs don't make for interesting writing. It's clear that as an author you'll have a more complex relationship with your characters than anyone who reads about them. But, to create compelling writing, you really have to care more about your readers than your characters.

Because creating trouble for your characters is what your readers are thirsting for. They want to see the very worst of your characters. They want to read about people who are down on their luck. Stuck between a rock and a bigger rock. Choosing between crappy option A and crappier option B. It's what keeps the reader turning the pages, to find out how will Billy get out of this mess?

And without the readers engaged enough to keep turning the pages, those characters don't get a chance to tell their story. So fall in love with your characters, sure. But love your readers more.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Short Story Publication: In Amsterdam

I'm thrilled to announce that my short story "In Amsterdam" will be included in the Genre Wars Anthology. The great folks over at The Literary Lab put this baby together. Look at the beautiful cover!

Proceeds from the anthology go to a non-profit organization that supports writers. Please hop on over to their site and vote for an organization!

I started this story when I was in Amsterdam, and blogged about it in this post. Here's a picture of me writing those first few sentences!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Just Keep Showing Up

Well hello blogosphere! I hope you had a very nice holiday season and are settling into 2010 nicely. Mostly, I hope that wherever you are it's warmer than it is here in Chicago (current temperature: 14 degrees!). Now, let's chat more about writing, shall we?

One day in early December when I checked in at the gym, the general manager was working the front desk instead of the usual silent, sleepy employee who barely mumbles a hello. It was one of those days where I was too tired to even go to the gym, but I went anyway because I know that's when I need it most. I could tell the manager wanted to chat, but I just wanted to get my card swiped and get on with the workout.

But the manager beamed at me with a shiny smile as he slid my card through the reader and said, "Hi! What's your holiday workout goal?" He pointed to the wall behind me, that was plastered with small sheets of white paper where other members had posted their holiday workout goals.

I held my hand out for my card, not wanting to get roped into his game, but his smile worked its magic on me. So I said what instantly popped into my mind: "Just keep showing up."

"That sounds like a great goal!" the manager said and slapped down a piece of paper and pen for me to jot it down. And I was sucked in. It was a great goal, I decided.

I don't really care what kind of workout I do when I go to the gym, I just count it as a win that I even show up. I know that once I get to the gym, or step outside with my running shoes on and iPod in my ears, exercise is going to happen. That first step of showing up is more than half the battle.

And perhaps writing is the same way. If I sit down in front of my computer, and instead of going to Facebook or Google News or Twitter, I open the Word document that contains my current WIP, writing is going to happen. Some days I'll get in a great scene or craft some fantastic metaphors. Some days I'll write just a page or two that's way too heavy on dialogue.

But I've written words, and writing some words is closer to a book than writing no words. And the first step in all that, where I need to start each and every day, is to just keep showing up.