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.