Saturday, May 15, 2010

Kick Start Your Writing

My astrological chart says I'm not a self starter and I would have to agree. I am a born procrastinator -- on some things, writing being one of them. I love to write and can sit and write for hours on end, usually irritated that I have to get up and tend to nature's call or eat. I have been known to write for 36 hours straight, with nature breaks, of course, and not get tired. I am in the zone. The words are coming. The characters are cooperating and often teaching me things about them I did not know. My fingers are not tired of typing and my backside has not yet reached the leaden stage where getting up is like trying to free my nether regions from a powerful electromagnet -- must be the endorphins and adrenaline coursing through my bloodstream. Everything works fine. I wrote a 100,000-word biography like that once.

Then there are times that I just cannot face the page, knowing that if I do I will be caught in powerful currents and dragged down into the zone where I will not emerge for hours, maybe even a day or two. I cannot afford it. I have to work my day job and do the laundry and bulldoze the detritus from the last writing stint, definitely not a good idea if avoiding surprise visits by the health department.

I do write every day, but not on my works-in-progress. I journal every day, keep up with correspondence and emails, and work, which consists of 8-10 hours of typing dictation, very technical dictation. On the laptop waits my novel or short story waiting to be finished and it calls to me. Like the hunger pangs I ignore when I am in the writing zone, I ignore the siren's call to write until pretty soon, like hunger pangs, the call fades. Then begins the avoidance dance and the procrastination when a deadline looms. It is my fault; I am not a halfway person. I am either all in or all out, my versions of "Do or do not; there is no try," from Yoda to Luke Skywalker. There stands the problem: inability to commit hindquarters to seat in order to write.

Instead, I play a couple rounds of computer games (I prefer skill and knowledge games), work on blog posts, fire off a couple of quick tweets and a run through Facebook to see if I missed anything and then rounds through the various blogs, all while checking email and getting ready for work while sipping a cup of hot green tea that is cooling fast. One job through the widgets to check hits on the blogs and a quick visit to see if anyone has read the latest chapter of the novel I posted on a publishing site. The novel is unfinished and needs a final edit and proofread. It is the reason I have been procrastinating.

I want to finish the novel. Well, it is already finished and needs a little tune-up and loose ends tied. I need to finish the novel before the editor gets to it. I plan to finish the proofreading but, oops, where has time gone. Almost time for work and I still need to eat breakfast (pesky hunger pangs) and take a shower. Maybe later.

Maybe tomorrow.

Maybe this weekend.

By then, a few weeks have passed. Good thing the editor has not contacted me because I have nothing to offer to excuse my inability to kick start my writing engine.

That was yesterday. This morning, I found the answer. I knew it all along because it works for getting the laundry done, the clothes folded and put away, the bed made after the sheets are washed (making the bed every day provides a warm and moist environment for dust mites and other microscopic vermin to grow and procreate -- that is my story and I am sticking to it), the dishes done, the vacuuming finished, exercising and taking out the trash. Once I begin, the rest takes care of itself.

With writing, it is the internal editor that kick starts my engine. One of my critique partners mentioned an extra word in chapter twelve and a comma missing in chapter fifteen. They cannot be allowed to stand or I will forget and the spell check program will not catch them. Into the breach once more I go.

Control-F and type in a few words of the phrase and the extra word is easily found. Next search coordinates go in and, wait a minute, there is something else. How could I have missed that awkward phrasing? Well, that has to go. A few moments later and I am in the zone happily writing and editing and listening to the characters tell me secrets that I dutifully transcribe and polish. The first step is the problem, but the internal editor makes taking the first step effortless.

I do not have the problem in journaling or editing others' work or writing reviews. Deadlines and missing days in the journals keep me honest, but there is no real deadline for a new book or a work-in-progress that has not been contracted. Yes, the problem crops up when I have a long critique and the first glance at the manuscript ends with groaning sighs after glancing at the first page, but the deadline keeps me honest there, too. No, I will just have to rely on the internal editor and program her to whisper errors, typos and misspellings in my ear that she caught on the way out of the zone so that I am anxious one again to go once more into the breach. When that wears thin and begins to go the way of the hunger pangs, I will have to find another way to kick start the writing.

Someone else will have to whisper errors into my ear that engages the internal editor. I doubt I will ever get past the need to clean up mistakes, especially when they are mine.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Spring Cleaning

Pages bleed.

All the pages are bleeding. Some are hemorrhaging and some just grazed by the editing pen. On the computer screen, the hemorrhaging is in blue or purple or green, signs of alien intrusion into the fabric and heart of the story. Characters are remodeled. Evocative descriptions are slashed to ribbons. Double-spaced lines flood the once pristine words with criticism and suggestions. Shock sets in. Denial is followed by anger. How dare they? Curiosity peers over the edge, grows bolder and settles in for a long and thorough look until the writer is overwhelmed.

Are they right? Is the main character that unsympathetic? No, someone likes her grit and determination. Another critic sees the brittle facade hiding the fear and confusion. Yes, there's another critic who hates her, who missed the subtle body language: cringing against the wall, spooked by harsh sounds, refusing to meet anyone's eyes.

How much of the burning, pillaging and savaging of editing is personal and how much impersonal and useful? That is the real question.

When writers entrust the work to other writers of different experience and skills, the results are always mixed. It is easy to fall back on the knowledge that every opinion is subjective, colored by personal prejudices. The real problem is finding balance and weeding out the negative from the positive. In the end, it all comes back to the writer.

What is the point of the story? What is the dominant theme? What is the best starting point for the main character's journey? Where is the beating heart of the story? How much should be revealed -- and when?

It is difficult to find balance between your vision and how the results are perceived and received. You are the writer. You get to decide.

Beginning writers will follow every suggestion and change the manuscript to reflect everyone's taste until the essence, the writer's vision, gets lost in a muddle of different styles. It is hard to hold up against so many different, and often more experienced, critics. The critics could be right. The critics could also be wrong. One things cancels out all the rest. No one writer can please everyone all the time. It is impossible. The best one can do is to hold fast to the vision and point of writing the story -- any story.

Ayn Rand had a hard time getting The Fountainhead published. It was long. Some publishers considered it boring and pointless. Others thought it was too radical, too different. Rand stood firm. When a publisher finally contracted the book, editors suggested changes. Rand agreed to remove one character, Roark's girlfriend before Dominique, because it did not advance the story. The rest of the book would be published without any further changes or she would go elsewhere. The book was published without another change.

I remember seeing the massive book on the bookshelves when I was growing up. It was a book club selection. It was so big, taking up a significant space on the shelf. It would be missed. I chose The Graduate instead, switching dust jackets with a less adult book so it wouldn't be discovered. I didn't read Rand's book until many years later.

When I finally read The Fountainhead I was mesmerized. I flew through the story, marveled at the themes and characters and wanted to start all over again when I read the last page. I didn't know that many critics panned the book and said Roark was unsympathetic, too harsh, too unlikable. I liked him immediately. I knew what he felt and wished I had the same strength of character, the same passion and devotion to my own dreams. He touched and awakened feelings and thoughts I didn't realize were there even though I didn't care for his carrot orange hair. One small feature in another wise remarkable character was not enough to ruin my enjoyment. It was insignificant in contrast to everything else about the admirable and stoic Roark. Had I read the savage criticisms before I picked up the book, I would have read The Fountainhead anyway. No one earns the critics' ire or dismissal without arousing my curiosity.

I expected critics to rape and pillage my first published novel, but I didn't expect it with my current book. I had learned and evolved. I was a better writer -- I thought -- and I wrote a story that was close to my heart, born out of my own experiences. How could I go wrong? I forgot the rule. No one can please everyone all the time.

Seeing the bloody comments and suggestions was like starting at square one all over again. The main character isn't sympathetic. She's snooty. Why isn't she afraid? How can she be so cool, calm and collected in her situation? Too much back story. Not enough back story. Too many adjectives. Not enough adjectives. The sentences are too long, too short, too many. Too much dialogue. Not enough dialogue. Too much action. Not enough inner monologue. The comments went from one extreme to the other. I resisted the urge to change everything.

You cannot please everyone all the time.

I chose to focus on spelling mistakes, sneaky words that hid when edited and popped out later during critiques. I made a few changes. Added scenes, took others out, put them in earlier or later. Then I stopped. The story I wrote was getting lost. It didn't help that after over a year of stalling and schedule changes, the publisher decided not to publish the book after all. My confidence was shaken. This book meant so much.

All the books mean so much.

I know I will not please everyone all the time. I can only write the story, fix the typos and grammar mistakes, and let it go.

No matter how many books an author publishes, when the critics descend, confidence wavers and the urge to change everything to fit everyone's suggestions grows stronger. No one can write a book that pleases everyone. It is impossible. The only thing that comes close is an interactive story where the reader gets to choose the paths the characters take. I don't write those kinds of books. I will never please everyone. There's no need to try.

In the end, it all comes back to the writer's vision, the writer's skills and experience and the writer's story. It is like spring cleaning. No two people do it the same way, no matter how they were taught. Editing one's own writing is like spring cleaning. No matter what rules and guidelines were learned, editing is as individual as the writer. Stick to the original vision.

Write the story in your own voice with your own style. Take criticism and suggestions under advisement. Stay true to the course. It may take a while to find a like-minded agent or publisher, but the result will be worth it. Your book may not be The Fountainhead, but it will be memorable and readers, critics and other writers will like it. Even if they don't, it doesn't matter. What matters is writing what moves you.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The lure of money and social position

No, I'm not contemplating a marriage of convenience or a chance to power up. I'm pretty set in my my single ways. I wouldn't say no to an affair or a fling, but not for a while. I'm too busy with writing. However, the topic remains the same: what some women will do to get money and social position. The book is Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen. Haven't heard of that? Well, take a seat and join in.

Many people think that Jane Austen really had to pull a rabbit out of the hat to make it possible for Elinor and Edward to marry. Lucy Steele had been engaged to Edward for years, a secret engagement (Look, your future bride. Sorry, wrong story.) that cost Edward his inheritance which his mother settled irrevocably on his younger brother Robert who was a fop and a dandy. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. When Edward's sister discovered the truth from Lucy Steele she threw a hissy fit, that's modern American slang for had an attack of hysteria and the vapors. She threw Lucy out of the house, told on Edward and ruined the rest of his life. It was Fanny's fault because she made Lucy believe that Lucy could have any man of prominent social position even without a dowry; she had other attributes that made her an excellent choice -- just not for Edward.

Lucy and Robert had been thrown together while Edward was away on business and Lucy and Robert recognized in each other a soul mate, two people who were interested in social position and lots of money. Lucy engaged Edward's affections when he was relatively young and very inexperienced, but she knew what she was about. Edward stood to inherit a sizable fortune and a prominent social standing. That's all Lucy was interested in. Edward was too kind and honorable to break it off when he realized he was in love with Elinor, but I believe he would have if Elinor had given him any inkling of her affection and attachment to him.

Did Austen pull a rabbit out of the hat to make things come out right at the end? No. She had already foreshadowed the outcome with the fortuitous meetings between Lucy and Robert and their obvious common interests, and she made it abundantly clear that for Lucy the lure was not Edward's love and decency, but his fortune in her sights. When Edward's mother disinherited him, in spite of Lucy's attempt to get Elinor to have Sir John Middleton give Edward the rectory living on his estate, all Lucy was interested in was finding a way to be near people with money and social standing. If she couldn't have them for herself, she would make sure she was in close contact so she would be wined and dined frequently in the style to which she had become accustomed. It was always on Lucy's mind to throw Edward over at the first hint that she could have Robert, and that is what she did. Austen knew Lucy Steele's character better than Edward obviously did. So, no, there was no rabbit pulling, just characters acting true to their natures.

What do you think? Did she plot it carefully or did she stick the right ending on the wrong circumstances?