Thursday, November 21, 2013

Worst. Advice. Ever.

That's easy.

I had written two books, using the Benny Hill Method (brakes off at the top and wheeeee . . . (bathtub optional)) aka the Wayne's World Method (First draft! First draft! Party time! Excellent!) and then I went to a Society of Authors workshop where a proper writer told me I should have a synopsis, outline, chapter plan and character sketches in place before I wrote a word of the story itself.

So I got different coloured sheets of paper and did myself a chapter plan, a calendar (including phases of the moon) and five character biographies.  I didn't do a synopsis or outline because I didn't know what they were or how they were different from each other.

Finally I started writing.  Plodding along, bored and grumpy, feeling like someone who'd been told to write up the minutes after a meeting.  About a third of the way in, I couldn't stand it anymore and ripped up the coloured paper.  It was pretty.  Like confetti. 

After that, writing was interesting again and the story grew legs and ran, then grew wings and flew.  As usual it didn't land where I had expected it to.  But here's the thing - the first third, the bit that I had done "properly", contained no clues about the unexpected twist.  I had to go back and put them in by hand.  The two thirds I'd written after the day of the confetti was already stuffed with clues to the twist I hadn't seen coming.

Since then I've learned that there are just as many chaotic, weeping, white-knuckle writers are there are meticulous, orderly, seed-sowing writers.  Both kinds produce books I love, both kinds are great fun at parties, and both kinds share one talent: they can ignore each other's advice like pros.  Vive la difference!

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Body On Page One

 This week's question: What was the most useless, destructive thing you ever learned in writing class or in a writing craft book?

I’m struggling with this week’s question because the classes I’ve taken have been mostly in the form of conference sessions or short seminars, where I tend to internalize one important idea. My own filtering process eliminates some that don’t work in my writing.  The only multi-week course I took was from the witty, smart Judy Greber, a.k.a. Gillian Roberts, who has made it a point to never give bad advice.

The most useless idea I ever picked up can’t be blamed on a speaker, but on my simplistic interpretation of more seasoned advice. Mystery writers everywhere have heard this one: You need a body on page one. So untrue, and not something any of the successful authors whose words I lapped up would say. I tried it a few times, got pretty close to page one, but making it a hard and fast rule is artificial to my style of storytelling.

What teachers do say is that in the crime fiction genre you need a conflict on page one. Your job is to signal that the world the reader has entered is not quite as it should be. Preferably, the friction will be related to the protagonist’s coming crisis. However, I’ve read the work of some good storytellers whose first conflict has to do with putting the kids to bed, or having the correct bus fare, or falling on the ice. These writers use that conflict, however seemingly distant from the primary plotline, to show me something about the protagonist or her world, the world that will be disturbed by what happens on the main stage.

That’s not to say some authors don’t start with a body on page one, and do it brilliantly. Police procedurals frequently start there, since that’s the moment the cops begin their detecting narrative. Serial killer novels may start with the villain disposing of his latest victim in some cruel fashion, so that we get an idea of the heinous character of the criminal. But if every piece of crime fiction had to start there, think how bored readers would be, how predictable and formulaic the genre would become.

 - Susan

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Aristotally 100% sure.

I prefer to think of them as "perfectly acceptable character traits" - those bad habits I and Dandy Gilver share.

They make her a great detective and me a . . . writer who at least types more than she deletes.

The same perfectly acceptable character traits would make us atrocious critique-group-members, useless - possibly dangerous - therapists, and calamitous diplomats.

Can you guess where I'm going yet?

We both believe, Dandy Gilver and I, that old Aristotle had it just about right.  All three of us believe  in absolute facts, infallible logic and supreme reason, and that the exercise of reason is the highest virtue.  It helps a lot when you're solving a case (I imagine) and it certainly helps when you're putting a plot together.  But boy-oh-boy we'd make lousy hippies.

I truly believe there's one side to everything (the truth) and it never depends which way you look at it.  Drives my husband nuts* when we disagree.  I'll grant that there's a danger of tenacity if you only argue because you think you're right and you think the thing you're right about matters.  The good side is that I stop arguing if someone shows me I'm wrong.   Not everyone does that.  A lot of them are in Congress.

(*It would drive Dandy Gilver's husband nuts too if they went in for conversations.  But, while he'd probably fetch a bucket of water if Dandy was on fire, her personal philosophy is her business.)

And it's not as bad as it sounds because the one place Dandy and I don't dance in step with Aristotle is that he saves his biggest lifestyle drumroll for what he calls The Golden Mean - moderation in all things.  I reckon even if you did the necessary edit -  "Moderation in all things except pies and Dalmations" - you're still better off with the Golden Rule. You know the one.  I like it in its Bill and Ted incarnation: Be Excellent To Each Other. 

That's the best habit of all.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Who, Me?

This week’s question: What bad habits does your protagonist have, and do you share them?

[Cue up sound of raucous laughter.]

It’s a funny thing. Dani O’Rourke is younger, snappier, more social, and much braver than I am. She can stay up past midnight without becoming a zombie. I do not share her good traits. The bad ones, however, seem familiar. Dani doesn’t listen when her best friend suggests caution. She never eats just one cookie. She goes through bouts of working 24/7. She is suspicious. She is not the most attentive driver. She buys clothes optimistically, that is, with the belief that she will fit into them better one day soon, when she stops eating cookies.

If it sounds weird, it isn’t. Most of us are susceptible to the idea that we’d be happier if…you fill in the blank. So, given the opportunity to create a fictional avatar of sorts, we start playing around, based on our fantasies. This is not a gender thing. Think about the guys who write he-man protagonists who get the sexy women by merely twitching an eyebrow.  Writers say they have to inhabit their characters, so we get to play dress up, or Superman, or the popular cheerleader, or whatever we can pull off in fiction.

When we go into our mental grab bags for bad habits and vulnerabilities, we are – almost all of us – so relentlessly self-critical that listing them for use in the story is easy. Can’t get a date on Saturday night. Can’t think straight when confronted by someone who’s just a teensy bit upset. Can’t cook. Can’t give up chocolate. Can’t keep our mouths shut when diplomacy might be the best course of action. Can’t say no when people lean on us for favors. (“My roommate died and I was wondering if you could please check out the guy who was stalking her? Pretty please?”)

I try not to fall deeply into that trap.  Because I already use a bit of my professional background for Dani’s life, I need to maintain distance elsewhere. It feels strange to have someone ask me if I, like my protagonist, was once married to a multimillionaire. Our histories, I assure them, are different. But I have to admit I bought a sleek designer dress with a long skirt. It will be perfect when I lose 5 pounds and 20 years.

 - Susan