Friday, March 25, 2011

Who the Hell Has the Kleenex?

I was poised at the edge of ‘the moment’. There she was--Charlaine Harris; the woman whose books had so thoroughly charmed me, I'd morphed into a mouth-breathing fan. She's famous for her Sookie Stackhouse southern-vampire series, which some of you boob-tube lovers will recognize as the basis for HBO's True Blood. Over her long career, she's penned several other award-winning series; my own favourite being the Harper Connolly books. What’s so great about Charlaine Harris? It’s the way she writes--deceptively spare, wry, and quick-witted. It’s the fact that her books always have solid mystery plots. It’s because her style looks natural and easy, and trust me, that's an art. There is no such thing as easy.
That day in April 2010, the best-seller novelist was so close, all I had to do is lift my hand to touch her. She’d met me once or twice before, but those had been fan moments, wherein the fan tries not to gush, and the writer tries to make a smooth getaway.
This was different. This was ‘my’ opportunity to tell Ms. Harris exactly how her books and craft insights had encouraged me.
She’d had a busy day. Possibly her hand hurt from signing all those books and maybe her feet were paining her after all those meetings, but none of that showed on her face. With infinite grace and a very sweet smile, she said, “Hello Leigh.”  
So, did I launch into my carefully prepared speech?
Uhm, no.
I rewarded her generosity by bursting into a crumpled-chin, squeaky-voiced, teary melt-down. In public. In a line up. With maybe 300 people there to witness it. Just to put it into perspective; I have a list of approved boo-hoo moments--the end of sad books, the OMG-don’t kill-the-dog movie scenes and my kids' graduation ceremonies. And all right, yes, I did once get a bit damp over a telephone commercial. But in real life? I’m frustratingly short on tears. Trust me, there have been times I wished I could cry.
Just as FYI for you blog-skimmers, I still had a vague idea of the character I wanted to write about, and was starting to get a better sense of what type of world I needed to create for her. Cue the cymbals--I had begun working on novel attempt no. 3.

I was doing things in the manner I understood to be the right way. My Intro to Novel Writing class had ended (praise heaven, and let's get the hell out of here). I'd joined a writer's group with three former students--an association doomed to an early death, but I didn’t know that then. I continued to write every week day. I submitted stuff for critique. I observed the rules for good writing as I understood them.  But still, a lot of the times, I wanted to give up. I’d read a good book and feel humbled, and annoyed with myself. Why couldn’t I write better? I’d get stalled on a plot point or a motivation and want to delete the whole damn thing. I’d write a choppy page and despair that I’d ever learn flow. There were many, many head-thuds-on-desk moments. But despite a truly awesome collection of bruises, this time I wasn’t giving myself an out. I was going to continue pounding those keys all the way to the last period.

Because somewhere, I’d read that’s what you were supposed to do.

Well, here's the sodding truth. Trying to write in such a rigid, self conscious manner can make you miserable. Thus, I did what I have always done in times of great distress. I read. When I wasn’t at the keyboard, I was burning my way through series, chewing my way through the library stacks and scouring book lover forums for suggestions.  And without realizing it, I had stumbled on an essential writing tool.  Reading. I can’t over emphasize how important that is. If you’re serious about finishing a manuscript, read everything you can lay your hands on. You will pick up things unconsciously, and develop unshakeable opinions about what makes for a good or bad read.

Still I carried on--heroically, tap-tapping my way past the dreaded 25K. But even as I blew past that benchmark, I was growing more aware of my isolation. I didn't know anyone, outside of a classroom, who understood the writing process. I had questions, and no place to ask them. And there’s a LOT of potholes on the road to finishing a novel. Some of those nasty little craters are filled with dark water, and you have no idea how deep they are until you're past your knees and still sinking.

Which is when I discovered Charlaine Harris’ community board had a thread titled, “On Writing’.  Holy Hannah. There they were--the questions and the answers. The support. That little corner on the internet is an superb example of giving back to emerging writers. That loop became my new classroom. The people on her board my dear friends. And on the way, I got to meet (and cry over) Charlaine Harris; a possibility that never occurred to me the day I shut the cover on my first Sookie novel.

Lessons for this one?
Don’t try to write in isolation.
Go find people who share your writing obsession.
And oh yeah,
Bring a box of Kleenex.

Tip: If you're going to buy one Sookie book, I suggest you buy the boxed set. It will save you on gas, because seriously, you think you can stop with just one?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

More than water flows through a burst dam

The dam was damn-well gone, I thought, feeling very smug and self-confident. Imagination poured out of me. Now all I had to do was seize my passion and believe in my destiny. Success would follow.


Identifying your passion is only a little portion of what leads to success. Working your ass off in preparation for the moment opportunity winks is the larger wedge.

But back then, I didn’t know that. I left Creative Writing aware of two things: I was not the best writer in the class but I was the person who wanted it the most. Armed with the power of the re-inflated dream, I signed up for Introduction to Novel Writing.

And discovered everybody wanted it as badly as me.

It was a tough semester.

Novel Intro’s teacher writes literary fiction. He produces a book every year or so, and rightfully receives favourable reviews. He also has a tell: whenever he wants to hide what he really thinks, he stares at the table and says things like, “yeah, plenty to work with there.” And thus, our disdain-filled professor spent a good portion of the semester shielding his eyes from our searching ones, in fear that we’d discover his true opinion.

I can’t dig my way into his brain, but I came to the unshakeable belief that he thought most of us sucked. Big time. We told, not showed. We liked clich├ęs. We lost our story narrative. And we were thin on the right details.

From his class I got the following: a fistful of writing cautions and my first very public, put-down from another student over my genre choice (and baby, if you’re writing fantasy, romance, erotica, or horror, you will face that sneer at one point or another).

The result? I started Novel no. three, and everything I wrote for the next five months was pushed through the tight sphincter of literary pretension.

Learning from this one?

Some people will curl their lip at your stuff.
Not because it sucks.
Just because it isn’t their stuff.
Get over it.

I might have lingered there, forever the self-conscious writer, if not for Charlaine Harris. I'll tell you about that next time.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Step Three - Writing to Learn

I enrolled in a creative writing class because I decided the early demise of books 1 & 2 was totally related to a bad case of writer’s block. Oh, hell, I’ll be honest. I wasn’t just blocked, I was bloody-well constipated. It’s enough to be word-stymied. Try having a constipated imagination.

 ‘You can’t spend all your life in fantasy,’ I’d reasoned twenty years earlier. Kids had to be picked up. Meals had to be made.

I’d quelled my imagination and let it wither.

My heart was doing the two-step when I walked into the class. I was early but that meant I could pick the best seat and watch as people walked in. Younger than me, younger than me, maybe the same age as me, oh, wait - much older than me!

And then my prof walked in. I’d thought she’d be a benign spirit, who’d smile sweetly and occasionally pat my head. A bit of an earth-mother. That’s not what I got. Instead she was youthful, and exacting, and yes, wise and sensitive, too. In her class, I learned about word count, self-editing and the power of a critique.

The first request was to describe a bedroom in 250 words. I took that literally and edited it down to 249 words. I learned a lot about self-edit that week.

For the next assignment, I had to write a scene in which the main character felt emotional pain. I spent 20 hours on it; gathering up words like loose confetti, trying to stick them together so they’d form a recognizable shape, all the while searching for an elegant way to infuse emotion. 250 words. One scene, little-to-no dialogue.

But I did it. And felt proud, even though I was not the best writer in the class.

The requests got harder. Using mostly dialogue, write a scene that shows conflict. Provide us with a 500 word scene revealing a pivotal moment between two people using description and dialogue. Take one of your shorter pieces and expand it to 500 words. Now, revise it based on the class comments. Do not exceed your word count.

And then…read it out loud to the class and sit silently and appreciative as people critique your piece. No excuses, no explanations. Sit and absorb. Listen carefully.

Harder still.

That class taught me a lot. First, the power of the impersonal, balanced critique. Second, self-editing is part of writing. And third--

You have to write to learn how to write.
There is no short-cut.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Kind words, from a kind man

Just as I was at my apex of Thinking About It, I read one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. It’s called THE NAME OF THE WIND, by Patrick Rothfuss. I picked it up because it had a label on it “Susie Recommends” (which means that the salesclerk Susie had read it and thought it swell). I turned it over and read the blurb. Whoever wrote the blurb on the back of that book is one hellishly good blurb-writer. In addition, the novel was heavy, which was good, because it wasn’t too badly priced, which meant, hey, I got a deal. And better yet, there was no bare-chested guy with a sword on the front of  the cover. Okay. Sold.

It was, and is, a superb book. Imagine yourself sitting in your favourite chair at dusk. A man begins to tell you a story. His voice is deep and soft and layered, and you just find yourself transfixed in your chair, inwardly praying that he’d never stop talking. Hoping beyond hope, that the story will never end. That’s the type of book Patrick Rothfuss wrote.

I liked the book so much that I got out of bed at 1:00 a.m. and went down to the web to find out when book two would come out. And then, because I was so totally bowled over by Kvothe’s story, I wrote my first fan email. I let myself go on that email. I told him exactly why I liked the book, and why I was thrilled to have read it, and a whole bunch of other stuff. It was, as emails go, fairly long. I hit send and felt relieved.

A week later, I opened my email. Patrick Rothfuss had written back. Real authors do that? I sat down. Read the entire email so slowly, my dog aged another canine year. He said, (and yes, I still have the email), that it was a ‘lovely, lovely email’, and that -- oh wait this deserves its own line --

“you’re not a bad writer yourself.”

There it was. In black and white. He thought I could write.

And you know what? That tiny whisper in my ear was all I needed to start again. I wasn’t just a wordless matron with a tribble who’d forgotten her dream and was standing on the crossroads between a lifetime of Oprah and a life-quest of writing.  I was someone who’d written a ‘lovely’ email, and Patrick Rothfuss thought I wasn’t a bad writer. Small words, written by a kind man, but for me, it was a moment. Another one of those ‘well, look at that’ moments.

I was looking for a omen, and I had found it. So, the next step?

Look for inspiration  and believe in yourself.

Of course, I did more than clutch a crystal in my hand and hope for good stuff to come my way. Next time I’ll tell you what work I needed to do toward payment for my inspiration. In the meantime, go read The Name of the Wind. You’ll like it, even if you don’t like fantasy.

Thinking About It

Please note: as a new blogger, I hadn't realized that 2 posts on one day would be lined up one on top of the other. This post was written earlier than the one above. Read it first, or if that's impossible, read it knowing that I meant you to read it first.

If you’ve been following my journey you know that I’d hit another speed bump and broken my story’s struts.

I had a bad case of I-write-crap-itus.

What to do? What to do?

I fell into my ‘Thinking About It” phase.

Just to be real clear, thinking about writing isn’t the stuff you do when you’re teasing out a back story or working out motivation. It’s unfocussed. Diffused. It’s akin to deciding you’ll go on a diet on Monday. You hold the promise of the finished book in your mind, but lightly. It floats in mid-space, like a child born without conception or gestation. And the more the promised novel hovers there, all perfect in aspect and execution, the more you worry that you'll never come up to snuff. You haven't got the writing chops.

Thinking about it is not helpful. It just adds more insecurity, more confusion.

Did you see any mention of writing in the title? Thinking about it doesn’t qualify as writing. Write crap if you need to at first.

Just write.
 That's what writers do.
Even with a case of crap-itus.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Step Two - Following the Right Wizard

I’m a huge fan of Jim Butcher and I’m going to say it flat out--I love his character Harry Dresden. Who wouldn’t?  Harry’s a wizard. He's smart, sarcastic and noble. Add it up, and he's damn near irresistible.

Take C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, strip him of his uniform, and you have the same sort of mythic hero. All right, I can agree it’s a stretch. Horatio Hornblower is a laconic, naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars. Harry’s a quip-tossing wizard from Chicago. But they’re the same type of man. They doubt themselves, constantly. Despite that, they’re the type of guy you’d pray to have beside you when the world is falling down around you. Brave. Capable of seizing the moment. Stoic. Unflinching. Rule breakers who don’t knuckle their eyes and go boo-hoo when it comes time to pay the price for their transgressions.

Both characters had something else similar - they were created by talented authors who made you believe. Different writing styles, different genre, but the same magic. With C.S. Forester, it’s the sound of sails snapping to the wind. With Jim Butcher, it’s the scent of  sulphur; it’s the perfect detail that shuts down your disbelief.

Yes, I’ve gone off on a Jim Butcher tangent, but there’s a reason.

I was licking my wounds. How was I going to drive the Leigh-bus to publishing success if I blew my tire at 10K?  I still wanted to write a book, even if my storyline resembled a tribble. What I needed was someone to break the writing process down for me -- preferably someone with whom I felt a deeper connection than an anonymous how-to book writer.

Yup, enter Jim Butcher.

I’d finished the latest Harry Dresden book, and was on his site, trying to find out how much longer I had to hold out before his next book was published. And lo and behold (yes, it felt faintly prophetic), I noticed a link to Jim Butcher’s old blog, wherein he laid out his thoughts on story craft. I printed out the whole damn lot, took scissors to it so that I could put it in reading order, and inhaled. A plan, I thought with an evil grin. A route. I hit the dining table with paper and pens and tape and tea and cookies. I made notes and I thought myself well equipped.

I started again. A new setting. Another type of world. Same character.

This time I got as far as 20K before my words spluttered out like the last bit of oil in a hurricane lantern. My brain didn’t even bothered admonishing me. It just patted me on the shoulder, told me not to stay up too late, and waddled off to its bed.

I’ll always be grateful to Jim Butcher, who showed me that his way of getting from the first word to the last one. He kept me from shutting down after my first defeat. I'm glad he posted those thoughts. I tried to use them, but discovered his way was not my way.

Lesson for this one?

There is no perfect way to write a book.
You have to find the things that work for you.

Now, because you’ve been so darn patient and read all the way to the end, here’s the link:

Friday, March 11, 2011

In Between Step One and Two

I was off the couch, and finally on my feet again. But then came the tricky part -- seating myself behind the keyboard and writing. What was the first issue? My blithe confidence was gone. Fifteen years ago, it had felt easy; words streamed off my fingertips. I even had proof:  200 pages of easy, stuffed in a cardboard box in my closet. But now I was paralysed with self-doubt. Just the thought of finding that first paragraph…hhhmm..perhaps I could just skip that part, and pick up where I left off in the old manuscript?

I read it.

Two things were instantly clear. I really liked adverbs back then. A lot. And I needed to start fresh, as my original plot about a virgin caught on a pirate ship felt a tad dated. Besides it didn’t fit the insistent voice whispering in my ear. I needed a new tale, one without sabres.

Also, I was aware of another issue that might prove to be a tiny hiccup on my path toward becoming the great Canadian writer.

I’d lost a large chunk of my vocabulary. Misplaced, forgotten, lost, I don’t care what you want to call it, but my language skills were as gone as my twenty-seven inch waist. Think of it as a case in de-evolution. I’d been a stay-at-home Mom for twenty years. The first crack started with Sesame Street, and by the time I knew all the words to The Wheels on the Bus, I was well on my way to mushy brain. My skill in description, and my ability to attach the right word to an object had eroded. When I wanted something, I’d point to it. It made things faster.

Well, there was no way out of it. I’d have to try to write and see if I could coax the words back to my fingers. As for worrying about coming up with interesting storyline, I decided to consult the experts. I went in search of a how-to book. In the store, I scanned the titles. Conflict and your Character? Writing Believable Motivation? Character Arcs? As I flipped through the books, my story concept began to feel like a tribble. It made interesting squeaking noises while balanced on  my palm, but other than that, it was starting to look a hell of a lot like my Mom’s old faux fur throw rug. 

Which left me back at home, without a manual, staring at the blinking cursor. To hell with it. I started writing. The words flowed, until I hit 10K and went splat. It just dried up overnight. I could not put another word down.

And at that, my brain said, ‘Sod you, Mate, this is too hard. I’m going back to the People magazine.’

Lesson from this?  There isn’t always a straight path from concept to book completion. Be prepared for one or two roadblocks.

Inevitably the biggest one will be yourself.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Step One

I gave up on the dream.

Twenty years ago I decided writing 'the’ book would have to wait until the kids were school aged. And then stuff happened which made writing difficult, and for various reasons, I gave up on the dream.

The kids grew up. The garden flourished. The dogs aged, and so did I.

About 4 years ago, I was laying on the couch watching Oprah. I’d seen the show before, but even so, I was watching it again. Flat on my back. With the remote in my hand and probably some chips balanced on my stomach. And the thought occurred to me:  I could lay here for the rest of my life watching Oprah. Essentially waiting to die. Watching Oprah.

No offence Oprah, but no thanks. I opened a drawer, took out an old partly finished manuscript, and thought, maybe I can do this again.

Going into it, I knew it would be difficult. First off, I didn’t have the ‘great idea.' I had a character and a desire to write again, but that was it. No great concept. No ‘wowser’ flash of inspiration.

You know what? Waiting for the great idea is really dumb. Don’t do that. Start writing. The great idea will catch up.

Okay, so back to me...I had scared myself silly with the thought of the ‘great book.’ The only way around that was to give myself some slack. I decided to write ‘a’ book, not ‘the’ book. I’d make an effort to do a good job of it, so I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone read it. But it was just for me. I just wanted to have a dream again, and to be able to say one day--

Once, I wrote a book.

I wasn’t even going to tell anyone about it.

A lot has changed since then. I don't write casually anymore. It’s my job and yes, perhaps, my obsession. But still, some things have stayed the same. Once in awhile I watch Oprah.

Why am I telling you this? Because I needed a shape for this blog - some common theme running through it.  Pets are good, but my spaniel is really lazy, and there’s only so many stories I can spin about him. I don’t have many great thoughts. I don’t cook. Well, I do, but I hate it.  My old hobbies are faintly musty and boring. I read a lot, but so do many people.

But I do have a story to tell you. About breathing life into old dreams and how along the way, I found myself again. Over the next couple of months, I’ll tell you how I came to be here - a writer with a finished manuscript and a contract with the amazing Deidre Knight - and from there, we’ll see where we go. 

If you want to write a book, the first step is:

Get up off the damn couch.