Thursday, February 25, 2010

When a Character Surprises You. Good thing or Bad?

So, despite my moaning about the dreaded middle of the book slog I've been going through, I have been moving on it. Slowly, painfully, but definitely moving. And while I've been considering the intricacies of plot and pacing (I've been writing notes to myself like Need something to happen here! Or Talking heads! Talking heads! Action required!)I haven't been overly-stressing about my characters. By this point in the story - approximately 35,000 words in more or less (Hey, I write the crappy first draft in long-hand and have only typed in about 15,000 words on the computer so far so cut me some slack on not knowing how many exact words I've got right now) I'm pretty comfortable with who my characters are as personalities, their motivations and their particular strengths and weaknesses so they kind of write themselves. But yesterday, as I finally hit a major plot point that will drive the book into the third Act, one of my characters pulled something so unexpected I had to stop writing and say, "Whoa, really?"

But when I thought about it, when I considered her character, where she came from, what she'd gone through in the years before the reader even sees her on the page it was totally believeable. But I had no idea she was going to do that. When I'd thought about that scene, I had it worked out a certain way in terms of how my hero was going to manipulate her into a particular situation. But my heroine, as I guess I subconsiously knew, would not let herself be manipulated. Turns out she wanted to take matters into her own hands and try and turn the tables on him - with a pretty gutsy move. So when she did that I had to sit back and think, "Does this unexpected action change my plot in any significant way? If it does is it for the better or worse? Or, if it doesn't, is this action there to reveal a side of her character that I kind of knew but the reader - and the hero - had no idea about?" And if it was more of a character reveal than a plot changing moment do I keep it or write it out so that the original plot line moved the way I had originally planned it? So many, many questions. What's a writer to do?

I ended up keeping the unexpected event because not only is it a great character reveal, it is also a dramatic, unexpected plot twist and my hero is going to have to respond - and adapt - his original plans to accommodate that change.

But this whole thing made me think about those unexpected surprises that characters throw at you and whether they are a good thing for a novel or if it just means you just don't know your characters well enough yet to be writing the story. Personally, I like surprises. It keeps a story fresh to me. And if a story is fresh to me, the writer, then surely it will be even more surprising and unexpected to the reader. But it can be dangerous. If I didn't have a handle on my character, if I didn't know her backstory and what she wants to accomplish then all I'd have was a "Weird. Where did that come from?" response from a reader. There's also the tricky balance of hinting at the potential of her doing something like that early on in the story but keeping her true self hidden long enough (in this case not only from the reader but from the hero) to make this a nifty kind of "Wow! I can't believe she did that" followed quickly by a "Yes. That is totally what she would do in this situation."

Some people write with every plot element carefully lined up, characters completely lock in step with the action they planned and what they need to do to get from Plot point A to plot point B. I envy them that kind of control and planning. For me, I need a general direction, I need a goal and I need interesting, charismatic characters. If they want to throw me a curve ball once in a while I'm game. But I always reserve the right to go back and beat those characters actions into shape if they get too crazy on me.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sandra Bullock, Characters and Likeability

I'm a big Sandra Bullock fan. Ever since she burst on the scene in the fabulous movie Speed (if you haven't seen it go to a DVD rental shop right now and enjoy) I've pretty much enjoyed every movie she's ever made. Loved When You Were Sleeping (one of my favourite rom coms ever). Thought the first Miss Congeniality was a laugh out loud riot. Even her small role in Crash was memorable for her dramatic turn. She is one of the few female actresses that both my husband and I agree on because she's just so gosh darn LIKEABLE. Why? What is it about the characters she chooses to portray - and portray so well - that makes me want to be her BFF?

I just saw THE BLIND SIDE on the weekend and was once again struck by that undefineable likeability she has that translates so well on screen. The character she portrays would not be someone I would normally gravitate towards - rich, opinionated, religious, slightly bullying Desperate Housewives type of personality. BUT. And here's the but - the character is not just that stereotype. As always, Sandra Bullock injects certain qualities into the performance that make us love her character. And every writer should think about these qualities when developing their own main characters because, as we know, we only have a few pages- heck, maybe even just a few paragraphs - to make the reader care about our hero or heroine. So what does Sandra Bullock always have that makes me want to stick around for a couple of hours with her and her character even if the movie isn't perfect?

There's just a feeling I get that Sandra Bullock knows how to laugh at herself and not take herself too seriously. Many of the characters she chooses to portray also have that quality.

The protectiveness for another person or a cause is always there in her movie choices. She cares about others more than herself sometimes.

She walks into a crime-ridden neighbourhood looking for her runaway adopted son. She drives a bus with a bomb on it. You get the feeling that she would do anything to protect the ones she's responsible for.

She'll fight for the right thing - even if her friends laugh at her or thinks she's crazy. Just watch the scene she has with her so called friends at the restaurant in The Blind Side. She never gets nasty or reacts in anything other than a polite, cordial manner. But you know that she has just written them all off based on their response to her decision to become Mike's guardian. She will do what she thinks is right because she believes it is right.

Being the Underdog or Fighting for the Underdog
She's a lowly subway ticket taker who doesn't have a family and is looking for love. She's a nobody bus rider who lost her license for speeding and is now responsible for driving a bus safely through congested Los Angeles by not going over the speed limit of 50. She takes in a homeless, poverty stricken kid from the wrong side of town and becomes his guardian for no other reason except that he doesn't have anybody. Underdog is a big, big likeability factor.

The qualities I've just listed aren't the be all and end all of character traits that a writer should consider when developing their main hero or heroine but boy, you should pick a couple of them because they go a long, long way in keeping a reader engaged and rooting for your creation. It doesn't mean you can't have some unlikeable qualities thrown in there too. Like I said, in The Blind Side Sandra was also pampered, overbearing, and somewhat self-absorbed … BUT she tempered those less likeable qualities with all the ones I listed above.

Now, the tricky thing is how do you hint at all those qualities in less than five pages? Ahh. I think that might be fodder for another blog post...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Why Writers Need To Take Writing Courses

I'm currently trying to decide whether I'll take the plunge and apply for the fabulous summer workshop run by the Humber School for Writing. The Workshop runs this year from July 10 -16 at their beautiful Lakeshore Campus here in Toronto (former site of a psychiatric hospital which I find a perfectly wonderful irony given the mental anguish most writers I know go through). For years I've been thinking about going to this renowned program (here's the link - just see what a line up of intructors and mentors they've had over the years!)

But something has always held me back from attending. Oh yeah, there's been the "I'm too busy with the kids" or "Yeesh, I can't afford that this year" or the procrastinators mantra "I'll do it next year". But honestly? The real reason I've been holding back? I'm intimidated as hell to attend. Which makes absolutely no sense since I'm a huge proponent that writers of all levels should take programs, seminars, courses, lectures throughout their writing career in whatever format works for them to learn more about the complex art of writing. After seven years and a few million words under my belt I'm not exactly a newbie beginner but I feel like I'm still at an intermediate level. I still have so, so much to learn. I want to make my books bigger (and that's not about word count people). I want them to resonate with layers of meaning and ring true with deep, emotional heart. I want my plots and themes to intertwine so tightly that a reader is propelled to keep reading to find out how these characters end up because they've become emotionally invested dammit!

I want a lot, don't I? :)

So, if I'm a big fan of ongoing learning, what's holding me back from doing this one? I've taken many courses, seminars, conferences etc. and learned something from each. But this workshop, I think, will be very different. It is run as an intense, five day, all day session. As their website states

Artistic Director, Antanas Sileika, calls the workshop "rocket fuel for the literary life." Participants can expect to be exhausted and exhilarated by the end of the workshop.

At this point in my writing career, I think I need that kind of rocket boost to push me beyond what I think my limits are. That's what good writing courses do to a writer. You should come out changed, energized, excited, WANTING to write. Sure, I'll learn facts and techniques and hopefully whip a manuscript into great shape. But it is the other, less concrete but infitiely more valuable benefit that comes from this kind of investment - soaking up the energy and enthusiasm that comes from spending a significant amount of time with other writers and teachers who all share the same passion for books and writing that you do. People who push you to become better - who know and understand how difficult this gig is but who wouldn't trade it for the world. That kind of energy and enthusiasm is priceless.

And yet even though I know it would be so, so worth it … I'm still nervous about plunging in. Worried I'll discover that I have still so much more to learn and feeling vulnerable about my ability to continue to improve. Is there a wall that writers hit when you can only do so much and not much more? This fear that maybe I'm as good as I'll ever get is not a very pleasant thing to confront. Which, I guess, is exactly why I need to take this kind of course. Not only am I a big proponent of writers taking courses I'm a big fan of facing what you fear. I know I need to break through that fear and force myself to grow as a writer. But I also know when I need some help. And, like going to the doctor for a diagnosis, taking a good writing course may be the only cure for this particular ailment.

Now *gulp* where's that application form?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Writers Most Important Question: "What If ...?"

Ah, yes. What if ...? The classic question that starts all fiction writers off on their novels. Asking 'What if ...?' provides endless possibilities for story lines. Of course, which direction you as a writer go in depends on the series of what if questions you pose.

"What if a young girl found out her parents had lied to her her whole life?"
"What if that girl finds out her whole family are illegal aliens?"
"What if she's deported?"
"What if she decides to try and get back home?"

All these 'what if' questions were what went through my mind when I thought about ILLEGALLY BLONDE. An endless array of 'what if's' that eventually led to the plot and character development of my story.

Now here's a twist on the 'what if' question.

'What if' you apply that question to your own life?

I was watching the Olympics on the weekend when Alexandre Bilodeau won the first Canadian gold on home soil ever. There was an interview with him and they spoke about how he prepared for the biggest event of his career as an athlete. He has an older brother with cerebral palsy who inspires him on a daily basis by working on defying people's expectations of him and what he can do. Alex Bilodeau thinks of his brother on those days when he just doesn't feel like going out on a cold, miserable day to practice skiing and he asks himself one question: What if I was told I could never ski?

Would he wish -like his brother probably does - that he had the opportunity to practice racing down a mountain in cold, miserable weather? You obviously can guess what Alex's answer was to the 'What if' question he poses to himself. Alex's answer is to appreciate the fact that he is able to ski - and be thankful for the opportunity to do so even in miserable, uncomfortable situations.

So the next time I find myself complaining about writing - like struggling through a WIP that seems to be stuck in neutral most days and my desire to avoid that struggle I'll ask myself "What if I was told I could never write another word?" What kind of person would I end up being? Would I be happy?

The answer - and the follow up questions - to that intial 'What if' question establish the plot line of my writing life and my own character development as an author. I am lucky enough to be able to write and I need to appreciate what I have through the hard times and the good.

Thank you, Mr. Bilodeau and all the amazing athletes who inspire us, by asking the most important question of all: 'What if...?"

Thursday, February 11, 2010

10 Ways to Beat the February Blahs!

Back in October I gave the reasons why it's my favourite month. In the spirit of positivity I'm working hard to embrace I thought I'd try the same thing with my least favourite month - February.

I don't know why poor February has been relegated to last place in my Top Twelve Month listing but hmm, let me see...Cold. Winter. No Sun. Blahs.

Yeah. That last one. The February Blahs are the worst.

But let's see if I can turn that negative perception around by doing a positivity list and see how I feel by the end of it. They say, if you try hard enough, you can embrace even the most blahest of blah times. So here goes…

1. February is the shortest month of the year. Yay! Seriously, whoever developed the Roman calendar (that is the one we follow, right?) must have had a vision of poor, frozen souls shivering in Canada waiting for the sun to come back. So they said, "Hey! Let's make this month only 28 days!" A psychological trick but it works wonders.

2. Valentine's Day! Okay, I know it's a total marketing scam started by candy companies to sell chocolate truffles but who doesn't like to eat chocolate truffles?? And eating chocolate truffles with the one you love is always a mood lifter.

3. Winterlicious! Not sure if other cities besides Toronto have all their best restaurants open their doors with scrumptious meals at reasonable prices to get people to come out and eat in what would otherwise be a dreary month but it's a hit here in T.O. I've already gone to lunch and dinner at two different restaurants I don't normally frequent. Getting out of the office and the house and socializing makes this a great way to break the winter blahs. Go Winterlicious!

4. Family Day! Here in Ontario it's a new holiday on February 15. Kids are off school, government employees have the day off and so do some private businesses. A time to spend with the family doing nothing together or spend it going to the movies, skiing, skating - whatever it is you enjoy doing together. If you don't have a Family Day mandated where you live, why not mandate your own day. Play hooky and spend time with your kids! Definite blah breaker!

5.Chinese New year! The Chinese New Year starts on February 14 this year (Valentine's Day too - double celebration!) and, bonus, it's the Year of the Tiger! My year, baby! Tiger years promise to be chock full of excitement and energy - hopefully most of it good!

6. Surprises! Okay, that one is a little obscure but the last few years one good surprise has always happened to me in February. I signed with my agent in February and got my book offer in February. Month's almost half-over - come on surprise! Where are you?

7.More time for Writing! Seriously, with no distractions like summer vacations, sunshine and warm weather to frolic in there is nothing to pull you away from your computer. You can go gang-busters on that wordcount! So write, dammit!

8.Oscar-nominated movies! Usually, the Oscars happen at the end of February. This year it's early March. No matter - it just gives me a little extra time to see those great films.

9. Winter Olympics! I know - I know. This only happens every four years. But when it does it's in February!

10. Spring is around the corner! For reals! By February 28 Spring is only 3 WEEKS AWAY! If that doesn't lift the blahs you need more help than writing up a positive list.

So, how do you feel now? You know what? I feel a lot better than before I wrote the list. Just goes to show you thinking positively really can help change your perception on things. Poor February might have just moved up a couple of notches on my Top Twelve Month list. And hey! What's that I see? The sun just came out!!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Blogiversary - Reflections on a Year of Being 'Out There'

My first blog post was a year ago - February 6, 2009 to be exact. I had absolutely no clue as to what I was doing. Lots of writers I admired had been writing blogs for years. Had been writing wonderful, supportive, informative, reflective, funny, motivational posts that I loved to read, learn from and apply their advice to my own writing and publishing journey. So what was the point in starting my own blog, I thought? Really, what did I have to say, who was I saying it to and what could I possibly add? What I learned after a year of doing a blog is this: Those questions don't matter. The only question that matters is: Do you want to make connections with others and learn more about yourself - as a writer and a person - along the way?

I had no conscious thought about the direction of this blog when I started it. I first titled it Unpublished. Unfazed. Undaunted. But then, after I got my contract, I retitled it to "About to be published! About time. About the journey." I thought that's what I'd mostly write about - the rejections, the ups and downs, the waiting, the stops and starts on the writing path. And I did - and do - write about those things. But the name of the blog is "Out of the Wordwork" and I named it that because that's what I needed to start doing. I needed to get out of the word work. I'd spent years working on the words but had stayed very insular in terms of my reaching out to others in the writing community. Yes, I'd joined fabulous writers spaces like Verla Kay's Blueboards and had been a member of the Toronto Romance Writers for years. I'd taken various writer's courses and attended conferences. But I never felt comfortable sharing my thoughts on writing with more than one or two people at a time. I was definitely a fly on the writing wall of life. But as I started putting thought into what I should write for blog posts, I started to realize things about myself that I never consciously faced before. I thought I was a pessimist - but because of writing I realize I'm more of an optimist (you have to be in this business!). I never realized how persistent I was - until I started writing about how important persistance was to a writer. I never thought to see anybody stopping by to read my blog and was astounded and amazed by the people I've met through this medium. I never thought I'd ever follow blogging by also joining Twitter but I think having dipped my foot into one 'out there' pool, it was a lot easier to dip my toe into an even bigger pool. And I learned the two of them are very complimentary/supportive of each other. At least the people involved in them are.

And, by far, that has been my biggest revelation: how much writers support each other through blogs and Twitter simply by making comments like "Yay! Good for you!" or "I've been through that…" or "Hey, thanks, I learned something…" or "So happy for you…" I would never have known any of that support was out there if I hadn't put myself 'out there'.

So, if you are hesitating about starting a blog or joining Twitter or any other scary social media out there right now all I have to say is "If I can do it, you can too." Go on. Put yourself out there. You'll be amazed about what you discover about yourself and other people along the way.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

One of the Neat Things about the Publishing Journey

This will be a short blog post.

No overanalyzing my wip, no motivational 'keep on writing' blurbage, no hockey mom stories, teenage girls and young boy anecdotes, none of that. Just a simple note about one of the pure pleasures of being on the publishing journey for the first time.

The day you find out your book is listed on Chapters/Indigo and

No picture yet but who cares?

My book is available for pre-order.

Holy crap. In a totally good way of course.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Stuck in the Middle

Well I don't know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain't right,
I'm so scared in case I fall off my chair,
And I'm wondering how I'll get down the stairs,
Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you.

Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see that it makes no sense at all,
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor,
'Cause I don't think that I can take anymore
Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

Stuck in the Middle with You. Lyrics by Stealers Wheel

Why am I quoting a song that I haven't listened to in years? Because it relates exactly to what I'm going through right now with this WIP. Stuck. In. The. Middle. With IT.

Now I'm not totally despairing of the situation. Yet. I know I go through this with EVERY book I write. Every single one. In fact, right about now is usually when I put the WIP aside and take a break from it. I did it with ILLEGALLY BLONDE. Started writing it in May 2006. Stopped in July. Didn't pick it up again until October. Finished it in early December. Total writing time about 5-6 months. Total break time about 2 months. The book I just submitted to my agent was like that too. I'd written the first half then stopped and started another book. But when my agent advised me that the one I'd shoved aside was probably the right one to go with I picked it up again. After that break I finished it in about 3 months.

So the question is: why on earth do I do this?? What is it about the middle of the book that ties me up in knots, frustrates me and makes me put the book aside?

I know I'm not a huge outliner. I don't need to know every single thing that happens in a plot before I write it. But neither am I a complete pantser. I know my beginning, I know my ending, I may know a couple of things that might happen in the story to get me to that end. But is it this hybrid approach of mine that creates its own special circumstances that lead to this struggle in the middle? I still feel like I'm sort of tied to a general outline that I have in my head, yet I know I'm free to waver and move from that outline whether in changing the tone or characters as I get deeper into the book. Is it this struggle between sticking to my orginial idea and having that original idea change up on me that drives me slightly crazy?

I think that's what's happening now. I thought I had one kind of story but it's turning into another kind - much darker and more complicated (a fairy tale retelling that has a murder mystery in it? Really??) that I need to stop and regroup. Because I write the first draft in long-hand it's hard for me to go back and re-read what I've written. So sometimes it helps at this point in my process to go back and start to type the first half of it and see if it's working. I've just typed up the first chapter (I'm currently on Chapter 18) and thankfully I really liked it. I'm hoping that as I type up the next 17 I have written I will see that the story really is working and that I just have to get to that next big event which will eventually lead to the climax and denouement and it'll be gravy.

A good writer friend suggested I should just write up the ending and that would give me a concrete finish line - a goal - to motivate me to get through the murky middle. But I need to go through a story linearly. I can't write up pieces and then fit them together later. I never did like puzzles too much.

So, whether I like it or not, I need to appreciate that this is my process. I do get stuck in the middle and I'll keep singing that song until I finally see my way out - then I can start singing Miley Cyrus's The Climb instead:

Ain't about how fast I get there
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb