Monday, April 29, 2013

The Things We Do For Love

Writing a book is like love-at-first-sight, especially when the idea for a book hits like a ton of bricks. "Best idea, ever!" "This is gonna write like butter!" "I can't believe I thought of this!"  Or, it may be more subtle.  Either way, there's a secret inner loveliness of knowing that you're going to write a book.

It's when the writing begins that the process appears to be more like an arranged marriage than a love match.

Inspired, the writer writes the first two thousand words of the first draft.  He's still on a pink cloud.  He goes to bed, gets up the next morning, fires up the laptop and ... wait, WHAT?

An experienced writer will see things like this: Clunkiness. Unwieldyness. Too many shiny-faced, clever little darlings seeking to hijack the process. Too much exposition.  Too little natural dialogue.  Head hopping. Bad grammar. Execrable punctuation. Misspelled words—lots of them.  On its face, this is most definitely NOT what the writer fell in love with, but he knows the story is still there.  He will take it to his writers' group willingly, craving those other sets of eyes.

An inexperienced writer will suspect his writing maybe isn't as good as it appeared first blush. He will take it to his writers' group and get feedback from the more experienced writers, and hopefully they will dispense the truth with kindness.  He will take what he needs and leave the rest.  He may feel a flash of resentment, but he will also see that many of the suggestions are spot-on and he'll intuitively know a good deal of what's been shown to him will help.

A non-writer will not see any of this. If he belongs to a writers' group and submits his work for critique and the writers attempt to remove the scales from his eyes, he will either take offense and storm away in high dudgeon, maybe never to return. Or he will sit and seethe, leaving at the same time as everyone else, maybe never to return. And he'll stop writing.

Or he'll write "at" everyone, finish his work and maybe become a writer just from the process of writing.  Many excellent writers have actually started out this way.

Whether a writer submits to a critique group or not, he must get to know his story at deeper and deeper levels. He must let her lead the way as she reveals her characters, point-of-view, plot, pacing, backstory —everything. Then she must let him write.  He's drawing her out.  Writer and story will find places they cannot stay, but the experiences in those places only serve to enrich the narrative. And the way he cares for her, builds the relationship and learns about her is by writing and writing and writing.

And she will be unlovely a good deal of the time, especially the first draft.  There will be lapses in chronology, abrupt changes in characters that don't seem authentic, too much of something, too little of something else, but if her truth is allowed to assert itself, he will fix what needs to be fixed, she will show him more, and they will journey on.

It's actually her "unloveliness" that causes the writer to assert himself, for he knows that if she is to be revealed, it's up to him.  But he can't do it without her, for if he forces whatever version of "loveliness" he craves on her, she will be ruined.

In case anyone is interested, here is a  book which describes a process for revealing a story that suits the way this writer writes— The 90-Day Novel by Al Watt of the LA Writers' Lab.  It's all about embracing the unloveliness, because unloveliness, if tended, is a progress in love.

Monday, April 22, 2013

When Evil Casts a Big Pall on Everyone

Last Monday morning, I posted about an exercise I intended to do for a writer's group I belong to here in town.  It was due on Thursday.

On Monday afternoon, around 3 p.m., I watched (along with millions of people) as two puffs of smoke photographed from an aerial camera on a helicopter trained on the finish line of the Boston Marathon turned out to be the most hellish of devices: home made bombs made to kill and maim as many people as possible based on the design.  The design.  Design implies thought, planning, creativity, ingenuity— plans to bring something into existence which was not there before.  Design is usually associated with positive outcomes; architecture, fashion, graphics, ships, airplanes, gardens, musical instruments, computers, medicines ... and the list goes on and on.  We forget the list also includes guns, weapons and the delivery systems for mass killing. We forget that things designed for good (computers, medicines, airplanes, ships ... even buildings) can, with only minor changes, deal death.  A pressure cooker, for many of us, has its design accompanied by images of a beloved grandmother canning the bounty of her garden or peach trees, or, in my case, my husband canning his delicious spaghetti sauce.

And just as a weekend gardener will design elements of his garden taken from the design for, say, Versailles, which he learned about from books or the internet (and perhaps he even took a class or two ...), there are terrorists like the young men who deployed the home-made bombs on Monday, using specific plans based on designs for IEDs found on the internet or in handbooks. (The older terrorist may have even taken a class on how to make these things.)

Monday afternoon and evening was kind of a blur, and my degree of separation from the event is pretty big.  But here in New England, everyone has some connection to the Boston Marathon. My son ran it four Aprils ago.  He knows a number of people, runners and their supporters alike, who went this year.  He was anxiously awaiting texts from them.  My niece, doing a semester abroad at University College of Dublin, skyped in tears Monday night.  How could she find out if her friends from the UConn running club were okay?  How could she find out if her friends who went to cheer the runners on were okay? We sent her a Facebook message with a local news station's website which had comprehensive links to help folks find their dear ones.

It's 1:15 here in Connecticut.  I'm sure there are victims and survivors thinking ... "It hasn't been a week yet ... another hour ... at this time last week, she was still alive.  He was still alive.  I still had both my legs.  I still had legs.  We still had our little boy.  We still had our daughter. Happiest day in Boston."

And two young men, although murder had entered their hearts, were not killers ... yet.

And since this kind of evil is one of the most confounding mysteries of our humanity, how do we, as writers, respond?

I think the very best response to this mystery is found on the blog of a remarkable young woman -- wife, mother, writer — and her post following  the Sandy Hook killings in December, Make Good Art.  It was the first thing I thought of when I loosened the grip the horror of the Marathon bombings had on me (for even my prayers were anguished,) as I wrenched myself away from the relentless news coverage.

Thank you, Faith E. Hough.

Monday, April 15, 2013

This Week's Writer's Exercise

I belong to a Writer's Workshop at the local public library.  It meets on Thursday mornings at 11 a.m. and has been the high point of my week for months now.  Over the last couple of months, those of us with WIPs have been doing exercises pertaining to them.

Last week, we wrote endings to our our books.  There's no guarantee that the endings we wrote are the ones we will use, but it was a compelling thing to do.  Completely different from writing a beginning in so many ways AND, if one is writing a series, sown with the seeds of the next book. 

Endings seem to have valves, where tension is let off in a controlled (but not controlling!) way.  Endings are peaceful and perhaps even resigned.  They are, after all, endings.  AND, since I am both an info-dumper and a banjo-player, endings are balm to an overly-expository writer.  They are chock-full of possibilities that the reader already knows about, so the temptation to "word-herd" the reader is gone.

Now we're working on characters ... index cards with physical descriptions and connecting lines to describe the relationships between the characters.  Sort of like those wonderful family trees one finds at the beginning of a Sharon Kay Penman work of historical fiction.

It turns out the entire room our group meets in has walls of fabric and pushpins can be used EVERYWHERE, all over ALL the walls. Kelly, the leader of our group and head of Library Services, said, "Yes.  Every bit of the wall.  Go for it."  I can't wait.

The problem for me is: I have so many characters, so here's what I've decided I'm going to do:  I will have three sizes of index card to choose from.  That's right ... I'm going to cut some cards in half and some in quarters. Now this isn't to say the characters will remain a particular "size" over the series, but for the current WIP, I have an excellent idea of the "weight" each character brings to the story.

Of course, this could just be the lamest idea ever, but I really want to give it a whirl.  I love a good visual, and the mental picture of a glorious union of the Excel file of my characters, index cards, sharpies and tumbtacks is already dancing in my head.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

I Shamróg Aer Lingus (Because a shamrock is THREE little ♥s!)

I am waiting for the glacial uploading of pictures of my trip to Ireland to a Picasa album.  For some reason, they are taking a long, LONG time but I wanted to do a wee post regarding the lovely Aer Lingus convention of naming their airplanes. Probably other airlines do this, I just never noticed.

Here's the ACTUAL plane we flew on (photo online, courtesy of Tony Marlow) ...
... named after the patron Saint of the Emerald Isle. I was quite surprised, since the English spelling of the Saint's name was used.  The Irish are quite adamant about their language being in evidence everywhere (Ní tír gan teanga - There is no nation without a language.   Also: Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste, ná Béarla cliste - Broken Irish is better than clever English) and when one gets to the Dingle Peninsula and other points west, many of the signs don't even bother with English.

As we boarded the plane at JFK, we walked through a gate that had a rather long hall that went back on itself.  When we came in view of the front of the airplane, my sister, Ann, pointed and said, "Oh, look, Ro!  It's named St. Patrick!"

But you know, if it had said "Naomh Pádraig," I would have been equally comforted.

Am I a Writer? Or Do I Design Greeting Cards? Or Do I Do Both?

I used to joke about shameless marketing, but I have actually done it.  Visiting Heather King's excellent blog, Shirt of Flame, I noticed she has a picture of Bill Hicks and the quote, "By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising...kill yourself. Thank you."

When I got done laughing out loud at the quote, I got quiet and said, "Oh."

I am kind of all over the place these days.  I have this ongoing love affair with doing graphic design using Photoshop CS5 and my various and sundry online greeting card shops are actually starting to make money.  Not a lot, but $100 a month without really trying. I design and sell greeting cards for clean and sober people.  I design and sell them for Catholics looking for non-ambiguous cards to celebrate the Sacraments.  I design and sell pet sympathy cards. I have a shop on Greeting Card Universe called Best Regards where I design and sell all kinds of cards.  I design and sell cards based on photos of Prince Edward Island.  I actually have a blank card featuring a bucket of bar clams we dug at Rollo Bay, PE with the caption, "Time and tide wait for no clam."  Shameless.

Which brings me to the writing bit. We had a visiting author come to our Writer's Workshop at the Granby Public Library.  The author of Luminous, Dawn Metcalf had us speechless with the amount of time and energy she had to spend on marketing her book.  Now, mind you, this book was not self-published.  She had an agent and the manuscript was accepted and published by Dutton Children's but she, Dawn, had to do the marketing.  The publishers don't do that anymore. Writers are now doing fly-by-night promoting ... tweeting, blogging, facebooking, pinning, tumbling, conferencing, networking ... to compensate for the dearth of it coming from the publishers. And somewhere in there, writers must write.

And the forums on Greeting Card Universe are full of advice for the artists to tweet, blog, facebook, pin, tumbl, conference and network.  And somewhere in there, artists must create art.

So here's the dilemma ... Bill Hicks was on to something.  I get calls all the time from Catholic Online to market my Catholic cards for me.  But they want money.  Last year, I actually took out a marketing package with them and got tons of visitors to my Zazzle site, but NO sales.  When I complained to them about not making any money, they retorted, "We told you we'd boost traffic.  And we did."


It brings up the uncomfortable notion that the traffic came and found my stuff wanting.  That's not good.

This is also my greatest fear with my writing.  But something else is seeping into my consciousness ... I am way braver and thick-skinned regarding my graphic artwork than I am with my writing and I'm a far better writer than I am an artist.  This is a little crazy.  I need to appropriate some of that courage about getting my writing out there.  Plenty will find it wanting, but how can that even happen if I remain scared?

I think the first thing that has to to go is my "inner-marketer."  Marketing is not like art, marketing is not creating something that has never been there before.  Marketing is about putting art to use, which is kind of an abomination for an artist or a writer.  That's why the publishing houses had in-house professionals who did the marketing (and still do for best selling authors.)  Marketing tries like crazy to convince others that they cannot do without things that they really don't have a need for, and therefore they must BUY those things.  That is not the calling of an artist or a writer.
 So, I'll be taking a break from the frenetic digital activity that is modern marketing and work on my book.  Hopefully, my humble little online stores will continue to keep me in printer ink and a chai tea latte every now and then. But R. T. Freeman as self-promoting-huskster must go for a while.

 You're welcome, Bill Hicks.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Blog on Blocks

Oh, jeepers ... I have to start blogging again.  I follow a blog called Writer Unboxed and when one comments, they actually post one's latest blog entry along with one's name.  And my latest entry was NOVEMBER.

The main problem for me, though, is when I don't blog, I don't write as much. Blogging is not only a way to have a constant flow of discreet, written entities that have a beginning, a middle and an end (thus ... they are FINISHED, DONE, AWAY!) but it's terrific warm-up for larger, ongoing efforts.

So, this is a "jumper cable post."  The blog battery has been dead, the blog out on blocks in the yard and come spring, the weeds will start growing up through the engine unless I get rolling again. In the YA novel I'm working on, those poor kids have been stuck in a post-cyber war, dystopian setting for four years now (although it was "peak oil" back then. Cyber war gets the job done quicker, and it's lately been in the news quite a bit.)  At least they were having horse-back riding lessons last time I peeked in.

When I blog, I move that situation along, as well. Stories are not meant to languish.  A forgotten story is much like a neglected friend; for me, the relationship becomes full of self-recrimination and guilt.  I don't have the spirit and hopefulness concerning my book when folks ask me about it, because I have let too much time pass.  The main character floats before my eyes and asks questions like, "What's the last name of the homeless bike guy?   What's my aunt's full name?  What's my riding teacher's dog's name?  Hmmmmmm????"  I looked in on the book last week to write an ending for it as an exercise, and all I can say is, thank goodness I kept an Excel file of all the particulars. I am, though, "well-rebuked."

And I will be doomed to keep writing these, "Oh my, look how long it's been!" posts. Because the only person who cares, really, is me.  If I want others to consider reading my writing, I have to write often and get it out there for folks to read, on purpose or by accident.

"Okay ... start it up!"
Jumper cables, anyone?