Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A little backstory

Or not.

Lately, I've been reading a novel for a friend. It's her first foray into writing a novel, and I'm the first person (aside from her husband) that she's let look at it. And she wants me to help her make it better. So I will. 

That's the backstory. And you know what? You don't need to know that to really get what I'm going to be talking about in the next little bit.  So, if this were a novel, that above paragraph should be cut. Sure, it gives you a sense of where this post came from, but you don't need it to understand the advice I'm offering here. 

She's got an interesting story, and interesting characters. But like so many first time novelists, she's making the mistake of thinking we need to know everything the characters before we can get to the story.  This is very clearly stopping the action. In fact, in some ways, the action doesn't have a chance to get started, because telling me what someone's done, who they were in the past, doesn't move the story forward.  Oh sure, we think it does. "You've GOT to know she had puppies as a kid! And lost one! Or you won't understand!" Are you sure?

So, here's the question to ask: Does the audience need to know this RIGHT NOW to understand what's happening RIGHT NOW. If the answer is "nope," or even "not really..." then rethink why you're giving out the information here and now.  Is it paragraphs of backstory? Yikes! Is it one  great line that gives insight? Go for it. But sparingly.

As many authors and editors before me have said, each scene should do at least two of the following three things (the first time I remember hearing this was at Magical Words--more backstory for you!):

1). Develop the character
2). Move the plot forward
3). Provide backstory

It must do at least two of these things most of the time. If a scene can do all three, you're golden.

So, ask yourself,  "What does this moment/scene/chapter accomplish?" Furthermore, "what does the audience know that before this they DID NOT know?" If the answer is "nothing" you've got a lot of work to do on the scene--or maybe not. Maybe it should just go.

Backstory enriches our understanding of character, but it pretty much by definition doesn't move the plot forward.  And, especially early on, you want the story to move. Characters need conflict, danger, and urgency.

So, I've encouraged the woman I'm reading for to cut backstory. To focus on the now and keep her MC in the moment, experiencing.

Backstory can also lead to that most pernicious problem: telling.

Readers want a great story, but they experience that story through your characters' experiences. And backstory fits into this as well.  In real life, when we meet someone, she usually doesn't stop and say, "hey, let me take an hour and tell you all about my history!" She'll give a snippet or two that're relevant. "Oh, you went to Ohio State? I went to Michigan! Go Big Ten!" Or "Hi! I'm your waitress this evening. Bob over here will be helping me out." 

As we experience more with people, we learn more about them. So on page one, the MC might be a plucky lawyer who occasionally does work for the Public Defender's office. And on page five, we might learn she's a single mom. But why she moved back home, how she got to be a single mom, why she chose public defending, all that can come later, when she meets the man she's defending. When she hears the gruesome details.  When we need  to know.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

On procrastination...

But first, some house-keeping stuff... (sorry to procrastinate...)

I haven't blogged in a while--a long while--and I need to.

So, stuff going on:

Slush reading for the Big Bad II is well underway. John Hartness, my co-editor, and I are reading through some great stories, and I know our decisions will be tough!  That's always a good thing. We've got enough that our acceptance rate from the slush will be around 10% or less!

School is school is school, though I'm starting work on my 101 class next year, and I'm hoping to really put some time into learning more about teaching Composition.

I got married, too, in October 2013, and that was a lot of fun, and lovely, and all the things I wanted it to be. (And I'm pretty sure all the things my hubby wanted, too).

I'm in the middle of editing a YA novel that I'm really excited about, but with which I struggled a lot. I had to change some of the ways I wrote to get the story out of my head and on paper. It resulted in major edits being necessary, but hey, when aren't they?  And that leads to my blog post...

On procrastination...

I suppose I'll start with a disclaimer: as a rule, procrastination is NOT the best way to get things done. Waiting until the last minute, putting stuff off, spending hours on email or facebook, or mainlining all of Doctor Who on Netflix leaves you pretty much where you started: with nothing done.

When procrastination is keeping a writer from writing (or anyone from doing the things they want to do,) then it is bad. As a rule, it should be avoided, right?

Well...

I procrastinate. A lot. I've done it for as long as I can remember, but it really came into focus when I was working on my PhD. I procrastinated studying for my candidacy exams. The result was that I ended up finishing later than I could have.  I procrastinated on my dissertation, too.  But that's where I found something different. My procrastination actually helped in some ways. It became a part of my writing routine. I'd know I needed to start writing by X date, or I wouldn't hit a deadline. But I couldn't make myself start writing until I'd screwed around a lot. Sometimes hours, sometimes weeks or even a month.

And then I discovered something...

The waiting, the procrastinating, actually helped me.

Why?

Because I spent all the "not writing" time thinking. I'd mull over ideas for days or weeks. Think about stuff as I cleaned (yeah, for all you haters-of-cleaning out there, I even chose cleaning over writing my dissertation) or as I just stared at my email, or took a shower, or drove to and from my job or on errands.

By the time I sat down to write, I could write out a bunch of notes and ideas, and then dive in and write huge chunks of text in a fairly short span of time. For example, I took one draft of a chapter for my diss from 20 pages to 40 pages in a weekend.

Having the deadline made a difference--I had to turn in the chapter on "X" date.

Now that I'm more deadline-free, I still do a lot of wandering around and thinking. I flip through facebook. I check email. I do other mundane stuff that needs to be done, but isn't writing. I take long showers, because I think a lot in the shower. I think about plot or character when I work out. But a lot of time I'll just put off writing.

This came to a head this past Fall (coinciding with my wedding, which I'm sure is not a coincidence). I hadn't written in a long time (for me). Months. And I couldn't get past this one chapter. I knew what happened in the chapter (roughly--I knew what it needed to accomplish), but I had no idea how to get it on the page. There were choices I had to make, and I couldn't make them. I'd rewritten it about 10 times, and it wasn't getting better, or getting it done.

So I did something I have NEVER done before: I skipped ahead. I just wrote "X happens in this chapter..." and opened up the next chapter.  And it worked. I finished the rest of the novel (about 35,000 words) in a few days over a few weeks.  Now there's lots of editing to be done, but the novel itself is done (draft one, anyway), and has THE END at the end.

The problem, though, wasn't procrastination.  It was that my normal pattern, procrastination, wasn't working for me.  So I found a different one. I skipped ahead. And then, my procrastination settled back in to something I could use. My delays became a means to work out issues in my head. To daydream and brainstorm.

My point is that procrastination often gets really bashed. "Writers WRITE!" and all that. And while that's true, delaying can be equally useful.  In a way, finshing the rest of my novel was my own kind of procrastination on that one chapter. Now I'm ready to go back and write it.

Everyone writes differently.  It's really easy to get into the "I'm not writing every day! I'm not a writer!" But I've come to know, about me, that my run-up to writing is always a lot of what looks like procrastination.

If whatever you're doing leads to words (hopefully good words) on the page, then you're doing it right (write?).  Procrastination is a good friend to me, and thanks to it, I've hit my deadlines (most of the time--hey dissertations are a bitch!), and my writing has been better for it.

This is certainly not the only way to write, and lots of people may writer differently.

But I wanted to help procrastination up, dust her off a bit, and point out that maybe everyone beats up on her just a bit too much. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Con Carolinas 2013

So Con Carolinas in Charlotte, NC is a great SF/F convention. Seriously. I recommend it to anyone at all, especially if you are remotely close. Great people, interesting panels, and a comfortable, friendly atmosphere.

I've been going to this Con since 2008, I think. It was the first con I ever went to, and it will be on my list for a long, long time. I'm really a big fan of it.

In 2010, I think, I met John G. Hartness, author of The Black Knight Chronicles and the Bubba the Monster Hunter stories. And it was through the con and meeting him that I got to work on my first big publication: The Big Bad: an Anthology of Evil from Dark Oak Press. I'm co-editor of the volume, and I also have a short story, "The Wicked Witch and the White Knight" in it. 

In other posts ('cause I've decided to keep up this blog a bit better) I'll talk about editing and what it means to edit on both the large scale (how do you set up an anthology? how do you pick pieces?) to the small scale (how do editors and writers work together?), but for now, I just want to be excited about the book.

This weekend I got to autograph my publication for the first time. It was way cool and I hope to get to do it again! Though we weren't able to have a traditional launch party (the books didn't arrive), a bunch of the authors got to hang out and share the excitement of having published something awesome.

The Big Bad is a lot of fun. The stories in it a great. The theme--all the stories have a villain for the protagonist--produced a ton of great material.  I couldn't be happier with what John and I have done (and what the authors have done!) 

We're gearing up to start Volume II of the Big Bad, and I can hardly wait!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

On Age and Subject Matter...

I had the privledge of participating in a workshop with Dasan Ahanu this past weekend at the Methodist University Southern Writer's Symposium.  The workshop was fun and interesting for me as a writer, butI found myself facinated by the student response. There were several students there--most grateful to have been lured by the promise of extra-credit from their various teachers--and several willingly, even excitedly, participating. 

After we would do an exercize, Dasan would ask people to volunteer to read. Or, as we prepared to do an exercise, he'd ask people for images or things or ideas.  I was thrilled by how very much the students responded. And I was facinated by what they had to say. When I was their age (in high school or early college so many years ago I hate to even think it) and I thought about writing, I found writing profound. I thought that people should write about IMPORTANT THINGS like justice, women's rights, poverty, love, philosophy, God ... you know, stuff that important, long-dead people have written about. And this was one of the reasons I thought I probably couldn't be a writer. The thought of writing about my own life, the little things in it, seemed trivial and silly and not particularly worthwhile. 

As the students read their work, I noticed that they seemed interested in the things that I had been interested in then, too. One student wrote about God and his (the student's) own perfection and imperfection. Another wrote about the power of the written word.

I wrote about cold wood floors, warm blankets, and the DVR remote.

I wrote about the little things that reminded me, in the space I loved, of the people I loved. And it was small and sweet and utterly, utterly personal. But now, I didn't think it was trivial anymore. It filled me with emotion that I couldn't work up, but wanted to, when I was younger about big, philosophical things. 

And it occured to me that maybe this is normal. Maybe as I'm not getting any younger (I hesitate to say getting older, 'cause it scares me), it's the here and now that I find most facinating.

I think this does translate into my own writing of fiction. I'm more facinated by the small moments that fill our lives--the little evils we do to each other or the little graces we give to each other--than by the big events. Sure, the big events (and the Big Bads) are so necessary in Urban Fantasy, and they're fun, too.  But the story is so much more than that big event.

It's the small things, the seemingly mundane, that make all the difference, both in my life, and, I think, in my fiction.

Friday, September 7, 2012

It's been a few months...

... and they've been busy months.  I last posted in March! 

Summer involved two rewrites of the novel I'm writing with Sarah, three cons (Con Carolinas, FandomFest, and Dragon Con), and some new opportunities.

The rewrites of Knychtspelle went well.  Hopefully the last set of rewrites before we do rewrites for money. We'll see.

The cons were lots of fun. Lots of socializing, parties, chatting, connecting, learning, buying books, getting books signed, etc.  Dragon Con was amazing with all the costumes and stuff. I even bought a trebuchet--well, a miniature model of one. A real one would be cool, but perhaps too much work to transport. It's a medieval siege weapon that hurls stones over walls via a swinging weight system. I'm going to use it in my medieval and renaissance classes, to shoot things (good things like marshmallows) at my students.

The Newest opportunity that I'm excited about at the moment is editing an anthology with John Hartness tentatively called "The Big Bad." It's focus is all on villains--the MC has to be a villain. There really aren't any other requirements.  So far we're reading slush and I'm really impressed with some of the stories. They're really creepy and good.  If this goes well, we'll be editing another anthology in the next year--a spec fic one with the theme of corsets. That one will certainly be interesting.

I also published a piece in Drafthorse: A Literary Journal of Work and no Work called "Form 99B." 
I've got an academic article on the Siege of Jerusalem coming out in October in the South Eastern Medieval Association Journal. I'm excited about that too. 

All of this, though, has cut a bit into the writing I want to do on my new YA idea. It's forming in my head, which is a good thing, but I need to get it all out on paper, too.  I'm excited about it, because I love the main character and I think it is going to be dark and adventurous, but not dystopian. And it is set in a Fae world, too.  The MC is Cassie, and I'm enjoying getting to know her better.  I'm hoping once I get a conference paper written, I can turn back to Cassie and see what she's got to say and do.  It's the first novel I've written from a one-pov perspective, and it is in first person, too, so I'll have to see how that goes. 

And school is going on, which is a good thing. I'm enjoying my classes--I've even got a great, enthusiastic 8:00am class, which is awesome. 

So, all in all, while there's a fair bit of stress, most of it is good stress, or hopeful stress, and that is something I can cope with.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Hell Mary is out in the world, and the Huntington is beautiful.

At the end of last week, finally, I sent off my novel, Hell Mary: Full of Fire, to a few agents. I started with my "it would be so cool if..." list of agents. These are  folks whose reputations I know primarily because I've either met them or know the authors that they represent fairly well. Now I wait.

I will say, I wish there was one, universal set of information that agents want. I know each agent is a little different, but why do some agents want 50 pages, some 40, some 2 chapters, some 10 pages, some 5 pages, etc. Now, realistically, I'm pretty sure that an agent can tell if a book is one, good, and two, what they are interested in, within about 2 pages, max. They can tell they don't want it, for whatever reason, in about 2 paragraphs.  Some want a synopsis, some don't. Some want a 2 paragraph synopsis, some want a 10 page one. Others want everything inbetween. It's a buyer's market, of course, so I do what they ask, but there comes a point where I want to scream. "Was it four pages? Or fourteen? ARGH!" And my question is "does it matter"? I mean, if I totally blow off submission guidelines, stalk the agent at her favortie restaurant, call his personal number, don't send anything at all, yeah, blow me off (or call the police), but you know, if I send an agent 32 pages and not 40, is it the end of the world?

The problem is that I see their point. As a teacher I find myself muttering "I gave you instructions. 4-6 pages. Not 15! or not 2!" and if they don't do what the assignment requires, it is very, very hard to get a passing grade. So I get it. Some of the point of submission guidelines is simply "can you follow directions?" Which also helps answer the question "Do I think I can work with this person?" Because no matter how awesome a story/novel is, if the writer is absolutely impossible to work with, why bother?

Well, here's hoping that the people who didn't ask for partials ask for them, and the folks who asked for a few pages ask for more, and the ones who asked for a lot of pages want to read the rest.  Right?

Oh, and 75 and sunny at the Huntington Library and Gardens? THAT makes me understand why folks might like living in LA. The traffic? THAT reminds me that I can visit the Huntington once or twice a year. I don't need to live in LA, or indeed in California.

My favorite part of the Huntington art collection is the gallery of portraits, part of their permenant collection. The Blue Boy, Pinkie, Sarah what's-her-name (famous actress). The paitings are awesome. Of course, in the Library, the Ellesmere Chaucer almost makes me cry (yes, literally), as do first editions of Much Ado About Nothing and other gorgeous pieces they have. I love the physical arts (sculpture, painting, even manuscripts). I fully admit I don't understand much about them, but beautiful pieces of art make me cry, and I can't explain why. I guess that's one of the reasons it's art.

The Huntington Gardens were gorgeous, too. The Rose Garden is my favorite (and the Tea Room was yummy). All in all, a great way to spend a Saturday.

If nothing else it took my mind off the novel for a few hours. :)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving Horror Short

Here's a short I wrote today for a prompt over at Magical Words.


          A cool breeze ruffled Clarabell’s blonde hair. She settled her girth into her lounger, the metal and plastic creaking under her weight. She sipped her Bloody Mary. Certainly there was no better way to spend Thanksgiving: in her South Carolina house on the Atlantic, far from Connecticut’s November chill, a fresh turkey waiting for death in the pen.
          “Ma’am?” at the southern drawl of Earl, her low class butler, she curled her lip.
          “What?” She snapped, her sharp New England accent harsh against his easy droll.
          “There’s a problem with the turkey, ma’am.”
           She snorted and slammed her drink onto the table, sloshing the red liquid onto the white of the lounger. “You failed to slaughter a simple bird?” She hauled herself up and faced him.
          Blood trickled from a gash on the butler’s forhead, trailing down his cheek and gathering in the collar of his shirt. His normally whisky-pink cheeks were ashen and his bright blue eyes dim.
         “Was there some kind of accident?”
          “In the back yard, ma’am. We—Tommy and me—were getting ready to kill the turkey.” He jerked his hand full of blood spattered feathers. The black of his suit glinted, wet, and blood rolled onto his hands from under the cuff.
          “Did you cut yourself?” She stepped back, putting the lounger between the two of them.
          “No, ma’am.” He swayed back and forth and tumbled forward, the feathers fluttering into the air before floating down.
          Clarabell screamed. The gashes on Earl’s chest, revealed in his collapse, oozed more blood. She did not lean to down to check on him, but scrambled into the house, grabbing the nearest phone and punching in 911.
         Behind her, something rustled.
         She spun around, the 911 call at its third ring. A turkey—their thanksgiving dinner—stared at her, its beady black eyes glinting in the light of the room.
         “911. What is your emergency?”
         “There’s a turkey…” she trailed off. A patch of pale skin was visible on the bird where feathers had been torn away.
         The creature clucked once, twice. A flutter of its wings revealed a cleaver. How it held it, she had no idea, but blood dripped from the blade.