The Stories Begun











{May 10, 2011}   For the sake of continuity,

And because I can think of nothing else, I want to talk about goals.

Last week I talked about making (and a little bit about breaking) deadlines, especially those that we impose upon ourselves.  These deadlines are the direct results of goals we make.

This week, my goal is to write two blogs a day.  If I manage to do that, I’ll be on schedule!  Not just for my blogs as usual, but also for all the ridiculous behind-the-scenes blogging I’m doing before my trip to Europe (I fly out five weeks from tomorrow!!!).   So far (as in, the one day of the week that has completed), I have kept that goal.  It was a near thing, not because I posted at nine minutes to midnight like last week, but because I almost convinced myself that three posts today wouldn’t be so bad.  This may yet be true.  I might decide to get ahead of myself and do three today so that I’ve done fifteen posts by the end of the week.  However, a goal is not about averaging out.  That is one of the best ways to get almost helplessly behind in a goal, trust me.

Goals are about making the goal.  Extra is bonus.  Extra should not be done until the original goal is made.  I know this sounds intuitive, but say that you have three papers due by the end of the week, one is due in two days, the others in three.  You decide it best to do two pages of all three papers, then use the extra time to devote to the paper you connect best with.  This is a great plan.  You may end up getting the paper that’s due in two days done a day early, or one of the others two days early and out of the way.

Then, when you get down to the work, you find you really connect to paper number two.  And, thinking it couldn’t possibly hurt, you decide to move on past the second page to the third and fourth and fifth and before you know it the paper is done, you’re exhausted, and the third paper has yet to be touched.  That’s a terrible plan execution.  Now, you’ll have to rush through the end of the first paper to give yourself semi-adequate time on the third paper.  However, had the hypothetical you gone on to the third paper, you may have found some interesting connections for paper two when you weren’t concentrating so hard on it (seriously, project blinkers can be such a problem).  Or, you could have discovered that paper three was the one you connected best with!  Or, you could have given yourself a small break and gotten the second paper done faster once you came back to it with no harm to your timing for papers one and three.

This is just a hypothetical illustration (based on many years of finals in college) of why goals are important to fulfill exactly.  Averaging out will end up with average results.  There is a temptation to justify doing the extra first with the excuse “It keeps a rhythm going.”  Non-hypothetical example: the possible third blog I want to work on today is one of the blogs for The Stories Begun while I am on vacation.  Yes, keeping the mindset of “author” verses “reviewer” (which is the planned second blog today) would be easier.  But I doubt it would be better.  I really do need to get that review done, if only to free me up to read this week’s book without feeling guilty and dwelling on last week’s book.  Also, if I do two posts for this blog, I can almost guarantee I’ll not be able to get into the mode I need to be in for Awake in the Pages of an Endless Library.  And, as I said earlier, it might be beneficial for the second The Stories Begun post to take a break.

You may have noticed that I keep harping on jumping between projects being a good thing, yet I titled this post, “For the sake of continuity.”  Good get.  I wholeheartedly believe that continuity is best maintained by taking these breaks.  If, as writers, we lose ourselves in projects so singularly that we forget about any other creative outlets–what I called “project blinkers” earlier–we find ourselves stagnating more often than not.  Some problems can only be solved by taking several steps away and turning our backs for a time.  This is why having several projects running at once is healthy.  If we have nothing to turn to, our minds will stay on the project even if our fingers do not.

Of course, this method, while maintaining its own kind of continuity, will bring in other continuity flaws.  I maintain that it will bring in less.  And, for those that it does bring in, that’s what’s editing is for.  Don’t worry about it.

And now, bringing this back to goals: have them.  Jumping around is no good if there isn’t a solid goal in mind.  Without the goal the switching back and forth will be purposeless and, worst of all, the flaws of both methods (singular-minded concentration and multiple projects) will combine.  I would not recommend this course of action.

Now go find something you want to do and DO IT!

~RJLouise

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Can you believe that I forgot it was Tuesday until 11:24 at night and that I had a blog due out in 36 (now 30) minutes?  How do I forget it’s a day FOR AN ENTIRE DAY, excepting the last half hour?  College students will easily be able to answer this.  We’ve done it time and again with assignments.  As someone with a full-time job now that college is temporarily over (yay Masters!), I was enjoying having this not happen.  The date I would forget, but that’s always been a problem.  The day?  Not so much . . . usually.

So, in honor of my awesome biff, we get to talk about deadlines (26 minutes).

The deadlines I find I most often miss are the self-imposed deadlines.  I mean, does anyone really care about those?  (The answer is YES, I cared enough to put it on, pay attention, dolt!)  These are the deadlines I regret missing the most.  Not because the repercussions are that significant–often the self-imposed deadlines are just deadlines I have moved up an hour, day, week, etc.–but because I feel like I’m not doing myself justice.  I’m allowing myself to be lazy with myself.  This is not a good habit for a writer, especially a writer who is not employed as such.  I write because I want to and therefore I need to write to my deadlines because no one else is going to give me one (24 minutes)!

Then again, sometimes, deadlines are INCREDIBLY fun to miss.  To flat-out ignore a deadline can be incredibly freeing (don’t you dare tell your teacher/editor I said that–they will kill me).  It allows you to do work the way you want to instead of the way someone else thinks you should.  Go for it!  Don’t blame me if there’s a sudden uprising and you end up dead.  Just saying (20 minutes).

I suppose it all depends on your outlook on what is important and what isn’t.  Is your writing important?  Yes?  Quit missing your deadlines–especially the ones you put on yourself (19 minutes).  No?  Have fun (18 minutes)!  Is your art important?   Yes?  Use the deadline to motivate you, not scare you (still 18 minutes).  No?  What are you doing with deadlines anyway (17 minutes)!?  Are you doing this for a job?  Yes? HELLO!?! (16 minutes).  No? Consider the other questions before deciding what to do with your deadline (still 16 minutes).

Oh, and silly as this may seem after all this fuss, stop watching the clock!!!  It’s distracting, demotivating, doesn’t help you or your writing, and–above all–it SHOWS.  Perhaps not as clearly as what I’ve done here, but watching the clock shows in your writing.  If you’re under a deadline, push through.  Get rid of every clock you can, put a piece of tape over the one on your computer if needs be, and just type.  Keep going.  You’ll get so much more done that way and things will flow much better.

I appreciate that this will be more difficult than actually making your deadline.  But, once again, I encourage you to miss it if you have to the first few times.  Learn how to write under pressure without clock-watching.  Take time out of the equation.  The pressure you put on yourself should be only from yourself to be better.

That’s the only “deadline” I can think of that will NEVER be fully met.  But it’s something to keep reaching for.

Luck!

~RJL

P.S. 9 minutes



Okay, today’s a writing day.  I have NOTHING to talk about by way of craft and I’ve been dying to work on something other than blogs for weeks.  Seeing as I won’t really have time to write anything outside my blogs for the next six and a half weeks, you best bet I’m taking the time NOW to do it.  Also, if I don’t do this now, the right side of my brain will do a hostile take-over of my motor functions and bang my head against my desk in protest (mostly likely the left side in an attempt to dull its reactions).

Now, what is a writing day, you may ask?  I will answer: It’s a day where I take an idea (preexisting or totally new) and develop it into a one-shot.  It may be a snap shot of a scene I want to write, it may be an image I want to develop.  No serial one-shots allowed!  It’s been a disgustingly long time since I put up a writing sample.  This is a writing blog, for crying out loud!  Where’s the writing?!?

Well, it’s finally here (and I think I’m going to make this a fourth and fifth week tradition from now on–the prospect of that hostile take-over really frightens me).  But first, as always, some rules (I love me some rules):

  • As I already mentioned, NO SERIAL ONE-SHOTS!!!!  If I fall in love with something I’ve done (which is not likely first time around), it gets put in the “to be worked on” file.  NOT the “blogging” file.
  • One thousand two hundred fifty words, +/- 10%.  This is the rule of thumb one of my college profs used for “big” essays and it works well (for those of you out there screeching, “That’s nowhere near the length for a big essay,” please keep in mind that we did a paragraph essay per class and weekly essays–he was being kind).
  • If I so chose, I can do a brief blog post beforehand.  No more than three paragraphs.
I believe that’s all that needs to be done.  Now, for the writing!
  The girl had made her peace with the dip.  Past this point in the road, there was no easy place to turn around excepting the loop that ran by her parents’ house.  That was no good option and the neighbors knew her beater well enough to know who the crazy person was pulling a K-turn in the middle of the out-of-the-way residential area she had lived in her whole life.  Someone would mention seeing the car to her mother and father and ask how the visit went (the neighbors were horribly nosy, and the last visit had been such a debacle they were dying for more gossip).  The girl would then get a miles long lecture about neglect and love and how she had a funny way of showing it.  No, she knew better than to try that.  So she made her peace with the dip, despite the fact that this was the point of no return.  The dip meant she was coming home.
It had always been that way, when she thought about it.  With her strict upbringing and her parents antiquated ideas about an appropriate curfew for a high school student (most study groups didn’t end until eleven–where in heavens name did ten o’clock make sense for a curfew?!), the girl was often isolated from her friends.  Even when they did go out, this was the point where the conversation began to wind down.  There was no sitting and talking  in the car in the dim pool of the porch lights allowed.  And there would certainly be no inviting the friends in the house.  If the girl took longer than her parents deemed appropriate for a goodbye, they would come out and collect her from the car.  It was mortifying for both parties, the driver and the passenger, so even the girl’s friends had learned to respect the curfew.  Only the newest ever challenged it.  Unconsciously, the conversation would begin to peter out at the dip so that by the time the house was reached, the girl was safely inside before too long.  The girl had come to hate the dip for the role it played in her isolation.
It was only when she moved out for college (and never again came back to live under the same roof as her parents) that she began to look back on those memories fondly.  Her friends, after all, had loved her enough to put up with the daily shenanigans of her misguided parents.  They had never pushed to come to her house, knowing it would cause her pain–pain if she didn’t ask on behalf of her friends and pain if she did.  Those small comments between the dip and her house were treasures, the things that her friends had to tell her before the night ended.  This was when her peace was made and she was able to look at the dip as a place to go beyond, not a place to run from.
And here she was, crossing it again.  Physically more than intellectually, she knew just how much to slow down and just when to punch the gas to prevent scraping the bottom of her car, but not lose too much speed.  After all, however claustrophobic and frightening home could be, it was still home.  Once she passed the dip, she might as well get there fast.
The parents cordially greeted their daughter with about as much love and tenderness one might expect from a couple who felt all their hard work and care in raising their child had been thrown back in their faces.  It was a stiff meeting–clearly neither party had forgotten the words said (or the particularly well aimed projectiles thrown) at their last encounter.  Franky, though, this stiffness was barely worse than their usual stilted version of family life.  At least there was an agreed upon reason for this.  As far as the girl could recollect, that had never happened before.
Still, the uneasy agreement on what caused the issue made the conversation no easier.  In fact, in many ways, it made the conversation harder.  The girl would not apologize for refusing her parents’ offer to move back in with them and be–for all intents and purposes–a slave with the “benefit” of living with the masters.  The parents would not apologize for their expectations for their daughter, nor the frequently expressed disappointments when they failed to be met.  Neither party was willing to apologize for the items thrown and destroyed.
It was not long before the silences were unbearable and the conversations intolerable.  The girl was reasonably confident nothing else would be thrown and that no words could make her feel worse.  Unfortunately, she was also confident that no words would make her feel better.  Perhaps indicative of a bitter soul, but true nonetheless.  Too many opportunities for the right words had come and gone–some hers, some theirs.
There was some purpose to today’s visit.  Perhaps not an apology, but a peace offering.  A grandchild.  Surely no parent could deny the child of their own!  There was no boy or girl to raise the child with, just the girl.  She had seen no relationship on the horizon and had decided to have the child on her own.  Perhaps not the wisest of decisions, but if she delayed getting a new car she really didn’t need (the beater was still going strong) and worked from home a bit more often, there was no reason this couldn’t work.
The parents brusquely pushed her out of the house when the announcement was made.  Two minutes later, they followed.  The parents had made their peace with the dip, too, you see.  It was a different point of no return.  They knew that if they had sufficiently shamed their daughter, she would turn around before the dip and come back with apologies to make it better.  But if not, she would blast by the dip without a second thought and do whatever she pleased.  The parents realized it had been years since they had been able to shame her into doing their bidding (her choice of college had proven that) and this was too important to leave to chance.  They didn’t catch up in time.  Just as the father lay on the horn to alert the girl of their presence, she crossed the dip.  She turned back, though, and for a moment the parents hoped.  But she stopped before the nose of her car touched the dip.  She got out, and waited.
Such a simple thing, this dip.  Unassuming in it’s presence, worn but well-kept, it never stood out to anyone so much as it stood out to these three.  For something meant to bridge an otherwise difficult point in the road, it certainly acted as an uncrossable chasm for this family.  They stood across it, staring.  Cars parked on either side, silently confronting each other.
It was too much.  The girl knew it was time to go.  She had passed the point of no return.  The beater’s door gave off rust as she slammed closed, turned the key in the ignition and reversed into the nearest driveway.  Without a backwards glance, she drove away.  For a single, short moment, it looked as if the father might follow–not out of love, but spite.  But the dip’s strange power over this household asserted itself once more, and the much more pristine car pulled the K-turn the girl had studiously avoided for so long.
A lone neighbor had noted the strange happenings outside her window and had watched the wordless exchange.  Before the parents’ car had passed out of her view, she was on the phone.  The rumor mill was running once more.
And the dip sat in the middle of the road, blissfully unaware.
Oooh, that was fun!  See you next week!
~RJL


{April 19, 2011}   Why I love what I hate.

Remember when Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out?  The fans had been waiting for three years (the longest Rowling ever made the fans wait) for this book.  Many of us who had been growing up with Harry (as I had) were all of a sudden older than him.  We were salivating in anticipation.  And then we read OotP.  This boy who had been our hero and classmate and everything good about someone who had to overcome a bad situation quite suddenly turned into a world-class (heck, multiple worlds-class) jerk.  He mistreated his friends, he was a boor and lost his girlfriend before he even really had her, he was terrible to the one man who consistently tried to help him through everything, he insisted on acting misunderstood when–in all reality–many people tried to understand him and he refused to let them.  Harry shut people out.

And yet . . .

After all that, after the whining and the screaming and the fighting and the bs teenage shenanigans that I hated every minute of, I was still rooting for Harry, as were a lot of other readers.  Yeah, Harry was terrible.  He turned into everything I hated about being a teenager and the teenagers who I was around.  But he was still my hero, not because he had many (or any) redeeming qualities in this book, but because Rowling had written him so believably that I still cared about this whiny teen after an 800+ page book of his bull.  I’ve written before that I’m kind of tired of Harry Potter & Co., and I’ll go so far as to admit that I don’t love Rowling’s writing.  I think it’s good, but I’m not one of those who think it’s lasting.  Except in this book.  In book five Rowling took a much loved character and turned him into the least lovable version possible and still came out with a huge (if not bigger) fan base.  In OotP, I feel like Rowling created something I can not only like, but respect.

Something similar happened just this morning in the webcomic I mentioned last week.  I know I just posted about All New Issues, but I have good reason for bringing them up again, so please forgive me.  This time, I wish to talk about the writing.  Dani O’Brien is the other half of the ANI team.  She’s the main writer (though the artist, Bill Ellis, started the comic by himself and still contributes to the plot and characters).  She’s phenomenal at making the right decisions for her characters.  They are not always popular.  About a week and a half ago, after one of the characters went on a truly horrific date, she kept in line with his character and had him sleep with his date anyway.  I did not like the character for making the decision, but I loved that he made it.  It was exactly what I expected him to do, and I would have been disappointed had he not.

Today’s comic (the one linked above) he made another decision in keeping with his character that did surprise me.  I guess it hadn’t hit me just how much of a dick this character was.  Due to reader reactions from a couple weeks ago, Ms. O’Brien knew that today’s strip would not be popular (the character not only slept with his shallow and terrible date, they’re now dating).  According to her twitter account (what?  I follow my favorite webcomic artists on twitter–they’re clever and make my day brighter . . . don’t judge), she expected hate mail.  I’ll admit, I was displeased enough to comment on the comic, but at the same time that I expressed my displeasure, I also expressed how awesome it was that Ms. O’Brien and Mr. Ellis had created a situation that elicited these responses.

I love what I hate because it draws me in.  Rowling, ANI, Nicholas Evans (The Loop, Buck Calder), Suzanne Collins (The Underland Chronicles, Ripred; The Hunger Games, Haymitch), A Girl and Her Fed (Agent 146: Clarice), and too many more to list create characters that I cannot stand, but have to read more of because they create the tension that drives the situation.  Sometimes these are the main characters, sometimes these are side characters driving the main characters to action.  Half the time, these characters aren’t even antagonists, which is so many kinds of awesome!  Writing that inspires passion in the reader is exceptional.  Writing that inspires negative passion that–against all expectations–engages the reader even deeper is astounding.

This is a skill I am working on.  A good antagonistic situation (whether or not there is an actual antagonist) is hard to create.  It means making tough decisions with your characters, putting them in situations you (and most likely your readers) dislike or with characters you hate, even though you created them.  Sometimes it even means having your best and most loved character making a hellacious decision.  Sometimes it means hurting your characters, which can be akin to hurting yourself.

At best, I’m writing antagonists now.  Eventually, I’d like to get to the point where I’m writing antagonistic situations where the surroundings or the protagonist themselves are the “antagonist.”  I have the greatest respect for these authors who manage this balancing act.  They’re inspirational as well as entertaining.  I love that, as an author, I never lack for examples and enjoyment.

Go write someone (or something) horrid,

~RJLouise



{April 12, 2011}   Excising the artiste.

When Kitty Burns Florey graduated from high school, there were Great Expectations for her future.  She had Potential.  She could become a true WRITER.

When she arrived at college, a kind and wise professor sat her down and explained why the writing style she had learned in high school was not the kind of writing the college professors or any editor was looking for.  Florey credits this as an hour that truly changed her life. (Story adapted from Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey.)

I think many artists do this.  They make life more complicated.  Recently, on one of my favorite webcomics, the artist tried something new with his art.  I thought it was awesome.  A lot of the readers, though, felt like the story was unclear.  So, in a nod to “the consumer/customer is always correct,” the artist changed the last panel.   He said on his twitter that he “outsmarted” himself.

I think that’s a perfect description, across all arts.  We who create outsmart ourselves, trying so hard to be of a certain caliber that we ruin our art.  In writing the fault is often found in sentence construction and convoluted plot.  Of course, there are all kinds of other faults.  Painfully obvious symbolism, forced metaphors, and ridiculous epic cycles are problems that are easy to pick out and common enough.  I believe this happens when we try to be, or what we perceive to be, a true artist or, as I like to spell it (as it avoids excessive italicizing), artiste.

This is not to say we cannot challenge ourselves in our art.  The artist of All New Issues, Bill Ellis, was trying something new.  For a few of us readers, it worked.  For many, it did not.  It was good that he tried.  It is good that all artists try to expand and grow.  Sometimes that attempt ends up in round file.  Sometimes it’s wildly successful.  Most times, that attempt at something new ends up right in the middle, requiring many separate occasions of practice to get the new skill good enough, much less perfect.

In the mean time, I think writers need to become comfortable with “normal” writing.  This is not to say banal writing, but the writing that comes out without thought or effort.  My “normal” writing is extremely conversational.  I naturally assume an audience, and begin a conversation with them.  Of course, it’s very one-sided and occasionally becomes a lecture.  These are problems I need to fix.  However, I am at the point where I’m comfortable “talking” with my audience.  Is my writing informal?  Yes, very much so.  Is it better for it?  I like to think so.

Now, please don’t mistake that last sentence to mean informal = better.  That is not necessarily the case.  It is the case for me because my natural writing style is informal.  There are some people who naturally fall into a formal rhythm that is so beautiful and effortless that I turn green.  For those, I would encourage them to become comfortable with the formality of their writing.  Yes, it will alienate some readers, but artists will never please even a majority of the people a minority of the time.  Accept that fact.  While you do write for others, make sure you are also writing for yourself.  Don’t lose the artist to the possible critic.

Some writers will tell you that we put on and off writing styles like clothing.  I think that’s a bad comparison.  I think it’s more like haircuts.  Even in the shortest of cuts, under the surface there are roots still left.  Those roots are what we, as artists, need to discover and find a style that shows them to their best effect.  Simple as that.  Change can happen, does happen, and is a good thing, but it takes some time to accomplish, just as it takes a bit of time for a haircut to settle and look like it really is supposed to, or to grow out if it’s horrific.

I caution against trying to make sudden changes.  Like firing a gun too large, there will be kickback too strong if you try to take on an unwise, too sudden change.  Focus on small things.  Focus on what needs to be done, and eventually what you want to be done will happen without you knowing it.  That’s the beauty of making small changes over time.

And, of course, don’t let your artiste stifle your inner artist.  The second one is so much more important.  The first tries to make everything oh-so-impressive, the second tries to make the art genuine–true to the artist, true to audience, true to itself.  I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of art I want to be creating.

Remember: artist, not artiste.  Until next week,

~RJL



{April 5, 2011}   I really hate mirrors.

And history is the worst one.  Thankfully, it seems that this time, the reflection of my past has actually taught me something.  My past pattern has been to be faithful in blogging for a little while, maybe even a good while, and then miss for about a month (for a myriad of reasons, perhaps some of them are even good).  At a month, I get too intimidated/ashamed to start up again until I am too sick at heart from lack of writing to not start up again . . . about six months later.

Vicious cycle.

Thankfully, as I said, the mirror of my blogging history has at last come through.  When I realized that this week would make the dreaded month, I figured I should probably get back on the blogging horse before my shame became too enormous.  Still, since my shame is still decently large, I decided to use it to examine my writing practices in general, to see if what other patterns of fault that mirror could illuminate.

But first!  A few rules:

  • No castigating!  Recognizing faults and areas for improvement is one thing.  Beating myself up will help nothing.
  • Related to rule one is rule two: minimum name calling.  I am only allowed one “I am/This is stupid.”  That’s it.  To be used wisely.  Other names also to be used sparingly.
  • Focus on the general today.  Descending into minutia can wait for another careful scrutiny of self/post.
  • After determining the faults, come up with some simple solutions, preferably ones that address multiple problems.
  • Last but not least: Understand that these problems are not unique.  Many people struggle with their own craft.  You help nothing by assuming that you are alone.

Okay, the rules are set!  On with the task!

Fault one:  Good intentions.

You know that saying about the pathway to Hell?  Well, the pathway to a dead manuscript (the dreaded xms) is paved with the same materials and do I ever have a lot of them.

Fault two: Distractions.

Thankfully, I have the ability to be single-minded when I need to or to multi-task when called upon.  However, when I’m between needs, I seem to set up my own distractions (have the internet browser up and running behind my word processing application as well as a card game I can switch back and forth between when a sentence is taking “too much” work to form).  Beyond just those distractions, there are personal “distractions” (family and friends) that, rather than work around them, I allow them to displace the work entirely.  This is not okay.

Fault three: Project jumping.

This is really stupid. I know better than to do this and I do it anyway.  Rather than sit down with a project and get a clear idea of it, I often get just far enough to establish shallow roots in my brain before jumping ship for the next interesting project.  I know that variety is the soul of creativity and am not silly enough to think that I can start one project and finish it while never working on another, but I am smart enough to know that there should be one main project I am working on and that there better be a darn good reason for me to put it aside.  At this point, there rarely ever is.

Fault four: consistency.

Ah, I’ve talked about this one before!  I’m not sure there’s much else to say about it, either.  inconsistent = sub-par writing.

Fault five: Getting bored.

I don’t get bored with the story.  I get bored with the work. It’s much easier to imagine the end than it is to work towards it.  Bad, lazy me! (That wasn’t castigating . . . that was a gentle scolding . . . yeah.)

Fault six:  Minutia.

I’ve always liked the details of things: the brushstrokes of a painting, the stitches in an afghan, each shave and thrust of the knife in a carving.  In fact, it was something of a revelation when I was told that one of the main reasons I struggled in school was directly due to the fact that I saw details better than the big picture.  Unfortunately, it is easy to drown oneself or one’s ms in said details. Especially since, as the author, it is my job to know them all.

Okay, I think those are the main faults that my history can show me today.  Solutions go along these lines:

Solution one:  Find time where there is time.

Consistency is one thing, writing the same time for the same amount of time is another.  I may one day get there, but it’s not going to happen right now.  So, when I find the time, I need to utilize it!    For example, this blog goes out on Tuesdays, but I had time on Monday to write it, so I did!  Then it was just a matter of scheduling the post to publish on Tuesday.  (Addresses faults 1 and 4.)

Solution two: Learn to say no.

Eliminating distractions includes saying no to myself and to others.  I need to be able to say no to that silly game on Facebook (although shutting down my account at the end of the month will help with that) as much as I need to occasionally say no to watching NCIS with the family or watching a movie with the boyfriend.  My writing may not be my job right now, but it is still part of me as well as eventually being a career goal.  Also, saying no to the lazy/ship-jumping instincts will help specific project progress greatly. (Addresses faults 2, 3, 4, and 5.)

Solution three: Take good notes.

Ideas strike all the time. I know this.  I love this.  In fact, this has helped me get back on track before.  However, this also causes problems.  So it’s time to start taking the same sort of fastidious notes that I did in college classes, this time with my ideas as the subject.  This way I’ll be less afraid of losing things, as well as less enticed by the thought of starting something new. (Addresses faults 2, 3, and 6.)

Solution four:  Set up a regular time each month to review projects.

Once a month, look at the work I’ve done.  If I’ve done one page of work, maybe this “main project” isn’t the right main project for the moment.  Maybe it is, but I’m not doing something right (should be editing some older parts of it rather than trying to add new material).   Just spend the time to make sure that I’m setting myself up to succeed, not merely not fail.  (Addresses faults 1, 3, 4, and 5.)

And there you have it!  I’ve held myself up to the mirror and come out fairly unscathed!  Sure, I have things to work on, but none of these are particular news.  And the solutions are, thankfully, simple.  Funny how being determined to be simple makes it easier to be simple.

Off to put the plan into action!

~RJLouise



The hook: proof that writers really do write for the audience and not just for the pleasure of writing.  Any writer who tells you otherwise is full of a bunch of hooey.

This particular element of any work should have been covered in your first essay writing class in high school, maybe even middle school.  It probably went something like this:

TEACHER:  After reading your essays, “What I Did This Summer,” we have a few things to work on.  Most of you are familiar with basic paragraph structure with the intro, body paragraphs, and conclusion.  That was well done.  However, you do need to repeat that same structure within the paragraphs as well.  Have a topic sentence for each paragraph, followed by supporting body sentences, followed by a concluding summary sentence.  Everyone understand so far?

STUDENTS: Yes, Miss Hannigan.

TEACHER: Good.  I knew that wouldn’t be too hard.  There are some finer points of structure that we’ll cover later in the week, but something you all struggled with was the attention getter.  Does anyone know what that might be?  Yes, Millie?

MILLE THE KNOW-IT-ALL:  The Hook!

TEACHER:  That is another name for it, Millie, but what is it?

MILLIE THE SLIGHTLY DEFLATED KNOW-IT-ALL:  It’s a sentence or two that draws the reader in and convinces them to continue reading the story or, in this case, essay.

TEACHER:  Very good, Millie.  An attention grabber, or hook, can be a story told at the beginning of an essay, a definition of a word that the essay centers around, or perhaps a shocking assertion.  It can be other things as well, anything to garner interest.  However, a hook is not, “Today I’m going to talk about what I did this summer.”  That was similar to, if not the exact first sentence in more than seventy-five percent of the essays I collected last week.  Today’s in-class assignment is to re-write the first paragraph of your essay on a separate sheet of paper with an appropriate attention grabber.  Millie, please put your hand down.  Even yours can be improved upon.

MILLIE THE ENTIRELY DEFLATED KNOW-IT-ALL: Oh.

I may have enjoyed putting that together a bit too much. 🙂

In blogging, the world of hooks is a bit different than it is in the world of essays or even books.  Titles are ever so much more important in blogs than in essays or books, in my opinion.  The title has to act as the hook, to stand out amongst a mess of titles to the reader, quietly surfing the internet.  The title has to be enough to convince the reader to follow the link.  However, it is never going to hurt your cause as a blogger to have a hook in the body of your text to greet the reader who has already made the decision to follow the link.  They deserve an interesting blog, too.

Now, I know why the amount of importance the title gets is so disparate between blogs and essays: teachers have to read the essays anyway.  I almost never bothered to title my essays in an interesting way until the last three or so semesters of college.  I’m sure my teachers appreciated the extra effort if they noticed, but I’m not convinced any of them did.  Why should a student bother to put in the time and effort to title a piece cleverly (which is surprisingly difficult) when the teacher/professor will–at best–come out of their essay daze long enough to smirk?

On the other hand, I do not understand the difference in importance in book titles and blog titles.  There are blogs I simply will not read because their titles are ridiculous, dull, or badly spelled.  However, there are plenty of books with incredibly boring or overlong titles (the non-fiction industry is full of run-on titles, it’s an epidemic), that I buy at sight.  My fiction book chosing process doesn’t even take the title into account!  I pick a book at random; look at the cover; read the back; if I am not satisfied at this point, I give the book ten pages or the first chapter, whichever comes last; read and then decide.  Any book that manages to capture me so completely that I go beyond the ten page/one chapter limit without noticing is a same-day buy.  Any book that I am enchanted, if not thrilled by goes on my ever-growing buy list.  There is rarely a time when the title comes into play.  I am entirely willing to judge a book by its cover (so long as that cover includes a blurb), but I would never dare to judge a book by its title.  I’m not sure why this is, but I think it has to do with the size of a book: with only half a dozen words representing, it’s harder to tell the content of many thousands of words at least (possibly hundreds of thousands) as compared to the content of a couple thousand at most.  The example that comes most immediately to mind is the book East by Edith Pattou.  I would not read a blog titled “East.”  East of what, where, who, and why the heck?  However, the minute a friend told me there was a book called East, I began to suspect what it was about and went through the process of getting it from the library.  Sure enough, it was an adaptation of my favorite version of ATU 425C (need a refresher on the ATU system–find it here).  Had I been in the position to perform my normal process, I wouldn’t have required reading the first chapter.  There was a polar bear on the front (a dead giveaway) and the blurb made the parallels clear.

So, that being discussed, there is another problem with hooks: one is never enough.  Cliff-hangers (and don’t we just hate them as readers?) serve sort of as reverse hooks.  They’re not meant to draw you in, they’re meant to throw you out of the story saying, “WHAT?  What happens next, you jerk?”  Then, if the author has toed the line of making you angry without infuriating you too entirely, you’ll dive back in.  If you’re lucky, the cliff-hanger just happens at the end of the chapter.  If you’re unlucky (Chris D’Lacey, I’m glaring at you for that business with Dark Fire), the author ends the book that way. 

While cliff-hangers used well are some of the best ways to keep a story going when you, now as the author, feel you might be losing an audience (by the way, if you’re feeling that way, highlight the section for a close look during the first major edit), used badly they can put off the reader, for good.  When FictionCentral.net was still up and accepting submissions (sniffles), that was one of the biggest flaws I saw in the fiction there (as well as at the fan-fiction sister site, though I didn’t frequent it nearly so much).  Authors, in an attempt to keep readers interested until the next chapter would often leave the chapter unfinished.  Unfinished does not mean cliff-hanger!  Even those talented with the cliff-hanger (of which I was not one, my talents lay much more to the flash-back) would abuse the talent and put one in every chapter.  The result was a frenetic piece of work that never did flow quite right.  Maybe that was because of the format of submissions (min and max words per chap), but I think it has to do with the acknowledged fact that readers have a small attention span!

Think about it, readers.  How often have you picked up a book that you know you adore and . . . oh my gosh, it’s been three months and I haven’t gotten past the first fifty pages!  What is the deal?  I don’t think it has anything to do with appeal and it’s a total myth that you can read a book too many times.  It has to do with what is grabbing you attention at the moment?  I’ve been working on a novel that’s barely over 500 pages for over a month.  It’s killing me.  I can do 500 pages in half a day.  Furthermore, it’s by one of my favorite authors!  But, despite how much I enjoy the author,  the snappy dialogue , the awesome one-liners, the great interplay between the characters, or even the fact that the next book comes out in a month and a half and I want time to read this at least once more, I can’t engage.  I’m SLOGGING through this reading of it, while still enjoying it.  For some reason, the subject matter is falling flat.  There’s nothing the author could have done to prevent this.

So, my goal for my writing is this: more hooks, but no more than I need.  I recognize the fact that I’ll never please even one reader all of the time.  There are days when even the best of my writing will not appeal to my dearest and most ardent fans (hi, Mom! 😀 ).  The result of trying to MAKE people read my writing will just be a horrific, jilty work that I’ll hate and won’t ever be proud of.  And, of course, as I’m adding these hooks, making sure they aren’t necessary to make the prose in the middle palatable.  That, too.

Time to go jump off a cliff and see where I land!

~RJLouise



I was first introduced to the term “purple prose” by my best friend in an e-mail.  Thankfully, I was able to gain enough of the definition from context to survive the rest of the e-mail’s content without confusion, but I do recall asking for a more detailed definition.  What I received in response was a particularly hilarious rant about Christopher Paolini and his tendency towards flowery, unnecessary description.  To this day, I cannot see a Paolini book without smiling in amusement at that rant from years ago.

But, since I am neither as angry about Paolini nor as funny as my best friend, I’ll provide you with the Wikipedia definition, which I like quite a bit:

Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.

I had been warned about prose such as this before my best friend made me aware of the term, but I found I liked the term for the problem.  Something about the phrase “purple prose” indicates the exact problem: the overdone yuck factor of this lengthy writing.

Now, please don’t suppose that all lengthy description is purple prose, or that I hate all lengthy description.  That would be quite the hypocritical situation or a cause for massive amounts of self-loathing if that were the case.  Purple prose isn’t lengthy description, it’s unnecessary description.

Perhaps one of the best examples I can use is fan-fiction.  Fan-fiction tends to be filled with purple prose for a couple reasons: one, many websites that publish fan-fiction require chapters to have a certain amount of words (so as to prevent spamming) and two, many fan-fiction authors haven’t learned the art of trusting the reader.

Trusting the reader is one of the main causes of purple prose, I think.  If an author cannot trust a reader to a) come up with the “correct” image (and there’s a problem right there, super-insane author if there’s only one image a reader is “allowed” to have), b) come up with something close enough to the author’s intent (better), or c) have an imagination of their own to fill in purposeful gaps (ah hah!–that’s what you want), the end result of that author’s efforts is didactic writing.  Purple prose is, by nature, didactic.  It’s paint-by-number; it allows the reader to fill in the colors provided to them, but not to change–or, better yet, create–any of the lines.  Trust is paramount in the author/reader relationship and it starts from the moment writing begins.

I am one who has trouble with this (though purple prose isn’t generally my issue).  Thankfully, there’s editing.  Never fear.  As in life, trust can also develop in writing if you are not the type to trust right away.  Just make sure that you trust eventually–no one likes to be talked down to and most despise passages that are four times as long as they need to be (then again, Lord of the Rings . . .).

Another pervading reason for purple prose is scale.  As you might have guessed, I am aware of the epics the last seventy years or so, but am not an avid fan. What you may not be able to tell from this post, and I cannot blame you, is that I do so dearly appreciate these epics (even if they are somewhat disgustingly descriptive).  So, with that in mind, addressing scale.  Do you remember when Paolini announced that he couldn’t make his trilogy a trilogy?  I do.  I was furious.  As I a bibliophile and someone who liked the series well enough, you’d think I’d be happy!  But, in fact, I wasn’t.  I already felt like Paolini’s style was bordering on too descriptive.  Also, his books felt like trilogy books, and here he was breaking the last book into two parts. I’m not sure I can describe how a trilogy book feels, exactly, and for that I apologize.  The best way I can describe it is that there is a certain rhythm in the prose of a trilogy and, if Paolini had done one thing well, it was maintain that rhythm.  Breaking that pattern, that narrative flow, was not a good decision.  I knew that this couldn’t bode well for the future of the series.  Indeed, it did not.  The third book was interminable.  I’m not sure how I feel about reading the fourth book (which is taking forever to come out, a fact I take to be indicative of these same issues). 

So, coming back to how this relates to purple prose, the scale of Paolini’s plot was so grand (after all, it’s an epic) that he felt he had to write a certain way to match it.  This writing style is what has caused so many of his problems (though the blatant stealing from LOTR and Star Wars*, plus others, would still be there were he to fix the style).  Were he to have approached the epic as “just a story,” I firmly believe the books would have evened themselves out enough to maintain the trilogy that he set out to write.  Lord of the Rings, while it is well-balanced as a trilogy, has similar problems of writing on such a grand scale as to make it inaccessible to many and full of purple prose, with all due respect to Tolkein.

The last common reason I can identify for purple prose is the one my purple prose most often falls under: lack of self-control.  These authors do not think their audiences dumb or unable to imagine adequately, nor do they get caught up in the grand scope of their work.  They just cannot stop themselves from describing every last detail because every detail is of the utmost important including the color of her underskirt and what kind of fabric it’s made of and the stone the castle was built from and where the quarry is and when it was mined from it and which generation of family living in the castle the prince is and WHOA THERE, BUDDY!!!!**  The problem is, when I catch myself doing this I have a hard time deleting all that history and hard work that I’ve put into the story.  (For all I know, this could be Paolini and Tolkein’s problem, but I doubt it.)  What I end up having to do is high-lighting that work in a different color and inserting what I need in the areas it belongs (which usually ends up coming much later in the story).  What material doesn’t belong usually ends up in a separate file on my computer, waiting for le grand éditer, when hopefully they will be worked in in appropriate moments.  Some won’t make it in (it will never matter that the red sunrise turns the so-dark-green-they’re-almost-black-hills into a rich brown never seen at any other time or place). Others, however, will (it’s a good thing to know that the prince is the first generation to live in the castle, even though it was his grandfather who ordered it built–there are likely some local superstitions about the castle because of that, explore that area of the story). 

If trust is paramount to the author/reader relationship, control of self is paramount to the author/work relationship.  Trying to control the piece is a bad idea; it never works and will end up fettering your abilities while working on an already hampered piece.  However, exercising self-control will allow your abilities to expand.  Those distractions that you are prone to will be less of a temptation and fade, you will gain strength in exercising your mental muscles, you will begin to know when to allow yourself free rein and when to allow yourself a minute to write down an idea before progressing with the current one.

Purple prose is not a terminal disease for an author, although I am afraid it can kill a book.  As is most often the case for any problem in writing, it is a lack of reflection on the author’s part.  Don’t forget to self-examine.  Self-examination is the soul of growth.  No worries.  You’ll get there.

Now go write something simple. 😉

~RJLouise

*Two things: Original trilogy and thank you Wikipedia for providing so many links in this blog!

**Props (and some sort of bonus that I’ll eventually come up with for the first person) to whomever can come up with which story of mine I am referring to in this list.  It is a bit hyperbolic and some of these items never made it into any version I posted/e-mail. However (!), if you have ever talked with me about this story, you should be able to identify the items that didn’t make it to posting as well as the story.  (And if you don’t have enough hints by now, you likely are a stranger.  Welcome, stranger!  Thanks for coming by!)



Conjunctions and fragments: I like ’em!

I know, I know . . . I acknowledge that they’re improper grammar.  I know I begin far too many sentences with conjunctions.  I know I use the fragment for emphasis, even though I’m not “supposed” to.

So what?  Conjunctions are fantastic! They’re beautiful little words that connect several thoughts without losing pace.  They establish several types of connections and contrasts!  Conjunctions make the world go ’round with coordination and clarity!

However, to make my professors happy (as well as attempt some semblance of grammatical propriety), I’m working on the conjunction inundation, though I’m sure I’ll never give up fragments.  If conjunctions are fantastic, fragments are awesome!

Fragments don’t just express a partial thought, they require someone to stop and consider the thought.  The reader has to work to find and establish the context on their own!  Fragments cause the reader to think.  Fragments are disruptive.  And that’s a good thing.

I’ll admit, as writing flaws go, I’m pretty comfy with mine.  Why?  Because that’s the way I’ve observed communication to function.  People finish thoughts, then feel that there are things to add.  Or, they purposely end a sentence before picking up the next one with a conjunction for emphasis.  Fragments that begin with conjunctions are fairly common because that’s an easy way to a) emphasize! and b) to associate the emphasis with the correct event.

When telling a story from first person, adding touches like these is vital.  I–as an author–cannot rely on proper grammar to do my work for me.  To quote Some Like It Hot: “Nobody talks like that!!”  Internal dialogue is especially fragmented and interconnected with ridiculous amounts of primary conjunctions.

Now, is this exceptionally smart?  Not really.  Most people can pull these tricks of emphasis off with little effort . . . which is why they’re so good! Using common, everyday modes of speech in dialogue is the exact way to appeal to an audience.  Simplicity is not a bad thing.

Simple fixes extend to craft as well.  The first thing I do when I’m stuck in a scene is talk it out.  The easier it is for me to narrate any given scene, the easier it is for any audience to access the writing from their position as readers.  I adore books that I can “hear” in my head.  There’s no reason not to set that same standard to myself.

But, to bring this back to regular ol’ buts, learn to use conjunctions appropriately.  Sure, it’s easy to over-use the primary conjunction, to fall into the trap of trying to connect every sentence to the previous one.  Readers are pretty smart.  They’ll make connections you’ll never dream of.  Right now, just worry about using conjunctions and fragments at the right time, maybe even using them together.

Have fun connecting and fragmenting!

~RJLouise



“There are no small parts, just small actors.”  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that (or the industry equivalent) said.  And, honestly, it’s a lie.  Incidentals make up the life and breath of literature.  Small characters are small for a reason.  If they’re too big, they take away from the story that the author is trying to tell.

But!

This does not mean you get to cheat and spend less time on said characters.  In fact, this is a very bad idea.  Small characters need to be there with purpose.  They are small for a reason, but that does not mean they are unimportant (which, of course, is the intention behind that silly phrase that I began my blog with).  Small characters are good things, vital, and must be treated as such.

Before I go into my tips on how to make characters small but memorable, I will share two examples of what I feel are the perfect small characters.

Current Popular Literature: The Hunger Games, Gale.

Before all you Gale lovers raise up in a huff, I’m speaking of the first book only.  Not the series (and, even then, I’d contend he was a minor-ish character, but that’s for a different day).  In The Hunger Games, Gale is physically present in all of three chapters at the very beginning.  It’s well established that he’s  the best friend of the character and, with the way the character reminisces for a few more chapters, you get the feeling there might be more to it than that.  However, soon, he’s gone.  Katniss, the main character, becomes so wrapped up in the Hunger Games and Peeta (the young man who went with her) that she almost completely forgets about her best friend Gale.  However, the reader never forgets Gale.  There’s just enough of Gale at the beginning that the entire time Katniss has to pretend to love Peeta, the reader’s heart is aching for a young man he/she knew for two and a half chapters.  Gale is hardly what I would call important to the story, but he’s memorable enough that his side story can be made to be either as significant or insignificant as the reader allows.

Past Popular Literature: The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Prince Bumpo.

Prince Bumpo is a much smaller character than Gale.  He has two scenes in this particular book.  Regardless, he’s one of the most distinct characters because his main feature is something that all humans can relate to: longing to be something else.  He’s so very human and flawed that it’s easy to like him.  I did an entire paper on the subject of Bumpo’s scenes because of how they’ve been changed over the years, but here’s the essential: Prince Bumpo is in love and feels inadequate.  So he asks Dr. Dolittle to change him so that he may become more attractive to his Sleeping Beauty (who he once happened upon and even kissed, but she ran away in horror at the sight of him).  The Doctor agrees, in exchange for a boat and his freedom from Bumpo’s father’s prison.  In the end, a quick fix is made and the Doctor feels horrible for practicing this deceit.  As they leave, the Dolittle’s companion, Dab-Dab the Duck, points out that the Prince really should learn to be happy with who he is, as he’s a good sort of fellow.  Bumpo is memorable, beacause he is so much of what we are.

So, how do I suggest going about the making of good small characters?

  • Give them one thing that is particular to them.  Trevor, one of my minor characters, is a good listener.  That’s his deal.  Because of that, he becomes–while remaining a peripheral character–competition in the love interest category.  Or, at least, that’s how one of the other males (who is a much bigger character) sees it.
  • Make them relatable.  Minor characters tend to be incredibly quirky or incredibly generic.  Either one works, as people tend to see themselves as too individual for the crowd or as someone who can blend with the best of them.  Side characters fill that function.
  • Don’t fill in too many features, one or two is good.
  • Minimal is a great idea at the start.  If it comes later that the character needs fleshing out, you’ll find out then.
  • Too much background that does not involve the main character is a death sentence.  Don’t kill your story.
  • Plan their exit before you even put them in.  Knowing where they end makes it easier not to let them get out of control.

I’m sure there are other ways, but these are some I’ve learned and am still learning to apply.  Remember, minor characters are really what the audience makes them, not you.  Give them something fluid to work with, they deserve to have as much fun creating their version of the character as you did.

Off you go!

~RJLouise



et cetera