Monday, September 28, 2015

Being a writer isn't always about writing

Busy times can also be frustrating times for a writer.

I have been run off my feet lately, mostly with every day life stuff but also with tasks associated with my Abigail Massey at McAdam Station historical fiction project.

Here's a list of what's going on with regard to Abigail right now:
  • I held a book signing event last week here in New Brunswick;
  • I have another promotional event scheduled for next week in Ontario;
  • We have just completed the challenging process of preparing Volume 4 of the stories for the printers, including everything from writing cover blurbs to carrying out final proof reading and editing;
  • We are now planning the release of Volume 4, which includes arranging appearances, delivering books, drafting and sending out press releases, doing media interviews, and planning the book launch event to be held at the Station itself;
  • We spent Saturday morning at the Station filming material for use in the creation of a promotional trailer for the Abigail web TV series we are hoping to produce; and
  • I've been planning the work necessary to convert the Abigail Christmas novella into a stage play (for performance, if we're lucky, in late 2016).
See? Busy busy.

It's all great. And exciting. But how much of it involves actually writing creatively? I mean, I'm an author and I miss the writing part right now.

It doesn't help that, as a result of recent events, I am now anxious to get down to working on no fewer than four different creative writing projects: the aforementioned stage play, a new Middle-Grade fantasy novel, a revision of a mystery court-room-drama novel I wrote several years ago and the completion of a Harry Potter fan fiction novel that I haven't worked on in several years.

I have discussed the stage play and the Middle-Grade novel in this space before so I won't go in to any detail now. The play represents a huge challenge for me but one that could add a significant new dimension to the Abigail project. The novel is one of the more exciting ideas I have had in a long time, a project that was given new life by the enthusiastic response of a young colleague.

The mystery book is something that I wrote about 10 years ago and that went all the way to the end of the professional publishing review process before being finally rejected. I have some ideas on how to revise and improve it and I'm looking forward to putting those ideas into action.

And the Harry Potter fan fiction project just recently jumped back into the forefront. Several years ago, I wrote five pretty solid chapters of a novel that follows some of the minor characters from the original seven novels as they attempt to deal with the aftermath of the "Battle of Hogwarts" that brings J.K. Rowling's series to a close. I have posted the five chapters on my own personal website as well as on my Harry Potter blog.

Last week, a colleague at my work approached me to tell me that she had discovered the chapters on line and had decided to read the first one just for something to do. She very kindly told me that she was soon "hooked" and had to read all five chapters. Now she wants me to write more.

Very kind, exciting sentiments, to be sure. And I very much enjoyed writing those first five chapters in the first place, before moving on to other writing projects (the Abigail project for one). Now I find myself wanting to go back and pick up the story.

I certainly am not complaining about how much time I am currently spending on Abigail -- it's great fun to be so involved in a fairly successful project. But I would really love to get back to writing soon!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Lessons learned from lessons offered

As I have posted in this space before, I am from time to time asked to read something a friend or colleague has written and to give "honest feedback".

I am always wary on these occasions because, all too often, the written piece is awful and the writer is lying when she/he says she wants me to be honest. On more than one occasion, I've read through truly abysmal writing, only to find myself being forced by the person's wide, fearful, hopeful, frightened eyes to say "It shows real promise", "there's a lot to like here", "but for a couple of minor tweaks here and there, I think you've got a real winner".

And I hate doing that. Both the reading and the lying.

So, when a work colleague approached me the other day with a similar request, I hesitated for quite a long time. Did I really want to risk ruining what is a good, enjoyable friendship for this? Did I really want to spend my time reading what could, quite probably, be an awful piece of fiction?

But he is a good guy and a very good colleague and I felt he was at least psychologically prepared to hear something in the neighbourhood of the truth, good or bad.

So I read his work.

Despite his promises to the contrary, he actually seemed quite anxious about what I would say. He texted me several times and, when I agreed to meet with him to chat, he booked a meeting room for the purpose.

Fortunately, his writing was quite interesting. Sure, there were issues but, as I read it, I got the strong feeling that I was reading something that was not too far from really good.

The only challenge was: his writing is about as far away in approach and style from my writing as you could get and still be working in narrative fiction.

I really worried that, in providing constructive feedback from my own set of expectations and preconceptions, I might actually damage his work.

His story was told from an extremely limited third person position and his protagonist was a down-and-out young man going through an extremely troubling period in his life. The narrative was almost stream-of-consciousness in approach, with long sentences, detailed descriptions and often creative metaphors. It meandered from subject to subject in a way that was, for me, disconcertingly real for the character.

In other words, exactly the opposite of my own style: third person omniscient, with a young, female protagonist, fairly easy on the exposition with lots of dialogue and lots happening.

And I really felt like there was something magic in his work, something really really good that any constructive criticism a writer like me could give might just ruin.

Now that was an interesting conversation!

I very carefully explained to him what I've just written here: that, although I think there are ways to improve the piece, he should take anything I had to say with a grain of salt.

He was great about it, however. I think he was just delighted that I was so positive about his work that he was willing to listen to my blather.

A technical guy by nature (he's some kind of an engineer), he approaches writing as if he is building something. He told me, for example, that his research into writing the kind of piece he wanted to create indicated that his sentences should be between 70 and 140 words in length!

He also told me that he came up with the plot by writing a paragraph, then starting what I pictured as a flow chart of information derived from that first para. "OK, he's wearing a t-shirt, so he's young. He's upset. Why? Maybe because he's lost his job. And he's got a son. But where's his wife? They broke up. She broke up with him... no, he broke up with her and he regrets it. And he needs money. He's lost his job. He's upset because he's lost his job, he's lost his wife, he has a son to raise and he needs money. How does he get money? He has to pawn something. OK, he has to pawn..."

And, once the flow chart was completed in his mind, he began to write the rest of the story.

Again, that's about as different from my approach as you can get. And yet, it worked for him.

I learned a lot from him in this conversation. Probably more than he did from me!

For one thing, I learned to be more optimistic when a friend asks me to read his writing.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

That difficult early period on a new project

Now that I have a strong opening for my new Middle-Grade novel, I face the next daunting task: writing the next passage.

I know,I know. I'm starting to sound like I have significant psychological issues or am, the very least, a whiner of epic proportions. "My life is so hard!" "Writing is so hard!" "There's so much pressure!"

But I really do find that it takes a while for me to get into a good writing rhythm on a new project. That it is only after about five or six really good sessions of writing, with at least 20 strong pages written, for me to feel that I've gotten, well, a feel for the characters, the story, the tone and style of the writing itself.

Once I'm there, I can be quite productive when I find a couple of hours to focus on writing. But, until then, my sessions are mostly exercises in stopping and starting, writing and revising, thinking and rethinking. And, to be frank, I approach such sessions with a great deal of hesitation.

I recognise that it is all a necessary part of the writing process.... of my writing process. And I know that, once I've worked my way through these early writing sessions, I'll be alright. But it doesn't make it any easier for me to force myself to settle in to write at this point.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that my last writing session comprised little more than my re-reading the first section that I wrote, making small revisions here and there and only starting to think about what comes next. Almost no new writing got done but...

I have to keep in mind that these moments of frustration are a necessary part and will lead to something better and more satisfying.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Being true to your own voice

Sometimes, as a writer, you know exactly how a section of your novel should be written. You know exactly the narrative tone, the diction, the kinds of sentence structure, the paragraphing that would make the scene that exists so vividly in your mind come to life on the page.

And then you have to accept that you are simply not capable of writing it that way.

Sure, J.K. Rowling could. J.R.R. Tolkien could pull it off. Even Franklin W. Dixon , Carolyn Keene or Roald Dahl would handle it with ease.

But not you. That's not to say you can't write the scene effectively. It's just to say that, in order to write it to the best of your own abilities, you have to write it your own way. You have to play to your strengths rather than attempt to adopt an approach that, even if it seems perfectly suited for the scene as you imagine it, is not in your wheelhouse.

I went through that precise, difficult process this morning with the opening scene of my new middle-grade novel. I had written a first page earlier this week, using short, choppy sentences to establish a quick pace, blunt, one-syllable adjectives (used sparingly, of course) to create atmosphere and rapid, almost break-neck movement to create suspense.

I don't think it was bad, what I produced. No, not bad at all. But it wasn't me. And, as a result, it wasn't great. It felt to me like I was trying too hard to be what I'm not and, as a result, the scene felt fake.

So, while I was out walking the dog this morning, I told myself: Even if you don't think the approach is the absolute best for this scene, you have to write this in your own voice, in your own way.

I started again, out there in the neighbourhood, and created a first line that was more me. Perhaps not so quick of pace, not so sparse of diction... but me. And, I think, really good.

I knew I was on the right track when I sat down at my little netbook and input that first line, only to find the second line flowing immediately into my imagination. Then the third. And the fourth.

Before I knew it, I had three full pages of writing with which I am really pleased. Sure, it needs editing. Sure, I need to revise and rethink.

But it's a great start. And it's me there on the page.

The earlier draft was an important step in the process, no doubt. By writing and rejecting it, I gained a clearer idea both of the events as they should be presented but also the way in which I wish to present them.

And now I have a better start to my novel and that tingling feeling in my stomach that says I'm going in the right direction.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Beyond that momentous first line

I wrote the first line. Of my new Middle-Grade novel. I wrote the line I find most difficult, challenging and frightening to write. The first one.

I don't love it. The line that I came up with. But I wrote it.

And then I wrote the second line. The third line. Full paragraphs even. Almost the entire first page to the book.

I am very excited.

But I am also now facing all of the other challenges a writer faces when she/he begins a new project, like making decisions as to tone, language, diction, character, and physical descriptions.

I am fortunate in that I have chosen a real location as the central setting for the book so the major decisions regarding that aspect of the novel have been made for me.

My concern now, however, is to make sure that I get the right "flavour" to my writing. That my narrative voice captures an appropriate tone, that its choice of words is both appropriate and compelling, that it creates initial descriptions for my principal characters and my key settings that are memorable and evocative.

I read over that triumphant first page last night and started to second guess myself.  About everything.

Are my sentences too long? or maybe too short? Should I be injecting humour into what is intended to be a suspenseful opening scene or should I leave that until later?

I even questioned details as small as my choice of diction in a given sentence: should I use the word "calculated" or the word "counted"?

How should I describe my main character? When should I describe her?

And that plays into much bigger questions like: do I want my narrator to be third-person limited (written as if sitting on my main character's shoulder, seeing only what she sees, knowing only what she knows)? or do I want to use the third-person omniscient approach, where my narrator knows all (though she might not choose to share it with the reader)?

If I'm using the TP Limited, then I can only really insert a description of my character when she herself would be thinking about her appearance: "She passed a mirror and saw that the wind had made a mess of her long blonde hair".

On the other hand, if I'm using the TP Omniscient, then I can just insert a paragraph of description wherever I chose to: "She was a tall, slim girl with messy blonde hair, piercing brown eyes and the slim facial features of an Italian sculpture."

You will notice that I have already eliminated any thought of using the first person narrative voice for this book: that decision was made without any conscious deliberation on my part. FP doesn't seem right for a book of this nature.

That's one of the wonders (and burdens) of writing fiction: you create the entire world and every choice you make in creating that world will have an impact on the success of your writing. Not only do you choose the whos, wheres and whats, you also choose the what colours, how talls, how manys and how oftens.

You are responsible for every word in the book. You are responsible for every detail in the book. And, as if that's not enough responsibility to place on a single person, you are also responsible for every detail that is not in the book.

Crazy as it sounds, the decision as to what NOT to include in your book is often as important as the decision as to what to include and how.

Yeah, I can really tie myself up in knots, can't I?

Ah, Stephen King, you've got it right. Just write. And write and write and write. Don't edit until you're done writing. Then use the revision process as a sculptor works with a block of marble: carve away the excess so that the story emerges, clear, crisp and gorgeously detailed.