novels

How Far Away Are You? Part Two

Several days ago, I wrote Part One of this post on distance in viewpoint.  Rashly, at that moment, I promised a Part Two,  complete with how-tos.   The how-tos are the hard part, because as with all writing, they are difficult to explain and sometimes even more difficult to put into action.  But sometimes not. 

But never let it be said that I have backed away from a challenge. So here goes.

The goal at hand is to get deeply into the head of your viewpoint character.  There are places in your novel when you might want to stay in a more distant, cooler viewpoint, but that is not the point of our discussion today.  The point of our discussion is closeness, hot and intimate closeness.  None of that Ice Queen distance stuff for us, baby.  Its all about connection. 

How to accomplish that, given that we're talking about on the page and not on the body?  Here are some suggestions:

1.  I Am A Camera.  Or you are.  You job as the writer is to be the camera inside the viewpoint character's head.  Go deep inside your character (it is not as kinky as it sounds) and see the world through his or her eyes.  What does he see, smell, hear, taste, feel?

2.  Write Character Journal Entries.  One of the ways you get a character's voice on the page is to know that character well–so well that you can write her viewpoint as easily as you talk.  You don't always plan out what you are going to say, do you?  No, instead you talk.  Most of the time it is as natural as breathing.  Theoretically, the same should be true of writing in your character's viewpoint.

3.  Read Out Loud.  The best way to find out if your character talks the way you hear him talk is to read your manuscript out loud.  It makes a huge difference.   You'll pick up phrases that don't sound right and dull lines of dialogue.  If you character is the Duchess of York and you have her talking like Daisy from the Dukes of Hazzard, you'll hear it when you read out loud.

4. Interview with the Vampire, or at least your hero.  Another way to get inside your character's head is to ask her questions.  Make like Barbara Walters and find out what kind of tree she might be, among other things.

5.  Ordinary Day.  We all know there aren't any ordinary days, but just for the sake of your best-selling novel, let's pretend there are.  Take your character through a typical day in her life from the minute she gets up until she hies herself to bed.  Step by step.  This sounds tedious, but it is not, it is fun, and you'll discover way more about your character than what kind of toothpaste he uses.  You might get insight into what drives him (and also what kind of car he drives), what his day to day conflicts are, and perhaps even a taste of his motivation:  what gets him out of bed in the morning ( and the answer has nothing to do with an alarm clock).

6.  Put Her In Action.
  Have her do something.  Write a scene with your hero mowing the lawn or driving across New Mexico or teaching a child to swim.  These scenes will probably never make it into your book, but they will help you to understand who your character truly is as person.  Make a list of activities (use your life as a starting point) and every time you have a few minutes, choose an activity and write your character doing it. Action defines character.  Action is motivation in motion. 

So, are we recognizing a theme here? Are we perhaps noticing that the common denominator in all these exercises is a sincere desire to get to know our characters better?  Knowing your character inside and out is the key to being able to get inside his head to write in his viewpoint.  If you're having a hard time making your character's viewpoint come alive, go back to the starting point–character.  Ask more questions, delve more deeply, learn more about who you are writing about. 

The Writing Loft Recap

I promised a run-down of the recent orientation weekend my partner Terry Price and I put together for the Writer's Loft, at MTSU in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Terry and I took over the program last March, (geez, it seems much longer ago than that) and so this was the first orientation on our watch.  We were delirious with excitement over how it turned out, mostly because of our wonderful presenters.

The event started on Friday morning with a three-hour workshop given by Darnell Arnoult.  People who live in Nashville, North Carolina, and really anywhere across the south are familiar with Darnell's workshops which are so full of information and inspiration I could sit through day after day of them, even if she said the same thing over and over again.

In her workshop, "Writing Out of Chaos, OR How to Write a Better Story than You Know," Darnell presented the specifics of her system for writing a novel.  She believes avidly, as I do, that story comes from character, and that the first draft is a learning draft.  Where Darnell departs from common creative writing wisdom is in her insistence that one can write a novel without knowing much about the plot or having to tackle it chronologically.    She advocates getting to know your characters by setting them in motion through exercises that she suggests.  And one thing I love about Darnell is that she is adamant that you can get a lot of writing done in 15 minute chunks.  You can complete a character exercise in that amount of time, or write the beginnings of a scene.

Darnell also has an exercise that she does called "Finding Fiction in a Photo," which is a very useful idea generator.  She passes out photos and asks you to choose one and then she has you literally stare at the photo for five full minutes.  Just sit there in silence and stare at it, taking in every detail you possibly can.  Then she has a whole list of questions that you can answer about the photo.  Things like List five observations about the scene in the image, List five physical characteristics of the person you've chosen in the photograph, what is the person's full name? and so on, through over fifty questions.  (of course, we only got through the first few questions in the workshop.)

The total of all of this was that I came away re-energized to work on my novel, and I've been working on it, to the detriment of all my other writing projects ever since.

I'll have more info about the other Loft lectures and workshops in the coming days.  Meanwhile, enrollment in the Loft is not just for people who live in Nashville.  We videotape the entire weekend, and since the heart of the program is one-on-one mentored writing, you can do it from wherever you live.  Check our website for more info, or email me at the address listed at the top of this page.

Story

What's the difference between a novel and a story?

A story is shorter.

Funny joke.  I know, I know, don't quit my day job as a writer to to become a comedian, right? 

The truth of the matter is, a short story is a lot shorter than a novel, and that makes all the difference.  For starters, every word and every sentence must count in a story.  That doesn't mean that you novelists get to slack and not worry about words and sentences, it just means that stories are more like poems in that every word must count.

A story also has to reach a pinnacle of some sorts.  Of course, a novel must also, but the novelist has 300 or so odd pages to accomplish this while the short story writer might have 20 if she is lucky.  In a story, either the character changes, or he reaches the "last chance to change" as the famous editor Rust Hills called it, and decides not to change.  Something happens over the course of the story (or else there wouldn't be a story) and your character either changes because of that, or decides not to change, consciously, or more likely, unconsciously.

Why am I pondering the elements of a short story?  Because I've actually been working on one, for the first time in quite awhile.  My friend and colleague Linda Parker is putting together an anthology of Christmas stories and essays, and I'm adapting a chapter from my first novel for it. 

Story is a topic that endlessly fascinates me, and because of this, I'm going to devote a feature article on my first newsletter to it.  That will be coming out next week, after I return to Nashville, and if you want to get on the newsletter mailing list, just sign up on the handy little box to the right.

Observations on a Not-So-Good Novel

I'm reading a novel published by a smaller press.  Sometimes the reason why novels don't get picked up by a big publishing house (or picked up at all) is a mystery. But in this particular case I have some thoughts.  Its really a very good novel in many ways–compelling subject, lots of conflict, interesting situation.  Yet there are a few things that jump out at me, and in this, I'm realizing, it is as instructive to read a not-so-good novel as a top of the line one.  So here goes.

Cardboard characters.  This is not always true all the time, but in too many instances the author isn't able to create fully rounded characters.  What makes a fully rounded character, you ask?  Excellent question.  Too bad there's not an easy answer.  But in this novel, the characters tend to be all bad or all good.  A couple of them seem like stand-ins for idyllic causes.  Also, at times they don't act credibly.

Unbelievable actions and responses.  Sometimes the characters in this novel don't act believably.  Their actions seem to be devised for the sake of the author to move them around or to create more conflict, but its not conflict that is organic to the story and thus doesn't ring true.

Superficial viewpoint
.  No glaring viewpoint violations, but the viewpoint lapses at times, nonetheless, because the author hasn't thought through exactly what the character would see or know.  Sometimes a viewpoint character describes things about the location that, given the fact she just moved there, she wouldn't know. 

Meandering scenes.  The scenes aren't well thought out.  They don't spike, or drop.  Often they start with one emotional tone and end on the same one.  There's no movement. In addition, sometimes there's a monotony to the the order of the scenes.  They are like the same size pearls strung on a necklace, when they'd have more spice if the necklace featured all different size beads.  Just as a scene must have rising or falling action within, so to must the order of the scenes.

And yet, I'm still reading the book.  Why?  I think the main reason is that the author does manage to create a compelling viewpoint character most of the time.  And the conflict that the character faces is well presented. 

So if you find yourself reading a "bad" novel or even a not-so-good one, see if you can define what it is that makes it bad.  You might learn a lot about your own writing in the process.

Robin’s Publication Day!

This is an exciting day for my friend Robin Gideon.  Aspen Mountain Press is releasing her novel,
Silky Sins: Cassandra's Story.  Its a sizzling contemporary erotic romance and you can download it in ebook format and get it immediately.

Robin is absolutely amazing–she has an incredible list of books coming out over the next few months, and I personally, am a very bright kelly green with envy.   Robin and I met during my brief stint as an erotic romance editor.  I plucked Silky Sins out of the slush pile and knew immediately that Robin was a winner.  Her subsequent success has proven me correct!

Stay tuned for reviews and interviews with Robin on Bookstrumpet.  And go buy her book, it'll make your weekend.

The Filtering Consciousness

I was reminded of the filtering consciousness as I wrote a critique this week.  I owe everything I know about it to my mentor and friend Julie Brickman.  She was the first person to point it out to me in my novel.  Up until then, I'd always felt that something just didn't "sound" quite right in my work.  It was a little off and I could never identify why.  I had good dialogue, understood how to write scenes, knew how to write great descriptions.  But something separated my work from sounding publishable.

In the course of my MFA studies, I had the great good fortune to take part in an experimental novel workshop, the first of its kind.  The standard cornerstone of a brief residency MFA program is the workshop.  10 or so students gather for 2 hours a day to discuss the work of the members of the workshop.  The work is sent in ahead of time, and everyone reads it and critiques it and then discusses it in class.

Since each person only gets one hour of time devoted to their writing, the only thing that you can get critiqued is a short story or essay of 25 pages or less.  You submit a chapter of a novel at your own peril, because it is so difficult to critique it apart from the rest of the piece.  So, if you submit chapter five, someone might say, "I was really curious about Frank's backstory" but you've already written that backstory in chapter three.  Or if you submit chapter one, someone might say, "I think this and this is going to happen" and you are sitting there thinking that the story goes in a completely different direction.

For these reasons, people writing novels have a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to workshopping.  Thus was the novel workshop born.  It quickly became renamed the Novel Goddess Workshop, because, well, the six of us in it were goddesses, that's all there is to it.  The idea was that instead of 10 participants, there would be only 5, and everyone in the workshop had to commit to reading 5 whole novel manuscripts.  It was a pretty labor intensive couple of months, especially since most of us had been madly finishing our novels up until the very last minute.

But to say the workshop was a huge success was to indulge in understatement.  Led by the afore- mentioned Julie Brickman, it was far and away the best workshop I had in my 2 years of studying for my MFA and some of the best critiquing I've had ever.  Not only that, but all of us in the group bonded for life.  We call ourselves the Novel Goddesses and have managed to have one full goddess reunion a couple years ago on Dauphin Island in Alabama.  Several of us met last January at AWP, and that same group will be presenting a panel at next year's AWP conference in Chicago.  Three of the goddesses live on the west coast, and since I come to LA, I get to see Deidre and Julie fairly often.  Linda teaches in my program in Nashville, so I'll get to see her in just a few weeks, and I'll see Katy and Maryann next February in Chicago (and Maryann's book, Base Ten, will just have been published, the same book we critiqued in the workshop).

So all that is a very long digression about how I learned to identify the filtering consciousness.  It was in the Novel Goddess Workshop that Julie pointed it out to me.  The proverbial lightbulb moment ensued.  Oh, that's what makes my work sound clunky and amateurish!

Perhaps you are wondering what this wondrous thing is, and I will tell you.   It is when everything that you write is preceded with I saw or I heard or I smelled.  Or, if writing in third person, she saw, she listened, she smelled.  For instance, you might write something like "She smelled the jasmine abloom all around in a blaze of white and green."  (Do not pay attention to the dreadfulness of the writing, its off the top of my head.)  Once you remove the filtering consciousness it is less laden:  The jasmine bloomed all around her in a blaze of white and green."

Or, "I saw the ragtag army marching toward me, with their hair matted and mouths open with thirst."  How much better it reads when you remove the F.C.:  The ragtag armed marched with their hair matted and mouths open with thirst."

The filtering consciousness puts a screen between you and the reader.  Its one more barricade the reader must negotiate to enter the page with your prose on it.  You want to make it as easy as possible for the reader to do this, by removing as many obstacles as possible.

So if your work somehow just doesn't quite sound right to you, look at your manuscript for the filtering consciousness and if you find it, edit it out.  Your work will be stronger and leaner and read better for it.

Wish I Had This Ghostwriting Gig

In my travels through the world of blogs about celebrities, one of the rags I’ve come to know and love is The Daily Mail out of the UK.  Don’t ask me why I adore this rag, when clearly one cannot believe a word they print.  Perhaps it is for the bizarre photos they print (Amy Winehouse wandering the streets at 3 AM are always favs) or the strange English celebrities they follow (Peaches Geldorf) or the stupid photo-essays (today they featured one on the trash that Brangelina left behind after giving birth to twins).

Time and time again I get dragged onto this site by enticing headlines and today was no different.  How could I resist this lure:  Katie Price Reveals: I Don’t Write My Best-Selling Novels! 

Now, I have no idea who Katie Price is.  Apparently she also goes by the name Jordan.  What she is famous for eludes me. Oh wait, the article says she was once a lad’s mag favorite.  Don’t know precisely what that is, but I can guess.  At any rate, she has apparently “written” three novels, the first of which, called Angel, sold more than 300,000 copies in the first two weeks it was out.

And now comes the shocking news that she didn’t write these stellar tomes.  As the Daily Mail notes, “But just when it seemed there was no end to the model’s extraordinary talents, she has admitted enlisting more than a little help.”   Ms. Price, or Jordan, or Katie, or whatever you want to call her, says she simply doesn’t have time to write these books that have her name on them.

That’s a ghostwriting job I’d like to have–and I’m hoping that whoever the ghostwriter is, he or she got a healthy paycheck to begin with and an either healthier bonus when the novels hit the bestseller list.

A Day in the Life

6:30.  Rise, stumble to the coffeepot, take coffee with me to the journal, sit and write for an hour.  Best part of the day.

7:30.  Check email; try not to get too engrossed in letters from friends or the latest celebrity gossip news.

8:00.  Walk with my friend Sharon.  We’ve been walking together, three times a week for over 20 years.  Damn, even I’m impressed by that.

9:00.  Eat breakfast, laboriously work on the Sudoku puzzle, pat myself on the back for being brilliantly close to solving it and then realize I’ve screwed up.

9:30.  Back to work.  I know, total grossness–no shower.  Lately I’m lucky if I get in the shower by noon.  Such is the life of a writer.   Spend the next couple hours working on marketing, which always takes tons of time and is a pain in the you-know-what.

12:00.  Sneak in a little more work on my new project, which mostly exists in the journal and is way too raw to talk about.  Suffice it to say I’m excited.  There’s a shower in here somewhere, too.

12:30.  Lunch.  Oh yeah, that. 

1:00-ish.  Realize I’ve missed a call from a client, call her back and we talk about a ghostwriting project for quite awhile.  I’ve just finished one book for them and we’re in the process of shaping the next one.

2:00. Return a call from a new client.  She’s got a book she wants me to write.  I like the sound of it.  We’ll see what happens but I hope we move forward.

2:30.  Panic.  Two big jobs and another couple I’ve got to follow up on.  When will I have time to work on my own things? 

2:45.  Breathe deeply; feel better.

3:00.  Work on a  critique for students who live in Las Vegas.  I love these two–they are a husband and wife who write children’s books together.

4:00.  Email critique off, head out to bank, PO and Fred Meyer for food.  Buy shrimp for dinner and a whole salmon on sale at the unheard of price of $2.49 per pound,  plus a cedar plank to cook it on.

5:00.  Read a little of a manuscript, swear I’m not going to have a glass of wine so that I can stay sharp and work tonight.

6:30.  Pour myself a glass of wine and take it and manuscript and journal outside.  Talk to Lewis instead of doing any work.

7:00.  Realize I never called Candace back and call her while I fix dinner.  Steve is going to be home late, working on a project for the Abu Dhabi folks, anyway.  He’s going back there in two weeks and I’m heading to LA around the same time to meet all those new clients.

8:00.  Release delusion that I’ll get more done tonight and go fart around on the internet.  Burning question: how does Twitter make money?  Answer:  A. they don’t, yet, because they don’t have to, and B. they don’t know how they are going to, when they finally do have to.  Not sure why this fascinates me so.

9:45.  Panic, redux: realize I’ve not written a blog post in several days.  Sit down and have at it.

10:00.  Time to crawl into bed with the wonderful book I’m reading, The Tenth Gift.  Its about pirates.  Did you realize that millions of Europeans were stolen by pirates and sold into slavery?

The Ghostwriter’s Booksigning

I went to a book signing for a book I wrote the other night–only another person, a kind doctor, signed the books.  The cover of the book features his smiling face and this same image graces the posters that were propped all around the store.

But it would be impossible for you to find even the merest mention of my name anywhere near the book.  Why? Because I ghostwrote it.

Allow me to define ghostwriting for those of you who may still be confused about it (in my travels I find many who are).  A ghostwriter (moi) writes a book for someone else and that other person’s name appears on the book.  If I’m very lucky, the “author” might thank me in the acknowledgments.  On some occasions, ghostwriters get a “with” byline.  As in “Stupid Worthless Memoir by Famous Vacuous Star with Ghostwriter.”

But most of us ghostwriters get nada but a paycheck.  Which is why we do it, of course, because ghostwriting can be among the most lucrative of writing assignments.  You are writing a whole book, after all, not just an article or series of articles for a website.  You are expected to know how to take bunches of information, perhaps some interviews, and vague thoughts and organize them into a readable, informative book.

A great number of business and self-help books are ghostwritten.  Ditto with celebrity biographies and so-called novels.  (You really think Nicole Richie has ever read a novel, let alone written one?)  Rumor has it that some popular mystery series are actually ghostwritten and many readers believe that some of the most prolific romance writers employ ghostwriters to help them churn out the novels.

I can’t verify those rumors, though I suspect they may be true.   I also suspect that many novelists have learned their craft churning out books under the name of a best-selling author.  But I think I prefer to stick to non-fiction.

To my way of thinking, non-fiction ghostwriting projects suit me just fine.  I enjoy learning about different subjects and getting into the mind of the person who I’m writing as.  

Last week was the first time I’d ever actually experienced a booksigning where the “author” of the book was signing what I wrote. 

I had a blast, met a lot of nice people and reconnected with the folks who hired me.  The thing is, I don’t feel the emotional connection to the book that I would with, say, my novel.  And while I’m proud of the finished product, I’m not so invested in it that I can’t let it go.

We’ll be starting the next book in the series soon and I’m looking forward to attending future book signings.  I wish I could give the book some publicity and send you to the website, but alas, then it wouldn’t be ghostwritten anymore, would it?  (And let me tell you, the whole ghostwriting thing wreaks havoc on the old resume, since I can’t really blatantly list all the books I’ve written.)

Fun as this book signing was, I look forward to the day when I’ll be signing my own novel at a book signing!

Writing is Enough

I may have already written about this before–and I reserve the right to write about it again.  Does anyone else have that thing where you forget what you’ve written?  It’s not age, or fading brain cells, it comes from writing a lot and being so present with what I’m writing that I forget everything that has come before.  Or so I tell myself.

But back to the subject at hand, in my continuing effort to master the art of letting go, I’ve been thinking about things I need to let go of in my writing career.  (New age/self-help/energy primer 101–letting go does NOT mean you want to get rid of it, but that you want to get rid of fussing over it, expecting it to happen, requiring it to happen.)  I love every aspect of my writing.  I love writing blog posts, coaching, teaching, and directing the Writer’s Loft.

Most of all, I love writing fiction.  Love, love, love it.  I love every aspect of writing fiction, from brainstorming the initial idea for a novel, to writing the rough draft, rewriting, revising, fussing over it, talking about it–every bit of it.   The most important goal in my life right now is to publish my novel.

But that goal must be secondary to the writing itself or I’m doing it for the wrong reasons.

My wise friend Sue told me on my most recent trip to Nashville that she had realized that writing was in and of itself enough.  That writing is a useful activity that should be encouraged in the world, even if what we write never gets published.  (It is possible to believe this and still desire to get published.)

Sitting down to write is enough.   Doing this is a useful activity that improves the world, even if not one word of what you write ever sees publication.  Why?  To wit:

  • Writing centers you
  • Writing helps you make sense of the world
  • Writing orders your mind
  • Writing helps you to organize your thoughts
  • Writing helps you process emotions

Further, creating stories:

  • Helps you figure out who you are
  • Helps you figure out your world
  • Helps you to find your place in it
  • Helps you to understand others
  • Gives you a moral compass

I’ve often said that I don’t understand how people who don’t write survive in the world.  And it is for all of the above reasons that this is true–writing is a tool, a friend, a habit, a career, and more. 

And using writing for any and all of these activities is, quite simply, enough.