Volunteers and the Novelist

I’m not much of a gardener. Okay, I’m not a gardener at all. My husband can persuade the plants to grow, so he got the job. One thing I do know, however, is that even the tidiest of gardens gets the odd volunteer now and again. Most of the time the people in charge of plant maintenance call them weeds and remove them. As a novelist, I think we need to reconsider that strategy. Just as we decided to plant a few California poppies after a couple of volunteers appeared in the backyard, I think I’m going to let some of my volunteer characters and plot twists stick around for a bit. More than once I’ve discovered a character I intended to be expendable turned out to be essential. A couple of times a red herring (aka loose thread) turned out to be a detour to a much better story. Your patience might not be rewarded every time – sometimes a throw-away character deserves to be tossed out at the first opportunity – but isn’t it better to wait and see if something wonderful will happen?

Luck and wisdom!

Worldbuilding and Character Development With The Detritus of Life

My husband bought a new piece of equipment, and thought he might just have the right cable for it. I’m not sure whether he does or not, but the collection itself helped me understand something about worldbuilding. When my husband commented on how we were looking at our own history, I realized I could use the stuff stuck in the corners of my characters’ homes to explain who they are and how they came to be that way. I’ve used small items that a character treasures for worldbuilding and character development, but I’ve never thought about the detritus of life. This is the stuff that only gets dragged out when you move, or redecorate, or are absolutely convinced that you still have that perfect whatsit hiding in a box somewhere. Very likely the items themselves will not have a role to play in the plot, but will be invaluable for backstory. Who knows, I might even start clearing out the corners of the house to find good examples to use.

Luck and wisdom!

The Fragile Immortality of Writers

One of my writer friends passed away suddenly last month. Dan Hobbs published under the pen name Ben Leiter. He was an emerging writer who had published four books and was working on a couple of others (click here for his books on Amazon). I was a beta reader for two and an editor for another. He didn’t always take my advice, but I was okay with that because he was determined to stay true to his vision. He never forgot that his project gave him the final edit. I know that he was happy as a writer, and with the decisions he had made. Sure, he would have liked more commercial success, but sometimes that’s not what fate has in store for us. Given the number of new titles published every month, perhaps the best any of us can hope for is a fragile immortality and the knowledge that we’ve been true to the stories within us.

Luck and wisdom!

Backstory and Plot Development

The past has a past. Writers call it backstory – the stuff that we know about our characters and plot but maybe don’t even hint at in the novel itself. Sometimes the fact that our protagonist likes peanut butter sandwiches because it reminds him of the best summer of his life is a plot point, sometimes it only informs the way we write him. But what happens when you write yourself into a corner and need a new piece of information to get out? I say just invent the backstory and fill in the holes later.

Seriously, even if you’ve published 17 novels in the series and you are only now realizing that peanut butter sandwiches will save your plot, what’s the harm? People are always learning new stuff about themselves and their families. I’m going through some rediscovered family letters from 1917 that put a completely different spin on one of my ancestors. They also gave me the idea of using a piece of information that wasn’t in earlier novels if I need it now. Revealing bits of information along the way is what readers expect from us, after all. They don’t need to know that we only just thought of it.

Luck and wisdom!

Archaeology and Worldbuilding

Once again, my love of nonfiction is going to help me become a better science fiction writer. Neil Price admits that the Viking culture he teaches now is not precisely the culture he taught years ago. As he has explored more digs and re-evaluated the artifacts, he has come to different conclusions about them and the people who used them. Not only is this exciting to me – there is still more to learn! – it is a valuable tool when I create the worlds my characters inhabit. One single artifact could upend everything I’ve thought about my characters, opening up new plot lines (or possibly cleaning up old ones). I don’t have to create a detailed economic system for my alien worlds, but I can hint at it with the tools and market places I describe. My readers are likely to be interested in other government or religious systems only as they explain who my characters are. You can learn a lot about describing alien societies by reading how archaeologists and anthropologists describe human societies so far removed from our culture that they may as well have come from another planet.

Luck and wisdom!

Decorating and My Writing Life

Years ago, I let the kids dye eggs Ukrainian style. It was an all-day production, but the eggs were worth it. I displayed them every year and bought other eggs for decorations, and even some spring-themed serving dishes for our Easter dinner. Then the kids left for college, and pulling out all the decorations and dishware for just two people didn’t seem worth it.

Yeah, I know, kind of silly. Why shouldn’t I take the time to decorate even if I’m the only one who will see it? And isn’t that the same with my writing life?

My novels aren’t best sellers, and they may never be made into movies. Still, I write because I have stories to tell. Even if I were the only person to read the stories, that’s enough to keep writing (shameless self-promotion alert, all of the Chenille novels are on Smashwords.com, and the last is on Amazon). Deadlines help me to finish the story, so I’ll continue to submit to contests and anthologies, and I’ll still write query letters to agents. Whether I get an award or contract, well, that’s a topic for another blog. For now, I will let the joy of seeing my words come together be worth the effort, just as the joy of seeing my pretty egg collection is worth it.

Luck and wisdom!

Gardening And Subplots

I am taking over a few gardening chores. This is only temporary, because I’m not an attentive gardener (I almost killed a coleus once, and those things are practically indestructible). As I was watering the plants, I had to actually look at them. That’s when I realized that a couple were four times the size I thought they were. The juniper above hadn’t grown up, but it had grown out. The grevillea below had grown both up and out, but because it was in a corner by the fence I never noticed. This got me thinking about the way my subplots can sprout up and take over the entire story seemingly overnight. What’s really happening, of course, is that I haven’t been paying attention, and in my joy at getting words on the page I’ve let myself become distracted. I’m not the person to prune the plants, but I can certainly prune my subplots. The landscape of my main plot will be all the more attractive for the effort.

Luck and wisdom!

Do You Mean That?

I’ve been reminded that writing clear prose is not as easy as it seems. Not one of the instruction manuals/pamphlets/emails that I’ve suffered through in the last few weeks has been as precise as I would have liked. I’m certain the writers thought they were being precise. They know what they mean, and how their systems/devices work, and if people don’t understand they need to pay more attention.

Ahem.

Readers deserve better, even if (especially if?) all they have to deal with is a two-page instruction pamphlet. My critique partners are more than willing to point out the holes in my prose – when I’ve used a word that isn’t exactly what I meant, when what I thought was on the page was still lurking in my mind, when the logic of my plot structure crumbles. Working with them has made me a better writer, and has made me more willing to scrap my clever little paragraphs if it turns out I was being too clever for my own good. There is tremendous value in finding someone willing to look you in the eye and ask, “Is that really what you meant to write?”

Luck and wisdom!

The Value of Personal Real Estate

All of my writing projects reached a point where I needed to let the words percolate. While I usually work in clutter (some may call it chaos), I decided to use the time that I wasn’t writing to sort my notes-to-self pile. I think it was looking at the price of houses in my neighborhood that inspired me. We’re going to need to plan any prospective move a year ahead of time in order for me to get all my stuff packed away.

I managed to clear off one section of my computer desk. This is the area I intended for my paper stand, the one I saved from my secretarial days, the one that allows me to secure paper drafts and notes in such a way that I can see them easily while I’m typing. I think I’ve been able to set up that stand at most half a dozen times in the last twenty years.

Since the clean, flat surface won’t last, I’m showing it to you now. I need documented proof that I do, in fact, understand the value of a non-cluttered workspace. I just can’t manage any sense of order for any length of time. If you do a better job of maintaining a tidy work station, keep that information to yourself.

Luck and wisdom!

Finding Joy In Critiques

Mary Rakow spoke at Tri-Valley Writers on what editors or agents might do with your first page. She had a lot of good advice, but the best piece was about weighing the suggestions an editor might make. She told us the advice we should take is the advice that makes us say joyfully, “Yes, that’s exactly what the story needs.”

That seems like a simple thing, but it requires two decisions from us as writers. First, it requires our commitment to making the story better. The only time I could ever say for certain that I had done all that needed doing was when I briefly volunteered as a bookkeeper. If all the numbers added up at the end, my job was finished. Every other job, task, or project I’ve ever attempted has always left me knowing that the outcome could be better if I worked more. Deadlines and conflicting schedules often made that impossible, but I still knew there was room for improvement. As long as we accept that concept about our work, we’ll continue to grow as writers

The second requirement is that we pull ourselves out of denial and honestly look at each paragraph, each sentence, each word and be willing to let it go. That’s harder than you might think. Do it anyway. When you train yourself to approach your work honestly, you will find joy in critiques. After all, it’s helping you get closer to putting the brilliant story dancing in your head on the page, so others can enjoy it too.

Luck and wisdom!