Friday, October 9, 2009

Best of: Them's Fightin' Words...

Here's a personal fave of mine from back when we did an "Open Topic" - on a subject that's near and dear to my two-fisted', black-eyed writin' heart! Seeing as how I have a few of these to write in the next few week, I thought it appropriate! I hope you enjoy!

Whee! Open topic week...

Think think think...

Right. How about something on a subject that is dear to my heart but probably not one that my fellow Novel Girls here have had to deal with a whole lot (correct me if I’m wrong, ladies!).

That is, writing (and reading) a good fight scene.

Perhaps I’m just bellicose by nature, maybe I’m overcompensating for being little and blonde, or maybe I just carry too-vivid memories of those nights growing up spent punching and getting punched in the arm by my dear older brother as we argued in the kitchen over who would wash and who would dry...

But, the fact is, there’s nothing I love so much as a really awesome fight scene.
A duel. A bar-brawl. A full-scale battle...
Bring it on!

I frequently get to work with a group of actors who are specially trained in stage fighting. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch these guys and girls build a fight from the ground up, working the choreography, adjusting the angles and the timing, baking in plot elements and character motivation as they do so. Polishing and perfecting it until you don’t see the choreography anymore. What you see is part of the story.

It’s like that when you write a fight scene, too.

You write down the bones of the thing: the moves, the moments, the winner and loser. Then you flesh out the details: dialogue – if there is any; pain – and there should always be pain (and if you have no idea how much it hurts to get hit in the face or have your fingers whacked by the flat of a sword blade, that’s a really hard thing to get right); tweak the setting and figure out how it impacts on the action of the conflict (a battle in the rain on a muddy field? Not the same as in a sunlight meadow), all that good stuff.

Then you pare. You edit and sculpt and polish. Just like my actor friends until you can no longer see the mechanics behind the action. Less is almost always more in a fight scene. I once had a fencing instructor tell me that he’d love to have me on the team, but I’d have to give up stage-combat. I was always going for the ‘pretty’ parry. Not the fastest. Not the most efficient. My theatrics bogged me down. Interesting lesson, there.

Also, consider this: a fight, even the coolest fight ever, shouldn’t just exist in a story for it’s own sake. It had better tell me something about the characters. And it had darn-well better have something to DO with the story! A great fight scene in a vacuum is not a great fight scene. I just don’t care.

You may think to yourself that you have this amazing idea for a knock-down drag-out, but unless you can absolutely convince me that a battle between arboreal ninjas and assassin tree-nymphs swinging from vines is utterly germane to either plot or character development, then what you’ve actually written is probably going to come off as just as pointless as the scene in that last Uwe Boll movie. You know – that scene between the ninjas and the nymphs... oh wait... right. You see what I mean?

And one last thing: sometimes the greatest moments in a fight have absolutely noting to do with actual fighting. In Parke Godwin’s Arthurian retelling, FIRELORD, there’s a moment when the tide of battle turns in Arthur’s favor, and it’s all because one of his men starts singing. Not fighting heroically, just singing. That scene still raises the hairs on my arms every time I read it.

So that’s my ‘this and that’ for the week, then. Remember kids, think before you punch. Then punch wisely and well!

Cheers, Lesley

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Best of: Five Page at a Time

I chose this post because it's what I wrote exactly a year ago from this week! It was interesting to look back and see what I was thinking and writing about exactly a year ago. That -- and I'm also in the process of struggling to get a new first draft down, so it was helpful to remind myself of my own rough draft philosophy!

A novel usually begins in my mind as one scene or one image that I have to get down on paper. With The September Sisters, I saw a scene of two sisters fighting in a pool over an inner tube – something I’d repressed from my own childhood, but came back to me one night after I was watching a news program about missing children. Then it occurred to me to think about what might happen after that scene, if one of the sisters were to disappear.

I wrote the pool scene first, and it ended up becoming part of the first chapter of The September Sisters. In the months (and years) to come, I would revise the book, many, many, many times, but the pool scene always remained perfectly in tact.

However, getting to a first draft from an image has always been a little bit of a struggle for me. I usually have some idea of where I might like the story to go or where I might want the characters to end up, but I’m not especially good with outlines and plot points. I can’t figure out what I want to happen to my characters until I really start to delve into them.

In fact, I’ve had a lot of character ideas and images that have turned into nothing more than a few fruitless pages. But after I wrote my pool scene, I wanted to figure out a way to turn it into a complete novel. I came to the conclusion that I needed to think of writing as a job, and like any “real” job, I needed goals and responsibilities and deadlines.

So I came up with something very uncreative and very job-like for how to write a first draft: make myself a writing schedule. I pick a deadline for the draft to be finished (either real or self-imposed). Then I make a calendar for myself, breaking down how much I reasonably think I can write each day – usually around five pages each weekday. I write the schedule down on a sheet of paper and put it next to my computer.

And that’s how I try to think of the first draft, as five pages at a time, a task which does not seem so overwhelming. When I get to my computer each day, I think, ok, I have to get five pages down, and then I’ll be done working for the day. This seems a lot less menacing than thinking, I have to write this entire 200 and something page novel. Ahh!!! When I finish each day’s “requirement” I cross it off, which gives me some sense of accomplishment.

Sounds easy, huh? Well, not exactly. In the in between time, I also have to do a lot of thinking. Thinking about who my characters are and what they want and what should happen to them – a process which is oftentimes harder and more time consuming for me than writing it down.

When I’m working on a first draft, I find myself thinking about my characters all the time. This means I end up acting a little spacey, burning food, and having dreams about fictional people. I even tend to have revelations in the shower, oddly enough. (Or maybe not so odd, considering, it is one of the few quiet kid-free times and places of my day.) It is not uncommon for me to run to my office to write down an idea before I dry my hair. (Which means I have lots of bad hair days when I’m in first draft mode!)

But if I keep plowing through the thinking and the writing every day, within two or three months I have. . . something.

Not necessarily something good, or permanent, but it’s there, and I can work with it. In fact, my first draft is often messy, full of plot holes, out of order, and filled with highlighted notes in brackets that say things like [Insert scene showing x here] or [add description later]. But that’s why it’s called a first draft – and for me, getting it all down is half the battle.

The other half, of course, is making it work. But more on that next month when we blog about revisions!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Best Of: Where would the world be . . .

without our animals?

Now that I've come down a little from the high of last week, I'm back to the real world. Aside from catching a little cold I'm still reeling from my launch party which, by the way, was very special. I was lucky enough to have two very young and handsome dates! Here's a pic of a proud mama. That's Michael on the right and Will on my left.

I want to extend a heartfelt thanks to everyone who has bought my book! I really appreciate it and I hope you enjoy.

In continuing our "Best Of" week, my post on animals is still one of my faves. . .

Pet Day. Ahhhh, I've been looking forward to this one. I'm one of those pet people. Well, that's an understatement. I don't think I've gone a day in my life without a pet at home. Even while away at college, I had a full fishbowl.

Hopefully, you'll remember my post on the passing of my beloved 13-year-old cat, Snowball, only two weeks ago. I'm still very sad about it. I even find myself calling her name - just because. My little Rosie, (see below) has been melancholy, as well. The night before Snowball died, Rosie could sense something was terribly wrong. She put her little head only an inch away from Snowball's and laid down right next to her. Rosie never left Snowball's side the whole night. It was one of the most precious, tender acts of love I've ever experienced.

And thank God for Rosie. She lifts my spirits. Rosie's a fireball - energetic and full of herself. She's hilarious, really. A feisty little thing, my Rosie or Rosebud as I frequently call her, is a natural born comedian and has no idea of her comedic talent. After she's been lying down for awhile, her beard gets smashed to one side and stays that way until she shakes herself out. She's sneaky, too. Since she lived with a cat for the last two years, she fancies herself a feline. Rosie thinks nothing of getting up on the counter (when I'm not looking of course) and as soon as she hears my footsteps, she scrambles to get down and all I hear is a big thump on the kitchen floor. When I walk in, she struts over to her water bowl acting as if she's as innocent as the day she was born.

I can't trust her with an open coffee cup, either. If I leave the room - only for a second - I return to an empty cup and Rosie licking her lips. She looks up at me like, "What?"

Rosie goes ballistic when I come home. Jumping all over me, and three feet off the ground, she turns into a little show-off. She walks all the way across the floor on her back legs and twirls around in hopes of a snagging a good treat. When my next-door neighbor, Kathy, comes over Rosie gets so excited she starts running all over the house. Up on the couch, down the hall, up onto my bed, and back again. I'll open the patio door and she leaps off the top step and starts racing around the yard in figure eights. I call it her greyhound run.

My novel, Whistlin' Dixie in a Nor'easter, stars a 14-year-old Yorkie by the name of Princess Grace Kelly or Gracie, for short. Gracie gets herself into all kinds of trouble, like pooping in the dining room of Leelee's crowded Vermont inn.

Animals sure do make the whole world a lot sweeter - and funnier. Please feel free to reply with your own animal anecdotes! I'm sure we'd all love to hear them.

And I'm thrilled to announce that the winner of a signed copy of Whistlin' Dixie in a Nor'easter is Carol at The Writer's Porch. I assigned everyone a number who made comments and then entered them at Carol's number 12 came up! So please, Carol, send me your address so I can send you my book!

Hope to see you next week!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Best of: Book on Submission + Colicky Baby = Writer on the Edge

OK, so here is my "Best of" blog post. It's about The CALL--what else? Writing is so filled with difficult moments, that we have to hold on to, remember and celebrate the amazing ones!

So here goes:

"Your day is about to get a whole lot better."

Those were the words my agent said on Monday, December 3, 2007. I was at work, of course, with coworkers lingering outside my office, wondering why I was jumping up and down and pumping my fists into the air. I mean, did we just get a huge discount on our copier paper or something?

It was the end of a six month process that nearly shook my faith in my writing ability to its core.

See, I got my agent fairly quickly--I probably only sent out about 20-30 queries, and only for about a month, before I snagged Holly. After what she called, "Possibly the Shortest Edit Letter Ever," my baby was sent out into the universe in mid-June.

Immediately, we got several good reads, and my agent whispered "auction." Then...nothing. Everything fell through--the voice was too chick-lit, the voice was too young-sounding, one publisher backed out because another imprint at the same house was interested.

All that excitement and, by mid-July, we were left Thankfully, I had more than enough to distract me, since I was nine months pregnant. And through the sleepless nights right after my son was born and those first few weeks with a colicky baby, Holly kept right on submitting. And I kept the faith. Faith that my writing was worthy, that it was relevant, that writing was something I was MEANT to do.

Towards the end of my maternity leave, I started to panic, because I really, really wanted to stay home and write. And damn it, if someone would just BUY my damn book...

But, as we know, that never really works. So, we found a wonderful nanny and I went back to work in early November. And, after a couple of weeks, realized how much I enjoy my job and my coworkers. Now, I barely had time to wrap my mind around THAT revelation before my cell phone rang and heard the news that someone wanted to buy my book AND the sequel.

And so I went home, opened a bottle of wine (that I have since saved and put on display in my kitchen) and stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, alternating between freaking out and jumping up and down.

Just reading over that makes me giddy! Stay tuned, folks, because we're going to announce the winner of the $100 Amazon gift card as soon as we tally up all the entries!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Best Of Week: Creating Characters

We're still working out who won the $100 Amazon Gift Card, so stay tuned for more info on that, but for this week, we're going to be reposting some of our favorite posts. One of mine has to do with how I create characters, it is again, my take on character creation:

Just like with any writing topic, everyone builds their characters differently--at least to some extent. When I first tried my hand at writing novels, I used these long and detailed characterization charts. They asked everything from name, to religion, to political beliefs, to how they dressed, what their favorite food was, and on and on and on. I quickly learned that these characterization charts, no matter how detailed, simply did not work for me.

For one, in these charts, all my heroes and heroines would appear to be basically the same person (except for, perhaps, hair color, eye color, etc.). But once I started writing....well, that character chart gave me very little information I actually used. This is because (as weird as it sounds), my characters don't really come to life for me until I begin delving into the story. Once I figured that out, I changed the way I build my characters in the pre-writing stage.

So, what do I do now? A very shortened version of the pages of charts I used to use. It's actually a very simple approach, and it goes something like this:

1. Name
2. Siblings and names, if any
3. Friends and names
4. Age
5. Employment
6. Physical characteristics
7. Basic journey of the character (this is where I try to, at the very least, understand the internal and external conflict my character is going to face...from where they begin, and where I think they'll end).

And that's all I have as far as a "chart" goes, and these are more so I know who the people are they're going to be dealing with, and because I'm a character driven writer--knowing their journey is critical for me. That doesn't mean I know how they're going to get from point A to point B, because often I don't, but at least I know WHAT the destination is, if not the exact path to get there.

My next step (and I've talked about this before), is to write myself a letter from the character. Now, I don't do this for every character in my book--but I definitely do it for my hero and for my heroine.

Again, this probably sounds a little odd, but I simply open a new Word document, type: Dear Tracy: and begin to free write. Sometimes I'll end up with pages and pages of information (that I never would have thought of while filling out a chart), and other times it will just be one or two pages. Regardless, I'll always discover at least one or two bits of information about my character that I didn't know before. Sometimes this will alter the journey, sometimes it will bring it into clearer focus, and usually--it will help me understand WHY this journey is important to this particular character.'s it. The rest of what I'll learn about my characters will happen as I'm writing the book. However, while I'm writing, I give myself free reign to write the characters as they need to be written, even if they don't follow suit with what I planned. For me, though, that's part of the magic of creating stories. I love it when things I haven't planned (or even thought of) happen on the page in front of me.

My process for character building is much more about learning WHO they are in the process of telling their story, than it is about deciding who they are before I've even begun. This process works for me time and again, but there is one thing I'll often have to change once I'm writing--and that's their names. If a character isn't clicking for me, the first thing I do is change their name. Often, the new name (for reasons I don't understand) will click, and suddenly whatever issues I'd been having disappear completely.

Regardless, my end goal is to write about characters I care about and to tell their story in their way. That's the only way I know how to bring them to life.