Saturday, December 4, 2010

Rocks in a Box

This is where I admit the sad reality I have come to that I am, in fact, utterly stupid.  My brain doesn't work like it used to when I was in college--either that or I've gotten a lot stupider as I've aged.  Or perhaps it really is like my mother suggested that we think we know it all when we're young, and when we become old (is thirty-four old?) we realize how much we don't know.  But I'm not too sure about that, because in all honesty, I used to be smart.

I have a really hard time thinking critically anymore.  I know I'm smart, damn it all.  I am!  And yet, somehow the folks in my master's classes have me feeling pretty dumb quite often.  I'm not entirely sure it's the age thing, because I think some of them have a few years on me.  I seem to be able to take a thought only so far and then am unable to cross the expanse to the next critical thought in which I might actually appear to be intelligent by seeing the whole picture.  This has me at a distadvantage when I attempt to write critical papers.  I'm able to argue that A + B = C, but I somehow miss the conclusion of D that can be drawn from that whole mess.  When did I become stupid?

I'm hoping that I can skate through graduate school without anyone finding out about my handicap.  I seem to be able to write creative literature perfectly well, so maybe no one will notice I'm really as dumb as a box of rocks.  And if my professors notice, perhaps I can bribe them with yummy vegan cupcakes.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Workshopping

I was pleasantly surprised at the results of the workshop from last night.

I submitted a piece I had been hemming and hawing on.  I had written scenes over and over from different characters' perspectives using first, third and then second person points of view.  I finally settled on the young daughter's voice in second person.  I knew it was unusual, and I knew some people would hate the use of second person.

And they did.

But, not all of them did.  In fact, some really seemed to like it, and thought that it was an appropriate way to tell the story of a young child whose mother suffers from mental illness without getting bogged down in the child's language.  Which was really why I chose to tell the story that way in the first place.  So they got it!  They really, really got it!  Okay, not all of them got it--but you can't please everyone.

I think the best comment of all was when the professor said something along the lines of, "Remember when I said that a second person story is always, first and foremost, a second person story?  Well, I think I might have to amend that statement."

I think I might frame that and put it on my wall.

One guy in class said that my plot points followed Freytag's Triangle perfectly.  He actually numbered my plot points--there were ten.  This really floored me, because I'm so terrified of not being able to hold a plot, I actually got out graph paper and charted the goddamn plot while writing the story.  I'm not kidding; I really did.

I got a few comments about effortless writing.  (Aw, jeez... Guys!  You're making me blush.)   Effortless it was not.  They should see the cutting room floor!  I slashed nearly 2,000 words from the story to get it to come in under 5,000.  I mean, I tore that sucker apart.  I cut out two entire scenes and reworked the surrounding ones to cover the sutures.  I played around with the order of the backstory and telling in one scene, and went through the entire thing with a heavy hand on the delete key.  I removed everything that wasn't absolutely critical to the story itself.  It was actually down to around 4,500 words before I beefed up a few scenes with some more description because I felt they needed it.  I was worried that the story would be too sparse and too bare, but... not so.

I still have a little work to do on it yet, some reworking of passages and sentences to make the intent more clear, and I need to find a stronger ending.  I think the workshop gave me some great ideas as to how to accomplish all of that in revision number two, so I'm feeling good about going into that process.

And sorry guys, but it's staying in second person!

Monday, November 1, 2010

NaNoWriMo Roundup

Yeehaw!  November 1st marks the start of National Novel Writing Month, that auspicious time when writers across the world dig into new novels, elbow-deep in plot lines and characters, trying like hell to race to 50,000 words in the span of thirty days.

We turn off our inner editors, roll up our sleeves, ignore phone calls and family members, neglect all kinds of other obligations and just write.  Some of us will make it and some of us won't, but we will all end up with (at least the beginnings of) a crappy first draft that we might be able to beat into shape come January.

If you think you might be interested, go sign up!  Time's a-wasting.

http://www.nanowrimo.org/

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Heat is On

Did the title of this post just bring back memories of Huey Lewis & The News?  It did for me.

In other news, my draft for the Fiction Techniques class workshop is due next week.  I have to decide what to turn in.  After mucho revision and editing, I managed to whip an old short story into shape using some of the techniques we learned in class.  I've workshopped this piece before in another workshop (non-grad school related), and it got some really good feedback.  It's even stronger now, in my opinion.  Maybe even ready for some submissions.

I was working on another piece throughout the last few weeks, the one I spoke about in my previous POV post.  I wrote half of it in the 2nd person from the mother's POV, then turned around and rewrote it all from the daughter's POV, also in the 2nd person.  The draft I ended up finishing was from the daughter's POV.  It came out rather long, at about 6,500 words.  I was trying to keep it under 5,000, but I'm a little wordy at times.  I hacked off a good bit, bringing it down to about 5,250, merely by removing any backstory I thought was not absolutely crucial, and taking out any internal dialogue that didn't advance the plot (ah, plot--the bane of my existence!).  I just went through it again on a printed draft and hacked away a bunch more while expanding some other sections.  No word count yet, but it's probably just under 5k now.

What to do, what to do?  I can submit my first person work that's already been workshopped and get normal feedback, or I can submit my second person present tense work and suffer though workshop comments that begin with phrases, "I like this, but..."  BUT it's in second person.  BUT there are too many sentences that begin with "you".  BUT I don't like being forced to occupy the same space as your main character.  BUT I just don't like things that are written in the present tense.

BUT does it work?

This I need to know... and for that reason, I will probably go with the 2nd person piece.

Does it matter?  The short story will probably be summarily rejected by every literary journal in the country simply because it's written in the 2nd person.

C'est la vie.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Playing with Point of View

I'm typically a 1st person POVist.  I've tried 3rd person in varying types on a number of works and have only found one that it works with.  Considering I have probably four finished works and ten or so going, I guess that's saying something.  Sometimes I write in 1st present, but mostly in 1st past.

On a lark, I gave 2nd person a shot.

I know, I know... it's like the kiss of death for writers.  We're not supposed to use it, right?  It's so avant-garde.  It's so strange and odd that it's all anyone can ever say about your work.  So why use it to begin with?

We were discussing this in class last night, and the idea is that it's the closest you can get your reader to your character.  I had written an exercise due last night in 2nd person just to try it out, and while I wasn't totally impressed with it, it wasn't bad either (or at least I didn't think so).

So I'm working on the exercise for next week, which is to write anything for at least ten minutes a day.  I'm also trying to work on my class project, which I think is going to be a short story idea that I came up with.  It's about a manic-depressive mother who has a young daughter (age is not yet fixed, but around 6-8 years of age).  I wanted to write it from the 1st person perspective of the daughter, which is tough because of the age, but I wasn't sure it would work.  There's a lot that will happen to the mother that the daughter won't know or necessarily see--so unless I employ some fancy footwork to get her to know about it, I'll need to stick to the mother's POV.  I didn't want to write it in third, because, well, I really suck at 3rd person.  So I thought I would use this week's exercises as a chance to write different scenes from different perspectives--and perhaps even the same scenes to see the difference.

I wrote the opening scene this morning from a 2nd person POV in the mother's perspective.  I tried to start it in third, then switched to first, and then decided second--all before I had written the first sentence.  So my thoughts on this? 

WOW.

In the opening scene, the mother is manic.  All her actions are crazy, exaggerated, sweeping, and huge.  In the 2nd person POV, (in my opinion, anyway) the scene is so strong it borders on complete insanity.  I'll have to give it to someone to read, because I know that the writer reads it differently than the reader--but just in writing that scene, coming out of the head of that character was mentally exhausting.  I was completely spent, and actually felt a little crazy myself.  It was a fun exercise, but I'm not sure the entire short story will end up in the 2nd person POV.  I've got a long way to go on this before it's done.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Shitty Fourth Drafts

One of the assignments for my Fiction Techniques course is to read "Shitty First Drafts", from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  I found this a comforting commentary on the writing process.  We all write shitty first drafts, hooray!

The second assignment was to write a short piece of fiction.  It didn't have to be a complete work, just a short scene in which our character goes through some difficulty.  I dutifully wrote out my shitty first draft.  It was shitty, but I liked some parts.  So I ripped it apart and cobbled together a second draft.  I was still unhappy.  I revised again and wrote a third draft, even shittier than the first.  "Hmm, self," I thought to myself.  "Perhaps we've missed the mark on this one."  I gave it a fourth try, thinking it would magically turn into some fantastic piece of writing.  No such luck.  It became a shitty fourth draft instead.

At this point, I threw it in the bin and started over with another character, another scene.  I wrote another shitty first draft, and it was even shittier than my first shitty first draft.  "Darn it all," I said.  "Maybe I need a new character."  I thought and I thought and I thought, but I couldn't come up with a new character.  Saddened, I turned to one of my favorite characters.  You see, I'd only ever written about his adulthood.  I'd never written about, or even discussed, his childhood--though it had been alluded to at one time or another.  "That's it, self," I said to myself.  "Write about that.  Let the creative juices flow!"

So, I wrote a third shitty first draft.  Rather pleased with myself, I revised it into a pretty-okay second draft.  Now, with this in hand, I'm thinking I might be able to come up with a decent third draft that I wouldn't be totally ashamed to read out loud in public or turn in to my professor.  All it took was three shitty first drafts, a series of shitty second through fourth drafts, and a trash can.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Prodigal Son

Fear not, for I have returned.

I've been writing, but not blogging... I just haven't had very much to say until now.

I'm back!  I've begun a Master's Writing program at Johns Hopkins University, and I'm taking two night classes part-time this semester.  So, as I'll likely have more writing-type things that I want to discuss out loud with others, I'll likely also be blogging more.

The first week of classes was not too bad.  I don't know if this is to lull us into a false sense of security before pulling the rug out from underneath us halfway through the semester, or if the class load will really be this bearable.  I was worried about working a 40-hour a week job, plus taking two core curriculum graduate level classes at a prestigious university (one that's known for being very difficult, at that), but it looks like I might be able to manage.

Updates to come.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Software for Writers

There is a multitude of writing and editing software out there if you're interested in using something outside of Microsoft Word, Open Office, or your standard text editor (STE).  There nothing wrong with writing your novel in a STE, assuming you can keep track of everything.  I'm all for simplicity -- after all, I was initially one of those web programmers that refused to use HTML editors and wrote everything in Notepad.  However, I eventually broke down and admitted that an advanced editor could make things a lot easier on me, but only if the risks of the editor adding nonsense code didn't outweigh the benefits of using one to begin with (a certain Microsoft HTML editor oft cursed by tech professionals comes to mind).  I almost exclusively wrote my first novel in Microsoft Word.  I began searching for something else when it became clear it was simply too difficult to keep track of scenes and move items around if I kept the entire thing in one document.

I started out using Jer's Novel Writer, which is now free since Jer has gone and gotten himself a regular job.  I liked the concept and enjoyed aspects of it, but during NaNoWriMo 2009, I found it simply crashed on me too much (I'm running Mac OS X 10.5.8).  This resulted in a flurry of lost work and some hair being torn out over it.

I switched to Scrivener for a free 30-day trial at the suggestion of a friend and never looked back.  I ended up purchasing the program before the full 30 days was up, I enjoyed it that much.  It's a wonderful program that allows writers to both organize their work into scenes, chapters, acts, etc. and also store research (websites, files, pdfs, etc).  In addition, it also includes its own storyboarding area where scenes can be arranged and index cards written up.  The only complaint I have is that there is no way to export the index cards or to print them out, which would make this software above and beyond the rest -- though it is already head and shoulders above Jer's Novel Writer (sorry, Jer).  Scrivener also allows you to export an entire draft into manuscript format, including setting up fonts, sizes, page breaks, which scenes to include, replacing italics with underline, etc. -- although I have had issues with it exporting in single spaced rather than double spaced, as requested.  It's a minor issue to say the least!  Plus, you can export all files in your draft to a backup folder, which is fantastic if you plan on making significant cuts and changes to your novel and you're nervous about wanting access to the old version.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED:
Scrivener
Jer's Novel Writer (Wish that it had worked on my system.)


Other writing programs I've heard good things about (but haven't tried myself):
CopyWrite
StoryMill
Ulysses
WriteItNow

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Burn Your First Novel

I've suddenly become convinced that we should--immediately after finishing our first novels--burn the manuscripts.  How very cathartic that could be!

I'm in the process of editing my first novel, and it's a mess.   I'm not sure where to go with it.  I've ripped it apart into two novels.  I'm concerned that just too much happens through the course of 300 pages.  I could spend more time building conflict and characters if I stretched it out into two separate works.  So now I'm trying to fill in the spaces between the events in the first half of the novel by adding in scenes--dreaming up new ones that maybe existed in the back of my mind but never made it onto paper.

It almost seems easier to write my next novel rather than fix the wrongs I've committed in the first.  I'm sure my writing sins are widespread and numerous.  But I think every new writer makes these same mistakes.  I've read a few self-published debut novels that have confirmed this thesis, at any rate.

Maybe the problem is that I need to take a breather from my first novel and work on something else... but I'm anxious to get the first one finished.  Then again, maybe I should just burn the damn thing and rewrite it someday.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Metaphor vs. Simile... Which is which?

So what's the difference between a metaphor and a simile?  They both serve the same purpose and act an an analogy between two things that are, by all means, not alike.

For example:

The cloud was as puffy as a cotton ball.
The cloud was a cotton ball in the sky.
The cloud was like a cotton ball.


But which is which?  A metaphor compares two unlike things without using "like" or "as".  Both of these words indicate you're looking at a simile.  So in the example above, the middle phrase The cloud was a cotton ball in the sky is the metaphor.  The other two are both similes.

Metaphors tend to be more vague, requiring the reader to infer more into the meaning, while a simile is supposedly more specific.

For example, you can use a simile to express irony:

Her feet were as fast as cement blocks.

However, the same idea with a metaphor is relatively not as clear, and certainly not at all ironic:
Her feet were cement blocks.

While it may not really matter which is which since they both serve a similar purpose in the end, it can be nice to know the difference at dinner parties if you plan on impressing your friends!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Who Wears Short Shorts?

 A while ago I talked about cell phone novels, which were really big in Japan and Europe, but the fledgeling market just wasn't growing in the United States (for many reasons).  I've started having some fun with very short fiction, which I find incredibly challenging.

Can you tell a story in one sentence?  How about six words or less?  500 words? 1,000 words?

I have trouble even fitting an entire story into a short story (1,000-7,500 generally, depending on publisher's guidelines).  There is so much I want the reader to know and to experience!  A recent foray into short stories churned out a 3,600 word behemoth that isn't anywhere near finished.  I see the word count creeping up and the limit of 7,500 words looming, and my stomach retreats into my backbone in absolute terror!

So you can imagine my response when I was told that some people (even Mark Twain!) write stories in under 1,000 words... sometimes even as little as 500 or (eeep!) 300.  It's called "short short fiction", "microfiction" or "flash fiction".  I absolutely adore the term "flash fiction".  It evokes a sense of superheroine power in being able to cram an entire story into that few words.  Don't be fooled by it's length, though--the stories still have a beginning, middle and an end.  A lot is left to the reader's imagination, of course.

I suppose this is why I view these as a challenge--to allow my readers to use their imaginations.  Oh the horrors!  They might not imagine the face of my main character exactly as I do, or be able to see their favorite pair of jeans the way I can... but you know what?  They'll live.  This could be a great exercise in cutting the fat for me.  So let's cut some fat!

If you're interested in reading more flash fiction online, or even giving it a try yourself:

Flash Fiction Online
Every Day Fiction
The First Line
FlashFiction.net

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Stuff That Makes Me Laugh

I haven't been posting much, because I've been writing a lot.

I'm writing something new... this is a first draft, unrevised, and completely taken out of context, but it makes me laugh.  I just had to share.

    “You’re late,” Sid snaps as he marches up to us.  “And weren’t you wearing that yesterday?”  He glares at my attire.
    I smooth out the front of my shirt and shrug, eyeing his tweed sports jacket—a dead ringer for yesterday’s right down to the pattern of coffee stains on the lapels.  Gideon stretches out his hand and touches the collar of my shirt briefly, and it blushes from white to pink.  I grimace at him, and he throws me a smug smile.  No one has commented on his outfit—a dark maroon silk suit with a pale grey Mandarin-collar dress shirt, but I gather it would take either a very brave or very stupid man to comment on Gideon’s fashion sense.

[snip]  (Sid walks away and Gideon and Max are talking...)
   
    “I have to be back by seven-thirty,” I say, giving myself some time to walk to Alice’s place.
    “Hot date?”
    “Something like that.”  I look down at my shirt and gesture wildly at him.  “Seriously?  Pink?  You couldn’t have gone with blue?”
    “It’s salmon,” he says—and he sounds a little defensive about it.
    “It’s fucking pink,” I say bitterly.

Sometimes I just have to write things that make me laugh.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Description, Description, Description!

I think descriptions are something that I struggle most with in my writing.  Dialogue, which some people seem to struggle with, comes easy to me.  I can imagine the characters in my stories coming alive with dialogue--exactly how they will say something, what the other will respond in return, etc.  I could, if I cared to, visually describe each scene I put them into in detail.  I'm tempted, at times, to draw the floor plans of the houses they inhabit, but for some reason I don't need to.  I can always remember exactly what the house layout is for each story, and they are all different!  Sometimes they are based off of houses I've lived in, sometimes they are based off of houses I want to live in...

I think the reasons I DON'T feel my descriptions are very strong are really two-fold: 1) I can see it, so I expect my readers can, too, and 2) I think we all feel a bit repetitive saying things like, "the man had dark brown hair and blue eyes".  There's only so many ways you can write that description before you want to bonk yourself over the head with a hard object.

But consider that there are five senses to use for description:
  • Sight
  • Sound
  • Smell
  • Touch
  • Taste
Most of us rely on the big one: SIGHT.  It's easy to do:
The chair was dark red.
His hair was jet black.
The sunset shone copper off the water below.

What about using SOUND?
The waves crashed upon the rocky shore, reverberating in my ears.

Or SMELL?
The chair smelled of mold and dust, having sat unoccupied for more than five years.

Or TOUCH?
His hair felt like silk against my fingertips as I brushed it back from his forehead.

Or TASTE?
The brine of the seawater filled my mouth, sharp and sour against my tongue.

Okay, this won't win me any Pushcart Prizes, but it'll definitely help exercise my descriptive writing muscles...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Waiting Game

I have (very nervously, I might add) finally submitted something for publication in a magazine.  It's a short story that I just wrote, and just finished, and only revised once.  I'm in love with it, so I sent it out.  Perhaps I was a little hasty... it could probably use some editing and touching up.  But... the worst they can do is say no.  I need to know whether or not I can do this!

So,

I wait.

In the meantime, check out the excerpt from the novel I wrote, VENGEANCE: which can be found here at www.screwiowa.com, and leave me some feedback!

Cheers!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Metaphor?

I might be the only one who, somewhere in their writing career, was told by a wayward soul with good intentions that only bad writers use similes and metaphors... but somehow I doubt it.  The same person who gave me this tidbit of misinformation probably misinformed a whole lot of other souls in their quest to destroy the written word.

Let's get this straight: there is nothing wrong with using similes and metaphors in your writing.

In fact, they are a few of the powerful descriptive tools you have in your writer's toolbox.  Unfortunately, a good thing can turn ugly pretty quick if you get stuck using cliches!

Some cliches, for example:

Smart as a whip.
Sharp as a tack.
Quiet as a mouse.
Light as a feather.



A good tip a writing professor gave me is to study the character you're using the metaphor or simile to describe in order to come up with one that will do its job without sounding too cliched.

For example:

Your character is a seamstress by profession, and you'd like to describe her anxiety level.
She was wound as tight as a bobbin.Or maybe she is a cyclist?
She was strung together like spokes on a wheel.

Or perhaps she's a boxer?
She was as tense as a fist ready to strike.


I didn't say they would be out of this world, but at least they're mildly original!

Try it sometime...