Monday, November 30, 2009

24-hour a"muse"ment

As a kid I watched MacGyver. Laugh all you want - he was one smart dude. And Richard Dean Anderson was no slouch in the looks department, either. My Dad would tell you my fascination with the show bordered on obsessive, so much so I mourned after the season finale for years.

And then came 24 -- and with it, Jack Bauer. Sigh.

I watched the first season on DVD in one weekend. I admit, parts of the show are unrealistic, and no mortal could be as heroic as Jack. But for me, Kiefer Sutherland plays a convincing (and hot) action hero, and 24 taught me a lot about writing thrillers. It was after watching the first season for the second time that I decided to randomly cut a key character from ABSOLUTION. Joey died that night. She's been killed several times since - I never get the story right on the first draft - but if not for a wild twist in 24, I might never have considered murdering Joey at all.

This week, I'll need to borrow Jack's torture techniques. If that sounds morbid, I guess it kind of is. I'm putting two characters through hell, and the Angel on my shoulder is not impressed. These aren't easy scenes to write for me, but like Jack would argue, this torture is a means to a satisfying - if not thrilling - end.

And of course, Jack is the perfect muse to help me cross the finish line on this project. Paul Walker might be fast, but no one works better under pressure than Jack Bauer -- how else could he accomplish SO MUCH in just 24 hours?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Literally confused

What's the difference between literary and commercial fiction?

Yeah, I know, I'm opening a massive can of worms. But this is the kind of question some writers obsess over, certainly a question I ask - and debate over - at nauseam.

Definitions for both literary and commercial fiction have gone through numerous iterations. According to Wikipedia, the term "literary fiction" came into usage around 1960 to distinguish "serious" fiction from genre or commercial fiction. While a literary novel focusses on style, psychological death and character, the "page turner" pays more attention to narrative and plot.

I'm uncomfortable with that definition.

If you assume that a book about somebody's attempt to solve a mysterious murder isn't literature because it can be classified as a murder mystery or suspense, then how would you label Snow Falling on Cedars? And does Romeo and Juliet not fit within the boundaries of a traditional romance novel?

Some may argue that literary fiction takes more liberty with the language. They point to longer chapters, looser writing, a more poetic voice and the tendency to lean on metaphors. I don't need to look any further than within my own critique group to question that definition. Both of my partners have the skill to weave beautiful metaphors into tight prose - and thus creating a sensory bouquet that allows the reader to live the story vicariously through the character's eyes. I would classify both of their novels as commercial fiction.

Perhaps you subscribe to the theory that commercial writers pay less attention to craft. But the same rules for good writing apply to all fiction. Passive writing, excessive narration, dialogue tags and grammatical errors are all red flags for editors and agents - regardless of literary style. The writer's fundamental objective is to compel the reader to turn the page - the only thing a literary artist should do with language is 'get us to the end.'

Popular fiction is often created to entertain, allowing the reader to escape into another world and explore fantasies and dreams without leaving the confinements of their safe environment. And while literary fiction often challenges societal beliefs and thoughts, I would argue some commercial fiction can cross those same boundaries. The definition should not be based on sales, either. Many literary books - Gargoyle, for instance - enjoy commercial success, just as several novels on the New York Times Bestseller list don't always conform to genre - and yet are clearly not viewed as "literary" fiction.

It seems to me, that the line between what is deemed commercial or literary continues to shift as the industry evolves. What distinguishes them is, perhaps, the experience you expect from reading it. When you buy a commercial book, you expect to be (for example) romanced or terrified - you read to get to that already-anticipated place. But literary fiction is more of an unknown - you are not certain what experience you will have. The writer takes you to unfamiliar territory, the kind of place you feel you can only get to with "this book."

But in either experience, you expect good writing.

The responsibility of the writer - regardless of category - is to provide that.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Writing fast and furious

This week, I need a "fast" muse. The kind of guy who will get my engine, ahem, creative engine running, that is. There's no doubt Paul Walker is up for the task. Did you see him GO in all of the Fast and the Furious movies?

The way he handled those cars? The quick work he made of his relationships (grin). Yep, Vin Diesel may be the franchise's resident tough guy, but Paul - he's fast. And I need fast.

I'm "this" close to knocking off a project that's served as my ball and chain for almost four years. Just a few chapters to write, some edits to incorporate, and a final read through by my IR. But I've only got until December 1 to get it done. Which means the bulk of that work has to be completed - this week.

And as usual, I've got a lot on the go.

But with Paul at my side, I have no doubt the week will just speed along.

Friday, November 20, 2009

I wish I'd written...


Actually, there's a few books I wish I'd written, but for sure, I'd love to have created Bella and Edward. And, apparently, Jacob. I wish I'd woken from a vivid dream about werewolves and vampires and transcribed the details onto the page, thus creating a world loved by millions of people. You suck, Stephanie - but I mean that in the nicest way.

Last week, more than a thousand young fans (and my husband) lined up at West Edmonton Mall to meet three of the stars from New Moon. My stepdaughter was among them - even convinced her father to camp overnight (at the MALL). She came home with a signed poster, a dozen or so pictures, and a gigantic smile.

I wish I'd been the one to put it there.

You can say what you want about Stephanie Meyer's writing - even the heavy weights, like Stephen King, have voiced an opinion - but the bottom line is, she sells books. MILLIONS of books.

I remember when I started reading Twilight. I should admit that it wasn't when the novel first hit the shelves. I'd watched my cousins - especially Kyla - read the series on the dock at our summer cabin in Christina Lake, awestruck by (and envious of) her enthusiasm for each character. And even though my cousins' book choices are often bang on (Amanda and Savannah got me hooked on Leven Thumps and the Land of Foo), I still didn't succumb to Edward's charm. Yet.

Fate intervened two years ago when, about to board the plane for Hawaii, I realized I'd forgotten a book. I read Twilight on my first flight to Vancouver, then bought New Moon and Eclipse in the Vancouver airport - finished them both before landing in Hawaii, and then spent two days on the island looking for Breaking Dawn. I've read them twice since - not as a writer, but as a reader. No easy task for me these days.

One of my critique partners wrote an awesome blog post about how writing - and critiquing - has changed how she reads. I agree with her on almost all fronts.

Except for Twilight.

I'm sure there's a reason I'm so quick to ignore the "craft rules" Stephanie Meyers blatantly breaks in her writing - but that would mean I'd have to stop reading - and falling in love with Edward - to analyze it. Maybe I'll try again after I finish the books for the fourth time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The power of words

I love this ad from Australian Post. It reminds me of my Nono, who not only used to give the best hugs, but he was the only one in my family who truly understood my "need" to write. Before my Dad bought me a beautiful roll-top oak desk one Christmas (acceptance that despite his pleas I would not change my career choice), my Nono bought me a quill. I used it only to write him letters.

My Nono wrote back in a confusing mix of Italian and English, but I didn't need to understand his language to translate the underlying messages of love and support. Words are pretty powerful.

That's why I don't understand, sometimes, why as a society we choose words designed to hurt. The average human uses around 370 million words throughout their lifetime - and just under half of those are negative. I'm not making this up - that statistic comes straight from the October / November issue of BBC Magazine (another guilty pleasure).

Words have evolved over time, often changing in meaning. In the 13th century, for instance, the word 'gyrle' simply referred to a child, irrespective of their gender. And in the 12th century, 'buxom' meant you were humble and obedient. And how about awful - one of those now negative words? Around 1300 AD, 'awful' related to awe, so something 'awful' commanded respect.

As a writer, I understand the importance of word choice. Each sentence, paragraph, page is crafted (at least hopefully) with utmost respect for strong verbs, powerful adjectives, and appropriate nouns. And as a reader, I am fully aware of how words can be used to convey emotion - pain, sadness, happiness, love. My favourite authors are masters of stringing together words that create magical imagery or inflict utter fear.

There is much truth to the saying: The pen is mightier than the sword.

In today's world of technological advance, it is more imperative than ever that we are all careful in how we wield our weapons of language. While my Nono had to wait several weeks for my letter to reach him, emotion (good and bad) can now be conveyed with a quick click of the send button.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Blast from the past

I've been wishing a lot lately that I could go back in time. Not to a different century or anything, just a few years - like maybe twenty or so. I don't regret the decisions that have made me the person I am today, but I'd love to go back and relive some of my youth.

Like when Rikki Rockett was my idol. My best friend Jennifer and I entered a radio contest to win tickets to a Poison concert once. She dressed up like lead singer Brett Michaels, and I acted as Rikki Rockett - I even painted a cardboard drum set to look like the ones he took on tour. We won - front row tickets. But in the end, Rikki pointed his drum stick at the woman next to me who was wearing a lot less clothes and thus deemed the "bigger" fan. She got to go backstage.

Rikki used to adorn my bedroom walls. Jennifer had Def Leppard posters. I had Poison. (My younger sister, as an aside, had Bryan Adams...which tells you a lot about how different we were back then. Love ya, Jess.)

It was back in the days of Rikki Rockett that I began writing. I wrote Carnival Dreams while listening to Poison and dreaming of him. When it was finished, I substituted my hero's name (Rikki, of course) for Joe Elliot, so Jen could have a book about her dream guy as well. I'm confident neither book - starring Rikki or Joe - will ever be published.

Still, those were good times - and I've been thinking about the past a lot lately.

Don't get me wrong, I do see a bright future. I'm married to my high school sweetheart (which is a story for another day) and have a beautiful step daughter. I have awesome friends who support and love me - and who these days appear to be fueling my creativity with Starbucks and Tim Hortons. I love my family, my life, my future.

But this week I'm taking a walk down memory lane, and it seems fitting my original muse should guide me through this week's writing goals. Oh I know I'll likely be alone in my "adoration" - but that's ok. I prefer not to compete anyway.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

100 pages and counting

For the past few months, I've been supplying my critique group with pages (gulp) already written. Still first draft, but without the added pressure of coming up with a fresh and fabulous "10" each week.

Hard to believe that was 100 pages ago.

I'm not a plotter - at least not by most people's standards. I subscribe to the belief the character (s) should guide me, and when that doesn't work, I go to the library and do research, which usually lights a spark of creativity or unearths a story thread. I believe Stephen King's theory about writing while on a roll - a surefire way to avoid the dreaded Writer's Block. And I try. Honest.

But his advice seems more geared to people who write one project (two max) at a time.

Which brings me to today. I'm running on empty in the sleep department, and working on some lifestyle changes that will hopefully address the extra weight I've put on this month. My teenage step-daughter is in full-on "drama" mode. I have "real" work due at work and my Starbucks supply has almost all but dried up.

Of course, there's also that other "little" deadline to think about.

And somehow, I need to pull out 10 good pages. Good enough that the character sounds the same. The plot is moving in the right direction. The scene logically fits with the one prior.

I'm about half way there, with about two days left until deadline.

Tonight, I'm rolling up the sleeves and getting to it. Just as soon as I log my NaNo count, finish my other blog entry, read over a chapter from another project and... Sigh. You get the picture.

100 pages and counting... now at an agonizing 10 pages at a time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A sense of detail

Hours before the earth buckled and triggered one of the most deadly series of tsunamis in history on December 26, 2004, animals along the Indian Ocean's affected coastline seemed to sense danger. Elephants trumpeted. Dolphins dashed for deeper waters. Flamingos flew to higher ground and bats roused from their usual daytime slumber.

When it was over, more than 225,000 people died or went missing. Few animals perished.

Throughout history, there have been countless reports of unusual behaviour by animals - from dogs and cows to jelly fish - in the hours and days before a disaster. 

And in fact, many animals rely on sensory detail for their survival. For instance:

  • Cat got your tongue? No problem for Hippos. They build up large amounts of pressure under their nostrils before sending out infrasonic "bubble bursts" which are sounds they use to threaten and intimidate others.
  • Blind as a bat? No worries. Bats navigate their surroundings by emitting high-pitched sounds and interpreting the echoes. This radar-like sense is called echolation and it allows them to find food (insects) up to 18 feet away. 
  • Food tasting a little bland? A pig's tongue contains 15,000 taste buds. By comparison, the human tongue has just 9,000.
  • You thought spiders had it bad with eight eyes? The box jellyfish has 24. And dragonfly eye contains 30,000 lenses - imagine the cost of contacts! 
  • Think your sense of smell is pretty good? Turns out humans have some of the dullest noses in the world. Some animals - like dogs - can get a strong whiff of odours most people don't even know are there. 
Writers incorporate the five senses into each scene to create stimulating imagery. It isn't always easy - and typically taste, touch and sight earn the greatest number of words. But what if you could just pick one?

German writer Patrick Suskind met that challenge in 1985 when he penned Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The novel explores the sense of smell and its relationship with the emotional meaning that scents may carry. It's also a brilliant and twisted thriller. 

Perfume has become my "bible" on sensory detail - I often refer to it when trying to find unique ways of adding non-sight imagery to the page. 

How about you? What are some of the tricks you use to help create sensory detail? 

Monday, November 9, 2009

In Gerard I trust

I admit feeling a tad shameful for my public lashing of last week's muse avatar.

Just a bit though, because let's face it, the tactic worked. What started as a slow week, ended in marathon style. I logged more than 80 pages of fresh - and revised - text, perhaps a personal best.

But Monday is again upon us, and while Brad's last minute shape-up may earn him a repeat appearance, the avatar face must now change.

Why Gerard Butler?

Hmm. Where to begin? Perhaps I'll start with those abs. This is the mark of a fit man. And Gerard is strong - as evidenced in 300 - as Spartan. I'm hopeful his persona of fitness will act twofold - to whip my newest pages into shape, and to (again) inspire my personal fitness regime.

And while I appreciate he is known for more characters than as the mighty (and hunky) Leonidas, I deem it appropriate to select an image from the movie in which, I think, provides us with so much brilliant dialogue. At the start of my career, I found "character conversation" the most difficult, but I'm learning the rules and I've come a long way. In addition to my most current WIP (s), revising and polishing the TV script I've written will be top priority this week - and script writing is largely about dialogue. Perhaps his image will serve as inspiration.

And lastly - though of no less importance - Gerard Butler is one of the several candidates listed on my writer friend's blog (in her generous plea for me) and a personal favourite of Donna's. (Is there no end to what I would do for you, sweetheart? I do love my crit partners...)

Still unconvinced? Allow me to provide another image to prove Gerard's worth:

Friday, November 6, 2009

An open letter to my muse

Dear Muse:

I thought we had an agreement.

I selected you - over a vast number of eligible muse avatars - in hopes you would shepherd my children into adult hood. You promised to guide them, and provide all with equal inspiration. You said you'd infuse each with their own spark of Genius.

And of course, I assumed you'd take on the role of "stay-at-home-muse" - like Tootsie, which I've been feeding you all week - but I came home after critique group Tuesday night and the dishes remained untouched, the vacuum cleaner in the full upright and idle position, and every bed in the house unmade.

Now, I'm not normally the type to air anyone's dirty laundry into the giant blogosphere (and especially not my own) but I'm certain you've not upheld your end of the bargain. I can see by the sheer number of times you've been on the cover of tabloids this week that you've not been focused on my children, but perhaps on reconnecting with your ex?

Are these trysts the reason Jagger is spiraling into depression, and Cait is still wandering aimlessly around Milan looking for her Father? Just yesterday, Karma told me she had to take the bus - the bus! - to school. Aeryn has not yet completed her "shop" project, and I think she's sleeping around. And don't even get me started about Avery, whose shoe fetish has gotten her into trouble this week. BIG trouble.

It's as though you've allowed all of my children to run amuck, and now, as I stare at the butt end of another unproductive week, I am reconsidering my selection criteria.

Oh, did you forget you can be replaced?

Perhaps you'd be interested in checking out the growing list of candidates here.

You'd be wise to not dismiss them so easily, Mr. Muse. My dear friend has impeccable taste - in fact, the loyal (and quite hunky) Daniel "Bond" Craig has been her internal editor avatar for some time. The list compiled by her friends indicates she surrounds herself with like-minded peers.

But I'm feeling generous this morning and have decided to give you another chance. You have two days - 48 hours in which to redeem yourself as father of the year.

I expect great things from you Mr. Muse.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Shhh...I've got a secret

The following is going to come as a shock to my critique partners (and probably Rocky and Kyle...and maybe even Jeff...).

I'm doing NaNoWriMo.

I didn't intend to - Lord knows I've got enough projects on the go. Admittedly, the propaganda sucked me in. 50,000 words in a month? Part of me thought NaNoWriMo might be the catalyst I need to bang off one of those "shorter" books rolling around in my head.

Except, I don't think I'm doing right.

I've added a couple thousand words on a new project (yes, another new project), and as par my usual pattern, I do like the first two chapters. But to be frank, there are about 100 projects in my desk drawer with an amazing two or three chapters.

Still, I enjoy a challenge and considered - in a moment of weakness and likely, procrastination for other half-finished WIPs - that maybe this NaNoWriMo fever would rub off on me and I'd cross the finish line of a full book just as the calendar rolled into December. Merry Christmas to me, right?

I registered myself for the challenge, even provided a snippet of author profile, and gasp, published a small excerpt from what I suspect will be a crappy attempt at a genre I don't even know I want to write. I've selected my "home region" and considered reaching out to fellow NaNoWriMo writers. Considered - but didn't.

As I closed the lid on my aging laptop last night, it occurred to me that I couldn't find one good reason to participate in NaNoWriMo. Why would I look for another community of writers for encouragement and support, when I have the cream of the crop already on my side?

Aside from my crit group - which I could speak about at nauseam with adoration - I am blessed with several writer friends with whom I can exchange pages, call on for support, or lean on for an ego boost.

And, I have an agent who has his own word count demand. As if that shouldn't be enough.

Yet, the call of NaNoWriMo still echoes with clarity. Why is that?

I'm not saying I'm going to abandon it completely - part of me still needs to understand the draw of the event, and whether completing the challenge would provide anything beyond a bit of self satisfaction. But it isn't NaNoWriMo that will keep me up all hours of the night working - it's the more meaningful challenge of meeting the expectations of the amazing community of writers I'm already fortunate enough to have on my side.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The fatherly type

I've got an awful lot of projects on the go.

That's typical of me. My attention span is often short. Creative inspiration sometimes comes in fits and stops. And almost always, my mood indicates which kick-ass protagonist I should focus on.

For the past few weeks, my muse avatar has possessed some - um - necessary criteria for making the grade. But this week's is more than just your average Hollywood Hunk.

My projects (all one million of them) are like my babies, and who better to help me shepherd them into adulthood than Mr. Mom himself, Brad Pitt.

Oh I've watched the way he dotes on little Maddox, how he taught the little tyke how to ride a dirt bike before his tenth birthday. A skill I'm sure Jagger would be interested to learn. 

And who could forget the way he welcomed Pax and Zahara into his family? I'm confident he'll have open arms for my new young adult series and the romance novel playing around in my head.

When Shiloh was born, she became Daddy's girl - and right now, my poor girl Cait is struggling to find her father. Maybe Brad could point her in the right direction?

I recognize he's quite busy these days - what with twins Knox and Vivienne less than a year old - but I've heard him say that he and Angelina would love to have dozens of children. I'm only suggesting that he adopt a couple of mine.