Ok. For all those faithful followers, those who keep checking back for more updates, or what have you...I am moving my blog to my website.
This one will still be accessible, the feed can be found on my website.
Please link over to www.robinzvaneck.com to keep up with me.
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Yet, we writers continue to dabble away at the short stories. Why? Why? Why?
Some writers just love short stories. They love the form. They love the conciseness. They love the fact that you can more easily play around and practice different things. They love that there's only one or two characters that they have to worry about figuring out. And short stories are more accomplishable. There's satisfaction in completing a piece. And being able to start a new project.
Then there's other writers who want to write a novel. But they've started and stopped more times than they can count because it's so darned daunting. Plot turns and twists, interesting characters, that have to carry over 300 pages. Ugh. Even thinking about it sends me into a sweat.
These writers are writing short stories for some of the same reasons as those who love the form. Practice. Developing characters. Developing plot. And the joy of actually finishing something. Novelists are also told that if they want to publish a novel, through a publisher or getting an agent to do the work for you, you need to have established credibility as a writer. Write and publish short stories. Submit. Submit. Submit. Learn to handle rejection because it's inevitable.
I would urge any writer with the hopes of writing a novel, to first practice the short story form. Find your own writer's voice, feel that sense of accomplishment when you do the final edit of a story. Find a market. Get rejected a few times. Get the story published. All the while working on more short stories. Never stop writing. That's the key isn't it?
That doesn't mean don't work on the novel, too.
I'm writing a novel. I also write short stories. Sometimes the novel is overwhelming and you need something to fall back on when you just can't deal with your novel characters anymore or you get stuck on a plot point. If I didn't write short stories as well, I would likely stop writing and maybe or maybe not get back to the novel. As in any big task, you sometimes need to step away for a moment to try and regain perspective. Turning to other forms of writing is a great way to do that.
Like stopping to catch your breath during a long hike. Or stopping for lunch or a drink of water.
On a side note...I heard a couple of great pieces of advice last night.
First, when you find that your character is boring or indifferent or disinterested in their surroundings, not engaging with other characters, or always angry or whatever, write then doing something they really care about or engaging with something they really care about.
I'm not sure if I totally agree with the second point. To have someone looking at your work frequently to keep you on the right track because there's nothing worse than spending a ton of time on a particular scene to make it great and then find that it doesn't even need to be there. While I do think this is great advice, I think it pertains only to later drafts. The first draft is yours and yours alone as you're working through the story and trying to figure it out. But later drafts, absolutely, showing it to people frequently is beneficial.
Writing is not as solitary as many are led to believe.
Thursday, April 2, 2015
In that 12 hours, I wrote a little over 2600 words. Finished a scene in the novel that I really wanted to get through. I did it. Yay, me. Though compared to others who wrote, I came in somewhere in the middle as far as word count was concerned. Some of those writers have lightening fast fingers and pumped out more than 10,000 words.
Holy crap! That's about all I could say.
Wait a sec, let's go back a touch. I started this particular novel in February. Somewhere in the middle of the month, maybe. I can't quite be certain of the exact date. I committed to writing about 1000 words a day. Some days were better than others. So in almost two months, I can comfortably say I'm almost half-way through the first draft. As of today!
Half-way. It's hard to comprehend. And then there's this thing...this subconscious part of me that suddenly stalls right around this point. Maybe that's why I'm writing this. Because I want to make sure I am aware that I know what I typically do in an attempt to do something completely atypical of me. It's like saying, "hey you, I see you and I know who you are, so snap out of it and stop feeling sorry for yourself and just write the damned thing."
I want to believe it will be different this time. I have to learn not to be too hard on myself too. If I go a day and don't write, so what? If I write only one sentence, so what? If I take a break and read a book, so what?
I think about whether I might lose interest in my character, have the energy leak from the story until it goes stagnant. These are my worries. And I'm maybe not alone and I'm maybe just spouting bullshit and I should just keep writing. Keep going. Don't worry. Write and let the rest sort itself out.
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
It brings up an interesting point. When I'm in the zone, writing so crazy-like that if I came up for air my eyes would be bloodshot, and drool would be crusted to my chin, I don't shower as often as I should. It's not that I don't want to shower. I simply forget. The story takes precedence. Until of course my husband or child is begging me, almost dragging me to the bath.
I write in a frenzy, bed hair remaining through the bulk of the day. Only when I sneak outside for a smoke break and someone walks by do I suddenly realize I must look a fright. Or I drain the 17th cup of coffee and realize it's cold and tastes like ass.
I like to call it my lived-in look, just like the crap scattered around the house, too lazy or too involved (in the story) to care what's falling apart around me. The dirty plates piled on the table because the kid is too lazy to put it away herself and she probably asked me hours earlier to get her some lunch and when I didn't respond she pulled out the peanut butter jar and started eating it with a spoon, and then forgetting the spoon she used her fingers and smeared it all over the cat so now there are peanut butter cat prints all over the floor, the wall, the scratching post, the table, in the bathtub.
Okay, not really. I'm exaggerating some.
But I suppose it's one of my quirks of writing. I never gave it much thought until recently. But it's true, when I'm writing, I forget some of the simplest things.
And everyone has them. Weird little things they do or don't do when they're in the middle of a story. I always think of Johnny Depp in the Secret Window, loping around in his housecoat, hair a mess, sipping coffee and just looking anxious.
It's the mind of an artist.
What's your inner writer weirdness?
Sunday, March 29, 2015
Photography is not easy by any means. Trying to capture that perfect image with just the right light, coming in at just the right angle. Too much light, not enough light. All problematic. But no matter what lighting effect is captured, what composition is created, the viewers still see a pier leading out to the water. A man sitting on a bench at the end of the pier. The blues, the greens, the subtle, perceived movement of the water. You see it. Don't you? Can you smell the water and the trees? Feel the breeze wash over your skin, licking at your hair with a feather tongue? The crunch of gravel under your feet?
But writers. Jeez. We got it extra hard. We are the only ones who see the images in our heads and our problems begin with trying to put that image on the page. Down to every last detail so that the reader sees what we see. We create whole worlds, characters, settings, landscapes, all with words.
How do we paint a scene on the page that a reader will see and understand? It's all in the senses. You know what I'm talking about. Sight, smell, touch, hear, taste.
Pretend you're blind for a moment. What sounds come to you when you think of your scene? Cars rushing, honking, squealing tires, tangled voices threading through a coffee shop. What do you smell? The fresh ground aroma of Arabica beans floating over tired, yawning heads. What do you taste? The bitter bite of coffee, no cream, no sugar. What do you feel? Hands folded around the warm ceramic cup, the heat rushing to meet the tips of the fingers, the coffee, scalding the tongue with the first sip.
This is imagery. This is what we writers are challenged to do every time we sit down to write. A sentence. A paragraph. A whole scene.
And it's not an easy task.
No wonder many of us turn to drinking in the quiet hours of the night, all these pictures floating around inside us and our fingers don't work fast enough to get them all out. Or we do get them out, but on the page it looks nothing like we imagined.
I suppose the same is for any artist. When the artwork doesn't turn out the way we wanted, we cringe and cry and pull our hair out. At least with writers, we can delete and edit, just as photographers can adjust the white balance and take another shot.
Friday, March 27, 2015
Not really. But I am writing a novel. It's kind of the same.
Writing a novel could be like building a boat though I've never actually tried to build a boat so this analogy might get lost somewhere along the way. Let's say for a minute that it is like building a boat.
You have an idea. That's your schematics. You can't build a boat or anything for that matter and expect it to hold up without some blueprints. I tried sewing a pair of shorts once without a pattern because how hard could it be. Well, let me tell you, it's harder than you think. One leg ended up slightly longer than the other.
Maybe you outline. Maybe you don't. Not everyone outlines, but it's a good idea to jot down notes, key things that will happen along the way. Make sure the boards are cut just the right length in order to avoid cracks that can't just be sealed with a little putty. Or cut them a little too long so that you can cut them back and make them fit later.
You have your character, you have your beginning. You even might know what will happen at the end. But don't forget the fleshy stuff in the middle or the story will sink before you leave shore.
It's funny really. In order to get a publisher or agent to even look at your work, your beginnings have to shine. Tantalize and excite and give a reasonable expectation as to what will follow. Well written is a must. Full of action, dialogue and interesting characters even more important. So great, you've spent so much time on the beginning, the publisher is intrigued and wants to see the whole manuscript. You think you've made it. Because there has to be some interest if you didn't get thrown overboard at the query letter.
You would think.
But no. Just because your beginning is like magic. Liquid gold. All the stuff in the middle is the real story. And matters probably more than your flashy, well-written beginning.
I struggle with middles. It's where I get bogged down, stuffing large rocks in my pockets until I can't stay afloat. And I'm still only wet up to my knees. Questioning every movement, every conflict, the pace, the structure. Has your character become repetitive and boring, are there enough plot twists and turns, are your secondary characters interesting enough, or heaven forbid, stealing the scenes?
I don't have the answers. After all, I've never built a boat. Maybe some of you experienced boat builders out there have some suggestions. What I am learning though, is that word by word, scene by scene, a story is starting to take shape. It might only be the frame, the context in which I want my readers to fall into and feel safe and comfortable, but is there enough for them to stay afloat. More than a life raft, something solid and full of energy.
We know how to write a scene. Well, hopefully, we do. You know, the whole combination of action, description, dialogue and exposition, balanced in such a way to keep the forward momentum going? I find, for me anyway, that if you can write a scene, and each one of those scenes has the same energy and excitement as the earlier scenes did, eventually it will come together. I stopped looking at the big picture because it became far too overwhelming. But taking it little bit by little bit, and remembering the reader does not know what you see in your head and it's your job to paint that picture for them, it's doable.
Even as the writer, we may not see the full thing until that first draft is done, or maybe even the second draft when you have to string together all those random scenes in a way that makes sense. Does the story bounce like a fully formed boat on the water? Not a tumultuous storm (unless that's what you want to write) but a nice leisurely cruise with just enough waves lapping at the bottom of the boat to keep the reader interested and awake. Do you see the icebergs soon enough to navigate around them or last minute so your passengers are in a state of panic and chaos not sure what the heck just happened? Or do you push the throttle full steam ahead and end up crashed on an island after a three-hour cruise?
I think we want to avoid both of those. Balance, care and understanding. Respect for what we are trying to do and taking the time to do it properly. And by properly I mean creating your draft the way you see it first, your random sloppy draft where it doesn't matter what your characters do or say because no one is going to see it anyway. The first draft is just the frame of your story.
The second draft is where you really start building. Putting it all together, nailing pieces into place, filling in the cracks. Then you have let someone have a boo at your creation. Because you are too close to the story because you've been staring at it far too long to really see all the holes. But fresh eyes will find the dings and cracks, the bent nails that you tried to hide. Nothing gets by a fresh set of eyes, most of the time. And it's better if it's someone experienced in boat building. Not a family member, who loves you and all you do and wants to prop you up on a cloud, but someone who will tell you exactly what is wrong.
The shape, the length, the type of wood you're using.
If your bottom is missing.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
The first novel I started was back in a time when I was going through a rough patch in my life. More than 10 years ago. I needed some place to escape. I started this story, oddly it began as a children's story and quickly took a turn into something totally not suited for a young market, about a child who disappears and there are cult aspects and human sacrifice and bad parents and all that mumbo jumbo. I labeled it a psychological thriller. What it really was though, was atrocious. I didn't know what I was doing. I used to write in a linear fashion. As soon as my characters came up against a road block (in a secret tunnel and they didn't know how to get out) so did I. Moving forward seemed impossible because if I couldn't do it in a straight line, well then, hell...the story would never go anywhere. When I think back about this story though, there are some interesting characters and maybe one day they will make their way into another story. This story, tentatively titled, Ultimate Sacrifice, really was my sacrifice. I used it for many years to help me develop as a writer. Likely, in its current form, it will never see the light of day, but it got me writing and forced me to examine many facets of writing and ultimately become a better writer.
The second novel began in 2009. I thought I was finally ready to write a novel. After years of writing short stories and finding moderate success it seemed like the logical next step. The story, about a woman who discovers the family she thought was hers, really wasn't and a sinisterish, self-indulgent birth mother trying to find this said woman for selfish reasons. She solicits the help of a seedy PI with problems of his own to help her find this woman. Oh lord. This novel sucked to ginormous proportions. Too many story lines, too much happening, I couldn't keep it all straight. And whose story was it really? By this time I had learned that I didn't have to write in a straight line. I could write all over the place and if I got stuck on something, move on to another scene until I got unstuck. Despite this story being a giant platter of poop that eventually got shoveled into a drawer with the other, one thing did come out of it. Shermeto, the seedy PI. He became a character that people loved, he took over the story while the other characters fell flat and no one gave a shit what happened to them. This novel was titled Shades of Blood. Blah. Blah. Blah. I would never give up on Shermeto though.
Insert a few more short stories, nominations for awards, contest finalist, a second place win and lots of book reviews.
The third novel stemmed from a funny conversation with a friend about old people and how her and I would be those crazy old ladies wreaking havoc in the senior's home, hiding people's false teeth and just being general trouble makers. We laughed about it and then I wrote what I thought would be a short story. It wasn't. It became bigger. The characters became bigger. They had greater stories than I could ever have imagined. Which of course veered me onto a different path.
I had been working part time with seniors with dementia. It was a wonderful experience but it made me wonder why some elderly are so cranky? I began to examine this aspect of aging and what could cause us to become bitter and hateful in our old age. An interesting story really started to emerge. But it became difficult. Too much information needed to be told. Too much history. In my best attempt at this I started to write it chronologically and somehow this story became more historical fiction and I became overwhelmed with details. Historical elements that needed to come into play. So overwhelmed that I started to lose interest in the story. I needed a break. I still love this story and hope that one day I will be able to find the right way to tell it.
The biggest thing I've learned thus far is that you really have to find something that you're passionate about. Something you want the world to hear, to see, to read. Give them a new way of thinking about ordinary situations. But if you're going to carry through, you have to love your characters as much as you want your readers to love them. And so this brings me back to Shermeto.
He was never far from my mind. Intriguing and complicated and quite an ass most of the time. But there's always a reason, right? We all have causes that we're passionate about, or at least we should, whether it's saving the environment, finding a cure for cancer, bringing awareness to mental health, ending childhood hunger, we all have something in the back of our minds that motivates and imprints on us. Something we care deeply about.
Mine is homelessness. The marginalized citizens we share our cities with. So many turn their noses up at them, see them as stray dogs who have no use in society. So I put Shermeto on the streets. Lost in the vast towering world of oil and gas, shiny shoes and pressed suits. I love this story now. I write in chunks, random scenes that seem to have no purpose, but as I carry on, the story is forming, taking a shape that is better than I thought possible. And I'm motivated. It's not historical. At least not in a sense that it takes place in a time I know absolutely nothing about. So I'm not tangled and choked by historical facts. It just is what it is and I'm approaching the end of the first draft. I'm focused, I'm motivated. I care about this story and these characters. I want, maybe need, to tell this story and I am.
So I guess the point of this whole post is simple, writing a novel is a process that's not limited to the pages of one story. And no writing is wasted. Even if it seems pointless at the time, anything we write teaches us something. It could be about character, about motivation, about imagery, about story arc, or it could be about us, as writers and what matters to us. It's all trial and error until you find that one nugget that is so important to you that you can't let it go.
It makes you sad, it makes you emotional, and it makes you a writer.