Sunday, March 29, 2015

From Imagination to the Page

Photographs have colour. Two-dimensional yet full of depth and emotion and possibilities. Everyone who looks at a photo gets a different idea of what's going on, yet everyone sees exactly the same thing.

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

About Building a Boat

I'm building a boat.

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

Writing a Novel is a Process

So I'm writing a novel. It's not the first time. It likely won't be the last. Over the years, I've started many different stories which I thought would become novels and in each one, about half way through, I stalled. For various reasons, I suppose. But more likely due to my own ambivalence. Is this good, is this a story people would want to read, is this a story I really care about or am I just writing for the sake of writing? So many questions.

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.