Sunday, March 31, 2013

Writing This Novel, part V

Now that you’ve let your first draft sit for a while it’s time to turn it into a second draft. Some writers produce such a clean first draft that the second draft goes quickly then all they have to do is copy edit and submit. I am not one of those writers. I wish I were, but it isn’t meant to be. Night Creatures took five drafts, but I had some unique problems that I’ll discuss later. The first draft is the time to throw everything onto the page. The second draft is when you cut excess or add depth and bring the story arc into its final shape. If you see copy edit level problems, of course fix them, but don’t get bogged down in that yet. 

In each scene, if your characters have moved to a different location, have you described where they are early on to anchor your reader? Good! But are you giving me too much detail? Not good. Your imagination might have constructed an amazing coffee house with the quirkiest baristas on the planet and fascinating regulars, but confession time – as a reader, I scan over this kind of stuff if it goes on too long. Give the reader a quick impression, not a blueprint. It’s an amazing trick of the human mind that with only a few details our imaginations can fill in the rest of the scene. Make your words count. Load them with atmosphere. Blonde wood and steel evoke not just d├ęcor but also a soundtrack and vibe, and it's different than what you'd imagine if I'd called the place dark and cozy.

Have you used at least three senses to make a scene come alive? Think about the coffee shop. Since your characters are probably talking you already have hearing, but add little touches such as an ambulance going by outside or the clatter of dishes as a table is cleared or that weird swooshy sound the milk steamer makes. If you’ve described the setting, you’ve already evoked seeing. Give it dimension by letting your characters react to what they see. Maybe they feel self-conscious when the teenagers two tables over whisper and giggle, or your characters are self-conscious teenagers who whisper and giggle. Since it’s a coffee shop it probably smells like coffee, but what else? If it's raining outside, coats are probably giving off that damp wool smell. If you're out on a patio, you could smell traffic fumes or the herbal scent of a planter or even the doggy smell of the Golden Lab at the feet of the woman two tables away.    

Read through your draft to make sure your characters are consistent. Yes, they change over the course of the story, but there has to be a progression. In the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is comfortable with slavery at the beginning of the story. His entire world tells him is right and he doesn’t question it. By the end of the story, he’s decided that even if it means he’ll go to hell, he’s not okay with slavery and he believes, strongly, that Jim is a man, a full human being, the same as him. That is a huge change. But from the opening lines to the end of the story, Huck Finn is a consistent character. Every action he takes and bit of dialog is absolutely believable as something Huck Finn would say or do.

Everyone comes from somewhere. They don’t spring to life as full grown adults when your story begins. (Well, yes, they do, since you created them, but to make them seem real, you have to pretend they existed before you started recording their story) They have a past that made them who they are and that’s probably important info to share with your reader. However, beware the dreaded info dump! Cramming all the backstory into the first chapter is a sure way to bore your reader. Insert clues to your character’s past along the path of the story and reveal those things only at the point where they matter. Occasionally this will call for a longer passage, but if you can keep it to a line or two you’re better off, because long passages can drag your story to a standstill and it’s harder to overcome inertia than it is to maintain forward momentum. (Law of physics as applied to storytelling)

Foreplay. I don’t mean with your characters (although that’s fun stuff to read) I mean your readers. Don’t just toss them into a sex scene. Seduce them first. Use your sensory writing to evoke a mood then mercilessly push buttons to get them hot and bothered. Tease them. Manipulate them. Make them feel the warmth of a lover’s breath just under their ear so they’ll shiver. Make them want a lingering touch next. Take your time. Do a thorough job of it. It will leave them with the impression of a great sex scene even if you never describe a sexual act.
While you were writing your first draft, your subconscious was lurking in the background. Occasionally, while you were distracted, it slipped ideas into your work. Sneaky. By the time you finished your first draft, you may have become aware of those ideas. Many works in erotica are voyages of personal discovery. The protagonist chooses to find what they want and seizes control of their sexuality and life. That’s an empowering message. I’ve also read stories that are about forgiveness, loss, faith, love, and despair. You name an aspect of the human condition and it can be addressed in erotica. Think about your work from the high-level view. A literary viewpoint. Do you detect an idea or theme? Think about ways to enhance it in the second draft (if it interests you).

Reflecting on your work will give you a lot to tackle in your second draft, and expanding on the ideas your subconscious seeded in the first draft will add depth to your story.

I knew before I finished the first draft of Night Creatures that I had to move a key scene. Talk about painful. If only it were as simple as cut and paste. But no, of course not. Events happen in sequence. One flows into another. By changing the timeline, I had to go through each scene and ask ‘do they know this yet?’ If not, I had to eliminate the reference. In the first draft, things can be wrong. Typically in the second draft, errors are fixed, but in my second draft, I was creating potential errors all over the place.

As if I hadn’t made things hard enough, I also decided to delete two characters from the story. A cast of thousands may be impressive on a big movie screen but too many characters are confusing as hell on the page. Although I already had a limited cast, by eliminating the additional characters I tightened the focus on the main two. A reader once commented that my stories sometimes make her feel like she'd been shoved into a wardrobe with two people and the air is running out. I take that claustrophobia as a compliment.

Deleting characters can cause huge plot problems. Let me restate that. Deleting characters should cause huge plot problems. Everyone on the page should be there for a specific purpose, like cogs in a machine. If you can remove one and nothing changes, they shouldn't have been there in the first palce. (I'm talking about main and secondary characters here, not the extras in the background)  When I removed the two from mine, a key part of the plot suddenly didn't happen, so I had to transfer their actions to one of the remaining characters. Different characters have different motivations even if they do the same thing. (For example: I eat sashimi because I like it. R will only eat it when it’s served to him and it would be rude to refuse it.)  That meant, yes, exploring the motivations of the character and making sure they made sense. That was a lot of work, and typically the kind of stuff you do as you're writing the first draft. Maybe instead of calling this one my second I should have called it First Draft version B.

Between changing the sequence of events and eliminating characters, the second draft left me with a lot of work to do. (Thus the five drafts.) I wouldn’t have made those changes if I hadn’t strongly felt they were necessary. Unfortunately, I can’t explain to you why I felt they had to be made or how you might sense that your story arc needs that kind of revision. (I hope for your sake that it never does. This is why I often say "This is what I do, but I don't recommend it to anyone.") Readers might feel that the way a story was told was the only way it could have unfolded, but writers know that there were many possibilities. More than one path can lead to the same destination. Part of choosing the path is talent, part of it is craftsmanship, all of it is the mysterious (wonderful) process of creativity.         

What are the areas you concentrate on in a second draft? Do you have bad habits you try to catch?

Next time: editing

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Saints and Sinners 2013

It's that time of year again.

With Saints and Sinners two months away, the emails are trickling in. Writers I haven't talked to since last year are asking if I have a room. (Yes). A roommate (D.L. King puts up with me every year. maybe because we're shower compatible.  I shower at night, she does in the morning.) Dinner plans... well, Jeff Mann asked first, so I expect a lovely meal with him and John, but D.L. and I are free other nights. We have our drinking tour down cold by now - bloody marys at French Market, pomegranate martinis for D.L. and scotch for me at the carousel bar at the Monteleone. Feel free to tag along if you're there. We also have our musts for meals -  Deanie's on Iberville for anything on the menu, Gumbo Kitchen for gumbo, chargrilled oysters at Acme Oyster House (D.L. says I make my O face when I eat them) and of course lunch at Clover Grill because while I don't live in New Orleans, every time I eat there I know at least half the customers.

That's my favorite part of Saints and Sinners. Every time I turn a corner in the French Quarter I see someone I know. It feels very old home week. Besides, where else am I going to get this much writer's gossip? Sure, writers are a bunch of depressive introverts, but give us three days in close quarters and we're regular social butterflies. Some of us even make eye contact.  Then we take a year to recover from the effort.

If you're waffling on attending, the master classes every year are amazing and so are the panels. I'm always so energized, brimming with ideas, and ready to write after the weekend. Some writers I idolized have become good friends after we met at S&S. There's the whole networking thing (but crank it down a couple notches. I really hate it when someone shoves a partial in my hands, and I'm not even a publisher! So please... just socialize. You can do the business thing after you get home.)

Which leads us to the most amazing part of S&S - the wonderful feeling of being among your own kind. Who you are is a given, not something you have to explain. Or apologize for. You don't know relief until you experience it.   

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Dialog

Writing is a solitary pastime.

Picture this: the words are flowing- pouring really- out of your imagination and you're frantically trying to keep up. Or imagine that you're the only one who knows this story but it will only reveal itself in little glimpses even to you so you have to grab onto wisps of it and somehow turn it into something solid. You have to coax it out one painful word at a time. Sometimes even that one word won't come. And all the while real life is distracting you or coming between you and the keyboard.

Writing is a solitary pursuit because it demands so much focus.

That's probably why writers dream of retreats in secluded places. If real life could only be held at bay so we could focus. Yet every writer I talk to dreams of these retreats as a group event, which seems like we don't know what we want. Fellowship or seclusion? I think what we seek in this writer's nirvana is understanding more than anything. We want to be around people who get it when your mind is so deep in layers of your story that you don't talk or notice that they're there and won't be offended, or people who will respect that do not disturb sign on your cabin door. But we also want to gather around a table when we're not writing so we can talk about writing with someone who gets it.

Living with a non-writer is difficult at times, even when they're supportive. They truly don't understand the drive to write. It's not as if you can explain it to them.

Writer's retreats do exist, but I know few people who have been to one. We feel guilty enough about stealing our writing time. Imagine the guilt of taking a weekend or a whole week just for yourself! just to write? Oh, the madness! Women are especially conditioned to believe that's too selfish. It isn't, but the force of guilt is strong within us.

Since we don't ever dare go on retreats, we do the next best thing - we meet online. What did we ever do before the internet?  I live in a city of seven million people and I can't find a little writer's group to meet in person, but I have a community spread across the world that I can reach out to. Isolation is a choice now. That's one strength of the internet over meeting in person. You can mull over an idea for months before you reply to someone, and the conversation will still "be" there, waiting for you.

The writer's discussion that currently intrigues me has been going on for several years in fits and starts. Bits and pieces of this dialog jump around between Twitter, FaceBook, and blog entries on many sites, so it's not easy to keep track of where the conversation is or even what it is. I've mentioned parts of it in this blog, and you can find more of it on Remittance Girl's blog. (Don't know about her? Although I loathe the idea of muses and will mock writers who go on seriously about them, she's the closest thing I'll ever have to one. She's more like an intellectual slap of the gauntlet across the chops than a demigoddess in diaphanous clothing.)  What we're talking about at this rather leisurely pace is literary erotica and the language of sensuality.

I'm not sure if we're even after answers in this languid, meandering discussion. I don't think there's such a thing as resolution. The questions might be all we ever have, and they might be enough. At least they're being asked. One point in the future though I'd like to meet the people who have contributed to this dialog. Maybe somewhere off in the woods, a cabin with a big communal room and a table big enough to hold the weight of the conversation. Although we'll probably talk about anything but the art and craft of writing. I've learned that from hanging around with writers at cons. Writers gossip. We talk about the business, publishers, and agents. We talk about Doctor Who and trashy TV. Because writers write. Our best words and thoughts are mulled over, crafted, and revised in our own time, not blurted out over dinner. But the retreat idea is still wonderful. After all, who else but a writer would stay up half the night debating modern portrayals of Irene Adler with me and not think it weird that we're so passionate about a fictional person? Oh, that's right. Readers would totally get that too.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Ephemeral Blaznous OR The Most Erotic Thing

My tenure at Oh Get a Grip blog is coming to an end, so I thought I'd reprint one my my contributions here. The question for the week was "What is the most erotic thing?" You'd think that would be easy to answer, but it wasn't for me.

 Ephemeral Blaznous

Recent studies have determined that your brain doesn’t distinguish between actually doing something and reading about it. So my sex scene can make your brain think you actually had a sexual experience?  I don't think so. It might get you in the mood. It might set off body responses tied to arousal. But how much of that is the brain and how much is the body? Do the mechanisms of arousal (such as increased blood flow to the genitals) start a feedback loop of sexual expectation and more arousal? And is there causality between expectation and experience when you read? If you expect to be scared by a horror novel, is it more likely to scare you? Similarly if you expect to be turned on by erotica, are you more likely to get aroused?
I think quite a bit about what’s erotic and I have no clue how to begin to discuss it. Not one. Some things turn me on and I spend a lot of time analyzing why but I never figure it out. Part of that is because there's a gap between what's happening in my brain and my ability to describe it. It’s as if we don’t even have the language to describe the erotic.When we try to talk about the erotic we often fall back on the symptoms (physical) because the causality (mental) is outside shared experience or whatever it is that gives us the ability to slap a word on an idea and pass it around like an appetizer tray at a party. Sex we can talk about forever because it’s fairly simple. It can be examined as a purely physical act. The erotic is far more mysterious.
There are infinite colors outside the visible spectrum and I guarantee you not one is named. Things can exist without having a word attached, but that makes it awfully hard to discuss them. So for the sake of argument, think of the concept of an unimaginable color and call it Ephemeral Blaznous. Why Blaznous? Because it couldn’t be called Ephemeral Blue. There may be millions of shades of blue but blue is a specific idea. Blue is something we can talk about and the letters B-L-U-E in that arrangement can contain the concept of it in text and evoke the image of it.The erotic isn't as easy as blue. As an idea, it's a slippery sucker that dodges just as you try to pin a definition on it. It changes over time. It hovers outside the spectrum. It's blaznous.

I could tell you about things that turn me on, but only a general description of what I saw or read and I can't tell you why. The actual trigger, if there’s only one and it isn’t a cumulative thing, is a big old mystery. This is why I'm a bit in awe of the "porn" writers who can reach out and evoke a physical response to their words in just a few paragraphs. There's a real art to that. But it doesn't quite fit my idea of the erotic.

What's most erotic thing? I don’t know it. Often, stories or movies almost reach the state of pure eroticism for me, but then they devolve [I'm a bit sorry I used this word, as there's nothing wrong with the physical, but I can't change it now] into the physical because it’s easier that way or because the artist felt a need to resort to the shared vocabulary of sex or maybe they reach that state of Ephemeral Blaznous where everything gets hazy and fragments into uncertainty, and while they can reach for it, they can never drag it into the visible spectrum.  Much like my thoughts on this topic.