Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Time to Lick a Few Frogs

Every now and then I reach a point in my WIP (Work In Progress. Though maybe I should call it my NIP. Because it's a novel. Whatever. Maybe I'm just overly fond of irrelevant parentheticals) where I lose momentum and start writing mildly diverting, but irrelevant (hey, like my parentheticals!) plot side-trips. Sometimes they work; sometimes they just lull me into a false sense of having accomplished my word count for the day.

Now, these little side-trips can be loads of fun, like when you're on a road trip and you decide to take the scenic route instead of the monotonous highway, and you come across something like this:

Or this:

Or even this:

Odd scenery adds color. Color is good. It makes the reading experience more enjoyable. Sure, stopping to stare might slow down the story a tad, but honestly, if all you want to do is plow through the story as fast as possble, wait for the movie.

But you can't spend the whole trip on the side roads, because variation is key to not falling asleep behind the wheel (or with the book on your face, as it were).

[Are you wondering yet where the frogs come in? You are? Good. Planting seemingly innocuous questions (even when they aren't phrased as questions--tricky, huh?) is also key to holding the reader's attention.]

To bump yourself out of the writer's equivalent of a scenic reverie, sometimes you have to toss a big "HUH?" into the story. A bit of action that shakes the reader awake with its unexpectedness. (I call this "surprising the reader." Brilliant, huh?)

[Here comes the frog part.]

Some people lick frogs to get high. Yes, odd as that sounds, it's true. I know this because I read in on the internet:

When I heard about frog-licking, my first thought (after "Eeew, gross!) was, how in the hell did anyone ever come up the idea of licking frogs to get high? Who was the first person to say, "Gee, I wonder what would happen if I just licked this frog?"

Obviously, this person was an adventurous soul, curious for curiosity's sake. He (or she; though, pardon me for being sexist, but having both a girl-child and a boy-child, I suspect it was a "he") wasn't bound by a "nobody's ever done this so I can't either" state of mind. His heck-I'm-gonna-try-it attitude was rewarded with some sort of euphoria, it's fair to assume, otherwise why else would so many people follow him down the frog-licking path?

When I get to a point in my NIP where I know something needs to happen, but I'm not quite sure what, I think about licking frogs. In other words, I come up with some crazy-ass scenario, and then just try it. Doesn't always work (some frogs are poisonous, after all) but often enough it's just the kick in the pants my characters need to liven up the trip.

So, here we go (no, this isn't really me; it's emblematic, for goshsake):

[Legal disclaimer: Some frogs really are poisonous. Do not go around licking frogs indiscriminately, because you could get hurt. Or die. Or turn into an amphibian. And I wouldn't want that on my conscience.]

Monday, February 22, 2010

Just warming up...

Believe it or not, most writers of my acquaintance do not just plant themselves in front of the computer screen every morning/afternoon/evening and start pouring forth ageless prose. They tend to ease into it somehow, often having a ritual of sorts to help get the words flowing. I know I do. Not certain what would happen if I skipped it, but I'm pretty sure my brain would cramp.

Mine goes something like this (with slight variations, depending on my mood and/or the phase of the moon--I'm not rigid):

First, tea. (This is the essential opening gambit, without which none of the rest could follow.) Usually Red Rose black tea, a simple blend, not glamorous, but it gets the job done. The Earl Greys, the greens, the whites, the herbals--those are all for later in the day, when my palate is awake enough to appreciate them.

While sipping my first cuppa, I check my email, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. I don't answer anything important, not trusting myself to respond coherently until my eyes have been open for a little longer. But I get the lay of the land.

After breakfast (usually something delicious prepared by the theater god; otherwise, if TG is unavailable for kitchen duty, cold cereal OR--if TG is already out of the house & can't see me--a brownie or a chocolate chip cookie) I make a quick call to my mother to make sure she survived the night, and to gossip about my my three brothers.

And then the home stretch: word games.

I tend to keep four or five Wordscraper games (remarkably like Scrabble, but not Scrabble, due to copyright problems on the part of the creators) going with Facebook friends. I am a ruthless opponent, and if you ever beat me, it won't be from any show of mercy on my part.

[Aside--I have this fantasy that I'm not a competitive person. That I am perpetually "nice" and "easy-going." Apparently *cough* this is not true, at least when it comes to word games.]

And finally, the homestretch of the Warm Up Rally:

I am addicted to Cricklers. They're like crossword puzzles, but without the annoying "Downs." Every morning I race through several, just to see if my brain can still remember...uh, you know, those things writers need to work with? Oh, yeah. Words.

My handicap is *buffs nails on robe* 0. Well, except on some of the news puzzles, but who really cares about current events?

Anyway, after my Cricklers interlude, I am ready to face the the flashing curser on the blank screen.

[Note: sometimes I actually shower and get dressed somewhere along the way, but it isn't an essential part of the ritual. Getting to work in my jammies & robe is, after all, one of the perks of being a writer.]

So, how about you writers out there? How do you warm up before a writing session? Care to share any tips?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Contest at Susan Adrian's blog!

My good friend, Susan Adrian, is having a contest over at her blog:

She's giving away a copy of this to the winner:

I want to win it, because I hear it is a FANTASTIC book. If I do a blog post linking to her contest, I get an extra 2 entries. Consider it done, Suzerooni! :)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

If You Wanna Catch A Fish...

(This one's for you, Tawna. I don't know why I'm telling this story. Michelle warned me you would be trouble...)

Back in the day (okay, waaay back in the day, but who really needs extraneous modifiers? I'm trying to cut down) I was an actress. As I've mentioned maybe *ahem* a few times. I've compared acting with writing, and explained how one kind of naturally led to the other for me.

The theater I worked at "professionally" (hey, I was paid--not a lot, but it sure supplemented my teacher's salary--so it qualifies) was a venue for old-fashioned melodramas. Handsome heroes, beautiful in-peril ingenues, and mustache-twirling villains. We served beer and popcorn between acts (yes, the actors were the wait staff), and the audience was encouraged to cheer the hero and boo-hiss the villain. Oh, and throw popcorn at all the bad guys with reckless abandon, too. This, in fact, was highly encouraged--we sold more popcorn that way.

It all started when, right after I first began teaching, I saw an old high school drama buddy of mine was directing a new show, and there would be open auditions. My roommate (another high school drama buddy, also a new teacher) and I figured what the hell, might be fun. Teaching at a Catholic high school, especially when you're not Catholic, doesn't provide a ton of laughs; we needed a diversion. Sure, "Shoot-Out at Hole-in-the-Wall" probably wasn't high art of the sort we'd been accustomed to in our college days, but it beat spending all our spare time grading papers.

We tried out. We got the parts. (Really, blackmail had hardly anything to do with it. I mean, sure, we knew a few things about the director, but it's not like we would've gone to the papers with it. Maybe his mother, but we wouldn't have sunk to calling the tabloids.) Anyway, we were officially Flora (that was me!) and Fauna, Showgirls of the Old West.

Now, what we didn't know at the time we were cast was that we'd have a big musical number. And neither one of us could sing. Not a note. Could not carry a tune in the proverbial bucket. When we expressed our concern to our director/buddy, he said not to worry. It wouldn't be a problem. And he winked. (Smart people would take that as a red flag.)

Worry we did. A lot. We started to suspect he'd only cast us to humiliate us (some people get so testy about a little not-really-blackmail). But it turned out the reason he wasn't worried was because he knew the audience would be a teensy bit distracted during our number after we ripped off our long skirts and started singing "If You Wanna Catch a Fish You Gotta Wiggle Your Bait"--suitably choreographed--while prancing around the stage in fishnet stockings and high-heel boots. The catcalls tended to drown out our less-than-stellar vocal performance. Since we were young--and non-jiggly--enough not to be embarrassed about showing our legs, it all worked out.

(Aside: yes, as a matter of fact, this is how I caught the theater god's attention. He was the technical director at the theater, and seemed to *cough* appreciate my bait. Reeled him in hook, line and sinker, and we've been together ever since.)

So, what, you may be asking yourself, does this have to do with writing?

Well, I'll tell you. Back then I tried my best to catch the attention of the audience via a physical performance. With writing, the feedback may not be as immediate, but it is still all about catching your audience. Same idea, different method. Words are my bait now, not long legs in fishnets (believe me, this is a good thing), but my basic bawdy temperament remains the same. As does my desire to connect with my audience.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Stupid in a strange land...

Everyone should experience it sometime, but maybe especially writers. The fish-out-of-water, gasping-for-breath anxiety that comes from being outside your comfort zone. It's good for the soul. Builds character. Most importantly, it breeds empathy. And empathy is essential if you're going to cultivate the ability to crawl into a character's head and spit authenticity onto paper.

For me it happened when I did my Junior year abroad in Stockholm. Now, the Swedish culture wasn't totally alien to me--my mother is Swedish, so I was familiar with a lot of the customs. But not the language--I was raised at a time when it wasn't the popular thing to do to "confuse" your children by bringing them up in a bilingual environment. And frankly, neither of my parents thought my brothers or I would have a lot of use for a language only 9 million people in the world spoke. But I felt differently, once I was old enough to give it serious thought. I wanted to connect with my roots.

The first thing I noticed after my arrival in Sweden was a sense of isolation. I was used to being totally aware of what was going on around me, of being connected to the buzz of communication at all times. Not so when you don't speak the language. I felt like I was in a bubble, cut off from world. Like a diver with a mask on, I was IN my environment, but no longer OF it. Charmed enough by my surroundings (still the diver, only in a beautiful coral reef), I didn't let it get to me. At first.

At the University of Stockholm I (along with non-Swedish speakers from seventeen different countries) spent four hours every morning learning the intricacies of the new-to-us language. Since there was no common language in the class, we had sink or swim using nothing but our phrasebooks as flotation devices. (I had it easy compared to some of my Asian classmates, who had to first translate from their language to English, and then from English to Swedish.)

The problem for me was that I looked Swedish. Also, my otherwise feeble attempts at the language didn't have a discernible American accent. Swedish has a few sounds most non-Swedes have difficulty mastering, but apparently there's something to that whole genetic memory thing, because they didn't give me any trouble. Oh, and I had Swedish relatives I went out with a lot, so I was often in the company regular Swedes doing non-touristy things. As a consequence, every stranger I met thought I was Swedish. Only, because my vocabulary sucked (hey, it takes a while to build a good vocabulary in a new language!) they thought I stupid. Okay, "stupid" is harsh. They mostly thought I was "slow."

Whoa. Totally new experience for the honor student from the U.S. I mean, I might have been too tall, too skinny, and too awkward, but dammit, I was smart. Not brilliant (I knew the difference, even then), but still, my whole conception of self was wrapped up in being Above Average, intellect-wise. (Truthfully? I would've gladly shaved off several IQ points in exchange for a few curves, but I'd learned to make do with what I had.) I was left, in my self-absorbed little mind, with nothing.

Know what? It was good for me. I was forced to examine who I was beneath my intellectual shield. Not being able to hide behind an extensive vocabulary and a quick wit (it is seriously difficult to formulate anything close to "wit" when your linguistic ability is barely beyond the Swedish equivalent of a knock-knock joke), I had to bring other aspects of my personality into play. I broke out of my diffidence and became friendlier.

(Just an aside: when you're tall, people often mistake shyness for aloofness, and think you're snooty. Huh. Who knew?)

I learned to laugh at myself and my frequent verbal blunders. Like the time I was trying to tell my Swedish teacher my aunt thought my Swedish was so funny she laughed at me, but instead said my Swedish was so bad an old woman peed on me. You can either laugh or dig a hole and crawl in, and I didn't have a shovel handy.

The Swedes--once they got past their wonderment that anyone would actually want to learn their language--were so helpful. They corrected me with appreciation and affection, and once I got beyond feeling self-conscious about every slip, my world opened up. Can't say as I missed the sense of isolation, but like so many negative things in life, I'm glad I had the chance to experience it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Ironing out plot wrinkles

I have a friend who loves to iron. She claims nothing is quite so satisfying as turning a wrinkly morass of crumpled fabric into a vast plain of utter smoothness.

Yeah, right. I don't get it either.

When the theater god and I were first dating--on our second date, I believe it was--I mentioned casually that I do not iron. (I believed in full disclosure early on. No point in investing my valuable dating time in someone who would ultimately expect domesticity in a partner.) I knew he was the guy for me when he responded, "That's okay. All my clothes are wad-n-wear."

It's not that I never use an iron. I do. One time, right after we moved into our current home, I had to drag the iron up from the depths of the basement to heat up the butt-ugly tiles in our kitchen enough to scrape them off the sub-floor. I recall my son, then three years old, asking, "What's that, Mommy?" *cough*

[Small digression: those tiles were seriously hideous. The dog once threw up on them, and I didn't realize it until I stepped in it. Barefoot. I am not kidding about that. Sure, I am not above exaggerating for comic effect, but I didn't have to this time. Ditto for what my son said above. Sadly, that is true too.]

There have even been times when I've used the instrument of mental torture for its actual purpose. Occasionally one or the other of us (okay, me) has been dumb enough to buy an article of clothing without making note of the 100% cotton label. And once you're past a certain age, the just-slept-in-sexy college coed look morphs into the homeless bag lady look mighty fast. So, yeah. I've had to edit my "I will never iron" pledge to "I will never iron cheerfully."

An odd thing happened not long ago, though, something that has me a trifle concerned. I was horribly blocked with my current WIP. I'd written myself into a hell of a corner, and my usual method of writing myself a wacky window for my character to crawl out of was not coming through for me. I tried the old stand-by deblockers--movies, TV, even *gasp* housework (but not cooking; I know my limits)--to no avail. So, completely desperate, I got out the iron and attacked a small pile of cotton shirts (never trust a "good deal" at Costco).

Halfway through the second shirtsleeve, a tiny trickle of an idea made itself known in the part of my brain reserved for writing. I ignored it at first, not wanting to contaminate it with bad ironing vibes. But it was insistent. The more I slammed the sputtering, hissing iron to cotton and mowed down those nasty wrinkles, the bigger the trickle grew, until a whole scene flooded into my consciousness. A scene I liked.

When I finally crawled back out of my head, the mound of shirts was pristine, hanging neatly from plastic hangers on the rail by the dryer. And I had not the foggiest memory of how they got there.

Since the Great Ironing Blackout Incident, I haven't again been pushed to such desperate measures to break through my writer's block. Thank God. But I do have a pair of linen walking shorts stuffed in the back of a drawer, just in case.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Why it's good to have an imagination

This is where I am in my head:

Picture me in the hammock, and my honey bringing me a tasty rum-based beverage in a coconut shell. With one of those little paper umbrellas in it.

There. Isn't that better than another Snowpocalypse post?

Saturday, February 6, 2010


So, it appears the weather-persons have been all too accurate in their prognostications for this storm.

WHY? Why now??

Tell me why, why, why do they have to get it right this time when they are wrong 90% of the time otherwise? It's my freakin' birthday, for goshsake, and this is not what I wanted.

*sigh* Okay, got that out of my whiny little system.

We have about two feet of the white stuff now, and it's not supposed to "taper off" until midnight tonight. In fact, the bands of the heaviest snow have yet to hit. Oh joy.

Here's the view from the garage to our mailbox. Squint. You'll see it there:

And here's the front yard. Under those trees is the "conversation pit" where we have drinks with the neighbors on fine summer evenings. It's like a ... a desecration of all that's warm and happy about neighborly interraction.

But you know, this whole thing got me thinking about timing. Timing really is everything. If a storm like this had hit when I was ten years old, I would have been in absolute heaven. I would have been making snow forts, and snowmen with snowballs & snowwomen with snowboobs, and tunneling through the drifts, and generally jumping and shouting with glee. It's kind of sad that I've lost that.

Then again, when I was ten I couldn't sit inside by the fire and enjoy hot tea laced with American Honey. There are compensations to getting older. ;)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Thirty inches? Seriously?

That's what the weatherman is saying to prepare for, snowfall-wise. *sigh*

I'll let you know tomorrow if it comes to pass. (If I have power.) I'm too depressed to think about it now. *more sighs*

You know, this would probably be a lot more exciting if I could ski. Or ice skate. Or had the least desire to build a snowman. But I grew up in the sunny south, where snow is just a picturesque thing you look at.

In pictures.

Sure, I've lived in VA for most of my married life, but it's the childhood experiences that define you, right? And I am defined by winters where snow shovels are like tits on a boar--you might find them, but they are purely ornamental.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

My Drawer Novel

Most writers have one. Come on. Admit it, fellow scribblers. You have one too. Your first baby, the one you're a little embarrassed to let see the light of day. Or maybe you did let it see the light of day. Sent it out there into the publishing jungle, and it came scurrying back, licking its wounds.

But that doesn't mean you don't still love it. Flaws and all.

My drawer novel is CATSPAW. It's paranormal suspense, and has a little kid, a troubled teen (honestly, is there any other kind?), a young widow, and an old lady who may or may not be a witch. Oh yeah, and a cat. There is, naturally, a Very Bad Man. Avoiding the VBM involves, among other things, transmigration of souls. There's a love interest (veterinarian), a sub-plot complication (his evil ex-wife), and even some comic relief (vet's interfering-but-capable assistant). All it really needs is a vampire, and I think I'd have all the bases covered.

CATSPAW is too long, too loose, and I suspect it has too many points of view. Also, for some reason I felt compelled to include pretentious literary quotes at the beginning of each chapter. Didn't want all that graduate work to go to waste, I guess. If I ever dust this sucker off and try to repair it, those will definitely have to go.

When I finished writing it, I decided I needed to give it a little distance before I started sending it out. You know, so I could look at it with fresh eyes. In the meantime, to keep myself occupied, I started writing a fluffy little paranormal mystery called IN A FIX. Pure popcorn. Junk food. Mind candy. Shorter, lighter, single POV. Had a blast playing with it, and before I knew it I was done. Decided IT was the one I really wanted to sell. Figured in these truly suck-perior economic times, readers might appreciate a romp on the goofy side. (Of course, it's also action-packed and sexy. If I do *cough* say so myself.) Queried it around, got lots of positive feedback, and eventually landed my wonderful agent.

The odd thing is, when I told my old crit partners I got an agent, they all assumed it was for CATSPAW. They remembered it. Fondly. Huh. Guess even an ugly baby has its charms.

CATSPAW taught me more about writing than I could begin to list here. Mainly, leave out the boring stuff. Backstory might be essential for the the writing process, but your reader doesn't need to know every flippin' detail of your character's past to enjoy the current story, any more than you need to know everything that ever happened in your date's life from birth onward to enjoy spending an evening with him. Stay in the Now as much as possible. Dribble out the info on an as-needed basis. Above all, don't make your reader feel like the hapless soul trapped on the plane next to the gabby stranger. :)

How about you? Do you have a drawer novel? If so, what did it teach you?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Pssst. I'm not really here...

Dear Blog,

I'm actually finishing up revisions for my wonderful agent. But, since I cheat on you ALL THE TIME with my novel, I thought it only fair to cheat on it with you.

So, what have you been up to? I have been shoveling more snow, and generally holding down the fort while my darling husband has been playing in L.A. at the Grammies. Alas, his label (Wolf Trap Recording) did not win for Best Opera Recording. C'est la vie. It was a long shot, anyway. And it truly was an honor to be nominated. Congratulations, honey! And at least you got to see Pink's amazing upside-down & almost-naked performance in person. That's something.

Even though I chose not to go along to the Grammies (have I mentioned my flying phobia yet? No? Well, never mind. It's really not important), I at least got a ton of stuff done around here. That snow, for instance. It is off the driveway. And the sidewalk. And the front porch. (It's still on the deck. I'm only one woman.)

Oh, and laundry. That was exciting. Also, ate at Subway one night (pre-snow) with Son. We both got kind of sick. I'm not saying it was Subway's fault, but it was the only common denominator in our diet that day. Draw your own conclusions.

And, yes, revisions. Or should I say re-re-revisions. Because I've been through it *cough* more than once. Why is it so hard to let go of the revisions? I already know my agent loves the book. (Or so she tells me. She wouldn't lie about a thing like that, would she?) Logically, the tweaks should only make her love it more.

But...what if my tweaks made it worse? What if they destroyed the tenuous piece of magic that captured her attention in the first place?

What if I just made the book suck?

Yes, writers can be jiggling masses of neurotic goo. Near as I can tell from all my writer friends, it is a fairly normal state. Still, not pretty.

Okay, enough of this cheating already. I'm already regretting it. (So cheap! So tawdry!) It never turns out well. Back to novel to beg its forgiveness...

Angstily yours,