August 22, 2014

The Crap Cycle

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You know the routine.  You go to bed Sunday evening with a mind brim-full of ideas, itching to get up the next morning and write.  On Monday you roll out of bed and sit down at the computer; you've got an hour, maybe several, and you're ready to go - until you open up the document and try to start.  And then everything is awful.  You struggle through a paragraph or two and move on, frustrated, to something else.  Everything is crap!  Your writing is rubbish!  This story is nonsense!  The characters are stupid!  You will never write anything as good as your last book (or chapter)!  You should just give up now!

But on Tuesday you try again and the story flows better; you've got over that trying bit of dialogue or description and feel like you've found your rhythm.  Things are great!  You love this story!  These characters are the bomb!  You're the top!  You're the Colosseum!

And then Wednesday?  Boom!

Crap again.

In case you couldn't tell, this cycle happens to me quite a lot - especially when, as with the past several weeks, I'm given the mixed blessing of plenty of writing time.  The ratio of good writing days to bad writing days seems skewed and you become frustrated with both the story and yourself, insecure about everything from the characters to that sentence you just wrote.  I've dubbed it the crap cycle, where the scene that sounded great yesterday sounds horrible today and you can't seem to heave the story out of the rut it's inexplicably fallen into.  There are plenty of blog posts out there to encourage you through this artistic slough, to pump you up and get you running again, but I would like to point out one thing:

the crap cycle
is a good thing

The days when we feel like our writing is rubbish and we're forced to evaluate our work through somewhat jaded eyes are good and necessary parts of the process.  We need to maintain a healthy cynicism, a recurring recognition that we are always capable of doing better.  If all we're doing is gleefully throwing out words, happy with everything we write, never suffering from the frustration of not achieving all we have in our hearts to achieve - then maybe our goals are too low.  Maybe our desires aren't big enough.  Maybe we need to step back and reevaluate, and then step forward again and try harder.

a little perfectionism
is a good thing

We do need to write fearlessly.  We need to ignore the editor side of us.  But not all the time.  Execution is as important as the idea.  We should take time to make our sentences ring true, our dialogue cohesive, our descriptions interwoven and spot-on.  If we leave everything until the editing process, I do not believe our finished product will be as good - as finished  - as it could be.  Allow yourself time to concentrate on making what you write solid, and the work of polishing, the punch-list at the end of the job, will be that much easier for it.

realism
is not pessimism

All things in moderation.  Both of these principles can be taken to extremes: we can obsess too much over details, spending so much effort rewriting yesterday's work that we never get to today's, and we can become negative. Remember to forge ahead.  When you've finally gotten through a tough bit, give yourself a pat on the back and move forward; don't go back and fret over it again.  Never let your recognition that improvement is always possible become warped into an attitude of depression, envy, or defeatism.  Rather, let it spur you on to better things.  Enjoy the times when you are the top, and remember that the times on the bottom are there to keep us humble and still striving.

August 14, 2014

August Snippets

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Today I passed two mile markers in Wordcrafter, one in the plot, one in size: it is now 50,000 and some odd words.  (Perhaps more than mathematically so; I leave that to you to judge.)  At this point, with a new stage of the story beginning, it is probably time for me to step back and take stock of where I am and where I'm going.  And for snippets.


The car door slammed. For a moment the headlights blazed against the alarming bulwark of the Fairbairns’ shrubbery, undecided as to whether or not they wanted to switch off, and we lingered, Ethan and I, in their backwash and squinted up through the chilly middle darkness at the house.

- wordcrafter

“You struck me as a coffee person,” she announced, flinging coffee-freckles against the porcelain rim of her cup with a jerk of the spoon. “I suppose you take it black.”

“Ethan takes anything,” I interjected with a sideways grimace, “as long as it’s strong as murder.”

//

“...Lizzy can cover for Lady Macduff and Banquo. She’s very good at dying.”

“A great many people die in this play,” observed Ethan out of the hum of the harp-strings.

// 

There seems little point in commenting overmuch on the girls; they were your typical college students, eminently forgettable in company with their two older sisters. The one was ginger, the other, shockingly, brunette—only I cannot for the life of me remember now whether it was Mabel who was the brunette or whether it was Brianna.

//

The door beat against the frame and a figure joined me with the silent assurance of a witch’s familiar, come to top off my coffee out of a white carafe...

//

“I hope,” I went on, fitting the kettle spout around the rim of the faucet and turning on the tap, “I hope we didn’t do too much damage.”

“To Philip’s face, you mean? Oh, I don’t think so. Lizzy took care of all of that; I’m not much for the sight of blood. Anyhow, he deserved it.”

We were agreed on that, at least, but I did not comment.

//

I stared after her rudely, and it occurred to me with mingled admiration and bitterness that she had got the whip-hand of me once more.

“Devil,” Ethan commented, pouring himself his coffee.

 //

The smell of fresh wood burst free like the scent of an orange when the skin is peeled back: sharp and sudden in your nostrils. 

//

“Up the hill,” Ethan said, “and around behind the house. Steady…”

“Don’t criticize my driving,” I snapped, getting us out of the rut with a jolt and a surging of the engine.

August 11, 2014

A Complex Simplicity

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Back in May, I mentioned being in the middle of a three- (or was it four? Hazy on that already) week course on Elizabeth I, Philip II, and the Spanish Armada.  I suppose that might sound rather dull; I was uncertain going into it, as Tudor England is not my favorite period (haven't forgiven them for Bosworth), but I charged in anyway on the strength of the professor.  Since the time span was so limited, we had to fit a lot into the days: three-and-a-half hour mornings of discussion, reading, presentations, research, the occasional lecture, and a great many movies.

Somehow movies never formed a large portion of my home school experience.  I remember watching PBS as a young kid, and I have particularly fond memories of "Theodore Tugboat" and some show featuring lion puppets, and less fond memories of "Teletubbies."  But after a certain period (maybe when we no longer had cable), TV-watching was limited to after five o'clock in the evening.  It always felt slightly wicked to begin watching something at four-thirty.  At any rate, watching movies for a class is a new thing for me; but since the main thrust of the Maymester was not so much the historical facts as it was the media portrayals of events like the defeat of the Armada, films played a key role.

In particular, we watched parts of the two recent movies starring Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I.  They were very inaccurate.  They were very over-the-top.  They had beautiful cinematography, beautiful lighting.

They made me writhe.

It was not so much what Rachel calls the OSSs (obligatory sex scenes), or even the gross liberties taken with historical events and historical people.  It was certainly not the acting, since the films starred actors and actresses like Cate Blanchett ("...you shall have a QUEEN!"), Geoffrey Rush ("It's a pity the law doesn't allow me to be merciful."), and even my favorite Watson.  It was the fact that all those OSSs were filmed and liberties taken in order to water down history into a simplistic storyline: a pretty, naive girl is thrust into the role of queen and must overcome her insecurities (and all personal feelings) in order to rule her kingdom.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a simple plot: there are only a few to pick from, after all.  What frustrated me was the complete lack of any nuance, any intricacy, any subtlety.  All Catholics are traitors.  Elizabeth is either completely incompetent or talking back like a skilled politician.  Robert Dudley is either Elizabeth's lover or plotting with the Spanish.  The story itself rode as much on the music and the relative scale of lighting as it did on the characters and their interrelationships. 

Folks.  Folks, this is not good storytelling.

People enjoyed the films.  Though my classmates and I mocked them, I think in the end everyone but myself was willing to shrug and excuse its faults because it was "entertaining."  Entertaining, however, isn't the same as good.  It isn't the same as worthwhile.  It isn't the same as saying that the director and screenwriter and all the many people involved in the production did their job with skill.

A skilfully-wrought story, whether historical or fantastic or literary or whatever, must have intricacy.  If what you see on the surface is all there is to find - if a girl becoming a queen is all there is to it - then the writer has failed.  Life is nuanced.  Life has grey areas.  Art should reflect this subtlety and depth, rather than loudly drawing attention to itself (as films do with exaggerated cinematography, or books do with meaningless but gorgeous prose) and lacking substance in the end.

The leopard in the picture above has very little to do with the substance of my post, but I chose it for a reason.  It's a very simple picture: the profile of a big cat against a washed grey backdrop is all you get at first glance.  But look closer and you see the fur blurring in the foreground, becoming clearer, more detailed, soft enough to touch along the neck.  You notice the tufts from the cat's ears and can count the whiskers.  You see the rim of light along the nose and the bristles along the milk mustache, and the contemplative, possibly malevolent look about the eyes.  Storytelling should be like this, from the Winnie-the-Poohs to the Bleak Houses of the literary world: making its point (leopard!), but also drawing in the attentive reader to notice the details.

August 4, 2014

The Two Rules of Life

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I had good intentions, back in June, of spending more time in the blogging world.  With a year of college and a Maymester behind me, my brain was beginning to turn again to slightly more literary pursuits: notably, blog post ideas and WordcrafterWordcrafter has got on fairly well.  My dad's emergency appendectomy and slow on-going recovery made a hash of the blogging schedule.

Before all that, I sat down and began to write a post on the process of raising questions - and offering answers - in a story.  This has much to do with another item on the summer to-do list that hasn't been struck off: that is, editing the climax of The Running Tide.  I finished this book over two years ago, back in June 2012, and spent a laborious several months editing it into shape, and I continue to be fond (and, let's face it, a little proud) of the end result.  But every completed book gives more perspective, and after bundling Tempus Regina off to a friend for a critical read-through, I noticed a flaw in The Running Tide.  In part, this stemmed from a self-imposed need to answer questions too quickly.

"Who was that character," I mused, "who would never answer a question straight? ...Oh, wait, that was Jesus." 
"That was Jesus," she agreed. 

Questions, of both great and small import, drive a story forward.  This is probably most obvious in romance: Will Jane Bennet get Mr Bingley, or will the Bingley sisters prevail?  Will the prince go on and kiss the girl, or will she - actually, I don't remember the "or will she."  I remember it was something dire.  At any rate, the large questions like these form the backbone of the plot, but smaller questions are constantly arising to add dimension and interest.  Most of these will eventually be answered, but timing, as always, is crucial.  If a question (especially a dramatic one) is answered too soon, the reader feels let down.  They barely even get to be really alarmed before the author (in the form of a character or event) rushes in to inform that no! wait! just kidding, it's all right after all!  They expected more from you.

 If you must answer a plot-question, it is generally best not to do it in the same page - possibly not in the same chapter - possibly not even in the chapter after that.  Keep the reader on his toes.  Leave him guessing with his heart in his throat for a while.  Let him squirm.

Not all questions, however, need to be answered.  In this case a principle of fashion also applies to writing: a little mystery is an invaluable asset.  Not everything needs to be stated.  It is my belief that the best, most memorable books are the ones whose endings do not explain everything,where not all the strings are neatly tied off.  Get the important ones, by all means; don't leave the reader suspicious or confused.  But by allowing some things to remain unanswered, you provoke the reader's imagination and leave him with something to chew on after he has put the book back on the shelf and gone on his merry way. 

there are two rules in life:
1. never give out all the information.
 
meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings






The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings






Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing



Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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