Monthly Archives: July 2012

Portrait of a Lady’s Hand – #AmWriting cross-post

This piece was going to be presented without comment and tags of “pedantry” and “uninspired advice.”  I was that displeased by the result of my writing effort but out of time to make it better.

Then I got an unexpected hour to re-write my post–by which I mean, compose an entirely new post–and I am much happier with the new one.  In  “Portrait of a Lady’s Hand” I discuss how beautifully composing a photograph parallels writing a story…how the same sort of choices about what information to inlcude and what not to include make different stories out of the same scene.

So read. And enjoy!  This one you actually might….

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I had another post written for this guest blogging slot. It was edited, illustrated, tagged, and scheduled…and I hated it. I put it in the queue because I had to have something, and I was out of time, and we had houseguests arriving Monday so there would not be time for an eleventh-hour save. The draft sitting on my personal blog said only, “Presenting this one without comment.” I don’t know if my post was that bad. I do know that I was not satisfied with it when I ran out of time to fix it, and the embarrassed dread I felt about it Sunday night did not go away during the day on Monday.

As it happened, our company was worn out from traveling, and so I had the chance for a mulligan, after all. Rather than trying to fix the original post, I let my mind wander to other topics. Sometimes it is better simply to scrap the old system and build from scratch.

The place my mind went was my bracelet. It’s something I purchased for a costume, but somehow that imbued it with a power, because now it feels like a talisman. If I put it on, I become more focused. Stronger than my ADD. Safe from doubt and self-criticism. I was going to talk about that kind of tactile, physical symbol and how using something like that to bring your creativity under your control is like using a focusing stone in matters of the occult.

But a funny thing happened when I went to take a photo of my bracelet: I realized I had inadvertently stumbled onto a perfect metaphor for writing a story.

You see, I had a lot of choices to make for the portrait of my hand. What background should I use, such as my couch, my rug, the room around me? What mood did I want to communicate with my hand’s pose–anger, relaxation, playfulness? Did I want to include the story of my wedding that goes with my left hand via my ring? Should I hold a prop, such as a wine glass or a pen? Would the amazing chiaroscuro effect of the camera flash on the silver make up for leaching all life from my skin and over-emphasizing the hairs on my arms that have embarrassed me since age 10? Did I want to eliminate the distorted reflection of myself to be seen in the depths of the jewelry?

I took about ten photos before I found one that satisfied my vision. I tried different angles, different backgrounds, different distances, different lighting, different positioning within the camera frame. And the whole time, I was cognizant of the fact that I controlled the narrative of my photograph. I had absolute say over what story the self-portrait of my hand told. Did you think cameras tell the truth? No. They tell a version of the truth–the version the photographer wants you to see.

And that is what writing is: telling the story you want your readers to hear.

As the writer, you get to choose what you reveal and in what context. You choose to include or withhold the third finger and the presence or absence of a marriage band. You choose to emphasize one feature at the expense of another, or decide the harmony of the whole is more important. You choose to include the messy, possibly shabby room or limit the background to the posh illusion of one piece of expensive furniture.

This kind of editorializing is implicit in every scene of every story you write. Whose point of view do you use? Where do you begin and end the scene? Do you include any segue from where the reader previously saw the character?

There is no one way to tell a given story. There is no single way to write a particular scene. Writers always know more about what happens than they put on the page. Part of a writer’s job is to find the best way to tell the scene and the story in order to achieve the particular effect they are looking for. Change the frame or the perspective, and you can end up with an entirely different story. A mystery can become a comedy from the villain’s perspective, as he laughs over a mis-directed investigation. The difference can be that stark.

For most writers the choice of how to frame a scene, and what scenes to include in a story, is probably intuitive most of the time. But if you find yourself stuck on a scene, step back and examine it with a critical eye. You may find that you’re trying to compose the scene all wrong, and changing something like what element you’re focusing on will get your story back on track.

Always remember that readers will see only what you write, not what you don’t. Without the frame of a wide-angle shot, they will never know if the hand above is a portrait of a lady…or not.

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What Drives Honest Readers to Piracy

There is one state of being for a particular book that makes digital piracy an inevitability: lack of availability.

Last night I was in the mood to read a certain kind of story. I had a very specific book in mind, a romance I had seen at the bookstore at least a year ago, snapped a photo of, and waited to buy until I was in the mood for just that type of lip-smacking ridiculousness. This book is not available in stores anymore (I actually looked for it a couple weeks ago)–in fact, it’s not even available new from Amazon. Used only. A print book was not an option, as waiting a week to get it in the mail was patently pointless since it would satisfy neither my mood to read nor be any guarantee that when the book arrived I would actually want to read it…or at any point in the future be in just the frame of mind to read it.

Unfortunately an ebook edition was also not an option, because the publisher had not made one.

Publisher fail. I don’t know why a digital edition doesn’t exist–if the author was savvy enough not to let the publisher have the digital rights, why hasn’t she exploited them? If the publisher has them, why haven’t they?

All I know is, I wasn’t able to get the book I actually wanted to read.

The thing is, another book wasn’t going to do. So I did a Google search for the book. “Title ebook.”  I found an option for it. I even went to the site. It looked…legit-ish. Not actually legit, mind, not for sales of books, but for a pirate site it looked like it would give me what I was looking for and not a virus-infected .pdf of gibberish.

However, never having engaged in digital piracy, I couldn’t quite bring myself to sign up and download the thing (even though it would have been terribly appropriate as it was about pirates…SPACE pirates.  I know). I have friends who have pirated ebooks whom I will ask about resources they trust and places they avoid. Last night I didn’t feel like making any phone calls or waiting for an answer to a text or email. I turned on the TV instead.

So not only did the publisher of this title miss a sale on this particular book, they missed a sale on any book, by not making their goods available. Not publishing an ebook edition in the hopes of forcing me to buy print instead backfired, becuase instead I will not be purchasing the book at all.

And this is a textbook example of how you make an honest reader into a pirate: don’t let me purchase legitimately what I want to buy from you.

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“My God, You Are Analytical”

This is a sister post to my previous discussion on being an INTJ writer.

I regard myself as being pretty self-aware in general. Often my conflicts with other people revolve around my sense of their lack in self-awareness. I know my own faults and strengths, and I work to alleviate the former and add to the latter. Where I think I lack the most perspective about myself, and always have, is the places I am different from other people in the way I think about the world.

This…lack of comparitive experience usually comes up when someone is describing me to myself. For example, my best friend’s dad, in the midst of a conversation about conflicts with my co-workers exclaimed out of nowhere (from my perspective), “My God, you are analytical!”

My mother-in-law has told me she really admires my ability to look at a large project and then break it down to its constituent parts in order to manage it, while she “would just sit there and stare at it and be overwhelmed.”

One of my best friends (an ex-boss…same job with the conflicts) has told me she is amazed by my ability to shrug off criticism and personal attacks, when to me it’s simply a matter of calibrating whether the criticim is valid, regardless of its source, and then whether the opinion of the source matters to me.  If either answer is no, then I can dismiss it because the sentiment doesn’t affect me. It’s not worth my time to notice. (This attitude sometimes bites me in the arse, such as that job, when I failed to consider that my co-workers’ bad opinion of me might extend beyond personal dislike and into professional sabatoge…but, then, who really expects a Beastie Boys song to become their life?)

But in the absence of someone making a comment like this to me, I tend to not think about the peculiarities inherent in my mode of thought.

Today, however, I shoved my own face in it. I was working on (still am working on, I should say) my post for the AmWriting blog for next week, and I just…sort of noticed how I was breaking down the concept into very logical little pieces that together could form something of a process. For people like me, who like to examine something angle by angle and only when all pieces have been considered step back to look once more at the whole.

I don’t know if I like the process I put down on paper or not. So far it sounds very prescriptive, and as though I approach the task with nothing but logic, when in fact I am much more intuitive about it…this is simply my explanation of what my intuition is sifting through sub-consciously to arrive at its conclusions.

But how do I explain THAT part of the process?….

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Two by Two, Hands of Blue

Or, I Am Making Slow Progress and Using Violence in My Visualizations

September 14 is the one year point for this project. I am determined to be done with it by then. I would like to be done with not just the rough draft but also the rewriting, revisions based on beta feedback, and ruthless copyediting diet (where the manuscript struggles to lose every unnecessary word). I don’t know if that would be possible even if I finish the rough draft this weekend; it would cut it close. But at the very least I will not be writing anymore by then. I will be editing. Or finished.

So I have finally come to the last river I have to build a bridge across before I hit the climax.  The end of the book should be fun and easy to write. It is a very specific sequence of scenes and events, and it has been in place long enough in my outline for me to feel confident that I will not need additional scenes. The gray area has always been how to get from the last Event I knew about early on to the events of the end.  As with all fog banks, cloud does not seem so impenetrable from the inside of it, and that has proven true for me. I have three and a half more scenes that will be hard to write because they were not visualized in advance, but finally, finally, finally, I am sure that these are the last links through the nebulous “what happens between the sister’s debut and the end?” field.

I don’t know how long it will take me to get through this section in words, or how long the end will take to write. Or how long the beginning will take to re-write. Words have been hard to come by the last…month. I’ve gotten in the habit of forcing at least 100 a day. Not much, but something. With enough days it adds up. I am hoping this weekend will be more productive. No husband to spend time with as he will be on call and/or at work, no movies I need to watch for festival screening purposes, no projects of any stripe that would require my attention now as opposed to next week.

Time to get in my imaginary Hummer and just drive over the rubble of my writer’s roadblock.  Maybe I’ll back up over it again just for fun.

Time to drink all my ADD’s milkshake. I’ll drink it up! All gone.

Time to pull on my blue gloves.  Two by two, I will murder the words until the job is done.

Two by two.

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What IS the Fantasy of Romance Novels?

To clarify: is the fantasy of the romance genre the story of two people finding true love? Or is the fantasy something more, something like the characters themselves, or the setting, or the story (not the result)?

Maybe this is a question that every reader has to answer for themselves. Maybe the answer for someone looking at the genre as a whole is the same as what “a man with two penises says when his tailor asks him if he dresses to the right or the left”–yes.*

I had this question shoved in my face a couple weeks ago when I was reading a discussion on some romance forum/blog or another. I don’t remember the context of the discussion, but rather the number of women who opined that OF COURSE the point of romance is the hot studly man you don’t have in real life.  OF COURSE the point is some exotic or fantastic locale you cannot live in as your normal life.  OF COURSE the point is some crazy story that would never actually happen to you.  All of which made me cringe away from the discussion and wonder if I am some kind of anomolous freak in the population of romance readers, that all of those things they list as being the point are turn-offs to me (at least in a general sense–I’m not saying a novel couldn’t overcome them, just that I would not read a book because of them and might, in fact, avoid books that have them).

Then I calmed myself with thoughts of the various romances I have read and loved over the years that have not been like that, that have been the kind I like–quieter stories about two people who fall into a love I can actually believe in (versus a panting lust). Obviously both types have an audience.

As a writer I thought back to this question the other day, when I was contemplating basing a (future) hero off my Parliament crush, who is starting to bald and not notably tall and while trim enough to look healthy, certainly not a six-pack ab type of man.  I could not think of a single romance hero with any of those traits.  I have  seen discussions complaining about the lack of “realistic” men in the genre on romance sites, as well, but I have to wonder…is the reason books never got published with that kind of hero because of NY editorial taste, or what NY editors perceived as the taste of the “average” romance reader, OR because readers don’t actually want less than perfect heroes?

Then there is another problem with “perfect” heroes, and that is the lowest-common-denominator vision of perfection.  My personal complaint about much of the romance I read is that the characters are, essentially, interchangeable. This phenomenon is similiar to that of rom-com movies, where you can almost predict the “personality” of characters because they are always the same. The books that are memorable for me are memorable because the characters are so uniquely suited to one another that you could not picture them happy with anyone else…

…the books where it’s obvious the two characters are not just two equitably good-looking and socally-positioned people who decide to marry.  I mean, let’s be honest, that is what most romance is…characters who discover how “sweet/smart/funny” each other are and have never found that with anyone else (mostly because they’ve never had a real relationship with anyone else), so they decide it must be twue luv. But you leave the book with the impression that any person with the same traits would have come to the same place with the character. I suppose in that sense all that’s left for a reader to hang onto IS the fantasy of super-attractive physicality or interesting setting or crazy story.

But I prefer my characters to be more unique and therefore memorable than that.  I mean, put any typical rom-com in contrast to a movie like Secretary, which shows two people who probably could not be with anyone else. THAT is a memorable love story.

So what part of romance is the fantasy–do readers want to be able to project themselves into it, in which case most of the characters need to be kind of generic, OR do they want a story of a love that could not happen between two different people than the ones in the story, even if it means they could not see themselves in it?

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*Yes, I cribbed that from Lucky Number Slevin. That movie is my happy place.

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Cliches and the Clique

This article (David Farland by way of The Passive Voice), and the ensuing discussion, reminded me of a post I’ve been wanting to write since film screening season started, about how important it is to have some idea where the story is going in order to have the patience to let it unfold.  Then I remembered:  I already wrote that post.

But I realized there is a point to be made on the idea of “cliche” openings that is different from opening-as-hook.  Specifically as it relates to genre books by and for people who do not normally read the genre.

See, Farland’s point is that he reads a ton of stories that open in certain ways, such that he finds such openings to be cliche. From my point of view screening films by beginning (in most cases) film-makers, I could say the same about certain themes or stories. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve watched about low-level criminals getting in over their heads, for example, and that’s far from the only overused trope I’ve seen in the last few months.

For the average reader (or movie-watcher) those openings or themes or included elements are not cliche because they haven’t seen them often enough. But the more you read, the more likely you are to start editorializing your own reading.

For example, fantasy. I almost can’t read fantasy about a young boy (or girl) discovering they have a secret heritage and going on a quest to save the world. Almost being the key word there. If it’s done well enough to overcome the overused plotline, it’s still awesome.

So when a book like Fifty Shades of Grey comes out and all the people who read romance scratch their heads and ask “Why?” the answer is that for the people who don’t read romance, the book is original and unique and something they have not read before. For romance readers, it’s full of cliches and not that well-written or well-characterized (aside from discussions of whether the book is properly romance or erotica).

The notion of cliches in storytelling technique kind of hinges on who your audience is. If you are writing for people who don’t normally read “that kind of thing” your work might well not appeal to people who do (Twilight to vampire-lovers, anyone?).  If you are writing to intentionally bust the common conventions of a genre, the non-genre reader might miss some of the humor or surprise of your book (George R. R. Martin to people who read a lot of fantasy versus those who don’t, for example). If you don’t have the benefit of the long dialogue that has been happening for years/decades/centuries of human culture on that particular topic, you see a work differently from those who have been participating in or at least listening to that discussion.

All art, all culture, is a remix and redux of what has gone before. It is that particular person’s distillation of the ideas they have seen before, filtered through their own unique view of the world. Culture is a constant dialogue we all have with each other as we share our own distillations. What makes something cliche, or not, is often a matter of taste–whether that person has seen enough of that dialogue to be tired of it.

And that is how shifts in literature (or poetry, or film, or art, or whatever) happen–when the artistic community and the “fans” who consume it reach a saturation point with a particular style or idea…when that convention seems cliche to more people than not…THAT is when a cultural shift happens, and suddenly something new has become the Hot Thing.

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The Ragged, Trembling Margins

For the past month or so, I have found putting off writing easy.  Too easy, maybe, but the reasons are myriad: work has been longer than usual. Weekends have been consumed by time with husband or special excursions with friends. Free time has gone to screening for the film festival. The real reason, though, is that I decided to stop pushing myself about it until things at work calmed down and screening season was done. I just…couldn’t make myself turn writing into a chore and another source of stress. I can do that when I don’t have any other stresses. But when the rest of my lfie if giving me grief, I need writing to be a fun thing, which means…not pushing it.

The other kink lately has been the news from my doctor that my TSH level went up again, so the thyroid replacement I was on was either too low a dose, after all, or not being properly absorbed. Since I often took it and proceeded directly to drink my black tea with cream, I expect the issue was one of absorption (since both caffeine and calcium inhibit absorption). Thus I now have this wrinkle added: I can’t have caffeine until I have been up for an hour.

Just…contemplate the horror of that for a writer whose “writing” alarm goes off at 4:30.

Yeah. I may have to look back into that other margin, the two hours before I go to bed each night. It’s not the same, trying to write when the echoes of everything that happened to my mental synapses that day are still reverberating in my mind, versus writing when the only sounds in my mind are the words and the fan circulating air in the room…but the heavy-lidded scratchy-throated shaky-handed margin might be out of the question for the time being.

Woe.

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