Tag Archives: writing life

We Don’t Write in a Vacuum

Writing in a vacuumSome writers write as a hobby, and don’t really expect anyone else to read their stories. Some people put pen to paper to record their memoirs, or to produce a work for close family and friends. Some literary writers seek to push the boundaries of the written word, without the weight of commercial sales holding them back.

We are not those writers.

Professional writers write with the goal of producing stories that people want to read. Hopefully lots of people. We develop craft and work with relentless determination to give our readers stories that entertain, instruct, and explore weighty matters of human existence.

To succeed as a professional writer, we need to sell enough books to support our work. So we need to develop, expand, and preserve our fan base.

How do we do that?

For new authors, it means starting at the beginning. That might include starting our own blogs, creating a newsletter, and deciding what content people want to see.

As our fan bases grow along with our story counts, what channels do we utilize to deliver those products? What marketing efforts work, and which ones flop?

This month, the Fictorians will explore these and other aspects of building our fan bases. I know I’m looking forward to a lot of great content.

This is Only the Beginning

What do I do once the first draft is finished?

Finishing a rough draft is no easy task, and it should be celebrated. So do something fun. Have a drink. Eat some cheesecake. Go to a movie. Go for a run. Whatever makes you happy. Give yourself the satisfaction of being finished for at least five minutes. Then you can move on to the real fun.

I’m an outliner. This does not mean that my first draft resembles the outline I made before I started. In general, things start to go off the rails at the midpoint of the story, and it often goes downhill from there. So by the time I’m finished, the last half of my book is a sometimes delightful, sometimes horrifying surprise.

If I’m not on a tight deadline, I’ll let the first draft sit for at least a week. Work on something else. Preferably something different. Some short fiction, or edit a different piece. Read a book from an author I love. Cleanse my pallet.

I don’t know about anyone else, but if I write a rough draft in a hurry (which I prefer, because creating is more difficult for me than editing so I use the rip-the-Band-Aid-off fast approach) I’ll actually forget things I wrote. So it’s kind of fun to go back a week or a month later and re-discover what happened to my poor characters that I hadn’t planned the first time around.

Once I’m ready to jump back in, I put a notebook in front of me and read through my first draft. You can also do this on the computer, but I still prefer paper and pen. I write down any number of things, including:

  • Things that pull me out of the story
  • What I think my theme is and what sticks with it and what doesn’t
  • Specifics on characters (eye color, height…because even if I have a wiki I don’t always look at it)
  • Parts that work
  • Parts that don’t work
  • Where the story slows down
  • Where the story is rushed

In the margins if the file (I use Word) I will make more specific notes. Things like:

  • How to fix a slow/rushed part
  • Where I might need humor
  • Plot ideas I have for revisions
  • Specifics on how to fix a scene
  • My most often typed note is: “Either use this or take it out.”

My first drafts are often bloated with little clues that lead nowhere, so I mark them as I go through so I can, as I said above, either use them or take them out. Because for some reason readers don’t love fruitless details.

Once I’m finished with the read through, I go back to my outline and change it to match what I have. Then I figure out what sort of hybrid I need to come up with between the original and what I have, and then I start again.

I prefer to use two monitors when possible, because I start with a blank document and then copy and paste from the original to the new one as I go.

While the process is less than perfect, it works for me. Does anyone else have a process they love that hasn’t been mentioned? Let us know!

 

Those Last Three Minutes of Casablanca

Author’s Note: If you haven’t watched Casablanca, do so immediately. This is the movie that changed the way Hollywood made movies and it’s something every writer should understand. There are SPOILERS below, but you need the explanation to really make my points stick.

Casablanca (1942) is a landmark film and one of the top movies of all time. What most people don’t realize is that this movie, specifically the way it was written, changed filmmaking forever. Before Casablanca, the prevailing sentiment in Hollywood was that telling a character-based story required a much longer film. Take Gone With The Wind (1939) with a running time of 3 hours and 58 minutes as a good example of this. Most movies of the time period were shorter, nearly devoid of plot or substance, and played to the audience on a purely esoteric level.

My two favorite movies from this period come from my love of big band music (I was born 50 years too late). Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942) feature Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Each of these movies are around the standard ninety minute timeline of most Hollywood features of the 20th century. If you watch them (and I do recommend them – pure popcorn fun), there is virtually no substance. This was a standard practice during this time. Casablanca came along and changed all of that by focusing on the character, Rick Blaine played by Humphrey Bogart.

What Casablanca did was very simple. Rick had several things (goals) that he wanted to achieve. Despite being an ex-patriot, Rick wanted to stand up against the Nazis, he also wanted to win back Ilse, his former lover, and he desperately needed friends in the local area to survive (mainly Henri, the police chief). The movie weaves the story of the “letters of transit” which are basically a “pass” from Nazi-occupied North Africa. Rick obtains them and they essentially are the ultimate “get out of jail free” cards. He’s prepared to use them when Ilse suddenly comes back into his life – with her new husband Victor (a famous Resistance leader).

Ultimately, the story puts Rick in the unenviable situation of having the letters of transit and not being able to win Ilse back. He goes to the airport to meet her and her husband and all of the audience’s emotional involvement in the storyline comes to a crescendo in the last three minutes and forty or so seconds. In that time period, Rick gives Ilse and Victor the letters of transit (“We’ll always have Paris”). When the Nazi officer responsible for the area arrives and demands the plane stop its departure, Rick kills him in front of the police chief, Henri. Instead of arresting Rick, Henri tells his men that Major Strosser is dead and they should round up the usual suspects. Henri and Rick walk off into the darkness – “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The movie ends right there – fade out, roll credits, end scene. It’s brilliant.

Instead of a four hour character drama, Casablanca did the same thing in ninety minutes and it became a benchmark for storytelling. Not to say that movies after it, especially in the 1940s and 50s didn’t try to hold on to the fun, no substance formula – they did, but Casablanca proved that a character drama could fit in the same amount of time given to those popcorn flicks. How does that apply to fiction writers?

Very simple. Your book is likely going to be a movie in your reader’s head. Tie those emotional knots and deliver them to the reader as close together as possible for the maximum emotional response. If you’ve cried at the end of a movie, you recognize this. Try to do the same in your writing – your readers will thank you.

To Goal or Not to Goal, that is the Question

The first week of the year, my Facebook stream was full of irate friends who, apparently, loathe those who make New Year’s Resolutions. Anyone who had the words “Resolution” or “Goal” in their post got blasted by angry people who didn’t agree with their declarations of self-improvement. Mostly because said angry people all admitted to not being able to keep a resolution past day one. Their plan for the year, “Quit, before you commit yourself to something you’re going to fail at.”

Is that really healthy? You can answer that question for yourself, because it’s different for everyone.

For myself, I love making goals, and the only thing I hate about them is not hitting them.

The thing is, the moment I finish making a goal, I can tell if I’m going to be able to do it or not.

For instance, last December, I made the goal that I would finish the novel I’ve been working on before the end of the year. However, I knew better. To get something accomplished in December is like walking up a hill made of ice in women’s dress shoes. But I was desperate to get it finished, so I made the goal with the hope that it would spur me on.

Did it? Nope? And I simply felt guilty about it all month.

So what did I do? I spent the first week of January working on the outline until it was shiny, then when I was finally satisfied with it, I made the goal to get the stupid thing to my editor by midnight on January 31st.

An easy goal? Uh, no. I’m having to rewrite the last half of the book for the third time. That’s 50k in two and a half weeks. Sounds crazy? Yes. But I know I can do it, especially since the outline feels solid.

I’m hoping this is going to be my last insane, self-imposed deadline for the year. Because, while hitting them makes me giddy with joy, missing them makes me crazy, and sometimes the stress makes me cranky.

For me, there’s a fine line between pushing myself in order to grow, and laying completely unrealistic expectations at my own feet. And I know the difference.

So my “goal” this year is to stop pretending I don’t know my own limits and the limits of my time. Think through the plans. Break it down. How much can I realistically do each week? Will it cause other parts of my life to suffer? Is that acceptable for a short amount of time? If not, do I change the timetable, or skip this “thing” all together?