Category: Uncategorized

The writing rollercoaster

Early coasterI’ve been deep in a first draft of a new novel, also set in early 20th century New York, and I observed something little, but telling at least for me. Writing a first draft is like riding a rollercoaster. I’m not talking about the ups and downs, the places where it goes fast and where you get stuck. I’m talking about how hard it is in the beginning, how you chug and chug up and up until you finally get to the point where you can “see” the whole landscape of your novel, and then whoosh! Things start to move really fast in the drafting process. That’s where the little ups and downs, the unexpected twists and turns occur.

For me, the chugging lasts until about 30,000 words…

Death and Facebook

facebook-256This isn’t a post about killing time, just want to get that out of the way right at the start.

Every morning, before I get out of bed, I turn on my iPhone and check my FitBit app to see how well I slept (I don’t know how accurate it is, but it interests me to see if my own perceptions of a restful or not night’s sleep have any basis in the physical), then check my email quickly, then go on Facebook and scroll through new stories that came in overnight. This morning, I saw a post from the son of one of my Facebook acquaintances, someone I knew very little about but whose posts I occasionally commented on. Her son was thanking everyone on Facebook for the support his mother received from us all in her final days. She had passed away the day before.

This was not an old woman, and the last thing I read from her haunts me. She said she was on oxygen, the fast-moving sarcoma was relentless, and that she probably had only days. And then, “Is this really all there is?”

It was a glimpse into dying that I have never had, that I avoid, that disturbs and terrifies me. Her question hung in the air, despite the hundreds of comments from concerned friends and acquaintances like me, saying meaningless things like “Courage!” “I’ll pray for you!” “You’re in my thoughts!”

But apparently they weren’t really meaningless. I imagine facing death is the loneliest thing in life. Most people, at best, have family around them. All too frequently I imagine people die alone. My mother did. But it was sudden, or I or my father at least would have tried to be there. That this woman could reach out to hundreds of people and ask for their thoughts and support when she was about to expire is nothing short of miraculous in its way. I doubt very much that Mark Zuckerberg thought about this consequence of what was initially a hookup app when he developed it.

A few of my other friends shared the sudden loss of their spouses on Facebook. Their pain and sadness, the love and concern that poured out from all their friends, some known to me, many not, touched me deeply.

Others have shared journeys through horrible illness that have so far had happier outcomes. A woman who had a heart transplant and is now going through rehab and all manner of other setbacks and steps forward is incredible. And although there are many who would think that these things are deeply personal and shouldn’t be shared with a wide public, many of whom are only known through what we choose to reveal of ourselves on Facebook, I can’t help seeing it as a great positive. A way we can connect across time zones and oceans, across generations and life choices.

I’m not saying that the dreaded FB isn’t, in fact, a time suck, a place where thoughtless memes are taken as fact and spread like the measles, where I go for my daily dose of adorable baby animal videos to take me away from whatever work I have to do. I’m just saying that it’s taken me to some very deep, personal places through bearing witness to the lives—and deaths—of others.

Finding the Story

Finding the storyI’m betwixt and between right now. My critique group is making its way through my recently finished novel and offering up some great observations—don’t underestimate the importance of beta readers: if they’re good, they keep you honest, and point out flaws you knew were there but didn’t have the strength or the will to fix before.

But that’s not really the point of this post. Or actually, it sort of is. This particular book, the one that takes place in 1910 New York (it’s called White Poison), took me a while to find, I mean, get to the real story. I had one character almost from the outset, Rose. A college-educated upper-class young woman who wants to do more with her life than be merely decorative. But finding the other characters that would bring the story to life took several agonizing tries. I wrote three complete drafts of three different stories, then revised the whole thing about six or seven times. Having other people respond to the characters and their relationships to each other really helped me focus on who was essential to the emerging story, and the best way to tell it.

At one point, I had a flighty, lost socialite, a school friend of my main character. She had some great scenes, including one going to the outdoor circus in Coney Island. But I mercilessly cut her and all her scenes out after the first draft. She was interesting, but not central to the point.

I also slashed a fascinating historical figure (whom I’d love to return to in another novel): Ann Morgan, daughter of the infamous J.P. Morgan, who refused to marry and may have been a lesbian, taking up causes that were in direct opposition to her father’s business interests. She, too, was superfluous. I knew I needed two college-educated females to carry out the main plot, which is based on something that really happened. Morgan simply didn’t suit, and fitting her in was a distraction.

When I finally created Emma, an Irish immigrant who works in a department store and whose life gets turned upside down in part due to an encounter with Rose, everything started to click into place. There’s nothing like that feeling when the story drags you along with it, when what has to happen seems inevitable, instead of a desperate struggle to write something your readers will believe, something that is true.

It wasn’t until I found my characters and then was able to flesh them out, give them conflicts and flaws and hopes and fears, that the actual story revealed itself. I always knew what had to happen, but what happens in a novel is different from its story. Plot vs. theme, I suppose.

Now I’m starting at the beginning again. I’m researching events, timelines, historical characters, in hopes that a story will start to emerge and I can put the first tentative lines down on paper—rather, on screen. Undoubtedly the process will drive me near to insane, but I can no more not undertake this crazy task than not get out of bed in the morning.

I’ll let you know when I pin down that elusive next story.

Working differently

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I tend to neglect this blog when I’m on a roll with my writing–which I suppose is understandable. The good news is that I have been writing a lot and I’m close to getting another draft of my WIP done. I’m getting to the hardest part: making it all come together without having everything seem predictable or trite, writing an action scene that has to feel real, from several different  points of view, several of which may not make the final cut.

But at this crucial point, where I hoped to get to that “the end” moment so that I can roll up my sleeves and get into editing, with the knowledge of what happens at the end and what has to be in place earlier on to make it all believable, at this pivotal juncture, my laptop decided to freak out and is in for repair. The good news is that it can be fixed and won’t cost me anything, despite being 4 years old and technically obsolete in Apple’s view. It’s part of a recall.

Of course, I woke up in the middle of the night with an epiphany about how the opening needed to be written. And what I need to do with all my characters to round them out. So what was I to do? Hope I remember until I get my laptop back? Or find another way to work?

Everything is further complicated by the fact that I use Scrivener for Mac, so I couldn’t even hook into my external backup drive and fish out the document to work on.

The pressing need to write won the battle. I’ve been using my Kindle fire to write separate scenes, trying to reconstruct what’s there. It’s been an interesting exercise. Perhaps you purists wonder why I don’t simply handwrite. I have the worst penmanship, and it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t be able to read my work afterwards. And then I’d have to key it in anyway. These haltingly typed scenes (the keyboard is not fabulous) can at least be emailed to myself and copied and pasted, if I decide I want to use any of them.

But that’s not really relevant to the whole exercise of working differently. One thing I sometimes do if I’m having a problem with a scene is copy and paste it into an email. The different font, the different formatting, makes me see things I didn’t notice  before.

I’m a fairly linear writer. I need to tell a story from beginning to end, let my characters take control occasionally and let things unfold. Without being able to see these few scenes in context I am forced to think differently. I allow myself to isolate something, perhaps look at it more closely with a pickier lens. I permit myself to step outside the tyranny of a timeline, spending more energy on the moment. What is she really feeling right now? What are the external conditions, and how do they affect her?

I’m not entirely certain that the results will be useful, but maybe this forced hiatus from my laptop will refresh my writing.

If nothing else, I’ll really appreciate having a normal keyboard!

Frozen in Time

w031230a077I’m not sure why I decided to do it, but after my chores were done today I sat down and watched the Disney movie, Frozen. I’d seen it before with my grandchildren, and was as much focused on them and their reactions as I was on the movie itself at that time. Watching it concentratedly, by myself, taught me a few things about storytelling, and about why these musical fairy tales capture the imagination of children and adults alike.

First, I’ll mention the gorilla in the room: music. And not just background music, but songs that are an integral part of the story. I grew up loving musicals. But let’s face it: there’s quite a stretch of the imagination to be made when watching a film musical with live actors. It just isn’t natural to burst into song to express feelings in the midst of a movie. The vast majority of live-action movie musicals got their beginnings on Broadway or London’s West End. The construct of theater is openly artificial, and so somehow having musical numbers performed by characters on the stage is OK. As theatergoers, we’ve already suspended our disbelief at the door. The movies that were original musicals usually wove the idea of music into the characters themselves (think Singing in the Rain).

But live-action movies are so relentlessly real—even when they’re science fiction or fantasy—that to have a character suddenly start singing actually jars us out of the moment instead of flowing seamlessly through an already altered reality. Yet music is elemental; we need songs in our lives, and songs have the ability to capture emotion in ways that words can’t always.

Enter the animated movie musical. Like a stage play, we have to accept the essential unreality of the story right from the outset. When animated characters—even ones who are made to look hyper-real—start singing, it feels natural and heightens the emotion.

snow_flake_01A book is not a musical, of course. But it has to have moments of heightened emotion, moments where the fictional time slows to allow a character or characters to blossom.

This is essentially the epiphany I had while watching Frozen. The simple manipulation of time at the service of storytelling and character delineation is masterful.

Take the parallel openings: first, we are introduced to Kristoff as a young boy with his reindeer pet/friend Sven, set against a classic work song. Then we go to the two young sisters playing, starting out very innocent, but the one with the magic accidentally mortally wounds her younger sister, creating the necessity for erasing her memory of the magic, and for the older sister to be hidden away so that she won’t be a danger to others.

Enter the first character song. The song serves to express Anna’s loneliness, and also facilitates the passage of time, racing us forward to their parents’ tragic voyage, Elsa’s coming of age, her coronation, the ball where Anna falls in love, accepts a proposal of marriage, angers her sister, and causes her to bring perpetual winter down on the land as she runs away and hides herself in her ice castle on the north mountain. This is the moment for another song, the most famous of the movie.

I didn’t look at how much time elapsed, but this all happens very quickly. Four big plot points in about 20 minutes. A huge amount of action in what is basically backstory. Because the central drama is Anna’s quest to find her sister and bring her back to Arandelle. There’s a cute set-piece for Olof the snowman, but otherwise we’ve heard all the songs by this point in the movie, and themes circle back like leitmotifs to foreshadow or underpin.

w031230a113With the exception of Olof’s song, nothing in the movie doesn’t advance the plot. The crescendo toward the moment when Anna performs her act of true love—not the expected kiss from Kristoff, but the act of sacrificing herself for her sister—is unrelenting, and the denouement  swift and satisfying, with all main characters having grown and learned from the experience.

This all seems like obvious storytelling 101. So what did I learn from it?

1. Don’t let your characters wait around for something to happen. Push them relentlessly forward on the path of the plot.

2. Look for those moments where you need to suspend the pace, where a song would go, and use it to add contrast to the action.

3. Don’t go for the obvious ending, the one you were probably thinking of when you started out. Let your characters surprise you, and discover that the real theme of your story isn’t the “first kiss,” but the act of sisterly love.

All this is much easier said than done, of course. But it did make me realize that my current WIP isn’t surprising enough, doesn’t have the pace and momentum it needs. I’ve been frozen in the story, and I need a little magic to make it sing.

Why do we like film adaptations?

brainI’ve written about this before. About books being turned into movies or TV series, and the choices the adapter has to make. So why am I revisiting this topic?

Partly because I’ve just finished watching the BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. I’ll confess it: I’ve read every Jane Austen novel, most of them more than once. Yet I willingly watch every film or TV adaptation, not just once, but usually multiple times. The Pride and Prejudice series with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle remains my go-to self-indulgent marathon. I think I know every word of the script, and every moment where it diverges from the book and I don’t like it.

I will watch the new Anna Karenina, having already seen two or three other adaptations, and being of the opinion that the book is one of the finest novels ever written, and no truncation of it for TV or film can possibly do it justice.

Then there are the Count of Monte Cristo adaptations (Gerard Depardieu is my favorite one), and so on and so forth.

So what is it? I know how the stories end. I know what to expect from the characters.

For me, it’s that the authors have made the characters so real that not only can I clearly imagine them and empathize with them, but I want to see them in the flesh. I want them to become real. Reading provides one, deeply satisfying, way to experience character and story. But watching—be it on a screen or on a stage—provides another that is satisfying in a different way.

This isn’t just a personal opinion. It’s actually backed up by science.

As to reading, an article from about a year ago in the New York Times explained the neuroscience behind our experience like this:

What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

…The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.

When it comes to watching, we all know that our brain is not as engaged. Here is what the Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts says happens when you are really engaged in a movie:

When you sit and watch that way, some special things happen in your brain.  At least they do if you are, as the psychologists say, “transported.”  Or, as I would say, if you are really “into” the movie, “lost in it.”  Four, at least four, odd things happen.

You cease to be aware of your own body.  You’re tired, you have a head cold, your back aches–you forget all that.

You cease to be aware of your environment.  You don’t pay attention to the people around you, the exit sign, your seat.

You don’t doubt.   You believe in unrealities.  You simply accept what you’re seeing even if it’s totally improbable: hobbits, quidditch, Mickey Mouse, Spider-Man.  You have what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief.”

You care.  You feel real emotions toward things that you know perfectly well are not real, that are mere sparkles on a projection screen.

At least you do these things if you are transported.  Why?

The short answer is, because you’re just sitting and watching.  You have shut down your brain’s systems for acting.

The difference in neuroscience is stark. Several parts of your brain are engaged when you’re reading. Other parts are engaged when you’re watching. Both can make you laugh, cry, become angry.

You can’t stop those emotions.  Why?

Because they are coming from a more primitive, sub-cortical part of the brain, inside and back of your sophisticated frontal systems.  You are responding from your limbic system, a group of structures that form the inner border of the cortex.  This is a brain region we share with other mammals (and, if you don’t think animals have emotions, you’ve never owned a dog or cat).

Personally, I relish the experience of fiction in both those ways. And I feel fortunate to live in an age where it’s possible to do so.

Of Time and Memory and Fiction

dadWriting historical fiction is an act of both creation and re-creation. We do our research, we read accounts, we explore visual references.

But I sometimes forget, even though making the past come alive is one of my primary goals, that so much of history is based on memory, on what people remember about events that occurred in the past. History is almost never written in the present tense. The exception is in photographs, mute records of events that occurred during the time that photography was an option. And of course, now, video and film.

The idea of history as memory is particularly present to me. I’m here in Florida on my father’s 90th birthday. Yesterday I asked him about his earliest memory, and he came up with this: sitting between his parents on the front seat of their Model T Ford, in around 1925 or 1926, driving somewhere near Hertel Avenue in Buffalo.

The idea that his memory could be a tiny piece of history is what started me thinking. He’s lived through the depression, World War II, the Korean War. He was in the navy at the end of World War II, a radio operator, but stationed in the Philippines after all the fighting was over. His story is a very different one from the many heartrending, bloody accounts there are.

He’s seen many administrations change, technology gallop forward at an unbelievable rate (our conversation started with him looking at his new, 51-inch plasma TV and recalling the first TVs that he watched in the early 50s), and so many advances in medicine. He was an adult during WWII, when penicillin was being developed, and when the first atomic bombs were dropped. As a radiologist, he embraced new imaging technologies and the evolution of nuclear medicine.

In the hospital in Lewiston, NY, where he practiced, he once x-rayed O.J. Simpson when he was still on the Buffalo Bills football team. He used to ride his balloon-tire bicycle on hundred-mile jaunts with his friends.

It amazes me that my own father, who has all his faculties and still lives alone in his own house in Florida, is a source of information about history. His stories could easily form the basis of several great historical novels. But he’s just my dad, a constant who has been there for me at many rough points in my life. I’m very grateful that he’s still around to share his wisdom and love with all of us.

And I’ll enjoy getting all the living history I can from him.

Deanna Raybourn Talks About “A Spear of Summer Grass”

ASOSG-150My guest today is novelist Deanna Rabourn, whose award-winning Lady Julia Gray series features the exploits of a genteel Victorian sleuth.

Her new book (out today!) is set in an entirely different time period, and spans the globe from 1920s London to East Africa. I asked her some questions about her book and her process as a writer. Enjoy!

Tell us a little about yourself: How did you get started writing historical fiction?

I actually don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories—and in love with history! I knew I wanted to write historical fiction before I ever went to college, so I double majored in English and history. I wanted to have a thorough grounding in both before I tried my hand at writing a full novel.

I finally took the plunge when I was 23 and had just finished my first year of teaching. I re-read JANE EYRE and was moping around afterwards because I missed the characters, so I decided to create my own. I wrote 120,000 words in six weeks, but I had a novel. It now lives in a box in my attic, but it was a good start. I wrote another six or seven before I hit on SILENT IN THE GRAVE, thanks to some excellent advice from my agent. It took me fourteen years to get published, but within the first year, I was under contract for six books. I haven’t looked back since!deanna-sepia

Your new novel, A Spear of Summer Grass, takes place during one of my favorite periods: the 1920s. Why did you choose this period, and how did you avoid the “roaring 20s” clichés?

My publisher wanted me to take a break from my Victorian series and the brief I got was, “Write anything you want. Literally.” So I started brainstorming based on the things I read about for pleasure. When I’m writing, I end up pretty submerged in my research, so I always make sure whatever I’m writing about is something I really enjoy reading about.

I’ve always been fascinated with the Happy Valley set in Kenya—a group of colonials who did some serious misbehaving. The set got started when it was still British East Africa and kept going until the 1940s. They got up to all sorts of mischief—drugs, adultery, murder. It made for fascinating reading and gave me a perfect starting point for creating my flapper heroine, Delilah Drummond. As far as clichés, I think they cease to be clichés when they are part of a fully realized character. If all Delilah did was bob her hair and do the Charleston, she wouldn’t be very interesting. But Delilah cuts her hair as a deliberate act of separating herself from her past when her husband is killed. Her flapper identity is part reinvention and part a natural progression for a willful woman who has decided to do exactly what she pleases and damn the consequences.

A wonderful twist is that your glamorous heroine ends up in Africa, in Kenya. What effect does this setting have on how you treat the period and on your heroine’s growth as a person?

It would have been impossible for Delilah to change materially if she were still making the rounds of the flesh-pots in Paris and London and Buenos Aires. She has to come face to face with something bigger than herself—in this case Africa—to finally confront all the baggage she’s been hauling around. It is the first time she’s able to stop running away from herself and figure out what really matters. There is nothing petty or silly about Africa; it’s raw and immediate and larger-than-life, just like Delilah, and something in her responds to the land in a way she hasn’t responded to anything or anyone in a very long time.

9780778328179_TS_prd.inddWhat’s your writing process: post-its, outline, pantser?

Both! I start with a synopsis that I write up for my publisher and which I subsequently ignore. I know the framework when I start—I know I’m starting at point A and will end up at Z, and I will know what D, L, and R look like, but the rest of it is a mystery. If I pantsed completely, the lack of organization would put me fetal under my desk with a cocktail, but plotting completely would make me equally mad. To me that takes all the spontaneous pleasure out of writing. So, a combination of the two works best for me.

 

What’s the funniest thing a fan has ever said to you?

I recently received a photo from a reader in Australia who got a tattoo of a line of code from SILENT IN THE GRAVE. Not exactly funny but certainly unexpected!

What is your biggest challenge in writing?

Knowing that I’m never going to have enough time to write all the books I want to write.

Name a few of your favorite books (I’d never ask for just one!)

Too difficult to narrow it down just to books—and I’m liable to change my mind by tomorrow!—so I’ll give you favorite writers instead: Jane Austen, Elizabeth Peters, Agatha Christie, E. M. Delafield, Daphne du Maurier, Monica Dickens, Baroness Orczy, Mary Stewart, Stella Gibbons, Dodie Smith.

——–

Thank you so much for your wonderful answers, Deanna! I can’t wait to read your new book :)!

It’s Friday!

A good day to start a new website. At some point everything will come together for me and I’ll get my old domain working again, but until then, I hope my readers find me here.

I’ve imported all my activity, and now I’m going to turn to writing about what I’m writing about! My main project takes place in 1910 New York City. Here’s a little eye-candy to get you interested:

1910-47

Taking—and giving—criticism

I think it’s one of the hardest things to do in writing. You’ve worked so hard on your manuscript, sweated over plot points and characters, hoped you managed to avoid cliches and those insidious repetitions that creep in all over the place when you’re not looking. And then you finally decide to let someone read it, or part of it.

What you imagine is this:

“Oh my god! I’ve never read anything so sublime! This is superb, it rivals Tolstoy in its depth of character and mastery of drama!”

OK, a little hyperbole there, but face it writers: we all fantasize about mind-blowingly glowing praise, right?

Instead, what you get is this:

“Why is your character behaving so strangely? Did they really have forks in that period? Too much use of the passive. The plot is a little contrived.”

Even if you’ve prepared yourself mentally, criticism can sting. But here’s the thing: We all know that we are the worst judges of our own work—unless you’re James Joyce or someone like that. As we become more proficient with our craft, some of the beginner mistakes (digressions into unnecessary descriptions, excessive exposition etc.) do vanish or diminish. But there’s nothing like a new set of eyes and a good critical brain to really make you SEE and HEAR your work.

Chances are, what a good critic says will only underscore what you already felt intuitively before but were reluctant to work at for one reason or another.

When I read my colleagues’ works, I often find it inspiring. Not just when something is so close to being wonderful that there’s little to say, but also at the draft stage, when there’s still a lot of work to do. Seeing what others struggle with highlights the faults in my own writing for me, almost as if they’re reading my work at the same time.

So all in all, good criticism is good. I suppose that’s obvious, but I just had to say it.