Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Total and Complete Euphoria...

...or, What It's Like to Finish a Novel.

Best-selling novelist, Judith McNaught, made a comment like this once- and please bear in mind I am very loosely paraphrasing: Writing a novel is a very hard process and finishing is total bliss. She (McNaught) celebrates each finish and eventually begins on the next book, but only when she absolutely has to.

Now, I've read McNaught for years and find them very satisfying romance novels. (If you decide to try them, be ready to skim a few pages here and there. I'm just saying.) The hero grovels nicely at the end, the happy ending is guaranteed, all things told, I leave her books in a happy place. But I can kind of relate to her feelings about writing.

It's hard.

I know, wah, cry me a river. I'm published, which is a blessing I don't EVER take for granted. I'm doing something I love-except sometimes I don't love it so much. I just finished writing my sequel to Isabelle Webb, Legend of the Jewel, and I'm so glad to have it done. I went through a bit of a bad patch with some writer's block (really, I was allowing too many other things to interfere with the writing, but I'm going to call it writer's block) and the book is well over a year late.

It weighed heavily on me all year. It was this thing hovering over my shoulder that would never leave me alone. A burden that grew increasingly heavier each day. There are a few elements that combined to kick my rear end back in gear, but truthfully, I consider the finishing of this book to be directly attributable to my friendship with Josi Kilpack. If she, Becki Clayson, Jody Durfee and Ronda Hinrichsen hadn't been gracious enough to allow me to join their writing group, I think I would still be looking for the motivation to finish.

I spent several late nights in Josi's husband's office doing writing marathons with Josi and counting my lucky stars that I could work with someone who knows how nice it is to have the companionship while hammering away at a plot and characters that don't always fall into line. Not all writers are solitary--this has been one of my biggest challenges with this career. It's a very solitary pursuit, and for people who like to yak, this can be especially challenging.

So yes, I am currently over the moon with euphoria. I don't know what the evals will say, I'm not sure what my editor will want me to change, I don't know if anyone will even like it at all--but it's finished. I can't begin to tell you what a relief it is.

Unlike Judith McNaught, I don't dread beginning a new project. This, other than finishing, is my favorite part of the process. I love to brainstorm and research. At this point, the book is still perfect. It's a prize-winner in my mind- it hasn't yet been cluttered up with my imperfections. It will be the book that the world will embrace and say, "WHERE has this book been all of my life?" But until it's on the page, it's just a pipe dream, so I have to try to pull it out of my head in a way that will make sense.

When I was a kid, had someone told me I'd one day be a writer I would have passed out with joy. (I suppose that means I was a nerd. Probably means I'm still a nerd.) So the fact that I'm doing this really, truly does make me happy. The times when it's hard, I remind myself something Stephen King says in his book On Writing: "The worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damn good."

All things told- it really is true.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A little writing advice, if you're interested. :-)

I posted this on the Scribbling Teens blog, but figured I'd include it here, too, because there are writers who read author blogs and like to share ideas. Maybe this will be of use to you- share your thoughts!

So you hear someone say that a book was full of expository writing, and you're not sure what they mean. Here's my simple explanation. I say simple because that's how I think. ;-)

There's a movie from the 80s called The Great Muppet Caper. Maybe you've seen it? Well, I'm old, I do admit it. There's a part in the movie when Miss Piggy is talking to her new boss, Lady Holiday. Lady Holiday is going on and on about her degenerate brother, Nicky, and Miss Piggy says, "Why are you telling me this?" Lady Holiday says, "It's plot exposition. It has to go somewhere."

What she's saying is this- the information about Nicky is stuff the viewer needs to know, and there's no other way for us to know it unless Lady Holiday talks about it. Would she, if it were real life, say that much to Miss Piggy about Nicky? Maybe or maybe not.

There have been books I've read in the past that have gone something like this:

(The two sisters, Mary and Ann, are talking about their mother's funeral.)

"As you know, Mary," Ann said, "mother hated roses. We cannot have roses at the funeral. When she was young, her brother, Humphrey, stomped on her rose bushes and told her that tending them was a worthless waste of her time."

I'm sure you can see the problem. (Besides the fact that Humphrey would have come out of those rose bushes severely wounded.) If Mary and Ann grew up in the same house together and had a traditional sister relationship, Mary already knows all that about their mother. Ann doesn't need to tell her. (The only reason I can think of that Ann would need to say that to her sister is if she's so scattered, nervous, sad, whatever, about their mother's death that she's just rambling to her sister. It would show that she's not thinking clearly or she's really upset.)

Sometimes in writing, it's tempting to put information that the reader needs to know into conversations between characters. Sometimes that's ok. Suppose Ann was telling a friend about the rose thing. That would make sense if the friend didn't know much about Ann's mom. Other times, though, it needs to go into the narrative. (The part of the story that's not dialogue.)

The reason some writers feel the need to put "plot exposition" into dialogue is because they're worried that there's too much narrative. We've all read paragraphs that have gone on forever, either with too much description when we want to get to the meat of the story, or too much backstory all at once. If a character is having a flashback, for instance, as a reader I don't want it to be a long one that will pull me out of the story's action.

One suggestion to avoid too much narrative is to intersperse it throughout the story. The reader doesn't need to know all at once every detail surrounding Mary and Ann's mother's dysfunctional relationship with Uncle Humphrey. In fact, if it's going to be an issue that comes into play later, it's information that needs to be spread throughout the story to keep the pace going and the suspense up.

So when you're writing dialogue, make sure you think carefully about the characters who are interacting. Ask yourself these questions:
* How well do the characters know each other?
* With the characteristics I've given them, how will they interact?
* Do I have them sharing useless information with each other, things they would already know?

Remember to avoid plot exposition in dialogue at all costs! Leave that to Lady Holiday and Miss Piggy. :-)

Horrible things are happening- am I allowed to be happy?

The day I learned of the earthquake in Haiti, my stomach just fell. I looked at the images on my computer screen and wondered how on earth people ever pick up and carry on after that kind of horror.

I watched with pride as my church quickly sent relief planes and help was sent from LDS people across the border in the Dominican Republic. Certainly I don't mean to toot the LDS horn to the exclusion of the many, many other organizations that have provided help, I just was so proud to be part of a group that quickly offers compassion and help. I also have noted with extreme satisfaction's main page, encouraging members worldwide to contribute however we can.

I saw images of bodies piling up, of mass graves, of crude burning pyres right alongside the streets, people pulled alive but broken from the wreckage, mothers grieving for lost children and children for parents, and it made my heart hurt. To know that the country suffered so horribly before the earthquake made the calamity seem like salt in an open wound.

The first day, I saw an outpouring of shock and grief. The days passed, and I noticed a shift. Supporting Haiti was becoming a political thing. People were angry at Hollywood for taking up the cause. I heard snide comments that President Obama only cared about the issue because the victims are black. I became very angry. Who cares if movie stars are helping people who are living through hell? It's not Haiti's fault. And when someone lifts a hand or donates money to make a life a bit better, where is the crime? How could this thing have possibly become political?

And then, I found myself thinking less about Haiti and more about my own life, my own problems. It's only natural, I know this. I would catch myself praying for things and then wondering how I possibly had the right to worry over little things when my Heavenly Father has other children who need him now more than I do. I suppose the beauty of God is that he can care for us all, and I know that, but I was reminded of how I felt after 9-11. I would laugh at something silly or find joy around me and then feel a twinge of something. Guilt? Probably it's guilt. A sense of sorrow for a moment that I'm finding joy and other people are living through unspeakable pain.

I remember when Saturday Night Live came back on the air after 9-11. It was a beautiful, welcome relief. It was done with love, with gentleness, it resurrected the knowledge for me that, even when horrible things happen, good still exists. We should grieve. We should help. We must do all we can to lift the hands and heads that hang low in hopeless agony. We must also cling to hope and joy and faith in a Maker who allows things to happen in this life, possibly to show the rest of us how to be humane, how to love and serve.

As I continued to watch attempted relief efforts in Haiti, and still do watch, I am reminded that, as the Proverb says, "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick." That we must cling to hope like it's all we have, and work as hard as we possibly can for the betterment of our own lives and those within our realm of influence. I know that the problems and trials in my own life, while in comparison to others may seem small, are still real and I can pray for help without feelings of guilt or inadequacy. I will keep it in perspective- one of my favorite quotes from Robert Fulghum is the notion that there are three kinds of lumps in life: a lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast. I've learned to try to categorize the lumps and make sure I'm not acting as though I've a lump in the breast when really it's a lump in the throat that may not deserve as much attention as I'm giving it. And yet, the lump in the throat may still need a prayer or two, and it's ok.

My heart continues to ache for those who are suffering in Haiti, and everywhere in the world where unspeakable things happen that I know would test my faith and my sanity. History is replete with examples of hell on earth, and yet in those stories there are silver linings to the clouds, blessings from a benevolent God who sees all and loves all, and sometimes those blessings come through not only his angels in heaven but also those he has stashed here on earth. They are all around us.

I'm going to try to be an earthly angel. And to smile and feel joy and hope, even when things are bleak. The human spirit is resilient, and we are here to learn from the pain and find joy in the journey. So I answer my own question that, yes, even when horrible things happen, we are still allowed to be happy. I find comfort in that.