Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Reading List for 2011

Instead of a New Year's resolution, I'm making a New Year's Reading List.  I'm much more likely to accomplish it!  My phenomenally supportive family gave me a big chunk of bookstore gift certificates for Christmas, and I can't wait to get back to San Francisco and splurge on books.  Here's a partial list of what I plan on adding to my bookshelves in 2011:

  1. Secrets of the Demon by Diana Rowland.  This one doesn't come out until January 4, but I can't wait.  Ms. Rowland's Demon series is one of my top three urban fantasy favorites.  Her books have a strong sense of place, and her heroine Kara is tough without being prickly.  Love! 
  2. Tempest's Legacy by Nicole Peeler.  This is another favorite series of mine.  It's smart and sexy and doesn't take itself too seriously.  Fantastic.
  3. Black Wings by Christina Henry.  I read an excerpt a few weeks ago, and I was hooked. 
  4. Dark Oracle by Alayna Williams.  I'm a big fan of Laura Bickle's Anya Kalinczyk series, so I thought I'd check out her Oracle series, written under her Alayna Williams pseudonym.  Plus, I like science fiction, and this novel seems to have a science fictiony flavor to it.
  5. Room by Emma Donoghue.  Enough people (my mother, my agent, every top ten list I've run across) have now recommended this book that I think I'd be crazy not to read it. 
  6. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.  I've never read it.  I don't know why.
  7. Faithful Place by Tana French.  Tana French writes beautifully:  she combines gorgeous language with gripping narrative, and that's a talent I admire.  I'm really looking forward to this one.
  8. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  I think it's time I jump on the bandwagon.  Or am I supposed to jumping off of it now?  I haven't been keeping track.  Regardless, I'd like to form an opinion for myself.
Any suggestions to help me use up the rest of my gift card haul?  I'm particularly looking for a good, non-formulaic mystery.  I haven't read widely in the mystery genre myself, and I could use some guidance.  What are you looking forward to reading in 2011?  

Monday, December 13, 2010

Three One-Liners to Write By

If I’m ever lucky enough to have an office, these three quotes will go on the wall.

1)  “If your job is to write every day, you learn to do it like any other job.”
            -William Zinsser, On Writing Well

On Writing Well is a guide to writing non-fiction, but I think this statement applies to any kind of writing.  It's part of a story Zinsser tells in the first chapter, in which he and another writer, for whom writing is more of a hobby than a vocation, are speaking to a group of students.  One student asks what they do when their writing isn’t going well.  The other writer says he simply stops and returns to his work another day, when things are easier.  Zinsser replies that that’s a good way to go broke.

I’m not saying breaks aren’t important, but I find Zinsser's outlook remarkably freeing.  If you’re a writer, you write, even when it’s a struggle. 

2)  “Don’t spend it all at once.”
            Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love is one of my favorite movies.  If you haven’t seen it, here’s the quick summary:  Will Shakespeare is writing Romeo and Juliet.  Viola is a young noblewoman who wants to act.  She dresses up as a man (Thomas) and gets the part of Romeo in Shakespeare’s play.  Of course, Will finds out, and they fall in love, but before he knows who his bright young actor is, we get the following scene:  The actors are reading through the first act of Romeo and Juliet, and Romeo (played by Thomas, played by Viola, played by Gwenyth Paltrow) is mooning over Rosalind.  She does a bit too good a job of it, and Will (played by Joseph Fiennes) steps in and says “Don’t spend it all at once…. Do you catch my meaning?”  She doesn’t.  He explains: “You’re speaking abut a baggage we never even meet…What will you do in Act Two, when he meets the love of his life?” 

I think this is the best advice I’ve ever heard about tension.  It doesn’t matter how high the drama is at the beginning; if it doesn’t escalate as the story progresses, the ride is going to be boring.  I’m all for high-impact opening incidents, but the stakes--emotional, sexual, physical, whatever—still have to go generally upward as the plot progresses.

3)  “If you’re lost in the woods, let the horse find the way home.”
            -Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird is part writing advice book, part memoir, and this sentence crops up in a chapter about intuition.  I like it because I had a horse as a kid (don’t hate me—we lived in the country), and it’s true: the horse always knows the way back to the barn.  In fact, the horse will try to show you the way back to the barn even when you’re trying to go farther down the trail. 

Sometimes the best way out of a plot hole isn’t something my rational mind can figure out.  When the words aren’t flowing, when I’m tempted to force my characters to go places they don’t want to go for the sake of the plot, I remind myself to let my intuition guide me. 

What’s your favorite inspirational one-liner?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Should you cut that scene? A Revision Quiz.

In celebration of finishing my latest round of editing, today I’m talking about the sometimes brutal process of revising a “finished” book.  For me, this is very different from revising-as-you-go or revising the first (or second) draft.  Once I’ve taken something through a polishing phase, I’m more attached to the words, and it’s harder for me to see what does and doesn’t deserve to live. 

Fortunately, there are two well-known and often-quoted questions I think most writers use to decide if a scene should stay in a book: Does it advance the plot?  Does it reveal something about a character?  The answer had better be yes to at least one of those questions.  Of course, if you’re like me, it isn’t always easy to know the answers, particularly to the character question.  I mean, of course this scene reveals something about my character!  Doesn’t everything?

Yeah.  We all know that’s not true.

So.  When I run into a problematic scene, I have a handful of more directed questions I ask myself, and here they are in handy quiz form!  Put your favorite problem-chapter to the test and see if it gets to keep breathing.
  1. Who has new information at the end of the scene? (Chose all that apply.)
    • The reader
      • +5 points (This should pretty much always be true.)
    • The main character
      • +5 points
    • A side character
      • +3 points
      • Does the side character have an impact on the plot?  If not:
        • -3 points.  And I have another problem.
  2. What's happening?
    • People are talking.
      • +1 point
      • Are they saying anything important?
        • Yes: +2 points
        • No: -5 points
    • People are running*/fighting/kissing/searching/etc
      • +5 points
  3. How are things different at the end of the scene?
    • They aren't
      • -5 points
    • The characters are one step closer to figuring something out: who killed the butler, why there’s an adorable puppy on the front porch, whether or not they’re in love, etc etc etc.
      • +5 points
    • Someone's entire worldview has shifted.  (Example: When Harry hears the prophecy in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)
      • +10 points
  4. Is it beautiful?
    • I had to read it twice before I figured out what I was trying to say.
      • -5 points
    • I mean, it's not hideous...
      • 0 points
    • You know, it's actually pretty good!
      • +3 points
    • It's the most beautiful thing I've ever written.
      • -10 points.  Yes, that’s right, negative points.  Here’s the thing about beautiful sentences:  It’s like going on a date with some guy who looks like Ian Somerholder.  He might be the most sensitive and interesting conversationalist since Charles Bingley**, or he  might spend an entire hour at the restaurant texting other women, and then not even offer to share his umbrella when we walk to the cab in the rain.  But I’m not going to notice, or even care, because I’m going to be staring at him like a dog at bacon.  Beware of beautiful sentences.
How did your scene score?  Can you keep it?  Anything less than ten points makes me nervous, but every book is different.  I think one or two scenes with "low scores" can stay as long as they're still doing something important, like world-building, but it's still better to weave that sort of thing into the action.  Happy Editing!

*And not just for their health.
**Darcy was a shitty date.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Five ways writing a book is like making gumbo

Last week I posted my personal gumbo recipe, and lest you fear this blog is turning into a cooking show, let me demonstrate my one and only superpower: relating *everything* to writing.  (Okay, maybe it’s more like a sickness than a superpower.)  Anyway, it occurred to me that all creative processes share similarities, and cooking gumbo shares a lot in common with writing a novel.  Allow me to expound:

1)  You need to have the right tools.

I wouldn’t make gumbo without my favorite pot and my long wooden spoon.  A sharp knife helps, too.  If you’re going to write a book, you need your tools, and I don’t just mean grammar and an ear for dialogue.  You need space (mental and physical) to write and your laptop or notebook or typewriter: whatever makes it easy for you to get words on the page.  I could probably make a passable gumbo with an aluminum pot and a dull knife, and I’m sure I could use pen & paper instead of my laptop when I’m writing, but it just wouldn’t feel the same.

2)  Patience pays off

It takes a long time to make a roux.  It’s boring.  Sure, I get some satisfaction out of watching the flour slowly brown, but honestly, there are dozens of things I’d rather be doing.  The thing is, if I rush the roux and stop it before it’s ready, the resulting gumbo is bland an unsatisfying.  I get the same unsatisfying result when I rush a story.  I have to put in the (sometimes boring) time editing every scene until it shines, or the finished product will fall flat. 

3)  It takes time to make it your own

When I first started cooking gumbo, I followed my mother’s recipe to the letter.  I was learning.  I didn’t know enough to improvise.  It took a lot of years and many failed batches before I started to make the recipe my own, and now, I can tell the difference between my gumbo and my mother’s with just one bite.  I don’t love my mother’s gumbo any less just because I’ve got my own version: It’s hers; it tastes like home and family and Christmas Eve in front of the fire.  There’s room in the world for as many variations as are worth eating.  The same holds for writing.  When I started out, I was mimicking some of my favorite authors, but over time, my own voice came through.

4)  Sometimes you have to skim off the fat

With all the sausage and oil and chicken that go into making gumbo, there’s bound to be some fat rising to the top of the pot.  It doesn’t add to the flavor, and it interferes with the texture of the soup, so I skim it off and toss it out. Sometimes I think my brain works the same way.  I’m throwing so many ideas around in my head, there’s always some stuff in there that doesn’t belong in a book.  Once I've got a full draft down, it's easier to see the parts that aren't adding anything to the story.

5)  It’s much better when you share it

I almost always make gumbo for a crowd.  It's not that I don’t love eating it myself, it’s just much more fun to make a big pot, have a group of people over to watch college football, and sit around and talk with our bowls in our laps.  Writing’s the same way.  I’m creating something that’s meant to be consumed.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

My Gumbo Recipe

There are as many gumbo recipes as there are cooks.  It's something I grew up hearing, and I think it's true.  Mostly.  Some things are not gumbo.  I once ordered "gumbo" in a restaurant in San Francisco and got some sort of clear-brothed soup with chunks of carrots (carrots!) and fancy chicken-apple sausage.  This is not gumbo.

THIS is Gumbo:

Dark broth, sausage that will give you a heart attack, and definitely no carrots.  Today, I'm sharing my personal recipe, but you’d better have good sausage and a good pot, or I take no responsibility for the outcome!

Step One: 
Get four onions, four stalks of celery, and two green bell peppers. Chop ‘em up.  Small is good, but you don’t have to be anal about it.  (An example of how gumbo recipes differ: my mother doesn't use bell peppers in hers.)

Step Two:
Load up your iPod and get a cup of coffee.  You’re gonna be at the stove for the next hour, no breaks.  Here's my setup, including my favorite coffee cup:

Step Three:
Get your pot.  Dump in one cup of corn oil and one cup of bleached flour.  (No substitutions!  Bleached flour absorbs the oil better.)   Mix until there are no lumps.  Once you’ve got a smooth paste, turn the heat on medium.  Stir CONSTANTLY, covering the entire base of the pot, until the mixture heats up, then turn the heat to low.   Keep stirring.  

Step Four:
Keep stirring.

Step Five:
Has it been half an hour yet?  If so, take the following quiz to see if you’re done.

My roux is the color of...
A) …my self-assembled IKEA birch-finish bookshelf.
          Are you kidding?  Not even close.  Is the fire on?
B) …a penny (a not-so-new one).
          Almost there!  Don’t give up.
C) …a Hershey bar.
          You’re done!  Pour in those chopped vegetables (quick!  before it burns!) and keep stirring. 
D) ... a Hershey bar with little cookie pieces in it.
          Ummmm...sorry to have to tell you this, but you burned it.

Here's my roux in progress.  Not-quite done roux:

Done roux:

Step Six:
Once you've added the vegetables, you don’t have to stir so often, just every minute or so to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom.  When the vegetables have wilted down to about half their original volume, add half a tablespoon of chopped garlic, stir for another minute, and start pouring in chicken broth a little at a time.  Don’t stop stirring while adding the broth.  At this stage, your gumbo should look like something the dog threw up on the couch...

...but it should smell amazing.  Keep stirring & adding chicken broth.  Your gumbo consistency is up to you.  My mom makes hers a little it thin; I’ve modified the recipe to make it a little thick. 

Step Seven:
Put in a chicken.  (Make sure you take out the organs & neck from the cavity!)  Add two bay leaves and a couple teaspoons of crushed, dried rosemary.  Bring the gumbo to a simmer and let the chicken cook until it is literally falling apart.  This will take 2-3 hours.  Fish out the bones and & pick off all the meat, then throw it back into the pot.  Let it cool a little and skim the fat off the top.  Cook it some more.  (It is impossible to overcook gumbo.)

When  you're ready to serve it, adjust the seasoning with Tony Chachere's (or the seasoned salt of your choice) and add a bunch of chopped up parsley.  Cook a pound of sausage and throw it in.  Your gumbo is done!  Serve it over rice, topped with green onions and file (powdered sassafras).  I let my guests add the hot sauce themselves.  Yum!

Friday, November 5, 2010

You Gotta Have the Right Sausage

After finishing a critique of my manuscript, one of my beta readers told me, “I was hungry when I finished your book!”  It’s true; there’s a lot of cooking and eating in my WIP.  Hey, food is a big deal!  The kitchen is an important place—it’s where we gossip, share secrets.  It’s the emotional center of a house, which anyone who’s ever thrown a party knows.  I may be wrong, but I think this is especially true in the South, where food and cooking are huge parts of the culture and community.  

Some of the foods I grew up with (like thin, crispy cornmeal-battered fried catfish and New Orleans-style cafe au lait) can't really be found anywhere but home, but The Enabler and I do our best to recreate our favorites out here.  It isn't always easy.  As much as we love San Francisco, one of the problems with living in California is the lack of good sausage.  Southern comfort food—gumbo, jambalaya, red beans & rice—requires GOOD SAUSAGE: fatty, don’t-wannna-know-what’s-in-it, heart-attack-inducing sausage.  I’ve despaired of finding it anywhere but the South.

Luckily, every six months or so, we either make a trip home, or someone comes out to visit.  These trips are great opportunities for sausage-smuggling.  We even have a special suitcase for it,The Amazing Traveling Bag:

 My mother bought it for a dollar at a thrift store, and it holds a Styrofoam cooler with four packages of Richard’s:

 I *love* Richard’s sausage.  No other will do.  (It's pronounced "ree-shards," and the tag line is "C'est Si Bon:" It's So Good.)

Of course, ingredients are only part of the story.  To make a good gumbo, you’ve got to have the right cooking implements, too: a long wooden spoon, a sharp knife, and most importantly, a pot.  Cast iron is best.  It holds heat better than steel or aluminum, so the heat gets distributed more evenly over the base.  When you’re making a roux, this helps avoid hot spots where the fire hits the metal, so you get nice, even browning. This is my pot:

 It was my grandmother’s, one of her many cast iron Dutch ovens.  It never gets washed with soap--that would destroy the baked-in "seasoning"--and since it's really too big for any of our cabinets, it lives on top of the stove year-round.  I can’t imagine making gumbo without it.

Next week, I’ll be posting my PERSONAL GUMBO RECIPE, complete with pictures.  (If you want to try it, you've got a week to find yourself a pot!)  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Seeking versus Wandering, or Another Reason to Love Pandora

At my day job, we listen to Pandora all day.  Because there are at least four people hitting the “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down” buttons on our station, Pandora tends to get confused about our preferences.  Today, it played a song from the Amelie soundtrack (entirely instrumental and featuring an accordion) followed immediately by The Police.

Sometimes, this is annoying.  Like when I’m really in the mood for classic 80s rock and get hit with the theme song from Lord of the Rings instead.  But the benefit of this schizophrenia is that I discover music I wouldn’t normally seek out on my own personal Pandora stations.  Today, along with the aforementioned songs, I heard one that the main character of my work-in-progress would *love.*  By the time the chorus rolled around, I said to myself, “Now THAT’s what she’d have on her iPod.”  I created my own Pandora station from the artist, and I spent all evening listening to my character’s music, getting deeper into her head.

The whole experience has me thinking about the things we seek out versus the things we discover, and how being too focused about our goals can make us miss really fascinating side trips.  If not for the randomness of my workplace Pandora station, I never would have heard this song, because my characters don’t always listen to the same music I do.  It’s a trivial example of a more important point: In any creative field, it’s important to have “wandering time,” periods when you don’t have a specific goal—or even the hope of a goal—to distract you.  Seeking out information is important, but it’s just as important to let your mind wander, trusting instinct and luck to bring you somewhere interesting. 

I try to build “wandering time” into my life by getting semi-lost on long walks, cruising through bookstore sections I don’t normally visit, and, yes, listening to radio stations I typically don’t like. 

How do you wander?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Don't Judge My Book By My Search Terms

This weekend, I visited a local park to do some research.  I’m writing a scene that takes place on a hiking trail, and I needed to get the feel of the place solidly in my mind.  It’s not like I’ve never been hiking before, but nothing compares to writing fresh off of an experience, while the smells and sounds are still vivid.

I try to write mostly about places I’ve actually been and things I’ve actually done (except, you know, the whole telekinesis thing), but it’s not always possible.  When I can, I tap into the varied lives of my friends and family members.  People have gotten used to me calling them up with random questions.  Recent example: “Dad, remember that fishing boat you had when I was a kid?  What was the hull made out of?” 

Then, there’s the library.  For one of my early projects, my main character worked for an antiques dealer, and I spent a day in the library thumbing through Miller’s Antiques Price Guides from the past fifteen years.  (I had not, before then, known Miller’s Antiques Price Guides existed, but let me tell you, they are COMPREHENSIVE: porcelain cow creamers and gentlemen’s portable writing desks and art deco jewelry…)  I could have found a lot of this stuff online, but I wanted to pick up the physical books and leaf through them, so I could find things I wouldn’t have known to look for.

That said, Google is hands-down my most heavily used research tool.  I Google my characters names to make sure I haven’t subconsciously named them after celebrities.  I Google weather patterns for the cities where I set my action.  I Google set pieces I’ve dreamed up to see if they exist somewhere outside my imagination.  If the US government is watching my computer, God only knows what they think I’m up to.  Things I have Googled (for a number of different projects) include:

injectable CNS depressants
best candles healing rituals
Coleman lanterns
antique tortoiseshell box
surgical sutures
how to fake your own death
how much does a log weigh**

Given this list, I’m clearly planning on faking my own death and setting up a clandestine log-cabin clinic in the woods, combining traditional medicine and witchcraft.  Huh.  Sounds like fun.  

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever Googled for the purposes of research?

**This one got me to an awesome online calculator that will tell you how much your log weighs.  You put in the length, diameter and type of tree (there are, like, 100 options), and it gives you back the weight in pounds!  Honestly, how cool is this?  Okay, it’s not very cool.  But it was useful.  If you need to know how much your log weighs, I suggest following this link.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

If It Doesn’t Hurt, You’re Doing it Wrong

I hate jogging.  Hate it.  Congrats to all you runners out there—much respect—but I just can’t make myself do it.  What I do love is weightlifting.  Not the Olympic-style, grunting sort of weightlifting, just me and a couple of free-weights.  When I have a really thorny plot problem to work out, I go to the gym, turn up the volume on my iPod, and lift.  The harder the problem, the heavier the weights. 

For the past few weeks, I’ve been going to the gym a lot, because I’ve been working through some big plot overhauls on my work-in-progress.  It ain’t been easy.  The manuscript I’m working on was “finished:”  It had been through a couple of plot re-writes, then line-edited and copy-edited and polished ad nauseum.  I’d labored over the right phrasing for every line in every scene…to me, every word seemed necessary.

But of course, I wasn’t right about that.  I got some great feedback (and some distance) and identified the weak spots.  Parts of the plot dragged.  The pacing needed to be faster, and that meant slicing out thousands and thousands of my beloved words and replacing them with fewer, better ones.  Some characters ended up being unnecessary, and I had to cut them out.  It hurt.  I had to move up to the twelve-pound weights. 

It's been painful, but in a good way, like lifting that twelve-pound weight instead of the ten.  It hurts, but I know it’s going to make me stronger.  If it was easy, if I didn’t break a sweat, then I might be happy for that half-hour workout, but in the end, I’d be right back where I started.  Nothing really got done. 

It’s important for me not to push it too far, though.  Just like in weight-lifting, pain can be telling me something when I’m editing.  During my manuscript slaughtering, I ran into a character I just couldn’t cut.  It was agonizing.  Every time I tried to write scenes without her, they felt flat and boring.  I had to stop and ask myself: Is this decision going to make my story better, or just smaller?  I suppose I’m learning to walk that line between the good, strengthening ache and the stabbing pain that warns me I’m about to pull a muscle.  I want to be right on that border.   

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Keeper Shelf

I have too many books.  I buy them compulsively and can’t let them go, and all attempts to clear them out end with me sitting cross-legged on the floor, reading.  The Enabler will walk in and ask, “Didn’t you start going through those two hours ago?”  Me: “Shh!  This is the best part!”  Deep-down, I know I can’t keep them all.  We live in San Francisco.  Our apartment isn’t that big.

When it gets really out of control—as in, stacked two-deep on the shelf and taking over the floor—I have to buckle down and clear them out, but some of them are eternally safe: the keeper shelf always has immunity.  (Actually, I have a “keeper-bookcase,” but who’s counting.)  Here’s a random sampling from my keeper shelf, as of this weekend:

     1)  Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey  
This was the first science fiction book I ever read.  I think I was fourteen.  My mother brought me on a book-buying trip to our town's only used bookstore, and I found it in the woefully understocked science fiction corner.  It was already beat-up when I made it mine, and now it’s in critical condition, but I could never trade it in.  

    2)  My college copy of Pride and Prejudice

It’s still marked up with all the notes I took in class, with important scenes indicated by dog-eared pages.  For my British Lit. class, I wrote a paper on how Austen uses laughter and smiles to differentiate the characters of Lizzy and Jane, so every time I go back and read it, I encounter underlines everywhere they do either one of these things.  (Note: It’s often.)

     3)  A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
I think my mother bought me this book before I was born.  I certainly don’t remember a time when I didn’t have it.  Every so often, I go back and open it at random, just for fun.

     4)  Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost
I loved this book so much, I read it cover to cover two times in a row.  It’s funny and sexy and perfect escapism.  Ironically, I don't have a picture because I lent it to a friend.  (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!)

     5)  Moo by Jane Smiley
I found this hardcover first edition in a Salvation Army store for one dollar.  I was in my senior year of college at the time, and the whole book cracked me up (It follows a handful of people on a college campus: students, professors, secretaries).  Years later, I read A Thousand Acres, and I was blown away by how equally brilliant and totally different it was.

     6)  The entire Harry Potter Series.
Honestly, who could get rid of these?  (Number Six is out on loan, but this time I'm not sure who I gave it to. Anybody want to confess?)

There are more, of course, but that’s a cross-section.  What’s on your keeper shelf?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

William Gibson and the Creative Process

William Gibson is one of my favorite authors.  I’ve read everything he’s written, starting with the science fiction classic Neuromancer, which a mentor of mine gave me in college.  His more recent novel Pattern Recognition is set in our own disturbing post-9/11 world, and it's one of my top-ten favorites in any genre.  When people praise Gibson, they usually talk about his ultra-sensitive ear for cultural weirdness and technological trends, but I think his knack for weaving multiple plotlines together is equally admirable.  He’s also crazy for detail, which makes his books creepy and atmospheric in a Blade Runner kind of way.  Just check out this description of a young Japanese girl encountering London, from the opening chapter of Mona Lisa Overdrive:
The snow fell more thickly now, and the featureless sky was lit with a salmon glow of sodium lamps.  The street was deserted, the snow fresh and unmarked. There was an alien edge to the cold air, a faint, pervasive hint of burning, of archaic fuels.  Petal's shoes left large, neatly defined prints.  They were black suede oxfords with narrow toes and extremely thick corrugated soles of scarlet plastic.  She followed in his tracks, beginning to shiver, up the gray steps to number 17.
He doesn't describe everything about the street, but this paragraph engages multiple senses, and I feel like I'm shivering on the steps with the main character, wondering what's behind door number 17.

Mr. Gibson is promoting his new release, Zero History, and this week he came to the Bay Area as part of his book tour.  Feeling very lucky that I live here, I went to The Booksmith to get my signed copy and hear him speak.  Maybe it’s his recent attraction to twitter (@GreatDismal)--he calls it "the most efficient novelty aggregator yet invented"--but he’s got the one-sentence profundities down.  (My favorite one-liner: “The most intimate parts of human behavior, we know only through self observation.”  I’ve been trying to decide if I agree or not.)

Gibson talked about how he’s grown as a writer, saying he looks back at his earlier work and sees all the “duct tape and paste holding them together.”  He said, “When you first get started writing fiction, you get really good at leaving out the parts you can’t do.”  This made me think hard about what I leave out in my own work—what am I avoiding writing because I don’t know how to write it?  But, according to Gibson, these avoidances led him to some interesting stories, because he’d take his characters in different directions based on what he could or couldn’t get them to do.  And I have to admit, it's reassuring to know that even my idols are always trying to get better, always evolving.

To me, the most interesting part of an author event is when the author gets to talking about his or her creative process.  Everyone is so different in this respect, and I love hearing how people describe their unique methods.  Gibson talked about casting his books in his head, thinking of a warehouse where he’ll construct the story and asking his characters to show up for a “casting call.”  He claims to know almost nothing about how his stories will progress when he begins them, saying he lets the plot unfold subconsciously.  His books get the “prose equivalent of airbrushing” when he’s finished, which is where he says he folds in all those brain-searing details. 

I like Gibson's "construction" analogy for the creative process, but I tend to think of a new story as a big chunk of raw stone.  I chip away at it until I've got a rough figure, then I sand and polish until I've got a finished statue.  What about you, fellow writers?  How do you visualize your creative process?  And as a reader, do you care how the book gets made, or does it destroy the "suspension of disbelief" that makes fiction so absorbing?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Plotting Technique

Lately, I've been getting interested in plotting technique.   I'm doing a plot revision on Book One, coming up with ways to pick up the pace and make those necessary-for-character-development scenes work harder.  I started by cutting over 20,000 words.  Then I took everything that was left—the big, dramatic turning points; the quiet, emotional realizations; the snippets of backstory—and started shuffling things around, asking how I could make each moment have the most impact.  I realized pretty quickly I was going to need some visual aids.

Usually, I use a spreadshseet to keep track of my plots, writing down each event under a column for the plot or sub-plot it's part of.  I like how easy it is to change things in an electronic format, but this week, I wanted something more tangible to work with.

So, I took all the scenes I was keeping and wrote down two- or three-word descriptions of them on little slips of paper.  My plot was a disorganized pile of color-coded scenes, ready to be fit into a story.

Next, I printed out a page with 34 lines on it, one for each chapter plus a few extras.  I knew I wanted certain really big events to come at specific points in the book (around Chapter 10, around Chapter 20). Those are my anchor points—I put them down first.* They’re farther to the right (and in red ink) because they’re high-impact.

I put down the more minor plot points next: stuff that’s important, but not totally game changing. I moved things around as I went to make sure every chapter had a reason to live. (Or rather, a reason for me not to kill it.) Then came the subplots, color-coded, of course.**

Looking at my plot, there was a bit of a hole around Chapter 13. I’d also come up a little shy of 90,000 words.  I decided to expand one of my subplots, so I shifted things around to fit New Subplot in.

Then I took a deep breath and taped everything down. I’ve got my roadmap; now I’m editing and re-writing and forging new scenes. Having been a “pantser” in the past, I’m finding I like this mapped-out version of plotting, at least for this project. What about you guys—what’s your plotting technique?

*Picture has been blurred to prevent spoilers!
**My geekiness knows no bounds.
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