Archive | November 2011

Christmas Stories

It’s Dicken’s fault–he started the trend. Now, maybe there were Christmas stories around before A Christmas Carol (favorite film version being the one with Alistair Sim), but Dicken’s became the one trotted out every year with the trees and holly and mistletoe. And why fight success. But I actually never set out to write a Christmas story.

Under the Kissing BoughUnder the Kissing Bough started life as a short story. It was supposed to be about 100 pages, and I actually didn’t start out with a time of year, but I did want to see if I could do a novella. I’d been writing a lot of novels and hadn’t done any shorter fiction in a long time, and I actually really, really like the shorter format. It’s a challenge to work in, but can be rewarding. I forgot one thing–you cannot do a short story with lots of characters. Not and do all the characters any kind of justice.

You see, I love to give every character a ‘star turn.’ I think of them all as actors, and every actor–even ones with bit parts–loves to have that great screen moment with wonderful dialogue that moves the story (and the audience). All this mean that with large families (heroine has two sisters, and her parents; hero has father, two brothers, and a former love interest who is now married), I knew that by page seventy, no way was this story ever going to fit into 100 pages. So I put it aside.

And then my then editor at Kensington asked if I’d like to do a holiday book–a Christmas story. “Sure” is always the immediate answer I provide in such situations. And then I had to figure out what I could do for Christmas. Because I can’t just stick on some holy and call it holiday. To me, if an element is not important in the story–and to the characters–it’s got no business being stuck in.

This mean research–as in I needed to dig into English Christmas customs (not difficult since I had a grandmother from Yorkshire and a lot of handed-down family traditions). And I dug out my short story to take another look.

The December setting suited my characters very well–I’d already set up a ‘marriage of convenience’ story (always a wonderful plot to use for historical fiction). Now I could weave in the holiday customs, make them part of the plot and the story (because, in England, you really, really need a very good reason to get married in the cold of winter). There were a few things I couldn’t quite fit into the story due to the limitations of page counts (from the days when that mattered so very much in print)–as in it would have been fun to do more with Twelfth Night celebrations. But I did get other things in there that I loved adding.

And I ended up with a Christmas story.

I’m toying this year with rereading it. I don’t often reread my own work. When you’ve spent a long time writing and revising, another read seems more of a burden than a treat. But it would be fun to do another holiday story. Mmmm…maybe Guy Fawkes day.

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Rules of the Written Road

Kurt Vonnegut came up with eight rules for writing fiction, nicely referenced in an interview with Andrew O’Hagan, and noted there by O’Hagan as: “His rules for good writing are entirely bogus – he knew it, too – but they are not un-useful. Rules are just a bunch of things someone adorned into precepts while they were on the way to getting it wrong, but Vonnegut got it right now and then so we’d do well to listen.”

Vonnegut’s work, like his work, is more than “not un-useful” and it got me to thinking if I have rules. But then my love/hate relationship with rules kicks in–there is much to be said for wandering off any well-troden path. Something Vonnegut agreed as well with when he said, “The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor….She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

Now I do hold that extraordinary talent can get away with almost anything–and everything.  However, I’m pretty damn sure most folks over-estimate their talent by a huge factor.  Talent also, like a charming relative, can wear out its welcome way too fast if that’s all there is–auditions for any reality show prove this over and over again.

So…rules, or no rules? Or do you try a compromise and call them guidelines? But then I’m always suspicious of compromise in art–it tends to lead to a mush that no one can love.  Or, to put it another way, mix all your colors and you get bland gray mud. So how about  we say that it’s not bad to know the rules, use them, and ignoring either at your peril or only because they don’t work. But this brings us back to folks abusing the rules, ignoring them, and not necessarily coming up with a good story.

Also, writers being writers, the temptation to be clever crops up, as when Vonnegut’s advises to “Start as close to the end as possible.”   That’s about as much use as telling someone, “Start in the right place.”  Well, duh.  If one knew that, a whole host of other writing problems would be solved in an instant.  But the rest of his rules are good ones to lean on.

It’s also useful to have things boiled down by a pro like Vonnegut to what’s really important.

Personally, I find the last one the most useful:  Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.

Seems to me that most folks mistake ‘tension or suspense’ as coming from a reader not knowing something. In truth, suspense comes from the reader knowing a lot and a character missing out on some key info, or just a plain old fashioned ticking clock going.  But there’s a caution here, too–too much information is as dangerous as too little.  You can overload a reader.  So the trick is:

Give your readers as much IMPORTANT information as possible as soon as possible–and make sure it’s interesting.

This automatically helps with not wasting anyone’s time.  Also, it cuts down on repetition. Saying something once is interesting. More than that and your now wearing on the nerves.

Two, three and four are all solid.  But ‘how ‘ to do all this becomes the question, so we have to expand this one…

Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for–as in you need to show that character early on doing things that earns a reader’s sympathy. We all admire talent, grace, good deeds. You can have a character get away with a lot if you set up a few traits the reader will fall for right off the bat.  Sympathy (by understanding someone) is an awesome hook.

Good to remember, too, that what you tell a reader often doesn’t stick. What you show, stays forever.  (i.e.–only bad guys kick the dog.)

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. This goes for every character and every scene. And again, is best shown by showing the character doing stuff to get what he or she wants.  The other shoe that needs to fall here is that something or someone should stand between the character and his or her goal. Conflict is what keeps any story popping.  Doesn’t have to be world-ending stuff, but does need to be there, or you’re back to wasting someone’s time. So could add here…

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water–and something or someone should come between the character getting that want satisfied.

This also actually then ties into the advice that, Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action. If you’ve written a character who wants something, then what you’re writing is more likely to reveal something about that character (the want does that) and advance the action. Keep in mind that this does not mean ‘no description.’  Used right, descriptions can reveal everything.

And all of this then fits into, Be a sadist. Give a character a ‘want’–then you find ways to keep the candy from reach. Or give the character the candy, and have it blow up. Take joy in your work–in making life more complicated, making goals harder to reach, and raising stakes for failure to unbearable.  It’s not so much sadism as tough love–put your characters though the worst things possible so they can come out the other side knowing themselves better.

Now for the tricky bit–Write to please just one person.  There is a danger in getting too many opinions, particularly if the input comes too early.  It’s like opening the oven to see if the souffle is done–the thing usually falls flat on you.  Alternately, you’re going to have to show your work at some point unless it is just for you.  So, really, this to me is…

Write to please just one person–but learn to edit and take advice once the writing is done.

If one other person sees a mistake, maybe they’re wrong. Two people, same flaw–time to look at the pages. Closely. Three folks…ignore that at the peril of either appearing stupid in print or not even getting to that point. In this world, keeping the writing close is not a bad thing. But if your goal is to publish and be accessible, then eventually you not only have to open the window, but you have to throw your work there.

So those are my rules, I guess. My guidelines. I reserve the right to throw them out, but only if the story really, really, really needs something different.

The Balancing Act

Adobe Walls Going UpWe’re building a house–it’s a passive solar adobe straw bale hybrid, meaning we’re inventing some things as we go and learning a lot. And we’re working damn hard. As in laying actual adobe bricks. Which also means my life’s out of balance. Again. This happens with obsessive-compulsive types, but I can’t moan too much about being that type since it also helps with the writing. But…a little more balance is needed. As in I need to carve out my writing time again.

I was doing great with this. Up an hour or so early. Get my coffee, sit down and write. Even a few pages is great, and I could often do five or ten before the day got cooking. Then it got cold. And dark. A warm bed is now too much of an invitation to lounge. It’s not going to get warm again for more than a few months–meaning I need to adjust my schedule, or I’m going to have to bite the bullet and get out of bed. Since the latter is not too likely, I’m going to try other things. Such as making sure I have my priorities sorted out. And pulling out the pages to mess with them every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes here and there.

It’s all part of the balancing act–one I have to go through every few months (or sometimes every few weeks). Get enough sleep, enough food, enough solitude–too much company and my brain gets too busy.  A little bit of “bored” time is a good thing. So is a little bit of daydreaming time. But there always seems to be other things making demands on my time. Which is when I have to remember what’s important. And, yes, house done before winter would be a very, very good thing — warm place to write…mmmmmm. But I’ve got a book that’s begging to be finished. For a writer, you’ve got to write.