When you write a novel, there’s always a point in the story where your brilliant, golden story idea is now lying there on the page looking like a sorry piece of dross.
At this point, Bright Shiny Ideas invariably come swimming into your mind like a school of idea fish, all calling to you to go write them instead.
Common wisdom says ignore those ideas and finish what you’re working on.
I feel this is rude and will offend those ideas. They might swim away and find someone more sympathetic. So I do not ignore stray ideas. I welcome them in, sit them down with a cup of tea and listen while they tell me how wonderful they are. I scribble down notes as quickly as I can, then thank them for their time, and show them to the door promising to call as soon as I can.
Then I go back to the current story.
When movies and novels show pioneers traveling west across the country in a covered wagon, the people are always sitting on the wagon as the oxen pull them along.
I strongly suspect that the people who wrote those books and movies had never seen a covered wagon. A covered wagon was not the 19th century equivalent of an RV.
The first travellers to cross the country learned early that the larger the wagon and the more you carried, the less likely you were to get your wagon over the mountains.
“In procuring supplies for this journey, the emigrant should provide himself with, at least, 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon; ten pounds of coffee; twenty pounds of sugar; and ten pounds of salt.”
– Lansford Hastings’ Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California,
published in 1845
People not only packed their wagons with food for the journey, they also packed seeds for planting in the new territory, pans to cook with, quilts and blankets to sleep in, rifles and ammunition for hunting and protection, and any mementoes they couldn’t bear to part with. But they also had to keep the wagons small enough to be hauled for thousands of miles.
In other words, there wasn’t all that much room to sit around inside a covered wagon. Only the very young or the feeble spent much time in the wagon while it was traveling. Women used to prepare dough and set it aside to rise, timing the rising of the bread so that it would be ready to bake when they made camp that evening. At night, some families would spread a mattress on top of the stores and sleep there. But most of the time, the pioneers did not sit inside the wagon all day long just being carried passively along. They walked.
Something to be thankful for, if you’re planning a long car ride to visit friends and family. You don’t have to walk.
These days, I’m filtering what I read on Twitter more than ever. It’s important to control the flood of information, and Twitter can drown you in information if you’re not careful.
There are two main ways to use Twitter, as far as I can see.
One is to keep up to date with the latest news, and by the term “news” I also refer to rumor, gossip, complete fabrications on a topic. Twitter can spread information faster than any other medium (for now, at least) but not all of it is even remotely valid.
The other is to keep up with people you are interested in. You can follow celebrities or people in a field that you want to learn more about. If you find one person who intrigues you, Twitter suggests other people that you might want to follow who are similar. Or you can see who this person is interacting with and follow them as well.
Either way, you’re going to want to find a way to sieve this information or you’ll drown in a deluge of data. Here’s how I would suggest you handle Twitter.
When you sign in to Twitter, look at the hashtags listed. Hashtags are subjects on Twitter. They have a hash symbol (#) in front of them. When you sign in to Twitter, it presents hashtags that might interest you. Click on them to see what other people are tweeting. That gives you an idea of what’s trending at the moment on Twitter.
Search for people you are interested in and follow them. Or follow people you’ve found from hashtags that you like.
Create lists of people or hashtags you like.
Get the heck out of Twitter and get thee to TweetDeck or HootSuite or some other application that will handle lists for you.
Lists are important. Making lists lets you sort through and hopefully make sense of the flood of tweets that are blasting through the twittersphere every second.
Each of these columns is a list that I created in Tweetdeck.
For example, I have a list of people who are in my local RWA chapter. I check quickly check through that list to see their latest tweets. I have another list for editors that I follow, agents that I follow, different genres of authors that I like to read. Lists let me manage the flood of information and focus on a particular area that interests me at the moment.
This is what works for me. Might not work for you, take all advice with a grain of salt, yada yada.
One flaw in many books is that even though the writing is good, the hero or heroine is a person that I would not want to spend five minutes with in real life. It’s rare for me to start a book and not finish it (DNF), but when I do that’s generally the reason.
I’m not expecting a character to be a friend, necessarily. Lindsay Buroker’s assassin Sicarius or Rachel Neumeier’s executioner Ezekiel Korte are not comfortable characters, but when they’re on the page I pay attention. There has to be something about a POV character that I either like or respect.
You can use one of any of these to get the reader to identify with your character, but it’s more effective if you can use a couple.
This is one of the elements of writing that I need to focus on. I become intrigued by an interesting idea and end up with a story that’s focused on an issue — when it should be about the character’s reactions to the issue. I’ve gotten feedback that my writing is not emotional enough. This is especially a problem if you’re writing romance.
Romance readers are notoriously harder on the heroine than they are on the hero. A hero can be a complete jerk for 90% of the story, then grovel at the end and confess his True Love for the heroine — and he’ll get away with it. But the heroine has to be likable, or readers will complain. She can’t be a Mary Sue, a perfect character without flaws, but her flaws can’t make her unlikeable. Apparently this is because most romance readers are women who use the heroine as a placeholder for themselves.
Personally, if either character is too much of a jerk I start to wonder why I am spending time with them. I just tried reading a contemporary romance novel that had an Alpha hero of the classic mode: rich, arrogant, and controlling. I didn’t make it past the first paragraph before starting to fantasize about the hero meeting with a terrible car accident. I’m only on the third page and I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it past the first chapter, simply because I loathe this guy so much.
What about you? Are there qualities in a character that will make a book a DNF for you?
… in this business the finish line is constantly moving. One day you really just want an agent. Then it’s a book deal. Then it’s a bestseller. Then it’s a movie. Then it’s a castle next to JK Rowling’s.
In short, appreciate things as they’re happening, remember that once upon a time that thing was a dream of yours and that it’s still a dream for someone. So be grateful every day.
– Ally Carter, A Letter to Baby Author Me
That’s all I wanted to say, really. She said it much better than I could.
It doesn’t matter if someone else’s book gets published sooner than yours, or gets better reviews, or wins more awards. None of these things are within your control.
Most of these things are due to a mixture of timing (good and bad) and hard work. Celebrate their success. Do not compare it to your success. They did not fight the battles you did to get to this point. Each battle scar is unique.
‘How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’
‘As he ever has judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.’
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
This is a good day to get out and take a walk in a park. Hug a friend. Stop looking at the computer screen and get out.
“The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bath or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
-C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
There are some things in my life that I can’t control.
There are some things in my life that I can control. One of these is the ability to turn off the television, shut down the Internet, and write something. So that is what I am going to do today.
What about you?
Updated to add:
Judith Ashley sent out a challenge to write a scene, story, blog post, etc., that shows “how to overcome fear and maybe even build a strong and healthy relationship.” So I’m going to focus my writing today on a scene where my heroine confronts her deepest fear and works to overcome it.
“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” — C.S. Lewis
There are some books that I can read multiple times and still enjoy them as much as I did the first time I picked up the book. It’s like walking through a doorway into a secret world that is just waiting there for me to explore it. Going back in and re-reading the book is like visiting an old friend.
Some authors pull this off consistently. On the other hand, there are some authors — competent writers who know their craft — who write books that I read only once. While the books weren’t bad, I have no desire to go back and open them up again.
What makes a book re-readable?
I went back to some old, familiar books to try to determine what exactly it is that makes some books re-readable and others not. I wanted to find out how the trick was worked. The authors that I remember most from childhood* are the ones who wrote books that I can go back and re-read today, decades later. But I couldn’t analyze the magic by looking at individual books. It was like trying to analyze my kidneys. I’ve read them too many times; I’m too close to them.
So instead I went through to see if I could discover what they had in common. Here are a few things that I noticed, with examples from the text.
Opening lines that caught my attention right away:
“Repeat after me,” said the parson. “I, Horatio, take thee, Maria Ellen –”
The thought came up in Hornblower’s mind that these were the last few seconds in which he could withdraw from doing something which he knew to be ill considered.
-C.S. Forster, Horatio and the Hotspur
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
-C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
To be encumbered with a corpse is to be in a difficult position, especially when the corpse is without the benefit of a death certificate. True, any doctor, even one just hatched from medical school, would have been able to diagnose the case of death. The man had died of heart failure, or what the medical boys pompously call cardiac arrest.
The proximate cause of his pumper having stopped pumping was that someone had slid a sharp sliver of steel between his ribs just far enough to penetrate the great muscle of the heart and to cause a serious and irreversible leakage of blood so that it stopped beating. Cardiac arrest, as I said.
I wasn’t too anxious to find a doctor because the knife was mine and the hilt had been in my hand when the point pricked out his life.
– Desmond Bagley, Running Blind
Use of the senses combined with the character’s emotions. Not just what it felt like to eat a pear, but how the character reacted. Too often, writers provide a clinical, detached description of what the food tasted like, spicy, sweet, whatever. I don’t want that. I know what food tastes likes. I want to know what the character feels about the food. The character’s reactions are my entryway into their world and the sensory details help anchor me in that world.
I should think that this effect could be achieved by any sensual description combined with the character’s reaction. However, each of the books I looked at included specific descriptions of food. The writers didn’t describe every meal, but each book has a least one scene where the POV character sits down to a meal and enjoys themselves.
There were neat brown cutlets on his plate that bore no outward resemblance to lobster, but when Horatio cautiously added sauce and tasted, the result was excellent. Minced lobster. And when Doughty took the cover off the cracked vegetable dish, there was a dream of delight revealed. New potatoes, golden and lovely. He helped himself hurriedly and very nearly burned his mouth on them. Nothing could be quite as nice as the first new potatoes of the year.
-C.S. Forster, Horatio and the Hotspur
… on the table itself there was set out such a banquet as had never been seen, not even when Peter the High King kept his court at Cair Paravel. There were turkeys and geese and peacocks, there were boar’s heads and sides of venison, there were pies shaped like ships under full sail or like dragons and elephants, there were ice puddings and bright lobsters and gleaming salmon, there were nuts and grapes and pineapples and peaches, pomegranates and melons and tomatoes. There were flagons of gold and silver and curiously wrought glass; and the smell of the fruit and the wine blew towards them like a promise of all happiness.
“I say!” said Lucy.
-C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
We both needed cheering up and there’s nothing like a first-class meal under the belt to lift the spirits. I don’t know if Mr. Fortnum and Mr. Mason are aware of the joy they bring to sojourners in far-flung lands, but after the oyster soup, the whole roast quails, and the pears pickled in cognac, I felt almost impelled to write them a letter of appreciation.
-Desmond Bagley, Running Blind
Scenery. The stories took me to a place that I wanted to explore. The location doesn’t have to be somewhere exotic. A place the character finds interesting, a place the writer wants to explore by way of writing a story.
It was an upholstered chair in which Hornblower sat; under his feet was a thick carpet; there were a couple of pictures in gilt frames on the bulkheads; silver lamps hung by silver chains from the deck-beams…But what held his attention most was two long boxes against the great stern windows. They were filled with earth and were planted with flowers — hyacinths and daffodils, blooming and lovely. The scent of the hyacinths reached Hornblower’s nostrils where he sat. There was something fantastically charming about them here at sea.
“I’ve been successful with my bulbs this year,” said Collingwood, putting his letters in his pocket and following Hornblower’s glance. He walked over and tilted up a daffodil bloom with sensitive fingers, looking down into its open face. “They are beautiful, aren’t they? Soon the daffodils will be flowering in England — some time, perhaps, I’ll see them again. Meanwhile these help to keep me contented. It is three years since I last set foot on land.
C.S. Forster, Hornblower and the Atropos
Lucy was of course barefoot, having kicked off her shoes while swimming, but that is no hardship if one is going to walk on downy turf. It was delightful to be ashore again and to smell the earth and the grass, even if at first the ground seemed to be pitching up and down like a ship, as it usually does for a while if one has been at sea. It was much warmer here than it had been on board and Lucy found the sand pleasant to her feet as they crossed it. There was a lark singing.
C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
God has not yet finished making Iceland.
In the last 500 years, one third of all the lava extruded from the guts of the earth to the face of the planet has surfaced in Iceland and, of 200 known volcanoes, thirty are still very much active. Iceland suffers from a bad case of geological acne.
-Desmond Bagley, Running Blind
These are all examples from books that I read when I was a child and that I still remember decades later because the writer created a world came alive in my mind when I read it.
I didn’t start reading Rex Stout until I was a teenager, but he does this in his books as well. He starts the story out with an interesting situation, he includes sensory details with the POV character’s reactions, and he creates a world that I want to explore. That is why I go back and re-read his books. It doesn’t matter that the location is not somewhere exotic. In a lot of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books most of the action takes place inside two rooms inside of a brownstone in New York City. He still creates a world inside that house that I like to explore.
This was just a quick analysis of a few books. It involved a lot of re-reading on my part (O, the sacrifice) but I am sure that there are other qualities that make a book re-readable. What makes you go back and re-read a book? Or is that something you never do? Why?
*Quick explanation: my definition of “childhood book” is a book that I read when I was a child. It is not necessarily a book that would be found in the Children’s section of your local library. I grew up in a house that had nine other people living in it. All of them were a) older than I was and b) reading books all the time. There were books lying around just waiting for someone to read them. A bookworm’s paradise. So I read a lot of books that probably wouldn’t ordinarily have been shared with a young child. Didn’t understand some parts of them until I was much older, but I read them all the same. By the time I was ten, I’d read all of the early works of Alistair Maclean, some of Raymond Chandler, and much of the Brontes as well as more traditional children’s fare such as the Narnia books.