Thursday, April 28, 2011

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

I have had this song stuck in my head for two days now, and it is driving me a little crazy. For one thing, it's a catchy tune that just will not go away. For another... I don't want to look on the bright side!! What bright side??

Yep, I'm in the middle of edits again. For three days, my twitter hashtag of choice was #chapterelevenorbust, which had a certain delicious irony to it. This is the chapter of the Netherfield Ball--the moment Darcy realizes he loves Elizabeth, and then circumstances make him choose to leave Hertfordshire, and her, behind. It's the first major turning point of the novel, and I needed to nail it.

I thought once I finished Chapter 11 I could move on to easier things, but alas it was not meant to be. I spent two hours last night rewriting Chapter 12, which I now get to go over with my purple pen. When I'm done with that, Chapter 13 awaits. Oh joy.

But you know what? All this editing is there to make my story stronger, hence my new hashtag: #strongerstoryyadayada. I wince when I cut large sections of my novel, and spending long hours on the computer rewriting is actually physically painful. If I can just remember though that all the hard work serves a greater purpose, I'll be able to look on the bright side.

So, to paraphrase:

Some things I write are bad,
And that really makes me mad--
Then other parts I find are even worse!
When I'm reading all this gristle
I grumble (I can't whistle)
But I get a stronger story, yada yada...
And I'll leave you with the video, just in case the song isn't already stuck in your heads. Are you editing, friends? Cheer up, you know what they say!

Monday, April 25, 2011

How to Write Like Shakespeare

Saturday was Shakespeare's 447th birthday, and as part of the Happy Birthday Shakespeare project, I'd like to share some pictures and thoughts from my recent visit to Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shakespeare's Birthplace
 First, a confession: As much as I loved Chawton, Stratford-upon-Avon grabbed my heart and would not let go. I felt absolutely at home here, and I did not want to leave.

Shakespeare's Grave, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon
Even in March, the city was full of tourists. (I ran into the same group of French students every place I went.) They all come to visit because they have been touched by the words of a man who died almost 400 years ago.
Anne Hathaway's Cottage, childhood home of Shakespeare's wife
 The authorship of those words, however, has been a subject of contention for the last 150-200 years. When I was at Anne Hathaway's Cottage, I overheard the guide explaining the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy to another visitor.

There are several reasons some people doubt Shakespeare actually wrote Shakespeare. However, the most ludicrous to my mind is this: Shakespeare grew up in a small town in rural England and never traveled any farther than London. His life experiences wouldn't have given him the keen understanding of human nature we see in the works attributed to his name.

Let's put this argument in perspective. Many of Shakespeare's plays are histories. If we're to believe he couldn't have understood people well enough to write the complex relationships he did, then how would Francis Bacon, the Earls of Denby and Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe (all given as potential candidates) have been able to write about events in the past? They didn't experience them, so surely they couldn't have written about them.

King James Bible, first edition. Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon
Ridiculous, yes? Have these people never heard of books? Shakespeare lived in a time when books were becoming readily available to the masses. The obvious example in his lifetime was the publication of the King James Bible in 1611, but even before that the written word was a hot commodity among those who could read.

Guild Chapel, King Edward VI Grammar School, Stratford-upon-Avon
Some go so far as to argue that Shakespeare was illiterate, but that stretches credulity a bit far. As the son of a well-to-do man, he would almost certainly have been educated at the local grammar school. There he would have received instruction in Latin and Greek, a vital tool since most works were still written in either language.

Carnegie Library, Stratford-upon-Avon
Today, Stratford's public library is just two doors down from the Birthplace, as if it is impossible to separate a love and reverence for the Bard from a love of books. Shakespeare read classical myths and the plays and poems of his day, and in them he traveled to places he could only see in his mind. Today, people read his plays for the same reason. His words take us to Ancient Rome, to the battlefield of Agincourt, to fair Verona. With each reading, we learn more about people and history, about mythology and poetry.

This is why writers need to read. It is not so we understand how to use language, when to follow the rules and when to break them. Those are things we learn in the process of attaining a greater wisdom:
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, 166-167)

If you want to write like Shakespeare, if you want to live in a world that is wider than you can imagine, then you must read.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Jane Austen Was Here

To a certain extent, all authors work in the shadow of the literary greats. How will our books compare when stacked up against classics like Les Misérables, Don Quixote, or Wuthering Heights? For the Austen sequel writer, the pressure is infinitely greater. We are not just working in the same profession as those masters; we are actually taking the characters and settings of Jane Austen's stories and adding to them in some way.

Three weeks ago, I stepped directly into Austen's shadow when I visited Chawton. This house, now home to the Jane Austen's House Museum, is where she lived when she wrote and edited the majority of her novels. If you remember, I planned to spend some time writing on the grounds, and there was some debate over how intimidating that might be.

Honestly, I didn't think it would intimidate me--until I saw her writing desk. This is actually the little table she sat and wrote at. I imagined I could hear the squeak in the door which warned her when people approached. Then I was intimidated!

Look at that chair, at the angle of the chair to the table. This was not an ergonomic work station, friends. Granted, the chair is low enough and the table high enough that she wouldn't have to hunch over her paper, but beyond that... Can you imagine the dedication that would drive you to spend hours a day, cramped into one position, writing away?

Yes, I thought, I can imagine it. While my situation at home is far more comfortable, I still have a chiropractor and massage therapist constantly telling me I should take better care of myself. I ignore them, because sitting for hours a day is the only way to get the book done, and the book demands to be finished.

After touring the museum, I walked a ways up the road to the main house--Chawton Great House. This is a fine Elizabethan manor and I learned quite a bit about the Austen connection to the Knight family. Among the group, there was that electric realization that Jane Austen actually visited this house--ate in this dining room--walked on these stairs.

So did I do any writing? Yes, I did. Intimidated or not, I could not let this opportunity pass me by. Jane Austen was here, and now, so was I.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A High-wire Balancing Act

Last Tuesday, I mapped out a plan to finish my novel by June 16th. After that, I'd take two weeks off from my story--no writing or editing of any kind. It was a great plan, but as with all great plans, it was massively flawed. (Think of the Death Star, if you don't believe me.)

So what was my flaw? Where was the tiny exhaust port that would allow a small, one-man fighter to penetrate my outer defenses?

My schedule allowed for no time off.

No days off, no afternoons off, no free hours.

I would work every day from dawn until dark. I'd rise early to write, go to my day job, and then come home and write until I dropped. Then I'd get up on my weekends and write all day long.

Let me tell you, friends, by the end of last week I was already exhausted. But did I abandon the plan? No! I blamed myself--if I had more discipline, I'd be able to keep this schedule. It's only until June after all, couldn't I punish myself for that long?

Yes, my logic was seriously flawed.

On Thursday, I read an older post on Nathan Bransford's blog about balance. I nodded the whole time, especially when I read this:
The thing about this is that I know full well these are the problems of someone who is very blessed and fortunate, and I'm not asking for, nor do I deserve, sympathy. I know I'm lucky! Oh - gee, my hobby that I love is too time-consuming. Woe is me. There are people out there who are working far harder and who are struggling and for whom the idea of finding "balance" in their life is an abstraction.
"Yes!!" I thought. "He gets it! I shouldn't complain about being worn out, because I'm so privileged to be writing!!"

The very next paragraph shot that idea down. In very concise terms, he pointed out that this is simply the way authors justify pushing themselves too hard, and talk themselves out of taking time off. Well, okay. I'm taking that time off in June, that counts--right?

On Friday, the weekly email from Holly Lisle arrived. "Everything takes longer" was the subject line. Gulp! Wasn't this what I'd been flailing myself over all week? Only three days in, and I'm already behind schedule! The opening paragraph nailed me.
You plan your writing time like you're setting up for D-Day, you
have materials laid out and organized, you have your story ready to

And then you remember that thing you forgot.
For me, time off was that thing. I was behind because I'd come home every night, worn out from the getting up early, from the nine hour work day, from just thinking that I still had to write more. So I'd put it off in favor of other things, and then started the next day even farther behind.

Therefore, I announce to you my new schedule. I will write 3-4 hours a day Monday-Friday and five hours on Saturday. My goal each week will be to revise six chapters. If I reach that goal, I will give myself a treat on Sunday. Even if I do not, I will take Sundays off from my novel.

Want to know the crazy thing? I think I'll actually finish the novel earlier!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Change your focus

On Monday, I shared a little of my approach to photography: take as many pictures as possible, and hope some turn out well. There is a dark side to this, however. I can be a little... obsessive. At times, I'll fixate on an image I must capture on film, and nothing can shake me from my purpose.

In England, I found myself drawn to the flowers. Even though our climates are very similar, somehow more things were in bloom there than at home. Stratford-upon-Avon was particularly beautiful. On my first afternoon, I walked out to Anne Hathaway's Cottage.

The walk itself is lovely. Magnolias were in bloom, as well as other trees I can't identify.

However, I became obsessed with this:

And when I say obsessed, I mean I have 16 other shots, all of about the same quality. For some reason, I could not get a clear shot of this little flower, no matter how hard I tried. It wasn't until I looked at them at home that I realized the problem. Take a look at this example:

Do you see what happened? I wanted a picture of the flower in the middle, but my camera wanted to shoot the one on the edge. The resulting image is blurry and unsatisfactory.

How often does that happen when we're writing? In the middle of revisions, it can feel like we've reworked a scene 14, 15, 16 times, all without affect. It's only when we take a step back and look at what we're trying to accomplish that we realize we've been focusing on the wrong things.

Perhaps the chapter needs to be rewritten from another character's perspective, or maybe the entire scene should take place later in the book. Whatever it is, once we adjust our lens, we're able to write the scene we didn't realize we needed to write.

PS: Please, for the sake of my sanity, don't tell me how I could have gotten a clear picture of that flower. I think I'd throw my camera at the wall if I found out now.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Getting the perfect shot

The week before I left for England, I bought a new camera and three 4gig SD cards. I didn't want to fret about space every time I thought about taking a picture. Three weeks and 1200 pictures later, I believe I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

After deleting all the blurred shots and awkward camera angles, I still have 800 decent photos. Of those, I selected 222 to share with my family this afternoon. That's approximately 1/6 of everything I took, or 1/4 of the good ones.

And here's where we get to writing: Because I gave myself permission to take as many pictures of whatever I wanted in the beginning, I came away with some pretty awesome shots. If I wanted to take a picture, I didn't debate with myself. I didn't wonder if I had the composition just right, or if the lighting was perfect. I pulled out my camera and shot the picture. Obviously there were some less than pretty files taking up space on my cards, but those were the practice shots. They eventually gave way to pictures like these:

Bath Abbey, with birds

I've got a dozen good pictures of Bath Abbey. This one is special though because I captured the birds in flight. It was serendipitous, but I also made my own luck. If I hadn't had my camera to my eye, I wouldn't have got the shot.

Chandelier in the Octagon Room

Unlike the Abbey, I have very few good pictures of the Octagon Room at the Assembly Rooms. I took at least three other pictures of the chandelier, but they're all blurry. On a whim, I stood underneath and shot this photo. It's one of my favorites from my entire trip.

London Eye at sunset

The sun was setting as my friend and I walked along Victoria Embankment in search of dinner. When we saw the sunset behind the London Eye, we stopped for pictures. I took roughly two dozen pictures of that sunset. This one captures the hazy, end of the day feeling perfectly.

Writers tend to over-think. Do I have this scene right? Did I use too much dialogue/not enough dialogue/would my character really say that? There is definitely a time for all of those questions, but it is not when we are in the middle of a first draft. When you're writing a first draft, you have all the space in the world. Write the scene from different angles. Play with the setting and the mood. There will be time enough for thought later.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Your novel has been detained for questioning

Every trip has its little adventures, and Darcy Hunt was no exception. My feet had barely touched English soil when the drama began. I approached the Customs agent, somewhat tired and bedraggled. After a series of questions, she handed me a piece of paper that said I was being detained for further questioning.

Why? Because I couldn't tell her the address or phone number of the friend I was to stay with in London. Never mind that I had the address and walking directions of the place I stayed that night; the fact that I didn't know the details on my London friend concerned her enough to detain me.

(In the interest of my future plans for England, I'm leaving out my editorial remarks here. You may exclaim and wonder all you wish in the comments however.)

Those of you who know me know it's unusual for me to be unprepared for that kind of question. I'm a plan ahead kind of gal, but for this trip I wanted to be a little more easy going. I knew where I was going to meet Helen and how to get there; that was good enough for me.

The plan ahead part of my personality is why I'm a planner, not a pantser. When I get a story in mind, I sit down and work out all the details before I start writing. The very first thing I get a handle on are my characters... things like their address and phone number, for instance.

Every time I've attempted to write a novel without an outline, questions have detained me somewhere in the first or second chapter. Who are these people? Why are they acting like this? I lose time and momentum when I have to stammer out the vague clues I have.

What about you, friends? Has your novel been detained in Customs?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Writing and Bathroom Sinks

Writing isn't always easy. Sometimes, it can be downright frustrating. We know what we want to say, but no matter how hard we try, the words just won't come out right.

I was there a few weeks ago, stuck in a section that would not cooperate. Day after day I sat on my couch staring at my MS. I tapped my (pink) pen against the paper in a frenetic rhythm, hoping that somehow it would all come together.

Writing wasn't the only thing not going well that week. The water pressure in my bathroom sink had slowed to a trickle. I messed with the screens, soaked it in vinegar, and finally resorted to pounding away at the faucet itself, as if I could physically force the water to come out faster.

I was somewhere in mid-pound when I realized how similar my two problems were. If pounding didn't help the sink, why did I think my mad pen-tapping would help the story? I needed to take the lid off the pen and actually write.

I blogged about that here. Yep, that was the week of the green pen. I stopped stalling and just wrote. As for the sink... well... Does anyone have the number of a good plumber?