Monday, March 26, 2012

Street of Bakers

Sometimes I get ideas from the weirdest places imaginable.

While preparing last week’s commentary track, I had a chance to re-watch one of my favorite fan videos for the BBC series Sherlock (it’s at the end of the commentary, if you’re interested). YouTube, being YouTube, suggested several videos to watch after that, and as I had a little time to kill, I found myself surfing YouTube in the middle of the night, watching every Sherlock music video I could find. The Disney ones, the techno ones, the pop ones … people get up to some strange things in the middle of the night. I was amused enough to finish off the evening by reading “Mr. Sigerson,” Peter S. Beagle’s excellent short story about what Holmes got up to in those missing three years between his apparent death at the Reichenbach Fall and his triumphant return to Baker Street. And that night I had a dream about Sherlock Holmes.

I know, it doesn’t sound all that odd—but I almost never dream, at least not anything I can remember, and it almost never relates directly to what I’m doing during the day. On top of that, I can count the number of coherent story dreams I’ve had on the fingers of one hand, and give the peace sign at the same time. But there were a few little pieces of this dream that stuck with me as I went about my business the next day, going to work and revising The Novel.

Sherlock Holmes was one of my first real literary loves. I was ten or eleven when one of my brothers first handed me the Adventures, and I was immediately sucked into “A Scandal in Bohemia” and the dazzling Irene Adler. “The Red-Headed League” sealed the deal; I was a Holmes fan for life. I remember punching the air the first time I figured out a solution before Holmes did—something that happened only twice in my youthful reading career (“The Five Orange Pips,” where I had a bit of an advantage, and “The Solitary Cyclist,” which was a straight win). Years later, I recognized the brain-attic passage from A Study in Scarlet on an SAT form, and nearly jumped up and started cheering in the testing room because I had quoted that bit to so many of my friends.

Sherlock Holmes, I think, was the first literary character I truly identified with—which is pretty funny, since the audience is clearly meant to identify with Watson, the narrator, and to regard Holmes as a mysterious, alien force. But Holmes made more sense to me than Watson did, and I felt strongly for him. Like me at that age, he was trapped in a world full of people who saw but did not observe, who just didn’t think about anything. And like me, he couldn’t abide boredom—he chased criminal masterminds and shot up with cocaine for the same reason I chased birds and built imaginary worlds.

The years went by, and I discovered more sympathetic characters, and I made some friends and lived a little. And then Steven Moffat’s Sherlock came along, and I fell in love all over again—but this time with Watson. In Moffat’s 21st-century adaptation, the engine of the story is the relationship between Holmes, who is brilliant but apparently cut off from human emotions, and Watson, who is in many ways too human. The quirky, understated bromance makes the story run, thanks in no small part to the chemistry between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Watson. 

Much to my surprise, in this version of the Holmes story, I found myself unapologetically rooting for Team Watson—the intelligent, funny, understated man who keeps Sherlock Holmes tethered to the humanity he rejects—even as most of my friends became rabid members of Team Sherlock thanks to his eccentric behavior and zingy bon mots. And that got me thinking. What’s different in me as an adult that Watson now seems the more complex and interesting character? As a child, I cheered for the character who was designed to be incomprehensible; as an adult, I cheer for the one who’s overlooked as too ordinary. Either way, I seem to be in the minority. And while Steven Moffat surely has something to do with the change, I don’t think it’s all his work.

And that got me thinking even more—about my chilly, isolated younger self; about the Watsons in my life who showed me how to change; about the way these things seem to work differently among girls, and yet not as differently as we might think …

And a new character walked into my head. Two, actually. Two girls, from very different worlds, one with a frighteningly perfect memory and a mission to complete, the other with a strong-but-broken heart and an empty future to fill. They’re a bit Holmes and Watson, and a bit me, and a bit something else entirely, and I think I might like to follow them for a book or three …

This story graduated to its own notebook in 24 hours flat. I think that’s a record. I have high hopes for these girls, and for their adventures. I could see a rocket-powered adventure/mystery trilogy, at least, with perhaps some steampunk thrown in. The game’s afoot once more.

I’m really glad I keep spare notebooks lying around …

Monday, March 19, 2012

If I can't say the words, then I'll sing them ...

I’m growing to be quite a fan of Grace Franzen, a YouTube user with the handle mendocinodragon, for her trock songs and other things. But recently she posted a pretty little original tune called “Thinking of You,” apparently an ode to the high-school friends she’s losing touch with now that she’s in college. And the title of this blog was one of the lines (at 3:24):

It got me thinking about the ways we express ourselves. I’m a fairly awful singer myself, but as I’m working on revising The Novel, I’m finding lots of little bits of my life woven into it, things I can’t say very well in person. I used to be quite skeptical of English teachers who lectured me on themes and “what the author is really saying”; I tried to imagine authors sitting in their garrets somewhere (all great authors write in garrets—right?), trying to find ways to put their innermost feelings and philosophies into obscure literary form. It just didn’t seem a likely leisure activity for anyone trying to pay the bills with words.

And I was right, at least when it came to my own writing. I don’t sit down and think about ways to express my feelings in elaborate metaphors. It just happens sometimes; little private symbols and fragments of personal conversations ease their way into my work. Most of the time it goes unnoticed, even by me, until much later. (Although here’s a tip: anytime you see a bird, it’s probably important, if only to me.)

Things I think I might be trying to say through The Novel:

-Sometimes the people who matter most are the ones who aren’t there.
-Dogs are important. Even the crazy ones. Especially the crazy ones.
-Books can reshape the world, but only if you read them.
-Sometimes you just have to jump off a cliff.
-Free will is worth dying for.
-Porridge is pretty much always disgusting.
-It is possible to smother someone to death with the best of intentions.
-Libraries are a nearly universal language.
-If you’re going to die, dance first.
-Folk singers are dangerous.
-When something doesn’t fit, pay attention. There’s a world you’re not seeing.
-Sometimes stew is a matter of life and death.
-Two people can make a family. That doesn’t mean they make a functional one.
-Sometimes love means doing the thing you hate most.
-Most people can’t see their own potential.
-Songs matter.

More updates as I find them …

Monday, March 12, 2012

Game face

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the difference between writers and wannabe writers is that writers write. They sit their butts in the chair and scratch away in a notebook or hammer away at a keyboard. Most of it’s crap. Most of it you will never get to see, and you should rejoice in that fact. Writers know that it’s their job to pull diamonds out of dungheaps, and that most of the dung will be theirs.

All writers know this. But this week I was reminded.

I think of my “normal” writing pace as three chapters a week. That’s first-draft speed; my revision speed varies widely. But in an average seven-day period, I can usually hammer out three 2,000-to-4,000-word chunks of whatever story I’m working on. Call it the product of several years of writing for people I saw every day; I developed one hell of a first-draft work ethic.

But this week, I got handed a little extra motivation.

I’m currently running chapters of The Novel past a lovely writing circle called SandScribes that meets every other Tuesday night in Huntington Beach. The group is a nice mix of writers and illustrators, all with an interest in producing books for young readers—from picture books for preschoolers to novels for young adults. I came blundering into the group in December so I could get The Novel whipped into shape and tell prospective agents that I’d run it past a serious writing circle.

And at the rate of one polished chapter every two weeks, I could just about handle the workload. I had to send chapters in a week before each meeting so people would have time to read them, but I didn’t mind that. One of my fellow writers had even complimented me on my work ethic, and told me I was encouraging her to work harder on her own book just to keep up with the new kid. She clearly didn’t realize how slowly everything was moving for me this time around!

Then they changed the schedule. One member of the group needed to shift the alternate-Tuesdays arrangement to the other set of alternate Tuesdays, with the result that last Tuesday’s meeting will be immediately followed by this Tuesday’s meeting. And almost every head at the table turned my way, and someone asked, “So, do you think you can send us another chapter by Friday?”

And being myself, I said, “Sure. No problem.”

Of course, there was a problem. I was trying to finally finish the first draft of The Novel so I could start revising the whole darn thing, en banc, and send it out to my group of beta readers. I had three chapters to finish that week, and as of Tuesday I’d only written one. I knew my undiagnosed OCD wouldn’t let me work on revising Chapter 4 (the chapter I happened to need for next Tuesday) until I’d finished writing Chapters 19 and 21. (I’d written Chapter 20 the night before, in a rare deviation from strict chapter order.) How was I supposed to polish up the beginning of my story while my head was full of its ending?

But there’s no motivation like an audience. Chalk it up to my years in amateur dramatics; you shove me out onstage and I feel absolutely compelled to do something entertaining, lest I be booed off. I was once stranded onstage during a production of Our Town, dressed as the Stage Manager, with absolutely no lines; I’d just finished my monologue, and of the two actors who were supposed to be in the scene after mine, one couldn’t be found and the other wandered onstage alone, gave me a meaningful look, and froze artfully in place. I improvised an entire monologue on the spot so the audience wouldn’t realize what had happened. I think I doubled the size of the imaginary town of Grover’s Corners, and I know I went on for quite a while about crickets. So when a few trusting souls turn to me and say, “You can meet this deadline—right?” … I really have no choice.

Chapter 19 was like ripping out my own fingernails, but I wrote it in a haze of caffeinated tea (mostly the Watson Blend from Adagio). Chapter 21 turned out to have half of it sitting around in a notebook, but the rest I scrawled out in a different notebook and then I attacked the whole thing at the keyboard until it cried uncle. I hammered out the revisions on Chapter 4 as the day was ending, and sent it out to the writing circle with half an hour left in Friday.

I honestly can’t remember half of what I did, except for the bit where I was pounding the printout of Chapter 4 with my fist in excitement because it was finally working. Over the weekend, I started working on the full-book revisions. Tomorrow night, I’ll find out whether Chapter 4 was as good as I thought or not. But it’s great to be working with a deadline, and an audience. Genius is 99% perspiration, they say—and in my case, it’s probably flop sweat. 

And soon I’ll have to start banging out Volume 2 of Masks. After all, I can’t disappoint my audience …

Monday, March 5, 2012

Four writing manuals I actually use

Every couple of months, I find myself talking to someone who sighs dramatically and says that they’d love to finally write that screenplay, novel, etc., but they just don’t know where to start. About half the time, this is somebody who knows I’m a freelance editor in my dayjob and is trying to finagle free professional help, but the rest of the time the person is genuinely interested and just looking for a couple of tips. And more often than not, those tips begin with books.

Writers should read all the time, of course, but some books are more helpful than others. And if you’re the sort of writer (or aspiring writer) who wants a little formal instruction—or at least advice from professionals—you will probably find yourself hunting for a good writing manual at some point. There are hundreds if not thousands of them on the market, and I’ve probably received half of them as gifts, but I only use four, more or less. And by “use”, I mean I’ll pull them off the shelf and thumb through them at least once while writing a large project, if not pin them open with a paperweight while I lay out plots or revise drafts. (I have a blobby ceramic turtle and a rock painted to look like an owl that are particularly helpful for this purpose, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Here, then, are the four writing manuals I actually use.

1. Stein on Writing and How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein. These two books—which I count as one because I use them interchangeably, like two volumes of a single work—are perhaps the best books I’ve ever read on how to write anything beautifully. Although they’re intended for literary writers—the sort of people who write high-toned realistic fiction that sells 5,000 copies in a good first run and then gets assigned in college lit courses for the rest of time—they’re full of excellent advice for anyone who wants to write anything that people actually read. There are tremendously helpful chapters on plotting, on dialogue, on characterization, on tone, on revision (I do like the chapter title “The Triage Method of Liposuctioning Flab”) and many other topics. The chapter on how to write beginnings—first sentences and first paragraphs, especially—is so good I’ve practically memorized its examples, most of which are taken from well-known and successful books.
Best of all, Stein’s advice is written in such a way that it makes you want to put the book down and go write something because you’ve suddenly seen a solution to a problem, or you’ve suddenly got a story idea that won’t let go of your brain. That’s the real test of a writing manual, in my opinion, and it’s the reason Sol Stein occupies the first place on this list. Stein on Writing is a general manual that covers most of the elements of prose writing (fiction or nonfiction) while How to Grow A Novel is focused specifically on novelists and their work. Both come highly recommended.

2. The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. By now, almost everyone who tries to write popular fiction in the United States—whether novels, screenplays, or anything else—has heard of Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist whose book The Hero With A Thousand Faces has inspired generations of storytellers (most notably George Lucas, whose original Star Wars trilogy was a note-for-note retelling of Campbell’s saga). Campbell’s thesis was that the major myth cycles of cultures around the world all essentially tell the same story: a hero leaves the place of his birth and goes out into the wider world on a quest, meeting friends and enemies along the way and finally returning with his prize to make his world a better place. Unfortunately, Campbell wrote like a mid-20th-century academic, which he was, and his original book is a bit dry. Vogler, a screenwriter and story consultant for Disney among others, helpfully breaks down Campbell’s ideas into readable steps, using examples from well-known movies. He also devotes entire chapters to mythic archetypes like the hero and mentor and how they can be applied to a wide variety of modern stories. His book is probably the most entertaining and reader-friendly volume on this list.

I tend to use Vogler mostly as a structural tool. While I don’t plot my stories precisely along his heroic-journey map, I tend to pull out The Writer’s Journey after I’ve laid out the events in my story to see if I’m missing anything. It’s an excellent diagnostic, because I find that if I’ve skipped over a big piece of the hero’s journey, I’m usually also about to run headlong into a plot hole. I also use the archetype chapters to help me fix problems with characters.

3. Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. I know, I know—what is a novelist doing with two screenwriting manuals on her shelf? Well, actually I own three or four, but Save the Cat! is one of the two I actually use. This is a pure screenwriting book, designed to help aspiring pros get their stories into shape for the screen. There’s a lot of industry jargon and plenty of movie-biz war stories to be found here, but what makes Save the Cat! useful to non-screenwriters is its insight on how most modern entertainment is put together. Let’s face it; most postindustrial people spend a lot more time watching TV and movies than they do reading books, and that shapes their expectations about how stories tend to go. If you understand those expectations, you can either play to them or frustrate them as you choose. You can also avoid that dreaded moment when a reader puts down your story because it plunged into one of those meandering asides common in, say, 19th-century novels but completely unreadable today. Finally, Save the Cat! is an invaluable resource in developing what is regrettably known as a book pitch—the one- or two-sentence blurb you give to agents and editors to explain your story before their attention spans run out. It’s not something that comes naturally to novelists, so it’s good to have the help.

The part of Save the Cat! I use most is a plotting device called the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, or BS2. It helpfully lays out the essential plot points, or “beats,” of a good movie and roughly when they should happen—right down to the screenplay page numbers. Again, I don’t plot with the BS2 laid out beside me, but it’s a helpful tool when I’m checking the pace of my story (after I’ve plotted it) because I know my readers mostly think in movie terms. Like a lot of screenwriters, for example, I like to stick a plot reversal right around the middle of my story—think of the moment in the first volume of Masks where Rae and Trevor find out each other’s secrets and have that big confrontation in the storm drain. Up until then, the story was a happy little teen romance with a little mystery-solving thrown in, and things were slowly getting better and better for our heroes until bam! A reversal came along and Rae and Trevor couldn’t trust each other anymore. The BS2 helped me decide where to place that key scene, and where I needed to add or subtract elements of the story in order to get the reversal to fall around the midpoint.

The BS2 also reminded me that many readers would be expecting a reversal right around that point (they watch movies, remember), which enabled me to create a false sense of security by having Rae and Trevor argue. Readers who were deeply drawn into their argument, feeling like that was the midpoint reversal and the rest of the book would be about rebuilding the relationship, were surprised when Cobalt suddenly appeared and kidnapped Trevor, even though I’d laid the groundwork for that with the abductions of Golem and Moon and with Rae entering Trevor’s fingerprints into the alpha-track databases. Again, the BS2 is a better diagnostic than it is a formula—I don’t use it in the initial plotting, but I’ve found that any plot of mine that can roughly conform to both Vogler and Snyder is usually tough and versatile enough to survive being written.

4. The Associated Press Stylebook. All right, I confess this is only in here because I had to memorize huge chunks of it in journalism school, learning the difference between comprise and compose and constitute and how to spell the name of every airline on the face of the earth. But if you’re serious about writing, you do need a reference for basic grammar and punctuation (even if you’re naturally good at them) and you need to decide some basic questions about your writing style. Take Oxford commas, for example—do you use them or not? Your English will be correct either way, but you need to be consistent or you’ll distract the living hell out of your reader. Whether it’s Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style or something else, you need a reference book to act as your referee when you’re arguing with yourself over comma splices and abbreviations. You may not need a paper dictionary or encyclopedia anymore, but the English language is too complex for anyone to have produced a reliable online style guide yet, so you still need an actual book. Long story short: get yourself a reliable style guide, read it from cover to cover (yes, really, even though it’s boring), and use it. You won’t be sorry.

And there you have it—four of the most-thumbed books on my shelf. I hope you’ll find them as useful as I have. Until next time, happy writing!