Monday, August 31, 2009

Delete, delete, delete

Today I sing the praises of the humble delete key, that small but mighty key that has saved my sanity many times over.

I admit that I am a harsh judge of my own writing since you don't have to worry about hurting your own feelings. Everything is possible; from the harshest criticism (this entire section makes no sense - what were you smoking when you wrote this?) to bewildered amazement (holy crap, did I write this?) The wonder is thanks to that lovely key, all is fixable and no other eyes need see my horrible mistakes.

On a politically correct note, the delete key is good for the environment as I shudder to think of how many trees would have died meaningless deaths if editing or proofreading could only be done by holding a hard copy.

Perhaps we should call it not the 'delete key' but the 'try again' key. This works whether it's pertaining to huge chunks of a manuscript or a simple typo. 'Try again' reminds us that we have another chance and everyone wants that. I certainly do. One isn't allowed a 'delete, delete delete' in life, but thank the writing gods, we are all allowed a 'try again' in our work.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Blank Page

Is there anything worse than sitting in front of a blank white screen or a fresh piece of paper? It stares back at you, mockingly. 'You don't know how to begin, do you?' the little voice taunts. 'You used to be able to write, but now that's gone. You'll never write anything again. It's done.'

Maybe not every writer is cursed with this affliction, but I suffer from it every time I start a new project - be it a new game, a short story or a novel. I've already got the main points of the plot in my head and I know who all the major characters are - but the agony of actually starting to write, not to mention the torture of getting that first sentence acceptable!

I have appreciated the irony that when I wrote my last essay in University I thought "Well, that's done. " I wish I could time-travel back and say to my younger self "You won't believe what you're going to be doing decades from now. Different type of writing - but still deadlines and expectations await you!"

Of course without the agony of the blank page there wouldn't be the ecstasy of the full page not to mention the celebration of the completed project.

But oh...there is nothing more barren than that mocking blank page.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Of Three I Sing

Today I pay homage to three of my favourite writers - in all forms of writing. It goes without saying that all of you who are kind enough to comment on my blog are also among my favourites!


Elizabeth George's novels are incredible. Her plots are tricky and each of her characters seem to have some fatal flaw. Wonderful books which I read over and over again. My only complaint is that sometimes she sounds like she swallowed a dictionary for breakfast but I admit that reading her books has increased my vocabulary!


No one will replace the late, ever lamented Erma Bombeck. The humanity that shines through in each of her books is beyond measure. Always good for a giggle with situations that have me nodding in recognition. I'm sure she's making God laugh.


Nothing to watch on TV? Get yourself anything written by Aaron Sorkin. His dialogue is crisp, comedy appears at the most eccentric times, and some speeches will bring tears to your eyes. You can agree or disagree with what he's saying, but how he says it is pure genius. When I am feeling uninspired I put on a copy of The West Wing to remind me what good writing is capable of achieving.

Who are your favourites? I'd be curious to know? Do you read all types of books or mainly in the genre that you write?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Endings and Beginnngs

This is my last morning of vacation here in the beautiful Okanagan Valley. I'm typing this out on the porch looking out at a light blue sky and sipping my coffee as I try to absorb these last few minutes before the rush of packing the car and feverishly checking under beds and in drawers to make sure that nothing was forgotten.

Beginnings and endings - which are easier to write? In my work, it's endings. I've known how the book was going to end before I even started to write it, so oftentimes I'll write the end long before I've gotten to it chronologically. I try to wrap up all the loose ends but leave a few stray pieces since I have a returning character and his story continues in the other two books of the series.

Beginnings (for me) are nasty. My opening sentence goes through countless rewrites, as does my entire opening paragraph. Where to start? At the beginning? Before the beginning? After the beginning? All are valid. Beginnings set the tone. Vocabulary choices are paramount. Start off wrong and the entire plot goes astray (or at least it does for me).

Beginnings and endings. Each word you type brings you closer to the end. And each ending brings you to a new beginning. My vacation is ended. The school year will be beginning. Take a deep breath and plunge in.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Writers' Routines

I admit cheerfully that I am a creature of habit. Routines make my day a little saner. I'm sure this evolved from the time when my children were very small and any semblance of order was welcome in that endless chaos. Routines are still adhered to in the house (during the school year). Homework is done at a certain time. Meals and snacks have their appointed hours. It's not surprising then that I have built a writing routine.

I can only write on a computer. I have a fairly fast typing speed so I can keep up (more or less) with my thoughts. My handwriting quickly becomes hieroglyphics which is fairly unhelpful if I'm experiencing a creative burst.

I cannot write if there are other people in the room. It's impossible. I don't like the feeling of someone peering over my shoulder and seeing the words appear on the screen. I am a harsh enough judge of my work and any words of encouragement usually fall on deaf ears. I have said to my family that they're in a lose-lose situation. Criticism at an early stage is not encouraged and praise will be disbelieved since my thinking is that they have to say something nice.

Music? Only classical and only if I'm writing casually. If I'm under a deadline or the words are really flowing (what unspeakable joy) then silence is a must. I also am a writer-mutterer especially when it comes to dialogue. I mutter what I write and at the same time add editorial comments. This also may be another reason why I have to write alone - I'm not eager for other's to view my performance!

Before the writing? Emails must be checked and answered. Blogs must be enjoyed! A few games of Freecell never hurt anyone! If today's job is research then the internet is trolled. Pictures are captured. Time to sit back, turn up the radio and absorb my new knowledge. How can I use it? Can I use it? The self-knowledge of recognising that I'm looking up something for my own interest and nothing really to do with the WIP can be somewhat shattering but is ruefully acknowledged.

What are your routines? Are you one of these lucky creatures that can write anytime, anywhere? Must you (like some writers I know) write the first draft by hand and transfer it to computer as a second draft? I'm curious. Share your routines!

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Delicate Balance

At the moment I'm reading a book by a phenomenally successful author which was handed to me a few days ago (I'd run out of reading material, horror of horrors). He was unsatisfied with it but couldn't put a finger on why. After a reading a few chapters I suggested that perhaps it was because this book is all plot and no character. This got me to thinking, "How do we as writers balance this successfully?"

Plots are obviously essential - but to my way of thinking so are well-rounded realistic characters. I've always been interested in not just what people do but why. 'Why' fascinates me. Everyone has their own quirks and their own histories which will colour their decisions. Are they a front-of-the crowd type of person or are they happier in the background? Quietly content with their own company or do they have the need to be constantly surrounded by others? Stock characters bore me - the evil landlord, the poor but noble peasant, the beautiful yet shallow temptress; I want to meet someone more interesting.

I have tried to people my books with characters that readers will relate to. Each of them reacts to plot developments in their own way because each of their histories are different - like real people. I have been told that my books are character-driven, not plot-driven which is interesting considering that I write mysteries.

This book that I'm reading certainly has a plot that moves at a breathless pace and in that respect it is a page turner. I just prefer to read (and write) books that have characters that you don't know instantly. I like to discover the twists and turns of the character's psyches as I follow the unfolding events. That, for me, makes the book's world a real one and not something flat printed on a page.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Whips or Chains?

Aha, I thought the title would get your attention!  Sorry to disappoint, but this post deals with every writer's compulsion to get those fingers a-tapping on the keyboard each day.  Is it self-discipline?  Is it guilt?  Is it a strange twisted combination of both?

I am not one of those writers that think in terms of a certain word count per day.  I like to finish a certain unit - be it a specific step in the plot or a new facet of a character.  It might only be 1 page, but it could be 10 - either way it's one more step along the road.  Self-discipline has never been a forte of mine; but guilt is a great motivator.  I really don't like going to bed and having that little voice in my head sing at me "You did nothing on the book (or whatever) today.  Nothing.  As penance you'll have to do twice as much tomorrow".  This does not lead to sweet dreams.

Writing is hard.  Staring at that blank screen and only typing "Wow, this is going to get deleted but at least I'm writing something" or some line from Shakespeare is amusing in a small way but doesn't get me any closer to actually completing anything.  Coming up with ideas is not hard for me, but getting them down in a manner that doesn't make me ill isn't.  Somedays dialogue is the easiest thing in the world.  Other days my characters sound like stilted marionettes.  Descriptions...same story.  I have spent many hours with my fingers poised hopefully over the keyboard waiting for genius to strike. (Still waiting for the way).

But then there are the days when the words flow and I can't type fast enough to keep up.  When the dialogue sparkles and I can smell the food I'm describing or the garden that my characters are walking through.  Those days I feel like I could fly and those days are why I write.  Maybe it is the whips of self-discipline or the chains of guilt but those wings are magic.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Room with a View

I can now look up from my laptop and see the morning sun glistening on the lake.  I have soft yellow hills in the distance and vineyards within minutes.  A change of scene.

Some of my views are breathtaking and I understand why this part of British Columbia is often used as a substitute for Tuscany in the movies.  The honour guard columns of vines marching down the slopes are mesmerizing.  We are staying in an old farmhouse which is surrounded by a cherry orchard - I consider this Anton Chekhov's revenge for me never liking his plays.  An occasional vehicle can be heard but the sounds heard most often are birds and crickets.

We stayed at this same house last year and I can write here.  Really write.  My children head down to the lake and I stay here tapping away as my eyes drink in different scenery and my writing takes a fresh breath.

Not such a bad thing, really.  Time to reflect, time to breath, time to write.  And in a room with a view.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Symphony of Words

If I am listening to music when I write the genre I choose is classical.  Writing each book could be viewed as a classical composition as well, combining every player into a well-rounded, beautiful blend of melody.

First are the soloists - your main characters.  Each must speak with their own voice and yet blend harmoniously into the piece as a whole.  I think about each character's vocabulary and speech rhythms.  Is this character well-educated?  Are they plain-spoken or crafty?  Nervous or confidant?  Answers give me the right notes.

Surrounding each of your soloists are the other members of the orchestra - your background characters.  Each has an essential role to play but can't draw too much attention to themselves.  Tricky.  I aim for their voices to be heard for a moment but not to be so unique that the voice will be missed.

No symphony could be played without a conductor - the one who puts their mark on every player and makes every creative decision - the author, if I continue this metaphor.  The author's voice is heard throughout the piece and must be distinctive, yet let the other players be heard clearly.

Nobody said this was easy; but it certainly can be a satisfying experience to read it all come together and hear each book's symphony.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What's In a Name?

Names.  Who is that character?  You know...the tall one with the big nose and says things that make you laugh out loud.  What's his name?  Okay; is that the right name?  Names.  They'll get you every time.

I name my characters first, then I flesh them out.  If the name is wrong, nothing else falls into place.  If the name is right, I can hear his/her voice.  The wrong name is like putting a rubber nose on the Mona Lisa.  Amusing, yes; but ultimately not so good an idea.

I admit that I am somewhat sensitive about names - having spent a lifetime (and I'm really not exaggerating) explaining to people how to pronounce my own.  There was an email that has made several rounds demonstrating that most people only read the beginning and end of a word and that the middle could be gobbledegook.  This explains why I have answered to "Elizabeth" all my life.  Nothing wrong with the name, it's just not mine.  Mine is the Scottish version (which is interesting when you're not Scottish).  I digress...

When do you name your characters?  Are their names important or is this another thing that I must add to my already lengthy list of 'Things That I Must Learn Not to Obsess Over"?

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Spine

One of the most important lessons that I have learned through bitter experience is "Don't forget your spine".  This does not mean that I'm wimpy;  in fact I have been told that I can defend my positions with gusto; no, I'm talking about the spine of your story - that one sentence that sums everything up.  The 'what happens when' or 'what happens if' or 'Why...' that got the ball rolling back when the hints of the plot first starting knocking on your consciousness.

Yesterday I was talking to someone who is having trouble writing a play.  They have done mountains of research and adore the subject matter.  I asked "What's your play about?" and answer came there none. I expounded my theory that without the spine no one will get anywhere.  The spine becomes your roadmap, your litmus test.  I use it constantly to assure myself that I'm staying on track.  Does each sentence push the plot forward, add a new dimension to a character, color a scene?  If the answer is yes - the sentence (or paragraph) stays.  If not - out comes the highlighted delete weapon of destruction.

The spine, ladies and gentleman.  No book, play, screenplay etc. can survive without it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Pass the Wine, Please

Just when you think you have enough stress in your life the gods decide to add a bit more.  First was the death of my laptop and the accompanying terror.  Next came the horror of the cost of a new one...just at the time of year when I'm buying school supplies and clothes for ever-growing teenagers.  Then I had to deal with a customer's issues with one of my mystery games - which took hours.

On the plus side, I am now typing this blog on my new computer.  My old hard drive was undamaged so everything was saved and put into this one.  All hail the powers above.  The customer seems to be content.  All hail again.

It would be wonderful if  I could use any of these incidents in any of my stories but this brainwave has not yet occurred.  Hoping there's a silver lining to all these clouds, but in the meantime, pass the wine please.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Moving Forward?

I have always been one the world's best procrastinators. I am superb at starting projects and not so good at finishing. Both of these attributes makes writing a bit of an up-hill battle. On the other hand, I like routines. Sitting down to write at a certain time every day gives me a sense of order. Actually writing, however, is a different kettle of fish. There are blogs to peruse and enjoy. There are the news sites to check, email to check and reply to...not to mention a few rounds of my computer game of choice. See my dilemma?

I'm not without discipline (despite what I've written in the foregoing paragraph). I meet every deadline. I am quick to customer queries about my games. Commissions get done promptly. But my own writing? It does get worked on, but not at a steady pace. I wish I could be one of those writers who can demand of themselves a certain amount of words per day. There are days when I write over 2,000. There are days when I'm lucky to write 20.

I am finding writing this blog daily very helpful. It is forcing discipline on me in a gentle way. There's no consequence to not writing except personal guilt. Guilt works. Self-imposed deadlines work to a degree. I need to move forward and stop poking in the quicksand.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

To Holiday or Not to Holiday

My family and I are nearing vacation time which will be followed by back to school time. My teenagers are in deep denial, my youngest is looking forward to seeing her friends. But first...vacation.

Now comes the tough stuff. How much writing should I expect of myself? I am on vacation after all! The idea of doing nothing is incomprehensible and unrealistic. However, I don't want to feel guilty for spending time away from the computer or my notebook. Is this possible? Is time spent doing nothing (and I mean really nothing) well spent? Some of this guilt may come from the fact that as a writer you don't go to an office everyday and therefore vacation means a huge change in routine. My routine doesn't change - just the location. The sense of responsibility travels.

How good are you at really taking time off? Do you carry a notebook on vacation and make surreptitious notes on your WIP? Is it possible for writers to take a vacation?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fact or Fiction?

The wisdom shouts "Write what you know" which is tricky to follow when I've never been in a room when a body is found, nor do I surround myself with somewhat shady characters (unless I have completely misjudged my friends). Does this wisdom apply to settings as well?

None of my stories take place anywhere near where I live. I can't put a story here - it's just wrong. I know many of you do place your characters in your own 'backyard' but I can't seem to be able to. All my plots take place overseas (and at least 60 years ago)- which makes research a mite tricky.
I've scoured the web for photos (thank you Google maps), read countless travelogues. perused through old magazines but I can't actually go there. I have found the British TV series "Foyle's War" to be immensely helpful - for what I can see in the background. By the way, if you want to enjoy a fantastic mystery series watch it!

The actual house in my first book is fictional - but it's placed outside a real village - but I need the village and countryside of 60 years ago. Here's the rub: I understand that if your story takes place in New York or Chicago or Paris you'd better get the location (i.e. street names, intersections, etc.) correct if you don't want to upset the citizens of that fair city, let alone anyone who has ever visited there. My story takes place in the past. I can make it as correct as possible, but aside from time travel I'm fairly stuck. I do plan to travel to check the topography of the area and to answer certain questions - what birds can I see? Is the river fast-flowing or slow? How cold is it?

How much fact should be in our fiction? How much fact is in yours? Do you stick rigidly to reality or do you play with it a smidgen?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Computer Woes

Oh woe for my laptop! Sing sad dirges and beat a muffled drum!

Something has occurred. I have no idea what's wrong, but my laptop decided to go 'ping' and die. This is not good news for me. I have written on the household's PC but it's much better for me and much better for continuing peace on the home front if I do my writing on another computer. I wandered around yesterday like a lost sheep and was in a highly irritable mood. I'm hoping that the Mac store can fix it without the cost bringing tears to my eyes.

It has served as another reminder of how superstitious I can be. Once I have found a workable routine I like to stick to it, not to mention the feeling of 'this worked before, it will work again'.

Are all creative types superstitious? Do you have certain routines that you feel happier following? And please...send good vibrations to my laptop.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Writer's Hurdle

Now, let me make something clear right away - I'm not suffering from writer's block at this moment (knocks on near-by piece of wood), I am suffering through 'writer's hurdle'. Writer's hurdle shall be defined as "The failure to resolve a single plot point and thus brings the writing to a complete halt".

While laboring on my WIP I have tripped over this hurdle before. I cleared it with room to spare. But this time my brain keeps telling me "That doesn't make sense, you porridge-head!" I am not finding this encouraging. I have tried to take a step back and let the ideas flow in but so far I keep coming up against the same hurdle.

The agony is the fact I'm so close to finishing I can smell it. I know all I need to do is resolve this one point and everything will fall into place. I keep waiting for the bright idea to arrive with a 'ping' but this has not occurred.

I'm really hoping that writing about it will cue the ping. Or the pong. At this point any noise will do.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Reading List

My thoughts are starting to turn to thoughts of vacation as my family will be going to the Okanagan Valley in two weeks. As the One Who Packs I am starting to compose mental lists and one of those lists is "What To Read".

Every vacation I bring along edifying books (why are they always really heavy?) thinking that this is my chance to finally read them. This never happens. I don't finish reading The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I don't reread Homer. I read for fun. Books that make me laugh or wonder at the author's genius. Old favorites will include at least one book by Elizabeth George and one of Alex Guinness' masterpieces.

I've tried to take books that need intense concentration. What was I thinking? Vacation is not a time for deep study. It is a time to be reading something that you don't have self-reproaching guilt every time you lay it down.

What do you read when on vacation? Any recommendations?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Is It Too Much?

Every writing site seems to exhort 'show don't tell'. Now, I understand that action is better than passive description but some of the examples that are given strike me as florid.

What may be handicapping me is my 'less is more' philosophy gleaned from many years of working in the theatre as an actor and director. I find descriptions that go on for pages boring. When I'm the reader I skip them. I'm certainly not advocating a plain text book as that would be as dull as dishwater as well. But surely there's a happy medium. Descriptions of locations that actually describe the scene. Detail is fine, but I really don't need the poetry of every glistening raindrop as it trembles on a tender newly-unfurled leaf.

I could, of course, be completely wrong. Working on "The Watcher" has made me very aware of word choices and conveying a scene concisely is mandatory in a short story. However my history has shown me that my most constant revision in all of my work has been 'I've taken 15 words to say what I could have said in 7'.

Can 'less is more' be applied to writing? Or is it 'more is more'? What works for you?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Smiling and Writing

Does your mood affect your writing? I know that mine certainly does. If I'm feeling scattered or stressed about something to do with home then it's a fairly good bet that my writing will be scattered and stressed. Which leads to more stress...which is ironical.

I would suppose that a good writer would be able to shut out the outside world and tap away on her keyboard much like an actor must concentrate on his performance. I never found it difficult to accomplish the latter, but the former seems to occasionally exceed my grasp.

I am constantly put in new stages of awe as I learn more about other authors' discipline and diligence concerning their craft. It makes me feel very small. I do not seem to have a key to the floodgates at my disposal. I can either write or I can't. If I do write during a 'can't' time I guarantee that I'll be deleting it later (and have a little voice telling me this fact the entire time I'm writing).

On the plus side, "The Watcher" continues apace. It's turning out to be an interesting exercise in word choice and plot/character balance.

Here's my wish for good moods for all of you!