Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The "Platform" that holds up your "Work In Progress"

I've always been fascinated by oil rigs in the ocean.

The ocean is amazing. She is vast, beautiful, dangerous, tempting, scary, inviting and unpredictable.

And an oil rig is this dinky looking thing in the middle of this vast terrain of danger sucking oil through a straw. And when the ocean has a temper tantrum, for the most part, these dinky little things hold up.

Solitary Oil Rig In The Arabian Sea

I've watched what the ocean can do -- at any time, to anything. Yet, these oil rigs survive.

Sometimes I think of my work-in-progress as an oil rig. Often, people focus on the "stuff" that sits on the platform. And some dress it up with clever plot twists, settings, detailed back stories, and conflicts... but what about the "thing" that actually keeps the platform steady and unwavering? What about the foundation?

For me, the foundation is the story. My stories are character driven -- this does not imply no plot. Indeed they coexist. So far, I have not found a way to separate the two -- the plot is what happens to the characters in the context of the story. My stories are about people being placed in a situations that calls for them to become more than was expected -- about testing the will of my characters to rise to the occasion.

I have thought up a lot of promising ideas -- I have pages and pages of notes that may never materialize into anything. You see, I've learned from the mistakes of the past. Writing a full-length novel, like the ocean, puts a lot of stress and strain on the story... and sometimes, the story buckles.

Writing a great story, although difficult and challenging, should be fun. You should love the tale your about to tale so much that all the challenges and exhaustion that sets in does not alter your passion for the story. A lot of unpredictable things comes our way. But if the story's not great, and bad things happen (and they will), we get trapped in revision hell. The process is no longer fun. Instead it's painful.

The way I see it, we write because there's something we want to share with others. It's important to tell that story in the best possible way. If built on the right foundation, your characters, settings, dialogue, and everything else will hum true.

"It's about the story, and it's always about the story." ~ Stephen King -- On Writing

How do you test your story's foundations? What questions do you ask your story to see if she'll hold up the trials and tribulations known as writing?

Fight the good fight.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Say that to me again!

I'd like to believe that I'm a smart guy. In fact, I pride myself on my ability to listen fully. Also, I'm not defensive on most things (most) and fairly open-minded to the possibility of anything.

So far, this has translated well with my writing. Every feedback that I've gotten I've been able to find a way to make my work better.

Maybe not so true with my second novel. I've been revising Rocky Peak for a few weeks now. My mentor, Michael Levin, gave me fantastic feedback (as usual) but he wanted me to push the conflict and the problem further. Make it bigger.

So I did. After I shared it with him, we had what I thought was a repeat conversation.
"Good, very good. But we've seen that before. Escalate it, bring something new to the reader."

Hmm... okay. So I  brainstormed some more and come up with the ground breaking idea. Send it off.

And again... "Yes. I get it. But, we've seen that in x book, and y movie. It needs to be fresh. Escalate it."

It didn't quite sink in until I watched Nacho Libre. Nacho Libre???? Yes, my friend, there's a lot of wisdom that comes from the lips of Jack Black. The specific scene is the one where his "Luchador" partner (Esqueleto) tells Nacho, that he hates all the orphans.

The reality was that I didn't want to hear what I was being told. I wasn't ready -- emotionally -- to take my characters there. Because I knew what it would imply -- There would be hurt, pain, and possibly loss. I didn't want to do that to them. I am too attached to them. I care for them. But isn't that when it really hurts in life? We suffer over people we know, scenarios that we can relate to, pain that we've experienced in the past. We may not want to open those wounds. We may not want to relive them, but if we don't, are we being honest. Are we really writing what is in our heart?

Last night was tough. When reality stares at you, do you look away, or face it with courage?

I outlined my thoughts and got ready to kill my darlings. By just past midnight, I had what I thought was powerful -- and painful. I haven't made the revisions yet, as I'm waiting for feedback. But when I do, I will drop head first into a roller coaster ride. And that's good. I should go through that, because if it hurts me, then I will give my reader something that will be meaningful.

I must do right by my reader. And the reader is who really counts... after all, I'm one of them.

Fight the good fight.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Chasm Between Dreams and Reality

Are you awake? Are you sure? Sometimes, I'm not too sure...

Those that follow me already know this -- I write at nights. It's just how things have worked out in my life. No complaints -- just a statement of fact.

I have both a day-job and an amazing family to tend to. By the time our two boys fall asleep, it's right around 9-ish. For the first 60 minutes I finish up day-job related matters so that the next morning isn't a complete cluster. Then, around 10-ish I enter my world of writing. It's a lonely world... by design.

Noise canceling headphones + novel-specific playlist + coffee = Approximately two hours of writing

I am efficient by necessity. I don't have the luxury to write eight to ten hours per day, or write for many months. But there's more to it than meets the eye.

As I reach the point of exhaustion (typically around midnight) it usually coincides with the start of a new scene or the start of an important conflict. As I slip under the sheets, although exhausted, my brain is still hyper-active. And I want that. I need that in order to be efficient with my time.

Let me explain.

Jaume Plensa Dream
Once I'm out, in my half-dream-half-conscious state, I see the scenes that I've just written. I "see" the movie of the scenes. I hear the dialogue, I see the facial expressions, I feel the thoughts... and then... something amazing happens. The story -- the movie -- continues. I see how the movie plays out, I see the next scene.

I am saddened to say that by the time I wake up, 80% of what I saw is gone. But those nuggets that remain I immediately jot down in my writing journal.

But it doesn't stop there. Throughout the day, when getting coffee, when in the car, when eating, I start filling the blanks.

By the time I am ready to write, my brain, my fingers, my heart is bursting at the seams to write it down. So when I launch Scrivener, I have an explosion of material coming from my fingers.

My daily goal is 2,500 words. I have done 5,000 on many occasions.

I don't say this to show off. In fact, this type of work is not sustainable. My worlds are sometimes blurred. Headaches are common. I start to think my characters are real. Which is why it is critical for me to write with velocity. I often think that if I take too long with a novel, either the story will leave me, or I will have a nervous breakdown -- or both.

All the best tell the aspiring novelist to separate themselves from a finished first draft for 30 days -- to create distance and objectivity.

I've done this with both my novels. With Aces I finished the first draft in 8 weeks. Rocky Peak, my second novel, was done in 6 weeks. During the break I did my best to "heal" the scar tissue left on my brain. But it less than a week, my brain begins to fill the plot gaps that I've missed during the first draft.

But I resist the temptation. Even though I am certain my characters are calling me back.

I hold out for as long as I can. Because I know that once I start, the chasm between my two worlds will collapse again. In perpetual purgatory. And you know what? I actually like it... What can I tell you? I'm a writer.

Fight the good fight.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Who You Callin' a Rookie?

Webster's Dictionary has the following definition: 

Definition of ROOKIE

: recruitalso : novice
: a first-year participant in a major professional sport
With all due respect to the Webster clan, I define rookie as hungry, willing to work harder than anyone else just to get on the play-field, talented, maybe raw, but driven. The rookie wants to outdo himself and improve -- the rookie wants the chance to shine. But in my eyes, it's not a destination, it's a journey. You are never done, until the day you die.

So let's get something straight, a Rookie is not an Amateur. A Rookie is not "less than." It's a state of mind, it's an attitude, it's an approach to life and the challenges that comes our way.

My blog is named "Rookie Scrivener." If both fortune and grace are on my side, and one day I am a published novelist, I hope I never lose sight of the importance of being, and remaining, a rookie.

I like to believe that if Rookie wasn't defined by "time" but by the "attitude" then we could apply that definition to people like Michael Jordan until the day he retired. Or Stephen King. Or JK Rowling.

What do I mean? With each progressive book these masters have gotten better, or at a minimum maintained their level of genius. It's not an easy task. In fact, it's nearly impossible. Statistically speaking, the probability of recreating this level of genius is not much better than zero. This is why these people are outliers. They don't belong in the normal distribution of humans. In short, Rookie's can be one-hit wonders. But not those that never take their life or craft for granted.

Let's look at the Beatles. With each album they broke new ground. They continued to redefine the landscape of music, creating new sounds and variations. Music was never the same again after the Beatles. Then they broke up. The individual members of the Beatles were still amazing... and they created some fantastic music. But... (there's always a but)... would Paul McCartney get a record deal today?

Okay before you send me hate letters, hear me out. Listen to some of his music after the Beatles and Wings. I mean, come on! Was this the same guy that wrote Yesterday? His popularity today is not because of the great new material he writes now, but due to his past genius. We give him a pass. He is no longer a rookie. He has lost that mojo, that something that made him a living legend.

I suppose it will happen to all of us. We will lose that edge one day. I for one hope to always be a rookie. Go ahead call me a rookie. You've never said anything more complimentary.

Whatever may be your passion, I hope you never give up, you never assume you know it all, you never claim you've figured it out, you never think you're too old to learn new things, you never look back with regret.

Fight the good fight.

Friday, April 8, 2011

As seen on Twitter: Writing Prompts by Donald Maass - Consolidated

[Updated on April 27th, 2011 - Added April's writing prompts]

If you are a writer, this blog post is for you.

A month ago, literary agent and author, Donald Maass (@DonMaass) started posting writing prompts on Twitter. For those in the business, Donald Maass is a house-hold name.

He is not only the founder of one of the premiere literary agencies but also the author of a various books to help transform your next novel, into a breakout novel. Recently, the paperback version of his latest book, "The Breakout Novelist" was released.

Also, you know that I am a huge fan of James Scott Bell. Connection? Mr. Maass represents Mr. Bell. Nuff' said!

I got a lot of value out of these prompts and used them as my night-time "Do This" exercise. I'm editing my second novel while I query ACES. These helped me go back and revisit scenes, motivations, and more.

I understand that he plans on doing more of these and will also post them on his agency's site. Until then, I've compiled them. I wanted to have these all in one place, and said to myself, "Self, I bet your peeps would like these also."

If you like these, you'll love his books.

Without further ado, here are all of his promts, as seen on Twitter:

01 What’s the worst thing your MC does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more. 

02 What’s the most selfless thing your MC does? What good change or effect does that have on someone unexpected? Add that in. 

03 Find any violence in your ms. Delete any shock, fear or horror. Replace with two *conflicting* emotions that are less obvious.

Today's Breakout prompt may be tougher than it looks. Let me know. Ready? Here we go...

04 Choose a middle scene: What does POV character feel most strongly? Evoke that feeling without naming it, through actions alone. 

A tragedy really puts things in perspective, yes? Help others, live strong, write. Today's Breakout prompt for whenever you're ready...

05 What should your readers most see, understand or be angry about? At what story moment will that happen? Heighten it in two ways. 

We grow and change day by day. Characters can too, scene by scene. Today's Breakout prompt coming up...

06 How does your POV character change in your current scene? Work backwards. Make that change unlikely, a surprise or impossible. 

It's Sunday, but no rest for fiction writers! Today's Breakout prompt coming up in just a minute...

07 What does a sidekick or secondary character see about your MC that your MC denies? Force a showdown over it. 

Our friends sometimes know us better than we know ourselves. Today's Breakout prompt coming up...

08 What does a sidekick character know about your MC that your MC refuses to see? Force a showdown over it. 

08 Over what does your MC disagree with his/her boss or mentor? When does the boss/mentor prove to be right? 

Ever been in a place you just can't seem to get away from? Today's Breakout prompt coming at ya...

09 What’s a place in your story where something significant happens? Switch two other story events to that location too.

It's characters inner lives that make fiction involving. Adding to that is not subtracting from story. Today's Breakout prompt coming up...

10 In your current scene, what’s a setting detail that delights or disgusts your POV character? Why? Elaborate & add. 

Sometimes it’s the small things in life that overwhelm us with their beauty. Today’s Breakout prompt sneaking up on you…

11 Find a small passing moment in your manuscript. What big meaning does your MC see in it? Add that. 

How do we know that big events are truly big? Because of the details that stick with us. Today's Breakout prompt coming up...

12 During a big dramatic event, what’s one small thing your POV character realizes will never change or never be the same again? Add. 

Weekends are a good time for reflection--by your MC. Today’s Breakout prompt is coming up…

13 For your MC, what are the best things about these times? The worst? Create a passage of his/her take on this era. 

The world of the story is mostly the world as your MC sees it. Today’s Breakout prompt is on the way…

14 In your climactic scene, what are 3 details of place that only your MC would notice? Cut more obvious details, replace with these.

Reversals big and small are one of the most dynamic effects in fiction. Today’s breakout prompt in a moment…

15 What’s one thing your MC hates as the story opens? By the end have your MC love that same thing. (Or vice versa.) 

To provoke a noticeable change, create a sharp provocation. Today’s Breakout prompt zeroes in on your current scene…

16 What’s the precise turning point in your current scene? Make its trigger more dramatic—or less obvious. 

Characters’ convictions anchor them. Pulling up those anchors is deeply dramatic. Today’s Breakout prompt is sailing your way…

17 Who in your story has an ironclad, unshakable belief? Shatter or reverse it by the story’s end. 

Engaging characters are passionately engaged in life. Their feelings tell us so. Today’s Breakout prompt coming up…

18 Give your MC passionate feelings about something trivial: e.g., cappuccino, bowling, argyle socks. Write his/her rant. Add it.

It doesn't advance the story, it deepens character. @ How does a trivial rant advance the story?

What do you stand for? What about your MC? Today’s Breakout prompt matters…

19 What principle guides your MC? At what moment is it most tested? When does it fail? Put it into action three times. 

Saturdays are good for cleaning up clutter. Here comes today’s Breakout prompt…

20 Cut 100 words from your last 3 pages.You have 5 minutes. Fail? Penalty: cut 200 words. 

Dialogue is an opportunity not to be missed—an opportunity for tension. No relaxing on Sunday, guys! Today’s Breakout prompt is…

21 In the last dialogue passage you wrote double the friction, disagreement, overt hostility or hidden agenda. 

Exposition, inner monologue, stream of consciousness…whatever you term it, use it to create tension. Today’s Breakout prompt is…

22 In the last inner monologue you wrote insert one insight, question or worry that hasn’t hit you (or your MC) before now. 

People’s observations—especially of other people—make them interesting. Same is true of characters. Today’s Breakout prompt is…

23 What does your MC know about people that no one else does? Create 3 moments when he/she spots that in others. 

In fiction, obvious emotions rarely need stating. The reader’s already felt them. Go deeper with today’s Breakout prompt…

24 Find a strong emotion and replace it with a secondary one; find a throw-away moment and infuse it with rich feelings. 

Secondary characters can come and go, making little impression—a shame. Today’s Breakout prompt is about to make a grand entrance…

25 Before a new character debuts, give your MC an expectation or fear. Make the reality three times better or worse. 

MC’s make mistakes but often it doesn’t cost much. Today’s Breakout prompt is designed to hurt. Here it comes…

26 Whom is your MC afraid to let down? What is the sacred trust between them? What would cause your MC to break it? Break it.

What you don’t know can’t hurt you? Heck, why *wouldn’t* you want to hurt your MC? Here comes today’s Breakout prompt…

27 What secret is your MC keeping? Who is keeping one *from* your MC? Spill the truth at the worst possible time. 

Why have your characters merely talk when they can snipe, attack, burn or lay waste—verbally, I mean? Here’s today’s Breakout prompt…

28 Set off fireworks between two characters. What’s the biggest skyrocket you can explode for the finale? Go ahead…kaboom!

Down to the last three Breakout prompts! Hope you’ve found them useful. Here’s today’s…

29 What’s the emotion or experience you’re most afraid to put your MC through? Go there. Do it. Now. 

Emotional research: ask others who have @ but what if you honestly haven't lived that emotion yet..don't know how to write it?

Only two Breakout prompts left! How many have you worked into your ms? Be honest. Here’s today’s…

30 What’s the worst thing that happens to your MC? Work backwards. Make it something your MC has spent a lifetime avoiding. 

This is it! The final day in this month of daily Breakout prompts. Which has helped you most?

For this final Breakout prompt, an adaptation of a classic Breakout stakes raising technique. Ready? Here it comes...

31 What’s the very worst aspect of the main problem your MC faces? Find one way to make it still worse. 

And some nice news for Breakout prompt users: I'll be posting weekly prompts for the rest of the year. Stay tuned. 

-- April 2011 --

Ever get an eerie chill, an empty feeling inside, and know--just know--you are somewhere unsafe? Here's this week's Breakout prompt...

32 Find a corner, crossroads or dark object in your story. Invest it with eeriness, unknown portent or dread. Go there three times.

It’s Breakout Tuesday. Today’s prompt is inspired by Anne Perry, noted for the moral power of her novels. But there’s a trick to that.

Does the message in your story drop like a rock on the reader’s head? Better is to make your MC sensitive to the morality of small moments.

33 Find a small hurt someone suffers. What’s the big principle or hidden injustice it represents? Stir your MC to anger over it. 

Breakout Tuesday! This week begins a series of prompts focusing on plumbing emotional depths in your WIP. Here it comes...

33 In your current scene, what’s the strongest emotion? Why is it welcome? Why not? What’s good about it? What’s utterly wrong?


Fight the good fight!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How I chose "her" name

I've been asked by a few followers, friends and my cats, how I chose the name "Gemma" for my heroine in Aces.

There are many theories... but there's only one truth. As your reward, you will know the truth. And one day, when I've sold Aces, and I invite all of you to the movie premiere (all y'all) you will have the insider information.

Let's start at the beginning. I have a day job. Okay, so that's not that exciting, but my day job is in the Entertainment Industry (Okay, that's not too exciting either, believe me). What that means is that we have a lot of coffee and a lot of one-sheets all over the place.

What? What's a one-sheet, you ask? Movie Posters. [That's "insider" lingo... you can be cool at the next party you go to].

Anywho.... As the idea for Aces was forming in my head, I was struggling with the name for my heroine. The hero -- Andre -- was immediate. Not sure why, it just was. But I struggled with this British tennis star's name. I had many options, none of them had the quality I was looking for. It needed to be special, like her.

So, there I was, preparing a cup of coffee...

Nice coffee machine, nice boy... and my eyes drifted off to a one-sheet in the hallway... (once again, that's a movie poster -- you really need to learn these terms before the premiere of the movie)

What? You can't see it too well?

How's this? Better?

And there it was! It was so obvious! So I -- What? You still don't get it?

Here you go. Look again!

That look in her eyes was exactly what I envisioned in the opening chapter of my novel when Andre and Gemma come face-to-face. You've read that part, right? What am I gonna do with you? Go now, and read Chapter 1 of Aces.

Okay, now with that scene in mind, look at her eyes again.

And what was this actress's name? I looked down. BAM!

Gemma Arterton. Gemma.

But what does that name mean? Would it be fitting?
courtesy of www.name-meanings.com

Gemma means "Gem." Of course it did... that is exactly how I imagined Andre thinking of her crystal blue eyes. It was meant to be. Come to me, my precious Gemma...

Now you know the whole story. But please remember to dress nicely for the premiere... What did you say? Okay fine, I need to sell the book first... well, actually, I need to get an agent first. Stop confusing me with facts!

Fight the good fight. It's worth it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Great Lenore

In late January, J M Tohline kicked off a contest. The winner would receive an Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) of his soon-to-be-released novel, The Great Lenore. The contest was the six-word story.

I thought it was a clever way to get some momentum around the book. Jordan's novel does not have the marketing budget of a Stephen King novel. Instead, he relies on word of mouth to generate interest. This contest was a way to create awareness which would lead up to big day, when readers and fans could pre-order his novel.

I continued to see people posting their six-word stories on Twitter, and in a moment of inspiration I posted one. Then another. That decision set off a chain of events I had not expected. Ah, my dear friends, the choice we make alter the world we live in.

To my shock, I was selected as a finalist by Jordan. The readers voted for a couple of weeks... and I won. I was elated for many reasons--but mostly I felt humility. Who were these people who voted for me? But I digress. What I did not expect was that by winning the ARC I would be forever touched by Jordan's story.

I expected it to be very good. No doubt. After all, I had read his opening chapter available on his blog. So I knew the writing would be great. I knew that it would be well worth the time. What I did not expect was a masterful, clever and touching story that would keep me connected to the story long after I was done.

The novel's opening sentence:
     When I met Lenore, she’d been dead for four days.

Are you hooked? Yeah, I was too.

Jordan's opening reminded me of The Strager by Albert Camus:
     MOTHER died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.

I was fourteen when I read that. I was hooked.

I received the ARC Friday, April 1st. I wanted to start right away, but to my horror, we had to go to a birthday party... if it wasn't my Goddaughter's 8th birthday, I would have come down with an immediate 24-hour flu. Alas, we went, and by the time we came home The Great Lenore stared at me, disappointed. I dropped on the bed, ready to pass out, but I had to start. I read the first two chapters before exhaustion took me. When I woke up, my mind needed to read the rest. It was already too late for me.

With the exception of 30 minutes to drive my son back-and-forth to his guitar/piano lesson and another 13 minutes to eat lunch, I read it non-stop. I could not set it down. I had to know what happened next. Not typical for a Literary Novel? Maybe, but this novel has all the elements needed that kept me flipping pages. I was done by 5:30 PM.

The story is crafted with an expert's touch. It's from the perspective of the main character, Richard. But really, the main character is the world he creates -- a world which is a web of connections, relations, lies, and decisions.

"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
~Sir Walter Scott

The webs in The Great Lenore are indeed tangled, and the relations expertly revealed. You are tied to the story in a way that you find yourself asking "Why?" You rub your face. You hurt. You care.

The reader sees the choices that are made, and the narrator even tells us throughout the story that he would regret those choices--if only he had known. The reader knows it's coming, but we are still impacted profoundly when it happens. We are still surprised by the turn that the story takes.

The story has flash-backs and flash-forwards. Everything you read on the craft of writing will tell you not to do it. I suppose there's a lot of validity to the concerns. Mainly because most authors can't pull it off. In the Great Lenore, JM Tohline pulls it off with elegance -- Jordan is an expert. You are never confused. Instead, the tapestry of the story is reveled in a way that keeps you grounded in the story world.

Most books suffer because of poor character development. We hear of two-demensional characters who kill otherwise great stories. In the Great Lenore, they are not three-demensional -- Jordan takes them to the next level where the fourth dimension comes through. You feel them, you get them, and you even begin to absorb their world through their drunken stupor.

Is this novel for everyone? No novel ever will be. But if you appreciate a story that will haunt you, characters that you will care for like your own, and how we are connected to the decisions we make, then this novel is for you. I recently blogged about stories and how they, like gravity, are tethered to us.

I made a decision to enter a contest in January. In April, I was rewarded with a book that is tethered to me. It has added more to me -- and I would hope that all books we read we internalize to some extent. We learn from them. We become better.

Take a moment and pre-order the novel. It will be released in June. Yes, you will have to wait. But it's worth the wait. Even though I have the ARC -- and it's mine so don't even think that I will give this one away -- I have pre-ordered two copies. I'm open to contest ideas for the two I've pre-ordered.

Also, go to his site and enter the latest contest. You can build a book-trailer for The Great Lenore and in the process win the book and maybe even some money!

Below is the synopsis from J M Tohline's site.

Fight the good fight. That starts with helping a debut novelist who is talented and humble -- two attributes of A Quality Man.

# # #

Brief synopsis of The Great Lenore:

On December 10, 2008, a plane flying from London to Boston crashed into the Atlantic, killing every person on board. Among those pronounced dead was Lenore Montana - a rapturous young woman who was traveling home to the husband she resented and the life she despised.

Upon receiving news of Lenore's death, her two-timing husband and his aristocratic family retreated to their home on Nantucket Island.

Four days after the crash, Lenore sneaked onto Nantucket Island also - very much alive.

She had left her flight just before it took off, and now she was dead on paper. And the world was open before her.

Freedom! A chance to start over!

Before Lenore could begin her new life, however, she wanted to attend her funeral.

She longed to see how her husband reacted to her death. She longed to see how the family reacted. She longed to see how the world...
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