Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Spring Break. Time for Gingerbread.

What is it about burnt peanuts? What could make something sooooo good? I love them. I can't stop thinking about them. And they look so weird. Hmm. I don't get it. Maybe it's that crispy bumpy red outer layer that houses the sweet chewy inner layer that houses the yummy peanut?

I once wrote a children's book about peanuts. I wonder where that is...

But anyway, the burnt peanuts worked great on the gingerbread houses my kids made today. My six-year-old used one atop a dab of green frosting that looked like an ivy leaf. Holly and ivy--cool. Yeah, yeah, I know it's March. Spring break, in fact. And this is why we finally have time to get to this crafty project.

In the after-Christmas clearance I found this gem. It was not just a gingerbread house. It was a gingerbread village. That meant there were five tiny gingerbread houses, one for each of my kids. It came with frosting and (according to the outside of the box) "LOTS OF CANDY!"

Which I, naturally, didn't believe.

"Lots of candy" is in the eye of the beholder. Without even glancing inside I made a backup plan and bought the 50-cent bags of Sather's candies at the grocery store: licorice laces (love them!), burnt peanuts (crave them!), Good n Plenty (generic), gumdrops (don't love them but have to have them for gingerbread decorating purposes.) Thus armed, I felt ready for the challenge! (I view all craft projects as a challenge. Bless the hearts of those women who view them as relaxation. It will never be me.)

So we gathered everyone around, thanked them for doing their enormous list of jobs for which this activity served as a reward, and broke out the kit. Each kid picked their favorite little building--a toy store, a regular house, a gabled house, a bakery, something else--and got going.

It would have been fine. It might have even been fun, except I miscalculated. Instead of buying backup candy, I should have bought backup frosting. After several months on various shelves, that stuff had turned from malleable to crusty. Imagine~in March! Shouldn't frosting be more dependable than that?
Our houses didn't look nearly this good.

Yeah, I could have whipped out my powdered sugar and butter and made another batch, but instead I made them muddle through in crustiness, and the houses kept falling down every time they pressed a Spree onto the roof. There were some tears, and growls of frustration not a few.

Eventually I distracted them by taking them to the park.

I guess the lesson is that some things are better done sooner than later. I'm sure this applies to writing. For me it probably best applies to journal writing. Write while the emotion still tingles, while the details and feeling are still fresh. Journaling can be a great source of datamining for future writing. I don't necessarily have to write about my own experiences, but when I have a character who needs to feel a certain emotion, I can dig through the journals and find a time when I felt depressed or elated or incensed. Then I can more accurately infuse the character with the emotion.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Girls Day Out! Guess where.

My husband took my boys off to the mountain today, so the girls and I had a GIRLS DAY. I'll give you three guesses where we went.


To her credit, my 3 year old requested it. In our little town there's an old Sonic drive in converted into a candy shop, and we passed it this morning and she went into palpitations. "Please, Mommy! Please can we go to the Lollipop Shop right now?"

It was 7:15 a.m.  Now, that's a girl after my own heart.

The trip (with her sisters) eventually happened right after lunch, and I let the girls pick any candy they chose, although I think I would've vetoed anything that cost over $2. The older two took it very seriously, poring over their options, and eventually ended up with King Candy Necklaces. Those would be the same as regular candy necklaces (the kind with smarties on an elastic string) -- only bigger.

The 3 year old was less methodical. We opened the door to the store. She raced directly for the candy lipsticks that were in a big glass fishbowl, and snatched out a pink one. Less than five seconds flat from door to counter. Very smooth. 26 cents. Cool.

Me, it took all my will power not to get a set of wax lips (or wax fangs). And the Uno bar--my favorite of all time! It's like fluffy chocolate-infused lard covered in chocolate and with flecks of delicious mystery texture in it. LOVE in a SILVER WRAPPER.

I didn't eat it. I think the Easter candy did me in last week.

And on writing? I'm still editing. Editing. Is. Pain.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

PLOTTING--a tutorial (PLUS a big complaint about Cracker Jack)

I recently got a question from an aspiring author. She had a question many of us have when we are trying to complete a novel:

"I know the beginning, and I have some of it written; and I know the end of the book. It's the getting from here to there that I'm having trouble with."

She told me she knew her characters inside and out, she knew what they'd do in any given situation, and the story idea was compelling, but she was stuck!

How many times have we run up against this dilemma? We've got an idea of whose story we're telling and about their happy ending, but what happens to them along the way? What fills up the middle 2/3 of the book?

Great question!

And....I think I have an answer. Ta da~Here are my thoughts:

First off, we need to know what our character wants. If, like the author said, she knew that character inside and out, she would know what s/he wanted more than anything. The thing the main character wants more than anything IS the story. Desire drives every good story.

Second, we need to discover what stands between the main character and her/his desire or goal. Make a huge list. Make the list of possible obstacles exhaustive. Delve into the preposterous. Go for the obvious, and then go beyond. Ask yourself, "What's the worst thing that could happen to my main character?" and then ratchet it up.

Once you have that list, whittle it down to (about) your top 10 favorite obstacles. Sometimes the more unexpected the better. Surprise the reader! We read to be surprised, and surprise delights us and keeps us turning pages.

Then, imagine that each one of these becomes a scene in that middle 2/3 of the book. Figure out all the ins and outs of what could happen to the character when that obstacle arises. Make things really tough on the character. Imagine what all the possible range of emotions would be for the character when the obstacle arises. That's the reaction. Then, get the character moving toward overcoming it. Show how the character obliterates the obstacle. This gives the readers a chance to cheer. Then, hit us with the next obstacle--and end the scene with a cliffhanger.

Line up the obstacles in a crescendo. Arrange and rearrange them until the obstacles are paced just right. Then plop them down. Write the scenes, flesh them out. In each scene, as the character encounters and overcomes each obstacle, the ideal is if that obstacle serves to "reveal character"--to give the readers a further glimpse into what that hero is like on the inside. So...when you're choosing obstacles from your exhaustive list of possibilities, try to make the obstacles different enough that they'll expose a different facet of the hero/ine's character.

The final obstacle should be the worst. It should propel the main character into the crisis and the final showdown that leads to the triumphant ending.

It's okay to have lighthearted things along the way, but conflict reveals character, and drives plot, which is character. Character is plot.

Right now I have three or four characters in my brain. They are barely on paper, just a page or two, and I'm trying to decide which one needs to have his/her story told next. I keep thinking of it this way: I know this character. This character has a story, and it HAS to be his story. With the traits he has, the story really only has one possible plot. This is HIS story.

I'm not sure that makes sense. Maybe not. But I know what I mean, and I think I know what will happen to millionaire gone bust Ivan Potts (this oddball character in my head who keeps bothering me) when he makes this life-changing decision to take his friend Nils Jacoby up on his offer to go to England and start over after his (latest) bankruptcy. Ivan's story needs to be told soon. What's his happy ending? I think I know--and of course it involves finding love--and now I have to discover out what stands between him and his happily ever after.

This process can be really fun--creative crack. Er, Cracker Jack. Rarely in the novel-writing process is there such a rush as when brainstorming the middle section. I crack myself up. My husband is good for a few insane ideas. In fact, one of my favorite obstacles to happiness for my main character Susannah Hapsburg in Delicious Conversation came from my husband: the legacy Galapagos tortoise once owned by Charles Darwin himself.

When considering what obstacles to throw at the story people, it helps to really know them. Take their character traits into consideration. What do they love, hate, fear? These emotions are huge clues for knowing what to throw into their paths.

So. That's long enough for now.

I'm boiling all of this down from several books I've studied, conferences I've been to, etc. I think most of it probably comes from James Scott Bell and James N. Frey, which I've mentioned umpteen times on this blog. So, check those out for a more comprehensive study of the topic.

Speaking of Cracker Jack... mmm. I love that stuff. I love the popcorn, totally love the caramely crispiness of it, how it crackles in my mouth and tastes kind of burned and yet heavenly. However, the truly magical part of Cracker Jack is....

NO! Not the prize inside. (They've gotten disappointingly cheap. A foldy face of Thomas Jefferson? Uh, maybe not very exciting as a "prize." Whatever happened to the mini magnifying glasses, or even a butterfly stick-on tattoo? Sigh. Things just aren't like the good old days of a mood ring.)

It's the peanuts. Mmm. The total immersion of each peanut half in the caramely crispiness of the coating. Now that's a thing for a heroine (me) to desire. Are we all the heroes of our own story? Me, I'm the heroine of my tale--that of a woman on a lifelong quest to eat as much candy as possible...what could possibly stand in my way?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An apology, Dickens, and how hubby slammed the Cadburys

First off, I must apologize for the mixed metaphor as title for my last blog post. I hope it bothers all my readers less than it bothers me. The truth is, I could go in and change it, but I choose to leave it there as a twisted form of "writer's punishment" for myself. Possibly as a motivator never to do it again. (Fodder and data-mining. One is food. One is mining. Honestly. I could have made an effort.)

So, I was reading (again) the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities the other day. I say "again" because I've read the beginning a LOT of times. I don't mean just the "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" part. I mean the first three chapters. Much as I love Dickens, (and I seriously do love Dickens and many of his contemporaries), this words on the pages of this book begin to swirl before my very eyes. I love the movie, I love the characters, it's magnificent. I just get stuck somewhere about halfway through.

I WILL conquer it, however. Someday.

In the meantime, I will continue to reflect on this little gem of writerly insight from the beginning. Dickens muses at the beginning of chapter three to this effect:

"A wonderful fact of nature to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other."

He goes on, and waxes eloquent in expounding on this theme. I love it. You can read it here. I have reflected on this idea dozens of times, and probably mentioned it to YOU (if you and I speak on any kind of regular basis because I'm like that, repeating myself everywhere I go). Even someone I think I know very well, like my husband, or my sister, or my bestest friend, still houses secrets I will never know. The thoughts, dark and light, will only come to my knowledge if the person allows me in.

It's a gift God gives us.

And, a friend commented Saturday, "Plus, do we really know ourselves?"

This struck me. And suddenly I realized something about fiction, and why we love it, why we crave it, why we almost need it: fiction allows us a window into another person's soul.

The writer slits open the character and gives us a view of deep feelings, of motives, of fears, of doubts and misgivings, of anger, hate, jealousy, love, longing, despair. The list goes on. And the more expertly the author delivers the emotions, the greater the connection the reader will feel to it, and the more satisfying it will be. Perhaps this is because we long to understand others, or ourselves. The writer conveys a full banquet of emotions we ourselves have felt, and probably not expressed to anyone. It comes as a relief to us to recognize those same emotions lain bare in someone else, even someone fictional. It doesn't matter if it's fictional, because the more real the emotions, the more real the character is to the reader.

Readers read for character. Character revelation is plot. We feel a connection to a character, we're most likely going to read that book. The greater the connection, the faster we read the book. Period.

Connection. A glance at the secret inner workings of the soul. Sometimes the character expresses the feelings, and sometimes the author can convey emotion that the character himself cannot recognize honestly in himself. Both deliveries can be valid, if done well.

And now, I need a new delivery: another bag of Cadbury Mini-Eggs, if you please. The one I bought just over 24 hours ago is officially empty. I even shook the little candy shards left in the crevices into my hand and popped them in my mouth. Did I share with the children? Maybe one or two. When Gary tasted them, he disparaged them (is that the root of the term "dissed?") and was thereafter forbidden, even while we were watching Hulu retreads and mindlessly popping candy in our mouths. Instead, I tossed him mini Twix bars in pastel mylar wrappers.

I know, I know, I am leaving out important detail, as in how Gary slammed the Cadburys. (Shame on him!) It's not nice to repeat low gossip. But since it's about chocolate and not a *person*, fine. Fine! He said the chocolate wasn't quite right. It was of low quality. How DARE he!

He's a chocolate snob, though. And I'll love him through thick and thin(mint) of it all. So, I guess I need to go buy him a Dove Dark Chocolate Bunny that he can chip the ears off and leave melty shards (speaking of shards) of on my bedspread during Hulu marathons while I hog the Cadburys. But he better keep his mitts of them. They're mine.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Candy Has Landed. And Magazines for Fodder and Data-mining

They're here! I feel like I should do that in that creepy movie child's voice.

Stopped by WalMart this morning for some dishwasher detergent and ZOINKS! Getting lined up in their cardboard crates on the holiday aisle ... Cadbury Mini Eggs.

I found myself singing, "It's the most wonderful time of the year."

When I mentioned to the lucky gal who was filling the shelves with the heavenly Eastery candy that I'd been looking forward to Easter candy since Valentine's Day, she said, "I'm glad it's here because it means the end of my candy-holiday season." Poor girl.

So, I bought just two bags today: a Cadbury, of course, and a bag of pastel mylar wrapped mini-Twix bars. I think I can hold off until 10:00 a.m. to break them out. I think.

If you live in my WalMart region you better get over there and get your own bags before I buy them all, though. It's a risk. I guess the reason I have to make the Easter candy announcement in the poltergeist voice is for me, I could go into a sugar coma at any time between now and the post-Easter clearance. But a coma of bliss!

It's the best, best of all the candy times of year.

New topic. And, no, I didn't make it until 10:00 before I ate the chocolate. I made it until 9:51.

My brother sent my 13 year old son a subscription to Auto Week magazine. My brother's a car guy. He bought a 1967 MG in high school and a parts machine and made one sweet cherry red convertible over the course of a few years. It still sits in his garage and I assume he takes it out for a spin now and then, as the father of four. It's great. One time we were driving to the local ski resort in it together, squished in with the skis and boots and 90 blankets and as we rounded an icy bend on the mountain road, MY DOOR FLEW OPEN. Holy smoke, I was almost the topping for a road kill snow cone. Glad that seat belt kept me inside the beloved rattletrap. Other memories...I'll save them for another day.

My son isn't a car guy (yet.) So in the meantime, I'm devouring the weekly updates on the Detroit Auto Show and what Bugatti is doing next. And Formula One racing. And a comparison between the Ford Focus and the Chevy Cruze. I eat it like candy!

This makes me think. Yeah, I'm probably never going to write a book about racing. (I heard there's a NASCAR imprint for Harlequin these days. Seriously.) Or about cars, even. But who knows? I do love it. I would never even have thought of it (even though its a lifelong mini-obsession) without the magazine showing up.

A few years ago I had some kind of frequent flyer miles that netted me no trips to Hawaii, but two magazine subscriptions, one of which was Frommer's Budget Travel. It was fantastic! I loved reading about the places, places I might never visit, but the writing made me feel like I'd been there. I ended up writing a few chapters of a novel set in one of the places I read about.

The point is, subscribing to a magazine on a topic you like might be a great way to spark a few ideas for  writing. Yes, there's magazine writing for cash and excitement, too (I took a class on that at a conference a while back.) But just for interest, and to broaden knowledge base, and to become more expert in an area, it can be a great option. I have an idea about a guy who gets roped into taking care of/restoring an English garden, so maybe I'll check out some good gardening magazines. Some people write YA and want a convincing voice. Check out some of the teen glamor magazines. They write for a specific audience and sell a LOT of those things. It's a great resource. Take advantage of it!

And while you're in the grocery store, pick up a bag of Cadbury Mini-Eggs. You'll be glad you did. Easter comes but once a year...

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Editing Makes Me Fat

It's a good thing I'm writing a novel about a heavy guy because it makes me feel better about myself when I eat two peanut butter sandwiches while I'm editing.

Why do I need to eat more when I'm editing?

When I'm just writing a draft, I don't seem to chow like this. I don't seem to need to stop every 20 minutes and gaze at the contents of my cracker and cookie cupboard. Sure, I still love those Girl Scout Cookies creative-process-round and year round (if only we could get them year round I might not have to gorge myself on them mid-winter. It's that old fear my husband blames on being raised in a big family: get the food while it's there, every man for himself!)

So, is there a psychological difference between the creative phase (drafting the novel) and the deconstructive phase (chipping away at that draft)?

I think so.

Today I was looking back over some conference notes from last year and something Nancy E. Turner said jumped out at me:

"Write with your heart; edit with your head."

I think that might be it. When I'm writing that first gush of words, it's a total rush. I can get caught up in the excitement, lose track of time, get lost in the story.

Not so when editing. In editing, every few minutes I have to take a mental breather. It's tough! It's WORK. It's probably true that the difference between writing a novel and writing a good novel lies in the editing. Editing requires more thought, more care, more PAIN.

And, apparently, more Thin Mints.
Now, if only they made me Thin. False Advertising! For shame, you cute little girl scouts!