Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Incredible Opening Scene

The opening chase scene of Casino Royale--Daniel Craig booking it across rooftops in Madagascar after the bad guy-- was amazing. Action. Action. Action! I actually said "wow" out loud about a dozen times. At the same time I was also calculating in my head just how one would go about writing a scene like that. Someone had to write it first, right? Yes, you can write, "He climbed up the crane to dizzying heights and fought the bad guy, almost falling hundreds of feet to his death bla bla bla." How do you write this with the same hold-your-breath affect that the sweeping camera angles give you? How do you give the reader that sense of Bond's unfailing confidence; his reflexive without-need-of-thought reactions; the burn in his eyes as he tracked the bad guy unblinking like a lion tracking his prey. Well, you get my point.

There are other details that were vital to the tension: The way both the chaser and the chasee lept and jumped and rolled and did all those things that make you cringe thinking "for sure something is broken this time."

I would love to see the screenplay for this movie to see if it's possible to get the same thrill out of reading the scene...or even if it's possible to write more than "he jumps and rolls here" or if the director just shot his own interpretation. Action scenes are not my strong point and as many thrillers as I've read that make writing them look easy...I've yet to read one that made me say "wow" out loud.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Help From 007

Most thrillers are written successfully in unlimited third person, jumping into a different character's head with each chapter or scene. Sometimes I wish I could do this to swallow the whole "successful thriller formula" thing, but I've tried and I just can't. My novels, I think, will always be limited third person. I have to experience the story as an unfolding through the eyes of one character. On very neurotic insecure days, I think maybe I should just stay in the literary genre and write in first person and be done with it but then where would that leave my villians who want to blow up the world...or my unlikely heroes? Their stories must be told.

In thrillers, the rule is: Let your readers be one step ahead of your protagonist. This builds tension as the reader is waiting for the protagonist to step into "the trap". Here's a good way of putting it from a mysterynet.com article:

"Crucial to the Hitchcockian thriller is the difference between suspense and surprise. To put it simply, the director said that if you have a scene where two characters are conversing in a cafe, and a bomb suddenly goes off under the table, the audience experiences surprise. On the other hand, if the audience sees the saboteur place the bomb, is told that it will go off at one o'clock, and can see a clock in the scene, the mundane conversation between two cafe patrons now becomes one of intense suspense, as the audience holds its collective breath waiting for the explosion. Fifteen minutes of suspense, as opposed to fifteen seconds of surprise. It was therefore necessary, to Alfred Hitchcock, that the audience be as fully informed as possible."

I think this is a great point--however--when you choose to write a thriller (or the thriller chooses you to write it) in limited third person, this is not possible. The reader can only know what the protagonist knows--no more. The reader can't see the bomb under the table if the main character can't.

Then, I was watching the new James Bond movie (Casino Royale) last night, and I formed a different opinion about this being the only way to build tension. Here was a thriller told mostly from a limited third person pov...we only knew things as he did (as far as figuring out who the bad guys were). The story unfolded as he figured it out. It was a very intimate, sharing of tension. Instead of us having the knowledge that he was going to be ambushed and building tension waiting for it, we felt an empathetic kind of tension as we lived through the ambush with him. I think this even works better in a novel than a movie because of the slower pace of a novel. The experience of an adrenaline rush which the reader shares with the protagonist will take longer to get through in written form, and build even more tension into the scene.

More on the incredible opening scene later...

Saturday, November 25, 2006

And I Quote

Inspirational Quote of the week:

"We are monkeys, opening the universe with our creativity. Reality seems to mould itself to our dreams. We decide which universe we want to be in. Not that we live in a world where the perpetual mobile is not possible, rather we do not permit dreaming of another. Only creativity will take us out of our darkness.

To all the souls searching for the light."

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Happy Turkey Day

THE MOTHERCODE has a militant animal rights group as the bad guys. I felt kind of bad myself doing this, as there are so many great groups out there doing stellar and necessary work, that I don't want to propagate any negativity toward them. But it just had to be done. No way around it. I will repent with time and money later. For now, I was researching some animal rights groups that are actually on the FBI terrorist watch list...scary, right? I came across this little Thanksgiving prayer and thought I'd pass it along in case you get asked to do the honors this year:

"Dear Lord, I've been asked, nay commanded, to thank Thee for the Thanksgiving turkey before us... a turkey which was no doubt a lively, intelligent bird... a social being... capable of actual affection... nuzzling its young with almost human-like compassion. Anyway, it's dead and we're gonna eat it. Please give our respects to its family." ~Berke Breathed, Bloom County Babylon



Monday, November 20, 2006


Today I was working on a s-e-x scene. Well, not really s-e-x, just kissing for now and let me tell you, it was the hardest thing I've ever had to write. (Barring the obligatory bio with submission) As I struggled to describe this common thing that people do every freakin' day...and I do mean struggle in the form of getting up five thousand times for coffee, gum, checking out the window, petting the dog--you know, all the necessary procrastination tools--I tried to think back to some really good s-e-x scenes I've read in the past for inspiration. You know what? There were none! Okay, maybe I'm reading the wrong kind of novels for inspiration, so I'll narrow it down to-- I have not read any really good mainstream s-e-x scenes. Then I began to wonder why all the scenes I could remember seemed more like the writer (some of them top notch writers besides this one point) had some of those wooden dolls on their desk and was just positioning them and describing it. A particular line caught in my memory: "His hand cupped her breast as he pressed himself against her." YUK!!!!

So, why is it so hard? My theory is that writing is like standing naked under a spotlight anyway. Add to that the fact that writers know the people reading their story are going to assume that what they are writing about is their experience. Sometimes when people ask me, "Did that really happen to you?" I want to scream, "What don't you understand about the word FICTION, people?" But, being the introverted, nice quiet girl I am I simply answer, "Yes, I really got sucked into a black hole while vacationing in the Bahamas and came out in my neighbor's basement."

Oh, I'm getting off track again. Where was I? Oh, yes. Kissing. So, is this it? We don't want to reveal quite this much information about ourselves? So, we try to act like we've never done it before and just "imagine" what it would be like by describing some combination of p-o-r-n and horror that makes the reader rush through the page in embarrassment.

So here it is. I'm going to hang my kissing scene out there for h-e-l-p. I know I'll have to come back to it eventually but I would prefer not to go in alone on this one:

His attention moved to her face, gently stroking her cheek with the back of his hand.
“Soft,” he whispered. His hand slipped behind her neck. Safia watched his eyes as he brought his mouth down on hers. The kiss was soft at first, and then it became a hunger that demanded to be fed. Her lips felt like they were melting in a searing heat that shot through the rest of her body. She gave in to the hunger. The world fell away. When finally their lips parted, they stayed only inches from one another. Safia felt something welling up inside her as she concentrated on the warm, swollen feeling that was her lips. She watched, almost as if it were a dream as his eyes moved closer to hers and his mouth pressed lightly against hers once again. Was she breathing? She didn’t know, and didn’t care. Her whole world had collapsed into a tight space that consisted only of the two of them. She pressed herself against him. His arms tightened and he pulled her head into his shoulder. They stood there like that in silence for what she was sure was eternity.
As the sounds slowly came back into focus around her, she felt Scott pull away. When she looked up, he was staring out at the ocean. She felt the distance as suddenly as a physical tearing of the universal fabric between them.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

No Rules, Just Write

What makes a story successful? Is it the characters, the plot, the action scenes? Maybe the body count, the adrelin rush? For me, I can't tell if a story I've read (or a movie I've watched) was successful until a few days later. My criteria is simple: Did it haunt me? Am I thinking about it or talking about it days later? Did I have to tell someone else about it?

One thing that distracts me is a constant beat in a story. Choppy sentences. They drive me nuts. I need variety. Feels like Chinese water torture. Get the point? BUT. Then I came across this little gem of a story by a fellow Backspacer, Gail Konop Baker: http://www.danforthreview.com/fiction/09_03/konop_baker.htm called The Pacifier. This story, if you don't have time to read it (your loss, btw) is entirely designed and built on chop. Chop. Chop. Chop. Chop. Chop. And you know what? It absolutely haunted me. I actually read it a few weeks ago and I still can't get it out of my head. I had to read it again. Brilliant.

A good lesson. Some stories demand that rules be broken. I am a big sissy when it comes to breaking rules. I don't like to do it. I actually feel my anxiety level rise when I even think about it. Yeah, I color inside the lines, too. (Actually, I was taught to outline the lines with a darker color before coloring to emphasize them.) Hmmm. There's a great little insight into my discomfort.

So, anyway, I'm trying to think of rules as more of suggestions or guidelines. Ones with barely visible dotted lines around my writing instead of big, dark, black solid ones. I still do believe that you have to know the rules in order to break them. At least, in order to appreciate breaking them.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Real Axis of Evil

Let's talk about selflessness. It's been a theme in some of my shorter writing projects lately and it's also something I believe is involved in the real axis of human evil. (The other two being guilt and fear, which I'm sure will come up in later rants.)

I believe writers (maybe artists in general) are some of the most caring, thoughtful and generous people on the planet. Maybe it's our introspective nature, our attention to life's details, or our ability to imagine and empathize with another's pain. I don't know. What I do know is that the successful ones stop at caring, thoughtful and generous. The ones that fail are the ones who stepped it up a notch to selflessness. The definition is "having no concern for oneself." Do you know where having no concern for oneself leads? It leads to losing oneself. How can you be successful if you lose yourself? How can you even be a whole person with anything to offer if you lose yourself?

I have a friend who is an artist. At least she was. For over thirty years she practiced selflessness. She gave up everything to make everybody else in her life happy. She stood behind people, solved other people's problems, was a great friend, mother, wife, and lover with a spotless house, a reputation for being the person to go to with problems, and that dream of being a successful artist tucked gallantly away in tiny closet. Do you think she's happy? I will tell you she's not. She's now divorced with grown kids and so many regrets about the roads not taken, the paintings not painted...that her life is now all about the grief, the sorrow and the guilt over abandoning herself and her dreams.

The lesson here: If you have been given a gift, use it. If you are a writer, write everyday. You must not give that up for anything, anybody, anywhere, under any circumstances. After all, if you want to look at it another way, think about this. What gives you the right to throw your gift away? What gives you the right to toss yourself aside like you are worth nothing more than the people you care about? You are equal in worth. Treat yourself like it.

Now, on the other hand, if you have to throw yourself in front of a large truck to save your child, by all means do it, I know I would. But this isn't the kind of selflessness I'm talking about. I'm talking about the life long eating away at your dreams kind. The kind that says, "You can't write today because you promised to take Aunt Janie to her eye appointment or save the orphans, whales, peanut farmers, whatever." WRITE FIRST. FEED YOUR OWN SOUL FIRST. Believe me, the people in your life will appreciate you being there a lot more if you are not a shell of the person you were born to be.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Literary Devil's in the Details

Since I'm taking this English class that is all about defining your terms and warrants in an argument, I got to thinking about the term "literary". I talk a lot about it, feel like it's the warm, coastal waters of writing I'm comfortable in. But what does "literary" really mean to me? I certainly don't mean that it's better than genre fiction, just different. So how is it different? I'm not going to offer up an explanation, just an exploration. I realize this is a touchy subject and there are debates raging all over blogdom about it. Besides, it's bound to mean different things to different readers. All I want to do here is clarify what I mean when I use the term.

The first thing I notice when I try to organize some kind of definition of literary vs. genre is it really feels more like a matter of degree instead of a matter of one being the opposite of the other. Here's what I mean:

Point #1: Literary is more concerned about the "why"; genre is concerned about the "how". Seems like two opposing goals, right? Literary explores the motivations of humanity on a large scale and the motivations of the characters on a smaller one. Genre explores how the characters get from A to B. But then take a look at the genre of romance. Sure there's the "how," how two people meet, how they are kept apart, how they eventually beat the odds and live happily ever after. BUT they also have the "why." Why the characters fall in love, why they fight to be together. It's just usually not explored as deeply. A matter of degree.

Point #2: Literary is more focused on the prose. Genre is focused on the action and plot. This seems to be a myth in both my experience as a writer and as a reader. There are genre writers out there that, while the action is what moves the book along, the thorough descriptions and character insights are what keeps the reader engaged and moving along with it. As a writer who really does love words and not just stories, I still find it necessary to have a plot. (Understatement?) Just to a lesser degree than say the crime writer who must set up a gruesome death, international chase and exciting capturing-the-killer scene. In this case, the plot is cake; the meaning & description is the icing. In my case, the plot is more like the yellow spongy part of strawberry short-cake. No good without the strawberries and whipped cream. A matter of degree. (Hungry yet?)

Speaking of description. Anne Rice is cut & dry horror/fantasy right? I remember reading her book LASHER and thinking to myself as I read a two page description of something or other (don't recall what it was now) but I had become aware of the writing instead of the story, and I wondered to myself if her fans liked all this description or if they just tolerated it. I enjoyed it, studied it actually. But, like I said...it's all about the words for me. So, is this literary? Or is it just a writer's self-indulgence?

Point #3: Conflict within the characters vs. Conflict outside of the characters. My first novel includes great detail on the conflict within the main character, therefore I consider it literary. But it also has a plot with a central theme of a sound weapon that can break the bonds of DNA. Not literary. With my WIP, I am trying to focus more on the conflict outside the characters. There is still conflict within. More genre. A matter of degree.

My final thought on this is the one that rings truest to my own meaning of literary.
Before I had my twin boys, I had a small wedding photography business. When we would shoot a wedding, my partner was really good at capturing the action of the day--the bridesmaids coming down the aisle, the bride and groom shoving cake into each other's mouths, the flower girl pinning the ring bearer down on the dance floor to kiss him, etc. Me, I was good at capturing the details--the sunlight pouring over one flower on the edge of the church bench, their names engraved in delicate silver print on the napkins, just their fingers weaved together in an impromptu embrace, etc. To tell their wedding story, it was of course, important to capture the action. But, to tell the complete story, I filled in the details. So, this is my comparison. My partner is a genre photographer. I am a literary one. The clients that chose us, did so because they recognized this. There were others that didn't choose us because they didn't need this. I'm hoping that with my writing, I find the readers that do need this.

Why? What does it matter if it's literary or not? Because it matters to the agent who has their own opinion of literary and only reps genre cuz it's easy to sell. It matters to the publisher who only buys genre cuz they know where to put it on the shelf. And it matters to the readers who just want to kick back after a twelve hour day at work and enjoy a piece of chocolate cake.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Layers, Layers, Layers

So, last night I was reading through as many interviews with Mark Z. Danielewski as I could dig up, looking for a convincing reason to give myself permission to conceptualize. Although I'm not really sure I would consider him "a writer" really. More like a creative genius who has chosen to use words for now to express himself. I could just as easily call him a director, painter or a photographer because he does all these things to your mind.

There's one particular interview in which I found some justification. It's the one in The Ledge where he's talking about THE FIFTY YEAR SWORD. http://www.the-ledge.com/flash/ledge.php?conversation=45&lan=UK He talks about pushing his own limits and the conceptual layers behind the scenes. I think I was drooling as I read. All those rich, deep, mysterious levels of meaning to uncover. MMMMMM!!

Now, when people read his work, do they really care that he used "butterfly" as a symbol of "cutting open" and "stitching together" to emphasize the main conflict of the story? Considering his success, I'd say there is definetly an audience for outside the box writing.

Presenting ideas and observations along with a story is an important part of writing for me. Feeling like the writing is a challenge is also important to me. Seeing if the reader is willing to dive in and peel back all the layers to get to the idea or observation...I am beginning to understand that is important to me, too.

Oh, and I just have to throw this in--Bret Easton Ellis (author of American Psycho) gave Mark this blurb for HOUSE OF LEAVES:

"A great novel, it renders most other fiction meaningless. One can imagine Thomas Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, Stephen King and David Foster Wallace bowing at Danielewski's feet, choking with astonishment, surprise, laughter, awe."

Can you imagine? I could die happy right then and there.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Too Conceptual is like too Much Chocolate

"Get too conceptual, too cute and remote, and your characters die on the page." Quote from Thomas Pynchon.

I recently discovered Thomas Pynchon (I'll wait for the gasps and clucks to die down....) In my defense there are a godzillion writers out there worthy of discovery and I'm only one person...geez. Also, he is basically a reclusive ghost with no desire for self-promotion. And we all know if you don't promote yourself, you don't get promoted. Anyway, I'm getting off topic.

I found him because I was looking for other writers that used science in their fiction without it being the classical "sci-fi" story. More specifically taking the laws of science and applying them to the broader subject of society. I first found his short story "Entropy," which does exactly this. You can imagine my excitement. Okay, you can't. You'll have to take my word for it. I was excited. I'm now chomping at the bit to go out and get his novels. There is a market for what I want to write. Well, sort of. There's a market if you can pull it off. Here's where the above quote comes in.

This quote kind of felt like a personal chastisement. I do get too conceptual. I layer so many meanings and make so many hidden connections in my stories that usually the reader is just confused at the end (of my short stories, at least). Why do I do this? Mostly because I get bored. If it's not complicated and abstract, I get bored writing it. Take for instance the way I write novels. A lot of writers make outlines, make drafts, at least know where the story is going before they start writing. I can't do this. If I know the ending...yep, you guessed it, I'm bored. (I feel writing instructors shuttering simultaneously all over the world at this confession.) My high is juggling the dozens of plot lines in my head and watching them weave themselves together as the story unfolds. As the pieces slide into place, the ending just materializes. I'm the only one that enjoys this complicated chaos into order mess, really. So, who am I writing for? My own pleasure? Which is fine, unless I actually want to get published and have other people enjoy it too, right? I think in a novel I have the time to explain enough, and dig deep enough into the characters that this need for conceptualizing works, but I'm not sure it works for a broad enough audience. Only time will tell, I guess.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Writing Dilemma 101

The lesson for today: Read other writer's blogs!

I'd like to dedicate this lesson to the successful thriller writer, Mark Terry, (markterrybooks.com) for inspiring me to jump in and join the whole writers-writing-blogs party. His post on Nov. 1st "What's your Franchise?" made me a true believer in both serendipity and the goodness of blogging. Here's why:

I had just emailed my agent a long sort of "help, I'm having an identity crisis and I'm not sure if I should be writing what I'm writing" type of letter. You see, what I'm currently writing is Science Thrillers. I'm about 100 pages into a medical/science thriller titled THE MOTHERCODE. It's going good. I did over a year of research before I started writing to make sure I got the science right. I'm happy with it so far but...here's the problem: I'm feeling a bit like I'm writing with chains on, trying to fit the novel into a box. It's making for slow writing.

My first book, THE NEURAL NET, (the one that got me the agent) is more of a science based literary suspense. Try to figure out where that would fit on the bookshelf! So, I decided to take a more commercial thriller approach with THE MOTHERCODE. Beefing up the action/danger and curbing my group-therapy-worthy-addiction to description (though I still get into the main character's thoughts and feelings, I'm not giving that up).

So, anyway, one day instead of working on this novel in progress, I ended up writing a short story called "Demon In a Bell Jar". Yes, my agent would like me to get some publishing credits with short stories, but if I am to be honest, I wrote it because I had to. It's a science based literary short story...go figure. It was like a crack addict going for the pipe, I swear! I was all smiles that day and not because it was all that good, but because I got to write what I loved.

The dilemma: Write what I love? Or write what's marketable? Is a happy medium possible?

That's where Mark's post comes in. He reiterates the point that whatever you get published first is basically what you will be writing in the future. Which only makes sense because that's what your readers come to expect from you. Sure, he says, some writers ignore this novel-in-a-genre-box-reality, but they do it with risk because the publishing professionals need to know how to sell you. (period)

So, thanks, Mark...for the words of wisdom and the comfort that I'm not just being neurotic. This is something I do need to figure out!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sticking a Tentative Toe In the Water

If you've found this little obscure experiment I'm doing, then welcome! My goal is to get used to the idea that if I want to be a "paid writer" I have to actually let people read the stuff I pull out of my head and immortalize on paper(or even worse-on the web). Scary...terrifying, really. Rejection, ridicule, people coming at you with sedatives and pretty white jackets--never fun. But, anyway, back to my purpose, cuz there is actually another one. This one is for those of you who have just realized that you don't just write but you are "a writer" and are ready to fight the good fight to prove it.

I'm going to share my writing journey, and maybe by accident I will say something to inspire you to begin yours. The real stepping stones along the journey so far have seemed to be bits of knowledge gleemed from various sources: those who have stumbled down the path before me, trial & error, and the courage & wisdom of those other writers. So that will be the theme of this experiment--sharing. Here's my official first sentiment about writing:

Since this is one of those professions that you can do for ten, twenty years...even a life-time without making a dime, you really must enjoy the actual grueling, heartbreaking, isolating, self-fulfilling process. It's like everything in life, it takes time. Yes, keep your eye on getting published, but enjoy every day that you get to spend doing what you love.