allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
2011-10-29 11:49 am

Forks in the Road

First of all, sorry for the lapse in blog posts. I just had a baby, so it took a while to get back into a routine that allows "superfluous" writing like blogging. I'm still in grad school, so I've had to keep up with classwork and thesis submissions with a newborn, and the blog was one of the things I just couldn't handle. But my daughter is sleeping 4-5 hours a night and I've finished thesis submissions for this semester, so I should have more time now. Plus, NaNoWriMo starts on Wednesday next week, so I'll have plenty of fodder for blogging!

On to the subject of this post:

Writing can (and should) be a voyage of discovery. Like all journeys worth taking, writing requires sweat produced in hours of slogging through (metaphorical) mud, tears of frustration and joy, blood spilled in ripping out our hearts and pasting them to the page, and an open mind for those times when the course shifts unexpectedly.

I just had an unexpected shift in my novel. I won’t write about what it was because it’s a pretty big spoiler and I’m going to do my damnedest to get this novel into print within a year or so, but it’s one of those shifts that changes everything. I totally didn’t see it coming and it’s going to influence some major plot points in the third book of my trilogy. I’d been setting it up unconsciously the whole time I was writing the book, and I’m only going to have to make a few minor changes to make it work perfectly.

In the writing world, people generally identify as “plotters” or “pantsers” (plotters make outlines and write synopses, pantsers just take an idea and run with it), but I tend to fall somewhere in between. Maybe I’m a plotser? I work through my ideas with outlines and such, but once I start to write I let the story grow organically, even if it wants to go somewhere that I never imagined in the synopsis. I know when changes like that occur that I’ve succeeded. I’ve hooked into something living and breathing, something exciting. And if I’m excited, my readers will be, too. Can’t you tell when an author was bored or disinterested in their work? And isn’t it so much better to feel enthusiasm? Yeah, I think so, too.
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
2011-07-15 09:53 pm

Avoiding Auto-Pilot

I’ve been disappointed lately in the books I’ve read by some prolific veteran authors. I won’t name names because I don’t want this blog to be about bashing, but it is a serious issue and I see it all of the time. How do you keep your writing fresh and viable after 15 books? After 30? After 100? I don’t think I’ll ever make the hundred-mark; I’m a consistent writer but I’d have to write, revise, and complete two to three books a year between now and retirement age to become that prolific. I do plan to complete a book a year, which, if I live out the average life expectancy for a woman in America and keep writing until I die, will mean almost 50 books.

So I need to keep this question in mind as I continue writing. How do I keep from burning out, or worse, going on auto-pilot?

At this stage I have two completed novels, one completed novella, and three works in progress. (And an uncountable number of ideas that haven’t made it past a brief sketch and maybe a chapter). Each one has taught me something about the writing process and about storytelling. The first step for staying fresh as a writer is, in my mind, to never stop learning about writing. Part of that is to never stop reading; a writer who doesn’t read is like a chef who doesn’t eat. There are always nuggets of possibility to be gleaned from other writers. How do they hook the reader at the beginning of each scene? How do they build conflict? How do they show (rather than tell) character motivation? Obviously you don’t take details from the story, but the methods they use are up for grabs. One of the professors at SHU (Seton Hill, I’ll talk about it often) calls this “field reconnaissance.”

The second step is to set goals for your writing. I’ve read on several author blogs that this technique has helped established writers keep that spark alive in mid-career and later. It can be a craft-oriented goal, or a theme you want to explore, or some kind of statement you want to make (don’t go overboard on this last one- you are still telling a story, not writing a manifesto). Basically anything that keeps your mind and heart engaged while you are writing.

I imagine that with a few dozen books under your belt some things about writing just come without thinking. It isn’t entirely auto-pilot, more like GPS that occasionally steers for you. But just because you can write that way doesn’t mean you should. Story decisions should be made actively, not automatically. I think that is a huge problem with some mid-career writers. They stop being active in their storytelling process. They go with what has always worked instead of trying new techniques. The problem with what has always worked is that, although you would think that creates consistent stories, what it actually does is create stale and unpalatable stories. Readers can tell when a writer is “phoning it in.” They can tell if the heart of the story is missing, if the writer wasn’t engaged and didn’t care while writing it.

Not every writer falls victim to this kind of storytelling slump. I don’t want to be one of the ones that do. I’m making a promise to myself that is twofold. One, I’ll never to let the writing become a chore. Writing is hard, hard work and sometimes it is painful, but what thing of value is obtained without effort? There’s a difference between hard work that fulfills and hard work that drains. I don’t want to lose my joy in the craft, in the creation. I’ll be happy when the process becomes easier, but if it ever gets too easy, I’ll know something is wrong.
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
2011-07-06 09:54 pm

On Revision

I’m hip-deep in revisions for my thesis novel, so naturally that is what I am thinking about at the moment.

The first and most important rule of revision is that it can’t happen unless you’ve written something. That should seem obvious, but many writers get bogged down in the search for perfection in their first draft and then never get out of chapter one. Perfection is not a realistic goal in any case (you’ll never get there -- even after your book is published you’ll still find places you could have tweaked or rewritten and made better), and it is especially unrealistic in a first draft. Chances are, you’ll end up with anywhere between three and seven drafts of your novel (or many more), each one a little bit tighter and better than the one before. As you write more, you’ll get better at writing well the first time. But on your first (or even fifth) novel, it’s important to remember what SJ Rozan told my class at Seton Hill (this is a paraphrase): “You can’t grow flowers in air, but they grow very well in shit.” It’s ok if the draft sucks, as long as you have a draft. Go through it and find the flowers, then dig out all of the rest.

The second rule of revision is the opposite of the first. It states that you can’t be so in love with your words that you aren’t willing to part with them. I’m cutting out some very well-written passages because they don’t mesh with what I now know is the overall theme/plot/character arc of my book. I don’t delete them entirely; I stick them in a file called “Excisions.FeyBlood” so I can find them later and maybe bring them back to life in another story or the sequel(s). It’s kind-of like deleted scenes from a movie. Sometimes the material is brilliant, and sometimes it even helps with character development or plot but just doesn’t fit anywhere. So you take it out, and maybe one day you’ll post it on your blog and people will go, “so that’s what Character X was really up to in that scene.”

The rest of the rules deal with the “levels” of a story.

The bottom level is the mechanics level, where you tweak the words as words. You make your sentences active, clear, and concise. You check for weak verbs and adverbs. You check for errors in grammar and spelling (YOU MUST DO THIS!!!).

Just above mechanics is the plot level. This is the bare-bones frame of the story. Does the plot make sense? Do your scenes follow a natural progression, one after another? Do they lead into the next, or are any of them leading you off in a different direction?

The next level is about character and conflict. What are your characters doing in each scene? Every character should have a GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) in EVERY scene. Even the secondary characters. Even the characters who only walk on stage for a moment. They want something for a reason but can’t get it because.... You fill in the blank.

And outside of that is the meta-level. This is where you consider things like theme and tone. This should be one of the last things you look at, because you probably won’t know what your theme or tone is until you’re almost done with the book anyway. Sometimes you start writing a book knowing what your big theme is going to be, and if you knew, then at the end is a good time to evaluate whether you achieved your thematic goal or not. For me, even if I had a vague notion when I started, my themes always end up changing and evolving as I write the book. I end up changing and evolving, too, as I learn more about my world, my characters, my process, and myself.

Revisions can be grueling work, but they can also be fun and informative about your project. Sometimes looking at your manuscript with fresh eyes is enough to trigger a new flood of ideas and creativity.

It’s happening to me right now...so I’d better get back to it. :)
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
2011-07-02 09:33 am

An Excerpt from Fey Blood

Since I'm doing a lot of networking this weekend and directing people to the blog, here's something fun to read. It's an excerpt from my thesis novel, Fey Blood. Enjoy!

From the middle of Chapter One, Toccata con Fuoco (Toccata with Fire) )
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
2011-07-02 07:27 am

Yes, it's been forever

I am such a terrible blogger. But I'm determined to become more active here. I just need to come up with a plan for what I'm going to blog about. Writing and revising, of course. But also books in general and commercial/popular fiction in particular. Not that it's entirely relevant, but I'm also interested in other things like gardening and baking that might find favor with the internet masses. :)

And then I need to commit to blogging on a schedule. I'm going to try for MWF, with one day for a writing-themed blog, one day for a book review or general book-themed blog, and then one miscellaneous day.

Because this Monday is the Fourth of July, I will start with a miscellaneous blog about summer, cookouts, family, food, gardening, and maybe something about the remodel we're starting at my house over the three-day weekend.

See you all on Monday!
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
2011-01-15 06:12 pm

Critiquing

I haven't stopped writing, but I have stopped blogging. This is something I need to remedy, because so much of the author-reader experience these days includes internet interaction. In this vein, I may soon break down and get a twitter account. I've been holding off for ages because I feel like twitter is contributing to the poor grammar of America. If you're restricted to 140 characters, you feel justified in taking shortcuts.

But I don't want to turn this into a rant about social media. It is a powerful force, and should not be ignored.

What I want to write about instead is workshopping.

I just got back from my third residency at the Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. Aside from being the only program of its kind in the country (there are plenty of MFA creative writing programs, but only one that focuses entirely on genre fiction), it is also the first writing program I've been involved with that fosters good, constructive workshop sessions. Sometimes I've stumbled into good critique groups almost by mistake, but most of my undergrad writing classes were fraught with disdain and disparagement. Often the professors egged on the students in their destructive critiques. I escaped that world and switched to studying literature (mythology and folklore was my specialty) just to keep a hold on my sanity.

But Seton Hill isn't like that.

Here's what I love:

They've learned from their mistakes. The first class you ever take at Seton Hill now is a class on critiquing. You learn the "sandwich" method (positive comment, constructive critique, positive comment), and how to explain what you feel rather than saying, "I didn't like this." Then you don't have a workshop until the next day, which gives you time to revise any critiques you may already have completed.

Every workshop is moderated by an instructor who has copious workshop experience. This is more important than you might believe. The students can easily take over a workshop unless the moderator is on top of things.

The joy of workshopping a piece is found in having so many inquisitive writer-minds focused on your manuscript for an hour. No matter what genre they write, other writers have fantastic insights into the process and can spot all sorts of things you, as the author, are too close to the work to see. I love workshops and critique groups because I get so much out of them that makes me a better writer. I hope I give a little back, too.
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
2010-10-12 10:10 pm

Fantasy Series

As an author of a fantasy series-in-progress, I feel honor-bound to defend them against negative comments.

Tonight I participated in a class chat as part of my MFA program in genre fiction. The chat's theme was characters and point of view, but about halfway into the the chat we started crossing from character into plot. We were talking about the requirements of series writing, and how to carry characters and plot over the course of a series. Someone made a comment about mystery and romance series being different than fantasy series, and I chimed in that a lot of fantasy writers view their series as one huge story/book chopped into volumes. Another member of the class shot back that that was lazy writing, a la the Wheel of Time.

A chat room isn't the best place for an argument, or even a discussion, because you can only enter so much text and in this case there were twenty or so other students who wanted to talk about other things. So my only rejoinder was that I didn't mean that the individual volumes didn't or shouldn't have their own story arcs.

But now that I have time and leisure, I want to talk about the fantasy series, and to defend my views.

The first point is that we have Tolkien to blame. When he wrote The Lord of the Rings he did not write it as a trilogy. He wrote it as one book and for various reasons (one being the cost of paper post-WWII), his publisher insisted on breaking it into three volumes. I would never suggest that other writers blindly ape Tolkien's example. After all, if you read the entire book it does have a plot arc and character development (though confined primarily to the hobbits). Tolkien knew what he was doing, but was forced to do something else instead. I mean, who would end The Two Towers with Frodo taken by the enemy and Sam in possession of the Ring? When the movies were made, they shifted events around so that Towers would have a more satisfying climax and conclusion, and it's one of the few changes I agree with.

Modern fantasy readers want their books to have good character development and good plot structure. Just furthering the overall series plot isn't enough- you have to tell a good story every time. But that big picture or big problem that follows/pushes/is pushed by your characters throughout the course of the series is just important.

I think of the modern fantasy series as an ocean tide. It's all the same water, and the goal is to hit some high point on the shore, but it is going to take a number of waves breaking on the sand before the tide comes all of the way in. Each wave is a book. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In each, the characters are pushed further on their own journeys and grow and change as the wave swells and curls. At the climax they crash upon the shore and then sweep back to regroup for the next book/wave. Every time they get a little farther toward their goals, and meet new challenges along the way.

Fantasy readers want big, sweeping stories with lots of scenery and characters and plots that aren't easily resolved in one 500 page volume. Stand-alones exist, but both publishers and readers are going to beg for more.

So when you write fantasy, you can't neglect the individual book problem or the overall series problem(s). You have to consider both.
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
2010-09-24 08:09 pm

Not a daily blog

Blogging appears to be something I can't stick with on a daily schedule. When I'm writing fiction, I can keep at it every day and there is an arc to the story that I am following. But writing about writing, I find a need some kind of topic to expound upon.

And lately I've been stressed and very tired. I'm in a big push to finish my current work in progress prior to the World Fantasy Convention at the end of October. I'm not going to the Con with the intent to sell the MS, but if I end up chatting with someone about my work and they're interested, I want to have the goods to produce.

I'm also working on a few pieces of shorter fiction, hoping I can get even a few minor sales under my belt to help supplement our income so my husband can quit his second job. So that doesn't leave much time for blogging. As a matter of fact, I am stealing this time away from a short story that I started working on this afternoon.

But I'm still here and alive, and I thought I'd better update so this blog doesn't become an empty space. I promise I'll have something more enlightening to talk about in a month or so, especially come November when NaNoWriMo starts. Hello, sequel to my current project!
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
2010-09-05 09:22 pm

To Revise or Not To Revise

Revision is going to happen at some point or another, so the question isn't so much 'if' as 'when.'

For much of my writing life I was a revise-as-you-go sort of writer. Lots of published authors do this, so it is a reasonable method. When SJ Rozan came to talk at my MFA program in January, she told us that she writes new material every night, revises it in the morning, and then starts the cycle again the next night. I think of hers as the telephone cord method- looping around backward before going forward again.

I was never quite that organized. I would write several chapters, then go away from it for a while, sometimes weeks or months. This was also back when I would only write "when the muse struck me," so there were lots of days when I didn't write at all. When the muses appeared and the stars aligned, I would have to re-read everything to become reacquainted with my manuscript. As I read, I would start revising. But after I squandered the energy on all of those revisions, I didn't have much left for new material. I might get an extra page or so written, but never much more than that.

Even after my first few years of NaNoWriMo I still did the same thing. It took me until 2004, the year I won my first NaNo, to realize that the "write it all down then revise the crap out later" approach worked for me. I could finish stories this way. So from then on I have endeavored to take this approach to writing, both in the "write every day" work ethic and the "revise later" approach to editing.

A friend commented on my personal blog that as a short story writer she finds that she works better when she doesn't force herself to write every day. On the days she forces herself to write she just writes crap that she ends up deleting. She made the comparison to training for runners. A sprinter isn't going to need the endurance training that a cross-country runner needs. So short stories can come out in bursts whereas novels need that daily persistence.

But I should mention that, as long as you are consistently producing and happy with your writing, it doesn't matter if you write every day or just on the first and third Tuesdays of the month. It doesn't matter if you revise daily or at the end of each chapter or after you finish the whole book (or short story). Just keep on writing, keep on creating, and you'll get there eventually.
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
2010-09-04 11:23 am

Slogging Through

In undergrad I took a course on Tolkien where we spent half the semester on The Lord of the Rings. Once the Fellowship breaks, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum spend the rest of the The Two Towers toiling through unforgiving landscapes. They get lost and wander through the rocky labyrinth of Emyn Muil, then slog through the interminable Dead Marshes on the Plain of Dagorlad.

I've always identified with how these events happen in the middle of the book (I'm referring to the entire cycle here, since it was intended to be a single volume), because the middle is always the hardest part of writing a book. In the beginning you are excited, motivated, charged with this new idea that still has all of its sparkle and shine. You start building a world and putting characters into it and seeing how they interact and then at some point you realize you are lost. Isn't that the same outcropping of rocks from twenty pages ago?

That's kind of how I feel about my WiP right now. I've set myself a NaNo-like goal of writing 1500 words a day every day in September so that I can finish the novel by the end of the month. That will give me most of October to work on revisions and putting together the other items one needs in order to successfully query agents/editors.

One of the things that has helped me with this novel was writing out a very detailed synopsis during the early writing process. There have been deviations from the synopsis, but nothing major. So every time I get lost or am unsure about what I'm writing, I go back to the synopsis to get my bearings. I'm going to start doing this for all of my books. It also helps a great deal in keeping character names and details straight.

Now it's back to slogging. Well, after I finish my homework for my MFA class.
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
2010-09-03 11:07 am

Writing as Life

I've been telling stories my whole life, and writing them down ever since I learned how to make my letters in kindergarten. In middle school one of my English teachers recognized my crazy writer tendencies and allowed me to forego the daily writing prompts in her class in order to focus on writing a fantasy novel. I also wrote a mystery short story that year that got an honorable mention in a young writer's contest.

That little bit of encouragement sealed the deal for me. Ever since, I've allotted countless hours to the craft of writing. It's become an obsession and a desire and one of the greatest loves of my life.

Starting in 2001, I joined in with a bunch of other crazy writers on this thing called NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. In the thirty days of November, several thousand writers around the world attempt to write an entire 50,000 word novel. This goes on every year and the number of writers participating has grown exponentially. I've won twice or three times since that first year, and the experience has taught me writing discipline. To win NaNo, you have to write every day. You have to push through blocks and shove the words out on the paper until the story is done. When the story has been wrenched from the depths of your mind and is flourishing on the page, you can edit and revise at your leisure.

NaNoWriMo taught me the most important writing lesson: if you want to be a writer, you have to make it a part of your life every day, no matter if the writing is good or if it is crap. At least you're still writing.

And the beauty of it is, once you're in the habit of writing every day, you feel unsettled and unfulfilled on the days when real life interferes with your writing. You start writing because you have to, because it's what you do, not because of the muses or a whim.

Not that writing is easy just because you do it every day. Writing is hard, but it's worth every bead of sweat and every drop of blood.

Writing is my life, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Welcome to my writing journal.