Posts Tagged ‘writer’


I’ve been blathering on this blog for the past year and a half about my own experiences in writing, my own observations about this business, and all the things I have learned along the way. As much fun as I’ve had doing this,  it recently occurred to me that maybe folks would like to hear from some other writers as well. After all, probably the greatest thing I’ve acquired on this journey is the friendship of some very fascinating people. On that line of thought, I’ve decided to interview some of the writers I’ve met, getting their perspectives, experiences, and lessons learned on their paths in this business.

The first person I chose to particpate in this was Kim Williams-Justesen. It was important to me that she get to go first because she’s my personal mentor and I owe her an ocean of thanks. I met Kim in March of 2010. By then, I’d been beating the hell out of the same novel for about two years. I’d read all the how-to books and attended some small workshops, but for all I was learning, the book just wasn’t getting written. When a friend of mine, who was probably tired of hearing my frustrations, mentioned that she knew an author named Kim Williams-Justesen, I was ecstatic and I hassled her till she set up a time and a place for me to meet Kim.

The first time I met Kim Williams-Justesen was in a tiny cubicle in a stuffy office at Broadview University in West Jordan, Utah. We were introduced to each other and after shaking hands, we were left by ourselves to get better acquainted. We looked at each other stupidly for a while but were eventually able to make the empty small-talk of complete strangers. It was awkward. It wasn’t at all how I had it planned out in my head. I’d been certain we were going to get along swimmingly and instead, I was sure this woman hated me. I just knew she thought I was some kind of talent-junkie who thought I was going to ask her to “hook me up” with an agent or something. As I later found out, she thought it was me who hated her. Probably because, by nature, I look annoyed. 😉

I went home disappointed by the meeting and feeling like a bit of a loser. Still, I’d done one thing right that day: before leaving the office, I asked Kim if we could exchange e-mails. I wasn’t sure if this might come across as too invasive, but I was desperate and all alone in the world of writing! This woman was the only person I knew at the time who had any experience in professional writing and being published. After meeting her that first day in the office, I’d concluded that I had to find a way to make her adore me, and ultimately… teach me everything she knew about writing! It took me two weeks to send her my first tentative e-mail, but I was delighted and surprised when she kindly and promptly e-mailed me back. We spent the next several weeks getting a feel for each other in an ongoing e-mail Q and A – mostly about writing-related topics. After a while, an unexpected thing happened: we became friends.

Since that day just over two years ago, Kim has walked me through my first novel, she is the co-author of my second novel, Beautiful Monster, and she is currently giving me the same level of what seems to be endless tolerance and infinite support on my third book. We plan to begin another collaborative effort as soon as I am finished with the project I’m working on now. I’ve been lucky to be a part of Kim’s own writing career as well. Just less than three hours ago, she and I finished the final revisions of The Deepest Blue, a manuscript of hers which is scheduled for release by her publisher in the Fall of 2013.

Kim Williams-Justesen is the author of My Brother the Dog, The Hey! Ranger! series for children, and co-author of the nonfiction self-help book, Love and Loathing with Randi Kreger. Also, her novel My Brother the Dog, is scheduled for re-release in hardcover under the new title, Kiss, Kiss, Bark! in Fall of 2012, and the possibility of a sequel for it is being discussed. Our first collaboration, Beautiful Monster, is currently making the rounds, looking for a home, and Kim is on the brink of finishing a project I’m especially in love with, a novel under the working title of Death Kiss.

She’s been a vital component in my growth as a writer, as well as an instrumental part of my life in ways that go far deeper than fiction. What follows are some questions I asked her about her own experiences as an author. I hope her answers might help you the same way they have helped me.

Kim Williams-Justesen

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

A: I don’t think there was a specific time I said “Oh yeah! I want to be a writer!” I’ve always loved words and writing, so I think I just evolved into doing this.  

Q: What is the first story you remember writing?

A: In third grade I had to write a book report. We went to the library to pick books off the shelves, but I either had read what was there, or I didn’t think it was interesting (boy books, yuck!), so I went home and wrote my own book called “A Pony of My Own” – which was wishful thinking on my part. I even had a pen name – Pearl Bluebonnet. It was about a girl who finds a “stray” pony and talks her mom and dad into letting her keep it. Typical 8-year-old thinking!  

Q: Every writer has his or her own writing process. What is your personal process?

A: My process varies. I used to have a set writing schedule, but I’ve learned to adapt. I have to know the basic structure of the story before I begin – beginning, middle, and most importantly how it ends. From there, I develop the characters and try to learn more about them so I can understand why they do what they do in the story. Then I dive in and start writing. I try to write complete chapters at one sitting, but I’m also finding that grabbing a paragraph here or there is just as effective.  

Q: Where do you do most of your writing?

A: Anywhere I can. Mostly in my bedroom at the small desk in the corner. I will also write at work if things get slow, or in the car, or if I’m waiting in an office or something. I will hear pieces of conversation between characters in my head and I write them down no matter where I am.

Q: Who are your favorite authors?

That’s a long list! Shakespeare, Poe, Paul Zindell, Christopher Moore, Eric Larson, Isaac Asimov, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Earnest Hemingway, and a lot of others I can’t think of at the moment!

Q: Which authors would you say have most affected your own writing?

A: I heard Jane Yolen speak at a conference about the mood of a story, and it had a lot of impact on me. I began to think about story differently because of that and I think she helped to change the way I write for the better. Eric Larson writes nonfiction in such a compelling way that it feels like you are part of history. This taught me to pay attention to details in a way that I also believe has strengthened my writing. The writers I worked with while getting my Masters degree also had a huge impact on me.

Q: Which of your own characters is your favorite, and why?

A: I think Donny, the little brother from “My Brother the Dog” is one of my personal favorites. He was so fun to work with, and he makes me laugh every time I reread him.

Q: Which of your own characters is your least favorite, and why?

I dislike Julia, the mother in “The Deepest Blue” because she is based on two real people, neither of whom I’m very fond of.  

Q: Do you believe in muses? Do you have a muse? If so, who or what is your muse?

A: I do believe in muses, and I have many. Some are real, some are only in my head. One of my muses is a nasty woman who is always telling me I can do better, but she inspires me to push harder, even if her methods are not kind. I have actual people in my life who are muses. They inspire me with ideas and they encourage my writing. I value them dearly.  

Q: Which of your books was the most difficult to write and why?

A: “Beautiful Monster” was the most difficult because it caused me to confront some aspects of my own life that were not very pleasant, and that’s really all I want to say about that.

Q: What events in your life do you think lead you to the path of writing?

A: I think that any event which triggers introspection can cause that desire to write. For me, it was simply a love of words and a sense that playing with words was fun. Even when I was in PR and I was writing about obsolete chemical weapons, I enjoyed the challenge of working with the words to serve a purpose.

Q: When you are writing, do you have anyone in specific who you feel you’re writing for?

A: When I’m writing the first draft, I try to focus on story rather than audience. Later, in revision, I focus on who I think the story is aimed at so I can tighten the details and make them appropriate to that audience.

Q: Have you ever had writer’s block? If so, how did you overcome it?

A: Yes – more than once. The first time I had writer’s block it was so severe that I would have full-blown anxiety attacks just sitting down at the computer. I had to overcome it because I was in the middle of my MFA program and I was at risk of not graduating. I overcame it by working with a mentor who tricked me into writing. I started by collecting words, then organizing those words into categories, then playing with the words in interesting combinations, then creating sentences from those combinations, then paragraphs, and in time, I was back to writing without the dread and fear that had frozen me. I use this same technique now when I start feeling stuck.

Q: What are your biggest pet peeves about the books you read?

A: Silly and stupid errors. Things like grammatical mistakes that should have been caught by a good editor. Or ridiculous tag lines that need revising. I also get very peeved when a character does something that is totally out of line with the psychological presentation that the author has created.  

Q: In the course of an average week, how much time do you dedicate to writing?

A: It varies a little, but I typically spend at least 12 hours a week with my butt in the chair working on a book. I will spend other time reading, looking through information for a story I’m working on, or doing things related to writing. For example, if I need to find a specific setting for a scene to take place, but I haven’t been there, I’ll find something close to what I need and go for a visit. This counts as working on writing for me.

Q: How has your writing changed since you wrote your first novel?

A: Oh – wow – it’s like I’m a different writer.  I know so much more about the craft now than I did then. I know so much more about all the aspects of story that I had no idea of at the time I started writing my first book.  I still think that first story idea is solid, but the execution is terrible. I often think about rewriting it because it would be so much better now.

Q: When did you first get published, and what was your experience with that? How did it happen?

A: I got started with publishing when I wrote articles for internet companies like CitySearch. It was great experience learning to compress my language and to meet deadlines. My first book publishing experience was when I coauthored a self-help nonfiction book with another author. Seeing my words in print became an instant addiction. That box of books arrived on my door step and I just wanted to have more!

Q: What was your first book signing like?

A: It was thrilling! My publisher paid for me to attend the Book Expo America convention. It was in Washington, DC that year. I got to walk around and learn more about other publishers, see all the books that were coming out, collect tons of free samples! It was heaven. When it came time to sign, I was so nervous, but it was an absolute thrill. It felt like nothing would ever be better! Of course, other book signings have also been thrilling, but that first one was just awesome. Crazy awesome!

Q: As a writer, what do you think your strengths are?

A: I’m pretty critical of my writing, and so I have a hard time identifying this, but I think I am really good at building a solid story structure, and I’m also good at dialog. I like listening to people, so I think I have a natural ear for how people speak.

Q: And what are your weaknesses?

A: These are like job interview questions!  Haha! Actually, I think one of my weaknesses is the first draft. I get caught up in making things perfect the first time, and that tends to slow me down. I’m also really bad about including sensory detail. I skip over the stuff that can really bring a scene to life, and then I have to go back and add it in during revision – which of course is what revision is for, but I just wish I could remember to do it the first time out.

Q: In writing, what has been your most wonderful moment?

A: I have two – when my box of author copies of my first novel arrived at my door. That was a thrill beyond words. The second one was when someone I was mentoring completed his first novel. I felt almost the same thrill as what I feel when I finish one of my own.

Q: How has the publishing industry changed since you first got published?

A: E-Publishing has become such a huge component in publishing, and that’s really only been the last five years or so. When I first published, that wasn’t even a blip on the radar.  I think it has made some really nice things happen in publishing, but I also think it has opened the door to some terrible, second-rate work getting produced as well.

Q: Where do you see the publishing industry going from here?

A: This is such a time of transition in publishing. I remember being at a conference 15 years ago and a guy said that “Rocket Books” were the wave of the future and would be the death knell of the traditional publishing industry. And now we all say, “What’s a Rocket Book.?” It was pretty much a Kindle or a Nook, just 15 years too early. I have no idea what is going to happen from here. I just know that there will always be a place for a good story, and I want my stories to be part of that future.

Q: What is the best advice you have to offer new writers?

A: Focus on the craft. Love the writing. You can’t control the publishing world, unless you want to self-publish that is a whole different topic. Learn how to write better. Go to conferences, workshops, classes, and focus on becoming as good as you can be. By the way, that’s a never-ending process.

Q: What have you learned about yourself as a result of your experiences in writing?

A: I’ve learned that I can actually write pretty decent stuff at 3 a.m. when I need to. I’ve learned I am stronger because of choosing to do this, but I am more humble, too. I’ve learned that my writing friends are some of the best friends in the world. I’ve learned that I can become very OCD when I’m in the middle of a book, and that isn’t always a good thing.

Q: Who were your mentors?

A: I was blessed to have amazing mentors throughout my writing life. Carol Lynch Williams, who is also a very dear friend; Rick Walton, who taught me that funny is subtle; Tim Wynn-Jones, who taught me to look for interesting detail that benefits a scene or a character; Alison McGhee, who taught me that you need to know a character’s mind so well it becomes your own; MT Anderson, who taught me that voice is something you can learn, and if you can’t learn it you shouldn’t be writing; and the late Norma Fox Mazer, who taught me how to dig deeper into a story and see what’s sleeping beneath.

For more about Kim-Williams-Justesen, check out her website at: http://www.kwjustesen.com/Home_Page.html

And to get some of her books, go to: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/kim-williams-justesen

Jared S. Anderson & Kim Williams-Justesen

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     Although all stories are vastly different from each other, there is a basic formula to all storytelling that must take place. In essence, even though subject matter, characterization, setting and plot can vary immensely from story to story, every story has the same skeletal layout.

     There are four parts to every story. The first is the introduction. In this, you establish the norm; you decide what normal life is like for the characters in your story and give the reader a feel for what every day life is like in the world you’ve created. In the second segment of storytelling comes the introduction of the conflict. Here, the writer introduces the problems or problem the character is about to be faced with. The third part of the story is the climax. This is where your characters’ challenges reach their peak and the ultimate confrontation takes place. The climax is the beginning of the end… and the end of course, is the resolution… where the challenges are resolved.

     Right now, I am in mid-climax! The joint effort book I am writing with Kim Williams-Justesen has finally reached its peak. You’d think that this would be my favorite part of storytelling, but the truth is, it’s not. The climax always stresses me out and I much rather prefer the introduction because there, you can take your time and lie back to let the characters reveal themselves and their situations at their leisure.  In the climax, there isn’t room for wasted words. The climax, for me, is the most tedious part of the story because it’s so limited in its spectrum of possibility. After all, you can’t write two hundred and fifty pages leading up to a certain point and suddenly take a left turn. The climax is why readers have stuck with you, and it’s at the story’s peak that they want action, intensity and emotional potency; and after all the time they’ve invested in your story, you owe them that satisfaction.

Another reason why writing the climax is difficult for me is because it feels like goodbye. For some reason, the resolution doesn’t make me sad… the climax does. You’ve spent hours and hours agonizing over these characters. You’ve spent days and days getting to know them and understanding them on the most intimate levels. You’ve spent months trying to tell their story in a way that not only satisfies you, but also does your characters’ justice, and will hopefully keep the readers’ interest. And now… everything you’ve been building up to is reaching its peak and coming to a quick close.

In the project I am working on now, my co-author and I are writing alternating chapters and the resolution isn’t mine to tell. The character I am writing disappears and it is Kim’s character who gets the resolution. I am on my last chapter. In twelve to fifteen pages, my character Sterling Bronson, who has been in the making for over eight months, will be no more.  I am moving out-of-state in two and a half weeks, so there won’t even be any chance of prolonging the goodbye… savoring it. Kim and I have sixteen days to wrap this baby up and say goodbye to it, and this, for me, is the hardest aspect of writing.

After resolving the story, there are of course revisions. These can take days, weeks or even months, depending on the condition of the first draft. In a way, this is still spending time with the characters and the story, but it isn’t the same as that first time around, when everything was new and you were excited to see what shape it would all take.

The end of the story is sad, there’s no doubt about that, and there is only one way I know to combat that sadness, and that is to start the next one and begin the process all over again.

So needless to say… that’s what I’ll be doing!

Happy climax!


    

      There is no time to write. If the past six months of my life have taught me anything, that’s it. Today is the first day in a very long time that I have had all to myself. The plan was very simple: wake up, shower, write. I have no other responsibilities today, so it seemed a perfectly plausible idea. So plausible, in fact, that I put off writing earlier this week because I was so certain I would have all the time I needed to do it today. That was my first mistake.

     No sooner had I lifted my head from the pillow than my phone began ringing, my doorbell chiming, and the unforeseen duties began piling up. I spent the day arguing on the phone, making plans, breaking plans, texting the information back and forth between the concerned parties, changing reservations, making amends, and then turning around and changing everything back to the way it had originally been planned in the first place. All the while, chapter nineteen of the book I am currently working on is sitting still, waiting for me to get around to it.

     I have been on chapter nineteen for about a month now, I think. I just haven’t had time to write. I am in the middle of an out-of-state move. I have a new person living with me temporarily. I will begin babysitting my nephew full-time next week. I’ve been cleaning the house inside and out to keep it in pristine condition for open houses and interested buyers. I am full of shit.

     The reason the writing is not getting done is because I haven’t been making it happen. Life is life and it goes on with or without us. The “I just don’t have the time to write” excuse is a crutch I swore I’d never lean on, and up until now, I have done a pretty good job avoiding it. I avoided that excuse so well, in fact, that I didn’t even realize I was using it until today.  Yes, my life is a mess right now. Everything is up in the air and I am juggling too many things to keep track of. My life is a whole different story from one day to the next right now. Aren’t these pretty good reasons not to write?

     The answer, sadly, is no. In truth, this is the best time to be writing. Writing focuses me, brings me peace of mind and allows me to express myself explicitly without apology. Right now, more than ever, I should be writing. I have taken too many breaks from it and they have lasted too long. My goal was to have this project finished by July 15, 2011. I don’t know if that will happen or not but I am going to keep trying for it. The book I’m working on now is a collaborative effort with Kim Williams-Justesen, author of the Hey Ranger! books, My Brother the Dog, and co-author of Love and Loathing. Kim has been waiting on me for some time now, as we’re writing alternating chapters and she can not get very far ahead without me. I have been using the world-famous “I don’t have time” excuse for several weeks now and it’s time to put that mindset to a quick death before it gains enough momentum to become a habit.

     There is no time to write, it’s true. There’s also no time to grocery shop, pay bills, raise kids, maintain a full-time job, exercise, eat right, have pets, do dishes, read books, or floss those hard-to-reach teeth that always manage to attract the attention of those wayward, stubborn popcorn kernels.

        When I finished my first book, Kim bought me a very nice silver pocket watch as gift. In that book, there’s a pocket watch that has symbolic meaning to the story, and I know that Kim meant it as a reminder of my accomplishment and about how important my writing is to me. While it will still serve that purpose, I am, as of today, assigning it an additional meaning: I will keep that watch with me to remind me that time can not be created, it can not be destroyed, and it can not be otherwise controlled. But it can be managed.

     Twenty-four hours is all we have. I do not have less or more time than you, and you do not have less or more time than me. I bought into the excuse of just not having any time, and as a result, my self-respect took a hefty blow to the solar plexus. It won’t happen again.


    

     I like to kill people and as of this moment, I have killed eleven of them. Not real ones of course, but fictional ones. I don’t know that I would enjoy murdering a real person. I don’t think I would be very good at it for one thing, and for another, it just seems too messy… but give me paper, a pen and a storyline, and it’s all I can do to let anyone get off of the page alive.

     I don’t know what it says about my psyche, that I so enjoy murdering make-believe people. Believe it or not, I don’t have any unusual fixations with death or violence, but it would be interesting to see what a psychologist might say about it. My best personal guess is that it derives from a childhood spent watching horror movies and reading gory books. Then again, I have to wonder what drew me to that kind of story in the first place~ so it becomes a kind of what came first, The chicken or the egg? ordeal. I don’t know the answer to that, and for the most part, I’ve given up trying to figure it out, but sometimes, something makes you stop and wonder why you are the way you are.

     I was at a writing event with my friend Joe a few weeks ago, and as we introduced ourselves, we were asked, “So, what do you write?” Joe’s answer was quick and confident, but when I was asked the same question, I hesitated. “Ummm… horror, I guess,” was my answer. This awarded me some chuckles and some confused looks. “I don’t ever set out to write horror,” I said, explaining myself, “but that’s just the direction it always seems to go.” They nodded their heads in understanding and I realized I was among others who understood the strange phenomenon of fiction writing; that I was home so to speak, and it made me wonder how much of what we write is a conscious decision and how much of it just is what it is.

Although I knew that the project I am currently working on with Kim Williams-Justesen was going to be horror from the beginning, I still didn’t expect it to be quite so gruesome. And as for the one I wrote before it, I had no intention of it going so dark. It will be interesting to see what shape my next project takes on as I don’t see any way it could possibly fall under the horror genre. Still, I somehow get the feeling that a little bit of that will creep into the story, with or without my consent. The question then is, do I allow nature to run its course, or do I steer the story in a milder direction? Is horror just a part of my writing voice that I need to accept, or is it  something I need to learn to control? And is that even possible? Again, I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I will soon find out.

     In the meantime, I’m having a hell of a good time shedding fictitious blood by the bucketfuls and will be sad when my current project, where murder and violence are expected, is finished.  To me, there is true art in (fictional) murder, and everything from the shower scene in Psycho to the contemporary and far more complex murders in the Saw movies, make it clear to me that I am not the only one who feels this way.

Facebook Fanpage: https://www.facebook.com/thejerodscott?ref=hl

And P.S. ~ The beast has been unleashed.

Beautiful Monster is now available in eBook and paperback editions at Damnation Books: http://www.damnationbooks.com/book.php?isbn=9781615727742
Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/Beautiful-Monster-ebook/dp/B00948Q0DK/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1347132178&sr=8-2&keywords=Beautiful+Monster+Jared
and Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/beautiful-monster-mimi-a-williams/1112783047?ean=9781615727759


    

     In writing fiction, few things are as discombobulating as a surprise character.  You spend all this time and energy mapping out your story, putting the characters in their proper places, and then, at some point during the writing process, an unfamiliar personality appears and demands a role.  You are then faced with a dilemma.  Do you let the character take the stage, or do you simply bypass him or her and continue writing the story as you originally planned?  The answer:  it depends.

     The rule of thumb is that if a character (or a scene) helps to move the story forward, adds necessary depth to it, or contributes an unexpected twist (as long as the twist serves to further and/or add texture to the story) he or she can stay.  However, if the character doesn’t have any place except to show off his or her talents as a fictional being, you will probably need to cut them out.  The question then, is how do you know whether or not the character belongs in the story.  This is where writer’s intuition, a good sense of story, and a little sound judgment come into play.  

     I don’t believe any character should ever be dismissed entirely.  Sometimes, characters are speaking to you from the future (as in a book that has yet to be written) and will fit perfectly into a different story. These characters are jumping the gun, overly excited by their own existence, and don’t yet realize that their time hasn’t come yet.  Other times, a character is speaking to you from the past (as in a former character, probably in disguise, who doesn’t feel he or she got a fair shake the first time around.)  These guys often need to either be dismissed, or altered enough that they are unrecognizable from one book to the next.  Good characters, like good actors, should be dexterous enough that they can adapt to and blend into different storylines while still retaining their believability.  Resurrecting old characters under different names is a custom that, although common enough, can only go so far. After a while, your characters will become stale and predictable.

     When I was writing The White Room, my first surprise character was Aunt Mimi (this was before I started calling my mentor “Mimi”, by the way).  Aunt Mimi just appeared and in true diva style, demanded the floor.  I was terribly unseasoned then and never even questioned her existence.  As it turned out, Aunt Mimi went on to lend the story some much needed comic relief in those earlier scenes.  Later, in the same book, when Kendra Howell appeared, my mentor told me to stop and consider her place in my story before writing her out.  I was torn because while I didn’t feel Kendra had a very large part, my instinct told me that what little role she was going to play would be an important one.  I didn’t feel attached to Kendra like I did some of the other players but I couldn’t escape the sense that she had something of value to contribute.  After some deliberation, I decided to follow through with my instinct and let this surprise character play her part.  As it turned out, I was right.  Although Kendra’s role was a miniscule one in terms of presence and dialogue, she ended up being the answer to a serious hitch in my storyline.  As was Sir Purrcival (another unexpected presence in The White Room), my main characters irritating and ever-present pet cat.

    The same thing has happened in An Evil Heart, the book I am currently working on (and close to being finished with!) with my friend and mentor, Kim Williams-Justesen.  As Aunt Mimi did in The White Room, a character simply known as The Thinning Man appeared in the first scene of An Evil Heart.  I wrote him and then dismissed him as nothing more than a passing face that would populate and add a little color to the book. But all along, I was unable to ignore the haunting suspicion that he had a more important role than giving my main character someone to talk to in that first scene.  As the story has developed, The Thinning Man has become crucial to the story as my main characters greatest enemy and ultimate downfall.

     Also, in An Evil Heart, there have been characters that showed up, been written, and finally, been decided against and deleted.  Such was the case with Julia, a girl who felt important but ultimately contributed nothing to the story.  Maybe one day, Julia will reappear somewhere else, but as for An Evil Heart, she will not be found in the final draft at all. 

     Often times, surprise characters like to show up right before or shortly after the leave of another more important character.  In An Evil Heart, a guy named Damien showed up right before my main characters best friend Brytt exited the story.  Damien felt very important but in truth is no more than an extension of Brytt; Damien is the materialized result of my reluctance to say goodbye to Brytt.  Damien had to be stopped. Now he only occupies a negligible slice in the overall life of the story.  But Damien is significant to me, because his appearance was the first one I recognized for what it was before I wrote him out, and that is a step in the right direction.  One day, I will give Damien his just dues and allow him his own story, so long as, of course, he isn’t so much like his predecessor Brytt that he smudges my style :).

     Yet another irritating way in which characters can annoy the ever-loving bejeesus out of a writer is to deviate from the plan.  These characters already exist and are a part of the story, but they are rebels and will absolutely refuse to play the role you’ve cast them in.  As it is with surprise characters, handling rebellious characters requires intuition and storyline management.  When I was writing The White Room, a character I’d created named Winter went a completely different route than I’d intended.  He was supposed to be a bad guy.  He refused.  I threatened to delete him.  He said, “Go ahead.  See what happens…”  I tried forcing him to be deceptive and nasty.  He laughed at me.  (I realize how crazy this all sounds by the way, but personifying these characters here is the best way I can illustrate the strange nature of this process; bear with me.)  When I finally accepted that Winter would not be swayed, the story began to take a new shape.  A better shape.  “Look,” Winter said to me (after I’d agreed to have a cup of coffee with him), “if you’ll let me do this instead of that, I promise you won’t be sorry.”  I’m just kidding,of course.  That never really happened.  Winter hates coffee.  He prefers fresh blood. 🙂

     By letting Winter have his way though, a few different things happened.  First, the story got tighter and more compelling.  And second, Winter became one of my favorite characters of all time, despite his refusal to follow the rules.  So, personally, I am all for letting the characters have their own voices… for the most part. 

     The key then, is to recognize what can stay and what must go, and that key can only be found in the use of sound judgment and the observance of intuition.  Either way, it’s entirely up to the writer.  Some will tell you that must listen to your characters without question.  Others will say you must never, under any circumstances, let a character control the story. Myself, I’m somewhere in the middle. Personally, I look forward to meeting more surprise characters and seeing what they have to say… as long as it’s something I need to hear.


     So yesterday (slash last night, slash this morning), we completed the first comprehensive read-through of Project: Evil Heart.  It was far less of a disaster than I anticipated.  Still, it was a process that took over sixteen hours (minus an hour or two for breaks for food and drink, plus a little of the inevitable unrelated chit-chat), but over all, it was a more positive and encouraging experience than I’d hoped for.

     Also yesterday, before we began working, we attended a seminar where one of the speakers was Patricia G. Stevenson, author of The Dilapidated Man.  Her advice was this:  “Listen to your characters.  They’ll tell you what to do.  No, you would never do the same things they would, and some of the things they do may be appalling to you, but if you trust them, they’ll write your book for you.”  Those were just the words I’ve been needing to hear.

     Since day one of this story, I have had issues with my main character.  He is a violent, terrible, fiendish demon in the flesh, and I suppose I’ve always been a little afraid of being judged for having written him.  This was, as far as I was concerned, just part of the territory though.  In time, I figured my skin would thicken and I would hopefully one day be proud of Mr. Sterling Bronson.  That day came sooner than I expected.  Yesterday, as we read the first ten chapters of the manuscript, I found within the confines of all his wickedness, a rare kind of beauty.  This character, although still all of the terrible things he is, is an accurate representation of the dark side, and having heard his story with a little more continuity, I have to say, I kinda like him.  This surprised me because I haven’t enjoyed writing him and yet, his friend Brytt, who I love writing, is ultimately, much less likable to me.

          The only technical problems we found in the read through were timeline issues and over used “comfort lines”.  What I am referring to when I say “comfort lines” are those expressions and descriptions that the writer becomes way too comfortable using and therefore implements over and over… and over.  In The White Room, my biggest comfort line was, “There was a long stretch of silence.”  Originally, there were so many long stretches of silence in fact, that it was a wonder the manuscript contained any dialog at all.  In An Evil Heart, my comfort (word) seems to be “stiffening.”  A lot of stiffening goes on in this story; stiffening muscles, stiffening spines, stiffening in the boxer shorts… it was out of control and ninety percent of it needs to go.  Kim’s comfort line was, “there was an ache in my chest.”  Her character had so many aches in her chest throughout the first ten chapters that we joked that perhaps the girl needed an EKG.

    All in all, these were easy fixes.  We removed the comfort lines in favor of more original expressions and now just need to tweak the timelines a little.  The difficulty with the timelines is that Kim and I are writing alternating chapters and half the time, I don’t even know what day we are supposed to be on, but there was only one real significant flaw in the timing, and a simple transposing of events will clear the inconsistency right up.

     For all the dreading and worrying I’ve done over this, I’m now very glad we did the read through.  It flowed smoothly and read like a pretty damned good book.  I’m now approaching the second half of the story with a revivified enthusiasm and a heightened sense of accomplishment.  We figure we have about fourteen more chapters to write and the finished project should be done and ready to be looked at by mid-July.  Also, I’ve set the goal of beginning a third book (this one will be a solitary project) by the first of May and having that one finished by the end of 2011, so there will be a couple of months where projects overlap, assuming An Evil Heart runs on time, but I’m not too worried about it.  I still love every minute of this and for me, it isn’t like work at all.

         


     Every writer must eventually part ways with some of his or her favorite creations for the sake of the greater good.  There are dozens of names for this process:  Slaughtering your sacred cows, Killing your darlings, or the term I find most fitting, Cutting the fat.  No matter what you choose to call it though, it sucks.

     There are two types of “cuts”, and although both can be equally painful, the first one (which is the removal of an unecessary sentence) is substantially less time-consuming than the second (which is the deletion of an entire scene.)  In deleting an uneeded sentence, I can at least take solace in the fact that I didn’t spend hours and hours working on it.  For me, these kinds of space-wasters are usually just flowery details that, for some reason, I’ve become unreasonably attached to.  I guess this is where my inner poet likes to rear his stubborn but eloquent and impassioned (and often pompous), beautiful head.  (Uncle Carlos is only there to give dirty looks to the main character.  Does he really need to be “a blandly handsome man with an air of quick-thinning tolerance about him”?) But over all, I am able to see the ultimate detriment to this kind of self-indulgence, and generally have no trouble toning down the details.

     Then there is the second kind of cut: scene deletion.  This, for me, has always been far more demoralizing.  It’s one thing to just clean up the excess portions of a scene, and quite another to look at it in its entirety and disheartedly realize (or worse be told by an outside source) that the entire piece is basically no good.  I got my first real lesson in this right off the bat when my mentor, Kim (Williams-Justesen), and I did the first read through of my first manuscript, The White Room.

     We were at the cemetery downtown, (now that I think about it, that sounds very odd.  Why were we at the cemetery?  Oh yeah… because it’s peaceful, beautiful and well, dead people don’t tend to interrupt), sitting on the lawn on a warm spring day.  I was all kinds of excited because it was the first time I’d be able to hear my story out loud and with continuity.  Kim began reading.  It was a disaster.  Instead of gently rowing down the stream as I believed we would be, the first thirteen pages or so felt more like being in an aluminum canoe on a wind-peeved sea.  Had I had any Dramamine handy, I would have taken it… and without protest to the inevitable drooling drug daze those pills always put me in.  Anyway, Kim was kind enough to continue to the end of the chapter which thankfully, had smoothed out a bit.  When she was done, she looked at the pages in her hand and then looked at me.  “You want to know what I think?” she asked.  I said that yes, I did indeed want to know, but in truth, I wasn’t sure I really did.  She turned the manuscript back to page one, and then one after another, plucked page after page away from the stack.  Somewhere around mid-chapter one, she stopped and pointed to a paragraph in the middle of the page.  “I think this is where your story starts,” she said.     

     I was stunned.  I argued.  I made excuses.  I rationalized and justified.  But worst of all, in truth… I agreed with her.  The reality was that the first half of that chapter was nothing more than a confusing warm-up.  I’d struck on some significant points in those pages, but over all, it was crap.  I stewed the rest of the day as we read the other chapters, and that night, I went home with my tail between my legs and started re-writing and implanting the few decent scraps from the trash pages, as needed into the newer, better beginning.  I made a decision that day that I would never let that happen again.  Unfortunately, however, I think that, at least to some degree, writing some crap is inevitable. 

     For me there are two reasons an uneccessary scene gets written in the first place.  The first, and most common reason, is that my “muse” gets an inspired hair up his ass… and just runs like hell with it, as if trying to outrun my sense of good judgment and discrimination.  I start with a plan… and end up not only in left field, but in an altogether different tennis tournament entirely.   When the muse gets this kind of head start, I find myself reading page after page of unholy gibberish that, if ever seen by a professional, would seal my fate as a failed writer.  Forever.

     The second reason I write bad scenes is simple: laziness.  I don’t feel like writing, but I know I have to, and therefore, I sit down and very simply fill white space with whatever nonsense comes into my mind.  Perhaps my character needs to pee.  At times like these, that seems pretty important.  Or maybe Henry the optometrist will spend a few hours petting the dog.  Nevermind that there was no dog before now.  Now Henry has a dog.  Yep.  Pet the dog, it is.  That will fill the empty space.  That being said, I actually prefer this kind of “very bad scene.”  It’s much easier to say goodbye to utter nonsense than to the flowery grandeur of my terribly possessive (and I suspect, alcoholic,) muse.

    Any way you look at it, editing is a bitch.  You wind up deleting hours of your life you will never get back, but alas… it’s necessary, and what works for me is I try to get it as close to perfect as I can, not because I’m such a perfectionist, but because I am insecure enough that I really don’t want to invite any more criticism than necessary. Still, it’s a drink-inducing, hair-pulling, teeth-grinding emotional calamity that although I might (let’s be honest) wish on my worst enemy, I do not wish on you.  Happy travels!