Friday, December 16, 2011

The Cinderella Syndrome

You’ve caught me at a bad time.  I’m involved in the one thing I dislike about writing.  No, that’s not descriptive enough.  Given the choice between this activity and sticking a very long, pointy needle through the corner of my eye, I would choose the eye treatment.
I had no idea until embarking on this part of novel writing that it would be my kryptonite.  Each time I attempt it, I feel like I’m stumbling and falling.  After finishing the first draft of my novel, I breathed a sigh of relief—such a tough thing to do.  But nobody told me that that was the easiest part. 
It seemed hard at the time.  Some days facing the blank page of the manuscript's first draft were terrifying; so much so, I would avoid it at all costs.  Toilet cleaning and vacuuming moved swiftly higher on my priority list. 
There was even one section, where I had nowhere to go. This is writer’s block, isn’t it? I thought.  I did know where I wanted to go; I just couldn’t find the way.  Its times like this you wish you could just write,—characters go through some stuff here (imagine pointing arrows) then after a few chapters they end up here (more arrows) where the final climatic scene brings us to the satisfying end (big X).
But it wasn’t writer’s block.  There was just one week where I walked into walls, a touch vague, but I found my way.  I survived it and so did my characters.  In the end I didn’t need the arrows.
As I typed The End, as any author can tell you, an overwhelming sense of achievement came over me.  Typing those two words is an exhilarating feeling.  There were tears and celebrations.  I’d done it.
The Big Problem
My friends asked, ‘When can we read your book?’
‘I’m just putting it away for a few months to marinate,’ I said.  ‘Then I will edit it and it should be ready to go in about three months, which is how long it took me to write it.’
Move ahead four months and I’m only half way through the second draft.  Take out a month where the kids and I were very ill with Whooping Cough—to my surprise vaccinations only last a few years—and in three months I’m only managing around two thousand words a day of editing.  And that’s on the days I get to it.
There were a few short stories written in between, much blogging and reviewing of books and film, so it wasn’t as if I had lost my drive to write.  No, actually sitting my behind on a chair to face the editing was not as easy as I had first imagined. 
I thought it would be like turning up to a day job.  You know what needs doing.  It’s a technical thing now, not reliant on the unpredictable writing muse.  Take out the words you don’t need, colour in the words you do.  No more wondering what comes next.  No writer’s block to fear. No stress.
What puzzles me about my aversion to editing is that I know exactly what I am doing with it.  In the past year, having written eleven short stories to competition word counts, I have edited each one to within an inch of its life.  Some of them were flash fiction with word counts less than a thousand words.  The fewer words you have, the more difficult it is to create a fulfilling story with a twist at the end. 
All of my short stories in first draft were a minimum twenty per cent over, meaning I needed to be ruthless in the editing.  In a five hundred word flash fiction, I studied every single word for necessity.  It was tough and that one took me at least ten passes to get there. 
But these short stories only took a few days to edit.  When it comes to a book well, there are weeks and months of editing and rewriting.  Then once I’ve completed the first draft I know there are probably three more drafts waiting for me.
The Analysis
I’ve analysed this problem—too much according to my husband—and I think it comes down to my preference for right brain thinking.  Apparently, you write with your creative right-brain and editing is the domain of the left-brain. 
I don’t like that left brain much.  It’s the rational one that does all the analysing; most likely the one writing this now.  They’re a bit dry for me and I always feel their solid hands on my shoulders, insisting my feet should not be floating that far from the ground.  So it is understandable I don’t want to spend much of my exhilarating writing time listening to them analyzing my beautiful right brain prose. 
My other issue is I already have the next book ready to go, first chapter written, and story bubbling in my head, right brain side.  But starting a new book is my reward for finishing this book.  It’s the carrot and the whip.  The new book is dangling tantalisingly before me, and behind me is left brain demanding I finish what I’ve started. They have a guilt whip and aren’t afraid to use it.
 As much as I don’t like left brain guy—they’re very bossy.  I respect their determination and discipline.  Left-brain was the one who sat me down at the computer and got the first book finished when I wasn’t certain it was doable.
Cinderalla Job
Still, I don’t like the job right now.  It feels like cleaning, dusting and mopping, after a brilliant time was had by all at the night before party.  I just want to party with right brain. They’re light and breezy and take me on wonderful adventures to destinations unknown. 
I’ve had offers from freelance editors to help with the mopping.  But only I can rewrite the character at the beginning into the character he becomes at the end.  By the end of the book, I knew a lot more about him. So he needs some colouring and shading before he faces the challenges only I know are coming his way.
Many writers have difficulty in other areas—coming up with story lines, characters, dialogue, and the daily discipline.  But that’s not my stumbling block.  My challenges have never lain in creating story ideas, characters, or twisted endings.  Words fly off my fingertips at quite a pace. Give me four hours and I’ll give you five thousand reasonable words.  No, my Achilles heel is the editing. 

The Answer
So what am I to do? 
Keep going.  That’s all I can do.  The book needs polishing—even right brain agrees.  Apologise to my friends who are asking to read the book. ‘Sorry, I have a spoilt right brain that is not co-operating’.
I am trying to change my attitude, as all writers must when faced with their Achilles heel. From now on, I will face the manuscript and repeat, ‘I like editing.  Editing is good.’  Even if I don’t believe it, I know the only way to the end is the way I started; one word at a time, one page at a time, one chapter at a time. 
And then one day soon, after I’ve finished my Cinderella work, right brain and I can put on our glass slippers and come dance at the ball.

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Where the pen meets the paper

A surprising thing happened to me yesterday.
Sitting in the car with my nine year old, waiting for the eleven year old’s thirty minute guitar lesson to end, I had nothing to do. The nine year old was playing on my iPhone—much better to let him use it, than listen to the ‘I’m bored’ whining. 
I sat there very unused to doing nothing.  If we have a spare moment we are twittering, texting or facebooking, aren’t we?
And then I saw a printout of a bank statement we had just picked up, laying on the floor.  It was blank on the back.  I looked through my glove box and, yes, I had a pen.  So, I started writing a short story. I have never written a story with a pen. I’m a typewriter and now computer girl, buying my first Macintosh 128K in 1987.  My son, hearing the scratchy noise of the pen on the paper, asked, ‘What’s that noise?’
‘That’s the sound of me writing,’ I answered, thinking how quickly the words were flowing.  By the time my other son got in the car twenty minutes later I had scratched down four hundred words and run out of paper.  The eleven year old picked up the paper and said, ‘Who wrote all over my bank statement?’
‘I did,’ I said, ‘It’s the beginning of a story.’
That night, I retyped it into my laptop and gave the now six hundred words to my husband (my wonderful wise first reader). ‘I wrote this with a pen and paper,’ I said proudly, as if it was a Christmas miracle. 
 ‘This is the best thing you’ve ever written,’ he said.  ‘You’ve created a world into which I just slipped without any effort.’
   Now you’re thinking, the pen and paper are the magic.  Well, they're  not.  That’s not the moral of this story.  Although, I must admit that it was quite the revelation to write in the old-fashioned way.   Now I have experienced it, I won’t worry if an idea pops into my head and I don’t have my laptop handy.  I’ll just seize the opportunity with whatever is at hand.   
   What I did find interesting about this story was that it had  floated in my head for a year but I had avoided writing it because there was one detail I couldn’t figure out.  In the story the protagonist travels back in time to meet her relatives only to discover that the relatives—who to her were early settler heroes—could be murderers.  Until I put pen to paper, I didn’t know how she was going to travel back in time.  As the character started describing the scene before her, I suddenly realised she was an historian by career and then the solution to my quandary was suddenly there.  Now, fellow writer,  hold that idea there, I’m going somewhere with this.
   Then this morning I received an email from a friend living in the Netherlands, who enjoys my short stories.  The story I’d sent her was entitled ‘I Hate Emma Carter’ and it was a dark, supernatural moral comment on bullying.  Emma Carter is the new girl at a  school where the protagonist, Angela, and her friends start bullying her.  It ends in a nasty way for Angela with her being literally eaten alive by her hatred.  It did have a good ending—as you know I like my endings—with the personification of the line, ‘eaten alive by hatred’.  My friend commented, ‘You think up such fantastic ideas and analogies, very clever.’  

Now,  I will let you in on a little secret.  I didn’t write it with the ending in mind.  I’m not that clever.  Just like I didn’t start the pen and paper short story knowing how I would get my protagonist back in time.  Heck, I didn’t even know she was a historian until she told me.  When I started ‘Emma Carter’, I just liked the title.  Then as I wrote, I realised the story was going to be about bullying. Then, Emma Carter started to get these horrible black marks on her arms that grew the more she was bullied.  Then, when I got to the last three paragraphs, where Angela and Emma come face to face, I suddenly saw the ending in all its glory.  But, I didn’t start out to write an analogy on hatred.  Again, I repeat, I’m not that clever.
I remember reading somewhere that author, Jack Finney, said of his novel, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, that despite everyone believing the book was an analogy for the threat of communism, the idea hadn’t entered his head.  Of course, when you read the story, it sure sounds like you could insert communism for aliens—I mean the aliens take over your mind and body. But Finney said he had just wanted to write a story about an alien invasion and that too much credit was given to his "clever" analogy. 
Like Finney, I never feel very clever about the twists in my stories because I really am starting to feel like I don’t write them; as if I am just a passenger of the story.  And I’ve touched on this before with "Whose Story Is This Anyway".   More and more it is becoming like a quick change operation, where I slip into another world as quickly as it takes to pick up a pen.  And that to me is puzzling and exciting and a heck of a lot of fun.
On Twitter, I recently spoke to a writer who was feeling, uninspired, and as she put it, “too self-critical”.  It was clear it was causing her grief.  It’s almost a self-fulfilling circle, of feeling uninspired and then not writing which confirms that you can’t do it, which makes you afraid and uninspired. 
  See, I don’t think you have to be inspired to write.  I think after you’ve been at it for awhile, you just have to write the first sentence and trust that the writer in you will know where to go next.  I’m not saying this is how everyone writes but I do think this is how a lot of authors write.  My belief is that as we practice and build our word count we build a bridge to our creative sub-conscious.  The more we cross that bridge, the more we wear a pathway there, until, without thinking, we know exactly where to go in seemingly, the blink of an eye, or the picking up of a pen.
   I believe when you are feeling uninspired, that it may be the best time to just pick up a pen, take a deep breath, and begin something.  Anything.  It takes one step at a time to cross a bridge.  To pass over an uninspiring moment I have found it takes one word at a time, which leads to a sentence, which leads to a paragraph, which leads to a page.  Then you turn around and realise, you’ve crossed over to the other side and the scenery looks just fine.  In fact, you may even say it looks inspiring.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The end may not be Nigh!

Now where do I begin?  It’s tricky because this is actually a story of endings, or the lack thereof, and I am not sure how to begin the thing although I do know how to end it. 

I thought to begin by apologising that I may offend some writers and possibly readers.  I wanted to start by saying this is a rant because I’m a little annoyed.  Or, I could ask the question, what is going on with short stories in Australia?  Or Perhaps I should just go for it, expressing my dismay at a problem I see in some writing. 

Where the heck are the endings in short stories these days?
I’ve just read a collection of short stories collated from a publisher’s 2010 short story competitions.  One of mine was included amongst them.  Mine had an ending—and I’ve posted it HERE for your comment.  The anthology’s well-published contributors included quite a few journalists, book authors and some new to publication.  Publication amongst these authors was a privilege for me and I respect their abilities, as all stories were eloquently constructed. 
Most were thousand word compositions and some painted extraordinary word pictures of their characters and settings.  One drew me in immediately, the character awakening on the floor with a thumping headache, surrounded by the dregs of a party; another a dramatic portrayal of a meeting between two men in the outback; also touching, was a piece on a woman living in a house by the side of a Freeway.
I read them all with relish, thinking—at the beginning of each one—this writer can write.  But as I read the last paragraph of each, I was dismayed to find NO ENDING.  Nada.  Nothing happening.  The hangover person just sits down after finding an unconscious man in the same room, the men in the outback just separate and the woman by the freeway just walks out her door. 
There’s no progression, no growth, no lesson, no event.  Where’s the twist?  Where’s the satisfying ending I didn’t see coming.  These aren’t stories.  They are passages. 
And it’s not just this collection.  I’ve read some prestigious Australian short story collections recently, and most of their stories had no endings as well.  The Age newspaper, in reviewing one of these respected annual anthologies, commented:  ‘Powerful stories take an invigorating look at daily life.’ They may be invigorating but a more apt description would be, ‘Powerful stories (with no ending) take an invigorating and (unsatisfying) look at daily life.’
You know to what part I am referring, don’t you?  That bit of the story towards which the author has been leading us.  The bit in the story where we discover what happens, where the character ends his journey: where the author makes the point of the story clear.
I’m busy you know.  We’re all busy, right?  As I walk down the aisles of bookshops or trawl the pages of an eBook portal, I always think, ‘So many books, so little time.’  So, when I read a story or a book I am entrusting my valuable time to the author.  Please entertain me, please enlighten me, please give me a ride where as I read the last words of your story, I wish it wasn’t over, even as I am thrilled by the wonderful conclusion that I didn’t see coming.  Please don’t leave me with nothing. 
You non-enders, great authors that you are, have wasted my time.  You’ve squandered my faith.  I trusted you, that you were going somewhere with this.  That you weren’t using me as a receiving receptacle for your descriptive skill.  Surely when we rave about a book to our friends, we don’t say, ‘It was five hundred pages of beautiful description, nothing happened, but it was so well written.’  No, we say, ‘It was clever how they caught the serial killer; or the last minute save of the girl by the hero was thrilling; or the narrator turned out to be a ghost.
And look, I have probably just insulted many writers—good ones too, award winners—published everywhere, with book deals.  Maybe I am just an uneducated hack who doesn't appreciate quality writing.  I love Stephen King and think he’s a genius, so maybe that says it all.

Growing up, Edgar Allen Poe, O’Henry, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Wyndham were my writing mentors.  All the stories I read and loved had twists.  Then the TV shows like ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘Outer Limits’, ‘Creepshow', taught me the cool thrill of irony.  Then along came Jeffrey Archer, Stephen King and others, and I soaked those up too.  All of them have endings and wit.  They rarely let me down, paying my time at the end with a twist, with something to ponder, with a conclusion of some kind.  None of their characters ended their adventure by just sitting down. 
So when creating my own short stories I know—even if I don’t know the ending when I begin—that by the last paragraph, I need a resolution.  And if I can keep the twist or the ironic punch line hidden until the very last sentence, then I’m happy with my work.  No way, am I short-changing a reader, never, ever, no matter how brilliantly I develop my descriptive prose muscles.
But what about these other writers?  What happens when they get to the last sentence?  What goes through their minds?  Are they thinking I don’t know where to go with this?  Or that’s enough I’ve done my thousand words?  I’ve written well, so I’ll just leave it there.  Don’t they see the thing has no ending? 
So, what’s going on?  Why are readers and editors promoting these passages and calling them wonderful stories.  Great passages they may be, but stories they are not.  My teachers taught me a story needs a beginning, middle, and an end.  As much as style and content have changed over the years, I still favour that idea. 
And if I were one of those writers—the ones without endings—I would end this by walking out the door...Oh sorry, the meticulously carved cherry wood, two-metre door that causes me to pause breathless with heaving chest each time I pass beneath its magnificence.  And as I do, the silver light from the moon catches the gold fleck embedded there; casting a thousand, tiny glistening sparks across the path outside.
But I don’t write like that, so I can't end like that. 
No instead, I will say to those tellers of tales with no endings, please if you’ve never tried an ending, you may enjoy them.  It may take you a little longer but the time will be worth it—well, I won’t be cranky for one.  And if you do have a body lying in a room, can you please use your imagination and do something with it?  You know, have it bleed or say something witty.  Even making it a zombie would be okay—they’re very in right now.  Just don’t have it lie there for no reason.
And now I’ve said my piece and you may or may not agree.  Do share your thoughts below either way.  Now thats off my chest, I feel better.   But I hope you will excuse me, for suddenly, I feel a strong urge to move away from the computer, and just sit down.

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