Friday, December 31, 2010

How to Eat an Elephant?

Please excuse me for getting a little personal here- I'm working on some posts about flashbacks and pacing and a brilliant post about how I got my agent...I'll let you know as soon as I work out the details on that one! But for now, a bit about writing and how being a Sunday school teacher gave me a little push.

I started writing a few years ago as a result of being a teacher in the Young Women's organization at church. The girls, 12-17 years old, all participate in "Personal Progress," a program with hundreds of activities designed to develop different virtues. These activities could be anything from reading the scriptures daily and recording what they learn to learning a new skill.

In addition, the girls are required to complete a ten-hour project for each of these virtues, and I'd often ask the girls about their progress. As a teacher, I was encouraged to work on my personal progress alongside the girls, and that was why, when an idea flashed through my brain, I picked up a pen and wrote it down. I already had the goal in place and the time had come to act on it.

Two years after beginning to write in earnest, and four years from that first sketch, I realize that my little idea has taken slightly more than ten hours to develop!

It can be done, and here are some things that have helped me.

  • Track your progress. Whether you use a star chart or a marker on your bathroom mirror, write down your goals and what you do each day to meet that goal. It doesn't have to be number of words- that only worked for me for the first draft, but perhaps an amount of focused time? Perhaps it will be to mark up so many pages a day with tiny scribbles that seem perfectly legible until you try to decipher them a week later.
  • You can write a paragraph in five minutes, and eventually you'll fill a book. It adds up. So don't waste your spare moments. Sometimes they're all we get.
  • Eliminate the junk. I don't mean that you can't allow yourself to enjoy some leisure time- even TV can can be a nice break- but if you want to write, you have to give yourself the gift of time to write.
  • Don't get upset if you mess up. Start again. Say it with me: Today is the first day of the rest of my life!

How do you stay focused on your goals, whether writing-related or not?

I hope that you all have had a wonderful 2010, that this coming year will find you well and happy. Enjoy this video--it got me a little pumped!

Glutton for Punishment?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sane, Who Me?

It's that special time of year when we put on some weight, freak out because the scotch tape roll was full yesterday and now everyone is running around with their noses taped to their foreheads and there'll never be enough to wrap these presents, and I just set down the scissors, where did they go?...No! Don't unwrap the presents yet! (true story)

It's been very interesting around my house, and I'm sure things are a little hectic for you, too. That's life, right?

My main defense against stress is to stop doing stuff. I resist *most* attempts to get my kids into extracurricular activites. Good luck to my husband in getting me to the store for a new can of shaving gel if we still have toilet paper.

But we can't not decorate the house for Christmas, or skip our church Christmas party. We spend hours and mind-numbing hours making a present list and shopping, then wrapping all of those items. I feel every one of those minutes. It irks me if I don't make a certain amount of progress every week on the book. I don't mean to be irked, but I am.

Here's the thing I have to remember: It's not all about me. It's about my family, it's about reconnecting with friends and taking the time to show people that they are important. Again, because sometimes I'm incredibly focused on what I want to accomplish: It's not about me.

I should get this since I'm all about quality time (Have you guys all read "The Five Love Languages"? I think that's the most widely read relationship book ever. Great read, btw.)

Some days I feel so grinchy that hubby starts singing the Grinch song to me, and I deserve it, i.e.- I griped about having to put out stockings. So, in order to be a nice, happy person during the holidays, I have set some modest goals.

Kelly's Modest Goals:
1. Do not lose your book. (I warned you they were modest!)

2. No querying in December. Better yet, wait until Jan 15th, after the rush of "New Year's Resolution" queries.

3. Cut back on the internet and use that time to write. Sorry guys. If I have to choose between checking facebook or using that time to get through a few pages today, I have to get a small amount of writing done.

4. Say "no" to some activities. I don't like to say no, but it's good idea.

That's it. No pages per day, no waking up at five for me right now. I tried that on Monday and Tuesday, and after the third snooze alarm, my hubby was not full of Yuletide cheer, so I turned the alarm off.

How do you keep writing during the busiest season of the year?
Glutton for Punishment?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Raising the Stakes...

...Before Driving Them Home in the Breast of Boredom.

He was dying from boredom. It's better this way.

I always have a book on the table while I eat. My kids think it's unfair because I won't let them read while they eat, but they are much more likely to have a spill, so it's just too bad for them.

This morning that book was Story, by Robert McKee. Easily the best book about how to engage an audience that I've ever read. I'm reviewing conflict and act design.

Here're a few tidbits-
Here's a simple test to apply to any story. Ask: What is the risk? What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he wants? More specifically, what's the worst thing that will happen to the protagonist if he does not achieve his desire?

If this question cannot be answered in a compelling way, the story is misconceived at its core. For example, if the answer is: "Should the protagonist fail, life would go back to normal," this story is not worthy of telling.  
Ouch. Not worthy of telling. Sound like any memoires you've read? I kid, memoire-writers. Or is this one of those jokes that reveals my true feelings?

Okay, let's take this concept down to the scene level. In a particular scene, what happens if your protagonist fails? If it's a return to real life, that's a problem, too. There are building scenes where the conflict is increasing without coming to a conclusion, sure, but there must be risk for the protagonist. There must be stakes, and they must be high.

A crit partner told me that's what her agent commented to her over and over in her edits: Raise the stakes.

In behavioral psychology, there's this term for increasingly desperate behavior called an extinction burst. We all do it. You put a few quarters in the vending machine, press the button. Your drink doesn't come out. You press the button again, a little more firmly. When you press the return change button, it's the same. Nothing. You lift the door, maybe the drink was released and somehow you didn't notice the loud thump as the can landed in the trough, but there's nothing there. So you press the button again, ten times real fast, each time getting harder. Maybe you're a little mad now. You hit the side of the machine, sure that somehow this will work.

In a lot of novels, the protagonist is operating in this way: trying with increasing desperation to get the Coke out of the machine. They would never just walk up to the machine and punch it, but because they are blocked over and over again, they are willing to try just a little bit harder, then a little more, hoping that it will finally work.

Incidentally, giving in when a child is in the midst of an extinction burst is the best way to teach them that desperate behavior works. It sets you up for years of buying candy in the checkout line at the grocery. So don't give in when kids are kicking and screaming. They are so close to giving up and getting on with their lives. That makes for a boring novel, though. In writing, we want to increase desperation.

Here's one more quote from Story:
A story must not retreat to actions of lesser quality or magnitude, but move progressively forward to a final action beyond which the audience cannot imagine another.  
You can't have your protagonist discover a baseball bat, and walk toward the Coke machine at the end of the chapter, then have them find 75 cents in their pocket at the opening of the next chapter. Wouldn't they have checked their pockets for more change before they considered destroying the machine? Raise the stakes, one step at a time. Lead the character to the climax, where they will do something they never could have seen coming on page one.

I hope you all had an amazing Thanksgiving. I love having a few days off to be with the family and revel in all of my blessings. Happy Writing!
Glutton for Punishment?