Sunday, August 26, 2012

Not Another Tangent?!

After attending the Willamette Writers Conference I learned what I need to do for my second draft of Galactic Empress. I also got a few ideas for a sequel while at the conference and these I jotted down for future use.

So I've been merrily working on draft two, thinking I can pretty much salvage the first quarter of the book when I'm suddenly struck by a new story idea.

Actually, it was a very vague idea for a story that came to me from the title of one of our book club reads. What occurred out of the blue was the solution to the story concept. I have a bead on the protagonist, and a dilemma she must resolve at the climactic moment.

Have you ever read the title of a book and imagined a story that was different than that of the actual novel? The Lace Reader is set in Salem, Massachusetts, and has a little something to do with fortune telling and communicating with spirits. Before opening the book I had an image of women who actually interpreted the patterns of lace to "see" into the future. Turns out that's not exactly what occurs in Brunonia Barry's book.

However...I was left with the idea of women who had the supernatural gift of reading lace to interpret the thread of an individual's life. Sort of the next step after the Fates spin a life thread. But I wasn't sure where to go with the idea and how to develop it. Until this week.

The Last Lace Reader is the working title for my latest young adult story. The craft of lace making is strictly controlled, but the art of reading lace has been outlawed. As the elders who have "The Knack" for reading lace pass away, the art is disappearing. When my protagonist discovers she can read lace she is frightened yet fascinated. She could be executed if it is revealed that she has The Knack. Yet her gift could be of use to others.

I haven't yet figured out the setting. So far I've bookmarked sites ranging from the lost continent of Atlantis to steampunk. There will be horses (that's a given). I have a few characters sketched out and a potential image for the protagonist.

I need to at least finish the second draft of Galactic Empress. But I'll jot ideas for The Last Lace Reader as they come to me, and get serious about research and world building at a later time.

Friday, August 17, 2012

For what we hoped would be a fun summer read our book club selected a mystery set in the commercial fishing industry of Astoria, Oregon. A Killing Tide is the first book in the Columbia River Thriller series written by P. J. Alderman.

Regrettably, some of us found the writing clunky and full of cliches -- and the solution less than mysterious.

As best we could determine, this book was Alderman's effort to transition from romance writing to mysteries. Unfortunately, the romance was the worst part of the novel with its strained attempt to create tension between the pair and the requisite bedroom scene full of trite, overdone descriptions. Considering the main character had undergone a bruising encounter with an intruder only hours before the steamy sexual encounter, we found the whole scene hard to believe.

That said, we thought the descriptions of Astoria and its environs were well done, as were the scenes set on the boats. The Columbia River bar is one of the most dangerous locations in the world to navigate and these scenes made for white-knuckle reading.

The mysterious activity that resulted in a murder and arson was fairly easy to guess, and I think all of us knew whodunnit far before the villain was revealed. The characters were a bit stereotypical:  the big city cop (or this case arson investigator) who retreats to a small town to escape his past, the gorgeous blonde with an independent streak, the police chief more interesting in an arrest than locating the real murderer, etc.

We all thought the author missed several opportunities to enrich the story. Kaz (Kasmira) Jorgensen and her brother Gary are twins who lost their parents when they were only teenagers. The special relationship of twins and the effect of their parents' death in a boating accident that only Kaz survived were not developed to any depth. The widow of the murdered crewman and their cancer-fighting son might have made for a heart-rending subplot. A plot development involving the mayor seemed dropped in at the last moment and not set up well earlier in the book.

Alderman did keep the pace moving and the stubborn, strong-willed Kaz was anything but a passive heroine. But like the characters in a B horror movie, her survival smarts were set aside for the purposes of plot.

One can only hope that the editors at Bantam Books have improved Alderman's Port Chatham books (her other mystery series). Aside from the Astoria setting, I don't think any of us would recommend this book.

Our next read is In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta Ahmed. The memoir about life in Saudi Arabia for women should be an eye opener.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Another great Willamette Writers Conference. An estimated 850-900 attendees participated over the three days.

So -- I didn't schedule any pitches because Galactic Empress is in first draft and not ready for the light of day. Even less ready than I thought, given what I learned over the weekend. Amazing how much more enjoyable the conference is when not stewing over one's pitch and checking the time for the scheduled 10 minute one-on-one with an agent or editor.

Three workshops stand out for me. Susan Fletcher's "Mining for Theme," Gene Del Vecchio's "Creating Blockbusters," and Lisa Cron's "Wired for Story."

So good stories have a premise or theme. I know that. Most writers know that. But many of us just write the story that wants to get out and hope we'll figure out the theme at some  point. Susan Fletcher has been there. Her solution to mining the theme in her own young adult novels is to read her partial or complete draft to look for repetitions. Whether words, settings, actions of characters -- see if anything keeps popping up. There is a good chance that, subconsciously, the author is inserting the premise. Consider the repetitions or similarities and determine if they represent the theme -- the underlying truth of the story. Interestingly enough -- while reading the completed first draft of Galactic Empress I discovered a character activity that I had also inserted in Quest Schmest. The repetition wasn't necessarily in the same story, but in multiple stories. And yes, it is the theme of Galactic Empress and subconsciously I had placed the protagonist in an initial predicament that is an excellent metaphor for the theme. Thanks to Susan Fletcher, I discovered my theme and now I can be more deliberate in developing that theme in the next draft. Yay!

Barnes & Noble is a sponsor of the conference and each year they have a mini book store where they sell writing-related books as well as the books of the workshop presenters. Gene Del Vecchio's Creating Blockbusters caught my eye. Who doesn't want to receive royalty checks from The Da Vinci Code or the Harry Potter books? But I already have a copy of Donald Maas' book about writing a blockbuster. Del Vecchio was the luncheon speaker on Saturday and after his entertaining talk I had to attend his workshop. Del Vecchio's background is in consumer research and it is from this perspective that he approached the question of what makes a hit movie, TV series, book, video game, etc. It turns out that the characteristics that hook and retain an audience are very similar to the elements of The Hero's Journey (Joseph Campbell's study of culture-crossing mythology). As Del Vecchio explained it, the blockbusters connect with the kid in all of us but they are edgy enough for adults to enjoy and thus attract a wider audience. His book helps the writer avoid the dreaded "it's dumb" or "it's boring" review from the 8 to 12-year-old audience.

Of course I rushed back to the B&N table to buy Del Vecchio's book and while there I picked up Lisa Cron's Wired for Story based on the title alone. I've come to the conclusion that humans need stories, and here was a book that supported my viewpoint. As it turned out, at breakfast on Sunday a woman sat down at the table where I was seated with a couple of other attendees. As soon as she said she was a presenter my intuition kicked in and I suspected she was Lisa Cron. Sure enough. Of course I went to her workshop where Ms. Cron explained that human beings think in story and in fact it is critical to our survival. Sure, you can tell a Neanderthal child not to eat the red berries because they're poisonous. Or, you can tell the child a grisly story about a boy from the next clan over who ate the berries and died a horrible death. Through story, humans can envision the future -- the evolutionary characteristic that truly sets us apart. So when the child comes across the shiny red berries he recalls the story and imagines the horrible death that awaits him should he succumb to the temptation. Because it's important that we pay attention to these life-saving stories, our brain is wired to tune out incoming information not directly related to the story. And our brain receives the story as if we are engaged in the same activities as the characters. Thus, we can experience various and sundry acts without actually endangering ourselves. As writers, we can access the reader's hard wiring through character, plot, and theme to answer what happens next, how the protagonist is affected, and what it means to the reader.

The cool factor was -- Del Vecchio's poll revealed that elements of The Hero's Journey do indeed resonate with us, and Cron's research presented the scientific basis to explain why this is the case.

Amanda Gersh presented a workshop on believable dialogue for YA novels. The dialogue should feel real, not be real. Read a transcript of a conversation and you'll se why. She also discussed turning off the "parent/teacher filter" when writing. Could be why childless writers are often successful authors with the younger crowd. Pamela Smith Hill's session on writing romance for teens indicated that the age/maturity of the target audience must be considered (lower or upper end of the YA bracket of 12-18). She also demonstrated that being less explicit and having sensitive scenes occur off stage can be effective.

I really enjoyed Susan De Frietas on speculative fiction. She discussed how recent discoveries in science may serve as the inspiration or jump off point for science fiction and fantasy. Talk about the strange phenomenon of quantum physics! "Spooky actions at a distance" may serve a hard science fiction story, or provide the basis for magic in a fantasy novel. The editor's panel that included Tricia Narwani with Del Rey and Melissa Frain with Tor indicated the first page of a manuscript reveals the author's storytelling voice. It's either there or not.  When combined with a main character the reader can connect with the editors will work with a writer to overcome plot point issues and inconsistencies in the story. Attendees created a bizarre science fiction world in Denise Vitola's workshop. She reminded us that all of our characters must be living meaningful lives in the world of our story. Screenwriter Miguel Tejada-Flores emphasized the importance of making it clear who the story is about and the character's motivation for the decisions made and actions taken. In her workshop on The Second Draft, Molly Best Tinsley explained that in the first draft the author is writing to herself. The second draft is for the audience. Eric Witchey illustrated the use of irreconcilable differences to create character depth and develop backstory.

Whew! A lot of good stuff to assimilate. Once again I'm glad I decided to spend time with one of my tribes.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Not So Bad After All

I completed the first draft of Galactic Empress several weeks ago and set it aside before tackling revisions. With the Willamette Writers Conference coming up I decided to pick it up again. I didn't sign up for one-on-one pitches at the conference this year, but in the past I've had informal chats with editors and agents. At this writers conference you need to be ready at any moment to discuss your work.

Once again I was surprised that the novel was better than I remembered. Not that it doesn't need considerable help. But it has promise.

Apparently some writers overwrite the first draft and need to eliminate a considerable amount of material in subsequent drafts. I tend to do the opposite. My first drafts are more like sketches that need material added. Kind of the reverse of peeling an onion. Instead of removing layers, I have to add them.

So -- I hope I pick up more great information from the conference workshops that will help me add the right sensory details and action that will improve the readability of Galactic Empress.

By the way -- the working title doesn't really reflect the story that actually ended up on paper. I'll keep it for now until I see how future drafts turn out. One option is The Adventure of the Emerald Helm.

My elevator pitch:  Galactic Empress/The Adventure of the Emerald Helm is a young adult space opera. It's Princess Leia meets Indiana Jones when two young adventurers hunting antiquities inadvertently rescue a young woman in the line of succession to rule a powerful galactic sovereignty.