24 October 2014

Helpful Advice if You Are Writing Fiction But You're a Fan of Film and Television

In terms of my story consumption, I'd say I'm about 50% reader and 50% watcher of television and movies. I don't even feel bad about that. I love reading but there is something very compelling about visual media, and it's a great way for me to consume narrative such that I can discuss it with my partner, who is not a great reader and who tends to gravitate toward nonfiction anyway.

The unfortunate thing about being a fiction writer who consumes a fair amount of scripted, enacted, carefully edited stuff is that there are some important differences between written story and televised / filmed story. It's too easy to absorb some film techniques and transfer them into your novels or short stories where they don't really make much sense.

Here's some advice on this problem from Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel, which could equally be called How to Make the Novel You're Trying to Write Way, Way More Interesting to Just About Everyone:
...many writers visualize their stories in the way that a film unspools on a screen. They write travel between scenes, establishing shots and incidental action (dropping ice cubes into a glass, flicking a lighter into flame) in order to "pace" their novels and make them feel more realistic.
That method is sometimes misguided. A novel is not a film. The compression inherent in film often demands its action be paced out; otherwise, the unrelenting tension of the film's back-to-back scenes would hammer the audience into insensibility. Novelists do not have that worry. A novel's pace is already slow. For novelists the challenge is just the opposite: to keep the tension level constantly high.
In other words, get to the good stuff right away and keep it coming. I don't know if bearing this advice in mind would help resolve all issues that arise from accidental copying of film / television techniques onto written fiction, but it might.

22 October 2014

Building a Novel Playlist

My NaNoWriMo prep is elaborate and ornate and all kinds of other things suggestive of ritual. I've been NaNo-ing out novels since 2008, the first year that I tried NaNo and won (not the first year I tried), but I've gotten better at plotting and researching and psyching myself up for it since then.

Today I've been working on my soundtrack. Soundtracking a novel is a way to use the poetry of others to serendipitously inspire your own plots.

The basic idea comes from the fine folks at Storywonk. The scariest and best part is that you're not allowed to use music that you already have an emotional relationship with or any emotional associations. You don't want to be trying to work on your novel and end up thinking about your best friend and that time you drove all night and sang a song at top volume. You want to focus on your novel. So while you build your soundtrack you're going to be getting to know some new music and new musicians.

For me, the Indie / Folk category on The Music Ninja usually resonates very well. I usually work my way through The Indie Dojo until I have 16-18 songs to pick from. If you're working on a budget, there are free downloads among the songs, and you can listen to the whole song via TMN while you're deciding if it will work for you and your soundtrack, so it's a good resource. There are others, but I'm a bit limited by not being in the US, and this is what works for me.

SO: you go through new-to-you music until you find a bunch of songs that you like and that you think fit with your project. This is an intuitive process, so you'll have to feel your own way through. Then you go through and assign a song to chunks of your novel. How you do this is up to you, but I basically find a song that represents each of my main characters including my antagonist(s), then I pick an "opening credit" song, a "closing credit" song, and a song for each of the major turning points of my plot. (Yeah, I'm a plotter not a pantser.) You can pick a song for your setting, a song for the tone of the book, a song for your theme(s), whatever works.

The fun part is that you can use the songs to help you build your plot. I haven't designed my major plot points yet but I've picked a bunch of songs. I expect that as I go through my song list and start arranging them, the plot will emerge.

Once you've got your songs picked out, you arrange them in an order that makes sense to you. Every time you work on your novel, whether you're plotting, brainstorming, doodling some notes on your main character, or actually starting the draft, you play your playlist. Once you've been doing that for a while and you've got an association between your novel and your playlist, take the playlist with you and play it whenever you can. It will help keep the fires of your novel burning, and will allow you to create associations and think about plot points so you arrive at the page each day on fire with ideas.

I've had amazing things happen with little snippets of song lyrics: sudden resonances, amazing coincidences, and bits of dialogue or even just character attitudes that have helped me deepen my work.

x-posted to my tumblr

07 September 2014


I am still here and still writing and trying to sub more. It's been a busy summer for me. I've finally figured out a couple of ways to promote my other, non-writing business that are comfortable and don't feel like crazy self-sacrifice.

In the name of trying to get better at not burning myself out, I've been trying to make sure I rest. While in the past I've defined "rest" as "getting enough sleep," this summer has been a time when it's felt very necessary to take breaks and let myself bottom right out from time to time by not trying to do more / relaxing and just doing fun stuff. Especially that has meant letting myself just enjoy narrative and relish the crunchy goodness that other writers have to offer.

A couple-three weeks ago I followed a circuitous route (mostly via higherfunction's tumblr) into the fandom that follows / fics / combs through every detail of BBC's Sherlock series. It's an excellent show; if you haven't seen it, I recommend it highly. Combing through the fandom is amazing because there is so much division. Never have I seen people so divided on the ultimate meaning of a show or any piece of media. I don't think I could do a good job of summarizing the numerous splits and byways and diversities of opinion, much less the tons of reasons people seem to find the show so intriguing. I've been re-watching the series and having so many opinions about it myself. I fell so hard down this rabbit hole that I made a tumblr to get my thoughts on it out, if you're interested at all in any way it's here: http://elizabeth-twist.tumblr.com/

I'll probably blog other pop culture stuff over there.

Bottom line, I'm excited to be excited about something that someone else made? It makes me want to make more of my own stuff and get it out there. Writing is hard. It's all hard, but we love it, right?

06 August 2014

Literally Funny

Boop! New post.

I'm just getting over a bout of summer flu. Pro tip: if your boyfriend still has that hacking cough, DON'T let him borrow your toothbrush for an entire long weekend. Unfortunately my choices were limited, since we were in the middle of nowhere (exactly where we love to vacation) and he had forgotten to pack his. 'Spose he could have borrowed one of my Uncle's or whoever's toothbrush that was in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom in the cabin in the woods, but all in all letting him use mine seemed like the most humane option, and I figured what with the, uh, generous amount of contact we have on a constant basis, I would have already caught and fought that flu.


Something I noticed while massively feverish is that my ability to concentrate on one thing at a time was actually better than usual. I set myself up at my keyboard and got done a giant amount of work on second-drafting / transcribing a bunch of fiction, all while dripping sweat and hallucinating ponies.

(As you know if you've been paying attention, I first-draft with pen and paper. At some point those words need to make it into digital form, and that involves typing them out. This is also my biggest point of revision, since if there's anything global I want to change, I do it as I transcribe, and anything that doesn't work in first draft can fall by the wayside. This is one of my least favourite parts of my writing process.)

I'm wondering now if my occasional bout of distractionitis are related to having too much energy? I'm considering upping my exercise schedule to see what happens, once the last of the post-flu exhaustion has left me. Or maybe it's just the nature of what I was doing: second-drafting is more detail-oriented and less intense than first drafting, so it was just the ideal activity for the foggiest of days.

Anyhow, I hope you are all having a fabulous August so far.

Especially for you writer types and grammar nazis, a video catalogue of abuse of the word "literally" on Twitter.

20 July 2014

Blog Shy

Hello, friends. I am wondering why I've been so blog shy for the last year or so. I don't know?

Part of it has to do with spinning out into a bit of a depression last year. There is also the fact that I've been putting more effort into my other job / other projects, which require a lot of tending to and careful attention to get things up off the ground. I've been reading and looking into some marketing information, and I guess everything I'm reading seems to apply more to my small business than it does to writing. Why is writing so different from everything else? Blah. Blargh.

Updates and stuff:

I wrote the last page of my page-a-day project on July 1st. Actually it turned out to be more like my page every day and a half project, but it still was a great experience. I know now that I can write at a totally different pace than full-on crazy fast.

I'm formulating an elaborate theory about the pacing of a story vs. the speed at which you write it. I'm not sure in any way that this is accurate, and it's totally subjective which means it's either brilliant and insightful or wrong and not representative of reality at all, BUT! seems to me that the page a day allowed for a lot more introspection / internal focus on my main character. The conflict in that story depended on the conflict between the role the main character was supposed to play and who he really was inside, so without a thorough representation of the mc's internal landscape, it wouldn't work. Doing a page a day made me much more aware of the minutiae of the story, much of which was the character's thought process as he worked on keeping up his facade. What I'm trying to say is that the page a day writing process seemed particularly well-suited to this kind of storytelling, but I might be making that up.

Switching gears, I'm writing a bunch this month trying to speed through some raw word count to get my creative juices flowing on some other projects and draft some short fiction. Clearing out the idea backlog is always a good idea, I find, since it prevents locking on to a single project and becoming obsessed with making everything perfect, a constant problem and issue for me, especially when I spend the bulk of my time trying to edit and polish. Fresh raw word count is always a good solution, as is calling something finished and sending it out onto the market.

I've had the (Canadian) Netflix for a while now. There is some pretty good indie horror on there. Did you know? Dave and I loved The Shrine for its creepy, Grudge-style no-way-out plot, and its no-holds-barred climax. I struggle with story endings. The most common feedback I get on stories from editors is that the ends are not satisfying or complete-feeling. I could make a whole study of the way The Shrine builds to a very dynamic, physical, visceral ending and then lets it all spin out in a way that feels totally inevitable. Yeah yeah there are some flaws, but seriously. We nervously giggled through the grossness of the ending. 

Also, The Seasoning House. This hard to watch but super satisfying revenge film is really beautiful in its symmetry. I always love seeing Kevin Howarth play a villain, ever since I caught his better-than-Bale turn as a psychopath in The Last Horror Movie. I could watch Rosie Day crawl through filthy ducts and emote all day. Okay, just kidding, but hers is a jaw-dropping performance. 

A minor household disaster (i.e., breaking something that isn't mine and trying to find all the pieces for gluing back together) caused me to completely empty a small bookcase full of paperbacks this week. I haven't dusted these for a dog's age, so as I put the shelf back together I rearranged, sorted, tossed some (goodbye, Mill on the Floss! I hated you! And also, I don't need you, second copy of Crime and Punishment). I rediscovered my old copies of several books from the Abyss horror line, which I am still sad about because if all was just in the world it would still be going. If you're not familiar with this apex moment in the history of horror publishing, there's a good summary here at Too Much Horror Fiction. I'm looking forward to digging into some of the ones I remember loving and some I never got to in what remains of the summer.

That's me. You?

29 June 2014

A Page of My Handwriting

A certain bearded gentleman recently asked me how small my handwriting is. This is the easiest way to answer:

click image to embiggen

Common answers to FAQs: yes, I can read it. Some people find it easy to read; others don't. This is the third-last page of my current novella project, so if you don't want spoilers for something that'll probably see the light of day in the far future, then, uh, don't read it? Also it is overwritten. If I can't decide how I'd like to say something, my tendency is to write it two or even three different ways, separated by commas, and pick one when it comes time to transcribe or edit.

For the curious, the marks and numbers in red on / over the text were made when I counted the words (545 in all for this page). I count words for record-keeping purposes, to help me stay on track for my annual raw word count goal (250k this year) and also so I have a sense of how long the draft is. The numbers in the left column are tallying the total number of words I wrote on June 20th (545 on this project / 1168 on another project); the monthly total (11968), and then the total number of words for this project (545 + 52379 = 52984).

So to answer your question, Andrew: I don't know if I'd say my writing is microscopic. It's not the smallest I've seen, but I've found that the key to fitting lots of words on a page is horizontal density - squishing the words left / right rather than how tall they are. I guess they're pretty closely packed.

21 June 2014

Page a Day Novel Update: How to Break Your Muse (and Put Her Back Together Again)

I won't be lame and apologize for disappearing, but, uh, I'm still alive! In the last couple of months, my focus has been on doing more blogging for my small business and trying to keep things going with my non-blogging-writing goals (sort of going okay-ish?). Then there was a major family medical crisis (mostly resolved with some scary question marks still hanging there). Life: wow.

A while back I wrote about my page a day novel project, and then (while it was still going smoothly) I posted again to say that the page a day plan is a really easy, almost effortless way to produce a large volume of writing over a long-ish time span. Basically, I decided to try writing a short novel project at the pace of one page a day, starting in February. A page in this case is one of my handwritten pages, so on average about 550 words.

Well, somewhere around April I decided that I wanted to be done with that project. To my logical mind, a page a day was starting to feel a bit slow. I decided that I would double up on my pages every other day - one page, then two pages, one page, then two...and so on. That's a good compromise, right? Still much slower than my usual novel drafting pace. At my fastest, I've done 6-7k in one day. That's not a normal pace, but it was something I'd managed three or four days in a row when I was trying to get the thing done.

Have you spotted the flaw in that previous paragraph? Yes. My logical mind decided what to do, without consulting the intuitive writer that was happily ambling along at the very comfortable rate of one page per day, and even, on most days, happily going on to do other stuff after the page was done.

I should have paid more attention when, at the beginning of the month, I ended up continuing on with the page a day. On the days I'd planned to write two pages, I just didn't feel like it. Instead of asking myself what that meant, I pushed a little harder. I managed four pages on a couple of days: great progress. Sometimes it's good to push, yeah - like the man said, you've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. THIS WAS NOT ONE OF THOSE TIMES. By the end of April, my muse was pissed, or my inner procrastinator had taken over, and I just wasn't getting that page a day done.

I've worked on a bunch of other stuff since then, but one of my major focuses has been trying to get back into the page a day habit. I am five pages away from the end of the page a day project as I write this, and rather than speed up, like I imagined I'd be doing, I've slowed down even more. The more that is happening in my story, the slower I want to take it. Or maybe this is just standard procrastination drag. Not sure? Seriously, none of this has ever happened to me before. It's like it's been opposite day...for the last three months.

My current theory is that my muse, my inner writer, my personal scrawler of first drafts, was pretty happy with the deal we struck at the beginning of this project, and, when challenged to go faster, simply broke down. I'm slowly massaging things back into shape, and already looking forward to bombing through 50k in July, but I guess I've discovered that it's important to hold to an intention I set at the beginning of a project. I said a page a day. Next time, I'll stick to a page a day. If I want to go faster, then I think I need to have that talk with my muse at the beginning of the project.

It's still the easiest novel-length project I've written. Next time, I'll know not to push things that shouldn't be pushed.