In the soup

Sharon Ashwood
May 18, 2011  •  1 Comment

For me, the biggest stumbling block to writing is that I am slow and need large blocks of time. For instance, I spent most of Sunday glued to the computer fiddling with edits. As it was pouring outside, distractions were reduced. This was a good thing because—outside of an hour or so for phone call and lunch—I was at my desk from 10:00 am until about 6:00 pm. Such a marathon is great, but not possible during the week when I’m expected to show up at the office. It’s after dinner writing or nothing.

IMO, the secret to getting a chunk o’ time during a weekday evening is to cook as little as possible. What I mean is that, on the weekend, I lay in survival supplies, chop veg in advance, and usually make a large pot of soup or a casserole so that lunches are ready to go (and cheap). It’s not a perfect system, but it helps me get to the computer before I’m starting to think about bed.

Of course, when it comes to lunches, I’m only worrying about myself. It’s harder if you’re dealing with family. I recall my working/student mom introducing me to the task of brown bagging food when I was in junior high school. I think it was a smart idea: if I didn’t like what I packed, I had no one to blame but myself. Alas, she never did successfully train my dad to fend for himself. He definitely needed a keeper.

Anyway, this is my latest soup invention, for anyone else trying to prepare ahead:

• In a large soup pot, fry 1 ½ c chopped onion in olive oil. Add about a ½ teaspoon of salt.
• Chop a bundle of asparagus and add that. Cook until onions are clear (about six minutes).
• Sprinkle with 3 heaping teaspoons of flour to make a roux and cook for about a minute. Then slowly add six cups of stock (or water, but stock is better). At this point, feel free to add, say, leftover chicken, turkey, or ham and herbs to taste. Mushrooms are also an option. I used a tsp of dried dill and a half tsp of pepper. Cook until asparagus bits are tender.
• Put everything through the blender or (much easier) use a hand blender wand until the soup is a smooth texture. Add a large dash of tamari sauce. At the last minute, stir in a cup of milk or cream.
• This recipe reheats extremely well.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do is get a bunch of friends together and start one of those deals where everyone cooks a bunch of food and swaps homemade frozen dinners. Has anyone tried that?


Strategic Swatting

Sharon Ashwood
May 11, 2011  •  No Comments

Every so often, I realize that I actually learned something useful in my business classes. While this comes as something of a shock, I shouldn’t be so surprised. Writing is a business. Ergo, business theory occasionally applies.

Take, for instance, strategic planning. It’s a lovely buzz-phrase. It sounds clever and important. Basically it is a response to the question, “I want to be/do/have X, how do I get there?” It’s a question writers have, too, especially when one is talking career.

In order to answer “how do I get there?” we have to decide where “there” is. Yes, good old goal-setting is a first step. Let’s say: Writer Jane wants to get an editor seriously interested in buying a book. She can’t MAKE an editor buy her work, but she can do her best to get firmly on the radar. Good. Simple. We’re on track to a strategic plan.

So how does Jane form an action plan for getting herself in the game? One tool is called a SWOT analysis. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with special ops guys with rifles. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. The business or person doing the analysis makes a list of each category with reference to their stated goal. That is, what strengths does Writer Jane have that will advance her toward the goal of getting on an editor’s radar? What weaknesses? Not all of her strengths/weaknesses will apply. What could be a strength one time (she’s a great writer of sex scenes) may be a weakness the next time around (the editor in question avoids writers with a reputation for writing hot). It’s important to keep the goal firmly in mind and think carefully about how well each item on the list fits.

So, what goes in each list?

Strengths = internal strengths. What do you bring to the table? A great work ethic? A fabulous proposal? A talent for characterization? A background in marketing and promotion?

Weaknesses = internal drawbacks. Where do you fall down? Can’t finish a project without a gun to your head? You haven’t a clue about promotion? Time challenges?

Opportunities = external strengths. Is the market for your kind of book trending up? Is that publisher opening a new line absolutely suited to you?

Weaknesses = external problems. The publisher you want to pitch to is folding. Nobody likes your sub-genre anymore. The market is glutted.

Of course, the more specific and insightful you make your goal and your lists, the better information you’re going to get. Then, once you’ve done the analysis, you’re ready to do your planning. The object, of course, is to work your plan so that you end up with lots of strengths and few weaknesses.

Step one is figuring out how closely your strengths match the opportunities available. This is where you will find your competitive advantage. For instance, if publisher X is launching a new line of medical mysteries and, hey, you spent twenty years working in Emergency, you have an edge. It’s amazing how confident this process can make you feel, and how well it prepares you for making a pitch to an editor. But don’t stop there: make your competitive advantage everything it can be. How can you enhance your strengths? Or do you need to adjust your goal for a better fit? The closer the alignment between your goal, opportunities and assets/abilities, the greater is your likelihood of success.

Step two applies to the weaknesses and threats. How can you make this list shorter? What weaknesses can you mitigate? Can you convert disadvantages to opportunities? If no one is publishing books about roller-skating zombie FBI agents, can you be the first in the field with this—um—original concept?

The objective of the SWOT is to generate plans and ideas. When it works well, it can take one a long way from fuzzy thought to detailed to-do list. I find it useful for organizing priorities. This makes a good basis for talking to an editor or agent—you’ve done your brainstorming in advance and will have something to say for yourself when you pick up the phone.

A final thought: a quick search on Google will give you a ton of links to SWOT tools and examples which are interesting and possibly fun to play with. However, it doesn’t need to get any more complex than what I’ve listed above. It’s the thinking part that counts, and no software can tell you what your dreams are.


Creative apathy

Sharon Ashwood
May 4, 2011  •  No Comments

I don’t tend to get writer’s block per se, but I will confess to the occasional case of severe apathy. No matter how well/badly things are going, there are days when I just can’t get excited about deadlines, sales, market stats or anything else book-related. All I want to do is watch bad TV and sulk.

This is probably healthy and normal, but there is a little voice in my head that panics. If I’m not writing, is this the beginning of the end? The departure of the muse? The slide into irrelevance? *Gasp* will the page police bang on the door and demand to see that day’s production?

Do I care? Some days, not so much. And, if I leave it alone, in less than a week I’m banging at the keyboard again—sulk over, moxy back in gear. What causes these lapses? Rebellion is probably just a sign that vacation-time is overdue. Cure? Take a mini-vacation. Apathy might have something to teach us.

The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to indulge. Do nothing. Watch television. Read trashy magazines. Paint toenails. Get well and thoroughly bored. It could be considered research. For instance, in my last bout of indolence I learned:
· That there is a new crackled trend in nail polish that looks vaguely like a zombie disease
· That a hat that isn’t a hat is called a fascinator
· That according to a 2009 study, women are more accurate at hammering nails than men are
· And that goji berries taste kind of like soap
. Women are most likely to win an argument with a man at 3:00 pm

Priceless information. No, really. And if wading through gems like that is the alternative, I’m way more than ready to get back to work.

The question is how many of the factoids above can be used in a book. Better yet, a single paragraph …


Book Learning

Sharon Ashwood
April 28, 2011  •  No Comments

How does one salve one’s conscience when one doesn’t actually feel like writing? I’ve begun to think the answer is books on writing. Maybe not creating them because that’s, like, writing, but COLLECTING them is certainly one of the best forms of procrastination going. I have shelves of the suckers. But how useful are they? Once you’re past the “how to format a manuscript” stage, and you know all about grammar, spelling, and punctuation, what can these tomes do for you besides make one look very writerly?

As far as I can tell, these books fall into a few categories. There are reference works for writers: handy-dandy guides to poisons, what happens at a crime scene, how to survive in the Regency era, etc. It’s pretty easy to figure out which of these you need and they are by far my favourite type. Just the facts in small words that even writers can understand. Here are two I go to again and again:

 

Then there are writing guides that are structure-focussed books. How to write mysteries/ horror/ romance/ bestsellers, etc. Mileage on these varies hugely. I’ve yet to find a really good one on horror. And, even when these guides are good, they need to be applied with common sense. Take romance for instance: Are you really going to use the same approach for writing a Harlequin Presents as for a dark paranormal romance? Hmm—the Cowboy Vampire Firefighter’s Secret Baby Werewolf Surprise?

For good genre-fiction techniques in general, I personally like Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Bob Mayer’s incomparable Toolkit.

There are books about finding one’s writing inspiration, but I’ve never been inspired to pick them up.

There are also myriad books about individual issues, like dialogue, description, character and so forth. I suppose that one could fill a book with a minute examination about one of these topics, but I’m not sure I’d want to read it. The best straight-up advice I’ve found is in Stephen King’s On Writing. He has a fabulous way of getting right to the point. I’ve pulled more nuggets out of this volume than any other, and only half of it is how-to.

I’m sure there are plenty of other fabulous choices, and some might be gathering dust, unread, on my shelf. The point is that I think once you’ve found those craft guides that resonate with your process, those are the keepers. It won’t be the same list for everyone, and that’s okay.


Proposals – not the marrying kind

Sharon Ashwood
April 20, 2011  •  No Comments

It takes me forever to write a proposal. I’m fairly sure my agent just doesn’t believe me anymore when I say that I’m going to produce one.

It’s not laziness on my part, nor is it lack of ideas. It’s trying to connect my germ of a concept with the finished product. There are a lot of obstacles, not the least is which requiring great tracts of time to ponder the whole thing and answer some key questions.

One number one: what genre is this? For some, this is easy. For me, not so much. I tend to write in between, around, or hopping to and fro genres because that interests me. It tends not to interest industry professionals quite so much, despite their vaunted love of mash-ups. Eventually one has to settle on what a proposed book MOSTLY is, just so folks know where to file it. If one colours too far outside the lines, the marketplace tends to shy away. Sucks, but true.

Two: who is the main character? The standard answer is “whoever changes the most.” I’d rather say: “whoever I think I can stand hanging around my head for the next six months.” The point is things get a lot easier if you have one focal character, even in a romance. If, like me, you are prone to ensemble casts, it becomes critical. One very important reason is that readers like to have a character to cheer for. The more time they spend with the protagonist, the more sympathy has a chance to build. It’s not that the other characters aren’t nice people, but readers like that familiar touchstone.

Three: how much world do I really need to build for just a proposal? Um, all of it? The more unfamiliar the landscape, the more work has to be invested. This is what sucker punched me on the current WIP. I finished the first draft of the first fifty pages last night and realized those gaping holes were due to bad preparation. I hadn’t made enough decisions about the universe, so (shockingly) it didn’t manifest on the page. I had created universe lite (all of the cosmos, none of the gravity) and it worked about as well as artificial sweetener. An easy fix, but it goes to show sloppy doesn’t pay.

So, yes, it is possible to spend hours working on your book without actually writing a word. You need to dream up a world, decide on your market, research your market, and ponder your cast list before much else happens. This is why it is entirely permissible to sock someone who sneers at your paltry page count and says, “Gee, you’ve been at this for ages and is that all you got done?” Grrrr.

Better yet (and more productive than outright homicide), keep a notebook of these decisions so that progress is still measurable. Check off what choices you’ve made and jot down why. Word count isn’t everything, but work accomplished certainly deserves reward.


Going old school

Sharon Ashwood
April 13, 2011  •  2 Comments

old-books

Lately I’ve been dipping into my someday-I-gotta-read list of classics and catching up on gems like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Valley of Fear and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. They’re novels written for pure entertainment. Sure, some things about them are dated, but as adventure yarns they stand the test of time. There’s ticking clocks, secrets, comedy, conflict, exotic scenery, betrayal and heroism.

These books break a great many “rules” espoused by today’s fiction-writing experts. Not that Doyle and Verne would necessarily care. They must have been doing something right to stay in print for at least a hundred years—but we do see some things in the nineteenth-century novel we don’t see much of in today’s pulp fiction.

Point of view is one. The Victorians weren’t shy about using the wide-angle storytelling lens, aka the omniscient view. With that, an all-seeing narrator sets forth long passages of description about a location, society, or milieu. It makes me think of an opening sequence of a movie, where the camera lovingly pans over the countryside to set the scene before the star enters the picture. Today, we’re told get into the action and deep POV as soon as possible. That’s great, but there’s something to be said for taking time to set the scene.

Another interesting difference is that the authors way back when weren’t shy about what we’d call authorial intrusion. That is, the author expresses their opinion about what’s going on in the story, sometimes very directly. While I’m less tolerant of this, I’m forced to admit that part of Dickens’ unmistakable touch is his personal opinions—be it around social injustice or the right kind of Christmas office party. Though these interjections would be chopped out now, his exhortations add a huge amount of character to his books.

Another custom fading into the sunset is a certain level of narrative complexity. Even in the seventies, there were sprawling best-sellers with a bazillion characters, all with their own points of view and story arcs. In genre fiction, these days (and, yes, this is a sweeping generalization with significant exceptions) we get the hero, heroine, maybe villain, and rarely anyone else. And, they’re generally focussed on one main storyline with only piddling subplots. Even juicy double couple romances are becoming hard to find. Why the push to keep it simple? After all, readers aren’t stupid and surely could follow more than one story arc.

Probably there are many reasons, and some of it is undoubtedly just our current tastes. One, I’m sure, is the price of paper. More complex = more pages = more expensive. Not a good thing unless you’re an ebook.

Anyway, I’m not saying these older practices are better or worse, just that it’s interesting that some very successful and long-lived stories don’t adhere to the current concept of “good” writing. This may seem obvious. However, my experience reading some older works was a bit of “wow, this is different” combined with “huh, that works okay.” And it also reminds me that storytelling comes with a very full toolkit. Surprise and variety are good. As writers, we shouldn’t forget that.


Maybe what glitters is gold.

Sharon Ashwood
March 30, 2011  •  No Comments

The interesting thing about awards is that they can mean a lot and not much at the same time. Conventional wisdom says that shoppers and therefore publishers pay no attention to book awards. They do not help sales and they ultimately do nothing but collect dust on a shelf. But, like most such grumpy assessments, I don’t think that’s the whole truth. I have won awards before, and as shiny dust collectors go I think they are mighty fine.

My third book, Unchained: the Dark Forgotten, has been nominated for a RITA® Award in the paranormal category. I really, absolutely, utterly did not expect this. It’s not because I don’t think it’s a great book, but there are a lot of great books out there by bigger names than mine. I am hugely honoured and humbled.

For those that don’t know the RITA®, it’s awarded by the Romance Writers of America and is considered the Big Deal in romance awards, rather like an Edgar or a Hugo are regarded in their respective genres. One would think such news would involve champagne and confetti. My initial response was disbelief; I’m good at that. I finally figured out it wasn’t a mistake later on in the evening of the announcement day, when I was poring over the two-page email from the RWA outlining what I had to do by what date to keep my nomination in play. Apparently, if you want my attention, send paperwork.

Then came gratitude, because I suddenly realized that some people out there read and understood my vision, and it made them happy. The book I wrote gave them a few hours of escape and pleasure. That, above all things, is what an author wants. And maybe, just maybe, this nomination will help me keep on telling my stories to a wide audience. That would be the biggest win of all.

So when people wonder what good awards (especially ones without cheques attached) can do for an author, this is it. They act as a guarantee of quality. Maybe they’ll open doors. More important, it lets the author know someone out there gets what they’re doing. Suddenly, this weird one-sided conversation we engage in has a response. In this case, a thumbs-up.

What else really matters?


Writing is a dangerous job, and not simply to one’s sanity.

Sharon Ashwood
March 23, 2011  •  1 Comment

One of the oft-overlooked hazards of the business is that if one a) sits at a desk to write instead of, say, dictating while bouncing on a trampoline and b) has a desk job besides, there is every danger that one might soon resemble said desk.

Naturally, we all wish to avoid a future as furniture–especially the overstuffed variety. Hence the number of places where one can gain wholesome advice about calories, fibre, and self-flagellation. Enough such web sites abound that I’m not going to discuss actual facts here (as a fiction writer, facts are typically a last resort). Instead, I would like to point out three observations—by way of mythbusting—of practical use to writers:

ONE. Of course there’s no time for exercise. Everyone knows that.

Who doesn’t want more hours in the day? Most authors will do some pretty silly things to squeeze in extra minutes of writing time—but we all have our limits. I have made repeated protests that I am NOT a morning person and cannot possibly write at 5:00 am. This is still true. I am zombie girl until at least 9:00 and am quite possibly dangerous until 8:00.

But I can work with that. I can show up at an exercise facility at an early hour. No one who goes to a gym at 6:00 am is there for conversation, so I don’t have to be nice. The benefits of this schedule are twofold: It frees up time later in the day when I can actually think and write, and with luck I don’t actually remember any of the sweaty morning torture session. Hence therefore, it IS possible to write and maintain a fitness routine—just go when you’re not at your intellectual peak anyway. Besides, it’s nice to have a chore completely finished by the time the work day starts.

TWO. I can’t write without chocolate.

No, I don’t WANT to write without chocolate. Or cheese curls. Or a small lake of black coffee. But I actually write better without them because I won’t feel like my head is stuffed with packing pickles.

In a fit of who-knows-what, I gave up all forms of grain and sugar. One the shock (and grumpiness) abated, I was astonished to have tons and tons of energy. According to the diet I was raised on, I should be starving and tired, but I’m not. The secret is to not stick to a “three squares a day” regime, but to frequently eat little bits of vegetables and protein to rev the metabolism.

THREE. I’ll accomplish so much more if I just keep my bum in the chair for the next twelve hours.

There are times when more is not more. Still, focussed concentration is great, but only for a few hours at a time. After a certain point, diminishing returns set in.

The key is getting food and oxygen to the brain, which means circulation. You know: Beating heart. Pulse. All those things vampire characters lack.

It’s bad when the author tries to emulate the physical state of the Undead. Vlad may be okay with zero blood oxygen; authors just get stupid—so get up and move around from time to time. Eat something nutritious. The cliché of the author hunched over the keyboard, eating junk and drinking their own blood volume in coffee and cola is not a model for real life. Not if you want your brain to stay friends.

I have a tricky enough relationship with my brain as it is—but at least now it occasionally comes when called. Up till now, its specialty has been playing dead.

Interested? Here’s a blog worth reading:
Calorie Neutral


Theme-atic

Sharon Ashwood
March 16, 2011  •  No Comments

I was thinking, “hmm, what should I write about?” and then my critique group started up a discussion around theme. Because I own the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and never get to use it, I looked up theme:

Properly speaking, the theme of a work is not its subject but rather its central idea, which may be stated directly or indirectly. For example, the theme of Othello is jealousy. See Leitmotif; motif.

But if we see Leitmotif, we might have to see Wagner’s Ring cycle, and I think one has to go into training for that, rather like an Olympic event. Let’s stick with theme.

In my experience, theme got a bad rap in school because it was presented like the prize at the bottom of a cereal box. Somewhere in every work of literature, a theme was hiding. It could be found, guessed at, or otherwise produced as a complete yet simplistic idea. It’s what a story meant, with all the subtlety of a 2×4 between the eyes.

Probably not the most effective use of the technique. To my mind, theme is more like the dryer screen that collects lint as the story tumbles to its conclusion. Lots of stuff in a story relates to an organizing thematic idea, but in more complex stories it’s often oblique, multi-faceted, backward, or even contradictory. It’s more about how a concept shows up in different ways in the story world without actually being a Holy Grail the characters chase. It’s that attitude, idea, or circumstance that impacts all the major players in different ways, and each example illuminates the others.

Longer stories often have several themes. A good example in my mind is (speaking of rings) The Lord of the Rings. It’s about stepping up and taking responsibility. It’s also about exile. It’s also about good versus evil. It’s also about the inheritance of sin. It’s about how good Viggo Mortensen looks in leather, and the artistry of Elven hairdressers. There’s no one cereal-box prize, nor should there be. That would diminish the work.

Perhaps themes are just whatever is roaming around in the author’s mind. I don’t start writing with a theme in mind—or if I do, I veer off of it pretty quickly because I have the attention span of a gnat. It’s when I go back to rewrite that I see strands of actual theme in the text. At that point, I dig them out and highlight them, usually with a puzzled, “Oh, so that’s what all this was about.” Scorched plays with ideas of meaningful self-definition. Unchained gnaws on the female role in society. I wouldn’t say that’s what they are about per se, but what flavors them–or so I discovered after draft one was complete.

It’s interesting that theme and Leitmotif are terms literature shares with music. That’s pretty informative all by itself. In pop music, we’d call it a hook—that little spicy phrase that pops up again and again and helps make the piece memorable.

Of course, outside of English class, does anyone actually notice theme, or is it something writers do mostly for themselves? Is anyone out there conscious of it?


Words on a diet

Sharon Ashwood
March 2, 2011  •  No Comments

I just spent the weekend revising a short story and submitting it. I spent the previous weekend duct taped to my chair FINISHING the piece, which I had avoided doing until it was in burning crisis mode.

Burning crisis mode is (unlike burning bush mode) the state of having no idea what to write and actually needing divine intervention. My muse, being a joker, sent enough inspiration during those 48 hours that I not only finished, but finished at about 3,500 words over length. When it’s a 13,000 word piece, that’s a problem. Furthermore, the story was sufficiently complicated that I couldn’t just hack out a few scenes and call it a day. But I made it, ending up just a hundred or so words extra.

I almost always write too long, so I’ve had plenty of practice doing liposuction on my prose. It has been said that 10% of any draft can be safely removed. With me, it’s about 20%. Look at all the silly things I do:

YA short story opening, take 1:

Broad daylight was safe. Safer, anyway. Maybe even kind of dull.

Two o’clock on a September Saturday afternoon meant that the streets were drenched in a warm liquid gold even though the shadows chilled Dori’s back. Autumn was creeping closer, but the summer still held sway for a little time yet—as did the light.

Dori didn’t know the city all that well, much less this part of the downtown. It was the kind of place some called funky and others desperately derelict, but exploring such areas could pay off. In her old home town, she’d found an edgy boutique with stuff no mall would carry. Other times, well, she’d discovered just how fast she could run.

Maybe cutting through an alleyway to reach the next cluster of stores wasn’t the best idea, but she was too lazy to walk to the street corner. Besides, the alley was just a space between two old buildings. Crumbling pavement heaved and split and the graffiti-squiggled walls smelled of old, spilled beer and worse. Not much adventure here.

1. I think I’m trying for a folksy opening, but I end up doing a prose mumble. Three sentence fragments robs the first paragraph of punch. The middle one has to go.
2. Passive verbs (such as “were drenched”) usually indicate a convoluted structure. So do things like “meant that,” “It was/wasn’t the …”. Turning the sentences around to cut out those phrases strengthens the action.
3. The sentence about the alley being a space between buildings seemed kind of redundant. Where else would an alley be? On the roof?

YA short story opening, take 2:

Broad daylight was safe. Maybe even kind of dull.

At two o’clock on a September Saturday, golden warmth drenched the streets even though the shadows chilled Dori’s back. Autumn was creeping closer, but bright summer held sway for a little time yet.

Dori didn’t know the city well, much less this part of the downtown. Some called the district funky and others said it was desperately derelict, but exploring such areas could pay off. In her old home town, she’d found an edgy boutique with stuff no mall would carry. Other times, well, she’d discovered just how fast she could run.

Maybe cutting through an alleyway to reach the next street wasn’t the best idea, but she was too lazy to walk to the corner. So, she headed down the narrow strip of crumbling pavement. The graffiti-squiggled walls smelled of old, spilled beer and worse.

I’ve cut 30 words out of this opening, and don’t really miss them. The meaning is all still there and what’s left is crisper writing.

If you feel like driving yourself crazy some afternoon, sit down with ten pages of your writing and challenge yourself to cut out 30 words from each page. I guarantee by page 5 you’ll have a better sense of your bad habits than you could learn in months of formal classes. What’s more, you start to spot junk words from a mile away.

The one cautionary note is that the exercise is a bit like pruning bushes – it’s easy to get carried away. Don’t do more than about 5 pages at a sitting, or you’ll end up with a telegram by the end.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Russian. French. Dead. Depressed. The End.


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