February 25, 2012 • 2 Comments
I’m running for the end of a rainbow! Every so often there’s one of those moments when the writing gets do-or-die. This weekend is one–I MUST finish this draft/reach the destination/find the pot of gold for this particular adventure, so I can hop off and write a different book, turn it in, then get back to this one and edit it. What I don’t want to do is to leave threads dangling, characters sitting around waiting to get the girl/finish off the villain/solve the mystery. They get all cranky:
“Is this in our contract, Fred?”
“No, it’s a violation of Schedule Two, Part 4, Clause C. The cliffhanger clause.”
“I thought that was the suspension of disbelief rider.”
“No, that’s Appendix IV.”
“What’s this one say?”
“The right to timely denouement. Breaking it means WE get to end the book OUR way.”
Stories can go stale. An ending–any ending–is necessary for successful storage. I can change it all later, but I never have that “did I leave a tap running?” feeling. Plus, the characters stay put and don’t run around turning my romance into a Stephen King special. Don’t laugh–I’ve had it happen. Unfinished business will develop a life of its own. So wish me luck–wish my characters luck–we’ve got our athletic shoes on and we’re running for the finish line!
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.
January 5, 2011 • No Comments
In my nuclear family, it was expected that one would be an artist of some sort. Maybe of several sorts. That was cool. I never had to go through the awkward talk about having unwanted artistic ambitions. It was assumed I would write, paint, dance, whatever and maybe all at the same time.
However, I also had to have a practical career—so there were no awkward talks about ONLY being an artist. It was a given that I had to put food on the table and a centrally-heated roof over my head. No starry-eyed visions of Bohemian garrets. After all, we lived on the prairies where freezing to death was a literal hazard. Plus, my parents were both involved in the arts. They knew what their daughter was facing. So I learned to type in Grade 10 and went to university to become a teacher (which I never did, but that’s another story).
Sensible? Not everyone thinks so. Some assume that artists aren’t for real until they quit their day jobs. Well, I believe in my talent, but I don’t believe that I will be automatically rewarded for it in monetary terms.
Do I think I SHOULD be able to live by my writing? Sure, but at the same time that popular conception says we aren’t legitimate unless we’re an economic success, there are plenty of people who claim artists should work for love alone and stick everything on their websites for free.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that our society has conflicting ideas about the cash value of creativity. Nobody questions whether or not a plumber, nurse, or flagman should get their wages, but when a school budget gets cut, the arts are the first to go. Unfortunately, in our society money = worth. We might feel warm and fuzzy about culture, but we don’t make it a priority. When it comes down to brass tacks, it’s just not that important.
With messaging like that, it’s a wonder anyone still values their own creative vision. Sadly, many do not and we’ll never know what those people had to say.
The point is, I never had a problem telling my family I wanted to be a paperback writer, but the big bad world at large was another matter. I might have said that I was planning to be a flea wrangler with the same results—something between benign indifference and outright scorn.
If 2011 brings nothing else, I hope it brings a sea change in how it regards writers and painters and dancers. I hope it gets more people into galleries, concerts, and bookstores. And, I hope it gets more people into art supply stores and music schools and writing classes. It’s the Tinkerbelle principle. We need to honour our collective creativity, or it wastes away. Starving artists eventually starve or give up.
If we all do something to participate in or support the creative life, it WILL become possible for more and better art and artists to thrive. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I’ll take what I can get. What creative thing are you going to do this year?
November 24, 2010 • 2 Comments
Which constitutes my real life—the one where I trundle off to the office each day, or the one where I sit swearing at my computer making up stories?
The romantically correct answer is to say that art is everything and that I am only alive when I am writing. Eh, not so much. There are times when I feel that and, hey, hand me a big enough royalty cheque and I’m out of the day job in a flash. However, until that day comes, I’m very much in favour of salary, benefits, and pension. I like to know that my heat will be on and my fridge full. I’m shallow that way.
In some ways, that makes it easier to handle the unpredictable nature of the writing biz. Because my survival is not dependent on its antics, I can keep a cooler head. On the other hand, the hours that could be devoted to improving my art are spent in meetings. It’s impossible not to resent that when a story is calling my name.
There are only two answers I can think of for managing work and writing both. One, I treat the writing as seriously as I do my paid employment. I go to work, and then I come home and go to work again on job #2. Workaholic? No, just an understanding that no one is going to do the book for me. Therefore, I sacrifice countless hours of prime time television. Oh well.
Two, I am very wary of burnout. Given #1 above, I’m bad about not building in R&R. My answer to everything is to work harder. Unfortunately, harder (at least in this context) isn’t always better. Jokes get flat, sentences plod, and the story sounds as tired as I feel. There is only so much pulling-up-of-socks one can do at that point. More effort won’t help; in fact, it will only hurt. The solution? Just back away from the computer. Go take a nap. The nice thing about writing is that it stays put until you can come back to it with a fresh eye.
The contradictory nature of my two answers speaks for itself. Art versus life is a balancing act. Fun versus labour. Inspiration versus perspiration. Fortunately, women are good at juggling priorities. After all, we hold down jobs, take care of children and parents, keep house, and make sure holidays happen. We know how to work smart.
July 10, 2010 • No Comments
One of my critique buddies sent this (thanks, Jane!) I got a giggle fit when I watched this.
July 5, 2010 • No Comments
One question that I am frequently asked is what favourite junk food I consume while writing. Okay, that’s harder to answer than one might think. An author has to be careful about how she presents herself. Anything that readers might find odd or distancing should be carefully avoided.
This applies in the general as well as the culinary sense. For instance, one should never admit to black magic blood rituals even for research purposes. Similarly, training poisonous spiders to do circus tricks might be seen as off-putting. While junk food is a more innocuous subject–barely on the scale of, say, raising zombies–people have strong loyalties to their fast food. One does not show the burger disrespect.
The truth of the matter is that I don’t eat while I’m working. For one thing, I’m too deep in concentration. For another, what I’m writing is often pretty out there: demon slime, severed limbs, and werewolves with the munchies. Yum yum.
Okay, so maybe that’s not what the well-meaning questioner wanted to hear, but what can I say? I could lie and claim that I have a bag-a-day cheese curl habit (yeah, man, I’m strung out on the orange dust!) but I prefer my junk food, when I let myself have it, without thoughts of mangled body parts.
Then there’s that whole nutrition angle. My books are about slayers and sword-swinging warriors. There’s something about having all that frequently-naked rippling muscle frolicking through one’s imagination. It makes one think fondly of vitamins and sit-ups. And carrot sticks. Graphically, and not just for the crispy crunch.
So how do I answer the junk food question? Honestly, I like slow food. Organic, locally grown, made from scratch using traditional methods. Cuisine is an art. Sure, that makes me sound a bit like one of those snobby, opera-loving, cat petting movie villains, but whatever. At least I’m telling the truth. Plus, I like cats and classical music. And I hate cola. So sue me.
Admitting that is far easier than trying to explain the demon slime and carrot sticks. And it’s never right to lie to one’s readers, even about the small things. I respect them too much.
For those who want to know all about the real Sharon Ashwood: it’s simplest to just read my books, because that’s where I live.
Unchained: the Dark Forgotten. Out July 6. Guaranteed action-adventure, monsters galore, good jokes and hot sex. After that, who cares what I eat?
February 16, 2010 • No Comments
One of the reasons I love cats is that they never make mistakes. If they’re prancing along the window ledge, misstep and do a belly flop to the floor, they pretend that they meant to do that, dammit. They pick themselves up, lick a paw, and sashay off to the next adventure. As an approach to life, I’ve met worse.
In writing, one has to decide when a mistake is a mistake. I’m not talking about grammar/spelling/punctuation, because when two or more copyeditors are gathered together, there shall be clashing opinions, none of which coincide with mine. The real blunders come on a much larger scale, such as when the plot goes to pieces. I often have a terrific scene in mind and will commit all sorts of logic errors just to get there. Or, I write the book how I see fit and find afterward that the result appeals to me and no one else. Most often, I commit the error of overcomplicating things. I do like my subsubsubplots. I also like shades of grey. I don’t always care about how conventionally sympathetic a character is. I’ll take “interesting” over “nice” every time.
Hence, I do a lot of rewriting.
Why do these things happen? Pull up a chair, would-be writers, and learn from the error of my ways:
1. Think through a scene (and a book) before committing it to paper.
2. Remember your audience. Who are you writing for?
With regard to #1, an outline can look better in a notebook than it does in action. Once you’re into a story, it can become evident that your brilliant plot twist was the product of that third glass of Shiraz. Unfortunately, backing out of a bad idea and slashing gobs of pages is sometimes necessary. Or, you can take the cat’s approach and act like you meant it. After all, stories are all about the motivation. Convince yourself, convince the characters, and sometimes it all works out.
With regard to #2, know the expectations of your genre. I struggle with this because I dislike the entire concept of slotting books into pigeon holes, and yet that’s the reality of the marketplace. Trying to be innovative can work, but it can also mean rewriting the entire book back inside the genre boundaries to make it marketable.
A lot of this stuff I don’t regard as mistakes per se, but as choices. An author can choose to be commercially accessible or not. He or she can choose to adhere to today’s favoured structure of story writing–or not. That doesn’t make it bad writing. Much literary fiction goes in the opposite direction and is well-respected.
The down side of there being so many “how to” resources for writers is that the concept of right and wrong storytelling techniques has become firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the commercial writing and reading community. The debate over accepting first person point of view is a typical example. It’s not exactly radical stuff, but it’s been a hard sell with many readers. Experimentation is rare. Have we, as writers, followed “the rules” to the point where we’ve trapped ourselves?
February 8, 2010 • 2 Comments
Any amateur can slack off, but fine procrastination is an art. Social networking, blogging, family visits, and housecleaning are obvious slacker favorites. Pausing to do laundry because your lucky writing shirt—the only one that can possibly be worn for the next scene—is in the hamper? Coming up with something like that requires a little more thought. It’s incumbent on us as professionals to hold a higher standard of work avoidance.
I always draft my plots on large pieces of newsprint. I can say with some pride that I successfully wasted at least an hour wrestling the roll out from the back of an overpacked closet. The fact that my cat was helping accounted for twenty of those minutes. Pets are some of the best procrastination tools ever, and I’m not too proud to employ every strategic advantage.
And then there’s the research excuses—every so often a chapter can’t possibly progress until you ferret some obscure fact out of the ether. When things aren’t going well, those occasions usually become too numerous to mention. I mean, I really needed to know every how many buttons an eighteen-century infantry captain’s coat had, right?
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this especially when we can’t afford the time?
Elaborate procrastination schemes can be part of writer’s block, or caused by something as simple as a bout of laziness. More often than not, I find it’s due to being a) tired and bored or b) the story’s stuck. Discipline can solve the first. The second is most often a symptom of sloppy thinking. The story gets vague and hard to manage, and I’m not quite sure why. When that happens, there’s usually something I haven’t thought through—either character or plot. That’s when it’s time to back off and do some basic writerly homework. A solid ten minutes of diagnosis and repair can prevent days of dancing around the problem.
Unless, of course, a vacation is the point. When that happens, I think it’s better to just admit you’re going AWOL and ditch the guilt.
What are your best procrastination techniques? How do you break through them?
February 2, 2010 • 2 Comments
Getting stories from my head onto the page is a bit like sitting on the couch trying to describe a movie as it runs on TV. That’s how I see books: as a film. I can start and stop and re-direct parts, but it’s always a case of trying to capture live action on the page.
The goal is always to try and crawl into that movie and participate: To feel what the characters feel, to use all the senses, and to never, ever skip over part of the scene just for convenience. Trimming can come later. It’s all about faithful recording. The better recorder I am, the better book I write.
This has its drawbacks. For one, I may not feel like getting gnoshed on by a vampire that day. Or crawling in slime. Or losing the love of my life to a demon-driven pestilence. It’s exhausting. It’s also part of being a writer, so Plucky Author just has to suck it up and feel the pain—‘cause if the author doesn’t, neither will readers.
The other difficulty is, no matter how good one is at slinging adjectives, translating what one sees on the mental screen is never seamless. The perfect, ideal book I imagine is always more fabulous than the reality of the book I write. So how do I combat this?
Experience generates knowledge, so I look for appropriate tactile adventures. Perhaps I should say adventure equivalents, since I don’t actually know many werewolves and slime demons. So, I bumble about studying the viscous qualities of household cleaning products, considering whether toilet bowl cleaner would drip the same way as ectoplasm. Ditto with half-melted jello, cake batter, and the stuff that goes into the car radiator. Anything is fair game when researching something that doesn’t actually exist.
As far as demon-driven pestilence goes, I’ve always imagined flu season combined with a really bad hangover. Zombification might be equivalent to an all-day policy development meeting. I know I’m ready to eat brains by five o’clock.
All that being said, it’s gratifying when a scene finally comes out really, really close to the mental movie. When I’ve got the atmosphere, the emotion, and the sense of urgency just right. That’s when I do a happy dance and thank the Word Gods for their inspiration.
Written language is a medium, to translate the movie from my head into yours. The better job I do, the more information you have to recreate it. Of course, your experience will influence the translation on your end. No two people experience a book exactly the same way. That’s part of what makes the process so interesting.
When you read, do you see it as a movie, or do you experience the story some other way?
December 29, 2009 • No Comments
I sat down last night and wrote a scene of the new book, which is under the working title ICED. Why that title? It’s a winter book, for one thing. It’s also about people and societies being frozen in their way of thinking. It’s also about murders.
I’d written a “test scene” before. I’ll usually do that–throw the characters onto the page and see what happens. It helps me get a feel for the dynamics. Version 1.0 has its good parts and I’ll keep about half of it, but there was too much that wasn’t worked out to really make it fly on its own. This new scene was the real thing, all the characters’ strengths and weaknesses in place. Of course, the beginning wasn’t where I thought it should be. It never is.
Who will be back? So far, Perry, Lore, and Errata have made it through casting for major roles. Alessandro needs to be in it later on as well as some folks from UNCHAINED.