Month: June 2016

Hurry! Hurry!

In the May and June issues of Romance Writer’s Report Allie Pleiter discusses the “chunky method of time management.”  In summary, she suggests that we each have a natural rhythm when it comes to writing.  We tend to “write ourselves out” at approximately the same number of words, regardless of circumstances.  I found this notion intriguing since I remember, when I had a day job and had to interrupt my writing to meet a client, longing for the expanse of time to write until I had finished.

When I retired, I expected to write for hours, peacefully, productively and perfectly.  Wrong!  The truth is I run out of steam at just about the same word count whether I have more or less time available.   I used to have a writing goal of 1000 words a day.  The first 800 spattered onto the page like spring rain.  The last 200 fell like drops of sweat in an ice storm.  According to Ms Pleiter’s premise, my natural word count is 800 at a sitting.   So, if it want to write a 70,000 word ms I need 70000 ÷ 800 = 87.5 chunks of writing.

I was intrigued by her math and decided to apply it to some famous novels.  Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House over 20 months.  Depending on how you count, the book has 353,000 to 356,000 words.  For arguments sake, and simple math, lets say 355,000.  355,000 ÷ 20 months =17759 ÷4 weeks=4437.5 ÷5 days =889.3.  So,  assuming Dickens wrote five days a week, he and I have roughly the same natural writing chunk  Wow!  Of course, those were polished, publishable words in Mr. Dickens’ case.  Mine need more work,

Margaret Mitchell wrote the 418,053 words of  Gone With the Wind over a ten year period.  Using the formula above, that means she wrote only 17 words a day.  Of course, she may have written large chunks at a time, then ignored the ms for long periods.  She wrote it for her own entertainment, never intending to publish it.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, 120,697 words was completed in draft form in one year, 453 a day, using a five day/week writing schedule.  Of course, Jane didn’t have the benefit of a computer so we can forgive her tardiness.

In today’s writing world, there is a demand for “more.”  More words, more books, more interviews, more social media time.   Stephen King writes 2000 words a day.  James Patterson, who published 15 books in 2014 has a team of writers working for him, in order to meet the demand.  Readers seem to be insatiable (yay!) and publishers and writers are eager to sell into that need.  Writers’ forums are filled with ideas to increase productivity.  Recently I prolific author discussed using music to up her word count at a single sitting.  Others chimed in with more of the same.

All of this emphasis on more and faster gives me palpitations.  I like words.  I like to savour them, them, finding the one that conveys just the right nuance, the right rhythm.  I like to rewrite sentences, make them flow, make them poetic.  I can’t do that in a hurry.  Kudos to those who can but it’s not me.

So, I turned to another book on my desk, one thousand gifts, by Ann Voskamp.  I read a passage about filling vessels with beauty.  In short, she used to take a vase off the shelf whenever she had flowers to put in it.  Her logic was “have beauty, must get vessel.”  One day she turned it around and made the vases part of her everyday furniture.  Now her logic reads, “have vessel, must find beauty.”  My heart rate slowed down.  I could draw a long breath.  I remembered that writing is an art as well as a craft.  My vessel is the empty page, I must fill it with beautiful words — at my own speed.

Lessons in Stereotyping

Lately I have felt deluged with bad news stories about men and women. It seems every time I open a newspaper or turn on the television or even look at facebook, there is a story of men behaving badly toward women. It’s depressing and frightening.
So, the other day when I had to walk past several tables full of construction workers on my way to the coffee shop, I braced myself for an unpleasant time. I hate to admit it, but I was surprised when there were no cat calls or wolf whistles. I didn’t even overhear bad language. As I entered the shop, a man in steel-toed boots held the door for me. I said “thank you,” and he smiled and wished me a nice day.
That was all perfectly reasonable behaviour, behaviour I should expect from my fellowmen, so why was I surprised? Why did I feel it remarkable?
Because I’d fallen into the trap of stereotyping. It’s something we all do without thinking.  A small boy in my area disappeared years ago. Reports said he might have been seen in a white van with rust spots. Even now, twenty years later, I notice white vans with rust spots and wonder if that could be the one.
As writers stereotyping can serve us well. We can use it as a kind of shorthand to convey character to the reader, especially if it’s a minor character. We’ll put a character in a hard-hat if we want the reader to know he’s strong, works outdoors, may be a little rough around the edges, is dependable. We’ll call someone a prom queen if we want to convey a character that’s self-absorbed, pretty, and shallow.
Stereotypes aren’t fair.   The prom queen may have earned a full scholarship to university and the construction worker may teach ballroom dancing at night. But the stereotype is useful for the writer to convey a lot of information quickly.
A writer can also use stereotypes to surprise the reader and add depth to the story as well. In the two examples given above, we have the seeds for a rich, well-developed protagonist who will keep us reading just to find out what happens to him/her.

Note that stereotypes and archetypes are not the same thing. Archetypes, like the warrior, the nurturer, the adventurer, are what Carl Jung describes as “ancient patterns of personality that are the shared heritage of the human race.”
Stereotype is an oversimplified image of a person i.e. prom queen equals fluff. The story may begin with the stereotype but as we add layers we may discover our prom queen is a perfectionist. Never satisfied with her achievements, she chooses the hardest subjects to study, develops an eating disorder because her body is never perfect in her own eyes, has foresworn love because no one can live up to her version of perfect. This isn’t a fluffy airhead, this woman is tragic. But by standing the stereotype on its head, we’ve created a memorable character.
In real life, stereotyping people is unfair and may be dangerous.  At its worst it leads to bigotry, xenophobia and racism.

In the writing life, it’s a useful tool,

Rain Day

It is high summer where I live. We’ve had a minor heat wave. The weeds in the garden are thriving. I have a rule for myself — one hour a day in the yard, thirty minutes a day riding my bicycle.
But . . .
Today it’s raining. I’ve excused myself from the garden chores and the exercise. I’ve cozied into a sweatshirt and have a pot of flavoured coffee at hand. I’m parked in front of my computer and loving it!
Lately I’ve been suffering, not from writer’s block exactly, but from a lack of “flow,” that magical element that lets the story run from my brain (heart) through my fingertips and onto the keyboard. Some days it feels as though every word is wrenched from my mind, wrestled onto the page and lies there like a slug. No flow.
But today, on my mini-holiday rain day, all the pieces seem to fit, I’m writing, I’m creating.  Life is wonderful.
And the garden is getting watered besides.

All of which goes to show what contrary creatures we writers are.  Sometimes I crave routine.  Same place, same time, every day, butt in chair, that gets the story on the page.  Other times, like today, I’m delighted to change it up, finding inspiration in the unexpected.

Many writers demand solitude, they write in the middle of the night, squirreled away in a cubby hole, barricaded against distraction.  Others long for company.  I have a friend who goes on a weekend retreat with other writers a few times a year.  She finds those times precious and particularly inspiring for brainstorming new work.  Jacqui Nelson has a weekly writing session with another writer at a coffee shop.  She says “Those 2 hours every week are inspirational, fun, productive, easy to get to (a 15 minute walk from my home) and they help keep me connected to the outside world and to another writer.”

I like to meet up with another writer, or two, to discuss writing techniques, the writing life, plot problems and the state of the industry, but I could never write with another person — I’m too prone to chat!

All of which proves there is no one “right” way to write.  There is likely not even one “right” way for any individual author.  We need variety to keep us motivated and fresh.  But whatever method we use, the important thing is the story.  With story top of mind, the method will sort itself out.  Today, that method is lots of coffee and a rainy day change of pace.

Why Romance?

I belong to a book club whose purpose is to expand our reading experience. We make a point of choosing books from various genres including historical, mystery, Canadiana, classic, and many, many more. As a result I’ve met some authors I never would have picked up on my own, learned some obscure facts, discovered some not-so-famous people, and generally had a good time between the covers of a book.  I’ve also come across some authors I’ll never read again. The latest book was such a one.

In their statement of mission, many public broadcasters include variations on the theme, “to inform, enlighten, entertain, inspire and illumine.” Libraries have a version of the same, and I like to read with those goals in mind. Sadly, the latest book, which won many awards, failed me in all respects but maybe the last.

  • Inform:  I did not learn anything new from the book — no tidbit of information, to squirrel away in the trivia compartment of my brain.
  • Enlighten: It did not add a deeper level to my understanding of a situation or condition.
  • Entertain:  Not me. I could not find one single, sympathetic character to identify with. There was a protagonist, but I found nothing heroic about her journey. Although the language and writing were powerful, the dysfunctional relationships were more tedious than entertaining.
  • Inspire:  I was not moved to emulate any of the characters in the story, or to work for a cause or change my opinion on politics, religion or culture.  I could find no moral to the story. In fact, when I closed the book my first thought was a sour, “So what?”
  • Illumine:   Perhaps the book reflected a segment of modern society, a sad segment, with not even the hint of an optimistic future.

And that brings me to the point of why I chose to write romantic fiction.  Everyone wants to fall in love, it’s a universal theme.   The books are populated by heroic characters, (and a few villains but it is clear they are villains).  The stories celebrate positive values like kindness, generosity, forgiveness and healing.  Romances are  are encouraging: despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the love relationship triumphs.  And that, I think, is the most important point.  A modern romance novel has an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.  We close the book with a sigh, a little sorry we’ve come to the end, but content that the characters we’ve invested in, will succeed.  They will live happily-ever-after.

Literary critics slam the romance genre for its rose-coloured glasses.  Happily-ever-after is only for fairy tales, they say.  Maybe so, but we have the news to keep us grounded in the real world.  Our screens show a steady stream of mayhem, pain, disaster, sorrow — the “real” world.  We could all drown in despair.  I think we all need some optimism, hope for a better future, confirmation that lasting love exists.  For the sake of my sanity and my spirit,  I choose romance.

Life is Now

Last week the world of romance writers was devastated by the news that Jo Beverley had passed away. I found the announcement particularly jarring as I had no idea she was ill. The suddenness of the event made it harder to accept.
At one time, Jo and I were chapter mates. Thus, I had the benefit of her wisdom on life and her knowledge of the publishing world. In fact, she wrote a cover quote for my first historical novel, The Man for Her.
As proof of her integrity both as a person and a writer, she warned me that she would not endorse the book if she didn’t believe in it, then asked for the complete ms. She read every word before offering the following quote.
A wonderful story of courage, dreams, and everlasting love. a book to savor.”
I’ve always treasured that quote, now more than ever.
Her passing is particularly sorrowful for those of us in this part of the world, because Jo had been planning to move back here. We were all looking forward to having her in our writing midst again.
As it happens, that was the third piece of bad news I received on the weekend — a reminder that life is fragile and precious. We can’t always count on tomorrow. It’s fashionable now to create a “bucket list” of things to do before you die. I don’t have such a list for the future, but I have a wonderful list of places visited, people befriended and dreams pursued. In other words, I’ve tried not to wait until some magical combination of circumstances before living life to the fullest.
For some, “life to the fullest,” means visiting far off places, undertaking a thrilling piece of daring-do, or opening the heart to love. For others, “life to the fullest,” is raising a child, planting a garden, playing a musical instrument, all within a few miles of home.

Whatever path makes your heart soar, I hope you follow it this week. Do it in honour of someone you love.

For more about Jo go to her group blog wordwenches

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