Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ready, set, ACTION--or maybe not.

Today's Mood: low level stress. Today's Music: New Moon soundtrack. Today's Writing: Black Dragon Queries (again). Today's Quote:
"Every good novelist knows how to pump up the action in high-energy scenes. Every best-selling writer has an instinct for building pace, then letting off on the gas, then racing to the finish of a novel." -from The Writer's Little Helper by James V. Smith

I was re-reading a few chapters from City of Glass by Cassandra Clare, and--as most things are prone to do--it got me thinking about the novel I'm working on. Specifically, it got me thinking about the amount of action in my story versus published works. Now, for those of you not fortunate enough to have read City of Glass, let me note that it is a fantasy that boils down to saving the world as we know it. So yes, lots of action. I mean, when you're talking demons and vampires and shadow hunters, there's going to be action.

In my book, the fate of the world is not hanging in balance. No one has to save the planet from being over-run by demons. Maybe the main character has to save her own soul, maybe even save her dad, or at least try to keep her family intact, but no world saving going on here. So how do I make sure there is enough action? I mean, sometimes it feels like ordinary things such as family, friends, high school (okay, so maybe that is a more life-hanging-in-the balance kind of thing), and dealing with the opposite sex (ditto on that) are just too mundane to build up huge amounts of action/tension. Look at my life--not all that exciting. (Well, okay, the lost Nintendo got dicey for awhile--lots of screaming involved. But no one was going to DIE because of it (contrary to some little person's belief.))

So for those of us not writing horror, fantasy, or suspense/mystery, how do we build in tension and action? I dug out my copy of The Writer's Little Helper and took a look at the chapter called "the ACIIIDS Test for evaluating scenes." ACIIIDS stands for Action, Conflict, Imagery, Invention, Irony, Dialogue, and Suspense. The author argues that every important scene should contain each of those elements--although ONE of those elements should dominate the scene.

In the book, there is a handy chart for the writer to evaluate the intensity of each of these elements. Action, for example, goes from impending, to incidental to overt to urgent to frenetic. Suspense = invisible, subtle, cheap, chapter show, awesome, and nail-biter. I liked the one for dialogue (which I always seem to have a lot of in my books) because it shows you can build intensity into a scene that way as well. Dialogue = internal, monologue, debate, argument, and imbroglio (I had to look that up. It means an embarrassing or serious misunderstanding; a complicated situation. Personally, I would have used screaming match or fight or something like that--but then, I work with middle school kids all the time.)

I find it interesting that the author of this books deals with readability/reading ease/words per sentence type stuff when it talks about how to evaluate and adjust your pacing. He suggests using the word processing tools to help you figure out the reading ease of your scenes, and then plot that on a graph. That way you get a good idea of the ups and downs of your piece--as well as an overall look at the readability of your piece. He suggests that if you have a scene that is supposed to be high action/drama/conflict, that you make sure it reads at a faster pace. "Remember, the quickest way to pick up the pace in a scene is to cut. Cut long sentences down to size. Cut long words from the piece. Use short words instead. Cut the passive voice to 0 percent. use simple declarative sentences, active voice, short paragraphs."

Granted, some books might just be more the page-turner type. Still, it sounds like any story can be ratcheted up by working on concrete things. I can include more intensity in the action, conflict, imagery, invention, irony, dialogue, and suspense in my scenes. I can adjust the pacing by paying attention to the readability of the scene--playing with sentence length, word size, and active vs. passive voice. All of these are do-able things.

Still, maybe a body or two thrown in for good measure....
What do you do to make sure the reader keeps turning pages?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Writing amid the hustle and bustle

Today's Mood: Introspective. Today's Music: U2. Today's Writing: IFFY (2 pages) Today's Quote:
"Understand you're asking the reader to slip through a tiny keyhole--to enter your room of suspended belief." -James McBride
Holiday shopping amidst insane crowds of people; holiday party with a whole bunch of people I don't know; children fighting over the computer, the cat, the amount of attention they get from me--it all makes it hard to find a quiet spot to think, much less write. But somehow I have to crave out some space, just enough to find the doorway into that other world, that world I'm creating.

I have a spot behind my dresser, leaning against the full-length mirror, next to the cold-air return. That is where I've been hiding out to write. It works because someone just glancing into my room doesn't see me right away. It works because there really is no room for anyone else to sit next to me (other than the cat). And maybe best of all, it works because I feel like a kid again--sneaking off to play when I should be cleaning my room or something hopelessly boring and mundane.

The two-page-a-day has been good for me in a couple of different ways. First off, I have to crank it out, so I can't over think things (at least, not too much). And second, when I say "I have to do my two pages, " it turns it into homework, a job, something that I--and my family--sees as important (maybe even more important than housework or laundry--unfortunately, not cooking. My family still won't forgo a meal so I can write--ungrateful wretches. : ))

Still, having said all that, I have to confess I'm now in the hole 6 pages. But how cool is that? I have to make it up. I can actually get away with saying--I need to write all day because I'm 6 pages behind!

So I'm going to write tomorrow. The kids are going to daycare and I'm going to sit in the hospital waiting room and write. What better place? I can't go anyway and it's always quiet and boring. The doorway between worlds can be anyway. You just have to find it.

Where do you find space in the holiday madness?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Page by page

Today's Mood: Determined. Today's Music: Robert Pollard. Today's Writing: IFFY. Today's Quote:
"Understand you're asking the reader to slip through a tiny keyhole--to enter your room of suspended belief." -Tennessee Williams

I was reading the latest issue of Writer's Digest this past weekend. There was an article giving tips on finishing your novel--always an interest of mine. One of the tips hit home. "Finish your rough draft as fast as possible. It tends to keep the story--the plot--more linear, more focused."

And how do I do that? I wondered. Especially when I don't have time to write this year. Especially when I've been working on the same paragraph for the last 2 weeks.

The author of the article went on to talk about how she made sure she wrote 2 pages a day. It kept her moving forward, not getting caught in the rut of endless revising.

Hmmm, I thought, 2 pages. I could do that if I just wrote and didn't overthink everything. After all, it's not like I don't know where the story has to go. I have a basic idea of what scenes I need to include. Maybe I should try it.

So the next morning I wrote faster. I made myself write--and keep going even when I wasn't totally thrilled with what was coming out on the paper (computer screen that is). I didn't quite finish the 2 pages, so I grabbed a little more writing time after school. And then a little more after the kids were in bed.

In an effort to keep myself accountable, I emailed the two pages to a writing friend. Told her it was my goal to write 2 pages a day. Told her she didn't have to read it/probably shouldn't read it. Just to look for the two pages and bug me if I didn't send them.

Next night I had to stay up a little later to finish the 2 pages, but finish I did. Emailed them off before mid-night.

Best part is that the story is getting hotter. It's running through my head again at all hours. I'm wanting to get up at the impossibly early crack of dawn to write (and that is just not normal!)
So maybe the writing isn't steller. It's a rough draft. It's okay. Really Sarah, it's okay. You can go back and revise after it is done. Come on, just another page to go....