Friday, February 26, 2010

Pearls of Wisdom - Snow Day

This blog originally appeared at The Romance Studio on February 12, 2010.

Like everyone and everything else in my corner of the globe, I'm going to take time out from the daily writing routine for a snow day. But in doing so, I'm still giving you would-be novelists out there an extremely important tip: don't neglect your setting in writing your story. More than anyone I know, I am guilty of this sin. I confess that I was a teenaged drama geek - you know, active in the drama and glee clubs and moping around in my all-black wardrobe while quoting various literary geniuses about the meaninglessness of our existence. My goal was to become a playwright, and I still write first drafts like a playwright - lots of blocks of dialogue with only minimal stage direction. They are in her apartment. The car hits a wall. Scene in an airport hangar. Later, I go back and I flesh out those directions with more detailed description of the setting. It still doesn't come easily to me, though.

"White Room Syndrome" is a common problem for beginning novelists. You see the scene so clearly in your head, that you're surprised to discover everyone else doesn't see it too. You dash off one sentence: "Mary and Fred came into the kitchen," for example. And then off you go, telling us about Mary and Fred's argument. Or their hot sex on the kitchen table. Or the dead body they find. But you tell us almost nothing about where this happens. To the reader, it feels like being trapped in an all-white room, hence the name.

I just finished judging some manuscripts for a writing contest, and five of the six I judged were all prime examples of White Room Syndrome. It takes a lot of effort to overcome this disease, and I myself still struggle with it every day. But you can beat it, if you make a conscious effort. The best training I know is to just read, read, read. Read lots of books that are full of vivid descriptive detail.

And that brings me back to Snow Day. Trapped in my house almost around the clock since last Thursday, I started thinking about the power of the snow. How quickly all our modern conveniences become useless, how deadly a few feet of frozen water can be, how fast we are thrown back on our own mental resources. (And how few are those mental resources for someone from my son's generation, who is lost when the power goes out and he loses all Google capability. But that's a rant for another blog.)

Snow can take the White Room Syndrome and turn it right on its head. Because in the whiteness of the snow, you have a powerful setting for your story. What follows is my list of some of the best examples I know of Snow Stories. Feel free to add your own suggestions.

7) Groundhog Day - No, it's not a novel. But watching Bill Murray slogging through the Pennsylvania winter over and over again certainly adds to the fun in this touching romance.

6) The Snowy Day - My favorite book as a child. Beautiful, simple story and illustrations capture the magic of snow through the eyes of a child.

5) The Left Hand of Darkness - By the brilliant Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness is set on a planet called Winter. Need I say more?

4) A Winter's Tale - Mark Helprin's tale of master thief Peter Lake, his flying horse, and his great love for the consumptive Beverly. A lyrical and magnificent depiction of New York at the last turn of the century.

3) To Build A Fire - Jack London's truly haunting short story about a man caught in a snowstorm and trying to build a fire and keep it alight. It does not go well.

2) The Worst Journey in the World - Apsley Cherry-Garrard's vivid nonfiction account of his experiences with Scott in 1910 in Antarctica. It really does not go well.

1) The Shining - A character every bit as vividly drawn as Jack and Wendy and little Danny, the snow comes down with a vengeance on Page 210 of this masterpiece of terror and suspense, and it does not let up for another 20o or so pages. If you want to know how to make the setting an integral part of your story, read this book. But read it with the lights on. If you still have electricity.

Keep warm if you can, and I'll be back with more writing tips in March. Meanwhile, feel free to post about your favorite winter stories!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Pearls of Wisdom - Setting Priorities

The following blog originally appeared at The Romance Studio on January 8, 2010.

Welcome to the new year! I hope you're having a good one so far. I'm excited to be blogging monthly at The Romance Studio. I'll be posting the second Friday of just about every month this year. It's part of my resolution to manage my time better - I was really struggling to keep up my own individual blog and I couldn't talk anyone into forming a group blog. Then I remembered that I'd done a few guest blogs at The Romance Studio and enjoyed it, so I decided to join the cast of regular visitors here. Posting once a month at such a high-profile blog seemed like a better use of my time than trying to post every week at my own humble blog.

Why am I telling you all this? Because there's going to be a theme to my monthly posts. I'm hoping my blog posts will give aspiring writers (and curious readers) some insight into things to remember as you strive to get published.

When I first started attended romance writer conferences about three or four years ago, I was bombarded with experts telling me how much I needed a MySpace page. I dutifully ran out and set up a MySpace page, and although I do strive to keep it updated - let's face it, how much buzz do you hear about MySpace these days? Next I heard about how I couldn't possibly sell books without setting up my own blog. Done. But next I had to spend a lot of time coming up with topics for the blog. Or lining up guest writers for the blog. Or uploading photos to the blog. You get the idea. And now everyone's talking about Twitter and how I absolutely must Tweet. Not being a canary, I've decided to hold off on tweeting, thanks very much ;-)

The problem with jumping on every promotional bandwagon is that there will still only be 24 hours in your day. And you will still have to edit that first book, still do interviews and guest blogs, still hold on to your day job (unless you magically hit the concept of the decade and make a fortune), still clean the house and get the kids off to the school - oh, and write a new book!

Shortly after I signed a contract for my first novel, Thirty-Nine Again, I hired a wonderful designer to set up my website. She gave me some very sage advice: an up-to-date website is your second-most promotional tool. What's the most important, I asked? Your own writing.

Write first, then worry about all the promotional stuff. Because if you don't have a new manuscript ready when that first book comes out, you'll discover you have very little time to write while you're learning all the ropes of self-promotion.

Publicity and advertising are essential, of course. A good strategy is to schedule one day a week for promotional activities. Try to plan all your blogging, interviewing, and website updates for that day, and focus on actual creative writing the rest of the week. The more limited your time for fiction writing, the more important it is to put the writing first and worry about self-promotion second.

So that's this month's Pearl of Wisdom: Make writing your priority.

Now stop reading and get to work!