Saturday, August 27, 2011

To Begin... Or Not to Begin (Joy Preble)

A lot of my esteemed colleagues have written about the glory that is beginnings. How nice it is to mine that new idea, head off into the story.

Well, okay, yeah. Sometimes. Maybe.
I do like beginnings – love that fresh page, that clean slate, the endless, hopeful possibilities for this embryonic story.

But here’s my dirty little secret – beginnings are hard. Often I don’t know where the story begins until I’ve reached the middle or possibly the end of the first draft. I need to tell it in the order in which it comes out – sometimes bullet point outlined, sometimes just riding the wave as it comes, usually a combination of both. I stop and start and pull my hair and drink vats of green tea or coffee or maybe a touch of the Jameson’s if it’s later at night. I get to know my characters. I find out who their friends are. Other characters appear – a doctor at the hospital, a neighbor, a friend I had no idea existed. Sometimes they arrive as devices, sometimes they just arrive unannounced. “Hey,” some new dude tells me. “I’m in this story, too.” I stop again – see what he has to say. Usually it’s something that needs to be said.

And then, when the characters are fleshed out and the story has wound around and I’ve figured out the climax and the turning point and the various beats and how it all works into my general view of the world, I go back to the beginning.

Usually, I begin again. Not the whole novel; I know writers who say they do that – write the whole thing then throw it out. This gives me the willies. But the beginning – that I’ll write again. And maybe three or four more times after that. I may discover that the story actually starts in what is chapter two or three. I cut. I rearrange. In one case, I realized that the wrong character was telling the story. The girl he’s meant to be with is telling it now; I call this book “Luck Number 11.” That’s not the real title. But I’ve redone the beginning so many times and searched for the right way to tell the story that it might as well be. Stuff like that sucks. But when I get it right, I’ll be proud to see it on a shelf.

If I asked you what was the first thing you wanted to have people know about you and your journey, you’d probably pause and think. I have to do that when I’m writing, too.

How about you? Anyone else found a beginning that really wasn’t?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Beginnings Vs. Endings (Tara Kelly)

My favorite? Well, my favorite moment is typing 'the end' and being DONE (at least for that hour). The truth is I struggle with both, but I also love both for different reasons.

Beginnings are stressful for me. Yes, it's a new story full of possibilities and anything can happen.'s a new story full of possibilities and anything can happen. Ahh--chaos! Despite my creative side, I'm a really structured and linear thinker. A walking contradiction, really. In fact, my old boss once told me I was the most linear artist he'd ever met. If I don't have a plan when I start a book, I flounder. I get overwhelmed by all the possibilities and find I can't put words on the page until I have a direction. Now that doesn't always mean I know everything that happens. I don't like plotting everything out...because 1. I never follow my plans--my characters have minds of their own and 2. I don't WANT to know everything that happens. Part of the fun in writing for me is discovering things with my characters.

Told ya...I'm a walking contradiction. Imagine what it's like being inside my brain. On the one hand, I need a plan so I can write in a linear fashion. On the other, I don't like plans because they hamper my creativity. What's a girl to do?

In my case, I decide how it ends and I leave the journey...well...up to my characters. The ending gives me a goal...something to work toward. That doesn't make beginnings easy, though. I still struggle with the usual culprits: How do I incorporate this damn back story? Do readers even need to know this? Where does this story begin and how can I make it interesting? How do I weave conflict with strong character development starting in the FIRST paragraph?


Now endings are nice because it means I've found a way to GET to the ending. Hey, that's a huge accomplishment for me since I have about 100 unfinished projects on my computer. My struggle is mainly with the last page. Is this the scene I want readers to remember? Is this really the perfect place to end this journey? And this last's not potent enough. That being said, I don't struggle with endings nearly as much as beginnings. By the end of the book, I know my characters. I don't worry about pesky things like back story and character development because--if I've done my job--readers already know these characters inside and out and CARE about them. T

So...I'll go with endings. Endings are my favorite. :) They make me feel accomplished.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

writing without a dog - Alisa M. Libby

No offense to endings or beginnings, but I've got an ending of my own to contend with. My dog, Roxanne, died this past month. Back in April I wrote a post about my perfect writing day, in which Roxanne took a starring role:

Now I have to learn how to write without a dog. I haven't had to do this for twelve years. It's an adjustment. The desk is the same, the honeyed tea steaming in the mug. But the house feels different: quiet, without the clickety clack of nails or the soft snoring of a sleeping hound. People have asked "Are you getting another dog?" And while the thought of a new pet is tempting, the fact is that it wouldn't fulfill the need I have in me right now: the need for a specific dog, my dog. The smelly one-eyed basset hound who sang like Chewbacca and curled up beside me as I wrote both of my books.

I will need time to adjust. As writers, aren't we constantly adjusting to the circumstances that surround us, trying desperately not to let it adversely effect our work? But I am lucky that I had the benefit of that dog for as long as I did, and that she didn't mind napping through the clickety clack of my keys on the keyboard.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Trailheads and Mountaintops

There are two things I know cold when I start writing a book:
The beginning and the ending. 
The rest is pretty much a mystery. Even when I have a vague outline, it’s vague and apt to get thrown out when some scathingly brilliant idea comes along. 
But the opening image is always very clear to me. The first lines of a book will sometimes rattle around in my head for weeks (or longer) before I sit down to write it. 
I think it’s because the beginning is where you lay everything out. Your main character makes her debut, and her first impression on the reader will set the tone for the whole book. Is she full of attitude or full of angst? Is she proactive or reactive? How she tackles the problems in the first chapter is how she’s going to tackle the problems of the book. 
The beginning is also the moment where everything changes, even if my heroine doesn’t know it yet. What led up to that moment may or may not be important enough to come out in backstory. But the opening chapter is the tipping point at which the ball starts rolling downhill, gaining speed and momentum until you get to...
The ending. I have to know where I’m headed. I can improvise the route, but I have to know where I’m headed. For my first two books it was easy. My debut novel was called “Prom Dates From Hell,” so it was kind of a no brainer where that was headed. Same with Hell Week, in which my psychic girl detective pledged a sorority to investigate their unnatural good fortune. Obviously it all came down to Initiation Night. 
Then came Highway to Hell, which didn’t have a specific event I was aiming toward. But that title became a bit predictive, too, because since I didn’t know where my Maggie and her cohorts were headed, I ended up with 600 pages of them driving around arguing about what to do next. 

(Not in the final draft, of course. But the first draft was a little like Fellowship of the Ring, except with less dwarves and the chupacabra in place of the balrog.  As Gandalf says, "All who wander are not lost." But when it comes to books, I say "Plots that wander are not interesting." )
Do I like one better than the other, Beginnings or Endings?  That’s a tricky question, because beginnings are generally much easier for me to write. Plus, they’re full of promise and possibility. What wonders will I see once I set off down this road? Endings loom large, intimidating and indomitable. Can I even get to the top? But oh the satisfaction when I do!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Confessions of a Habitual Starter (Trish Doller)

I hereby confess: I start a lot of projects. I'll get an idea, like, "Wouldn't it be cool to collect vintage WELCOME TO postcards from everywhere we've ever lived and hang them in our house?" and I'll eagerly scour eBay for the postcards, buy a few, and then...yeah. I lose enthusiasm and then I'm stuck with one postcard that says WELCOME TO DETROIT and another that says WELCOME TO SANDUSKY.

For most of my life, it's been the same way with writing. I've lost count of how many books/stories I've started and then spent months revising and tweaking and fixing and rewriting, never coming anywhere near an ending. Or even a middle, for that matter. Even my current desktop has a folder full of beginnings, from when the idea was still shiny and (okay, I'll admit it) my excitement had me fantasizing about being a bestseller or award winner.

But when it comes right down to it, I prefer endings. Typing THE END means I've pushed through when my enthusiasm started to wane and the middle book doldrums threatened to stall me out. It means my idea's next destination will be out into the world, or to my editor, or to my agent, rather than just sitting in a folder on my desktop.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Endings (Sarah Porter)

Beginnings aren't really on my mind right now. I'm about two thirds of the way through the last book of the Lost Voices Trilogy, and it's turning out to be epic and long and a bit unwieldy. Still, in a few months I'll be wrapping up a project that's been with me for years now, and it's as if I were finishing a graduate degree in Mermaid Studies. Luce and Nausicaa and the rest will swim off, and I'll be left standing on the shore watching the vacant waves where they used to flash and dart in front of me. Then after a while I won't even see the waves anymore, but something else: a white house in the middle of a lawn, or a parking lot illuminated by a ring of burning skulls. (Wait, I'll say: Who paved over the ocean? What are those skulls doing there?)

And yes, of course, I'm looking forward to it. But also, given what I know about finishing novels, I'm anticipating a solid hit of grief when the time comes. In a way the great thing about doing a trilogy is that it lets you avoid coping with the ending--and I mean coping emotionally, not figuring out how it all goes down--for so much longer.

A few years ago I finished an as-yet-unpublished novel for adults, Umber. And when it was done I didn't feel the sense of joyful liberation and accomplishment one might expect. Instead I was rendered quite suddenly bereft, without the constant entrancing timbre of my characters' voices running through my brain, without the sense of them appended to my shoulders like a cascade of living shadows. I missed them almost unbearably. For a few months, unable to move on, I was consumed by fantasies about their lives after the point where the book ended. I became quite depressed.

Maybe finishing the Lost Voices books won't be as bad. I have a half-finished adult novel waiting for me to get back to it; I'll enter in again at the place where it broke off when the mermaids came and took me away. I can still feel the complex, slightly fretful patience of those other characters as they stand around with nothing to do, not getting any older, not knowing what their destinies will be.

Maybe there should always be another book, if not half-done then at least begun, waiting in this way. That way when the old characters pack up and leave, you can turn around and find yourself embraced by the friends who knew you'd be back any day to set their lives in motion once again.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Endings bitter and sweet

In my early teens, I kept a list of firsts. Some were achievements: First time writing a letter to the editor. First cross-country running meet. Some were experiences: First kiss. First time I eating escargot.

That sort of thing.

Firsts are amazing. And beginning a novel is like going on a first date with someone you have a crush on. You feel a little light-headed from exhilaration. You brace yourself for the unexpected. You are dazzled.

The thrill of the adventure does call to me.

But endings are even better than beginnings. Your characters finally get fulfilled in ways they hadn’t imagined. Relationships are healed. The little stories get wrapped up in unexpected ways. Mysterious threads are pulled through to provide a satisfying conclusion. It all comes together in a symphony of flavors.

I’m still a sucker for the stomach lurching excitement of a new beginning, plunging into the unknown, but sometimes I’d rather just imagine that part, while I close my eyes and take a bite.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

On Posts, Purgatory, and Poems (as novel seeds)

Okay, I was going to write about beginnings and endings, BUT --I got waylaid by a strange post spouting from my neighbor's yard. A white pole with a hinged, windowed box on top, akin to those get-yer-info-here boxes, but friendlier looking. I went to investigate, expecting to find a house-for-sale flyer, and instead I found...

A poem, posted behind the glass, cheerfully greeting passers by.

My neighbor, Dick, is a retired English teacher. He jokes that there must be a circle of hell reserved for English teachers because they subject students to those dense, obscure poems you have to slave over. They've got skills to teach, test scores to improve, so they feel compelled to start with analysis instead of beauty, feeling, humor, joy. And so generations of students end up thinking they hate poetry. I can't believe Dick was that kind of English teacher, but even if he had to occasionally lapse in that direction, he's clearly working his way out of purgatory with his poetry post. The poems in there are see-things-afresh poems, joy-of-language poems. Families stop to read and smile, he says. Why, kids even pause to read them of their own accord. Who knows, maybe once in a while a kid so loves a poem, he slips that paper right out of the box and takes it home to read over and over.

Poetry posts. That's what they're called. And apparently they're sprouting all over Portland, my home town. Check it out at (The photo above is from their site.) They even have a map of all the poetry posts in town.

Portland is a sweet place for those of us who love words, packed with independent bookstores, from Powell's mythical labyrinths to the sunny wonders of A Children's Place Bookstore; our cafes look like breeding grounds for authors and poets, intent over their laptops; Literary Arts treats us to amazing author talks at Portland Arts and Lectures--I could go on. I've known for a long time I live in a privileged book town. But even so, the poetry posts make me ridiculously happy. They're so matter-of-factly part of everyday life. Here on my street you got your houses, you got your cars, you got your trees, you got your poems...

Hey! Maybe this post (er, blog post, I mean) is about beginnings after all. Because that's how many of my favorite scenes start: as poems, tightly compressed kernels of image and emotion. That lets me fall in far enough that the chatter in my head stops and the flow of story takes over. I rarely start writing a book at the beginning. Beginnings intimidate me. I feel I'm supposed to know everything already, and I don't! So instead I fall into scenes in the middle, over and over, getting to know my characters, my world, my story. THEN I step back and sort out where the book (probably) begins and (possibly) ends.

Thanks to my neighbor Dick and to poetry posts for surprising me and waking me up. A poem is a way of seeing things fresh, unfiltered. Which is what YA Outside the Lines is all about.

-- Emily Whitman

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Beginnings, definitely beginnings by Wendy Delsol

While there is nothing quite like typing THE END, I still have to say beginnings. Yep, definitely beginnings. The first few lines, in particular, are so much fun. They’re a challenge, of course. How to invoke voice, time, and place? More importantly, how to entice the reader into page two, three, four, and more?

The modern trend is to start with action. Throw the reader into the passenger seat of something gaining both speed and altitude.

The goal, then, is clear. It’s the execution that becomes tricky—and the delicious challenge.

One of the writer tricks I use is to write those first few chapters knowing and assuming they’re expendable. The initial scenes are often the get-to-know-you period between the writer and the characters. Important background information is conveyed but may have to be teased out and reworked into subsequent pages.

It’s also important to be aware of your inciting incident, the event following which your main character is presented with a conflict or a problem. This may not be your opening scene, but whatever action you begin with must be relevant and a setup to this jumping-off point.

An example: In my most recent release, The McCloud Home for Wayward Girls (an adult contemporary, Berkley Books, August 2011), an early draft opened with the main character, Jill, collecting her elderly and addled mother from the police station. While that initial scene offered shock value, colorful dialogue, and character setup, it lacked direction and relevance. The inciting incident of the novel is a funeral that brings to town key players from Jill’s past and eventually unearths a long held secret. The final draft, therefore, opens with the news of the death:

“Jesus! Jasper. Are you trying to scare me to death?” Jill said, steadying herself against the creaky door of the antique armoire. Jasper Cloris, the local undertaker, loomed in front of her. His pallid demeanor had always given her the creeps, as if he took his work home with him.

“Hope not. Business is fine. No need to recruit.”

I’m sure many of my Outside-the-Lines colleagues will go with endings as their preference. Nothing like achieving a goal. And goes without saying that middles weren’t even offered up as a choice. The post-honeymoon, no-end-in-sight climb. Now there’s where you hope craft will keep that passenger from bailing.

Finishing and Starting (Stephanie Kuehnert)

This is where I am right now:

Beautiful, right? An open road. So many possibilities ahead. That's how the start of a new project is supposed to feel.

But the thing is that this time it doesn't.

I actually feel like I'm in a nightmare. In my nightmares I can never run. I get all sweaty and out of breath, but it's like I'm fighting my way through quicksand and not getting anywhere. And that's what is going on right now. The race has begun. Someone fired the starting pistol, but I'm running in place, swinging my arms, clawing desperately at the air trying to get some forward momentum, and it's just not happening.

Let's talk about where I was at the end of May. This exhilarating moment:
I'd finished my third draft of my third book, The Bartender Book as I've been calling it (because for some reason I'm afraid I will jinx it if I use it's real name). That book was struggle pretty much from start to finish. Like many of my fellow authors here, I generally love beginnings and endings and hate middles. I usually am in total lust with my story idea when I start the beginning and work and rework that first chapter a million times. For both I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE and BALLADS OF SUBURBIA the first chapter stayed the first chapter and though I cut the excess and refined for word choice, it flowed pretty much the same. But with The Bartender Book I had a few different attempts at first chapters and still during the third draft I found myself doing major restructuring on it that took a couple of weeks.

I also had more problems than usual with the middle, the most major being that I realized the plot had gotten too huge and I had to go back and extract an entire thread and character. Then even after I did that, I hit that icky place about three-quarters of the way through the book where I doubted if the book was even worth writing. (This does seem to happen to me with every book and it sounds like I'm not alone.) But after a lot of crying and moaning to friends, critique partners and my husband, I made it through to the end. Usually I go into the book with a sense of how a book will end, but figure out more as I write. I actually struggled with that a lot more than I usually do, too and it ended in a slightly different way than I thought it would.

All in all, this book was very difficult, but by the time I finished my revision on it at the end of May, I was absolutely head over heels in love with it. In fact, I really miss my characters and will be eager to do more revisions on it when the time comes (ie. if it sells, which I really really hope it will!) But now I'm having a really hard time settling into a new project.

It's been almost three months now and I'm still puttering about trying to figure out what to do, which is maddening and has never happened before.

Starting BALLADS after I finished IWBYJR was easy because I'd actually written a crappy first draft of BALLADS before I started IWBYJR. IWBYJR was just an idea that took over while I was figuring out how to fix that crappy first draft. It took me three years to write IWBYJR and in the meantime, BALLADS simmered and I had a pretty solid idea of where to go with it when it was time to start a new book.

Picking an idea after I finished BALLADS was a little bit harder. I had two ideas that were competing for my attention. I went back and forth on both of them for awhile until I ultimately committed to writing what became The Bartender Book. The plan has always been to go back to that other idea once I finished. I did have two shiny new ideas that distracted me. One was my affair book as April Henry says. During the hard parts of The Bartender Book, I wrote about twenty pages of it. Then towards the end of my revisions of The Bartender Book, a second bright and shiny idea started to flirt with me and I've written about thirty pages of that one.

I've learned that I can really only work on one thing at a time so I decided to go back and forth until I figure out which one is calling me like I did the last time. I've narrowed it down to my oldest idea, the one I started back when I started The Bartender Book, and my newest. But I am strongly leaning toward my oldest. It just feels like it should be time for that one while the newer one needs time to simmer. Also the older idea will be breaking new ground for me. I've always written realistic fiction, but this idea will have a twist of paranormal/fantasy, so it should be really fun to write. The twist deals with a mythological concept (or the combination of a few mythological concepts, actually) that has fascinated me since I was a little girl and having been dying to write about for a few years now. Over those past few years, I had a number of false starts as I tried to figure out how to go from concept to story, but now I have a pretty solid plot idea. I should be golden, right? After all I've started with a lot less before. With IWBYJR, all I had was two characters, a general concept and a scene in my head and off I went.

But like I said this time, I'm doing that attempting-to-run-really-hard-but-going-nowhere thing of my nightmares. I think that struggling every step of the way with The Bartender Book really took a toll on my confidence. Though I'm usually a pantser, I've felt like I need to plot so I don't end up taking such a massive detour like I did last fall. So I plotted. I talked through my ideas with critique partners and over the past few weeks all but a few elements have fallen into place. I have a first chapter, which is almost like a prologue, but it was like pulling teeth to write it even though I'm very excited about this idea. Also, I can't seem push on to chapter two. And while I documented started documenting everything about my process when I started to struggle with the last book so I would have ideas of what to do when I got stuck in the future, I didn't document my process for writing the beginning because I was okay then.

I'm starting to feel like a huge freak because aren't writers supposed to be insanely excited about their new ideas? Aren't they supposed to jump in and not get stuck until page fifty or one hundred or something? That's usually how it works for me, but this time, even though I'm excited about the idea, I can't get going. I even tried to switch back to that newest idea because maybe I misjudged and it was the more compelling one, but nope that didn't work either.

I'm going on vacation at the end of this week so I'm hoping that some relaxation and fresh sights in a new city will inspire me, but if not... Well this is where I desperately need your advice my fellow writers. How do you start a new project and what do you do get it going when you can't just dive in? I want to have that blissful feeling I had a few months ago when I was finishing the last project. Any suggestions on how to enjoy a new start?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Winding My Way To The End (Cheryl Renée Herbsman)

I never know how a story will end when I start it. I usually don't even know where it will head, as in I don't know the middle either. Almost always, I begin with a character in a situation and that's it. I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and let her guide the way, following her first tentative footsteps.

The beginning is exciting. I can't wait to find out more about who this person is, what she's like, what choices she'll make along the way, and what story it is she's
wanting to tell. Sometimes the story meanders in a way that allows her to she show me different sides of herself. Some of those meanderings lead me to crucial insights, others to dead ends that need to be cut away later on. And usually I reach a point somewhere in the dreaded middle when I realize I have no idea what this story is about, what the purpose of it is, if it's even worth writing.

It feels dangerous, scary, claustrophobic. I get stuck. But that sticking point is the very place where it's crucial not to give up. It's like that last little peak of the climb up the roller coaster hill. Get over the top and it's often a free fall down the other side, that total rush of riding your way toward the discovery of The End.

And I do love that rush. As I crest the top, I start to get the first inklings of where we might be headed and that catapults me deeper into the story. It becomes a race to the finish, still not knowing exactly what it will be, but feeling the overall sense of it more and more as we draw nearer.

Reaching The End is an ecstatic and spiritual moment. Everything comes together in ways I never could have imagined. All those twists and turns glide to a satisfying close.

For me, beginnings are the start of an adventure. Middles are mucky and sticky and scary as I fear becoming lost and trapped. And endings are a blissful and satisfying resolution.

Now it's time to get back to my work in progress where I'm climbing the tippity top of that terrifying peak. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Beastly Beginnings--Jan Blazanin

Where should I begin? That's such a good question.

Back in the early 90s when I wrote the first of my six never-to-be-published manuscripts, I didn’t have a clue how to begin a story. My middle grade novel began with my 11-year-old protagonist waking up in the early morning hours and getting dressed. I’m serious. It really did. She was preparing to go jogging on a cold Iowa winter morning, and I described each article of clothing she donned in excruciating detail. If anyone had actually read that horrible opening—no one did—they would have slammed the stack of pages down in disgust.

Over the next decade or so as I studied writing in classes, workshops, conferences, and how-to manuals, I realized how boring those opening pages were. I revised the beginning of that first attempt again and again, making it stronger each time. Although the story never sold, those many tries at beginnings provided much-needed learning experiences.

A few manuscripts later I was feeling confident--even cocky--that I was becoming an expert at this beginning thing. The “blind” first pages I submitted at conferences got great reviews from editors, agents, and other authors. The manuscripts weren’t selling, but I'd mastered the "hook," and that was the most important part. Wasn't it? Now there was the small matter of writing stories that were as compelling all the way to the end as their first pages were. Easy-peasy.

At an SCBWI conference in 2005 Fairest of Them All poked its first page out of the shell and was very well received. But my other disappointing experiences had finally taught me that a stellar beginning doesn’t equal a page-turning novel. As I worked on the manuscript over the next two years I rewrote the story’s opening five or six times and revised the rest of the novel just as many. And I didn’t settle on my first page until my writing group convinced me to ditch the entire initial chapter.

Last month I wrote "The End" on the first draft of my latest young adult project. I’ve rewritten the beginning three times so far. But there’s a very good chance I’ve only begun to begin.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Beginnings and Endings - Jenny O'Connell

Asking me to choose which I like best, beginnings or endings, is like asking me to choose my favorite child. Impossible! I love writing beginnings and endings for the same reason - they're the easiest part of the story to write!

For every book I've written, I've known how they start and how they end way before I've known anything in between. I actually write the beginning and the ending before I've written anything else - they're the bookends that have to hold the story together as I chug through all those chapters in between.

Beginnings are awesome because they can be anything in the entire world - which I love. You're not beholden to actions, timelines or anything you've set up previously (unlike chapter 17, for instance, which requires that it makes sense in the context of the 16 chapters that come before it and the ones that come after). I love that you can make up anything to start a book and it automatically makes sense because it's the point at which you're beginning. It's like the first ingredient in a recipe - you can throw anything into a pot to start, but after that things have to make sense together (you can toss in an onion to start, but don't throw in a scoop of ice cream after that! Or you can start with a scoop of ice cream, but you can't use onions as a topping, you're pretty much confined to sprinkles, fudge and the like).

Endings, on the other hand, are just as wonderful but totally different for me. If beginnings are an ecstatic giggle, endings are like a big, satisfied sigh. The characters have arrived at their destination, the issues have been addressed, all is right with the (fictional) world. One of the reasons I can't ever imagine writing a series is that an ending is an ending for me - there's no more! The meal is over, I've pushed my chair back, and it's time to say goodbye.

I'd write beginnings and endings all day, if I could. It's those pesky chapters in the middle that trip me up.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Blissful Beginnings and Maddening Middles (Holly Schindler)

For an idea junkie (like myself) who owns stacks upon stacks of spiral-bound notebooks filled with scenarios for new books, nothing is as exciting—or even really as satisfying—as starting a new novel. I’m not sure even endings are quite as satisfying as sinking my teeth into a brand-new idea, getting my first few thoughts down on paper.

About fifty pages in, though, when the book is set up—the main characters have all been introduced, major plotlines established—that sluggish middle comes along. This is the point at which an idea junkie can start thinking of all sorts of new scenarios—can imagine the thrill of starting a new book all over again. Actually, this was my biggest downfall when I was a newbie full-time author back in ’01…I’d start one book, only to get to that awful, saggy middle, then fall in love with a new idea, and head off on a separate tangent.

But I’ve stumbled onto a new technique that helps with middles: treat them like beginnings.

I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the reasons middles can be so maddening, so—well, intimidating—is that I always absolutely fall in love with my beginnings. I slave over my beginnings, until each new book promises to be the best thing I’ve ever written. And now, here comes the middle, threatening to make me lose my steam, or let this unique new voice peter out. The middle threatens to undo those incredible opening chapters. It’s only natural to want to protect a fantastic beginning…As counter-intuitive as it sounds, when I was starting out, I think I tried to protect my beginnings by avoiding the middle entirely (in other words, start a new project).

These days, I never allow myself to think I’ve ever hit the middle. Each new chapter is treated as a free-write, as though I’m beginning my book—day one, page one. As I draft a new scene (which I’ve planned and plotted ahead of time), I also let myself brainstorm, inventing backstory, new anecdotes, histories. I write long descriptions, notes to myself, sometimes even let my characters talk to each other on a subject that has nothing to do with the matter at hand. But I never censor myself, in the way I didn’t censor myself when I was drafting the beginning. And it all counts toward my daily word count goals—even those notes to self.

This exploratory writing really does keep a book feeling fresh—I never assume I already know all I need to know about my characters or plot. I discover something new every day.

As I draft my latest book, I’m letting my characters come increasingly clearer as the pages stack up—keeping that day one feeling alive, even though I’m knee-deep in that dreaded middle…

PS: I just wanted to let everyone know I've taken over administrative duties from the fabulous Jennifer Echols...and I'm looking to you, our incredible followers, for prompts for our September posts! Feel free to post your ideas in the comments below (the kookier, the better)!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Beginnings are beautiful - and dangerous

by April Henry

Like a woman in love with being in love, I like beginnings best.  

My favorite thing is when it’s just me and my idea and no editor impatiently tapping her fingers. There are times when I am under contract but don’t yet have a clear idea of where I’m going, so with every day that passes I’m 24 hours closer to the deadline. Just the thought of that deadline creeping ever nearer dries up some of my creative juices. 

But if I don’t have a deadline, and instead I’ve just had a wonderful idea occur to me, an idea that the more I think about it, the more I sense dozens of tantalizing possibilities, then that’s a lovely time. There is nothing like a bright, shiny new idea. It can do no wrong. It’s like having a crush on the perfect person you only see briefly and on his or her best behavior.  

It can also be too easy to get seduced my a new idea. You’ll be working away doggedly on an existing book, and then wham! You fall in love. Your new idea is full of promise, whereas you have already seen your existing idea walking around in its droopy underwear, scratching its potbelly. 

I’ve learned that even though I’m sure the new idea will be much, much better than my current one, the wise thing to do is to create a new document, write down everything that occurs to me about my beautiful new idea, and then set it aside.  

Sometimes I’ve even had an “affair” book, one that I wrote in snatches stolen from my “real” book. But if you totally abandon your old idea for your new idea, there will come a time you realize the new one is not perfect either.  Plus, you won’t learn how to plow on through the difficult part and get to the other side.  You won’t learn how to finish a book.

I will admit that I have an affair book now, one I’ve snuck off to work on despite having a grueling deadline on a different book.  I’m in the very beginning, the stage where I can brainstorm all I want and not worry if it holds together or even make sense.  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Living with the Teenager inside my head.

I was a teenager longer ago than I care to actually do the math on. Before cell phones. Before Texting and Facebook and Twitter. I had no idea what a blog was. Man, truth be told, I learned how to type on a TYPEWRITER. I had little nail polish like tubes of white out when I wrote essays in high school and then college.

I could go on and on about the old days. But I won’t. I know there are differences being a teen today of course. It’s a faster pace, and teens are more sophisticated in many ways. They certainly have better clothes and cars! But some of things don’t change despite advances in technology or changes in social norms.

Because I write teen fiction I spend a lot of time thinking like a teen. Or trying to remember feelings that were so important to me as a teen. I purposely go there in my head especially when I’m trying to figure out how my characters would act or talk or what they would do in a situation. And of course, I read teen fiction all the time. I’m not complaining, trust me. I love teen fiction. Writing it and reading it. But one side effect is that I dream about my teen years and my teen friends all the time. And I am so not a teenager. But I remember things perhaps more clearly than people who don’t write stories about this time in their lives.

I was taken back when someone I know (my sister in law actually) told me she read I’M NOT HER and was surprised by the drinking party in the opening scene. She said things must have changed since she was a kid since she couldn’t remember the teen years being like that. My brows wrinkled and I held in a huge raspberry sound like Pssssssshaaaaaaaaaaaaawwww.

Um. This was a woman who partied A LOT when she was a teen. I know that for a fact. But I simply said, well, it certainly happens and I did when I was a teen. Then I laughed and said I was actually worse than any characters in I’M NOT HER, since I was kind of a rotten teen. And then she laughed too, and said she did a lot of things too when she was a teen that would be too risqué for books. And yeah, I thought to myself. I kind of knew hat. Hmm. So when I thought about it later, I wondered if her initial reaction was like a memory loss or if it was denial or what? I’m still not sure.

It made me think about how connected I feel to teen experiences. Not that I think I’m a just like a teen and super hip and young and could totally hang with them and stuff. God knows teens certainly don’t want me and my age spots walking up to them and trying to hang. And I’m way beyond wanting that. I’m pretty much a mom and in my mind teens are like little kids. Only bigger. With more attitude.

But I feel a rather spiritual connection to what it is like to be a teen. That transitional time when the world is emotional and raw. Everything is dramatic! I love exploring stories with a teen brain and for me that includes seeing the worlds they live in with as authentic an eye I can. Drinking, drugs and sex don’t scare me. I don’t want to preach to teens, but I do like to think that I explore consequences of actions. I try not to judge. I like teenagers. I remember being one.

Anyhow, I better like them because in three more years my house will be filled with them. Hopefully I’ll still be writing teen books and talking to the teen in my head. It should horrify me son. I’ll try to check back and let you know.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

I Wanna Be a Therapist – Julie Chibbaro

Some people, if given a second chance, say they’d want to be rock stars instead of, let’s say, writers. Some people would be dancers, or movie stars. Me, personally, if I had a second chance, I’d want to be a therapist. A psychotherapist, an analyst, a psychiatrist, one of those things. A person who listens to other people’s problems and helps to solve them. No, it’s not that I’m a philanthropist or anything. I just love to figure out other people’s lives, to hear their stories, to marvel at how they’ve survived. It’s endlessly fascinating to me – ask any of my friends just how nosy I am. I’m the type of friend who wants to know everything, who asks a million questions, who will even dare to piss folks off just to get the last question in.

My favorite job, before being a fiction writer, was working for a .com where I got to interview world-class athletes and write articles about them. I got really nosy then, and the sports people didn’t seem to mind. I’d get them on the phone, and record three hours of tapes, just asking them how they got started, who their influences were, what type of childhood they had, how they got along with their coaches, why they worked so hard to be the best, blah, blah, blah. Then, I’d have to transcribe and boil all those hours down into a thousand word article. So, I’d listen to the interviews all over again, just studying the steps these folks took. Getting secretly inspired. Trying to pass that inspiration on to readers.

I guess I do the same thing now, with my characters. I figure out who they are (by writing bios for them, and asking them lots of questions), then I throw them into a world of trouble, and try to figure out how they’ll react. It’s my job to get them out of the trouble, of course. Writing fiction is a little less dangerous than fooling with other people’s lives, but more dangerous in terms of my own life (writers, in general, are always worried about their next buck. I’m not sure therapists have that problem.)

I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy. Anybody else have a weird “other thing” they wish they could be?