July 15

An update on my semester in screenwriting

When I signed up for a semester in screenwriting, I knew I was opening myself to new experiences, new lessons and new writing techniques.  I’d heard of the benefits of at least trying your hand at screenwriting, and this would be my chance at trying it with someone to guide me through my attempt.

I am currently working on packet two. Five are due by the end of the semester and I’ve come to a conclusion: Screenwriting is an experience every writer should try.

The formatting of the story isn’t the only thing different about screenplays.  Screenplays tend to encompass very lean, very fast-paced, very to-the-point scenes. I thought I was doing well in writing those kind of scenes in my novel, but the more I play around with the screenplays the more I question my skills in those areas. Because I keep finding changes I need or should make for the screenplay because it isn’t straight-forward, fast enough, or relevant enough to be in the movie. When I encounter these incidents, I wonder if I should make those changes a part of my novel.  Doing so would tighten my novel. But in some areas I’m not sure if the material I’d lose would be worth the tightening, characterization vs pacing kind of thing. However, I know in other areas tightening the scene would be the better move.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed these options if I weren’t turning it into a screenplay.

With the changes I’m playing around with I’ll lose a lot of words and I imagine I’ll gain ideas as I get further along in the story.  On the flip side of the token, I’m also getting ideas on how to continue the story so that this and the sequel become one work, one book. I’d need the smaller word count to add in the sequel. But since I haven’t really written anything for the sequel yet, I’m not even sure how the sequel will work out yet. But I’m more than willing to find out.

June 5

Writer’s Retreat in McCall, Idaho coming up.

A photo of where we’ll be staying at.
 The picture was taken off of rental website. 

The Coeur du Bois chapter of Romance Writers of America is having their annual Writer’s retreat this month.   Last year was my first year and I enjoyed it immensely. I learned a lot, got a lot of writing done and had fun.

We will be going to the same cabin in McCall we went to last year. As you can probably tell from the photo we are in a pretty remote location during retreat.  However several members last year went into town to enjoy the farmers market, the old-fashioned chocolate factory, the beach and so much more. The cabin came with a television, a dvd play and other electronic toys, but as far as I know they remained unused during our stay.  The one thing members probably wanted but didn’t have was internet access.  However, the lack of internet access and power hours was what allowed one member to write 20,000 words during her internment. Instead of getting online to do research and suddenly losing four hours, you write a note to do research in an area and continue writing.

A photo of the living room.
 The picture was taken off of rental website. 

Power hours, for those who don’t know, are especially helpful. They were offered several times throughout the day. Someone kept track of when the hour began and when it would end.  During that hour everyone participating focused solely on writing. No editing. No researching.  No plotting.  Just editing.  It’s a great exercise and you really learn how much writing you can get done in a short amount of time, especially if you find someone to compete with–word count wise.

As nice and comfortable as the place is, there are things that I’ll need to remember to bring with me this time around, beyond the necessities. I’d like to bring a small pillow to use as a cushion for when I’m going to sit at the table for extended periods of time.  A throw to hang over my shoulders for those days when my body seems to have a different temperature than everyone else in the cabin. Plus, I’ll bring different snacks.  No one seemed to have even touched the homemade cookies I brought, but then, their was an overabundance of desserts there.  Alcohol was also readily available. Those who know me well would probably gape at the fact that I had a glass of some kind of alcohol every night.

As social and collaborative as the retreat can be, the cabin was usually pretty quiet, which allowed people to sleep in, nap or write until their fingers and pencils were stubs.  It’s also highly productive and relaxing. Why wouldn’t I be looking forward to retreat?

March 23

Good Things Can Make Your Writing Stronger Too

As a writer, I know the importance of receiving a good critique from an honest eye. I appreciate the comments I get, the suggestions on how to make my work better, perhaps too much.  When I’m receiving critiques, I often find myself skipping over the complimentary stuff, almost ignoring it completely and focus on the “may improve” suggestions.  That isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate the occasional “Good Job” written on the manuscript, but it’s a secondary desire to improving my writing.

This, unfortunately, has caused problems for me, mainly when I try to critique someone else’s writing. I try to give those I critique what I want most–ideas on improvements. I will, on occasion, put a “Great Job” on the page, but those are extremely rare, mainly because I understand that the best way to improve is to get critiques and work on improving the area of confusion. This has left some people disheartened, even some who I believe to be talented writers.   As an MFA student, I am required to give critiques to classmates–a mixture of good and how to improves.  Although I’m good at identifying what needs improved, I really have problems thinking up the positives in the work to mention.  I’m not sure why, other than I’ve never really focused my attention on the positives I received during my reviews.

I can absolutely love a story but when I write something up, I’ll start listing the negatives, what bothered me about it and what I thought needed changed–even if what I’m reviewing has already been published.  This works out for me as well, since that lets me know what kind of things I need to avoid if I’m going to write a book in a similar genre.  Then, when I’m done, the  few positives I listed  beside the (possible) super-long list of negatives appear miniscule, pitying and/or may be invisible.

Recently I’ve read a book where the author pointed out that identifying the positives and negatives in a work can be beneficial to ones writing. The negatives I’ve already mentioned, will let me know what to avoid, what I don’t like, etc.  The positives, however, will let me know what I need to do more often.   For example, I nailed a description on page 32.  By knowing that, I can try using the same method used to get that description to create other great ones.  In that way, I’m improving skills that I’m already decent at, not just improving things that I’m poor at.

With that realization, I’m hoping that I can write up a more balanced review/critique every time I write one.  I don’t imagine this will be easy.  I’m almost blind to the positives in someone’s work, especially if the piece isn’t something that makes me go  “BEST BOOK EVER!!!”  But I think that learning to balance the positives and the negatives in a review or critique will serve both the writer and I better.  I may need help reaching this goal. And if my dear readers have time, I would appreciate a nudge whenever I focus too much on the negative. Remind me that I want to try thinking up more positives.  Lately, I feel like the latest books I’ve reviewed have come across as negative, when in fact I may have enjoyed the book.  And if you have any questions as to whether I liked a book or not, let me know.  I’d be more than happy to clear that up.

So, don’t do what I’ve done for years, ignore the positive and learn from the negative.  The positives in your writing could make you a stronger writer too.

What about you?  Do you focus on the negative?  The positive?  What about when the comments are from someone else and directed at your own work?

December 26

June Casagrande and Grammar

June Casagrande has a unique take when it comes to teaching Grammar to writers. She is the autthor of the weekly syndicated “A Word, Please” grammar column that runs in Southern California, Florida, and Texas. She runs the GrammarUnderground.com grammar tips website.  She has worked for the Los Angeles Times’ community news division as a reporter, features writer, copy editor.  She currently copy edits Special Sections of the Los Angeles Times and teaches copy editing online for UC San Diego Extension.

 She has also published three books, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, Mortal Syntax and It was the Best of Sentences, It was the Worst of Sentences, and I’ve read all three.

My all time favorite is Grammar Snobs.  I found it years ago, found it funny and informative. If memory serves, Grammar Snobs does focus more on AP style rules than any other style, but the lessons in it are helpful, make rules easy to remember and often funny.

Casagrande does mention her book Grammar Snobs a few times in Mortal Syntax.  Mortal Syntax doesn’t have the same amount of humor in it as Grammar Snobs, but it remains an informative reference guide on rules and usage, such as “I could care less”  or “I wish I was taller,” or “I rifle through my desk.”  She explains why it is or is not correct and if their are better alternatives to the usage presented.

It was the Best of Sentences, seems to lose all the humor that Casagrande had in Grammar Snobs. But the book is an effective source for any writer who wants to improve their writing skills.  On several occasions, Casagrande would start on a grammar lesson that I felt I grasped well, but she’d introduce the topic in a new way and twisted my way of looking at the concept; a different way of looking at without changing the way I knew it work. This book focuses on the sentence structure used, but you’re not having to diagram sentences.

Every lesson in all three books are told in short vignettes, making it ideal for a busy writer who has only a few minutes in line, a few minutes in the bathroom or a few minutes in the car to read. An entire lesson could be read in that short time.  The books are organized in a way so that they are great reference books.

I recommend all three books to anyone who does any type of writing.  Casagrande can make learning writing rules entertaining, and easily entertaining.  They’re all fairly cheap books to purchase as well.

December 17

A Book Cover

I value all my friends.  But I truly worship those who have artistic ability.  Sometimes they can draw something better than I can describe it, sometimes they can convey mood, emotion, and setting with a few clicks of the computer.  This time my friend Cynthia Martinez of YKM Reviews has made a book cover I could never come close to creating myself:

Isn’t it gorgeous?  I think she nailed Arabella and Regan in this image and caught the mood of my book. She used the exact same scene my mother used to make me a book cover for the same book. However, Cynthia had a completely different vision of that scene than my mother.

I’m picky and specific so poor Cynthia went through a few drafts to produce this one.  I’m sure she wanted to strangle me a few times but if she did, she hid it well.  The fact we communicated via email probably helped.

This is not an official cover but it could be.  Don’t you think?  But so could my mother’s.

My book is still being edited. Actually, right now, I’m barely holding onto the precipice of time. I want to start editing my book now, which I’m currently calling The Land of Blood and Sunlight. But I’m holding out, waiting for my self-mandated break comes to pass, December 26. What does it mean when you’re more excited about being able to edit a book than opening Christmas presents? Is it old age?

Anyways,  I’ll be printing this image out and hanging it on the wall, as I did with my mothers. Hopefully it will inspire me when the writing is slow, when I’m in a “I’m a horrible writer” mood or any other time.  And when the image isn’t needed for my writing, it’ll look pretty on the wall.

Simply because I think they deserve recognition, both Cynthia Martinez and my mother are willing to do some freelance stuff.  Cynthia is more into designing things on a computer, website, logos, book covers etc.  Mom is more into working at her easel, portraits, scenes, book covers.  They both worked on projects with me through online communication.  If you’re interested, I’d be willing to provide contact information for either artist.  Just get a hold of me.

December 1

Writing is my forbidden fruit

The best way to motivate me is probably to tell me I can’t do it.  Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, “Forbid us something, and that thing we desire.”  My mind has been on Shadowed, nonstop since I forbade myself from working on the chapters.  It consumes my mind and this is what happens every time I take a break from working on any book.  And my body tells me that only by working on Shadowed will I find relief.

I’ve been trying to work on other writing projects.  However, I can’t seem to get past Shadowed.  Shadowed.  Shadowed.  It’s created a barricade on my mind, keeping me from putting pen to paper for creative fun.  I know that the demand to work on Shadowed will fade, probably by the middle of next week. At that point I won’t have a problem working on another story.  But until then, I’m reading books like mad, writing notes down so that I’ll know what I’ll be changing when I get back to Shadowed–new notes, not the notes that keep repeating in my head like a badly timed mantra. I clean, and sleep, and work. Waiting for the words to cease so I can work on another book, another story, another project.

It could drive someone insane.

But writing will always be my forbidden fruit.

November 27

Writing Withdrawal and Why I Suffer

My story is getting closer to being done. One or two more run through and I believe it’ll be ready for me to start query processes of publication. Who knows though.  I’ve said that thousands of times over the years.  I could be far from the mark. Despite feeling I’m close to having it done, I’ve decided, with some urging from friends, that I’ll take a break from Shadowed. I won’t edit anything on the novel for at least a month, perhaps longer, which, if you know me, is akin to torture.

I’ve been working on some version of this story for years. It’s really all I know, and although I’m tired of  working on Shadowed I don’t want to leave it alone until the story is finished. I have gone an entire month without working on Shadowed before. I don’t like doing it.  The moment I say I will take a break from it the ideas on how to improve the story overflow and I am forced to fight the temptation to do more than simply write the ideas down, and store them someplace safe until the month is up.  For me, going a month without working on Shadowed is like going through caffeine withdrawal.  The most painful process is getting through the first three days, and usually by the first week all my symptoms are gone or so weakened that they are easy to ignore.  By then I’ve settled into another book or project to focus on to past the time.  I believe the last time I took a break from Shadowed, I completely redesigned my website with help from friends. I don’t know what my project will be for the month yet, but I doubt it’ll be another website project.  I imagine I’ll get a TON of reading done however.

Right now, I’m going on break from Shadowed, already aware of about sixteen things that need to be changed in the story. I know how to fix some of them already.  Others I have no clue on how to fix them, but know it needs done.  I figure that by going on break now, I’ll have time to come up with solutions for all of them and see more things that need fixed when I re-look over the story a month from now.  A month usually gives me what I call ‘fresh eyes’ on a piece of writing.  I get a fresh perspective, more distant look, at my work than if I keep looking at the same thing too many times.

So, wish me luck on my writing withdrawal.

October 13

Slow Down. Breaking down and Setting Time limits

When I’m going to edit my own work, my process is usually predictable and simple.

Step one: Print the entire manuscript out.
Step two: Mark each individual chapter with post-it notes so chapters are easier to identify.
Step three: Break the book into 4ths–to the nearest chapter ending. So if the 1/4 mark is on page 60 and the chapter doesn’t end until page 63, the first quarter will contain 63 pages.
 Step four: Use paper clips to keep each fourth separated and together, except for the quarter I am working on. I do not always order the quarters in chronological order, though I am only allowed to work in one quarter at a time.
Step five: Edit an entire quarter.
Step six: Transfer notes for quarter edited onto computer.
Step seven: Start on next quarter
Step eight:  Repeat step five, six and seven until the entire manuscript is edited.
Step nine: Incorporate final notes and clean up final passages from edit.

During my first semester in Spalding’s MFA program, I’ve already seen a change in my editing processes, mainly due to needing to get my requirements throughout the semester, but the new procedure seems to have a much stronger effect on my novel than my original way of editing.  I can see and feel the changes in the novel almost instantly, whereas I may need to go through the above process three or four times before I truly noticed a consistent change in the draft, sometimes in entire chapters.

What is this new, more effective way of editing? It’s simple really.

I’ve been breaking the novel into sections for my packets. About 40 pages each–to the nearest chapter ending. So if I’m on my third pack of 40–with the packet supposed to end on page 120–but the nearest new chapter ends on page 119, I’d break it a page short. I work on the forty page section for three weeks. I am not allowed to work outside those 40 pages during those three weeks.  If I make all the major changes to the draft before my three weeks is up, I start at the beginning of the forty pages and do a deeper edit, grammar, sentence structure, smoothness, general clean up.  If their are changes I still want to make at the end of the three weeks, I make a note of it and MOVE onto the next section of forty pages.

How is what I’ve been doing, different from what I’ve started doing? Honestly if you break my novel down–at least before I started editing it, I’d have only had 5.5 sets of 40. So, I’d only be adding a section and a half to my original idea, which can’t make too much of a difference right?

I think the difference is the forced three weeks to work on the section. By setting that time limit, I force myself to slow down, to really look at my writing, no matter how much I may want to be done with the round of editing. Without the time limit set, I would push through the entire novel at my pace.  I’d make notes to make major changes, however I missed a lot of the changes that were also needed in that same section because I wasn’t looking closely enough.  This also works to keep me motivated, focused on working on my story, so that I can make sure all the changes that need to happen can be made, instead of delayed for another draft.

If you’re needing a new method of editing, this one may be worth trying.

September 7

Researching for Books

Even with all the advances in technology and all the material out there, researching a particular subject can be difficult.  Their are simply some things that don’t translate well on the page, which makes learning the material difficult and not everyone can afford a trip or a class on the subject they are researching. I do a lot of research online.  I ask random people if they know anything, sometimes they’ll surprise you. and have answers you never considered.

For example, I wanted my next scene set in France.  Not Paris.  I posted on Facebook asking for suggestions.  And I got a great one.  Reims, France. With that lead, I started a basic search, history, pictures.  I liked what I saw so I dug deeper.  Maps, both virtual and real, books, websites.  This was all made difficult by the fact a lot of the websites were in French. And their are some things you either have to guess at or be really lucky about finding. For example, what does Reims smell like?  Grapes? Champaign? Chocolate? Perfume? River?  Something else?  What does it sound like?  Chatter in French and English? Trains rolling by? Tolling bells? Really I can only guess.

Figuring out what to have my characters specifically do there, while the non-location related event happens has been a challenged.  What would be interesting for readers to see?  What is unusual but potentially new?  I kept returning to tour barges in Reims. Because touring old buildings I haven’t been too didn’t seem right, and since Arabella is basking in the sunlight sending her into a Champaign Cave seemed cruel.  But those are the things that are most advertised as happening in Reims.

I looked deeper into the barge idea. Where would the boat take passengers?  Where could and would it stop?  What would passengers see from the barge?  How big are these things? How expensive?

Wait, what’s this? While searching for “What’s outside of Reims?” I find Hot Air Ballooning? Really?  Hmmm. My search starts anew.  What does Hot Air Ballooning involve?  How many people can fit in a basket at a time? I found the option of going Hot Air Ballooning in Boise and experiencing it for myself.  But for the price I’d be required to pay…well, lets say that under my current circumstances I’m more likely to see Satan Ice Skating in the South Pacific before I can afford that experience. It sounds marvelous though.

Research reveals that normally the pilot will take no more than three people up with him or her at a time.  I’ve only seen prices offering to take two people up.  So I’m wandering if their is a reason why a single person can’t go up with just the pilot or if that is such a rare occurrence they didn’t bother listing it as a price on the website. If their is a reason why more than one person needs to go up with the pilot, then the idea of making Remy a pilot is thrown to bits and I’ll probably need to find another form of privacy and entertainment in one that’s non-traditional.

Again, I was stuck wandering, where would my characters land if they went up in a hot air balloon?  Could it be somewhere in the mountains, in the woods?  And what would they realistically find there? Considering my characters abilities I’m not too worried about them finding their way home.

Research takes a lot of time to do properly.  I’ve emailed both a hot air balloon company about the information I need. And asked for the tourism department of Reims for help.  If I’m lucky, I’ll have answers in a few days. Until I get the responses I’ll work on finding them all online. Hopefully, I’ll have some hair left by the time I finish this scene.

What do you do for research on things you can’t experience? Or learn on your own? Do you know much about Reims France or Hot Air Ballooning?

August 23

Writing Madness

If you’ve been following me on my facebook account, you probably already know that I’m making big changes to my current WIP.

I’m sticking to the plot I originally had, but the biggest changes are Silas’ role and the timeline. These two things require a lot of changes throughout the novel in itself, but I’ll, hopefully, be able to keep a lot of my scenes intact. I’m not so much as changing the story plot-wise–not this one at least–as much as I’m emphasizing new points and de-emphasizing others. And I like the consequences of most of those small changes.

As I told a friend, this draft is really a spaghetti test. For those who don’t know, that’s when you throw spaghetti against a wall and see what sticks.  Some things I already know won’t stick.  Other things seem pretty solid to the wall.  But I keep eyeing the noodles that dangle from the wall threatening to plummet to the floor. I probably won’t know if it’ll collapse or solidify until I’m much further in the re-write.

A lot of the time I feel like I’m floundering. I keep hitting blocks that appear so easy to fix once I figure out the solution, but I keep getting caught up with how it was originally written or with what I originally intended to happen. The changes I’ve made will make a lot of the things obsolete, but it’s also opening up a lot of possibilities in other areas.

Right now my rewrite stands at about 14,000 words. By September 11th, perhaps sooner, I hope to be at 30,000–about half-way through the draft. I’m pulling a lot of scenes out of this draft though, so I’m losing a lot of words. If I were to keep what remains of my original draft just as it is now, and added it to the new changes I’d only have a 59,600 word novel, which is closer to a novella, I believe. It could be straddling a Novella and a Novel, depending on the source.  And I know some people say that 50k is the minimum word count for a YA novel. I do have more scenes and sequences I need to remove to make the book work with the new changes, but I also have things I need to add, change and expand on.  So, I’m sure my word count will get up where I want it/need it to be. Once I get through this draft and start cleaning up the spaghetti on the walls and floors.

These changes make me feel like my novel better fits the description I wrote for it.  Strange, isn’t it.  The book is changing for the description, not the other way around? The description was close but I think the book had less focus on the plot points than the blurb suggested. Now, I’m not sure I can say that. So I, at the moment, don’t believe the description needs to change. The title probably does, but I’ve long suspected that.  And as I write this story I tend to have weird phrases pop in my head–they might work for titles but I think their are things inherently wrong with them.

Right now the title that pops in my head the most is: Serendipitous Pain.

That might work for an adult novel. Not sure it would work for a Young Adult novel.  And if I stare at the words long enough, I start seeing a bondage porno thing playing out. Not at all the image I want for a YA novel. I don’t know why I bother trying to figure out titles though.  I don’t seem to have a knack for coming up with them.  Other titles I came up with include:

  • Political Reprisals
  • Wayward Games
  • Depraved Politics
  • Seasoned Spoils
  • Shadowed Descent
  • On First Appearance
  • Died at the hand of Shadows
  • Vampires Befriending Slayers
Okay. I think I’m done embarrassing myself. But simply calling it Regan Strommen seems too lazy. And some of my oldest titles, like Playing Deadly Games  or All Our Secrets Are The Same probably won’t work. So, for now, it’s going to remain Shadowed.

Recommendations are always welcome on anything writing related–novel changes, book titles or story descriptions. Do you have any? And how is your own writing going?

Write well, even if it sucks.