Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Inspiration: Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are

The recent acceptance of my short story, "Forgive Me, Father, For I Have. . . Burp!", started me thinking about the places I find inspiration for stories. This particular story had its seed in a Yahoo! group dedicated to Urban Fantasy author Mark Henry. For those of you not familiar with Mark's work, he writes, by his own admission, "zombie smut for the masses." If you would like to check out him out, please visit his website, www.markhenry.us.

Anyway, awhile back, Mark made a comment about being the Father Confessor and we should come forward to confess our sins. Since he writes about zombies, I made a comment about literally eating my girlfriend and wanted to know if I would be going to Hell for it. That comment wouldn't leave me alone. It stuck in my head for about a month before I sat down and starting weaving it into something with some dark comic overtones. Never did I think it would see the light of day, let alone print -- I just needed to get it out of my head. Never did I dream it would be the piece that would get me published.

My completed novel manuscript, working title Ursa Major, which is currently in the editing and revising stage, started out as a bizarre dream that haunted my sleep for a couple of months. I kept playing with it, trying to figure out what I could do with it, and finally things just fell into place.

My second novel manuscript, which is just about at the half-way point, was inspired by Reba McEntire's version of the song Maggie Creek Road. While there is nothing supernatural about the song, the minute I heard it, the story was born. Other projects I have waiting in the wings have been inspired by questions posed in Facebook, snippets of overheard conversations at different locations, tabloids, the nightly News, etc. The sources of inspiration are endless; you just have to be open to them.

Where did you get the inspiration for your current work in progress?

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Debate Continues: Outline vs Creative Free-style

In recent posts, a couple of published authors discussed how they worked sans outline when approaching a new project. Today, we hear from the other court as Carla René talks about working with an outline.

Carla René is a professional stand-up comedienne, TV/stage actor, and author of The Gaslight Journal, as well as two short-story collections. She also writes a regular comedy column at Examiner.com.

Having just completed my very first novel, and beginning it many years ago—never sure if I was going to finish it—I intuitively created an outline for it. Granted, it was a very bare-bones outline, but it was there.

Much like minimum word count, outlines are a requirement of agents and publishers. Agents normally require them from your second contracted book and forward in the process, but not for the first one. Thus, if you're shooting for a mainstream DTB publisher, you need to get yourself in the habit of using them. However, if you're going the indie route, and you know best how you work (some can retain details in their head, some can't), and it won't trip you up, then don't use it.

On November 1, I hope to begin my second novel in NaNoWriMo. So therefore, I am definitely attempting to get myself into the habit of using an outline, each and every time. Except this time, I'm going to employ advice from Joe Konrath (he and I met in the same online writing group back in 2000, so I've always trusted his advice), and make it as detailed as possible.

If you do this before you begin the book—creating incredibly detailed characters, plots, settings and sub-plots—then there's really nothing left to do once you're ready to begin writing except enjoy yourself, filling in all the bells, whistles, and dialogue. He suggests making them about 30–45 pages.

I'll blog sometime soon about some of my own experiences with outlining once my edits are done, but for this next novel, I am making it as detailed as possible before beginning.

On The Gaslight Journal, as I said, mine was bare-bones, and as I wrote, I found myself revising the outline as the fluid dynamics of my story set in. I think I mainly revised the outline so I could avoid retrograde amnesia in my details. And especially with doing historical fiction, details are everything, for one anachronistic slip, and you've shot your plausibility all to hell.

So, yes—I recommend outlines. Keeping in mind, after you've sold your first book and landed yourself an agent, she will want one for every book contracted to you after that. They're a great habit to get into.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Birth of a Writer

I want to write, but there are countless reasons why I don't. I don't have the time. I've got nothing to say that will be of interest to anybody. I'm afraid. We've all been there, doubting and second-guessing ourselves, until we finally sit down to do it. It might have been easy once you got going, there may have been a pool of blood and sweat soaking into the carpet around your desk, but you did it. And that work that you completed? You were so proud of it! Was it any good? Probably not, but at the time it didn't matter. You did it, and that's what counts.

Recently I mentioned the fact that I belong to a number of Yahoo groups. In one of these groups there has been a discussion of "Plot vs 'Pantsing'", which prompted one of the members to stop wanting and start doing. I asked her to share her feelings as she sat down to start her journey. Here, in her own words, she recounts the start of her journey.

"I was asked to share how it felt to sit down and start writing — seriously writing. I have dreamed of being an author for as long as I can remember, but never applied myself. I don’t think I ever gave it much thought — writing was just a dream. And to be honest, I have rarely had a plot or set of characters come together in my head to give me the impetus — or maybe a compulsion — to write. So it was a surprise to find myself deciding to get serious with my writing about a week ago. A bunch of successful authors in a forum were discussing how they wrote. Many of them just start banging away and let the story write itself — with lots of editing and rewriting later on, of course. For some, stories are plot-driven while for others they are character-driven, but they don’t necessarily use an outline. I had always been told that in order to create a novel, one needed to outline and create the plot in advance, which to me seemed to take the fun out of the process. I had no intention of spending that much time on writing if it wasn’t going to be fun.

My experience this past week hasn’t been wonderful — I don’t have a blank page, but I don’t seem to fill pages. I’m honestly on page three of my story and I’ve given four or five hours to the project. I started out quickly enough but when I re-read the beginning, it was dead. I realized that I had been telling the story rather than showing the story so that I and others could experience the story. So I immediately went back to the first paragraph to paint pictures and events with words. It seems that I am plagued with telling rather than showing. So every time I manage to write down a paragraph, I make myself go back and fill in all the detail. Again, and again, and again, until it does have some life to it. What starts out as a paragraph ends up being two or three paragraphs (at least) when it brings the reader into the experience. One would think that as a result I would have at least eight to ten pages now due to expanding what I had originally written. Not so. Because I’m never satisfied even if I can bring the scene alive. I keep fiddling with it.

To my surprise, I suspect that maybe my BORING, dead writing is an outline. I’m wondering if it might make sense to continue on with the boring writing and fill it in later with descriptions of the characters and events that bring the story to life. Because I’m getting nowhere fast. If I can complete the work, whether I consider it an outline or not, I will have something that I can edit or change as I like. My current process is clearly not working. I am going over everything with such a fine comb that there’s no room for creativity to exist.

As I look at my work in progress I am amazed, frustrated, amused (one has to laugh at oneself), and determined. I don’t know whether I will ever be published or whether what I write will be any good, but I intend to find out. And the surprises keep coming. I am learning about myself as well as about writing. I wonder whether I will have learned more about myself or the process of writing when I complete this work. And I am having fun. It isn’t a lighthearted kind of fun, but a deeper sense of satisfaction that comes from challenging myself to reach beyond my current boundaries. Mostly I’m excited — but the page in front of me is quite intimidating. However, I refuse to let that blank page stop me before I have discovered my true capabilities."

Timothy Hallinan Weighs in on Plot vs "Pantsing"

As part of an ongoing debate, I've invited Timothy Hallinan to weigh in on the Plot vs "Pantsing" issue. Timothy Hallinan has written ten published novels under his own name and half a dozen more in disguise. His books have made Ten Best lists here and abroad, been translated into half a dozen languages, received starred reviews from all the publishing trade papers, and gotten remarkably enthusiastic critical reactions all across the country. The Denver Post called his current series of Poke Rafferty thrillers set in Bangkok "Extraordinary," and Deadly Pleasures Magazine said, "The Poke Rafferty books have become my very favorite series." Hallinan is the only writer ever to write the Mystery of the Month in BookPage for three years running, and all four of the Rafferty novels have been picks in BookSense.

Thanks, Mike for allowing me to have a say.

There may be dozens of ways for writers to depict character, create settings, preserve tension, increase stakes, draw the reader in, make a story readable, but there are only two ways to plot -- in advance, or by the seat of one's pants. I'm a pantser, pure and simple. I love the exhilaration of saying, in essence, "Let me tell you a story," with no idea whatsoever what that story will be.

I need a character who interests me in a situation that has potential to become more complex as it develops. That's pretty much all I need. The rest of it -- the actual writing, the discovery of the story I'm telling -- a story that seems to present itself to me in bolts, like fabric -- that's the part I love.

I even love it when I'm completely lost, as I am right now in my current book. I know something is happening here, as Bob Dylan once wrote, but I don't know what it is. And that's fine with me. I don't want to know. When the time is right, a character will do something, a door will open, a secret will be revealed, a lie will be penetrated -- whatever form it may take, the magic will happen.

In my most recent Bangkok thriller, The Queen of Patpong, I have a character, a teenage girl, who's being pitched to go down to Bangkok and work in the bars. I had absolutely no idea how to tell that story, until the bar girl who's making the pitch reached up and removed a sapphire earring and tossed it to the teenager. The moment that earring flashed through the air, it brought with it the first 3-4 weeks in Bangkok -- the amount of time it would take for the teenager to learn, first, that she's been lied to in almost every regard; and second, that her new "sapphire" earrings have turned her ears green.

It's a kind of magic, I suppose, although I'm not all woo-woo about it. It's just the way my process works. I frequently have the impression that the story I'm struggling to tell already exists, perfect and complete, somewhere in my brain, and my job is to tease it out without forcing it into the wrong shape. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I can do that by listening to the characters. (Not "my" characters -- the characters. If I think of them as mine and try to move them around, they turn into hand puppets and all the life goes out of the world they inhabit. And, perhaps most sadly, they become no fun to write.)

In all, I've had ten novels published (and by Big Five publishers, too) without ever knowing how the story was going to turn out. Six mysteries and four thrillers have brought themselves into being one writing session at a time, each day with its own little (or big) revelation. And sure, when you write like this, you end up with a mess -- but it's a specific kind of mess that's very easy to fix. I always have plot lines that are carefully established and then abandoned in favor of something more interesting, and also the somethings-more-interesting that are completely missing from the beginning of the book because they didn't present themselves until later. So it's a matter of going back and yanking the threads that were dropped while weaving in the ones that emerged partway through.

By the way, the six mysteries that I wrote in the 90s are now becoming available on Kindle and iBooks for $2.99 each. I had to look at them for the first time in 15 or 20 years before they went online, and I did it with a certain amount of dread, but I'm really happy with the way they've held up. The titles, if you'd like to try one, are THE FOUR LAST THINGS, EVERYTHING BUT THE SQUEAL, and SKIN DEEP.

I'm so addicted to writing by the seat of my pants that I've just started what I call THE STUPID 365 PROJECT, on my blog at www.timothyhallinan.com/blog -- it's a commitment to write a new blog with a minimum length of 300 words, every single day for a year. Today is October 3, and the third one went up this morning, and I'm already beginning to feel the pressure. Things should start to get desperate in a few weeks, since I have no idea how I'm going to sustain this for 365 consecutive days.

But I know what I'm going to write about tomorrow (maybe), and that's enough for now. It's just as E.L. Doctorow said about writing a novel: It is, he said, “ . . . like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

And that's the way I like to do it.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Andrew Kaufman on The Writing Process

A few days ago I talked about how I approach a project and how I don't use an outline when I am writing. Today, Andrew E. Kaufman, author of the bestselling Kindle title While the Savage Sleeps, stops by to talk about his approach to a new project. Thanks, Drew!

For me, the process is an intuitive one. Since I write character-driven plots, I try to let them lead the way. Keeping myself out of the equation, I think, is the best way to create a story that's genuine, fresh, and--most important--spontaneous. I see myself as a visitor in their world, not the other way around. I'm simply there to help them tell their story and to occasionally throw a hurdle or two in their way to create tension, then to watch and see how they work to move past them.

I've never been one to rely heavily on outlines, mostly because my writing process is so fluid and the story seems to change quickly. If I did use one, it would become obsolete within days. For me, it's all about The Journey,which I take every time I look into a blank screen. Charting my every step would take all the joy out of it.