Monday, April 7, 2014

Poetry, blogging, journals and fiction

I've seen many writer and blogger friends post this lately: "I haven't blogged in forever!" This is true for me as well and I wonder if they are having the same problem I have. I've been wanting to post things, have topics I want to write about it, but when I try, I haven't been able to and wasn't sure why.

I know that the longer a break you take from writing, the harder it is to get back to. I didn't realize this applied to different kinds of writing, until I recently read a preface by SK in a collection of stories that for years he had been working on novels and forgot that short stories took a whole different set of writing skills.

I took a break, meant to be a short one, from blogging because I went from thinking it was a good way to keep up my writing skills and my self discipline to write regularly to thinking maybe it was taking time away from working on my books and stories. Then when I wanted to post something on occasion, I found I couldn't. After reading that comment from SK, I decide the problem was that I had forgotten how to blog. I had let my skills for this type of writing get rusty and couldn't figure out how to get back to it. I couldn't make the posts read like I wanted them to and I thought that was silly, because blogging is so simple. But is it?

Again and again I learn the same lessons. Different kinds of writing - stories, personal essays, daily journals, poems - doing all of these things helps maintain and improve writing skills in different ways. Writing a blog post is as different from writing a poem as writing a book is different from writing a how-article or a short story. And all these skills are needed in some way in all kinds of writing.

I know I've 'discovered' this many times before and probably written a few other posts about it, but here it is again. No form of writing is a waste of time. It's like any kind of excercise, it keeps our minds and imaginations in shape and sometimes helps us learn new things. Often, in my case, again and again and again.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Importance of the Right Word

Once again, I learned something from my horses the other day.

I have this amazing young Paint Gelding, Turner, that I started competing with last year in hunter shows. He's wonderful; willing, smart, quiet, athletic, easy to train. He listens and is very attentive to everything I tell him - except when I tell him to stop. This is odd, because he is a quiet horse. Not one you have to constantly nag to keep going forward, but not one that is always going to fast.

Like all my horses, before I started riding him, he knew all the voice commands: walk, trot, canter, and whoa, which means either slow down or stop depending on how it is said. Under saddle, Turner responds to voice commands and leg and hand aids quickly and easily. Except when I want him to go from a trot to a walk, or walk to a halt. (Because he is inexperienced at the canter, he's always happy to go from a canter to a trot.)

I'm used to guiding my horses with my voice and body cues. I barely have to use the reins, especially for stopping - I simply sit back and tell the horse with my position that it is time to walk or halt and they do. This doesn't work with Turner, which is odd because he moves off my leg when I want him to move to one side, turns as soon as I look where I want him to go, knows to change direction when I change my diagonal even if I haven't cued him to go the other way. And at the canter and trot, when I say whoa, he does slow down. But I have to pull on the reins to get him to stop trotting or to halt. And I hate using the reins this way, especially because pulling doesn't work either. It is always a battle to get him to a slower gait.

For months I have tried everything I can think of, anything that has ever worked with other horses, and nothing got him to slow down except yanking on the reins. It finally occurred to me that maybe when I said "whoa", I wasn't saying it in a way that he could distinguish "whoa" as a command to slow down, which he has no problem with, from "whoa" as a command to stop, which he is oblivious to.

So I (finally) thought to try using different words. When he was trotting, I used my position to tell him to walk and said "whoa", as I always do. He kept trotting. I pulled gently on the reins and said "whoa". He kept trotting. Rather than resort to pulling harder and harder on the reins, as I always had to do, I said, "Walk", a term he knows, but I had only ever used it to tell him to go forward from standing still.

He didn't walk. Not immediately. But in his usual attentive manner, he let me know that he recognized this as something new. When I said "Walk" again, he slowed his trot and finally, as if not sure he was doing the right thing, walked. I cheered and hugged and praised him. We tried it again. This time he understood and walked as soon as I said to, without me having to use undue pressure on the reins.

I felt like an idiot. Why had it taken me over a year of wrestling with the poor horse, who has never done anything but try to do as I asked, to figure this out? Once he was walking, I tried my usual, never-successful means to get him to go from a walk to a stop. It was, as always, unsuccessful. I said "halt". This word was not familiar, but he figured it out. It took a few hesitant seconds for him to stop, but he did. I told him he was brilliant. He looked around at me as if to say, "This is what all that pulling on my mouth was about? Why didn't you just tell me to walk or halt?"

This isn't  a new lesson in communication; it's one everyone has - or should have - learned, possibly multiple times. When someone doesn't get what you mean, don't just say it louder or keep repeating the same words. Change the words or change the way you say them. This also applies to writing. If the words on the page don't convey what you want, change the words or how they are written.

I had to be taught - "told" - this again, from someone who doesn't even use words to communicate.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Mourning the Southern Vampire

The soon-to-be-released Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris is going to be the last in the Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire series. I am mourning the end of this series!
   Unlike many book series, each book in this one has a great, unique story and facinating characters. And there are so many stories that can still be told about these characters and their fictional world. So why is it ending?
   As devastated as I am to lose any series I love, I can see where some have run their course. There are a few series I used to love that I stopped reading because their story lines and characters became stale, boring, repetitive or ridiculous; series that should have ended 3 or 13 books ago.
   As a writer, I have to respect an author's decision to end a series. I am only working on the 3rd book in my series, Daylight's End, and I still have many ideas for books to come. Even so, I have no doubt I will one day come to the end of it and move on to something else, either because I think the characters and their stories have run their course or because I just want to write something else.
     A writer only has so much time and energy to devote to their art and good writers want to give 100% to any project they do. Choices have to be made. I get this.
   While I totally understand and support Ms. Harris decision concerning her work, I am sad! I look forward to each new installment of the Southern Vampire series. I have absolutely loved most of the books and enjoyed even the one or two that weren't as great as I would have liked them to be. My inner book lover is grieving.
    As a huge fan of Ms. Harris' books, this series and her previous two, I have great faith that her next project will be something awesome and I look forward to it. And to anyone not acquainted with Sookie or the Southern Vampires, you really need to meet them!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mystery Milieus

I am a huge fan of mysteries of all kinds. And there are all kinds. Many mystery novel and series protagonists are in professions that lend themselves to crime solving: Cops, private eyes, lawyers, spies or even kind-hearted criminals. Or some less obvious jobs that bring the main character into frequent contact with murder victims, like coroner and or mortuary cosmetologist.     When I consider a lot of the books I've read, it occured to me that some settings and or protagonist professions are more suited to good story/mystery plots. On further consideration, I've decided it has little to do with any particular premise, and everything to do with the writer.
     Lots of books and series are given settings to appeal to the different interests of readers- and presumably the writer.  Some of these work really well and some not so much.
     Everyone knows that Dick Francis is my favorite author of all time and a majority of his novels take place in the world of steeple chasing and horse racing. As horses are a strong interest of mine, this appeals to me. And since horse racing is essentially gambling, it lends itself to plots of greed and treachery. However, many of his plots are written around different areas of interest for him: glassblowing, flying, meteorology, physics, etc. No matter the setting his characters are in, his books are amazing.
    I know of at least two authors - well, former jockeys who are mediocre writers - who wrote several books each about the horse racing world. I struggled to read one or two and gave up. The same is true of two authors I tried because their mystery protagonists were equine or small animal veterinarians.
    There are dozens of series written around unique interests. I know of two mystery series centered on solving crossword puzzles and at least three others set in the world of dog breeding and showing.  I am a fan of crosswords and a dog lover, but none of these held my interest.
    While many of these books might be expected to appeal to enthusiasts of certain interests, I think that has very little to do with it. For example, Gerald Brown wrote several popular books with plots that revolve around gemology. I don't know what drew me - or other people - to read any of them, but it wasn't an interest in precious stones. But I read all his books, because they were great.
     This is true of mysteries about other sports, home remodeling, Egyptology. None of those subjects are particular interests of mine (although I think most people are fascinated by Egyptology and Archeology), but I love the books.
    Any premise, however common or unusual, can work for a novel, but that won't make it a great or popular book. A book or story can only succeed if there is good writing, strong plotting and interesting, well-developed characters.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Not So Bad

It is a fact that when writers - not just beginners, but any writer not yet at the top of their craft (and most of us never are) - go back and read their earlier works, they cringe at how poor the writing is. Maybe it's not awful, maybe just certain aspects of it seem bad, but they feel they could write it so much better now.
    Even accomplished writers will say that their first drafts are terrible. But they understand that will a few or a dozen rewrites the work improves, becomes something they can be proud of. But for beginners and intermediates and anyone who doesn't have the validation of having a bestseller (or being paid decently for a consistent production of "midlist" books), reading our previous work that we might have been really proud of before we were knowledgeable or experienced enough to know better, is a humbling experience.
   We have to resist the impulse, when reading our past work and realising that it  less than stellar, to  believe we have no talent for writing and never will. For this reason, many new (new being a relative term) writers hate revisiting earlier. It is often so disheartening.
    This is not always true. I recently revised, for the millionth time, a collection of short stories I have written over the years, mostly horse related, mostly mysteries, several of which had been published. And it was a very rewarding experience. (This is good because I was editing them to publish this very week.) They really weren't bad. In fact, I feel a lot of them were quite good, and like most writers I am often my own worst critic. 
     I feared that, as much as I loved them and thought they were brilliant when I wrote them and even several times since when I read them,  now that I was going to publish them, they would seem so bad  I would be crushed by my own ineptitude. But I wasn't. They really are good. Not amazing, not stellar, but well-written and entertaining.
    While this may prove daunting to many writers, I suggest when you need an ego boost or some encouragement, go back and read some of your work that you feel is an example of good writing. You may be surprised at how good it is; it can elevate your writing spirit and show you that you do have talent, that you can write things that others will read and enjoy.  Sometimes, in the absence of the support of writing peers, we have to be our own best cheerleaders.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Leave It In

Common advice to novelists is that if anything in the story - scene, action, dialogue, description - fails to move the plot forward or reveal something about the character(s), it should be cut. This is mostly sound advice.
  I recently read books by Janet Evanovich and Robert B. Parker (Stephanie Plum and Spenser series books respectively) and noted there were several scenes that did little to move the story and didn't give any new insights to the characters.  The action or dialogue had nothing to do with the main plot and what the characters did or said was exactly what the reader would expect from what they knew of the characters.
   The thing these unnecessary scenes had was humor. They were really funny. Stephanie Plum novels I think are primarily funny but some of the events are serious and scary. Spencer's cases tend to be more serious, but there is a lot of humor to keep the whole story from getting too dark.
   Whatever the purpose, if humor can be said to have a purpose in a novel, these scenes could  be cut without taking anything from the story. The plot line and characterization would remain unchanged. According to the aforementioned advice, they should have been left out.
    I don't think it need to be argued that there is no valid reason not to have humor in a novel, even if it serves no other purpose. So, I feel this particular bit of advice should be amended: If it doesn't move the plot forward or add to characterization, cut it. Unless it's funny. Humor should be kept.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Fooled Again

Maybe I should say seduced again.
     When I first started reading Great House by Nikki Giovani, I was excited to have found a literary novel that I was sure I would love. And it has everything there is to love in a literary novel: beautiful writing, great use of language, fascinating characters, interesting scenes. It wasn't until I got to the last few pages that I realized it also had the one thing I hate about literary novels: no plot. Or at least no conclusion.
     The book was intriguing in that it had four interconnecting stories - or seemed to; in the end I realized one had no connection whatever to the others - that revolved around a piece of furniture and it's history with the people that had owned it. I was riveted, wondering these characters and their vastly different lives would be tied together. And they weren't. The "stories" didn't even have endings, just kind of wandered off or stopped abruptly.
    My reaction to this leaves me thinking, as literary novels always do, that I'm just not smart enough to "get it", or not literate, creative, or educated enough to appreciate it. And I did appreciate all the lovely facets of it, just not the feeling that there was no ending. It's very much like not finishing a book you started reading, something all dedicated readers are uncomfortable with to some degree.
     Doesn't the definition of novel say it has a beginning, middle and end? I just feel cheated when a book has no end. I'm also a little jealous that I can't write well enough to be able to write a story that people love even though it is missing something that should be essential to all novels.
    I do highly recommend this book to fans of literary works. If you are not troubled by a lack of closure at the end - and I recognize the possibility that the story is perfectly well concluded and that I just don't see it - there is everything to love about Great House.