Thursday, September 29, 2011

What We Can Learn From Our Idols

     My writers group, Living Writers' Collective, has been celebrating our 5th year by having members contribute their Top Five on various topics which are then published on the group's website. Recently the category centered on who our top five favorite writers were and what we learned from them. For me it's a case of 'what do I wish I could learn from them'. Back in July I blogged about some of my favorite authors and I wanted to mention what they do well that I wish I could.
     Dick Francis. IMO best mystery/thriller writer ever. According to his biography, he never edited or rewrote anything; he just made sure before wrote the words that the words he was putting down were precisely the way he wanted them. Hard to believe - I have never heard another writer make that claim. In fact, most say exactly the opposite. That's not what I wish I could learn to do, although it would be cool.
     DF's plots are great, but what I love most are his characters. Within the first few pages I fall in love with nearly all his protagonists. Most of his books are written in the first person and you find out a great deal about them very quickly, all through their thoughts and actions.
     The main characters don't describe themselves. They don't say, "I refuse to let people bully others", "I'm kind and generous", or "I'm insecure, but always try my best". Other characters don't describe the protagonist: "He believes in hard work and honesty"; "He has no tolerance for liars and cheats". Yet the reader knows these things clearly very early in the narrative.
     I read and re-read Francis' books to try to learn how he does it. I've not yet been able to pinpoint it. I have not been able to emulate it. In fact, I'm not good enough to even come close. But I keep trying. And because of Dick Francis, I know it can be done and what to aim for.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

About That Muse...

     A writer friend of mine recently joined the Writers' Loft program at MTSU and one of their first excercises was to visualize their muse. She was delighted to learn that hers took the form of a beautiful, strong chestnut horse. When I commented that a horse would be very suitable muse for me, she asked what mine looked like.
     I responded that mine was apparently a shapeshifter and possibly schizophrenic. (Wanna know how to really piss of your muse...?) Mostly I envision my muse as an angel or a fairy, but sometimes a winged unicorn/pegasus or a dragon. (Interesting that the forms are always winged.)What my muse is consistent about is being female. That explains the moody, unpredicatable, unreasonable reputation all muses have, but it could also be attributed to 'artistic temperment'.
     I am lucky that mine is mostly good-natured, if frequently MIA. I have one writer friend whose muse is so mean, she has a video of it appearing in its corporeal form and pooping on her WIP. My muse is never critical or discouraging, for which I am grateful. If she's not always around when I need her...well, if we didn't ever struggle, we wouldn't appreciate the times when writing is easy.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pets As Characters

     I had to put my dog to sleep this week. I've had to do this with many pets over the years and it never gets easier. I've had lots of dogs and most of them live (and remain in great health) until they are very old. Then their bodies give out and I have to do what I can to keep them from suffering.
     Tapestry, affectionately know as Pest, was a 10-year-old Irish Wolfhound. He was a rescue dog I adopted from the Irish Wolfhound Association of the Great Smoky Mountains when he was three.
     I have other dogs, dogs I've had longer, ones I have raised since they were puppies, and I love them dearly. But they are not Pest. All of my dogs, horses and cats are individuals, each with a very distinct personality - and lots of it.
     I cannot imagine a life without animals and pets, and I have difficulty imagining a fictional world without them. In my books and stories animals are minor, but important, characters. Even human characters who are not animal-lovers generally live in a world full of pets and pet owners. They have to deal with things like an annoying stray cat, crazy neighbors with weird pets, a dog that runs loose and causes havoc in the community. Fictional pets and animals don't have to be outrageous or even unusual, but I feel they do have to be more than a prop or a part of the setting.
     A book without animals in it  feels as wrong to me as my house or barn without a dog or cat underfoot (or in the bathtub, on the couch or on my keyboard).  When you think about it, animals can add aspects (and dialogue) to a plot that you can't get with other characters, such as: "If you lie on the stairs, we will both get hurt." "Didn't I just feed you twelve hours ago?" or "You don't need a waterbowl; this house has three toilets."
     Pets and animals in fiction can be sidekicks, companions, partners, caretakers, or troublemakers. They can help save the day or add complications or create choas. What they can't be is missing altogether.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

What My Animals Have Taught Me About Writing

     My horses don't write, nor do they read. They do often get to listen to me plotting, questioning, and revising out loud while riding, grooming or doing barn chores. They don't comment on any of that either. 
     One way I support my horses is by teaching riding lessons. Like any sport or activity, participants improve by having a teacher, mentor, coach, trainer or fellow athlete critique their performance.
     Among writers, the word 'critique', even to those of us that know better, evokes the image of being told what is wrong and what needs improvement.   I know from taking riding lessons that I progress better with encouragement than criticism.  Therefore, that is how I teach my students - and my horses.
     Of course, no one can improve in what they do with only encouragement. Problems need to be addressed and corrected, new practices and methods have to have to be tried, what isn't right needs to be changed.
     But if a rider's leg position is great and someone only tells them that their upper body is out of balance, concentrating only on keeping their back straight might make the rider not keep their heels down as well, or forget to keep their hands even, etc. When giving lessons, I always remind and encourage students about what they are doing right before mentioning what needs improvement. "Your hands are exactly where they need to be. You need to stretch up taller in the saddle, but keep your hands where you have them because they are just right", sounds better to me than, "You're not looking up and your lower leg is loose and you need to hold your fingers tighter on the reins! Will you ever learn to sit back properly...?"
      Consider how we teach animals. Horses and dogs in training would get sour very quickly if they were only corrected for mistakes and never praised for acomplishments. Most animals will do as much or  more to earn praise than to avoid punishment.
     Something my two critique buddies do very well - that I am SO grateful for - is to always comment on things they love about my work. They will point out where and how characterization needs improvement, but praise how good the dialogue is. This encourages me to fix the issue with my characters AND encourages me to keep writing effective dialogue. 
     We need to always keep this in mind when critiquing others work.  Hearing nothing but criticism, however neccessary or gently delivered, is disheartening to anyone. Make sure others know where their strengths are so they keep them strong.
     Writers need this. We are very anxious about having our work shared with others only to have the flaws made clear to us.  Knowing we can expect praise as well lessens the sting.
     In most things, letting people (and animals) know what they are doing right is as important as telling them what needs to be done better.