Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A New Leaf, Spine Out

While I wasn't looking, someone stole summer. The maples have turned red, the beeches dressed themselves overnight in little golden coins, and now they're taking it all off. Even my trusty oak in the backyard is in on the conspiracy: it's gone all rusty and is trying to kill me with acorns!

But the change in the weather has brought some good: CS Harris is doing one of her *very* cool workshops over on her blog. This latest series is about adapting screenwriting techniques to novels.

Part one is the premise, what I like to think of as the Golden Spine. This last novel, I wrote it first, then went looking for the spine. I think next time, I'm going to work from the spine outward.

I can see some real advantages:

1) Pitching.

Last week the Dynamo and I went out for lunch and chatted about improving the WiP. I pitched my idea for a change in subplot, and she liked it. In fact, she thought maybe that should be the main story. Good pitch.

Now all I did was take a character who was sort of unsympathetic and reframe her-- M. wants ___ because ___. This thing and this other one are in the way, and she doesn't realize that ___ is actually the truth.

Classic premise, right? It got her on board, eager to find out how the story will turn out, now that M is more interesting.

2) Navigational Aid:

Whether or not you plot ahead, writing a novel can be a confusing process. Keeping your spine in mind (Doc Savage wants to stop the Nazi Overlord from using the Sacred Spear to doom mankind) will help you in those moments when things go wrong. For instance, you're less likely to write ten pages of Doc Savage brushing his teeth, rating his own good looks in the mirror and trying to start the Gyrocopter. He's got a world to save! You're also less likely to send him haring down some sidetrack that makes no damn sense at all in light of the Nazi Overlord and that spear!

Being clear on a character's goals, it's easier to keep them from wandering around like yard dogs. Also, it helps if ALL of your major characters have their own premise. After all, the Nazi Overlord is pretty sure he's in a story about delivering Earth into a bright new tomorrow. He just has to keep that damned anarchist from messing up his plans...

3) Small Talk.

It takes a wee while to write a novel. Takes a wee bit more to revise it. Quite a long time, really, between people being able to read your efforts. In the meantime, family, friends, the postman, the checkout operators at the supermarket, all ask the same question:

What's the new one about?

If you've got your premise nailed down early, you can stand up tall and declare, "A string of apparent suicides in an abandoned nunnery have the whole village in a panic. It's up to one ten year old girl to save all life on earth from the Coming of the Old Ones."

WHich beats my answer on this latest book, which was to press my palms flat against my skull and shout, "LALALALALALA CAN'T HEAR YOU!"

Next time, I'm building from the spine outward...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Slings and Arrows

About a million years ago, I was an eager student of rough and violent men. One of my teachers felt the only proper way to learn nerve strikes was to experience them. Another worked us til we puked, then worked us even harder. Still another taught knife-fighting with live blades.

Those lessons were... memorable. I suffered at their hands. I never enjoyed it, but I did learn. And when I fought, and won, I was grateful.

This week has given me a fresh perspective: I've had the Tiny Dynamo reading my latest and reviewed the portfolios of a couple of aspiring artists.

The read hasn't been easy. Little D immediately pointed out a couple of major flaws. Major. Flaws. I didn't see them, because I'd spent so long, so close to the work. It was like being told that I had my fly open and spinach between my teeth. Of course, that's the beautiful thing about that First Read: the time you want to hear about the spinach and the zipper is BEFORE you leave the house!

The portfolio reviews weren't much fun, either. Two young artists, hardworking and talented. Type who've grown up being 'the best artist in school'. Two young faces, full of eager light and accustomed to praise.

Reminded me a lot of myself at their age.

One couldn't draw feet or hands. The other had this weird thing with shoulders, the arm seeming to sort of grow directly out of the neck. Both did everything in their power to avoid backgrounds.

The reviews went something like this:

How bad do you want this? These creative careers, they're not for everybody. It's a lot of hard work and heartbreak, with no certain reward.

You've got talent, plenty to have fun with this as a hobby. But if you're serious, if you want a career, you need work. You need to quit basking in your strengths and look hard at your weaknesses.

I don't know if my advice will do any good. One kid (the hands and feet kid) tried to argue with me: I got an earful of wounded pride. The other was sad but determined. I remember that feeling. Heck, I was in the middle of it with my current novel!

Bad reviews suck. One common trait among creative types is a certain... Luciferian pride. Our swollen egos crave praise. But what's good for the ego is not always best for the soul.

Steve's Full Throttle Guide to Slings and Arrows

1. Do. Not. Argue. Even if you win, you lose. Honesty is a rare quantity without attacking it. Besides, it's not a good look.

2. Consider the Source. Sometimes it's a matter of taste. Some readers hate the clipped sentences of James M Cain and Shirley Jackson. Others can't stand the endless run-on sentences of Faulkner or Cormac McArthy. I can't stand those slasher movies where all the victims do is run away. (FIGHT, for fuck's sake!!) You can't fault your critics for their taste, but you don't have to take their tastes to heart, either.

3. Consider Motive. There are people in this world who run around ankle-high trying to gnaw everyone else down to their level. Petty cruelty is their stock and trade. On the other hand, some of your harshest critics may also be your biggest fans, those who honestly want your very best.

The problem can be telling the two apart when your ego is wounded.

4. Admit the Truth. Even the meanest-spirited snake may still be telling the truth. Heck, a certain personality considers cruel truths to be their sharpest weapons. Whether or not it hurts (and it always hurts), being honest about your weak points will help you overcome them.

and finally...

5. NEVER GIVE UP. No retreat, no surrender. Not if you want anything more than a hobby. Keep upping your game and keep slugging. It's the only way to get where you want to go.

Nobody enjoys a harsh critique, but you can learn. And when your skills grow strong and sharp, you'll be grateful.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Pencils Down

That time again, at last. A *very* important day here in the Full Throttle Household: printing off my latest for First True Reading.

One of the great true stories of Kiwi ingenuity is the bloke who built the world's fastest four-stroke motorbike, the Britten V-1000, in his shed. Lacking a wind tunnel or fancy computer modeling, he built a mock-up out of styrofoam and car-body filler and tested it using soap flakes and an electric fan. Wherever the soap flakes stuck, John Britten shaved down the mock-up. When he shaved too deep, he spackled in more Bondo. When the soap finally streamed past, he was satisfied.

For the past couple months, I've been doing just that: writing draft after draft. Shaving, polishing, playing with emphasis and theme. Making this bit of symbolism more obscure and that one more clear. You know, revising.

After seven (Lucky Seven!) full reworkings and many, many, many smaller fiddles, fudges and getting-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-to-make-one-little-changes, it's time. Pencils down, step away from the work.

Let the Tiny Dynamo at it.

This is not, repeat NOT, for the faint at heart. The Dynamo has a keen eye for detail, and she can spot a plot hole a mile off. She puts up with me 'always writing' for months on end. Once or twice a year, she gets to sit down and read my work. There's a certain amount of frustration built in, and she comes at my work with a fierce and critical eye.

She's the reason only one person read my second novel. She had a lot of harsh things to say about it, and they were all correct.

This, folks, is the kind of reader you want to have. A lot of my friends enjoy my work. They'll like pretty much whatever I write, and that makes it hard to improve. When I win the Tiny Dynamo over, I know I've done something right.

So far, she's found a few punctuation errors and a couple of bonehead gaffs. And made an important suggestion. Still on Chapter Two...