Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Rewrites, Bloody Rewrites

Vacation is over. Time to get back to work. Well, sort of work. I want to "finish" my next book before I start looking around for a paying gig. I put finish in quotes because when is a book ever really finished. When it goes to press, I guess, since there ain't much you can do after that except cringe and groan, "Oh, geez, did I really write that?"

I like rewriting. Sort of. I'd better. I do a lot of it. As the old saying goes, 90% of writing is rewriting. I hate it when I hear stories about writers who never rewrite. Isaac Asimov claimed he never did rewrites. He didn't have to. His wife did them. So the story goes. Unfortunately, I have to do my own. Generally, it's not so bad. And if you believe that, I got a bridge you can buy, cheap.

Rewriting hurts. You often have to throw out your best writing, a phrase or sentence or paragraph, sometimes even whole chapters, that you've kept through half a dozen revisions (not to be confused with rewrites) simply because you like it. I have folders (well, computer folders) of snippets that I couldn’t bear to throw completely away. It's unlikely they'll ever get used, but it makes it easier to cut them if I know they are safe and sound somewhere, waiting patiently to see the light of day.

What’s the difference between revisions and rewrites? Do I really have to answer that? No. Good.

Another thing that makes rewriting interesting, in a Chinese curse kind of way, is a character who adamantly refuses to let him/herself be changed. Oh, sure, writing is craft, and characters are figments of the writer's fevered imagination, totally within the writer's control, but the old adage that they acquire minds of their own at some point is not altogether false. After a dozen drafts characters become as real as anyone you know, maybe realer (sorry, but this is a blog, after all). You know them better than you know yourself sometimes, and it's damned hard to change them, make them meaner or nicer or sexier or whatever. It's just not in their character.

I think, however, that the harder it is to change characters, even in small ways, the better the chance that when the dust jacket settles your characters are going to have more depth. They are less likely to be cardboard cutouts who sound like all the other characters in the story. So, here’s to characters who fight back.

Maybe I could get one of them to do my rewrites.

Montreal, Quebec

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Criminal Minds

Vicki here.

I was the victim of a crime yesterday. Not much of a crime in light of what else goes on the in the word, but it’s a big deal to me. My new bike was stolen. My brand new, middling-expensive mountain bike. It was so new that I conveniently had all the details of the bike – make, model, serial number – available for the police, because the sales slip was still in my purse! The bike I’d been riding before this was bought in a garage sale about ten years go. For the last couple of years I’ve been thinking that I really need to get a new bike. So I finally decided to splurge on a good one. I ride to the train station every morning and generally use the bike for transportation around town, if I don’t have a lot of shopping. I’m a fair weather biker, meaning that I only bike about five months of the year. I get real pleasure out of it.

My bike was stolen at the train station. The bike rack used to sit out in front of the entrance building, but a couple of days ago it was moved behind a big green box of some sort, so that the bike rack could no longer be seen from the parking lot. Good move, eh? I will be sending a strongly worded letter to the station authorities, let me tell you. Like a good citizen I reported the crime to the police. The officer phoned me later and told me that they’d just got another call – another bike stolen from the same place, same time.

Yesterday, I was very disappointed, but shrugged and got on with things. But today I’ve fallen into a real funk about it. I feel really bad. I’ll use my daughter’s bike for a while, while I decide if I want to get another good one, or just buy something cheap and nasty.

I have just started my new book. I’m at the stage right now where the characters are created, the major plot is pretty much set, but the sub plots are still shifting around, trying to take shape. The new book is going to be a cop story – the start of a proposed series. I have a feeling that a bike-theft ring will be playing a prominent role in the book. And you can be sure that the evil leader of the ring, and the nasty little weasel who steals the bike of the environmentally-conscious, charming, friendly, kind to animals and small children, middle-aged lady who spent what little she could afford getting herself a new bike to toddle about town, will be coming to a very, very unpleasant end! Boiling in oil in the knock-down bike shop, perhaps?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Hearing Voices

Charles at the mike.

I was thinking about what Rick had said below (Pick Your Poison). I put a book down this week as well, the voices in my head not allowing me to enjoy it. Must be something in the air.

I was quite excited when I found it at the bookstore – an adventure novel/mystery that takes place in exotic locales with ancient cultures and a believable, likeable protagonist. Like many books I enjoy, it had a dual narrative, the first person author and the centuries old memoirs of a famed explorer. It was this second voice that killed the book for me and that’s a shame since it’s a cool story and the first person narration was vivid and fresh.

What got me is that this second voice was so much like the first. Similar word choices, similar observations and a rhythmic pattern that made it hard to tell where one dropped off and the other continued. Perhaps if I had stuck with the book I would have discovered that the spirit of the long-dead explorer had fused with that of our hero and that’s why they spoke as one. (Okay, that’s an interesting idea, but before I gave the book to a nursing home, I peeked – it’s not how it ends.)

The other thing that bugged me about voice #2 was that it was so contemporary. Here it’s supposed to be the journals of a person living in the 1500s and yet it has the sensibilities and values of a liberal leaning academic. Nothing wrong with those leanings mind you, but not when it’s supposed to be someone who died before many of those sentiments developed.

We bring our own baggage to what we read. My background in history often ruins a perfectly good story. When I sense some historical anomaly the voices in my head won’t shut up and even if I finish the book, I won’t enjoy it.

I heard from a reader not long ago who had the same experience with my first book, Relative Danger. The person wrote to tell me that the 5.11-carat Moussaieff Red Diamond is the largest red diamond ever found and that my hinting at a red diamond ten times that size indicated my ignorance of geology and thermodynamics rendered the book “unreadable”. What’s the matter, I thought as I read his note, can’t he just ignore that voice and enjoy the book?

So here’s to voices – those on the page and those in our heads.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Pick your poison.

Rick here:

I just put down a book written by a well known author, and it's not the first time that's happened, nor will it be the last – although that would be terrific if it was!


I found I just didn't care about any of the characters. The plot was a pretty good one (or at least wasn't the reason for my disinterest) and the book has gotten good reviews. Maybe it's just me (or my current head space).

Are you like that?

Or is it the plot that really grips you, keeping you racing through the book, reading past the time you have allotted, keeping you up past your bedtime, irritating you when you have to put it down?

The last book I read like that was The DaVinci Code. I know, I know. Don't laugh. I was sucked in by the plot, willingly accepting the fact that just about every character seemed to be made of cardboard. It wasn't until the end of the book that I realized just what had happened, sort of like seeing a magic trick and then finding out later how it was done. That's not really a knock on the book. I'm sure Dan Brown realizes he wrote a totally plot-driven novel, in fact I would posit that this might be the best example of the plot-driven novel ever. Without a doubt, it's the most successful.

But that's not what I look for in a book, and it certainly isn't the way I want to write. By now you've probably realized that I'm into characters. As a matter of fact, my novels start with a very sketchy, very basic idea and then I go in search of characters, people I'm interested in and would like to spend half a year to nine months living with (because that's the reality of writing a book).

Sometimes they come to me easily. Shooting Straight in the Dark (2002) was like that, so is my about-to-be-released novel, When Hell Freezes Over. I hardly noticed as the story populated itself with interesting characters, people with possibilities that caught my interest.

With Cemetery of the Nameless (2005), I had a lot of trouble. The original protagonist was a down-on-his-luck composer, someone who didn't want to give in to the easy way out, i.e. teaching theory and harmony as a way to make money. So I made him a cab driver who composed during the day and struggled to earn a living in the evening.

Setting to work, I produced about seventy pages of the story before I realized that this person was, to put it mildly, irritating. No matter how hard I tried to send him in other directions, give him a "personality facelift", he always wound up whining. Since the story was going to take quite some time to write, I decided then and there that we had to part ways. I couldn't imagine spending an entire novel with this...whiner. So I fired him. That stopped my writing in its tracks for a good month while I sent out "casting calls" to try to find characters that I'd like to live with(and by extension, my readers – hopefully). Finally, out of desperation, I looked at what I had around me and realized that the two characters from my second novel, The Lark Ascending, would be perfect for my story. It was one of those moments where you feel like idiot slapping yourself for being so obtuse.

Once that problem was settled, I began the story again, and while all was not smooth sailing by a long shot, at least I was dealing with people whom I really enjoyed working with and who were entertaining. With the first protagonist, I'm sure the urge to kill him off would have eventually proven to strong – and then where would I have been?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Going North

Vicki here,

Tomorrow I'm heading North for my annual weekend with my old high school crowd. Sorry, that's not 'old', it should read 'friends of long acquaintance'. Six of us – Karen, Jackie, Leslie, Christine, Pat and me - still keep in touch and once a year we get together at Pat and Roy’s cottage on Lake Muskoka. We lie in the sun, we read, we swim, we talk, we play board games, we eat exceptionally well, and we might even have a drink or two out on the deck. I’ve been appointed chef tomorrow, so for dinner I’ll be making vegetable pate, served with small pitas, then planked oriental salmon done on the barbeque, grilled baby potatoes, fresh tomatoes sprinked with herbs from my garden, maple and cranberry salad, and my home-made (all the way from scratch – pastry and all) blueberry pie. Wanna come?

Then I’ll lie back for the rest of the week and let other people cook for me.

These days the time at Pat and Roy’s cottage is just a nice few days of relaxing and catching up with good friends. But for a few years, back in the days of teenage children, job troubles, not-much money, stress and worry, I really believe that my week at the cottage was what got me through the rest of the year. And I’ve always been grateful to Pat and Roy for giving me that.

What does all this have to do with murder, in the fictional sense? As well as providing a nice holiday every year, Muskoka has given me great settings for my books. Roy loves to take people out in his boat and show off the fabulous Muskoka lakes. Many times we’d tour what they call ‘Millionaires Row’ looking at the wonderful old cottages dotting the landscape. Most of Muskoka could now be called Millionaires’ Row, what with the price of property up there, but there is still something very special about the grand old places, some of which are close to a century old. “I wonder what it’s like,” I thought, “to belong to a family that owns one of those historic cottages.” And so the germ of an idea that would grow into Burden of Memory began to take shape. Scare the Light Away is set in the same general area, but in a much less fashionable home. For behind the narrow strip of multi-million-dollar cottages on the best lakes, there is a much less affluent demographic, struggling to get enough work in the short summer season to see them through the winter when the snow settles in and all the cottagers have gone back to the city.

After we go our separate ways for another year, I’ll keep going north. I’m planning to quit my job early next year (gulp). As well as writing, I’m hoping to get some work as a freelance editor (copy editing, manuscript evaluations, substantive editing – if you’re looking for an editor, drop me a line. Now back to our regular programming. ) I’m looking forward to having all the time I want to attend conferences and go on book tours. As part of the grand plan, I’m going to sell my house in Oakville and move up North. So next week I’m going to have a casual look around. See what’s available, what looks nice, what areas are reasonable.

And while I’m at it, I might come across an idea for a great book.