May 3, 2010

2010 Muse and the Marketplace

Filed under: A Writing Journal,Club 1692,Conferences — admin @ 2:15 pm

This weekend was the big Muse and the Marketplace conference at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. Last year I focused more on the marketing end of things, since I had polished my manuscript to a high shine (more on this later), so this year I attended sessions focusing on the craft. Here are some of my thoughts on the workshops:

• Creativity and a Sense of Place, with Brunonia Barry — This was a terrific workshop focused on treating the setting as a main character of the story, and recognizing that the manuscript can benefit from understanding the environment as intimately as you understand your protagonist.

• From Circumstance to Plot: Creating Narrative Drive, with Jessica Shattuck — The workshop was a hands-on session where random characters and settings were combined in an introductory paragraph. Several “What if?” questions illicited creative responses. It was a good brainstorming tool to find the story.

• The Art of the Query Letter, with Sorcha Fairbank — Sorcha gave a great candid talk about what she and other agents want to see in a query letter, and what they most definitely don’t want to see.

• The 10 Worst Legal Mistakes That a Writer Can Make, with Zick Rubin and Brenda Ulrich — The focus was on overall pitfalls, as opposed to contract-related problems, and in addition to contractual problems, also addressed problems and issues surrounding copyright and trademark laws, and collaboration and collaborative contracts.

• Writing Suspense: You Know It When You Feel It, with Hallie Ephron — Hallie is the author of “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘Em Dead WIth Style” (as well as several mystery novels) and brought her knowledge to bear on dissecting the structure and tension in specific examples of suspense fiction.

• Ten Elements of a Great Thriller, with Joseph Finder — Finder, a former Harvard English professor, shared ten tips that define, and can improve a thriller.

• The Dreaded Synopsis, with Joanna Stampfel-Volpe — The best workshop I’ve ever been to about boiling a manuscript down to a synopsis. Joanna illustrated with an exercise where Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was quickly dissected to discover the central characters and plot to create a very brief synopsis that she, as an agent, would be interested in.

• Write the Great Beginning, with Michael Lowenthal, Scott Heim, and Kim McLarin — This ended up not being as useful as I’d hoped. After the session covered one basic tenet about writing the beginning of a story, it deteriorated into disparaging comments about genre fiction writers and readers, although McLarin did say that there was much that could be learned by literary writers from genre fiction, since it sells better that literary fiction. My thought on the matter is this: while it’s admirable to want to raise the bar of quality for the reading public, one can only attract converts to the philosophy through positive example, and not through cajoling. After all, with limited spending money, why would the consumer want to read something that talks down to them?

In addition to the sessions, I had my manuscript evaluated again. This time, the query letter would have enticed the agent, but the manuscript, she felt, needed additional polishing. THe specific comments were small things I had heard before, but discounted as a matter of preference, such as my characters’ cursing. Previously, since the story was narrated by my main character, curses of the four-letter variety peppered my narrative. I subsequently removed them, but now those curses in the dialogue, which was not removed, triggered a comment that while it was probably true to the characters, it had the appearance of being lazy writing. She also felt that my dialogue, which I felt was my strong point, was the weakest part of the manuscript because it didn’t sound realistic. I think it may be due to some artifacts of previous drafts that I skimmed over during the last revision — the section I provided for review was one of the first scenes I wrote way back when, and I’ve been a little too married to the dialogue.

So, what does this mean for the completed manuscript and where I go from here?

Well, I’m still plotting out the new novel, so that hasn’t changed. But I feel the need to do a bit more hands-on work before I revise the completed novel again. So, now is the time for a few short stories. These will probably be literary fiction, or perhaps fall in the category of Magical Realism. We’ll see.

As for conferences, I’m burnt out. Although I said the same thing to myself last year. Unless and until something really inexpensive comes along. Instead I’ll focus on writing groups and critiquing groups. Maybe I’ll take a class or two at Grub Street, or some other place.

But for now it’s time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write.

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April 6, 2010

Back to the Cork Board, or A New Stab at an Old Project

Filed under: A Writing Journal,Club 1692,Mark Ix,Writing — Brian Triber @ 1:19 pm

It took two weeks of fretting and hair pulling, but I’ve finally laid to rest the one-page synopsis of my last project. As so often happens when I’ve completed a work, I became unfocused for a while after hitting the Print button. In the past, I’ve had other activities to prolong the birthing process, such as casting the play I’d just written, or submitting the script to producers, finding a director, working up a set and production schedule, and so forth. This time around, I don’t have that luxury of gently sliding off the steep side of the project onto a feather cushion.

Instead, while I edited the last novel manuscript, I doted on previous projects and picked one that had a special appeal to me. But the thing I pondered most about it was this: How do I go about picking up an essentially dead project and breath new life into it?

Now, a few points about what I’ve discovered my writing process to be. The completed manuscript I just finished began as a series of scene studies, about five fully written chapters, one and a half discarded chapters, and around twenty pages of notes spanning over four years. I had deconstructed and re-plotted it based on the character studies suggested by the completed chapter, and drafted it based on the new plot.

What worked in this case was creating the first five chapters as a set of character studies, then figuring out the plot, then rewriting the whole thing. Did rewriting those first five chapters feel like a wasted effort? Sure. Was it worth it? Hell, yeah. In the end, maybe about one paragraph remained wholly unchanged from the initial sketch to the final draft, and about a dozen in the same chapter remained mostly the same. (I checked this using MS Word’s Compare Documents feature…)

I am now faced with a similar conundrum. How do I get started again? I currently have about 20 pages of notes and ideas, five chapters and a prologue (which are not the greatest, but they were a first draft,) and a basic idea of a cast of characters. Where do I go from here?

The first step was to mount a foam-core board and pull out the pushpins. I’ve found I don’t have space enough currently for a really large cork-board, so I keep the board strung over the front of a bookcase. Next, made a series of markers on sticky notes — the names of each stage of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I don’t really know what direction the story will take at this point, but I need to suggest some sort of structure without imposing it in the plot. The Hero’s Journey seems to be a good jumping-off point, since this seems to be a quest and a love story.

The next step is to meticulously go through the previously written chapters and notes and cull out all of the plot points and story ideas. I’ve already begun jotting each one on its own index card and pinning it to the board somewhere within the Hero’s Journey. All of the cards are the same size and color at this point, to give them equal weight. As more are added, they’ll be shifted around until they make a semblance of plot.

The very act of writing the notes and moving the cards around on the board has already helped me begin to synthesize a new plot. There are a couple of surprises I didn’t expect, and realizations of what needs to be worked on next come to me in flashes as I rework the cards. This is a case of physical activity leading to mental breakthrough. This is one of the reasons why some writers get ideas going for walks, taking showers, or even taking pen to paper (as opposed to typing.)

Do I know what the next step is? No. Am I worried? Not on your life. After the first manuscript, I now know that the answers will be found when I need them, and that worrying about finding them can drive them away as fast as scaring the muse by looking her in the face.

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January 28, 2010

The Beat Goes On

Filed under: A Writing Journal,Club 1692,Writer's Block,Writing — Brian Triber @ 10:25 pm

I’m making a big dent in this edit of the manuscript (Rev 9.4), but it feels like it just isn’t going fast enough. Yesterday I began rewriting the dressing room scene, in which Paul was originally attacked by Gideon after he has an initial conversation with Christopher’s ghost. My plan was to add a scrying scene with Avery where the first pawn shop scene (where Paul pawns Avery’s ring) is flashed back to, since Paul can’t recall having pawned the ring. The two ghost scenes needed removal, since they happened too fast on the heels of one another, and there’s no way Paul could handle three otherworldly happenings in one scene. As it is, I have to go back and rework his initial conversation with Christopher, which I’ve already moved into the preceding scene, to make Paul’s reactions more believable.

The difficulty I’m facing right now is one I’ve experienced before and have just now realized that I’ve hit again: Inertial block. This is when I sit down to start writing and can’t quite get going. It’s almost but not quite writer’s block. In this case I know exactly what has caused it. I stopped writing in mid-sentence without knowing exactly where I was going next. This is a very easy block to avoid, had I been more mindful that I was heading in that direction.

So, to overcome the inertia, I’ll probably erase a couple of sentences, rewrite them, and pull myself back into the scene. This is a case where rereading is a necessity. I know some writers advise never to look at what you’ve already written, but that advice generally applies to first drafts – not manuscript doctoring. In this case, I know where the scene has come from, where it’s heading, and what should happen next, just not how to get there.

Back to the playground…

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