Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Novels Poop Too

Sometimes I feel like I should have a cool job description similar to "Biosolids Management Specialist."

One of the most important writing strategies I've developed is a simple and easy trick, but it has been essential to my progress. I learned to let go of chunks of the story that aren't working, while still preserving them in case they're needed later, by saving them in a file marked "crap." This wasn't a meticulously chosen file name, (more of an instantaneous, first-thing-that-came-to-mind choice I quickly typed before returning to writing) but upon reflection it was actually quite apt. When you've poured your time, energy, and emotion into a few paragraphs, it can hurt like hell to dispose of them-- despite the fact that you recognize that they stink. I mean, they "exceed the odor threshold."

I used to spend copious amounts of time feeling awful, guilty, and foreboding about selecting several lines and pressing backspace. I would try to memorize the words in case I changed my mind and wanted to revert to them later. Often times I would try to get back to the previous version, and I would not be able to remember what I had lost. Sometimes I've made so many changes that desperately slamming CTRL + Z (Undo) does not help in the least.

The trick to writing is preserving everything. I am a compulsive chronicler with neatly-organized archives of just about everything important in my life. If you asked me to find a photograph I took of my best friend in 2002, or any other year, I could find it in seconds. The same goes for letters we wrote to each other. Everything I've ever received has been scanned and tucked away neatly in my gigabytes. Documents, photographs, letters, mementos.

Angry, vicious breakups with internet boyfriends are stored away in files with cool names like "LastConvoWithHim," or "LetterofResignation." I believe the urge to archive is a librarian-type mindset that readers and writers have. This is why I was finding that every time I needed to delete something I froze up and felt like I hit a roadblock. I didn't know what to do, and I panicked, trying to hold on to my words before I lost them permanently. It was definitely interfering with moving forward.

Once I realized what I was doing, I began to keep a second file open beside my main writing file. I copied and pasted everything significant I decided to delete in the "crap" file. It seems like such a basic step, but it has been a huge help in speeding up my writing and allowing me focus. I often tend to go back to sift through passages I "dumped" in the "crap" file and have managed to work them into the story at more appropriate parts. I occasionally manage to recycle a certain phrasing here and there, turning my crap into "regulated organic nutrients," sprinkling the story with fertilizing manure created from its own excretions.

Sorry, I'll stop. It's just such a fun metaphor, yanno? Like any living thing, novels poop too.

Each story I write generates a new "crap" file which usually has about 10% of the volume of the entire story. For a 100K-word novel, I usually have 10K words that I could have used instead, but chose not to. That's a lot of crap. But that's the point of writing, isn't it? We spend our time pulling out the weeds to make the lawn perfectly manicured. We cut the rough stone of the diamond down into the polished, faceted gem. (Except we do that while submerged in our stories, letting our actual lawns grow wild and diamonds go unpolished.)

There are a few other tiny technical writing strategies I use. For example, I have updated the Autosave feature on Word so that it saves my writing once a minute. That way, I'm never worried about losing anything if my computer crashes, or an evil villain shows up and presses the power button. Also, I back up all my writing in a Dropbox folder, so that if the evil villain uses a hammer to smash my computer into pieces, or breathes dragonfire onto the machine and melts my hard drive, it doesn't matter. I'll just raise an eyebrow and tell him that his efforts to defeat me were weak and unsuccessful. (If he gets angry at this and decides to kill me, and if for some reason I can't defend myself while simultaneously cracking puns like Buffy, I generally have one "writing heir" appointed at all times. He or she will know the password to my Dropbox and will be able to retrieve my files and finish and publish my stories. Once they finish avenging me, of course.)

So, dear writers, may you engage in waste disposal with finesse. And, dear readers, be assured that you will only ever get to see the good stuff! Unless you're the kinky type. Then feel free to contact me and I can send you the raw, filthy, novel-poop for you to enjoy in any way you like. Just don't tell me the details, please. 

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Thirty Minutes to Heartbreak: The Beginning

It was about 1.5 years ago that I began Thirty Minutes to Heartbreak, and at first, it was not one of my more carefully planned projects. It was January 2011 and I had recently gone through a tough time. I had not been able to go to work, leave my apartment for any reason, see friends, or do much of anything for several months. I spent all my timing reading and writing to escape. I imagine this isn't too special, and many people have episodes like this. A contributing factor may have been that my boyfriend of 4 years had just left me under unpleasant circumstances.

The first three chapters began gushing out without my permission, even somewhat to my dismay. I was surprised (and fascinated) with how much the story was focused on revenge, and how petty and vindictive the characters seemed-- but the story had three unusual qualities for my writing: it was fun, sexy, and twisted. I sat on the chapters for a while, nervous and uncertain about whether anyone would like them. Finally, I released them on my usual writing website, and the response was incredibly positive. I was encouraged to continue, and only then did I allow myself to begin consciously making long-term plans for the rest of the story.

I was insanely relieved-- the fact that others were already enjoying the story I desperately wanted to write gave me the permission and excuse I needed to keep going. I had no money, and I had just moved out of home and begun renting an apartment. I had just graduated and I was in huge debt to student loans and credit cards. The circumstances were not ideal for writing, but nonetheless, I could not stop. So, in my little basement apartment in High Park (a rather pretty, forested area of Toronto) I worked for countless hours, completely immersed in this story. It was dark underground, and I had heavy curtains, so I lost track of time and never knew whether it was day or night. It was exactly what I needed to temporarily forget while simultaneously rubbing my face directly in what ailed me; a healing balm and self-punishment all wrapped up in one.

From January to April I did nothing but working on Thirty Minutes. I paid my rent with my credit cards and tried to ignore my mounting debt. Nothing else was important but that story and doing everything in my power to entertain and impress the readers. They gave me much-needed validation and I literally lived for good reviews; I couldn't find happiness or self-worth in anything else. Hours were spent just chatting with fans and trying to determine the mechanics of the story. What portion was science and what portion was magic? Hours were spent addressing how to redeem the characters. But most of all, readers told me that it made them feel. I was obsessed.

Here's the thing: it was merely fanfiction. It was a story I NEVER intended to publish. I wrote it because I physically could not make myself do anything else. Readers began to shower me with kudos, suggesting that I publish. I can't tell you how many people sent me articles about Amanda Hocking, and how many people told me that I had surpassed their previous favorite authors and they enjoyed my work more than "real books." This stunned me. I had been writing incessantly since I was a kid, but the level of praise I was receiving was new. I always knew I would need to be a writer someday, but was I finally good enough? Maybe someday was finally here.

I was 22, miserable and dirt poor, but a spark of confidence was ignited in me. Just like the woman I was writing about, Para, I began to change and grow. When I began writing Thirty Minutes I was broken and unsure, but after a three-month marathon, my mind had been completely sharpened and refreshed. I felt like anything was possible-- I felt capable of conquering the world. So I did.

After a period of withdrawal, I often feel the need to come out swinging harder than ever to compensate. That's how I work-- I'm not consistent, but I'm lethal in brief spurts of productivity. I made a goal to fix my financial troubles, and over the course of the summer I completely turned my life around. I told myself that once I was able to fix my living situation and save up a few dollars, I could return to writing with peace of mind. And I did. By November I was able to buy my first house, and I achieved this while being disciplined enough to write consistently. Throughout all I did, the story was my priority.

There was one line I happened to write in Thirty Minutes that inspired all of the Sacred Breath Series. It was a scene where one of my male characters is observing his ex-girlfriend through a viscose green liquid, and he imagines that she looks like a drowned mermaid. He's a bit of a silly character, and he dwells on the thought for some time, imagining the details of whether a mermaid could drown and whether it had gills or lungs like other aquatic mammals.

I spent so much time thinking about this story. I drove from Toronto to Chicago and back three times last year (9 hours each way) and each trip was filled with visions of the characters unfolding in my mind. I played out scenes hundreds of times, sometimes tweaking the tiniest details. It was never redundant, and it was always pleasurable.

I had often considered re-writing TMTH so that it could be enjoyed by a larger audience, but I had always dismissed the idea. So much of the world was built on the ideas of others that I felt guilty. I thought it would be dishonorable to stand on the pillars of someone else's creation and chose to publish only the ideas which were completely original-- if even there is such a thing. I considered my tail-less, biologically plausible mermaids to be as original as I could manage.

However, this year with the recent success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which as we all know, used to be Twilight fanfiction, I seriously reconsidered my preconceived notions of honor. I realized that all ideas are built on the creations of others, and if I could find a way to completely change the the mythology of my beloved story, maybe I could regurgitate it in a new and improved form. The idea rattled around in my head for several months before I thought of making my characters witches.

I considered this for a while before deciding it would never work; I created Thirty Minutes as a virtual playground for superpowers. When you're feeling powerless, what could be better than reading about characters who can do practically anything? Eventually, I decided that my characters could not fit the mold of just any mythical creature-- they needed to be gods.

Para needed to be a vengeful goddess. It should have been clear to me long ago! I researched Buddhist mythology and found that the concept of demigods called "devas" were precisely what I needed. I grew so, so excited about this! I was eager to spend time with my characters again--and created a few new characters, in fact. The original Thirty Minutes was 310K words-- to perform the adaptation, I took the first 60K words and re-wrote them with an additional 40K words. The novel is 100K words in length, which works out to being... long. Even after the events of Paramount, I have the material already written for about 3-4 more novels in this series, and the plans to easily write six in total. I am only a teensy bit older and wiser, but I believe I have grown as a writer since the story first hit the internet. The new version truly is better; it's more polished, and more riveting.

I have three full-length novels completed, but for some reason I cannot wait to receive the paperback copy of Thirty Minutes in the mail! The cover is just gorgeous, and I have never wanted anything more than to sit down and just read my own paperback book. Although I wrote it, and I've read this story over and over dozens of times, I still want to live in that world. I suppose that's what love is-- not being bored of something, even when it is no longer new. Although, technically, rewriting it has injected new life into the story and made it new again.

It might be the fire. I feel so much closer to the fire of Thirty Minutes than the water of the Sacred Breath Series. It's definitely my favorite element; I'd much rather go out in a burning blaze than by drowning!

I chatted with a few readers about this, and had my spirits totally lifted to hear them speak about how much they care for the story. It literally brought tears to my eyes. I can't explain the allure of Thirty Minutes or why it is so beloved. The story is a pretty simple concept of two loyal friends helping each other out. It's rather down-to-earth (once you look past the arrogant omnipotent characters) and oftentimes the characters are foolish. But I know one thing for certain; there's something special about this one.

Writing this story has already changed my life for the better.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Oh, Trevain! What a mighty complex fella you are...

I have fragments of half-written novels scrawled in every notebook and saved in every folder of every computer I have ever owned. There must be some reason why Drowning Mermaids was the first novel I ever actually managed to complete--a reason more profound than it just being the correct time in my life to facilitate such a project. Now, it certainly was the correct time: I had just graduated, and for the first time, money wasn't tight to the point of being a noose around my neck. But I really believe that the main reason that I was compelled to write the Sacred Breath Series can be summed up in one word:


Yes, my middle-aged crabber, Captain Trevain Murphy. I'm not saying that I'm rabidly in love with the man (he's not quite my type--too nice) but more than any character I've ever created, he has the ability to constantly surprise me. Everything he says and does feels so real. When I was writing Boundless Sea, I often had to pause and throw my hands up in the hair, and shout at my computer:

"What are you doing, Trevain? What the hell are you DOING? This isn't like you!"

I would send chunks of the story to my beta-readers as I completed it, just so I could complain, "Do you see? I can't believe he did that!" They would respond, in confusion, "Um, but didn't you write it?" It's hard to explain how detached and distant I felt from the work while being completely immersed at the same time. Trevain really seemed to just reach out of the laptop and force my fingers to do his bidding. He forced my whole brain to coexist with his for a few minutes. This character is strong.

An annoyingly common experience I have is for someone I knew in my previous life (a non-reader) to try and make the effort to read my stories to impress me or be kind. But non-readers have very strange ideas about novels. The most irksome question I generally receive is: "Are you Aazuria?"

For heaven's sake! People can be so superficial. First of all, no one is any single character precisely. Even if my novel was an autobiography (which it is not, sadly--I could drown in my bathtub if I intended to) I would expect the portrayal to be distorted. Secondly, just because she has long dark hair (above water) and generally looks similar to me, does not mean she is me. Especially in the beginning when we have not yet really met her-- the whole narrative is from Trevain's point of view. If I'm writing someone's thoughts from their perspective, I am trying my darned hardest to get into that person's brain and be him for a moment. Male or female. Whether he or she looks like me or not.

And when I'm being Trevain, I sometimes feel challenged to the point of being uncomfortable. I love that feeling! I have so much respect for this character and his continuous effort to do things the right way. Why is it that good intentions always seem to sabotage a person? Vachlan doesn't care either way about doing the right thing, but life seems somehow easier for him...

If you're reading Drowning Mermaids, here are a few questions you might want to consider:
    • Does Trevain seem more influenced by sound or sight?
    • What are his ideas on the limitations of the body?
    • Do the women in his life comfort him or cause conflict?
    • What is the real reason Trevain wants to learn sign language?
    • At his lowest moments, who or what guides him back to strength?
    • Is his world based more on physical or mental power?
If you've already read the story, and especially if you've completed the series, you probably understand the reason for many of the hints and subtle undertones that are present in Book #1. At this point, as I write Book #4, I find myself reflecting a lot and trying to figure out how to climb my way out of the deep hole I've dug for myself. =) But it's a rather lovely hole.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of the stories.
Happy reading!