Monday, May 23, 2005

Time Out

Isn’t it funny how time only moves quickly when you’re looking back? Whenever you’re looking forward, it appears to be crawling along, taking forever to pass. But when you look back, you marvel at how much of it is gone and how quickly it went.

Time is an interesting thing. We can spend time, waste time, wish we had more time. We can make time, pass time, wonder where all the time went. We can even kill time. The only thing you can’t do with time is get it back.

A little over a year ago I took up a hobby. Genealogy, they call it. I think of it more as curiosity. I don’t have a large family, and they haven’t been in this country (America) all that long - and very little was really ever known about most of them. I wasted a bunch of that precious thing we call time by not being interested enough while my grandparents were alive. It wasn’t until I took up this hobby that I discovered photo albums filled with fascinating images and interesting people, and now there’s no one left to ask about them.

I’ve made lots of progress, and learned amazing things. I even became emotional when discovering death certificates of family members I’d never met, and ancestors who died long before my own parents were born. I’ve wandered through cemeteries, found those I was looking for and also wondered about all the ones I walked by. Headstones that were worn, weathered, forgotten.

Once I found photos in an antique shop, being sold for the frames they were in, and it was upsetting to think these were photos of people who weren’t being remembered by anyone. Perhaps those who knew who they’d been had also passed on, with no one left behind who cared.

One day, while scanning the old photos of my great grandparents, and even a couple of my great-great grandparents, it struck me how incredible this really was.

Here I was, holding photos of people still using horses to get around, and I’m placing them in a flatbed scanner to save copies of them in my PC.

When I was a kid, computers weren’t for home use. We learned how to “key” using actual typewriters. My grandparents were around when televisions were invented - and here I am using a personal computer and scanner - saving digital copies of them onto CD’s, making movies of their still images with soundtracks and special effects, even using a thing called the Internet to learn more about their lives.

Having no children of my own, I’m saving all of this information for my nieces and nephew, and wondering - if they survive and become grandparents, and one of their children’s children gets curious and starts looking things up - what incredible tools will they use? Will they laugh at the simplistic methods I used to record history?

Or will time have its revenge, and simply forget us all?

Monday, May 09, 2005

Size Matters!

Sure, some would say - and they’d be right - that it’s better to read a short, well-written story, than a long, heavily involved novel of mediocrity. But if that short, well-written story is over in less than an hour, and the long, heavily involved novel of mediocrity keeps you interested for a few days - which would you prefer?

I like to think I’m somewhere in between well-written and mediocre. Perhaps I’m delusional. Perhaps not. No one can truly say, and I would be a fool to venture a guess.

Art is in the eye of the beholder, yet we all know a steaming pile of dog mess when we see it.

However, when I’m reading something, and I’m enjoying the characters as well as the world or worlds they live in, I want to stay a while. I want to linger there, providing I’m enjoying myself, and hang out with them as long as possible. I don’t care if I’m coming away with a higher sense of anything in particular - I just want to be entertained.

So it stands to reason I’d like to write them big, too. Never one for a short story, I like to write as much into a tale as I can, providing I’m saving enough for a sequel.

There are several “best part of’s” when it comes to writing. The best part of a sequel is planning it. The best part of a new story is imagining the plot coming together. The best part of getting ready to write again is figuring out the entire outline, start to finish. The best part of typing out the words is seeing where your characters are going to take you.

One of those best parts is that point when you realize just how much you’ve gotten down. How many pages you have to scroll through to get to the bottom. When my last novel was finished, it was 148 pages long. A total of 77,670 words. A novel is considered anything that’s 50,000 words or more, and this was one of my shorter ones.

You don’t think about this while you’re writing. At least you shouldn’t, but you do. Striving for a certain length can make parts of the story sound forced. But to say that -- upon discovering how much you have and how big it’s getting -- isn’t a fun fact, would be a lie. About the time I’m up to around 80 pages or more, I start to feel pretty good about the whole. Typically around then I’m three-quarters of the way through and feeling fine. I’ve got dialog I can reference back to, situations that have risen and been resolved, while new ones have come up, along with the main issue driving the whole story.

At this point (I’m on page 5 of the new novel - sequel to the last one) it’s hard to imagine reaching page 100 or more. I’m just getting them warmed up, starting off, working on some dialog, some wandering around. I have to keep shutting it down to do some work, then opening it up again when I have a few minutes to spare. Seeing that little, insignificant number 5 at the bottom toolbar can sometimes be discouraging. After all, the entire story - except for the little details - is already worked out in my head. And even though on a good day with coffee I’ve been clocked at 90 wpm, you can only type as fast as you can think.

Realistically, I know it’s going to take me a good 3 months to write this whole story. Then another week to read through it very critically, and my reader gets another week to read through it with red pen in hand (actually she prefers green). Then I sit and fret about it for a week or so. And allow me to digress a moment in praise of my new reader - who can be credited for having me make a huge change, twice, which then resulted in the possibility of this very sequel.

My former editor often mocked my ability to write sequels. “There’s nothing more for them to resolve,” she’d say. “They’re going to become boring.” I find that everything they do opens up windows of opportunity for other things to be done. “Plot just doesn’t interest me,” she’d add. To her, Plot is a 4-letter word.

Personally, I like these guys. They’ve become family to me. Just as the guys in my other works. When you create a character, and the world he or she lives in, you have to own it. You have to be more familiar with them and their world than they are, so that anything odd or alien the reader encounters is commonplace to your character. It can’t be commonplace to your character if it’s still alien to you. You have to know them intimately, as well, so you can predict their reactions.

I say predict because -- just as any real, living, breathing individual -- you cannot dictate their every word. If your characters have become alive, as alive as they need to be, then even you won’t know what they’re going to say each and every time. They’ll surprise you, take your story in different directions, change a scene into something more wonderful than you’d had in mind - because they’re real enough to do so.

And that’s how it will happen. I get a story started, get the scene going, then basically sit back and watch them run with it. I take down everything they do, everything they say, everything that’s going on around them, until I’m so deeply involved in their actions, reactions and dialoging that - before I know it - I can look down and see that page counter reach the 80+ mark. Then 100. Then as we’re racing through the thickest part of the plot and the action is building, I’ll completely forget what that page counter says until finally - out of breath and trying to find the best scene to end with - I’ll realize 148 pages have just gone by, and I’ll smile.

Deep down, I know page counts don’t matter. Word counts don’t matter, unless you’re publishing. The thickness of the printed pages in my hands doesn’t matter.

All that matters is the fact that I can spend an entire weekend lost in their universe, listening to what they say, watching what they do, and what happens around them. I’m not finished in an hour and wishing there was more. Like having an entire season of something on DVD that you can watch without commercials, through an entire rainy weekend.

Yes, as much as they say it doesn’t - size really does matter !

Monday, May 02, 2005

Cotton Candy

Grandpa had his dentures in, the whole visit went really well. Good times. Now I get to enjoy one of my most favorite parts - the planning of the sequel.

This sequel was in my mind the whole time, floating out there, only teased upon in the new story. Now it’s teasing me. Giving me snippets and flashes of scenes and scenarios, with hints of deeper things to come.

It’s like watching a movie in my head, only it’s not the feature film, just those impressive theatrical trailers. I’m not sure how other writers go about this, and it wouldn’t matter, because everyone has their own method - but for me, planning out a new story starts out visually inside my head.

The characters are as real to me as people you know intimately. I can see them, hear their voices, even smell their skin. I see the way they roll their eyes at each other, the way their toes look when they’re barefoot, the lay of their clothes. They wander around in my head passing time while I work on what they’re going to do and say. So when I figure out a section or segment of plot that I’m planning, I try it on by having them act it out in my head, entertaining me with variations on the scene until I find the one I like.

It’s a blast. There’s special effects, drama, even a soundtrack - all playing out in my head, adding scenes and segments, building on this theatrical trailer in my brain. And as I watch this trailer build, I get flashes of new threads, new items that build on the trailer - like cotton candy filaments building on the cone until I have myself a big ol’ wad of sugary goodness. No nutritional value, and it’s gonna rot your teeth, but there’s a surprising amount of flavor and you’ll definitely get a rush!

The best part about creating your own universe and building on it, is what it gives you for later use - a foundation with lots of rooms. If your worlds are complex enough, and populated with situations and history, you have fodder for the future. A sequel can build on what you have, forge new territory, and borrow from unresolved issues in the past - all at the same time. Anyone you haven’t killed off is there to be used. Any place you’ve visited is there to visit again. Any situation you’ve resolved, can be unraveled.

I have the most fun watching these trailers play out in my head, then suddenly seeing a connection I hadn’t thought of before. One of my characters will say something, and a whole new direction opens up, connecting two scenes and making another complete scenario. Truth is - I don’t always know what’s going to happen. Oh sure, I’m the writer, and I always have a grasp on the story as a whole - but the details, the little things that take place to move the plot along, or accent the story here and there - a lot of those surprise even me. One character says something - and out of the blue, the other will react in a way I hadn’t predicted (even though yes, it’s all coming out of my own head)

It sounds a bit schizophrenic, I suppose. But the truth is, sometimes these characters tell ME what’s going to happen next. Sometimes they surprise me by their reactions. I do write down a story outline, chapter by chapter, hitting the major points until the resolution - just so I don’t get to straying off too far. But an outline MUST be fluid - when you’re writing dialog or action lines, the very words that get laid down can change an entire scene or chapter. The way the characters have dealt with something, or the things they’ve said, can add a completely new dimension to the whole. This last outline I did ended up not being a full outline of one story, but rather the building block of the sequel as well - all the elements that didn’t end up in THIS version, are the foundations for the sequel.

Sometimes I throw myself a curve ball. Like killing off the majority of the human race. Was it a mistake? Maybe. I think the only mistake was that I should have given it more attention - But I didn’t want to bog down the tale with too much detail about other things. I just wanted it to happen. And for a while, I wondered if I’d left enough room to continue with the series. Had I eliminated too much? Was there now nothing at all left for my characters to do?

Turns out, not only is there plenty for them to do, there are entirely new directions in which to do them.

And I get to sit here, quietly enjoying these theatrical trailers playing out in my head, until the whole story comes together like a big ol’ wad of cotton candy.