Can You Juggle?

My husband is a juggler. Not a professional performer or anything, but whenever he sees three similarly sized objects, they’re bound to end up flying through the air–and eventually rolling across the floor. Many oranges and apples have lost their lives at Hubby’s hands, or lack of hands I should say.

I bought him a juggling kit a couple years ago that came with an instruction manual and balls, pins, and rings. The manual took you through each step, starting with two balls, and graduating up to the more difficult rings.

I’ve tried it a couple times, but I’m terrible. I can get two things going at once, but add in a third and everything crashes to the ground. I quickly gave up, resigned to leave the circus antics to my other half.

But the desire to learn how to juggle apparently never went away. It just morphed into something a little more my speed: writing.

My current WIP has two POVs. This is the first time I’ve written from multiple perspectives and let me tell you, it’s a little scary. When the idea initially formed, it was all from one view. One main character. Then another character spoke up, demanded her story be told too.

I was terrified when I started. I’ve read several books with multiple POVs where the voices were largely indistinguishable. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting a few lines into a chapter and having to look back at the heading to see which character is narrating. I knew if I went down this road, I’d have to make the voices distinct.

Everything went fine at first. I clearly visualized both MCs, clearly heard their voices, clearly saw their story arcs. Just like with juggling objects, those first two stayed in the air fine. This isn’t so bad. Went through my head. I’m…kind of good at this. I was telling two almost completely different stories at the same time. Kept the juggling pins going with no problem.

Then they started wobbling. One character’s voice overtook the manuscript. Readers were connecting with her more than the initial main character. My agent even suggested maybe telling the story from one POV. Hers. The initial fear came tumbling back. It wasn’t the FMC’s story, it was the MMC’s! She couldn’t take it over! Could she?

I considered it. I dropped his pin. I worked up an outline and started a few chapters from just her side. Tossing one pin felt weird though. My hands felt empty. So I picked up the other one and tried juggling them independently. I’d tell the first half from the FMC’s view, and the second half from the MMC’s and….

That didn’t work either. If I was going to do this, I had to learn to juggle. See, it’s not just the MMC’s story, and it’s not just the FMC’s story. It’s both of their stories. There are two protagonists, and each carries equal weight. Each has their own goals, their own motivations, their own problems to surmount, independent of the other. Even though those stories parallel each other, and eventually merge into a common goal, they still maintain separate motivations and methods of reaching that goal.

So I started over. In a different place. Both pins simultaneously flew through the air again. The story worked. The chapters flowed. The voices separated like oil and water. Everything was great.

Until I dropped another pin. I’m close to finishing the draft, and I’m afraid the voices are blending. Especially once the two MCs collide. It was easier to keep them separate when the characters themselves were separate, easier to remember they each had a story to tell, but now it’s muddy. Complicated. I’ve added the dreaded third pin to the mix. I have to constantly remind myself that they’re each a protagonist, they each need to carry their own story.

This becomes difficult when I’m trying to make sure they’re both active characters. It would be really easy to drop that third pin, to let one character to take over now and do all the work, let the other take a back seat and coast through the end of the book. It would be easy, but it wouldn’t be a good book, and it wouldn’t be a fulfilling ride for the readers.

Juggling is hard. No one randomly picks up three items and perfectly tosses them around on their first try. It takes dedication and practice and time, and it’s so simple to say you can’t do it and walk way. Many do. I dare say there are more people in this world who can’t juggle than who can. It’s a lot like writing.

I realized I’ve been juggling for a while now. All writers juggle. With every manuscript, regardless of the number of narrators. The more elements you add to your story, plot threads, characters, settings, the more pins, or balls, or apples, you toss into the air. This is my fourth manuscript. With each one, I’ve gotten a little bit better, without really noticing it. Somewhere along the way, I graduated from balls to pins. There’s still a long way to go before I reach the rings, but I can do this.

I developed a plan of attack. Finish the draft. Print it out. Separate each character’s chapters. Read them independently. This way I can make sure the voices are consistent, and that each MC has a clear, individual, active arc.

What about you? How do you juggle your writing?

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The Great Reviewomise-Part I

Back in June, I told you about the Great Readomise, mine and my husband’s agreement to read a list of books the other compiled. I decided it’s only fair that I keep you updated as to how this little experiment is going. We’ve both finished our first books, so now I present you with the Great Reviewomise.

Sarah’s Review-THE FOUNTAINHEAD, Ayn Rand.

I’d planned on tackling ATLAS SHRUGGED first, but I forgot one of the cats decided to assert his territory a few years back and our copy of ATLAS SHRUGGED was a casualty of his ensuing golden shower spree. THE FOUNTAINHEAD made it through unscathed, though, so I went for it.

Basically, it’s about an architect who wants to do his own thing instead of following the crowd. I can get down with that. I’m not much of a go-with-the-crowd kind of gal, myself. The story follows the architect, Howard Roark, as the world essentially tries to destroy him. There are other architects who are jokes and not at all talented who get all the praise while Roark’s genius creations are put down by the public. I say public, I really mean this one socialist d-bag who doesn’t want anyone to succeed at anything. He thinks individualism and unique thought and capitalism are the devil and tries to quench them at every turn in every person who exhibits any of these characteristics. Like I said, total d-bag. I spent the whole book hoping he died a painful, horrible death. He writes for a newspaper and is an articulate speaker, and the public is a giant herd of sheep, so they just go along with whatever he says.

Everything goes sour for Roark for pretty much the entire book. Out of 694 pages, good things happen in maybe ten, and I think that’s being generous. I literally flung the book across the room about half-way through. I never do that. I don’t write in margins or dog-ear corners. I revere books. I threw this one.

Rand gets you to love Roark and root for him, and then terrorizes him for 684 pages. I get giving your characters obstacles and making everything seem hopeless, I really do. I rock at putting my characters through trials. At least, I thought I did. I’ve got nothing on Ayn Rand. I spent the majority of the book just sad–hoping Roark would prevail, but knowing he wouldn’t. She had me afraid for him up until the very last sentence. Literally. I’m pretty sure George R.R. Martin when to the Ayn Rand School of How to Torture Characters.

I didn’t hate the book. I really didn’t. In fact, I think I would’ve liked it a great deal if it had been about 400 pages shorter. I skimmed most of Rand’s long, meandering dialogue and her paragraphs upon paragraphs of political diatribe. I will say, the book was well-written, parts were interesting, and I really got behind Roark and found myself invested in the character. That’s why it upset me so much when he kept failing, and why I got so angry at the end. Also, *spoiler alert* (as if you’re going to even remember it by the time you read almost 700 pages), the bad guy doesn’t even lose in the end. Not really. He definitely doesn’t get what he deserves, which is really frustrating as a reader, but I guess more realistic than if he’d gotten splattered across the pavement like I’d hoped. If there were an abridged version, I’d probably really like it.

Hubby kept telling me I should have started with ATLAS SHRUGGED first, that I would’ve liked it better. I guess we’ll see. I’m not sure what I’ll pick next, but I think I need an Ayn Rand break for a little bit. Overall, I give THE FOUNTAINHEAD 3 out of 5 stars.

I’ll pass the reins over to Hubby. (This is his first blog post ever, by the way).

Hubby’s Review- A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, Betty Smith

Hi, I’m Phillip, aka Hubby.  My first book for the great Readomise was a “Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith.  I have to say, overall I quite enjoyed the book; it does help that the main character, Francie, often reminded me of Sarah.  The book being loosely based on Smith’s life made it have a more real feeling to me.

The book follows Frances Nolan as she grows up in a very poor part of Brooklyn.  We pick her up around 8-years-old, though flash backs to her earlier years are sprinkled through. She grows up very poor and often not eating for a couple of days at a time, but through it all she is never embittered towards the world.  Smith does a great job of developing Fancie’s understanding of the world in a way that seems natural and mature, but fitting for her age throughout the story.

Francie lives with her brother Neely, 1 year her junior, her father Johnny, and her mother Katie, in a very small, and in the winter barely heated, apartment.  Her mother cleans houses while her father, Johnny, tries to work as a singing waiter.  Johnny has a problem with drinking and can’t keep steady work.  He is a dreamer of grand ideas, yet he can’t focus on the current situation, and therefore his dreams remain only that, dreams.  Even for these significant faults, he strives to be upbeat and truly loves his family.  Francie thinks the world of her father, yet she also sees his faults with minimal rosiness applied to her glasses. She sees the trouble his inability to work causes, yet this never seems to taint her opinion of him.

(Spoiler Alert) Johnny dies about 2/3s of the way through, and after this for a little while things look really bleak, Katie’s sisters try to help, but the whole family struggles.  Yet they pull though and allow Fancie and Neely to finish grade school.  At this point, Francie and Neely must work to makes ends meet.  Though only 14, Francie excels in the jobs she takes on, and soon begins earning more money than anyone in Nolan family history.  Though she really wants to attend college, she works to keep the family fed and to allow Neely to go to high school.  Ultimately, Katie remarries someone very well off which allows Francie to finally go to college.

Francie is a quiet and somewhat lonely girl, who keeps to herself, yet seems to see the world with an optimism well beyond her circumstances.  I believe this is the reason I enjoyed the book so much, other then the constant reminders of Sarah in Francie.  I found her resolve to better her situation, without allowing her current situation to be a barrier to that, refreshing.

If there is one thing I took away from this book it is what I learned from watching Francie’s father, Johnny.  He shows that love and outlook are the things that color life and they can make a minimal canvas look wonderful.  However, he also shows that without the ability to do, there ends up being so little canvas that even most beautiful painting can’t be finished.

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Give Hubby a hand, will you? I don’t know about you, but I thought his review was beautiful. Of course, I’m a little biased, but I’m pretty impressed, so go Hubby!!

We’ll be starting our next books soon, so stay tuned for Part II in the coming months.

Beta Relationships

Beta Readers. They are such an important part of a writer’s toolbox. Another writer who reads your work, gives you an honest opinion, makes your writing better, and does it for free? Sign me up! I’ve talked about the importance of a good beta reader here, but what exactly does it look like when you have/are a beta reader? If you’ve never done it before, it can be intimidating and scary, so I want to give some of my experiences and some tips about beta reading.

As I mentioned in the post I linked, I’ve met pretty much all my betas through Absolute Write. I’ve formed relationships with other writers through the forums, writing contests, and Twitter. I know their writing and reading styles, and I trust their opinions. Some of these relationships have organically flowed into sharing work, and now they’re my initial go-to people when I need another set of eyes. These writers are more than just betas, though, they’re friends, and as wonderful as they are, sometimes I need untainted eyes on my manuscript. By that, I mean people who aren’t worried about hurting my feelings, which can happen with friends, as well as people who don’t know anything about my story–people who can look at it completely fresh.

That’s when I turn to the Beta Readers thread on AW. There are other great sites, like Agent Query Connect; AW is just the place I, personally, spend the most time. I post my query, what I’m looking for in a beta reader, that I’m willing to repay the favor and swap work, and the genres I like to read. (Here’s a hint: people are more willing to read your work if you’re willing to take the time on theirs). Willing readers respond either in-thread or through private message. They’ll describe their manuscript and if I think we’ll be a good fit, I’ll suggest we work together. If not, I’ll thank them for their interest, and move on.

There’s an important key here that I don’t want you to miss. I don’t beta with writers in genres I don’t typically read, and I don’t use betas who don’t typically read my genre. Don’t think I’m being mean, or snobbish or anything. It takes a lot of time, from both parties, to beta, so it’s super important to get a reader who is familiar with the genre you write. Different genres have different tropes and cliches, different types of plot and pacing, and readers expect different things. For example, I don’t read much epic fantasy, so I wouldn’t know the first thing about critiquing it. I wouldn’t know if a particular plot device is overused or cliche, or if the pace should move faster or slower. I wouldn’t benefit that writer by reading their manuscript, and I don’t want to waste my time or theirs, you dig?

Okay, so I’ve found a willing beta, we read each others’ genres, and we like each others’ story concepts, what now? We exchange email addresses and agree to swap the first two or three chapters–that’s enough to get a feel for the other person’s story and their critiquing style. Beta reading is a relationship, regardless of how brief it may be. You’re going to be with this person through thousands of words, the relationship will work better if your critique styles mesh. If you write sparse descriptions, you’re not going to benefit from a beta who constantly comments that descriptions should be more detailed. Personally, the type of critique I look for depends on where I am in my process. After my first draft, I’m usually looking for overall thoughts: Does the plot work? Are there any holes? Are the characters consistent? By the third, I want that baby to shine, so I need more nit-picky critiques: Are there glaring typos I’ve missed? Are there continuity issues that got messed up between drafts? When I’m reading for someone, I want to make sure I’m giving the level of critique they need, as well as receiving the sort of critique I need. If either of you aren’t getting what you need, you should find a different beta.

As I’m writing this I keep thinking, “man, this sounds kind of selfish.” Here’s the thing: it is selfish, but that’s okay. I have a really hard time putting myself first, so this has been a tough lesson to learn. My tendency when I first started beta reading was to dig in and stay there throughout the whole manuscript, regardless of writing caliber, trying to make it shine as much as possible. “We’re helping each other,” I would think. But then a couple things would happen. I’d either get my ms back from my reader, and it wouldn’t have near the level of critique I gave, or I’d send them their ms back and they’d be angry with how in-depth I went. The more serious I got about writing, and the more I beta read, the more I realized that I didn’t have time to spend weeks going line by line through someone else’s manuscript, and write my own stuff too. I was more invested in their writing than my own, and that’s not a place you want to be. It’s one thing for writers to help each other, but it has to be balanced. Like with any relationship, if one person is putting in an unbalanced amount of time and effort, it’s not good for either of you. (I also learned that not only can I not “fix”* everything, but I shouldn’t try, just like they shouldn’t try to “fix” mine. Instead of re-wording another writer’s work, it’s better to leave a comment of “hey, this sentence feels off, what if you tried something like ‘blah blah blah?'” and let them put it in their own words). You and your beta need to be on the same page when it comes to your critique style. If you’re not, sometimes the best thing you can do, for both of you, is to let them know the relationship isn’t working and move on.

If everything gels for those first few chapters, the beta and I will swap full manuscripts. How it goes from here depends on the reader. Some people I’ve worked with like to critique a few chapters, then email them and read a few more. Others prefer to read the entire thing at once and send it back when they’re done. Be sure to ask how they like to work. Sending your entire manuscript to a stranger is scary. Knowing when to expect it back in your inbox can make the process a bit easier. You also want to be sure and tell them how you like to critique; just because they like to send a few chapters at a time doesn’t mean you have to. Make sure they know that, though.

You read, you critique, and you send it back. You receive their comments back, and hopefully, their critique is helpful and you make your manuscript better. As I mentioned before, one beta reader and I worked so well together, we decided to keep it up and became critique partners. Most of my betas, though, have simply gone about their lives. We had a moment, we helped each other, we’ll be thrilled if the manuscript lands an agent or a publishing deal, and that’s the extent of it. But what happens if it’s not all rainbows and kittens? You liked those first couple chapters, you liked their critique of yours, but you get in and the plot falls apart, or there are so many grammar issues you get a headache. What happens if you realize you hate their story? Or, less dramatically, it’s just not ready to be beta’ed?

Well, that’s kind of tricky. I think it’s important to be honest here. I had a beta who got a few chapters in before emailing me that it wasn’t working for her. We discussed the problems a bit and I ended up cutting a major plot-line. That manuscript later landed me an amazing agent. If I hadn’t cut that plot, who knows what would’ve happened? On the other hand, I read for a writer once who just fell off the planet. This was one of those earlier manuscripts where I knew the writing needed a lot of work, but tried to stick in there. One day, I sent back a couple chapters and never heard from her again. I wish she’d talked to me about it, though, because I’m not sure what she didn’t like about my critique. Was she looking for something different? Was the relationship just not working for her? I guess I’ll never know. It can be really, really difficult to tell someone a relationship isn’t working, but it’s better to be honest and end it than to stretch it out and not give the manuscript your best. Again, that doesn’t benefit either of you.

If you think you’re ready to dive into the beta pool, here’s a couple things to keep in mind:

1. Make sure your manuscript is polished. If it’s riddled with glaring grammatical errors and typos, it’s going to be really hard to read, and you’re going to have difficulty finding a good beta who will stick in there.

2. If your manuscript is not polished and you’re just looking for feedback on your writing, or if you’re unsure if a single chapter works, the you’re not ready for a beta. There are several places on the writing forums to share your work and get feedback from other writers on a chapter or two. Use those to work through the snags and look for a beta when you’re done. (If you’re concerned about a plot point, writing the query is also a great way to see if the plot itself works. You can write the query at any time, before, during, or after you finish the manuscript, and post it in a forum for critique. I’ve cut entire plots based on query feedback).

CAVEAT: If you’re partially through a manuscript, and are afraid you’re going off the rails, or just feel like you need another pair of eyes before you get any deeper, it’s okay to enlist a beta, BUT make sure what you do have written is polished, and be up front about the manuscript’s status. Tell the beta it’s not finished, and I recommend that you still be willing to read their full manuscript.

3. Don’t be afraid of someone stealing your story. I had this concern when I started, and I still get asked by family and friends, “You’re giving your book to stranger? What if they steal it and get it published?” For starters, everything you write on your computer is time stamped, so it’s pretty easy to prove you wrote something and when. Second of all, if you found your beta in a forum, there is a history of the posts and proof that you sent them the manuscript. Third, they’re trusting you with their work too, so this is a two-way street. The vast majority of writers are honest people who don’t want to plagiarize. They want their own work published as badly as you want yours.

I’ve met a lot of great writers by beta reading. I’ve read so many amazing stories, and my writing has improved immensely both by enlisting a knowledgeable reader and by critiquing someone else’s work. Sending your hard work to a stranger to dissect can be frightening, and thick skin is a definite plus, but it’s so worth it.

What are your beta reading experiences? Where do you find your readers? For some more thoughts on beta reading, I recommend this great post at The Daily Dahlia on The Basics of Writing Relationships, Part II: Beta-ing. Dahlia has some other great posts on the subject too. In fact, go ahead and read this one while you’re at it.

*I’m in no way holding myself up as an expert writer or anything. What I mean by trying to “fix” the writing is that when I started beta’ing, I’d spend forever on a problem sentence, figuring out just the right way to reword it for the other writer, which is exactly the wrong approach. A few small wording changes are one thing, completely scratching what they’ve done and re-doing it is another. Looking back, I feel like this newbie mistake makes me sound arrogant, but really I was just misinterpreting the beta relationship–I thought that’s what “fresh eyes” meant, looking at the problem areas from a new perspective and taking care of it. Really, it means highlighting those areas and letting the writer figure out how to fix them. Make sense?

Importance of Conflict and Why I Hate Forrest Gump

There is one issue in my marriage that has caused an impasse.  A conflict over, of all things, lack of conflict.  I’m talking about one of the worst movies ever made.  “Forrest Gump.”  My husband loves it.  He thinks it’s a fantastic movie about a man’s life.  I, on the other hand, despise it.  It’s a three hour snooze fest about some random guy.  To it’s credit, the movie had an excellent soundtrack, and to be honest, I’ve never read the book, but from what I can gather it’s just a longer version of the movie so I’ll spare myself the trauma.

This all came to mind when I was confronted with the question: Does a book have to have conflict?  My immediate answer was “Yes, of course it does.  What’s the point of writing it if there’s no conflict and who would even read it?”  Then I remembered “Forrest Gump” and how it’s lack of conflict stretched for hours.

Why is this such a bone of contention in my marriage?  I guess because I’m so stolidly against the stupid movie, and because so many people, for some strange reason, seem to love it.  Here are my main problems:

1.  It has no plot.  None.  From as early as I can remember learning about story structure, I was taught a story has five parts:  Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.  A good story forms an arc (This mnemonic is even used as another name for galley copies of books, or advance reader copies. Coincidence?  I think not).  “Forrest Gump” is linear.  My husband argues that the guy’s life is the plot.  But even stories about lives follow the arc or else they’re boring.  That’s why memoirs don’t sell well.  Just sitting down and reading about some random person’s life is boring.  “I woke up today and ate two Rudy’s frozen sausage biscuits for breakfast.  Fed the dog.  Brushed my teeth.  Dressed and left for work.  The drive was good.  No traffic.”  That’s boring.  Why do you think reality shows all have the same format (No tv, lots of alcohol, put them in dramatic situations, etc)?  Because every day people going about their every day lives is boring.  At best, “Forrest Gump” revolves around several episodic scenes, but those are typically called subplots.  I guess you can say the plot revolves around him and Jenny, but even romance stories have the five parts of a plot.

If we break “Forrest Gump” into the five parts we have this:  Exposition- We meet Forrest in small town Alabama, a puny kid with leg braces.  He likes a girl and he gets bullied.  That sets the scene.  Okay, I’m following so far.  Rising Action- He and the girl become friends. He loses the braces and discovers he can run.  He runs away from the bullies, championed by the girl.  He gets a football scholarship and he and the girl drift apart.  Here’s where it starts to crumble.  That’s as close to rising action as I can see.  Then it goes flat.  Conflict-  I’m just not sure.  I don’t think there is a conflict.  Finding and losing Jenny is as close as it gets, but that isn’t conflict.  It’s just two people living.  What is the main thing he’s fighting against?  Himself?  The perceptions of others?  That’s not good enough to drive the story.  There needs to be something he has to overcome, something that represents his internal conflicts if that indeed is the driving force of the story.  But no.  He just bounces from one scene to another without anything really changing.  With each scene Forrest meets a Character, and he does the same thing- he runs.  Whoopty-doo.  Falling action-  Perhaps returning home?   But that’s tenuous at best.  Resolution- He has a baby with Jenny, which isn’t really resolution at all.  More like another story altogether.

So we have a linear, episodic story, with no point.  I have no idea what he accomplished other than what every one of us accomplishes until day we die.  He lived.  That’s it.  I don’t know how the book sold.  I couldn’t imagine reading a book with no plot.  Yet somehow, it did.  Go figure.

2. It frustrated the heck out of me because I kept waiting for conflict that never came.  It’s like when “Marley and Me” came out.  I love animals and really wanted to see the movie.  My little sister, however, ruined it.  *Spoiler Alert* She told me the dog dies.  I’m a somewhat emotional person.  Especially when it comes to animals.  I can’t stand to watch those Sarah McLachlan commercials for the ASPCA because I cry every time I see those poor, pitiful creatures.   I used to like the song, but now I can’t even hear “In the Arms of the Angel” without welling up.   So there I was, watching the movie about an adorably bad yellow lab and every time something bad would happen, I’d brace myself.  Tears would start to form.  I’d turn my head and squeeze my husband’s hand…only to realize the dog was fine.  And it got worse as the movie progressed.  I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to die early on, so the longer it stretched, the worse I got, until I ended up just crying through the last quarter.

That’s what happened with “Forrest Gump.”  I kept bracing myself, waiting for the conflict, but it never came.  I kept thinking: “Surely the conflict is coming.  It’s getting close to the end!”  But the movie stretched on, and the conflict never appeared.  It was torturous.

3.  It’s not real, but people believe it is.  Forrest Gump was not  real person.  Greenbow, Alabama does not exist. There’s a Greensboro, and a Greenville, but no Greenbow.  Forrest Gump did not exist.  He never played foot ball at the University of Alabama.  Because he wasn’t real.  Yet, I’m amazed at how many people think he was.

I’m from Alabama and this is source of constant headache every time this movie is mentioned (and even though it’s old, it inevitably comes up when people discuss “great movies,” ugh).  Namely, thanks to University of Alabama fans who are proud “one of their own” had a movie about his life.  It blows my mind.  Especially because most “Bama” fans are extremely hardcore and obnoxious, yet don’t know their history well enough to know the man never played there.  Again, because he’s fictional.  (They also can’t grasp they don’t really have fourteen national championships, but good luck explaining that logic to them.  For those of you outside the state, I graduated from Auburn University, Alabama’s rival, so I say this from a completely unbiased viewpoint.  War Eagle!).

Bubba Gump shrimp doesn’t exist either.  Bayou La Batre does.  My best friend from college is from there.  And it’s a huge shrimping area.  Pretty much all the men in her family were/are shrimp boat captains.  Bubba however, completely fake.

I guess it’s a pride thing.  People try to latch on to something so they can say “Hey, look!  He’s from Alabama.  Go Alabama!”  They can say the story is set in Alabama (Yay, go Alabama!) but the story itself and it’s main characters, are fiction.

4.  One word.  Oscar.  As a rule, I immediately discount anything nominated for an Oscar.  If it’s something I’d been wanting to see, the moment it’s nominated, it drops down my list.  Why?  Because most Oscar movies suck.  Sure, there are a few gems.  “The King’s Speech” wasn’t bad.  “Titanic” was okay.  On the whole, though?  They’re typically horrible and terribly pretentious.  “Tree of Life” is close to “Forrest Gump” in a lot of ways.  They were both awful, plotless, Oscar nominees.  (Don’t even get me started on “Tree of Life.”  What a gigantic waste of an evening.  It’s like the director only filmed a scene from the first page of every chapter of a book and spliced it together with space scenes from National Geographic to form a mostly dialogue-less piece of gibberish.  Like “Forrest Gump” I hung in there, waiting for the story, the conflict, something, anything…and then the movie was just over.  Boom).  Bottom line, if a movie gets an Oscar nom, it’s pretty much guaranteed to suck.

So, I circle back around to my earlier question.  Does a book (or movie) have to have conflict?  My answer, after much debate is: no.  If it doesn’t have conflict it will be highly praised and critically acclaimed and people will love it despite it’s obvious flaws.  It will be nominated for lots of awards and probably make the author a lot of money.

In my mind the better question is: Does a book (or movie) have to have conflict to be good?  Yes.  Yes it does.  But don’t expect any Oscars.

Writer’s Block

Those are two of the worst words in the english language.  I shudder when I read them.  I want to cover my ears with my hands when I hear them. and sing “lalalalalala, I can’t hear you!” like it doesn’t exist.  Except it does.  And I have it.

I have been trying to write a particular story for a long time.  I posted the first chapter a little while ago (see “The Terminal Circle”).  The story won’t come to me.  I know the general plot and what happens to the main character, and I finally know who the main character is, but I just can’t get past the first chapter.

Heck, it’s taken me over two years to get the first chapter down.  I sit at my computer screen and beg the characters to come to life.  I lay down and close my eyes and try visualize them.  How they act, talk, and walk.  What they say and how they say it.  Their movements and mannerisms.  I just can’t do it.  I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to, which then causes me to seize up like a kid about to bungee jump.  I’m standing on the platform all suited up and ready to leap, but my feet won’t move forward.

What scares me the most is that this isn’t how I write.  This is a plot my dad and I discussed.  It was his idea, not mine, but he wanted me to write it.  Now my dad isn’t here anymore and I can’t even discuss it with him and talk it through, which usually helps when I’m stuck.  The big problem, though, is that I write spontaneously.  I’ve written two books so far, and both of them came from middle-of-the-night-can’t-sleep ideas.  They weren’t something I thought through and analyzed.  For both, I laid there in bed and saw the characters every time I closed my eyes.  Before I fell asleep, I knew their names, saw their faces, knew how they moved and acted instantly.  I knew what they were going to do and why.  When I woke the next morning, I put it on paper and just didn’t stop writing.  Of course it needed polishing, but getting everything down in a first draft was a snap.  For the most recent manuscript, I had a first draft done and to betas within two months. (So thankful for beta readers by the way!)

I’ve written short stories in this manner as well.  It’s like the story comes to me and begs to be written down, no matter what I’m doing at the time (even while studying for the bar exam…okay, especially while studying for the bar exam).   However, I have short stories that I’ve tried to write that don’t get past the first few pages, even though I know I have a good idea, because I sat and thought it through too much. 

I recently read “On Writing” by Stephen King (excellent read whether you’re a fan of his or not), and he describes writing as finding a fossil.  You trip over it in the back yard and start digging, then keep digging until bit by bit the fossil reveals itself to you.  I completely agree with this analogy.  The characters I’ve written about, I don’t feel like I’ve created them so much as found them.  Then I just had to keep writing to discover more about them until I had the whole story.

These stories that I’ve found, they write themselves.  Sure, I’ve had to put some thought into it, but once I sit down and my fingers hit the keys, it’s like my fingertips take on a mind of their own.  They fly and dance over the keyboard and before I know it, I’ve got 60 or 70 thousand words.  It’s like that in my legal writing as well.  I always had to wait until the mood struck me to write.  Sure, I would get things out by the professor’s deadlines in school (in my working life I was left to my own devices), but I did my best work when my fingers could think for themselves.  Sometimes that was down to the wire, but I’ve never missed a deadline in class or the real world and never made a poor grade (or below an A minus for that matter).

So I’m not entirely sure what to do with this…writer’s block (shudders like the hyenas in the “Lion King” when they hear the name “Mufasa”).  Do I try and push through and write the story anyway, or do I let it breathe and hope the characters come to life?  I’ve already let it breathe for two years, but maybe that’s not enough.  Stephen King said he encountered a block when writing “The Stand” (one of my favorites) and only got unblocked when he realized that his characters were too comfortable and needed a shake-up (i.e. a bomb in a closet).  That was a mid-book block though.  Mine always occurs in the first stages of a manuscript, and so far have all been stories I eventually abandoned (bless their little hearts.  I see them now, huddled in a forgotten folder on my desktop.  Ragged shawls draped around their shoulders, tin cups at their feet, begging for me to revist them, to try again.  I want to help, but what can I do?  So I ignore them and keep moving with hollow promises to one day return and do what I can). 

How do you handle writer’s block?  Do you work through it, or take it as a sign that the story isn’t meant to be written right now and move on?