Battlefield of Details

There’s been a discussion on a message board about if you would research the weather for a particular day in history at a particular location for your story.  Not because there was a major historical storm in that time frame, but just for “accuracy” or for that one reader who would fact check it.  Since I’m not detail-oriented, that’s the bottom level of details that I’m most likely to get wrong because I don’t always know the right questions to ask once I find the information.  I’m just looking at the fact and going, “Okay, X happened here” and I’m done.  Meanwhile, I’ve missed asking an important question that would make how I’m using the detail wrong.

Since details are such a weak point for me, fighting with them will be unproductive.  What details do I have the most trouble with (aside from all of them)?  The worst are the ones everyone refers to when they talk details — looking up a date in history for the weather;  finding the exact real location in a city where a scene takes place; showing a character’s personality by how he touches his hat.  The smaller the detail, the worse it is for me.

So what I did was pick my battles.  I made my cutoff point on details at those small ones that give me so much trouble.  Take the example of the weather on a specific date.  I’d start out by making the time setting more generic.  It isn’t Memorial Day Weekend –it’s late spring.  That means I could hit a tourist book and get general research on the weather for spring in that area.   Then I would connect it into the bigger picture of the story.  It’s part of the setting, probably part of the world building, and can I do anything to aggravate the characters in the story with it?

A couple of examples:

I had a scene I was writing where a character uses some of her magic.  As part of it, I weighed in on a detail — soil layers, of all things — that I was planning to do quick research on.  This one made me wary, because it’s the kind I tend to really get into trouble on.  I end up with too many, lose control of the story, and things get really ugly.  This is the process I went through:

1.  Is it necessary?  If no, the detail is gone.  If yes, next question.  That gets rid of things like looking up trees to give a street a name.

2.  What else does it accomplish?  It cannot be in there for the sake of being a neat detail.  It has to have other purposes.  In this case, the detail helped forshadow a major complication in the story.  It also contained an important piece of world building (yes, soil layers!) on how a specific character’s magic worked.

I did keep it more generalized, since it wasn’t a science lesson on soil but simply showing the character working her magic.

With another piece of the story, the same questions yielded a different result.  The scene was one that had come from the original draft and was being reused with revisions.  It included the fire department — I’d decided at that point I was going to keep one of the firemen characters.  But I had a problem.  The story had changed substantially that I now needed to do research for this scene.  I could already see that trying to get the details about firemen right for this one scene would require fairly significant revision of the scenes around it — and possibly parts of the story because there was something in there that was now broken by the way the story changed.

So when I asked if it was necessary for these details, I weighed in on whether I needed firemen in the story.  Maybe not.  But that meant there had to be a reason they weren’t there.  Connected it up into the big picture.  Ah ha!  Country doesn’t have a whole lot of money, so small fire department.  Country has a tuna factory for industry.  A lot of worker houses are near the factory.  Big fire at the tuna factory takes away the fire department.  And it was far less revision than fixing everything to accomodate the fire department details.  I’m adding a small scene near the factory which does other things, plus a couple of references.  Plus one of the minor characters is freaking out because he wanted the fire department to come, not the main character.

It’s important to pick your battles.  Spending time wrestling with a weakness is not productive, but finding a different way to do things is.

Hishorn Sculpture Garden

A trip to the Hishorn Sculpture Garden today, with a stop at the African Art Museum.  Did you know in Mali they made ladders out of logs?  Cool, and very practical.  The only downside was lunch, where I order a Greek sandwich made up feta and vegetables.  Guess they were a little short of vegetables.  There was a ton of feta — and it cost $10!

Writing With the Jellyfish

Have you ever been to the aquarium and seen the jellyfish?  I went to the National Aquarium, and they had a tank full of ethereal jellyfish.  I could have stood there for hours and watched them.  They don’t swim, or move — they go with the flow of the currents.  That’s the way it feels like when I write a novel without an outline — pantsing.

Glowing an eerie blow, ethereal jellyfish float in a tank.

Post updated 5/28/2012

But it’s tough being a pantser.  If you’re one, you know we can scare outliners because our process is so chaotic.  It can be challenging to get a story finished and working.  So I took a workshop that used a “pantser friendly” outline, thinking I just needed to find the right type of outline.  There are many stories about pantsers seeing the light and discovering outlines.

The workshop turned into a 4-week nightmare.  I watched as the instructor gave out the lessons, and every other writer instantly got the concepts.  Me?  I was left to mechanically follow the steps without understanding what I was doing.  I couldn’t connect my creativity to outline.  I almost quit the workshop every week because it was that much of a struggle for me.  It was like swimming against a strong current.

But I had to try it, because failing at it was a breakthrough for me.  I understand that my process was unique to me, and I needed to find ways that would work within it.  Sometimes all the other things outside of us — craft books, other writers — can be too strong of an influence, and we spend our time trying to fit instead of finding our way.  I still find myself unlearning things so my process can work the way it’s supposed to.

For you:  Have you focused on getting it “right” according to someone else’s standards?  Post your comments below.

Graphics Organizers for Novels

A graphics organizer is a concept that has apparently started filtere into school to help kids learn.  It presents information in a graphics format.  An outline of a paper might be displayed as the layers of a hamburger.  These are two of the organizers I’ve come up with to help me writing stories:

One is a template for settings, and the other is a timeline.  The setting one includes a place where maps and diagrams can be drawn.  I used the timeline one to build a list of real events for an upcoming story.

The Importance of Story Beginnings

“A bad beginning makes a bad ending.”

— Euripides (484 BC – 406 BC)

From The Lazy Project Manager.

Writing Routine

Wordplay has a blog entry on her Writing Routine.  This is what mine is for my revision:

1.  I usually write about the same time every day, though I can graze.  I may pop in and different time when available and do a little.  I often get up and move around because that helps me think.

2. I bounce around between 2-3 scenes, though I’ve done as many as 5.  I may also leave one scene untouched for a long time and suddenly go in and write the entire thing in one sitting.  Scrivener is really a godsend with this method.  I tried it with Word.  I won’t even discuss how bad it was.

3. If I’m adding a new scene, I bounce into One Note to get the sentence for the scene, and then return to Scrivener to create a new file (sadly, I’m mainly having to create new files).

4.  If research is required — all my research for this revision is new — then I’ll get a book or visit a site for information.  I’ll create an idea map of the notes, using different colors, pictures, and keywords.  Only just what I need, but I can add more to the map if I need it later.

5.  Once the scene’s done, I review it to see if I left anything out. I’m a big picture thinker, so I tend to hop over details and think they’re in the story when they’re not.  I have to check for this and recheck for it.

6.  A quick audit to see if I have at least one sound and one taste or smell.  I always have feel and visual, so I don’t need to check for this.

5. A quick trip to my “non-lists,” which is a series of notes of things I wanted to make sure I did.  Most people do a spreadsheet list for this, but I can’t work with lists, so I did one where I wrote anything anywhere on the paper, drew pictures, and color coded entires.  So I may have a reference to mention the tuna factory before a particular scene occurs, so I check to see if I can insert it here.

6. Then I compile the story and save it as Word.  While Scrivener does backups of the Scrivener files, I always do a compile into Word so that my online backup will pick up the files.

Composite of Experiences

When I was growing up, we went regularly  to the Griffth Park Observatory, and there’s this tunnel along the way.  If you’ve watched TV shows from the 1980s and before, you’ve seen the tunnel.  It was used any time they used a tunnel, and the round shape is very distinctive.  We always asked my father to honk the horn inside so we could hear it echo (he only did it when no one else was in the tunnel).  The tunnel was a little scary because it was so long, so narrow, and so dark, so honking the horn made it less scary.

I’m revising now the only scenes that survived relatively intact in the book (now over Magic 100).  The basic concept is still the same — it’s a series of action scenes inside a tunnel.  A lot of little things from different experiences come into play, like the tunnel above, but also one time getting stuck in an elevator when the power on the block went off, a sinkhole opening up, and even walking along on a darkening street.

This makes me think about “write what you know,” which is one of the most interpreted pieces of advice out there.  Writers like Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, had never traveled to outer space.  At the time, we hadn’t even gone to the moon yet.  How did they “write what they knew”?  They took elements of their military experience and their science knowledge and used that to create the experience of space travel.  “Write what you know” isn’t a literal thing, but intended to meld experiences together to create what we need.

What I’m reading: Dracula by Bram Stoker.  Though everyone focuses on vampires, Stoker actually has a lot of good, vivid description.

Magic 100

I’m five pages away from hitting a major milestone — 100 pages!  Woo-hoo!

7 Tips to Pitching at a Writer’s Conference

Every year, I run the agent’s pitch room at a regional writer’s conference. Usually everyone worries about how to pitch their story at the conference, but they don’t think about other aspects that may hurt their chances.  As we all prepare for the pitch sessions, keep the following in mind.

The biggest guideline:  If it’s a novel, it MUST be finished.  Sometimes people want to test the waters before they commit to a novel by only doing a few chapters, but with a novel, it has to be completed.  And not a first draft, but a well-revised draft that’s also been proofread.

1.  After scheduling the pitch session, research the agent first and make sure they do represent the type of writing being pitched.  We had two writers who scheduled sessions with agents who didn’t rep their genre — apparently, they thought the work would be so good the agent would change their mind and accept the project.  The agents sent the writers away instead and refused to hear the pitch.

2.  Print a copy of the pitch schedule and highlight the time.  Bring it.  Writers often arrive at the conference and don’t have any idea when their pitch session is.  Last year, a writer asked the front desk for her time and either heard it wrong or was given it wrong, so she showed up too late for it.  Be prepared by knowing when the appointment is scheduled.

3.  Bring a watch.  Some of us are bad with time and tend to lose track, so setting the alarm will help.  We had one writer who showed up an hour late for his pitch session, and the agent had already gone home.

4. Show up a few minutes early.  I hate to put this one in because it should be obvious, but we get a lot of people who are a few minutes late.  Pitch session’s already started.  You’re not getting extra time because you’re late.

5.  Bring a small notepad and a few pens.  Very handy to write down an agent’s email address or other contact information.

6.  Be assertive.  If the agent is still with another writer, we always tell the new writer to make sure the agent can see them.  Usually the agent will end the first pitch session right away to keep things moving.  But we had one man who was so afraid of dealing with agents that he hid in a corner.  He was 5 minutes in a 10 minute pitch session before we noticed him, and he still would not go over, fearful of disturbing the agent.  Meanwhile, the agent is thinking he didn’t show up.

7. But don’t be aggressive.  We always get people who try to sneak in and get an extra pitch session.  They’ll even lie to try to get in.  We had one man who showed up to try to get in.  The pitch sessions had just started, but one agent was on break, checking her email.  He kept saying, “Can’t I see her?  She’s not with anyone.”  He didn’t get that she was on a much needed break.  When we said no, he lied and said he had an appointment with her the next pitch session so why couldn’t he just start early.  We told him to go check and come back.  It sounds heartless, but 1) he never had an session with that agent scheduled and 2) while he did have a pitch session scheduled, it was later that day.

Finally, remember that meeting an agent has exactly the same chances as sending a query.  Sure, you’re meeting the agent in person.  But it’s not going to give you a foot in the door if your story has major problems or is poorly written.

Inciting Incident by Another Name

Hear the phrase inciting incident and you’re probably thinking something big and splashy.  The first image that comes to my mind is a movie opening with a big action sequence.

James Scott Bell has a post over at The Kill Zone on it that addresses some of the confusion about what exactly it is, with a different way of thinking about it.