The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible - Vladimir Nabokov

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you - Zora Neale Hurston

23 November 2009

Keep It Short

I tend to be long winded when I'm musing (thus my usual essay length posts). Today, in keeping with the topic, I will be brief (-er).
A colleague of mine was interviewed by the local news station yesterday and asked to explain his new discovery. He is an MD and notorious in the lab for an inability to say anything plain. I watched the poor reporter grow more and more frustrated as she attempted to wring one usable sentence out of him. Finally, she said, "That's not a news story, it's a bunch of words!"
Words alone do not make a story. In fact, words can get in the way. My colleague was trying to convey every nuance, unwilling to trim it down to the essentials, and nothing was getting across.
My first drafts are burdened with useless adjectives, adverbs, "just" and so on. I'm learning to prune things (though my new problem is finding a balance between conciseness and voice--another topic for another day). "The First Five Pages" by Noah Lukeman, as well as many wonderful blog posts, have been a huge help to me. Lukeman points out that, instead of enhancing, adjectives and adverbs weaken the subject. If you must use an adjective, instead of stringing them together you should choose one, preferably an unusual one.
Descriptions are where I offend the most. Here's an example from a first draft:
She liked his straight, black hair, a raven’s wing, which was just a little too
long but nicely framed his handsome features. She liked his dark brown eyes too,
how they magnetically drew her in.
I've improved it a bit since then:
She liked his raven’s wing of hair, a little too long, which fell shyly
over dark eyes.
There is so much to learn, some days I feel overwhelmed, and some days I feel like a hack. Cool-headed editing can be a blow to the ego. How do you deal with word soup, and how do you keep up your confidence?

20 November 2009

Familiar or Exotic?

I was sweating in 40 C heat yesterday (that's 104 F--I looked it up) with 50% humidity and very high UV and thinking how exotic Sydney still seems to me. It's a world away from the small town in Idaho where I grew up. Even ignoring the differences between a city of 3 million and 30,000, there's almost no mountains to speak of (well, compared to the Rockies) and ocean everywhere. I went snorkeling this morning and saw fish I'd expect to find in an aquarium (touched a giant Blue Grouper-wow!), yet I had never seen the ocean before I was 13. Sydneysiders find that unbelievable: they grew up in the water.

I'm often asked about what it's like to see snow-capped mountains, or better yet, wake up to find snow on the lawn. People are interested in the strangest things. I can go on and on about the cuttlefish I saw in the harbour, but people will say, "You should go to the Great Barrier Reef. Now, that's something." I bet, but it's not right outside my door (meaning a short drive--I don't have a beach house, unfortunately). Travel seems to make an experience special, yet we often ignore the wonders all around us.

I've lived in Australia for over a decade, but I've never been to the Reef or Ayer's Rock (I've met plenty of natives who haven't been either). Likewise, when I was in Seattle I never went up in the Space Needle, and I still have visited the Empire State Building, despite several business trips to New York. Going back to America is going home, so I don't do many touristy things. Plenty of Australians find it exotic, though. I'm always surprised to hear someone excitedly planning their holiday to Las Vegas (I lived in Nevada for several years, so not interesting to me), or--and this is the best one--someone hoping to visit a trailer park and catch sight of people off "Jerry Springer". I've been asked dozens of times if such people exist, and I must sadly nod and say, 'Yes.'

So, when writing a novel, is it better to have a mundane or an exotic setting? My instant answer is 'exotic'. But, the more I think about it, the more I see it's all relative. I recently completed Larsson's "Millenium Trilogy" (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc) and loved it. I'd heard that Salander was an amazing character, and 'they' were right. She stole the show. Part of the reason I stayed engaged in the non-Salander sections was the setting--Sweden. The strange names, unfamiliar justice system, weather, bizarre food, all of it kept me hooked (well, the plot was pretty good too). I kept wondering, though, what do Swedes think of the book? Are there inaccuracies only a local would spot? Are Salander's holidays in sunny locals meant to give Swedish readers a taste of the exotic?

So, should you write what you know? Surely, someone somewhere will find it fascinating. Or, should you crank up your imagination and use a setting that's exciting and exotic to you? What do you think?

15 November 2009

Werewolves, Vampires and the Bandwagon

With a certain werewolf/vampire movie coming out this week, based on an incredibly successful book series, you really have to wonder why is it so popular? It's not a new phenomenon. Werewolf and, especially, vampire stories are resurrected (couldn't help myself) every few years. Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Interview with the Vampire, Underworld... So, why won't they die? (sorry, couldn't help myself again)

I've loved monster movies and creepy stories since I was a child. I particularly remember reading a ghost story where a man fell in love with a mysterious woman who wore a red velvet ribbon around her neck. She would never answer his questions about it and made him swear not to touch it. Overwhelmed with curiosity one night, he removed the ribbon while she was sleeping--and her head fell off. Yuck. That's probably why it stuck with me. I also loved Creature from the Black Lagoon, Ghost, The Mummy, Frankenstein... but why aren't any of them as powerful as werewolves and vampires?

Some people think it's the sexiness, and there are a lot of books with vampire lovers (I'm not complaining, I like to read plenty of them), but that's not really it. It's psychology, and they're archetypes. I do not claim to be an expert, but even to this amateur psychologist it's easy to see why the werewolf's bestial nature is appealing. It is a human made animal again, free to unleash his emotions and desires without thought of consequences. Without thought is the part that's appealing. No guilt. Of course, they're usually the monster of the story for this reason--this lack of self control ultimately has deadly consequences.

Vampires are even more complex. They are a mixture of life (passion and sensuality) and death (well, because they're dead). They are the dark animus or anima, seducing us into danger and ultimately to the grave. You think people would want to run the other way rather than fall in love with them. I don't think vampire lovers are suicidal, though. I think the appeal lies in the personification of Death as an immortal creature, preserved outside of time, eternally young. Embracing the vampire is conquering death and our fears of it. Whoa...and I just thought it was because Edward was hot :)

Of course, when something is successful, you (in this case I mean 'I') might feel the urge to hop on the bandwagon. Vampire books are selling to publishers like hotcakes (as in McDonald's hotcakes, which I can't resist either). Others want to predict the next trend and get in on the ground floor. There's been some hilarious discussion on what will be 'the next vampire'. Zombies are growing in popularity (I think it's because they represent the mindless destruction, wars and chaos everywhere in modern life), but I don't think they will endure as well as the toothy creatures. Zombies are a commentary on culture, just as Frankenstein was a commentary on science and humanity's tendency to play God. They are powerful stories, but people really care more about themselves. Sometimes, we are creatures of logic warring with our emotions (werewolves) or adolescents approaching adulthood, faced with the terror of sexuality and ultimately growing older (vampires). Thus, these stories are universal.

Write one if you feel like it (I don't mean 'you' in particular are thinking of it...more if 'one' wanted to) , but it might be better to keep in mind the deeper concepts these creatures represent and somehow put that into your own story (don't ask me how, I'm working on it). Oh, and a cute guy never hurts.

12 November 2009


I was chatting with my boss's PA the other day, and she wondered how we scientists keep motivated through failed experiments and frustrations. What drives us? I had to say curiosity. Just as a child will ask why until your brain explodes, a scientist asks a never ending series of whys and hows. It occurred to me that this is just as true for writers.

Some of these questions pertain to the real world, like how does a nuclear reactor work so I can have my main character stop the bad guys from blowing it up? Though, my question today was how do they get those thin orange tubes in place to switch a two lane road into a three lane to accommodate heavy morning traffic? Does someone put them there? Do they pop up automatically? I may have a character who works on the road crew someday, who knows. (by the way, I haven't figured it out yet and it's driving me crazy)

Other questions a writer can ask are what if and what's the motivation. What if that road crew guy decided to mess with those lane markings late one stormy night and cause a massive traffic accident? Why would he do that? Is he a terrorist, a disgruntled divorcee, what?

My favorite question is, what will you do when I do this! I love putting my characters into a new situation and watching what unfolds. They surprise me alot, and that's the best feeling. This bizarre 'channeling' phenomenon is an entirely different topic that I won't go into here, but I think it's akin to having a bunch of imaginary friends.

As with a two year old, in science the predominant question is why. Why do we age? Why do we get cancer? More often, it's why didn't that experiment work? Some times there are no answers, at least not with the current techniques and technologies available. So, most of the time I prefer to ask when can I find some time to write?

Art and science are perfect soul mates. That must be the reason I married an artist. [see curious cat painting above and insert shameless plug for husband's website]

08 November 2009

This is actually fun

I spent four hours on Sunday rewriting Chapter 1 of my first novel, and I enjoyed it. I'd been putting off the revisions for ages, wanting to learn more first and dreading going back over old territory. It seems much more enticing to move on to new stories. A writer, however, re-writes. So, I disciplined myself and had at it. I knew the characters better this time around, wasn't afraid to get into the action and ditch some backstory (or save it for later), and had loads of fun. I took a few new directions, which will send ripples into the rest of the manuscript, so I have much editing ahead of me, but it was worth it. I can make this thing better, stronger, faster...

I would have spent the whole day writing, but I made the mistake of taking a break for dinner and watching my recordings of "Glee". It was good. I hadn't seen it before, but I was instantly hooked and had a monster marathon until midnight. To feel less guilty, I called it "research" on high school students. Everything feeds your writing :) Tonight I have to actually write, however. After I watch one more episode.

01 November 2009

Holiday Over

I love Halloween. It's the jack-o-lanterns, the creepy decorations, scary movies, and the candy of course. Now, as the pumpkin starts to look a little shrivelled, I'm suffering my usual post holiday blues. Fortunately, I have my revisions to distract me from it.

I gave myself a week to cool off before reading the latest wip in its entirety. I managed it in a day, and there were few changes needed that I could see. That worries me. Am I objective enough? My co-writer husband was more involved in this project than the last one, so I'm not sure I can entirely trust his judgement either. Test readers are needed asap methinks.

One thing I did notice was that my protagonist comes off a bit snarly. She is, which is what I like about her, but will others like her? There are plenty of fans of "House", so I can hope. I've considered nicing her up a bit, but I don't want to end up with a bland main character, especially worrisome for a first person detective story. Besides, she needs a lot of fire to stand up to the even more snarly people around her. I'm going to keep it as is and, once again, see what my test readers think.

In the mean time, there are a few small edits to make and a new book to work on. I want to really challenge myself with the next one, not only in terms of story and characterization--I want to push my prose. I'm a lean writer, and I hate too many adjectives, but I want to try something literary, something sumptuous. Don't worry, I'm not turning into a snob. Genre writing is my first love, but I'm giving myself an education here, and I can't be too easy on myself. If I do get published and manage to make a career of it, I'm sure I'll have deadlines and promotion to worry about, so this is my best chance to experiment and improve my skill.

Done psyching myself up now. I can do this. Back to work I go. And, with any luck, Thanksgiving will be here before I know it!