Friday, September 17, 2010

Which idea?

How do you decide which idea you're going to spend months (possibly years) writing?  Novels take a lot of time and effort, well they do for me, given the day job, need for sleep, soul-saving time w/friends, occasional trips to see family or go to Europe, and so on.  And there are so many books in my head that could be written, half-formed premises, ghostly characters, rip-snorting scenes, even the occasional musical number.

I won't know for sure that I'll write the book based on an idea untill I outline it and make sure it works.  But what makes me get to the outlining stage?

1. A protagonist I want to spend time with.  She must be likeable but flawed, with a sense of humor and a sense of purpose.  She's strong, usually a leader of some kind. 

I did this exercise in a writing workshop I took where you do this:
      a. Write down three people (real or fictional) who are heroes to you.
      b.  Now write down three qualities in each person that attracts you to them.
      c.  Those nine qualities are issues you will confront in your life and/or qualities you possess or will work
           on possessing.

Me, I wrote down:
Nelson Mandela - wisdom, leadership, integrity
Robin Hood - compassion for less fortunate, derring-do, willing to risk life to fight injustice
Queen Elizabeth Tudor - ability to overcome misogyny, leadership, cleverness.
(I started off with Cleopatra in this slot but scratched her out - then realized she has the same three qualities as Elizabeth Tudor, so it works out the same.  Plus Cleopatra didn't have to be the "Virgin" Queen.  Bonus points for that!)

And it turns out I like to read about these types of characters and to write about them too.  I get impatient with characters that are slow, humorless, sheep-like, and entitled.  I can bear it if they're clumsy or not amazingly wise as long as they have some of the other qualities in spades. 

2. A plot that provides enough conflict to sustain a novel.  Conflict keeps people turning the pages.  It's the essence of a story.  There have to be big obstacles standing in the way of my protagonist's desires, and the stakes must be big.  I don't have to know the ending or the middle, but I get a feeling in my gut that there's lots of juicy stuff to work with here.

3. An idea or hook that's semi-commercial or better yet, really commercial.  I'm not a writer of literary novels.  I read and write commercial stuff.  I get bored with anything else - sorry!  The writing still has to be wonderful, of course.  But no dreary plot-less disquisitions on the meaninglessness of life for me, thanks.  If I spend ages writing a book, I'd like at least a chance at getting it published some day.

4. A theme or topic that digs just a little deeper.  Okay, so I want it to be commercial and a fun read.  But I also want my story to have some sort of meaning or deal with an issue that could be meaningful to someone other than myself.  It's not enough to have it be "true love conquers all" or something like that.  There must be an issue that folks struggle with that isn't easy.  It may not be front and center, but it lurks in the background.

5. A tone or atmosphere.  Getting this straight in my head can be the clincher.  If I get the tone down pat in my brain, then I feel like I just might know how to write this.  Is it melancholy?  (Not my stuff, usually.)  Creepy? (possible...) Action-packed with a sly sense of humor? (Hopefully!)

If it was a TV series, how would it be shot?  Bright and sunny, with lots of colors?  Or chiaroscuro?  Glamorous?  Or dusty and a bit faded around the edges?  I need to sort of see it in my head.  Then I'm ready to roll.

How do you decide which idea to write?

Friday, September 03, 2010

Five (no, Three!) Sisters

Yes, this is a post about another dream, but it's really about how writer's brains are split between the creative side and the editorial side.

This is what happened in my brain as I slept last night...

Dreaming Brain (DB): Once upon a time there were five sisters.

Editorial Brain (EB): Whoa, FIVE sisters? That's too many. What are you going to do with all of them? Maybe make it three sisters. Are you sure you want to go with third person omniscient POV? If you truly wish to write a fairy tale that POV can work, but it is the most distant and difficult for readers to identify with. Keep that in mind as you write and consider switching to first person. While we're at it -- "once upon a time"? Didn't that become a bit of a cliche about a hundred years ago? And get rid of that passive verb.

DB: They were all strong and beautiful.

EB: Another passive verb, honey. You really can't have two in a row like that. It's boring. And if you make all the sisters beautiful aren't you perpetuating the idea that female protagonists all have to be gorgeous? Why not make one not-so-beautiful? Or handicapped? Or dyslexic or bipolar?

DB: And they always got their way.

EB: You're implying a theme here. I assume you're going to show how always getting your own way isn't a good thing. Will they get their comeuppance at the end? Or perhaps one of them doesn't get her way and she ends up flourishing? Or perhaps she gets her way and ends up unhappy anyway? Either way, don't be didactic.

I can't remember much after that, but you get the idea. Writing involves so many different parts of your brain, it can be difficult to know which part to listen to.

I generally try to give the Dreaming Brain or creative side free rein while brainstorming and writing the first draft. Sometimes the Editorial Brain steps in, regardless, and I go back and rewrite before I continue on. But if you listen too much to the EB at the start, you'll never finish. And if you don't listen to it later on, you'll have a cliched mess filled with passive verbs.