musings, thoughts, and writings of Barbara W. Klaser


September 20, 2007

Into the shadows

Bruce at Wordswimmer writes about story endings in his post, Where the River Ends, and that got me to thinking about some of the problems I’ve encountered in ending mysteries.

With a mystery, the question of how to end the story begins with which character did the crime. I no longer start with a specific villain in mind. The story often changes so much in the writing that a pre-planned ending has no choice but to change as well, or it wouldn’t make much sense.

In the last couple of mysteries I’ve written, I was as surprised as anyone by who the villain turned out to be once I got to the second draft or later. That’s okay, and it has a lot to do with how I develop characters. If I know who the villain is too early, I’m in danger of giving it away, offering hints I’m not even aware of because of my judgments about that character.

If I start out thinking the villain isn’t a villain, I can get to the heart of that character sooner in my own mind. I can get to know him, let him grow and round out on the page. I’m an idealist, and I really like to see the best in people, so there needs to be that spark of sympathy first, without letting on even to myself that he or she is a killer in the making. I guess in that regard my characterization is as organic as raising a child. What mother imagines her infant would harm anyone?

This process forces me to explore the shadows, my characters’ shadows as well as my own, to see possible motivations, both conscious and unconscious.

I first encountered the shadow, as a human concept, in stories I read. I confess that I didn’t understand the concept very well when I was young and still in denial that I had a shadow or that any good person did. But one encounters this idea many times, if one reads at all widely, and the reason for that is it’s a universal truth about human nature.

In exploring the shadows, I’ve come to see that a fully rounded character, even if he’s the good guy, has a shadow, whether that shadow is clear on the page or not, whether that shadow is negative or positive. I want to know each major character’s background as well as possible, so I start with the positives and work my way into the negatives. Though it hurts me to watch a character I’ve come to like or sympathize with cross the line into murder, at least the biggest puzzle of the mystery isn’t lost on me, and I’m not giving the killer away up front. If I decide the murderer needs to be someone else, not the person I thought it was going to be, I don’t have to cast about too far for someone else who could have done it. In truth, any one of the characters might be capable of killing, given the right circumstances and motivation. They all have their shadows. By the time I get to my final draft, I usually have a few characters that, with nudges into poor choices and flawed rationalization, could become much darker individuals. That’s usually a key to how I end the story. Which character, which nudges, and which choices? Which fits this need best? What motivates the villain to do the awful deed and also causes him or her to get caught in the end? How will the reader be surprised and at the same time see that this person and the clues leading there were present all along? (Foreshadowing will have to wait for another post.)

My exploration of the shadows has made me think a lot about the choices we make in life, and how important each one is, especially when we stack one choice on top of another in the way that we sometimes come to think of as inevitable. We don’t have a choice in everything, certainly, but sometimes when we look back over our lives or a course of events, we can see the turnings we’ve made, and many of them were choices, that brought each of us to be who, where, and what we are today. When we’re accountable for those choices, I think we improve our ability to move forward and make better ones.

If there’s one positive effect fiction can have, perhaps it’s to get us to take a look at the cause and effect of choices. What are we capable of? What would we do in the same situation, and where might that take us or what might it make of us, and our world with us? The stories that get me to think in those terms are the stories that stay with me.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 1:13 pm PST, 09/20/07

August 14, 2007

Synopsis: curse or blessing?

I hate writing synopses.

As I understand it, most writers hate them. It’s difficult to pare down to a few pages the story that took you many hundred more to write in the way you think readers will best understand. It’s especially difficult for me while all the minute details and nuances are still very much alive in my mind. But agents want to see a synopsis first.

Some writers say a synopsis is easier to write before one writes the story, but I’ve always found that tricky, since my stories change as I write them. I outline the story that it turns out I didn’t want to write after all. The real story reveals itself as I go along.

But this synopsis may turn out to be a good thing, because it’s helped me see more that I want to cut. Maybe that’s what the agents really have up their sleeves, getting writers to analyze their stories from a different perspective. I’m heading back into editing mode. Good grief, this novel’s been through a lot of drafts. This will be the 9th, and it’s wearing me down. I’ll be glad to see the end of it.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 2:15 pm PST, 08/14/07

July 9, 2007

Gloria Steinem proposes a new film genre label

Gloria Steinem: In Defense of the ‘Chick Flick’:

“I propose, as the opposite of “chick flick,” films called “prick flicks.” Not only will it serve film critics well, but its variants will add to the literary lexicon.” (read article)

Maybe the term “prick” is too strong. It’s not the word I would’ve chosen, yet it answers the fact that a lot of women are put off by the tone and expression, if not the word, used when we hear the term “chick flick.”

Steinem’s editorial reminds me of something that occurred in a “Modern Fantasy” literature class I took, back in the seventies, when Mary Stewart’s first two Merlin and Arthur novels, The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, were recent bestsellers. One of the young men in the class was so taken with them, he asked what other books Mary Stewart had written. I told him she’d written mostly romantic suspense in the past. I had an entire collection of her books at home, older hardcover editions gleaned from thrift store shelves. I thought when he expressed an interest that here was another new fan. But when the young man heard the word “romantic,” he took on a look of utter distaste and lost interest.

Some female mystery novelists still publish today using their first and middle initials rather than their full first names, in order to stretch past that still-existent gender barrier in many male readers’ minds, a practice reminiscent of the Brontës publishing under masculine names. One would’ve hoped that by the time this century rolled around we’d have advanced further. I don’t have statistics on this, but I’ll hazard a guess that there are more women who read and write fiction containing a predominately masculine point of view than there are men who read or write fiction containing a predominately feminine point of view.

Yet I know women, myself included, who enjoy a good action film, of the type once considered a favorite of men. Why is it that women, both in their reading and writing, as well as in movie preferences, might more readily cross old gender barriers?

Mind you, many men do take an equal interest in less violent or less action-oriented movies and books, and I admire men who are open to genres and interests considered historically feminine. I also admire women who open up more to interests previously considered masculine. More women today are sports fans than ever before, and don’t restrict their interests, as I do, to figure skating. My lack of interest is mostly due to bad experiences in physical education classes — I was that awkward, non-athletic kid always picked last for the team. It has nothing to do with my admiration of any outstanding achievement, physical or otherwise, and I enjoy watching good sports-related movies.

What is it that continues to keep some men from enjoying what they term as “chick flicks?” Is it that they truly don’t enjoy more thoughtful, slower-moving, or less action-oriented stories, once they give them a chance? Or is there another reason? Is it adrenaline addiction? (Understandable, among men and women, in today’s world, though perhaps best not encouraged.) Is it fear of what their friends will think? I’m trying not to make assumptions here. I’d really like to know, especially as a female writer trying to sell my fiction.

We all have types of stories we don’t like, or even parts of movies we like that we could do without. I personally back away from anything about child abductions, gangster movies that are overly violent onscreen, comedies that resort to tasteless bathroom humor (bathrooms have doors for a reason), and horror with too much blood and gore added for shock value. As far as I’m concerned, vomit and excrement belong off-screen. There’s enough of them in real life, and they’re not entertaining. They’re certainly not the kind of realism I’m looking for in a story.

I can understand someone not liking romance, even though I usually enjoy it provided it’s not overly sappy. But no one’s personal preference for certain types of stories and not others explains why we need the term “chick flick,” and especially not why it so often seems to be used as a derogatory term. Do the men who don’t like “chick flicks” prefer movies with only men? Is that what it boils down to?

I’m reminded of a line from Frank Herbert’s Dune regarding taking the “waters of life.” It mentions the place in their minds the Bene Gesserit mother superiors (women) fear to go, a place they believe only the fabled Kwisatz Haderach (a man) can access. The Kwisatz Haderach, once he accesses that place, becomes a superior being destined to lead his people to freedom. I wonder about the allegory Herbert intended, if any. Is there a place like that inside the female psyche, where some of the toughest men fear to go? Is that what they fear about “chick flicks?” Will they gain power if they find a way to access that, or will they lose power, possibly even die, as many men did who attempted to become the Kwisatz Haderach? Or will they simply gain a broader understanding of life and the world around them? In that case, maybe it’s worth a shot.

Gloria Steinem makes an interesting observation about power, and about nouns and adjectives in labels:

“Just as there are “novelists” and then “women novelists,” there are “movies” and then “chick flicks.” Whoever is in power takes over the noun — and the norm — while the less powerful get an adjective. Thus, we read about “African American doctors” but not “European American doctors,” “Hispanic leaders” but not “Anglo leaders,” “gay soldiers” but not “heterosexual soldiers,” and so on.” (read article)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 1:35 pm PST, 07/09/07

July 5, 2007

Critiques II

I decided to answer your comments in a new post, since some of my responses are lengthy. You’ve given me a lot to think about and helped me reconsider my feelings about critiques. Even though I disagree with some points, as they relate to my writing at this time, you all shared wisdom that deserves attention. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 7:33 pm PST, 07/05/07

July 4, 2007

Critiques

Reenie got me thinking about critiques today, specifically peer critiques of fiction.

As a technical writer and editor, I used to give and take strong, pointed, and mind-numbingly detailed critiques. That made sense, because what my coworkers and I wrote sometimes involved life or death safety procedures, or processes in which expensive equipment could be damaged if something wasn’t done right. We had to be precise, and could not leave room for interpretation or confuse anyone. There was no gray area. So I steeled myself and went through the review process. I found I could keep my emotions completely out of it, because I knew what was at stake, and it wasn’t about me. I always learned something.

Fiction is different — except that part about always learning something. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 4:17 pm PST, 07/04/07

April 13, 2007

Paper to digital

Has it been more than a week already since I posted? I lost track of time during my panic of the past few days. The other night, after a glitch occurred when I ran my backup program, I thought I’d lost all my files for my current book in progress. Panic ensued, while I scrambled to find and undelete the files. I spent almost 24 hours straight on that, with little sleep, piecing together fragmented files, hoping I still had a complete book there. Finally I came across the directory on the backup computer where my backup program had stored a complete second archive of everything — perfectly intact and up to date, including every last minute of my work on the book.

All that panic because I was too dumb to know my backup program stored an archive of deleted files, and because I had allowed too much other garbage to backlog on my hard drive. (The glitch occurred when that particular hard drive filled up.)

I could sit here and ask why me, or rather ask why I do this to myself, but I’m too busy getting back to normal and on with work. Still, it seems that I go through this sort of panic on a regular basis. It happened two years ago when my old laptop gave out and I lost work that I hadn’t yet backed up. This time it resulted from the backup process itself.

Once I’m finished with this book and it’s off getting a look by some agents, I plan to spend a few weeks getting my life in better order, including both paper and digital files, to prevent future panic episodes.

But one thing I noticed during all of this was that I don’t tend to print out what I’ve written as often as I used to. In spite of what might’ve been lost, overall I consider that a good thing, a good sign that I’m making my personal transition from paper to a digital world.

I admit to some affection for the paper world. It’s what I grew up with, and where I found my love of books and the written word. There is still something sensual to me about the feeling of pen and paper or a book in my hands. I like the shape of the book, the weight of it, the toothy or smooth texture of paper, even the smell of ink, paper, and binding materials. I still recall with nostalgia the particular smell of the book I was handed in third or fourth grade when we studied the culture and geography of Japan. Ever since, I’ve looked for similar qualities each time I open a new book. All these things make letting go of the paper world a clingy process.

At the same time, I love trees. Because of that, I’ve always been troubled that my chosen form of expression — writing — has a history of felling so many trees. So when I went through my computer files and some paper files over the past few days, I was pleased to realize that I recently have less tendency to print as I write. I used to feel a need to print out what I’d written more frequently, to edit or proofread on paper rather than onscreen, or just to get a sense of what the printed story would look like.

Maybe it’s so many years of writing on a computer that’s changed this. Maybe it’s the laptop’s portability and reduced glare being easier on my eyes. Maybe it’s no longer having a job that requires me to stare at a screen all day and then do the same all my evenings and weekends for my fiction writing.

Maybe it’s blogging. The immediacy of blogging tends to encourage me to edit onscreen. My blog is even set up now so I can view what I write in two or three different fonts before I post it, which I think aids the onscreen editing and proofreading process.

Maybe it’s a combination of all those factors. It’s interesting to note that more publishing venues have opened up to electronic submissions just since the CRT monitor has begun to vanish. Hopefully the less glaring monitors that are replacing them will be much easier on all our eyes, and continue to save more trees.

I still write a good half of my personal journal pages by hand, and I still use handwriting to jump-start or unblock my writing process. This blog post is in fact a segue from my morning pages. But my journal pages don’t get reproduced, except by typing them into a digital format, and they’re unlikely ever to be published in book form. The paper is eventually recycled if they do become digital, so I’m not as concerned about my journal pages killing trees. At least that’s what I like to tell myself.

Now if we can get the ebook technology to the point where fewer paper books have to be printed, at least for popular fiction, then we’ll have made real progress in taking publishing from deforestation for profit to a more pure form of edification, expression, and entertainment. Of course there will always be uses for paper. I can’t think of a better way to keep certain legal documents or accounting records, right now, though that’s not a world I work or have much expertise in. There are also some types of books that just work better, for now, on paper. One that comes to mind is the coffee table variety, with color plates of artwork or photography. But the less trees cut down for paper and books, the better.

Even if what this Guardian Unlimited article says is true, that planting more trees in temperate latitudes won’t help assuage global warming, it also states that destroying more trees isn’t the answer, that the greater need, and indeed our motivation for attempting to slow global warming, is to preserve ecosystems, including but certainly not limited to our own.

Perhaps my panic over my files had some value. It got me not only to change what I file away on my computer and how I back it up, but also to take a hard look at how I use paper, to keep heading along the road I’ve started down, of conserving wherever it’s reasonable, and wherever I can.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 2:16 pm PST, 04/13/07

March 7, 2007

Words and weeds

Why is it that seeds I plant never sprout and grow the same way weeds do? They’ve sprung up since our last few rains, and the yard is now lush with their greenery. Yesterday I went out and murdered some weeds to keep the foxtails and other burrs from developing and spreading even more. I barely made a difference. I thought how my words sometimes grow the way weeds do, with wild abandon, and then have to be trimmed, uprooted, rearranged, or killed on the page, so the flowers can show through, get their piece of sunlight, and be seen by anyone but me. Sometimes both Mother Nature and I are too creative.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 11:53 am PST, 03/07/07

February 25, 2007

More poetry

Aside from the novel, I’ve been reading, writing, learning about, and pretty much immersing myself in poetry. I’ve posted some bits and pieces, mostly practice and works in progress, over at Spirit Blooms in the Poetry Sketchbook category. Feel free to drop by there if you’re curious. Though I’ve taken creative writing workshops in the past, I’ve never taken a poetry workshop, and I think I have a lot to learn before I go even that far. Right now I’m refreshing my memory with basics that I learned when I was young but are now a bit fuzzy.

Beverly Jackson has been an inspiration with her poetry posts, (not to mention her abstract paintings — wow!). She recently shared her experiences at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway – Cape May N.J. and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival on her blog. She also provided examples and book recommendations she got from poets there. Dig into her January archive to read the first of those posts, beginning here.

Right now I’m reading Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, which I mentioned in a previous post.

HW Longfellow Postage Stamp

My renewed interest in poetry arrives just in time for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s bicentennial, which the United States Postal Service is commemorating with a special stamp — the second to bear his likeness. Longfellow is one of only two writers to be immortalized on more than one US postage stamp. Herman Melville was the other, a distinction he earned, in my estimation, with The Encantadas alone — his sketchbook about the Galapagos Islands.

The stamp displays a portrait of Longfellow, as well as a depiction of Paul Revere’s famous ride. The Smithsonian Magazine’s online biography, Famous Once Again provides lots of interesting details about Longfellow’s life. I never knew, for instance, that he was proficient in so many languages — ten altogether, at one point in his life. He’s considered the “uncrowned poet laureate” of the 19th-century US, and February 27 will be his 200th birthday.

I’m out of touch with today’s curriculums, but when I was young, just hearing or reading the first line, “Listen my children and you shall hear,” could set the cadence of Paul Revere’s Ride beating in my mind. Do kids still learn Longfellow in school? I was older when I read Evangeline, but the first verse is just as deeply embedded in my mind. I’ve since gone back for a taste, drawn in by the same first lines:

THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it
Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman?
Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers –
Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands,
Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?
(read poem)

I had no idea what a Druid was when I first read that, but the poet drew me into that forest and I was hooked. I wanted to know everything about it. I wanted to know what happened to the Acadians who once lived there.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 6:23 pm PST, 02/25/07

February 17, 2007

Indie publishers ask for less and win

Less turns out to be a good thing at times in today’s corporatist economic and political scene, and especially in the publishing arena, where seven very big fish own almost everything, having devoured nearly every other fish in the water. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 1:25 pm PST, 02/17/07

January 16, 2007

Pages to Paragraphs: conquering inflated word count

My weakness as a writer is wordiness. I’m painfully aware of it, and it still plagues me after years of working to improve my fiction. This is a serious problem. No one in the business will consider a manuscript over a certain length, let alone publish it, from a first-time writer. My self-published efforts don’t count. I’m a new writer to them. Printing costs money, and the greater the page count, the greater that cost — aside from causing more deaths of innocent trees. A thick book is intimidating to readers. The authors of Gone With the Wind, Moby Dick, or The Grapes of Wrath might’ve gotten away with it, but not a modern-day unknown.

Experts say that, over time and with practice, one unconsciously learns to write to length. It didn’t happen to me. I’m either word-count learning disabled, or I haven’t done enough of the right kind of writing. I never wrote for a newspaper or for magazines. My technical writing was nuts and bolts, cut-and-dried stuff, with no opportunity to be wordy. I learned a lot about deadlines, organization, and proofreading doing that, but not about writing a creative project to length. Cutting to length after the fact is time consuming.

One solution I plan to employ in the future is to write more poetry. I love it, and I can’t think of a better training process to conquer my wordiness. Poetry requires sparseness, the selection of the best word to express a thought. I plan to write more short fiction and essays, too.

In the meantime, on this project, I outlined between drafts, to help ensure the story was staying on track. I’m also employing a method that my quasi-personal-editor (husband) came up with while we got Shadows Fall ready to self publish. We call it Pages to Paragraphs. It doesn’t prevent bulk, but it helps reduce my writing to something manageable after the fact. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 8:44 pm PST, 01/16/07


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