Sunday, March 25, 2012

My First Critique Partner Retreat

Robin, Ilima, Emily, Taryn and me at a restaurant in Emily's YA novel.
All the other lovely ladies in my critique group have posted about our retreat last Thursday-Sunday, so I thought I'd finally jump on the bandwagon.

It's funny...before the retreat we made a giant list of things we hoped to do together. These things included pedicures, a night out at the movies, yoga (by certified Robin), guitar singing 'n' playing by yours truly, hot tubbing, and a hike in the mountains. I think we were all a bit worried that maybe the friends we briefly met one year ago, and have since stayed in constant online contact with, weren't really like us. No one in their right mind would want to write most of the time, after all.

So, although we didn't get to cross off so many items on our giant to-do list, it was so refreshing to see that we are all bona fide writer geeks. We did, for good measure, watch one movie (Like Crazy) at Emily's house in not-so-sunny California, and I managed to pluck everyone's eyebrows, but other than that we wrote, wrote, wrote, all sitting in Emily's cozy family room. We did pause and chat from time to time (we are human!), and we shared excerpts from what we were working on.

Writing 'n' waiting for cinnamon rolls
The second night, Emily asked us if we wanted to watch another movie. We all looked up from our laptops and notebooks and shrugged, as if to say, "Movies? Who needs movies when the story I'm writing is so much cooler!" The next morning we woke up, staked out places at the kitchen table (as we waited for Emily's cinnamon rolls to finish baking), and again, delved deep into our story worlds.

It was AWESOME being with people who totally get this madness that is writing. As James Owen so perfectly put it at LTUE, "I had found my tribe."

Let me tell you some things about my awesome crit partners...

Taryn & Emily
EMILY, our lovely hostess, is Martha Stewart's doubleganger. She does everything crafty and homemaking. Her home is picture-worthy from every angle, and is stuffed with quaint hand soaps, handmade quilts, and fresh eggs from her own chickens (okay, her house isn't stuffed with eggs, but you get the point). Emily also bakes delicious food from scratch, and when she asked what I'd like for lunch, and I said peanut butter and jelly, a sad look crossed her face. Emily has a master's degree in literature, and she loves to dig up the themes and deeper meanings in our stories (and as you can imagine, her stories revel in them). AND Emily is super a dry way. I'm infamously gullible, and I often can't tell when Emily is pulling my leg. She said she'd have to make a sarcastic-face emoticon to help me with our future email correspondence.

Baby Joseph & Robin
ROBIN has been my friend for forever. We started our writing journey together over two years ago. Robin is  very smart and, like Emily, is talented in a bazillion areas. She's a rock climber, yoga instructor, piano teacher, mother of four, and a speed-reader (at least, according to my standards). She usually reads two to three books a week. Robin brought her sweet four-month-old baby, Joseph, to the retreat. He is super cute and LOVES to talk. (I'm sure his gooing and gaaing definitely mean something to him.) Robin has started writing her third book, which is amazing to me, considering I'm still polishing up my first. Robin, you are my hero! Can you move back to Utah and be my neighbor again. Pleeeeease?!!

ILIMA is my Utah CP buddy. She is yet another multi-talented wonder in our group (hmm...I'm starting to realize how uncool I am). Ilima homeschools her children, volunteers a ton of time to her church, sews, hosts a monthly book club, and is currently writing her fourth book (a dystopian we're all freaking out about because it ROCKS). Ilima is from Hawaii, and that place and culture are a strong influence in all her stories. I always appreciate Ilima's honesty...she has a special way of giving helpful criticism without the sting. My favorite Ilima moment of the retreat: when I was plucking her eyebrows, I said, "Wow, you're not even crying." She replied, "I'm crying on the inside. I feel like Bella when she is turning into a vampire."

TARYN is the youngest, but most brilliant and experienced writer in our group. At nineteen, she already has an agent and several finished books under her belt. It's no secret that we all live vicariously through her, and I'm not just talking about all-things-writing. Whenever Taryn is going through boy drama (good or bad), we want the nitty gritty. She's learning to wrap us around her finger and divulge the details SLOOOOWLY through several coy emails. It's torture! I didn't realize how laid back Taryn was until this retreat. But she's so speedy with writing! She drafted her agented novel in two weeks and finished revisions in three days. Insane. Taryn is also a competitive swimmer and has placed in nationals. When she wants something, she goes for it and gets it.

I miss you already, ladies, but am looking forward to seeing you again at WIFYR this year! XOXOXO

Monday, March 12, 2012

Casting My Characters

What writer doesn't dream of seeing her book turned into a movie? As an actress, I have an even greater tendency to get lost in these imaginings. My crit group and I also have fun emailing each other with our future movie casts. I've even gotten to the point that when I watch TV or movies anymore, my mind drifts and I wonder if that actor or actress would fit in my film (like even when I'm watching American Idol...see below). I think about directors too. My current favorite pick: Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, New World). I love him!

Here's my dream cast:

I've thought about Lily Collins, but my new favorite choice is Alexis Raich. I saw her on an episode of Fringe. She's a great actress and has that otherworldy beauty that fits the part.

Alex Pettyfer fits the bill. He's also got the same fabulous deep voice that my Lancelot has.

Anton Yelchin is an amazing actor and has a great look for the part, though he'd have to go blond. But then I saw Phillip Phillips from American Idol. He looks perfect! C'mon, Phillip, can you learn how to act and drop your southern accent? Pleeeeeease?

The coveted role of Queen of the Rowaness goes to Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey. Congratulations, Michelle! Future Academy Award coming your way.

Jim Caviezel would be fabulous in this role, but I must give it to Rufus Sewell, one of the best actors and one of the most underrated. (Did you see him in Zen? Reserve it on your Netflix now!) Rufus, I have complete faith you can pull off the part! This is also the role my husband (a brilliant actor) wants to play. Honey, I'll be sure to put in a good word for you. :-)

The Watcher
This tricky and subtle role goes to one of the most brilliant actresses, Abbie Cornish. She is in my FAVORITE movie, Bright Star.

Galahad and Gawain, I haven't forgotten about you...I just haven't figured you out yet. I can't just offer your roles to anybody! Everyone else in my cast, be prepared to wear colored contacts or dye your hair. Such is the actor's life. Oh, and Rachel Portman, heads up, you'll be composing the score. After the soundtracks for Emma, The Cider House Rules, and The Duchess, you can do no wrong in my book.

All right! Now I've just got to line up a producer, book the Isle of Wight for location filming, and write the screenplay. What was that? Get an agent? Publish my book first? *sighs* Way to shoot down my fantasy.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Confessions of an Overwriter

Is it a phone book? Is it a doorstop? No, it's my first draft!
When I finished the draft of my novel in December, it clocked it at about 140,000 words. Yipes! But it is a fantasy, there is necessary worldbuilding, and it is the first book in a trilogy. Still...140,000 words! I've been told all along my novel needs to be under 100k for YA, and as I typed those last few chapters I was cringing. "No, no, no...end NOW, novel!" But it wouldn't mind me. I finally gave in, realizing I had to get all the words out of me, then I'd come back, revise and chop, chop, chop.

But in my two months' distance from my novel, I started to worry. I mean, what could I possibly cut from my plot? I already kept my cast of characters fairly small. Cut I cut any more? I was confident, at least, that deleting 10k wouldn't be a big deal, but 40k? Ouch.

So as strange as it sounds, when I read my lengthy novel over four days--and really got a sense of the pacing as a whole--it made me CRAZY HAPPY to see I had plenty...PLENTY of raw material to work with for cutting!

Yes, folks, I am an overwriter. I've known this from the beginning, but now I see more clearly where I overwrite. These are the areas where I'm especially guilty:

  • Warming up:  There's always a big scene or a big moment I'm working up to. I always have a fear that I'll reach that moment too soon and it will feel contrived to the reader. I am almost always wrong and can cut at least half my words in the warm up/set up.
  • Interiority:  I LOVE interiority in novels. Stories without it don't compel me. But this is where I have the biggest problem with overwriting. I stuff so much inner thought into my prose that it bogs down my pacing. I can cut probably a third of all the interiority I write.
  • Beats:  The actress in me likes to act out my characters. I like to write them making facial expressions, twiddling things in their fingers, sighing, etc. That's all fine and good, but when I revise, I have to check my dialogue carefully and see if those words alone convey the emotion and thought of the character. When they do, I have to trust them and cut the beat. Too many beats also make the pace lag.

There are two kinds of writers: put-er-in-ers and taker-out-ers. You know what kind you are when it comes to revision. I am obviously a take-er-out-er. But, hey, half the battle is recognizing the problem, right? (The other half is doing something about it.) I'd certainly be in trouble if I submitted a bloated manuscript to an agent. That's why we writers get the beautiful opportunity of a second chance...and third, fourth...gazillionth. We can revise, thank goodness. (And don't worry, future readers, you won't have to read 140,000 words! By the time I'm done, this will be a tight and shiny story; I've already cut half of what I've written in the first three chapters, and the pacing rocks!)

The beauty of overwriting is that in getting nearly every single idea out of me and onto paper, it's easy to find the gems in the writing--the gems that wouldn't be there had I not overthought the subject to such an extent. So in revising, I go back, keep the gems and nix most of the rest.

For me, overwriting is just a part of the process. Maybe it's not a weakness; maybe it's a strength. Or maybe it's just the way I work. Things I do feel confident about with this first draft are my characters and my plot. Sure, they still need some tweaking, but at least those things aren't going to need a major rehaul. I'll be busy enough condensing my novel!

Here's how I've decided to tackle revisions:

I made note cards for every chapter in my book. On the front of the card, I wrote a very brief description of the action in the chapter (in a nutshell, what happens). I also listed the characters involved and the location.

On the back of the note card, I made two columns. The first column listed my three Os: Objective, Obstacle, and Outcome. My character has to want something, something has to get in her way, and there needs to be an outcome--usually NOT what she wants to keep the overall conflict going in the novel. (And, really, every character in the chapter needs three O's as well, so I have to keep those in the back of my mind--because there's no more room on my note card!).

In the second column on the back of the note card are key points of the chapter. These are usually bits of information the reader needs to learn during this time, like pieces of exposition, back story, important plot points, meeting new characters, etc. Once I have this completed note card, I have a focused picture of what this chapter needs to be. Anything beyond it is fluff and in serious danger of my revision battle ax!

When it comes to revisions, are you a put-er-in-er or a take-er-out-er? What kinds of things do you put in or take out? How do you tackle revisions?

Edit: I just read on Kristin Cashore's blog (author of Graceling) that her first draft of Bitterblue (soon-to-be released) was 216,000 words, 800 pages! The will-be published version (seven drafts later) is 550 pages. I feel so much better!