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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Inspiration Infusion

It's well after midnight as I write this. I should be tired. Instead, I'm wired.

Why?

Because I was blessed to attend a concert tonight and savor the sweet sounds one of the world's greatest violinists, Joshua Bell.

I'm hard pressed to choose adjectives that adequately describe the performance, but I'll do my best. Marvelous, magnificent, masterful. Superb, sensational, sublime.

And inspiring!

Several months ago, when I learned that Mr. Bell would be in concert at my daughter's university, I was elated. I hopped online to order my ticket. Thankfully, there were still a few available. I got a seat in the nosebleed section. Row G ~ for Grateful. Only one row was farther from the stage. Row H ~ for Higher Yet.

I arrived at the Performing Arts Center, sank into my plush seat, and prepared to enjoy myself. And I did!

Mr. Bell's talent is exemplary. He produced some of the sweetest sounds I've ever heard from his famous Stradivarius violin. He and pianist Jeremy Denk performed four sonatas from different composers: Bach, Saint-Saƫns, Schumann, and Ravel. The variety of the pieces showcased Mr. Bell's skill beautifully.

The encore performance brought tears to my eyes. Mr. Bell chose a piece I've heard many times. I have three of his DVDs, and when I heard the first strains, I was transported to another time and place. My story world.

The reason I found the concert so inspiring is that I fell in love with the rich, warm sound of the violin three years ago when I wrote one of my historical inspirational romances, which is currently known as Violets & Violins. My two main characters are violinists, and I listen to violin pieces as I write. While looking for works I wanted to use in my story, I discovered Joshua Bell, and he quickly became my favorite violinist.

Because I was so far from the stage tonight, I was unable to watch Mr. Bell's fingerings. Instead I got the big picture. He feels the music and flows with it in graceful, swaying moves, which are a joy to behold.

Mr. Bell's passion for and love of his music remind me of the connection we writers feel to our stories and the joy creating them brings us. I'm inspired to take Violets & Violins to a new level and infuse it with more emotion and heart so it moves readers as Mr. Bell's music moved me
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Mr. Bell generously offered to autograph programs and recordings after the performance and let his fans get a picture with him. He was caught offguard by the woman who volunteered to snap this shot for me, but I was able to capture his warm smile in the picture at the top of the post.

• • • • •

What inspires you as you craft your stories or pursue other creative endeavors?

Do you listen to music while writing? What kind?

Have you been blessed to meet a celebrity who's served as one of your sources of inspiration?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Revision: Jettison the Junk

Many historical accounts of wagon trains trekking across the U.S. include heart-wrenching tales of weary travelers tossing their treasures in order to lighten the load. They were forced to focus on the essentials, so pianos, trunks, and other heavy items littered the trail.

The first phase of my revision process has been deleting the dross. Scene by scene, I've scrutinized my story, determining which of them stay and which must be cut.
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The Downside

I'm not going to gloss over things and tell you the elimination of a major portion of my story has been easy, because it hasn't. Being a sentimental person easily moved to tears, I've shed a few as I realized how much material I must remove in order for the story to take off in a new direction.

Yesterday I identified eight chapters in a row that have to go. That's 24 scenes, 86 pages, 735 paragraphs, or 19,469 words that are on their way out.

I shudder to think how many hours of my life were invested in writing those doomed chapters. In addition to creating my first draft, I spent time planning, researching, revising, and editing.

Others invested their time in my story as well. My hubby helped me plot, and he and our daughter listened to me talk about my story as I worked to get it right. Gwynly, my critique partner, and my agent took time to read all 111,000 words and give feedback.

Months of my life and weeks of the lives of people dear to me were, to look at things from a glass-half-empty perspective, wasted.

And I've only assessed the first half of the story. There's another 20-40K words destined to hit the chopping block as I cut even more scenes from the remainder of the story.

My emotions ran the gamut from miserable to excited the past week as I grasped the enormity of the task ahead of me.

Excited?

Yes. And here's why . . .

The Upside

After having taken time to grieve the loss of the story I'd written, I began to envision the one ready to emerge and grew excited.

Rather than viewing my story as a glass half empty, I realized it's really a glass half full. I have a beginning that has proven itself on the contest circuit. The first quarter of the book is in such great shape it needs only minor tweaking and tightening. And at least a quarter of the rest will work with a few modifications.

So, I'm halfway there!

In addition to seeing the status of the project in a more positive light, I've also realized the half that has to go does not represent a waste of my time. I learned a great deal and honed my skills while writing those chapters.

Although a large portion of the content no longer works because of the major plot change I'm making at the one quarter mark, what I'm deleting is not junk, dross, or rubbish. Those scenes are as well written as the ones I'm keeping. Thanks to my OC tendencies, perfectionism, and past experience as an assistant editor, I produce work so clean from a technical standpoint it practically squeaks. (Amazing what eighteen editing passes will do. *grin*) There are lines of dialogue, interesting incidents, and some clever turns of phrase I can save and use in other places. The scenes I'm deleting aren't bad, just no longer needed.


The Other Side

I'm sure the early settlers of California were excited when they stood atop the mighty Sierras and saw the breathtaking beauty before them. Rather than bemoaning the arduous journey and sacrifices they'd made to get there, they set their eyes on the prize and forged ahead with renewed energy and excitement.

I crested a hill today. Standing at the top, I shifted my gaze and looked back at how far I've come. Yes, I have a considerable amount of work yet to do, but when I look ahead now, I see a gentle slope leading to a not-so-distant destination.

I have the first half of my story outlined on my plotting boards. Gwynly--my ever-supportive husband and plotting partner--and I have brainstormed the second half. I've run the whole thing past my critique partner, incorporated her excellent feedback, and will plot the final 18 chapters over the next few days.

Since I've taken time to plan each scene before beginning the rewrite, the actual writing will flow. I'll have fun, and, because of my preparation, I won't have to make much use of the delete key. After having cut 140K of this story during two revisions, knowing I'm on the right track this time is very important to me.

• • • • •

If you're a writer, have you ever faced deleting a major portion of your story?

How did you go about deciding what went and what stayed?

What did you learn through the process?


Writers and non-writers alike, are you a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full person?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Revision: Plotting Along

"Where do I begin?"

That thought ran through my head a number of times since I received the revision notes from my agent, Rachelle Gardner. The first week, I had no idea how to answer the question. I needed time to absorb the feedback and allow myself to come to grips with the huge task ahead of me.

Another week has passed, and I'm eager to dig into my story. Before I begin, though, I have to rip my story apart chapter by chapter, scene by scene, remove what doesn't work, add new material, and put everything back together again. Here are the steps I'm taking.

Step 1: Jettison the Junk

One fourth of my story works--and works well. The opening has received more recognition than I could ever have imagined.

However, the story fell apart at the first major turning point. Without realizing it, I sabotaged my great beginning by moving things along too quickly and turning down the tension. Not good!

Some of the scenes in the final three-quarters of the book are great and may work with minor tweaking, but many of them have to go.

In order to discover how many chapters and scenes can stay and which will go by the wayside, I literally took my story apart. I cut my hard copy into scenes and slapped stickies on them. A check mark on a scene means it stays, an X means it's history, and a question mark means I'm not sure yet.

Step 2: Assess the Mess

Once I determine how much of the story I can use, I expect to end up with about half of it needing to be written anew. Since I love the characters, enjoy writing a rough draft, and am eager to take the rest of my story from ho-hum to happening, I'm excited.

My task now is to figure out where the holes are. To do that, I took the advice my awesome critique partner, Anne Barton, has given me on several occasions and made a set of plotting boards. Because I'm a visual person, having the story laid out before me will show me many things, including where I need to add chapters and scenes to fill in the gaps.

Step 3: Plot the Lot

When I wrote my first stories, I did very little plotting. I had an idea where my story was going, but I didn't take time to draft an overall plan. Since I tend to be OC, this surprises me. In retrospect, I think writing the stories from my heart served a purpose. I learned to go with the flow, which, for a perfectionist like me, was a valuable lesson.

Now, however, I see the value in having a plan. In fact, I won't write another story without one. Frankly, it's too much work. This is my third revision of Violets & Violins, and it's going to be more challenging in many ways than the other two. I'm up for it, but in the future I intend to spare myself the trouble.

To make my plotting boards, I bought 22 x 28 inch white poster board with a faint grid pattern. I got packages of three sheets at Office Max. Using a yardstick and a fine point black Sharpie, I broke the board into 5-1/2 x 8 inch boxes with one-inch headers. (Vertical lines at 5-1/2, 11, and 16-1/2 inches. Horizontal lines at 1, 9, 10, 18, and 19 inches.) Because I like things even, I cut off the bottom inch so the boxes would be the same size.

I then added a header for each box. The first row begins with "Chapter 1 ~ Scene 1" and ends with "Chapter 1 ~ Scene 4." It's rare that I have more than four scenes per chapter, so this format should work well for me. I created 13 plotting boards, which will cover up to 39 chapters, the maximum number I've had.

Step 4: Glean the Scenes

Each scene of my book will fill one box on the plotting board. In the picture above, you'll see the first three chapters of my book laid out in mock-up form. Chapter one has three scenes, the others just two.

Next, I have fun with sticky notes. I use a couple of two-inch squares and one four-inch lined square per scene. Stickies work well because I can move them around easily as I shift scenes within the story.

The small sticky on the left is where I list the characters. The color identifies the POV character. Since I write romances, there are usually just two: the hero and heroine. A blue sticky is for the hero, and pink identifies scenes where the POV is the heroine's. If I have other POV characters, each would receive a different color. On the POV character's sticky I list other characters who appear in the scene.

The small sticky on the right tells me when and where the scene takes place.

The large sticky is for the what, why, and how of the scene. I use two colors. In my example, orange indicates scenes where I am pulling the hero and heroine apart. Purple is when I give the characters and the reader a respite--and some hope that things are going to work out. If I see too much purple, I know I need to ramp up the tension and increase the conflict.

What is happening? I give a brief overview of what takes place in the scene.

Why is this scene included? I list the reasons why this scene is important to the story. This step helps me justify every scene. I like to have at least two reasons for each scene.

What devices are used? I list the techniques I use in a scene, e.g. dialogue, internal monologue, action, narration.

Here's the first scene from my story as an example.


I'm busy filling my plotting boards at this point, using information from existing scenes as well as new ones Gwynly, my hubby and plotting partner extraordinaire, and I have brainstormed.

As I move through the plotting process, I'll be sharing what I'm learning.

• • • • •

If you're a writer, do you tend to be a pantser or a plotter?

What steps do you take before you begin writing a story?

Do you think a plotting board would help you?

If you're not a writer, how do you go about preparing for a major project?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Revision Notes

Many an author has blogged or tweeted about receiving Revision Notes. Often the initial reaction ranges from shock to mild surprise. Some even admit to discouragement or dismay.

I've often wondered what was included in Revision Notes that would bring about such a strong reaction. Sure, I had an idea, having read blog posts for over two years, but those accounts didn't satisfy my curiosity.

In recent weeks, I've been able to view two sets of Notes, one belonging to a brave novelist friend who shared hers with me, and the other the Notes my agent, Rachelle Gardner, sent me a week ago. Because some of you may be as curious as I was, I'm going to give you a glimpse of mine.

Before I share what was in my Notes, I want to make it clear that Rachelle called and spent an hour going over everything that was in them before I ever saw them in print. Had she not done so, I might have been devastated to read her comments and suggestions. However, Rachelle isn't known as one of the best agents out there for nothing. Her fellow agent Chip MacGregor says she's "nice," and she is. She took the time to share her thoughts with a wonderful balance of compassion and directness. I had to hear truth if my story is to improve, but she delivered it in a way that honored me and my story, and I'm extremely grateful for that.

And now, for the promised peek at my Revision Notes . . .

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Format


My Editorial Memo, which is what Rachelle called my Revision Notes, consists of four single-spaced pages. Rachelle worked for many years as an editor and edited for some big name authors such as Brandilyn Collins, Mary DeMuth, and Lisa Samson. The Memo I received is much like that my friend received from an editor at a major publishing house, both in appearance and content.

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Content


Rachelle broke the content into the following sections:
  • Opening - Rachelle began with almost a full page of compliments. She listed what she liked about the story, what she sees as its strengths, and what areas of craft she thinks I handled well. (To be honest, this was my favorite part of the Memo. *grin*)
  • Transition - After having noted the strengths in my story and my writing, Rachelle took two paragraphs to explain the motivation behind her upcoming suggestions. She also reassured me that she knows this is my story and has no intention of meddling with my Voice, honors me as a writer, and is open to discussing my concerns or areas in which I may disagree with her.
  • Concerns - Rachelle has two, each of which filled an entire page. While that may sound overwhelming, her explanation enabled me to understand what she meant and why the two weaknesses she spotted are concerns. She clearly stated each, gave sound reasons for them, and made suggestions as to how I can address them. (For the record, I agree with her and am in the process of plotting my fix.)
  • Characters - My two main characters, which I like to call the hero and heroine, each received two paragraphs of comments. Rachelle shared what she liked about them and enlightened me as to what she sees as shortcomings.
  • Pacing - Rachelle suggested I reread my story and note areas of repetition. She pointed out several chapters where the pacing is slow.
  • Length - I submitted a 111K story, so I wasn't surprised to hear it has to be tightened and cut to 100K.
  • Conclusion - Rachelle offered to assist me through the process.
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Intangibles

  • Expertise - It was easy to see that Rachelle knows her stuff. Her experience and grasp of the editing process are evident. Although it wasn't easy to hear that my story has some major weaknesses, I realize she's right and am grateful to her for pointing them out.
  • Personality - Rachelle's clients speak very highly of her. I see why. Receiving one's first Editorial Memo can be overwhelming. She herself used the term "shell-shocked" to describe the reaction many experience. My experience was far more positive than I had expected. Rachelle treats her clients, even newbie writers like me whose story isn't yet all I believed it to be, with respect and consideration. Not that she sugarcoats things. (For example, my letter includes such phrases as "The problem is that it's totally unbelievable . . ." and "None of this rings true." Taken out of context, those statements may sound harsh. I don't feel that way. She says what needs to be said, but she couches it very well.
  • Support - Throughout the letter, I picked up on the fact that Rachelle believes in my story, despite it's rather glaring weaknesses. (That description is mine, not hers, btw.) She assured me it can be fixed and gave me great suggestions on how to go about it. I also feel that she believes in my ability as a writer, which she conveyed in many ways throughout the Memo.
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I'll be exploring the various aspects of the letter in more depth as I go through the revision process and will share my thoughts in future blog posts.

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Questions for you

If you're a writer and have received Revision Notes or an Editorial Memo, what was your initial reaction? Did you agree of disagree with the agent or editor's suggestions?

If you're a writer who has yet to receive Notes or a Memo, were you surprised by what was in mine?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

My First Interview

My awesome critique partner, Anne Barton, asked to interview lil ol’ me. After all Anne’s done for me, I couldn’t turn her down. :)

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Anne is talented, creative, and clever. She came up with an interview format I’ve never seen before, one that was tonz of fun. If you drop by her blog, Anne Barton’s Writing Journal, you can see why I’m so impressed–and learn more about me and my writing journey.

If you leave a comment, you’ll have a shot at winning the Starbucks card she’s giving away.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Visions and Revisions

Surprise!

Yes. I radically changed the look of my blog.

Why?

Because I have a new perspective. God blessed me this week. He used two people to speak truth to me, and my eyes were opened. I'm filled with hope, joy, and a burgeoning sense of excitement.

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One of the people who helped me is my friend and life coach. Four years ago, when my daughter had started high school and no longer needed me in the ways she had before, Karin helped me explore my interests and identify my long-time dream of being a writer.

As some of you know, I was given a tremendous Christmas gift this past December: an offer of representation from Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary. I shared this exciting news with Karin, who rejoiced with me. This week I asked her to don her life coach hat once again and help me examine my priorities since I'm in a far different place than I was when we'd last worked together. One of my desires is to help other writers in whatever ways I can.

In the past I've been hesitant to share my struggles. To admit I wage a daily battle with self-doubt. To be real.

No more. Karin helped me see that exposing my vulnerabilities can be beneficial to me and to others.


When I interview my guests at Romance Writers on the Journey, I often ask them questions about discouragement and doubt. Their answers have inspired me. I've learned I'm not alone in my feelings of inadequacy. I've also seen how encouraging it can be to hear how my guests faced their challenges and what they learned as a result of them.

So, I'm going to shake off my self-constraints, be more honest about the ups and downs of my journey, and hope I can be a source of encouragement to others as so many have been to me.

~ ~ ~

The second person who spoke truth this week was my awesome agent. When Rachelle made her offer of representation, she told me my story needed work. She called this week to discuss the revisions.

I'd had six weeks to worry about what Rachelle's concerns were. And when it comes to worrying, sad to say, I'm an expert. My critique partner, Anne Barton, suggested I write down everything Rachelle might say, which I did. My Worst Case Scenario List included the need to work on characterization, believability, pacing, plot issues, and length–to name a few.

Rachelle called this past Monday, and we spent an hour going over her thoughts on my story. I learned that my List wasn't BIG enough. The story was in worse shape than I thought. In the course of our conversation, she showed me how I had started with a great conflict. However, I had inadvertently released the tension one fourth of the way into the story. She likened it to letting the air out of the balloon too soon.

The fix? Are you ready?

I have to rewrite the final three-quarters of the book. Actually, that's not exactly true. I have to write a new story, the one that goes with the new beginning I'd added.

What? Ditch 75,000 words and start over?

Yup! But not to worry. I'm fine with that. In fact, I'm honestly looking forward to it. Rachelle saw the major weaknesses in my story, which I had been unable to see, and conveyed them to me with a balance of compassion and directness I admire and appreciate. Because I want to produce the best story I possibly can, I'm more than willing to press "delete" and start over.

Those of you who remember that I spent a significant portion of last year rewriting this very story may wonder how I can face a massive rewrite and not be disheartened, dismayed, and depressed. I can do so because of my perspective. I have a new vision of what my story can become.

I spent five years working for a special education textbook publishing company some years ago, one of those as an assistant editor. When I began writing, I didn't entertain starry-eyed visions of selling my first book. I knew I had a great deal to learn and expected my path to publication to span several years.

Four years have passed since I began writing. Because I'm a teacher's wife, I will use an education analogy and liken this time to earning my bachelor's in creative writing. I've graduated and embarked on the next phase, that of working with my esteemed professor (aka my agent) and am now pursuing my Master's degree. My thesis project is my novel. Under the tutelage of my knowledgeable instructor, Dr. Gardner, I will learn how to take my writing to the next level.

I'm on a journey, one I knew would involve highs and lows. While some might view the news I received as a downer, I don't see it that way. I have a story Rachelle and I believe has potential to be something far greater than it is now; her knowledge, experience, and guidance; the support and assistance of my husband and critique partner, among many others; and a desire to put forth the effort required to produce a story worthy of submission.

In addition, I have a Savior who upholds me and Who has revealed to me repeatedly that I'm where He wants me to be. I look forward to seeing what He has in store and in sharing my progress (and my pitfalls) with you.

• • • • •

Have there been times in your life when someone spoke truth and gave you a new way of viewing a situation or circumstance? How did you respond? What did you learn from the experience?