Collaging Character

We’re talking about collage this week in the McD class, and one of the hardest things to get across is that collage is not illustration. While it’s perfectly fine to google for specific things in your story, what you’re really looking for is the look and feel of the narrative, and nowhere is that more important than in the characters.

It’s tempting to just pick one face to represent your character and leave it at that, but I’ve found that it’s too limiting, especially if you’re using an actor in a particular role. At that point, you’re really just using somebody else’s character, so I’ve found it’s easier to visualize my people if I choose multiple faces to represent them. For example, here’s Tennyson from “Cold Hearts:” Continue reading

"Cold Hearts" 4: The Beta Readers

Note: This is really long because I combined what was going to be the fourth and fifth posts. I’d split them because it’s so long but I don’t think it makes sense since they’re talking about the same thing, and the last in the series should be tomorrow with the third draft. So LONG POST WARNING.

Somewhere around the twentieth rewrite, I have polished the scene until I can’t see it anymore. I’ve just spend too much damn time with it and I have no distance. That’s when I call in beta readers. For the purposes of this series, I gave my critique group, the Glindas, and my McDaniel students a second draft and asked for volunteers, which was awful of me, they should have gotten a later draft, but hey, education. You can see below how amazing they are, and what a huge, huge help good beta readers can be. As in “essential.”

Most used some variation of the Glinda/McDaniel scene critique form: Continue reading

Frenching AnneMarie or The Reason I Haven’t Blogged

I’m working on four books. Four freaking books at once.

No, it wasn’t a plan. Do I look insane?

I was supposed to be done with all of them and starting a fifth by now. I don’t know what happened. Well, yes I do.

There was Agnes. She was due August first. Trouble ensued. Now she’s not due until October first. I’m not even looking at her until Monday.

Then there was Mare. She was due April first. Trouble ensued. Then she was due August first. My editor gave birth and moved. She’d just as soon not see Mare right now until her head stops exploding so we have another week or so. We’re using it.

Then there’s Daisy. I wrote her ten years ago. She’s going to be re-issued. She needs spiffed up. Thinking that Agnes and Mare would be out the door by August 1, I promised that editor she’d be done by August 15. Not so much.

Then there’s Trudy. Trudy is done, but once a book’s in the pipeline, it returns in the form of copy edits which must be read and corrected. So I’m in Atlanta at RWA National, going out to dinner with the St. Martin’s people including a lovely marketing director, let’s call her AnneMarie, and I come down to meet her, full of goodwill and ready for a really expensive meal, dressed to kill and she hands me a padded envelope and says, “Here are your ‘Hot Toy’ copy edits.”

I said, “This is a joke, right?”

She said, “Unfortunately, no. I’m sorry.”

I said, “Did you bring the red pen?”

She said, “You don’t have a red pen with you?”

Later in the evening, during an entirely different conversation, she said, “You know, I’m not really one of those huggy, kissy people. People come up to me at conferences and want to hug and kiss, and I just don’t like it.”

I said, “I’m gonna french you over dessert.”

That evening turned out to be one of those delightful, delicious, bizarre meals. I love the people who were there, and the food was incredible, but as the wine was lavish, and as I am currently on medication that prevents me from drinking, it became more and more like a modern drama as they got happier and happier and I stayed stone cold sober.

At one point, my very adult and intelligent daughter frowned and said very clearly, “I don’t like beets.”

The entire table considered that, and then my mass market publisher nodded and said, “I DO like beets.”

I waited a moment, but they were all pondering that, so I said, “And right now, somebody is envying me because I’m having dinner with a bunch of elite New York publishing intellectuals.”

AnneMarie laughed so hard she choked, which she deserved.

Where was I? Right. Four books.

I’m just telling you this because somebody is going to say, “You know, she hasn’t blogged anywhere for awhile.” Yeah, I know, but trust me, I’m working. I’m diagramming structure. I’m e-mailing with collaborators, I’m double-checking things on the internet, I”m running spell checks, I’m rewriting like mad. Come late 2006, 2007, you’re not going to be able to spit without hitting a book with my name on it.

Of course, by then I’ll be curled up under my desk, sobbing and twitching, but by damn, I’ll have gotten these four books done.

In the meantime, if you see AnneMarie, give her a big kiss from me.

This just in from the infamous Needles, aka Kim C. of St. Martin’s Press:

“You should know that AMT handing you the page proofs at the conference was totally my fault. I figured why have them sit on your porch getting rained on and chewed on by wild birds when I could get her in trouble? Needles strikes again.”

I’d say, “If you see Needles, give her a big kiss for me,” but she’d enjoy it. Sigh. Never mind.

I just sent the Trudy galleys (not copy edit) to Needles. She was threatening me.
One down, three to go. (For those of you keeping track, it’s August 8th.)

Mare is out the door. (August 18th.)

Trudy and the Woman With A Lot On Her Mind

I’ve figured out why that Twelve Days of Trudy process didn’t work: I need steeping time.

I’ve tried to describe my process to people and I usually get the same reaction that I did from Bob the first time he heard me explain it: “That’s daft.” The best I can come up with is that I know who the heroine and hero are, and I sort of write in their world for awhile, doing snatches of dialogue, sometimes whole scenes, getting a feel for the place. And then when I’ve got about 50, 000 words (on a 100K book), I take the scenes and put them in order and see what I’ve got and try to figure out who the antagonist is and what the goal is, and I move them around and I think. I think about what it means and what they want and why I had to write it and it’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the box.

And while I’m doing that, I tell myself the story over and over and over: “This is a story about Trudy who . . .” and at some point it gels. It’s difficult to explain, but the story just starts to get thick. Gelling isn’t quite the word because there’s a point when it turns a deeper color, like a great tea does when it’s steeped long enough. Or like cookies do when they’ve baked long enough that they crunch when you bite into them, but they’re still moist and warm. And there’s a click aspect to it, too, when the pieces suddenly lock into place and it’s just Right. Yes, I know, I’m mixing metaphors, it’s an intangible. But I really know the story’s there when it starts to glow in my mind, the whole thing turns golden in my brain and all of a sudden, I’ve got a world that makes sense and people I care about.

The problem is getting to that point. And I can’t outline to it. I have to listen to the voices talking in my head and write a lot of stuff and then play with it in my brain to get to the click, the gel, the gold. This is why Bob screams, although he’s doing his best to adapt, bless his linear little heart.

But it’s not what you’d call an efficient process. And for somebody like Bob or Terry Brooks who outlines in detail first, it’s a nightmare (I know this because they’ve told me). So I really tried writing to an outline with Trudy—well, you saw me try—and it just didn’t work. I ended up with 14,000 pretty good words, but the story didn’t make sense to me. So I’ve spent the past month walking around thinking about those words, those people, trying to figure out exactly what it was that was important about them, about what they mean and how they fit together and why the Thing In My Brain made me write them.

And now for a brief autobiographical note: Everybody collects something and I collect Mexican folk art. Yes, I also collected Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper and Walking Ware while I was writing Fast Women, but that ended when the book ended. I also had a boatload of snow globes from Bet Me which all went to friends when I was done except for the vintage Mickey and Minnie globe that started it all. That’s different, that’s research, this folk art is just for me. But “Mexican Folk Art” is a pretty wide field, so I focus on three things: alebrijes (wooden animals), antique nichos of the Virgin of Aquila, and low fire terra cotta sculptures of women by Josefina Aguilar. My favorite Aguilars are in her vendor series, six-inch figurines of women with long skirts holding wares in their arms with something sitting on their heads. I’m bananas for these things, so I’ve made it a rule that I can only buy one when I’m so insane for it, that I can’t stop myself. (You can get these on eBay, usually for around $25.) To me, every one of them is a Woman With A Lot On Her Mind, and each one has a story, and I’m pretty sure I see a different aspect of myself in each one. Which brings us back to writing Trudy.

The Josefina Mindful Woman that I keep in my office is there because it nails my creative process. She has a peacock and a cat in her arms—my hero and heroine—and they’re colorful and darling and curled comfortably against her, completely in her control. And then there’s the thing on her head. It’s this insane, wild, screaming monster, tentacles flying in all directions, and it’s colorful and moving and completely disorganized and it’s pretty much what the story in my head feels like before Golden Time. Well, here, see for yourself:

One of the things I like best about this figure, and there’s a lot there to love, is the expression on the woman’s face. She has this screaming thing on her head, but she’s not worried. She knows that if she just lets it be up there, eventually it will calm down and pull itself together and become a thing of order and reason without losing any of its color and energy. She’s not happy but she’s patient, and she doesn’t have her foot on its neck, she’s letting it scream. That’s my process right there, cuddling my weird-ass heroine and hero while the story explodes in my brain as it tries to work itself out. And my goal is to be as patient as this Aguilar Mindful Women during that process, to stop beating myself up because my head is exploding.

But the good news is, the Hot Toy explosion is over and Trudy is crunchy and golden. I can tell you the story now. I have it sorted out. The structure makes sense. I love it.

Of course, my head is going to explode again with Agnes and Mare and Charlotte and Zelda (fingers crossed for Zelda) and now I’m thinking about Petal, but that’s okay because looking at this Mindful Woman figure, I’ve realized something else. There’s a real beauty in that hot, disorganized chaos, that’s where the energy comes from, that’s why the story is crunchy, because the story starts out as a monster I can’t control and makes me learn it and love it before I can finish writing it.

So I’m not inefficient at all. I’m a Woman With A Lot On My Mind.

And depending on what my goddess of an editor, St. Jenderlin, says next week, Trudy is done.

Random Sunday

I love Sundays which is strange because I’m self-employed so it’s not like my weekends are any different from my weekdays. But Sundays just feel so deliciously random.

The new girl groups “One Kiss Can Lead To Another” boxed set in the pink hatbox is the best boxed set ever. It has the great “I’d Much Rather Be With The Girls Than Be With You” by the equally great Donna Lynn. Nadine Goodnight would go bananas for the whole set. “Yes, I’d much rather be with the girls than with boys like you.”

I dyed my hair too dark for my age and it looks incongruous with my rapidly falling face, but I like it that way. It’s got a very Johnny Cash vibe to it. I’d rather be Roseanne, but I’ll take Johnny.

Victoria’s Secret’s XLs are now 18-20 instead of 12-14. Who says we’re not making progress.

Hi. I’m Jenny Crusie and I’m a Christmas Tree Addict. There are three in the kitchen alone.

I’m having an insane urge to paint furniture, possibly because Maxine Brown is singing “Oh, No, Not My Baby,” that great hymn to love and denial. “Well, you might have had a last minute fling, but I am sure it didn’t mean a thing . . .” Poor clueless Maxine, but an excellent song to paint furniture to.

I like shopping in airports. There’s nothing else to do with my time and depending on the airport you can get some very nice stuff.

Sudoku is the only kind of puzzle I can quit in the middle of without guilt. Because when one of those suckers goes wrong, there’s no saving it.

Earl-Jean’s version of “I’m Into Something Good” is better than the Beach Boys. Blasphemy, but true.

I have never wanted diamond rings, but when my mother gave me my grandmother’s art deco wedding set, I coveted them. I handed them on to my daughter, but I’d have married somebody to get those rings.

I wish J. Jill would discover bright happy colors. I like their stuff, but the colors always make me want to kill myself.

I watch NCIS because I get to look at Mark Harmon for an hour. They could just film him walking around for an hour and I’d still watch it. Pauley Perrette and the boat in the basement are icing on the cake, but Harmon is the cake.

Bob and I went to Arizona for dinner. We flew in Friday afternoon, spoke at a sales conference dinner, and then flew home Saturday. We have to stop meeting like that. Although since he got a suite and I didn’t, he’s going to be happy for days. Possibly worth the trip for that alone.

The Four Pennies are singing, “When The Boy’s Happy, The Girl’s Happy, Too.” Or at least The Girl’s Happy when she’s dragging around somebody muttering “I got a suite” instead of “We’re all doomed.”

This afternoon, I’m cleaning off the pool table. It’s in the studio so it’s just way too handy for putting stuff on, but I want to play pool.

I bought a blue beehive-shaped teapot from Sur la Table and it makes me happy whenever I look at it. The hot tea is just a bonus.

I probably shouldn’t have shown my therapist my tattoo. I don’t think she was ready for it.

I love the three-foot statue of Betty Boop in my kitchen more than I love my stove. If I had to give up one, it wouldn’t be Betty.

Bob and I are going to be hitting over forty cities next year for conferences and book tours. They’re going to fly us to major cities and then we’re going to drive to everything nearby which is SO much better than flying everywhere except that means Bob and I are trapped in a car together.

My iTunes just blipped over to Martina McBride’s “Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road.” I must have it set on random play accidentally. Either that or it’s reading my subconscious. No, really, I LOVE driving with Bob.

The last movie I saw in a theater was “About A Boy.” I have to get out more.

I don’t get how people live without seasons. Yes, I’m freezing my butt off now (never live in the north in a house that’s all windows) but no seasons? Inconceivable.

Jen’s reading Trudy over the weekend so I’m going to get her editing notes early this next week. Bob made me take out a bunch of the “bastards,” and Meg thinks there’s too much Christmas music, but I personally think Trudy rocks.

I also think the rest of today is a Go To Hell day. I’m going to paint furniture and watch Madagascar and March of the Penguins (it’s a penguin kind of day) and make this raspberry brownie mix I’ve had in the pantry for awhile. And then I’ll probably do Charlotte’s proposal because the Girls in the Basement are saying it’s time.

Shelly Fabares is singing “Johnny Angel.” I saw her debut that song on the Donna Reed Show which means I’m old, but it also means that it has to go into Charlotte’s book because since her last name is Reed and she’s a home ec teacher, her nickname is “Donna.” Serendipity. Or iTunes reading my mind again.

Gotta love Sundays and blue teapots and Girl Group music. And my subconscious. “Cause I’d much rather be with the Girls . . .”

No, there was no message here. There’ll be an organized entry along next week some time. Today, it’s just Random Sunday.

So I Went To New York . . .

Usually I craft these blog entries, rewrite them, try to hone them so they make sense (except for the Trudy entries) but I’m behind so I’m just going to zap this one out so the people who are chanting in the background—yes, there are people on the JCF list who are typing “Blog, blog, blog,” believe it or not—will shut up and go away. Although now that I’ve responded to them they’ll just keep doing it because I’ve reinforced them. One damn thing after another.

Why haven’t I blogged? Well, I’ve been BUSY. Busy trying to figure out Trudy (and I love her), busy trying to find things in my office, and now busy in New York, the greatest city in the world, trying to get business and social stuff done. I’m in the West Village in this great apartment in this wonderful brownstone, and I’m in love with it and with the Village. I came into town because I needed to meet with my agent and editor, and to have lunch with Mollie and Dale and Gail and their friend Susan at the Knickerbocker Grill where the waiter kissed me so I’m going back, and then Katherine Ramsland caught the train in from PA and we had a Moroccan girl’s-night-out dinner party at Dale’s. (Dale gave me the address and I said, “What apartment number?” and she said, “There’s a doorman. Do you think we live like ANIMALS?”) Dinner was wonderful except that Katherine would keep talking about the undead. I finally had to say loudly during dessert, “I’M EATING HERE” so she didn’t get blood all over my flourless chocolate cake. Then Dale told a great story about when she was in Africa that I cannot repeat here without her permission but it’s a beauty, involving a famous person and sex. Then Gail talked about her three marriages, which she compares to Gilligan’s Island: The professor, the millionaire, and the gynecologist. Yes, I missed the gynecologist episode, too. The important thing is, Gail didn’t.

And then Bob came into town so we could get our publicity photos taken. I hate getting my photo taken, so I’m awful to work with, but Bob is much, much worse. Of course Mollie was here to run everything including Bob, which I have to admit I enjoyed the hell out of. She showed up with four shopping bags of clothes, looked at what Bob was wearing, and said, “Strip.” He tried on the jeans she got him, came out of the bathroom in his old ones, and said, “They were too big.” She said, “Show me.” Not a woman to trifle with, my daughter. He changed back into them so she could see exactly how they didn’t fit so she could get him the right size which she did by the next morning. She said, “Did you bring a belt?” and he said, “I don’t wear a belt,” and she handed him a belt. Now he wears a belt. He made a brief fuss about a corduroy jacket, but it was futile. In the end, she had him looking really good, GQ good. Not that he wasn’t perfectly fine before, of course, I am not criticizing. (Note to anyone who was in Maui: If I ever get my hands on that damn volcano shirt, it’s history.)

And then the photo shoot started with the amazingly talented Jen Maler. (See Mollie and Jen made Bob try on everything she’d bought for him until they had a look they liked, which I enjoyed until they started on me and then I became Difficult, so I’m sure they wanted to smack me. And while I was refusing to wear the jewelry they’d brought, a very nice hair-and-make-up guy was straightening Bob’s hair. When I realized what was going on, I said, “Hold it.” I mean, that’s like looking at Chaplin and saying, “You know, we have to do something about those eyebrows.” Hundreds of women have swooned over that curly hair (while I cackled in the background); you do not get rid of it for a publicity shot. We’re trying to sell books here.

Of course, Mollie was in charge, so they straightened it anyway. During it all, Bob looked like my dog Bernie does when I’m giving him a bath. He hates it, he’s in hell, but he knows he’s trapped and he has to do it. I kept handing him beer all day and that helped, but he still looked at me like a kicked puppy. And the thing is, the pictures Jen took of him were fantastic, although she went nuts trying to get him to smile. Mollie said when she and Jen went through them, 90% of mine were unusable because I was talking or making faces or my head was out of the picture because I was lurching about, but almost all of Bob’s were good except that he had the exact same expression. Best line of the day: Jen to Bob: “You have the range of expression of Kevin Costner.”

But now everybody’s gone and we’re both exhausted and in bed although not together (see earlier blog entry: Things I’m Not). Bob’s in the living room on the sofa bed with the sliding doors to the dining room shut watching Firefly on his computer, and I’m in the bedroom with my sliding doors to the dining room shut answering my e-mail and typing this blog entry. Every now and then somebody e-mails me something that Bob needs copied on, and I e-mail it to him, and I can hear this little echo-y voice from the living room saying, “You’ve got mail!” Then I laugh. This is interspersed with Bob’s trips to the kitchen for more beer—he’s still recovering from the photo shoot—during which he says through the door between the kitchen and the bedroom, “You’re pathetic.”

Sometimes I think, maybe I shouldn’t write this stuff in the blog. If I kept my mouth shut, people would think I have an exciting, glamorous life. But then those other people start with the “Blog, blog, blog,” and I tell the truth. So like I said, this really isn’t a well-written entry, and I apologize for that. But by God, it’s a blog entry.

Now stop chanting and go away.

(Note: I wrote this last week and then couldn’t find my password to post it to Blogger. So to update: Bob likes his hair straight and wants to know how to keep it like that. Everybody went nuts for the pictures and SMP picked out one they love for the book jacket: I’m giddy with exhaustion and Bob’s smiling and looking relaxed with his chin on the table because it’s five o’clock and he’s been drinking since 10AM. We both got great solo head shots (for me, this is a miracle and I give Jen and Mollie all the credit) but the ones that are the most interesting are the ones nobody will see because we can’t use them because we’re making faces.

Like this:

Or this:

Or this:

But if you ever need a head shot done, call Jen Maler. She’s a genius with the patience of a saint who also gave me permission to post these on the blog for your amusement. Also, she’s good with picking out hairstyles; just look at Bob.)

Trudy: The Collage

So I made a collage for the Trudy novella, which I am stubbornly calling “Hot Toy” even though I’m pretty sure my editor is going to change it, and which is going to be in an anthology called Santa Baby, out in 2006. I did it this week because I’m heading for the Surrey Writer’s Festival this weekend where I’m giving a talk on collage as brainstorming for fiction, and I needed pictures to illustrate it. As craft topics go, this is the one that makes Bob twitch, so I’m not even going to discuss the huge box of stuff I have for the Agnes collage.

(Agnes and Shane are the hero and heroine of our next book. Agnes writes about food. Shane kills people for a living. Bob does the outline and blocks all the scenes out on a spreadsheet. I do the collage which he doesn’t want to see. Then we both write the book. Well, it works.)

In the past, when I’d start thinking about a book, I’d tear out pictures and stick them around my computer to remind me of the world I was creating. Then some friends—Jo Beverly, Barbara Samuel, Anne Stuart, Susan Wiggs—started talking about collage and I thought, “You know, I used to love collage. I should do that.”

And then I lost my grip.

Long ago, I was an art teacher. That doesn’t leave you. And collage was always my favorite medium. So twenty years later, I got a piece of foam core board and start gluing things on for a book I was writing called You Again, and then I thought that since the book takes place in an old house, I should really put a roof and some walls on it, and then there was a stone terrace and, well, one thing led to another and I sort of built the house and then went nuts filling it with stuff and it was a huge help on the book (especially now that I’m going back to it after a hiatus of a year) and I will never again do another book without a collage.

I did a small collage for Bet Me (if you want to see it, go to the Bet Me page on the website) and a big one for Don’t Look Down, and then this week, as part of the collage presentation and also as part of writing the novella, I did the Trudy collage. As usual, it got out of hand.

I started with a really beat-up, splintery shadow box that I’d found in the mark down bin at Hobby Lobby. It was full of pseudo-Italian stuff, wine bottles and bread and yellowed posters and a corkscrew that was a real bitch to get out of the box because they’d screwed it in. I ripped out all that stuff and put it in the Agnes box because the Agnes book is about the Cincinnati mob. Yes, Bob and I know there never was a Cincinnati mob. That’s why they call it fiction, folks.

And then I had an empty, even more splintered shadow box. I liked that because the first image I had of Trudy was walking through this very old, dark toy store that had splintery wood shelves. I decided the box part would have the plot imagery—antagonists, goals, plot points, setting, motif and symbol, theme—and the frame would be Trudy. It worked really well until, as I said, I lost my grip.

There are two parts to brainstorming with collage. One part is gathering stuff, and that goes on for a long time. I’ve got boxes for four different books and another novella started, so whenever I see things that look like those books, I throw them in the box. This is easier than ever since the scrapbooking craze hit. You wouldn’t believe the great stuff you can find in craft stores now. And then there are magazines and catalogs, and of course, the Internet. And Goodwill. You know that big table full of miscellaneous little toys every thrift store has? Pure gold. I found a lot of stuff for Trudy, but I told myself I wouldn’t use all of it—it’s a small shadow box—but I’d collect all of it so I could pick and choose later.

The second part comes when it’s time to start the book. You lay the pieces out and construct the background and figure out what the structure is going to mean and start gluing stuff down. And as you glue things next to each other, they take on new meanings and give you more of the story, making visual connections. I can practically hear my synapses sparking when I glue the stuff in. So I started gluing things in for Trudy. and I couldn’t stop, and I put it all in and then got more, and now both the box and the frame are jam-packed full of stuff from the story, and it’s exactly right because this collage feels to me the way Christmas always feels, too dark, too loud, too crowded, too bright, too busy, and yet, you have to love it.

So when I get back from Surrey, all I have to do is play the four different versions of “Santa Baby” that I have on my iPod while looking at this collage, and I’ll know how to finish the novella. It’s all right there.

And because I did the twelve days of Trudy with you, I’m putting it all right here:

Bob will undoubtedly post something snarky here, but I’m telling you, this works.

Trudy 12: What Have We Learned From This, Dorothy?

And here it is, the Twelfth Day of Trudy. This has been a valuable experiment and I have learned many things.

1. I should plan to write about a thousand words a day. That I can do without any trouble. (I did 1500 tonight, which gives me about 13,500 words.)

2. Forget me writng to an outline. I really do need to just write what’s in my head and figure out where it goes later. All you linear people, go yell at somebody else. I tried it. I hated it. :p

3. But I do like writing what I hear in my head and then going back to the white board to see where it goes and what it does for the story. So I think working out turning points and listing scenes on the board in a kind of organic outline as I go is a good compromise.

4. The collage is crucial, and putting it together during the first push of the first draft is essential. (I actually found the pink kid’s nail file yesterday at Kroger’s. I couldn’t believe it, they actually do put nail files in kid’s toy manicure sets. So much for “no sharp objects in children’s toys.” Which is great because there’s a pink nail file from a kid’s manicure set in the story. Well, you have to be there to enjoy this as much as I do. Never mind.)

5. When things go really wrong outside the book, don’t even try to write, just deal. Tomorrow is another thousand words.

So I’m pretty pleased even if I didn’t get to 20,000. I’ll do Trudy updates as I get it finished, but this forced march gave me what I needed and I’m happy. And it’s looking as if there might be another novella on the horizon, so I may try this again with that one–her name’s Mariposa–if it pans out. Having to report here kept me honest, and that’s a good thing.

Although I realise this was probably not exactly riveting. Argh. Well, it’s good to set the bar low. Let’s lower those expectations, shall we? Thank you.