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

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.

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.

Trudy 10: Bob Was Right

Well, in a fit of exhaustion, I managed to delete tonight’s blog entry. I can’t believe it. I need a nap.

Basically what it said was:

Bob was right when he said I had to fix that plot point. I offered a compromise, he tweaked it and made it better (but NOT a tac nuke), and now I have a great ending because of it. So Bob is a hero.

Because of that, the first and fourth acts really pulled together and now make sense. The Mess in the Middle is still a mess, but I’m getting closer.

Trudy has a complete four act character arc that makes sense and will pull the whole novella together.

Nolan has a first and fourth act chartacter arc, and I’m sure there’ll be movement for him in Two and Three once I solve the Mess in the Middle.

There are two motifs for sure: Santa Baby sung by four different artists and the phrase “Maybe it fell off the sleigh.”

The settings are still a structural problem–toy store, street, cab, outside of warehouse, warehouse, outside of warehouse, home–but if I make the transitions tight, I might be able to get a kind of hero’s journey going there, or at least a Red Riding Hood thing, with Trudy trying to get her basket home past all the wolves.

And I’m generally feeling much more optimistic. Except that I just lost this whole blog entry which had much more detail. Definitely time for a nap. Or maybe some time on the treadclimber, that often jumpstarts my mental processes.

I can’t believe I lost an entire blog entry. I was using it for notes for the story, too, so it’s really bad. Must learn to hit “Save As Draft” when I wander off.

Oh, and I wrote nothing today. Not a word. So I have two days left to write 8,000 words.