The Squint Test

This is an edited version of a previous post that I thought was appropriate right now as I celebrate finishing my first draft of my 4th novel. I hope you enjoy it…again.

Our Christmas tree went up this weekend. YAY! We usually wait until the day after Thanksgiving, but with Turkey Day being a week later this year, we weren’t willing to sacrifice the extra time without it.

As I was making my zombie lurch from the bed to the coffee pot early Sunday morning, I paused and admired our behemoth twelve-foot centerpiece tree.  Even in the dark, unlit, it was a vision of holiday warmth that filled my heart with pride & joy.  Truly an impressive sight.  In the back of my mind I heard it whispering to me (it was 4:30 in the AM after all), begging me to flip the switch and let it become what it was created to be.  So before I did anything else I sent currents of electricity through the miles of intertwined wire and awakened the hundreds of slumbering crystals.  The tree came to life with an explosion of twinkling lights and reflective shimmers, all shapes and sizes, lifting the corners of my mouth along with my spirits.

When the coffee was brewed and the morning paper retrieved, I settled down at my desk to finish off the last couple chapters of my latest manuscript. Whenever I wasn't staring at the monitor or pounding on the keyboard, I'd find myself turned around staring at the tree, taking in its awesomeness.  Of course my affinity for analogies led me right where I needed to go.

Putting up a Christmas Tree (especially an artificial one) is not unlike writing a novel. First there's the frame, then adding on the branches and filling out the foliage needles, and finally layering in all of the various adornments that makes the tree truly yours.  But the most important part of the whole process is when you give your tree that all important squint test.  You know what I'm talking about, right? When you step back and narrow your eyes, allowing them to go out of focus, so you can see where the dead spots are.  This is a crucial step in tree decorating…and with writing as well. There are other things to consider as well. Is it top heavy…or bottom heavy…or balanced correctly? Does it project enough of a presence, without overpowering the room? Is there a spot or two that unduly draw the eye?      

The squint test is where a lot of tree decorators…and writers…turn to others for help. That’s because we’re just too close to the material to be able to see those glaring issues.  Experience gained from many years of practicing the craft can help us become better skilled at spotting those voids, but often-times distance is the next best club to pull out of your golf bag.

What about you? Do you perform a squint test on your tree/writing?

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

The Push

Crunch time!

When I was writing the first draft for my three previous books there came a point when I felt absolutely compelled to finish. I’m talking about an overwhelming, OCD equivalent compulsion to – as Larry the Cable Guy would say – “Git R’ Done!” It was almost as if I was pregnant and I began having contractions. My mind…and body…were telling me “This baby is ready to be born and I don’t care what else is happening…we’re going to do this!”

The current book I’m working on is no different. The big push actually started last week when I found myself waking up in the wee hours of the morning (3AM) and couldn’t go back to sleep because my mind was racing. You can guess about what. So I gave in and sat myself down in front of my laptop and got to work. Then four hours later I’d take a shower and go to my real work.  This has been going on for two weeks and I anticipate I’ll bring this baby home in another two. It’s not really surprising that this has become my pattern because the type of books I write tend to build towards a climatic end. As the tension builds in my book and the pace increases to match it…so do my writing habits.

There are a LOT of writers who are experiencing a different sort of PUSH this month, and those are the NaNoWriMo contestants. For the uninitiated, that stands for National Novel Writing Month and it takes place every November. As it states on the website, NaNoWriMo is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel. Many writers use NaNo as a way to springboard them out of complacency, others use it for the structure and accountability it provides, and some just enjoy the camaraderie of the shared experience. Whatever the reason, NaNo has become a writing world staple. Myself, I’ve never participated in NaNo. It’s not my cup of tea and my normal writing style isn’t that regimented.

That is unless I’m about to birth a book. :)

Connective Tissue

How about a biology lesson today?

Anyone heard of Connective Tissue? Connective Tissue maintains the form of the body along with its internal organs, providing cohesion and support. It is a scaffolding for other cells to rest and where nerve tissue and muscle tissue are embedded.  The entire body is supported from within by a skeleton composed of bone, a type of connective tissue able to resist stress due to its laminated structure and hardness. The individual bones of the skeleton are held firmly together by ligaments, and muscles are attached to bone by tendons, both of which are examples of dense connective tissue. At the joints, the bones are covered with cartilage, a connective tissue with a substance that gives it a consistency adapted to permitting smooth movements between surfaces.

Additionally, blood vessels and nerves travel through connective tissue. Some types of connective tissue play an important role in providing oxygen and nutrients from capillaries to cells, and carbon dioxide and waste substances from cells back into circulation. They also allow organs to resist stretching and tearing forces. Most significantly, our body’s immunological defenses are found within connective tissue.

Our organs…heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidneys, brain…might give us life, but without the connective tissue, what kind of life would it really be?

That’s all very interesting – you say – but what’s my point?

Those of you who follow my posts regularly know that I’m deep in the throes of a first draft. This is my 4th book (none published yet), and consequently many of the posts I’ve been uploading lately have revolved around my writing process…specifically the first draft kind. I’ve talked about my “Blow & Go” method of creating a first draft, and today I’m using a different analogy to delve a little bit deeper.

I purposely leave out a lot of connective tissue when I begin a new project. Not all of it of course, as the skeletal framework is representative of my outline, but a good portion won’t be layered in until the 2nd or 3rd drafts. That’s one reason anyone reading the first version of my work would be unimpressed…to put it kindly. Character arcs will seem choppy and uneven, mood setting devices completely absent, descriptive language almost non-existent, and the pacing will resemble the heart rate of an elderly two-pack-a-day man with arrhythmia.         

If I’m shooting for an 85,000 word novel, then my first draft will usually come in around 60K, and that’s so I leave enough room to surgical implant the connective tissue. This analogy makes it sound like I’m simply adding filler or padding, but in my opinion the connective tissue is what turns an average novel into a great one, or a great one into a spectacular one. The proper amount of added character traits and quirks bolsters an interesting personality into someone memorable. A couple words here and there, or a succinctly placed narrative, make the words flow from the page as opposed to being pulled from it.

Be careful though, too much connective tissue and you could end up with a dangling participle! :)  

Two Worlds

I don’t know what it’s like for the rest of you when writing on a new project, but for me it can be trying. During the height of my involvement, when I’m so wrapped up and agonizing over every single detail in an effort to spill my imagination onto the page and bring it to life, all the while making it as believable as possible, my mind tends to splinter. For that period of time I live in two worlds…the one my body exists in…and the one my mind gets sucked into.

I find myself constantly thinking about people who don’t really exist, but mean everything to me. I envision how they look, what they’re wearing that day, situations they might be forced to deal with, emotions tapped into by interactions with others…which surprisingly include people from my other world. Because I tend to use places and settings I’ve experienced first-hand, it takes no real effort for me to slide back and forth between my real-life world and my imaginary one. It’s not unusual for me to tell my wife that I feel like I’m forgetting something important or a task I was supposed to accomplish, only to remember that it wasn’t me…but one of my characters who was having a memory lapse.

I’m guessing this sort of behavior is normal for us writers, though I imagine it might be a tad easier for those who write Sci-Fi or Fantasy, given their two worlds are so dissimilar. That is unless the authors plot already involved two worlds (i.e. alternate reality), then they’d have three worlds to contend with. :)

It’s really during this stage of my writing that my other world is so dependent on me…and vice versa. The longer the break between writing sessions, the more I feel my other world begins to dwindle. Everything turns bleak…colors fade…shapes lose their definition…and the dialogue between characters loses its sense of spontaneity. I must plug in…like Neo jacking into the Matrix…if only for a small time to keep the world vibrant and alive. And when I’m in that world, I become a just a shadow in the other. Straddling both worlds’ leads to distraction and confusion, but living in one or the other is just as unsatisfactory.

But that’s our life as writers…right?  An inhabitant of two worlds, and where the question of which one is more real, is not always a simple answer.
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