Rusty Beginnings

An era gone-by

Taking a dive back into the 5th book of the Crater Lake series has me reeling with how rusty I become when away from this work for a few months. My current notes show no measure of finesse. Everything is overwrought and jagged. Trying to sort out all the threads of this upcoming novel is akin to plunging into a knitting basket of yarn after a group of rambunctious kittens have had a romp.

I’m thankful that I’m not starting from scratch. The file folder for the upcoming novel already holds several documents – detailed sketches of all my new characters, research notes on bullying programs and Afghanistan vets, list of storylines, a master table of characters and a table for this book. I have some notes on dogs that baffle me. This information must have been something I thought would be useful. I’ve created a rudimentary storyboard – sparse with post-it-notes, a few tentative lines and connections. Much work remains to be done on this valuable visual aid.

The story is a mess in my head. At this point, there is a tendency to overreact to this chaos. I have tagged one new character for possible elimination from book five. Her story may be of more use in book six. But I’ll keep her in the notes for now. We’ll see. No need to be too hasty.

Simply begin. It’s the only way I know to proceed with the task of creating a novel. My method is to write my way into the story. The more words I throw on the page, the more organized and clear the ultimate story becomes. I’ve been here before. When I begin to glimpse the contours of the whole thing through the mist, that will be the point when I know I am close to tipping from note taking to actual writing.

The promise of that moment keeps me going through the difficulty of these early days. It allows me to bear my stuttering first attempts to unravel this mess of knotted yarn before me. Damn those kittens!

Where do you begin on the journey of creating a novel? How do you manoeuvre the first faltering stages? And what if your ideas are not even at the knotted yarn stage? I came across a post on Writers Helping Writers the other day that listed some great ways to generate ideas – Ten Ways to Goose the Muse. Check it out!

I’ll leave you today with a photo of my latest garden statue acquisition. We purchased ‘Edgar’ at the Millerville Christmas Market on our recent trip to High River, Alberta. He’s a mischievous gargoyle who looks as though he just dropped in for a bit of fun. Edgar may or may not be up to no good. I suspect he may show up in my upcoming book as a new addition to Izzy’s garden. She might see him from her kitchen window and experience the same delight I feel every time I see him. Edgar was created by Castaway – an artist out of Okotoks. I am sorry to say, I gave the business card away to someone who admired Edgar and now I can’t find a link to their work. All I can say is that they create lovely stuff at a reasonable price and if you’re ever in Okotoks, Alberta looking for a statue, look them up!

Edgar has found his forever home

Are You a Fan of Serialized Fiction?

Game of Thrones

Be it via novel, movie or TV, I am a big fan of series. Words like book one or episode one make my heart beat faster. I love the way the series format allows character arcs to develop over time. I gain emotional satisfaction from the breadth and depth and incredible scope. And I don’t think I’m alone in these feelings. Consider the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. And few will fault the creators of the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars movies. Well, at least not in my hearing!

Star Wars

As a novelist writing a series with multiple view-points and a large and vibrant cast, I sometimes face censor for the dearth of characters (all with their own unique stories) for the reader to keep track of. But when I look out into the world of serialized storytelling across delivery mode, I see a great hunger for the detail rich, character heavy saga type of story that I’m writing. 

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To illustrate this view, a reader emailed me the other day to tell me how much she loved Disappearing in Plain Sight. These are her words:

Your character development is excellent and your storyline complex but completely believable! You are quite the writer in keeping the climax climbing a very long time but you sure tie things up in quiet a bow!

Many thanks! That is exactly what I am trying to do.

Conn Iggulden War of the Roses

I’ve just finished Conn Iggulden’s War of the Roses series. Though he may play loose with historical time lines and break the head-hopping point-of-view rule, his books are amazing. Just darn good storytelling. Kudos as well to Phillipa Gregory’s books written from the viewpoint of the female characters who lived during the War of Roses and the Tudor era. I’ve read and loved them all.

I’m not a slave to genre. I’m in for any book, movie or TV series that demonstrates good character development. As the characters gain awareness, so do I.

Jack Reacher

I’ve read all the Jack Reacher novels and am in awe of Child’s ability to keep me coming back for more. He doles out the details of Reacher’s life at just the right titrated levels. I felt the same about Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books. I’ve sat in rapt attention watching Game of Thrones as I did with Firefly or Stranger Things or CBC’s Heartland.

Heartland

Even a character like Groot in the Guardian of the Galaxy movies has room for growth and thus something important to teach.

Groot

How do you feel about serialized fiction? Are you up for investing hours in either reading or viewing instalment after instalment, following characters new and old through the breadth and depth of their life experience? Let me know and tell me about your favourites.

Catching Up

Marigold magic

In bygone days when money was tight, we used to talk about getting ahead. No sooner would we feel like extra cash was on hand than an unexpected expense would loom on the horizon. We came to believe that anticipating the moment we would get ahead was a harbinger of disaster. Lately, the idea of catching up begins to feel somewhat the same.

I’ve been home for almost three weeks from a month of travel right after the regular busy summer schedule of visitors and gardening. And the summer did seem busy! With an ever-expanding garden, bears in the fruit trees, replacing our wood-burning stove, contemplating the purchase of a new vehicle and planning to reroof a section of the cabin – we were hopping.

Moving in the new stove

New roof

September is not usually a month I would choose for travelling. But with the garden produce at a steady trickle rather than a tidal wave due to cool weather and rain early in the season, I risked it. Of course, the garden took off the minute I was out the door. Bruce was kept busy with freezing blackberries and green beans and eating ten plus tomatoes a day.

Since my return, canning has been priority number one. Jars of dilly beans, stewed tomatoes, salsa, green tomato chutney, blackberry jam and relish have made their way to the pantry. And we have been enjoying the harvest with multiple veggie selections at every meal – green beans, squash, carrots, potatoes, the last of the cucumbers and zucchini as well as fresh parsley and basil.

Green cherry tomato pickles                    Salsa

Blackberry jam

We did manage a wonderful Thanksgiving turkey dinner here with guests from around the lake. A squash custard, green beans, carrots, fresh salad greens dotted with cherry tomatoes, newly dug potatoes, parsley in the dressing – all from the garden – competed for attention on a turkey laden table. And we got in a trip down Island to have our generator serviced. It was a gorgeous day and we took a lovely walk down at the spit in Campbell River.

Campbell River spit

A very dry September and the early part of October has meant a slow start to our micro-hydro system but what a bonus for the last of the garden produce. To say nothing of our local foraging for chanterelle mushrooms. They are coming in so crisp and bright!

Chanterelle bounty

So, lately I am not feeling like Francis Guenette, author of the Crater Lake Series. I’ve hardly had a moment to consider writing! That brings me to something I’ve learned over the course of the last five years of writing, self-publishing, marketing and just plain living. The living part matters. I can’t bring all that I am to the writing if all that I am is a writer.

MosaiCanada 150

This morning I woke up with an idea for how book five will end. That’s progress. Soon all the garden will be laid to rest with late fall storms, all that can be consumed will have made its way through the door, the lights will be bright with excess power and I will be writing again. The ebb and flow of life continues. I won’t be caught up but I begin to think that catching up is not an ideal I need to pursue.

Squirrel on the deck

Issues of Plot

Chemanius murals - Guenette photo

I’ve been pondering issues of plot. I often describe my novels as character driven rather than plot driven. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to say my books have no plot.

I recently read a post on Writers Helping Writers that has me thinking – why the emphasis on character over plot? Guest poster Dario Ciriello quotes C.J. Cherryh, a multiple award-winning science fiction and fantasy author, defining plot. “… a webwork of tension-lines between characters and sets of characters. You pull one [line] and one yanks several characters. It’s not events [that drive plot]. It’s tensions.”

Okay – music to the ears of the writer of self-defined character driven novels! The tension between characters drives plot. A character driven novel with enough tension is by it’s very nature developing plot as it goes.

The Writer’s dictionary defines plot as the way an author structures a series of events into a story. Typically, an author works at organizing events in a way that will pique the reader’s interest. Usually events are not resolved until near the end of the story. “A good plot is one that has well-developed characters who are engaging in several conflicts.”

Literary devices website   describes the five main elements of a plot. Before I list their points and add my thoughts, remember that plots are often broken into sub-plots and maybe even sub-sub plots. The whole idea of the web works well for me.

1. The exposition or introduction – characters and settings are established. The conflict or main problem is put on the table. I usually think of getting all the players on the board.

2. Rising action – series of events build tension and increase conflict. Once all my characters are on the playing board, it is inevitable that they interact and create tensions.

3. Climax – main point of the plot. This is where all the tension has been leading. I often envision the climax as a set of waves. I might have three or so climaxes before the main one, each wave crashing on the shore of the story a bit harder than the last.

4. Falling action – the winding up of the story. With a character driven novel that creates tension between sets of characters, this is a challenging stage. All the loose ends need to tie up. Well, except for those I choose to leave open-ended.

5. Resolution – good or bad, up or down, happy or sad. Endings should be satisfying. That doesn’t necessarily mean the reader agrees with how everything went down. It’s more about knowing I did a good job of making the events believable. Given what I described and the characters I let the reader know – the story makes sense.

I’m going to keep considering the idea of plot. But for now, I’m going to keep doing what works for me – multiple characters, multiple points-of-view and character interactions driving untold tensions. Let me know what you think on the issue of plot.

Wildflowers in Chemanius - Guenette photo

What Sort of Writer are You?

Little hummer takes a break

Recurring theme – someone asked me a question the other day: What are you working on now? I just stared. With a definite uncomfortable squirm in my chair, I responded, “Nothing.”

In another era, I wanted to be one of those women who had specific days when they did household tasks. You know the type – geez, you might be the type! Bathrooms on Monday, floors on Tuesday, dusting on Wednesday. I was more the madly try to clean up everything on the same day because company was coming woman. I could be seen running around in a state, dusting with one hand and pushing a wet rag with my foot over the dirty floor. Hoping for the best – cleaning with a lick and prayer, so to speak.

When I’m confronted with the question of what I’m currently working on and the answer is – nothing – I get a similar feeling. I want to be one of those writers who writes consistently. Like Stephen Leacock out in his boathouse every single day from eight until noon without fail. But I’m not. I’m the write until I drop and then fall into the doldrums believing that I will never write again type.

At the beginning of my master’s program, I read a book about writing your thesis or dissertation in fifteen minutes a day. It sounded wise but it was something I knew in my heart I could never accomplish.

My grandma used to say – You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. There is truth to the belief that one thing can’t be another no matter the effort put into transformation. I can no more write on a consistent and specific daily schedule than I could clean that way or create a dissertation in fifteen-minute blocks. It simply isn’t me.

When I’m not feeling uncomfortable with this state of affairs, I celebrate it. This is the fallow time. This is the gathering time. This is the time when impressions, ideas and connections incubate and grow until they burst forth in writing fury.

But there is still a part of me that feels like the sow’s ear and not the silk purse. What do you think? How do you manage your writing? Is it a daily, disciplined endeavour or is it an all out writing fury? And let me know how your garden is growing? Ours is doing not too bad Smile 

How is your garden growing

Where do you get your ideas?

Glass half full - Guenette photo

Recently, I was asked this question – How do you come up with the ideas for your books? The person asking was sincere in a desire to understand the inner workings of a novelist’s process. My first thought was that ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re everywhere, free for the taking. As Amy Tan wrote, “It’s a luxury being a writer, because all you ever think about is life.”

Neil Gaimon talks of how every profession has its pitfalls. Doctors are asked for medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting their profession must be before the subject is quickly changed. Writers must bear the burden of being asked where we get our ideas from.

I scrambled to pull my thoughts together and make an adequate reply. I considered answering as Hemingway would. “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” From there all will flow. I rejected that idea. By quoting Hemingway I ran the risk of sounding like a literary snob and such an answer would have been unsatisfying to a sincere questioner.

Instead, I talked of how I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters. They are the ones who have all the ideas. I’m with Stephen King when he says that the best stories always end up being about the people, not the events. The only problem with this answer is that it begged the next question. Where do the characters come from?

Where indeed? Even after five forays into creating characters and stories that fill whole books, the process is as much a mystery to me as it might be to someone who has never done it. Fair to say, as Chuck Palahniuk notes, “My writing process isn’t a very organized thing.”

The more I think about how the books came to be, the more the indefinable nature of the work strikes me. It’s almost as if I have fallen victim to a strange reflective amnesia. Where on earth did those first characters in Disappearing in Plain Sight come from? I just don’t know. E.L Doctorow tells us, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” He might have been wise to add that when looking in the rear-view mirror, one can see nothing at all.

The writing process is a hard thing to discuss. Virginia Wolfe had it right when she reflected that, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of … life, every quality of … mind is written large in his [or her] words.”

All I know for sure is that all my life I’ve wondered about people. I’ve always been curious and I’ve always been prone to wild bouts of speculation. Questions of ‘what if’ have often driven my thoughts.

Maybe George Orwell has the answer. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one weren’t driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Orwell could have also noted that having to talk about such a process is worse than going through it!

A new bird in town - Guenette photo

Enjoying the Forest

Spruce Bay old growth forest, April 10, 2010 - bruce witzel photo

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. (Stephen King)

Forest trail - Guenette photo

Stephen King’s words caught my eye this morning. I’m gearing up for life after the completion of my latest novel and I feel plagued by all the emotions that go along with the ending of any major project. I brought a ragtag and often chaotic assortment of threads, ideas and character voices into being through writing, rewriting, editing, proofing and formatting. I produced a book that I feel confident to launch into the world. Finishing such an endeavour is cause for celebration and, at the same time, leaves me feeling at loose ends. It is indeed time to step back from scanning and identifying the trees to look at the forest.

View from the repeater tower (2)- Bruce Witzel photo

Time to enjoy the fruits of my labour, celebrate the accomplishments and move on! Sounds like a plan.

Crater Lake Series promo photo

How do you cope with the ending of a major project? Jubilation, conflicted emotions, uplifted, let down?