Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wherefore Art Thou, Heath and Genevieve?

One of the big steps forward I've made in my recent writing history, is to really get the thing they say about 'character is plot'. I've realised that if you really know your characters, then the story becomes clear, as do their choices and the twists and turns of the story. What I have found is that if you're even the littlest bit muddy about your characters and their motivations, the story spins out of control.

I think that's just what's happened to mine. I thought I knew Heath and Genevieve intimately, but do I really? Sometimes they behave in ways that don't make sense with the the character profile/emotional conflict I've given them.

At this point, I'm in the middle of the book - a very crucial time - and for it to be believable, I have to be 100% certain about my characters and their motivations. But am I? If not, how do I fix this? Probably, I need to think about them more. When I get busy with other stuff, the story recedes and the intensity fades. That's a problem.

My critique partner - who has a very sharp eye for these things - told me she didn't 'buy' Heath's character in the current chapter. Alarm bells. I think that means going back over the chapter, and for me, running it through my head like a movie and in the process, gaining some distance. What would I think if these characters behaved this way on the screen? It's always easy to spot problems when you're not so up close. And perhaps that's just where I go wrong. I write, become immersed in the scene and sometimes don't stop to ask the vital questions. Would he/she say this? How would this make her/him feel? What does her/his choice do to the story? Where can they go from here?

It's incredibly tricky, and something you can only learn through doing. I'm sure - at least I hope - that someday I'm going to have a lightbulb moment about it. In the meantime, I'll pick up the shovel and keep digging.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Back to work!

With my last two weekends spent away from home - one at Mt Buller and the other Phillip Island (returned home yesterday), I haven't had much time to catch up with the usual build-up of home/school/work stuff that clogs my life.

Today, with work looming and a novel that's pretty much stagnated for the last two weeks, I am going to attack the problem and GET ON WITH IT! The problem has as much to do with the summer wind-down as anything else, so I'm not going to worry too much about it. We all need time to be a bit bad.

So after dedicating a couple of hours to the various messes in my life, I will sit down and write. There is no better way than figuring my way out of a character crossroads than to dive right in and see what works best. Last night I made a kind of a start, waffled way too much, in my usual style, but even that was kind of useful. At least I read over the chapter and got a better sense of what needs to happen, how best to organise it, and where to go from here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


This post is another testament to how much spare time I have on my hands now that I've met my minor deadline and have yet to start working for 2008. I keep telling myself I'm just wasting time, indulging in more television viewing than I'd normally allow for, yet there's that little but incredibly significant thing called 'The Well'.

Generally speaking, everyone has one, and everyone needs to keep it filled, otherwise things start to spin out of control. And that could mean anything from being cranky and yelling at the kids to nervous breakdowns and divorce. I truly believe it's that important.

But for writers, 'The Well' is more than a way to keep sane, it's an essential work tool. One that cannot be dispensed with. Sure, I've done plenty of writing on an empty well, but it was writing that I just didn't feel in my gut. Or my heart.

Watching my latest favourite TV show, 'Entourage', is filling my well to the brim. It helps enormously that my current WIP is about a rock star, so I can quite legitimately justify the time it keeps me glued to the box. In the beginning, I viewed it as purely a 'details' tool. Since the closest I ever came to a rock star was when Ian Moss walked past me on his way to the men's during a break in Cold Chisel's gig at the Cross Keys Hotel in the 80's, I thought I needed a bit of help making it sound real on the page. What I needed were details of the lifestyle of that other breed - the rich and famous, and 'Entourage' is certainly good for that. But it's not just about setting and wardrobe, oh no. This show is rich in everything. The writing sings, and makes the viewing experience absolutely riveting.

I love everything about the show. Everything. Even the unbearable hip hop music, which provides a perfect soundtrack for the show. Nothing else would be as appropriate.

And the list doesn't end there. The characters are spectacular, complex, finely drawn. And though at first more than one of them appears unbearably self-centred and even loathsome, in a few short episodes, I've grown to love each and every one of them. Every one. Why? Because they're real, and flawed, and entertaining, and the actors playing these characters are putting in such fine performances that I feel like I'm in the same room with them. But the superlative writing has to get top billing here. Hopefully the current writers' strike in the US will soon be resolved; the writers receiving adequate remuneration for their invaluable work. 'Entourage' is one of the many TV programs that have been left hanging while the industrial dispute drags on.

A final question. Why isn't this amazing show on free-to-air TV? The language might have something to do with it. Anybody who finds bad language offensive wouldn't be able to watch 'Entourage' for longer than a few minutes. Yet, just like the hip-hop, the bad language used is well-placed, adding power to the pacy dialogue, accentuating the underlying stress in many of its scenes, and heightening tension. Indeed, some scenes are so tense, so fast paced, that every word, every gesture speaks volumes; so un-missable that I often find myself hitting the rewind button to make sure I got it all.

I've included a clip of one of the show's diamonds, Ari. I read somewhere that he's being hailed as the greatest TV character. Ever. Not sure about that, but he's definitely in the top running. Don't check this out if you're bothered by bad language.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A bit of fluff?

That's pretty much all people ever give her credit for, but was there more to Marilyn Monroe than we all think?

For Christmas, I was given a collection of old movies. One of these was 'Some Like It Hot', a film I hadn't seen for at least 20 years. During my lazy summer break, I indulged myself by watching it (and the others), and I've concluded that these movies are considered classics for a reason.

But I'm digressing from the subject of this post: Marilyn Monroe. In my 'post comp' lethargy, I've been indulging in one of my vices, YouTube. This morning, I typed in 'Madonna', and selected 'Material Girl'. I'd probably never seen the film clip, but quickly realised she'd ripped off Marilyn's 'Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend' routine from 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'. So I brought up the Monroe musical number and found that Madonna had replicated pretty much everything. Except that Marilyn did it better.

Until recently, I had always been of the opinion that Marilyn Monroe was the quintessential dippy blonde, but after watching her in 'Some Like It Hot', I've had to change my position. Today, watching her sing the famous 'Diamonds' number, I was further convinced that I'd misjudged her. Marilyn is enormously entertaining to watch, her comic timing is near flawless, and then there's that other hit-you-between-the-eyes quality. The very obvious, drop dead gorgeous sexpot quality. Kind of hard to miss, that one, and men find it particularly distracting.

When telling some friends about how funny I found 'Some Like It Hot', how ahead of its time it was, my husband proceeded to describe Sugar's (the character played by Marilyn) flesh-toned, strategically-sequinned dress to the friends' husbands in amazing detail. I'd challenge him to describe one of my dresses so meticulously. I had to agree with him, it was an arresting dress, and so suggestive I can hardly believe it got past the censors, back in those days. But that was the contradiction of Marilyn. In her most obvious lip-pouting, hip-swaying, boob-thrusting method of acting, she brought such light-hearted freshness to the screen, such unassuming sex-appeal and girlish charm, that she was, and still is, practically impossible to resist.

Her talent for comedy has long been recognised, but was she - as some insist - the product of clever editing? I don't think so. There have been a lot of mediocre performances from plenty of other gorgeous blondes in the history of film, but Marilyn brought something to the screen that set her aside from the rest. Was it the X factor? whatever that intangible quality might be. Was she a gifted performer with a passion for acting and an intrinsic understanding of the craft? Or was it all a fluke?

Was Marilyn really just a dumb blonde? Did stupidity bring her immunity to stage fright, or to the daunting concept of a worldwide audience? She certainly always looked at ease in front of the camera. Or could we credit a lack of self-awareness for her ability to appear unstudied and natural as only the best actors can?

Perhaps it was a combination of all those things, but I think Marilyn had a lot more talent than she's ever been given credit for. Her roles often included singing, and indeed she had a lovely voice, yet nobody ever thought of her as a singer.

It probably is the case that Marilyn did a lot of it by instinct, getting the performance right by sheer absence of inhibition. But in the end, who cares? Her performances are a delight, ranging from the light romantic comedies she's famous for, to darker, more complex roles such as her portrayal of the powerless, yet rebellious victim in 'Bus Stop'.

So here is the famous clip. I couldn't resist. With lines like, 'There may come a time when a hard-boiled old lawyer thinks you're awful nice, but get that ice or else no dice', and 'Men grow cold as girls grow old, and we all lose our charms in the end. But square-cut or pear-shaped, these rocks don't lose their shape. Diamonds are a girl's best friend,' this performance is a crack-up. And all that red and hot pink! It's a visual feast with Marilyn at her shining best.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Finally put the baby to bed

Today, after many, many hours 're-working' my previously completed novel, I went to the post office with four copies and sent it off for the next stage of the competition. As I walked away afterwards, I experienced a feeling I've felt before, usually after the completion of something big: a round of exams, the end of VCE (called HSC, when I did it), the end of a uni course. Okay, this effort wasn't quite so enormous as those, but it did take up the best part of the last three days. The feeling was: Now what do I do? Of course, there's no shortage of things to do, but for a moment, I was at a loss. Such was the extent to which this thing has had me in its grip.

The problem was that my manuscript, though 'technically' 51,000 words, only came up to 45,000 odd words on word count. The reason for this discrepancy is that I wrote my manuscript in 'Courier New' font (double spaced), which gives an average 250 word count. 'Times New Roman', single spaced, packs in a lot more. Therefore, my 205 page 'Courier New' manuscript translated to 66 pages in ARC (see previous post). And that was the problem. Minimum number of pages to go to the next stage in the contest was 75. And I only had 66!!!

After 're-jigging' the damn thing numerous times, I had to face the cold hard fact. I just didn't have enough words in the manuscript. Near blank pages don't help, either. When a chapter ends only a line into a new page, the usual convention is to begin the next chapter on a new page. But when doing the 'average' count in 'Courier New', every page counts, and that includes the blank ones.

Adding new scenes meant I had to completely change my initial structure of chapters. And then I had to choose which parts of the novels could do with some 'beefing up'. One of these was the only sex scene in the novel. I'm generally quite coy with these, since writing sex is difficult, and doing it badly is oh, so cringe-worthy. But since the manuscript was in ARC format, and I was looking over it in 'Full Screen Reading' view, it was quite easy to work out where I hadn't made the most of a pivotal moment, or where I'd rushed unwisely. The sex scene was one such place. At the time I wrote it, it seemed long enough, but since I find writing sex difficult, a few lines seemed like the entire bible and the gospels put together, (except that in the bible, they only bring up sex metaphorically, in terms of snakes and apples, or men 'knowing' women - oh that would be sooo much easier!)

And let's get another thing straight. This thing I'm calling a sex scene is no such thing. I should call it a love scene, because there's a lot of warm fuzzy stuff in it, a good set-up, and then I leave it up to the reader to work out which bits go where. Except that this time, it was as if I'd set the scene, lit the fire, so to speak, then slammed the door on the reader, leaving her outside in the snow.

So I put in a bit more. Went as far as the characters undressing and getting into bed. And reaching for a condom. Which was the furthest I'd ever gone with any of this, so that's where I called it quits. Once the condom comes out, I think we all know where it's going. Oh, I realise it could get really interesting at this point, but for now I'll leave it to the experts like Jennifer Crusie. When I think I've written a sex scene as well as she does, I won't have any qualms about putting it in.

But aside from THAT scene, I put in a few others, that, surprise, surpise... actually improved the novel. Too bad I've already sent it off to Harlequin Mills & Boon in London. I intended the new scenes to be nothing more than 'fillers', but it was only afterward, as I read them back, that I realised how vital they were to the story, and how much they added to character development. They focused on the finer minutiae of life, moments spent in the backyard having a glass of wine with the person you love while his child enjoys herself on her new swing set, or rugging up in your woollies and taking a carton of fish and chips onto the beach in winter. It was in scenes like these that my characters' personalities were revealed a bit more three-dimensionally than I had managed to do in the original manuscript. These scenes were the 'feel-good moments' that we so love watching in films. The moments when we truly get to know the protagonists and fall in love with them, when we begin to care and desperately want to know what happens next. And it's knowing the protagonists this well that makes us laugh at their antics, or shed a tear when things go wrong.

Through this painful and frantic process of having to come up with a fair chunk of new material in a short time, I learned a valuable lesson. One that may not help me much with this manuscript, but that will definitely kick my current WIP up a gear. And all the writing under pressure? Well that was valuable too. Good practice for jumping to the crack of an editor's whip.