Tag Archives: writing process

The Dear Diary Navel Gaze VS the Novels that Keep Me Up all Night

Writing imageA huge part of being a novelist is analysing everything I read, everything I see, everything I watch on television, on YouTube, at the cinema. I do this to make myself a better writer. I do this because I need to know what works, what doesn’t, and why. Of course, what works and what doesn’t is all filtered through my own grey matter and my own life experiences, so it may not be the same for another writer, and certainly not for another reader. I find myself thinking about this analytical writers’ life most often when something really, really works, or really, really doesn’t. That isn’t to say that what doesn’t work is something I hate. That’s pretty obvious. But more often, for me, I find myself analysing the things that I walk away from feeling pretty much unaffected. If I feel meh about something then I want to know why.

I should never walk away from a good story feeling meh. In fact that’s the litmus test for me. A horrible story offers its own petty pleasures, but meh is forgettable, and forgettable is not acceptable for a novelist or a reader. We all want repeat performances of what we love most and we’re all anxious to be led to the next level beyond intimated by that experience.

Being a romance writer, it’s a given that I want chemistry, that I want love, that I want sizzle and sass. But I could have
written those things in my diary when I was a teenager, and probably would have if I hadn’t been afraid someone would find it where I hid it under my mattress and share it with all the world. Heavens, I had so many deep dark secrets at the ripe old age of sixteen, and I wrote about them … ad nauseum, always with me and my feelings at the center. Me, me, me! In essence I could boil down most of my journals as being one long multi-volume navel gaze. Oh for me it was psyche_et_lamour_327x567endlessly fascinating to explore my inner workings, my inner feelings, my loves and losses and obsessive crushes, the fleeting glances, the anguished longing. But I’m pretty sure it would have been a real yawner for anyone else to read.

What I’ve discovered is that no matter how fascinating my own might be, someone else’ navel gaze is never as interesting to me. And there are plenty of romance novel navel gazes out there to be read. What I want, what I need is conflict and chaos. For romance in story to be more than a navel gaze there needs to be both. Two people dealing with conflict, two people thrown into a situation that demands something of them, that places them at risk or forces them to take a chance moves beyond the realm of the dear-diary-navel-gaze and into the realm of story.

The situation, the conflict, the action is the very best place to see how people respond to each other, the very best place
to watch them grow beyond themselves. It’s through conflict and action we learn who the characters in story really are. The Happy Ending is just that — an ending. Beyond that there may be endless navel gazing by readers, creators of fanfic, even we writers ourselves. But that’s a different animal. When I wrote my first novel, long after I’d written THE END, in my head, I was still creating new and different opportunities for my characters to gaze into each others’ eyes and to have hot sex. These were scenes that no one but me would ever know about. I still find myself doing that sometimes, and I hope that my readers will find themselves doing the same when they’ve finished one of my novels. I hope they’ll want to hang around with the characters long after THE END. But then that’s their navel gaze, their imaginations encountering my characters in ways that work for them. That means I’ve done my job in creating a story the reader doesn’t want to leave when it’s finished. In fiction, THAT’S the proper place for a navel gaze.

But the novels that keep me reading into the wee hours, the stories that I remember, that move me, the stories that I keep returning to in my head are the stories in which the hero and heroine are being acted upon by forces greater than themselves. In fact the very best stories are the stories that have a life of their own, a life which affects all that the characters do and who they become. It’s how the characters deal with conflict, and how that conflict brings them to their HEA that keeps me up all night racing toward the end even as I try to slow down to make it last.

I’m a tender critic, in all honesty. I do my best to find the good in whatever it is I read because my hat’s always off to Sleeping woman reading181340322466666994_IswNAb85_b
anyone who has had the discipline and the tenacity to see their story through to the end and get it out there to be read.
BUT I remember stories and respect stories that pull me in with an action greater and more important than two people being attracted to each other. Life is acted out in context of the people with whom we live in relationship. As writers, our characters may be actors upon a stage, but that stage can never be passive. That stage must also act upon our characters. If it doesn’t, then we’re probably really just writing in our diary or playing around inside our own heads. And that’s fine. Everyone needs a little navel-gazing. But navel-gazing is not story. While there’s a place for both, navel-gazing is not likely to keep me up all night.

Writing Compost

composter dalek 2-1234In spite of having to do the backstroke to get through the rain-saturated streets of our neighbourhood and, in spite of the sponge of clay that is our back garden, the season is fast approaching when I’ll be thinking seed trays and compost and getting my hands dirty. I might have mentioned once or twice that I’m an avid veg gardener. I might have even mentioned the sexy stories I’ve written which take place in veg gardens. The truth is that gardening is one of the topics I’m almost as enthusiastic about as I am writing.  That’s not terribly surprising since the two are so philosophically compatible.

My husband and I inherited our first composter from the people who owned our house before us. We were suspicious of it at first and more than a little intimidated by it, and with good reason. It looked like a Rubbermaid Dalek casting a long menacing shadow across our back lawn. (Germinate! Germinate!) We’d heard that if we put egg shells and fruit and veg peels, cardboard and tea and coffee grounds in the top that in a few months, we could open the little door at the bottom and the myriad resident worms and micro beasts would have magically transformed all that garbage into rich luscious soil. Then all we’d have to do was shovel that organic loveliness out into our garden.

At first we had our doubts. Then one day we took the plunge, slid open the door and there it was, all dark and rich and soft and warm, and smelling vaguely of citrus. We filled a couple of planters. We were planning to put in geraniums, but never got around to it. Several weeks later I noticed there were tomato plants coming up in the compost we had excavated. My mother used to call plants that came up where they weren’t planted volunteer and, sure enough, we had eight volunteer tomato plants, the result of seed not broken down in our strange compost-making dalek.

Forgetting all about the planned geraniums, we nurtured our eight seedlings along and, at the end of the summer, they yielded up their yummy fruit. The next year we actually dug a bed and planted corn and beans and squash.  After that there was no looking back. Our one lone composter has long since been joined by two others, and twice a year we open the doors at the bottom and marvel at what an army of invertebrates can make from our kitchen waste.

Harvest 25 AugIMG00569-20130825-1722Each time we shovel bucket after bucketful of rich, loamy soil from our composters and spread it in anticipation of the veg we’ll be planting in May, I think about how much writing is like composting. There are times when my efforts truly seem inspired. Those are the fabulously heady times all writers live for and hope for; when every word shines the moment we write it down.

I would love it if everything I wrote would come forth fully formed and beautiful like Venus on the Half Shell, but more often than not my words are more like used teabags on an egg shell. More often than not, what I write is kitchen rubbish, the remnants of experiences already spent, the detritus of half-formed ideas and fantasies that aren’t quite what I planned when they appeared so perfectly shaped in my imagination. Somehow they’ve turned to apple cores and coffee grounds by the time I manage to get them into words.

My husband takes his lunch to the office, and he brings home his fruit peels and apple cores because he knows what they’ll become. He even convinced the lady who works at the office canteen to save the coffee grounds for him because he knows what the worms will magic them into in a few months’ time. It’s true, what we dig out of our composters is just soil. Oh, but it’s so rich, so fertile, so completely loaded with potential. We can almost taste the wonderfully succulent corn and tomatoes and runner beans we’ll grow in that rich compost in a few months’ time

Writing is no different. On the written page, the coffee grounds and apple cores of my everyday existence, the remnants of half formed thoughts, the grandiose ideas that didn’t quite have the magic on paper that they did in my minds’ eye will become compost, no matter how much they may seem like rubbish. I know nothing can happen until I write those words down, no fermentation, no agitation, no digestion, no chemistry.

But once the ideas are words on the written page, the real process begins. I turn them and twist them and break them down and reform them until they become the rich luscious medium of story, until they are just the right consistency to grow organically what my imagination couldn’t quite birth into the world in one shining Eureka moment. It takes longer than Venus on the Half Writing imageShell, and it involves some hard work and some getting my hands dirty, and a whole lot of patience.  But the end result is succulent and full bodied, organic and living.  And my fingerprints, my dirty mucky fingerprints are all over it. It’s intimately and deeply my own, seeded in the compost of what I put down in a hurry, raised up in the richness of what I then cultivate with sustained, deliberate, sometimes desperate, effort and a little inspiration. The result is achingly slow magic that lives and breathes in ways I could have never conceived in a less messy, less composty sort of way.