Growth Pain – Even Writers Get Them

The first pang of growth pain that I felt as a writer was with The Runaway Courtesan. For almost four years now, I worked on TRC, and while I revised the story several times, the original structure of the story remained. The very story I wrote at eighteen was the very story I was fixing by the age of twenty-one. It was only a year later that I realized that this was a problem. It’s like a twelve year old trying to squeeze her feet into the shoe that she wore at the age of three. Just as the passing of time made her feet grow, time has made me grow psychologically and intellectually—especially after entering into university.

Somehow I didn’t realize this – trying to squeeze feet into an infant’s shoe – was what I was doing. But it was. I would read over TRC, feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction, but no matter how much I tweaked the story, I would still remain dissatisfied. And yet I remained wilfully blind to the answer of what I had to do with the manuscript.

I love the story; don’t get me wrong—I’ll still cry as I read Amanda and Lucas’ story. And though the second half of the story needs to be worked on I’m happy with it, and it’s most likely because I wrote it when I was older. Others noticed this too. They say the story blooms in part two. But in the first half, there was something about the character’s personalities, their thought process, their belief system….that was somehow immature.

Our Writing Group

It didn’t dawn me until my editor Kerrie told me that a rough draft is a rough draft. A rough draft is getting to know your characters. From there you write from scratch. I’m sure it differs from other writers, especially those who have written several books before and are now able to write a decent first draft. But what Kerrie told me was something I needed to be told. For four years I was clinging onto the words written by an eighteen year old. There were so many memories attached to my original draft that I ignored the obvious: Rewrite. The past agent interested in my work asked me to rewrite. The rewriting I thought I was doing was actually tweaking.

The second pang of growth pain hurt much more than TRC. With TRC I was more excited than agonized by the thought of rewriting. The acknowledgement that I needed to rewrite the first half of the story from scratch was liberating. But this second growth pain occurred recently as I was trying to get back into working on book 2: Fall of the Sparrows.

After two years of studying English Literature, it’s difficult to look at writing the same way. For nine years I’ve loved writing romance. For nine years I’ve loved writing flowery prose. For nine years I’ve loved writing in chronological order. But after reading and falling in love with contemporary lit – I found myself writing the old way that I do while glancing longingly at the writing style that is minimal, “indifferent and impartial” (as Sapphire put it), and a story with a broken timeline, and a romance that doesn’t always work out, or is an un-romanticized romance, or where romance is minimal and the focus is on other issues in humanity.

Not that the said attributes are what constitutes modern literature per se. But, nevertheless, I’m coming to find the qualities of modern/post-modern literature more and more attractive. And this thought frightened the heck out of me for some odd reason. The thought of me departing from the romance genre. The thought of me trying to break away from a writing style that suited me as an eighteen year old. I guess the fear came in part from me questioning myself—if I could actually succeed in this different realm of writing.

But I’m all good now. I think I was doubting myself because I hadn’t been writing for so long because of school. Now that I started writing again, the question of how I’m to write  doesn’t matter so much anymore, but rather, my focus has returned to: I love writing so much that as long as I can write and share my story that’s all that really matters in the end.

But.

There is one thing that has not changed in the nine years of writing.

My love for writing about history.

I once told my mom that I would never stop writing stories set in England’s past. Maybe one day I’ll write about Canada’s past. Or some other country’s past. But the past… There’s just something about history that makes my heart beat madly against my chest. Not the history of events per se, but the history of people. A history of people making decisions. A history of people rising and falling. A history of people fighting, loving and dying. Maybe it’s the fascination for people who thought so differently to us—and yet, at the same time, knowing that human nature has remained pretty much the same. Or maybe it’s this feeling of detachment, history being forever lost to us, and yet, at the same time, engraved within us—and therefore allowing myself to tell a story less restricted within my awareness of the present cultural context. I don’t know. I’m not even sure if I’m making sense. I guess it all comes down to: The past is always so much more romantic.

Dear Readers, What has and has not changed for you as a writer?

Listening to:

Here are some of the tweets/FB updates to summarize why I was not updating my blog for the past while:

Stephen Dedalus from ‘A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST…” always seems like he’s high on drugs.

I need to sleep so I stop missing classes. So my hand automatically picks up PORTAITS OF A YOUNG ARTIST. Hmm…

ugh, just finished my european history paper. Just brutal. Let me say that I’m doneee with feminism

Another successful all nighter. Am now at Starbucks #amwriting in my journal before working on history paper # 2

I am so burnt out. Mention the name “James Joyce” and I’ll burst into tears!

Looking over history lecture notes. Can you find where my mind (half-asleep) began to think about creative writng?: “…who controls the land, had existed even before 1663, under their part, land divided up as small plots, until he realizes the he has captured beauty…”

Faulk it, I’m not reading William Faulkner ‘Sound and the Fury’.

Discovering so many stirring assertions while doing my readings: “…men were born free yet everywhere they are in chains.” -Rousseau

Dear Rebecca Black, please make a song about TUESDAY! While Friday is a day of partying, Tuesday is the day of liberation. Why? Because that’s when I finish my last exam. Woooooo

June, reporting live from the writing-front

1) Sorry for my absence in the blog sphere! A million pages of readings and a millions essays have taken up most of my time. But I did do some brainstorming for the revision of Fall of the Sparrows. I decided that I needed to develop Lenore’s side of the story more. As it is James (the hero) has stolen the spotlight and Lenore is just…there….for the sake of his character arc.

In this new version, I’m planning to add more focus to Lenore’s passion for the arts. Since she was a child, she worked as a servant for a well-reputed artist—an artist who was one of the few women accepted into the Royal Academy in London [I’m still not sure whether to make this woman a ficticious or real character]. It was through this kind woman that Lenore also discovered her love for painting. But after the death of her mistress, Lenore is recommended into the service of the Duke’s household. There, as a servant, she is meant to be an invisible entity to her superiors….but, to the shock of all, she gains the favour of the heir apparent with, at first, her surprising artistic skills, and later her kind heart.

As you can see, with both The Runaway Courtesan and this story, I’m a sucker for these great social divides between a hero and heroine. Of course, I will keep the servant-master relationship as realistic as possible. I’ll try not to turn this into a story like Pamela by Samuel Richardson (a classic story about a gentleman who falls in love with his maid, kidnaps her, tries to seduce her, and in the end, failing to do so, marries her). I borrowed a stack of books from the library, secondary and primary sources, and after some researching, I was completely captured by the dangerous and unfortunate world the servants lived in:

Young, single girls taken away from their family, their friends, and relations meant that just when they needed protection from sexual exploitation they were taken away from those best able to give it…miles away from their own village and family the young female lonely and isolated.

….the very nature of servants’ quarters contributed to their vulnerability – often they were mere spaces on landings or virtual cupboards without windows or, sometimes, even doors ….if given room, small attics. Quarters could never be locked. Housekeeper kept the keys: servants had to be accessible at all times, privacy was not for them

“…going to bed, the maid’s room and bed facing the stairs as I came up, she in bed and the candle burning, I could see her at different times uncovered…very tempting to a man, for she was a pretty young girl….” The only action he took was to give her a lecture on the danger of going to sleep with the candle still alight.

While I’m adding more chemistry between the hero and heroine, and while I’m adding a more romantic flare to this story, FOTS is still more of a family focused story. The hero’s side of the story, which is his broken relationship with his father, will have the dominant focus.

2) I was at the coffee shop from 2pm until 11pm. I told myself, when I first arrived, that I wouldn’t leave until I finished reading the book–Monkey Beach by Eden  Robinson–which I had to write my English paper on. I didn’t REALLY mean to stay until finishing, of course. Reading the remaining hundreds of pages at a coffee shop? In one sitting? Possible…but….I knew I wouldn’t be surprised if I just got up and left without finishing. I thought that I was, as usual, being over-ambitious. But ohmygosh the book turned out to be so, so, so,  SOOOO good after the first half that I couldn’t stop reading. After a cup of tea and then coffee and an oatmeal cookie later, I closed the book, and stared blankly ahead with my heart going a-flutter. It was the best book I read this school year. And it was THE BEST coming-of-age story I’ve read in my entire life. I don’t remember reading a book that made me laugh so much, smile so stupidly, or feel my heart ache so badly. Seriously,  a great book. 

Lisamarie Hill, the protagonist of Eden Robinson’s coming-of-age novel Monkey Beach, is a terror. She’ll run out of an evacuating car to get a better view of a tidal wave. She’ll drag you unconscious to a deserted island with nothing but cigarettes, marshmallows, and the need to get you talking. Whatever her age, she’ll ask awkward questions.

Set in the coastal Haisla village of Kitamaat near British Columbia’s dauntingly gorgeous Queen Charlotte Islands, Monkey Beach is the story of Lisa and her Haisla community, including uncles involved in First Nations warrior movements, industrious grandmothers with one foot in the grave and the other in various spirit worlds, and the long-armed specter of residential schools. The path to adulthood (and you risk a bloody nose if you call Lisa an adult) for Lisa and her friends is beset by the dangers of substance abuse and family violence but sprinkled with hopes as varied as Olympic gold or, sadly, a “really great truck.”

Me and Alex

3) It’s been my dream for years [well, ever since I saw Mr. Darcy fencing in the ’95 adaptation] to learn how to fence. Then, lo and behold!–Alex, from our writing group, told us about this free fencing class being offered at our university. We joined, and it was so awesome. After about 40 minutes of learning the basic moves, we went out into the hallway of Emmanuel College to practice fencing. It was so epic. I was all giddy, hearing the rapiers clashing, echoing against the stone walls. *swoon* We’ll be going every wednesday to learn. Some of us are also going for the sake of our writing–how great is it to actually experience what we write about, fencing duels and all! *nerdy grin*

Dear Readers,

Did you ever go out of your way to experience first-hand what you plan on writing about? Here’s my list of activities I have and have yet to experience.

1) Horse riding
2) Drinking tea with egg
3) Fencing

4) Riding in a carriage
5) Dressing in a 18th/19th century gown
6) Touring an English manor
7) Attend a Regency ball

4) The song I recently discovered and fell SO MUCH in love with. Brought tears to my eyes.

 

Writing Tip: Live, Learn, Record

Two days ago, I was struggling to write about Lenore Winstead (from  Fall of the Sparrows) recalling the death of her husband. I was at school working this scene, coming up with the most stereotypical emotions. I just wrote and wrote, not really feeling emotionally attached.

On that very day I came home and asked my younger sister where my younger brother was. She told me he’d been in bed all day long. That pushed the alarm button for me. I went into his room, it was pitch black. I sat by his side and rested my hand on his shoulder. He was feverish and trembling slightly…

As I don’t live with my knowledgeable parents I was left to think the worst—especially after listening to his small voice explaining to me how his throat was all swollen and it pained him to swallow. I was afraid to leave his side, worrying that his throat would swell to the point of being unable to call for my name!

(Before I go on, maybe I should explain that his fever was due to his having caught the chickenpox and his trembling was due to to the fact that my hand was resting on the back of his shoulder, feeling the resounding thump of his steadily beating heart. I took him to the doctor yesterday morning–all is well).

Now, to the writing bit. The dread and concern I experienced offered me a glimpse of what my heroine must have felt: To watch her husband dying while realizing that she had loved, but had not loved well. And then to wonder why it is only when a dear one is in their most vulnerable state that we realize we had not loved them enough.

And so I’m coming to learn more and more that through the variety of hardship experienced—whether it be minor or major—it turns out that hardship allows a writer to deeper understand what they write about: Life, love and death.

Hardship, for me, is the period in which my sensitivity is at its peak. I feel great things because my heart is open and vulnerable. And much of what I write during these times is where my best writings come from.

Hardship, for me, is an opportunity. An opportunity to learn and grow.

Deeper insight into life is like breathing life into a once one-dimensional character.

Have you ever had a similar experience where you suddenly found yourself inside the shoe of a character you were writing about?

 Writing Udate: I’m sweating blood with Fall of the Sparrows. Revising this story was going well until I reached the point in the story where I was just overwhelmed. Though the first draft is complete, I need to rewrite a lot. So, why was I overwhelmed?

1) The story is dark–and not just dark, PITCH BLACK.

2) The story later revolves around a controversial issue that leaves me low spirited.

3) I realized that this story had overstepped and escaped from the genre I’ve always been writing in: Romance. FOTS is more of a general fiction, as the story’s focus is mainly on the broken father/son relationship.

And so I find myself glancing longingly back at The Runaway Courtesan. For this story, I know what needs to be improved, I love the characters, I know what genre it belongs to, and importantly, this story isn’t as dark and heavy. But then I’m worried that if I start working on TRC I’ll lose touch with all the surge of inspiration for FOTS.

Don’t get me wrong. I love, love FOTS. But I’m wondering if this project isn’t a bit too ambitious for me. And I’m also wondering whether I’m just being a moron by shrinking away from the challenge presented to me by FOTS.  

So, I’m totally divided here and would love some advice.



Romance Novel Pet Peeve: Stereotypical Psychology

Sorry for not updating for so long. School has been overwhelming. But while I should have been working my way through Charles Dicken’s BLEAK HOUSE…which is like…the size of the bible, I read a romance novel instead, and it got me thinking…

I’ve always been interested in psychology, but I’m no expert in this field—Noelle is, as she teaches this subject. But, as a demanding romance reader, it sorta bugs me to see how some romance authors simplify the psyche of a hero or heroine so much. As if the mind wasn’t so complex. Heck, if that was the case, why are there psychiatrists? They exist to help us figure out why we are who we are. I doubt that we know for certain the root of all our emotional issues—though the hero and heroines in some romance novels do.

One of the most overused psychological techniques to add drama to a story:

Come Hither….actually… Go away (a.k.a, Commitment Phobia): This is a common “malady” but, if not dealt with carefully in a novel, I feel it turns “stereotypical”. Example:  John Doe, midway through the novel after growing intimate with the heroine, begins to shun her when she says the word “I love you” because he has commitment phobia. And here his psychology follows a formula: The cause of (A) is due to (B). (A) = commitment phobia. (B) = His mother left him when he was young so he knows that the heroine is going to leave him. Hence, he is reluctant to love her back, as he doesn’t want to be hurt again.

Now, I totally understand that this psyche is possible in real life. Men (and even women) do have commitment phobia because of their childhood or due to a bad, bad experience with another woman. While I would certainly appreciate a more complicated twist to this formula (like: The cause of (A) is due to (B) with a dash of (D) and a twist of (C) and (E)…), this formulaic psychology IS emotional read of IF a complex twist is added to give depth.

 I truly, truly do not believe that our minds work in such a simple way. Yes, the result of the hero’s commitment phobia is the consequence of his mother’s adultery, or his parents’ divorce, or what not, but it is also the result of the CHOICES he has made in life.  This kind of phobia is a gradual result. Yet this progressive phobia is not always addressed.

So I’ve come to my most major pet peeve about commitment phobic men in romance novels. We are given the reason for why the hero is as he is: because of an evil mother or girlfriend or wife, etc., and without ever solving the core issue that gave rise to his phobia, the story ends. The solution, according to the novel, was that he totally forgot, or got over his phobia when the heroine nearly got killed by the villain. (Well, this can be argued)

This solution does not flatter the hero (IMO). It’s unflattering for a hero to blame someone else for who he has become. This is what I call peevish. It’s unflattering for a hero to act as if he did not have a choice but to continue being influenced by his past, because: “There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them” (Denis Waitley).

This who entry boils down to: I appreciate complex characterization, and not a character I can figure out too easily.

One of the authors who deal very well with romance AND psychology is Susan Elizabeth Phillips (the romance actually revolves around how the hero is able to overcome the root of his commitment phobia—the root being his mother, or his father, or his wife) and Teresa Medeiros.

Have you picked up on any over-simplified-psychological-forumlas (oooh, long word)? Do you prefer the formulas or do you think it’s overdone?

Listening to:

Writing Update: So far I’ve revised four chapters of FALL OF THE SPARROWS (original title: Be Still, My Heart). I’m absolutely loving this story and where it’s going. I wasn’t too happy with it at first, but those who have been reading my work helped me straighten the story out with some great critiques. I want to get this revision done before I send it off for my CP to read.

The Importance of a Book’s Finale

I love, love the moment when, after months of typing out the first draft of a story, I am able to type out the words: The End. It’s like you’ve come to the finale of a long journey. And then you realize the journey is far from being over. It’s now time to revise.

For the sake of motivating myself to be diligent with the revising, I’m letting Cristina and my long-time editor Val read each chapter that I revise. (This forces me to try and get a chapter done every week). But as I revise for them, the dread in me grows heavier and heavier—because I know that with each chapter I send them, I’ll be nearing “the end” of my novel.  And the end was written in such a rush that it’s no ending at all! Unlike The Runaway Courtesan, which I started to write with the grand finale in mind, I began writing Be Still, My Heart with no idea as to how to end it. I still do not know. The ending I have now, I’m not pleased with.

And I need the perfect ending to feel good about a manuscript. I’m a strong advocate of the notion that the ending of a book breaks or makes a story. The book can have a fabulous, mind-blowing, beautiful first half, but if the latter half spirals down to a bad ending, the whole book is ruined for me. Or if the book has a not-too-great beginning, but in the latter half, builds up to a brilliant ending—I am left with that final impression.

It’s like going to a restaurant. You’re welcomed in by the hostess with such amiability that you think the place is the best restaurant in the world. And the food is pretty decent too. But then, while you’re finishing up your meal, a waitress arrives to tell you: You’ve been eating too long. Get going. Like, right now. Suddenly the food you’ve been chewing on tastes bitter and dry. You swallow it down with water, throw aside your napkin, and march right out after paying the bill. And this last impression—is the final impression. You’re determined to never return again.

It’s the same with books. The last impression is (usually) the final impression.

So, as you guys might have guessed, I am obsessed with endings. To show you an example of how obsessed I am: I noticed that LTWF blog was mentioning the Hunger Games series often. It’s a YA novel, which I’m not widely read in, but I was curious anyway. So when I was shopping in a grocery store one day and saw this book, I picked it up and read its ending. A few days later the contributor Biljana was telling me over coffee that I MUST read the Hunger Games series. I answered: “Oh, I read it already—well, the ending of it anyway.” Yes, I read the ending of the last book in the series, and Biljana went NUTS.

This is a habit. I’ll pick up random books and read the ending of it. Of course, the entire story must be read in order to rightfully judge the brilliance of the final chapter. But still, I’m curious. As a writer, I want to know what makes a good ending…GOOD or bad…without always spending my time to read every single novel I pick up.

***Warning: SPOILERS***

Here are some examples of brilliant endings that left me thinking of the story long after I had shut the book:

TRACKS, by Louise Erdrich, has a bitter-sweet ending. It begins with a male protagonist retelling to his daughter Lulu the story of her mother—to explain why Lulu should not despise her mother for having sent her away to a residential school. And it ends with the male protagonist finally seeing his daughter arrive in the vehicle sent by the government. She emerges, all grown up, with the ill-treatment of her past marked upon her. She appears all prim and proper. But then…

“halfway across, you could not contain yourself and sprang forth. Lulu. We gave against your rush like creaking oaks, held on, braced ourselves together in the fierce dry wind.”

BLINDNESS, by José Saramago, has an ending that left me in a reflective mood. It made me feel at the bottom of my stomach that the ending paragraph contained some great truth about humanity.

“She looked down at the street full of refuse, at the shouting, singing people. Then she lifted her head up to the sky and saw everything white, It is my turn, she thought. Fear made her quickly lower her eyes. The city was still there.”

LOLITA, by Vladimir Nabokov, has a masterful ending. And I call it masterful when an author is successfully able to leave some readers convinced that the pedophilic relationship within LOLITA was a tragic love story to be sympathized.

“I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immorality you and I may share, my Lolita.”

INSIDE, by Kenneth J. Harvey, has a heart-breaking finale. It is an ending that allows the readers to feel so much, because the author chooses to be economical with his words, not restricting the readers’ emotions within the boundaries of too many words.

Anyway, my heart shattered into tiny little pieces by the end of this book. It’s about a man unable to adjust to the life outside of prison, and so he returns “inside” the prison, his story ending with the lines:

“Three female faces turned to see. A memory of him. A good memory of him. Please.

Then he went back inside.”

Dear Readers,
What makes a good ending to you?

~

Listening obsessively to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the final act. The ending of this piece left me in tears.