24 May 2008

Facing Down the Fear

Note: This is completely unrelated to writing or being a writer, except that I'm choosing to write about it. :-)

When I was in high school, about 14-15 years old, I had two friends who died in separate car accidents. Shortly afterward, I somehow managed to convince my parents to let me go to a Halloween party with my best friend who I rarely got to hang out with because my parents really disliked him. (Bad influence and all that. You know how it goes.) He's a few months older than me and had just gotten his license. He was driving his dad's brand new car. I'm sure you can see where this is going..... We ended up getting into an accident. The car flipped over into a ditch. It was one of those accidents where you crawl out of the car with little more than some cuts, look back at the car, and think No way should I be alive right now, much less conscious and standing upright. But we all walked away with only minor injuries. Nevertheless, after the accident I found that I got nervous riding with people I'd always felt were safe drivers. My parents even. A little too fast, a little too close to the line, or that car next to us....

So a few months later, everyone around me is getting permits and licenses and cars. In Maryland, where I grew up, you have to take Driver's Ed, but they don't offer it in school. You have to pay upwards of $300 out of your pocket for the class. I decided I'd wait til I was 18, then just take the test and be done with it. Well as I and my peers were all turning 16, they changed the law so that all first-time drivers, regardless of age, had to take driver's ed. Not having the money was a convenient excuse for not getting my license. In reality, I didn't want it. Had absolutely zero desire for it. A 16-year-old kid who doesn't want to drive? Yes. That was me.

I managed through high school without a license. I got rides from friends or my parents. I wasn't really a social butterfly anyway, so it didn't much affect me. Then I went away to college in Western Pennsylvania. Didn't need a car there, either. As a student, I was able to ride the bus around town for free. The public transportation there was surprisingly good. I met my now-husband when I was a freshman in college, and he became my personal chauffeur. He never complained (too loudly, ha). When I graduated, we moved to Maryland again (Towson, to be exact). So if I wanted to drive, I'd have to take driver's ed. Again, the money and time were a convenient excuse not to. We lived within walking distance of where I worked, and most of my coworkers offered rides at night anyway. So that's the story of how I came to be 25 years old without a driver's license.

Now we're back in Pennsylvania, where you aren't required to take driver's ed. And I'm pretty much out of excuses. Last week I went for my learner's permit. The written test was easy peasy. Finished in less than five minutes and they handed me a piece of paper that says I can drive if I'm accompanied by another licensed driver 21 years of age or older. I thought the driving part would be easy, too. I already know the rules of the road. I know all the common sense things you need to know. Now it's all mechanics from here on out. How bad could it possibly be? I tried everything I could think of to psych myself up for learning to drive. My husband's taken me driving twice so far. To be honest.... not my cup of tea.

The fear is still there, even after all these years. The responsibility of wielding such a massive machine is overwhelming. It doesn't feel natural. It feels all wrong, like I'm not meant to do it. I feel like I can't possibly control the behemoth (okay, it's only a little Kia Spectra, but it feels huge when I'm behind the wheel) at 10mph (which has been my limit so far) much less 60mph on the highway. Maybe if I hadn't lost two friends in car accidents at such a crucial time.... Maybe if I hadn't been in an accident myself around that same time.... But I never really remember feeling any burning desire to drive even before all those things. Maybe it's just not for everyone.

You never think that you'll look back on your life when someone asks what one of the most difficult things you ever had to do was and say Learning to drive. But I think I will. When it's all over and done with, I think this will be one of the worst demons I have to face.

I'm not sure too many people really grasp the way I feel about this. Even my husband. I think he thought it was mostly excuses, or laziness, or something else. Until he took me driving in the parking lot for the first time. It was a mental health ordeal for me to even put the car in gear. It's hard. It shouldn't be hard. It's scary. It shouldn't be scary.

Facing down this fear isn't like conquering my fear of roller coasters (which I did with the help of my husband, because he makes me feel safe, which points only to a good outcome with him teaching me to drive). Logic helped me through that one. I looked up the specs for some of the roller coasters at Kennywood Park (near Pittsburgh) and found info on the speed of the coasters, the total length of time the rides lasted, the tallest drop, etc. I picked the ones I was willing to ride based on those logical numbers. 70 mph is the max speed? Well hell, I've been in cars going faster than that, why not a coaster? Right? That was my thinking. And with my supportive husband with me, I took the plunge. I've gotten much braver in my choice of coasters, and I love them now. Why can't driving be like that?

It isn't. Not for me. There are no happy statistics that can assuage my fears. No logical anything that can chase my nervousness away when I sit behind the wheel. Even with my husband sitting right next to me, it's intimidating. Maybe it's a huge flaw in my character - maybe I just run from responsibility in general. I suppose it's possible. But this is a different kind of responsibility. We're talking about life and death. Two years ago, a friend of my husband's was riding his bike and was hit and killed by a drunk driver. He left a wife and young son behind. Now I don't drink, so I'll never be a drunk driver. But I will be a driver. And drunk or not, a car is still a lethal weapon. I could kill someone. Or myself.

Even if I do everything exactly right, never speed, never drive recklessly, notice every environmental hazard that could potentially cause an accident, obey all laws and traffic signals.... I could do every damn thing within in my power, do it right, and have the utmost confidence in my own skill, and it's still no guarantee. None. I can't control every other driver on the road. It scares the shit out of me. I don't know if I'm willing to relinquish that much control over my life. You might be thinking, But it's not that severe. Driving down the street or across the state isn't akin to handing someone a gun and a blindfold and telling them to shoot an apple off your head. Maybe you're right. Maybe I'm right. All I know is that it feels that serious to me.

We'll see how it goes. But it's been eating me up all week. I feel scared and nervous over something millions of people do every day. And then I feel inadequate because I can't be as relaxed as everyone else about it. I thought writing it out might help. I don't know if it has. I just needed to get it off my chest.

21 May 2008

Snazzy Dialogue II: Dialogue Tags

(Read Part I here)

Before I get into the main part of this post, I wanted to mention an only-slightly-related dialogue issue. Literary Agent Nathan Bransford had a contest for Preposterously Magnificent Dialogue on his blog. For the hell of it, I entered. (Wasn't a finalist, and now that I think of it I don't think I selected my strongest bit of dialogue.) You could submit up to 250 words of dialogue and the intermittent action. Obviously, I wanted something with more dialogue than not, since it was a dialogue contest. So I went searching through Charlotte to see what bits of dialogue I liked enough that I would pick from for my entry.

It was then that I realized that I have quite a bit of intermittent/supporting action. It's not too often that I have more than three lines of dialogue without some action in between. And really, my dialogue, while not necessarily scarce, is fairly limited. And much of what's said in dialogue is directly related to the intermittent action in such a way that the dialogue may be misunderstood or not have the same impact should the action be pared down or cut. Is this good? Bad? Or is it just.... the way it is? I'm not sure. But I've decided for now that it's good, at least for me. If you think about it, in our real conversations, how much importance do you give to what is actually said compared to the tone of voice in which it's said, or the hand gestures and facial expressions of the person saying it? It's all pretty closely intertwined and can say a lot more than the words themselves.

But on to the main post topic of dialogue tags. My above tangent really is related because I'm going to suggest that instead of the usual dialogue tags (he said, she said, he asked, told, yelled, etc.) you can use some bit of action instead. If you write "It's freezing in here." Johnny hugged himself and rubbed his hands over his arms. then we'll know that it was Johnny who said it's freezing. It can get really repetitive reading "said" all the time. And it's not necessarily better to use every alternative to it, either. Commanded, growled, purred, shouted, uttered, announced, exclaimed, cried, replied, disclosed, mumbled, stated...... Really, by trying to come up with a clever synonym for "said" EVERY time you use a dialogue tag, you just end up making your writing appear immature and not very clever. ALSO, please try to avoid this:

"Give it to me now," he said angrily.
"But it's mine!" she shouted loudly. "You can't have it!"

Adverbs are NEVER the answer. You're telling the reader everything and showing them nothing. (yeah, that old adage....) Now I know I've probably broken this rule of mine far too many times to count. That doesn't mean it was good. And you definitely shouldn't do it. There are instances where a nicely placed adverb can be brilliant, but don't overdo it.

In addition to avoiding repetition and giving you a way to show rather than tell, action can do a lot for your scene in tandem with your dialogue. It can potentially change the meaning of the words. It can alter the mood of the scene, the pacing, it can ease or create tension. Let's look at the following exchange between Charlotte and Steven the morning after they're passionately reunited :

“I have bacon?” he asked.
“No. Your refrigerator was pathetic. I had to steal your car and a twenty from your wallet so I could make breakfast,” she said.
“And just how do you plan on paying me back?” he asked mischievously.
“The bacon’s going to burn,” she said when he unbuttoned her pants.
“Let it.”
“We’ve got all day for that,” she said, grinning.
“All day?” he asked.
“Well, most of it. My plane doesn’t leave until six.”
“Stay,” he implored her.
“Steven, I can’t,” she insisted.
“I know. But I had to ask anyway.”
“I’m glad you want me to, though,” she said. “Now put a shirt on and sit down. Breakfast is almost ready.”

Eh. It's just okay. Nothing spectacular. All dialogue. No pacing. Not much on the descriptive or emotional side. There's no action from either character to help us understand how they each feel during this scene. Not to mention it sucks to read "he said," "she insisted," "she said" every other sentence. Let's see what some supporting action can do for us:

“I have bacon?” he asked, coming up behind her.
“No. Your refrigerator was pathetic. I had to steal your car and a twenty from your wallet so I could make breakfast.”
“And just how do you plan on paying me back?” He put his arms around her waist and kissed the back of her neck. Her hair was still damp from the shower and he could smell his shampoo, his soap. She still wore his T-shirt, though she’d put on her own jeans. She’d never been more sexy.
“The bacon’s going to burn,” she said when he unbuttoned her pants.
“Let it.”
She squealed as he slid his hand down between her legs, but she managed to wriggle out of his arms.
“We’ve got all day for that,” she said, grinning.
“All day?”
She looked away, turned back to the stove. “Well, most of it. My plane doesn’t leave until six.”
“Stay.” They’d just found their way back to each other and she was leaving already.
“Steven, I can’t.”
“I know. But I had to ask anyway.”
“I’m glad you want me to, though.” She turned around and kissed him. “Now put a shirt on and sit down. Breakfast is almost ready.”

Not to toot my own horn (well okay, maybe a little) but I think the second version is much better. (This isn't what I submitted for Nathan's contest, BTW, but I think this would've been better than what I did submit.) When Steven puts his arms around Charlotte and reacts to the scent of her, we can sense the sexual tension. And then it's not nearly so shocking when he puts his hand down her pants! And the fact that she "squeals" shows her playfulness and willingness to participate. Otherwise the scene could come across as super creepy. There's some tension of the non-sexual variety when she turns away from him before mentioning her plane leaving at six. So now we know that she's leaving, and that seems sad because they appear to be having fun. This min-scene ends hopefully, though, when she turns around and kisses him.

And thus ends this very long post. :-)

Read Part III here.

14 May 2008

And the Excitement is Mounting.....

.... and it is directly related to my last post. But not in that way! C'mon, get your mind out of the gutter. :-P

My excitement is mounting because I finally dove in and wrote a short story, and I know exactly the magazine I want to submit it to. I'm pretty happy with the story, I think. Needs a little tweaking (ha! my erotica story needs tweaking!) but I'm relying on a few good folks on Agent Query to help me out with that. These girls will read just about anything. Gotta love 'em for it.

I'm nervous, too, of course. And I haven't even submitted the thing yet. Sheesh. And I want to get my novel published? I'll probably puke just sending out my first query!

So once I get all my critiques back from my AQ group, I don't think it'll take me more than a few days to revise anything that needs to be polished up. And the magazine has an online submission form, so I'll be able to copy, paste, and send, then wait! Hopefully not too long, but up to 12 weeks. Fingers crossed!

04 May 2008

Time To Steam Things Up

So guess what revelation came upon me last night?

I think I should try writing erotica.

Really. Contrary to this post and this post, I think it could work out really well for me. Here's my logic (because there IS logic behind this seemingly bizarre decision):

I wrote a scene for my book that someone told me was verging on erotica, but in a good way. I was surprised at the time, but didn't think anything of it. But now that I've thought more about it, maybe I could write erotica. It makes sense on many levels. First, I should always be trying to push my boundaries as a writer. I should be reading and writing as many different types of things as I can. It can only make me better at my craft. And nothing is further from my comfort zone than writing erotic fiction.

Second, I've already be complimented on an erotic scene. So I should be able to write more, right? I must have at least some scintilla of talent there. This ties very closely to the third level of logic: there's so much BAD erotica out there, that if I really do have an iota of talent I should be able to get a short story or poem or two published somewhere, be it a print mag or an online zine.

Fourth, and most important, if I can get a couple things published in reputable mags, whether it's erotica or not, that can only help when it finally comes time for me to start querying for my novel.

Now all that's left is the courage to start. :-) We'll see how it goes.

02 May 2008

.....and the other shoe falls

As much as I love Agent Query Connect, it is not without its pitfalls. The critique group I belonged to has broken up, and though a few of us from the group have created a new one, we've lost one of the members I respected most. The specifics are unclear and upsetting, but I'm seriously disappointed in.... well, in a lot of things.

Let me speak for myself.

As a writer, the things I write are very personal to me. I put a lot of myself into every story I write. When I receive criticism regarding my writing (even the most well-intentioned and accurate criticism), it's very easy to take it all personally. It's easy to look for the personal faults or flaws in the person doing the critiquing. It's easy to go on the attack.

What's difficult is sorting through the words for the facts. For the valid points. What's hard is acknowledging that what I've written is by no means perfect. Realizing that someone else's criticism is not a reflection on my character as a human being, only a reflection of their opinion about what I've written. And though it should be easy, the hardest part can be realizing that even the criticism that seems unfair or harsh is mine to take or to leave, to do with what I will; I don't have to let it get to me.

I believe that under no circumstances is it acceptable to attack a person's viewpoints or ideas, beliefs, profession, integrity, etc. because I don't like the criticism they've offered me in a constructive setting. It is certainly never acceptable to attack a person publicly, by name, on a personal level, after that person has tried to diffuse the situation. EVEN IF I feel my points are valid and justified. EVEN IF I feel my sources are trustworthy. EVEN IF I feel the personal attack is somehow relevant to the original issue - a critique of my writing that I didn't like.

It's just not acceptable. It's unfortunate. It's childish. It doesn't solve anybody's problems. As a writer who seeks always to be truthful, fair, original, and always pushing the boundaries of my knowledge, I hold myself to a higher standard than that. I wish others would do the same.

I've not done any of the things I stated above, nor do I know for sure that anyone has. Like I said, the specifics are unclear and upsetting. I suspect it has much to do with fragile egoes and petty politics. But I hope we've all learned our lesson.