Tuesday, May 10, 2011

come hell or high water, now with more water

I really really keep forgetting this blog over here. I'm mostly on facebook (http://facebook.com/ToniMcGeeCausey) if you want to check in for regular updates.

Meanwhile, we're watching the levees here on May 10th, since we're in the area that's most likely to get flooding here in Baton Rouge. If they open the Morganza, and it's likely they will, we might miss the flooding, or have a foot or two in the house -- hard to tell. Meanwhile, if they do open it, people will lose their homes. If they don't open it, LSU and many neighborhoods here will flood. There is no good answer here, just like upriver.

And I'm polishing the last polish of the current book before it goes to my agent (a very dark psychological suspense), come hell or high water. Now with more water. Wish us luck.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Winner announced for the free Kindle or Color Nook (pick one) + a $50 bookstore gift certificate

Okay, I'm posting earlier today than I had thought I might. We had a lot of entries for the ALLISON BRENNAN, CELEBRATE HER NEW BOOK, LOVE ME TO DEATH giveaway, but not quite a 1000, so there's only one e-reader being given away. HOWEVER, just because I really appreciate so many of you posting and mentioning it on Facebook, I decided to throw in a couple of extra prizes/winners, just as lagniappe.

So the extra runner-up winners of an (email) $25 gift certificate to an online bookstore of your choice are:

Anne McQquiston (from Facebook)

@lovesbooks2 (Lori)

@s_muha (Sharon Muha)

@BusyWorkingMama (Aleks Nearing)

@slylady (Sandra Brodeur)

@dfrenchkss (Diane McMahon)

[Everyone above -- to claim your prize, email me at toni@tonimcgeecausey.com and tell me which is your online bookstore preference. It must have an email gift certificate option (most do) and also let me know which email address you'd like your gift certificate mailed to.]

And the grand prize winner of the e-reader of her choice (between a Kindle and a Nook Color), plus a $50 gift certificate to that e-reader bookstore is.....

@momof3boysj (Denise Holcomb)

Denise, congratulations! Please email me at toni@tonimcgeecausey.com and let me know your mailing address so that I can get your prize ordered for you OR let me know if you'd rather the cash value of the Kindle+gift certificate in a cash (paypal) prize.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Just a note to say there is finally information up in the FAQ section (click on my name above to bring you to the home page and you'll see the new intro and a link to the FAQ on the right).

Friday, August 27, 2010

What do you see?

One of the difficult things about writing is narrowing down your options to the ones that best resonate with the story you want to tell. For me, it’s much easier to write a story when I already have the field narrowed. When I have to write a blog, for example, and if I know it could be about anything, I’m almost always stumped. If I narrow the field down to writing, then that helps me focus–but even with the category of “writing” there are all sorts of sub-categories, from marketing to creativity to time management to craft. And within each of those, more nesting categories. It’s a matter of choosing a subject and then refining, drilling down until I find the one specific point that resonates with my mood the day I’m writing the blog and then plucking that idea out, and examining it from as many sides as I can.

It’s also the same thing with life. You have so many choices every day–from simple things like “Will I apply for that job?” to “Will I have patience with the idiot co-worker or go postal?” to “Will I pursue my dream?” Each one of those choices then beget more… and if you focus on the totality of all of the choices, you’re very likely going to be paralyzed. You have to take the project–any project–step-by-step.

Fiction’s no different. You have to look at each set of choices you’re making and think about how they’re going to help you throughout the story. Do you want to do first person POV? Or multiple third person POVs? What type of story do you want to tell? What sort of tone fits that story? What sort of characters fit that tone? What sort of setting and premise fit those characters? What sort of ambience and socio-economic backgrounds fit that setting and premise? Etc… drilling down until you find the details that illuminate your original inspiration / goal.

This is where voice comes in–it’s your take on those choices that ultimately define your voice. It’s showing the world how YOU see the story, and giving us a slant on that that makes it uniquely yours. Which will make it memorable.

Instead of using a writing example to show you what I mean, let me jump into a different arena and use a couple of examples.

When I had the idea for this blog, I grabbed a couple of photos I’d taken, and I decided to show you the “before” image and the “after” results once I’d noodled with it in Lightroom. (I also have Photoshop, but for the purpose of these photos, Lightroom did enough of what I wanted, fast enough. If I were going to print and frame these photos, I’d pull each of them into Photoshop and clone out some of the flaws until I had it exactly as I wanted it… i.e., a “final polish”.)

I want to walk you through this process, because it’s going to show my voice and my editing process (same as I use for writing, in a lot of ways).

When I was vacationing in Moab, Utah last year with our oldest son, Luke, and my fabulous daughter-in-law, Amanda, I was experimenting with my camera, and I had a goal of getting some shots that I could play with for dramatic effect.

That right there is the first level of writing: the area was narrowed down: Moab. The tone: artistic–something that I could show off certain ideas I had in my head. So that eliminates me selecting for this exercise all sorts of candid shots of people. As I sifted through dozens of images, I had an idea of what I wanted to play with that would further my goal of an artistic take on a subject. This means eliminating shots that were perfectly good, but which didn’t have an angle or lighting or a detail that I could emphasize.

Okay, let me show you. Here’s the first shot that caught my eye of the ones I took. Now this is straight out of the camera, untouched. It’s a lazy shot–I didn’t bother to stop to get a good light read on the leaves, nor did I bother to frame the shot much. I knew, though, when I saw the leaves originally that I would end up turning the photo in a different direction from the image and playing with it in black and white and cropping it.

It started here:

It’s kinda boring, huh? But when I was walking by those leaves, I didn’t see what’s in that photo up there. I saw this (click on the image to see it in better detail):

The first photo is an example of writing that’s decent, serviceable. The second is voice: I not only converted it to a black and white, I boosted the contrast, the highlights and lowlights, the exposure, and futzed with things like luminescence to gain that “painting” quality. I then framed it tightly. In the first photo, there’s a little fluidity to the leaves, but we’ve got too much backstory around it: the wall of mud, the other leaves, the other sticks, and the dull, monochromatic color. By tightening in on the fluidity of the curves, I tell a story here: something dying can be beautiful, too. I love the almost lace-like quality of that bottom leaf, and I could’ve zeroed in on just that one detail, but I’d have lost the movement this image now has.

A lot of times, writers are afraid that readers won’t “get” the whole idea if we don’t lay out every single piece of information for them in one big information dump. But by giving so much, we render the overall “image” stagnant. There’s this resistance to getting in tight in a scene–a resistance to trusting that the reader will “get” the big picture. Often, it’s too easy to forget that you’re not going to just have that one scene. You’re going to have dozens of them, and if you’re giving us just the information that we need right then, we’ll “get” what we’re looking at, but we’ll also “get” the overall idea as you string a series of those tight images together. I could do an entire series right here on these kinds of details.

A second example I wanted to show you is one where what we see is not what I want you to focus on in the original. Here’s one of the arches in the National Park there in Moab:

Again, kinda boring. I was in a hurry at this point, and tired. I remember thinking about what I’d do with this image, and I took several quick shots. I should’ve metered better for the lighting, but I was starting to lose the sun. Here’s what I ended up with, after playing with it for about five minutes (again, click to see better detail):

That’s the same image, but the second one has drama. It’s going to grab your eye much better than the original, and you’re going to focus on that contrast between the sky and the mountains, whether you knew that’s where I intended to force your eye or not. By converting it into black and white and adding some sepia tones, I was able to get a lot more detail out of the rock face, and more contrast and boosting of the blacks in the photo gave me that effect with the sky.

So if you have a scene that you know is just sort of there, doing its job, looking decent, but it doesn’t feel like it’s grabbing the reader (and if it’s not grabbing you, it’s very likely it’s not going to grab them), then ask yourself, “What’s my vision here? Where do I want them to focus?” I took several shots of that arch above from different angles, but this one had the rockface in the forefront pointing to the sky and so I chose this angle to manipulate. Then I started playing with the colors, with converting it, playing with the contrasts, until the photo started telling you the story I wanted you to see.

In a scene, I’ll do the same thing–I’ll have a scene that’s functioning okay, but it’s too easy for my eyes to pass over it. I want you engaged in what you’re reading–or seeing–and to do that, I’ve got to think of ways of bringing out the details that create a vivid mental image for you. I ask myself, what’s the conflict here? (contrast) What do I want to highlight? What is the emotional response I want to have in the reader at the end of this scene? Do I need the reader to be close in on the detail, or pulled back for the perspective?

Imagery inspires me. If I were to do a final pass on these two images to make them into something that I actually liked enough to frame, I’d pull the top b&w leaf one into photoshop and I’d clone out that bottom stick that protrudes up into the lacy-leaf area. I’d probably futz a bit more with the contrast and texture, and I might add some actual textural overlays onto it to see how they looked (giving it more of an antique feel). On the bottom one, I’d pull it into photoshop and isolate the sky and then increase the contrast just in the sky without screwing with the rocks… so that there was a bit more of that lovely contrasty-sky feel to the piece. Or maybe not. I’m not sure–which is what happens sometimes in the final draft–I’ll put things in, decide they don’t help, and take them back out.

I love editing. I’m a far better editor than I am a writer–or a photographer, for that matter. It’s where I get to refine the choices I made, or throw them out and start with something else.

Imagery inspires me. I love photography for this reason, because it interlaces with how I see the world and informs how I write.

What inspires you? No matter what field you’re in, what is it in your life that inspires you to look at your world with a clearer eye? A happier eye?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Writer's Workspace (Mid-Book)

JT has her idea box and her official book box. Alex outlines (I think?). Allison brainstorms as she goes. Rob has a hole in a cave somewhere. (Kidding.)

I have whiteboards.


(photos taken with my iPhone because my big digital camera died on me)

I also use Scrivener for Macs -- which has many of the same capabilities of these whiteboards + a Word-like software... and I will dump a lot of photos there, images of my characters and such. But when I am working on specific scenes, I like having the photos right there on my board.

(photos are random, from the internet... not my own)

I like Scrivener for the organizational information-at-my-fingertips convenience. I am actually very lazy about organization--and I've paid for that countless times by wasting hours looking for something that I couldn't remember how I worded (and therefore a simple "find" search wasn't helpful). Or I'll forget a character's last name from the time I mentioned them (which drives me nuts when I can't find a last name, and then I can't remember if I actually used it or changed my mind but maybe mentioned them by last-name-only somewhere else). So the organizational ability to just plop a folder under a heading called "characters" on Scrivener, and drop bits of info in there (cut and pasted description, a photo of an actor or anyone I find on the internet who most resembles the character)... and later on, it's there to remind me of details without me having to search.

Mostly, though, I use the whiteboards. And lots and lot and lots of Post-It notes.

I hate writing a linear outline. I don't "see" the story like that. I see it playing out horizontally, like a movie. And that might seem like splitting hairs, but I was finally able to structure a story solidly once I allowed myself to write it out horizontally and "hang" the bigger turning points along a timeline, rather than try to write down the page, vertically, in a paragraph-by-paragraph explication.

[So far, I have never had to go back and make any big structural changes--once I get this structure up on the board. When I start blind, without the structure, I end up re-doing the first act too many times to count.]

When I start a project, both of those boards are empty. My husband, Carl, made those for me. [We ordered the magnetic whiteboards online where I found them at a pretty significant savings over Office Depot--especially for these sizes. Carl then framed them and hung them for me.][Yes, he is my hero.] The first thing I'll do on the board that you see on the second photo is draw that timeline across the time--Act One, Act Two, Act Three lines in place, then turning point lines, climax, resolution. And I start plugging in the major emotional moments / major plot issues.

Weirdly, I will not write down every scene I "see" in this pass. I don't need to--if I have a major turning point, I'll know what I'll need to do to build up to that turning point. Those things will fluctuate and change, though, so I'm not fond of nailing them down too severely.

The Post-It notes start showing up at some point around the mid-book process. I'll start seeing too many things at once and I don't want to forget the smaller details. I'll have a note up there about motive, or a twist, just to remember to layer in those clues as I go so that when I get to that scene, it's ready. As I write, I'll realize I'll need to go back and layer something in earlier, or give it more depth because it's turned out to be more important or useful than the initial throwaway comment indicated back when I wrote it. (I often find I planted things I had no idea I'd planted... I'll think, 'Oh, I need to go back and do X' only to go back and lo, there it was, already there.' That, my friends, is freaky.)

By the end of the book, I'll have dozens of Post-Its up there, of things I still need to go back and check. I'll discard the ones I know I already finished, so it's not confusing.

[During the edits and then later, the copyedits, I will do more Post-Its. I think the company owes me a thank you for keeping their revenue up.]

You see that notebook on my desk? That's the second one for this book. It's a five-subject college ruled thing, nothing fancy, and I'll brainstorm in there. I will work out motives, or the characters' traits, backstory, habits, etc., and I almost never go back and refer to anything there because once I write it, I know it. It's very stream-of-consciousness and hard to follow, but I will often start babbling in there if I have a knotty story problem and usually, the physical process of writing it down helps me brainstorm it out. I don't know why. I can't actually write the story in longhand--I freeze up. I've been typing too long, having started writing back in the early eighties on an IBM selectric typewriter.

My office used to be in a front room of the house--a room not-quite-double this sized room, and with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I never got anything done. Part of it was the fact that I was too accessible to everyone (kids, employees, husband), and part of it was that the wall space was too visually busy. I don't have much on the walls in this room, and I like that it's in the back of the house, where almost no one but my husband will go. I can write in public places when I have to, but it's difficult because I am naturally nosy and want to eavesdrop on everyone, and then I end up in conversations. Which are great, but then I get nothing done.

[I am just one of those people that complete strangers will tell absolutely everything to. If I'm in a restaurant, people will want to tell me stuff they've never told anyone else. Little kids love me. They will be terrified of everyone else in that place, and if I sit down, they are going to try to come over and crawl in my lap. I have had new moms hand me their infant and say, "Can you hold her a sec? I just have to run to the restroom." or in the grocery story, "Oh, here, I'll be right back, I have to grab some cereal." And then I'm standing there, with this kid I've never laid eyes on, who, for some reason, thinks this is perfectly okay. At least they don't cry.]

Anyway, I digress.

I have worked in a very tiny office space made out of a closet. A back porch that we turned into an office. A converted dining room. My "desks" have included everything from a piece of plywood or a lap pillow to an old table to a hand-me-down desk, to, finally, a new desk. I've worked with just a typewriter all the way up to my Mac and a big honking monitor. (Yes, I know it's huge. That wasn't on purpose. That is just one of those, "Well, fine, if you insist," moments when they did not have mine fixed, couldn't fix it, and had to replace it with something bigger. I should get an Oscar for the straight face I had when they asked me if I would mind the bigger monitor.)

I've also written while lying in the backseat of a truck, just after having had surgery, while my husband drove us to Colorado--pen and paper and only occasionally, the laptop that was on its last leg.

So I'm curious about your workspace, no matter what you do. What's on your desk? If you don't work at a desk, tell me something about what you do and see when you arrive at work? What's your ideal working environment (whatever you do!). What is the one thing that will derail your efficiency? (Mine is the dog barking next door. There is one of seven which sounds like you are stabbing her, and stabbing her some more and oh, wait, stabbity stabbity stab, and I swear, I think she's dying and it upsets me. But that's just how she barks.) (Not too coincidentally, I have begun to write to music all of the time, now.)

Tell me about your workspace!