Writing a Wedding: Research

I firmly believe that every writer has something they avoid. Maybe it’s heavy action scenes, sex scenes, or an on-stage death (as it were). Every kind of event or scene has its own nuances, dictated by the end goal. A great writer can take those nuances and the other elements of a scene (like the characters, places, setting, plot points they’ve created) and meld them together to create and integral, cohesive piece.

Me?

I hate writing weddings.

I mean, the list is actually longer. Weddings, funerals, pregnancy (although strangely I kind of enjoy writing childbirth now), dinner parties. There’s a reason my funeral scenes are usually a few lines long, the pregnancies are shown obliquely through a few key points, and dinner parties are either cocktail parties or people meeting for a cup of tea.

Weddings, though, weddings are the worst.

Whatever the reasons for people disliking whatever they dislike in writing, the issue with weddings is a simple one for me. I’ve not been to very many weddings, I wasn’t especially fond of the ones I did go to, I’ve never really imagined myself as a bride, and while I have NO intention of getting married my ideal wedding would be filling out paperwork at a courthouse and a glass of wine with dinner for celebration.

Not exactly the romantic scene that dreams are made of.

How do I cope with my lack of qualification for writing weddings?

In truth, I really don’t. My wedding scenes, like the funerals, are very often a matter of lines, maybe a few hundred words, and always told through the point of view of NOT the bride or groom. Often, someone else in the wedding party. I’ve found the trick for making this tiny bit satisfying is in the buildup.

Proposals, wedding planning, honeymoon planning, and capping a short scene from the wedding with a suitable and proportionate scene from either the honeymoon or the trip to the honeymoon – that’s a recipe for happy readers, oddly enough.

Just like when my characters have children I do research on pregnancy and childbirth and child development (part book, part internet, part asking my parents who are in the medical field and also happened to have five children), the proposals and wedding planning and honeymoon planning takes research, as I have personally done none of these things.

Some of it I can intuit, like thinking about my characters and what kind of proposal makes sense based on whether I want it to be ideal or in some way not ideal. Other things, like ring styles, order of events, and logistical sense for honeymoons – that takes more research. As an example, I’ll lay out my research for my most recent project of focus, working titleĀ Hold Me Now.

The first step was picking out the ring. Given my characters, I opted with the Tiffany’s website, but as the groom is UK based and the wedding and proposal were going to take place in the UK, I searched for their UK website (as I did with all further web searches). I tried to find a ring that suited my characters, thinking about size, style, price…. Not just something I would like, but something that made sense for my characters. Other characters may not have ever gone with Tiffany’s, but this suited Ross and Katherine.

The next step was outlining the to-dos for a wedding. Here’s my best friend when it comes to writing marriages. I’ve used it many, many times now, always to great effect, always with the greatest of pleasure and relief at how well-organized and comprehensive it is:

Real Simple’s Wedding Checklist

Real Simple has a lot of really great checklists and tools that I use for many aspects of my life and writing, but this is one of the most helpful, and I’ll probably never use it in real life. Go figure.

Obviously, this checklist can be pared down depending on your characters (or if you’re planning a real wedding, your personal circumstances), but the great thing about this is it’s comprehensive. You’d be hard pressed to find something missing on the list, which makes it an ideal starting place.

From here, I went through the list thinking of everything I would need to describe and began searching for wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses, flower arrangements, and the wedding cake. One of the best things about this project was that my characters are disgustingly wealthy and therefore didn’t really require a budget – something that makes the bride a bit uncomfortable. Obviously, in many cases budget is important, or you’ll run the risk of a highly unbelievable wedding plan for your characters.

Honeymoon?

Why do anywhere but Disney World? I mean, seriously.

Cheers,

C

Collaborative Writing

I’ve talked a bit before about writing with other people, but as Camp NaNo is coming up soon, I thought I’d revisit this theme.

There are two ways of writing collaboratively (okay, there are many, but two major ones). One is actually working on a piece together, the other is working on different pieces but bouncing ideas off each other. Both are useful for different kinds of work, and some cases of collaborative writing are age-old and almost legendary.

I mean, hello, Rogers and Hammerstein. Lewis and Tolkien.

That’s going to be my two examples, and just stay with me here. I know that musicals aren’t the same as novels.

We’ll start with Rogers and Hammerstein, though. What they did was work together, bringing different sets of skills in, and creating a single work of art. Musicians do this a lot, which is what makes musicals a great example. Think of jamming. You’ve got different pieces, but they all fit together to make one song (or album, orĀ The Sound of Music).

A lot of my co-writing experiences thus far have been like this. Co-authored fan fiction with E. M. McBride and Natalie Cannon have looked very much this way, where we’ve brought our own voices and skills in, planned, and then executed a joint project to create a single work of art. It’s hard, it’s often time consuming, but it can create beautiful work when all’s said and done.

Another way, though, is the Camp NaNo way that Natalie (and other friends) and I are about to embark upon once again.

This is C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Inklings, their writerly group at Oxford, are fairly famous now. I’ve been to the pub where they often met and discussed their work. Think, like, a book club except it’s works in progress instead of someone else’s words.

Lewis and Tolkien would read from manuscripts, or their fellow writers would. Sometimes this was the nonfiction they wrote based on research, but famously it was bits of Middle-Earth or Narnia (among other fabulous fictional work) that no one else had read or heard yet. Some of the greatest literature ever written, and it started with a collaborative process.

Now, Tolkien didn’t write Narnia, and Lewis didn’t write any Middle-Earth, but they gave each other input, insights, and snarky remarks that were sometimes ignored, sometimes headed. In this way, a Camp NaNo cabin is a collaborative process.

My friends and I all have different projects. I’m finishing a novel, Natalie is focusing on finishing her portion of the chapters for our collaborative fan fiction (yup, she’s double dosing on collab), another friend is writing her Masters thesis, and thus is using Camp NaNo for that task. A third friend still hasn’t decided (although she doesn’t have long to choose…)

We’re all producing different projects, and even different kinds of projects, like the Inklings. But we’re supporting each other, and we have a platform for encouragement, shared thoughts, and a place to bounce ideas off each other. In some small way, we’re all co-writing. We won’t be listed as co-authors, but it’s arguably just as integral input as actual co-authoring.

Dedications, I suppose, at the very least.

Cheers,

C

The Importance of Food and Sleep

Let me take a moment to talk about two things artists of all sorts can find quite difficult to keep up with while working: food and sleep.

I know from experience that when you’re knee-deep in outlines (and I mean literally) and character profiles and name ideas and self-made deadlines, sometimes it’s difficult to remember the basics.

As I’ve probably said before, I have a lot of ways to try to keep myself on track with eating and sleeping, like timers and to-do lists and daily to-do routines, but that’s not what this post is going to be about.

This is about me telling you why it’s so critical to you as a writer to get proper sleep and food.

The reason you need food? Have you ever heard someone say that food is like fuel for your body? Even if you’re not a scientist, you should be able to understand that this is true.

If you don’t fuel your car, it stops running. Literally, it just stops. First, it tries to run on fumes (literally), and then the parts fail to work because they’re just not capable of working anymore. In doing this, you can do permanent damage to parts of your car.

Now, doing this to a car? Forgivable. It can happen to anyone, and parts can be replaced. Doing this to your body?

Less forgivable.

If you forget to eat, first your body gets weak. I get hypoglycemic, so my hands will literally start to shake when my blood sugar tanks. Sometimes I’ll try to work like that and I find I can’t really type, or hold a pen, and I have to give up and eat. If I leave it too long and I’m not trying to write through it?

Well, one time I nearly fainted in the middle of the kitchen while trying to make dinner. I hate a spoonful of peanut butter, sat for a while, and rebooted.

But when you’re really into work, you’re probably sitting. Adrenaline might be driving you forward so that the shaking isn’t happening, or you aren’t noticing it. Can you keep working? Yeah, sure. Should you? Gosh, no, especially if you accidentally do this often. Your body isn’t meant to be fed on a weird, undulating schedule. Damage you might do by repeatedly running on fumes is serious.

And do you really want to worry about that while you’re trying to write? No. So make a schedule. Set reminders if you have to. Keep snacks with you when you write, and try to make sure they have plenty of protein and simple sugars (quick boost, but it’ll stick with you because of the protein).

Now. SLEEP.

Much in the way that your car would wear out if you tried to run it (even with fuel) continually without rest, your body will not do well without sleep. Studies that have been done on college students pulling all-nighters have shown that not only do your reactions slow to the level of someone legally drunk, but processing can even slow to levels that are near that of being legally brain dead. Temporary, yes, but can you imagine writing like that?

I know you’ve probably heard “Write drunk, edit sober.” My writing professor actually gave us a version of this. Writing low on sleep is kind of like writing drunk, so it’s fine, right? I mean, my personal best ideas often come at three am, which is about an hour before I typically wake up, so if I am itching for good work, I should stay up all night and edit after I’ve crashed, right?

WRONG.

Very, very wrong.

The thing is, it’s way too easy to talk your body into doing this once, and then it’s even easier the next time. And the next time. And the next.

See the pattern?

Your body needs rest. I mean, you could kill yourself trying to stay up all night frequently, and not necessarily because your body will shut down. Things just don’t work right if you haven’t had time to recharge. If you’ve seen Star Trek, you’ll know that your mind needs REM sleep or you’ll start to hallucinate, and maybe worse. Headaches, misery, weakness of limbs.

If you feel like you could work through that, you’ve obviously never tried to stay awake for too many hours. The problem is, even if you could work through the physical issues, hallucinating is NOT good for work. Sure, you might get great inspiration. But you might also see terrible things that aren’t there and be WAY too distracted to work. And that can lead to tragedy too, not just inactivity.

So please. Eat. Sleep. Tomorrow, you can write. Take care of your body and it will take care of you.

Cheers,

C

Tackling Tough Topics

So, one of the stories I’m working on is crime and psychological thriller about a pedophile’s victims, who have essentially grown up in a cellar.

I won’t give too many more details, because spoilers, but that’s enough for getting to the crux of what I want to talk about in this post.

Sometimes the stories we want to tell don’t just make the reader uncomfortable. Sometimes they make us uncomfortable, sometimes so uncomfortable we have to ask ourselves periodically why we are even writing about these kinds of things.

Of course, this is a story I don’t feel I can stop. Because it’s something I could see happening, could truly believe as a reality, and because that reality makes me sick with the thought, I need to paint the picture so that other people are sick with the thought – sick enough to do something about it. To stop this from being a reality that we could believe as possible.

I know I couldn’t do this kind of story every day. It’s the kind of thing that would eat me up inside if I wrote it all the time, and my soul is dark and scary enough, thanks.

So how do we cope with the stories we need to tell but don’t even really want to think about for more than a few minutes at a time?

Small doses. It’s as simple as it seems. If you can’t cope with it in long stretches, don’t. Write what you can, and then write something else. Come back to it when you don’t feel slimy at the thought, and then when you start feeling like your skin is covered in an unwashable film, do something else until you’ve forgotten what that sensation feels like.

Yes, it’s a project going slowly, but every time I read back over what I’ve got to see where I’m at, I get that same chilling sense that I’m right on track.

So write the stories that make you question your imagination and humanity, but don’t destroy yourself while you do it. Physical and emotional health always come first.

Cheers,

C

Writing Sporting Events

As a writer, we write all kinds of events. Weddings, proposals, battles, graduations, deaths, births, rainstorms.

For the longest time, I thought weddings were the worst. I hated writing them, I did whatever I could to avoid writing them, and I got really good at writing all the wedding planning and then glossing the wedding in a way that somehow satisfied my readers.

And then I started writing sporting events.

When these are done well, they can enhance a story in so many ways. They help give a level of physicality and timing that can sometimes be difficult to obtain. They can add an emotional element that doesn’t involve characters actively emoting. They also can help draw in readers who might otherwise have little to connect with in your story.

I write lots of different sporting events, but mainly I’ve been doing Formula 1 lately. I like F1 for a few reasons. One is that it works into the types of social spheres that I typically write my stories in. Also, it’s an annual, season-long, global sport that’s been going on for decades, so it expands my geographic possibilities.

For example, in a short story I have F1 events on two continents, and characters across three countries. In a novel I’m working on, my main character is Canadian and lives part time in the US and UK, and I have her go to the Montreal and Silverstone Grand Prix. It also helps keep seasons straight for me and the reader. Those are typically June/July races, so by always having a race after her birthday, it reminds me that her birthday is early June – since I didn’t write it in my notes anywhere and using actual dates feels so clunky to me.

But how do you write a spectator at a sporting event without just giving a play-by-play?

Well, J.K. Rowling takes the viewpoint of a player (Harry) with play-by-play Quidditch commentary (typically done by Lee Jordan) and occasionally spectator viewpoints (most notably in the very first Quidditch match where Hermione sets Snape’s robes on fire). This can give multiple layers to an event and allows the writer (and reader) to shift attention to the most interesting thing, like when you’re watching a football match and the camera angles shift to show you the best bits instead of always giving you an aerial shot of the pitch.

I don’t always do this, partly because it can be difficult to find the right balance and partly because I don’t have the expertise to show a player viewpoint for some of the sports I use. Like F1 – I’ve never even sat in an F1 car, much less driven one, but I’m an expert spectator.

Also, because my reader may not have seen some of the sports I use – like F1 or cricket – I want to be sure that the where and what and who is clear. When I first wrote an F1 race into a story, Natalie read it and didn’t even know what I was talking about. For about half that scene she thought I was talking about horse racing, so I had to get more in-depth. I had to use specifics, names and dates and tracks and words like “pit lane” and whatnot. Just as I had to write a specific brand of cigarettes, I had to look at details on the racing.

That’s what makes a sporting event. You don’t have to cover a play-by-play, and maybe your spectator doesn’t even watch the full match of…whatever it is. Have them talk to someone. Have them smoke a cigarette (if that’s historically viable). Have them share a beer with their neighbor. Doing play-by-play of a tennis match in words would bore the reader to tears, and probably you as well. Just show what matters in the match, the big plays and the ending. Give it drama. Give it flow.

And most importantly, use that lovely writing rule that seems to hold true the more I write: If you’re bored writing it, they’ll be bored reading it.

Cheers,

C

Cirrocumulus stratiformis

A misty wave rolls ‘cross the swelling scene.

It rolls and breaks upon a range or two

Of snow-soaked hills on fields of brilliant blue —

Erode away with time, weather’d by wind.

They melt into the sea of endless shades

Of lapis, azure, cobalt, sapphire true.

Perhaps a breath might make them crumble soon.

Perhaps the heat could melt them sooner still.

-Charlotte Blackwood

Continually Moving Forward

I was reading over a short story I’d started because I set my mind on finishing it yesterday. (I did finish it, so now it’s going to be subjected to the rigors of editing), and it got me thinking about the development of my writing over time.

When I read back to my very earliest work (we’re talking when I was, like, ten) I am often astonished by the strength of character and the weird but suitable sense of plot. But something I’ve struggled with off and on is forcing myself to include enough physical description in a scene. In fact, in my list of things to consider in different rounds of edits, one of the first rounds is entirely focused on adding in physical description, with the knowledge that my editor my cut or pare down some of it later.

Adding this step to my editing process has been invaluable, and Natalie noticed the difference immediately. But this short story (which doesn’t really have a very good working title at the moment so I’ll not use one yet), I started out forcing myself to describe intently.

I have to say, when I’ve looked back on this, it’s really some of my better writing (not surprisingly), but it does NOT come naturally to me. I’m not a person who cares so much about how things look, but about how things ARE, what things are doing, what sort of person people are, how they interact with other persons. So the ending I’ve written for this story?

Not nearly as descriptive. I tried, I really did, but it just didn’t happen.

I suppose we are constantly moving and changing as writers, and that’s one reason editing is so important, isn’t it? We have to smooth over who we were when we started writing and who we were when we finished, and make the work seem like it’s from one cohesive place in time. But nothing ever does.

Cheers,

C