Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On the Blank Page

HANK: So as the year comes to a close and we're all faced with the possibilities on the new, a fellow Hoosier has a new take on how to face your next blank page.

(Here's a challenge, too. Suddenly, blogger is not letting me upload all of the lovely illustrations I pulled for this post, including Marta's book cover.
So imagine: a terrific cover. (Check her website to see it.) Gorgeous drawings of perspective, and some of our favorite paintings.

Imagine me frustrated, trying trying trying to download. Any solutions out there? Sigh. In the meantime, I've just inserted the descriptions of the paintings I chose.)

Okay, back to Marta Stephens.

Marta Stephens is a native of Argentina who has made Indiana her home since the age of four. Her friends say she's mild-mannered--but she turned to crime with the publication of the first in her Sam Harper Crime Mystery series, SILENCED CRY (2007).The second book in the Harper series, THE DEVIL CAN WAIT, was just published. (Lots of good info and all her awards on her website!)

She is a member of Sisters in Crime International, Sisters in Crime Speed City Indiana Chapter, and the Midwest Writer's Workshop.

And she's been wondering how writing imitates art! (imagine nice picture here)

Long before I decided to write fiction, my first love was art.

In school, one of our first lessons covered perspective. Interestingly enough, educator, art historian and author, James Elkins of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago defines linear perspective as "... a mathematical system for projecting the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface, such as paper or canvas."

(HANK: imagine technical drawing of perspective here, oh, so instructive!)

The parallel between this definition and the process of writing are striking and I can’t help but compare the two.

Whether I write or paint I begin with a white surface that begs to be filled. I start with an outline of the shapes (the synopsis), determine the perspective (decide whose point of view the story will be written in), and then decide the direction of the light and shadows (those wonderful subplots, twists, and turns that will help propel the story forward).

(HANK: oh, what a nice picture was supposed to be here! John Singer Sargent's white lady in Morocco. You know the one that's mostly shadows? Nice.)

Obviously there’s more to consider when we write, but all the same, writing is a layering process that includes; development, plotting, writing, editing, and letting the prose rest.
If you were to paint an object in the foreground of the canvas before the background was dry to the touch, you’d end up with a muddied mess. Writing is no different. It can’t be rushed.

(HANK: imagine Van Gogh here-- Starry Night. Oh! A link!)

Before I type the opening sentence to a new novel, I consider the crime first which for me is essential to the development of the plot. What happened, who did it, how, when, and why?

Next comes the cast of characters. Several of the characters in my series such as Homicide Detective Sam Harper and his partner Dave Mann appear in all of my books, however, the villains change and I usually introduce two or three other protagonists. I write back stories on each new character to understand his or her motivation and to decide how their paths will cross. Giving attention to the secondary characters is a critical step that leads toward the development of subplots.

( HANK (Seurat here-- Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte) )

Plotting offers a rough idea of the storyline; the order of the events and how I want the book to end. Details don't play a role at this point of the planning, all I'm trying to do is understand the big picture rather than the individual scenes and of course, all of this is apt to change as the story evolves.

HANK: Check outVelazquez' The Maids of Honor--what going on here?

Now comes the fun part, getting inside each character's head. I have to understand their motivations, what has led them to this point in their lives, how do the characters feel physically, mentally, spiritually, and what external factors are affecting their behavior or decisions. Without a clear understanding of these things, it's hard to know how the characters will act, interact, react, and cope with the situation they face. It’s equally important for me to have a feel for what good or bad things are going on outside of the characters' control that may affect them emotionally (i.e.: friends, family, job, relationships, weather, etc.).

(HANK: Imagine any Picasso you choose..)

Once I'm comfortable with the direction the manuscript is going in, I’ll type a chapter or two a day, let the writing rest for several days and then go back and work on the edits. I may go through this process six or seven times a chapter until I’m comfortable enough to move on. Eventually I’ll read the entire manuscript from start to finish and begin to tweak the prose and fine-tune the details. It’s at this point that I make a list of the chapters along with a brief 1-2 line description of what happens in each to help me keep an eye on the timeline.

(HANK: Nude Descending the Staircase. You know it.)

My method certainly doesn’t guarantee there won’t be rewrites. But regardless of the process used, there are no fast and easy solutions or magic wands to completing a novel. It's a never-ending process that takes patience, practice, and perseverance.

(HANK: the Mona Lisa?)

Thanks Marta!

Tomorrow and Friday--another holiday gift--the inside scoop on query letters! Going to start the new year with a submission? Stop by here first--to chat with a person who can help...


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. AH, what a mess! This blog took TWO DAYS to post. Finally, at
    11:42 PM on Thursday, I tried one last time.

    THREE versions of it went up.

    I deleted two of them, with much trepidation.

    And now, the links don't work.

    Marta, my dear. It was not meant to be. I promise I'll figure this out. And put up a whole nice new blog for you and your books when Blogger decides to cooperate.

    Has this happened to anyone else?

    Sigh. Thanks, everyone, for your patience

  3. Hank, no worries mate, as my ozzie brother would say.
    I enjoyed visualizing each painting and thus worked my little grey cells more than I would have done!
    Nice to welcome Marta to JRR.

  4. Ah Rhys, thanks. Sigh. You always look on the bright side...


  5. Oh--and the promised
    days o'blogs on the secrets of query letters is coming soon.

    We just have to wrangle Blogger into shape.

  6. Hank, I love your choice of paintings!! LOL Yes, Blogger isn’t always user friendly. I often want to pull my hair out when I try to load articles to our Murder by 4 blog.

    I DO appreciate your perseverance though. Thank you so very much for hosting me on my final virtual book tour stop. For those interested, all the archived links to my tour are available on my blog, http://mstephens-musings.blogspot.com.

    Best wishes for a fabulous 2009!!

  7. I learned some new things about you, Marta.


  8. Marta, your process sounds fascinating. I've never thought about writing in quite that way, but of course it makes total sense! Thank you for a new way to look at writing stories with real depth!

    Hank--I've felt so sad for you over the past few days. But Rhys is right--it was fun, and oddly appropriate--that we had the chance to imagine the images!

  9. I've read "The Devil Can Wait" and would definitely recommend it. A complex plot with equally complex and intriguing characters made me stay up late many nights reading.


  10. Oh, thanks Marta! I still promise you a big big beautiful blog the next time you have news...or whenever!

    Hi Laura, Hi Marilyn! And Laura, thanks for the hugs.

    xoxo see you all soon..and a new blgo Monday! Will it work? Oh, the suspense..

  11. Laura, I'm glad you found my take on writing interesting. I've had a love of art since I was a little girl so I the parallels between the two seem very obvious to me.

    Hi Marilyn and Cheryl! Thanks so much for stopping by. For those interested, Cheryl's review of The Devil Can Wait is available on my website, www.martastephens-author.com.

    Hank, have you heard? We had record-breaking temps in Hoosier land today--65 degrees!! Feels like spring.

    Thank you again for allowing me to post on your blog. I really appreciate it.

    Hugs to all.

  12. Dang, couldn't see the images even when clicking the links! Except one of my favorites - Starry Night - ahhh Van Gogh!

    But will say "hello! - good to see you here, Marta!" :)

  13. Yes, the silly links won;t work. The photos won't

    And now Hallie is trying to post, and it won't work. Not from any of our computers.

    Why, why, why? Anyone have any idea?

    Shall we just chat here? What's up, eveyone?

  14. We were going to talk bout New Years resolutions, and wait til you see the blog. Sigh. We have some good ones..

    How about you?

  15. And its not even counting the comments properly..grrrrr...

  16. Still trying!

    We're trying to be patient..it's not working.

    Come back and visit when we're well again...


  17. Oh, I'll just hang around waiting to see what happens! This is so very odd. I haven't tried to post to blogger since Christmas. Is anyone else having problems with blogger?

  18. Oh, thanks...

    And yes, it's all over blogger "help"--many peopole are very unhappy.

  19. Let's see if this works. I was able to post on another Blogger Blog but this is ridiculous...it's been days...I miss you guys!

  20. To the theme of The Beverly Hillbillies

    (With apologies to Paul Henning and Jerry Scoggins)

    Come and listen to my story 'bout a gal named Hank,
    A poor dear writer whose blog was blank.
    She'd spend days tryin' to post some news.
    After all this time, she's singin' the blues.

    Crying, that is. Hot tears. Freakin' out.

    Well, our gal Hank wouldn't give up without a fight.
    She kept on trying until she made it right.
    She wouldn't give up, or let her readers down
    'Cause Jungle Red Writers is the best one in town.

    Blogs, that is. Classy dames. Dedicated readers.


  21. Oh, Paula!!! You make it all worth it!

    That's hilarious. Wonderful. Thank you thank you thank you!(Scary that you have that tune going through your head, though,..and now, thanks so much, I do, too.)

    Oh, you're amazing. Talk about classy. And wicked smaht. Wonderful.

    xoxoox and so much love from all of us poor blog-less JRWs...

  22. Oh Hank, I forgot to tell you about ... the curse. Oh this is a classic. My book, "The Devil Can Wait" is based on a true event I witnessed when I was little. There was a cursed ring and it certainly did cause more than a few problems. Nothing more happened until AFTER I submitted the manuscript to my publisher. Evidently "something" or "someone" didn't want it to go to press.

    I wrote an aticle for my tour that Joanna Slan was kind enough to feature. If you're interested, here's the link: http://joannaslan.blogspot.com/2008/12/between-lines.html

    I haven't had any problems with blogger, so I'm thinking the evil curse is back to it's old tricks.

    Guess I'll need to update my article with a "new one."


  23. I wish I had the gift of art. I can't even cut a straight line!

    As far as Blogger is concerned, a few times I've had to copy an entire blog and paste it into a new one to get it to go up. Other times,it's switched a blog that was supposed to publish back into draft. Good thing it's free.

    Morgan Mandel

  24. Yeah, free. Huh. Thanks Morgan! Wonderful to see you here.

    And MArta: a CURSE???? I just burst out laughing. That explains it! Although that's maybe not an appropriate response to a curse...

  25. Marta, you know how much I love your own paintings - and of course, your two novels. There is so much synergy between these art forms - I often think about it. I pulled out some of my old drawings from my teens/twenties and realized that these portraits were just another way of absorbing and documenting people and life, just like writing. GREAT article!

  26. Hank, are you a Hoosier, too? I grew up in Vincennes.