Marsha Canham's Blog

October 26, 2010

Tangential thoughts and other pithy segues

Filed under: Caesars Through the Fence — marshacanham @ 2:31 pm

Mary Lynn Kramer suggested this topic: for Editing ideas in a story! How do you get it in hand? I have a very hard time avoiding tangential thoughts.

Okay, so after I looked up tangential (Diverging from a previous course or line; erratic: “tangential thoughts”.)(you have to know it’s too early in the morning for big words), I pondered the answer and came up with one deep thought.

I don’t.

Those who know me or have heard me speak at conferences or workshops know that I don’t work from outlines, nor do I recommend working from highly detailed outlines unless you’re the type of person who requires a GPS to get to the grocery store.  This is for fiction, mind you.  If you’re writing a textbook or a work of non-fiction, which requires progression from point A to point B to point C, then yowza, you better have an idea of where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.

Writing fiction, however, should be creative and free flowing.  You shouldn’t trap yourself into a plotline that leads you in one direction when your fingers suddenly want to take you in another.  I have always maintained that if I know where the story is going, then the reader will know too, and if I know where it’s going a certain amount of boredom (for lack of a better word) creeps in and then it just becomes a matter of writing the daily quota, following the path with least resistance, and reaching a pre-determined end with a semi-dramatic flourish of the pen.


Writing by the seat of your pants is far more exciting.  In keeping with the topic, one of the questions EVERY author is asked is:  where do you get your ideas?  Well…you don’t GET ideas.  Ideas come to you.  They come at night while you’re asleep, they hit you in the above mentioned grocery store, they sneak up on you at a crowded bar and tap you on the shoulder and suddenly all the noise and laughter fades away and it’s just you and the IDEA and the brain spins around and voila.  There’s your next book.  Anything at all can trigger it off.  For example, the entire IDEA for the The Wind and the Sea came from the title.  I was reading some dry article in the newspaper about weather or some such thing and in the middle of the sentence were those words….yada yada yada  the wind and the sea yada yada yada…. BOING.  There it was.  I saw tall ships and blue seas and straining canvas sails and cannon fire, Errol Flynn standing on the deck waving a cutlass….it was all there in a nothing article in the newspaper.  If I recall correctly (it was nearly 25 yrs ago, so forgive a bit of tangential wandering) the first scene I wrote was the one in the cabin when Adrian discovers Courtney is the daughter of Duncan Farrow.  From there I worked backward, writing the how and why she ended up a prisoner on an American frigate.  I needed a reason for the tables to turn, so I searched out locations and found the Barbary Coast wars fit perfectly.  Made up an island stronghold being attacked and destroyed, the prisoners taken on board the warship.  I decided against making Courtney a buxom, long-haired ravishing beauty, typical of the historical romances in the mid 80’s.  I cut her hair, gave her almost flat boobies, and a tongue that could cut as sharply as a cutlass.

Now…two paths I could have taken.  The one well travelled would have had the handsome, lusty lieutenant win over the saucy, cheeky minx, uncover a softer side to her, convince her by way of some heroic deed that he was worthy of her undying love.  By the time they reached shore, she would be longing to wear dresses again, the hero would convince the courts by way of doing some other heroic deed that would require the Admiralty owing him a favor, and the two would sail happily off into the sunset.


TWATS (love the anagram) was also written back in the day when I was incredibly unsure of myself…aka..not nearly as outspoken as I am today *snort*…so I had a good friend who read over my stuff as I was writing it.  It was actually Diane Kelly’s fault that some of my plotlines took harrowing twists and turns, because she was never kind to me.  Never.  If she thought the storyline was becoming boring or predictable, or if the characters made her yawn…she tossed the pages back at me and said:  nope.  they suck.  Did I mention that historical romances were not her normal reading choices?  Thus, with TWATS, I had the added pressure of writing a swashbuckling pirate story for someone who did not read swashbuckling pirate stories, or romances, or historical books of any kind.

And so we return to the question of how to write and avoid tangential thoughts.  I don’t avoid them.  I welcome them.  TWATS could not have been written if I did not allow my thoughts to wander off the beaten path.  Those wandering  thoughts allowed me to keep Diane guessing as to what was going to happen next.  Each time she would read a couple of chapters, she would hand them back and I’d ask:  what do you think is going to happen next.  When she told me, I did the complete opposite.  When she guessed who the spy might be, I killed him off.  When she guessed who the villain might be, I killed him off too.  In fact, I got through over 500 pages without having a clear idea myself how it was going to end.  It was scary, but man, it was a lot of fun to write it.  The readers and reviewers seemed to appreciate it as well.  Romantic Times even made up a new catagory for their awards:  Best Swashbuckler of the Year.  It won awards from Affair de Coeur and from the Canadian Booksellers Association.  Unfortunately it died an unexpected death after the publisher, PaperJacks, went belly up, but barely a month goes by when I don’t get an email asking where someone can find a copy.

I only have three copies of it myself, one original and two reprints.   Bad habit for a new author…handing out books with careless abandon. (but that’s another tangential thought for another blog *g*)

So.  I’m not sure if I answered Mary’s question, or if I wandered into “huh?” territory.  Maybe she can let me know *g*


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