Confessions of a Busy Writer

There is a sneaking worry that every writer who can’t afford to be a full-time Writer gets when other life pursuits take the front seat for an extended period of time….  Am I still a writer if I’m not writing?  Every once in a while, since I started back to school, this thought creeps into my head – even now that I have a publishing contract – and not updating my blog for months at a time is one result of that.

But my answer to this doubt is, Yes, I am still a writer, because I am still building up ideas and plots, and I will still put them together and down on paper.  Also, there is a part of my brain that is now hard-wired to store away odd bits of information from every source (classes included) for the construction of storylines and weird characters.  I’ve mentioned here before that I have plans for a follow-up to The Life and Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.  The ideas all clicked into place for the new novel while I was in my Introduction to Eastern Religions class.  Since, like Erica Flynn, my new main character will also experience death as a major turning point rather than an end, I’m sure the realities of death that I’ve learned about in my two courses on Skeletal Forensics (and at the lab looking over actual skeletons and burial records) are going to affect the way I portray death in the new novel.

The thing is, I think it’s expected of writers (and we writers do it to ourselves) to define themselves not only primarily, but almost exclusively as Writers (or authors, if we’re lucky!)  Or maybe it’s just me – because I know that my own satisfaction with myself as a person has consistently hinged on whether or not I was working on a book.  When I wasn’t writing, I felt bad about my life and myself, and when I was writing, I felt pretty positive and self-assured.  Writing is what I enjoy most and what I feel I’m best at, where I’m most in my element (possible exception:  tromping around the woods).  But in branching out and putting my life focus on other things (study, a career, opportunities related to study and career) I’m tremendously excited about the possibilities not only for my other pursuits, but also for the possibilities this opens up for my writing!  It has to be on the back burner for the moment, coming in third on my priorities after school and survival (yes, school comes before survival on my list,) but it’s going to be so much the better for all the new experiences I’ll have to draw from.

Enough spilling my guts.  Next blog:  Weird Stuff I’ve Learned at School.  Stay tuned!

What Day is This? Saturday? Tuesday? Wednesday.

Having successfully completed another semester of school, and not having posted anything on my blog in that entire semester, on this first day of my summer break, it seems like a good idea to update.

My writing life has felt very much on hold for the past four months, but when I think about it, I did make some progress.  I got 5 rejections from agents for my Erica Flynn novel (3 of those in the same day, which is a first for me).  I converted my 50,000-word rough draft from NaNoWriMo 2010  into a reasonable working outline.

Now that I have all summer free (well, free aside from my job and my assistance in the archaeology lab on campus) my brain is turning to questions about new project options.  Should I finish outlining the unwritten 2/3 of the events of my NaNo 2010 project?  Should I draft something new?  And if I draft something new, which of my new ideas should I work on – or how can I combine all of them into one cohesive novel?  Should I outline first, and then write a draft of a new book?  Or should I wing it, NaNo style, but spread it out over 3 months instead of just one?

It popped into my head this morning that it would be sort of fun to do a complete outline of a book every day for a week, no holds barred on going over the top with the plot or being silly about it.  As a rule, I get a lot more out of nonsense than I do over-planning and being too serious with my work.  It might be a good way to loosen up and shake some inspiration loose!  Maybe I’ll do one tomorrow and my next post will be about how it turns out.

A Brief Observation…

If you’re not inspired to write, there is nothing more likely to make you start living in a story world than spending a few months in a class where the teacher never stays on topic, especially if the tangents are wholly uninteresting and usually repetitions of previous tangents, and after the first month you still only have half a page of useful notes taken from the lectures.  So in spite of the fact that I’ve learned nothing in one of my classes (yet am paying to attend it), I’m grateful it has bored me into escapism, and therefore inspiration, and possibly a new novel.  I recommend, if you aren’t sufficiently into a project, that if you can’t take an absolutely terrible college course that you have to pass to graduate, you should find some other way to make yourself a captive audience long enough to space out and start really loving that story world.

Obviously, I’m not going to tell you which of my classes I’m talking about….I still have to pass the damn thing.

Writing Snippets

The shift in my schedule in the past two months has definitely shaken things up in my writing life.  Since I’d been in a rut for a month or two before I went back to school, I don’t actually mind that.  The down side to not having time every day to write is, I can’t do a daily word quota like I did with NaNoWriMo last November or, on a more reasonable schedule, like I did when I wrote Erica Flynn.  If I was already going on a long-term project, I honestly might be able to do my Erica Flynn quota of 250 words a day – I’d miss some days, but I know from that project that I tend to catch up and/or surpass my quota when it’s that low anyway.

But enough about the down side.  Only having time to write in snippets means that, when I do have a minute or when something occurs to me, I don’t question it.  I just write.  If I have sentences rattling around in my head that intrigue me, I don’t bother to wonder if they’re going to lead to anything or not, if they’ll be the best sentences to get across what I’m saying, if I’m aiming for a short story or a novel, if I should choose first or third person or male or female or whether I can figure out what this character does for a living (my least favorite decision about characters, by the way).  All that crap I piddle over when I have the leisure to do so goes out the window when I’m in the middle of a 14-hour stretch of school and work, and ten minutes between my jr. bacon cheeseburger and my next class is the only time I have to jot down my ideas.  Instead, I actually write, which means I’m actually exploring more ideas than I do when I have more time.  When I can sit down and think about what I want to write, I kill around 75% of what occurs to me before I’ve even explored its potential.  Now that I don’t have time to fully explore any ideas, I’m scribbling down about 50% of what pops into my head at random, and since I don’t have time to shut down what I don’t have time to write, the other 50% is still being processed while I go about my business.

Lesson one here is, self-censorship is an inspiration killer – give your ideas a chance!  Unless you’re in the middle of actively writing a novel, you should at least let your random ideas run around a little bit in the open air before you decide anything about them.  Lesson two is, you’re never too busy to be a writer.  You might be too busy to produce a polished, finished product at a given time in your life, but you’re never too busy to think like a writer, to watch and listen and pay attention to details and new information, to have ideas and to express those ideas as eloquently as time will allow.  Lesson three:  You can polish later.  You can put the pieces together later.  You can make it coherent later.  My hope is that by this summer, when leisure time goes up again, I’ll have let enough of my ideas run around in the sunshine that I’ll be itching to draft a novel out of some set of them, and I’ll have all summer to write the rough.  I’ll let you know how that works out.

Write Like You’re Getting Paid to Do It

New topic for Sara D vs. Reality…whining about writing for a grade.

So I’m trying to put together a speech for one of my classes.  I am not having luck with my topic research.  What I’m trying to do is a speech on the politics of literature, specifically dealing with the historical persecution of authors, with a focus on how and why a government decides a work is subversive.  It isn’t going well.  I can find lots of specific examples, but almost nothing in the way of an overarching, comprehensive look at the subject.  And for a 15-minute speech, I’m not going to be able to turn 500 examples into my own overarching, comprehensive study, because that would be a freaking thesis project, not a 15-minute speech.  I am frustrated.

Mostly I’m frustrated because I was excited about this topic, and now I’ll probably have to change the focus of my speech so I can use the TONS of stuff I’ve found on censorship and book burning and so on.  Same general topic, just not the angle I was going for.  I suppose the moral of the story is that, whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, prose or speech, sometimes what you set out to write just doesn’t work, and you have to be flexible about it.  Even if you have to pout about it for a day or two before getting back to work.  And maybe it’s a good idea, if you’re not writing for school, to pretend that you are.  Yes.  Pretend you have a professor and your grade depends on getting over yourself and writing it anyway, and your financial aid for next year depends on your grade, and if you don’t follow through your GPA will suffer and no one will give you any money for school.  Pretend those things whenever you want to sulk about your writing.  It does wonders for lighting a fire under a writer’s ass.

Stranger Than Fiction

I may have rambled on the topic of research for fantasy (why I do it) before on this blog, but I’m gonna do it again anyway.  My favorite reason to research for fantasy is that I couldn’t possibly make up anything crazier than the things that have happened in the real world throughout its multitude of cultures and time periods.

I set out to do some research about the history of immunization yesterday, for example, and ran across this article on theriac, a “cure-all” used in ancient Greece.  Scroll down to that insane list of ingredients!!  I couldn’t make anything up weirder than that.  Turpentine, viper venom, opium, and…carrots and black pepper?  Wait a minute, the first three are weird enough, but then to combine them with something as normal as carrots and black pepper is just…over the top.  And that’s only a fraction of the stuff that went into this substance – there were 64 ingredients.

It isn’t that I’ll necessarily use this particular tidbit of information.  It’s that I run across so many odd little scraps and details, and all of it rattles around in my head (sort of like the 64 ingredients of theriac) and shifts and combines and ignites into something new, and that’s how I get a lot of my inspiration.

Decisions, Decisions

I used to write blindly – no idea where a piece was going, what length I was shooting for, what type of story or book it was going to be, what the storyline actually was…nothing planned.  While the spontaneity had its perks, I rarely finished anything.  These days, I do free writes from time to time, writing whatever comes to mind, as a way to purge, as a brainstorming tool, to make connections and associations – in short, to get the advantages of spontaneity without the commitment to making it be a story.

And when I sit down to a project, I know what I want from it.  I don’t plan for every turn of events, don’t outline beyond a rough arc and a few spots of tricky or intricate turns, but I do have some idea of how I want things to end up, and a few of the places I want the story to go through along the way.  I also tend to decide, ahead of time, on what kind of story I want to be writing.  Not necessarily genre (my stuff tends to be weird amalgamations of bent genres fused together into its own thing), but I’ll have in mind, say, High Concept Zany Adventure, With Funny Bits In.  (That would be The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, by the way.)  Or Uplifting Post-Apocolyptic Story, With Rabbit.  (Short story in progress, as well.)

For me, setting a few ground rules actually opens up possibilities rather than limiting my ideas.  Having a direction, something to aim for, makes me look at the broad horizon of the storyline as a whole, rather than plugging along paragraph by paragraph, missing the forest for the trees, working only with what I have written rather than looking at what I can write next.

There are many times I find myself borrowing metaphors from the process of making visual art as a way to look at writing.  The worst part of starting any art project, for me, is the blank page.  Endless possibility is weirdly inhibiting.  Blocking off a few shapes helps you start looking at what you do know needs to go into the piece.

Having a little definition, really knowing what you want a piece to be, goes a long way – at least for me.  If I have a clear sense of what I’m aiming for, everything starts to flow.  I know what kind of things I want to have happen, what fits, what won’t, what I need to happen and how to make it work with the tone instead of against it, where some relief is needed if the story is getting to heavy or where some darkness is necessary if it’s getting too silly and off-the-wall.

So I will keep doing free writes when I’m stuck, need ideas, or am between projects, but I will also set some clear markers for myself when I sit down to really work on something…because that’s how I get things done.

Friday Exercise – 3 Changes, 3 Complications

Write down three major life changes – stuff like moving, losing a job, getting a divorce, etc.  Whatever three come to mind for you.  Now write down three complications to successfully making these three transitions – can’t get a buyer for the house, no jobs available in the character’s field, ex gets stalky.

Now start an outline for a book, because this will be too much plot to fit into a short story, most likely.  And going along with the three things theme, you could work in a list of actions your character takes to try to fix each of your complications, a list of three supports that help your character, a list of the reasons why the first three things came to be, a list of the outcomes for each of the three initial problems.

Personally, I’m already off on a mental tangent about how the house is haunted and that’s why no one will buy it, and the character’s old job field was a miserable drain on his energy and in his efforts to sell the house he does a bunch of remodeling on it and makes it gorgeous and becomes a professional home renovator and loves it, and decides to keep his now-beautiful house, and his stalky ex-wife gets attacked by the ghosts when she sneaks in through the basement one night and…see, this exercise will totally give you ideas!  So go do it.

Monstrous Considerations

Yes, I forgot to post on Monday.  Entirely forgot to post!!  It was my birthday, is my excuse.  But!  I did get inspiration for a post on Monday night and then was very confused when it was Tuesday the next day and I realized I had missed the correct posting day.

I’m generally behind the curve on movies, and the new King Kong directed by Peter Jackson is no exception – I saw it for the first time on Monday.  While I have a rather mixed-opinion Official View about the movie as a whole, when it came to Kong himself, I was wholeheartedly thrilled.  Five years old again and King Kong is my hero, the best thing in the world, a miracle on screen.  As a kid, I would likely have taken a bullet to save Kong (in spite of the fact that such a sacrifice would probably not have helped the situation) if that gives you any idea how firmly rooted in my childhood psyche the gigantic gorilla really was.

I’m a sucker for monster movies in general, especially the old ones, and the “monsters” like Kong – who simply are what they are, doing what they do naturally, pure, natural, intelligent, and destroyed essentially because of their inconvenience to humans (because they don’t fit into our world) – are the ones I fall the hardest for.  There’s an innocence to such monster archetypes, an incomprehension in the face of betrayal and manipulation and dishonesty, that makes us pull for them.  Particularly in the case of King Kong, since it wasn’t even his fault he ended up in New York.  He was minding his own business, being awesome and fighting dinosaurs, until the stupid Americans showed up and decided to make money off him.

Anyway, the point for writers here is a lesson in sympathy and vulnerability.  Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein’s monster…they’re all big (Frankenstein’s monster far less so than the first two, but he’s really just a smaller scale of the same archetype), powerful, capable of sweeping destruction, have bad tempers, and aren’t easy to take down.  You’d think that would add up to their being the “bad guy”, but viewers pull for them instead.  There’s something about the fact that anything so big and strong can still be hurt, can still be betrayed, can still die, and not even comprehend why everyone is out to destroy them, that makes them lovable (or at least sympathetic).  In King Kong’s case and in Frankenstein’s monster’s case in particular, it’s heart wrenching to see them taken down, confused and angry, because they had bonded with humans, had shown intelligence and the capability to reason and love and appreciate the world around them.

Maybe you don’t write in a genre where monsters are a feasible character type, but any of this can be applied just as easily to a regular ol’ human character – if someone has a lot of power, whether it’s physical strength or political clout, people will inevitably want to cut them down to size, and if your strong character isn’t pure evil (which would be lazy writing) that will garner them some sympathy, even if (and maybe more so because) they make mistakes.  A character with a terrible temper can be tragic in their ability to strike fear into people they don’t want to drive away.  Unquestioning and misplaced trust or innocence of deception can make for an extra-poignant vulnerability in an otherwise intense, dominant character you’d never expect to get hurt.

And I would still be King Kong’s real friend, because he deserves one.

Friday Exercise – The Tool of Music

I’ve probably mentioned on this blog before that what music I listen to can really color the tone of what I’m working on – and so while I’m actively writing, I pick my music very carefully, or don’t listen to any at all.  It gets to be sort of Pavlovian, too – a certain song or type of music will become associated with what I’m working on, and anytime I hear it, I’m in Writer Mode all of a sudden, ready to dig straight in.

I like picking out “soundtracks” – Hey, this song would be perfect for that scene where so-and-so happens, if they ever make a movie of my book!  And sometimes I’ll get an idea for a scene from listening to a song and daydreaming – I’ll start to picture action or dialogue that fits somehow with the music, or some emotion will well up in the piece that makes me realize some new level of what one of my characters might feel at a given point in the story.

For me, music is a great brainstorming tool at any point in my writing process, from the initial spark of, “Ooh, I have an idea for a story!” to “OMG!!!  I KNOW HOW IT ENDS!!!!!!”

So this week’s exercise is this:  Listen to a song/piece that takes you someplace, through emotion or connotation or whatever, and explore it.  Daydream or free write, whatever works best for you.  What could it mean to one of your characters?  If there are lyrics, would they become ironic in association with your imagined scene, or no?  Does the emotion of the music reflect a particular character’s attitude, or the story as a whole?  Are there multiple layers of feeling expressed – upbeat tempo but lots of minor to the melody?  Where there’s dissonance and resolution, what does that speak to in the story – again, is that how one character feels in the scene, or is that a clash between characters?  Maybe this works best for musicians – I play guitar, myself – but I would think it would work for any writer who likes music!