Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Magical Thinking

Cold querying is one of those miserable things that can take over your life, especially if you're prone to obsessing about e-mails and spreadsheets and statistics…gah!

Like anyone else, I've invested so much of myself in my last two novels, living in the character's head for years, that I really want those stories to find a home and succeed, which means I've been focusing on the query process like a fiend. But, you know, outside of learning how to write a decent query letter and revising the opening pages again, a lot of the process is out of my hands in the end.

So, to counter all that soul-sucking madness and get my mind off rejection, I decided to (unofficially) hop on the NaNo wagon. I wanted to write some new and different stuff to distract myself from myself. And, to be honest, it wasn't going very well. Three days in and I'd written the equivalent of the ingredients on the side of a cereal box, and the querying was still making me insane. Which, of course, led to days of despondency. Which, in turn, led to a purposely self-destructive Netflix-watching marathon meant to obliterate any notions of me ever writing again once and for all!!!


One of the documentaries I put on was pure magic. As I watched, completely enthralled by the subject matter and the passion of the people in it, the story elements of this new project I'd been toying with began to collide in detailed clarity with the documentary. That missing je ne sais quoi the story was missing zinged my antennae with full force, and before the show was even over I was furiously writing pages and pages of notes full of conflict and saucy characters. And, bam! Just like that, I'm in love with words again and a new story.

I am sufficiently distracted.

Finding an idea that you know has the legs to go the distance for a novel is the best feeling ever. It's the drug that keeps writers hooked on words. But it can also be a precarious moment. We have to be very careful not to let that enthusiasm rob us of our magic while the idea is still young and undeveloped. There's something very special about protecting a good idea and nurturing it until it grows the wings to fly on its own. For a writer it's a time of precious, magical thinking, and it's worth any number of rejections that may come later.

Mischief managed.

Do you feel protective of your new ideas? Do you ever feel like you'll lose the story if you talk about it out loud? Or maybe you get inspiration from talking out your ideas with others?

For further reading, here's a great BBC News article Suze brought to my attention: Top 10 Tips For Being a Best Selling Author. #4 is particularly relevant to this post. :)

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Caroline.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Taste Of Halloween

The Hag is astride,
    This night for to ride;
The Devill and shee together:
    Through thick, and through thin,
    Now out, and then in,
Though ne’r so foule be the weather.

    A Thorn or a Burr
    She takes for a Spurre:
With a lash of a Bramble she rides now,
    Through Brakes and through Bryars,
    O’re Ditches, and Mires,
She followes the Spirit that guides now.

    No Beast, for his food,
    Dares now range the wood;
But husht in his laire he lies lurking:
    While mischiefs, by these,
    On Land and on Seas,
At noone of Night are working,

    The storme will arise,
    And trouble the skies;
This night, and more for the wonder,
    The ghost from the Tomb
    Affrighted shall come,
Cal’d out by the clap of the Thunder.
                           -- THE HAG by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Happy Halloween! 

Okay, now that I've given you a scary poem, I've got a treat as well. Normally I excel at take-out food, but when I have the time I enjoy cooking. And since Holly Sinclair (Southpaw at I am HR Sinclair) is hosting a blogfest to highlight all the wonderful cookbooks she's written, I thought I'd share one of my favorite recipes for fall too. I will probably make this soup once a week between now and spring. 
Butternut Squash Soup 
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup yellow onion (I buy mine pre-chopped)
1 butternut squash, peeled and chopped (you can sometimes buy them pre-cut too)
1 russet potato, peeled and chopped
2 -3 carrots, peeled and chopped
32 oz.  chicken broth
1 can of coconut milk 
1/2  tsp garlic salt
1-2 bay leaves
chile powder, black and white pepper, salt, and cumin added to taste.

What to do with them:
Add the olive oil, onions, and garlic salt to a large pot. Stir and cook on low heat until onions begin to get translucent (about 3 mins). Add in the chopped vegetables, broth, spices, and bay leaves and turn the heat up to med-high. As soon as it begins to boil bring it down to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes, or until the squash is fork-tender. Then remove from heat, remove the bay leaves, and pour in the coconut milk. Transfer the mixture to a blender in small batches (about three) and puree. Store in a large bowl or serve and enjoy. Makes about six servings.
So simple, so good, and a great make-ahead meal for anyone doing NaNo with no time to cook later. 

Mmmm…perfect for Halloween

Any Halloween plans? Like to cook? Ready to steal your kid's candy on the 31st? Ha! 

*Witch by Arthur Rackham, whose freaky artwork scared the crap out of me as a kid and still does today.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Time To Stretch As A Writer

Yoga cat says stretching feels good
How is it possibly the end of October already? And why am I still wearing T-shirts and flip flops? Really, we've been having the most glorious fall here in Colorado. Beautiful sunny days in the mid 70's.

Lucky me, I've been taking advantage of the nice days by going for lots of walks and visiting the mountains. I'm still in that rare space between writing projects where I'm even free to go to a movie in the middle of the afternoon if I want. Weird, I know! I saw Gone Girl during its first week of release. I never get to do that.

But I've got a tentative plan to get my butt back in the chair. There's a story that has been haunting me for a couple of years now. I've had to keep it simmering on low while I finished the second novel in my woman warrior trilogy (which I'm currently querying).  It's very different from what I've been working on, falling more in the fantasy realm. Anyway, you know when an idea won't go away after a couple of years it probably has some staying power and is worth pursuing.

So…as I find myself ready to embark on a new project, and, seeing how it is the end of October, I've got this crazy idea to write this new project NaNo style (National Novel Writing Month). I HAVE NEVER DONE NANO BEFORE. It's so NOT my thing. I'm a slow, deliberate writer who works linearly from start to finish, sometimes taking years to complete a novel. And yet I believe in stretching and growing and trying new things in order to get better, and I really need to learn to shut off my inner editor.

I'm thinking this stand alone story idea is perfect for a month-long distraction. I may not officially join the NaNo crowd, because who needs to be publicly embarrassed for their slow wordsmithing, but I intend to write in solidarity with the fleet-of-finger types who put up ridiculous word-count numbers each day during November.

I'm going to dedicate the entire month to the story and see how far I can get before detouring back to the third novel in my trilogy. Meanwhile, blogging may be spotty (as if it isn't already).

So who else will be trying to put up mad numbers during November? Do you outline with meticulous notes? Or are you a pantser like me who finds her way by feel in the dark? Actually, I'm more of a hybrid these days, as I have sketched out some ideas ahead of time so I won't get completely lost in the word forest.

*Creative Commons photo by Peter Mulligan


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Dead King And Grim-Visaged War

A pair of interesting articles got my attention recently, mostly because they are somewhat related to my writing.  And maybe yours too.

 The first was this story about the forensic evidence concerning the death of Richard III. As you probably remember, they discovered the monarch's disfigured body two years ago under a parking lot in Leicester, England. That alone is just mind boggling, given he died over five hundred years ago. 

But now researchers are able to describe in detail the wounds that likely killed Richard III (the last English monarch to die on the battlefield), based on the marks found on his skeleton. Apparently the final death blows involved a pair of hits to the back of the head, though he was also stabbed in the face a few times, had his scalp nearly taken off by a sharp blade more than once, and had a rondel dagger driven into the top of his skull that left a key-hole-shaped puncture wound. Someone had also allegedly stabbed him in the backside, post-mortem, as a final insult after his body armor was removed.

Battle is a grim, violent business I never wish to experience. And yet I choose to write about it often, putting my character into the thick of it.

Which leads me to the second article I found in The Independent about women who write about war. Here's the opening quote from the article:

"When we reflect on the greatest war stories in the literary canon, they are tales of horror and heroism that have erupted across history's front lines. They are also – invariably –imagined by men, from The Iliad to Slaughterhouse 5. The assumption, when it comes to war fiction, has been that women can't write about battle because they haven't been there, on the front line."

I'm happy to say the article goes on to try and disprove that opening statement, giving examples of stories written by women about war. Though most are offerings that skew more toward the effects of war on people outside of actual battle. 

Historically, women haven't tackled the subject of battle often in their stories, but the idea that we can't because we never experienced it isn't an argument that sits well with me. Certainly there are men writing war stories who have never been in battle either. But to assert a writer can't describe a subject adequately because they've never experienced it, and especially because of their gender, seems a petty attitude. I've never cast a magic spell, fought a dragon, or flown a space ship either, but I'm pretty sure I could craft a story about any one of those scenarios. In that case my credibility would probably be enhanced by the fact that none of you have done those things either. But because people have gone to war and do know what it's really like, I do understand how a lack of experience is a pitfall for writers to beware of, I just don't accept it as an absolute. And I hope you don't either.

I'm a competent thinker. I can interpret the trauma of nine head wounds taken by a king who has fallen off his horse and imagine the terror and brutality of that moment. I can understand the anger behind the stab wound issued after the dead body was slung over a saddle and carted off for an ignoble burial. As a writer my job isn't to depict battle through a documentary-type lens but to render a dramatized version of it so I can show how it affects the characters and the story's outcome. I may not always get this part right on the first, second, or even third try, but it doesn't mean I need to shy away from writing about war because I haven't experienced it first-hand. 

And I'd argue it's the same with any subject we choose to write about, including depictions of race, gender, and sexual orientation other than our own. We want to bring as much authenticity to a scene as we can. Doesn't mean we have to have lived it ourselves. A fiction writers responsibility is to tell the story in the most compelling way we know how, relying on research, gut instinct, and our emotional intelligence. And a healthy dose of a good imagination helps too.

Have you ever felt like there was a story you wanted to write but didn't because you were intimidated by the subject matter? What's something you're writing about now that you never experienced first-hand? Did you know the dagger wound to the top of the head wasn't one of the fatal blows??? Whaaaat? 

* Top illustration of the Battle of Bosworth Field via Britannica


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dream Is An Action Verb

For so many of us, writing novels and seeing them published is a dream, whether through traditional means or independent release. It's a dream I've been holding onto for, well, a few decades.

There's a steep learning curve for some dreams, though. Twenty-five years ago (and probably even longer) I knew I wanted to write novels. For my first I decided to write a thriller! A murder mystery with undercover cops and intrigue and drama and…it was terrible. Couldn't even figure out how to get past thirty pages.

The desire to write was there, but the skill was lacking. I didn't understand story structure, or character development, or any elements of craft beyond creating that initial inciting incident, ending with some sort of climax, and a bunch of dialogue in between. All I knew was I wanted to write stories like the ones I was reading.

Fast forward a few years and I still wanted to write and publish a novel. I had all these things I wanted to say, all this pent up creativity I needed to pour onto the page. I'd taken a creative writing class, but I still didn't know how to shape a story properly. In fact, I didn't even know enough to know I didn't know what I was doing. Made it about fifty pages on a historical fiction book and ran out of gas.

Then, well, Harry Potter came along, and I did what many mothers who write do: I decided to write a children's story. How hard could it be to write a middle grade novel, right? Yeah. Thing is, I actually finished that novel…five years later.

By then I had picked up some books on craft and at least knew enough to structure the thing in three acts. And the internet had arrived! I was online talking to other writers in forums and learning from them how to elevate the writing quality. I also attended several writing conferences and sat in on workshops taught by successful agents and bestselling novelists. I finally understood how much I didn't know.

I gave up querying that first novel, knowing it wasn't the ONE, but the dream wasn't about to die. I began a few other dud novels after that, but set those aside when they proved not good enough. Then I hit on my current project. Decades after my first attempt to write novel-length fiction, I've now got two novels in my trilogy completed, stories I'm very proud of. I'm not finished learning, but I think I'm in a good place right now in relation to my dream.

But that isn't necessarily the point of this post.

I had reason to reflect on my journey recently when I nearly opened my mouth to tell someone that maybe it was time for them to give up on their dream. I've watched this person struggle, losing job after job, always putting their dream of being a musician first when they ought to have been focused more on carving out some security in life. But…who am I to tell anyone to give up?

I will say, however, there is a difference between hoping and wishing a dream will come true and actually working toward a goal. I'll hold the door open on a dream for as long as it takes, if someone is actively working to learn their craft and improve. We've all seen those people who walk around sour on life like they gave up caring about anything a long time ago. I don't ever want to be responsible for putting that look on somebody's face. Even unrealized dreams can keep us going if we continue to nurture them. But, like love, dream is an action verb.

Ever wanted to give up on your dream? Or tempted to tell someone to grow up and face reality already?

For some great advice about motivation and working toward a goal from the ground up, check out this letter Eugene O'Neill wrote to his struggling son. Tough love.