Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Little Light

This is my beloved little table-top tree. This understandably raises a few questions, so let me answer them, here: No, I don't celebrate Christmas. Yes, I'm Jewish. Yes, this tree may have been the subject of a few minor disagreements in my household.

I know, I know, it's a little odd. But I love Christmas trees. I always used to envy my friends who had them growing up. They're beautiful and festive and each ornament carries its own story, and they smell wonderful (when they're real, anyway, which this little guy is) and make the whole month feel like a celebration.

They also, true to their pagan roots, are a light held up against the encroaching dark. In these, the shortest days of the year, when the sun makes the briefest of appearances, and the whole world is brown and bare and covered in snow, and spring seems like nothing more than a dream, the evergreen tree helps us to hold back the long, dark hopelessness of winter.

So, I hope the same for all of you, no matter which holiday you celebrate or which religion, if any, has your faith: may you find some light to hold back the darkness. May you have hope and joy and peace this holiday season.

I'll be off this week and next, and back for IWSG (and visiting all of your blogs!) on January 8th. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Research is Character is Plot

Ok, first: THANK YOU INTERNET!! (And by "internet", I mean all of you beautiful people who came, read my plea, and left a comment last week with fantastic research tips.) I got a heretofore unimagined wealth of great, helpful information, which I am now using. Like, right now. Right this very second. Oh yeah, I'm a multitasker-extraordinaire.

Ok, fine. Not really. BUT I've been using your ideas already, and I'm spending a day at my local library this week, so that sort of counts.

I want to take a step back, though, and answer a question no one has asked. Why? Because I need a lead-in to the body of this post, obviously. Duh.

Last week, I wrote out a veritable laundry list of research needs for my new book, and explained that I needed these items for, well, really important writing stuff. Which begs the question, Ancient Greece and Tibet and the British Raj and Australian sheep and my good God what the heck is wrong with you?? Are you trying to give yourself a brain aneurysm???

Oh no, wait. That's not the question I was going to answer. Sorry. It was this one: Why exactly do you need this research to create a plot? You say character is plot; why can't you just use the characters instead of doing this utterly psychotic amount of research?

Ahhh, sneaky me, using my own words against myself! Well, smarty-pants, let me give you an example.

So, I had this idea to have one of the lifetimes for my souls take place in a remote village in Tibet, around 500-600 CE. When I came up with the idea, I thought of writing it from the POV of an old man on the day his next door neighbor, an old woman, lies dying. Without giving away too much, this little story revolved around the idea that he was supposed to marry this woman - as in an arranged marriage - but instead, he married someone else.

Cool. Workable idea. Then I did some very preliminary research into Tibetan culture...and found out that Tibet is one of the very few areas in the world where polyandry was widely practiced. For those of you who don't want to click on that Wikipedia link (and really, you should; the article is freaking fascinating), polyandry is "a form of polygamy whereby a woman takes two or more husbands at the same time."

Yes, you read that right. One lady, many husbands.

No, this isn't some form of ancient feminism. I had to read quite a bit more to wrap my head around this concept, but the basic idea is this: in a place like Himalayan Tibet, where there is very little arable land, it becomes critical to keep a family's land intact and not divide it up among all of the children (or, ok, sons) into small, unsustainable plots. To that end, the eldest son is considered the head of the family, and the heir. So this lucky guy finds a gal who is absolutely NOT from his clan, and marries her, and then, by proxy, all of his brothers are automatically married to this lady, too. Whatever children she bears, no matter which brother is the actual father, are considered the children of the eldest brother. And all of these people - wife, multiple brother/husbands, children, and any remaining members of the previous generation - live together, usually in one large house. (And thus you can see why people aren't allowed to marry within their clans; they really are all related to each other.)

It's a creative solution to some difficult problems, when you think about it. In addition to dealing with issues of inheritance, polyandry was also thought to help control population - again, important in a place with limited resources - as well as increase the likelihood of children surviving to adulthood. Really cool, from an anthropological standpoint, but a major problem for me and my cute little idea.

As you can guess, this information threw my seed of an idea on its tiny, undeveloped head. Maybe I do have an old guy with a wife, but are there other husbands, too? Or did he go off on his own and break all acceptable tradition, and marry one lady for himself, thereby losing all right to his family's land?

And anyway, what is the concept of a village in ancient Tibet? Is there even such a thing as a next-door neighbor, or are there just these clans living together in isolated pockets? If so, can our old man even have a neighbor who is dying? And are these marriages arranged, or not?

So, you see, in this case, the research informs everything. This is often the case with a society and culture that I'm unfamiliar with. I can come up with some nice ideas, but until I learn something about the time period and place, those ideas are fairly useless.

Which means... that I really do have to do all of that research. I know, I'm crazy. But if I can pull it off, it might just make a really effing cool book.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Confessions and Pleas (and PLEASE)

It might seem like a weird intrusion of the real world into imaginary life, but non-fiction research really is an essential part of the process of writing a novel. Unless I'm going to make up my own entire world, I need to be able to create believable descriptions of fictitious characters living in non-fictitious places - and time periods. Otherwise, people who read my books will spend a ton of time saying, "Hey, there weren't any Ferrari's in 10th century Egypt! What the hell kind of book is this?!" rather than getting involved in the conflict and the characters, and generally doing things that mean they're going to keep reading.

I've mentioned briefly that this new book I'm working on is shaping up to need a whole lot of that research....which isn't going so well.

Ok, I admit it: the internet age has ruined me. I no longer remember how to do traditional research.

I really don't know what I used to do before some dudes invented Wikipedia. I mean, I have these vague ideas that I read encyclopedias and books and stuff, but I don't even know if physical encyclopedias still exist. These days, when I need to do research, I spend my time wading through mountains of Google results for things like "British colonial era in India British family life", or "Tibet mountain villages ancient culture gender roles".

Yes, I know; my Google searches look like stream-of-consciousness exercises. This is what happens when you try to get quick answers to complex cultural and historical questions on the internet.

Clearly, this reliance on these new-fangled interwebs isn't working too well for me. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with Wikipedia when you need to quickly find out how many people live in Botswana, or what the state animal of Montana is (for the record, it's a Grizzly bear.) But if you need to understand why a British family might have moved to India in the 1890s, and to get a clear picture of their lives there, as well as understand how an Indian woman would have viewed and interacted with said British family, then Wikipedia isn't going to be super helpful.

This wasn't really an issue when I was doing research for Cloudland. That's one of the benefits of making up a land in the sky: no research required. The rest of what I needed to look into was fairly simple, and pretty easy to find. Want to know what a school social worker does? Great. Interview one. Want to know how kids process death? Perfect. There are giant piles of child psychology books on that one.

My new project, however, is going to be heavily reliant on good research. Right now, I have ideas for six lifetimes for my two souls... none of which take place in present-day New England, which is the only time and place I'm qualified to talk about without doing some research first.

This is, as I said, a bit of an embarrassing problem. As my Google search terms grow ever longer, my actual tangible results wear thin.

So, internet friends, I'm going to do something silly and embarrassing and rather odd, and ask for your help. I need some reminders of where to look, and how to research, any or all of the following:

  • Day-to-day life in the Classical Period of Ancient Greece, including specifics on the worship and temples and priests of Apollo;
  • Day-to-day life, religion, culture, and gender roles in villages in ancient mountainous Tibet, 500-600 CE; 
  • Information on the indigenous peoples of South America in pre-Columbus times (around 1200-1300 CE), specifically in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, and the details of their culture, religion, and daily lives;
  • The lives and work of the British colonialists and their families in India around 1890, as well as the lives of the Indian people, with specific information on Hindu religion at the time, and any rebellions being mounted against the British. I'm also specifically wondering how these two cultures viewed each other;
  • Life as a sheep farmer in southern Australia in the 1960s or 70s, including day-to-day running of the farm, climate and weather patterns, as well as motorcycle culture during that same period;
  • And finally (for now), the day-to-day life of a preeminent bio-geneticist doing cutting edge research, in the present day. 
I'm not expecting anyone to give me information on the topics above, of course. I'm ready and willing to roll up my sleeves and do the dirty work; I just need a little, eensy, minor bit of help remembering how. I'll take any advice you've got. Please?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Insecure Writers: Be Brave

NOTE: It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! For those who don't remember, it's an online group created by Alex J. Cavanaugh for writers. Most of whom are insecure. So we support each other from the safety and comfort of our desks. 

I've been thinking about this particular post for a while. Not the content, exactly, but the fact that it's an IWSG post, and what that means.

I have to admit that I've mostly used IWSG Wednesdays as an opportunity to vent about my most recent and pressing set of insecurities. Occasionally (ok, once) I used it to share an inspiring idea.

And there's nothing wrong with any of this; that's part of what a support group is all about.

The thing is, I don't really want to do that this week. I want to try something new.

It's been a rough week. Not bad, necessarily, just tough. A lot of ups and a lot of downs, which, as I'm learning, is part of being an author. Some people will love your work, and some will hate it, or, even worse, just not care much about it one way or the other. And somehow, through all of the conflicting feedback/responses/reviews/etc.,  I have to learn how to keep my head on straight and not pay too much attention to the criticism or the praise.

That's not easy. And that's not specific to writers, either.

Anyone who has ever cared about anything they produce, in any deeply personal way, has to struggle through this, too. Artists, yes, but also any person who loves and cares about their job or their cooking or child-rearing, or whatever that thing is, that thing that motivates and inspires and drives each of us to work and work more and hone and perfect and sweat and curse and laugh with sheer joy. That thing that comes from somewhere inside us, somewhere intensely personal and, I think, profound. It could be a presentation at work, a novel, a painting, a research study. It could be anything.

It's different for each of us, but sharing it with the world is universally terrifying. We take a part of ourselves, a piece of our being that we value tremendously, and offer it up to the rest of the world for judgement. It could be incredible, everything we've ever dreamed of, but it could also be a disaster.

No wonder so many of us choose not to take that risk. This is why people write books and then put them in drawer to sit and gather dust for thirty years, or create an innovative business plan for a start-up and then shelve it forever.

Here's the thing, though: it's terrifying and risky, but it's also vital. I can't help but think that it's better to try, and possibly to fail, then to never share the best part of yourself. It's a cliche, but it's true - if you never try, you'll never be able to succeed. You'll never know how amazing it could be, to realize your best and deepest dream. If it doesn't work, I have to think it's better to know that I tried, that I did everything I could, than to spend the rest of my life filled with regret, wondering, "what if...?"

So that's what all of this preamble is about. That's what I'm trying to say: it's normal to be afraid, but don't you dare let it stop you.

If you need more, there's this, from Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine... It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same...”

And this:

Whoever you are, reading this right now, feeling terrified, I hope this helps, in some way. You're not alone at ALL, and all of the rest of us can't wait to see what you have to share. Please share it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

This Novel Is Just Another Play

This is going to be a shortie but sweetie in honor of the holiday (i.e. in honor of the fact that I'm hosting Thanksgiving tomorrow and must give long, careful thought to important things like how long I should cook my sweet potatoes. Obviously.).

I've posted before about the value of having good friends, not just for life, but for writing. For me, these are the two people in my life who will listen to me fumble my way through a new idea, offer thoughts and encouragement, help me climb out of a self-induced plot hole, and read the towering pile of over-writing that I like to call a first draft.

The particular tidbit I want to talk about today involves one of these amazing women: my good friend who we'll call the Don (which can be interpreted in many different ways. Take your pick.) The other woman, the New Messiah, has made her debut on this blog already.

I've known the Don for a long, long time. We met our freshman year of college, which (just to age myself here) puts our friendship at the ripe old age of 15 years. Funny enough, we didn't like each other at all when we first met, but that's another story for another time. At this point, the Don is more like my sister than my friend. She was there when I wrote my first play, encouraging and helping and calling me out on my copious amounts of writing-related (and, ok, life-related) crap. She starred in that play, actually. She's read so much of my writing over the years that she could probably pick it out of a line-up while blindfolded. She's also one of those people who needs books like she needs air; she never, ever goes anywhere without one. It's a common sight to meet her at a restaurant and find her engrossed in a book while she waits, glasses perched on her nose, trendy scarf tossed artfully around her shoulders as she pores over the pages. She's also funny, honest, and too damn smart for her own good.

All of this makes her an invaluable critic.

Last week, I met the Don at one of our favorite haunts. Sure enough, she was reading while waiting for me, knee-deep in a book, sipping on a cocktail. We did what we usually do when we meet: we ordered a large amount of smoked and/or salted pork, drank a little too much, caught up on our lives, and probably cried. And, we talked about the idea I'm working on. The Don is familiar with this idea, of course. I've been telling her about it, bit by bit, for months now, and already her input and ideas have been priceless.

That night, I confessed my fears and struggles with writing in the first person, much like I did on this blog not too long ago. She let me go on for a while about my new strain of insanity, patiently listening as I laid out my concerns, and then when I was finished she looked me straight in the eye and said, "Why are you worrying about this? You're a playwright."

I stopped, and blinked, and said, "What does that have to do with anything?"

She gave me her patented eyebrow lift, and answered, "You write monologues." The "dumbass" at the end was, of course, inferred.

Well. DUH, right? I felt both very relieved and very, very stupid. The Don had an excellent point: a monologue is nothing if not a long piece of text written in the first person. How had I not realized this?

It's amazing how much this has eased my mind. Instead of being worried about my ability to pull off a first person POV, I've been imagining that this piece of the book is really just one really really long monologue. And that's not even unheard of, for a play: Tony Kushner has done it brilliantly (readers of this blog will already know that he's one of my writing heroes, but seriously, if you've never read or seen Homebody/Kabul, go grab a copy and read the first act. It's a phenomenal, inspiring, daring piece of writing.)

So that's what I'm doing: I'm writing a monologue. This, I know how to do. This is fun. This can even be easy. With one simple sentence, the Don was able to ease my fears, make me feel dumb, and change my perspective. Not bad for one night's work. I'll take it - and her - with a great deal of gratitude.

(As a postscript/side note... did I say this was going to be short??? Why do I even bother pretending??)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Snapshots From My Brain

I'm doing something I rarely do on this blog: I'm sitting down to post with zero idea of what I want to write about today. I usually have some framework in mind, or at least a theme, but this morning... not so much.

Excited yet???

Me too!!!

So, I think what I'll do is brainstorm right here. You know, just freewrite, like flipping through my brain's current photo album, and see what comes out. It'll be a little experiment. And I'll do it in list form, because lists make me feel happy and safe. So, without further ado...

  • NaNoWriMo. I'm not so much doing it as I am finding new and creative ways to work around doing it. You see, I thought at first that I might leap headlong into the fray of NaNo, throwing caution to the wind, and - gasp - write without a plot or an outline or anything but a vague sort of idea-thingy-dingy. You'll be shocked to learn that this lasted about ten minutes, before I looked in dumb dismay at my computer screen, and said (maybe out loud. I'm not telling), "I have no idea what the f*&$ I'm trying to write about." Yes, I confirmed once and for all that I am not a pantser, because no matter how hard I try, my brain just doesn't work that way. I can't write without at least a brief sketch of a road map, it turns out, and I can't make that map without knowing my characters.
  • Not worry! I haven't stopped trying; I've just changed tactics. I may not be able to write a 50,000 word novel in a month, but I might be able to write 50,000 words of character analysis, free-writing, and outlines in a month. That's what I'm doing now. Perhaps some people might call that "cheating"; I call it "changing the goals so I don't get ridiculously frustrated and unnecessarily upset with myself and actually manage to get something done."
  • Guess what? It's working! I don't have anything close to 50,000 words, and I might not hit that target (thank you, life, people, day job, and so on), but I am churning out my brainstorming quite a bit faster than usual. And since I LOVE brainstorming so, so, so much, anything I can do to speed the damn process up is a big fat WIN in my book.
  • For those following this new book of mine, Sam's name is now Taylor. I took a brief and entirely unscientific poll, and people seem to have much fewer immediate gender associations about "Taylor". So that's what I'm going with. 
  • Taylor is, yes, still very keen on getting me to tell their damn story (I'm going with 'they' instead of 'he' or 'she' on the excellent advice of Mr. M.L. Swift. Thanks, Mike!) Thanks in large part to all of your great advice, I'm now enjoying it rather than wondering if I've truly lost my marbles. 
  • I'm also working on a few new sections/lifetimes, involving an old man in ancient Tibet, and a nomad in pre-Columbus South America. The amount of research I'm going to have to do for this thing is starting to get a bit alarming. 
  • No, I haven't forgotten about Cloudland. Editing is truly done. I've queried a few agents and am now waiting, quite calmly and patiently, to hear back on this first round of queries. I do not, of course, refresh my inbox 75,000 times per minute, nor do I do anything foolish like jump out of my skin every time I have a new email notification. Of course not. Ha, ha, ha.... UGH. As a side note, how the hell do people stay sane doing this????? 
  • I also entered Cloudland into some contests. Some results are encouraging, but far from finished. I'll keep quiet about that for now, but will hopefully have news.... later. Things are brewing.

Hey... that wasn't so bad! I guess I can write without an outline, as long as what I'm writing - is an outline! 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Wait, I Changed My Mind

NOTE: I was going to write about NaNoWriMo, but I got distracted. Again. I'll get back to it next week...I think. 

Last week, I wrote at length (of course) about my new idea. You should probably read that post, because otherwise this isn't going to make a whole lot of sense. I titled that post "Let Me Inside Your Head", but I think I might want to take that back.

See, I'm still working on the gender-free first person narrative section of the book (I wasn't joking; go read it). I took the good advice you all gave me to heart, and just went for it. Dove head-first into my character and didn't look back.

Ok, that's not entirely true. Actually, I first tried writing a snippet of a scene (you know, brainstorming), proceeded to have a minor panic attack about my inability to write in the first person, and retreated to the relative safety of my character analysis instead.

Here's the thing, though: I usually write these analyses in the third person, like a psychoanalyst writing up a patient. And I did that for about two paragraphs before I got really fed up with not using any gender pronouns (no 'he', no 'she' - hello, stupid diction gymnastics!), and switched to the first person, anyway.

And then the most amazing thing happened: the words just started pouring out. It felt for all the world like my hands couldn't keep up with the words in my head; the story wanted to be told. Or maybe this character wanted to be heard. Either way, I couldn't stop the story. It was all back-story, all of the details that might never appear in the finished novel but that are essential in crafting a three-dimensional person: how this person grew up, why this person acts the way they do (Oh for God's sake, let's just use the character name - Sam - and dispense with the ridiculous maneuvering), what Sam is afraid of, and all of Elizabeth George's other character attributes.

This was amazing. This was inspiring. It keeps happening, too - every time I sit down to work on Sam, it's a flood of words.

And believe it or not, this is becoming a problem.

Now, this is going to sound crazy. I mean, I know I say that sort of thing a lot on this blog, and maybe it might have the 'boy who cried wolf' effect, but honestly, this is really going to sound crazy.

I can't get out of Sam's head.

I know, I know, you're thinking "Ok Liz, that's cute and dramatic and all, but come on now. Stop snorting the special blue fairy dust and tell us the truth."

This is the truth, though, melodrama and mind-altering substances notwithstanding. I start writing, and when it's time to stop, I can't. It takes me a long time to move out of Sam's headspace. I quite honestly feel dazed, and - call the loony bin, because this is even crazier - I feel submerged in whatever emotion Sam was feeling. Sadness, loss, fear, joy; whatever I was writing about, I'm still feeling it when I get up from the computer. And God forbid I should be interrupted while I'm writing, because then I'm pretty sure there's a non-gender-specified Australian sheep farmer (yes, Sam is an Australian sheep farmer; don't ask) walking around in my body, talking to my wife, giving massages, texting my friends, and sleeping in my bed.

Which is weird.

This has never happened to me before. Sure, I get engrossed in my stories; sure, it's hard for me to be interrupted; and yes, of course I'm often still thinking about what I was writing when I get up and move about the rest of my day. But I don't usually feel like I'm stuck in another person's brain. A FICTIONAL person's brain, which I myself MADE UP.

I'm telling myself this is a good thing. I'm telling myself that I'm really getting to know my character, that I'm really digging down into my, like, writer's soul, man, and that's, like, deep and stuff.

Needless to say, I'm not sure I believe myself. Maybe this is one of the perils of writing in the first person, or maybe I am snorting special blue fairy dust. The thing is, I don't even know if I really have Sam's voice down yet. I don't think I do. I think I don't have a tone yet, or a set style, or Sam's real, true voice, and I think I'm still having Sam say and think things that aren't accurate. And yet, I can't get out of Sam's head. It's confusing and unnerving and for the first time in my life, I'm having to come up with ways to transition out of writing and into the rest of my day, and put Sam away.

So yes, I think I might change my mind. It's not "Let Me Inside Your Head", it's "Let Me OUT". At least, let me out when it's time to get out. Please?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Insecure Writers: Let Me Inside Your Head!

NOTE: It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! For those who don't remember, it's an online group created by Alex J. Cavanaugh for writers. Most of whom are insecure. So we support each other from the safety and comfort of our desks. 

It's NaNoWriMo (ahem, that's National Novel Writing Month) time, so naturally, this post has a little bit to do with that venerable event. I'm not going to talk about it much, though, or really at all, at least beyond my introductory sentence, so this entire paragraph is a big, fat tease.


Not to worry, though, this is still a post about insecurity.

SOOOO, in honor of the aforementioned event that I will no longer discuss, I'm trying to move waaaaaaaay outside of my comfort zone, and work on my next novel without an outline.

Yeah, it's not going very well. Readers of this blog will know that while this method of writing (also known as 'pantsing') is a valid approach, it makes my head spin round and round in nauseating little circles while elves of anxiety tap dance in my stomach, and I subsequently produce nothing but nonsensical garbage.

None of which is the point of this post, but it's atmospheric. Y'know, setting the scene.

Which is this: See, I have this idea that in one of the stories in this new book, the narrator's gender is never revealed (an idea I am gratefully taking from Jeannette Winterson). The whole book is really a love story between two souls, and while it jumps from lifetime to lifetime, the souls are the same. It's also about love, and fear, and faith. And what better way, what more interesting way, to talk about all of this, and to explore how our souls love, than by taking gender out of the equation? I mean, does a soul have a gender? We as humans are so gender-focused that it's hard for us to think outside of that paradigm, but it's such a fascinating issue and question that I want to raise it.

Which means that I can't write this section in my favorite point of view, third person limited, which is what I used when I wrote Cloudland. I can't write it in third person omniscient, either, because anything in the third person would require serious and absurd diction gymnastics to avoid ever saying "he" or "she". No, if I want the narrator's gender to remain unspecified, I have to write in the first person.

MAN, is that harder than I ever expected. There are a lot of reasons for this, including my own lack of familiarity with this POV. But to write in the first person, you have to find the voice of your character. Not only how he or she speaks, but how this person thinks. And it's so easy, it's in fact way too easy, for that voice to sound insincere or forced or false. Because really, what you're doing is moving outside of your own head, and into someone else's. Not kind of/sort of into someone else's head, like in the third person limited, but really in there.

Add to this mess the fact that this narrator I'm creating is by nature a very private person, and you have a recipe for a lovely and explosive writing disaster. I mean, how can you be inside the head of someone who is intensely private??? Right - you can't. They don't like. They kick you out.

So this is my major insecurity for today. Can I pull this off??? Can I write in the first person? Or am I trying to do something beyond me? And even if I'm capable of it, will this character let me?

Time will tell, I guess. In the meantime, any and all advice, words of encouragement, dire warnings, and other thoughts are much appreciated.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Extra Special Bonus Post: AWARDS!

I know, I know; it's a Tuesday. What on earth am I doing posting???? 

Well, I've been lucky enough to be nominated for a couple of awards recently, so I decided to create a super-special extra bonus fun-time post. (Read: I'm way overdue on responding to these nominations and so I'm trying to make up for it with an extra post. I know, I'm a procrastinator. I'm sorry.) I'll be back with my normal writing-related post tomorrow. 

First up: the Sunshine Award!

I should preface this by saying that I'm going to follow my nominator, the lovely Ashley Nixon's, lead here, and copy what she did...because I don't actually know what the rules are. Ahem.

Fave color: Purple
Fave animal: Just one??? I love animals. Seriously. I'm a nature TV show nerd. I can't think of a better night than curling up to watch the Blue Planet for the 37th time. As I said, I'm a nerd.
Fave number: 6
Fave non-alcoholic drink: apple cider
Fave alcoholic drink: Good Irish whiskey or red wine
Facebook or Twitter: Is it a bad idea to admit via my blog that I think they're necessary evils? 
Passions: Writing! Also various politically dangerous topics like guns, the environment, feminism, gay marriage, and so on. (See how I mentioned those without saying what I think about them? Nice and avoidant.)
Prefer giving or getting presents? Giving. Would anyone admit to liking to get them better? That's like saying. "Hi, I'm kind of selfish!"
Fave city? Oh this is too hard to answer. I love my home - Boston - but I also have a love/hate relationship with NYC, and I fell in love a little bit with London, Sienna, and various tiny cities in Vermont, too. 
Fave TV Shows: Sherlock (BBC), Elementary (more Sherlock on CBS), Six Feet Under, NATURE SHOWS!

As for nominations, well I'm going to break some rules and combine my noms below. Sorry, artistic privilege.

On to the Liebster Award! Thank you, Adrienne Reiter, for nominating me!

So I'm going to obey Adrienne, here, and follow her rules. 

First, 11 random facts about ME:
  1. I sleep with my feet sticking out of the covers because they get really hot at night. 
  2. Conversely (perversely?), my hands and feet are freezing at all other times.
  3. I am a huge baseball and football fan, in direct contrast to the fact that I'm also a tree-hugging yogi. 
  4. I was once pick-pocketed while in Rome, but I chased the perps down and got my wallet back. True story.
  5. I'll try almost any food once, but bugs, amphibians, and invertebrates gross me out. As food items, anyway.
  6. I was a musical theatre major in college for about a month, until I woke out of my daze and switched to acting. I still secretly love musicals, though.
  7. I'm afraid of ice. Not the substance itself, but of slipping and falling on it. 
  8. I play guitar.
  9. I have three tattoos. No, they're not naughty, nor are they Chinese or Japanese characters. 
  10. I have terrible, awful, no-good very bad vision.
  11. I love all things chocolate and peanut butter.
Ok, now the questions for my nominees:
  1. What’s the meaning of life? What’s the point?
  2. What are you best at?
  3. If you were captured by aliens and put into an arena and they used their power of divination to determine your greatest fear or the one creature/animal/monster fake or real—what would appear out of the shadows to face you?
  4. Favorite gig of all time?
  5. How do you boil an egg?
  6. If you could magic your mind into the body of any living human being on planet Earth, who would it be? (Keep in mind there’s no going back.)
  7. If a clown jumped out of a van in the street while you were minding your own business and handed you a big pot of pink paint and a big crush, and said, “You mush paint that house over there pink, if you do then you’ll get this,” he shows you the biggest diamond you’ve ever seen in your life, what would you do?
  8. Favorite food?
  9. If you were suddenly transformed or transmogrified into a great bowl along with your equivalent selves from every country in the world, and you were asked by God to compete against each other in a variety of sports and test, what self from what country would win and why?
  10. The best thing you’ve done for another human being?
  11. What are your long term life goals?
And my answers:
  1. 42. Obviously. You can also consult this post.
  2. Effort. I dive into everything I do with everything I have. I can't stand doing things halfway.
  3. That monster from Pan's Labyrinth. Honestly, when it appeared onscreen I thought someone had ripped it from my subconscious mind. Terrifying. 
  4. Writing full-time. That would be amazing.
  5. With the power of my mind. Duh.
  6. Erm, I think I'd rather stay where I am. 
  7. Give me a break. This is SO fake. Since when do clowns have access to gigantic diamonds?
  8. Bacon, chocolate, peanut butter, sweet potatoes, roasted butternut squash, garlic, olives - oh, was I supposed to choose just one?
  9. Again, I'll go with 42.
  10. I can't reveal it, or I'll ruin it.
  11. Writing. Full-time. Successfully.
And finally, my nominees!!

Sunshine Award:

Liebster Award:

Check out their blogs!!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thoughts from the Reject Pile: Tips on Brainstorming

I know I've written about this topic before, but the last time, I wrote about it in retrospect, remembering how it had worked for Cloudland, with that lovely rosy tint of memory coloring my thoughts (ok, fine, it was more like the sludgy brown film of frustration, but whatever.) Now that I'm freshly enmeshed in brainstorming my new idea, I find that I have some new ideas to offer.

To be entirely honest, I found that out because I kept cutting sections about brainstorming out of other posts. Once I had collected a bunch of rejected paragraphs, I decided I could shmush them all together into a brand spanking new post. And here we are - the reject pile!!! Isn't that exciting??

So what I realized is that brainstorming takes a very specific shape for me. Yes, sometimes I do write out ideas, and explore them, via a sort of stream-of-consciousness conversation with myself. But more often than not, I just write.

I know this seems self-evident, since, y'know, I'm a writer, but that's how I brainstorm best: by writing. Not by freewriting, although that's the catalyst, but by actually writing out scenes.

When I'm brainstorming, ideas often occur to me as fragments of prose or dialogue. So, when I'm developing each, I write out a brief scene-let that's built around that fragment. I then end up with lots of little bits of writing, which I call "freewriting". Right now, I have at least two or two bits for each of my ideas of lives for my two souls. Then once I have a fragment of a scene written out, I can see how the idea works, and where my characters want to take it. More often than not, these fragments don't end up in the finished manuscript, but sometimes they do. The first chapter of Cloudland came directly from one of my freewrites.

So, how does this actually work?

Well, I know I want one of the stories in this new book to involve a love affair between a Greek god and a mortal. When I was first brainstorming that idea, I was trying to work out a bunch of different things: which god, what kind of affair, how they meet, who they are, etc. I settled on Apollo as the god, and then I had a flash of an idea, a fragment of prose, really, about how they might first meet. It appeared in my brain as "The first time Apollo saw him... The second time Apollo saw him..." and so on, with each "time" being a new paragraph briefly detailing each sighting, following a rising arc of action that begins with the first sighting and ends with Apollo actually meeting this person. I then thought of the myth that Apollo, as the god of the sun, rides a chariot that pulls the sun across the sky, and decided to use that: the sightings happen when Apollo is in his chariot, making the sun rise.

(Yes, I know that it was actually Helios who pulled the sun, and that it was only later that this became associated with Apollo, but this is all part of the glorious freedom of artistic license.) 

So, I wrote that flash of an idea out. I have no idea if this will end up in the finished book, but it helped me figure out some things about Apollo and this unnamed to-be lover of his - for example, that at the time of the first sighting too many of Apollo's lovers have suddenly died or been transformed (thank you, Greek mythology), and, heartbroken, he's committed himself to celibacy; that this new to-be lover has been determined to seduce Apollo since childhood, and may actually have orchestrated all of these sightings, setting up a nice little conflict very early on; and so on.

Since I swore to myself that I would never, EVER share any of these brainstorming bits in this blog, because they consist of unfinished, unedited, weird writing that is for my eyes only, I naturally decided to post a little bit of this example here today! Hooray for self-humiliation!!

Remember, this is TOTALLY UNFINISHED. It might really, really suck. Here's that first paragraph, anyway:
The first time Apollo saw him, it was in a curving glance of golden light: his limbs bending up the long grass, each fine thread of muscle and sinew coiling with life; his hair black and wind-blown in the first drawn breaths of dawn. Swift and easy he raced up the shadowed slope, chasing after the flickering white tails of his herd. The god stilled his hand on the chariot and the horses reared back in plumes of flame, and the sun settled its burning arms low on the rim of the world, and so the day began with wildfire and black smoke instead of the rushing stream of rose Apollo had intended. 
And that, my friends, is what I call brainstorming.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Refilling the Tank

I'm on a small hiatus this week. I took myself off to the Kripalu center in Western MA to celebrate finishing my edited draft of Cloudland (yes, I really am DONE. It's a miracle), but also to rest, recharge, and refill my tank - and, I hope, to work some more on my new book. Refilling our - well, for lack of a better term, even though this one makes me cringe a little - wells of creativity ok no I really can't say it. Refilling our tanks is essential for everyone, not just writers, and it's something we all tend to forget to do. We work and work and give and then we wonder why we cry at TV commercials and feel like swearing at the poor kid at the movie theatre who asks for our ticket, because why is one more person asking me for something?? Not that this is what happens to me. Ahem.

So, I've gone off to avoid yelling at people, and to refill. And so this post really will be brief. No seriously, Melissa, it will. I swear.

I once posted about the books that changed my life, and turned me into a writer. Like most highly organized, mildly neurotic people, though, I really really like lists, and so I have a lot of other "favorite book" lists. Here's another one for you: my Favorite Childhood Books. Some of these my parents read to me, and some I read on my own. (Yes, there's crossover from my first list. What can I say? These books just rock.)
  • The Anne of Green Gables series, by L.M. Montgomery
  • A Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis 
  • The Lost Prince and A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett 
  • The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L'Engle
  • The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
It's funny; when I was coming up with this list, I thought of a lot of books that I really liked - I may or may not have been one of those be-spectacled kids who got nicknamed 'bookworm' when I was little - but they didn't make the cut, because while I liked them, they weren't my favorites. The ones on the list are the ones that I read so much that the covers fell off, and the pages all curled up at the edges, and the paper took on that warm, woody smell of all well-loved books. They're also all still on my bookshelf, barely held together with scotch tape, with the exception of the last two. I don't know how that happened, but I need to buy new copies. 

And that's it for today, folks. I'm off to read, hike, yoga (yes I made it into a verb), rest, and refill. 

If I don't get to your blog this week, I'll be there next week, I promise. In the meantime, all you commenters, what books do you love when you were a kid?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Inspiration Is SO Not Standard

That Chrysler slogan drives me a little crazy. You know, the "inspiration comes standard" nonsense that they tag smugly onto the end of every commercial, to reassure us not to worry, because while we might not be able to afford things like built-in babysitters, we don't have to pay extra for the intangible joy of knowing that the factory was especially enthused when it made our car.

Why do I bring this particular example of marketing inanity to light today?

Well, I was banging away at my new novel idea all day yesterday, torturing myself brainstorming to try to come up with something resembling a plot, and in general working hard to dig up some inspiration. And despite my best efforts, it turns out that it does not, in fact, come standard to me.

Which is normal, I know. But boy, is it hard not to get discouraged when I'm sitting at my computer, staring at the screen, and thinking, "Ok, plot. Yup. Need a plot. Yes indeed. Gotta getta plot. And - GO! GO PLOT! GO NOW! Plot? Anyone? Plot?"

Needless to say, I didn't get anywhere for quite a while. Other people might call this writer's block; I call it PJS, or Plot Just Sucks. Ask me to brainstorm about characters or setting or theme and I can prattle on and on for pages. But ask me to come up with a story arc and I'm useless.

Clearly, I needed to find some inspiration, and it wasn't coming from inside me. Not yesterday, anyway. (Incidentally, my fellow blogger Adrienne Reiter wrote a post on this last week, about where creativity and inspiration come from. Check it out.)

My own sources of inspiration change from day to day, but there are a few good wells I always turn to, and one of them usually helps me get to work. Yesterday, I needed a bunch of them.

First, I turned on some music. I have a lot of playlists, but when I'm desperate for help, I turn to Sigur Ros.

Second, I created a new Word document, and gave myself license to write whatever came into my head, without censure or editing. The only rule was that I had to keep writing.

Third, I read. In this case tips on how to write romances, and some love-themed short stories.

No, I'm not writing a romance novel. But I am writing an overly complex version of a love story, and the romance genre has some well-established guidelines that it's good for me, as someone who doesn't read a lot of romances, to know about.

And finally, finally, it came: inspiration. At one point, I found myself writing in the first person POV - something I almost never do - as one of the main characters, talking about all the ways these two souls keep finding to lose each other. (If you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about, read this post.) And then I found myself writing out a small scene-let as a possible way to end of the book. Which is very, very hopeful.

I don't have a plot yet (sigh), but I did get some productive ideas. So for now, I'll just keep making my own inspiration, and plugging away. I'll find the story someday.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Last Gasps of Editing

It's going to be a quickie today (in the purely PG sense of the word. Please, people. There are children out there! None of whom read this blog, but that's beside the point.) I'm just about done with my FOURTH draft of Cloudland [insert loud clapping and whistling here] and I've set myself a deadline of, well, now, to get it done. Which means that today's bloggery must remain brief. And brevity is a major challenge for me, so this is also a personal growth day. Or something.

On this last, final, ending, all-over, done-with and every other word I can think of that means NO MORE EDITING pass, my editor pointed out two little gems that I'll share today. Because, you know, self-humiliation is super fun. And yes, these quotes are real.

She circled one of my favorite darlings, and wrote in the margin, "If you delete this, will you cry?"

Well, of course the answer is YES BUCKETS AND BUCKETS, but unfortunately, she was right. As she usually is. I had rewritten and significantly trimmed down a scene near the end of the book, and as a result I had a piece of exposition that stuck out like a giant, throbbing, possibly infected sore thumb. But I had kept it there because it was really really cool exposition!!! It was all about the Day of the Dead and how the Michoacán people believe that the monarchs that migrate there are the winged spirits of their ancestors and families, who come once a year to visit and bless them. And that was so, so perfect for Cloudland that I just about jumped out of my chair when I read about it, and I couldn't wait to get it into the book somehow. Which I did. By sounding like Professor Liz Blocker, and lecturing on monarch butterflies, their migratory patterns, and their cultural significance to the people of Mexico.

Right. It got cut. Sigh.

But that wasn't all. My editor  underlined a couple of modifier words in another section and noted that the "hyperbole might not be necessary here."


Who, me? Exaggerate in my writing? NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS!

This made me laugh, because really, she should just emblazon that note in giant blinking neon print on the cover page of the book. Or on every page. Otherwise I might forget about it.

Ok, folks, I'm off to finish my rewrites. And this post clocked in at mildly long, instead of really really long, so I must be making progress in the brevity department!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Insecure Writers: Trust Isn't Just a Group-Bonding Exercise

NOTE: It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! For those who don't remember, it's an online group created by Alex J. Cavanaugh for writers. Most of whom are insecure. So we support each other from the safety and comfort of our desks. 

I usually spend IWSG Wednesdays indulging my neurotic brain, and cataloging with loving detail all the ways that I'm feeling insecure about writing, which a) satisfies my detail-oriented (read: anal-retentive) personality, and b) helps me feel a little less crazy.

Much as I enjoy and appreciate this electronic therapy, I'm going to do something a little bit different today.

First, a confession: I may, from time to time, just slightly exaggerate things on this blog for the sake of humor. You know, just every single post every once in a while. In reality, I work pretty hard - and sometimes even (gasp) successfully!! - to stay calm and positive and focused.

I have a number of tools that help me do this. Running (the best stress relief known to mankind), music, and deep breathing all help. Meditation would probably help even more, but since I cannot get my monkey mind to settle down and stop flinging poop at me for longer than three seconds, I wouldn't know.

There's one other thing that helps, maybe more than anything else: trust.

Some people might call it faith. Others might call it confidence. I'm a writer, so I get reeeeaally anal about choosing the exact right word. For me, it's trust.

I didn't come up with this on my own; I had some help (which is so essential for writers). About a year and a half ago, I was knee-deep in Cloudland, still trying to finish a first draft. At the time, I was in the process of banging my head repeatedly and with great futility on a plot wall, and was feeling stuck. Very, very stuck. I confessed this to one of my clients (yes, people do talk to me during massages. A lot of people, actually), and she told me something I've never forgotten. She's a composer, so she talks in terms of music, but the idea is universal.

She said that whenever she's having trouble composing, she reminds herself to trust that the finished piece exists inside her, already. Her only job is to discover it.

What an amazing thought.

This is what I remind myself now, whenever I get really afraid, or stuck. The story exists inside me, complete and perfect. I'm not so much creating a plot as I am uncovering it.

Let me tell you, when I can manage to remember this, and believe it, it takes so much pressure off of the process. I don't have to tear my hair out over making the right decisions or solving gnarly plot problems, because I already know what to do. All I have to do is trust myself, and the story will come out.

Maybe this sounds nuts, or New Age-y, or naive. That's OK by me, because it works. Not just for writing, either. It works in so many areas of life.

And that's pretty amazing, if you ask me.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why New York Doesn't Like You, and Never Write Alone

This post really is going to be about the process of writing a novel. I promise. It's just going to take a wee tangent to get there. "Trust me, I'm telling you stories."

Real stories make their way into fiction in strange ways sometimes.

So, I used to live in New York City. Brooklyn, to be precise, and Windsor Terrace to be really precise. I visit NYC a few times a year, most recently this past weekend. Now that I'm a visitor and not a resident, I periodically forget the Truth - yes, capital T - about New York. You see, when I visit, it's a whirlwind of nostalgia and friendship and art and food and wine (a lot of wine). The city lulls me into a false sense of security, and I start feeling pretty great, looking at the concrete jungle all lit up and vibrant, like the city itself is celebrating my return.

I was striding along Greenwich Avenue in the West Village on Monday, delighting in the crisp autumn air, the streaming bright sunshine, the hustle and noise and life of the city, when I failed to notice the neon orange construction cone standing in front of me on the sidewalk. I was too busy being confident, you see, to notice petty things like physical obstacles. So naturally, I stepped on the cone, whacked my arms against the nearest telephone pole to try to get my balance back, failed, and took a lovely swan dive across the concrete and landed flat on my face.

At least four people were standing within two feet of me when this happened. I imagine a couple of them probably had to jump out of the way to allow enough room for the full length of my swan dive, for which I am very grateful (it was an impressive dive). When I scraped my face off of the sidewalk, muttering something wise and witty, like "unngghhhh... my head....", I saw that every single one of these people was studiously watching the traffic light, and ignoring me. No one turned around. No one said a thing.

And then I remembered: oh right, this is New York City. It doesn't give a crap. New York won't celebrate my return. What it will do is stick a foot in front of me and trip me, then look at its nails and pretend it didn't see me go flying, just to remind me that it's way, way cooler than I am.

Well, truthfully, it is way cooler than I am, so that's OK.

I picked myself up, brushed myself off (uninjured, thankfully), had a good laugh at my own expense, and went back to Boston a humbler if slightly more irritated woman.

This is not to say that I didn't have a great weekend. I did. I was visiting one of my best friends, a fierce and fabulous force of nature who I'll call The New Messiah (and no harm or offense intended to anyone of any religion. It's just an old nickname). The New Messiah is one of my best critics. She gets the dubious honor of reading the first drafts of my writing, the ones that really should be chucked into a dark corner and hidden from all eyes except my own. She reads through the dreck, anyway, putting up with my worst habits, and gives me honest and constructive feedback.

She didn't read anything this weekend - I have no first drafts right now - but she did listen patiently as I fumbled through an explanation of my newest idea. We were standing on a subway platform in Brooklyn - the G train platform, which, for those of you uninitiated into the joys of the G, means that we had a nice, long, extended time to wait, and talk.

When I finished talking, she looked right at me, and said, "That sounds like a great idea. I'd read that book."

Now, whether or not this is true (and it is; the New Messiah is many things, but she is not a liar. If she hated the idea, she would tell me. This is another reason why she gets to read my first drafts), this a great thing to say to an insecure writer.

And then, she did the next great thing you can do for a writer: she talked through my idea with me, ad nauseum. She asked excellent questions, gave thought-provoking suggestions, and by the time the G showed up (only 17 hours later, no biggie), I felt like it might actually be possible to pull this damn idea off.

I know it seems roundabout, but this whole story really is central to the process of writing a novel.

You see, there's a great myth that writers are solitary creatures. We are, to some extent; we do work alone. But very few of us write alone. For me, my friends are essential and much-valued parts of my process. They act as sounding-boards and collaborators; they edit and proofread and cheerlead and tell me the awful truth when no one else will. And I love them for it, and I never get through the outlining process without them.

Oh, yeah - the part about face-planting on the sidewalk? Yeah, that's not about my friends or my process. Sorry. BUT, I will almost definitely be putting a scene like that - with that feeling, equal parts irritation and humor, and that memory of being ignored by the giant, ever-turning city - into a book. So you see, it really all is related.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Follow Fest: Hello, World!

NOTE: Eeeek! A post that's not on a Wednesday! I know, I know, what is the world coming to?? Well, I'm being adventurous. Which is to say that I'm doing something thoroughly normal, and participating in Follow Fest 2013, in order to introduce this little blog to the World Wide Web. That's right, the ENTIRE INTERNET. It's a big day. I'll be back on Wednesday with a regular post, as per usual.

Name: Liz Blocker

Fiction or nonfiction? Fiction! Someday I may leap into the world of the real, but right now, I'm much better at making things up.

What genres do you write? Literary fiction, mostly (although I'm not a fan of the name of that genre). I love and read many genres, but I write straight fiction with a good amount of magical realism dabbed in, and more than a few touches of the fantastic. I also write plays, and, someday, screenplays.

Are you published? I'm working on it. Stay tuned!

Do you do anything in addition to writing? Oh gracious me, no. I have no day job and can therefore devote myself entirely to writing. HA! Or not. I'm a massage therapist, and a devoted-but-not-very-good runner, a reader for sure, and an editor for my friends.

Where can people connect with you?

  • Here! On the blog. There are follow buttons for blogluvin, email, and RSS feeds on the left-hand side of the page, under the header photo. 
  • Twitter: Come find me @lizblocker. There are also follow buttons under the header on the left, and at the very top right. 
  • Google+. And of course there are follow buttons in the same places as above. 

Thanks for stopping by!! I post here every Wednesday. On the first Wednesday of the month, I have a good old IWSG post. I'm open to guest posts, releases, cover reveals, etc. Message me on Twitter, and we'll chat..

Oh, and leave a comment! I love comments.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

To NaNoWriMo, or Not to NaNoWriMo?

NOTE: Largely thanks to the IWSG, I have amazing writers leaving comments on my posts. I LOVE THAT. However, there have been a few whispers from non-writers who feel unsure about commenting, since they don't write. Well, don' worry aboudit. Seriously, this blog is for readers as well as writersWriters read, but so do lots of other people. At least, I hope so, despite the grim gloom-and-doom research about Americans' growing lack of interest in literature. Which is just a long-winded (of course; this is me, here) way of saying that all readers' comments are more than welcome!

A while back, I mentioned that while I've been editing and polishing CloudlandI've also been working on my second novel. Now, at the time, that may have been true. At this point (to borrow from Star Trek VI), that's either an omission, an error, or a choice... or ok FINE, Spock. It's a lie.

I didn't intend for that to be the case. The thing is, editing and getting ready to query agents are just a wee bit of a time-suck, not to mention a truly all-engrossing head-space. So, I'm going to use this blog this week to help me get back into developing this new idea. It's a group effort now. Thanks, everyone!!

This new novel a bit past the seed stage, thankfully...but not by much. It's a seed-ling. It has little shoots and maybe a couple of bitty green sprouts that are rapidly shriveling and turning brown because I keep forgetting to water them.

What is it? Well, the original seed was that I wanted to write about the intersection of fear, desire, and faith, and (because I love the genre), I wanted it to be more fully magical realism than I managed with Cloudland, which really turned out to be literary fiction with some fantastical stuff mixed in (and yes, for all non-writers, that classification in particular has always seemed snobby to me, too, but it's widely accepted in the publishing world. So I have to use it and I just hold my nose when I do.) 

I decided that I wanted gods and magic in this new novel, and - because really, how better to talk about fear, desire, and faith? - I wanted to involve religion and spirituality.

Right now, because I seem to be a masochist, my idea is to have the two main characters in this book be souls with innumerable lives and experiences, instead of normal, reliable, easier-to-write people with one solid story each. I have this thought of having the book follow them from life to life, in the form of short or even flash fiction style stories, so that the plot progresses as they succeed or fail in each life.

I have the beginning character analyses for these two souls (and let me tell you, it is challenging to write a psychological analysis for a soul. I mean, do souls go to therapy??), and I have a few settings I know I want to explore, which at this point revolve around love affairs. You know, desire and fear and all that. I've got ideas for a love affair between a Greek god and a mortal in Ancient Greece, a la Mary Renault; a Hindi goddess and a modern atheist; and a Christian reverend and a secular scientist. I also have ideas for two young brothers, a recurring encounter (NOT a creepy one) between a man and a dog, and a story about a young female shaman-ish character and a hunter from a different region (occuring pre-Columbus).

And that's about it. Not really a plot yet, eh? A ton of work yet to do, eh?? (Am I Canadian now, eh?) So I have this equally masochistic thought that to get a jump start on this damn thing, maybe I should participate in NaNoWriMo this year. NaNoWriMo, which is short for National Novel Writing Month, is, to quote their website, "a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing on November 1. The goal is to write a 50,000 word, (approximately 175 page) novel by 11:59:59, November 30."

Yeah. That means I'd need to have an outline by November 1st. Or at least a rough sketch of one.


Is this even possible?? I have no idea. Historically, outlines take me forever. I still don't even know the damn story, yet. I mean, two souls, magic and fear and stuff, OK, all well and good, but what happens? How do they change, grow, fail, succeed?

So this is what I'm wrestling with.


It seems like it might be a good idea, and that it might speed my rather slow process up... but it also seems CRAZY.

To NaNoWriMo, or not to NaNoWriMo? That is definitely today's question.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Number One Best Way to Procrastinate. Ever.

This week, as I was perusing my blog (yes, I sometimes reread my own posts. After I've published them. Navel-gazing, what?), I realized that I've drifted a wee bit from my stated purpose, which is to provide an inside look into the process of writing a novel. Now, this is understandable, and I did warn you at the very beginning that I might stray from time to time, but it's time to get back to the main road. The novel-process road, anyway. 

Also, I wrote that purpose down at the very top of the blog, under my header picture, in big bold letters. It's like having a small elf standing on my shoulder and continuously yelling at me to get my butt back in gear.

So. A couple of weeks ago, while expounding on the pantsing vs. plotting writing styles, I made a nice, neat little outline of my process, because I outline everything. (No, really, I do. Including my insecurities.) And as I was doing that, and linking each item back to a post I'd written, I found a big, gaping hole in the very beginning: research.

Now, I imagine that different writers feel very differently about research, so I can only speak for myself when I say that I FREAKING LOVE IT. Call me a dork, but I'm laughing all the way to the bank. Er, the computer. Researching is a time-honored, perfectly acceptable, even necessary method of procrastination. See, you need to research; it's essential for a rich, believable, interesting story, so when you're doing it, you're working. Except, you're not writing. You're avoiding that. See how that works? Genius.

When I was working on Cloudland, I had a few areas that I knew I'd need to research. As I am not a) a public school social worker (like Sara), b) a child psychologist, or c) an expert on children's grief and grieving, I knew right away that I'd need to find out just a little bit more about all three subjects.

First: social work. I started by interviewing a grade school guidance counselor, which was the right age group but the wrong job, but close enough to a school social worker that it was very relevant. Then, I interviewed a high school social worker - the right job but the wrong age. Between the two of them, plus some research and reading of my own into social work in public schools, I got a wealth of information about their jobs, their training, their methods, expectations and daily work, and much more, and was able to piece together what the life and job of a grade school social worker might be like. I am very, very grateful to both women for their time and help. (And yes, I would have loved to interview an actual grade school social worker, but for a variety of reasons I couldn't easily find one. So I improvised.)

Second: child psychology. Maybe this seems strange, since I wasn't writing a book about the way a child's mind develops. But one of my main characters, Jake, is a six-year-old boy, and I needed some insight into how a six-year-old perceives the world. How does a first grader see and understand his parents? Religion? God? Death? I spoke at length with the guidance counselor about these topics. Then I read some work by Jean Piaget and other renowned child psychologists, until I thought my head might explode, which took about ten minutes. Tops. 

Luckily, my wife teaches first and second grade. Jackpot! She rescued me from dense, dry psychology books and gave me a bunch of articles, plus her own extensive knowledge. I then found a few helpful books at the Boston Public Library, including one absolute goldmine called The Spiritual Life of Children by Robert Coles, which is a fascinating and moving look into how children from different cultures perceive God. It was beyond helpful; it was inspiring. It gave me huge insight into Jake's character and provided the basis for the opening chapters, as well as the thinking behind Jake's decision to try to find his mom. 

Third: how a child grieves, which is wrapped up in how a child understands death. This one was difficult, but again, I spoke with my wife and the guidance counselor, I read books from the library, and finally, best of all, I read through a folder my wife gave me, which contained resources and information for teachers of young kids to use when someone in their class had suffered a loss.

This all took a very long time, as you might imagine. Again, that's part of the glorious procrastinating power of research! In all seriousness, though, besides the enormous insights you get, one of the best parts of researching is when you stumble across an idea, or a piece of information, that captures your imagination and beckons you to follow it. When you listen, and walk down the path that idea offers, it can often lead to surprising, inspiring, and even revelatory changes to the story. During the process of my research, I stumbled on some information about djinn, or genies, as well as the Mexican holiday El Dia De Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Both of these ideas helped to shape Cloudland in unexpected ways. 


Well, gee. You might have to wait until it's published to find out.

Which might be a while. Sorry about that. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Insecure Writers: Outlines Are My Binky

NOTE: It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! For those who don't remember from last month, it's an online group for writers. Most of whom are insecure. So we support each other from the safety and comfort of our desks. It's perfect.

Happy Wednesday and IWSG, everyone! In honor of the two-year anniversary of IWSG, I'm taking a brave, massive step outside of my comfort zone, and writing about feeling neurotic and insecure as a writer today. Because, you know, I never do that here. Ever.

I'm taking a numbered, outline-ish approach to today's post, because yes, I'm a plodder plotter through-and-through, and numbered lists make me feel safe and warm and happy and reassure me that all is right with the world. Just like a binky. Also, I just can't help myself. So, without further ado, here's my List of Current Worries While Attempting to Write (Note: this list will probably change by tomorrow. Or later today. I make no promises that I will not have an entirely different list of worries in about ten minutes):

  1. New Ideas: Yes, I'm still wading through piles of slain paragraphs as I edit Cloudland, but I'm also working on a new idea (more on that later). Every time I come up with a new seed for a book, I wrestle with the same thought process. It goes something like this: Oh... oh WOW. This is fantastic. This is genius. I'M a genius! Wait til this gets out into the world!! Oh god, wait. People - real, live people - will see this? WILL people see this? Will anyone WANT to read this??? Is this actually a good idea, or is it instead a truly STUPID INSANE ASININE IDEA THAT EVERYONE WILL HATE? Ok. Deep breaths, deep breaths. Yes, this IS smart. I'm smart! Wait. Am I too smart?? Am I even CAPABLE of writing this? Oh god... And so on and so forth. 
  2. Actual WRITING: I spend a lot of time talking about process, but not a whole lot about the actual act of writing. Which is really - note to self - an entire other blog post or ten. But for the purposes of this list, let's just say that on the good days, generating text is FUN. I feel like a superhero streaming words from my awesome Spidey wrist web-shooters. On the bad days, every single word is up for intense, microscopic examination. You know: Is this really the word I want to use? Why isn't this sentence FLOWING correctly? NOTHING SOUNDS RIGHT KEEP GOING DON'T BE A SISSY. Fun stuff like that.
  3. Time: Oh yes, this is a huge one. I'm always juggling life demands with writing, and always worrying that I'll never actually manage to finish anything. Now, I do have a finished third draft (HALLELUJAH!!!) of Cloudland, so this concern might be slightly overblown and unrealistic, but really, since when does insecurity rely on reality? However, I do have a day job. Blessedly, I am busy at my day job, and therefore am making money and eating and paying my mortgage and buying too many books. But that damn job keeps interfering with writing. Strangely, people don't want to pay for a massage unless I actually show up and give them one. Weird, right?
  4. Agents and the Long-Feared Query Letter: I am fast approaching the point where I'll be sending query letters to agents and trying to convince them to a) open the email, b) actually read it, c) ask me to read some pages of my novel, and d) represent me. This is making me very, very nervous. People often ask me why I don't just try to get a publisher, and the quick answer is that even if I'm lucky enough to find one who wants to publish my book, I'm going to need an agent to help me negotiate a contract. So, that means I have to try to sell myself. Which I am so, so, SO very good it. Or not.

I know, only four items today! Not so bad, right?

Well, truthfully, #3 is giving me a headache and lighting a fire under my butt, which hurts, so my brain decided to stop coming up with worries and start telling me to get the hell to work. Which is my plan. As long as I can get over #s 1 and 2.

You know what, though? I feel a little better now that I've gotten all of that out. Huh.

So, IWSG folks, as well as non-writers, what are your worries today? Writing related or not - all are welcome. Leave 'em here on this blog, and walk away a little lighter and less insecure for the day. See? IWSG For All.