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.