Tag Archive: Writers

The 12 Days of Writers’ Christmas

This is a little something I whipped up for all our writer friends to sing around the tree.
Happy Holidays!

 

12 Days post

The 12 Days of Writers’ Christmas

On the first day of Christmas,
My true muse sent to me
An idea with a wicked plot twist.

On the second day of Christmas,
My true muse sent to me
Two ruthless villains, and
An idea with a wicked plot twist.

On the third day of Christmas,
My true muse sent to me
Three act structure,
Two ruthless villains, and
An idea with a wicked plot twist.

On the fourth day of Christmas,
My true muse sent to me
Four brave heroes,
Three act structure,
Two ruthless villains, and
An idea with a wicked plot twist.

On the fifth day of Christmas,
My true muse sent to me
Five critique partners,
Four brave heroes,
Three act structure,
Two ruthless villains, and
An idea with a wicked plot twist.

On the sixth day of Christmas,
My true muse sent to me
Six hours crying,
Five critique partners,
Four brave heroes,
Three act structure,
Two ruthless villains, and
An idea with a wicked plot twist.

On the seventh day of Christmas,
My true muse sent to me
Seven pots of coffee,
Six hours crying,
Five critique partners,
Four brave heroes,
Three act structure,
Two ruthless villains, and
An idea with a wicked plot twist.

On the eighth day of Christmas,
My true muse sent to me
Eight weeks revising,
Seven pots of coffee,
Six hours crying,
Five critique partners,
Four brave heroes,
Three act structure,
Two ruthless villains, and
An idea with a wicked plot twist.

On the ninth day of Christmas,
My true muse sent to me
Nine beta readers,
Eight weeks revising,
Seven pots of coffee,
Six hours crying,
Five critique partners,
Four brave heroes,
Three act structure,
Two ruthless villains, and
An idea with a wicked plot twist.

On the tenth day of Christmas,
My true muse sent to me
Ten last draft typos,
Nine beta readers,
Eight weeks revising,
Seven pots of coffee,
Six hours crying,
Five critique partners,
Four brave heroes,
Three act structure,
Two ruthless villains, and
An idea with a wicked plot twist.

On the eleventh day of Christmas,
My true muse sent to me
Eleven months of querying,
Ten last draft typos,
Nine beta readers,
Eight weeks revising,
Seven pots of coffee,
Six hours crying,
Five critique partners,
Four brave heroes,
Three act structure,
Two ruthless villains, and
An idea with a wicked plot twist.

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true muse sent to me
Twelve agents calling,
Eleven months of querying,
Ten last draft typos,
Nine beta readers,
Eight weeks revising,
Seven pots of coffee,
Six hours crying,
Five critique partners,
Four brave heroes,
Three act structure,
Two ruthless villains, and
An idea with a wicked plot twist!

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/friday-inspiration/christmas-song/

Halloween Treat – Edgar Allan Poe

poe_coverSo, we have crisp fall nights. We have costumes. We have buckets and pillowcases brimming with treats. We have pumpkins grinning and flashights swinging. We have screams, haunted houses, whisps of dry ice floating around ruby red slippers, cowboy boots, and superhero tights.

We have arrived at All Hallows’ Eve. Bwahaha.

I’m not a big fan of horror, but I have to admit the impact of writers like Anne Rice, Steven King, and other modern authors, even Lemony Snicket, who got kids reading and scared the bejesus out of them.

But I have to give props to the best of the best, the man who started it all, Edgar Allen Poe. Remember reading The Raven in English/Literature class in high school? That was SO COOL, and scary, and awesome. I didn’t sleep for weeks. I stayed away from Poe, but my brother got into him and read everything and used to tell me parts of the Telltale Heart and other scary stories to the point I’d put my hands over my ears and scream.

Mom said to stop scaring the little tyke.

Poe died before the Civil War, so his writing is somewhat formal, and it fits the genre, but he didn’t always write horror. He wrote about adventure on the high seas, buried pirate treasure, and a famous balloon ride. He virtually invented the detective story with tales like “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter”. Sherlock Holmes and other fictional detectives would later be based on the characters that Poe created. Poe wrote love stories and even a few strange little comedies. But mostly, he indulged in gothic horror.

A few spooky quotes to get your Halloween on:

“It was night, and the rain fell; and falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood.” from “Silence – A Fable”

He pointed to garments;-they were muddy and clotted with gore. I spoke not, and he took me gently by the hand; –it was indented with the impress of human nails. He directed my attention to some object against the wall; –I looked at it for some minutes; –it was a spade. With a shriek I bounded to the table, and grasped the box that lay upon it. But I could not force it open; and in my tremor it slipped from my hands, and fell heavily, and burst into pieces; and from it, with a rattling sound, there rolled out some instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with thirty-two small, white and ivory-looking substances that were scattered to and fro about the floor. From “Berenice

There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold, then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated. From “The House of Usher”

Poe was indeed a troubled man; some said he was insane, and his writing certainly may prove that. All his stories and poems point to death, alcoholism, and troubled souls. The Black Cat is narrated by what is described as an “unreliable narrator”. We question his sanity from the start, and by the end we are quite sure he is not altogether sane.

Poe was reviled for his day; some quotes tell us his writings were laughable and badly written

Your treat for tonight? Read The Raven. http://www.heise.de/ix/raven/Literature/Lore/TheRaven.html

indexSleep well.

You’re welcome.

 

 

 

 

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/book-reviews/halloween-treat-edgar-allan-poe/

Prequels: Just the Facts

prequel_text

Publishing is competitive.

It takes a number of different approaches and some long-range planning for any author, regardless of talent, to carve out a thriving career. The right prequel could make a huge difference in that plan, or it could spell disaster.

But how do you know if a prequel is right for you?

If you’re standing at the crossroads in the great prequel debate, keep reading!

Currently writing blogs are divided on the prequel. Some feel like it’s been done to death and should be avoided at all cost, others say go for it. I think it depends on the project.

There are several paths that lead a writer to embark on the prequel journey, but I think some of the best reasons are:

  • A prequel can enhance the enjoyment of the current readers by answering nagging questions.
  • It can expand the world building, flesh out secondary storylines or give the origin story of popular characters without bogging down the plot of the main storyline.
  • It shortens the reader’s wait time and helps bridge the gap between full length book projects.
  • And one of the most popular reasons (and perhaps why the prequel has a bit of a bad reputation right now), the writer can use the prequel exclusively for marketing purposes.

The next important question to ask is will the prequel stand alone, or work as a supplement to the existing stories? My view is all prequels should be able to stand alone, but some writers might disagree. So if you’re having trouble deciding, go back up to the top of this post and reconsider your reasons for writing a prequel. Ask yourself: do you want something just for your current readers vs. do you want something to help build new readers? If you’re in the enviable place of not needing to bring in any new readers, by all means create a prequel that will not stand alone.

Next, how do you create a top quality prequel?

  • Do make the prequel the best writing you can offer. This is not the place to shortcut the editing process and crank out a fast slipshod short story.
  • Do have a plot with a clear story and/or character arc. If the prequel story ends where another book starts, make sure the prequel’s plot supplements the next story in an exciting way.
  • Don’t contradict yourself. Make sure the prequel never breaks or bends the laws of the current world building.
  • Don’t use a prequel as a place to dump all the bits and pieces you cut from early books. I see the appeal of doing this, you may have a TON of extra world building data. Remember you chopped that content for a reason. Let the data dump stay right where it should, in the recycle bin.
  • Do remember a prequel is not about recycling old bad writing; it’s about upcyling great research and creative world building into a new project.
  • Do come at your main storyline from a new angle. Feature an unexpected character in the prequel. Maybe show us why your antagonist is the raging S.O.B. we all love to hate.

 

 

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/prequels-just-the-facts/

Emotional Writing – Going Deep

imagesEmotional Writing

One of our WOS sisters here just suffered the loss of her mother. I can’t imagine, although I know it’s coming. The woman who gave you life cannot and should not outlive yours. But it must be devastating.

I once had a critique partner tell me to “go deeper.” That she could tell I had a lot more to say and I had just skimmed the surface – I had begun to show and not tell, but she knew I could go a lot further and explore more. That comment was such a shock. It meant I had to go and feel something and somehow get that emotion down on the page. She likened it to a tunnel with a very small opening. You have to carve away at it so you can get in there. Start by crawling slowly, then at some point it becomes large enough to walk through. It’s still dark and scary, but bring a lamp – you’ll be fine.

I wrote a death scene in my book Stitches that I thought was done well, with respect, but told from a distance, like someone filming from above. I had, of necessity, killed off my protagonist’s husband, giving him a respectable and dignified end. When I finished it, I was pleased. Good job, writer!

But then I became uneasy. I crept around the house, restless and distracted. Unsatisfied. I puttered, moved things around, and then put them back, looking for perfection. I was becoming cranky. Why am I not a better writer? Why am I wasting my time? What the hell am I doing? It’s crap. It’s all crap.

Marching back into my office, I ordered myself to focus. Where do writers get their inspiration?

From life.

“Go deeper.” Her voice echoed. And then, as though we were speaking our own language, she said, “Use it.”

The lump in my throat threatened to choke me. I placed my hands on the keyboard and started to write about the day my father died – long, long ago. I was fifteen and didn’t quite know what was going on because in those days children were protected from the hard parts, and it had never occurred to me he might die.

So I wrote. I put down every minute detail I could remember of that day and opened my scarred-over heart to things I hadn’t thought about for years. By the time I finished I had thirty pages. I shook, I cried, I wailed, and I wrote. For hours.

I went deep. And it hurt. But what I came up with was not only cathartic to my personal life, it was an opening in my writing life, a permission slip to explore more deeply how humans work and the consequences of life itself. I had dug into the tunnel and opened it a little wider so I could crawl through, and I had survived.

I’m looking forward to walking upright, but I know it will take a while.

As for the death scene in Stitches, I kept it. It was appropriate for the vehicle. But I was able to return to scenes where my protagonist’s pain showed up and I was now equipped to more clearly and much more powerfully display it.

Emotional writing is hard. You can’t make it up. You have to feel it. You have to express it, and you have to share it. Your readers will connect with that kind of honesty.

Go deeper.

 

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/going-deep/

Play Your Hunches

It’s the one lesson I remember from my father, who died when I was young: play your hunches.

Three years ago I went to a writing workshop in San Francisco. I had just been forcibly retired and thought I might look into another profession – one that didn’t involve Boards of Directors, staff, agendas, emails and endless meetings that resulted in nothing but a string of follow-ups and not much productivity.

So I tried watercolor, pottery, sewing, knitting, all sorts of creative endeavors that might make a few bucks to support my Starbucks habit. I even tried teaching a college course on Psychology and one in Sociology.

Loved them all.

But when I went to the writing workshop (a five-day intensive pitch workshop, which I didn’t realize was to pitch a book I hadn’t written yet) something clicked. I settled on a concept and went wild building a pitch, a tag line, a synopsis, and all the goodies necessary to query a book. I didn’t even know what a query was, but I learned fast.

So this man, this pied piper of the group, told me my concept was excellent and helped me craft my pitch. On the last day he had five agents come in and I pitched to them. He told me all five of them wanted to see more. I hadn’t written a line of dialogue yet.

So we worked together, through a strict formulaic program, to get the book “where it needed to be”. The story is that of a fifty-seven-year-old widow rebuilding her life. She is asked to hand-knit a wedding dress for her niece, and an eclectic group forms at her new knitting shop, friendships are born, the dress comes together, has to be ripped out, and rebuilt; a clear allegory to her life. I didn’t like it from the start; it was too cozy, too done, too…chick lit. To me, the story was about growth and challenges by a menopausal woman, not a dress. I expressed my doubts.

In reaction, what I got from him was: “It’s about the dress, the dress, the dress. Somebody in the group has to mess up the dress; that’s where the conflict comes in. It has to be all about the dress.”

I tried. I really did. But who’s going to mess with a wedding dress? I’m not built that way. I’m deeper than that. The conflict, to me, came from my protagonist’s challenges of finding and fitting into a new life, not some stupid dress that in the end won’t matter a great deal. It wasn’t enough of a downfall (the “stake”) for the protagonist if the dress wasn’t completed. Again, I expressed my doubts.

“No, no, no. It has to be all about the dress. The antagonist has to be strong and has to destroy the dress somehow.” I couldn’t make it work. But as a newbie, I followed his direction, beating my head against the wall and even having minor meltdowns trying to be a good girl and follow directions from an expert. All the while I knew what I wanted the book to be, and this wasn’t it. “But all the agents are waiting. This is what we pitched to them. The book is sold. Make it so.”

I finally cut the apron strings and followed my own heart. The day I severed the relationship, which was, I admit, painful, was the day my muse took over. I rewrote the whole thing and doors started to open for me. When I finished, I had very encouraging rejection letters from agents, some with requests for my next book because they liked my writing, but for some reason or another this one wasn’t for them at the time.

I landed with a publisher, and this morning I received an email from my editor revising my original pitch and synopsis, the one I had created with Mr. Wonderful, and they have taken out all references to the dress and the shop because “it’s not about the dress, it’s about Jen’s growth, which is the real story.” I confess I snickered a little.

Almost three years was spent trying to make it work his way. But in the end, the time was not wasted. I revised and revised, added a lot in, took masses out, and refined it to be what I wanted it to be.

It was my first book, and I’m being published by a reputable publisher, not a vanity or self-publisher, but a small press who has an excellent reputation. This is not chick lit, romance, or a cozy. This is a novel in the womens’ fiction genre. It is finished, it is polished, and it is good because I stopped listening to him and started listening to myself.

Trust your intuition, your gut, your own innate knowledge of what is good, of what will work. It won’t let you down. Play your hunches.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writers-life/play-your-hunches/

A Reason To Bleed

unnamedIf you’re like most of the writers I know, you’re not getting paid much to do what you do. You’re sitting up late at night or early in the morning. You’re writing between meetings and brainstorming quickly in the elevator on your iPhone while you rush off to make money until the day you can turn in your notice, put on yoga pants, fire up the coffee maker and not move from your desk until you have to shower and leave to accept your nobel prize. (Is that just my fantasy?) But I think it’s important to remember that what we’re doing isn’t for nothing, even on the days that it feels like no one will ever read our sad little stories but a few friends and family or whoever stumbles across our blog.

On a recent trip home to Georgia my Grandpa who is over 80 and sometimes forgets that I have two children and a husband, asked me the question he’s asked me every time I’ve seen him since I can remember.

“Have you found anything to bleed for yet?”

Grandpa likes to tell the story of how he dreamed of flying before he’d ever seen a plane. While my cousins and I helped him sweep up the garage or clean fish he’d tell us about how he decided to be a pilot one day when he was fifteen and from that day forward carried on as if he was one. His mother said he couldn’t fly, his father laughed at him, but he called an airfield anyway and asked how much fuel cost and how much it was to hire a flight instructor then he began to find odd jobs around his town to save up money. He said he gave up everything for flying, he said he missed dances and skating on the pond in the winter with friends and trips to the lake in the summer.

The stories he told made us laugh when we were little, imagining our grandpa sweeping floors for flight time that he wasn’t sure he’d get. He told us that as the months went on and everyone saw that he was serious, his brother made fun of him and his parents smiled in that pitying way that makes children angrier than a wet cat. He hated how people made his dream seem like something that would only ever exist when his mind wandered on the long walk home from school, but he said that it made him work harder. One day when he got mad enough about his friends going to a movie without him because he refused to spend his flying money, he got on a bus and found a pilot willing to teach him. From then on he flew almost every day of his life, excluding the days he was in the hospital because of injuries due to crashing. (Thanks for that WWII)

My cousins and I would talk about Grandpa together after we left him. Each of us wondered if we’d ever love something so much we’d let the world think we were stupid, because that was the biggest point he wanted to drive into our heads. Everyone he loved thought what he was doing was ridiculous but he did it anyway. He was a poor kid in a farm town. His family didn’t have money to spare for flying; they’d just been through a depression. They told him he was lucky to have food and that all he should want was a quiet life and a job. He told me the story again when I was fifteen and the only thing I loved was a boy who didn’t love me back. Grandpa said that if I was lucky one day something would cut me open and I’d be happy to bleed for it.

On my trip home I was able to tell him that I had found something that made me look incredibly stupid to all the friends I have who are doing important things like saving lives in operating rooms or risking theirs overseas, and even more so because I’m spending so much time doing it and getting so little back. I was annoyed when he smiled at me, and I wondered if he’d forgotten his own story and his own struggle. He chuckled a little, hiding his mouth under his hand, then removed his glasses, cleaned them with his shirt, looked at me and said, “It’s the best feeling in the world, isn’t it?” I was confused for a moment, wondering if he was a writer in secret.

“Writing?” I asked and he said, “No, finding something that lights you up from the inside.”

It clicked for me then, why he’d told us that story so many times. He might have wanted to give us a lesson about how working hard can pay off, or about how sacrifice is necessary if you want anything great from your life, but mostly I think he wanted his freckle-faced grandchildren to find something greater out of life. He wanted us to find magic, to write poetry with words or across the sky.

My wish for each of you who reads this is that you join me in bleeding and looking stupid, and that you revel in your labor and realize that even if all your writing does is sit in your notebook or on your blog with a view count of 1, the victory is in the struggle, in breathing life into your story, whether it is read by one or thousands.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/friday-inspiration/a-reason-to-bleed/

Spring Cleaning the Writer’s Mind

sharon's houseHere in Arizona, spring isn’t as well-defined as it might be in your part of the world. Here, we call it spring when our temps get above the average 70 degrees of winter. For those three days, before the 100s begin, we have a version of spring. (Only kidding about the three days. Lots of years we have a couple of weeks.)

I mean, what is spring anyway, but a time of flowers blooming in warmer air. So what does one call spring in a locale where there are flowers all year long? Okay, so maybe there are different winter flowers and summer flowers—ones that can take blast-furnace temperatures. Still. . .

I’m new to Write On Sisters, like spring is in some parts of the country. And like the spring most of you know, I hope to bring a different breeze to the area, a whiff of other scents. As a fan of Write On Sisters, I was thrilled that the Sisters included me in their band. It is wonderful to have a collaborative bunch to work with and learn from.

On Tuesdays, I’ll be talking a bit about my writing and a bit about life. Because, really, when you think about it, for an author, they are often indistinguishable, intermingled, and intertwined.

As a child, spring in the Midwest meant SPRING CLEANING. Big time. The venetian blinds came down, the rugs came up, and the house smelled of Pine-Sol and lemon paste wax. It was grueling work, scrubbing hardwood floors and wiping baseboards. No surface escaped my mother’s attention—which meant the attention of my sister and me.

Funny, I thought, even then. For most of the year, Mother wasn’t what you’d call “house proud”. Our place was not a magazine spread. It wasn’t really dirty, but on a farm, you’re hard pressed to keep the dust and mud from accumulating on surfaces. Dust was pretty easy to ignore. Mud was regularly tracked in along with other malodorous substances, but mostly that got cleaned up right away.

But for about a week after SPRING CLEANING, our home was a joy to live in. Then, as life would have it, we lived in it, and it showed. Sigh! All that work for … what?

Isn’t that a metaphor for life? We occasionally clean out the detritus of daily life from our minds, or sweep it into a corner for later disposal. Still, more accumulates, piles up, overtakes the surfaces of our lives. We clean again, making space for more waste to fill the spaces just cleaned up.

Oh, dear! That sounds all melancholy and such, but I don’t mean it that way at all. As a writer, I love the accumulation of new junk, dirt, stuff. That’s more to write about. And for a writer, spring cleaning is just one way we sweep away and wash down our experiences as we transform them into our novels.

All writers draw upon those past experiences, odd characters, sights seen to bring truth to our work. What we remember we can use to enliven and enrich text.

I’ve pondered why some parts of my past and some people are so vivid and other parts and people, if remembered at all, are shadowy or even forgotten.

We remember best what we emotionally connect with. Everyone recalls where they were and how they felt on September 11, 2011. Images, emotions, and reactions all remain sharp in our minds. Similarly, JFK’s assassination and the Challenger Shuttle explosion were sharp, jagged times we recall easily.

Fortunately, most of my life is not that traumatic. I am blessed with a happy life filled with many loving friends and family. I have more good memories than bad.

I can clearly see every bit of the day my first son was born. The palpable joy of holding this precious new life in my arms after getting to know him so well in the womb will stay with me forever. I loved laboring. I remember those sharp thrusts and pushes. I revel in the experience.

There are teachers I adored (and not) whose personality quirks are imprinted in my mind. Mrs. McNamara who was always tugging up her bra strap with no awareness she did it. Mr. Sylvester’s facial tics when he was nervous. Mr. Hill’s nervous laughter as we jerked our way around the parking lot in Driver’s Ed.

How can these experiences not show up in our writing?

So I “spring clean” my mind periodically, searching for sights, scents, and sounds that I might recycle into a new personality or scene. But I also search for the emotion behind the memory, because the emotion is why I still hang onto it. And if I can convey the emotion, maybe my readers will connect as I do.

 

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writers-life/spring-cleaning-the-writers-mind/

Hey There Writers, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark

On Friday I did some creative writing. I often do, but this day was different because I plowed into my story and didn’t stop. That’s unusual for me. There are lots of distractions about: my cat (who looks like a cow) demands to go out and be let in and be fed and play in the bath and get stroked. The other cat gazes at me and rubs her head on the computer. Fifi sleeps. My daughter texts, I have a client’s edit to get through, a trip to Trader Joe’s looms, taxes, Facebook, Bubble Witch. You know.

 Photo courtesy of © Kim Baker (http://www.flickr.com/photos/kimberlyfaye/3520321496/)

Photo courtesy of © Kim Baker (http://www.flickr.com/photos/kimberlyfaye/3520321496/)

That’s why Friday was unusual. I invented a character, gave him a name and wrote… and wrote. The name I chose seemed pretty random. It popped into my head, and I went with it. It wasn’t a common name, but I liked it because it sounded authentic, like someone by that name could actually exist.

On Sunday I clicked on a New York Times article about the Malaysian plane that vanished over the Indian Ocean. It was the first piece I’d read that mentioned the names of the passengers… and one of those names was the name I had chosen for my character.

I stared at my laptop. Read the name over and over again, then checked my story. There it was. I had to have seen it somewhere else, I told myself, but I have no conscious recollection of where or whether that’s the only explanation. I thought about the collective unconscious, that vast, mysterious arena where the millions of ideas and thoughts of a billion people swarm and collide. I thought about empathy and energy, clairvoyance and psychic ability. I felt wretched about the real character and will obviously change the name of my invented one, but questions around how this might have happened linger, and I got to thinking about the wealth of untapped potential housed in our DNA and brain cells. Robin’s series on brain triggers explores the senses and how accessing them can enhance our writing, and I wanted to explore the fathomless deep that extends beyond our physicality, a sense we don’t yet understand but is acknowledged by mystics and spiritual leaders across the board. I believe that tapping into this aspect of ourselves can be a rich source of inspiration and creativity, something we writers can never get too much of.

I also decided to write this without doing any research or preparation. So what you see is what you get, and it may just be rubbish. Fair warning.

  1. The Shadow. Positive can’t exist without negative. Every real aspect of being, from the physical to the metaphysical, emotional to the intellectual, lives in uneasy balance with its counterpart, which deserves as much respect. What separates them is choice, which occurs at the level of awareness, but also at one of those levels we don’t understand. Social conditioning, circumstances, upbringing and genetic disposition all play a part, but once we reach adulthood, we mostly choose whether to be kind or hostile, compassionate or impervious, a curmudgeon or sweetheart. Whether we decide to favor the light or the dark, they do coexist, and the dark doesn’t take orders. Its voice can manifest in a sudden surge of jealousy when our best friend gets published and we don’t; a desire to send our newly married ex 456 takeaway dinners and tell the delivery service he’ll pay for it COD (also that he’s a little hard of hearing, so they’ll need to shout); or a sudden, vicious thrill of delight when we find out fashion models have to get airbrushed to look the way they do. Some of us act on dark impulses, but most of us pretend they don’t exist or squash them. Which doesn’t help, because then all they do is lurk and get us when we least expect them to show up. The shadow has a lot to say, and as writers, its blather is fabulous material for understanding the complex nature of characters. We can enrich our protagonists and antagonists by juggling their dark elements, those that either dominate or hide, for at the heart of the struggle between the two lies conflict. And it’s conflict that makes the novel.
  2. The whispers. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. On Sunday something else happened that made me sit up and take note. My dentist posted an article on Facebook about the dangers of root canalled teeth, and one of my friends took issue with it. It made him mad. It was unscientific and puerile, the research originated in 1922 and flossing and brushing were all we had to do to maintain the luster and safety of our pearly whites. While we were in the midst of our friendly debate, a crown attached to a root canalled tooth FELL OUT of his mouth. Alarmed when he took a closer look at it, he’s now considering having the tooth pulled rather than repeat the process. This article started him on a path that he’ll now investigate more seriously. On top of the name thing, I nearly fell over backwards. He called it a coincidence, but I could tell that part of his mind was blown by the synchronicity. Somewhere between my latching on to the article and his becoming inflamed (no pun intended) about it, something happened that we can’t really explain. I’m not sure what it is, but now he’ll get the tooth checked and maybe pulled. Maybe, just maybe, some kind of urgent message was being conveyed. (To me too, because I can tell you, when I next go to the dentist, my root canalled tooth is coming out.) As writers, exploring these strange, inexplicable coincidences allows our fiction to expand in ways that entertain all sorts of possibilities. Maybe malicious tooth gods are involved. Maybe an ancestor is looking out for my friend. We need to listen to whispers and messages, even the ones that make no rational sense, the ones that come to us in mysterious ways. I don’t say open up to believing debilitating thoughts or insane tooth articles, but the willingness to listen creates a conduit to the sub/unconscious, and trusting things we can’t see allows our creativity to leap out of confinement roaring, not cowering.
  3. The ghosts. Okay, so now you’re really going to think I’m daft. A neighbor told me once that my daughter and I live with a ghost, an unhappy old man who died in our apartment, all alone. Talk about a curmudgeon. She suggested I sage the rooms, and I did so, but now and again, I have a strange sense of not being alone. A couple of nights ago, another neighbor came for dinner, and for the first hour, she felt really uncomfortable. Then as the night wore on, she started to relax. Upon leaving, she turned to me and said, “It’s okay, he likes you and your daughter. You bring him comfort. He feels kind of protective towards you.” In case you’re wondering, yes, we live in San Francisco, a city known to be quirky and creative. I’m okay with that. Now if I wrote that in a memoir, you’d recommend a trip to the mental ward and maybe have a word with the doctor yourself, but in fiction, oh boy, does that old man have a story to tell.

Making peace with demons doesn’t give them the right to enslave us, it just gives us a more expansive view of the universe and its complexities. Too often we choose gray over black or white, the middle over the extremities, the fence rather than a side. I believe that balance can only be found in weighing the opposites, and we can only do that when we look them both in the eyes.

 

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Rejection: Honoring Your Creativity When No One Else Does

Rejection sucks. There’s no better word to describe the feeling of just having swallowed a vacuum cleaner hose when:

  • BearVacuumCleanerit’s taken you a year to pluck up the courage to phone The Man and ask him to escort you to a gala fundraiser, and he says no, he’d rather go out with Attila the Hun;
  • you apply for a job/fellowship/residency, and the institution writes back to say they’re giving it to a twelve year old who can’t read or write any discernible language other than Code;
  • you tell your significant other you’d like to enter a beauty pageant, and he falls into a dead faint or rolls on the floor in fits of hysterical laughter that only wane when you schlep him off to the emergency room.

Then there’s the rejection that most, if not all writers know. It’s the one that feels worse than the hose. It’s the one from an agent that says your baby is sub par, and as any parent will tell you, a mother is the only person who gets to criticize her child. (Even Pa will get a clout if he tries.) It’s the rejection that says Dear Argentina (your name is Angela), I’m sure you’re very talented, but as this form letter illustrates, so is everyone else, and while I didn’t fall in love with your submission, scores of other agents will. Which translates loosely as Your book is drivel, and you’re a clown.

Most of us have reams of these. We wear them pasted on our foreheads, pinned to our backs or wrapped around our wounded souls. No matter how many well-meaning friends and colleagues cajole us into rationalizing that this is just how the industry works; however many blogs we read encouraging us to take rejection in our stride; and however stylishly we gird our loins (ever tried to picture this?), it always stings and most definitely definitely SUCKS.

So rather than advise you how to prevent it (because I don’t have a clue, nor does anyone else, whatever they tell you), here are some tips on how to use a vacuum cleaner:

  1. Remember, it’s just a vacuum cleaner, and it has a very specific job to do. There are dozens of makes, and if the one you have gets stuck in your throat or anywhere else, toss it and look for a better model. Could be your vacuum cleaner doesn’t like pet hair, in which case it’s of no use to you. Shift the balance of power and understand that the agent who sings arias as she devours romance novels, isn’t going to know what to do with your zombie chef recipe book. Look for someone whose death wish matches your own–key word MATCH. Or: if the man prefers Attila the Hun, he’s not The Man.
  2. Could be your vacuum cleaner suggests you demolish the house in order to accommodate its preferences. Maybe this is generous advice, maybe not. If you think it’s generous, consult with a new architect, if not, then clean out the bag. Some agents do give feedback that makes sense, and their suggestions will resonate. If they’ve gone to the trouble of reading your novel, odds are something sparked their interest and some, not all, actually do know their stuff. If a few agents give you similar feedback, that’s when to pay attention. Again, there’s not much you can do with a vacuum cleaner that spits out pet hair when you own an orangutan, but you’ll know deep down what advice you can use.
  3. Maybe you don’t need a vacuum cleaner. What you really need is a plain, old fashioned broom, that does what it’s told if you use it correctly. Most people would choose a vacuum cleaner over a broom, but they forget the story of the tortoise and the hare. But I digress. If you’re a writer, write, and if you want to reach a reader, publish by whatever means you have at your disposal.
  4. Find a hotel where someone else does the cleaning and check in for at least a night. If there’s no budget for that, let the dust accumulate and go to bed for a day or two. This is possibly the best advice I can offer. Find a good series on Netflix, tell the cat to go hunt for his own dinner, and nurse the wound. Because that’s what it is. Rejection is a wound, whether big or small, and to delude ourselves by pretending it doesn’t hurt is to deny an intrinsic longing in every one of us. We have a biological need to belong, which implies acceptance, and a steady barrage of rejection tends to isolate us. This is when we most need support, from ourselves first, and from friends and other writers who mean us well and know what we go through.

It takes courage to write, and it’s not easy to do. Rejection may be part of what we take on, but it doesn’t have to disable our potential or alienate our dreams. Vacuum cleaners and houses come and go; we go on. We’re the constant, the dreamer, the hero. By honoring ourselves and our creativity through every slump, grind, block, collision, conflict, and melancholy, we lend steel to our bones, wind to our wings and fire to our watered down visions.

Read more of Jenn’s posts here.

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The Fiction Writer’s Taboos: Are There Any?

Departing for a while from my posts on Cross Training for Writers, I set out to explore the barriers fiction writers must navigate if we’re to tell stories other than our own. So this is less a post about finding solutions than it is about raising questions, the answers to which will be different for every writer.

The concept Write from Truth infers that we write better when we’re inside a particular reality that we know well. This familiarity gives us carte blanche to explore with authority contentious subject matter in arenas that are fortresses of political correctness and/or controversy, for example religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, politics and culture.

www.canstockphoto.com

www.canstockphoto.com

Assailing these fortresses from the outside is a whole different matter. But at some point we need to move beyond our own experience and venture into the unknown, the foreign, the imaginary, where any number of experts might easily find irredeemable flaws in our work. For me this raises not only technical, but also moral questions. What right do I have to tell a story about the Holocaust through a first person protagonist? How can a twenty-five year old man presume to write from the perspective of a teenage girl who’s about to make love for the first time? When we’ve never been inside the skin of our characters, how can we legitimately give them life without being presumptuous or offensive?

The more questions I ask, the more present themselves. What kind of writers can we be if we have only our limited experience to draw from? There’s an easy answer to that: narcissistic, insular and incredibly boring. But in wanting to be expansive, how much do we risk?

I have no reservations about writing from a base of thorough research, and imagining realities that were never mine. The mere act of reading takes us beyond our own realities. Historical/sci fi/fantasy/horror, in fact most genre fiction demands that writers become explorers.

So what am I going on about? My reluctance has to do with struggle, poverty and the hurt people feel. It’s here that I’m unwilling to be presumptuous. Yet it’s here, in the arena of hurt, that much of my own work takes root. I have been poor, but I don’t know poverty. I’ve seen it. I’ve gotten up close and personal, but I’ve never lived in a shack or had to steal to put food on the table. I lived in a society that violated human rights as a matter of policy, but I wouldn’t dream of presuming to know what it felt like to be an AIDS orphan living in an informal settlement.

We’re possessive and protective of our pain. We flinch when someone approaches it. We retain the copyright to the secrets and horrors that shaped us, and a stranger who messes with these is a thief or a usurper.

In my novel, GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS, I became that thief. I set the narrative in a part of the world I knew nothing about, and wrote my protagonist as a Latino doctor in his early forties. I did enough research to fill a travelogue and explored controversial rituals from both insider and outsider points of view. And I found that once my first draft was done, I couldn’t live with some of my choices.

My solution was to uproot everything and replant my story in a fictitious setting, close to its real origins, but far enough away for me to legitimately impose my own sensibilities, knowledge and experience in such a way as to develop a unique composite I could live with. It was basically an exercise in Fantasy Writing 101: world-building. In fiction I could stretch the truth, reinvent it, as long as I maintained a fine balance between arrogance and humility, remained respectful of cultures and realities other than my own, and was able to lose myself in the characters I wrote. There was irony in this approach, as it was my own authorial judgment and sense of injustice that lay at the heart of the novel in the first place.

I have to be a writer who’s at peace with my voices, even those that belong to my antagonists. I get to know my characters as well as I can. It’s a personal choice that has to do with a sense of responsibility and intention. It also has to do with individual powers of observation and empathy that are unique to each of us. Ultimately, I would never have had the courage to venture so far away from my own reality if I didn’t believe in the world and the people I created.

One of the best things about being an explorer in fiction is that whatever constraints or taboos we have to grapple with, there are few limits. We can explore madness, cruelty, happiness, any state of being we choose; we can go anywhere we want, including places no one has ever been before; conjure creatures, catastrophes and miracles, if we find a way to inhabit, if fleetingly, our own stories.

Next up: Let’s see…

 

 

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