Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Brief Pre-Nano Blurb

Today's Mood Kyrie is grave and focused, gazing into the near-distance...where lies an almost-impossible amount of work!

It's been five years almost to the day since I was sitting in the condo at Viable Paradise, writing in my journal and expressing a lot of doubts. Oh, there were doubts. After the first full day I wrote about whether I was really cut out to be a writer. I wasn't sure what the heck I was doing there, in Martha's Vineyard that rainy October, trying to be one, when everyone else I met seemed to be fitting in a lot better than I felt like I was. Perhaps they were more comfortable in their writerly skins; perhaps my view was just skewed.

This attitude reversed somewhat after I spent time with my awesome roomie Gwen and a couple other students and of course instructors like Teresa and Steven and Laura, and I felt like maybe I wasn't quite so big of a social failure and that maybe there was hope for me after all. But in a lot of ways that me of five years back was pretty on-target. I had a LONG way to go.

So now it's 2015 and I've written two and a half novels and a dozen or so short stories, and, barring distractions like dogs and puppies and surgery and concussions and Crohn's disease, I've not lost sight of the gold ring. I feel like my writerly muscles have grown, and honestly for the first time I feel (despite still having a problem with passive beginnings--I HATE YOU PASSIVE BEGINNINGS) like I can actually set out to write some of the stories in my head and do them justice. Combine that with a wake-up call on a drive back from the hospital (which I may blog about later) and I have been busting my ass this month in order to get at least three stories out on submission before NaNo hits.

It's the countdown to NaNoWriMo, of course, and as Brandon Sanderson talks about doing in his awesome NaNoWriMo Pep Talk of 2011, I'm going in this time planning to use NaNo for less-than-conventional purposes. Because once NaNo is here, it is ON and East of the Sun is getting a complete re-write (sorry November, this year you're NaNoEditMo). I'm hoping to have it ready for my first reader(s) by the new year. So I won't have time for those shorts, and they need to get on the page now.

Much to my amazement, this is getting accomplished. I have a story out on submission, another finished and getting an edit before sending out, and yet another almost complete. And an idea for a fourth that I think I can finish by the end of the month. Madness! Hopefully I'm right and my muscles have really gotten strong enough to put these out there the way I'd like them to be. Crossing fingers...send up some good writerly thoughts for me, won't you?

See you on the far side of November, unless I'm driven to escape from Editing Hell through blogging!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Old Stories

I keep my old stories in an archive that I call the Oubliette. Because sometimes you write something that you end up just wanting to pitch down into the dark and walk away from.

There's sometimes a misconception, I think, that every piece of writing that a writer completes will be publishable (or at least useful) at some point down the road. Sure, we all hear about the "million words of crap" you have to write to get good at your craft. And yet, once you get to a certain point I think that there's this subconscious expectation that you are through with the crap.

My Viable Paradise classmate Jake Kerr once wrote something to the effect that he knows full well that not every story he writes deserves to be published. I know when I read that, I thought, "Oh!" with a small shock of realization. Because I had been thinking that every story that I had started or finished DID have to be good enough for that. At some point. In the far-distant future. After I had edited and re-written the hell out of it.

So, despite the fact that we know about the crap, sometimes I think our brains have a stubbornness about certain fragments or ideas. Perhaps these are the "darlings" we are supposed to kill (many times they probably are). But mightn't they also be…I dunno, vestigial bits of goo? Flapping their half-formed wings clumsily as they thrash about in much disorder, and yet hiding within their plasm a single perfectly-formed eye, or a hand crafted fine enough to assay Handel on the pianoforte?

I have formed the opinion that in every half-formed piece of crap there is a feisty dung-beetle that's actually a glittering scarab. When I look back at the stuff I have written, even as a kid, there is always SOMETHING there. A mood. The idea of a place. A line of description. (But never dialogue. I have always sucked at dialogue.)

There is the urge to stuff the crap into the Oublitte and never look at it again. The fear that it is, indeed, SO bad that reading through the thing will summon the gremlins of insecurity and doubt that writers and artists already spend too much time beating off with fireplace pokers (an ancient copy of Writers' Market works also).

I think this is a mistake. Often we wrote these things for the same reason we wrote the things that we think are really good: we had to. There was something about that idea that we had to explore. It had to come out. It did—perhaps badly. But that seed of what made you want to write about it is still there. Pull out that old story at the right time, and it might take light, like an ember, and tell you what it really wanted to be all along.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Muse Trap

Today, Kyrie's daughter Astra. She's very bright and sunny, and thus suitable for illumination!

So…my muse is kind of scruffy, and she glares a lot. I imagine that she's a chain-smoker, because it would just figure, right, with me being allergic to cigarette smoke? My muse likes colorful language. It's a bit purple for my tastes right out of the gate, but we usually catch it in the edits.

Yesterday I posted about how I make myself sit down and write after the end of my workday (I have a perfectly good office at work, after all, which I do not have at home). I make myself do it even if I don't have much time at all. I do it even if all I have is ten or fifteen minutes.

That ten or fifteen minutes is not any ordinary quarter-hour. I am building a muse trap.

Not long ago I found myself on a flight to Wisconsin (where I got older, if not precisely grew up, for those keeping track of that sort of thing). I don't fly often, and usually I don't listen to music when I do, but that day I had the urge, so I dug my earbuds out of my purse and slipped them in.

The urge to write, WRITE, WRITE NOW! was immediate and overwhelming. I hesitated, confused, then whipped out my journal. Half an hour later I stopped and had a good think about what had just happened. It wasn't terribly hard to unravel--was, in fact, ridiculously simple.

It was this: For the past several years I had only put on my earbuds when I sat down to write. My subconscious mind had locked onto the action of putting on the earbuds as an indicator that it was time to write. And voila--the muse trap!

This isn't a new idea by any means and I had even read about it before. There is, in fact, an excellent book out there called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg in which the author describes how people, sports teams, and even businesses learned how to rewire their habits (or other people's) and experienced dramatic change.

But--it's real! (No, obviously I don't believe everything I read, even when I should.) And you can use it! So I'm sharing it! Here is how to Built Your Own Muse Trap in 15 minutes a day!

Part One: Steal Underpants. No, wait. Part one is, identify something that you do (or could start doing) every time you sit down to write. It doesn't have to be special or weird or involve chocolate, though it certainly can. If it involves an object, that object does not need to be Magical (my earbuds are the same sorry old set that came with my iPhone). Of course, you can certainly choose something Magical (say, super-special noise-blocking earbuds) but if you do make sure that it's the action that's important, not the object. Because then what happens if you desperately need to finish Chapter 15 and…you lost/forgot/your dog ate/your cat mangled your Magical object?? Yeah. So…it's the ACTION that's important. The cue, if you will, that it is now time to get serious. It's on. Oh yeah, it is.

Part Two: Sit down and write. But right before you do, use your cue. Put in the earbuds. Light the candle you carry with you even when you travel because, really, hotel rooms could stand to smell more like awesome. Pop open a beverage of your choice. But it should not be a beverage you have every day, unless you are writing every day. As you should. But I digress.

The thing is, this habit street is two-way. Once your brain latches onto a cue, you need to reinforce that cue by immediately doing the habit you want to form (writing). If you use the cue and DON'T write then you would have been me on that airplane if I hadn't whipped out the journal. If you are not reinforcing, you are undermining. You want your muse trap to work, don't you? So be particular about what your muse-summoning action is. Something you can do anywhere…but also something that you don't otherwise do all the time.

Don't look at me like that. I know you can figure this out.

Part Three: PROFIT. A muse! In the trap! One that is, given, probably glaring at you. But that's just because you haven't finished that story yet. And now you will!

In the future I'm thinking I'll need a different cue for editing. I really want to have my Creative-Brain summoned a little differently than my Editor-Brain. Maybe then I'll be able to switch gears in the flick of an…earbud?

So get out there, and figure out a good habit for yourself, for a change. Figure out how you're going to Build Your Very Own Muse Trap. In fifteen minutes a day. Although, usually it's not just fifteen minutes. But that's another post.

And remember…be vewwwwy quiet. We're hunting habits.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Perspective

Our Mood Kyrie today is actually her son, Ajax, on his birthday. Kyrie, for her part, refuses to wear silly hats.

So this January--after six various surgeries and other medical procedures--I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. Upon this happening I was advised by my doctor to go gluten-free, which can help with inflammation. This was a big change--for the way I shopped, the way I cooked, the way I went out (almost being in tears because I couldn't order what I really wanted one night is a memory that will stick with me).

And of course I was still busy with everything else in my life. Trying to make sure the Shiloh Shepherd sticks around, for example. A breed is a fragile thing. When you're not AKC, who's keeping a breed of dog alive? I'll tell you--it's a world full of people milling around, disagreeing with one another. (Oh, just like real life, you say? True enough.) And just like with real life, if enough people stop caring about a thing, it dies. With a breed of dog, you'll never get that gene pool back. So here I am in the midst of everything else taking populations genetics courses and trying to absorb that too.

And the writing. Though I've been bad about blogging, I haven't stopped with the writing, nor with the submitting. The rejections slowly pile up, some of them with attached notes; others, from places that actually hung onto the story for ten months, with nothing more than a form. (Really? Ah well.) I have taken to writing every day after work, with the lights out, in my office, plugged into my mood music, for fifteen minutes to an hour. I don't track words because I can get obsessive about that. It's much like with weight loss; the scale can be depressing, so I measure instead. Word counts can be depressing, so I am happy getting something--anything--done on my current story.

It's all perspective.

In the midst of all of this and family and husband and a house to clean and work to do just like everyone else, a birthday came along.

Birthdays for me (and New Years, too) are days of forced perspective. They can't be ignored or blown off. Not totally. Because somewhere on that day, be it while I'm playing frisbee with a dog or when I'm finally falling into bed, my brain will sit up and say, "Well?"

What are you going to tell your brain when it does that? You're probably going to feel a lot like you did when you failed your parents or failed remembering your friend's birthday or failed on your latest diet. You're going to feel guilty or you're going to feel depressed or you're going to feel disappointed in yourself, which is the worst. Or maybe you'll just want a donut. And you can't have one (because you're gluten free).

But what you HOPE you can tell your brain is, hey, look, I'm progressing. Which is why, when I originally thought that I shouldn't bother to sit down and write at the end of my workday if I only had fifteen minutes, I ignored myself and sat down. It's all perspective. I'd rather be looking at the world--chronic disease, dogs, diet, donuts--and say that I'm at least still in there, slugging away and messing things up and every once in a while doing something pretty darn good.

On occasion, I even write something that seems to indicate that all the time my Viable Paradise instructors and fellow students (and my writing buddy, Jarrad) spent critiquing me wasn't wasted. Maybe I get the Final Fantasy "level up" music in my head. It does happen.

Hey, look. I'm progressing.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Eye, the Hand, and the Mind

Huddle 'round, grasshoppers, says Zen Thorn, and let's talk about improving technique!

(Actually, Zen Thorn really wanted a treat and was attempting to mind control me. But let's go forward with the other topic; I'm not quite ready to talk about canine mind control. Yet.)

This week I sent out a new short story. It seems that the answer to being sick of editing my novel is to switch focus for a couple weeks. Which is not good, in that I need to get more done on the novel, but also good, because it helps me to internalize the techniques I'll use to make my novel better by practicing them on the short fiction.

I will admit that when I think about what this story put me through, and then consider that my novel is equivalent to TWENTY of those, the wisdom tooth surgery I have coming up next week looks paltry in comparison.

But I digress…

I talk about the relationship between art and writing a lot on here, and this is no exception. Long story short (hah!), there are always times in my writing where it feels like I'm pushing a boulder up a mountain. This time it felt like the mountain fell on me.

I despaired. I went from really feeling (in the early stages) like this might be the best thing I'd written so far, to raging and gnashing my teeth because I just could NOT see my way through editing the second part of the story. I knew it was flawed, and it drove me crazy because I couldn't see how to fix it.

Essentially, my Eye had progressed to the point where I knew something was wrong. But my Hand (or in this case, my Mind) wasn't yet at the same level as my Eye.

This is very similar to what happens in learning to paint, or draw, or attempt any other human pursuit of excellence, if you believe the Conscious Competence Ladder.

I think most of us have seen the Conscious Competence Ladder, yet I always manage to conveniently forget it exists when I'm in the middle of a funk where reminding myself that No, Anne, You Are Not Alone might help. Essentially the theory goes that there are four stages of competence:

1. Unconscious Incompetence, also called You Are Clueless And Don't Know It Yet, also called "Blissful Ignorance". You try something new and you are delighted. In painting, this is the "Hey! I painted something! Neato!" stage. In NaNoWriMo this is called the "YAY I Finished a NOVEL!" stage. It is followed by:

2. The Conscious Incompetence stage, which is what I hit on this story. Your eye has gotten better (usually through looking at the work of people better than you), and suddenly errors in your work glare out at you because your hand or mind hasn't caught up yet. Also called the "Oh God I Suck" stage. Or the "OMG EDITING?!?" stage. Or the "Have a Beer" stage…maybe that's just me.

But there's hope! Don’t quit! In my case, I had a beer. I played with my dogs. I slept on it, and I read a couple of excellent writing books (pretty much anything by Donald Maass, at this stage in my writing development) to try to troubleshoot.

In other words, I didn't give up. And when I realized what my problem was, I groaned. I had fallen victim to "Don't Tell Me About Your Character"-itis (hereby shortened to DTMAYC-itis, though you can substitute "world" for "character").

I'll make another post about this, maybe, but suffice to say that I had fallen into giving way too much information about the world and how it worked. This caused the story to feel slow, awkward, and contrived, because you shouldn't give away any information for free and then not until there's a reason for your audience to really want to know it. When I realized this, I couldn't believe that I'd done it. The solution was to step back and ask myself "What is the STORY about here?" Once I cut out all the goop and got back to the real essence of the story, the issue fixed itself.

BUT! The important thing to take away from this, other than to not ask people about their RPG characters (or tell them about yours), is that I had entered Stage Three, which is:

3. Conscious Competence! This is the "Ugh This Hurts" stage, in which you must THINK about what you are fixing, understand it, and OWN that bugger. This is the work part, where you train your hand and mind to catch up with your eye. I will never again fall victim to DTWAYC-itis. I recognize it now, and so I will be able to avoid it entirely or troubleshoot it effortlessly next time, thus leading to:

4. Unconscious Competence, where you live in a world of magic and rainbows (or, if you are a horror writer, perhaps evil cars and scary clown-people). This is the mindset where you're not sure why your stuff is coming out so well, it just does. It seems natural to you. This is what everyone aims for. Your eye spots issues, your mind knows how to fix them, your hand puts them down on the page. Maybe not effortless, but not like pushing a boulder up a mountain.

I have a theory that in complicated endeavors like art and writing, you hit steps one through four again every time you hit a new type of problem. This can make you want to hurt people, or to give up, or to make yourself another martini. But you should do none of these! Think on it: If you screw up in enough different ways, and learn to fix your screw-ups, and own them, then you will hit Unconscious Competence in EVERYTHING!

You can be brilliant in every aspect of your chosen field that matters to you enough for you to have screwed it up and fixed it. But the only way to get there is to get out and DO it. Draw. Program. Sculpt. Write. Don't quit.

Get out there and screw up!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Welcome to the Hell of Editing

Today's Mood Puppy is a Mood Astra! Astra is Kyrie's first daughter. :) All fresh and happy and ready for adventure, she was just like me when I finished my second novel last month (YAY). I looked forward to finally starting the editing process on both books.

Astra, at least, is still happy. I, in comparison, took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

Though editing has been a trial at times, it has taught me a lot and I have come to enjoy the tightening and polishing. I felt excited about applying those new skills to East of the Sun. What changed?

One, I started writing that first book in 2010. It is two days from clicking over into 2014, and to say that I'm a far better writer now is pretty safe. So part of my initial Edit-Shock comes from realizing how MUCH work I'm going to be doing to bring the first parts of EotS into line with what I can do now.

Two, in realizing how far the writing has to go, I'm seeing all sorts of places that are going to require significant plot changes, and that makes me very, very happy that I bought Aeon Timeline at the end of NaNoWriMo because I think I'm going to need it to keep track of who does what when, where, and why.

There's a lot of pure terror in me right now, looking at these two books. I love the story, I love my characters, I can see so many ways to make both of them better. It's just going to be...hard. Very hard. Harder, in fact, than writing the books in the first place because everything needs to get so much tighter.

So I have done two things to motivate myself, because they always say that the best tools for finishing things are a deadline and accountability!

First, literary agent and author Donald Maass is giving a hands-on seminar in the DFW area for aspiring novelists the first week in May. I got in, and now I MUST get the books in a state which will not completely embarrass me! In order for me to benefit most from this seminar, the books need to be as good as they possibly can be, so that the feedback I get will really help me. I want to start submitting these to agents by the end of 2014.

Second, I decided that I would write about editing EotS here, in the blog, chapter by chapter. I will feel disgusted with myself if I don't see progress in those blog entries, and it will also serve as a record of how I've improved my writing because I'll be utilizing everything I've learned in the last four years. And I think I can do it in general terms, without giving out any spoilers!

So here we go. First, my logline: This is a story about a girl whose family sells her to a bear. And about everything that follows from it...

I went through my first two chapters of EotS and realized that they were probably actually three chapters, first off. The two were long already (my chapters tend to run 5k words average in rough--these were 5.5K and 6.5K) and I saw that there were other scenes I needed to put in.

Reasons for those other scenes? My first chapter needs to start off with action and I hadn't given one of my mains enough time in the spotlight. I'd also kept her more passive and she was not that kind of character! In addition, I needed less overall description and more of the action showing the dire situation the family is in, to build tension.

Along with that dire situation I realized that I was missing an opportunity to introduce the main villain via a violent encounter instead of with passive hints. Instead of merely showing the aftermath as I had before, I wrote the violent scene in. In the process I discovered some surprising things about the relationship between the two oldest brothers...things I'll be able to use later.

So, more active scenes, stepping up the tension, the main characters strive actively to keep the family alive and hopefully gain our sympathy, while some others...well, you'll find out in time. But I decided that things still weren't bad enough, and that I was being too easy on my characters--I had this tendency, and have tried to squash it. So I decided to poison the last possible easy food source, traumatizing one of my main characters in the process, and also killed off an innocent minor character.

Now things are really bad. One life lost, another dying, everyone's hungry, one desperate family member has attacked another, and a monster is loose on the mountain. Awesome! On to chapter 2.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Writing Analysis

Good morning, blog readers! Our Mood Kyrie today is actually a Mood Baxter. Bax is a pup from Kyrie's second litter. He is growing into a very handsome young fellow! This photo was taken when he was about a year old.

As usual, I have been working hard at NaNoWriMo this month. Also as usual, I am behind. I spent the first three days of November covered in puppies out east (well, they don't evaluate themselves, you know?) and the fourth day under the knife, having surgery. Negative fun. Luckily, after the first couple days or so I was well enough to type while propped up in bed!

I have noticed something interesting about NaNoWriMo. Though I can happily peruse any book on writing I want to in the days leading up to it, once NaNo is here I can not bear to pick up a book on writing! I have also found that I don't read much fiction during NaNo UNLESS it is completely outside of the genre I am currently working in. For example, I'm working very hard on my mythic fantasy West of the Moon right now, and I am reading either non-fiction or mysteries (re-reading some of my favorite Agatha Christie books from my childhood). I find that I have no urge to read fantasy or even SF right now.

As I have worked at my writing the last year or two I have started making a note of habits and tendencies like the above. This is valuable, I think, because like weight loss--and you think I jest, but I have found weight loss to be almost completely about this--writing is about figuring out what your best habits are and working within them, and figuring out what your worst habits are and attempting to avoid them as much as possible. Given that I say this when my diet and exercise regimen has gone completely to blazes thanks to the surgery (no exercise allowed yet, and I am going BONKERS) and the stress of being behind during NaNo (I devour great amounts of comfort food when I am under stress, and the most I can do is try to mitigate the damage).

So this brings me to the second part of this post, which is that during October I had picked up Rachel Aaron's short "How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day" and decided to make a run at doing some of the things she mentions in there.

There are three things that Rachel talks about as the key features in how she began to put out vast quantities of verbiage. Put very succinctly, these are:

1. discover the features of your most productive writing time;

2. write the scenes you are in love with; and

3. spend five to thirty minutes before you write making a detailed outline of the scene(s) you'll be working on. In other words, know what you'll be writing before you write it.

Now, every writer is different and many things that work for some are disastrous for others, but I set out to try Rachel's advice because I was curious. I am pretty right-brained at times, and I love statistics. So what could be more interesting than charting my writing productivity? I followed Rachel's suggestion and set up a spreadsheet. There were spaces to note the times when I started and stopped writing, my total words and average words per hour, whether I had been interrupted and by what (thus letting me know how disruptive those interruptions had been), and I also put in a few other spaces--where I had been writing, music or no, whether I had been prepared (i.e. did I know what I would be writing in detail before I jumped in) and which project and scene I had been working on.

After a couple weeks of tracking, the results have been eye-opening.

First, she was completely right that when I was working on a scene that I loved or that I was looking forward to for a long time--the "gravy scenes" to use my own term--I was a MUCH faster writer. There is a scene in West of the Moon that I envisioned all the way back at the start of East of the Sun. It sprung into my head and I loved it instantly. I couldn't wait to write it. But at that time I was stubbornly sticking to "write the book in order" more or less, so I put it off. Well, this week, I FINALLY came to it. And, using Rachel's other tools (like writing during my most productive time of day) I broke a new speed record for myself: over 2,000 words an hour. Wow!

Also, I found that point three did help me. Especially if I was headed for a scene where I didn't quite know where I was going yet, if I wrote some detailed notes in my longhand journal about what things I wanted in the scene before I sat down to write it, I never stalled. I still wrote slower because I was feeling my way, but I always could look at my notes and know what came next. And the outlining didn't seem to make my writing stale; instead, it freed me up to relax, and I came up with some new material while writing one of these scenes that delighted me. So even if you outline, there is still room for your characters to surprise you!

But the most interesting discovery came from my spreadsheet. I am a diehard Morning Person. I wake up perky, alert, and bouncy in the morning. I would have bet money that writing in the morning would be my most productive time. BUT NO. The spreadsheet showed me that I was actually balky, hesitant and distracted when I tried to write in the morning! I don't think there was ever a morning point where I broke 750 words an hour. But in the early afternoon my focus improved, and that carried through all the way until I started to get fatigued--around 8 or 9 pm. So my peak writing time is actually between 12 p.m. and 8 or 9 p.m.

I would NEVER have guessed this without the spreadsheet. Once I realized it, I put it to the test. I worked on my novel only during my key times all of this week, and, even though I've returned to work this week, I've done between 2,000 and 3,200 words per day every single day. I'm within around 3K words of catching up completely now, and we've only just passed the midpoint. In fact, I've decided I won't be happy with just 50K words this year--I'm aiming to end significantly higher, and to be within range of completing West of the Moon entirely by the end of this month.

So this is why you find me blogging now--it's not noon yet, so I haven't hit my super-productive time. Way to rationalize a blog update, huh? I hope that y'all will head over to Rachel Aaron's blog to check out her system. I've linked to it above. She also sells a short e-book of that title, with that blog entry expanded, where she goes into more detail into her writing methods. Check it out! And thanks, Rachel, for giving me some new tools to improve on and explore my writing. :)