Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Trying to organize the creative process

Writing, at least for me and most writers I know, tends to be a messy, chaotic process. I once complained to one of my writing teachers that my writing was incredibly inefficient. She told me the creative process is inefficient. Sometimes the only way to find an answer is to walk all the way around it first.

So I loved this blog post by Nova Ren Suma describing her writing process. She line edits her writing before making cuts. Completely nonsensical and I completely relate. I should add that Nova Ren Suma is the author of DANI NOIR, a book I have been waiting breathlessly to read FOREVER.

I'm still a very impatient writer, and I get frustrated when I spend two weeks writing a scene which I then cut (who doesn't?). But even worse, sometimes I'll find notes I wrote ages ago telling me I should write x scene instead of y, but I only find the notes after I already wrote y scene and cut it. And that's dumb.

That's when my former-teacher side comes out in full force and I start trying to think of ways to organize myself. About a year ago, through work, I stumbled across MindManager, which is mindmapping software. You know mind maps... They're those maps you had to do back in school where you draw a circle in the center of your paper, and other circles branch off the main circle. The advantage of computer-based mindmaps is that I never run out of paper, my handwriting is never illegible, I can zoom in on certain areas, and I can add alerts, dates, hyperlinks and attachments.

I now keep all my notes about writing on one mindmap.

It looks like a mess, but of course, I hardly ever look at it like this. More often, I look at just a small section of it (which I'm a little too paranoid to show a picture of).

My writing map incorporates ideas for future writing, ideas for blog posts, ideas for a past wip that still needs some work, everything for my current wip (characters, setting, questions, my revision plan, etc), notes for an article I published, a list of writing suggestions which have been particularly useful to me, and ideas for my family for Christmas (my mom's really hard to shop for, okay??). But it doesn't feel overwhelming or cluttered, though I will tidy up sections now and then. When I open any writing project, I open my mindmap. I've found it to be a quick way to jot down notes with no fear of losing them (and believe me, I back up this baby OFTEN).

This post was prompted by a discussion on Verla Kay's Blueboards about how writers keep track of characters. Some keep notebooks, some have separate word documents, many use Scrivener (a writing program I've heard terrific things about). I'm not sure the mindmap method would work for anyone else, but for me it does seem to work. Well... I still have two notebooks going at once, a binder, my wip Word document, a plot document, a few character profile Powerpoints... so I'm still losing things. But I'm getting better, and hopefully freeing up some brain cells to write!

And do you want to know the irony of all of this? I still need to write my first drafts entirely by hand.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Are hotties getting traditional?

I've been struck lately by how many of the hotties in young adult literature have very traditional, non-nickname names. There's Edward in TWILIGHT, there's Jonathan in ALANNA... so I decided to create a run down of all the young adult books with a male romantic interest that I read this past summer. Here it is, by TITLE, male character; and female character names.

UGLIES* David; Tally
THE PRINCESS DIARIES Michael; Mia (short for Amelia)
WHAT I WAS Finn; (romantic counterpart is male)
LAMENT Luke/James; Deidre
HOW I LIVE NOW Edmond; Daisy
UNWIND* Connor; Risa

I put a * next to books that have a male author (just so you know).

Totally unscientific. But interesting, no?

What jumps out at me is, overall, what traditional names the boys have. And the girls tend to have much more unusual names. I thought maybe this was due to the dominance of female authors in this list. But the two male authors (indicated with a *) follow the same pattern. The only ones who truly step out of it are Cindy Pon (author of SILVER PHOENIX, which is set in a mythological China) and Meg Rosoff (author of WHAT I WAS. Though if you've read WHAT I WAS, you'll know it's a lot more complicated than my chart makes it seem--perhaps I shouldn't have even included it). Oh, and maybe WICKED LOVELY. Is Seth traditional?

Any theories on these names? Mine is that it's a ploy to make the boys sound older and more mature (and therefore more dreamy). Indeed, many of these boys are more mature. Of the eight of these books that have female leads attending high school (including WHAT I WAS), only two of the male romantic interests also attend high school. Cause really--how many high school girls really want to date high school boys?

Or maybe it has to do with readers' expectations. Maybe girls want their characters to have unique names and boy readers don't care? Or maybe there's an assumption here that boys aren't reading many young adult books?

Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure: the romance in my work in progress is pretty minimal and one-sided. But the names? Charlie and Isabel. A nickname and a fairly popular girl's name. Hmmmm... not sure I fit the pattern.

Do you have a theory? And what are the names of your novels' romantic interests?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Living the dream--sorta.

Good news! This morning from the post office I picked up my and Phil's new visas. Have to hand it to the UK Border Agency; after a mess of stress and bureaucracy, the turn around time on these visas was only about three weeks. Phil had heard horror stories of seven months, lawyers, lost passports. But we now officially have permission to remain in the UK another two years. It's reassuring to be legal and have the documents to prove it.

One of the readers of this blog recently asked me how I had ended up in the UK. Now that I'm legal once again, it seems like a good opportunity to tell my story.

The short answer: I'm married to a brilliant scientist who studies fossil fish jaws (Jurassic Park 4 should be ALL UNDERWATER!). In 2007, Phil received a post-doc offer to become an international researcher at the University of Bristol. This summer, he was offered a grant by the European Union to continue his research here for another two years. Under UK immigration rules, as his wife ("dependent"), that gives me permission to live and work in the UK at any job that will have me.

I'm living many people's dreams. I have the opportunity to travel around Europe. I could fly to Venice, and after only an hour and a half and one time zone change, step out amongst the canals. Also, when we moved, Bush was still president, and we looked forward to a more liberal European society: free health care, politicians who believe in climate change, media engagement with the outside world. And it has been fascinating to explore a different language, a different shelf of literature, a different way of life.

But I've learned that living in the UK and visiting London as a tourist are two very different things. Yes, I do have free health care, which is one of the reasons I was able to leave my previous job so easily to go back to school this autumn. The city of Bristol has amazing recycling. Not only can I recycle cardboard, tin, glass and paper, but we also get weekly compost pick up. Plastic recycling is available down the street. I hardly throw out anything.

But after Chicago, Bristol feels very small. And I have been floored by the classist and racist comments I regularly hear that would rarely, if ever, be voiced aloud in the US. Freedoms are also more restricted here than in the US. For example, the legislature recently passed a law requiring anyone who has contact with children (carpooling parents, visiting authors, classroom volunteers, etc.) to pass a criminal records check (which they will usually have to pay for themselves). When I walk out my front door, my movements are caught on CCTV. And I cannot imagine raising a child in England's education system with its national curriculum, frequent testing, and forcing kids to determine their academic fields of study at 16.

Then there are the smaller things: Left behind family and friends. Plane fare home, especially around the holidays, is expensive. The beauty of autumn here pales in comparison to the US (note to self: have to find out why that is). Our inability to find a church we feel comfortable worshiping in. Cricket and rugby are just not the same as baseball and (American) football.

This isn't meant to be a post tearing apart the UK. After all, as Phil frequently reminds me, the US has tons of problems of its own. But at least those problems are familiar to me; like family, I've grown up with those injustices. Moving here has taught me a lot about myself. I'm not as open minded as I thought. Instead, I tend to rather stubbornly cling to the idea that one way of living is better than another. I've also learned a lot about the immigrant experience. If I get frustrated with the bureaucracy, if I get frustrated with people asking where I'm from all the time, if I miss home--I'm a white, middle-class American. Imagine how much worse it could be.

So when people tell me how lucky I am, I usually just nod and agree. Because I AM lucky to be living here. And I'm sure when I return to the US, there will be lots of whining involved. But the story is more complex than that.

I think I have a few other expats or former expats reading my blog. Hi!!! If you're out there, I'd love to hear your stories and experiences about living abroad, similar or dissimilar to my own.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Understanding Science--and writing?

This year, in order to coincide with Darwin's birth and publication of On the Origin of Species, the University of Bristol is hosting the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology's annual conference (also follow the link for a nice slideshow of Bristol pics). So yesterday I went to the Town Hall Meeting on Evolution and the Evolution and Science Education workshop for Educators. Okay, so I mostly went because my husband helped organize both events, and was also presenting at both. But the discussion of how science is taught in classrooms is one that is very dear to Phil, and as a former (and hopefully future!) teacher, myself.

Two of the most popular and exceptional resources to emerge lately have been from the University of California, Berkeley, which has created two websites, Understanding Evolution and Understanding Science. The workshop consisted primarily of introducing these sites to teachers, demonstrating hands-on classroom activities, and sharing tips for teaching evolution (the e-word, I heard it called).

But as an educator and writer, one of the aspects of the Understanding Science website which I find most interesting is their creation of a flowchart to describe the scientific process:

Click on the image to see it close up. This image is accessible for classroom handouts and posters, and is intended to supplement the traditional linear scientific process most of us were probably taught in school (hypothesis, experiment, etc). Sorry I can't get the picture any bigger. For a view of all of its nooks and crannies (and to share this with your favorite science teacher), visit the Understanding Science website.

The big revolutionary thing is that it's non-linear, which in fact, most science (actually, most thinking in general) is. Sometimes experiments fail, so scientists will go back to "Exploration and Discovery" to consult with colleagues or literature resources. Sometimes "Community Analysis and Feedback" questions an idea, so scientists return to other stages of the process. Sometimes Community can spark another idea and start the process all over again. The point is, there's no beginning or end point, but it's all circular and cyclical.

So yesterday I listened to all these scientists and teachers talk about how to share this with their students. Students can create their own charts of their process by drawing lines through the diagram, teachers can guide classes through famous scientists' processes, teachers can of course even show their own processes. The idea behind it is to encourage multiple tests, rethinking, questioning, dialogue. And also to encourage future scientists--science is not straight forward and easy for really smart people like Darwin or Hawking. Everyone goes through these processes in their own way.

And I sat there quietly thinking: this is so true for writing, too. The good news is I think us writers are much more cognizant of this than most scientists. I mean, we're creative, non-linear people to begin with, right? But I think the reminder that everyone has their own process, their own twists and turns, is really important for us to recognize.

A few weeks ago I blogged about some of the process that led to my idea for my current work in progress. Maybe, like the scientists, we should all make a point of describing these convoluted stories, twists and turns, as a way of supporting each other, and especially as a way of supporting kids as writers. What do you think?

Of course, plenty of us already do just that. Here's a post I just recently discovered from the blog Jade Hears Voices called Directions to Editing Hell.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Adverts you won't see in the US

I'd like to start a new occasional series: adverts you won't see in the US. Phil and I have been playing this game for a while, but I think it's a fun one for public consumption, too. Very different standards of what is and isn't appropriate on TV (telly!) in the US vs. UK.

Check out this one from Birdseye for Salmon Fish Fingers.

Now if I can just find the one with the naked girl with the bad teeth...

And, yes. I think that's all I have to say. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The mentor inside myself

Saw Julie & Julia Friday afternoon. I love watching movies in nearly empty theaters. I can laugh out loud whenever I want and avoid getting any weird stares. This is especially important since I've recently discovered I have a tendency to laugh moments before something really awful or sad happens. Very embarrassing.

Anyway, the movie had everything for me. It was about writing, food, an ex-pat couple, and two amazing husbands (though I only have one).* Plus Meryl Streep as Julia Child looked a strange amount like my grandma.

The movie got me thinking about mentor relationships. I mean, how wonderful to have someone who is such a perfect fit for what you want in life as Julia Child was to Julie Powell. It also reminded me of the Indigo Girls' song, Virginia Woolf:

"They published your diary
And that's how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own and a mind without end
And here's a young girl
On a kind of a telephone line through time
And the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend
So I know I'm all right
Life will come and life will go
Still I feel it's all right
Cause I just got a letter to my soul"

As a writer especially, I've frequently wished for such a guide, a mentor, a speaker to my soul. Someone who could read my writing very objectively and honestly, but also provide wisdom and encouragement. Now that's not entirely fair, because I have had some fabulous mentors over the years, such as Megan Stielstra and Sally Walker. But they have all been on a short term basis, and all occurred fairly early in my writing pursuit. I also have two incredible writing groups, one in Chicago and one in Bristol, which read my writing monthly. But to have someone available regularly, to read long chunks of my writing, and to really guide me--that's what I've wanted for a while now.

But one of the best parts of Julie & Julia was when Julie's husband pointed out that Julie's mentor wasn't a real person. Yes, Julia Child was still alive at the time, but Julie had never met her. Rather, she had created this ideal Julia Child in her head. And therefore, it wasn't Julia Child who made all Julie's writing dreams come true; it was Julie herself.

Sure, a writing mentor would be bliss, but one of my primary goals for my upcoming MA in writing is to learn to better mentor myself, become more critical of my own writing.

*Yes, I know, the movie is also about a blogger, but I really don't see my blog that way, so not so much worth mentioning.

Friday, September 18, 2009

What I'm loving now: Brunel Sinfonia

I read a blog recently (and I can't figure out which one!!! Sorry!!!) that pointed out how critical we are in our daily lives. The blog encouraged us to practice falling in love with something every day.

This sounds like lovely advice, but the more I thought about it, the less I could figure out how to apply it to my life. Finally I realized that while I am critical of many things (hence the name of this blog!), I don't hate things on a daily basis. I just don't feel that strongly about that many things I encounter in my day to day life. So I'm also not sure I have the capacity to love a new thing daily either. But I don't think it's a bad idea to celebrate the things I do love now and then.

So, I love the Brunel Sinfonia. That's the community orchestra I play viola with here in Bristol. I can say I love them quite confidently right now because we haven't started autumn rehearsals yet. This fall we're playing Mahler's 5th Sympthony, which is supposedly quite tough, so I'm sure I'll have plenty of reasons to grumble about the Brunel Sinfonia and our arrogant music selection in the future. But for now--listen to this brass opening! Gorgeous.

For me, playing viola is much like running. A 2 hour rehearsal is physically exhausting, but while it's going on I'm not thinking about work or writing or my latest anxiety. Instead, when I walk home at night the most incredible music is blasting through my mind. It's a complete escape from my day to day life.

I especially love orchestra music. It's not about being the best (which I'm so clearly not), but rather playing together, playing off each other, giving just a piece of yourself to create this incredible whole. And when I hear the music we create, sometimes I get lost in it, forget to count, forget to even play.

I also think there's something healthy about participating in something in which I'm clearly not gifted. It's humbling, but encourages discipline. Also there isn't the same level of pressure as there is for me in so much of the rest of my life. It's not a job, it's not even a future job. It's a community orchestra. I do my best, but I'm one of over a hundred. Life, even music, will go on if I mess up.

And on the flip side, it's a pleasure to play for an orchestra which is so good. Our conductor (a solicitor by day) is younger than me and so incredibly talented. And I'm not the only violist, which is such a rare joy. Our orchestra has an extremely strong viola section which is regularly between 6-12 people. Incredible. And rehearsals are less than a 15 minute walk from home.

So exhausting, time consuming, sometimes even embarrassing to my pride, but I love it. What about you? What do you find to take you away from day to day life?

If you happen to be in the Bristol area, our next concert will be 14th November.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Writing vs. Publishing

I force myself to write for 45 minutes to an hour when I first get up, before I shower or eat breakfast and especially before I open Firefox. I find when I'm still half asleep my writing is better. Perhaps feeling less cognisant of the world around me allows me to write more freely and creatively. Also, if I check the news first thing I will lose my mind to abuse, genocide, partisan politics, and I won't be able to snap my mind back into my writing. Lately, I've found publishing news has become just as bad fodder for my brain.

Not that I couldn't be happier for published authors. Really. It's an extremely competitive business and I know exactly how hard they've worked to get there. Some of them have languished in my shoes 10, 20, even 30 years. So I'm not jealous of them. I just wish I was one of them.

Some people might roll their eyes at that, tell me I'm in the wrong profession if I'm looking for money or fame. But I don't care about fame in the slightest, and while enough money to support my career would be such a blessing, that's not my end goal either. I want to be a published author so I can share my stories on a broader scale. Having just me and myself looking over my shoulder 90% of the time is a bit depressing, especially when the writing's not going well. And besides, what is the point of storytelling if it's not sharing stories?

I love seeing things like this:

Universal makes 'Wicked' deal: Thompson to adapt first book in Marr's series

I just finished Melissa Marr's WICKED LOVELY last night and really enjoyed it. My short reivew is on Goodreads.

Or Maggie Stiefvater's trailer for her NY Times Bestselling SHIVER. She designs all of her trailers, music, animation, everything. Check out her new play-doh version of the SHIVER trailer.

So exciting and creative! Things like this make me wish I could be there as well, sharing my stories with the world. They also make me impatient and a little sad.

It's kind of like when I was a kid and allergic to everything. My mom made me homemade cashew butter, but she knew once I tasted commercial peanut butter, with all its salt and sugar, there would be no going back. She was right. I believe it's really important for future writers to understand a bit about the publishing world, how it works, what's expected, etc, but sometimes I wish I didn't even know it existed.

I mean, writing's great. I get to tell a story I love. I get to work in my pajamas. I don't have a boss standing behind my shoulder watching my every move. I get to be creative and try new things. I get to live in stories.

So I try to enjoy the moment. I don't want to know what new and upcoming agents are aching for more boy's books or non-vampire supernatural stories. I've pushed too fast before and been only frustrated when my writing was found lacking. So now I want to ignore all of that and focus on writing the best book I can.

Actually, a lot of published authors might not mind switching with me now and again. It's a stressful job. They travel around the country promoting their books, they host blogs, webpages, and twitter feeds filled with fans. Course, they also have to write. And unlike me, when they write people, businesses, depend on their creativity being on time and well done.

There are horror stories, too: authors whose books are bought but then abandoned when publishing houses fail; books that agents shop around forever but no one buys them because they're too avant-garde or literary or about angels when the market wants more vampires.

All of this makes my job of sitting in my chair writing, day after day, look like bliss.

I need to keep telling myself that and turn off the internet a little more frequently.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Inspirational Places

After twenty-odd minutes of wrestling with my ipod (Why must my podcasts randomly disappear? Why must my settings never do want I want them to do? Why must it freeze every time I try to play a newly downloaded podcast? Why is Apple so allergic to INSTRUCTIONS???) I figured I better take a teeny break.

I thought I'd go for a triumvirate of inspiration this week and write about inspirational places today.

I mentioned in Wednesday's post that I had been inspired in my current wip by some of England's beautiful cathedrals. Two of my favorites are York Minster and Bristol Cathedral. Both have some really ancient parts and tucked away, underground sanctuaries. I first toured Bristol's cathedral with my mother-in-law. Neither of us had been inside before, and while we were poking around a priest stopped by to welcome us. We asked him what his favorite part of the cathedral was, and before we knew it we were on a heartfelt personal tour.

He showed us a stained glass window dedicated to civilian forces during World War II, an underground chapel, a stone memorial placed in the 1990s (he was so proud that his church was continuing to change, continuing to honor people, and was not just a history piece). My favorite was the night stairs, the stairs monks used to travel down to say their prayers, day and night, every three hours. You can see their devotion wore down the stone.

For more pictures, visit the Cathedral's website.

Another favorite inspirational place I've discovered in England is Whitby. I was originally drawn to it because of its beauty, then later heard its ruined abbey and graveyard was the place where Bram Stoker was inspired to write DRACULA. And no wonder. I mean, LOOK. Not only is it gorgeous and right on the seaside, it is truly spooky too:

And you can climb all around the abbey. And Phil and I did. =)

I also find inspiration outdoors. Phil and my latest outdoorsy trip was to Inverness (yes, right alongside Loch Ness), which was much less touristy and much more beautiful than we had anticipated. It's where my sidebar picture comes from. I'm also rather fond of this one of the hills around Inverness (notice the complete lack of civilization!).

But I've also found inspiration in places very modern. London and Chicago are both dear to my heart. I find their bustle and their exuberance, even their ambivalence, very inspiring. It was Chicago which first got me interested in architecture. So on a recent trip to Glasgow, Phil and I stopped off at the Glasgow School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of the most famous Scottish architects. His work reminds me a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright. Have you ever been inside a place a building where it just feels completely right and soothing, yet awe inspiring? That's what the Glasgow School of Art was like for me. And what a perfect location for a school! Here's a picture of the outside:

But follow this link to see the library!

Have I babbled enough about my favorite places? Actually, I suddenly find myself with so much more to say. Why are these places inspirational to me? Is it telling that the same places (like Whitby or London) have inspired multiple artists? What do these places say about me as a writer and person? What do these places say about humanity in general? And why just places; aren't people also inspiring? And music?

But I think this is plenty for today. However, I'd love to hear what places inspire you AND WHY, and not just for writing, but for any art, dance, photography, music, etc.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

On cathedrals, ferrets and bullies...

Took a break from my writing this morning to hang laundry (Phil and I have a washer, but not a dryer. We also have a fridge the size of a kitchen cupboard. Ah, European life!). While hanging laundry and thinking about inspiration and my current wip (work in progress), it occurred to me I should share the story of how I found the idea for it.

It all gets back to this desire to write a simple story! I wanted to write something breezy, upbeat, based in the real world (ie, no fantasy) and funny (I think I have a good sense of humor. Phil disagrees =) ). So I ended up with a goofy character named Charlie Macarooni. I had ferrets on the brain, since an agent (who will remain nameless) had requested a partial of ADÈLE, and as I researched her a bit more, I discovered she writes frequently about her pet ferret. So I wrote a short story about a goofy kid, a missing class ferret, a beautiful blonde classmate, and a nasty, ferret-stealing bully. My critique group loved it, and one of these days I will polish it up a bit and see if it might find a home somewhere.

But at the time I was completely distracted and couldn't be bothered to polish the story. I was way too obsessed with my ferret-stealing bully. Why would anyone be mean enough to steal the class ferret? What was his problem? I was at a writer's workshop and challenged to write about a traumatic incident. At the time I was missing my dog, Connor. That's the only way I can explain what came next, a graphic, horrific description of a car hitting a dog and a boy sobbing over him. My poor, ferret-stealing bully now had a back story.

After that it gets a bit fuzzy. Living in Europe, I've been struck by the combination of beautiful cathedrals and grim history questions about where the money to build them came from. So I had a setting and the beginnings of a theme. And for some reason this setting resulted in pagan spirits, since apparently I cannot write a story without undead. Somewhere along the way I decided Charlie's beautiful blonde needed to be the ferret-stealing bully's sister and she needed a story of her own. Then I dropped the ferret mystery and somehow stumbled into a completely different plot. And then it gets even more complicated...

But lovely. Sometimes I get sick of my writing, frustrated with my stories. But at the end of the day the only way I can spend years on a novel is because I love the story. So my next goal is to find another character to fall in love with, a few different philosophical questions to tangle with, a plot would be nice. But looking back on the process this wip has gone through, it might be a while. My inspiration seems to follow a rather meandering road.

Where do ideas come from? And can I get some better ones?

Continuing on from Monday's post about dreams as inspiration, I want to write a bit more about where ideas come from. That's the question writers are always asked, right? And sometimes they have nice, clear answers, like Theodore Dreiser basing AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY on a newspaper article. Or A GATHERING LIGHT by Jennifer Donnelly which is a gorgeous young adult book based on the same historical story as Dreiser's book. Alternatively writers can have shady, mystical answers, but those answers make sense too because writers are weird, right? Both Stephenie Meyer and Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed to write based on a dream (of course, Coleridge's dream was opium induced).

But frequently writers' answers regarding inspiration make no sense. They say they found themselves wondering about free will, or observing crabby kids in a grocery store, or walking along a beach. And that's because inspiration and creativity are random and tricky and fleeting. I find all the work in the world doesn't bring ideas. Instead, ideas choose to come. Sure, you can look in all the right places, do a lot of brainstorming, keep the door to your mind wide open. But I guess story ideas are like love. Sometimes they just unexpectedly happen. And frequently they don't. And like falling in love, I've found the best story ideas are the ones that come and won't leave my mind alone.

I mention all this because I'm currently seeking a new idea. Not too actively, I already have plenty on my plate. But I'd like to start school in October with something on the back burner, an idea to get to know, to invite out to play and to see what happens.

I joke frequently that my NEXT novel is going to be simple. Because my writing is NEVER simple. I admire books like SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson (one of the most incredible ya books EVER) which have a single main character, a single point of view, one driving issue (in SPEAK the character's need to speak up after a life-changing trauma). To juxtapose, my current work in progress currently has TWO worlds and THREE narrators, each with their own dilemmas, climaxes and resolutions. Or, my previous novel, ADÈLE. I decided that one was going to be nice and simple, just a ghost story. But then I added a historical element to it, needed to give the ghost her own narration, and suddenly I had another mess on my hands. I often fantasize my next novel is going to be a romance (not that I ever read romances...).

But recently I've decided two things:
  1. I don't choose my works, they choose me.
  2. SPEAK (and other novels like it) is probably a lot more complicated than it looks at first glance. It still has multiple characters with multiple perspectives, a mysterious backstory that needs to be unveiled, a heavy-issue theme to be dealt with.
So I've decided to just be grateful that I love writing, that inspiration chooses to strike every now and then, and to do the best I can to tell my stories. Maybe someday someone will read me and complain about how simple it all seems? HAH!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Finding inspiration in my bed?

When I was little, I spent most of a year plagued with nightmares. I was a nine-year-old with dark circles under my eyes. My parents were worried sick, I became terrified to sleep. We finally traced it to my classroom, which was in a portable behind the main school building and had a water cooler. My mom told me to stop drinking from the water cooler and eventually the nightmares slipped away. There must have been some chemical added to the water which didn't agree with me. I experienced something very similar in my twenties when Phil and I moved to Chicago. It wasn't just a new city, a new home--I had regular nightmares. A water filter on the kitchen tap solved the problem (that's why I've avidly followed the Chicago Tribune's reports on what's in Chicago's water)

But as a very desperate and tired nine-year-old, I discovered a trick to cope with my dreams. I realized everything I dreamed was a repeat of my day. But it wasn't the big parts of my day I remembered. It was the little things I barely considered; a sparkly bug on the side of the road, a kid with a funny laugh in the hallway. So when I got into bed I would repeat my entire day in my mind. Before I fell asleep, I tried to recount every small thing in great detail so I wouldn't need to dream it. This must have coincided with the water cooler discovery, but it worked, and I fell asleep this way for many years to come.

Now nightmares are much rarer for me. But I still dream every night. And I've come to realize how unusual my dreams are. Apparently most people dream in black and white, they can't read, and they frequently forget their dreams. That's not true for me. Well, the reading thing is sort of true. I can read a few sentences in my dreams and understand what I'm reading, but when I awake I realize the language didn't make any sense and the meaning is gibberish. But otherwise, my dreams are vivid, with full colors and casts of characters. And I almost always remember them. Because of this I've always loved my dreams. I used to drive my family nuts recounting them over breakfast, but to me they were brand new adventures every night.

So I've come to think of my dreams as a gift. I find them massively entertaining, and now that they're not terrifying me, I love sorting through them, trying to figure out what bits and pieces evolved from the previous day. Lately I've started wondering if I should make better use of them. I read that Stephenie Meyer developed the plot for her bestselling TWILIGHT series in a dream. And I've been given another gift recently, too, the gift of time. So I've started recording my dreams each morning using DreamDiary, a free Mac program. It also allows me to tag them so I can keep track of each date I dream I'm in a fantasy story (fairly frequently) and each date I'm back at work (thankfully infrequently).

But even 10-15 minutes at the beginning of each day is beginning to seem a bit time consuming. I've started to wonder if it's worth it. I can see the patterns to my dreams, how frequently I dream about certain people, places and anxieties, but I could have done that before. However, I do appreciate giving myself a chunk of time every day to think about my dreams, since I do enjoy them. And I can't imagine I'll ever use it as a resource, but I like knowing that my dreams for the past month are all logged and tagged (and I should give a shout-out to Joni here, at the Blueboards. I stupidly nearly lost all of my data last week and she talked me through finding it again. THANK YOU!).

But is it worth my time? Will I discover my next plot in my dream? I'm not sure. I guess I'll see how long I keep it up once school starts up and my life gets increasingly busy.

What about you? Are you a vivid dreamer? Do you remember your dreams? Are they ever inspirational? Have you ever recorded them?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ah, Saturdays

It doesn't get much better than a good Saturday.

While I'm writing, I'm simmering vegetables, stock and tomatoes for jambalaya for dinner tonight. The last time I made jambalaya was for our Inauguration Day party. It smells like heaven (or at least like the Dixie Kitchen) in our kitchen right now.

And I napped most of this afternoon because I stayed up halfway through the night last night to finish Meg Cabot's final installment in THE PRINCESS DIARIES. I had to find out if Mia and Michael would ever love each other again. Really. Even though you would think these books would not really be my thing, I am so totally addicted. I (and Phil!) am so pleased I have now finished the series. Until I need to re-read them all. I want to do a blog post on what makes these books so great (because they are!), except I'm still trying to sort it out myself. Meg Cabot is amazing. And anyone who doesn't believe me should check out her blog, which almost always makes me laugh out loud.

Also, even though I was up half the night, I woke up early this morning because the sun was shining (albeit briefly) and I was thinking about my own novel. So I got out of bed and wrote for two hours straight. I'm in one of those periods where I'm loving my book, loving my characters, lost in my story. Which is a good thing because frequently I'm fighting the opposite feelings.

Oh, and proof that I DID go on a walk the other day:

This is Bristol's Bishop Knoll, a forest preserve I've been meaning to go to for sometime. It was a bit of a disappointment. I mean, some very cool old trees, but most of it was overgrown bramble.

Doesn't this look like the tree in Pan's Labyrinth?

Then I found this random stone staircase that led to a curving wall covered with thorny plants.

Of course I had to go explore. How random and British is this?

Hope you're all enjoying your Saturdays, too!

Thursday, September 3, 2009


I've had a few people ask, so I wanted to answer the question for everyone: anyone can post comments on my blog. You can use a Google account, as well as a variety of other things, and I've also set it up so you can post without signing in (just select the 'Anonymous' option in the comments' drop down box). In the future I may get tons of spam and this will become problematic, but for now, it's such a new blog, I'm happy to get traffic and to make it easier for people to comment. So please do comment, even if it's just to say hi. I'm happy to know I'm not talking to myself!


Writing: where I am now

In his amazing book ON WRITING, Stephen King describes creating a story as sculpture. I specifically remember him comparing writing to sculpting an elephant out of marble, but my mind could have added those details (oh how I miss my library sitting in storage in Chicago!). Anyway, what King's basically saying is that the elephant is already there, buried within the marble. It is the sculptor's job to chip away the stone and uncover it.

This gets into all sorts of Jungian philosophy about where story comes from, but the metaphor has stuck with me because it rings true for my writing, especially in the midst of revision.

For me, revision is a fine line between being brutally honest with myself about the parts of my story that don't make sense, but at the same time being true to my initial vision (my elephant). If I don't cut off the nose that's way too long for the body, I'll never discover the short stubby nose in the marble below, the nose that was meant to be all along.

Now that I've probably completely lost you in metaphor land, let me explain what this means for me in a practical sense as I work on revising my current novel's first draft. I have done most of the big work in pulling my plot together. There are still holes, but I believe (hope!) they're not integral to the plot; they can be patched over as I work through the novel a second (or third or fourth or fifth) time. To keep myself on track, I've made a list of issues I need to address for this revision, and have been practicing "revision triage". First on that list was Isabel's emotional development (I blogged about this work here). I went through the first third of my novel, looked at chapters from Isabel's point of view, and made sure her emotions were consistent, developing, and fully explained. While doing this, I realized Isabel's Mom's emotions weren't consistent, so I fixed those next. Then I looked at chapters with Isabel, but which weren't from her point of view, to make sure those were consistent as well. Yesterday I checked to make sure each Isabel chapter had an interesting beginning, an increase in intensity as the chapter went on, and ended on a cliffhanger. Today I'm working on setting and timing. If she gets up at 5:30 AM and sits on the roof for an hour, would her brother be up when she went back downstairs? Would the sun be coming up yet? Also, what does her bedroom look like? I'm hoping to add all these details today. Then comes the moment I'm dreading. Tomorrow I'll need to rewrite all of these four Isabel chapters to make sure everything I've incorporated comes together in one seamless voice and story. Then I'll move on to my next character.

I'm working this way because if I try to do the whole at once, I get caught up in small details and I lose sense of the bigger picture. Starting tomorrow I'll be able to focus on details, knowing the bigger picture (my elephant) is already sketched out.

Meanwhile, I'm also working on two other projects (for someone who's not good at multi-tasking, that's pretty good, huh?!). I'm playing with ideas for a new story and fixing an older piece. I love the concept, the themes, and the story, but as a whole the older piece iss still a bit of a mess. I tried a great exercise yesterday from Donald Maass' WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK (which people kept recommending to me so I finally broke down and bought it!). It involves creating novels (think thrillers) where at the end the three separate plot strands all come together and you realize they're all connected. Maass suggested writing down your five most major characters, plot strands and settings, and then drawing circles and arrows between them. The writer is supposed to look for surprising connections, ways to draw things together that they hadn't thought of before. It was a really useful exercise for me and I learned two very exciting things:
  1. The piece already has tons of connections. The major plot lines are played out, in different variations, amongst all of the main characters. How cool is that? Look at all the lines I drew!
  2. An idea I had had earlier this summer came back to me as a way to connect everything together better. So, not a new idea, but further affirmation that my idea might work.
Again, like with the elephant, I often find that. I rarely have new ideas, just better ways of getting at my original vision.

And now it's almost noon here in Bristol and the predicted rain has not materialized, so I think I'm going to take a well-earned break and go on a walk!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Back to school! *shudder*

Now that I'm no longer teaching I can be honest. I HATED the first day of school. All those new faces watching me, evaluating me. I'd have teacher anxiety nightmares for at least three weeks beforehand. And it's not like I had good lesson plans to fall back on, either. I mean, Get to know you BINGO is all right, but eventually I'd have to find a way to squeeze in "my expectations for the year." And one first day I slipped and landed right on my butt. My whole class erupted in laughter. Ugh.

I liked the first day of school much better as a student. All new colored pencils and a new Trapper Keeper (remember Trapper Keepers???), getting new teachers, a chance to learn wonderful, new things. Unfortunately, after about a week or two I'd remember why school could be a bastion of boredom and misery, but every September, after a long, quiet summer, I'd magically forget again.

So I'm approaching my first day in my MA program with mixed feelings (for more about my program, see my first post). Like my first day as a student, I'm really excited about all the new people I'm going to meet and new things I'm going to learn. I might buy some new pens, too! But like my teacher self, I feel I have a lot more at stake. I really want this to work. I want to be successful. I want to be a writer.

Okay, to be honest my course doesn't start until October. But everyone else is getting ready to go back to school and the weather has gotten decidedly cooler, so I figured I'd have sympathy with the rest of you and share a list I made back in May when I was first thinking about doing this program. It's a list of all my back to school fears.
  • What if no one likes my writing?
  • What if I don't make any friends?
  • What if they think I'm weird or they aren't anything like me?
  • What if I'm the oldest person on the course and they're all young single women who just want to go out drinking every night and they think I'm antisocial?
  • What if my classes aren't challenging enough?
  • What if I'm at the bottom of the class?
  • What if I don't enjoy it?
  • What if I have a mental block?
  • What if I can't write that long, day in, day out?
  • What if I don't like anything we read?
Isn't back to school grand? *sigh*

Any back to school fears of your own?