Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Rose and Vincent

03
September
2013

As Inigo says, there is too much, let me sum up.

The summer here in Maine is so beautiful I want to revel in it, make every moment count. (Actually, that statement applies to life in general, but is particularly evident when the weather is splendid). So in my non-dayjob and non-writing time, I’ve been kayaking, picking strawberries, visiting friends and family, swimming, walking in the woods, and glorying in the summer fruits and veggies.

I’ve also been reading a lot and accumulating a long list of things I want to tell people about (books, blog posts, podcasts). I’ll save most of them for later posts, and focus on just three, because they are connected in that strange and wonderful way that things sometimes are. In life, as in writing (and mathematics!) I love it when unexpected patterns suddenly blaze out into significance. It’s like I can suddenly hear a tiny bit of the song the universe is singing.

This most recent unexpected pattern sprang out of a sorrow. My grandmother passed away last month. She had a long and rich and happy life, and it was not unexpected, but it was still a hard thing. When I was packing for the trip to New York for the funeral, I decided to bring two books.

One was non-fiction, a collection of letters by Edna St. Vincent Millay, which I had discovered via the wonderful Brain Pickings blog. I’m still working my way through the collection, but I already knew I wanted to own a copy after the first few pages. Vincent (as she calls herself) is a fascinating character, coming so early into relative fame as a poet, traveling to Vassar for college, maintaining vibrant correspondence with other poets and her beloved mother and sisters. I have a particular interest in Millay as she grew up in Camden Maine (very near one of my own childhood homes, in Rockport Maine). I also discovered that one of my favorite modern poets, Mary Oliver, was deeply influenced by Millay and even helped organize her papers, as well as also attending Vassar for a time!

I had only learned about Brain Pickings because a friend had posted a link to this interview with Maria Popova, who writes Brain Pickings. And the quote that made me go subscribe to Brain Pickings was what Ms Popova says here:

Brain Pickings began as my record of what I was learning, and it remains a record of what I continue to learn – the writing is just the vehicle for recording, for making sense.

That said, one thing I’ve honed over the years – in part by countless hours of reading and in part because I suspect it’s how my brain is wired – is drawing connections between things, often things not immediately or obviously related, spanning different disciplines and time periods. I wouldn’t call that “expertise” so much as obsession – it’s something that gives me enormous joy and stimulation, so I do it a great deal, but I don’t know if that constitutes expertise.

Drawing connections! Finding patterns!

The other book I brought with me was ROSE UNDER FIRE, a companion novel to CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein, which I read and loved last year. You don’t have to read CNV to follow the story of RUF, though RUF does spoil certain plot points in CNV so if you’ve an interest in reading that, you should probably read it first. I ordered my UK copy from The Book Depository because I couldn’t wait for the US release on September 10th!

And I loved it — perhaps even more than I loved CNV. I found it a hard book to read, because of the honest depiction of human cruelty and brutality. But it is full of such wonderful characters, such love, such true friendships. RUF is the story of a young woman pilot (American, this time), helping the Allied war effort during World War II. Rose is a poet, and it is poetry that helps sustain her (and the other women she meets) during some horrible, harrowing times. Her own poetry, but also that of one of her favorite poets– Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Then, at the funeral, my uncle asked me to read a poem as part of the service. A poem by Millay. In fact, one of the poems that is quoted in ROSE UNDER FIRE.

I know some patterns are actually probably just coincidences. But I still love them, especially at a time when I am all too aware of death and endings. I think drawing– seeing, finding– connections is one of the best things we can do as living, loving creatures. It’s part of the reason I write. Because to me, telling stories is also about finding patterns, understanding connections.

So thank you, Grandma, for helping me find patterns. For helping me love the world a little more.

~~~

One of my favorite poems by Millay:


I shall go back again to the bleak shore
And build a little shanty on the sand
In such a way that the extremest band
Of brittle seaweed will escape my door
But by a yard or two, and nevermore
Shall I return to take you by the hand;
I shall be gone to what I understand
And happier than I ever was before.
The love that stood a moment in your eyes,
The words that lay a moment on your tongue,
Are one with all that in a moment dies,
A little under-said and over-sung;
But I shall find the sullen rocks and skies
Unchanged from what they were when I was young.

~~~

And here’s a question for the writers out there: if you’re working on a draft of something, and you get maybe 75% done and then realize that you want to go back and substantially change some core element that may impact character motivations and subtle stuff (the WHY) in the last 25%, but won’t necessarily change the actual events/plot points (the WHAT) do you power through and try to write the last 25% or do you go back and do the rewrite of the beginning first?

How knitting is like writing

01
May
2013

I started learning to knit just about a year ago. I spent most of last year working on a scarf. A looooong scarf. That involved the same series of stitches, over and over again. So when I finally finished that I wanted to work on something “more interesting.”

Have you noticed how “more interesting” so often translates to “Aaaa! How did I ever think I could possibly be capable of THIS???”

But I wanted to learn something new. Like using double pointed needles. Like doing increases and decreases. I wanted to understand arcane invocations like “ssk” and “k2tog” and “pick up one stitch to close the gap.”

It is possible I was slightly over-ambitious. But I fumbled through it, with a lot of help from YouTube and Ravelry. I got almost to the end — I could see the lovely pattern emmerging, I could actually put the thing on my hand and see where the hole for my thumb was and everything. Unfortunately, I could also see all the mistakes. The places where I had created ladders. The uneven sizing. The fact that the glove was just TOO BIG.

I stared at that glove for a long time. I thought about how I was so close to finishing. I asked myself if I could live with those imperfections, knowing I could do better now that I had learned more.

I taught myself another new bit of knitting terminology:

FROGGING: When you undo a bunch of work (or an entire piece). Because you “rip it” and move on.

I started over. I adjusted the pattern to fit my smaller hand. I used what I had learned from the last time. And finally, I ended up with this:

From Misc

Now I just need to knit the other one. Hopefully before fall!

Over the past few years I’ve been working on another project. A book. I have frogged it (in part or in full) a frightening number of times. Yesterday I finished my most recent revision, which involved a pretty significant rewrite of the first few chapters. Yet again.

But I don’t regret it. Each time I learn something. Each time I get closer to the perfect ur-book in my mind.

And hopefully each time I move on to something more interesting!

(Like maybe this?)

Beginnings

22
January
2012

Right now I’m at the beginning of a new project. I’m very excited. But it’s hard.

Every time I start writing something new, it feels like the most impossible thing in the world. No matter how much I love the idea or the characters. No matter how detailed my outline or how perfect a soundtrack I’ve put together.

Because as much as I know about the characters, they don’t come alive until I start writing them. And even then, it’s a long, slow struggle to unearth them from all the possibilities and wrong-turns. It’s like they’re at the far side of a huge, shadowy room, and I’m trying to get closer, to see them clearly, but the floor of the room is covered in molasses (or caltrops, on the bad days).

I know it’s worth it. But I forget, sometimes, how hard it is. So I’m writing this down, now, so that next time I’m at the beginning, I can look back and remember I’ve made it across that room before.

Anyone else out there struggling with a new beginning? I raise my teacup to you!

Since I’m at the beginning of something, I’ve been accumulating nifty tidbits in the course of research. Here’s a few:

Oscar Niemeyer. I found him while reading about Brazil. I kept seeing these amazing images of buildings (exteriors and interiors) with this wonderful futuristic aesthetic. Like this:

Museo de Arte Contempóraneo, Arq. Oscar Niemeyer, Niteroi-Brasil

And this:

8ª Bienal Internacional de Arquitetura / Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo, São Paulo, SP

And eventually I realized they were all designed by the same guy. Who happens to have had a pretty impressive life.

He’s 104 years old and still working.

I hope I am still writing, if I make it to 104!

Real-life Chimera
This is from an episode called of one of my favorite podcasts, RadioLab. The full program (titled “(So-Called) Life”) is here. The whole thing is worth listening to, but the part that kind of blew my mind starts around 7 minutes into the program, with a story about a woman named Karen, reported by Soren Wheeler. I’m not going to tell you exactly what it’s about because it’s more interesting to hear the slow reveal.

The Bioengineer Song
In the same podcast, there’s a bit near the end about students at MIT engineering the normally stinky E. coli bacteria used in their lab to smell like wintergreen. The potential of science is awesome (in both the “magnificent” and “terrifying” senses of the word).

Here’s a link to an article about the story (though the podcast has more details). The part I wanted to point you to (especially if you are a fan of weird, subversive music akin to what you hear on Dr Demento) is the song they created for the piece. If you scroll down on the left sidebar you can play “We are Bioengineers” yourself!

Retreating

08
June
2011

Sometimes the hardest part of writing is the not-writing.

Right now I am still on an enforced vacation from my recently-completed draft, both to allow myself to gain some objectivity about the project and to let my revision thoughts brew and stew. And it feels weird. I’m a shameless wordcount addict. I love the external validation of seeing my daily wordage accumulate.

It’s hard to remember that these between-times, these thinking-times, are just as important to the process as the active work periods: that it can be just as much “work” to synthesize critique feedback into a revision plan as it is to actually carry OUT that revision. But I know my revision will be better and more successful if I wait and give my backbrain time to mull and ponder and work things out.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is something one of my beta readers (the very wise Megan Crewe) said: “You have to know that the character as they are at the beginning of the story could not at that point have done what they need to do to succeed at the end of the story. It’s only because of the growth they go through on the way there that they can.” (Edited to add: R. J. Anderson has some interesting comments about places where this rule might not apply, over on the LJ xpost. And indeed, I don’t think any writing rule is universal, though in this case this “rule” has been helping me focus on how to (I hope!) strengthen a particular character arc. Also, Megan says she picked this wisdom up somewhere else, but I will still give her the credit for introducing it to me!)

Right now, this is true (I think!) for one of my two POV characters. But for the other, not so much… Part of the problem is that I haven’t quite nailed down her character arc. I know her backstory and emotional damage, but I need to dig deeper into what she truly needs to grow, and what scares her, and how the events of the book can force that growth and change. The other issue is determining exactly what that “they need to do to succeed” moment is — I am not entirely sure it’s the obvious one. So perhaps I need to focus more on the true moment of success.

These are all things that need thought and reflection. And time. So it’s a good time to retreat and think, to read craft books (most recently Cheryl B. Klein’s fantastic SECOND SIGHT and Donald Maass’s THE FIRE IN FICTION, both highly recommended).

Conveniently, I’m actually going off on my first official writing retreat next week! I am SO looking forward to some dedicated time to consider my revision plans, new book ideas, and more general writing-life stuff! And to visit with some fantastic fellow writers!

Those of you who have gone on informal writing retreats: what do you work on while retreating? First drafts? Revisions? Play & exploration of new ideas? Do you find retreats are especially good for any particular part of the process?

Books that made me cry

11
May
2011

Books that have made me cry:

The Time-Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones
Abhorsen by Garth Nix
Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud

…and the draft of the new novel I just finished last night.

As I said on twitter, I suspect I was slightly off balance emotionally because because I had just written 20K in 7 days in the rush to the finish. But one of my goals with this book was to push for more, and deeper, emotion. This is the first thing I’ve written that I consider a love story. I set two characters in motion, not quite knowing them yet, but eager to see them work from mistrust to trust to friendship to love. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but I wanted to try.

Now I’m in that post-drafting crazybrain space right now, and feeling kind of sappy and goofy, so take this with a grain of salt. But I’m so happy I pushed myself to write this book. I feel like I accomplished something new, bigger and deeper than my previous stories. Whether it sells or not (though I hope it sells! I want other folks to meet these people!) I am glad I did it. I cared about it. I loved telling it. And that is a gift.

What books have made you guys cry? I cry all the time over tv and movies, but rarely over books, myself…

The hard days

21
March
2011

Sometimes there are easy writing days. Sure, I still have to overcome my basic inertia and the lure of easy entertainment and online dabbling and frittering. But I have a core belief in the project. I want to know what happens next. I want to see how my characters and my world will surprise me. I have faith I am going in generally the right direction.

Then there are the hard days. When the universe seems to shift overnight and suddenly I’ve lost that faith. My characters are distant. I’m fumbling around in the dark and I don’t even know if there’s anything to find. The plot has turned into this many-headed monster that my brain can’t contain. I still have faith in the story, but it’s blind and tenuous and I worry I am going to lose it completely.

I’ve had a stretch of hard days lately. I know, intellectually, that I will get through it. It’s happened before. It will happen again. I tell myself that especially with this book, where I’m trying to push myself, it is even expected. I am striving to do something new, and it isn’t going to be easy. It shouldn’t be easy!

Even when I want it to be easy.

Some days, when it’s hard, I just need to write it down. Then, next time I have a hard day I can look back and remember that it is all part of the process. Or maybe one of you is having a hard day (week, month) too, and we can commiserate, and it will be a tiny bit better for both of us because we will know we aren’t alone.

It’s spring now, and I have seen crocuses blooming down the street. There are short green stubs in my own front yard. I have my window open just a crack even though it is dark and cold, because the birds are in full chaotic symphony. If the birds and the crocuses can make it through winter, I can make it through these hard days (weeks, months), right?

Miscellany

04
March
2011

First, a reminder: there’s still time to enter the giveaway for faery books here!

Second, some events: I’ll post more details later, but I’m attending an event here in my hometown of Hallowell on Saturday April 9th at the Harlow Gallery from 1-3PM, with other local artists of all sorts. And on Thursday May 12th I will be at the Cambridge Public Library at 7PM as part of the Diversity in YA tour, along with Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Holly Black, Francisco X. Stork, and Sarah Rees Brennan. EEEEE! I would love to see some friendly faces in the crowd!

Third, a PSA: There’s been internet chatter about a YA Mafia. I, of course, belong to the MG Mafia, where we get together to drink butterbeer and exchange tips on how to train your dragon, but I did want to answer author Janni Lee Simner’s call for folks to stand up virtually and say “hey, go ahead an review my books, whether you like them or not.” So there it is. I generally try to avoid reading reviews of my books unless my editor sends them to me, but I’m grateful for every thoughtful review anyone does care to put out there. I don’t like every book published, so I don’t expect every reader to like mine either!

Fourth, food: I think that at least a third of the posts I have starred in my google reader are recipes. Here are two I am thinking of trying in the near future: salt-crusted chicken and lemon-meringue cupcakes.

Fifth, travel: Sadly there is no space or budget for a big trip this year, but next spring Bob and I are really hoping to travel to England & Wales (first time for me). Until then I content myself reading travel books and blogs like this. I must say I am very envious of the green… everything here is still covered in several feet of snow!

Sixth, writing: I just passed 50K words on my current project (of a projected 80-90). It is so strange to me now to remember starting it on January 1st of this year, struggling for hours to get down 600 words. The blank page is one of the scariest things in the world: the feeling that you have to strain and struggle to pull something out of nothing. But now that the book has some heft to it, though, it is starting to pull me along. Whew! It’s a nice reminder that the little steps really do add up…

Onward!

Squash as Procrastination

18
February
2011

My morning routine is fairly straightforward and unchanging. I wake up around 4 or 5 (no alarm, I’m an early bird. Or a crazy bird, depending on your feelings toward morning) and shuffle into my purple writing library and turn on the computer. I pet my sleepy dog, who has managed to compact himself into half he apparant size in order to sleep on the comfy reading armchair. I go make the first of many cups of hot black tea with milk. I look out the window at the one bright star that hovers over my neighbor’s single tall pine tree.

And then I get to work. Sometimes I unplug the wifi. Sometimes I evict Charlie from the armchair and write curled up under a blanket.

Today I roasted a squash.

Just a small one — an organic Delicata squash I picked up at the natural food store last weekend. [Sidenote: I highly recommend this variety to any fellow winter squash-lovers out there, especially those living in a household otherwise inhospitable to squash. They are the perfect size for one person, and you can easily slice them into "fries" and bake them, skin on, with a few sprays of olive oil and sprinkle of salt. Yum!]

I was procrastinating, you see. I’d just gotten to a scene in the book I’m drafting that needs to be a sort of turning point where one character makes a hard decision. I know what I want her to do. But a story needs more than just authorial intent. I needed to understand why she would do what she did.

One of the dangers of being a more plot-first type of writer (as I am) is that you can easily fall into the trap of treating your characters like puppets, dancing them through the motions of the plot points you want them to follow.

But that’s not a story (to use my personal terminology). Story requires character as well as plot — the characters need to have believable reasons for doing what they do. Motivations. They need to be protagonists, not puppets.

And I could tell that even though I knew what I wanted to have happen, I wasn’t as sure about why. So I baked a squash, and petted my dog, and drank tea (not all at once. Well, the tea-drinking was relatively continuous).

I also read this post by the wise and talented R L LaFevers on the value of time for thinking, stewing and fermenting, when pursuing creative work.

I’m still stewing on this particular scene, but hopefully I will find my way to the guts of the character motivations if I keep searching.

And in the meantime, I have some crispy, sweet, salty delicious squash to eat. Nom!

How about you all? Do you need breaks for thinking time? How do you distinguish between procrastination and necessary stewing time?

Small Steps

10
January
2011

I can forget, sometimes, how different the entire world feels when I’m writing regularly. How just making a tiny bit of forward progress every day can make everything feel full of promise and possibilities.

And yet I do forget, and I fritter my writing time away. Some of it on useful things (say, baking banana bread), some of it on fun things (look, someone built an Antikythera mechanism out of legos!) and some on pointless and/or self-destructive things (hello, Amazon rankings).

So on Jan 1 I did something slightly desperate and unplugged the wifi when I got up. Then I sat down and started my new project.

It was still tough. I hadn’t tried to write in a few weeks, and before that I’d been struggling with false starts. I wrestled with that blank screen for three hours, writing and deleting different openings. But finally, finally, I found a sentence I liked, and it led to another and another. And an hour after that I had a 600 word beginning. It didn’t feel anything like a book. It didn’t even feel like the dream of a possible one-day-maybe book. But it was a step forward.

Ten days later, my wordcount just hit 10019.

It’s finally starting to feel like it could really be a book. You know, if I can do this all over again, seven more times. Heh.

So good luck to anyone else out there taking small steps! You can do it!

On an only tangentially related note, here’s a quote I saw on twitter today that resonated very strongly:

The side of me which longs, not to write, but to be approved as a writer, is not the side of us that is really worth much. ~ C.S. Lewis

And last of all, hooray for all the winners of the ALA Youth Media Awards! I’m especially excited to see a sci fi book win the Printz (Ship Breaker by Bacigalupi)!

Winter Miscellany

23
December
2010

I am still at the stage where winter is beautiful (ask me again at the end of February and I will probably answer differently). It’s hard not to love it right now, though, when there are colorful lights glowing under veils of snow, mornings pale-blue with icy light, and the house smells of paperwhites and evergreen and honey-lavender caramels.

Tomorrow, Bob, Charlie and I will all be heading off for a long weekend away. There will be no internet, but there will be a Christmas curry dinner, family, boardgames, woods to hike, my favorite unicorn puzzle to assemble, and perhaps some pumpkin pancakes. And also books:

That fuzzy thing is an adorable plush bookworm my friend Kath sent us (I am currently running a LARP plot that involves a spooky library, which is currently infested with magical bookworms).

So yeah, I have plenty to read — especially as we also have the audiobook of the new Bartimaeus book (THE RING OF SOLOMON, Stroud) for the car ride! And hopefully I’ll have some peaceful brainstorming time as well.

Thankfully things with my current writing project have been going much better since my last blog post. Giving myself permission to start from scratch, to toss aside the things I was clinging to and brainstorm freely, all that has been tremendously helpful in finding my enthusiasm for the project. MANY thanks to all of you who commented on my website ur-blog, or on the LJ/Facebook/Goodreads/etc feeds. The support and the advice were both very welcome.

My plan of attack for dealing with the balky story was to follow the excellent advice from several folks who advised trying to focus on what the core of the book was to me. So I started with the several scenes that I really was aching to write, and figure out what they had in common, and made a list of all the things that were most important to me about the story (it wasn’t the things I expected!). Then I looked at the one must-write scene in my list that came earliest chronologically, and asked myself, “well, why shouldn’t the book just start there?”

It was one of those moments where I could practically hear the lightbulb going on over my own head. Yes, the book probably SHOULD start there. All that other stuff I’ve been working on and outlining, it is really all just backstory that leads to this one moment, when these two characters meet and start changing one another’s lives. So duh, ditch the backstory and start with the actual story.

I’m still holding off writing, probably until after holiday travel and activity subsides. I’ve spent hours scribbling down notes in my project notebook (using a purple pen somehow make this so much more fun!) and listening to inspirational music (mostly Dead Can Dance/Lisa Gerrard and Irfan/Azam Ali). I feel excited again, which is the best thing I could have hoped for. The story still may turn balky again when I set fingers to keyboard on Chapter 1, but at least think I am getting closer.

To quote a favorite movie in our household: Never Give Up! Never Surrender!

Peace and joy to all of you! I’ll be back next week with my highlights of 2010 and my hopes for 2011. I’m already enjoying thinking about the new year and new plans!

Solstice Lunar Eclipse 2010 (d)

(It was too cloudy here to see the lunar eclipse earlier this week, but check out this picture of the eclipse + aurora by Francis Anderson! Found via Discover Blogs)