06/1/14

Jerusalem Markets, Cultural appropriation, and what I’m writing now…

My current manuscript is set in 1973. Writing in an historic setting is new to me, and it’s been quite a challenge. In an effort to get things ‘right’ I’ve interviewed people who were the same age as my main character and spent time in the library reading the magazines and news reports of the era. I’m listening to the hit songs, and checking out the fashions online. Still, there are things that worry me.

Normally I write about paranormal worlds, so far no vampires or fairies have been upset by me appropriating their culture. I don’t want to take the same license with the Civil Rights Movement, women’s liberation, or the gay power movement. I’m going to write about those things through the eyes of a white girl, which is something I know, but I want her friends, black, gay, or whatever they are, to be a realistic, fully faceted portrayal.

I thought I was doing a pretty good job until this weekend, when I was invited to a Jerusalem Market. Having never heard of such a thing, I went more out of curiosity than anything else. A sign at the front made it clear that while the event took place during Passover in the time period of Jesus’ life, it would not be historically accurate. I’ve been to a few Renfests, so that didn’t bother me.

The Wailing Wall did.

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The Western Wall is one of the most sacred locations for the Jewish Culture. At the Jerusalem Market, it was a wall where children were encouraged to write prayers in chalk. I assume this was a nod to the practice of slipping slips of paper with prayers written on them into the cracks of the real Western Wall. I assumed because no one explained the wall, why it was there, or what made it important. I’m struggling to come up with an equivalent for the Western Wall, something sacred and yet public, a part of everyday life. If I could find something as important to my culture as the Wall is to many religions, I think I could decide if this model was offensive.

The Market was clearly not meant to be offensive. Most of the booths talked about some aspect of Jewish culture during Jesus’ life. Roman centurions wandered the grounds. One man was dressed as a Rabbi. A booth held samples of the herbs used at the time, explaining what each one was used for. Another let children experiment making clay pots. There was a puppet show about Jesus, and a chance to listen to an actor dressed as Jesus teach lessons under the trees.

At the matzo baking station I began to doubt that the intention was what mattered. I’ve heard stories of Passover from Jewish friends. I know just a little bit about the deep cleaning a house goes through and how not even a crumb of leavened bread can be left behind. I didn’t learn anything like that while I mixed my flour and water. The only discussion of why Jews don’t eat leavened bread during Passover was “they were running away from Pharaoh, so they didn’t have time for the bread to rise.” When the matzo was finished we were offered a mixture of apples and walnuts to spread on it. “It’s supposed to look like the mortar in the wall,” the volunteer told me. She didn’t remember what it was called, but encouraged me to try it anyway.

As a member of the majority, I can’t decide what offends the minority. I’m not Jewish, so I don’t get a say in what is and isn’t okay to be a children’s activity. Still, to me, taking a part of another culture and turning it into a learning activity for kids might not be bad. Taking a part of another culture, not bothering to learn what it is or the meaning behind it, and making it a fun activity for kids crosses the line to me. Then again, when I posted about it on Facebook a Jewish friend wasn’t offended, saying that at least learning was going on.

So if everyone isn’t offended by the same thing, and I can’t decide what is and isn’t offensive, how do I know what’s okay to write? My plan going forward is to tell the story, making the characters as real as possible. I’m going to stay away from stereotypes and base my characters on the people I interview, not the common idea of what someone of that race, gender, or minority should be. I’m also hoping to find some beta readers from the cultures I’m writing about, people who can tell me if I’ve missed something important.

I don’t know if that’ll be enough, but hopefully it’s a good start.

02/15/14

How a story starts…

Some of my stories start with a synopsis, all the important details written down in a fury of typing, or back cover copy, two paragraphs that are meant to hook people. Example:

###

Srgt. Steve Carter barely remembers the combat accident that stole his soul. Being dead for five minutes wasn’t bad, coming back to life as a remnant, without morals and with no way to love, is horrible. Discharged from the Army for conduct he can’t control, Carter drifts trying to get back to the man he was.

ER Dr. Jessica Kelly has just found an interesting set of anomalies on the MRI scans of a patient who died briefly on the operating room table. The changes might explain her patient’s sudden shift in personality and behavior. And if she can explain it, she can fix it. Before she can gather more data she finds herself targeted by shadowy organization, a group willing to kill to keep the remnants as they are.

###

It’s sad to say but stories that come to me like that, where I know who the players are and what’s going to happen in the end, rarely get finished. It’s the stories that appear as tiny germs of an idea, with one or two crystal-clear scenes, that catch my interest enough to keep me writing for 100,000 words. Here’s one that popped up a few days ago, I wicked curious to see what it becomes.

###

Seventeen year old Katie has spent her life happily living in her sister’s shadow. Karen is the pretty one who learns magic with ease. She’s the one their Mom loves, the one who will fight this generation’s battle with demonic forces without any trouble. Karen’s going to continue the family legacy that started hundreds of years ago. Except that Karen and her Mom die in a car accident. Now Katie, the one who can never concentrate, the awkward, gangly one, has to fight the forces of evil, and she’s only got a couple of months to figure out how to do it. On top of that she’s moved to a new town, has to make new friends, and oh yeah, try to graduate from high school if she can live long enough.

The bell rings behind me, the noise almost hidden by the high bushes. I came here looking for a little peace and instead I find Katrina, or a statue of her. She posed on a broomstick, like she’s ready to jet off into the night. Cheesy, and incorrect, it’s not the pose that gets me, it’s her face. Because Katrina’s face is Karen’s face, and I’m back in my bedroom again, looking at my big sister, talking to her, laughing with her. Except none of that will ever happen again.

Katrina. It’s Katrina. I repeat it over and over again. Katrina your great-great-great-whatever-grandmother, but you’ll tell everyone she’s you Aunt. I can hear Dad’s voice repeating the rules in my head. When they notice the resemblance you tell them Aunt, not grandmother. Except there isn’t any resemblance.

Karen looked like Katrina. Mom looked like Katrina. I look like Dad. My nose is too big and my ears aren’t exactly level, and somewhere a sculpture caught Karen’s expression, that exasperated-my-god-I-can’t-believe-you’re-my-sister expression as if she sat in front of him. It’s Karen looking down at me, and any minute now I’m going to cry. The statue is ringed with benches, and I sit down, hugging my knees to my chest. I used to sit this way on your bed, I think the words at the statue. I used to sit this way when you told me about college and how great it was.

Someone comes up the path, but I’m too sad to move. Maybe if I sit here, just like this, they’ll feel awkward and walk away.

“Oh hi. It’s Katie, right?”

So much for walking away. I glance up at the voice and see that it’s the Adonis from the parking lot. He swapped his football for a backpack, slung over one shoulder, but he looks just as good.

I nod. “Have I met you?”

“Will.” He offers his hand and I have to uncurl to shake it. “I think we’ve got some classes together.”

“English?”

He laughs, because we should both be there now. “Yeah. I just, I needed someplace quiet to think.”

I know all about that so I just nod. He takes the bench not far from me and for a few minutes that’s all it is, two people in the same space, just sitting, looking at a statue of the town’s most famous witch. I want to ask him what he sees when he looks at it. I want to tell him what I see but Dad’s voice is in my head again, lecturing me to keep to myself until we know what’s what.

“Are you going to the bonfire?”

The question comes out of nowhere and I’m completely lost. “The bonfire?”

“I guess no one told you. We have huge bonfire each year. It’s a big deal. Always held on the day they burned Katrina at the stake.” He gestures up toward the familiar face.

“She was my Aunt.” The minute I say it his expression changes. A second ago he was maybe asking me on a date, now he thinks I’m crazy. I shouldn’t have said it but I was thinking about Karen. I’m an idiot. “I mean like, my great-great-great Aunt, a thousand times removed probably.”

“Oh.” The ‘she’s crazy look’ has gotten a little better, but he’s not talking, so I do, trying to fill the silence.

“My sister was named after her, sort of.” And then I stop myself, curling my hands into fists, the nails cutting into my palm. The pain is important, it stops me from talking. If it wasn’t there I’d tell him about everything Karen knew, about the books she studied and the spells she could do. I’d finally tell someone about me, how I’m the replacement-Karen and I’ll never be as good as she was.

“Does your sister go here?”

“She and my Mom died in a car accident.” I continue my streak of saying the absolute worst things ever. “That’s why we moved back here. Dad thought if I grew up in Mom’s hometown, went to her high school, I’d have some sort of a connection with her. So I’ll probably end up at the bonfire, if I can find it.”

“I could take you.” He smiles, and I fall in love. It’s not enough that he’s this big jock of a guy with perfect hair, he’s got a killer smile.

“That’d be great.” And I finally say something right.

###

The clouds look like dirty cotton, fluffy and gray, while the rain comes down like mist. It’s not a good day for a parade but the whole town has turned out. Dad gives me a push toward the bleachers.

“All the teenagers sit over there. The floats throw candy but the kids are too cool to dive for it. When you sit there the candy comes right at you so…”

“All the teenagers, huh? It’s something you and Mom did, isn’t it?”

He nods at me, and I can see him blinking as if he’s going to cry. As much as I don’t want to bond with my peers, watching Dad cry would suck more.

“I’ll be at the bleachers.” I offer him a cheerful grin as I bounce away.

When I finally find a spot it’s between Trina, the blond girl who helped me in math, and Raven, the one who’s trying so hard to convince everyone she’s goth. Trina and I talk a little about the parade, but Raven just gives me the cold shoulder.

“You don’t have a bag?” Trina seems genuinely concerned.

“Just my purse, why?”

“For candy, silly.” She pulls a folded up plastic bag out of her pocket. “Don’t worry, I brought two, just in case.”

Raven rolls her eyes and snorts at this. She’s got a thing against candy, or she’s just generally a bitch. Whatever. I thank Trina just before the band goes by. There’s Jeremy and the other kids I saw at lunch. They can’t wave but I notice a wink that might be directed at me. Then the floats start, all of them Halloweeny but not scary. A haunted house with little kids dancing for ghosts, followed by a smoking cauldron sponsored by the local bakery, it only takes a few floats before I’m snatching candy out of the air and laughing. For a second it feels good, it feels normal, and then a float turns the corner and I see them.

Demons. Real ones, with glowing green eyes. Two of them in the center of a float with people I’ve seen in town beside them. They make the same motions as the people around them, ahdns dipping into bags of candy. Except the demons don’t thrown mini-chocolate bars, they’re throwing handfuls of blood. No one else reacts. None of them can see it. Then the blood splatters on to the bench in front of me and I lose it, screaming.

“Chill,” Raven hisses at me. Her condescension cuts off my fear. “I’ve got it.” She reaches over to the spot and cups her hands. A second later there’s a spark of magic going from one palm to the other. Her magic is purple, like electrical sparks. When it hits the puddle the blood sizzles and then evaporates.

“Are you really doing that in public?” Trina asks, wide-eyed with disbelief. Her voice gets louder as her incredulousness grows. “Today? At the parade?”

“Well I wouldn’t of, but the new girl was freaking out.” Raven tells her, when I know it wasn’t about me at all, it was about showing off.

I’ve never been any good with being treated like some weaker, kid sister. Not even when my amazing big sister was doing it. “It’s no big deal, anyone can do that.”

The spark I build between my hands starts out bright white, but sizzles into a black core. Karen’s magic stayed white. Mom said it was because she focused better. My magic always went through all the shades, white, white-purple, purple, purple-black, and then black, crackling black. I’m thinking about Karen and Mom, the way they would shake their head at my attempts and finally send me to some other room so they could practice. I never minded being sent away. It didn’t matter if I missed half the lesson. It wouldn’t have ever mattered if it wasn’t for the old lady in her Buick.

“You’re one of us?” Trina asks me, her voice barely a whisper.

The last float is coming by, no demons here. It’s sponsored by the church. They’ve put some girl in the center of a fake bonfire, some girl who doesn’t look at all like Karen or Katrina.

“I’m one of her descendents.” I’m supposed to say her niece. Because everyone in town knows Katrina burned at the stake when she was twenty. But everyone in town is wrong. Katrina was too strong to burn, she left and swore to come back every twenty years when the demons rose. When she died her daughters started doing it. It’s what Mom did, it’s what Karen was going to do. Now I’m here and-

“Cool.” Raven breaks into my thoughts to give her approval. “We’ve never had a descendent in the coven.”

“You have a coven?” Now it’s my turn to be shocked.

“Sure.” Raven tips her backpack to me, it’s filled with new age books and moleskin grimoires. “Witches have been coming here for years to keep things safe like Katrina did.”

Mom never told me about that.

“We meet in my basement.” Trina is texting furiously on her phone, and I feel my own vibrate with the message. “You should come over tonight, get to know everybody.”

###

 

07/5/12

Books you need to read: Monster Hunter International

I know blogs are meant to be about an author’s ‘brand’,  marketing platform, and blah, blah, blah… But today I want to gush about a great book I finished reading, Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia. Thanks for humoring me.

A little background: every March I judge the Daphne du Maurier writing contest. Thus I get to/am obligated to read several romance-mystery novels in a limited time.  When my judging deadline rolls around I’m usually sick of romance novels and bored with happily ever afters.

It was so refreshing to read a book when I didn’t know how it would end. The delicious tension as I gulped down the story one hundred pages at a time can’t be explained. Would the hero live? What about the girl he loved? At any point any of the characters I’d come to care about could’ve been killed. Several of them were, some more than once. The story went fast, made sense, and avoided every cliché I could think of. The love triangle at the end of the book I was dreading never materialized. The bittersweet self sacrifice? Totally avoided. This was a fresh story, with a lot of fun elements for someone like me who loves monsters, myths, and legends.

And guns. Lots of them. Big guns. Small guns. Artillery. Nukes. Oh my, Correia knows his weapons and he uses them just so. Gun nuts will find lots to love here. There’s no ever refilling magazines here or shooting for hours with no one bleeding. People run out of ammo, guns jam, knives slip out of bloody hands in the middle of a fight. Realism and technical details go together to make great fight scenes.

But I’m a demanding reader. Great scenes and a great story aren’t enough for me. I want writing skill, I want finesse with words. I want someone who commands a symphony of nouns and verbs, who builds a story like a tapestry, weaving threads in a way that surprises me when I step back and see the whole image.

On this aspect alone Correia deserves an award.

The crowning achievement is Holly. Holly is not a main character. I’d put her at tertiary – the character who makes funny quips to break the tension.  She’s a throw away character introduced as an ex-stripper from Vegas. Not much there, right? Wrong. Correia shines with Holly. When the other characters share their back story Holly abstains. It’s not until 50 pages later that a nothing line gives you any indication of what happened to her. It takes another hundred pages before a completely unrelated character in a totally different setting reveals enough for the reader to piece together Holly’s experience. Even then, Holly herself doesn’t discuss it for two hundred pages.

Completely woven into the story, never forced, with just enough information to tease the reader into wanting more. A brilliant piece of character development and it isn’t even his hero.

I’ve read 15 or 20 romance novels this year, along with a dozen mysteries I can remember and a few books that were in between like the latest Charlene Harris. The stories were interesting at the time but nothing special.  They didn’t stick with me. Monster Hunter International is in a whole other class, rivaling the very impressive The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bedsole to be the best book I’ve read this year.  Go read it.

02/21/12

One Tough Mother

I’m working on a conference proposal this week about a subject that makes me rant: the portrayal of motherhood as weakness in modern speculative fiction. I’m posting this blog in the (perhaps insane) hope that a few brilliant authors will agreed with me, and want to be on the panel to discuss it with a group of fans.

In mythology and religion, motherhood has been treated as a position of strength as well as gentleness. While depictions of meek mothers certainly abound, strong mothers are also present. The Hindu goddess Durga is a wonderful example. Durga is a fearless mother, who protects with weapons clutched in her eighteen hands. Fierce and feminine, this divine mother rides a tiger into battle.

Historic maternal figures like Queen Isabella of Spain or Queen Victoria, who continued to show their strength after having children, should provide ample inspiration for speculative writers.  Even criminal mothers like, Ma Barker who famously took care of gang members, even eventually shielding them from prosecution, could become a fine character. But where are they? Too often having a baby signals the end of a character’s ability to grow and develop in any direction except a maternal one.

Only two decades ago science fiction had a wonderful example of a mother-warrior, Ellen Ripley. She’s tough. She can fire a gun and run a loader, but at the same time she comforts Newt, connecting with her as she washes the child’s face. She’s exactly the role model I crave: competent, strong, and caring.

She’s also probably lonely, as I can’t think of another strong mother like her. Doctor Who’s Amy Pond can fight off any number of space monsters, but she completely ignores her daughter for several months after the infant is kidnapped. Padme Amidala fires her blaster and works in the intergalactic senate… until she has kids, then she’s too weak to survive heartbreak. Sarah Connor can take down a terminator but we never see her making her son laugh or taking care of him.

Hopefully I’m wrong and the comments will be filled with a thousand examples of characters that don’t suddenly lose the ability to think, fight, or be fierce simply because they’ve managed to reproduce. If I’m not though, and you’d like to talk about why there aren’t any tough mothers in genre fiction today, drop me a note. With luck I’ll find a few brilliant authors, and along with a handful of creative fans, will generate some solutions to the problem.

 

09/14/11

My Writing Year — I’m a little lost

I’m in an odd place writing-wise. I’ve returned my manuscript revisions to my editor. I don’t know when she’ll get back to me, two weeks? Two months? If there’s anything my journey to publication has taught me it’s that publishing moves at its own pace. Even if I did know exactly the day and the hour she’ll to return my writing to me, I can’t predict her reaction. There’s more than a good chance we’ll do another round of editing (as a debut author, I’m totally fine with that possibility) or we could move immediately into copy-editing.

With that uncertainty I’m not sure how to move forward. The life-cycle of a manuscript for me is:

  • 3 to 4 months takes a story from idea to first draft manuscript
  • 3 weeks from draft manuscript to polished
  • Off to my thoroughly awesome Beta readers, who are completely worth their weight in gold.
  • Back from the Beta readers, the manuscript gets another three to four week edit.
  • At this point it’s polished enough to go to my agent.
  • My agent (Love her!) usually has a few comments, so there’s another editing period.
  • Back to my agent the manuscript begins its trip to the publishing houses.

The trick is, these steps don’t happen in a vacuum. While manuscript 1 (MMS1) is with the Beta readers, manuscript 2 (MSS2) begins the journey. I never edit a story immediately after I’ve finished it, it needs time to rest. The writing cycle looks a little bit like this:

Month 1 to 4: MSS1 is written.
Month 5: MSS1 rests. MSS2 begins.
Month 8: MSS2 wraps up. Begin editing MSS1
Month 9: MSS1 goes off to Beta Readers. Begin MSS3.
Month 12: Wrap up MSS3. Begin Editing MSS2.  MSS1 comes back from Beta and gets in line behind MSS2.

(repeat until MSS100, at which point I intend to take a trip around the world.)

This year hasn’t gone exactly according to plan. Looking back at my writing journal I can reconstruct my writing work this year to be:

  • Jan to March: MSS1 (which I’d begun a year ago and lost interest in)
  • April to August: MSS2
  • August: edits to Waking Up Dead
  • September: Uh… Umm… let me get back to you on that.

I’d like to complete the very rough first draft of another manuscript before the end of the year. Three manuscripts a year feels like I’m taking my writing seriously and doing a good job. MSS2, which I wrapped up in early August, is off with a Beta reader, so it’s on track. MSS1 is off with my agent, so it’s on track. So right now (literally at this very instant) I should be starting a new story. (Waits for inspiration.) (Nothing comes.) But really, shouldn’t I hold off on starting something new until I know I won’t be forced to set it down for more work on Waking Up Dead?  Or should I take this downtime to work on promoting Waking Up Dead, or should I be doing…. Some other great thing some one on the internet will suggest right now? Please?

 

08/22/11

The timeline so far…

Ever been curious about the path to publication? Here’s mine (at least so far):

September 2007: Waking up in a very swish room at the Walt Disney World Contemporary Resort, a scene came to me: Elisabeth Hicks, war veteran and detective, at a party with a beautiful woman (who looked a bit like this) who wants her to do a dangerous job. I wrote furiously, for two hours before check out, through the ride to the airport, and into the hour before boarding my plane to head home.

December 2007: I picked up the scene again, and decided I had to know how Hicks got to that party. I started with page one, and wrote my way up to it, then past it as the New Year turned. At the end of January 2008, I’d finished the first draft.

I spent 2008 working closely with an editor in the hopes of getting a contract for another manuscript I’d written. The editor requested major revisions, and I spent most of my time on then, taking breaks here and there to polish the Hicks story.

March 2009: The editor I’d worked with for nearly a year rejected the manuscript. She asked if I had anything else to show her and I sent the revised and newly named Waking Up Dead manuscript.

June 2009: I got a contract offer for Waking Up Dead. I took the contract to a local attorney who is also an agent. She advised me to shop the work around, saying “if you get one offer, you’ll get others”. I attended my first writers’ conference just a week later, and learned enough to write my first query letters.

November 2009: Waking Up Dead got me my agent.

March 2010:  I got the phone call from my agent that two editors were interested in Waking Up Dead. Delighted I set to work on the background materials they requested. Then I waited. And waited some more.

July 2010: Contract negotiations began with one of the editors.

March 2011: The contract was finalized!

August 2011: And now I’m starting on the edits. Opening up a document with a plethora of comments and line edits is enough to make anyone feel lost but I followed some advice from a great author and started with the easy ones. I dealt the grammatical changes in a few days. Now it’s time for the hard work, the ‘brain surgery’ where a scene from day 10 in the story moves to day four, and the tough decisions, like whether or not to add a B-plot or to cut two characters that I loved.

There’s the work, and then there’s the nagging voice of self-doubt. If I change enough little things, do I change the over-all tone of the story? I worry that the voice of my favorite characters is getting mixed up with my editor’s voice. I fret I’m taking too long. I fret I’m not taking long enough. I’ve switched to reading my way through, starting with page one, instead of just going through addressing the comments. I’m hoping that will help.

07/12/11

Don’t Betray Your Readers

I’d like to begin with a promise. I solemnly swear that I will never introduce a hero on page one, have him act heroic for five hundred and twelve pages and then, have him turn out to be the bad guy. I promise my heroine will not suddenly lose all her intelligence at the exact moment of crisis, just so she can be saved by a hero whose only superpower is common sense. Most of all, I vow that if I make you love a character, a good man, I will never tear him down just so I can show him defeated and destroyed.

And now, an admission. My first draft of this post included a lot of ranting about a certain episode of Doctor Who. I filed it away because it’s not nice to rant in public, but I got it out and dusted it off because of the premier of Torchwood: Miracle Day. Out of respect for spoilers, I’m not going to talk about specifics. Instead I’ll sum up: characters I know and loved changed drastically, in a way that didn’t keep with the canon of the show. The writers probably intended for me to be intrigued, blown away, and captivated. That didn’t work.

I feel betrayed.

I feel like the time I invested was a waste, because if you’re going to change everything and not play by the rules, why did I bother learning them? I feel like I have to second guess everything I knew, and relearn everything about the characters. Will they still be the people I liked? I don’t know. Can I still count on them to act heroically or to be brave? Not sure.

I’ve found this a lot in fantasy fiction. Vampires can’t go out during the sunlight, except when it’s convenient for the author, oh wait, I mean when they’ve drank fairy blood. The magic spell book can only be opened by the hero, except when the villain forces it to open. The heroine will lose her magic if she sleeps with anyone, except when she really loves the hero.

It’s maddening. Authors create a world and, yes, they have full control over them, but don’t we also have a responsibility to our readers? My worlds are filled with contradictions, quiet housewives who know how to clean a machine gun, but they don’t contradict themselves. Books create a social contract between writer and reader. In my head it sounds like this: if I promise you a smart, strong heroine on the back cover blurb, I’m obligated to have her stay smart and strong most of the time. Yes, she can have a moment of weakness, and she can do dumb things, but she’ll stay true to who she is. Characters won’t radically change overnight without a good reason.

I’m not saying that an author can’t be creative or throw in an unexpected twist, those things make writing fun. That doesn’t make it okay to make book five a liar in book 11. If an important plot point of book five is how no one has seen a dragon for decades, book 11 shouldn’t casually mention a character rides dragons each summer.

Your readers will notice your inconsistencies and they won’t be happy about it.

I understand why authors do these things, but they feel like lazy writing to me. If a character is the villain, then for the bulk of the story there should be at least subtle hints of his dark side. Fears and doubts can be overcome, but not in a matter of seconds. Characters should develop over the course of the story, whether it’s in one book or a dozen, not magically in five pages. Storytellers get to be in charge, but they shouldn’t break their own rules.

06/14/11

My Writing Routine

Every writer is different, but I thought I might share a little bit about my writing routine.

I write every weekday from 6:30 am to 7:30. Alarm number 1 goes off at 6, alarm number 2 goes off at 6:20. On a good day I get up before both of them, on a bad day I snooze until the second goes off a few times. I fire up my computer, bribe the rabbit editor into silence, post to twitter, and then get to writing. When the flow comes and the writing goes well I start with a vague idea of what I’ll be writing and the words just fly from my hands. When it’s not going well I stare at the screen. Those empty minutes can be murder. Eventually something clicks, and by the last 15 minutes of writing time I’ve got a thousand ideas. I end up skipping breakfast and getting to my day job late.

The last thing I do every night is read over what I wrote that morning. I give it a first edit and make sure it’s the thing on my mind as I fall asleep. I can skip this, if something comes up or I have to handle a dramatic phone call, but it makes those first few minutes in the morning that much worse.

Saturday mornings I have a choice, write my weekly blog post or read over everything in my WIP (Work In Progress) to make sure it flows right and fix any logic errors (i.e. no one has 3 arms in a love scene, guns don’t fire 30 bullets without a reload, etc.). I tend to leave myself notes on Saturday morning that say things like ‘need sex scene’ or ‘don’t forget to find the murder weapon’.

My goal is 5 pages of new writing each day. The goal is cumulative, so if I haven’t hit 25 pages by Friday, Saturday morning I play catch-up.

I keep a writing journal. Last year’s journal was a wonderful desk size calendar with envelope pockets and all sorts of organizational geekery. This year it’s just a week-at-a-glance appointment calendar. I write down a rough idea of the scene (‘find second body’, ‘track down murder’s car’) and the total page count when I’m done (‘to 133’). Writing journals are great for keeping you honest. I took some time off in March, after I wrapped up a work in progress. I expected to take about a week. My journal tells me I took 6. Oops.

How did I develop my routine? Force of habit and bitter mistakes. I write in the morning not because I’m good at it, or I like the mornings, but because by writing first thing there’s no way other things can get in the way and prevent me from writing. Admittedly, the flow doesn’t always come, but if I don’t get up and try every morning the silence in my head only gets worse.

When I find myself completely without something to write, I often caress the keys of my laptop. Yes, I realize that makes me sound like a freak, but try it sometime. Run the tips of your fingers over the almost too smoothness of your keyboard. Don’t put any pressure behind it, just let your fingers feel the plastic, the edges, the raised dots on the F and the J. This silliness doesn’t always bring me some great idea, but it usually brings me an idea, and most days, that’s enough. When it’s not I go back to the old standards, I write about the weather, I describe characters, or I write about my own emotions and give them to someone on the page. But rest assured, first thing in the morning, at least five days a week, you’ll find me writing something. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

05/17/11

Common Sense Writing Superstitions

My rabbit editor, a white rex, relaxes so much his toes curl up.I am not by nature, a highly superstitious person. Oh, I follow the ones that are good common sense, like I don’t break mirrors because glass shards can hurt, but I tend to ignore the silly ones. Black cats in my path are more likely to be pet than avoided and, as you can see from the photo, I believe lucky rabbit’s feet belong on the rabbit editor. However, when it comes to my writing, I tend to be a bit more… let’s just say cautious.

I never check the word count when the writing is going well.

Actually I try not to check the word count in general. The story takes as long as it takes, adding or subtracting words while you’re writing leads to sections that don’t make sense or that scream ‘fluff’ to the reader. Word count is a stress inducer for me. Knowing it gives me a reason to worry when I should be thinking about what happens next in the story.

I dread the 20K word mark.

Twenty-thousand words is the place where good ideas curl up and die. I can write that many words with most any plot. Before I hit the 20K mark I see the promise, the gleaming perfection of how it will all go. After 20K the magic fizzles out. I realize the plot won’t sell, no one else will like it, or it just plain isn’t going anywhere. I admit that once or twice I’ve picked a piece back up and started from word 20,001. Each time it’s been drudgery and I never got the flow. Which leads me too…

I savor the flow when it comes.

The flow is the feeling you get when the writing is coming fast and furious, when the words just fly from your fingertips, and all your ideas are perfect. When you can see everything that’s going to happen in the story and the dialog resounds in your head, you’re in the flow. Some writers chase the flow, trying to capture with drugs and alcohol (I’m looking at you Hemingway and you too, Salinger). I just write around it. When the words aren’t flowing, I write the in-between bits, the passages that take the characters from place to place. When the flow does come I give up everything else (food, drink, conversations with others) and write for as long as it stays. If you’ve ever caught that moment, you know how good it feels. Ride that wave.

I keep a pad and paper by my bed for late night ideas.

The opening words of Deadly Revelations (the third in my new series, coming from Tor in the Spring of 2013) came to me around 11o’clockish at night, after a long day. My first instinct is to repeat the lines over and over again in the hopes that I’ll remember them come morning. Thankfully I’ve lost enough greatness that way to know it wouldn’t work. Instead I keep a pad and a pen by the bed and scribble things down. After the first few years of this my darling spouse got me a click-on LED light that’s bright enough to write by but dim enough not to wake the room.

In the morning you take the pen and paper to your laptop and do your best to recreate the thought from your scribbles or you can leave it by the bed. I tend to leave about half the ideas there, mostly so that I know I’m never completely stumped for something to write. By the way, this process only works if you return the pad to your bedside that night. Last week I amused several people by asking them to try and decipher the scribbles I’d left on my arm the night before. There were six of them, perfectly spaced, but without any actual letters. I’m now considering getting a second pad and stapling it to the wall.

And as I sat here, trying to think about my other superstitious, I broke my own rule and checked the word count. I try to keep all the blogs around 600 words, meaning this one is officially Too Long. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some important common-sense superstitions. Feel free to remind me in the comments.

04/5/11

Little things, an unborn twin

Half-heartedThe young woman spoke eloquently about the void she lived with, the constant hole in life her twin once filled. Earnest and seventeen, she longed for that mirror-sister who looked like her, thought like her, and, most importantly, understood her. She felt deep loneliness, knowing that no one in the world could ever identify with her that way. She stood on the edge of life, looking in, wishing for a hand to hold, a familiar face to glance at before she took the plunge.

There was only one problem.

She didn’t have a sister.

Her mother, she told me with all seriousness, experienced ‘some bleeding’ during the fifth month of pregnancy. The girl knew what it meant: her twin passed from the world before even entering it. I nodded gravely. I offered what cold comfort I could for the loss of a non-existent sister.

Personal fable, I decided, cataloging and moving past the experience at once. But there’s more, isn’t there? What makes one short sentence, a throw away line, leave a girl mourning a twin sister she never knew? I can picture the scene, the girl maybe five or six, her mother, the two of them in the kitchen maybe, or a park. The girl expresses her wish that she had a sister, and the mother off-handily says “I always thought you would, but then I had some bleeding and there was only you.” The mother looks off, a glance the daughter interprets as grieving when really she’s just remembering the laundry she left in the washer and is it going to rain tomorrow?

A moment the mother doesn’t remember, but it becomes the basis for the daughter’s world. Whenever she feels isolated and strange, whenever she longs for someone who agrees with her and loves her completely, that phantom twin resurfaces.

As we write, as in life, we look for big things that define a character – a car accident that kills wife and child, a disfiguring injury, a horrible sin – but what about the small things? What about the sentences that fall from ignorant lips, spoken and forgotten almost in the same breath? The brain is a magpie, picking up shiny bits and holding them close. Why shouldn’t a soul be based on the off handed comment of a stranger?  You have such a pretty face. You’ll make a brilliant doctor someday. You’re blessed. You’re cursed. Always spoken in a casual way, words without weight, until the hearer gives them some purpose, makes them the foundation of their world.

And I wonder. what tiny comment, buried in the subconscious, drives my characters?  And I worry, what forgotten phrase drives me?