Thursday, April 30, 2015

Be Interesting

This morning I had a big gut-check moment as I drove my daughter to school. She sat beside me flipping through one of her many art books. She opened to a page and turned it toward me, showing me a drawing while explaining the intricacies of it.

The sketch was a bit odd and surrealistic. Quite well done. Arresting to look at. I wondered to myself where a 10-yr-old would come up with that idea.

Me: That's interesting. 

Bekah (with an eye roll): Of course it's interesting. I'm interesting

It was one of those statements that when I heard it, it hit me like a chest punch.

Her work is interesting because she’s interesting.

I spent the entire drive home dissecting that statement. Do I find myself interesting? Honestly? Yes, I do.

Then what keeps me from living it like I mean it?

For example:

I attended the WPPI conference last month with photographers from all over the world. I really love that conference, and highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in photography. It’s very inspiring.

However.

There’s always the inevitable shmoozy moment where someone asks about your business. I don’t have a business, nor do I care to ever have a photography business. I’m in it for the art. I love taking pictures.

The dismissive reaction when I said as much (really, the succinct version: I don’t have a business) was heartbreaking. In some cases the photographer would literally turn their back on me and move on to someone who was “serious” about their craft. It didn’t matter that I’m as good a photographer as anyone else. That I’ve worked HARD to learn my craft.

I’d thought I hadn’t let it get to me, but obviously it did. Because I haven’t picked up my camera since that weekend.

And then there’s writing.

Oh, writing.

When did it become necessary to have a major publishing deal to be serious about writing? To know your craft? To invest your soul? To be taken seriously?

I know I’m projecting. That it’s probably all in my head that I feel treated this way.

But I can't count the number of times someone has given me that pitying look after they realize I’m still trying to get published. Then they suggest, “You should put your book on Amazon.”

As if that would make me legitimate.

I don’t have anything against self-publishing. I just don’t want to do it. Much like I have nothing against owning a photography business, it’s just not for me.

When did these things become the yardstick by which we measure success?

You know what? My work is interesting because I’m interesting.

Of course the flip side of that is that I have to BE INTERESTING. I have to make art (photography, writing, drawing, painting…) every day. I have to live life and enjoy it. Seek out what only I can see and interpret.


And stop letting other people decide for me what success is or isn’t.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Blank Page

I’ve spent this last week figuring out some plot structure in my current manuscript. Which means that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about “the blank page” or “writer’s block.”

Keep in mind this discussion is different than not being able to write because of anxiety, depression, or life issues. Not having a reserve for creative things when your world seems to be falling apart is a real conundrum. One that I haven’t yet mastered. I think we creative types are more sensitive to our emotions, so it can be a real bummer when it affects our productivity.

Not being able to write because of the emotional place we’re in and not knowing what to write are vastly opposing problems.

Because I’ve spent a lot of time plotting this week, it’s meant that I’ve spent a lot of time on YouTube as well. How else would I waste my time? Ha!

I’m fascinated that 100% of the advice (or so close that percentage that whatever differing suggestions are lost) to dealing with a blank page or writer's block is to “just keep writing.”

“Just keep writing” is useful advice if you can’t write because of anxiety, depression, or life issues, but it’s not great advice if you’re stuck within the story. If you keep pushing you’re liable to make more of a mess than what you had to begin with. The choices you make with the plot when you push yourself tend to be the most obvious, and well, it’s just not thoughtful or surprising.

In my mind, a plot is like a spiderweb. In order to create a web, a spider makes a starter thread connecting the end points of the web onto which the rest of it is built. That’s your main plot.

From there, the spider creates a few more dissecting threads. They do not have to have a linear progression, their job is to stabilize the web. These are your other plot points: it’s how your characters interact with one another, what they want, what they’re willing to do to get what they want, etc.

Then the spider begins to circle the web, connecting the stabilizing threads together and constantly circling around back on the web.

This is where most writers (me!) get stuck, in the huge tangled complication of how to weave together all the different plot points.

When I start writing I know at least my starting thread. Most times I know several other threads as well (though, that’s not always the case). But there comes a point in every story, that while I know where it’s heading and every scene that the story needs to get there, I have no idea what to write within those scenes.

That’s where brain mapping comes in.

For me, brain mapping is simply the act of getting all those little bits of information floating in my head into a space where I can see them and make use of them. That’s it. Because I believe that we all intuitively have the answers to the story already. — That’s where the “trust your gut” advice comes from, and the reason why when you edit, you find that you’ve already placed things within the story that work for the new idea.

Any way you can get the information out of your brain and onto the page in a way that works for you, is the key. 


The first thing I do is identify the problem.

I’m talking the obvious thing here: I don’t know what character A is supposed to do. Or characters B and C have a conflict but I don’t know what it’s supposed to be about, etc.

Write that problem down in the center of a blank piece of paper.

The second thing I do is identify the issues I have associated to the main problem. There’s not going to be many of them, three to five maybe.

Write those issues connecting off the main problem.

Then I ask myself questions about those issues. How they relate to each other. How they influence the plot and characters. How they change the situation my character finds him or herself in.

Write these questions down, but also write the answers that come with it. ALL the answers. This is not self-editing time. It doesn’t matter if I go in a wrong direction, I just make a new branch and start with a different thread of answers.

It will look something like this:



Much like that spiderweb, I know I’ve reached the end of my brainstorming when my idea points begin to circle around the paper, connecting to each other. Meaning: the issues start linking to the answers in the threads of other issues.

At this point, I still don’t have the answers to my plot problems. What I have is a map of the ideas floating around in my brain. Now I turn them into a linear list in order to get some writing done.

This is where the magic happens.

Start with blocking out the issues in headers. Not the problem, but the issues that offshoot from the first central question.

Under each issue header, I construct a plan to fix the issue by looking my brain map and putting the ideas into bullet points. Write it out.

ISSUE 1
Character A feels disconnected. Has social issues. Doesn’t have friends.
He also feels ….
Problem he faces…
The catch…
Solve this by…


In this process, I’m not afraid to challenge the ideas on my brain map. Don’t be afraid to say: “That’s interesting, but what if…” It’s there to guide me, not to keep me imprisoned. Sometimes I hang my map on the wall for a few days so I can let the connections between the ideas soak in.

Once I have these ideas worked out, I then decide how I will implement them into the plot.

This is not a drag and drop. For instance, in my example I wrote “Character A feels disconnected,” I now have to decide how to show this within the framework of my novel. Where in the plot (perhaps in several places) can this be highlighted?

And just like that, I’m back in business writing again.

Best part? I won’t have a hot mess of a plot to fix at the end of the draft. I’ll still have to fix stuff, it will just be less painful.






Thursday, April 23, 2015

WHY NANO (AND CAMP NANO) DOESN’T WORK FOR ME

~I need to write a disclaimer on this post. Nanowrimo works for a lot of people, just not for me. The writing experience is unique. The way I write a book is not the way everyone writes a book, or even the way I’ll write in ten years. Writing is an evolution. These are thoughts on my current one.~


How many times have I participated in nanowrimo and failed? You’d think I’d learn by now that this format is not for me. I had myself convinced that if I participated in Camp NaNo (in April) that I would have a different outcome. That picking a much more reasonable goal (30K instead of 50K) would make a difference.

If writing a novel was only about words on the page, I’d be able to do it. The thing is, I can’t convince myself that quantity verses quality works. I have a problem with pushing ahead and wasting my time.

Yes, I believe that getting words on the page matters, no matter what those words are. And I also know that first drafts are crappy no matter what.

But. — And this is a huge BUT.

I’m not going to let myself write into a direction that I’m going to scrap.

When I get stuck, or rather, slow down on word count because I’m never actually “stuck,” it’s always because there’s a reason. There’s something that I don’t understand about the character’s interaction or their decision making. Or I don’t understand a nuance of how a specific detail in the book works. Or perhaps, though I know what comes next, I’m completely clueless as to why that is.

I am not speaking to the individual scenes and how they flow together. Those are always plotted very early on, if not before I begin a new project. That’s why I’m never stuck on knowing what comes next, or even skipping ahead and writing a scene out of order.

But just because I have an outline does not mean I understand anything about my book. It’s why I don’t understand when panters say “I like to experience my book as it happens,” like having an outline makes that go away. Because I experience it when it happens too, just in a more structured — will get me to the answer faster — kind of way.

Understanding what scenes need to happen in what order and knowing the underlying subtext of those scenes, are two different things. Every character wants something. I have to know and understand the motivation of each person (even though I may never reveal it) in order to create the full picture.

I refuse to push ahead for the sake of words if I’m not 100% aware of the reasons my characters are doing what they’re doing. I’m in control of them, not the other way around.

Plus, it’s incredibly easier to edit a book that has a strong structure than one cobbled together without rhyme or reason.

Things that I find easier to fix than structure:

Personality changes: My 1st draft characters always have a bit of a morphing personality. That’s because I learn about them as I write. I might know who they are as a list of descriptions on paper, but I’m not yet aware of their nuances. I always have to go back in subsequent drafts to make their personalities even.

Minutia: It’s relatively easy to go through the forest and draw out all the trees that point to the path. It’s much easier to see it once the draft is finished.

Pacing: No matter what, pacing needs to be fixed. So I never worry about this in early drafts.

What I find impossible to fix in later drafts — or rather, near impossible because while it can be fixed, it’s an entire rewrite — is fixing plot. If you write without an eye to stake, and without a sense of what drives your characters choices, there WILL be a significant rewrite. At least half, if not all the book will be reworked at that point. There should be no action without impact, or conversation without meaning.

That is why I find myself surrounded by printouts of my notes, hand written stickies, and two mind maps that keep morphing larger and larger as I glue on paper to expand them, asking myself: “What is going on with all these characters? Why are they reacting this way? And if they do, what is the consequence?”

Small questions that will save me MONTHS of rewriting.

That is why I will always fail at NaNo. My first drafts don’t have to be close to perfect, but they do have to be thoughtful. And while some people can write thoughtful fast, I can not. Often when know there’s a snag, and while I want to push for an answer right then, it takes my brain a few days to catch up.

In the meantime I’m not staring at a blank screen. I’m working the problem. Brain dumping. Writing out the questions. Trying to find answers. They all lead to the fix… eventually.


NaNo wasn’t a entire loss. I did get a significant amount of words written and I’m in a much better place in the book. “Winning,” though? I guess that depends on how you value winning. No, I’m not close to my word count goal, but I’m very pleased with my progress.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

My Mini-Me

Bekah (10yrs) started writing a new novel yesterday. She told me about it in the car on the way home from school (yes, she started it at school instead of paying attention. Which I’m not happy about, but is par for the course. She’s way too involved in the things she wants to do — reading and writing— and not so much on the “boring stuff,” i.e., education).

She told me how she started with an “inciting incident” (I love how she gleans nuggets of really good info amidst her not paying attention in class. Again, it had to do with something she loves, so that makes sense). She said the last line of her prologue was really “hooky.” — Ha!

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the inciting incident doesn’t have to appear on the first page or even in the first chapter. As long as it’s before the end of Act One, you’re golden. But hey, it’s better than Seth’s theory that if he starts with blowing up something, it HAS to be a good book.

I didn’t have a chance to read it when we got home. You know, life happened.

After dinner the subject of Bekah’s book came up.

Bekah: Papa read it. He didn’t like it.

Me: What? Why?

Nana: He thinks it’s really dark and didn’t understand why.

Me: Dark? Why is it dark?

Bekah: (eye roll) Well, she wakes up and she’s tied to a chair and has no idea where she is or who put her there.

Me: Holy crap!

Bekah: (shrugging) It’s gotta be exciting. You have to make the people want to read it.

Me: … Uh, okay.

Bekah: I want to read one of your books.

Me: I don’t know. You’re a little young.

Nana: She could read the one you just finished. There’s nothing bad in that one.

Me: Are you kidding? There’s drug references all over the place.

Bekah: (getting excited) Drug references aren’t a big deal. Do people die? 

Me: Of course people die. And you’re not reading the book I’m writing now, for sure.

Bekah: Why not?

Nana: Your mom’s new book is psychotic. She’s gone off the deep end.

Bekah: (grins) So that’s where I get my ‘darkness.’

Me: (frowning)

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