Tuesday, July 31, 2012

World-building: it's in the details

First of all, good news: my draft is finished! I've been taking a short break for perspective, madly jotting down notes for improvement, and enjoying rainy days spent doing things like this with my girls (or, rather, watching them...this creative masterpiece is all theirs): 

The Frog King's Castle

This is King Froggy, looking out for enemies.

Unfortunately, enemies are inevitable, but castles can be rebuilt. This time, however, the King took refuge in the more secure dungeons...

...which still couldn't save him from the wicked tower-destroyer. But she's so cute, all was forgiven. :)

I learn so much from watching my children. Today's lessons: 
1. The details make it interesting.
2. If things crumble apart, it's an opportunity to revise and improve.

So here are some of the details swirling about my mind, ready to find their place in the world of my story:

Beef pie           Indian spices          hats with potato flowers              cobblestones          ice cream         Bow Street Runners            piles of skulls             chocolate            Grecian hair styles           lace cuffs        madrigal singers           William Blake           oil lanterns           savory pudding           pickpockets          coal smoke         coffee

For some reason...all this thinking makes me hungry.

Friday, July 27, 2012


I've been writing and re-writing my current WIP and I am so close to finishing. By the time I finish my "first drafts," I've redone so many scenes and re-started so many times that even though I call it my first-and-a-half draft, it really equates to writing about 200,000 words and cutting 140,000 of them. This time around, there have been four or five first chapters, almost as many seconds...two days ago I wrote the climax, and this morning I cut it, brainstormed, and wrote it again.
I still have plenty of editing ahead of me--carefully planned out in my full-to-bursting notebook, complete with reminders like: "Find boring sentences. Make them interesting or beautiful or cut them," or, "Double check historical details and timeline," or, "Put in more food!"
But that's a job for next week. Today, I'm just enjoying feeling like this:


Yes, it is possible to feel like a row of bright orange exclamation points. I only wish I could make the font bigger.

I'll tell you a little more about the story soon.
For now, back to work. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The books that make you want to turn in your pen

You writers know that there’s *really* only three kinds of books as far as we’re concerned:

1) The bad ones. We’ve all read them: the books so terrible, so painfully mediocre that every new sentence triggers your gag reflex. Yet...we (occasionally) finish them. They teach us a great deal about what NOT to do. And they leave us blissfully secure of our own future place among the ranks of the published. After all, we think, if this got on the shelves, my book is a sure bet.

2) The good ones. There’s a spectrum, but most of the books we read fall into this category. Some touch us more than others; we find our genres and our favorites and we devour them. Each teaches us something--at least something small--and we close their covers better for the time spent within.

Then there’s 3) The great ones. In the grand scheme of things, there a very few of these, but you know it when you find one. They are beautiful and wise and poignant and true. They leave us painfully aware of our own insignificance, our every weakness in our craft. They make us ask, “Why on earth would anyone want to read my book when there are things like this?”

The thing is, if we never touched this painful third category, our books would all be destined to end up in the first. Every great book challenges us. It helps us define our goals, clarify what we’re aiming for.

It reminds me of my favorite Michelangelo quote: “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.”

If we don’t reach for the heights, we’ll end up in the gutters. If we do stretch beyond that with which we're comfortable--we may not make it. But we’ll be that much closer for having tried.

(If you’re wondering... yes, I did just read a book in category #3. It was To Kill a Mockingbird, which somehow, amazingly, I had never read before. For a while, I kind of wanted to go burn everything I’d ever written. But I’m doing better now. I merely want to revise everything I’ve ever written...)

Friday, July 20, 2012

WRiTE Club!

Have you heard yet about WRiTE Club, hosted by blogger DL Hammons? Since you probably have, I'll be brief and catchy:

Go head to head with other writers!
Fight for the prize!
Prove that the pen is mightier than the fist!
Choose a cool pen name!
Be judged by a panel of amazing industry professionals!

So, yeah. I decided to participate, because a little healthy competition always does me good. :) You can find the more detailed version of the rules here.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Regarding fan mail

I used to think fan mail was a little silly. Writing to an author I loved seemed about on par with hanging a giant poster of a singer in my room; some people did it and that was fine, but I was above such triviality.
Then I started seriously writing. I realized how much hard work went into finishing a book. I understood the dark voices that attacked at the three o’clocks in the morning. I knew how much a heartfelt positive critique meant to me, and how the thoughtless, negative ones stung.
After the first large critique group meeting I attended, I decided I was going to become one of those people who wrote fan mail. There are so many negative factors working against authors--those of us who can see that should work to balance it out a little.
I can’t always remember or make the time to write letters as thoughtful as I would like, but I try to push aside the feeling of “Gosh, they’re going to think I’m ditzy,” and write something, even if it’s short, to thank the writers who have created great art with their words.
I’ve decided to begin Lucy early in order to prevent that ridiculous feeling, so when she finished reading “Sticky Burr,” by John Lechner with me on Saturday and proclaimed, “I loved that so much,” we sat down with paper and pencils and Lucy wrote her very first fan letter:

(Hmmm...technical difficulties with the picture. 
Just imagine that this paragraph is a photo of her letter. 
It said: 
“Dear Mr. Lechner, 
I love Sticky Burr. 
Love, Lucy.”
And it contained a smiley illustration of said burr, 
much cuter than I can describe here.)

Do any of you write “fan letters”? (You can call them “thank you notes” like I do, if the word “fan” still conjures images of shrieking girls at Elvis concerts.) If you’re a published author, what are some of the notes that have meant the most to you?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Poetry Friday: The Fringed Gentian

For my fellow L. M. Montgomery fans, the poem that inspired her (you may recognize the last verse from her Emily books):

The Fringed Gentian
Lift up, thy dewy fringed eyes,
Oh, little Alpine flower,
The tear that trembling on them lies
Has sympathetic power
To move my own, for I, too, dream
With thee of distant heights
Whose lofty peaks are all agleam
With rosy dazzling lights.

Who dreams of wider spheres revealed
Up higher near the sky
Within the valley’s narrow field
Cannot contented lie.
Who longs for mountain breezes rare
Is restless down below
Like me for stronger purer air
Thou pinest, too, I know.

Where aspirations, hopes, desires
Combining fondly dwell,
Where burn the never-dying flowers
Of Genius’ wondrous spell.
Such towering summits would I reach
Who climb and grope in vain,
Oh, little flower, the secret teach
The weary way make plain.

When whisper blossom in thy sleep
How I may upward climb
The Alpine path, so hard, so steep
That leads to heights sublime.
How I may reach that far-off goal
Of true and honored fame
And write upon its shining scroll
A woman’s humble name.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Jo March is very cool.

Do you remember the first time you witnessed, even fictionally, an author at work?

I'm not entirely sure, but I think mine might have been while watching the movie Little Women, starring Winona Ryder. I remember curling up on the couch with my own three sisters, teary-eyed as Beth died, but soon cheering Jo on as she finally worked on the story she was meant to write. The moment the writing bug infected me for good may have been when Jo tied the ragged-edged pages of her manuscript with twine and tucked in a red geranium. Or it may have been when the typed version on the long white paper was delivered. I only remember that by the time the credits were rolling, I was sure.

I know the movie is not the book and the book is not Louisa May Alcott's real life, but all three versions entrance me. Maybe it was growing up with three sisters. We were, I considered, exactly like the March girls. My oldest sister Natalie was the pretty, logical one who never (so it seemed to me at the time) got in trouble. I was wild and moody and wanted to be a writer. Rose, the third girl, was the sweet peacemaker. Regina, the youngest, was, well, blonde. And...the youngest. See--exactly like the March girls.

Whether I was watching the movie or reading the book or studying the actual woman, I was inspired by Jo's/Louisa's determination and focus. I learned through her example to write the words that opened windows into my soul and not to mess about with vampires and murderers, because that is not the kind of writer I am. (Who would have thought that over a hundred years later, we would again be facing a vampire trend?) And I still wish I could tuck a red geranium into my manuscript before shipping it off to a publisher.

Lucy received some lovely Little Women paper dolls for her fifth birthday, so yesterday we watched the movie together so she would "know how to play them." The nearly-incessant questions of "Wait, which one is Jo?" ended when the movie did, and Lucy rushed out of the room. She returned a few minutes later with a two inch thick stack of yellow paper and announced, "I am going to write a book. On all of this paper. Like Jo. Because Jo is so, so cool."

Which were, pretty much, my thoughts exactly.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Being the mother of story siblings

Have you heard the whole "Working on two books at once is like dating two people at once" analogy? Perhaps because I don't know what that feels like (thank goodness), the analogy has never resonated with me. I'm constantly working on more than one story at once, but I never feel as though I'm turning my back on one while I devote myself to the other. I'm not keeping any secrets or being unfaithful.
I love them both equally--but they're simply in different stages.
For me, working on multiple stories feels like raising multiple children. As with children, it's easier to have more than one. Mothering got so much easier after the second child. By that time, the eldest was mature enough to have conversations with, to share projects with, to trust with small responsibilities. And that all made having a baby even more fun. There were no longer moments in the day where I thought, "I just want to talk to someone who can talk back!" I appreciated the toddler's toddlerness more and the baby's babiness more because I had more perspective on how fleeting each stage was.

(Sometimes I spend time with my book babies and my real baby at the same time, too...) 
When I'm working on two books, they're in different moments of development, too. There's the baby story, and yes, I'm oohing and aahing over how cute it is and the wonder of getting to know something that hadn't existed before. But the older story (a.k.a. the one being revised), surprises me with complexity or subtlety or beauty that it has grown all on its own, seemingly without any help from me.
Just like as a mother you don't love one child less because you happen to be cuddling with the other at the moment, it's possible that spreading your love out a little actually helps your stories. You learn something on the new one that helps fix an issue with the older one. Stumbling blocks with the first keep you aware of your weaknesses so you won't make the same mistakes again.
I'm curious if anyone else feels this way. Do you work on more than one story at a time? How do you feel about it?

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Heroic Minute

A few years ago I attended a writers conference at which I heard two wonderful speakers: Kimberly Newton Fusco and Judith St. George. The former spoke of how she had revised the first page of her award-winning Tending to Grace somewhere around 50 times. Her "secrets," she said, were a willingness to revise and the discipline of getting up at 5 o'clock every morning to write, no matter what.

Judith St. George stood before the podium a few minutes later, a wry smile on her face. "Well," she said. "Kimberly beat me in one area. I've never revised a first page 50 times. But I get up everyday at 4:30."
Throughout the rest of the conference (and, in fact, quite consistently in the years following), I discovered that this habit of getting up before the rest of the world (or at least, the rest of your family) seemed to be a mark of most successful writers.

The spiritual writer Josemaria Escriva wrote a thoughtful consideration on getting up in the morning, which I find extremely helpful: "The heroic minute," he wrote in The Way. "It is the time fixed for getting up. Without hesitation: a supernatural reflection and . . . up. The heroic minute: here you have a mortification that strengthens your will and does no harm to your body. If, with God's help, you conquer yourself, you will be well ahead for the rest of the day. It's so discouraging to find oneself beaten at the first skirmish."

Heroic... conquer...skirmish. Maybe it's because I grew up a "military brat," but this is language I understand and love. Creating great art is a battle; anyone who's ever tried it can attest to that fact. Discouragement, sloth, fatigue, depression, distractions--such are the enemies at the front lines. But if you can win that one first, little battle--that heroic minute--the rest of the battles fall into perspective.

I know not everyone can write early in the morning, and if writing later works for you, great. But if you're finding it difficult to produce good writing, I suggest you try setting your alarm clock just a little earlier. Believe me, I'm no morning person. I sit at the computer fighting to keep my eyelids from gluing themselves shut. I feel like I'm hammering random keys on the keyboard. Writing crap. For about 7 minutes. Then, suddenly, I'm back in the story. I get an idea. The words carry me away and I type them out as quickly as I can, aware that I'm stealing time from the day that I won't get back. By the time my girls wake up, I'm wondering why on earth I thought this was going to be hard. The rest of the day goes by more smoothly, ideas continue to present themselves and my notebook gets countless ideas or phrases jotted down during the cracks of time between my daily obligations.

If only I could set my alarm to play reveille, blaring bugle blasts to remind me that I'm about to enter a battle. That would be pretty awesome...