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Some Psyches Are a Bit Passive-Aggressive. Just Saying.

addtext_com_MDAyMDIwNjI1MjU1A confession: Though it may appear that I only write on this blog every month or so, this is untrue. The truth is, I write a lot—I mean, a lot—that I end up not using. (Much like my manuscripts.)

Let me share the titles of some of the drafts in my folder:

Please Don’t Reset the Year Until I Get to a Save Point. — In which I feel really bad about David Bowie and Alan Rickman dying within a week of each other, but I accomplished a Major (and overdue) Thing and I really don’t want to have to do it again, because it was hard the first time.

My Word for 2016 is ‘Badass.’ — Pretty much what it says it is.

Death and Taxes — As in, the only two things in life that are certain. (This was kind of a downer.)

OMGSTARWARS! — Too many feels to contain. Too many spoilers to post.

All I Want to Do is Keep a Schedule, So Why Do I Need All These Stickers and Colored Pens? — In which I type the word “Planner” into the Pinterest search bar and get sucked into a Filofax-LifePlanner-Hobinachi-SmashJournal Wormhole. (I found out I really like just a Moleskine and a pen. Maybe I color code it a little. Okay, a lot.)

It’s Not You, WordPress, It’s Me. Is blogger’s block a thing? What if I’m only brilliant 140 characters at a time? I have a master’s degree in communication! Social Media shouldn’t be this hard! *sobs into couch cushions*

 

Yeah, I’m totally making this harder than it should be. Don’t try this at home.

No, really. Don’t. I have years and years of training.

Why would anyone write things and then throw them out?  Especially, you know, a professional writer. Well, I’ll tell you. Here’s a sample conversation in my head.

addtext_com_MjM1NzM2MjE1NTk1Me: La la la, I’m so happy to be writing a blog post today. I hope people enjoy reading it.

(Metaphorical) Devil on my shoulder: Oh honey, no. There was a school shooting today, so you’d better post something Important and Profound.

Me: Man, that makes me angry and sad. I’d much rather post about how much I love colored pens.

Devil: Hmmm. Better not post anything. Then we can go get a cherry lime slush from Sonic.

Me: Mmmm… Sonic.

The devil on my shoulder is kind of a passive-agressive asshole.

And then there’s this:

(Metaphorical) Angel on my shoulder: You know what Every Single Writing Article ever says: you’re not a Real Writer if you don’t write every day.

Me: But I didn’t write yesterday.

(Metaphorical) Devil on my shoulder: Then you must not be a Real Writer.

Me: Okay, then. I’m going to sit here and stare at this blank screen until I’ve writtten something.

*stare*

*stare*

Me: Maybe I’ll be inspired if I look at Pinterest for awhile.

Angel: DO NOT TOUCH THAT TRACKPAD, YOUNG LADY.

Me: *touches trackpad*

Devil: You know, if you were a real writer, you would have written 10 pages by now. Just look at all those Real Writers posting their word counts on The Twitter.

Angel: Do NOT even THINK about clicking over to— DAMMIT!

Me: Wow. Those are some Real Writers.

Devil: Yep. And you haven’t written anything in two days now.

Me: I must not be a Real Writer.

Devil: My work here is done. Let’s go to Sonic.

This isn’t just a writer thing.  I know I’m not the only one who thinks “Welp, I’ve blown my calorie count for the day, so I might as well have this ice cream sundae.”

(It occurs to me that I might be a little hungry as I’m writing this.)

ANYWAY…

I’m not any crazier than the next person (in this regard)–we all have an inner passive-agressive asshole. (It gets it’s script from all the outer passive-agressive assholes we’ve met in our lives). But we don’t have to listen.

(I just cut a lot of metaphor about volume dials and car radios on bumpy roads. You’re welcome.)

So, I’ve managed to post a blog before January is over. (*makes checkmark in turquoise for social media task*) And I even I managed to work it around to a takeaway point.

My work here is done. And Sonic is open for another 15 minutes.

 

 

 

 

NaNo Now What

Congratulations! You’ve the parent of a manuscript. Now the real work begins.

MSS3Obviously this is a post-NaNoWriMo post. I always picture editors bracing themselves on December 1st for the onslaught of manuscripts submitted at 12:01am. Okay, I don’t really think that happens…any more than the normal percentage of people who think their first draft falls from their fingers like the song from the lips of angels.

But for the rest of us, the real work is in the revision. When I was researching what other people did to revise their work (because I was talking about this last night at the Euless Library *wave to fellow Eulessians*) I found some really great articles that I was nice enough to put in a handout, which you can download here. (PDF Handout)

But here’s a general list of the things that I’ve learned, and learned to look for:

  1. Let it rest. Especially after a really intense spell of writing, you’re still living the book in a lot of ways. It’s an emotional investment. You are either totally in love with it or totally hate it, and “totally” anything is not objective. Putting the manuscript down for a few weeks allows you to get some perspective, and also to approach the book with fresh eyes, like a reader would, so you can better evaluate what’s on the page versus what’s in your head because you know it so well.
  2. Work from a printed copy, or something like it (say, an iPad app that lets you mark up a pdf like you would with a pen). Personally, I like a stack of paper, because it gives me a visual for structure and pacing—how far am I in the book, how many pages is that, blah blah blah.
  3. The first read through is triage. (That’s from Holly Lisle.) You’re looking to stop the bleeding from plot holes, not worried about bumps and bruises. Think big picture and don’t tinker. (I need to embroider this on a sampler and hang it on the wall over my desk.)
  4. You’re looking for:
    1. Plot holes. (But wait? How did the giant monkey get off the island in the first place?)
    2. Inconsistencies and breaks in continuity.
    3. Incredibly convenient coincidences and implausible leaps of logic.
    4. Plot threads that never go anywhere, and characters that disappear for no reason.
    5. Things that you can make do double duty—a romantic development scene that can also be where they discover a vital clue. Instead of two cardboard characters who each appear to do one thing, one character who can do two things.
    6. Rambles, infodumps, and navel gazing. Long stretches of dialogue, exposition, or internal monologue that don’t advance the plot (or don’t advance it enough to warrant two pages about the evolution of the unicorn).
    7. Boring Sh*t.
    8. Scenes with out a purpose. Every scene has to have a goal that is either accomplished or not–and if not, it still provides something vital to the plot. (Mary fails to steal the secret government plans but overhears a plot to replace the president with a robot.)
    9. Scenes without tension. Every scene needs conflict, two characters who want opposite things. They don’t have to be the protagonist and antagonist–they can be allies who disagree about the goal, or how to accomplish it.
    10. Transitions and transcriptions. Make sure an ending leads logically to the next beginning, and orient the reader in the new scene ASAP. Conversely, art imitates life, it doesn’t transcribe it. Fast forward past the nicey-nice and the laundry lists. It’s okay to say, “John was in the library all night, and in the morning had discovered X.”

For lots more detail about these things and more, check out the articles on the Revision Resources (PDF Handout). As a bonus, it includes some Internet and book resources that are helpful if you’re like I was 11 years ago*, loving to write, but clueless as to what comes after.

Cheers!

*It’s my tenth anniversary!  My wonderful agent and I sold Prom Dates From Hell at Thanksgiving time 10 years ago. OMG I’m old.

Page Fright — The Struggle is Real

You know that thing where you are all “I’m totally ready to write my NaNoWriMo* pages today!” and you’ve got your writing pants on, and your beverage of choice at hand, and the dogs have been fed, and your phone is on Do Not Disturb, then you sit down at your desk, pop open your document, take one look at that empty white screen and your mind goes totally blank?

It’s the exact same feeling when you’ve practiced your speech/lines/talking points until you’ve got them down cold, but you step out on stage and all of a sudden you can’t even remember your name.

Page Fright. Sometimes known as Blank Page Syndrome.

mac image

Flickr Image by David Michalczuk under the Creative Commons License

Should you experience Page Fright, the first thing to remember is, Don’t Panic. It’s an acute but temporary condition. It arises from the same mechanism as the more chronic Writer’s Nerve Block—that is, fear and self-doubt.

Remember back when you went to sign someone’s yearbook or a greeting card, and you planned to say something clever but once your pen is over the paper, and the pressure is on because the bell is about to ring, and you don’t want to write something lame, but your mind is blank, “Have a nice summer”?

Maybe it’s some sort of genetic memory from the days of typewriters and correction ribbon, or back when monks hunched over scrolls, when making a mark on the page was a big commitment. But it’s real, if irrational, and an irrational condition cannot be reasoned with. You have to resort to trickery and mind games. Some of the tips below might seem silly, but I’m willing to bet one of these things will work for you, as sure as I am that the notes on the treble clef are Every Good Boy Does Fine.**

When a blank page makes your mind go blank, too, try these tricks:

  • Make a list. Write your protagonists To Do list. Things in your POV character’s pocket/purse/backpack. Start the scene with them using one or more of those things.
  • Describe the setting in detail, using all the senses. Get as detailed as you want or as you can. Bring the description in toward the protagonist like a camera. Or, start small and expand outward to find your character doing the first thing they need to accomplish in that scene.
  • Type nonsense for half the page until it’s not blank anymore.
  • Write some dialogue. Have two characters talk about the weather until the scene interrupts them.
  • Set a timer for five minutes, put your pen on the paper (or fingers on the keyboard) and don’t pick it/them up until the timer dings. Type anything. You can start with: I don’t know what happens in this scene, but I know that… (example: Mary and John have a fight about Susan. It all starts when Mary picks up a glass of water and…)
  • Start the scene with a pen and paper, then it’s already begun and when you transcribe it into the computer, you’ve got momentum.

Page fright is a pretty specific type of “Writer’s Block.” (Of course, Writer’s Block doesn’t really exist. I say this all the time, even when I’m suffering from it.) “Just write” is easy to say but hard to do sometimes. These tips are meant to get your fingers and brain moving so that you build momentum to carry you into the scene/days work.

(And hey, if you’re not writing a novel this month (or ever) these will ALSO help when you don’t know where to start writing your English paper or History essay. Just remember to go back and edit out your nonsense before you turn it in!)

*I do this thing whereI assume everyone else sips the same nectar from the social media fountain as I do, so I’ll launch into a tirade talk about something and get blank looks. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is one of those things. But if you’re reading this blog, you are probably tapped into Book World enough that you know this is where people try to write a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November, and if you don’t you can click on the bold link and read about it. It’s kind of like Movember, except at the end of the month you have a book (or half a book) instead of a caterpillar on your lip. (Or you might have that, too. The last week of writing can be a little all-consuming. I don’t judge.)

**Mnemonic devices are also mind games. Face it. Half of writing is gaming our brain into the right state of… well, you know. 

Leonardo’s To Do List and Michelangelo’s Groceries

I really like lists.

Leonardo da Vinci's To Do List circa 1490 (direct translation, amendments in brackets by Robert Krulwich). Illustration by Wendy Macnaughton for NPR. Original Article here.

Leonardo da Vinci’s To Do List circa 1490 (direct translation, amendments in brackets by Robert Krulwich). Illustration by Wendy Macnaughton for NPR. Original Article here.

Lists, timelines, graphs, charts…not because I’m the most methodical of people, but precisely because I’m not. There’s always a lot going on in noggin, and it’s not terribly orderly in there. The big ideas are kind of wibbly wobbly all over time and space, and the little idea are sort of this gnat like cloud around my head.

I’ve always kept a sort of catchall journal. My packing list for World Con will be right next to my character notes for Splendor Falls and a (terrible) sketch of the layout of Bluestone Hill.  A reminder to get dog food is on the back of the page that has the Goodnight family tree which is next to my notes about who I’m going to vote for in the next election. It’s a little willy nilly, but it’s the way I’ve done it for ten years, and the notebooks are lined up on my shelf.

Recently, as part of an ongoing quest not to forget so many things, I’ve been on a quest to find The Perfect System that works with my system. The smartphone is great, because there’s nothing like something that will ding at you. But there’s also nothing like paper for permanence. In college, I used to study by rewriting my class notes into a neat outline. By the time I was done, I knew the material. I am much more likely to remember something I write by hand than enter in my phone. (Which is not to say I’ll remember it, just that I’m more likely.)

There’s the idea of physical permanence, too. When I look through a previous year’s notebook, it’s interested to see where my head was at a particular moment, or what I was dealing with while I wrote X book, or what I thought was important to remember from Y conference. I’ve found ideas jotted down on paper napkins, and business cards from people I’ve met (sometimes I’ll even remember who they were). Sometimes I’m impressed with my brilliance. Sometimes I wonder why on earth I though I needed to pack three sweaters to go to Alabama in October.

I remember finding a stack of letters that a great-great-aunt wrote in the early 19th century. Genealogy is great, but reading Audrey describe her train trip to Palacios and ask if Rosemary (!!) has recovered yet from her cold, made her a real person.

Da Vinci's packing list.

Da Vinci’s packing list. “Get hold of a skull.” (Image from an article in The Daily Mail)

The illustration at the top is a direct translation of a recently discovered (well, recent in 2011) “to do list” jotted down by Leonardo da Vinci. I mean, that guy wrote everything down. But It makes me happy to know sometimes he wrote it down just for himself.

Da Vinci’s notebooks are a record of his genius and all, but this packing list sketches a more personal picture. No pun intended. (Okay, yeah, pun totally intended.) “Spectacles with Case. Human skull. Nutmeg.” I’m sorry, but how awesome is it that “nutmeg” seems like the oddest thing on this list.

Michelangelo's Shopping List (image credit: Casa Buonarroti)

Michelangelo’s Shopping List (image credit: Casa Buonarroti)

Then there’s Michelangelo’s grocery list, which he had to illustrate because his servant couldn’t read. Let’s just think about that for a sec. This is a grocery list illustrated by the painter of the Sistine Chapel. And we know he liked herring and anchovies. Yum.

Not that I’m comparing myself to Leonardo or Michelangelo (even in a Mutant Ninja Turtle sense). I’m not jotting things down for posterity… just to remember them after I’ve slept and cleared the data banks.

I mean, I have to do something so I can get on with the business of being a genius!

Edited to add: I came across this in my quest for the Perfect System. (Pinterest, incidentally, was so helpful that it was not helpful.) Twelve types of journals you can keep. 

Are you a lister? Is yours one of those planners covered in colored pen and washi tape? What kinds of things do you like to write down? (Typing counts, too!)

The Manuscript Cometh

You know that feeling you get when your teacher is posting grades for papers or tests? How you brace yourself, take a deep breath and hold it like you’re doing the Ice Bucket Challenge?

It’s the same thing with books.  Imagine getting your corrected test or term paper back, only it’s 400 pages long.

My edits still come on paper. The UPS man (or woman) knocks on my door and hands me a big, fat package. There’s no mistaking it for anything else. It’s manuscript shaped.

MSS1

I bring it in and set it on the kitchen counter with a mixture of reverence and terror. What is my editor going to say? How much am I going to have to rewrite? How many stupid mistakes did I make?  The only way to know is to open it and find out.

MSS2

That’s a lot of paper. On top is a letter that summarizes all the things that are wrong with the book. Sometimes this is a long letter.

I usually read it standing right there by the counter. Then I hyperventilate. And then I go for a walk, or a coffee, or a something, and I don’t come back until I stop feeling like a loser for not writing a Perfect First Draft. (No one writes a perfect first draft, no matter what they tell you. There are always things that can be better. I have been tempted to go through Barnes and Noble with a pen and tweak the phrasing here and there in my books on the shelf.)

That big pile of paper sits on the kitchen counter—maybe a few hours, maybe a day, maybe a weekend—while I cogitate on how I’m going to fix what I need to fix. (Sometimes it’s something big like “This entire part in the museum here doesn’t make sense.” Sometimes it’s small but pervasive, like adding more explanation of how magic works or description of settings.)

Finally, the manuscript gets to move to the workspace. (In this case, the sofa.)

MSS3

I’m not quite ready to open the document on the computer and start haphazardly making changes. First I go through my editors’ (and agent’s) notes, page by page, wincing at the things I think I should have caught myself, or the things I thought I could get away with but didn’t, scribbling my own ideas, getting up every now and then to freak out. Like, “How I’m going to cut 25 pages out of the middle without losing any of my brilliant scenes?!” Or, my favorite: “OMG I have to come up with a logical reason for that to happen?” Or it’s close cousin,”It doesn’t seem like they know what’s going on there because I don’t know what’s going on.”

From there on… I won’t say it’s easy, but the analytical part of your brain kicks in and you flinch less. Two things safe my sanity right now: (1) I know I’m my own worst critic while working on a book, but (2) I can still fix things. I try and enjoy that while it lasts.


PS It’s not a Goodnight book.

PPS  It doesn’t come out for more than a year. But it’s going to be EPIC when it does.

Week in Rewind

I spent most of last week in rehearsal for a reunion show at my creative arts school in Arlington. We performed two shows this past weekend, to sold out houses.

It was like a class reunion with just the people I like. Only it was also more than that, because there were thirty-five years of alumni participating, so I got to meet new people as well as see with the people who were basically my family for three years.

My friends!

My friends!

See that lady in turquoise to my right? She was my musical theater teacher, and one of the first people (other than my mom) to tell me I was talented and I could do whatever I wanted. She led by example–she wrote plays and lyrics, she directed shows, plus she was a great actress herself. I wanted to be her when I grew up.

That blond guy to my left? He used to send me hand drawn valentines. Now he’s an award winning director who was knighted by the king of Belgium for the documentary he made about the Belgian resistance during WWII.  (He has a lovely wife and parter and adorable children. I’m sure his valentines are better now.)

That guy in the middle, with the goofy smile? He was MY junior high crush. (Well, he was everyone’s crush.) He just (a) had a baby, (b) released his first album with his band and (c) his wife just sold her first book.

That guy with the glasses? Does the documentary shorts that go on the DVD extras. Yeah, so he hangs out and chats with Christopher Nolan and stuff.

That girl on the box, hovering above me?   She (a) got most of the roles I wanted and (b) dated Junior High Crush.  So did the redhead on the end. Everyone dated my Junior High Crush but me. But we were friends anyway.

That chick in black in the middle?  She’s all in black because she lives in NYC doing fancy NYC stuff.  She hosted the halloween party where we played spin the bottle and seven minutes in heaven. You know. Like we would have known what to do with seven minutes.

That’s ancient history. I only attended the school for three years. I loved being on stage (I still do) but it takes a special kind of fortitude to be a career actor. However, my favorite part was the storytelling and becoming a character, and that led me to the realization that I wanted to write books. (It was kind of weird that I ended up working in a theater while I worked at that goal. Or… maybe not.)

Still, the particular chemistry of that environment established the basis for everythingNot just theater school, but that theater school with those people and those teachers. They had an idea for a creative arts school and they made it happen. They created their own shows and stories, they made things out of nothing into something. And they instilled that in the students.

When I was teaching drama, I used to tell the parents that chances were, their kid wasn’t going to end up acting as a career (or be on Saturday Night Live or anything), but that the things they learned in the theater–confidence and creativity and teamwork–would help them in whatever they chose to do. I think that’s definitely been true for my students, as it was for my class.

Enjoy what you do, and do it one hundred percent for as long as you love it. It doesn’t matter if it’s what you’re going to do forever. (Does every student on the football team end up in the NFL? Of course not.) Nothing you learn is ever wasted. It will show up somewhere, some way you don’t even expect.

P.S.  Any Glee fans read this blog?  You know what? Warbler Nick is even better looking in person. (And not really in high school, so it’s not gross that I said that.)

Spirit and Dust Countdown

The local cops kept staring at me. I couldn’t decide if it was the plaid miniskirt in subarctic temperatures, or the fact that they’d never seen anyone talk to the dead before.

Here’s something weird about me. I almost always start writing with the first line of the book. Image

I know, I know. It doesn’t sound that weird. Where else would you start other than the beginning?

Only it’s not that simple. You have to know where the story ACTUALLY starts. Backstory and characterization are good things for the author to know, but we don’t need to put it in up front. We want to start as close to The Thing That Sets Stuff In Motion as possible.  (Imagine if you had to sit through ten minutes of Luke Skywalker fixing moisture vaporators and whining to his aunt and uncle before the droids showed up. No. Just, no. Instead we start his part of the story with the droids arriving, shorthand in a few lines of characterization, and then, boom, we’ve got a Princess in Peril and off we go.)

I’m not talking about that part. I’m saying that I LITERALLY write the first line of my book first. In my head. Sometimes before I even know what the plot of the book is going to be. Prom Dates From Hell was like that.  And so was Spirit and Dust.  I knew from the moment I finished writing Texas Gothic (where Daisy is a minor character) what would be the opening line of her book. I didn’t know if or when I would get to write it, but I knew how it would start.

(By the way, you do NOT have to read Texas Gothic or Spirit and Dust in any order. The only thing that connects them is the characters come from the same family. Their stories are independent and don’t have spoilers for each other.)

Anyway. That’s the first line of Spirit and Dust. More teasers to come.