Realizations and light bulbs

It’s been too long since I’ve written a blog post.  It’s also been that long since I’ve written anything of import.  I’ve pounded the keyboard on occasion, but it just didn’t go anywhere.  My get-up-and-go got up and went.  I pondered over it, tried to get over it, but the words just wouldn’t come.

Finally, I realized what had happened.  I was not writing because I was fixating on what I might do wrong.  Whoa, Nellie!  How the heck did that happen?

I’ve always felt I have a thick skin.  I can handle any kind of writing criticism.  Even a critique or a passing comment I totally disagree with is food for thought.  These people are readers.  Readers with their likes, dislikes and attitudes will hopefully, eventually be picking up a book with one of my stories in it or God willing, one of my novels.  What they think may or may not impact what I write, but awareness is good.  In an excellent eBook I just read, Making Story: Twenty-One Writers On How They Plot, edited by Timothy Hallinan, one of the contributing authors, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, said “If the people you ask to read over are trustworthy, they are not out to sabotage your work but help you.  So listen to them and make judgment calls for each criticism, putting your ego to one side as you do this.  Receiving criticism by e-mail beats reading the same in the review section of the paper, hands down every time.”

At a writers critique group I attended in July, one of the critiques I received was in my estimation over the top.  I came to realize the critique was less about my writing and more about me.  It was payback for probably more than one faux pas committed by yours truly.  Admittedly, I have trouble determining where the invisible social lines are drawn and find myself stepping over them occasionally.  I usually realize my mistake belatedly and try to make amends.  In the back of my mind I always worry about where those dratted lines are, but don’t always get it.  As I told another critiquer, I try to be nice, but I can be incredibly stupid.

I believe this reviewer’s take on my writing was as honest as it could be, but the way it was delivered aloud in the group and on the story she handed back to me was condescending, sarcastic and mean.  This kind of thing doesn’t happen to me often and I was totally unprepared.  What shocked me more than the review was that it led to a gradual paralysis of my ability to write.  It wasn’t that I thought I had no talent.  It was because I was too afraid of whom I might offend, insult or otherwise prod into a repeat.  It wasn’t about my writing.  It was about me.

Well.  That was then.  The only reason it worked so long on my psyche is because it took me so long to admit to myself it mattered what people thought of me.  When I was reacting on a purely subconscious level, it was devastating.  I’ve been living in the country, away from city and academic life too long.  My ability to recognize this kind of dynamic had been on hiatus.

The silver lining is that it woke me up to the possibility of more, but also the ability to recognize it for what it is and cope.  If I aspire to write on a salable, commercial level, I open myself up to be a target for more of the same.  There will be those who don’t like my writing and those who don’t like me.  I am sure some of them will be vocal or well-read.  Now I am more prepared.

So here I am, putting it out there again.  If I step on your toes, feel free to let me know.  It’s is much preferable to belated, oblique vengeance.  My obliqueometer is faulty, but it’s under repair.

While floundering with all of this, my novel has been percolating in my head.  I hadn’t quit, I was just stymied.  Realization upon realization – I need to rewrite the dang thing.  I’m mostly happy with the writing.  What I’m not happy with is the focus.  It doesn’t have any.  That’s why I’ve been having so much trouble developing a plot.  I hadn’t really settled on a core theme and story parameters.  Reading the above mentioned book has been a revelation in that regard.

I appreciate all who have been patient and understanding as I struggled toward another light bulb moment.

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The writing work ethic and KAPOW

Today is past the usual day for Monday’s Kick-Ass Prompt of the Week (KAPOW), but I’m combining posts for a while.  I’ve been feeling overwhelmed.  I was going to say a little overwhelmed, but that would be an oxymoron.

My troubles generally stem from my ability to say no to others, yes, but mostly to myself.  I have trouble differentiating between what I can do and what I should do.  I’m not going to get into specifics; this is a writing blog, not a personal flog – I mean blog.  Heh.

Part of the problem has been because I’m not thinking of writing as work.  I have tried to talk myself into it aloud for some time.  My husband has demonstrated a better grasp than I have.  He just now came up to me with a question about a 5-gallon bucket of green beans he had just picked from the garden.  When he saw my computer display with the blog post on one side overlapping my WIP he said, “Oh, you’re working.  Never mind.  I’ll take care of it.”  What a guy.

I had the good fortune to be able to work from home for a number of years for an answering service.  When I answered phones in the office, I worked five eight-hour days.  From home, I was able to work four ten-hour days.  That meant I had three days per week off.  The remaining four days I sat my rear in my office chair in front of the computer, donned my headset and logged in.  During that ten hours I had three fifteen-minute breaks.  It was not a hardship, other than having to eat fast, a habit I’m still trying to break.

It was easier because I wore a headset and responded to calls as they came in.  I had no control over the frequency or the type of call – some were retail sales, some were customer service, some were after-hour calls for professionals and more.  The work desktop and the calls coming in were the driving force.

Now that I’m retired from the workplace, when I sit here to write, it’s on me.  I’m the driving force.  I am also easily distracted.  When I was taking calls for work, everybody knew I was working.  I didn’t answer the home phone, I didn’t take visitors, I was working.  Enforcing that work ethic while I’m writing is more problematic.  Some of my family and friends still think of my writing as a hobby.  I’m afraid I don’t enforce the do-not-disturb aspect as I should.  It’s a balancing act.  I’m still working on it.

In that vein, this week’s KAPOW challenge is to write, in 300 words or fewer, a description of something in your workspace.  It can be where you work now, have worked or want to work.  Narrow the focus to one inanimate object, no matter how large or small – no dialog and no character interaction.

Hmmmm.  Looking around my workspace . . .

Ah.

=======

THE FAILED VIOLET PLANTER

by C J Gorden

Its destiny, its purpose, had been to compliment the leaves and blooms and encompass the soil and roots of a prized dollar-ninety-five Wal-Mart violet purchased at the same time.  The two-piece container was designed to be a self-waterer, to draw water from the lower bowl through the unglazed portion of the upper receptacle nested within it in a way that made violet care . . . carefree.  It was not to be.  The water did not seep upward slowly over time, it flooded the coveted violet’s roots within the month and killed it dead.  No one noticed the sodden soil until it was too late to save the violet and the disenfranchised planter was relegated to a small, dilapidated box in a dark closet of shame.  After some time had passed the horror had abated and the planter was noticed again.

Fate has provided a new purpose for the former violet planter with the blue crackle glaze.  The high-shouldered, gracefully tapered base was judged stable enough to keep rulers, scissors and letter openers upright and the smaller container nested inside it keeps the contents from sprawling.  It holds not only an assortment of pens, pencils and highlighters, but a revolving medley of items from the entire household.  Among other miscellany there is a crochet hook, a Barbie’s golf club appropriated after a 2-year-old’s attempt to use it to clean a kitten’s ear, an impromptu caliper made from parts of two sewing rulers and across its lip rests a straightened paper clip once used to manually eject a CD from a misbehaving drive.  You never know when you might need one of those. No longer a failure, the planter has become a  reflection of its environment and is now known as The Pencil Cup.

The plot thickens

It’s day two of Camp NaNoWriMo and I’m behind in my word count – way behind.  The upside is I’m still working on my novel, just indirectly.  Even though my word count is not progressing much at the moment, I’m working to get to where the words will flow.  I decided (belatedly I know) to deconstruct the first half of the novel.  I’ve started editing the first part of it but realized I haven’t read the last two-thirds or so since I wrote it last November.  Not only that, but I’ve learned some things recently about scenes and blocking out plots.

I’m not so worried about my low word count this early in the month.  The average daily word count to shoot for to finish on time is 1,613.  It’s not an assignment; it’s a number to keep in mind.  Another number the folks at The Office of Letters and Light (the NaNo organizers and managers) supply on their novel stats page is the average words you would have to write from where you are now to still finish on time.  For me in the middle of day two with 246 words under my belt it’s 1,651.  See?  It’s still early.

Getting back to scenes and plot progression.  When I read a book I have to be able to visualize the action and the scene or enough of the scene my imagination can fill in the blanks.  What that translates into is scenes.  If I don’t have enough information to visualize a scene it pulls me out of the story.  If I find myself wondering what the author meant by something, wondering if I missed something, it pulls me out of the story.  I’ve been hearing a lot lately about thinking of a novel as a series of scenes.  I’d never thought about it that way, but it eventually became a light bulb moment.

It had to percolate in my subconscious for a while, but I think the brew is ready.  I opened the first half of the novel and I’m taking it chapter by chapter making review margin comments that look like this:

Chapter 1 – Scene:  Protag introduces herself. / Scene:  Protag explains how the story starts and how she had a fight with her BFF.

Chapter 2 – Scene:  Protag is freaked out because __________. / Scene:  Protag calls BFF and tries to explain, asking her to come over.

Chapter 3 – Scene:  BFF is convinced the fight was a mistake and sees proof.  Protag’s mother invites BFF to stay for dinner. / Scene:  Protag convinces parents she is sick and should stay home from school.  Protag makes a plan with BFF who is going to play hooky.

Keep in mind there’s a lot going on in each chapter to capture and hold the attention of the reader but the list of scenes is a good way to distill the story down to its bones.  My hope is that eventually I will be able to make a scene-by-scene outline that will allow the actual story writing to progress faster.

I read author’s sites when I enjoy their writing.  At one such site (I can’t remember which one) the author recommended you take a novel you like, that has a plot you appreciate, and deconstruct it.  I wasn’t sure how to go about that, but the scene list looks like a good way to go.  I think I’m going to start with the first of the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark.  I love that book, and I want to figure out how the heck she did that, never mind best seller’s lists and HBO deals.  I’ll let you know how it pans out.

What do kids and YA or youth writers have in common?

Kids and those who write for them have to face a lot of the same decisions.  There is one large difference, of course.  As writers, we struggle with these decisions for our characters.  For adolescents and young adults themselves, the decisions are personal.  They agonize over the first time they want to ask a girl for a dance without being forced by a gym teacher.  They struggle with the challenges of dating and the social pressures regarding drug use and sex, and all that is influenced by the pendulum swings of hormones.  Nostalgia just took a turn for me.  Ah, angst – I remember it well.

As writers, we have to decide how we’re going to present these situations and how they are going to affect our characters.  Young Adult publications run the gamut of idyllic stories that seem intent on setting a wholesome example to edgy stories that reflect the slimy underbelly of the reality in which some children live.

In the novel I’m writing my protagonist is a fifteen-year-old girl.  She’s a pretty normal, sassy teenager but events are going to change her reality and she’s going to have to adapt.  Will she start cursing like a sailor, will she kill somebody in a fit of rage, will she and the guy she’s been making goo-goo eyes with have sex?  Not sure yet, but it’s been on my mind – thus this post.

I can understand the motivation of some parents and educators to only let kids read books that can serve as an example of exemplary behavior.  That’s what I wanted for my kids and want for my grandkids.  I would prefer they never experience adversity and never have to make difficult choices.  In order to ensure that, we would have to move back to Eden.  That quest would be fraught with everything I tried to shelter them from and is an impossibility, whether you believe it ever existed or not.

I spoke to a psychologist many years ago about how to handle it if you suspected someone was contemplating suicide.  This came up because my son suspected a friend of his was contemplating suicide.  Her advice was to ask them point blank – ask if they were thinking about it, if they were planning it and how far into the planning they had gone.  She assured me I would not be putting ideas into their head.  They were not going to say, “Why didn’t I think of that!” and start planning a suicide if the thought wasn’t there in the first place.

I have extended that advice to include any emotional place a person, adult or child can find themselves.  We chose what to read based on our needs, likes and dislikes.  If it’s of no interest to us we won’t read it.  If our children read something that relates to them and their lives or brings up something they’d like to understand, it opens the door for dialog with us as parents and educators.  Just because we don’t want them to experience or be faced with a thing doesn’t mean they aren’t.  Telling them they can’t read about difficult realities also tells them we don’t want to talk about them, effectively shutting the door to dialog.

I tried to write this blog post objectively and give equal time to both sides of the debate, but I find I’m just not objective enough about it to do that.  The journalist in me cringes, but the parent, grandparent and writer in me has to take a stand.

What’s life got to do with it?

I arrived at home in Minnesota late last night after driving from Florida through temperature highs in the upper nineties to over a hundred.  My inclination was to sleep most of today away.  Various members of my family, however, couldn’t wait to show me the new colors on the walls, to present me with an awesome welcome home cake baked especially for me and to see the goodies I brought back from Florida for them.  And then there was the mail awaiting my perusal, sorted into order of importance.  <yawn>  I could hardly wait.  Really.

I crawled bleary-eyed out of bed, was truly impressed by the new paint job in the living room, ate a slice of awesome red velvet cake covered in white icing roses for late breakfast, dispensed T-shirts and other goodies and dealt with the mail.  Then I vegged out.  I ate a Florida orange and a hunk of home-made snack sausage (the best recipe yet) and just relaxed.  It’s good to be home.

This is a writing blog . . . the point?  Writing is another of those things that makes me feel good when I do it.  It doesn’t matter if I have to drag myself out of bed to do it, let calls from friends go to voice mail to do it or agonize over it because it’s not flowing out of my fingers and into the keyboard with ease, writing makes me feel good.  Getting my tired self out of bed to take care of family business left me in the end with a feeling of accomplishment and the warm fuzzies.  I get the same satisfaction from writing.  Not only that, sometimes my own writing will make me cry until I can hardly see the page, make me giggle like a little girl or make my heart speed up and breath quicken as I write a fight scene.  I have had lots of jobs over the years, everything from school bus driver to bartender to secretary for a manufacturer’s sales department.  Nothing gives me the thrill that I get from putting words on a page.  I even like editing.  Go figure.

My new schedule started today.  I scheduled a day of rest (except for this blog post.)  I have several tasks scheduled for tomorrow:  writing, outlining/plotting and editing for my own work and critiquing for my writers’ group.  Several there will be returning the favor on Sunday, and I’m really looking forward to that.  I submitted the first five chapters of my young adult (half-) novel, the one I started during NaNo last November and plan to finish during Camp Nano in August.  That’s what the outlining/plotting phase of my workday tomorrow will be about – getting ready.

Dang it, I forgot to bring home a book I found on my mother’s bookshelf in Florida.  It caught my eye because it examines, among other things, everyday life in medieval France.  Putting on schedule:  Call Mom and ask her to send book.  Need it for research ASAP.

Doing NaNoWriMo last November taught me if I determined to just write no matter what, it worked – I wrote.  I accomplished the equivalent of half an adult novel in a month – the month with Thanksgiving, my birthday, family and friend drama and drop-in company in it – and yet I managed to accomplish over fifty thousand words.  This August I plan to use Camp Nano as not a mere month-long writing event, but a way to vet my new schedule and develop the habits I need to become a prolific writer.

My eyes have gone bleary on me again and I don’t have the energy to proof this post adequately, so I apologize in advance.  Time to sleep tonight so tomorrow I can Write On!

Sit. Stay. Write.

I have been struggling with developing a schedule for my writing.  I’m retired from my “day job” for heaven’s sake.  I have all sorts of time on my hands these days.  What could possibly be the problem?

Well, I don’t really want to look at that dead on, but I will.  Denial is not really working for me.  My denial takes the form of good intentions, like after so many years of living in this skin I haven’t figured out the implausibility of that working for more than short stretches at a time.

I was surfing the web a few weeks ago doing research for a blog piece I posted a few weeks earlier and happened upon a guest post by Patti Larsen at Novel Publicity & Co.  Making time to write is always in the back of my mind and when I read this it spoke to me like an angel’s trumpet directly to my ear with a back up of angelic host singing the “Hallelujah” chorus.  Loud.  It didn’t relate to what I was writing about at the time, but I read it, wowed over it and bookmarked it for later.

This is the blog where I wanted to reference that post and begin the task of absorbing its message into my psyche.  Sadly I had forgotten the name of the author and I couldn’t remember where the heck I had bookmarked it.  I would liken searching my bookmarks to hiking through the Amazon rainforest.  The way is overgrown by flora that seems to multiply on its own (I don’t remember bookmarking this.  I wonder where it goes?) and fauna that threatens to eat my brain by taking me on side trips through everything from nostalgia (Oh yeah, I remember now.  Cool.) to predatory sites that ate my day away so efficiently once I saved them for a repeat.

My bookmarks reflect the rest of my life.  They are organized out of necessity due to sheer numbers.  There are folders inside of folders inside of folders.  Finally I thought to look for the coveted post in my saved documents.  Sure enough I had saved it to my hard drive.  Whew!  I could almost smell the rotting vegetation, hear the whine of mosquitos and other life-sucking forces and see the darkening green of the canopy as I closed my bookmarks.

This is what Patti Larsen has shown me in her guest post:  I can write an impressive daily word count and finish several novels and short stories (picking up speed as I gain experience) and she has provided the supporting mathematics.  The only thing I have to do is treat it like work.  I need to sit my derrière in my desk chair and put my fingers to the keyboard – for a set amount of time.  You can see the details for yourself here.

She’s not blowing smoke or selling a bill of goods because she’s not selling anything.  She’s saying what works for her, an accomplished, published author who writes young adult paranormal fiction.  <gasp>  That’s what I write!’

I’m sure I’ll tailor her advice as I find what works best for me, but the basic message is to sit myself down and write.  No more talking about it, no more intending to do it, no more being satisfied because I’m getting out two blog posts per week.  I enjoy doing the blog posts and I’m going to continue, but they were always meant to be an adjunct, not the whole enchilada.

At virtually the same time, a friend who buddied with me at NaNoWriMo during November 2011 (and who was also a winner) texted me an OMG because she discovered Camp NaNoWriMo.    Another challenge to write fifty thousand-plus words during the month of August.  It differs from the main NaNoWriMo in November in that it has a camp theme and the option of joining a “cabin” with cabinmates to schmooze with.  In light of the word count Patti assures me is possible on a long-term basis, I’m ready for it.

Another resource is Annie Neugebauer’s blog.   You may remember her from my “You’re not the boss of me” post.   Her latest posts have to do with writing tools, which is apropos, and she has a page called “The Organized Writer.”  I have downloaded to my hard drive a Character Chart Template and other forms she offers free of charge from her page (here.)   Under “The Organized Writer” at the top right of the page is a drop down menu.  I’m sure they will be a help as I try to hack out the second half of my YA novel during Camp NaNoWriMo.

By the end of the week I’ll be heading back to Minnesota from Florida.  I’ll keep you apprised of my writing progress once I get back home.  Write on!

Bias – for it or against it?

What effect do our biases have on our writing?  For that matter, how do you even know you have a bias?  That’s easy; we all have biases.  They come from having life experiences and drawing conclusions or emotional associations to those experiences, often with limited data.

For instance, I am only familiar with one person who wore a toothbrush mustache:  Hitler.  I think due to the enormous negative impact Hitler had on the world at large, men for the most part quit wearing that style mustache.  When I see a toothbrush mustache, I think of death camps and Nazi war crimes, no matter that the mustache was not responsible.  That is a bias.

Your biases and my biases are our opinions on a given subject, our slant, our views.  I may say I would never name a child of mine Hildegard because I knew a Hildegard in grade school who made my life a living hell.  That, my friend, is a bias.  Attorney bashing is a national pastime; it is also another bias.  What do people hope their children become besides doctors?  Yup, lawyers.  Social standing and prospective income notwithstanding, everybody needs one or the other eventually and hopes for a discount.  Is that a bias?  You bet.

Biases are a fact of life.  Our characters have them, but they should have their own, peculiar to them as individuals.  I’m not advocating that what we write be free of bias, but that we are aware everyone has them and we are judicious about them in our writing.

You can’t write without bias.  How flat would our characters be then?  We just need to be aware of the fact of and inescapability of bias as a facet of humanity.

Here are a couple of resources regarding bias in writing:

“Have Bias, Will Write” is an article by Scott Warner.  You can find it here.  He explores bias in such writings as the New York Times and Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

There are no end of biases to choose from.  “Biases in Science Fiction” is an article by Steven Novella that you can find at the Neurologica blog here. This article explores the biases of science fiction writers concerning designs of ships for star travel and how they depict gravity and thrust.  It sites such works as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and 2001, A Space Odyssey.

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