Going Where the Path Leads

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

Confucious

It’s a cold and rainy day, so what better time to snuggle in for a good writing session? I’ve made myself a cozy warm green tea with ginger, and scooched down under a fuzzy blanket. So, I’m ready to go. Now what?

It’s been made clear to me lately that things don’t always go according to plan, either in real life or in writing. I had so many plans for this weekend. I had even made a dictatorial to do list full or bullet points and bravado of all the things I was going to accomplish this weekend. But then the thunderstorms came in, which inevitably means at least a day of debilitating headaches for me. (Oh, the life of living with chronic illness.) At times like that, it would be easy to feel sorry for myself and cry and whine about all the things I could do if I didn’t have a chronic illness, but that wouldn’t help me or anyone else for that matter. So, what’s the point? The only thing to do when life changes your planned course is to follow the path as it winds and twists and turns and falls out from under you.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all about forging new paths, creating roads where none ever existed, slashing through forests of obstacles to reach your goals. But every now and then, the fight is more destructive to you than it is to the obstacles. So, in times like those, the only thing to do is become zen with your surroundings and let the path lead you wherever it will.

A Writing Obstacle

I am reminded of a writing obstacle that came up for me recently, one that possibly could have derailed my whole publishing project if I had chosen to fight it rather than following the path.

Not long after I found a publisher and editor, we realized that I had referenced in my novel a significant number or books and songs. I didn’t have a strong grasp of copyright law while I was originally writing the story, and I mistakenly thought if the authors/songwriters were no longer alive, then I was safe to use a line here or there from their works as long as I gave credit in the back of the book. That was certainly not the case.

Fight or Change Course?

So, I had a choice before me: I could cling to my story as it was written, including all book and song references, and pay a possibly exorbitant amount in licensing fees, OR I could rewrite certain sections, change the references or take them out completely. For the most part, you are safe to use works whose authors have been dead for 50 years or more, the cut off publication dates from 2019 being anything before 1924. (In 2020, it will be 1925, and so on.) Of course there are exceptions to those rules if copyrights have been renewed or purchased by others, or as in the case of Peter Pan, the copyright has been granted to a children’s hospital in England by Parliament until the end of time. So, what was I going to do?

I decided to let the path dictate my direction rather than tenaciously clinging to my original ideas. So, I went through and changed all of the books referenced by my characters, which was a considerable amount. Then it came to the songs. There were two songs which were integral to the story, were emotional touch stones for my characters, and connected several generations. What was I going to do about those? The meanings of the songs I had chosen and the feel of the music were important. So, what else was there to do, but to write my own songs?

A New Creative Opportunity

The lyrics came fairly easy, but then I thought, “I need to know what the song sounds like to be able to describe it.” I’ve also always been that person who when coming across lyrics to a song I don’t know in a book, was driven crazy by not knowing how it sounds. Have you ever seen lyrics in a book and wondered what the song really sounded like?

Then it occurred to me that we live in a world of technology and mixed media where text, video, pictures, and music interact with each other all the time. Think of Instagram posts and stories with music or memes, just to name a couple of examples.

So, I decided to write and produce some of the music to go along with A Light from the Ashes to help my readers fully immerse themselves in the world and the story. I consulted my niece Elisabeth Grace, my resident expert on Garage Band, then I just started playing around with it. I had never tried to make music with anything other than my piano and my own voice before, so this was all new territory. But what a wonderful experience it has been! I’ve learned new things, made something completely new that never would have existed without the original obstacle, and let my new path lead me where it would.

What About You?

Have there been times in your life where you were faced with a daunting obstacle? How did you face it or get around it?

The next time you are faced with an obstacle, either in life or in your creative world, ask yourself: Is it time to fight the obstacle or let the path lead me in a new direction? You may be surprised at the new world you find.

Check out the songs from A Light from the Ashes here or on Soundcloud.

Writing in Different Genres

Well, I have been promising this post for over a month, but the summer got away from me, as summers seem to do.  So, here I am finally fulfilling my promise.

Writing is not a simple action, nor is it the same for every author or for every genre.  Everyone’s process is different.  But to complicate matters even more, everyone’s process can be different as they engage in writing different genres.  I noticed this the most when I was looking over my notebooks for my current historical fiction project as compared to my dystopian novel.  The dystopian novel had two notebooks full of ideas.  But for my historical fiction project, I just began my fourth notebook, and I am sure it will be filled as well.

First, I will walk you through my writing process in general.  Then, I will go through the differences between writing a dystopian novel and writing a historical fiction novel.

General Writing Process

  • The original seed–The seed of an idea usually comes to me in the form of my main character and one scene.  From there, the plot building process begins.  Basically, just playing with ideas in my head and letting my imagination run free.  There is a lot of thinking time in this stage, jotting down ideas here and there.
  • Research–Next, I start researching, either about the time period or the world in which my story will take place.  I also begin putting together a playlist of songs that put me in the mood for the individual story so I can fully immerse myself. This phase can last through the duration of the project.  I never feel like I have enough information, but eventually we do have to start actually writing.
  • Simmering–This phase can co-exist with the research phase.  This is where the plot is starting to take shape, characters are making themselves known to me, and dialogue starts to flow.  During this time, I am writing daily notes of scenes, descriptions, dialogue, plots, etc. I always carry a notebook with me, and have a running note on my notebook app on my phone, so I never miss an idea when it comes.  These notes are a disorganized jumble of anything that pops into my head story related.
  • Organization–Next, I begin to type my random hand-written notes into a cohesive document in the general order that they will be used in the book.  I may create documents specifically for narration/descriptions and specifically for scenes. I will also create a document for each main character to flesh out characteristics, back story, etc.
  • Outlining–First, I start with a general outline with plot arc, etc.  Here I make decisions about timeline, whether or not the story will be told chronologically, point of view, and narrator.
  • Detailed Outlining–After the general outline, I begin putting together chapter outlines.  On these documents, I cut and paste scenes, dialogue, and descriptions from my notes documents.
  • Writing the chapters–When I write my chapters, I use my chapter outline as a jumping off place, and then I just let it flow.  I sometimes find in this phase that characters decide to insert themselves into scenes where I hadn’t originally planned them, but I let that happen organically.  I have found that it’s best not to make characters do what you want them to do. I think of it as them telling me their stories and I am just writing them down. At times when I have tried to force it, the writing came out stilted and stiff.

This is my writing process on the front end.  It is by no means complete, as a major part of the writing process is editing and rewriting.  But that is a blog post all itself.

Genre Differences

  • Research
    • When I was writing my dystopian novel, there was a lot of technical, scientific, and political research to help me begin to build the world in which my characters would live.  The research phase for that project was very short.
    • For my current historical fiction novel, I have found the research process to be extremely long and detailed, not just into the life of my main character, but into the numerous lives who surrounded hers.  It is important for me to know what things in their lives would influence their decisions and relationships, the driving forces and motivations in all of the main and secondary characters lives.  The more information I have, the better.
  • World-Building
    • In science fiction, it’s called world-building.  In other fiction, it’s simply referred to as setting.  World-building for a dystopian novel was at once freeing and daunting.  There was the freedom to make my world whatever I wanted it to be and whatever made sense for my characters.  But at the same time, it can feel like there is a tyranny in too many choices, making it difficult to leave the world-building stage and jump into writing the story.  Let me encourage you to be as basic as you can in the world-building at first.  Leave your characters free and organic enough that they can move around unencumbered.  Then you can fill in with more specifics about the world later.  In the beginning focus only on those things that will affect plot and character.
    • For historical fiction, setting is very much connected to your research and making sure you are accurate in your depiction of the time period.  This means not just in physical aspects, but also in non-tangible things such as ideas, mindset, language, etc.  You don’t want someone in the late 19th century, for example, to have a modern day mindset about or way of talking about ideas that would only be in modern day.  Research for setting the scene should include language, popular phrases, and idioms.
  • What drives the story?
    • In dystopian fiction (and several other sub-genres of fiction), you can basically let the story and characters drive themselves.  You are free to let your imagination run wild.  A new character not originally conceived can present himself midway through the writing of the novel.  There is a freedom there that is almost unparalleled.
    • In historical fiction, your story is driven by historical facts, dates, and places, with only some creative license allowed for changing what happened.  Depending on whether your main characters are real people or fictional characters, the reins may be tighter or looser here.  I wrote one story with fictional main characters placed in actual historical events.  This gave me a little more freedom to change their stories as the plot or characters dictated.  However, right now I am writing a story about a real person, in essence a non-fiction novel, and her story is interesting enough on its own that it doesn’t need much embellishment or creative license from me beyond the dramatization of actual events.  My job in this case is to fill in the gaps that history left.  But the story is very much driven by the actual events of her life.

These are just some of my thoughts on my experiences of writing in multiple genres.  There are things I love about both.  What are some of your experiences with different genres?

Don’t forget to pre-order the Kindle version of my debut novel A Light from the Ashes on Amazon, release date September 30!

 

Editing Round 10…or Is It 11?

 

This week we are going through the physical proof copy of A Light from the Ashes with a fine tooth comb and a purple pen.  It is a strange fact that there are things you can catch in a print copy that you can’t catch in an electronic copy.  It is surprising to think that after I’ve gone through many rounds of edits on my own and with beta readers there are still pieces of my novel which could be changed or improved, but it is true.

So, I thought I would throw out a few suggestions on how to make the editing process less painful.

1. Surround yourself with positive, comforting things.

It’s easy to get caught up in all the problems or mistakes you see in your own writing, and before long you are beating up on yourself and wondering why you ever tried to become a writer. One way to combat this phenomenon is to soothe your nerves with your favorite things.  For me today that means a cup of coffee in my favorite mug, and the Anne of Avonlea miniseries in the background. Anne is one of the most positive characters in literature, and she always makes me feel better about life. Beyond that, she too was a writer, and I’m sure could feel my pain about the editing process.

Sometimes I write and edit in the outdoors at my favorite park.  Sometimes I feel better at the desk in my library.  Sometimes I’m huddled on the couch with a fuzzy blanket.  Go wherever you feel the most comfortable and uplifted.

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2. Don’t always edit in red.

I have found that red marks all over my written text tends to have a negative emotional effect on me. The red ink somehow feels like a personal affront. So, in my own writing, and even on my students’ papers, I use purple pens for comments and editing marks. I don’t have the same visceral reaction to the color purple. So find a pen in your favorite color and go at it.

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3. Change the recording in your head.

I get it: this is your baby.  You’ve spent countless hours planning, creating, and crying over your work.  The last thing you want to do is cover it in editing marks and corrections.  Suddenly the demon of your inner critic comes to life shouting criticisms, insults, and jabs in your brain.  “Why did I ever think I was a writer?  No one is every going to read my story.  This is the worst thing I’ve ever read.”

Let me suggest that you muzzle that demon and change the recording that plays in your head.  Instead of corrections or criticisms, think of editing as just improving the great writing that is already there.  You have already done some of the hardest work.  You have written a story (or an article, or a book, or whatever).  You’ve gone further than you thought you could already.  You have gained the strength and insight to face down the editing process.  So, be kind to yourself.  Insults and attacks on your self-esteem will not help you be a better writer.

Rewriting: A Blessing and a Curse

Well, it has been a most eventful summer, my friends.   Thus, my absence from this blog. Relationships have come and gone, new horizons have been tackled. But now I have settled into the groove of teaching again this fall semester, and I’m writing again.

As A Light from the Ashes reached a point where I needed space from it before I could continue editing, I started to think what writing projects I wanted to work on next.  I wrote some snippets in my modern literary fiction piece.  I started researching the historical fiction piece.  But nothing was really holding my attention for more than a couple of days here or there.  They weren’t the big projects I wanted to throw my heart into.

I started to think about my first novel, Loving Silence.  I have known for the past couple of years that it needed a rewrite before it would be ready for publishing.  But I was too close to it to be able to objectively approach that, and then I was involved in the intoxicating A Light from the Ashes.  So, Loving Silence  was off my radar.  But the more I thought about responses from agents to both books, the more I started to realize that if I could do it right, Loving Silence had enough of a unique niche to possibly be the one that would be get picked up first.

So, I decided to revisit my old friend.

The Evolution

I began writing Loving Silence as just a fun exercise in a fiction writing class in 2009 during my undergrad studies.  I was kind of fascinated by some things I’d read about Boston Marriages, and thought of a simple idea for a story merely to fulfill an assignment to write and workshop a chapter.  Then I began writing in earnest over the next two years.  And used my unfinished novel as a Master’s Project in my graduate studies.

I finished the first draft in the summer of 2012 and presented it to a committee of professors who then read it and gave me feedback.  I then worked on Draft 2, and wrote a paper about the entire experience.  I felt pretty proud of myself and my work, despite the fact that one of the professors insisted that the story was deeply flawed in some very important places.

She didn’t understand what I was trying to do, I told myself.  I was the misunderstood artist.  And I started sending out the first few chapters to literary agents.  Although several asked for more pages, and sometimes the entire manuscript, ultimately, the novel was rejected by all.  So, I put it aside until 2016.

I did a minor editing job on it, still not addressing the deeply flawed portions, and started sending it out to agents again.  The same thing happened…initial interest, eventual rejection.

Why Rewrite?

Fast forward  two years.  In that time my personal life, which had always held too strong of a sway over the story, did a complete 180 degree turn around, and suddenly I could see the flaws my professor had commented on years ago.  Also in that time, I had learned the most valuable lesson of allowing my characters to make choices for themselves and live their own lives, rather than trying to impose upon them my own agenda.

Beyond that, I made the most difficult decision, which was that I felt the story needed to have two first person narrators rather than one third person omniscient narrator.  What this effectively means is that I will have to rewrite every blessed word of this novel, rather than just doing a cut/paste job on what’s there.

While this isn’t always the best way to approach every rewrite, for this project, it was what needed to happen, and I believe it is the only thing that could bring these characters to life for me again.

Some significant changes are happening with character and plot as well.  I’m revisiting my research and getting excited all over again about how to bring these characters to life in the best way for the story.  I’m no longer imposing my will on them or trying to fit them into the same box I was trying to force myself into.  And through that process, they are becoming three dimensional characters.

What’s the Blessing?

When we first finish a writing project, especially a long one, in many ways, we are married to that piece, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.  We’re in the honeymoon stage, and we can’t imagine that our love, our baby is anything but beautiful and perfect the way it is.  We can’t see the flaws, and maybe even get defensive if anyone else mentions them.

Distance is often necessary for writers to be able to objectively look at their work, and the only thing that can accomplish that distance is time away.  For me, six years was how long it took me to become objective about this first novel.  (I can’t imagine that length of time will always be necessary.)  Six years, and a great deal of growing and changing in my personal life.

But now that I’m back in the trenches with this novel, I feel like I’m having a reunion with old friends.  I’m having the time of my life with these characters as I’m getting to know them again.  And I truly believe the story will be better for it.  In some ways, it will be truer to my original idea than I ever thought possible.

As writers, and as humans, we have to learn to embrace change, embrace the unknown, and to let go, even a little bit, of some of the control we try so desperately to hold onto.

 

 

Finding Joy in Tiny Victories

You may have heard or read about authors or other artists having problems with depression or other mental disorders.  I’ve often pondered why this is the case.  Perhaps it’s because we have to be so connected to and aware of our emotions and the emotions of our creations.  Perhaps our lives were predisposed to depression and mental health problems, and that’s what led us down the path of creative expression in the first place.  It’s really a chicken or egg question we have here.

Regardless, my point today is that depression is real.  Trying to ignore it or pretend it isn’t there won’t make it go away.  So, if you find yourself in a period of depression, anxiety, writer’s block, or a general funk, I’ve found in my own life that it’s important to celebrate the “tiny” victories.  I put tiny in quotation marks because some days those “tiny” victories feel enormous.  Size is relative and all about perspective anyway, right?

So what do I mean exactly when I say “tiny victory?”

I mean anything that seemed difficult that day, that took effort for you to accomplish.  Our victories change size and perspective depending on what else is going on in our lives.  I’ve learned a great deal from my amateur foray into photography.  Take these leaves for example:

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Or these dandelions:

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Zoomed in on them, then blown up even more on the screen, they can look huge.  But I know how tiny they are in real life.  Logically, in my brain I know that.  But sometimes, when life forces us to zoom in on the little things, when those little things feel too overwhelmingly large to us, we can find beauty, contentment, and joy in overcoming those seemingly small things.

To extend the metaphor, a tree can be broken down into smaller parts, like leaves.  And the leaves into tiny fibers.  If when you look at the task ahead, whether that’s writing a novel, or a story, a blog, or completing any major project.  It’s sometimes helpful to focus in on completing the smaller tasks that make up the major project, and celebrating each of those victories to give yourself encouragement for the next step.

To give you a practical example of what I’ve been describing, I’ll tell you a bit of my own story.  Over the past two years, I worked very hard every day at writing a novel, which I then completed the first draft of on January 1 of this year.  I was in a peak creative time, sometimes knocking out one or two chapters in one weekend.  But I couldn’t possibly maintain that level of creative production 100% of the time.  That would be like running a marathon constantly.

I’ve now entered what feels like a more dormant period.  Partially as a respite after running the marathon of writing the novel, and partially because I’m in a period of depression in my personal life.  I’m editing a piece of the novel at a time.  Some days, I may only complete one or two paragraphs or a scene.  I still have to allow myself to count those days as victories for my sanity.  It won’t do me any good to beat myself up for not being more productive right now.  That kind of self-criticism is detrimental to creativity anyway.  So, I give myself space to breathe, rest, and recuperate.

So, as you’re focusing on the tiny tasks and victories, also step back and look at the big picture of your creative career or life.  There are peaks and there are valleys, but all together, they make a beautiful whole.

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