Not Fine At All

Today I have a guest blogger! The talented Liz Powell shares a lighthearted take on her writing process. Liz is the author of Hunted and Otherworld. When she’s not working on deliciously angsty romance and fantasy novels, you can find her on Twitter or Goodreads.

 

Liz: My writing process goes more or less like this…

1) Am in the middle of boring non-writing task, e.g. washing, squashed under someone’s armpit on the Tube, eyes glazed over staring at Excel at work, when lightning bolt hits brain. An Idea has arrived. And now I MUST WRITE THIS NOVEL IMMEDIATELY, THAT’S IMMEDIATELY, ABANDON EVERYTHING AND LET’S GO!

2) Two thousand words in. Wow. Fingers raw from typing, maniacal grin plastered to face. It’s 2am but that’s fine. This is GREAT. Imagining bookstores lined with my novel, signing copies for adoring fans. Being interviewed at premiere of film adaptation. Phone ringing off the hook. What’s that, Harry Styles? You’re begging for the lead role?

3) Ten thousand words in. Wireframe plot of nonsensical lines of dialogue and thoughts beginning to crumble. Self doubt sets in. Perhaps…this novel is not the one… No, no. Don’t be weak. Persevere. You’ve got Harry Styles’ future acting career on the line here!

4) Twenty thousand words. Am by now a mess of rewriting and anxiety. Imagining crawling to the end of this novel only for it to be submitted to agents and laughed at as the most droolingly pathetic excuse for novel-writing they have seen in their sophisticated lifetimes. Have sweaty nightmares of rejections with simply the words HA HA! scrawled in red pen, a la the Nelson Muntz Literary Agency. Spend hours rewriting one paragraph. It’s 2am, but everything is Not Fine. Not Fine at all.

5) Draw diagrams of plot movements to calm brain. Realise nothing actually makes sense. How does one write bad guys? Would anyone ever, truly, be so maniacal? Research serial killers and find that, disappointingly, many real bad guys are just pathetic, not even in a Love-to-Hate them way.

6) As writing exercise, consider re-writing the Harry Potter novels from Voldemort’s point of view. That will teach me how to make a sympathetic villain!

7) Wait. Where can I find an accurate source about Voldemort’s family tree?

8) Three hours into a wikipedia spiral about silk moths, when disaster strikes. No, it’s not a silk moth, it’s a silk worm! Three sequel’s worth of content shelved. Panic well and truly setting in. Twitching in sleep. The words HA HA! swirl around my brain. Voldemort re-write not even a worthy distraction. Everything is exceedingly Not At All Fine.

9) Lay awake at night and suddenly, BINGO, lightning hits again. We can make this work, brain! Just…get rid of those nasty, fetid thirty thousand words you’ve already done. Look. Nice fresh clean page. This time…this time it will be The One…

Originally posted on the SFFChronicles.com forum and reblogged with Liz’s kind permission.

liz

Poconos Retreat, Part II

(Continued from Part I)

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Our last day dawned soft and gray, drizzle misting in from the hills around us. Luckily the weather had no impact on everyone’s enthusiasm, and after another amazing breakfast (seriously, Highlights, do you not want us to ever leave?), we gathered once again in the main room in the Barn to watch the faculty talk us through some of the (anonymous) first pages and illustrations that attendees had sent in. I’m always fascinated at these events to find out just what an experienced editor will pick out of a fragment of text.

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Mealtimes at the Barn

We broke up into workshops after this, and I chose to hear agent Kira Watson talk us through scene development. We looked at the difference between ‘core’ scenes and ‘bridge’ scenes, and how to avoid the so-called ‘fluff’ scenes. Kira told us that each scene should make a difference, even if it’s a bridge scene, and not just be there to fill space. I’m looking forward to trying her flashcard exercise!

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Kira Watson talks us through scene essentials

The final keynote was given by picture book author Tara Lazar. Tara’s speech was joyous and uplifting, even when talking about personal obstacles, and was just right for sending us home all fired up to get back to creating. She both began and ended her talk by reminding us that “there is no divide”, and that authors are just people like anyone else.

We sat down for a last lunch (with a huge round of applause for chef Amanda and her staff), and then said our goodbyes to all our new (and old) friends, and then it was time to take off my name tag, grab my bags, and drive the three hours back to Connecticut.

 

Our printed schedule ended with Master Yoda’s words: “That which you seek inside you will find.” That may be true, but all of us at the 2018 Poconos Retreat found plenty in each other, too, and in the inspiring words of our weekend mentors.

 

 

High points for the weekend:

  • Location, location, location. And did I mention location?
  • Star Wars references everywhere!
  • Great faculty choices: everyone was kind, generous, and friendly, full of wisdom to share.
  • Good attendee vibes. Everywhere I turned I was met with a smile and a friendly face. I returned home with lots of nice memories, and plenty of new Twitter and Instagram contacts, too.
  • My awesome roommate, Tina Holt. I was a little worried about sharing a cabin with a stranger, but Tina was a star. #TeamCabin20
  • Okay, I won’t mention the food again, but I loved the ‘help yourself’ hot/cold drinks stations set up all over the place. And the baskets of snacks, too. (Oops, did I just mention food?)
  • The Eastern PA SCBWI crew: Kim Briggs, Alison Green Myers, Lindsay Bandy, and Virginia Manning. You all rock, thanks for organizing this tremendous weekend.

 

Poconos Retreat, Part I

(In two parts, because it was just THAT great!)

Ever since I met the ray of sunshine that is YA author Kim Briggs, five years ago at my first ever SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), I’ve wanted to go to the annual retreat organized by her region, Eastern PA SCBWI. This year I finally made it down to Pennsylvania, and I’m so glad I did!

Around thirty or so writers and illustrators gathered with faculty and staff at the lovely Highlights Foundation center in the Poconos, for a weekend of workshops, critique sessions, good food (so much good food!), and lots and lots of creative chit chat. The theme? May The Force Be With You, of course. What else for a start date of May 4th?

The magic began on Friday evening. After appetizers, the illustrator showcase, and dinner, we were all invited to go to the podium and present our homework. Yes, homework: to prepare a short presentation of what the Force means for you and your work. A great opening for the weekend. (I’m saving mine to share in another blogpost; wait and see!)

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Wookiee Cookie from Saturday’s lunch

Saturday, after a generous breakfast in the Barn (seriously. So. Much. Food.), we were treated to an opening keynote by YA author K.M. Walton, who encouraged us to trust our goals and dreams; to know our dreams and do the work to make them happen.

Next, I headed up to the Lodge for a workshop on Plot Meets Character with Kate Prosswimmer, editor for the Sourcebooks Fire and Jabberwocky imprints. Kate went over some of the key approaches for breaking down plot and character in stories, and then suggested we chart our own novels with the tools she introduced us to.

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Plot Meets Character workshop

After lunch (more REALLY GOOD food; I was feeling thoroughly pampered by that point!), it was time for the keynote by author/illustrator Angela Dominguez. Angela talked about the difficulties of growing up bilingual — something that most people in my family can relate to! She also gave us an important reminder: that there’s a lot of waiting in publishing, and it’s okay to get frustrated.

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Keynote by Angela Dominguez

It was time for a break and a group photo, and then onto the keynote by editor and author Harold Underdown. Harold walked us through a selection of children’s books for all ages and talked about the importance of beginnings and endings: of making a promise to your reader at the start of a story, and following through on that promise at the end.

The afternoon was set aside for peer critiques (and one-on-one critiques with faculty for those who had signed up for one), but as I had been deep in revision mode when the deadline came around, I hadn’t sent anything in. Instead, I snuck off to my cabin for a bit of tea and quiet time. With so much information bouncing around in my head, it was a perfect way to unwind.

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Some much-needed downtime

Saturday evening brought nachos on the patio while the faculty signed books inside, followed by dinner and the silent auction. There were lots of amazing items to bid on, and I’m pleased that one of my bids made it to the end: a 15-page manuscript critique offered by agent Kira Watson, along with a signed ARC from her client Naomi Hughes’ upcoming release, Afterimage.

We closed the night on a high note: with s’mores on the patio by the open-air fireplace under twinkling lights. And then it was off to our cozy cabins for our last night in Writer’s Paradise.

Running Wild — when characters misbehave

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Post-it notes! Trying to organize my characters…

The other day I was chatting to my daughter about my Blade Hunt Chronicles series, and the conversation went something like this:

Me: I have this headcanon about one of my characters.

Daughter: You DO realize you’re the author?

Daughter: And anything you decide about a character is actually canon?

It made me laugh at the time. But that little snippet of conversation stayed with me. It suggests that writers are in charge of their characters and keep them on a tight leash at all moments. Which… isn’t really the case at all. How often do we read online posts where authors jokingly complain that their characters won’t do what they’re told? That they downright refuse the plans their creators had for them, sometimes with a big Hell No? WHY ARE ALL THESE CHARACTERS RUNNING AMOK?!!

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I can’t speak for other writers, but I’m a plotter. I like my outlines, and knowing where my story is heading. Of course, I leave room for detours and surprises, but my plots tend to mostly behave. When it comes to characters, however, I like to wing it. I start out with a rough idea of what they look like and how they act, but their personalities develop as I write my first draft. That leaves a lot of space for ‘misbehavior’.

Planned romances sometimes go in the opposite direction, while others turn up where I least expect them. ‘Strong’ characters break down in tears that make sense when I write them but were nowhere in my original outline, bullies turn vulnerable, and quiet throwaway characters stand up and demand page space, taking charge. It’s a wonderful crazy voyage of discovery, where I’m surprised over and over again, and often it isn’t until I reach those final pages that I truly know who my characters are.

Going back to that conversation with my daughter, I think I’ll stick to calling my character theories ‘headcanons’. Because once I get to writing them down, who knows what my characters will have to say about them? And that’s just part of the fun.

Have Book, Will Read #18

It’s April! Which should be all about that nice spring weather, but instead actually means it was snowing again just the other day… *sigh* Still, today there’s blue sky and the promise of higher temps just around the corner. So, in the spirit of weather-related optimism, here are some of my favorite reads from the tail-end of winter.

 

Recent Reads: All things magic…

I’ve been reading Myke Cole’s military fantasy work since his first novel came out. Siege Line is the final installment in the prequel trilogy to his Shadow Ops books. In this series finale, Jim Schweitzer, former Navy SEAL and now undead warrior, takes the fight to the far reaches of Canada in a desperate attempt to stop his enemy once and for all.

This was by far my favorite book in the trilogy, with Cole’s trademark high-octane action scenes, some great plot twists, and a wonderful new character, Sheriff Wilma ‘Mankiller’ Plante. An impressive end to the story that began in Gemini Cell with Jim’s death and resurrection, and now leaves us with all the groundwork for the Shadow Ops series, set a number of years later.

If you only pick up one YA book this year, I really don’t think you can go wrong with The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert. This deliciously dark tale sits right on the line between fantasy and magical realism, and Albert has a wonderful writing voice, delivering great lines and crisp description.

The Hazel Wood is the story of seventeen-year-old Alice, granddaughter of the reclusive author of a fairytale book that became a cult classic. After her grandmother dies, the bad luck that has followed Alice and her mother all their lives threatens to swallow her whole once and for all. Unmissable.

Opal is a short story set in the world of Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, taking place right after the end of the last book, The Raven King. It comes as a freebie at the end of the paperback of The Raven King, but you can buy it online on its own.

This one is only for those who have read the books; it doesn’t make sense without them. But for those who — like me — were smitten with Stiefvater’s world, this weird and wonderful tale of magic and families of choice told from the point of view of Ronan and Adam’s goat-legged dream daughter Opal is a precious gift.

(The photo above shows the adorably grumpy Opal tarot card I got with my signed copy of The Raven King. Thanks Maggie!)

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor has been on my to-read list for a while, and finally I succumbed to temptation and borrowed it from my local library. It’s hard to know what to say about a book that has garnered so much praise and recognition, except to add that this book deserves every bit of it.

The story follows twelve-year-old Nigerian-American Sunny as she learns to set her latent magic free and to make it work for her, as she and her friends attempt to stop a serial killer who also happens to be a powerful magician. It took me back to my teenage years when I read Macunaíma, a classic of Brazilian Modernism written in 1928 by Mário de Andrade. Akata Witch really is excellent, and I thoroughly recommend it for readers of all ages.

Now Reading: The winds of war.

I’ve just started Stormcaster, the third book in Cinda Williams Chima’s Shattered Realms world, set a generation after her Seven Realms books, one of my all-time favorite fantasy series. Chima is a masterful storyteller, and this brand new release promises to keep me happy.

To Read: Fantastic festivals and space shenanigans…

I’ve been hanging onto an ARC for Legendary, the sequel to Stephanie Garber’s Caraval, so I should probably get going with that before it comes out in May!

Also, loaded up on my Kindle and ready to go, is First Interview by C.T. Grey. Vampires and secret agents in space, and a zombie apocalypse thrown in for good measure? Why not!

I hope you have plenty of good books lined up and nice places to read them. Here’s to warmer weather and a hammock in the shade!

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Friday’s snow may be gone, but I’m not getting that Spring feeling yet!

 

Wrangling the Sticky Bits

In the words of Max Gladstone, and of a dozen others in my private Inspiration folder on Pinterest, “First drafts suck.”

I know that. You probably know that, too. Most people who have finished a novel and gone back to revise know it — or should, anyway. But just because I know my first drafts are allowed to suck — are supposed to suck! — doesn’t make it any easier to push through the sticky bits.

The first ten or fifteen chapters are a delight to work on. My book world is brand new, and the ideas are positively gushing from the idea geyser in my brain. (Is there such a thing as an idea geyser? There should be. And someone should get right on that, bottling that stuff and selling it. Some days I’d pay good gold for a drink of pure unfiltered IDEA. Story gold, of course. I don’t actually own any real gold.)

The last ten chapters or so are also wonderful to work on. The end is in sight, all those pesky dominos have been set up by now, and you’re ready to knock them all down in one triumphant sweep of your author-hand. Or your keyboard. Or something. (Look, it’s been a long day. My metaphors and other stuffs are getting a bit unhinged.)

The problem is *waves hand* that stuff.

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Jim Butcher calls it the Great Swampy Middle. I like to refer to it as the sticky bits. Even if you have a great outline, and a fabulous plan for filling up the middle of your novel and convincing people to keep on going, this is still a tricky part to write. By now, if you’re anything like me, you have about a million notes, and scraps of paper, and post-its, with all these crucial story points and plot bunnies that need to be wrangled into something reasonable and stuffed into your work in progress before you can leap into your grand finale. Half of those notes aren’t even on paper, they’re just floating around in my head in neon pink letters that say random things like, ‘remember dagger’, or ‘more anger’.

The sticky bits are hard, even with a road map.

Some days I can push through and get my wordcount down. Other days I get frustrated and end up binge-watching Netflix shows instead. I know my middle doesn’t have to be perfect; after all, that’s what revisions and rewrites are for. And I know that, in order to revise, I have to get to the end first. But I call it ‘sticky’ for a reason: because it feels at times like I’m pushing through mud, or wet cement, or an entire people-sized tub of treacle.

I’ll get there, eventually. I just need to keep writing until I come out at the other side. And if I can do it, so can you. Just don’t let the sticky suck you down.

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Working on my sticky middle; notes finally organized!

Retreat, Regroup, Resume

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This morning’s view from my kitchen window

I sit here in my cozy kitchen looking through my manuscript notes as yet another nor’easter blasts my town with snow, and I’m content. Not only content, but downright happy. I don’t even care that it’s snowing AGAIN. I’m happy because the new story I’m working on has finally had its niggles worked out and its outline charted, and I’m ready to blast my way forward.

After getting my head stuck in boggy, swampy plot points for a good couple of weeks, I’m finally moving on. The main reason for my breakthrough is this: I was lucky enough to spend time this past weekend with friends in Vermont on an informal writing retreat.

We gathered for meals and coffee/tea breaks, and for post-lunch writing prompts, as well as evening readings and critique sessions. The rest of the time, I was able to dive into my work. No distractions of family, grocery lists, or laundry piles. No TV shows calling from my overflowing DVR. Nothing but my laptop, my notes, and a dog or two. I ended my weekend with:

  • 70 pages of revision
  • The makings of a much-needed new start to my work in progress

Now, I know not everyone can take a weekend off — there are many things going on in people’s lives, like small children or elderly parents, pets, or weekend jobs. Not everyone has a place to go, or knows someone with an awesome house in the snow (like me!), or can afford a hotel or a cabin rental. But there are other ways to break out of your routine if you’re stuck. Try spending a Saturday, or a weekday evening, writing someplace where you wouldn’t usually go, like your town’s library, or a welcoming coffee shop. Hide away at a friend’s house for a morning. Sneak away from your colleagues at lunchtime and find yourself a quiet corner. Get away from those everyday distractions, even if it’s for an hour or two.

Now, rather then just stick with your usual writing routine, label this a MINI RETREAT and set yourself some ground rules. Give yourself an internet allowance, and ignore the online world the rest of the time. If you manage to wrangle yourself an entire day or two, set break times, meal times, and times to relax. Start out with a clear idea of what you want to do. In my case, it was revise the work I had already done and adjust the plot points I’d changed so I could move forward. You can make this work for you, even on a 1hr lunch break: say, 15 mins to eat and browse the internet, 40 mins working on a chapter, developing a character arc, or mapping out a fight scene, and then 5 mins of free internet time at the end.

If you allow yourself to carve out this sacred space every now and then, and keep it fiercely for yourself, I hope you’ll find — like me — that it boosts your productivity and sharpens your focus. Retreat, regroup and then, with your ‘writer brain’ back on track, prepare to resume your regular writing schedule, full speed ahead.

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Retreat bliss: a peaceful writing corner

***

For my Blade Hunt fans: no, I haven’t forgotten you, I promise! I have a gazillion notes and a basic outline for Book 3, Star Blade, and will be jumping back into my Blade Hunt Chronicles world in April, as soon as this draft of my new project is ready for my beta readers’ eyes… More updates on Star Blade and King’s Blade (Book 4) coming soon!