The View From The Road

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Last week, I posted this brief thread on Twitter:

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Sounds easy, right? Except that us writer types are a notoriously insecure and self-doubting bunch of people, and this isn’t always easy advice to follow.

Once you’ve been bitten by the word bug and you’ve made it past the first hurdles and learnt a little about publishing, chances are that you’re either going to run away screaming and never look back, or dig yourself in and prepare for the zombie apocalypse long run. Those who decide to stay in the bunker and face the crazy, fascinating, heart-breaking, wonderful world of writing will find themselves periodically adjusting their dreams and goals.

SF/F writer Jo Zebedee, after asking writers on Twitter, Facebook, and internet forums, brought out this great blog post on writer aspirations, where the many different responses led her to conclude that not only did the goals and dreams reflect where a writer was in their journey but also that, for every step reached, there’s a new one ahead. Perspective is not only necessary, but crucial, and so is taking time to celebrate the steps you’ve already climbed, rather than just dwelling on the ones to come.

Not long after Jo’s blog post, a comment on the SFF Chronicles forum, by author Stephen Palmer, touched briefly on envy. I think that a certain dose of healthy envy goes hand-in-hand with a writer’s goals and aspirations. Being able to look at someone else’s success, wish them well, but also say to yourself I want to get there someday can be a powerful motivator. Emphasis on healthy envy: as long as you use that as a push to grow in your work, looking up to other authors and using them as inspiration is never a bad thing.

The problem with comparing your writing career to other people’s, is that there will always be someone who is already there, at your next goal, or who has managed your dream achievement. It’s easy to get discouraged, and to think your work will never be that good, that perfect. But I think that sometimes we forget to look back and see how far we’ve come. I’m incredibly proud of my published novels, but sometimes I find myself dismissing the hard work I’ve put in and the stages I’ve reached when I get too stuck on looking ahead at the next big goal.

That stone in the Twitter thread? I bought it for exactly that reason: to remind myself just how much I’ve accomplished already. Do I have objectives, dreams, and lofty aspirations? Absolutely. Do I sometimes feel a quiver of envy, a touch of ‘I’d love that to be me’? Hell, yes. All this keeps me going and fuels my passion for what I do. However, commemorating how I got here, one step at a time, is just as important.

Celebrate your path. Take joy in what lies behind, especially when the way ahead looks daunting. And keep writing. You’ll probably never reach the top of the mountain, because there will always be a higher peak to climb. But the view from the road can be pretty darn satisfying if you take the time to look around.

Write Like Yoda

A few weekends ago, I attended the Eastern PA SCBWI Poconos Retreat, which had as its theme ‘May The Force Be With You’. All attendees were set homework: to prepare a short piece about the Force to share with everyone on the first night. It was a lot of fun hearing all the different takes on the subject, and made for a great ice breaker!

Since this is opening weekend for Solo in the USA, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my own scribblings on the subject…

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As a Seventies baby, I grew up on Star Wars. Luke Skywalker was my first screen crush. I have an X-wing fighter on my writing desk, and tend to repeat Yoda’s famous words when I need a kick to get things started: Do, or do not… There is no try.

Back in 2012 when I first started writing ‘for real’, I lived by Master Yoda’s words. “I will finish this first novel,” I told myself, and I did. I quickly found that if I allowed myself any room to think about it, the doubts crept in. “I’m going to try and finish this by…” was a sure recipe for procrastination and disaster. But if I gave myself concrete goals, and deadlines, then things got done.

I love the concept of the Force in the Star Wars universe. But just believing in yourself (or in a mystical Jedi power) isn’t enough. Luke, Han, and Leia didn’t beat the evil Emperor on belief alone; they worked hard to get there. There is no try. There is believing you can do something — like complete your novel — and then sitting down and making it happen.

I think that people who aren’t in creative fields often have this idea that writers and artists sit down at their workspaces and produce beautiful things without breaking a sweat. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. It takes a lot of effort to produce something, whether an illustration, a novel, a picture book, or any other creative piece. It’s far from easy. But without those two things — belief and perseverance — it would be impossible.

So may the Force be with all of you, but remember, no one gets things done on the Force alone. I believe in you. Now go do it.

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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.

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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.

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!