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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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!

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

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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!

Boskone 55 Schedule

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I’m really excited to have been invited to Boskone 55 as a program participant. This will be my fourth year at “New England’s longest running science fiction and fantasy convention”, and my second taking part in panels. Boskone runs from February 16th to 18th in Boston, MA, so if you’re in the area, stop by. Not only is this a really friendly con, but it has great guests, panel themes, author readings and kaffeeklatsch opportunities. This year, there’s even a Regency Dance! Check out the Boskone 55 website for the full event schedule.

Here’s my own schedule:

Stories Before the Apocalypse

16 Feb 2018, Friday 14:00 – 15:00, Marina 4

We’re familiar with post-apocalyptic futures, from Max’s desert hellscape to Katniss’s dystopic districts. But what about right before the cataclysm — as doom and destruction loom large? How do people live? How do relationships change as we shift into survival mode? Let’s share our few existing “must-read” favorites, and discuss stories we’d like to see.

James Patrick Kelly (M), Juliana Spink Mills,  Julie C. Day, Alan Gordon, John Chu

 

Curse Your Inevitable Romantic Subplot!

16 Feb 2018, Friday 16:00 – 17:00, Burroughs

Just when things are getting good, somebody has to go and fall in love. Are romantic subplots required? And what makes them work or fail in the larger storyline?

Heather Albano (M), Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, J. Kathleen Cheney, Kevin McLaughlin, Juliana Spink Mills

 

It’s Not Always About Sex

17 Feb 2018, Saturday 12:00 – 13:00, Harbor III

Speculative fiction is filled with friendships that turn into romantic entanglements. Is that all there is? Can’t our characters just have friends, of whatever gender, without hookups and/or heartbreaks? How about we rescue the world from the odd apocalypse or alien invasion, and forget about the sex for a change?

Darlene Marshall (M), Tamora Pierce, Juliana Spink Mills, E.J. Stevens, Steven Popkes