A Pleasant Surprise.

Well, a couple of days ago I had the perfect combination of free time and courage, so I opened the word document containing November’s NaNovel for the first time since Thanksgiving Day. So far, I have sixteen chapters read.

And guess what?

It’s not half bad.

Not that it’s readable by anybody but me, but I’m feeling quite hopeful. It’s always a nerve-wracking experiment, opening work you haven’t looked at in a while. It’s a bit like opening the tupperware container you found at the back of your fridge; you never know what you’ll find in there.

Of course, it’s a NaNovel. It’s not a thing of beauty, by any stretch, but even with it’s sloppy phrasing, information dumps, and random filler sections, I think I can make something out of it. And I know what needs to be done, which is a huge improvement over where I was this time last year. I suppose even with the long stretches of time where I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything, or growing as a writer at all, I must have been learning something. My confidence level has shot up several inches at this point.

Besides the simple work of putting words on paper (almost) every day, I have another tool in my kit that is making sense of the whole rewriting process. It’s a book called The Plot Whisperer, and I will most certainly be writing a post dedicated to it as soon as I finish reading it. For now, suffice it to say that it has given me a road map through editing. Prior to this, most of the instruction I have found on the rewriting process could be boiled down to “read the book and fix the mistakes.”

Well, but how do I know what needs to be fixed???

This book has given me a clear picture of how to whip the plot into some kind of story-resembling shape, by identifying the energy of each scene, and making sure each strong energy point is at the right point in the manuscript to keep the story flowing. So my next order of business, once I re-familiarize myself with the story as it stands now, will be to identify the key scenes in my story and make sure they fall at the right points along the timeline of the whole novel.

I’m excited.

 

This Peevish Messenger.

You know, for today’s post I was attempting to find something deeply witty, profound, and thought-provoking to share as inspiration with you all, but I simply couldn’t find anything that seemed to fit the requirements. And then I remembered that the main purpose of Tuesday’s posts isn’t to show off my intellectualism, but to share something that I am being influenced by. Sometimes that happens to be an inspiring and motivational quote, sometimes a movingly beautiful poem… and other times, it’s just something that I can’t stop watching.

For the past week or so, that something has been this:

This bit of glorious nonsense is from Mark Rylance’s Twelfth Night, filmed at The Globe in 2012. It’s an “original practice” production, meaning that they attempt to get as close as they can to how it would have originally been staged, which of course includes an all-male cast and Elizabethan costuming. (You should definitely check out the other clips from the play. Especially if you’ve ever wondered what Stephen Fry looks like in yellow stockings. The sight burns my retinas in the best possible way. Not to be missed.)

And I figure it’s a legitimate thing to share. Even if I can’t see how it is directly influencing me at this point, it is undoubtedly digging itself a groove in my brain, so it is certainly having some sort of effect on my way of thinking.

Besides, it’s funny. I’m trying to share it with as many people as I can. It’s a public service, really.

I simply love Mark Rylance’s Lady Olivia. She’s just so pathetic and dithery and adorable. It’s astonishing to me how well she works as a character, even though she’s completely different from the Lady Olivia I pictured when I read the play several months ago.

Oh! I just thought of something: From a writer’s perspective, there is good food for thought in that difference. On paper, Shakespeare’s characters can often be read in a myriad of different ways, which I think was part of his genius. It is worth thinking about whether or not our characters could be interpreted in different ways as well, and whether or not we want that to be the case. Sometimes it can be incredibly interesting to leave a character somewhat ambiguous, but at other times, the character needs to be definite. It’s up to us to choose the right details to expose and the right words to use in order to outline the character’s form.

So there you go. I took a frivolous video I’ve been enjoying, and found a way to make it work as inspiration. We can do practically anything if we put our minds to it.

 

 

I Travelled the Ode.

Okay, so first off, apologies for the lack of blogging on Tuesday… I didn’t have access to the internet.

Now that that’s over with, it’s time for the cool part of the post.

About a month ago, I was surfing through one of my local libraries (Yes, I am on intimate terms with four different libraries. It’s a bookie thing.), and I noticed a book with a magnificently punny title: The Ode Less Travelled. And then I noticed something else. It was written by the magnificent Stephen Fry. If you don’t know who that is, we can’t be friends. The first line in the book was “I have a dark and dreadful secret. I write poetry.”

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Needless to say, the book came home with me. Turns out, Stephen Fry not only writes poetry, he’s also darn good at teaching other people how to write it. Now here’s the thing: I am not a poet. I suffered through various required poetry writing exercises in school, and promptly burned all of my efforts. (My brother, on the other hand, is actually a fantastic poet. I’ve always been slightly jealous.) I admire people who can cram so much meaning into the relatively small space a poem allows, but I had driven a stake. Poetry wasn’t for me. In spite of that, I figured it wouldn’t hurt just to read the book for fun. I’m a fan of Stephen Fry, and a fan of poetry, so why not?

Well.

The book came with an End User License Agreement. I had to agree to three terms and conditions before I could proceed:

  1. Take your time. (Okay, not a problem.)
  2. Don’t be afraid. (Well, I’m just reading it for fun, so also not a problem.)
  3. Always have a notebook with you.

What?

Um, no. I’m just reading the danged thing, I’m not interested in actually, you know, WRITING anything!

But… sigh. Okay, fine. I agree to the terms and conditions. I’ll keep a stupid notebook with me and do the exercises. But don’t say I didn’t warn you, Stephen.*

And then I began the first chapter. The book was a delight to read. It was less like a poetry manual and more like a drive through the countryside with a friend, interspersed with shamelessly inappropriate hilarity. I began to lose my rebellious inner pout.

Sixteen pages in, and he told me to get out my notebook and write twenty lines of iambic pentameter.

Twenty. Cue the blurred vision, ringing ears, and accelerated heart rate.

But wait. The second condition was not to be afraid. Okay then. Just do it.

And you know what? I did it. And it was fun. And it wasn’t even that hard.

Cue the roar of the crowd, the rain of confetti, and other assorted symbols of glory.

From that point on, I was unstoppable. The book progresses from Meter, through Rhyme, and into Form, with a total of twenty exercises distributed throughout. I completed all of them, and I can now boast that I have, among other things, an execrable Villanelle, Sestina, Ballad, Rondeau Redouble, and Shakespearean Sonnet to my name. (Perhaps next week I will share some of my excrement with you. Ahem! Poetry that is. Only if I’m feeling brave, so don’t count on it.)

After completing the book, I still cannot call myself a poet, but I have much more confidence in my ability to use words as the tools that they are, as well as simply greater confidence in myself as a person.

If I can write a Sestina, I can do anything.

 

 

*In case you were wondering, yes, I did have silent dialogues with Stephen Fry while I was reading the book, and yes, I called him Stephen. Terribly disrespectful of me, but I couldn’t help it. I frequently told him he was an unfair tyrant, and that what he was asking me to do was JUST NOT POSSIBLE. And then I would suffocate myself trying not to laugh out loud at one o’clock in the morning and ask him if he was literally TRYING to kill me.

Learning from Khaled Hosseni.

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Wow, you guys, this is the last post in the “Learning From” series. Crazy, right? I know I’ve learned a lot and been encouraged by hearing from all of these amazing people who are walking ahead of me down this writing path.

So, without further ado, the final quote.

I don’t outline at all, I don’t find it useful, and I don’t like the way it boxes me in. I like the element of surprise and spontaneity, of letting the story find its own way. For this reason, I find that writing a first draft is very difficult and laborious. It is also often quite disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what I thought it was, and it usually falls quite short of the ideal I held in my mind when I began writing it. I love to rewrite, however. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. It is during this process that I discover hidden meanings, connections, and possibilities that I missed the first time around. In rewriting, I hope to see the story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.

I have met so many people who say they’ve got a book in them, but they’ve never written a word. To be a writer — this may seem trite, I realize — you have to actually write. You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not. Perhaps most importantly, write for an audience of one — yourself. Write the story you need to tell and want to read. It’s impossible to know what others want so don’t waste time trying to guess. Just write about the things that get under your skin and keep you up at night.

I love what he has to say about first drafts and rewriting. It is especially resonant for me when I apply this thinking to my NaNoWriMo efforts. Anybody who has participated in NaNo knows that the first draft is difficult, and often ends up far away from what was originally intended, especially if you’re a pantser. So it’s encouraging to think of it as simply a sketch; the first basic idea, and the place where you experiment with what works and what doesn’t.

It’s also a good reminder for me any time I hear people who talk about rewriting in a positive tone. For so many years, I subconsciously thought that what rewriting meant was that you got it wrong the first time.

Baloney.

I finished an essay (or rather, finally decided to lay it down) last night, after about twelve or thirteen drafts, and let me tell you, most of those drafts were a sheer joy to work on. I never lost confidence in any of the things I had to say, or felt like they were somehow “wrong.” I simply kept on finding better ways to say them. Now if I can only manage to hang on to that attitude when I tackle my NaNovel again. That’s the next thing on my agenda, and I’m sort of dreading it.

But I can do it, people. I can. I’m a total Amazon woman, and a darned good writer to boot. Bring it on, ugly first draft.

(Oh, golly, I just had a thought: I’m going to have to start actually thinking about what to write on Thursdays again. Oh well, I already have a few ideas, so that will get me back into the swing of things.)

 


 

This post is the twelfth and last in a series based on this article by James Clear, featuring quotes and reflections on the routines of twelve famous authors.

Kindred Oddities.

Well, I’m about to join the club, and talk about David Bowie.

My earliest impressions of him were that he was… well… odd. I didn’t really think about him, otherwise. But a few years ago, I watched this interesting and completely random DVD compilation of interviews with artists, about creativity in general. I can’t remember what the DVD was called, so forgive me for not sharing a link of any kind.

Anyhow, there were a few artists who I was kind of looking forward to hearing from (most of whom unfortunately turned out to be incredibly boring), and then there was David Bowie. To be honest, I almost skipped his portion, thinking it would just be trippy and spaced out and… odd.

Boy am I glad I didn’t.

Everything he said had me wanting to jump out of my seat, wave my hands in the air, and shout YYYYYEESSSSS!!! at the top of my lungs. He was speaking things that I knew and felt deep inside, as a creator, but couldn’t come anywhere close to articulating at that time. By the time his portion of the DVD was over, I knew I had found one of my people.

If you saw me walking down the street, you would probably never peg me as an artist. I tend to wear light, natural looking makeup, and I’m usually wearing black. Not in an edgy, “look-at-me-I’m-so-hardcore-and-emotionally-damaged-but-cooler-than-you” way, but more in a “this is unobtrusive, easy to coordinate, and hopefully slimming” sort of way. I probably look like a cubicle-dweller, to be quite honest, and I’m an extremely conservative person in many ways.

But here I was, identifying with Ziggy Stardust.

I guess what I learned that day, and what I’m attempting (rather inarticulately) to say now is that, quite simply, you can never judge a book by its cover. Or by anything, really. It’s so important to listen to people, ALL people, and to give them a chance to reveal themselves. People in general are complex and interesting entities, and all of them have something to contribute, if you give them the chance to do so.

And if you listen, you might just find  kindred spirits in the oddest places.

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Here are a few of Bowie’s quotes that I’ve culled from various online sources, which all feel as if they could have come from inside my own soul.

“I suppose for me as an artist it wasn’t always just about expressing my work; I really wanted, more than anything else, to contribute in some way to the culture that I was living in. It just seemed like a challenge to move it a little bit towards the way I thought it might be interesting to go.”

“Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary? When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.”

“As an adolescent, I was painfully shy, withdrawn. I didn’t really have the nerve to sing my songs on stage, and nobody else was doing them. I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn’t have to actually go through the humiliation of going on stage and being myself.”

How about you? Have any favorite Bowie quotes you’d like to share? Or have you found a kindred spirit somewhere you didn’t expect to? I’d love to hear about it!

 

 

Learning from A.J. Jacobs.

Today’s writer has two quotes, so we’re going to take them one at a time.

My kids wake me up. I have coffee. I make my kids breakfast, take them to school, then come home and try to write. I fail at that until I force myself to turn off my Internet access so I can get a little shelter from the information storm.

I am a big fan of outlining. I write an outline. Then a slightly more detailed outline. Then another with even more detail. Sentences form, punctuation is added, and eventually it all turns into a book.

I write while walking on a treadmill. I started this practice when I was working on Drop Dead Healthy, and read all these studies about the dangers of the sedentary life. Sitting is alarmingly bad for you. One doctor told me that “sitting is the new smoking.” So I bought a treadmill and put my computer on top of it. It took me about 1,200 miles to write my book. I kind of love it — it keeps me awake, for one thing.

I love how he handles outlining. That’s how I used to write my college papers, so I wonder if I could do it for a story as well? The thought never occurred to me. Definite learning going on here.

And that whole writing on a treadmill thing? Props to him. I don’t think I could do that, even if I did have a treadmill. Exercising takes up just enough of my brain that I can’t think in anything but random little bursts. I prefer to get my exercise out of the way during those periods where I hit a wall and can’t get any more words out. Then I can usually get back to my writing with a clear enough brain for continued productivity afterward.

And now for the second quote, with advice specifically for new writers like me!

Force yourself to generate dozens of ideas. A lot of those ideas will be terrible. Most of them, in fact. But there will be some sparkling gems in there too. Try to set aside 20 minutes a day just for brainstorming.

Argh. Can’t I just run a stinking double marathon instead? That sounds easier.

But the hard stuff is the stuff we need to practice most, isn’t it? I quite literally have never tried setting aside specific time every day for generating ideas. Maybe that’s why I’m no good at it. After all, everything is a practice, even thinking.

I always assumed that being able to come up with ideas at the drop of a hat was just a gift that you either have or don’t have. My mom, for instance, can start spewing ideas like a fountain on the faintest suggestion of a topic. In fact, she can’t really turn herself off. I’ve never been like that. Tooth pulling comes to mind. So the idea that I could get better at generating ideas by practicing is massively exciting.


 

This post is the eleventh in a series based on this article by James Clear, featuring quotes and reflections on the routines of twelve famous authors.

Things that have Never Been.

“And now let us welcome the New Year full of things that have never been.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke

I realize all of the New Year’s festivities are long over, but as this is my first inspirational post of 2016, I may as well drag it out a little.

Usually, the idea of things that have never been causes me to hyperventilate a little. I’m not good with bendy roads. But this year I’ve decided to embrace the idea of newness, and welcome it.