Saturday, October 6, 2012

Are We What We Create?

In the loud and crowded world of the information age, we need, we're told, to develop a brand, gather a tribe, then focus like a laser on staying on target.

Well, I'm not one thing. I doubt you are, either. I don't write one kind of fiction. I don't read one kind. I am as invested in my gardens as I am in my writing. Cooking, too. I never expected my writing t bring me wealth, any more than I expected that of the gardens I've created.

People who walk by when I'm in the yard stop to tell me it's lovely, that they walk by just to see it. Prettiest in the neighborhood. One woman drives to this neighborhood for her walks just to see my yard. That's gratification enough. To share my vision and have someone say, wow, terrific. Well done.

That's all I want from my writing, too. Sure, having a book on the NYT top 10 wouldn't hurt my feelings. Who wouldn't love it? Promote the hell out of it? Absolutely. But I don't need it.

I create because I love the doing of it. I love rearranging words to see what fits best where. I love doing the same with my landscape. Often things that promised beauty turn out not to work, must be edited out or moved. A paragraph, an image, a shrub or perennial, stunted, obtrusive in one spot, thrives as a coherent element in another.

Raised Presbyterian, I eventually discovered The Tibetan Book of the Dead, read the Tao Te Ching, consulted the I Ching and runes, and delved into various mystical branches of many world religions. Who knows what is legend and what is history? Or what comes from enlightenment and what springs from wishful thinking?

With age comes perspective. Every faith believes itself to be the one true path to God, but none can pin down who or what "God" is. Certainly not some bearded wielder of lightning bolts or judgments. I've stopped trying to understand. I accept that I can't know. I can't even know if there's a greater Force permeating all creation. I still kinda tend to think maybe. There's just too much that can't be explained.

Each religion has branded what that is, that concept of original universal creative intelligence, whether called The Way, or God, or Allah, or Yahweh. I can't even say for sure there is one, though I'll hedge my bet. If there is, great, if not, I'll never know. So I choose to live as if it's true, but, as this invocation puts it so well, "in the names of the one who is all love."

Okay, pretty huge jump there, from me and writing and gardening to the mysteries of the universe, and I don't intend to get all religious. But, you know what? It's not really such a leap. Those mysteries inform my writing, my work with my little patch of earth, and every act of creation, however small.

There are hundreds, more, who can instruct on the craft of writing with far more authority than I, or on the ins and outs of publishing. I'll certainly bring up things I see that make me fucking nuts, or that make me need to share the beauty, or the absurdity, or whatever.

I am a writer. I work the earth. I'm fascinated by all aspects of creation. That could be writing as a craft, storytelling, the art of scaring the shit out of you by turning something everyday, something you cherish, into something that might take your soul, eat your children, and turn you into the monster. It could be a miraculous virgin birth as the cover for as miraculous an alien intervention.

So where does that put me? A perpetually skeptical spiritual explorer. Let there be Light, yeah, but those dark places sure are intriguing, aren't they? What's that around that corner? Was it human? Is it here to save us or destroy us?

Let me go into the garden and think about it while I move a few hostas. There's magic the the rearrangement of plants. And words. And body parts.

Damn. I haven't narrowed me down! Guess I'll have to live with who I am. And I'm okay with that.

We are creators, but are we what we create? How do you see the acts of creation?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Branding Your Writer's Self

I resist the idea of making "a brand" of myself and my work, but they say I must. We all must. So how do you accomplish that when it feels like shoeboxing an entire wardrobe?

I've written before about finding one's niche as a writer. About finding your tribe. Speaking specifically to your audience.

My tribe would be humans moved by humanity, what makes us and drives us. And what may lie beyond our human perception or comprehension.

As a writer, the first part of that statement would have me writing literary fiction. The second part puts me firmly in the speculative fiction camp.

I'm a split personality. And to that duality, I have to add a third: being a gay man with a desire to be a voice in that tribe. So I'm a writer of gay literary speculative fiction? Try to find that section of your local bookstore.

See, here's the thing. I love good horror, but I hate the often cheesy places it goes. I love the idea of alien interaction, ancient or current, in, upon, or among humans, but I don't always love reading science fiction. And while I would love to be one more author making gay characters an integrated part of everyday life, I don't want to limit myself to gay fiction. And I don't want to write gay "issue" stories. There are plenty of those.

So, shouldn't we speak to those with whom we'd love to speak, who would like to speak with us? People who are moved by or interested in what moves us to write? And wouldn't that, shouldn't that be found in what we like to read?

Well, no shit.

What moves me in reading, besides beautifully crafted images, language that sings, is what's amazing and beautiful and heartbreaking and brave and heroic about the human experience.

That can be found in fantasy worlds, of course, but I prefer to write about the world I know, with elements of speculation, because I love "what if…?" And if the suppositions are about horrific possibilities, well, I'm there, too. Bring it on.

So, back to branding. I think I prefer variations on a theme. But that's just me. And where's the niche?  Can I be an author of Speculative Gay Literary Fiction?  Author of Gay Literary Speculative Fiction? Or gay author of Literary Speculative Fiction? Yeah, show me that shelf.

Hello? Gay and gay-friendly wonderers, are you there? Can we talk about our fears, hopes, disappointments, tragedies, and joys? About what brings us together and tears us apart? About what makes all of us human? And, in some cases, decidedly not human? What I can bring to the party is a slew of good questions, some deep, some silly, some sad, some scary, and some without answers—at least from our limited view. We are, after all, only humans.

Or are we brands?

What say you?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Expect Less, Gain More

Sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it? It's not.

First, remember that everything is relative. What's rich to me may be near poverty to someone extremely wealthy, just as I may appear wealthy to a huge percentage of the world's population. I'm not. Far from it. But there are a lot of folks I'd never say that to.

And yet, I do think I'm pretty damn rich.

A couple years ago I was in close contact with a bright Danish woman who was beta-reading for me and I was helping, on occasion, to put her English, which is embarrassingly excellent, into a more English-sounding vernacular. During that time, Denmark was named by some credible source as the "happiest" nation on Earth. I asked her why.

At that time, and still today, it was obvious that, for all the awesomeness of the USA, land that I love, we are nowhere near that happy, as a nation. Why would little Denmark, with its winters of endless nights and summers of endless daylight, its cold, wet climate, be so damn happy?

Her answer? That they were a country of lower expectations. Maybe not lower. Maybe fewer.

Sounds wrong, doesn't it? We're taught to dream big. To hitch our wagons to the stars. We deserve the American Dream, right?

But think about it. Today I read a terrific blog post by MarcyKate Connolly on From the Write Angle. The title reflected what I'd been ruminating on for a few days:  The Journey Is the Destination. Check it out.

Whether it's the journey of the writer, from blank page to draft to revision, querying, publishing, and back to blank page, or just how we live our lives, if we're always looking beyond where we are to where we think we should be or want to be instead, we're missing the moment.

Our power is in that moment. It's in the now.

Sometimes that now feels great. We're in the flow. What a high! But sometimes that now seems stagnant, frustrating, hair pulling, and we'd rather be anywhere else.

Big mistake.

How does this relate to expectations being too great, set too high?

Let me refer back to another blog post from the inimitable Nathan Bransford, wherein he warns against letting dreams become expectations.

But aren't we supposed to dream?

Sure. Dream. Have expectations. But don't let them become what you live for. Because you'll never get there. There's always the next level, the next step, the next bigger, better thing that you'll need when what you have or where you are just isn't enough.

That's how we set ourselves up for disappointment. For failure. Even if we succeed at a level for which we should be kicking up our heels in a happy dance, we don't, because now we expect we should do better, get more.

Back to Denmark. They enjoy a very high standard of living. They pay high taxes. They enjoy many benefits in return. (This is not a political statement, by the way.) There are probably more bicycles than cars. Okay, I just made that up, but it seems so. They just don't expect the kind of overblown life of riches that's become the carrot dangling in front of us. They're content with what they have and they enjoy it. Ergo, they're happy.

I could list things I'd like to have and don't. Actual things (newer car, refinished floors) or writer's goals (an agent, a book deal, a best seller, a work-in-progress humming along), but, fact is, I'm cool with what I have and where I am. And I think a lot of that is because I don't expect that I should be elsewhere or have more than I do. I have enough. I like the journey. If I get those things, well, great. If I don't, I haven't failed.

So, again. Everything is relative. Especially when you measure what you have and where you are against what you've set yourself up to expect. Don't give up the dream. Just don't let it rule.

Hitch your wagon to whatever star you want, but don't forget to enjoy the clouds and the heavens as you pass through.

(This is a re-post from Friday, Aug. 3)

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Stanley and Phil Are Out

So, I finished the story, and Stanley and Phyllis are Stanley and Phil. It's now a gay couple, but the story is no different than it would have been had they remained a hetero couple. The point is, they aren't different. It's time for LGBT characters to go mainstream.

The Southern Baptists may feel differently, and the Holy See may disagree. Too bad. They can't hold back the tide.

When Ellen came out, the news rated magazine covers. She stepped into a spotlight where she had to state that she did not want to become a spokesperson. But she was, anyway. Nowadays, the news of another celebrity being gay is usually a throw-away line, no big deal. As it should be.

So the story becomes not about being gay or about gay rights, but about being human, facing human conditions, and incidentally, being gay along the way.

Stanley and Phil face the same fate in the same way as Stanley and Phyllis would have. But now that nice old couple next door, the ones that have been together for, well, longer than most, just happens to be two men. Could just as easily be two women. Any two humans.

Neil Patrick Harris may have limited his options by telling the world he's gay, but mostly those who loved him as a performer love him more. Did he lose a few admirers? No doubt. Has it hurt him? Well, I can't speak for him, since we don't often sit down over drinks together, but I'd wager a tidy sum it has not.

So for a writer, is playing it safe, working within broadly "acceptable" boundaries to gain the widest possible audience by not offending anyone a smart idea? A look at best-seller lists would say no. Sex sells. All fifty shades of it. Serial killers, sociopaths. Children killing children.

But homosexuality being shown as a natural part of the fabric of life?

Guess what. It is. And no longer is it relegated to LGBT lit, TV or movies. What had to be front-and-center with Will and Grace has become the gay family member and her/his partner, the gay couple next door. Modern Family? American Horror Story? Gay couple neatly worked in, simply part of the whole.

No one ever made a mark by playing it safe. You can't please everyone, anyway. And "they" say, if you haven't pissed anyone off, you haven't done your job. Plenty of books, stories, and movies play to kids or "wholesome" families, and carefully do NOT anger anyone. But Harry Potter was condemned for promoting the occult, Hunger Games for the hideous idea of kids being pitted against each other to the death for society's amusement (although often it seems we're not far from that now.)

So I'm taking a stand for risk. And if I piss off some, so be it. I probably wouldn't want to have drinks with them anyway, or they with me.

So who'll join me for a martini, a beer, a sweet tea (ugh)?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Stanley and Phyllis or Stanley and Phil?

A while ago I posted about a story in the local paper that I was mulling for a short story. An old couple found dead together, frozen in their back yard in mid-winter. Cause unknown. A history of illness, possibly Alzheimer's. Perhaps the wife had fallen, the husband had gone to help and…

I've half written the story.

I've also (see my last post on platform specificity) been working on defining myself.

So now I will digress, and put aside that story yet again. But not really.

The novel I've written includes (count the audiences) a gay protagonist, an evangelist (antagonist) who hosts an interdimensional alien invader, the protag's sister (strong but vulnerable woman) and her hot live-in boyfriend whom she won't marry (women's fic), a pre-teen black boy and his mother (multi-racial/intercultural), both brave and in danger, the protag's partner, a jealous friend, another teen seeking revenge and teetering on the edge of dark and light, and other minions and allies, family and foe.

That's sure as hell not narrowing it down.

Is it a gay novel? Not really. It's a thriller with a gay protagonist who has a partner. But the sister's/boyfriend's story arc is central.

The high school jock and the brave boy are key, but it's definitely not Young Adult. While I've read some YA I enjoy, I'm not a YA writer. I just can't give up enough sex or judiciously used swear words. (English would be a far less expressive language lacking "fuck.") So I know that's not my audience.

Is it a spiritual/religious novel? It does posit questions about certain kinds of religious practice (help me here, John Lennon) and concepts of "light" and "energy." Those concepts and questions intrigue me. What are the truths that give birth to the legends, beliefs, myths, and religions? But I'm more about the questions than the answers.

But this isn't about me. Or about my story, or my novel. It's about homing in on whom I'm writing for. 

No doubt I'd lose people if I go for gay. Do I care, if I gather more LGBT folks who relate to me? Actually, no. Plenty of straight folk would come along if, in writing "gay," I'm writing "humanity."

And don't some of that group enjoy speculating on the nature of reality, spirituality, the paranormal? Sure they do. And a good supernatural scare, too.

So I'm out in the garden watering the other day, thinking about these things as I water baby zinnias, and suddenly I'm thinking maybe that story about Stanley and Phyllis should be about Stanley and Phil. Same story, different angle.

A generation ago, a few very famous playwrights did just the opposite. Maybe it's time for Martha to take off her drag. Maybe now it's time for George and Mark, not Martha, to duke it out.

Easy to say get specific, but hard to do. The "experts" say not to go for thousands, but for a specific few.

Anyone out there into supernatural/metaphysical/speculative/gay fiction? 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Platform Is Audience. Think Small. Be Specific.

We writers have so many options today. The world of publishing is changing so rapidly that many of its professionals seem to be riding the waves on inner tubes. We're all in it together, but we're all in it alone. And so, one thing is being consistently stated:  having a meaningful platform is ever more important in this noisy world.

Hey! It's me. I'm over here.

Now I'm sure I'm not the only writer who quails at the prospect. And not knowing how or where to start, a strong impulse is to read more, do more research, which can be helpful (if put to use.) Or a great distraction. Or an evasive maneuver.

So Don't just stand there getting ready.

As a kid, I wanted to do two things that scared the crap out of me: go off the high dive and ride the roller coaster.

Every day at the pool, I'd climb the ladder, stand at the end of the board—only ten feet, but it looked like a hundred—until I'd back off to let the others behind me go ahead. I'd climb down, wait until the board was free, and go back up. Finally, in a WTF moment, I jumped. Scary? Yes. Exhilarating? Oh, yes! I went back again and again, graduating to cannonballs and eventually dives.

But oh, the time standing there, getting ready. 

At the roller coaster, an old wooden one that raced out over the beach toward the ocean, I stood on the entrance platform. Same deal. I watched that coaster leave the station a dozen times at least before I got the courage to get on and ride. Then ride I did, middle car, front car, back car (the fastest), knees braced, no hands.

Sure, we need to prepare, maybe get up the courage. But then we have to do it.

Go ahead—scare the sh*t outta yourself!

It's often the only way to move forward, and the thrill can be amazing.

Those things scared me. I don't think there's a power on earth, not even vast sums of cash, that could get me to jump from an airplane or off a bridge with an elastic cord attached to me. I'm sure they have their thrills. Big ones. I'll take mine a bit more on the safe side of scary.

But being scared of doing something masks itself in all kinds of ways. Excuses. Other things that need to be done first. Too hard. Beyond my reach.

Well, how the hell do I know it's beyond my reach if I don't reach for it? How do you? And there's only one way to do that. Do it.

From the many, one.

Or a couple. Hell, even a few. 

Platform building is about audience. Connecting. Building relationships. We need to brand ourselves (that one is vertigo-inducing), and in order to do that, we need to get specific about who and what we are, and to whom. 

Writers on this topic often talk about the thousands they hope to reach. Now that's more than scary, when your followers could fit in a very small room. But a couple very astute (because I loved what they said, so they must be, right?) writers boiled it down to something more easily swallowed.

Don't go for the thousands. Go for a couple. Who specifically are you wanting to write for? To communicate with? To relate to and to have relate to you?

I mean specifically. What do they like to read? To wear? To listen to? What are their beliefs? What do they love and what makes them crazy? Pick a guy and a girl. How are they like you? How different? Invent people you'd easily spend an all-nighter with, tossing out ideas, comparing philosophies and fantasies. Make those people up, in detail, and talk to them.

A couple of folks you'd really like to talk with and write for, to entertain, to tease with unanswerable questions, to challenge, are a lot less intimidating than a sea of thousands.

So to you, dear readers—both of you—some things I'd like to know: 

Do you think we're alone in this universe? Is God the Force? What are those things that go bump in the night? Do souls return? Do aliens live among us? How do you feel about (name the issue, say, gay marriage)? Is time really a continuum, or is that merely a human way to sort the incomprehensibility of simultaneity?  And what the hell is he talking about?

If those kinds of questions engage you, can we talk? Just us. In this little room. On this very small planet.

But I'm still not jumping out of any airplanes.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Three Steps to Moving Forward

It's been a month of distractions, mostly my day job. But to keep moving forward with my job as a writer, much of the distraction hasn't been off target. I've subscribed to new blogs on using social media. Effective blogging, tips for tweeting. But I still wasn't doing my work, the real work: writing.

Today I decided to do at least three things in that direction.

1.   I did more than read about improving the structure of my blog. I worked on it. I delved into the tools. But not for too long. (There is that day job, but the point was to DO something, not to read about doing it.)

2.   I opened the manuscript of a short story that has been sitting idle and stubborn for way too long. I didn't just open it and revise what I'd already written. A bit of backstory came to me in the shower. I wasn't sure how to incorporate that bit of history but knew it would make the story richer, would add something that might drive the story out of its stagnation. I has. It's a short short, but the draft is nearly done. I did the writing.

3.   I'm here. I put off blogging because I too often think what I have to share isn't of much use or interest to others. That may be true, or it may be that ol' debbil on my shoulder, but if I don't DO it, it will definitely be of no use or interest. Baby steps, maybe, but steps. And we all know the old saw about the journey of a thousand miles...

So, here they are, again, as I review them.

1.  Do something proactive with the tools of the emerging demands of the tech-driven market. Do something, no matter how small. Work on that "platform building" thing.

2.  Write. (That's my craft. If yours is painting, paint. Or sculpt. Whatever.) Do it. Sometimes it's really hard to sit your butt in the chair, put everything else aside, and write. But no one said it would be easy, and God does it feel good when you do.

3.  Blog. Take the time, write from the other side of the road. The social side. Rather than shrink from platform building, put at least one block in place. After all, the pyramids were built one block at a time. Right?

How do you keep moving forward when life is holding you back? I'd love to hear how you control the brat and get him/her to work.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Path to Speculative Fiction

Good Friday. I won't be attending church. Not this Sunday, either, though I hold Easter as a special holiday, as I do Christmas. It's the tradition. How I was raised. Though I would have, no doubt, been at church as the minister's son. Son of a Presbyterian minister, grandson of a missionary to Korea who translated the Old Testament into Korean, though he was born a Ukranian Jew. Tradition.

Truth is, each of our religious holidays brings me to again question the reality behind the beliefs upon which those traditions are based. I was taught early on that, though scripture said Earth was created in seven days and left out the part about the dinosaurs, that the men who wrote those books were using poetic license to paint a story that was, in their experience, beyond comprehension. They didn't even have dinosaur bones or carbon dating to help them piece together how it might really have gone. And that last, terrifying book about the end of the world? More poetic license. It wasn't that my dad didn't believe. He just left room for speculation and interpretation.

Ensuing years opened more avenues of possibility. Between Erich von Daniken, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Tao Te Ching, I Ching, and Seth Speaks, and the study of Light Work, I came to question just about everything and rely on no one's version of "truth" as truth. How do they know? Were they there?

Now I can't speak to the "stories" of Hindu or Buddhist or Zoroastrian traditions, so I come by my special brand of blasphemy, though I don't consider it so, through the Judeo-Christian tradition. I no longer call myself Christian because that name has been co-opted and corrupted by many whose beliefs I find antithetical to what I was taught that the man/god that they revere actually might have taught.

Let me repeat that. Might have taught.

But let's go back even farther. What was that wheel within the wheel that Ezekiel saw? Or, for that matter, the voice in that burning bush, or the fiery finger writing on the stone? It's no news that many think there may have been extraterrestrial involvement. No one knows for sure, so stories are passed along by oral tradition, each teller embellishing, until we have a narrative that someone, some group of authorities, proclaims is TRUTH.

Now allow me to go completely blasphemous on you. What if the whole annunciation story is really a story of ET visiting, or even abducting, a sweet young girl in a position to be used to fulfill another ancient story, er, prophesy. Think about it. Angels appearing, celestial music, steady star casting its light for days on a certain place. Sounds like Sci-Fi to me. Monster stone being rolled away, too heavy for one man to move. The dead reappearing. Wine turning to water, as centuries before, the Nile turned to blood? Just sayin'.

What I personally believe isn't really relevant here. Much of what has been passed down may well be true. At their hearts, all the central teachings of various religions encompass similar universal "truths." But not "absolutes." What is also most probably true is that the story-tellers were great story-tellers, and as all good raconteurs do, each put his own spin on events that had happened many years before.

That, folks, is the beginning of speculative fiction.

We don't know. We create stories from other stories and have no real idea where the kernel of truth that no doubt spawned the original stories came from. What do we know about the possibility of life in other dimensions than the ones we are able to perceive? Many believe in ghosts, some believe in the continuance of the soul but not in ghosts. If heaven, whatever it might be, isn't some other dimension of being, of existence, what is it?

One book in my past posited that beings exist on all our planets and throughout the known universe (and the unknown parts too?), but they exist on planes not perceptible to our human senses. Their ships travel on light, can appear to us or not, at their will. As can they. Might they, for effect, appear as various creatures of the night?

We know the tabletop, on close examination, is not really solid. Could there not be a civilization on a subatomic particle in the mote of dust on that tabletop to which that atom is as vast as our universe, and could not our universe be but an atom in the stone in the ring of someone having dinner with a friend? Pretty damn big ring, from our perspective. Even bigger friend. Perhaps a god.

So please, those of you who know you know, who have the answers, spare me your certainty. I don't buy it. And maybe without it, the world is a little scarier place, but oh, so much more fun to think about. And write about.They say what you don't know can't hurt you. Is that true? Think about it.

And Happy Easter!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Around the Block

We can't go back, can we? So springing forward would seem to be our only choice, and since that vernal equinox a few weeks ago signaled the official end of the winter that wasn't, I'd better get springing. The Thousand Excuses have played me well. I've added a page to a short that I will finish, even if I continue to dislike it. It's one of those "seemed like a good idea at the time" stories, based on a real incident in a short newspaper article from a couple winters ago. I guess the challenge to me is to find the angle that will make it feel like a good idea again. I'll explain.

During a very cold and snowy winter, one day an old couple was found outside, in their back yard, dead on the ground in each other's arms. It appeared, best they could tell, that the woman had slid on ice and fallen, and her husband, in an attempt to lift her and carry her in, had suffered a fatal heart attack. Did she freeze to death in his arms? Was she already unconscious, or did she lie there terrified, unable to move as her husband died inches in front of her? What prompted her to go out into the cold in the first place?

Now that story could be written as the sweet but tragic romance that a certain very successful author specializes in, the old lovers dying in each other's arms. But being as I tend to lean more toward the macabre, or at least the darker side, possibly with a bit of twisted humor, I tend to think there might have well been something more there than those romantically inclined discoverers saw in the clutch of the wizened lovers. Or were they still lovers at all?

It isn't as though I've hit a block. I just go to it, write a bit, and find myself not grabbed by it yet. Lazy writing, of course, is the culprit. I could just plow through the obvious story, finish it, and put it someplace where ants would devour the syrup. Something, though, in my twisted mind won't let me do that. So I pause, think of the devious turns, the little niggling annoyances that might have added up to a moment of something diabolical. Yes! But what, exactly? I'll think about on the drive home, in the shower, in the garden, tomorrow at Tara.

A couple of blog posts this past week have discussed writer's block and what it is--or isn't. I'm in agreement that it isn't. Chuck Wendig is most emphatic that it is a lie (#4 of 25) writers tell themselves. Banish it! Rachel Lewis has never succumbed to it, although she's slogged through the occasional writer's mud, and haven't we all? As every writer knows, some days are easy, the words soar, characters surprise, and we end a session at the computer almost buzzed. Other days are like, well, knowing there's a way out of the forest, the mud, over the wall, but we don't see it, so we pull one. word. at. a. time. until our wheels are back on solid ground and we're rolling again.

I'd like to say that I do that on a daily basis, but I'll admit to just staring at the wall, or the bog, for days on end. Not that I'm doing nothing. Always thinking about it. Always churning the cream looking for the butter to solidify. But I don't see that as being blocked. Lazy, sometimes, self-indulgent, sometimes, and sometimes just allowing for space to let the good stuff surface. I've reached a place where so many characters needed to come together from where I'd placed them in their various perils that I felt I had set loose I group of unruly schoolchildren. I knew where I wanted them, but getting them there in a natural, logical way eluded me. I wasn't blocked, just challenged. Sometimes weeks went by, I'd push out pages and scrap them all.

The thing was, is, that I never felt I was blocked. maybe I'd hit a wall, but a wall can be got around, or over, or dug under. It may take time. It definitely takes, no, requires perseverance. If we don't acknowledge that, if we beat ourselves up because it isn't easy, or give up and blame it on writer's block, we just aren't doing our jobs. Sometimes the walls are many, almost as though a maze has been thrown up around us. There's that story to finish, going back to querying that novel, or deciding to shelve it and move on, or not to shelve it but still move on, and, oh yeah, establish a presence on the various social media, and, and, and...

The cortisol soars instead of words. So many walls, so little time. I know, I'll go pull some weeds, plant some perennials, take a walk, have a drink. But then it's back at the keyboard or yellow legal pad. One wall at a time.

I do wonder how that old couple will have ended up dead in each other's arms in the snow and ice. I'll know soon, and I'll share it. Somehow, I think it wasn't as pretty as it looked. I just need to work my way around that little wall . . . around the block.

What's your way around the walls, around the block (which, of course, doesn't really exists, does it?)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Beginning to End--The Story Arc

I responded to a fellow writer's blog post yesterday, and her response to my response threw out a challenge. Determined not to let another two months pass before posting here, I want to take up that challenge. Joyce Alton, group moderator of the Speculative Fiction Group over at Agent Query Connect, talked about the importance of not overworking the beginning of your novel before you've finished the whole draft. Her excellent post is here.

The discussion about overworking the beginning before you really know the full and final shape of your work-in-progress had me thinking about the importance of knowing the ending before you can really craft your beginning. Each depends on the other. In writing any kind of fiction, we discuss the importance of arcs--character arcs and story arcs. Without those arcs, there is little drive forward and little satisfaction if, getting to the ending, we aren't fulfilled by the promise given at the start. And how can you know just what to promise you're going to deliver before you actually know what it is that you have delivered?

There are as many ways to approach writing a novel as there are writers. We tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum from "pantser" to "planner," from those who begin with an idea and just ride with it to those who outline the entire story first. I fall closer to the pantser end of the scale. I have to have an idea, main characters, an antagonist, and a fairly clear idea of where I want the story to end. But I know from others who plan nearly every plot point and twist, that no matter how much or little we plan before we start, as we work our way through, our characters will tend to surprise us. Events will occur that we didn't foresee. A surprising twist will take us to a place unexpected, and by the time we reach the end, though it may be just where we wanted it to go, in getting there we may have created something that has changed in tone or brought in aspects that we didn't know would happen when we were laboring to get that killer opening. So don't. 

Getting the ending right, of course, is just as important as the beginning. Well, and everything between, too. But we're talking about that arc, the big arc, the story arc. The opening of our books are a promise to the reader. In a few sentences, a few paragraphs, a few pages, we're showing the reader what we are going to give them. We have very little time to grab and hold them, and that first impression had better be right on the mark. It had better nail the tone of the book, introduce a character and an enticing problem. And it had better have hints of what's to come. That's what will keep the reader reading, make her want to take your book home. But you'd better deliver on that promise made, or you'll have a disappointed reader who won't be back. And how can you make that promise before you know just what, over the length of your manuscript, up to your oh, so satisfying conclusion, you will have delivered? I promise, no matter how carefully planned, it won't be exactly what you thought it would be when you began. So before you sweat that beginning, get to that ending. Sweat that for a while.

Ah, the ending. Whether happy or sad, explosive or quietly thoughtful, it must deliver. This is where the reader sits back with that last page open for a second or two and has his "Ahhh" moment. All the ends have been tied up. All the characters (in my own case, it would be those who survive) have gotten what they deserved or realized what they needed to learn. Promise fulfilled. Easy enough, right? Well, after about ten versions of my last chapter, I realized how many variations were possible before combining and polishing to what felt satisfying. And you know what? It made the beginning I'd worked on, but thankfully had not dwelt on too much, not right at all. It lacked the tone. It started in the wrong place. It meandered where it needed to punch. It needed the ending, the feel of the ending, to get it right. In other words, before I knew, really knew, what the whole scope of the novel would be delivering, actually did deliver, I couldn't really make that promise. 

So, as they used to say, don't stop to polish, polish, polish, wear out your beta readers, and stall your progress--keep on truckin'. Get to the end. You may think you know the arc your story will take, but you don't know until you get there exactly what you will have delivered on the promise you made. Then you can go back and make sure that promise is just what it needs to be to deliver that final "Ahhh."

The story arc--don't make promises you don't keep. But each of us has a different way to get there. What's yours?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Beginning Again, Again

Well, dang. Here it is, another two months, a new year, and I'm just getting back. I don't make resolutions, but I do set (movable) goals. The full moon coming close on the heels of Twelfth Night seemed a good place to start. Festivals over, and the first full moon of what may be the last year, if we're to believe some interpreters of the Maya forecast. For myself, I choose to ally myself with those who think it is the end of an age and the start of something new. Surely does feel as if things are coming to a head. (Why does that bring to mind John Belushi in Animal House?) 

So, the full moon comes, and true to my inner werewolf, I enjoyed the first night of insomnia of the year. Did I toss and turn? Did I get out of bed and write? No and no. I lay there waiting for sleep, and waiting, and waiting. Until 5 AM. But I did, as I lay there, determining I'd be more faithful to my writing life. I will blog more often than once every two months. I will restart the querying process. I will not hate my last novel, and I will begin a new one. I will revisit my query, now that I've slotted the novel into a different, more apropos genre and given it a new and darker title. And then there's that dreaded synopsis. But it’s a new year for a new start, right?

And I must get back to the community. I've not participated much at all. I will confess (see back a couple of posts) that I do see the new queries being posted for critique as they come into my e-mail, and I understand more and more the increasing number of agents who choose not to reply or do so with a very polite, generic, form rejection. Most of those, I read only the first sentence, and sometimes I don't even finish that much. If I read one more "The last thing MC expected…" or "17 year old MC never thought…", or even worse, some cute thematic sentence with no MC (main character), no stakes, no threat, and no reason to keep reading. And I'm only seeing a few a day. Agents are seeing 100 or so. Every day. Reject. Reject. But that's not helping anyone.

I think we help each other improve by simply supporting each other. It ain't an easy road, this writing path, and lately the landscape is changing so fast that keeping up with the publishing world is almost a full-time task, let alone reading and commenting on others' blogs and critiquing queries and synopses. I have no children to get to school or soccer or ballet or piano, no dog to walk. I do have a job, but its hours are variable. And yet I struggle to fit into the day all those things. And I didn't even include the most important—the sit your ass down in the chair and write part.

So, a new cycle begins. Nothing resolved, but goals in mind. And maybe something of value to give. Definitely a lot to do. But first, get some sleep. And then, as Yoda said, "just do."