Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Are You That Person at the Back of the Room?

That guy at the back of the room, the one at the edge of the party, the one in the bar who only talks to people who approach him? That guy isn't aloof. He isn't unfriendly.

That guy is me. I have been accused of being aloof and standoffish.

Could be you, too. Right? (Guy or gal, this is NOT gender-specific.)

I am shy. Most people don't guess that. I'm pretty much an introvert, although after a drink or three, you might beg to differ.

I don't like rejection (who does?) so I avoid putting myself out there.

At a party, I'll zero in on the person or two I know and hang with them all night. I don't work a room. Never could. I've no doubt missed interesting folk.

So have a set myself up for failure? Actually, no. I don't stay home and entirely avoid the situation.

Approach me, say hello, even toss a slight nod my way, and I'm ready to chat. A smile given gets a smile returned.

Know what?

Many, many people are the same. Just like us. Oh, they look friendly and outgoing in their immediate group. Remember what I said about zeroing in on the ones you know? Comfort zone. So you, we, look at them and think what a clique, bunch of snobs, stuck-up.

Of course, sometimes that is true. We do run the terrible risk of putting ourselves out there, saying hello first, introducing ourselves, whatever, only to find no interest, a down-the-nose glance, and a turn away.

It's happened. I didn't die. Sometimes you win.

My point?

Let me relate it to writing. I'm not convinced my stories or my book are great. Sometimes, not even really good. But I kinda do, and other people have thought so. When it came to the publishing world, the odds kept me from participating with serious intent for most of my younger life. Oh, I wrote. Plenty. Stories. A novel. I queried, some, not a lot. I expected rejection and got it, and it didn't kill me. I got a solid bite from an agent who rejected the manuscript. And a small publisher, when I decided I really didn't care about landing an agent and a deal with one of the Big Five, where I'd no doubt be buried alive, anyway. But I didn't stay home from the party.

Then someone said yes.

Sometimes you go to the bar and nurse a beer and go home alone. Sometimes you nod back when someone nods your way, and you go home with a hottie who may a great one-night toss, or may be a forever real thing.

Don't assume you won't win. Maybe you won't. But maybe you will. Maybe you'll be misunderstood, your reticence taken for arrogance. But maybe you'll connect. Don't be afraid.

One thing is sure. You never will if you don't go out and try. As "they" say, you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

Oh, and that other person, the one not talking, across the room, at the bar, the party, the one who looks so up-in-the-air? That person may be just like you. Like me. Smile.

Friday, August 1, 2014

For the Mass Grave of My Darlings

How far will you go, what will you kill for your story?

I can be a ruthless murderer of darlings. Or so I thought. Ha. Not so fast, bucko!

I've killed off beloved characters, hacked away paragraphs of lyricism, dumped whole sections if they didn't earn their keep. Sure, I've had moments of remorse. I've even resurrected a couple of characters, only to have to re-kill them. Nothing was too sacred for my killing fields.

I've written before how, to be a good gardener, one must learn to be ruthless. In writing fiction (in any writing), it's a given. We bleed and vomit all over our first drafts, only to go back with scalpel, hatchet, or blunderbuss.

But eventually we get to an end point. Or so we think. I'd finished a first full edit with my editor, sent it back, got suggestions for the second and final edit, and, piece o' cake, bushed it up, polished the few bumps, and sent it back. One final step before proofing hard copy: beta readers.

First response from a new (to me) but experienced reader: one paragraph where she had no clue, after several readings, what I was trying to say, and several "too big" words. Only 27, out of over 91K words, but still.

I balked. I talked to my editor/publisher, who said I needed to really get that our audience for genre fiction reads at an 8th grade level. 8th Grade! No, says I, not possible. But I'm not writing literary fiction here, so why argue. Why not meet the challenge of "dumbing down" the vocabulary while conveying the same sense?

Because it goes against my nature. We should be smartening up, not dumbing down. Right?

Or do I accept that I'm not writing to teach, but to tell a good story well.

So I run my frustration past another who's read the book and has a good ear and eye. Surely, with the same background, he'll see that many of these words we learned in grade school.


Yeah, he said, but...

So I began going over the words with him. Simple words. Subjugate. Tenuous. Edifice.

Nope, he says. Most wouldn't know those words. I think of a recent discussion thread in an online writers' group about just this. Do we write down or not? Or is it writing down to cut out "showoff" words (and none, I thought, were showing off.) A highly regarded author has said if you're tempted to use a multisyllabic word and there's a simple, little word you can use instead, use it.

So, now it's time to murder those darlings. I didn't even know they were. I'll see them for what they are next time!

What's your take on this? I'd love to hear.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bathing in Greens

What do you do when, despite your best efforts to stay above the fray, someone manages to get to the part of you that makes you want to tear flesh (and not your own)? When you've done well for someone who, in turn, questions your intention and integrity? It happens, right?

Being a Scorpio, my baser instincts put my stinger at the ready. Luckily, Scorpio is also characterized by the eagle. So, breathe deeply, absorb the harmony in shades of green, a tapestry of peace. As all things do, it passes. Meanwhile, try to fly above it. Yeah, that's it. And bathe in greens.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Perseverance Furthers

April passed and left behind a fair amount of destruction from the brutal winter she ended. Ended not without one last nasty screw-you moment. Just to make sure the damage done was done well.

Still, a few frozen branches on a beloved Japanese maple and a treasured azalea? Nature's red ink. And lo, after looking at the bare branches of the severely pruned azalea for a month, signs of life. Tiny buds forming on the branches I feared had given up. There will be leaves. Possibly few blossoms next Spring, but there will be life. The Great Editor forced my hand.

May brought warm weather, and with it, the manuscript of my novel. First full edit. Oh, and  the garden cleanup, and the annuals and patio pots needing planting. But get that full edit done and returned. And the month was gone. Passed. Zip. Yeah, it all got done. When it all needs to happen, somehow it does.

Now, as I wait for the return of that manuscript for the second edit (what plot holes will she have found?) I go into the garden and trim off more winter damage, but relish the life that survived the wrath of Madame Nature's wicked long cold spell. If half the lavender died, half lived, came inside to perfume the air, and now spices a jar of herbes de provence.

Just keep moving forward.

One foot, other foot. Always  beginning the next step. Nature does. Can we do less?

Of course a dumbass rhetoric question begs a facetious answer. Of course we can do less. We can do nothing. But, I'd posit, doing nothing consciously is doing something. Even when it's pure procrastination, because the goals, the next post, story, edit, is in there, cooking. You know you'll get to it. You will because it's where you're going. It's what you do.

If I must catch the newest episode of whatever twisted mystery has me in its thrall, or if I must, again, attack the relentless growth of thistle and vine, it's all fodder. We gnash our teeth, we could do more, write more, pull more weeds, plant more seeds. And we do.

The I Ching, ancient book of Chinese wisdom, repeatedly says "perseverance furthers." Today is the first day of the rest... oh, never mind. Start again. Keep going.

To my friends who feel stalled, stymied, blocked, take it as conscious down time. Keep on truckin'.

Perseverance furthers.

Friday, April 25, 2014

How Do You Measure Success?

Have you done what you set out to do? No, really. Have you?

If what you set out to do was to top the NYT bestseller list for six months, chances are, you've failed. If it was to have your brilliant work optioned AND green-lighted for a major motion picture, well... Short-listed for the Pulitzer? No? Please step out of the arena.

Bob Dylan once wrote, "She knows there's no success like failure, and that failure's no success at all."

In each case above, with a few rare exceptions, the goal, the expectation, almost guarantees failure. So back up, friend.

If you're a writer, didn't you set out to write? Didn't you begin by learning basics of the craft? Did you do that? Sure you did. Can you write a decent sentence? Build a character arc? A story arc? Did you get all that under your belt? Uh huh. That's a success.

Did you actually complete the short story you started? Success.

Did you revise it and hone it and make it better? Yay for you. Yes. Another success.

Did you show it to someone other than your mother/wife/husband/dog? A crit partner? A beta reader? Yeah, now you're humming along. That's brave. That's success.

Did you write another? Major success. It's probably better than the last one, too, isn't it? Check.

Did you set out to write a novel and actually begin it? Did you outline the whole thing? Or grab what felt like a good idea and jump off the cliff with it? Doesn't matter how you began, only that you did begin. Did you? That's huge.

What's even more huge? Finding your way all the way down the road you set in front of yourself. Getting to the end. It never happens without detours, unexpected twists, roadblocks, delays, traffic jams, and, thankfully, stretches of sweet, clear speeding along. But did you get to the end? High five. Champagne.

Of course, since you're a writer, you know it isn't finished. It needs revision, editing, and that will, no doubt, require several passes. But you did it, didn't you? It may not be perfect. I don't think any artist ever believes her work is perfect. Perfect is for the gods. But did you expose it to other eyes, consider critiques, and revise? And revise again, until it felt good to you? And then get brave enough to let it go?

Every day we have successes, but instead of enjoying them and wallowing a moment in the warm light of gratification, we look ahead at bigger things, often things we may never attain, other people's ideas of success, ridiculous expectations, and we miss the fact that we are doing something we love, bit by bit, line by line, character by character, story by story.

Are you a writer, and are you writing? Are you doing something that (when you're not gnashing teeth) makes you happy, deep inside? Do you know what courage that takes and how fortunate you are to be creating worlds and people to fill them?

Sure, it would feel great to have your novel optioned. Land a three-book deal. The Pullitzer. Hell, why not the Nobel? But, on the slight off-chance that those don't happen...

Look at what you have done, what you have accomplished. What you are accomplishing every day. Every well-crafted paragraph, chapter, story.

I'd call all those successes. Wouldn't you?

So lift a glass! Celebrate all your successes.

Of course, I may be crazy, but isn't that part of the job description?

(Originally written for a Speculative Fiction blog on AgentQueryConnect, revised.)

Friday, April 11, 2014

My Garden, My Muse

So, the past couple weeks have been a time of cogitation and clean-up. Time to prepare for the new. New season of growth. New book to write. Hello, Muses?

I'd planned to clean up the back yard, hoping the tree trimmers, who should have come two weeks ago, might have, by now, hacked down the dead secondary trunk of a huge Norway spruce. No such luck.   

So, instead of working in back, I decided to jump into a nasty but necessary job in the front yard. I have a few shrub roses which, if allowed, would grow far too huge for the bed they occupy. They're lovely and decked with wicked thorns.

Now, when I have thinking to do on a project, especially defining characters and outlining plot, I find the garden a great place to do that. If I sit indoors at the computer, I find I'm spending more time thinking about what I should be thinking about. That is, running the hamster wheel. Getting nowhere. But with the intention in mind, if I occupy myself with a manual task, my mind is busy with that and can allow the below-the-surface flow to happen. It's when I don't think about it that, often, the best thinking happens.

What do I mean? Well, those three thorny beauties are sited on a slope, making for unstable footing. Their canes had grown long, thickly entwined, and I tackled them without the bother of walking all the way back to the garage for my gloves.

So, I'm cutting back, hauling out branches, clipping them for the trash barrel, stacking them, pushing them down. I'm sure my blaspheming could be heard next door (it's okay, my neighbors are cool) as those branches lacerated my hands, while the possible antagonist(s) simmered.

I don't know. Maybe it was the satisfaction of taming the bobcats. Seeing the bushes trimmed down and my hands scratched and bleeding. But something popped about that antagonist.

By taking my mind off it, I'd allowed my mind to work on it, on its own.

Not to say who the apparent antagonist will be. What changed for me, what I realized, was that I'd been looking at it from the wrong place. Since this will follow from the book already done, which is a science-fantasy, the real bad guys are . . . well I can't really give that away, now can I? But I'll say that they use and manipulate the apparent bad guys. The active, if not actual, antagonist(s).

So, instead of my wondering which characters should go rogue, I realized that I should let the real bad guys decide. I'm sure they'd be far more ruthless than I would want to be. They might go after someone I like too much to turn evil. Bad for the character. Better for the story.

With the intention in my mind but not in my focus, doing a job I'd not planned to do, which left me scratched and bleeding, something gelled.

Somewhere, I think it was the Book of Runes, I read that one should not be the farmer who goes into his fields and pulls on the crops to make them grow faster. Just keep doing the work.

The intention is there. If it's pulled on constantly, it's not going to grow faster. Sort of like browbeating the muses. It seems the more I demand, the more they remain silent, or wait for my silence to speak.

It was by letting it go that it came around. I can hardly wait to see who those bad guys choose. I already have a good idea.

I'd love to hear how you court the Muses without browbeating them into silence. Making chocolate chip cookies? Steam-of-consiousness writing? Gardening seems to work with mine. How about yours?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Shear Happiness--Cutting Away

Yesterday was Happiness day in a writers' group, and I missed it because I had a date with the outdoors to begin the Spring cleanup. Outdoors. Let me say that again. OUTDOORS!

After the longest, coldest, snowiest winter in memory, the ground is thawing, the snow is gone, and the mess left behind became glaringly apparent. I set the date for the day this week that looked, from the ever-reliable forecasters, to be the best, set the time for my yard helper to come, and, of course, the forecast changed from mid-50s and sunny to mid-40s with intermittent showers.

Ha. As if a gray, chilly, drizzly day would stop me. It's Spring, dammit, and I was committed.

We worked for two and a half hours and filled two trash barrels and four large trash bags with the shriveled lamb's ear, the old hydrangea blooms, and, the biggest task--the ornamental grasses.

I have several kinds, from huge maiden grasses to smaller fountain grasses and reed grasses. They are some of the few things that stay when the rest of the gardens are cut back and cleaned up in the fall. In winter, they are lovely, their straw color emerging from the snow.

But by the end of winter, battered down by snow and wind, they become like those passages that survived all the edits. Until the final cut. The time you need to get out the scalpel, like Hannibal, and slice out the last of the lovelies.

Or, in the case of the grasses, the shears.

Okay, the day was chilly, it did rain, a bit. My back, as usual, complained at the bending and stretching. And it was all pure pleasure. Happiness in doing the work. Happiness in being outdoors, feeling the wind, even getting sprinkled upon.

Where tangled, bent things lay, now just shorn clumps remain, ready to spring into action. And that will come soon enough.

Right now, though, happiness is cutting. Actually having cut. Before, doing, and after. That part of any creative endeavor where taking away, eliminating, editing out, is its own reward. Now I can see the daffodils and hyacinths pushing up.

Or maybe it's just that it finally is Spring!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Spring, The Ruthless Season.

It's been a long and brutal winter, but Spring has arrived, and with it, a time for new beginnings.

Pushing up through last week's snow, the snowdrops are blooming in my garden. The first sign of renewal. Outside, just now, in a browned butterfly bush, a cardinal sits, a tiny splash of bright red in a tawny landscape.

It's been a human gestation period since I've visited this blog. I'm obviously not a dedicated blogger. I read so many writers' blogs, all writing about writing. I don't know more than they. Sure, I have a decent critical eye and a fair mastery of the craft, but I have little more to offer than the thousand other offerings.

So chances are, when I blog, it will be more about being creative. Not just with writing. I don't have any formulae. I just keep working at whatever creative activity needs doing, and aren't they all, in some way, the same? Taking our sense, our vision, putting our personal touch to it, and sharing it?

I've had people chat me up when I'm working my gardens to tell me that they drive from other parts of town for their morning walk just to walk past my home to see my yard and gardens. They have no idea how many failures have gone into it, failures that took serious revision. Digging up and moving plants. Replacing ones that just didn't work. Subtracting and adding.

Not unlike what a draft of a novel requires. Or a painting. A sculpture.

So here it is. A new season. Who knows what will have survived this winter? No doubt there will be plenty of pruning, cutting back, moving, and replanting.

I'll be going through edits on my (soon to be published) novel as I renew and plant in the gardens. Not so much different. What will the editor see that I've missed after a hundred edits? I look forward to it, with a bit of trepidation, as I look forward to what will need fixing up in the beds around our home. Each little thing has to work with the whole.

And that's the thing about doing anything creative, meaning anything that needs your personal sensibility to bring it to life. You get it all out there, make mistakes, and some things don't work and need to be moved, revised, changed, or completely deleted. But you stand back, look at the whole, and realize that to "get it right," you have to cut, move, and replant.

Sometimes that takes ruthlessness. I read once, it might have been Gertrude Jekyll, that to be a good gardener, one must be ruthless. So must all artists.

So here we go, into a Spring that may reveal some serious damage to correct. And how different is that from the novel you're working on, or your garden, or your painting, your sculpture, your song? An artist in any medium has to embrace ruthlessness.

But it's Spring. Ahh. Enjoy what's good and beautiful and then fix what needs fixing. I'm loving the snowdrops. The rest will come, and my shears are ready.

Are yours?