The “Why” Behind the Words

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This post is supposed to be about why I wrote my Pitch Wars novel*.  Which requires I have some sort of answer about why I wrote my Pitch Wars novel.  And it can’t be my instinctive answer, which is “Because I did.”  It has to be a real answer.

This is going to require some thought – and if I have to suffer through a bout of thinking, then you do too.

So.

Why write CLIFF WITH NO EDGE?  Why write about an awesome inventor chick who can manipulate both machinery and magic?  Why write about the dark place her poor (but well-intentioned) choices took her, and her struggle to escape?  Or about a city cut into a dead volcano and plagued by a predatory forest?

“Because that’s freaking awesome” is not a good enough answer.  Other people think about awesome stuff without writing a book.  But I’m going to save the entertainment factor as part of the answer, because I wouldn’t have bothered finishing the thing if I hadn’t thought it was awesome.

OK, new approach…

Why write a book at all?  For that matter, why didn’t I stop after the first one?  Why go through all the critiques and revisions and rejections when I’m perfectly aware that there’s a strong possibility the only people who read my book will be my critique group and my dad?  Why write at all?

My adorable new kitten Atlas, who crawled out from under a loading dock when his eyes were barely open.  I spent most of September hand-feeding him.  He is now fat and good at scampering!

My adorable new kitten Atlas, who crawled out from under a loading dock when his eyes were barely open. I spent most of September hand-feeding him. He is now fat and good at scampering!

I could just play with my chinchillas and new kitten, watching Sherlock over and over.  It’s not like I sit around all day and need to write to feel productive.  I have a day job I’m passionate about, one I don’t foresee giving up even if the writing thing works out exceedingly well.  There are other things I could do that bring me joy that also come with a lot less of the pain (see “critiques and revisions and rejections”).

Good point, subconscious.

The easy answer is that I can’t not.  I write because I do.  Discussion over!  But because it’s the easy answer, it’s also inaccurate.  I’ve gone without writing before, for days, months, even a couple fallow years between college and the beginning of my wildlife rehabilitation career.  But so far, I always come back to it.

Other people’s reasons don’t fit.  I don’t have tragic and/or scarring life experiences I work out and share with others through writing.  My stories aren’t committed to advancing a particular agenda, though of course they tend to reflect my beliefs about the world at some level.  Writing is not my only chance at a happy career.  Sometimes I experience a thrill when I read words that are set in a particularly pleasing order, but I’m not chasing a love of the words themselves.

I guess the truth is that, like many writers, I get something from the act of writing.  Something addictive.  Even when it’s hard and frustrating it’s still worthwhile, but the why is intangible to me.  The book “The Midnight Disease” talks about brain chemistry, psychology, and writing, and turns out there may be some very good brain-chemistry reasons writers write.  Maybe that’s the whole of it.

But I don’t think so.  What I get out of the process itself is only another piece of the puzzle, or else I wouldn’t worry about showing my work to other people.  Thus far, we’ve only talked about me – and that’s terribly rude.

In my opinion, a story is incomplete until it is heard.  Readers close the loop the writer initiates.

I’m a reader too, have been since a very young age.  That feeling of immersion, when I sink so deeply into a world that I feel like I’m walking through fog as I feed the cat or brush my teeth, is one of the most precious parts of the reading experience for me.  And then when you finish a book that resonated with you – you’re left grasping for more, feeling like you’ve come so far and lived so long, knowing that somehow the entire world shifted while you were reading and you’re not sure you know exactly how yet…  Incredible.  It’s a kind of binding, that level of communication – beautiful, and deeply human.

Another gratuitous picture of Atlas.

Another gratuitous picture of Atlas.

I want to do that for people.  In order to do that, I have to write books.  I have to try my hardest every time, and put something of myself into each one.  And that, I think, is why I wrote CLIFF WITH NO EDGE.

If you’d like to read about why other Pitch War mentees and alternates wrote their Pitch War submissions, click on the links at the bottom of this post.  I’ve read some of them already, and there are some fantastic stories.  I promise you won’t be disappointed!


*In case you missed it, I was chosen as Whitney Fletcher’s alternate mentee for a contest called Pitch Wars back in September.  I am extremely grateful for Whitney’s help refining my query, writing my short pitch, and editing my novel’s early chapters.  He has been awesome to work with, and without his insight I wouldn’t be nearly as excited and hopeful as I start pitching CLIFF WITH NO EDGE directly to agents this month.  If you have a novel at or nearing the query stage, I cannot recommend Brenda Drake’s contests (including Pitch Wars) strongly enough.  Brenda is so supportive and giving, and her contests are focused on giving fledgling writers that extra push to improve and grow (as opposed to some other contests, which can be a bit… unethical).  Anyway, a huge thanks to both Whitney and Brenda for this opportunity!!


A Season of Changes

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Wow, has it been a long time! I’m sorry for the incredibly long silence!

I promise I have a good reason for it.

Most of you probably know that I got a new job recently, and that required a pretty substantial move. I am now ensconced in my new digs near Davis, California. The chinchillas made the trip with me, and are all glaring at me from the other room (I still owe them playtime tonight).

I am still a wildlife rehabilitator, but I am now focusing more on oil spill preparedness and response, which is a new area for me to grow into. Once I’ve got the basics dealt with, I’ll find one or two local groups to scratch the itch of traditional rehabilitation. But for now, I’m still trying to dig out from under the boxes.

All those boxes also mean I haven’t had much time or energy for writing. In fact, I’ve done very little since I got the Cliff beta sent out in early October. I know the general wisdom is that a “real” writer will keep writing even through major schedule upheavals such as this, but I’m really not too concerned – and I’m definitely not beating myself up over it (and honestly, if you’re in a period like this, I urge you not to panic about it either. Things are always knocked off balance when your entire life changes!).

I’m finally starting to feel a little more stable, my new office/library is taking shape, and I’m starting to feel the pull to write again. I’m excited to delve into my beta readers’ feedback on Cliff, which I hope to have out to agents by sometime in February. As a Christmas gift, I also got tuition to Holly Lisle’s “How To Write A Series” online course (recommended to me by the lovely and talented Phoebe Kitanidis), and The StoryMatic, both of which I’m excited to try out.

So Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and I guess I’d better get started!

July Already?!

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You see that interrobang in the title? Yeah, that’s right. I’m a little shocked to realize my last post was back in May.

Not that I’m a reliable poster, I never really intended to be, but still. That’s a long break! Especially when I left you with a promise for other posts in the critiquing series. That’s actually part of why I haven’t posted. Those posts require research, thought, and revision, and I’ve not been up to tackling that.

It’s been a weird month. I have gotten very little accomplished. I stalled out on my Cliff rewrites. I didn’t feel like I had anything worth saying via social media. I struggled to keep up with and attend crit group. I didn’t do much of anything writing-related, actually.

I could blame work – summers there are nuts, and kind of suck the energy from me – but that would be a cop out. I could blame the nice weather and my obsessive tendency, which recently latched on to my garden (hey, I could post on that!) – but that isn’t right either. And I could blame King’s Mark, as the launch sucked me back in time and broke my concentration.

Nope.

I just stopped and started wandering around. I just read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, which talked a lot about fear. Maybe I was letting my fears surrounding the current project get in the way. I have high hopes for Cliff, and other people seem to share those hopes, and that’s a little intimidating. Or maybe I lost balance for a while, focusing on some recent personal/job-related difficulties overwhelm me. Probably both.

But now I’m going to get back on the horse.

The Obligatory New Years Post

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Happy New Year!

Hope you all had an excellent 2012 and are looking forward to 2013.  I know I am.
Of course, at this time of year every blog and every writer is thinking about goals – those set for the previous year and the ones we’ll focus on now.  In fact, I’m pretty sure goals are on most people’s minds.  So I’m here to join the party!
I’m still not a big New Year’s Resolution person, at least not for my personal life, but it is a convenient marker to look at what I hoped to accomplish and what I actually did.
So, first off, let’s look at the passing year.  If you want to see a complete explanation of what I wanted for last year, you can read my first post of 2012.  But essentially, it breaks down like this:
1. Submit King’s Mark to agents.
Done.  I haven’t submitted to all, but I’ve submitted to enough.  My story didn’t sell, but that wasn’t the goal – the goal was to submit.  Yay for success!
2. Submit completed stories to available markets.
Done-ish.  I have done a decent job keeping my stories on rotation, but I haven’t been quite as snappy at keeping them out there (there were multiple week stretches where I let stories languish in the stables).
3. Write and revise my second novel.
Almost done.  Still not ready for beta readers, but it is so close I can taste it.
4. Read through my shelf of writing books, don’t buy any more until I’ve completed the ones I have.
Fail!  I did read about 60% of them, but it is kind of hard to tell… I didn’t stop buying them.  Oops.
5. Complete half-finished stories on my hard drive.
Mostly fail.  I did 2 of them, and I am quite happy with them, but I left many behind.
6. Avoid burning out by maintaining a life beyond work and writing.
Done.  I’m still a pretty insular and solitary person, but I’ve got a life and friends, and I have not become a complete hermit.  And I even read some books for pleasure and went outside.
So, not 100%, but I’m happy with it.  75% is pretty decent, especially since I honestly attempted all of them..  Not only that, but I’m incredibly encouraged by the successes of my friends and associates in the Wordslingers – everyone’s hard work is slowly beginning to pay off, and it makes me proud and confident about my own future.
On to 2013.  I have big plans for this year!
First off, the repeats:
1. Finish up and ship Cliff with no Edge to agents, start the next book in the trilogy.
2. Keep my completed stories out on rotation, finish at least 4 more (new or from the vault).
3. Finish the rest of my writing books, don’t buy more until this is done.
4. Avoid burning out and continue to maintain (or hopefully expand) my life beyond work and writing.
And now the new ones.
5. Research, develop a marketing plan, and independently publish King’s Mark.
I put it away for a year, pulled it back out, and discovered I still believe in it.  I am confident that it is worth putting out there, and that making it available to people can only help my career, not hurt it.  I have a lot to learn before I’m ready to do this, but I intend to get it done this year.
6. Become a slush reader for a magazine.
Apart from learning from other people’s writing, I quite like critiquing and have discovered an interest in editing in general.  The bottom of that ladder is slush reading – usually a volunteer position with a magazine where I would help to sort submitted pieces into might-be-what-they-want and definitely-not-what-they-want.  So I’ll search out and apply to positions in the kind of magazines I enjoy, and if possible, try out this slush reading thing.
7. Save up to attend World Fantasy Convention in 2014
It’s a big convention.  And with my life, I have to plan this far in advance.  But if I can make it there, I think it will be extremely worthwhile.
And that’s my list.  See you all soon!

11 Essential Writing Guides

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I am always reluctant to provide writing advice. I’m happy to share anecdotes, revelations, or techniques that help me, but actually advise people? No. I’m not published, and even if I were, there are many more qualified writers out there that you should listen to.

However I think that on this particular topic, I am qualified. In the past 2 weeks alone, I’ve read 4 writing craft books, which brings my all time total to somewhere between thirty and forty.

I read exhaustively in any area I happen to be interested in (this includes user manuals, btw), but not everyone is like me. And besides, not every book is full of unique information. If you want basics, go to the writing guide section of the bookstore or library, close your eyes, and grab something. If you want more than that, read everything and then retrospectively decide what you could have skipped. Or… read on and trust me.

What follows is a list of books I’ve found particularly invaluable. Put together, they cover all of the information contained in the many books I’ve read that I did not list. These are the books that I keep on my reference shelf. I’ll add more as time passes, but I think what follows is enough to be getting on with.

Basic Plot & Characters

Plot vs Character by Jeff Gerke or Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
Both cover three-act structure and how to tie a character’s arc to the plot.  Plot vs Character includes an extensive section on building a multidimensional character, while Plot & Structure discusses some techniques that add flexibility to traditional three-act.

Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
So far, the best character book I’ve come across.  Others cover the basics, but Card has a unique way of breaking things down.

Prose Techniques

Description by Monica Wood
So much more than “just” description, Wood believes that relating a story IS description.  Her discussion is thorough, applicable, and interesting.  One of my favorite craft books, period.

Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
Grammar.  Word choice.  A unique discussion of voice.  Absolutely not boring.

Advanced Story Techniques

The Fire in Fiction or Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
Maass makes really important points about big ideas like stakes, tension, and theme.  I read both, you probably don’t have to, as their content overlaps significantly.  I liked Fire in Fiction better, but that might just be because I read it first.

Between the Lines by Jessica Page Morrell
Filled with advanced and subtle techniques that really aren’t covered adequately anywhere else – things like foreshadowing, flashbacks, pacing, suspense, epiphanies, and cliffhangers.

Self-Editing

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King
Exactly what it claims to be.  A classic for a reason. 

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
Invaluable for identifying specific areas to work on – if you’re getting rejections and don’t know why, read this.  But beware – it’s a book of extremes.  All the flaws in your manuscript will suddenly jump out at you, which will either be a sledgehammer to your motivation or trigger an adjective-killing spree that could ultimately cause just as much damage to your prose as the adjectives did.  So I suggest waiting to read this one until you’ve done enough writing to know who you are on the page.

Mushy Stuff

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
Ms. Lerner is an editor, and though this book does talk about the publishing industry and “what editors want,” I found it more valuable for her insights regarding the psychology of writers.  There’s real wisdom in those pages.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Want someone to make you feel warm and fuzzy and special?  That’s this book.

The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell
Closer to a rally or a challenge, Bell uses fewer warm fuzzies than Lamott, but manages to be equally motivational.   More so if you’re goal-oriented like me.

There are three additional books I want to bring up, because although they aren’t for reading cover to cover, they are useful references for plot/character archetypes. There are many options, but my favorites include Character Traits by Linda Edelstein, Story Structure Architect and 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt.

So there you have it.  My list.  I hope you find it useful.

Still, it’s one thing to collect information, and an entirely different thing to use it. So stop by again next week, and I’ll share some of my tips for sorting, choosing, and implementing writing advice without losing your mind.

The Official November Plan

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Since I’m not following wordcount goals this NaNoWriMo, I thought I should explain what my goals are. That way you can all keep me honest!

Essentially, I have 16 major scenes/plot points to hit before Thieves is done. Therefore, I must complete one scene/plot point every 2 days (at least). Since earlier means fresher, I’ve got 2 that I have to finish in the first 3 days so I can fit them all in.

I bought a big(ish) whiteboard/corkboard to keep track of all of this, and make sure my goals are right in front of my face.

Here it is: (btw, don’t try to read the cards if you don’t want spoilers!)

So far, I’m on track! Yay! And incidentally, just under the Nano official wordcount goal, so who knows – maybe I will hit 50,000!

In other news, this has been a week of organization. There are whiteboards everywhere :). I even got a little crafty and did my jewelry too:

They’re just wooden cross-stitch frames, with lace pulled over the inner hoop. That way I could hang my earrings and pins directly on the lace. I had to glue cork to the inner hoop in order to attach my bracelets and necklaces with pushpins. Simple, and hopefully more usable than my previous stack of little cases.

And last, in case you see me around in the next month, I’ve got a walking boot on.

Turns out I’ve been walking on my feet too much. Or something. So now I’ve got to wear this boot thing and not walk around so much, at least until it heals. Ugh. Though on the good side, maybe boredom will force me to be more productive on the Nano front… especially since I’ve also canceled my Netflix for the month.

A Week of Goal-Meeting

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Well, today will be a light post, I think. I originally had some thoughts on how I use writing advice, because I feel like I use it a little differently than tradition dictates. But I’ve been sick this weekend, so my brain is fuzzy with meds and sleep and IT Crowd. Besides, I don’t have a lot of energy to be thoughtful.

It’s been a good week, despite ending in sick. I set myself some goals, and I’m proud to report I managed to meet them. Mostly.

I like visual/physical demonstrations of goal completion, so I decided that this week, I would put a sticker on my calendar each day I met my goals. Why should kindergarteners be the only ones that get to use stickers for personal fulfillment?

Here’s a pic of my week:

Isn’t it shiny colorful wonderful?

The stars stand for food goals (I am trying to change some of my eating habits) and the smiley faces are for writing goals. I still believe that writing every day may not be for me, but I’m going to try it for a while. You’ll probably notice that not every day has a pair of stickers, but overall I’m quite pleased. Improvement isn’t black and white; I didn’t fail just because I didn’t succeed 100%.

I hear it is always easier when you first start, and it takes like 40 days to embed a new habit. But I’m just going to take it a little at a time. Plus, it helps that the goals themselves are relatively small (write something, period. Even a sentence, and I get a sticker. Realistically though, who can write just a sentence and walk away?).

Once these get easier, I’ll add others. Soon, I’m going to take on my caffeine habit – that will be pawprint stickers, I already have them picked out. But I’m only going to go through withdrawal once, so when that happens, that HAPPENS.