fiction

Revisions, Neuroplasticity, And Me

The End

I did it! I wrote “the end” on my novella last month. For the third time. And there will likely be a fourth time. At minimum.

Writing is a process of incremental revisions. At least it is for me. I dream an idea, spew out the words while learning my characters and the plot, then revise, rinse, and repeat. My first draft is usually sparse on description and a sense of place, overflowing with dialogue. I learn my characters through what they think and what they say, then I learn how they react. The physical always follows the cerebral. I think it’s because I used to be a therapist. Or maybe I’m just wired that way.

Each revision adds layers. Physical behaviors. Grounding in time and space. Nuances that add depth. And with each and every revision I learn something about the story that surprises me. In my novella, tentatively titled I Thee Wed, in revision three there was a bit of magical realism at play in the final couple of scenes. Which makes me wonder just how much about the heroine’s deceased mother should make it’s way into the story. Do I need to add a plot element to encompass this? Or do I take out the soft breath of magical realism that currently resides in this story.

I used to hate revision work. It felt like drudgery to pull the story apart and put it back together again and again and again. I still don’t love digging in to see whether I have knocked the GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) out of the park. Or if I have balance within and between the various plot and character arcs. My brain hurts when I try to analyze my stories that way. For years I felt like it was a sign I shouldn’t be a writer. All because my brain processes story differently.

This isn’t to say I don’t try to use many of the tools of craft and plotting. They are tools, and sometimes while the brain is forging new neural pathway those tools feel foreign and wrong. With continued exposure these neural pathways are reinforced and the brain “learns” these new concepts. This is an oversimplification of what happens as the brain is a highly complex organism, but you get the idea.

Building new skills require repetition. And sometimes looking at the skill in new ways. It’s also important to know that we aren’t going to be come competent with every skill we try to develop. And that’s okay. If it’s a skill necessary to move my story forward, I will find someone who has the skill to review the story and offer suggestions. Freelance editors are terrific for this purpose. So are beta readers who can give detailed feedback. Just know that if the person you talk to is usually paid for this service, be prepared to pay them. No one needs to work for free.

I’ve finished my third round of revisions and am feeling rather happy with the shape of this novella. Perhaps I will have something to self-publish this fall after all!

 

Photo by Herbalizer via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Dancing in the Rain

Sometimes my life feeds something within the story I’m writing.

I don’t try to put snippets of my life in my stories. I write fiction, not memoirs. But as my writing is an extension of who I am, my life and my experiences feed the fiction.

An example. Today was cold and windy and the air felt like a storm was brewing. I looked out the picture window in my kitchen searching the sky for any signs of impending rain. I had a dog to walk and errands to run and both of these activities would be easier to do when it wasn’t raining.

And it struck me, as I searched the sky, that once upon a time I used to love storms. I would stand on the hill of our former house, the hill that looked out over the western skies, and would dance in the rain. Wild dances, with my head faced up to receive the rain and it poured down. I especially loved thunderstorms, the way the electricity in the air would dance across my skin as I in turn danced beneath the lightening and the thunder.

I  haven’t done that in a very long time, and today as I looked out my picture window, cursing the thought of rain, I wondered why. Why don’t I dance beneath the rain any more? Is it because I’m 46 instead of 26? Because I’m more self conscious? Or is it because as my health has become a slave to weather patterns I no longer feel affinity with the coming storms?

Whatever the reason, I no longer dance in the rain. And neither does Hope, the heroine of my current story. She, like me, used to dance in the rain. She used to live for the feeling of electricity skimming across her skin. Used to life her face to the rain. Used to be the raging storm.  But she isn’t any more. Her life is more…complicated.

And it’s important for the story that she realize this about herself. Realize that she no longer dances in the rain. I didn’t know this until I had my own melancholy realization. My life fed my story. My subconscious worked out a story problem and used my own life to do so.

Introducing My Good Friend Fear

Haunted Trees

As I have stated in an earlier post, I am a writing course junky. I have taken far too many writing courses, actually.

I’m trying to get my writing groove back after the world altering events of the last four months and I’m proud of myself. I haven’t purchased another writing course! Instead I’m procrastinating filling the well by revisiting some meaningful courses I’ve taken in the past.

Years and years ago I took a course from author and teacher Bob Mayer titled Warrior-Writer Overview: How to Go from Writer to Author, Creatively and in Business. Bob is a former military man with a long and varied career that includes time in Special Forces. He has more than 40 books published and teaches novel writing. I don’t know if he teaches this course anymore. I do know that the course kicked my ass when I first took it. And it’s kicking my ass again.

I’m revisiting the second lesson and the thing that has struck me most so far is fear. Right now I’m supposed to be writing out goals. Instead, I’m circling the exercise, an oily feeling deep in my gut. Bob states that anything that causes anger or causes us to be upset is something that we need to look at because anger is a sign that change is needed. That oily feeling, it’s not anger, but it is upsetting. I thought I had banished this fear to the ends of the earth. Instead, it crawled out of the ooze and is attempting to freak me out. All it took was one little exercise to resurrect it.

I talked to a friend last night and we talked about fear. Fear can be a good thing. Fear can keep you from injury or from doing something stupid. Fear can also keep you from doing something risky that will benefit you in the end. Fear can be your ally or it can be your enemy. Today, fear is the enemy. I’m learning, again, to push through it. To identify it and to see it for what it is – a stumbling block that will keep me from truly attempting my dreams.

A few years ago I was part of a writer’s loop where we had little exercises where we were to write about something that was going on in the moment. I was going through some soul searching about my life, my job, my career, my goals and I was honest about where I was at in that particular moment. Funny, eleven years later and I’m struggling with some of the same fear.

In this moment I am surround by my demons. A gut-wrenching, stomach-twisting, brain-paralyzing fear that I will never write. That I will never finish. That I will never accomplish my dream. That my passion is misplaced. That it’s all an illusion created by a dissatisfied soul. That I am lazy. That I am rebelling against the better angels of my nature. That 9-to-5 is what I am born to do. All I am born to do. Nothing more. Nothing less.

In this moment I stare at the sunflowers I have positioned to the right of my computer at work. In this shades-of-grey cubicle, they offer sunshine and whisper to me incoherent words of hope. I stare at them and I am grounded, if only for a little while. Until the demons start to seduce me again.

In this moment I crave silence in my soul. So I can hear my thoughts. So I can find my voice again and speak. So I can have peace. So I can know that peace does exist and isn’t a wistful wish tossed up to a falling star.

In this moment I hear the clack of keyboards, of good, dutiful worker drones pushing through their call lists, connecting with applicants who desire higher education. I hear muted conversations and nasal cackles. I feel alone in the middle of business and not a little lost. I want to jump up from my cubicle and yell and convince someone that there’s more than these glass walls and shades-of-grey cubes and pointless conversations trying to sell the idea of knowledge. I want to toss my project lists to the four winds and dance on my manager’s grave. I want to shuck this life of expectations and conformity and politics and perceptions.

At the same time, i feel naive in this want because no matter where I go or what I do, the world is made up of shades of grey and politics and perceptions. Visionaries are lost by those who are afraid of different. 9-to-5 means shackles but it also means regular pay. Security in exchange for freedom. I’m torn. I’m tired. I’m afraid.

So where do we go from here? I stop talking about change and I start enacting change, that’s what. The next exercise I have in this course is to create and claim some goals. I’m going to do that. And post them here. Fear has a way of keeping us from making time to pursue our dreams. Goals have a way of creating concrete ways to move through the fear and toward our dreams. So even though I’m torn, tired and afraid with my writing I’m not going to let fear win. Not this time.

Thanks, Bob, for this course. And to think I almost didn’t sign up. That would have been a tragedy!

Photo by Dan Zen via Flickr (cc by 2.0)

NaNoWriMo 2016

NaNoWriMo Story Prep

I figured since I’m not currently working, and since I have a story burning up my neurons, I’m going to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year. I came late to this decision so I had to get my ass going on character interviews and plot points and all those pesky things. And…this will be my first year attempting to plot before writing word one.

I’m a bit of a pantser. No, I’m most comfortable pantsing my way through a story. Which makes revisions hellish. And finishing a story sometimes impossible without going back to the beginning and throwing most of what I’ve written away. I want to build a career out of novel writing so this year I decided to try a plotting method. I’ve done a lot of reading on   various types of novel writing techniques. I’ve taken courses. Lots of courses. Or I’ve purchased and started them. I don’t finish because something inside me rebels at the thought of plotting.

This goes back to the first story I tried to write. Emphasis on the try as it was a hot mess for many reasons. I was so excited to try my hand at writing that I told EVERYONE about it. I basically plotted it during impromptu conversations and at a point I knew all the nuances that made the story. And then didn’t have any drive to actually finish writing it.

At that point I figured that the first draft of a story must be about discovery. It was like I needed to discover the story as I wrote it or all motivation was gone. So I would write that shitty first draft and have a story that needed help. Lots of help. Sometimes total rewriting from the ground up. I tried plotting in different ways several times after that first story, but nothing clicked with me. It was like my brain shut down and my ability to actually apply anything about plotting I had learned didn’t exist.

About five years ago I learned about Candace Haven’s FAST DRAFT technique. It was a revelation that allowed me to write without a lot of pre-plotting. And made me get out of my own head. In fact, I’ll be using the fast draft technique during NaNoWriMo to get this story idea out of my head and onto the page. I’m also loosely using Susan Bischoff’s plotting techniques from her new book The Story Toolkit.

I’ve taken a lot of writing courses over the years. Some I’ve even applied. I figure life is all about learning and growing. And in order to grow as a writer, I need to spend time learning more about the craft of writing. NaNoWriMo offers me a chance to try a new technique. It’s only for thirty days. The pressure is off. And right now I’m not writing for contract so my deadlines are my own. Having the structure of NaNo helps me build my internal motivation muscles.

This story is for me. And I’m going to share my journey online, another thing I’ve never done before. I’m going to try to post an update every day. They may be brief, but it’s important to me to be active here.

I’m also active on Twitter, and will be tweeting about my progress, among other things!

Let NaNoWriMo 2016 commence! And happy writing!

When Books Attack

I was procrastinating purging my bookshelves this weekend, in an attempt to make room for new books. Unlike the TARDIS, my bookshelves are not bigger on the inside. I wish I had infinite space for books. I kinda do on my e-reader, and ebooks are one of the sweetest inventions of mankind. But sometimes I want to hold a book in my hands, feel the heft, smell the pages, pet the cover. Sometimes only a paper book will do. And sometimes in my quest to support my fellow writers, I end up buying the Kindle version, the epub version, and all that is left is to purchase the paper version. (I’m looking at you, Carolyn Crane,  Patti O’Shea, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jill Barnett,  Susan Kay Law, Jill Shalvis, Kristin Hannah, the late Vince Flynn, Seanan McGuire, Marjorie M. Liu, just to name a few).

I don’t live in the TARDIS, or in a library, and my husband refuses to add more bookshelves to the house so I can live in a library. This means finite space. And finite space means difficult choices about which books to keep and which books I need to let back into the wild, trusting they will find their way to kind and loving homes. And I put off making these decisions until my husband bitches about the piles of books around the house I absolutely must.

When Hubs brings up the piles of books I know he’s quickly reaching a breaking point. He has a desire for order and items out of place are not, ahem, order. No matter how artistically I arrange these piles, to him the books are not in their right place. The right place would be neatly placed on a bookshelf. A bookshelf that is not stuffed for overflowing with the written word, mind you. A neat and tidy and aesthetically pleasing bookshelf.

I have a lot going against me here. I’m tidy, but I’m okay with some clutter. I like a home that is lived in and cozy, and horizontal surfaces that are completely free and clear from stuff makes me shudder. A minimalist I am not. I have made peace with this. Hubs is trying to make peace with this. It’s actually cute to watch him try. And because he tries so hard, I try to meet him halfway. When he tells me he notices the clutter, I try to do something about said clutter. In this case, organize and purge some books.

I had a system where if I had purchased a book and hadn’t read it come book purge time, the book would automatically go to GoodWill or be gifted to a friend who might enjoy it. Then I started collecting auto buy authors like my nephews collect Pokémon cards and the one year rule no longer fit. While I try to read books as soon as I get them, sometimes I purchase a crap ton of books at one time. Sometimes I purchase a book on release day to give the author that NYT bestseller list boost, but I’m not in the mood to read the book immediately. So the book sits and I may not pick it up for some time. Then there are the books where I read the ebook but didn’t read the paper book but want to keep the paper book because what if my Nook breaks and I’m unable to get a new one and I want to reread the book? Or the zombie apocalypse is upon us and I can no longer charge my Nook? Or I just want to hold a paper book and read for no reason other than just because?

Can you tell I’m excellent at justifying book purchases? Yeah, Hubs noticed this as well.

With books reproducing at a significant rate, I had to do something drastic. First, I had to admit I have a wee bit of a problem when it comes to the compulsive need to own books, sometimes multiple copies of a book. Bookaholics Anonymous may be in my future. In the mean time, I decided to get real and hold an intervention for myself and asked myself the following questions about each of the over 1500 fiction novels I own:

  1. What were the chances I would read the book for the first time (if never read) or reread the book in the future?
  2. If chances were slim, I asked the following to ensure I wasn’t going to do something I would regret:
    • Would the library have the book if I had the yen to read it in the future?
    • Was the book autographed to me by the author?
    • Was the book part of a series where I was keeping the rest of the books?
    • Did I already own the electronic version of the book?

Books that fell into the very slim chance of reading/rereading categories were set aside. Books that were set aside were reviewed against the additional criteria. Simply by purging the books that weren’t part of a series that I wasn’t likely to read/reread in the future, I was able to minimize the piles so there was only one by my nightstand AND clear a shelf for future purchases. Of course, some of the books I purged were hardcovers where I plan to replace with paperbacks because everyone knows paperbacks take up less room. There are only ten in this category, thank goodness!

I have a problem. I love books. I collect them like other women collect shoes. Or how my nephews collect Pokémon cards. I’m okay with that.