Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Betamax

Back when I was a semi-avid rock-climber (which mostly involved sitting around and watching more talented climbers climb) I noticed that climbers would refer to beta when discussing climbing routes. As the story goes, the term originated from one famous climber, Jack Mileski, in reference to an old videotape format replaced by VHS.

“Do you want the beta, Max?”

Who knew climbers could be so clever. Basically, beta is a way of mapping out problems, adjusting for difficulties, and achieving the greatest flow of movements from one position to the next. It can be a community activity, sometimes, with several climbers helping each other out with the appropriate beta for a particular route.

I was not this good. Image via unpics.com

As I become further embroiled in the dark underworld that is trying to become a writer, I have learned about a different kind of beta. Beta-readers are other writers kind enough to read your manuscripts or drafts with a critical eye for grammar, syntax, continuity and characterization. They provide valuable insight into things that you, as the author, may be too close to see. Apparently these useful, friendly gremlins are also known to some as critters, from the French critiquer. So, beware: if you ever beta-read for me, be prepared to be called a critter.

But the climbing beta and the reading beta aren’t so different, methinks. Often, when you’re up on the wall, you’ll ask another climber for help with beta, because you’re so close to the damned wall that you can’t actually see where you should put your feet, or where the best handgrip is, or even which direction the climbing route is going. In similar fashion, a beta-reader is great for spotting plot-holes, reminding you that you completely dropped a character after the first chapter, or telling you that you are simply headed in the wrong direction.

It’s also great to have someone who can tell you exactly why something isn’t working. As much as I love the family and friends who are more than happy to read my manuscript, and as affirming as it can be to hear how much they like it, it can also be frustrating. Sometimes when I ask how to improve the responses fall into the “I’d like it if it were better” camp.

But thanks to the careful and detailed notes of my new beta-reader, Emmie Mears, I am well on the way to a sparkling third (ugh) draft (and not falling off the metaphorical rock-wall)! Here’s to taking one more step towards the dream!

Do you have a beta-reader (or someone who helps you with your work, if you’re not a writer)? How do you tell when and why something isn’t working?

 

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Hello again, my lovelies!

The other day was absolutely beautiful in London. I found that I was physically incapable of staying inside and writing while precious daylight seeped away, so instead I put on my coat and hat and gloves and boots and made the trek into the city. It was the perfect kind of winter day; cold and crisp with a pristine blue sky stretching into infinity.

I had lunch with my fiance, watched the ice-skaters outside the Museum of Natural History, and when I needed to warm up I ducked inside the V&A Museum, in South Kensington. I love museums, and the V&A is one of my absolute favorites. It combines art and textiles with history and fashion, while making them all interesting.

The V&A Museum, courtesy of me.

But as I wandered the echoing halls and admired Palissy bowls and examples of 17th century garb, I got to thinking about inspiration. No artist can really succeed at an art without some measure of inspiration, no matter its source. And writers are artists. It doesn’t matter whether we are poets or fantasy novelists or essayists or short story writers. Everyone relies on some kind of inspiration to create something wonderful. It might be fleeting and rare, or a daily pulse like a heartbeat, or disguised in songs that we hear or paintings that we see. But it’s there.

But where does inspiration come from? The answer seems to be anywhere and everywhere.

Many authors cite dreams being the inspiration behind many famous novels. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and, most famously, Twilight were all reportedly written after their authors experienced especially vivid and intense dreams. This is one that I, in particular, have a lot of experience with, although my dreams usually inspire short stories or small scenes in my books, not best-selling novels. (Keep on trying, dream-machine!)

While this is not a method of inspiring creativity that I would necessarily recommend, many prodigious authors were also drug-users. “Kubla Khan,” written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was purportedly composed after the poet experienced an opium-induced hallucination. Aldous Huxley experimented widely with mescaline and LSD, and Stephen King has admitted to using cocaine in the ’70’s and ’80’s. Hunter S. Thompson is probably the most infamous drug-addled author of all–in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his narrator alter-ego writes that he brought “two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers” on his road trip. Suffice it to say, that guy didn’t discriminate when it came to substance.

Was Aldous Huxley's invention of the drug Soma inspired by personal experience? Image via tumblr

Other writers find inspiration in methods of divination or fortune-telling. The talented Kristin McFarland writes that she was inspired to write a mystery novel after choosing a fateful Nine of Cups from a Tarot deck. And Philip K. Dick used the I Ching, an ancient Chinese form of divination, to decide almost all the plot points and character fates in his dystopian alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle.

I think most writers, though, find inspiration in the people, events, and places in their own lives. There’s a reason why the adage “Write What You Know” is parroted by every creative writing guide and teacher ever. I know that I was inspired to write my first novel Shadowkin (now in 2nd draft) when I visited Ireland for the second time when I was 19. The gorgeous surroundings and the ancient Celtic heritage was the perfect setting for a supernatural world based in Irish legend. I started my second (as yet unfinished) novel after I moved to London. I couldn’t get the idea of a steampunky Victorian paranormal adventure out of my head, and finally decided to start it during NaNoWriMo.

What about you? Do you rely on dreams, drugs or divination methods for your inspiration? Or do you find inspiration in the everyday things that surround you? Discuss in the comments!

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The passing of time always seems thinner, somehow, this time of year. More malleable, perhaps. As though the tense intervals of the infinite cycle relax, soften, and waver as if in the soft light of a flickering fire. Yes–life seems firelit, this time of year, and the shadows lengthen and recede unpredictably in the tenuous brightness of the passage of time.

And I feel more malleable, too. I feel myself changing in small ways for small lengths of time, until the momentary glimpses I have of my own identity seem blurred, distant, and incongruous.  My perception of what is and is not me seems more clumsy than usual. I am beset by newer, unfamiliar joys and deeper, more insistent regrets. What I am and what I should be seem loosened from each other disconcertingly.

Both time and self are so often assumed to be concrete things. Time has been chopped up into smaller and smaller fragments, years and weeks and minutes and nanoseconds. Why? So that we can better understand its oh-so-linear passing. It is generally accepted that people are a certain, definable way, and can only change if acted upon by some force. There are laws of motion, so to speak. But what if time is really nothing but our own diminutive understanding of it? What if our very self is nothing but our limited understanding of it?

Some of the most interesting and compelling fiction ever written involves time slips and inverted temporal structures. One of literature’s heroes, James Joyce, wrote entire books devoid of time in the way that we usually perceive it–I dare you to pick up Finnegan’s Wake some day and make sense of it. Audrey Neiffenegger awed us all in The Time Traveler’s Wife when she made one of her protagonists a time-traveler who involuntarily shifts in and out of periods in his own life. The book I just finished, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, is delicately and cleverly plotted so that the reader steadily spirals inwards from varying temporal “directions” towards a dizzying climax.

Like a Celtic labyrinth, meant to heighten spiritual growth. Image via astrolog.com

And can you think about great characters in literature who did not have some secret skeletons in their closets of identity? Batman is a vengeful vigilante; Bruce Wayne is a debauched womanizer. Just try and tell me that guy likes himself. Young adult authors from Cassandra Clare to Stephanie Meyer to Scott Westerfeld have become adept at giving their characters psychic disabilities centered around self-loathing and issues of identity. Oscar Wilde’s eponymous anti-hero from The Portrait of Dorian Gray literally cannot look upon his portrait, because the distorted, aging, loathsome face is literally a reflection of the emptiness and wickedness of his own forsaken soul.

I was thinking about mirrors today. I think there is something primordially unsettling about staring at our own reflections in the mirror. There is something that which we do not, and perhaps cannot, recognize that perpetually fascinates us in our own reflections. Perhaps it is because of this ultimate inability to truly comprehend the depths of our own selves that we so often find ourselves staring dumbly at a reflection of our physical selves. To ponder that self as other, and to attempt to understand that the other is inimitably and inimically self, for each of us.

La Reproduction Interdit, 1937, by Rene Magritte

Often, in reading, we come across dark mirrors. Characters who may seem ridiculous, or amoral, or otherwise worthless, but upon closer inspection are actually reflections of the darkest aspects of who we are. Feste, from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is one of the classic examples of a jester whose humor is so layered and multi-faceted that he manages to both shame and inspire nearly every other character in the play. He plumbs the depths of his mourning mistress’s sorrow even as he shakes her out of her doldrums; he takes part in Maria and Toby’s tomfoolery only to show that those who assume themselves wise are often fools, even as fools can often be wise men; he holds up a mirror to Duke Orsino’s mercurial fancies and shows him that ultimately nobility is but a construct of men.

And then we have doppelgängers, paranormal doubles of living persons, who in traditional mythology were harbingers of doom and brought evil and misfortune wherever they were spied. Why would this kind of creature become so prevalent in the generative imaginary of cultures all over the world? I would guess that it comes down to a secret fear of our inner selves. We construct bitter masks from our own hatred or adoration of our secret selves, but we do not thank ourselves for the mystery that haunts us, unbidden, with its uncannily familiar spectrality.

To tie this meandering post up into something resembling a neat bow, I think we have to realize that our lives, and thus, the lives of the characters who grow out of us and reflect us, are fluid, malleable, and ultimately abstract. Our timelines, and our characters, do not need to be simple, linear, or concrete.

We are all haunted by the ghosts of ourselves, in the end.

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Today I read a clever essay by Chuck Palahniuk (author of Choke, Fight Club, and many other gems of modern literature) called 13 Writing Tips. As the title suggests, the essay deals with thirteen of the things Mr. Palahniuk finds most useful when writing, revising, and reading his own work. I found the essay engaging and constructive, but it wasn’t until I reached Number Eight that I really started to think about how the tips applied to my own writing.

“If you need more freedom around the story, draft to draft,” writes Mr. Palahniuk, “change the character names. Characters aren’t real, and they aren’t you. By arbitrarily changing their names, you get the distance you need to really torture a character. Or worse, delete a character, if that’s what the story really needs. “

I read that suggestion and physically reeled, a bit. Change my characters’ names, Chuck? Delete  my characters? Surely you jest!

I realize that I have a very real and very emotional connection to my characters. After spending thousands upon thousands of words with them, I find that more often than not, they take on lives of their own. Not only do they begin to feel like my good friends (or enemies, depending on the character), but they become somehow independent from the fact that I created them, and start making decisions of their own and acting upon choices they made, not me. 

I can’t even begin to imagine how ridiculous this sounds to someone who does not spend hours every day with a bevy of fictional characters. My fiance and I actually have a recurring conversation that goes something like this:

S: How did writing go today, babe?

L: Oh, pretty good, I guess. But I’m really upset at {Character X} because he did something really rash and now his whole romantic situation is shot to hell. I have no idea how he’s going to get himself out of this mess.

S: But…he’s a fictional character that you wrote…right? He doesn’t actually decide anything, because…you do it for him?

No, my fiance is not a cat. Image via icanhazcheezburger.com

And yes, I realize on an intellectual level that my characters are, indeed, fictional, and that I have complete control over what they do and why they do it. But sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. And maybe Chuck Palahniuk and my fiance are right–maybe my emotional closeness to my characters is getting in the way of creating the distance I need to really make them great characters. Because if I can’t make hard decisions about my characters, then how are my characters supposed to make hard decisions about their lives? I don’t want to torture them unnecessarily, but great characters are always at their best while enduring awful situations.

While I don’t think I’m quite prepared to delete any of my precious friends or enemies yet, I can try to step back and make decisions for my characters, instead of as my characters. Have them do the things that need to be done to make not only their story, but the whole story, really shine. Really dig that thumbscrew in so that they wail, and scream, and show their true colors.

As long as I can go back to thinking of them as my BFF’s once the book is done….

I’m sure Tolkien called you Bob for at least a little while, just to create some distance…

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Hello, lovelies!

Do you remember the way you felt the first time you visited a new place? Somewhere beautiful, or interesting, or so new you could hardly bear it. Do me a favor, and think about that place for a moment; really think about it. Conjure it up in your mind until you can see every detail, taste the scent of the air in the back of your throat, hear the small sounds that are everywhere.

Isn’t it wonderful?

My memory is the first time I visited the mountains. I must have been eight or nine and my family and I had gone to a Suzuki music camp in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in North Carolina. It was early October, and the leaves were just beginning to blush red and gold (which for me, being from Florida, was quite a novelty). After the camp was over, we drove up to Chimney Rock, and along with my younger siblings, hiked up to the top of the mountain.

Yep! That’s where Daniel Day-Lewis wrestled the last of the Mohicans.

The air was crisp and bright, with a hint of evergreen and loam, and the trees whispered and chattered in a playful breeze. I saw a chipmunk, and was astounded that the adorable creatures existed outside the imaginary world of Disney. I stood at the summit and stared all around at the quilt of green and gold dotted with reds spread out below me. Hazy in the distance, a line of blue-grey peaks stood ageless and motionless along the horizon. I had never been so high before, and I felt simultaneously alone in the world and one with everything. Like my existence was both meaningless and terribly important, all at the same time. And it was wonderful. I was full of wonder.

Writing is all about cultivating wonderment, for me. I want my readers to be appreciative of my aesthetic sensibilities, of course, but more importantly, I want them to feel wonder when they read my words. I want to conjure up that unalloyed, naive awe you cannot help but feel while experiencing a new place or a new sensation.

But how–you might ask–does one go about recreating wonder in one’s writing?

This is probably not the right answer to that question, although possibly worth a try.

I do not think there is an easy answer to that question. Each and every one of us experiences things in a unique way, and to attempt to truly reproduce a universality like wonder would be nearly impossible. I think the only way to really create that feeling in your writing is to feel it while you write. To experience every word again as though it were as new and wonderful as the first time you heard it or tasted it on your tongue or scribbled it on paper. To approach every new sentence (no matter how many times you have rewritten it) with the same wide-eyed wonderment you felt when you experienced that new place for the first time. To grasp the elusive sensation of wonderment and hang on to it for dear life as you compose paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter.

Characters can sometimes get boring. The inner landscape of the protagonist becomes a little too familiar. The scenery surrounding them loses a little color. The dialogue becomes flat and a little pointless. That’s when we, as writers, have to sit back a little and remember that we’re trying to create something wonderful, here. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction. Hang on to that wonder and make sure you infuse your writing with it. Because if you aren’t in awe of what you are writing, then your readers won’t be, either.

I am grateful for all the beauty that surrounds me, and I must learn to grow from the things that hold me back, and leave behind the things that do not allow me to grow.

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