A brief update and miscellany

Hello, lovely people.

It has been a while, hasn’t it? I can tell you the last few months have been spectacularly busy at best, and tumultuous at… less than best. Between day job issues, exciting ongoing writing projects, personal health issues, and of course the juggernaut that is National Novel Writing Month, my blog has been (accidentally) abandoned to the dark corner of the internet where neglected blogs are tossed to collect dust.

Forgive me?

And because things show no signs of slowing down in the near future, I just wanted to reach out and answer a few questions.

  • 1. Yes, I’m alive and relatively healthy, the people I love are healthy, and things are more or less okay.
  • B. My major book-publishing projects are moving forward, behind the scenes, even though they’ve been out of the limelight for a little while… both my travel memoir and my YA novel Stormriders are in their respective editing phases (to clarify, Stormriders is in the Gonna-Pull-My-Hair-Out-This-Is-Horrid part of the editing phase).
  • And thirdly, I have some exciting updates to share with you!

Updates:

I started a new project last month, for this year’s National Novel Writing Month, and on this side of November I have a 45,000-word draft for a story I’m sorta in love with. Think high fantasy meets stranger-in-a-strange-land, throwing in a few dragons and featuring a version of the feisty heroine who always finds her way into my stories somehow, and here we go again! Stay tuned.

The local writers group in Waconia is producing an anthology of our work, hopefully in early 2019! I’ve signed on as primary editor and formatting/layout designer, and the book will feature a wide range of beautiful work from our group members. More information can be found at waconiawriters.wordpress.com.

My 4-part blog series is still in progress! I began writing the third entry in The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen series a few months ago, and hope to finish the darn thing and post it live within the next few days.

Anything else?

Yes.

A note on overcoming adversity, and finding success in your writing, even when you (temporarily) physically cannot write.

Over the past week, I’ve been sidelined from all of my writing projects, due to a pinched nerve in my neck. Sidelined, meaning I’ve been forced to intermittently lie flat on my back on the floor, with an electric heating pad between my shoulder blades. For awhile, merely sitting upright was painful. Working on my laptop was excruciating. 

This has been my primary view for the past seven days straight. (Yes, that is A Christmas Prince, the finest Netflix Xmas movie ever made. Fight me.)

But in spite of my inability to use my computer, I’ve still been writing. How, you might ask? I used the time staring at my ceiling. I used every single one of those horizontal minutes to brainstorm, to think through some plot problems, and I even solved some plot holes that were previously and up to that point driving me bonkers.

My injury forced me to stop, to avoid the tempting social media distractions that are present every time I open my Chromebook, and think. I spent the better part of the past two months constantly on the go. Not saying a nerve injury is a boon, but it did present an opportunity. I had to press pause on most of my hectic daily life. Alone with my thoughts and the strange patterns on my popcorn ceiling, I had nothing to do but untangle and sift through those thoughts, prioritize the ideas I wanted to, and focus.

After a few days, I was pretty good at think-writing. I could visualize pieces of my story that I struggled to see through the blue glow of the computer screen. Fleeting ideas and concepts became tangible plot points. Characters developed true human flaws and traits; I got to spend some time with them and get to know them better. Even though I didn’t physically hold a pen or crack open my laptop, I was writing. I was creating. And those exercises were really the only things keeping me from going out of my mind.

Moral of the story: you can create, you can make progress and move forward in unconventional ways, even when life (and nerve pain) tries to blow up your process.

Fin.

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A Universe in My Head (or: The Intricacies of World-Building)

All the world is a stage, And all the men and women merely players.

~Everyone’s favorite English bard

First, you must build a world.

There are several different camps out there, when it comes to world-building for a novel. And each camp will tell us something different, when we ask the questions we were always going to ask… the questions that pile up as we writers all sit down at our favorite writing desks, and open our notebooks/computers/etc. … when we try like hell to make sense of the places we’ve envisioned, the intricate worlds that thus far live only in our heads but yet are beautiful. Vibrant. Real.

  • Do I need to build a world?
  • How much of a world should I build?
  • Do I build the whole world before writing a word of the story, or do I make it up as I write along?
  • How much of my painstakingly-built-and-now-thoroughly-complex world needs to end up in my story?

To name a few. (There are so many questions!)

Where to start building?

The important thing to understand is that there is no right or wrong way to world-build, but if you gravitate toward the speculative fiction/science fiction/fantasy genres, chances are world-building will be a necessity for you at some point. Whether you design every aspect of the world, down to the smallest detail, before you write a word of the story; or create and pull pieces of the world in as you write along… your characters cannot exist in a vacuum.

I personally fall into the first category of world-builder. For me, creating the world where my characters will be born, grow up, meet each other, fight, go on adventures, suffer loss and find happiness, has to happen before I meet my characters. The world needs to have existed long before my characters’ stories begin, and could feasibly continue to exist long after my characters have departed from it.

Your characters cannot exist in a vacuum.

How much of the world should show up in your story? We are writers, descriptive people by nature, so of course if we had our way the worlds we’ve so painstakingly created would be captured on the page, in every last vibrant detail. But the reality is, not much of the world will actually show up in the story. World-building generally is more for you, the writer, than it is for the reader. Although we spend hours (days, months, years?) developing extensive historical, social and geographical complexities of the worlds we create, the story itself may contain only whispers of the detail we’ve meticulously planned.

We use world-building as metaphorical post-it notes, to highlight a cultural reference or a social norm, to provide a supportive context as for the reason our protagonist has to captain a sailing vessel instead of drive a car to the next town over. Our characters should be living, breathing, imperfect beings; they should screw up and feel losses and care about things (more on this in another post), but their choices and actions need to be grounded in the environment around them. However, it is a balancing act between providing the appropriate amount of context and over-explanation. Too much description and focus on the world, and not on the characters, will slow a story down and ultimately will prove distracting to a reader. You want to give your characters a place to travel, interact, grow and get into trouble, without sacrificing focus on key aspects of the plot or the characters themselves.

There are many, many resources and tools that can assist writers with world-building. I’ve linked a few here that I’ve used and found incredibly helpful:

The Ultimate Guide to World-Building – Writer’s Edit

World-Building for Every Genre: A Checklist – Writers Write

Fantasy World-Building Questions List – pcwrede.com

Additional Advice and Links to World-Building Tools – Fictorians.com

List of 42 World-Building Resources – The Dabbler

30 Days of World-Building Tool – Fantasy World-Builder Guide

Article continues on Patreon.com. To read more about Worldbuilding and the world of Stormriders, subscribe to my Patreon here!

 


This is the second post in a 4-part series about The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen (According to This Author).

Part 1: Spark

Coming soon:

Part 3: I Sometimes See You When I Look in the Mirror (or: The Complexities of Character)

Part 4: Our Journey Begins Now, But How? (or: To Plot or Not to Plot)

Spark

This is the first in a 4-part series about The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen (According to This Author).


Writing a novel is an intricate, complex machine of moving parts and pieces, tasks and goals. Of the entire complex machine, to my mind there are three tasks that stand out as extraordinarily important… the foundations, the tenets, of the entire process: Setting, Characters, and Plot. These three tenets appear deceptively simple on paper. First, you must build a world. Second, you must meet the people who exist in it. And last but certainly not least… you must learn how to tell their stories.

A larger tenet looms yet higher, almost obscured from view because of its all-encompassing enormity, seldom in the limelight, often taken for granted, rarely recognized for just how vital it is. I call it Spark. (NOT the Allspark, fellow geeks… although… now that I’ve said it…)

Before we can delve into any one of Big Three, it is important to think about what sparks the movement within the machine in the first place. Think of the setting/characters/plot combo as the How of your novel… the (All)Spark is the Why.

In other words… where do the ideas come from?

After that lead-in and build-up, I’m afraid right now I have a somewhat disappointing answer to this question. During a lunchtime conversation the other day, a colleague asked me (innocently) how I come up with ideas for the stories I write. Turns out, I had an obnoxiously difficult time answering. The experience was obnoxious for him, I’m sure. Emotionally harrowing for me, indeed. After a few rambling half-hearted expository vocal blerps from out of my brain-mouth connection, ultimately my coworker walked away from the conversation with… nothing resembling a true answer.

Since then, I’ve been wondering about my process, trying to pinpoint where they come from, those elusive little sparks that ignite ideas. Some are inspired from life experiences, sure. Some, less so (I’ve never been a post-apocalyptic pirate revolutionary, nor have I ever manipulated magnetic and kinetic forces via my hands, as two recent examples). As a fantasy/speculative fiction writer, I spend most of my extra time exercising my imagination. I’m drawn to the challenge of taking fantastical and impossible concepts and turning them into relatable, probable occurrences within the scope of their universes. In order to do so, context is everything. (More on this in Part 2.)  

The best I can come up with, to explain what happens in my head, is that once in awhile I see or hear something that clicks (connects, fires a neuron, sings a siren song… pick your preferred analogy). When it clicks, I am drawn to a weird little fuzzy place in my brain where I witness the idea materialize from the ether, and watch as it sort of crosses some sort of imagination bridge, growing more substantive along the way, and becomes a story.

Look it’s a magical idea bridge!

More questions remain: How do I coax those ideas forward? How do I pick and choose which idea to coax forward? Why do some cross over into Novel Land, where others stay in the gray and abstract Land of the Unrealized? (This analogy is getting weird.)

But along those lines, I can’t be sure I even know how I recognize them, when they’re little fledglings, forlorn half-formed storylings. I’ve spent So. Much. Time. trying to hash this out. With only a few paragraphs left in this post, you may yet be completely confused. I am, too. But as difficult as all of this has been to articulate, I’m hopeful the answers might emerge from this miniseries of blog posts, answers that could hopefully address how the Spark manifests itself in my process, within the context of the stories I’m writing right now. I’ll draw examples from those stories when relevant.

And so, this is an experiment of sorts, dear readers. A real-time study of one writer figuring out The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen, According to Herself. But what I’d love is to foster conversation (and further introspection) about what our own processes entail, what the Spark demands of each of us. So please, please, PLEASE sound off in the comments if you have anything to add!

Now, on to the Big Three: Setting, Characters, and Plot.


Part 2: A Universe in My Head (or: The Intricacies of World-Building)

Coming soon:

Part 3: I Sometimes See You When I Look in the Mirror (or: The Complexities of Character)

Part 4: Our Journey Begins Now, But How? (or: To Plot or Not to Plot)

(Links will be added to the titles above as they are published)


Spring Cleaning (and Rediscovery)

– For the dreamers

A few weeks ago, while digging through my family’s storage unit, I found a plastic bin that belonged to me. One of those clear plastic tubs from Rubbermaid or Tupperware or whoever owns the assembly line that makes them and ships them to Target. I hadn’t seen that bin in several years, perhaps a decade; when I moved to Arizona for grad school, a lot of my baggage (so to speak) stayed behind, and my parents became (perhaps unwilling) custodians of the crap of my youth.

Now, nearly eight years since I moved to the Southwest, and nearly two years since I returned to Minnesota, I’ve forgotten a lot of what I’d left behind. I continued to neglect that dusty and deserted storage space that held the crumbling contents of my formative young adult years.

Now, I’m eternally grateful to my parents for holding onto what I left for them to deal with, when they just as easily could have tossed it all out.

I am thankful I found that one particular bin, because I could explore it with fresh eyes and recognize it for what it was (and is)… a treasure trove worth more than the combined caches of Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Calico Jack, and the rest of the legends of the Golden Age of Piracy.

In that nondescript plastic bin, I found a pile of my old manuscripts. 

As a writer, I’d like to think I’ve matured and grown in my craft since I started capturing my imagination on paper, since I started on that ever-exciting-yet-ever-perilous journey to write and publish a novel. However, that growth has at times been quite painful, especially since I’d all but given it up when I left for Arizona, my master’s degree, and writing of a different kind. I had all but forgotten how much I loved to dream up stories that existed in their own universes, with wildly strange and sometimes frightening characters whom I still loved, and whose glints of humanity still shone through. Stories that took me places, that I longed to share with others but of which at the same time was terrified to let go.

I placed my writing away, into the shadows, as I was required to make room for new pursuits that monopolized my time and energy. Career objectives for which I signed up to achieve. Skills and qualifications I purchased, which I was told I would need to “take me places” in practice, in actuality.

I left my writing behind as I stepped forward into a different identity, fell in and out of love in real life, and lost and remade pieces of myself in the process.

I left my writing behind as, healing from a broken relationship and not quite trusting myself, I entered into a circle of truly wonderful, supportive and creative people, enveloped by music and adventures that were rejuvenating and entertaining and diverting in the best possible way. I miss them every day, and my heart dances in anticipation of the next time we’re all together.

In the process of witnessing them pursue their own creative truths, they helped me understand that as a person who creates, it was time to start listening to my own voice again.

I began to listen. 

I found my way back to my writing when I found my way back to Minnesota. Through the continuing parade of trials and uncertainties and insecurities, through my attempts to find my footing on the next steps. My burgeoning career path abruptly coming apart from underneath me, and with the heavy burden of my educational pursuits forcing me to return to a state of pre-independence beneath my parents’ roof. Picking up the pieces once again, education and experience and career goals; pieces that don’t quite all fit together, and maybe never will.

And then I found that dusty Rubbermaid tub, full of the dusty dreams of Seventh Grade Me, and I cried. In those pages, yellowed with time and neglect, I read the soul of a girl who knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up, who absolutely knew what she was supposed to do with her life. I cried for a long time, mourning all of that time lost. I mourned that young girl who held such lofty aspirations, who understood the truth of herself… and who had been sitting so still, waiting, for so long.

And then I dusted myself off, and began to dream again.

In the Philosophy class I took my senior year in high school, we read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and one particular theme resonated with me and lingered to this day. The idea of personal legends: that we all have true destinies that reflect our true selves, and we recognize them in ourselves when we are young, but as time progresses and the burdens of life begin to weigh us down, we forget. We leave them behind.

When (or rather, if) we manage to clear away the distractions and remember what our personal legends were to be, we are then ultimately faced with the choice of whether to pursue them, or let them go for good.

In this springtime of my own personal legend… with these tattered manuscripts in hand, and with bright and shiny new ideas at my fingertips… I’ve decided to follow it, wherever it goes.

 

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Tasks (or, Un Résumé de la Vie)

My first task on this planet was to take a breath, and then another. And then, to fill my lungs with life and shout into the void my purpose for existing. I have not stopped since.

My second task on this planet was to obey. Mightily, I struggled with this task; heavy chains rattling a song of resistance as I fought tooth and nail against the oppressive directives of “Don’t Touch That” and “Eat Your Vegetables.” Mightily, I rebelled against the later executive orders of “Clean Your Room” and “Don’t Talk Back To Me” and “Be Back In This House One Minute Before Your Curfew.” And then, much later, from the distance of new adulthood and the separation of three hundred cell phone towers, “Be Safe And Make Good Choices.” This task has a limited shelf life, diminishing in value as the years pass, and attached is the critical conditional clause: “Unless When Confronted With Oppression Or Injustice.”

My third task on this planet was to be kind. To lift up the fallen and heal the wounded with words of strength and actions of support. The third task is the most difficult of all the tasks at times, when you are the one licking your own wounds, when you must pick yourself up after a tumble. But this task eventually takes a form much like the first. When you hold the hand of a bullied schoolmate, or sit next to the woman wearing a headscarf on the bus to shield her from verbal shrapnel, to perform this task carries the weight of indrawn oxygen.

My fourth task on this planet is to see. To open my eyes and keep them wide open. To witness the life experiences of others through a lens that does not belong to me. To stare at the bright glare of the truth, no matter how it burns through the safe protective shield of my own life experience. No matter how it hurts.

My fifth task on this planet is to listen. If you listen hard enough, you can hear music in the strangest of places. If you listen hard enough, you can hear the whispers of your childhood dreams in dark corners, revealing themselves to you again and again. If you listen hard enough, you can hear what people mean to say, even when they don’t speak out. Or even when they shout.

My sixth task on this planet is to be present. To pay attention to what is happening now, even while remembering what happened a long time ago, while imagining the happenings to come. To stand in one place, unafraid and undaunted, and be here, and belong.

My seventh task on this planet is to create. To fill the void with something other than my shouted purpose. To take beautiful things and ugly things and painful things, and forge the spark that lodges and burns recognition into someone else’s soul. To pull stories from the ether and scorch them into words onto the kindling of my notebooks. To obey the Muse. To lift up the voices, the stories, of the oppressed. To tell the truth. To hear the dreams of my own childhood whispering to me in echoes.   

This résumé will not land me a job; not in the traditional, societal sense. This particular curriculum vitae will not earn me tenure in the career field called Life; none of us live forever. But I have to wonder… in this cosmic karma machine of birth and death, work and play, waiting and doing, creating and destroying, seeking and finding, living and dying… I have to wonder if I’m hired.

 

Author’s Note: This piece originated from a writing prompt “My First Job” for the Waconia Writer’s Group, 2/12/17. (You can see how well I adhere to the concept of literalism.)

 

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