Archive for writing life

writing life

Tidying up the Books

Book Internet has been all abuzz lately with furor over Marie Kondo’s advice about clearing out books. I haven’t seen her TV show, since I don’t do Netflix (too busy reading), but I have read her book, and I suspect that the people getting upset about her advice haven’t read her book because I thought her advice made a lot of sense.

For one thing, she never says you should have just 30 books. She says that as you go through the process of deciding which of your possessions truly “spark joy,” you’ll start to get the sense of the ideal number of possessions for you, what makes you feel happy and peaceful. For her, she’s realized it’s about 30 books, but she recognizes that some people, particularly writers, will need more.

The thing that I suspect is really getting to people is her idea that you shouldn’t have a lot of books you haven’t read, that if you don’t read a book soon after buying it, you probably aren’t all that interested in reading it and don’t need to keep it.

That actually makes some sense to me, but I don’t really have an ordinary To Be Read pile in that I didn’t buy most of my books. For someone who reads as much as I do, I don’t buy a lot of books. For the most part, I buy a book when I want to read the book, and it’s only traffic laws that keep me from reading it on the way home from the bookstore (I don’t even like Amazon because when I want to read a book, I want to go to the store right then and buy the book, not wait for it to be shipped to me). I’m actually more likely to get books from the library, so the books I buy are the ones I already know I’m going to want to keep, or they’re books I’ve already read and know I want to have my own copy of. The exception is my friends’ books that I buy to support them, usually at conventions or booksignings, and then they may or may not be something I want to read NOW or even something I’m super interested in reading. I don’t do a lot of book-buying sprees of buying random things that look kind of interesting, other than reference books at library book sales.

Most of the books in my Strategic Book Reserve are books I didn’t buy. One of the lovely things about being a writer is that people want to give you books. Writers read a lot and talk a lot about books, so a good way to get a book talked about is to give it to writers and hope they’ll talk about it and spread some buzz. If you go to writing conferences, you frequently get given a tote bag of books. Publishers may host signings where the books are free. At my first few conferences, I kind of went nuts with all the free books, but then I learned that I wasn’t likely to read them all. Now I’m very selective and only take the ones that really interest me.

But I still have a lot of books I haven’t read, and I’ve started sorting through them, being brutally honest with myself about whether or not I have any interest in reading them. Most of the ones I’m getting rid of are romance novels I’ve had for more than twenty years, and getting rid of those has been a weirdly emotional process because it means really facing my own goals and my choices.

My ambition has always been to be a fantasy or science fiction writer. I got sidetracked into romance during the summer after I graduated from college, when I was stuck on a farm while I looked for a job. There was no library in town, and the nearest bookstore was at least 15 miles away. Not that I had the money to buy books or the transportation, since my car had become unreliable and I had to borrow one of my parents’ cars to go anywhere. So, I read what was handy, which included my mom’s stash of Harlequin and Silhouette romances. I liked a lot about them, but didn’t ever find one that had me saying “yes, this is it, this is what I like,” so I had the common wannabe writer reaction of “I could do this better” and set out to try. When I did get a job and moved to the city, I looked for writing groups and stumbled upon a Romance Writers of America chapter. It was about the only really substantial writing organization that taught about the business and the craft. That strengthened my career goal of writing romances. The problem was, I hadn’t realized the difference between “I like this thing, and I think I could do it better than some of the people who are doing it” and “I like some things about this but don’t really like it, and I want to write it the way I like it.” I had some success, but I’m a classic overachiever, so I managed to power through and actually do it in spite of not liking it and not being all that suited to it, but it was a massive struggle. It was only when the romantic comedy chick lit books showed up that I realized that what I actually liked wasn’t genre romance. Then I got the idea to add magic and remembered that what I’d really wanted was to write fantasy.

Facing all those romance novels I’d amassed during that time when I was trying to be something I wasn’t meant facing the fact that I might have delayed my own career by sticking to the wrong thing for so long. It meant addressing my dishonesty with myself, my sense of failure, the sense of letting people down. It meant noticing the friends I’d had and lost when I drifted away from that world and the hurt that came from realizing that they didn’t seem to have missed me at all. But then it felt really good to be able to just hand those books over to the Friends of the Library for their sale and get all those old reminders out of my house. Clearing out the To-Be-Read books I will never read has made it easier for me to see and keep track of the books I might read, the more recent fantasy books I’m getting at conferences now, the ones I carefully choose out of all the ones in my tote bag.

Meanwhile, I’m going through my bookcases and rearranging the shelves, which means sorting through my old books, and I’m trying to be honest with myself about whether I’ll really re-read something, whether having that book makes me happy or whether it’s just taking up room on my shelf. I know I’ll end up with many times more than 30 books, but I think I’ll be much happier when the books on my main shelves are all things I’ve read, loved, and want to read again and when the To-Be-Read shelves are manageable enough that I don’t feel oppressed by them. I think that’s all Marie Kondo seems to be trying to teach people, so maybe we could ease off on the cries of “monster!”

writing life

Feeding the Muses

I’ve been trying to use my time more productively, so even if I’m procrastinating, I’m still doing something worthwhile. As an alternative to clicking around on social media while I’m putting off doing something, I dug into my files and found a bunch of online courses I took about a decade ago. Some of them, I actually remember taking, but I’ve changed and my career has changed, so my answers to all the homework assignments are totally different. Some I don’t even remember taking. If I really don’t want to do whatever it is that I should be doing, at least I’m reading this material and doing the exercises, which is moderately helpful. It’s also been good this week since I’ve spent much of the week waiting on a plumber. I had an appointment on Wednesday, and when the appointment window passed with no word, I called, and they thought my appointment was Thursday (I’m almost certain it was Wednesday because I took the first open slot after the holiday). Then Thursday they called and said one of their trucks broke down, so could I reschedule for Friday. Now I’m waiting yet again. I can’t really focus on writing when I’m waiting, so doing these courses is a good way to spend the time.

Anyway, one of the courses was on finding and nourishing your “muses.” I’m not sure why I have these materials because I’ve never been that big into the “woo woo” side of writing. I haven’t named my muse, I don’t talk about “the girls in the basement” or anything like that, so I doubt I would have paid for this course. It must have been a bonus offering or something that came with a writing group membership. But the theme of the year is exploring, so why not?

The course encouraged us to really visualize our muses — the creative part of our subconscious — and then that will allow you to figure out how to feed and care for them so they can be even more creative and you can learn to listen to their input. I’ve never really thought of my creative side other than as The Voices (as in “the voices in my head said I should do this”), but I decided that if I have muses, they’re a group kind of like the Inklings, that group at Oxford that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I imagine a group of professors hanging out in pubs and tea rooms, chatting about fantasy by the fire over cups of tea, or else they take long rambles around the countryside, making up stories as they go. Feeding these muses would involve going to libraries and bookstores, sitting by the fire with a cup of tea, or taking long walks.

Since it was a cold, dreary day yesterday, I decided to take “feeding” literally and made crumpets and tea to have by the fireplace (my fireplace is filled with candles so I can get the warm glow without the hassle or mess). I don’t know if it sparked any creativity, but it was a fun break in the day and I still met my working time goal (the crumpets have to rise for about 45 minutes, which put a nice timer on a writing session).

crumpets and tea
Now I’ll have to make time for other things my professors might enjoy.

writing life

The Closet vs. the Book

I am tentatively planning the Epic Closet Purge this weekend. I need to do the seasonal closet changeover, anyway, as the old suitcase full of my winter clothes is currently sitting in the closet floor, where I’ve been pulling things out as needed. I need to pull the summer things out of the closet to make room for the winter things, and that makes it a good time to really evaluate the summer things as I take them out and the winter things as I put them away.

When I’m trying to clear out my closet, I have a bad habit of not wanting to get rid of anything. Either I’m still wearing things (whether or not I should) or I have sentimental attachments based on where I got things or where I’ve worn things. Sometimes it’s good when I stumble upon something I haven’t worn in ages and realize it makes a good outfit with something else, so it’s like shopping in my closet. But other times it means I’m hanging on to things I never wear. Then when it’s time to get dressed, I stare at a closet full of things I supposedly love too much to get rid of and wail, “I hate all my clothes and have nothing to wear!”

The “tentatively” part is because I’m really on a roll with this book I’m working on. I know what will happen several scenes ahead, and I’m having fun writing it. I want to be writing rather than having to force myself to write. When I’m supposed to be writing, I often have cleaning and organizing urges. I desperately want to purge and organize my closet. Now that I really need to purge and organize my closet, I desperately want to write.

So, I may not quite get to the full-on “take everything out and assess each item as to whether it sparks joy in you” purge. I may get rid of a few of the obvious things while I do a seasonal swap and then get back to writing. And then when I’m working on something else, maybe I’ll act on the “I must organize my closet” urge.

writing life

Morning Writing

I’ve always rolled my eyes at those “I get up at four and get all my words done before the day starts” writers. I’ve also rolled my eyes at the advice to get started on writing first thing in the morning, before you do anything else. I’ve never been much of a morning person. Even when my body clock started to shift last year, I wasn’t what real morning people would consider a morning person, and getting up earlier didn’t mean I started thinking earlier. I felt like I needed time to ease into the morning. I like to read the newspaper over breakfast and tea. Reading e-mail and various social media feeds was a way to warm up my brain and get going.

But I’ve been reading a number of things lately about getting started first thing in the morning with the most important thing you need to do, and I’ve seen testimonials from other writers about the difference it made to write first before doing anything else. I’ve been doing that somewhat over the last week, but I really dove in yesterday.

I still eased my way into the day somewhat, since I read the newspaper and ate breakfast, then took a walk. During the walk, I brainstormed a bit about the book I’m working on, imagining scenes and thinking about my characters. When I got home, I wrote down the things I’d thought about. Then I started writing. I managed to get half my target word count done before lunch, and I still managed to read my social media feeds and post a few things. I had time before lunch to practice some of my choir music. After lunch, I shut off the wi-fi again for another good writing session, and instead of the reflexive check e-mail, check the feeds break, I did a little tidying around the house. By the end of the day, I’d written more than 6,000 words, and I still had a little free time before the end of the work day.

The funny thing was, I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. I did more of what I wanted to do when I wasn’t wasting time doing mindless stuff. I don’t know how much of that has to do with writing early, but I think that helps with getting started. Starting is always the hardest part, breaking out of what I call the “doom loop” of reading the feeds, posting something, then going back to see if anyone’s responded or posted anything new. Once I’ve started, keeping going is easier, and starting before doing anything else does seem to help.

So, I’m sold. I guess I have a new work schedule.

writing life

Patio Office

It’s deadline week, So I’ll be digging in and focusing on my work. Not that it’s a do-or-die deadline. The final book is due in January. But I want to have time to revise it and also enjoy the holidays, so I’d like to finish this draft by the end of this week. I’m off to a good start. I got up early this morning and have already walked a couple of miles and written a couple of thousand words, along with planning out what I want to write today.

It’s a really nice day, so I’ve been enjoying Patio Office. That started when I thought I’d have a cup of tea on the patio after my walk while I did some brainstorming, then I decided to just haul the laptop outside and work. That way, I can enjoy fall and still get my words done.

Patio OfficeWhile I enjoy optimizing things, I also know that it’s good to shake things up every so often. Ruts are bad for creativity. I also like to take advantage of my flexible working conditions. I don’t have to sit in an office all day. Moving around keeps things fresh. I haven’t tried writing in public, though, since I’m easily distracted. I don’t think I’d get much done in a coffee shop, though I have gone to the coffee shop by the library to brainstorm and plot. I’ve gone to parks for brainstorming and plotting, too, especially when I need to be near water. Fortunately, I live near a lot of water, so it’s easy to find a place to sit by the water and think. Patio Office, taking my laptop desk onto my patio, is my way of getting away from the house to write. The wi-fi extends outside, but I don’t really think about going online when I’m outside, so I’m less likely to have the impulse. I can’t see any books I want to read or housework I need to do, so my only distractions come from nature, like watching the lizards sunning themselves, the snails creeping their way up the trellis, or the flowers blooming. And sometimes the mosquitoes that need swatting. My morning glory didn’t make it this year—between caterpillars and whiteflies, it got stripped of all its leaves—but my mum is blooming for the third year in a row.

It sure beats a desk in an office.

writing life

Flying Ideas

I totally forgot to post yesterday. I was so excited to get started writing and pleased with myself for being ahead of schedule — and then last night I realized that I was ahead of schedule because I skipped something. Oops.

But it was a really productive day. I wrote 5,000 words, planned today’s writing, and did some research reading for a future project.

Unfortunately, as tends to happen in this phase of a book, that research reading collided with an idea fragment to come up with a whole new story. It’s not ready to write, but it could be fun.

And then a conversation with my agent brought a very old (like, 20 years ago) story back to life in my head.

Yep, I’m in the middle of a book. That’s when I seem to be at my most creative. Ideas are flying around, demanding attention. The trick is to write down what I know when they hit me, then I realize they’re nowhere ready to write, and I can get back to what I was doing. Until the next idea hits.

I need brain blinders.

I’m finding it does help to turn off my wi-fi on my computer when I’m writing to stay focused, except the main character in the book I’m working on tends to go into research mode as a way of dealing with things, and when she looks something up, I need to run that same search to see what she might find. It’s not always what you’d think. Then it takes discipline to not go “oh, I’ll just check my e-mail while I’m online,” when turns into “and then I’ll pop by Facebook and Twitter.”

I probably won’t hit 5,000 words today because I have choir tonight and need to get a lesson plan together, but it would be cool if I could manage it.

writing life

Real-Life Research Adventures

This was supposed to be yesterday’s blog post, but my Internet was down all day (apparently, there was a lightning strike and a fire at an AT&T facility that took out their primary power and their backup, so no Internet or phone for me for about twelve hours), so here it is today:

I had quite the adventure this weekend. The Writers in the Field event was taking place. It’s a sort of writing conference focusing on research, with various experts in things writers need to research giving presentations and available for questions. And because it really is in a field (more of a farm that’s been turned into an event venue, like a mini Renaissance Festival grounds), some of these things can really get hands-on. There’s archery, where you can learn about different kinds of bows and arrows and actually get to shoot some. There are various kinds of weapons demonstrations, from swords to guns. There are martial arts demonstrations. People from the forensics lab had set up a crime scene. Historical re-enactors set up camps. It’s all very cool and the kind of stuff you can’t get anywhere else.

However, since this is on a farm, weather can become an issue. We’ve had record-breaking amounts of rain this fall, so the ground has been soaked already. It rained a lot last week. Then the remnants of a tropical storm hit us on Friday and Saturday.

I almost didn’t go on Saturday because it was raining pretty hard, but on the news that morning they said it would clear out by afternoon, so I headed out. On my way there, my tire pressure warning light came on, so I pulled off the road, looked up the nearest Discount Tire on my phone, and got them to check my tires. It turns out it was just the change in weather affecting pressure, and by the time they were done airing up my tires, the rain had eased, so I decided to keep going. They were directing us to park at some harder surface lots nearby, and I was just in time for them to start that warning, so I got a good space. And then I was very glad I’d worn my waterproof hiking boots because it seems like all the runoff in the area ran through this site. Not only was there a great deal of mud, but there were a few inches of water on top of the mud. I went through a couple of the demonstrations and learned how a weaving loom works, but then decided I was done with wading and went to one of the indoor sessions. Midway through that session (on avoiding common mistakes of depicting medicine in fiction), people started pouring into the building. It turned out that there was a tornado warning, so they were bringing everyone inside. That turned into a networking session, where they pointed out the experts and you could go talk to them. I ended up hanging out with some friends who were there and chatting about writing. We got the all-clear and the rain stopped, so I went to a few more things and then decided to head home. The “waterproof” in my boots wasn’t up to a day of wading and my feet were cold and wet. Fortunately, I had a different pair of shoes for driving (since my boots were covered in mud) and I’d brought a pair of dry socks. It was nice to get home and heat up some beef stew and be warm and dry.

Sunday morning, I had to direct the kindergarten choir in the early service, and then I headed out again. It was dry — as in not raining, but there was still mud. They’d filled up the alternative parking, so they had me park on the grounds and said they could get me out if I got stuck. The ground wasn’t so bad without all the standing water, but the mud was epic. I got to go to all the sessions I wanted, though, which meant I got a couple of plot points for something I’m working on. I also got a couple of resource book recommendations, got to shoot some arrows (and learn which muscles I need to work on if I really want to do that), and learned some basics of lock picking and got to try it (let’s just say that a criminal career is not in the cards for me). Then it took three guys pushing to get my car out of the parking swamp and onto the drive. A Ford Focus is not your best bet for off-roading, it seems. I went through a drive-through car wash on the way home to clear off the worst of the mud, and I got home just as a new front was drastically dropping temperatures.

Now it may take a day or so for the mud on my boots to dry so I can chisel it off. I may invest in a pair of galoshes in case I ever do anything like this again. I’ve learned that walking through mud is excellent exercise. When a storm woke me during the night, I ended up lying awake for a while because all the muscles in my legs were suddenly aching, and I feel the archery in my back and shoulders. But it was all a great experience. There’s something about seeing something in real life that looking things up on the Internet or reading a book can’t replicate.

writing life

Thinking Time

I guess I still had thinking I needed to do, or else there was a big part of me that really wanted to play hooky on a glorious fall day because I had a hard time concentrating. I ended up walking to the library because something I’d requested that’s a reference for this book had come in (which counts as work, right?), and I did some work on the patio, cleaning up after last week’s round of rain (just in time for this weekend’s round of rain). Then when I sat down to brainstorm, I had a much clearer idea of what I needed to fix. I’m still early enough in the book that I need to solidify some things. The proposal for this book was really vague, which means I need to get more specific now, and that means making some decisions about how, exactly, the magic works in this world and finding ways to hint at that in the early pages.

And since I’m still in the part where the heroine doesn’t know what’s going on while various forces are acting upon her, I need to figure out what the plans of the various forces are and what they’re doing. I want to give just enough of a hint that something’s not right without making the heroine look like an idiot for not noticing it.

This is a challenge.

But after yesterday’s crystal-clear blue skies and just barely warm temperatures, it’s gloomy and rainy today, which means it’s perfect for curling up to write a good book.

writing life

Origins and Influences: Children’s Fantasy

Earlier this year, I started a series of posts about the works that influenced me, that inspired me to write or to want that kind of story and that have probably shaped what I write now. There were fairy tales and musical theater, girl sleuths and Star Wars. And then I got sidetracked and forgot to continue the series. So, back on track!

In addition to Star Wars, my fourth-grade year also introduced me to a lot of children’s fantasy. My teacher used to read a chapter of a book to us every day after we came in from recess. It was a great way to get everyone settled down again. She’d turn off the lights, so we just had the sunlight coming in through a wall of windows, and we’d sit at our desks (with our heads down if we wanted) while she read. I think that was my first introduction to fantasy. I don’t remember all the books she read, but I do know she read us The Hobbit. It was around the time the animated TV version came out, and they sent the schools a lot of curriculum material to go with it.

She also read us the Roald Dahl books, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and the Great Glass Elevator, the sequel) and James and the Giant Peach. I believe she also read us some of the E.B. White books, including The Mouse and the Motorcycle and The Trumpet of the Swan.

Of course, I wasn’t at all satisfied with the chapter-a-day pace, so if I got into a book she’d started reading us, I’d check it out of the library and read the whole thing right away, then go find everything else by that author. That’s why it’s hard for me to remember exactly which books she read — the ones read in class blur with the ones I sought out on my own after hearing the beginning of a book in class.

It was around this time that I first started getting the itch to write my own stories. I’d always been making up stories in my head, and I sometimes even thought in narrative, but I started wanting to try to write them down, and the books I was reading made me want to tell stories like that. I remember my first attempt coming from an assignment in that class, when we were supposed to write a story about a picture the teacher showed us. I think all she really expected was a paragraph or two, a page at most, but mine spiraled out of control. I had backstory for all the people in the picture and a full plot. I was nowhere near done with it when it was time to hand it in, but after I showed my start to the teacher, she let me take as long as I needed to finish it. Nearly a week later, I handed in something that was probably close to novella length, and I could have gone on but I wrapped things up fairly abruptly because I figured I was pushing it to take that long to turn in a classroom assignment.

I’d always been drawn to fantasy-related things, and there had been a phase in which I’d check any book with “witch” in the title out of the library, since Bewitched syndicated reruns were the most popular TV show among the neighborhood girls, but this was when I started exploring other kinds of fantasy beyond witch stories and fairy tales.

writing life

Finding the Joy

Oops, I wrote this blog post yesterday, but it seems I never actually got around to posting it. So, time to update it for today.

I finished my draft Tuesday! I had kind of planned to take a break from writing and do other stuff, but two hours later, I was working on something else, a project that’s gnawing at my brain. It’s still not ready for prime time, but I enjoy doing development work on it.

And then that night, yet another fiction universe that’s been in my head for a while popped up to make itself known. The whole opening scene came to me.

While it’s a little irritating because of the distraction, it’s also rather reassuring. I’ve been slogging through the last couple of projects, but being inspired by something may mean it’s the projects, not me. Writing something different may remind me that I started doing this because it was fun. I actually started thinking about whether I maybe needed to look into actual jobs, if I was slogging through writing the way I used to slog through my old career. But then I realized that there’s not much out there that I’d care to do that I’m qualified for, and I love the life I have too much. So what I need to do is find projects that feel like playing and find the joy again.

I still have to finish one of these projects and do a final draft. The other may get backburnered for a while because I need to love it again, and right now, I don’t. I’m going to work on things that feel like fun and maybe see if I can get excited again.