#IWSG: Genre-morphing–and a question for my readers

Happy IWSG Day! For those who are new here, I participate in the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. This month’s optional question is: Have you ever written a piece that became a form, or even a genre, you hadn’t planned on writing in? Or do you choose a form/genre in advance?

Before I get to this month’s question, I have a question for anyone reading this post: Would you be interested in a series of posts loosely related to self-help for writers? I’m not talking about over-the-top, Stewart Smalley style self-help but rather some practical ideas from self-help literature, applied specifically to writing. I’ve been looking for a focus for this blog, besides my own self-indulgence, and I’m interested in helping other writers find time to write, build positive habits, set goals, and make progress. What do y’all think? Has that topic been done to death, or is there room for more?

OK, now for this month’s IWSG question. My first novel, Vanishing, Inc., started out as a murder mystery/ghost story and morphed into a time travel romance. Both paranormal, but other than that, pretty different. I woke up one morning with the idea of a terminally-ill woman in a 19th century cottage built on a thin place. The closer she got to death, the thinner the veil would become between this world and the next, and the more she would be able to interact with the house’s spectral residents. I imagined that the ghosts would somehow reveal that a murder was committed there, and our unfortunate protagonist would have to identify the murderer before she died.

Somewhere in the early planning, my idea shifted. My protagonist became a battered wife hiding from her abusive ex in a small Arizona town. She rents a cottage built on a thin place–a fact she discovers when a man from 1910 materializes in her living room. Once I landed on that concept, the various plot pieces more or less fell into place, which is a lucky thing, because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

It’s now about six years later, and Vanishing, Inc. is in what I sincerely hope is the final round of revision before I hire a professional editor. Then there will be another round of revisions, and then I’ll enter query hell. I still hope to write the ghost story, but I see it being more of a novella. Someday…

My writing ritual (warning: it ain’t pretty)

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeHappy IWSG Day! For those who are new here, I participate in the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. Details and signup here. This month’s optional question is: Do you have any rituals that you use when you need help getting into the zone?

I hope my fellow IWSG-ers have some great responses to this question. I need all the ideas I can get, because right now my ritual for getting in the zone is pretty simple: sit my butt down in front of my computer and get to work. I wrote about that process in a post last December.

Part of why I don’t employ much in the way of writing rituals is that I have so little time to write. There are tons of rituals that I think (and sometimes know) would help me:

  • Freewriting, like the morning pages Julia Cameron writes about in The Artist’s Way
  • Exercise. Aerobic exercise in particular tends to fuel my creativity.
  • Meditation, wonderful for clearing the mind and tapping into the subconscious.

In fact, my ideal writing ritual would go something like this:

  1. Get up around sunrise. Eat and caffeinate while writing morning pages.
  2. Go for a “run.” “Run” is in quotation marks, because I would be running for less than half the time. But some running is better than no running, right?
  3. Meditate for 5 or 10 minutes.
  4. Shower.
  5. Write.

My actual writing ritual looks more like this:

  1. Sleep later than I planned, because I stayed up too late. Again.
  2. Grab some cereal and a Diet Coke. Check my watch. Crap. Less than an hour till I have to start work (and before corona, it was, Crap. I have to leave for work in 15 minutes.)
  3. Sit down, shovel Frosted Mini-Wheats into my food hole, swig my magic elixir of caffeine and aspartame, and agonize about what to work on: the paid writing gig (boring but $$), the novel I’m editing, the novel I’m writing, the short story I’m editing, the short story I’m writing, or the blog post I’ve been putting off for a week and oh crap tomorrow is IWSG Day and what the hell am I going to say to a worldwide audience of fellow writers when I can’t even figure out a decent writing routine…
  4. Pick whichever one I think will most likely entice my muse (the drunken floozy) to put down the tequila bottle and grace me with her inebriated and slightly stinky presence.
  5. Write. Get into the zone. And realize it’s time to start my day job.

Yes, I could get my sh*t together, get up an hour earlier, and go through the ideal routine (and the once or twice in 6 years that I did it, it felt great). Or I can accept that I am the way I am and that any method that lets me get the work done is the right method for me.

How about y’all? Have you found a routine that works for you? Or is your “process” as messy as mine?

We’re all fine here, now, thank you. How are you?

How are you holding up?

Y’all doing okay?

Going crazy yet?

These are the standard greetings in the Coronazoic age. And now it’s the monthly IWSG question: In this time when our world is in crisis with the covid-19 pandemic, our optional question this month is: how are things in your world? (Want to see some other great IWSG posts? Check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools)

So, how am I? I’m fine.

I’m a homebody by nature, and I’m very good at entertaining myself. So for the most part, I’m one of those annoying people that get ridiculed regularly in quarantine memes. I’m working at home–productively–and making time for professional development. I’m writing regularly, cooking from scratch, reading, getting adequate sleep on a regular schedule, taking walks outside, and working in my garden. Hell, I’m exercising more than I have in years. I think it must be quarantine-induced insanity, but I’ve become obsessed with my step count and hyper-competitive in the FitBit Workweek Hustle challenge I participate in with co-workers. As I write this, it’s not quite 2 PM, and I have over 10,000 steps. But I’m not in first place–damn you, Sue B.–so I need to find a way to blog and walk at the same time.

I’m also more relaxed than I’ve been in at least two decades. Call it quarantine if you want. I’m calling it an extended retreat or maybe a sabbatical.

So, yeah, I’m doing just fine.

But.

When I lie in bed at night after a long day of productivity and feeding the FitBit, I look at my husband and wonder if I’ll lose him to this damn disease. Or if he’ll lose me. If our son will lose a parent. Or (please, God, no) both parents.

I read about someone younger than me dying of this thing, and I feel the tube in my throat, hear the rasp of the ventilator. Or feel the air hunger as I gasp on a gurney in a hospital hallway, because there are no ICU beds and no ventilators.

I should make a list of all our accounts and insurance policies with passwords and contact information, so if I go, my husband and son will know what to do. But I don’t do that. I can’t do that. Because I am a coward, and if I do that, I will have to face the possibility such an act implies. And I can’t.

Better get some more steps in instead. Gotta catch up to Sue B. Does that woman ever sit down?

I contemplate the next few months–or years–and I remember my father’s stories of growing up during the Great Depression. Of going to bed hungry. Of squabbling with his siblings over the last chicken foot. Because that’s what the children got: the feet. The adults were working to help the family survive and needed the meatier pieces so they would have the strength to keep going.

Please, God, don’t let my son have to live like that.

I look at my friends list on Facebook and wonder whose page will become a memorial. Whose family will grieve. Whose spark of life will disappear from the world forever.

And I take another walk or pick up a book or watch another webinar until the blanket of denial is thick enough to shield me from the possibilities I cannot bear to face. I lounge in an oversized Def Leppard t-shirt and grease-stained yoga pants, fashion icon that I am, and grasp at whatever I can reach to keep the fear at bay, to retain some sense of control in a world running further off the rails with every presidential press conference.

How am I doing? I’m fine. We’re all fine here, now, thank you.

How are you?

 

IWSG: Traditions and addictions

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Greetings fellow insecure writers! And if you’re new here and not familiar with the IWSG, click on over there and check it out (after you read my post. You wouldn’t to hurt my insecure writer fee-fees, would you?) This post is part of the monthly IWSG blog hop. If you’d like to see some other great IWSG posts, check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools).

This month’s optional question: Other than the obvious holiday traditions, have you ever included any personal or family traditions/customs in your stories?

My current novel in progress is a thriller set where I grew up, near the San Joaquin Delta. It includes some autobiographical details, though my main character is most definitely Not Me, and she faces lots of dangers that would have left Actual Me crumpled in a broken, twitching heap. But still, it’s been fun to season the story with settings and events from my own life. So this month’s IWSG question is timely.

My main character’s father is based loosely on my own father. He wasn’t much for holidays or family traditions, but we did have one annual tradition that was inviolable: Derby Day. My father had a gambling problem, and horse races were his absolute favorite way to lose money. Even when he didn’t have a bet going, we watched the Kentucky Derby (and the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes) every. single. year, including all the pre-race coverage.

Triple Crown race days were some of the few times I saw my father genuinely happy, genuinely excited about something. Mostly he endured life, grinding through the days, self-medicating his depression with whatever addiction currently held him in its clutches. But on race days, there was a light in his eyes, a tiny window into the charming, funny man my mother fell in love with. A man I rarely got to see.

And so there is horse racing in my new novel and even a reference or two to Derby Day. And as I write this character and her father, I am finding a new understanding of my own dad, deeply flawed and deeply wounded, yet steadfast in his love for me. Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent most of my life trying to make peace with dad, though he’s been in his grave for well over 30 years. I don’t know if we can ever truly make peace with those who both hurt us and are part of us, but through fiction, through digging deep into characters and motivations, maybe we can get a little closer to that elusive state.

How about you, fellow insecure writers? Have you ever tried working out real-life relationships on the page?

 

Writing as an act of faith

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[Lewis Carroll] understands that the text you create is an object that collides with the mind of the reader–and that some third thing, which is completely unknowable, is made. –Jesse Ball, “The Edge of Sense,” in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process (Penguin, 2017)

Tomorrow is IWSG Day, and until about 20 minutes ago, I didn’t have a topic or even an idea for this month’s post. Then I read Jesse Ball’s lovely essay on Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, encountered the quote above, and was reminded yet again of how big a role faith plays in my writing. I don’t mean religious faith, though that too can play a big role in writing, but faith that the ideas will come, the words will come, and the words and ideas together will make something that resonates with a reader in ways I cannot fully imagine.

Like most insecure writers (Digression alert! Are there any secure writers? “Secure writer” sounds like an oxymoron.), I often approach my writing with trepidation. My brain is mush. The well is dry. My muse, the drunken floozie, is hung over yet again and not showing up for work. Ideas? I ain’t got no stinkin’ ideas. And then a movie will start playing in my head, or I’ll see a person walking down the street who practically begs to become a character, or I’ll remember some random event from thirty years ago, and I’m back in the writing groove. Some people call this magic, “inspiration.” Some people insist on waiting for it before they start writing. The rest of us like to get work done, so we get on with it and hope the muse takes a couple of aspirin and graces us with her half-drunk presence. And often enough, she does.

And yet each day, the fear creeps back in. What if, this day, the muse is passed out in some skeezy alley (Digression alert! Have you ever seen an alley that wasn’t skeezy?) instead of delivering her daily dose of inspiration? What makes me able to sit down and start typing anyway is… faith. Faith that the words and ideas will come. Faith that the muse will appear. Sometimes I feel like one of the Israelites, following Moses around in the desert and wondering if my daily dose of manna will fall from heaven. If you read that story (it’s in Exodus, don’t ask me the chapter and verse, and I’m too lazy to look it up), you’ll learn that each morning the manna fell, and if the Israelites tried to save it for the next day, it would spoil. But of course some of them tried anyway, because even though the manna fell each day, they feared that maybe the next day it would not. I’m betting some of those doubters were writers. (Digression alert! Can’t you just picture them lugging their stone tablets and chisels across the desert and grumbling about the lack of coffee to wash down their manna? Just me then? OK.)

Even when the words come, we writers face another form of insecurity: Will we find the right words? Many of us see our stories like movies in our heads, only with full sensory detail. It’s the ultimate in high-def–or maybe smellavision. But how do we communicate what we see and hear and smell and taste and feel so that the reader sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels it just like we do? How do we get the reader to share our understanding, our insights, our epiphanies? The answer is: We can’t.

We agonize over the perfect word, the perfect detail, to create some sort of Vulcan mind-meld with the reader, but we don’t live in a Star Trek episode (Digression alert! If I did live in a Star Trek episode, I’d be a redshirt.) Instead, as Ball writes, our words will collide with the mind of the reader and create a brand new thing. That new thing will be unique to the single, specific combination of writer and reader, and we don’t get to control it. That beautiful movie playing in my head will never play in a reader’s head in exactly the same way, because the reader’s movie will be shaped by their experiences, their culture, and their identity at least as much as by the words I agonize over. Sucks, yes?

Maybe not.

If I can get over myself, I can find this truth to be liberating. Yes, I should still try for the best words, the most vivid images, the most resonant cadence I can create. But I’m not entirely responsible for the result. So I don’t have to beat my head against my keyboard for three hours, searching for the perfect word, image, or cadence. I can give it my best shot, hope I improve it upon revision, and eventually let it go out into the world, trusting that it will resonate with some reader, somewhere, in ways I can neither imagine nor control. In other words, I must have faith–in my own ability, yes, but also in my readers and what they bring to the page.

And so we come to the end of my February IWSG post, a post that came about because Ball’s words collided with my mind at just the right time and in just the right way to help me think about writing in a new way. And my manna is received, my faith is affirmed, for yet another day.

Want to see some other great IWSG posts? Check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools).

IWSG: My love-hate relationship with writing

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeThe January question for the Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop is:

What started you on your writing journey? Was it a particular book, movie, story, or series? Was it a teacher/coach/spouse/friend/parent? Did you just “know” suddenly you wanted to write?

I’ve always written, and I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with writing. I hated writing assignments in school. Hated. Them. I’d whine and complain and fuss and struggle and whine and complain some more. Then I’d suck it up, write the stupid paper, and get an A on it.

At the same time that I was being a huge whiny baby about writing assignments, I was journaling. I started a diary when I was about 10, which expanded into a journal by the time I was in middle school. My journals then were either spiral notebooks or stacks of binder paper held together with ancient report binders I inherited from my grandmother. Yes, I inherited office supplies from my grandmother. I still have a few of ‘em too. Did I mention my grandmother died in 1979? Anyone wanna buy a vintage porcelain stamp licker?

2020-01-07 18.38.33

But I digress.

So I’d sit in my room writing, copying down song lyrics, or jotting down the weekly top 40 from Casey Kasem for posterity. Yes, the entire top 40. All 4 hours of it, just about every Saturday morning. I was a nerd with no life, OK?

But I digress.

In my journal I collected ideas and pop culture and random written crap the way a magpie collects shiny things. And I wrote. Sometimes pages at a time. Sometimes I felt compelled to write. Sometimes I still do. But if someone told me I had to write a particular kind of paper about a particular kind of thing, well, that was an epic tragedy that required large amounts of whining.

After I became a librarian, I started writing academic pieces for publication: book reviews, journal articles, and book chapters. The whining continued, usually some version of the famous Frank Norris quote:

Don’t like to write, but like having written.

2+ decades on, that’s still an accurate summary of my feelings unless I’m journaling or doing some other kind of low-effort writing.

So why, then do I write anything more challenging than a summary of my day? I suppose the answer is the writer’s version of the bit about the mountain-climber climbing mountains because they’re there: I write because I have something to say.

But there’s another part to my writing journey, the part that started a bit over 5 years ago, when I started writing fiction at the ripe old age of 47. I told some of that story in an earlier post, Talent is Overrated, so I won’t repeat it here, but the gist of that post is that though I’d dreamed of being an author since I was a kid, I never tried, because I thought I had no talent.

The process of overcoming that negative bit of self-image was gradual, and I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but I do remember three key incidents:

  1. A former intern and friend gave me a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, with a lovely inscription encouraging me to take up creative writing.
  2. I read Diana Gabaldon’s account in the Outlandish Companion of how she came to write Outlander. Tl;dr: she decided to learn to write a novel by actually writing one. That got me to thinking that maybe the same method could work for me, even if I had less spectacular results than she did.
  3. I realized that ~2/3 of my life was over (probably, if one believes the actuarial tables), so if I had any unfulfilled dreams, I’d best get busy. There’s nothing like an awareness of one’s mortality to give one a solid kick in the keister.

So one afternoon, I Googled “how to write a novel,” found the website for the snowflake method, and got started.

I still have a love-hate relationship with writing. I still prefer to have written. And I still whine and carry on when I have to put my butt in my office chair and type some damn words already. I do not, however, copy down the top 40 every week, because today’s music sucks. Now get off my lawn.

But I digress.

 

Want to see some other great IWSG posts? Check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools).

Living the Dream

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The December question for the Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop is:

 

Let’s play a game. Imagine. Role-play. How would you describe your future writer self, your life and what it looks and feels like if you were living the dream? Or if you are already there, what does it look and feel like? Tell the rest of us. What would you change or improve?

I imagine this a lot. Usually when I should be writing. While other middle-aged straight women fantasize about Brad Pitt or The Rock and a bathtub full of Jell-O, I daydream about hitting it big as a writer. Book tours! Interviews! Swanky cocktail parties! Appearing on the Stephen Colbert show! (Psst… Stephen. I’m currently accepting bookings. I can even be witty and charming if sufficiently caffeinated. Have your people call my people.)

Being the hopeless nerd that I am, I also fantasize about being able to write full time. I even have a schedule worked out:

  • 7:00–9:00: Write
  • 9:00–10:00: Gym or walk/run in the neighborhood
  • 10:00–12:00: Write
  • 12:00–1:00: Eat a nutritious, delicious lunch and take a walk (Note: in my fantasy world, it’s always sunny and 70F with no wind, so I can take long, meandering walks outside whenever I feel like it. In reality, I live in Flagstaff, where it’s currently 18F with 2 feet of snow on the ground.)
  • 1:00–3:00: Corresponding with my agent and editor, social media marketing, blogging, and—my favorite—answering my fan mail. Paging Gilderoy Lockhart…
  • 3:00–5:00: Gardening, napping, reading, journaling. Maybe a little laundry thrown in to keep me in touch with how the common people live so my head doesn’t swell too much.
  • 5:00–6:00: Lounging in the hot tub until my meal service delivers a hot, delicious yet healthy dinner.
  • 7:00–10:00: More reading, journaling, maybe some knitting, a little Twitter.

Sounds lovely, right? Right. However…

I was off work from Wednesday afternoon through Sunday, so theoretically I could have tried out at least some of this ideal schedule. I also take staycations occasionally, which offer a full week in which to road test my dream career. Yet, funnily enough, fantasy and reality never quite align. Let’s take Friday as an example, since I didn’t really have anything I had to do that day. Here’s roughly how it went:

  • 7:45–10:00: Writing (OK, so far, so good, even if I did sleep a bit later than planned)
  • 10:00–11:30: Stuff face with Thanksgiving leftovers, then complain about stomachache
  • 11:30 am – 10:00 pm: Scroll through r/AmItheAsshole on Reddit, smugly convinced that I would never be the asshole in any of the posted scenarios. Nope. Never. The weather is just fine way up here on my high horse, thanks.

And here’s Saturday:

  • 7:45–9:30: Reading about houseboats on the internet, because my current novel-in-progress will have at least one scene set on a houseboat. Children, this is what we writers call, “research.” No, it only sounds like farting around on the internet. If a writer does it, it’s research. And thanks to all that research, I now know that you can buy DIY plans on the internet for a houseboat or something called a shanty boat, which is exactly what it sounds like, and I want one.
  • 9:30–10:00: Writing (not a dang word involved houseboats)
  • 10:00–10:45: Spend another 45 minutes feeling superior to the other assholes on Reddit.
  • 10:45–11:30: Stuff face. Get stomachache.
  • Photo of snow in foreground with blue spruce and San Francisco Peaks in background
    Dead tauntaun or pile o’ weeds. You make the call.

    11:30–5:30: Tunnel through snow to car, excavate car, make several unfunny jokes about tauntauns and AT-AT Walkers, and trudge through snow with husband and camera in tow. Fork over $80 for someone to plow driveways, then go to town, because we’re almost out of milk, and I’m starting to feel like I’m in a sequel to The Shining even though I’ve only been snowed in for 2 whole days.

    Photo of garden sign and small tree covered in snow
    I really want to Photoshop a tauntaun or AT-AT in here. Too bad I don’t know how to use Photoshop. Sounds like a job for… Research!

Yet despite all of this evidence to the contrary, I remain convinced that I could lead a life of genteel literariness if only I had enough money to quit my job and write full-time. I probably have a better shot with Brad or Dwayne and the bathtub full of Jell-O.

Want to see some other great IWSG posts? Check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools).