Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fresh and Shiny

I was planning to write my obligatory New Year's post tomorrow, but since I have the day off alone today, and tomorrow my husband also has the day off, I think I have a better chance of getting it written today.

Last night we went out to dinner at Street, a funky newish restaurant run by a Top Chef Masters contestant.  The food was great, but the space was very small, so they'd put half their seating in an inner courtyard.  This is probably very comfortable most of the year, but last night there was a rowdy little windstorm kicking up.  Not only was it very chilly, but the umbrellas overhead thrashed around so violently a few times that I was kind of hoping one of us would get clocked in the head by the attached metal gutter and we'd get our meal for free.  (Not really.)  It made for an interesting dinner.

I guess the windstorm swept all the clouds away, though, because this morning, this is what I see out my window:

My poor little tree actually has blossoms on it right now.  It is so confused.

I love bright, peaceful mornings like these.  I usually don't get up before 7:30-8, but I wish I were more of a morning person, because I love the fresh, clean stillness of the early day.  It feels like anything is possible with the whole entire day spread ahead of you, ripe for action.  

This is how I feel about the new year.  January is one of my favorite months, partly because I love the calm after the holiday madness, but mostly because it has that same feeling of promise as the morning, with the whole year waiting ahead of you, tantalizing you.  

Some people think New Year's resolutions are a foolish promises you can't keep, for "people who believe in fairies and happy endings" (*cough* Betsy Lerner *cough*), but I love making them.  I don't think of them like, Starting January 1st, I am going to become a brand new person who does X, Y and Z.  I think of them as challenges to myself, benchmarks to strive for, and reminders of the person I want to be.  

I don't expect to succeed 100%, because I am realistic, and I know that things get in the way.  Problems crop up, disasters happen, change pushes us in different directions.  My old friend procrastination pokes his head in the door far too frequently. But I do find it helpful to set expectations for myself, and maybe put some kind of framework in place to help my goals along, like the calendar I set up last year that pushed me to finish my first draft.  

I'm not going to spell my resolutions out for you, but one of them is always about the gym (like every other person on the planet making resolutions).  One of them is about my writing.  Here's an easy one--I'd like to visit my family more often.

And this year, I think one of them is going to be about trying to get up earlier every day and take advantage of these glorious mornings.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Writer's Blues

So I spoke too soon about the rain in L.A. ending.  It's back with a vengeance today, and my car tire still isn't fixed either because that damn pothole also bent the rim.  The potholes in my city, they are epic.  

I'm not sure if the weather today is influencing or mirroring my mood--which came first, the rain or the blues?  I'm at the nadir of what I think of as the writer's cycle:  frenetic writing, followed by a high that this is possibly THE BEST THING EVER WRITTEN, which you then chase with a bout of revisions and re-reading, and that leads to the conclusion that I AM A TOTAL FAILURE AND WILL NEVER PUBLISH ANYTHING AND EVERYONE IS GOING TO LAUGH AT ME.

We're all familiar with this.

We write because we have these wild imaginations that dream up all sorts of people and places and situations.  We're happiest when zoned out, listening to a conversation in our heads between characters we've invented, or envisioning the dynamics of a desperate struggle, a dramatic fight, a passionate kiss.  And sometimes we let our beloved imaginations take us on a fantasy trip towards an end goal:  the call from an agent who loves your book, the reaction you'll have when you hear it's going to be published.  It's only a daydream for now, but it could happen some day, and that goads you on.  

As I learn more about publishing as a business, my imagination stretches in the other direction as well:  the innumerable, impersonal rejections that no doubt await me.  I can see an agent sitting behind her desk, looking at my query, my partial, and shaking her head, thinking This is too trite, too derivative, this will never sell, this is an unholy mess.  Let your mind wander too far down that road, and it will sap your spirit. Thoughts of quitting entirely pass through your head.

But you can't.  You love to write, you have to write. Give yourself a mental slap in the face, cancel the pity party, rev up your determination.  Maybe you need to step away from the laptop for a little while.  Go for a run.  Visit friends.  Read a book.  Anything to take your mind off the terror of failure and gain some perspective.  Let your writer muscles relax for a little bit.

And when you're ready, get back to work.  You're the Little Train That Could, and you're going to make it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Back To Normal

Feuerzangenbowle = flaming Christmas punch = awesome
I didn't mean to take such a long break between posts, but I think the past holiday week serves as an adequate excuse.  How was your holiday week?  Good, I hope.  Mine included: one weekend of frenzied Christmas shopping, one boozy company holiday party complete with revolving bar and teacup ride on the factory floor (not my employer), one hourlong wait at the post office to ship a giant box of goodies to the fam back in snow country, one fondue dinner party at my home, one rib roast dinner party at my home with a Feuerzangebowle finale, one cozy Christmas morning with my husband and a very hyper cat, and an impromptu overnight stay in beautiful downtown L.A., with a hilariously bad Christmas dinner at L.A. Prime.

Oh, and there was also a week of torrential rain.  Originally my post was going to start with a rant about all the rain we got, but considering that some people got 2+ feet of snow in a weekend, and today I'm looking at a clear blue sky, I figured that might not go over very well.  I have a weakness for complaining about things that don't matter.  Please feel free to smack me when I do.

(For the record, though, a week of rain in L.A. is enough to create monstrous potholes big enough to blow out a tire on your car.  May the universe heap a lifetime of blessings on the person who invented run-flat tires.)

So now all we have to do is survive New Year's Eve, and the peaceful, boring January wasteland will bring us back to normalcy and the routine that I crave.  I'll try to keep posting regularly--I was shooting for every other day, so maybe I'll need to start adding some "Blah Blah Tuesday" posts to the calendar to keep myself from rambling too far off course. Because there is a danger of that, and nobody wants to see more posts about the cat.

What says Christmas better than an acrobat suspended from a factory ceiling?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Missing: 1 Festive Spirit

This is actually a town in the U.P. Their post office gets hammered every December.

Wow, Christmas is a week from tomorrow.  I've barely done any shopping yet, and most of my gifts still have to journey UPS-style across the tundra to Minnesota.  Tomorrow I am going to rise with the sun and drag my poor husband out to the stores to suffer through the results of my procrastination along with me.  Sorry, sweetie.

I grew up in Michigan, where Christmas was always preceded by snow and bitter cold, a fresh-cut pine tree, and my mom's seasonal goodies like brown sugar tartlets and caramel corn.  After Michigan, I spent a few years in Munich, with its fantastic annual Christkindlmarkt in Marienplatz and Gl├╝hwein sellers in the English Garden.  There was one mildly stressful Christmas in Istanbul after that, which is a story in itself, and then my future husband and I moved to California in 2001.

I suppose that people who've lived their entire lives in southern California have no trouble getting into the holiday spirit in 60-degree weather, but without the props from my youth, I generally have a hard time.  We're spending the holidays at our home this year, so without a family gathering in the Northland to look forward to, Christmas feels like nothing but a high-pressure commercial binge.  

Once the shopping pain is past, there are some things I'm looking forward to:  spending some stress-free time with my husband, gobbling up matinees of all the Oscar bait films, and hopefully getting a little free time to work more on those revisions.  There's an SNI* winking at me from a corner of my brain, maybe I'll give her a minute or two as well.  These are the happy thoughts I'll be clinging to tomorrow while fighting the teeming hordes.

I wish everyone the best in this final pre-holiday crunch time.  Batten the hatches and gird your loins, or whatever it is they say.  Let's all make it to the new year with our sanity intact.

*Shiny New Idea, dangerous predator of the revision-addled mind

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Where It Began

For those of us who love to write, there are probably a few books that stand out in our early memories as The Ones That Started It, the paperbacks we read ragged that made us want to write books of our own.  For many up-and-coming writers, I suppose these may include the Harry Potter books, the Camp Half-Blood series, or, heaven help us, Twilight.

I didn't have the good fortune of having Harry around when I was growing up in the early 80s.  The first book that I remember tearing through from start to finish was a science fiction tale you've probably never heard of called The Tutti Frutti Connection, by Alan Cameron, about kids who go into an ice cream shop and get whisked into a strange future, or alternate world--some weird place where everyone is bald, wears a shiny jumpsuit, and walks on people-movers.  I sometimes wonder what happened to Alan Cameron and his wacky imagination.

Sara Crewe, I love you
As I grew older, I enjoyed stories about girls: Little Women is fantastic, of course, and I loved Joan Aiken's Wolves Chronicles.  And I adored Frances Hodgeson Burnett.  The Secret Garden took me a few reads to love (my elementary self: Mary is so unappealing! Dickon is such a weird name!), but I was immediately enamored with A Little Princess.  The part where she wakes up from a brutal scolding and discovers that a secret friend has filled her room with plush blankets and a hot breakfast--LOVED it.  I re-read that book until the cover fell off.

Another author that played an important role in my elementary years was Lloyd Alexander.  I tried to read The High King when I was still too young, and it made no sense (also not a good idea to start with the fifth book in a series, but I was already a sucker for the shiny Newberry Medal sticker).  When I finally read the Chronicles of Prydain, I loved them--ditto the Westmark Trilogy.

I totally wanted that cat
A brief aside: in eighth grade, our English teacher had us practice different forms of letter writing--letter of request, letter of complaint, letter of praise.  I wrote to Lloyd Alexander and told him how much I like his books, and he answered me!  He didn't actually write me a letter, but sent me a brochure about himself and his books, upon which he scrawled the answers to my questions in his own handwriting, and thanked me for my letter.  Pretty neat.

My love of fantasy is what eventually brought me to writing.  The stories I wrote back then--two girls on an epic quest with their horses in an alternate world, a girl who discovers she is a mermaid and has a whole mermaid family living in the ocean (leading to an epic underwater quest), two magical girls who must go on an epic quest to recover a magical crystal and save their kingdom (sense a theme here?)--were derivative and unremarkable, and completely enthralling to me at the time.  And as much as I enjoy reading good contemporary YA or literary fiction, I still love writing stories where I can build new worlds with my own rules, and use them to tell stories with underlying themes that matter in any world.

What kind of books did you read as a child?  Can you think of any authors in particular who influenced your desire to write?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Focus: more than just a Dutch rock band

Workspace of a highly effective person?
Like many, many other college students, I spent my undergrad years perfecting the art of procrastination. Twenty-page paper due tomorrow? No worries, I've got all my notes prepared--writing will commence at midnight. Why start anything yesterday that can wait for today? I always managed to meet the deadlines, and I graduated summa cum laude, proof to myself that waiting until the last possible second really was an effective strategy. Until.

In the real world, there are no professors hanging over you, giving you until Friday at 3 to get your work done. If nobody at all is awaiting your output, that finely honed procrastinating talent can become one of your biggest obstacles. Why work on something right now that I can put off until tonight, tomorrow, next weekend?

It takes a lot of drive and determination to write, especially when important things like family, friends and career compete for your attention. Some days I'm excited about what I'm working on and it's easy to get in the writing zone, but on others the distractions loom, and suddenly I've wasted an hour reading Wikipedia or cleaning my home office. Some days I'm "too tired," "too overwhelmed," and some days I just admit to myself that I'm feeling lazy.

I know that writing regularly is like building up a muscle, and you have to practice. Sometimes I set a timer for myself if I'm having trouble focusing. Sometimes it's listening to a particular song. And while I'm not trying to promote sports gear or athleticism here, I do like Nike's "No Excuses" ad:

Sometimes I'll watch it for a kick in the pants, to gun up my competitive side a little. What do you do to get and stay focused?

**Also, I won't post the video here, but if you've never heard of Focus the band, you really want to check out this mind-blowing video. I knew the song but was introduced to this amazingness when Maggie Stiefvater posted it on her blog.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Owning Up

All I need in my hotel room
Whew! I just got back from another holiday party, and I'm about ready to crash for the night in preparation for my short flight back to LA tomorrow morning.  It was a good party.  I'm not gonna lie--I like them dirty martinis. Anyhow, I've been thinking a lot lately about something, and I feel inclined to blather about it right now.

My question:  why is it so hard, especially for unpublished writers, to own up and publicly admit that we like to write? What exactly is the root of our secret shame in telling others that we enjoy fabricating people and places and writing their imaginary stories?

I don't like to call myself a writer. I write in secret, in my free time--I finished an entire novel before I told my friends about it. I still haven't told my parents about it. I slurk off to critique groups and tell people I had an "evening meeting." Good lord, they probably think I'm in some kind of support group. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

Lately I've been trying to put myself out there on the internet in a writerly fashion--posting comments on writers' blogs, entering contests, tweeting inane comments about revisions.  It's uncomfortable, but I feel like its necessary.  Sure, it's embarrassing and it will probably live on the Internet much longer than I'd like, but it's a growing process.  I'm still a seedling.  It's okay for me to share this with a community that I very much want to be a part of.

I suspect that my reticence about my writing habit largely has to do with the fact that, as of yet, I haven't received the validation of a publishing contract. Until I can boast "I'm being published in/by," it feels like a silly, childish hobby, one I've had since the age of seven, when I won a beeyooutiful blue ribbon at a Young Authors contest. Until then, I'm just going, as Julia Child once said, on the courage of my own convictions.  And that will have to be enough for now.

What do you think? Can you relate?  Am I nuts? Does this ever go away?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Dragon Flies To Space

No, that's not the title of my new fantasy/sci-fi mashup. It's a true story and it happened this morning in Florida.

(Wow, I've never embedded a video before. That was super easy.)

Space Exploration Technologies, or Spacex, just successfully launched their seventh rocket, the second of the Falcon 9 vehicles. This was a test flight carrying their Dragon capsule, the world's first commercial spacecraft and a contender to replace the space shuttle in ferrying astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station. The Dragon was successfully deployed and is currently making a few orbits, due to splash down in the Pacific in about an hour. What a great image--there is a Dragon orbiting the Earth.

For over six years now, I've had a courtside seat to the development of this remarkable company. Many of the engineers who worked on these rockets were fresh out of college or grad school, and they have pushed themselves like madmen, making countless personal sacrifices. They believe in the work they're doing and the advances they're making in the industry, and honestly, can you get a better thrill than watching a nine-engine rocket you helped design and build lifting off a pad in the birthplace of American spaceflight? They are all amazing, brilliant people.

Persistence is the key here. I'm not going to give you a rundown of all the past launches, but number one only got a mile high, and came crashing back down into the coral reefs of the Pacific island it was launched from. The engineers could feel the explosion several miles away, and I've got it on good authority that a few tears were shed. So they tried again, and again, and when number four finally succeeded, I was leaking at the eyes myself.

So this morning as I was huddled up in my hotel room, watching the live feed on my cell phone, what I was thinking was, Damn, they're getting kinda good at this. Persistence and practice.

Congrats Spacex, and all you hardworking engineers. I couldn't be prouder of you. And if I may take a second to brag, one of the voices in this video belongs to my rockstar husband. Congrats, sweetie. Now come home.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

And What Have You Been Reading This Year?

I've noticed in my recent explorations that a lot of writers' websites contain book reviews. As a subscriber to many similarly-themed blogs, I find it funny when my reader feed rains multiple reviews of the same book all at once, often all raves. Anna and the French Kiss anyone? My goodness. I haven't read it yet, but once I get my hands on a copy I will, because according to the blogosphere it can't be anything but charming.

Right now I have no plans to review books on my blog, although I suppose this could change. I have, however, been reading a wide variety of literature. For my own amusement, I will now list some of the books that I have read this year, along with my brief thoughts:

Nerve by Dick Francis: I know his books are popular thrillers, but I thought this book was bizarre. He gave away the bad guy early on, and so I thought there would be a twist and it would be someone else, but it wasn't. If that was supposed to be the surprise, it worked. I bought this book when researching thriller writers, along with a Lee Child and an Anthony Hyde. Haven't read those yet.

The World According to Garp by John Irving: Excellent. I tried to read Owen Meany afterwards and couldn't get past the first ten pages. Possible due to extremely tiny print.

The Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer: Light and entertaining, in a world full of fun techno details. The Time Paradox was my favorite.

The Incredible Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson: Anybody who's read On Writing will know that Stephen King loves this story. I thought it was interesting, but it did not blow my mind. To each his own.

The Passage by Justin Cronin: I bought into the hype machine and it paid off, because I loved this book. It was engrossing and exciting, and his writing is so clean and lovely. I liked how he gave fascinating backstory on even the smallest characters. I also read his book Mary & O'Neil around this time. I don't remember much about that one except it was sad.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett: This book is amazing. I am giving it as a Christmas gift so more people will read it.

Lisey's Story and Under the Dome by Stephen King: Have you figured out yet that I'm a huge King fan? Sure, his plots are inane and sometimes the ending blows, but I will keep coming back because I just love his writing. I've been reading him since eighth grade and his books feel like home.

The Hunger Games trilogy: Lucky me, I didn't start these until the third one was almost out. Now I'm like a HG pusher, trying to get friends and strangers alike to read them. Team Peeta, if you were wondering.

Speak and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson: Wow. That is all I will say.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi: Fantastic world-building, great writing. I feel like I need to re-read this one, because everybody loved it and I had trouble connecting with the characters. To be honest, I felt like it should have been a little longer. Anybody else think that?

Leviathan & Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld: Light and fun, I'm looking forward to seeing where the next book takes Alek and Deryn.

There were more that I could list, but this is getting long. I'm curious--let me know what books you enjoyed reading this year, and if you think there's something great I'm missing!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Plot = Panic

Oh, plot. How you make me want to beat my head against the carpet, sprint an hour, buy a mile of butcher paper and flow chart the heck out of it. It is because of you, plot, that my laundry gets done, my kitchen floor scrubbed.

Right now, I am the victim of my own impatience. I wrote my WIP on the fly, with an ending for one character in mind, but no clear path to get there. When I'd finished, I polished the writing and made a lot of little tweaks, but it wasn't until a conversation with my husband that I realized my plot was like a splayed hand, with lots of storylines tapering out to their own resolutions, but without the nice tight wrap-up that makes a good story so satisfying. Gah.

You know when I should have realized this? When I was trying to write a practice query, even just a logline, and could not for the life of me boil this book down to one strong sentence. Also when I was thinking about the sequels I would like to write, and came up with: the characters will be evolving like this! The backstory will come out like this! And the plot will be...stuff!

Trying to find/create the cohesive theme after the fact has been my monster challenge of late. Here are some of tools and methods I've been using to try to sort out my tangled strings:
  • Writing out the character arc for each major player in the book
  • Writing essays in the first person from the POV of select characters
  • Making graphs
  • Studying history
  • Writing pages and pages of stream-of-consciousness notes
  • More graphs
  • Opening spreadsheets and making notes in different cells, then color coding the cells
  • Writing a huge timeline
  • Treadmill
I'm sure it sounds like an obsessive mess, but that's what helps me sort my thoughts, and when I figure out something that works, it feels like I've won the lottery. What tricks do you use when making plot revisions?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Space Invader

When you think of a Space Invader, what comes to mind? Is it this?

Or this?

Okay, I don't really expect you to think of my cat. But maybe you do have a little furry friend who enjoys spending his siesta time somewhere on your person. Makes it hard to get stuff done, but they're so sweet and soft and snuggly--I can't bear to toss him off my lap. I've found two ways to get rid of him: 1) offer treats, or 2) whistle loudly. Usually Mozart. He hates it.

Anyway, I promise that I'm not going to be posting about my cat all the time. I've been spending a lot of time lately just trying to get my footing in this whole social networking/self-promotion world, and I get the feeling I've come a bit late to the party. My critique partner told me that to get followers, I should sponsor giveaways, but since my audience right now numbers a grand 3 followers here and 10 on Twitter (and thank you very much to all of you), I don't think I'm going to reach many people that way yet.

Give me time, I'll get the hang of this. Dogged persistence is the answer to everything.

P.S. Upon reflection, I noticed that it may look like Space Invader is my tactic for breaking into the virtual literary society. Not so, not so.