Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Writer’s Maze: WiPs and Chains

No, I’m not talking about 50 Shades in this episode! Although, that could be fun…
No! No. Get your head out of the clouds and get back to work.

For this installment of The Writer’s Maze I want to talk about our WiPs (for those of you who don’t know, these are not long leather straps that writer’s hit each other with. They’re our ideas, our babies, our Works in Progress). I have about a million of these lyin’ about on various computers and thumb drives. And here’s where we’ll start this maze…
The beginning.
Those very first intimate moments, between writer and a new idea, are glorious. It’s like new love…only better. Because in that first instance when a new idea strikes you think, “Well, that’s it! I am brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. That idea is just so freaking clever, no way anyone’s ever thought of it before.” You walk around in a cloud, putting the milk in the cupboard and the toaster in the fridge, because your left brain is so engaged in the creative juices that you can’t possibly function in the real world. You scribble notes on everything, including the chalkboard on the fridge, the grocery list in your purse, you child’s drawing, until you finally have to begin the outline.
The outline.
Ugh. The outline is where the euphoria starts to wane, but you still think your idea is epic and fresh. You ignore the nagging voice that pipes up saying, “That’s not going to work,” and you fight to keep the initial adrenaline alive. Because you remember what the beginning felt like. And then you wonder, after scrounging all of your scattered notes, what am I forgetting? Was this my original idea? Where is the brilliance?
The middle.
And this is where the chains begin to cinch around your wrists, holding your fingers on the keyboard in stubborn bondage as you kick, scream and cry to make that first idea a reality of literary perfection (NOTE: If you’re chasing literary perfection, give up now, it doesn’t exist). The middle of this maze is the development, the exposition of characters and plot. The setting and world building (because you ignore the giant gaping holes you discovered in your outline phase) where you catch small glimpses of your beginning genius. Your characters might be sound, your dialog intriguing, your sentence structure purple and flowing, but you haven’t yet admitted to yourself that none of these things will matter once you enter the next tunnel of the maze.
The story arc.
And here’s where we grab the eraser and smudge out the notes still glaring at us from the chalkboard on the refrigerator. Once we have grown attached to our protagonist and antagonist and we’re invested in their lives, we realize that our plot and/or subplot don’t really work. There’s no way event A would lead to event B, at least not believably. But, if you’re like me, you tell yourself, “That’s a bunch of crap. Believability comes from good writing. I just have to write it better.” So, on you trudge (ignoring the little voice calling you a fool), peppering your WiP with eloquent prose and vivid details. Though, even your characters are trying to tell you it’s not working.
The ending.
And when you finally reach the page where you get to write THE END, you only feel empty. “I’ll fix it in revision,” you tell the computer screen. But the roiling pit in your stomach begs you to just junk the entire manuscript and save yourself the months of head-banging frustration that is sure to come with plot holes the size of the Hoover Dam. In the end, whether the manuscript is good or bad, you set it aside (because this is the best advice, honest) and put it out of your head for a month or two (or longer depending on if you’ve moved on to your next WiP or not).
This is a very long (for some, not for all) process, because in this portion of the maze you find conflicting directions and can actually find yourself roaming around in circles with no idea of how to get through. In the revision phase you tweak and fuss, cleaning up every little corner, but no matter how much you sweep away the garbage and fluff up the grit, you still seem to find something else that could be improved. It never ends. But BEWARE you can tweak too much and do more damage than good. The best idea is to revise with intent.
Revising with intent.
·         Allow yourself a set number of revisions before you send the WiP to critique partners and beta readers. I do about 3 revisions for this phase.
·         One, big picture layout. Does the story follow the formula for that genre? Is the story pacing right for that genre? Is the story following the arc, or does it meander off track (my nemesis)?
·         Two, authenticity of character and dialog. World building. Is it all believable?
·         Three, tidy up grammar and messy tidbits left over from previous revisions.
Now, send it off to someone else. This is, perhaps, the most important part of the writing process. The part where you, the writer, do nothing but chew your fingernails off while you wait – stalking your inbox hourly – to hear what your trusted friends and allies thought of your “brilliance.” Again, I must warn you. DO NOT OVERTHINK this. You want your crit partners to rip it apart, of course we all hope they don’t need to, but the reality is that if they don’t they’re probably not being honest (in which case you need new crit partners). Yes, you want to know if your WiP has potential and yes you want to know that your idea – the one that got you jazzed enough to write it in the first place – is solid and worth continuing the revision process. If you get the go-head once your baby comes home, you’re good to begin revising from their notes. And here is my advice on that.
·         DO NOT (under any – okay, most – circumstances) GET OFFENDED. These are the thoughts and honest opinions of people who took the time to read your work (and at this stage it isn’t always easy to get through someone else’s unfinished work) and make detailed suggestions. They are not trying to hurt your feelings or insult you. They are trying to help you find the spots in your WiP that could be stronger. That is all. The best way is to read the comments with an open mind and then walk away. DO NOT go right into revision. Let the comments sink in first, let that knee-jerk reaction settle, and then come back to tackle the process of fixing problems areas.
What to do when you get multiple suggestions. This is inevitable and difficult to navigate. Once you’ve sent your WiP to a handful of people, you’re going to get a bucket-load of conflicting advice back. Some people are going to like your writing just as it is. Here’s where you get to take creative control. That time you took to absorb all of the advice, that’s going to work in your favor here. Now you get to chose, either you’ll decide that first person (the one who insulted your ego) was right, or you can snub your nose at them and ignore their advice. This is entirely up to you. I will tell you though, that some of my best writing has come out of the changes I’ve made to a WiP that I was resistant to. Chose carefully. Don't chain yourself to only one possibility, you might find greatness if you cut the old idea loose.

And now you’ve done it. Congratulations, you’ve clawed your way through this phase of the Writer’s Maze.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ordinary Woman wants to Write Amazing Things

Over that last few years I’ve dabbled in revealing my hidden secrets, too afraid to really open up and let the world see who I am.
I want to be a writer, people won’t read my books if they know the real me, I told myself.
But I’ve learned something recently (we’re never too old to learn), I’m not writing books to hide my past, I’m writing books to reveal it. My past is the whole reason I’m writing at all. Let me begin at the beginning…

I was born in Rockledge Florida in 1967. Influenced from birth by my father, the rocket scientist, I toddled the halls of NASA mesmerized by the rooms of giant, chugging and blinking computers and fell in love with all things science and science fiction. It was the height of the space-race and watching rockets blast off for the moon was a regular event in my family. 

Growing up on Merritt Island with a deeply religious mother and an agnostic father who’d been raised with a witch doctor as a nanny in the Bahamas, my world was full of unimaginable intrigue. Like a sponge I listened, though I didn’t speak until I was almost three, I understood all that was happening around me. 
 Star Trek and Star Wars were my first big concepts in the world of make-believe, not the usual fairytale, but I wanted to climb aboard a spaceship more than any princess wanted a glass slipper or a house full of dwarfs. It wasn’t until Harry Potter came along and shook this magical fantasy in my face that I began to imagine a world where all things belonged, magic, science, science fiction and religion. The possibilities were boundless to me. I truly believed that science and time would lend themselves nicely to the world of make-believe and verify that magic might truly be possible one day. 
 That magic seemed out of reach when I struggled in school. Learning disabilities were many times undiagnosed or untreated in those days and no one realized that I was dyslexic for years. At which time I had already been held back a grade and called lazy, stupid, and even slapped by a teacher for misspelling my last name on a spelling test.
 My childhood dreams had become a nightmare until the day I overheard my mother telling my father that she’d read about some research on, “something called dyslexia.” It was then that light found its way to me again, my mother bought me “read along” records (big black discs made of vinyl which spun around a turntable and played music) of Winnie the Pooh. After, that I laid on our red-shag carpet for hours listening (I was good at that) and memorizing the shape of each individual word. Once my mother proved to the school that the “treatment” was working, they set me up with a program called SR8 and four years later, high school now, I could read at a sixth grade reading level.

It was a long road with many bumps and bruises along the path. I dropped out of high school in the ninth grade because I was swallowed up and forgotten. By sixteen I was emancipated because my parents were in the middle of a nasty divorce and just before my seventeenth birthday I found myself alone and pregnant. 

Too broke for cable television I turned to books and their authors quickly became my best friends. Although it was slow, and sometimes painful, I learned to read and read well. By the time my son entered school I’d married and added a couple more children to my brood, but we were still too broke for things like books (which my then husband deemed a non-necessity – two guesses as to why he’s my ex), so I wrote stories for my children, lovingly illustrated with markers, colored pencils and crayons (I still have a couple).  

Today, at 47 years young, I’m a happily remarried military wife, mother and grandmother. I have seven children in all, five of whom are grown, and two toddlers (my sweet husband I adopted my eldest son’s babies two and a half years ago when he was unable to care for them).

Currently I reside in Florida after living much of my life in the Pacific Northwest (through no fault of my own – no offense Seattle but you’re just so gray). Thanks to the military we found ourselves in Georgia five years ago, where we both fell in love with the south. Now I’m finally home, back in the warmth of the sunshine state and once again dreaming of a universe overflowing with possibilities. 
I began writing for a small newspaper in Oregon in 2009 and since then I’ve completed seven novels and a small horde of outlines for future projects. I am in the process of completing my BA in Creative Writing and I hope to one day soon be able to share my work with those who share my love of all things strange and to empower women of all ages to find their superpower.  

So, that’s my story. Now what’s yours? Feel free to share with me in the comments, send me a friend request on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter. I’m here for you.
Want to do more? Check these amazing women out and get inspired…

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Revival of a Zombie Scribe

Not even the fresh scent of ink pressed into paper could revive the dead.
That’s me, a zombie just going through the motions of life without really feeling anything. Everything I do – from the endless sinks of rainbow-colored plates covered in sticky goo and breaded bits of dino-shaped chicken, to the heaps of laundry splattered with mysterious stains – I do because I have to, even though it consumes every moment of every day.
I pass the coffee counter, carefully navigating the double-wide stroller around the towering piles of books stacked waist-high in the center aisle, ignoring the twinge of jealousy for the woman sitting alone in a quiet corner.
Gone are the days when I had time to do anything I wanted. I used to go to concerts. I used to golf. I used to write… oh, how I loved to write. I’d spend hours immersed in one fictional world or another, never remembering that a real world existed beyond my four office walls. I could go days without food – or a shower if I had to – if that’s what it took to get my burning thoughts on paper.
But now…now my life is different. Now my life is not my own.
The endless rows of hardbound books, the soft rustle of pages being turned, the mammoth bookstore attached to the mall tries to awaken my senses as a familiar title glares at me from the overstocked shelf: WRITING THE BREAKTHROUGH NOVEL. There were a dozen other books just like it at home in my dusty, forgotten writer’s den.
How long had it been, a year, maybe two? Hard to remember.
Maybe I don’t want to.
My fingers twitch as if the involuntary memories of pounding words into a keyboard have become too much for them ignore.
It’s not that I don’t want to write, or that I don’t have anything to say, it’s that I’m broken. Broken by circumstance. Broken by conscience. Broken…from the inside out.
Not that I complain. Oh, no! When I got the phone call – the one that said my son was in jail and his girlfriend of three years was being evicted with my grandchildren – I took those babies without question and I’ve loved them and cared for them as though they were born to me. I had voluntarily given up the only true passion I’d ever had out of duty and love.
Love. Ha.
Love is just another four letter word that convinces people to do stupid things, no matter how valiant their intentions might be. My friends – and even strangers who hear my story – call me a saint. That’s ridiculous. My husband and I did what anyone would do. We adopted our grandchildren to save them from a life doomed to poverty, abuse and neglect.
I had to do it. I couldn’t have lived with myself otherwise. Would I change it if I could? I wonder.
I don’t know.
“Nonnie, Nonnie I want this one. Will you read this one…please?” my sweet Emma Lu sings, as her pink Mary-Janes dance on the spot.
My granddaughter turned daughter is beautiful, and I’m not just saying that because that’s what everyone says. She’s truly as pretty as a porcelain doll. Her biological mother is Filipino and my son is of European-Jewish descent, together they made the prettiest children. Her skin is like tawny silk, her dark eyes are framed by thick, dark lashes and her lips are watermelon red. But it’s her electric smile and outgoing personality that draws anyone within a fifty-foot radius to her.
“Me too! Me too! This-s one too! Pretty pleeease?” Mason squirms in his stroller, itching to be free and touch everything his round eyes can see.
The boy, a cookie-cutter image of my granddaughter, is a year younger and not bad for a terrible two. He wants to do everything his sister does. He takes (or at least tries to) every toy she’s interested in and repeats everything she says by adding a “too” at the end. It’s quite cute.
I look at him now, dressed in his favorite button-down – the one he says is like Poppie’s – trying desperately to reach everything with his chubby little fingers. He’s so much like my son, soft curly hair that wings out over his ears, only a tiny sparkle of mischief in his eyes, but enough that I keep a close eye on him.
“You guys want me to read to you? That’s crazy,” I tease.
“No, we do, we do,” Emma squeals, enjoying the game.
“Me do, too, Nonnie,” Mason adds.
Tiny threads of joy stitch the corners of my broken heart together as they peer up at me, so eager to hear a story that some author slaved over for countless days, months, years, making sure each word choice was just right.
They both love books.
Pangs of grief and nostalgia needle their way into my chest as memories of being in bookstores with my older children flood over me.
Books were the one thing I never denied them – no matter how broke we were – if they wanted a book, I found a way to get it [legally] for them. I was so sure I was being a good parent. Four of my five children grew up to be wonderfully responsible adults.
Remorse floods my heart with an ocean of helplessness. My son…he used to be anyway…is lost to me, maybe forever.
Where’d I go wrong? I question, digging my nails into the meaty flesh on my palm.
Emma waves the books under my face, desperate for me to acknowledge her as my thoughts drift, watching the enchantment sparkle in her eyes. My husband and I are quite a bit more established than we were our first time raising a family, it would be easy to go crazy and let these two have everything they want.
But I don’t.
I don’t want to ruin them. I want them to understand the value of imagination and what it can make a person create. Imagination is the key to a person’s soul, whether through art or invention, or just to let themselves go in whatever passion grabs them. But being free to conjure something from nothing is an experience I want them to have.
 I reach down, considering Emma’s choice of in-store narrative. The jacket is covered in beautifully-illustrated pirates, ships and fish.
“Ooh, what did you find? An adventure book?” I squat to her level, squeezing her shoulders and kissing her soft, squishy cheek. She smells of gumdrops.
“Me too! Me too!” wails Mason.
“Shhh, inside voice,” I remind him. “You want to hear the story too?”
“Uh huh. Me too. Me too.” His little fingers try to undo his safety harness.
“Okay, hang on there, Houdini.”
The moment he’s free, he runs through the kid-corner shouting, “Wook! Wook!”
“Shhh, I see honey, but remember we use inside voices,” I remind him for the two-hundredth time that day. “Here, come sit and I’ll read.”
Like everything else in my life, this outing feels redundant. Not only do I repeat myself a thousand times a day, but I have already done the raising-a-family gig. I’ve changed the gag-inducing diapers and survived potty-training a half-dozen times. I’ve taught kids how to read and to remember to use their manners. I’ve already paid my dues and earned my empty-nest freedom.
Still, as I read the story, déjà vu creeps in and I remember that I’ve already had the tiny house with the huge mortgage. I’ve sat in the bleachers and cheered. I’ve dared gather laundry out of our teenaged sons’ rooms. I’m middle-aged, not twenty-something, I don’t have the energy to do this…again.
Is this punishment for surviving five children? I shut off my new mini-van (Lord help me, I can’t believe I drive a mini-van), open the automatic doors and release one sleeping child from his car seat.
I suppose at first I thought this was some type of karmic punishment. I thought somewhere in my past – maybe even a past life – I’d wronged someone and this was my penalty, to be an eternal mother. I did the math. By the time my now youngest child graduates from high school I will have raised children for fifty years. It didn’t matter that I’d already sacrificed my youth to my children, now I have to surrender the last few youthful years I have left on this earth.
I could look at it like that I suppose.
But something miraculous happens when children are sleeping. The pain and trials of parenthood instantly disappear and when the babies wake anew, so too do I. Their precious faces shining up at me so eagerly, hanging on every word I’m about to read again, only this time…
… I enjoy it.
As I open the book and begin to read the magic from within, I’m transported back to a time when being a mother was all I ever wanted. A time when the highlight of my day was watching the joy on my family’s faces as they devoured my lasagna, back to a time when vacuuming the closets was the most important thing I’d do that day and I remember…
I remember what made me want to write in the first place.
I wanted to write for the young and the young-at-heart. I wanted to write for all of the children I can’t make blueberry pancakes for before they catch the bus. I wanted to write to touch the lives of those who don’t have someone in their corner. I wanted to write because I know how they feel, alone and afraid.
That was the childhood I’d had. That was the childhood I’d escaped from by way of enchanted literary portals.
But if why I write is for other people, for children who find themselves alone, then shouldn’t I find even more joy in giving that happiness to these children in person?
The answer is yes.
With elation and fervor I read Michael Recycle and Bootleg Peg again, this time with all of the voices I could dream up, and I stacked that book back in the bookshelf with conviction. From that point on, whenever I’m wondering what the heck I’m doing here, I go find that book and cuddle my babies close to me and I read (I’ve now mastered the fishy-pirate voices).
“Nonnie?” Emma asks one night before bed, her expression thoughtful and dreamy.
“Hmmm?” I sigh, closing our much loved book once again.
“Thanks for loving me. You’re my favorite,” she sings, squeezing my arm.
“And you’re mine.” I pull her precious little head to my face, planting a kiss in her grape-scented hair.
With both babes huddled against me, I have no doubt this is where I belong. No matter how many stories blaze inside me, dying to be set free, this is the story that must first be told.