Back to Basics

Here at Spellbound Scribes, most of us are old pros when it comes to writing. Whether we’ve published several books and stories or have just been at the grind for years, the mechanics and spirit of writing have been ingrained upon our lives, etched in black ink for all to see. Which can make it easy to forget that not all writers have gotten so far in the process. Some writers are still at the very beginning, grappling with questions of how to write, and perhaps even more importantly, why.

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Be inspired

Sometimes I dabble in answering questions at the community-sourced Q&A site Quora. I recently stumbled upon a question from a young writer who reveled in the simple pleasures of putting language to paper, but wondered whether that was enough. Should one have a literary voice that came through on paper? And did it count as writing if there was no deep meaning or profound content? The questions shook me, and I realized it’s been so long since I thought about the simple but deep-seated questions at the very heart of being a writer.

Here are my thoughts:

Writing for writing’s sake, whether poetry or prose, is enough. I strongly advise any young/new/inexperienced writers to unburden themselves of any expectations or assumptions about what writing is, what it looks and feels like, or what it’s supposed to accomplish. Words have power—feel them thunder through your veins, hungry for freedom. Then let them tumble forth, unbridled. Enjoying yourself while putting words to paper is wonderful, and not something everyone is lucky enough to experience.

In fact, after years and more manuscripts—finished and unfinished—than I care to mention, this purity of feeling arising from the act of creation has changed in many complex, indefinable ways. My relationship to setting words to paper has altered irrevocably, and I linger with occasional envy on the memory of what it was like to write before I was a writer. Never for long—after all, that impulse is what brought me to this point. Still, no one should ever apologize for writing for the joy of writing.

Personality comes from practice. In writing, having personality bleed through into your writing is called voice. Some writers have very strong internal voices that inform their writing (think Chuck Palahniuk, Ernest Hemingway, or Maya Angelou) and leap off the page, as recognizable as faces or names. Developing your voice as a writer is a process that can take years, and the Spellbound Scribes have discussed it at length in various blog posts throughout the years. Here’s the TL;DR on the basics:

Read widely. Non-fiction, fiction, magazines, novels, blogs—read everything you can get your hands on. Exposing yourself to a broad variety of voices will allow you to begin to grasp what appeals to you, or clenches your jaw, or echoes in your bones with a feeling you can’t name.

Be sure you grasp the basics of grammar, syntax, diction, and punctuation. Some of the most well-known authors bend these rules in pursuit of voice, but intention is key. You have to understand a rule before you can effectively break it.

Let your real voice shine through into your literary voice. Do you swear a lot in real life? Swear in your writing. Do you use slang? Figures of speech? Are you brusque and to the point, or do you prefer poetic turns of phrase and flowery descriptions? Identifying your real-world voice can help you define your literary voice.

Be true to yourself, but also don’t be afraid to experiment. As Steven King says in On Writing (a book I highly recommend for any writer, new or experienced):

“You may find yourself adopting a style you find particularly exciting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradbury—everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hard-boiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine. I wrote stories in my teenage years where all these styles merged, creating a kind of hilarious stew.”

There is no Platonic ideal of “meaning” in writing, nor should there be. Meaning arises from two areas in the practice of writing: what an author means or intends in their writing, and how any given reader interprets that meaning upon reading what the author has written. A writer are responsible for only one of those areas—the first.

Nietzsche wrote: “Thus the man who is responsive to artistic stimuli reacts to the reality of dreams as does the philosopher to the reality of existence; he observes closely, and he enjoys his observation: for it is out of these images that he interprets life, out of these processes that he trains himself for life.”

Watch, listen, read, write, repeat. Live a life rich with adventure, and emotion, and intention. Fill the well of creativity with beautiful, strange, incomprehensible things. Be present in your life, fly on magic carpets to faraway lands, cavort through dreams and night-time fancies. Everything else will grow naturally on its own. In the meantime, enjoy the wild ride!

“I have to be rent and pulled apart and live according to the demons and the imagination in me. I’m restless. Things are calling me away. My hair is being pulled by the stars again.”

Anais Nin

You Can Take a Break; You’re Still a Writer

The last two posts have been about being stuck while working on a writing project. I’ve seen a lot of this lately; so many creatives are struggling to work in the climate we’re all facing.

When I was young, a teenager, I reveled in my dark, black moods to create my best work. I even did better writing term papers when I was unhappy. And some people stay that way their whole lives — they need that dark place to tap into their creative muse to get words or other art done.

But as I’ve grown older, as I’ve turned this into a job, I’ve found it much harder to work when I’m in a dark place or when life is being difficult. I don’t want to create magic and monsters and adventure. I want to curl up and be alone with my dogs and husband and shut out the world. Even if I’m working on something dark or difficult and it brings me down while I’m working, so much so, that when I leave my office I have to physically shake it off, I don’t need to first be in that place to write those words.

I participated in Camp NaNo in April. I set myself a goal of 40k words. In the beginning, it went like any NaNo usually does. I had my outline and was ready to get started and felt good about my daily word counts. But, as the month went on, and things in my life weren’t perfect and outside things started to drain away my energy, I found each word that much harder to type. When I finally hit my 40k word goal, I was relieved. I had one day to spare, but I did it. Obviously, that’s not the whole book. But with everything else going on outside of writing, my hubs and I agreed we needed a week to decompress. So I promised myself if I hit my NaNo goal, I was going to take a week off from writing to get my head right again.

That was last week. This week, these are the first words I’ve written. We planned our “take a break” week from everything but the bare minimum at just the right moment. We run a business together and we had an emergency happen last week that, had I been writing, would have taken any energy away from my daily goals. We’ve weathered the emergency and I think the ship is righted and we’re going to be okay, but I am so glad I gave myself permission to take a break from my book.

This book is from my favorite series and if I had continued to write while dealing with so much, I think it would have suffered and when the editing came around, it would have been a snarl of a headache to fix.

I used to say you had to write every day when you’re working on a project. Yeah, take the weekend off, or a day here or there if you like working on the weekend, but don’t abandon the project because you’ll lose momentum and the narration and it’ll be so much harder to pick back up. But I needed that break. It’s okay to take a break. The book will be there when you get back and if you’re serious about writing, you’ll go back to it.

I’m 40k words in, the beginning is always a huge hurdle and I’m almost half-way done, so there’s no reason for me to be scared that I can’t pick it back up.

We have to give ourselves permission to take a break when we need it. Burn outs and break downs are real and horrible and if you can see one coming before it hits, you should do whatever you have to to avoid it. We all need self-care and sometimes that means dealing with life while your imaginary friends take a seat and wait for you to come back.

Well. This isn’t quite where I thought this post was going to go, but there you have it. I’m nearly 20 books into the business, so I think I can safely say that each book is different, each book will ask different things of you and you just have to trust your gut with each one. Some will come hard and fast and you’ll never take a break because you’re just trying to keep up with the words yourself, and others will take their time and give you the space you need, you just have to let yourself take it.

It’s okay. You’re still a writer. Every book has its own process.

On Also Being Stuck

For this post, I wanted to pick up on the same themes of Liv’s previous post.

I’m finding myself a bit stuck as well.

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I’ve been working on the second draft of my latest manuscript THE BREWMANCER, and honesty’s it’s been brutal. I’m basically rewriting the entire first half from scratch and reworking most of the flashback interludes scattered through the book. I made some major changes to the plot when I was about two-thirds of the way through and now I’m paying the price.

While it’s tough going now, I still think the changes were for the best. The original ending – which is now sort of in the middle – was really depressing and involved the death of a major character and the bad guys winning. I’ve said before that I love a good Bad Ending, but this one was a little too Bad. And it wasn’t the right ending for what this story had become. The new ending features a victory for a our protagonists, but still with a cliffhanger to hook for the next installment.

It’s definitely a better ending, a quite frankly, I was having trouble coming up with enough plot to fill the space between the beginning and the originally ending. Moving that to the middle really helped, because it provided a catalyst for the action in the new second half. That said, all of the rewriting has me bogged down. I’ve had to rework a lot of the relationships plotted out originally and some of the major character arcs as the books morphed over the course of its completion.

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I want to make this manuscript work, but this is probably the hardest second draft I’ve done.  A lot of that has to do with the fact I’ve learned over the course of three manuscripts you can’t just wing it on your redrafts. And believe me, I’ve just winged on a couple of them. When I’ve done that before, I ended up with disjointed and poorly edited stories afterwards. I know now the what work needs to be done and it needs to be done right.

And maybe that’s why it’s so hard this time – I know how much work it’s already been and how much more there is to go. There’s a small voice in my head as I slog through these revisions that whispers every so often:

Is this worth it?

Sometimes I wonder for a moment if it really is.

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Then I remember years of work I’ve put into this craft. If I quit now, that would have all been for nothing. Then I remember all the people I’ve seen celebrating on social media on their Book Birthdays. If I quit now, I’ll never get to see my own Book Birthday.

Social media can be a big help on this front. Seeing friend’s progress and succeed is a driver. I’d be lying if a bit of professional jealousy at seeing other writers make book deals, hit the bestseller list, etc wasn’t a motivating factor too. But my biggest driver from social media is successful authors who have celebrated a half dozen or so Book Birthdays talk about their struggles. No matter how many times you hit the NYT Bestsellers List, there’s still a ton of work that goes into writing and rewriting that next book.  That fact could be just as daunting for an established, successful author is inspirational. For me it, shows that I’m not just struggling alone, that other writers, prolific and praised ones, aren’t just whizzing from book to book without a care.

It means I’m doing something right.

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So I’m going to keep pluggin along, wading through these edits as I try to make this a coherent story. It’s going to take longer than I thought it would, and that’s okay. The work will be worth it in the end.

On Being Stuck

The subtitle of this post should be: thoughts on how to regain forward motion.

Here’s the thing. In the last year, I’ve finished two books with my co-writer Irene Preston and a novella set in that same world. Before I edited this paragraph, the line read “I’ve only finished…” but I took the “only” out, because a novel and two novellas are definite accomplishments. In fact, you’re probably thinking I should be happy with three completed projects, and I am.

It’s just that I could have done more.

 

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In between the finished novel/novellas, I sliced and diced an old project, trying to make it work better, and began two other stories, only to stall out every time.

That’s a lot of crap, lemme check Facebook to see if I can shake something loose.

Those stories I fizzled out on? One is almost 200 pages long, and the other is just over 100 pages. (That’s double spaced, 12-font TNR, ~ 300 words a page.) The old project I fiddled with is even longer. My point is, I’ve invested a fair amount of time, creativity, and emotion into each of these and I don’t want to see all that energy go to waste.

Any time you’re doing something creative, false starts are part of the game. I’ll get an idea, slap it down on the page, and see what comes of it. I’ve got several of those; two or three thousand words sketching out a main character along with some bullet points regarding the plot, the kind of thing I can throw together in an afternoon, then set aside to see if anything roots.

But you figure if – at best – I write 5000 words a week, it probably took me 3 months to get to 200 pages. That’s too much for me to toss aside, and while I’m one of those writers who loves the process of editing, I can’t fix what isn’t on the page.

So now you know a couple of my dirty secrets. I give up too easily and then whine about it.

Oh, and to complicate matters, I’m doing Camp NaNo this month, the abbreviated spring version of NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. I committed to writing 20,000 words in the month of April. I’m at 17,600 words with three days left, which means I need to get one of these projects moving again.

 

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Basically I made this post in the hopes I’d find a way out of this pickle.  I did a google search for “how to get unstuck fiction writing”, and in the interest of helping others in the same situation, I want to share some of what I learned.

The author of an article on The Center for Fiction website said her blocks usually come from not knowing the characters well enough. She recommended doing some free writing from the main character’s point of view, asking them why they’re so pissed off. (That’s not as crazy as it might sound. Jump HERE for the full post.)

An article on the website thinkitcreative.com also recommended focusing on the characters to move the plot forward. The author here suggested working on the backstory to get insights into what could happen next. One of their ideas involved going to an online dating site to get a list of questions for the characters to answer, which kind of cracks me up, but just might work. (Jump HERE for the complete post.)

I also liked an article on the Writers Digest website, because it recommended brainstorming “what could happen next”, then choosing the option the reader is least likely to expect. The article’s second bullet point was even more succinct:

Kill someone.

Heh. Yeah. That’d definitely shake things up.

Finally, they suggested meditation, to let your mind go quiet and see what ideas wander in.  “Stillness is the native language of creativity, yet it’s astonishing how we try to avoid silence.” (Jump HERE for the full article.)

So yeah, maybe I’m not really stuck. Maybe I’m just giving my ideas more time to blossom.

Or maybe I should spend less time on Facebook, and more time exploring. I’m going to go walk the dogs and see what I can come up with. If you’ve got ideas for how to move through a block, share them in the comments. Would love to learn from you!

 

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Shameless Self-Promotion/New Release

If you’ve been following me on other outlets then you know I’ve been working on the very first companion novel to my Ash & Ruin Trilogy. I’ve turned it into a full-fledged book with a full cast of characters, some of whom will get their own spin-off books. And this one ended up earning a TBC ending even though I really intended for it to be a one off.

Books. Whadda gonna do, right?

Anyway, this baby drops in just under twenty days on 4/25/17 and you can pre-order your ebook copy now at all the outlets. If you’re a paper book person, never fear, this will be released in paperback as well!

So, are you ready to see it?

At fifteen years old, Gwen’s world has ended. Not because she’s gone through a break-up. Not because her parents are ruining her life with a lame curfew. Not because her grades are struggling. Not in the way a fifteen-year-old’s life usually ends.

At fifteen years old, Gwen has burned the dead bodies of both her parents and fortified her home against the plague-spreading monsters who killed them, waiting for her sister, Maggie, to make her way back home in the apocalyptic landscape that is the world now.

At fifteen years old, Gwen’s world has ended, but she’s not giving up. She’s not giving up on life, her home, or her sister. Because all you have left when the world ends is hope, so that’s what she’s got, a BB gun and hope.

Hopefully it’ll be enough.

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Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Kobo Smashwords | Barnes & Noble | ibooks

(It, along with all of my other books, are available on all of Amazon’s sites, but there are so many to list, so just do a quick search for it and you’ll find it!)

The Great Reading Challenge 2017 Edition!

I really don’t read as much as I should. With my day job, writing my own stuff, other life things and ALSO HOW AMAZING TV IS RIGHT NOW AND ALSO ALSO HOW WERE REWATCHING LOST there’s a whole bunch of other things pulling at my limited attention.

That said, Kristin challenged me to a reading contest this year – 12 books in 12 months. And I’m not one to say no to A CHALLENGE. This might not seem like a lot, but for someone who’s reading time is basically their lunch break and whenever he can fit in an hour at night, it’s something.

Now that the first quarter of 2017 is about to wrap, I thought I’d look back at the books I’ve read so far this year (they’ve all been pretty great thankfully) and share a few quick thoughts with all of you. Most of these are from the ol’ TBR pile, which was due for a much needed culling (I’ve added 50 more books to the List since I started writing this post).

Fifth SeasonTHE FIFTH SEASON by N.K. Jemisin

This book won a Hugo Award, so you know it’s probably pretty good. In a world ravaged by cataclysms called Seasons, a woman seeks vengeance for the death of her son, traveling across a vast wasteland to find his killer. Spanning three different timelines, it’s a story of people with the ability to quell or create earthquakes, volcanoes and and other seismic events. To begin or end the Seasons.

The worldbuilding in this book is incredible, there’s a rich backstory to the culture and history of the world that’s explored in each of the timelines. There’s even a catalogue of the various Seasons in the supplemental material in the back. The characters were pretty well developed too, but it was the world and its history that was the big selling point for me.

 

Every MountainEVERY MOUNTAIN MADE LOW by Alex White

Alex is a great dude. He was a potential mentor  for me when I entered Pitch Wars a couple years ago and we got to meet and hang out at World Fantasy Conference last year. He’s also a hell of a writer and this book, his debut, proves it.

The story follows Loxley Fiddleback (what a name!!!), a strange young woman who can see ghosts, as she traverses the dangers of a multi-tiered city called The Hole. One part ghost story, one part murder mystery, one part journey of self discovery, this book is a rollercoaster of an urban fantasy. Loxley is one of the most intriguing main characters I’ve read in a long time. Her personality is so unique and original and Alex really nailed her character arc.

 

DevourersTHE DEVOURERS by Indra Das

I actually got an ARC of this in my World Fantasy grab-bag last year. I was excited to see it in there, as I had heard good things and the cover art is AMAZING.

The book was pretty interesting and unlike most fantasy I usually read. It follows a professor in modern day India who is tasked with recording and translating an ancient scroll acquired from a mysterious stranger. The professor falls for the stranger while discovering that he is a shapeshifter who has lived for centuries traveling the globe.

The book had a really unique take on the werewolf/shapeshifter mythos, and what it means to be human. There’s also some very insightful musing about the nature of gender and the fluitiy of gender roles. This book also had some of the most beautfil prose I’ve ever read with deep, vivid descriptions. Admittedly, I thought it did go a little overboard with the purple prose, but for the most part was an enchanting read.

Best & Brightest.jpgTHE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST by David Halberstram

I used to read a lot of nonfiction, most politics and economic stuff. I dropped off after a while to focus more on fiction because that’s what I was writing. THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST is one of the most acclaimed books about foreign policy and political statecraft. This book is about the Kennedy administration and how the US got into the Vietnam War. It’s cautionary tale about the hubris of political experts and the death of common sense in policymaking. I’ve only just started it, and it is a BEAST of a book in terms of length and density. I’ll probably read it in quarters and tag in a fiction book here and there.

It’s also one of Steve Bannon’s (you may have heard of him) favorite books and one that he’s apparently having everyone in the White House read. While subject matter is very interesting to me, I think this book will also give important insight into the mind of the man who is the architect of much of the current administration’s policies.

So what have you all read so far this year or what do have planned to finally cross off the TBR?