Summer in the garden…

So it’s 72 degrees at 10 in the morning, and the high temperature today is supposed to approach 90 degrees. (That’s 22 degrees and 32 degrees, for those of you who speak Celcius.) I know that doesn’t compare to a lot of places, but for Seattle, that’s hot in any language.

Which is why I decided for today’s post, I’m going to take it easy. Instead of breaking down the current kerfuffle in m/m romance (because there’s *always* a kerfuffle in m/m romance) or digging through the fall-out of last week’s RWA conference (because OMG MRWAGA cannot be a thing!), I’m going to take you all on a little tour of my garden.

Two things to know before we start.

#1. My ideal garden is neat and tidy and symmetrical, and I appear to be congenitally unable to create such a space. My approach to garden design consists of planting all the things and seeing what lives.

#2. Over the last five years, life prevented me from spending much time gardening, so what started as “pretty fairy hide-out” turned into “the call of the wild”. I did some major (!!!) pruning this spring, and  removed a couple prominent plants that had outgrown their space to the point that taking them out was the only option. Even though I’ve done a lot of work, there’s still more to do. (There’s always more to do!)

With those things in mind, here we go…

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This is my front walkway. Most of the time you can get through without being mugged by a plant.
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This is the stone birdbath, my 10th anniversary gift to my husband.

 

Okay, so now I’ve learned that I can’t write captions when I tile images. Come on, WordPress. Work with me.

At any rate, the two on top are my “garden helpers”. (Ed is on the left, and Burnsie is on the right.) The pink rose of Baby Blanket which has no scent but a lovely bloom, and on the right is a Japanese anemone. If the anemone is flowering, it must be almost August. Also, they’re vigorous (!!) so if you want one, ask someone who’s already got them, because once they’re established, they come up EVERYWHERE.

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This is my front patio, a usually-shady place to hang out.

I have a thing for lace-cap hydrangeas…

And I also have a fair number of herbs. That’s a creeping thyme on the left, and lavender on the right. I’ve also planted sage, oregano, fennel, chives, rosemary, and basil. And strawberries. Did I mention strawberries? I used to have raspberries, but they’re thugs and wouldn’t stay in their bed so I took them out. I’m not much of an urban farmer, but this spring I did plant tomatoes and potatoes, along with an espaliered apple tree (that right now is hiding behind the tomato plants).

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This is my back porch, and below are two closer views of the oak leaf hydrangea on the left.

And…that’s all for now. I’m sure I’ll be back next month with some flaming drama to share with you, but today I’m just going to kick back and water my plants. Hope you’re having a lovely summer! (Or fall, if you’re from Oz!)

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How to Plot and Pants at the Same Time

pantser, n. — A writer who “flies by the seat of their pants” when drafting a book, rarely plotting more than the basics and never going so far as to outlinegiphy2

When I first started seriously writing I was a die-hard pantser. Any advance plotting more in-depth than the basics–world, protagonist, antagonist, and conflict–seemed restrictive at best, and pure tyranny at worst. My reasoning went that I couldn’t possibly be truly original, spontaneous, and creative with my writing if I had every last detail trussed up into a series of predetermined scenes. I had to let my imagination run wild! Find the flow! Go where my characters needed me to go!

Well. That all worked okay for a little while. But when I started drafting my second full-length novel, I ran into a curious problem. About a quarter of the way through–somewhere around the 20-25K word mark–I got stuck. I didn’t know exactly why, but the story had gone off track and I couldn’t figure out how to get it back ON track because I didn’t know where it was going. So, in pure pantser style, I started over. I began the story a little later into the action, changed up a few characters, and introduced the villain earlier. Things were going smoothly, until BAM. Yep, you guessed it. I was stuck again.

giphyHmm. Maybe pantsing wasn’t the most efficient method after all. Since I wasn’t particularly keen on writing another twenty thousand words I wasn’t going to use,  I started reading instead. I started with Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, then moved on to Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. Neither had all the answers, but I was beginning to see that maybe stories needed structure and planning after all. By the time I read Brook’s Story Engineering, I was ready to listen to what he had to say.

I like to call it Story Architecture. Stories, like buildings, have shapes, comprised of certain elements that are nearly constant across the board. Whether it’s a shack in the woods or a Frank Lloyd Wright art-home, a house has walls, a roof, at least one door, and nearly always windows. Similarly, a story must comprise certain elements that make it, well, a story. Beats. Pinch-points. Emotional arcs. And once you start identifying these building blocks, you start seeing them everywhere. The book you just picked up at the library. The latest summer blockbuster. The cartoon your niece is watching. And most importantly, you start seeing them in your own work. And you start seeing why your by-the-seat-of-your-pants-story has run into the ground.

giphy3And so I started outlining. I cobbled together a worksheet/beat-sheet that includes elements from Story Engineering, Save the Cat!, and even The Hero’s Journey, and I’ve used it to outline every manuscript I’ve written since. This beat-sheet helps me map out every plot point, every emotional arc, every shift in tension or sympathy. It helps me build the scaffolding upon which a readable story can be built.

But. (Y’all knew there was gonna be a but.) You may be able to take the girl out of the pants, but you can’t take the pants out of the girl (that sounded way less weird in my head). So I still try to find ways to incorporate the spontaneity and extemporaneousness of pantsing while also rigorously plotting.

First, I never outline too deeply–working through an outline beat by beat is bad enough, so I find scene by scene outlining to be way too stifling for me. Second, I never outline the climax and denouement of the story, instead letting the culmination and conclusion arise organically from the plot and characters as they stand. And finally, I never refer to back to my outline once I’ve completed it! Usually, after spending so much time with the plot, beats, pinch-points and emotional arcs, the shape of the story has already been built enough in my head that I can safely play it out on paper. And even if I decide along the way that I want to change the paint color or add an annex or even knock down a wall, I’m secure enough in the overall structure of the story that this won’t derail the entire plot.

giphy1My method probably isn’t for everyone! But whether you’re mostly a plotter or a mostly pantser, it goes to show that a little bit of flexibility in either direction can go a long way.

Resources:

Kurt Vonnegut, and the Shapes of Stories

Jami Gold | Worksheets for Writers

Pixar’s 22 Rules for Storytelling

When Competition is Motivating

I’m a very competitive person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shut up.

I’m beginning to realize that rather than discourage me, the success of others motivates me to work harder, to reach farther, to branch out into areas I otherwise would be afraid to go.

A few years ago, my fellow Scribe Emmie Mears had a run of great news in her career, securing four book deals in one summer for both fiction and non-fiction books. At the time, I was 1.5 years into being on submission for my first book, Daughter of Destiny, and I was starting to see cracks in my relationship with my agent. So while I was happy for Emmie, I was also feeling insecure, which led to me being VERY jealous.

Not long before Emmie’s announcement, my agent had told me the editor who had my book at the time was so certain we were going to get an offer that she wanted me to write a non-fiction book about the Celts so she could tie it into my Guinevere books. I thought she was nuts. Me? A non-fiction author? Right. I didn’t think I had the education or skills for that so I dismissed it out of hand.

I was in Chicago on vacation when I found out about Emmie’s good fortune. Of course, I stewed for a while, but then I thought, “If Emmie can get a non-fiction book deal, why can’t I?” Over the next two months, I researched my little heart out and ended up with a proposal and a 50,000 word book. Sadly, we never got to send it to the editor because the publisher ultimately passed on Daughter, but it made me do something I never thought I would. (I never have published that book. Maybe someday. I have since published non-fiction, though!)

Then just last week I found out a second author I know online, Chanel Cleeton, had her book Next Year in Havana chosen by Reese Witherspoon as her book club pick. When this happened to the first of my friends, Kate Quinn (for The Alice Network, such an amazing book), I wasn’t jealous, just very, very happy for her. But for some reason, Chanel’s announcement really got to me. (My best guess is I am feeling insecure again and that is probably right because I’m looking to go back to traditional publishing for my next few books after three years as an indie author.)

But again, after a few hours of being jealous, during which I created the graphic to the right, it energized me. I thought to myself, “well, if that’s going to be me someday, I better get a move on.” Now, at the time I was editing one book (fiction) and working on a proposal for another (historical non-fiction). What did I do? Began putting feelers out for yet another non-fiction book to determine if there is enough information on my subject to warrant a biography (I can’t find evidence that one has ever been written on this woman, but there might be a reason for that.)

My point to all of this is that you can take a negative emotion like jealousy and turn it into something positive. It just takes a little creative thinking. If I can use all the success of my amazingly cool author friends to power me on, I should be to the moon in no time!

Now I need one of you to do something else really awesome so I can get my butt in gear for the historical non-fiction proposal I really want to get out to agents soon. All I have left is researching and writing the sample chapters. Go! Do! Succeed!

How to be Creative in the Chaos that is Now

First, let me say that I am proud of Liv and Lyra sharing their posts the last two weeks. As authors and public figures it’s difficult to know whether or not to speak up about politics, always afraid of hurting our livelihoods for offending people. But I think we all know that things are just different now and we need to speak up and not fear reprisal. If you didn’t get a chance to check them out last month, please go have a quick read.

I do want to get back to talking about writerly things, but we cannot ignore the fact that the current climate has really had a hard, hard impact on writers. The constant chaotic news loop we’re stuck in takes so much out of us. Every day, sometimes multiple times a day, there is some new horror or frustration or just plain bullshit that has us throwing up our hands, randomly cursing, or slumping over with a deep sigh.

So how, how do you push through all that crap and be creative? How do you check out if even for a little while so you can get your words for the day? You don’t want to look away because that is a privilege and the guilt is overwhelming. But you lose your goddamn mind if you don’t take a break once in a while, right? Another chaotic loop.

Well, first of all, the best thing you can do is look the monster in the face. Take five minutes in the morning to call your three reps (both senators and your MOC) and tell the staffer or leave a short VM with your name and zip code and tell them why you’re calling, what you’re supporting or protesting. They’ll take a note, thank you, and be done with the call. Boom. One important contribution done. And yes, you should do this multiple times a week. If you have phone anxiety call after hours and leave a VM, those still count.

Secondly, participate, if you can, in protests. I can’t tell you how much faith and hope and resolve the Women’s March gave me last year. Even in my small city, the turn out was amazing. This past weekend my husband and I joined in on the Families Belong Together March. In the past my husband has had to work when the protests were scheduled in our area, but not this one, so he was able to go. He really didn’t think it would be much of a turn out, he wasn’t as excited as I was. At least, not until we got there. When the crowd filled in his whole demeanor changed. He joined in on the chants, he raised his fist, he took a spare flag from another protester to hold up (this was a very big deal because my hubs is a Marine Vet and in Nov 2016 he packed away all his USMC and veteran apparel and refused to wear any of it or talk about being in the service because he was so angry and disillusioned).  Seeing so many people turn out in our small piece of America, seeing all the other veterans proudly wearing their hats and shirts, really changed something in him. If you need that, go to a march.

And finally, do what I’ve done. Give yourself a break. Not forever, not indefinitely, but take the time you need. We all need to recharge. When you’re ready, get back to work, but take as much time as you need to finish a project. You all know I’ve been talking about a new book, but I haven’t written one word yet. I did finally manage to flesh out the two main characters and that feels like something. In doing so I was able to think about the magic systems and a seedy, black market system that will work as a wonderful red herring to the mystery I’m still figuring out.

Another thing I did to help me this year was become a student again. Not back to uni or to a workshop,  but I did look up Brandon Sanderson. Plenty of people know who I’m talking about, but if you don’t, he’s a best selling Epic Fantasy writer, who also happens to teach. And what’s even more amazing, his lectures are on YouTube. I watched an 8 series lecture and took copious notes. I started watching because I wanted to learn what he had to say on magic systems, but then realized it was a whole class and decided to start from the beginning.

Now, I’ve written quite a number of books, so I like to think I know what I’m doing, but it was still nice to take this as a refresher course. It gave me some food for thought about a lot of things and it felt good to be a student again. There are a lot of his lectures to be found, but I started with his BYU 318R Writing Class. Seriously, check it out. And if you’re a newbie writer and struggling with your first book and can’t afford/don’t have time for school, take advantage of this. It was an amazing course, probably better than a lot of the classes I took in uni because so many of those were focused on reading.

Hopefully something here helps you figure out a balance to being informed without being overwhelmed and getting back to work. We need a middle ground; don’t let them steal your fire.