The Merits of Changing Things Up

I’ve found that one of the most crucial aspects of becoming and being a successful creative (successful in the sense that you actually create) is routine. That may seem incredibly counter-intuitive to some people, including myself when I first started out. “But Lyra,” you’re probably saying to yourself. “Didn’t P G Wodehouse famously say routine is the death of heroism? Didn’t you just look up a whole plethora of quotes by famous people to find that everyone agrees that routine is basically where creativity goes to die?” Yes, he did, and yes, I did. But bear with me for a second.

giphy1Every writer and artist I know has a routine. These vary from setting a timer for 30 minutes before going to their day jobs to rolling out of bed and working straight through to bedtime. The routine is almost like the scaffolding of a house being built–it holds things in place so the building doesn’t collapse before it’s even started. And everyone’s is different. Write for two hours in the morning, then fingerpaint for the rest of the day? Awesome. Dance naked under the moonlight at midnight then scribble until dawn? You do you. Find a routine that works best for you, and your creative process. But find a routine.

But. (C’mon, you knew there would be a but.)

Routine can definitely get the better of you. My husband and I recently moved, and in order to combat the insane upheaval of lifestyle that inevitably causes, I’ve been clinging to other routines like nobody’s business. I try to write at designated times. I practice my instrument. I read books in my genre as work and I read frothy lighthearted books outside of it for pleasure. After dinner I watch a few episodes from a rotating selection of TV shows, or maybe a silly romcom.

giphyBut for some reason I’ve been blocked. It doesn’t help that most of my writing work recently has been copyedits, which is frankly a pretty banal slog. But for whatever reason, I’ve hit a wall. A few foundering short stories, a half-baked outline for a really ambitious space opera, and…that’s it. But the other night as I queued up yet another episode of Reign (don’t you judge me) I got a text from my sister. She was rewatching an old Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie we used to love when we were kids, and was loving the costumes and snappy dialogue.

Now I used to watch a ton of old movies, either rented from the library or later–when my parents got cable–on TCM. But for the past few years, the combination of black and white film, square aspect, and casual sexism has made the genre feel a little inaccessible and undesirable to me. But I took a chance, jumped on Amazon, and rented it digitally. And a delightful hour and a half later–my head now full of gamine showgirls, mistaken identities, and a love-hate flirtation for the ages–I had a new idea for a book. Something wildly different from what I usually write, but something I’m excited about nonetheless. Nanowrimo–here I come!

giphy2So I’m just here to say this: don’t nail yourself to your desk. Read a book you think you’ll hate, watch a movie someone told you was boring, taste a dish you loathed when you were a kid. Because you never know where that shiny new idea might be hiding.

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On Persistence

Those of you who know me or follow me on social media have probably heard my good news by now. (Okay, you’re probably already tired of hearing about my good news.) For those of you who don’t, I’m incredibly pleased to say that my YA fantasy Amber & Dusk was acquired by Scholastic for publication! *cue happy dance forever*

But I don’t want to talk about that right now. I don’t want to talk about what the book is about or what inspired it or what it means to me. Today I kind of want to talk about something else, something that I’m not sure is discussed enough in this glorious complicated frustrating industry. I want to talk about an important–if not crucial–lesson that I learned very slowly, and with much difficulty, over the course of a number of sometimes soul-bruising years. The name of that lesson is persistence.

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I didn’t start writing seriously until six years ago, almost exactly. I’d written all my life–from incredibly detailed diaries to elaborate illustrated short stories to painstakingly-typed royal histories–but it had never really occurred to me that I could be a writer. But when the opportunity to really take a stab at writing presented itself, I jumped at the chance. What I didn’t realize was that I was jumping into a black roiling sea of rejection with no floaties and oh yeah, there were sharks.

No lie, I thought I was going to write a glorious first novel, make a million dollars, and I don’t know like move to a castle and surround myself with adoring fans. Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen. Looking back on my first query letters is seriously cringe-worthy–they’re full of awkward self-deprecating jokes, vague stakes, and rhetorical questions. SO MANY rhetorical questions. I was so naive, and so inexperienced. And when most of my query letters were summarily rejected with form letters–or, worse, not responded to at all–I was crushed.

I’m not sure whether it was pride or shame or competitiveness or some internal strength that made me soldier on. But I wrote a second book. And then rewrote that book in a different setting with a different main character. And then I queried that book. And when that one received four rounds of rejections, I wrote another. And after querying that one I finally got into PitchWars, an amazing pitch contest hosted by Brenda Drake. And I got an agent! I finally made it!

HAHAHA gotcha. No way. No siree. Try another three rounds of revisions, and going on submission with editors only to hear another mountain of pure unadulterated NOPE. And then writing another book and a half. And then going on sub again.

True story: three weeks before finally getting an offer on A&D, I literally broke down and finally quit. I remember sitting with my sisters on the floor of my niece’s playroom and sobbing into my wine. I was done, I was finished with hearing no. Writing isn’t just a job; it’s pouring something of my soul out into the world, and having industry professionals read that art, recognize that as art, and then still tell me it wasn’t good enough had started to break my heart.

All’s well that ends well.

Don’t get me wrong–I have no illusions. I’m still learning this lesson: persistence isn’t the end game–it’s the name of the game. And listen–my goals aren’t and shouldn’t be everyone’s goals. But having my book published traditionally has been my dream, and despite the above paragraph, I’m usually not a quitter. So while it feels amazing to have taken a step forward in this crazy journey, I still have a thousand miles to walk. But I’m not going to worry too much about that now.

I’ll just try to remember to be persistent.

Inspiration in Beauty

There is so much going on in the world these days that it’s hard not to find it overwhelming. Every time I turn on the TV or radio or Twitter I feel like I’m being bombarded with hateful rhetoric from all sides, and terrible–sometimes heartbreaking–images from the horrific acts that seem to be happening more and more often. As an artist, I have to confess that this takes a heavy toll on my creativity. It’s hard to see beauty and wonder and joy when it sometimes seems like the world is falling apart.

That’s when I turn to beautiful things. There are a million places to find beautiful things, if you know where to look. Nature, of course. Your local art gallery. Between the dusty shelves of that used bookstore down the street. But as with all things, the most concentrated trove of beauty is on that most horrible and glorious of things: The Internet. Here are a few of the sites I turn to when my creative well has been emptied by reality!

My Modern Met

From fairy-tale inspired photography to how Matryoshka dolls are made to modern dance, this site always has something lovely and a little strange to offer. My favorite ever find: this stunning ballet short film that actually inspired a scene in one of my books!

 

Stumble Upon

This site takes you to a totally random website! You can curate the types of sites it will take you to based on your interests–art, gardening, photography, you name it. It can be a little bit of a mixed bag, and sometimes you have to click through a few random sites to find anything worthwhile, but I’ve found some incredible things through this site. (It’s also a great tool for procrastination…)

Artist A Day

This website does pretty much what it promises to do–showcases an artist a day! They also curate lists of top tens that can be great if you’re working on something with a specific theme and need inspiration. One of my recent favorite finds–this stunning work by Kim Keever. I encourage you to read about her fascinating process!

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Sunset 44d by Kim Keever. Image does not belong to me.

 

 

 

Atlas Obscura

This site basically shares links, but they’re usually very cool. Everything from weird historical facts to geological oddities to maps of curious museums across the world, you never really know what you might, um, what’s another word for stumble upon?

Of course, these are just a drop in the vast ocean of gorgeous and inspiring sites on the internet. But they’re some of the ones I find myself turning to, again and again, when I just need to tune out the world.

Do you find inspiration in beauty? What are some of your favorite places to find beauty, wonder, and joy? Share in the comment section below!

7 Deadly Sins of SFF World-Building

Writing science fiction and fantasy is fun, and in my opinion, world-building is the bestest most funnest part. Whether you’re writing urban, historical, or alt-world fantasy, or a science fiction set in a galaxy far far away, world-building is a crucial part of the story-telling process. The world (or universe!) you create must be complex and multi-layered; it must be a place your characters operate in and interact with; and it must set the stage for your plot. It’s no easy task, and there are countless pitfalls at every stage of the process of creating a world.

Read to jump in? Here are my top cliches and tropes to avoid, listed in no particular order.

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Basing your other world TOO much on Earth

This is one of the biggest and easiest traps to fall into. Earth’s history and many cultures are far-reaching and complex, and it can be tempting to borrow elements whole-sale without bothering to do much work creatively. Think of how many famous fantasy worlds resemble Medieval-era Earth completely, right on down to the rampant sexism and casual racism (*cough* Westeros *cough*). There’s nothing wrong with using our world’s history and cultures to inspire your made-up world, but make sure it doesn’t become a lazy short-cut. If there’s sexism or lack of diversity in your world, you need a better reason than “that’s how things were back then.” You’re writing fantasy, not historical fiction. Get creative!

Over-use of common nouns

You know what I’m talking about…

The Keeper of the Shadow Throne awaits the Birth of the Kindred.

A Rim-born Elder must name the Crystal Celebrant on the Day of Undoing.

Don’t get me wrong–naming things is half the fun of writing fantasy and science fiction. And capitalizing a regular old word or concept can definitely lend it a sort of otherworldly gravitas. Just be careful not to over-use this trope, or your world will quickly begin to feel lazy and unoriginal.

perfect_planet-626x1024Making your races/cultures/societies too homogenous

So the indigo-skinned Topworlders enslaved the ruby-eyed Burrow Folk a hundred years ago, and now they hate each other with a vengeance. That’s fine, but does every Topworlder relish owning a Burrow slave? And do all Burrow Folk agree with the politics of the Burrow Queen who surrendered to the Topworlders’ superior technology instead of fighting for their land?

Here’s where taking cues from humanity is a good thing. I could strike up a conversation with the person sitting beside me on the bus and within ten minutes we’d be able to think of at least a few things we disagreed on–politics, religion, whether cilantro tastes like soap. Races, cultures, even sub-cultures don’t have monolithic beliefs that trump individuality. Make sure the individuals in your alien races or fantasy societies reflect this diversity.

Introducing a world-changing technology/magic without taking into account all its ramifications

“It’s like our world, but everyone can teleport!”

Yikes. The minute you start talking about wide-spread teleportation, it ceases to be anything like our world. How could it be? Something as potentially life-changing as that would have first-order, second-order, and third-order effects on the way a world was structured and the way its citizens operated within it. Do your world the service of thinking through massive changes in technology or magical power, and what kind of structural changes might arise from that.

Language that doesn’t reflect the world

Contextual short-hands and idioms are rife in the English language (or whatever language you’re writing in!) and they can really trip you up if you’re not careful. This is something I’m constantly correcting in my own worlds–if a concept or idea doesn’t exist in the world you’re creating, why would the character make any kind of reference to it? Good examples of this might be “inching along” if the unit of measurement isn’t inches, or “red as a rose” when there aren’t roses in space.

paperback04Not thinking about minutiae

Do you ever have that moment when you’re watching an intense adventure movie and you think to yourself “Good thing none of them have had to poop this whole time.”?

Worlds, at their core, are pretty boring. Your character may be battling the Dark Overlord of Doom, but the rest of the world isn’t. There’s waste removal and food service and communication infrastructure and architecture and the menial jobs that hold a society together. While your novel doesn’t have to focus inordinately on these things, it helps if you as an author have a basic understanding of how these processes work in your world, so there’s a seamless backdrop for the story to play out against.

Unless you’ve created a magical and majestic world were people literally just don’t poop.

Basing one-dimensional fictional ethnic groups on real-life ethnic groups

Okay, this is basically a continuation of the very first point, but it’s kind of a biggie. Rule of thumb, if you want to have Italians (or Native Americans, or the Irish, or Nigerians) in your fantasy or science fiction novel, you’re going to have to do your utmost to create an accurate and nuanced view of Italian culture. What you cannot do–please please don’t–is name them Etolians and have them running around shouting “Mamma Mia!” while they stuff their faces with spaghetti.

Any cultural or ethnic group within your novel should have multiple dimensions and a believable culture regardless of whether your main character comes from this culture or sees it as “other.” And this is where it gets tricky–the more your fictional group resembles the real-world group, the more you’re going to have to worry about being respectful and true to life. This becomes especially true when dealing with marginalized groups, but should really be implemented across the board. When in doubt, find a sensitivity reader, but that should be your back-up plan. Do your homework, and make sure you’re not basing a fictional ethnic group on a real-world ethnic group just because it’s easy.

Well, that’s world-building in a very large nutshell. Any questions? At the end of the day, creating a made-up world as complex, multi-faceted, and often nonsensical as our own world isn’t something that happens overnight. Take your time, be creative, and don’t rely on short-hand to make your point.

What are your favorite/least favorite SFF world-building tropes? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

 

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

Write With Your Nose

A fellow writer recently shared a pretty hilarious online word generator, called “What Does Your Hero Smell Like?” When you enter the name of a protagonist or love interest, it automatically generates a unique smell just for them. Some gems for my characters included Sunder, who smelled like “meat and luck” (ewwww), and Rogan, “clean sheets and wreckage” (I…kind of…like that one). The generator is obviously supposed to be humorous, but it got me thinking a little more critically about how I use the sense of smell in my writing.

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If you’ve been writing for long, you’ve probably heard advice about how to write with all five senses. But in my experience, not all senses get top billing. Sight is the obvious leader, with hearing, touch, taste and smell trailing somewhere behind. Every sense deserves to be explored to fully paint a picture of whatever story you’re trying to tell, but in my opinion, the olfactory senses hold a special place in a writer’s arsenal.

Due to the anatomy of the human brain, smell is actually closely linked to memory, more so than any other sense. (Here’s an interesting article in Psychology Today about the effect, if you’re interested to know more!) Smells are basically encoded onto our memories, so that revisiting certain smells can directly trigger those precise memories. “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences,” author, poet, and naturalist Diane Ackerman writes in her book, A Natural History of the Senses. And, for better or for worse, odors also elicit the emotions buried within those specific memories. A smell can just as easily bring back a happy memory as it can trigger something traumatic.

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So, how can you use this in your writing? The possibilities are endless, so be creative! On a  basic level–and in conjunction with the other four senses–observing ambient smells in a story can flesh out the setting. But go a little deeper. Smells can be a fantastic way to introduce flashbacks for character development–anything from the whiff of an old lover’s cologne to the scent of wood-smoke on the air to a grandmother’s dryer sheets can bring back important memories. Smells can also evoke different places and different times for POV characters, introducing the possibility of foreshadowing and/or parallel structure. When employing the objective correlative, the odors noticed by a character in a certain situation can reflect how they themselves are perceiving the world around them.

And finally, although most of us modern humans go out of our way to cover up our natural scents with deodorant, perfume, and cologne, individuals do have individual physical scents. And whatever that odor might be–nasty or nice, pungent or pleasant–finding a way to describe your fictional character’s personal smell can go a long way towards accentuating their personality, and defining their place in the world.

Please, just don’t let it be “meat and luck!”

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It’s My Birthday, I’ll Blog If I Want To

Happy Imbolc/Candlemas/Groundhog Day, folks! And guess what? It also happens to be the anniversary of the day I, uh, drifted peacefully into this wide, weird, wonderful world! So I thought I’d take a few minutes away from stuffing my face full of cake and screaming my head off obsessively reading the news to share a little of what’s been going on with me!

giphy1Birthdays for me are always a time of reflection, and sometimes I get moody when I think of all the things I didn’t manage to do in the past calendar year. But today, I’d like to celebrate the things I have done. It’s been a pretty full year of working and writing and reading, but I’ve also managed to squeeze in some fun trips, pursue some health and fitness goals, and even carve out some headspace when necessary. (Recently, that’s been a lot.)

One of the highlights of my year was definitely a vacation to Scotland. The husband and I rented a rustic cottage on the Isle of Mull, way out in the Inner Hebrides, just across the bay from Iona, where Dark Age monks famously protected the Book of Kells from the Vikings. The landscape was absolutely stunning, with iron-dark tors draped in purple heather and grey fog. When the sun peeked from behind clouds the ocean sparkled blue as a sapphire. We hiked and rambled, visited a few distilleries, and ate our collective weight in shortbread. Leaving was like saying goodbye to an old friend you never knew you had, and we hope to visit again as soon as we can. *rustles around in the couch cushions for spare change*

16466223_10110227003544731_104815964_oOn the writing front, in early Autumn of last year I completed the millionth final draft of my latest YA fantasy novel, AMBER & DUSK. Set in a world where the sun never sets, a young woman with a mysterious bloodline wagers for a place at court, only to be tangled in a courtly web of cunning courtiers and predatory royals. Sylvie struggles to master her magical gift while dodging cruel pranks, vicious insults, and possible disgrace. And as beautiful as the palais seems, its mirrored hallways, winter gardens, and gilded marble are nothing more than a mirage to hide a brutal past and deadly secrets.

photofunkyMy agent loved it! …And we’ve been in query hell ever since. But it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written, and I really hope I’ll be able to share it with the world soon. If you’re curious to know more, I hope you’ll check out my Pinterest inspo board for a feel of the world’s aesthetic.

Since then, I’ve been working on a YA standalone romance that I’m tentatively billing as a Celtic fairytale retelling of Swan Lake. It’s pretty different from anything I’ve written before, with a moody vibe, a contemplative pace, and a very small cast. It’s been excruciating snail-like slow going these past few months, but I’m hoping to hit my stride again soon and crank out the first draft!

giphyAnd the rest is just little things! I’ve finished a few short stories, cobbled together from the odds and ends of books I never ended up writing. I’m hoping to shop them around soon. I’m contemplating a complete facelift of my main author website, Lyra Selene, but am utterly terrified since I can’t computer. If you or anyone you know is a regular programming whiz kid drop me a line…I’ll make you an offer you will probably refuse. And finally, I have some exciting–but still nascent–news I hope to share soon, so keep your eyes peeled and I promise to keep you posted…before my next birthday!