December 31, 2013

Start Anyway (Letter to Self)

I've been writing for a long time.

I've been writing seriously for a long time.

I've completed (written, revised) some drafts.

I've completed (written, unrevised) some drafts.

I've started countless drafts.

I still don't feel like I know how to write a novel.

As part of my graduate program last semester, I was paired with an editor to work on a draft of a novel. I learned an incredible amount about the way I write -- but it was mostly learning about the many ways in which I should not write.

I have another one of those happening this coming semester. I have to submit the first fourth of the draft in less than two weeks. In the past two weeks I've brainstormed one novel. Then, last week, I threw it out and started on something entirely new.

I started by outlining. But it's been days of scribbling and brainstorming and still coming out with many questions and very few answers. I know a few things about this new novel. But those small things pale in comparison to what I don't know.

It makes me nervous to start writing without knowing the road ahead. Who was it that said something about writing being like driving at night with your headlights on? (Doctorow?) That's what I'm clinging to right now -- that if I just start, things will eventually fall into place.

I don't know the end of this novel. Or the middle. Or even (if I'm being honest) the beginning. But it's time to start anyway.

I don't know if this is the best advice. I've written a lot, but I still haven't hit on a personal process that gives me a road map for what I'm about to sit down and do.

Maybe that's because there isn't one. Maybe it's different every time you sit down to start something new.

I still don't feel like I know how to write a novel.

Right now, I have to start anyway.

December 19, 2013

What I Would Like to Talk About When I Talk About Running

This is not a complete post, even though I should get to one one of these days.

This is just to say that I've squeaked in a book just under the wire for 2013 that has instantly taken a place on my favorites list for the year.

The book is What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a memoir by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. It's a meditation, of sorts, on running. And on writing. And on the intersection of the two, and on aging. And on setting goals. And on perseverence.

But mostly it's about running and writing.

I read the first third and immediately texted my father to tell him to pick it up. I got through the first half and found myself actively laughing in places.

"I never had any ambitions to be a novelist. I just had this strong desire to write a novel. No concrete image of what I wanted to write about, just the conviction that if I wrote it now I could come up with something that I'd find convincing. When I thought about sitting down at my desk at home and setting out to write I realized I didn't even own a decent fountain pen. So I went to the Kinokuniya store in Shinjuku and bought a sheaf of manuscript paper and a five-dollar Sailor fountain pen. A small capital investment on my part" (28).

A small capital investment on my part. If that makes you giggle, pick up this book.

Highly, HIGHLY recommended. If you are searching for a last minute Christmas gift for the writers (or runners) in your family, get this.

April 10, 2013

Musings on Poetics

As a result of certain events conspiring against me, I wrote a poem on Monday. I had a plot. I had a title. I was intended to write a short story, but when I sat down, a poem is what came out.

I'm still not sure how it happened, but I'm rather pleased with the result. I took multiple poetry workshops in college, but I've always considered myself first and foremost a writer of prose. Poetry has confounded me in the past. I've felt like someone entering a foreign land, a place where words fit together in ways I didn't understand. Three years ago, I was very good at drabbling words onto the page in interesting combinations--lines that rolled enticingly off the tongue, but at the end of the day failed to cohere into a meaningful whole.

Somewhere in the last three years (years when I was emphatically NOT writing poetry), that changed. You're going to laugh when you read this, but this week is the first time that I really felt like writing poetry and writing prose can be complementary activities. Not that I hadn't realized this before, in theory--rather, this week was the first time I really felt its effects. (Maybe this has something to do with graduate school. Or with three years of writing prose. Or three years of just hanging out.) On Monday I wrote my drabbly first draft, sat back, and really thought about the story I was trying to tell. Really thought about the form I wanted it to take. Poetry became not just WORDS! but rather, another avenue of storytelling that requires just as much thought as writing a short story or novel.

Similarly, writing poetry makes me more aware of word choice and phrasing in my prose. One of the things I like most about poetry are the constraints--in meter, in rhythm, in rhyme, in form. They force you to choose your words carefully, and re-choose them, and shuffle them, until they come together in precisely the right way. Almost-right is not right enough. From poetry I learned to concentrate on the internal rhythm of my sentences, to pay careful attention to the endings of things--paragraphs, chapters, novels.

Maybe the biggest reminder I took away from my impromptu poetry session is that poetry, as much as prose, is a process. One of my poetry professors in college used to said something along the lines of, "Poetry is never finished, only abandoned." One can tinker endlessly, adding a word here, dropping a word there, all in search of perfection. Maybe perfection is unachievable. But for someone who used to scribble a first draft and despair, it's heartening to be reminded that poetry is meant to be written and rewritten and refined and re-refined--slowly spiraling in from "well, what I mean to say" toward "This I say."

April 8, 2013

Music Monday: "Sometimes" (Walk Off the Earth)

Seems weird to do back-to-back WOTE Music Mondays, but I justify this because last time the song was a cover, and because today, "Sometimes" is just my jam.

WOTE doesn't have an official video for "Sometimes" as far as I can tell, so I've included a live performance from their current tour. I'm in a rush, so I'll just say this: I kind of adore this song.

March 24, 2013

NaCreSoMo #16: ARGH

Just finished redrafting a chapter of NEEDS A BETTER CODE NAME (maybe I should just shorten it to CODE NAME?) for my class workshop.

This is one of those days when revising (and writing in general) feels like pulling teeth. I'm in one of those spots in the draft where everything is lagging and I am so uninterested in what's going on and I just want to get to the exciting bits already! (Too bad I need another two chapters to get to the super duper exciting bits...)

Most posts you read will say that this is a bad sign. That it means you as the writer need to work harder on making the pertinent section more interesting--because if you're bored, the reader will be bored. There's something to that, probably... But I'm not going to go back and fix it right now. I'll let my excellent workshop class tell me all the ways in which it could be more exciting. (Good critique groups are awesome, by the way. That's the moral of this story.)

Line of the day: "I trust that thief cities farther than I trust you," I said. "He stays."

March 22, 2013

NaCreSoMo #15: Feeling Good About Procrastination

What a difference a good night's sleep makes. Different frame of mind, different brain activity, different...levels of procrastination?

Yes, I said it. I am a master at procrastination. My skills at procrastination are only equaled by my skills at pretending that I didn't procrastinate in the first place. Why no, I definitely wasn't up until 4:00am this morning doing this project that I had three weeks to work on...

Right now I'm procrastinating on completing the picture book project I mentioned a few weeks ago. I've drafted ten papers. Now I need to write fifteen more...and polish everything up...

The funny thing is that the more things I get done, the worse a procrastinator I become. Tonight my goal was to draft five papers (yeah, totally not happening). What actually happened was that I had a solid idea for one paper, and once I figured out what I was going to write about, my academic brain went on vacation. Because having the idea in the first place is totally credit-worthy, right? Right?

Anyway, ever since I had that idea, I've been fooling around with other stuff that I have to do, but are not quite as high on the priority list. (What a sad, sad world it is that my methods of procrastination have turned into actually DOING WORK, just not the work I'm supposed to be doing...) But that's not the point. The point is that I'm actually excited about how I'm procrastinating right now (that I shouldn't be working on right now...):

1. NEEDS A BETTER CODE NAME: I feel like I have no time to work on this whatsoever. This does not bode well for my goal of having a complete draft done by the end of March, but whatever. What's life for if not impossible goals? I spend so much time emphatically not writing that when the SPARK arrives, it's amazing and wonderful and life suddenly becomes full of possibilities and sunshine and puppies. Such is the current life of NEEDS A BETTER CODE NAME. My writing would be going so well--if I had the time to actually, well, write. In any case, I squeezed in enough seconds today to finish revising two chapters. (Yay? Yay!)

2. Completely brand-new (to NaCreSoMo) project: Something else that needs a better code name, or even a code name to begin with. Let's call this one... HYPOTHETICAL MERPIRE. Those of you who know me in actual life may know that I spent two long years slogging through HYPOTHETICAL MERPIRE. I finally completed/shelved (depending on your perspective) this novel last August, happy to let it lie, gathering dust. But recently I've been thinking about it more and more. The characters. The world. The polar bears. And there's something in my head that's been nagging at me, telling me that it's time to return.

If I were going to go back to HYPOTHETICAL MERPIRE, this would be no mere revision. This would be going in and completely gutting the story. I wouldn't even look at the old draft--I'd open up a completely new document and spill out...a very different story. It's been on my mind so much recently that I've come up with new plot twists, new characters, completely new character motivation... The (hypothetical new) HYPOTHETICAL MERPIRE would bear only a passing resemblance to the current project, and I am really, really excited about the prospect of digging into it again.

But that's all for another day. Right now, it's probably time I stopped procrastinating. How about you? What are you procrastinating on (and with)?

Line of the day: "Not much about me gave any hint that I'd ever been anything but a vagrant. But this was something real, even if its touch was as faint as a ghost."

March 21, 2013

NaCreSoMo #14: Tapped Out

Ugh. I feel like I've been trying to write this whole week, and things keep getting in the way. So there's not much in the way of writing to share in the way of my creation right now.

Instead, I'm going to direct you to posts written by few writers I follow, people who speak intelligently about both craft and the real world (and, sometimes, the intersection of the two). These are the sorts of writers I pay attention to.

- Kate Elliott (Cold Magic): "The Omniscient Breasts"

- N. K. Jemisin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms): "Fantastic Profanity"

- Foz Meadows (Solace and Grief): "PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical"

Of course there's far, far more stuff out there, written by many, many authors. These are just a few essays recently that have inspired me, informed me, and challenged me to write (and read) better.

How about you? Who are the authors/artists/creative-types who expand your worldview, or challenge you to make your art in the best possible way?

March 18, 2013

NaCreSoMo #13: Special Babies

I've been thinking a lot about revision recently.

Now, I'm pretty much always thinking about revision in one way or another. But there's just something about workshopping NEEDS A BETTER CODE NAME in two workshops simultaneously (one in a classroom, one "extracurricular," if you can really call it that) that has brought revisions into the forefront of my mind.

Writing is difficult. Revision is sometimes even more so. But something occurred to me during a workshop I did yesterday. It's always difficult to be workshopped. At best, workshopping can shine all sorts of light on issues in your work that you never even thought about before, as well as provide possibilities for change that get the creative juices flowing again. But at worst, workshopping can be brutal. I like to think that I'm pretty good at not taking it personally--at reminding myself that everyone in the workshop is invested in making my work as good as it possibly can be, and that's a good thing, right?--but that doesn't mean that it's always a walk in the park.

Anyway, yesterday we were workshopping a piece by a friend of mine. And we ripped into it pretty darn well. Not that what was already there was bad, or that the message was "This sucks, change it or else!" Everyone there was absolutely invested in making her work as good as it could be, and absolutely invested in coming up with ideas for how it could be changed to fulfill its purpose in a more efficient manner. But all that put together meant that by the end of the session, we'd suggested cutting most of the first chapter and merging it with the events of the second and third. For those of you not particularly familiar with the writing world, this is a major revision.

When I think about her work now, I think that I would love to be digging into her work. I am so excited about where it's going, and what her revision is going to look like. But if those suggestions had been made about my work, I'm pretty sure that I would be having a panic attack. Because it's always easier to think about changing someone else's work. Not your own.

I've been writing for a while. I like to think I've developed a fairly thick skin. But when it comes to my writing, I freeze up so easily when thinking about making changes--or even trying to think about what changes could be made. When we talked about my friend's piece, I could so easily picture what could be different, and how those changes would affect the story. But when it came to mine, I was resistant.

Why is that? I think it's because even with the amount of experience I have and the efforts I make to do otherwise, I still suffer from special baby syndrome. Even though I've tried to divorce myself from emotional attachment to particular words/phrases/characters/scenes, it's still so easy to get set in the existing tracks. So easy to forget that once upon a time, those tracks didn't even exist. It's almost the opposite of the blank page syndrome. I've tried to counteract this, but at some level it may always be true.

And now, back to prepping for the next workshop...

March 17, 2013

NaCreSoMo #12: Busy Busy Busy (and Song)

The semester is kicking my butt just a little harder than I want it to right now.

So I'm going to write you a little poem.

It goes like this:

Busy busy busy
Busy busy busy busy busy
Busy busy

After a while you start thinking that "busy" is misspelled. Then you start forgetting that it's a word in the first place. Then the letters of which it's composed aren't recognizable any more. They are strange symbols that can't possibly be interpreted. It's all just shapes anyway.

I'm not going to list out everything that I need to do in the next few weeks because I'm keeping myself in the dark...for good reason. If I start thinking about it I might go just a little insane.

Because my lovely poem about busy-ness can't possibly qualify as "creation" of the day, I will share with you a line from a song I've decided I'm writing.

Here is the complete and full extent of everything I know about this song:

1. I only know one line.

2. For some reason song-related things seem to come to me while I'm brushing my teeth.

3. Maybe the code name for this song should be TEETH-BRUSHING SONG.

4. The line goes like this: "Leave my life on the cutting room floor."

5. I know the melody for this line, but I'm too lazy to record it yet. You'll have to be satisfied with the fact that I first thought of it last Tuesday morning, and haven't forgotten yet.

6. I'm afraid of writing a song because while lots of words/melodies/instrumental tracks float in and out of my head, all the time, most of them are probably from existing songs. This is to say, I'm afraid of poaching material without even knowing it.

7. But I carry on regardless.

8. I still don't know what the song is about, but now I've started considering everything that rhymes with floor: door, more, for, four, lore, gore, sore, nor, bore, boor, boar...

March 15, 2013

NaCreSoMo #11: Scribbles (Part 1)

I've been busy. Flying. Moving. Sleeping. Doing those things that people do when they aren't, you know, on the internet. I've also been revising, lots of revising, staring at the page and deleting words, adding words, shuffling words for hours and hours and hours. So I could be lazy and block out the days I've missed because I've been, you know, revising.

Instead I cracked open The Ocean at the End of the Lane and read a few pages and now I can't sleep, even though I should sleep, have to sleep, because sometimes things you read grab hold of you and wake a little fluttering itch inside of your chest and make you want to write and write and write.

So I'm going to try this thing. I haven't been posting any large excerpts from my WIPs here, and I will continue not posting excerpts. But I put up some drabbles of poetry a few days ago, and now I'm going to attempt something that could probably be best described as flash fiction. Confession: I don't write flash fiction. Second confession: I have no idea what's going to come out onto the screen. I have no plans. And that's part of what this is about--letting words sprawl onto the page and grabbing hold of the most interesting of them and polishing out the rough edges until you have something akin to something real.

This is the first draft. The start-and-don't-stop draft. The no-holds-barred, everything-hanging-out draft. It would probably be better termed the rough draft, the discovery draft, or the zero draft. This is what it looks like when I leave everything in.

(ETA: URGH I am itching to revise RIGHT NOW, as I figured out what the story was about halfway through the piece... But, as this is a series on what revision looks like, I cannot. Alas. Treat yourselves to my haphazard words. Take comfort in the fact that this will be better next time around. I'm going to sleep.)


I don't know why I'm awake right now.

Only that it's cold, and the air nips at my nose in such a way that it takes a moment to realize that I am, in fact, feeling sensation. That the clinical knowledge of "cold" doesn't cover what I'm feeling right now--that I'm feeling right now, at all. I'm cold. My nose is frost-bitten. And suddenly, in sharp contrast, I realize that the rest of my body is warm.

Cold. Warm. Is this what it's supposed to be like, when I wake up? I open my eyes. Nothing. Have I forgotten how to see? Close. Open. Close. Open. Maybe I've forgotten how to work the muscles in my face, after such a long hibernation. But no--it is simply that my eyes need time to remember what it means to process the world. Black gives way to gray gives way to color, muted brown, a graying blanket. I am in a room.

They said that when I was summoned I would be as one with the Lonely Ones, the Night Seekers. That I would wake in their arms and we would delight in each other's company, in our triumph over the end of days. That we were alive while the rest of the world crumpled into ash. But I am alone in this room, and there is dust caught in the creases of my eyelids. I do not recognize where I am. I cannot lift my arms to raise myself up.

There is a sound in the room, a slight whistling, a sudden hush. Out of the corner of my eye I see an open window, a curtain that shifts as the whistling starts again--the wind.

Why won't they close the window? I was told this place would withstand any force of destruction thrown at it--but anything can get in through an open window.

I could be poisoned already. Dying of radiation and I wouldn't even know it.

I could be dead and I wouldn't even know it.

I've been lied to, it seems. Betrayed. Promised eternal life and left to die.

But there is something there, at the window. An arm thrown up to cover a face. A body petrified in the morning light.

I shift my gaze across the room, what little of it I can see while lying on my side. A smile spreads across my face, mocking me for my stupidity. The dead do not betray. But neither do they keep promises.

The others lie scattered around me, their bodies telling stories of a mass extermination. They did not leave me. They died...and only I remain.

March 12, 2013

NaCreSoMo #10: Revision is HARD

Why yes, I'm a few days behind. Chalk that up to spending a lot of time catching up with friends and family, and not enough time with my nose to the grindstone.

I've finally hit just a little bit of a groove with the revisions for NEEDS A BETTER CODE NAME, so I'll keep this brief. Suffice to say that right now I'm working on revising a rough draft into at least a semblance of what it ought to be. I've (mostly) broken myself of the habit of thinking that everything I write needs to be lovely and perfect the first time out. What I'm working on now is convincing myself that even a revision need not be perfect.

And it's true. The first few chapters of NEEDS A BETTER CODE NAME have been drafted, revised, workshopped, and then revised again. I have no doubt that as I continue working on the project, I'll make yet more changes. But this is the mental challenge I've been working on recently--the idea that "revision" doesn't necessarily mean final draft.

I can definitely get obsessive over revising. I've been known to spend upwards of thirty minutes on one or two sentences, changing words, rewriting, fiddling, over and over and over again. Nowadays, I try to remind myself that everything can be changed. That revision doesn't mean that something is broken--it means that I have an opportunity to make things better. That nothing has to be perfect this time around. There's always next time, and the time after.

Today I'm doing what I can, without obsessing over it. I'm not aiming for perfection. This time around I'm aiming for "good enough" to share without feeling a twinge of embarrassment over the work.

Line of the day: "The gods had no tenders now. Were they lonely, to be alone where once they were surrounded?"

March 10, 2013

NaCreSoMo #9: Skyfall and the Bond Girl Problem

I've spent a lot of time not writing this post. I haven't read enough feminist literature, I've said. I haven't done the requisite movie research. I've only seen the Daniel Craig Bond movies. But Skyfall was playing on my plane across the coasts on Friday, and it only served to remind me of what I've been not writing since I saw it in the theaters a few months ago.

From the opening credits, I was expecting to like Skyfall. I liked the two previous ones (more or less). The theme song was rich and evocative, and the credits were actually thought-provoking. The idea of a Bond broken down by wear and tear was (and still is) interesting to me. And, of course, I was expecting some pretty slick action sequences.

What I did not expect was my visceral reaction to the way the movie treated its requisite Bond Girl, Severine. (Please forgive the lack of accents--can't figure out how to make my computer do them in a blog post.)

The historic role of the Bond girl has been to provide Bond with some information for his quest, sleep with him, and then die gruesomely. Their entire purpose is to be sexually objectified by men. I don't know why this didn't jump out at me more during the last two Craig movies. (Possibly because Eva Green had a much greater purpose in the first? I confess I don't remember the second movie particularly well.) But in Skyfall, I was literally sickened.

Severine works as Silva's representative. It's implied that such representation also involves sexual favors, as she was rescued by Silva from the Macau sex trade. In Skyfall, she tells Bond that she'll help him get to Silva, but only if Bond promises to kill him. He hops a ride on her boat (not a euphemism). They sleep together (definitely a euphemism). And when they reach the secret island, Silva kills her.

On the surface level, Severine dies because she betrayed Silva and helped Bond. But I see something more underneath. Severine has spent her whole life using her sexuality for the benefit of men. But when Bond arrives, she uses her sexuality for someone else: herself. Severine dies when she dares use her body for her own gratification, rather than for her employer's.

To me that is an underlying statement in this movie, and a problem endemic to Bond movies (and the US film culture in general). Women are present to be objectified by men, to be owned by men, to be used by men--and if they dare use their bodies for their own purposes, they are to be punished. This is what horrifies me more than anything else in Skyfall.

Do I believe that the Bond movies will change? That the Bond Girl's role will be expanded, made more nuanced and complex? To be honest, no. I think the Bond movie franchise is structured such that Bond Girls will always be treated this way. It is a known formula, one moviegoers have come to expect. (And that in and of itself is deeply problematic. Want to check out the newest Bond film? Sure, what's not to like about men shooting at each other and women being objectified?)

Maybe people will say I'm reading too much into this. It's just a movie! It's always been this way! Lighten up! But if those are their only defenses, I find them disturbingly wanting.

I don't think I will ever watch Skyfall again. There were parts of the movie that I enjoyed. There were sections I thought were thought-provoking and well done. But all of that doesn't come close to balancing out the visceral disgust I felt at the treatment of Severine, and the message it implies.

March 9, 2013

NaCreSoMo #8: Gender Swappery and the Creative Process

I didn't do that much substantive creative stuff yesterday, unless you count the creative cursing I came up with after being trapped in a smoking subway car underground for an hour and subsequently having to drag my suitcase around in the slush and snow trying to catch a cab to make it to the airport in time.

Maybe I can be excused from one day of NaCreSoMo for having spent literally all of that day in transit. But instead I'm going to talk a little bit about inspiration today.

One of the questions that writers get asked the most (not that people ask me that many questions about writing) is something along the lines of, "How do you get your ideas?" Or, "Where do you find inspiration?" It's a tough question to answer, so today I'll take you through a string of creative thoughts I found myself pondering yesterday. Keep in mind that these are still rough thoughts that may never amount to anything--it's just what happened when I started pulling on this particular thread.

Secret machinations of the creative mind, here we come!

1. The initial spark. I saw the movie Jack the Giant Slayer on Thursday. Without getting into the particulars, I'll just say that I was disappointed. My friend and I dissected the plot on the drive home and immediately came up with several ways in which the story could have been improved, not least of which was the treatment of the princess, Isabelle. I don't think it's ruining much at all to note that Isabelle, for all her adventurous posturing at the beginning of the movie, failed to do anything other than stand around while Jack did all the heavy lifting. To say that we, fervent feminist story-crafters, were anything less than appalled would be selling it short.

It would be easy to say, "Make a stronger princess, you dummies!" And it would be a valid thing to say, and to contemplate, and to write. But what I found myself thinking about afterward, from a writer's perspective, was the relationship between Jack and Isabelle. It reminded me a lot of the fantasy trope of the noble girl and her long-suffering, pining-away peasant friend/servant--especially of the relationship between Buttercup and Westley in The Princess Bride. While exact details don't match, I think Jack and Isabelle's relationship plays out in much the same way--the unattainable princess, her loyal subject, sparks fly, etc. So I started thinking--what is it about this trope that makes it attractive? And--what would happen if the genders were swapped?

2. Playing it out. Gender swapping fascinates me. Fascinates. On a micro-level, I've found that there's no better way to expose the societal underpinnings of sex and gender than to literally swap out pronouns in books, movies, television, etc. (I also have this secret desire to one day write a gender-swapped version of Les Miserables.) So when I was considering the noble blood/loyal servant dynamic, I immediately wanted to know what would happen when I swapped the genders.

What do we think about when we think about the loyal servant boy eying a princess in the wings? A man who would wait a hundred years for his beloved to glance his way? He is in love but he would never dare step above his station. Think Westley here, or better yet, think Lancelot. And then think, whose fantasy is this? Is it a man's fantasy to think that loyalty to a woman far above his class might in time win her love? Is it a woman's fantasy to command the attention of her loyal servants?

While you think about those, now consider this: What happens when it's a prince or a duke and his long-suffering, silent, yearning servant girl. Here, think Eponine. (I wonder why I couldn't come up with more than one example for this dynamic?)

3. Further considerations. Swapping genders changes the dynamic. When a woman is in the subservient role I am afraid for her. Afraid that the person with the upper hand, the man, will abuse this relationship. I am afraid that this will only end in tragedy (as with Eponine). But I am not so afraid for a man. Does this have to do with the gender roles ingrained in my head? That because society paints women as initially more vulnerable than men, an unequal relationship like this only serves to make her more vulnerable? (And does that mean that a man in a subservient role reads as closer to equal to his superior than a woman in that same role?)

I think that given this situation, most people would expect a man to find a way to make it work. To prove his worth. In this dynamic, a man fighting for his love is read as romantic. A woman? Desperate.

4. Another viewpoint. If we shift sideways (just a step), let's consider what happens when Edward Cullen stares at Bella. He watches her sleep. He follows her around without her knowledge or permission. He is, quite literally, a stalker. But for a lot of people, his actions read as romantic.

Would those same actions be read the same way if Edward were a woman, and Bella a man? I would argue that no. People would read Edwardia as a stalker, period. They would want to know why Bellarus hasn't gotten a restraining order against this crazy b#$%*.

That's all I've got so far. I'm not sure where it's going. I don't have answers to all the questions I've posed. But that's where my head went yesterday...

March 7, 2013

NaCreSoMo #7: Mentorship Proposal

Today the limit of my creative ability has been reached by pounding my head against the keyboard several times in pursuit of a readable draft of my mentorship statement. You may remember that a few days ago I was embroiled in reminding myself about all the magic academy books out there.

Well, now I've finally finished the draft. It's done! Sent! All that remains is to review my professor's comments and revise for the actual proposal deadline...and, you know...write the book. Ahahahaha.

I was struggling a lot with this concept because while I had (what I think is) a pretty good premise, I had no idea what the real story was. I think this has to do with the fact that I spend so much time deep in fairy-tale-land. My last finished project was a retelling of a fairy tale, and NEEDS A BETTER CODE NAME was first sparked by a Greek myth, although in its current incarnation I'm pretty sure that the inspiration is invisible. But ARCH-NEMESIS is not based on a fairy tale in any explicit way, which means I have no preexisting skeleton to build it on! I was dazed! Lost! Confused!

Strangely enough, figuring out the (working) title of ARCH-NEMESIS actually helped me break through that and come to an understanding of what the story is (in its current, completely unwritten form). That doesn't usually happen for me. Usually titles are the last things I decide on, and are informed by the rest of the story. But today it was the reverse. Deciding on a title (inspired directly by Robert Hass's Time and Materials) actually informed the story. It was kind of awesome. For the first time, I'm actually really excited to get to work on this six months...

(Current) first line: "Karin would say she doesn't remember whose idea it was to dupe the College of Aravil, but that's just her way of being polite."

March 6, 2013

NaCreSoMo #6: Poetry

Even more distilled than short stories is the poem.

This is a first draft. Today I erase


This is a day. Hours of waking until you stop resisting the call to rise.
Loose water over your head, a ritual
of cleansing.
The preparation for leaving one's house a rite of passage--
one sock right shoe cap jaunted over left ear

Cold today. The dance to keep off the rain has failed.
I am not prepared for the kiss
of frost upon my cheeks.
I am not prepared for this wasteland of song,
melodies cut and discarded like so many curls of wood
from the hull of a boat.

To carry your cares in my arms
fragile as snowflakes
I cannot breathe for fear they will melt

I have forgotten what it means to be a part of someone else.

March 5, 2013

NaCreSoMo #5: Sketching

I did a few big creative-type things today, but most of them are things I've either talked about already or plan to talk about at a later time.

My big thing today was first-drafting one chapter of NEEDS A BETTER CODE NAME. There are books upon books and blogs upon blogs out there of writing advice. How to write, when to write, how much revision to do and how little, how much alcohol should be ingested prior to each writing session... All of which is valuable advice for somebody, but not necessarily for you.

What I've come to understand about my general process is that the first draft of almost everything I write bears only a passing resemblance to the final product. My first drafts are rough sketches--I'm not paying any attention whatsoever to pretty turns of phrase (or at least I'm trying not to). My goal is to get the shape of a scene down on the page. To know that here is a passage describing the castle the knights are riding toward, and here is the argument they have about whether their mothers actually smelt of elderberries or whether that was just French exaggeration.

The actual words are almost irrelevant. I'm lucky if 5% of the words I write while first-drafting actually make it to the next pass. I don't feel bad about replacing all of my words with prettier ones--in fact, I plan on it. For me, this strategy helps me to just get something down on paper without worrying about what it looks like. Did I really just say that Edward's hair was shiny five sentences in a row? Doesn't matter--it's going to change in the next draft anyway! Talking heads nattering back and forth for thirty lines about whose dance slippers are the prettiest? Next draft it'll be two lines--or better yet, a conversation about international politics instead.

Once I have a rough idea of what the scene will look like--who stands where and discusses what with whom--it gets much, much easier to figure out the right words to convey what I'm picturing. In many cases, the first-drafting even helps me to figure out what I'm picturing in the first place.

A few lines that might actually make it into the next draft: "Hearth had a real name once." And (unrelated), "I know liars when I see them. I'm a liar myself by trade."

NaCreSoMo #4: AcaDEEEEEmia

There's no reason for the title of this post to include so many capitalized Es, unless that purpose is to convince you, gentle readers, that I am not that much of an academic.

I would not argue with that statement. I am not much of an academic. The chief delight in my life is not spending hours and hours crawling through library stacks (virtual or real), researching the effects of second wave feminism on female characters in children's books. This is not to say, however, that I don't have some interest in the subject.

I came to graduate school to further my writing career, but increasingly I'm finding myself caught up in questions of ideology and subtext and agenda. Occasionally I actually have fun on the academic papers I'm assigned (most recently on one where I cited several female pirates in support of my point). So I think it's accurate to say that I'm a little bit of an academic. Just a little.

Which brings us to today's (technically, yesterday's) topic: conscious consideration of picture book illustration. Yesterday I spent the better portion of the day writing five short essays that dissected illustrations from five picture books. Six weeks ago I had no idea that today I'd find myself fascinated by Suzy Lee's use of gutter space in her lovely wordless picture book Wave. (Her use of gutter space, by the way, is something I've never seen duplicated, and I spent an entire paper considering the effect that invisible space has on the emotional impact of the book.)

My experience in my picture book class this semester has been much like my experience in the criticism class I took last semester: eye-opening. All these are topics I had interest in, but, having no prior experience, I literally did not have the appropriate vocabulary to discuss them intelligently. Did I care about picture books before this semester? Well, yes--in a vaguely positive way, considering I'm not a picture book writer myself (and am pretty sure I am not going to turn into one). But now I actually care. Now I have favorite illustrators, and the information I need to talk about what I find so captivating in their books. It's kind of awesome. (And with that, I will return to the actual creative stuff I will be doing today...)

March 3, 2013

NaCreSoMo #3: Song-Smithery

It should be so easy, right? Just--create something. Anything. But what happens when you're down to the wire and torn between three creations you want to be working on, and the one that you are required to be working on?

Specifically, I want to be working on NEEDS A BETTER CODE NAME. Barring that, I want to be working on the WIP I'll call ARCH-NEMESIS (see yesterday's post for that reasoning). And barring that, I want to be working on perfecting my piece for an upcoming audition for a local a cappella group.

It's interesting that I hadn't really considered my singing to be an act of creation until (literally) today. In my head, arranging a cappella music counts as creating. As does songwriting. These are two things that I have more than a passing interest in, but have never put in the time and energy to developing real expertise. (That time and energy has been spent largely in the reading and writing sphere, which I don't regret, per se, but it still makes me sad that I am forced to partition time and specialize, thus (for the moment) banishing some of my interests to the "hobby" level.)

Anyway, the acts of arranging and songwriting seem so clearly to be in the vein of creating, while the mere act of singing...does not. But why not? After all, the act of learning a piece for performance, really learning it, means first knowing the original note by note, breath by breath--and then changing it?

I don't watch vocal competition shows (American Idol, The Voice, etc.). But it seems to me that competitors who sing Mariah Carey songs in the style of Mariah Carey are automatically selling themselves short. One cannot hope to be Mariah Carey better than Mariah Carey. One must learn the song--and then breathe their own distinctive personality and style into the notes. Much more interesting than hearing another Mariah Carey impersonator is hearing a Mariah Carey interpreter, someone who takes a song and finds their own individual rhythm within it. (And now I've typed Mariah Carey more times in a row than I've typed ever...)

It's a lesson that as a singer, I don't think I fully learned until very recently. Anyway, that's what I'm attempting to do with this audition piece. Take a song and turn it into my own. And that, in my opinion, is a valid form of creation. (At the very least, I'm spending enough time on it that it darn well better count.)

...But that's something I won't have time to do until at least tomorrow night, because right now I am chained to the creating that I am required to be doing: the writing of five critical essays for my picture book class tomorrow. (I thought today's post would be all about the academic side of my work, the ways in which I'm playing with and interpreting illustration. Instead it's all about the creating I wish I were doing, and the whining I'm actually doing about the creating I have to do right now. One hopes that tomorrow I'll be ready to share some creation-y thoughts on that side of things...)

March 2, 2013

NaCreSoMo #2: Mentorship & Magic

Next week I am required to turn in a draft of a mentorship proposal. This proposal will become the book I'll spend the majority of my time working on next semester, so it's not something to be taken lightly.

I am in a spot of bother for this assignment. Mostly it's because I'm chest-deep in my current WIP (NEEDS A BETTER CODE NAME) and I really don't want to think about another one right now, DARN IT!

Sadly, the syllabus dictates that I must. I have a few wisps of ideas floating around in my head, and I think I've decided to write something that will center largely around a magic academy of sorts (and, of course, the students that attend said academy). I ran into an immediate billion-dollar dilemma, however, packaged in the following two magic words: Harry Potter. The ultimate magic academy.

If I'm going to toss out a magic academy book, it's going to have to sparkle differently from all the other academies: Hogwarts, Wizard's Hall, Greenlaw College, etc. So I decided that the only thing to do was to study up on the (gulp) competition.

I started with Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics. Honestly, I can't tell you how much I adore this book. (Actually, I can. Stay posted for a more in-depth review once I finally finish re-reading it.) I read this book for the first time...10 years ago? It was around that time. And boy oh boy has it stood up to the re-read. Everything is so clever! Inventive! Amazing! It's one of those books that I fall into so easily, losing awareness of everything that happens around me in favor of Faris and her happenings.

Have I learned some things to tuck into my own (future) WIP? Some. Mostly I've learned that this is a book that should get more attention. But I've also decided that there is going to have to be an arch-nemesis in my WIP (inspired loosely by Menary, of course). One of those girls who is awesome at being evil, so much so that you can't help but admire her even as you plot her accidental (but not really) demise.

So yeah. That's my (loosely-defined) creation of the day: arch-nemesis has now sprung into being. One hopes that a best friend follows soon thereafter.

March 1, 2013

NaCreSoMo #1: Revisions, Revisions

I don't have anything especially amazing to impart to you on the first day of NaCreSoMo. I was already planning on finishing revisions of a chapter from my WIP that I workshopped in class yesterday, so that's what I did. Acted according to plan. One hopes that future days of NaCreSoMo are more interesting.

I feel like I should come up with a special code name for this novel, but I'm bad enough at coming up with real names that I don't trust myself to invent something suitably tongue-in-cheek.

For today I don't have a big long CREATIVE CREATION to share. While I hope to be posting more in-depth word-sketches and other interesting minutia as the month wears on, I will not be posting excerpts from the WIP currently code-named NEEDS A BETTER CODE NAME.

In lieu of an excerpt, please accept this out-of-context sentence, written today, by me: "The ocean consumed from the outside, and the snatchers devoured from within."

Oh, For $%#@'s Sake: National Create Something Month

I am so busy. I shouldn't tell you how busy I am. So I won't. I'll just say that I shouldn't be doing something like National Create Something Month, because I am so stupendously busy. But when your friends call upon you to serve, you answer--don't you? (Albeit not without a few grumbles of the NSFW variety--see post title for a hint about those.)

I am so, so lucky to be in a place in my life where I am required to produce creative content on a regular, measured basis. So when I was considering joining my friend Lily on her madcap March adventure, I was hesitant. My whole LIFE is about creating ALREADY, I may have whined. How could I possibly have room for more?!?

Then I stepped back and gave blessed, rapturous thanks that I am privileged enough to be able to say that about my life currently. That (hopefully) in a few years I can still say it without appending (plus student loans!) to the end of that statement. And just because of that, I took a deep breath and threw my hat into the ring.

What will I be creating this month? In large part I'll be working toward finishing a novel I've been workshopping this semester, since that was already in the works before I signed on. Other than that, I haven't the foggiest. Poetry? Literary criticism? Lists? I'll certainly be allowing myself a relatively loose interpretation of the idea of "creation," but I can promise that I'll be posting here every day about it.

And now, to the races!

February 14, 2013

Happy Best Friends Day

You know, I was really scared when I moved across the country for graduate school. I was terrified of finding my program to be less than enthralling. Of not finding the creative well I was looking for. Of not making any friends. Of being miserable.

Spoiler: This story has a happy ending (so far). I found what I was looking for, and then some. And I know that so much of that has to do with the amazing friends I've made out here, friends I'm sure will be in my life for years and years to come.

I'm not a big fan of Valentine's Day. I could get into that, but that's a post for another time. Instead, on this day dedicated to the slavish worship of romantic love, let me raise a glass to my fabulous, wonderful, talented friends, both new and old. My life would be so much less awesome without you.

February 11, 2013

Music Monday: "I Knew You Were Trouble" (WOTE Cover)

It's been a long time since I did a Music Monday. Let me preface this one by saying that I am not a Taylor Swift fan. I don't listen to her music, though I understand that she has a habit of saying (and singing) some problematic stuff. But this isn't about Taylor Swift. This is about Walk off the Earth, and in particular, their cover of "I Knew You Were Trouble."

I'm pretty sure that everybody and their mother-in-law heard about Walk off the Earth when they catapulted to internet stardom with a five-person, one-guitar rendition of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know." I'm pretty sure I listened to that song on repeat for...longer than I care to divulge.

Well, WOTE's latest earbug is their a cappella cover of Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble." I'd never heard the song before, so I had to do a little digging to discover that it was a Swift song. Now that I've listened to both of them, I have to come down unequivocally on the side of the WOTE cover. Stripped of pop/rock instrumentals, WOTE's cover is hauntingly disturbing (pretty much the right note, given the subject material), and features freaking fabulous beatboxing courtesy of KRNFX. I've listened to this cover at least fifteen times. If it were available for purchase, I'd buy it. Instead I have to spend a lot of time on youtube...and now you can, too:

February 7, 2013

Lived Experience vs. Writer's Imagination

Today in my writing class we discussed voice, and in particular, An Na's Printz Award-winning A Step From Heaven. And almost without meaning to, I found myself in the midst of a heated discussion about (essentially) the legitimacy of lived experience versus the writer's imagination. We ended up leaving the topic before I'd come to any sort of conclusion regarding how I felt, so here I'm attempting to hash out where I stand.

Here I must admit that I'm the one who started down the whole tangent when I said (probably in less coherent words) that I felt like An Na was one of the only people who could have told the story she did in A Step From Heaven because she had lived the experience of a young Korean immigrant to the United States. Last semester we read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and the same points were raised about Alexie's background enabling him to portray something that no one else could portray.

At this point I was shut down hard by several classmates who made firm stands on the side of what I'll call the writer's imagination. Not being part of a group of particular people doesn't shut you out from telling a story about said people, they argued. You can tell whatever story you want to tell (provided you do it well). Books mentioned on this side of the issue included John Green's The Fault in Our Stars as well as Tara Sullivan's Golden Boy (forthcoming in June 2013). Did I think, then, that they had no business writing about teenagers with cancer or albino boys in Tanzania?

While I'm sure that some people might make that claim, I'm not attempting to say that John Green should not have written a book about teenagers with cancer. But I do believe that authors who have lived the experiences they attempt to portray automatically write from a position of authority. We trust that their stories are legitimate because their experiences are legitimate. Essentially, these authors have a leg up on other writers of realistic fiction. Authors who do not come from such backgrounds must work harder to convince the audience that the story they tell is (in a literary sense) true to the world they portray.

Speaking more generally about voice, this goes to the idea that you (the writer) are the only person in the world that can tell the stories that you tell, in the way you tell them. Steven Schwartz, in "Finding a Voice in America," argues that "writers don't get very far in finding their voices until they are willing to face the intersection of their unique experiences with that of the larger culture." You are the writer you are because of the person you are.

I stand by my original statement. I don't believe that anyone but An Na could have written the book she did. It's a remarkable story, and one that she makes me believe. That doesn't mean that anyone who isn't a Korean immigrant to the United States shouldn't write a story about Koreans immigrating to the United States. I just think that there is a material difference between people who are and people who are not--and that anyone who doesn't have that cultural experience must work even harder to find a voice that rings true to their audience.

What do you think? Should writers back off of subjects they have no cultural attachment to, and if so, why?

January 22, 2013

A Modest Writing Tip

Hello, new year. It seems like only yesterday I was staring at the tail end of the fall semester, wondering what I was going to do with a month (a MONTH) of freedom from classes and papers. Alas, that month has passed too quickly, and I am already ensconced in another semester of learning. How time flies.

I have been making very slow progress on my current WIP, a project that has already gone through four title changes (I'm bad with titles. Good with character names, bad with titles.). I don't pretend to know much (yet) about creative writing other than you should write, and write a lot. But today at work, I came across a useful little tip that some of you might find interesting. It's one that I plan to stick to from now on.

This was when I was shelving books (half a bookseller's life: shelving books) and happened upon a copy of London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets, by Peter Ackroyd. The book is one I've been meaning to read for, well...for a long time. Besides the fascinating subject matter, I've always thought that having creepy tunnels in one of my books would be very cool. And then one thought led to another, which led to another, and eventually I arrived at this maxim:

A writer should always have her nose in a nonfiction title.

I've read a lot about making sure the creative well doesn't run dry, and to me, reading nonfiction seems an excellent way to do it. You learn cool things about the world. You learn cool things to throw into books! I'm not arguing for reading everything that everyone says you should read--heavens, what a horrid idea--but I am quite certain that there exists in the book universe at least something, some topic, for everyone.

I'm proud to say that at least for now, I'm following my own modest tip. By far the creepiest (and coolest) thing I've recently read in a nonfiction book was this factoid from Sex With the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics (Eleanor Herman): "Margot [Queen of Navarre] reportedly collected the embalmed hearts of her lovers and put them into small silver boxes, which she hung inside her hoopskirt on chains" (47). I don't know what you think about that, but to me that reads simultaneously as EWW and AWESOME.

Most recently, I've finally cracked open Confederates in the Attic (Tony Horwitz), though for the moment it's slow going. I can already say that I've learned far more about Civil War re-enactors than I ever expected to, though...

So there you have it. One modest writing tip for your consideration. Go on, give it a try. Even if you're not interested in royal affairs or the London underground, I'm sure there's something out there to pique your interest and start a creative fire under your chair. Let me know if you find anything awesome out there!

January 4, 2013

Various and Sundry

1. I am tempted to create a recommendation list titled "Vampire Books for People Who are SO OVER Vampires," since I've been in this category for at least ten years and yet have managed to read two very good (and innovative) vampire books in the last few months... But I'm afraid that these two books will remain the only ones on the list.

2. The first shift back at the bookstore after the holiday rush: "It's quiet. Too...quiet..."

3. I am so very excited about so very many books that I have right now... The only problem is that I might not (probably don't) have enough time to read them all before the beginning of the next semester. Eep!

4. I am writing. Slowly. And am also reminded that every time I sit down to write, everything that comes out appears to be horrible. It's only on the re-read that I realize (as always) that things are not quite as horrible as they appear.

5. There is snow on the ground.

6. I sang on stage with Vienna Teng, and it was amazing.