IWSG: A Whole Lot of Why

InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’s time, once again, for the Insecure Writers to unite and encourage each other. If you’d like to join the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, all you have to do is click on this linky and add your name to the list. Alex J. Cavanaugh has hosted this group years now, and I can assure you, there is no nicer group of writers on the web.

In the past month, I’ve had a lot of insecurity about why it is that I’m driven to write. When I see everyone around me rushing to publish, and all I read is about the many ways to bring readers to my words, it sometimes freaks me out a little. Is this really the reason I write? Or is there an even more important reason I keep coming back to my words? As I often do, I discussed the matter with my alter-ego Muse, and found answers that surprised me.Image courtesy of marija jure @ stock.xchng

I come home to an empty house and the Muse is waiting. He watches me get ready to write as I pour my Pepsi and sort my bills. He’s humming in the back of my head. He has something to tell me.

I open my laptop. Since I haven’t done my morning words today, I decide to write what I please for a while.

The Muse rests his chin on his interlaced hands, doing his best Brandon Lee impression. “Glad you’re back,” he says without a trace of irony in his voice.

Ink Blot 2“I’ll always come back,” I type. But I know he’s had doubts.

“Thought so,” he says, hiding his misgivings. “So tell me, what’s eating you?”

“It’s all the commotion about publishing. Everyone’s publishing, and if they’re not publishing, they’re at least critiquing, exchanging manuscripts, blogging a novel … Sometimes I feel as if it’s all about who can get their words to the most people the fastest.”

He points at the title at the top of my blog to remind me. “I worry sometimes,” he says.

“What? You worry? You’re a Muse. You’re completely made up, a figment of my overactive imagination, less substantial than feathers and moonbeams.”

He looks at the ground, his shoulders sag and his wings droop. “That’s just it,” he mutters. “For the longest time you never even noticed me.”

My fingers stall on the keyboard as I remember. I had a dry spell so long I thought my words were an abandoned planet, without air, without water or sign of life. I wanted to be a writer way back in high school. I took classes and read craft books, but ultimately made the wise choice—

“Which was?” the Muse asks to prompt me to talk to him, instead of ruminating endlessly.

“I live in a safe neighborhood; I have a great job. I can sleep without worrying about where I will end up a few years from now.”Images courtesy of marija jure @ stock.xchng

“But something’s missing?”

“You bet something was missing. I felt mute, empty, adrift. But I didn’t know why.”

“Should I remind you of why?” the Muse asks. Though he will defend me to the last, his eyes burn with accusation.

“No, you don’t have to remind me of why. There’s a whole lot of why …” I take my hand off the keyboard to change the playlist. The Muse waits patiently and eases back from my desk once the song begins.

“You’re afraid of something,” he prompts.

 I hesitate, then type, “All this commotion about publishing reminds of what I felt like when I abandoned writing.”

Images courtesy of marija jure @ stock.xchng“How did you feel when you left writing?”

“I felt that what I had to say was unimportant, that my words were insignificant when compared to the great writers, and that if I didn’t have anything ‘important’ to say I should just shut up. I was certain that no one would be interested in what a girl who grew up in a quiet town in Wisconsin, who went camping and sailing and loved rock music, had to say.”

“What makes you think you’d feel that way again?” He folds his hands across his chest and the corners of his mouth turn serious as he tries to imitate a shrink.

“Well—” I pause as I try to visualize him and write down his body language. “A lot of writers have advice on building a brand, on how to reach readers, on how best to market a book, on how to escalate a plot, on how to keep adverbs at bay …”

“So?” the Muse asks. “That’s all good stuff, and I’m happy to help you with all that.”

“You have no idea how much I appreciate the offer. But that’s not what bothers me.”

“Then what does bother you?”

“That it stops being about the writing. I worry that I will find myself torn away from writing the next book. I’d rather just write. I need this for me. For you.”

The Muse purses his lips thoughtfully, and I cringe as another adverb pops up on my screen.Images courtesy of marija jure @ stock.xchng

“Can’t we do a bit of both?” he asks.

“I can try. But don’t you see? That’s why my blog has a destination name and not my real name? I don’t want this to be about me. It’s about the words.”

The Muse holds up his hand. “This is morning words so you can stop here. How about we take this up again tomorrow?”

“But tomorrow is IWSG day.”

“Then the next day. This isn’t a contest. This is for you.”

I close my laptop gratefully, confident that I’m not going to stop writing just yet.

Image courtesy of 'kuleczka' @ BigStock

How about you, insecure (and secure!) writers? What’s the why behind your words?

Related posts: What My Writing Teacher Should Have Told Me

Ten Days in the Life of a “Non-Writer” by Katherine Checkley

Images courtesy of marija jure @ stock.xchng,  and ‘kuleczka’ @ BigStock

IWSG: Embracing the Turtle

InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’s the first Wednesday of the month and that means that it’s time for The Insecure Writer’s Support Group to circle the wagons and huddle around the campfire. Got self-doubt? Got struggles? Click this here linky and join the indefatigable Alex J. Cavanaugh and some of the nicest writers on the web for some insight and commiseration.

For a while now I’ve been having some anxiety about how long my revision is taking, but this month I got a new perspective on this.

As a biologist I’ve always enjoyed classifying the world around me into types and species, so it seemed only natural that I began to notice how writers seemed to fall into different categories. Since trying to emulate another writer is futile, and will in fact lead to frustration, part of my journey seems to be figuring out what kind of writer I am.

When I started my first novel and was exploring the craziness called NaNoWriMo, I used the handle Larkk. (The extra Harris's Hawk image courtesy of Eric Isselée @ Big Stock‘k’ was needed because apparently ‘Lark’ was already taken— imagine that!) Writing in freewheeling first draft mode felt like I had been given wings. I was a hawk, soaring high above the imaginary world, swooping in to grab inspiration in my talons and rising back into the sky to devour it high upon a cliff away from worldly troubles like inciting incidents and dénouement.

But, like every imaginary high, I eventually landed and discovered what a mess I had made in my exuberance.

Now it is time for revision, and revision is slow. It involves scene cards, character biographies, consistency sheets, and chopping fifty word sentences into bite-sized morsels. Sometimes all I get through is a few pages before my eyes fall shut from exhaustion.

Every day, I go back to it and do a little more. The pile of pages I have ahead of me becomes smaller and the pile of pages done becomes higher. I am making progress, but in the process I fear I’ve become a turtle.

Image courtesy of Denis Barbulat @ Big StockI admit it’s hard to watch other writers sprinting past me, finishing revisions, sending out queries, self-publishing their stories. But, rather than turn bitter and resentful, something I promised myself I’d never do, I’ve discovered another handy feature of the turtle anatomy: The ability to pull my head inside my shell.

Sometimes I need to be alone with my words. In silence, I can hear my subconscious more clearly and rediscover the spark that led me to my keyboard. While it’s fun to talk about my writing, and fun to see what others are working on, there are times when the only thing that matters to the story is what I think. To discover what that is, I curl up into my tiny turtle world and listen to my heart.

As I begin to accept my status as turtle amongst the kingdom of writers, I’ve discovered other benefits of turtle-dom. Image courtesy of 'rfirman' @ stock.xchng@ stoConsider, if you will, the hard turtle shell. It can protect me from jabs of critics, and keep me safe from comments that might stop me from writing. They always say you need a thick skin to be a writer. If I accept my turtle status, I will do that one better. I will have armor made of bone.

So, for now, I will embrace my turtle nature and accept that I too will reach my goals at my own pace, and in my own way.

How about you insecure writers? What species of writer are you? Are you a wolf, who hunts in a pack and howls at the moon? Or a lion, who roams with a pride? Or a bat, who writes at night, and uses echolocation to find its way?

And, are there any useful features of the turtle anatomy that I’ve left out?

Harris’s Hawk image courtesy of Eric Isseleé, turtle skeleton image courtesy of Denis Barbulat, both @ Big Stock. Turtle shell courtesy of ‘rfirman’ @ stock.xchng

Cheers, Cavanaugh Blogfest

11.19 Cavanaugh Blogfest LIVEIt is my great pleasure to be a part of the raucous party known as the Cheers, Cavanaugh Blogfest and raise a virtual toast to the enigmatic but influential writer who has made the blogosphere a better place to be. While the self-proclaimed Ninja seems to be everywhere at once, he remains an enigma to us all. It is time to fuel the rumors and postulate on the man behind the myth!

This blogfest comes with prompts to keep us from waxing on endlessly, so let’s get to them:

  1. What does Alex look like? He is a broad-shouldered god with dark wavy hair, towering in his leather boots, wearing a cloak embroidered with a Floyd Rose Tremolo.
  2.  Who could play Alex in a documentary? Christian Bale – rugged, cerebral, and blessed with a mellifluous command of the English language-would be perfect!
  3. Who does Alex remind you of? Since Alex is the rock star of the blogosphere, Matthew Bellamy of Muse, with his hot licks and prowess with women would be someone that Alex reminds me of.
  4. Write a flash fiction using all these prompts: ( Cavanaugh, Ninja, IWSG, Cosbolt, Guitar)

Apocalypse AvertedImage courtesy of Rodrigo Tambem

Drowning in a river of insecurity, a forsaken writer tapped out her final post.

“Help me, IWSG! The writing community has scorned me!”

Alex J. Cavanaugh, hunched over his guitar, engrossed in strumming the last minor seventh of his requiem to the end of the world, heard her cry. Since his Cosbolt was in the shop, the Ninja engaged his trusty blog hop companions. “A writer is in need! Encourage her!”

The blogosphere heard his entreaties. The hapless writer nearly spilled her Michelob over the keyboard when she saw all the comments awaiting moderation.

“Keep going!” “First draft always stinks.”

Before you could say CassaStar, she was back at her keyboard, finishing the novel that would take the world by storm.

How about you? Has there been one person who makes the blogosphere a happier, saner place for you to visit?

Thanks Mark Koopmans, Morgan Shamy, David Powers King, and Stephen Tremp for hosting and thanks, Alex J. Cavanaugh, for all the kind words of encouragement and inspiration! You Rock!

Image courtesy of Rodrigo Tambem @ Stock.xchng

This made my day. Keep writing, everyone! Publication may not as far-fetched a dream as we think.

Thanks to Roxanne Crouse at So Much To Write, So Little Time for sharing this.

Conjuring Up Characters

Buckle up, folks. This post got a little long on me!

But a fellow student at How to Think Sideways had a question about how writers might understand their characters better, and as I explored my answer, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was searching for a way to explain how my characters turned from nothing more than thought experiments into the companions, conspirators, and co-pilots of my novel-writing adventures.

Is there some sorcery involving a playlist, a handful of feathers, and a thousand words written under the light of the full moon that brings them to life? 

Probably not.

However, I think a part of me believes there’s sorcery involved. I call that part the Muse, and therein lies the key. My logical, rational self insists that I can’t possibly know what it is really like to be someone else, whether it’s a man or a marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being. (And I will leave it to my gentle readers to speculate upon the similarities between these two species!)

Unless we develop the means to read minds, I am stuck inside this head of mine forever. One brain, one human experience, one shot at this life.

I can hear the Muse already: “Boring!!”

(And, “What? I’m going to DIE?!)

In order to tap the well of experience, whether it’s my own forgotten memories, or some kind of conduit to a common human (or, heck, sentient) experience, the logical self, limited by my own perceptions, needs to let go of what is real, and allow me to believe these constructs actually exist. For them to be real, I can’t force the story on them. They must tell me the story, and I need to suspend my disbelief, on some level, for that to happen.

All of my writing exercises are predicated on that premise. Especially in the beginning stages, characters are fragile as soap bubbles to me. If I try to look too closely I will shatter the illusion and they might start to do things that don’t make sense.

Hauling them in for questioning under an unflattering fluorescent bulb is unlikely to uncover much that is interesting. How would you react if some stranger walked up to you and asked what is missing in your life?                  

You’d probably say, “Whoa—do I know you?”

I suppose I could search through my character’s imaginary rap sheet, and look up where she was born, where she lives and what kind of grades she got in school. But I have a better idea.

After all, I’m a writer. I have wings!

In free write mode, I can watch my characters from afar. A few hundred words a day will do it. I like to do this in my morning words which comes to 750 words, but the most important thing to me is that there’s no pressure. I just let the Muse ‘tell’ me what’s going on with this person. What does she do when no one is watching? What makes this character worth writing? Who are the people she cares about?

If I’m starting with an artifact or a world I ask, “Who would be worthy of such an artifact? Who would bestow it upon him?” Or: “Who is the most interesting person in this world? Why is he important?”

I note down basic things. Is he neat and orderly? Well-dressed? Slovenly? Boisterous? Withdrawn?  Timid? Arrogant? Does she smile a lot? Is she graceful? Awkward? Forthcoming?

Whether I’m starting with my gifted but world-weary guitarist, my cynical warrior, a disenchanted dragon-builder, or the flower child’s ghost, all of them have a story to show me if I just let the Muse out of his cage to lead me to it.

After a while, when I have an idea of where the character likes to hang out, I put on my reporter hat and pay them an imaginary visit, in free writing mode again. I’ll catch up with them in the woods, in a noisy bar, a parking lot, or a coffee shop, but usually it’s somewhere ‘public’. Again, it keeps up the illusion that I’m dealing with a real person, since in real life I wouldn’t meet someone in a private place like a bedroom or their home if I hardly knew them. At least, not at first!

At this stage yes/no questions work just fine for me. Even something easy like: “Are you cold?” works. Sounds simple, right? But if I get inside someone’s head, by asking, “Why?” I can find all kinds of interesting stuff that leads up to my character’s answer.

For instance, if you were in my head today, you’d know that I shivered all day at work. But if you went deeper, you’d find more. I was cold because my boss likes to crank down the air conditioning, since he thinks it will make the employees more productive, and I don’t turn the thermostat up because the more things I ask him for the less likely it will be that I get a raise.

That’s a lot of stuff going on my head for a simple question. I’ll bet a character can give a long answer like that too.

Your character might be cold because it’s dawn and all he’s had to sleep under last night is a thin blanket. He gave the thick blanket to his little sister, in exchange for an extra potato in his soup.

Or take my marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being. Absolute zero is really cold, and if only it could find a way to gather enough supernovas, it could build a cozy nebula and finally settle down and start a family!

If I let the Muse field these kinds of questions, suddenly I get all kinds of interesting answers—like what is missing in my character’s lives. Before I know it, I’m dealing with another story that cries out to be written.

How about you? Where do your characters come from? What kind of questions reveal the deepest recesses of your character’s psyche?

And, have you ever encountered a man you nearly mistook for a marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being?

Related posts:

Black Hair, Grey Eyes

Character Interview: Rigel Mondryan

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