One Idea Is Not Enough

I had the pleasure of seeing Gabrielle Zevin, author of All These Things I’ve Done, and her editor do a reading and Q&A session at WORD last night. (WORD is a very cool indie bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The shelves are like a who’s who of what New Yorkers are reading — or a what’s what, or something.)

At one point her editor asked, “How did you come up with a future New York where chocolate and caffeine are illegal and a teenage girl who is kind of a mob boss?” Gabrielle had a long and funny answer involving migraines and dark chocolate and organized crime movies, but at the end she added: “One idea is not enough.”

I also just finished reading Inheritance by Megan Lindholm/Robin Hobb. Each story has an introduction explaining its origins. (These are hard-hitting stories, the kind that stick with you and make you think. Or maybe just give you an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach, mostly in a good way. A masochistic, that was good writing, kind of way.) As I’m at the beginning stages of trying to figure out what my next writing project is going to be, the explanations were fascinating and made me think about where my own stories started.

The first book started from a dream I had. The dream was a pretty complete narrative. In the end some parts of the book strayed far from that original dream, but others remain pretty faithful.

The second book was what Sherwood Smith recently called “white fire” in a post on Book View Cafe Blog Writers on Writing: The White Fire. The story poured through me in a rapid torrent from somewhere else. Never have I written so easily, so fast, so confidently in the story. Not to say there weren’t parts I labored over with blood coming out of my pen instead of ink, but for the most part the story came to me, like a package in the mail. Kind of. Sometimes I feel desolate, wondering if I will ever have that experience again. It also came from what I call postcards from the imagination. In my mind, I saw the main character grinning at me and I saw the setting.

The third book came out of the second, plus the rage that I was experiencing at that time in my life. No one has read that one yet, and I wonder how much of that rage is still there. This book was an act of pure will. I almost lost the thread — of the story, of my determination — many times, and I wrenched it back on path. Maybe back on path, as it technically isn’t finished. When the rage passed I don’t know if I lost a lot of the propelling energy behind it. That might be why it was so hard to find the ending to the story. But again it started with a character and this time a question left unanswered.

But now I’m starting from scratch: no dreams, no white fire, no postcards from my imagination. And slowly I am building up an idea of something I want to write. A vague idea about what kind of main character I want to spend so much time with. A bit of a setting. Something stolen — an unusual physical trait that I admired in a well-known book that I wondered, “how can I steal that and make it mine?” Which l did, in quite an inspired way, I think, and in a way that makes it indisputably mine. Two names for secondary characters. A dose of what-if. And yet, it’s still not enough to start writing. Because one idea, even several ideas, is not enough.

So how much is enough?

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Random Reads

Malinda Lo on avoiding the exotic in her book Huntress, while basing the culture firmly outside the too-often-default medieval Europe. Great food for thought for writers who are attempting this. Made me think about the exotic-ization I’ve read in some books recently, as well as those that have managed to avoid it. Plus I missed about half of the cultural references myself while reading Huntress, so it was fun to see what was in there.

KT Literary translates her responses to authors when she declines their partials. Really nice insight for anyone who has scratched their head on a rejection and thought, “But what exactly does that mean?” and “What is she saying I should fix?”

The best explanation of the difference between mileposts and goals for writers that I’ve seen, plus a splash of humor about not letting the whole thing drive you crazy, by Tobias Buckell: Writers and Pellets. I hadn’t heard of or read his blog before, but I’ll be checking it out.

Agent Mary Kole looks at first lines. I’m posting this here because I’ve been thinking about this comment since I read it at the end of August: “Some of my favorite first lines are the ones that plant the kernel of a question in a reader’s head.” It inspired me to fool around writing first lines and looking at ones I’ve written in the past to see which ones have a question in them.

Writer’s Block or a Belated Road Trip Wednesday via YA Highway

I know I’m a little late to the party for YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday. The topic was How do you beat writer’s block? I scanned a lot of the responses, and then I had to think for a long time about why I disagreed with most of the posts.

So here goes:

Most of the bloggers weren’t, in my opinion, talking about writer’s block. When they responded that they go for a walk, listen to music, brainstorm with a writer friend or hope for inspiration in the shower, they were talking about the creative process. Specifically, the normal ups and downs of the creative process. For some reason (cultural, based on movies, dunno) we believe that writing (and the creative process in general) is this forward moving, smooth upward arc of progress. That’s progress, not process; process is full of fits and starts and backtracking and cutting 50,000 words because they went in the wrong direction or trashing the outline because it’s just not going to work.

But I got to tell you — that’s normal. That’s what the writing process is. Sometimes writing involves staring at a blank screen or a blank page for five hours and not writing a single thing. That’s still writing, not writer’s block. Sometimes writing involves staring into the air at nothing your friends and family can see. Sometimes it involves walking around the block. That’s all writing process, not writer’s block.

Writer’s block is like grief. It’s a dull heavy blanket over all your thoughts. It’s the feeling of dust in your soul, dry, powdery dust that doesn’t remember the touch of moisture, much less what it’s like to have green things grow in it.

Writer’s block is knowing that you once wrote, but you can’t now. It’s knowing that the words you wrote used to sparkle for you, maybe like a rough chunk of ore, but with a little nugget of something, that, once hacked at, cut and polished, will sparkle.

Writer’s block is wanting to write and having nothing. NOTHING. There’s no connection to the secret garden, fairyland, the place where dreams come from, or the girls in the basement, whatever you call that place that the words and ideas usually well out of. Writer’s block is wanting to write, knowing it will make you feel better and you still can’t.

Writer’s block, like grief, can only be healed by time and the persistent, coaxing hope that you will heal. The hope, no, the faith, that somewhere there is a trickle of water, of blessing, of dreams with your name on it and that someday it will come back to you.

There are things you can do to help time, but none of them on their own will help: taking care of yourself, however that translates for you; exercise; filling your cup with experiences that will one day feed your writing again; reading, if you can, or seeking out other forms of entertainment.

So if you’re in the midst of creative process, and need to brainstorm or sit back for a few minutes or days, that’s great! That’s normal and stuff is happening.

But if you’re in that other place, I’m sorry. It sucks like hell.

Writing the Other

So Zoe Marriott had another awesome post on Friday about writing characters that reflect the real world — in other words, not always having an all white, straight, able-bodied cast. I’m really liking her blog and I have got to move her books to the top of my TBR list.

In my comment to her post (yup, I actually commented, I liked it, and her blog, so much), I mentioned that if you belong to a majority group, and are writing characters that are different from you, it’s important to ask your beta readers to pay attention to the issue. Flat out ask them to look for places that you unwittingly fell into the trap of a stereotype (For example, one issue I recently dealt with: My villain was the only biracial person among a multiracial cast of characters. So to I tried to make sure it’s clear that it’s not a racial characteristic by including a biracial character among the good guys.) or have been oblivious (For example, there’s one male author who writes female characters who always cross their arms over their “breasts”. Now this might just be me, but I generally cross my arms over my “chest” because I am not so super-aware of my breasts that I think about them all the time. Throws me out of the story every time — not that I’m reading this author for his great characterization. I still haven’t figured out why exactly I read the entire series; it wasn’t for the infodump either.)

And if you’re lucky enough to have beta readers who belong to one of those groups you might be trying to write about, they are not exhausted by constantly educating the privileged about why what someone just said or did was racist, classist, ableist or sexist, and they think about these things in a critical way, you can ask them to tell you where you just tripped over your big, fat privilege and ignorance. (In other words, walking up to a random woman, a black person or a person in a wheelchair (for example) and asking them to read your work and tell you about being a woman, a black person or a differently abled person, or asking any of those people to act as a representative for the entire group is NOT OK. But I know you know that already.)

And the other thing I said in my comment was that how you react if you mess up in a public, published kind of way is really important. In my view, a lot of RaceFail had to do with people obliviously saying “I did not do something that was offensive to you!” instead of being respectful, acknowledging that we all make mistakes and taking it as a learning experience to do better in the future. (Of course a lot of that was the result of unexamined privilege manifesting itself as defensiveness and attack, and some to the fatigue that people of color feel dealing with this issue also manifesting as attack, and it just spiraled downwards from there.)

But as an example of a response that is appropriate, I was thinking of N.K. Jemisin admitting she had messed up by linking her character’s blindness to her magic in The Broken Kingdom in her post Why is Oree Shoth Blind? (Edited to add: You have to scroll down past the parenthetical asides to get to this part). Or the apology issued by Strange Horizons and one of the authors whose work was posted, in response to comments stating that the story was racist because of its stereotyped depictions of native americans (I can’t find the links).

Ok, and I stole the title of this post from Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward and their book/workshop Writing the Other because I hate coming up with titles and because it’s so good! The title, I mean. I haven’t read the book–yet.

Blogs I’m Reading

You Can Stuff Your Mary-Sue Where the Sun Don’t Shine: Zoe Marriott on the mis-use of the term Mary Sue by reviewers as shorthand (or code?) for “female character I don’t like”. Gracefully written and very graceful handling of the defensive comments in response (via Gwenda Bond, Shaken & Stirred).

A 2008 post Filing off the serial numbers by Mary Catelli on stealing from others for your writing. Her two paragraphs riffing on the main ideas of Harry Potter (orphan, raised by relatives, mistreated, magical) provided a lot inspiration for my own writing and prompted me to steal from myself (if that’s possible) and invert the idea for a magical rule that’s been floating around in my head. If you didn’t know she was modeling on HP you would never guess (via the comments on Imitation as Flattery by Pat Rice on Book View Cafe Blog)

Fun stuff: Kate Elliott had some good conversations in the comments of her blog while I was away

Character Genres I Avoid

Character Genres I Can’t Help But Love

Write Every Day

I have been writing almost every day for almost three years. That’s 1,095 days of getting up every day, sitting on my couch or at my computer, and writing. That is astounding.

How did this happen?

I read the words: “Write every day.”

Maybe it was This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley. Maybe not. It might have been Stephan King’s On Writing. In any case, I read the words when I was ready to hear them. (I’m sure others had given me this advice before. Didn’t matter, I wasn’t ready.)

And that’s what I did. Everything before that was practice. I’d been working on a book for at least two years by then. It was practice to find time to write. It was practice at believing I could write. It was practice to say to others (a few trusted friends) I’m writing. It was practice for writing every day.

Now I can’t live without writing every day. I haven’t written this week. I’m grouchy and off-kilter, like the feeling I get after eating half a bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups: that was not a good idea. I would feel so much better if I hadn’t done that.

Don’t tell anyone: I would write even if I knew I would never get published. I would write even if no one ever read it. I have to.
WIP update: Cut down to 58,000 words. Already up to 63,836, 3,000 words over what I had before I made cuts.

Some Quotes from Anne Lamott Today

Because this is where I am today:

E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.

And here, jealousy living inside my head, while I wander lost in the morass of a first draft. I was looking for the quote about shitty first drafts:

I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said that you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)

Those are both from Bird by Bird. I don’t know where this one is from, but it’s where I want to go.

This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of–please forgive me–wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious. Try walking around with a child who’s going, “Wow, wow! Look at that dirty dog! Look at that burned-down house! Look at that red sky!” And the child points and you look, and you see, and you start going, “Wow! Look at that huge crazy hedge! Look at that teeny little baby! Look at the scary dark cloud!” I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world–present and in awe.

And a bonus interview with Anne Lamott on the Powell’s  website