Growing Up

We are deep in the bowels of winter, with the weather dropping fast to  -30°F/ -34°C.  At times like this, I pretty much become a hermit; I mean, I’m already a hermit, but now I don’t even go in my yard.  And one of my favorite things to do in my hermitage is start planning for spring.  (Kind of pathetic, I know.)  I plot out my garden.  I contemplate plans for the property.  And I think about livestock.

One of the best things about spring is going down to the feed shop and bringing home a madly peeping cardboard box of pine shavings and baby birds.  Gosh, I love chicks.  They’re terribly fragile things, all hunger and hollow bones and soft down, but they’re unbelievably cute little buggers.chick

Last year, since we knew we’d be gone for the summer, we only got two little pullets instead of our usual haul of two pullets (read: egg birds) and a dozen or so Cornish cross (read: meat birds).  I get a visibly different breed of pullets each year so that I know at a glance how old a bird is, and this year we went with the red sex-links.  They came home as freaking adorable little ginger powder puffs.

But hardly more than a week later, I started to notice pin feathers coming in, rimming their wings, their nubby little tails.  By the time we left on our trip, they were well into gawky adolescence, and then three months later, I came home to this:

hen

Bwah?  What happened to my powder puffs???

But my shock quickly turned into delight when just a few weeks later, they started pooping out eggs.  I cannot eat cuteness.  Eggs are much better.

I’m not saying that pets like cats, which provide me no eatenings, aren’t wonderful.  But these birds are not pets.  As much as I enjoy them, they are stupid, smelly, evil-eyed neo-dinos and the whole point of my keeping them is for meat and eggs.  Chicks provide me with neither.  Growth and change, as in so many aspects in life, are good.

The early life of a manuscript is much like the early life of a chicken.  Just as I wouldn’t really want my chicks to stay chicks forever, I don’t really want my early drafts to stay immature forever.  Assuming your literary goals are anything beyond the personal catharsis of writing (which is a totally legit goal), a story must change and evolve for it to reach its full potential and achieve those goals.  A story that stays in first draft mode forever, adorable and joyful as it may be, will never make it off your desk.

I used to make only the most superficial of edits to my beloved manuscript.  (Yes, there was only one at the time.)  I might alter the dialog a little, or clean up the prose a bit.  But I would never have considered anything deeper than that.  If I found there was a plot hole, I’d patch it over with even more bad writing, seaming it up with poor motivations, unrealistic character actions, and nonsensical ‘traditions’ designed expressly to prop up the rest of the stagnant mess.  If I found one of my characters was only there because I thought they were cool, or a scene didn’t need to happen but I really liked the setting in which it took place, or any of a thousand other instances of self-gratifying excuses for hack work- then I’d find some reason, any reason at all, to double down and dig that grave a little deeper.  I spun wheels in that rut for ten years, actively stunting my own story’s growth in a stilted homage to fear and nostalgia.

It shouldn’t be that way.  The first draft is an opportunity to get all thoughts down on the page, no matter how stupid.  The second draft should be the opportunity to start hammering the stupidity, and all the glittery bits in between, into something lovely and coherent.  Growing pains are to be expected.  Sometimes you won’t feel sure if you’re making the poor thing better or worse.  But the change is good.  The change is necessary.  Editing is what makes takes a bad (or mediocre or even good) piece and makes it better.

Growth in a chicken takes time and energy, and the careful instructions coded over four billion years of trying new things.  Plan the changes; cull; experiment; be brave.  And then give your beautiful manuscript the time and the work needed to be its very best.

Do you find yourself stuck in an editing rut?  Picking endlessly at the same sentences without really changing anything?  Next week, I’ll talk about my editing process- how I plan it, what I look for, how I decide I’m done- and I’d love to hear about yours as well.  Join me next Monday, and until then, happy writing (and editing)!

Weathering the Weather

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A little good luck rain for my brother’s wedding 🙂

I know I just spent all of October talking about setting, but with the solstice coming up this week, the weather is heavy on my mind.  Struggling as I do with SAD, I’m acutely aware of how dark it is and how cold it is and how maddeningly close we are to inching our way back to the light.  (For context, daylight for today in Fairbanks Alaska is 3.6 hours total, and still shrinking.  An emphatic boo to that.)

When I wrote in October, I mostly concentrated on the physical setting, and weather definitely falls within that realm.  But today I’d like to elaborate more about the psychological and contextual aspects that they impart.  (You may recall from October’s Setting the Scene that there are four primary aspects of setting: chronological, psychological, physical, and contextual.)

So first off, what is weather?  Weather is the ever-changing state of the atmosphere that surrounds our fair planet.  Humidity, daylight, temperature, cloud coverage, pollution levels, wind speed, moon phase, and a host of other qualities are all aspects of weather.  As writers, we’ve got a lot of room to play here.

Books often start with a mention of the weather (the pollution in Sanderson’s Mistborn; the sunlight and temperature in Orwell’s 1984; the humidity in Plath’s The Bell Jar).  (I’m not saying to do this; weather as an opener can get you an autoreject from agents, editors, and readers alike.  That said, some writers do it very well.)  Weather immediately tells us something about the world these characters live in and the kind of story this might be.  Weather has long been known to play a role symbolically and foreshadowingly.  (Yes, that’s a word, sh.)  This affects the context of your story.  So if a story starts with a dark and stormy night, expectations are already being set in place.  Likewise, mentions of pollution, strong winds, extreme heat, etc, can all be used to symbolize larger and/or parallel problems within the story.

It doesn’t just have to be opening lines, though.  Weather can, and ought to, be sprinkled throughout an entire story, because our atmosphere is ever present.  Even its absence can be telling, or its artificial masking.  Who doesn’t recognize the antiseptic smell of a hospital hall, the strangely perfumed stink of a public restroom?  Use weather in your stories to help readers understand where they are and what’s going on, and to foreshadow where things might be going.

Similarly, weather can be notched up another power rung and take on the role of abstract antagonist, either as a secondary antagonist along with some other opponent, or directly, as is common in man v. nature stories.  In books such as The Perfect Storm, 81 Days below Zero, and Endurance, each story pits its characters against merciless weather.  As humans with thoughts and emotions and motives, we often anthropomorphize these features onto entities that don’t.  When faced with the raw power of nature, it can be terrifying to realize that we are mere specks on the face of this earth, and the tornado picking up our car or the storm flooding the baby’s nursery or the cold slowly stealing the movement from our limbs doesn’t give a used fig about us.  There’s no bargaining, no begging, no convincing.  It simply is.

Weather can be akin to a character, so large and powerful that it shapes lives and landscapes.  But consider also the many small ways in which weather affects our daily lives, even in temperate climates.  It affects our health, our mood, and what sounds good to eat.  Sure, we can become hypothermic in a spring rain or suffocate for want of oxygen in a closed room, but mostly we just want an ice cream when it’s hot, or steal an older sibling’s sweater when the house is cold, or become embarrassed when the wind messes up our hair on the way to the party, or when a storm kicks up and we’re the only dork who forgot an umbrella.  Weather can be huge and scary, but it can also be small and annoying, perfect and inspiring, cozy and comforting.  No matter where you are, weather is there, and it’s shaping your day.

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Hmmm… Yep, it’s still dark.

Which brings me back to my original impetus for this post.  I live in a nicely warmed box all winter, and day to day life is usually pretty tame.  I have to bundle up to go outside, but mostly I stay in and bake and do laundry and other adult things.  But I long for the kiss of dawn, for sun I can feel like baby’s breath warm on my skin.  I daydream about putting in more windows.  I scroll through pictures of blindingly green-and-gold summer.  And in the middle of a cloudless day, those scant hours when the sun hangs low in the sky, I pause at the windows to stare through the skeletal boughs of aspen toward that southern horizon, forgetting my chores for just a little while.  I ache for sunlight, and more than metaphorically.  I have to take vitamin D tablets so that my bones and muscles don’t turn to jelly.  I have to spend time in front of my happy light each day or I’m weepy and tired before the kids even get home from school.  And this is just short-term stuff.  A whole slew of physical and mental ailments can creep in over time, courtesy of the endless night.

You have these bits of weather that you live with, too, whether it’s staying parked in front of the AC from May through August, or constantly fighting black mold off your windowsills and out of your carpets, or wearing a mask at work to keep particulates out of your lungs, or never forgetting a rain jacket when you go out, because if you do you will always, always regret it.  Weather is more than what it feels like or what it smells like.  Weather changes our thoughts, changes our actions.  Weather changes the game.

Think about where your story takes place.  What’s the weather like?  How will this affect the character’s wardrobe?  The activities for the day?  How do they live with their weather?  What problems can the weather cause for your character?  What havoc can the heavens rain down on your MC’s plans?  What difficulties can arise in the plot?

Set fog around your fleet of warships.  Let an arctic vortex freeze your plucky heroine in her tracks.  Dawn the day of the funeral bright and glorious.  Hail on weddings.

Weather is magnificent, merciless, and inescapable.  Weather determines what we wear, how we travel, even the foods we eat and the pastimes we engage in.  Making sure that it affects your characters in these ways too will add an immersive new layer of reality to your work.

Happy writing!

Infecting the Next Generation

ywpNaNooooooo!  Once again, National Novel Writing Month is upon us!  And once again, I have forced my exuberant presence on Fairbanks’ impressionable youth for some enforced creativity! *cracks whip*

I love working with kids on writing projects, and the Young Writers Program makes it so easy!  And the students are just naturals at it anyway.  Kids are wonderfully creative and, at least until puberty hits, are unashamed of their imperfect little darlings, plus these students are so eager to write.  From our initial brainstorming session to today, I’ve been working with this group for a little over two weeks now, and nobody’s even asked about erasing a single word.  Kids are great!

And I like to think that writing is great for them too.  There’s the basic curriculum aspects: critical reading, writing proficiency, i before e, etc.  You know, all the boring stuff.  But of equal importance is teaching children that art is accessible.  That their voices are important.  That they can achieve big goals if they are determined.

So!  Here I am, infecting the next generation with this terrible literary affliction of mine.  Between that and it being a NaNo month, I won’t have a whole lot of time for blog posts, but I’ll slip in a quick update on the class’ progress with each week’s reblog.  Plus, as part of the lesson on brainstorming and what a story is, the kids helped me come up with the comic for this month, so that’ll be fun to share in a few weeks.  (And don’t forget to check out last week’s comic, in case you missed it in all its late-posted glory!)

Until then, keep hitting those keyboards!  Or notebooks, or whatever.  Happy writing!

DIY Writing Prompt Generator

DiceYou’ve probably all known me long enough by now to know that I’m pretty much a dork on a multitude of levels. (For those of you who hadn’t picked up on that yet, check out any of these posts.) And so it was that, in the name of good dorky fun, I set out to create my own writing prompt generator! Whee!

So after kicking around the idea for a couple weeks, I had a list of a few features that I knew I wanted. I wanted it to have an element of randomness. I wanted it to deal with various parts of a story instead of just one. (So, it might prompt me on either setting or inciting action or characters, rather than just one of those things.) I also wanted it to be practically infinite- it wouldn’t be just cycling through the same handful of prompts every time. And despite all these things, I wanted it to be about as basic as I could make it. Because, as has been manifested many times in many ways, complicated things- mostly in the form of technology- frighten me. (For those of you who hadn’t picked up on that yet, check out any of these posts.)

And what could use randomness and be less complicated than a die? I considered using a d20, but didn’t want to do that much work (see point on basicness), so I stuck with the classic six-sided die. Everybody has a d6 laying around!

If you too would like to make your own random prompt generator, all you need is a die (or dice! You can do as many prompts as you want!), a writing utensil, a piece of paper, and your fantastic brain. And fantastic hands for writing with. And maybe a hard surface to write on as well. Anyway, you get the point. Dice, paper, pen.

Number one through six (or however many faces your die has). Then decide what elements you want your rolls to prompt you on. If you want this to be even simpler, you can do them all about characters, or settings, etc. I wanted to incorporate more than one element, so my list looked something like this:

  1. Object
  2. Inciting Action
  3. Setting
  4. Character
  5. Opening Line
  6. Inciting Action

(This really doesn’t have to be complicated. Skip this step entirely if you’d rather, and just write a bunch of random stuff. Because random!) After you know what topic you want each face of your die to represent, flesh it out a little further.

Think of a prompt regarding each element that is simple enough to make sense in just about every context with which you use it; is broad enough to be open to a variety of interpretations; and has the potential to be different each time it is applied. For example, here’s the generator I came up with:

  1. Walk into the adjoining room. What is the first physical thing you notice? Put this item in a story being used in a nonconventional way.
  2. Look at the newspaper/go to an online news outlet. What is the main headline? Without reading any more of the story, write a story based on this premise.
  3. Text the person you last texted and ask what their favorite show/book was as a kid. Write a story based in that world.
  4. Look out the closest window. What is the first moving thing you notice? Write a story from his/her/its point of view.
  5. Turn on the radio and listen for one complete sentence. Use that line as the first line of a story.
  6. Go into a nearby bathroom or closet. If you knew you would be attacked in one minute, what would you use to defend yourself? Write a story that starts with that preparation.

I guess #2 is kind of Inciting Action/Character/SomethingElseEntirely, depending on what the headline is. But you get the point! Each prompt is designed to have the potential to be different each time, thereby making it (almost?) infinite. But they’re also each simple enough to be broadly applicable (can be used in nearly any situation you would typically find yourself in- might not work as well if you’re camping or in the middle of a global robotic takeover), and widely interpretive (can be understood in a variety of ways, thus adding to the number of possible stories being generated).

So after working all that out, the only thing left to do was to field test it.

I rolled a four! So I turned around in my seat and the first moving thing that I saw was a… raven! Darned things are everywhere! (At least this one wasn’t killing half my flock and then not even eating any of their remains besides just one of the heads. Seriously, raven, that’s creepy.) So I set about writing a short story from the POV of a raven. And here is the totally-unedited-don’t-judge-me-it’s-a-first-draft result! (Yes, I wrote this just before posting, haha. But I like it! Maybe worth cleaning up?)

All in all, this was fun. I don’t know how often I’ll use my little generator, but I felt more creative just after having made the thing. Got the writing juices flowing! Yummy! And most of the time, that’s all I really need. So, good job, writing prompt generator. I’ll keep you.

Let me know in the comments if you whipped up your own writing prompt generator! I’d love to hear about your prompts, or any stories that came of it. Happy writing!

Go! Speed Racer!

Running

I did NOT look this happy at the end.

Here in Fairbanks Alaska, summer solstice is a big deal. I mean like eat-too-much, party-all-night, don’t-go-down-‘til-the-sun-does big deal. (I’ll let you figure out what time that would be.) And part of my solstice celebration this year included the Midnight Sun Run.

The Midnight Sun Run is a 10k race kicked off at 10pm. Depending on your cuppa, there can be costumes, alcohol, various pets, roller skis- you name it, it’s there. I even saw someone do the whole thing juggling on a unicycle one year. Another involved some really valiant attempts with a pogo stick. (A pogo stick! Who does that for over six miles? Heck, who does that for over six feet?) It usually draws something more than three thousand participants, although there’s no accounting for all the unregistered runners. This thing is big and goofy and weird.

To up the fun factor even more, Hubby and I decided on a little wager. The loser gets three hours of community service of the winner’s choosing- and does it while wearing an outfit of the winner’s choosing. Now, my husband gets pretty creative with this kind of thing. And I was yet to beat him at… well, pretty much anything. So I was absolutely determined to WIN.

And so I began the grueling, months long process of training.

This, like most of my life, has a correlation to writing. Sometimes, we get out of good habits. I was once in pretty decent shape. But <insert million excuses here> happened and I not-so-suddenly wasn’t. I similarly find myself out of the writing habit (as you may have noticed with this spate of late blog posts).

But giving up and accepting the new state as the always-and-forever is a huge disservice, to yourself and to the world! So, here’s my training schedule for the next several weeks.

Week 1: Write at least three hours

Week 2: Write something daily

Week 3-7: (Camp NaNo starts) Write 1k daily

Week 8-∞: Keep at it

Easy, right?

I suppose you want to know whether this training paid off. I suppose you want to know that I kicked my husband’s rear and made him work in a soup kitchen wearing a wrestling singlet and a tutu.

Except that I didn’t. 😦

This is the other point I took away from all this. Comparing myself to my incredibly athletic husband (or to the nine-year-old boy or the seventy-five-year-old woman who also kicked my butt) is pointless.

Did I improve? Yes. Do I feel fantastic? Yes. Did I beat my time goal? Yes.

I am me and no one else. I run as only I can run. I write as only I can write. And I am completely and utterly happy to be me, the best me I can be. (And I hope that’s true for you, too!)

So work hard to be your best, and don’t worry about how that stacks up with everyone else! Run without registering. Walk the entire way, or run so hard you pee your pants. Do the race while juggling on a unicycle. Forget comparisons and be your own best.

Happy writing!

Keepin’ It Real

Will

My son, champion Questioner and unparalleled Stater of Silliness

As most of you probably gleaned from my complete disappearance from the internet, I am on vacation. (Unless those automated updates had fooled you. Muahaha!)

One of my favorite and most despised things about vacationing is that it gets me out of my routine. This is an absolute nightmare as far as parenting goes. But when it comes to recharging my writing batteries, getting body checked out of a rut is just what the doctor ordered.

As I write this post, I am sitting in the Rocky Mountains, enjoying one of the wettest summers this area has ever seen. I am also enjoying my parents’ indoor pool, a dearth of dirty dishes, and an abundance of cheap watermelon, as well as all kinds of other delights I am unused to. A far cry from my day-to-day in Alaska.

I’m pretty bad about writing when I’m on vacation. I think I’ve written just a couple times in the nearly three weeks I’ve been away. But I still think these few weeks have been fantastic for my writing. I hiked a mountain, toured a candy factory, and wandered semi-lost between jutting crags of red stone. I watched Native American music and dance, wandered around chatting up the reenactors at an 1830s fort, and was nearly drowned by three small children swarming up my spine in the swimming pool. And in the few days I spent in California before coming to Colorado, I scampered in the ocean, nearly got eaten by not one but two giant scary dogs, had the opportunity to buy a medical marijuana license for the scant cost of $25, and went to a massive white-and-gold building that looks for all the world like a fairy tale castle. I watched my baby brother get married!

I have been busy.  Too busy to write, maybe, but not too busy to be inspired. These experiences will still be in my mind when I get back to Fairbanks in just a few more days, and back into my routine of kids and cooking and cleaning. I’ll think about the bull pine and the thin air and the snakes and the hot sun while I walk with my kids through the blueberry bogs, the air thick with mosquitoes and the weak sunlight splintered through the spruce. I’ll draw on how hard it was to breathe when I write my characters hiking through the mountains. I’ll remember what it feels like to have clamoring skinny bodies pushing me underwater when I get to the scene where my MC goes for a desperate swim through mer infested waters.

Our surroundings and experiences help us to fill our stories with reality. No, I can’t travel to Paleithois, and no, unicorns don’t wander the forests ready to help a maiden out. But I can grant my writings believability when I fill my written worlds with realistic details, when I make the characters and situations relatable on a smaller, human scale. If Paleithois was real, what might their customs be and why? If unicorns did kick around the woods, what might matter to them? What might their benevolence cost them? And if I suddenly found myself transported to the peak of a mountain, how would it feel? How would I stay alive? What does it feel like to be drowned?

I come from a long line of people who talk at the theater. We’re horrible, horrible people who you would never want to watch a movie with. We will shamelessly demolish your favorite show while we eat all your gummy bears and take up too much room on your couch. My father is the worst of the clan, especially when it comes to war movies. He doesn’t care if the characters are made up. He doesn’t even really care if the battles are made up, or the towns, or the situations. But if you ever watch a movie with him, prepare to hear all about how they got the firearms wrong, the uniforms wrong, the terrain wrong, the tactics wrong, everything wrong, wrong, wrong. And that’s just on the movies he likes.

People do the same thing when reading books. They are willing to accept that there is magic. They are willing to accept that there are flying cars. They are willing to accept that Queen Victoria was actually an alien robot sent to enslave the human race with imperialism and corsets.

But their acceptance will only go so far. Those fat, lying whoppers are only okay if the details are all in order. If the magic makes sense for the world. If the flying cars mesh with the rest of the world’s technology and setting. If… uh… yeah, anyway, you get the point. We sell our stories when we underpin the lies with truth. When readers can sympathize with the characters, even if they’re a different gender or a different background or a different species. When readers can absorb a section, nod their heads, and say, “Yes. That is exactly right.”

I’ve never drowned. I’ve never fought a bear. I’ve never held my infant daughter. I’ve never gone to Brazil and I’ve never picked poppies in Afghanistan. I’ve never been shot with an arrow or made marzipan or lived in a convent or ridden a dragon. Some of those, I might do some day. Others, less likely. Others still, never. But I can write about those things. I can fill my fake worlds with experiences, some my own, some read about in books, some carefully researched, and some just made up and meticulously thought out.

So never stop wondering about the world around you, and never stop absorbing every experience you can get your hands on (safely, ethically, and legally, of course). Ask questions. Let your nephews dive tackle your ankles. Go for a hike. Do something hard. Learn to cook something new. The more you know and feel and experience, the more reality you can lend your writing. And you can only be better for it. (Again, assuming safety, ethics, and legality are observed. Seriously, please don’t go become a dangerous criminal in the name of compelling writing.)

So when was the last time a real life experience came out in your writing? What can you do to make an improbable situation ring with reality? Tell me about it in the comments!