Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lovely Blog

The ever-lovely June tagged me for a blog award, and since I think it's fun to play linkies and and fun to play along (and finally have time after a busy fortnight of revising), here I am ! 

  1. Share 7 Lovely Facts about myself
  2. Link to 15 blogs (or as many as possible) that I enjoy reading
  3. Nominate the authors of those 15 blogs to participate and do the samelinking back to the original Lovely blog.  June's original Lovely post was here.

  1. My favorite outfit is well over two centuries out of fashion: 
  2. I have a cat named Sophie Biscuit.  She was originally  just "Sophie" but she was--and still is--so cute yet addlepated that called her Biscuit as a nickname, because she's just an adorable little morsel but she's still kind of doughy in the middle.  She once climbed our Christmas tree:
  3. My house was built in 1872, and then renovated in 1890 because clearly it was so out of date.  The resulting mash-up is pretty awesome. 
  4. I love swing dancing (and the music and clothes from the swing era, too), and used to take lessons and go to dance meetups practically religiously.  Unfortunately, there's less time for going to dances with a toddler, but my husband and I have developed our signature "Lindy with a Little" style:
  5. I'm a Navy wife--my husband is an officer in the Naval Reserves.  Downside: I'm home alone a lot.  Upside: I let myself have Chinese takeout when I'm home alone and the place in town makes the best eggrolls.  Also, Navy Ball (years ago!): 
  6. I love being outdoors; hiking is my favorite.  This is from a trip to Seattle and the surrounding area, which is on my list for most gorgeous places I've visited, and is pretty much my face every time I'm in a really beautiful natural place:
  7. I'm on a lifelong mission to perfect my piecrust.  My favorite pie recipes are mincemeat and dried cherry--both very old-fashioned but delicious.

In looking over other blogs I read, it looks like lots of them have already been tagged!  So...if you've been tagged but you haven't posted, consider this encouragement!  And if you haven't been tagged but you want to be, I'll do it!  I'll make you a deal--any of my friends who has done this post, leave me a link to it it the comments and I'll link you up.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Things That Can Ruin a Writer's Day

I try not to be too "precious" with my writerly requests--the things I believe help me get in the zone and write at my best.  I don't need a particular table at the cafe or a certain hot drink or my lucky left shoe.  But there are a few things that really grind my gears.

1) Sticky keyboards.  Nothing annoys me more than a keyboard with really stiff keys--you know, when you type "biscuit" and it comes out "bsut" because half the keys are so futzy that they don't depress fully on a simple, light touch.  Maybe I'm just very particular about my keyboards, because getting a new laptop has taken all kinds of adjustment for me.

2) A workspace that's too dark or too light.  Squinting at the screen that's suddenly bisected by a hyper-ray of sunlight or squinting at my notes in a dark corner take me out of my zone quicker than a cat landing, claws-out, on my lap.  Which happens pretty often in my house, but she's so darn cute I'm ok with it.

3) Headaches.  There is nothing in this world that kills productivity quicker than the common headache.  Except maybe...

4) Skipped naptimes.  Two-year-olds need naps.  Their writer moms need them even more.

Guess which one happened today?  Sigh.

And I had so many sparkly ideas about this revision.  They'll still be shiny tomorrow, I guess.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Does Working Make You a Better Writer?

Latest in the litero-sphere hullabaloo is Nobel judge Horace Engdahl's assertion that literary grants and programs are killing our creative spirit by isolating us from the gritty real world that feeds our imaginations.  He says we'd do better to work, as waiters or taxi drivers if need be, in order to learn the world in which we write.  On the other side of the ring are writers, many who are currently working or formerly working in that "real world," who contest that doing so did nothing for their creative spirit and that Engdahl's claim is pretty darn easy to make from the vantage point of a comfy professorship.

I'm not going to get into what goes into producing "great" literature.  I really  have no idea.  I have no delusions that I'm attempting to produce "great" literature (then again, I imagine many great writers of the past and present weren't trying for "The Great Novel of Our Time," either, and that's part of my problem with the whole labeling system).  I have some issues with the delineation between "literature" and "not literature" in the written word--the dichotomy seems invented rather than natural and I really have no skin in the game of where to draw the line between the two.

But as for writing?  Just writing, like I do?

Working made me a better writer.

It gave me experiences and perspectives that I would never have had coming straight out of university and moving straight into writing full-time.  I wouldn't have replaced those experiences sitting behind my desk, tip-tapping away on the keyboard. Frankly, some of the frustration and difficulty of working a job that didn't fulfill me professionally, that didn't help me achieve my ultimate goal of publication, was great fodder for writing realistic characters in crummy situations.

In fact, difficult working situations prodded me to invest in writing.  My first job out of college wasn't a great one, financially speaking (it was a great work environment with some truly fantastic people and work I enjoyed--it just paid beans).  Worse, it was pretty much a dead end--no ladder to climb, no promotions to work toward.  It wasn't, shall we say, a career-making position.  It was a job.  Much like the work Engdahl discusses for writers. (I do find it fascinating that he doesn't talk about teachers, lawyers, doctors in his discussion--perhaps because these are careers, not placeholder jobs meant to eke out a living until writing pays off.)  The recession hit and my hours were cut.  With the extra time, I decided to invest in something--writing.  I wrote my first novel (that now lives in a file on my external hard drive and will never see the light of publication) that year.

I queried that novel with the agent who ultimately signed me.

But that's another story.

The story I'm telling now is one about working.  I've never stopped working.  I moved from my first job to a job at a university (staff, not to be confused with academia), ultimately landing in recruitment and student services.  I worked over forty  hours a week.  I still wrote.  Prolifically.  I then stayed home with my daughter for a year.  I've never had less time to write than that year.  I now work part-time and stay home part-time.  So I find myself cringing a little at the side of the discussion that argues "working makes it too hard to write.  I couldn't find the time."

Yes, finding the time is hard.  But the time you do have?  It *matters.*  You write like your life depends on it because that hour is it.  And...this will sound harsh...but if you're unable to produce anything and getting depressed and think your work is all crap...that's kind of on you.  Yes, writing for one hour a day instead of eight means writing will take longer.  It will take longer to write the draft, to work toward perfection.  (You will never reach perfection, by the way.)  But if you "can't" I call shenanigans.  That's not because you're working another job.  That's because you've decided you can't.

As for work opening us up to creative possibilities, and academia and grants isolating us from those possibilities?  Tentatively, yes.  Yes, working demands that we *interact* with the world in a way that sitting at a desk writing does not.  Interacting with people, encountering problems, watching how different people react to those problems, how they propose solutions, how they laugh together, how they form bonds.  Still, working isn't the only way to do this.  Living works, too.

In my view, isolation is the enemy, and academic creative writing courses and grants can isolate you.  But so can a job.  

And there's something that smacks of elitism (ironically enough) to claim that one must work a "gritty" job to produce something authentic and worthy.  That's a rather narrow definition of authenticity.  My small-town life with an engineer husband and a job at the local community college is as "authentic" as the life of a bike messenger by day, author by night in a developing country that Engdahl seems to think is capable of producing "real" literature on a level that Westerners are not.

My point?

Living life makes you a better writer.  It's narrow-minded to demand a particular life or lifestyle, however.  And there's no excuse in the world *not* to write--maybe that's the lesson we should be learning from the writers persevering in gritty, difficult jobs.  They're not creatively better-situated because of their work--they're more determined.  And determination can produce writing that is truly something great.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What Size Pond Are You Swimming In?

I like to sing.  Singing in choir, singing in the shower, singing to my two-year-old...doesn't matter, singing is fun for me.  And, lucky for me, my voice isn't bad.  It's not great--I don't have a huge range, it can get a little breath-y, and my pitch isn't always perfect. Or close.  Or good, at all.

When I was in college and in the years beyond, I lived in a Music Town.  You know, one of those brilliantly over-saturated-with-talent regions where every other person you meet is a near-virtuoso musician?  If you've been lucky enough to live in the vicinity of a top-tier music school, you know what I'm talking about.  Despite being a member of a church, despite plenty of volunteer choirs in town, despite opportunity galore, I didn't sing in public much.

I was a very small fish in that big pond.  There was no way I was measuring up to the fantastic talent I was surrounded by.  And it intimidated me enough to keep my voice to myself.

Then I moved to a little town and joined a little church and discovered that the choir has maybe ten members on a good day.  And so I joined.

Now I'm the only soprano in the group who can consistently (and fairly nicely) hit the full scope of the treble clef, have better pitch than half the group, and a stronger voice than many of the singers there.  I'm not saying this to brag.  Because I don't have much to brag about.

Nothing changed except the size of the pond.

My voice, nothing too exciting in a space rich with talent, is exactly the same as it was before.  My confidence might be a little higher, and that might give me a slight boost, but I'm the same singer I was a few years ago.  I went from "I'll just watch, thanks" to soloist material.

I bring this up in relation to writing because we all start writing in small ponds.  We start writing for ourselves, as kids.  Maybe we start in classrooms, and for most of us, we're the star pupil when it comes to language.  Few writers recall feeling like the little fish up front.  Few writers start out in a big pond.

Eventually, many of us decide to move to the big pond--pursuing publication.  Suddenly you're not the best writer in your family, or the best writer in Springville High School, or the best writer in your group of friends.  You're a good writer...among a lot of other good writers.  The pond is huge, and suddenly what felt like exceptional talent and incredibly hard work is, in comparison, not that exceptional or incredible.

That can feel discouraging.  Imagine if I had gone from being the star soprano of Tiny Town United Methodist to the nobody of Music Town. I would have gone in believing I was "good enough" and then would have realized that I'd need to work, and hard, just to keep up!

But that's the reality of the big pond--it doesn't matter how talented you are, there are others just as naturally talented.  It doesn't matter how good your ideas are, someone else is churning out great ideas, too.  The only thing separating all these amazing fishies?  Work and perseverance.  Once you make it into the big pond, you've proven you have the talent and the passion, so don't be discouraged.  Just finishing a novel, polishing it, working up the gumption to query--that proves you have a place in the big pond.  It's dedication, resilience, and the choice to work, every day, that give some fish a leg up (wait, mixed metaphors...or maybe the fish who make it to publication are actually mudskippers?  We're going down a twisty road on this one...)

And a final thought--maybe you're not ready to move into the big pond yet.  Maybe you're quite happy splashing around your smaller pond, working and writing and improving.  That's fine.  Moving too fast can be discouraging, and the pond will be there when you're ready for it.  The allure of the big pond is strong, but you don't have to dive in until you're ready--or you can decide that the small pond fulfills your writing dreams just fine, thanks.  There's nothing wrong with the small pond.

Friday, October 3, 2014

B-Movie Lessons: The Horrors of Spider Island and What You *Really* Want to Write About

After a long weekend full of football recently, I found myself craving a bad movie.  (Not that football isn't in many ways like a bad movie--except that the Mr. doesn't appreciate my witty quips when the involve the combination of his team and the term "butterfingers.")  So I cued up The Horrors of Spider Island.

First, let's clear one thing up. This is your spider:

Now then.  That's done.

It's not an uncommon phenomenon that crappy B-movies from the 1950s and 60s were thinly veiled covers for showing scintillating (for the time) images and suggestive (for the time) racy scenes.  Horrors is a prime example--the premise is that a troupe of "dancers" (ahem--they didn't cast the ballet dancer in the opening scene, just saying) is stranded on a remote island when their plane crashes en route to Singapore.  Said island is infested with giant spiders whose bite, inexplicably, turns people into were-spiders.

You don't see much of the giant spiders.  But you sure see a lot of scantily clad ladies.

Movies like this were released to dive theaters and drive-ins, where the point was often not watching the movie but sneaking some make-out time with one's significant other.

So, despite the name of the film and the occasional shot of a giant spider (work with me, let's pretend it actually looks like a spider rather than a bat puppet with extraneous legs), the movie is really about....

scantily clad ladies.

So bringing this back around to writing.

There are those times when it becomes abundantly clear that the story being told isn't REALLY what the book is about. This is a danger with any novel--writers have something to say, and sometimes that itch to *say* something comes at the expense of story.  There's a time when saying more than the story is a fine choice, masterful, even--when the sci-fi novel is a projection of current fears about technology, when the historical fiction piece is a commentary on current gender roles.  But this feels organic and natural--the story still takes precedence.  It's through the story that the larger elements take shape.

Sometimes, however, it feels like a pesky plot is intruding on the real reason for writing the story, like a giant spider at an otherwise enjoyable beach party.

Or perhaps the spy story is starting to take a backseat to the romantic subplot. Maybe the historical research in your novel is shaping up to take over the story itself.  Perhaps the romantic storyline is morphing into a family drama.  Sometimes a story starts with one premise but adopts others.  It pays to stop and examine--what is the purpose of this piece of writing?  I started out writing an espionage novel--am I still doing that?  Do I still want to be doing that?  I started out researching 19th century French Canadian mourning dress for a two-page section of my historical novel--I now have half a thesis on this topic.  Do I need to redirect this information into something else?

Every novel has a central theme and a main story arc.  Plenty of variation exists within those rules, but when the central theme is muddied or the main story arc splinters, it's time to re-evaluate.

Unless you like giant spider beach parties.  I won't judge.