In Which “Jesus” Works On My Novel

Well, folks. You’re getting a treat today.

Why? Because it’s one of those days.

If you know me in real life at all, you know all too well my penchant for scatterbrainedness. Most of the time, I can focus. Most of the time, I know FAR in advance what I want to do. I don’t necessarily live by a schedule — but I do know how I want my day to progress. And I get squirmy if I plan things and then don’t get them done.

On the other hand, there are days like today.

Today, my darlings, I just can’t focus. I should be writing for you a blog post of beautiful coherence and cohesion, something with a unifying theme. Something that makes sense as a whole.

Regrettably, that’s not going to happen.

Here are three random items instead:

1. Last week, my friend Patricia pointed out that I don’t talk the way I write.

It’s true. I don’t. When you’re engaged in verbal conversation with me, I don’t use phrases like “engaged in verbal conversation.” I don’t start sentences with “regrettably,” and “penchant” is not part of my everyday vocabulary. And I don’t talk so fast that you have to squint at me and tune out the rest of the world in order to keep up.

In verbal conversation, I hesitate a lot. My sentences are shorter. A lot of them don’t get finished. And I say “That’s funny” way more than any human being should.

What’s more, I’m an introvert. So, unless I know you well, or unless we’re among a small group of friends, I won’t talk a lot. I won’t go on half as long as I do on my blog.

I’m a writer, not a talker. Yes, I’m a sucker for great conversation…but with just a few people at a time. Preferably two or three. If I can get an individual to talk to me one-on-one until the late hours of the night, I’m almost in heaven.

YES! Give me that intimate meeting of the minds!

I promise I’ll keep words like “juxtaposed” to a minimum. 😉

2. Jesus reminds us of how important it is to have an actual plot in our stories.

One day, whilst meandering through Facebook, I posted a link to my friend Jessie’s blog.

Jessie had reviewed a book in which the plot was not clear. In my headline above the link, I pointed out that her post was a good reminder of how important plot is in any story. Another Facebook friend commented that at first glance, he thought I’d written “Jesus” instead of “Jessie.”

I kind of like the idea that good storytelling is a divine command. It fits my mantra: Created to create!

3. Once upon a time, Jessie’s brother John admonished me about my habit of self-deprecation.

From 2001 to 2007, the husband and I lived in Germany and worked with a small church there. I could write a whole year’s worth of posts on everything we did, but the short of it is that we helped out however we could (organizing, construction-working, wall-painting, encouraging, mentoring, counseling, etc.) and taught private, conversational English lessons.

Our financial support came mainly from individuals back in the good ol’ USA, so I wrote regular newsletters to all of those fine folks, telling them the whats and wherefores of our lives. And lemme tell ya, those newsletters were long. I had to force myself to condense each one to two pages.

Those pages usually had 0.4-inch margins.

I frequently apologized for the length of those letters.

Then my friend John wrote me an email. In his direct, no-nonsense way, he said,

Don’t apologize for anything you write. If you’ve written a long letter, it’s because you’ve written what you felt was necessary to write. You weaken the message of your letter when you apologize for it.

Well. That made me take a step back.

Long story (ha!) short, I decided that he was right.

I never apologized for a long newsletter again. People kept sending money, so I guess they didn’t miss the apologies.

My friend JT, a university student, has some fascinating ideas for a novel. When we sit and chat about it, he invariably shoots me a warning look and says, “If I wrote this, it would be controversial.”

I tell him what John told me.
____________

Inconsistent vocabulary.

Divine commands for storytelling.

NO APOLOGIES.

What randomnesses of your own would you like to share? Lemme hear ya!

5 Easy Ways To Get Your Blog Noticed

This blog went live six weeks ago — today! Woot, yay me, and all that. I’ve been having way more fun with this than should be considered sane, and to top it all off, I’ve learned stuff.

Squeaky wheel? Or tweeting without a muffler?!

My darling lovely readers, I’ve learned stuff about getting my blog noticed.

Granted, if I’m going to compare my case to all the cases out there, I’m still a newbie, so I don’t know a whole lot yet. But if I compared my case to other, more experienced cases, I’d end up a basket case, and I don’t think any of us want to see that happen. Let’s just not go there, mmkay?

So, here ya go. This is what I’ve got so far. This what-I’ve-got is subject to revision in future posts. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

5 Easy Ways To Get Your Blog Noticed

1. Write freakishly catchy headlines.
My main teacher in this has been blogging coach Judy Dunn. One of Judy’s main pieces of advice is to craft headlines that will catch people’s attention within a couple of split-seconds. If your headline doesn’t grab a reader at first glance, chances are she won’t click through to your blog, let alone read your post.

I had this in mind when I wrote The One Where I’m Not An Impotent Bachelor. Since I’m female and married, and most of my readers knew that already, that title caught their attention.

They came, they read, they commented. And there was much rejoicing. (Not to mention sniggering.)

2. Use a picture in every post
I’ve known this one for awhile, thanks to Aaron Pogue at Unstressed Syllables. When he first invited me to write What I Learned About Writing This Week, a weekly column for his blog, one of his top-priority instructions was that I should provide an image or two for each article.

Why? Because people like to look at stuff. We humans are that way from birth. Babies love faces. Thanks to tech, more and more of us are growing up as visual learners. Yeah, sometimes we get so much visual stimulation, it’s like binge-eating on a 12-course meal at 9 different restaurants at the same time —

— but on the other plate hand, if there’s nothing to look at, we look away. We click away in search of something visually interesting.

I haven’t posted anything without a picture, yet, so I can’t compare pictorially endowed posts with posts not so blessed. But still, I’d be willing to bet a post without a pic would garner me fewer readers. ‘Cause you people like to look at stuff.

3. Comment on other people’s blogs — and reply to comments on your own.
Thanks to Google Analytics, I know who you are. *ahem* Okay, not really. But I can see where most of you are coming from — and one of those wheres is blogs I’ve commented on. You’re reading my comments and clicking through to my blog.

And that, my dearies, is pretty freakin’ cramazing. People on the Internet actually want to talk to me. Me! They want to hear what I have to say, they want to tell me their thoughts about what I write, and they appreciate it when I answer back.

If you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for a great conversation. I’m having those conversations in the comments sections of others’ blogs. As a result, I’m starting to have some of those conversations in the comments section of my blog. ‘Cause you people want to talk.

And I love you for it!

4. Tweet like a maniacal baboon — but don’t overdo it.
If you have any interest in generating traffic for your blog, then you needed to be on Twitter a year ago. If you’re not tweeting yet, have no fear; all is not lost! I’ve only been tweeting for nine months, myself — but even though I was a late bloomer, this lovely piece of social networking media is serving me well.

In fact, many of you now reading this are contacts I’ve generated solely from Twitter. (Follow me!) And you folks are fabulous, I must say. You’re retweeting me! You’re getting me new followers and, thereby, new readers! Oh sure, I’m greedy for more…but aren’t we all?

But I’m careful not to tweet too much. I don’t know how the rest of you feel — but when I see a blogger tweeting his/her posts over and over within the space of a few hours, I cringe a little.

I don’t need to hear about the same blog fifty times in one day. 😉

So. Tweet like mad, yes — but be the squeaky wheel, not the pickup truck cruising down the highway at 100mph with no muffler.

5. Write stuff people want to read
Um, you might be thinking. Duh?

Well, maybe not so duh. Let me illustrate. These are the goals of my blog:

a. Discuss with my readers the creative writing process.

b. Provide a peek into the mind of a creative writer.

c. Establish a platform for my yet-to-be-published novels.

Guess which posts have generated the most feedback so far?

If you guessed “posts in categories (a) and (b),” then you have chosen wisely. So far, most of you want to read and talk with me about the writing process and the writing life. Fewer of you are responding to the posts in which I talk about my works-in-progress (WsIP).

I wish it weren’t so; but I understand why it ain’t. You haven’t read the books; why should you have an overwhelming interest in them? Hopefully, that will change once the books are published and you have access to these wonderful characters and fascinating worlds I’ve been talking about —

— but in the meantime, I’m learning I need to keep my WsIP posts to a minimum. I’ll keep giving occasional updates, but I plan to be more conscious of where my focus needs to be for now.

I’m learning what you people want. And I’m not shy — I’m willing to give it to you. 😉

So, my darlings, there are my Newbie’s 5 Blogging Tips. Let me know if your own blogging adventures have taught you similar lessons!

Or, even better: What other things have you learned? What have you learned that challenges what I’m saying?

Lemme hear ya!

How To Write A Novel

Since I doubt the demons will ever deign to craft such a mundane, human thing as a newspaper, it’s up to me to report the news of goings-on in the world of Saltmarch. Saltmarch, in case you missed it, is a fictional realm inhabited by the demons of my paranormal trilogy. And, in case you missed that as well, the trilogy consists of:

Saltmarch, Where The Demons Live

Colors of Deception

Shadows After Midnight

Stains of Grace

Colors has a publication date of April 2011. (Oh, final edits, how I both desire and dread thee!) Shadows has no publication date yet, but it’s in the third draft stage.

As of this past Monday night, I’ve finished Draft 2 of Stains.

The First Draft

Now, allow me to clarify: When I write the first draft of a novel, I pound out the manuscript as coherently and quickly as I can. I started pre-writing for Stains of Grace on October 1, 2010; started writing on November 1, 2010; and typed “The End” on February 10, 2011. That’s the fastest I’ve ever finished a first draft in my life. The final word count was 80,421.

“The End” happened in the wee hours of the morning. After I’d slept (8 hours = a MUST!) and eaten (breakfast = a MUST!), I waded right into editing. Usually, I’ll let a first draft sit for a month before I go back to it; but this time, with the pub date of Colors approaching, I don’t have the luxury of taking my time.

Besides, my two foremost Saltmarch beta readers (Mama and Celia) have been admirable in not pressuring me for a complete manuscript — yet they’ve made it quite clear I am to deliver said manuscript into their eager hands, posthaste!

The Second Draft

And so, not ten hours after completing Draft 1, I started editing with the goal of completing Draft 2.

When editing toward Draft 2, I use the following approach:

1. I delete strikethroughs. As I pen a first draft, I try not to backspace. It breaks the flow of my thoughts, and sometimes it can break the flow of story. If I’m backspacing, I’m editing — and that’s a no-no for my first drafts. Strikethroughs mark words, phrases, and paragraphs I won’t need later.

2. I do light editing: fixing typos as I see them, changing a word here and there if it catches my eye. Sometimes, as I write Draft 1, I’ll write notes to myself in brackets. As I light edit, I judge whether or not the stuff in brackets is a quick fix or not. If it is, I’ll do it now. If it’s not, I’ll save those bracket notes for a later draft.

3. I just read the thing. I don’t allow myself the leisure of reading the story as I write the first draft, so now is my chance to read and see if this mass of words really is a story or not. If I get caught up in it and forget to edit, I know what I’ve got here is rough but usable material.

In the case of Stains, light editing took six days. The final word count of Draft 2 is 78,254.

Now, I hand Draft 2 off to my beta readers, and the agonizing yet exhilarating wait for feedback begins! Oy vey. 😉

The Third Draft

While I wait for my betas to chew through my story, swallow it, and spit out the parts they don’t like, I’ll tinker with the story a little bit. This means more light editing, a few fixes here and there, maybe adding a paragraph or three.

Or I might just leave the story alone and let it ferment some more. Taste-testing too much too early sometimes keeps me from appreciating the full flavor of what my beta readers have to tell me later. But for this part, I just trust my instincts.

When I get feedback from the betas, that’s when the real work on Draft 3 begins. Depending on what they tell me, I’ll do little stuff like correct typos, add dialogue attribution, and shorten sentences — and I’ll do big stuff like rewrite characters, move paragraphs from one chapter into another, and add scenes or entire chapters.

Once I’m satisfied with what I’ve done, I’ve got me a hot little number called Draft 3.

The Fourth Draft…and Fifth

Or Sixth — And So On.

After Draft 3, the rest of the drafts are basically wash, rinse, repeat — editing, handing off to readers, getting feedback, editing — until I feel like it’s clean enough. No book is ever squeaky clean. Especially from the writer’s perspective, there’s always going to be something that needs fixing.

But for me, it’s kind of like oil painting: If I go back to it too often, I’m eventually gonna mess it up. I must needs reach a point at which I wouldn’t be embarrassed to share the story with the public.

It might take me four drafts to get to this point; it might take me six. Colors is currently in Draft 4.5 stage. My epic fantasy novel, Triad, has gone through eight drafts and might require one more before it’s ready for the world.

Tell me, fellow writers:

Does my process look anything like yours?

How do you feel about handing your baby off to its first beta readers?

What’s your favorite tip/trick for the early draft stages?

I’m curious. Let’s talk. 🙂

Why I Break The Spines of Books

Last week, my dearest, most darlingest readers, I wrote about my right brain’s sometime conflict with my left brain.  I used examples from my sordidly disorganized past, juxtaposed (ooh! big word!) with tales from my less messy present, to show that somehow, the two sides of my brain are learning to work together.

Pondering this ambi-brained-ousness reminded me of something particularly nit-picky I used to do but have abandoned in these, my wiser years.  (Insert guffaws here.)  So, here’s another look inside the mind of Courtney; please, pardon the dust bunnies and random (memory) holes in the floor, and do watch out for low-hanging whatnots and any underfoot baubles or doohickeys.

Behold! Beauty! Pristine perfection!

The Girl Who Ate the Book

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Courtney who loved books. She read pretty much anything she could get her hands on, and she devoured it all without ever getting her fill.

She borrowed books from friends and family. She bought new ones (books, that was, not friends or family) whenever she could scrape together enough cash to make a trip to the bookstore worthwhile. She brought the books home, tucked them into their special (alphabetized) places, and read each one in its turn. Her every book received its due attention and care, and all was well with Courtney’s reading world.

But, as is so often the case in utopias, there was a slight problem. You see, Courtney was something of a hypocrite concerning her books: She felt at ease in asking to borrow others’ books, but she was terribly reluctant to loan out her own treasures. Her selfishness didn’t extend to saying “NO!” when others asked to borrow a book…but she did feel a heaviness of heart and a quiet sort of desperation as the friend or family member in question departed with the loan.

You see, Courtney had rules for her books. And even though she tried to impress upon others the importance of following each rule, few people ever took her concerns seriously.

Don’t get the book wet.
Don’t get the book dirty.
Don’t write in it.
Don’t turn down pages.
Don’t dog-ear the pages.
And, whatever you do,
DON’T BREAK THE SPINE.

Courtney would admit (privately) that most of her friends and family could handle most of the rules. Nobody ever got one of her books wet. There might have been a single incident of a friend’s returning a book with a smudge of grime on the cover. Turned-down pages were a rarity. The dog-ears posed a greater challenge to the borrowers; but Courtney cooed over these returns and patiently folded each and every dog-eared corner back into place.

Alas, however, the most important rule was also the most difficult rule to obey. And once it was broken, there was no fixing the result.

When Courtney bought a new book and brought it home, she treated it with such care that, when she was finished reading it, it still looked as though it had just come off the shelf at the bookstore. Courtney never dog-eared the pages. Above all else, she never broke the spines. Her bookshelves were row after row of pristine, smooth, unbroken paperback glory. She read her books over and over, and not a single one looked used. Her bookshelves could have been featured in magazine articles on How To Make Books Last.

This, of course, meant that she read each book half-open, squinting at the pages and turning the book to and fro as she tried to decipher the words hidden in shadow closest to the spine. But who cared? The effort was so very worth it, when she could look at her pure, perfect bookshelves and know that all was right with her world!

Courtney, to the detriment of right honorable ideals of literacy and self-perpetuating inspiration, expected others to treat her books the same way she treated them. Whilst handing a loaner book to an as-yet-unsuspecting fellow bibliophile, she went to great pains to explain her reasoning concerning her rules. As she spoke, she didn’t seem to notice the increasingly deer-in-headlights look that swept the listener’s face. She certainly didn’t see when those eyes glazed over. All she knew was that she was making her rules quite clear, and she was doing it with a smile.

A well-devoured novel

When the loaned-out book came back with its spine creased, she felt devastated. The poor, precious book! White, ragged lines marred the former pristineness! Of course, of course, the book would be forever beautiful because of what was inside it…but those marks, those tiny cracks, those fractures would never mend. The treasure was tarnished. Past hope, past help.

Then, one day, Courtney grew up, figured out what “devouring” a book really meant, got the stick out of her you-know-where, and started breaking book spines the way a wild animal cracks the bones of its prey to get at the marrow inside. Her friends and family heaved sighs of relief, started asking to borrow books again (for they’d stopped doing so after all of Courtney’s put-upon complaints and sorrowful looks), and everybody lived happily ever after.

THE END.

I Come Bearing Tidings of Great Joy!

Thanks to half-serious brainstorming with Aaron, Trish, and Becca, the first draft of the unfortunately untitled Demons 3 HAS A WORKING TITLE.

I repeat: I HAVE A WORKING TITLE.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to introduce to you Stains of Grace (working title), the third novel in my Saltmarch Trilogy. I might be a chick with a thing for words, but I cannot express how relieved and excited I feel to have a title for this book! I have never yet gotten this far in a novel without having at least some idea for a title, and the lack thereof has bebothered me with vigor.

And I just realized why this lack hath vexed me so. I think I subconsciously believe that until I have a working title for a story, I don’t have permission to finish it.

I must needs rid myself of this mental hangup. And stop talkin’ pseudo-Shakespearean.

Onward, then. In other news, my darling dears, I am so close.

SO CLOSE.

The newly working-titled Stains of Grace is THIS CLOSE (see my thumb and forefinger hovering just two teensy-weensy millimeters apart in front of your face?!?) to being finished!

I want this draft to be done. I need this draft to be done. Yes, I’ve loved the adventure. Yes, I’m into Anne, my main character, and I have a special place in my heart for the others. Owin and Peter (aww, Peter!). Thomas. Daniel. Even Dante, who has finally shown up “in the flesh” (or not, rather). I notice that I have an overabundance of male characters — but then Holly’s got her own troubles, Seal and Jas wisely chose to stay in Oklahoma City, and I’m honestly considering cutting Nora out completely.

Anyway. Of course I love my story. (Every writer loves her story.) I don’t want to take leave of my characters, and I especially don’t want to take leave of the Saltmarch universe — because this is the last book in the series, and I’ve spent a lot of time here over the last three years. Typing “The End” in this draft means saying goodbye to a whole world and to a group of people I’ve come to love. And I am going to miss them.

But.

Their story needs to come to a close, for I shall very soon turn my attention to Colors of Deception once more. Final edits are coming up, and I’ll be obliged to give them my full attention. But I require closure on #3 before I can dedicate myself to #1 again. Closure means finishing Stains of Grace Draft 1, giving it a once-over, and then handing it off to my beta readers.

I am very ready to do that.

Oh! And not to mention the fact that I’ve got two sparkly new story ideas for which I need to do prewriting packages, so they’ll be ready for me to start first-drafting them as soon as I have time! I love my job. 🙂

ADDENDUM:

Since I originally wrote this post, I’ve been writing like a madwoman.  The result is that at 3:22 a.m. this morning, I wrote the two most important words in my entire manuscript:

THE END

Sha-BOOM.

And so, the first draft of Stains of Grace (working title) is officially complete.  Now comes the editing…which I, strange creature that I am, actually consider the fun part.  😀

Left Brain, Right Brain, Or Ambidextrous Brain?

When I’m talking about writing or about creativity in general, I can’t go for very long without mentioning Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

Creative Sees Shot, Analytical Lines Up Snails

At some point, yes, I will do a series of posts on my experiences with that book and how it is still changing how I see the world, almost three years after I worked through it. In the meantime, you’ll have to make do with snippets.

Here’s another one:

In her book, Cameron says some fascinating, invigorating things about a concept called “synchronicity”:

We call it anything but what it is — the hand of God, or good, activated by our own hand when we act in behalf of our truest dreams, when we commit to our own soul. …[T]hose dark and romantic notions…call to our deepest selves. When we answer that call, when we commit to it, we set in motion the principle that C. G. Jung dubbed synchronicity, loosely defined as a fortuitous intermeshing of events.

…Don’t be surprised if you try to discount it. It can be a very threatening concept…the possibility of an intelligent and responsive universe, acting and reacting in our interests.

Cameron also writes,

Answered prayers are scary. They imply responsibility. You asked for it. Now that you’ve got it, what are you going to do?

These thoughts, my darlings, could be the basis for an entire year of blog posts! And yet, I’m going to focus in on a few relatively small details. (And yet, monstrous waves do begin as tiniest ripples in the sea…) Maybe the comments section would be a great place — for now! — for discussion on the subject of God-or-no-God, a responsive universe, and answered prayers as the (subconsciously unwanted?) results of “ask, and you’ll get.” In the meantime, I’m going to talk about synchronicity relating to the concept of left-brained and right-brained.

Left Brain and Right Brain

My whole life, left brain vs. right brain has been a topic of conversation in my family. And it really has been Left Brain vs. Right Brain: My left-brained mother has lamented for years the disorganization and heads-in-the-cloudness of her right-brained husband and right-brained daughter.

A junior high and high school English teacher, Mama had a place for everything, and she wanted everything in its place. Daddy walked in at night from his fulltime job as an opera singer and left a trail of clothing through the livingroom. Mama had compartments in her purse for every doohickey and whatnot a woman might possibly need while out and about. I was chronically without tissues, nail files, chapstick, and pens. The inside of Mama’s secretary was a shining beacon of organizational light. I crammed things into my wardrobe, slammed the doors shut, and wedged furniture (and sometimes my own body) in front of them to prevent explosive decompression.

“Oh, you right-brained people!” was a common, exasperated exclamation in our household. Mama’s cause was likely utterly lost when the right-brained daughter went out into the world and found herself a right-brained husband.

But left- and right-brained issues pursued me even outside the home. In high school (which, in the German school I attended, meant grades 7 – 13), I excelled at languages (English, German, and French), the visual arts, and any lessons in Social Studies or Religion that dealt with human emotion and its expression. Biology and chemistry were fair-weather friends. Math and physics were my nemeses.

Things got a little better in college, where I could specialize and focus on my arts. One semester, however, I took both Creative Writing and Media Writing. Creative Writing was a right-brained heaven. The left-brainedness of Media Writing made me feel like I had dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder). In Technical Writing, I almost floundered.

I did witness a fascinating exchange once, though: A professor asked a fellow student, “Andy, are you right-brained or left-brained?” Not missing a beat, Andy replied, “I’m ambidextrous-brained.” Laughter ensued, and among some of my friends, the concept of ambidextrous-brainedness turned into a running joke that went on for years.

Lately, however, I’ve started thinking that it was no joke. And this is where the synchronicity kicks in.

Left to Right and Back

I excelled in languages and arts but felt tortured in math and physics. However, at the end of my high school career, we all had to take a comprehensive final exam (two years’ worth of class material) in four subjects. Mine were English, Art, Religion…and Chemistry — because by that point in my high school career, my Chem and Biology grades were above average. Why?

Growing up, I fought my mother about keeping my room, my purse, my life organized. However, I’ve always alphabetized my books, and even as a kid and a teenager, I could plan out advance details of an event like nobody’s business. What was this right-brained Creative doing organizing anything?

My right-brained father, who spent 27 years as a fulltime, professional opera singer, doesn’t drop his clothes all over the house anymore. And, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become far more observant of the nuances of my parents’ personalities (funny, how that works), and I’ve realized that there are a great many things that Daddy likes to have just so. Books. (Hmmm…) His knife collection. His haircuts. Certain philosophies. How does this right-brained man end up dealing with some areas of life from such a black-and-white perspective?

My left-brained mother is staying busy in her retirement. She has taken a few events-to-plan under her organizational wings. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s my primary beta reader, and her left-brain skills are invaluable for keeping me on track in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and plot structure… But she is also taking a painting class. Over the last few months, she has completed four paintings and is starting on her fifth. This isn’t abstract stuff, either. This is landscapes, scenery, and organic still-life. And every painting is better and more creative than the last. My left-brained mother — an artist?

Ambidextrous Brain

Synchronicity kicked in again last week during a conversation with my friend Brian. Brian is an architect, a job one might “assign” to an entirely left-brained person. But Brian surprised me by revealing that when he’s in the conceptual phase of a new building, he has to be “in” his right brain. And this state of mind isn’t just confined to his brain, either: When he’s working on the rough draft of a new building, his desk must be in a state of mess and chaos, otherwise he can’t work!

Things change, he said, when he moves on to the next drawing phase, getting the building out of the rough draft stage and solidifying the concept both in his mind and on paper. At this point, he says, he moves into the logical, more critically-thinking realm of accurate measurements, crisp lines, and clean structure. His surroundings change in accordance with his thinking: Now, the desk must be organized, or the distraction of the mess prevents him from thinking straight about his project.

As if these recent examples weren’t enough to get me thinking, I got another dose of inspiring and synchronous? synchronicitous? food-for-thought when Becca blogged about relating to her left-brained kid and her right-brained kid. (Go read that and come back here! It’s so very worth it!) Finally, after mulling over her article, I sat up and went, “Hmmmm…..”

I think somebody is trying to tell me something.

I Need Chaos! I Need Order! GAH!

It’s funny and frustrating how one can adopt a philosophy whole-heartedly…but then it takes years and oodles of effort and buckets of sweat and tears for that philosophy to permeate the soul and then crystallize in one’s life. I first read Thoreau in college, and that’s when I first realized (on a conscious level) that I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live with intention. Like Thoreau, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” But now, more than a decade later, I feel I’m only beginning to understand what that philosophy really means!

For me, part of this deep, deliberate living has been to get to know myself as a Creative and, more specifically, as a writer. It’s kind of like marriage: the longer you live together, the more you find out about each other, even though you thought you knew each other pretty well when you said, “I do.” The longer I live with my creative self, the more I’m finding out about myself. Some of it’s scary, some of it’s annoying, and some of it makes me ask, “Why did I ever get into this with you?!”

Some of what I’m learning has to do with my writerly habits. I’ve found out that:

…I write best in the early afternoon and late, late at night. (There’s something marvelous and darkly romantic about being the only one awake in my world at night. There’s an intimacy with my characters that I don’t get at any other time.)

…I can write happily and productively in the same spot for weeks, and then I suddenly have to switch writing spots, or I get bored with my story! (This might mean moving my laptop from the couch to the table. It might also mean I can’t write in the apartment at all anymore and must seek out an eclectic coffee shop.)

…for over a year, I couldn’t write at my desk because there were two many tax documents on the shelf above it. (The documents are gone now, but I haven’t recovered enough to go back to the desk yet.)

There’s more, but maybe you get the idea.

Now, to top it all off, I’ve got this synchronicity about left- and right-brained going on, and I’m realizing the following:

1. I’m not as right-brained as I thought I was. Obviously, I have access to my left brain; otherwise, the alphabetizing, the chemistry grades, the event-planning, and the general orderliness of my present-day home would not have happened. I am a right-brained Creative, yes — but that does not have to limit me. I can use my logical, analytical side to make myself a better writer…and a more balanced human.

2. I think I’m ambidextrous-brained, and I think both of my parents are, too. Daddy and I lean to the right; Mama leans to the left. But all three of us can access both sides at need. Maybe this is genetic…but maybe every human has this ability. I tend to think the latter, because I know we’re all capable of logical thought to some degree or another…and I believe quite strongly that we’re all creative in some way. A lot of us just don’t know it or know how to explore it.

3. I need to pay closer attention to the hows of my Writing Life. I need to be more deliberate about it — which will enable me to live deep in my creativity and suck the marrow out of it. Which side of my brain do I access during which parts of the writing process?

Left side for prewriting? Outlines, character description, plot arcs, planning chapters scene-by-scene… That definitely sounds like logical, analytical thinking!

Right side for writing the rough draft? Letting the story flow, listening to characters’ voices, deviating from the outline when the adventure calls for off-the-beaten-path… Writing the first draft requires me to follow my heart and let my characters get into trouble that no logical person would countenance.

Do I go back to the left side for the editing process? Return to the right side for flourishes and poetry in the final draft? And, as I consider Brian and the way he has to change his surroundings, I wonder if I unconsciously change mine, too. When I’m in the mess of a rough draft, do I feel more inspired amidst chaos? Do random ideas pop into my head more frequently when there are books and papers and sparklies scattered across my workspace? But do I go into one of my famous cleaning frenzies as soon as I start editing?

Time and conscious observation will tell.

What about you? Do you consider yourself wholly left- or right-brained?

Or are you ambi-brained-ous? Which way do you lean, and what are your activities when you’re accessing the other side?

Oooh, how about this one, for the bloggers: When you blog, which side are you in? Does blogging require access to a different side of the brain than other forms of writing?

(And don’t forget, you can discuss the God, prayers, responsive universe, synchronicity stuff in the comments, too.) 🙂

5 Reasons Why Your Novel’s Getting Nowhere

Writing a novel is hard.

Writing a novel makes your fingers hurt. It makes your head hurt. It makes your heart hurt. It puts you in a place where you have to acknowledge certain truths — about reality, about other people, and, most of all, about yourself. Writing a novel is like being an actor filmed in a low-definition movie and suddenly projected in hi-def on a screen the size of a football field.

All of your tiniest flaws are on display to the world. You can no longer hide the grime, the sweat, or the over-sized pores. You can no longer hide your heart, and you have to hope and pray that nobody laughs at it.

So when you’ve made this commitment to laying your naked soul on a sacrificial altar for the world, what really kicks you in the gut is when the novel, this lifeblood-spilling work, just refuses to go anywhere. You’ve risked all, you’ve let them film your grit and tears — and right before they show the film, somebody packs it into a container and hides it away in the bunker from the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

All that sacrifice, all that heartache. For nothing but a screeching halt to everything you hoped. Some of the thoughts that go along with this screeching halt sound like this:

Every time I sit down to work on my story, my mind goes blank.
My characters took the story in a new direction, and I don’t know what to do now.
I don’t feel like writing — the inspiration just isn’t there.
My writing feels stilted.
I’m just no good at this.

Here are a few reasons why that screeching halt happens — and a few hints on what to do about it.

5 Reasons Why Your Novel’s Getting Nowhere

1. You haven’t started writing it.
This one’s kind of a duh, right? Of course, it’s impossible to keep a novel going if you haven’t actually written any of it yet!

But that blank page — whether it’s lined or unlined paper, a notebook, or a word processor with blinking cursor — it’s awfully intimidating. It jeers and sneers at you. It knows your fear of failure. It speaks doubt into your mind and despair into your heart.

In Stephen King’s Misery, writer Paul hears a question every time he sits down to write: Pauly, can you? Every writer hears that question (most of us minus the “Pauly” part) — and too often, faced with getting started on that new story, our answer to that question is, “No. I can’t.” And so we don’t.

The solution to this problem is complex. Each of us has reasons for our fear of the blank page. Failure. Rejection. Ridicule. The belief that we don’t have the right to write. And a myriad of other mental/emotional buggaboos. Overcoming these fears can take years of dedication (and a lot more heartache). Sometimes, whether or not we overcome these fears depends on just how far we’re willing to go in knowing ourselves.

But the answer boils down to the simplest of phrases: Just write. Sit down, pull out your pen and paper, open your word processor, and just write. Write anything at all, even if it’s not your story. Engage in the simple act of getting words out of your head and into visible, tangible form. The rest might just take care of itself.

2. You don’t know where it’s going.
Ack! This plot! I had such a fantastic concept for how this book would go. But first the main character quit talking, then that supporting character just up and died, and then there was a major plot hole I didn’t know how to fill, so I changed direction somewhere around the middle, and now I’m getting to the climax and it doesn’t make any sense in the context of the beginning of the story, HELP!

*ahem*

You’ve been there, haven’t you? Please tell me I’m not the only one.

Not knowing where the story is going will kill your novel. The fix? Figure out where you want to go before you start. This means work, my friends. It means prewriting: outlines, character descriptions, synopses, and the like. You might not need all of these; you might need only one of these. You might need pre-writing in a form unique to your writing and working style. But you need to figure out your roadmap before you start the story, or you’re going to end up in a sticky rut.

If you’re already quagmired in the middle of your story, all is not lost. It’s going to take some tricky effort to extricate yourself, but you can do it! Sit back, plot it out, outline it, and take a close look at your story arc. You’ll figure out where you went wrong. And who knows? You might discover some side paths you overlooked before, and they might just lead you to something sparkly and grand.

3. You’ve forgotten the whys.
Why is he walking down the street with a machete in one hand and a lemon meringue pie in the other? Why is she standing in the middle of the market with nothing on but her hair curlers — and a smile?! What turned him into the kind of person who picks at his cuticles every time someone mentions faulty wiring?

If you don’t know why your characters do what they do, then eventually they’ll (a) do nothing the story needs them to do, or (b) do nothing at all. You must, must, must know their motivations, and you must know these motivations on an intimate level.

And once again, this means prewriting.

You need solid backstories for these people. These backstories might never make an actual appearance in your novel; your readers might never know about them. (Unless you become wildly famous and all your fans clamor to hear so much more about your characters that you have no choice but to broadcast their life stories to the world.) But you will know. You should know. Because that personal history is what makes your characters who they are today. And who your characters are should be your story’s driving force.

4. You’re not getting any feedback.
Oh, I know. You’re not writing this story for other people. You’re writing it for you — so why should you need feedback? You should be able to figure the whole thing out on your own, right?

Wrong.

We writers are blind. Every last one of us. Yes, yes, we see the world in ways that others might not, and we see things in the world that others might not. But when it comes to our own writings, we’re a bunch of blind mole rats. We fall in love with our characters, plots, and turns of phrase — and we’re incapable of seeing their collective flaws.

Fellow writers, there are a bunch of sighted people out there. They are called beta readers, and we need them like a blind mole rat needs…well, whatever it is a blind mole rat needs to get along. I’m guessing it’s more than a cane and a seeing-eye cricket.

In other news, I seem to be digressing into a really bad metaphor. The point is, we writers need objective feedback on our work. Our characters and stories deserve it. Without it, our craft will stagnate, and our stories will die. And if you’re stuck in the middle of your novel, the wisdom of an objective beta reader can get your novel started again in cramazing ways.

5. You’re waiting.
I have sad news to share with you, my friends: Inspiration doesn’t strike. Inspiration’s not an ethereal, graceful lady clad in something sheer, whispering the right words into your ear at the right moment. And inspiration doesn’t just show up out of the blue to help your novel along when you get stuck.

Inspiration, sadly, is a greasy little creepazoid twerp who’s never going to show up at work unless you show up there first. And if you expect him to do so, he’s just going to sit back in his worn-out, grimy easy chair and point at you and laugh.

Okay, so I lied. Sometimes, inspiration does strike — but you can’t count on it, and you can’t wait for it. If you’re waiting for a random hit of inspiration to get you out of your noveling rut, you’re going to be waiting for the rest of your life.

There’s just no way around it: You’ve gotta put in your butt-to-chair time. You’ve gotta make yourself sit down and write, even if every single word strains your mind and makes pulses visible in your forehead. It’s hard work, and it hurts. (Hmm, where have I heard that before?) But if you want your novel to go somewhere, butt-to-chair time is the price you have to pay.

And sometimes, the creepy inspiration dude won’t even show up then. Sometimes, you have to wrestle him into the chair beside you, hold a knife to his throat, and tell him to start talking.

The great thing is that once you’ve got him in that position, the guy usually won’t shut the heck up. And that’s when it turns glorious.

So, there we have five reasons for our noveling woes!

What other reasons have you experienced?

How did you turn the problem into a solution?

Are you still stuck? And what do you want to do about it?

And There Was Much Rejoicing

Readers Dearests, I am so excited! Today, I started writing the climax to my eighth novel, the unfortunately untitled Demons 3!

If you’ve been paying attention (which I know you have, you sweet, observant things, you), you know that Demons 3 is the third in a YA paranormal trilogy. The first is Colors of Deception, which will be released by Consortium Books in April 2011; the second is Shadows After Midnight.

I’ve been working on Demons 3 since October 2010. It’s been a romp, a headache, and a blessing — just like the first draft of any other novel. Since I’ll need to start final edits on Colors soon, I’ll be breaking standard procedure after I finish Demons 3 Draft 1: Instead of letting this first draft sit and stew in the back of my mind for a month, I’ll start working on the second draft immediately. Maybe even moments after typing “The End.” That way, my beta readers can start reviewing Demons 3 Draft 2, and I can turn my full attention to Colors.

Exciting things happening in Courtney’s Writing Life! Stay tuned, and I’ll keep you posted. 🙂

Passion Doesn’t Nibble — It Bites

For me, the acquisition of something red — anything red — is a sure-fire pick-me-up.

This is called a Naked Lady. I don't know why.

Which brings me to my very first mention here of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

If you read this blog with any regularity, my dear inklings, you’ll inevitably read hear me mention this book in more detail in the future. For now, know this: If you ever find yourself in a creative funk, or if you’ve ever felt driven to make or do or be something, but you’ve never given yourself permission, then Cameron’s book is for you.

It’s about healing the creative part of you that has sustained damage. It’s all about creative recovery.

Touch Me Not

In her book, Cameron talks about “touchstones.” Touchstones are things that you love, things that you connect with. To me, touchstones are tangible things that remind me of the parts of me that are intangible.

My touchstones are tangibles that resonate with the intangible in me. My touchstones are physical representations of aspects of my soul. And lest I digress into some new-agey, psycho-spiritual ramble, here’s an excerpt from a list I made a few years ago:

Touchstones: Things I Love

swimming
my Polish pottery
Mama’s Mexican soup
honeysuckle
sunsets
swinging on swingsets
being out in a boat
the smell of the air after it rains
locust song
painting
dark chocolate
clothes that make me feel sexy
singing
my wrists and ankles
conversations that last until 4 a.m.
sparkly stuff

 
Some of these touchstones remind me to seek beauty — in the world, in others, in myself. Some of them nudge me back toward the kid in me — the kid who remembers how to play, how to believe in magic, how to laugh.

Some of these touchstones are my therapy for writer’s block! When I can’t write, using my fingers to slap some oil paint on a canvas is a sure-fire way to unlock the words I’ve got stuck somewhere in the back of my head.

And there’s nothing like a good bowl of Mama’s Mexican stew to fill my belly with the kind of comforting warmth that says, “Yes, all is well, and all is well, and all manner of things are well.” *

Gimme More — Please

To my list of touchstones, I’m adding “buying items that are red.” Deep red, to be exact. Deep red, black, and purple are my favorite colors; I have to remind myself to buy clothes in other colors and color schemes. The brilliance and vibrancy of the color red just draw me.

I read somewhere that this year, red lipstick is all the rage. Baby, that sounds like my kind of year.

Give It To Me Raw

Over at Unstressed Syllables, some of you have heard me talk about the heartache, the effort, and the pain that go into writing — or, rather, the tears, the sweat, and the blood.

I suspect the blood might be most important. What novel could live, if not infused with the lifeforce of its author?

I doubt it’s a coincidence this vibrant, sensual, alive color is the one that resonates most with my writer’s heart. We writers sink our teeth into the meat of the psyche. And we like it raw. Give me the passion and the grit and the thrill of the unapologetically real. Let’s paint everything red and throw our arms wide and scream out the truths that everyone else is afraid to whisper.

When I see and touch things that are red, I feel excited. Energized. Ready to go out and do. All the better if I’m buying it new: fresh, a symbol of new beginning.

Red is the color of birth, too. When I’m working on a rough draft of a novel, I’m giving birth to something. And it needs my full attention and my energies, otherwise it’s going to wither and die. Or it might go feral and turn on me. You never can tell with these wild, newborn writings. Red touchstones remind me of what I’m doing.

Red touchstones remind me of why I’m here.

* I am paraphrasing Julian of Norwich, who wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”