How I Draft My Novels

As I near the end of final revisions in The Dragonling, I’ve decided it might be fun to share a few thoughts about the process of how I write my novels.

I rely heavily on Scrivener software for all of my writing projects. I’m not offering a tutorial on how to use Scrivener. There are already loads of blogs out there that do that, and the software comes with tutorials. Instead, I’m offering a little insight on my organization and creative progress.

If you’re a fan of the Elf Gate books, you might be curious to see how they are shaped. If you found this article because you’re looking for new ways to organize your own work in Scrivener, maybe some of my ideas can help. If you’re trying to decide what software to write with, or have no idea what I’m talking about, I don’t normally do promotions for products, but I’ll make an exception in this case.

You can find Scrivener here: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php at the Literature and Latte website. I like Scrivener because it makes compiling chapters into one script very easy. It has index cards I can physically rearrange. And it’s very flexible, meaning it’s easy to personalize according to my own organizational style. (Which I have come to realize changes from book to book!)

I’m going to offer this article in seven parts:
1. Drafting
2. Outlining
3. Plotting
4. Writing
5. Illustrating
6. Revising
7. Publishing

So, let’s get to it, shall we? 🙂 Drafting …

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Scrivener: 1) Index card text files for notes without scenes. 2) Notepad for already-written scenes. 3) Research folders for every book in the series.

Notes

Writing a novel is a lengthy process. Keyword there: process. I hear back from people who have read one of my books in a few days, or who have polished off the entire series so far in a couple of weeks. To me, that’s quite a compliment, considering how lengthy each book is. But it’s also quite shocking, considering each book in my series has taken a year or more to craft! The series itself has taken, literally, decades to develop.

But all books have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is usually the extremely simple act of observing, imagining, and then taking notes on my ideas. Inspiration strikes everywhere for me, so I try to keep my phone handy for jotting notes in Evernote. Or, if I’m reading, I’ll mark up my Kindle book with highlights and notes. Or, sometimes it’s just good old pen and paper. Ideas fly away quickly, so whether it’s a song, camping trip, reading history, watching movies, playing games, or real life conversations, I am in the habit of writing down ideas as soon as they hit me. I don’t have a “writer’s notebook” per se as some authors and teachers recommend. So, admittedly, my notes are scattered. But so are my thoughts and observations. So, at least I’m consistent in that sense. 🙂

Notes happen when I’m cutting the grass and suddenly I can envision how Sáskýa-Ól hits Reznetha’ir where it hurts in the elven civil war. I repeat the idea to myself over and over, sometimes aloud, in a bizarre attempt to keep it from escaping as I march to my phone and pound it into Evernote as a jumble of key words. After I shower, I will open that file and decode my previous thought into coherent English as clearly as I can in Scrivener. Because if the note isn’t coherent, when I come back to read it later, I might not understand what I meant. My notes are always as fleshed out as I can possibly make them, even though they’re just notes.

If the note is related to my current project, I transfer it to one of three places.

1. An idea folder, colour-coded yellow, is placed at the end of my current script to catch miscellaneous ideas by topic. Each sub-folder topic carries index cards that are colour-coded orange. These colours are bright to warn me they are not part of the story, but a temporary reference. I use a few keywords on the index card to let me know the resource or subject matter. Then I flesh out the full idea in the text file of the index card. The idea folder notes are for scenes that have yet to be written, so I don’t know where else to collect them. I just know it needs to be part of the current project.

2. The notepad is a window where I cut and paste anything of immediate reference to an otherwise already written scene. I’ll come back to the notepad when discussing revisions.

3. The research menu is where I store all notes that blossom into research for the entire series.

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Research Menu … a.k.a. Elf Gate Wiki … is where I keep detailed notes on every book in an effort to keep each book in the series consistent with the others. The research files are massive and take a lot of time to update, but they are well worth the effort come writing time.

Research

Research notes are more detailed than idea notes. Research is needed when I need a castle layout before I can storm it. I’m not a castle architect. But Google can point me toward people who are, or at least people who appreciate Medieval architecture topic enough to share diagrams to inspire my own castle layout with names for things I otherwise might not be familiar with. Research for one book might be useful again in another book, so I hang onto all research unless I’m absolutely positive I will no longer need it.

Therefore, the research menu section of Scrivener is reserved for notes that apply to the entire series. And this is extremely important if you are writing a series! Your books must be consistent enough to be credible. So, my collection of notes from every book in the series ends up looking like an encyclopedia for quick re-referencing previous information. You could say it’s the Elf Gate Wiki!

I have folders for books, beasts, characters, history, culture, languages, places, and magic … among other topics that need to be consistent from book to book. It takes a lot of time to maintain an encyclopedic collection of information on an entire series, but it is SO WORTH IT! I do not skip this stage of the writing process, although I do tend to wait until a book is finished to transfer the information. Otherwise, the link may change with revisions, or the information may change with edits.

I use the Scrivener link to connect research topics to chapters relevant to the them. I use external links to connect research I might need to check again.

There is one final place for taking notes in Scrivener, and that is the scratch pad. It’s a separate window all by itself, as opposed to being part of this set-up. You can move it all over the scene and keep it open independently, rather than having to switch between tabs in designated windows. It’s just a yellow notepad. Nothing special. But it’s fantastic for jotting down ideas that I can’t file yet because my mind is currently working on something else. So, if I’m revising chapter 1, scene 1 about Brinnan burning to the ground, but something suddenly reminds me of a correction I need to make regarding Aija’s discovery of the gate in chapter 49, I pull down scratch pad and write, “Remember to correct what Aija sees about the gate in the dive scene.”) And then the pad stays open until I can either transfer that note into chapter 49’s notepad, or until I make the actual revision before closing up shop for the night.

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Orange index cards are nothing but research notes collected from various references, which are linked through the “references” window/tab. I often keep note cards within the folders of my first draft and shift them along as a write. Their colour alerts me to the fact they are not part of the story. When I’m done with them, I store them in the appropriate folder in the research menu.

Unrelated Notes

If an idea is not bound for my current project, I keep a desktop writing file, divided into folders for my blog, other stories, other people’s stories I’ve helped with, etc. Typically the blog or “other stories” folders catch the miscellaneous ideas for other projects. However, I do have one folder strictly for writing advice.

If an idea is not used, I keep it until it is used. Ideas are usually very recyclable for other projects. Is this hoarding? Probably. But at least it’s gigs instead of shelf space!

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I reserve the notepad for notes related to scenes already written. I’ll have more to say about this in the outlining, writing, and revising parts of this series. Right now, it’s just storage for an idea I’ll come back to that should be in this particular scene, or one close to the beginning with this character.

Deconstruction

The final stage of my pre-writing process is actually disconnected from it. Deconstruction isn’t really a pre-writing process; it’s more of a reconstruction or revision process. But since my Elf Gate books are reworked versions of previous scripts, I’m including those stages of the process here. I had to be able to deconstruct my old manuscript before I could create a new one.

The seed for the core plot in the Elf Gate series came to me in high school. I wrote it during study hall, journalism class, and after school for my friend, who insisted on seeing a new chapter every day. I continued writing it through college and kept revising it multiple times after my children were born, so that I was spending nights, weekends, and holidays determined to get this thing suitable for publication. Finally, after blowing through three computers one muggy August in Japan, I had something I felt confident enough to submit, only to find out that my three months of re-formatting to fit the publisher’s submission guidelines was worthless because they changed their submission guidelines! UGH!

That was it! I had had it! The manuscript was shelved indefinitely, and I gave up on being a published writer. But most writers know that a writer can’t just STOP being a writer. It’s not so much what we do as who we are. So, I started writing for role-playing games, forums, and fan fictions. Then I met a friend who (GASP!) was also interested in writing. I’d never been friends with another writer before. This was interesting. And inspiring.

I opened my abandoned manuscript to look at it again for the first time in years. It was crap. I will not lie. It was bury-my-face-in-shame awful! But was it salvageable? Maybe.

For the past five years I have been salvaging. And the changes I’ve made are so drastic in some cases that they’ve changed the course of the story or characters. I started with five books. I now have six or seven, depending on what kind of word count I end up with in drawing it to its conclusion. So, I’m grateful those first attempts to publish didn’t work out. The story is better now because my experiences in writing increased and my technical skills improved. Now I have the series this idea was always meant to be. But it’s thanks to a LOT of deconstruction.

Basically, I had to read through each book, chapter by chapter, beginning to end. In the process, I would start rewriting, but then delete entire passages, cut and paste passages onto index cards noting the main topic, and then loosely group pasted passages together by plot events.

Sometimes the only thing I liked about a page was one funny quote. So, I would save it in my research menu under a more general ideas folder labeled as “camping” or “Shei on Trizryn’s handwriting”.

Other times I couldn’t save the scene itself, but I liked the idea behind the scene. This is how most of the scenes with Kethrei and Ellen were scrapped, saved, and rewritten. Originally, Kethrei was jailed and Ellen was not, so she’s the one who tried to break him out. When I changed Draughbanir’s role in the story, I decided he needed to make a pact with Kethrei to free Ellen, instead. I wanted to keep the general idea of them being held for a witchcraft trial. I wanted to keep the atmosphere of how Englishmen in the late 1500’s would have regarded Kethrei as a demon, and how Ellen would have been accused of consorting with the Devil. But that was it. I couldn’t salvage anything else. So, I did huge block cuts on what I knew I didn’t want to keep, but saved the rest of the page and all of its gaping holes on an index card labeled, “Kethrei Jailed”.

Multiple cards with related topics got grouped in folders. Folders were arranged according to some semblance of a plot flow. (He has to be jailed before he can escape. That much at least is obvious.) But it was all “research” as far as I was concerned because it was too butchered to be of any use as-is. And I had no idea what book these events would show up in because the story had changed so much. Originally, Aija returned home in the second book, I think. Hard to believe now. During reconstruction, stuff shifted. So, if I had not been thoroughly organized, I don’t think I could have pulled the story back together as well as I did — certainly not as quickly … if you want to call five years “quick”. But five novels of 150-250K words in five years isn’t bad considering the extra work of deconstruction that went into it.

Bottom line, there are MANY ways to take notes and organize them in Scrivener. But however you do it, stay on top of it for drafting. Have a system and maintain it religiously, and the rest of your writing processes will be so much easier.

I’ll discuss reconstruction in the article on revisions. But up next: outlines! 🙂

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Temporary Hiatus

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Vintage photo of Stonehenge, or mysterious and otherworldly elf gate into other dimensions of the multiverse? Hm … 😉

I have been butting heads with my blog schedule for the past couple of weeks, due to dealing with a few personal matters, and I have come to realize I can’t write a good draft this week or next week, either. So, I’m going to wave the white flag of surrender and put this blog on a temporary hiatus to relieve myself of extra “shoulds” for the next few weeks — as in that tiny voice in my head that says, “I should be writing my blog post for this week, especially since I’m behind schedule for the past two weeks.” You all know how heavy those “shoulds” can get, right? They distract you from what you should be doing by making you think of other things you should be doing. And then it just goes on and on and on shoulding until you’re overwhelmed.

So, pardon me whilst I disappear through a mysterious and otherworldly portal for a short time. As of right now, I plan to be back at blogging some time in August, which is also when I plan to start the final edits for The Dragonling.

See you then! ^_^

 

Writing When Life Interrupts

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Yesterday was the two-month mark for having sent out beta manuscripts. You would think I could take a two-month vacation since I’m no longer working on my current script on a daily basis, but indie authors laugh in the face of such wussy pastimes. No. I did attempt to take a week of “down time” that ended up being only a few days of relaxation that included other writing projects. But since then, I have had the “fun” of doing things like weeding the jungle growing on the retainer wall in my back-yard and having to take my pet guinea pig to the vet multiple times because he stopped eating and was (is) starving. (It’s an on-going situation, so he’s back at the vet right now. I won’t know whether we can save him or not until I hear back from them.) An avalanche of personal, family, and life issues also chose “vacation” time to crash down on me in the past two months, so I’m actually grateful I have not been trying to relax and have fun, or I would have also ended up feeling disappointed at having lost something beyond my grasp. However, I’m grateful I haven’t had the added expectations of keeping regular “office hours” during the week. Sometimes, life just sucks. We’re stuck with days where we have to be okay with not being okay. If possible, I think it’s best if we can make space for those days. For writers and other people who work at home, who are responsible for lighting fires under their own butts when it comes to productivity, we have the space, but not the time to stay in bed and hibernate when those days hit. And people with jobs that require creative productivity can suffer greatly when reality sucks the creative energy right out of you.

One of the things I’ve been doing this week is reading articles on work flow and sifting through my notes and quotes on productivity and self-motivation. There is an ebb and flow to everything in life. Work and writing are no exception. Sure, you have to work on a schedule to make deadlines, even when working at home and being your own boss. But within that framework, sometimes you can create options better suited to the ebb and flow of your energy to minimize stress. For example, today I scheduled an hour for a scene in book 6; it ended up taking two. I’m grateful the creative flow lasted that long because stress has been killing my creativity lately. So today I stayed with my muse until stomach growls reminded me I had worked through lunch to grab that extra hour of progress. But now I’m drafting this blog article around my Cup Noodles, and I can tell my creative energy is ebbing again. So, I’m looking at my planner and contemplating whether I can alter what’s next. Normally, I would be doing editing tasks after giving my best energy to creative tasks. But only two of my beta readers have returned feedback so far, so I don’t want to start doing sixth-revision edits on Dragonling until I’ve received a “consensus” on the overall content. Then I can get nit-picky about any individual typos or technical concerns they found, one feedback list at a time. So, in lieu of editing, here are some ways I push myself to keep working, even when life sucks and the energy ebb is low.

1. Lower the bar on your expectations. If your to-do list is normally 10 or more items, prioritize what absolutely MUST be done today, then pick one task — only one. Set a timer, and do it for five minutes. If you’re good to go after five minutes, do 10 more minutes. Keep building in small increments of time like that until you have finished the task or at least made reasonable progress. Progress may feel like a snail’s pace, but in tough times doing something is better than doing nothing. As a good friend once told me, “Even the mighty elephant can take only one bite at a time.” No matter how big your project, it still must be broken down into small steps. The smaller the step, the more likely you are to feel you’ve accomplished something and keep going.

2. Pick a task that is mechanical. In other words, it shouldn’t tax your critical thinking skills too much when you’re already not thinking clearly. It should be a task that’s more routine or relaxed. When writing this article’s first draft, I accepted it was just a draft. And all first drafts are usually awful. I knew it had to be revised anyway before publishing, so as long as I had the outline and gist of what I wanted to say, I let go of fretting about trying to make a first draft as perfect as possible. Today I’m able to think more clearly, so you are reading the better-organized, proofed, revised article. 🙂 … Some other examples might include answering email, looking at articles bookmarked for later reading, or researching something relative to a question I noted about the next book’s content.

3. Pick a task that isn’t emotionally taxing. Unfortunately, my to-do list yesterday included preparing some divorce paperwork and force-feeding my piggy again, which he hates, so that’s frustrating for both of us. (No, the guinea pig is not part of my “job”, but since I work at home I have to juggle publishing tasks with taking care of my fur babies just as I did with my human babies when they were young. In the case of a guinea pig who isn’t eating, that means syringe feeding him a crushed-pellet-and-baby-food slush every couple of hours to keep his digestive tract working. Guinea pigs always have to have food going through their gut or they could get very sick and could die. Since we don’t know why he stopped eating in the first place, keeping his gut working full-time is the only thing I can do for him until the vet can sedate him for the full exam, x-rays, and blood work tomorrow to see what’s going on.) Feeding my piggy isn’t optional; his health and possibly his life depends on it. Working on the divorce paperwork, however, could have been subbed for something like cleaning a corner of my office to discard things I won’t be taking with me when I move. If that’s still too emotionally taxing, maybe I could swap “divorce/move” tasks with the art project I need to finish by tomorrow evening, and save the divorce tasking for another day. Since colouring actually soothes anxiety and depression, and since colouring isn’t as taxing as sketching and detailing, finishing the art assignment might be the best choice to keep productivity going in spite of feeling emotionally drained.

4. Meditate or nap for 10-15 minutes. I am a huge advocate of meditation because it has made such a big difference in my life ever since I started doing it on a daily basis. I always start my mornings with meditation now. But as the day progresses, my eyes can start burning staring at the computer screen all day. Or my attention can drift off toward news, social media, You Tube, iTunes …. Or sometimes it’s just receiving bad news that can flip the day upside down so focusing on the task at hand suddenly seems more exhausting than running to the top of Mt. Fuji. When everything comes to a dead stop, it’s time to shut down, set my alarm, and close my eyes for a few minutes of nothing but the breath. Science backs meditation’s ability to lower anxiety, help with depression, increase focus, and improve mood. Worst case scenario, I move to my recliner in the living room, set my alarm, and nap. Research has shown that both meditation and short “power” naps have restorative effects on the body and brain. Naps shouldn’t take longer than 20 minutes, though, or they end up counter-productive, leaving you sluggish and groggy. The goal is to rest and reset, not enter REM. The recommended amount of time for a mid-day nap when you have to keep going is 10-15 minutes.

This is how I survive the work day on days when I have trouble pulling it together. I will add that sometimes music can help reset things, as long as it doesn’t interfere with concentration. I realize that right now I am fortunate to be my own boss and work at home so I can have flexible office hours when it comes to bad days. But sometimes that means making up for taking a needed break during the afternoon by working through dinner, skipping Netflix in the evening, or staying up a little later than usual to complete that day’s tasks. However, these principles of productivity can apply to other kinds of work, as well, depending on individual circumstances. What’s nice about being a writer is that even bad events can turn into good plot material, sway the outcomes of certain encounters, or provide character fodder, which not only helps you de-stress, but might improve your story in the long run. (*Ahem* I may or may not be guilty of throwing a frustration or argument or two at my writing projects after a stressful day. Under such circumstances, using bad days as story fodder may or may not be rather cathartic, too.) 😉

Author Inspirations: Anne Rice

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In browsing my archives for inspiration about what to write about this week, I noticed my “Authors” category only had one entry. And that entry wasn’t about any particular author, but about censorship — an article which referenced some favourite authors, but it wasn’t about them or their impact on my writing. Growing up, I fan-girled over two things: musicians and writers. So, for today’s blog, I’d like to throw out some thoughts and gratitudes for an author who was a very deep inspiration to me: Anne Rice.

I was late coming to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series. Though I have always been a fan of stories with vampires in them, and vampires in general, I was just more interested in other things at the time these books were on the rise. I remember when the movie Interview with the Vampire was at its height of popularity, and had seen the Queen of the Damned movie on TV more than once. The books were always on my TBR list … which is huge. I mean, half — no, most — of the books on that list never actually get read because I simply don’t have the time to devour books as an adult the way I used to in high school or college. So, it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I picked up my first Anne Rice book. And it so-happened to be The Vampire Lestat. :3

Like with so many other Rice fans, this book was instant love for me. The character, the history, the prose, the sheer depth of the philosophical pondering of the meaning of life, death, and the existence of God blew me away. This is the story that took my love of all things vampire from an interest to a passion. Since then, I have acquired every book in her Vampire Chronicles collection, and even bought a signed copy of Prince Lestat. This might not seem like a big deal to some people, but I have only three other author-autographed books in my entire library, so it’s not something I usually go out of my way to purchase.

Rice’s vampire books are so meaningful to me, partly because I can relate to her sentiments regarding questioning the whole existence of God, Heaven, Hell, angels, demons, etc. We both came from a very religious background, but then came to a point where we felt as if the politics and mythos of the church had taken a drastically different course from the teachings of Jesus. She has stated that Lestat’s quest for God was always about her own quest for God, particularly after the passing of her little daughter. She wrote the Vampire Chronicles while coping with that tragedy. Years after giving up her faith, she returned to it, saying she would never write another vampire book, and she focused on writing about the life of Jesus, instead. However, the church’s political stances on things like gay rights still bothered her, so she broke from the church again, saying that while she did believe in God, she could no longer call herself a Christian because she could not support the church’s teachings and politics on such matters. She has returned to writing vampire novels, along with other new supernatural material, and now even has a TV series based on the Vampire Chronicles in the works, which I am excited about.

So, her writing simultaneously does two things. On the one hand, her characters are deeply introspective, using their own trappings in life (and death) to try to figure out this thing we call life and call out the lies where they see them. On the other hand, the characters’ conclusions will challenge readers to examine their own beliefs and faith on such matters. Memnoch the Devil, for example, presents a view of Purgatory and Hell that is shockingly similar to my own exploratory thinking of what demons are and how the afterlife might be understood. Memnoch is probably her most controversial book in the series because of that exploration into the nature of demons and Hell.

This is all Rice’s personal, fictitious take on religious mythos, of course. While some classics like Dante’s Inferno and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress are fiction with didactic intent (the intent to teach … and in these cases the subject taught is religious morality) — no one should ever read fiction with religious themes mistaking them for theological study material. This should especially not be done to point out how “misguided” some celebrity authors are. To take a work of fiction literally misses the point of it being fiction! So, I’m sorry to have to add this cautionary note, but I know people who have gleefully used books from the Harry Potter series as examples of “real” witchcraft to condemn both the practice and the books. And you just can’t do that with fiction!

Religious morality or conviction or guilt is not the point of Rice’s books. Rice tells stories about fictitious characters in a fictitious universe where supernatural vampires are real, but their quests for truth represent Everyman’s quests for truth. Nothing more. Every person on this planet has at some point questioned what it is that he or she truly believes, or questioned why the universe is the way it is. Are we missing something important because it’s been buried under centuries of religious, political, and pop culture lies? This is an important question for the human psyche. And one of the reasons I admire Rice’s writing is that she’s not afraid to ask the difficult questions and explore the possibilities of some really tough answers.

I have corresponded with Rice briefly a few times on her Facebook page — which I must say she manages better than I imagine any author with such a diverse readership could. Every day she asks questions of or presents inquisitive articles to her fans — sometimes relative to her writing, sometimes relative to current events, sometimes philosophical. On one occasion, she asked the “People of the Page”: “Theological question: is there any theory of Christ’s Atonement, or of our living in “a fallen world” or living in “a broken world” that does not take the story of Adam and Eve and the talking serpent literally? In other words, are these most influential Christian ideas all based on a literal reading of Genesis? What are your thoughts?”

Some of her comments to other people in regards to their answers included: “I continue to maintain that the idea of a broken or fallen world, indeed an entire Christian worldview is based on a literal reading of Adam and Eve and the talking serpent. And this is not a good basis for an entire religion.” And … “… that is all very beautiful poetry, and it is typically Catholic. But it doesn’t answer my question and it does not satisfy. —– The difficulty remains: don’t all theories of bloody atonement depend on taking Genesis literally? If they do not, then what is the foundation on which they are based? Atonement for what? —– Reconciliation with what? Why? The Pope can write beautiful poetry forever and publish book after book of it. But if Christianity is based on a series of lies, that has to be dealt with. —– My question remains: what is atonement based on if not a literal reading of Adam and Eve? If not for their sin, then for what is Christ atoning? And why is atonement necessary?”

This is where I entered the conversation: “Anne, this may not be the time or place, but may I ask your opinion on a question? This is something I have never received a satisfactory answer on from any of the religious people I know. And this is what, to me, defines the core of the …Christian faith. If the blood of Jesus is the only thing that can wash away sin, and he died an innocent sacrifice (though sacrificing innocent people and animals is usually frowned upon as a sin), how can the death of an innocent (which is generally considered murder in a court of law) make sin go away? In other words, how does a wrong act cleanse a wrong? How does an innocent death make anything right? To go by that example, I would have to kill my innocent daughter in order to forgive the guilty one that broke the lamp. Why not just forgive? Why a blood sacrifice? Is it because the magic in the blood washes away the magic that is sin? Because clearly a belief in magic is involved, or this question wouldn’t even be up for debate. Maybe there is a link between these questions I seek, and your questions on taking Genesis literally.”

She responded: “…, I am not the one to answer your very challenging and interesting question: because i don’t believe in the theory of the atonement through innocent blood. I think it is something made up by theologians. But I think you are certainly right to ask and keep asking. The whole idea of bloody Atonement for me is outdated and unconvincing.”

This is a sample of the intellect, honesty, and courage that shapes her writing, and one reason why her fans love her so.

Besides her own writing, I also admire Rice for her advice on writing in general. She’s always been supportive and encouraging of indie authors and other authors who are doing their own thing. “There are no rules in this profession. Do what is good for you. Read books and watch films that stimulate your writing. In your writing, go where the pain is; go where the pleasure is; go where the excitement is. Believe in your own original approach, voice, characters, story. Ignore critics. HAVE NERVE. BE STUBBORN.” (Advice to new writers, 2009) She recognizes that not every book is for everyone, and supports the differences in genres and styles because of that. She has even taken on the bullies of the book review world — readers who give spiteful, unfair reviews of books they didn’t like, to the point of attempting to destroy the careers of their author victims. Her interest in negativity on the Internet via anonymous criticism has inspired my own interest in the matter, but if anything like that comes to her page, she shuts it down immediately. She wants respectful discussion of tough subjects, not hate-filled rants filled with contempt.

So, Anne Rice inspires me not only to think deeply through my story content (being brave enough to speak Kethrei’s blunt challenges to the religious leaders of his time, pursuing a theme like the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, or presenting political themes that are scarily familiar with what’s actually happening in current events in some ways), but also to think deeply about how I speak my mind as an author (How would I handle great disparity between readers if they argued? Would I be willing to lose readers for the sake of maintaining my integrity, since I can’t please everyone?), and to keep asking myself the difficult questions about “life the universe and everything” in my personal life, as well. I’m so grateful that I did finally get my hands on that first book and followed it to the rest of her creative works. I’m thankful to have those books in my personal library, and to have someone like her to look to as a mentor.

The Capriciousness of Creativity

Thursdays are my days for blog drafting … according to my new schedule … which fluctuates with the seasons, events, and moods in my life quite often. Yesterday, I was suffering a migraine and nausea and various other spring allergy garbage so I found myself drifting across the internet without purpose, rather than drafting this week’s blog article. It happens.

Today I am trying to rescue my very unproductive yesterday. First, I read an article on long novels in hopes that would inspire me to draft something inspiring, educational, or at the very least witty. Instead, I am writing about … not writing.

But in sifting through the drafts of my previous articles, I found one concept file that I started and didn’t finish (ironically) after watching this TED talk from author Elizabeth Gilbert on “Your Elusive Creative Genius”.

If you don’t have time to watch the video, she basically distinguishes the difference between “being” a genius (which puts a lot of pressure and stress on outstanding productivity in creative professions), and “having” a genius (which is not only the historical/etymological origin of the term, but also humanizes the creator). The word “genius” comes from Latin and originally referred to a guardian spirit or deity that watched over a person from birth … a sort of spirit guide that helps you out in moral dilemmas or situations that require intuitive wisdom, wit, or other creative problem solving methods. It is comparable to saying the creative person has a muse that inspires his or her work. The genius was not considered good or evil by nature, but was just present to inspire.

On a side note, the word “genie” has nothing to do with “genius” because “genie” is Arabic in origin. But it does come from the word “jinn” … which is also a spirit. Jinn are considered “trickster” spirits, so they are viewed as evil more often than not. But their base nature was originally considered neutral. And more interesting, the word “demon” comes from Greek “daimon” and Latin “daemon”, but also used to refer only to a guiding spirit or lesser god. In other words, “demon” did not carry any negative connotations until the Christian church started using it thus, because of their own belief that any spirit other than their own deity was evil. But I digress. 🙂

The concept here is that if creative inspiration comes to you from a factor outside of yourself, like a spirit, that creates an interesting understanding of the capriciousness of creative inspiration. Ask any writer, and you will be told the best ideas do not come to you while you are sitting at your keyboard plotting. Your best ideas will come to you when you are in the shower. Or when you are driving. Or when you are getting in bed, have the lights off, and really do not want to walk across the house in the dark to grab your notepad and pen. Your best ideas will come to you when you are as inconvenienced as possible for catching them and pinning them down into notes you can work with.

The same is true of other arts. I often see faces or creatures in rug patterns, tree shapes, rocks, and other items that make me think, “That would make an awesome sketch!” But as soon as I walk away, it’s gone. Thousands of sketch ideas have been lost from one wood pattern in my door on a daily basis. Why? Because who has a sketchpad and a pencil when they’re getting dressed or putting away laundry?

This is so common to most creatives, in fact, that it would almost be a comfort to know that there is some kind of spirit imp hanging over my shoulder, snickering at how clever he is with casting ideas out there at inappropriate times, and then jerking them back as soon as I blink. And in some cases, perhaps thinking like that can help creatives lessen their burden. If the creative ideas are external, rather than internal, what is the logical solution to jump-starting your creativity?

First of all, it gives the creative person a choice. I can choose to snatch that idea and do something with it, or I can choose to let it go and it may or may not come back to me, but I go into that choice knowing that it is my choice — knowing how capricious ideas come and go because that is their nature, so I accept that I can’t count on that idea being there for very long or coming back. I will put more effort into keeping a notepad by the bed or shower or in the car, so that I have a better chance of snatching that idea out of the air and capturing it for later use.

Second, it gives the creative person freedom. Knowing I don’t have to sit at the keyboard to brainstorm ideas means I can take a walk, go on an adventure, live my life as I normally would, but keep a writing notebook handy to jot down ideas as I go along. In fact, I’m more likely to have more ideas while doing other things, than while trying to be creative at my work space. My work space is primarily for organizing, developing, and producing those ideas … not giving birth to them.

Third, it eases the expectations we creatives have of ourselves by giving us space between what we do and who we are. If you are a creative person, you know how difficult this is because your mental health probably depends on being able to create. You might not know what to do with yourself if you can’t create. In this sense, perhaps creativity is a lot like being possessed of a little spirit, so that you and your desire to create are one. But if we cannot unplug from those expectations now and then, we burn out. And if other people expect us to be switched on all the time, they will be disappointed when one creative project succeeds, but the next fails. It’s as if we failed, but really it’s just that human beings can’t be switched on all the time. No profession or individual can do this and maintain good health. I often say I AM a writer because it’s such a part of me that I can’t NOT design new story ideas or characters in my head. But even I have moments when I have to put the writing aside to get other stuff done. In those moments, I need to be able to cage the spirit and cover it, or I won’t be able to function in day-to-day life. If you are a creative person, you are probably nodding along because you have lived this, too. You get it.

So, the next time your creative genius flies off and leaves you high and dry for ideas, maybe try to reconsider it as a blessing. It’s a chance to rest. It’s an opportunity to leave your desk jockeying position and do something else that will invite your muse to return under better circumstances. And it’s a chance to prepare your living space to work in-sync with his capricious nature.

My Muse
My muse doodles a lot. 🙂

Look at that! A blog article born from the lack of inspiration for writing today’s blog … 🙂 I think I will thank the genius sitting on my shoulder for rescuing me today and give him the weekend off from writing, so that I can come back on Monday with fresh energy and ideas.

Joys and Disappointments of Re-Reading

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Image Source: OpenClipart by bf5man

Last week I did a book review for 1984 — a book which I stated having already read four times. I read an article this morning that made me think a little more deeply about why some of us re-read some books and not others. Is there any benefit in reading something more than once? Spoilers aren’t the only disappointments that can go along with multiple readings. The answers to why someone would re-read a book probably vary as much as people and the books they choose to read. But I was curious, so jotted down some of my own reasoning.

Disappointments

Let’s start with the obvious disappointment — spoilers. The reason I don’t re-read most books (or re-watch most movies) is because I already know what’s going to happen. I can NOT know what’s going to happen. So, the element of surprise, the plot twist, the freshness of getting to know new characters, the shock of losing a character, the absolute immersion of that first read is forever lost after the initial curiosity has been explored and satisfied. It’s a wonder anyone purchases any book or film based on that alone. Checking them out at a library or renting a view from Netflix will do for most one-time stories.

Another category of disappointments might be more personal. Perhaps I outgrew a book I loved as a child. Perhaps my ideology changed. Perhaps my education or life experience turned me in a different direction. It’s hard to appreciate fairy tales or romances in which the prince and princess live “happy ever after” when facing divorce because “forever love” becomes as credible a concept as unicorn poop. A doctor might read about a fictional wound and be critical of the author’s lack of real medical knowledge. Or a scientist might point out a flaw in a sci-fi or fantasy setting. Or perhaps a white author’s attempt to portray a black character is handled in a way that the reader finds offensive. These little annoyances can often be forgiven during initial reads because we’re distracted by other stuff going on, or we were too young or inexperienced to know or care. But as we grow and change, details like that can get under the skin like a pebble trapped in a shoe.

The third kind of disappointments with re-reading can be more mundane, namely time and energy. If my time and energy are limited, then I have to make choices about what I read, how much I read at a time, and consider why I’m reading it so that I can prioritize. I used to spend my high school summers lying in the backyard with a stack of sci-fi library books because the only reading I could do during the school year was school related. Summer was for MY reading list, and aside from part-time jobs, I had all the time in the world to delve into imaginative worlds. Now, I can barely squeeze in 30 minutes before bed, and even that’s not a guarantee every night. Do I really want to spend my precious 30 minutes re-reading something I’ve already read, rather than exploring something new? And if I’m tired, can I stick with it if it’s not fresh?

Joys

In spite of the reasons for not bothering to read books a second time … I do. I think perhaps the main reason for this is because I grew up loving books as if they were best friends. I’m an only child and spent most of my childhood reading, writing, drawing, and making music to keep myself entertained without having to rely on other people. Later I added language and culture studies to my alone-time interests. I went to the library once a week and came home with — literally — armloads of books, some that that were new, others that I had already read multiple times. I handled them with care, never dog-earing a page, never writing in them, never letting them get wet, always returning them on time … so that they would be there when I wanted them again. I was a member of several book clubs in and out of school, and I looked forward each month to receiving my little cardboard box in the mail or ordering through the Scholastic catalog. Books were treats, fond memories, comforts always there for me, even when people were not. I kept some of those book club favourites, and looking through them now is like looking through a family photo album. I can remember how old I was, where I lived, and what my interests were during my first read. Growing up, it becomes harder to make time for old friends, but familiarity and comfort are probably my number one reasons for keeping old books and reading them more than once.

My second most prominent reason for re-reading is depth. This is what applies to re-reads like 1984. My first read was in high school, and it was assigned, and it was taught with a particular political and religious bias because of the school I attended. I appreciated this book because it was a good dystopian story, but admittedly, most of the details were memorized for a test or writing a book report. When I had to read it a second time under college direction, my personal circumstances had changed. I realized much of the first read went over my head. And my disposition in life was different by then for a number of reasons. It felt like I was reading a hidden layer underneath the obvious one. I liked that. I was seeing things that made me pause and re-think interpretations I’d been taught. I was seeing parallels to other books and historical or current events. The third time I read the book, I was the teacher, so I dug even deeper. And this most recent fourth read went even deeper still. Every time I read this book I see a new layer of details and intangible subject matter. Books that evoke that kind of response deserve to be called classics and should be read more than once.

But perhaps the best reason for re-reading a book is the most simple: fun. It doesn’t have to be a childhood favourite or a literary masterpiece. Sometimes if it was fun the first time, it can be fun again for the same reasons you found it entertaining in the first place. Really that is the ultimate reason why we read fiction in the first place — for entertainment. If the book does nothing more than that, it has still done its job of providing a pleasant activity for a short time. Fandoms are built upon this kind of devotional investments in fictional worlds and characters. And in non-fiction, inspirational, practical, or academic refreshing of knowledge is always beneficial. I am currently reading Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You, and I can already tell I will be re-reading that one many times over for the remainder of my life. It’s so relative to me, personally.

If my forever home could have a floor-to-ceiling, grand library to keep all the books that I ever loved, I’d probably never use any other room in the house, except to eat, sleep, and shower. Realistically, I know I’d never be able to re-read that many books. I’d be desperate for new material, so why I hoard old books is a mystery to me. But every room in my current house has at least one bookshelf filled with books that I have either re-read, or that I intend to “someday” re-read. Some I hang onto for reference. Others I hang onto for memories and pleasure. And when I move into my next home, though it will be much smaller, I know I will have a hard time parting with many of my favourite books due to lack of space. I can’t imagine not having books available for re-reading.

Character Interview: Shei, The Bard

So, here it is February and The Dragonling still has not been placed in the hands of beta readers yet. My apologies to those waiting on it. There were many “life” distractions in December and January that slowed me down, including a bout of bronchitis that morphed into THE VIRUS FROM HELL. I was sick for 8 weeks with a deep chest congestion that simply would not go away! All the while, we had visitors, tons of snow that had to be shoveled (which takes time away from writing when it’s 1-2 hours at a time and multiple times a day), holiday stuff, and then January hit the ground running in some sort of surreal alternate universe that I can’t even begin to understand or explain. Oh, and the brakes gave out on the car. So, that was a week in the shop with its own interruptions and delays.

Meanwhile, I was also trying to read through all four previous books looking for inconsistencies that needed correcting or plot threads that might have been accidentally dropped, and I didn’t finish the last one until just a couple of weeks ago. All I can say is … life happens. Focus is lost. Productivity goes down. In my opinion, even when production lags, quality should come first. So, rather than rushing to finish, I am still checking notes from the other books against this one to be sure they have as much credible consistency as I can muster. I am now looking at March for beta reads, April for final edits, and May for publication.

To make up for the delay, I thought I’d have a bit of fun with posting something character related. Social media question games have always been around, but lately they’ve been used as a diversion from all of the bad news. In looking up character interviews, I found an interesting list here (http://thewritepractice.com/proust-questionnaire/) from Marcel Proust. I was surprised to see these little parlor games have been around since the 1800’s!

So, one of my most “entertaining” characters is Shei, a light elf bard. I know he’s in the middle of a dreadful dilemma right now in The Dragonling, what with being possessed by K’tía’s ghost, receiving terrible news about his father, and being a wanted fugitive that a bunch of dragons want to roast because of his friendship with Trizryn, but let’s show him one of these human inventions called a computer and see how he might answer one of these questionnaires. And if you’re a writer having trouble developing a character with depth, try interviewing them like you would a real person. Test out their voice to see how they might answer.

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Image Source: Melody Daggerhart — my Skyrim game screenshot. I put Shei in my Skyrim game to do the Bard’s College quests. Here he’s decked out to find a flute in a necromancer’s cave. What fun for him, eh? 🙂 … (Not!)

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Not being chased by dead things. Or dragons. Or necromancers who conjure dead things and release trapped dragons.
What is your greatest fear?
Did I mention dead things? Well, except for Triz. But he’s only half-dead and doesn’t try to kill me. Mostly.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Distractability. Is that a word? Why is it showing up red in your spellcheck? Ooh, Spellcheck is showing up red, too. What? Oh. Questions. Right.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Disloyalty. There’s nothing worse than a traitor.
Which living person do you most admire?
Trizryn. Wait, does he qualify as living? Anyway, he’s been through a lot, so it’s hard for him to trust people. But I admire his courage for continuing to try.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Clothes. Did I just admit that? Clothes. I look great in them, don’t I? 😉
What is your current state of mind?
Excited to explore a new world. Sorry. Can’t say more than that. Spoilers.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Abstinence. Of anything.
On what occasion do you lie?
To protect my friends, I’ll do anything.
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
You’re joking, right?

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Another Skyrim capture of Shei and his housecarl camping in the snowy woods. Shei is a Thályn elf, or light elf, or forest elf. The forest elves in my novels are white as snow with blue undertones. They are named so because of their affinity to light environments and visible, elemental magic.

Which living person do you most despise?
Ilisram. ‘Nuff said.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
Non-pretentiousness. Ironic, coming from someone like me, yes? Well, there’s a difference between entertaining people or having to pull off disguises and trying to be tough all the time to impress other people.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Sincerity. I suppose that’s the same as non-pretentiousness, isn’t it? (And you thought I was going to say barrels.) 😉
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
All of them. I’m a story-teller and lore master, so I’m sure I’ve used every word more than once.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Dare I admit this? … K’tía. But that will never happen, now will it.
When and where were you happiest?
Oh, definitely pre-dead things and dragons.
Which talent would you most like to have?
There’s a talent I lack? Clearly you’ve never seen me perform an illusory painting with my lute.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I guess I tend to make light of things at the wrong time sometimes. That might be good to curb before someone slaps me.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Writing songs that made K’tía smile and sing and dance.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
Someone that doesn’t die? … No! Nevermind. That’s a wish that’s bound to end up cursed. Hairbrush. Hairbrushes are good.

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Shei is a bard, and I am in love with this Skyrim mod home for him. It’s very similar to what I imagine his flat in Thálynessa having looked like, except it’s not made of wood or in a tree. Still, it’s very small and packed with things he would love. It’s called “The Rookery” by Elianora, if you happen to be a Skyrim fan with a bard who needs a good home.

Where would you most like to live?
I’d like to go home. To my ratty little flat in Thálynessa near the Twin Stags Tavern, mind you — not Brinnan. Though there’s nothing left of either of them now probably.
What is your most treasured possession?
My hair.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Having no friends or family to lean on when you’ve lost yourself.
What is your favorite occupation?
Making music. Telling stories. Reading. Painting. … Anything that can make people smile and forget their worries, however briefly.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Vanity. Charm! (shoves Trizryn away for reaching over the keyboard when he should be minding his own business)
What do you most value in your friends?
Loyalty. Sincerity. Same as before. I know who will never let me down. And I know I’d be crushed if they ever did.
Who are your favorite writers?
You mean among humans? Shakespeare. He wrote about magic and faeries. And he visited the fae court once. Aija doesn’t believe me, but he did. How else do you think he got those ideas for Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Who is your hero of fiction?
I have many heroes, not just one.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I am unique. Trust me.
Who are your heroes in real life?
My friends. They are courageous beyond measure, especially when they’re weak.
What are your favorite names?
I like mine just fine. It means “hill spirit” in Thályntól.
What is it that you most dislike?
Spider goo flooding your face is unpleasant. So are dead things.
What is your greatest regret?
Not being underground in Absin’navad when I was needed most. Not being able to help K’tía.
How would you like to die?
What kind of question is that? What is this obsession with death? How many times do I have to tell you I don’t like dead things!
What is your motto?
Well, I would say “Grab not, get not,” but that’s not really how I operate. It just sounds good and pithy. My motto would be … “Seize the Day … but only if it doesn’t involve dead things.”

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Bards are challenging characters to work with, I think. If they are supposed to be charming, you have to write for them in a manner that actually makes them charming. Their skills are subtle, so the plot needs to make use of them as entertainers, sweet talkers, spies, assassins, and more. And they are handy for providing information to other characters if any kind of lore is involved among their talents … as well as maybe playing to the tavern crowd to earn a free room when your crew is short on change.