Broken Lamb: a Metaphor for Life

Recently, my mother has been clearing out her home to prepare for a move. In the near future I will have to do the same. Letting go of precious memories and treasured objects is both a blessing and a curse. It creates space, but parting with items which we’ve attached significance to sometimes hurts. Yet this is periodically part of life, regardless of whether we move frequently (as I have) or stay put at one address.

When my mother asked if there was anything I wanted to keep — I answered that  since I would be downsizing soon, too, I couldn’t take big items or a lot of items. I said I wanted the family photos and maybe a few small items I have specific memories of … like the little, ceramic lamb she bought when she lived in Washington D.C.

A few weeks after this discussion, I received a package in the mail. It was the little lamb, but three of its legs had broken off. I shed a few tears upon seeing it because all I could think was, “Well, this is a metaphor for my life if ever there was one.”

The definition of metaphor (according to Google) is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable; a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.” I love metaphors in writing, and I see them all around me.

This little lamb was purchased by my mother when she worked for the FBI in Washington D.C. in the 1950’s. It was the first big job she had after graduating college. It was her first time living as a single woman in an apartment with her sister in a big city far away from home. And it was a time in her life when she actually smiled for photos. My mother has had a hard life in all the years I’ve known her, so my first impression as a teenager upon seeing those photos was a sense of wonder. Once upon a time, she seemed truly happy and confident. That was something I rarely saw in the woman I knew.

I first saw this little lamb on a shelf when I was about four years old and wanted to play with it. I became so attached that I asked to keep it in my bedroom, which was pink with green accents just like the roses on the lamb’s neck and legs. I put it beside one of the collectible dolls my babysitter gave to me: the one with the pink dress, which I named Mary. Get it? Mary had a little lamb, and now they stood on my shelf above my bed, looking like they totally belonged there, together.

In spite of the fact that the lamb was ceramic and old, and in spite of the fact that Mary was a collector’s item, I played with them. “Collector’s item” means nothing to a child, who only sees the raw materials for creativity.  One day the lamb’s leg broke. I was upset and took it to my mother, thinking I would get in trouble for breaking something that belonged to her. But she glued it back on, and I carefully set the lamb back on my shelf. From then on, I had a new respect for it and learned the meaning of the word fragile.

Over the years, my family moved a lot. I kept that lamb with me, and it broke again. And again. … And again. A leg that had not broken before would break. The previously fixed legs would fall off. The lamb just wasn’t meant to take that kind of a beating. I was constantly gluing it back together and putting it back on the shelf. But I never considered throwing it away just because it was fragile.

For one thing, it wasn’t mine. Even though it was a useless knick-knack probably bought at a five-and-dime store for no reason other than to decorate a young woman’s apartment, the thought never entered my mind to get rid of it. After seeing the D.C. photos, I guess I saw the lamb as a metaphor for my mother’s life before she got married and had me — a time when she smiled, before life became difficult. How can you put a value on that?

When I went off to college and started my own life with my own family, I gave Mom back her lamb. I have no idea why I kept it as long as I did. I forgot about it after that. I have no idea what made me mention it when she asked what I wanted to keep. But for some reason, an image came to mind of that lamb on my bedroom shelf when I was four … before my life became difficult due to an abusive dad, too many moves alienating me from any sense of home or friends, extremist religious indoctrination, and multiple other factors that have led to a lifetime of depression and anxiety.

Receiving the lamb in the mail, with its three broken legs made me cry because at a time in my life when I’m far away from family, children are leaving the nest, and a pending divorce is creating unplanned, unwanted changes that will turn my life upside down, it symbolized how my heart felt. Will those legs NEVER stop breaking? Why does it have to be so damned fragile?

But, I studied the lamb closely once the tears passed. The old glue had turned yellow. Bits and pieces of the edges had broken off multiple times, which meant tiny pieces were now holding it together in some places. It was dusty. It was faded. It has taken too many years of abuse as it moved from home to home, never really having a home — never having a safe, permanent place where someone would love and protect it … never having a place where it truly belonged. This symbol of happier times, promising beginnings, and childhood play belonged in a dumpster. And yet … I set the pieces carefully on my counter and went to the store to look for more glue to once again put it back together.

08BrokenLambDark_by_MJDaggerhart
My metaphor for life.

I sanded off the old glue. I made sure the pieces still fit against each other. And then I set to work with the glue pen. I’m not sure why I keep fixing it. Maybe it’s habit. Maybe it’s because I wish I could fix things for my mother. Maybe it’s because I wish I could fix my own life as easily as gluing my legs back underneath myself.

They say what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger; I say what doesn’t kill us leaves too many people broken in too many pieces to stand alone ever again … not without help from someone who is capable of  accepting and loving us because we are broken. Is this lamb more beautiful because of what it has been through? To me … yes. Its story gives it “character” … value and depth. The same is true of developing characters for fiction. The same is true among real people. We live in a society where people are disposable, and only a few rare souls with patience and compassion are capable of seeing a broken person’s worth, rather than thinking they belong in a dumpster.

A metaphor for my life, the lamb now sits on the shelf of my writing desk. Mary is gone, but the lamb is in the company of the ram I bought at a music box store in Otaru, Japan during the year of the goat/sheep/ram because that is my Chinese zodiac. It plays “When You Wish Upon a Star” … a song that reminds me not to lose sight of my childhood dreams and ambitions for working with publishing books and art. It sits between Koshka’s gargoyle kitty (for whom this blog, my publishing imprint, and new business are named) and my black faerie dragon on a vampire’s skull (which is an item that inspired a similar jade-dragon-and-vampire-skull statuette in my Elf Gate novel, The Dragonling).

Together this cluster of metaphors forms the book ends for my divorce literature, helping me hold everything together. Because life is not rosy. It is cold and cruel. And we are often left alone to put the pieces of our broken lives back together, because we have no choice but to try to stand once more. This lamb and I … we are fragile, but we are getting ready to move again. Because we are survivors.

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How I Revise My Novels

November is National Novel Writing Month; and while I can’t participate because I really need to finish this series before considering any new projects, I’ve been sharing my method of novel writing. This fourth part of the series is on revising.

If you missed the previous articles, you can find them here:

  1. Drafting
  2. Outlining
  3. Plotting
  4. Writing

And I’m throwing out yet another reminder that my writing software of choice is Scrivener, but these ideas might be adaptable to other writing software or means of organizing the writing process. What’s important is that new writers understand it IS a process. Writing well-developed stories, especially lengthy stories like novels or series, takes a lot of time and at least some amount of planning.

If you are participating in NaNoWriMo, you are probably currently doing one or all of those previous four steps, so the following article won’t be as relevant until the end of the month when your stories are finished. So I will share one always timely piece of advice: one method of creation should not be touted over another, not only because creativity works differently for different people, but also because both structure and freedom are essential to the creative process. If you are an “outliner”, you will still need bursts of inspiration and imagination to create an objective and flow. And if you are a “pantser” you will eventually need a structure and plan or your story will not make sense … or worse, it will never be finished.

So, as with most things, balance should be the method to the madness. Instead of beating yourself up because creativity isn’t working, take a break from the muse who is ignoring you and do some more planning. Likewise, if the plans aren’t working, try scrapping them and seeing where your muse flows on her own. It’s okay to go back and forth … many times … in all stages of development. It’s good and necessary to go back and forth!

Just had to throw that out there as something to keep in mind because I’m already seeing a lot of frustration from friends who are “behind” in their writing goals for this event. Both structure and freedom are necessary for creative composition. But only the writer knows the exact balance that works best for her.

Onward …

01Revision_WorkingHardOnBook5
I took a photo of the first draft of The Dragonling while I was working on it. I started working on this book in 2015. A lot happens in 2 years, but the bulk of the work took place over a year and a half of revisions.

Second Draft

The bulk of my writing process lies in revisions. I revise as I write — always. Flow is like a tic in my subconscious, so I automatically reword, delete, or add as I work. But I don’t go looking for edits to make (unless it’s something dreadfully important) until the second draft.

When I finish the first draft, I usually celebrate for a day (or a week, if near a holiday or in desperate need of a vacation). During that time, I don’t do anything further on that project. I might work on marketing or other publications business, but I allow myself to take at least one day away from the initial draft.

I’ve heard of people stuffing finished manuscripts in drawers for weeks or months before they look at it again. For me one day is all I can afford. What’s important is clearing your head enough to pick it up again with a beginner’s mind. You will never be able to view your own story as a new, unexplored thing the same way a beta reader can. But coming back to the project with a fresh perspective helps with noticing things you did not notice before.

During the revision process, because it takes so long, it’s important to make yourself stick to a regular writing schedule while balancing the work with physical activity and life happening around you. That may seem like an unnecessary thing to say, but trust me. I know my share of writers, myself included, that get glued to the chair and keyboard due to intense concentration during this period. And not eating, sleeping, exercising, or taking breaks to do fun things can stress you out and wear you down. I have pulled 16 and 17 hour days, through weekends and holidays, trying to finish this book ASAP, and it only worked against me, leaving me very tired and not doing a very good job at first-pass edits. So, do yourself a favor and take care of yourself during the revision process. Balance work with play when you can. Schedule it if you must. 🙂

02Revision_YepStillPlagued
Last year I spent the holidays plagued with bronchitis and a stubborn cold. 8 weeks! But when I wasn’t in bed, I wrote. I think that’s what finally made me realize I needed to slow down and take care of myself. Revision takes a long time. I needed to learn how to pace myself better.

When it is time to revise the first draft, everything I mentioned before about how I work in Scrivener comes into play: where to find the most immediate notes, where to find the research and previously published wiki, where to find the comments, the highlights, and the in-line annotations. The first thing I do is check for these mark-ups and hold them in my head (like a clipboard) while I reread their accompanying scene.

A lot of times, I can make those changes while reading. But sometimes I need to make more notes and come back to it later or move notes to other parts of the book where they are more relevant. As with previous steps (and the introductory advice), there is a balance to moving back and forth in revisions. Start at the beginning and progress forward, but expect to regress for reference checks and rewrites as you go along, too. Something you find in chapter 3 might need to be checked and revised against what you said in chapter 1, but you won’t know that until you were further along in your alpha reading. “One step forward, two steps back,” is how I handle everything after the first draft.

I also reread my collections files separately because they help me make sure subplots flow together as their own mini-stories. Small plots can easily be obscured and go astray — or worse, end up forgotten. There is nothing worse for the reader than a bunch of questions that have no answers because of a dropped plot thread. Collections can help make sure every issue raised is eventually resolved.

03Revision_NicholasWork
“This isn’t working for me, Dog!” … While revising The Dragonling, I was also doing final edits on The Atheling. Meanwhile, Nicholas liked to sit in my lap and watch passing cars and people through my office window, which made it hard to see the screen, never mind reach the keyboard. The hazards of working at home …

Edits to Consider

Some things to look for and consider when revising …

1. Point of View — Correct it now before it bites you in the bum. Pick one point of view and stick to it. This doesn’t mean you’re stuck seeing everything through the eyes of only one character, unless you choose to write in first person. I love getting into different characters’ heads! But make sure whatever pov you choose is intentional, and that there are notable cues to the reader when pov switches — a double-space, a change of scene, a change of chapter, etc.

When choosing a pov, opting for the character that is most vulnerable in that scene can often create the most tension (and therefore the most interest) and relativity with the reader. But it depends on the effect that you want. When visiting a new place in the fae realms, I often choose Aija’s perspective because her lack of familiarity is the closest pov to the reader. But I have also written Trizryn’s impressions of her first impressions just to offer a different perspective. He has been puzzled, amused, and impatient at her “newness”, whereas she is just gobsmacked like a kid in a candy store. So, it depends on what I want in terms of mood and tone.

2. Details — Now is the time to start thinking in terms of making that dark and stormy night a little less cliche. Now is the time to describe the pattern on the dishes. Now is the time to make the character sit in a particular way to express body language or mood. She can sniffle while speaking. He can brush the red hair out of his azure eyes. This is when I pay attention to refined elements that bring the story to life.

I rely on my five senses to do this. For each setting’s introduction, I consider what the characters might see: colour, form, light, shadows. Is it creepy and scattered with bones? Or is it comforting like the light of a campfire? What might they hear? Birds, bats, dogs, traffic, distant thunder, rain on the tent, someone snoring, a teakettle whistling … Scent is one of the most powerful memory triggers we have, so don’t neglect it in describing settings. Does the dungeon smell like musky mold? Like rusty iron or coppery-sweet blood? Home-cooked food could fill taverns. Smoke should be prevalent during dragon attacks and wars. What about that “lovely” dung smell of newly fertilized fields in spring that makes you roll up your car windows just when you were looking forward to some fresh air? For touch, think in terms of texture, temperature, or internalization of bodily sensations: warm wool, smooth porcelain, tingly fingertips thawing after being in the snow, slippery horse fur and a muddy ground during a cold rain, scratchy throats, gritty sand in teeth, nausea, etc. And for taste, name specific foods. Describe their scent and texture. Foods that aren’t of this world can be described as being like foods of this world. The five basic palates are bitter, salty, sweet, sour, savory; experiment with combinations just like a cook. And remember food isn’t the only thing we can taste. Perfume or smoke are often so strong we taste them as much as we smell them … and choke on them. Could you “taste” decay if surrounded by it? What about snowflakes? Ocean water?

Be specific more than vague. Slow down and get poetic. Be an artist and paint with words at this stage. Don’t get too flowery because ordinary words convey meaning best. But this is where you can and should be playing with prose.

04Revision_TakeYourChildToWorkDay
I got a new kitten while working on Dragonling revisions. “Take Your Child to Work Day” looked something like this for a long time after that. Tsuki would chase the cursor, until I couldn’t work around him anymore, and then he curled up in the lapels of my fuzzy robe and slept on my chest while I worked in the early morning hours.

3. Stage Acting and Props — Characters are actors performing on a stage only the author and the reader can envision. I took several drama and speech classes during my school years, and as an actor, one thing you never want is to end up on stage with nothing to do while speaking. Hands will start to fidget or body language in general will look awkward and unnatural. Empty-handed speakers often pace to naturally offset this emptiness because of the need to be doing something. So, directors usually give their actors stage directions and props.

While speaking, the character can move to the center left of the room. She can pick up a vase, but study it without interest. Then, she can set it down pensively, or throw it in anger. Pull out the action verbs, no matter how small. Use them more often than tag words. Use them in place of tag words wherever possible. It’s more interesting to know a character is cleaning a fish tank during a conversation, than to be told she said something. (And, really, readers can see dialog, so they already know she said something. Unless it’s for clarification or pacing, saying someone said something is often redundant.) Actions give the reader a more tangible character moving around within a more tangible, interactive setting. It also is an inadvertent way of giving us more information. Now we know her mind was elsewhere while handling that vase, or the vase upset her, or she was upset. We know that she owns fish and has a knowledge of how to care for them. These actions become pegs to hang personality traits on that further develop the character.

While I’m here, I’m going to say something about tag words. Tag words act like speech bubbles to let the reader know who is talking; they “tag” dialog onto a character and vice versa. Tag words help identify and clarify when different speakers are speaking in multiple-character dialog scenes.

Some writers and editors are of the opinion there is only one tag word ever: said. They feel everything else is pretentious or doesn’t make sense. Some writers get bored with the same old word and branch out: explained, propositioned, surmised, queried, cried, shouted, whispered, etc. BOTH of these perspectives are grammatically acceptable. They are differences of opinion on style, which is also acceptable, as long as there is agreement between the writer, editor, and publisher.

What is not acceptable is using actions in place of tag words. Tag words must be something that can be done with words. Try to “laugh” a sentence. It can’t be done. You can laugh before or after you speak, but laughter actually interrupts and cuts off speech. You can’t form speech with verbs of expression, like smiling, either.

A simple test can help with determining whether a verb makes a suitable tag word. Ask yourself, “Can I ‘sing’ words?” Yes. Sing can be a tag word. “Can I ‘express’ words?” Yes. “Can I ‘smile’ words?” No. Smiling is a physical action that has no ability to produce words. Your smile will be lost as soon as your lips change to form a word. The smile happens before or after the words, but it is not a manner of speech or sound creation in itself. Don’t smile or laugh words in dialog.

Some words could go either way: growling, hissing, and sighing are commonly used as tag words, though sometimes they shouldn’t be. An angry person could literally growl or hiss a word. Whispers can sometimes be considered hisses. And depending on what’s being said, it could literally be sighed with speech, but that only works for one or two words. It would have to be a very long sigh to accommodate an entire sentence, let alone a paragraph. People usually sigh before or after speaking. Sounds may or may not form words in speech. Try saying your dialog aloud in the manner of speech you tag onto it before deciding whether it’s logical.

Better yet, remove tag words when possible and give your characters plenty of body language and props, instead. Dialog flows more naturally when broken up with living, breathing, fidgety characters who bite their nails, pick at the corner of a piece of paper, avert their eyes, sneeze, cross their legs, or itch their ears because they’re allergic to the earrings they’re wearing. More action, more information, fewer tag words, logical tag words when necessary …

05NummyLettuce
My guinea pigs, Mirk and Mojo, share office space with me. I lost Mojo this summer to liver disease, but Mirk is still hanging in there, five years old now. 🙂 Mirk is my constant companion, so I bounce a lot of ideas off of him. He mostly approves of all of them. Especially if I offer it with baby carrots during lunch. And he *doesn’t* block my screen or keyboard!

4. Pacing — This is two-fold. First, you don’t want to use more than one or two small paragraphs for descriptions. Descriptions a page or more in length permit the reader’s attention to wander. Introduce the person or setting or object, but then break it up and sprinkle a little more detail throughout the rest of the scene, so that the reader’s attention can absorb it in smaller bites.

Camera panning is a good allegory for visualizing and pacing descriptions. In my film literature class, we learned the attention span of the eye lasts about 5 seconds. That means the camera has 5 seconds to feed information to the viewer before the eye gets restless and attention wanes. For linguistic learners, reading is better at holding attention than visual mediums. (This may not be the case for visual, tactile, auditory, or other learning styles.) But it’s still not a good idea to keep one “camera angle” for an entire page. Pan the focus liberally around the scene in short sequences interspersed with dialog, action, and reflection, and attention will more likely be retained.

One note about fantasy and sci-fi literature here, though. There is a reason publishers give these genres more word count allowance than others. When a setting is too different from reality, we need more descriptions. Passages describing an elven village can and should be longer than passages describing a New York cafe. One of the reasons readers choose those genres is to imagine other worlds, so don’t be afraid to slow the pace and let the imagination linger a bit there. As my editor once told me, “Take some time to ‘live’ in your world, so you can share it with your readers.”

The other kind of pacing that matters is in the flow of the events. The pace or flow of the story is important to the overall presentation of the scene … and the entire book. For action scenes like fights or chases, words need to be short and full of power. For reflective scenes, words need to slow down and soften. There should be a balance between action and reflection. Too much action is exhausting and impersonal. Too much reflection becomes moody or turns into an information dump. Both can get tedious when they go on for too long without variety.

For this same reason break up lengthy dialog, lengthy fight scenes, and lengthy information scenes. Break up dialog and information with action. Break up action with opportunities for the characters to reflect and learn something from it. The Dragonling has a chapter in it that is nothing but Trizryn reading a letter from his mother. Sounds pretty boring, right? It could be. Hopefully it’s not because I broke it into “readable segments” to make it easier on the eye and the attention span. There are breaks where he shifts in his chair, mumbles to himself, or the reader is informed that he is shocked at what he reads. And there are double-space breaks between multiple paragraphs on the same topic to give the eye a rest from the heavy use of quotes and italics. I also wrote the letter in first person narrative, to make Ysmé’s experiences and thoughts feel more immediate to the reader. Preventing that part of the story from becoming a boring information dump was a challenge, but pacing it in different ways helped.

Combining different sentence structures and lengths is another good way to improve the pace of storytelling. Short sentences stand out more when used sparingly and paired with longer, more complex sentences. It’s okay to break the rules and have one-word sentences, or even one-word paragraphs. But remember their impact works best when used sparsely for important, shocking, rare events.

The story itself should unfold and flow evenly throughout the course of the book.

06Revision_Pippy
Our newest family member is a shelter puppy. (Nicholas was a shelter dog, too, but we lost him to liver failure last year.) Pippy is only a year old. You know what this means to my work days? … “Leave the cat alone!” … “Do you need to go outside?” … “Is that my shoe?” … *snatch mail from being shredded* … “Do you need to go outside now? No?” … “No, I can’t play right now.” … “Hey! Give the cat his rabbit toy.” … “Crud. Now I have to clean the carpet because I didn’t MAKE you go outside.” … Eventually, she does sleep peacefully on the bed at my feet or sit in the window and watch the “outsideness”. She’s a sweetie, but she’s a handful. And combined with the cat, it’s a wonder the revisions got done at all!

5. Research and Background Checks — Do this. I know it takes time and can get boring. But do this! It’s especially necessary when referencing something previously mentioned in the book or series. It could make a difference in whether your idea works or is full of holes.

6. Fill in All Blanks — If names, places, or other information was skipped over in the first draft, start filling in those gaps for the second draft as much as possible.

7. Edit — Now you can let your inner editor out of that trunk you locked her in while doing the pre-writing and writing steps!

After the initial draft, and for the rest of the revision process, you will need real, honest-to-God editing skills. Be picky. Correct spelling, grammar, formatting and anything else in the technical field of writing that might cause problems. Use your dictionary. Use your thesaurus. Don’t know the proper use of ellipses, look it up! Learn about typesetting for those pesky punctuation situations that your high school or college handbook never mentioned … like how to punctuate telepathy. Be familiar with the differences between style guides and formats, and if you intend to publish traditionally know what your editor and publisher prefer.

Check the beginning words of each paragraph. Avoid repetition there (and elsewhere). Don’t skimp on character names when multiple characters are present; the reader needs to know who is speaking or acting. But try to begin each paragraph with different parts of speech and different words. This is especially true if you are writing in first person, when every paragraph has the potential to start with “I”.

Finally, weed word count. I know I’m not one to talk about overshooting word count recommendations for traditional publishers. (Insert cheesy, guilty grin here.) But clipping unnecessary words is just part of the editing process. Don’t use four words when two will do. Check for redundancy: if someone is handling a wet fish while in water, most people would assume water makes fish wet. Handling the fish in water is sufficient. The word “that” can be removed 90% of the time without harming sentence structure or meaning. Use contractions if applicable; this isn’t a formal paper, although a character with formal speech “would not do it”.

Cut out entire sentences or paragraphs, if they repeat or offer nothing of substance to what’s happening. Where possible condense a previous action or information as a summary if it needs to be repeated. Cut out entire scenes or chapters if they do not serve the overall course of the story. Learn to recognize the difference between scenes that are random “fluff” and “fluff” that is important to character growth, relationship development, or upcoming plot material.

Some authors recommend that adverbs be removed without mercy. There are some adverbs in particular that are often wastes of space. The word “very” comes to mind, as an example. But I’m in the camp of loving word play, so I love adverbs. I think they add texture to verbs and adjectives, so I leave many adverbs in my text. I cut the ones that double-up or over-exaggerate. But especially in dialog, if my character is “very, VERY tired,” to say she is simply “tired” robs her of an impatient, whiny complaint. Do what works for the scene. Do what works for you. But be aware in general of what can be cut or reworded more efficiently.

07Revision_AutumnOfficeView
I watched two years worth of seasons change outside my office window while revising Dragonling. That alone rescued me from a lot of eye strain and headaches.
08Revision_BabySeahawk
Then there were the days where the window itself was a distraction … like the day a seahawk decided to shred another bird to pieces in front of the porch. I went out later to clean up his mess and there was nothing left but a beak and pile of feathers. … Nice. … Maybe I can use it in the next story somewhere because that was utterly fascinating, but disgusting.

Are We There Yet?

What I consider to be a true revision is going all the way through a work from beginning to end. The second draft doesn’t usually take as long as the first because organization, planning, and groundwork for the story is finished. When I finish my second draft, I do the same thing as when I finish the first. I take a day up to a week off to refresh my brain.

Then I begin this whole process all over again for the third draft/second revision. And the fourth draft. And the fifth draft, and so on.

Each time I revise the script, it takes less time to make one complete pass from beginning to end because there are fewer items that need correcting. I revise a minimum of 4 times before I share the script with beta readers.

09Revision_AutumnWorkstation
It’s getting there! It’s getting there! My autumn work space, sans animals, saw the colours in my index cards change. I was checking character cards in the wiki section here, but to the far left, The Dragonling’s folders are now green. Its scenes are now turning blue. 🙂 Default organization means it’s almost done.

Beta Readers

Beta readers are important because they are the first set of eyes to see the story as something completely new. As I said before, it is impossible for the author to do this. No matter how proud you are of your finished script, beta readers are an absolute necessity to the revision process, in my opinion.

Beta readers don’t have to be English language experts or literary scholars, but they must as least represent the type of audience you are writing the books for. Don’t ask someone to beta your fantasy novel if they hate fantasy. They won’t like it due to bias, and therefore they cannot give you a fair review with constructive criticism.

Beta readers can be preliminary line editors finding spelling errors and missing words, or they can be preliminary content editors telling you which parts confused them or felt lacking. Listen — really listen — to what they have to say. I’ve found that 90% of the time my beta readers have very good instincts about what needs more work. Take all criticism constructively and with a grain of salt. You can’t please everyone all the time, buy your gut instinct combined with their feedback will help you find the best balance for revisions.

Beta reading takes 1-2 months, depending on the length of the book and the beta reader’s schedule. Do not rush them, especially if they are doing this for you free of charge. You will not get the feedback you need if you push, and they won’t be able to enjoy the story if you’re breathing down their necks asking what they think. If a reasonable time has passed, you may offer a gentle reminder that you are waiting for feedback. Meanwhile, it’s a good time to start drafting the next project.

When all feedback is in, I take each beta reader’s notes, one at a time, and meticulously hunt down their suggested corrections in my copy of the revised draft. If something suggested doesn’t work for me, I let it go. In the end, it’s my creation; I don’t have to do everything everyone suggests. But most of the time the corrections and suggestions are spot-on. I follow my instincts when doing post-beta revisions and try to choose what’s best for the story. The final objective is to make this version the best version of the story that it can possibly be.

I continue to revise until there’s not much left to tweak. The final draft will never be perfect. I could probably tweak it forever trying to perfect it, but as some point it’s just time to let go. It may take 7 drafts or more before I declare a book finished. The Dragonling took over two years to complete because about half-way through the second draft I found a very big, nasty plot hole. Quality is more important to me than a deadline, so I took whatever time was necessary to fix those holes throughout the entire book.

At the point where I tag each index card with the “Done” label and switch from my colour-coded methods for drafting to Scrivener’s default green chapter folders and blue scene files, I know it’s ready for compiling and formatting. More on that in the final article of this series. Meanwhile, I get to celebrate having made it this far before digging into the mind-numbing, stress-inducing process of publishing. 🙂

10Revision_Final Draft
Finally! The Dragonling reached the final stages of the final draft. I immediately filled in the front and back matter during the final pass, but I’ll have more to say about that in the next article: publication. Meanwhile, I earned a day off. Yay me! 🙂

 

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! 🙂

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.