When Throwing Yourself Off A Cliff Stops Working

by Christina Lay

I’ve confessed before that I am the type of writer who works without an outline. The term is Panster, as in “by the seat of your pants”. That’s not entirely apt.  When I start writing a book, I have a pretty good idea of where it’s going. I have a character in a setting with a problem. I know what they want and what’s standing in the way of getting it. I might have a love interest, an antagonist, or a really screwed up family already waiting in the wings. In other words, I’m not flying blind. Chances are, I’ve visualized several scenes in my head. The protagonist’s voice is firmly established. I’m ready to roll.

 

Where the seat of the pants part comes in is the fact that I have nothing written down except a few ideas, snatches of dialogue, and character notes. I have not worked out how the plot is going to progress. I haven’t solved any transitions or tangled plot issues, because I don’t even know what they are yet.  So the first draft is an exciting ride, a test of imaginary agility, and without fail, a mess of epic proportions. But what can I say? That’s how my creativity stays sparked.

And it works, usually. Using this method, I’ve completed about 15 novels and novellas. In recent years, I’ve been able to complete two novellas in a year. However, I recently had the experience of spending over a year writing the first draft of one novella, which turned into a novel along the way (that was part of the problem, but not the only one). Mid-way through, I became well and truly stuck. This is nothing new. It happens with every novel, usually several times, and somehow I wail and claw my way through it.  But this time was different. None of my usual tricks seemed to work.

My first trick is quite clever: I write things down.  Yes, I actually open ye olde spiral notebook to a fresh page and compose a bare bones outline, chapter by chapter, going over where I’ve been, projecting outward to where I’m going, and trying to see where exactly I went wrong. If I’m lucky, this works the first time and I can see where I pushed ahead with an idea because it was shiny and not because it had anything to do with character motivation or a natural sequence of events.

With a particularly tough nut of a plot problem, I might have to re-do this outline more than once, seeking out transition problems between chapters, seeing where I get bored (guaranteeing the reader will too), looking at the fork in the road where the entire juggernaut trundled off in the wrong direction.

In most cases, I don’t do much backtracking or heavy duty rewriting until I reach the end of the first draft. “Fix it in the rewrite” is a mantra that carries me through many a dark day. But sometimes the quagmire becomes too deep, the plot too murky, to keep going. I hate this. I have a deep aversion to stopping, losing momentum, becoming distracted. This time, I had to admit I’d done the outline analysis trick several times. I had to stop. Walk away. Get a fresh perspective. Take another running leap at the thing and fail get again.

One might wonder why the book didn’t become a drawer novel at this point. After all, I’ve got several in the queue, all better and shinier and much, much easier to write (surely). But this book is the fourth in a series. A fourth promised long ago. A deadline crossed and vanished over the horizon. I’ve even had readers query about it, for crying out loud. Plus, I really want to finish the damn book.

So my second trick of taking a little break and letting my subconscious percolate without my interference didn’t work either. Months went by with very little activity at the keyboard. I approached the novel again with my new outlines. Failed. Started to think I’ve forgotten how to novel altogether. That I’d reached the end of my creative juice. That the first 15 novels were a fluke.  That I suffered brain damage while under anesthesia. I was getting desperate. But not desperate enough to write a real outline. That’s just crazy talk.

As it happens, while I suffered through the winter of my Worst Novel Ever, my cohort here at ShadowSpinners, Eric Witchey, wrote this blog. In it, he points out a simple fact: just because something worked once, or multiple times, is no guarantee it will work again. Ironically, the example he uses is hang gliding, literally throwing yourself off a cliff. How annoying, but also such an apt description of my current predicament. I couldn’t figure out why doing the same thing I’d always done before wasn’t working.

I made some changes and tried a third trick. I abandoned the spiral notebook and the linear outline for 3 x 5 cards. On it, I wrote each key scene and the major plot point it represented.

I abandoned my desk, and spreads the cards out on my living room floor.

I sat and stared at them.

The cat chewed off the corners and rearranged them under the coffee table.

Cats are terrible editors: don’t listen to them!

 

I stirred them around and identified the scenes that were shiny, but not helpful. The scenes that had been grafted in from another novel idea, because shiny. The scene that just didn’t fit in with the flow. The one coincidence too many. The disposable scene. The gap that made no sense.

And the one thing that I had to do, absolutely had to do, was start rewriting from the very beginning, even though I’d come so close to finishing the first draft. There was no point in going forward because the entire thing had to be reworked.  At first I tried to preserve my words (precious, precious words!), but those words (so many words) were holding me to plot points that just didn’t work. So I murdered my darlings and buried them in a folder called “cut bits”. (This is a game we writers play: pretending that someday we’ll salvage those wonderful, wonderful words).

At last, I broke out of the quagmire and began to progress, ever so slowly, through the rewrite.

Here’s a fourth trick, one that I wish for all writers to have the wherewithal to do every now and again, whether they are stuck or not.  Go on a retreat.  There is nothing quite like solid hours—I’m talking eight hours a day for several days—to push through to The End. I only recently went on a four day retreat and one year after I began it, I finished the first draft (cue fireworks). For tips on how to have a successful retreat, read Lisa Alber’s blog here.

Now in this case, the first draft consists of several mini-drafts, but I reached The End, the plot seems to hold together, and now I can go back and begin to clean it up.

So the point is, when things get tough, and I mean really tough, the answer is not to quit, but to be willing to do things differently and admit you don’t have all the answers just because you’ve attended five thousand hours of writing workshops and read 872 books on the craft of writing.

The mind is a funny thing, and so is creativity, and so is storytelling. Get a different perspective. Change your methodology. Write in a different place. Start over. Let your cat decide (but not really). There are so many different ways to get past a roadblock. The only way to guarantee you won’t get around it is to stop trying.

5 Tips for a Stellar Writing Retreat

By Lisa Alber

I just returned from a five-day writing retreat in Sunriver, Oregon. 7000+ words written. I wrote my way out of a plot blockage. Good friends. Good food. Great vista. All in all, perfection.

I got to thinking about all the many writing retreats I’ve gone on over the years, excluding retreats run by professionals. Half my retreats are solo adventures, the other half with pals. For the latter, here are my five recommendations for a perfect writing retreat:

Come prepped and with specific goals.

If the goal is to maximize word count, then come with research and ideas in mind. If the goal is to finish those last few chapters to The End, then be ready to pound them out and revise later. If you’re in revisions, have a general strategy and perhaps a daily goal.

Choose like-minded retreat pals.

Let’s face it, some people are more social than others. It helps to surround yourself with people with similar work habits. I have several gangs of writing retreat buds. We’re all focused, independent, and ready to relax at the end of a productive day. Being social is part of the fun of a retreat, of course, but it works best if people are on the same wavelength.

Location location location.

Pick a beautiful location with vistas so the eye can settle into a deep and tranquil distance. The closer to nature the better. I’m a big fan of retreat spots with plenty of space, indoors and out, so that we can spread out or write communally, as desired.

Prep the food beforehand.

We come prepared! (And there’s always too much food.) We’re each in charge of a meal, and breakfast is either unstructured, or not. As long as there’s plenty of coffee, I don’t care about breakfast. I also like the freedom of eating lunch while I write, but then for sure coming together for dinner.

Relax with walks, naps, sitting in the sun, early bedtimes, reading …

No point in driving yourself into a state of anxiety. That’s for everyday life. Fill the creative well!

 

 

Horror that Happened

by Elizabeth Engstrom

My publisher, IFD Publishing, has opened a new imprint, Horror that Happened. I’m delighted that the first will be my perennial bestselling Lizzie Borden.

This is the official announcement:

IFD launches New Imprint: HORROR THAT HAPPENED

 The outrageous is all the more extraordinary when we know it actually occurred.

 

Horror that Happened provides riveting stories in three categories: True Crime, Based on a True Story, and Lifted from the Past

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The imprint will be launched with the release of Elizabeth Engstrom’s Lizzie Borden under the subcategory, Based on True Story. In the novel, Engstrom imagines an intimate view of the life of Lizzie Borden during the period surrounding the murder of her parents.

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On September 1, 2019, IFD Publishing will release within the same category, A Parliament of Crows, by Alan M. Clark. The novel is inspired by the lives and crimes of the infamous Wardlaw sisters, 19th century American murderers.

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 Following that, in the True Crime category, will be Elizabeth Engstrom’s Divorce by Grand Canyon.

HTH-LiftedfromthePast

Lifted from the Past will include unsettling works in the public domain, such as Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, and various writings about the Bell Witch from the 19th century.

We hope you will come back to IFD Publishing for your high-quality reading entertainment.

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You can buy a copy of Lizzie Borden Lizzie Borden.

Some Opportunities Make You Crazy

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Photo by Phillip Lees. Evia, Greece

Some Opportunities Make You Crazy

Eric Witchey

The crazy of being a full-time writer is so pervasive that we don’t even think about it. We just feel normal in our obsessions, our passions, and our darkness. Then, you read your email and discover a unique moment of joy and rage at the fates. You hear from an old friend about whom you often think kind thoughts. He lives on a Greek island, and he tells you he has finished renewing a house on his property and wants make it available for rental to working writers.

First thought, “WOW! I’m so on this! I can’t wait to hang out in Greece and chat with my friend again.”

You read the letter again, and you realize he has even said that if you want to come visit, you’ll be a guest.

Second thought is, “Where’s my passport?”

You scramble around the house. You find your passport. You pull up your calendar to see when you go. There’s a couple weeks that might be available in . . . in. . . WTF? May of 2020?

A cup of tea later, and you’re all, “Yeah. May. 2020. That’s good. I can do that.”

So, you do a few calculations and check your bank account.

No. You can’t do that. You’re a writer. You have multiple revenue streams that are currently bringing in less than your overhead. At the current rate, the cushion of cash you are living off will be exhausted about May of 2020.

That’s normal. You’ve been living the freelance writer and consultant gig economy for thirty years. However, you also know that in May of 2020 you’ll be dug into whatever work is filling the coffers.

Still, you check on the travel costs. Hope springs eternal.

  • 2000.00, plus or minus a few hundred, for round-trip Airfare to Athens and back.
  • 60.00, bus/ferry to and from Athens to Evia
  • 300.00, general food and sundries
  • ???.??, rental cost for people who aren’t you.
  • 2360.00, total minimum.

You are so glad you are a writer and have this amazing friend and opportunity!

You rage at the fact that you are a writer, who is not a travel writer, and can’t currently figure out a way to take advantage of the amazing opportunity and go see your friend!

This is the life of a freelance writer. The waves come in. The waves go out. You can ride them, but you can’t predict them. Sometimes, they are ocean waves you get to play in because you’re honored to be a writer-in-residence at a week-long retreat on the Oregon coast. Sometimes, they are Greek Island waves because you get to teach on Crete for a couple weeks. And sometimes, the perfect waves, which all now know are on the Greek island of Evia, are just out of reach.

You decide that it’s okay that you can’t figure out how to go today. Another day, maybe. Waves come and go. Someday, you’ll sit with your friend, chat, sip raki, and watch the sun set. For now, you decide that what you can do is share the joy and rage. You can let other writers know that they, too, have this opportunity!

This amazing place exists. So, here it is. If you can go, go. All writers should get time in a little stone house on a Greek island at some point in their lives.

http://www.crookedhouse.gr/

Hey, at the very least we can click through the photos and see the Greek sunset.

Auditory Imagery

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by Cheryl Owen Wilson

I’ve just returned from my first ever vacation in Italy.  I woke this morning in Eugene, Oregon, and missed terribly the sound of church bells ringing.  They rang, in every city on the hour, and in some on the half hour, during my stay in this colorful country.  My favorites were in the small town of Cinque Terre-Monterosso, where I heard not only the usual bong, bong, etc., but the delicate tinkle of chimes as well.  Forever more when I hear church bells ringing, an image of vibrantly colored homes looking as though carved from the very cliff sides where they cling along the Ligurian Sea, will appear in my mind.

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As writers we are instructed to make certain we utilize the five senses in our stories.  Our characters must see, taste, smell, touch and hear.  For the purpose of my blog today, I’m going to focus on one sense—sound.

Ambient sounds permeate our daily lives.  Yet, can you remember the first sound you heard this morning (that was not your alarm going off)?   I asked this question randomly, and found most couldn’t recall the first sound of their day.  However, when I asked them to describe the sounds of their last vacation they easily responded: Ocean waves, birds chirping, children’s laughter, music, etc.  They then, without provocation, proceeded to describe a scene related to each sound.

There is a term for this in writer’s lingo: auditory imagery.   It is when a writer uses sound to invoke an image in their readers minds.  The result being their reader will both hear and see in equal measure.

What are the ambient sounds present in your story’s world?  Is falling rain hitting the tiled roof of a villa utilized to invoke a sense of calm and peace?   Or does the rain incite dread given the tiles are loose causing rain to leak through on to a valuable work of art?   Do birds chirping arouse in your reader a vision of a Disney movie, or a scene from the 1963 movie, The Birds?

I find this form of using sound to be fascinating, and challenging.  How do you find the perfect “sound” in order to illicit the image desired?  As a writer, you know it’s by beginning the eternal, time sucking search for said word.  For you must have the exact sound to match the image you are trying to invoke.  Since there is a word for everything, of course there is a word for this search: onomatopoeia.

Now for an exercise in the use of auditory imagery.  Should I have used gong, instead of bong, when trying to invoke in you, the image of an ancient bell tower in Italy?  For those of you who are not writers, you now have a better understanding of why we as writers, are randomly described as crazy as loons, or have bats in our belfry.  Try that on for auditory imagery.  Go on, google the sound of a loon, and let your mind see and hear hundreds of bat wings flapping in a bell tower or better yet, someone’s mind.

As some of you are aware, I’m also a painter. Italy provided me with a rare opportunity to view art from Dali, to Picasso.  However, Kandinsky was my favorite.  As an artist Kandinsky used the sound of music as a muse (which some of us writer’s do as well).  So, I thought it befitting to include his quote in this blog.

“Form itself, even if completely abstract … has its own inner sound.”
― Wassily Kandinsky

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Every single word, in every single story is used to invoke an image.  Sound is but one way to accomplish that end.  In my stories I have the many sounds coming from swampy marshes to invoke the spine-chilling images I wish my readers to see.  What are the sounds you use?

 

CENSORSHIP!

By Cynthia Ray

“We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”     ― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Recently, I came across a  list of previously banned and censored classic books, which got me wondering about the phenomena of censorship.  It has taken many forms and faces over time, in different governments, countries and cultures, and looms over us now. censored

In her new book on censorship; Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love – a dramatic historical investigation of the roots of modern censorship in Britain and the US, Naomi Wolf exhibits a grim optimism:

   “Let’s just say that I have now looked at the issue of censorship in Britain and the United States over the last 2½ centuries and I can tell you categorically that censorship never stops anything from happening. It didn’t stop abortion, homosexuality, contraception. If anything, censoring ideas just makes them stronger. And bad ideas are only ever changed through sunlight, scrutiny and debate.”

Powerful books that confront the status quo, like Harper Lees To Kill a Mockingbird, or Margaret Atwoods The Handmaidens Tale, provoke debate and shine a light on important issues, bringing them to the forefront for discussion.

The desire to censor something could only be based on FEAR. Fear of seeing that which makes us bothered, uncomfortable, troubled and disturbed.  It is fear of exposure to ideas, images or actions that go against the prevailing values of a group or a society and belief that exposure to those images, or ideas will taint or corrupt.

Censorship is defined as the supervision and control of the information and ideas circulated within a society.  The ALCU points out that in the United States, censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups, but censorship by the government is unconstitutional.  Individuals and groups are protected by the First Ammendent, but that doesn’t stop efforts to censor certain ideas, groups, in an ever-evolving conversation.

I had to ask myself what makes me so uncomfortable that I would censor it?  What were my own boundaries, and where did I think people should be made to behave in certain ways, whether they agreed with them or not.

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If the society we live in wishes to turn away from uncomfortable truths, we should not be surprised.  Do we welcome someone telling us something unpleasant about ourselves?  Often, our first response to become angry at the messenger, or to deny and turn away.   On the other hand, who defines truth, and for who?

Artists, poets, writers and thinkers have always pushed the limits and boundaries set by the government, by religion, by the culture or prevailing mindset of the time.  That is why the book, the photograph, the movie is so important.  It remains available for consideration and examination, inviting us to confront our discomfort and encouraging a conversation to be had in “sunlight, scrutiny and debate.”

As writers and artists, it is important to ask:

  • Do we censor ourselves?
  • Do we allow boundaries to be set by other or by conditions outside of ourselves?
  • Do we tell our truth courageously?
  • How far do we allow ourselves to push our limits?

When we are able to rise above the prevailing thinking of the time to see and express what others only sense, making the invisible visible, and have the courage to express what we see, it brings us forward together.

“The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

 

 

 

 

Seriously Silly

by Christina Lay

I’ve always been a fan of silliness well-done. Be it Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks or Tom Robbins writing from a vibrator’s POV or Douglas Adams taking us across the universe with nothing but a towel and terrible poetry for company, there is a special sort of joy in reveling in a world where the absurd is commonplace and maturity is a liability.  Lately though, it seems like everyone is becoming much too serious; unable to laugh at themselves or enjoy a quirky perspective on life in general. Our entertainment reflects this, and we get more Game of Thrones, less The Tick. This despite the fact that the more grim and desperate reality becomes, the more we need to laugh, to lose ourselves in mirth.

Just today in a daily inspirational email that I receive, I read this on silliness: “We play yet we do not lose ourselves in play, and our imaginations are never truly given free rein because we regard the products of irrational creativity as being valueless.” Madisyn Taylor, Daily Om.

Irrational creativity. I love that. I had already been thinking about the value of silliness when I read it because I’d been planning to review the book, Space Opera, by Catherine M. Valente, so lucky me, it ties right in to the larger, all important theme of this blog. Yes, as the title suggests, Space Opera is pure and unapologetic space opera (Meaning Science Fiction that pays no attention whatsoever to physics or actual technology. Getting across the galaxy or even the universe might be as simple as pressing a button or hijacking a police call box). This book not only indulges in make-believe science, it revels in it. I appreciate that.  The book is sheer fun, sheer silliness, imagination run riot, and yet…

For a truly silly book to be memorable and not just a forgettable airplane read (which is of course valuable in its own right) a well-crafted silly book is anchored by moments of profundity. The thing about humor is there’s really no better way to set the reader up for a glimpse into the heart and soul of humanity. It’s Us laid bare, exposed, shown with all our warts and ill-fitting plaid jackets, but with compassion, kindness and a deep understanding of the silly kid locked inside of us all.

So that was quite the sentence. To break it down, I’ll quote Catherine Valente. “Life is beautiful. Life is stupid.”  That’s basically the theme of the book. We laugh, we tear our hair out, we cry, we sigh in wonder. A good silly book reminds us of all that.

Space Opera was inspired by an international music competition called Eurovision, where contestants are encouraged to be as outrageously fabulous as possible. I’m thinking Elton John on Acid at a Drag Queen fire sale with glitter explosions in the background (remember, this is the reality part). In the book, Humanity is called upon to prove itself sentient by performing a song of heartbreaking beauty and fabulousness in a musical competition on the other side of the universe.

Naturally, just telling the aliens that we’re sentient doesn’t work. Look at our history, at our now, at all the terrible things we’ve done and keep on doing. So what’s silly about that, you might ask (grimly, brow furrowed)? Nothing. What makes it silly is that we’re also capable of wonderful, fantastic things. The conflicted dichotomy of the human race is stunning. Paralyzing. Beautiful. Stupid. What can you do but laugh?

Valente has mastered the art of irrational creativity. Kudos. And her characters are intensely human, lovable, and relatable. My only nit with this book is that the ratio of narration to actual scenes is off, IMHO. I’d like to spend more time with the characters, and less time reading lengthy (although mostly hilarious) summaries. That aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, with silly and heartfelt both in good measure. In her afterward, she pays homage to Douglas Adams, as is right. I believe Adams, the grand master of silly, would approve.

Even if your current project isn’t silly in the least, it is healthy to allow irrational creativity to flow now and again, to laugh at yourself and your agonizingly constructed sentences, to play at the page. Maybe you’re writing a murder/horror mystery wherein everyone dies. If you don’t allow yourself to be silly while writing something like that, watch out. You will become grim and furrowed. And I suspect that a touch of silliness will make your characters more relatable, your tragedy more heartfelt. As writers, it’s not only the readers we have to think about, but ourselves. To keep ourselves fresh, motivated, happy in our art, we need to breathe, and the best way to get fresh air into our brains and our heart is to laugh.