Keeping the Door Cracked Open

Today Mary E. Lowd is with us to talk about her upcoming novel, The Bee’s Waltz, Book 2 in the Celestial Fragments trilogy, and the latest offering in the Labyrinth of Souls project. Release date 11/7!~ Christina Lay

Keeping the Door Cracked Open

by Mary E. Lowd

I got invited to write a Labyrinth of Souls novel because of a coincidence.  I had recently finished writing the third book in my Otters In Space trilogy, and it had been a brutal experience.  I’d spent months stuck in the middle, muddling about, unsure of how to proceed with the book.  And I didn’t ever want to get stuck in the middle of a book like that again, so I decided it was time to learn how to outline.

I’d had some luck using cards from a storytelling game deck as writing prompts for flash fiction, so I had an idea:  I would draw Tarot cards and use those to design the outline for my next book.  I happened to be talking about this plan at a writing date, and one of the other writers there told me about Matthew Lowes’ card game based on a Tarot deck and the upcoming novel line inspired by it — like I said, it was an amazing, perfect coincidence.

The very first game of Dungeon Solitaire I played was epic — on the way down into the dungeon, I gathered companions; at the bottom, I won treasure; and on the way out, I faced a treacherous battle right before reaching the surface, but all three queens showed up and blessed me.  I made it out and won!  I also won the perfect outline for a novel.  If you’ve already read The Snake’s Song: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel, perhaps you can see the resemblance.

Since I like writing animal characters, I decided to make the hero of my book a squirrel — a creature of treetops, trapped deep underground where she doesn’t belong — to increase the tension and stakes.  But I also knew this might make my book, when it was finished, a hard sell to a publisher who focuses on dark fantasy, since animal protagonists tend to lighten a work.  Animal stories are strongly associated with children’s literature, and I needed to make sure my book would be dark enough to interest Shadow Spinners Press.

Throughout The Snake’s Song, as I wrote, I made sure to press into the morally ambiguous nature of the actions the squirrel protagonist had to take to protect herself and how her journey was hardening her.  But at the end, I took my real stab at making the book dark:  I killed off the lovable, goofy otter sidekick.

I think, at some level, the way I sacrificed Fish-Breath on the altar of darkness at the end of The Snake’s Song was inspired by Martin the Warrior.

I was eleven when Martin the Warrior came out — it was the sixth book in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, and I’d spent the entire previous year reading the first five over and over again, obsessively, on loop.  So, obviously, I was out of my mind excited to have a new Redwall book to read, and I devoured it immediately… only to be heartbroken by how Rose — a new mouse character — was unceremoniously murdered in the final pages, leaving the titular Martin bereft as he walked out of the new book and back into the first book I had ever read in the series, Mossflower.

Martin the Warrior was a prequel to Mossflower, and the budding writer in me (yes, I already thought of myself as a writer at eleven) was amazed by how this new book had reinvented the way I saw the beginning of a book I’d already read many times.

But the girl in me who hadn’t yet realized that feminism hadn’t fixed sexism before she was born was faced with a blow that would become all too familiar over the coming decades:  the character I identified with had been sacrificed on the altar of giving the central male character feelings and motivation.

So, of course, in writing my own book, I had gender-flipped the situation — Witch-Hazel is the hero, and Fish-Breath the one who must be sacrificed to prove the truly harrowing nature of the journey she survives.

But… I still remember being the heartbroken girl who didn’t understand why Rose and Martin couldn’t continue on together.  And so, I left the door cracked open.  Fish-Breath didn’t exactly die; he was saved at the last second by the All-Being who helps him ascend to her castle in the sky.  Something between death and life.

Skip ahead a few years, and a number of my readers saw the end, as I’d chosen to write it, as a cliff-hanger.  Certainly, Witch-Hazel must find her own way to the All-Being’s castle and rescue Fish-Breath! they argued.  And in all honesty, the thought had occurred to me.  I could see The Snake’s Song as the first chapter in a three part story — in the middle, Witch-Hazel would need to try to rescue Fish-Breath.  And I’d even done some brainstorming and outlining for what else Witch-Hazel would discover in the magical world she inhabits.

This is where coincidence intersects these books again.  The very day that I finished writing the third book in my space opera trilogy, The Entangled Universe, my beloved dog Quinn, who the main character’s best friend was loosely based upon, got sick.  By the end of the week… he was gone.  And I felt as bereft as Martin when he lost Rose or Witch-Hazel when she lost Fish-Breath.

A lot of the protagonists in my novels have a best friend who’s kind of goofy — usually an otter or canine — and Quinn had embodied that role for me in real life.  I still miss him so much, even though a year has passed, and I have new dogs in my life who I also love.  It is, of course, not the same.

Quinn died during the height of the pandemic when puppies were hard to come by, because everyone was home making sourdough starters and getting new puppies.  So, we got put on several waitlists for sable Sheltie litters, and I steeled myself for a long patch of living without a Sheltie grinning at me every day.

And then I started work on The Bee’s Waltz.  Writing Witch-Hazel’s journey through an enchanted world to find her lost otter friend was what got me through the months between Quinn dying and us finding a one-year-old tri-color Sheltie, Cole, who needed a new home.

When I saw Cole’s grinning face, it was like the lights turned back on in the world.  And he sat beside me — as Quinn would have a few months earlier — as I finished writing The Bee’s Waltz.

I’m glad I left the door cracked open between life and death for Fish-Breath, so that Witch-Hazel’s journey could continue through two more books.  And I’m even more glad that I had an imaginary world to disappear into for comfort when I desperately needed it.

I hope my books can provide that refuge for other people too.

Available November 7, 2021

Imagination, Curated

by Christina Lay

Most writers have heard the admonition to read extensively in their chosen genre.  This is solid advice and I’m not here to quibble with it. Getting familiar with tone, tropes, voice, conventions, clichés and trends will help you to not only internalize structure and build your novel, but fine tune your approach to marketing and identify your target audience. What I’d like to point out is that the opposite is also true: read extensively outside of your chosen genre.

You’re probably thinking, how much time does she think I have? I read what I like, and what I’d like to emulate, so shove off, random blog writer of dubious intelligence.

Or possibly you’re thinking, why, yes, I know it’s important to feed my inner artist and gather knowledge and perspective from all parts of the globe.  Terrific! That’s a good start.  I’ve been a history buff for most of my writing life, and I know the nonfiction books I’ve read have greatly contributed to the scope and span of my fiction.  My suggestion would be to go further, and to read books you have little interest in, or maybe even make you uncomfortable.

Why, in this time of stress and too little relaxation, would you spend your down time hefting up some dreary tome on the economics of snail farming in New Zealand?  Well, you don’t have to go that far.  Just pick something unexpected, random, oddly intriguing, and preferably, by authors from segments of the global society you know little or nothing about.

I would much rather curl up with a cozy mystery than stretch and work out my brain with something challenging, but I’m finding that this practice is becoming more important than ever, and not just for writers.

I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that social media and online marketing curates the articles we see and the ads that flash in the sidebars of every webpage we ever access. Facebook micromanages our “news” feeds, and Google obsesses over our every click.  No matter how aware of this you might be, our world is shrinking, and it takes a vigilant consumer to battle against it.

Books, you might think, are a realm free from the tentacles of high tech. Let’s put aside any influence Amazon might have over your book buying habits and imagine we’re all perusing the shelves of our local bookstores with free will intact.  Did a friend recommend a title? Are you looking for a favorite author’s new release? Did you hear so-and-so is the up and comer in your genre, and you want to check them out?  All of these motivating factors are also curated, in their fashion. Your friend is most likely someone with similar tastes, not to mention social circles, socioeconomic class, a shared culture. If not, great, but we mostly hang out with people who are like us. Getting hooked on a favorite author is awesome, but also limiting. Best sellers, well, let’s head on back up to how Amazon and the other big book pushers influence who is published, not to mention who makes it to that book shelf in front of you, who gets marketing funds, and who gets to flash on your sidebar as you try to find out more about snail farming in New Zealand.

It’s all curated, winnowed, narrowed, marketing… all for you! Sometimes that’s helpful, especially if it comes through more organic word of mouth recommendations. But how often has your friend let you down, recommending something only because “everybody” is talking about it. The new trashy, actual piece of garbage that sold well because it went viral, so to speak. But I digress…

None of these methods for choosing your next read are bad or terrible, but the more we read, click and talk about what we like, the more our circle of options shrinks. What you don’t find out about, you won’t read. Our input and outlay of information becomes a closed loop, reining us in, choking off the weedy and wild pathways by which oddities and illuminations creep into our brains. And if we writers don’t keep the weird and wild in circulation, who will?

To hack my way back to the original point; yes, becoming familiar with your genre is a good idea.  But becoming familiar with every and all genres is better. At the same time that you internalize the beats, rhythms and expectations of your chosen genre, try also to freshen and widen your approach by reading books with different beats, rhythms and expectations. Like feeds like, which can be helpful, but also stifling. When you go to the bookstore the next time, pick an author, genre and subject that you’ve never read before. Mix it up. Confuse the algorithms in your head as well as the ones lurking in your phone. Possibly it will upset the apple cart of your streamlined novel writing process, but consider for a moment how that might be a good thing.

The D Word

by Christina Lay

Discipline. Okay, there, I’ve said it. Most creative types I know recoil at the word. Discipline invokes loveless toil, stern teachers with knuckle-whacking rulers, and a sort of relentless grind that seems the very antithesis of the artistic flow. However, I’ll let you in on a secret. The artistic flow is much, much easier to achieve if one has discipline. It’s a drag, I know, but sitting around waiting for the muse to twiddle on her magical flute is about the most effective way there is to get nothing done.

This is actually not news for anyone who’s written a novel, completed a painting, or mastered just about any craft, but I thought it would be worth talking about again in this era of day pajamas, and an endless stream of Blursdays.

I’ll go ahead and admit right now that when my boss informed me that we wouldn’t be coming in to the office for at least a month (ha, ha), I didn’t not gasp in dismay.  I have spent most of my working life yearning and scheming for more time to write, so the prospect of an entire shiny month of setting my own schedule, of not doing the commute or the nine-to-five zombie shuffle, didn’t sound too bad. I mean, if we had to live through a pandemic, why not do it at home, where the cats and the readily accessible tea and the home computer surrounded by a tsunami of novel notes reside?

Those first weeks at home were quite productive in the writing department.  With no boss tapping her foot waiting for me to arrive at the joyless cubicle, I could continue my morning writing session for as long as I wanted. As long as I got my work done in a timely fashion, who cared when I did it? I wrote many words, and also completed a lot of tasks at home.

But there’s this thing about living through a pandemic, not to mention riots, wildfires, assaults on the nation’s capitol, endless attempts to subvert democracy, etcetera. It’s all very distracting. So naturally, first thing in the morning, instead of bringing up my WIP, I would log on to the Washington Post for my daily cuppa morning Horror and Outrage.  Long, long ago, I trained myself to NOT CHECK MY EMAIL before beginning to write. However, it only takes one pandemic to up-end decades of practice and yes, Discipline, and so the doomscrolling began to eat away at that hard won habit.

I mentioned that I completed a lot of tasks at home as well. The thing about tasks-at-home is that there is no end to them. So now, with my flexible schedule, there was no reason not to abandon the computer mid-day, mid-week, in order to pull weeds or clean out closets.  But the combination of writing as long as I wanted and getting tasks done was starting to encroach on my work productivity, so…maybe I could take a morning off from writing now and again, now that I had so much more time to play with? 

And just why was I still getting up at 6:00 AM anyway? There was no need to set the alarm anymore. I could get up whenever, as long as I got my work done in a timely fashion yadda yadda yadda. The sense of urgency continued to fade, time no longer a precious commodity.

Inevitably the doomscrolling and the task completing and the worrying about the possible end of the world and the drudgery of sitting in one damn place all day and the work files piled on top of my novel notes like salt upon the Earth and the mysteriously shrinking day (possibly due to not setting the alarm anymore), well…you get the idea. My decades long, hard-won habit of getting up early and writing every morning began to erode. Discipline snuck out the window to go chase butterflies.

I have always grudgingly suspected that my ongoing, high-level of productivity was due to the fact that I was forced by my jobs to maintain a schedule, to consciously prioritize writing, and to show up at the page no matter what, and lo and behold, this suspicion has been confirmed. Sure, the no-matter-what has never been quite so obnoxious, but cancerdidn’t slow me down, for crying out loud. What exactly happened here? I’ll tell you what. What happened was a many-pronged assault on my belief in and dedication to the idea of discipline. It was not deliberate. It was not abrupt. But it did happen, and now I’m dealing with the consequences.

In this case, the consequences are a whole lotta words with no point, and then no words, and then the dismay that I failed to register back when the world came to a halt in March of 2020. I have faced the most evil of phrases: Writer’s Block, and recognized it for what it truly is; the loss of a carefully honed habit.  How do I regain the habit?  Discipline. Yuck.

The mental toll of the Year from Hell has made it difficult for me to commit to any one of my many projects, so I’ve decided to begin a thorough edit and rewrite of an epic fantasy I completed about six years ago and then abandoned. 

Reading, editing, note taking, those things I can do. And I will do them, every morning, no matter what. I will set the alarm, ignore the email, and show up. I will work through the rewrite and hopefully at the end of it, my discipline will have been firmly reestablished and the agony of editing will spur me on to write new fiction again.  This isn’t like a switch that can be flipped. I have a lot of bad habits that need purging and a mushy life that needs firming up. Perhaps you find your self in the same mushy circumstances?

If you don’t have a monster rewrite to work on, journaling, timed-writing, word games; anything that gets your hand moving and your pandemic-fried brain looking the other way will do, as long as you do it, regularly, on schedule, no matter what. Remember, you’re forming a habit that will serve you well no matter what the world throws at us next.