Showing Up On The Page

By Lisa Alber

Exactly two months ago I wrote a ShadowSpinners post while sitting vigil for my dying mother. In that post, I wondered about my writing—whether I’d ever feel like writing fiction again, whether it mattered.

And now, here I sit again, clacking away. The past few months have been a blur of grief, dealing with trustee drudgery related to Mom’s living trust, and skimming the surface of the “have tos” of life. Last weekend I spent three hours scouring the bathrooms. At long last I cared enough to spend energy on that task. I thought, Well, maybe I’m doing better because I cleaned the bathrooms.

A Sikh friend recently commented that Americans don’t do grief. We allow ourselves a few days and then get on with it, as if that’s all that’s required. As if compartmentalization as a life strategy works when it comes to sorrow. I’m trying to do grief better this time than I did when my dad died in 2001. Feel the feelings, acknowledge them, and try not to squash what burbles to the surface.

One way I pay attention is by journaling—A LOT. It had been years since I’d journaled regularly because fiction took priority. Not these days. You’d be correct if you guessed that I haven’t written much fiction in the past few months.

This is going to sound contradictory, but I forbade pressuring myself to write fiction at the same time that I promised myself I’d show up on the fiction page each day. Showing up means opening up the manuscript—that’s it. Read a few pages—that’s it. Sometimes I’ll noodle with a chapter and take some notes. If this occurs, great. My only goal is to show up each day.

Somewhere within me, I must have faith that showing up will get me back into my writing routines. Hopefully this is true, but the other day it occurred to me that since I’m naturally lazy, I might be using the grieving process as an excuse not to write. We can use any excuse to procrastinate, right? Grief seems like as good an excuse as any …

All that is to say that there’s a slippery slope between taking it easy on myself and milking grief for procrastinatory reasons. The fact that I’m aware of this is probably a good sign, eh?

Sitting Vigil

By Lisa Alber

It’s a surreal time right now. I haven’t been writing — at all. I feel like I could never write again, and I’d be fine with that. My two sisters and I are hanging out with each other in Mom’s house more now than we have in the last few decades. N is like an Energizer bunny. She has trouble sitting still and is out for a run now. K is mellower. She’s plugged into her tablet, watching a movie. Me, here I am. It seems that when the chips are down, I do continue to write, don’t I?

Thus far today, we’ve opened the door to the hospice chaplain and social worker, a hospice delivery of more morphine, a guy from the funeral home, and even a Catholic priest to issue last rites.

I say “even” about the priest because although we’re solidly Catholic on both sides of the family, we Alber sisters weren’t raised with religion. We figured it would be nice for Mom to hear the sacraments to help her along the process of letting go these mortal coils. Couldn’t hurt anyhow.

To my surprise, the ritual of the sacraments comforted me. I’d never heard them before except in movies, never seen a vial of holy water before, never shaken a priest’s hand and said, Nice to meet you, Father.

Fawn, my eight-pound dog, spends most of her time curled up against Mom’s shoulder. I’m amazed by her instinct. Mom’s oblivious — constant morphine now — her breathing noisy and a tad erratic. She hasn’t consumed anything since yesterday morning. I keep wondering why she’s hanging on. What’s holding her here? How do we help her let go?

We have no control over this, of course. We’ve each had our alone time with her to say goodbye and let her know that it’s OK to move on.

There’s so much people don’t warn you about when it comes to end of life. Like how much pain there is with the littlest of touches. Like how pain itself can anchor people too much to this life — that our bodies naturally resist death. We’re giving her morphine every hour now to lessen the resistance. It seems like a lot, but, man, I’d do anything not to see her get a frowny face in sleep and to help her relax into the next stage, whatever that may be. No one tells you that morphine aids in the process of letting go but in itself isn’t what causes the heart to stop.

This is where I am today. I wonder about my writing. Wonder if it even matters. I’m going to make chocolate chip cookies in a little while because we have the makings for them. Seems like something to do to pass the time. That’s another thing people don’t warn you about — the waiting. Death takes its own sweet time.

The Trouble With Omniscient Voice

By Lisa Alber

Since the fall, I’ve been working on a standalone mystery I’m calling The Shadow Maiden. It takes place at a girl’s school, hehe, has a gothic vibe, and features a back story that’s complex enough to need a secondary story line.

For the back story, I’m dabbling in omniscient voice. Ay yi yi, talk about masochistic! I’ve been fooling around with omniscient voice off and on since 2006 when I first tried it out in a workshop taught by Elizabeth George. I got hooked on the challenge of it, I guess.

There are many reasons not to use omniscient voice:

  1. It’s not exactly in fashion in the publishing world.
  2. If you don’t watch out, you’ll end up in head-hopping third-person point of view.
  3. It’s challenging in the most subtle way ever because although the narrator can tell the reader anything—because the narrator knows everything—you can’t be inside the characters’ heads in the telling. It’s kind of like knowing a person so well you can talk about what she’s thinking, but not her exact thoughts.
  4. Maintaining a consistent voice that’s not any of the characters’ voices will drive you effing bananas.
  5. We’re used to reading novels that read intimately—first person or close-in third—so writing from a more detached perspective feels awkward.
  6. Why make our writing lives harder than need be?

Given all that, then WHY oh why this infuriating choice on my part? (FYI: The main story is in first person, so we’re intimate with my protagonist Tessa. The secondary story will probably be about thirteen chapters out of fiftyish.)

First, my sense of the story (which I hope I can convey) includes a presence that hovers over Grayvale Mansion (girl’s school inside a mansion, hehe), the surrounding lands, and the local lore. I imagine this as the voice of my omniscient narrator who understands how certain events in 1986 in the life of the mansion and its inhabitants (including Tessa) come to bear on a crime in the present day.

Second, on the practical side, omniscient voice provides an ensemble method of sharing what’s going on with many characters at once, which is what I need. Otherwise, I’d have to use alternating third-person points of view—which is the done thing these days, don’t get me wrong—but I’d rather only have two voices in the novel: Tessa’s and the omniscient narrator. Otherwise, the second storyline will read too splintered for my taste. (Is that complicated, or what?)

Anyhow, all this is to say that I’m having a ton of fun writing my new novel. We shall see!

Here are a few posts I found about omniscient voice:

https://www.nownovel.com/blog/omniscient-narrator-examples-tips/

https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/omniscient-pov/

https://www.scribophile.com/academy/using-third-person-omniscient-pov

Deadline Heaven and Life Management Skills Hell

heaven-or-hellBy Lisa Alber

Our fantastic webmistress of the ShadowSpinners world, Christina, sent me a nice email just now pointing out that yesterday makes twice in a row that I’ve missed a blogging deadline. The funny thing about deadlines is that I’m quite good at making them.

So, what’s my excuse this time? Why am I preoccupied enough that this blog has slipped my mind?

The answer is—deadlines! Yep. Coupled with a tendency to be chaotic. In December, I spaced out about this blog because I was feverishly finishing up my Labyrinth of Souls (yay!) novel for a December 31st deadline. So excited about it—can’t wait to tell you more. That and holiday stuff and regular work deadlines were enough to put me under.

And this month? A Feb 1st deadline for a short story that will appear in an anthology in about a year. You’d think a short story wouldn’t be that big a deal, but they are for me since I don’t write them that often. That coupled with my usual seasonal affective disorder and even more regular work deadlines was enough for this month.

However, since I have a new day planner for 2018, I’m going to write down a standing reminder for the first of each month: Check Shadowspinners blog posting deadline. Doing it now … Did it!

Despite not being up on everything in my life—for example, my garage door broke over a month ago; just got it fixed yesterday—I’ve been in heaven with these deadlines. I have a sense of purpose in life anyhow, but deadlines give the purpose a nice ooomph. I like that, especially when I’m having so much fun with the writing projects. Both the LoS novel and the short story were a blast to write because they were outside my usual voice and story space.

Now I’ll be returning to my regularly scheduled writing project: the next mystery, a standalone set in California in a genre I’m calling “California gothic.” I can relax a bit with this one, but the truth is that there’s always something to cause static, isn’t there? This month it will include money stuff because my wee dog Fawnie needs double knee surgery (poor thing!) and that’s expensive. So I’ll be working more than ever.

<shrug, that’s life>

One of my goals for 2018 is to minimize static and chaos. That sense of not being able to keep up, of having life itself feel too complicated and rushed all the time. It’s an ongoing process of improvement, for sure. Here are my top four strategies, for the moment, subject to change:

  1. Less social media. Social media increases static, wastes times, and distracts. Enough said.
  2. Write things down. Said day planner – yes, actually use it in a proactive way. Chunk out sub-tasks so things don’t feel so big. At the end of the day, give it a look to see where I am and plan for the next day. This it time management 101 stuff, but I’ve always gone by the seat of my pants and kept things in my head—which increases static big time. Writing it down releases it.
  3. Embrace a few routines and rituals. I’m not into routines or rituals—I tend to free-wheel it through life. I get bored and restless. I need variety and to change it up. That said, a few small routines could help streamline my life. For example, readying the coffee, food, clothes, etcetera, for the next day before I go to bed. That way, I’m not muttering around in daze when I could be getting straight to the writing.
  4. If it’s a little task, like sending an email, just get it done then.

You’d think I haven’t been functioning well as an adult for eh-hem number of years. I have to accept the fact that I’m getting older and can’t keep everything in my head anymore, plus life is that much more complicated these days. What’s “normal” is ever a-changing!

What strategies do you employ to lessen static and chaos in your life?

The Art of Creative Frittering (and Creative Napping too)

By Lisa Alber

On July 1st, I began writing a brand-spanking hold-your-horses new first draft, and it was a little painful, to be honest. Wait, what, I need to use my right brain now? But I want to analyze my idea to death into foooorever … It takes me awhile to disengage from the left brain and just start. It’s like wandering off a cliff; we’d all resist that, wouldn’t we?

Luckily, I’ve walked off this cliff enough to know that I float rather than fall. Or maybe I fall a little, but I never do the Wiley Coyote kersplat. Writing first drafts ends up being a wild ride, that’s for sure, but I always survive.

I have to give myself a hard start date, whether I feel ready or not. Hence, July 1st. I’m calling the draft “The Shadow Maiden.” My goal is 1,000 words (about four pages) per day for July, and then I’ll pause to engage my left brain in a little analysis: Does the story have chops? What have I learned about the story, characters, their motivations, and so on? What adjustments should I make now so I can continue in a better-thought-out direction?

That will be fun, but right now, I’m Little Miss Right Brain with my brainstorming novel notebook and Kaizen creativity tiny steps and pints o’ beer to help lube the wheels. (Not every day, but, yes, sometimes.) I’ll revise the shit out of anything, and I’ll do it with focus for hours, but first-draft writing? Some days it goes smoothly; other days I spend all day to get my 1,000 words.

ALL DAY. I’m not sure why this is. To an outside observer, I probably look addled. Walking around. Sitting down at the laptop again to tap out a hundred words. Unloading half the dishwasher and wandering away. Staring into space while scratching my dog’s tummy. Spacey. Distracted. It’s not relaxing, per se, because I can feel my brain inside my head (like, literally, man), heavy with unconscious processing.

I call this creative frittering, and it has a different feel from generalized putzing or procrastinating or being lazy.

Summer is my best season for writing first drafts because gardening provides a perfect outlet on creative frittering days. In fact, I’m proud to say that Manolo, the man who helps me out a few hours a month (big yard), always comments on how good the yard looks, especially the weeds — or lack of them, I should say. Yep, that’s me on creative frittering days, doing his job for him. But the garden does look pretty darned good, if I do say so.

Is there an art to creative frittering? I think so. It’s waking with the intention to write that day, but then, oddly, giving yourself the time and space to “be” without striving for the end outcome. Most of us don’t have much time to spare, and that’s true for me too. Yet, my creative process orders me to allow space for creative frittering anyhow. Mind you, it’s not every day. Maybe once a week at most. Maybe my brain needs to fill up its well, I don’t know. And sometimes, nothing works, and I don’t get my 1,000 words in, and I have to be OK with that because I’m only human.

The art of creative frittering also includes the art of creative napping. Straight up, no joke, scout’s honor. TRUTH. Here’s a great example: Last Saturday, I was particularly restless, not knowing what to do with the current scene or with myself in my body. Even gardening didn’t work. Then I realized I might as well do the exact opposite, lie down. Weird realization: The reason I couldn’t sit still to write or do much of anything was because I actually did need to rest awhile. I was so relaxed on the couch with Fawn, my eight-pound little nugget pup, nestled against me, picturing the characters in the scene, dozing off … And then, A-HA! followed by a mad dash to find my novel notebook before I lost my brilliant idea.

See? Napping, the next best thing to frittering.

I hope you enjoy these pictures of my garden, the end result of last year’s creative frittering while writing PATH INTO DARKNESS (out in a month!) and this year’s.

What say you to creative frittering, or just frittering? Do you get impatient with yourself or go with the flow?

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

-End-

Marilyn, Perfectionism, and Quitting

MarilynBy Lisa Alber

I spend last Friday night with Mom. One of our Friday movie nights. My mom is 85 years old and has dementia. She still lives at home with my sister who lives at home (not because of Mom, she just does) and two caretakers who come and go. We like to watch old movies together. Mom seems to be able to follow them, well enough anyhow.

Last Friday we watched an old Marilyn Monroe movie from before she hit sex symbol status. “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952), a noir-ish thriller in which Monroe plays a deranged babysitter. I was fascinated by her performance. She was still herself, that Marilyn thing, but she wasn’t yet typecast or peroxide blond or shimmying rather than walking. She played dramatic quite well.

When I think about Marilyn Monroe, I think about perfectionism. It’s said that she was a perfectionist, and that this was one of her obstacles (among many) to getting to the set on time, to knowing her lines, to being prepared. She wasn’t a flake; she was crippled by the need to be perfect. It’s a low-self-esteem, all-or-nothing, kind of thing.

I know about this. I’m on that spectrum, but not extremely so. Thankfully. But just enough that I’ve had good discussions about it with my therapist. I had never considered myself a perfectionist. I mean, come on, I rarely make my bed. In person, I’m the disheveled sort. No perfectionism here!

Yeah, no. That’s not what perfectionism is, though it can look like perfectly coiffed hair and made beds. My perfectionism is more the getting-straight-As thing. The problem with perfectionism is that it is an illusion, and living in the land of illusion only causes suffering. I was thinking about all of this in March for my last post: A Confusing Lesson in Resistance and Illusion.

Perfectionism is all about trying to create your worth because your internal sense of self-worth isn’t the best ever. You think people will only like or love you if you’re perfect. You don’t have the sense that you’re worthy all on your own, just as you are. Isn’t that the sense we get from Marilyn Monroe? That she was chasing this illusion?

How exhausting. For me, like I mentioned, it’s more about getting As. I want to do well in my chosen activities. Novel writing is the activity that causes me the most suffering. Seriously. I could be as perfect as I could possibly be, write the best novel I know how to write, and get no joy — no contract or no sales or no reviews. That’s where the illusion lies: that I need all this stuff to be happy as a novelist, because then it will all be just PERFECT.

So what ends up happening? Instead of having a dream, the dream has us. It owns us. Everything is the illusion of that future place where everything is perfect, if only we could get there. So we strive, and strive, and find no satisfaction in our current place because we aren’t at that future perfect place yet. And, oh the suffering, because no matter how well we write (or do whatever it is) or fast we write, or how well we engage in social media or go on book tours that we have to pay for ourselves, we aren’t on the bestseller list — !

I’m exhausted just having written that. I’ve been in that striving place since 2001-ish. And, as I told a friend last night: “This may sound pessimistic, but I give up. I’m not going to strive anymore. I want to live my life, and I want to write novels as part of that, but I give up on being owned by the dream.”

I’ve decided to quit the dream. That’s it. And that may sound horrid, but it’s not. Because quitting the dream is quitting the illusion and the perfectionism and the unhealthy striving that goes along with all of that. In fact, “quitting” is quite possibly the healthiest thing I could do for myself right now. Quitting isn’t a bad thing even though it has a bad rap.

I’m not quitting writing — no way — and you’ll see a new novel out in August, and I’m working on something totally different right now. I’m just quitting the Marilyn Monroe.

If you’re curious about the quitting topic, check out this NPR “Freakonomics” broadcast about quitting: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/the-upside-of-quitting/

And here’s an article I found about perfectionism versus *healthy* striving, which clarified a few things for me: https://cmhc.utexas.edu/perfectionism.html