When the Show Can’t Go On

by Christina Lay

© Daniil Peshkov | Dreamstime.com

Our regularly scheduled blog post has been interrupted to bring you this public service announcement: Keep Calm and Support Your Local Artists.

Yesterday, with one fell swoop, the seasons of two local performing arts companies ended prematurely and many others were disrupted when the governor of Oregon announced a ban on all events with audiences of 250 or more people, and our local performing arts center cancelled all performances for the next thirty days.

The Eugene Opera was set to perform Puccini’s great opera, Tosca, today and Sunday.  This was the big event of the season, the opera’s Reason d’etre. The cancellation is potentially devastating to the small company. Tens of thousands of dollars have already been spent and the loss of ticket revenue is a crushing blow.

For this blog, though, I’m thinking about the cost to the artistic soul and the soul of the community. Countless hours of planning, preparation, practice and rehearsal led up to this point. The opera had gathered not only several fantastic principal singers to perform, but a twenty-two member chorus, a children’s chorus of fifteen, an orchestra of fifty-eight, a technical crew of about twenty, and dozens of peripheral people who contribute to the production in some way.  Thursday night was the final dress rehearsal (I’ll kick myself forever for missing it). The music, the songs, the concentrated effort of artists challenging themselves to the utmost, all pulled together to a pitch-perfect level, all the confluences of design, staging, costuming, directing, conducting, all arranged, organized, ready, to culminate in…silence. An empty stage. An empty theatre.

Ironically, the blog I’d been working on before this took over my attention concerned my grim determination to complete a novel that is a year past deadline and about a thousand hours of mental anguish over budget.  I wrote briefly about how I considered abandoning the project, walking away from all that work: 86,000 words and two years’ worth of practicing my craft.  I couldn’t do it of course, couldn’t stop striving for that final “performance” that is publication.

I’ve always believed that the main driving force behind art of any sort is communication, the burning need to express the inexpressible, to span the vast gap between one distinct person and another, to escape the shell of our body and let our souls fly free. To not publish, to not perform, to not share, to slip the novel into the drawer and quietly turn your back on all that you’ve created, is an especially exquisite sort of despair. This, alas, is what the opera, the grandest of art forms, is experiencing, only they don’t have the choice to forge ahead. Toscawill remain unsung; in this instance, in this remote corner of the globe, the show will not go on.

I’m certainly not blaming the governor or anyone else for this outcome, but that doesn’t mean I can’t mourn the loss and in my own small way, make a plea.

Eugene Opera isn’t the only arts organization being affected. The State of Washington has taken similar measures, and oh my god, Broadway Theatres are closed.  Italy, Puccini’s home, is shut. As we circle the wagons and go into crisis mode, I’d urge you, if you’re a ticket holder to a cancelled event, to donate that amount to the organization or artist in question. Even if you’re not, consider a donation to any group that’s hard hit. Beyond that, buy a book, a piece of art, a song.  Do not abandon the arts in these dark times.  This is when we need our artists the most, to give us hope and remind us of our common humanity, especially in times when isolation is recommended and communication is breaking down across all spectrums of society.

Yes, Toscawill be sung and sung again, but not our Tosca. And not today.

 

 

How Long Does it Take to Write a Book?

by Cynthia Ray

chapter one pic

Writing short stories, poetry and flash fiction is fun, interesting and doable for me.  Undertaking a longer work scares the pen off my pages, because the skills and commitment required for writing a novel are very different from those needed for the short story.  I didn’t realize exactly how different until I ambitiously started a novella over two years ago.  I spent a few months on the task, became bogged down in the middle, frustrated with myself and the process and in a self-induced state of embarrassment, shame and regret I quit writing.  I gave up on myself and the book.

once upon a time

Recently, inspired by a friend’s publication, I dug out my draft and read it again.  I was surprised to find that it wasn’t  as atrocious and stinky as I remembered.  In fact, I liked it enough to finish it after all.  Now that I am re-engaged with the project, and recovering from my feelings about my wobbly process,  I wondered how long it takes for someone, who is not me, to write a book. Is there an average?  Is there a right answer?  Do people start and stop, and then start again?  Is the process consistent among authors?  As you would imagine, the answer varies wildly among authors.  That, too, gave me hope and inspiration to write on to the end of my project, no longer alone in my leaky canoe.

In the writers who “git r’ done” category:

  • Jane Austen, according to family tradition, began writing First Impressions, the novel we know today as Pride and Prejudice, in October 1796 at the age of 20. She completed it in August 1797, just 10 months later. (Has it really been 300 years and they are still making movies of this story?!!)
  • Victor Frankl wrote his amazing and inspirational book, Man’s Search for Meaning, over the course of nine consecutive days, but he had thought about it for years during his time in the camps, and written it in his head.
  • It only took Charles Dickens six weeks to write a Christmas Carol- Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit helped speed up the process. When Dickens wrote he “saw” his characters much like the way that young Ebenezer Scrooge saw the characters from the books he had read.
  • Stephen King says that “”The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season,” he says. If you spend too long on your piece, King believes the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel.

But take heart, my slow writing friends. Look how long these famous books took to produce:

  • Melville’s tome, Moby Dick, took 18 months (but that was a year longer than he had planned).
  • Margaret Atwood took over a year, with starts and stops, to write the Handmaids tale.
  • JK Rowling worked on her first novel for more than six years.
  • George Martin also took six years to write Game of Thrones.
  • It took Tolkien more than 12 years to write Lord of the Rings, and he kept on tweaking his books even after that.

Finally, here is a short list of novels that took from 10 to 20 years to write.  Mine won’t take that long to finish.  I promise.  By the way, what are you doing here?  Shouldn’t you be writing?!

the end

The Definition of Insanity

By Christina Lay

© Adrian Ionut Virgil Pop | Dreamstime.com

I once again found myself on the periphery of one of those conversations between mothers. You know the one, where they coo over newborn baby photos and then quickly descend into recounting the horrors of a 48 hour birth procedure that included suction cups, multiple doctors and gravity. Then, as always, one of the mothers leans back smiling and says “But then you forget about all that, and have another one!”

I nod sagely. Yup. Writing novels is just like that.

Now I know there are mothers out their gritting their teeth and composing terse missives to me about how writing is NOTHING like giving birth and are lining up many terrifying and explicit examples for me to ponder. But I will blithely continue in my ignorance, because poetic license.

As you might know if you read my posts, I’ve been consumed in a two-year birthing process of a novella that turned into a novel that turned into a many tentacled monster that has no intention of every leaving the cozy confines of my computer to enter the harsh fluorescence of a published reality. And you know what my go-to solution is? Well, I’ll just write another one. That one will go smoothly and will require no suction cups.

Haven’t we all been there? After a tortuous year or two or ten, we deliver onto the world a misshapen squalling mess of a thing. It is beautiful in our eyes only, and requires more attention than ever, which we give it in the hopes that it will someday move out and stay in touch via the form of royalty checks. So what do we do once the thing no longer requires 24-hour care? We immediately start another, sure this one will be much less painful, and more easily pushed out of our brains into the light of day.

And the really sad thing for us writers, and why we deserve more sympathy than actual mothers, is that nowhere in this process is sex involved. In many ways, writing is anti-sex, because it’s a lone endeavor, and one that doesn’t promote social skills or bathing. If there’s any comparison to be made, it is that those first moments of inspiration, those early pages of infinite possibility and gleeful spewing of words, is a tiny bit orgasmic. But there’s no climax. No, the flirtatious tease that is our muse develops a sudden headache, and we are left to bring up baby on our own.

If we’re lucky, we belong to a coffee klatch of writers who gather occasionally to recount tales of horror and express sympathy, and maybe one of them is even lucky enough to have pictures to coo over in the form of cover art. Oh, blessed day!

If writing a novel is like giving birth, than composing a blog post is like passing a kidney stone. No, I’ve never done that either, but a kidney stone is smaller, so I’m assuming the process is proportionally shorter and less painful. But no tickle fest either. If there’s one thing I deeply regret as I look back over this past year, it’s allowing my post to be scheduled for New Year’s Day. This is the day when any writer worth their salt summons up all the Facebook meme wisdom they’ve absorbed over the past year and distills it into an inspirational post that will lift their fellows from the mire of despair and bring relief to the hearts of those pummeled into whimpering piles of sleep-deprived misery by the unrelenting joy of growing a novel in their brains.

I could probably come up with something inspirational if I dug deep, altered my perceptions, took on an attitude of gratitude, had more coffee and attended a 12-Step meeting or two, but I’m not feeling it. My baby refuses to move out. It’s a surly teen now and lurks in the basement wearing all black and not speaking to me (yeah, I’m gonna milk this metaphor for all it’s worth).

So as I am locked in this battle yet again, I reflect upon a piece of wisdom I’ve heard many times in many Al-Anon meetings: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

I have to ask myself, has my compulsion to craft stories become an addiction? Is it insane to think that I will ever “get the hang of” the noveling thing? Is it self-deluding to hope for an easy birth? The answer to all of those things is Yes. Does that mean I should stop? Hell, no.

The problem isn’t the writing, No, never the writing. The problem is that word “expect”. Here’s another bit of annoying 12-Step wisdom: An expectation is a resentment waiting to happen. In this case, a writer who expects an easy go of it, who expects their next novel to be perfect, wonderful, Harvard-educated, with great posture and clear skin, is doomed to fall into resentment. Resentment of the very story they’ve conceived and nurtured, resentment of themselves for not living up to their goals and dreams. Insanity is expecting that we’ll be able to do this thing, write these novels, and look good doing it. That we will one day become that person in the memes who wallows in joy, wildness, creativity and spirituality all while looking great in a flowing frock on a beach or a mountain top, backlit by a sunrise.

No, there will be drool. Blood maybe. Tears definitely. All days will be bad hair days. Mysterious stains will appear on all our favorite things. We will trudge, fall down, ugly cry, and doubt. Oh, there will be so much doubt.

Inspired yet?

Okay, let’s try that again. The thing to remember is that we will forget. Forget the pain. Remember those exciting moments of foreplay, and the wonder of creating something new. Insanity is believing the resentments and doubts and drool and letting them stop us from doing our thing. Sanity is doing what we love no matter how much it hurts. For someday we’ll look back on those stories and novels and oh-so-many pages, and be able to say, “I did that” and be proud. Maybe we’ll even have pictures to show.

World Fantasy 2019

by Matthew Lowes

At the mass book signing with Christina Lay and Stephen T. Vessels

I had a great time at the World Fantasy convention with ShadowSpinners Press and some fellow authors in the Labyrinth of Souls fiction series. Can’t say I saw much of LA, since I did not leave the Airport Marriott for three days, but the weather was nice, the conference was great, and the company was outstanding. It is truly a wonderful experience to be in the midst of so many creative and inspiring writers and artists.

The crowds gather in LA Airport Marriott

The ShadowSpinners table had a lively showing in the book room, and I had a great time answers questions about Dungeon Solitaire and the Labyrinth of Souls. I signed a few books, did a reading with fellow authors Christina Lay and Stephen T. Vessels, and managed to get to a few talks and panels. I was particularly interested to learn a bit more about audiobook production and particularly taken with the beautiful art of Reiko Murakami.

The ShadowSpinners table and chief editor Christina Lay

With another successful appearance, we are planning to make an even bigger showing next year in Salt Lake. We’ll have more books, more authors, and more games. Hope to see you there!

Art print by Reiko Murakami (available on her website)

 

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.

The 12 Steps of Getting Over Yourself

by Christina Lay

I have a confession to make. I’ve completed 15 novels and novellas; some of them are even published. This does not include an indeterminate number of drawer novels, those hideous beasties who lurk forever in a state of suspended animation waiting for my fickle brain to become interested in them again. But they are important too, because they represent hundreds of hours of learning the hard way.

I’ve done a lot of hard-way learning. One would think that at this point I would have mastered the art of noveling—or as some people call it, “writing”—but the process of bringing a novel into the world is an ever-evolving, ever-elusive endeavor, and there is no end point, no graduation ceremony after which you will forever breeze through the process of writing like a mature, unruffled professional. No, writing is an exciting ride, a roller coaster of surprises, a minefield of potential failures, a vale of tears.

Recently, I did another dance with The Wall. You know. The one that stops you. This one stopped me for longer than usual. During this Winter of My Worst Novel Ever, I penned the following ripoff of the famous 12 Steps of Alcoholism Anonymous. May they come to your aid during your next Worst Novel Ever.

The 12 Steps of Getting Over Yourself and Finishing the Damn Novel

  1. Admitted we were powerless over the plot, and that our novel had become unmanageable
  2. Came to believe that a really good book on craft could restore us to sanity
  3. Made a decision to turn our plot and our characters over to the care of a workshop or writing group, and to try and utilize their critiques as we understood them
  4. Made a searching and analytical inventory of our novel
  5. Admitted to our muse, to ourselves, and to our writing group the exact nature of our screw-ups
  6. Were entirely ready to ruthlessly cut these defects of plot
  7. Humbly asked our writing group to help us
  8. Made a list of all the places we had gone wrong, and became willing to remove all of our adverbs
  9. Made direct cuts wherever possible, except when to do so would injure the story or character development
  10. Continued to take an honest inventory and when we went wrong, promptly corrected our course
  11. Sought through writing groups and workshops to improve our storytelling abilities as we understood them, gathering the knowledge of how to write and the caffeine to carry those ideas to fruition
  12. Having had an awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others by participating in a writing group, leading workshops, writing articles, and by using what we learned in all our writing affairs

 

Paper Clip by John Burridge

Today on ShadowSpinners we welcome John Burridge, who brings us a tale of mystery, inspiration, and not-so-ordinary objects.

I linger outside the supermarket where I sometimes write.  The hot sky is the color of ash, as if someone has smeared the remains of a BBQ pit across heaven.  The breeze makes it seem like the grey smudge above hides rain, but the forecast is for heat and an insulating inversion.  I’m tempted to make this a drinking night–the day’s been frustrating–but I opt to try to write instead.  A cold blast of air-conditioning hits my face as I walk inside.  

I stalk through the aisles, try to find something that will inspire me to write, purchase some healthy-ish snacks, then head upstairs.  The table I normally write at in the supermarket’s mezzanine is occupied by an older lady with the props of homelessness:  an over-burdened cart, which might have been an IV rack in a past life, its thick grey wheels signaling that it’s possibly from a hospital or nursing home, with full, plastic rival-market shopping bags hanging from it.

I cast about the mezzanine and end up at another table; like all the others, it’s a cool, dark, and highly polished sheet of marble or artisanal concrete, flecked with mica glinting like stars.

I set up my tablet, plug in headphones against the inevitable wailing children, cell-phone-using psychiatry patients, and estranged roommates.  I type–hoping that this time the words will flow like a spring in an oasis; like the aurora borealis at midnight; like a pod of dolphins dancing among the waves; like lover’s kisses along the nape, around the hollow of the neck, and over those places loved best.

Instead, I write ten or so lines of bad Oscar Wilde pastiche and maybe three lines about the Prince of Lyres standing over splinters of his instrument in front of the still locked gates of the underworld.  Gee, thanks, subconscious.  Tell me something I don’t already know.

Then the children, their mothers, the cell-phone users, and irked roommates parade by my foreign workspace–each one stomping the floor in just the right place to make my borrowed workspace tremble.  This would never happen at my regular table, which is not on the path to the market’s restrooms.

The old woman–pushing her cart before her–joins the parade, makes for the elevator, and exits the mezzanine.

By this time, I’m thinking this isn’t going to be a good writing night and I should just go meet up with my ex-critique group for a drink–but, it’s still early, and, actually, I should be saving my money.  A math tutoring session at the next table over decides me that if I’m going to not-write doggerel, I may as well do it in a better setting.  Besides, an attendant with antiseptic spray and cleaning rag has swooped over the vacated tables.  I scoop up snacks, pack, tablet, and keyboard, and I walk–headphones still on–to my regular spot.

I get to the table and there in the dark-sky-and-mica-star center of it is a paperclip.  Which slaps me back in time.  Weeks ago last June, at an elder-stateswoman-writer’s memorial, someone told a story about paperclips.  A few days before the writer died, the story-teller (an atheist) and the writer were joking around about supposed afterlives and randomly came up with the word “paperclip” as the message the writer would send as proof if she found herself in heaven.  The day after, the story-teller, in a moment of synchronicity, inexplicably found two paperclips–which he presented to the memorial gathering–linked, in his pocket.

I pick up this singleton paperclip.  It’s steel or some other silvery metal, with little grooves worked into the loops for extra gripping friction.

What meaning does one assign a paperclip–which may have been left behind by an elderly and possibly homeless woman when she left, pushing her belongings and errands out into the hot evening with a setting sun hidden by smoke and ash?

Paperclips hold pages together–paper planes which touch but do not connect.  Maybe the paperclip says, “Hold together;” but hold what?  There’s nothing currently in it more substantial than thought.

I rotate the paperclip in my fingers.  It’s not perfectly flat.  The inner loop of metal is pulled up slightly from the outer loop.  At one point it held together something–a manuscript? a prescription and receipt? a photo and resume?–but holding whatever together has warped it.

I put it down next to my keyboard and stare at it as I type.

Is the shade of a great writer leaving me a paperclip as a sign of encouragement?  Or, is it a reward for sitting with butt in chair and fingers on keyboard instead of slouching against a tavern table with a margarita in my hand?  Or, is it a challenge–write the story this empty paperclip will have to hold together?  Or, is it a message–the writer connects meanings to the actions in the text?  Yeah, right.  “Don’t lose the day job,” would be a more likely message, and I imagine she’d have better uses for manifesting paperclips, like leaving them for her family or people she’d known much longer than our two years’ acquaintance.  Or her agent.

I write all this while staring at the paperclip.  It’s getting late.  Maybe tonight I’ll dream about paperclips.  Maybe I’ll make a shirt that says, “My writer friend went to heaven and all I got was this paperclip.”  Maybe I’ll write a fantasy story about a magician who makes a talisman of paperclips linked together into a necklace:  every paperclip a star, every star a soul, every soul a story.

***

John Burridge writes short stories in the high fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary urban fantasy genres.  His work explores familial relationships, choice, and identity.  A native Oregonian, John lives with his husband, son, and two requisite cats (one fluffy and grey, the other sleek and black).

John is an alumni of the Eugene Wordos, a professional writer’s critique group.  He was an active member from 2001 to 2017, and he chaired or co-chaired their meetings from 2003 onward.

His first professional sale was to Writers of the Future.  Since then, he has garnered a few other sales and many, many rejection slips.  You can read more about him and his publishing history at https://johnburridge.blogspot.com/p/bio-writing-credits.html.