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.