I have a very hard time letting go and admitting defeat; or, rather, admitting that things need to go. I hacked 10,000 words tonight, of my own volition, after sitting down and having a heart-to-heart with The Aldersgate. Defeat is definitely the wrong word here because I’m fairly certain that this work is going to lead to better things: most importantly clarity, character, and cohesiveness.

This is my problem: I try to do too much. And this, I think, is connected to the way my girl brain works. I am indeed, how Wil Wheaton put it, “A ferret on meth.” Except I don’t take meth, and am not, at last check, much of a rodent. I’m always balancing a thousand things at once, and often, I flourish in the chaos–my brain actually works better when I’m busy, ideas come more easily, dialogue flows better. But it also means I sleep less, forget more, and am often an incessant chatter-box. I’m a consummate multitasker.

But there is a tipping point. The first draft of the book had five main POVs; at one point, this current draft had nine.

I am not, I repeat, NOT George R. R. Martin.

My ferret brain is a ferret brain, and there is a point where I just can’t keep it up. So. Axe, axe, axe. I took away the narratives that were turning into character sketches and not moving the plot along very well. What ultimately decided the deal for me was, oddly enough, the podcast. I started listening to the chapters as if I were an audience and not the author and realized–heck, I’ve got to make this more interesting. If I keep introducing characters at this rate, the reader will fall asleep because nothing is happening.

And honestly? I feel like I can breathe better now.

Don’t get me wrong, I love characters. Putting these folks on the back burner breaks my heart. I get attached, feel motherly toward, and even get occasionally get crushes (very… weird, yes… but I admit it, and I’m told I’m not the only one) on my characters. But it’s not like I’m killing these folks. No, they’re just receding to the background and not getting a POV because their stories can be told through the eyes of other POVs.

I’ve probably stopped making sense by this point. I suppose, what I’m trying to say is that, if you’re at a point where you feel like you’re stuck in the mire (which I certainly have been feeling) sometimes you need to step away and put on another set of goggles (go go steampunk metaphors!). Telling stories is hard business, and telling them right is even harder.

Words are not nearly as precious as the stories they tell, and sometimes the words have to be rewritten… and rewritten… and rewritten, until they’re right. In that way writing is much like sculpture. The work is there, in the stone–you just have to chip away until you find it. And then there are even times that the stone you’re working with isn’t even worth the work, and you have to start from scratch.

But you keep going. Because well… it’s your art.

Writing. It’s what I do.

As Paul Jessup has pointed out, Catherynne M. Valente’s essay on writing a novel in 30 days is awesome. I’m a fast writer, too, when I get going. When being the operative word; with the kiddo, the husband, the family, the job, the animal menagerie… well, I suppose I can just start not sleeping?

Anyone who’s attempted to write a novel–even if they’ve just managed through the planning stage–knows how challenging and often daunting the prospect can be. Precious few of us have unlimited time to sit back, drink coffee, and write (as Stephen King famously does, for instance) until you reach your daily 20 pages, or 10,000 words, or whatever.

Here’s a few suggestions that might help you out of the mire. I’m not an expert, but over the last decade or so I’ve figured out some tips that just might get you going in the right direction.

1.) Don’t listen to other writers’ processes. I’m not saying not to listen to me, exactly. I’m saying, don’t take a successful writer’s process as law. Everyone works differently, and at difference paces. Tolkien took decades to write the LoTR, and many popular authors seem to crap (for lack of a better term) out a book every month or so. Find your own pace, your own style. Learn when you write best, and under which circumstances. If you are busy, like me, you might want to use a calendar for a few weeks and mark down what days and when you were the most prolific.

2.) Avoid quicksand. There’s a reason writers write in drafts. Very few people–excluding, I’ve heard, Neil Gaiman–have to rewrite large parts of their books during the process. So when you’re writing your first version down, try not to sweat the small stuff. It’s way too easy to mistake the forest for the trees when you’re writing your first draft, and you can get hung up on the smallest stuff. If you’re like me you treat your first draft like an outline, and build from there. I’ve talked to plenty of writers who get stuck in this stage and never get out, and blame it on extraneous factors. But quite often, the mire of stalling in draft stage is self-inflicted quicksand.

3.) Don’t apologize. This happens quite often with fiction that skitters along the fantasy, science fiction, or steampunk flavor: writers feel like they have to apologize for their interests. This is deadly poison. The moment you start apologizing for what you like or what you like to write, you immediately discredit yourself to whoever it is your talking to, and to yourself. Writing takes confidence, and any crack can cause serious stress points in the whole structure.

4.) Get over the hard work factor. For the vast majority of writers out there, writing a novel is damn hard work. It’s harder, too, when you have a real job, a family, and a life outside. Making writing a priority is no small task. I’ve been setting word goals for myself. i.e.: no surfing the internet until I’ve hit another 1,000 words. And then, only for a few minutes. You can’t sit and say, “Ugh! This is so hard!” because you could be writing instead of complaining. If you’re dedicated to getting it finished, then you just have to do it. No publisher in their right minds will take an unfinished novel! We all have ideas, after all. It’s the work in between that distinguishes a novel from an idea.

5.) Keep finding inspiration. Whether it’s movies, music, other books, or pieces of art, we all have points of inspiration when it comes to writing. Don’t get so wrapped up in your book that you forget to absorb; be a sponge! Writing takes momentum, and it’s much easier to maintain it than to lose it and start from scratch again.

6.) Figure out why you write. Ask yourself the question, and examine the answer. Think about it. If the answer is acceptable for you, something you can live by, great. But if you’re not finding success writing, maybe your heart’s not in it for the right reasons.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil by John KeatsCompulsion is described as:

the act of compelling; constraint; coercion.
the state or condition of being compelled.
Psychology. a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, esp. one that is irrational or contrary to one’s will.

Writing is a strange habit, and certainly not one too many people engage in. There are lots of reasons for this. It is extremely time consuming; it requires focus, drive, and endless creativity; it is something done, with some exceptions, in near solitude.

And yes, it is, as Chaucer might say, “passing straunge.”

I have strange days when I open up Scrivener, and stare at the words–the words upon words–and can’t imagine where it all came from. I know, of course, that I’ve done it, that I’ve written the words and have told the story. But I can’t tell you where inspiration comes from, and I certainly can’t explain the magic formula involved when it actually goes right. Because, with writing–for me, at least–there is very little in the way of planning. Precious few are the days, hours, minutes, that I set aside for pure writing actually successful.

In spite of the loss of 10k words this week, the proof to me is that: hey, I wrote. I didn’t feel like I was, but I managed 10k in two weeks. 5k a week isn’t too shabby, that’s for sure, considering most of this “edit” has been a complete rewrite.

It’s rare that I go out of my way to share much of my writing. First of all, explaining fantasy novels–let alone steampunk fantasy novels–to anyone is trecherous territory. You either get it or you don’t.

The truth is, though, whether or not the novels, the stories, the poems ever see the light of day, it doesn’t really matter. I can’t stop writing, I can’t stop playing pretend. Because, really, that’s what it is. In fact, I can trace it back: I started writing novels when I stopped playing pretend with my little sister. We had an incredible world, she and I, filled with the kind of magic and mystique that only little girls can muster in the closeness and imaginative golden years of youth.

But, like Susan Pevensie, I suppose, I had to grow up. I was twelve and, at least according to me, much too old to be pretending to be someone I was not. Yet, the imagining didn’t cease. I wrote alone for a while, then brought my sister on board, and later wrote with my friend. Then when I was 15, I started the long dark years of teenaged angst, and didn’t write much (other than music, that is). And even in undergraduate school, I didn’t write much. This was mostly due to a rather stifling relationship that honestly didn’t leave any room for me. The stuff I did write was for workshops in my writing courses, and certainly not for me. I never could let go in those classes.

It took graduate school for me to revisit the book I’d started rather haphazardly when I was 18. That novel is finished, per se, but it still is lacking. I’ve probably been through it five times and I seriously doubt it can be resurrected. It’s a good story, but it’s so young. As I wrote it I could feel my writing improve, I could tell I was getting better; it’s hard to keep consistent when you’re growing that much.

Now, life is no less difficult–but it is different, in many ways. The Aldersgate is more than just my novel in progress; it was, you see, my way out of a very dark place, in the aftermath of postpartum depression. It brought me hope that I could write again, that I could create, and that there was light somewhere, even if it felt very distant. Slowly but surely, the world of the novel was revealed, in snippets, in voices, in conversations. It was as if after the suffering, the terror of nearly losing my son after he was born (and, I’m told, nearly dying myself bringing him into the world), I was given a gift.

I often say that Emry, the Bard, is the closest to me in the story. And at first, I thought it was because he was musical, and often clumsy, slightly foppish, and certainly a romantic at heart (curse me, but I am). But as I continue to write him, and to explore his growth in my novel, I realize that we share something else in common: suffering. We’ve been places that we can’t explain to people, even if we tried. And in spite of it all, we risk that suffering again because we love–not just our work and our calling, but our friends, too.

All that said, I’m feeling rather reflective since the Great Hard-Drive Explosion of 2008. Every now and again I feel as if I walk into another chapter of my own life; the light is different, the stars have moved, and there’s a new song to be sung.

So, with that, I suppose it’s time to move on along.

O Melancholy, linger here awhile!
O Music, Music, breathe despondingly!
O Echo, Echo, from some sombre isle,
Unknown, Lethean, sigh to us—O sigh!
Spirits in grief, lift up your heads, and smile;
Lift up your heads, sweet Spirits, heavily,
And make a pale light in your cypress glooms,
Tinting with silver wan your marble tombs.— Keats, “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil”

Uranie and CalliopeWhere does inspiration occur? How does it find us? Where, and when, are we most likely to encounter it?

If there’s anything I’ve learned, the Muses are fickle creatures indeed. But instead of despairing, there are quite a few measures you can take to wiggle your way out of the dark crevices of writer’s block. At least, I’ve found some of these methods useful:

5.) Listen to the Music. This is #5, but it’s usually my first line of defense. As a musician myself, this specifically refers to the listening, and not the making aspect. I like to craft writing playlists, and these typically run toward the Classical side (I’m also horrendously addicted to WCPE). However, instrumental and operatic melodies aren’t always the best to jog the proverbial jammed gear of creativity. I like to try and delve through music I haven’t heard of in a while, like what I might have listened to in high school (lots of Beatles, Moxy Fruvous, and TMBG). Or, I can branch out into something completely new–after resisting for almost a decade, I ended up obsessed with Coldplay’s XY a few months ago.

4.) Get the heck outside. This may seem quite obvious, but one of the most sources of my writer’s block comes from the stasis achieved by staring at my Own Two Walls too long. Lack of sunlight (and consequent Vitamin D), exercise, and oxygen, are never a good combination. Hikes tend to work for me; if you’ve read a bit here at all, you’ll know I’m a bit of a tree fiend. I get rather giddy staring in to the limbs of trees, especially this time of year, and back-to-basics nature-gazing is always a good place to plant the seeds of a story (no pun intended).

3.) Try a graphic novel. While no means a comic book aficionado–I leave that distinction to my husband–I’ve been helped out of a sorry writer’s block mood more than once by a graphic novel or two. Neil Gaiman is always a good place to start, in my opinion, since his Sandman comics are such a sophisticated combination of mythology, legend, and pop culture. There’s something very stimulating about reading pictures and words simultaneously that can often jog the creative spaces left in the brain.

2.) Meditate. This doesn’t have to be a spiritual thing if you don’t want it to be, of course. I wouldn’t want to push religion on anyone. But the act of meditation, of emptying oneself, might seem a little counter intuitive at first. I mean, how can not thinking help you think? Strangely enough, it does, at least for me. Taking time to calm myself and to open my mind to the images and emotions necessary to write a novel is something that meditation often ushers in rather well. I’ve experienced some of the most vivid ideas after or during meditation (and yoga, too).

1.) Talk it out. Go back and read what you’ve written (if you’ve got anything) and do it aloud. Record it, if you can. Listen to the natural cadence of the language, to the sound of the sentences working together. But most importantly, try to listen to it freely–i.e. try to detach yourself from the telling. So many of us get uselessly wrapped up in our tales, and mistake the forest for the trees. A distance from that can let us experience the magic of narrative in a whole new way. Not to mention, it helps you get a better idea of your characters to hear them speak for once!

Hopefully these suggestions are helpful for you. Unfortunately, there’s no panacea for finding A Way Out. I know there are some things I have tried that typically end in lots of lost time (cruising Wikipedia, for example). Sometimes, you have to find your own way through…

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.

— Truman Capote

The FuriesEditing a novel can be, pardon the language, a major bitch.

I think I could edit this book for a millennium and still never be happy with it. It’s like a plague–you start, you edit a few things, and then you realize: “Oh crap! I should go back and fix that, too!”

It’s cyclical. The more I edit and rewrite, the more I change, the less I’m happy with my own work. The more I doubt myself. The more I question, the more depressed I feel about the whole process.

Two weeks ago, I visited family up North and I had a lot of time to contemplate writing. Most of this was done in bed since I had a terrible time falling asleep. The idea occurred to me that I should do some major restructuring. As it is, this multi-POV is kicking my ass. I thought about putting the first book into a Book I and Book II, sort of in the way Tolkien did to manage his characters as they flitted around Arda. The first half could deal with the story from the POV of the Territories characters (Brick, Emry, and Cora, respectively) and the second half would be the Queensland contingent (Kaythra, Denna, Sylvan, and Ellin).

The idea of restructuring this again makes me feel slightly faint. But I think it’s the only way to a) keep the reader’s attention and b) keep my brain from overloading going back and forth from chapter.

I’m also thinking that my editing method might do better if I abandoned the way I wrote the first draft. Instead of writing by POV, I wrote by chapter without regard. But in order to keep continuity smoother, it’s may work better if I edit by character instead, that way I can make sure the overall plot and arc of each character’s journey is at its best.

So, it’s going to be a hell of a lot of more work. And it doesn’t help that I’ve been thinking about another book I started writing about five years ago, to boot. And all these short story ideas.

Ah, for a modicum of focus!

Anyway, it’s high time for a new podcast. I seem to focus better after podcasting… go figure!

FriggaStephen King calls it telepathy, this ability to conjure unseen worlds into words, and by extension, pictures. It certainly is an odd vocation, to be a writer, and all of us who write by compulsion have our own approaches. Some are regimented, they can sit down and say “I’m going to write 3,000 words” and they do. Others plan every step up to the writing, taking copious notes and making outlines, and then sit down to do the work. Still others just wait, listening in the dark corners, for fancy to strike.

My process is odd, I admit. I’m highly undisciplined, and–though this time ’round I’ve broken a little with tradition–I typically don’t organize, and often have no idea where in the Universe the story is going in a given chapter, until I’m there. Most of my ideas appear to me as I’m falling asleep, a combination of events that’s meant I often have a difficult time getting to sleep. I write “in the dark” I suppose, waiting for glimpses of light in between cracks, and then excavating what I see.

The Aldersgate started when my friend Karen said to me, “I’m surprised you’ve never written a Western.” In the space of about three minutes, half of the characters in the novel appeared to me with astonishing clarity. I scribbled down some of the first chapter (which is now completely rewritten) and set the scene, then let it be for quite some time. You see, I was editing Another Book which, at this point, is sitting in cold storage for a while. Then it became apparent to me that it was time to work more on The Aldersgate, and in the space of about half a year, I wrote the entire first draft.

And by draft, really I mean outline. I just can’t plan ahead. It’s not in my nature. And I’m crud at actually editing my own work. I’m such a fast typer that I usually find it much better to simply rewrite the chapters as opposed to editing the bits and pieces. Whether or not this saves time, I don’t know. I just know that the second draft (the one I’m reading from which as also been edited by my brilliant godfather) is much, much stronger than the first.

But there are times where telling the story becomes such a Huge Thing that I get rather tongue-tied. Or, I suppose, finger-tied. I’m tossed into brain numbness. It’s not writer’s block, because I know where the story is going (at least now I do). I even outlined all my chapters to the end (yes, I’m proud of myself). It’s just at times it feels like there’s so much to say and so much to do and so many words to write–and write well–that I just can’t get it right. The last month or so has been replete with hurdles, writing huge sections and deleting them, restructuring, moving around, petitioning the Muse (Aelfric has one heck of a sense of humor, I tell you).

I just finished a chapter that was, I noticed, at the exact center of the novel. I didn’t realize this until I finished it, and it was hideously long. But it had to be long. It establishes one of the most important themes of the whole books, and one of the most important locations of the entire series. I couldn’t very well leave it to a few thousand words. Writing felt tedious though, and when I finally came up for air and looked at my word count it was shockingly high–in fact, the longest chapter I’ve written to date.

When it comes down to it I don’t know if I can suggest writing a multi point-of-view novel to anyone. Sure, they’re entertaining to read, and often a ton of fun to write. If you love getting inside of multiple characters, it’s truly thrilling. However, I get stuck. What if I don’t feel like Emry today, but I’ve got to finish this Emry chapter? How about what happens when Cora and Emry cross paths? Whose narrative do I go with? Whose do I drop? Where is everyone else? Where is my MAP?

My map is in my brain and it’s a perilous place in there. I lament the fact that my poor characters have to rattle around up there, in between the junk that I store, waiting to be put down in ink.

Process. We all do it differently. I suppose, when all is said and done, so long as it works for you, then it is successful. Very few writers approach their work the same way, and why should they? We don’t all want to write the same book (though some critics I read in grad school would argue that yes, we’re all writing the same book).

I think it’s a little late in the evening to be blogging, but I’ve been a bit too quiet. I’m working on putting together a .pdf version of Chapters One and Two and should be posting Chapter Two this weekend.

Well, I’m off to dream the next chapter. Cheers. 🙂