Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Inspirations . . . a day late :)

Yes, we wanted to finish off our Inspirations Posts in March. We didn't. Or, more accurately, I didn't. But that doesn't mean I don't have inspirations to share!

1. TV

I am not one of those smart people who never watch TV. (Side story--when we moved from Seattle to Utah in 1998, we were in a new house in a new development that didn't have cable lines yet. We decided to wait, since we were promised they would be there any month now. I had three kids ages five and under and told my husband, "No, I don't need a satellite dish. I can wait. We've got a VCR and Sesame Street tapes and besides, maybe this experience will turn me into one of those wise people who realizes I don't need television in my life." HA! Nine months after moving in, with no cable lines in sight, the satellite dish went up. I regret nothing.)

In any case, I like television. All kinds. Reality competitions like Top Chef and Project Runway. HGTV series like Love It or List It and The Property Brothers. Modern Family. Sherlock. Vampire Diaries. Binge-watching older favorites like Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica and West Wing.

But wait, the better angel of my nature whispers, isn't that just wasting time when I could be writing?

Sometimes it is. And sometimes, it's inspiration.

I'm not going to mount my full-fledged defense of my TV choices in this post, but I have undeniably found inspiration in some of my TV watching. Good writing crosses all genres and forms of media. Character development is critical in both good comedy and good drama. (And speaking of characters, where better to find a cross-section of humanity under stress than in a show about renovating your house or a young fashion designer trying to sew a ball gown in twenty-four hours?)

Lately, my inspiration has been focused on the British spy series MI5. Called "Spooks" in the UK, the ten seasons of this drama cover every conceivable domestic threat of our modern world and the MI5 operatives trying to protect their country. Since my new trilogy deals heavily with Queen Elizabeth's chief intelligencer, Francis Walsingham, and the agents he used to keep his queen alive against multiple threats, there is inspiration galore to be found in MI5.

But how? you ask. How can a TV series set in the years just before and after 9/11 have any relevance to   England in the 1580s?

Maybe it doesn't. Maybe this is just my excuse to watch. (Though, honestly, who needs an excuse to watch Richard Armitage as my favorite type of hero--tall, dark, and damaged?) 

It's not plot lines I get from MI5. It's not specific details. It's mood and tone. It's atmosphere, the tension of life-and-death situations, how different personalities react and how those different personalities can be welded into a team. Elizabeth Tudor did not face the threat of nuclear weapons or suicide bombers or disruptions to the internet. But she did face the very real threat of England's destruction by the Catholic powers. They wanted her Protestant kingdom wiped off the earth, and rebuilt in the image of France or Spain. She had enemies abroad and enemies at home and every time she left her chamber she faced the possibility of assassination. Who did she turn to for help? In my alternate world, who does Francis Walsingham recruit? (The answer, as it was in real life, is--whoever he could.) And how might those young intelligence agents face the threats against their country and their queen and their own lives? Those answers are more easily found--for me--when I have lost myself for a bit in the dark world of MI5.

(Plus Richard Armitage. Just saying.)

2. Music

A much more common source of inspiration for writers is music. (Yes, I make playlists for my books as I'm writing. Someday I'll get them on my website, so you can share in the weirdness of my mind which has everything from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Twisted Sister as a playlist for a book set in the 1550s.) There's a whole other post to be written about how I go about finding specific pieces for specific characters and moments in my books.

But today, I'm thinking more about how music itself can sometimes solve my problems. For example, I am nearing the end of the first draft of the first book in my new trilogy. I have a playlist for that book, and a jumbled miscellany of other songs that may or may not be useful in upcoming books. Because as soon as I turn in book one, I have to get to serious work on book two. They're due just six months apart, which is a rather short timeline. It means I have little time to cast about for inspiration for book two--I've got to begin writing the moment I can.

And that's been haunting me a bit, because I wasn't exactly sure what book two was about. It's been a while (six years, to be exact) since I've started a completely new project, and remember how this trilogy sold on the strength of a two-page synopsis? That's not a lot of skeleton for me on which to piece together an entire book.

I knew who the book was about. I knew something of the overarching plot for this middle book to fit into the trilogy. But I was struggling with tone, with atmosphere, with emotion.

And then I was saved by two disparate soundtracks.

As I listened to various pieces on these soundtracks--bought simply because I loved them and their shows--inspiration began to pour forth. I could see--and, more importantly, feel--my main character in several critical moments. It's betrayal and loyalty and doing what one feels is right no matter the cost. It's disappointing your family and learning that life isn't black and white. Once I saw Stephen (that's all I'm telling you about him!) in those critical scenes, then the story began to build around him and those moments.

If you're curious, here are two of those critical pieces of music:

Sherlock, Season 3, Addicted to a Certain Lifestyle

Game of Thrones, Season 3, A Lannister Always Pays His Debts 

So, if I have any words of advice on inspiration, it's this: Go wild. Don't worry about being smart or cool or being inspired by the "right" kinds of things. Inspiration knows you. It knows how you live and what you like. It will come to you in a way that you will understand.

(Although Richard Armitage is a good place to start. For anything.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Writing Inspired by Play

At writer's conferences we're often reminded that butt-in-chair just may be the elusive secret to success, and that's absolutely true.  We also know that after the Nano high wears off and the euphoria of typing The End fades away, there will be months upon months of revisions followed by months upon months of work spent querying, submitting, and/or working to get that manuscript published.  Only to repeat all those months and months over again, with that manuscript, and possibly (probably?) tearfully setting it aside in order to plow into more months of rejections and elbow grease on a new manuscript.  And I really hate to say it, but most of that will not be fun.  Or even fair.

So, can writing be fun?  Is it playful?  Well, obviously not all of it!  Not unless you've got some really crazy definition of fun, and also like paper cuts, blistering sunburns, and seeing small dead animals on the road.

But writing can (and maybe should) owe inspiration to fun, and even in the query woes and at that stage of revision where burning is too good for your book, writing can enjoy the sparkly edge of play.  I'm talking about those moments when you're walking down the street and suddenly your writer sense (which everyone knows is second only to a spidey sense) goes crazy.  You've just seen something preposterous, or maybe tiny and dear, and it's sparked all kind of shiny writing ideas.  Woot for sparklies!

Or maybe you're going about your serious day in your serious life, and someone surprises you.  Or you surprise yourself.  And it's not the bad kind of surprise, like waking up to the sound of your child vomiting all over their bedroom...when you have to catch a plane at 5am and just got to sleep...but rather, it's the good kind of surprise.  Like, when you've been trudging through a dreary day of rain and more rain, and suddenly the sun pulls up a corner of the grey sky and shines out, splashing a rainbow over everything!  Or, you're watching a parade and you see...

a grown man, walking on stilts, pretending that he's floating in an inner tube down a river...in the middle of the street.  Do you see the look on his face?  The way his smile seems to reach every corner of his being?  That's play.  And I think we all need it, but especially creative people.

We need it because without it, the well into which we dip can run dry.  And our oasis shrivels, and we find ourselves trying to build sand castles without any water to make the sand pack, or paint an image of a vibrant, mysterious jungle with nothing but one wilted leaf.

Finding play can be tricky.  Children help. So do animals, and people that smile at us.  But in the end it's about ourselves, our souls, and if we recognize the inspiration and power in play.  If we can step back from the daily grind of butt in chair and elbow grease to appreciate that sunlight bursting in, and the hilarious things a kid will say when woken by vomit at 5am.  Because play is all around us, once we've opened our eyes to see it.

Cherish it, embrace it, and let the laughter come.

Tell, me, what inspires your writing?  What makes you smile?  I would love to hear your thoughts!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Writing: Inspired by Eating Styles

Just as I sat down at the computer to dream up a post on what inspires me, the TV in the other room blared: inspired by food.  Yeah, okay, I can take a message even when the universe delivers via the boob tube.

But as I started to think about how food inspires me, I realized it’s not only what people eat, but the style with which they do it.  Everyone has a style that reveals or hides his or her personality and backstory.  We change our style of eating with situations, who we are with and where.  Eating is so visible and unavoidable it makes hiding innate quirks almost impossible, even the act of trying to hide or eat in an accustomed style reveals discomfort.  

Eating style is a wonderful bit of body language to use when writing and it’s something easily understood by most readers. Actually, thinking about different eating styles and what they mean is a great way to begin creating a character.  

How about a billionaire who gobbles his morning oatmeal as if it’s his last meal. What’s the backstory there?  Does he hold his spoon in a strange way?

Take a middleclass boy who snacks on cold SpaghettiOs out of a can, dribbling noodles and sauce down his baseball shirt--now make that boy a businesswoman in suit and have her eating in an office storeroom or have her serving it in a boardroom.  See how those changes effect how we interpret the character?

Or a teenage girl who refuses to eat samores around the campfire, but later sneaks off on, carefully peels the wrapper from a chocolate bar, folds the wrapper, then nibbles off one square and stashes the rest. Hmmm. What does that say about her and her relationship to the other campers? What does she do with the wrapper and the rest of the chocolate? Is she a serial killer in the making or is it the boy who demands catsup on everything?

My mother grew up during the depression. For Christmas she always got box of Cheese Tidbits. At least, a million times she told me how she’d count out the number of crackers in the box and allow herself one per day as a treat. At ninety years old, she was still assigning numbers to how many treats she and others were allowed: 18 peanuts at cocktail time and five nuts for the dog. I doubt she ever gorged, but she was really good at slobbering coffee.

You get the idea. Now, the next time you’re stuck or dreaming up a story, think about the eating styles of people you know—or go to a restaurant and do some people watching.  Look at people eating grapes at the grocery store or beelining for free food samples. Do they enjoy this food without caring who sees or are they sneaky?

Time to fess up. What quirky eating habits do you have or what styles drive you nuts?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Writing Inspiration: Science & Dreams

Anyone who creates anything needs inspiration. Flying inspired the Wright brothers, Lisa inspired Da Vinci, and a tower inspired Eiffel.

In March, the Cabinet is going to post about our writing inspiration. It's true that writers are inspired by anything and everything, and even the idea that maybe none of it really exists at all. Obviously there's no way we can cover every inspiration. But my personal favorites thus far have been science and dreams.

I love learning about current discoveries and inventions and pondering the what-ifs. Science headlines this very day are these:

Giant Virus Resurrected from Permafrost after 30,000 Years
This 500-Pound Metal Suit Can Take Humans To New Ocean Depths
Scientists Can Now Control Flies' Brains With Lasers

At first glance these articles might seem to lend themselves only to science fiction, but that depends on where your what-ifs take you. Sure, to a writer, that virus could turn into a pandemic and an insecure biophysicist's mad race to cure it. But it could just as easily become the story of a family who escapes the crisis by living in the remnants of a beached submarine and focus on relationships, claustrophobia, and the meaning of life.

That's the point of inspiration. It sparks the story you will write, but you are the one that builds the fire, and fans the flames.

I'm currently working on a novel called Prophecy about a newly called priestess of the sun who becomes the target of a murderous conspiracy. It's not science fiction but the idea hatched from a news story announcing that the fault lines under the Temple of Delphi in Greece were proven to release actual hallucinogens. This led to my own research. The Oracle was in operation anciently for centuries; she turned the tide of wars, democracy, and even wielded authority over kings. Neighboring lands gave great tribute to these women making them wealthy and free in a misogynistic society. How did this sacred sisterhood pull it off? Did they believe in their powers of perception, and if not, what were they really up to?

So, yeah. Science. It inspires me.

I know it may seem trite after Stephanie Meyer, but if you're a colorful dreamer, you have an ocean of inspiration to explore. I don't have much to say here other than if a scene or an emotion or a character pops up in a dream that you would like to get to know better, by all means do it. Explore the idea. It may melt into nothing, or it may turn into a novel. Both have happened for me.

Other novels inspired by dreams? Misery, by Stephen King; Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson; and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach. The subconscious (or wherever dreams come from) is a powerful force. (I stole this list of books from here.)

Whatever inspires you, make sure you want to stare at it, analyze it, and live with it for a very long time because inspiration is just the beginning. Faith will carry you through the long haul to completion...but that's probably a topic for another blogpost.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tricks for Tweeting Like You're One of the Flock

Continuing our heart-filled February theme of Loving the Business Side of Writing, I'll be sharing my tricks for tweeting.  Why was I the cabinet member nominated for this blog?  Well, because I may be the newest to twitter, and therefor remember very clearly all my dumb, noob mistakes.  It may also have something to with *cough* my nominating myself. ;)

I tell you that so you're forewarned, and you won't be expecting more in-depth (you know...expert!) advice.  You'll find some of that here and here.  For everyone else, grab a hot chocolate, open that bag of cookies, and let's talk twitter cheats tips!

For those who are used to FB or browsing through blogs, the twitter structure can feel a little out of control.  This is because content isn't something you hop around to read, or click on to see, it flows past you in a constant stream that can sometimes feel more like a waterfall.  You're also more aware of all the many Strangers using twitter, who follow you or favorite a tweet without your having any idea who they are.

For that reason, I've chosen this pic to illustrate how tweeting feels.  As you can see...I'm not exactly in charge of this situation.  The little bird up top is about to make a nest in my hair, the bright one with his head down is wondering if he should crawl down my shirt (for real!) and the jaunty fellow with the black head will be cleaning my teeth in two seconds.  In the flock hirearchy, I think I come in a little after fifth place for Person in Charge!

But, there are ways to organize twitter so it feels both more useful and less like you're standing in the middle of a crowded street while everyone around you waves a newspaper, printed sign, or megaphone and shouts as loud as they can.  These are my tips:
  • Right from the start, follow a few cool peeps.  I'm not talking about celebrities here, or even your cooler friends--though of course your friends are a good idea--I'm suggesting first thing after signing up, you select a few people who are cool, funny, and talking about stuff you're interested in.  @Neilhimself (Neil Gaiman) and @MrSchuReads (John Schu) are good first picks for writers.  Follow your chosen person, then follow a few people who interact with him/her in an interesting way.  This will put a few people in your twitter feed that are actually saying stuff (some friends you find aren’t fully present…if you know what I mean), and moreover, it will mean your ‘discover’ tab starts to fill up with stuff relevant to you.  From there, you’ll interact with other peeps that you find amusing or interesting, and follow at will.
  • Take a page from Santa and make a list.  This doesn’t have to be public (in case you title it ‘interesting people I actually care about hearing from’) but you will thank yourself in a month or two when you’ve got all kinds of nonsense filling up your feed and are missing anything and everything your friends say.  Especially since it's a good idea to follow back anyone who follows you, unless you've got some *good reason not to.
  • Be like a bird...or, okay, more like a bee, and cross pollinate.  When you see cool stuff on FB that hasn’t shown up in your twitter feed, drop a like on the facebook sharer (that’s just common courtesy) then follow the Cool Thing back to its source and click the little share on twitter button.  Do the same for articles or other interesting stuff you see on twitter.  Like a little bee, you’ll buzz further by cross-pollinating.
  • Be clear--even when you're hashing it out.  When you want to share a hashtag that’s more than two words, consider capitalizing the first letter of each new word, like this: #HiMyNameIsDork  This may disappoint followers who came to twitter with the hope of gaining a pair of crossed-eyes and boosting their word search skills, but the rest of them will thank you.
  • Keep an eye on your 'connect' or 'notifications' tab.  One of the few cardinal rules of twitter is that if someone interacts with you, acknowledge them and interact back.  Once you have--idk, 5k followers? Maybe you can ignore the rule.  Until then, even if it takes you a week, favorite their comment or drop a reply.  Cause ignoring your twitter peeps is for the birds!
Personally, I've come to rely on twitter for industry news, and have really enjoyed finding fellow writers, readers, and random folks to connect with.  Without twitter, I would never have discovered my awesome co-hosts of #mglitchat, and been able to join that team in putting on our weekly discussions. My twitter handle is @warrchick, and unless you're *babbling in an alien language or *threatening to abduct me, I generally follow back.  My fellow curiosity specialists here on the cabinet are all over there, too--'cause the cool kids like twittering and tweetering!  You'll find them under @GingerChurchill, @PatEsden, @LauraSAndersen, and @becfitzpatrick, so come join the flock!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Loving the Business Side of Writing

(Or, as I think of it: Learning to Love the Things You Can’t Control)

Pop Quiz: This post is late going up because . . .

aa)   I’ve spent the weekend out of town for the funeral of a friend and am still emotionally drained.
bb)   With the snowstorm on the east coast tomorrow, I had flights cancelled and will be at least one day later getting home than I’d expected so now I have to do laundry and all my plans are out of whack.
cc)    I don’t love Things I Can’t Control.

     You wouldn’t go far wrong guessing any of the three, but yes indeed, the last is by far the most true. Is it possibly false for anyone? If so, I have yet to meet that person. And the business part of being a writer is overflowing with uncontrollable aspects. (Rather like being a mother; someday I plan to write a post comparing the two.)
     Each step along the path to publication brings a new set of out-of-control issues. Querying, finding an agent, finding a publisher, cover art, reviews, sales . . . Do not get me started on that last. My husband has learned to never ask, “How’s the book(s) selling?” The answer is always some variation of, “I don’t know, I don’t want to know, why are you pressuring me?!” (Imagine me talking faster and faster with each word.)
     And beyond all that, the fundamental (at least for me) fear of failure doesn’t vanish with the professional validation of agents and contracts and sales. Here’s an entry from my journal while I was at the querying/rejection stage of the business.
Feb. 20, 2005
And what, after all, if I’m not talented enough? I could write forever if I truly believe that I am learning and getting better, that each time I do this, I do it closer to my vision in my head. But if I don’t have what it takes to someday be able to share this widely, then I don’t see the point. I guess, in the end, I don’t want to make a fool of myself and I don’t want to think that people are laughing at me and my foolishness in continuing when I’m really just not very good.
     I could write that very entry today, word for word, even with two published books, one releasing this year, and three more under contract. So what keeps me—or any writer, at any point on the path—moving forward? Here’s the final line of the above journal entry: Sigh. I don’t know how I’m supposed to find that out, except to keep going on.
      And that is all the wisdom I have to offer you when it comes to the many aspects of this writing business that you cannot control: to keep going on. I can’t control reviews. I can’t control public opinion. I can’t control typesetting and art design. There are ways to participate and help shape the conversation around one’s work once it’s public—and I have some brilliant friends on this site who will share ways to do that—but in the end, there is only one thing that I can absolutely control: the writing.
     I end with some thoughts I put down in 2009, coming off a year in which my writing had been shoved to the very bottom of a long list of things I wasn’t doing.
     The non-logical, unreasonable side [of my mind] insists that I wasted the last year, that I’ve fallen too far behind on the path, that I should have been writing and querying and pouring out words at a faster rate and, greatest fear of all, that the glittering golden moment known as My Chance came and went while I dithered and debated and didn’t write.
     But you know what I’m doing this year?
     Writing. Because here’s the thing—I’ll never know what might have been. But what comes next? That’s entirely up to me.
     In his book ON BECOMING A NOVELIST, John Gardner wrote: “Nothing is harder than being a true novelist, unless that is all one wants to be, in which case, though becoming a true novelist is hard, everything else is harder.”
     Why do I write? Because everything else is harder. 

Final Winner of January

And the winner of our final January giveaway is Cate!  Congratulations!  Send your mailing address to Katie at endlesstobereadpile@gmail.com  Thanks everyone for participating!  We have some great posts coming up in February.