Nature and Music: Nurturing the Writerly Soul

I meant to write this up and post it last Monday – you know, back when I felt hope and optimism – but since this little writing story started with music and ended with music, and because more music came my way this weekend, it’s coming to you now.

A couple of weekends ago, I had the unexpected pleasure of spending the day on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus to read, write, walk, and hang about while my oldest son rehearsed with many high school peers from around the state (and beyond, obviously, since we’re from Minnesota). It was a gorgeous weekend as we’ve been having unseasonably warm and sunny days this fall.

I’d been struggling with finishing the current draft of a novel. I was THIS CLOSE to the end, but could not quite get the words out. The first thing that helped (although, admittedly it was more helpful for how to transition into Book 2 of this duology than with how to end Book 1) was my son’s high school Gala concert. It’s a yearly fundraising concert that features the top band, orchestra, and choral groups. In other words, some beautiful music.

And so, the following Saturday, I was determined to squeeze the words out, no matter what. I settled in at the UWEC student center – Davies Center and stared at the page. Then outside. Then the page. And then, a student started playing the piano on the second level. It was perfect. “Hallelujah” and “How Great Thou Art” and something else that I didn’t recognize. It was perfect. My main character finds solace in a piano and it seemed quite fitting. I tweeted this out:

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-4-50-15-pm

I found out later that the university chancellor favorited it and retweeted it, which got me a lot more favorites, but even more interesting was this follow up tweet:

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-4-50-37-pm

Sorry, Chancellor Jim. Didn’t mean to stir things up.

(Here’s the piano in question, by the way. Not gonna deny it does look like a nice one, though I don’t know much about them…):

piano

And so, with that inspiration, I changed over my playlist to my David Lanz one on Pandora.

Was that the cure?

Well, no.

I had lunch with my son, tried some more, with no success, and then decided to take a break. I went on a hike at the nature preserve:

trail

Stopped to walk out on this jutting out rock:

juttingrock

And stared at the cool pattern in the river for a bit.

coolwater

Kept going and saw this ahead:

 

annecopse

Doesn’t it remind you of a space that Anne and Diana (of Anne of Green Gables) would play in? That then encouraged me to take a break on this bench and read for a bit:

bench

The book: When the Moon Was Ours by Anne-Marie McLemore (I recommend)

Now, I thought, now I am ready. I headed back to the student center and, well, I’d like to say the words suddenly flowed out, magically, but they did not. I persevered, however, and managed out 1200 words, which is great, if only it hadn’t taken all day.

The temporary reward, though, was listening to this group play:

writingday

And the good news is that the next day I DID finish. Boy, I needed that because just two days later was the election, and I haven’t been able to write anything at all since then. I’ve not even wanted to try.

And now, I want to try. Words are my fuel and they are my voice. While I cannot always express myself in the ways I want to in essay or verbal form, I can do it in fiction. I am not sure what will happen when I put myself in front of a blank page again, but after another Honor Band concert at St. Olaf College this past weekend…

stolaffestival

…I have hope again that I can do this writing thing.

For my song, I could have gone with a piano version of Hallelujah, and I do love that song, but I’ll go with the other from that day, How Great Thou Art.

 

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Saturday Summation – 22 October 2016

Bits and pieces of things that caught my eye not only for my own interest, but enough to want to share with you, too…

 

Writing Stuff

There’s all kinds of great advice in Chuck Wendig’s “Quick Story Tips” – which includes both “dos” and “don’ts”. I’m glad he didn’t spend too much time on #3 regarding secrets and lies. These are good for your new reader, but tiring for your experienced one. It also requires a fine balance. If the whole conflict is resolved by one character simply revealing the truth early on with far fewer consequences, then an author has relied on it too heavily and leans towards lazy storytelling, I think.

If you’re a writer, you might have people in your life that keep you from feeling like it isn’t serious for you, that it’s just a hobby. I have been super fortunate to be surrounded by family and friends who understand my passion and mission with writing, which helps a lot with my momentum (not that I don’t lose it every once in a while, but that’s all on me and no one else!). Nancy Johnson reminds us to self-talk: “Think of writing as your career. Even if you’re not getting paid for it. Yet. It’s not a hobby. It’s not the magic that springs from your muse. It’s your job.” Read more on losing the mythological muse.

So let’s say you’re writing and hit one of those many obstacles that make you wonder, now what should happen? How can I up tension? Lisa Cron says too often we search for an external factor that doesn’t fit with the story at large. She reminds us that instead, “The story doesn’t come from the external events, it comes from what those things mean to your protagonist.” Her post on Where Drama Really Comes From walks us through a great process on recognizing this issue and how to work through it and resolve through knowing our characters and story already, vs pulling in something new.

Just for fun: a Never Have I Ever “drinking game”, writer’s edition:

 

Reading Stuff:

Quite a while back, I wrote a couple of posts about the importance of not only details in our writing, but accurate and authentic ones. I started with details vs story and continued later with realistic vs authentic details. This past week, Kimberly Sullivan asked if sloppy research – ie, getting the details wrong – in a story drives you crazy. How much is too much when it comes to slipping on this research and getting things obviously wrong vs. forgivably wrong?

 

 

Publishing Stuff:

Have you ever wondered what it means when an author gets an advance? Probably the biggest misunderstanding is that it is money outside of royalties (sales profits) – like a bonus. However, this is not the case. Susan Spann describes the nature of advances (and understanding that it is what we more logically should connect it to – as though it was an advance on the next paycheck) offered through publishing contracts.

As a reader, you might not care at all about who has published the books you read, but as a reader AND a writer, it becomes ten-fold more interesting! This graphic came out recently that shows the intricate web of the many, many imprints that fall under each of the “Big 5” publishing houses. Super helpful.

 

Video of the Week:

Both kind and entertaining, Canadians tell us Americans that we ARE great. I hope they’re right – and not just because politics are making us doubt it right now. I mean, I think of how often we get messages from citizens in other countries that support us in times of crisis or messages like this one below and I sure hope we have lots of American citizens doing the same for citizens in other countries because it sure is encouraging and what keeps my hope alive for world peace and cooperation.

 

 

 

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A Writer’s Brain Under Duress Is Still a Writer’s Brain

One of my critique writing partners recently told me that she liked reading my post about my parents’ divorce because it reassured her that one doesn’t have to have suffered in life to be able to write dark or gritty material in fiction. (And if that seems weird to correlate to my parents splitting up, then you’ll have to go read that post to understand better.)

It’s true I certainly believe a writer will do better having some sort of experience with a difficult situation (coupled with good research), but it certainly doesn’t have to be first-hand experience.

On the other hand, direct personal experience obviously is a boon to a writer looking to include it in her story. “Write what you know” may be a broad statement to include “what you know of the human experience”, but it clearly includes specific knowledge, too.

My past week has included two trips to the E.R., both resulting in overnight stays in the hospital, among other things. Sure, there’s a lot I can pull from that (in fact, at one point they moved me to the hall because they needed my room, and I was only waiting to be admitted. I told E.R. staff that it was writer’s gold for observation.), but where I decided to really dig in was what followed the most recent hospital visit.

Cardiologists added a new medication to my regimen and a side effect is headaches. Let me tell you, I had that side effect in spades, that side effect took over like a Penguin-Random House merger. If you suffer from migraines, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you much for you to understand.

[SIDE NOTE: Very fortunately for me, this side effect will ease away as my body adjusts, which is not something migraine sufferers or anyone else who has chronic pain can say. Also, I recognize that while my experience was intense, I was still able to think through it. I don’t want to minimize the pain that those who suffer from chronic episodes of any sort that rate 9-10+, disabling them from any kind of functional activity.]

One night the pain was so intense, it radiated out from the front of my head, down the back of it, down both sides of my neck, and into my forearms. Regular pain medications couldn’t keep up.

There wasn’t much I could do at that point to distract myself imaginatively from that pain, but after some of it receded and decided to just have a romp only in my head, I let my writer brain go to work. Maybe I couldn’t make lemonade, but I sure could squeeze something from that experience, right? And maybe distract myself in the process?

How could I effectively describe the pain without using “throb” or “pressure” for example? How, in the future, can I help my readers feel the pain with my characters?

It felt like bolt gun practice.

Yep, that was a good start.

And obviously we can use the thesaurus.

“Throb”: beat, pound, thud, drum

“Pound”: beat, batter, pummel, hammer, clobber

There are some good ones there, but hey, we can do better than that can’t we? We’re writers, not middle school students working on a grammar worksheet.

Let’s see.

Margie Lawson might suggest twisting a cliché for “fresh writing”:

My head pounded. < — Total cliché.

My head pounded as though there was a construction competition and the current event was a jackhammer contest: who could break into my head or out of it first?

The Incredible Hulk squeezed my brain while Captain America pushed back with his shield to keep my head from exploding. (I live with a bunch of Marvel superhero fans.) 

Some people love fireworks. Try having all the dud ones explode in your head at the same time and you might change your mind.

Donald Maas might suggest emotional detail:

The pain in my head curled tighter, tighter around until I no longer cared about who wronged me or what those wrongs were. All I could feel was the physical necessity of pushing through the bolt gun firing in my head. (I had to put that bolt gun in somewhere…)

Have I given you a headache yet (in more ways than one since these examples aren’t thrilling me, either)?

How about the relief?

As my head became unshackled, I smiled, too tentative to bound in joy, knowing how quickly the chains could cuff me again.

Wait, that’s only partial relief, isn’t it?

Well, now you know where I was at when I wrote this post.😀😀😀

Let me hear from you – what are fresh ways to describe physical pain? Or what about the release one feels when the pain passes?

For this post’s song, I thought I’d better go with something soothing rather than headache-inducing – maybe that will further loosen the creative juices…

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Saturday Summation – 01 October 2016

Bits and pieces of things that caught my eye not only for my own interest, but enough to want to share with you, too…

Every occupation has its busy “season”, and for education, September is definitely one of them. Thus, I’ve let the Summations and other potential posts slide.

Here are a few make-you-smile tidbits, though, from the past month that I still want to share:

  1. Storyteller gold, right here, with this Target employee offering us a highly entertaining account of his first week at work, interacting with various customers. I love the perspective he gives on each an every one of them.
  2. How to publish the next great American novel? I enjoyed this tongue-in-cheek post which, to be honest, is full of snark and possibly bitterness, but many a writer can relate, I’m sure.
  3. If David Corbett is to be believed (and I’m too tired and lazy right now to do fact-checking, so let’s just go ahead and believe him), then the word and socio-linguistic meaning of “twitter” came from Chaucer and “yahoo” from Swift. He lists others, along with one of those FB type things about creating Shakespearean insults, and many other fantastic linguistic goodies in his post.

 

Recent Recommended Reads

If I Was Your Girl – Meredith Russo (YA) [My Goodreads review]

Hamilton: The Revolution – Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter (A) [My Goodreads review]

Scarlet (Basically the whole Lunar Chronicles series – Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, Winter) – Marissa Meyer (YA)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne (A) [My Goodreads review]

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi (A) [My Goodreads review]

Now That It’s You – Tawna Fenske (A) [My Goodreads review]

 

Video of the Week

A little over a week ago, I spent several days in New Mexico at a writer’s retreat. I was surrounded by so many amazing writers and authors and second to simply meeting so many of them face-to-face for the first time after many months of virtual interaction, was hearing the stories. And I don’t mean their fiction. I mean *their* stories. Even though so many stories represented long struggles and squiggly lines to goals, they were encouraging. Many stories were a lot like author Erika Robuk’s below, and the inspiration was that indeed, we all are remembering why we are doing what we do; why we started.

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Saturday Summation – 20 August 2016

Bits and pieces of things that caught my eye not only for my own interest, but enough to want to share with you, too…

Reading Stuff:

Fanfiction, Wattpad, and now Hooked. This is a pretty cool new bite-sized story source – stories that are presented entirely in SMS-style text messaging. You read the first person’s text, then get a “next” button to see if you want to read more, which will reveal more of the conversation and story. I’m intrigued.

Writing Stuff:

I’m no expert at all regarding copyright, but I did do a lot of research around it when I was developing web design lessons for my 8th grade students. Students are sure to want to use all kinds of popular things on their websites, so helping them understand copyright and “fair use” details was a valuable lesson. So when it came time to decide whether or not I could use a piece of a song for a section opener in on of my books, I knew that wouldn’t be a “just drop it in, I’m sure it will be fine” sort of thing. In fact, music is full of sticky wickets. I am super glad that Sidebar Saturdays has covered this issue in their series.

As someone who is currently re-writing a story and considering an overhaul of another, this post by Dennis Gaunt regarding whether or not a story is the same after dramatic revision/re-writing was interesting. He starts with a comparison to the Ship of Theseus and that really works. I kind of needed it, too, because while I have not feared tackling the current novel I’m re-working, I am nervous for the other one. Frankly, that other one has always been intimidating, which sometimes drives me crazy, and other times not, because I know it is helping me grow and stretch as a writer. Completely re-building can indeed make something stronger.

From Thomas Despin and sent along by a friend – writing can be hard, but we do it anyway. A piece that affected me nicely at this phase of my writing.

Story – plot – trumps all for some, and yes, this is a pretty big deal, but for me, more often than not, character is king. I want to empathize with a character in a book I’m reading, not just sympathize. Chris Adler talks about how when writing, we also need to really know our characters in order to convey the great story.

“Until we white writers are ready to listen, until we’re ready to accept that, yes, we are a part of systemic racism, yes, we benefit from white supremacy, it doesn’t matter what the tone is, we won’t be able to hear or understand what’s being said.” Author Justine Larbalestier talks about White Fragility and listening and learning vs. feeling offended or defensive.

 

Publishing Stuff:

This post from editor Kate Sullivan is from a while ago, but an agent I follow recently shared it. I think this editor is on the right track with recognizing that white agents and editors saying they “didn’t connect with the character” is a problematic thing to say to authors from marginalized populations, but then she goes on to say “If most editors are white and straight and middle or upper class, of course they won’t “identify” or “connect” with a diverse perspective. “ Honestly, that POV is the problematic one. Why should any of us assume we couldn’t connect with a character who is different than we are? Haven’t we assumed that readers from non-white, non-heteronormative, non-neurotypical populations will still love white, hetero-, etc protagonists? She follows up with some valid suggestions, but I think her post highlights how narrow agents and acquiring editors are still reading from their submissions list.

I’m not sure if this post encourages me or discourages me about the publishing process –Sarah Callender writes about the endurance needed to reach publication. She’s on her third novel (since finding representation), still hoping the first two might get picked up in spite of their non-conformity to a lot of category standards. I do appreciate that she has an agent who has really stuck by her, regardless.

 

Video of the Week:

Do you know what the best thing is to donate for a community that befalls a disaster – natural or otherwise? Money. Check out this article that gives examples how almost everything else gets in the way, and the video below that explains the value of cash donations above anything else.

 

 

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Saturday Summation – 06 August 2016

Bits and pieces of things that caught my eye not only for my own interest, but enough to want to share with you, too…

 

Publishing Stuff:

Amongst all the talk about “diversity” in publishing, SC points out that the white faces of publishing still put a “white glaze” on what is acceptable. A book can’t be too angry or critical or verging on “disrespecting” of white populations… so are we getting it, yet, even as we work towards an #ownvoices movement. SC says, “I guess my point is, do agents support diverse ideas or do they support diverse faces speaking the same White ideas?” I’d say it is only the latter right now.

 

Writing Stuff:

Agent Kristin Nelson and Angie Hodapp have started a 9-part series about what to avoid in story openings. If the writing thing is newer to you, I highly recommend following the whole series. For me, though, #2 resonated with me as they focused on what they called the “white room syndrome” – basically starting with no setting. Maybe starting with action is good, but readers also need to feel grounded in the when and where of it all. I liked this analogy they made: “Character is to Voice as Setting is to Atmosphere.”

In writing, we place a lot of emphasis on voice. When you pick up another book by your favorite author, is it the story itself you most anticipate? Maybe, but I’d argue that voice is it and you recognize it right away even if you don’t have the words to describe it. When I started reading this post from Writer Unboxed in my RSS feed earlier this week, I hadn’t looked right away to see who wrote it. After only a paragraph, though, I didn’t have to. I knew it was by agent Donald Maas. All of that is not directly related to what he wrote about – which is how to inspire wonder in your writing (and worth the read as he describes what he means by this and ever useful suggestions) – but is absolutely something he has written about in the past. I gravitate towards his voice and his many words of wisdom.

Sometimes, a set of characters, a world, or a story just won’t let you go. The WIP I am working on right now is one such example. It was my first novel and the characters and their world are so much a part of me that I continue to work with it and refuse to believe it needn’t ever be exposed to the world. Because of this, I can totally relate to Vaughn Roycroft’s mindset in describing how no, we don’t *have* to diversify our writing into different genres or settings. Sometimes, the strength is in monogamy for both writer and reader.

 

Reading Stuff:

While I appreciated the point behind this post of showing the value of a great author-literary agent relationship, I really threw this link in here because of the series that has come from this particular collaboration: a Little Library murder mystery theme! Looks like fun.

Agents frequently talk about comp titles to include in query letters. What other book is your book like? This can mean, of course, style, story, or character. What they always say is to avoid using the HUGE names to compare to: JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Stephen King, Lee Child, etc, because not only, say, ego, but not necessarily widely read or current, either. Danika Ellis, though, gives a great reader perspective specifically about not being “the next Harry Potter”. She says, “How much more would I have enjoyed The Magicians by Lev Grossman if I wasn’t expecting an “adult Harry Potter”, as the marketing promised?” Indeed – show us how it is new, not the same.

 

Song of the Week:

Oldest Child just got his driver’s license, so I’m going with a car song.😀

 

 

 

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Writing What You Know: Abstracts of a Marriage and Separation

 

My parents went through the most amicable divorce of anyone I have ever known. There was no yelling and screaming before their split, during, nor after. I’m sure there were resentments for quite a time, but for my outwardly calm parents, I sure didn’t see any of it. At age 11, when they sat with me, my sister, and 2 brothers to let us know they were divorcing. I was not upset.

Actually, I was a little upset because I had to miss a softball game for this discussion. Or maybe I got to go to the softball game, but wasn’t able to hang out with my best friend afterwards. My memory’s a bit fuzzy on that. Also, my sister was upset and because she started to cry, I thought I should too.

The actual process of my parents’ separation was also pretty remarkable in its lack of drama. They chose an extremely unique solution for our transition. They rented a 2-bedroom apartment – each of them taking a bedroom and alternated living with us in the house for a full year. In other words, one month our dad would live with us, the next month our mother. WE didn’t move. THEY did. I don’t know of a single other separation agreement like this one.

[I imagine some of you at this point are wondering why in the world they split up in the first place because doesn’t it sound like they got along just fine? But others of you understand better in that “getting along” – for the most part – is not at all the same as being happy together.]

None of this is to say that it was all seamless and easy. I can’t speak to how it affected my siblings and surely I didn’t think it was all bouncy houses and softball games in how I felt about it, either. And yet, I have never ever felt the stress of the separation like so many other children do. I have been super lucky – and I definitely have both of my parents to thank for that.

It’s been 34 years since they separated, but even after only 10 years (or 5), I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t even imagine them together. No fantasies of hoping they would reconcile. (Plus, my dad remarried and his wife has been a solid member of the family for some 30+ years now.)

When I look back at my young, elementary school days, I remember my mom and my dad living together with me and my siblings when I was young, but I have no real memory of them being together. I mean, in true observation, this tells me a lot about their relationship and its demise, but what I’m doing with this information now is using it to write what I know for marriage, change, and separation.

One of my projects (AS THOUGH YOU ARE MINE) reflects this idea of two people growing apart. My protagonist has difficulty in both understanding how her parents were together, but for her, she also struggles with their current relationship (they actually “hook up” from time-to-time between her father’s marriages).

Let me be clear. The parents in this story are NOT my parents. Really and truly (insert my own relief that my own parents did NOT “hook up” from time to time after divorcing  – as far as I know – no really, I’m sure that did not happen). Could they see parts of themselves in each of those characters? Sure. I hope so, because that’s the idea behind good characters and fiction – that we can see ourselves in the stories, that we can feel the emotions and understand the behaviors and empathize. I imagine my mother could see some of herself in the single parent protagonist of another of my projects, too – but she is not her or vice versa.

The parents of Julie, my protagonist in AS THOUGH YOU ARE MINE, have different conflicts, different motivations, and different personalities, really, but there is a feel about them that reminds me of my own parents and this is where I am showing how I am writing what I know. Julie’s father is an attorney. That’s not an area of expertise at all for me. Her mother is a real estate agent. That’s not something I know, either. But I know relationships and I know what can make them gel or dissolve.

I know what it is for a couple that once found a future in one another to later change and find that future untenable. I understand the complicated feelings an adult child can have about her parents’ relationship when her own relationship with each parent is fraught with its own issues.

This is what authors and writing teachers mean when they say “write what you know”. Sure, it means don’t write about an experience you cannot possibly fully understand (such as growing up a slave if you are white or surviving the Holocaust when you are Christian), but as so many others have and will continue to say, if we stuck to the letter of the law in this statement vs the nature, our stories would be limited indeed.

When I create characters, I don’t base them off actual people (because really, that is just pure folly for any author, isn’t it?); rather, I use what I see of human nature and behaviors of those around me and enfold those bits into all of my characters. So while I used bits and pieces of the circumstances and behaviors of my parents in one project, so too do I use bits and pieces of other marriages and separations into others.

For the kind of stories I write – those about all kinds of relationships, this kind of inclusion is what makes them stronger and while I certainly want to get external details right, it is these internal ones that are even more important.

What kinds of pieces of human nature, relationships, or other human behavior have you caught and had your characters embrace? When have you watched something around you and thought, “oh boy, do I understand THAT”?

And for this post I pull from a Rob Thomas song:

Maybe you and me got lost somewhere
We can’t move on and we can’t stay here
Maybe we’ve just had enough
Well, maybe we ain’t meant for this love

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