Painful Beginnings

Going back to the beginning.

Starting anew.

Getting a fresh start.

It doesn’t matter how you phrase it, when you’re starting something over, it’s hard.  Ever tried to save a batch of chocolate chip cookies with too much salt?  Trust me, despite the agony of throwing it all out, it is the better choice.

I started an exercise program several months ago.  I made great progress, dropped several pounds, even lost a clothing size.  Then life got hectic as life is want to do at times. I quit going to the gym, stopped following the diet, and found the pounds I’d lost had come back with a vengeance. So I went back to the gym and started over with everything, and I’m pretty sure it hurts worse by 200 percent more than it did when I started originally.

Now I’m doing something almost as painful: I’m rewriting one of my novels, starting over from scratch because I just can’t seem to fix it in bits and pieces. I’m rethinking the characters, I’m reworking the plot, and I’m sorting through some of the subplots and secondary characters to decide what I want to keep and what I want to get rid of. It’s a far more painful process than I had anticipated it would be, and I find that I come to the writing part of my day and I am reluctant, even a bit bitter, about going through with the work. After all, I created this world and populated it and set it in motion – I liked it enough at the time to see it through, and I liked it enough when I finished it to begin submitting it. Now, here I am, the fickle god who is destroying my beloved creation.

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The truth is, though, that I didn’t get it right the first time. I need to start over because the story isn’t working as it is, and simple revisions won’t be enough to fix the issues. As much as I like some of the characters, and as much as I thought I had worked out a solid plot, I realize now that the story really needs a new start – no matter how painful it might feel right now.

In a way, I’m hopeful that this process will seem easier – eventually – than writing the original story did. I already know the basic thread of the plot, and I know the key characters (even if they will change a bit), so in a way, the story is somewhat written already. I’m trying to think of this in terms of a piece of clay: I molded it one way, but the result wasn’t as appealing as I’d hoped, so now I’m reshaping it into something more attractive and useful.

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It would be easy to toss the whole story aside and say, “Oh well, better luck next time,” but I really believe in this story, and I really think it will find a home and finds its life outside my computer. I think I know the answers to the issues I’ve uncovered, and I’ve had good readers willing to look it over to share their insights as well. I know it will be better, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Writing at its very core is a painful process, but now I’m compounding that pain, and doing it on purpose. I guess that makes me some kind of masochist – which is a pretty funny thought.

So, it’s off to work again on a novel called The Afterward. Hopefully this time I can release its full potential. I just don’t think I have the heart to rip it apart yet again.

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Beginner’s Mind

Writing is a very humbling thing at times. It’s not just the rejections, the bad reviews, or the minuscule royalty checks, but the process itself can often crack you in the knees and cause you to genuflect.

In meditation practices associated with Buddhism, Hinduism, and others as well, there is a concept called “Beginner’s Mind” that applies beautifully to writing as well. Anyone who has begun a meditation practice knows what Beginner’s Mind is: it’s that awkward experience of sitting in silence, seeking a spiritual experience, and feeling as if your mind is in a blender that is set to puree. You have to remind yourself repeatedly to center your thoughts, tune out the outside world, and allow your brain to connect to more important things than the dog barking outside, or the odd creak and groan of the house, or the sudden urge to create your grocery list. For some, this struggle to calm their thoughts and create that connection becomes so frustrating that they give up the practice quickly.

That’s where I am with this new story. I’ve got a pretty decent plot concept, and most of the main characters are fleshed out, but my brain keeps generating ideas for things unrelated to this new story, and I find myself distracted by an urge to write poetry, or a compelling need to clean out files from my computer, or to skate off into Facebook land and lose track of my precious writing time.

Another aspect of Beginner’s Mind is that you don’t know what you don’t know. I don’t do well with the unknown. When I create a story, I need to have the story pretty much written in my head before I sit down to write it. This approach has served me well, but I tend to forget that when I start a new one, not everything is in place. Then, when I sit down to write, I get hung up by the things I don’t know that I don’t know! I forget that sometimes I just need to get BIC (butt in chair) and start writing so I can figure out what I need to know.

Before you think that Beginner’s Mind is a negative thing, let me explain the value of this situation. Beginner’s minds are wide open to all the possibilities. Everything is so new, so different, that there are no expectations or limitations to hold the beginner back. If I were to start a new book and already have in mind that it would fit into a specific box, I might miss some wonderful opportunities. For example: in Death’s Kiss,deathkiss final-front

the paranormal YA that is coming out in a few months, I thought I had the ending completely figured out as I began writing. I started crafting the story to move in the direction I had chosen, and I felt pretty good about it. But I didn’t have all the details in place for certain scenes, and it felt as if I were starting all over again. Instead of giving up, or worse, trying to force the story in an unnatural direction, I left my options open. I found a new, more powerful ending that made better sense with the scenes I had already written, and I’m much happier with the story now than I would have been.

For many writers, it’s hard to admit that they don’t know everything about the craft or the business. When I start a new project, I return to that Beginner’s Mind, and I find that by acknowledging that I can’t possibly know everything about this, I am better able to explore all the options and to look in new and different directions. Sometimes that feeling of not knowing, or having so many things on my mind all at once, can be a bit overwhelming, but as with meditation, in time things settle and I find that comfortable place that works. I know it’s coming. I just have to have a little patience.

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Resolutions – The 2013 Edition

It has been a VERY successful year for me, and I am grateful for the support of friends, family, teachers, librarians, and most of all readers! In June of this year, Angelic Knight Press made an offer for Death’s Kiss. In August, I sold a horror short story under my pen name Mimi A. Williams. That story, entitled Rita, will be part of the Axes of Evil: Heavy Metal Horror Anthology that will be released on February 1, 2014.  The Deepest Blue was released from Tanglewood Press in September of this year. This book has a long, winding history behind it, and it’s one that I am incredibly proud to see in print. All of this exceeded my goals for the year, although there were a few places I fell short

This is the seventh year in a row that I’ve done this exercise. It is a tradition now, and something I look forward in some sick and twisted way. It actually started further back even than the posts on this blog! All credit is due to Carol Lynch Williams who started the whole thing at least a dozen years ago and maybe even more. We are members of several list serves together, and every year about this time, we would publicly post our writing goals, and at the end of the year, Carol would hold us all accountable by posting our objectives on the list.

I like to do it this way: First, I review my resolutions from the beginning of the year to see how I did. That usually provides the motivation for my new resolutions. So here is what I aspired to a year ago and how I did:

1) I will revise my book The Afterward and continue to send it out.

The Afterward did not get the work I had hoped it would. It was shoved aside in favor of other projects. That’s not entirely bad. The other projects were both getting revised for publication. The Deepest Blue was the one that required the most time, followed closely by Death’s Kiss, which will be released early in 2014.

2) I will revise my book Death Kiss and continue submitting it and looking for its home.

Death Kiss was revised, and it was bought by Angelic Knight Press. It did find a home, and as I mentioned, it will be released soon under the revised title of “Death’s Kiss”

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3) I will participate in as many promotional and marketing events as possible (like Authorpalooza, Writing for Charity, and others) to promote my books and my availability for speaking.

I did quite well with this! I attended 10 different events, including a workshop at Whitmore Library, Writing for Charity, Davis School District Literacy Night, SCBWI’s The Inside Story, and others. I have also upgraded my website, and learned new ways to use social media to help promote my books. The results have been very positive, and as I anticipate my upcoming royalty payments, I should have a more concrete idea of how effective these efforts have been.

4) I will begin offering writing workshops 3 or 4 times a year through different sources as a means of income and to promote my books.

I didn’t quite follow through with this, though I did teach two workshops with good results. This year, though, I will follow through with the workshops, and I have recruited my talented writer friend C. Michelle Jefferies to be part of the fun! We have already laid the plans for the first workshop the first week of February.

And now it’s time to commit to the page (such as it is) my goals for the coming year. They came pretty easily this year, and I feel like I am stretching a bit and giving myself a challenge, but I don’t sense I’m setting myself up for failure. So here they are:

1. I will get an agent this year. Period.

2. I will finish at least three novels this year, including rewriting The Afterward, finishing Namesake, and a third novel (yet to be determined).

3. I will continue to look for opportunities to promote my work and to participate in at least one writing-related event each month.

4. I will attend two writing conferences or workshops to benefit my own writing.

5. I will offer four writing workshops  during the year.

That’s a lot to do in the next year, but I’m feeling confident and enthusiastic. It’s as much giving as it is taking. I’m focusing on quality and quantity. Overall, I think 2014 holds more promise than even this past year held, and that just makes me even more eager to get started!

Here’s to the coming year! My propellers are spinning and I’m ready to fly!

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So What’s the Big Deal with Adverbs?

I read a post on Facebook recently where someone asked, “So what’s the big deal with adverbs?” There were numerous comments that  said that using adverbs in writing was no big deal. There were even a few somewhat snarky comments about writers who eschew the use of them. I know writers who will do anything within their power to avoid the use of adverbs. I also know writers who think nothing of having fifteen or twenty of them on a page.  I don’t think either extreme makes a lot of sense. Writing is never an all-or-nothing deal.  So why the big issue over this particular part of speech more so than any other? Good question.  I happen to be among the group of writers who don’t like using adverbs, and I’ll explain why.

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Just as with all other parts of speech, adverbs have their place. I’ve had someone ask me why I hate adverbs so much. In truth, I don’t hate them. That’s sort of ridiculous, honestly! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)  Sometimes adverbs are necessary to provide detail or clarity, but many times, they become the cop-out, the lazy writer’s way of adding detail or clarity.  It’s unfortunate, but many otherwise talented writers fall into the trap of relying on adverbs instead of pushing their writing to a better level.  That doesn’t mean that you should never, ever, under any circumstances use an adverb, but rather that they should be used in limited doses.

First, you have to understand what an adverb does. An adverb modifies (adds to the meaning of) a verb, such as “The woman sang loudly.”

An adverb can also modify another adverb: “The woman sang very loudly.” And they modify adjectives: “The dog was really cute.” 

So, yes! They are very handy little parts of speech, and they definitely have a place in writing. So why all the hubbub? It’s easy for adverbs to be overused. They get put in places where they aren’t necessary, and they take up space where better word choices could be.

For example: “Gretchen sipped slowly from her  tea cup.” 11771007-sensual-blond-girl-with-hair-style-in-elegant-pink-dressover-holding-tea-set-drinking-tea-dark-fashi

The word “slowly” is unnecessary, because how do you sip? Wouldn’t a fast sip be considered slurping? In this case, the writer needs to consider what else is happening. Is the writer trying to set a mood? Is the writer just filling in time? If more detail is necessary, what kind of detail needs to be present for the reader to better understand this part of the story? It may be that this scene doesn’t need anything more because it’s not that important. Either way, the word “slowly” just doesn’t belong.

Here’s an example where the adverbs are just lazy writing: “He stared longingly into her eyes as she lifted her chin gracefully toward him. ”

There’s so much more that could happen with this. There is emotion and intensity waiting to happen, but this sentence falls flat because the adverbs prevent the reader from understanding at a deeper level. Would removing these adverbs and replacing them mean more words? Of course, but unless you’re writing with a very strict word limit, that’s not a problem. In this case, adverbs are restricting the moment and limiting the reader’s enjoyment. What writer wants to do that?

Sometimes an adverb can be useful. If a writer needs to set up a scene and move through the information quickly, then the adverb short cut isn’t a bad idea. But the problem comes when these short cuts become the norm, and the page becomes flooded with them to the point the reader is left with an uninteresting experience.

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Writers typically try not to overuse any word because it creates an awkward experience for readers. Over using any word, but especially adverbs, cheats the reader and limits the effectiveness of the story. What’s wrong with adverbs? Absolutely nothing, unless you abuse them.

Guest Blog Excitement!

Today, I’m turning the reigns over to my friend and fellow author, Johnny Worthen! I want you all to play nicely, okay?

Let me start by saying that this guy is one of the few people on the planet who gets my sense of humor (which makes HIS planet of origin highly suspect!).  I recently began reading his upcoming novel BEATRYSEL, and while I’m only about half of the way in, I have been completely blown away from the writing style, the strength of the character development, and the excellent detail that is showcased in this work.

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So here are a few enlightening and entertaining words from Mr. Worthen:

Writing with others – not for me.

When I was in college back when teachers wore mortarboard hats and robes and rode to school in chariots, I took a creative writing class billed as a “workshop.” That was my first taste of writing in groups, and I’m here to say, it was also my last.

I don’t write well with others.

I got an A in the class, that’s the kind of student I was – grubby grade groveling scholarship keeping academic whiz-kid, but I didn’t learn anything. No, that’s not true: I learned never to do that again.

Now don’t get me wrong, writing workshops are fine in some ways. Writers are by nature solitary creatures and a little bonhomie and community is a good thing – a necessary thing. It’s good to be exposed to others’ writing and helpful to hear what people think of yours.

Sometimes.

The experience I had in that class not only spoiled my attitude toward writing groups, but it actually put me off writing for over a decade.

It was a terror literary politics, subjective criticism and stupid people. One didn’t like the fact that I used four syllable words when a two syllable word would do, like “luminescent” versus “glowing.” Another thought my villain was too mean. Did I mention he was the villain? Another thought that I’d stolen their idea because being drunk was obviously a unique experience. Some criticized the font I printed my stories in – “serif fonts are out of style, don’t you know.” Others admitted they didn’t like science fiction and so wouldn’t read past the title. And of course, being in Utah, I had litanies against the use of foul language and adult situations. What the hell?

The professor had the idea to let the students grade their classmates’ work and arrive at a grade in that way. I was on scholarship, remember, a tight 3.7 or better GPA, and couldn’t afford the D- I was destined for after the first week. Luckily, by the second week, the instructor recognized where his shit ideas was heading – no one was going to pass his course. Nobody. After one student criticized another for having juvenile alliteration, that author turned around and found new faults in that student’s paper, dropping their B to a low D because “they didn’t get it.”

Yeah. I know, right?

The professor took grading back into his own hands, promising A’s to everyone who participated and handed in all the work – content and quality notwithstanding.

Of course the politics still went on and the widely different levels of literary tastes and experience. I remember spending days trying to dumb down a two page story so the visiting exchange student from Longbortistan could understand the aquatic imagery. She never did.

When I turned to writing again, I knew to stay away from groups. I’d been there. Writing is a solitary event. There’ll be time enough for criticism when agents, editors and publishers have it – time enough and plenty enough. At least with them, I know they want my work to succeed, a different mindset entirely from my earlier experience.

I’d never have been able to write my debut BEATRYSEL in that environment. It’s too rough, the language too adult, the situations too disturbing, the language and verb-play too unusual, the use of epigraphs too outdated. The font too “fonty.”

I write. I write a lot, but I admit, I don’t write well with others.

Let’s all put our hands together for Mr. Worthen! Believe me, you can look forward to hearing more from this exceedingly talented guy! And check out BEATRYSEL at all your favorite book and ebook places!  Johnny is a pretty awesome individual, and you can find out more about him here:  http://www.johnnyworthen.com/

Things of a Symbolic Nature – Take 2

Symbolism is a subject that I have a lot of interest in. I like finding it when I read (which was the only thing that saved me when I read MOBY DICK), and I love using it when I write. Obviously, not every story will have a place for symbols, but I like looking for places that I can include them, even if it’s very subtle and limited.

A symbol, as described by Robert Di Yanni in Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, is any action, object, person, or event that conveys a meaning beyond the literal interpretation or significance. An author will make a symbol known either by giving it emphasis, repeating is use in a story, by giving it detailed description, or by placing it in key moments within the story. These techniques may (though not absolutely always) indicate that the element in question is being used symbolically. Throughout literary tradition, symbolism is used to enhance and add meaning to a story; to bring the reader to a deeper understanding of the story.

Here’s an example: In Eudora Welty’s short story, A Worn Path, the main character’s name is Phoenix Jackson. The name Phoenix is a clue to the personality of the character – someone is resilient, determined, and perhaps mythical. The color black features prominently in the story as well. Phoenix is a black woman, she expresses her admiration for a large black dog that takes on the dog of white man who threatens Phoenix. And there are other examples. This story also features an assortment of birds, everything from little bobwhites to a buzzard among big dead trees which remind her of lynched men. Throughout the story, the symbolism is woven into plot, building upon critical moments, showing us more about the place and time where Phoenix lives, and giving us a greater insight into aspects of human nature.

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In my own work, I’ve used these techniques as well. Though it isn’t easy to spot (because I limited the use and held back) the shiny red dog collar in Kiss Kiss Bark serves as a symbol. Mattie sees the collar as everything that is wrong in her life: her unfair babysitting responsibilities; how her brother gets away with things she would never get away with; and ultimately, of her love for her brother and her acceptance of his role in her life.

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In a much more obvious attempt at symbolism, The Deepest Blue  uses several symbols throughout the book. The first, most obvious symbol is the color blue. Because it represents depression, it is an appropriate color to use at key moments in the story when the main character, Michael, is feeling the loss in his life. But a blue sky can also represent hope, the lifting of a storm, or the start of a new and better day.  Another symbol I used was the storm. It builds at important moments, it rattles windows and reflects the turmoil that Michael feels, and threatens him physically as well.  The last significant symbol is water. Sometimes the water is in the form of rain, sometimes it’s the ocean, and there are other uses as well. Water is an emotional connection for Michael, reflecting his feelings, tying him to his father, and signifying the importance of place in his life.

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So why incorporate symbols? Well, for one thing, I think it’s fun! It’s an aspect of writing that appeals to me at a deep level. Another reason is that I respect the readers I’m writing for. They like the challenge that symbolic meaning represents, they like a deeper story. As a reader, I like this, too.  There are wonderful stories out there that use symbolism, but that aspect isn’t one that is often given much attention.

The book I’m working on now also has symbolic elements to it, and I’m enjoying the process of giving deeper meaning to the story as I find new ways to incorporate these symbols. Of course, my greater hope is that my readers enjoy it just as much as I do.

Research, Reviews, Revisions – Oh My!

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I’ll start with revisions. For one book, they’re done, for another, they’re just beginning. Two weeks ago I received the Advanced Unedited copies of my contemporary young adult novel THE DEEPEST BLUE from my publisher.

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This was the last possible chance to make any kind of changes to the book before publication. Nothing major – like I couldn’t change the ending, make big alterations to scenes, or anything of that nature. A few extra spaces were found, and a line that should have been deleted was probably the biggest glitch. The thing is, it was just an amazing thing to read the story all the way through for the first time since all the major revisions were done. It was frightening, but it was also exhilarating. I can tell you that at the end of it, I’m pleased – very pleased. I’m very critical of my work, and typically I’m harder on myself than anyone else ever would be, so the fact that I read through the entire book and didn’t hate it says something.

Now I’m gearing up for the revision process for my young adult paranormal novel called DEATH’S KISS. My publisher told me to expect the work to begin in earnest at the beginning of August. I actually like revisions because it’s a second chance (or third, or fourth, or whatever) to fine tune the story. It’s like working on a painting only now I get to go in with a tiny brush and add the details that bring the picture to life. And believe me, the excitement of having two books coming out within a month of each other is only getting bigger with each passing day!

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This brings me to reviews. The verbal feedback I’ve received from those who have read the two stories has, thus far,  been incredibly positive. I’m grateful for the comments of my beta readers and my editors. Their input has guided both stories and helped to make them stronger. But last week I got word that Kirkus Reviews was planning to publish a review of THE DEEPEST BLUE in their August 1st edition.

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I got a copy of the review, and while it is very positive, it is fairly critical of one aspect of the book, and that stung a bit. Well, no, it stung a lot. I’d be lying to say that my feelings weren’t just a bit hurt. The only remedy is to remind myself of the same words I’ve given to other writer friends in the same situation: reviews are really only one person’s opinion. If readers respond, that’s all that matters. Soon enough, I’ll have the answer.

So research – I’m working on a new young adult novel, a murder mystery. When I worked with my writing partner on BEAUTIFUL MONSTER, we interviewed a friend of mine who is a mortician to be sure that we got certain icky details correct.

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Now, I’ve started interviewing a good friend who is an attorney, and a friend of my parents’ who is a retired city detective. They are helping me to verify the details of  a cold case murder. I’m learning all sorts of legal and forensic information that will help me tell a better story. The cycle has started over, and I’m excited to be launching into a new adventure.  Of course, with three books in the works, I’m at three different stages in the writing process, so to say I’m starting over is only partially true.

This time in my writing life is busy, rewarding, and always interesting! I’ve worked hard for this, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I have spent 15 years of my life (minus a few I took off when I didn’t think I could write) working toward the experience I am having right now. When I hear other writers whine that they haven’t achieved some level of literary greatness after three or four years, I just have to laugh. I’m happy. I’ve worked hard for this happiness. I will enjoy it to the fullest, and I will continue working to maintain it. Research will not slow me, revisions will not dissuade me, and reviews will not take it away. I’m having a blast!