Archive | May, 2013

Latchkey Id

30 May

I’ve been abusing my muse. Well, it’s not so much abusing as neglecting. I’ve been leaving my muse alone for long stretches of time and putting everybody else ahead of her. It’s a symptom of a bigger illness on my part, a neurosis, but like a small child, my muse neither knows that or cares. All she knows is I’m not giving her the time she needs right now.

I feel like a bad parent.

Making time for my creativity is such a scary and emotional endeavor for me. If I give myself over fully to my muse, I run the risk of tuning out everybody and everything else in my life. When that happens, ‘you’re being selfish’ starts in on repeat in my brain, which eventually ruin my connection to my writing anyway. Wait…I guess that’s a self-regulating process, actually. If I get too far in, my guilt pulls me out. Good. I can stop worrying about that, I suppose.

So what about the other end, where I am now? I’ve been not writing at all this week, due to health issues and social obligations, and it feels as if I’ve stopped doing something vital, like eating vegetables or getting enough sleep. It feels dangerous and unhealthy. Not this-will-kill-you-instantly levels of unhealthy, but you-will-regret-this-later levels. To use yet another metaphor, I’ve been on a drunken bender of not-writing and the hangover is getting bigger every day, so I just keep drinking, in the hopes I can keep it from walloping me in the face. And the thing doing the walloping? My muse. My very lonely and ignored muse, with a baseball bat in her hand and angry tears on her cheeks.

A few years ago, I looked around at my writerly friends and took stock of where they were and where I was. I did this not out of jealousy or a need to compare myself (ok, maybe a little, yeah), but to see what I could be doing better. The thing I realized was that my more successful writer friends did one thing that I did not: they valued their writing. This value was expressed by them in many ways, but the biggest was by protecting their writing time and space. They treated writing not just as a job and not just as a hobby, but as something really important. They set times for their muses to come play with them and they didn’t let anything get in the way of that happening. They treated their muses as inherently precious, as you would treat a child. Not indulgently, but with plenty of patience, a firm hand when needed, and by just being there to listen. They did all of this because they believed that their muses were priceless. With this dedication, their muses grew strong and joyfully productive, giving these friends careers and writerly happiness.

This was, and still is, a revelation to me. I have a very hard time giving my muse the respect it deserves. As a result, my muse is still a dysfunctional toddler. It throws tantrums and refuses to speak to me, all of which is entirely my fault. If I were not neurotic, I would devote time to my muse every day and make sure it knew it was the most wonderful thing in the world to me.

Instead, I do everything I can to show it how little I think of it.

I know what I have to do. I have to step up and make the effort. I have to set a schedule and stick with it, through thick and thin. I have to read books that inspire me and I have to talk about writing with my friends. I have to edit and submit and research and be quiet enough to think. I have to show my muse and the world that I value my creativity.

But when the dog is barking and my parents needs help moving and I haven’t hung out with my boyfriend in days and my back hurts and the house is a mess…it’s really hard to take that time. Really hard. Like stop eating a pint of ice cream in the middle kind of hard. Like don’t think of polar bears kind of hard (you’re picturing a polar bear right now, aren’t you?). Like…well, like writing kind of hard. Sigh.

 

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Crowdsourcing Creativity

24 May

Earlier this week, Amazon announced it’s starting a new venture called Kindle Worlds, which will exclusively publish fan faction. The internet and publishing immediately weighed in, analyzing this ‘new’ way of approaching creativity. Here’s my take:

A month or so ago, a bunch of my friends and I were discussing the death of Roger Ebert. Hang in here with me, it relates, I swear. We came to the conclusion that he was the last of the great old time movie critics, both because he actually criticized movies (as opposed to just condensing the plot down to a few paragraphs), but also because his kind weren’t needed anymore. Where do you go when you want to know if a movie is worth seeing? I go to Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB or Netflix, where a bunch of people I don’t know have entered a rating and given me instant feedback about how good or bad a movie is. I love Ebert and his opinions were usually spot on for me, but I haven’t read a review of his for years. Movie rating made movie criticing an elite hobby. Why wade through a whole review when you can scan a bunch of ratings quickly and without spoilers? Movie reviews have been crowdsourced.

And now, with Kindle Worlds, creativity has been too, although this isn’t the first time it’s happened. Back in 2011, a show called Bar Karma tried it with television. It failed, but caused a huge uproar about how we build our creative content. At the time, I wasn’t sure why it was causing such a hullaballoo. TV is written by a bunch of people in a room together, and has been for decades. Every one of my favorite TV shows was written by more than one person. It seemed only natural to extend that out to the interwebs. Unfortunately, Bar Karma was a bad show, I think because of this revolutionary writing process. More on why in a bit.

Joseph-Gordon Levitt is crowdsourcing creativity online as well, through his company hitRECord. You can upload your art, music, animation, writing, to his website/forum, and someone else can download it, play with it, and upload it again as a new work. This approach has, according to Levitt, produced at least two films that were screened at Sundance, so it must be working. I’m dubious as to how much of these movies were actually made through online collaboration, but I’ll talk about that later as well.

Alloy Entertainment, the company that partnered with Amazon for Kindle Worlds, does its own form of crowdsourcing when it produces its popular book series’, Pretty Little Liars and others. Instead of just buying a series written by one author and already in existence (although they do this too-see The Vampire Diaries), Alloy puts a group of execs and writers in a room and has them banter about ideas until something clicks. Then they take that idea and brainstorm the plot for the books, after which one author takes the outline and actually writes the story, usually under a pseudonym (that way anybody can pick up the mantle later, like it used to be with the Sweet Valley High series, which Alloy also now owns, and like the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys series’ did for decades). Basically, Alloy is writing books by committee, like you would write a television sitcom.

With Kindle Worlds, Alloy has taken it even one step further. They have opened up their series’ to anyone who wants to write for them. It’s the ultimate in crowdsourced creativity: fan fiction for money. Instead of searching for that one great book with original content, publishers can just put a premise online and pay for whatever they get. It takes the one great thing about fan fic, the freedom of it, and ruins it for everyone. I blame Fifty Shades of Grey. When EL James changed the names of her main characters and suddenly hit publishing gold, it rang the death knell for free online fan fiction. With Kindle Worlds, it’s been buried and is rotting in its grave.

Now, if someone writes a great TVD fan fic (that fits their guidelines), it will automatically go to Alloy for publication. Why post it online for free when you might get a book deal? Not that I read TVD fan fic, but if I did, I’d be pissed. It’s going the way of the dodo bird, unless you want to pay for it.

This doesn’t even bring in all the financial reasons why Kindle Worlds is a horrible thing for writers. If you want a breakdown of that, see SFWA President John Scalzi’s post here. He does say that he believes this won’t end fan fic, because there’s always slash, which publishers won’t touch. I think he’s wrong (see above, re: Fifty Shades of Grey).

Ok, I promised I’d speak about why I think Bar Karma failed, why I doubt the hitRECord.org Sundance movies were exclusively collaborations, and why crowdsourcing creativity is a bad thing. Look at the research. Back in the 60’s, an advertising guy named Alex Osborne came up with the idea of brainstorming. Brainstorming, as any good government worker knows, is a process of coming up with ideas in a group by throwing out suggestions and writing them down, usually on a white board in a very small room with pastries available. The official rules are as follows:


Generate as many ideas as possible
 – the more ideas you come up with, the better chance you have of coming up with good ones.

Don’t criticise – it will dampen peoples enthusiasm and kill their creativity.

Welcome unusual ideas – it’s important to break out of your usual mindset and consider wild and wacky ideas if you want to be really creative.

Combine and improve ideas – instead of criticising ideas, look for way to use them in combination and/or make them better.

Seems like a great way to quickly gather the best ideas from the most amount of people, right? Well, um, no, not really. Turns out, brainstorming doesn’t work as well as it should. In fact, it does exactly what it’s trying to avoid. According to current research, the ideas produced are mediocre, the majority of suggestions don’t conform to the right guidelines and are a waste of time, people are too intimidated to speak up (yes, this happens even in the anonymity of cyberspace), and ultimately, groupthink takes over, leading to bad ideas being pursued.

What do all of the above examples of creativity crowdsourcing have in common? They are basically online brainstorming. Even Kindle Worlds is, in essence, a slightly longer brainstorming session: an idea by one person, expanded by another, and produced by a third.

You throw in money and it gets even more constrained. Instead of asking what would be the best way for the character to grow or if this is an original idea, you end up asking will this book sell and can we fit this into future story lines already being developed? Gone is wild exploration and true creative adventure. Here there be plastic dragons that conform to the lowest common denominator and poop out wads of cash.

I don’t think this is the death of real authors or fresh ideas by any means. Authors will continue to pound away on keyboards in cafes, producing innovative stuff. But I think this new money stream narrows the market. If a publisher can make more money off an idea they already own, they will chose that rather than search for new talent. And Kindle Worlds does signal the end of certain kinds of fan fiction being readily available for free. If more publishers join in, many others will follow. While this won’t affect a lot of people, the fact that ideas are becoming more and more factory produced eventually will. Writers, like publishers,will follow the money. They have to eat, just like a lay person does. So let’s make sure the money isn’t all in brainstormed manuscripts based on unoriginal ideas, ok? In 20 years, I don’t want the new Law and Order: SVU book to be my only choice for a vacation read. Yes, that series will still be on in 20 years, trust me.

Initiative

17 May

INITIATIVE
The Story of My (Creative) Life

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d6, d8, d12, and d20

d6, d8, d12, and d20

You open the door.  You see a ten-by-ten foot room.  There is an Orc, guarding a chest.  Roll initiative.

<> <> <>

The door is massive slabs of wood, bound in iron.  You throw your shoulder into it and it gives with a loud groan and opens.  On the other side, you see a small chamber, dimly lit by a rusted oil lamp.  Across the room, secured to the stone floor with thick chains, is a sturdy, wooden chest.  In the center of the room, however, stands an Orc with a sword.  It raises its blade and grunts a guttural challenge to you.  Roll initiative.

<> <> <>

These corridors go on forever, it seems; a never-ending labyrinth of tiny rooms, dead end passages, and horrible monsters.  The air is foul, as if it were carried into the halls inside a bag of rotten meat.  The door you find is the same as all the others you have seen.  You heave, strain and the door budges, creaks in protest, and then swings open.

The room on the other side is drawn from one your lesser nightmares.  A slavering Orc stands in the center of the small chamber.  A chipped sword swings from its meaty hand.  Under its thick coat of bristly hair, pale pink skin is wrapped around thick cords of muscle.  It twists its face into a snarl, showing off its yellow tusks and sharpened teeth.

Behind this thing – this half-man, half-monster – is a sturdy chest, chained and bolted to the floor.  The Orc steps between you and the treasure and growls, both as a warning and an invitation.  As if to say, “Come on then! Come and die!”

Roll initiative.

<> <> <>

You could have been anything.  Everyone always told you that, growing up.  Your prowess was apparent from a young age and even your opponents have given you their grudging approval.  They said you had potential, a higher purpose, a destiny even.

So why are you here, chasing some fantasy of fame and fortune?  Slogging through the underworld, nearly dying day in and day out – what kind of life is that?  It’s a life of the perpetual grit and grime that covers every square inch of the place.  It’s a life of that infernal smell that penetrates your clothes, your food, and your skin.  It’s a life of no sunlight, or any bright light for that matter.  It’s a life of not knowing what time it is, or what day it is, or what season it is.

Beneath your worn down armor, your clothes are in tatters and your skin is chaffed and sore.  Your bones ache from the continuous chill and the constant battle.  There are wounds too, stitched up the best you could manage.  The hideous beasts and outright monsters that you’ve seen have slowed your progress – have broken your stride with their fangs and talons and blood – but they haven’t stopped you.  Not yet.

Another turn in the corridor, another dead end, more stairs, more, more, more…  You’re grateful for the monsters, because otherwise this place would kill you with its monotonous, repetitive grind.  On several occasions, you thought about death.  Not while you were in the fight, but after, when you lay alone, in the dark.  Huddled in a barricaded room, as you gnawed on a small bit of food, you thought you could imagine being dead.  Again and again, the fire in your belly shook you from this daydream, and you pressed on.  What would be worse than dying in this hellish underworld?  Giving up, making a retreat, running away.

And so there is another door, no different or worse than any other you’ve seen here.  It opens and you take in the details.  Small room, secured chest, and a large, armed Orc, standing guard.  The Orc puffs up and gets ready for a fight, while time stands still for you.  Just a moment in time, as you assess your options, weigh the possible outcomes.

You wonder what’s in this chest, and why is the Orc is guarding it.  You want to know who is in charge of these Orcs.  Why don’t they put all the Orcs and chests together in one room?  But, not for the first time, you are grateful.  If you had to fight all these Orcs at the same time, you’d be doomed.

You hope this chest isn’t rigged with a trap.  You hope it’s filled with gold this time.  Maybe if you hit the jackpot, you can pack it in.  There’s no shame in leaving, once you’ve made a small fortune, something to show for all your efforts.

How long have you been down here, with all the ghouls and demons?  How many doors have you broken down?  How many Orcs have you killed and how many chests have you opened and how many traps have you avoided?  Does one more have any meaning?  Is there anything about this door and this room that is not ubiquitous?  There: the door.  There: the room. There: the Orc and the chest.

You heave a sigh, with a resignation so final and quick that you doubt the Orc even noticed.  What do you do?  What can you do?  Roll initiative.

Δ

each square = 10 feet

each square = 10 feet

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(please click ‘Continue Reading’ to read some thoughts on this piece)

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Music to Create Worlds By

14 May

A lot of authors put a list of music that they listened to while they wrote at the start of their books. I love this idea. It not only gives the readers a soundtrack of the book to establish atmosphere and background, but it pimps out the author’s favorite bands, which is great. Cross publicity is always good, in my world. And it makes the author infinitely cool, if they happen to choose the right blend of new bands nobody has heard of and old bands that everyone thinks are awesome, with a couple of cheesy favorites thrown in to grab the widest demographic.

I adore reading a well-put-together musical inspiration page.

I just don’t think I’ll ever be able to have one in my books.

My problem is this: I have a hard time listening to music with lyrics while I write. At least if I’m playing it. If someone else is playing it, like the friend I write with, I can tune it out as background noise, occasionally surfacing to watch him riff lyrics and dance a jig.

This is not my writing partner, but he dances like this.

This is not my writing partner. He does dance like this, however.

But if it’s coming from my computer or my stereo, I want to hum along and get lost in the song. I’ll be writing away, happy in my little imaginary world, and then BAM! the mix I created to do housework to is distracting me with super-long-and-totally-unrelated-to-the-plot-but-incredible-sounding titles for novels, or inspiring character flaws from the self-centered woes the singer is moaning about, or sparking post-apocalyptic love story ideas I don’t want to have right then because I haven’t finished my current project yet. It’s annoying.

So, in order to deal with this, I’ve put together a playlist of instrumental dance music on my laptop. It’s up beat, word free, and goes on forever with just enough difference from song to song that I don’t get bored. It’s perfect. Of course, most of the artists are from the nineties and no longer even produce work. So there goes the whole “I’m really cool because I listen to the hippest music” thing that most authors’ music lists put forward (subconsciously, I’m sure…oh, wait, no, I’m not).

I’ve added instrumental movie soundtracks to my writing playlist as well. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, any western that’s come out in past decade, eighties sci-fi movies, maybe some Guillermo Del Toro stuff to lighten things up…it all flows nicely behind the story unfolding on my computer screen. But I can’t pimp these out either. The minute I say Bram Stoker’s Dracula, you see Gary Oldman, stalking Winona Ryder in his way too tall hat and John Lennon glasses, right? Not really what I want to associate with my novel about teens with superpowers. Brad Pitt with a six-shooter? Not appropriate. The end of the world with saxophones? Not really going to give readers the gist of my tales either.

Recently, I’ve discovered the worst possible music to admit that you write to, if you want people to think you’re cool: classical music. I turned on the cable music channel on my TV a few weeks ago and proceeded to switch through all the stations, from pop to alternative to 80’s, with the same problem as above. They all yanked me right out of my writing space and made me want to dance. Not conducive to a fulfilling work session. Then, on a whim, I turned on light classical. Guess what? It’s fantastic. I’m talking light classical, too, not even regular classical, which was too heavy and depressing. No, I worked for hours to the sort of music your great great grandma did her cross stitch too. Happy, tickling notes and up sweeping crescendos that make you want to have a ball and invite Mr. Darcy. That’s what I wrote my novel to. It worked better than the dance music, even though my novel’s not a period piece.But it really doesn’t work if I put light classical artists in the music list of my urban fantasy novel. What, I’m gonna promote Mozart and give him a boost on iTunes? That guy doesn’t need my help. And I’m pretty sure any readers I may get for my tale of a teenage werewolf cop investigating the murder of the head of the Illuminati won’t really care about classical music*. I could be wrong, but it’s just a hunch.

This guy is doing just fine in sales, trust me.

This guy is doing just fine in sales, trust me.

So I’ve resigned myself to being hopelessly uncool on my novel’s musical inspiration page or maybe not having one at all. I guess I have to give up on the hipster dream in exchange for long and fruitful writing sessions. It seems like a fair trade, overall. I suppose. Maybe. Sigh.

* Story ideas have been changed to protect..well, my story ideas. Although most of my plots are just as silly, if not sillier, than this. 

Structure, Space, Time

13 May

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I sat myself down in my studio today with one simple goal in mind: Write. It proved to be easier than I expected. I mean, I write all the time – even when I’m not writing, my  brain is churning over something. But this was different. I just wanted to put some words on the page and my nose to the grindstone.

Now, my studio space has very little in the way of amenities – or distractions. I bring my mp3 player, but usually don’t use it. There is no internet, unless I want to relocate to the coffee shop down the block. And usually there are no other people. Even when there are, the atmosphere of the place is geared towards work, rather than socializing. This is the kind of setup I’ve always wanted. In so many ways, it is perfect. And today I sat down and kicked out over two thousand words… of utter crap.

good structure, bad facade

good structure, bad facade

What do you do when  good plan leads to terrible results? I mean, you can always start over. And believe me, that’s something I have some experience with. Novel projects come and go – I have no shortage of things to write. I get stuck on a book, so I set it aside. Months later, I pick it up and decide to gut it – rework it into something better. Back at square one, everything seems shiny and new. Now, instead of post-World War Two England, it’s set in modern Seattle – just after an alien invasion. Same character concepts, same basic structure, but it still ends up a hulking ruin. Who cares if the structure is good – it looks like it caught the worst of a bomb blast. Yes, I still have material to work with, things to draw from.

Am I going back in to the studio tomorrow? Yes. Of course. I can’t NOT go back to work. I just need to figure out how. And as I was sulking in my unsatisfied funk, an idea came to me. I did about five minutes of research and I hit upon a weird piece of inspiration. And as we all know, weird inspiration is the best kind.

I’m going to write the WORST story I can. I will cringe while I do it, but at least I know that I will succeed! I found a recent post with some interesting “guidelines” to follow, over here. To tell you the truth, I’m really excited to try this technique. I can’t wait to hit the studio tomorrow. And if I manage to put together something truly wretched – I mean, to the point of being entertaining – I will think about posting it. At this point, I can’t think of a reason why not. Pride? Ha!

Now, maybe there is a downside to this plan that I just can’t see. Perhaps taking the lowest possible path will only lead to bad habits, dependency on terrible prose, and an addiction to adverbs. Maybe. But I think there’s a chance to learn something from this kind of work. At least I won’t be disappointed. And I might just have fun while I do it too.

Wish me luck!

ÿ

Rules for Writers

10 May

My goodness, there are a lot of so-called rules, guidelines, and admonishments out there for writers. And just as many prescriptive parameters for artists. I couldn’t begin to do a thorough round-up of even just the good ones. So I’ll pick out my favorite: Robert A. Heinlein’s famous Rules For Writing.

Proposed Rule #0: Acquire a fountain pen this pretty

Proposed Rule #0: Acquire a fountain pen this pretty

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  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  4. You must put the work on the market.
  5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Well, it might be an antiquated list, first seeing print in 1946. But it contains several powerful ideas, some even more potent because of our technological marvels. Let me add some commentary.

Rules 1 & 2: There really is little to say, except that my take on #2 ends pretty much at the completion of the first draft. Just kick the idea out of your head and get it on the page – in whatever condition you can manage.

Rule 3: This doesn’t mean casual rewrites, or jiggering with a story’s bit and pieces. It means you can’t keep fiddling with it! Put down the pen and walk away – know when to stop.

Rule 4: In our world the ‘market’ is very strange, but the same rules apply. Find a place for that work to belong. Get your marketing hat on and find out where it should be.

Rule 5: This is the tough one, for me. I have no problem trying to find a home my works, but I give up easily. I would rather put my past work aside and move on – which may well be a wise move on my part. I don’t know.

What do you think? Is there anything for you to take away from this? Do these kinds of lists, or rules carry any helpful weight? I admit, it’s usually mixed results for me, but there are a few I always fall back on – like Heinlein’s rules, above. Sometimes, it is just a kick in the pants – a mental prod to the back of my conscience that reminds me: “This is your JOB.” And some days, that’s exactly what I need.

I’ll leave you with another favorite of mine, although it may seem unlikely to apply to writing:

“Is it hard? Not if you have the right attitude. It’s having the right attitude that’s hard.”
-Robert M. Pirsig

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Names, Power

8 May

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names carved into the Great Wall

names carved into the Great Wall

Of all the things a writer must decide on when putting together a story, nothing is quite as important as names. Place names are fairly important, of course, if you’re in the process of world-building. But the names of your main characters are so essential to get right. Assemble this part of your story the wrong way and it will sound a sour note in the reader’s mind – it can actually throw me out of the story. Get it right, however, and you may just change the reference point for that name, for all time.

Of course, none of this is new – if you’ve ever had the honor of naming a child, you surely understand gravity of such a responsibility. People have been struggling with names ever since the concept was written down. And just like real life heroes and villains, the characters for books, stories, and movies feed on and inform that cycle. The name Adolph can’t be separated from its negative associations, just as Clark is usually followed by Kent in my mind. The very idea of names taking up this huge, public space is a big deal. Just think about the fact that so many names in current usage come straight out of the bible. It’s kind of hard to imagine a bunch of folks running around the Middle East named Joseph, Mary, Thomas, Peter, and Paul.

On the surface, it is simple. Names are used to identify things, individually or by class or category. They can be casual, or formal. They can be precise and scientific, or sloppy and irregular. I have given a lot of thought to this – maybe too much. But wait – there’s a real cool video that talks about ‘things’ that have weird names:

Suffice it to say, names have power. It is more significant than the power of language. It gives ownership in some respect to the person who gives the name. What if that space under your nose was called something else? How does the name for the back of your elbow change the way you think about it? If it sounds pretty, or useful, will we use it more? And does that usage change the actual importance of the object? And how about this classic mind-twister:

The brain named itself.

How cool is that? It reminds me of a joke: “I used to think my brain was the most important organ in my body. But then I realized who was telling me that.”

So, the naming process has power. Discover a new land and that place could carry your fingerprints – forever. The same with a new animal, or new disease, or (I assume) new planet filled with hives of flying, horse-sized spider/scorpions. Yeah. That would be an important time to brand those things correctly. Now, fortunately, there are naming conventions to be observed in most of our world. And – to bring it back to relevant territory – these rules can even apply to fiction.

There are so-called naming tropes you can refer to. You can push against them, by mixing up expectations and genders. You can slide into cliche and the familiar, or push them into new territory. It is a tough passage to negotiate, and the more important the character (or place, or robot-monkey ship) the harder it is to chose wisely. You can’t throw caution to the wind and just throw a dart at a board, but it is definitely best to play with the ideas.

I have found great tools and tricks, but I have never found the one, perfect way to get it done. It is a process that I have to reinvent, every time I start a new project. Sometimes, it is simple and other times… Well, honestly, other times I just give up. Thanks to the miracle of find/replace, all names are changeable. I found a story I had written years ago, but the main character’s name was too close to one of my friends – someone I hadn’t even met when I wrote the first draft.

I guess that’s my takeaway for today. Nothing is carved in stone, everything is subject to revision – right up until it goes to press. And in our increasingly digital world, even then there are always options. For now, my characters named John, Ruth, or Gabe will remain. Perhaps, when I have gone through a few rounds of rewrites, they will become more clear, better defined. I long for the clarity and direction that the right name brings though. Like the perfect turn of phrase, or the deus ex machina at the end of the movie, I wait for that person to arrive, sort out all my trouble, and carry my tale to a happy ending.

Is that too much to ask for? Probably, but I’ll keep writing, and hoping, and waiting.

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