Tag Archives: Alexandra

The End

15 Jan

Finishing a novel is a little like breaking up with someone. You’ll see each other again (you still have stuff to work out/rewrite) but the main part of the relationship is over. You’ll no longer be around each other every day. At odd moments, your mind automatically turns towards working on the ‘problems,’ only to realize you don’t have to anymore. It’s done. You feel both relieved and lonely. You wonder if you’ll ever have the strength do it again, but deep down, you know there won’t be a choice. The next time, just like this time, it’ll hit you out of nowhere and captivate you and you’ll think this time won’t be as hard and you’ll fall headlong once more.

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How I Overcame Writer’s Block (And Why It Killed This Blog)

31 Dec

This blog died this summer. Or maybe it just went into a coma and slumbered away the summer and fall with a languid grace usually reserved only for feisty old film stars. Whichever.

There was a very good reason for the death (or temporary coma) of this blog though, at least on my end. I began writing again. I can’t speak for Pat (I’m terrible at his lack of accent and the moustache twitching throws me off anyway), but I hadn’t written anything except a short story or two for over a year before last summer. After my novel came out in April of 2012, I pretty much shut down as an author. As I’ve mentioned here before, the publication experience was not a positive one and when you add disappointment on top of rejection on top of decades of skewed expectations, things tend to go sideways in the creativity department. So I didn’t write. I tried. I went to a counselor, I read self-help creativity books, I journaled, I even stated out loud that I wasn’t going to be a writer anymore, hoping reverse psychology was a real thing. Nothing worked.

Then a bunch of totally not-writing-related things happened, and now, I’m maybe a week or two from the end of another novel. This is how it went down:

1: I got a dog. This may seem completely irrelevant to writing, but as any dog owner knows, canines are super cute creatures of extremely demanding habit. My little Zoe, once she calmed down and became a true part of our household, was just the structure I needed to get out of bed in the morning and go to work. Her need to be fed at the same time every day pushed me to get moving instead of lying around, feeling sorry for myself. Also, on the days when I worked at home, her habit of curling up next to my leg as I wrote made my efforts real somehow, gave them weight. Her warm fuzziness against me, snorting and occasionally kicking me as she chased squirrels in her dreams, let me feel not so alone in my herculean task of putting one word ahead of another. It gave me the (mostly) silent, non-judgmental support I needed.

2: I changed the way I eat. Again, seems unrelated. But by attacking my health issues through research and diet change, I rediscovered my own capacity for self care. When I figured out that a lot of my ailments were all tied to one huge thing and that I most likely had the power to effect it in a positive way, it gave me the strength to face the other areas of my life where I felt powerless as well, like my writing. Suddenly, I no longer felt my success was at the mercy of publishers or other writers or even the market. Suddenly, I was in control again and just like with my diet, I knew what worked for me, despite doubters all around. They had their process. I had mine.

3: My boyfriend had a bad accident. Now, don’t get me wrong. When he fell, it was devastating in soooo many ways. Even now, six months later and with him doing much better, the consequences of that afternoon are still messing with our lives, from the pain and weakness he still has to the financial blowback we are dealing with. But him being home all summer had one huge plus, even though I originally worried it would be the last straw for me: it forced me out of the house. If I wanted any alone time at all, I had to go my office and work. Aside from grocery shopping, going to my office on the days I could was the only excuse I had (in my own mind) for leaving him alone, and as an introvert, I desperately needed some space. So I went. And because I was there, I started writing. There’s no TV and barely any internet at my office, so I had nothing else to do but write.

4: I gave up on everything I knew. This is the only thing I did on this list that is directly related to my creativity, but I’m including it because it was the last little push I needed to get writing again. Soon after I began going to my office again, I started a novel. Then I ran out of steam. I started another and ran out of steam again. Nothing I loved to write in the past felt real or viable or fun. Finally, out of desperation, I decided to try a genre I’d never written in before. I researched it, reading books and blogs, and looking up outlining techniques. I started another novel, this time in that genre. I figured if I failed, it was OK, because it wasn’t really my genre anyway, right? That’s the novel I’m almost done with now. I gave myself a time frame to finish it and I’m only running a week or so behind, which I blame on miscalculating the intensity of the holiday season. But I will finish it soon, because it’s fun to write. For the first time in a long while, I get lost in my writing while working on this book. I connect to myself again, creatively. It feels like coming home.

So that’s how I overcame the most persistent case of writer’s block I’ve ever had, and subsequently, abandoned this blog for many, many months. Now that I’m writing confidently again, I plan on tracking my progress here, so hopefully Misinvention will be a conscious entity once more.

If you’re a blocked writer, I don’t know if any of the above will work for you (and I really don’t recommend an accident for your partner). But I hope by sharing my tale, I can at least show you that it is possible to get through a frustrating period and sometimes, life helps you in unexpected ways. Leave me a comment if you have other suggestions!

A Map of my Writing World

30 Jun

outlining

 

To outline or not to outline? Oh my god, that is the question. I wonder sometimes if Shakespeare outlined. Maybe somewhere, lost in the annals of time, there’s a crumpled up parchment with “Scene One: Hamlet marries Ophelia. Scene Two: The King is jailed for murder. Scene Three: ?” scrawled on it. If he did outline his famous plays, my admiration for The Bard just kicked up another notch. As much as I’m obsessed with outlining, I can’t actually do it. Or, as I tell myself every time I get stuck in a manuscript and troll the web for new outlining techniques, I just can’t do it YET.

I’ve researched many, many ways to map out a story before I write it. Some of my favorites are The Snowflake Method, the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet, and Helene Boudreau’s Plotting…OCD Style . I even took the best of these and made my own spreadsheet, which I call my Novel Roadmap. I had enormous fun making it.

I have yet to complete a novel using it.

I used to think the problem is that I can’t write something I’ve already put out there. It’s the same reason I don’t tell anybody my story ideas until I’m finished writing them: if I tell the story, I’m done with it and it will never be written. So maybe I can’t complete an outlined story because I’ve already told it to the universe in the form of the outline and now, my mind is already moving on.

Actually, reading that back, the above paragraph seems incredibly grandiose. Not that I want to start blabbing them to everybody before hand, but are my ideas really so precious and fragile that I can’t even examine them in a document in the privacy of my own computer? Hrmph.

OK, maybe it’s just that I write intuitively. While my organized side loves the idea of breaking down a story into small chunks and using the same structure for everything, my creative side wants to puke at the thought. My creative side wants to run wild and free, never once thinking about what it’s doing, but somehow getting a great novel out through my hard-earned subconscious knowledge of pacing, character arcs, etc.

Huh. That’s highly suspect, right there. It basically assumes I have an innate familiarity with the form that other writers don’t have…yeah, no. Hrmph again.

All right. Maybe I’m just one of those writers who compose a first draft in a flurry of creativity and then fix everything later. I don’t outline before because I outline after. Write now, edit later!

God, if that were only true. The reality is, I’m horrible at rewriting. If a manuscript goes off the rails, I just walk away and try again with the next one. So that makes a hrmph triple play.

The only semi-valid excuse I can come up with is this: usually, when I use an outline, I end up not following it anyway. I start off with a great plan and lose my way halfway through when the story takes a turn, and then I get stuck.

But maybe that’s my problem right there. Maybe if I followed them more closely, I wouldn’t get stuck and I would finish them.

Hrmph x4.

I’m starting to think I’m just lazy…

Solitary Words

17 Jun

Solitary Writer

When I write nonfic, I don’t really care who’s in the room. I can type away, stop to have a conversation, and then return to my thoughts without much trouble or angst. That’s not the case when I write fiction. When I’m working on a novel or short story, I guard my time and space like a dragon guards its treasure, because if I’m interrupted, all is lost. I lose my train of thought completely, poof, and it takes a supreme effort to get it back. And after the third or so interrupt, it’s utterly gone, dead, kaput. It’s bad enough that if I know I won’t get very much alone time during a day, I won’t even try to write, because it makes me more cranky to be stopped from writing than to not even attempt it at all.

I want to be one of those prolific fiction writers who can write in between changing babies or dashing off work memos, but it seems I’m just not wired that way. While my nonfic muse is much looser and free, I need mental space and complete autonomy to commune with my fiction muse. She’s very fussy. So fussy, in fact, that this rule doesn’t even apply across the board. If I’m in a studio with other writers, I can chat about our work every once in a while and then get right back into writing. It’s only when people want to talk about something mundane, like insurance or plans for the weekend, that my muse flees into her deep dark cave and refuses to come out.

I know what you’re saying. You’re pointing to my own previous post and telling me to just give my muse the space she needs, right? And you’re correct, to a certain extent. That’s why I’m setting myself work hours and arranging my office so I can be the most comfortable and letting everyone know I will not text back until I’m done writing for the day. But there is a very fine line between holding something sacred and letting it morph into a temperamental, demanding deity, or even worse, using that sacredness to make it untouchable.

Which is exactly what I’ve been doing. Ever since I began this blog, I’ve been making strides towards writing fiction fulltime again, which is great. Except I’m still not writing. I had one productive period a few weeks ago. I wrote every day and had brilliant ideas and it felt wonderful. Then I was derailed by life, and I haven’t been able to get back into the groove since.

I realize now that, more than anything, it’s ME that’s stopping me. I’m treating my fiction writing as something precious, not just in a protective way but in an avoidance way. I’m holding myself to extremely high standards and using my need for space as an excuse to not even try. My fiction muse demands utter devotion and focus, and when I can’t guarantee that completely (which is always, because, you know, life), instead of fighting for my space or dealing with the problem and then getting back into the work, I immediately throw up my hands and step away from the keyboard, whining the entire time about how I can’t write because people won’t leave me alone. While this may be true a lot of the time, I’ve noticed that even when they do, I can be really creative finding ways to not be creative. I’ve mastered the art of excuses.

And I think I know why. When one of my novels was published last year, there were some…hiccups. Overall, it was not the best experience. So now I’m using every defense I have to avoid going through that again, the most effective being not writing at all, and I’m blaming the distractions around me for my lack of productivity. Conversely, I have a very intense need to prove myself because of that same situation. I must be the most talented writer I can be all the time now, to show myself and the world that I can succeed despite that ordeal. In other words, I must be a perfect writer  (which is a sure way to instantly stifle any creative flow I may have), and I must never write again (because that’ll save me from all pain, ever), all at the same time. Are you starting to understand the twistedness that is my brain?

The solution, I think, is to both go easy on myself and to push myself. As I’ve read in writing books for years (but never needed to hear until now): I must let go of perfection. I have to let myself make mistakes. It’s part of the process. I need to approach my writing as play, like I used to, and enjoy myself. And there’s another lesson I need right now as well: I must show up at the page day after day, despite everything going on around me. I have to make writing fiction a part of my routine again. I need to practice, both timewise and playwise, instead of worrying and fussing and not doing anything for fear of everything.

It’s sometimes hard to see the distinction between protecting a muse and indulging it. I’ve been letting mine act like a spoiled child, buying it off with excuses but not giving it what it really wants: boundaries and the safety to explore that comes with them. I’m learning that without both a firm hand and a nonjudgmental place to run free, my writing just won’t ever happen.

A Starving Artist Buys Some Food

6 Jun
God, I wish I looked this good when I shopped. Where's her flip flops and sweat pants?

I don’t look anywhere near this well-groomed when I shop.

From now on, I’m going to lie about my professional life. Why? Here’s why:

“My handwriting is so bad that my father used to tell me I was going to be a doctor!” The guy checking me out at the grocery store is someone I’ve seen for decades, but we’ve never moved beyond small talk. I’m hesitant to engage, but he’s a nice guy, so I open my big mouth and say something really stupid.

“Yeah, I’m a writer, so my horrible handwriting is actually ironic.” Something flashes in his eyes. I cringe.

And the questions start.

“Oh yeah? What do you write?” he asks, swiping a bag of frozen peas across the scanner.

“Novels, short stories, and some non-fiction too…” I dig in my purse for my debit card, praying this will end quickly. The next question is usually ‘Have you had a book published?’ or some such variation, and I really don’t want to get into it: ‘Yes’/’What genre?’/’Paranormal romance ’ and then he’s really polite but tight-faced because he thinks I write porn. But this guy surprises me and goes one of the other few ways people take this conversation.

“Yeah? Do you make a lot of money? Like enough to support yourself?”

At this point, he’s done ringing me up. The total is well over what I’d expected to spend and, as it’s the end of the month, takes up all of the rest of the money I have at the moment. To make my shopping experience even more exciting, in the lane next to us, well within earshot, is the step mother of one of my ex’s. She saw me in the dairy section, I know she did, but hasn’t said anything, thank god. It was a horrible break up and I no longer talk to her stepson.

To sum up, I’m being asked how much money I make, loudly and by a relative stranger, in a very public grocery line, as I stand there almost broke and trying to dodge someone who’s opinion shouldn’t matter anymore but of course still does .

I almost tell him the absolute truth. I almost launch into a defensive explanation of book sales and marketing and royalties and how I’m actually doing ok despite how it looks…but I don’t. Instead, I let it go. I don’t owe this guy a thing. Whatever I tell him doesn’t mean jack in the long run, and I’d rather have my ex’s stepmother hear a lie than the truth anyway.

“Yes. I do extremely well, actually. Very, very well.”

He looks startled but smiles. “Well, here’s to your first million!” he says as I wheel away the cart of food that must last until the end of the month or I’ll starve.  I nod and beam and head to my car, walking slowly so I don’t end up right behind my ex’s stepmother as I go out the door.

Putting aside that the whole thing was my fault for telling him I was a writer in the first place, the fact remains: if I were not an artist, the above conversation would not have been so painful because no stranger would ever ask anyone but an artist how they do money-wise, especially not in front of other people.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that I was a doctor. When the check out guy told me his dad thought he would be a doctor, I would’ve laughed and said, yeah, I am one and my handwriting is atrocious. We would have laughed together and I would have left (still walking slowly because an ex’s stepmom is an ex’s stepmom, no matter what job you have).

If I was an office worker, I would’ve responded by rolling my eyes and saying tell me about it, my boss always complains she can’t read a word I write. We would’ve laughed together and I would have left (see above).

You can insert any other profession that’s not creative into this scenario and get the same, not-as-embarrassing result, for one simple reason: the check out guy would never ask anybody in a non-artist job how much money they make. Why is that? I understand that a lot of artists, be it actors or writers or painters or musicians, don’t make a lot of money. I get that. These are not a jobs you pursue because you want financial security. But shouldn’t that make it even less polite to ask about it? Shouldn’t people expressly not ask about it, because chances are very good that they will embarrass the artist?

Maybe it’s a curiosity thing, as in ‘tell me how that works because I don’t normally meet writers.’ Maybe the people who ask this question are secretly jealous and want to embarrass artists because they’re mad that the artist is following their dreams when they aren’t. Maybe we live in a society that values money above all else, so no one knows what else to talk about. Or maybe the aliens can see into the future, and they took control of this guy’s vocal cords so I won’t someday write the anti-alien manifesto that leads to humanity rising up against them.

Ok, yes, now I’m just making it all seem grandiose. I don’t really think it’s a conspiracy, alien or otherwise. But it sure is frustrating sometimes. I would love to tell someone I’m a writer and have them just smile and say ‘Oh, yeah? That’s awesome! I love to read!’ or ‘Yeah? My uncle was a writer’ or ‘That’s cool! Do you like doing that?’ Those are conversation starters I can get behind and keep going. Those are interesting and engaging. ‘How much do you make?’ Not so much.

So, from now until it’s the truth, I’m just going to lie. I’ll be the poorest, happiest, millionaire writer in town. Suck it, check out guy.

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.

 

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.