Setting As Muse

Everyone knows how important setting is in a book. But how important is setting when writing a book? For some writers, where they write is a huge part of their writing process, and can influence every facet of the book, from the feel to the setting details. While most writers can and do write wherever they happen to find themselves, many have favorite places they retreat to whenever they can.

 

I spend most of my writing time at home – face it, with an 8-month-old, there’s not a lot of choice. I write in dribs and drabs as she allows. But there are places in my life that inspire me to write, that seem to open the creative windows in my mind farther than I thought they could go.

 

One place is St. Michaels, Maryland. There is nothing like sitting on the balcony overlooking the Miles River, letting the quiet seep into me, letting the “real” world vanish. The warm breeze, the water lapping at the shore…peace. And fantastic stars over the water at night—even shooting stars at the right time of year. It’s a great place to hole up and get words on the page.

 

Another place is Chincoteague Island, Virginia. Some of you know that I have been spending about half of every month there for most of this year. Chincoteague is the site of Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague; Stormy, Misty’s Foal; and Sea Star: Orphan of Chincoteague, so there is literary history there. The island itself inspires writing. It is quiet and peaceful and slow-moving (except at Pony Penning!). The salt air blows ceaselessly across the land, bringing the scent of wildness and freedom from neighboring Assateague Island. But what I find inspiring is the town.

 

Most of Chincoteague is residential, houses on almost every square inch. Unlike the “developments” up north, though, it is not a cookie-cutter universe, with every house a replica of the one next door. Every house is as individual as the person who owns it. There’s the “just barely” two story house that is twice as long as it is tall. There’s the three story aristocrat towering over the 4-room cottage beside it. There the lavender-shuttered house with every blade of grass manicured confronting the weathered, shingle-challenged shack across the street. Every one different – and every one hinting at its own story.

 

Not only do these houses give me scads of ideas for settings, imagining what plots those walls conceal, but they free up my mind to work on quirky characters. The sameness I see in the north (big box stores, strip malls, cloned houses) stupefies the mind. On Chincoteague, where each house is a character unto itself, it is not hard to picture the characters who would have created a house like that. Peopling stories with colorful characters becomes easier.

 

Just for the record, I have also always found Ocean City, New Jersey, a good place to relax and write. I seem to have a water theme going, don’t I? So now I know where I need to buy my next house to maximize my writing potential – near water! Would buying such a house count as a business expense?

 

How about you? Where do you go to hear the Muse speak?

Writing in the Present Tense

I just finished reading The Great God Pan by Donna Jo Napoli. It’s YA, based on the two Greek myths of Pan and Iphigenia. Napoli fills in a few of the gaps in the mythology with this engaging, inventive and lively book.

 

Pan tells it in first person, with a voice that grabs the reader immediately. The voice is so inviting that at first I didn’t even notice that the book is written in the present tense. Since I didn’t notice, Napoli obviously used this device skillfully, but it got me thinking about using present tense in novels. The next 3 YA books I read (Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries; Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak; and Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games) are all also written in present tense.

 

Present tense used to be taboo, but now it seems to be a trend. When is it most effective? Are there times when it absolutely should not be used?

 

Present tense gives immediacy to the action and the emotion. The reader lives the moment simultaneously with the protagonist. Hindsight and explanation don’t flavor the action. It is, in a way, a cleaner way to experience a story. And yet, so many readers and authors dislike its use. My husband says he hates present tense so much that he cannot read a book written in it—he never makes it past the first page or two. I asked him why he disliked it so much, and he said that perhaps it is because he looks at a book as a history, the events in it as something that already happened—it had to have already happened to be written down, and that chronological disconnect in logic bothers him.

 

Personally, it doesn’t bother me, as long as the story has grabbed me. Then, as now, I sometimes don’t even notice until I am well into the book, and too invested to stop reading. I also find that first person narratives lend themselves to present tense. My current WIP, The Oracle of Delphi, Kansas, is my first attempt at a first person narrative. When I began writing, I found myself slipping into the present tense quite frequently, even though I am writing it in past tense.

 

What are your thoughts on using present tense in novel?

Revision Paralysis

I love getting feedback on my work. I am no longer thin-skinned about it—in fact, it is one of my favorite stages of developing a novel. I want to know what worked, what didn’t and where I need to improve. I am an author who thrives on the creative synergy of back-and-forth with ideas and feedback. It’s a good thing.

 

You can have too much of a good thing.

 

I have recently gotten all my beta reader feedback from my latest WIP, The Oracle of Delphi, Kansas. The feedback is strongly favorable, but there are areas in the book I need to improve. I skimmed the feedback eagerly as soon as I got it—and it has been sitting there ever since.

 

I’d like to blame my procrastination on my 7-month-old daughter’s constant demands on my time. I’d like to blame it on the fact that every two weeks or so I am shuttling myself, my daughter and a carload of baby paraphernalia back and forth between New Jersey and Virginia (with side trips to Pennsylvania). I’d like to blame it on my other writing obligations, such as the complete revision of my middle grade novel The Egyptian Enigma and thinking up topics for this blog. But none of that is the real reason I haven’t gotten to the revisions of Oracle.

 

The real reason is that I suffer from revision paralysis.

 

I have so much feedback, so many things to revise, that it is overwhelming. Even worse, changing one thing often means changing another that wasn’t even on the list to start with. At first, I didn’t even have a list—just heaps of feedback scattered across multiple computer files. I took the first step and organized everything into a single file of feedback, dividing it into categories: Character, Plot, Setting, etc. I accomplished this in short order, and basked in the warm glow de-cluttering always brings.

 

But I still haven’t revised, because now instead of overwhelming heaps of feedback, I have a single overwhelming list of feedback.

 

The cure for my revision paralysis is near; I can feel it. The feedback, its implications, and ways to fix things are rattling around in my brain, simmering and surging. I am almost to the point where my creativity overflows and I must write things down. When I get there, I will turn to my revision file, take a deep breath, and dive in.

 

And once in, I will find, as I always do, that the water is fine and I love the challenge and satisfaction revision brings!

 

Do you suffer from revision paralysis? What’s your cure for it?

Conflicting Feedback

First readers and beta readers are awesome; let’s just get that out there right away. Having readers whose opinion you respect, and who have a sharp eye/ear/nose for writing is a boon to any writer. No writer can do without such people, and I, for one, relish their feedback.

 

That said, readers can also make you crazy.

 

There are occasions when two readers’ opinions clash. For example, two of my readers for The Oracle of Delphi, Kansas, gave me the following feedback:

 

1 – “Gram is thoroughly one-dimensional…and is utterly unsympathetic.”

 

2 – “Gram was unpredictable, and I liked her a lot.”

 

Hmmm. What’s a writer to do?

 

The easy thing, of course, would be to go with the opinion that you like best—the one that means you don’t have to go back and revise Gram’s character. However, a good writer needs to be honest, to go back and look at the character and see if there is validity to the first statement. Gritting your teeth and reading with an open mind is always necessary when you get conflicting feedback. After all, the reason you want others to read the story is precisely because they will see things you don’t – things you are too close to see. Dismissing their opinions when they are unfavorable is counterproductive to making your novel the best it can be.

 

This example also shows another truth that all writers must deal with—you cannot please everyone. Readers bring their own baggage, their own prism to the page every time they read. They will read things into the story that you did not intend. Their minds fill in the chinks with what they know, what they have lived, and what they have experienced. That is the magic of reading—the same book will be a unique experience for each reader.

 

Knowing this, writers cannot write to satisfy everybody. In the end, writers must be true to the story, to the character, and to their own vision. Feedback helps hone this vision and to open dimensions of the story you didn’t see yourself. But the bottom line is your gut, telling you what is right for your book.

 

So, what am I going to do about Gram? I have to read the manuscript and see, but I suspect there will be some “rounding” to be done for her character.

 

Thanks to all my readers for their valuable feedback! 

Triple Vision

Now that we knew we needed to re-storyboard, how do you proceed with three authors?

 

Since it was my idea to re-storyboard, I got the assignment of writing the new storyboard for The Egyptian Enigma, our middle grade adventure novel. After I sent it over to my two co-authors, they looked it over and made notes. Then, we had a meeting to discuss everything. While email is a godsend, and imperative when working with others these days, we have found that we are much more efficient and creative when we are all in the same room.

 

My co-authors and I hammered out the details of the new storyboard, until we were all happy with it. Having three authors can be difficult at times, because speed is nearly impossible. When you are a solo author, decisions are quick – you make it and run with it. With three, everything needs discussion. And although that does not lend itself to speed, it has its advantages. Three people see three different angles. Together they see things a single author could not see. This gives the work a variety, depth, and nuance that might otherwise not exist. So having all of us discuss the storyboard was vital. They raised questions I never thought of, and working through them made the resulting storyboard stronger.

 

When you have three authors, the question of how to divide the work never ends. In our group, the pattern usually is that we decide on a course of action together, then I develop the first drafts of whatever we need, and then we polish them together. I don’t know why that is – perhaps because this was my story idea to start with, so I am the de facto primary. Whatever the reason, once we had a storyboard we all liked, I got to work revising.

 

It took a while, what with a 6-month-old in the house, a trip to Arizona, and shuttling between our house in Jersey and our temporary home in Virginia every couple of weeks. But I finished the revision, and was very happy with the results. We cut 10,000 words from the story, all from the first half of the book, and got to the rockin’ second half much faster. We also had agreed to shorten the chapters, and that resulted in a shift from 52 chapters to 96. It reads much faster and smoother.

 

We’re still not done, of course. The other authors need to read what I have done and add their expertise to it. And we have many other revisions to work through – character is up next. Stay tuned for further Tri-vision adventures!

Re-vision Comes Clear

Okay, so if you read my previous post, then you’ll know that I’ve been thinking that The Egyptian Enigma, my middle grade novel, needs some revision. Trouble was, none of the agents that turned it down gave specific enough information to know what it was that wasn’t quite passing muster. But my co-authors and I had to do something, because what we had wasn’t working.

 

Now, I have a good nose for when something’s not right in a manuscript. I can feel it. However, that doesn’t always translate into knowing how to fix it. As an editor, I can usually fix other people’s books, but sometimes the problems in my own elude me. I know they’re there, but I can’t see them without a helpful reader comment or critique.

 

Lacking such precise feedback, I put my trouble-shooting brain to work. It didn’t seem to be the writing itself, which was good news. And it wasn’t the concept – obviously, if multiple agents wanted to read it, there was something to the concept. So what was it? Two tiny clues came together in my head to give me the answer.

 

One clue came from an agent, who said he loved the idea, but the first chapters didn’t grab him like he had hoped they would. Normally, this comment might not have been a smoking gun, because it is only one person’s opinion, and someone else could have a completely different view. But it resonated with me, because of one comment we heard repeatedly from our beta readers – “Once the break-in happened, I couldn’t put it down.”

 

That was the key – to make the first half as page-turning as the second half. After all, if we didn’t grab the reader at the beginning, they wouldn’t read long enough to get to the rockin’ second half. So we had to make the adventure start sooner, bring it to the front. Maybe pare down the family scenes, the character-building scenes. Or find a way to integrate them more deeply into the adventure portion.

 

In other words, we had to re-storyboard the first half of the book.

 

Up next: The revision process with 3 authors.

Re-Visioning In The Dark

I’ve been shopping my middle grade novel, The Egyptian Enigma, for a while now. It’s a good novel, a lot of fun, but I’ve had no representation on it yet. Why? The blasted economy is part of it, of course. And my query letter could have been better, and now is. Even with those problems against me, I have been lucky enough to have a handful of agents request partials and fulls. Alas, no bites.

 

The rejections don’t bother me. They are part of the business, and I certainly would not want an agent repping my book who was not whole-heartedly enthusiastic about it. So when the agents came back with, “It’s just not right for me.”, I was fine with that. Disappointed, but not upset.

 

What made it tricky, for me, was the lack of any productive feedback from those agents who had read the book. I know they are hard-pressed for time, but having taken the time to read the book, I had been hoping for at least a sentence of advice on how to improve it.

 

You see, I am no literary genius.

 

I don’t suffer from the delusion that what I write is immutable and perfect. I know I have learned much about my craft, but still have much to learn about it. I am eager for feedback, revel in productive criticism. Unlike some of my fellow writers, I actually enjoy revision. And I have come to the conclusion that this novel needs revision—something is not grabbing the agents who have read it. Unfortunately, none of the agents has given me any indication what that “something” might be.

 

So I am re-visioning in the dark.

 

When you know something needs changed, but not what, how do you proceed? I have realized the futility of continuing to send the manuscript in its current form out there—there is a fatal flaw somewhere in it. I must fix it. But how can you fix something if you don’t know what’s broken? For a long time, paralyzed by the uncertainty of how to proceed, I did nothing—just continued to send the manuscript out over and over, hoping for a different result.

 

Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

 

Coming Up: How I found the clues to the fix, and fixed it

A New Balance

As anyone reading this blog can see, I have been away from it a long time. I had a good reason – the complicated 3rd trimester of a pregnancy, and the insanity of a newborn. But the fog of sleep deprivation is lifting, and my little one is starting to nap during the day, so I can squeeze in the obligations of writing here and there. It is time to restore the balance in my life.

Writing and motherhood can both dominate a person’s life. The writing Muse calls to me constantly, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. Stories are always floating just behind whatever I’m trying to concentrate on, whether it be work, spouse, family or friend. Characters speak to me in dreams (and when awake, but I don’t like to admit to that), and are more real to me than some of the real people I meet. Then there’s motherhood. As soon as that baby was born, my life was not my own. November, for me, was one very looooong day. December was better – it was a couple of days long. The world revolves around the baby, and I can very easily cease to exist as an individual. I am simply Mom.

Such a loss of identity is dangerous, whether I lose myself in my child or in a story. I believe fulfillment should make me more of who I am, not less. Therefore, holding on to my self, and finding the balance between all the parts of my life is essential.

And so begins the new balancing act of my life. Three years ago, I was balancing a day job with my writing passion. Then I quit the day job, and began balancing paying work with my own as-yet-unpublished writing. I had to find a new balance when I married two years ago (which enabled me to quit my day job), between spending time with my husband and giving in to the temptation of the Muse. Luckily for me, my husband likes some quiet time to himself after work, so I could wrap up my day’s writing while he was reading.

But now there is the baby. She’s a little over 2 months now, and life is settling into a new “normal.” As that happens, and I have some time each day to breathe, I feel my creative juices flowing again, pushing to get loose. They never stopped working, of course – even in the hospital I was planning stories and editing in my head. They simply had no chance to get free before now. Not with round-the-clock feedings and little sleep.

Now, balance is returning, slowly, fitfully. I returned to my peer critique group this month, and it fired me up. I will return to writing workshops this month as well. The two all-consuming passions of writer and mother have collided, but instead of one annihilating the other, they are finding co-existence. The details still need to be worked out, but I will be able to do both. Fulfilling my writing passion will make me a happier and more content mother, and motherhood will bring new perspectives and depth to my writing. It’s a win-win.

Balance is a wonderful thing.

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Working Titles

I often struggle with titles for my works. Perhaps this is because I have an obsessive need to title them before I can properly work on them. I am not a writer who can simply call her work Opus #1,456,345 and then have at it. If I waited until I finished writing the work, I most likely would be much less angst-ridden about the title, because the completed work would give me a much finer palette to work with for title ideas. But that would be doing things the easy way, which is not my forte.

 

My need to title before I write does not mean I can’t write without a title, or with a title I am not satisfied with. I can, and I have, and I do. But the process never feels right unless I have a title I am comfortable with. I have also changed the title after I finished, even if I was happy with the working title. So I got to wondering why I feel such a need to pre-title, to have a working title that speaks to me.

 

My answer is that a working title that clicks with me means I have a good grasp of what this work is essentially about. It means I understand the focus of the work, and where I want to take it. In the cases where I re-title after I am finished, the work has taken me somewhere unexpected, and therefore the working title no longer captures its essence. That is fine—I am not married to the working titles I choose. But a working title, to me, brings clarity to the work as I am writing, and I find that a necessity.

 

Titles are also, of course, vital to selling the book or story to an agent. A title that is not intriguing, or that does not encapsulate some central tenet of the story, will not grab the agent or editor’s imagination. This does not mean that the publishers will not rename your book for you before they’re through. Hopefully, though, they can come up with a title that still retains the soul of the book while appealing to the target audience. But that first title, the one you come up with, is the one that will sell the book to an agent.

 

So that is why I have such angst over my working titles. For me, they are both a writing tool and a selling tool. I have heard other authors say that they do not worry over-much about their titles, or that the titles come easy for them. I am happy for them—for me, it will always be an ordeal, but one which I find ultimately rewarding, when I have that title that resonates with me.   

My Writing Process, Part 2

After Donna died, I went through a painful process of rebuilding. Aside from the emotional devastation of losing a best friend at age 32, I had to learn a new skill—writing alone. For a while, I wasn’t aware of how daunting a task that would be.

I was in grad school at the time, so all of my writing was vetted by teachers or other students. Even though it wasn’t the same process as with Donna, it wasn’t much different. Even my final Master’s thesis, a story about Donna’s death, was intensively overseen by my thesis advisor. It wasn’t until I graduated grad school that I became aware of the gaping hole in my creative life.

Suddenly, the aching aloneness of my post-Donna life smacked me in the face. Whenever I contemplated writing, I froze. I couldn’t even think of how to get started. Every writing project seemed a dark, craggy canyon, full of shadows and perils. Who would catch me if I fell off a sudden precipice? Who could guide me through the darkest gullies? Who would help me climb over the rockslides in my way?

Me. Only me. Except that I didn’t know how.

All I could do was do it. So I wrote and revised and struggled and wondered if what I was writing was any good at all. I can’t tell you how many times I almost picked up the phone, or opened my email to ask Donna’s advice. Every time the impulse to talk to her grabbed me, it was a fresh thud in the gut over her death. But I pressed on, because writing is like my heartbeat—I can’t stop it. So I finally finished my first truly solo endeavor and then thought, “Now what?”

I needed feedback. Every author does, at some point, and I didn’t have it anymore. My grad school advisor pointed me to a writing group in Doylestown, PA. The location shook me a little—Donna had lived in Doylestown. Perhaps she guided me there, because it was like coming home. Sharing my passion with other enthusiastic writers broke my isolation and revved my creativity. I have been part of the writing community in Doylestown ever since, and I look forward to many more years of feedback, encouragement and camaraderie.

Even now, six years on from losing Donna, my new writing process is evolving. I still like a lot of feedback, and I still am very comfortable in collaborative projects. The middle grade novel I am currently shopping, The Egyptian Enigma, is a collaboration with two other authors. I also know I ask people to read and give me feedback on very early drafts of my other works, probably much earlier than most writers do. I am, however, becoming more confident in my own decisions, my own instincts, and my own writing.

I have never found another writing buddy who fills Donna’s role. For a long time, that frustrated me. I searched for someone to fit into that gaping wound, and it is a futile search. I can no more find a perfect match for my writing partner than I can for the best friend I lost. But I’m okay with that now. I have grown past needing that symbiotic relationship.

I have evolved, my writing process has evolved, and my writing is miles beyond what Donna and I ever accomplished together. But sometimes, in moments of need, I find myself asking the golden question: What would Donna do?

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