Feeding the Muse

Everyone who writes knows all about that cliche question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Everyone who writes knows that ideas don’t matter. It’s all about the execution of an idea. It’s all about how well the writer can pace a story, can bring a character to life, can make us care.

An idea is like a single seed. That seed has to be planted and watered. It has to receive sunlight and nutrients from the soil. Then, in about one hundred years, it will turn into a tree. But that tree is not your story. After growing and nurturing your tree for a century, you have to chop it down with just your bare hands and an ax, then split it into boards, then sand the boards, then build a house. But that house is not your story. You then have to paint and decorate the house and find some people to live in it. They will be reluctant. You have to coax them. You have to move in with them and and entertain them and make them delicious meals and then listen carefully as they speak. Then you write down everything they say and do, and that becomes your story.

The muse only comes when you feed her, spend time with her, and listen to her. She is elusive and she is easily bored. She will wander off if she doesn’t get enough attention. She will run away in fear if you act desperate or needy around her.

This is why writers are completely crazy. Some of them drink themselves to death. They are all terrible people. Everyone complains about them. But they give us books and stories and movies and plays and television shows and everything that helps us escape from our dreary lives. They spin gold and magic and mayhem and they create beautiful and fanciful worlds and characters we love and characters we love to hate. Writers tells us the truth about what it means to be human and to be deeply flawed in the midst of the poetry that is our lives.

Updates! Inktober, NaNoWriMo, Photography, and More!

Hello again! Those that follow my blog (who knows why), will be happy to know that I have many posts incoming. This is an exciting time for blogging, and I plan to write a post (however brief) for each day of October. This is part of two events that happen this time of year, Inktober and NaNoWriMo. Inktober is actually for comic book artists and illustrators and requires them to do one doodle or drawing for each day of October. However, I’ve decided to do my own version, which is to blog about the history of photography. I’ll also be doing some blogging about NaNoWriMo prep and a tiny bit about teaching, travel, and family stuff.

As most of you know, I’m no longer on social media, and I love it. I don’t miss Facebook or Instagram at all, and it has been very freeing and relaxing to go about my life without having to make it look good for Facebook and Instagram likes. I know some of you miss seeing the kiddos, and are looking forward to Halloween costumes, so I will be posting a few updates about the kids this month.

I also have a novel update! Brace yourselves, this is big. My novel is currently at 51,000 words! I have written the ending, and have what is effectively a rough draft, but it’s pretty messy right now and not quite ready for readers. Typical publishing length for a mainstream novel is about 70,000-80,000 words, so I’ll also be fleshing it out and adding scenes. However, I’m spending October getting it in shape and hope to start sending it out soon. This is the closest I’ve ever been to finishing so I’m pretty excited.

First post about the history of photography coming soon!

Once More, with Feeling: Why I’m Leaving Social Media

At the end of December I took a month-long break from Facebook and Instagram, and it was great. I actually lost the urge to post, although I occasionally peeked in to check for notifications and messages. When I found myself browsing I remembered why I wanted to leave in the first place. Then, last week I went on Spring Break, and for the first time in YEARS I did not post during a vacation. It was heaven. When we got back, I reflected a bit, and then just flat-out deleted my Facebook and Instagram. I couldn’t be happier.

My problems with social media:

  • Social media is a waste of my time
  • Social media turns us all into dopamine addicts
  • Social media steals our data and makes money off of it
  • Social media perpetuates lies about our lives
  • Social media creates a false sense of intimacy

I’m closer than ever to finishing my novel, having written 250 pages and knowing the ending has made me super excited that this is the year I will finally finish. I’m also working harder at my job and taking on more responsibility, and I hate the way social media sucks away both my time and my ability to concentrate.

One way that social media accomplishes this is the through the manipulation of a brain chemical called dopamine. Every time you get a notification: someone likes or comments on a post, you get an email in your inbox, or you hear a ding–your brain gets a hit of dopamine. This is a powerful and very addictive chemical and your brain will do anything to get more. This is why when you’re active on social media you are always thinking about your next post. Your brain knows how to get its fix.

Not only do we want to post, we want to make ourselves look good, so we spend a lot of time thinking about what we should post that will make us look good. Let’s show the rest of the world that we are busy, happy, well-traveled, and well-liked. How can we make ourselves the envy of our neighbors, friends, and family? Or, at least, show them that we are as good as they are. It has been interesting for me to witness the real lives of some people who post on social media, and let me tell you, their posts do not reflect their reality. And while most of us know this on one level, I’m sure we all still feel a little bad, a little behind, and a little left out when we scroll through social media.

I’ve noticed that social media also creates a false sense of friendship and intimacy. I’ve made a lot of connections with people on Facebook, and my posts are often well-liked, but this doesn’t translate into real-world warmth and friendship beyond the scope of what I’ve posted. I’m looking to foster deeper connections with a smaller group of people.

Although a blog is also a curated look at life, and only skims the surface of intimacy, it does have a few benefits. My blog belongs to me, not Mark Zuckerberg, and I’ve disabled comments to minimize notifications. It’s more of place for me to publish my thoughts and some pictures rather than add to the endlessly scrolling newsfeed filled with people trying to prove something to each other.

There is a concept in marketing called “the bottomless bowl,” which is the idea that, as humans, we will eat more from a container that is constantly being refilled than we will from a set portion. Social media and news outlets have taken advantage of this with endlessly scrolling newsfeeds filled with misleading clickbait.

I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I want to be more conscious of how I spend my time, and I want to model that for my children. I’ve decided that the negatives of social media far outweigh the positives. Instead, I will focus more on reading books, writing, spending time outside and with my kids, and writing emails and texts to friends and family who don’t live near me. The few people who will miss my presence on social media know where to find me.

Novel Progress

My novel, working title Suit of Coins, has been in progress since NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) 2008. Yes, that’s ten years. However, a few things have happened since then. I had two babies, went up for tenure, and found myself snagged in a hopelessly complicated plot tangle that caused me to ignore the novel for an entire year. I got the plot untangled at the end of 2016, but 2017 was pretty eventful, with a ten-day trip with the kids to Disney World, looking for and buying a house (no easy feat in a HCL area like Flagstaff), moving out of the house we’ve been living in for twenty-one years, and planning a wedding. These are not the conditions for writing a book.

What about 2018? Well, except for recovering from 2017 and also trying to unsuccessfully jumpstart my pathetic academic career, I don’t really know what happened to 2018.

Let me tell you something about writing. It’s damn hard. There’s a good reason many writers are single white men. Or women with no children. Or alcoholics or drug addicts. Or insane. Just as an example, I sat down to write for thirty minutes last night and was interrupted no less than seven times. I managed two sentences before I gave up. To put my struggles into context, I know several famous novelists (including George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame), who are years and even decades overdue for their novels. George R.R. Martin’s last novel was published in 2011. These are writers who have no end of time and resources. They are rich, have no day job, and have the clout to lock themselves in a room and do nothing but write. And even THEY struggle.

Excuses, excuses.

HOLY HELL I am determined to write this story. The characters are very real to me and keep coming back around, determined to be heard. This may sound like crazy talk but it’s a normal thing for writers. Writing gets under your skin in a way that can make spinning out sentences and scenes intoxicating.

I am trying again. I realized that my plot problems required what they call a “clean sheet rewrite” which means starting over from scratch. That sounds extreme until you realize that the entire novel lives in my head. I just need to get it on paper.

2019 is the year. As Stephen King advises, the first novel is the novel that teaches you how to write. I’m just getting started, and that’s okay. That’s perfectly fine. What else am I going to do?

I plan to post regular word counts (Weekly at a minimum) and little W.I.P. (work in progress) snippets.

Progress report for January 1st, 2019: 

Suit of Coins: 18,272 words (my goal is 80,000) so I’m almost a quarter of the way through.

Excerpt:

When I was a little girl my mother used to read Shakespeare plays to me at bedtime. Without blinking an eye, she read about people stabbing and poisoning each other, about teenagers falling in love and killing themselves, about war, and bitterness, and revenge. Shakespeare used beautiful words to talk about terrible things. She said, “In literature, murder looks like art.” That always stuck with me, especially years later when my best friend in high school was murdered, and there was nothing beautiful or literary about it. Unlike Shakespeare, I couldn’t find the words to talk about it, not then, not now.

#amwriting: Process & Projects

My hopeful attempts at regular blog updates are always derailed by real life, this time I’ve been hopelessly sidetracked by summer (when teaching ends and I become a full-time mom for three months) and moving (twenty-one years of STUFF) to a new house. Now that we’re finally getting settled in and it’s almost time for everyone to go back to school (but it’s only July!), I’ve decided to start going forward with some writing projects.

There are three, to be precise, because three is the magic number, right? I’ve also heard from some time management experts that it’s good to have more than one project active (so that you can work on ones that require different levels of time and energy as needed), but that more than 3-5 projects at a time is a bad idea.

The projects:

An academic research paper, which I’m submitting for funding in a few weeks and then trying to turn into an article. This is simply to keep my career afloat, but I do like the process and I’m interested in what I’m writing about, so I can’t really complain. I’m so lucky in this day and age to like my job.

My novel. This hairball has been building for almost a decade and I’m ready to cough it up and spit it out. I’ll soon be looking for beta readers for this one, so keep your ears open if you’re interested.

Finally, I’m working a project called Timekeeper Stories, an interactive storytelling project/alternate reality game that I’ve been working on since last year (the idea came to me the day after the election-HA HA). For those of you not familiar with the genre, typically the PM (puppetmaster) stays hidden and anonymous, and the game is played is if it’s not really a game, but taking place in real life (“this is not a game”). However, this time around I’m experimenting with the genre a bit and trying some new and different things, so the frame story itself will be somewhat unconventional in that it will be autobiographical, and I will provide different different entry points to each story over time (trailheads), which will allow varied levels of participation and immersion. People will have the option to just read the story installments as they are posted, OR they can also interact with story characters and work to solve mysteries and puzzles which appear in the stories.

My motivation for this project is to include a broader audience for the stories (typically ARG audiences are a a very small, select group of people), and to play around with the potential for using this genre for educational purposes.

Why share and discuss these projects before they are completed? I recently read a book called Jay Lake’s Process of Writing, which is a distillation of his blog posts on writing. I found his blog and was sad to learn that he passed away from cancer a few years ago, but his blog is still there and I was captivated by how completely and honestly he shared his writing process: the ups and downs, the good with the bad.

There is little discussion of the writing process itself, and I think this kind of transparency not only helps writers, but students as well. There is certainly no transparency in academic writing, which is something I have struggled mightily to do and have failed at miserably, filling me with a sense of shame and isolation in my career. However, I’m determined to learn the craft and plan to share what I’ve learned here, in the hopes that it might help someone in the future.

Finally, I need the discipline of a daily writing practice, and I like the idea of creating a small amount of public accountability. Already I’ve had some feedback on social media which has greatly boosted my motivation and resulted in an extra long writing session this morning.

I’m off now, to write.

Early

Aria woke me as usual this morning at 5:30. She just wants to be covered up and then she goes back to sleep. Sometimes she waits until 6:00 or 6:30, but then she usually wants to get up for the day.

This morning I headed back to bed in the hopes of getting some more sleep, but when I got there I realized that I might as well stay up and do some writing. I really didn’t want to, but most of my favorite writers do all of their writing in the early morning. Because when you’re a mother and you work full time, is there any other way to get anything done?

I made coffee and managed to write 300 words, which is not a lot but more than I wrote yesterday. The rest of the day will be spent getting Oscar ready for school, going to work for a meeting about a course that I’m designing for the College of Education (my first stint as a curriculum consultant), and then working on getting my summer course ready, which begins in less than two weeks.

Most people think now that school is out I have nothing to do. HA!

Back to writing…

Dusting off the novel…

During NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November 2013 I wrote about 70,000 words of a novel that I’ve been kicking around in my head for over ten years. I was proud of myself for “winning” NaNoWriMo, but knew that what I had written was a huge, lumpy mess. Not only is the novel not finished (I’m guessing that because of the pace at which the story is unfolding that the novel will ultimately be 100,000-150,000 words), but I also wrote myself into a few corners. In keeping with the NaNoWriMo philosophy, I plowed through and got my word count. I put the novel away for a month and tried doing a bit of revising in January, but I was overwhelmed by the task that I put it away again. After a busy semester and several strange dreams involving my persistent characters, I pulled the thing out, braced myself with a cup of coffee, and decided to take a close look at what I was dealing with. Could this hulking mass be saved?

It turns out that it’s not as bad as I thought. As I read through the opening scenes I found myself getting caught up in the story. I realized that it’s time to get this thing done, once and for all.

The first thing I did was read through it completely and cut a bunch of utter crap. Repetition, out-of-order scenes that have no place, and some useless stream-of-consciousness stuff that is incomprehensible to me. After chopping away gleefully, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I still have a solid 60,000 words to work with.

The next thing I did was print it out. 222 pages! Not only is this a LOT of writing for me, but oddly the number 22 has significance in my story. I don’t attach much significance to this, but it’s kind of a neat coincidence.

Stuffed all 222 pages in a binder and now I’ve begun the sometimes fun, sometimes painful task of re-reading it again. I’m taking notes as I read. Once I’m done I’ll read it again and make an outline, then I will rewrite the novel from scratch. This may seem extreme, but it’s actually a pretty common process among the writers I know and those who write about their process in articles, books, or blogs.

My goal is to have a complete and coherent first draft that I can send out to beta readers by August 25th, which is the first day of classes.

I plan to write about the whole process here, including logging my daily work and word count on the novel.

novel