Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Gift of Fantasy

"The gift of fantasy has meant more to me
than any other talent for absorbing
positive knowledge."

-Albert Einstein

Sunday, February 24, 2013


I've been thinking a lot about series fiction lately, which isn't surprising, since I'm at work on the third book in a trilogy. 

And I want to say thank you to readers: a huge thank you to readers who embark on the journey at book 1, knowing as they know that there will be ... unrest*. There will be waiting, and possibly the necessity of rereading before the next book comes out because they'll have read dozens of other books in the meantime and don't remember every little thing. It certainly seems like the sensible thing to do would be to just wait until the series is complete before involving oneself ...

But NO! It is not sensible at all! I will talk about why by and by, but really my main thing here is to say thank you for sharing in the adventure as it unfolds, even knowing that it will be interrupted. 

You rule

(I hope he's not saying anything inappropriate.)

So. Series.

It came as a big surprise to me, when Daughter of Smoke & Bone first came out, to see some early reader reviews, on Amazon and Goodreads, that said essentially, "I loved this book and would have given it 5 stars except it's a series so I'm taking away a star, pthwwttt!" (Maybe the pthwwttt wasn't there, but that was the gist.)


This attitude was totally unexpected. I still don't quite understand the meaning of it. I suspect that these readers have YA supernatural romance series fatigue specifically, there really are just so many, it's true. Sometimes you just want to read a standalone! BUT. THERE ARE PLENTY OF STANDALONES IF THAT'S WHAT YOU WANT. What I was hearing these people say, essentially, was: keep it short, authors. Tell your story in one book so I can read it and then read something else! Me me me! Cater to me specifically me!

My response: No. And also: Shut up. (Okay, yeah, but it's a nice shut up.) 

I can only speak for myself, but I want to tell you why I like to read series, and why I like to write them. The reason is the same, and it's very simple and exactly what you would expect: some stories are just too big to be a single book. When I started writing Daughter, I intended to write a standalone. Something simple, you know, just a fun little something. Ha! This just happens to me. I can't tell you how many times I've tried to write a short story only to discover it actually needs to be a novel, nay, an epic series -- at which point I tell it to fight for its life in the novel queue in my head, which is ... loOoOoOong, but where I like to imagine that all the ideas are nice to each other and share food from darling wicker baskets and play cards while they wait, and are not plotting to feed each other to Komodo dragons to improve their own chances of getting written.

But anyway, when I began Daughter, it was in a rush of wild writerly joy such as I had never experienced, it wasn't like I sat down and outlined a series arc across several books, with some idea of a multi-book contract and launching a franchise, rubbing my hands greedily and thinking, ha ha HA! This way I won't have to think of another idea for YEARS, suckers! No. I had these characters, and these questions, and my mind was all on fire and my fingers were all wiggly with wanting to write, and when I started to answer the questions ... and to sense a plot coalescing ... it got big. Really big. And I still tried to cram it into one book for a while. I had series-fear. It's a big undertaking! It's scary! 

But it is what it is. The story assumes a life of its own, and many stories sprawl. As a reader, I am happy about this. I like sprawl. I like to enter a world, peer around, get to know it, explore it, discover its vastness, fall in love with its characters, and ... if I love it, I want it to continue. As a writer, I think particularly a fantasy writer, when you have created a world, you're not going to throw it away in one book. These worlds are not single-use, like disposable contact lenses! These are the work of our lives, many of us, and for big portions of our day are more real to us than the real world! 

I know many of you feel the same way. For some readers, it isn't the issue of a series, per se, but a series that is not yet complete. You don't want the agony of the cliffhanger, so you decide to wait until the series is all wrapped up. I totally get this too. I have felt this pain. 

But ... personally ... it's kind of a good pain. Exquisite agony? Sweet torment? On the one hand, I was so grateful that when I discovered The Golden Compass, or the Dreamquake Duet, they were already complete. There was a day of panicked phone calls to bookstores and driving around trying to trackdown Dreamquake! On tour this fall I read all three of Robin Hobb's Liveship Trader books like a glutton, one after another. I had the instant gratification of reading straight through. 

But ... I gotta say, the reading experience that is more precious in my heart, and more entwined in my life -- not necessarily because I love the books more, though I do love them -- is Harry Potter, because I was there every step of the way. Part of the experience was the wait, the journey, and being in it as it happened, waiting and all. Knowing JK Rowling was locked away in a castle hotel in Scotland finishing a book! That Cheryl Klein flew to pick up the manuscript in person, and cloak-and-daggered it back with her on the airplane, like a secret agent! And the release nights, and people racing home at midnight to read them at once, and all the marvelousness. So that was a special case, of course, but I feel the same way about other series that are underway now. I love the expectation, I find it delicious. It's like falling in love. 

So that's my personal feeling about reading series, but there is another piece, and that's the practical issue:

If everyone waited for a series to be complete before reading it, it would never be completed. Because the publisher would cancel it due to low sales. This happens, unfortunately. 

And, unlike JRR Tolkien, authors do not generally have the luxury of completing an entire series before it begins to see the light of publication. We're trying to make a living. We need to get paid along the way so we can buy Cheerios and new socks. We live book to book, and this is how it goes. We write them as fast as we can, which is not always terribly fast but is hopefully what the book needs to be as good as it can be. Sometimes I read a book 2 that appears quickly on the heels of a successful book 1, and it feels rushed and thrown together, and that disappointment is a million times worse than waiting.

As Pat Rothfuss advised me, quoting Tim Powers as regards deadline pressure: 

"It's late once, but it will suck forever."

And forever is what we want. I mean, now would be nice too, but really, this experience of being part of the journey as a series is first published, it's a fleeting thing that feels long in the process but really isn't (unless we're talking about George RR Martin, and I defy anyone to find fault with the time he takes to write those massive and complex tomes). All too soon, the series will be complete, and there will be nothing left to wait for, and that will be the source of lament. 

So what I'm saying is: thank you to readers for being part of the process. It very much, absolutely literally, would not be possible without you. If you don't read the series, publishers won't publish it. It's that simple. So thank you for the faith, for the waiting, the patience, the rereading, and thank you for spreading the word. I think that the internet has served a great purpose of uniting authors and readers in a sense of community, all in service to the books. We are like an ecosystem, depending on each other for survival, and I love you. I went to the p.o. box yesterday to pick up my mail, and it was like a big pile of warm hugs.

So ... for you ... HUGS:

*Someone brought this to my attention the other day: it's the "Daughter of Smoke & Bone 3" page on Goodreads, and if you scroll down, there is a hilarious slew of agony gifs. It's perversely gratifying, OF COURSE, that readers are so invested in the books and eager for the next one!

Oh, and another link, to a Neil Gaiman post regarding GRRM and the wait between his books. I am not linking to this in any way to say "get out of my face about book 3." Honestly I am thrilled readers are eager for book 3 and I'm doing my best to write it -- both for me and for you. But I like what Gaiman says here, especially about how different writers work differently, etc etc. That part. Not so much the "not your bitch" part. But, you know, that particular guy did need to hear that :-)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

It's Like Summoning a Demon

What is like summoning a demon?

Why, writing, of course. 

Bear with me here. This isn't going to be a post about inner demons or psychological torment or anything like that. I just accidentally came up with a writing metaphor the other day, and you know how I love writing metaphors. And I thought it was fun, so I'm going to share. WHETHER YOU WANT ME TO OR NOT.

Writing a novel is like summoning a demon. You (the sorcerer), in attempting to call it forth, must bend it to your will and force it to take physical form. It exists in another plane of being, where it is a creature of boundless energy, a being of pure light or maybe pure darkness, lightning or fire or will. Maybe it shapeshifts as fluidly as dreams, maybe it fills the entire sky with its magnificence and creatures drop to their knees to worship it. In its true form, in its plane of origin, it is a thing of extraordinary power, not constricted or restricted by the bounds of corporeality. 

But to live here, to come here and do your bidding, it has to have a body. Lungs, a mouth, eyes, hands. Legs. All the bits, in all the right places. It will hate this. It will resist. The thing you are turning it into is ... clumsy. It pinches, it can't fly. It no longer fills the entire sky with its crackling lightning. Why would it want to come here and be your slave, when before it was an ethereal being of terrible power and beauty?

That's the book, of course. Its plane of origin is your mind, and in summoning it to the page it can feel like this, like you are flattening it into a two-dimensional thing that just loses so much of the beauty you dreamt into it to begin with. No matter. Make it this promise: you will improve it. You will render it into the most beautiful and compelling and fascinating book that you have it in you to create, and then you will take a deep breathe and make it even more beautiful and compelling and fascinating, until both it and you are satisfied. And then you'll order a pizza.

Summoning demons makes you hungry!

Now, back to my demon, who is partly translated into flesh and still partly a sky-filling god in the realm of my head. Onward! 

Oh, and this:

"The only way [the book can be written] is to set the unbook – the gilt-framed portrait of the book – right there on the altar and sacrifice it, truly sacrifice it. Only then may the book, the real life flawed finite book, slowly, sentence by carnal sentence, appear."  -- Bonnie Friedman

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day!

Hi there! Happy Valentine's Day!

For a while now, Jim and I have had the tradition of giving each other art for Valentine's Day. 

I LOVE what he made this year! Look!

(for/of me):

(for/of Clementine)

How great are these?! I love them so much! Thank you, talented husband :-)

I didn't make, alas, but bought. Sigh. 

These wall-mounting ceramic sculptures from our favorite art gallery. 

Clementine got in on the act too. Sweet girl :-)

Hope you had a lovely day!


Saturday, February 9, 2013

MY BRAIN IS A JERK: a post about writing with (and in spite of) perfectionism

A post about writing! I don't know what I'm going to say yet, only that I want to respond to a reader's comment and see where it takes me. This post is for Tiffany Marie, and by extension, for all the other writers like us, to whom it does not come easily. 

Tiffany Marie said this in a blog comment (and I asked if she minded if I quote her here):
"I'm a writer at heart, it's what I've wanted to do since I was a child. It's just that when I sit down to write, more often than not, it feels as though I'm standing on the wasteland of a destroyed beach where a massive tide has washed ashore and brought with it kitchen sinks, rotting and eviscerated animal carcasses, the sun-bleached bones of giant sea creatures, unexploded World War II bombs, the remnants of an oil spill....

I wish I could just grab the edge of the waterline and flip it outwards, back to sea, like flipping a comforter, and let it take all the clutter, and fear and self-doubt with it. I just know there are villages and haunted wrecks and tunnels that lead to other worlds and points in time under all the junk.

Hopefully, one day."

Okay, so, first of all, I want to read that book. You know what? I want to read both of those books. (Yes I know that's not what she meant.) I want to read the bombs and sea creature bones one as much as I want to read the wrecks and tunnels to other worlds one. Obviously Tiffany Marie can write. Just from her blog comments, I can tell she has has the kind of imagination and skill with words that, to me, make for really exciting writing. So what's the problem? Why not just sit down and write a book? 

Well, I'm guessing here, but my guess is this: because for some of us, our brains are double agents. They are our allies and our enemies in one. On the one hand, they're Little Red Riding Hood toting this sweet basket of goodies, and on the other, they're the Wolf, ropes of saliva strung between hungry teeth, ready to rip us to shreds.

Or, wait. How about this? It's like your brain is holding out cake to you, and every time you reach out your fork, it bashes you with a hammer. OoOoOoh that cake looks so goOoOoOoOod ... OUCH! No, really. It's like it gives you a clear view of the thing you want, but actively prevents you from getting it. 

Look at this great idea! It's all yours and it's lovely, oooh betcha can't wait to write it, huh? Forget it, you'll never do it justice, you can't have it, I'm going to put a glass dome over it and preserve it in its uncorrupted form forever. Go wash the dishes!

It's so weird that the same marvelous instrument that brings us imagination and wordplay, narrative instinct, memory, detail, and other amazing things, is the same son of a bitch that whams us with indecision and doubt and self-loathing and creative paralysis every chance it gets. Brains can be jerks. Mine is.


And I don't happen to believe that jerks can be reformed. Once a jerk, always a jerk. My brain will forever be a jerk. So here's what I've learned, in my years tussling with this brain. It's a life-long wrestling match, this is my condition, and at any given moment I have the choice to ...

a) fall victim to all the well-known pitfalls of perfectionism, as they manifest in my particular case. Maybe I'll spend all day revising a chapter, only to decide at the end of it all to revert to the previous draft anyway.

b) daydream of an alternate reality in which writing is easy and books practically spill out of my ears. Follow daydream to logical conclusion (wild success and wealth), naturally ending up browsing Italian luxury real estate.

c) begrudge other writers their seeming ease; feel woeful; comfort myself with chocolate or a nap.

d) read a good book, because hey, it's inspiration, it may just give me the oomph I need to figure out my plot or whatever!

e) be very, very strict with myself, like the mean nun in Catholic school stereotypes and make myself lay down word after miserable word, dammit, feeling defiant and spiteful the whole time, hating every second of it.

f) trick myself. Be endlessly resourceful, by knowing my particular jerk of a brain well enough to fool it into doing what I want it to, while maybe even enjoying itself a little bit!

So what do you think? Look, I do all of these things. I've been doing all of these things all my life, because that's how long I've wanted to be a writer. But it was only fairly recently -- last ten years or so -- that I broke through to option 'f'. Maybe you got to 'e' and you thought that was the right answer until you kept reading. And option 'e' might work for some people. I do have to be strict with myself, but let's talk about option 'e' for a while. 

We'll call this the "mean nun approach":

I think this one goes along with the conventional wisdom, the same "established fact" that would have you believe that The Way To Write a Book is to get through a shi**y first draft, come hell or high water, and then make it better. This is not a bad way. It works for many, many people. It does not work for me. I am unable to bond with a shi**y first draft. I can't care about it enough to keep at it, and if I force myself to do it anyway, I'll just hate it more and more until it's beyond all hope of redemption. What's worse, the misery of the process will make me hate and fear writing itselfI'm sure many of you have slammed into the brick wall of this process again and again and felt certain that there is something wrong with you. Maybe even that it means you are "not a writer."

I would say ... there is something wrong with you. With us. I mean, it still feels that way to me, even though I've "conquered" it to some degree. It very much feels that way to me right now, after a frustrating afternoon of doing option 'a' even though I so know better! (Damn. It.) What's wrong with me is that I have a really uptight brain, and that makes it very hard to do this thing that I want to do, and that sucks, but it doesn't mean we're not meant to do it. It just means it's hard. Whatever. Lots of things are hard. Every time I sit down to write I wish it were easier. 

To tell you the truth, right now I am writing this post instead of writing my book because it's just one disaster after another today, from 'a' to 'c' with a craving for 'd', because sometimes ...


Right at this moment, ugh, it really does. My brain feels beyond my power. Why do I get so hung up on every scene? Every moment of every scene? Why can't I just move forward, knowing as I know that I can always come back? It's so dumb, so infuriating. How many times in my life have I spent all day on a page? On a paragraph

This is perfectionism. It's not funny. If this sounds like you, know that you are not alone. And know that there is hope. I'm telling myself this as much as I am telling you right now, because on a day like this I need the reminder too: if you don't give up, you will win. If you really freaking dig in your heels and swear to yourself that you are going to find a way, and you show up day after day and try, you will win. 

So, about "trying": How do you try? 

How do you try to write your book?

I guess this is "process" but it's bigger than that. It's not just about whether you use a computer or a notebook, or whether you outline or not, or work in the morning or at night, or in a cafe or at home, etc etc. It's about your brain, and getting it to do what you want, as often as you possibly can and for as long as you can, and this will be different for everyone. AND. It will be different for you from day to day.

Anecdote. I took an illustration class my first semester of art school, and the teacher, Barron Storey, was kind of a wild-man of mixed media, a sort of unconstrained id of artistic freedom. I, by contrast, had only taken watercolor classes up to then, and watercolor is a medium of control and planning. There is a fluidity to it, yes, but there is also its insidious "unfixableness." With oils or acrylics, you paint right over a mistake, but a ruined watercolor is a ruined watercolor, period. And "purists" don't even use white paint. In a "true watercolor painting," you have to know in advance anything on the paper that you want to leave white, and to make sure not to get paint on it. It's called "saved whites" and it's the persnicketiest of things. Well, this was kind of all I knew of painting, going in, and I think that the single most important thing I took away from art school (after Jim, that is, who I met in that very class :-) came from Barron Storey, who said this:


That's it. Best creative advice I ever got. Purity sucks. There is a clan of people in the world to whom "saved whites" are important, and one can decide to join that clan and paint that kind of painting. Or one can TRY EVERYTHING ELSE. Rip up their painting then collage it back down with matte medium, draw on it with India ink then attack it with oil paints. Finger paint, transfer on a photograph, haze it all out with white acrylic and newspaper. TRY THINGS. 

What does this have to do with writing?

I think this anecdote needs a little bit of context. See, the whole reason I went to art school in the first place was to avoid writing. I had already graduated from college with an English degree and the plan was to be a writer. But ulp! how does one just do that? I didn't know! I wasn't ready! I didn't know what to write, how to write, how to make myself write. None of it! And it seemed to me suddenly urgently clear that I was in fact meant to be not a writer at all but an illustrator! Duh! Which meant starting at the beginning, and learning all of that stuff. So I didn't write, and didn't worry about not writing, for years, because I was "an illustrator" now. Ha! This is all very silly, of course, and very obvious avoidance in retrospect, but it's also very lucky, because art school had this unexpected effect of making my creative issues clear to me, and forcing me to deal with them in a way I had been able to avoid with writing. I think that an MFA program would probably have done the same thing, now that I think about it. Maybe accountability was what was important, and having to produce work. I had to develop actual tricks to get around my hangups, and I did!

So skip ahead to when I started dabbling with writing again, I had this new attitude, the anti-saved-whites attitude of "purity sucks." Basically: roll up your sleeves and do what you have to do. It's not how you get there that matters, it's where you get. And with this attitude came fortitude, resourcefulness, determination, and an ability to enjoy the journey even when it wasn't going perfectly. 

This is still vague, so let me try to make it clear what this meant in my actual writing life. It comes down to the question from above: how do you try to write your book?

Once upon a time, this was how I tried to write books: I started at the top of a page and wrote some words. Maybe under the heading "Chapter One." I looked at the words for a while, then crossed out or deleted them, then wrote more. Crossed out or deleted those. Started a fresh page. This could go on for hours. Days. Sometimes I'd break through to an entire paragraph, sometime an entire page. Very rarely, an entire chapter. I never got any farther than that. Instead, I'd revise the chapter, or start something new, or daydream about being a successful writer. That's it. I was utterly resourceless! Feeble! Committed to failure, practically engaged to it! 

I would say that that approach is the soulmate of "saved whites." It's conservative, no funny business, start at the beginning, just sit down and write, dammit. It's how one imagines a book is written, if one is not being imaginative. Like, how non-illustrators imagine that illustrators just sit down and draw, and that magical, complex compositions and realistic renderings simply flow out of them without recourse to resources like reference or sketches? Non-writers, I'm guessing, imagine writers sit down, type out "Chapter One," and proceed to write the book. (And some writers do. *cat hiss*)

Agatha Christie, working

If your brain is ill-suited to this process, as mine is, you can either keep failing, or try something different. You can TRY EVERYTHING ELSE. TRY THINGS. Journal about the tone of your story, what you want it to feel like, or challenge yourself to freewrite the scene twice from two different points of view. (Or five.) Think about the reaction you are trying to elicit in readers--how do you get it? Make yourself think up ten ways to start the scene that are more dynamic that what you have now, or get into the character's head and ask what they would really do in a given situation. Be them. Consider major changes to your idea, audition them, and be open to the possibilities of increased awesome. There is always the possibility of increased awesome! Just ... try everything. 

In "NOT FOR ROBOTS" (a series of writing essays I posted in ... 2006 maybe?) I talk about "writing with a machete strapped to your thigh," and writing "exploratory drafts" instead of "first drafts." That's all attitude (which is everything!). I talk about brainstorming and freewriting, which are techniques I use now that are much more aggressive than my old lazy methods. You can read more about this there, and please feel free to ask questions in comments (here), I will really try to respond (Tiffany Marie, I'd love to know if this strikes a chord at all, or if it doesn't really sound like your own struggles.)

The bottom line is: my brain hasn't gotten easier over the years, but I've learned how to work harder and better, and I've learned that it works, and knowing that is a big part of the battle. I've done it before, I can do it again. I know what I have to do, and I know that if I keep doing it, a book will be the result. And that, because of the way I work, allowing myself to be deeply invested in every moment and to spend more time with it than is probably healthy, and to rework everything as I go until it feels right, I am able to love it, and be sure of it, which is something that I accept that I and my brain need. 

So I had a sucky day today. Well, that happens to me sometimes. Sometimes the suckiest days are motivating, as they can be so miserable as to serve a "never again" purpose, and make me buckle down the next day and produce, dammit. And I truly believe that sometimes the only path to the "right way" is through a dozen wrong ways. Hopefully not more than a dozen! Sometimes I even get it right the first time or second, and that's wonderful, but if I don't, I keep at it. Because I really want to be a writer!

Do you? 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

JUST ONE DAY by Gayle Forman

Hi guys! So, I found myself at the airport last week in need of a book. I'd been reading Snow Crash on the flight down, and I'm sorry to report the middle went flat on me, page after page of philosophical pondering and history lesson that, while kind of cool, were not serving to keep me awake at 11 pm through the sleep-inducing thrum of flying (I do plan to continue, as there is much much MUCH brilliance in that book). So I went into the bookstore and browsed, accrued some contenders, and then ... WHAM. 

The new Gayle Forman book is out. 

Easy decision. YAY! Have you read the previous Gayle Forman books, If I Stay and Where She Went? If not, get them. But get them both, because you will want them both. 

But on to Just One Day.

I'm not going to do a review, because I need to go write my book, but I will say two things: 

1) As a teenager, I would have read this book over and over. It has everything that my teenage self would have swooned for: Europe, Shakespeare, adventure, sleuthery, growth, ROMANCE. 

2) As an adult, it kept me wide awake on the airplane and long into the night once I was home. I love Gayle Forman's books, and I. Cannot wait. For the next one. Oh Willem, who are you? I sense that I will want to hug you when the truth comes out. 

Okay, so here's what the publisher has to say about it:

When sheltered American good girl Allyson "LuLu" Healey first meets laid-back Dutch actor Willem De Ruiter at an underground performance of Twelfth Night in England, there’s an undeniable spark. After just one day together, that spark bursts into a flame, or so it seems to Allyson, until the following morning, when she wakes up after a whirlwind day in Paris to discover that Willem has left. Over the next year, Allyson embarks on a journey to come to terms with the narrow confines of her life, and through Shakespeare, travel, and a quest for her almost-true-love, to break free of those confines.
Just One Day is the first in a sweepingly romantic duet of novels. Willem’s story—Just One Year—is coming soon!

Interested? As it happens, last fall I was in Paris and Amsterdam, two of the book's main locations, and I thought it would be fun to post some pics that remind me of the book:

Allyson's Paris, for the most part, is not "tourist Paris." But there is a moment when she climbs some stairs -- lots of stairs -- while wandering lost (good lost, not bad lost) and sees the above, and asks someone what it is. It's funny, that one could stumble upon Sacre Coeur! Imagine what a marvelous surprise it would, to be caught unawares by such a sight. Here are some likely Montmartre stairs:

Wonderfully, Allyson has made a promise to eat a macaron a day while in Paris. I think that's a promise I could keep ...

Later, in Amsterdam, Allyson rides a pink bike, and I happened to have this pic of a pink bike!

(And the store behind it is my new favorite store in the Universe: Exota, selling the King Louie brand.)

There was a mention of bike parking, which is just ... a sight to behold in Amsterdam. As here:

And finally, she bikes along behind a tram, so here's an Amsterdam street scene, tram included:

Read the book if you'd like to be transported to Europe. It's a treat :-)

Okay, now, to work!

Monday, February 4, 2013

"Adult" as a term of approval

Ever felt awkward browsing in the YA section? Maybe C.S. Lewis can help ...

“Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” 
 C.S. Lewis

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...