Catching plot bunnies

As I’ve mentioned before, I often have more than one project in progress, so I had to decide which one to use for this post — I’m going to talk about Touching Time, my Mayan novel.

In my freelance work, I do a lot of proofreading of travel books. This often gives me little baby plot bunnies that I stuff into a hutch in my brain to see if they grow into anything. I’ve proofread a few for Mexico, the Yucatán, and Central America, and on the way, I ran across engravings that couldn’t be translated, cenotes, underground rivers, and abandoned cities completely covered by the jungle.

I think my thought process for Julia, my psychometric main character, originally had nothing to do with the Mayan ideas. She might have shown up in New Orleans, or maybe in England — somewhere with an atmospheric cemetery, trailing her hand across a gravestone to learn what the eroded carvings could no longer tell her.

When Moongypsy Press put out their call earlier this year, my mind flipped through the stored ideas and said, hey, Julia could read this untranslated mosaic. But then what did it say? Some research into the Mayan calendar and it’s repeating time cycles gave me the notion of time travel to a previous end-of-cycle period — triggered by Julia’s reading.

And those are the seeds the novel is being grown from — little bits of this and that from my work and my reading and letting my brain have the time to make the connections.

(Today’s post was inspired by the topic “Where I got my latest idea” — the opening question in the inaugural cycle of the Merry-Go-Round Blog Tour — an ongoing tour where you, the reader, travel around the world from author’s blog to author’s blog. We have all sorts of writers at all stages in their writing career, so there’s something for everyone to enjoy. The next post in the tour will be on the 4th, by D. M. Bonanno. Be sure to check it out.

If you want to get to know nearly twenty other writers and find out where they got their latest ideas, check out the Merry-Go-Round Blog Tour. You can find links to all of the posts on the tour by checking out the group site. Read and enjoy!)

multita–oooh, shiny!

This weekend, Patricia C. Wrede posted to her blog about multitasking manuscripts. It’s an excellent discussion on how writers should figure out for themselves whether or not to work on more than one project at a time. She describes chronic multiple-project people as falling into three distinct categories. This one rang a bell for me:

The second kind of writer who comes to me with this question is the one who is spinning off ideas faster than she/he can keep up with. They want to work on eight projects at once because they’re afraid they’ll lose a brilliant idea if they don’t write it down immediately. They’re all about the “Oooo, shiney!”

Did somebody say shiny?
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another week, another submission

This past week, I haven’t been working on anything I set up on my goals for the year. Instead, as I often do, I got distracted by the shiny — in this case, Moongypsy Press’s First Anniversary Writing Contest. When my friend Bonnie showed it to me, she was expecting me to jump in and write a short story. However, I’ve had a Mayan idea kicking around for about five years now in the back of my brain, so I figured this was the perfect time to take it out and dust it off.

Of course, since I hadn’t thought about it recently, there was a ton of research I didn’t have done that I should have, and I spent Thursday, Friday, the weekend, and a good portion of Monday kicking around, alternating between thinking I almost had everything and believing I’d never get it together. Late Monday I started writing, but I was behind.

Yesterday, I kicked myself in the seat of my pants and worked. I drank lemon tea with honey for my throat. I ate Thin Mint cookies to keep myself going. I sent my submission off at 2:45 a.m. EST (the deadline was midnight PST).

Then I went and crashed for four hours, until it was time to get the kids ready and out the door for the day.

Perhaps I should have spent part of today sleeping. Instead, I shoveled snow. I baked bread. I poked at TED talks, thinking I might embed one of them as a blog post. Not my most productive day in terms of writing, but I’ll get back to the keyboard tomorrow. I’ve still got works in progress that need to be completed and sent out.

Why do I do this? Why stay up late to meet a deadline, then turn around and face the next project? Because my stories do no good if the only place they exist is in my brain or on my computer.

In the words of Steve Jobs, “Real artists ship.”

Dancing muse

Friday night was the holiday party for my husband’s work, which meant actual sociability for me. And since the college he works at has an immersive Chinese theme for the year, they had performances of Chinese music and dance. For one of the dances, the red and green lights scattered about the ceiling reminded me of fireflies, and I imagined the dances being performed outside in a summer moonlit courtyard. For another, the slow, deliberate movements reminded me of underwater motion; at some point, there will be dancers underwater or in space in one of my stories, inspired by this night.

Sometimes, that’s the way the muse works for me — I’ll see something and know how it will be useful, if not when or where.

Other times, I have to remind myself to look for the basic truths behind what I see. As I mentioned, my husband works at a college. One of the novels I have out on submission takes place around a small town college, and I hope to turn it into a series (publisher willing). However, I have to make sure not only that none of my characters are based on anybody I know but also that no one will stop to ask if these characters are based on them.

So I have to take it all in and feed the muse, then take a step or two away from reality, which isn’t always easy.

The process isn’t always the same. Sometimes I know where life’s material will go. Sometimes I can see how to combine it with something I’ve read or heard. Sometimes things will go where I don’t expect. Sometimes, life is just life. It’s all good.

All it takes . . .

When you start writing (and even if you keep on doing it), you hear “All you absolutely have to do to be a writer is write. Everything else is extra.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Then they start in with, “If you really want to write, you need to read. Extensively. In and out of your genre,” and “You need to focus on improving your craft, whether through critique groups, workshops, classes, conferences, writing books . . . ”

Wait. I thought all I had to do was write?

Except it makes sense, really. First, if you don’t like reading, why would you want to write? Because you think it makes you look smart? There are easier ways. Second, it’s true in any creative endeavor.

My son took up trumpet this year. He (mostly) practices every day. But he listens to music, he hums theme songs he remembers from movies, he tries to work out how he might play them himself (“I need to know a couple more notes before I can try the Harry Potter theme.”), and he pays attention to what other people have done. He also listens to the songs he’s playing on a CD and tries to play along to get the pacing correct.

I’ve done a couple of quilts. This year, I decided to do a mystery quilt presented in American Quilter magazine. I knew it would be stretching my ability (it recommended having completed six to eight quilts before tackling this one), but I figured it would expose me to techniques I might not willingly try on my own. (I’ve decided I don’t want to do a postage-stamp quilt. I don’t like working with one-inch strips.) I also check out winners in the American Quilter’s Society’s shows, as well as those in state fairs.

All it takes . . . is three steps. See what others have done. Figure out how to apply it to what you want to do. Then do it, over and over again.

Is it neurotic if I’m partly right?

I’ve been worrying about my writing not being good enough.

On the one hand, there’s physical proof backing me up on this: I don’t have books on the shelves in a bookstore yet. Not there = not good enough yet. On the other hand, I just started submitting novels this year, so even if I had written a book good enough to win the Pulitzer, Hugo, and Nebula (I haven’t), it still wouldn’t be on the shelves yet. So we’ll discount that and just get back to my worrying.

Specific worry #1: People in my novels are always meeting for coffee, sipping tea, grabbing a bite to eat. Yes, normal people eat and drink, but the generally accepted view is that these scenes do not move a novel. In the Harry Potter books, for example, whenever there was eating, something else was going on — Harry was getting blamed for a floating pudding, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher was being announced, howlers were being sent to students — tension mounted, the plot moved, characters reacted. If, on the other hand, I have my main character and her best friend sitting down to Saturday brunch and talking about their upcoming college reunion, it doesn’t matter how much subtext I’ve layered in that will come to fruition at the climax of the book because no one’s going to read that far.

Response: I have a friend reading the first few chapters to tell me if my urban fantasy is as bad in this regard as I fear. The current plan is to continue the edit pass I’m working through to make sure I’ve added in all the world-building and scene-setting that I left out in my first pass. Then, I need to go back through it again and add more action and tension, deleting (or revising) the ho-hum scenes so that readers will want to keep reading. I even have one idea for something to add. Yes, this means it will take longer to reach a final draft — probably until next year sometime. It’s worth it, if it’s jaw-droppingly good when it lands on an editor’s desk.

Specific worry #2: I’m concerned that my characters, though believable, are not compelling. This worry started when I asked a question on the NaNoWriMo forums (which of your characters would you like to spend a day with?) and realized that most of my characters have rather prosaic lives, interrupted by action or murders to solve. Most of the time, hanging out with them wouldn’t be any different from hanging out with my other friends.

Response: Actually, I’ve been told before that characterization is one of my strong suits. One of my beta readers once applauded a couple of my larger-than-life characters. It’s possible that the only reason I think my characters aren’t compelling is because I live with them in my head. It’s like thinking about somebody dating your brother — what could anyone see in him? (Yes, I’ve asked that of women my brothers have dated. What else are sisters for?) This one may actually be a neurotic worry — I have to worry about something, and this looks like a good choice!