Serendipitous Encounters

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It’s very difficult to know how, or even if, a story will affect you.

We think we know what we like and why we like it, but a lot of the time we actually don’t. Sometimes you pick up something you think you will like, something that you should like, and it leaves little to no impression on you. Perhaps you even dislike it! By all accounts, I should love Game of Thrones. It has high fantasy, political intrigue, complex characters, and dragons. And yet I have never warmed up to it. Other times you pick up something on a lark and are surprised to find out much it moves you, how deeply it sinks into your psyche and plays upon your heartstrings. How was I to know that tagging along with my friends to the theater on May 4, 2012 would send me careening head-first into the world of Marvel comics and superheroes?

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Nothing Wasted

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Since making my declaration about getting back into The Mariner Sequence, specifically Ravens and Roses, I haven’t actually written anything. And yet I feel like my mind is more in “writer mode” than it has been in a while.

Looking back over the last two weeks, it doesn’t seem like I’ve been writing, yet two morning walks spent talking to myself have solved some major plot problems that had troubled me for years. It just goes to show that, while a writer may not always be putting words on a page, when we have a goal in mind, we can feed everything we do into the compost of our subconscious and see what happens. It’s a weird and diverse process, one that is nonlinear and sporadic. Many of the things don’t seem to relate to writing. After all, what do the following contribute to the writing process?

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Generating Ideas

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I don’t really generate a lot of ideas anymore. I don’t usually create stories from the ground up, working entirely from scratch. Even characters, which always seem to abound, don’t spring forth on their own anymore. (I don’t count characters created for fan fiction because they already have a ready-made world to plop into, and world does a great deal to inform the character.) I don’t think I’ve generated a “new” idea for a long, long time.

This might sound terrible, but it actually isn’t. Most of my story and idea generation came when I was a kid, before I’d absorbed over two decades of media. I made a lot of crazy, weird stuff up, and fortunately I wrote some of it down. The novels that I work on now really aren’t “new” in the usual sense. They’re refinements on something that had already been generated. It may seem like I’m coming up with new ideas, like with The Arcenciel Romances or Faylinn, but even those started out as pieces of fan fiction that evolved into their own thing. Everything else is moving stuff around, changing the trappings, figuring out structures and mores that make sense, and discovering the inner lives of the characters. I’m shaping the clay, not digging it out of the ground.

I think this process is actually a good one, at least for longer works. Youth generates ideas without regard for logical or logistical sense. The images and feelings are what get wrapped up in the idea and stick with it. Then, as one grows and gains experience, you can go back and pick through that motley crew of story ideas and characters and choose the ones that work. Sometimes you even combine parts of different ideas into something else, like I did with four short stories that became the basis for Rinamathair. Others can be refined, or discarded if they would take far too much time to shape into something coherent. The only time the lack of new idea generation gets me is with short stories. Novels are a slow burn, but short stories you’re supposed to just drop out and go. Obviously they require some refinement as well, but the shape of a short story is different and more difficult for me to tackle. I have trouble making characters feel fleshed out when I don’t have a lot of time to spend with them.

The only time I can say that new ideas are generated now is when I dream. I keep a dream journal by my bed, and if I remember something from a dream, be it a sequence, a snippet of dialog, an image, a character, or a feeling, I’ll write it down. (That’s how The Mariner Sequence got started actually.) There are dozens of story seeds and story parts littered among the barely-legible scribbles of that journal. It’s a little sad to think that I probably won’t have a long enough lifespan to turn all of them into stories, to use all of that material. But I keep it in mind, and when I get stuck on a current project, I check out those seeds to see if there’s anything I can use or incorporate. (Hint: Never throw any ideas away. Keep them in a folder; they may come in handy later.)

Let’s face it: it’s all a giant tossed fruit salad and mixing bowl of inspiration and experience, so it’s best not to get too hung up on the idea of “making something new.” Chances are you already have the ingredients to make something pretty spectacular. It’s just a matter of blending and seasoning to taste.

DIY MFA Book Club: Prompt #10-12

 

The final round! This is the third installment of my  DIY MFA Book Club responses, containing Prompts 10 and 11, plus 12 (which is more of a celebratory note than a prompt, but whatevs.) As I mentioned last time, there was a Prompt #9, but I skipped it because it depends on reading Gabriela Pereira‘s book DIY MFAWhile I have posted answers to these prompts in DIY MFA’s Facebook group “Word Nerds Unite,” I’m also posting this last set of prompts and slightly more in-depth answers here on The Cat’s Cradle:

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DIY MFA Book Club: Prompt #5-8

 

Welcome to the second installment of DIY MFA Book Club responses! This round contains Prompts 5-8. There was a Prompt #9 on January 26th, but because it depends on reading Gabriela Pereira‘s book DIY MFA (which I have not read) so I’m skipping that one. While I have posted answers to these prompts in DIY MFA’s Facebook group “Word Nerds Unite,” I’m also posting the second set of prompts and slightly more in-depth answers here on The Cat’s Cradle:

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DIY MFA Book Club: Prompt #1-4

 

Being a hermit of the literary kind, I tend to not join things. But I’d enjoyed Gabriela Pereira’s panel “Rock Your Revisions” at the Writers Digest Annual Conference last August and joined the mailing the list for her online newsletter. So I got an email announcing the DIY MFA Book Club starting January 8th. I mulled it over for a while and decided, “Why not?” Get prompts to share stories about writing with other writers? Could be fun! I signed up and got the first prompt on the 8th, the second on January 10th, the third on January 12th, and the fourth on January 15th. While I have posted answers to these prompts in DIY MFA’s Facebook group “Word Nerds Unite,” I decided to include both the first set of prompts and slightly more in-depth answers here on The Cat’s Cradle:

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Blues in Week 3

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Week 3 of National Novel Writing Month has begun, and, as always around this time, I’m feeling kind of wrung out with the entire enterprise. Buckling down and pounding out words for a rough draft isn’t exactly new for me. I can’t say that it’s always been easy, but it can be done. I know because I’ve done it before. I did it for (most of) Ravens and Roses, the first book in the Mariner Sequence. I did it for my Dark Crystal novel contest entry, “Search of the Sun-Child.” I did it for the fantasy / romance / steampunk / political intrigue hybrid that is Courting the Moon.

So why is Seahawks and Storms giving me so much trouble?
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Emotional Somersaults

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On the day before Valentine’s Day, take a moment to reflect on your relationship with your writing. If you’ve written for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that there are good days and bad days. There are days when you love your novel, your short story, your screenplay, your work, both in general and specific to the project at hand. Everything falls into place, almost effortlessly, and you ride a tide of euphoria and bliss. Those are the days when you can’t imagine being anything other than a writer.

Then there are days, often many long, hard, dark days, where you hate your work. You hate the process. You feel the plot is generic, the characters lifeless, the words boring, and the entire enterprise both fruitless and trite. Every writer dreads such days, and all too often those days overshadow all of the good. At those times, you feel like a failure, like you are wasting your time, your life, chipping away at some impossible dream. Those are the days when you feel it would be better to be anything except a writer.

I’m here to tell you that those feelings are normal. It’s normal to go through these emotional somersaults. It’s normal to have periods of fierce pride and joy countered by times of terror and self-doubt. Sometimes all it takes is a day or two away from the desk to walk, dance, read, and get reacquainted with the spark that set us on this artistic journey in the first place. But no matter how you feel, you must come back. You must return to the desk, to the paper and pen, to the screen and keyboard. No relationship is without its difficulties and low points, especially not one as fraught with intimacy as the one between a writer and their work. Remember that no night, no shadow, and no storm lasts forever.

Do not give into despair.

Return.
Continue.
Persevere.

Love the work.
Love thyself.

Inspiration vs. Appropriation: Where is the Line?

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There’s a term that’s been popping up a lot lately in regards to story-telling which has caused a great deal of friction online: “cultural appropriation.”  The strict dictionary definition states that: “cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements from one culture by members of another culture.”  When you put it like that, it doesn’t sound so bad.  I mean, cultures all over the world have adopted from one another via trade or conquest since the dawn of human history.

But now this term is being seen and used in a completely negative fashion.  Worse, it seems to have no limits or boundaries.  It seems that one can come under fire for celebrating Cinco de Mayo if you’re not Hispanic, wearing Native American costumes (especially the admittedly tasteless and stereotypical Halloween versions) if you are not a Native American, or for wearing cornrows if you are not of African descent.

Those are fairly benign modern examples, although there are more disturbing ones.  Like the wearing of blackface, which was used to reinforce negative stereotypes about blacks to maintain segregation in post-Emancipation America, or Hollywood continuing to cast Caucasians into roles that really should be given to someone else.  (See the controversies over having Matt Damon save the Great Wall of China or casting Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming live-action version of Ghost in the Shell.)  So, obviously there is negative cultural appropriation that has happened in the past and continues to happen now.  But where do you draw the line between legitimate concerns and people making a mountain out of a mole hill?
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The Wellspring

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Some time ago, I read an article in The Guardian that Neil Gaiman wrote about his friend, Terry Pratchett.  In the article, Mr. Gaiman said that fury was what fueled Terry Pratchett’s writing.  I was reminded of this when I came across a more recent article posted by the Los Angeles Times, which held an interesting addition:

“Terry [Pratchett] was many things, but he was not a jolly old elf. I think each of us tends to take something and use that as the place where you begin making your art. If you’re going to make good art, it’s likely that you’re going to go to the place where things are dark, and use that to shine light into your life and, if you’re doing it right, into other people’s lives as well. For Terry, it was always anger. There was a deep rage in him that allowed him to create. For me, it tends to be sorrow or loneliness or confusion.

The pat answer that I’ve often seen given by writers, either in person or via books of advice, is that their art comes from joy or curiosity or wonder or passion.  The emotions referenced are often positive or at least neutral.  This seems to be the more socially acceptable answer.  It’s a little more unusual, even slightly morbid, to hear someone say that their art, regardless of the tone of the end product, stems from a darker source.  Usually we think that your emotional state should match the emotions evoked by your creation.  I mean, really, would you have guessed that the hilarious absurdity of Discworld stemmed from a man’s rage?  It certainly surprised me.

That surprise made me stop and reflect on what emotional core drives my own creativity.  While all emotions are necessary to craft a convincing piece of fiction, I was curious to know what the wellspring consisted of.  Did my writing come from joy, sorrow, anger, loneliness, despair, amusement, fear, cynicism, or some other emotional core?  Was this consistent or did it vary from project to project?

I’ve turned the question over in my mind, and as I trace down the central emotional motivation for characters in my various works-in-progress, I think that the answer might be fear.  The main characters in Ravens and Roses, All’s Fair, Astral Rain, Rinamathair, Jewel and the Skyrunners, Moon’s Fire/Moon’s Water… almost all of them are all driven by fear of something.   For many of them this fear is about losing something or someone, and almost all of them are in denial about it.  Some of them manifest this by being shy and adverse to risk while others become bold and abrasive in an attempt to hide what they see as a weakness.  A good portion of their narrative journey is spent recognizing that fear, admitting it to themselves or to others, and then working to overcome it.  Some succeed; others don’t, at least not completely.

I don’t generally share the same specific fears as my characters, but the sensation is the same.  Even though I prefer to write while feeling happy or content rather than angry or depressed, the underlying motivation is fear.  It’s a little weird, since I’ve never run into anything truly dangerous in my life so far.  But the sensation, be it a small, niggling sense of unease or full-blown panic, is always there.  And as I think about what Neil Gaiman said in these two articles, I think that might be my fuel, the part that gives the stories and characters I create that little extra push into realism.  The soul-spark that makes them come alive.  Because fear, like anger or loneliness, is a universal human emotion.

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Original artwork is by Amuria on DeviantART