Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Veni, Vidi, Vici

Okay, so maybe Julius Caesar's "I came, I saw, I conquered is a tad melodramatic for a blog title, but it's how I'm feeling right now.

I finished my book!

I mean, technically it's only the first draft, and technically I still have a lot of work to do before it's ready to see the light of day, and technically there's no real guarantee it'll ever go anywhere, but...

I finished my book!

Way huge, folks.  I mean, way huge.  This is the first book I've ever started that I've finished, which considering the number of books I've started, represents a major milestone for me.

Come to think of it, I've had trouble finishing most things I've started in my life.  I'd always convinced myself it was because I was such a "free spirit".  While that's probably partially true, I don't think it's the whole story.

I think what it really comes down to is direction.

Specifically, the fact that I never really had any.

I've kind of floated through my life for as long as I can remember.  I always knew that "conventional" jobs and education and relationships weren't really for me; unfortunately, that left me with a lot of "maybe"'s, but nothing really to work for.  I mean, it's easy to figure out what you don't want.  What's harder is finding what you do.

That's not to say there aren't constants in my life.  I have a wonderfully kind, blessedly patient husband who is my absolute rock.  I have an ever-expanding circle of friends who are way cooler than I probably deserve.  And I have a sweet, supernaturally gorgeous baby son.

It was actually when I found out I was pregnant that I realized my approach to life had to change.  My then-current approach had been working all right, but it was incredibly unstable.  And I couldn't afford to just bounce from job to job anymore; I had to start thinking about an actual career that could work for us as a  family.

No pressure.

Fortunately, Nature gives us nine months to get our shit together, so by the time our son was born, I had more or less cobbled together a plan.  Basically, to write like hell, finish a book, and see what happened.

I realize that doesn't sound even remotely like a plan.  But it was as much of a plan as I've ever had.

Along the way, I've fleshed it out a little.  Now my plan isn't to just finish the one book, it's to finish lots of them.  And sell them.  And create my own brand, and market that to people who might be interested, and reach out and find as many of those people as possible, and... and...

Basically, instead of my plan being a nuclear bomb, it now resembles more of a shotgun blast.  Still a bit out-of-focus, bordering on haphazard, but growing clearer and more precise by the day.

And I finished my book, which means it's already working.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Creating A Writer's Life

“And what, you ask, does writing teach us? First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right.” -Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

I've always been somewhat enamored of the idea of a life centered around writing.  It strikes me as rather romantic: wake up in the morning, have breakfast, make myself a big, strong cup of coffee, sit down at the keyboard, type out a few pages, crack my knuckles, go for a walk or a swim, make dinner, enjoy a leisurely evening with the family.  Go to sleep, dream productive dreams, wake up the next morning, and do it all over again.

Of course, my life during the writing of my current novel has not even remotely resembled that ideal.

For my first novel, I've had to claw time out of my day whenever I can, most often writing with a baby either screaming in my ear or, if I'm lucky, sleeping on my lap.  I have no schedule to speak of, and so things like laundry and dinner and grocery shopping invariably get short shrift when I'm on a role.

I have no illusions about the difficulties of working at home, alone, with a boy approaching toddler age.  The very idea of a schedule right now is laughable.  So I make do with what I have, and quietly plan for the day when my writer's life will look the way I've always dreamed.

The Work

In a recent article on the Writer's Digest website, writer Erik Larson bemoaned the "binge writing" so many writers engage in: "They write for 10 hours straight, riding the perfect wave of inspiration. The problem is, you still need to wake up the next day and do it again."

Touche, sir.

Someday, when I have the luxury of being able to stick to a schedule, I plan to stick to a schedule.  In the article, Larson goes on to say that he sets aside three hours a day, seven days a week, to devote to nothing but writing.  Then, he disengages.  Does something else.  He cites his dog, tennis, and cooking as his favorite ways to remove himself from his writing.

Which brings up an important point: if you're going to write realistically about life- any aspect of it- it is essential that you get your butt out of the desk chair and live some of it.


The idea of not going on writing marathons on a regular basis is one I can really get behind.  I can remember when I was younger, I would go on hours-long streaks of creativity, which would inevitably lead to burnout, not to mention the shirking of other responsibilities.

Now, with the roles of "wife" and "mom" added to my dossier, keeping writing in a set time frame has become doubly important.  Now, even if I wanted to lose myself in my work for hours on end, it's just not possible.

Like Larson, I've found that cooking keeps me grounded.  Writing is a very cerebral activity, and doesn't offer much in the way of instant gratification.  There's something about the inherent earthiness and immediacy of cooking that brings me back from the outer rim.  It's just as creative a pursuit as writing, but offers something else that writing doesn't: community.

Reaching Out

I have high hopes of attending the Romance Writers of America's conference in Atlanta next summer, but I'm not waiting that long to start building my writing community.  My Luddite-days behind me, I now have a definite- albeit modest- presence on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the RWA website.  Twitter, especially, has become a delightful way to connect with other writers and readers whom I would otherwise never have met.

No one succeeds in a vacuum, and even though writing is an inherently solitary pursuit, in the end it's no exception.

I have other goals, and plans, and dreams, but as any writer can tell you, sometimes sharing everything costs you a little magic.  After all, the best cards need to be held closest to the chest. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Where It Glitters, There's Whiskey

The heroine of my novel is a woman of many layers.  Ava Faraday.  Blues musician.  Amateur gold dredger.  Half-Inupiaq, half-white, and fully badass.  But one of the things I happen to like most about her is that she prefers my drink of choice.  Whiskey.  Preferably bourbon.  And preferably neat.

What are the odds?

Because you really don't need a recipe or a tutorial to drink whiskey neat (although I found one here), I've found some of my favorite whiskey cocktail recipes and posted them here, for your drinking enjoyment.

Enjoy, and know that Ava would be proud of you.

Highball (from AMERICANcocktails)
  Highball glass, ice
  Build in glass:
1 1/4 oz. Bourbon
Fill with Ginger Ale

Boulevard Manhattan (from AMERICANcocktails)
  Cocktail glass, chilled
  Pour into an iced mixing glass:
2 1/2 oz. Bourbon
1/2 oz. Dry Vermouth
1/2 oz. Grand Marnier
2-3 dashes Orange Bitters
  Stir and strain
  Orange slice & Cherry garnish

Old-Fashioned (from AMERICANcocktails)
  Old-fashioned glass, chilled
  Build in glass:
3 dashed Angostura bitters
1/2 oz. Simple syrup
1 Orange slice
1 Cherry
  Muddle contents & add ice
2 1/2 oz. Bourbon
splash Club Soda
Orange slice garnish

Sazerac (my personal version of the classic)
  Old-fashioned glass
  Pour into a mixing glass with ice:
2 oz. Bourbon
1 tsp. fine granulated sugar
2-3 dashes Blood Orange (my preference) bitters
  Coat inside of old-fashioned glass with Absinthe (or Pernod, if you're a wuss)
  Strain in previously mixed ingredients

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Writer's Block: Thoughts From The Trenches

“The best cure for a sluggish mind is to disturb its routine." -William H. Danforth

Writer's block sucks.  Plain and simple.

Theories abound as to what causes this phenomenon.  People who don't write might tell you it's just a figment of your imagination.  Your shrink might suggest it's the manifestation of your fear of success stemming from issues of abandonment rooted in your childhood.  All these people may be right, but that shouldn't stop you from punching them right in their smug face.

I mean, come on!  You don't need someone to enlighten you about whatever psychological block is obfuscating your progress; you need ideas on how to snap the hell out of it!

So what do you do?  Your mind has suddenly gone dark, that spark of imaginative fire that fuels you has abruptly extinguished.  Or, maybe you're like me.  You've no shortage of ideas, but suddenly have forgotten how to write English (or whatever your preferred language happens to be).

Either way, suddenly you feel... pointless.  After all, didn't someone once say that the job of a writer is to write?  If you're a writer, and you're not writing, you're not doing your job.  If you're not doing your job, you're not being productive, or contributing to your family.  And if you're not being productive or contributing to your family, your babies (the real ones, not your characters) will starve!

Oh, black day!  What a waste you are!  You might as well just give up this whole writing shtick- your mother always told you it was crazy anyway- and get a job at WalMart!

Slow down there, Hemmingway.  There's no need to drink yourself into an early grave just yet.  You have options.

You need only look at the volumes of writing quotes out there to figure out that you're not the first writer to experience this problem.  Most of those quotes are by people who have gone down in history for their literary talent and way with words.  So cheer up!  If they've been through it, and still managed to come out the other side, you can too.

For your reading pleasure (or your grasping desperation, you pick), here are some tricks I've picked up to help get the juices flowing again:

1) Give yourself some space.  Cut yourself some slack.  Take a little break.  Especially if you're in it to get published, remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint.  Go dark for a couple days.  Maybe a couple weeks.  Hell, take a two-month sabbatical if you need to.  Because you will go back to it.  Your brain just needs a chance to reboot, recharge, and regroup.

2) Do some more research.  You'll hear from very knowledgeable people that hitting the books when you're *supposed* to be writing is tantamount to having a marital affair.  In theory, this may be true.  But like so many theories, what looks good on paper doesn't necessarily jive with real life.

For example, when I've hit a wall in my current project, it's been very helpful to go back over my outline, look at photos of where my novel takes place, check out character descriptions again- basically, to do anything that refreshes the story in my brain.  Because sometimes you forget how awesome your characters are, how your setting has a personality and a voice, and just where it is you were trying to end up when you started this whole crazy journey.  So stop, and get that back.

3) Act like a writer.  On it's head, that might sound kind of sad.  Act like a writer?  Isn't that what wannabes do once they realize they've run aground?  Well, yes.  And no.  Another very smart person once said that you need to act like the person you want to become.  That means acting like you're already the successful writer you want to be.  Sure, you might look a little crazy first.  But when you realize one day that you've actually become that person, you'll see that you were crazy... like a fox!

So go ahead!  What does successful-writer-you look like?  What does s/he wear?  How does s/he talk?  Relate to people?  What can you do to publicize yourself (like, I dunno, creating a writing blog)?  What can you eat, drink, do, say, to crystallize that image?  Once you start doing those things, not only will you have a blast, but that dream-person will seem just a little more real.

And at the end of all that, you'll write, because that's what successful-writer-you would do.

4) Just do it.  Okay, okay.  Before you start throwing old shoes and broken bottles at me, here me out.  Usually when I find myself stuck, I realize later that I was really only stuck in one particular place.  If I can just grit my teeth, bite the bullet, and write through it, I quickly find myself in smoother waters.  Of course, I go back and fix that one section later, because odds are what I wrote there was pure shit, but that's besides the point.  That's the lovely thing about finishing a first draft.  There's a second draft after it.

5) Fill out an idea list.  This is where I'm going to shamelessly plug two of my earlier blog posts, "What Does 'Romance' Mean To You" and "Bringing Sexy Back".  I came up with both of those lists as a way of getting my creative juices flowing.  Especially if you're writing romance (like I am), it can be very helpful to have clear ideas of the things you find romantic, and the things you find sexy.  It helps you evoke those feelings in ways that feel real to you.  If you do happen to go through those questions, feel free to let me know what you think on any of them.  Call it the writer's curse; I'm always curious...

I hope this proves useful to someone.  If it does, let me know!  Or feel free to drop a line on block-busting tricks you've resorted to in the past...

Friday, August 10, 2012

Getting To "The End"

There seems to be a lot of hype centered around the "blank first page".  It is a thing many writers seem to be deathly afraid of, like the authorial equivalent of the giant squid or Medusa.  Every writing adviser has advice for the just-beginning writer.  "Just start writing!" they trumpet.  "Just get something down!"

Well, guess what?  Starting has never been my problem (excuse me while I duck the rotten fruit being hurled at me). 

I can't even count the number of books and stories I've started throughout my writing career- even before it was a career, per se.  There have been tons of them.  Literally, tons.  I can even remember a few of them.  I can remember the jubilant feeling of "Hey, I think I've really got something here" as I soared through the first twenty, thirty, even forty pages.  Once, I even reached page fifty!

But then something would happen.  Jitters, self-doubt, boredom, I don't know how quite to describe it.  Maybe it was a combination of all those things.  But whatever it was, all of a sudden my writing would slow to a trickle, then a drop, then finally, would fizzle out altogether.  This happened time after time after time.

Hence why- as I said in a previous post- reaching page 200 of my current novel was so exciting to me.  It represented a milestone I had never reached before.  That milestone now pages behind me, my first draft is in its final pages.  Which brings me to a hurdle I have never faced before.

How the hell do I finish?

Lest I sound like some stereotypical, anxiety-written, "afraid to say goodbye" writer, let me clarify.  I know how I want my novel to end.  Hell, I've outlined the shit out of the thing.  And I like my characters, and want to see them end up happy together.  But Jesus, the getting there is just straight painful!

I've come up with several things that I think could be responsible for this odd problem.  And in fashionable list form, here they are:

1) This is virgin territory.   Like I said, I've never made it this far before.  Over the years, I've honed just about every aspect of writing: my dialogue sparkles, my scenic descriptions would make you want to buy a plane ticket to the middle of nowhere (which is where my novel is set), my characterization is so realistic you'd think I was a shrink (close: I've just seen a lot of them... ahem.).  The ending is the one area that up to now I've never had the opportunity to practice.

2) The ending I planned was poorly set-up.  That's right, for all the authorial wizardry I claimed to possess in the previous paragraph, apparently I'm still not perfect (I know; it came as a shock to me, too).  As I mentioned, I know how I want my novel to end.  Not to spoil things, but it's big, epic, emotional... in short, it's bloody perfect.  Unfortunately, I didn't give it the foundation a flashy ending requires.  This is something I will definitely fix in the rewrite (thank god for rewrites!).

3) Everything was happening too quickly.  That big, epic, emotional ending I have planned?  As it turns out, it wasn't nearly as effective when I ended up crushing it into three bone-dry pages.  I think a lot of people run into this problem.  You get so excited about something that your words start going a million miles a minutes, and before you know it, your audience is either hopelessly lost or (worse!) hopelessly bored.  On some level, I knew this, and have been painfully, deliberately dragging out my final chapters to avoid falling into that trap.  I mean, I'll fix it all later, but still...

So this is where I am, folks.  Almost (kind of) done.  Don't give up on me, yet!