Vacation Work

I realize that the cohabitation of the two words in my post title reflects poorly on me as a human being. But as crazy as it sounds, when we leave for a seven-day cruise in the Caribbean this weekend, courtesy of my father-in-law’s 60th birthday celebration, I’m bringing work along — by choice.

I’ve never been on a cruise, but mainly what I imagine, especially with the glorious fact that our children are staying behind, is loads of free time while stuck on a boat (albeit a very large one designed to entertain your every possible whim). And as a writer, I am one of those strange people who devours free time, allocating as much of it as I can get my hands on for penning stories.

No, teaching tasks will not be coming along. I will have my summer syllabus ready to print before we leave. I will email my future students links to the websites on which they can find answers to all their questions. (If you’re one of said students, welcome! Click here.) And the new textbook that I need to read soon will not get anywhere near my suitcase.

Writing is a completely different matter. As many other writers have said before me,

When you tell me about the crazy cat that used to jump on your head every night and meow in your window well if you threw him out, I am filing that nugget away for later use. When I get a dazed look on my face, I am puzzling over a scene in my head. When our conversation fizzles out, I am restraining myself from telling you about the characters that live in my brain.

When we are stuck on the world’s most ridiculously sized boat, I will be scratching ideas for my next novel on a spiral-bound pad of paper.

Can I even describe how much I’m looking forward to this? Sure, I’ll have fun swimming and snorkeling and zip-lining and even ice skating (yes, ice skating on a boat — again, ridiculous). But a full week without the interruption of children will be the perfect opportunity to figure out the story that goes with my two main characters. I’ve been compiling all their adorable quirks in my head; vacation free time will let me explore the sticky tangles to which those quirks will lead.

I plan to buy a brand-new notebook to dedicate to world building, plot planning, and character unraveling, and I’m as giddy about it as a first-grader buying school supplies. Perhaps I’ll even treat myself to a few shiny pens to go with it. While my computer isn’t invited on vacation, especially with the per minute Wifi charges on the cruise (more ridiculousness), pen and paper might be two of the most essential items on my packing list.

So wish me bon voyage, and when I get back, if the conversation should lag, feel free to ask me what I’m plotting.

What about you? Do you ever bring creative-type work on vacation by choice?

Leave a comment!

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Plot Twists and Story Snares

God has a sense of humor. We call it “coincidence.”

Yesterday it took the form of a hair brush that my eighteen-month-old accidentally left at church. I happened to notice it missing two hours after church, which then sent me walking back to retrieve it, which ended with a rendezvous with someone I needed to talk to but wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to.

But lately most of the coincidences in my life have to do with a mouse.

I’ve been thinking about the moment in a story when you recognize a plot twist: how sometimes it’s obvious in an instant because of a major coincidence, and how other times coincidences are inconsequential enough that the plot twist sneaks up on you until all the small coincidences start to compile and you realize that something big is happening.

The mouse thing, which might also be called a cat thing, was the latter kind.

I should begin by saying that I have never wanted a cat and don’t even particularly want a pet at all. If if I did, I’d lean toward a dog, hands down. Hubby is the same way.

But a couple of months ago we went to a neighbor’s house to pick up our kids after date night. We have been doing a babysitting swap with these neighbors for two years now, so when a beautiful cream-colored cat greeted us by rubbing against my leg, I asked, “When did you guys get a cat?”

The swap hostess laughed and said, “About three years ago.”

“Why have I never seen it?”

“It hides a lot. We hardly saw it ourselves the first four months it lived here. I only knew it was alive because it ate the food.”

This idea intrigued me. Could a pet really be that easy and unobtrusive?

That same month I also bought house plants for the first time in my life after reading about the health benefits (purifies the indoor air), and I happened to also read health benefits about having a pet (fewer allergies, colds, etc). But I still didn’t want one.

Then, last week, I heard nibbling sounds from behind the wall in the kitchen late one night. I froze, thinking, “Oh crap! What am I supposed to do about a mouse??” But then the corresponding thought was “I guess I’ll get a cat after all,” and that satisfied me enough.

Until I actually saw the mouse.

Two nights later my sister and I were at the kitchen table when a dark furry thing scurried across the floor and darted under the fridge. I called my parents, my in-laws, my hubby — asking everybody for advice. But the more they described poison and various traps, the more sick I became over the whole idea.

That’s when the other coincidences became noticeable. My kids had been watching Dumbo for like a week straight, and suddenly I pictured those stupid elephants freaking out about a mouse and felt dumb about doing the same. My eighteen-month-old has been in love with a lift-the-flap book called Follow the Prophet by Val Chadwick Bagley and his favorite page, about the boy Samuel in the Bible, has three or four cute little mice on it. Then my sister joked about “Gus Gus” from Cinderella and how we should give our mouse shoes and a shirt.

Snares! All of them!

Stories have this way of catching and changing us, don’t they? And it’s like we need only be reminded of them and suddenly they change our course: a story snare and a plot twist.

The next plot twist was the husband.

See, by this time I’d become pretty convinced that these coincidences and thoughts and feelings were adding up to the idea that God is suggesting, in His ever-so-humorous way, that we need a cat. So I prayed and told God, “Um, I actually don’t want a cat. I don’t want an extra living creature to take care of. I have three kids! But, if we’re really supposed to get a cat, and if it would be a good idea” — because I’ve noticed that God’s plans generally work out better for me than stubbornly opposing them (note the picture of the elephants above) — “then, God, you’re going to have to convince my husband. I’ll do the research and get ready for an extra family member; you use your coincidences on Hubby.”

The husband’s initial response: “Hell no!”

We talked about it. I explained my position. I gave him my reasons and plenty of concessions, like the fact that I agree with him and I didn’t actually want a cat either, but that I feel good about it for whatever reason. But though the conversation went well, nothing I said made him budge at all.

“No cats. No pets.”

“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “I won’t get one until we’re both agreed on it because that wouldn’t be fair.”

“That’ll be never. We’re never getting a cat. God would have to send a whole army of rats to convince me to get a cat.”

Amusingly, a few hours later, after I’d already gone upstairs for the night, Hubby happened to be the last one in the kitchen. He heard/saw the mouse scurry from under the fridge to under the oven. When he came up, his eyes were a little bit wide as he said, “I just met Ralph. I’m going to get traps.”

I had to explain that I can’t kill the mouse because all the story snares — now including his reference to Beverly Cleary — had gotten me thinking of it as an innocent creature we can’t kill for no reason.

“But you’re okay with a cat killing it?”

“Or chasing it away. A cat fits into the natural order of things. Poison and traps do not.” (Though four years ago, the last time we had a mouse, I poisoned it without blinking. Again, those darn story snares! Those plot twists that change our course!)

Before I knew it, Hubby was talking about naming the cat after the Yankees, how he wants a black-and-white cat he could call Pinstripe, and we were discussing where to put a litter box and a scratching post.

Funny enough, the person I talked to thanks to the hair brush yesterday mentioned something about choosing to see God in the coincidences — the plot twists — of our lives.

I totally agree.

Nice work, God. I’m impressed. 😉

Compromise

Hubby closed his eyes and moaned over the chocolate frosting he’d just put in his mouth.

“So it’s good?” I asked.

“Oh yes.”

“Does it need more cocoa?”

“Nope.”

I grinned and took the spoon from him, then headed back into the kitchen to frost the cake. Hubby is the final taste-tester around here, since my tastes tend to be a little different from the rest of the family. He is the safe bet when I’m making something to present to others, like the birthday cake I’m bringing to the in-laws tonight. His mom had requested a healthy cake, but obviously I still wanted it to be as yummy as possible.

As I returned the cocoa and honey to the pantry, a bag of pecans caught my eye and made my mouth water with an idea.

“How do you feel about nuts on a cake?” I asked Hubby.

“On a chocolate cake?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Blasphemy.”

I laughed — and ten minutes later decided to do it anyway. While it’s a joint celebration tonight, one of the birthdays is my own, and I adore pecans.

My first thought was to put them on half the cake, but I thought that would look silly. So instead, I lined the cake with pecans and figured all those nut-haters out there can have the middle pieces.

While I’m too chicken to have shown it to Hubby yet (it’ll be a surprise!), it seems like a pretty good compromise to me.

And it got me thinking about compromises in general — and specifically, compromises in writing.

Last night we went and saw the new silent film The Artist. I had no idea what the story was, and all along the way I found myself guessing where it would head next: oh, he just bumped into the main actress, so now they’re going to hook up, but oh wait, he has a wife, but his wife doesn’t seem to like him, so maybe . . . but wait . . .

I thought about how much the main character’s pride affected the twists of the movie — which was obviously what I was meant to think about, since his pride was showcased as a big element of the story from the beginning. He wouldn’t have had to struggle so much if he could have worked past that hubris sooner, right?

As a fiction writer, I thought about the compromises we make with our characters. We naturally want what’s best for them. They’re like our kids. We want them to be wise and kind and make good choices.

But the trouble in fiction is that we need to see struggling characters. We need to see them overcome. And often the struggles are from their own making. So it becomes a compromise between allowing the blasphemy of bad choices and steering them toward the good ending we want for them.

And of course the resolutions themselves are usually compromises. George Valentin struggled not just because of hubris; it was also that he couldn’t think of a compromise that would work. His initial idea was a bust. Sometimes compromises occur to us quickly, like putting the pecans on only the rim of the cake, but with bigger issues it often takes much longer to see how the good ending can possibly happen. So another compromise for a writer is trading off between letting the character fail and succeed.

Ha, maybe this whole metaphor is a little crazy — as usual. After all, I do like nuts. But The Artist makes me want to consider the fatal flaws in my characters a little deeper this week and make sure that I’ve made the necessary compromises in my story, so that the characters can make mistakes and struggle and yet still arrive at the resolutions readers will hope for.

I want characters who are fundamentally good in the center — so delicious that we’ll react the way Hubby did to the frosting and forgive them for being a little nuts around the edges. 😉

(The frosting, by the way, is simple: 1 cup cream cheese, 3/4 cup honey, 1/4 cup butter, 1/4 cup cocoa powder, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. No need for compromising there! Healthy = real food around here, so butter and cream cheese totally count.)

What are your thoughts on compromise? What character examples can you think of who manage a good balance between successes and failures?

Leave a comment!

 

The Creative Process

the current stage of my creative process: altering scenes and tracking goals

Last week via Twitter I came across an article called “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking.” While it goes into depth and gives examples of each, the list goes like this:

  1. You are creative.
  2. Creative thinking is work.
  3. You must go through the motions of being creative.
  4. Your brain is not a computer.
  5. There is no one right answer.
  6. Never stop with your first good idea.
  7. Expect the experts to be negative.
  8. Trust your instincts.
  9. There is no such thing as failure.
  10. You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are.
  11. Always approach a problem on its own terms.
  12. Learn to think unconventionally.

These are all so true that I would simply like to say, “Amen!”

But I’d also like to illustrate.

A few weeks ago Hubby and I were talking about my writing, and he mentioned how he feels as though, personality wise, I’m much more analytical than I am creative. Therefore, he said, shouldn’t I pursue analytical writing of some sort (haha, such as these blog posts?) rather than fiction writing?

I agreed with him to a point: I am naturally analytical, and creativity is hard work for me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not good at it once I get there. I noted that he hasn’t read my fiction yet and explained to him that though my characters and stories don’t come easily to me at first, I use my analytical skills to bring them to life one draft at a time.

The conversation made me realize that I’ve decided to be creative, decided to believe that I can be creative, and even decided to believe that I am good at creativity.

I think that’s why I loved the article. I experience those twelve concepts on a regular basis. I have to believe I’m creative; I have to work hard at wrapping my brain around my projects; I have to go through the motions and be open to all kinds of ideas; I have to trust my instincts and pursue the projects and designs I feel inclined toward, trusting that I can achieve the potential I imagine; I have to be willing to think outside the box all the time, questioning “rules” of writing and when to adhere to or break them.

What’s been especially phenomenal the past month and a half is experiencing the height of the creative process. I swore to Hubby and Twitter that I would aim for two goals: (a) to write every day, no matter what, and (b) to revise a chapter a week in order to finish this latest draft by April 1. As I’ve done those two things, I’ve been amazed at the creative output I’ve discovered. I’ve been completing each chapter early every week because the ideas have flowed so freely. I’m so excited to write every day that I can hardly wait to put everything else aside (especially children — since I have to wait for the toddler’s afternoon nap) and open my manuscript again.

Part of the credit goes to the place I am in the process. Since it’s a fifth draft, where I expect to be ready to submit to agents after this round, the characters and story are all in place and I’m simply monkeying with individual scenes, altering and moving and deleting them to enhance the telling of the story and the showing of the characters. It’s a fun stage, juggling and rearranging pieces and having new epiphanies all the time about how to improve them.

But I think most of the credit goes to pushing myself to write every day.

I used to let lesson plans and grading papers encroach on my writing time, but now I’ve decided not to. I’m an adjunct teacher, meaning that it’s a side job. Writing is my main job (besides motherhood), so the writing has to have its regular structured time. The side job has to fit in on the side, where it belongs. So when the toddler naps, I write — no exceptions. And so far I have fit in the planning and grading elsewhere, like when the kids are busy playing with toys.

Writing every day keeps the story and characters fresh in my head. I don’t waste time trying to catch myself up and figure out where I left off. I can dive right back in every day and keep the momentum of the story building as I revise. And my enthusiasm for it grows as well.

As it turns out, when I invest myself in the process I am creative!

What have your experiences with the creative process been like? What points on that list are particularly meaningful to you?

Leave a comment!

Matching Story and Character

I was so glad to see this tweet by my friend and neighbor who also happens to be an author:

Sometimes I have unrealistic expectations, thinking that I should have known my characters before ever drafting, that they should be so clear to me that it would be impossible to imagine them any other way.

Instead, they seem to evolve, as does the story. What I write in one draft can turn out to be completely wrong for that character in the next draft — or completely wrong for the story I’m trying to tell. And I keep changing my mind bit by bit about just what that story is!

In other words, characters and story are elusive things, and not only do they have to be pinned down and made real, but they have to work together.

What haunts me especially is when I think of books I’ve read where even just one character did not feel real, coming across too generic. When that happens, it ruins the book for me! I certainly don’t want my book to be that way. I need to get to the point Shannon describes, where by the final draft both story and characters are KNOWN.

I’d been stuck on a particularly crucial scene in my novel for a long time. With each draft, I’d try writing it a different way, trying to channel the two characters involved and figure out how the two of them would fare in this confrontation. But yesterday I realized that even though I’d scrapped the scene and started over multiple times, I always brought it to the same conclusion: one character wanted something and the other character said no.

Working within those constraints, I’d agonized over how to make it work. I knew what I wanted the scene to feel like, having readers sympathize with both sides and feel the desperation of both sides, but I couldn’t make it happen.

Finally yesterday I asked myself, “Would she really just say no, flat out, end of discussion?” That actually didn’t seem like her at all. But I knew that she wouldn’t say yes either, with so much at stake and with her loyalties firmly elsewhere.

That’s when I realized what she would say: “I need to think about it.”

So simple! And yet perfect: enhancing both story and characters. The other character struggles with patience, so what a great way to test that patience. And it creates a new dynamic going into the next scene that I think will help the flow of the story.

I love it when it clicks — when a solution pulls multiple aspects together, like synergy.

So I’m going to try not to stress about not being sure of my characters from the beginning and just enjoy the process of finding all the right matches — the ones that make story and character gel.

Readers, can you tell when a character hasn’t been fleshed out enough? How does it affect your enjoyment of the story? Writers, what do you do to know your characters? Do they gradually become three-dimensional as your story evolves, or do you begin with them fully formed? I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts.

Leave a comment!

The Undoing of Things

It’s New Year’s Day 2012, and I’ve been stuck dealing with a 2011 mess.

This is the view I’ve been tackling for the last hour:

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It might be hard to tell what exactly is going on thanks to that tangled mass of yarn, but the tangled mass is what’s going on. Or what’s going out.

I volunteered to crochet some hats for charity, and as I was working on the blue-and-brown one a few weeks ago, my toddler and preschooler had a little too much fun with the skein of yarn. I got to a point where I couldn’t even use the yarn anymore until I stopped to unravel it.

And the unravelling is taking forever.

20120101-143249.jpgSimilarly, on Friday I bought myself a desk out of the classifieds. It called to me the second I viewed it, after paging through hundreds of other desks, this one full of character and exactly the size and shape (and price range) I need to move my writing station off our kitchen table and into our basement.

But it wasn’t in much better shape than my skein of yarn. I spent all afternoon Friday sanding and staining until my right arm was so dead I couldn’t use it to even wipe my nose that night.

As I sanded, I thought about the undoing of things. I thought about how much I wanted to jump to the polishing stage, how ridiculous it felt to be taking the desk apart before I could put it together better than it was.

20120101-143157.jpgIn many ways the original desk seemed closer to being done than the sanded desk I spent hours on, as you can see in the picture of the not-yet-sanded drawer next to the sanded one.

And I thought how it feels that way with writing too. Sometimes it feels like I’m going backwards, undoing things in my story by deleting scenes and rewriting sentences. It’s hard to feel like that’s actually progress when I want to be at the polished stage.

I just have to remind myself that unraveling the story is essential. I have to sand it down until I’ve got everything in place, every piece ready to proceed.

Sometimes the undoing of things is the first step toward creating something better.

Soon I’ll have a ball of untangled yarn ready to become another hat. And as of yesterday I have a polished desk ready to hold a laptop, a printer, a manuscript binder, pens and scratch paper and all the other essentials, so that I can start 2012 off right, ready to be the year that I send off a polished novel to be published.

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The desk will still be the site of more undoing as I cut more scenes and trim more lines. But it’s all in the name of progress.

Sometimes undoing is what has to be done.