Jaye Wells

Category Archives: Inspiration

Craft Thursday: Speak Up

Life has been pretty crazy lately. There have been some family things going on that require me to be away from my writing desk more often than I’d like. I promised my agent pages on a new project next week, so I’ve been a little stressed about getting it all done. Then I remembered that there is more than one way to get a story written.

Enter: Dictation.

tell your story

I read a couple of posts and a book by authors who swear by dictation as a method for drafting a novel. They pretty much all recommended Dragon for dictation, but a quick search told me the program is $300. I have text-to-speech (TTS)  on my Mac (just open any document or program and fit the “function” key twice), and I can’t imagine the Dragon software is 300X better. I did, however, download the free Dragon app for my phone for dictating on the fly.

Here’s what I’ve been doing. While I’m out running errands or if an idea comes to me while I’m folding laundry, I pick up the phone, speak into the app and then email it to myself. Now, the resulting document is a mess. First, the app doesn’t register punctation, so it’s really a string of words without any formatting. But the beauty of this is that once I’m back at my computer, I take those raw words, add the punctuation, and flesh out the scene. In essence, the dictation draft, messy as it may be, allows me to not face a blank page.

We’ve all been there, right? We get a fresh cup of coffee, turn off the internet, pull up our word processing program of choice, and then stare at the blinking cursor of death. It’s hypnotic, that cursor. It taunts and dares us to try to be brilliant. It’s daunting, y’all.

But if you can come to a page that already has some raw material on it, it somehow feels more manageable. “I don’t have to create anything from scratch, I just have to fix these words.”

A few benefits of this method include:

You talk faster than you write, so you can get a lot of words down quickly.

Speaking your story might make it easier to access your authentic voice.

Because your goal is just to get ideas and words down, it’s easier to ignore the internal editor.

Dictation might not be for everyone. It takes some getting used to to speak your story instead of type it. If it just doesn’t work for you, there’s another option. I have a new obsession for fountain pens. I have cheap ones and expensive ones (the cheap ones are actually my preference), and they make writing by hand a pleasure. In the same spirit of just getting things down, I like to sit down and write a quick scene on paper. Often it’s just a page or two of dialogue. There’s something freeing about putting it on paper. “I’m just jotting down some notes,” I say. “There’s nothing here that can’t be changed.”

Once I have a couple of pages, I either type the scene into Scrivener or I’ll speak it using the TTS function on my Mac. Again, the goal here is just to get something on the page that I can go back and flesh out. The bonus is that it’s easier for me to carry a pen and a notebook in my purse than to lug around my laptop. The benefits of this method are pretty similar to the dictation method, but you don’t have to worry about messing with technology you’ve never used before or the pesky problem of dictation programs inaccuracies.

My point here is that sometimes we have to get creative and work smarter. There is no writing police force who will arrest you if you speak your story instead of type it. You don’t have to sit in front of a computer for the work to count. Progress is more important that perfection, especially in the drafting phase.

If you’re feeling stuck, try to speak your story. Or pull out your favorite pen and jot down your scene. You’ve not nothing to lose but your resistance.

Happy Writing!

Craft Thursday: The Lists

listIt’s pretty common in my workshops for me to suggest writers make lists of words for their stories. It’s a technique I learned from Alexander Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Novelists. In the book, she recommends that authors make lists of thematic words relating to their story and characters that can be woven through the narrative to add more emotional resonance and create image systems. It’s a great technique that I use for my own novels.

Recently, I picked up Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. I’ve been sipping from this font of writerly knowledge a bit at a time, giving myself time to digest each essay. Bradbury has long been a favorite writer of mine, and I’m not sure why it took me so long to find this book, but I sort of feel like it came into my life at the perfect time. Aren’t books magic that way?

Anyway, one of Bradbury’s techniques reminded me of the word lists I mentioned above. According to Bradbury, for years, he kept running lists of words. When he needed to sit down to write a short story, he’d look at that list, choose a word and start writing.  The idea that we each have our own unique image system that can be used to find story ideas sort of blew my mind.

Lately, I’ve been in a weird space. I finished a novel a couple of months ago that took me two years to write. I want to write, but the idea of diving headlong into another huge project so soon feels daunting. The well needs some time to refill. However, I have a book on submission and lots of time of my hands now that I’ve finished most of my grad school coursework. Idle time is dangerous for an imagination. But then Bradbury and his word list offered me the perfect solution. Why not just write my own list and use it to write some shorts of my own? Not because I’m supposed to be writing, but because I want to be writing.

An interesting thing happens when you start to make these lists. Following Bradbury’s example, I formatted my list with “the” in front of each noun, e.g. “The Moon,” “The Tomb,” “The Hallway.” It’s a fun exercise to sit down and see how one image leads to others and before you know it, you have this neat list of all the images that your subconscious loves or fears. So far, my list is four pages long. That’s material for a LOT of stories.

Also? It’s fascinating to see what’s coming up. Images appear like words in the those Magic Eight Balls. They sort of emerge from the depths of my brain before sinking down below again. Paying attention to what’s coming up has been enlightening and has helped me really get a handle on my own personal image system. Meaning, the themes and images I go back to over and over again in my stories–the symbols that make up a large part of my writer voice. The ideas that fascinate and scare me enough to keep returning to them over and over in my work.

I feel sort of silly that it didn’t occur to me to apply the word lists I used for my novel to other things, but that’s sort of how this writing thing goes. The tools you think you’ve mastered have a way of evolving into new uses. I’m excited to see what sort of short stories come out of this, and even ore excited to see how my list of images grows and changes over the years as I become fascinated by or afraid of new things. As I fall in love with new ideas and characters and places.

So I guess today’s craft advice is twofold:

1. Always be open to using old tools in new ways.

2. If you pay attention, the mentors you need will appear right when you need them.

Happy writing!

 

 

 

Craft Thursday: Inspiring Yourself Into Inertia

24-take-the-first-stepI just spent half an hour watching videos about creativity. They’re fun, right? They make us feel better–like we’re improving ourselves even as we sit on our rear ends and passively absorb their wisdom.

Maybe that’s why you come here to read my Craft Thursday posts or watch my Youtube videos. You want to improve yourself. You’re committing to your craft by seeking out tools and resources and inspiration.

That’s all well and good. It’s great, in fact. But only if you get to the moment where you turn off your web browser, open a blank page, and put words on it. Even better if you do this every or most days.

The truth is that if you’re not careful you will inspire yourself into inertia. You will convince yourself that you will write eventually once you’ve learned all there is to know about writing. Once you’ve improved yourself enough you will finally be ready.

Well, my friends, the truth is that the true path of improvement and inspiration is the path of  doing. It is the path of trying. It is making a practice out of your art. Isn’t it nice to think of writing that way–as a practice? There is no blog post I could write, there is no Youtube video, there is no craft book that will finally tip you over into being ready. You become ready by working when you’re not ready. By practicing.

So today, I want you to promise yourself that you will spend half an hour putting the pen to page. It doesn’t matter if you write a short story, a poem, or a snippet of dialogue. Write something. Practice the craft.  Inspire yourself, improve yourself, and inform yourself by doing the damned thing.

Happy writing.

J.

Craft Thursday: Must-Read Craft Books

When I’m teaching writing classes, I tend to mention the same craft books over and over. So for today’s Craft Thursday, I thought I’d share the titles with you and why I like them. This is by no means an exhaustive list of every good craft and writing life book I’ve read. It’s just a list of the ones I name-check most.

 

41KC-kry-QL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_1. Fiction First Aid Raymond Obstfeld: Great overview of common problems that plague a lot of manuscripts. Good to read prior to revision to help diagnose problems. I don’t think I read this straight through, but I’ve referred to it again and again over the years.

2. Writing & Personality by John K DiTiberio & George Jensen: This book used Meyers-Briggs personality to help explain how each type approaches large writing projects. I can not overstate how much this book did to help me find my process. I reread the section on my time at least twice a year–or whenever I try to convince myself that I’d have an easier time if I plotted (hint: I wouldn’t). Note: I’ve had trouble finding new copies of this book, but you might get lucky and run into at a used book store.

41OCo751wEL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_3. Rules for the Dance by Mary Oliver: I don’t know why it took me so long to discover Mary Oliver’s poetry, but now that I have, I’m totally in love. This book is Oliver’s primer on writing and reading metrical verse. You might have learned some of the information about meter in high school, but if you’re like me, the only one you could reliably name was “iambic pentameter.” I suggest this book because understanding the rhythm of language will help your prose crackle with emotion and texture. If you don’t read this book, you should at a minimum start trying to read more poetry and music lyrics. Trust me, it will help you become a better writer.

4. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: This is not a craft book–it’s a writing life survival manual. I probably have as many books about how to survive being a writer as I do how to become a better one. This is a great, easy-to-read book that is worth rereading at least once a year.

51xKvj+iyQL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_5. The Anatomy of Story by John Truby: Truby’s background is in screenwriting, but the way he constructs his stories is very similar to my own process. By that I mean, he advocates an organic approach. Instead of plotting, the prework here is focused on character creation and world building. The book is filled with writing exercises and great advice. It can be a bit dense, but it’s definitely worth a read.

6. Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card: Character creation is one of my strengths, but I read this because I was writing a book with multiple POV characters and wanted to be sure I wasn’t missing anything. He introduces both topics in a clear way that’s great for newer writers. However, for my money, the best thing in this book is Card’s MICE Quotient. I won’t tell you what it is, but it sort of blew my mind.

What are your favorite craft books?

Craft Thursday: The Juice Is Worth the Squeeze

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Writers are pretty silly. We indulge in a lot of magical thinking and we believe people when they tell us there’s a right way to write. This is why, from very early in my career, I believed I needed to write a book linearly. I learned this method from my first critique group, which was filled with published authors. They were pros, I reasoned, they know what’s up. So I plotted and I wrote my books in order.

When I began submitting to agents, the feedback was all sort of similar, “You say this is a single-title, but it reads like a category romance.” All of my critique partners wrote category romance and they were the ones who drilled into me that I need to plot their way.

Eventually, I left that group. My exit had been coming for a while, but the final nail in the coffin was when they urged me to walk away from the book I was working on–a little Urban Fantasy called Red-Headed Stepchild that would later land me a six-figure, multi-book contract and make it onto the USA Today Bestseller list. I harbor no ill will toward those critique partners because I learned a lot from them, including when to walk away from a situation that was not doing my writing any favors.

After I got my deal and had to write the second book in the series, I stumbled for a long time. I’d written three novels by that point, but I didn’t understand my writing process. Cue two total rewrites that resulted in one of the most stressful periods of my life. It was only once my editor called me and said, “What happens when you start writing a book?” that I gave any real thought to how my mind processed story. The first version of Mage in Black was a mess because, terrified and self-conscious of performing under pressure, I resorted to plotting and linear writing because it was what the published authors I’d known in that critique group had done. The result was a terrible, formulaic book that lacked all the heart that RHSC had going for it.

When I began to talk through my process with my editor she exclaimed, “Oh! I get it–you’re a scene writer. I’ve worked with someone else like that. Here’s what you need to do … ” See, until that moment, I only knew of two types of writers: plotters and pantsers.What I learned from my editor that day is that false dichotomy was screwing me up. I had no idea it was okay to be some sort of combination of the two, which, I’ve since found, most of us are.

It’s sort of like saying, “there are two types of people: those who like night and those who like day.” It completely ignores the wondrous nuances that exist in a 24-hour period–dawn, midday, noon, afternoon, L’heure Bleu, dusk, evening, night, midnight, etc. In other words, you might have a tendency toward writing by the seat of your pants, but your version of pantsing is probably different from every other pantser out there.

My editor called me a scene writer, but I’ve since amended it to being a “puzzler.” Yes, I write my books as discrete scenes and I write them out of order. Some might say, yeah, that’s classic pantser. But, my friends, those people would be wrong. Pantsers are notorious for diving right into a story without any preparation. In fact, I do a lot of pre-work on my books. It’s just that instead of charting out each beat of the story, I prework by focusing first on world building and character development. I fill my subconscious with as much information as I can about the world and characters so that while I’m writing I have a ton of material that informs my choices. The first hundred or so pages of my books (sometimes way more than that) are a frenzy of scene writing with no regard to structure. It’s almost like writing a bunch of short stories about the characters. This period is me working totally on inspiration. I let my subconscious play until it starts to run out of fresh ideas. Then, and only then, do I start to plot. I take that collection of scenes and place them on a storyboard. Then I started shuffling them around  (puzzling) until the story reveals itself to me. Once I have a pretty good idea of the structure, I fill it in with all the scenes I’m missing.

Look, I know this isn’t the easiest process or the most logical, but it’s how I best create stories. When I try to work against this process, my stories are terrible. That’s because when I don’t allow my imagination to drive the process, I default to formula to create structure. That’s no bueno, my friends.

I’m not sharing this because I think you should write stories the way I write them. Instead, I simply want to suggest to you that if you’re stuck, you might be struggling to understand your own process. Alternately, if you’re a plotter and find yourself hitting roadblocks, maybe try to shake things up a little. If you can’t write the next logical scene, jump ahead to another chapter or scene you know is coming. Sometimes we think we’re linear writers when we’re not. You can be a plotter and easily write your scenes out of order because you already have the plan in place. Or, if you write by the seat of your pants, maybe just do a quick sketch of what you think the scene you’re about to write is really about. That might speed things up a bit.

Bottom line: You have to go where the juice is, and to get there you have to understand your process (the squeeze).

You’ll know the juice when you see it. Your fingers will itch to start typing. When you talk about those scenes, your speech will speed up and people will remark on the way your eyes glow.

Knowing your process is basically understand where to find your juice. I rebel against structure and linearity, so my juice requires me to mix things up and not commit too soon to plan for the story. Your juice might require intricate plotting using Excel or a storyboard. Or your juice might be diving off the cliff and plowing through the story from page one to The End without stopping. All of these methods are valid as long as they get you to your juice.

Writing is work, but it should not feel like punishment. If you’re honoring your process, you will still have tough days, but you will move past them more quickly because you’ll understand how to get back to the juice faster.

Now, a caveat: It took me a long time to understand my process. It involved me blocking out all the well-intentioned advice and getting out of my own damned way. I took a lot of classes and tried a lot of methods. In addition, sometimes a story will throw a curve ball and you’ll have to try some new approach. The point is, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know your process. Also, if you know your process, don’t be slave to it to the detriment of your work. And for goodness sake, don’t turn into one of those insufferable artistes who use process as an excuse for being a jerk.

Getting to your juice is simply about knowing how your imagination processes ideas and how to best organize your work flow to optimize it. If you’re stuck, try something new. If you’re not sure what your process is, keep working. Eventually the patterns will reveal themselves. Just never forget that if writing feels like punishment you might be approaching it in a way that doesn’t optimize your flow.

Happy writing, friends.

Early Craft Thursday: Escape Hatches

Today for an early Craft Thursday, I have a guest post up at the wonderful Writers in the Storm blog about writer burn out.

Here’s a preview:

See, what I figured out is that everyone needs a hobby. We each need something that doesn’t have ego or income tied to it. When my hobby became my job, I lost that safe space where I could create without fear.

We don’t talk enough about the causes of burn out in the writing community. Everyone is too afraid of admitting that they’re not super successful that they don’t know when to ask for help. Don’t let this be you. The writing life you save might be your own!

Read the post over at Writers in the Storm.

Craft Thursday: The Lived-in Story

house_1313667821_crop_550x415This week, we began a big house project to update all the paint, carpet, etc. We live in North Texas, where the foundations are as shaky as a drunk during a sobriety test. This means our walls are riddled with hairline fractures and buckled walls that look like scabs. So it’s time to update.

I’m pretty excited about this work. One of the reasons we’re doing it is because it’s cheaper than moving. When one-half of the income earning team is a writer, it’s not a great idea to buy more house than you can afford. So we’re staying in the house we can afford and making it nicer.

But yesterday, when the dry wall guy came and got to work on the cracks, sadness hit me out of nowhere.

See, he wasn’t just fixing the foundation shift fractures and scabs, he was also erasing all of the little imperfections caused by a decade of my family’s life. For example, when my son was five or six he loved to hang off things. It’s what little boys do. Unfortunately, that included the towel rack in his bathroom. For the last eight years, every time I walked into his bathroom, I saw the two little holes where the brackets used to be. Every time, I’d think back to when he was five and so rambunctious I wasn’t sure either of us would survive it. Now, he’s thirteen and he’s taller than me. He’s calmer now, too, and hardly ever hangs off things. Those two little holes were the only evidence I had that he used to be that little daredevil. And now they’re gone, smoothed over. Erased.

Those two holes were proof that a real family lives in this house. It’s a family that’s been too busy being happy to waste time fixing every hole that appeared while we bumped and danced our way through the chambers of this heart disguised as a home.

It’s all made me realize that while I’ve longed for a more perfect house, there are trade-offs. When you smooth things over too much, you lose something. Hospital corners and perfectly taped wall seams please the eye, but they don’t do much for the heart.

Naturally,  this reminds me a lot of writing. I’ve been in my MFA program for a year and a half now, and two weeks ago I completed the draft of my thesis novel. I’ve given myself a couple of weeks off to let the story marinate, but soon I’ll return to it to begin the long, harrowing process of revision. There’s a lot riding on this book. Not only is it how I will earn my MFA, but it’s also, hopefully, the next book I will have published. It’s risky because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever written before. It’s, to use a trite phrase, a book from the heart.

What I’m saying is disaster could be imminent (in writing it always feels that way), and so every time I think of this book–this book of my heart–I think about its imperfections.: the lazy prose, the leaps in logic, the clunky metaphors–the usual first draft stuff. But there are other imperfections. This is the first time I’ve written a multiple POV third person novel. It’s the first time I’ve written this genre, which I’m calling “Appalachian Gothic.” Purists might be able to nitpick my approaches to the techniques and tropes. They’ll say I’ve broken The Rules.

But here’s the thing I’m realizing: All those “mistakes” might just be proof that someone real has lived inside that story. We talk so much about polishing our drafts and editing, which are very important, but we must be vigilant that in our efforts to polish the products of our hearts and minds that we do not erase all signs of experimentation and messy truths, or the love. Art is not about hospital corners and smooth walls. It’s about taking risks and throwing yourself against the walls and exposing your stained carpets and scabby dry wall to the world.

It’s not something we talk much about in the popular fiction world. We talk about The Business and What’s Hot in the Market. But I maintain that the best genre fiction is the kind that takes the limitations of convention and uses them to create something new and exciting. Art doesn’t come from abundance and endless options. It comes from scarcity and limitations. It’s about using what you’ve got in a creative new way–whether you’re talking about creating a new piece of music from a limited range of notes or painting using a limited color palette or creating a new kind of story using the conventions of a specific genre.

My point is that you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment, and when you revise, don’t polish it so much that it loses its personality. That personality might just be your voice. Do you want to sound like everyone else? Do you want all of your story walls to look perfect and smooth and be the same neutral color as all of your colleague’s story walls?

Maybe you do. Maybe that’s the safest route, and there’s really nothing wrong with that. Plenty of writers earn very respectable livings by producing neutral stories that deliver pleasing symmetry and smooth walls to readers who want that sort of reliable reading experience. Lord knows, a “house” with holes in the walls and mystifying paint colors are a tougher sell.

The hardest lesson I have learned in the last two years is that success isn’t guaranteed on either path. Markets shift on a dime, readers’ tastes are fickle, and writing is too fucking hard to do it without making sure it satisfies something inside of you. Personally, I’d rather fall on my face with a book that’s got part of my soul in it than become a millionaire writing beige stories. I have friends who have the total opposite approach. It works for them, and I’m happy for any writer who finds a way to be happy in this career. Every writer has to make that choice for themselves, and there’s no right answer that fits everyone. Whatever path you choose, just do it with intention, is all I’m saying. Also, understand that both paths are hard.

But even if you choose the neutral path, don’t be afraid to add a pop of color here and there: a decorative throw pillow in the form of a character who goes against stereotypes, an accent wall in the form of a plot twist, or a beloved ding in the walls that you don’t take out because it’s what made you fall in love with that world to begin with. Show your readers that a real person lived in that story and that while you lived there you had a hell of a time.

Craft Thursday: Let Go of Your Story

Warning: I’m about to get Zen on your asses. You’ve been warned.

As writers, we’re hardwired for telling stories. It is the greatest gift as well as the great burden of this writing life.

You already know it’s a gift or you wouldn’t keep doing it. You’ve already experienced the heady rush of writing a really great sentence and the adrenaline high of seeing a rough idea blossom into a gorgeous story. You crave those moments when you get lost in your story–when time loses meaning and suddenly you feel connected to something larger than yourself. Your non-writing friends may smile and nod politely when you wax eloquently about these moments, but they’ll never really understand unless, they too, have discovered their own life’s passion.

We know stories are a gift we give ourselves before we ever share them with the world.

But sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge that stories can also hurt us.

An example:

Sometimes, when I’ve been inside my writing cave alone too long and I haven’t heard from my agent or editor, I imagine that they are at lunch cackling over what a hack I am. Or they’re shaking their heads and bemoaning how I once showed such potential but boy did I disappoint them. I mutter to myself and shove chocolate in my face and I hate the book I’m writing because they’re right–I am a hack. I’ve peaked. There’s nothing left for me.

Then the next day I’ll get a really nice email from my agent or my editor and everything is fine. They’ve been busy with other clients. I’m not–shockingly–the center of their world, but that doesn’t mean a damned thing about my worth as a human or a writer. Of course it doesn’t. The rational me knows this. But my imagination isn’t rational.

The lesson? Because we write fiction, we are experts in finding worst case scenarios and embellishing them. This is a problem when we use those powers for evil in our own lives.

But there are other ways stories can hurt us.

For more than a year, I’ve been practicing yoga. I’ve been blessed with a really wonderful teacher who has also become my friend. She teaches yoga teachers, so she knows her stuff. At some point in the past year, she said something about not grasping too tightly to our own stories. I’ve thought about what that meant for a while now. It’s not easy to practice contentment with not being in control, but I’m trying.
In Buddhism, there’s a lot of discussion about grasping versus releasing. Our problem is that we believe we have control, so we grasp tightly to preconceived ideas about how things should be or how we want them to be. Reconciling reality against what we imagine reality should be is the source of a lot of pain in the world.

Okay, look, I understand that invoking Buddhism and yoga might have lost some of you, but stick with me a minute because this is important.

We create stories about how our Writer Story must go. We plot out elaborate sequences and world build and self-myhtologize to the point where our expectations are so out of whack that the only possible outcome is disappointment.

The stories we tell ourselves about how this career should look keep us from loving it, and sometimes those stories even make us hate the thing we love: writing.

The thing I want you to take away from this post is that maybe the reality of your writing life could be even better than the writing life you want. Maybe if you stopped grasping so hard for the outcome you want, you’d find the one you need–the deep need that brought you to the page in the first place.

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You can either be a rock rooted in the creekbed, trying in vain to redirect the flow of water around you and resenting the rocks further downstream. Or you can be the water, flowing over and around the rocks on a glorious adventure toward who knows where.

I’ve seen fame and success destroy people. I’ve seen disappointment chase talented people away from writing altogether. What I’m saying is, writing can be a journey that challenges and changes you for the better or a soul-crushing struggle toward a golden city you may never reach (and even if you did reach it, chances are, you wouldn’t find happiness there). I’m not against success by any means, but I also have been in this business long enough to know that the truest rewards of writing are not tied to outcomes. Instead they are tied to the process of writing and the growth we gain from seeking truth through our stories.

Stop worshiping your own mythology. Let go of your story about who you should be. Start being present on the journey. May it take you someplace amazing.

 

 

The Habits of Happy Writers

Lately, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this writing life. It’s hard to ignore the upheaval in the industry and the number of authors abandoning traditional publishing–or writing altogether–because they’re not happy. But you want to know a secret? When you hang out with independent authors, they do the same thing the rest of us do–they bitch about writing, they angst about their careers and their stress levels Granted, they also talk about how much money they’re making and how much freedom they have, but it’s not like they’re all finally like, “Hey, writing makes me happy.”

Here’s the thing: None of this is new. There’s a long and rich literary tradition of the tortured writer. There’s a reason we’re all thought to be drunks and crazies. Some might say it’s a chicken or the egg argument: Did writing make us crazy or does writing attract crazies?

There’s little in the act of writing that fosters a feeling of security. Sometimes you’ll have glorious days when the stars align and you spend a few delirious hours in The Zone or write a passage of prose that is brilliant and down-to-the-marrow true. But usually, it’s an unglamorous slog through page after page while constantly worrying that the story won’t come together, or your editor will hate it, or your readers will hate it, or, or, or …

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Beyond the somewhat bipolar existence of creation, there’s the absolutely erratic and fickle nature of the publishing business. Writers have some control but not much. It’s not uncommon for a writer to work their ass off and write a great book only to have some experimental pricing scheme by their publisher, a major retailer, a tanking genre, or a bad release date torpedo that book’s chances of success. Then, once the book comes out, you’re barraged with reviews and comments and emails by people who don’t know you personally but have no problem saying incredibly personal and insulting things about your life’s work.

Please don’t misunderstand. The writing life has a lot going for it. The truth is that this life wouldn’t break my heart so often if I didn’t love it so much. I love writing. I love, as James Michener said, “the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” I love books and reading. I love book people, including my colleagues, editors, agents, and booksellers. I love meeting readers and being invited into their lives just because I managed to entertain them by spinning a yarn. I feel very blessed and lucky that I’ve managed to have the career I’ve had so far.

This is where someone will say, “Boohoo! No one forced you to be a writer. You knew what you were getting into!”

Well, yes and no. I did chose this. But I did not know what I was getting into. No one does. This comic gets pretty close to showing what it’s like. But even though I chose the life, and regardless of whether I knew what I was getting into, I am in this life. Writing isn’t just my job. It’s my lifestyle. It’s as part of me as being a mother or a wife is. Walking away from it would be as painful as divorcing my husband or sending my kid to be raised by someone else. I complain about it because I want to have a happier relationship with it than the dysfunctional one it has become.

I was thinking about all of this the other night wen I watched Twenty Feet from Stardom, a documentary about backup singers. Merry Clayton, who sang backup on The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”, as well as some of the other biggest songs of the era, commented on her lack of success as a solo artist:

I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”  

When I heard those words and heard the catch in Clayton’s voice as she spoke, I had a corresponding dip in my gut. This, I think, is at the crux of so much suffering for creative types. We’re told that if we work hard and are talented we’ll be successful.

Alas.

I recognize that this may sound childish. After all, no one is guaranteed success regardless of industry. Luck plays an uncomfortably large role in everyone’s lives. But we like to look for patterns. When our friends hit lists and score movie deals we try to figure what they did that we did not do. We wonder how we can shift our plans to increase the possibility of luck blessing us with its golden rays. We keep gambling on luck. We keep hoping that the next book will be THE BOOK.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in my own career, it’s that the Next Big Book mentality is a recipe for heartache. As I’ve said in the past, the writing life is not the work of weeks or months, but the work of years and decades–it’s the work of a lifetime. How, then, do we craft this life so that our happiness is not tied to the success or failure of an individual project? How do we shape our habits so that we can be happy day-to-day, week-to-week in this work of a lifetime?

1. Redefine success. I’ve said a million times that if you judge success as a writer based on income 95% of writers are miserable failures. You get to define what success means to you. Remember to make it quantifiable and within your control otherwise you’re making wishes, not goals.

2. Create habits that foster contentment. This year I started doing yoga a minimum of three times a week and I meditate often. These mindfulness practices help me battle my natural tendency toward anxiety. They also remind me to stay connected to the people in my life who love me regardless of the kinds of reviews my books get.

3. Spend less time online. Social media has lots of great things going for it for writers. But it can also be a huge energy vampire for us. Several days a week for the last few months, I have logged into Twitter or Facebook in the morning to see links to news or commentary by one of my colleagues on the Amazon-Hachette feud. How much writing do you think I got done on those days? That’s just one example. We have all had days ruined by shit online. Trivial shit, important shit, shit that had nothing to do with us but still altered our mental weather system. Choose your time online wisely.

4. Foster other interests. Writing started as a hobby for me when I was a stay at home mom. Writing time was my reward at the end of the day or during my son’s nap time. It was an escape and a joy. But then it became my job and suddenly I didn’t have anything I got to do just for fun. Now I cook and I do yoga, but for years I had no interests outside of writing. It consumed everything–hell, writing conferences were my only vacations. Not only does this make you a workaholic, it also makes you pretty boring. Have something else you can do that doesn’t have pressure attached to it.

5. Play. A few years ago I did a class based on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. You can buy the book and go through the steps on your own, but I enjoyed having the classroom set up. Regardless, the best part of Cameron’s techniques for rediscovering your creativity was the concept of artist dates. These are opportunities you create for yourself to go do fun and creative things. During the class, I took myself on some cool artist dates. The point of them is to remember to play and also to get out of your comfort zone a little. Also, remember that play is the fuel of creativity. Remember to have fun when you’re writing instead of verbally abusing yourself and driving your muse like a task master. Trust me, your writing will thrive much better if you enjoy it.

6. Get help. A friend sat me down yesterday and told me it’s time to get a virtual assistant. For the last several years I’ve been managing to write multiple books a year and overseeing every aspect of my marketing efforts, which results in a really inconsistent shotgun approach but also a lot of stress as I try to keep all the plates spinning. Identify the areas that cause you stress or keep you from writing and see if you can abandon them or farm them out to someone. This is especially true for anything that causes you undue stress or that is a trigger for insecurity or an inability to write (like reading reviews or social media, etc). If you’re short on money, maybe there’s a trade you can arrange with an organized family member or friend. The point is, none of us is a superhero. Sometimes we need help. Our first job is writing, and if all the other tasks of being published are keeping that from happening, find someone who can help you.

I guess the bottom line is that writing won’t make you happy. Money and best seller lists won’t make you happy. Happiness comes from within and doing the work of getting happy is important. A happy writer will weather the roller coaster of the writerly life with more calm that one that depends on money and fame for self worth.

I don’t claim to have all this figured out, and I’ll admit one of my reasons for posting this is to hear how other authors deal with these issues. If you’ve got some happiness habits, I’d love to hear them in comments!

 

 

Alchemy and The Prospero’s War Series

Even with all the blog posts I’ve written about the Prospero’s War series, it occurred to me this weekend I never wrote anything about the stages of alchemy. See, the magic in the series is loosely based on alchemy (called “bathtub alchemy” in the books). Loosely basing it gave me a lot of leeway, but I still had to do a ton of research into alchemy in order to make the magic believable. Unlike other forms of magic, alchemy has a long, documented history and, as a psuedo-science, has some basis in scientific fact versus more arcane or mystical magic systems.

Because I knew next to nothing about alchemy, I started with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy to become familiar with the basic concepts and nomenclature. I moved on to more esoteric texts after (see list below), but the most important book ended up being not about alchemy as a science, but alchemy as a metaphor.

See, the coolest thing about alchemy is it’s a multi-layered concept. On the surface it’s a pseudo-science used to turn lead into gold. But alchemists weren’t merely scientists, they were believers. Thus, alchemy has a rich symbolic language, i.e. the language of birds, and uses many archetypes and metaphors that use alchemical processes to explore the theme of human individuation. Enter: Anatomy of the Psyche by Edward Edinger.

Edinger was a psychiatrist who was a preeminent Jungian analyst who taught at the C. G. Jung Institute. In the book, he breaks down each of the major steps of alchemy through analysis of the prevailing archetypes and symbols associated with it and uses them to explore the symbolic meanings of myths and the dreams of his patients. Further, it used each stage to explore the idea of self individuation, which, if you’ve studied any Joseph Campbell (also a student of Jung) you know that myths are symbolic representations of the journey a human takes to evolve into their true self. It was reading this book that gave me the spark for one of the biggest ideas in the Prospero’s War series.

I decided to base each book in the series on a different alchemical process.

Doing this accomplished several goals at once. First, it provided me with a framework for each story because I’d have a preset list of symbols and themes to explore in each story. Second, it gave me a really nice progression of character growth for Kate. Third, it allowed me to do something I really enjoy, which is taking preexisting myths and symbols and twisting them in a new way.

A side note about alchemical processes: Depending on your source, there are anywhere from three to one hundred and nine (!) stages in alchemical transformation. In addition, depending on the source, the stages can occur in different orders. To simplify things, I chose a seven-stage formula because Edinger and several other alchemical sources identified them as the major stages.

Seven Stages of Alchemy (from Anatomy of the Psyche)

1. Calcinatio

2. Solutio

3. Caogulatio

4. Sublimatio

5. Mortificatio

6. Separatio

7. Conunctio

For a complete list of symbolic correspondences for each stage, click here.

While I used Edinger’s list of processes, I varied the order based on the progression I felt was best for the stories. Thus, Dirty Magic is based on Calcination and Cursed Moon (out Aug. 12) is based on Solutio, but Deadly Spells (out Feb. 2015) is based on Separatio.

Since CURSED MOON is the next book out, I thought I’d list the major theme words associated with the story. But first, here’s the book blurb:

When a rare Blue Moon upsets the magical balance in the city, Detective Kate Prospero and her Magic Enforcement colleagues pitch in to help Babylon PD keep the peace. Between potions going haywire and emotions running high, every cop in the city is on edge. But the moon’s impact is especially strong for Kate, who’s wrestling with guilt over her use of illegal magic.

As I mentioned, Cursed Moon is based on the alchemical stage of Solutio.

Here is a list of words associated with the Solutio (also called the Dissolution) stage:

Water, Blue, white, Id, subconscious, emotional blockages, nightmares, moon, excess, greed, Dionysus, tears, intoxication, stalking, personal power, sexuality, sea.

Contained in that list is the plot for this book, as well as the key’s to understand Kate Prospero’s personal story arc for the novel. You might not knowing it from the list alone, but I guarantee if you read the book and then come back to read this post, you’ll have a major AHA moment.

Working with this sort of symbolic riddle for each book is really fun, and, I think, results in a really layered and rich story. If you’d like to learn more about alchemy as I’ve discussed it here, check out the following books and web sites.

Books:

  • Anatomy of the Psyche by Edward Edinger
  • Ego and Archetype by Edward Edinger
  • Real Alchemy by Robert Allen Bartlett
  • Spagyrics: The Alchemical Preparation of Medicinal Essences, Tinctures, and Elixirs by Manfred M. Junius
  • The Herbal Alchemist’s Handbook by Karen Harrison
  • The Alchemist’s Handbook by Frater Albertus
  • The Path of Alchemy: Energetic Healing and the World of Natural Magic by Mark Stavish
  • The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy by Dennis Hauck
  • The Alchemists’ Kitchen: Extraordinairy Potions and Curious Notions by Guy Ogilvy

Web sites:

On the Language of Birds 

AlchemyLab.com: Great resource for alchemical information, including the chart of correspondences for each stage listed in this post

Alchemical and Archaic Chemistry Terms: Huge glossary of nomenclature

The Chymistry of Isaac Newton: A University of Indiana at Bloomington project on the alchemical experiments of Sir Isaac Newton