Tag Archives: Lisa DiDio

Piece of Cake

Actually, the whole darned thing. I’m not prone to eating cakes, much less photographing them. But when my friend Kristina brought this over to celebrate one of life’s smaller milestones, I simply couldn’t resist because, oh, the artistry and the whimsy. Check it out:

It’s a hatbox!!

Turn it around, and see the spill of frosted flowers and leaves slipping beneath the tilted lid.

Lift the lid, and find the delectable treasures inside, waiting to be savored.

This pretty little cake was a treat for the eyes and the tongue and that milestone felt so well marked and honored, which brings me to the real point of this post.

Celebrate the small stuff.

Big goals take a long time to achieve. Sometimes, it can feel like you’ll never, ever make it. You get disheartened, lose the faith. When you feel that happening, step back, take a look at what you have accomplished, what you’ve learned, how many rungs you’ve climbed on your way to the top – whatever the top is for you. Take a moment to appreciate how far you‘ve come rather than focusing on the seemingly interminable road ahead. Then treat yourself to a glass of bubbly, a cup of great tea, lunch with a friend or a nice piece of cake.  Celebrate your progress and your efforts; reward yourself for the accomplishments, all the jobs well done along the route. You deserve it. We all do.

Lisa

The Heart Path

Follow your bliss.

It sounds so easy

until you try it and you realize

the path is dark

littered with doubts and discouragement

so you pick your way carefully

ignoring the choir of crickets

chanting you cannot

or you should not

calling you a fool

for taking the risk

for throwing yourself into the river

and daring not to sink.

It isn’t easy

to take this road;

you know, the one less travelled.

But the farther you go

the smoother the path becomes

the surer your footing

and soon you’re running, sprinting

through patches of sunlight

singing yes to the sky.

I want to tell you it stays like this

but all roads have potholes

unexpected turns

moments of uncertainty;

there will still be shadows

you will stumble, trip, fall

skin knees, bruise ego

lose heart

lose faith

lose courage

…and find them again.

Because although it isn’t easy

this chasing of bliss

once you have captured it, tasted it

once you have danced

the path of the heart

once you have soared

there is no turning back.

© Lisa DiDio, do not reprint

The End – Part 3 of 3

You’ve done it, or rather you’ve almost done it. You’re almost done with your book. But here’s the most important part – the end.

This is the make or break, your readers have been engaged this far and you really don’t want to let them down. But what to do? How do you get through to the end? I’ve heard this referred to as the “writer’s event horizon”, the “long-slog”, that place where everything can either come together or completely fall apart on you.

Welcome to the beginning of the end.

K.B.

Oh the end, the glorious end! The rush! That headlong slide toward the final epic battle. Or the big reveal. Or the cliffhanger. Or-

*laughs sheepishly*

The end is where Lisa usually yanks on my chain, bringing me up short like an out-of-control puppy. *grins* I am notorious for rushing through the end of my novel, crazy and wild-eyed, desperate to finish. I tend to forget about the details, the important wrap-up of loose ends, and little things like grammar.

When I hit the “end” of the book, I tend toward extremes. I’ll either have to just write the hell out of it and hope I can fix things in edits because the story is screaming at me to write it down. Or I come to a screeching halt and stare warily at the end of my novel like a poisonous snake, unsure about how to take it down without getting killed in the process.

The rush option obviously doesn’t have much of a plan other than to throw myself in headfirst and hope for the best. *laughs*

When I do the other path though, I:

1)    Revisit the outline – I like to make sure that I’ve got things in order, that all my loose ends are wrapped up and the readers aren’t going to have a “what the hell?” moment after they read the last word.

2)    Revisit my character motivations – to make sure that everyone is behaving the way they would and not just doing what I want to make the ending fit.

3)    Explore my options – I’m not always locked into an ending for a novel. I learned early on that it’s a good idea to be fluid with your resolution because trying to write toward a specific ending can really mess you up. If I’m not sure how it should end I’ll sometimes sketch out two or three endings and see which one fits the best.

Kate:

Over the years, I’ve probably written somewhere around a two hundred stories, novellas, and novels. And it took maybe half of those before I figured out how The End worked for me.

You’ll know already from our earlier blogs on this topic that I’m a complete fogwalker. I don’t know what the next sentence or chapter is going to be, let alone The End. But there is a place in every single story—from the shortest to the longest—where a decision has to be made about what will happen at The End.

That spot happens despite the fact that I still don’t know the ending, but when I first started writing, I could get stuck at that spot for weeks. And it truly is a spot. It might be as small a spot as a single sentence or as big a spot as a paragraph.

But once that sentence or paragraph is written, The End is implicit in those few words. I don’t know what it is, I only know that I’m rushing toward it.

So this is what happens to me at The Damn Spot (which I what I call it), which, oddly enough, is what constitutes The End for me. Because once I get through The Damn Spot, The End is easy.

1.   First, and most importantly, I have to figure out that I’ve reached The Damn Spot. Occasionally, I figure that out very quickly. Mostly, I don’t. I’ll just keep writing, unhappy and uncomfortable with what’s happening and not knowing why.

2.   Eventually, I do figure it out because it’s not often I get stuck like that anywhere else. Once I figure it out, the next step is easy. I will rewrite the sentence (or paragraph) until it feels right. Occasionally, that takes me three or four tries. More often, it takes me ten or twenty or even fifty tries and I’ve learned to stop fretting about that because it works.

3.   When I get The Damn Spot right, I just keep writing until I reach The End. And how do I know it’s The End?

4.   The End comes to me and I’m there. Right there. No waiting. No worrying. No fretting. The End is The End. I don’t see it coming, I don’t plan for it, it just arrives. Full blown like the richest, most aromatic rose of summer. It’s a miracle.

Lisa:

As usual, I’m somewhere between Kate and Katy on the spectrum. I almost always know how I want the story to end when I first start writing, and I almost always realize – typically about two-thirds of the way through – that I’m not far enough along in the story to have the original ending I envisioned actually BE the ending. (It’s a good thing I write series, as the “original ending” generally works its way in somewhere else in the arc.)

Once the realization hits me – usually with a loud oh shit – I have two choices. A) Rework things so that I can use that original ending or B) Acknowledge that my subconscious knows what it’s doing, let that scene go and move along, trusting myself to find the way to the Real Ending.

I never take option A. 🙂

So how do I get from Oh Shit to The End?

1)  Like Katy, I sit with my characters for a bit and make sure their choices and motivations are in line with their authentic (albeit fictional) selves. Then I check for stray threads, messy plotlines and unresolved questions that need to be answered.

2)  I keep writing, keep moving forward in blind faith that at some point, the Last Line will manifest. It may materialize in the middle of the night or when I’m driving or taking a shower, but suddenly, it’s just there. I may not understand it completely (since I’m not tuned in to all that will precede it) but I recognize it for what it is. I write it down and set it aside, but I never forget it. It hovers around me like an aura, whispering its delicious secrets, urging me on – and making me a little nervous.

3)  Now there is a plan, something I must work toward, so  at that point, I do something I rarely do throughout the rest of the book: I start vaguely mapping out the remaining chapters in terms of What I Think Must Happen. This knowing is partly based on my notes from step one, but gut instincts play a big part in it, too. (Gut instincts always play a big part in my writing process; I’ve learned to trust them implicitly over the years.)

4)  Once I have my “skeleton” outline, I make like Kate and just keep writing until one day, my fingers are on the keys, typing away and the Last Line appears on the page. Then the cork popping ensues!

 Your turn, peeps. Tell us how you wrangle the monster named The End.

A Perfect Day

My husband and I had a wonderful mini-getaway this month. We drove down to San Francisco on a Friday morning to see the current show at the Legion of Honor.

Fog season is over and the weather was stunningly gorgeous. The view didn’t suck, either.

I didn’t know much about Man Ray or Lee Miller before I saw the exhibit, but the description in the museum magazine sounded interesting, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I love focused exhibits, particularly if they’re set up to tell a story about the artist(s) or the period or both, as was the case here. The show was divided into four sequential galleries. The first three showcased their work and their lives before Miller became Ray’s student/muse/lover, their photographs and art from the period when they were working and living together, and their individual works in the aftermath of their dramatic breakup. The fourth featured pieces from some of their friends and fellow surrealists, including paintings of Lee Miller by Picasso and Dora Maar. There were so many interesting pieces, but what I loved best was the narrative surrounding the works. The story of these two brilliant, creative people and how their relationship – first as lovers then, after a brief estrangement, as lifelong friends and confidants – shaped and framed their work absolutely fascinated me, and the companion shows were also terrific.

René Bouché’s Letters from Post-War Paris featured his “letters”, written when Vogue Magazine sent him back home to Paris to cover the first post-war couture shows. The letters are accompanied by sketches and watercolors, many of which were later published in Vogue. Bouché was distressed to see his people struggling to rebuild their lives, so his words and his seemingly whimsical images felt shadowed with nostalgia and bitterness.

In the tiny gallery right next to the café was Marcel Duchamp, The Book and the Box.  I loved Duchamp’s “readymades”, his idea of a portable museum, with several pieces of art enclosed in a valise or a box. So cool.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as a bad day in a museum. But this one was particularly awesome, and we capped it off with a late lunch and a delicious glass of pinot grigio out on the sunny patio, overlooking the sea. Like I said, a perfect day!

Lisa

The Sagging Middle

And, no, we’re not talking about the change that arrives with middle age. Last week, Lisa, K.B., and I talked about the things each of us needed to begin a new book. Now we’re going to talk about how we get through—and what we need—for that sagging middle.

The part of the novel between the beginning (which might be as much as five or seven chapters) and the end (which might be as little as a single chapter and as much as four or five chapters) is called all kinds of names: the tricky middle, the sagging middle, the middle-of-the-novel mud, the great expanse. But for almost everyone, the middle (also the longest part of the book) is the hardest part.

Here’s a list of each of our techniques for dealing with the mud in the middle.

KATE:

The middle for me is a great expanse of mud. It’s where I get stuck in the dirty muck of routine—or at least that’s how it feels to me. The beginning is pure joy, making me feel as if I’m flying and everything is going right. The end, while sometimes complicated, is so satisfying that the complications don’t seem to matter. But the middle?

It’s hell.

I’m a fogwalker, so I don’t have anything to fall back on when I get stuck. I don’t have an outline, don’t have character sketches, don’t have a page count or the slightest idea of what’s going to happen next. So what do I do?

I fall back on faith. I’ve gotten through that mud dozens and dozens of times, finished dozens and dozens of stories and novels and novellas, so I believe I can do it. Mostly.

When faith in the process isn’t enough, I try:

1.         Going for a walk. That often jogs loose the thing—that all important thing—I need to carry on. Walking on the beach is best, but any long walk might work. I can’t be thinking about the thing, that just makes it harder. So I think about grocery shopping or what I have to do for the rest of the week or what movie I want to see or book I want to read.

2.         Talking to a friend, usually a writer, though not always. Sometimes talking is enough of a distraction that when I sit back down to write again, the next line, the line, is there.

3.         Reading the previous three or four chapters out loud. This gets me solidly into the voice and the rhythm and then I just keep on keeping on. Or at least I hope I do.

4.         The one thing that always works? I sit down with my yellow lined newsprint pad and my perfect pen and I start writing by hand. That physicality seems to funnel the words through a different part of my brain and out the end of my fingertips. I might have to do this once, or twice, or when it’s really muddy, a dozen times before I come out at the end of it.
LISA:

Like Kate, I’m a fogwalker, though I tend to have somewhat better visibility. I usually have a sense of what’s coming in the next chapter or two, and I generally have two or three scenes or events in mind when I start a book, though I don’t have a clue about when they’ll happen. I’ve tried reading through from the beginning of the book when I get stuck, but that tends to throw me into editing mode, never a good thing for me in the initial writing phase.

And, really, I don’t get stuck as often as I get lost; the trees get so thick I lose sight of the forest. It’s not unusual for me to hit the 45K mark (or thereabouts) and panic, thinking OMG, nothing’s happening, this isn’t even a book! What the hell is this mess?

So for me, that squishy middle ground is the place where I turn to my trusty companions, the cherished few who read along as I create. When they tell me “the pacing is great” or “yes, this is a book”, or “tons of stuff is happening”, I believe them. Because, chances are, they remember what I’ve written better than I do at that point, and they’ve always been able to talk me down off the ledge.

When I do feel stuck somewhere along the way, when I can’t make a scene work or figure out what comes next, I’ll try the following:

  1. Go for a walk or a drive, or take a trip to the grocery store. I’ll put my playlist on my iPod or the car stereo and turn it low, letting it feed the back of my brain where the story lives. I’ll endeavour not to think directly about the work, but I’ll let it play around the edges of my mind until something bubbles up – or shakes out – and triggers the great Ah hah!
  2. Brainstorm. Sometimes, I think my mouth uplinks directly to the Muse and talking things through with someone is often the best way for me to get unstuck.
  3. Take a creative break. Go to a museum, get out the paints, mess with some clay, read a bunch of poetry, watch a play or a good movie. When the story isn’t driving me to the computer at every free minute, it usually means I’ve derailed myself and need some perspective (which only comes with time away from the screen) or that I’m running on empty and need some kind of inspirational recharge.
  4. Talk to my characters. Yes, I talk to them, often aloud. And they talk back, usually in the middle of the night when the cat wakes me up to be let outside. Story, for me, arises from character, so it pays to trust them, to listen to them and let their choices, thoughts, actions and reactions drive the plot. If I’m stuck, it’s usually because I’m not listening, not trusting, not allowing their stories to unfold organically. And that never ends well.

 

K.B.

I’m apparently the oddball of the group. (I’m sure you’re all surprised by this.) I do not have a lot of issues with sagging middle. *shows off writerly six-pack*

Ha! I’m kidding, sort of. I really don’t have a huge issue with writing the middle of stories. Those are the points where I usually hit my stride and power my way through. My issues are more often found in the beginning or about three quarters of the way through the book.

However, I do hit the occasional stumbling block, and when I do here’s what works best for me.

  1. Outline! Normally I’m a fogwalker. I let the characters take the lead and run the show. But I do have a habit when I hit mid-book (stuck or not) of going back to reread everything I’ve written. I’ve found this doesn’t slow me up, but rather helps me solidify the plot and various sub-plots, clear out any messes, take note of loose threads that have to be woven back in, and to do some foreshadowing.
  2. Brainstorm! Talking to my CPs or other trusted friends about what’s going on in the story. Normally that will knock something loose in my brain, but if it doesn’t I turn to…
  3. Fight Club! *laughs* Or more accurately hitting the heavy bag, hitting the trail, or anything involving a lot of effort and sweat. I turn the music up loud and put my body on autopilot so my brain can work through the problem.

Of course, sometimes none of those things will help and I still can’t figure out a way out of the mudslog that can be the middle of a manuscript. That’s when I pull out my secret weapon.

  1. Explosions! That’s right, when in doubt blow something up. Shoot someone, kill off a trusted character, have your MC’s life/plans/brain fall completely apart. Cause a little conflict. Have a plan go horribly awry. Have the pit viper in your characters’ midst strike. Anything to further the plot of your story and to get your reader to say: “Augh! Crap! I was gonna go to bed but now I have to find out if they’re going to survive this volcano.”

*grins* Trust me, nothing helps like an explosion.

In The Beginning

I’m a lucky woman. Kate and K.B. aren’t just two of my best friends. I have close working relationships with both of them and, therefore, I just so happen to know that all three of us are starting new projects right now. Beginning new books. It sounds daunting, doesn’t it? The blank page, the first word, the abyss of 90K stretching out endlessly before you, it can all feel so overwhelming, so thrilling but scary. But fears are easier to manage once they’re shared (or so I’ve heard).

So here it is: Our take on getting started. How we do it. What we need in order for it to happen. How we feel when we’re sitting at our computers, hands hovering over the keyboard, waiting to write the first few words. How/when we know we’ve hit a project that will last past the first ten pages and carry us off on a grand adventure.

We hope it helps you with your beginnings. And we hope you’ll share a bit about your process, too.

Lisa, Kate and K.B.

LISA:

Naturally, it begins with an idea, though in my case, “kick upside the head” is more to the point. My ideas don’t creep in softly; they gobsmack me, often right when I wake up from a deep, seemingly dreamless sleep. The ideas are vague things, concepts really, though sometimes there are characters lurking at the edges, holding up those signs you see limo drivers flashing at airports. They want me to climb in, go for a ride, let them take me where they will, and who am I to argue?

This leads to me scribbling a half-page or so of random notes and shooting off e-mails to Kate and K.B. (I won’t read those notes again until after I’ve written the book. So why bother writing them down? Because it’s funny to read them afterwards; they so rarely have anything to do with the final project.) Then I brush off my hands and file the idea in the back of my brain to let it percolate, since I’m always in the middle of some other project when the Muse strikes.

Sometimes, the ideas fade quietly in the interim. That’s a good thing, a writer’s version of natural selection. Other ideas stick, pestering me like a deep splinter, working their way to the surface until they simply won’t be ignored any longer. How do I know when I’m onto something good? I get a strange, tingly sensation on the top of my head whenever I think about/talk about a new project. (No really. My crown chakra buzzes, the same way it does when I have a profound spiritual or emotional realization.) I’m not one to disregard my intuition, so when that starts to happen, when the characters wake up and start whispering (or shouting) in my head, I take a deep breath, clear the desk, roll my sleeves and get myself geared up.

Things I Need to Begin a New Book:

1)      Whiteboard space. I’m a huge scribbler and I never use notebooks. I like to see the writing on the wall, preferably in colorful, fruit-scented dry-erase ink.

2)      Faces. It’s a trick I learned in Screenwriting 101. Cast your script before you write it. It makes visualizing your characters – and describing them – so much easier. You can use Pinterest to keep track of your cast if you like; I prefer pinning pictures on corkboard.

3)      A skeleton playlist. This will undoubtedly grow and expand as I work; most of my playlists shoot past the hundred song mark, especially if I’m writing a series. But to begin, I need a handful of songs that set the tone and capture the mood I’m hoping to set with the story.

4)      A title. I really hate starting without one. I can do it – and I have – but it bugs me.

5)      Location. I can’t write a story without knowing where it will take place. Ideally, the setting is a place I’ve actually visited, but if it isn’t, I’ll spend a day or two surfing travel blogs, reading official city web pages, studying maps, looking at photos on the web, trying to get a sense of the flavor of the place because for me, as a writer and a reader, setting always informs the story on some level.

6)      The first line. Obviously, I can’t begin without it and I’m not one for writing a false start and then going back to insert the real beginning during edits. I know that works for some folks, but not for me.

KATE:

It’s difficult to follow Lisa because my process is so different and yet, in some ways, so much the same. I spend a whole lot of time envying her because she’s so clear about what she needs, how it works, and articulating it to others. That’s much more difficult for me, for a whole bunch of reasons.

But the first and most important reason is this.

I am the ultimate fogwalker and, because it’s worked for many years, I hate to do anything that might change it. So I’m uncomfortable—and more than a bit superstitious—when talking about my process. But I’m going to do it.

I’ll begin with the concept of fogwalking. For me, that means I have absolutely NO idea of what’s going to happen next. I don’t know what the next sentence is going to be, or where it’s going to lead me, let alone where the next paragraph or chapter will take me. I simply sit down and start writing. I might do that with a pen and paper or on my computer, but the process is the same. Get myself into the Zone and write. I can’t tell you what the Zone is, or even how I get there, but it’s important. It’s the only thing that is and it’s miserable—both for me at times and for you—that I’m unable to tell you what it is or how I get there. But I can’t. Or perhaps it’s more that I won’t. I’m scared that if I figure those things out, if I intellectualize them, they won’t work for me anymore. So I don’t.

So there are no notes for me, not even the vaguest of outlines. That would stop me from writing, and has done so many times. My process, if you can call it that, seems to be fixed in stone. And it’s a stone big and heavy enough that I can’t shift it.

Things I Need to Begin a New Story (I’m not saying book because I write a lot of short stories and novellas, as well as novels):

1)      Words. Everything begins for me with words; generally a phrase or a short sentence. I don’t know why this is, but it is. I have many directories in my computer that are simply that—a phrase or a couple of words that will one day turn into a story. I find these everywhere. Sometimes I make them up, sometimes I see them in a magazine, a story, or written on a wall as graffiti. It’s all about the rhythm, I think.

2)      Pen and paper: I begin every story by hand because, in the beginning, it takes time to get into it and I type too fast and get bored too easily when my hands are on the keyboard and I’m waiting for something to happen. I use, mostly, a very specific type of pen and paper—the pen is a uniball that flows easily (blue, never black) and a pad of yellow lined newsprint.

3)      Title: This goes back to the first point. My title is often, though not always, that phrase or those couple of words that have fascinated me. When that’s not true, I might write a big piece of the story without a title, because I’m waiting for it to come to me as I write.

4)      A feeling:  I know, I know, this doesn’t make any sense but I think it’s a big part of the Zone. Whatever the feeling is—and no, I can’t articulate it, even to myself—I sink into it when I’m writing well. Oh, and to make matters more complicated, it’s different for each story.

5)      Characters:  They come with the words, with the voice that begins the story (notice I don’t say I begin the story)– and now that I’m thinking about it, maybe the words are simply a way for my fingers to translate whatever it is in my subconscious?

6)      A Deadline:  This isn’t crucial, but it helps. If I have a deadline, I find it easier to get into the Zone because I write more consistently and don’t walk away when I’m stuck.

7)      First line:  My first line is always the words I begin with or a slight variation of them. I can’t begin without it and I rarely change it.

K.B.:

Gobsmacked. Ha! *laughs* Yeah, that’s pretty much how I get new ideas. Most often in the form of a “vision” or a character kicking me in the head and announcing their presence. (The best ones happen at 3am, or so they’ll claim.) I get story ideas from songs, random poetry, one-liners, seeing someone smile, even from Christmas tree ornaments. Used to be that I’d start scribbling madly on whatever I could find…and yes, before you ask I have written down ideas on my hand before. *sticks out tongue* You use what you’ve got. Man, the invention of smart phones was a godsend though!

I also used to let story ideas take me wherever (and whenever) they happened on the wild ride that was normally promised to me. Now I don’t have that luxury and I have to be a little more discerning about what I choose to focus on. So, much like Lisa, I let myself mull it over for a while. If it’s still at the forefront of my brain then it’s a go. If not, it gets relegated to the dust bin. *shrugs* Not gone forever, sometimes I scavenge bits of stories, characters, plots for other ideas. Sometimes I even resurrect them in their entirety.

My list is really close to Lisa’s. *laughs* Probably one of the reasons we’re such good CPs. But it does differ in a few key ways.

Things I Need to Begin a New Book:

1)      Voices.  I don’t make any bones about the fact that my characters talk to me. (Sometimes loudly and at great length.) Or that I’m not so much “making up” a story as I am telling it. This is, for me, just one piece of my characters’ lives. They all come with histories and futures – that sometimes they share with me, sometimes not – and I’m really just getting a glimpse of this moment in time. Without these voices the stories inevitably end up in that dustbin, if I can’t hear a character then I figure my readers aren’t going to either.

2)      Scenes. I “see” my books as I write them. For me, this process is pretty much like going to the movies. Because of this I do a lot of the same things that Lisa mentioned in her “Faces” category. I make collages (either on paper or on Pinterest) with people who resemble my characters. I’ll also often reenact scenes before I sit down to write them to help me get the feel for what needs to happen in writing.

3)      Music.  All my books end up with soundtracks. Sometimes (often) they evolve as the project does, but there are usually one or five core songs that will hold true for the whole book.

4)      My CPs/Readers. In the early stages of a project I bounce a lot of ideas off those closest to me. I’ve found the feedback to be extremely valuable, especially in the formation of a plot – something that’s often elusive in those first heady days of story creation.

*grins* If some of that seems paradoxical that’s because it is. No one claimed this business was either linear or sane. I have found that I don’t really have the tried and true method like Kate does, my process changes with every story I write and every world I am invited to visit.

Your turn, folks. The comment thread awaits your input. Tell us how you begin…

Falling In

Image © Jar O’Marbles, used with permission.

A few nights ago, I dreamed I was eating a honeycrisp apple. It was perfectly ripe and tasted of early fall, the only time we can get them around here. When I woke, I realized it was nearing seven and the world was still twilight gray.

Ah, I thought, here comes fall.

It’s been a wonderful summer, full of good work and great adventures, but I can suddenly feel autumn’s inexorable pull.

My sons went back to school last week. Maybe it’s an ingrained association rooted in my childhood years, when school began after Labor Day, or maybe it’s the result of a ten-day triple digit heat wave that left me (and my garden) feeling wilted and suddenly ready to bid summer a fond farewell.

Autumn has always been my favorite season. I love everything about it: the new beginnings, the return to routine, the colors, the tastes and smells, the harvest celebrations at the beginning, Halloween and Thanksgiving at the end. Cozy sweaters and crunchy leaves and cinnamon sprinkled on almost everything.

But what I’ve really come to love – and to anticipate even more than pumpkin bread and those honeycrisp apples – is the return of my dedicated writing hours. I’m so lucky to have them and believe me, I make good use of them. I guard them like a tiger protecting her young, hoard them like Golem and his precious ring.

I’m in a holding pattern at the moment, since I just finished an intense writing/editing marathon. I’m catching up on life, spending time with my family and friends, and giving my brain a much needed breather. But my hiatus ends on September 4, and I will begin whatever comes next (I still have a few days left to decide!), jumping into it with the joyful abandon of a kid cut loose in a pile of leaves.

Are you ready for fall, or still savoring summer? Anything wonderful planned for the new month just ahead?

Lisa

Summer’s almost over

So we thought we might celebrate the movies and books that are our summer favorites. It’s not easy to pick one of each but here goes.

Kate: The books (I count them as only one, although there are six of them) I read every summer are Jane Austen’s. I read them in a very precise order – from the ones I like the least (Northanger Abbey and Emma) to the ones I absolutely love, always ending up with Persuasion – one of my favorite books of all times.

As for movies – summer is a time for blockbusters and I’ve noticed that the blockbuster I often watch in the summer is Independence Day. Gee, I wonder why? But I love Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch, they’re smart and they’ve got that great father/son vibe going.

Lisa: I read a number of great books this summer, but my absolute favorite was Lauren Groff’s Arcadia. I stumbled across it on a list of editors’ top picks from small presses and the reviewer’s comment that “Groff’s sentences are so beautiful they make you want to weep” had me rushing to the bookstore. One page in, and I was hooked. Reading Arcadia is like falling into a dream; it’s mesmerizing and subtle and so, so evocative. The only thing I would change about Arcadia is the time of year I read it. It’s the perfect rainy Sunday with a blanket and a pot of tea kind of book.

Between our getaways and my son’s adventurees in summertime musical theater, we didn’t hit the theater very often, but the movies we saw were great. The Avengers was pre-Memorial Day but it kicked off the blockbuster season with…dare I say…a vengeance? The Amazing Spiderman was so much better than I expected it to be; I absolutely loved it. And ParaNorman might be the coolest animated film I’ve seen since Monster House. Trippy, strange, funny and heartwarming, with some seriously cool artistic touches.

What about you?

Kate and Lisa

The moon, the dried weeds/ and the Pleiades

I’ve been burning the midnight writing oil, cranking out over 3K/day for the last week, bringing the WIP to a dramatic finale. As a result, my brain is mushy, and you get a little something from my archives. It’s one of my favorite pieces, and something I still mightily believe. Enjoy!

The moon, the dried weeds/ and the Pleiades
Or, How Reading Poetry Improves Your Writing

My day began out on the patio with a cup of coffee and William Carlos Williams. So many great poems, so many great lines, but this one really struck.* Why? I don’t know for sure, but I was right there. With eight short words, Williams pulled me from my warm, madly blooming garden and transported me to the dark edge of a winter-struck field beneath a vast sky.

Poets are masters at capturing a moment, a feeling, an image, and bringing it to life on the page. They have all sorts of tricks up their sleeves – the so-called poetic devices – like syntax, meter, alliteration, symbolism, rhythm and metapors (extended or not). As novelists, we can tap these too, using them (wisely) to enrich our prose and strengthen our voice without (hopefully/ideally) overwhelming the narrative.

But the poets I love most have a certain genius with imagery. They’re the ones who can, with often the most spartan and simple language, trigger a visceral response – a physical or cosmic Ah-hah! – in me. With a few swift, sure strokes, they can paint a mental picture so vivid and pure it nearly knocks me breathless. When I come across a line like this *points up*, I pause. Re-read. Think about it. Read it again. If I can’t figure out why it hit me exactly the way it did, I still come away from it with a newfound respect for the power of words, and for those who wield them like masters.

I try to hold onto that sensibility when I’m setting a scene. Thanks to my poetry habit, I know how powerful even the simplest and cleanest of words can be when they’re put in the right contex. I believe the ones you choose can and should convey tone, sense of place and the emotional state of the protagonist, not just describe the room or the street or whatever – in as few words as possible. Sure, I could take three pages to describe a wagon passing by on a dirt road ala Faulkner in Light in August, but since I’m writing genre YA, I’m likely to lose my audience by the third paragraph. So I challenge myself to keep my imagery tight and sharp, with just enough sensory input to tow the reader completely into the scene. I try to pull this off in two sentences or less, somewhere in the first paragraph of a chapter. I can sprinkle more imagery in as the action rolls forward, but if I’ve done my job, I’ve snagged you right there at the beginning. I’ve pulled you out of your reality and into mine, and you find yourself standing at the dark edge of a winter-struck field beneath a vast sky…

Poetry. Read it, people. It’s good for your soul, great for your writing, and nothing on earth goes better with that first, steaming cup of coffee. 😀

*From “The Descent of Winter, 11/1”

Wipeout!

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A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend and described my life as a game of Jenga. Between my hours on the WIP, my kids’ end-of-school activities, projects and exam preparations, jam-packed weekends and my husband’s work schedule, it felt like adding one more thing to the pile might just bring it all crashing down. 

Or bring me crashing down. 

I learned to exercise the power of no some years back, when life took a dark and twisty turn, and I’ve thankfully retained the skill. But there are some things you can’t say no to, like research papers on George Orwell and models of the solar system and family weddings and plumbing disasters and end-of-school parties and…well, you get the picture.

By the last day of school, I was worn down and wiped out. I was brain dead and soul tired, feeling completely depleted and struggling with my writing. Luckily, I’d planned ahead and within 48 hours, we were standing on the sand in Santa Cruz, with a lovely 8 night stay stretching before us.

Usually, we roll into town and I’m immediately there, instantly relaxed and rejuvenated. This time, it took a while longer because I was so tightly wound. In fact, I was writing in my journal early on the second morning when I realized I wasn’t there yet. So I made a concerted effort to let go, to turn off the shoulds, to stop the addiction to doing and surrender to being. Once that happened, once I relaxed and started to breathe again, once I stilled my mind and gave it time to wander, the ending of the WIP started unfurling itself in my head, one precious petal at a time. I suddenly felt that familiar, joyous leaping in my middle as my creative fire reignited and the voices of my characters rushed in to fill the void.

Creativity requires stillness. It requires being as much as doing, and the creative mind needs time to relax, unbend, and pull itself away from the ordinary daily life tasks. It’s in that wandering dream space that inspiration happens, that plot kinks unravel, characters speak and story begins to paint itself in bold, brilliant strokes.

When life feels like a big, bad wave tumbling your hapless butt to shore, sometimes the best thing to do is walk out of the surf for a while, sit on the sand and soak up some sun while you catch your breath and wait for the magic to return. 

My stint on the beach seems to have done the trick for me. But I’m curious. How do you refuel your soul and rekindle your creative spark?

 

 

Lisa