Chasing Inspiration

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Inspiration Unplugged

I had the most amazing weekend. Husband and I left the congestion of city living behind and spent three days at a cabin on an out of the way little lake.

There is no internet at this cabin. Cell phone coverage is spotty and there isn't a landline. No cable or sattelite TV. There is one TV station that has signals strong enough to break through the tree coverage, and even that reception is hit or miss. All of this forced us to unplug and enjoy the quiet and solitude.

I want to say I missed my internet community of friends while I was away, and on some level I did miss being connected. One another level I was pleasantly surprised with how much energy and time I had to be and to create. I did bring my netbook with the intention of writing (not to play Angry Birds, though Husband believe's that was the netbook's sole purpose), but I also gave myself permission to not write. I gave myself permission to just be - I state I have not been in for some time.

The combination of being unplugged along with the lack of expectations freed up some of the blocks I've had with the story. All day Sunday flashes of scenes and plot twists danced from my subconscious to my conscious and I felt compelled to pull out the netbook and capture everything and everything poured out faster than ever. I think I need to unplug more often.

It goes to show that sometimes creativity requires a lack of agenda and schedule. Sometimes the brain needs to be left alone. When the story is hitting the wall, perhaps it's time to unplug and play in the sandbox of life building sandcastles.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Wall

It was fantastic! The story was gelling, the characters working with me instead of arguing incessantly with each other and fighting my every thought and request. Images were dancing across the page - lush gardens heavy with plot twists and turns, the rich perfume of creativity gliding through the air and enveloping the computer monitor. It was a perfect writing moment, harmonious and brilliant.

And then it happened. That thing all writers dread. The garden dried and withered to dust and I was left with nothing more than a hard and barren courtyard hemmed in on all sides by walls. Tall, slippery walls. You know the type. You can't scale them. You can't jump up and grab the top and muscle your way over them. They block the sun and keep you prisoner there in that dry, barren place. Empty. Helpless. Alone.

Days crawled by and still the words didn't come. I was stuck in that desolate shell of a garden, no relief in sight.

I looked about my home office and my gaze settled on a picture of an almost forgotten moment. The 2001 RWA national conference in NYC had been of those moments in time where everything moved in slow motion, with precision and ease. All the pieces fit, all the colors blended and my drive to write was reconfirmed over and over again. The picture was of one of my writing goddesses and myself just after she gave an informal chat at the hotel bar. It was in that moment that she shared some of her writing successes, her writing schedule and the things she would do to overcome writer's block - consistency and going back to the time when you and the writing were a single entity and all was right with the world.

I visualized a day everything was humming along - how I was sitting, what music was playing, whether I had my water fountain on or not. I imagined the emotions that flowed through me as the story had appeared as if by magic from my fingers to the screen. I set a timer, turned on the music, made sure the fountain was full of water, sent forth a silent prayer and breathed.

Then I closed my eyes, placed my fingers on the keyboards and invited, no begged my heroine to tell me what she was about to do next.

Slowly, painfully so, letters formed words, words sentences and sentences mated to become coherent thoughts. By the time my timer went off an hour later there were complete pages on my monitor. 10 of them to be exact. I went back and read, cringing at the stilted thoughts. It was rubbish. All that work for nothing.

Then I looked again, and there just beneath the rubble was a vine. A small and tiny vine barely peeking above the cracked clay at my feet. Life! I followed that vine, nurtured and encouraged it for about another hour and was rewarded with tiny, fragile flowers of story. By the time the boy came home from work I had about 4 pages of something worth keeping and some loose ideas of things to come.

I write this in my blog so I can come back and remember that I don't have to wait for fickle Lady Muse to visit me. No, I can chase her, grab hold of her ankles and laugh at her shocked look as I dive head first into a story she keeps telling me can't be written without her. Take that, Lady Muse!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Soundtrack Friday - Anniversary Edition

Tomorrow I celebrate 17 years of marriage. I usually joke that it's been 17 long, hard years, but the truth is it's mostly been good. Even through the lean years marriage has been good to me. To us.

Last year I took the husband to see one of our favorite bands, Rush. They were on top of their game with their Time Machine tour and are always the band to see for great music and amazing entertainment, like this video that was played at the end of the concert. Ah, good times.

I was at a loss at what would top last year's Rush concert and the delayed but amazing U2 concert back in July when I realized bigger isn't always better and sometimes small and intimate is the best.

One of our favorite blues artists is Susan Tedeschi. We saw her at a jazz/blues fest up in Saskatchewan before she cut her first studio album and have been following her musical career ever since. Several years ago we were lucky enough to see her perform at the Minnesota Zoo. The amphitheater isn't a huge venue and if it rains there is no shelter. But there are no bad seats and you feel like you and the band are close enough to have a chat over cocktails. Aside from Rush, it is this concert at this small venue we talk about most often.

When I heard Susan and her husband Derek Trucks were going to be performing once again at the zoo, and the evening before our wedding anniversary no less, I knew I had the perfect gift. So tonight the husband and i will be heading to the zoo to hang with Susan. Happy Anniversary, husband. I love you.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Paperback Writer

"Anyone can write a book. I mean really, how hard can it be?"

If I ever hear those words uttered ever again in my lifetime I swear I'm going to drop-kick someone through a window. I'm not violent by nature but even I have a breaking point.

A friend, who is aware of my rather eclectic taste in reading material, noticed both my wip and a copy of a romance novel I had with me on the table at the coffee shop where she bumped into me. Of all the genres and sub-genres of fiction, romance consistently gets a bum rap. People think its trite, formulaic, easy to write, and often a waste of time. My friend picked up the book, took one look at the title and snorted. Not laughed. Snorted.

Rolling my eyes a little bit, I looked at her and waited for her to explain her outburst. No prompting is necessary, believe me.

"Why do you bother with this? It's all heaving breasts and turgid passion and all that crap. It's not real writing."

Not real writing? Not real writing! You explain to me how developing characters, devising a plot and creating relationships within that plot is not real writing. You explain all the blood, sweat and tears I've put into my work and how it can be anything but hard word and real writing!

Will romance change the world? Probably not, but name one of Oprah's Bookclub novels that ended turmoil in the Middle East or put a stop to world hunger. Romance is what it is. Genre fiction with a formula - a happily ever after ending. You know the main characters will end up together. The interesting part is how. What's their journey. Besides, you tell me that there isn't a "formula" for most genre fiction and I'll have to wash out your mouth. Mysteries are at the core a whodunit. Fantasy novels feature stories set in fanciful, invented worlds, an alternate and more fanciful version of our own world, or in a legendary, mythic past. I could go on.

Romance can contain suspense, comedy, tragedy, mystery, history, fantasy. It can be based anywhere with any combination of character archetypes. Sure, there are poorly written romances - I know, I've suffered through many of them. But there are amazing romances as well! Judith McNaught has written some moving stories, rich in emotion and wit. Nora Roberts is astounding when it comes to creating a sense of place within a story. Emma Holly writes rich plots with such honest and vibrant sensuality you become lost in her worlds. Marjorie M. Liu makes me want to weep with her rich plots and lyrical writing. Patti O'Shea has deftly created worlds that feel just as real as the one we live in now.

These are just a few authors who write wonderful stories. Stories people! Not tomes, epiphanies, diatribes or sagas. No great American novels here. Just stories. Wonderful stories about flawed people.

So I asked Ms. Book Snob if she's ever read a romance. "Nope, wouldn't be caught dead reading them. Unlike you."

Ignoring the slight, I snatched the book from her hands and turned to a section of the story where the two main characters are playing poker. Great details, witty dialogue, a subtle sense of sexual tension. You feel as though you're in the Northwoods cabin during a thunderstorm, sitting at this elegant wood table that seems out of place for a cabin, shuffling cards and shooting the breeze with the hero and the heroine.

Ms. Book Snob's mouth gaped like a guppy. "That could be out of any of the books I read."


Just when I think she's starting to understand, she flicked her hand at my wip and muttered, "This writing thing must be easy. I bet anyone could do it."

No, it's not easy. There are days its not even fun. There are days where the words don't come, the characters don't behave, the scenes are shit and all I want to do is toss the computer off the deck. Then there are days when I write like a woman possessed and laugh with the voices in my head rather than argue. Days when I know the words I've written are golden, forming not just sentences and paragraphs but weaving the tapestry that is my tale. Those days make it all worthwhile. But they don't make it easy. At least not for me.

So, to all the Ms. Book Snobs out there, go ahead. Try to write a book. Try to write a romance. I dare ya! Then you come and tell me just how easy it was. Until then, you have no right to comment. Or complain.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Magnum P.I. and Me

I periodically suffer from migraines and the wee dark hours of the morning one decided to wrap its cold dark arms around my head and squeeze. So I decided to fight back and sleep in.

Once I came out of my drug and pain induced haze, I decided some form of sustenance was required, stumbled to the kitchen to contemplate my nutrients options. Cereal, that always works for the after migraine munchies. As I looked in the fridge for milk, a rogue thought pops into my head, "Hmmm, I wonder what's on TV?"

Sunday is not known for great programming so I turned to a station that faithfully airs old syndicated TV shows. Imagine my surprise when Tom Selleck winked at me from across the screen. I had a moment of girlish giggles and then I settled in with cereal in hand to what what I assumed would be a comforting blast from my past.

Imagine my shock and horror as I realized that:

a) It's never clear why this magnanimous and anonymous Robin  allows Magnum to freeload off his estate. And where do I find such a fictional person to allow me to live the life of a kept woman? No, really, someone tell me please.

b) Magnum is hounded by flashbacks to Vietnam and yet this definite sign of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is never discussed in a healthy manner. Nor does it seem to impair Magnum from making a living as a P.I. And why is he named after a firearm anyway?

c) Hawaii is apparently overrun by the criminal element but still a damned fine place to live.

d) Tom Selleck in painted on jeans or short shorts is not as sexy as I remember him being.

I couldn't reconcile the poor writing and plot holes of the episode unfolding before me with the eerie appeal of Tom Selleck, who was the main reason I watched Magnum P.I faithfully in the 80s. It was almost hypnotizing the way it sucked me despite the trite dialogue and slow pacing. If you took out the "dramatic pauses" and one or two of the twenty thousand red herrings you could get the show down to a nice action packed half hour.

As my migraine haze burned off I starting thinking about one of my unpublished stories and wondered what readers reactions would be to some of the scenes I included for artistic indulgence. Would they be as sympathetic to the plight of Jordan and Quinn as I? Or would they want to throw the book against a wall and leave it there in a heap? Was I really being witty and charming in my writing or did it all boil down to trite dialogue and lame plotting?

Just as I felt the migraine creeping back in I heard a character from a previous book whisper in my ear, something she did quite often when I was writing her book. Yes, I know its strange, stranger still to admit I hear voices in my head. I'm an author damn it! I'm supposed to hear things.  Jordan insisted on telling me that I can't please everyone. And that this is the story of my now, not my future.

Apt words. Jordan is so smart.

Seriously, that little voice is right. We grow and we mature, I hope. As we do, what we find to be inspiring or even entertaining changes. In my teens Magnum was sexy and charming in a little boy lost sort of way. Today he could tip the scales toward irritating and whiny in a Peter Pan complex kinda way. What I look for in literature and genre fiction has changed. I look for deeper relationship connections and less preaching. I look for subtle themes as I no longer require a baseball bat to the head to get the importance of some stories. I like diversity in plot and I like to see characters grow as a result of their journey.

And some day I will grow beyond my current skills as a storyteller and look back on what I have written and wonder what was so amazing about it. That's growth, and honesty. And we need both to be inspired.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Soundtrack Friday

I bring my iPod to work and listen to various random songs during my work day. I do this in part because it amuses me and because I have so many songs between my music and Husband's music if I didn't have the music on a random rotation there would be entire albums I would never listen to.

This week Evanescence has come up on the random rotation so often I almost thought my iPod was malfunctioning.  The group makes up such a small portion of my music library that the songs don't come up on rotation often. Taking this as some sort of sign, I started listening to the emotion in the music and the imagery in the lyrics. As I would listen I could tangibly see or feel things from my current story. This doesn't happen often. I'm not that writer who gets sucked into the world of the story so deeply it's like I've become a part of that world, so when it does happen I try to take notice.

I started playing just Evanescence whenever I opened up my manuscript and sure enough a song would play that fit the scene I was working on in some way. I guess in addition to some of the other songs that have made their way to my WIP soundtrack I'll be adding quite a few Evanescence titles. I just hope I don't hate the music by the time I'm finished.

Here is one song that haunts my writing at the moment. I have three characters who don't feel they are good enough for something. All three have different reasons for why they feel the way they do, and while many people in life feel this way, all three think they are alone and unique in feeling, well, not good enough. Self-absorbed much? Yes, they are, but they are also on journeys that will hopefully lead most of them to some lightening bolt realizations about who they really are.

Good Enough by Evanescence plays beautifully some of the emotion and beliefs my characters cling to as they navigate their world. It's haunting and hopeful and terribly sad at the same time. I play it and I can tap into something in the story I couldn't before.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Minimalism and Me

Last week I wanted to lament the time that got away from me due to the busyness that has been my life. Instead of whining and mourning the time I will never get back, I decided to make some changes to my life. Easier said than done.
The first thing I realized is that in order to make positive, lasting change in my life I need to determine what is and isn't working for me and my family right now. I've taken some time to ask my husband some questions about his vision for our future and his expectations of our partnership. Then I had to shut up and listen to some hard truths. What I have walked away with is this:
  1. Less is more
  2. I am not Wonder Woman, I don't have to try to do everything all by myself, I can say no or ask for assistance
  3. When making agreements, write them down, make them actionable and follow through now not later
  4. Less is more
  5. My family doesn't need routines, my family needs meaningful habits
  6. Communication about wants, needs and expectations is crucial 
  7. Less is more
Okay, I really only have five things I walked away with instead of seven, but the "less is more" notion is something that I know in my head but for the last couple of years has been this voice whispering in my mind that simplifying isn't about being organized and building routines/habits. It's about less. Minimalism.

I'm not a minimalist. I have a closet full of clothes. Books everywhere. Cluttered surfaces (mostly paper which I swear breeds overnight!). My kitchen has more items than I'll ever use in a week or even a month. Then there's the crap in the basement. And perhaps this is part of my problem.

The more I have, the more I need to do to keep things in shape and the more time I have to put toward maintaining and/or justifying the things I have. What if I were to let go of the stuff? What would happen then? Would life become simpler because of this new less is more attitude? Or would it cause more stress? Is my stuff really taking away from the things I want to do? Are the activities I clutter my days with getting in the way of my passions and dreams?

I'm going to use books as an example. I love books. When I got married I owned maybe 20 books. I rarely purchased books in the first few years of marriage. I used the library a lot or I borrowed books from friends. Then one day I wanted to read a series the library didn't have and I couldn't get via interlibrary loan. So I started purchasing books. I bought them new or used. I received them as gifts. And my collection started to grow to where it is now at well over 2000 books. Where are all these books? Most of them are in boxes. Why? Because we are in the middle of renovating the house and bookshelves aren't high enough on the list yet. That and I think my husband keeps hoping I'll get rid of most of these books so he doesn't have to build as many bookshelves.

These books give me great joy and cause me great stress. They bring me joy because I love being surrounded by the written word. I love the stories and emotions and thoughts and knowledge books can share.  Given the opportunity, I will sit on my favorite chair with a pot of tea and will read endlessly for hours while the world passes by. Books are a passion.

My books are also a source of stress. I spend money I don't need to on books that often are purchased and then stacked somewhere unread until I have the time or desire to pick up a particular title and read it. Books collect dust, clutter surfaces and can get in the way of my space, time or relationships. My TBR (to be read) piles and boxes continue to grow and sometimes I'm paralyzed because I have so many choices of what to read that I don't get around to reading anything in my TBR piles and instead buy new books to read. You get the picture.

If I went with the "less is more" philosophy with my books, I would only keep books that had meaning and purpose in my life right now. I wouldn't hold on to series I've read and don't intend to read again. I wouldn't keep books because the author signed them or because I happen to know the author and want to support him/her. I would be ruthless about what in my TBR piles I'm actually going to read versus what I'm holding on to out of some meaningless habit to keep the books until they have been read.

After my heart to hear with the husband, I decided that since I had to move all the books being stored in the home office off the shelves while we move a window, I'm going to try some of this "less is more" attitude. It's going to hurt, but I'm going to commit to two shelves of books instead of five. If a book doesn't make it back into the office they don't get to stay in the house. I will find them good homes. I will catalog the books so I know what I used to own, if I ever read it, what purpose it had for me at the time. I need to free up the space so I can free up the office.

Books aren't bad. Stuff isn't bad. I'm not mad at my stuff, but I'm seeing now how some of the things in my life are distracting rather than uplifting. Sure, this less is more thing isn't saving the world, but I'm hoping it's a start to making those necessary and timely changes I need to make to move forward, and to have a happy, healthy family.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Keep it Simple, Breathe, Write

I was reading a blog by an author I admire and, if I had the balls, would ask about mentoring. But I don't so I haven't and probably won't ever. I'm a wuss like that. I'm fine asking for an autograph, admiring from afar, even pimping said author's books. But ask about mentorship? Hells no!

Anyway, I was reading this blog post by author Vicki Pettersson* where she talks about fear and writing loosely. I've been writing for over 10 years but I've been that writer to shy away from things that cause me fear so I drop what I'm writing for the next, easier thing. I should say I used to drop what I was writing for the next, easier thing. Sure, I have several finished manuscripts but I've always written something that felt easy and the stories always seem to fall flat.

For Mallory's book, aka the book that will not die, I'm trying to embrace my fear. I'm a pantser, not a plotter so I've packed off my inner critic to Siberia while I get this draft written. In this draft I learn about the characters, the world, the conflict and I write a whole lot of stuff that will need to be cut because it's necessary for me to know, but not for the story over all. I wish I could be a plotter right now because that would make things easier. Instead, I write a timeline as I go to help me remember events, characters, etc. There are a lot of inconsistencies in my early drafts. I hate it, but it's how I write. I've tried outlining ahead of time, but it doesn't work.

Anyway, back to fear and writing loosely. I'm afraid of this story. I think it has the potential to be great but it also has the potential to be complex and as an unpublished author, I'm not sure I'm ready for complex. I'll be the first to admit my craft sucks. Since I don't plot ahead of time, this partnered with craft of suckitude makes complex very difficult.

I'm afraid I'll write this story, I'll go through all the what ifs, the character development, the world building, everything and the story will always suck and I will not have done Mallory and Jason justice. I can't tell you how many times I've sat in front of the computer and almost had a panic attack due to fear of my own inadequacies.

Then today Vicki had this to say:
All of this is a circuitous way of explaining a very circuitous process … and an admonition to keep going when your eyes are crossed and your mind is muddled and you’re starting to forget why you’re writing your story at all. That’s where a lot of stories flag and writers quit and they move on to the next idea that seems shinier and simpler (until it’s not). Hold your ideas loosely, keep it simple. Breathe. Write.
Today, that's what I'm doing. I'm holding my ideas loosely, keeping it simple, breathing and writing. Vicki, you don't know me, but those words, they helped to loosen the knots in my gut and unfreeze my fingers. Thank you for your willingness to share some of your writing journey. It's greatly appreciated.

*If you haven't read Vicki Pettersson's Signs of the Zodiac urban fantasy series I encourage you to try the series. I found this series to be a delightful departure from the vampires, shapeshifters, witches and fae that dominate the market. Don't get me wrong, I love books with the above plots, but there's something deliciously dark and different about Vicki's series.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Light at the End

I have re-learned something in the last few months:  No matter how hard things get or how busy life gets, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.

Last week I blogged about how exhausted I was and how that exhaustion has awakened me to the need to refocus. One of the things I let go was my gratitude journal. How can I see the end of the tunnel if I'm not focusing on the light? I don't know about you, but I don't think I can. So I sat down last weekend and did some soul searching. Amidst all the things going on in my life, what am I thankful for?

I'm thankful for friends who offer me solace, comfort, understanding, advice and merriment. I'm thankful these friends take me as I am, because there are times I'm not pretty or uplifting. I'm thankful they stick by me even when I drop of the face of the earth and are willing to reconnect when I finally come up for air.

I'm thankful for my husband for many of the same reasons as above. I'm thankful he is skilled and gifted in ways that compliment my own skills and gifts, but in ways that also challenge me. I'm thankful for his never ending patience.

I'm thankful for my faith. I don't talk about it a lot. I'm of the earn the right to be heard philosophy so don't use my blog as a platform for my faith. That said, it's a large part of who I am and and I believe without my faith and without God there would be no light for me to look toward.

I'm thankful I can dream. I belong to a community of coaches and people who dream big dreams and don't want to stop there. They want to make dreams come true. Over the last year I thought I had lost my dreams, or at least my ability to dream. I hadn't. Those dreams were resting, waiting for me to have the energy to seek them again. Life would be so very grey without dreams.

So, I'm thankful. Now what? Where is that light at the end of this tunnel I've been in?
I think it has to do with friends, family, faith and dreams. I have friends and family surrounding and supporting me. I'm not an island and I'm not alone. This is a gift and a lightness I forget when I'm in the midst of the chaos. I have faith which, when I let it, gives me great joy and lightness of being. I have dreams to do great things and with my community and faith, I have a feeling these great things will happen.

That's the light. It's not a plan, it's nothing concrete. It's that pinprick of hope shining brightly in the dark showing me there is an end and if I follow that pinprick it will continue to grow until out of the darkness will emerge the exit to this tunnel. All I have to do is continue walking forward, one step at a time.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Summer Madness

My life has been a bit full lately. I would say the last few months have taken their toll. My husband has been in classes and he's a bear when he's not able to relax. I helped plan and organize a family wedding, hosted said wedding and hosted family for said wedding, which was in May. I've had additional family staying with us since the middle of June. Work has been busy and I racked up a lot of hours - I think if there was comp time I could take a month off just on the extra hours I've worked since November.  My dad had surgery and is looking at the potential of more surgery. My father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. We lost a friend to cancer. Friends have been married, children's been quite the summer.

My mind has not been in the game. It's been focused on all these other things. My creativity has suffered. My sleep has suffered. My focus has become fuzzy and frayed around the edges.

I didn't realize I hadn't visited my blog in almost two months because it's hard for me to believe it's now the beginning of August. Where did June go?  I certainly don't remember being around to enjoy it. As for July, I would love to forget the heat wave that sucked the life and intelligence right out of me.

It hasn't been all bad. It's just been tiring. Even good things can be exhausting and that's what I am, exhausted. It struck me a week or so ago as I got ready to attend the U2 concert that I was truly exhausted. Body, mind and soul. It's not difficult to see how I got here. With all the good and not so good things going on in our lives over the last few months I've let my needs for rest and renewal disappear.

Last week I hit my wall and was sick for 4 days. Not the kind of sick where I could still do things like read or knit or even walk the dog. I was the lay-in-bed-and-do-nothing-but-slip-into-delirium sick for at least two and a half of those days.

I decided to reprioritize. I do this every so often and I think it's a good thing to sit down and figure out what really matters in each phase of our lives. What was important last year may not be this year. Things change. And that's okay.

My blog is still important, though my focus may be shifting. My health and well being is very important so I'm streamlining and letting go of some things that are good but suck the energy right out of me. Writing is important to me and it's high time I treat it like it is instead of like something I'll get around to when I have time. My family is important to me so I need to find balance in being a good partner and in developing my own pursuits.

That wall was a good thing. It helped wake me up so I didn't keep down autopilot road. Now that I'm awake, I anticipate great things.