Monday, March 16, 2015

writing partners

There is nothing as valuable as a good writing partner.  I've had a few stand outs and a lot of mediocre mistakes.  Being a great critiquer is, of course, a valuable asset in any writing partner.

However, I find what is more valuable, as I talked about a couple of blogs ago, is the idea of being able to feed off each others' ideas.  The writing partners who have truly inspired me, gotten me through the rough spots and the discouraged points, have been those who had the kind of imagination that allowed them to enter my world as I entered their world.

It is a particular skill.  It doesn't mean that we have to be each other's audience.  It may be that we would never read each other's books if we weren't working together.  But a partner that can see what you are trying to do with a book, rather than what they would do with your book, is invaluable.

Michael, my current writing partner, and I have seen little to nothing of each other's work.  What we do do is talk about our books together.  I will start in on what is going on in my book or what I am stuck on in my book, and Michael will go off the top of his head on his impressions.  Once instance, working on this current book, Will-o-the-wisps Warp, I was stuck on a scene between Laurel and Jamie--my vampire work partners who own the organization Death Watch.

In Death Watch, they have made a pact that if they must damage humans, they will do it where it does the most good.  They started out freeing slaves in Africa, sinking slave ships, and killing off slavers.  In this current scene, they are going after the New Orleans mob, which was one of the oldest mobs in the country.  It was eventually hounded out of existence, supposedly, but rumors persist it has gone underground.  I use that in my book to show the mob as still functioning, mostly off drug sales.

This is all slightly beside the point.  What matters in the scene is that Jamie is angry with Laurel.  Originally, I had them arguing as they pulled the job.  They are so used to their positions in their partnership and their work that they do talk through jobs.  However, in this case it just wasn't working.  The job and the conversation clashed and clunked together in an ungainly mess.  All Michael suggested was that Jamie be a little more of a guy and refuse to talk about his anger until he explodes after the job.  I was dubious as Jamie has lived a long time and pretty much gotten over himself, but I rewrote the scene the way Michael suggested, and it ran smoothly.

With both my old writing partner RoseAnna and with Michael, one of the most valuable assets was to keep inspiration fired up.  I can describe a scene I am currently working on and how it fits into the series, and Michael will question me and go off on his own thoughts on things that don't happen for books ahead of what I am doing now, and the course of my series will take on a slight shift.

For instance he has helped me work a lot with the character Other that comes into the fourth book.  Other is a vampire wolf.  When his mother was in heat a male vampire taking the form of a wolf got a little distracted.  Usually this would come to nothing as vampires are sterile.  But the trickster pookah Charlie, who runs through all of the books, changes the game a little so that Other is conceived.  His name comes from the fact that wolves know that he is not of them, but do not know what he is, so they simply call him Other.

Charlie twists Other's fate even more as he describes my band of good guys to Other, and suggests it is his mission in life to join them.

Originally, I hadn't thought much beyond the fact Other would be a more cognizant character than the wolves generally were.  He would be able to communicate thoughts and ideas to the vampires.  But Michael became fascinated with the idea and dug.  His digging made my mind go a thousand different places as to where I could take Other, and what kind of arc Other himself would have.  Without Michael's interest, Other would have gone on being a severely underdeveloped character for a much longer time.

RoseAnna and my book styles didn't always mesh, but our imaginations did.  We could spend hours on one or another of our books.  One comment on how I might write Alex, the protagonist in Sheep that Stray, as the popular girl who was nice, which was her original character, would lead to hours of spewed imagination as we took every avenue on how to build Alex into a deeper character.  This is what RoseAnna and I spent our junior high and high school years doing together, and many years since.

Essentially, the good writing partner asks the essential question of speculative fiction:  "What if?"  What makes speculative fiction speculative fiction is that speculation of "what if?"  Fantasy, horror, science fiction--the genres all bleed into each other in a way that makes these sub classes almost meaningless, but they all ask the essential question.  "What if all the myths of the world were real, and they formed a society underground to our own, now exploding in a rebellion to no longer hide, and teach the humans where they really stood in the pyramid of species success?", for instance, is the question of my current series.

What a good writing partner does, is ask you over and over again the question, "what if", while you develop and write the book.  This is what has made the stand out partners to me.  The fellow writers who looked at my writing, looked at what I was working on and what I was going to make the book into farther along the line, and ask me "what if?"  What if I changed Alex's character to start off not quite so nice?  What does the difference in Other mean to Laurel in their relationship?  What if I took a character in another direction?  If I have created the Recess in Sheep that Stray, a place where teens congregate in an old school that Robin, the secondary protagonist in the book, created when he was younger, how does that change the course of his life up until that point?  How does it change the way the other characters view him from there on out?  What if?

Of course, the other part of being a good writing partner is knowing when to praise.  We all need a little ego stroking, and the ability to get excited about how a character is developing with you helps you stay invested in that character's development.  Michael's excitement about Other helped me get excited enough to spend that extra energy on him.  RoseAnna's fascination with the Recess shaped Robin's character and that section of the book for drafts to come.  Comments like this let me know I am going in the right direction.

These two qualities, knowing when to praise what someone has created in their lives so far, and knowing how to ask "what if?" in any given situation are not segregated to the writing world.  These qualities create a supportive and challenging relationship in area of life.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Art of Asking

On the recommendation of my friends Kim and Marci, I have been reading The Art of Asking: or how I learned to stop wording and let people help by Amanda Palmer who up until this point I have willfully believed did not exist because I should have married Neil Gaiman.

The book is obviously, how to ask.  It begins by examining how artists don't know how to ask for help with their projects.  She raised millions of dollars for her album after leaving her major label by using Kickstarter.  Kickstarter, and programs like it, are for people to raise money on creative endeavors from music to films to inventions.  She was wildly successful in her attempt, but she already had a following and had just publicly broken away from her major producer.  She also knew how to ask for help.

She watched too many artists on programs like Kickstarter in their fifteen minute pitches apologizing for wanting help as if they didn't deserve it.  It made her cringe.  A career everything, from living statue to stripper to rock star, Palmer always knew how to ask.  She asked not apologizing for herself, which engenders shame on both ends.  She didn't ask with arrogance.  She asked with gratitude.  Asking requires being able to be vulnerable.  It creates a moment of connection between the asker and the askee in a moment of humanity that does them both good.

Her later chapters cover other asking situations such as how to ask for emotional help.

By the time I got into the first chapter, I began to ask myself, how do I ask?  The answer is, until recently, I didn't.

I have received the patronage of my parents my entire life, and I have always been grateful for it.  They have always been proud to give so that I can work on my creative projects.  They consider themselves to be something that Palmer talks about--patrons.  Until fairly recently, artists had patrons in order to be able to focus on their art.  Patrons were people with money to support these artists and pride in being able to further an artist's career.

Part of the reason my parents have always supported me has nothing to do with art.  To put it bluntly, until recently I have not been functional enough to support myself reliably.  At first I was unstably bipolar--manic depressive.  I stabilized long enough to decide to get my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, which doesn't sound like the most practical thing for someone with the ambition to become self sufficient.  But of course, I was sure I would publish a book and then be hired by a university as a creative writing instructor.

As it turned out, I fell apart at Mills College.  I still consider it to be one of the most amazing and challenging experiences of my life.  I only wish I had been in a better position to take advantage of it.  After stubbornly staying through trauma, a bad theraputical team, and a serious down spiral after I graduated, I finally returned home to my parents until I was well enough to get a Masters for my next career.

There I stayed stable and excelled, but rolled my car in the final days of the program and had to once again rely on my parents' generosity to stay off assistance.

By that time I had learned to do some asking.  I asked to be put on disability at school to take my two weeks extra to finish my work at Mills College if necessary, but I despised using it.

But I grew up not asking.  Palmer begins the book by using the example that she will loudly ask for a tampon if she needs it in any situation in any company.  She always has had the experience of having women shuffle in their purses until someone comes up triumphant and gives it to her in a moment of connection with the women in the room.  She cannot imagine there are actually women who make do with wadded up toilet paper because they are afraid of asking.

I didn't grow up being too ashamed to ask.  I grew up being the girl who always had tampons in her purse so that if this situation came up, I would have that tampon to lend.  I carried pain killers, safety pins--anything someone might suddenly need.  In my relationships I was always the one there to lend emotional support, but didn't ask for it.

I haven't had great luck asking for help.  Too much of my help has involved asking if someone will help me emotionally when I am depressed or manic.  The situation is overwhelming, and the majority of people I have asked back away from the situation.  Of course, I have also asked while apologizing for asking, which for Palmer brings about shame.

Since I have learned to ask I have had some amazing friends help me along the way from everything from learning to be a girl in high school to my manic depression to a trauma I experienced as well.  And I love and respect them for it.  I am grateful.  I succeeded there because I often didn't ask for help.  I asked for connection, and help came along the way.

But to get around to talking about being an artist asking for help, I have certainly done my share of asking in clever and respectful queries and book proposals.  I have had more trouble asking for help in my indie career.

According to Palmer, there are three parts of the creative process, collection information and impressions from the world, then making these connect into a work, and then sharing the work.  I get stuck on sharing with my writing.  I have had no trouble asking people to come to shows I am in, but it gets a little more complicated when you are asking someone to read a book.  It is a time consuming process.  Most of the time I get brushed off.  The longer I ask for help in my indie career, the more apologetic I get.

I get shame faced about asking someone to join my blog, much less read it or comment on it on a regular basis.  I do recommend my own books to people I think would like them, and do so with every understanding the answer may be no.  But I have had little luck in getting people interested in helping me publicize.

I don't see me using a program like Kickstarter to finance a book.  Certainly not mid series.  Though I am considering taking a break after this, and I could see myself asking for money to put out and publicize, even more, the memoir I would like to return to.  The thing is, I want to work.  I like the extra collection.  I don't want to not be able to collect enough information.

Plus, being bipolar sort of ended my dreams of being a starving artist or joint the Peace Corps.  I need insurance.  I need therapy.  These things cost money.  I am stuck finding something that is reliable and has insurance.

I started writing because I love collecting and connecting images and emotions into metaphors and stories.  But now that I have been doing it for a long time, I find myself wanting to share.  I want people to experience my writing.  I ask with gratitude.  I am a good writer.  I think many people will find it a different and fun activity, but I accept no.

I ask people to join and comment on this blog with gratitude.  I love getting comments.  I am grateful for each one.  It means you have found a moment of connection in my writing, and that means I have found a moment of connection with you.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Walking Ideas

Sorry I'm late again.  I had another deadline yesterday.

I went to a new writing group last week.  They function almost solely on writing exercises.  You know, get the prompt:  "Why is he leaving?"  and then have three to fifteen minutes--somewhere in there--to write off the top off your head a situation where some guy is leaving somewhere for some reason.

I haven't written a writing prompt since I left school.  And I can think of few times during any college experience where I wrote a writing prompt.

Free writes are more common.  That's an exercise where you spend about five minutes either writing on anything or writing on a specified subject, which is a bit like a prompt.  However in the case of a free write, you are supposed to write whatever comes off the top of you head as fast as you can.  The idea is for your pen to never pause.  It's free association.  It isn't a story.  Or usually coherent.  Or sentences. It isn't to craft a very short scene, or a cohesive beginning to a scene.

This group obviously were well honed in the process.  They were good writers in general, but they were also scary good at crafting a tiny something.  Of course, I didn't find out till afterwards that people use characters and other parts of a writing piece that they are already using sometimes.  In that case, they are further exploring character's relationships in novel situations, for instance.  Which makes a little more sense to me.

We went out to dinner afterwards.  They were a largely speculative fiction crowd.  Among average dinner topics like travel, I asked them why they did it.  Some answered that sometimes they got ideas for short stories or flash fiction that way.  Or even novels or the like. They become inspired to write something else when they get home.  Or that they have learned how to close up a scene that way.

I'm trying to come up with how I come up with my ideas.  Three of my novels came from the kernels of dreams, although one in the end only very, very vaguely.  I used to jive with my old writing partner  RoseAnna.   She's the same one the My Little Pony book came from. We would take these long walks and toss around ideas.  Usually it would start with a character, or a couple of characters.  Sometimes we would lend characters to each other, though they usually changed almost beyond recognition in another writer's voice.  We created the same way.  Characters first.  Then worlds.  Then plot.  We would steal characteristics from people we knew.

When we were teenagers we would so intermingle our ideas to create a book concept that we would own it together.  Originally we were co authors, but our styles varied too much.  But we would actually assign a book to one or the other of us.  At one point we both had five books ahead of the one we were writing.  I wrote three of the books we used to walk around and talk about.  Shining in Darkness, the ex My Little Pony book, of course.  Sheep that Stray and Incarnate both came from dreams, but we certainly spent enough time walking around and talking about them.  Especially Incarnate.  If I had my preference, I would like to walk book ideas with someone.

Right now my massage therapist, Michael, is also my writing partner, so we talk out ideas while I get a massage.  Which is always a little weird because I am not looking at him.

These days, I still get ideas from characters that get stuck in my head.  Then they collect things to them like other magnets.  Other characters.  The world forms from how it has effected my characters. Eventually I start working on the world by itself.  Somewhere in there the plot appears out of things I want my characters to do.  The character scenes usually come first.  The battle scenes come towards the end.

Developing characters I use my crazy sick comprehensive character worksheet I got from Leonard Chang at Mills College in his novel writing class.  Inspired by it, my old writing partner Anne created a crazy sick comprehensive world worksheet, but I use that less.  However, I use those once the process is well underway.

Sometimes I will have a scene stuck in my head.  Usually it is the beginning or end scene of the book, though in Incarnate one of the foundation blocks comes in the middle, and does not exactly include any of the main characters.

Music matters a lot.  Sometimes I will come up with a character from a person a song makes me think of.  Sometimes a song becomes emblematic of a scene or theme for a character.  Occasionally the song is a scene.  Back in the RoseAnna days we used to listen to music for hours on end.  When we were younger we were obsessed with the sixties.  But as we got older we became somewhat more contemporary.  We would listen to a song and ask each other, "Who does this song belong to?"  The song wouldn't have to represent something that happened to the character, but how the character or characters in the song would react if they were put into that situation.  I still do that, listening to the radio.  Listening to new music.  Especially when I have new characters.

I can spend hours jotting notes to myself, or playing with Inspiration software, or often just staring vaguely and imagining.  I am ashamed to admit this, but I may be busy imagining a scene or character while talking to friends.  Sometimes I'm even rude enough to get out one of the little notebooks I carry around and write down notes.

But writing exercises puzzle me.  There is no time to delve.  I may go back, though, to experiment.  I have never been able to write speculative fiction short pieces.  I write literary fiction short pieces.  I write memoir short pieces, which you think would be harder, because you have to separate out and encapsulate something from the stream of life, but I create my life out of stories and themes.  But I suck at speculative fiction short pieces.  They always end up as novels.  Or, lately, series.

So perhaps I can learn something from writing exercises.  If nothing else, I will enjoy good company in an extremely cold coffee house basement.

But I'm in holding for someone who will raid the quarter jar with me so that we can go buy candy down at the party store.  And then walk, often wearing holes in the sidewalks on the same paths, or letting it get too dark on some trail up north.  And talk a book.  Until then I listen to musician's ideas and the dogs put up with hearing mine.