A few words on fear

I’ve written the climax for my WIP.  Finally.  And this morning, as I was scrolling through (and not reading) the words I’d written, a thought occurred to me.

I don’t want to read it.

I’ve been telling myself it’s because the scene is too intense. But that’s ridiculous.  The climax I wrote for Wildfire was intense.  And I don’t remember avoiding it. In fact, I relished the action.  It’s fun to put your characters in treacherous situations to see how they’ll fare.  (Sadistic, but fun.)

But this time, the danger was too hard for me to handle. I skimmed over the scene I knew was too extreme and intended to just move on. Until I stopped myself.

And said, “self, what’s up? Why so avoid-y with this particular passage?”

Well, if you’re a regular reader, you know I avoid for one reason and one reason only: fear.

Damn stupid fear.

Writers everywhere are familiar with fear.  It’s an enduring staple of our daily routine.

Wake up, Make Coffee, Write, Fear no one will understand it, Edit, Fear it’s not good enough, Send off to First Readers, Fear they are just humoring you, Edit again, Fear it’s obsolete, Publish, Fear it will receive bad reviews (or, worse, NO reviews), Start the next book, Fear the first one isn’t as “finished” as you thought, Sleep, Have nightmares about obscure character arcs and archaic plot lines.

This is the method. And fear is the constant companion.

But usually, I’m okay with fear.  We snuggle up together in front of the computer screen on a daily basis. I’m aware of its existence and I write through it. Because I have to. I don’t really have a choice.  I can let the fear win or I can beat it down until it’s just a whisper in the back of my mind.

Don’t get me wrong.  Some days, the fear does win.

But that is why I have a writing partner.  To help me through the bad days. And I read other writer’s blogs, to feel supported – and not so alone – in this struggle.

But today, as I skimmed over the scene, I was able to answer my own question.

This fear is more imminent than usual.

And when I asked myself why, myself answered swiftly and with the most obvious response possible.

Because I am going on vacation in January. Some friends and I are going skiing in the mountains of Colorado. Just like we used to every year in high school and college.  I’m looking forward to it, not just because I love skiing, but also because of the nostalgia we are bound to strum up over a roaring fire and a glass of wine.

Why is this important to the WIP?

Well, the climactic scene I’ve written, and seem unable to read at the moment, is about a young girl trapped in the thrashing of an avalanche.

English: I took this picture on May 2006, on m...

Ahhhhhhh! (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

As my six-yer-old would say, Duh.

Of course I’m afraid.  I’m going skiing in the mountains.  No wonder I’d like to avoid stories of a girl trapped under the snow-packed menace of an avalanche.

The fear I’m experiencing doesn’t stem from self-doubt. It’s a very realistic what-if-I-smother-under-a-packed-pile-of-snow brand of terror. Nobody wants to read about that right before they put themselves in a potentially dangerous situation.

This realization is interesting, partially because I had planned on giving my friends copies of the WIP to read on their way to Colorado (some of us are flying, others are driving). And now I feel the need to rethink that. Or at least warn them of it. In case their natural defense mechanism is also avoidance. (I’d feel a little smug if my writing made them huddle up inside the condo for the whole trip, but I’d probably feel some guilt about it too.  So I’d like to avoid that. Since, you know, avoidance is my thing.)

What I do feel good about, however, is the amount of research I’ve conducted on the nature of avalanches in order to write the scene.  While knowledge of the hazardous aspects of snow increases the fear (what I didn’t know wasn’t scaring me before), the newly-attained awareness of how to increase my chances of surviving an avalanche gives me hope.

Fear or no fear, I’m going skiing.  Because I can’t allow the natural anxiety about a conceivably perilous situation keep me from having that experience.  I wouldn’t want to be ruled by the fear, or let it dictate the quality of my life.  And perhaps the fear I’m working through now will make me a stronger, more aware skier.

In the same vein, I’m going to edit that scene in the WIP.  Fear or no fear.  Because it has to be done. Because the writing fills me up and enhances the quality of my life.  And maybe, just maybe, facing the fear will make me a stronger writer.

The Courage – and Motivation – to Write the Climax

It’s crisp outside this morning.  I’m sitting with my office window open, the chirping of the birds floating in on the cool, soft autumn air.

I’ve made myself a second cup of coffee and dug out my fluffy house shoes from the back of the closet.

And I’m writing.

Coffee cup

Grazie, il caffè buonissimo.

Unlike the end of summer, when the heat sank into my bones and exhausted the ideas in my head before they had the chance to move out onto the page, the fall has brought with it a renewed sense of inspiration.

Today, I’m feeling strong enough to write the climax.

I had coffee with my writing partner a few days ago. The velocity of life has hammered at us both recently, and we’ve been skipping our meetings in favor of coping with that haste. But yesterday, amid a bustle of deadlines and obligations, we carved out some time to talk.

And it was the most important thing I’ve done for myself in a while.

Just like the cool, calm stimulus of fall, I can count on my friend to gently nudge me forward.

And she reminded me that, on the cusp of the climax, I always doubt myself.  This, apparently, is my process.

I linger on everything that is wrong with the work, allowing it to tire me out, to slow me down.  Because, once the climax hits, everything I’ve built up to this point will scatter out in all directions, then hit a peak of tension, before the falling action eases the story into closure.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

But the problem is this: I’m not confident I’m ready for it.  There is building tension, to be sure.  Characters have been established, as they collide with each other in moderate conflict.  Motivations have been suggested.  But I’m not sure the characters are prepared enough for the climax just yet. I’m worried the scattered pieces won’t all fall back into place correctly.

It’s like nursing an animal, raising it and loving it, and then releasing it into the wild.

And clearly I’m scared.

And I have to work through that.

But, as my writing partner reminds me, I always do.  (Have I mentioned how much I adore this woman?) I always get scared and back off for a bit. And then, something happens.  The weather changes, the pressing on my chest lifts, and I’m able to push through it.  But my process dictates I cower in the wings for a while before I can power through.

This stage of the process lasted a lot longer the first time around, when writing Wildfire.

I remember thinking my characters were dry and flat, with no real sense of purpose.  They disappointed me because I wanted them to be more than what they were.

But you can’t display a character’s strength without putting them in a position to discover it.

But, of course, I was scared.  Diving into the pinnacle of conflict is never easy.

And then, at the beginning of September two years ago, a record-breaking wildfire broke out, engulfing the nearby town of Bastrop, TX.  By the end of that month, the fire had claimed over 1,600 homes, more than 34,000 acres of land, and the lives of two volunteer firefighters.

As it usually is, the shock of natural disaster was quickly followed by a rising of community to action. Firefighters came from surrounding metros and states to help fight a fire they couldn’t seem to conquer. The newspapers were filled with stories of volunteers bringing food and supplies to the victims, of neighboring towns offering shelter to the thousands of now-homeless fire victims. A collection station was set up in our town square – and I imagine most of the town squares around us – and for weeks, moving trucks and trailers were weighed down with supplies. At some point, they had to start turning away donations and instead were asking for monetary contributions.  They just couldn’t handle the volume.

The stories of these people – the victims of the fire and the people who took it upon themselves to reach out and help – inspired something new in the book. I wanted to share these stories – to illustrate the courage that is possible in human beings.

What is the courage to write, I thought, compared with the courage to fight against a menacing threat that cannot be contained or predicted?

What a pansy I was.

So I sat down and wrote the climax.  The initial draft of Wildfire, which did not yet bear that name, did include a damaging fire, but its origin was not certain. Because I hadn’t figured it out yet.   I considered arson, but I couldn’t find the motivation for that.  I considered freak accident, but the details were not immediately apparent to me.  All I knew was the fire was important.

And it was. In fact, it turned out to be so important; I named the book after it.

So what if we aren’t ready?  No one is ready when disaster hits.  That’s kind of the point, isn’t it – to find out what you are made of when you aren’t prepared?

So I’m going to suck it up and dive in.  And see what strength my own character holds.

Who needs a blue ribbon anyhow? (A look back …)

This is a repost from 2009 (on my old blog), when Wildfire was submitted to a contest and shot down.  SO many revisions since then … the finished product is almost unrecognizable from its previous form.  It’s good to look back, though, and recall this part of the journey.  The advice I received was impactful.  And invaluable.  And I’d like to think I used it wisely.

Here she goes:

My entry into the Writer’s League of Texas manuscript contest did not win.

Sniff.

Other than winning (obviously), what I wanted from this experience was an honest critique of my work by literary professionals, and this promise, at least, was fulfilled.

The good:

“The author’s voice is fresh and entertaining.” Sweet, dude. Thanks. Gimme my ribbon.

“The synopsis was extremely well done.” Considering I thought the synopsis was hella hard to write (I’d rather just write another novel instead, thank you very much), this comment was unexpected and much appreciated.

“The dialogue works very well.” Yes, I have ways of making people talk.

“The plot described in the synopsis is fantastic.” Cool. So, I win, right?

The bad:

“The first chapter in no way ties into the synopsis.” Doh! Yeah, I s’pose the real adventure doesn’t actually begin till page 85, so … maybe I do a little too much character establishment?

“The plot alluded to in chapter one is not unique.” Hmph. Yeah, so what?

“The author needs to cut some of the backstory.” K. I get it, yo.

The ugly:

“The author needs to establish the main conflict of the story immediately. In my opinion, the first chapter is unnecessary.”  Yeah?  Well … your mama.

As I suppose many authors do, I latched onto to the negative comments much quicker than the positive.  At first I was defensive. “But … but … I want to get a feel for the characters, and their backstory is … important … dangit.”  Then I was despondent.  “I’ve failed. They don’t like me. I’ll be in my corner.”

Then I was inspired.  I could change things up.  I could fine tune and get rid of some fluff.  As I mulled over the best way to do this, I took some time to mourn the loss of my first 85 pages and consulted a trusted writer friend.

“Remember,” she said in all her wisdom, “you have to put all advice in a sifter, shake some out and only use that which is big enough to make a difference.”

I considered that for a few days and devised a plan.  I’m going to read those first 85 pages objectively and decide whether it’s all completely necessary (I have a suspicion that it’s not), or if I’m just keeping it for sentimental reasons (I suspect I might be).  There is one scene in particular that I know I want to keep, but what I’m looking for now is a definite hook.  Let’s hope I can find one.

“Kill your darlings,” Stephen King advises in his invaluable book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Now, to find my cleaver …

Writing it out

I started writing this post yesterday.  And this was as far as I got:

Book Dos is aching inside of me.  Small bits are forming on the page, but every day something stops me.  It feels like I’m missing a piece of the main character; like I’m running into a wall I can’t bust through.  I keep coming back to this one scene in my head – the one I’m terrified to write.  And maybe that is my problem.  Maybe the thing that is scaring me most is the thing I have to write RIGHT NOW.

I’ve solved a lot of problems with writing.  Working it out on the page always seems to help. And little epiphanies like this occur all the time – realizations I would have never gotten to had I not written it out.

And yet.  I’m still surprised when it happens.

Cover of "Before Sunset"

Cover of Before Sunset

There’s this movie I love called Before Sunset.  You might have seen Before SunriseBefore Sunset was the sequel, written and produced almost ten years after the original.  In this movie, one of the main characters, Celine, talks about her cat:

“You know what I love about this cat?  It’s that … every morning, I bring him down to the courtyard, and every single morning he looks at everything like it was the first time.  Every corner, every tree, every plant.  He smells everything with is little cute nose.”

I feel like this cat.  (Minus the cute nose.)

Every time something occurs to me through writing, every time a sentence works out the way it should, or I solve a problem with the dialogue or story line, or a character suddenly reveals themselves to me, a sweet rush of awe fills my veins.

It’s amazing.

Every. Time.

So. Now I have my answer.

I have to write the scene I fear the most.  The scene that takes the main character on this journey.  The scene that starts it all.

The rape scene.

Just typing it hurts.

I don’t know yet if this scene will be a part of the manuscript.  But it is an essential part of the protagonist’s back story.  And it has to be done.  I have to go through it with the main character.  I have to be there with her, and experience it.

And then, together, maybe we can move on.

Wish me luck. I’m going to need it.

Choosing your friends (and projects) wisely

As mentioned previously, my second book has not been going swimmingly.  I tried to avoid it by switching gears and working on a separate project for NaNoWriMo.  But that didn’t help either.  As avoidance often doesn’t.

So I’m breaking up with NaNo (sorry, it’s not you, it’s me) to focus on the characters that have been nagging at the back of my mind all month long.

This was a hard decision.  The book I devised for NaNo is more fantasy/paranormal-ish, which is clearly the most selling-ist genre in YA literature these days.  And the story line is something I feel strongly about.  But it begs for a well-researched background and it needs more thought and puzzling together before the writing can really take shape and that sort of goes against everything NaNo stands for.  In NaNo, you just write – without thought – without boundaries – just to see where it goes.  Which is a sweet, lovely thought.

But it’s making me crazy.

So I’ve gone back to my non-selling realistic YA genre.  Which I feel good about.  This one will also require some research, but – because I’m not on an irrational one-month deadline – I can feel free to indulge and let the characters develop as they see fit, and I can work within a time frame that doesn’t require pushing and shoving the pieces together incorrectly.

And I can breathe.

So, the characters of Book Dos are happily chatting away in my head, and one in particular has recently become more multi-faceted, which I enjoy.  But, for the most part, not a lot has poured out onto the page.

Until this week.  And I owe it all to Janet.  (Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.)  (Sorry, slight detour…)

Janet is my writing partner, and has been for a little over a year now.

I fully believe the forces of the universe brought us together.  Our kids enrolled in the same Montessori school.  My family moved into her family’s neighborhood.  And she just happened to need someone to meet with at the pool to share the expense of swimming lessons.

Sitting on the side of the pool, happily watching our little ones fight the ill-equipped teen-aged swim teacher, we learned that we were both writers.  We both wrote for corporations.  We both wanted to write something else; something that would make us happy; something our hearts were calling out for, instead of just something that could make us money.

So now we meet once a week, as our schedules allow, and give each other feedback.

And I consider this the most valuable thing I’ve done as a writer.

It’s all about accountability.  Janet tells me when she doesn’t like a character.  She tells me when a scene is not working.  These are usually things I already know, but have been too lazy to correct.  Janet chides me for my laziness.  She expects more from me.

And because of her, I give more.

This week, I have focused, I have put words to the page, and I have given her something to read.  And I have worried about what she will say.  And I’ve realized this is all a key part of the process for me.

It works.  It worked for Wildfire, and I’m seeing it work for Book Dos.

And if you don’t have a writing group (or a Janet) of your own, I advise you go out and get one.  Seek other writers out.  They need you as much as you need them.

Oh – and my other writer friend – with whom I was sharing the crazy of NaNo – wrote even less than me.  We have both moved on to other projects.  And we are both happy in our new relationships.  NaNo just wasn’t giving us what we needed.

So we had to kick him to the curb.

C’est la vie, NaNo.  You’ll find someone else; I’m certain of it.

The Sophomore Slump and NaNoWriMo

I’ve started the second book a few times now.

I’ve opened up the Word doc, read my previous entry, sighed in disappointment, and then closed it before I threw up in my mouth.  Several nights in a row.

The second book is hard, man.

It’s like starting a new relationship.  Every time New Guy fails to open a door for you or scoffs at something that is inherently you (“Yes, I know I’ve seen St. Elmo’s Fire twelve times, but I want to watch it again, k?”), you think back to the happiness you once enjoyed with Old Guy – even if it was fleeting.  Even if no one else understood.

*sigh*

I miss the old book – the good times we had – the laughs – the sweet sorrow.

I miss Savanna, and her innocent-but-secretly-stronger-than-she-knew ways.

I miss Blake, and his I-will-take-care-of-you-but-I’m-not-happy-about-it ‘tude.

And I miss Dev.  I miss everything about Dev.

But I don’t think a sequel is in order.  Their story has been told.  And I am trying to respectfully move on and tell someone else’s story.

But I’m failing.

Thus far, I hate every character, every motivation, every description.

The best character I’ve described holds a very minor presence.  She is the most memorable – and she won’t even show up again … or will she?  Hmmm … that’s an idea. Tuck that away for later. (You can learn something from writing a blog post after all…)

This is not me. She’s too serene. And tan.

My distaste for my sophomore effort doesn’t matter anyway.  Not as of Nov 1st.  I’m tucking away Book Dos in favor of Book Dos-point-half (working title), as I’ll be joining a fellow writer friend for NaNoWriMo.  We will each be writing an entire novel in one month.  Sound crazy?  It is.  And it’s right smack in the middle of the holiday season – whose idea was that anyway?  Why not February or something more manageable?

Anywho.  Maggie and I will be tackling this crazy thing that is NaNoWriMo – and I will be doing it for the first time.  And we all know how good I am with first times.

So wish me luck.

And maybe once I get Book Dos-point-half out of the way, I can come back to Book Dos with fresh eyes and an open mind – and perhaps better character descriptions.

One can hope.

Cover reveal

Here it is, ladies and gents, the cover for the upcoming release:

It’s surreal, to see my vision translated into cover art.  It’s also a far cry from the really awful cartoonish-like sketches I whipped up originally, before I came to my senses and hired a professional.

Enter cover artist and fellow writer Harris Channing.  She was patient as I sent her rambling pages of ideas, telling her what I wanted and – more importantly – what I didn’t want.  And when I went through some kind of psychological crack about the font in my name being too big, she calmly advised against too drastic a reduction.  (Originally, it was two sizes bigger.  And sometimes when I look at it, it still strikes me as too large, but I’m fighting that reaction.  Do I not want people to see my name?  Is that the fear talking?)

Speaking of fear … I’m wrapping up final edits this week, and should have the book up and running by this weekend.  *Fingers crossed.*  (And panic attack pending.)

The excerpt – and the psychosis therein

As I’ve been editing, I’ve tried to be mindful of what scene I want to post on the blog as a teaser.  What taste do I want to leave in the reader’s mouth?  What will make them thirst for more?

And here’s what I’ve figured out – I have NO IDEA how to do that.

Here’s how this has been going:

1)      Read scene.

2)      Inspiration tingles inside me.  “This is the excerpt!” I shout to the room and a wholly indifferent cat.

3)      Read scene again.

4)      Inevitably, find something fundamentally wrong with said scene – the character is not behaving properly, the words are not strong enough, the action is not riveting.

5)      Sip from coffee mug.  Consider chucking whole project altogether.  Think of the possibility of never writing again.

6)      Cry a little.

7)      Move on to next scene.

I’ll find something, dear friends, I will.  I might just have to throw the pages into the air, then try to reach out and catch one as they flutter to the ground.

Just the thought of that makes the OCD in me itch a little.

Stay tuned for the results of this emotional experiment.

Don’t pick it up, don’t lay it down

I often link to the blog of Kristin Cashore.  Because she’s brilliant.

I’ll do so again, because today her post was about criticism, a delicate subject that she – as with most subjects – grips well.

As I prepare to publish my first novel independently, I worry about criticism.  I don’t fear receiving disapproval; I know this is a certainty, as the masses are generally unappeasable. (Also, my novel highlights some touchy subjects.  In general, people naturally react when you poke them in a tender spot.)

My concern is how I will ingest this criticism.  I’m sensitive by nature.  And my memory is pretty clear (except for the occasional lapse in the location of my car keys).  Thus, I foresee a pretty painful (and repetitive) reaction to the first Goodreads review starting with, “What is this crap, anyway?”  Just the idea of that possibility makes me cringe.

When I think of this, I recite to myself the following:

“Don’t pick it up, don’t lay it down.”

Another brilliant writer, Maya Angelou, is the inspiration for this mantra.  In an episode of Iconoclasts, in which Angelou and Dave Chappelle discuss criticism, Angelou recites an African proverb:

“I don’t pick that up; I don’t lay that down. Because, if I were to pick up the one (the compliment), I have to pick up the other (the reproach). And I still have my work to do!”

What Cashore is saying in today’s blog post is the same.  You cannot let anyone else’s words affect your work in either direction.  You have to know your work is what you want it to be.  That it achieves your goals and meets your expectations.  That is what matters.  Everything else is just noise.

But.  I know myself.

And no matter how often I chant Angelou’s words, when I come into contact with that first wave of knives directed at the heart of my plot/character development/intellectual prowess, I will be devastated.  I will curl up in my comfort corner and cry.

So, just so it’s handy, here’s a few other words from Angelou to lift me at that moment:

The end is nigh

I’m only moments away from the end of my WIP.

And looming before me is a giant brick wall of doubt.  And uncertainty.  And a pee-in-my-pants brand of fear.

A brick wall (stretcher bond) Français : Un mu...

Why, you may ask?

This should be an exciting time; I should be giddy with anticipation.  The climax is coming!  The resolution is near!  The final sentence (which, after writing, I fully intend to celebrate with a glass of bubbly)!

But.

Excitement would constitute a forward motion.  And right now, that brick wall I mentioned is standing in my way.

What exactly am I afraid of?

The climax – will it be impactful enough?  Believable?  Meaningful?

The resolution – will it really give relief?  Help the reader feel closure?

The characters – can I really leave them?  (I now understand why writers sequalize – so they don’t have to leave the characters they have fallen in love with.) (Sequalize – is that a word?  If not, it should be; it rolls of the tongue nicely … sequalize.)

The debut – how will I react to negative criticism from the masses? (I’m working on the “I can take it” muscle, but in the meantime, I’m cleaning out a back corner of my closet for future brooding usage.)

I don’t know why I’m stalling.  I imagine it’s an amalgamation of all these things, combined with the crazy personal stress in my life right now and the Day Job, which seems to absorb my brainpower (and my soul) on a rapid and constant basis.

So, there’s my excuse.  Those are the bricks in the wall I have built.

Beh.

Now, to find my sledgehammer …

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