What Not to Do

(Caveat: It is not my habit or intention to belittle another author’s writing. That said, I don’t always like everything I read. Do you? The statements herein are my opinion only. Your mileage may vary.)

This is not a book review. I just want that clear right up front, because in this post I want to talk about a book I have been trying—and failing—to read: New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I initially borrowed the book from the library because I was ready for a new read, and this was recommended as one of thirteen best sci-fi books of 2017. The premise seemed sound. In the year 2140 (obviously), Manhattan is so flooded from sea-level rise that it has become the new Venice. Interesting, I thought. Ought to be good, plus bonus points for taking on climate change in a possible near future, set in a city familiar to many readers. Makes for a story relevant to our own times.

Right?

That’s why I tried to read it. I failed to finish because…well, there’s no polite way to say this. It bored me to tears.

And that is what I want to talk about. Some of the storyline’s failings I can point to and say “That. That right there is boring.” But the rest I’m not sure how to define, which I why I’m writing about it. Because as a writer, if I can’t describe why a book fails to capture my interest, then I won’t be able to avoid the same mistakes.

So here we go.

One clear pitfall of the book for me was that a main character (there are nine) is a hedge-fund sleaze who goes on and on and on and on about finance and housing bubbles and market indexes in excruciating detail. He’s not the only character to do so. I read the first segments of this, thinking it must have some connection to the plot (I think it does, eventually, though I’ll never know for sure). But after the first five, I began skimming without actually reading them.

Another was the unnamed character (“citizen”) whose chapters were absolute info dumps about New York history and culture. Not one of these chapters that I read added anything pertinent to the plot. Citizen even tells the reader that “if you don’t wanna know this, skip to the next chapter.” (Really? The author invites the reader to skip whole chapters of the book?) Again, read the first few, skipped the rest.

The characters themselves all fell flat. Not one of them felt fleshed-out or real to me. They all said different words, yet their “voices” sounded the same. They went places and did things and got together and faced problems, but none of it gave me a sense of urgency. None of it compelled me to keep reading. The writing, overall, used limiting words that drained conversations between the characters as well as descriptions of any power, something I’ve had to watch in my own work. Dialogue between characters felt stiff. There was more, but this will suffice to explain why, at about the 25% point, I decided to stop wasting my time.

More nebulous critiques centered around the pointless wanderings of the flat characters. Maybe it’s that their relationships, activities, comments and internal monologues all felt contrived. One scene in particular had a group of characters all meeting in one place and the author overexplained insignificant details like who sat where. Why is this important? Skip to that bit, please. There were good segments that gave me hope, but overall it felt like there was far too much extraneous content, as though the author could have cut at least 25% of the book and had a better, more focused and compelling story. Again, I’ll never know.

Correct me if I’m wrong—because KSR is a best-selling author with nineteen published books to his name, so clearly he knows something I don’t—but I’m pretty sure each of these faults I’ve named breaks rules that are pounded into our heads as new writers. Books on how to write publishable fiction tell us not to do these things. Fiction classes say the same thing. Writing conference breakout sessions repeat these lessons, so I’m left wondering if a) those books and classes and conference presenters are all wrong; or b) bestselling authors are held to a different standard than new writers.

Much as I wish it were so, the real answer probably isn’t that cut-and-dried. First of all, a) is both true and false because every fiction reader is different. Each one wants something different from a novel. As awful as I thought NY2140 was, there were plenty of reviews giving it four or five stars, raving about how all KSR’s novels had an underlying and not-so-subtle message. He definitely pushes a political agenda in this novel, one I probably agree with on many levels. I don’t mind a book with a message. But let it also have a story too, please. I’ve read other books like this in that they were all message and no story. All my works of fiction have messages too. I only hope they aren’t this dry and flavorless.

As to b, this is probably true. I remember a presenter telling me at a conference that writers have to prove they know the rules before they can break them. I’m tempted to think this is BS, until I read something like NY2140. It’s an example of the fact that publishers will be more likely to buy even marginal ideas from established writers who have already identified their market, while we newbies are still struggling to do that. Unfortunately, even if our stories is outstanding, we are all channeled through the narrow pipeline of available publishing houses whose primary goal is to make money. Don’t misunderstand me; there’s nothing wrong with making money. As a writer, I too want my works to turn a buck. But with so many of us, and so few publishing channels, it’s no wonder that more and more writers are turning to self-publishing options for their work.

I haven’t read anything else by KSR, and I probably won’t—partly because of my experience with this book, but also partly because one reviewer, who gave this book four out of five stars, commented that people who read his work usually don’t read it for the story, but for the “massive ideas he puts forth.” That reviewer is clearly part of KSR’s “established market.” She knows going in what she’s going to get and she goes back for more.

I know it looks like one, but this isn’t a book review. As always, don’t take my word for it. If you like the “story’s” premise, or have a soft spot for New York City or finance or utopian messages that out-shout the plot or the characters, by all means read this book. You may be one of those who find it inspiring. As far as I am concerned, it was a reminder to myself to mind my story/message balance, to fully flesh out my characters and their desires/conflicts, and to make every single word relevant to the work.

GodSeed

Last week I gave a presentation on the Pagan/Wiccan holiday of Imbolg to a small interfaith group whose members are mostly Christian and Jewish. It wasn’t the first time I’ve shared aspects of my faith with this loving group of people. My views are always accepted with open hearts and not a little curiosity. Though most of them have heard enough about my faith to have a surface understanding, there is one thing that is almost certain to stump members new to my presentations—my reference to God as The Divine.

I can’t count how many times people have stopped short at this honorific, though I never really understand why. Usually I am asked to describe what I mean by that term—which seems self-explanatory to me—so I tell the querent that the term “God” can mean very different things to a Christian and a Hindu and a Buddhist and a Pagan. It evokes wildly variant images and emotions and expectations. The term “The Divine” has more distance, less emotional coloration. For me, that better suits a creative energy that I feel certain is limitless, boundless, so far beyond our ken that we can’t even know what we don’t know about that Presence. It feels less limiting than the word “God” or “Goddess” or any other specific name we might pin on its Universal Lapel.

People usually nod, and smile at my explanation. It seems to satisfy them, but I don’t usually go into any greater detail because I don’t want to confuse the issue. And my complex feelings about divinity/The Great Mind/The All/The Universe/God/The Divine would prompt conversations longer than the twenty or so minutes I have to speak before this group.

I am a deeply spiritual person. If pressed, I will say I am Wiccan, but it’s not really that simple. I have yet to find the box that completely encompasses my beliefs while leaving room for them to evolve as I do. In my novel series, the Umani race calls The Divine Na’Staanni, which means “Honored All”. That concept is so close to how I see that Presence, I have taken to using the Umani’s name for It. As far as I’m concerned, Na’Staani is All, as Its (admittedly fictional—but then which human-labeled God isn’t?) name implies. It encompasses you, me, the neighbor next door and those noisy ones down the street. Nature and technology and knowledge and everything we make or build or grow or know is part and parcel with It. Na’Staani isn’t part of the Universe; the Universe is part of Na’Staani, as are we all. Therefore, we – you, me, the noisy neighbor—are all part of God. That means that there is a seed, a speck, a particle of the Divine in every one of us. In everything around us. Good, bad, and indifferent, there isn’t anything or anyone or anywhere that is apart from It. You are God. I am God. God is you and me and a whole lot more.

But it goes even beyond that. If we are all part of Na’Staani, and Na’Staani is Everything, then you and I and the noisy neighbor are all also Everything. The separations between us are illusions. We are all One.

Given this attitude, it’s perhaps no surprise that I am motivated to be kind—to people, to animals, to Nature—and to extend to others the same authentic curiosity about how they seek connection with The Divine as I want them to offer me. If that Presence is as vast and all-encompassing as I believe, there is no hope of full understanding as long as we remain separated from It in this existence; but—and here’s the important thing—as long as we strive toward that goal, even knowing we cannot reach it, growth and enlightenment can follow. For such a deep and personal journey, no one route could possibly serve all of us with equal effectiveness. The commitment to seek God, by whatever name we use or face we see, is made in one’s heart and soul. That is where the sacred path lies, in that internal, intensely intimate space. Only the individual seeker can recognize its signposts or say whether Christian traditions and teachings will resonate more than Jewish ones, Hindu pantheons more than Greek, Buddhist dharma more than Wiccan mysteries.

There is beauty in our differences which, brought together and explored as a greater whole, have the power to widen our perception if we can learn to listen and truly hear one another.

Up the Tension

I’ve read it over and over, heard it in workshops and plenary sessions. A good story isn’t about any one character or group of characters. Instead, it’s about those characters doing things. Striving, reaching, hurting or being hurt, trying and failing and trying again, coming, going, living, learning. It’s about the events that happen to the characters—the foundation, the buildup, the action, and the consequences—followed by the next event and so on. These threads weave together to create tension in the book which keeps the reader on the edge of her seat (hopefully) all the way to the dénouement. The trick, as I understand it, is to write every scene in such a way that it furthers or at least maintains this tension.

The challenge, for me anyway, is learning to write structural scenes—ones that don’t have high-energy but are necessary to set up later action scenes—in such a way that they too convey some element of dramatic tension. The Kill Zone, Terrible Minds, and other blogs talk about the necessity for this, while recognizing that the reader also needs periodic breaks to catch her breath.

Right now, I’m a little more than halfway through the first draft of my novel’s sequel, and struggling with a few structural scenes that set up the last quarter of this book and the entire premise of the third book in the trilogy. It’s crucial that they deliver the necessary information; telling/showing it in such a way as to make the reader care is what takes so much time. These scenes are always (for me) harder to write than the more action-packed ones, but some days the words just WILL NOT come. I write, erase, write, erase, and write until my wrists ache, then I put on my braces and write some more. Usually I’m shooting for a target word count but even if I make that number for the day, it won’t matter unless the words count. If I have to erase them the next day and start over, what have I gained?

I’m whining, but it’s okay. I think that’s part of a writer’s process. Have you seen the meme about the phases writers go through on any draft? In summary, they go something like this:

  1. This is the best thing I’ve ever written.
  2. This has a few problems.
  3. This is the worst thing I’ve ever written.
  4. I’ll never get published.
  5. This might be okay.
  6. This is the best thing I’ve ever written.

For a hilarious visual concept, see the interpretation by Captain Jack Sparrow.

At any rate, today was a Level 3 day. I’m sure tomorrow (or the day after) will spring back to Level 1 or forward to Level 6 but for a first draft, I suppose I’m right (write) on target.

See you next week.

Going It Alone

I have to admit I’m old-fashioned, to some degree. For the past however many years I’ve been writing, I’ve declared I would only seek traditional publishing routes for my work. I believed that self-publishing was only useful for those who couldn’t get published any other way. But I have to admit, that’s beginning to change. For one thing, I’ve read plenty of drivel between paperback and hard covers that came from reputable publishers, books so bad I put them down long before I was even halfway through. I’ve also enjoyed my share of self-published works in multiple genres that held my attention and left me wanting more. The Martian was originally self-published. So was A Time to Kill, and Fifty Shades of Gray. Amanda Hocking started out publishing her own books and is now selling millions of copies.

Old assumptions no longer work. Maybe they never did.

That doesn’t just go for novels, either. I’ve heard other writers talk about saving up their short stories for self-published collections, instead of parading them past innumerable magazine or other periodical markets. I can understand why; I’m finding it hard to get the attention of an editor. Writers are told space is at a premium in these publications and only the best make it into their pages. Okay. As someone who used to publish a magazine, I understand that. But despite the usually excellent content of my regular magazines—Analog, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, a few others—an occasional story appears therein that makes me shake my head and wonder how the writer got it past the zine’s staff. Granted, one person’s riveting tale is another person’s sleep aid. But seriously, some were truly awful. I found myself thinking, “There’s an hour I can never get back.”

Years ago, I saw a movie by the name of Ator (1982). The best thing about this flick was its service in later years as a low-end yardstick to describe just how bad a movie could be. I walked out at the “Don’t touch the drape” mark. If you’ve seen it, that’ll give you an idea of how much I endured before calling it quits. Imagine my surprise to learn in recent years that the producer made two more of these awful films, each of which received lower ratings that the first one. Yet production companies spent money to produce each one, and movie houses actually showed them. It boggles the mind. I’m sure there are much better scripts just waiting for notice, but how is the writer to get past the gates?

Now of course I think my own stories are good, the ones that have been workshopped, and are “finished” anyway. Yet I have not found a good home for them. Maybe it’s just that the individual stories haven’t landed in front of the right editor at the right magazine yet. Or maybe they just didn’t fit the issue that editor was filling at the time s/he read my work. One editor I have known for years produces a seasonal print magazine. I sent her one of my stories and she loved it, praised it and wants to run it, but she said up front that it deserved a paying market, so I pulled it back and am shopping it around. Another of my stories she also liked, but said it didn’t fit their format (I kinda knew that, but asked anyway). Everything I’ve read or been told in workshops and by published writers confirms the idea that it isn’t me; it’s the glutted market. Still, I sometimes think I just want to put a story online and charge 99 cents for it, and see what happens.

I’m not sure I’m ready to self-publish just yet. I’m considering it, but there’s so much to keep up with! The term “self-publish” covers so many options available to writers these days, I don’t even know where to begin. I do know I’ve heard tales of success and of horror when it comes to this road, so if I decide to take that leap, I’ll need to do some serious homework.

Do you have experience with self-publishing? What route did you take? Were you happy with the result?

 

Lost, Somewhere on a Fictional World

I’m writing the first draft of my latest novel, second in a trilogy. It’s been a while since I wrote the initial draft of the first book. I’d forgotten the annoying little quirks of this stage, things like overusing specific words, dropping a plot thread and having to go back and reinsert it in chapters I’d already “finished,” having to rewrite a scene that sounded so great and easy to write in my beat sheet but when I actually began penning the words, the logistics felt clunky. At first I was discouraged, until I remembered that this is common for a first draft. I’ve heard of mythical writers who “get it right” the first time through and never need second, third or fourth versions.

I’m not one of them.

Right now, the only person who sees/hears the scenes when I finish is Bobby; he’s my enthusiastic sounding board and doesn’t hesitate to point out errors or problematic elements, for which I’m grateful. He also provides input when I know what I want to happen or what needs to happen, but I can’t figure out the best way to get there. I wouldn’t think of showing it to anyone else yet. It’s not ready. A first draft is like a painter’s preliminary pencil sketch on primed canvas or the metallic skeleton of a nascent construction project. It is the merest beginning of something that will develop with time. The painter adds layers of color, light and shadow to give her image depth and to provoke emotion in the viewer. The builder adds wiring, walls, roof, doors, and turns an open frame into a museum or a school or a home.

It’s worth noting, though, that the end product—so much more than the sum of its parts—relies on that first effort. Without a sound foundation, a house could collapse. Without a sketch, a painting’s composition could fall apart. Without a good first draft, a novel might end up in the digital trash in favor of a traumatic “do-over.” May the Muses save me from that headache as often as possible.

I think it was Mary Burton who once said in a workshop at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference that she usually gets it right by the seventh draft. I can relate. The first novel in this series went through about that same number before it got to where it is now. I’m a long way from that point in this work, but once I remembered that this is (my) normal first draft process, I became a writing fool. I’ve been ignoring phone calls, forgetting dates, missing appointments. I’m almost at the mid-point of the story, where something significant shifts in the main character’s situation, and I get really excited at the thought of uninterrupted writing time. The characters and the plot points circle in my head most of the day. Bobby makes a point of reminding me each morning to remember to stay in this world and in this time while I’m driving. (Insert honking horn here.)

So forgive me if I make this a short post. Alira (my main character) is just about to step in it big time, and she needs my full attention.

‘Til next week!

Living Our Stories

In writing workshops, teachers and advisers (and agents/publishers) all say that regardless of genre, a book’s word count is limited. In science fiction, for example, the standard acceptable word count ranges between 90K and 120K. Given this restriction, it’s important for the writer to confine herself to those words that move the story along toward its ultimate goal. They also drill into our heads the writer’s mantra: SHOW. Don’t TELL.

This morning I found myself comparing this philosophy to Life. We have a limited number of words (minutes/hours/days) with which to tell our story. If what we’re doing at any given moment does not further the purpose of the story in some meaningful way, it’s a waste of that finite resource.

Of course, key to either of these concepts is the fact that the writer must know the purpose of her story, its relevant point. She has to know what it is she wants her book (or her life) to accomplish. Ask any writer what is the goal of her story and (unless she is a writer with years of experience, or her log line is so practiced she could say it in her sleep) you’ll see her expression change to one of deep thought because in life, even more than on the page, refining such a sweeping, sometimes spiritual idea to the limited confines of mere words can present a real challenge.

It’s interesting to note that even if the writer has not defined it, the message of her life is there in her actions when she thinks no one is looking. It shines forth in her passions, in her treatment of others and of the world around her. The meaning of her story is revealed as much in what she avoids as in what she embraces. It is that showing that demonstrates to others what her life is really about far more visibly than her words ever could.

But here’s the big difference between writing and living. It’s expected that writers will draft and edit and rewrite their stories until they get the words right. Life seldom gives us the chance to rewrite our actions this time around. Unless reincarnation is true and we’ll get other tries (during which we still won’t remember the mistakes we made in the last draft), this is our one opportunity.

Writers or not, we’ve all heard the advice that we should make our moments count for something. I admit I’ve wasted far too many in floundering, not knowing what my story is, much less how to tell it. Or in letting others manipulate how I tell my story, as if they know any better than I what that might be. Or by doing completely irrelevant things that don’t help the process in any way, like regret or self-flagellation over things I cannot change. These are like throwaway scenes that I know will be cut from my manuscript in the editing process, so why do I write them in to begin with?

Who knows? Certainly not me. Even now, working a first draft of my second novel, I know that a freshly written scene is first-draft material, and may end up in my digital trash. Sometimes, pointless bits are stepping stones that carry me from where I am to where I want to be. They help me decide which way I want the story to go. They are tentative explorations that are part of the process of clarifying and refining the story’s purpose.

Maybe they aren’t completely pointless, then. I don’t know about you, but even if I have planned my overall point into a story outline (yes, friends, I am at least in part a plotter), weaving its threads into a riveting tale takes time and practice. Just like in life, I try things, make mistakes, go back and try again. Sometimes (like that manuscript that just can’t be fixed), the only thing I can do is walk away and start anew with another story. Every experience, good or bad, hones my skills, tightens my focus, sharpens my message or purpose.

And doesn’t that say something? Because the writers who’ve been there, who know how to cut and edit and trim, who know the process for making every word pack dramatic, meaningful punch, their names linger. Maybe Malala Yousafzai, Martin Luther King, Jr., Graça Machel, Gandhi and their ilk are/were their kin, showing us the point of their stories through the impactful events of their lives.

After all, no matter how many short stories or novels or essays I may write while I’m on this journey, my life is the story that really counts. I hope that despite my mistakes or edits or attempts to rewrite, that tale will have meaning not just for me, but for those whose lives I touch along the way.

Smudging My Words

Southeastern Virginia got hit with a bad snowstorm last week, one we locals are calling “Snowpocalypse 2018.” While I personally did not go outside with a ruler or anything, friends posted photos on Facebook where their yards were more than 12” deep in places. Those of you in more northern states may laugh and call us lightweights, but the truth is that our local area has no reasonable mass transit that can take the place of cars for most commuters, nor adequate equipment to mitigate bad road conditions for drivers so that business can proceed as usual. We just don’t get enough snow every year to make such purchases necessary. So when we do get the one (or maybe two) bad snows each winter that cover our roads with snow and ice for a day or two, many business just shut down.

Thus last Thursday and Friday turned into “snow leave” for my small office. Needless to say, I was as excited as a kid with a snow day, especially knowing I could use that time to work on my novel for four days straight. Then Smudge got sick on Saturday and despite the awful conditions of the roads, we ended up at the emergency vet, a twenty-minute drive that took us forty-five minutes to cover.

Don’t panic … all is well, now. But sheesh, when our boy is sick, I can’t think of anything else. Ya know?

I don’t have any two-legged children, though our grey furbaby demands his fair share of time and attention. He hates our office, with those metal clicky things (computers) that keep us so preoccupied that we don’t jump at his every meow. Sometimes it’s impossible to get anything done in the office, which is why I have a laptop. He is more amenable to my computer work if I am on the couch, where he can sleep next to me (touching my leg, if at all possible), or make pancakes on the cushion beside me. Every now and then he will wake and pat me with his paw to say, “Don’t forget me, mom,” or “I need hugs RIGHT NOW, mom.”

He’s a talker, too. If we ignore him too long, he’ll walk all through the apartment making his displeasure known to all (including the neighbors).

So when we left him at the vet yesterday, I planned to come home and use the time to get ahead of schedule. You know, type uninterrupted for as long as I could while he was otherwise occupied. But that’s not how it happened. I couldn’t stop worrying. He’s an old boy – almost 17 years – so at this point anything could go wrong, and take him from us before we’re ready. Instead of working Saturday, we spent the day on the couch distracting ourselves with mindless television, namely “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” on Netflix. Only Sunday morning, after the vet called to say he was better, did I get back to work. I did make my target word count for the day, but after we picked Smudge up that evening, we spent the rest of the evening with him. I’ll probably do the same thing tonight. He’s not back to himself just yet, and his need for comfort has to come first.

Writing is important, yes. I try to do it every day. But some things will win out every time over my characters’ voices. Family is at the top of that list, and Smudge is definitely family.

Learning to Fly

Since I posted last week, my schedule has focused mostly on writing, so much so that my fingers were flying on the keyboard and I busted my target word count almost every day. During a break, I perused old e-mail and came across a message from the middle of December from iFly, saying “Don’t forget to redeem the voucher you already purchased!” I purchased a voucher? When? I called the Virginia Beach iFly center to verify the e-mail was legit. It was. Not only that, it was good for six one-minute flights or three two-minute flights, plus all equipment rental, three free photos and two free videos.

Now if you know me, you know I love to fly. But neither Bobby nor I bought this. I checked. iFly staff could not tell me where it came from. I’d love to thank my benefactor, but for now their secret will remain intact. More importantly, I couldn’t let this gift go unappreciated. That would just be rude, so I scheduled a flight for last Saturday.

It’s been a little over a year since I last flew. Thankfully, I remembered (at least intellectually) all the right moves, though I still sat through the beginner class for a refresher. The thing is that once in the chamber, all that intellectual knowledge counts for very little if your muscle memory doesn’t kick in. I had to mentally remind myself to make small movements, to reach forward to move back, stretch out to go up, relax to go down, and so on. That two minutes in the chute goes so fast! My flight time was over before I knew it. All the way back to the car, my feet never touched the ground.

That night, as I lay chasing sleep, it occurred to me that there are parallels between flying and writing. Just in case they strike a chord with you as well, here they are in no particular order.

  1. Most fliers are like the majority of readers we write for: there for a one-time ride. They remember the basic moves (characters, settings, plot twists) long enough for one or two flights (reads), then go about their lives and soon forget the why.

Committed fliers and writers do what they do for joy, true. But there’s more to it. Lots more. The fliers thrill to feeling air beneath them, rather than the ground, and come back to the chamber again and again and again, some until they become instructors or sky divers. They fly to challenge their abilities, to learn new skills and to hone the ones they already have. We writers know our stories’ worlds inside out, and can tell you each character’s favorite color or least favorite food without hesitation, whether or not that information ever appeared in our work. We read the works of others for inspiration, to discover another storytelling technique, to envision the skeleton beneath the narrative and to advance our own understanding of the craft. What’s more, writers are just as comfortable (if not more) in our created worlds than in this one.

  1. Almost no one gets it right the first time. Sitting outside the chute, watching other fliers before my appointment, it was easy to tell who had flown before. First-timers are almost always as gangly as newborn foals, arms and legs flailing around in the chamber, bodies more often bumping against the wall or sinking to the bottom net rather than hanging mid-air. They don’t understand that every small gesture in body posture brings sharp and sometimes sudden movements that are difficult to control. Large movements by untrained fliers are inadvisable.

I started my current novel-in-progress years ago and saved those first attempts in my archive. Whenever I am tempted to think it’ll never be good enough to publish, I go back and read those bits. Each time, I am reminded of my first flight – all flailing adverbs and plot-falls, and gangly character development and wild, unfocused movement with no particular direction. In the flight chamber and on the page, I am not as good as I will be many flights (novels) in the future, but there is no comparison between then and now. It’s encouraging to have come so far!

  1. Practice makes better. Each time I step into the chute and feel that blast of air pushing me up and up and up, each time I remember to reach forward to move back, or to straighten my legs to go up or relax to go down, each time I manage a controlled turn with small hand movements, I program my muscle memory to fly better, faster, higher. Experienced fliers can do so much more—spinning around the chamber, face out and grinning at the audience, or flying upside down with their legs bent as if sitting in a chair on the ceiling, or shooting up to the top of the chute and diving back to the net only to pull out of the dive in the nick of time. Their aerobatics are amazing and so much fun to watch. I always point at the instructor showing off like this and tell my fellow fliers, “I wanna do that!

Each time I put figurative pen to paper and crank out a story or a scene or a chapter, each time I review and revise a draft of my work, I program my writing muscles to tell better stories with stronger plots and more relatable characters. I don’t get it right every time, but it comes easier with every draft. It’s like watching the flight instructors and trying to figure out how they do the things they do, based on what I already know. The more books I read—and I mean good books, ones I want to emulate—the more I understand about the craft. Because I wanna do that too.

  1. Always take the class. No matter how many times I fly, I always sit through the beginners’ class. It’s a good reminder for me, especially when I can’t make it to the chamber more than a couple times a year, and I never know when a first-timer will ask a question that will prompt helpful answers from the instructor. Besides, it helps the fliers to bond, which makes the flight more fun.

I take as many writing classes as I can, because I don’t know all there is to know about writing and because other writers always have a new and interesting perspective on the craft. I learn something new every single time. I especially love the fiction workshops where I can bring in a piece-in-progress and have others in the trade read and critique it. Critical feedback is essential to the process, not just when reviewing my own work, but the works of others too. Just as when I am watching another flier for good and faulty technique, it’s incredibly helpful to see how or why something in another person’s submissions works (or doesn’t), and to discuss it with others who are seeking the same sort of education as I am.

  1. It’s way more fun when you relax and just let it happen. Yes, you have to learn the “rules” of flight so as to not injure yourself (or your instructor) in the tube, but staying relaxed is so important that the hand signal for “relax” is one of the first things the flight class teaches first-time fliers. Stiff limbs, head and back will suck the joy out of any flight experience, not to mention it will impede the flier’s technique and keep them from learning. Granted, the first time I stepped into a flight chamber with the wind going over 100mph, staying relaxed was the last thing on my mind. I was so stiff with trying to remember the three hand signals (including “relax”) that I probably flew like wooden sculpture—straight to the net. Only the instructor’s intervention got me in the air that day.

Writers need to have an idea of their goal, true, but even plotters have to acknowledge when the story needs to diverge from their plan and allow themselves (and their characters) to go with the flow. Otherwise, the story ends up with stiff, flat characters, contrived settings, and shallow plotlines. Not only that, but part of the joy of writing fiction (for me at least) is the surprise of where my characters sometimes take me. One might think that the writer knows everything that is going to happen (we know favorite colors and least favorite foods, right?). but that isn’t always the case. What’s more surprising is that when I relax and let my characters lead me away from my carefully wrought plan, the story often turns out better than what I had I mind.

For me, writing is my daily flight. I can’t always step into the flight chamber at iFly—would that I could!—but I can step onto the streets of New Canaan or into the cloud forest of Guatemala anytime I want. I find myself on a park bench in Boston or northern Maine, or arising from a torpor chamber on an explorer-class spacecraft or hoofing trays full of food to whiney diners in New York at the drop of a hat. Any hat. Even when I’m slumping, my head is full of worlds that bump up next to this reality. And that keeps my feet off the ground, even when I’m not in flight.

Greetings from Slumpy Hollow, Slumptavia

So it’s been several weeks since I’ve touched my novel to any significant degree. Weeks. Maybe more than a month. I’m beside myself. I’ve tweaked and revised several short stories, spent time researching markets where I might submit them, attended several classes, re-sent book 1 of my novel series to the publisher I’ve wanted all along (they never responded the first time, and their guidelines say to re-send), and I sent the entire manuscript to another publisher who had an unexpected open submissions period where no agent was needed (neither of these publishers have a “no simultaneous submissions” mention on their guidelines). I’ve read through several of the scenes in book two of my novel series and made a few small changes. So I haven’t been ignoring my craft. I just haven’t written anything new other than blog posts or book reviews, nor have I continued the narrative in book two. When I do open it, I watch the daily target word count creep up and up and up, small increases for now but the longer it takes me to knock that down, the bigger they’ll get.

It isn’t that I don’t want to write. I do. I just can’t seem to get away from Life’s distractions long enough to nail my butt to the chair until it’s so late in the evening that I’m either wiped or too frazzled to focus, or it’s too close to bedtime. I don’t know about you, but if I write up until time to shut down and go to bed, sleep is hard to find. I have to stop and walk away from the computer at least two hours before I hope to close my eyes for the night. (When did that happen? I used to be able to write until 4:00 a.m., then go straight to bed, sleep three hours, and work all the next day.)

I’m on vacation this week, and spent the whole day today cleaning my desk (I could barely reach my computer), doing laundry (or I’d be naked), and other assorted tasks that I’ve been putting off too long. I meant to write. I wanted to write. I tried to write.

The words wouldn’t come.

I don’t remember the last time I was in a slump this bad. Maybe it’s the holidays, which seemed much busier this year than in the past. Is it just me? And no, we don’t spend a great deal of time shopping for gifts. While I understand the desire to exchange gifts with friends and loved ones, it seems to me that the Mercantile Scramble has become the main focus of Christmas. It’s gotten so bad we try to avoid going anywhere retail oriented (other than the grocery store) between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

Doesn’t matter what’s behind it. I fully expect you all to wag your finger in my direction and remind me of my BIC HOK TAM mantra. You’d be right to do so. This cannot go on. The voices in my head are yammering non-stop for me to let them out, so tomorrow I intend to sit at the computer and do nothing but write.

So fair warning to all my friends and family: I love you. But for the rest of this week, don’t look for me on Facebook or e-mail. Don’t call unless it’s an emergency. Don’t text. Or rather, feel free to do so, just know you’ll have to speak to our voice mail or expect an answer next YEAR (hee!). These blank pages and I? We have a date, and I’m not missing it again.

Swimming with the Snarks

A couple of months ago, I joined a FaceBook writers group with thousands of members. I hoped to find helpful input, guidance and handy tips from others in the biz. What I got instead was drama. Every post I saw, no matter how innocuous or innocent the question, drew dozens of trolls whose main purpose seemed to be to offend as many people as possible on the thread. Granted, with that many members, it would be impossible to moderate adequately to keep all the trash out. But sheesh! What is the point of trying to snark another person into oblivion when they are there for ostensibly similar reasons as the snarker?

I followed it from the sidelines for over a month. Maybe two. I kept thinking maybe it was only a short-term thing, that the list would revert to its “normal helpful state” once the jerks got bored. But no. I found myself wading through 20 or 30 comments of rude or downright mean BS in order to find one helpful tip.

Let me be clear. I don’t speak snark. I don’t see the value in snark. My life has no room for snark. I have no problem telling someone if they’ve upset or offended me, but that is not the same thing. After that long with no clear change in the atmosphere, I finally bid the list adieu. I did make a comment (I know – stupid of me) that I was leaving in search of a writers group without all the drama, which I don’t need. For a week after I left the list, Facebook continued to send me the comments of other posters in response to my farewell note.

And each one’s tone? Yep, you guessed it. It was like a grade-school sandbox where the bullies were running the show. Who needs that?

As it happens, one of the other list members who was also tired of the puerile posts created his own writers group, and invited me to join. So I did. Already, I’m getting useful information every day. Because that’s the point of networking with other writers, isn’t it? To offer support and feedback? Advice and encouragement? It certainly seems to me like a more useful goal than tearing each other down, setting out to embarrass or humiliate the others, or to lord one’s own experience over a newcomer.

In Hampton Roads, where I live, there are several writers’ groups: Hampton Roads Writers and The Muse Writers’ Center. Both are oriented toward helping writers learn and improve their craft. HRW hosts “Show and Grow” events where writers can read excerpts and receive critiques, as well as classes, workshops and an annual conference (see my blog post in late September). The Muse Center has a regular physical space where they host gatherings, classes of all kinds, open readings, and more. They also host writers’ happy hours at various locations near their site so that we who are crazy enough to pen our thoughts in creative prose of one form or another might network and find others of like mind.

That is the type of support writers need. That’s why we seek out the company of other writers and creative people. And sometimes, we find each other in the darnedest, most unexpected places, as if we are drawn to one another by the muses in our heads.

A couple of weekends ago, I was gifted with contributions toward purchasing a new laptop and met young Phillippe, the sales clerk who assisted me at the Apple store. He was as nice as he could be, and I was already enjoying his company when I mentioned in passing that I am a writer. He was immediately intrigued and wanted to know more. I obliged (what writer wouldn’t?) and he confessed that he’d often thought of writing the story of his life as a fictionalized tale. Bobby and I strongly both encouraged him to do so, told him he’d never know if he could do it unless he tried. I told him about the local resources, and watched the look of excitement spread over his face at the thought of pursuing this dream. I admit to thinking how much farther along in this career I’d be by now if I too had started at twenty, like I wanted to. It felt really good to encourage him, to see his eagerness, and to wonder later if he would actually go after it.

I’m one of the first people to say that as widely differing individuals, we should try to find common ground if we want to understand one another. And I’m not sorry I joined that first Facebook writers group. It served as a reminder of the fact that there are apparently people out there who speak only snark. But I have no desire to visit snark city on purpose. The world has too much unavoidable ugliness already without choosing a forum whose atmosphere gags me with it every time I visit.