Over the past year, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on Twitter, playing writer hashtag games. What’s a hashtag game? you may ask.
We all know what a hashtag is. It’s that # sign, followed by a word or phrase that’s used to identify social media messages on a specific topic – #wedding, for example, or #ihatemondays. People interested in that topic can search for the hashtag and see the latest messages.
A hashtag game takes things a step further, by establishing a central theme and then inviting others to use the hashtag to share their own message on the theme. #5WordsToRuinADate is a popular one (typical response: “I don’t think it’s contagious.”) Twitter is the main social media outlet for hashtag games; I haven’t found many elsewhere on the web.
A writer hashtag game establishes a central theme (often a single-word prompt such as “dream” or “fire”) and invites writers to search their WIP (Work In Progress) for lines containing the theme. Participants then share their lines with the online writing community by using the hashtag. Because tweets are limited to 280 characters, the game forces brevity – a useful asset when writing.
Since I’m writing this blog on a Wednesday, I’ll use today’s #1lineWed theme of “secret” and a selection from my just-released book Ragis as an example. Here is how my game entry appeared:
You may notice I’ve stuck some other hashtags on there. This is so the post can be seen not just by fellow participants in the #1linewed game, but by writers in general, writers who write fantasy, and people who like epic fantasy (which is my series’ genre). What you can also see from this screenshot (taken just a minute or two after I posted it) are the reactions to the post – those who liked it my deathless prose, and one person who retweeted it to her followers (in this case, the retweeter is my editor for Ragis).
Ah ha! you may be thinking. So this is not just a game – it’s a promotional tool.
Ah ha – you would be correct in thinking that. It took me a while playing the various writer hashtag games (and reading, liking and retweeting others’ tweets) to come to that realization. And it wasn’t until September of last year, when Twitter increased its post limit from 140 words to 280 characters, that writers were able to share not just a substantive quote from their work, but increase its visibility outside the game.
Once I had this revelation, any guilt I felt over wasting time playing hashtag games was allayed. Not only was I having fun playing the games, I was actually working! I was DOING PROMOTION! I was NETWORKING WITH OTHER WRITERS! So I played even more of the games: the weekly ones like #musemon, #tuesline #thurds, #fridare #SlapDashSat and #sunwip, and the daily ones like #wiptruthordare and #authorconfession. I found some very specific games like #martialmon (fight lines!) and #salacioussun (smexy lines!), #WhoNeedsAHero (antagonists!) and my current favorite, #TrickyTues, which asks you to find unusual words like “paroxysm” in your WIP (to my surprise, I actually had THREE usages of that word). Some of the games have rules, like “no buy links,” but in general they’re run in a pretty relaxed fashion.
And their promotional impact is fleeting. Your post in the game sinks down the page pretty quickly, especially in the more popular games., so unless a fair number of people like/retweet it, it’s largely gone after an hour or so. Reactions to my example post above, about an hour after posting – yes, it takes me that long to write a blog – seem to have stalled out at eleven likes, three retweets and one comment. That’s about average for my posts. There are writers who get a lot more responses to their game entries and end up on the “top” page for that particular hashtag, so their posts will have a little longer Twitter life.
I don’t really care about the reactions – although they’re nice to get. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to attract followers; if people like my work and want to follow me, that’s dandy, and if they seem interesting I’ll give them a follow back. But I don’t play the game to get followers. I just like sharing my stuff and reading other writers’ work.
There is one extra thing I do, particularly when I’m super-focused on the promotional aspect of the games. I often create a graphic to feature my quote – because 1) a picture is more eye-catching than just text, and 2) I get a kick out of designing them, and 3) I always like to zhush things up.* I can usually put an effective graphic together in about 15 minutes. I use Canva to create my graphics; the site has lots of free content and it’s very user-friendly. I made the “paroxysm” graphic above yesterday, not just because it was Tuesday but also because it was Release Day for Ragis, hence the extra language in the text portion of the tweet. (And well…because paroxysm.) It only got 4 likes and 3 retweets, but that’s okay. Occasionally I’ll post the graphic on my Facebook page, although my FB friends tend to be more focused on my theatrical work. And as I said, I do this more for my own enjoyment than for its promotional benefit.
Here’s something weird, though, and what prompted today’s blog. I don’t share material from first drafts, or even second drafts. I always pull my excerpts from completed but unpublished works. With the publication of Ragis yesterday, I am suddenly without a completed work to draw from. And that realization was kind of a kick in the head.
For the past several years, at any given time, I have had at least one novel completed, and at least one in the works. For example, when I signed with my publisher in July 2016, I had completed Kinglet, was polishing up Fiskur and had started work on StoneKing. That pattern continued until the end of last year, when my output began slowing. At that time I was in NYC understudying the Broadway musical War Paint – a stressful and demanding job that sapped much of my writing energy. What little I had left was going into blogs, interviews and other promotional material for Kinglet and Fiskur (which came out in August 2017 and November 2017, respectively). When StoneKing released in February 2018, I was back home and Ragis was waiting in the wings, and but I was only just starting the first draft of the fifth and final book in the series.
I confess I’m having a bit of a timeline issue with Book 5. The action of the Gemeta Stone story has been largely continuous from Kinglet all the way through Ragis, but the fifth book’s plot begins after a considerable passage of time. Events that occur in that timeframe, while not important to the plot per se, have effects that impact the existing characters, so those effects have to be factored in. I’ve also recently re-thought two of the major characters who will be introduced in the fifth book, and those new characterizations also impact the plot. And of course, the time-suck of promoting the existing books, plus some other factors I won’t go into just yet, are contributing to my slowdown.
But never fear. The fifth book IS coming. It’s just coming slower. And there’s another little project sitting on the back burner: a prequel that I wrote a couple of years back. I never intended for it to be published; I wrote it because, prior to starting the StoneKing/Ragis portion of the storyline, I needed to sort out exactly what happened the first time my protagonist (Kristan Gemeta) and my antagonist (Daazna, the Wichelord) actually met. I also wanted to explore how certain events in their youths shaped their personalities. What I wrote ended up being pretty interesting, I think – especially as an insight into how Daazna got to be the way he is.
So here’s a question for those of you who’ve been keeping up with the series: is this something you’d be interested in reading – maybe between Ragis and the fifth book? You can answer in the comments below, or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do let me know – I’d love to hear your thoughts.
*And, I must confess, because a graphic lets me circumvent Twitter’s 280-character limit. I can share a longer excerpt and use the text portion of my tweet for additional hashtags and other information.
This a continuation/conclusion of a blog from a few days ago, where I re-posted some of the blogs I wrote for FISKUR’s virtual book tour. I wrote a total of eight; these are the last four. I hope you enjoy reading them.
#5 – Writer, Know Thyself
There’s a game that writers play on occasion that I’ve never been able to work up any enthusiasm for, and that’s the “Cast the Movie of Your Book” game. The game bugs me for two reasons: 1) I’m superstitious and it feels like a jinx, and 2) I don’t strongly identify any of my characters with any actual person, living or dead.
And I don’t want readers of The Gemeta Stone series to be force-fed any particular “look” for the characters, either, especially the photo-shopped models that appear (often simply as bare torsos) on so many book covers. I want my readers to have the experience of reading the characters’ descriptions and imagining those characters for themselves.
That said, there are certainly elements of family and friends that I’ve incorporated – sometimes deliberately, sometimes unwittingly – in my characters. (A fair number of them have physical characteristics in common with certain of my nieces and nephews, along with similar names.) I think it’s also safe to say that most of my characters have quirks that resemble my own, or traits I wish I had.
For example, my main character, Kristan Gemeta, values kindness above all and has tried his whole life to do what is right. It’s a theme that has always fascinated me, which may be why I find the endings of Babe and Sense & Sensibility to be so moving and satisfying. Both Babe the Pig and Elinor Dashwood struggle to do what’s right, even though “what’s right” may not be easy and actually stands in the way of their own happiness. Kristan’s innate decency is what I like best about him. His female counterpart, Heather Demitt, has a brave, impulsive nature that I envy, and it’s the thing I like best about her. Even my bad guy Daazna has a trait I admire: a ferocious desire to learn and to master new skills.
If I was to pick one character from the series who is most like me, it would probably be Ariphele, Daazna’s mother. She’s a middle-aged magic user of limited skill, a little on the lazy side, but very observant. She’s also sarcastic and has no qualms about goading her son, sometimes to incite him to greater achievements but more often just for the sheer pleasure of getting under his skin. Ariphele not only serves as a stimulus for Daazna, but she also humanizes him. She allows the reader to see him, not simply as the “bad guy” (although he can be very, very bad) but as someone with frustrations, doubts and desires just like the more heroic characters.
And that’s my main job as a writer: to create characters that are not just stock “good guys” and “bad guys,” but who are as fully-fleshed, as contradictory and as intriguing as the people who inhabit our real lives.
#6 – A Day in the Life of an Actor/Author
I think I must have been a farmer in past life. I always wake up early in the morning, no matter how late I was up the night before. This can be inconvenient because as well as being an author, I’m a professional stage actress and usually don’t get home from work until after 11 p.m. But I can’t help it – as soon as sunlight begins to creep through my window, my mind clicks into gear, even if my body doesn’t want to come with it.
If my body is super-reluctant, I’ll lie in bed for fifteen minutes or so and let my mind wander. Usually it wanders in the direction of whatever I happen to be writing, which these days is the final book in my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone. I’ll think about where I last left off, mull over plot points and listen to my characters talk in my head. When my body finally gives up and joins the party, I’ll get up and slog into the kitchen to make tea.
I drink a lot of hot tea in the morning – maybe about half a gallon. (No, I’m not kidding.) I’m picky about my tea – I don’t like tea bags – and use loose leaf Nilgiri, an Indian black tea which stands up to the milk and sweetener I take with it. While the tea is steeping, and if weather permits, I’ll step out onto my back deck and get a good whiff of the weather, then stroll around and visit my plants. If the weather’s inclement, I’ll spend some time watching the birds at my dozen or so feeders. Then it’s back to the kitchen for a big mug, and off to my little study to fire up the computer.
First comes the email. I have six different accounts – personal, writing, website, junk and even junkier junk, plus a super-secret account I only use to back up completed manuscripts and other writing. I check them all, answer what needs answering and delete the rest. There’s usually some correspondence from either my editor or my publisher, and sometimes I’ll hear from one of my agents (I have three: theatrical, film/TV and literary). Then I start about an hour’s worth of promo. I check into Facebook, post a bit and chat with friends, then head over to Twitter and spend some time participating in writer hashtag games (I’m a regular at #musemon, #meta4mon, #thurds and #51writers). For the run up to FISKUR’s release, I created a dozen or so graphics using quotes from the book, and posted one or two a week as a teaser. I’ll probably do the same for STONEKING, the third book in the series, which will release in early 2018. I don’t promote every single day because I don’t want to be one of those relentless authors who are constantly pimping their books – that’s as tiresome for my friends/followers as it is for me.
From Twitter I’ll cruise over to my favorite writers’ forum, AbsoluteWrite.com, and spend some time reading and posting there. Then I’ll go to Lumosity.com and play a few games to get my brain into high gear. By then I’ve usually drunk most of my tea, and am ready to start my day in earnest. My husband is usually afoot as well (he works from home, which is great because otherwise I’d rarely see him), so we’ll check in with each other before he heads downstairs to his office.
If I’m rehearsing a show, I’m called to the studio as early as 10 a.m., so I may have to truncate the schedule above. If I’ve got an early call, I’ll warm up in the shower, dress and head off to work. If I know I’ll have a sizable break during my rehearsal day, I’ll bring my laptop and work on my writing then – in my dressing room if I can, in the theatre lobby or a nearby coffee shop if I can’t. If the show is already in performance, I’ll write in the morning, break for lunch with my husband and then continue into the afternoon until it’s time to leave for work – unless it’s a two-show day. Then the laptop definitely comes along with me and I’ll write between shows during our dinner break. If I’m in a show where I have long breaks between entrances, I may sneak in some writing then, but most of the time I’m focused on the show. In fact, unless I’m between projects, I do very little writing in the evening.
As hectic and scattered as this may sound, I’m more productive when my time is limited. Every minute is precious then, and I don’t have the luxury of procrastination. I don’t spend a lot of time putzing around on the internet – I get right down to business. The creative atmosphere is really stimulating as well. Theatre people are generally articulate and often funny, and working with them can really get the juices flowing. It’s a crazy life, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
#7 – Throwing Rocks at Your Main Character
“The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” – Vladimir Nabokov
Old Vladimir is right. For a book to be gripping, the main character must have desires, needs and goals. Achieving those goals can’t be easy (otherwise, why tell the story?), so there must be plenty of big obstacles in the way.
I sometimes feel sorry for Kristan Gemeta, the main character in my fantasy series THE GEMETA STONE, because I’ve been abusing him for years. In fact, in an early chapter of KINGLET, the first book in the series, I literally put him up a tree and trapped him there (spoiler alert: no rocks, and eventually he got down). But that’s picayune stuff compared to what he has to go through in FISKUR, the second book, which was just released this month. It’s life-changing stuff that will scar him: emotionally, mentally and physically.
I don’t abuse Kristan just for laughs, and not just to advance the plot, either. It’s important to me, and to the story as a whole, that Kristan grow as a character. He’s a fairly straightforward young man when the reader first meets him in KINGLET – a little solemn, a little naïve maybe – and his approach to his problems reflects that. As his world gets more complicated and his obstacles more challenging, though, his mindset and his personality change. The more Kristan learns from his experiences, the more he’s changed by them, and the more complicated and nuanced his character becomes.
I think that’s what keeps him interesting, not only for the reader, but for me as the writer. Even as a child, it used to bug me when a character in a book didn’t seem to feel the effects of what happened in their lives (I mean, Nancy Drew was exactly the same from book to book, no matter what kind of adventures she experienced in the previous story). If I can always anticipate what Kristan’s going to do in a given situation, then he becomes dull.
This may be one of the reasons I don’t outline my books, or if I do, it’s a sparse, loose outline. I will start writing knowing more or less where I’m headed, but it’s never a straight road, and Kristan will occasionally surprise me by wanting to take a completely different route. And his route is always the more interesting way, so I’ll let him take the wheel. It’s the least I can do, after throwing so many rocks at him.
#8 – Searching for Inspiration
“I have learned, and been happy.” – T.H. White, The Once and Future King
There have been so many authors whose work has inspired my own, especially fantasy authors. I love Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. LeGuin, J.R.R. Tolkien and Terry Pratchett. But it’s T.H. White’s The Once and Future King that really spoke to me and made me want to write in the genre.
For the uninitiated, The Once and Future King is a retelling of the Arthurian legend, published by White in 1958 and made up of four earlier, shorter and substantially revised novels: The Sword in The Stone,The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind. (There’s a fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, which was published after White’s death.)
Like many people my age, I came to the book by way of the Disney cartoon The Sword in the Stone – a film I loved as a child – and the Broadway musical Camelot, which was inspired by the third and fourth parts of the book. I discovered that the original work was so much more whimsical and wistful than the movie, and far more stirring and melancholy than the musical. White’s prose is elegant, but it’s the characterizations that really make the story come alive. Arthur progresses from an innocent boy to a young warrior, to the idealistic king of Camelot, and finally, to a man beaten down by betrayal and the woes of the world. The wizard Merlyn lives backward through time, and he prepares Arthur for the trials he knows are coming by changing him into various animals so Arthur can experience their lives and use those experiences to shape his own rule when he becomes king. My own main character, Kristan Gemeta, has a similar struggle throughout The Gemeta Stone books to find a balance between power and compassion – although there’s no helpful magic-worker to show him the way. (Most of the magic-workers just baffle him.)
My copy of The Once and Future King is somewhat battered and its pages are yellowed and dog-eared. One of those dog-ears marks my favorite quote in the book – the one that starts this blog. I love it so much that I use it as my signature in emails, and I’d like to have it as my epitaph when the time comes. I can’t think of any better way to live one’s life than to spend it always learning.
FISKUR, the second book in my fantasy series THE GEMETA STONE, has now been out for a month. Its virtual book tour is complete, so I’m going to do what I did for KINGLET and put all the guest blogs I wrote for the tour here, for your reading pleasure. I wrote a few more of them for this release (my publisher, Fiery Seas, hired a new marketing person and she’s a real fireball), so I’m going to make this blog post a two-parter, so as not to overwhelm you readers. They’re on a variety of topics, and I hope you’ll find them interesting.
#1 – The Perils and Pitfalls of Researching the Fantasy Novel
I’m a fiend for research. In fact, it’s one of the things I like best about writing: learning new stuff which I can then incorporate into my stories.
Even when you write fantasy, as I do, you still have to ground your make-believe world in reality. The setting of my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone is a traditional European, medieval-esque world. My characters ride horses, use bows and arrows, fight with swords and live in and around castles. Fortunately it’s an era I’ve always been interested in, so I had years of reading (and stacks of books) on various aspects of that time.
However, when I was about to write my first one-on-one swordfight, I realized how little I actually knew about swordplay – beyond what I’d seen in movies. Fortunately, we live in the Era of the Internet, where information is yours for the taking if you just look around a bit. I found a number of sword-centric websites and YouTube channels that were extremely helpful, but when you’re trying to write a sword fight from a combatant’s point of view, there’s nothing like hands-on, real-life experience to give real veracity to your writing.
So I started casting around for a swordsmanship class. Fortunately, I live in a major metropolitan area where you can find a class in just about anything. Unfortunately, I’m a Woman of a Certain Age, so I knew I was probably going to be one of the older participants in the class.
I had no idea just how MUCH older.
First day of the course, I dress in yoga pants and a long-sleeved shirt and my new white sneakers and my gloves (the class brochure said to bring your own for hand protection; I’ve purchased an inexpensive pair of golf gloves). I drive to the community center, head to the classroom – and discover that my fellow students are children. And only children. The youngest is about six, the oldest…well, let’s just say I am a full forty years older than the oldest kid in the class. The teacher eyes me warily, the parents dropping their kids off stare as I slink sheepishly into the classroom.
We’re outfitted with masks and lames (chest protectors). Some of the kids didn’t bring gloves and get loaners from the instructor, some wear winter gloves and one bright spark actually has gauntlets. GAUNTLETS.
I line up with the kids. The instructor shows us some basic footwork but the kids are impatient and can’t wait to start slashing around with the array of foils, epees and sabres on display. The instructor hands out foils and we face her as she demonstrates various moves. We try them out, but the kids are getting antsy as hell (to be honest, so am I) and so eventually the instructor pairs us off to practice the moves we’ve just learned. I end up with a gawky twelve year-old who’s the tallest of the kids. As we square off, I’m thinking hard about Kristan Gemeta, the hero of my series: a small, slight young man who’s nonethless an excellent (albeit reluctant) swordsman who relies on his agility and powers of observation to defeat larger, more powerful opponents. I want to see if this actually works, but I tower over the kid, and due to his mask, I can’t read his face for clues. However, his whole being is suffused with embarrassment over being paired with a woman older than his mom, and that makes him awkward. Me, too. We clump through the exercises like a couple of ill-matched plow horses: me the heavy-footed old mare, him the knock-kneed, gangling colt. We’ve only gone a round or two before class is over. I’m sweating like a horse, too, as I slip past the parents.
I go home and tell my husband about my first class and he absolutely HOWLS. He says it reminds him of that episode of Seinfeld when Kramer takes a karate class with a bunch of children. He wants me to go to the following week’s class and TERRORIZE the kids, just like Kramer.
I am too pure-hearted to Kramerize the kids, though, and I return to class the following week resolved to learn regardless of the situation. And I do. Several of the kids have dropped out (no surprise there) so we get a little more individual attention. The instructor corrects our stances, adjusts our grip on the swords. I fight with the littlest kid, who isn’t interested in getting past my guard; he bashes my upraised sword ferociously, forgetting that he’s supposed to be fighting me. I defeat him and file that experience away under INEXPERIENCED OPPONENT, but then I’m paired with the oldest kid in the class, a girl of about fourteen who actually knows what she’s doing and feints past me again and again. She hands me my ass and is gracious about it. I file that away under HEROIC BEHAVIOR.
I absorb other lessons, too, especially once we start working with the heavier epees and sabres: how you forget to breathe when you’re fighting a determined opponent; how your neat, careful braid gets pulled loose by the mask and how the loose hair sticks to your cheeks and forehead; how surprising and painful it is to get jabbed in the shoulder with a weapon, even a blunt one; how your muscles tremble after a long bout and how you ache all over the next day.
After six weeks, the class was over. Am I a good swordsman as a result? No – I’m not even a passable swordsman. But I’m a better writer, at least when writing those swordfight sequences. My experience in that humble little class gave me confidence and allowed me to narrate those scenes with authority and describe them viscerally – and that’s worth a little time and humiliation.
#2 – Deleting a Favorite Scene, or My Writing Bleeds When I Cut It
One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned as a writer is when to acknowledge that a scene isn’t working. I’m not talking about when the scenario doesn’t flesh out properly, or the writing is forced and clumsy. That happens all the time, and I hack that stuff out quickly and without remorse, and start again. No, what I’m talking about is when a scene is good, and the writing so polished that it shines, but the scene just isn’t serving the story as a whole. Sometimes it’s just extraneous material that’s bloating the word count, but more often – at least for me – it’s when the scene isn’t moving the plot forward with vigor.
I remember one instance of this particularly well. In an early draft of Kinglet, the first book in my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone, I opted to start the book with a scene from the point of view of my antagonist, Daazna, as he arrives on the shores of the kingdom of Fandrall. Beginning with the antagonist is a departure from a traditional opening, which introduces the protagonist. I was happy with the opening and it’s how the completed book starts, establishing tension by displaying Daazna’s skill with magic, the ruthlessness of his character and his nefarious motives for being in Fandrall in the first place.
The very next scene introduced Robert, the king of the realm and father of the series’ main character, Kristan Gemeta. It was a beautiful scene, with Robert on the battlements of his castle on a clear spring morning, Robert is admiring the view, and for sheer pleasure, throws out his arms as if to embrace it. He’s interrupted by Maxwell, his senior knight and oldest friend, who ribs Robert about making love to his kingdom. The two chat about Kristan and how well he’s grown up, and together they descend to the council chamber, where the character of Kristan is finally introduced.
It was a nice scene, with solid character-building and good descriptions, and I was in love with the image of the king standing high above his realm with his arms outflung. The problem? It was too nice. All the tension I’d established with Daazna in the first scene had completely dissipated. Yes, there was conflict coming in the scene with Kristan and Robert, but I’d have to rebuild the tension I’d already lost. And with Kristan being introduced by Robert and Maxwell singing his praises before the reader ever met him – well, shades of Mary Sue.**
So I cut that king-on-the-tower scene. It hurt. I’d lavished a lot of descriptive energy on it but it was simply not serving the story as a whole. After a lot of trial and error, I settled on a completely different second scene, which began with Kristan and his horse Malvo and introduced the upcoming conflict with Robert Gemeta in a much more interesting and effective way. I’d been pleased with the original scene, but I was delighted with this one, so much that when it was finished, I said out loud, “Yeah, that’s the stuff!” ***
Still, I mourned the loss of that king-on-the-battlements image. Even though it was cut, it refused to die. It was not until several years later, when I was working on the fourth book in the series, that I finally had the opportunity to use it – in a slightly different and even more interesting way (you’ll have to wait until that book comes out to see how). Not every cut scene gets a chance at resurrection, though – an early draft of Fiskur: Book Two of The Gemeta Stone had a great frolic-in-a-waterfall scene that got cut as well. It’s still breathing, though, and waiting for its chance to be in a story.
Maybe in Book Five.
* Or, in the case of thrillers and mysteries, someone who is about to get killed off.
** For the uninformed, a Mary Sue character is one that’s idealized to the point of nauseating the reader.
*** I talk to myself when I’m writing, but most of the time I say things like “well, that sucks.”
#3 – Where I Write Is How I Write Is What I Write
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head, feed your head
“White Rabbit” by Grace Slick
I write this sitting on a pair of house slippers.
That’s not entirely correct. I write this sitting on a tall wooden stool at a faux-granite countertop in a teeny-tiny sublet in midtown Manhattan. The house slippers are between me and the stool because the stool is hard and makes my sciatica flare up.
I am writing in this less-than-ideal environment because I’m temporarily in New York working on a Broadway show. I’ve been here for about nine months. Another week left, and the show will be closed and I will be headed back home to Virginia, where I have a proper desk and a proper chair in a proper office.
Do ideal settings make me write more? Or write better?
No. Sometimes the odder the writing environment, the more the ideas flow. I’ve written in coffee shops and restaurants, libraries, parks, trains, buses and airplanes, conference rooms, hotel rooms, laundry rooms, dressing rooms and theatre lobbies. I’ve written in lined notebooks, on scraps of paper, bits of napkin and out loud into a recorder, but I’m happiest if I can use my laptop on a proper surface with a decent chair. (Because sciatica.)
I don’t need silence; as long as the sounds around me aren’t blaringly intrusive, they’re just absorbed into the experience. If things get too loud, I can always put in my earbuds and listen to some music while I write.
Since I write fantasy, I rely heavily on my imagination, and the more I’m stimulated by my surroundings – odd though they may be – the more open I am to new ideas. Sometimes my desk and chair at home are too familiar, too comfortable, so I make a point of getting up and moving around every hour or so. (Also because sciatica.) I look out the window, go out on the deck, head into the garden and pull a few weeds. If I’m really stuck I go for a walk. Sometimes I’ll take a notebook with me, just in case inspiration strikes, but mostly I just walk and breathe and think.
My most productive walks are in nature and in solitude: open fields, forests and deserted beaches are best. I like both an expansive view and minute details: open ocean and grains of sand, towering trees and a chickadee on a twig, wide open spaces and a cricket at my toes.
But sitting on a pair of house slippers will work just as well. It’s all grist for the mill. My discomfort – as far as I can stand it – is another experience that I can use in my writing. It opens my mind, it releases my imagination, it feeds my head – far better than the potions and mushrooms advocated by Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane in “White Rabbit.”
#4 – How I Started Writing
It’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories. I’m the middle child of a big Army family and when I was a kid we moved just about every other year and usually in the middle of the school year. I was always the new kid, and consequently it was hard to break into the pre-existing cliques. I was saved from being a lonely kid by always having siblings to play with, and endless games of pretend with them (and an ever-expanding cast of stuffed animals and dolls) gave me a solid grounding in the world of storytelling.
Later on, I graduated from acting out stories to drawing them. On pads of wide-lined, rough-textured elementary school notepaper, my younger brother John and I scrawled out complicated chambers inhabited by characters we called “Pirits.” Pirits were stick figures, clad in pointed hats and triangular gowns and as far as I can recall, were essentially sexless. Pirits were sucked into these chambers by a giant vacuum and then blown out into little sub-chambers, where the sheer force of the wind activated mechanical contraptions that fed them, put them into shoes, cleaned their hats, and whatever other goings-on our young minds could contrive. Stretched out on the floor on our tummies, with the notebook open between us, John and I would draw on our own page and describe to each other what was happening in our particular Pirit world.
When we’d learned how to read and write, we started creating little books of construction paper with illustrated stories of perhaps four or five lines. I can’t remember any of my mine, but one of John’s involved a little guy eating pizza with extremely stretchy cheese. In its entirety it read:
Would you like to eat a pizza pie? (picture of little guy biting pizza)
And try and try and try and try? (cheese stretches way out)
WHAP! (cheese recoils, hitting the little guy in the face)
You think and think (little guy ponders)
And WHAP again! (little guy punches the pizza maker)
I never said we were brilliant writers. The family thought the stories were great, though, and urged us to write more.
Our tastes and writing abilities expanded and matured. We returned to writing in notebooks again, only this time they were the more grown-up composition books – handy because they had sturdy covers that made a good writing surface. We started drawing comic books together, based on The Lone Ranger cartoons that ran on Saturday morning TV. Initially they were tongue-in-cheek spoofs, but later on we took the characters of the Ranger and Tonto, updated them and made them into contemporary secret agent-types. The stories turned from spoof to serious, with real plots and real villains and (gasp!) even love interests. John wasn’t much for the love interest stuff. Our creative differences meant we started writing our stories separately, on regular notebook paper, and enshrined them in separate ring binders. We’d still read and enjoy each other’s work, though. Even after we stopped writing them, we kept them for a long time. They finally disappeared from our lives, probably during one of our last moves as a military family (my dad was ruthless about throwing out stuff before a move).
Now, decades removed from our Pirits and construction paper books and fan-fic comic strips, my brother and I are both published authors. John’s book is a scholarly work called Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II. And I’ve got my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone. The first book of the series, Kinglet was released last August, followed by Fiskur, now available now from major retailers everywhere. The third book in the series, StoneKing, will be released in early 2018.
It’s funny how far enthusiasm, a little paper and some encouragement can get you.
“Atmospheric entry is the movement of an object into and through the gases of a planet‘s atmosphere from outer space. There are two main types of atmospheric entry: uncontrolled entry, such as in the entry of astronomical objects, space debris or bolides; and controlled entry, such as the entry (or reentry) of technology capable of being navigated or following a predetermined course.” – from Wikipedia
I’ve been back from Alabama for four days now, and I guess you could say it’s a controlled re-entry. The trip from Montgomery by car takes twelve hours and change, and at this stage in my life I refuse to drive for 12+ hours, particularly after a week of performances and closing festivities. So I took the most expedient route home (avoiding I-95 because I hate it so), drove for eight hours and then stopped for the night at a motel on I-81. That night on the road gave me a chance to detach from Alabama and fix my thoughts on home.
I really enjoyed my time at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Aside from a some minor quibbles with the artist housing (a TV set so dated that I couldn’t attach my beloved Wii game and a ceiling that leaked during the frequent ferocious Alabama thunderstorms – really, I’ve lived in far worse), I was comfortable and happy. I missed my husband and I missed my house and my garden, but that’s the price you pay for working away from home.
It was interesting revisiting the role of Ursula, too. Aside from the tentacles and the basic hoopskirt format, the costume was very different. At Olney, Pei Lee’s costume design resulted in a sleek, scary Ursula, and the makeup design (executed by fellow cast member and airbrush whiz Gracie Jones) lent an harsh and somewhat alien aspect to the character. Due to the configuration of the stage, I only had two practical tentacles (you can read more about them here) and only two eels (Nurney Mason as Flotsam and Robert Mintz as Jetsam) to help manipulate them. At ASF, Brenda van der Wiel’s design provided SIX working tentacles, more cleavage, and a towering wig that was three parts Marie Antoinette and one part Paula Deen. My makeup design, by David Rowland, featured lots of glamour and glitter. Ursula’s look wasn’t all that was different: in addition to my Flotsam and Jetsam (Jeremy Pasha and Brandon LaShawn Curry), I had a six-member eel ensemble which swirled and twirled and essentially did my evil bidding in both my big numbers:
I found, once I got into the ASF costume, that Ursula began to change. She wasn’t nearly as sinister as her Olney counterpart; she giggled and flirted and preened like a true Southern belle. I had the same navigational difficulties that I had at Olney – too big to fit through doors and too bulky to sit in a chair – only this costume was even bigger and heavier, weighing in at a whopping 36.5 pounds. Once again, when not onstage I had to sit off by myself, out of everyone’s way (in this instance, on a stool in the scene shop behind the stage right wing, where all the set pieces were kept – I got to be good buds with the crew).
When not performing, I spent my time in my apartment writing (still banging away at Book #3 in my fantasy series while my agent tries to find a publisher for Book #1), or reading (I think I roared through nearly twenty books in two months), or I’d go out for a stroll in the Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park (where ASF is located). The park was quite lovely, with ponds and trees and walking trails and even the occasional bird. The Southern heat took some getting used to; by the time I left we were averaging 95+ degree days with high humidity, which made the outdoors feel like a swamp and the air-conditioned indoors feel like a freezer.
On my days off I explored the area, mostly looking for good birdwatching, but the summer heat really put a crimp in that activity, not just for me, encumbered with my binoculars and camera and birding bag, but for the birds, who I’m convinced had left town for the mountains. I really didn’t see much that I hadn’t already seen, even on an overnight trip to Dauphin Island off the Alabama coast. (I’d love to go back there during the spring migration, though – I bet it’s amazing.)
Because my mom’s home isn’t more than a five-hour drive from ASF, my mom got to see the show. This was especially exciting because she hasn’t seen me perform since 2009. Her friend Sandra drove the both of them down, and they really seemed to enjoy the show. I even managed to get Mom up onstage with me post-performance for a photo op. I got a similar shot with John when he came to visit, and after that it seemed like the doors were flung open and EVERYONE wanted a post-show picture with Ursula! I didn’t mind (I got to take pictures with some absolutely adorable kid-relatives of various company members), and David Rowland (who was also responsible for my wig) and my dresser Ruth Fink were always very patient and gracious about waiting for me, not only for these photo ops but also when I did a post-show discussion (which was at least once a week).
Graciousness was a large part of my Alabama experience. Everyone was so courteous and helpful – from our company manager, Crystal McCall, to the stage management team under the leadership of Hannah Jean Farris, to the crew members (especially stage op Tony Gordon, who got me into my flying harness, as well as into the air, for every single performance). Everyone in admin, front of house, box office – even the security guys – were just as enthusiastic and supportive as they could possibly be. And I never for a minute felt like their many kindnesses were anything but genuine.
And I can’t say enough good things about the cast of ASF’s Mermaid: hard-working, cheerful, consistent and just plain fun to be around – especially Jeremy and Brandon, the nicest eels a Sea Witch could ask for.
So as I head back into my more cosmopolitan (and perhaps slightly more jaded) existence here in the DC Metro area, I’m hoping to keep a little bit of that Alabama sweetness with me – by passing it on. Mean ol’ Ursula’s doesn’t just have a spangling of glitter, she’s got herself a sugar coating, too. Y’all better watch out.
It’s one of those things we actors folks both dream about and dread: unrelieved, overlapping gigs. Show after show, gig after gig, all tumbling together on the calendar like a bunch of happy puppies, difficult to manage, nearly impossible to organize, hard not to love. I’ve been going nonstop since October a year past, industrial upon workshop upon one-nighter upon show uponshowuponshow. Don’t think for a minute I’m not grateful; I am. Back to back gigs in my line of work are something to be celebrated. It’s like having a “real” job for a change: knowing exactly what you’ll be doing a week from today, the ability to plan ahead, and most important, the constant paychecks.
But after nearly a year of it, I was desperate for a break. I only get one day off a week, and that’s Monday, and it’s usually filled with mundane things like laundry, grocery shopping, housework and making dinner for my long-suffering husband. I had a month-long break in June, but I spent it with my mother in Tennessee, getting her house in order after she’d been in rehab following a fall and a fractured hip. It was a break from show biz, yes, but it was not a Break in the normal sense of the word and in fact, was a lot more stressful than I realized. I looked at my calendar and saw that I would have three weeks off between SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at Signature Theatre and THE LITTLE MERMAID at Olney Theatre. And I said to myself, “by gum, Self, you are going to take a REAL BREAK.”
Unfortunately John had a project due at work, so we couldn’t take a break together, but with his blessing I decided to strike off on my own. The first thing I wanted was to have some uninterrupted writing time. Through research and the recommendation of playwright Bob Bartlett, I settled on a three-day stay at The Porches in Norwood, Virginia. As soon as SUNDAY closed, I packed my bags and my travel computer and set off for Central Virginia.
Trudy Hale, owner and hostess of The Porches, sent along a sheet of directions and advised that I use them instead of my in-vehicle GPS. There’s a reason for this: Norwood, Virginia is out in the boondocks, and when I was about fifteen miles out from my destination my GPS simply stopped working. Fortunately Trudy’s directions are quite clear, and I pulled into the gravel driveway of The Porches around 4:30 PM on Tuesday.
Trudy met me at the door, along with Jenny, one of the other writers in residence. There were two other writers at The Porches when I arrived, and all three of them left the following day. I chatted at length with Jenny, exchanged only a few words with Anne, and never even saw Henry. Privacy is tantamount at The Porches; there are rules about keeping quiet during the day so you don’t disturb other writers as they woo their Muse.
I unpacked the car, stowing my foodstuff in the Writers’ Refectory (a large first-floor kitchen and dining room) and dragging my other things up to my assigned quarters: The Jade Room, on the top floor of house. Initially I was a little dismayed at being waaaaay up there (in addition, the Jade Room is the only room equipped with a single bed instead of a double), but after I’d gotten moved in I had to admit it was an awfully nice place. It was a light, airy room with a skylight, plenty of windows, a view of the treetops and loads and loads of quiet. It also had a generous workspace for my computer and attendant Writing Junk, a power strip for All The Things That Must Be Plugged In, a ceiling fan and good lamps for writing at night
Not that I did much writing that first night. I was too busy getting oriented and arranged, and discovering that there was absolutely no cell reception anywhere on the property (“AT&T and Verizon don’t get along up here,” was Trudy’s explanation). I had to email John to let him know I’d arrived, and we kept communicating via email, and you know what? it wasn’t so bad. I wrote him a little letter in the morning and sometimes one at night, and it was actually sort of sweet.
My sleep that night was only so-so, as I expected. I never sleep well the first night away from home, and the final week of SUNDAY’s run I’d had some kind of bad reaction to a bug bite that made me break out in hives – some of which might have been stress-oriented. I’d been to the doctor and gotten a steroid shot to bring the hives under control, but I still had some major itching going on. All the same, I got up the following morning ready to write. Trudy was already gone – driving Henry to the airport in DC (!) and Jenny and Anne departed not long after, so I had the house to myself. After breakfast, I got to work. I took a break for lunch and kept on going until about 2 PM, when I realized my eyes were crossing and I needed a break. I stuck my phone in my pocket (although I couldn’t make any calls, I could take photos) and struck off to see what the neighborhood looked like.
Maizie, Trudy’s dog, was waiting just outside the gate and happily accompanied me on my walk. There was no one else around; not a soul. The only other person I saw on my 45-minute walk was a school bus driver, who waved to me as she passed the first time and waved again on her return trip (I wondered what poor kid lived way up here in the boonies). I crossed a little stream (I found out later it was not a stream at all, but the Tye River, a tributary of the James River which is not far away from The Porches), looked at a cow with her calf out in a field, saw a lot of old ruined houses and barns (very picturesque; made me wish I was a painter), and generally just enjoyed the fresh air. It was overcast and smelled like rain, and by the time I returned to The Porches (Maizie having long ago abandoned me for a neighbor’s yard) it was beginning to drizzle. I met Trudy out in the garden with a trowel and trug; she had only just gotten back from her trip to DC. I thought it was awfully nice of her to drive Henry all that way, but she shrugged and said she’d known him for thirty years. We stood in front of the house chatting for nearly an hour; she told me that she owns the little church just across Norwood Road from The Porches, and has hopes of turning it into an art studio/gallery at some point. She also told me a way to get down to the River Tye, and the best walks in the neighborhood. It started to rain in earnest then, and Trudy went into her side of the house, and I went upstairs to the Jade Room and got back to work. It rained the rest of the day and into the night, but the drumming of it on the tin roof was oddly comforting.
I wrote nearly 2000 words my first full day at The Porches, which probably doesn’t sound like much but it’s a lot more than I’ve been averaging of late. I generally peck out 500 or so words a day, but my excuse is that I edit and polish as I go – a system some writers scoff at, preferring to burp up words without stopping, but I’ve written two previous books this way and it’s what works for me. In addition to writing, I also read and did some yoga and never once turned on a TV (there’s one downstairs for them as wants it). Day Two was much the same, except even quieter – I had the whole house to myself. I followed much the same pattern: wrote all morning, took a break for lunch, wrote until midafternoon, went for a walk (this time sans Maizie, who couldn’t be bothered). I didn’t get as much written the second day: only about 1000 words, and I wasn’t entirely happy with it, but this is a first draft, after all, and I’ll fix it in rewrites.
So after my two full days and two partial days at The Porches, I can give it my heartiest recommendation. It’s quiet, it’s comfortable and it’s been lovingly laid out for working writers. The Refectory has plenty of refrigerator and storage space; the Writers’ Lounge looked comfy but I never used it – too busy writing. I brought my own books to The Porches but it was like bringing sand to the beach – every room in the house, with the exception of the bathrooms, had books in it. I had a peek into the other rooms and each of them is a veritable Writer’s Haven, with good light, a comfortable work space, great views and cozy armchairs and sofas for lounging in. The price is reasonable, the location gorgeous, and Trudy was funny, kind and welcoming.
I’m off on the next leg of my three-legged trip tomorrow: heading to Raleigh to visit my sister Margaret, by way of Appomattox Court House and environs. I’m looking forward to a weekend featuring a beer fest and a hockey game. It’s the antithesis of The Porches’ serene atmosphere, but after so much solitude, I’m about ready to be join the human race again.
These are my To Be Read books. The stack never seems to get any bigger or any smaller. For every book that’s removed and read, another one (or two) takes its place. I frequently tell myself “No more books until this stack is gone,” but then other books shoulder their way into my life and hands and get read and somehow this grouping remains. There are, no doubt, some excellent books in this stack – in fact, I’m sure of it, as I’ve actually started several of them. Yet month by month they have dropped lower and lower in the stack. Some books have been in this stack for more than two years. That’s the embarrassing part.
I used to feel obligated to finish every book I started. Even if I disliked it, I would force myself through it until it was done. I felt that unless I really finished it, I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion about it. About three years ago I realized that not being able to finish a book was not a sin or a crime, and that my inability to finish actually constituted an opinion. I initiated a new amnesty program, which I call The General Literary Absolution (with its attendant prayer, Forgive Me, Author, For I Have Forsaken Thee), whereby I am relieved of any obligation to finish a book that just isn’t working for me. Unfortunately, I’m also a big believer in giving every book a chance to win me over, and that usually constitutes reading at least the first quarter of the book before I allow myself absolution.
So how did all these books end up in this stack? Well, let’s have a look at some of them.
Right on top is The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill. I got this book because I read Cahill’s earlier work, How the Irish Saved Civilization, and really enjoyed it. I am actually reading this book now, so by rights it ought to be on the floor by my nightstand, where all my current reading lives. This is because I often read at bedtime. My rule is that I read until my eyes start to cross, then I stick a bookmark in the book, put the book on the floor and turn out the light. The only reason why the Cahill book is in the stack is because I moved it to vacuum the other day and haven’t touched it since. This is a bad sign. So far this book isn’t grabbing me like its predecessor did. I could put it aside and move on, but it’s a slim volume and I don’t actively dislike it, so I’m going to finish it. I swear I am.
Beneath the Cahill book is the latest volume of the Nimrod Literary Journal. It just came in last week, which is why it’s still in its plastic wrapper. Literary journals make good bedtime reading because they’re usually comprised of short stories and poems, so it’s easy to finish one before the eye-crossing point. For the same reason they’re good to take along to auditions or to read backstage when I’m working on a show, and once I’m finished with one I leave it for someone else to read, because God knows most green rooms could do with something other than ancient copies of People or Us or Men’s Health to read. So I will read the Nimrod – with luck, before the next issue appears in my mailbox.
Below the Nimrod Literary Journal is “oh dear” territory. These books are a little like the assigned reading you have for course work. Because I write in the fantasy genre, I have been advised to read more fantasy, and the unfortunate thing is that I’ve discovered I really don’t like a lot of fantasy writing. The first book in “oh dear” territory is a collection of Mercedes Lackey short stories. Now Mercedes Lackey is a HUGELY popular fantasy writer, but these stories just aren’t speaking to me yet. To be fair, they’re all over the map as far as genre: fantasy, spec-fic, horror, etc. And I’ve only read the first couple stories, so I haven’t given up on this volume yet. But beneath the Lackey book is the current bane of my existence: Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay. This is a fantasy novel that was also recommended to me, and it has one of the most beautifully written prologues I’ve ever read. I know this because I’ve read it about five times. My problem is with the first chapter. It’s an inn/tavern scene – one of my least favorite fantasy tropes. In tavern scenes characters are often being drunkenly obnoxious or skulking in the shadows wearing hoods. There is usually some kind of odd drink being consumed (in Tigana it’s khav; in Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion books it’s sib; in the Harry Potter books it’s pumpkin juice – you get the idea). Bad puns, hearty joking and much backslapping goes on. Most tavern scenes occur early in fantasies, and they’re usually an attempt to mask the infodump contained within.
(For the unitiated, an infodump is a big clump of wordy exposition. Since fantasy and science fiction usually involve major worldbuilding, the reader has to be introduced not only to characters, relationships, backstory and settings, but to the rules of the world that the author is building. Infodump is hard to avoid in any genre, but particularly in any form of speculative fiction.)
No doubt more of the lyrical prose that so entranced me in Tigana’s prologue lies beyond this first chapter tavern scene – but it stops me cold. Every. Single. Time. So I bookmark the book, put it back in the stack and forget about it. Every four months or so I haul it out and refresh my memory with the prologue and then start that first chapter and whammo! I’m up against that brick wall again. One day, when I’m in the right mood, I’m going to force myself through that first chapter and into the world beyond. So Tigana stays in the To Be Read stack.
Continuing downward is a book my mother handed off to me on my last visit. I love history books, and this one is a history of the Thames River, which will no doubt be fascinating. The two skinny books beneath it are for preliminary research for a book idea I’ve been percolating for the past year. Right now I’m preoccupied with my current project, so they’re waiting until I’m ready for them. Under those is a reference book for the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series (the books on which the movie Master and Commander was based). I am a rabid fan of the series – I roared through it two summers back – and have been slowly amassing a collection of books written about the series. I even own a cookbook called Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels, and it is enlightening, informative and even fall-on-the-ground funny on occasion (authors Thomas and Grossman also have a website, which is even more fun since it has photos).
Yet another history book follows, and beneath it are a couple of scripts – yes, my acting career sometimes intrudes on my reading as well – and below the scripts are books to feed one of my longtime fascinations: natural science. Lying beneath them is Sophie Tucker’s autobiography, which I picked up from my book swap club a couple years back when I was a fatter girl and was thinking about writing myself a one-woman show. I’ve lost interest in that project along with the poundage, but I would like to read the book, and besides, Sophie autographed it (that really excited me at first, but I found that Soph autographed a LOT of her books, so it’s not much of a collectors’ item).
More history, more science, some reference books for a play I was writing (currently back-burnered), more history more science and OMIGOD STEPHEN SONDHEIM IS THAT YOU? Relegated to the bottom of the stack? Oh, Stephen, much as I love you and your songs and especially your lyrics, your book is a HEAVY mo-fo and hard to read in bed or even sitting up in an armchair. One has to put it on a table or desk to read it properly. It’s not your fault – it’s mine for not having stronger arms. Same with Basic Country Skills. You’re both down there not because you’re least in my estimation or lowest on my priority list, but because higher up in the stack you make everything overbalance. Blame physics.
I just counted the books. There’s 22 of them in that stack – 23 if you count the one I just got from my book club – The Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments: Non-Western and Obsolete Instruments (esoterica if ever I saw it – what is the matter with me?). And I also have a couple of ebooks to finish (they’re in my phone; therefore unstackable and slightly less shameful). So let’s round up and say I have 25 books to read. There are 87 days left in 2012. My goal for the balance of the year is to see just how many books out of this stack I can finish (or read enough of to invoke General Literary Absolution) before midnight, December 31st. Check back then for the results.