Monday, December 28, 2009


I have spent the morning picking up the last traces of holiday wrapping and ribbons, putting away the last of the gifts, and generally de-bugging my house of all the holiday cheer. Don’t get me wrong, I am a great lover of Christmas—it is my favorite holiday. Just ask my poor husband, who used to endure weeks of holiday frenzy and mania as I celebrated every day of advent with unrelenting enthusiasm.

But this year, this year it came at a spectacularly poor time. It was nigh unto painful, having to break away from The Great Race to the Book Deadline and . . . celebrate. Suffice it to say, I was not in a celebrating mood. It was akin to having to stop in the middle of giving birth to go dancing. I was pretty much just wanting to focus on getting the job done.

However, now that it’s over, Theodosia is coming out to play in a big way. And none too soon, I might add. Trust her to wait to come out until all the guests have finally gone home—just like our cat.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

If You Give A Book A Gremlin . . .

. . . it will acquire a mind of its own to go with it.

Seriously. Once you give in to this organic thing, all hell breaks loose. Mysterious elements show up out of seemingly (key word, that) nowhere, characters take on a mind of their own and refuse, refuse, to do what you’ve told them to. The bad guy decides he’s not the bad guy any longer and strange interpersonal dynamics and heretofore unsuspected relationships that you have given no conscious thought to, begin appearing on the page.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job? ☺

The thing is, this is one of the reasons people give for not wanting to outline--a fear of stifling just this phenomenon, and I totally get that; that's their process and choice. For me though, I don't know how to get moving on the page without some sort of outline or plot and it is only when I am actively moving on the page that these sorts of spontaneous things begin happening.

I read somewhere, and I can't for the life of me remember where (Katy, you might know the source of this idea) that the reason music became part of religious ritual was because the monks believed it created a space through which the Divine could enter.

Maybe for some of us outlines are like that. Creating an outline is like playing the music that will allow the Creative Spark to ignite...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Plot is NOT the Story

It seems I have to learn this lesson at least once with every book I write:

The plot is not the story. The plot is simply (ha! nothing simple about plotting!) the device or vehicle that gets all the elements together so that the real story can happen.

The real story is the characters and relationships and growth that take place because of the plot.

I swear to god, I'm going to get that tattooed on the back of my hand where I can see it 139 times a day.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Getting My Gremlin On

I can't remember if I talked here about how Greasle came to take such a prominent role in Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist. It is an important lesson that I have only begun to learn, and have certainly not yet grasped. Not if the last few weeks are any indication, anyway.

The mythology in the Beastolgist books is simply that all the mythical creatures featured in the medieval beastiaries are real. They truly exist in hidden pockets of the world and only the Fludds know the exact locations of those. Simple enough.

However, while I was writing the first book I ran into the problem of Nate and Aunt Phil having to travel all over the world (there's that travel issue again!) and how to make it interesting rather than episodic or a simple tour guide recounting. Drama, I thought! I need to increase the tension! Make Nate proactive!

So I had Aunt Phil send Nate out on the wing to go up to the propeller and see what was gumming up the prop. He'd have to do the aeronautical equivalent of singing for his supper.

And much to everyone's surprise (not the least of which mine) it was a gremlin who was gumming up the works and out she popped into the story.

B-but . . . I didn't want a gremlin in the book! It didn't work! It mucked up the world I was building and mixed mythologies and . . . and . . . No, I wailed!

But try as hard as I might, I simply could not write the book without her. And if you know how life works, it is probably not surprising to learn that for many readers she is one of the most popular parts of the book.

So the lesson was clearly that one has to embrace one's creative wild hairs and just go with them some times. Only apparently I haven't truly internalized that one yet.

I've been plugging along on the new book for weeks, and it hasn't ignited in that way that it usually does--the way that makes it the most fun thing in the world to be doing. And it's because I've been resisting this odd, different angle/approach/thread that keeps wanting to come into the story, and I keep thinking, No. It doesn't work.

Only, I don't know that it doesn't work. I'm just afraid that it won't work. (Yeah. Fear never makes a good critique partner.) But the story is digging in its heels and refusing to come to play unless I do it its way. ::sigh::

So this weekend I gave up and said what the hell, and began incorporating that odd little element, and vavOOM! We're off! I would be banging my head on the desk in frustration at my own obtuseness if I weren't so relieved I've figured it out. I've finally found my gremlin for this book.

For me, this is one of the single hardest lessons in writing--learning to trust that creative vision, that quirky spark that wants to play in the story world I've created. I tend to think things aren't allowed or simply aren't done or that trying to combine too disparate elements creates incoherency rather than something new or fresh.

I wonder how many more times the Universe will have to slap me up side the head with this particular lesson? Should we start a pool?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A New Plot Predicament

Remember how I said that each of my manuscripts demands its own, unique plotting method? Well, this book is no exception. ::le sigh::

As I struggle with this current manuscript, I’m discovering that there are a few structural things that are forcing me to look at this book’s plot in a completely different way.

For one, it is the first book in which I’ve changed locations this many times. It starts off in Cairo, then moves to Luxor, then the action moves to An Undisclosed Location, then back to Luxor. Even harder, the travel part is not necessarily part of the dramatic action, so that is dead time story-wise, and better left off screen. The travel sequences also rather neatly bisect the book into four acts.

Normally I write to the turning points; the big moment of dramatic action, the big reveal, or a reversal of some sort. However, the turning points in this book don’t exactly happen at the change of location moments, but since those so firmly feel like act breaks, I’m stuck having to factor those into the plotting momentum somehow.

What I find is that I am writing the acts as individual pieces of a whole, rather than writing to the turning points, which might be a matter of semantics. Or not. I can’t quite tell yet. But the process feels different, and that’s why I’m kind of stumbling around.

Hm. This just occurred to me. (And this is why I blog—just talking about this stuff brings clarity.) The reason it feels different is because normally when I write to a turning point, I leave one act at a moment of high drama which then propels us into the next act.

But by writing each act as individual units, I find that the highest point of drama comes just before the act ends, then there is a minor moment of resolution or transition before proceeding into the next act, which takes place in a new location. It mirrors the structure of the end of the book, with a climax and resolution, rather than a turning point acting as climax and building on that. So it's like four separate little stories (structure wise, not thematically) with their own completion rather than a set of building blocks.

I’m trying to decide if this is good or bad or just different, and how much energy, if any, I should spend fixing it or trying to massage it into a different shape.

Needless to say, this whole structure thing has made me painstakingly aware of the logistical difficulty of traveling during a story, which I will blog about in a separate post since it is a big enough issue to warrant its own topic.

Monday, December 7, 2009

An Altered Book

I've already talked about the collages I do for my books, and the travel journal I'm doing for this particular Theodosia book, but I also wanted to talk about something I started doing a while back. It's similar to a collage in that it helps me access the story world in a much more, loosey-goosey creative way, without the specific writing tasks I expect to accomplish with the travel journal (voice, descriptions, travel logistics). This altered book is really more about helping me stay fully immersed in the world, while giving my mind something else to focus on besides the words on the page.

And here I must insert my disclaimer, that I am a rank amateur in the world of altered books, but I do have fun.

So first, I had to find the right book to alter. How thrilled was I to find the above book at the library's used book store--it's even a translation of an Arabic poem! How perfect.

This first image was my first experiment. It's very simple, but again, I was surprised at how much fun my subconscious had ruminating while my fingers were busy "building" something from the story world. This image is just a mood piece for the first book, touching on picking up Mother from the train station.

This next picture was trying to evoke the sense of showdown I felt when writing Book Two, involving the Dreadnought, the Serpents of Chaos, and a certain prophecy regarding a red sun...

And lastly, a scene in the catacombs, with all those mummies...

While I will confess to being all thumbs when it comes to art, I do love collaging. I love the whole "found" thing aspect of the art form, the junk turned to jewels element of taking used and discarded trash and debris from lives lived, and using that to create something beautiful and evocative.

It reminds me very much of writing, actually.

As a writer, I collect mental junk, a face here, a look there. The snippet of conversation I overheard at the restaurant. The scolding I heard the mother give her son at the grocery store. The surprising sight of a teenage punk driving his 80 year old grandmother around in his hyped up jalopy. A sunset. A birdsong. A remembered feeling from when I was seven years old. This is the sort of detritus I collect in my head, where it rolls around for years, decades sometimes, until it becomes tumbled and smoothed and juxtaposed with other things and becomes something entirely new.

Best of all, the girls in the basement LOVE it a lot, and it gets them all juiced up so I can write and write and write...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's Alive!!

So, last week I ended up having to put aside the Theo Four manuscript and instead pick up my Theodosia Four journal. For the week prior to that, I had been pushing the characters around on the page and it felt just like a four year old pushing peas around the mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. Nothing pretty was happening.

I have to say, I so admire people who can fly into the mist and just write. Not knowing much about their characters or their stories, they simply begin, knowing they will discover these things on the page.

I don’t seem to be able to do that. Instead, I had to regroup and spend the last week journaling all my characters’ histories. I need to know who they are and what life events have shaped them before they will come alive for me on the page. And since so much of that is backstory, it doesn’t seem to emerge in the actual writing of the book. Nor do I seem to be able to make them do anything on the page except walk woodenly across the stage until I know them better.

But all that journaling? I inevitably get frustrated along the way and feel like I’m spinning my wheels or procrastinating or being overindulgent of my process.

Except, as I journal these people, they begin to come alive for me. At first inception, they are mere stick drawings, a few bare lines in black and white, little more than placeholders. Sometimes I know so little about them that I can’t even define what they want within the story, or what their goals might be.

That’s when I begin to root around in their past, digging through their history in an attempt to understand them. For example, I have an elderly gentleman in this book, and I ended up printing out a timeline of British history from 1830 to 1900 so I could see what skirmishes and battles and experiences would have shaped him. After all, the events going on around us shape who we are as people, whether we live through a Great Depression, survive 70’s disco music, or enter the job market at one of the worst times in history—all these things shape our outlook on life. If I’m writing a novel that takes place in a different time, then it makes sense that I need to understand which historical events shaped my characters.

This is where I actually ‘draw’ my characters, only using words instead of lines. The form and shape and texture begins to show up. Once I have all this stuff, the character’s context and worldview, I can then go in and do the detail work, the stuff that will show up on the page. What are this character’s emotional wounds? His motivations? His goals? Why does he want that? What personal events and circumstances have combined with the broad strokes of history to shape him?

When I know that, I know how he will react to the people and events around him. How he will respond to Theodosia, the magic swirling around them, how he holds his head or looks down his nose, or whether he responds with disdain or respect.

And then a really cool thing happens, a bit of magic akin to when the wooden Pinocchio became a real boy. The character begins to take on attributes that I haven’t designed for him. He begins to become a real person in his own right until finally, he becomes so real and fully dimensional that he gets up off the page and walks into the book, finally a real person.

Which is a long way of sheepishly confessing that I guess all that journaling time isn’t wasted after all.

How do your characters become real to you? What tricks do you use to b ring them to life, both for yourself and your readers?