Sometimes it only takes one ripple in the water to change the shore.
Sometimes it only takes one ripple in the water to change the shore.
But getting stuck in what you know will plateau you as a writer. I noticed, in my writing, that I was falling into a bit of a pattern when it came to main characters. Cora from The Aldersgate, Marna from Indigo & Ink, Anna from Queen of None, and even Maddie from Pilgrim of the Sky all have some similar characteristics. They’re smart women who like to talk. They tend to fall in love with strong men. They explore the worlds around them from unusual perspectives. They grow on a similar trajectory in the narrative; most of them discover unseen worlds. Oh, they’re very different in other respects, but they’re characters written in my comfort zone. Not exactly Mary Sue variety, but more in a certain realm. I believe women need their stories told; I’m a woman. I tell the stories of women. (Kate from Rock Revival doesn’t share these characteristics, so I’m leaving her out; but she does share a lot with me in her background story, though our personalities differ greatly.)
One of the reasons Watcher of the Skies has taken a little longer than anticipated has to do with the time I’m taking to create Joss as a narrator. I don’t typically write in first person, and I don’t typically write novels that could be considered coming of age. And I don’t typically write male protagonists. But with Joss I’m not just telling his origin story, I’m building up character page by page. He’s telling the story, yes, but the character of Joss within the tale also changes with each chapter.
Now a couple of things have made Joss a challenge for me, personally. He’s a dude, in as much as godlings are dudes or chicks (which is a complicated post in and of itself). And he really digs the ladies. He’s physically enormous (over six foot three, which for his day, makes him a giant; I’m five foot five). He never asks questions in his dialogue, he simply states facts. He also doesn’t talk much, especially in the first three quarters of the book. Everyone around him does the talking. Here’s a quip from one of the later conversations he has with William Wordsworth, before he goes on his way:
“I was brusque with you, dear friend,” he said, sitting on the bed. I had come in from the roof and was still covered in rain, but he made no mention. He was quite used to my strange outdoor antics by that point. “I don’t know what came over me. I was drawn, almost inexplicably, to Mr. Coleridge. And we shared so much, as poets, that I was rather rude to you.”
“He doesn’t know me at all. I’d never steal from you,” I said.
“This is Londinium, I’m afraid,” William said, “and I worry that I did a terrible job preparing you for it. Samuel lives in a world, here, where there is so little trust between people. The streets are packed with thieves and there’s a swindler on every corner. You must understand, he was simply making a point.”
I nodded, not wanting to discuss it further.
“I just hope I haven’t scared you off for good,” William said, and I could hear the desperation in his voice. “You’ve been such a friend…”
“It’s been good for your poetry to have me around,” I said, voicing my fear for the first time.
William tried to say something and then looked down at his hands, which were still speckled with ink. “Yes, I suppose that’s true. Meeting you has somewhat increased my poetic capacity, but I don’t think…”
“I’ll not leave,” I said. “But I’ll need some space, you understand.”
He sighed like the bellows and agreed, though I could tell it pained him to do so. “Yes. I suppose that’s fair.”
After twenty years he meets up with Wordsworth again, and while he isn’t exactly a chatterer, Joss manages to command the conversation in an entirely different way.
“I’m sorry,” I said, for the first time feeling guilty as I should have. “I met a friend. And he…”
“He was like you,” William said. He held up his finger in a gesture of winking knowledge. “I saw you, that night. The fellow with the golden hair. Quite a picture. And you never looked back.”
“I thought of you often. I followed your career, when I could.”
William gave me a doubtful expression. “At any rate, my heart is glad to see you, though I suspect that I may not have the chance to again. You did come here to say good-bye, didn’t you?”
I nodded. “I did. I’m leaving, soon. For the New World.”
“Ah, you are escaping this den of sin and pestilence. You must leave me here among the mad young poets and crazed politicians.” He said it with mirth in his eyes, but I knew it was deeper than that.
“Don’t get lost,” I said, feeling the pull of tides as Aneirin had for so many years. I could feel what would happen to William. More sorrow, but more of a mental mire. He would get lost among the weeds and struggle to find his voice, his heart, until the very end.
“I fear I already am,” he said, and took my hand.
It’s interesting on a number of levels. The lack of questioning means that I never have scenes where Joss is asking what’s happening. He’s never lost. He, instead, says things like, “I don’t understand,” or, “I don’t know what you mean/where I am.” It dynamically changes the dialogue interchanges in the book, which with some characters (the loquacious La Roche who is the previous twin to Randall Roth from Pilgrim) isn’t terribly difficult. With other character interactions, it is. But Joss is an observer in every sense. And sometimes merely stating what he sees gives him power–more and more as he grows through the course of the book.
Joss is a fish out of water (literally and figuratively). He never manages to fit in with the godlings, most of whom are older and more conniving than he is, and he never manages to get on with the humans in his life, who either die or disappoint him greatly (or, uh, he kills…).
Which is all to say that writing out of my comfort zone has helped me think a whole lot more about the craft of writing this novel. It’s literally opened up a whole new arena for me to improve as a writer in a way that no other project has before. I can feel myself getting better, if that makes sense. And taking the time to make it as good as possible has been both challenging and exciting. I had a huge turning point in character development yesterday, and I could feel it happening. It was truly thrilling.
So, in short, take a chance. (No, I’m not qualifying this as writing advice, rather writing experience… or something… not a “how to” but a “what if”) Bleed over the edges. Step back and look critically at what you’re doing and see yourself in the words (I promise, you’re there even if you try to hide). The best thing you can do it be honest; through honesty comes growth.
Sure, sure. You make your own inspiration and all that. You sit, you write, you create. I get that. It’s 90% of the equation.
But what about those moments that are unplanned? I know I’m not the only writer out there that’s found profundity in hot showers or strains of music (in fact, most of the WIP fell into my brain during a shower). There seem to be situations where my brain is prone to wander unseen pathways, where I make connections in stories that, on normal writing days, just don’t seem to happen. No, I don’t believe in Muses, but there is some curious power in the workings of our brains when it comes to creating stories out of nothingness.
When I was writing Rock Revival, I plugged into music. Every day. Not just my favorite bands, but bands I’d never heard of. Music that was the music of my characters. Phoenix, The Black Keys, Mumford and Sons, the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Neko Case. That’s just a slice. Driving around, in particular, seemed to dislodge whatever scene I was struggling with and bring about new characters and situations I hadn’t planned, so long as the music was blasting.
((Now, this is a life of a panster, I realize. There are those writers out there who have the talent (and, yeah, probably the discipline) to write outlines and stick to it. But my first drafts tend to be my outlines. Which is probably why I love the hell out of editing so much. It’s polishing.))
For Watcher of the Skies, the inspiration has been less predictable. Life has been less predictable. Instead of walking around with a lightning rod like I was able to do with Rock Revival, I’ve had to rely on the random moments. It hasn’t been music, this time, at all, that’s moved me to moments of writing epiphany Instead, it’s been during sleepless nights, moments of stillness when I can’t convince my brain to rest, when Joss and his friends come out to play. It’s almost like listening to whispers in the next room. Maybe that’s weird, but like I was saying in my post yesterday, it’s as close as I get to real magic.
So my question for you out there. Are you the lightning rod sort? Or do you wait for inspiration? Or do you just make it happen regardless of the situation? What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever gotten inspiration from? And for those of you with lives/jobs/kids/responsibilities, what do you do when it strikes at inopportune times?
My imagination is a monastery and I am its monk. — John Keats
It occurs to me that it’s not just characters who choose us, but it’s places that choose us, too. When it comes to Watcher of the Skies, I had a great many plans. I thought that the first part of the book would take place in Britannia (England), an alternate history version where the Romans never left and the Angles, Frisians, Jutes, Saxons, etc., were assimilated as a servant class (those that didn’t ally with the Welsh and eventually end up part of the monarchy, that is). Then I was going to travel to the New World, to an America only a few decades into colonialism, with a great Cherokee Nation, and many wonderful wilds left to behold. I had everything planned.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, I have lingered in Londinium. It’s a great deal different than London of our world, of course, but there are a many similarities. (I think of the worlds as having the same base melody, but different harmonies…) Where Westminster stands is a similar great building, but dedicated to Venus. The Tamesis is the river upon which the bridges rise and fall, and Roman walls still stand strong. Regardless, while the book has gone to the Lake District and back, I’ve returned again and again to the Roman sites of London, the busy streets, the rainy walkways and quaint inns. It’s become home for Joss, and I really didn’t expect that. But it also has become a sort of tomb, as more and more characters find their end there or, in some cases, find themselves trapped there. It’s a city changing fast, as the New Marians are taking control over the city and tearing down Diana’s banners and buildings and building their own to the Queen of Heaven.
At any rate, this picture feels about right. Granted, the skyline would be a bit different, but I like to think that the Roman style eventually evolved with a Persian influence and the Gothic still survives in Second World.
Which is all to say, as per usual, the novel is taking me on an adventure that’s been unexpected every step of the way. In spite of my best planning. In spite of my attempts to wrestle it into submission. And that’s why I keep doing it, even though it’s been hard, even though life has been conspiring to make it impossible. Whether I’m writing straight fiction or genre, that unforeseen quantity truly remains as close to magic as anything I’ve experienced in my life. And it’s not just something I experience. As I’ve gotten to know writers over the last decade, I see that it happens to them, too. And artists. And musicians. That chord of creation strikes us all, often unbidden, and we’re the ones that have to preserve it. And that brings us together in a way that is truly remarkable. A community of monks of the imagination. Or something like that.
We just moved. The whole house. Granted, it was only a couple of miles away. But it still sucks, it still interrupts everything, and it still makes writing just about impossible. Not that writing is always at the top of my list of things to do these days. I mean, in a perfect world it would be. But I’ve got kids and pets and family and responsibilities… and a house full of boxes. So. Many. Boxes. At this point I’m beyond the whole “write every day” thing which, when starting out, is super important. Of course. But reality? Yeah. I still don’t have a desk situation set up, so writing’s been slow (and, oddly, typing hasn’t been bothering me on the normal keyboard… I’ll pretend that isn’t weird or whatever). But it’s happening even if it’s slow. It’s 80,000 words of happening. Which is awesome. ::insert happy dance::
However, the world has been upside-down for weeks, now. We all got sick just as the move started. Just after we’d all been sick. Then the baby decided it was a perfect time to start walking. And, to save what sanity I have remaining, I also decided it was time to do something about my anxiety levels which, for the last few months, have been catastrophic. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve gone back on antidepressants, and so far it seems to be helping a great deal. I’ve had some truly great nights of sleep, which have been at the center of my struggles, and I’m grateful.
I won’t say that antidepressants make me a better writer. But they allow me to get out of the awful feedback loops brought about by anxiety. I’m not the first person to ever notice that writers suffer from depression seemingly more than non-creatives. And recently Jim C. Hines wrote a far better piece than this one on writing and depression and medication. The first time around, I had postpartum depression. While I did, indeed, have a baby about ten months ago, this instance is different. Because my relationship with my daughter couldn’t be better. To be candid, I’ve bonded with her in a way that I was never able to do with my son due to PPD. I was afraid of my own child, paralyzed by fear and rushing thoughts and anxiety when it came to my son. Zoloft mended some of that, but also left me feeling a bit distanced from the world. Eventually, I was able to cope without the medicine. I never thought I’d have to rely on it again.
But this time, it’s been something else. When I finally met with my GP, I was in tears and shaky. When I told her everything that’s been going on in my life–valid, awful, heartbreaking things–on top of the insomnia and anxiety, she agreed it was time for help. “You seem like a really good person,” she said to me. “Just take some time for yourself. It’s okay to get help.”
I’ll admit, it’s frustrating. Part of me feels annoyed that I’m on this prescription train again. I’m also annoyed that I’ve had some really hard days in spite of the medication. I want to be strong enough to power through things, but I know I can’t. Writing is my coping mechanism, but that doesn’t always work. When I can’t write because of anxiety and depression, the rest of me starts to fall apart. I remember talking to my psychiatrist when I was diagnosed with PPD and explaining, “It’s not even that I don’t have time to write. Because it’s one thing to be so busy you don’t do it. But I’m not even thinking about it. I don’t care about it any more.” Thankfully, I didn’t get to that point with the current project, but it was getting close.
Six years ago, medicine helped me focus enough to complete my second novel. Now, it’s giving me the focus to finish my seventh, and hopefully to edit my sixth. But the healing isn’t all in the chemicals. The healing is still in those pages, in the words. So, hopefully, in time, they’ll be all that I need. We’ll see.
It’s what you do that makes your soul.
From the WIP:
There was a time where I could change back and forth to a fish as easily as passing wind, but the years had left me rusty. And I was afraid. Still afraid, after so many years, that I would lose control. And it wasn’t just fear, really, it was temptation. That’s the problem more than anything—it wasn’t that I hated being uncontrollable. There was a dark, welcome power there that would lurk with me always, part of my true self, my ancient self, that craved blood and destruction and death.
Knowing that my friend was in danger threw me into action. But I kept turning into a fish. Not a bird. But finally, after two straight hours of moving my body and slipping back and forth between forms, I managed to find myself in a shape that allowed me to breathe without challenge and had, thankfully, feathers and wings. Years later I’d learn to change to water, to use the rivers as pathways quicker than flight, but it was the best option I had.
I saw my strange reflection in the moonlight.
An albatross. I should have guessed.
I have not been a good blogger. But then again, I haven’t written much fiction. There have been lots of articles in the week, true, over at GeekMom and Geeks Are Sexy and whatnot. But the last month–in fact, all of February, which is an historically cruddy month as it is–was horrible. Horrible really doesn’t begin to express, really. My family suffered the loss of an amazing friend, a young man who grew up with my sister and me (and was indeed, her best friend in the world). I met him when he was 10, and had to see him leave at 29. A freak infection that took his life in a matter of days. Traveling to Massachusetts was somber and depressing, and honestly I still haven’t recovered.
Thankfully spring is on the way.
I would combat the malaise with writing, but there hasn’t been much time for that. We’re moving. Which is a source of excitement (more space!) and horror (I. hate. moving. like. so. much.). I packed the first two boxes today. Oddly it’s done nothing to help with all my anxiety.
That, and the novel is causing me troubles. I’ve been griping a bit about it on various social networks, but the basis for my befuddlement has to do with writing a novel that takes place in an alternate world. Those who’ve read Pilgrim of the Sky will recognize the setting as Second World. But even though the book takes place between the (equivalent) late-18th/early-19th century, I basically have to rewrite the entirety of Western History to suit the aims and focus of the book. I also have to dial back the Anglo-Saxon influence in England (they’re there, just different) which requires changing of town names, etc., and making as much sense as I can.
Ultimately this means I’m only chipping away at my word count around 200 words a day (if that) while spending the other time entrenched reading research. For instance! Yesterday I read a good chunk of Dorothy Wordsworth’s travel journals, learned about “Walking” Stewart, spent a good while researching the Native American history of Kentucky (particularly around Louisville), Xerxes, Esther, the history of Greece and Rome, and futzed about for far too long with various calendar systems from the ancient world.
As you do.
So, while I’d love to be writing more here, there’s a chance that simply won’t happen for a few weeks. I’m also interviewing for jobs and trying to put life in order. Though, the more I think about it the less I feel it’s about order and simply about flexibility. The only constant is change, right?
The holidays, man. That’s really all I’ve got to say. The holidays and unemployment and all, conspiring to make me a mental mess.
Aside from all that, I guess all’s well. (GUH.) I went to New York City. I’ve written a bunch of non-fiction article stuff. I’ve crocheted a ton. I’ve made jewelry. I’ve made fudge and pies and cakes and roasts and all manner of edible and potable creation (including two batches of very fine beer). I’ve done a good job of pushing aside the dread and fear of unemployment and two kids and mounting bills and student loans and just… yeah. It’s a good distraction, anyway. Plus, I have the most amazing kids on the face of the planet. And my daughter, right now, and her ability to smile in any situation, is seriously a daily inspiration. Not to mention I’ve finally gotten into Dr. Who. (Season three, sans Rose, apparently seemed to do the trick.)
Not much writing has happened. I’ve managed almost 10K this month. Which, actually isn’t that bad. But my dreams of finishing Watcher of the Skies in December just ain’t going to happen. And I’m perfectly okay with that. What I’ve written I feel pretty good about. In fact, this whole draft feels more solid than anything I’ve written in a while. And I’m looking forward to sharing this new chapter in the godling cycle with my beta readers, friends, and editors, as the case may be.
I’m not going to write a year-end review post. Seriously? 2012 can go do uncomfortable things to itself, thankyouverymuch. All I’m doing next year is writing more. Reading more. Walking more. Being more. Laughing more.
Allons-y, y’all! See you in 2013.