Month: December 2014

The Value of Side Projects

I’m stealing a lot of my ideas in this post from Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work!

About two weeks ago, I organized a bunch of my old notebooks and stumbled upon an early one from my teenage years. Inside were many maps and names for a fantasy world I called “Kell.” I was surprised at how many of the place names and character names from this old notebook stirred ideas in my head. I’ve been mulling over an idea for a fantasy series set in an original world (i.e.: not a mash-up of mythology and folk lore, as The Thirteen Treasures of Britain is currently constituted). Basic set up is a young woman awakens to find herself in a room, which she discovers is in a high tower with only one window and no doors (think: Rapunzel). She has no memory of how she got there or who she is. This was all I had: the girl in the high tower (yes, I am aware of the Philip K. Dick-ish book title…).

What I really needed was a world for my character and her tower to exist in. Cue my old notebook. I started imagining all the ways to meld my story idea with my imaginary world of Kell. But then I stopped. Wasn’t I supposed to be writing The Thirteen Treasures of Britain and working toward my January 4 deadline? This girl in the tower idea was a distraction, right?

But then I remembered the words of Austin Kleon: “I think it’s a good idea to have a lot of projects going at once so you can bounce between them. When you get sick of one project, move over to another, and when you’re sick of that one, move back to the project you left. Practice productive procrastination” (Steal Like an Artist, p. 65).

This. This is how my brain works. I’m a bouncer. I bounce from idea to idea, exploring, going off on tangents, getting obsessed for several days in a row over one idea, one project, and I work like heck, forgetting to eat or to sleep, until that project is done, and then it’s back to the main project, and working on the main project, until slowly that gets done, but all the while, side projects bounce in and out.

This realization was freedom. I could knock off and spend two hours with my old notebooks and create backstory for my “Red Tower” world (which is what I’m calling the tower where my heroine is stuck), and strangely enough, this knocking about in my side project, has inspired more ideas for The Thirteen Treasures of Britain. The two projects are feeding off of each other and nourishing each other. Suddenly, what felt like a distraction was the very lifeblood for writing.

I’m really starting to realize that the most important thing is to always be working. If I keep working, if I keep creating, then I’ll be on the right track. It’s when I stop creating that things start to die.

Merry Christmas! And a few changes…

I hold to the old ways of celebrating the twelve days of Christmas. So happy Feast of St. John!

I’m on Christmas break (two whole weeks off from work!), so it’s been a good time for getting writing done. Unfortunately, I’m not where I wanted to be at this point in my novel, but I’m still making headway.

I am getting into the third act of my novel (I trained as a screenwriter, so my lingo is still very much screenwriter-ish), and it’s looking like the story will be shorter than I originally planned. At least in the rough draft stage. It’s possible that when I write the second draft it will get longer again, but for now, I’m looking at a 75,000 word rough draft instead of an 80,000 word one.

This is a bit of a relief, since I’ve been struggling to reach my word count goals each day. Maybe there’s just not enough plot/conflict/urgency in my story (which I’m hoping to fix in the second draft). I’ve also given myself an extended deadline. I’m off from work until January 5, so my new deadline is January 4. This means I’ve got to write about 22,000 words in the next week. This is still ambitious (my average words per day usually hovers around 1,100), but it’s doable.

I’m getting to the point in the rough draft where I can see how much editing needs to be done and I want to skip ahead to the editing/revision phase. It’s hard to focus on writing this crappy rough draft when I’m so desperately itching to focus on writing the much-better second draft. At this point, I just need to Get It Done, but it’s proving a hard task.

I will now rub my NaNoWriMo “Inspiration” sticker for some inspiration. Also, St. John the Evangelist and Apostle (whose feast we celebrate today) is one of the patron saints of authors and booksellers. Maybe his intercession will also help me.

The Things That Shaped Me: Labyrinth (1986)

Chilling_2If I had to pick the people who had the greatest influence on my imagination as a child, there’s a trifecta of artists who stand above the rest: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Jim Henson. Lewis and Tolkien were definitely my literary influences and I’ll write about them in future posts. But even before I had read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Hobbit, I knew the Muppets. The Muppet Show, Muppet Babies, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock were constants in my childhood. Fraggle Rock especially loomed large. Partly because I could only watch it over at my aunt’s house (she had HBO), and partly because the world of the Fraggles, and Gorgs, and Doozers was a fantasy world, a secret world beyond our ordinary one.

I have always been fascinated by secret worlds, by places beyond the normal, by fairy lands and other dimensions. Which brings me to Labyrinth. When I watched Labyrinth as a young girl, I identified with Sarah completely. The storyline was what I hoped my life could be like: an imaginative girl, who longs to retreat into her fantasies, makes a wish and gets to have an adventure in a magical world filled with strange creatures. If only that could somehow happen to me!  (Unfortunately, I didn’t have a little stepbrother that I could ask the goblins to take away, precipitating my entrance into the Labyrinth in order to rescue him. Alas!)

It’s the creatures and the world of the Labyrinth that captivated my imagination (they still do!). No one does fantasy creatures better than the Henson Creature Shop, and Brian Froud’s designs pretty much define “fantasy” for me. The fact that the movie uses puppetry and real sets to create its world is why I think it continues to hold up nearly thirty years later. Jennifer Connelly isn’t just interacting with a tennis ball on a stick in front of a green screen; she’s *really* interacting with the creatures we see. When I was a child, the world of the Labyrinth *was* real; I watch the movie now and think the same thing. Those creatures, that maze, the goblin city — they’re real. Perhaps they’re not really magical creatures in a magical world, but they are physically real. They exist just as much as David Bowie or Jennifer Connelly exist. Somewhere in a closet in the Henson Creature Shop is Ludo and Didymus and the Junk Lady.

I also love the film because it’s a mash-up of so many different influences, and mashing up influences and creating something new is what I strive to do with my own fiction. There’s the German/Northern European influence with the goblins and many of the creatures; the Dickens influence with the little worm at the beginning; there’s a bit of Wizard of Oz; a bit of Where the Wild Things Are; the Escher paintings at the end; there’s even a steampunk element with some of the contraptions the goblins use. I love that Labyrinth is a hodge-podge. Dark Crystal was more of a unified, cohesive world — and I think that movie is amazing — but my heart is actually closer to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach of Labyrinth. I love surprise and variety, and Labyrinth never fails to give me those two things.

Reaching Half-Way and Other Thoughts

I am officially past the half-way point of 13 Treasures of Britain.

I’ve also gone through and eliminated about six chapters that I planned on writing on the back end of the book. Basically, I tightened up the story. I really feel like once the book hits its second turning point (roughly Chapter 17 at this point), it should be going at a faster pace (like a roller coaster heading downhill). So I’ve shortened things down from 32 chapters to 26 chapters. This means, from Chapter 17 to Chapter 26 (i.e.: the end), the story is flying.

I eliminated a lot of chapters in my outline where the description was something lame like, “Merlin fights monsters.” Those nothing-burgers were nixed. I really had no idea what was supposed to happen in those chapters, so there was no point keeping them around.  I’ve found that by shortening my outline and cutting to the chase, I’ve made the second half of the book a lot stronger.

General writing rule #48: Cut through your story with a giant scythe and watch as the story instantly flows better. Cutting to only the scenes you *want* to write almost always makes the story tighter (even if that means cutting out what seemed like necessary information).

Closing in on 40,000 words…

I am getting close to the half-way point for my rough draft of 13 Treasures of Britain. I should reach 40,000 words this weekend.

I’m freaking out a little bit that my deadline is December 30 and I’m still not half-way done, but I am also strangely confident.

On the other hand… I have a sinking feeling that I’m suffering from a “main character problem.” To be specific, I’m afraid that I have a flat main character whom the audience won’t care about. My challenge is to find a way to get the audience to care about my Merlin character. Is the “save the cat” thing played out, or do writers still do that?

In a lot of ways, I’ve imagined my version of Merlin to be like a mixture of the Peter Capaldi and Christopher Eccleston versions of Doctor Who. But the first half of the book is mostly Merlin-collecting-things and doing crazy stuff (think: the first half of a Doctor Who episode, where the Doctor travels to another planet and encounters some treacherous situation). In a typical episode of Doctor Who, the emotional stuff usually builds in the second half, particularly when we find out there’s more to the adventure than the Doctor originally thought.

My problem is that I’m not writing an episode of television; I’m writing a novel. So for 40,000 words (100+ pages), the emotional stuff hasn’t come into play yet. It will happen in the second half of the book, but will the audience lose interest before that?

I can already foresee a ton of editing and revision once I’m finished with the rough draft. Which is actually exciting. I’m a weird person in that I LIKE revising. I’ve just got to keep the “inner editor” at bay for a few weeks more while I finish the rough draft.

I am not a fan of Christopher Nolan’s movies…


…and yet I really want to see Interstellar. The only Nolan movie I really like is Memento; Batman Begins is okay, but I’ve found no desire to revisit it since seeing it in the theater.

What’s crazy about my desire to see Interstellar is that it sounds like it commits some of the same “over-explaining” sins that drove me crazy about Inception (a film I found to be utterly unpleasant to watch). And yet, the siren call of Interstellar keeps drawing me towards it. I love that it sounds like an old-school science fiction story — shades of Arthur C. Clarke and the great science fiction of the mid-2oth century.

I love Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and from some of the reviews I’ve read it seems like Interstellar explores some of the same territory as Martian Chronicles. I enjoy space travel stories that have a sense of awe and wonder about them.

Unfortunately, I’ll probably see the movie and end up disappointed — which is often my reaction to any Nolan film. He promises such heights, and yet never quite delivers. And yet…


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