Brainstorming and development

One of the things I’ve been working on lately is developing the idea for my next novel. I had such a great time writing my last project and was so pleased with how it came out that, while I want to do something different, I still want to take the magic of that forward with me.

Typically when I start a new project, I spend time brainstorming, often with a big whiteboard where I can use different colored markers to daisy-chain ideas as they evolve. After I feel I’ve come up with a workable world, characters, and a plot rich with potential conflicts, I start on an outline. I work and rework that outline for awhile and then begin the first draft.

This time, though, I decided to try something different. Before moving on to outlining, I started playing around with different characters, backstory events, and world-building elements by writing shorts. It’s been fun and also extremely illuminating.

Characters that looked fantastic on the whiteboard aren’t coming to life once they’re thrust into a narrative structure. Other characters are stealing the show. Since the novel will be science fiction, putting future technology into scenarios where it has to work and feel real has highlighted problems as well as seeded new and better ideas. Bringing events to life that are meant to be part of the novel’s backstory is helping me refine and hone the novel’s present.

Some of the shorts actually work as shorts, but plenty of them don’t. That isn’t the point, though. The point is to build and explore the ideas, improving them in advance of actually drafting the novel. This approach has afforded a low cost medium to experiment and further develop plot ideas and characters before I invest in the novel itself.

Plus, fun!

Saturday happiness, with writing and pastries

It’s bright but cold in Brooklyn this morning.  Outside my window denuded branches reach for the faded sky, a few shriveled leaves still clinging to the branches.  It’s a sight that should slip a chill under my skin, but I’m trundled up tight in a sweatshirt and cradling a hot mug of tea – impenetrable and warm.

It’s cozy inside the apartment, and for the first time in weeks I don’t feel an impending sense of doom about my class prep (we’ve got exams next week, so no new lectures to write!  Joy!).

I plan to put on another pot of water to boil, hunt and gather some ridiculously high calorie pastries from the bakery next door (oh, Ladybird Bakery, how I love/hate you!), and settle down to write.

Revisions on my novel ABSENT are lumbering along in fits and starts.  Though, for the last two weeks I have managed to squeeze in a couple hundred words each morning before departing for work.  So progress has been steadier than I imagined possible when the semester first started.  I’m happy, too, with how the changes are coming along.  The novel is getting both darker and (I hope) funnier.  The characters are starting to feel real, their reactions and responses authentic.  I’m happy with it.

So some writing time this morning.  Then, around noon, England faces Spain in a soccer friendly — a hard-to-turned-down opportunity to watch such different football styles clash.  Later I’ll make some French Onion Soup and fill the house with the irresistible aroma of butter and onions and thyme.

I can’t imagine a better way to spend a Saturday.

How is your day shaping up?

How do you make your garden grow?

I’ve been meaning to write this post for awhile now (since the summer, actually), but have been so busy and stressed that I haven’t found the time.  The last few months have been hard, both personally and creatively, and sometimes the motivation to keep at it seems as fleeting as smoke.  Appropriately, then, when I most needed some inspiration, I remembered what I had wanted to write about so many months ago–and why.

So, here goes.  Bear with me.

My mother is a gardener.  Not the kind of gardener you’re probably picturing (a retired lady with a sun hat and a bed of Dahlias), but a hard-core working machine who labors rain or rain (she lives near Seattle), year-round to coax beauty and wonder out of 16 rambly acres on a Pacific Northwest island.  For the last 15 years, she’s planned, experimented, planted, replanted, designed, redesigned, weeded, ripped out, and redone an ever-growing landscape of incredible beauty.

Her dividends have been satisfaction, joy, and recognition, both locally and in some of the country’s leading gardening mazagines (Country Living, Sunset, Seattle TimesFine Gardening).

When I last visited (in August), I remember watching her at work and realizing that what she had accomplished with her garden was not so different from what I was trying to do with my writing.

Her garden is not just a series of pretty arrangements of plants, trees, and bushes.  It has a story running through it, a logic and a rhythm.  English cottage plantings are woven into a woodland by a shushing stream.  Sinuous hedges of boxwood lure you towards a pond full of lily pads and the bridge across the water deposits you at the edge of a path. Follow it and you might find a secluded glade in yellows and blues or an arching pergola hung with roses.  Each “room” in the garden evokes a different mood, has different pacing, and features unique characters.

The garden is my mother’s great work in progress, constantly in a state of unfolding.  As she prunes, weeds, adds, and subtracts, the story evolves.  And just when you think you have it figured out, you arrive at the edge of an enigmatic, eathen maze, dotted with colorful wooden pillars and presided over by a looming cairn of stones.  Plot twist!

Just as my efforts to become a better writer and tell more interesting stories might begin with a wisp of an idea or a glimpse of a character, her garden began with an old hot tub she decided to covert into a bubbling pond.  It looked naked sitting there all by itself, surrounded by empty lawn, so she built a structured garden around around it, bit by bit, year by year.

She visited other gardens, read about gardening, learned what would grow in her zone and what would not.  There was trial and error, good years and bad, and lots and lots of hard, cold labor.  All those things have transformed that first kernel of an idea into a world class garden that gives my mother (and the many people who visit annually) incredible pleasure.

So, on days when I feel despair of ever improving, of ever finishing this chapter, or that story, or of ever selling my work, I think about my mom’s garden.

Work hard, love what you do, focus on the task in front of you and — one day — you just might find you’ve created a true work of art.

Thanks for the inspiration, mom.

September whosit whatsit?

September is always a tough month for professors.  After the long, lazy sprawl of summer (which invariably ends with an abruptness that I never seem to see coming), the onset of the fall semester is both exciting and traumatic.  This year I’m teaching a new course (on the Aztecs, Maya, and Olmec) and the prep work is all but burying me alive.  So, as far as writing goes, September has been a lean month.  Here’s what I’ve managed to get done:

1. I wrote only about 9,000 new words – most of it on the second draft of my archaeological time-travel novel ABSENT, but also a bit on a steampunk short about 17th century skull collectors.

2. I sent out one new query for BLOOD RED SUN and am still waiting to hear on the partial request I got over the summer.

3. My short story ARK IN A SEA OF STARS won Honorable Mention at Writers of the Future.

4. I completed zero critiques – a first for me in awhile.

5. I read a lot of books.  My Nook is making the 1 1/2 hour (each way) subway commute to work a literary paradise.  This month I read 6 books, including: Moon Called by Patricia Briggs, Blood Bound by Patricia Briggs, In Shade and Shadow by Barb & JC Hendee, all these things i’ve done by Gabrielle Zevin, An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire, and Summer Knight by Jim Butcher.

6. While I may not have accrued a very high word count this month, I have done a lot of thinking (that good old subway commute is not wasted time, my friends) which resulted in some good forward progress on the Urban Fantasy novel I’m working on outlining.  I’m still debating the wisdom of trying to begin drafting this for NaNoWriMo (or attempting NaNo at all, given my teaching schedule this year), but the outline is getting to the point where I think it might be doable.

Seabrook Island, SC

7. I took 2 trips this month.  First I traveled to Charlottesville, NC for a wedding and then to Charleston, SC for a weekend on Seabrook Island (from where I am currently writing this post).  The latter really surprised me with its awesomeness and proved a great spot for writing.  I’m already mentally plotting a return here for a writing retreat sometime.

I’ve still got a major completed-lecture-deficit going forward into October, so it’s not like I’m expecting to have tons of free time, but I am hoping that with the first crazy push of the semester over I’ll be able to establish a better rhythm for writing next month.  This month, that is.

Fingers crossed.

What did you get done in September?  Do share, please!

Writer’s Workspace: 8/17

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on:  I’d love to be able to report that words are flowing from my fingertips like a BP oil spill, but that would be a lie.  With just two weeks until fall classes begin, my focus is on course prep.  I’m teaching a new class this semester (Aztec, Maya, and Olmec) and I’ve got a bazillion lectures to prepare.  I am getting a little writing done each day, but it’s rather slow.  Safest thing to say is that I’m inching my way towards the end of the rough draft of ABSENT.  Not great, but inching is better than flat-out stalled.

Snippet from the screen: “Emily followed Nick down the long slope from the ziggurat to the expedition house.  Dark clouds scudded across the sky, and to the west a streaky sheet of rain could be seen falling on Nasiriyah.  Winter had come to Iraq.”

On the iTunes: just the sweet sounds of silence (broken occasionally by the bus pulling up to the stop out front)

In my mug: Numi Chinese Breakfast tea

Out the window: from my awesome new office, I have a lovely view straight out the window.  There’s a big old Maple tree, snatches of sun and sky, and lots of light.  I love it.

Keeping me company: since the move, Mr. Ramses seems to prefer lounging in the sun by the big bay window in the living room to hanging out at my desk.  He will occasionally come and drape himself across the glass desktop, as if to say ‘never forget, I am King”, but mostly he snoozes on the sofa like a hibernating bear.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: rather than share links with you today, I’m going to ask for your recommendations.  So:  if I only surfed the web following your suggestions, where should I go?  Please share your favorite links in the comments!