The Fridays

It seems I have a case of the Fridays.

I have a million things to do today, yet somehow I find myself listlessly surfing the web instead.

There is, for instance, an article manuscript a colleague and I have been flogging all week (which is, incidentally, due today) that I needed to start revising (again) ten minutes ago, but which I ignored in favor of Morning Spoilers on iO9. Decision-making at its best, clearly.

Also, I’ve got two new places lined up to send ABSENT, but they both want a synopsis of under 250 words–basically the only length of synopsis I haven’t yet written (I’ve got versions that are 2 pages, 4 pages, and 1 paragraph, but not 1 page…of course). I even got as far as opening a blank file for that one, but the siren call of Facebook lured me away. I mean, someone may have posted a cat picture or something. It’s important to stay up to date.

I have, as well, a whole boatload of food to cook today, which I’m taking to some friends who just had a baby. I’m excited to cook the food and even more excited to see my friends, but I passed the kitchen with no more than a contemptuous glance on my way to the holy shrine, er, I mean computer. Here I sit, clicking through friend’s blog posts about how productive they’re being. Hmmmm.

And we will not mention the horror that is readying myself for classes, which technically don’t start for two weeks but because of a self-inflicted travel schedule of insanity I have only 3 working days for which to prepare.

It’ll all work out, though…right?

While I’m pondering this, maybe I’ll go see what’s up on Entertainment Weekly, possibly read a recap of a show I’ll then go watch on Hulu even though I already know exactly what’s going to happen.

That’s a good use of my time, after all.

Like I said, folks. The Fridays.

Writer’s Workspace: 5/21

Welcome to this writer’s workspace. Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk.

What I’m working on: whew – what aren’t I working on these days? There’s still grading (there ALWAYS seems to be grading), but now that classes are over I have a lot more time. I’ve finished editing the (hopefully last) major revision of ABSENT and sent it along to readers. So, now I’m polishing a few short stories and getting my two other novel projects rolling again. The first of these is, of course, PROJECT AWESOME. I workshopped this at Paradise Lost III last month and got some good feedback from the pro instructors that’s put a fire in my belly to see the project to completion sooner rather than later. I’m also gearing up a new novel project, currently untitled, that I’ll be doing a plot break for at an upcoming writer’s retreat in Colorado. It’s sort of a near-future Earth, post-apocalyptic, Firefly meets Tomb Raider sort of thing. It’s early days on this, so we shall see.

For now, here’s the opening lines from a short I’m working on (about a body-snatching rock star and the necromancer hunting her):

Snippet from the screen: “There’s an electric L.A. sunset smearing the sky like a toxic leak. I watch it through the double-tint of Aviators and smoked glass as my limo slides down the boulevard. On the corner, I spot the Four Horsemen smoking weed and drinking Jim Beam. No one else can see them, not yet. Not quite.”

On the iTunes: I’ve been enamored with the soundtrack to Liberal Arts lately, but you can’t listen to classical music all the time. So, right now, I’ve got Florence and the Machine’s Shake it Out on.

In my mug: my current favorite tea is Harney and Sons Royal English Breakfast. It comes in a big red tin. Get some. It is awesomesauce to the tenth power.

Out the window: the ongoing saga of the Refusal of Spring continues. I can’t speak on this subject, as it is too heartbreaking.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: I’ve got a couple things to share this morning. Probably you’ve seen some of them, as they are currently making the rounds on FB and such. But they’re too good to pass up.

First, there’s this YouTube video of the “Sad Cat Diaries” – I haven’t laughed this hard in some time. Also, you might enjoy reading this piece on the representation of women in popular culture called “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the “Women, Cattle, and Slaves” Narrative”. It’s funny and true and worth a read.

Then, after you’ve laughed and thought some deep thoughts about the state of the world, pop down to the comments and let me know what’s happening liiiiiiiiive at your desk.

Then go write.

Writer’s Workspace: 7/19

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

What I’m working on:  This week I intended to take time off from my novel projects and write a short story every day.  What’s actually ended up happening is far cooler.  I’ve written a story a day (3 down, 2 to go) AND I’ve continued work on my novel projects in the afternoon.  It’s been crazy productive (though, just writing that phrase has probably jinxed it).  Anyway, here’s a little excerpt from the short story I’m working on this morning:

…A snippet from the screen:  “I met Lenora in the desert, on my way from nowhere to nowhere.  She lived among the sage bushes, in a ruined settler’s cabin, under a sea of stars.  People in town said she was mad, an oddity.  They eyeballed me when they said it, glancing at my graffiti-covered van as if I were an oddity too.  I was curious, so I went to see her.  I found out they were wrong.  Lenora wasn’t mad, she was dead.”

On the iTunes:  All Along the Watchtower, cover by The Bandits

In my mug: Yorkshire Gold, baby.  Seering the sleep out of your brain since 1886.

Keeping me company: No one! Ramses has abandoned me (and his beloved Tower of Terror) to snooze in the laundry basket atop (you guessed it) a pile of clean laundry.  Thanks, buddy!  I’m happy to redo that wash.  Really.

Out the window: Apocalypse. Flood. Hellfire. It’s like a 100 degrees, 120 percent humidity, and stormy.  If I weren’t heading to Kansas this weekend I’d think Brooklyn’s sporting the worst summer on record.  But, I suspect a week in the Burning Plains will change my view on this.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: …especially on a Thursday.  Here’s a really cool image from Jay Lake’s Moment of Zen series.  Reminds me of an Andrew Wyeth painting.   For anyone who hasn’t read about the GR Bullies stuff, here’s a good post on it from Rachel Aaron’s blog.  This one I found via some links from my friend Ferret, and it struck me as so helpful I thought I’d better share it with you all as well:  a post from Inkpunks about outlining.  Be sure to follow the embedded links to Alexandra Sokoloff’s story elements checklist.

And with that…go forth and be productive!

Writer’s Workspace: 7/5

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

What I’m working on:  I’m waiting for a few last critiques on the 2nd draft of my archaeological time travel novel, ABSENT.  Once they roll in, I’ll begin collating and processing the feedback so I can start revising.  In the meantime, though, I’m pressing ahead on my newest writing project (a dark Urban Fantasy set in the Pacific Northwest that I’ll refer to henceforth as PROJECT AWESOME).  I’m about 16k in on PROJECT AWESOME and pretty happy with where it’s going.  My protagonist has just lost everything important to her (or so she thinks) and is hell-bent on some ill conceived revenge.  Here’s…

…A snippet from the screen:  “The fireplace was dark and soot-stained, the walls charred.  Someone had righted the dining room table, though, and as I walked around it I saw a spray of blood stained one of the legs.  I tried not to look at it, but that was like asking a dog to ignore its own shit.  I sat down on the floor, legs splayed out, shoulders slumped, and I ran my fingers up the table leg.  The dark pattern of Daniel’s blood looked almost beautiful against the grain.”

On the iTunes:  I’ve put together a new playlist of generally downbeat, mournful, angry, or depressing songs to help get me in the proper mindset to channel my main character’s bitterness and rage.  Playing now?  Everybody Hurts by R.E.M.

Photo: Ramses celebrates the 4th like he does everything else: asleep.

Keeping me company: Mr. Ramses, H.R.M. King of Cats, has ascended his throne and settled in for his morning/afternoon/evening/nighttime nap.  Until his royal belly starts to growl, I anticipate hearing little more from him than the occasional sleepy-kitty sigh.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone:  LIES!  Sorry, not going to share distracting links with you today, dear Reader.  I have been burning in a fiery pit of procrastinatory you-know-where lately and I don’t wish that on you.  Go and be productive, or take a walk in the sunshine, or read a book…but don’t procrastinate on the internet (she says as she checks Facebook again…).

Love the one you’re with

There comes a point in the birth of a novel when your perception of its quality morphs from a shiny gem full of promise to a pile of refuse steaming in the New York summer sun, redolent of piss and feet and failure.  This point is different for everyone, but for me it tends to slither along right around the time I’m reaching a hard-won milestone in the life of the manuscript —  in this case, the end of the second draft.

The characters, previously so endearing and unique, begin to feel like stale automatons parroting tired cliches.  The setting, once a wonderland of color and surprises, begins to bleach to beige.  The plot, so vital and twisty and cunning, wheezes like an old man set in his routine.  And the writing!  God, even the Bard himself couldn’t do anything with that pathetic prose.  Not worth the price of the pixels displaying it!  Just drag it across the screen to the trash bin and set yourself free!

These thoughts crowd in your head, shoving out everything else, and cramp up your fingers till it’s agony to type even a single word.  Worst of all, though, is that slutty little new idea that’s been flirting and taunting for the last few months.  It’s promising you a new novel, one that’s alive and fresh and certain to be your breakout story.  “Put down that flabby old cow of a second draft,” it purrs.  “Come hither unto me.”

This little peccadillo of a problem, of course, is all an illusion.  It’s the work of the evil magician, Lazy Miranda.

There’s nothing wrong with the novel I’ve been laboring on for the last 17 months.  On the contrary, with the application of just a bit more concentrated effort it’s going to start really singing for the first time.  But evil Lazy Miranda doesn’t want that.  She doesn’t want to put time into anything that reeks of “hard work”.  She wants to watch Dancing with the Stars and eat too much chocolate and think about new ideas.  AND SHE MUST BE DESTROYED.

Well…let me amend that slightly.  She must be destroyed as soon as Dancing with the Stars is over.

Writer’s Workspace: 8/29

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

What I’m working on:  tomorrow is the first day of the semester for me (eek!) and I still have an appalling amount of course prep to do, but I’m trying to sneak a little writing in as well.  I’m working on crafting the final chapters of ABSENT (yay!), which means the draft will soon be done and revisions can begin.

Snippet from the screen:

“Emily glanced down at the old photograph.  It showed five people, all dressed in 1920’s style clothing.  Two men stood against the exposed face of an excavation trench, bands of stratigraphy clear behind them.  Panama hats shaded their faces from the sun and one had a pipe clenched between his teeth.  But Emily’s eyes were drawn to the two women seated on the ground.  One of them was thin and regal and had her head turned away, as if she was looking at something out of frame.  The other stared straight at the photographer.  Emily gasped.  The woman gazing out of the picture looked exactly like her.

     “So you see it, then?” Reid asked.  He sounded relieved.  “It’s not just me?”

     Emily nodded, slowly.  “This woman could be my twin.”

     “And the man, the one standing to the left of the pipe-smoker?” 

     Emily held the photo closer, narrowing her eyes to try and make out more details.  “My god,” she whispered.  “That’s you.”

One the iTunes: I’m chillin’ to the sounds of silence today.

In my mug: Numi Aged Earl Grey, hot and steaming.

Out the window: in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, the Brooklyn streets are slick and filled with debris.  Our neighborhood got a lot of rain and a little wind, but avoided any flooding and downed trees.  After all the build-up and waiting, this felt at once like a let-down and a relief.

Keeping me company: Mr. Ramses enjoyed all the extra attention he got this weekend (some friends who were forced to evacuate stayed with us during the “storm”), but now he has to catch up on his snoozing and loafing about.  No worries, though — he’s a professional loafer.

I’m pretty busy today, so no time for procrastinatory links!  Sorry.  Feel free to share some of your own in the comments, though.  And let me know what you’re up to today.  Writing goals, anyone?

Help me, Obiwan, you’re my only hope

Regular readers of my blog will no doubt have picked up on the fact that I’ve hit a bit of a slump with my writing.  I was going guns blazing on the first draft of ABSENT, charging towards the finish line like a bridezilla on the scent of a sample sale, and then…fizzle.  Since I started writing seriously about two years ago, this is my first real encounter with so-called “writer’s block” (yuck…hate that term).

There’s plenty of advice out there about what to do when ennui overcomes a writer at the 60K mark on their first draft of a novel.  I should know.  In my procrastinatory efforts, I read it all.  Sum up all that advice and you have one and only one solution that makes any sense (at least to me):  knuckle it out, bozo.  Doesn’t matter how hard it is, you have to push through.  Write ten words a day.  Hell, write one.  Just keep going.  Find inspiration wherever you can (under the couch, inside a bag of potato chips, whatever), skip ahead if you need to.  Just don’t stop and don’t look back.

Yeah, yeah.  Sounds like good advice.  But when you’re overcome with a burning desire to to be doing ANYTHING other than writing (Hell’s Kitchen, anyone? No? Bachelor Pad?  That’s the ticket!), finding the inspiration and will to soldier on is easier said than done.  What finally helped shake me loose from the grip of my malaise was a little good old fashioned work.  Yeees, folks, I said work.  Practice.  Labor at the ole’ craft-building machine.

In particular, pulling out Donald Maass’ “The Breakout Novel” workbook that I bought six months ago, slid onto my bookshelf, and proceeded to ignore, and doing some of the exercises inside.  What do you know?  These are remarkably helpful.

I had gotten to the point in the ABSENT draft where all the plot threads were about to come together, where the characters were going to have Big Moments where they act on Stuff They Learned, and I suddenly felt that I had no idea who my characters were or why they were doing any of the stuff they were doing.  Where did these people come from?  Did I really make them up?  Not likely, since they now seem like mysterious strangers to me.

Maass’s exercises to the rescue!  I sat down with pen and paper and went through the exercises one-by-one.  Brainstorm 5 ways to deepen their motivations.  Check.  Create contradictions in their nature designed to generate conflict (internal and external).  Check.  Give them backstories that provide juicy overlap with other characters.  Check.

And so on.  In the process I discovered all sorts of amazing things about the characters and came up with new plot twists, sub-plots, and scenes to add complexity and depth to my current manuscript.  Of course, now I have to sit down and actually make those changes…but one step at a time, right?

I found two things to be especially valuable about the exercises.  First, they were a bit like having a reproving schoolmistress looking over my shoulder and tsking at me.  So list-like, so organized.  I felt obligated to do them all, and in their specificity they really forced me to focus in on difficult questions and issues that I’d been skimming past.  Second, each question asks for many possible iterations.  Don’t just find two places in your manuscript to amp up the  tension, find five.  Don’t just come up with a defining quality for your protagonist, come up with two qualities, plus a few contradictory ones, and find four places in the manuscript where you can show them acting on those qualities.  The exercises are, thus, both high level and very specific.

Of all the writing books I’ve bought over the years, this one strikes the best balance between dispensing information about the elements of a story, the process of writing, and the business of writing and offering very concrete ways to actualize the information and advice offered.  Glad I finally pulled it off the shelf ;).

So, has anyone else read or used any of the Donald Maass books?  What did you think?  I know he also runs workshops; are they worth the time and money?  What are your thoughts on his advice and the processes he suggests?