Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Writing Mindfully

My brain tends to run very fast (most of the time) and mental multitasking is more than common for me. It's the norm. Even now as I'm writing this, I'm also eavesdropping on two different conversations, thinking about my to-do list for the rest of the day, and mulling over a blog post I just read about the importance of moderating internet comment sections.

In an effort to slow things down in my head, I recently started practicing mindfulness meditation. For those who are unfamiliar, mindfulness meditation is centered on narrowing your concentration down to your existence in the exact present moment. The method I use focuses on following my breathing and quieting the chaos in my head. I acknowledge thoughts as they pop up but don't let them draw my attention away. Eventually they get bored and leave me alone.

One of the effects of this type of meditation is that maintaining a clearer focus becomes easier throughout the day as well. I'm training my brain out of that habit of mental multitasking so I can be more appreciative of things as they happen. I've found that not being constantly distracted by the noise inside my own head has done wonders for my stress levels.

I'm trying to bring some of this mindfulness into my writing now too. I used to write very messily. When the time to write came around, I went in with only the vaguest idea of what I was doing. I'd just splatter words all over the page, dumping all the bits and pieces I'd come up with out of my head. I'd get lost in the process, not truly paying attention but just following whatever plot bunny hopped into my path and hoping that something salvageable came of it.

Writing is a joy for me and I find it very fulfilling. The need to tell stories is a huge part of me. I should be paying attention, appreciating the process as much as I can. And so I'm trying to practice mindfulness while I work, focusing on what I'm doing instead of just throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks.

I set a goal at the beginning of my writing time and I focus on that goal. Sometimes it's a technical goal, like a specific number of words or pages or whatever. Other times it's a more general goal about the work. Block out this fight scene, advance that character's motivation, or develop the relationship there. If I get distracted or find myself wandering off on a tangent, I acknowledge that line of thinking and then gently pull my focus back to the goal.

What I've noticed is that this lessens my anxiety quite a bit. (It's not completely gone, as the Inner Editor pointed out on Monday, but it's a bit more manageable.) My talent never felt quite real before. Impostor syndrome, inferiority complex, whatever you want to call it. If I did manage to find something good mixed in with all that meandering nonsense, it didn't feel like it was good because of something I'd done. It was an accident. I just happened to stumble on it.

Now my projects are mine. For example, I'm getting ready to start submitting "Fishwife", and I'm not terrified of that. Anxious, sure, because it's still a very vulnerable process, but not terrified. I didn't create this story by accident. I created it deliberately. I gave it my best effort. I'm proud of it and I want to share it with others. And even if I never sell it, I think I'll still feel good about it.

At the end of the day, this means more structure and less wild abandon, but it feels like a more peaceful process. Something I can sustain long-term. I've brought my writing back into focus and I find it's more fulfilling now, a stress reliever instead of just another stressor.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Abstract Thoughts: A Good Week

Wisdom of an Inner Editor

Last week Renee began the second round of revisions on "Fishwife" and finally allowed us all to see the notes she got back from her beta readers. I will confess I was more than a bit curious to see what they had to say about my Renee's work.

Overall the feedback was quite positive. There were a number of things the beta readers liked about the story. The world building came across as solid and the action flowed very well. The violence was well presented without being too graphic. All in all, Renee seems to have acquitted herself nicely.

Of course, there was that pesky problem of no one being able to see the characters. And there were some hiccups in the logistics when it came to the police procedural aspects, which wasn't surprising given Renee has never written this type of story before.

But, as I said, overall things were good. One or two big changes to make and then a few minor corrections. We got through all of them this week with very minimal trouble and the story is looking better than ever. Our main character still isn't quite as visible as Renee would like, but I think we've got to make allowances there for the format. There's only so much detail you can cram into a short story.

I confess I'm a bit proud of what we've accomplished here. Or I would be, were I an abstract given to pride.

For the most part Renee is quite proud of herself too. There was a moment of panic when she first went through the notes. Everyone liked the story, sure, but what if they're all wrong? No, no, they're smart readers; they can't all be wrong. But what if they're just being nice and it really sucks?

Yes, Renee, all the beta readers you chose, people you know to be smart and well-read and whom you trust to give professional, constructive feedback, all chose to pat you on the head and humor you. [INSERT PUT UPON SIGH HERE] Writers are impossible.

Thankfully, she got over that ridiculous notion and is now well on her way to feeling confident enough to try to sell it. I guess I'd better get this story polished and shiny so the Idea Salesman has something worthwhile to play with next week.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

My Name is Renee and I Write Invisible Characters

Long ago and far away, in the days before I found my voice, I wrote everything in third person. I don't know why, beyond the fact that that's how most of the books I'd read were written and so that's how I wrote. She walked. He spoke. They fought the zombies together.

Okay, to be honest, I never wrote that last one, on account of having never written a zombie story, but you get the idea.

Nowadays, I find myself more often than not writing in first. I like it. I feel more comfortable inside my character's head and I connect to the story better, which, in my opinion, makes me tell a better story. So it's all I walked. I spoke. We fought the zombies together.

Except again, not the last one. Still not writing a zombie story.

I should really do that one of these days. I seem to have zombies on the brain lately.

Which sounds dangerous, given their dietary needs. Would the voices in my head be able to survive my writing a zombie apocalypse? Or would I just be serving them up on a silver platter at that point?

These are the questions that keep me up at night. And prevent me from writing a coherent blog post.

Moving back to the point, I write in first person a lot these days. And one of the challenges I'm facing right now is describing my characters. I don't know how to do it. I've finished several stories in a row now and gotten notes back that read "I can't see these people." From inside the character's head, how do I let the reader know what they look like, what they're wearing, what their name is? Heck, I'm having a hard time even indicating their gender.

When I wrote in third, this was easier. For starters, the gender and name things sort themselves out right away. In third you refer to the characters by name or by the appropriate gender pronoun. Easy peasy. And working in physical details is easier too. In third, you're painting a scene from the outside, so you can say things like her cobalt eyes drifted closed or his bright red scarf snugged up against his neck like a noose without much issue.

In first, though, everything is about looking out rather than into the scene. The call is coming from inside the house! The story looks out from inside the POV character's head, which means, ideally, your prose is akin to their thoughts. It's not exactly a running transcription of their brainwaves, but it's close. I don't know about you, but I don't spend a lot of time describing myself to myself.

She might be aware of closing her eyes, but she's not going to take the time to note what color they are. He might have trouble swallowing under that too-tight scarf, but he's probably not focused on what color it is.

Which makes it more challenging to find a way to communicate the things a person takes for granted--their name, gender, that their hair is blonde, or their t-shirt is green--outward to the reader without it slowing things down and seeming like an info dump or a trick.

And then, of course, there are a whole bunch of rules that make everything more difficult. For example, just about the only time I think about what I'm wearing on a given day is when I'm looking at myself in a mirror. Except you're not supposed to have your characters describe themselves in a mirror just for the sake of doing it. Unless you can find some way to make looking in the mirror and examining their appearance relevant to the plot, they--the infamous They who make up the rules--tell you not to do that.

Plus, even if you do find a way to work a description in, you're limited by the filter you're looking through. If your character is a no nonsense, hard-boiled, meat-and-potatoes kind of girl, she's probably not going to describe her sweater as cerulean. That sucker is going to be blue. If she thinks about the color at all, because it's entirely possible she would never notice that kind of thing. She might just be thinking about how the shoulders pull unevenly when she moves because Mother doesn't actually know how to knit a sweater.

Even that detail only makes sense to include if she's actually moving, by the way, but not doing anything else that would be more important in her thoughts right then. After all, when you're running from brain slurping undead monsters, are you really going to be thinking about your mother's failed knitting hobby?

Well, maybe you would. I know I wouldn't be. Apparently I would be thinking about zombies.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Abstract Thoughts: So Much for My Turn

Writings of the Muse

Renee had a lovely week last week. Long-Suffering Husband took some vacation time and they spent the whole of Passover together with their kids, relaxing and playing and generally enjoying each other's company. Everyone got a good bit of much-needed rest and neither of them thought about work too much.

I say not too much, because Renee did manage to have one epiphany in the midst of all that R&R. She's not going to write "Sea Dog".

Wait. What?

But we just spent a whole week plotting it out and filling out all those character sheets and setting sketches and gearing up for the emotional upheaval of the opening scene. We even made a really bad book cover to go with the Kindle file for when the Inner Editor reads through it later.

We. . . we have to write "Sea Dog". I wrote out all these notes. And bought candy. I even prepared motivational speeches!

Alas, apparently Renee came to the conclusion at some point during the vacation that "Sea Dog", which is an earlier story in the "Fishwife" universe, was a story that just didn't need to be told. We get the gist of it in a character interaction in "Fishwife" and expanding that into a whole short story would probably just screw it up. It's better as backstory than an actual story.

The Inner Editor agreed with Renee's assessment. The Idea Salesman was just happy to hear we wouldn't be doing a prequel short story to another short story, because how the heck would he go about selling that? Even the Project Manager went along with the idea, and he hates shelving a project once he's gone to all the trouble of creating a dashboard and a timeline for it.

So I guess I'm outvoted.

Renee is moving on to the second round of revisions on "Fishwife" instead. She's gotten all her beta readers' notes collected and collated and tonight she and the Inner Editor are diving right in. If all goes according to plan, they should be done with it and ready for the Idea Salesman to send it out into the world by the end of the month.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Project Management Updates: On the Project Roller Coaster

Reports from the
Project Manager
We're up. We're down. We're up again. Now we're upside down! That's the best way I can describe life over here in Project Management Land right now.

We did well with "Fishwife". Then "Blood" came and flipped us for the mother of all loops.

See all those flat lines on the right? That's a fairly appropriate visualization of when we flat-lined on "Blood". Missed deadlines, extensions, missed revised deadlines. All things to remove what little sanity a project manager really has. I think we revised the project planning calendar almost as much as the Inner Editor was revising the story while getting through this one!

But "Blood" is now behind us and we have kicked off "Sea Dog". We're not off to a great start as you can see. Already a hue of yellow on the dashboard.

Renee is on vacation this week. If she sticks to the vacation plan, we're in some trouble. If she sneaks in some working time, we may get this one back to green and coast smoothly into the station at the end of this joy ride.