Story Time: Old Flames

Dragon1

Old Flames by Gayle Schultz

“I hear something.”
“Quit shoving. If you’d brought enough torches, we could see.”
“I brought the treasure map.”
“And no light. We’re going to march down this tunnel straight into the dragon’s jaws.”
“Dragon’s been dead for centuries. Only treasure left. Gold, diamonds, emeralds…”
“Stop drooling. Who says the dragon’s dead?”
“The man with the glowing red eyes who sold us the map.”
“Nasty smile on him.”
“Too many teeth.”
“Sharp teeth.”
“I see something.”
“Two red lights?”
“Rubies!”
The rubies blinked.
Flames roared down the tunnel. Screams, then silence.
A quiet burp.
“Time to draw another treasure map.”

Arrows and Blog Posts

 

Hello, World!

What happens when a computer programmer gets new pens and a fresh sketchbook…

“I shot an arrow into the air, It fell to earth, I knew not where” — from The Arrow and the Song by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I’ve been considering the nature of blog posts, or perhaps any sort of writing intended for an unknown audience. One of the techniques I’ve always relied on when writing is to know my intended audience. By understanding who will read a particular piece of writing, I can make informed decisions about choice of language, level of detail, where to start and end, and so on. Confusing the reader (or boring the reader) is a sin.

Yet when I post something here on my blog, it’s open for anyone to read. That’s rather daunting. Who’s on the other side of the screen? Someone I’d like? Someone I’d despise if I met them in person? In the end, does it really matter?

I think the type of reader I’m hoping for is someone who will read my words and think about whatever message is buried within them before drawing their own conclusion. Do I expect every reader to agree with or like what I write? No, of course not. What I expect is due consideration. I cannot choose my audience. All I can do is write as true to myself as I can.

The act of writing is an act of discovery for both writer and reader, and sometimes it amazes me what treasures I can discover with just a little research. For years, I’ve used the phrase “I shot an arrow into the air,” but I never looked up the source material until now while working on this post. Longfellow’s poem “The Arrow and the Song” describes this very topic. In the first stanza, the narrator shoots an arrow into the air but cannot follow its flight. In the second stanza, the narrator sings a song but cannot tell where it lands. In the last stanza, the narrator long afterward finds the unbroken arrow in an oak tree, and finds the song in the heart of a friend.

So this is me reopening the blog (again). With every post, I’ll shoot another arrow, and perhaps you, my reader, will discover another song.

Old Pens and New Notebooks

Old Pens and New Notebooks

Old Pens and New Notebooks

I threw out some old pens today. It was sad, but also satisfying. There’s a difference between throwing out an old dried-up pen that won’t write because of disuse and throwing out a pen that’s empty because all the ink has been used. Empty pens are marks of achievement. An empty pen means words written down.

And I wonder what the discarded pen has assisted in creating. Profound words, like prose for my novels? Helpful words, like critique for my friends’ work? Or mundane words, like to-do and grocery lists? Whatever the words, the emptiness is achieved potential.

I tend to be finicky about my tools. The right pen and the right paper can do wonders to enhance my creativity, while the wrong ones can stifle the flow. At the very least, the tools of creation should become invisible while being used. Extensions of hand and mind. The conduit of words, images, shapes. Fighting with a pen that skips or is not comfortable in the hand impedes progress.

What’s right and wrong depends on the project. When I first began writing fiction, I discovered a particular brand of notebook that I liked and have used ever since. It has tabbed sections, colored paper, and fits in my purse. Actually, I select purses based on whether my notebook will fit. I have a small stash of notebooks hidden away in case my local stores stop carrying them. Again.

Old notebooks do not get thrown away. They get saved and savored. My fiction notebooks contain prose for novels in various stages of completion, world building, questions and answers, story ideas, and random thoughts. Over the years, I’ve filled up about thirty notebooks. They’re old friends. Some took months to years to fill, others a matter of weeks. I still mourn the loss of the notebook that got stolen, and the one the cat annointed.

The pages of my notebooks trace the history of my fictional universe from its inception so many years ago. It’s changed dramatically as I come up with new ideas and discard old ones. Periodically, I flip through my notebooks and transcribe notes in the computer, or flag ideas I’ve forgotten. Feels like an archaeological dig with treasures long buried awaiting rediscovery. I figure anything I’ve written down more than once must have something going for it.

I’m about to start a new notebook. Fresh pages waiting to be filled. Sometimes a blank page can be intimidating, but I’ve learned not to be intimidated by these notebooks. This new one is next in a series, that’s all. It’s a place to record my current thoughts. To test out prose. To work out ideas. I write down questions and whatever answers that come to me, then write down the questions sparked by those answers, and so on.

No pressure. I give myself permission to use my notebooks as a safe place to experiment. If an idea blows up, so what? I have more notebooks to fill.

New notebook. Old pen. Let’s see what wonders I can write.

Nine Cats And A Hippo

Five cats

Five cats

Four cats and a hippo

Four cats and a hippo

Happy New Year, everyone! May 2015 be a better year than 2014. New year, new resolutions. New plans to put into effect.

I just returned from vacation visiting family. For me, good vacations work as a creativity reset. Seeing different people and different places helps me clear my thinking so I return home with a fresh perspective.

Whenever I go on vacation, I always come up with grand plans that never quite happen, but I always try to do something creative. I learned long ago that while I’m visiting, I need to do something with my hands, like drawing in my sketchbook or playing with polymer clay. On previous visits, I’ve made polymer clay cats, dragons, hedgehogs, giraffes, turtles, and even an orange rhinoceros with green horns.

This last visit, I made nine cats and a hippo. Felt very good to be handling clay again. I’ve lost track of the number of cats I’ve made over the years. Must number in the hundreds. Some I give away, some I sell. A few, I keep. Of this batch, I gave away eight and kept the brown one with the slightly goofy expression. The hippo was a special request for my three-year-old great-niece.

I’ve written before about my quest for a better dragon design (more to come in that series). I believe in stretching myself and trying new things, but I also appreciate the comfort of familiarity. No matter what else I make, I return to making cats. The movements are well-rehearsed. I know what to expect. Every one comes out with a slightly different expression or pattern. I can work on a cat while holding a conversation or watching television. And, most importantly, my cats generate smiles on almost everyone who sees them.

Then there’s the hippo. When I get bored with cats, I take requests for other types of animals. This was about the third or fourth hippo I’ve made, I believe, and not the most hippo-like, but it was enough for my great-niece to recognize it as a hippo. That’s all that mattered. The artist is always the harshest critic of her own work. If it satisfies the audience, it’s a success.

I’m in the process of planning what to do this year. Crafting is going to play a large part of it, I’m sure. I’d like to start selling my crafts online or in craft shows. Still planning my strategy. Lots of things I can make, and I’m sure my familiar cats will become one of my standbys.

And maybe the occasional hippo.

Good luck to you in whatever plans you have for the coming year!

One of the Difficult Ones

First Draft

First Draft

Recently, someone asked me, “Why do you write?” I was dismayed when I could not come up with a straightforward answer, so I decided to write about it.

I am reminded of a passage from one of my favorite Discworld novels, Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett. The character Wen the Eternally Surprised has just received a form of enlightenment. He tells his apprentice, Clodpool, to ask him any question at all about the deepest workings of the universe. Clodpool responds with, “What would you like for breakfast?” After reflecting upon the nature of humanity for a moment, Wen replies, “Ah. One of the difficult ones.”

When someone asks me why I write, I’m tempted to respond with a Wen-like answer. I could talk about how writing is my way to connect with other people over topics more complex than everyday conversation, or how writing allows me to explore all the nuances of an idea while I work out which words to set down on the page. I could even talk about my long-term plans to get my novels published and expand the boundaries of my story universes. But my instinctive response is much more Clodpool-like in nature.

Why do I write?

Because I want to find out what happens next.

For me, writing fiction is a series of questions and answers. I create characters I like and throw them into a situation, then follow them around to see what they’ll do. I don’t always have a story ending in mind. I rarely know everything about my characters before I begin to write. The act of writing is my exploration. If I work out everything ahead of time, then writing the story becomes boring since I already know what will happen. If the author is bored, then the reader will be bored, so I set up enough ahead of time to get the story going, then let it go. Every scene written leads to the next, and the next, and eventually to the words “The End.”

All my life, I’ve read other people’s stories. It’s my turn now. I want to give back the same type of enjoyment I’ve always received through reading. To share my perspective. To teach. Sometimes, simply to point out “Hey, isn’t this concept wonderful?” and watch someone smile.

All right, I still don’t have a straightforward answer. Ah, well. One of the difficult ones. Not a simple question, no matter how simply the question is worded. I’ll end this by asking the question anew:

Why do you write?

While you consider, I’m going to decide what I’d like for breakfast.

The Idea Ambush

Participant-2014-Facebook-Profile

I’ve just been ambushed by another idea. Not the first time, and not (I hope) the last. Ideas are tricky that way. You can be busy working out the nuances of one idea, when bam! A second idea shoulders its way to the front of the line.

Great, right? Surely two ideas are better than one. And maybe if you put the two ideas together, they can form a third, and a fourth, and … eventually a muddled headache if they can’t be corralled.

It’s a matter of resources. Limited amount of time and enthusiasm. Other priorities intervene, like all those pesky necessities of life such as eating and sleeping. Other creative tasks clamber for attention, too. I write novels and the occasional short story, and I also sculpt polymer clay and make beaded jewelry. And draw. And make gemstone trees. And paint figurines. And… you get the picture.

So now I’ve come up with an idea for a webcomic. It’s an idea I’ve had before that I never fully developed, and now it’s resurfaced with lots more detail and quite possibly a viable way forward. I think I can make it work, with a lot of time and effort.

And that’s the problem with an idea ambush. When a new idea strikes and screams for your attention, how do you decide what to work on? Put the work for the old idea on hold and play with the shiny new idea, or make the new idea wait until all the tasks for the old idea are complete?

If I put the old idea on hold, I lose momentum toward finishing a project. Finishing is important. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has tons of unfinished stuff sitting about waiting for attention – unfinished stories to revise, unfinished craft projects that just need a few final touches. Sometimes I go into finishing mode and not start something new until I’ve cleared out some of the old.

If I make the new idea wait, I run the risk of losing enthusiasm. When I finally get around to playing with the new idea, I might not be as interested in it anymore. I’ve had that happen, too, and the idea is lost, or never is developed as well as it could be.

So how do I decide what to work on? I’ve never found a clearcut answer. Sometimes the new idea is just a distraction when what I need to do is plow forward and finish what I’m working on. Sometimes I need a break from the old, so the new idea acts as a palate cleanser. By working on something else for a while, I return to the old idea with fresh perspective. My general guideline is this: If the muse is shouting, listen. At the very least, I capture notes about whatever is currently firing my enthusiasm before that enthusiasm fades. Sometimes the new idea needs time to percolate before it can be fully developed, in which case I go back to the old and continue. Sometimes the new idea is fully formed, so I capture it before it can escape.

And sometimes I do a little of everything. In general, I like to focus on one project at a time, but sometimes I also like to work on projects in parallel. I can only devote so much attention to any given project in a single day, so having more than one project to work on helps. As today’s enthusiasm fades on one project, I can switch to another and still keep going.

The webcomic is going to take a lot of time and effort, therefore it’s going to be a long-term backup project while I finish my other works in progress. I need to hone my drawing skills, figure out how comics are put together, explore the new universe and characters, and oh yes, come up with a story. Lots of work, but it’s exciting. Next month is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), so I’m planning to use the time to write out the history of this new universe and figure out some stories to tell. I intend to use the thirty days and 50,000 words to decide whether this is going to be a viable idea to explore.

Wish me luck, and I wish you luck on whatever ideas ambush you!

On The Evolution Of Dragons: Introduction

The lineup of my evolution of dragon sculptures (and a friend of the family).  From left to right: Gargoyle, Orange Cat, Missing Link, Kangaroo, Big Guy, Prototype

The lineup of my evolution of dragon sculptures (and a friend of the family). From left to right: Gargoyle, Orange Cat, Missing Link, Kangaroo, Big Guy, Prototype

One of the axioms that has ruled my approach to learning anything new is that “It’s difficult to learn and look good at the same time.” It’s also pointless. If you’re worried about how you appear while you’re learning, then you’re splitting your attention. All that energy focused on worry would be better spent focused on whatever it is you’re trying to learn.

In my experience, one of the attributes of the best students is the willingness to make mistakes. To take a fall while daring greatly is no dishonor. And we’re not talking just any fall. A damn-the-torpedoes, full-steam-ahead face plant that the legendary slapstick comedians would envy. Falling does not mean failure. This time, you fell. So what? Measure your determination by the size of the crater you made, then try again. Aim for greatness, and don’t beat yourself up if you miss.

Every attempt to try something new contains one important element that must not be ignored: the element of hope. This attempt might be the one where everything clicks and you finally reach a goal. Or, perhaps more likely, this might be an attempt where a piece falls into place and the emerging picture becomes clearer. A rough draft of a story that reads as nonsense but contains a perfect turn of phrase. A drawing that’s barely above a scribble but contains one perfect image of a leaf hidden way in the corner. A sculpture that grins at you from its imperfections and gives you the boost to reach for the next level.

One of my teachers described learning as climbing a series of plateaus. At first, everything’s new. You struggle, you climb a bit as you start to master the skills, more struggle, more climbing, slip back, climb, climb, climb, until finally you reach a place where things make sense. A plateau where you’ve mastered a set of skills that allow you to produce something you’re proud of. So you hang out on the plateau for a while repeating your success until you grow tired of staying in the same place and begin looking upward eyeing the next plateau. Time to pull out your climbing boots and ready the rope.

And here is where dragons come into the picture (yes, I guessed you were wondering). When I first attempted to sculpt polymer clay, I began with cats. Cartoon-like cats, like the orange cat in the dragon lineup. Once I came up with a cat design that satisfied me, I needed something more challenging to stretch my skills. As a fantasy writer, the choice was obvious.

Dragons.

I’m on a quest for a better dragon design. Not a perfect design, I’m not going to fall into the perfection trap (again), but a better design than what I’ve come up with so far. At this point in time, I’ve come a long way on my quest and have reached several plateaus. Every type of dragon has taught me something new.

It’s counter-productive to worry about learning and looking good at the same time, so I’m not going to try. I plan to share some of the not-so-good-looking stages in my evolution of dragons in hopes that it’ll help someone else try something new.

Time to put on the climbing boots.

In the next blog post in this series: Plateau 1: The Gargoyle.

 

The Grand Reopening

Some transitions take longer than others.

Real Life derailed my initial plans for this blog, but I’m back now, hopefully with something interesting to say. To begin, here’s a random wonder. This was the view over my house at sunset on a day when I was facing many challenges. I’m taking it as a good omen. I give you a moment of beauty, peace, and hope:

Sunset Rainbow

Sunset Rainbow

Lining Up The Constables

Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the ...

Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revision is a process of discovery, determination, elation, and acute embarrassment.  Sometimes all at once.

I’m in the process of revising one of my novel manuscripts.  Last time I touched this story was about two years ago.  Chronologically, it’s the second major story in the series, but it’s also the first novel I ever attempted to write, therefore I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to get it right.  Pressure is good, every diamond needs pressure to form, but too much pressure at the wrong time is damaging.  Another post on that later, most likely…

Reading the old manuscript brings up so many emotions.  Embarrassment tops the list.  I have to keep reminding myself that when I set the manuscript aside, I’d done the best I could do at the time.  Now, with much more experience, it’s my job to make it better.  Not an easy task.  Not always obvious.

Sometimes revising a scene means lining up the constables.

A slight digression so I can make my point.  IMO, the quintessential performance of the traditional Sherlock Holmes is by Jeremy Brett.  His mannerisms and delivery were brilliant, and finally, we got a chance to see an intelligent Watson.  In the episode “The Norwood Builder”, Holmes & co. are searching the murder victim’s house.  At one point, it’s obvious that Holmes has had a revelation, but in true Holmes-ian fashion, he doesn’t explain.  He asks Lestrade whether the constables on site are “large men with powerful voices”, then has Lestrade bring the constables, a bundle of straw, and a bucket of water to the upper story of the house.

Here’s where the brilliance of Brett’s performance comes in.  Holmes sets up a smoky fire with the straw, then asks everyone to join him in a chorus of “Fire!”  By this point, everyone thinks he’s insane.  Holmes counts to three and shouts, “Fire!”  One constable shouts with him, the others are a beat or two late, and Lestrade is silent.  Without pausing, Holmes regards all of them with a look of utter disappointment and says, “Gentlemen, we can do better than that.  One, two, three, fire!”  And this time everyone shouts with him in unison.

“Gentlemen, we can do better than that.”

That line, that particular image of Holmes scolding the constables, keeps going through my head as I read my older work.  Why is Holmes disappointed?  Because the constables didn’t trust him enough to shout along with him the first time.  Why am I disappointed with the scene I’m revising?  Because the story elements haven’t lined up in unison to truly support the story.  I need to line up the constables.

Within the old writing are snippets I can use now.  Perfect turns of phrase, imagery that captures the sense of place, glimpses of the thread of the storyline.  Problem is, all those usable pieces, my “constables”, are shouting at the wrong time.  A proper scene has a sense of momentum to it.  In one way, it’s a sense of trust.  A reader has to trust that the author will deliver a story worth reading. If the words are on the page, the reader has to trust that they’re there for a reason.  And until all the constables line up and shout the proper message at the proper time, that sense of trust is lacking.

So as I’m revising, I’m playing Holmes and discovering the story buried within the older writing.  I’m identifying the constables and what messages they have to say, then assigning them to their proper place in the chorus.  I’m firing the constables who aren’t paying attention or who are distracting, and recruiting new constables to fill in the gaps.

In the end, all of my constables should be lined up to shout, “Story!”