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.

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

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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!

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!”

And so it begins…

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Why am I doing this?

I’m staring at a page with all the fancy blogging software and trying to figure out what content to write.  What do I have to say that’s interesting?  Something fresh.  Something mine.  Some perspective I can share that might encourage others.

So I think I’ll write about creativity.

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve looked for ways to make my mark.  A love of reading led me to learning how to write my own stories.  Seeing beautiful pictures led to learning how to draw, which in turn led to learning how to sculpt when two dimensions weren’t enough.  Listening to music led to … listening to more music.  I’ll sing along with the radio, but making music is not one of my talents.  Still won’t stop me from enjoying the music other people create.

See, that’s the thing.  I believe everyone has something they want to say/sing/draw/sculpt/compose/<insert action verb of your choice>, but for whatever reason, we don’t.  We find excuses not to do what we want.  If our initial efforts don’t match the beauty of our dreams, we stop trying.

That’s sad.

Everyone needs passions.  Everyone needs something that fires the imagination and transforms the world from mundane to magical.  Everyone needs wonder.

“Wonder” is such a lovely word.  Wonder is both a question and an answer.  To wonder about something is to explore the nuances, and discover wonders along the way.  Wondering is a process.  Try something, keep going if it works, try something else if it doesn’t.  Every answer spawns new questions.  Every attempt, no matter how abysmal or grand, is another step along the path.

That’s wonderful.

So I’m going to write about my own journey to create.  My first published short story will be released in an anthology this August (stay tuned for more info).  I’ve written several novel manuscripts set in the same fantasy universe, and I’m working on a query letter to send to agents.  I sculpt a menagerie of polymer clay animals, mostly cats, and I’m on a quest to devise a better dragon design.  Then there’s making jewelry, painting Dungeons & Dragons figurines, drawing, and whatever other random wonders take my fancy.

So much to explore.  So much to create.  So much to share.

So many wonders…