Marvin the Coffee Table

MarvinSketch

An extremely early sketch of my character Marvin.

When I started writing my first fantasy novel, one of my goals was to create a non-boring hero. Villains are pretty easy to make interesting – they break the rules and they go after whatever they want, usually in exotic and creative ways. But how to make a hero character, a character that by definition follows rules, at least as interesting as the villains?

My initial attempts were not successful. Marvin, my eighteen-year-old would-be swordsman/failed mage apprentice, had about as much personality as a coffee table. I was seriously tempted to write him out of the story. But, after much work and many more failed attempts, I finally realized the mistakes I’d been making.

My first epiphany was that this was Marvin’s story after all. In the initial attempts, Marvin had been a bystander with no vested interest in the outcome. The inciting incident was the theft of an artifact from a random stranger. Marvin wanted to see justice done (he’s a hero, after all), but success or failure didn’t truly affect him. My solution was to make him the artifact’s guardian, so when the thief stole the artifact from him, he couldn’t help but become involved. He had to act. Active characters are much more interesting than passive characters.

All was going well until I realized I still had not rescued Marvin’s personality from the realms of fine furniture. Something else was wrong. My second epiphany was that I was diluting his reactions. I’d included the character of his cousin, an older woman much respected by Marvin, so whenever the two of them were in the same scene, he would defer to her. Both of them have much the same viewpoint on life, therefore whenever a reaction was called for, she stole Marvin’s lines. My solution was to write her out of the story. She didn’t truly belong in this story anyway, and is a much better fit for one of the later stories. Having two characters serve the same story function dilutes the reactions of both characters. By taking her out of the story, Marvin was forced to speak for himself.

With those changes, Marvin’s character finally lost its wooden quality and came to life. The theft of something he’d sworn to protect leads him into an adventure where he must question his place in the world and his own definitions of right and wrong. Given the response from my writing group, he’s now a character worth reading about.

So if you’ve got characters in your story with wooden personalities who need to be rescued from their own version of coffeetableness, consider whether your characters are passive or active, and whether too many characters are serving the same story function.

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Going Camping

Camp-2017-Participant-Facebook-Cover

Today is the start of another Camp NaNoWriMo (www.campnanowrimo.org), and once again I’m throwing my hat into the ring. The “official” National Novel Writing Month in November (www.nanowrimo.org) is aimed at writing 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in thirty days. Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July is a lot more laid back. You can choose your word count goal and project type including revision, screenwriting, and pretty much anything you’d like to do. The main goal is to get writing and keep writing. With the NaNo website, forums, and cabins, you have a built-in cheering section and support system.

This time, I’m planning to work on something different than the usual. Since I’ve reopened the blog, I need to create content if I’m going to stick to a weekly post schedule, so I intend to use the month of July to create a backlog of blog posts. I already have a bunch of half-written posts that need finishing, and I have many more ideas of things to write about.

At least, that was the initial plan. A few days ago I came up with an idea for more novellas set in my science fiction universe that will explore the concept of first contact between humanity and alien races. I’m a firm believer in “if the muse shouts, listen.” The ideas are flowing, therefore I also intend to use July to work on fleshing out these stories.
So I’m looking forward to July with both a sense of anticipation and trepidation. Time to go into finishing mode on those blog posts and make them ready for general consumption. Time to leap into the unknown on my story and find out what happens.

It’s not too late to sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo. If you’re interested in trying your hand at writing, now’s a good time to get started. Check out the website and see if NaNo is for you.

See you on the other side!

Notebooks and Fancies

Notebooks

A selection of fancy notebooks

Yes, I’m addicted to notebooks, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I love the potential inherent in a new notebook – all those blank pages, just waiting to be filled. I prefer composing with pen and paper. Something about watching the lines leave the tip of the pen almost becomes a meditation fueling my creativity. And yes, I have many more notebooks than I need right now … and no, that’s not stopping me from picking up new ones as the fancy strikes me.

I’ve been wrestling with two issues with regard to notebooks. One is compartmentalization. I’ve designated certain styles of notebooks for certain types of writing. For example, all my fantasy universe notes are in one style of notebook while my science fiction universe notes are in another style. This works well to keep like with like, but I run into difficulties when I’m working on one task but come up with an idea for another and don’t have the right notebook with me. And what should I use if I want to work on something entirely different? Writing ideas in the wrong dedicated notebook inhibits me, and that’s a problem. The right tool for the right job and all that (or is it the write tool for the write job?), but the tools should not get in the way of the work.

My current solution is to declare a section at the end of each notebook as “Miscellaneous” to capture any stray ideas before they escape, then transfer the writing to the correct notebook later. I’ve also designated a couple of “anything goes” notebooks to be used for any type of writing. We’ll see how well that works.

And speaking of inhibitions, the second notebook issue is in regard to fancy notebooks. Modern notebooks have come a long way from the simple spiral-bound days. Walk through any store selling office supplies and you’ll see gorgeous notebooks, but fancy notebooks are their own special trap. A fancy notebook should be filled with fancy ideas and fancy writing, shouldn’t it? Yet the process of writing yields lots of writing which can be downright ugly, especially in the early stages. So is it wrong to sully the pages of a fancy notebook with infant ideas that might make a mess of all those pristine pages? After long deliberation, I’ve decided that the answer to the question, at least for me, has to be no, it’s not wrong.

I’ve heard the recommendation to use ugly notebooks as a way to lower the pressure of expectations on oneself, and to some extent, I agree. An ugly notebook can contain anything, so it’s easier to just “let ‘er rip” and experiment. Yet if I deliberately choose to use ugly tools, something within me begins to ask why I’m not worthy of using pretty tools instead. When I’m in the zone of creativity and the ideas are flowing, my tools don’t matter; I could use crayon on newsprint and be happy. But if I’m struggling with the writing, then the tools gain importance.

Success in any creative endeavor requires the confidence to allow oneself to make mistakes. Choosing to use a fancy notebook boosts my confidence. I choose to surround myself with beauty while I attempt to create beauty. When I sit down to write, I never know what’s going to come out of the pen. The initial writing might not be pretty, but it might lead to something beautiful later. Shouldn’t an idea be allowed someplace safe and pretty to incubate?

So I’ve been allowing myself to crack open the fancy notebooks and use them. I refuse to be intimidated by my tools. Time will tell whether this course is correct. In the meantime, I will enjoy the serenity of beauty every time I open my fancy notebook to a new blank page.

 

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.