Writing From the Well

I once thought my ideas for stories were like drawing water from a pond or tank. I thought I had just so many, and when those were exhausted, I would be done. The ideas I had, I hoarded and tried to keep close to me until they were written and polished. Only slowly, like a trickle from a tap, would I let them be released lest I dry up my source. I worried that writing exercises would deplete my pond. Of course, I was wrong. Ideas for stories and essays and books, writing in general, is much more like an endless flow from a river or a spring.

In Ireland there are holy wells fed by springs that flow year round. Originally they were sacred to Brigit or Boann or some other form of earth goddess. Nowadays they are sacred to various saints. My favorite is Saint Dymphna, patron saint of the mentally ill. One well in Ireland that is dedicated to her is a lovely place with a statue that people decorate, and where gifts and offerings are regularly left.

Ireland gets a lot of rain. The water percolates through the earth and emerges again in the springs. Some spring-fed wells have existed for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, and the water always flows. But in County Galway, I saw a well that had once been dedicated to Saint Brigit that no longer had water and instead was full of trash. Perhaps the town had grown around Bridget’s well in such a way that the underground water course was blocked and could no longer supply it. Perhaps the saint had just been neglected for so long that she moved her blessings elsewhere.

Writing is nothing like a pond or tank but rather like those rain-renewed wells. And the rain that renews writing is the practice of writing. The flow is endless, but must be tended. Writing begets writing.

I once thought I could never come up with enough ideas for a blog, but I have been surprised how easily the ideas keep coming–at least so far. I thought I’d have maybe three books in me at most, yet now I find five, six, more waiting their turn. I tend my well of ideas by writing more, not less. I have begun to collect writing prompts, exercises, and inspirations from other writers. Once I get going, my brain won’t shut up at night and let me sleep until I at least make a few notes to work from in the morning.

My well may run dry some day, but I will keep tending it. I will make my offerings of time and study and whatever else it takes to keep my saints or goddesses happy. And surely they will let the words keep flowing.

Image: Marilyn at St. Dympna’s Well (note the different spelling), County Galway, Ireland. By Jonathan Hutchins.

J. D. Salinger Got Edited

For a time, I had the privilege of serving as editor of a little magazine called The Rune. I pretty much had no idea what I was doing, but I seldom let that slow me down. The previous editor, Lane Lambert, taught me a lot and kept me from making too big a mess of it. Because we were always looking for good content, we were happy to accept some pretty rough stuff if the authors were willing to make recommended changes to improve their material. Over time, I watched some beginners become much better writers and, in at least one case, a very nearly great writer. But there was this one guy–you know the type–who was too good to be edited.

This fellow had previously published a piece in another magazine, and he submitted that same article to The Rune. The content was pretty good, but the writing needed work. When I recommended some changes, he was incensed. It had been good enough to be published as it was before, he insisted. How dare I suggest changes? He eventually withdrew his submission relieving us of having to commit to publishing something that wasn’t up to our standards.

One of the comments I’ve gotten about my novel is that the editing is really good. My guess is these reviewers are used to self-published books. My book is as well edited as it is because I had an editor.

If you’re going to be a good writer, you need an editor. You may be lucky enough to be able to do it for yourself, but that’s not the way to bet. My friends are willing to help, but they know me too well. Folks who don’t know me won’t always understand what I’m trying to say and will need more detail or clearer explanations to get my drift.

A good editor doesn’t get so caught up in the story that they slide over the typos and dropped words, and can see inconsistencies in the plot line. An great editor can tell you One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest should be told from the Chief’s point of view.

Shannon O’Cork wrote in How to Write Mysteries, “Only amateurs and gods write their words in concrete.” She almost had it right. Some of the other people who write their words in concrete are bad and mediocre writers, or writers who would be without editing. The worst crap I’ve ever read was written by a really good author who got so big and famous that no one dared to edit her work any more. Everybody needs to be edited. J. D. Salinger got edited.

If you find that everyone loves everything you write, without any changes or revisions, please, become my editor, because I can’t do that. I know I’m not a god, and I hope I’m past being an amateur.

Image: Words written in concrete. Cardiff Castle, Wales. By Marilyn Evans.

Spring!

It’s spring! Okay, not on the calendar. And not according to the roller coaster that is the temperature. Not even according to sane people. But gardeners aren’t necessarily sane. The bare root strawberries and seed displays are in the hardware stores! And the Old Farmer’s Almanac says it’s time to start tomato seeds indoors! So, spring, for certain values of spring.

My garden is likely to yield what my husband joyfully refers to as $50 tomatoes. That’s because, by the time I buy potting soil, plants, fertilizer, materials for raised beds, and so on and so forth, what we get from the garden is likely to be really expensive. And that doesn’t include labor. But wait, you say. Don’t you get your horse manure for free? Sure, the manure is free, but we have to pay for stable boarding, the farrier, feed, vet bills, wormer. Need I go on? So, free manure? Sure.

None of that matters. Gardening has nothing to do with sanity. It’s about watching a seemingly dead thing, a seed, come out of the ground and become a full grown plant that bears fruit. It’s about the miracle of life and growth and food coming from dirt. When you go out each day and find a new green bean or wrestle a tomato from the clutches of a squirrel, you have a tiny miracle. Toss it into the freezer, and you have the essence of summertime in the dead of winter. A garden seldom pays for itself, except in joy and awe.

Of course, you knew I’d have to compare writing to gardening, and so I shall. I’ve spent a lot of time and money on classes, conferences, and books learning how to write. There’s very little chance I’ll ever make back these costs from selling what I’ve written. That does not concern me in the least. Most likely, my stories and novels will be the print version of a $50 tomato. So be it.

In the past, I’ve made my addictions pay for themselves. When I sewed more than was healthy, I sold costumes and clothing to support my habit. But not every hobby can be made to pay its way. Some are simply a labor of love. If they pay for themselves, that is a bonus, but not a requirement. And so, I will write, and I will garden, because I choose to embrace the spring and the creative process, no matter the cost, and whatever the calendar says.

Image: Periwinkles, yellow tulips, grape hyacinths. By Marilyn Evans.

 

A Wild Ride

Welcome to the writer’s life, Marilyn! This is the wild ride, the ups and downs, the agony and joy of writing, or so it would seem.

When I went to Planet Comicon, I had a wonderful time talking to writers, hearing them speak about writing, getting tips, and being inspired. The Cosplayers were great, the guests were awesome, the pop culture was thorough fun. It was an inspiration and a joy.

Then I did my first reading and book signing at 3 Wishes, another wonderful time. I saw a lot of old friends I hadn’t seen in ages. I met people I’d never met before. I didn’t flub the reading too badly, and we sold some books. It was, in all, really good.

Then I read some of my on-line reviews. Some are great, all praise and love. Some are less wonderful, but fair and honest. I agree with the criticisms and know that those are the sorts of things I hope to improve in my next books. And then there was the one review.

I can understand not liking the main character. I can understand hating the plot. I know this book isn’t for everyone. But I have to take exception with the criticism of Winston, the cat. The reviewer, in her bio, claims to be a cat person. If that is so, I feel sorry for her cats.

The character, Winston, a very large cat with some interesting character traits, is based on several cats I have been privileged to know over the years. To describe their behavior as uncatlike might distress them, if they weren’t cats and therefore don’t give a crap what people think.

Bad reviews happen. It’s part of the ride. Not everyone will like every book. There are highly touted classics I can’t abide. And because people have different tastes, we have available to us a vast array of authors and genres and books–something for everyone, we hope. The thing is, I can’t let the bad reviews steal the joy from my writing. I can’t let someone not loving me or my writing or my cat keep me from the fun, the thrill of creation, the daily process of working at what I love.

I will have more bad reviews. I will encounter people who don’t get my jokes, who don’t like the created people I’ve come to love, and who will take exception to my interpretation of the world. But that’s all right. If I don’t get on the horse and ride, I’ll never experience the inevitable ups that follow close behind the downs. I can’t please everyone, but I must please myself, and I must keep writing.

Image: Jonathan Hutchins riding Crystal Perfection, Fort Leavenworth Hunt, spring fox hunt, 2003. Picture by Marilyn J. Evans.

Quo Vadis?

Quo Vadis is a Latin phrase that was used as the title of a book and later, a movie based on the book. I didn’t like the book much and wasn’t fond of the movie, but I’ve always liked the phrase. Quo vadis is usually translated “whither goest thou?”

Whence and whither are not much used in English these days, and I’m a little sad about that. They would make it so much easier to ask “where did you come from” and “where are you going to” without leaving you with that awkward preposition stranding–that is, when a preposition is far from its intended object. We do it all the time in spoken English: what are you talking about; what is he up to; this bed looks slept in.

Editors can get touchy about stranding, which can lead to authors getting touchy in return. In response to a zealous editor who tried to remove all the dangling prepositions, an author (it is attributed to Winston Churchill) wrote, “This is the sort of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put.” This response clearly demonstrates that getting too crazy about rearranging sentences to avoid stranding can make them sound pretty silly.

In trying to minimize the use of dangling prepositions, I’ve discovered that often my preposition is hanging out there because I’m using the wrong words. By using a different word or words, the problem goes away, and the writing gets better. Instead of saying “where did I come from,” my character might actually be asking, who were my parents or what was my country of origin or something else entirely. When I find myself using one of these terms that strands my proposition, I ask myself what am I really trying to say? Is there a better word or phrase that removes the problem and says more clearly what I’m trying to convey? Did I really mean “this is nonsense I won’t put up with”, or did I want to say “this is nonsense I won’t tolerate”?

I am not likely to be using whither and whence in my writing any time soon (unless I’m writing something historical), but I will be trying to keep my sentences undangly at the same time avoiding rearranging them into silliness. But sometimes, you just have  to let your prepositions hang out.

Image: Quo Vadis, Jonathan? Jonathan Hutchins at Danebury Hill Fort, Hampshire, England. By Marilyn Evans

You’ve Got to Call It Something

The first thing someone asks when they find out you’ve written novel is “What genre?” Readers, publishers, book sellers, everyone wants to know what kind of book it is. It’s got to have a label. Beloved Lives was a reboot of a horror story but ended up being classified as paranormal romance with some suspense thrown in for good measure.

Some writers resist the pigeon holes they are slotted into. Margaret Atwood long insisted she did not write science fiction. Certainly Cat’s Eye is fiction, plain and simple. The Handmaid’s Tale could fairly be called dystopian future fiction, but she insisted,  “Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.” She seems to have accepted the label in the end as she has accepted so many awards for her superb writing.

When you write in a genre, you are expected to at least try to stick with it. It is apparently literary suicide to follow a paranormal, romantic suspense novel with, say, a Regency romance, a historical fiction, a mystery, or a space opera. Sadly, those are the novels that are currently agitating to be written in my poor, beleaguered brain. In fact, I’ve already written the space opera although it needs a lot of rewriting and editing. The research for the Regency romance is done, and the book itself is about a fourth drafted. The historical fiction has caused a mountain of research documents to clutter my life. The mystery is about half done.

My husband, bless him, said he reads novels by people who write three or more a year. He was right, of course. Why couldn’t I go ahead and write a paranormal romance to follow my first one? Trouble is, I didn’t have a single idea for the plot, the characters, or the location. Or did I?

I had this idea some time back for a story about a couple–but why did it have to be a couple? What if they became a couple during the course of the story? Suddenly, I was mugged by ideas, hijacked by locations, pestered by characters. The words started falling out of my brain and into my computer as fast as my little fingers could type. I wake up every morning eager to write instead of struggling as I had on some of my recent projects. Almost as quickly as problems come up with the story, the solutions present themselves. I’m really enjoying writing this thing. It may not be a good book, but, like Beloved Lives, it’s being fun to write. And best of all, it’s a paranormal romance with elements of mystery. Or at least that’s how I’ll label it. Because, you’ve got to call it something.

Image: Tamara experimenting with the horror genre.

Tamara J. Sanchez at Powell Gardens.  Photograph by Jonathan Hutchins.

 

 

About Time

I’m always amused when someone in a film or TV program says something like, “We’re going to blow up in thirty seconds”, then the characters proceed to talk, argue, vow undying love, or whatever for a full minute before the bomb is defused in the last seconds. I’m waiting for someone to put a stop watch on one of these encounters and blow them up in the predicted thirty seconds while they are in mid sentence. I always feel a little cheated that their thirty seconds are longer than mine.

Time and timing are important. The entire human race is a bit obsessed with time, or so one would think, based on the monumental sites around the world dedicated to tracking seasons, sunrises and sunsets, and so forth. Humans have been finding ways to measure time for centuries. Some insist it is the one dimension that defines all the universe and the phenomena in it.

Recognizing the importance of the logical use of time for actions and events, many books about writing well tell you to create a time line as part of your plotting and planning. This helps keep story lines straight and tells you who is where when. Realistic spans of time for actions and events can keep disbelief at bay.

I recently read a mystery that had actions taking place simultaneously at different locations with different characters who would all be meeting later down the road. Each change of scene and chapter was headed with the location, date, and time. This took skillful plotting of both action and time by the author, added greatly to the suspense in the novel, and helped me keep track of what was happening where.

My novel, Beloved Lives, takes place, for the most part, between Mother’s Day and July 4th, and the required me to do some adjusting as I fit the actions to my dates of events. There are also flashbacks that cover many decades and even greater spans of time. At one point I was counting out years between events and determining what might have been going on in the world during those times. All of this was important, at least to me, in keeping as faithfully as possible to a span of time that wouldn’t challenge a reader’s credulity.

In one of the stories I’m currently writing, I’ve gotten all messed up on seasons and actions. I’ll need to go back and get it straightened out with a detailed time line before I go much farther. Otherwise, someone may get blown up in mid-sentence, or worse yet, I may make my readers unhappy. That would never do.

My Personal Writer’s Retreat

Once a year I fly down to Tucson, Arizona, to visit my best friend, Chris. She is well acquainted with a couple who spend part of every year in Italy, and who graciously allow me to stay at their house while I’m visiting. Most days of my week-long stay, I spend the morning writing, doing research, and generally tending to the business of being a writer. The rest of the time, Chris and I walk, visit places like the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum (where we see folks like this Mexican gray wolf), and eat and drink to excess. And we talk. We talk a lot.

Chris is  a great sounding board for my ideas and plot lines. She has a good understanding of human nature (she has a master’s degree in psychology), and sometimes keeps me from veering off in the wrong direction. Having someone to bounce ideas off of and to do reality checks for me is a pretty wonderful thing for a writer.

Having a week of undistracted, uninterrupted writing is a pretty wonderful thing, as well. When I’m home, I am likely to have cats on the keyboard, dirty dishes or laundry that won’t shut up and leave me alone, and a thousand other distractions great and small. When I’m home, I sometimes find I have to remove myself to the pubic library or a coffee shop to really focus and get things done. When I had to take a friend to the doctor’s office, I got an amazing amount written sitting in the waiting room. I doubt they’ll let me camp there on a regular basis to write, but it goes to show that writing can be done anyplace, if there are few enough distractions. And some days, writing at home just rolls and everything that might seduce me away from my keyboard falls away.

I like my visits every year to see Chris, but I’m not a real fan of deserts. I can appreciate the beauty of them, especially when seen through the eyes of someone who lives there, but I prefer the woodlands of the midwest. Still, there are some beautiful things in Arizona. Not least of these are the clear, cool nights when millions are stars are visible in the sky. As a place to visit a friend, write, and soak up the food and culture (we saw a pretty great chamber music concert on Wednesday), I think Tucson will stay on my list of best places to work at writing.

And on Facebook

And now my blog is connected to Facebook as well as Twitter. Aren’t I the social networker?

Strange things happen to me when I go to Tucson. But I am getting a lot of work done on my next novel while I’m down here. I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.