Saturday, May 28, 2011

Snapshot Saturday - Swans

Swan at the Lake District, England - This guy chased me, trying to steal a chip.
I love birds, partly because I'd love to be able to fly, but mostly because my grandmother taught me to watch them. She always had a pair of field glasses in the kitchen window sill, ready for any visitors. We grew sunflowers and put up bird feeders and baths. Grandma had a beautiful, full-color bird guide that we would look through whenever we found a new bird in the garden.
Swans - Lake District, UK
 On my first visit to the Lake District, we had our lunch lakeside. The swans are very used to people and very greedy when it comes to the fish and chip stand.  This gave me the opportunity to get some close up shots - and be chased by a swan.

The little ones were so cute, and much less intimidating than their parents.

I took this picture of the smallest swanling, and the picture is one of my favorites. It looked like he was staring down at his reflection.

Swans are beautiful, but I've always loved them because of the story of the Ugly Duckling. My mother gave me an illustrated Ugly Duckling book as a child, and I loved its pictures. This picture reminds me of a scene from the story.

Swans are also really large and aggressive. Don't plan your picknick near a bunch of swans, they will invade your space and steal your chips (and pretty much whatever they want as you run away, trying to avoid being bitten).  

To participate in Snapshot Saturday, just follow the rules from Alyce's blog:

To participate in the Saturday Snapshot meme post a photo that you (or a friend or family member) have taken... Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. Please don't post random photos that you find online. 

Posted by Jennifer B. at The Writing Cocoon.

Pictures for World Building

Map from Vatican Museum

Map from Vatican Museum

I shouldn’t be concentrating on world building at the moment.  I should be writing furiously on through to the end of my novel, but sometimes a break for a bit of world building and picture perusal feeds the creativity and inspires my writing.

The above maps are from the Vatican Museum in Rome. They really sparked my imagination, luring me into visions of mystic fantasy worlds full of vivid color and lush landscapes. In working on the maps for my fantasy novel, I use these for inspiration. Don't know yet if the maps are for my own reference and inspiration or to be included for the readers.

Pompeii, Italy

There will be at least one ruined city visited in my current fantasy novel. I love this scene of a street in Pompeii - those stones were stepping stones. The carriages could drive over them, wheels between the stones, and pedestrians could avoid the flow of muck in the streets by crossing the stones. Pictures from Pompeii, along with  the experience of being there, give me an eerie feeling. Strolling through its streets, you get a real sense of walking through a place ripped violently from life. Pompeii's state of preservation adds to that sensation - as if this town was filled with life just yesterday. That's what I want to capture in my scenes in my book.

Brimham Rocks, UK
Not being native to Yorkshire, I'm always delighted by the other-world feeling I get visiting its various landscapes.  Visiting Brimham Rocks was like stepping into a movie scene. I love the contrasts in spring, when the vibrant ferns and flowers juxtapose against the sculpted, gray stone.

These are just a few of my inspiration pictures. Does anyone else use pictures to inspire their world building? If not, what do you use?

Posted by Jennifer B. at The Writing Cocoon.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Remembering E.R.H.

Posted by Jennifer B. at The Writing Cocoon.

It’s disconcerting how hard some things hit you, even when you see them coming from a mile away. Yesterday my grandfather died, after many years of illness.

My grandfather had a mischievous sense of humor and was a great story teller. I remember how he would laugh so hard that tears rolled down his cheeks when telling a whopper of a story or a good joke. You could tell when his imagination was sparked by something someone said or did; his eyes would light up and a devilish grin would spread across his face. That’s when you knew you were in for a good time, a good story, and a good laugh.

He loved his family. He was an amazing cook, lifelong fisherman, avid gardener, joyful prankster, and someone of whom all my memories are happy ones.

He took me in, he kept me clothed and fed, and he made me laugh. He wasn’t perfect, but he was both grandpa and dad when I needed them most. I am relieved that he is no longer suffering, but I am still very sad. I don’t know what more to write.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Obsessive vs. Enthusiastic

Posted by Jennifer B. at The Writing Cocoon.

I know I wrote something in an earlier blog post about pacing myself so that my writing would stay easy and flowing.  It sounded so wise at the time. Fast forward a few days, and I’ve thrown that idea out with the bathwater. Unfortunately, this isn’t a new theme with me, which is why I made the pacing comment in the first place.

The last few weeks, I’ve been feeling better than I have in a long time. I’ve had energy and stamina, felt the creativity returning. I decided to jump into this whole blogging thing, to stop putting it off, waiting for the perfect time to begin. Then I opened up my novel document and started writing, at first a few hundred words, now I’m writing all afternoon. On top of that, I’ve stepped up my research again: reading and searching new blogs and sites, my Kindle is full, and I’m spending the whole morning reading and studying. Two days in a row I forgot to eat during the day. I barely came up for air.

Yesterday was the most productive day I’ve had since I started writing seven months ago. I wrote an entire thirty-seven hundred word short story, added twelve hundred words to my novel, and wrote three blog post drafts. By the end of the day, my fingers felt shriveled and weak, my legs and back were stiff, and I had a massive eye-strain headache. I was pleased with my work, but feeling a bit high strung. After asking my poor husband to review my new short story (“READ it, read it now!” - I think those were my exact words), I drank a half bottle of wine and promptly went to sleep. I think I may need some balance in my day.

I’d like to think this illustrates my boundless enthusiasm, my deep passion for my work. I’m afraid that all it really shows is that I don’t know how to do anything a step at a time. It’s only been two weeks since I’ve returned to my writing; I don’t want to burn out. When I get like this, it often mirrors a bad sugar binge. It tastes so sweet going down, but you know it ends with you shaking and sweating on the bathroom floor. Mmm…it also mirrors a manic-depressive cycle.

I’m not sure: am I enthusiastic or am I obsessive?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Head in the Sand, Conclusion

Posted by Jennifer B. at The Writing Cocoon.

It is better, I think, to grab at the stars than to sit flustered because you know you cannot reach them...At least he who reaches will get a good stretch, a good view, and perhaps even a low-hanging apple for his efforts.
- R. A. Salvatore Sojourn

To be oneself is a rare thing, and a great one.
- Ursula K. Le Guin A Wizard of Earthsea

It has been a struggle to get here – to the point of just sitting down and letting myself write again. Many obstacles stood in my way: fear, self-doubt, an uncertain trajectory, lack of knowledge, and lack of support. Unfortunately, most of the obstacles were self imposed, I being my own worst enemy.

The sad reality is that I only got back to writing because every other option eroded away. I would try to shape myself into something else, but I just couldn’t bend and twist myself enough for it to work. Finally, something inside me began to resist.  I had restricted my life down to such a narrow space on a cliff’s edge, that the only thing left for me to do was turn, face my fears, and take a leap of faith.  Even then, I held on to the last of my resistance like my life depended on it. I stood there on the precipice for a long time, balanced on the edge and staring down at all my hopes and fears. Then, last October, I decided to do something crazy, to write a novel in thirty days, and something finally released.  I began to let go and let myself fall into the unknown.

Part of this exploration of being a writer is about the fragility of this newfound identity. There is something significant and scary about placing all my faith in a dream. There are all of these new issues to face:  from “being true to yourself” to “fear of failure.” I’m hoping that, by acknowledging these things, I will come to terms with them and keep moving forward. Maybe I will even find support and/or camaraderie from someone else out there who is facing the same long and twisty road-less-traveled.

I hope these posts have helped you get into my headspace; they have made me think about this journey and what it means to me to take on writing. I’ve been told that I have a tendency to overanalyze, but I do really believe it helps to move forward if you understand where you’ve been.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Head in the Sand, Part 2

Posted by Jennifer B. at The Writing Cocoon.

There's no point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes.
- The Doctor, Doctor Who

In the years after college, I drifted aimlessly from job to job, desperate for something to take hold of me and say, “this is the way!” It was a passive way to go through life, quietly accepting whatever opportunities that fell in my lap. In those years between college and turning thirty, I put away any dreams I had of writing to focus on becoming a solid grown up. That came to mean finding a job with a solid paycheck and benefits. Anything else was (so I told myself) a childish refusal to grow up and be sensible.

I dipped into a few career paths, but nothing resonated.  I began to ask those around me for their secret to finding a suitable career, because somewhere along the line, I'd learned to distrust my own voice.  The problem with other people’s experience is, by definition it is someone else’s reality.  If it didn’t gel with what I knew for myself, it was just useless noise in an already crowded brain.   The one answer that I should have listened to was that from my husband (he’ll love that I’ve written this) which was this: “I’ve just known exactly what I was going to do in life since I was ten years old.”

 I continued to look outside myself for answers.  Books, newspaper articles, and coaching sessions with a life coach: when it came to finding a direction for my life, I did anything to avoid facing myself.

Even when I found helpful advice from these sources, I ignored it. For example, my sister directed me to Live Career - an online resource to help you define where your skills and interests lie. I still have my results from about 7 years ago. One chart in particular is very amusing (because of my choices in life, not because of the chart).  It is the one that displays my occupational interests. Here’s a bit of the information: 

Administration    13
Art                       51
Clerical                 2
Food Service       96
Health Service     54
Industrial Art       88
Outdoors              80
Personal Service  38
Sales                      2
Science                65
Teaching/Social Service     87
Writing                98

The higher the number, the more that my test answers indicate that I have a strong affinity for the interest category. This is just one tiny part of the report, and it was very interesting stuff.  However, like any of these sorts of tools, I suspect you have to actually apply it to your life for it to help you.

Now, consider this list of my jobs and their respective categories in the chart:
  • College administrator (Administration - 13)
  • Student/peer councilor (Teaching/Social Service - 87)
  • Assistant to a loan broker (Clerical - 2)
  • Flight attendant (not on this chart, but I score 8 on Hospitality/Travel)
  • Loan officer (Sales - 2)
  • Business to Business sales (Sales - 2)
  • Operations manager (Administration - 13)

Do you see a pattern here? I do. I see a pattern, and it is telling me that I am an idiot. I spent my entire adult life in jobs that, according to this report, I have no interest in and will not enjoy. Would it come to any surprise to you if I told you I was miserable? Did you notice the area in which I scored highest?

A note on Live Career:  My sister sent me the link to Live Career. It has a free option for the test and report, which you can select first. If you like the information in the free version, you can opt to pay for a full, detailed report. I believe I did the latter (it has been some years). I am in no way affiliated with Live Career and don’t know anything about it outside my own experience with my test. I liked the test and information, so based on that I’d say give the free version a try. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Word Count & Progress Update

Posted by Jennifer B. at The Writing Cocoon.

Yesterday’s words flew from my fingertips. I’m enjoying my story again. Things are happening, and there is direction. I’ve been reading about writer’s block and writing a first draft, and I’ve found some helpful tips to keep me moving. One such tip was to write dialogue only to get through a rough patch or finish up a first draft. I tried this yesterday and it kept things flowing and allowed me to get lost in the story and characters for a while, which is exactly what I’ve needed.

This first draft has changed so much and I’m learning every day about crafting a story, that I know that I need to just get it finished. Then I can know how it is supposed to end. From there I figure I will have to pretty much rewrite the whole damned thing.  For starters, it is pretty awful; I don’t need to read a word to tell you this. Second, the beginning seems to change more and more as I get closer to the end. Someone said that you have to write the end to know how it begins, and that seems to be true, for this story at least.

I wasn’t home much Friday, plus, I didn’t plan my time very well. I didn’t write a single word on the novel draft, but I did get some brainstorming in and started another short story. Saturday I wrote 1,948 words on my novel. It felt easy, and I think I could have kept going. I don’t want to burn myself out, though. I want the writing to feel fun and exciting, and I want to end my sessions feeling like I have more to say. Don’t know yet if that is a good strategy, but that’s what I’m going with for now.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Head in the Sand, Part 1

Posted by Jennifer B. at The Writing Cocoon.

We are all prisoners at one time or another in our lives, prisoners to ourselves or to the expectations of those around us. It is a burden that all people endure, that all people despise, and that few people ever learn to escape.  - R. A. Salvatore Exile

A confession: up until 7 months ago, I hadn’t written more than two short stories in years. Why? I’m not sure how to answer that, but I’ll try.

There is one question that has hounded me since I graduated from university, realized that the party was over, and that I needed to do something in order to pay my mounting debts. The question is this: What am I going to do with my life? I’ve struggled with this question every day of my adult life. 

Over the years, I’ve asked a lot of people to tell me how they decided on a course of action. A few had a calling or had “always known” what they wanted to do, Fate took a hand in others’ lives, and some people, like me, seemed to bounce aimlessly from job to job without direction or destination in mind.

I’ve tried many different methods that were supposed to deliver me onto an appropriate life path. I've researched, interviewed, sought advice, taken tests - you name it.  In college, I filled out that Myers-Brigg profile (INFP!) and made appointments with career counselors. You know how these things go:

Councilor:    If you could do anything that you wanted, money being no obstacle, what would you do?

Me:    Anything? I’d be a rock star.

Councilor:     A rock star? What was your major again?

Me:    Cultural Anthropology. Oh, and I studied Spanish. Plus, I minored in dance.

Councilor:     Oh. Do you sing?

Me:    I was in choir in junior high. If I’m singing in a large group, I sound pretty good.

Councilor:    Oh. Well then, do you play an instrument?

Me:    I used to play cello.

Councilor:     I see. So, why do you want to be a rock star, then?

Me:    I don’t know, in my daydreams, I’m always a rock star. If I could do anything, that’s what I’d do.

These types of questions don’t get me far. Same thing goes for questions like: “What did you want to do when you were a child?” Answer: I wanted to be a ballerina. I even took ballet lessons for many years. After that ended in body dysmorphia, I desperately wanted to be an astronaut. Look at me now, an out-of-shape thirty-something. Obviously the Houston Ballet ain’t calling and neither is NASA. So these trips down memory lane don't help me.

When I went off to university, I thought that I was going to major in biology and become a marine biologist or a doctor. I knew within one semester that this wasn’t a good fit for me. If I had answered the counselor’s question with honesty, the answer would have been that I loved to read and write, that I spent every waking hour doing these things or thinking about doing them, and that people seemed to like my stories.  But, I wasn’t honest, because I was scared…

Thursday, May 19, 2011

In the beginning...there was Grammar

Posted by Jennifer B. at The Writing Cocoon.
In thinking about the road to becoming a writer, I’ve been wondering where to start. Writers write, right? But, if I’m honest with myself, there really is more to it than the application of words to paper or computer screen.  There’s more to it if you want to be more than someone who records words, if you want to be a good writer, a great writer, or a published writer.

I think the first step is actually to write stuff down. Write a short story, start a blog, write a first draft of a novel, poem, screenplay, whatever. It is the second, third, fourth, etc., step that I’m getting at here. I started writing my first novel, and even wrote a couple of short stories, but what else should I be doing in order to become an accomplished writer?

I started my search for the answers with my browser (after all, modern quests start here). I started by typing in the names of my favorite Science Fiction & Fantasy writers. This led me to various authors’ blogs and how-to-write type sites. One link led to another, and I found some good material out there for beginner writers, one such example being the site Writing-World. The site, by author Moira Allen, has a wealth of free information on everything from the inspirational to the practical: a beginner’s section, plot development, grammar, copyright information, author interviews, and much more. In fact, there is so much information on both this particular site and spread throughout the Web in general, that it is overwhelming. Well, one has to start somewhere, so I chose grammar.

I know, I know, grammar is not exactly a sexy word, but if you want to be a published writer, you can’t ignore it. I don’t know about you, but it has been many years since I’ve written anything and had it reviewed by a teacher or professor for grammar and structure. However, I study foreign languages, so grammar is still something I study on a regular basis.  It is familiar to me, and I don’t think my grammar and punctuation are terrible. Still, there are some things that are hard to keep straight, the example that pops immediately to mind is the comma.  Think about how used, abused, and neglected the common comma is. Can you explain all of the points on when to use the comma? I certainly can’t.

So, yeah, that’s where I’m starting. The Writing-World site has grammar and usage information under the “Becoming a Better Writer” section.  Another site I’ve found that is full of great information is Odyssey, the Fantasy Writing Workshop.  It has a writing tips section, where tip #1 is on punctuation. I’ve just read through the comma section.  I actually enjoy reading about this stuff, but I really love language and writing, which includes the language’s punctuation, grammar, and usage rules. This is not to say I’m an expert or always use language perfectly or effectively when writing. In fact, I’m not even a stickler for grammar rules in general. However, if there is one thing every publishing how-to blog or site has stressed, it is that your manuscripts have to follow the accepted usage.

On my writing desk, right next to the computer screen, I always have the following books:
  • The Chicago Manual of Style
  • Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style
  • The Oxford English Dictionary (Just one of my many dictionaries, actually)

The books are a handy, searchable reference with information that I trust to be accurate and accepted in the publishing community. The web sites give me a lot of the same information, but I use those for a sort of tutorial, if you will. They tend to be written as such. 

That’s what I’m working on now, in conjunction with getting into a regular writing groove, of course. I’m using the sites I’ve mentioned to point me towards the grammar I should be reviewing first, and the manuals and reference books to supplement and expand that knowledge. I’ve been reading about the comma, for example, because the writing sites with grammar tips always include a section on the comma.  The Odyssey site has a clearly written comma section with examples. It also has a short exercise at the end of its comma section, which I’ve used to check my understanding. I’m also trying to review some of my writing with the comma information in mind.  By applying the rules that I’m reviewing, I’m finding that it is trickier than you might think to apply them and that the application cements the information in my mind.

Studying proper grammar and usage: one more step closer to becoming a writer!

What about you? What sites have you found helpful in revising your work for punctuation and grammar? Do you have a favorite reference?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cautious Optimism

Posted by Jennifer B. at The Writing Cocoon.
I think I may be back in the swing of things. Yesterday I decided it was time to get back on schedule with my novel writing and opened up my novel document on my computer.  I reread my last scene to get back into the story, but I found myself just staring at the screen.  I didn’t want to write anything. I was bored.

Actually, even when I was last writing daily, I was finding it more and more difficult to stick with my novel.  Novel writing is a marathon, not a sprint, and I was at the halfway point: you are really tired from the effort, but the end still seems so far away as to not even be worth thinking about. The initial momentum imparted from finishing NaNo was wearing thin.

So, I did what anyone trying to procrastinate in these modern days does: I clicked on my browser. Before anyone gets down on me for falling prey to such a simple snare, I DID google: “bored with writing my novel.” Hey, at least I was researching (or so I told myself). The results were mostly forum posts from different writer’s forums. I was looking for inspiration, but I would have taken sympathy.

A small sample of my search results:
  1. You’re bored because you’re novel is boring. If you can’t stay interested in what you’re writing, then how can you expect a reader to be entertained. (Eek. First link clicked is a dose of cold reality.)
  2. You’re boring. (Oh man. So far the Internet is failing to lift me from this rut.)
  3. If you’ve written yourself into a corner, you’re bored, or you don’t know what to do next, give a maniac a gun and let them go buck wild. The idea is simply this: shake things up. (Hmm…This one has promise.)
  4. Take ten minutes to brainstorm as many different ideas as possible. Remember, don’t edit, just throw out anything that comes to mind. (Ugh, brainstorming. Why is the answer always “brainstorming?”)
I decided to go with a combination of 3 and 4.  I set a timer for fifteen minutes and wrote as many unexpected crises or twists as I could. Wouldn’t you know it, but it worked. I suddenly had an idea for a minor character to turn on my main character, thereby opening up an opportunity for my MC to go in a new direction. The twist wasn’t even that out-of-left field, but it had me excited again, visualizing the fight scene and dialogue.

I went back to my computer and typed until my fingers cramped. When I was finished for the day, I had effortlessly added 1,942 words. More importantly, I got the MC from A to B and now can start on the next part of my plot.

Finally, after a very rough 3 months, it seems I'm back on the road to writing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

First Novel Project

Posted by Jennifer B. at The Writing Cocoon.
Back in October of last year, I started to see the familiar reappearance of odd blog posts here and there about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  NaNoWriMo is a sort of collective insanity that overtakes many people every year in November.  The short version is that NaNoWriMo is a challenge to any writer to commit to writing fifty thousand words in one month.  There is a website and meet-up groups that go along with it, and it is generally a great atmosphere to let go of your inner critic and let your fingers go nuts on the computer keyboard.

I read a fair number of blogs, and every year I see frantic posts from those participating in this novel writing challenge.  At times the posts are intriguing; they are almost always amusing. Sometimes I’ve thought that these people were completely out of their gourds. It just seems like a bad idea, doesn’t it, to try and write an entire novel in 30 days? Each year, November would come and go, and I wouldn’t think too much about the shiny new “NaNoWriMo  Winner” buttons that would pop up on a few blogs.  That is, until last year.

Ever since I quit my job in 2007, my husband has been bugging me to get back to writing. Why I’ve fought this whole idea, well, that’s another post, but when I saw the first murmurings in the blogosphere about NaNoWriMo in October, something just clicked.  It was perfect, just the sort of insane gimmick I needed to get back into writing.  The emphasis is on volume, on doing, on creating a daily habit, and not so much on quality. There is no editing in NaNoWriMo. There is only endless, daily writing. I just felt something catch inside me, and I knew I should do it. So, I did.

I signed up on the website, so I could be all official in my participation, and I joined a forum where fellow local writers could share in the joy and pain of the experience and get support from others crazy enough to undertake the task.  I already knew what my novel would be about.  I’d been writing short stories and character sketches and running scenes in my head for years on this particular storyline: a fantasy tale set in an alternate world.  All systems go, I was ready for this. I was excited. I felt like I was part of something, and, even more important, I had a goal.

The goal was the key.  It was short term, just 30 days.  It was achievable; I didn’t have to write a great novel, just produce word volume. However, it was also a stretch because very few people will spit out the 1,666.6 words per day without flinching, without having a few come-to-Jesus moments, or without a little pain or tears.

When November 30th rolled around, I had finished the challenge. I produced my fifty thousand words. I finished something. I won my winner’s badge. It was exhilarating and just the boost I needed (or so it seemed at the time). In the end, I had written just over fifty-two thousand words and the first half of my first novel.

In December, I added another thirteen thousand words before taking a month long trip to visit family abroad, and that is where my troubles began. Again, another post, another time. As of right now, the total word count is 65,656, and I’m stuck in the middle.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hello Blog World

Posted by Jennifer B. at The Writing Cocoon.

What makes a person a writer? Is it being a literary genius, writing the “Great American/English/German/Etc. Novel,” being published in a magazine, or writing online? Is it something as simple as saying that anyone who writes is a writer? Are bloggers writers? Is my mother a writer because she records events in a diary?