Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Inspiration

As writers, the topic of inspiration is pivotal to our craft. If we were never inspired, we would never write. Or at least, our writing would be extremely dull. When we say that we have ‘writer’s block,’ we mean that we suffer from a lack of inspiration. Writing has become a chore, a drudge. We have to drag ourselves to the keyboard or notebook. Every word is like beating at a colossal wall. This happens to most every writer at some point (some might argue that the majority of their time is spent in this state). How, then, do we re-immerse ourselves? The answer is both simple and complex: we find inspiration. Simple because it can be found anywhere. Complex because, well, if it were really that easy, we would all have written a score of brilliant novels by now.

The reason why I didn’t write my customary post yesterday was because I was visiting a place that used to be my sure-fire inspiration kick. My grandparents live in a remote seaside village on the northern California coastline. It has a population of 280; the people are outnumbered by the seals that bask along the rocky coastline. When I was a child, every summer involved a three-day trip to this paradise of pine and fog and salt. Every afternoon we would hike along the cliffs, search for garter snakes in the tall grass, or venture into the icy water until the pangs in our thighs receded to numbness. In the evenings, I would sit in the big bay windows facing the sea and write until the sun grew large against the horizon and submerged itself for the night. This was my Eden, a cool draught after a sticky summer spent in my hometown.

I was always told that it would be temporary. My grandparents aged and grew weak – my grandfather, physically; my grandmother, mentally. This autumn they moved into a nursing home a few miles up the road from their community. Their house sold within days after being put on the market. My father has been placed in charge of the estate, so yesterday my parents, sister, and I piled in the car and drove up for the first time in two years. Papers needed signing, errands needed to be run. We ended by taking my grandparents out to lunch at a Mexican place off the side of Highway 1. Red paint had been sponged on the walls. The only decoration was a large painting of a rooster with a noble expression on its face (if roosters could ever be said to look noble) while two silhouetted roosters fought in a stormy sky behind him. If artists ever suffer from artist's block, this one had a terminal case.

My grandmother has no idea who I am anymore. I waved broadly as my mother led her into the restaurant. She stared past me, looking nervous, and only took the seat across from me with much coaxing from both my parents. My grandfather is almost immobilized after a series of strokes. He finds talking difficult and is dependent on an oxygen machine.

“How are things?” my father tried helpfully.

My grandmother was silent, intent on drinking the salsa. My mother directed her to the chips instead.

“Not too good,” my grandfather said with a stiff shrug.

I stared at the roosters and tried not to think.

Desperate for conversation, my father said, “Melissa’s got some big news to share with you guys. Don’t you, Melissa?” He doesn’t approve of my engagement or like my fiancé, but his voice took on an animated tone and I played along.

“I got engaged,” I said, holding out my left hand.

Surprisingly, my grandmother took it, and stared down into the ring. “It’s beautiful,” she said. The only distinct words she said all through lunch.

My grandfather’s face lit up. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed. “That’s wonderful!”

Is it really, I wondered, when the only ends are to divorce, die young, or end up like this?

But this was just a passing thought, interrupted as my grandfather asked for my fiancés name and repeated it after me like code. “Ee-ly-jah. That’s a good name. Do you have a date yet?”

I told him and he nodded. “We’re the fifteenth of that month. Fifty-six years ago.”

“Has it been that long?” my grandmother murmured, surprised.

“A long time,” my grandfather responded, not looking at her. She was already back to dipping her fingers in the salsa.

Lunch finally ended and we said our it-was-nice-to-see-you’s. One final “Congratulations!” from my grandfather and they were gone.

“Come on,” my father said to us. “Let’s go for a walk.”

We returned to the trail along the cliffs that I’ve walked so many times. I hurried on ahead of the others, not sure why I was rushing. Here was the secret stairway down to a beach, the gentle cove that was the best place to watch seals, the tide pools that we used to find starfish in, the rock that I climbed all the way to top of one morning and felt reborn. I reached the grove of trees with the crumbling picket fence, the one that I used to imagine was a place in my stories and any moment a character or two would peer out from just behind that bend. No place has ever made me want to write as much as this has. No where have I learned as much about a story as here.

But yesterday, I felt numb. The trees were just trees, slightly crooked. The fence was decaying. There was no magic here. If there ever had been, it was long gone.

My family caught up with me and we turned to head back. The sun was already low in the sky and if we weren’t out of the mountains by nightfall, it could be dangerous.

On the way home, I found my thoughts returning to my first novel, the one that isn’t very good. I’ve put it aside for the time being because, in all honesty, I’m tired of it. So much of it was written there, at my grandparents’ house by the sea. Now that it’s gone, where will I go to find my inspiration?

But as I thought more, I remembered the sponged-red walls of the restaurant. The noble rooster. My grandmother’s blank, but sincere smile. I wanted to write them all, and I have here. They didn’t take me to other worlds, perhaps, but they had driven me to the page nonetheless. Fantastical reality. Better than realistic fantasy.

The sun dipped into the ocean for the night just as we descended the last peak and forsook Highway 1 for inland-bound roads. I scrambled for my pen.


Monday, December 21, 2009

An Artsy Fartsy Guest Post

Hi there, as Mel is probably singing "It's a Small World After All" in Disney Land right now I am guest blogging today. My name is Nichole Lewis and I am an artist, writer, and leader of the Horror, Dark Fantasy, and Paranormal Romance sub-group of the Sylvanopolis Writers' Society. My post will focus on how art and writing affect each other, both in the creative process and in the finished product.

Much of my art is fantasy based, and for me the first spark of a drawing is similar to the first spark of a story. I become obsessed with the art, I see the finished product in my minds eye, and until I begin the initial pencil drawing, I always have a nagging little voice in the back of my head saying "You should be working on this." This process is similar to that of most writers starting out on a story, when they and delving into new characters and creating a new world.

Drawing also helps me understand my character's better. When drawing them, I have to constantly think "what do their clothes look like?" "what color is their skin, hair, or eyes?" As with writing, my drawn characters can change greatly from beginning to end. Something as little as a piece of jewelry or the way that I draw a smile can open up a whole new dimension of the literary work. (for example, while drawing a broach on one character I decided to add magical powers to it so that my character could slide through the normal world to a fantasy realm without loosing time in the normal world).

If I am working on a story for a while I will re-vamp the images as their characters become more developed. This focus on detail doesn't limit itself to my canvases, as when I am writing, I often will ask myself what they look like and how the setting looks. I also notice that when I critique works of artists who do not regularly draw their characters that they often forget to include details like their character's appearance and details about their setting. Mention of color is rarely used with writers who do not draw their characters. Though not so bad if the story is set within our world, this deletion of detail can prove hazardous within a fantasy world, as the reader may become frustrated with trying to provide too much of the detail on their own.

So even if you aren't the next Brian Fround, drawing out your characters may help you get some insight on their appearance, how they interact within the story, and what the setting looks like.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Understanding Terms

I discussed briefly in my last post that there are a million ways to get published now, as technology seems to make the process easier. But the more there are in numbers, the more scams. I'm going to assume for a second that Reader is just beginning to research publishing. This is not meant to be condescending, but to provide a platform from which to discuss the industry as a whole. In orders to do so all Readers should be expected to have the same knowledge and so if I present Reader with said information.... Reader gets the point, yes?

All right, then. Self-Publishing: you got the whole thing done yourself. You wrote it, got it edited, went to the printer and so forth. You got the art, the design ... everything. You sent out the Press Releases, worked on getting it in the stores, blogs. Yeah, the whole enchilada. And you take home the moolah after the checks are written.

Vanity Presses: demand thousands for the honor of self-publishing. You still do the whole marketing and such, and you pay for "packages" but all in all your desire to be published is something a place like this is taking advatage of. Read this.

Publishing on Demand (POD). This is like Lulu. Lulu offers services, but doesn't charge the author outrageous amounts. In fact, going through Lulu for 50 volumes at 200 pages is $100 less than finding the cheapest digital printshop and bindery in town and having them done there. That choice is one of convenience rather than money, should Reader ever be in the position to make the call. You pay for the books and you are self-published, but Readers can go online and order your book and Lulu will publish on request.

Traditional Publishing. Agent and Editor and Writer have contracts, agreements that arrange royalties and the like. Publisher makes arrangements with bookstores, kicks a marketing campaign off the ground to get your book to sell. You have a team working on your book, people in various arms of the publishing company who are implementing the plan to get your book read.
You get to write, and write to the deadlines and do the revisions and work really, really, hard to make sure the book Publisher gets on the shelves don't stay there long.

Reality: Publisher prints way more books than ever sell. Bookstores make no money, you make little and Publisher --hopefully-- makes enough to consider releasing Book #2. Which, naturally, is up to Publisher.

Small Presses are still publishers, but their resources are smaller in comparison. Their marketing schemes and print runs will not have the same budgets, nor will the advances be quite as comfy. Still, they have advantages as well.

Writing is about art. Once you get your head submerged in the creative waters coming up for air, while a necessity, is not always desirable. A writer's life is dependent on the two: reality and imagination. So, in order to work toward publication we have to figure out which way we want to go. We have to acknowledge the realities of the industry in order to understand how to publish. Recommendation: start this research well before you think your work is ready. And bare in mind that many authors have day jobs. Writing is always done for writings sake, and the ideal of writing-as-a-career is for those of us whose other passions are just not as strong as the one for writing. Passion, ironically, makes practicality essential.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

For Love of the Character

Perhaps it is a bit early in the relationship for me to be this brutally honest, but oh well. I'm going to be anyway.

Writing, for all that I love it, is an absolute pain.

World building, editing, the actual fact of writing; it all congeals into this mess that's part mud (the boggy kind that smells) and part quicksand, pulling you down into a slow, putrid death you can't escape. And that's not even mentioning the characters.

Characters are, for me, simultaneously the best and worst part of writing. Neurotic and heroic and villainous and bi-polar, sweet, laid-back, uptight, strange, aloof, way way too forward, all clamoring about in your head, each with their own peculiar vocabulary. Have you ever noticed that? There are some words you can use with certain characters and not with others. Silly words, inconsequential words that aren't descriptive or part of dialog. Words that shouldn't even matter, but when you're with that particular character they just won't work. Anyway.

In my opinion there are two types of characters.

Type one: Characters that are intrinsically themselves. Characters that just are. If you write you know these characters. They wouldn't let you not know them. These characters pop into your head or, sometimes, straight onto the page with all the force of a typhoon. And once there are about as moveable as a boulder. They won't be quiet, they won't wait their turn, they won't leave you alone and once you finally give in and write them (as you inevitably will) they won't cooperate! Whatever you want is irrelevant. They are going to do what they want to do when they want to do it. A subspecies of this type is the side character who stays nice and biddable until they see their chance to up and shanghai the whole story. Good luck getting it back. In either case, you don't get a say. At that point you become less a story teller and more a conduit for their voice.

It's exhilarating.

And irritating as hell.

Type two: Characters that are intrinsically yours. These characters are a labor, of love or otherwise. Elusive, difficult and never quite right; writing them I'm in a constant state of wanting to tear my hair out. They won't cooperate either but not because they're loud and stubborn. They're just so quiet. It would be nice if once and awhile they would shout at you. But they won't. Because they're yours. Yours to hone and to craft; lovingly, delicately. Or, sometimes with a jackhammer.
These are the characters I wind up loving the most. Type Ones are exciting and so much fun, even when they're being annoying. But Type Twos are almost never fun. They're always work, to one degree or another. But because of that, you come to know them inside at out. They have a tendency to pull everything out of you and don't bother to put it back where they found it. These characters, I think, are the ones that make you a better writer.

I love my characters. Even when I hate them. Sometimes I'm writing just as much for the characters as I am for myself. I'm writing because I feel that they deserve to be written. I'm striving to be a better writer because I feel that they deserve a better writer.


Monday, December 14, 2009

In Defense of Bad Writing

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been writing. Badly.

Throughout elementary school, Young Authors was always my favorite part of the year. My stories were uniformly terrible. It didn’t matter. In third grade, I wrote a touching adventure about a young boy who goes on vacation to Scotland, meets a rather peculiar homeless man, and takes the man home to live with him. In sixth grade, I turned to drama and wrote about a group of friends transported to a mysterious underground kingdom where evil fish tie them to stakes and try to sacrifice them. As fish do not have hands, the knots are loose and the protagonists are able to escape.

Surprisingly, these never won awards.

In seventh grade, fate crossed my path with that of Erica, my fellow blogger. This was around the time that she was beginning to write and I, a follower by nature, decided that I would be an author also. As a gift to her, I wrote a romantic mystery about her family taking a trip to Hawaii, where she met a man who at first seemed interested in dating her, but ended up just wanting to kill her. This was titled “The Hero of Hawaii.” Erica, dear friend that she is, responded to my gift by reading through it, having a good laugh, and then reading aloud some of the more awful sections to our friends so that they could share in the merriment.

For some reason, I collaborated with her on two group story projects (which could be posts all their own about how not to write stories). For the time being, it is enough to say that they were about fairies, unicorns, wizards, centaurs, dragons, and magical amulets. And the eighth-grade interpretation of compelling writing.

In high school, I began work on a story of my own. It started out as poorly as all of its predecessors, but by the time I went to college, I had something workable. For the first time in my life, I knew what it was to be immersed in one’s writing. I worked on it every spare moment I had – in the margins of class notes, in the middle of class notes – it didn’t matter. I doodled my characters’ names on every scrap of paper, like a childish lover might. The day that I wrote down the ending for the first time was one of the most emotional of my life. I’ve never given birth, but I assume that this is what it feels like, except with less pain and less mess. For several months afterwards, I couldn’t write anything at all, exhausted by what I had created. But in time I was able to step back and look at it with a shade more objectivity. Then the crash came.

I realized, quite frankly, that it wasn’t very good. Even now, after several more complete drafts and infinite minor revisions, it’s still only decent. I can see this and yet I’m reluctant (at least for now) to make the changes that are necessary to make it more readable. I like excursions into characters’ thoughts. I like long, drawn out sentences and flowery prose that may or may not be necessary. I like melodrama and even, sometimes, cliché.

All of these revelations took a long time for me to accept, but I’ve finally come to the conclusion that there is no correct way to write. What matters is that writing brings you fulfillment, in which case it isn’t bad at all.

Next week I’ll be on vacation, but drop by December 26th for my continued thoughts on this subject.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Introductions and Formalities

Hello and welcome! Melissa here. I'll usually be posting every Monday, but wanted to get a quick greeting in today.

In this column, I hope to share my experiences with writing, the things that inspire me, frustrate me, and bring me joy. But for this week, I think I will stick to introducing myself. Unlike many of the other SWS members you will read here, writing is not my career goal. I am currently in grad school, earning my masters degree in psychology with an emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy. My day job is a clerical position in an engineering business. And in my spare time, I write stories. I would like to think that this strange combination of work, school, and play gives me a unique perspective. If you want to be a professional writer, all of the experts will tell you to write, write, write; no matter how dull it becomes. Since I do not want to go professional, I live by the opposite mantra: only do it if you love it. Forced writing shows. And forced writers soon become resentful writers. Like most writers, I would like to be published someday, but I think that many of us lose sight of our craft in pursuit of carrots. I write for no one but myself. If someone else would like to read it – great! If not, I still have the satisfaction of knowing that I have created something that I love. And that, in my opinion, is the most wonderful part of writing.

Stop by next week to read about how I got started writing. See you then!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Technology and What it Means

Drea here for Thursday:D

2009 is wrapping up and we're heading into a new decade. There's been a lot of changes in the past ten years, most of which have been propelled by rapidly shifting technology. Writing, Publishing and marketing are not immune to these. Rather, their relevance has become quite marked as e-book sales rise and consumers buy more products online.

Amazon. The past few months have seen WalMart, Target and Sears cut prices on hardback books so dramatically that publishers have grown concerned over consumer price perception.

Nathan Bransford's blog

The fact that Amazon sells books at a loss is not something most customers clicking "add to cart" are thinking as the page gives way to credit and account information. But how can people compete with Amazon selling books at a grave discount?

Then there is Kindle and now nook. Barnes & Noble and Amazon will be bashing heads over e-reader sales as well as e-books and the rights to bully publishers. Publishers prefer the brick and mortar stores rather than the online giant, so they are attempting to curtail Amazon power by delaying the release of e-books. Shattkin details the ins an outs of it.
Or, if you prefer, the Wall Street Journal's version.

Then there is the massive self-publishing effort, which even Harlequin is getting in on with Harlequin Horizons. And the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) calls for Harlequin to prevent these books from being distributed to brick and mortar stores and so preventing them from entering the "real" fiction market.

What does this mean for writers?

Technology has made self-publishing so easy that vanity, POD and old-fashioned self-publishing are on the rise. Enough to get Harlequin in on the cash. Published authors worry about quality control, placing much value in the editing and marketing abilities of publishing companies.

Only, the combination of easy-to-make websites, blogs, social networking sites and conventions gives even self-published authors enough venues to do their own marketing. Classically, authors haven't had the time to do so much of these things. But with technology altering our communication methods, it changes.

E-books have grown in popularity and next year B&T will bring out a free software to read e-books they are to release (with their own e-reader). See: Blio

The catchy innovation here is that it will work on any device with an Operating System. PC, laptop, netbook, ipods and iphones --not Kindle. The competition is on. The trend is already begun.

The writer will see his/her books on more formats than ever before. Reading material is on its way to increased accessibility. However, the market is already inundated and with the changes in consumer habits old-fashioned marketing makes no sense. Put in those terms it makes sense that self-publishing is on the rise. But what's the answer? What thoughts do you have on promoting your book? Any ideas of new ways to utilize our knowledge to promote writing?

Where do you see the industry headed and why?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Why we Write

So, I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Erica Procopio and I am a member of Sylvanopolis Writers' Society (the previous post was by our esteemed leader, Drea Moore). I write fantasy and am currently working on a novel.

In October I attended the World Fantasy Convention along with Drea Moore, Meslissa Kuhl, Roy Garcia and Erin Lachuli. It was a fantastic experience, and wonderful time was had by all and we even got to geek out over Patricia McKillip (one of my favorite authors). It was essentially a series of panels on various and sundry topics interspersed with interviews and readings by different authors.
As I said it was an absolutely fantastic experience. And I got so much out of it (not least the tote bag full of books!) but I was very struck by something I heard an author say during the Non-Conciliatory Fiction panel.
David Drake is a well established, well known SF author who sat on the Panel. He believes that his experience in the Vietnam War made him a writer. He was in law school, well on his way to being a lawyer, when he was drafted. He said, of his writing after the war: "[I wrote...] not because I had something to write about but because I had to write to keep myself between the ditches."
Obviously, everyone has a reason why they write: boredom, therapy, sheer escapism.
My own reason is incredibly mundane. It was Winter Break, I had read all my books at least five times and no one would take me to the Library. At twelve, I could hardly drive myself. So, irritated and eminently defiant, I decided I would write my own book.
My first story was about a fairy who did not know she was a fairy. It featured a talking wolf named Fleetpaw and the heroine's best friend was named Stephanie which was, coincidentally enough, the name of my best friend.
That was the start of my foray into the world of the written word: ordinary and rather inauspicious. But, I realized, that was not the beginning of my story telling. When I was young I used to have very bad dreams, as many children do. I began to tell myself stories before I went to sleep so, if I dreamed, it would be a nice dream.
I never stopped. The only difference was one day I decided to write it down instead.

So, why do we write? And, more, why do we keep writing?

What is that imperative that drives us? I know that there are as many reasons as there are writers but I wonder if there is not some common thread. I wonder if we are all trying to escape, or trying to make sense of the world, or trying to come to terms with ourselves or trying to find god. Because it seems to me that we are all trying for something, whether we mean to or not.
But maybe I'm just projecting.
Why do you write? Why do you keep writing?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

And So We Blog ...

Welcome all to the new SWS blog! We intended to host a variety of topics here that will further our mission. Current Bloggers will be Melissa Kuhl, Erica Procopio and myself (Drea Moore).

SWS is open to all writers and writing groups. Currently our member groups focus mostly on Science Fiction and Fantasy. We have one poetry group -- and I will see if one of their members would like to represent their corner and add a bit of diversity to this space. Other potentials are posts by our "artists," as SWS seems to have an abundance of writer/artist members and even more artists hovering on the periphery and supporting our larger group.

On Thursdays I will share opinions on the industry and the writer: Perceptions of SFF, e-books, self-publishing and what it means for the writer bewildered by the options. We're in the middle of interesting times and often panic and cynicism follow when, in fact, opportunity is rising.

First I wish to address the opinion of Fantasy Literature in the larger literary community. As mentioned at fantasyliterature.com/giveaway/thoughtful-thursday-all-i-need-to-know/ the escapism in fantasy fiction is often discussed as "only for children." I have read my share of literature and don't understand how classic lit is less escapist than fantasy. Often times the characters live in other eras or places I haven't seen that are as real to me as completely fictitious location. The only difference is the extent to which the author needs to generate "back story."

Even in the stories that take place in my own back yard, the characters are either neurotic or idealized to the point that the familiarity of location is the only thing linking me to the book. The shared history, environment, references to what is already known ground the unrealistic into the believable and encourage suspension of disbelief. The goal is the same.

What does escapism do in fantasy? It allows Reader to ignore the social messages Reader does not believe in, but manages to squeeze in that exposure nonetheless. While literature aims to stress the bounds of thought, so too does fantasy fiction. I must argue that the only difference is that one has to grow acclimated to different history, cultures, languages and references when reading fantasy. Mystery, Horror and Romance do not always require this ... but then I write fantasy and am a SFF fan. I have seen non-genre Readers stumble and fall apart around a fictitious word. Such imaginary settings are likely the reason such Readers get the idea of escapism. Reader following this pattern misses the familiarity in the imagined. Advocating that writers should write what they know fails to see that behind the veil of imagination we all write only what we know. All fantastic fiction is a reflection of this society, in some fashion. Be it relevant issues of sexism and oppression, family or power; the fictionalized setting allows for the exploration of these issues in a space removed from the loaded politics of modern America.

Besides, where is the line drawn between genre and literary writing? Where would you draw it?

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