On Writing: When A Story Clicks

Photograph of wild bird-of-paradise blossoms.

While perseverance matters, breaks are important too. Yesterday we went to Manuel Antonio Park and spent a fabulous day, culminating with coming home and going walking in wonderful, warm rain for a delicious dinner. You can give yourself the day off - just make sure you do something that nourishes you in some way and that you don't make every day a break day,

One of the things I stress to students is that you cannot wait for the muse. And, in fact, the more you wait for her, the less likely she is to arrive.

For example. The last few days I’ve been working at getting back into the flow of writing daily. I held myself accountable and post daily word counts here or on Twitter. And lemme tell you, some of those words were difficult to wrestle out of my skull and onto the page. One way I can tell things are going in difficult fits and spurts is that I’ll hop around a lot from story to story.

One of those projects is “Prairiedog Town” (which is definitely getting a different title). I started jotting down mental notes for it while traveling through Kansas, but only had a thousand words or so on it before last week. It was slow writing, partially because I wasn’t sure how I was getting from one point to another in the story. I knew it was a piece about a woman reclaiming her humanity and I had a good idea of what the penultimate scene would look like.

So I kept jotting words down in sporadic clumps of a few hundred at a time, yerking the story along in an awkward and impatient way. It helped when I incorporated a prompt from Sandra M. Odell, a woman finding an abandoned teddy bear by the road. But it still was slow slogging. Yesterday I took a break from it.

And then, this morning, while working on it, things began to fall into place. A secondary character had popped up, and I understood how to bring her back into the story — and why. A piece that was supposed to take three days suddenly shortened into a single night, and with that, the ultimate scene came clear. I went through, pulling the threads into place as close to a thousand words came spilling out and into the story.

It’s not done yet — maybe another thousand words to go, but I’ve got a map of it, and comments where I need to go back and insert things. Here, for example, is what a section of today’s work looks like:

They end up chatting. Talia asks after father. Relates that he’s died. Talia asks if she’s going to the funeral.

No
It’s what you’d say either way, isn’t it.
That’s true
I’ll be there. On the outskirts.

She freezes again. It’s an old code word they used to use, back in the days when they worked together. It’s someplace close but (some distance) to the (direction).

And most importantly at all, things have come together to a point where I’m excited about the story, feel that some clever stuff has been worked in or has had places made for it. It’ll end up being around 4-5 thousand words, and I know I’ll finish it by the end of this month, because it’s designated as the next story to go out in the Patreon campaign.

And if I hadn’t done that picking away at it — scraping those words out of my skull, even though it felt painful and awkward and uninspired — I would have never gotten to that point at all.

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Yes, Beyoncé Can Be A Feminist

Picture of a tortoiseshell cat.

Taco, as often happens, agrees with me.

So Beyonce appeared at the VMAs and called herself a feminist. More than that, she stood in front of an enormous glowing sign saying “Feminist” in an image that’s exploded across the Internet.

I think that’s pretty darn cool. Because I am so tired of what’s been done to the word feminist by those who oppose it, the redefinition of it to a hateful caricature. I taught Women’s Studies for a while and time after time, smart, fierce, wonderful young women would say to me, “I’m not a feminist, but…” and then something aligned with feminism would come out of their mouth. And it made me want to weep, every time, that the word had been recast to the point where they did not want to be identified by it.

I read a piece today that said, “Before you call her a feminist, know she’s voted Republican!”

So what? Does that author really think there aren’t Republicans who are feminists? Another piece said OMG she poledanced in a music video. Again, so what?

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More About That Comfort Zone Thing

Picture of a swimming pool.

Here's a picture of that pool, taken from the balcony.

I was thinking more about the idea of writing outside your comfort zone, and found something that’s happened recently pretty applicable.

I have never been a good swimmer. It’s quite possible I never will be. When I was a kid, my parents kept enrolling me in swimming lessons, and I kept being a terrible swimmer who refused to put my head under water. Part of it was that I’d learned by then that if I got water in my ears, an ear infection wouldn’t be far behind, so every lesson was a silent battle to avoid putting my head underwater. It wasn’t till high school, when several friends decided I would learn to swim (bless you, Ann, Ann, Anne, and Maureen), that I actually got to the point where I could float long enough to survive a (fairly brief) period if I ever fell off a boat. Couple that with an illness that made me extremely self-conscious in a swimsuit for a long time, and you can see why I just don’t get in the water very much.

So here we are in Costa Rica, with a swimming pool right outside our balcony, and a temperature that makes that pool pretty darn inviting. So I got in and splashed around, and finally decided to do a little swimming. And you know what — I liked it. I liked it a lot. And found myself going back repeatedly. Right now I’m going to finsih up this post and then go do it some more.

It took a while to get over the panicked feeling that I was falling forward, that the water wouldn’t hold me up. I kept insisting on starting on the deeper end and swimming towards the shallower, because that way if I put a foot down, I’d be able to hit the bottom. But with every time I made it all the way, it got easier. I started trusting the water (and myself) more.

I’m not claiming I’m going to become a good swimmer anytime soon, or that I’m ever going to like getting water up my nose. But I’m better at it, and certainly more confident about it. And I’ve found something that I like doing, and that I will be trying to incorporate more in my life.

And that — as with so many things in life — applies to writing. Those first attempts to do something new and scary may well be awkward and uncomfortable. In fact, they probably will. Because that’s how we learn. It’s very hard to get good at something without being pretty bad at it at first. And in doing these things, you learn to trust the universe a little more. Which I see as a pretty good thing.

So it’s a Monday morning. Here’s my challenge for you. By Friday, go write or do something that scares you. And come back and tell me what you did.

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Today’s Wordcount and Other Notes (8/24/2014)

Picture of a Book Shelf

Here's the science fiction section of the local bookstore. I

What I worked on today:

Stated reading back through Circus in the Bloodwarm Rain to make sure things aren’t too wildly diverging from the outline. There’s going to be some serious word wrangling and wrestling to get it to all make sense. Added 200 words.

Prairiedog Town (working title) (story): 224 Figured out a sticking point in the story, which makes me happy. It’s modern horror (I think? Dark fantasy? What do we call Stephen King nowadays when there’s no longer a horror section in most bookstores?)

Carpe Glitter (story): 341 words

The Nondescript Bear (flash): completed and clocked in at exactly 700 words.

Crows & Dragons (story): 51 words of outline.

Total wordcount: 1516. Not too bad, but I’ll try to add in an extra 500 tomorrow so I can keep the average wordcount up. And that makes a pretty solid chunk of words produced this week, so go me!

Today’s new Spanish words: la almohada (the pillow), la ardilla (the squirrel), la arena (the sand), la hoguella (the flake, as in corn flake), lanzar (to throw)

Had a lovely conversation via Google Hangouts with my BFF. I love technology. Even got to show her the view out of the window. :)

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Today’s Wordcount and Other Notes (8/23/2014)

Wayne Rambo in Costa Rica.

Wayne, looking carefree with his limonada at Taco Bar.

What I worked on:

Sent out a story to an audio market.

More on Circus In the Bloodwarm Rain (novel): 574

Prairie Dog Town (working title)(story): 715 words. I’ve rounded the 3k mark on this, and think I’m in the home stretch. I want to finish it soon, so I have a few days to lay it aside and let it cool before I pick it up to polish as the next Patreon story.

Letters to My Father (story): 474 words, which finished it off, and sent it back to my charming collaborator/spouse.

Carpe Glitter (story): 457  words, still a long way to go.

Total wordcount: 2220. As always I may try to get in a little more tonight, but probably not.

New Spanish vocabulary: a la parilla (grilled), la acera (the sidewalk), el barro (the mud), el largato (the lizard), la libreria (the bookstore)

Today’s been gorgeous and sunny, though very hot. We walked to Taco Bar for lunch, and found the food both delicious and a pretty good bargain. Then past the super mercado for dinner supplies and the trudge back home.

As noted on Twitter, I’ve been reading The Wheel of Time series since embarking on this trip, and I’ve finally hit the Brandon Sanderson part. Between that and spending so much time in travel, I haven’t had much time to read anything else, but I did finish up the first two books of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Authority and Annihilation, which I highly recommend. The final volume, Acceptance, comes out September 2.

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Writing Outside One’s Comfort Zone

Abstract Image

Outside the comfort zone is where the best art lies.

We’ve all got a comfort zone, the place where we can function easily, where we know what to expect. It’s a nice place. It’s…well, it’s COMFORTABLE. Hence the name. It would be easy to stay there all the time.

But for writers, I think it’s very important to go outside it on a regular basis. For one thing, your characters are going to be outside their comfort zones, being challenged, tested, thwarted, more often than not, because one thing about comfort zones is that they can be pretty darn boring to read about. Who wants a character for which everything goes right? (This is, I will argue, why the Richie Rich comic books were pretty darn bland.) How can you write a character outside their comfort zone if you don’t know what it’s like?

And outside our comfort zone is where we learn new things, new skills, new things about ourselves. Here in Costa Rica, my Spanish skill is leaping upward in a way it wouldn’t at home, despite all my best resolutions about daily Duolingo workouts or buying books in Spanish from Amazon. And that in turn has prodded me to try some new things with it, like using one of my stories as a practice piece in translation.

This is why, when I talk to students about going into a workshop like Clarion West or Viable Paradise, I urge them to try to fail. Because you learn so much more from a story where you tried something new and failed than one where you did the same thing you always did. I wrote Zeppelin Follies while at Clarion West as my very first try at a screwball comedy, and I will confess that the first draft was a horrible mishmash of stuff. And boy did I learn a lot from that.

Fortunately, for the vast majority of writers, we like new things. New words, new vistas, new thoughts. And we find them outside that comfort zone, in a place that is frightening and exhilarating all at once. Whizzing along a zipline, diving into waters over our head, talking to strangers. If you doubt that you are brave enough to do such things, remember that you do something braver everyday by putting your writing out there for other people to look at.

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Today’s Wordcount and Other Notes (8/22/2014)

Street art - mural.

Street art in Jaco, across from the sushi restaurant.

What I worked on:

1007 words on Circus in the Bloodwarm Rain, although I really need to start going back and making some of the early parts make more sense. Right now there’s an awful lot of leaping about between the original short story it’s based on (news of that coming soon) and the final outline for the novel.

1005 words on Prairiedog Town (working title)

Total wordcount: 2012, but there’s still time to get a little more in

Today’s new Spanish words: la abeja (the bee), cienca ficción (science fiction), mamar (to suck, as it mother’s milk), el mamon (a kind of fruit), el lavavavillas (the dishwasher), el rastro (the flea market).

We walked down to the farmer’s market in the morning and bought lovely fruit, including bananas and rambutan. After some work in the afternoon, we took a swim break and tried out the pool here, which was delicious. But holy cow, I’d forgotten how tiring swimming can be, and what it’s like to step out of the water and feel gravity reclaiming what was just light and buoyant.

Later on, we went for an evening walk and were forced by rain into a sushi restaurant where we had terrific sushi (although the spicy tuna was a bit too much for me). We’ve been told that Jaco picks up considerably during the weekends, when everyone from San Jose comes down to spend some time here, and it does seem a good bit livelier this evening.

And a little translating! I’ve started “Panecillo tostado, con devoción para acompaña” and am undoubtedly mangling it considerably, all in the name of practice.

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Today’s Wordcount and Other Notes (8/21/2014)

Photo of a humpback whale

Three whales this morning - they came out of the water enough that we could see there was one large and two small and think they might have been humpback whales. Vida pura, indeed.

Lots of skipping around, often what I do when I’ve got several projects in the works.

So here’s the breakdown and total:
650 words on Circus in the Bloodwarm Rain
673 words on “Carpe Glitter”
534 words on “Prairiedog Town” (working title)
200 words and editing finished on a story in a semi-accepted state, plus sent off to the magazine that requested the changes.

Total word count: 2058

Not too bad, particularly when I’m working on getting back into productivity’s swing.

Today’s new words in Spanish: aire acondicianado (air conditioner), apogon (power outage), ballena jorabada (humpback whale), cafetera (coffeemaker), calambur (pun), picadura de mosquito (mosquito bite), la puerta de teja metallica (screen door), reinicializar (to reset, usually a machine).

And Wayne woke me this morning to watch three whales (we think a large humpback and two smaller ones) in the surf.

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Getting Back in the Groove

Picture of freshwater crocodiles

Why crocodiles, of all things, to accompany a post about writing? Because there's so many things out there waiting to eat your writing time, to gobble it down and leave you with only the shreds.

Tried the balcony out for writing last night. Here’s a blog post that emerged.

For a long time I listen to the ocean, a background of some chirping insect, shrill arcs of sound going out against that massive, constant grumble. That is what life is like, singing out against that gray and empty grind, not caring what it sounds like, because singing is the only thing you can do.

I can feel my shoulders relaxing as I type, the guilt of several weeks (over a month, really) of getting little done, not just because of the traveling or the distractions but because I let myself get lazy and forget that what a writer does is write. If you want to call yourself one, that’s what is necessary and while that’s a hard standard to maintain consistently sometimes in the face of a multitude of crises of the mind or body or world or family, it’s one I hold myself to, first and foremost.

A confession: I am not one of those writers who “have to” write, the ones seized with such a fervid muse that they cannot exist without words spilling out of them. I envy them, and sometimes in my heart, get irritated by a smugness that is really an interpretation imposed by my own insecurities.

But I have always defined myself as a writer, even in the days when I wasn’t writing so much and was pouring all that energy into writing for an online game or technical documentation or some combination of the two. So when I don’t do it, it’s not so much that it’s the writing building up. In fact, some days I’m digging the words out, and they’re obdurately clinging to the inside of my skull so I have to wrestle them onto the keyboard. Even now, I want them to flow and they’re halting, the flow coming in fits and spurts while all the time the ocean softly roars, as though it can’t help itself at times, perhaps getting just a little too excited, a little too enthusiastic in its mutterings.

Here’s the thing. When I’m not writing consistently, when I’m not hitting solid word count on at least most of the days of the week, I feel unmoored, adrift, unsure of my center. What good is a writer who isn’t writing?

There’s also an awareness of time creeping up on me. Often I wish I’d done more with those early years — though who would have known in all that young adult thrashing about? While I don’t want to let guilt consume me, it’s not a bad goad. I believe it was John McPhee that said any motive for writing is valid, even spite and malice.

And it’s a goal that I know is doable, to hit two thousand words — and more when I’m being motivated, which often coincides with felicities of mind or body. I don’t worry about whether they’re bad or good, all that matters is that they’re words that actually make it from my mind to the page. Right now I’m adding these words into the count, even though I don’t usually count nonfiction, because right now the focus is warming up, priming the pump, getting myself back into that productive groove.

It’s the days when I get no word count, not even a page written in a notebook, that really bug me, so when the words are flowing, there’s a point where all is well, when I can feel myself assembling words to express what I want to say and they’re falling into place quickly, one at a time but in a constant patter, like raindrops falling on the keyboard.

So tonight is swell and good. We’re here for a month, then probably onward to another country to try a few weeks there. I can get into a routine that feels productive and which includes some of the things that help ensure my mood is good and I’m undistracted by feeling unwell, such as good solid walking bouts and not eating junk food and getting enough sleep.

So what will I work on this month?

First and foremost is finishing up the YA novel I’ve been working on, along with several stories, two for anthologies and a couple for the Patreon campaign. While the stories will be fun and I do want to get them finished, the novel is what I want to be spending most of my time doing. I’ll be posting snippets and word counts as I go, keeping myself accountable. Because that’s another thing for a writer — you have to hold yourself accountable, because there’s nothing out there, really, to do it for you.

Good writing to you all. I hope you’ll get some words today as well.

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Day Three in Costa Rica

Picture of the beach near Jaco

Looking to the right from our balcony.

Day Three here, so I thought I’d describe what it’s like. We’re renting a condo that overlooks the beach, towards the northwest end. The place is great, and there’s a balcony that is literally bigger than our living room back home. We share it with a tiny lizard that is living in the drapes in the living room.

It’s rainy season, so it’s Humid and warm, but there’s usually a nice breeze coming in from the ocean. Rainy season doesn’t mean the same thing that it does in Seattle. Here sometimes it’s nice and sunny and then suddenly OMG THERE ARE BUCKETS OF WATER FALLING FROM THE SKY. I kinda like it, myself. And I’m sure it doesn’t hurt me to be forced inside in order to write. ;)

We’re a little outside the main drag, so we’re within walking distance of grocery store, restaurants, etc, but it’s a bit of a slog in this heat. People are friendly if you address them, but it doesn’t feel as though most of them are interested in interacting. (Not that they should, just that it feels a lot less chatty than back in Seattle.) My Spanish is improving in leaps and bounds, though, so I’m feeling pretty comfortable in terms of being able to communicate. We’ve also found they show Big Bang Theory with Spanish subtitles every evening, which is a nice way to supplement the geekier part of my vocababulary.

The vegetation, the birds, etc, are wonderfully new. Lots and lots of flowers, plenty of lizards (in a wide range of sizes), and birds I don’t know, aside from the pair of macaws we saw on our first evening, which seemed a lovely omen. We believe they were getting very friendly with each other — not sure what that does to the omen’s significance.

We can see the hills and mountains, which usually have clouds slumbering on them, lovely vistas that remind me a little of the Blue Mountain greeting cards we used to sell at Waldenbooks, a ragged line trailing into softer fog, but without all the platitudes written underneath.

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