Rules to develop mental strength

Photo by Jeremy Cai from Unsplash

Photo by Jeremy Cai from Unsplash

The other day I was looking through my “Notes” file for The Shadow Clock and found this self-help list I had written to myself with the title “rules to develop mental strength”:

  • No comparisons
  • Choose conviction/self-belief rather than self-doubt
  • Make choices for physical health
  • Recognize that I am on a mission to cultivate fortitude and consciously look for ways to do that

(Okay, the fourth point is basically a roll up of the previous three, but I like the idea of being on a mission to cultivate fortitude – I can picture doing it in some ninja/Navy Seal jumpsuit with hidden pockets.) I forget what was going on at the time I wrote this, but mental strength is a quality I desperately need right now. I’m trying to finish a draft of the new book to give to my editor in March, and instead of going full bore on writing, I’m frittering away my concentration on job angst. So unproductive!

This list reminds me of myself as a kid, when I would go to the library and check out books about ESP or meditation. I so wanted to develop super powers. What I didn’t know then is that by the time you’re older with kids and a job and you’re reading the news about climate change, it’s a super power just to protect some imaginative bandwidth in your brain!

Anyway, mental strength is my project now. I’m just hoping I can find the right jumpsuit for this.

Still looking for that magic story structure

Death to Stock photo of Post-Its I’m plugging away on THE SHADOW CLOCK, so there’s not tons to report, except that every once in a while I panic and write things like this in my “Notes” file:

Anyway, I was thinking today that there is still something confusing and murky about the concept, the premise. I still want that lovely clear hook that immediately makes you want to know what happens.

I spent the next day writing a list of at least 25 sentences stating the premise, trying to get it as clear and exciting as possible. (This I think is the “logline” in Save the Cat. But the thing about Save the Cat—at least for me—is to read it when you are not writing anything. Read it, assimilate it. Then when you are writing, hopefully you just have structure magically pour onto the page.)

Just last weekend I was at the super fun YA Writers “Bootcamp” that my local SCBWI chapter put on in Pleasanton. So I saw great people and felt very writerly. Here’s the thing. Save the Cat is like the Bible. Tamara Ireland Stone and Katy Longshore went into a whole structure deep dive with beat sheets straight from Cat. (If you don’t know what Save the Cat is, it’s a screenwriting book that has very clear, approachable advice on story and plot.) One thing I so appreciate is learning how other writers do this stuff—it was great to see everyone’s cork boards and index cards and their printouts and Scrivener tips.

Of course I’m insecure about plot and structure. That’s the reason I obsess over it. Maybe I’ll get to the point where I know it down in my bones, so I know intuitively what the strongest premise and plot structure is for the story I want to tell. In the meantime, I write things like “This is a pivot point” in my wild, untraversable draft. I haven’t listed out beats, but I’ve figured out the emotional terrain and how that intersects with the action terrain, so the landscape is taking shape. Now just build the road.

P.s. This image is from Death to the Stock Photo, and they have this great writing prompt partnership with Medium. Check it out.

The Shadow Clock!

Early notes for THE SHADOW CLOCK

Early notes for THE SHADOW CLOCK

So there is big, exciting news in my world, which is that I have a new book! I get to work with my fabulous editor Ari Lewin and the amazing folks at Putnam again, which makes me so very happy. Here is the deal description:

In THE SHADOW CLOCK, 13-year-old orphan Thorn is a renowned criminal in the dark market of buying and selling magic. All his skills are put to the test when a rival thief offers information about his family in exchange for a dangerous job.

I first made notes for this book in January of 2014. As it happens I was sitting in a cafe in downtown Oakland next to an ice skating rink where my daughter was at a birthday party. Just sitting there, eating a salad when inspiration struck! Part of the idea involved a thought-eating squid — which I’m pretty sure will not make it into the final manuscript (haha) — but I got the orphans, magic thievery, and Thorn. I am working on putting it all together while keeping pesky squids out of the story. In the meantime, it is fun to look back on early notes to myself that go like this:

But to what end …?
And how does it intersect with a rag-tag band of street urchins?

So, yes, to what end, indeed? (Can you picture me rubbing my chin and looking devilishly authorial at this question?) With a little elbow grease, luck, and the perfect writing playlist all should be revealed sometime in 2016. Huzzah!

How I’m becoming a better writer even when I’m stuck, horribly stuck

Photo by Sergey Zolkin

Photo by Sergey Zolkin


I recently hit a rough patch a couple weeks ago. I am waiting to hear about something … and in the meantime, I am tending various irons in the fire.

Oh, these irons! One project is difficult because I don’t know what it is. I find myself writing scenes, writing notes, but it’s very polutropic. (A fun vocabulary word, no? Used by Homer to describe Odysseus, the man of “many ways.” I just hope my story is not as tricksy.)

The other project is difficult because I am writing thematically linked short pieces. And unlike the other project I’ve figured out what the story is in each. So there’s less for me to discover, and as a result the writing feels kind of dull. (This is a fault of mine, but I care about style, and if I write dull sentences I am crabby!)

So in the meantime, I am copying out passages from other books.

When I get too unhappy, with my own abilities (lack thereof) or when I feel, “I just don’t understand how to do this!!” I try to take a break from banging my head against a wall and instead experience what it feels like to do the thing I cannot do.

Why is this important? Ok, here’s a random analogy from the World of Sports (which aside from all else, is also an analogy factory). Have you ever watched a big championship series, like the NBA Finals, and been rooting for the exciting up-and-comer? They’ve got talent to burn, young players full of flash. But they haven’t experienced what it’s like to win a championship. So they don’t win. Instead, the old, grind-it-out team of aging stars wins. Why? Because they’ve done it before. They’ve felt what it feels like to win.

I think even in writing you’ve got to acquire the muscle memory of what it’s like to do something hard. So now, while I am stuck, I am physically typing out passages from other writers I admire. I’m trying to have the experience of “writing” the stuff I have a hard time writing.

Sometimes I will copy out passages of suspense – or the beginnings of books. But really it can be anything.

Here’s a short passage from Unnatural Causes by P.D. James. It’s a little fussy, and not super remarkable, except that it does something well which always gives me a hard time – getting people into and out of rooms. What I think one writer once called the “stage management” aspect of fiction (people coming on scene and leaving, moving about, putting hands on door knobs etc.) can sometimes feel laborious and dull. This is nicely done:

“The light was on over the cottage porch but the sitting room was almost in darkness. Inspector Reckless was sitting alone in front of the dying fire rather like a guest who, unsure of his welcome, is making a propitiary gesture of economizing on the lights. He rose as Dalgliesh entered and switched on a small table lamp.”

What else do I like to practice writing out? Transitions, how emotions are expressed, how to write dialogue that is not too much “on the nose,” how to describe a hateful character, how to create sympathy for another, how to show the shift in attention that signals the start of romantic interest. How to have a conversation on a telephone, or drive in a car with someone you’re uneasy about.

Really, it’s endless. Ok, here is my new project for becoming a better writer: start a collection of passages that do things well. It can be like my version of David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction (do you know this book? It is SO good. He also has a chapter on “The Telephone,” just to show I’m not the only one who runs into trouble there.) Let me know if you have any suggestions. If I actually get this together, I’ll share!

What I took from Herman Melville’s weirdest novel

Balance Rock

Now that I have a published book I’ve had the giddy experience of having a few people ask me, “Where do you get your ideas?” First of all, there is nothing so flattering as considering all the noodling and dream flotsam I have in my head as “ideas.” Second, I often know where my ideas come from, but I’m not sure anyone else wants to know. But here goes nothing.

Bits of life as well as all kinds of books make it into fiction. So here’s one example of the strands of fictiony spiderweb that connect one book to another. In my case it’s a linkage from an element in Dreamwood to the flat-out crazy that is Herman Melville’s “Pierre: or, The Ambiguities.”

First, a word about Pierre. After Moby-Dick, Melville was broke and desperate for a commercial hit (after all, his early books had been bestsellers but after starting out big, he watched his career tank). So he wrote this kooky gothic romance (well, a kooky gothic romance as imagined by Melville) into which he poured a whole lot disdain for the genre and the publishing industry. The book ruined Melville. To quote the handiest source, Wikipedia:

The publication of Pierre was a critical and financial disaster for Melville. Reviewers universally condemned both its morals and its style.

Yes, an 1852 novel had scandalous morals—and it’s still pretty racy. If you read it today, you’re like, “So, this young man is living in a squat in New York City with how many women? And the one he’s obsessed with is his sister? … Or is she really his sister??? And are they really doing what I think they are???”

I read Pierre in a fabulous grad school course called “American Gothic” with Joan Dayan (who now goes by the name Colin Dayan). There’s too much to say about this weird, doomed book here. But one of the many elements I remember is a rock formation called The Memnon Stone (also called The Terror Stone). Pierre goes to it to contemplate his dilemmas and there does a mighty grappling with fate, thought, his ambition, his feelings, and all that good stuff.

Years later I still remember this odd Massachusetts rock. (It’s a real place too, called Balance Rock.) And when I was thinking of nature spirits and one that Lucy and her father might have encountered before meeting His-sey-ak on Devil’s Thumb, I immediately thought of Pierre and his Hugely Significant Rock Formation.

In Dreamwood I call my rock formation the Maran Boulder, and it’s a mysterious, dangerous place. It does try to “eat” Lucy, which is probably a years-distant echo of my memory of poor Pierre lying beneath the Terror Stone making his tragic choices. Plus, I wanted to tap the spirit of philosophy, search, and spiritual awe that writers of Melville’s era brought to descriptions of the natural world.

Which, I realize, doesn’t make any difference to anyone. But so what? These are my liner notes. When I find stuff like this in other writers’ work it’s kind of like encountering a sample of some old pop song from junior high years in a hip hop track.

Echoes are everywhere.

How I got a Muse

Art and the Muses by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (Wikimedia)

Art and the Muses by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (Wikimedia)

Years and years ago, Dreamwood started with the image of a young girl looking through her father’s microscope. I knew the setting was another time. And I knew ghosts were hovering just outside the frame. Yay, a story.

My ideas usually start like this: from images, or I hear a voice speaking a line. A scene or picture will arrive in my head, like a mysterious postcard sent from story world.

I’ve had these story visions happen on public transportation, when I’m just waking up, during acupuncture naps. They’re pure gifts when they bring a new story. But I would sometimes have them when I was trying to push through a stuck point in Dreamwood.

It got me thinking. Could I order my subconscious around? Or at least make it more productive. I don’t have all the unbroken daydreamy time I had when I was younger. I’ve got to make creativity as efficient as possible. Especially now I’m trying to write something new.

So I began to imagine a person, a personal creativity assistant (I guess you could call her a muse) who could go into my subconscious and bring me back the story stuff I needed. I was riding BART one morning into San Francisco to work and I asked for her and she appeared. She’s a glowing slyph, a punk Tinkerbell with jagged, anime hair, unlaced engineers’ boots, cut-off shorts, and a tank top. She’s a little bit like a cartoon character. Only she’s not Tinkerbell, but “Bell.”

“Bell,” I say, picturing her, “go into my subconscious and find the things I need for this story.”

So then I see her giving me a kind of aye-aye captain salute and getting ready to go spelunking in my subconscious, which is sometimes like a sunken treasure ship, sometimes like an old gothic library, sometimes like a stuffed full attic or treasure vault. I picture candlesticks and piles of books, maps, old coins, stuffed dodos, ladies’ boots and mouldering velvet dresses.

I’ve been sending Bell to work before I go to sleep and in the mornings as I walk to work. Sometimes I’ll ask her for something specific. But other times I’ll simply check in with her, and drop into whatever she’s found for me like I’m gazing on a scene through a crystal ball.

On finding the best time to write: Late at night or early morning?

Daylight savings time is upon us again tonight, and already anticipating the loss of an hour I’m in a bad mood.

Because—like many people—I have a job and kids, I have to write in the margins of life, either late at night or early in the morning. This schedule means I’m always tired, and always scheming about how I can squeeze in just slightly more time.

Dreamwood was a night book. I would often start on it at 9:30 or so, after the kids were in bed, and go as late as I could. Often I would go to bed so late I couldn’t fall asleep – it would take me until close to three or four. Not optimal when you’ve got to get up and be somewhat functional in the office.

But a funny thing has happened to me. I’ve started drinking coffee again (I’m so tired) and as a result my sleep has become more sensitive. Grant goes to bed early, and is often dead asleep by 10 pm. He wakes up early, maybe 4ish or 5. And now I wake up with him and can’t fall back asleep.

So I’ve tried to switch, become an early morning writer. The last few weeks I’ve tried getting up at 5. The problem is, I can only really get an hour of work done in the mornings before everyone is up and clanging around. So I’m a night owl with clipped wings.

We’re in the time of Quantified Self, when people wear Fitbits and Fuelbands and relentlessly optimize their habits. The perfect writing schedule is out there … I think. I just have to stop drinking coffee and red wine, exercise every day, work into the night and somehow stay asleep as my lark family rises around me.

Turns out I have strong opinions on villains

I hung out in the greatest Twitter chat the other week, the #mglitchat on Heroes and Villains. Turns out that during the long years I’ve been toiling in the fantasy trenches, I’ve developed some strong opinions on the subject.

My thoughts about villainy have taken shape mainly out of thinking what the “hero” needs to do in a story, particularly in a fantasy story. And basically it’s that the hero isn’t going to grow and become all lovely and wonderful without some serious badness to contend against. Your villain is like your hero’s personal trainer—it’s their job to make the hero suffer so they can be all they can be.

To be truly effective, the villain is the puzzle piece, lasercut to match the hero, speak to the hurts and wounds, offer what the hero secretly wants, and ultimately represent the road not taken. Your hero is only as good as your villain. If your villain isn’t an overwhelming favorite—but with the slight psychological flaw that is your hero’s strength, then your hero gets an easy victory.

This is why Darth Vader is such a great villain—reaching out his hand and rasping “Luke, I am your father.” And it’s also what I like about Voldemort. Harry could have been Sorted into Slytherin and made a great dark wizard. Even Sauron (who is uninteresting in that big bad dark lord way) gets to Frodo at the end when Frodo can’t give up the ring of power and asserts, “It’s mine.”

Villains are really aspects of the hero’s personality that any worthy hero must defeat. At the fork in the road, your villain chose one way, your hero the other.

But maybe are more facets to villainy yet. I loved this comment by Jess Stork (@JessStorkWrites): “I think with heroes it’s more important to win change than to beat the villain.”

Wow. And that is … Also. Absolutely. Right.

Villain side note: Was this the best Super Bowl ad ever or what?

Highlights of 2013

I’m a little behind in wrapping up 2013, but I’m still going to do it! Or at least try to make some notes about what stuck with me, mostly in the cultural realm. In terms of actual life 2013 was an incredible year — all about pushing through and turning corners — but it was very very difficult. I’m so glad it’s behind me.

THE BIG NEWS

Cover of DreamwoodGuys, I did it. I finally finished up my book, which got a new name (Dreamwood) and went through copy edits, and now I have galleys. Actual honest-to-God ARCs. All I can say to everyone is thank you. Everyone who has expressed any interest or been supportive, it just means the world. You know what? I had the idea for this book about 10 years ago. It was a tiny little nubbin of an idea and I wrote some stuff down on legal pads and noodled. And then I went through a whole saga. Seriously a saga. But who cares about that now? Because it’s done! Honest! It comes out in June.

READING

I read fewer books than usual this year – about 25 – partly because I was so busy finishing up Dreamwood. Here are a few standouts, kids and adult books all mixed together:

A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipaul – easily my favorite book read in 2013. Wow.

Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan – This book has the most incredible voice. Willow is such an original, wonderful character, and her story had me wishing I could hug her.

Intuition, by C.J. Omololu – Ah, this book is fun. It’s a sequel that takes things to a new level, features one of the best love triangles I’ve read, and has you pondering the gift (or is it curse?) of being able to remember your past lives. I devoured it.

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin – more crazy vampire stuff on an epic scale by a really good writer. Increasingly you see lit fiction writers trying to write genre and they usually fail, which makes Justin Cronin all the more remarkable.

Canada, by Richard Ford – I was strangely taken by this. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I found myself thinking I preferred it even to The Sportswriter, even though it’s also ruminative to a fault.

MUSIC

This is the year I got way into Spotify. And I have to say, as a result, I’m listening to tons of music. Part of it is due to my day job, where I put the headphones on and try to laser focus. Here are my two most recent faves from 2013

Pusha T, My Name Is My Name – which was stripped down, minimal like Kanye’s Yeezus only not so overblown and without the lame lyrics (e.g., the infamous sweet and sour sauce line). This album had it all: hard, menacing (“King Push”), confessional storytelling (“Nosetalgia”), even the occasional dream (“Sweet Serenade”).

Deafheaven, Sunbather – Ha. Joke on me. Never thought I would listen to this kind of intense black metal but it’s amazing. It’s really hard to call out particular songs – but “Dreamhouse,” “Sunbather,” and “The Pecan Tree” are especially awesome.

MOVIES

Readers, I’m running out of steam on this blog post. Oh, I have so much to say about movies this year. But sadly not tonight. Before I go to bed here are my three favorites:

American Hustle

Spring Breakers

The Great Beauty

Happy 2014 to one and all!!!

MFA shout out

I got an MFA in fiction writing and for the longest time I was like, why did I do that?

I like big, crazy novels. My MFA was all about small-moment short stories. I didn’t really learn how to write what I want to write.

Plus, the value of the MFA is as much about the connections you make as the stuff you write. And nobody was saying, “you should talk to my agent.” Nobody was saying “I’ll recommend you for this fellowship.” Nobody was saying “here’s what you should think about doing next.” (Does this sound like a poor-me gripe? Yeah, it is, but  publishing and how you forged a post-MFA path was this thing that wasn’t talked about–like money. And, just as if it were money, I didn’t ask. But I SHOULD have, because you have to ask for what you want–just like it’s money. So if you are in an MFA program, get your money’s worth and ask your professors and anyone else around for any help they can give. I was too shy, which was dumb.)

Still, now that some time has passed, I realize the MFA was valuable. And the connections that I made with fellow students then remain surprisingly durable. It’s been really cool to see the paths people have taken and what they’ve ended up publishing. And just because lately I’ve had some great reconnections with people, I want to dedicate this post to the people of my MFA.

So in July we had dinner with Timothy Schaffert and his partner Rodney at an overhyped San Francisco eatery that nevertheless had a beautiful bathroom. And in addition to being like the godfather of the Omaha literary scene, Timothy writes these incredible books with the most fun titles ever (The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, The Singing Dancing Daughters of God, and Devils in the Sugar Shack – which is still a great title but originally had the even greater title Sex Parties in Omaha) and he’s switching to a new publisher with his next outing, which I cannot wait to read, The Swan Gondola. So as good as the titles are the books are even better.

And now I am reading Good Indian Girls by Ranbir Sidhu, who always had some of the best stories in class and is also, as I remember, an aficionado of the pool parlors and dive bars of south Tucson (even though now I believe he splits his time between New York and more cosmopolitan points). And I LOVE this book.

I have to give a shout-out to Maud Casey, who helped me through my anxiety as a student teacher when I had to tell a classroom of undergraduates what to do about stories and writing and the grades they earned for the above-mentioned (wtf?!). So she has gone on to become an even more amazing writing teacher, and author of several books, and has a new book coming out this spring.

And then I was really excited to see this news by Margo Rabb on Facebook.

AND … this news about my former professor, CE “Buzz” Poverman.

Actually, there is so much news about people who have passed through my MFA program (dead and alive, after all, David Foster Wallace was one) that I could keep going on and on. What I think is cool is that we are all older, we are all still writing. We are still in the game in some way or another. Yay us.