The joy of filling your head with stories

When I was eight, I declared it to my dog, the world, and the stuffed animals on my bed.

I was going to be a writer. 

I read everything. I read the back of the cereal box as I ate breakfast. I checked out books in my school library and devoured them through the week like cans of Pringles. 

I poked through my parents’ bookcases and read my mom’s old literature textbooks, since, like me, she’d taught high school English. I read my dad’s books on European history, even though I didn’t understand all of them—I loved the stories, the heroes and the battles. 

Yep, I read this entire Will and Ariel Durant series of my dad’s – from the age of 8 to 12.
It’s history written as stories, and I was sucked in.

I had no idea of what I should be reading, as a third grader, so I read everything. Fiction, nonfiction. 

I was a young little sponge. At a time where there were difficult things going on in my family, reading brought me joy. I read curled up on my bed till late at night, or tucked myself under the overstuffed chair in the living room, or holed up in the fort I built in the woods behind our house. 

I didn’t usually reread books as a child.
This series was an exception.

At one point, I felt so filled, so inspired by stories, that I started writing my own. Illustrated, of course. It was my response to what I’d read, all I’d taken in. It was part homage, part that naive ballsiness that kids have—I can do this!

Stories in, stories out. 

This weekend, I listened to a talk by Lori Rader-Day, teacher in the MFA program at Northwestern, and former president of Sisters in Crime. One of her steps to re-connecting with your writing project is to fill your brain with stories. Read the best books in your genre. Read things in your genre that are a little different than what you write. It will all percolate in your brain, and you will begin to write again. And your writing will get better. 

That’s kind of what I was doing as an eight-year-old. 

I don’t read as voraciously as I did back then. I fall too easily into the black hole of social media. I get sucked down internet rabbit trails. Not to say that all of that is bad—part of it is research. But it’s the kind of quick skimming that doesn’t produce the same results as sitting down with a good book and giving it your full attention for a few hours.

My goal is to reduce that time I spend on my phone, where I’m easily distracted by snippets of information. My iPhone conveniently tells me how many hours I’ve spent on it each day. It even congratulates me when I’ve reduced my daily time. 

I’m going to enlist it as my ally in this.

I want to feel that joy of stories percolating in my head again. 

Getting through your *%&;$! first draft

Two weeks ago, I finished the rough draft of my second book, Across the Red Sky.

It was, like all first drafts, a mixed bag. Some really good twists, some so-so scenes. There are plot holes big enough to swallow SUVs.

But it is done.

Those plot holes are BIG.

As a perfectionist, I’ve always had a hard time with that “write as fast as you can without stopping” method. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a big challenge for me.

The idea of spilling out a stream of imperfect words onto a page and letting them sit there is torture. But if I wasn’t forced to sit down and do exactly that, I would never write.

Having written three books now (the first I didn’t publish), I am starting to see that the first draft helps you work out something very important.

The shape of the novel.

I have an artist acquaintance, Kevin Courter, who is a brilliant painter. A few years ago, he showed what one of his paintings looked like before color, details and textures were added. It was beautiful in itself, but it was an underpainting–outlines of the painting to be. Trees, buildings and hills, sketched on the canvas in dark, transparent paint.

Over the next few days, the painting came to life. Colors, textures, lighting, depth. It was fascinating to see the full beauty of the painting revealed.

I think of the rough draft that way. It’s giving you the outlines of your novel as it emerges from your head. After you’ve got your shape, you can tweak it. Maybe you’re not satisfied with your protagonist’s arc and want to add some challenges. Maybe you want to switch events around to optimize the tension. After you’ve got your basic shape, you can make changes before you commit to writing all the rich detail. It’s easier and faster to make changes in this rough draft.

Be careful of your self talk during your first draft. This is, as Anne Lamott says, your shitty rough draft. It’s a sketch of what your final novel will be. Yeah, there are probably writers who toss off achingly beautiful first drafts, but rest assured they’re also critical of their work at this point.

Everybody writes a shitty rough draft.

So write like your life depends on it. Like you’re being chased by a pack of hungry wolves. Don’t go back and look at what you’ve just written. Look only at the path ahead of you, asking what happens next?

They’re coming for you. Keep your eyes on the path ahead.

Keep going, even if you’re tempted to stop. You are the only one qualified to write this book.

Five Things to Remember about your Shitty Rough Draft:

1. Everybody’s first draft is shitty.
2. DO NOT edit till you’re done.
3. You’re creating the shape of your novel, not its final form. I find it helpful to think of my novel in three acts as I write, visualizing it like a movie.
4. More detailed ideas will come to you later.
5. You can do this, so don’t give up.

Now, after a few weeks’ break and a road trip, I’m settling down to make revisions. I know there are things to be fixed. I’m actually looking forward to my book improving.

To see how a visual artist handles a similar process, take a look at Kevin’s blog demonstration:

https://kevincourter.wordpress.com/2009/07/20/days-end-the-progession-of-a-painting/

Good luck with your first draft!

Writing myself out of a corner

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It happened with my first book, and it’s happening with the second.

I plunge into writing my book gleefully, without an outline. I love creating an interesting cast of characters and putting them into painful, impossible situations to see what they do. And what they think.

I am a discovery writer to a certain point.

Then I get stuck. I can’t “pants” my way out.

I remember hearing author Louise Penny say once that she started with writing mysteries because they have an expected format. It is definitely easier when you sit down to write, to know you’ll have a murder near the beginning and a denouement at the end.

Nobody does a denouement like Poirot.

There are conventions you’re expected to follow when you write a traditional mystery, such as introducing the killer in the first third of the book (I played with that a bit on my first book and a few of you did notice).

Writing the first book, I forged my way through about seventy percent of the story, feeling good about my direction. Then, I got stuck. The ending I was foreseeing wasn’t a good payoff for the story I’d set up. I had to completely step back and look at what I had.

I set it aside for a week, then came back and tried to view it as a reader would. I also reviewed all my info on story structure, which I keep in my files and, since I teach literary analysis in my high school English classes.

I decided to create an outline of major events in my story, then chop it into three acts, so I had categories for beginning, middle and end.

It took me a while, and yes—it pulled me away from the writing part, which I love. But at this point, I was able to rearrange things strategically, according to where they would make the most impact in the story.

Taking time to do this helped me tell a better story.

Once I set up the three acts, I reevaluated how to lead into the ending. I discovered there was a better, more natural culprit behind the murder!

You did it, lady. I just realized it.

So I went back and did some rewriting and some seeding of clues. Then the way was clear for me to write a dramatic ending that I felt very good about.

With my second book, I’ve started this process earlier, at the halfway mark. It’s not gratifying in the short term to step back and not be writing! But I know from experience that it’s worth it.

Book two is moving along. Look for the cover reveal soon!

Bite your lip. Take the trip.

My first mystery novel, Swift Horses Racing, is now out.

Putting yourself out there is scary. I’ve been writing for years—blog posts, songs, short stories and even a novel previous to this one. 

My book, Swift Horses Racing, posing with my pet bonsai, Kubo

It was hard for me to release Swift Horses Racing into the world. I had lots of reasons why I wasn’t ready to do this. Why I needed more time to work on it.

Fear is persuasive—and kind of a bully.

One day I realized that the comfort zone I was keeping myself in was no longer comfortable.

I’ve been writing stories since I was eight years old. I love holing myself up in my room to write. But at some point, you want to “complete the handshake,” as writer Michael Chabon says. Let what you’ve written connect with another person. 

Last month, when I was still having minor panic attacks about putting my book out there, I was driving and a song came on at the end of my Spotify list. It sounded vaguely familiar. It was Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 vintage soul song, “Move on Up.”  

Bite your lip. And take the trip

It was like the voice of God to me, the final word capping the thoughts I’d had the past few months. Even though you’re afraid, do it. Fear is not a sign you shouldn’t do it. You just have to bite your lip and keep going. Take the trip. 

Fear is not a sign you shouldn’t do it. You just have to bite your lip and keep going. Take the trip. 

Now that I made the decision, the fear has backed off—like a bully often does when challenged. I’ve learned so much during this process. I’m excited to hear what people think of the story I’ve put out there. Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on the follow up to this book.

Since I’m a music person, I’ve created a Spotify playlist for the characters in this book—including Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.” You can find it at:  https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2gsXELvdvHD690yXetvFme?si=to0k3VfnQlyZpn1ImH1GWw

Enjoy the book, and let me know what you think with a commentor better yet, a review on Amazon, Goodreads or the book review site of your choice.

Goodbye, year that shall not be named

This year’s been crappy. 

Though it feels good to celebrate the end of a year that has constantly surprised us at how low it could go, I don’t think things are going to dramatically improve in 2021.

But one thing I have seen this year: good things don’t just happen in “good” years. They happen all the time. And if you look for them, you will see them. Even in a time of hard and painful things. 

This year in California’s Bay Area, we’ve been in quarantine since the second week of March. We have celebrated my daughter’s 21st, my husband’s, and my birthdays at home. I’ve been teaching my high school English classes online since March. With the current travel quarantine, we had to cancel a Christmas getaway to Seattle, where our whole family would be together for the first time in a year and a half. 

Also, this fall we lived through an unprecedented California wildfire season, with fires in the hills on either side of us. We breathed hazardous levels of smoke on a regular basis for about two months.

Add to this, a painful, contentious presidential election season that dragged on way past November 3.

Celebrating our new president

As I read over this list, I realize how outrageously privileged I have been. 

This year I didn’t lose a job. I didn’t lose a business. We didn’t lose our house to a fire. And even though I know people who did, I did not lose a friend or family member to COVID. My husband and I were both able to work from home (which was, on most days, not life threatening).

There were so many good things that happened this year. Some of these were deep things, perhaps more deeply felt and appreciated because they contrasted with the chaos, grief and destruction happening this year. 

1. We and our kids stayed healthy.

2. We learned how to make toilet paper last a long time. 

3. We got creative with our family times to stay connected – did lots of board games via Zoom as well as virtual Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Getting creative with Thanksgiving – Baskets of our traditional family dishes were delivered to everyone, then we Zoomed our meal.

4. I realized I actually like teaching online and have worked to make it more engaging for students with the use of community building and more audio/visual tools.

5. I wrote more this year than I ever have. A lot of support for this came from being in community – with my writers group Highway Writers and my awesome, local Sisters in Crime chapter, Coastal Cruisers.

6. I improved at my craft – and had a story chosen for a mystery anthology that will come out in 2021.

7. My daughter, who had been struggling with some serious issues, is doing much better.

8. I learned more about racial injustice–and about inequalities I never knew existed. We started supporting organizations that work to fix these. I took my daughter to her first protest.

My daughter’s first protest

9. I found out that many things I thought were important—weren’t. 

10. The isolation made me see things I did not like about myself—attitudes and habits I’ve carried with me too long. With God’s help, I am determined to make changes.

One of this year’s themes—because, hey, I’m an English teacher—has been “joy and sorrow deeply mingled.” I can’t remember right now what hymn this is from, but the idea is you can’t separate the good from the bad. They come together. The bright seems brighter because of the darkness that surrounds it. 

The new year won’t be a big level-up to peace, happiness and complete health for everyone. But I have grown up this year and many of my friends and family have, too.

The new year won’t be a big level-up to peace, happiness and complete health for everyone. But I have grown up this year and many of my friends and family have, too.

Whatever comes in 2021, we will be better prepared for it.

And more able to appreciate the good that comes with it.

How has this year changed you?

How I got back to writing during quarantine

Today is day 109.

In the first few weeks of quarantine, I was one of those people who couldn’t get anything done.

I did what I had to do for the classes I teach, then I turned on my comfort TV, The Great British Baking Show, and numbed out to polite, adorable British bakers trying to perfect their tarts and puddings.

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[Blue eyes flashing in disapproval]: “So Victoria…why aren’t you writing?”

My other fallback was the news, though obviously not for escapist reasons. I had to know everything that was happening with COVID and quarantine. But after gorging on the news kept me awake at night, I learned to set limits on my consumption.

As I settled into my SIP rhythm, I entered a new quarantine phase:  self examination.

I started to see things about myself that I didn’t like.

It’s one thing to become tired of the people you live with. You can go for a hike, suit up for a daunting trip to the grocery store, or go sit out in the backyard. But when you’re frustrated with yourself, you’re pretty much stuck.

My nagging question was, why aren’t you writing?

If writing is your dream—and it makes you feel good to do it—why is your go-to activity watching people make tarts?

I decided that if writing and publishing were important to me, I couldn’t let SIP keep me from doing them. My goal is to publish a novel. I left my second novel hanging—a completed first draft waiting for revision—and hadn’t gone back to it since before quarantine.

I also felt distanced from that good feeling that comes from writing. My novel hung over my head like a threat. Writing felt like an obligation, not a happy place to go to.

After some thought on how I tend to work and think, I decided to do the following things. So far they seem to be working.

1. I started a short-term project, to experience the fun of writing again.  I started a short story, something I could finish quickly. I wrote a locked room Shelter in Place mystery, with a completely new protagonist: a single-mother private detective. I had a blast writing it.

2. I now set a timer and sit down to write every day, even if it’s a short increment of time. A sneaky trick I play on myself! I set a timer for maybe 30 minutes. But then I get really into what I’m writing and end up going past the timer.

3. I meet with my writers groups. I am privileged to be a member of three awesome writing groups. Many of the writers have been dealing with similar issues. It’s helped to see how they’re handling this time. Even if it’s meeting on Zoom, it’s life-giving to connect with other creative people.

4. I do online write-ins.  Accountability for the win! Whether it’s on Zoom or FaceTime, it helps to sit down with other people who are writing. You’re doing this together and your butts stay in the seats. After the timer beeps, you can check in and get encouragement from each others’ breakthroughs.

5. I faced the big project I was avoiding.  I’ve gone back to the overwhelmingness of my big project—revising my novel. I have my list of big revisions and the research I want to fold in. It will be a big undertaking that will probably continue to be overwhelming, but now I remember what I loved about my novel concept. And how much I love my characters.

I’m back in the game! Still quarantined and not going anywhere.

But feeling renewed and reset.

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Yep. One hundred and nine days.

How this pantser became a plotter

I’ve always been a seat-of-the-pants writer.

Someone who enjoys discovering the book as I write it. A pantser.

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But a few months ago, I wrote myself into a cul-de-sac. I was stuck, so I avoided sitting down to write. And this is a book I love and have invested a lot of time and research in.

Based on feedback from my writers’ groups, I tried something very different. I decided to pick up from right before where I’d gotten stuck and plot the rest of the book in detail.

Cool story:  After plotting the rest of the book, I finished my first draft within a month.

So I guess that makes me…a plantser.

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The plantser: the pantser-plotter hybrid

When I first started writing, I read all I could about the writing process. My favorite mystery and suspense writers had inspired me to write in the first place, so I read everything I could about their writing processes. One of my faves, Elizabeth George, is a committed plotter, so I tried to do the same. I wrote up detailed outlines of each scene and plotted character arcs.

Then once I started writing, I completely disregarded them.

My story started telling itself. My characters came to life and wanted to make their own choices. It was so much fun, I just went with it.

That was my first book. On my second book, things have developed differently. I started with a compelling concept: a saintly old man is killed in a deliberate hit and run, and gradually you find out he was not the model human being he seemed to be (hint: Nazis may or may not be involved).

The last act of the novel then dealt with the consequences of the truth being revealed. This is where I got lost. There were too many directions to go in, and the one I wanted didn’t seem to fit. So I sat down and plotted my path to the final scene and denouement.

I found that when I finished plotting, I could easily pick up where I left off writing the next day. Hence, I didn’t procrastinate about sitting down to write.

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I knew what I had to write each day. And I actually sat down and did it!

I didn’t have to refresh my memory as to where I was in the story. Also, a benefit for my ADD self—I could break the writing up into doable chunks. I assigned myself a chunk for each session. Though as a pantser at heart, I sometimes kept writing because I got into the story and couldn’t stop myself.

Plotting in advance didn’t mean I couldn’t change things up once I got going. The climactic scene changed as I wrote it, and it wasn’t a big deal to go with that in the moment. I could throw in some interesting detours, since I knew where I was going to end up.

Whether you make it up as you go along or you plot your story in detail, it’s not a bad idea to shake things up. A YA writer in my writing group, a very detailed plotter, is now writing a sci fi romance with no plan at all. She’s loving it.

Part of learning the craft of writing is to try new things, to consider yourself a learner. And as someone only on her second book, I am not an expert at this. It’s possible over time I will settle into a completely different routine of sussing out a novel.

Pantser, plotter or plantser. We’ll see which way I go with book #3!

Writer friends, which one of the three Ps are you?

What the Faux, Hemingway?

img_20190308_093930.jpgThere is a famous quote about writing:  Write drunk, edit sober.

Though it’s been attributed to Hemingway (whose name lends gravitas to quite a few things), Hemingway never said it. We probably attribute it to him because of his tough, whiskey swilling image. Those who have researched this say that the quote actually came from humorist Peter de Vries.

The career of writing tends to pick up more “image” language than most other profession. Writers are hard drinking and mentally unstable. Out there living life brazenly and defiantly, like Jack Kerouac, drinking, driving and womanizing alongside Neal Cassady.

The fact is, most writers I know are hardworking rather than hard drinking. They work day jobs, persevere through MFA programs and take care of young children. They squeeze their writing into precise, regular pockets of time. While carefully curating their social media platforms in their spare time.

They persist through rejection, sickness and financial pressures like a protagonist fighting her way through the rising action of a novel.

You can’t do this drunk. Let alone edit with a hangover the next day.

Here’s my take on it. This quote lives because there is some truth in it. As writers, we wear many hats. When you write a first draft, you need to ditch the inhibitions. Let the words flow. Follow the dark, twisting paths of your imagination, and don’t stop to censor or rewrite. Then when you do go back to edit, look at what you’ve written as a critic.

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Sometimes great inspiration looks less-than-great the next day. Sometimes chemistry and creative writing don’t mix.

After you’ve had your coffee:  Does that awesome metaphor you wrote about relationships even make sense to you this morning?

In a way, this quote is a metaphor. Write without inhibition. Edit with common sense.

If you want to read the funny story of a writer who took the quote literally for a week:  https://www.bustle.com/articles/88879-i-wrote-drunk-and-edited-sober-for-a-week-and-heres-what-happened-to-my-work

Happy writing (and reading), my friends!

Writing like an animator

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Today I did something I’ve always wanted to do: I saw this year’s reel of Oscar-nominated shorts.

I love animation. It brings out the kid in me, the one who used to get up way before my parents to watch Saturday morning cartoons like Scooby Doo, in pre-cable days. Animation is the medium of whimsy, wonder and the joy of the impossible. The narrative is limited only by your ability to draw/digitize it.

When I teach creative writing to kids, I use Pixar shorts. These tiny stories have a beginning, middle and end. And they’re especially good at something that every writer honing their craft needs to learn: showing and not telling.

This year’s nominated shorts included Pixar’s “Bao,” the story of a traditional Chinese mother whose “dumpling” grows up and finds his own way in the world, to her dismay. She takes the disturbing step of devouring him before he can run off with his blonde girlfriend. It’s a startling image.

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Teen rebellion: Little dumpling would rather eat Cheetos and talk to his friends.

You see the despair of this mother, desperate to keep her child “safe” from his own (non-traditional) choices at all costs. No words here, only the fears of a empty nest mother and her son’s fierce desire for independence.

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“Late Afternoon”

“Late Afternoon,” from Irish animator Louise Bagnall, starts off with an old woman named Emily drinking her tea, helped by someone who looks like her caregiver. When her biscuit falls into the tea, she follows it, transformed into the little girl at the beach with her dad. She falls into other wells of memory when the caregiver (who we learn is her daughter) brings her some old books and pictures. Scenes from her life are shown amid bursts of bright colors that fade as she grows older.

At one point, Emily returns from an old memory and stares at her wrinkled hands, shocked that she could be so old now. I remember my mother, who has dementia, doing the same thing. It’s a beautiful, seamless way to tie the sea of memories back to Emily’s present self.

Watching these reminded me that words are flexible and wonderful tools to tell stories. You can use them to simply tell what happens or you can invite the reader in deeper. I’ll show you something – What do you think is going on?

You’re crediting the reader with intelligence. The reader’s takeaway is greater. They will be more invested in the story, since they were part of the revelation.

I’m inspired now to revisit what I’ve written on this current book, to see how I can envision and write my scenes as an animator or filmmaker would.

2019 Oscar Nominated Shorts is playing for at least the next two weeks (up to Oscar Sunday).

The Indoor Life

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The hills, barely visible behind our local high school.

Nine days after the start of the most destructive fire in California history, the Bay Area is filled with smoke. When you walk out of your house, you smell it. There’s ash on your car in the morning. The parks, normally filled with kids, are eerily empty. Our air quality index has been between 160-180. Unhealthy.

In our western part of Silicon Valley, you can barely make out the hills a couple miles down the street. The scenery around us is grayed out, like an unavailable option on a computer screen.

We’re staying at home. Inside.

I’m trying to write for NaNoWriMo, so this has worked pretty well for me. When I get antsy, my go-to is usually a hike. Since I can’t do that, I write. I research. I dip into that stack of unread books spawned by my serious book buying addiction. More than usual, I’m getting stuff done.

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In the evenings, we’re watching movies and playing games. My youngest is obsessed with 1980s movies, which is amusing to me, since these are the movies of my youth and young adulthood. She’s obsessed with the Back to the Future series, which has made for lots of deep discussions. The kind that you hope for and don’t easily get. What events in your life caused you to be who you are today? What if things had happened differently? And, more importantly, was Biff Tannen really modeled after Donald Trump? (Yes—confirmed by screenwriter Bob Gale in a 2015 Rolling Stone Interview).

And we’ve played board games, one of my husband’s favorite things to do. As an introvert, he socializes more easily when he’s doing something. And occasionally, I do win a game.

Our bad air quality is expected to last through Tuesday (four days from now).

Indoor life has been less frustrating than I thought, a reprieve from busy Silicon Valley life. The sad thing is to go outside, smell the air and think of the cause of all this. Two hundred miles away, people’s lives are going up in smoke. I have nothing to complain about. I have my family around me and a house to be indoors in. The people in and around the town of Paradise, California do not. And their situation is heartbreaking.

I got some sobering perspective from this post by a woman who grew up in Paradise. “Please Excuse the Smoke,” https://legitfaith.wordpress.com/2018/11/16/please-excuse-the-smoke/

Are you holed up indoors, too? For those of you outside California, what’s your perspective on what you’re seeing and hearing about the fire?