Category Archives: On writing

Writing Process Blog Tours and More

Beth and Emily both participated in the Writing Process Blog Tour chain and wrote posts on their writing process. You can see the blogs on their personal sites:

Read Beth’s Blog here.
Read Emily’s blog here.

Also, we’d like to give another huge thanks to everyone who participated in our Summer of Super Short Stories contests. We had great fun organizing it. Stay tuned for another round of Super Short Stories coming this fall. The next contest will have a theme (magic, magic!) and an exciting final outcome.

Strangers on the Interwebs

When Beth and I set out to become Luminous Creatures, we knew nothing about being self-published authors. We simply wanted to do it, and with characteristic earnestness and eagerness, we leapt into the deep end of the pool. Marketing quickly emerged as our butterfly stroke—you know the butterfly stroke, the one no one can learn, the one that makes you feel like you’re a flailing cow in the water? That’s marketing.

Our deepest marketing questions: In a market flush with too many options, how do you convince a reader to take a chance on your unknown book? Particularly when you’re working on a budget of dreams and effort rather than money?

Determined to solve the mysteries of marketing with minimal flailing, we explored options. Social media emerged as an obvious avenue, though we were both a little skeptical about how participating in these websites might translate into actual sales. As Beth pointed out loudly in the middle of our favorite meeting spot, The Barefoot Café in Fairfax, California, “Twitter is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. Tweeting is a moronic verb.”

Aside—the folks at Barefoot must get a kick out of us. We’ve had some pretty funny conversations there:

Beth, earnestly, in her onstage voice: “Did you know? I’m an extrovert! I can belt a conversation across the room from the power of my butthole.”

Emily, wryly: “Really? I had no idea.”

Then there was the time we performed squats after lunch to determine the best way to describe Emmeline’s exercise regime in The Velocipede Races.

Oh, yes. They love us at the Barefoot.

Being the introvert to Beth’s extrovert, I wanted nothing to do with putting my private thoughts on a public board. Being the intrepid extrovert that she is, Beth opened a Twitter account. Here’s what I love about my writing partner: She hates it? She thinks it’s moronic? She does it anyway!

I dug in my introverted heels, saying, “I don’t like interacting with strangers on the interwebs. It’s creepy.”

Beth agreed she’d be the official Luminous Creature on Twitter and cheerfully tweeted away, usually posting something about our books. She complained [loudly] about the stupidity of it for several weeks. But a month or two later, she began to make friends with other self-published writers, specifically those who write Jane Austen spin-offs like some of her recent work. She connected to a whole wide world of Austen fanatics.

We kept exchanging startled looks over lunch and saying, “Who knew there were so many Jane Austen fans out there hungering for sequels?”

Beth found a blog to review Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven and wrote a guest post. She connected with a young woman in England and exchanged reviews. Mysterious marketing leads were arising! The social media were working! With great reluctance and a fair amount of [quiet] grumbling, I slumped to my desk and opened my own account on The Twit to begin the painful process of interacting with strangers on the interwebs.

At first, I was overwhelmed by self-published authors tweeting the titles of their book IN CAPITAL LETTERS and the seemingly endless stream of people informing me that their wrists hurt because #amwriting and OMG 1550 words today!!! Gradually, I learned to use the list function to sort the interesting tweeps from the shameless self-promoters, the thinkers from the whiners.

And now, in the past two months, two exciting things have happened because of strangers on the interwebs! I can hardly believe it. Momentum Magazine, which covers “the bicycling lifestyle,” put out a call for bike commuters interested in being interviewed. I submitted my name because I wanted to promote The Velocipede Races, which I largely composed while commuting by bike, desperately repeating phrases as I rode so I could scribble them on index cards when I arrived. Momentum wrote me back with interview questions and photo specs and collected my replies in a matter of days. I’m currently waiting to receive my free copy. Keep your eyes peeled for the April/Spring issue on stands in your local health food store. You can also check out Momentum online.

The second, more exciting lead revolves around writing. I follow Maggie Stiefvater on The Twit. She is the author of fantastic YA books, including The Scorpio Races and The Raven Boys, and she is also an entertaining and humorous tweep who made it onto my “real people” list for her amusing posts. A few weeks ago she posted a match-up on her blog for writers to connect with potential critique partners—not friend crit-partners as all mine have been—but rather strangers-from-the-interwebs critique partners. I submitted my data and bit my nails. I exchanged information with five other writers, including brief descriptions of my works-in-progress, an introduction to my reading and writing interests, and of course, samples of my work for them to critique.

Two of my exchanges were discouraging, one a flat-out poor match, the other a rather painful case of drastically different writing styles and strong opinions. But the third stranger was a match! I was so excited to receive my first feedback from Tony Caruso of Long Island, New York. And truly, I was even more excited to give my first feedback to him. My secret fantasy profession—aside from a velocipede jockey or a circus acrobat—is an editor.

At any rate, I thoroughly broke out the red text all over Tony’s gripping work-in-progress, Welcome to the End. People who know me know I only bother with the red text if I think something is good. But I’m so used to working with Beth that it never occurred to me to take it easy on my first real possibility of a new crit-partner. I’m a little…avid. Especially if I get to write rather than talk, though those of you who have heard my rant about the pitfalls of belly-breathing and the importance of the side-belly muscles may think I’m…avid when I speak, too.

After hitting send on my editing demonstration, I gnawed my already-chewed nails. Had I been too aggressive? Would he think I was a big meanie for creating all that red sprawl on his pristine document?

And there it was, quickly! The reply! I opened it with a shaking hand. (One of the reasons I now know Tony is a good crit-partner match for me is that he always gets back to my emails very promptly, and he writes a nice long chunk of an email when he replies, too.) He told me he was surprised when he first saw my edits, and my hopes fell.

He hates my comments. I’m a big meanie.

Soul-searching commenced. I admitted to being aggressive when it came to editing. I asked myself, Am I one of those people? A nasty dream-crusher?

If I am, I defended, it’s not my fault. It’s all that ballet training when I was a child. I only learned to give criticism because we had no time for compliments while seeking perfection.

Tony, a mature, open-minded sort, reassured me that he thought my edits were helpful, and we have proceeded with sharing more. He sent me edits on the first few chapters of my epic fantasy book, The Gantean, offering suggestions for line edits, cuts, and world-building. The exchange has so far been an incredibly rewarding process and fascinating, too. I’ve gotten to do fact-checking research on pharmaceuticals, methods of murder, minarets, and the difference between acids and bases. I’ve gotten to experiment with recreating fight scenes in the privacy of my office, not to mention discussing the best insult for a teenage girl to use on her sister.

Who knew it could be so much fun to connect with strangers on the interwebs?

Fear of Strong

I’ve been thinking about strength lately: bodily strength, mental strength, and the places where the two intersect.

All day long, I cultivate strength—my strength, particularly my body’s strength, and other peoples’ bodies’ strength. I help people find their muscles and use them, which is great fun. I can’t help but notice as I do this that finding physical muscles often results in finding mental ones, too. Finding physical strength requires attributes like discipline, determination, and will, and these qualities are the underpinnings of mental strength.

Becoming embodied—and I mean that in the sense of truly inhabiting one’s body, being in sensations—creates an independent mind. Being aware of your body makes you aware of your internal reality. I’m pretty sure that self-awareness through physical exertion was the original intention behind yoga asanas.

Although we are not surrounded by images of strong female bodies, we are all overly accustomed to the hyper-sexualized female body. You cannot escape it. You get Victoria’s Secret catalogs in the mail. There are buttocks selling thong underwear on the side of the bus, pouting lips promoting ice cream on TV, and hairless legs hawking shoes at the mall. Very few of these bodies (you can’t really call them women—that’s not what they are—they are often headless, chopped up, clearly objectified bodies) are what I would deem physically strong. In fact, just for fun, I searched through dozens of images of “beautiful” or “hot” female bodies: Victoria’s Secret advertisements, Vogue spreads, fashion layout after fashion layout, and guess what? I found a disturbing recurring theme: these women are posed in the strangest, most flimsy postures you can imagine. Hips thrust awkwardly to one side, buttocks stuck out so the back arches in parody of the lordosis I try to cure in peoples’ spines daily, and the slumping shoulders and caved-in chests in the high fashion spreads…don’t get me started. They are, in short, a mess of bad posture, weak centers, and wilting arms: the ideal woman as weak and helpless.

I only care about any of this because I think the images of women we see regularly do damaging things to women’s brains. We can’t help it; we are social creatures; we compare ourselves to each other, especially in the domain of our appearance—for better or worse. Because women compare themselves to other women, the pictures we see on billboards, in advertisements, and on television or the internet have an effect on our brains. If we look at these “idealized” images a lot, we may begin to think they are a prescription for how one should look. Then we start to try to fit that mold.

This desire to fit the mold brings me clients who say things like: “Will this exercise make my calves big? Because I don’t want to do this exercise if it will make my calves get muscular.” I’ve heard this comment (or substitute some other body part for calves) countless times. Every time I have to bite the inside of my cheek, hard. I have to coach myself to have sympathy and compassion and remind myself that I am hearing a deep insecurity about embodying strength that is the one of the curses of women in the world I live in. Even after two waves of feminism, we are still dealing with this fear of strong.

In The Velocipede Races my main character, Emmeline is a strong woman—physically and mentally strong. I wanted to explore what happens to such a woman in a world where women are expected to demonstrate physical frailty. The women of this world, bowing to social custom and aesthetic, wear corsets and are squeezed into their weakness. Women like Emmeline who wish for a different life, are thought of as freaks. But let’s face it: a really muscular woman in our world might endure similar comments to those flung at Emmeline. Comments like “You’re mannish and unfeminine. You’re too big. You take up too much space.”

But as we see from Emmeline, who rebels against the fashion dictates of her world, aesthetic originates outside of us, in the opinion or view of others. Function originates inside, with awareness of sensation. There is a lot of power in being free from others’ opinions. Emmeline gets so free from others’ opinions of her that they go to great lengths to get her to care again. Breaking the mold is not usually a popular activity.

I think it’s possible to escape the vicious head game born from seeing too many images of women’s bodies, to break out of that mold, but it takes a lot of mental strength, a willingness to swim upstream, and a contrariness that you’ll have to defend again and again. How do you get that mental strength? Physical training might be one way.

Being physically strong, as anyone who’s been there knows, makes you feel different. You are less afraid. More capable. More certain of yourself. The way you assess your possibilities is different. You say “I can” more often, and “I can’t” less. You rely more on yourself, and less on others, both for doing things (picking up that heavy box, standing on a ladder to reach for stuff in the cupboards, moving the trash cans) and for permission to do things.

By building that physical strength, a woman breaks the mold. She puts herself in a position where she has to face others’ opinions of her, whether good or bad. And then she has to say: I don’t care what you think of me. I’m going to please myself. And if lifting this weight, or climbing this hill, or running this fast is what pleases me, then I’m going to do it. Even if it makes my thighs big. Even if it means I take up more space than the world wants to give me. She, like Emmeline, places function over aesthetic, which is one of the most physically empowering things you can do for your own view about your body.

-EJS

Writing Mary

In December of 2010 I played Mary Bennet and Charlotte Lucas in a community theatre production of Pride and Prejudice. At first I was disappointed because I reeeeaaallly wanted to play Elizabeth. But when I got (mostly) over my desire to be the leading lady and (more or less) embraced my character actor self, I began to fall in love with Mary, though not as much with Charlotte. During the course of the production’s run, the actor playing Wickham and I developed a story about how Wickham tried to ingratiate himself with the whole family and gave Mary a book: The Mysteries of Udolpho, a popular novel that Jane Austen herself makes fun of in Northanger Abbey. I was reading it at the time because, well, that’s just the kind of method-y thing I like to do, a little like Daniel Day Lewis insisting that he kill all of his food while filming Last of the Mohicans, except that I should have been reading Fordyce’s Sermons. It became our little back stage joke. And it grew. One night during the scene when Lydia brings Captain Wickham home after eloping with him, I found myself smiling like an idiot at Wickham. Mary, it seems, had fallen in love with her sister’s dashing husband. Had the director seen that, she probably would have told me to stop. She didn’t see it, so by the time the run ended, Captain Wickham couldn’t look my way because of my increasingly maniacal grin. But then the show closed, the cast party ended, and I said goodbye to Mary and Charlotte.

A year later I was sitting in a cafe in San Rafael writing a very short story. I called it, creatively enough, “A Story About a Girl Named Mary Bennet.” It turns out that she had never really left me. I don’t know why that surprised me—except for one character who shall remain nameless because I don’t want to think about her, they never do leave. The story was a tiny thing—maybe five handwritten pages—in which Mary finds a mysterious magic book and has an adventure. It had a rather raunchy ending, which surprised the hell out of me as I meant to head into something like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe territory. Instead I ended up somewhere just short of what I understand to be the main thrust of Fifty Shades of Grey. When I finished writing, I was flushed and a little breathless. With that bodice-ripping scene I had set my own heart to pounding. And Mary, well, she has a saucy streak in her, I suppose. I always thought there was something more to her than what she presents to the world.

I readily admit that it was a silly little story, but it was the only thing I had to give Emily when we started our writing group. She liked it and gave me lots of notes. So I went to work on it, wondering where it might take me. Over the next months the story grew. Mary’s adventure took her to London and then back to Hertfordshire. She learned some spells, discovered an aptitude for magic, and got wrapped up in a battle of good versus evil. Eventually the raunchy sex scene was replaced with a sweet moment. (There is a sex scene that I wrote just for fun—bawdy and ridiculous. I read it to my sister over the phone and she laughed for ten minutes—at least. One of these days I’ll get the courage to post it.) I finished the draft and let it simmer.

When I finally sat down to do the revisions (or in this case the massive re-writing), I needed to find a way to capture Jane Austen’s voice as best as I could. To that end, I re-read all of her books. But it turns out that just reading her words wasn’t enough. So I began each writing day by transcribing passages from Pride and Prejudice into a Word file. It turns out that if you want to evoke someone’s style, it’s best to copy her words for a while. Eventually the rhythm and vocabulary made it into my fingers and I could get to work.

Slowly, chapter by chapter, the next drafts grew. The backstage joke I shared with Craig Neibaur made it into the story around the second draft, which thrills me to no end since it represents the coming together of disparate parts of my life. As I worked, I learned more and more about the enormous community of Jane Austen lovers and the shocking number of “sequels” to her books that are being written as I type this post. I also found this marvelous website—a Jane Austen thesaurus—that was so helpful during the sentence-by-sentence revisions.

I also learned a lot about my writing process, which involves working on fragments then stitching them together. Kind of like knitting a sweater. Having begun my dissertation by writing the final chapter first, this makes sense to me, as does something I plan to write about later: the importance of dilatory time in the creation of anything. Sometimes things just need to simmer for a while before they make sense. That’s why the whole process ended up taking a little more than eighteen months.

I worked in the shadow of not one but two wonderful writers. From Jane I get the Bennets and their neighborhood. For the magic I turned to J. K. Rowling and the rich world of Harry Potter. Some of Mr. A. H.’s ideas about spell casting arose out of my efforts to steal something of Ms. Rowling’s and make it my own. And though it was tempting to write Hogwarts and Diagon Alley into my story, in the end I landed more on the side of Austen sequel than Harry Potter fan fiction.

It is both marvelous and terrifying to write a book with characters whose lives were invented by someone else. I had plenty to work with, but I also felt a duty to the characters as drawn by their author. I walked a particularly thin line with Mary. When I played her, I stepped away from the interpretation that was obvious—uptight, prudish, and judgmental. My Mary was a geek. She had an adenoid problem, and she simply didn’t know how to relate to the other characters. I think that’s why I fell in love with her and why I wanted to give the poor girl an adventure. I flatter myself by thinking that the Mary I’ve written stays a little closer to Miss Austen’s. I’ve tried to explain some of her annoying behavior in a way that makes her more sympathetic. I think that works. But while I am fond of Mary, as I am of those characters I invented such as Mr. Huntley and Mr. Hartbustle, I must confess that Mr. Bennet is my favorite, in part because I can still see Alex Ross who played him in the production I did. Alex reminds me powerfully of my own father, whom I adore. And he seemed to channel Mr. Bennet perfectly. So Mr. Bennet wrote himself, amusing me to no end and astonishing me more than once, especially as I was finishing the book. One day I was revising the last bits of the last chapter when Mr. Bennet said something that I had not anticipated. I wrote the sentence and then said “Really, Mr. Bennet?” He insisted. So there it is. You’ll have to read the book to find out what I mean.

“Steal It and Make It Your Own” or Why Reading Good Writing Matters

When I was an undergrad at UCONN, I balanced my major in English with a minor in Acting (much to my advisor’s chagrin). Although I’ve forgotten a lot about those years, I can still hear Professor Jerry Krasser saying, “Steal it and make it your own.” That was his advice to anyone attempting creative work: find the best work out there and then adapt it for yourself. Of all the things I heard from my professors, I think that was my favorite. I learned many years later that this is a variation on the quotation often attributed to Picasso that “good artists copy, great artists steal.” I like Jerry’s phrasing better—it doesn’t include so much judgment.

As an actor I do a fair amount of conscious stealing from people around me—gestures, voices, ticks, habits—I consider them all fair game. Making them my own is pretty simple because I’m using my body and my voice to perform the stolen gesture or vocal quality. They are automatically filtered through me, so even if I try just to imitate, I can’t. With writing it’s less clear: I know what the stealing part is; it’s the making it my own that I’m still working on. I’m still finding my own voice, so when I make a conscious effort to steal from another writer, it doesn’t always go well. I sent this post as a draft to Emily, and she suggested that there’s something about the style and voice that facilitates the transformation of the stolen into the own, which makes sense. The tone and voice are the writer’s presence in the work just like my voice and body are my presence on stage.

I’ve seen little hints of how this exchange might work. Like all writers I love to read—it’s the best source for things to steal and make my own, after all. Lately I’ve noticed that whether I mean for it to happen or not, what I read has a tendency to show up in my writing. While Emily makes lists of words that tickle her, words that she wants to find room for in her writing, that’s not a habit that I have developed—except when I work on Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven. Then I make note of phrases that Jane Austen uses and I found a wonderful website that is so useful to anyone writing Jane Austenesque books. But in my other work, I pretty much just wing it.

Or so I think. The truth is that when I’m reading, my unconscious mind acts like a magpie collecting shiny things: gathering words and phrases, catching on to rhythms and patterns. When I first drafted this post, I chose the mynah bird because it, too, likes to collect shiny things. But as Emily pointed out, the mynah is best known for its ability to hear a sound then reproduce it exactly. The magpie makes new objects with its stolen treasure. And that seems to be how my subconscious mind operates. Some of those shiny things turned up in a post I wrote recently over on my own blog—I kept noticing rhythms stolen from Emily’s work and unconsciously adapted for mine. I was pleased with those little bits because I think Emily is a wonderfully poetic writer, but had I tried to imitate her (as I have in the past), the results would have been disappointing at best, embarrassing at worst. I am no mynah bird.

On the other hand, on the few occasions that I have tried to finish poorly written books, I’ve seen how they influence my writing, too. It turns out my magpie mind can’t tell the difference between a polished diamond and a broken paper clip. Whatever I’m reading influences whatever I’m writing. I don’t want to steal crap and call it my own. I only want to steal beautiful things.

So, with this aim in mind, I turn to writers I admire: Kate Atkinson for the quiet beauty of her language, J. K. Rowling for the mastery of her characterizations, and Emily June Street for the musicality and rhythms of her prose. Great writers teach us how to be better writers because they give us lots to steal and make our own.

A Rebel Inside

I like to think about what it would have been like to live in a different era in time and place. There are so many layers to this imaginary game: what would you wear, what would you eat, what would everyday life be like? What would you fear? What would you believe about how the world worked? I’m curious about all the details—how is food prepared and produced, how do people get from point A to B, what do women do about their menstrual cycle, what happened to people who rebelled against customs, social rules, and stated laws?

But that’s just the superficial layer of my interest. What I’m really fascinated by is how an external world intersects with an internal world. So often it feels as if we are almost entirely determined by our circumstances—we are whatever we are born into—the world around us shapes everything from our opportunities to our beliefs to our aspirations. It can feel unimaginable to consider something beyond that—some internal essence that is eternal, out of time and place. I like to give my characters that internal space. I don’t even know what to call it. Confidence? No, although that’s part of it. An iconoclastic bent? Yes, but. A rebellious nature? Closer. It has to do with an awareness of being the driver in one’s own life, an awareness of being able to choose one’s path.

That’s not to say that external circumstances have no determining force. They always do, and time and place have all kind of ramifications about the choices available to a character. But I’m interested in the point of friction between the outside and the inside, how that internal space rubs into the expectations of time and place. This can play out in so many ways: the rejection of God or family, the internal resistance against oppressive forces, the casting off of limiting notions of beauty or femininity or sexuality, and of course, transgressions in action—theft, sin, and murder. The friction itself is what makes it interesting, but without that internal core of strength inside a character, there isn’t any psychological depth to the rebellion.

I’m also interested in the acquiescence to these external pressures, the knowing surrender—I do it because they tell me to do it. I do it because I am afraid. I do it because I cannot stand the idea of the consequences if I don’t. Or, my all time favorite, I do it because I want to be loved. This would be the character who chooses the easy, proscribed path because they are concerned with pleasing others: they want their family to approve of them, or they want to win the love of an idealized other. Ultimately, if the character has the internal essence—and they always do, or we wouldn’t be reading about them—they get into conflict between pleasing self and pleasing others, and we get all kinds of interesting fallout.

This comes up because I’m writing a story about a rebellious girl in a stifling culture. It’s actually not that far off from the social circumstances most women lived in before the Feminist movements of the Twentieth Century, and many women in less forward-thinking places continue to live in today. Women in my constructed world can’t own property, vote, or participate in politics, athletics, or any public sphere. They are largely confined to the home, and their primary value in society is as a means for men to exchange wealth or power in marriage brokering.

My heroine has a very modern mind, a mind that doesn’t accept the idea that her only worth is as a wife, mother, and housekeeper. This is one reason this story is set in a fantasy world. I felt her way of thinking was almost impossible to set in Regency or Victorian London. There just wouldn’t have been the possibility of her being this iconoclastic. She wouldn’t have had any concept of the freedoms she needed to think belonged to her by right. So I made up my own city for her to live in, because I wanted her to have this strength inside her, this refusal to accept what the culture she lives in proscribes for her. The results have been entertaining, for me, at least. The book is called The Velocipede Races, and should be released by Luminous Creatures in Fall 2013.