Thursday, 31 December 2015

Finding Stories in Life

You may have noticed that I like stories.  I've mentioned it once or twice...

I try to collect different myths and cultural stories and share them with my kids.  I want them to see the world in all sorts of different ways.

This Christmas, I told them an adaptation of the Celtic legend of the Oak King and the Holly King.  I told them that the two kings are brothers.  The Oak King loves the sunshine and the light while the Holly King loves the stars and the night.  They fight to make the Earth entirely day or entirely night, each one adding a few minutes of either night or day every 24 hours.  On the winter solstice, the Oak King defeats the Holly King and begins to add extra daylight to every day.  On summer solstice, the Holly King defeats the Oak King and begins to add extra night to each evening.

My son asked why the Oak King couldn't just win and then it would never be bedtime.  (Like the practicality.)  I explained that if it was always day, then plants would be scorched and the Earth would get too hot.  And if it was always night, then we would freeze.  So both brothers are necessary for us to survive and even if they don't get along, they're still partners.

It's a different way of seeing the change of seasons, a poetic interpretation instead of a scientific one.  Now, I am a fan of science, but I also am a fan of myths and poetry.  They satisfy something deep inside our souls.  As long as we understand the purpose of both, I don't see a problem with either.

Monday, 28 December 2015

December 20th to 26th

Weekly word count: 1500

Okay, I had a plan and it was a good one.  I arranged to have help for two afternoons last week so that I could write.  But the universe had other plans.  For the first day, one of my kids had a stomach flu, so I cancelled the sitter.  (Making the sitter sick = bad)  I did get some writing done, but nowhere near the amount I was hoping for.

Second day, it was my turn to be sick.  I have not yet reached the point in my skills where I can write beautiful fiction from the bathroom.  It's a personality flaw, I suppose.

At least we managed to all be healthy for the holidays, so I will accept that as at least a little bit of a win.

I should hear about my line edits sometime next week.  I have the week off, with plans to have a good time with my boys before they go back to school.  So I'm not going to put too much pressure on myself.  That can wait for January 4th when I start back on the regular program of balancing writing and day job while the kids are at school.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Scrooge's Character Arc

In early December, Teresa Wilde did a great presentation for ORWA on Scrooge's character arc.  She showed how Dickens makes Scrooge's 180 degree character turn in one night a believable story.  He used the 5 act structure to build sympathy for Scrooge and the intensity of the experience allows us to accept the extreme about-face.

It's given me a lot to think about in terms of character growth and it seems timely, so I thought I'd share.

The first major point to consider is that although his name has come to be synonymous with "miser", Scrooge's problem isn't actually being tight with his money.  He's not a miser.  Penny-pincher, yes.  Misanthrope, yes.  But a miser wouldn't turn down an offer of free food at his nephew's Christmas party.  If the money was the extent of Scrooge's problems, A Christmas Carol could have ended with him giving his fortune to charity and being done with it.

Scrooge's problem is actually that he's cut himself off from everyone and everything which used to hold meaning for him.  There was a time when he longed for affection, when he was an abandoned boy at school and when he was an apprentice at Fezziwig's and was engaged to Belle.  He begins his career in business because he wants to earn respect and be powerful, which he equates with being wealthy.

Dickens shows us that Scrooge wasn't always pushing people away.  Instead, it was a gradual process of isolating himself to prevent further hurt.  He refuses to marry Belle until he feels he can provide for her as a husband should.  Personally, I think his misanthropy is a mask.  He's not actually as hard-hearted as he'd like to appear, he's just tired of people trying to push him around, so he's adopted a pose of indifference.  A clue to this is that Scrooge is actually the only character in the book to show a sense of humour.  Everyone else is very earnest and serious in their pursuit of Christmas cheer, but Scrooge sees the absurdity of some of the traditions and customs.

With the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge sees that he's viewed as a tyrant by those beneath him and a joke by those of his social class.  It obviously hurts him a great deal.  He sees himself as a savvy businessman.  It's more signs that he's not actually as heartless as he appears.  He doesn't want to hurt others, he's blinded himself to the impact his choices have on them.

The Ghost of Christmas Future provides a warning, foretelling Tiny Tim's death and Scrooge's own unmourned passing.  Together, all three ghosts show Scrooge that his behaviour isn't getting him what he wants.  Instead, he's putting himself and his immortal soul at risk and, in the end, gaining nothing.

If Scrooge honestly hated people and didn't care if they all died (Are there no workhouses?  No prisons?  If they are like to die, they should do so quickly and decrease the surplus population) then the visions the ghosts show him would have no impact.  Scrooge's change of heart isn't as dramatic as it appears on the surface and that's what allows us to accept it.  It isn't that he's truly changed.  Instead he's able to remove his mask and resume behaving as the sort of person he truly was, but had forgotten.

In the end, that's what all character arcs should be.  People don't often go through true changes of who they are.  They hide themselves (and are often miserable doing so) to try and force themselves into who they think they should be.  But the core stays the same and the change in a character arc should be less about dramatic transformation and more about reminding the character of who they have always been.  It's about casting off the false-self and living true once more.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Weekly Update: December 13 to 19

Weekly word count: 3000

Not my desired 4000, but I'm cutting myself some slack for the holidays.  This was my last week of provincially sponsored child care (otherwise known as school) so for the next two weeks, I've got two active and rambunctious boys at home, both super excited about the upcoming present-fest.

Still, I want to make progress, so I've arranged for a sitter to take them out to some fun locales (swimming, the trampoline park, indoor play arenas) twice a week for the next two weeks.  That will give me four hours a week to write, which should let me do between 3000 and 5000 words.  Then we'll be back to the regular schedule of juggling my dayjob and writing while the kids are at school.

I'll also have some more work to do with Metamorphosis.  The release date is set for February 14th, a little Valentine's Day celebration for everyone.  I set up the preorder this weekend and am waiting for Amazon to approve it.  So now I have a very firm deadline.  I'm hoping that I can have the print version ready (at least from the site) at the same time though it will take another 6-8 weeks for the print version to be available in Canada.  But I have to wait until I have my final text for everything.

I've got another two weeks before I'll get my line edits back.  Then a couple of rounds of back and forth, then final polish and proofread.  I can do this.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Stages of Creative Development

For an amusing break in the pre-Christmas rush:

The 5 Stages of the Creative Process

1) Blissful inspiration: the stroke of genius which inevitably hits when you have no means of recording it: while you're asleep, driving in the car, doodling during a meeting at work or after the sixth drink at the bar.  No matter how hard you try, the details which would have made Shakespeare weep gradually escape, leaving only the hollow shell of greatness.

2) Careful plotting: the carefully laid out interweaving of plot elements and character growth, following the universal story arcs.  You know, the stuff you'll end up throwing out because the story ended up going in a different direction.

3) First draft: the finished product, the result of hours and hours of numb fingers pounding at the keyboard, midnight writing sessions and missed family and work events.  The one you look up from, exhausted and exhilarated, only to be struck by the sudden realization that at least half of it is garbage.

4) Editing: the even more mind-numbing process of ripping your precious baby apart and rebuilding it again and again and again and again and again and again.

5) Release: when you take the story which you've slaved over and dreamed about and send it out into the world so that others can complain it wasn't exactly what they were looking for.

If none of that discourages you, then congratulations, my friend, you can join the slightly insane club of professional writers.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Weekly Update: December 6 to 12

Weekly word count: 2800

I've been speaking with a correctional officer and reworking the beginning of Inquisition to be more accurate.  It's been a very interesting glimpse into a world which most people will never experience.

This phase is always difficult for me.  I feel like a parent with a newborn and a teen off to college.  Inquisition is all potential and possibility, the reality of the story hasn't gelled yet.  Metamorphosis is effectively out of my hands now.  It's too late to do any real second-guessing about plot or characters. 

I've heard writers described as the ultimate control freaks, which definitely applies to me.  This is the phase where I have the least control.  I have to be open to ideas and inspiration if I want Inquisition to be good, so I can't get too attached to any particular ideas at this stage.  And I have to trust my instincts for Metamorphosis, trust that I made the right decisions and stop trying to "fix" things.

Recognizing when it's time to let go is one of the biggest challenges for any creative process.  There's always the temptation to hold back for one more polish, one more improvement, one more attempt to make the creation match the vision inside the mind.  Personally, I think that's what happens when someone spends 10 years writing a "great" novel.  They didn't catch the moment when it was time to let it go and move on to the next project.  Perfection isn't attainable and if someone dedicates themselves to chasing it, they'll invariably be unhappy with the results.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Defining Success

Last week, my husband and I had a budget meeting for the family.  Part of that discussion was asking where does the line get drawn between a hobby and business.

We've made some big decisions to allow me the opportunity to pursue writing as a career.  I scaled back on my hours at work to give me time for writing, editing and promotion.  We gave up some luxuries to have room in the budget to pay for editing and promotional work.  It was a big decision and one which has long term effects.

With a reduced salary, we don't have as much money to put aside for long-term savings.  We don't go on vacation.  We can't do renovations or update our furniture.  We both accepted it as a short term measure.

Initially, I expected to be able to earn enough in one year with one book to cover the expenses of the next book.  That turned out to be overly optimistic.  So we've had to consider, how many books and how many years do we invest in my career before expecting income to match costs?

When I first started to seriously pursue writing, I had people tell me to create my own definition of success.  Was it to see my books in the bookstore?  To get lots of positive reviews?  To earn a certain amount of money?  To see my book topping the charts or made into a movie?

I think those definitions are important to consider for the creative side of writing.  But for the business side, it's important to think in terms of income and expenses.  It's important to have a sustainable plan for how much money and time will be invested before expecting a return.

When planning, the future has to be considered as well as the present.  Are you willing to potentially put off your retirement to pursue your writing career?  Are you willing to go without some of the luxuries in your life to cover the costs?  Even J.K. Rowling held a day job for a number of years before Harry Potter became a source of real income.  Becoming an overnight success takes years of effort.

We've settled on a five year plan.  For the next four years, we can continue at the same rate we're currently at.  But if income is still not matching costs at that point, we'll have to reconsider the plan.  I think this plan is more realistic than my initial one.

Creatively, I have a number of definitions.  I'd love to see my book in bookstores.  I enjoy getting reviews from people I've never met telling me that they enjoy my book.  It would be a huge thrill if someone told me about a great book they'd read which they want to recommend to me and it turned out to be my book.  A movie would be awesome.

Businesswise, it's much simpler.  I want my profits from writing to replace or exceed my income from my day job on a consistent and reliable basis.  I want to be able to quit my day job and focus on writing.  I see writing as a more sustainable and flexible career option than other work (aside from being something I would do anyway even if no one ever paid me a dime).  I can continue to write well past the age where I would have to retire from other work and I can do it from wherever I choose to be.  So we can move wherever would be best for my family, if necessary.

That, to me, would be a success.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Weekly update: November 29th to December 5th

Weekly word count: 3800
Editing countdown: final polishing done, edits sent in

It's been nice to finish up with the edits for Metamorphosis and get started on Inquisition again.  I've been in touch with a few correctional officers and from what they've told me, I'm rewriting my first three chapters.  I don't think it will change where I want the story to go, but the framework I'd set up wasn't right, at least in relation to the parts in the prison.

ORWA had its' December meeting, with a great presentation on Scrooge's character arc in A Christmas Carol.  For those who haven't read the book, the Muppet version is a great adaptation.  Dickens really is a master of the 5 act structure.  It's all set up perfectly: the introduction to Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, the Ghost of Christmas Future and Scrooge's redemption.  (Sorry, I know that's a spoiler, but I'm assuming most people are passingly familiar with the story.)

It was great getting to see everyone, even though I'm now starting to feel the nerves about my own workshop in January.  (January 10th at 2pm at Centrepoint, Ben Franklin Place, if you're in the Ottawa area!)

2015 is rapidly drawing to a close.  Overall, I think it's been a pretty good year and I'm proud of what I've accomplished. 

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Dealing With Predators

A few weeks ago I began receiving private messages on Facebook from various men who all began by telling me how beautiful they found me and how they felt there was a deep personal and spiritual connection between us.  It got to the point where I was receiving so many that I felt uncomfortable.  Obviously something brought me to their attention.

Now, the simplest solution would be to unfriend them and avoid friending anyone I don't personally recognize.  But I don't want to do that.  I am on Facebook because I want to attract attention and connect with people outside my personal circle, but as a writer, not on any kind of romantic basis.

I don't bear them any ill will (irritation is another matter).  I get it's a long day in Nigeria or wherever and there's absolutely nothing personal about their efforts.  They're looking for vulnerable people they can scam out of money.  I'm not a good target in that a) I'm not vulnerable, b) I have a sense of humour and a grounded sense of reality and c) I have no money to send them even if a and b didn't apply.

It did get me thinking, however.  Especially when I came across another pair of articles: Gretchen Kelly's post on how women automatically de-escalate and dismiss a variety of offensive and predatory behaviour and Liz Goodman's account of a man sexually harassing her 13 year old daughter in front of her.

I was lucky (sort of).  I had an awkward phase which lasted well into my thirties (and one could argue is still happening).  I didn't get the sort of attention which Gretchen Kelly describes, at least not with any kind of frequency.  But I still had all the lessons drilled into me about always calming the situation down: make a joke, walk away, or apologize.

My first reaction on reading Liz Goodman's account was that she should teach her daughter some key jokes to make potential jerks back off in a hurry.  (I'm an undercover police officer, I'm the real life inspiration for Fatal Attraction, and my personal fave: mention that you have some kind of surgical scar leaking fluids.)  But that's no guarantee, which is also why I'd also recommend a good self-defence class.

That's when it hit me, I'm doing the exact same thing that Gretchen Kelly is talking about.  When the messages on Facebook got uncomfortable, I posted a joke about how disappointed they'd be when they found out I didn't have any money.  I did it deliberately to get them to back off.  (In retrospect, perhaps I ought to have started demanding money from them ... opportunity lost.)

I'm not sure where the answer is.  De-escalation is almost always safer than angry confrontation.  A jerk who is willing to leer and grab at a clearly unwilling target is not likely to have an after-school-special reaction to a lecture on decency.  For most predators, the method is not important, it's the act of exerting power which they enjoy.  And they're usually much more comfortable with escalating than their targets.

In a story, I can wither predators with my witty repartee, I can defeat them in a flurry of perfectly timed kicks and punches.  I'm never lost for words or tactically outmaneuvered.  In a story, I can always win.

But I don't get to write the final drafts of life.  Which means I have to be a little more cautious when dealing with predators out there.  But rest assured, in my head, I'm kicking ass.