MFA Update: Preparing My First Peer Piece

When I chose my MFA program (btw, got in everywhere all my paperwork made it in!), I had a matter of a few weeks to turn in my first writing. I had a few pieces I could polish up and submit, and in theory I could have waited for inspiration to hit (as it surely did) and start something totally fresh.

But I’ve been kicking around a piece about a pedophile who raises the girls he kidnaps in a cellar, and a detective inspector who has spent over a decade obsessively hunting him, off books, as the kidnappings he was brought in on are now cold cases. He rakes over the coals whenever it haunts him, looking for some spark, and then two more girls are taken. I even wrote a few chapters.

My writing has come a long way since I first envisioned this novel, a few years ago, and I decided my first look at the case was from the wrong angle. I was using the eyes of the DS to see the obsessive DI objectively, but it’s not from her that we get the emotion. She’s important to seeing him clearly, but if the reader is going to feel the desperation to find the girls, they need to get it from the DI. So I did something I almost never do: I rewrote the first chapter.

One of the most fun things about the rewrite is that I added in a dream sequence. Dream sequences are a fabulous tool because they allow the writer to bend reality without asking the reader to suspend disbelief. Tidbits of past information can be squeezed in without lengthy dialogue or narration, and without a flashback sequence. Dreams are more fun, more visceral, and about a million times more interesting. So instead of introducing the case and the police aspect through discussion and narration at the station, I gave my DI a dream sequence and a brief, non-descriptive conversation with his son before work.

I’ll keep y’all posted on how it goes!

Cheers

C

Shelving: 2017 Edition

I decided to take advantage of re-shelving my books to organize them in a more intuitive manner than just alphabetical by author, and non-fiction alphabetical by title. After all, a multi-tiered system well-formed now will save me time in the future, right?

Probably.

As with any undertaking, I did an internet search to see if someone had ideas or articles on ways to make my job easier. I looked for how to organize a bookshelf, and I saw all kinds of pictures – of sparse bookshelves with maybe a dozen books and as many trinkets around them. The deeper I looked, the less functional the shelves were, and I was getting increasingly frustrated.

I mean, what d’you think we call them bookshelves for?

I searched for how to organize a bookshelf with a lot of books, and I got a few better ideas, although it was still about beauty over functionality, making sure you “balanced” the shape of the shelf, or having all the spines organized for the color of the rainbow. The issue with these kinds of shelving options, as many people attested, was finding the books you wanted/needed later. Especially if you have hundreds of books, like me.

First of all, no matter how you decide to organize your books, you need to know the important way to find where books are and where to put them back later: Keep an inventory in shelving order. Seems obvious now I’ve said it, but NOBODY mentioned that in the articles/blogs/etc. that I read. I opted to use Evernote for this, making a Notebook for my book catalogue and separate notes for fiction and nonfiction, as this is my major distinction.

Fiction

My first secondary distinction was separating out the series and author collections from the rest of my books. A series is any collection trilogy or larger (if I have three or have any intention of gathering three or more books in the series), and an author collection is three or more books by a single author. Largely, these collections are by the same author, or two authors in the case of the Left Behind books, but there are exceptions. My Dear America and Royal Diaries collections have multiple authors, and I’ve organized these by year of events depicted, and then alphabetically by title if two books happen in the same year. Otherwise, series are organized in series order, and other books are organized alphabetically by title. This took about six shelves – all my traditional shelving. The way I’d shelved previously, this area is most of what my fiction covered, plus half the desk.

Then I separate the books out by genre, where practical. Plays, poems, crime, historical fiction, romance, youth, etc. Anything that’s not a classic that I can slip into a category. These take up around two thirds of the desk, which is a little over a shelf’s worth of space.

After that, I took the classics and divided them by country. If a country had five or more different works, it had its own section, divided alphabetically first by continent, then by country. So, the UK, Russia, and America have their own sections. All Anthologies are included in classics (for the sake of convenience) and are arranged alphabetically, and then within the “other” classics, books are organized by this same alphabetical structure.

Non-fiction

By the time I had the classics sorted, I was already out of traditional shelving. I had to use the top of my dresser, and the top of a giant Rubbermaid container in my closet. When I started in on the non-fiction, I was fast running out of non-traditional shelf space already set aside for books.

I started with series-related non-fiction. This included Doctor Who books, books about Tolkien’s creations, and books about J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. Not too many books, but they take up some space. Beside them, I put my history books (may and sundry) organized by time period, and I ran out of space in my closet from there.

I went to the giant Rubbermaid container under my desk, the full extent of my previously-used non-traditional shelf space, and I put the history books organized by place, and my religious texts. I almost fit all of my religious texts until…. I reached the wall and still had nowhere to put my Gnostic Bible.

At this point – obviously – I began to panic slightly. Cleaning my room has never been a pleasant task, and I begin to find myself in a world where it’s possible there’s not enough room for all my books in my personal living space. This is nonsensical to me, and yet it was growing into a reality. My sister offered to keep some of my books in her room, but I just blinked at her, puzzled and confused as to why she thought this was a solution.

And then, my old adage hit me: “I had to choose between clothes and books, and I chose books.”

I thought that was true when I took clothes off the shelf and stacked books in my closet, but never was it truer than when I did this round of cleaning. I took ALL the clothes out of my chest of drawers and have turned them into a creative shelving option.

You may ask where my clothes are going. I don’t know yet. Some will fit on top of or behind books – little things like socks and underwear, and maybe some pajamas. Dresses and skirts should still fit in the closet. Otherwise…. Well, your guess is as good as mine, but I don’t really have that many clothes I wear. This was just a prompt to get rid of a lot of things I’ve been hanging onto by virtue of out of sight, out of mind.

Approve or disapprove of my creative shelving? Any other space-saving book shelving techniques you’ve used to combat a too-small-room problem?

Cheers,

C

Cleaning My Bookshelf

I have an important life philosophy, and it goes something like this:

If my room is a mess, I clean and organize my bookshelf. In the process, my room will become clean and organized.

How am I so certain this will work?

Because a stack of books already removed from my room for sorting and dusting takes up about a quarter of the living room (much larger than my bedroom), and it’s MAYBE a third of my books. Maybe.

Dusting books is very important, both for their health and quality and for my health and sanity. However, I’ve been putting it off for MONTHS, probably more than a year, now. This is because I know what an undertaking it is to get all my books on the shelf where they can be cleaned, and yet in the meantime, I keep collecting more and more books.

Even if your books aren’t taking over the entirety of your physical space, it’s important to keep your books organized, cleaned, and stored properly. Especially if you’re storing some of them horizontally, as you’ll need to rotate them to prevent warping. Allergies? Asthma? Make sure you’re dusting your books regularly with a clean, dry, microfiber cloth.

If you’re making the commitment to physical books, remember that it is a commitment, just like any other collection. And if you go through and realize you’ve got some books you don’t like, don’t want, or don’t read, perhaps it’s time to clear up space in your shelf for books you do want. Donate to a local library, or school library, or classroom library, or charity shop.

Cheers,

C

 

Dedication: A Three-Fold Word

We all like words, us writers. It’d be pretty tough to practice our craft without at least an affinity for them. But some of us LOVE words.

There are definitely words I try to use as often as possible: exsanguinate, mastication, things like that. I keep a list. But sometimes it’s the boring, everyday words we don’t give enough credit to.

Like Dedication.

Think about it: think of all the ways you do/might use this word.

  1. BOOKS: The first thing I think of with this word in this form is a book’s dedication. Sometimes, it’s a poignant thing. Sometimes, it’s a dangerous thing (like in an NCIS episode where a man gets his friends killed by dedicating his book to his lover).  Usually, it’s just a sweet gesture to family or friends, who made the process of writing the book bearable/quicker/pleasant/meaningful, etc. And for putting up with it all.
  2. PERSISTENCE: Someone once told me that persistence is an important leadership quality. Why is that? Well, it’s the people who dig their teeth in and don’t let go who find a way to get things done, where charm and panache and such won’t get you. Persistence earns respect, accomplishes things, etc. A friend of mine said she wanted to be an author, but she never took any novel project past chapter 5 before deciding she hated it and scrapping the whole idea. “That’s fine,” I told her, “but authors have to actually, you know, finish a project to be published.” That takes dedication.
  3. SET ASIDE: Kind of like a book’s dedication, I’m sure you’ve been told that it’s important to set aside time for writing. For many people, this is finding a set time every day to write. This works for most people, like finding time each day to exercise, or having a set dinner time. But if you’re at all like me, living in a world that requires change of plans and flexibility, with occasional and violent sparks of inspiration at the most inconvenient times, this kind of dedication might suit you: Dedicate a day. Yeah, I pull out my pen and scribble out thoughts when they come – and I’ve got notebooks dedicated to such things – and I do end up spending a bit of each day writing, but the bulk of my work is done on my dedicated writing day. One day a week, I take care of necessary things only (Bills to pay, emails that can’t wait, you know), and then I focus on one or more writing projects, immersing myself for long periods of time. I find this allows me to marinate in the ideas, and I don’t have the pressure of writing at the same time every day.

Dedication! It takes on all different kinds of forms. Try splashing some dedication into your writing, and think about those words you forget about.

What “ordinary” word is your favorite?

Cheers,

C

Writing Alternate History

In a new project I’ve taken on, working title The Time Tinker, I’ve been dabbling into some alternate history. This is something I’ve played with in the Fan Fiction realm, but never in real life.

Why?

Well, the history I’m most interested in isn’t what one might call ancient history. I’m particularly fascinated with people and events from the 60’s and 70’s, and forward from there. A historical “rule of thumb” that I feel too many people are ignoring these days is that history shouldn’t be written about until 50 years have passed, so you can gain perspective and have the most information compiled before passing any kind of judgment. You want a complete, unbiased picture.

Well, fifty years have passed since the 60’s, but beyond that? And writing alternative history often involves writing about high profile people, and in fiction you’re not really attempting to show them as they really were, necessarily, but a version that fits the story you’re telling. What if you offend their family, their fans, the actual people in question?

Some people? Not a big deal. But I’m going to write about the Beatles, Princess Di, Michael Jackson. Some of my artistic changes will be flattering, others not so much.

I finally decided, when the story wouldn’t stop unfolding in my head, that artists cannot be afraid to write the truth they see, knowing that it’s not going to be historical truth, and knowing that not everyone will be happy with it. The likelihood anyone actually related to these people will read my work is negligible, and if I am so lucky that my work would reach such heights, well, then it’ll probably have a lot of merit to back it up, won’t it? So they could hardly argue with the artistic vision.

And anyway, it’s fiction. Fiction isn’t about historical accuracy, or even accuracy of any kind. It gives us license to decide what details need to be correct and what details need to be how we see them in our heads. Sometimes, we need that house to be the actual house on the actual street in the actual city, right next to the river. Other times, the house is a fabrication of dreams and desires, in a hodge-podge of how the city should have been, with the river running around it in a curly-q.

You write the history you want to believe. Or the alternate history you want to believe. We are not historians.

Cheers,

C

Collaborative Writing

I’ve talked a bit before about writing with other people, but as Camp NaNo is coming up soon, I thought I’d revisit this theme.

There are two ways of writing collaboratively (okay, there are many, but two major ones). One is actually working on a piece together, the other is working on different pieces but bouncing ideas off each other. Both are useful for different kinds of work, and some cases of collaborative writing are age-old and almost legendary.

I mean, hello, Rogers and Hammerstein. Lewis and Tolkien.

That’s going to be my two examples, and just stay with me here. I know that musicals aren’t the same as novels.

We’ll start with Rogers and Hammerstein, though. What they did was work together, bringing different sets of skills in, and creating a single work of art. Musicians do this a lot, which is what makes musicals a great example. Think of jamming. You’ve got different pieces, but they all fit together to make one song (or album, or The Sound of Music).

A lot of my co-writing experiences thus far have been like this. Co-authored fan fiction with E. M. McBride and Natalie Cannon have looked very much this way, where we’ve brought our own voices and skills in, planned, and then executed a joint project to create a single work of art. It’s hard, it’s often time consuming, but it can create beautiful work when all’s said and done.

Another way, though, is the Camp NaNo way that Natalie (and other friends) and I are about to embark upon once again.

This is C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Inklings, their writerly group at Oxford, are fairly famous now. I’ve been to the pub where they often met and discussed their work. Think, like, a book club except it’s works in progress instead of someone else’s words.

Lewis and Tolkien would read from manuscripts, or their fellow writers would. Sometimes this was the nonfiction they wrote based on research, but famously it was bits of Middle-Earth or Narnia (among other fabulous fictional work) that no one else had read or heard yet. Some of the greatest literature ever written, and it started with a collaborative process.

Now, Tolkien didn’t write Narnia, and Lewis didn’t write any Middle-Earth, but they gave each other input, insights, and snarky remarks that were sometimes ignored, sometimes headed. In this way, a Camp NaNo cabin is a collaborative process.

My friends and I all have different projects. I’m finishing a novel, Natalie is focusing on finishing her portion of the chapters for our collaborative fan fiction (yup, she’s double dosing on collab), another friend is writing her Masters thesis, and thus is using Camp NaNo for that task. A third friend still hasn’t decided (although she doesn’t have long to choose…)

We’re all producing different projects, and even different kinds of projects, like the Inklings. But we’re supporting each other, and we have a platform for encouragement, shared thoughts, and a place to bounce ideas off each other. In some small way, we’re all co-writing. We won’t be listed as co-authors, but it’s arguably just as integral input as actual co-authoring.

Dedications, I suppose, at the very least.

Cheers,

C

A Light in Dark Places

Today, during my lunchtime Netflix viewing, I watched a Hugh Laurie film called Mr. Pip.

It was a good film. I know this because it made me cry repeatedly, and as we all know this is the most accurate measure of a film’s quality.

Anyway, among being about a war, it was basically a story of a young girl, and how her introduction to a Dickens novel (Great Expectations) not only changed her life, but may have even saved her and given her a fuller, more nuanced lens to consider and examine the world. It helped her go from being a girl to being a woman.

Those of us who love literature have a book we can point at, not necessarily as our favorite, but as a book that changed our life, the way we look at it, the way we live it. For me, I’ve made no secret of this being Anna Karenina, but this film got me thinking.

There’s a mixed view in the community of writers on how much to consider the reader when writing. Obviously, when creating art, you have to just be a vessel for what is inside of you to be shared. On the other hand, if you’re trying to create work that will be published, you have to consider your audience and ask questions about theme and maturity level of the reader.

But what about creating life-changing work? Do we ask ourselves those kinds of questions, or is that something that happens through our art if we do our best and have a spark of luck?

Obviously, I don’t have answers for these questions, but they’re floating around my head nonetheless.

Cheers,

C