Category Archives: Writing Life

Draft Zero

Participant-2014-Web-Banner

I was having lunch with a writer-friend recently, and she mentioned a great term that helped me put NaNoWriMo into sharper context: Draft Zero.

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month since 2011. In each case, I’ve cut the majority of the manuscript once November passed. I wrote more than 56,000 words for the initial round of my third novel, Whiskey and Rue, and only 6,000 of those words made it into the final version that was published. Some writers panic at the thought of extensive revisions. I used to as well.

The value of a 30-day freewriting session became clear while reviewing Whiskey and Rue. Carefully thinking out each scene can be restrictive. Any online writing forum, be it a group on Facebook or Google+ or elsewhere (I miss you, Scribophile—I hope to come back soon!), will have debates between “plotters and pansters,” i.e., those who plot out every detail in their notes and those who just sit down and write. For most of my works, I’ve had detailed notes and chapter outlines. Whiskey and Rue is the first instance in which I didn’t. I attribute it to the wonders of NaNoWriMo.

During that 30-day frenzy, scenes came to life that I doubt would’ve appeared if I had stuck to my meticulously crafted chapter outline. Some of the inspiration was from my own Muse; some of it came from prompts from the NaNo Sprints Twitter account. Their often funny prompts spawned a handful of quirky ideas that somehow fit right into the novel. A writing challenge on Chuck Wendig’s blog provided me with the last three pages of the story. It’s a puzzle that formed in sections. If I ran out of ideas for a chapter, I moved on. I leapt ahead whole chapters to capture a scene that would fit in sooner or later. But the end result of NaNoWriMo—not really a first draft.

My friend’s concept described it perfectly—you can’t read draft zero through as a complete arc. It’s a series of ideas that eventually coalesce into a real draft. For me, it takes three real drafts before I feel ready to show it to beta readers and editors. Draft zero is shown to no one.

Draft zero is a mess.

You pick through the pieces—finding the gems among the dross—and save them.

It isn’t wasted time. None of the discarded words are. All practice is beneficial, even when you don’t save much of it. It’s the same with sketching for me, though I (regrettably) practice that much less.

Draft zero can be the source of the best kind of inspiration; it just needs work. Veteran authors implore, admonish, and plead for new writers to be patient and work through several revisions before self-publishing. And I have to admit, when I see the special offers for publishing newly scribbled works right after NaNo is over, I cringe. Better to focus on the special offers for editorial services. A manuscript critique. Something that shows the process of the writing life for real.

For me, there are always works in various stages of development. There is at least one draft zero to pick up when it’s ready. A manuscript in full form, going through a first deep edit. There’s always something to work on, and it’s great to be able to shift gears and work on another novel when I realize it’s time to give a work a time-out for a while.

Draft zero may need to live in your desk drawer—okay, old phrase—may need to live in the cloud—for a long time before you can work on it again. Like a barren planet being terraformed, or a peaty single malt scotch (I’m looking at you, Lagavulin!), draft zero needs time to reach the perfect state of being. No matter what, whether you hit that 50K or not at the end of the month, draft zero has the potential to be a winner.

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

Lost and Found: A Writer’s Guide to Navigation

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Every so often, an event comes along that is incredibly interesting and while it has nothing in particular to do with a novel I’m working on, I know the notes I’ll take will find their way into my writing—sometime. The Radcliffe Institute’s science symposium about navigation, Lost and Found, is a perfect example.

In a word—this symposium was intense. It started out with presentations on neuroscience. One of the more accessible portions was the work of Eleanor Maguire, who studied the growth of the hippocampus in taxi drivers from training onward through their careers. As a result of memorizing London’s 25,000 streets, the hippocampus grew, and MRIs revealed brain activity as the drivers planned and dealt with unexpected obstacles using a simulation program. Upon retirement, the hippocampus began to shrink, and returned to average size within two to three years. Maguire’s research further demonstrated that people who say they have a poor sense of direction typically fall into a category of people who are able to recognize landmarks, but are unable to place them on a map. In contrast, people who find their way around well were able to draw detailed maps after playing a video game called Fog World. Maguire won an IgNobel award for her research in 2003. Though the IgNobels make light of a lot of research, there was also a good deal of appreciation for what she had discovered about brain function and the ability to navigate.

What followed were presentations on animal navigation and anthropological studies of migrations of people living in the South Pacific; then we were on to two of the most interesting lectures: lost person behavior, and navigation in outer space.

It was these afternoon sessions I found a lot of inspiration as a writer. Professor Richard Feinberg talked about the different types of tools used by cultures: the Carolinian star compass, the wind compass, star paths, and so on. Whether you’re portraying a real human culture and need your seafaring characters to know the trade winds as they cross the ocean, or characters in a fantasy world are trying to determine how to find their way to a land they’ve only heard about in legend, there were a lot of great details that could help shape how your characters journey in known and unknown lands.

The most dynamic presentation of the day was about lost person behavior. There are tons of novels and movies about people being lost, or trying to find someone. Did you know there is a database of more than 100,000 people that characterizes their behavior based on the data collected by search and rescue teams?

Birch_Islands_Maine

After obtaining information about all the wheres: Is it known where the person went? Have they been lost before. If so, where were they found? Where have other people been found if they have been lost in the same area? Is the person a hiker, angler, mushroom forager, or straying child? Once an initial planning point (IPP) has been determined, such as where the person’s abandoned bicycle was found, search efforts begin in earnest. The person’s cognitive abilities provide a wealth of detail that help search and rescue teams: Alzheimer’s patients tend to stick within 15 meters of roads or paths, and usually stop wandering in a short time. Autistic children are often drawn to light, water, and reflective surfaces. There are distinct patterns that emerge ass data continues to be collected. There are specific phases f being lost: (1) The error at the Decision Point, (2) terrain analysis, (3) confirmation bias, or “bending the map,” where people ignore the obvious signs they’re on the wrong track and are convinced they know where they’re going, (4) phase of anxiety, (5) realization of being lost, and (6) the self-rescue strategy, of which there are many.

Self-rescue strategies involve everything from deciding to stay in a straight line to finding contour paths that reach a wider area, or, staying put and hoping to be found. And over the years, statistics have changed due to technology. In the past, most hikers headed down, with only a few staying at the same elevation, and a good percentage heading up to get a view of the vista in order to find the best path out. Now many hikers head up to a higher elevation to find cell phone service.

These known patterns help establish several strategies for finding people, and the maps of probability are based on these behaviors. Robert J. Koester, the presenter of this amazing information, has written several books on the subject. If being lost is at the heart of your plot, you may want to seek these books out to make the lost person’s behavior, and that of the rescue team’s, more realistic.

The final session of the day was perfect fodder for sci-fi fans. With the study of pulsars, we have learned that they can serve as a sort of GPS. In fact, the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes carry plaques suggested by Carl Sagan, to serve as a beacon to show any spacefaring alien life the way to Earth. (Of course, if you’re a fan of Douglas Adams, you know this could be a very bad idea, if the Volgons show up to read their poetry before blasting your planet into pieces to build a galactic superhighway.)

Pioneer10-plaque_tilt

The solar system at the bottom of the plaque is obvious. But the star-like graph to the left? It maps 14 pulsars that were known at the time of the plaque’s creation, and they position Earth at the center. Presenter George Hobbs talked about how time and position could theoretically be used as a GPS system in space, if a ship could map at least 4 pulsars. It was fascinating to think of how this could be used in fiction. My fourth novel does have space travel in it, but only as far out as Mars and the asteroid belt. But thinking about using pulsars as a means of navigation made me want to send my characters out even further into the galaxy.

Pulsar NASA

I’ve always been a strong supporter of continuing education, and believe it’s a key component for writers, regardless of genre or writing style. There is a traditional image of writers being sequestered away in their garrets, writing manically and producing book after book. But for practicality’s sake, many of us need careers to support our craft. Publishing houses offer little in the way of advances for a vast majority of authors, and even in the indie world, being discovered by readers on a scale of being able to live off the royalties is a challenge. Indeed, there are those who say authors need to be connected to the world—the awesome blog run by the Alliance of Independent Authors made this point recently.

There are endless, free resources out there for authors to use. And symposia such as these are of immense benefit to all kinds of writers.

Open Access and Harvard’s DASH Project

HAA Open Access lecture A revolution is quietly taking place in libraries. Challenges to copyright law grow as the importance in sharing research in the Digital Age becomes evident. The high cost of peer-reviewed journals is breaking library budgets. As with the traditional publishing model, there is a great need for change in order to maintain a sustainable model. Open access is the key to this in academic research. A couple of weeks ago, I attended an event hosted by the Harvard Alumni Association where two advocates of Open Access talked about the university’s DASH project. DASH collects scholarly articles, theses, and dissertations from across the university’s schools. To date, more than 19,000 works can be searched, viewed, and downloaded. Started in 2009, DASH’s global reach has grown significantly. Articles and theses have been downloaded more than 3 million times. The contents of the projects are indexed by major search engines like Google. People from around the world share accounts of how DASH has helped them, and DASH solicits these testimonials on every download. For example, a person wrote to say they had found vital information to bring to the doctor to find a treatment that may be more effective. The doctor agreed, and the experience provided a successful outcome. Open Access One of the speakers, Peter Stuber, is director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communications and director of the Open Access Project. Harvard is the first university to adopt an open access policy, and the faculty vote was unanimous. At least 50 other university have adopted Harvard’s model, and more are doing so all the time. Faculty have the option to opt out of sharing their work, but many see the value that has previously not been possible in peer-reviewed journals. Unlike expensive journals that have a limited reach, making research openly available enhances scrutiny and the ability to check the reproducibility of results. Outside of the academic world, policymakers, journalists, nonprofits, and citizens from anywhere in the world can view and use the research for their own purposes. Peter Struber’s book on the topic, Open Access, is (of course) freely available on DASH, and well worth the read. Kyle Courtney, an attorney affiliated with the Harvard Library and the Office of General Counsel, talked about the inaugural Fair Use Week, which took place from Feb. 24 to 28 of this year, and will go national in 2015. The future of libraries lies in digitization, and as the ambitious efforts of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) have shown, a thorough review and reform of copyright law is essential to the future of libraries and academic institutions. Newly staffed with a “copyright first responders” team, Harvard Libraries now provide guidance to those seeking insight into open access. And as with DPLA, the biggest challenged is with orphaned works—books whose authors (or rights holders) or publishers are unreachable, and the copyright is indeterminate. This is one of the key issues to be resolved. Open Access lecture 2 How has DASH come in handy for me as an author? My “How Do They Feast?” series delves into how food is portrayed in fiction. Cooking is a passion, and I love to be able to feature food in my stories. I believe it helps readers connect to the stories, and I love the challenge of accurately showing the cuisine of a particular culture. I have a novel set in the Ancient Near East in the works, and a preliminary search on the term “culinary” gave me a paper on the early advances in agricultural life in Sumer. Avoiding anachronism is all that much easier when you can see what food people had access to. A search on Mesopotamia in general gave me access to several papers by scholar Jason Ur (students of Mesopotamian history will get the irony of his surname). The release of formerly classified images from satellites show roads and locations that were not known. Dozens of other papers in this topic can help me better establish the cities, culture, war, and trade in ancient Sumer. It’s an amazing resource that will help everyone collaborate and learn in new ways, and is one of the highlights of innovation in the Digital Age. Go check it out—and see how it can help you. *And in addition to DASH, you can also scroll down to the right sidebar on this site and search what’s available in the DPLA’s archives as well. Many thanks to the DPLA for developing this useful and widely sharable app! 

NoNaNoWriMo

Camp 2014-Participant-Twitter-Header-1

When I first started participating in NaNoWriMo, I had unrealistic visions of participating every time. When camp NaNo branched into two, I was overjoyed. Three months to plow through novels—how great—just think of how much I’ll get done!

Not so much.

I’ve learned that NaNoWriMo has its uses, and for 2014, it doesn’t fit into my plan. Here’s why:

It’s a great tool for brainstorming. I spent all day yesterday at the Harvard Leadership Conference, learning about design thinking and how to implement it in coming up with innovative solutions. It was an intensive day of panel discussions and workshops, and I got a tremendous amount out of it. Basically, design thinking incorporates empathy as an element into resolving problems, and is followed by a layered brainstorming sessions where idea upon idea is sketched out—even to ridiculous, counterproductive ideas so that your mind is pushed down new paths. These new paths can offer solutions that may never come to mind if you try to solve the problem in a linear way. I realized NaNoWriMo has been my sandbox for design thinking.

As the final keynote ended (and amazing talk by former astronaut Ron Garan, accompanied by stunning footage he’s taken from space), I checked my email to see invitations to join up for Camp NaNo 2014 in April. I logged in, thought about it, and said no to this round of NaNoWriMo.

I’ve been an open rebel the past couple of years. My first, in November 2011, was the only time I crafting something new from beginning to end. It’s the novel I’m currently working on, Whiskey and Rue, set in Tombstone around the time of the gunfight at OK Corral. Then I alternated between Whiskey and Rue and Lords of Kur, a novel I originally began in 1994, but I used NaNo to drastically change it.

NaNo is fantastic for first drafts and reworking novels that have lain dormant for many years. Characters change, scenes that otherwise wouldn’t have appeared with careful planning suddenly stand out as key passages in the story, and it can be a lot of fun to just let the stream of consciousness flow. Both of these novels require careful planning and focused writing now, and I can’t let myself get distracted by trying to work on something new. I’m already behind on getting Whiskey and Rue to the editorial stage.

That isn’t to say I’m not sorry to miss out this year. I am. I enjoy the focused time to write with abandon. I’ll be there in spirit, on my walks to and from the T to get to work, thinking about the novels to come.

The (Wine-Fueled) Journey of a Book Cover

Oh, why have you abandoned me?

Oh, why have you abandoned me?

My Muse and I haven’t been on great terms for the past few weeks. With the release of the Shadows of a Fading World anthology and the novelette Captured Possessions, I foundered, even though the third novel is well underway. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to resurface from this artistic void and finish the story. Maybe it was time to move on to something else? I wiled away the hours playing Oblivion and thought about working on other stories. As my husband and mom both pointed out, even Hemingway took a break from time to time. After all, I work full-time, am involved in a number of volunteer activities, and am running the PR for my own imprint. Finally, the characters of the third novel came back to me, even stronger than before.

In recent weeks, I’ve appeared on Wendy Van Camp’s No Wasted Ink blog, and have become hooked on searching for my family tree on Ancestry.com. What began as a trip to the town where my great-grandmother grew up has sprouted into a new novel, and while I’m still in early stages of research, it’s brought me a lot closer to my family history—something I didn’t pay much attention to before.

To be fair to the Muse of Words, in order to release Captured Possessions, I had to come up with a cover, so the Muse of Graphic Design had to take center stage for a while. I had long envisioned a certain image as I worked on the story: Eyes of flame looming in the clouds above a dark sea—either becalmed before or after a storm. I was so certain of this image that I bought the images from a stock photo site. However, when I got around to working with them in PhotoShop, the cover looked nowhere near as good as I had hoped.

What followed was a lot of silly mayhem. I tested and bought numerous images—some were ridiculous but I couldn’t resist trying them out. Then a new vision struck: at first, I saw a close-up of a galleon’s rigging, the words emblazoned around it. I found several excellent images of galleons from the time of Spain’s war with England. Just as I was about to give up (it being after 1:00 a.m. and there was enough pinot noir to knock out a sailor)—the perfect image appeared. It spoke to the lead character and how alone she felt throughout the journey north to England, as well as showing the abandonment of the ship she was on after it was severely damaged after an explosion from a nearby ship within the armada itself.

Here’s the story of how I got there:

If you design book covers, what’s your process like? How drastically different are the covers that come to mind, or do you stick with one image and see it through no matter what? Do you share your ideas out on social media channels to gauge interest (or have contests to help decide), or do you rely on your inner circle of people who know your writing best? Which book covers have you found to be the most striking, and why?

Wall of Spam

Photo credit: freezelight via flickr

Photo credit: freezelight via flickr

One of my favorite Facebook groups for authors recently announced a culling of its population. Its numbers swelled into the thousands, there were problems with people who used the group just to spam the newsfeed, and there were many who never participated. The announcement sparked a connection to an article I read on Hubspot about gray mail—things you sign up for but then pay no attention to. How much email do you get from retailers, newsletters you signed up for but have had no time to read, or digests of groups you belong to on LinkedIn, Google+, etc.?

Periodically, I go into my own culling phases. I unsubscribe from a bunch of emails or social media notifications. But I’ve rarely touched my list of Facebook groups. I decided to take a look and see what I was missing out on. It was a lesson in marketing and engagement.

Several groups stated noble missions: critique groups, working groups to talk about best practices in writing, formatting, and marketing—yet—there was none of it on the group’s very busy page. It was one ad after another: Free for today!, some proclaimed. Buy this, buy this, buy this! It was an endless stream. And what was most remarkable about them? Not a single like or comment. Nada. Zip. Zero. And sadly, often the accompanying imagery was amateurish, the ads pepped with typos. It’s the kind of thing that gives the self-righteous types who condemn self-publishing all the fodder they need to bolster their argument. It’s just spam and go. How effective is this sales technique? Not very, I guess.

Thought leaders in the indie author movement offer a range of best practices, advising against filling your social media channels with self-promoting spam. Soft marketing is more successful. Offer thoughtful content that supports what you do. If you write historical fiction, then talk about why certain people or periods of time inspired you, or how you find reliable research, and so on. Promotions should be at a minimum. In the Facebook groups I like best, there is either no promotion whatsoever, or it’s kept restricted to specific threads. The controlled invitations to announce new works or sales actually generate conversation, because the group is regularly engaged in discussions and relationships have been formed. Still, the spikes in sales are small. Guest posts, however, have been more successful, and that too is about building relationships.

There are plenty of indie authors out there who excel at offering intriguing content: sharing their success stories, their inspiration, their experience in transitioning from traditional publishing to indie. Establishing a platform takes time and a lot of effort, and has to be carefully balanced with actually writing. Too often I hear writers lament the lack of time, yet their Twitter feed is loaded with pleas to buy their book.

Take a step back and see who does this well: Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright do the awesome Self-Publishing Podcast every Thursday. Read the blogs of Chuck Wendig (and if you really want to delve in, buckle yourself in and read Chuck’s NSFW post on the erreruption of the self-pub slush pile. It’s one of the best descriptions of the market today, but it’s a curse-filled rant. You’ve been warned.), J.A. Konrath, and anyone else who fits the bill of content over promotion. According to the Economist, the average American sees more than 3,000 ads per day. It’s a tsunami out there. Innovation with a mind to establishing connections is the key to success, but again, this has to be done thoughtfully, and this digital age, the tactics change all the time. Using the social space should be just that: being social.

Compelled by Pen and Paper: A Tribute to My Brother

Me and Matthew, circa 1993, in Worcester, MA

It began in elementary school. Stuck in the classroom for recess on a rainy day, I collected a pile of paper, both lined and plain, and stapled it to create my first book. I wrote and illustrated a story from cover to cover. I don’t remember what it was about, but I always indulged in the dark side. I loved ghost stories, and the Count on Sesame Street was a likely point of origin for my fascination with vampires. My second-grade teacher was not so appreciative. I was told my book was a waste of paper. So much for encouraging creativity. That was in 1977.

Since then, stories have ebbed and flowed continuously—I never stopped creating my little stapled books in elementary school. I eventually switched to the blue nooks given out for tests. I ran out of pages as my inspiration grew—I moved on to bound journals with decorative covers and thick spiral notebooks. By high school, I was immersed in fantasy trilogies such as Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, the Dragonlance series, and Lord of the Rings. A longtime fan of Dungeons and Dragons and White Wolf’s Vampire series, as well as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, I created my own worlds and alternate universes, complete with maps, languages, illustrations, and so on.

In 1987, I spent my senior year in what was then West Berlin—amidst my adventures in punk concerts and many kinds of beer, I completed the first book of a fantasy trilogy. In some cardboard box is the notebook, all handwritten, with watercolor paintings to illustrate the story.

My early years at UMass were focused on nonfiction. I missed Berlin, and avidly tried to commit every detail and memory to paper. It was the focus of most of my expository writing class. I never lost sight of the fantasy trilogies, but I wasn’t focused enough yet.

Then the unthinkable happened. In July 1994, my stepbrother was walking to work and was killed by a man driving too fast, who lost control of his car and crashed up over the sidewalk. My brother died instantly, inches away from his best friend. My world collapsed, and I turned to writing in order to survive the intensity of my grief.

Inspired by The Crow starring Brandon Lee, I created a dystopian world in which my brother could continue to exist. I changed his name, idealized him, made him a successful rouge, and the story rambled for more than 400 pages before I ran out of energy to keep it going. The plot was unfocused, and it kept me mired in sorrow. It was time to move on, and I began a new fantasy trilogy that he would have appreciated.

Then came graduate school and a disastrous marriage. Creativity, though not gone, was smothered. Four years passed. At the end of the marriage and the first grad degree, the Muse visited again. A short story I had written in that time stood out among the rest, but it was very different than it is now. It was a ten-page short story called Dracula’s Wife.

With my new life, I created in solitude. Each night after work, I wrote until midnight and beyond. I spent every weekend in, doing research. Three hundred pages each in first and third person, before I settled on first person. It became the focus of my master’s degree, and I traveled to Romania to continue my research. I tried getting published at a time when the traditional publishing industry was undergoing vast changes. Frustrated and impatient, I struck out on my own, forging my own path. Let the market decide, I insisted. So if you’re reading this, thank you. I’m grateful that you’ve found The Veiled Mirror, or one of the other stories.

In a sense, every book I write is dedicated to my brother. We were inseparable for years—both loving the same kinds of stories. He was a brilliant artist, on his way to becoming quite well-known in the world of graphic novels and books for role playing games—old White Wolf tomes display his art—if you see the name Matthew Korteling, that’s him. We promised to help each other—I’d help write his stories, develop ideas, and he would do illustrations for mine.

MBK 1994 Wall

New novels are underway, some resurrected from older versions. A long list is stationed by my computer, reminding me of how important it is to stay focused. No matter how busy I am, I always find time to write. And the characters my brother drew, framed and in each room of my home, smile down upon me.

(Originally published October 2010)