Category Archives: Writing Life

A Room without Books…

Brattle Books landscape

A room without books is like a body without a soul.” —Marcus Tullius Cicero

Let’s set aside the fact that this beloved quote which adorns countless magnets, tote bags, posters, etc., is falsely interpreted. Yes, Cicero said something like this—sort of—but the attitude toward books and who handled them was very different in ancient Rome, and really cannot be compared to our modern sensibilities.

But I digress. Which is easy to do when your personal library is packed into boxes (my apologies to the movers who have to haul them) and put into storage. There have been so many times in the past few weeks in which I started to work on a story and thought, “Oh, I need to verify that fact,” and reached over…to be reminded the bookcase was missing. Or I decide to make Saveur’s French farmhouse chicken in vinegar sauce. I walk to the kitchen to get the cookbook, and oh yeah, those are gone, too.

Sure, much of it can be looked up online, such as the Saveur recipe. If my writing is connected to history, I can find the complete writings of authors of the ancient world online. It’s not a huge deal, really, in the grand scheme of things. But with all the complications that come with buying and selling a house at the same time, and six weeks to go before the moving extravaganza occurs, it can feel disorienting, frustrating, and, at times, overwhelming.

The Muse has been fluttering about my imagination, impatient to return. There have been a few pages of scribble in my journal—though horror upon horrors, my fountain pen ink was packed, so when this cartridge runs dry, I have to (gasp) use a regular pen. Or maybe buy more cartridges, if I can find my way through the labyrinth of seven-foot snowbanks to get to Bob Slate Stationer in Harvard Square.

Living in a perfectly staged house has been fun. It’s clean all the time. Over time, though, finding the simplest of things: hairbrush, slippers, laundry basket, all tucked away at the last minute before a showing, go missing and recovering them is a challenge on par with the memory game played by so many kids. It gets tiresome. Buying and selling homes simultaneously tests your problem-solving skills on an intense level. All too often, I’m distracted by the next challenge that has popped up: something needs to be fixed and we need to get bids for the project immediately, or a form needs to be signed and filed right away and I have to dig for some obscure bit of information.

Photo credit: Christine Frost

Photo credit: Christine Frost

So what do I read these, other than The Economist? Only 5 actual books remain: Two old Norton anthologies of literature looking for a good home, an out-of-date atlas from 1990, and a massive dictionary. I eased into the realm of ebooks easily enough. Half of what I read—at least—is in the form of ebooks, the dragging commute of the notorious MBTA being the main supplier of time to kill. Immersing yourself in a good read is an excellent pastime when surrounded by your fellow crabby commuters. Like many avid readers, though, I still appreciate the feel of a real book in my hands. George R. R. Martin’s World of Ice and Fire is a treasure to hold. This Silmarillion-like tome is the only “actual” book left I’m actively reading. The dictionary, like the atlas and anthologies, will wait for some spring evening, when they can be placed on the stoop for passersby to pick up—a common fate for many books in the Greater Boston area.

As much as I love my real books, some have fallen from favor. My stained and tattered Roget’s Thesaurus seems feeble compared to PowerThesaurus. Online dictionaries are updated frequently. When it comes to reference books, the online versions have won.

Several times I’ve seen an announcement of a new release and thought about whether I’d prefer the paper version. I meandered around Porter Square Books and had a long internal debate about picking up a signed copy of Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection. Then I thought, “It’s one more thing to pack.” The book stayed on the shelf.

The Great Purge of Clutter which led to the Perfectly Staged House was a great exercise in getting used to living without things. I have a tremendous appreciation for the open space, but living without the books has proven to be one of the biggest challenges. Even when I don’t need them, just passing by a shelf and seeing a favorite title makes me smile.

I’m looking forward to that day (well, days—let’s be honest) when I’m unpacking books with my husband in our new dual-library at the new house. We’ve already decided to name them and get plaques for them, á la Harvard endowment style—the Frost-Garcia Library and the Garcia-Frost Library. It will be a new, sun-filled sanctuary.

When the Muse Flees

The Muse by Eddi van W, via Creative Commons 2.0

The Muse by Eddi van W, via Creative Commons 2.0

The next novel is underway. All the ideas are there. I think about it all the time. So why the radio silence from the Muse for the past month?

I’d like to think I handle change well. I’ve certainly had plenty of it, both good and bad. Ever since my now-husband moved in with me, we knew my condo was too small for the two of us. It was a special place. I came here after my first marriage failed and it has been a sanctuary ever since: three novels were written and published from here. Several short stories penned and published. From here, I got my master’s degree—I have stark memories of donning my robes at 4:30 in the morning and walking to the T to get to Harvard’s graduation ceremony. I was so tired it hurt. People walking their dogs or jogging smiled as we passed each other on Somerville’s community path. The past 11 years have been so meaningful here, but it just isn’t the right space anymore.

Onward. Finding a single family home in Boston has its challenges. Fortunately, I have a great team in place to help with the transition. But the time it takes to view listings and compute all the logistics of commuting, place bids in a highly competitive market, and prepare my own place to go on the market is immense. The stress is also immense. There is no room left for the Muse.

I had just finished editing the 125 pages I had for the new novel, and was well underway in getting the chapter outline revised. After looking at the first set of houses, the Muse said, “That’s it. I’m out of here. See you when you settle in somewhere else, wherever that may be.”

And gone. I can’t even get up the gumption to write in a journal.

It’s not helping the insomnia. My walks to the T used to be occupied by developing characters and plotlines. Now my mind is occupied by the impact of property taxes on square footage, comparing commuting options, and figuring out how much of my current household I can put in storage so that the condo looks nice and open when it goes on the market.

As a creative person, it feels terribly strange not to have that source of inspiration being generated all the time. Even in the worst of circumstances, maybe especially because of the worst of circumstances, I kept writing. Creativity helps alleviate stress for me. So why did the Muse flee? Should I beat myself up over it, or take another look at the calendar and put it into perspective? After all, in a couple of months, this will all be settled and I’ll be happily writing again in a new space. But meanwhile, I’m contending with a massive guilt trip, laying tons of drama on myself about not writing, which probably does nothing to inspire the Muse to return.

Everyone needs a break from time to time, right? Even Muses. “Out of chaos comes a star,” a coworker once told me years ago when I was upset about another perfect storm of life-transforming events.

So posts are prone to be sporadic over the next few weeks. Soon enough, the Muse will be pleased with new surroundings that enhance creativity all the more.

Dream of a Journey Appears in Eternal Haunted Summer

Image credit: David Revoy via Creative Commons 3.0

Image credit: David Revoy via Creative Commons 3.0

Every now and again, something comes along that you know is going to click. Google+ has been an invaluable resource when it comes to advancing my work in the publishing world. In 2013, it was with a call for submissions to an anthology called Shadows of a Fading World by Long Count Press. A collection of dying earth stories, it’s a mash-up of fantasy and post-apocalyptic fiction. When I saw the post on Googe+, I knew I had just the thing—an epic series that I wanted to resurrect from my days obsessing over it in high school, but it needed a lot of work. A short story was a perfect way to test the waters and see if the concept was viable. It was, and I was thrilled to have the short story version included in the anthology.

While searching for literary journals and magazines this year, I happened across a link that led me to Eternal Haunted Summer, a pagan e-zine. Something clicked again. And a Muse was ready with inspiration.

Like many writers, I’ve long been fascinated by folklore and mythology. It seems to seep into many of my works. After reading some of the stories in Eternal Haunted Summer, I tried to decide what to write. As I often do, I gravitated to the Ancient Near East, and began working on a story that will eventually lead to a lengthy epic work á la Margaret George, but again, the short version served as a means to test the waters. I was delighted to learn that “Dream of a Journey” was published in the winter issue of the e-zine.

Set in Sumer just after Sargon the Great conquered the region, “Dream of a Journey” is a view into the world of Enheduanna, a priestess who is credited with being the first known author of the written word. It’s an exploration of light and dark forces, and the necessary balance. While the story opens with Enheduanna’s role in Sargon’s new empire, it comes to focus on her sister, who is destined to become a priestess in a city-state where the patron deity is of the Netherworld.

Say what you will about Google+–it is often mocked by people who don’t know it well. And it’s true that as a platform, it works well for some groups and not others: if you’re into independent publishing, it’s the place to be, in my opinion. The Writer’s Discussion Group is highly organized, full of intelligent conversation, and the community has a good sense of humor. APE: Author, Publishers, and Entrepreneurs, which focuses on Guy Kawasaki’s works, is another excellent resource for people serious about the publishing business. As in most good quality groups, spammers and whiners who often clog the newsfeed over at Facebook are not welcome. Promote your work elsewhere. Come for the knowledge, stay for the witty conversations. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my two favorite indie author organizations, the Independent Publishers of New England and the Alliance of Independent Authors. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of IPNE, so of course I think they’re great!)

If you’re an indie author seeking to make inroads: don’t limit your channels. Explore everything. Find new ways to be seen: join organizations, get published in literary magazines—they’re out there by the boatload online; tune in to resources like the Indies Unlimited blog to stay up-to-date on news and get tutorials on any number of topics. It’s the great Digital Age, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the tsunami of words—wield it to your will, and be open to any path that opens—you never know where your own words will be discovered.

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

lost__found_symposium

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.