Thursday, November 1, 2012

Trust The Process

I recently had a lovely conversation with a writing pal of mine about the genesis of stories and how they evolve over time. We agreed that most, if not all stories, begin as simply as tiny kernels of information or emotion. A snippet of a dream, a character's face, an emotional theme, a scent. I decided to look back at my original short story drafts for what has become The Bloodsong Swords. C. L. Kay Trust the Process text on wood background blog graphicI wrote the original draft in my first fiction writing class back in 2005. It was the telling of a dream that I had six years earlier. This dream was so unusually vivid, emotionally intense, and completely terrifying that I remembered every detail. A few years after graduation I resolved to focus on my passion for creating fiction and dug up some old short stories that I could edit and submit. One of them was this particular original draft which I entitled "Thirst."

I began my rewrites by fleshing out the formless parts and trimming down the ones full of fluff. One passage describes people climbing out of a limousine one by one until there are almost a dozen standing around the vehicle. I only had three of these people physically defined and only a basic idea of their significance and depth. I asked myself a simple question, "who are these people?" Just like that, an entirely new world, previously unimagined, emerged and absorbed me. I suddenly had more material than necessary for a short story. I had more material than necessary for a single novel! I never intended "Thirst" to be a novel but after that day it demanded to be written. Most of the specific details that subsequently developed arrived after I'd written half of the novel during last year's National Novel Writing Month.

Here we are on the first day of November and another NaNoWriMo.  I'm still weaving through the various interconnected threads of the same story. The lesson for me is to trust in the creative process. Trust that you have the skill it takes to complete your novel. Trust that your characters know who they are and will not lead you stray. Trust that your vision will coalesce into a readable draft. It may feel awkward or strange or the quality poor but there's a lot of value in what you learn by simply doing. However, I'm also an advocate of having some sort of outline of events, a road map of sorts, however vague. For me it all works best having a balance between these two philosophies and certainly neither is right or wrong, simply different strategies to the same end. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Why I Write

It was proposed in my writers group that we begin some fun extracurricular activities to help motivate our work. The question was asked, “Why do you write?” It took me aback momentarily.  What a silly question, I thought, but was stimulated into deep contemplation. The short answer is that I write because I must. There is an undeniable yearning inside me to tell stories and so I do. Of course, it was not quite so easy to fully embrace my calling. 

My journey to this place where I, after all of these laboring years, finally feel comfortable calling myself a writer and desiring to make money solely by creating works of fiction has been tremendously long, winding, and often confusing. Kind of like the previous sentence. 

My fondest early childhood memories include reading in bed with my mother. I lay swallowed up under the adult sized blankets with a stack of Dr. Seuss books as my mom embraced an Agatha Christie mystery. Those fond memories also include my father telling me absurdist bedtime stories where the characters were creatures that did nothing except be exceptionally silly. Better yet, late Sunday mornings when I was (finally!) allowed to wake my dad up, I would crawl into bed with him while he spun tales of animals who would never coexist on earth having an adventure. Imagine a giraffe and a penguin going to the candy store together—those were the best of times. 

I will provide some context by saying that he was and still is a blue-collar warehouse worker and my mother a housewife. I didn’t grow up in a house of artists or writers or film makers but I was reared in an environment where imagination was celebrated and encouraged. 

My language arts skills were nurtured further in public schools where I was years ahead of my peers in reading and writing. I even had the honor of reading a copy of The Tortoise and the Hare on stage at my kindergarten graduation. In third grade, I had a poem about a snowman submitted by my teacher and printed in the local newspaper (the clipping still lives between the thin plastic sheet and sticky back of a photo album in my parents’ house). In later years, we were assigned to write stories that would be shared with the younger grades. These works of fiction were even illustrated by us, laminated, and spiral bound. 

In fifth grade, I wrote about two neighboring dandelions that fall in love and in sixth grade about a skateboarding ten-year-old boy who plummets down a sewer and ends up in the land of the Leprechauns where he is charged by the Leprechaun King to find his lost daughter. (Steal these ideas if you like—Just remember they were written by a ten and eleven year old girl, you horrible person, you.)

In eighth grade I wrote an autobiography as a final project for English class. In the section where we project what our future will be like I wrote that I wanted to be an English teacher or a writer.

Then came high school. Oh that glorious period of endless mischief, reckless abandon, and insane freedoms. Those four years transformed me. By graduation I had my heart and mind set on becoming a criminal profiler just like Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs (which I read numerous times the summer between senior year of high school and freshman year of college). After one semester of criminal justice, I reckoned that lifelong exposure to death and the criminal psyche would be too damaging to my spirit and so fell back upon my original passion, stories. 

I changed my major to English and my minor to Creative Writing since it was not offered as a major.  This plan also flopped. I didn’t want to spend the bulk of my time critically analyzing old pieces of writing as English majors do. I want to spend my time writing new pieces of fiction. So, I came to the conclusion that I should quit school and rethink life. This, coincidentally, is an extremely easy decision to make at age 22.

I chose to go back to school after a year or so of working part time with no aim or goals to fuel me. I knew I needed some direction or I would be destined to slave away at retail stores for minimum wage the rest of my life. What could I do that would be an affordable education and rewarding?  I landed on interior design, which I postulated would satisfy both my left and right brains with its mix of creativity and logical order. Boy was I wrong. Studying interior design was essentially studying architecture, which for me left very little room for the kind of freewheeling open-ended creativity that I yearned. Buildings exist in the real world, after all, and have to be structurally sound. 

After a period of soul searching I quit Interior Design and moved on to art school to study what I really wanted to study: Fiction Writing. Yes, there really is a BA (or BFA if you’re so inclined) in Fiction Writing available and I have the student loan bills to prove it. The two years I spent constantly creating fiction were some of the most rewarding years of my life. I left them behind feeling impassioned toward my calling. I also left them with a desire to seek out a stable form of income for myself and so the career-building phase of my life began. 

I quit what I considered my “while-at-college-job,” moved across country for what I thought would be better work and came back to the same “while-at-college-job” within a year of receiving my BA. It was a crazy ride that pushed me farther into financial troubles but it was well worth the effort if only for the intense personal and spiritual growth I acquired while on the journey. I regret nothing.

The latest phase of my life has been my coming to grips with the fact that there is no stable form of income to be found if I’m going to do what I love. I need to create a job for myself, not work for someone else. What I intend to create is a career selling fictional tales that I have conceived and written. 

The last 18 months have been all about finding a balance between working a day job, writing a novel, and having a personal life. It is not easy. I’m still learning but getting better with every month that passes. I’m also unlearning bad habits like procrastination and being overly critical of my first drafts.  I feel more fulfilled now than I ever have. I will keep my pen on the page and my fingers on the keyboard until I look back and find a body of work of which I am proud.

“Seek and you shall find.” Never a truer statement was said. I sought out a path that never existed because I didn’t trust my instincts or my heart would lead me right. I think that is something we all have to go through, a testament to the power of personal growth. And maybe some of us don’t.  Maybe some people are born knowing who and what they are and work every moment toward those ends. It matters not what path you take get there as long as you arrive.

Why do you write?  Post answers in the comment section. I'm interested in the motivations of other writers (and people in general) and would love to hear about your journey.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

6 Tools To Survive NaNoWriMo

Well, I’ve done it again. I’ve decided to drag myself through another virtual writing boot camp. I signed up for National Novel Writing Month’s summer program, Camp NaNoWriMo, which takes place in both June and August. The objective is the same as November—write 50,000 new words of fiction in only one month. 

I don’t feel anywhere near the amount of anxiety as I did in November. I survived this experience once and I know I will again. In fact, I don’t even plan to “win” this time around. My objective is using this program as a tool to complete the shitty first draft of my novel. By September 1st, I will possess a complete novel with a beginning, middle, and end that I can edit and rewrite into something publishable. I am EXCITED!

The following is a list of strategies that helped me to survive National Novel Writing Month and complete over 50,000 new words in only 30 days. Feel free to follow them or disregard them as your needs desire.  There is no one-size-fits-all plan for life or for creativity. I can only share with you the wisdom that I gained through my November experience. You’ve probably heard some of these principals before, as I used wisdom from other writers and resources to get me through it all. Also, I left out the obvious tips like turning off your phone and staying off the internet unless for research. 

NOTE: These exact principals can also be applied to writing any first draft or any other project where creating a high word count in a short period is your objective.

Six Simple Survival Strategies
1)   Take Notes:  Keep a small notebook with multiple writing implements or a handheld tape recorder near you at all times. You will need it to jot down or record ideas and ponderings you’ll have during the day. This is especially important to have near your bedside.  We often wake up with ideas or snippets of dreams that inform our story. These are gifts from our subconscious. Let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth by letting these epiphanies slip away unremembered. I especially like the tape recorder for this as I find myself far too groggy to use a paper and pen when I first awaken.

2)   Stay Flexibile:  Having your novel mapped out step by step, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, sounds like a thorough approach. However, you will likely find yourself forcing plot points and character development rather than events happening organically by the logic of the fictional universe you’ve created. To put it simply, have a plan, but also be open to inspiration.

3)   Ritualize Writing Time:  Just as your bed should only be used for sleep and sex, do your best to write at the same time and same place daily. This will allow your mind to relax into creative mode more easily and soften the transition from your every day life to your creative life.

4)   Avoid Over Thinking:  Be completely right (write!)-brained as you move through the creative process. Do not be analytical or critical of the work you are producing.  Do not allow censorship or judgment in your writing space. Save that mindset for the rewriting process. Go with the flow even (especially) if it feels uncomfortable.

5)   Ponder Your Story:  Were it a perfect world, we could sit in our writing space all day long and create at our leisure. In reality, we have many responsibilities. Ponder your characters and plot while you’re at your day job, cooking, cleaning house, ushering the kids around town. You’ll fuel your creative mind and keep the enthusiasm for your story on high. *Remember to keep your notebook or tape recorder from step one within reach at all times!*

6)   One Goal--Word Count:  There is only one goal for NaNoWriMo and that is to produce word count. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like what you’re doing or love it, if it sounds cliché or is vibrant and original, if its clunky or poetic, all you need to do is write, write, and write some more. I’ll say it again— do not allow judgment or censorship. Save that for the second draft.

What if I get stuck?

          It is inevitable that at some point during a month of solid writing you will get stuck.  This is where you’re on your own.  Evaluate your creative process and move forward the best you can.  Here are a few things that work for me:

1)   Ask yourself, “what happens next?”:  I learned this technique in college and it works like a charm. If you ask yourself or your characters “what happens next?” you will get an answer. It may not make a lot of sense in the moment but follow it wherever it takes you.

2)   Write with all your senses:  When you’re stuck, try to describe the scene with all of your senses. This includes not only the five physical senses, but also the nonphysical senses of emotion and intuition. It will open the story up and give it more depth.  You may stumble upon something you didn’t even know was there that might be the key to uniting the entire plot.

3)   Don’t let a good idea derail another good idea:  As I’m in the middle of the writing process, it usually happens that an epiphany or idea for my story (or in some cases an entirely different story) will suddenly pop into the forefront of my mind. I keep that handy notebook of mine right next to me so that I can record the idea for later and keep it from throwing me off the task at hand.

4)   Take a break:  Maybe you just need to get up and walk around for a second, grab a snack or drink, or even just quit for the day.

5)   Have fun:  Creating fiction is one of most rewarding and exhilarating activities that I know. I love it like I love ice cream and swimming and warm summer days and feeling my baby wriggle around in my belly. I know that if I’m stuck and it feels like work, then I should lighten up and have more fun with it.

6)  Take your characters on a road trip:  I don’t mean this literally though it may be fun to see what happens if you jam all of your characters into an RV and send them across country. What I do mean is take them out of their normal environment and put them somewhere new. This will often reveal things about them, their personality, and their relationships that you didn’t already know. You could also simply stick them in a room together and make them talk to each other. This also works quite well and is fun to do.

7)   Avoid transitions:  If your character is going from home to the library, we don’t need to see how he tied his shoes, stood at the bus stop, sat next to a smelly man on the ride over, and then walked an extra block so he could stop at the coffee shop before entering the library. Just take us there!  Leave a line of white space and pick right up at the library. If any of that transitional stuff is important (it probably isn’t) then simply work the information in while he’s at the library.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Life Goes On

You may have been wondering silently to yourself these past few months, “What has C. L. Kay been up to?” Well the short answer to this question is A LOT!

Life has a way of dictating things with it’s own logic and twists and turns. If you’re lucky, you can move fearlessly forward, swept up in its unknowable genius. You may not always end up where you thought you would but you definitely will always end up exactly where you need to be. This is the story of 2012 for me thus far.

Aside from being a few months away from a publishable draft of my book baby, The Bloodsong Swords (fingers crossed for a spring release), I’m also around five months away from bringing a flesh and blood baby into this world! Emerging into motherhood has changed just about everything from my daily routine to my frame of my mind to my thought process. Having another human being that will soon depend on me for his or her every need has underscored the necessity of finishing my book and launching my career as a fiction writer.

I’ll leave you with a wonderful quote I came across the other day that explains it all: C. L. Kay Sophia Loren Motherhood Quote On Old Paper Texture

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Finish Line

If you have been reading this blog for any number of months then it will be no news to you that I have what I call a discipline problem. I set goals then wait until the last possible minute to achieve them. If I miss a goal, I extend the deadline. Perhaps it’s a learned behavior from my formative years as a bright student in sub par public schools. It was never necessary for me to put any major effort into the work because I could do everything it took in the last few days and come out of the challenge with top grades.

The glaring matter at hand is my goal to complete the first draft of my novel by, well, yesterday. This obviously was another instance where I put my goals to the wayside in favor of less scary and less intense activities. C. L. Kay Writing Is Difficult Quote Pen And Notebook Blog GraphicLet’s face it--writing fiction is difficult.  Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or diluted. Throwing your mind, your body, your consciousness into a fictional dimension, completely immersing your thoughts and actions into an abstract reality, is completely disorienting. My experience is such, at least. Maybe it isn’t that daunting for some. Maybe those writers can easily switch their frame of being from fiction to reality with more ease than I can. If so, I applaud and admire them.  However, it takes a lot of energy and fortitude for me. 

I don’t believe in excuses, only choices. And it was my choice to be lazy with writing in January. I know that specific choice was not helpful for publishing my book. But hey, everyone needs a hiatus now and then. It’s behind me. I got it out of my system. It is time to quit my sightseeing detour and move forward down the path. The finish line is in my sights.