Thursday, April 27, 2006

Knowing your Muse

Admittedly inspired by a former post here--I am wondering how people would envision their "Muses." Here are some simple questions:

Is your muse Male or Female or Androgynous?

Is your muse solid or vapor?

Is your muse loyal or does he/she/it flee at any given moment, leaving you hanging like the last dead leaf clinging desperately to the tree in the wind?

Does your muse ever kick you in the butt?

Is your muse gentle and kind, or overbearing and prone to chastisement?

What do you do to "invite" the muse? What have you had the most success with?

I know, silly questions, but well worth the hearing. If your muse has temporarily deserted you, knowing him/her/it may help to bring it back.

N'est ce pas?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Exercise Part II

Did everyone clip their articles each day? Or did you panic and clip six in a single day? Although there’s nothing wrong with clipping more than six, if there were articles that actually interested you.

I’d be interested in participants sharing, in the comment section below, the articles picked.

I found the week frustrating – it was difficult to find the type of oddity I wanted, other than the very first day. However, looking down my list, it’s not as bad as I feared.

Mine are:

a fruitcake sent to a soldier in Alaska in 1962 that he put aside and discovered 40 years later;
20 somethings who are so stupid and indulged they call the doorman to change a lightbulb;
a runaway police horse;
a 1000 year old stolen Roman statue on its way back to Italy;
how literary parties aren’t fun any more;
Wounded GIs charged for their care and their accounts being turned over to collection agencies

So, now what?

Turn over the articles, face down, and shuffle them around so you don’t know which is which.

Close your eyes and pick up three articles; put them aside. We’ll deal with them in a few weeks.

Close your eyes again and pick out one article from the remaining three. Put the other two aside – we’ll start dealing with those two next week.

Take the article you picked. In the coming week, write a flash fiction piece, 250-500 words, inspired by the article.

Next week, we’ll work with the other two articles.

Which piece did you get? My flash fiction is the one about the wounded GIs. Check back next week.

Monday, April 24, 2006


I have a character sheet for each character. It’s not online but I’ll include links to some that are at the end of this post. The front of my sheet is basic info: hair, eyes, occupation, relationships, personality quirks/habits and distinctive physical characteristics (scars, etc go here). I write important back-story information on the back. These sheets stay in a thin three ring binder. I don't fill them in completely and I don't stress over them but I do write things down as I go. It's easier for me to flip pages in the binder than to search back through a WIP when I can't remember exactly what color eyes so and so has. I keep all of my character sheets in the binder – grouped by project. When I finish a project, I may move the character sheets to that project’s folder in my filing cabinet.

Project folders are where I store outlines, research notes and whatever else comes up for that project. I have one file folder for each project and one labeled Ideas. When I get an idea for a story (whether it’s a novel, a short story or just some vague impressions and a bit of dialogue), I file it away in the Ideas folder. If I’m at the computer, I might pour the idea into a word document and store it in the electronic version of my Ideas folder. If I’m not at the computer, index cards are my friends. I keep a stack in my purse and I’m rarely away from home without my purse. I also keep index cards on the desk and in the kitchen.

The cards are good for jotting down those pesky things I need to remember to do later. It always happens. I sit down at the computer, slide on the headphones, put all six Gary Allan albums in the play list, open my WIP and think “Oh, man, I was supposed to call Jimbo about the chain saw” (or whatever). I have two choices when that happens. Make my call and try again or make a note. I’ve found if I jump up to do whatever it is I remembered, the same thing happens when I manage to get back to the desk. I don’t get anything done if I don’t keep my butt in the chair. Unless I’m facing a time sensitive task like calling my husband before he leaves work because we need milk, I make a note on an index card and immediately file it in my General Notes file. I clean out the General Notes file every week eliminating tasks or adding them to the master to do list I look at each day.

I file everything as soon as possible because my daughters are notorious for grabbing paper from my desk to draw on despite the fact they have a stack of paper in their art cabinet. My index cards, project folders and character sheets help me stay organized and provide quick retrieval of information.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Excercise Part I

Exercise, Part I

I thought we’d do something different over the next few Wednesdays. Something to jump start creative inspiration.

For the next six days, read a newspaper every day. Pick out one odd article – not a main, featured, headlined article, but one of the little oddities tucked away in the back. Cut it out and pull it aside.

Or, if a photo catches your eye, cut that out.

Next week, we’ll start doing something with them.

Remember now: six small articles. Odd articles. Or photos.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Muses Unleashed

As we know, the spirit of creativity can very often give us its signature "nudge" at any time or anywhere. And as writers, certainly our eyes, ears, and yes -- our emotions-- are the basic implements for making it possible.

So, if you'll be celebrating this Easter Sunday with family, friends and loved ones, use this golden opportunity to take in everything that's happening around you. Needless to say, sometimes you just never know how an assembly of people, as well as their interactions with each other, can shape a terrific as well as innovative story line.

Here's to fresh and new story ideas, emanating from a fantastic holiday gathering.

Celebrate life on this special day... and enjoy it.

Happy Easter.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Stretching Geography

The older I grow, the more place becomes a character in my work. I’ve always connected strongly to certain places and felt revulsion for others. Cape Cod, New Orleans, Northumbria, and Scotland give me a strong sense of peace, belonging, love, and ferocious “rightness”.

And there are other places I can’t wait to leave.

However, writing about a real place can often cause problems. For instance, in New York City, real estate and neighborhoods change on a daily basis. What was once my favorite bar down the street on The Deuce when I lived in Times Square became a Dominio’s Pizza, which was then torn down to make way for a high rise. I walked past it last weekend, and now there’s a 7-Eleven installed in it. 7-Eleven in New York City?

When you create fiction and use real places, the places often change. Or, far too often, writers can’t be bothered to even look at a map and get streets right. (That tendency makes me nuts – a writer disrespects my city like that, I don’t buy the person’s work again). It’s one thing to make up bars and apartment houses and streets and even entire towns. It’s quite another to make mistakes in real geography out of carelessness.

When I went back to my mystery serial Tapestry, which is set in New York City’s East Village in the early 1990s, I realized just how tough it is to be true to geography. Yes, I invent some stores and bars. I also mix them in with real ones. And I re-walked the streets of the Village again, to make sure I got my streets and my cross-streets correct. The restaurants may come and go, but, hopefully, St. Mark’s Place will remain for a few more centuries.

Thank goodness I still had the diaries from those years, when I lived in Times Square, but worked and spent most of my time in the Village. It was on the cusp of gentrification then, which is one of the peripherals dealt with in the story. But I had the names of restaurants and stores and all sorts of places which no longer exist, so I could add that touch of realism to the piece. People who lived there at the time and know the neighborhood well could enjoy the celebration of the landmarks.

And yes, I’ll have to add, in the acknowledgements, something about the way the place has changed, and will continue to change over the years.

It’s difficult to change the actual geography of a place like New York City without thoroughly angering many readers. But what about lesser-known places?

I’ve set several sets of stories in a place based on my hometown, which is outside of New York City, on Long Island Sound. However, I didn’t want to be trapped by its exact geography and limitations. For instance, in the stories featuring the characters who originally appear in “Dogs on Beach” (under the name Christy Miller), I wanted to use the town beach and park, but have it within walking distance of the main street of the town. In reality, it’s several miles, and you can’t nip to the newsstand I have in “History Lesson” for the Sunday paper unless you’re training for one of the charity walks.

So I made up an additional Westchester town, stretched the shoreline of Long Island Sound, and squeezed it in between the actual towns. Now I can refer to the actual towns, including my hometown, but still have the freedom of the fictional town so I can make up any sort of geography I want, without hurting anyone’s sensibilities. The geography will be created to serve the needs of the story, instead of having to conform the story to the geography, the way I had to do in Tapestry.

I did the same thing with the stories set on Cape Cod, dealing with environmentalism, that begin with “Impressions” (under the Ava Dunne name). The geography of the drive between New York over the Bourne Bridge to the Cape is correct – I’ve done it many times. However, I wanted a different town than Barnstable or Mashpee or Marstons Mills, but I wanted it to be in that general vicinity. So I created Miller’s Pond, stretching that area of the Cape, sticking in a few extra salt marshes, and using a name that’s been in the family, and a family name that’s been in Massachusetts for generations.

My intent is to be respectful to the region, but still serve the story first. These regions are characters in the stories. I don’t want to do a disservice to the real places, yet the needs of the stories go beyond actual geography.

I have pieces set in Edinburgh, in Paris, in London, in Ayrshire, in pre-Katrina New Orleans. You better believe I spend hours pouring over maps, and, when I’m actually in the regions, hours walking the streets, taking notes and photographs, getting my hands on any map I can.

I have a drawer full of maps from the 1960s and 1970s, when I traveled with my parents. Many of the maps are different now – new roads, new construction. Yet, when I set something in the 1960s or 1970s, I can pull out those maps and see how it was. When I write historical work, I hunt down maps or facsimile maps of the region in that time.

Geography is as important as plot or character. Balancing respect for actual geography with the needs of fictional geography is sometimes frustrating, always fascinating, and very necessary, in my work, anyway, for it to succeed.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Cracking The Code

As an avid reader of Anna Louise's Live Journal blog, I find her candid and in-depth windows into the publishing industry to be both informative and timely -- especially in an age of such code words, catch phrases, and reasons for rejection as: "In today's tight publishing market..." along with many others.

Anna Louise is an editor for Tor Books , whose insightful online journal entries are getting lots of buzz and attention these days -- even from a few top literary agents and editors who are now bloggers themselves.

I found her recent post in which she attempts to decode, and thereby, give her readers a clearly defined," inside look" into the industry, to be a standout among her entries to date. I also highly recommend it as a behind-the-scenes view of the business machine (yes, once again folks, it's a *business* -- just like any other) more commonly known as modern-day publishing.

Read Anna's post here on "Demystifying Publishing."

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Drop Them A Line

Have you read a book you truly enjoy recently? A book that made you laugh or cry or think or see the world differently than you saw it before reading the book?

Write the author a note.

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Just scribble a few lines telling the writer that you read the book and how it affected you. A simple “I enjoyed the book” is plenty.

It makes a difference.

Books create intimacy. Reading is an act of intimacy between the reader and the writer. Something unique is shared in that connection. No two readers, as much as they enjoy the same book, ever experience it in exactly the same way.

Emails are one thing, but sitting down to write a writer an actual note on a postcard or stationery makes a difference. Think of the time it took the writer to write the book. Think of how long it takes you to write a book.

Isn’t it worth the ten minutes of appreciation? And a fun postcard or a sheet of pretty notepaper?

Doesn’t it make a difference to you, as a writer, when a reader you’ve never met sends a note out of the blue, letting you know that your work matters?

Carolyn See talks about writing to writers in her book Making a Literary Life. She calls them “charming notes” and advocates writing one per day, along with four pages of whatever prose you write.

I applaud her encouragement, but I prefer to write the note spontaneously, as I’ve finished the actual book. Sometimes, I need a few days to think about what I’ve just read, and then I write the note. As a reader, it makes me feel that I’m giving something back to a writer who has spent time and love and energy on a project of the heart. As a writer, when I receive such a note (and it usually arrives on a difficult day when I need a bit of cheer), it gives me joy. I’ll keep writing no matter what – but to have a reader acknowledge the connection means I’m not writing in a vaccum.

Take the time. Today, drop the writer a line.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

30 Years Of Punk And A New Kind Of Music Journalism

Today, in a mini-celebration to the 30-year anniversary of the start of punk, I'm going to take a look at the role journalists in the UK had during the 70's punk explosion.

On March 30th 1976, the Sex Pistols played the 100 Club in London's Oxford Street. It is an event that 30 years on, is still celebrated as a watershed moment in British musical history. It heralded the start of the punk era, kicked off a revolution in swearing, spitting and self-mutilation, and changed forever the way the press wrote about British popular music.

Up until the face of Johnny Rotten became a household name, reporting on music was largely boring. Bands and artists were clean-cut, or as clean-cut as you could get if you forgot about Pink Floyd and the other 1960's believers. Flares and nostalgia were out; living for now was in.

Post-rotten and Britain found itself in the grip of a hysteria the like had never been seen since The Beatles. There were many similarities; "The Beatles are bad for our children,"; "Rock and roll is the music of the devil," and so on. When Rotten appeared on stage with his vile temperament and matching frown the older generations were disgusted, the youth lapped it up, and the press couldn't believe their luck.

Pretty soon punk bands were sprouting up everywhere. "The attitude was 'anybody can have a go at this' - it gave you the confidence to start a band," remembers Pauline Murray of Penetration. The Damned, The Vibrators, The Clash and The Stranglers all lined up for their piece of the action and pretty soon music magazines were exploding to life with a new kind of edgier reporting.

Stories of fights between the bands were common as the press vied for the best sales. "There was a face-off outside a gig," says Jean-Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers. "It was us against the Pistols, The Clash and Chrissie Hynde. From then on the press were on their side and we were ostracised. Then we started getting accused of misogyny because of the lyrics to Peaches. Misogyny means you hate women - I adore women! It was easy to shock people."

And for many that seemed to be all punk was about; shocking people in both the song lyrics and on stage behaviour. When the violence between the bands escalated outside into the streets, the Mary Whitehouse Brigade used the media to hit back at the roll of the punk rock idols.

"The mood in the country was restless," says Eddie from The Vibrators. "Everyone was fed up with the government interfering in their lives and they wanted a change.
Our first major gig was at the 100 Club in September 1976. Unfortunately it turned ugly when Sid Vicious started throwing glasses from the side of the stage during The Damned's set. One girl lost an eye and a bloke had 10 stitches in his head. I walked on stage and saw blood everywhere. I thought if this is people's idea of punk rock then they can shove it."

Eddie stuck with it but many didn't and slowly the punk era died away as quickly as Sid Vicious himself. The press got bored with it all as things seemed to spiral out of control. Punk eat itself and the media won few friends from either side with their reporting of the lower end of the musical spectrum.

And besides, 2-Tone was about to be launched, so who needed the Pistols? Right?

Monday, April 03, 2006

On message boards, there are three basic personality types.

One type is outgoing and chatty. This group reminds me of my 7-year-old daughter. She'll talk to anyone. "I like Barbie, Care Bears...yada yada yada. What's your name? What do you like?" When we were waiting for my husband to meet us at the theater for Star Wars Episode 3, she walked up to a complete stranger and wrapped her arms around his legs. "I just thought you needed a hug." She jumps into situations headfirst. She always has.

The second group is slightly less sociable than the first. They remind me of my youngest daughter. She introduces herself to people then only contributes to conversations if someone asks a question she can answer or if there's something she's anxious to announce. She likes to test the water before she dives in.

The third group reminds me of my middle daughter. She won't speak to strangers unless I prod her to say hello. She doesn't draw attention to herself even among relatives. When someone comes to our house, her sisters run to the visitor for hugs and attention. She hangs back taking it all in.

On a message board, my middle daughter would be a lurker. The youngest would be someone who posts an introduction and contributes when she has something to say and the oldest would be one of the chatty people who keeps the board moving so it doesn’t become stale.

Someone said people who feel left out should post more. A person in the second or third group might try that. It might work for some but I don’t believe it would work for everyone. Writer A might post frequently for a month or two before cutting back again. It would be difficult to maintain what would probably feel like a phony persona.

The best way to deal with this is simply to be more understanding of the different posting styles. No one can be forced to post more or less frequently than they wish to post. Online forums don’t have participation requirements.

*Please note, the three basic types is an oversimplification.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Morrell On Writing

Author David Morrell has been writing in the thriller genre for multiple decades, and now, he's sharing the wisdom responsible for such books as First Blood (which introduced the character of John "Rambo" to the world), as well as many others.

Lesson One: Why Do You Want To Be A Writer? is featured here at Backspace The Writer's Place, and excerpted from Morrell's non-fiction writing handbook Lessons From A Lifetime Of Writing.

Check it out whenever you can. It's truly worth the look.