Monthly Archives: April 2012

Hello, my name is Marilyn and I am a Vampire Addict.

One of the first exercises Chris Baty has you do in the beginning of No Plot? No Problem! is to draft two “magna cartas.”  One should be composed of all the things that you personally like in the books you love to read.  He says to be honest, even if it means admitting that you like books with a lot of white space because you do not like reading large blocks of text.  The other “magna carta” should be the opposite list – all the things you find boring in books.  Again, he encourages you to be honest with yourself, even if it means admitting that you really hate books about old people or love stories.

I did this exercise, although I have not yet hung them up by my desk like he suggests.  I will not post them here either, but I do want to take this opportunity to be honest about the kind of book I want to write, based on the kind of book I like to read.

I am a genre reader.  I love me a good urban fantasy.  I also enjoy straight-up fantasy, science fiction (both soft and hard), apocalyptic dystopias, some steampunk, and the occasionally mystery.  Add to that Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and John Donne, and that about rounds out what I prefer reading.

I also LOVE vampires.  Love them…I get all feisty with people who try to disparage my beloved vampire and I feel the need to spout long diatribes, explaining their importance as archetypes of the human experience.  I will spare you that spiel here.

Bela Lugosi's DraculaFirst of all, I would like to concede the fact that the current state of literature is filled to the brim with vampire stories.  Well, I don’t care.  This first manuscript (and probably the  second and the third) is just for me.  I need to get in the practice of writing creatively again.  I need to experiment with story-construction, from beginning to end.  The first manuscript I write, edited or not, is probably not going to be publication-worthy.  I am okay with that, which is why I decided that one of the main characters in my first manuscript will be a vampire.  It will not have to compete with the market and that is what I want to write about, so that is what I am going to do.  So there!

Secondly, I just want to mention something that I find ironic.  I love reading and I love vampires, but, honestly, I cannot think of a single book about vampires that I would give five out of five stars too.  I am not entirely sure why.  It just seems that even if I enjoy the story and the characterizations, I always end up disappointed – as though the author could have treated the vampire mythology just a little bit better.  Of course, I have not read every single book out there with vampire characters, and I am sure there must be at least a couple that would become favorites.  Nevertheless, my experience to date cannot provide me with such a book, with the one notable exception of Dracula by Bram Stoker himself.  However, Dracula works for an historical setting (today anyway), but I like my vampires to feel a little closer and that involves a contemporary treatment.

If I may momentarily set the novel aside, Joss Whedon is my hero and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (along with Angel and the irrelevant-to-this-discussion Firefly) is, in my opinion, one of the best shows every produced for television.  I wish I could find that in a novel.

I believe part of my desire to focus on the vampire is that the part of my brain which has never been introduced to my internal critic thinks that maybe I can do it “right.”  When I say that out-loud (or the written equivalent), however, that little guy takes note, glares at me and shames me into believing that I could never do that.  My inner critic’s opinion is irrelevant, though, since he is barred from reading my first manuscript.

Well, there it is… *Whew!*  I have come clean.  I like vampires.  I feel so much better having gotten that off my chest.  Now you, dear reader, know what you are getting yourself into and I can no longer be held accountable for leading you down a dark path that leads to a genre you hate.

My name is Marilyn and I am a vampire addict.

Categories: Pensive Ponderings, Planning, Random Ruminations, Reading, The Process, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Writers write. Writers read?

In a comment to an earlier post, Eric reminded me that in addition to writing, writing, writing, becoming a better writer involves reading, reading, reading.  With which I wholeheartedly agree.  It makes perfect sense, right?  A writer needs to be familiar with her craft, with what is currently being produced.  Moreover, why would someone who is not an avid reader want to be a writer in the first place?

Nevertheless, something has been bothering me about this axiom.  What exactly about reading will make me a better writer?

Let me clarify; is there something specific I should be concentrating on while I read?  Because, if a book is well written with an engaging story, I usually become so wrapped up in it that I forget to pay attention to how the author constructs the tale.  Heck, this is the case even if it is not terribly well written – as long as the story is interesting enough.

Like I say, it makes sense that reading is an essential element of the craft of writing.  What I am concerned with are the particulars.  How can I ensure that I am fully extracting the benefits of the process of reading?  Should I be dissecting the dialogue?  Analyzing the plot?  Critiquing the characters?

I suspect that the answer will become clearer once I am in the trenches with the actual writing process.  At the moment, apart from my academic writing, I have not really gained any momentum with my creative writing.  First, I must finish my dissertation.  *sigh*  (However, I am interested to find out how my academic writing skills will translate to a creative mode.)

Part of me wonders if it works a bit like osmosis: I read and subconsciously absorb ideas, techniques and suggestions.  None of which I will notice until I am actually writing.

I welcome any thoughts, ideas or pointers on this concept.  In the meantime, I have decided that one method that may help me is to review the books I read once I have finished them.  Perhaps this will force me to be more reflective regarding the manner in which the author engineered his or her story.  I have never really done this before, so it will definitely be a learning process – attempting to critique from a writer’s perspective, but hopefully this will aid in making me a better writer.

Categories: Random Ruminations, Reading, The Process, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Starting the new before finishing the old

In some ways I am using this blog as a place-holder.  I am not finished writing my dissertation yet.  Until I finish with that, I cannot fully commit to writing a novel.  I really want to start writing a novel RIGHT NOW, but that would just be pushing off the dissertation, which is so close to being finished.  In some ways, I am afraid that I am using this re-discovered passion I have for writing a fiction manuscript as a way of avoiding my dissertation.  Once I finish with this degree, what comes next?  I want to be able to move on SO BADLY, but at the same time, the last 10 years of my life have been about this Ph.D.  Part of me is scared to face whatever comes next.  A full-time job?  I have not had a full-time job in over 10 years.  Yeah, the whole grad school/teaching thing can be construed as a full-time job, but it is not the same as leaving for the office at 7:00 a.m. and not getting home until 5:00 p.m. or later.  I WANT a job.  I have been living off a pittance in stipend and financial aid.   I want to make my own money.  Nevertheless,… it will be a HUGE life change.  A paradigm shift, even.  I will no longer be a student.  How will I know how to be?  And what will I do without that ever-present guilt over not working on my research?  Will it really go away?  (*crosses fingers*)  Or will it just shift to something else?

I know all these feeling and thoughts are fairly normal.  Things would have been better had I been forced into a shorter deadline so I could defend in May, but things got screwed up and now I will not defend until September at the earliest.  I hate this, because it makes it seem like I have tons of time to worry about finishing.  But the plan was to move on in June.  To find a job, move on to the next stage of my life.  I have to do that regardless of not REALLY being finished with grad school until December.  Next year I will be Dr. Me.  Until then, I have to move on without that validation.

So, next week has to be about finishing the dissertation.  I am going to have to move back to the mentality that I have to work from the time I get up until I am exhausted.  I have to devote myself to at least 12 “tomatoes,” but it should really be more like 16 “tomatoes.”  More if I can stand it.  If I can finish the draft this coming week, last chapter AND revisions, then the following week, I can be done…for the moment.  I can start my novel.  I can look for a job.  This coming week, instead of spending hours dreaming about writing my novel, I will allow myself one blog post a day.  The rest of my time has to be about finishing one milestone before I try moving on to another.

Categories: Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ToMAYto… ToMAHto… Pomodoro

5 minutes a day.  2000 words a day.  3 pages a day.

There are many different philosophies regarding the best way to force yourself to write.  Everyone needs to figure this out for themselves.  What works for one person will not necessarily work for another.  However, whatever technique is used, the object is always the same: to create a habit of writing.  Practice, practice, practice.

I feel like there should be something profound to say about developing a habit of writing, but I really do not think there is.  The ugly truth is that it happens through the sheer force of will.  You have to compel yourself to write sometimes,…many times.  It feels very difficult, but we do it because it is more painful to not give voice to the thoughts and characters running around in our head than it is to force them out.  At least, this is what seems true from my perspective at this particular moment.

There were times during the process of writing my dissertation when I thought I would literally explode if I did not get up from the computer.  I never did, but perhaps this is because in those moments I usually did get up out of my chair.  However, most of the time my writing ranged from awesome flow to bearable drudge, but either way I do not think I could have gotten through it without my tomatoes.  Tomatoes? you ask.  I’ll explain in a moment.

The year and a half that preceded the actual writing of the dissertation was filled with moments when I thought I was working, but at the end of the day, it turned out that I had gotten very little accomplished.  This was not always true, but it certainly felt like I was not making much progress.  When January rolled around, I knew if I did not buckle down and just write the damn thing that I may never finish.

But, how in the world do you take that first step?  You know the one, when it feels like there is something physically preventing you from just writing, for goodness’ sake.  Well, I am not entirely sure, but at some point I came across the Pomodoro Technique, which is a time management system developed in the 1980s.  I honestly do not know much about it, but essentially it involves a timer.

This sounds too simple, but I think the trick comes in the recording of your progress…or maybe it just is that simple.  There are sheets and charts that accompany this technique (see the official website), which I started off using, but in the end I was just using the timer (the version I use can be found here).  (Both the Pomodoro Technique e-book and the online timer are free to download and use, by the way.)  I would write for a “tomato” (or in layman’s terms, 25 minutes), then I would take a 5 minute break, then I would write for another “tomato,” et cetera and so forth.

For some reason, writing in measurements of tomatoes did not feel as overwhelming as in measurements of hours.  Instead of committing to 4 hours of writing I would commit to 8 tomatoes, which always passed more quickly than I would have imagined.  (Counting in tomatoes also helped me compete with myself to see how many tomatoes I could finish in one session.)  I would set a goal for myself – “I will spend 3 tomatoes reading, then 3 more tomatoes writing,” for example.  This helped keep my research (or re-reading as was usually the case) from getting out of hand, and the actual writing part became bearable.

I would write for a tomato and the objective was not necessarily to write something good, but just to make sure that I did not do anything but write while that timer was running.  If I thought of something I absolutely HAD to look up, such as the current skinny on Brangelina’s relationship, I would make a note of it and save it for my break.  As long as that timer was running I had to be sitting down in front of the computer typing.  If it started to get unbearable I would check the time: “Ugh, 8 more minutes?” *sigh* “Okay, 8 more minutes…”  Note: this isn’t exactly the same as free-writing where you MUST be typing every second.  If you need to stop and think, or re-read the last paragraph, that’s cool.  The point is that the 25 minutes of the tomato is to be used solely to get your designated goal accomplished and not for anything superfluous.

The technique also gives you a clear sense of what you can reasonably accomplish in a certain time period.  So, if you create a goal for yourself: 2000 words every hour, but after 3 tomatoes you realize that you are really only writing 500 words for every tomato.  This allows you to adjust your goals to ones that you can actually accomplish and then know that in 2 hours, you will be able to write 2000 words.  This keeps you from getting frustrated by continuously falling short of your goal.

One of the nice things about the “mytomatoes” timer is that the website keeps track of all your tomatoes, so you can visually see how much you’ve accomplished in a day.  You can also “squash” a tomato while it is running, but then you do not get credit for it.

Over time, the particulars of the process became less important for me, but whenever I felt myself slipping or feeling like I was not getting as much accomplished as I wanted to, I would go back to my tomatoes, evaluate my progress and set fresh, realistic goals.  It still amazes me how helpful this was.

I wonder how useful this system would be for creative writing?  Currently, when I do sit down to do some creative writing, it seems like I write a couple of paragraphs, then get up to distract myself and lose steam.  I am hoping that by using the pomodoro system, I may be able to force myself into a habit of writing: by committing to 3 tomatoes a day, for example.  In the beginning my goals for those tomatoes will not really matter.  I will simply write for 3 tomatoes.  After a couple of days a pattern should emerge and I will able to determine how to proceed.

Unfortunately I am still working on the last of my dissertation, which will probably take another two weeks to finish, so I am not ready to commit to a creative writing schedule, but I think when I do, I will start by setting a tomato-goal for myself.

In the meantime, (if you’ve made it all the way through to the end of this post – sorry, it turned out to be much longer than I intended) if you are in a rut and think it could help, check out the pomodoro technique and let me know what you think.

Categories: The Process, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pink Elephants Under a Purple Moon

Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to find that, not only had people read my posts, but they actually liked them.  My immediate reaction was, “Well, now I can’t post anything new – what if they don’t like it and decide to ‘unfollow’ me?”  That reaction was succeeded by, “Well, actually, now I have to write more posts because people have ‘followed’ my blog and I need to provide them with something to read – the implication of ‘following’ me is that there will be something more to ‘follow.’”

Nevermind the fact that, ultimately, any writing I do is for me.  Yes, I want people to enjoy what I write.  I would like them to find it interesting, enlightening and informative.  I want people to find my writing fluid and easy to read.  And I LOVE the fact that I have already had positive responses to what I have posted here.

However,…none of that really matters.

I have written numerous academic papers over the years.  I wrote them because they were required of me, but, for example, I never once wrote anything on engineering or biology.  I am a social scientist.  Even if the actual writing was like pulling teeth, the subject was always something that interested me.  I wrote what I thought was important and engaging (…except for those times when I threw some “crap” together at the last minute, which always turned out to be better than I thought while I was writing it).  And these papers always seemed to please my professors.

I need to remember this, and not be afraid of what other people think of me or what I have written.  How will I ever gather the courage to show my fiction to anyone if I fear what people think about my blog posts?

If I start writing for other people, then what I produce will inevitably be sub-par.  So often I have heard the phrase “write what you know,” (which is not un-true).  Well, more recently (thank you Chris Baty), I have heard “write what you love,” even if you are the only one who will enjoy it or want to read it.  If what I want to read involves pink elephants singing and dancing under a purple moon, then that is what I should write.  This is especially true for the stage I am, more or less, currently at – the beginning.

Be fearless in my writing and write for myself.  These are my lessons for the day.

…Now on to that pesky last dissertation chapter.

Categories: Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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