Monday, October 29, 2012

The coming storm

Get your survival gear and batten down the hatches because it's...

        NaNoWriMo!                   (Dun dun dun)

What? Did you think I was talking about Hurricane Sandy?

We inturrupt your regularly scheduled blog for a message from our socially conscious host:

My thoughts and prayers are with those on the East Coast. Stay safe and for heaven's sake, stay home! I know it's not every day a hurricane knocks on your door, but seriously people, don't become victims of storm stupidity. I know the monster waves are cool and you want to witness them first hand, but do you really need to risk getting washed out to sea or impaled by a golf club? God gave us Hi-def TV for a reason. I'm just sayin'.

Now back to the program.

November is nigh and even though there are natural storms and political storms brewing, don't forget to prepare for the annual writing flurry that is NaNoWriMo. Get your personal affairs in order, clean the house (because let's face it, you're not going to be vacuuming when you could be writing instead), stock up on your favorite writing snacks (hopefully healthy ones) and caffeinated beverages, and set the  DVR to record the football games and TV shows.

What's that? You're not doing NaNo this year? Why the hell not?! Just because you don't think you can write 50,000 words in a month doesn't mean that you shouldn't try. I've never written that much in a month and aren't likely to until I can afford to write full-time but I still do a fashion. Rather than a true NaNoWriMo novel, I work on my WIP and set a word count goal that I normally wouldn't reach before the end of the month. In a normal month I write about 500 words a day, six days a week. That's about 13,000 words before edits (because I can't resist the urge to edit). During NaNo I push that daily goal to 1,000 so my monthly goal is only 30,000 words. It never gets me anywhere near the end of my novel, but I'm a lot closer at the end of November than I normally would be. Plus, since it's not a throwaway project that I'm doing just for the sake of NaNo, they're all productive words and I don't have to transition back into the WIP in December either.

If you're not doing NaNo because it conflicts with the holidays or some other activity, don't let that hold you back either. Last year, I started three days late because of my sister's wedding. When Thanksgiving day rolled around, I rose early so I could go for my morning walk and still get some writing in before the baking and festivities began. I even took a night off to go watch The Muppet Movie with Mary Robinette Kowal, Lee Moyer, and Brent Weeks because not even NaNoWriMo was going to make me pass up an opportunity like that. I didn't meet my word goal last year. I was about 8,000 words shy if I recall, but I don't count last year or any year as a failure. The whole point behind NaNo is to get people to stop aspiring of being a writer by being a writer. If I wrote more than my normal word count in November, I count that as a successful NaNo. If I learned how to manage my time better or how to ignore distractions better, than I also count that as a NaNo success.

When it comes to giving gifts, everyone says that it's the thought that matters. I believe that when it comes to NaNoWriMo, it's the intent of NaNo and what you intend to get out of it that matters. Keep that in mind and there's no way you can fail. With that in mind, Happy NaNo everyone!

If you want to keep tabs on how my NaNo is going, I'll be posting regular updates on my G+ and Facebook pages.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Braving Babylon

I love Halloween. Next to Christmas and my birthday, it’s my favorite holiday. Yes, I love the candy and dressing up – not surprising for a theater girl – but I also love the idea that for one night, you can be anything you want. It doesn’t matter if it’s outlandish and strange (or slightly criminal), it’s perfectly acceptable.

Of course, having a theater background, I rarely limit my costumed shenanigans to October 31st. I’ve shown up to signings in costume, ushered a play in costume, and I’ve even done a photoshoot as a vampire (complete with live victims). But that means that on Halloween, I really have to pull out the stops.

This year’s masterpiece is the rebel alliance uniform from Babylon 5.

I bought the fabric two years ago with the intention of having in made in time for Dragon*Con. Unfortunately, my travel plans fell through so the costume construction was put of as well. This summer I finally grew tired of tripping over the bag of fabric (it’s a really big bag) so I’m finally tackling it. Part of the reason for the delay in making it was that it was such a daunting task. I’m making this from scratch from two different patterns with similar lines. It also requires me to work with leather, which is something I’ve never done before, and the braided trim has to be dyed and sewn on by hand. I’m no stranger to sewing but that was just too much for me to handle back then. I want this to be as accurate as possible and I didn't believe that my abilities were up to it. I don't feel that way anymore. Why? Because my perspective has changed. 

Two years ago, I decided to take writing seriously. When I had to cancel my Dragon*Con plans, I had yet to go to Dave's Writer's Death Camp -- where my creative eyes were opened -- and most importantly, I had yet to start work on the YA novel. My creative mettle hadn't been tested and therefore, I hadn't developed mental capacity to break down enormous tasks into bite size pieces. Not only did I find the determination to finish by my deadline, I found the perseverance to make the manuscript match my vision. Instead of saying "there's no way that's going to work" I can say "I can do that."

It's making this costume's construction so much easier. If a monkey is thrown into my plan, it's ok because I can deal with it once piece at a time. I can correct it and as Tim Gunn would say, "make it work." If for some reason I find myself over my head, I can go to the expert (my mom in this case) and get her advice on how to make it work. I don't have to wonder if I'm going to finish it in time for Halloween because I know I'll do what it takes to make it happen.

I love being an unstoppable force. It's empowering knowing that I can do anything I set my mind too and after doing it once with success, it's so easy to do it a second, third, and three-hundreth time. No mountain is too high, no task too big. I really can do anything (except kill large spiders and whistle, but that doesn't count).   :) 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Location, location, location

No one can deny that writers are a peculiar people. For many, one of those peculiarities is that we can only write in a certain location.  Some can only write at their desk while sitting in their special chair, others have to be sprawled out on the couch with a moleskin. Personally, I can write just about anywhere as long as there aren’t too many distractions (TV, Facebook, people trying to engage me in conversation). However, when I’m on a time crunch, the one thing I do need in order to crank out the words is a place with a lot of creative energy. It could be a coffee shop where writers congregate. My favorite is Case Study Coffee in Portland. That shop is practically a haven for writers and the delectable variety of drinks and noshes only make it better. The only downside is it’s about forty miles away. As much as I love Case Study and the amount of work I can blow through it’s not a journey I can make on a regular basis. There are a few shops closer to home that are very nice and possess a menu that is just as delectable, but they don’t have the right energy.

I should probably explain what I mean when I speak of energy. I’m not referring to it exclusively in scientific terms or even in the metaphysical way that a medium would – though, it’s probably closer to the way an acupuncturist perceives it. To put it in slightly more precise terms, I perceive energy in the way that stage actors do. A live audience in a theater participates in the performance a lot more than one would think. Every laugh, gasp, chuckle, tear, and ovation exudes energy. It’s something that actors rely on to make their performance extraordinary because they feed off it – literally. Why do they do it? Simple. Performances are draining. It doesn’t matter if it’s a comedy, drama, or musical. It takes a lot of energy to emote and leap about the stage every night. If an actor had to do it using just their own reserves, they’d be exhausted by the end of the night. They need the audience’s reactions and the energy those reactions transfer in order to monologue and not faint. In some ways it makes stage actors a lot like vampires (besides the fact that they favor dark recesses and are rarely seen during the day). If you talk to any stage actor, they’ll tell you that matinees are an anathema. Other than that performing during the day is unnatural, matinee audiences, for some little understood reason, rarely exude the same energy that evening audiences do. The result is that the performance isn’t as vigorous as normal and leaves the actors more drained as well.

Perhaps it’s the result of being on stage for so many years, but I find that writing is much the same. If I’m in a place where other people are writing, doodling, knitting, singing, or any other creative pursuit, I can produce far more and far better work than I can at home. I need that energy boost to type and not be brain dead. I can (and have on many occasions) slog through it for the sake of my budget. But there are days that I crave the high that comes from my fingers flying across the keys as I blaze through yet another chapter. And why shouldn’t I crave it? As far as addictions go, I could do far worse. At least I’m being productive and not self-destructive.

If you’re not an energy vampire, don’t dismay. We can’t all be the creative undead.

Just kidding.

In all seriousness, I only have my own experiences to go by in this. I haven’t heard of anyone else who works this way. Heck, I may be a lone weirdo, but that’s ok because this is the profession where doing what works for you is always a good thing.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Speak up please. I can’t hear you.

Earlier this week I told some friends that I finally started work on chapter 3 of the cyberpunk novel that might be turning a techno-thriller (more on that development later). I knew it was going to be tricky since not only was the chapter going to be from a POV that I haven’t written from yet, I’m also introducing an important supporting character and the villain. Normally that would be challenging enough, but there were a few more issues that compounded it. The first issue was time.

As I mentioned previously, it’s been almost two years since I wrote the first chapter – where both viewpoint characters are introduced. That meant that it’s been almost two years since I’ve heard his voice. I did reacquaint myself with his character in August when I did all of that outlining, but that’s not the same thing as getting reacquainted with his voice. At least it wasn’t for me. To me, knowing a character and how they view the world and knowing how they speak are two separate things -- the latter being a result of the former. However, until my brain has identified and latched onto that connecting link between the two, I can’t write from that POV.

The second issue is that until I have that instinctual connection with a character, I can’t make the other elements in the chapter as effective as they need to be. In this particular case, introducing two important characters and foreshadowing their roles with subtlety is not going to happen if I’m more focused whether or not the POV character would really say __________ that way or not.

This dilemma caught me off guard. I didn’t have this kind of trouble with my other POV character. After a quick review, I was able to jump right in and go. (Granted, that POV character tends to view everything with a cynical eye so it wasn’t that big of a stretch.) It took me a few days to realize that the real problem wasn’t so much that I didn’t remember how to write from the second character’s POV, it was that I’d forgotten how to make them sound different. Both characters are best friends and have very similar backgrounds: they’re the same ethnicity, went to the same schools, and work in similar fields. By any right, they should sound exactly the same. What made them individuals rather than twins were the deviations in their paths, the little unfortunate happenings that turned one into a cynic and the other into a foil of sorts. Once I had those events and differences in the forefront of my mind, I could finally hear them – both of them. It felt so good to have both of them in my head again. As an added victory bonus, they were having a crucial conversation. It was one that I’d outlined but hadn’t intended to write for a few weeks. Since a conversation was how I had initially cemented their voices in my mind in the first place, and the conversation they were having was one that I needed anyway, it made sense to skip ahead and write it down.

I find it funny that every time I’m having difficulty with a scene or a character, the problem isn’t that they’re not conveying to me what’s going on, the problem is that I’m not listening. I’m not paying attention to what’s most important to the story and/or the character. Knowing that I can always find the solution simply by shifting my focus is very comforting. Especially since the skill transfers well to my personal life.

Monday, October 1, 2012

How is a piano like a dictionary?

I had a revelation yesterday as I sat in the chapel. A member of the congregation played some beautiful prelude music while we waited for the final meeting to start. It was clear to everyone that he was very talented. The pieces he played were difficult variations of favorite LDS hymns but as I sat and observed, I noticed some things that made me dislike him. The first revelation was that there wasn't any sheet music on the stand. All he had was a hymnal. The beautiful runs and trills he played were improvised.

Completely. Disgusting.

My mom made me take piano lessons when I was little. Mom was a classically trained pianist and she wanted my siblings and I to have the same knowledge and appreciation of music. I quit playing when I was ten -- I hated practicing the jaunty ditties in the lesson books and was rarely allowed to play anything else -- but I still sat down and played a pop song or show tune when the mood struck me. I even improvised a bit once. The song I played that particular time was in a book that was missing the last few pages. It was one of my favorites so I figured I'd play what was there before I moved on to something else. It wasn't until I was about four bars off the page that I even realized I'd run out of music.

As much as I'd like to chalk off this gentleman's improvisations as a fluke in order to preserve my pride, I can't. A few bars can be a fluke but four songs in a row is the product of skill from decades of practice. It's a skill that I would possess if I hadn't quit. (Yes, there's a life lesson in that alone.)

The second thing I didn't like was that there was absolutely no dynamics. Every song was played at the same tempo (fast) and the same volume (loud). After the third song, I felt like I was listening to a bad techno album where every song used the same drum machine track. Despite his obvious skill, his lack of attention to this made me want to instantly write him off as an amateur.

I should probably back up a bit and mention that I'm a bit of a piano snob. I know that pianists laud Steinway, Schimmel, and Yamaha, but the only piano that holds a place in my heart is a Kawai grand. It's the brand my mom owns and subsequently, the instrument I learned on. It's also the brand of piano found in just about every LDS meeting house in the country. 

Why do I love the Kawai? It has a pure, clear, bright sound that isn't muffled like the Yamaha and it's a very sensitive instrument. On a lesser piano, it doesn't matter how hard you hit the keys, the sound is the same. But on a very good instrument, if you hit the keys hard, the sound is loud. If you press lightly on the keys, the sound is soft and tenuous. Sometimes, if you use the slowest and slightest of touches it produces no sound at all. A person that was less snobbish than I would argue that you can get the same effect from the dampening pedals (for those that don't know, that would be the two on the left). But an aficionado would tell you that any pianist worth their salt rarely uses the dampening pedals. Instead, they prefer the freedom of expression that can only be found on a sensitive instrument.

Because of the musical education my mom imparted to my siblings and I, I understand the power of dynamics. By changing the tempo and/or volume you can add emotion to a piece of music. When classical music lovers talk about expression, what they're really talking about is the musician's ability to use dynamics to tweak the piece and inject some personality without changing a single note. When you use dampening pedals the sound softens instantly in a pre-measured interval. But there are times when you don't want to dampen it that much. That's when the instrument's capabilities come in because you can control that interval. Instead of one big jump in the sound level, you can increase and decrease the sound by the minutest degree.

If you want to hear the difference, here's a couple links:

Moonlight Sonata Mvt. 3 at standard tempo

Moonlight Sonata Mvt. 3 with more dynamics

By not taking advantage the Kawai's full range, this gentleman wasted an opportunity to be truly brilliant. It marked him as a hobbyist instead of a master.

I've found that writers have the same flexibility and range of expression with language. Like a master pianist, a skilled writer can pull a reader's heartstrings, make their pulse quicken, or even make them cry with the power of the written word. Perhaps it's a developing linguistic snobbery, but I feel that as writers we have a responsibility to use language to our full advantage. It's our artistic privilege. Why should we just tell a story when we can take people on a journey? I've heard some writers criticize those who "waste time" searching for the perfect word. Instead of criticizing them, we should applaud their dedication. They knew what effect they wanted and didn't rest until the the precise tool that could accomplish it was found.

Artistry shouldn't be vilified.

So what if it took them a few hours or a few drafts? No one criticizes a pianist that practices the same (musical) phrase over and over again. No one expects them to sight read a piece and perform it perfectly. Likewise, we shouldn't be afraid to consult a thesaurus or a dictionary on a regular basis. Language is our instrument and we need to fully understand its capabilities so we can take a lovely tale and turn it into something glorious.