Forbidden Secrets of Novel-Writing (and Sorcery)

It’s been a very good week, all in all. My first two pieces for Mental Floss went up (unusual riots and repurposed mental hospitals!), I just found out a good friend got his dream job and I cleaned my kitchen in a major and necessary way, thanks to inhaling the available-on-Netflix season of The Great British Bake Off. The coming few days will include long-overdue quality time with the friend who got me into Studs Terkel, and therefore journalism; a trip to my favorite hair salon for some touch-ups and pampering; and more than a few excellent holiday parties.

What I’m thinking about, though, in my off-hours, is fiction. I did wind up completing that 50,000-word novel during the month of November, although I’m learning the truth of Terry Pratchett’s dictum now more than ever: The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. What I churned out during NaNoWriMo has a few nuggets and flashes that feel like the right direction, but the more I wrote, the more I realized it was maybe 18% of the thing I ultimately want this story to be.

I say story and not novel, even though novels are what I’m most comfortable with, as a medium, because I have such strong visuals for this story, and I’m really wondering if it should be a comic or a script. But again, written fiction is what I know how to do, so it’s how I can get the story down soonest. This is the first of many things about which I’m getting way, way ahead of myself. (Not a new struggle for me, either.)

But I’m trying to figure out the best way to tease out or work toward the rest. My elevator pitch for this story is “Three young witches join the USO during World War II.” So: What’s the system of magic? What are the communities of magic? What are the rules about participating in non-magic conflicts? How much backstory should I include, on the individual protagonists and on their mutual history? How am I going to research what USO entertainers could reasonably expect on the foxhole circuit, during their day-to-day? Where should they live? How late in the war were U-boats blowing up Allied ships? How do I even write the middle of this book, which I pretty much skipped entirely?

This is in addition to the complexities I want to explore in my three heroines, one of whom is furious that they’re not using their gifts to put an end to the Reich. How exactly do you confront the Holocaust as it’s happening without either trivializing it or letting it dominate the novel? Is that even right? (For instance, I can’t wrap my head around The Book Thief, in which the Holocaust was virtually incidental, save for some plot points that enlightened or ennobled the gentile protagonists. On the other hand, my beloved Captain America sidesteps it entirely, which is no better a solution.) There are also questions of religion meeting atheism meeting magic, and how that upends your world, and how you keep this story from turning into yet another earth-shattering epic, not to mention the accidental triangle of sexual tension that’s emerged with a ghost. Whoops?

There is an answer to all this, and that’s talk to people and do the work. Worrying about how you’re going to organize that conversation is a good way of convincing yourself that you’re doing something when you’re actually just spinning your wheels. (See also: perfectionism.) Anyway, one of my favorite working comics artists is doing an online course starting next month. Why worry when you can just learn?

(Good pep talk, self! Hope you enjoyed that too, reader. What are your best methods for just getting the novel done?)

Advertisements

The Gift From the Allied Field

Right now my love-hate relationship with National Novel Writing Month is tipping solidly into the “love” column. Last night I finished my daily installment at exactly 37,000 words for the whole manuscript. The story is a hot mess and I skipped over basically the entire middle of the novel, but it’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for years and years and years, and I have a good feeling this will clean up into something really cool (and salable!).

Beyond the product of the story itself, I love how NaNo forces you to confront your fear of the blank page. It doesn’t matter how much you’re in your head about the writing itself, you have to put down about 1,700 words a day for 30 days. (There’s even an agreement you sign at the outset.) The beginning of each day’s installment usually feels rough and tentative, but once you get into your flow, it’s amazing how many words end up in your document before midnight. (I seem to do all my writing between 10 p.m. and midnight, which I wouldn’t actually recommend, but racing the clock to log your words before midnight helps in ways that word sprints or word wars on Twitter don’t seem to for me. Comparing your total against a handy wallpaper word count calendar has also been great; I’ve been using this typewriter one.)

But NaNo has been helpful in another way. Earlier this month, I left the job I moved to New York for. It’s been a big change, but I’m moving closer to the career path that most excites me, one that involves a lot more talking to people and writing about them. I’ve been thinking about what NaNo has taught me over the years: Break the big task into manageable bits and celebrate your accomplishments, because the small ones do add up. For instance, I spent a day or so retooling my RealName.com as a genuine portfolio site. I got anxious about spending so much time fiddling with clips selections and choosing templates, but when it was done, I felt confident about what I’d put together. I’d reminded myself that I have a lot to offer, and I can back up that potential with proven work.

In the past few weeks, several friends of mine have moved on to great opportunities at great publications, and from the outside, it’s seemed like those just fell into their laps because they’re great journalists and great people. But they’ve all put in incredible amounts of work and time, and I’m just starting, so, you know: it’s okay to not immediately field dozens of job offers from your dream outlets when you’re an unknown factor. I know it can happen, though. I’ve seen the end result.

Off to the races, self — 50K and freelance both.

Off-Road Pecha Kucha: Repairing Cymbeline

My lovely college friend Hannah Kushnick co-runs this awesome thing every month in Chicago. Pecha Kucha is Japanese for “the sound of conversation,” apparently, and it’s a presentation format in which you make 20 slides that hold for 20 seconds each. She and artist Rachel Herman ask presenters to adapt this any way they see fit, including using theatrical devices and audience participation. This is an unofficial series, held at the amazing Hyde Park Art Center, and Hannah asked me back in April if I wanted to present on the theme of “repair.” The other presenters were so, so great, and we had an awesome discussion (with wine!) after, plus it took place inside a giant sculpture of a bull. You should make it to the next one if you can.

You all know how much I love Cymbeline. A lot of that comes from how frankly wacky it can be. I started thinking about our desire to fix or iron out things we don’t understand, which then led to thoughts about the PowerPoint presentation we’ve all dreaded (and secretly always wanted to sabotage). Here’s my off-road pecha kucha; I hope it makes you smile.

Hello. Hello, welcome. Thank you. To both our esteemed chairs, I appreciate your time. I’m Edeth Garblers, team leader for this action committee, and this is my presentation.
Hello. Hello, welcome. Thank you. To both our esteemed chairs, I appreciate your time. I’m Edeth Garblers, team leader for this action committee, and this is my presentation.

Continue reading “Off-Road Pecha Kucha: Repairing Cymbeline”

One more weekend of ignoring the mercury

Not like this, unfortunately.
Not like this, unfortunately.

Rumor has it February is going out on a snowstorm. I couldn’t be happier to see it go: at least March will tease you about spring. Chicago doesn’t do so well with the “out like a lamb” stuff, but the lion weather it’s got down.

Which means, for me, hoarding links. It’s been a pretty good week, and I’ve got some that were worth hanging onto.

We know by now how I feel about selfies (I enjoy them and find them fascinating). Some data nerds out there find them fascinating too, enough to create Selfiecity, which investigates variations in selfie styles among five cities around the world.

I Am Los Angeles takes a documentary approach, presenting short video portraits of L.A. characters, “unique people who make Los Angeles what it is.” L.A. gets a bad rap most of the time, but it’s a city that’s intrigued me since my first visit in 2012. I would love to get back.

New Orleans Public Radio has put together an audio documentary of St. Claude Avenue, examining how and why the surrounding neighborhoods have changed. This is a city I have always wanted to see for myself.

Nieman Storyboard has assembled a panoply of links about “multimedia narrative and how to interview, structure, choose your medium, edit for sound, identify the story arc and more.” Really looking forward to trawling through these. (And who doesn’t love the chance to use the word “panoply”?)

Interactive storytelling offers so many possibilities for creative engagement and presentation, and it looks like there are already some websites out there to make those opportunities easier to access. Ren’py calls itself a digital novel engine: it “helps you use words, images, and sounds to tell stories with the computer.” Twine provides a framework for online stories that require code you might not know. Both sites feature links to stories that have already been created with their tools. I’m really looking forward to spending more time with these.

Ursula Vernon, one might think, can do it all. Her whimsical-hilarious-earthy-cartoony fantasy artwork (usually featuring unlikely and excellent animals) is a delight, she’s an award-winning cartoonist and author, and if you follow her LiveJournal, she seems to pour forth new fiction fully formed, like someone with an amazing curse. She’s got a problem, though, and it’s one that I confess to feeling myself: she’s bored of fantasy as it stands right now. I link this for two reasons: one, to convey how important it is to think outside the few boxes which are heavily marketed; and two, to scoop up some recommended reading, because despite Vernon saying she’s not interested in book recs right now, dozens of commenters have dropped in their two cents, and some of them might be good.

You want to feed me. Or take me for a walk. Or feed me.
You want to feed me. Or take me for a walk. Or feed me.

Speaking of animals, Cosmic Tuesdays passed along art that speaks to my soul: Headstrong Hound. This is Gus to a T.

I really dig Open Culture, which, per its tagline, provides links to “the best free cultural and educational media on the web.” Not only did this week yield a bass guitar lesson from Paul McCartney, but nearly 90 minutes of Italo Calvino reading from his works in English and Italian. (I have a lot of feelings about Invisible Cities, which was one of those books I discovered my first year of college and utterly fell in love with, both as a work and as a concept to push me as a writer in the genres I adore.)

You wouldn’t think anything good could come from sensational lies about a sensational death, but it looks like David Katz, a good friend of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s, is funding a theater prize with the winnings from a libel suit.

Most of the rest of my tabs are job postings, crock pot recipes and neat things I can’t afford, but let’s end on a weird, hopeful note. The Mammoth Cometh is a long New York Times Magazine article about de-extinction, and one young optimist who really, really loves passenger pigeons. It’s probably the first time I’ve seen someone lay out what the process of de-extinction would actually look like, and what the implications of Jurassic Park-style science could really be on ecosystems and conservation policy. That sounds grim, and the article has some healthy skepticism about it, but I promise it might make you want to write fiction about it.

And with that, we made it! Happy Friday, all. If you’re loving any links, please feel free to share them in the comments! I love links and comments like the little girl up top loves — and I mean loves — conservatory koi.

Interviewed by Alexandra Edwards about storytelling

So this is exciting! The very excellent Alexandra Edwards (transmedia editor of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and all-around cool lady, among other pursuits) interviewed me recently about writing, Shakespeare, Tumblr plugins and adaptation, and the interview just went up, which is — exciting! As someone who hopes to make a living interviewing people, it’s still neat to see how it is from the other side of the table. She asked some really good questions, so I hope you enjoy reading the whole thing!

A lot of your work falls under the rubric of what I’d call adaptation. Why that form, specifically?

The what if? of stories fascinates me. When I was in college, I got in a fight with a friend without knowing it. He was upset with the direction Neil Gaiman’s 1602 had taken, and I didn’t understand why that bothered him so much when you could just write your own version to fix it. Now I see where he was coming from—the stories that get published, that come with “endorsement,” need to be challenged when they mess up—but I get so sparked by the idea that storytelling is a conversation, that stories change when you put them side by side, and that “newness” or “originality” isn’t Athena springing fully formed and unique from Zeus’s skull, but that the remix can reveal truths about the world that we wouldn’t have seen from a story in isolation.

That’s how we create anyway: we, as human beings, are reacting to the world around us, and both change because of that interaction. Other people’s stories are just one facet of a far-flung collage, to torture this metaphor a little. Why should that story be done? Look at this, it can still surprise us! And if someone decided to transform one of my stories, I can’t imagine a higher compliment. You wanted to make something (and did!) because of something I made—how great is that?

More at the link! “Storytelling Is a Conversation”: An interview with writer Esther Bergdahl

You can pick it up if you come down with ID.

This month is — who knows why — supposed to be the month for stories. I’m a big proponent of (Inter)National Novel-Writing Month, and I even said I would be sort of trying it in bits, even as my time at Medill winds down to its final weeks and the final project–a long form narrative piece that I’m rather excited about–looms ever larger.

Part of that has been The Shallow Project, which has been a blast, even if the photo element has proved easier at maintaining than the writing part; and part of that has been a side Tumblr I’m keeping for a story that I know very little about. Which is interesting, because usually when I start (or even fail to start [yet]) a story, I generally know some salient facts about the end, or the premise, or the characters. Right now I’ve got a setting, the barest amount of backstory for the two protagonists, and a vague idea of how writing this story is going to be intensely personal in that way that may or may not be obvious from the outside.

To be fair, I didn’t have any ideas about my half of The Shallow Project before we began, and all I needed for that was to move the story forward every single day. With writing, though, I want to be more certain. I’ve got some bits and bobs — I originally set myself a 750 words a day goal, but then, well, school — and I’m pleased with myself for just writing scenes or character moments, rather than obsessing about plot. When I make the time for it, though, I’d like to sit down with Chuck Wendig’s foul-mouthed and actually perfect questions to answer for character enrichment (which seems more doable than making my way through this comprehensive list of other great ideas). One thing I love about improv is that the story comes from character interaction, not a plot determined by an outside force. I have some plot points in mind, but more than that, I just need to know enough about my characters to set them loose and let myself be surprised.

It should be interesting. I’m not explaining much in public, but if you’re curious:

If you want to ask me (in comments, on Tumblr or over email) any questions about this project, please do! It will probably help me, in all truth, and that I always appreciate.

So! Who wants some links? Internet privacy and democracy, actual spoken Akkadian, unpaid internships and a cello-piano hybrid beyond the jump, plus more!

First I would like to mention that I remembered that I finally have a really nice camera that makes even my messy apartment look amazing. Hurrah DSLR!
First I would like to mention that I remembered that I finally have a really nice camera that makes even my messy apartment look amazing. Hurrah DSLR!

Continue reading “You can pick it up if you come down with ID.”

Space: The Primal Frontier

There’s no better setting for an existential crisis than IKEA. This one starts and ends with a TIDAFORS EDSKEN dark gray sofa.

That’s the opening line of my latest post at Oy!Chicago, Those Blue-and-Yellow Box Store Blues. I really like this post! It’s a good foil to a lot of the things I’ve been wrestling with lately, which have largely included how to use the spaces I inhabit. In the Oy! post, it’s about investing in an apartment; here, on Magpie & Whale, it’s about not building the idea of the site up so much in my head that I never say anything here unless it’s Deep and Meaningful and Well Crafted and Illuminating.

That’s… not very representative of what Being Alive and Being a Person entails. So, time for an arbitrary break with perfectionism. I’ve been super enjoying the blogs of my friends lately (Coming to the Edge and Terra Bear are always good reads!), so I hope to bring more of that to Magpie & Whale in the future, near and far.

(I also hope to bring more fiction here too. And maybe things like book reviews and such, because I finally want to create stories and enjoy books again, after a very long time not feeling either of those things. Given that we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death, I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about that in the coming weeks too, but for now, there’s been a palpable feeling lately of being able to come back into the world, and that’s nice. And she would want that too.)

By the way, you may have noticed that M&W has its very own domain now! I’m still pretty stoked about that. I’ve also added a snazzy (and expansive) Journalism section; this site was originally intended to be a launching pad for my identity as a professional writer of fiction (someday!), but until I commit to making RealName.com anything more than a place where I learned how to CSS and WordPress (yes, those are verbs; no, don’t look, it’s horrible to behold), this is going to be a much more interesting and informative place to be.

Okay! That’s been good. How’re you guys? Hi!