Sunday, 16 February 2014

It's All About the Passion, Baby

If you've seen my Facebook author page or if you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that a few days ago, I finished the first draft of my MWIP (Mysterious Work in Progress).

Let me just repeat that: I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT! WOOHOO! It's currently 112k words and will need LOTS of editing...but at least that first draft is done. Joy!

The next step will be the frankly terrifying one of reading it through and seeing what kind of shape it's in. But not yet. Now, in that lovely state of post-first-draft and pre-editing, I'm thinking about why I write in the first place.
I love movies about people who have a passion for something. It doesn't really matter what. School of Rock: music. The Big Year: bird-watching (or 'birding' as it's apparently called). A League of Their Own: baseball. Stories about that incredible, single-minded drive when you're doing what you feel like you're meant to do. 

I just so totally get it.

In a way, it's strange that I ever had the will to become published. I'm not really the kind of person who keeps working and working at something until she succeeds -- which in my case with writing took years, if not decades. I'm actually kind of lazy, if you want the truth. And impatient. If I can't do/have/experience it NOW, I'm not interested.

Writing was always the exception.

One of my first memories is of writing a story when I was five. I was very serious about it. I included a few lines of made-up publisher and copyright information, because I knew published books had to have that and I was SO going to get this published. (If you're curious, the story was about a fox and a horse who were friends. My dim memory is that the horse was threatened with the glue factory. I'm hoping that the fox saved the day, but who knows; I was a dark child.)

Well, obviously that story wasn't published despite my five-year-old determination. But the intent was there -- and that has never left me.

More than that, writing has always felt like who I am. If I wasn't a writer, published or not, I don't know who I'd be anymore. And it wasn't until I reached a ridiculously late age -- probably my early twenties -- that I realised not everyone feels this way about something. Not everyone is obsessed.

So, yeah: movies about passion.

Have you seen The Big Year? Probably not; I don't think it did very well. I really loved it. It's a gentle, quirky film about 'birding' -- and about the price you sometimes pay for passion.

The Big Year is an annual US contest: who can spot the most species of birds in a single year? As a hobby, birding leaves me cold, yet I totally got the compulsion that would make the protagonists drop everything and grab a plane, just because a certain type of owl had been spotten halfway across the country. I know exactly what that kind of driving force feels like.

There's a cautionary tale here, too. Owen Wilson's character is determined to win the Big Year despite his faltering marriage. He lets his wife down in some very major ways, until at a key moment she asks him to put their marriage first for once, and not fly off to Arizona to chase the next bird.

He can't do it.

Birding is what and who he is. Winning is who he is. The final scene in the film shows him alone: still birding, but painfully aware of the price he's paid.

Sadly, I can identify with this aspect of passion as well. If it had been me, caught up in the midst of some writing obsession -- say, the final stages of editing, when the rest of the world ceases to exist -- my choice might well have been the same. I know my every instinct would have been shouting GO TO ARIZONA, even while gazing at someone I loved.

That's not admirable. It's not even healthy. And, in real life, I hope that if I'd been neglecting my marriage that I'd be able to put writing aside and heal things. But that all-or-nothing, cannot-stop element that was driving Wilson's character?

Yeah. I really get that.

Is this kind of passion worth it? I can't say; for me, it's too deeply ingrained to separate myself from it. I do know that writing brings me intense satisfaction, as does teaching it. I can't imagine not having the craft of stories in my life in some way.

And my suspicion is that worth it on a personal level or not, it's how things valued by society often
get done: the books, the art, the films, the bridge-building -- on and on. Learning to do difficult things well is so time-consuming that without passion to carry us through, we'd never get there.

Which is good, because for some of us there doesn't seem to be a choice: being geekily obsessed with whatever drives us is just who we are. For better or for worse. (Seriously, don't ever give me a glass of wine and start talking about writing. I will keep going for DAYS. Until your ears fall off, probably.)

I wish I could go back in time and tell that little girl writing the story that, you know what? It happened. You're a published author. Your copyright info is printed up by real publishers now, instead of being drawn on with a crayon.

I don't think she'd be surprised. She was so certain. But the me who actually got published -- the one who lived through all the intervening years -- still has to pinch herself every day. And, for me, it wouldn't have happened without that driving force that refused to let me stop. That same driving force will carry me through once I'm editing the new novel, having moments of both ecstasy and despair.

What about you? Have you got a passion? Tell me about it -- I'd love to hear!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Top 10 Signs That The Writing's Not Going Well

So here I am deep in the writing-cave.

Thanks for joining me -- pull up a rock. Do you like the decor? I suppose you'd call it 'Early Gothic', with those iron candle sconces everywhere. Maybe with a splash of 'I Dream of Jeannie' -- you've gotta have at least one comfy cushion, right? Even if the candle wax keeps dripping on it. (And I would totally let you use my cushion for that rock of yours, except that I've got a sore bum from sitting down for so long. Sorry 'bout that.)

You'll be glad to know that my time here has been productive: the new novel is marching ever onward, and the light at the end of the tunnel is nigh. In fact, if the writing-gods are kind, I should have a (very) rough first draft in place in a matter of days. Yes, I said DAYS! WOOHOO!

And that's not all. Over the past month or so in the cave, I've also been compiling a rather comprehensive list of what happens when the writing is NOT going well. Because, you know...swings 'n' roundabouts 'n' stuff.

But hey, there's no reason why my head-bang-wall moments shouldn't be shared for your blog-reading amusement, is there? Of course not!

So here you are:

The Top Ten Signs that the Writing is Not Going Well

1. You have a sudden and irresistible need to go tweeze your eyebrows. You cannot keep writing with those unruly things lurking on your brow for another instant.

2. You become fascinated by the concept of dust motes. Could they be tiny universes? Worlds within worlds drifting past?

3. That reminds you: your work space is dusty. How can you possibly write with all that dust everywhere?

4. Oh look -- here's a funny video of a cat barking on YouTube.

5. You spend an hour perfecting the fine art of making mouth-popping noises like Donkey.

6. You go to Cafe Nero to write, where you drink too many cappuccinos and look for vintage dresses on eBay.

7. You check on your pet spider, the one whose web you allowed to stay on your windowsill. You watch him for a very long time.

8. You rearrange all the icons on your Smartphone, then put them back again.

9. You stare at all the books by other authors on your shelves and occasionally flip through one at random and cry a little. 

10. You become distracted by writing 'Top 10' lists.

Thanks so much for joining me here in the cave -- it was great to have some company! But you know what? I think I'll have to ask you to leave now. Because I've finally worked out that tricky scene right near the end and I can hardly wait to dive back into it. *rubs hands together with glee*

(Do you have any signs of your own for when the writing's not going well? Leave a comment and let me know!)

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Road Trip!

I am maybe -- just maybe -- planning another US road trip.

I've become quite a connoisseur of them...all in the name of research, you understand.

That's true about the research. But the fact is also that I'm American, which means I'm hard-wired to find road trips pretty much the most fun it's possible to have while still in your car. There's just something mesmerising about them -- watching the US slowly slide past as you travel the old state highways (road trip rule number one: NO FREEWAYS). And, in my case, they're sometimes essential.

Pardon me while I do a happy-dance and thank whatever gods that be that this is my actual job.

Remember the road trip in Angel (Angel Burn in the US)? Alex and Willow drive from upstate New York to New Mexico, and from there to the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. As I was writing the first draft, I kept thinking, "It would be SO cool to make this trip myself." And then I thought... why not? I'd done a fair bit of travelling in the US, but there were still places on that drive that I'd never seen. And although Angel was fiction (well, I hope it's fiction, or we're all in trouble!), I still wanted it to feel as real as possible.

"I think I might take a road trip," I said to my husband.

He looked at me.

"See?" I said, showing him the map. "I'm going to rent a car and drive from here in New York state to New Mexico, and then on to California."

In case you don't know, this is a very long way.

My husband looked at the map -- all 3,000 miles of the trip. Then he looked at me again.

"I'm coming with you," he said.

Well, I had kind of envisioned hitting the road on my own -- just me and my characters, hanging out and bonding together. But the idea scared me a little, too. The US is a big place. Having my husband along turned out to be perfect. For one thing, he's lovely and funny and excellent company. For another, he likes to drive, so he did most of it, while I got to gaze out the window and occasionally take notes about what I was seeing. (Um, why exactly did I want to go on my own again?)

I'd gotten a lot of things right in that first draft, but some significant things wrong, too. Wow, who knew that eastern Tennessee was so hilly? Or that the panhandle of Texas was so INCREDIBLY flat, with its horizon a long, hypnotic line in the distance?

The most important thing, though, was going to New Mexico.That's where my main character Alex was from, and I'd never been there. I was determined to find the exact spot where Alex's father's training camp was, where Alex had been raised.

We travelled all over the state. We saw so many places that could have been the camp's location... yet they just didn't feel right. Then we drove past a particular patch of desert. I didn't say anything, but thought, "I wonder if that was it?"

Suddenly my husband pulled over to the side of the road and turned around. "I think that might have been it," he said.

The psychic link had spoken. That was indeed it.

I walked through the sand to a fence and gazed out at the view. A hot breeze was blowing as I looked out at the location of Alex's camp. This setting is such an important part of the story...and now, for the first time, I could actually see it. I could touch the juniper bushes. Smell the dust in the air.

This is what a research trip is all  about. The internet is a great friend to writers: I use it constantly. But you can't actually feel the wind on your face or know exactly what that gritty soil feels like under your feet.

Then came Angel Fire. I was writing about Mexico City. I HAD NEVER EVEN BEEN TO MEXICO. Panic! Research time! I read book after book about my setting, and thankfully, we were also able to go there. Driving to our hotel, it was amazing to see the Zocalo -- one of the world's largest city squares -- with the Catedral Metropolitana rising up at one end. A major scene in Fire takes place there; it was like meeting an old friend.

And once we got inside, I realised it was an old friend that had been totally misrepresented on YouTube.

This is why you can't always trust the Internet. I'd watched every video I could find of the cathedral's interior, and not one showed that when you first step inside, all you can see is a small altar at the front. I'd envisioned a big, open space. Nope. You have to walk past the mini-altar to get to that. The solution was simple -- mention a cathedral redesign once the angels had taken over -- but without going there, I'd never have known there was a problem.

Same goes for the famous "Lions' Gate" outside the Bosque de Chapultepec, the city's largest park. See, there's this awesome gate leading into the park with huge lion statues to either side. In a scene where Seb and Willow have just met, I had Seb leaning against one of these lions. Great, huh?

Well, it would have been, if they hadn't TAKEN THE GATE AND THE STATUES DOWN.

"But why?" I bleated to the park attendant when I finally figured out what he was saying to me. "It's a really famous gate!"

(Yes, he thought I was mad.)

(Yes, I probably am.)

Warily, using non-startling motions and a soothing tone, the attendant directed me to some other lion statues inside the park. ("Wow, she must really like lion statues," he must have been thinking.) I rewrote the scene using these statues instead, and was able to keep the imagery of Seb leaning against the lion.

Does any of this matter? How many readers will even know if there are really lion statues outside a particular park or not?

I think it does. I'm writing fiction, yet I want it to feel as true as possible, as if you were there yourself. And if you know a place I'm writing about, I want it to feel like coming home. I'm sure all three Angel books have mistakes, but not for lack of trying.

We did an Angel Fever road trip, too. Remember when Willow drives from Nevada to New York State, by way of Canada? That's what we did. And I'd had no idea that Canadians have different road sign designs for each province. I should have guessed -- US states have different road sign designs -- but it hadn't even occurred to me to check.

It's one of those little things that count.

Now I'm working on a new trilogy. I'm doing lots of reading for research...but there are also some locales that need checking out. I was mulling aloud about where a particular setting should be, when my husband said, "How about Alaska?"

Bingo! Not only have I always wanted to go there, it's perfect for my story purposes. So these days I'm busy gazing at maps of Alaska and thinking about the trip we'll probably take -- from somewhere in that big, vacant interior down through Canada, and then the Western US coast to Los Angeles -- which just might, possibly, be another story locale.

I love my job.