Friday, April 27, 2012

Perchance to Write, Perchance to Dream

There is one thing I won’t allow in my bedroom.
No wait. Two things.
OK. Three.

But let’s go back to that first one.

A Dream Catcher.

They’re not allowed. None for me.

You know. Those netlike Native-American wall hangings made of string and feathers, designed so that the “good” dreams flow through and the “bad” dreams get tangled up, sparing you from nightmares.

Fuck that.

As a writer, (and a horror writer) I find every dream is important, and the more my writing comes from “the place where I dream” the better that writing is.

For years I have kept a dream journal next to my bed, and when I remember a dream I write it down. The longer I’ve done this the more I tend to remember, and the more details come to me. Here are a few random samples:

There is a wooden tray made of 2x4s where Stephen King’s forgotten ideas go. I marvel at this, peering at this weird, luscious tray filled with dark thoughts. As I watch, the first story morsel I see is this: Undead Benji. A gray-brown schnauzer mix mutt has been hit by a car. The dog’s face is scraped open down to his skull; his body is missing chunks, leaving exposed red spots of muscle and blood, as if hungry sharks had fed on him. And yet he walks a silent and empty daytime house, wagging his partial tail, waiting for his two boy masters to come home from school.

I step outside the party and see an old woman walking her pet lioness. The woman looks like a confused baby vulture. She wears a fuzzy coat of light violet-gray material that reminds me of feathers. Her stare is vacant and perhaps a bit evil. The lioness looks every bit as old as the woman—but more alert and intelligent. It stalks on its chain outside the circle of party guests, looking for a partier to drag down.

Arnold Schwarzenegger gives me his autograph using a black permanent marker on the only thing I have handy—a steel, medieval helmet. When I look at his signature, he has instead drawn a very elaborate drawing of what looks to be a robed were-fox carrying a scimitar and a jeweled staff. Instead of his name he has written underneath the illustration, “THEY ARE DOWN THERE.”

I meet a well-dressed man who I realize is an angel. As I watch wings unfurl from his shoulders, fragile, copper-colored and weightless, like foil from French chocolates. A flaming halo whooshes alight atop his head, made of blue-yellow flames. “You are like me,” he says, “you just didn’t know it until now.”

This is just a smattering sample of the random firings of my nighttime brain. Looking back over my dream journals it is interesting for me to see the things I have dreamt about (celebrities, child hood places, bad jobs, long dead loved ones, ninjas, dwarfs, a river full of dead hippos) and the strange way that these things are combined. It’s nothing my conscious mind would come up with—and that’s why, as a writer, I value them. Writing them down, I believe helps put me in touch with the magic that is in dreaming—and the magic I’d love to capture in my fiction writing in general.

In the book, From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler, (I just read it recently) the author asserts that to get at the “white hot center” of your writing, you need to tap into the more emotional part of your subconscious, and almost go into a trance-like state—instead of thinking about what you are doing and therefore fully ignoring the analytical voice in your head (that will result in crap writing).

To get at this more emotional, dream-like writing (and I’m overly summarizing the book here) Butler recommends things like always writing daily, getting up early to write when the connection to your subconscious is strongest, and if possible writing in the same time and place (and maybe even with a different writing tool than you do for your other non-creative writing). So for instance, if you write on your computer, always use a different font or screen color for your creative work. These things are all ways to get into that dreamy, writing “zone.”

I also have some recurring dreams. My favorite one is about a big, beautiful mansion in the country that my wife and I own. Sometimes it is on a scenic mountain, sometimes it is next to a placid lake. I don’t visit it in my dreamlife for months at a time, but when I go back to this mansion of dreams, its there waiting, ready to be swept out and unlocked, and each time I discover some cool new room or secret area that had been hidden like a library or an observatory. One time there were aquariums set in the walls, each filled with albino sting rays hovering about.


I have a cheesy dream interpretation book on my bed stand, but as near as I can tell, almost anything you might dream about (per this book) is “bad luck in business.”

One guy I thought had dream interpretations nailed was Dr. Charles McPhee (you might have heard him on late night radio years ago). Unfortunately he passed away in 2011. Here is his link to his site:
and one of his books, Ask the Dream Doctor

And just because I can my favorite song about dreams (even featuring Louis Armstrong):

So what do you dream about? And how can you bring more dreaming into your writing?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Dog Days of the First Draft

They say the most important part of writing is to finish something.

That's it.

Edits? Critiques? Rewrites? Yes, that is all very important too, most definitely, but without actually finishing something, then what's the point, right? In the early stages, you have to keep that forward momentum going. You have to ignore the glaring faults. You have to ignore the inconsistencies. You have to ignore all those nagging doubts nipping at your heels like a pack of wolves looking to bring you down.

You have to finish. At least, that's what they say...

But it's not always that easy, you know?

No. In fact, it's really hard. Most people won't do it. Most people can't do it, because it's hard. It's hard to keep going when you know there are problems and there's no end in sight and it all feels just... terrible. 

Plot problems. Pacing problems. Inconsistent details. Unecessary characters. Things to add. Things to subtract. Unclear direction. Not enough description. Too much description. Questions of value and worth. Concerns about marketability. You should never write toward the market, but that doesn't mean you should be wasting your time on a dud project, right? And how do you know if it's a dud project or not? Questions, comments and concerns. It pokes at you. It slows you down and it can stop you cold. It threatens to take you out at the knees.

That's where I am right now, the middle of nowhere with a long way to go.

I'm working on my second book, so I've kind of touched on these ideas before. 

I've talked about starting over. I've talked about motivation. I am a little over halfway through the first draft now (at least, that's what my general plotting tells me), which means I am smack dab in the doldrums, slogging through a narrative quagmire as I try to bridge one part to the next, plagued with motivation and world detail questions, blah, blah, blah... right? It's maddening, but you have to ignore it and keep on keeping on, because as soon as you start editing and re-editing, and then editing some more, as soon as you start spinning your wheels, staring at that blank page and worrying about what comes next, as soon as you start fretting over value...

You're sunk.

You have to finish. I mean, really, what other choice do you have? Quit writing? No, you have to remember that it's supposed to be like this. After all, what's the common addendum to the Finish Something Rule:

But that's the sticking point, right?

I may know that I can come back, that I can fix it all later, but sometimes it is hard to keep that in mind. At times I feel like that room in my head filled with all the junk and scrap and bits and pieces that I drag out and hammer into the shape of my stories is pitch black and I am just stumbling around in there hoping to find my way. And sometimes it feels like that's not going to happen, that I'm just stumbling around in the dark. Lost. That's scary. It threatens the whole project.

I know my first book was a struggle. I know that. Thinking back on it now, it seems like it just kind of happened. One day: Poof! Book. Like I just wrote a few chapters, I planned ahead a bit, maybe changed my mind here and there, wrote a bit more when some stuff occurred to me and then it was done. Boom.

First draft finished, easy-breezy, lemon-squeezey!

That's a lie, of course, a recollection colored by fear and doubt and probably the failings of an aging mind, but still... When you're in the middle of it all, and that second draft is so far away, it's hard to remember that the first draft is an important tool. That it's just a frame work, a map to something better. It's hard to remember that the First Draft is just that, a First Draft, one of many and that it's not done.

And honestly, barreling ahead? That can often be the fun part. What happens next? It could be anything. It could be inspiring. It could be new and brilliant and twisty and awesome. It could change everything. What happens next? It could be amazing, yeah, but that fear and doubt reminds you that it could also be terrible.

But that's the rub, right? What happens next? To find out, you have to keep going. You have to finish, even if it might get ugly.

Keep writing,

Saturday, April 14, 2012


The Vonnegut quote Claudia included in her most recent blog resonated with me, being the crafty grrl I am. (Ooh! Just had an image of my grave stone: "Here lies a Crafty Girl, Dreaming of Wool" So sweet!) I've always loved making things by hand, learning new arts and crafts. And tho' I am good at some of the stuff I try my hand at, other stuff - not so much. But in the doing of it all, I do feel like I'm settling into my rightful bones. And I know that getting to that joy is only a needle, a pencil, a thread away.

Quilt by Annie Mae Young

But even though I know that I can pretty much always be creative, there is a fear I'm currently living within.

For now, I have done what I can do on my current WIP. Uncountable drafts. Trimmed 40,000 words. With my fellow Scribblerati's help, grown tremendously as a writer. (Nestled within my pile of scratch paper are pages from my early drafts of Once We Were Bears. When one surfaces to the top? Oh, how I cringe, reading my first, floundering attempts at writing.) I am proud of what I've done. Even if I never see Beryl in print, writing her into existence as kept me more sane, more happy than I would have been without her. And I know I'll always be proud of what I've accomplished - I wrote a book. I freakin' wrote a goddamn book! Not everyone can say that.

But what if this is it? I've tried my hand that this craft, loved doing it, got a finished product, but what if that well's dry now and it's time to move on to the next medium. My writing groupmates are inspirational with their writing down their many, many ideas for their next stories, with their being a good ways through next novels as they finish the editing on last one. Not me. I do have one idea, but the inner critic is awfully loud right now. And I don't have a flood of ideas. Just that one little drop.

I tell myself that it might just be my personality - I really like finishing something completely before I move on to the next project. But I am sensing glimmers of hope: as I've been drawing to a close with Beryl, I've noticed images floating to the surface of my consciousness. Pears fragrant in their ripeness. Tiny scrawls of writing along the curve of flower petals. A rippled pool.

How to live with fear and not be stymied by it? Well, for one, I'm gonna try my idea out on Scribblerati. And I'm gonna keep listening to the burbling until I can make out the words.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Oh... you're a WRITER.

There are so many clichés out there about writers, and about how people perceive writers. For a long time, I thought that most of them were untrue – that is until I started writing in earnest. Then some of them started to slide into place.

No, we’re not all outsized naked mole-rats, smelling of unwashed hair and swigging Jack Daniels while we listen to Mahler for inspiration – Telling our friends we’re writing the Great American Novel on our antique typewriter, while really we’re spending all our time anonymously posting vitriolic online diatribes about Stephenie Meyer.

That’s simply not true. I prefer Maker’s Mark.


But really, now. Not one of my fine Scribblerati friends, nor I, fit that description. Well, to my knowledge. I don’t spy on them at home, after all. (Okay, now I just got an image of a tipsy Lisa cackling maniacally while typing EDWARD SUX in all caps on some tweener website, and the image is very funny.)

But I digress.

So, yes, some of the clichés are untrue, or untrue at least for my writer friends and me. I’m sure those people exist.

But how about the old trope that once you tell someone you’re a writer, one of two questions pops out of their mouth – 1) “Where do you get all your ideas?” and 2) “You’re not going to study me and put me in your book, are you?” – I used to think this was just the silly invention of screenwriters (Like the fact that people in movies and on TV almost never say goodbye on the telephone. Go ahead, check it out. They just hang up, knowing the conversation is done. People pretty much don’t do that in real life.) – but I’ve been asked both of these things quite a few times in the last several years.

"He didn't even say goodbye!"

To answer them, 1) I’ve always found this question very odd. I get my ideas from my brain. Like you do. (Click here for tonal context.) I, unlike some writers, have an excess of ideas. I am an idea factory. A good, sometimes great, idea factory, if I do say so myself. It doesn’t matter, of course, unless, until I actually finish something. People don’t want to read plot pitches and descriptions of futuristic societies; they want to read completed stories.

2) I will only study you and use elements of you to create a character if you are exceedingly bizarre and/or fascinating, and if you’re asking me that question, I’m sorry, but you’re probably not. (Wow, I sounded like Jon there.) Okay, that's a little unfair, and untrue. Of course writers draw on their interactions with other human beings to write believable characters, but I, in my admittedly limited experience - let's say I've created 50 characters in my lifetime thus far - have never based a character solely on one person. (Except, perhaps historical figures. But even then you're making a lot of it up, playing a part.)

But back to a cliché that I mentioned earlier… the idea that every writer aspires to write the Great American (or Irish, or Belgian, or whathaveyou) Novel. I don’t. I don’t need to be the next William Styron or James Joyce. Okay, maybe I’d take F. Scott Fitzgerald or Kurt Vonnegut Jr., but only because I adore their writing. But I’m not them, I know I’m not them, and not only that, I don’t have a burning desire to impress the world of academia with my writing efforts, nor to go down in the annals of time as one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Sure, I want stellar reviews, and I want to share my stories with millions of people and, naturally, make a lot of money doing what I love, but mostly, all I’ve ever wanted to do is entertain the nice people. (Click here for tonal context.)

And speaking of Mr. Vonnegut, I came across this quote today.

I then thought about what…was it Neil Gaiman? said was the best piece of writing advice he could give: “Finish something.”

The first quote is freeing, and the second is both frightening for those of us who haven’t finished a novel yet, and beautiful in its simplicity. Stop fretting over perfection, or failure. Finish it, finish it, finish it. Another cliché about aspiring novelists – we're forever working on that first novel, and never completing it.

For today, I’d like to combine those two ideas, and task myself to finish something creative that is NOT my novel. Finishing an artistic endeavor is immensely satisfying, and I think it fuels us creatively in all areas. A novel takes so long to write, that that satisfaction can only be taken in small doses (I finished this chapter! I finished this draft!), and as for the final word of the final page of the final draft? It takes years of mostly solitary effort. So, for today, I say finish a sewing project, a painting, a poem, a clay model, practice a monologue, do something, FINISH something artistic – no matter how good or how lousy it is, as Mr. Vonnegut would advise. Who's with me?

(As for me, I’m going to pounce on my Wonder Woman crop art. My progress thus far. Her skin, if you're wondering, is quinoa.)