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Archive for the ‘The Process’ Category

This butterfly is similar to the creative process.  A beautiful butterfly can soar the greatest heights without a care in the world.  It does it with the same ease as creative people imagining something new.  A natural process while others struggle with creativity like it’s something unnatural.  For creative ones, when it’s going well, nothing can stop you.  Your wings hit the right wind current and you fly for miles without a struggle.

Then there are those days when creativity eludes the creative person.  On those difficult days, you flap and flap and flap.  Barely making any headway from one flower to the next.  Creative resistance may pick up and you’re blown off course every time you try a new direction.  You can end up miles from where you wanted to go.

Then there are days like these.  Days where you look normal on the outside when really your guts are splattered over someone’s front bumper.  These are the days your mind asks you a hundred times if creativity is enough. Most pass by and think you’ve only taken a rest while one other stops and takes a picture because they know how it feels.  Nature can be a cruel bitch.

Creativity

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Remember my New Year’s Resolution to do something daring?  Well, this is me jumping in with both feet.  I’ve entered a contest, The Writer’s Voice.  The prize is working with a fantastic mentor and getting feedback to help polish up my work.  Where is the bravery you ask?  I have to post my query and first 250 words.  For the world to see.  For you to see.  The thought brings panic.  Stupid fear.  I will now repeat my mantra: Creativity takes bravery. — Henry Matisse

Query:

For sixteen year-old Katherine Chapman, spotting the micro-expressions of darting eyes, facial tics, and rigid extremities when people lie comes as easy as finishing off a super-sized order of fries.  For fear of being labeled a circus freak or ruining friendships, she tucks that fact safely away in her journal.

Hiding her ability isn’t a problem until Kat’s house is robbed and her journal is stolen.  Pages of embarrassing moments and social suicides are nothing compared to what she’s written about the lies from her family and friends.  When an entry detailing Kat’s awkward first kiss at fifteen wallpapers the school, she survives mortification with her best friends linked on either arm.  They are blissfully unaware their pages detailing the worst nights they lied about are coming up.

Instead of waiting for more to be exposed, Kat takes on what the police chalked up to random break-ins.  She’s determined to protect her friends even if it means questioning everyone she thought she trusted.  The closer Kat gets to finding out who deceives her, the more revealing the pages become.  If she doesn’t find the journal soon, no one’s lies will be safe.  Including her own.

TRUTH BE TOLD is a 62,000-word contemporary young adult novel.

First 250:

Nothing said friendship like a well-intentioned lie told straight to the face.  Every time my best friend Shelby did it, her large upper teeth cut into her full lower lip and the corner of her right eye twitched.  Her lies balanced between infuriating innocence and exhausting disappointment.

When I was twelve, a psychiatrist told me I had to write down the lies and how they made me feel to get them out of my system.  She went into horrific detail about how if I kept my anger bottled up one day I would explode in a volcanic rage and probably kill everyone around me.  Or the frustration would slowly poison any relationship until there was nothing left except a withered corpse.  She didn’t have much bedside manner treating someone panicked about being a freak.  Thankfully, my parents ditched the shrink.   They also bought me a journal.

“Talk to him, Kat.  I think he likes you,” Shelby said.

“Chris doesn’t mind being stuck with me. That’s far from liking,” I said.

“He just needs to get to know you better.”

Shelby’s brace-covered smile glimmered in the light cast from the ten-foot tall bonfire.  Her deliberate blink waited for my expected rebuttal.  If I explained Chris showed no more interest in me than the Top 40 charts, she’d counter with I was the coolest person she knew, which really wasn’t saying much for either of us.

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A couple weeks ago I finished a re-write on my current work in progress.  In the past when I finish this stage, I have a beer, toast a completed manuscript, and allow myself to watch television.  That usually leads to being less productive.  A couple weeks off writing expands into a couple months.  The doubt of if it’s all worth it seeps into my mind.  It quickly turns into a funk versus a relaxation.  Before I know it I’m wondering if I’ll ever get back to it.  This time it changes.  This time I’m managing the middle for success instead of letting it run over me.

First step, keep up the creativity.  I’m keeping the creativity juices high with tapping into other areas of my mind.  If I start to let one creative outlet slack, the others seem to follow.  For some reason I think I do my best work when I remain in a high state of busy.  It’s one of the things Hubs rolls his eyes at when I’m going five different directions on the weekend.  Instead of writing, I’m painting.  I took my red walled kitchen that Meredith Barnes complimented and turned it grey.  A new look, a new point of view.

Second, blog it up.  With some Airborne Toxic Event activity coming up, I should have plenty to talk about.  Sure, I’ll make myself known to their security and have no chance of getting close for my good hair picture, but you’re worth it.  Mikel’s lesson about writing ten thousand hours to get good (not his original thought, I know) reminds me to keep my fingers moving over the keyboard even if it’s not on a manuscript.

Third is to read, read, and read.  Now is the perfect time to get some novels under my belt for the 25 per year goal.  Reading is a great way to replenish my head with how a story is supposed to read.  Taking in smartly crafted plots, fleshed out characters, and well-written sentences are the lessons needed to reinvigorate the writer’s soul.

Last, and most important, is to enjoy the people around me.  This seems like something I shouldn’t have to list out.  In fact for me, it comes quite comfortably.  This is not the case for all writers.  Most are introverts.  Writing is a very solitary process.  Every extra minute goes towards putting on headphones and blocking everyone else out.  If I’m not writing, I’m brainstorming.  I block out other people to think in my head about my characters and what they should do.  The ironic part is to write successful characters, you need to be around people.  This is the best time to spending quality time with friends and family and I’m going to take full advantage of it.

lemondrops

Let me know if you’d like to join me for a drink.

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Writing Is Hard

Before I declared, “Hey, I’m going to write a book,” I don’t think I thought much about what that meant.  I walked around with all the other naive people who dabbled in writing some short stories thinking a novel only consisted of a longer story.  Goaded by friends and family with occasional droppings of “Don’t you like to write?,” “You’re creative,” and “Why don’t you write a book?” I thought I’d throw a story on paper.

I should’ve gotten a clue it wasn’t as easy as typing words in several sentences when my creative writing professor for two influential semesters repeatedly told everyone in the room to get a real job instead.  It should’ve been a time where I learned how to write instead of continuing to put words on paper.  The professor gushed over some stories and read lines out loud.  Their themes were of domestic violence or rape.  For everything else, she threw your pages in her inbox and returned them with a check mark.  I justified the slight as subject matter instead of prose.

After being dismissed time and time again so she could get to the girl with the thick rectangle glasses whose favorite theme was about a girl “losing her cherry” in the backseat of a car, I wanted her to noticed me.  (Another valuable lesson to take away would be not to write for others.  Spoiler alert — I didn’t.)  The professor assigned a short story to read and we had to mimic the style in our own short work.  I wrote a four sentence scene about a wife falling to her knees after spilling a bowl of peas when her husband walked into the room.  She read the piece out loud twice.  Domestic violence got me the win.  Or did it?

I spent six hours crafting four sentences.  This included the time spent dissecting the original story.  I read each line out loud, forwards and backwards, and asked myself what made the writer’s work so good.  I didn’t really see it the first time I read it through.  It was a quick glance to get to the meat of the assignment, but when my flashing cursor mocked me with no story, I went back to reading.  Once I understood what I appreciated about the storyteller’s style, I started my work.  I wrote. I read. I re-wrote.  I deleted.  Wrote the same words again.  Deleted more.  Bored Hubs (then boyfriend) with the going back and forth about which word had more meaning. Then wrote again.

Looking back on the process, I’ll admit it probably was the best thing I’d ever written.  What I wish the professor would’ve said instead of feeding us “get real jobs” advice was to write, study, and re-write.  I wish she would’ve pushed harder to get me to that place where I wrote the four lines I still remember fifteen years later.  Maybe I would’ve thrown my hands in the air and screamed “Writing is too hard.”  Understanding it required that level of investment might have been too overwhelming.   I was happy enough to put words on paper, get the A in the class and end up with a diploma so I could start my path to that real job.

Funny thing is, here I am in a self-made graduate program reading blogs, tweets, and books about how to write a novel.  I trudge forward, looking for the right path and push myself to what once might have been my limits.  I speak my mantra daily (from a blog I read a while back and can’t remember which one) that said “The only difference between a published author and an unpublished author is one gave up.”

Some days I wonder if I’ll be able to do it.  What if the professor was really avoiding the tough reality of telling me I sucked by passing me over for cherry-popping glasses girl?  What if that time was my only chance to learn how to be a writer?  What if I just don’t have it?  But then I remember the big difference between the girl who graduated from college and went on to get a real job.  She thought writing was too hard.  She moved on and did all the other things in life which made her very happy.  Now, I’m the person who knows writing is hard.  These aren’t just sentences thrown on a page to get from the beginning to the end.  What I’ve discovered is it’s not about if you can write a book.  It’s about finding the strength in yourself to write a good book.

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A frosted cake is a lot like a completed manuscript.  If it looks anything like what it’s supposed to look like, people are impressed you did it.  Their untrained eye (and yours too if you’re new to the process) skims over the little details that show your immaturity (or maturity) in the craft.  For a newbie, piping the last detail on a two tiered cake feels just as satisfying as when you type “The End” for the first time.

If you’re anything like me, you can’t wait for the ooohs and ahhhs to start flooding in to confirm your time wasn’t wasted.  Your effort appreciated.  And while that helps with ego, you look to an experienced person to validate your confidence since they understand the true art.  You want someone who knows what they’re talking about to look at what you’ve done and start showering you with accolades.  But wait a second…this shower isn’t made of kudos.  It’s made of feedback.  Sharp quips cutting through your sensitive skin to show you’ve got some serious problems.

This week I finished a two tiered cake for a farewell party.  The guest of honor wanted a flavor I’d never tried before, Black Forest.  I looked up some recipes, came to a consensus of what I thought would make a good flavor combination, and started to bake.  Then I built.  I’m a novice to the tiered cake arena.  While I followed the instructions of others who have done it before me, I added in my own touches too.  And as everybody knows, when you improvise you run a risk of making mistakes and um, ahem, find learning opportunities.  So while the picture above looks like the cake was a success, I will now break down why it wasn’t.

To the trained eye, the structure wasn’t stable.  During construction I let doubt into my thought process and tweaked at all the wrong places. Even though my heart said to stay the course, I pulled off a layer to add more filling for a taller appearance.  The moment I did it, I knew it was wrong.  The cake started to tear and I knew filling wouldn’t give enough stability.  But I was committed.  Not enough time to start from scratch.  The cake must go on.

The morning after, the top tier tilted and I had serious concerns if it would make it to the destination.  I added some additional support and re-piped over the construction.  I crossed my fingers it was saved.  When I pulled it out to serve, my mistakes glared and my concerns had been warranted.  Another baker would be able to see the layers weren’t even, too much filling at the bottom which negated the support for the top, and even the choice of infrastructure was too weak for the weight of the upper cake.  It was aptly named “The Titanic” because it was sinking slowly.  The only solution was to cut quickly before any other bakers entered the room.

The sinking feeling has been there with my past manuscripts.  Times where others were impressed at a completed product, but didn’t look hard enough to see the problems.  The flawed areas where I needed someone with tough love capabilities to point it out so I could cut or correct.  Times when insecurity jaded my view and decisions were made without sound judgement.    The plot structure weak, too much telling, not enough emotional connection with the characters.  Some manuscripts were too flawed to be saved, resigned to be cut up and chalked up to learning.  In their destruction, knowledge replaced experiment and a new project born.

While in cake it’s easier to identify than in a novel, the result is the same.  If the weak areas aren’t fixed before presenting to the world, you can have a mess on your hands.  A crumbling tower of cake and frosting slowly sliding into itself.  The same for a first novel that may get a full request, but will be quickly rejected because of a  weak plot or one dimensional characters.

Both creative outlets have shown me it takes time to craft and build a solid product.  Patience, heart, and experience are the qualities needed to press on and make sure the same mistakes aren’t repeated.  And even when the cake sucks it isn’t too bad because heck, it’s still cake.

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I took up royal icing cookie decorating last year after a weekend of watching a few videos.  I thought it was going to be easy enough, it was frosting a cookie for goodness sakes.  I quickly learned there was a lot of hidden skill and practice in those delectable creations.  Not so different from my frame of mind when I said “I’m going to write a novel” three and a half years ago.

A few months into my new skill of cookie decorating, my son had a specific request for his birthday.  Not the usual (and easier) daisy flower or simple star shape.  He wanted characters.  Book characters to be specific, Zachary Ruthless, Greg from Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Big Nate.  Since I adore the fact my son loves to read, I started brainstorming right away.  Since I have little talent when it comes to sketching, I didn’t want to set my sights too high.  I used flat black icing and began to pipe.  When I finished my first attempt (a practice one for before the real birthday set was needed) I was kinda happy.  It wasn’t anything like my favorite cookie websites where you start to wonder if it’s even a cookie because it’s so beautiful.  Mine was amateur.  Crude.  From a beginner.

When the birthday actually came, I tried a different technique for the final set.  I decided to only focus on one set of book characters.  Cut the cookie in the head shape.  Add color.  Layer the levels.  It was little tweaks to add more life (and skill) to what I originally started.  It took more time and definitely more patience, but I was understanding the icing more.  I learned how consistency plays a major part in keeping the shape and look you want after you’ve piped it on the cookie.  When the second set was done, I was stoked!  They were beautiful.  I was so excited I sent a set to the author and the agent to show them how cool the cookie could become.  It was the best I could do…at the time.

A few months later, and more cookies under my belt, I made another set of Zachary cookies.  You may wonder why I make so many of this character.  What can I say?  I loved the book.  (Here’s the plug where you should go out and buy it if you haven’t.  At least check out the author’s blog, it’s pretty funny.)  This time even before I started, I made a game plan.  I prepped a few days before and made a list of all the colors I would need.  It also involved a stencil to make several cookies look exactly the same and like the original drawing of the character.  When I finished this round, I knew this is the best I can do.

It’s not hard to draw the similarity to my writing experience.  With each book, each revision, each lesson learned, I create a better product.  The only difference is I’m not as confident as defining the “this is the best I can do” phase.  Maybe this is because I’m not as obsessed with cookies as I am writing.  (Shocking, I know.)  Or maybe it’s because the end result for a cookie is to be eaten, a quick pleasure having nothing to do with what it looks like.  Or the fact I haven’t quieted down the whispers of insecurity around writing like I have with icing cookies.

What I do take away from my evolution of this Zachary Ruthless cookie is anything is possible.  It may take a lot of work and even more persistence, but there will be a day where I am satisfied with what I have written.  A day I release my writing into the world and hope it is gobbled up as quickly as a good tasting sugar cookie.

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Doubt is a funny thing.  It shows up when you least want it or expect it; like a terrible acquaintance who pops in at the most inconvenient time and brings nothing but a sick ass casserole you have no intention of eating.  It doesn’t matter how many times you ask it not to return or shout it has no place in your life, it barges past your locked elbow, plants its butt on your couch, and barks out an order to grab it a beer.

You can tell I don’t have much love for doubt.  I know it adds nothing to my life.  Logically, that is.  But there is something about the way it sweet talks its way back into my life that I can’t resist.  Doubt tells me I may be special in my own little way, but nothing like the huge dreams I’ve set for myself.  Doubt reminds me it’s doing me a favor by breaking my heart now with the suggestion to never try before any real pain happens from failure.

There must be something comforting about doubt to let it return to my life on such a regular basis.  When I feel strong, powerful, there’s no second thoughts about casting it away.  But the smallest hint of failure brings it barreling back.  And even though I hate myself for it, my arms open wide and welcome it back like an old friend.

It’s ridiculous.  I know it’s no good.  I know there’s no value.  But here we are.  Doubt and I wrapped in each other’s arms and with its sweet nothings being whispered in my ear.  There’s only one thing to do to combat it.  Think about cake.

What does cake have to do withy any of this besides the fact it’s pretty much the remedy for anything?  A few months ago, I declared I would make my father-in-law’s favorite cake for his birthday.  German chocolate.  I’d never made it before but couldn’t wait to try a new recipe.  The days crept up fast and for some unknown reason, it was the night before his birthday before I knew it.  German chocolate was nixed and I went to good ole fashioned classic chocolate.  Since I’d waited until after work to bake, I couldn’t frost until the next morning before another grinding day at the office.

In the morning, I woke up early to make the ganache to fill the layers.  Against my better judgement, I poured on the liquid chocolate in a haste and stacked the layers.  I knew it wasn’t a good idea before I did it, but I was rushed, frantic, and needed to get the damn thing done.  What should’ve been an easy frosting turned into chaos when chocolate flowed over every edge.  With each fix, another hole sprang.  Before I knew it, the whole thing was a chocolate mess.  Frazzled, I threw it in the fridge, cursing it was ruined.  I’d have to deal with it when I got home in the forty minutes I’d have before he arrived.

All day I berated myself for waiting until the last minute, for thinking I could pour ganache without a dam, and for being a terrible baker.  (How quickly we jump to the worst conclusion.)  After work I sped home so I could get back to salvaging, knowing the real answer was to scrap the whole thing.  The ganache between the layers had set up pretty well and the remaining I’d left from the morning was a good consistency for frosting.  I whipped it up and had just enough to cover the cake.  The edges were rough, but it was at least covered, right?  In the fridge was a little vanilla buttercream left over from a cake a few days before that I was saving for cake pops.  I used it to pipe the edge and threw a strawberry on top for a little color.  Ta da!

My father-in-law thanked me for making him a perfect cake.  A cake filled with mistakes.  Nothing was how it was supposed to be.  Every decision was a conflict to what I wanted.  Doubt was there the whole time telling me to throw the whole thing away.  If I’d listened, there would have been nothing to celebrate him reaching another year.  If I had, doubt would’ve won and more than a cake would’ve been lost.

So right now I’m thinking about my Mistake Cake.  The imperfection of the layers.  The uneven piping of the vanilla roses.  The fact it wasn’t anything close to German Chocolate.  Because as I humor doubt by letting it stick around and drink all my alcohol, I flutter from my oven to my computer to pour my heart into my passions.  Slowly, I’ll build my strength with small victories to bring the power back to my side.  It’s only a matter of time before I tell doubt it was never invited, the casserole is shit, and most of all get the fuck out.

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