Monday, April 27, 2015

Adding Value


I went down to Richmond this past weekend for RavenCon. It was my first overnight (two nights actually) away from my little monster man, so I was a bit nervous. Turns out he did great! Though he did need some convincing last night that I wasn't going to disappear again while he slept.

The event was a huge success as far as I was concerned. There were a number of truly excellent panels and workshops, and I met several people that I enjoyed talking to.

Coming away from the weekend, what really struck me was the quality of the presenters in a few of the seminars in particular. I hear the phrase "adding value" quite a lot these days, but it's only now after some of my experiences at RavenCon that I really have a clear picture of what that phrase is about. There are three people I want to highlight as great examples of adding value.

1. Rob Balder

Rob writes the online comic Erfworld. He ran a workshop the first night of the convention about building up a creative career.

It took only a few minutes of his presentation before I realized just how knowledgeable he was on the subject. He said later that he spends 80% of his time working on the business side of his career. He's done the research, crunched the numbers, and put together a business model that works very well for him.

But he didn't end the seminar with his presentation. Instead he spent time talking to people individually about their career goals and brainstorming ideas for building up their own models.

He added a lot of value to me personally, and I left that workshop with so many new creative ideas.

2. John Glover

John is a writer as well as a research librarian, so he was particularly suited to running RavenCon's worldbuilding seminar.

It's so very easy when talking about worldbuilding to get caught up in one particular aspect of a world--perhaps the languages or the geography or the politics. John managed to talk about worldbuilding in a way that covered everything beautifully. He gave lots of ideas for research tools as well as methods for drawing on our own past experiences.

But like Rob, he didn't spend the entire time talking. He gave the audience plenty of opportunities to put what he was saying into practice. I walked out with a whole new take on a book idea. He added value.

3. Harry Heckel

Harry is a writer who, long with his co-author, is publishing a series on fairy tales. In the process he's done a lot of research on the history and purpose of fairy tales, and out of that research he created a presentation on fairy tales and retellings that he shared the last day of the convention.

Harry was a really fun person to listen to. He enjoys what he does, and that joy is contagious. He led the audience in a delightful discussion about fairy tales and made each person feel that their opinion was important and interesting. I felt valued and had a great time.

These three people were all doing something very right. They made their seminars worth attending. So what was it that they all had in common?

First of all, they were all well-informed on the topics they shared. They knew what they were talking about, and yet at no point did any one of them come across as having a big ego. They imparted their wisdom because they cared about building up the audience, not about looking smart in front of a crowd.

And second, they each gave the audience a chance to work with the information. They didn't just dispense tips, they led their attendees in putting those tips into practice.

Because of these three and others like them, RavenCon was a very positive experience for me. I hope I've learned from them not only how to use the information they taught but also how to add value to an audience.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Right Book for the Right Time

Several years ago I had a dream about going back in time to save a twin sister I never knew I had. I woke up with a feeling of amazement and knew that I had to turn that dream into a book. After several months of research and writing, Olympus Gate was finished. It's a story about an apocalypse, Ancient Rome, mistaken identities and fallible gods. I loved that book for being everything I had hoped to make it. It was the book I needed to write because it gave me confidence in my ability. And I'm still proud of it, despite the fact that it was finished too late for the market it would have fit.

The Never Silent was the book I had always wanted to read but that never existed before. I wrote it after Olympus Gate, when I was desperate for a book that was so totally me that I knew no one else could ever write it. And it turned out to be everything I hoped for. I still love that book as much as I think I will ever love a book, and I'm so glad that I wrote it.

These were books I needed to write at the time I needed to write them. We talk a lot about the timing of a book being right for its audience, but we don't talk so much about the timing being right for the author. I couldn't have written Olympus Gate any earlier than I did. I wasn't ready. And I couldn't have written The Never Silent a year later. By then I had a baby and my world was turned upside down.

The first year after my son was born, everything was different. I was an exhausted, emotional wreck a lot of the time, mostly from severe sleep deprivation due to being up every 45 minutes all night every night. I wanted to keep writing, but the only thing I could write was something lighthearted and fun, not at all how I would describe The Never Silent. And that was how The Curator came about. It was precisely the book I needed to write at the time I needed it.

Now The Curator is in late stage edits and I'm writing a new book. It's about tulips and secrets and the consequences of meddling in other people's lives. I'm loving it. The words just keep coming and coming. Is it the book I need right now? I think so. It's allowing me to try some new things I've never done before, and it's cooperating in so many ways, which is precisely what I need as I prepare for a new baby.

What will be next? I don't know. A lot may depend on my sleep status a year from now. But I feel a vague, far-off pull of a new idea. A murky feeling has been stirring in me lately as I look at the world and I realize just how much everything in it comes with a cost. I was thinking about this last night as I fell asleep, and yet again I had a dream. Maybe once the current books are done I'll come back to that dream, that feeling, that idea. Maybe this will be my next book, and it will be the new thing I need to write, precisely when I need to write it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Turning on the Creativity

"Where on earth did you come up with that idea?"

Sometimes I wonder that about things I see out in the world. Take this bottle cap tripod, for example. With it you can shoot steady photos without lugging around a cumbersome piece of equipment. Pretty genius!

I've gotten similar questions before about where my book ideas come from. People want to know--where does creativity originate? (And how can I get some?)

Turns out, part of the key is allowing yourself to be bored. If your mind doesn't have anything else to think of, it'll have to come up with its own entertainment. And creativity is really entertaining!

When I was a kid, I had really long bus rides to and from school. Being the last stop of the afternoon (and not having anyone else in particular to talk to), I had plenty of time to let my brain wander. Mostly I spent that time imagining disputes between random people, wondering what they were fighting about and how they would make up.

Before you call me crazy for listening to strange voices arguing in my head, let me just say that those long hours of imagination probably contributed a lot to me becoming a writer.

Ok, so you agree with the general idea, but where on earth are you going to find time to be bored?

How about in the car on the way to work or running errands? Turn off the music and sit in silence for a while. When you're at the doctor's office, don't pull out your phone. Make yourself sit and think. Daydream while you're in the shower.

But what are you supposed to think about?

Try thinking about things being broken. For example, what if all the cars in the world broke down? What would happen then? Or what if all the locks on all your doors broke? How would you keep your house secure?

For me, the broken things I imagined were relationships. For you, maybe it'll be something else. And maybe that something else will lead to a really great idea that could benefit everyone.

Be bored. Break things. Get creative.

Where do you find your creativity?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Behind the Scenes: The First Draft

Some people have a favorite part of the writing process. If I do, I haven't figure out which it is yet. Is it...

Research? (Aka "Ooooh, they did what with their urine???")

Plotting? ("Now which of you lovelies wants to die in act two?")

Drafting? ("Ha ha ha, that was a great sentence. I crack myself up.")

Editing? ("Ha ha ha, that was a really terrible sentence. I crack myself up.")

Right now I'm in first draft mode.  There's a great debate* over whether it is better to plot extensively before drafting or dive right in and see where the story goes.

Used to be, I couldn't plot without getting a severe creativity block. I'd have all these wonderful ideas, and the moment I tried to put them down in a notebook they would dry up like the desiccated bones of a once-proud magnificent beastie.

Now I can't do anything without at least a basic plot. I have to know where all the key events of the story take place or I could end up walking my characters off the plank instead of sailing them to the far corners of the world.

But neither (as I used to think) does my plotting stage become more in depth with each book. True, the one I was working on before this was plotted out to the scene by scene level. But with the most recent I've given myself a bit more freedom.

In fact, my plot looks a whole lot more like this:

There is definitely a general shape to it overall. I know what happens in the beginning, middle and end. But in between there's a bit of room for improvisation.

Do I like this way better? I'm not sure yet. I have noticed something unusual though--this draft is turning out to be a bit longer than my first drafts tend to be. Generally my first round of editing involves a lot of added scenes. But this time? I might end up having to remove scenes altogether! And that will be a first.

I'll say this for my characters, though: they are being very obliging! The other day I realized my lack of plotting had led to a bit of a plot hole, but before I could worry too much, my character said something completely natural, right out of the blue, that took care of the whole issue. Now that's cooperation! So maybe my characters like having a bit of freedom to stretch.

Fellow writers: Are you a plotter? A pantser? Do you find some happy medium?

And everyone else: When you go into a new project, whatever it is, how much work do you put in ahead of time before you really get started?

*For real! In some circles admittance to membership requires extensive grilling regarding the methods of one's writing process.**

**No, not really. Writing process is very much a matter of individual preference.