Help bring Noora to life

As I did last year, this year I’ll be participating in the Clarion Write-a-thon, June 24-August 4. A write-a-thon, as my intelligent readers have probably figured out, is like a walk-a-thon, but instead of giving per mile, you give per word, or whatever amount you wish. My goal is to raise $150. The Write-a-Thon has been hosted annually for the past few years by the Clarion Foundation, a wonderful organization that provides funding for the highly respected Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop at UCSD.

It’s all for a literally fantastic cause.  Clarion is the oldest writing program of its kind, and it is highly respected.  Many of the greatest figures in science fiction and fantasy honed their skills and launched careers there.  Check it out on the web at  Writing programs across the nation are under tremendous financial pressure and Clarion is no exception.  The Write-a-Thon’s success is vital to the workshop’s continued existence.  Last year it raised $17,000.

This year, I’m hoping to make a start on the first novel of my projected series about the adventures of Noora Tamarin, a young woman in Sahasra, a fantasy analog of historical India that I wrote about in a game setting for d20. It’s full of swashbuckling, steampunk-flavored adventure. My writing goal is 20,000 words during the six weeks of the Write-a-thon. Please support me in this endeavor by donating whatever amount you wish.

Consider participating in the Clarion Write-a-thon! As of this writing, we need 80 more writers by June 24.

Thanks for your support, and if you’ve participated before, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.


How learning your craft helps your creativity

The subconscious mind is pretty amazing–and not a little bit mysterious. On my way to work this morning, it rose up, tapped me on the metaphorical shoulder, and said, “You know you have a fundamental problem with your Work in Progress, don’t you?”

Bolt of lightning time. Yeah, I’m working on a second draft/rewrite, but I realized the protagonist doesn’t have a significant source of struggle within himself, and that’s something I need/want. Of course there’s an antagonist, but I’d like to see that, at the end of the novel, he’s gained insight into himself.

I turned to research. I’m curious about this phenomenon of the subconscious mind. I found an interesting article, “Creativity, chance and the role of the unconscious in the creation of original literature and art,” that sheds some light on it. [Harle, Rob. 2011. “Creativity, chance and the role of the unconscious in the creation of original literature and art.” Technoetic Arts: A Journal Of Speculative Research 8, no. 3: 311-322. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed May 25, 2012).] In the process, I discovered yet another reason (and a scientifically based one!) why writers should thoroughly learn their craft.

Harle’s point is that chance plays an important part in the creative process, and he explores this concept through analysis of Surrealist and computer-generated poetry. Fascinating stuff, really, but this section really grabbed my attention: “I contend that Breton and colleagues were doing nothing more or less than creative artists, writers and scientists have always done and continue to do today. That is, the technical aspect of the discpline is throughly learnt; then by relaxing the hold on the conscious mind, shifting down the scale from logic-high-focus to dreamy-low-focus and quelling premeditated ideas of what should be, inspirationis given a chance to manifest itself. Also, ‘chance association’ of disparate ideas (which is perhaps inspiration itself), like genetic mutations, sometimes results in new, deeply imaginative, unique creations.”

Learning to write, internalizing the process, frees up your subconscious to move on to the “dreamy-low-focus” that Harle describes as daydreaming. Creative solutions to problems, he says, occur at the opposite end of the spectrum from the alert and logical state. When I had this inspiration, I was driving to work, listening to a story on NPR. Not focused on logic, just taking in information and letting my mind wander.

I haven’t addressed his concept of chance; log on to your local library and seek out this article if you’re interested. The take-away from the article is that stressing over plot details isn’t always the way to go. Your subconscious mind works it out for you. But the way to improve the associations your mind makes in the creative process are based on learning your craft.



The Solution to Procrastination

“Life is what happens when you’re not writing.” I don’t know if that’s a real quote or if I just made it up in my head. I hope it’s not a real quote because I don’t want to bash a perfectly good aphorism. It’s what popped into my head a bit ago while cleaning up after our old and intentionally incontinent cat (probably in protest for her two younger siblings, but I digress). I think the implication of such a statement is that life is somehow separate from writing, that we stand outside our writing.

I’ve been feeling really guilty lately that I haven’t worked on my Work in Progress in nigh on to two months. Actually that’s not entirely true. I profess not to believe in guilt. To be honest I’m annoyed I haven’t finished the rewrite of the book. Regardless, I’ve thought of a way to cut myself some slack.

I realized we don’t stand outside our writing. People say, “Writing is my life.” If that’s true, what you’re really saying is “My life is my writing.” Whatever comes out of us, out of our subconscious minds and deep hidden recesses, injected into the flesh of a notebook with the syringe that is the fountain pen or tattooed onto virtual skin through the action of manipulating keys, is based in our feelings and beliefs and experiences.

“Oh, Donna,” I hear you saying, “You are so amazingly profound to have discovered this secret eluding humankind for eons.”

I’m nodding sagely. What I acknowledged about my writing today is my psyche has been temporarily diverted to a decision I’m trying to make about my future—get a master’s degree or a certificate or certification classes, and in what field? (AKA What do I want to be when I grow up?) My writing self isn’t on hiatus, though. She’s taking notes. She’s doing research. She’s storing up these thoughts and emotions and processes and details for my future writing.

Obviously it won’t directly correlate. It’s not a one-to-one correspondence, like when people ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” The answer to that one is, “Um, I live.” I don’t plan to write about a woman’s midlife crisis and journey of self-discovery. Although I suppose I could. But you just know (if you’ve read my books) she’d run into a sorcerer masquerading as her personal trainer who’s on the lam from a secret society of Cthulhu-worshipping Baptist preachers intent on subverting the foundations of the world as we know it.

What I’m saying to myself—and you, if you’re feeling guilty about not writing—is chalk it up to experience. Dry spells happen, events intervene. It’s all fodder for the creative mind. Don’t use it as an excuse to quit writing. Because you know you can’t ever stop. Not really.

Not if your life is your writing.

Winter Brain Finds Many Excuses

Winter brain has gotten me. I am so not in the mood to work on my work-in-progress, Revival. I’m not sure what prompted it, but I was suddenly seized by a long-dormant desire to research my family tree. See, I was bitten by the genealogy bug years and years ago. My first published work was in Genealogical Helper, on using computers in genealogy. My research even inspired my first novel, Second Death. [Actually I do know what prompted it. I got an email from that the 1930 census was free for a week.]

I made a huge breakthrough last night, but let me back up a little and tell you what’s so intrigued me about the story.

Old Stone Church, Ringgold, Catoosa County, Georgia

My great-grandfather was a man named George Washington Roach. He died in Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1946. He was born in Catoosa, Georgia, in 1880. Despite those towns being in separate states, the distance is only something less than 30 miles. I knew from his death certificate that his father was named Jim, and from census records found his full name was James D. Roach.James D. Roach was born in 1862 in Georgia and, like his son, died in Tennessee, near Cleveland in a place called McDonald. The intriguing thing to me about him is that he seemed to be alone from a young age. In the 1870 census, at age 8, he is living with a family not named Roach. The head of household is a woman named Martha Banfield, and includes an older couple, Christopher Nations and his wife. The key here to me is what happened in the year James was born.

Georgia voted to leave the United States on January 19, 1861. Fighting occurred primarily on the coast through 1862. In August 1863, the Chickamauga campaign began, and the Siege of Chattanooga followed in September. This battle happened about 20 miles from where James and his family lived.

One of the untold stories (or at least I haven’t located those stories) of the American Civil War is what happened to the children orphaned by the conflict. James’ father, James H. Roach, was alive in 1860, but I can find no trace of him after that census, at least not without going to Georgia myself. And then his 8 year old son turns up in the same area living with another family. I’ve always thought James H. must have died in the war, whether as a soldier or a civilian I don’t know. I’ve been researching the family he lived with and the neighbors, trying to pierce the veil of history and find out what happened. Ten years later he appears in the census, again in the same area, as a servant of another family. A book on the county tells that James H.’s father David (born in 1800) was “killed by bushwhackers” during the Civil War.

Last night I made the discovery that James D.’s uncle Stephen lived next door to him in both censuses. I don’t know why Stephen didn’t take him in, although it’s possible James D.’s mother remarried and lost another husband during the 8 years he was growing up.

It’s easy to get caught up in the research, stretching the line back, finding connections, and forget that these were real people with joys and sorrows and frustrations. What was it like for a young boy to live around so much fighting and death? A Confederate hospital was located at nearby Catoosa Springs. Did his father die in such a hospital? What kind of mark did that conflict leave on his psyche?

I don’t feel all this research is wasted. The reflections on family and their lives plant seeds for future stories.

Maybe Winter Brain is doing me a favor after all.

What’s your winter brain up to? Share in the comments below.

Little Things and Eating the Elephant

Writing and independently publishing your books can seem like a daunting proposition. The writing aspect alone is enough to freeze a person in her or his metaphorical tracks. But, as one of my favorite sayings goes, “You don’t eat an elephant all at once.” (And for some reason, I always picture a full-sized elephant made of chocolate, like an enormous Easter bunny.)

The little details are what make up any seemingly insurmountable task. Conquer those systematically, and you’re on your way to completing that novel, short story or publishing project.

What got me thinking about the little things was a recent writing experience.

First, a little background. I’ve published two novels (The Source of Lightning and Second Death) and a collection (The Color of Darkness and Other Stories), but the novels were written about ten years ago. I became involved in other things, and didn’t get back to serious writing until a year ago, after a personal shake-up. I participated in the 2011 NaNoWriMo, and completed a novel that’s been skittering around in my head for several years.

The novel is called Revival. It stems from my feeling that, when it comes to monster-hunting, Catholics traditionally have all the fun. I wanted a Baptist preacher hero who derives his monster-hunting abilities from non-Catholic sources–no holy water or priestly vestments. Thus was born Elijah Bishop Grayson, a Baptist pastor with a dark past who confronts ancient Sumerian forces threatening his rural Alabama church.

“They” always tell you to write what you know (a friend once told me “they” are those who’ve not stood where you’ve stood nor sat where you’ve sat), and while I’ve attended church all my life and a Christian since I was 12, I’m not a pastor nor am I Baptist. Okay, I’m a worship leader in a tiny rural Baptist church in central Alabama. But I was raised Church of Christ.

If  you’re not of a fairly conservative religious background, or Southern, these distinctions don’t mean much. But I believe the details are what really sell a story to the reader. Granted, Baptists are, by definition, a diverse bunch, but if I write things a member of the Church of Christ would do and ascribe them to a Baptist preacher, I lose one bit of credibility with a reader who knows the difference. If I continue to get the details wrong, the reader will give up, saying, “That just didn’t seem real to me,” or “Real people don’t do that.” Or maybe not even know why the story didn’t work for them. It’s like reducing the resolution on a photo too far–you lose focus and definition and are left with a fuzzy image.

My go-to guy for Baptist preacher details is my dear friend, pastor and writing collaborator Scott Carter (difficult to know whether to link him here for his weekend job or here for his gaming credentials). He’s the one I ask, “Do you have elders or deacons or what?” or “What’s a good definition for spiritual gifts?” He’s also a good source for rural central Alabama culture. I was born and raised in Alabama, but in Huntsville, which (ask anyone) is a completely different cultural experience from the more truly Southern Birmingham area. He’s told me great nuggets of information like moonshine being sold in Coca-Cola bottles.

The other day I asked him on Facebook about the authenticity of a particular scene, and then asked him about spiritual healing. It’s a Biblical concept, but not one I’ve had any experience with. (The Church of Christ is a rather rational bunch of people, philosophically speaking.) He proceeded to enlighten me, sharing his experiences. And then he said (or typed, actually), “now, if it’s a ‘faith healer’ there could be more to it than that, more show. She might not consider it ‘show,’ she would consider it ritual.” He went on to explain, “In several folk traditions, cleansing the space is done, you might make noise to drive out spirits, light candles, medicine bags. Basically a degree of syncretism.”

Bingo. It wasn’t what he said, although that was very helpful. It was the ideas it sparked. I was rewriting a particular pivotal scene, and had been struggling with it, and there was the answer. I won’t spoil things by saying specifically what it is, as I’m still writing it, but with that one comment, he solved some difficulties I was dealing with in the plot, and helped me integrate a character into the setting in an important way. All because I asked him about details that might not matter to some people.

Keep your eyes open for the little things. And really, you don’t have to eat the elephant all at once. Enjoy the tasty bits of chocolate for what they are.

Have little details helped your writing? Have insight for me on Southern folk medicine? Share in the comments below.