December 28, 2009

There's Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself?

I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before, but I have a great fear of failure. A debilitating, nail-biting, stomach-dropping fear, that comes marching in preposterously early sometimes, and ruins everything.

I began writing my first book when I was 8 or 9 -- an illustrated book about a bear. The illustrations were what gave me the most trouble, as I could never draw as well as my younger brother. I was, even then, too self-critical.  Of course, I didn't know then that Tim would grow up to be a professional artist. At the time I just wasn't used to him trouncing me that easily at anything.

At 19, I attempted my first actual novel-length production. I figured out that the project would require extensive research once I'd gotten 3 pages in. I was working at a university, so I went to the library on my lunch hour and checked out stacks of books about Vikings, Celts and monasteries. (I'll let you figure out what I was writing, because lord knows I'm not going to say.) I photocopied and made lists of notes about everything from cooking utensils to religious beliefs to weather patterns.

I got the story to around 150 pages and then, for reasons I don't really remember, didn't finish it. Knowing what I know now about the writing process, I'd guess I had a bit of writer's block, which degenerated into "this is complete crap" (all writers do this) and I should have just pushed through it. I didn't. I still know more about Norway and Sweden circa 800 AD than a normal person should.

I didn't attempt more than poems, essays and stories (I did nothing with any of these) until I was in my early thirties, at which point I sat down and wrote a 430 page novel in about 3 years time, while raising children and during which time I also went back to complete my degree in English. When I finished the book, I read it, saw how much I grew as a writer between the first half and the second (a lot), told myself that I'd accomplished quite a feat just writing a whole freaking novel, and looked upon said novel - in a good way - as That's the worst I'll ever do.

After graduation, I wrote my first YA novel, and I thought at that time that I was starting something I wouldn't stop doing. That I'd no longer relegate myself to the back burner. That I would do whatever it took to give myself the chance to be the only thing I really wanted to be: a published novelist. Surprisingly, I did stop. I still did some writing, but nothing disciplined, completed and submitted.

I don't know what happened, but I do know it had to do with fear.  How do I know this? Because I'm struggling with fear again - I just recognize it this time. I'm finding conferences and writing workshops to attend, and then coming up with every excuse not to go. I'm not ready. I'm not at an advanced enough stage in the writing process. I'm not good enough. I'm too old.

Someone once said if you really want something, you'll find a way; if you don't, you'll find an excuse. The problem is, that's not really true, once Fear Itself gets into the equation. Fear Itself is a big life-sucking, dream-smashing monster. The monster replaces what you want with what you're afraid of, and tells you that all the work and sweat and believing in the world won't amount to anything.

Failure, then, is listening to what Fear Itself has to say. I suppose it's time I stop listening, eh?

December 23, 2009

Sincerity is Overrated

No day will have been wholly misspent, if one sincere, thoughtful page has been written. ~ Henry David Thoreau

I have a page and a half to show for practically an entire day of sitting at the computer.

Granted, I spent some time reading, a little time eating, a lot of time on Facebook... and there was a cat or two in desperate need of petting. But I wrote, too. I'm proud of myself; it was a pulling teeth sorta day.  Sometimes you have to shove your characters down a path, whether they want to go or not. They get into it after they get there (or not, and then you have to rip the scenes out later, but I am thinking positively so shhh).

Also, I kept having to stop writing to research stupid stuff - diagnosing car problems, hotels in Austin, average temperature in Austin during September (you'd think I'd frickin remember that, eh?), infinity pools (I haven't actually put that one to use just yet... but dude those things are awesome, I have to say).

December 21, 2009

Still in Pajamas...

On writing/revising a novel: some days the damned thing is on fire and my fingers can barely keep up with my brain. Other days I am doing online billpay a week ahead of time out of sheer boredom. I'm making myself sit here at the computer... but as you can see, I can find other things to do at the computer.*

*like updating my Facebook status and blogging

The annoying thing is, I'm not bored, I'm just stuck. I feel like I'm on a train that's headed somewhere I really want to go... but something is on the tracks up ahead so we've been sitting motionless in the same spot for hours and dammit I'm getting stir-crazy. What's on the tracks?  I dunno. If I knew that, I'd consider incorporating it!

I'd intended to finish the first draft by the end of December, and I'm behind my self-imposed goal. I know why, of course - the goal is SELF-IMPOSED. Argh. Apparently I'm not a bitchy enough taskmaster. This is the type of thing you just shove through. Pick a path and storm down it, do or die.

December 20, 2009

Time for lunch! And I'm sitting here in my pajamas...

During the past week, Zach arrived and will be home for two weeks, Hannah stayed over a couple of nights (and will be back by Wednesday for several more), I've read several YA novels and am still slogging through Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood. I really want to like this novel, and believe me, I'm trying.

Meanwhile, I've read a LOT of YA books this year, and there have definitely been some standouts. I pushed myself into unusual categories for me and found a couple of wonderful books. I usually tend towards romantic-type stuff, so for something outside of that to get my attention, it has to be awesome.

The only really great book I've read that I think is appropriate for an all-age recommendation was Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. I hemmed and hawed on getting this novel, because it was so outside my norm, but I loved it. Leviathan is the first of a triology, which to someone who loves to read is the definition of frustration, unless you happen to pick up the series when it's complete (this is how I read the Twilight books, during June of this year).

I began reading the Harry Potter series during the summer of 2005 (Keith and I read them one after the other -- he'd just turned 10 and was the perfect age for it), just before book six (HP and the Half-Blood Prince) came out, also just before the fourth movie (HP and the Goblet of Fire).  When I said, "I have to wait two years for the next one?!?" both Zach and Hannah, fans from the get-go, gave me The Look.

Leviathan was one of the best character-driven books I've ever read,. It's an alternate history/ SciFi/ Steampunk novel. I adored the two main characters (and they are definitely both main characters), Alex and Deryn. The book begins with them trading chapters in completely separate stories, until you hit the middle, where their destinies collide.

The year is 1914, and the Great War begins in the first chapter. Alex is the (fictional and only) son of the murdered Archduke Ferdinand. Instead of the Allies and the Central Powers, there are the Darwinians and the Clankers. The Clankers are all about the steampunk stuff (which Alex and his trusted few advisors use to flee the advancing Germans), while the Darwinians use fabricated animals, such as the Leviathan, a giant airship made of a whale and lots of other smaller animals, such as message lizards who run up and down the lines delivering messages from one part of the ship to the other.

On this ship is where we find Deryn - who is posing as a boy named Dylan - because all she's ever wanted to be in an airman, and she's a natural. Despite all the sci-fi weirdness, I got sucked into the story immediately and I couldn't put it down. I believe it has appeal for any age group and either gender - and that's quite a feat.

Most YA-reading girls will have heard of Sarah Dessen. I'm sad for myself that I didn't have someone who wrote this type of novel when I was in high school. I was a romantically-minded pisces girl, and I wanted the romance stuff. I ended up reading actual romance novels - the likes of Johanna Lindsey - which were waaaaay too explicit for an inexperienced girl to read. I've read several Sarah Dessens in the past few months and I liked all of them, but my favorite was The Truth About Forever (2004).  Wow. Great story and characters - I fell in love with Wes and Macy, which, come on now, is the point.

Favorite 2009 books for the 16+ girls like I was (fine -- like I am):

Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles: Bad boy and Hispanic gang member Alejandro and spoiled cheerleading white girl Brittany  both of whom play these roles as their public images while hiding their dreams, actual strengths, needs and fears from nearly everyone.

Graceling by Kristen Cashore: fantastic sci-fi/fantasy/romance - Cashore has created a new world of multiples kingdoms, where certain people are born with gifts. These people are called gracelings, and are identifiable by their eyes, which are always two different colors. Here we meet Katsa and Po, each a graceling, both of whom struggle to use their differing gifts for good. There is a king to liberate and the mystery of his capture to be solved, and these two come together in an attempt to find answers to these obvious questions while fighting inner battles concerning right and wrong, personal power and the greater good, and destiny itself.

Time for lunch!  And I'm sitting here in my pajamas... which is about to be the title of this post.

December 12, 2009

A Room of One's Own

In college, lo those many years ago (and by that I mean about six), I took a course on the Bloomsbury Group for one of my advanced English electives. Though it focused mainly on Virginia Woolf, it also concerned novelist E. M. Forster (whom I love), and John Maynard Keynes, an economist, who must have provided for some weird balance in a group otherwise composed of writers, artists and critics.

Having been an economics major during a short stint of non-self-realization, I found this fascinating. Keynes was the fellow who, when the confronted with prior economic theories such as Adam Smith's "invisible hand" (laissez-faire economic philosophy: the idea of a self-regulating no-government-interference economy: In the long run, everything will balance out, y'all keep your shorts on), made the famous quip: "In the long run, we are all dead."

I can't help but wonder how much that famous quote and even some of his theories had to do with his relationship with a bunch of writerly and artsy types.

Virginia Woolf wrote one of my favorite books, Mrs. Dalloway, and several other books such as To the Lighthouse which I wanted to understand, but which I found to be too meandering to get a hold on. It seemed that everyone else understood it, however - I was in class with a bunch of young, smoking (and I mean actual smoking, not smoking as in hot), intellectual-sounding 20-somethings who spouted a lot of opinions about symbolism, stream-of-consciousness, and literary analogies. MEH.

I visited my professor's office, concerned about my grade amongst this group of know-it-alls. She was the English department chair, a woman who painted and wore long gypsy-type skirts, scarves and hand-made jewelry. I shop at Banana Republic and scored higher on the quantitative section of the SAT than I did on the verbal.

When I told my professor how I felt about analyzing Virginia freakin' Woolf, and moreover, how inadequate I felt saying anything I might be thinking out loud in front of this sophisticated, intelligent, verbose, way-younger group, she said, "Let me tell you a secret. The people who talk all the time? They don't know what the hell they're talking about. They just like to hear themselves talk, and generally, I just let them."

I continued to put in the work, wrote the papers, spoke only when called on, and earned an A in the class.

My current main character is reading A Room of One's Own, which is actually a couple of essays/lectures that Woolf combined into a treatise on the need for women writers to have both unearned financial support and solitude if they are ever to write works of genius. I'm not sure yet what my character will think of it. (She's a high school senior and I've chosen this for a school assignment.) But I am enjoying reading through the book again.

I don't believe I'll ever write anything of profound genius, certainly not what Woolf had in mind. But I believe in the power of what she envisioned - and I intend to do what it takes to get myself to that place. All I really want to do, besides the loving of family and the taking care of cats, is write. Life is too short to spend it doing things that cause misery or crush dreams, obviously. But it's also too short to just shuffle along, with day-to-day survival as the only focus.

Because in the long run, we're all dead.