08 January 2012

Trade-Off: A Poetic Discovery

I know, I know, I’m not supposed to blog until Thursday! But this was just too fun to let go or forget. Let me start by saying that the Poem-a-day project has not been going well. Oh, I’ve been doing it all right, every single day of the new year. It’s just that none of them have been any good. Like, at all. I’m not even sure I can salvage these roughest of rough drafts. Yesterday, for instance, what started as a prose poem ended up filling almost the entire page and was pretty much just prose. I can edit it, sure, and I plan on it, because I know there’s something in there. But have you ever looked at the drafts for Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”? It’s gonna be worse than that.

So today I was once again facing midnight without an idea for a poem. I mulled over various snippets of ideas, thinking of anything that was on my mind: work, my story, the cat, the show on Food Network I was watching. Nothing was sparking my creativity. In fact, I rarely find myself able to write poetry. I started thinking that it was almost like I couldn’t have it both ways. I can’t have fiction and poetry, at least not at the same time. Just like how I had given up fiction in my sophomore year of college, when I claimed it again (or it claimed me, rather) I had to give up the poetry. I know it’s not completely true, I have written some poetry since last February, but it’s not like it used to be.

Then I had the “aha” moment. That’s what my poem should be about. So I started scribbling. As the words flew from the pen, a line stuck in my head. I had written “the burn of poetry.” It sounded familiar. Hadn’t I written a similar line before? I browsed through the names of older poems saved on my computer, and one stood out in my memory—a poem called “Rock” that was written for a junior year poetry workshop. I searched for the line and found myself reading the encompassing stanza over and over again:

                        I’m not the same anymore.
                        I cannot dream up a thousand worlds,
                        struggling to be a novelist.
                        You’ve burned me into poetry.

Wow. When I wrote those words, the feeling was so true to me. And now I’ve done a complete one-eighty back into fiction, back into my dream worlds.

I kept writing my poem, thinking it would go on down the page, expressing my newfound devotion to fiction and the passion it has ignited in me. But as I ended the second stanza, I did something that I normally never do. I stopped. Usually I try to beat my readers over the head with my poems. But this poem seemed to complete itself before I could muddy it with too many flowery words. It was short and concise and, for a first draft, perfect. There will be some edits in the future, I’m sure, but for now just having written a poem that I like is immensely satisfying.

As of now, the poem is untitled. But I’m thinking something brief, something that won’t overdo it. Maybe just “Fiction.”

                        You never told me
                        what I had to give up just to
                        keep you. It’s as though
                        I can’t have it both ways,
                        can’t feel the burn of poetry
                        in my soul, can’t be myself
                        because every second is spent
                        trying to be you.

                        Would I trade it?
                        Ask me instead to remove
                        an arm. The result would be

05 January 2012


Well, it’s that time of year again. The time for delusions. For some reason, we equate the new year with new beginnings, new opportunities. But for the most part, these resolutions don’t last very long at all. I’m certainly no stranger to this. And along with your stereotypical goals like losing weight or cleaning the apartment (which I am halfheartedly, at best, considering), my major resolutions all revolve around my writing life in some way. 

Here goes…

  1. Blog every Thursday. First and foremost, the most important thing is to keep up with this blog. I haven’t been very good at it so far. And because in the past I’ve mostly blogged on Thursdays, I’m going to keep up with this trend. Part of my strategy is to plan out four blogs at the beginning of each month and get started writing them early. Procrastination is usually my biggest issue, letting the days go by and then Thursday comes without time or energy or a worthy idea. If I already have the ideas ready to go, then things should go much more smoothly from here on out.
  2. Tweet, tweet, tweet. When I started my Twitter account, it was mostly to follow my favorite celebrities, mainly the (almost!) entire cast of Criminal Minds. When I started planning my literary life, a friend told me that I should be tweeting at least five times a day. So that is my goal in the New Year. Whether it be about my writing accomplishments, witty observations, or nonsensical ramblings, I vow to tweet five times EVERY day.
  3. The Poem-a-Day Project. This one has been attempted several times before, but with such a concrete starting point, I feel like it will be easier to accomplish. It’s pretty simple: write a poem every day. It doesn’t have to be perfect or even good; it just has to be down on the paper.
  4. 100 Books, 100 Movies: I foolishly make this a goal every year, to read 100 books and see 100 movies throughout the course of the year. I have not once accomplished this despite several attempts. I feel this is important because you can be influenced by whatever it is that you are watching or reading. So again I will take on this task. The movies must all be ones I’ve never seen, but books can include rereads (mostly because I’m a rather slow reader and I would have to count for all that time spent).
  5. Get published. I don’t quite have a concrete schedule or outline for this one yet. I plan on spending the first couple of months doing extensive research on literary magazines—which ones are more accepting of new writers, which poems and stories will fit with what magazine. Then after figuring out where to send everything, it’s time to submit, submit, submit. I want my computer file of cover letters to be bigger than the one containing the scenes for my novel.
And that’s it. I know what you’re thinking. My resolution should be something like, finish my novel, or write a chapter a week. Something like that, right? Trust me, I know I won’t be able to keep up with something like that. It’s just something that I can’t push, and having these smaller resolutions seems much more practical to me.

With the exception of blogging every Thursday, I also plan on checking in with my other resolutions from time to time, possibly once a month, just to track my progress. Also, click here to see my planned reading list for the year, only 43 books long so far. Yikes!

15 December 2011

Sweet Sixteen

Remember when I said I give my characters birthdays? Well, today just so happens to be Jordan’s birthday.

Remember when I said I was crazy? No? I didn’t say that? Are you sure?

I was grocery shopping the other day and somehow ended up in the baking aisle. I halted my cart for a brief second, my eyes glancing over the boxes of cake mixes. Twenty different kinds of chocolate, vanilla—no, no, no, I said to myself, inching the cart forward. Then I saw it—lemon cake, which held a particular significance with me because of a certain scene in Chapter Four involving a cupcake. I was tempted to reach for the box but pushed onward, despite the distinct voice in my head saying, “make me a cake, woman!”

Yes, we have actual conversations. Sure, I’ll say I imagine them, but really, his responses are so quick that I have my doubts.

I decided against the cake with various thoughts of, “You know I’m the only person who will eat that whole freaking cake,” and “You can’t turn sixteen if you’ve only existed for ten months!” And that was the end of it.

I still felt like I had to do something celebratory. But how do you commemorate your muse’s birthday? A day filled with writing? That seems more like a present for me. I still don’t really know, and maybe this blog post is the best I can do. I can’t accurately explain my devotion to him. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve told my boyfriend things like, “I have two soul mates!” and “You know I’m in love with him, right?” but he just brushes it off as part of my crazy writer’s mind.

How do you describe something that isn’t real but at the same time is more real than anything? Something you created that became bigger than yourself? Or a relationship that is insanely passionate but completely platonic? Or somebody who is equal parts son, brother, lover, friend, but also part of yourself?

I can’t, I guess. I can just say “happy birthday” and promise to keep writing until this insanity fulfills its purpose.

So, alas, there will be no cake. But just for fun, here is the birthday playlist I made (because I make playlists for EVERYTHING). I thought I’d explain each song, but where’s the fun in that? I’d probably still be the only person who will understand. And that’s just fine.

Songs for My Muse

  1. Vanessa Carlton – Ordinary Day
  2. Vienna Teng – Stray Italian Greyhound
  3. Duncan Sheik – Mr. Chess
  4. Coldplay – Yellow
  5. Goo Goo Dolls – Big Machine
  6. Lady GaGa – Bad Romance

17 November 2011

Please Don't Feed the Muse

It was all one big, practical joke.

I was all prepared for a writing extravaganza. Three days off from work, the first of which just so happened to be November 15, marking exactly nine months since I started my story. I sort of view it like an anniversary, and try to devote myself more to my writing as if that day is sacred.

But that sacred day went by with barely a single word written. It was just your average day of staring at the blank page. It was disappointing for sure, but what made it particularly frustrating was that I desperately wanted to write something. I felt that physical pull, the restless sort of itch that you feel in your gut, your brain, your fingers when you want the words to spill out. But there wasn’t a single idea that I could latch onto. I’ve often thought about taking a break from my book, but decided the effort would be useless because I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it and the separation would only break my heart.

So I went to bed early, planning to get up early and spend the whole day brainstorming, outlining, reading—whatever was going to get the ideas flowing.

Enter problem number two. I couldn’t sleep that night. Why exactly? Too many ideas. I don’t know what got me thinking about it in the first place. I always brainstorm before falling asleep, but for some reason this time was different. I’ve always thought to myself that I’d love to write a sequel some day, if I could come up with a good enough idea, one that could stand up to the original. Nothing so far was ever good enough, but I always envision different outcomes for my characters just to see what could happen to them.

For some reason, every idea was suddenly falling into place. I finally liked this particular future and it made sense. So I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I wasn’t really planning on writing any of it, just picturing it in my head for a little while as a sort of indulgence. But when you start picturing characters, they start talking. And sometimes those words are too good to let slip away.

“Ok,” I told myself, “just one scene of dialogue and that’s it.” But one scene led to another and another, and soon I couldn’t stop myself. I was cracking myself up with the one-liners, getting turned on by the sexy parts. It was like the beast could not be contained. And I realized something—haven’t I felt this exact way before?

Yes, I had. Exactly nine months ago, when this whole crazy thing started.

Son of a bitch, the muse got me. He played a trick on me and was laughing his ass off in the corner of my mind. I had lost a day of writing, lost a night of sleep, and in my attempts to write something different only made the bond with my character stronger. It was like being in some abusive relationship where I try to leave and he just laughs and says, "you can never leave!" But then I realize that I never wanted to leave in the first place.

I don’t know how long this reignited passion will last. Maybe by indulging my sequel fantasies I can somehow keep it alive. Or maybe just doing the unexpected.

22 September 2011

Who Was That Guy? A Drunken Writing Adventure

The alcohol was necessary. Under no circumstances would I have been singing in public without it. Although this particular karaoke establishment provided private rooms where you only have to perform in front of your friends, I still required quite a bit of liquid courage, which was why the drinks were forced down my throat on the ride there. The high heels, on the other hand, were a poor choice.

It was my friend Kim’s 21st birthday, and neither of us had ever been drunk before. But once Kim figured out that she wasn’t quite ready for massive amounts of alcohol, she made sure that my cup was always full. So by the end of the night, she was helping me down the stairs because I had never been so intoxicated and was wearing five-inch heels.

As we reached the bottom of the stairs, I said: “Is it weird that I want to go home and write?”

I had been fighting off a surge of creativity all night, my fingers just itching for a notebook or keyboard. Maybe it was fueled by the alcohol or the music, but either way, I couldn’t escape that feeling inside of me, that restlessness of a new idea. On the ride home I was fighting sleep and drunkenness, but I couldn’t help myself—I was writing a paragraph in my head. I repeated each sentence over and over until I had it memorized, convinced of its perfection.

When I got home around two in the morning, first I fell on my bed, then got up, grabbed a notebook, and scribbled down the paragraph. Then I fell back into bed, not caring what sort of plot dilemma I had just created. That could wait until the morning.

To sum things up, in my book, it’s kind of necessary to the plot that the characters don’t have sex until the very end. But the paragraph I had just written threw a wrench into the whole story. In a rather uncharacteristic but powerful and emotionally vulnerable moment, my protagonist decides that he does want to take the next step with his would-be lover. I couldn’t help myself, really—I was sort of moved by the raw emotion involved with the scene. The only problem was that I had no idea how to end the scene. What could possibly change his mind besides the standard “oh no, we can’t” that occurs ten million other times in the novel? Ho hum, as Jordan would say. But I was too tired and too intoxicated to figure it out. So I went to sleep.

I still cannot fully explain what happened next. Maybe I was half asleep, half drunk, and thinking about what I had just written. Maybe I was dreaming and being led somewhere by my subconscious. I could see the setting of my book perfectly—one of the character’s apartments. My two main characters were there, too. But then there was this third guy, who wasn’t a character in anything I had written, or even someone I had seen in real life. He was just there. And then the dream was over.

I had to get up at eight that morning to head off to work, and let me just say, I don’t recommend being hung over during liquidation. I didn’t even think I was hung over, just tired and dehydrated, until someone’s small child started screaming. I couldn’t think much about the dream until later that night, when I tried expanding on the scene. I just kept thinking, who the hell was that guy?

I don’t think there was an “a-ha” moment. I just eventually came to the realization that there was a reason that I thought of this random person. How could I end this unendable scene? Well, what if this mystery man was real? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate betrayal, if you were prepared to give yourself to someone entirely, only to find that he was with someone else? That was it. Not only had I figured out how to end the scene, but I had stumbled onto one hell of a plot twist.

I don’t think this idea would have been possible without the particular combination of creativity, alcohol, and sleepiness. I would love to try it again, but I don’t think it would be possible. I guess every epiphany has its own little way of popping into my brain.

01 September 2011

What's in a Last Name?

Finding a name for a character can sometimes be agonizing. I can spend hours pouring over books of baby names or websites that will give meanings and etymology, trying to find that one perfect gem of a name that will sum up the entire character. I feel clever for having found something so perfect, hoping my readers will research the name as well and acknowledge just how spectacular my choice was.

Every once in a while, though, I don’t have to do research or make a list of names to choose from. Something special and almost mystical happens that lets me know I’ve stumbled upon a life partner of a story—one that infuses itself into the very core of my being. How do I know this? I don’t think about the characters’ names, not even for a second. They instantly pop into my head, as if that person was standing next to me and whispered his or her name into my ear. I never question it.

This has only happened to me twice and always for the two main characters of the story. I always write fiction in first person, and at a certain point I try to carve out an identity that makes the character seem more real—birthday, zodiac sign, hobbies, and yes, a last name. It’s never as easy as the first. I can spend hours, days, even weeks mulling the name over until it feels right. But in the case of two of my darlings, once I had made the decision, there was no turning back.

My brainchild since I was fourteen has been a young adult fantasy novel called Bleeding Life, which I’ve written three (yes, three) times. This story was the first time that I didn’t have to think about character names. The decision was so immediate that I couldn’t really call it a decision at all. But that wasn’t the freaky part. Eventually I was deciding upon every single detail of these characters’ lives, and had given them middle and last names. But something didn’t sit right with me about my narrator, Amber’s last name—Johnson. It was too boring, too generic. I decided to change it. 

Back in those days, I decided on last names by flipping blindly through a phone book. If the name sounded reasonable, I went with it. So, the only logical next move was to pick a new last name for Amber. I grabbed the phone book and closed my eyes, thumbed through the pages and opened the book in lap. My finger scanned the page and stopped. I opened my eyes. I was pointing directly at “Johnson.” After a few seconds of shock, I slammed the phone book closed and put it away. There was obviously no fighting this. I had given Amber a specific identity, and to change it now would mean changing who she was as a character. And she had other plans in mind.

More recently my obsessions have shifted onto a new story, one that started with just an idea to write about a teacher-student relationship. Something provocative and out of my usual comfort zone. What I didn’t realize was how much this story would end up consuming me. Things happened so rapidly that I couldn’t really question or control it. For this story, choosing the gender of my characters took longer than choosing their names. After the approximate four hours that I wasn’t sure, once the decision was made (both characters are male) the names came to me like two light bulbs turning on inside my brain at the same time.

My narrator/muse/literary soul mate—is a fifteen-year-old, bisexual, fledgling sociopath named Jordan. I had it floating in the back of my head that his last name would be Palmer. I wasn’t quite committed to it, but it was the only name that had stuck. I figured I could keep searching, maybe find something better.

But recently my boyfriend was driving me home after taking a walk down by the beach. I was sort of idly looking at street signs on the left side of the road when we came across a street named Jordan Dr. “Oh, haha,” I mused to myself, “I want to live there!” As we drove on, I was already forgetting about it when we came across the next street sign: Palmer St. I did a sort of double take as we zoomed past. It was like a moment of clarity. You see? the universe was saying. You were right all along! Don’t go around messing things up!

Were both of these instances a coincidence? I don’t like to believe that. The circumstances were just too strange, that I just happened to be looking at street signs that day, that my finger just happened to land on that particular spot in the phone book. So yes, on some level I believe that these characters have taken control of their own existences. If I try to change them, the universe will find some way to show me that I’m wrong. And ultimately, it’s all about trusting my first instincts, even if it’s only for a name.

06 July 2011

Chapter Three Syndrome

Writing Chapter One was like a whirlwind. Once I had decided that I was going to commit to it, once the momentum got going, it couldn’t be stopped. I stayed up until 3 a.m. until it was finished because I wanted that sense of completion before I went to sleep. I didn’t want to leave it unfinished.

Chapter Two had a similar momentum. I wrote the entire thing over the course of one day. It was all very exhilarating, the fact that I, a rather sporadic writer, was actually writing a novel in order. I just wanted to keep that motivation alive, to get as much done as possible.

The first chapter was like the teaser—establish the characters and just hint at an eventual plot. The second chapter was almost like an extension of Chapter One, diving a bit deeper into the plot with a little more backstory thrown in. Now I was faced with Chapter Three, and all I could keep asking myself was, “Now what?” This was my bridge chapter, what was going to take me from the beginning of the story to the real heart of the plot. I knew exactly how the next two chapters would go, but I had no idea how to get there. Besides a few great anecdotes that I was able to piece together for the first page, I had absolutely nothing. I was staring at the blank page.

I came up with every excuse in the world as to why I couldn’t write. Maybe I was just too stressed out about things in my life. Maybe I had overworked my creativity and just needed a break. Maybe my muse was sick of me. Or maybe I was sick of him. I even blamed it on the music I was listening to. Eventually I had to face the facts. For the first time in over four months, I had writer’s block. It felt like I was accepting a death sentence.

What was really bothering me was that this didn’t feel like regular writer’s block. It felt like I just couldn’t figure things out anymore. I started thinking that Chapter Three was such a throwaway chapter, that I didn’t need it at all and really just needed to dive into the story, not string the reader along and leave them bored for too long.

I didn’t know what to do, but every time I even thought about it, I would cringe and turn my thoughts onto something else. I just wanted to avoid it altogether.

So I went back to my usual way of writing things, furiously typing out ideas as they came to me, not even knowing whether or not they would end up in the book. But even that wasn’t working. Besides one hiccup of a great scene, I spent about a month with absolutely nothing worthwhile.

It might be easy for other writers to set down their work and put it aside for a while, but for me, that’s impossible. My narrator feels more like some sort of parasite that has attached himself onto my brain. Even when I can’t write, I’m thinking about writing. So I can’t escape it, which just makes the inability to write more frustrating.

Finally it dawned on me. It wasn’t that I needed a break from writing, or even from the universe of this particular story. I needed a break from the narrator. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? I needed to write in someone else’s voice, even if it only amounted to a simple writing exercise.
This was a perfect opportunity to dive into the backstories of some of the other characters. I chose one and just started writing, not worrying about making the sentences perfect or even if it made sense. I could always go back and change it and most of the details wouldn’t even be important for the actual novel. It was important for me to be able to understand these characters so that they would seem real and their actions would have reasons and motivations.

So I dove in head first, writing page after page spanning years across one character’s life. My fingers were typing faster than they ever had been just to keep up with my brain. I realized that this was easy because there was no pressure. I didn’t have to get it right. I just had to get it down. The sentences could be awful, the voice could be inconsistent, but the ideas were still there. There was this overwhelming sense of freedom, and I loved it.

At this point, I’m still not even done. I’ve written almost eight pages and still have to get this character through twelve more years of his life before the novel itself even begins. And then I’ve got another character to dissect. So even if the momentum returns and I can finally tackle Chapter Three, at least I know when I get writer’s block again (which I will), there’s always something to fall back on.