Very rarely these days do I get a chunk of free time to dedicate exclusively to my writing. Even rarer still is the instance when that serendipitous chunk of free time is devoid of interruption. This morning was meant to be one of those rarest of rare moments. The planets magically aligned and for at least four hours I would have the house all to myself, without any pressing issues that spilled over from the week or housework looming over my head. It was the perfect opportunity.
After seeing the hubby off, I excitedly got down to business. I cleaned up my work space. Turned on the computer. Changed into more comfortable clothes. Prepared my tea. Opened the window shades for light (but not wide enough to be a distraction). Sat down. Found the file on the computer, opened it and began to read. (I usually reread the chapter I’m on before I start writing, if I’ve left it partway through).
Three paragraphs in, I found a little something I wanted to edit; a single (arguably insignificant) word. I’d read the passage plenty of times before without ever concerning myself with it, but for some reason today my brain got stuck on that one word. I changed it back and forth several times, read it out loud once or twice, and then went ahead and committed (after all, I needed to get through another 4,952 words before I could pick up my writing where I left off).
Moving along, I read paragraph four without a problem (cue false sense of security here). In paragraph five, my brain got stuck on comma placement; I decided to leave it alone. In paragraph seven, my sentences started to sound too wordy (a sure sign I was not in my right mind). In paragraph eight, I questioned a descriptor I had painstakingly considered and chosen before for the sake of my narrative voice. By the time I got halfway through paragraph nine (and my brain got stuck again, this time on using the proper name for an important place), I realized something was off (me) and decided it would be best to walk away.
In less than a half hour, my perfect opportunity had been squandered away.
Suffice to say, I’m just a little bit frustrated. Four hours of ideal solitude and I can’t write (I can’t even get past re-reading). Normally, I would advise sitting in front of the blank screen until the words come, but there are times when you can’t do that. I know that if I continue today, I’ll massacre the progress I’ve already made. So I decided to use the free time to write this post instead. Now that it’s done, I think I’m going to do a little gardening. The weather is cooperating (somewhat), and it’ll help clear my mind.
I might not have a rare chunk of free time later, but I’ll be fine with a little inspiration.
On the image for the post, it’s by Katsushika Oi, one of the few female woodblock ukiyo-e painters of the Edo Period. She was the daughter of the artist Katsushika Hokusai. Her identity, of course, is inspiring, but so is the image itself. A large part of Book One takes place in Japan, and the feeling invoked by the painting reminds me of the setting.
I am thrilled to report that, after much work, I am at the tail end of completing my appendix. It is far more detailed than I ever considered making it, but I’m happy to say that most of the issues I raised in my last post worked themselves out on their own.
Contrary to my original intent, I did not divide the list by culture or pantheon. Doing so would have required the reader to know in what section to look, which might not always be the easiest task (especially with a ‘miscellaneous’ section). I did, however, compile the list in the divided format, since it made the task much easier for me to keep track of and revise.
The appendix itself ended up being much more detailed than I anticipated, since I decided to be as inclusive as I could rather than just focus on main characters and important places. The most recent draft includes minor characters, terms essential to the storyline (for quick reference), and definitions of non-English words. I could have chosen to make it a little less comprehensive (middle ground?), but I felt it was important to include anything that would come to bear on the series as a whole later on. Character descriptions were a bit of a toss up; some with only a basic explanation of who/what they are, and others with important details on appearance and personality (surprisingly, the choice came down to pantheon). I’m still on the fence regarding the family tree(s), but I’m leaning more toward adding them from the second book onward (for purposes of not giving anything away).
Right now I’m in the middle of revising and editing. That means I’ll pour over it a million times before handing it off to my husband for the final round. The last decision I’ll have to make will be the page set-up, aesthetically speaking. Seven months after moving, my books are finally out of their boxes and up on their respective shelves (just in time for me to pour over them as reference). I spent most of the weekend looking through a good portion of my book collection to see how they presented their appendices.
If all goes as planned, I should have everything ready to go (and sent off) in the next few weeks. On a side note, Facebook remains on my “to do” list for now (and will stay there until after I send the book off for publishing). My Pinterest account, on the other hand, is alive and well. Since my last post, I’ve created Pin boards for the first three major pantheons in the series and two more characters. I’m currently working on a board for a supernatural character that’s proving difficult to channel (he’s lived for centuries and hasn’t completely assimilated with the modern world), so stay tuned; his board should turn out fun because he can be a little cheeky.
When I started the Pinterest account for the series, I never imagined it would inspire me as much as it has. Pinning as my characters has become another form of expression and exploration. I’m learning things about them that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. Evius, for example, can’t resist Pinning images of animals that his wife or child would like. Mr. Muse is drawn to ceramics. Cataline loves Pinning photos of the artists whose work she just Pinned, and Bryce loves anything fashion oriented and just a little macabre. The easiest board, of course, has been Elena’s, which is where the artwork above has come from. Like me, she’s hoping for spring.
“Writing and publishing a book (be it through traditional or self-publishing means) is a perpetually arduous task. It is not as simple a process as just writing, editing, and publishing. It is a multi-layered beast that is ever-changing and exhausting…”
When I wrote those words last month, I was certain that by this point in January I would finally be ready to pull the trigger. The editing was done. The book cover agreed upon (albeit with much less ceremony than I had anticipated). The blog was on its way. Pinterest was becoming addictive. All I needed was a few finishing touches and away we go.
Give or take a holiday or two, and I now find myself knee-deep in constructing an appendix (not at all a simple task) and trying to navigate the inconspicuously convoluted reality that is creating a Facebook presence for authors.
I am a good ⅔ into my appendix, and I’m still not certain how it’s going to ultimately look. Do I divide it by culture/pantheon or make one large list? Do I set it up as a table or in outline form? Do I include definitions of non-English words or just focus on characters and names of important places? Regarding the characters themselves, do I keep the description at a basic explanation of who/what they are or do I add details (about appearance and/or personality)? What about family trees; do I add them and, if so, how far do I go with that (pagan pantheons can be extremely convoluted)? I’d like to think I’ll be done with it soon, but I have a sneaking suspicion this might take a while.
As for Facebook, I left this task for last because I figured it wouldn’t take long to create a page (it took me a half an hour to create the business page for my private practice, not to mention how quickly I set up my personal account years and years ago). I thought I would create the page, send it to everyone I know, and voila! Between that and linking the page to the blog, everything should fall neatly into place, right? Wrong. While creating a page might be easy, choosing the right option for you is not (“What do you mean, I have options?” my brain screams in protest). An author profile vs. a book page vs. an author page vs. everything else I haven’t been able to wrap my brain around, plus the added stress of accommodating the use of a pseudonym (not easy when initially relying on social networking built on your personal identity). I’ll admit that after reading a few blog posts/articles on the subject, I filed it away in my ever-growing “to do” file. We’ll leave that little round of stress for later.
For now, I’ll keep focusing on constructing a kick-ass appendix, getting in a few more blog posts than usual, keeping my Pinterest addiction at a reasonable level (I’ve added new character boards!), and going back to writing Book Two. At least once the appendix is finally done, I’ll be ready to hand over the reigns…I hope.
It’s the end of the year, the time of year that inevitably brings with it much reflection. For me, specifically, it’s the time of year I finished the first major round of editing on The Butterfly Crest and began considering what to do next. I also happen to have just completed a another substantial step in that journey. So, it’s only natural that I currently find myself obsessively preoccupied with evaluating my progress.
Looking back at the past year, one thought constantly rises above the others:
Every step of the process, no matter how large or small, is equally as important and laborious as the last.
I started out this journey thinking (naively, I admit) that writing the book itself would be the hardest part and that everything after that would be, in a sense, “down hill”. Having finished the book, I felt that I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. That was almost three years ago. I am done with writing. I am now (thank the gods) done with editing. My list of things to do, however, has only gotten bigger, and the road has become no less uneven.
Let me give you an example of what I mean.
The editing process, for me, turned out to be a three year endeavor, after first thinking that I was done in just a couple of months. I can’t tell you how many times I looked back thinking, Okay, this is it, and then it wasn’t.
I finished the book back in 2011. The first round of editing took four months. Once that was done, I thought I was ready to roll; next up was publishing! With that in mind, I started looking into my options; traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to explore both, so that opened up several avenues of exploration (literary agents, query letters, the torture art of a well written synopsis, submissions, social media, platform building, etc). With exploration came many realizations, several of which started the editing process all over again.
To increase the chances of capturing an agent’s interest, I had to make changes to the beginning of the book. Then I shared the book with a few trusted friends/relatives for feedback; that inevitably led to round three of editing (much more in-depth than the last). After that, I got the insane idea that I could read the book completely, and enjoy it like any reader should. Not so much; that seemingly innocent goal led to the most extensive round of editing. At the same time, I was building up my newly-opened practice, executing a limited foray into submissions to literary agents, reading up on the world of self-publishing (which has changed quite a bit since then), and starting my (mis)adventures in social media and platform-building.
You can see how something I thought I had finished in early 2012 ended up taking me until November 2013 to complete.
I remember thinking to myself these past few months, Okay, this is it, after this it’s smooth sailing (sound familiar?). Once again, I was wrong. Now, while continuing to work on the social media/platform-building aspect (here’s looking at you, Pinterest), I’ve decided to revisit my book cover, something I thought I had finished in mid 2012 (around the same time I started sharing the book with friends and family). The past week alone has given birth to two new covers, and still counting; I might just end up posting them here for comment, to see what y’all think.
That all being said, I hope this little exercise in reflection hasn’t discouraged anyone, because that certainly wasn’t my intent. I just felt the need to share a little of what the process has revealed to me this time around. Writing and publishing a book (be it through traditional or self-publishing means) is a perpetually arduous task. It is not as simple a process as just writing, editing, and publishing. It is a multi-layered beast that is ever-changing and exhausting, and which for me is now impossible to live without.
It’s been over two and a half years since the first time I sat down to write The Butterfly Crest. It took me five months to complete the manuscript, before I handed it off to my husband for slaughter editing (trust me, that first round of editing, while invaluable, was a thoroughly torturous experience).
Back then, I wasn’t keeping track of my daily word count or writing on strictly allotted slivers of time. I would prepare my tea (in three cup batches), settle into my comfortable little nook, and spend a minimum of eight hours letting the story tell itself. While hardly leisurely, the overall experience lacked any real element of stress (relatively speaking).
Not so, this time around.
Never mind the obsession with meeting my daily word count goals, the stress of having to stop mid-scene because my allotted writing time has ominously arrived, or conveniently forgetting that writing at night makes it absolutely impossible for me to fall asleep at a decent hour in order to be able to wake up the next morning for work. What surprised me today, a day I’m finally able to sit down and dedicate a full day of writing to, is my unexpected attachment to ritual.
Having happily decided this morning to be free of my usual two-hour, heavily constricted time slot, I started to set up shop for a fun-filled day of writing. That’s about the time my brain got in the way.
First, I couldn’t find my tea kettle (it took me a second to remember that it’s at the office), and apparently my mind can’t switch to ‘full-day writing mode’ unless I have three cups of hot tea waiting for me on the sidelines. Next, the writing elves in my brain went on strike because the chair I’m sitting in isn’t very comfortable (looks like they really liked my old writing nook, one I no longer have access to since I’ve moved). My old reference books are nowhere to be found (mind you, I don’t need them for today’s scene, and probably not for this book at all). The dining room table (which has taken the place of my old writing nook) has been deemed too empty and sub-par. The phone rings and I am compelled to answer it; even though I know it’s most likely going to be work related and will destroy any inspiration I might still have at this point. By the time I handle the phone call, Mr. Muse has officially left the building and the two-hour, heavily constricted time slots are beginning to look like pure gold.
That’s when I decided it would be best for everyone involved (disgruntled writing elves included) to switch gears and write this post. Now that reflection time is over (and trust me, seeing in black and white just how ridiculous I was being really helped), I can finally go back to today’s intended purpose (and preparing more tea).
If you’re wondering what the ukiyo-e print above has to do with this post, it’s the image I’ve had up on my browser for several days now, as I write the scene I’m working on.
(As promised, Chapter Two of The Butterfly Crest follows. Sorry for the short preamble, but I’m doing what most other authors say you shouldn’t do—obsessing over what I’ve already written. There’s a consensus out there that says you should write, freely, first and worry about perfection later. While I agree with that, the problem I have is that I can’t move forward unless I’m somewhat satisfied with what I’ve written before. I’m not striving for perfection that first time around, but if I don’t get the feel I want out of what I’ve written, I can’t ease into that next scene. I think it’s just the way my brain works. Hopefully, today’s journey will ultimately lead me to a festival scene I’ve been dying to write. If you haven’t read the Synopsis, Prologue or Chapter One of The Butterfly Crest, please do so before reading Chapter Two. Happy reading!)
The rest of Elena’s week was just as disastrous. Ms. Callas made Elena miserable at work, the few hours of peace Elena normally had at home were slowly being swallowed up by extra work Ms. Callas was having her do, and, it didn’t matter how hard Elena tried, Ms. Callas was never satisfied. The way she expressed her dissatisfaction, in this cold and deceptively passive way, left Elena feeling inadequate, an emotion she was not comfortable with.
To be fair, even without Ms. Callas’ special brand of torment, Elena wasn’t happy. Somehow, between the demands of her career and “living the dream,” discontent had slowly taken root. Elena loved the practice of law. She had wanted to be a lawyer for as long as she could remember—every pet she had during her childhood she had named Cicero—but the reality of law, the business of it, was not something Elena had anticipated or been prepared for. She had been so idealistic about her career that it had left little to no room for the pragmatic aspects of its practice, where quantity was more important than quality; a truth Elena couldn’t reconcile.
This had been her frame of mind for months. Even so, Elena continued to get up every morning to go to a job she didn’t enjoy. She wanted to believe she did so out of a sense of duty or honor, but it had more to do with pride. She refused to be defeated, and so she struggled not to let the discontent consume her. Fortunate for her, she was temperate by nature.
Living in Japan during the first years of her life, and the devastating loss of her parents, had left an indelible mark. Ritual, privacy, modesty, honor and decorum; these things were incredibly important to Elena. Most of all, she was not the kind of woman to wear her emotions on her sleeve. With her, the adage was true—still waters ran deep. And so Elena continued on her path, trying to find the right balance in her life, and hoping she would soon find it.
Thinking it might lessen her unhappiness Elena focused the few work-free hours of her week on doing things that made her happy. On Wednesday, for instance, she visited the New Orleans Museum of Art during her lunch hour, and ran in City Park after work. There was something sacred about walking through the stone halls of the museum, a profound sense of calm, and finding peace beneath the shade of a giant oak tree at the end of her run. On Thursday evening, Elena dined with Cataline.
It was spring, Elena’s favorite time of year in New Orleans, and one that traditionally brought with it evenings spent outside. Since her earliest memories, April was a time for eating in Cataline’s garden, surrounded by blooming hydrangea bushes, the gurgle of a fountain and a continuous stream of birdsong from the trees. Thursday evening was no exception.
“So, tell me about your love life.”
Cataline made her request without any preamble, a teasing smile brightening her face as she set down a plate of roasted brussels sprouts on the table. It was a surprise she hadn’t asked the question before; questions about Elena’s love life were usually the first thing out of Cataline’s mouth, and Elena had arrived an hour and a half before to help with dinner.
“Nothing to tell, really.” Elena made a face and then took a sip from her drink. The food was spread out between them on the patio table, and each held a cocktail in her hand. Elena speared a brussels sprout and chewed on it quietly, while Cataline stared at her across the table.
Cataline was the opposite of Elena. Where Elena was reserved, Cataline was loud and full of life. The daughter of a French pianist and a Spanish cook, Cataline grew up in New Orleans and was childhood friends with Elena’s mother, and, like her, was also an artist. Elena liked to think of her as hippie chic. She had long, curly chestnut brown hair with deep amber highlights, light olive skin, deep-set hazel eyes, and cheekbones to die for.
“Nothing to tell? Is that your story, really?” Cataline stared at Elena with a perfectly arched brow, and downed half of her cocktail in one swallow. “A girl as beautiful as you and no love story to tell. Elena, you’re too serious for your own good. You need to put yourself out there. Every girl needs a good love story, and the love affair with your shoes doesn’t count. Although I can see how red-soled shoes could get any girl’s heart fluttering.”
Cataline’s smile was warm, and as comforting as the summer sun. Elena wished she could smile with that kind of confidence. When she was younger, all Elena wanted to be was like Cataline. Tall, lithe, almost ethereal looking, Cataline was uninhibited and vibrant, something all together different than Elena and the more reserved culture she had grown up in as a child. When Elena had first arrived in New Orleans after her parent’s death, she was floored by the contrast. Cataline wore every emotion on her sleeve, and never kept anything to herself. She was full of joy and she lived every second to the fullest, without reservations.
“You know I splurge on very little,” Elena replied to Cataline’s earlier remark. “I can at least have one weakness,” and red-soled heels were it.
Although Elena’s parents had left her a trust fund with enough money to see her through her childhood and a decent part of her adult life, she did not spend it frivolously. She lived as modestly as her profession allowed, and it was important for her to have savings just in case the worst were to happen to her or Cataline. Cataline didn’t have anyone taking care of her—she was a divorcée—and raising a child had not exactly been economical. Cataline had inherited a house in the Garden District from her parents—an old Greek Revival that was as much a part of Cataline as Cataline’s buoyant personality—and she and Elena had lived in it since Elena’s parents died, but the house was beginning to show its years and if something were to happen to them, they would only have a deteriorating house, and Elena’s dwindling trust, to fall back on.
“I did run into a handsome guy the other day at work, literally,” Elena added, and then recounted for Cataline the story of her encounter with the blonde-haired man. Elena told her story quietly, as they ate, the crisp spring air growing cooler around them as night settled over the small garden. Halfway through, Cataline ran inside to grab a cardigan but the cooler air didn’t bother Elena, although she had to admit it felt colder than it should have.
“And you didn’t even get his name?” Cataline chided her in the end, resting her chin on her hand and giving Elena a half smile; she had topped off her drink only moments before. “That’s what I’m talking about, Elena. You need to take a few risks. Live a little. You should have ran after him and asked for his number or his Facebook name. Isn’t that what you kids do today?”
“I don’t have a Facebook account, Cataline.” Elena tried not to roll her eyes. Instead, she took another sip from her cocktail. “And what was I supposed to do? He was really rude about it. He didn’t offer to help me pick up the papers, and he sure as hell didn’t apologize; not that it was his fault, but it would have been the gentleman-like thing to do. He didn’t even speak. He stared at me like I was a fly in his drink and then walked away.” Now that she thought about it, the incident made Elena angry. The man hadn’t been civil at all.
“He sounds handsome, though.”
Cataline’s voice took on a dreamy lightness when she said it, and Elena couldn’t help but laugh. As Cataline reached for her drink something moved in the air above her shoulder.
Elena leaned forward to see a small, pale blue butterfly fluttering in the air, which she somehow hadn’t noticed before. “Of course, in your school of thinking good looks cures everything,” Elena replied, then shook her head and continued to eat her dinner. By the time she looked up from her plate, the butterfly had gone.
Before Cataline could pick up on the conversation, Elena decided to change the subject to something less annoying; she didn’t want to think about that man or her work. Cataline was obsessed with art, and so for the rest of the meal Elena distracted her with a discussion on the latest art exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art, an exhibit on Zen art from Japan. After dinner, Elena helped Cataline clean, agreed to meet her Saturday for lunch at Café Degas—their favorite restaurant—and left before Cataline recalled their prior topic of conversation.
There are days when 700+ words come clearly and definitively, all within an hour. Then there are days when 140 words can take me a lifetime. Today belongs to the latter, but for the first time in a year and a half I find myself completely and happily immersed, once again, in the world of my own making.
The writing process has been a little different for me this time around. There isn’t as much structure as there was before. My outlines are looser, as are my ideas. I know where I need to start and where those pivotal stops in the journey must be, but I’m not as fixed on pre-planning as I used to be. That’s probably because Book One set the proper foundation and tone, and I simply find myself easing back into a familiar rhythm filled with friends I haven’t seen or spoken to in many, many months, but that doesn’t take away from the wonder of it.
And it’s those moments of wonder that makes me want to keep writing; that brings me back time and again to the arduous process of trying to give shape and meaning to the abstract. In the end, that’s what writing is—a way to explain, in finite terms, living, breathing ideas that are by definition infinite and intangible.
Neatly tucked within Chapter Ten of The Butterfly Crest you will find a flight of writer’s fancy, added on a whim without innuendo or forethought. A character spoke, the intangible took shape, and then the words made their way onto paper. I would have never guessed that those few words, which were not a part of any grand plan or carefully crafted scenario, would provide the key for the perfect beginning.
For months I’ve been struggling to put word to paper when it comes to Book 2 (and this blog, if I’m being brutally honest). I have a list of possible beginnings, but even with that I couldn’t find my way. Whether it was the timing, lack of availability, Mr. Muse’s most recent disappearing act, or simply a genuine case of writer’s block, the words just wouldn’t come.
To get my mind off of it, I busied myself with other things (and trust me, I can find plenty of distractions). I found any reason not to face that blinking cursor that had been mocking me for months.
I know what you’re thinking—that I’m obviously not very good at following my own advice—and you’re right. All I can say, quite definitively at this point, is that the writing process does not get any easier after your first book. For me, it’s actually proven to be a little harder.
I can come up with plenty of excuses, like the fact that I don’t have the full 8 hours a day to dedicate to my writing like I did when I wrote The Butterfly Crest, but that’s too convenient. The fact of the matter is that I will most likely never have that perfect storm of circumstance and opportunity find it’s way to me again (at least not anytime soon), and if I keep waiting for it to present itself then I will have nothing but a blinking cursor on an empty page to show for it.
In the universal interest of never finishing a post on a negative note, I am happy to report that the beginning of Book 2 presented itself one hot and muggy late summer afternoon (yesterday), somewhere between unloading and reloading the dryer; and it is such an obvious place to begin that I cannot fathom how or why I had not thought of it before.
The whims of inspiration, like time and tide, wait for no man (or woman, in my case).
To celebrate my happy circumstance, I will be posting Chapter Two of The Butterfly Crestin the next few days. Please stay tuned!
Going into this, I was certain that at some point the editing would stop.
I was convinced, by some inexplicable notion, that there would be a magical moment in time when I could flip the switch and go from author to reader; a moment where I would be satisfied and would be able to read my work with the same fervor I read other books.
That magical moment, however, has yet to come.
Every time I think my editing is finally done, something else comes out of the woodwork.
Don’t get me wrong. I knew editing would take time. I knew enough to know that I would seldom be satisfied (I have a tendency to over-think and overcorrect). I also knew that once I handed the manuscript off to my husband for editing, we would probably differ quite a bit in our opinions (he’s far from my target audience, and I’m set in my ways).
In the end, I approached editing in two ways.
First, I edited as I wrote. I know some people are of the opinion that editing while writing is a mistake, but it works for me. I would write a full chapter without stopping, review it, revise it and then send it to a trusted friend (she’d been my only audience for 14 years, so I knew she would be the perfect critic). We would discuss her suggestions, I would make the corrections and then move on to the next chapter.
After five months, I had myself a finished manuscript.
Now it was my husband’s turn. Several weeks after I finished, I handed him the first physical copy of the manuscript. He went chapter by chapter, and as he edited I would revise. Once that process was complete, I would be done.
A year and four months later, my editing is still not done.
My first mistake was editing so soon after finishing the book. You see, I made most of the corrections my husband suggested, but there were several I was unwilling to make that turned out to be absolutely critical. The problem was, I was too attached to what I had just written. Not enough time had gone by, and I couldn’t find the resolve to destroy my work.
In all honesty, I didn’t think I needed to destroy it.
Now, so many months later, I realize I was completely wrong. Somewhere between trying the read the book myself (a long and arduous process, since there is always something, some minute detail, I want to change) and getting feedback from the handful of people I’ve asked to read the book, I ended up making those difficult changes I was unable to make in the beginning.
It was a gradual process, but before I knew it I was destroying my work without feeling guilty about it. As I started trimming the unnecessary parts, and rounding out the parts that were lacking, I started to feel like I was finally close to the finish line.
But that brought with it it’s own set of problems.
With the momentum came the overcorrections. Suddenly, everything was suspect. The things I had been sure of before became uncertain. I started questioning dialogue formats, obsessing about the number of times I used the word ‘said’, and went so far as to doubt the beginnings and endings of my chapters. I became so consumed, that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
Moral of the story? Once you learn to destroy your work, the rub is being able to recognize that almost imperceptible moment in time when destruction becomes complete and total annihilation.
I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings lately. My days are full of beginnings.
It’s the same for everyone, no matter where your chosen path might have taken you.
Waking up in the morning. That first reluctant step you take out of bed. That second before you start getting ready, where for a brief moment the idea of diving back into bed for five minutes is the equivalent of absolute freedom. Starting your car. Turning the key to get into your office. That first hello. Your first cup of tea (or coffee). The first entry in the never-ending list of things you need to do today (a list you somehow never manage to get through, no matter how hard you try). The first file you open during the day. That first phone call that interrupts you right when you started getting into the groove of things.
The same thing happens when you write. That first moment when you finally make the choice to put thought into action. When you finally sit in front of your computer and choose to begin, you inevitably ask yourself “Where do I start?” The first pang of panic you feel when you stare at that blank screen. The first key you strike. The first word you type. Every character and chapter is a new beginning. Every Act in the journey, your character’s and your own, is a giant leap of faith. Then when it’s all said and done, that second after you’ve typed the last word, you once again find yourself at the beginning. Now begins the editing. Once that’s done, it’s “Where do I start?” all over again, except this time it’s no longer about writing—now it’s about publishing. What do you do then? Where do you start? How do you make submissions? What’s a query letter? What’s the best way to approach an agent? Your first rejection. Your first foray into blogs. The first time you hear the word Platform (with a capital P).
Even before those beginnings are done, you might find yourself diving into your next book—which starts a whole new cycle of beginnings. My general story outline is done. I have a list of ideas of where to start, but somehow I haven’t managed to begin. I even have a title, but I have yet to write a single word.
Where do I begin?
Having been there before, I know the answer. We begin at the beginning. Open your writing program, have your favorite cup of tea in hand, put your fingers on the keyboard and just start.
I’ll get there soon, but for now, in honor of these many beginnings, I’d like to share with you the first Act in my journey as an author—Chapter One of The Butterfly Crest. It’s mostly in the same condition it was when I first wrote it, with just a few stylistic changes. It’s a little on the short side, but there’s a reason for that!
They are what you are striving to create. What you hope the reader takes with them.
Sometimes they’re the inspiration for something or the reason behind a particular choice. They can fuel the creation of a character, for instance, or unexpectedly bring about their demise.
They have a lot to do with rhythm, tone and instinct. Very little to do with rules, preconceived notions or overly-worked designs.
Recently, I’ve come to realize that they are the cornerstone of my writing process.
I chose to write in third-person narrative because it allowed me the most flexibility in creating the impressions I wanted to evoke. There’s no right or wrong answer in the choice of narrative point of view. It comes down to personal preference, and for me it was easier to create the atmosphere I needed for The Butterfly Crest by using third-person narrative. Elena’s journey is rife with contrasts that could only be elicited in that way; a human’s view of the divine is limited to the human perspective, and I needed the reader to see beyond those limitations.
Impressions also influenced my writing method. I wrote The Butterfly Crest chapter to chapter, each chapter building on the one before. The starting point and the end point of a chapter were clear impressions in my mind that began as images but had nothing in between. The goal was to transition from the first image to the second, the in-between developing on its own. I knew the stages of Elena’s story, so in that sense the starting and ending points of each chapter were planned, but they evolved from images and impressions rather than an overly-worked design. I had an outline, which was pivotal to the process, but the bullet points were concise, and it was the image they conjured that propelled the story forward.
The title of the book was ultimately chosen because of an impression left in me several years ago, when I purchased my first Japanese textile. I bought a haori, a coat that is worn over kimono, made of black crepe silk and decorated with a beautiful floral pattern stitched in silver, gold, blue, green and coral threads. The black crepe has a swirl-like water pattern woven into the fabric, designed to act as the backdrop. The inside lining has a delicate hand-painted design of pink magnolia flowers on pale branches, the petals lined in gold. I fell in love with every aspect of the textile, but the most curious element was the single kamon painted in white on the back panel, several inches beneath the collar.
Kamon are family crests, and in kimono they are used to indicate levels of formality. After seeing the emblem on my haori, I researched the subject and came across a butterfly crest that I never quite forgot. As I developed Elena’s story, the butterfly became a very prominent symbol, and the crest I never forgot naturally became the emblem for her story.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been considering how to begin the second book in the series. It’s been a difficult process because most of my time is being consumed by my law practice. I have an ongoing list of ideas, and as I looked them over this morning I realized they are a list of impressions; experiences like the ones described in my last blog post. Each impression has a link to the story. The front runner is the image of a single red camellia blooming in snow. Believe it or not, the image ties into several aspects of Elena’s journey.
Moral of the story? Structure is necessary but magic happens in the in-between, when a an image or impression evolves into something greater than itself (be it a single sentence, a chapter or an entire book).
Not once, but twice in four days, I’ve heard the following words quoted, read out loud the first time in the most unexpected of mediums and quoted in written form the second, in an expression of compassion from a Katrina survivor to those now suffering through the aftermath of Sandy. I don’t believe in coincidence, and the tenor of these six lines is simply too profound not to share. I strive for my words to someday carry a fraction of this weight.
From Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Mov’d earth and heaven, that which we are, we are:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
What I remember most about a book is where it has taken me, emotionally and metaphysically.
When the words strip the world around me bare, refashion it into something entirely different, and it affects me in such a profound way that it becomes as much a part of me as any step in my own story—that’s what every writer strives for.
It is the intention behind every written word.
In order for me to channel that intention effectively, I have to immerse myself in what I’m trying to create. That can prove to be difficult when what I’m creating only exists in the abstract or, worst yet, when it exists but it’s a place I’ve never been.
Most of Elena’s journey in The Butterfly Cresttakes place in worlds that exist only in mythology, and the beginning of her journey is born in a country I am irrevocably devoted to but have, regrettably, never had the pleasure to see with my own eyes.
It is easier to convey an intention when you have experienced it with every sense in your being; when you’ve seen it, touched it, tasted it, smelled it, heard it. Your senses are necessary tools in conveying your intention. But what do you do when they aren’t in your arsenal; when the only experience you have is abstract?
It’s in those moments when I turn to other people’s experience; immerse myself, vicariously, into some else’s senses until they supplement my own. I’m sure it was a much more academic exercise before, but today we have an endless supply of blogs, video, and information to learn from.
I was fortunate enough to have a history with the things I chose to write about—I had years of books and resources I could turn to at first—but it was the “virtual” information that really made the difference. Photo blogs. Travel videos. Endless articles on a particular culture and aesthetic. Information on archeology and myth.
The good thing about writing on mythology is that history already provides you the footprint; you just have to fill in the blanks with a little innovation. Writing about a place that exists is a little more difficult. You have to honor it, be mindful at all times of striking a balance between artistic and ethical integrity.
Blogs like Patrick Latter’s Canadian Hiking Photography were pivotal; photographs that affect me in the same way as a well written book. I’ve never been to Canada, but he makes me want to write about what he captures in his photos (not just scenes, but a visceral expression of something outside of ourselves).
Using blogs like Patrick’s, I researched the places I wrote about – whether real or myth. I studied photographs and videos, searched for as much sensory information as I could, and then wrote with that intention in mind.
By the end of Elena’s journey, I felt as if I had visited all of those impossible-to-reach places; a feeling I hope to have in common with my readers by the end of their journey into Elena’s new world.
Creating a setting is as important as creating a character. It should live and breathe as viscerally as their animate counterparts.
With my sincerest apologies for the radio silence of late (life keeps getting in the way), I wanted to take a moment to talk a little bit about prologues.
In the process of writing a book, the prologue is the last thing you write.
How many of you have heard this before? I’d heard it a million times, but in my case it turned out not to be true.
Or so I thought…
At the onset of everything, three paragraphs gave life to my book (guided, unknowingly, by the hand of the immodest Mr. Muse). They were not my best work, but they were pivotal; after all, they had been the catalyst for everything. These three paragraphs became my prologue.
As I worked to finish the book, I knew in the back of my mind that I would have to revisit the prologue at some point. That point didn’t come until I was ready to begin submissions. As I am sure most of you know, when making submissions to literary agents you only have a few pages to make an impression. That means your prologue and/or the first few dozen pages of your book need to be good (to say they’re crucial is the understatement of the century). You need to make an impression that sticks.
This is how the first words I wrote of this book also turned out to be the last.
As I’ve mentioned before, the first few chapters of The Butterfly Crestfollow Elena’s very ordinary life. The story doesn’t stay ordinary for long, but it just so happened that the submission lengths were never quite long enough to reach the extraordinary parts (in most cases you get 10-15 pages, that’s it!). This meant I somehow needed to find a way to infuse the beginning of the story with some of the magic of the rest of the book.
Enter new prologue.
I initially played with the idea of doing away with a prologue entirely (better no prologue than a weak one) but I got over that pretty quick, because it still didn’t solve the issue of making an impact with the first few pages. So I pondered my options for a few days. At some point between frustration and utter hopelessness, it hit me—I had already written the prologue.
Halfway through the book, I had written a passage that broke from the narrative of the story. For the first time in the book, Elena’s consciousness was not the point of view. Like a tear in the fabric, the reader is given an insight into what’s going on behind the scenes. The same thing happened three or four times throughout the story, and one of those moments was a perfect fit.
With that brief introduction behind us, I’d like to share the final version of the prologue with you. It’s short, but I think pretty effective. What do you think? Comments are welcome.
As the fractured light of dawn breached the threshold, two voices spoke in whispers in the fading dark.
“Are you going to coddle her the entire time?” hissed the female voice, the quality of her tone brittle and wispy, like the rustle of desiccated leaves. She was the Keres, the goddess of violent death, believed by humans to be three spirits but in truth was only one.
Death, her brother, sat across the room from her, holding a mortal woman in his arms. The woman writhed and twisted, struggling with the demons in her sleep. With careful hands, Death brushed the hair out of the woman’s face and then lifted his icy gaze to his sister’s.
“Why do you care?” he asked.
“Because I do not want you to end up like Dionysus. She’s going to die just like the rest of them,” the Keres said.
“Up until a few decades ago, you were all certain the bloodline had died out. And yet here she is, the Heir of the House of Thebes.” The sarcasm was lost in the apathetic tone of his voice. Death brushed his fingers against the back of the mortal woman’s neck before continuing. “If I was a betting man, Keres, I would bet you were wrong again.”
“I am seldom wrong, Thanatos.”
“It is of no use to me when you are wrong at the most important times.”
The Keres hissed, and the shadows trembled in the dark. “I grow weary of this side of you. I have been asked to inquire as to your intent.”
“Isn’t it obvious, sister? I intend to bring her to Tartarus.”
The Keres laughed, the sound hollow like the rattle of bones. “Are you mad? It is forbidden.”
“It is the will of her father, and I intend to see it through. Tell my mother, we should not be long.”
Begging your pardon for the tardiness of my latest post (my day job and migraines were brutal this week), I had intended to write about several subjects (prologues, narrative, the hook, etc), but then I ran across a quote I haven’t been able to shake:
I should have known better than to take it at face value, but I happened to run across it at a particularly vulnerable moment during the week.
As a writer, you’ll come across these moments (big or small) when you suddenly find yourself thinking it was all for naught, and every nerve in your body is screaming for you to tear it all down and start over again. I’m not talking about the usual artistic dissatisfaction—that’s normal; I’m talking about a sudden shift in perspective where what you had once considered brilliant now seems insipid and forced.
That’s where I was, mentally, when I ran across this quote.
To make matters worse, my shift in perspective happened to be brought on by a particular insecurity I have regarding my penchant for imagery. Truth be told, I couldn’t kill an adjective if it were coming at me head on with a machine gun in its hands.
I should have looked up the entire quote (because it would have saved me several days of mental torture). Instead, I ruminated on it as I continued my work for the week. Then an innocent comment from a dear friend added fuel to my mental fire. A discussion about action scenes versus epic settings, in my mind, turned into a private viewing of my book’s crucifixion.
There are as many different types of readers as there are books in the world, and each one of them has their own preference when it comes to styles of writing; it would be insane to think you can satisfy them all. I happen to be the kind of reader who enjoys getting lost in a book, in its scenery and the world it has to offer. Of course, action is important, but to me it’s more about the feeling I get when I read; the sensation in the back of my neck as the world I’m reading about begins to take shape around me (guided by the author’s carefully chosen words).
The more details the writer offers, the more elaborate the world taking shape in my mind can be. The experience, for me, has to be one of immersion. It can be a scene as subtle as a Japanese gardener teaching his craft (Gail Tsukiyama‘s The Samurai’s Garden) or as intense as a child’s first kill in self defense during Rome’s invasion of Britain (Manda Scott‘s Dreaming the Eagle), but either way it has to move me; speak to something deep inside of me so that it becomes ingrained in my mind, like a memory (that isn’t even mine).
The same thing is true when I write. I tend to lose myself in the world I’m creating or describing. Whether it’s a real place or one that exists only within the writing, I want the reader to experience it palpably; to feel awe and wonder as they step through the threshold. Of course, in my zealous fervor, I can get carried away; it is one of the things I know, going into it, that I need to keep a rein on.
As I wrote The Butterfly Crest, I kept myself in check by doing two things. First, I followed the Coco Chanel rule, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory. Less is always more.” Yes, she was talking about fashion, but the sentiment still applies, and, unlike Mark Twain’s rule (or so I thought, throughout the week), this method didn’t require me to kill all adjectives. My second weapon was having my husband edit the book, since he is the farthest thing from my target audience and particularly dislikes overly written books (if I got his seal of approval, then I knew I had something going).
Suffice it to say, I tortured myself with this frame of mind all week. I kept going back and forth in my head, dismantling the story and justifying, to myself, the choices I made and the reasoning behind every step of Elena’s journey. I ultimately came to the conclusion I had reached at the beginning of the writing process—I had to strike a balance to maintain the integrity of the story. I couldn’t just arbitrarily kill adjectives. Yes, quite a few met their demise (through the Chanel rule), but others remained and thrived in order to give life to Elena’s journey. Every step chosen was methodically thought out, and randomly sacrificing imagery (adjectives) for more action would only do a disservice to the story I was trying to tell.
So after all of that mental torture exercise, I had found my way back. Good for Mark Twain that he could sleep at night after murdering every adjective that came his way, but I just wasn’t that kind of girl (I love adjectives!). At some point this morning, I decided I would write about my little experience with Mr. Twain. I started to look for the exact quote online, and found that Coco and Mark (when put into context) weren’t too far off:
When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.
If I would have looked up the quote earlier I would have saved myself a lot of grief, but I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to write about this. I think for a lot of us, we are our own worst critics. No matter how much we believe in ourselves, there are moments when we falter (when our genius doesn’t seem so genius-like anymore). It is important to step back in those moments and regain perspective. The instinct that guided you to begin with will return, and then you’ll really regret it if you started killing adjectives arbitrarily while your genius was gone.