Category Archives: Writing Process

On the in-between

Peonies and Butterfly by Hokusai

Impressions in writing are important.

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).

On the intention of words and the creation of a journey

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 Crest takes 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.

On the importance of prologues

“What’s past is prologue.”
              -William Shakespeare, The Tempest

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 Crest follow 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.”

With a baleful cry, the Keres was gone.

**Copyright © Eva Vanrell, 2011 – 2012. All rights reserved.

On killing adjectives

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:

When you catch an adjective, kill it. —Mark Twain

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.

On ambrosia, beginnings, and the inner fangirl

Every year there comes a day, a singular, spectacular day, when you step out of your front door at the exact moment when summer has transitioned to fall. Sure, the process began long before you took that fortuitous step, but somehow you manage to tap right into the flow of it. It seeps in through your skin to the marrow of your bones, ravaging every nerve ending it encounters along the way. In that pivotal moment, the world stops. A massive silence drowns out every sound as one season shifts into the other, before the world takes a thunderous breath and is born anew; recharged, vibrant, and infinite.

Portland_Japanese_Garden_maple
A Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) in the Portland Japanese Garden, photo by Jeremy Reding.

Chosen excerpt ends here; click to continue reading full post…

On facing the blank page

There are days as a writer when you wake up empty. Inspiration eludes you. You may have a temperamental muse. You may find yourself up against a deadline (self-imposed or otherwise). Your mind may be mush because you stayed up working until 3 a.m. the night before. Whatever the reason, the page remains blank.

Today was one of those days for me.

These types of days can be very difficult for a writer. Suddenly you find yourself ruminating on what came before, second guessing every choice you made, rather than looking ahead at the work you should be doing. In these moments it can be really easy to give in, to walk away for the day, but in my case it was always better to force myself to face the blank page.

Some of my best work came in those moments, when I managed to claw my way out of my own head—because that’s what it is most of the time, a case of self-sabotage.

For days now, I’ve been trying to find the time to write. I kept telling myself I was too busy, that there was simply too many other things that needed to be done (there always is) and that there wasn’t enough hours in a day to do them in (there really aren’t), but I realized a few minutes ago that I was just avoiding the obvious – my temperamental muse was eluding me.

I could see him sitting in the recesses of my mind dressed from head to toe in one of his impeccable suits, his right ankle resting gingerly over his left knee, ice blue eyes staring right through me, with a hint of a smirk touching his lips.

He taunts me in a way only he can—striking at my weakest point as if to say, what would you be without me?

But the real question is, what would he be without me? After all, I created him.

Facing the blank page is difficult, but chances are you’ll seldom be disappointed with the result. This may not have been the post I had envisioned a few days ago, but I promise you it wiped the smirk right off of his beautiful face.

On war paint, rituals and writing platforms

Having arrived at the office a little earlier than I would like this morning, I quietly go about my routine. Mornings like this means I arrive earlier than most at the building. The place is unnaturally still (even now, several hours later, it’s eerily quiet). In the silence, every sound from the outside is magnified. Due to the several large windows that line the walls, the space has an abundance of light. For the moment, it feels like I’m the only person in the world.

Since I am the farthest thing from a morning person, I rolled out of bed thirty minutes before driving here—just enough time to shower and put on a dress. That means that I will spend the next thirty minutes carefully applying my war paint. Before doing anything, I slip off my stylish (highly uncomfortable) heels and put on slippers. I can’t function like a civilized human being without a warm cup of tea, so I tiptoe into our conference room and turn on the fancy little hot water dispenser my husband bought me as an office-warming gift. While I wait for the water to heat, I slip back to my desk to set things up.

With a small mirror and my makeup spread out on my desk, I have one last thing to take care of before the chime sounds that the water is hot. I reach for my cell phone, search for the app, and soon enough I am surrounded by the sounds of a Japanese garden in the morning, complete with the hollow clack of a bamboo fountain. A few minutes later, I have my hot green tea in hand, and the ritual of applying makeup can now begin.

I’m sure, by this point, you’re wondering what, if anything, this has to do with writing.

Well, something dawned on me while I was carefully drawing the line on my eyes (other than the fact that the liner brush and I engage in a cold war every morning)—sitting here, going through my routine this morning, felt oddly familiar; this kind of ritual had played a huge part in my writing process.

Every morning, I would get up and follow a particular routine. First, I made an unconscious decision at some point in the beginning to wake up at a certain time every morning, as if I were going to work. I admit, I didn’t always stick to the schedule, but I tried my hardest, and I never called in sick. Initially, I had intended to leave the weekends free, but as I got deeper into the project all I could do was write. Every Wednesday, I would take some time off to visit the New Orleans Museum of Art, just to clear my mind.

Equally important to keeping my schedule was my daily set up. First, I set up my work space. Due to my complete inability to work in a library or other public space, I worked at home. We were living in a small place at the time, so there was limited work surface. I made due with what I had, either the overly-wide couch or a work station set up on our bed (employing a creative use of breakfast tray, pillows, and side tables); someday I will be as fortunate as Neil Gaiman and have my own writing cabin in the woods!

Once my workspace was set up, I filled it with my research materials for the day. Now that we’re on the subject of research, prior to beginning the writing process (sometime after the emergence of Mr. Muse and the brainstorming session that followed), I found myself preparing an outline. Now, I will readily admit that I had scoffed at the idea of writing an outline for years (it seemed offensive to my right-brained sensibilities). However, the need soon proved crucial. If you want your story to be consistent, chances are you’ll need an outline. It can be as detailed or as rough as you like, but you’ll need something on paper outlining the overall story arc. For me, what started as a rough bullet point outline, by day three of researching, turned into a full-blown roadmap of how the story would develop and where it would end. New character concepts came into being, and I went so far as to mapping out different pantheon genealogies and detailed summaries of each theology.

Returning to the issue of daily ritual, once my workspace was set up, the next step was to prepare hot tea. I would make a small kettle before sitting down to write, and get up from my perch to make more throughout the day.

After all of this, I finally sat down. I turned on my laptop and eagerly awaited the very last step—opening my writing application.

Writers make a big to do about their word processors, and for good reason. I can’t write with all of those distractions. There’s too many buttons to think about, too many options. Style and font formatting. Toolbars. A plethora of views. Document elements. Layouts. The most recent versions of Word include a focus view for limited distractions, but it wasn’t enough. Apple’s App Store came to my rescue. I started playing around in the app store and came across something called Ommwriter Dana II. I am not exaggerating when I say, I could not have written the book without this.

Whether you are a sometimes or a daily writer, or just need a platform to be inspired, Ommwriter Dana II is an indispensable tool. It offers you a beautiful writing environment free of any clutter or distractions. Just you and your words, in a fullscreen view with background images and sounds created specifically to help with concentration. I had to do all of my formatting in another word processor afterward, but it was worth it! I highly recommend the program. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can download version I for free, from their website. The program works on both Macs and PCs.

And with that, I bow out and leave you to your thoughts.

(P.S. If you know of any other good writing platforms, or if you’d just like to say hello, please feel free to leave a comment!)