Hi all!Patrick Wong, author of Balancer, invited me to participate in The Writing Process Blog Tour. For those unfamiliar with a blog tour, they are chained posts where authors answer a few questions and then tag other authors to keep up the chain the next week. For those unfamiliar with Patrick, he writes Young Adult fiction with a paranormal twist. His debut novel, Balancer is about a teenager who has the power to balance Life. You can find Balancer on Amazon here.
And with that… here we go.
What am I working on?
I’m currently working on the follow-up to The Butterfly Crest. This will be the second book in The Protogenoi Series. It has a title already, but I’m going to wait a little while longer before revealing it (just in case). I’m three chapters into Book Two (as we’ll affectionately call it for now), and I’m waking up early in the mornings to get a few hours of writing in before I have to go into the office.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
The Butterfly Crest is an epic fantasy set in modern times. Its storyline is heavy on mythology; different world mythologies in particular. What sets it apart from other works in the fantasy genre is its treatment of those mythologies. The story follows Elena, a human woman who suddenly finds herself in the middle of a Greek myth, in a world where human belief can create or alter the divine. It is a world where all faiths (past and present) are real, and their mythologies are weaved into one mythos.
My plan (and I sometimes deviate from plans, so please don’t hold me to this later) is to include at least three major mythologies in each book. In The Butterfly Crest, you meet the yōkai of Japanese myth, post-modern Greek deities, and the Tuatha Dé Danann. The appearance of yōkai in American fiction is pretty sparse, so including them as a major part of the story was one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the book.
Why do I write what I do?
My characters compel me to.
How does my writing process work?
This one is a loaded question for the obvious reasons, but also because my writing process has changed from Book One to Book Two. I wrote The ButterflyCrestwhile I was on hiatus from my legal career. After doing the initial research and preparing a pretty detailed outline, I started to write. I would wake up every morning, dress comfortably, prepare my writing nook and make myself a pot of tea. I would then write for at least 8 hours. If I was having trouble, if Mr. Muse abandoned me, I would sit and stare at the screen until it came. I did this every day of the week. I took the weekends off in the beginning, but towards the end the writing started bleeding into my weekends.
Writing Book Two has been completely different. I’m juggling writing with managing my own law practice, so I can’t dedicate 8 hours a day, 5+ days a week to writing. Now, I wake up every morning at 5 a.m. and write until 7:30 a.m. I have an outline, but not nearly as detailed as the one I had for Book One. The process is much looser this time around, since all the groundwork has already been laid, but the allotted time slots bring their own brand of problems (you can read about my disgruntled writing elves here). Being “in the mood” to write wasn’t an issue before because I had the luxury of time, but now, if Mr. Muse acts up and his mood lasts more than two and a half hours, there goes my writing for the day. Stopping mid-scene (because of the allotted time) has taken some getting used to. The process is slow going, but I’m having a ball with it (when the writing elves are happy).
And with that, I’m passing the torch to author Ben Starling, an Oxford grad who is passionate about marine conservation and boxing, both of which are central themes in his upcoming novel. He is currently Writer in Residence for Mirthquake Ltd., a production company that advocates for ocean health and welfare. Check out Ben’s blog next Monday, July 7th!
This week’s image is “Bullfinch on Flowering Plum” by Ohara Koson. Ohara was a Japanese painter and printmaker of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and part of the shin-hanga (“new prints”) movement.
Sometime last week, somewhere in the middle of My Adventures Post-Publishing, I read a blog post by Tracy Cembor that’s stuck with me ever since. In her post, Geek Week: How Real Is Fiction?, Tracy asks: Do fictional characters really exist?
In Tracy’s own words: “If readers know who characters are, what attributes and desires they have, and feel the emotions from their experiences, then how can we say in the way that our mind perceives things, that they aren’t just a little bit ‘real’?”
Tracy’s post stuck with me for two reasons: (1) my past experiences with literary characters (those created by other authors, as well as my own), and (2) it reminded me of something my Philosophy 101 professor said 16 years ago that would ultimately be the catalyst for my own creations.
Now, I’m going to paraphrase here, but my professor’s sentiment was something like this:
The question ‘Does God really exist?’ is misguided. The fact that people believe in something, live their lives in accordance with it, makes that *something* real.
That sentiment stuck with me. It hovered in the back of my mind as I finished college and went on through my professional education. It gave birth to a premise that would ultimately become the foundation of my fictional writing. In Elena’s world, human belief alters the divine; what begins as abstract can have very physical manifestations.
I think the same can be said about characters. They may not be corporeal, may not exist in the physical sense, but their influence can be substantial. All I have to do is point to Atticus Finch to demonstrate just how powerful an influence a literary character can have. He is literally the epitome of a good lawyer. He is the standard to hold yourself to, and yet he does not physically exist. His influence is so strong that when I took the bar exam in 2004, you were not allowed to use his name as your chosen exam name (I’m presuming the reason was because that many people would choose it).
Tracy is spot on when she says: “The characters in our favorite stories are not two-dimensional paper cutouts; they are fully formed personas with hopes and dreams, wants and desires, strengths and weaknesses… When circumstances (and authors) conspire against them and the you-know-what hits the fan, readers worry for their safety. And when they experience the loss of friends and family, we are grieving right there beside them.”
I was working as a prosecutor when Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince was released. Several of my co-workers and I were reading it at the same time. One morning, everyone arrived at work with red swollen eyes and dressed in black. Without a word, we knew; we had all finished the book and were grieving for Harry’s loss. I have no problem admitting I was also grieving for my own loss.
So, do fictional characters really exist?
To me, 100%. I hold many of them in close esteem. Atticus Finch influenced my choice in career. Jane Eyre my view of passion and independence. Elizabeth Bennet my appreciation for integrity and wit. Simon from Lord of The Flies the importance of being comfortable in your own skin. Those characters might not exist in the physical sense, but their influence can be quantified and seen. They teach us lessons we might not otherwise learn, and inspire us the way historical figures might.
As for my own characters, the more I write about them the clearer they become. I know them as well as I know myself; can verbalize, in Tracy’s words, their “hopes and dreams, wants and desires, strengths and weaknesses”. A thought popped into my head last night while I was going to sleep. I saw the book sitting on my nightstand (Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations), and wondered what books, if any, my characters would have on their own nightstands. The answers came so fast that all I could do was laugh about it:
One glance at any of my Pinterest boards and you’ll be able to get a clear image of their personalities; their likes and dislikes in ways I can’t expound on in my books. The more I explore those personalities, the more excited I get about sharing their stories with you.
I’ll be exploring those personalities further on July 14th, when I participate in a Meet My Character Blog Tour and answer questions as one of my characters. On June 30th, I’ll also be participating in a Blog Hop, which are chained posts where authors answer questions; this particular one is about our writing process. So please stay tuned!
Last but not least, this week’s image is “Beauties Under an Umbrella“ by Utamaro Kitagawa. Utamaro was an Edo period ukiyo-e artist, famous for his portraits of female beauties known as bijin-ga. I love the richness in color and detail of this particular piece.
It’s been 16 days since The Butterfly Crest launched, and I don’t think I’ve stopped for even a second. I knew my plate would be full the second everything went live, but I couldn’t have guessed the full extent of it.
The work is never-ending. I had a game plan, but every time I finish a task three take its place. I’m learning something new with every click of the cursor, and the process seems to reinvent itself every day. That being said, I’ve enjoyed every second of it. The pace might be a little insane, but connecting directly with readers, and other writers, has been a joy. I received my first reader email halfway through the week, and it was from the mountains of Turkey!
I’ve been thinking about what to write (it’s hard to pare down the experience), and the first thing that comes to mind is the incredible support I’ve received from friends and family. I’d given the book to less than a dozen people before its launch (to assist in the revision process), and all of them went out in full force to spread the word. They’ve shared and promoted the book through social media almost as tirelessly as I have. They are fully invested in the book’s success, and I’m in complete awe of them. There’s also the ones who are doing exactly the same thing, without having been part of that peer review group, and the ones who, in spite of not owning ereaders, downloaded apps, purchased the book, and are reading it on their phones (which I can tell you from experience is NOT an easy task) and spreading the news. There aren’t sufficient words in the English language to express my gratitude for their support.
And while I’m on the topic of supportive friends and family, I can’t leave out the unexpected gift I received in the mail. On Tuesday morning, I arrived at the office to find a package waiting for me. The box had the logo of a tea retailer and weighed very little, so I imaged someone had sent me some tea (which for me is like gold). When I opened the box and removed the tissue paper, what I found wasn’t tea. Staring back at me was a white butterfly crest, in a sea of black crepe silk. It was a haori, a kimono jacket, with a singular butterfly kamon at the nape of the neck. Kamon is the Japanese word for a family crest, and the inspiration for the name of my novel. One of my dearest friends had sent me the gift to commemorate the launch of my book. And once again, there weren’t sufficient words in the English language to express my gratitude.
Which brings me to the topic of butterflies. In the email I received from Turkey, the reader described an experience she had with a swallowtail butterfly while she was reading the book. In that moment, I realized how powerful a symbol it can be, that it had resonated with her in the same way it resonated with me. I have to admit that I’ve never quite looked at a butterfly in the same way again, since finishing my book. What’s incredible about it is that I didn’t set out with the intent of the butterfly becoming the symbol for Elena’s journey, or mine for that matter. It was just one of those happy occurrences while I was writing. Now, I can’t imagine this journey without it, and every time I see one (yesterday afternoon in my backyard or the photo of one a friend posted on Facebook this morning) I can’t help but feel completely at peace. The experience of writing my first novel, of fulfilling that dream, and publishing it has been transformative, and the butterfly, for me, has become a symbol of that transformation (in the same way it was for Elena, and in the mythos of different cultures throughout history).
Speaking of Elena, it’s been a huge relief to see the warm reception she’s received as our reluctant heroine. When you’re writing a story with a large supporting cast of divine creatures, who are forces of nature in their own right, you can’t help but worry that the voice of your human protagonist might be overwhelmed. Even in my head, the cast of beasties fight for room on the page while Ele usually just sits back, but it looks like that contrast resonated with readers. Both of the editorial reviews the novel has received have commented on Elena’s strength as the protagonist, and I’m thrilled about it.
Which brings me to the second editorial review—The Butterfly Crest has received another 5 stars! I can’t think of a better way to close out this post.
Reviewed By Kathryn Bennett for Readers’ Favorite:
The Butterfly Crest by Eva Vanrell takes us between the shadows of the human world where a war that is as old as time is raging. A long-told prophecy says one human woman will change the course of the divine war and one day Elena – a seemingly regular woman living a normal life – gets a letter about a deposit box in her mother’s name. This letter and the contents of the box are a cursed inheritance and send Elena on a journey that could only be considered mythical and unbelievable. She must make choices to see where destiny takes her.
This is a great story that merges two different realms almost seamlessly into one another and makes a complex story entertaining and compelling. The action was fast and the pace of the book was perfect. Elena is a fantastic character whom I found to be intelligent and strong, but who has to find her way in an impossible situation, giving her even more depth as well. Eva Vanrell has created a strong story with a beautifully strong female main character, in a world and with a story line that is imaginative and unique. I have read many fantasy style stories that offer a similar version of wars that have been going on for all time, but this has been by far one of the most well thought out and well put together plots. If you are looking for a read for the summer that will have you hooked within the first pages and hold your interest until the very end, leaving you wanting more … then this is your book.
Truth be told, I don’t even know where to begin. My mind is a jumble of too many thoughts. That said, I’m just going to jot them down and hope they come out coherently. If they don’t, my apologies.
Moving onto the first thought…
After much toil and four proofs, it’s official — The Butterfly Crest is now published. It’s been distributed to the various eBook retailers and should be available at all of them within the next four weeks. It is available now through iBooks/iTunes, Amazon Kindle and the Bookshop. Barnes & Noble should have it listed in 2 to 4 weeks. It will also be available through Kobo, Oyster, Copia, Scribd, Gardners, Flipkart, Baker & Taylor, and eSentral. Keep an eye out for the Goodreads listing, which should be up soon!
If you’ve heard that announcement before, I apologize for the repetition, but I wanted to put it up as a regular post (not just a status).
Moving onto my second thought…
For the past 14 years, my cast of characters has existed in the aether. Their world was limited to the mind of the author and a single reader. That audience has expanded slowly these past 3 years, to include a few brave souls who took a leap of faith and believed me when I told them I could write (they knew my passion for it, but passion and ability are two very different things). Now, Pandora’s box is wide open. My cast of beasties (and trust me, you’ll understand why I call them that once you read) has gone public and there’s no turning back. They have shaped and colored my life these past 14 years, and if they can do a fraction of that for you, bring you the smallest bit of joy, then this journey was well worth it.
Which brings me to my third thought… how much we, as authors, put of ourselves into our books.
I never thought publishing would make me feel vulnerable, but I have to admit it did so immediately. A click of a button and suddenly (relatively speaking), your work is out there for the world to see. Yes, you expect and try to prepare yourself for criticism, but that isn’t really the flavor of vulnerable I’m experiencing right now. I poured my heart and soul into this book, and left a large part of myself in it. As you read, you’ll experience the obvious things, like my passion for mythology, my awe for Japanese culture, and my obsession with ancient Greece; but what about the not-so-obvious things? It was Plato who said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” In my case, you can substitute play with my writing. Just an hour of reading, and you’ll know more about me than you would have working beside me for five years. Of course, you won’t know which parts are me, exactly, but that doesn’t make the experience any less intimate. That intimacy might be almost entirely one-sided, but the act of sharing it is deeply personal, and a little terrifying.
What makes that deeply personal and intimate act worth sharing brings me to my fourth and final thought…
I love to be affected by what I read, and in writing I aim to do the same for my readers. As long as my words reach you, I’m satisfied. If you are able to escape, to laugh, to cry, to feel and connect with my characters, then my hope has been realized. Sales, numbers, platform—those things are necessary, but they aren’t the reason I write. The reason I write is made clear when my mother calls me defiant, refusing to read on because she can’t differentiate between me and a character; or when a friend calls to tell me he thinks of my book now every time he drives by the New Orleans Museum of Art; or when another friend uses my own characters to encourage me (“Cataline would approve,” indeed!). That is the reason I write, and those moments will be how I measure my success moving forward.
As a final note, today’s image is Kitagawa Utamaro’s “The Courtesan Ichikawa of the Matsuba Establishment.” Utamaro was an Edo period ukiyo-e artist, famous for his portraits of female beauties known as bijin-ga. His work reached Europe in the mid-ninteeth century, and even influenced the Impressionists. The reason I chose this image, other than the obvious fact that it’s quite lovely, was because of the detail in the fabric (it reminded me of a fusuma door I describe in my book).
The Butterfly Crest has officially been distributed to all eBook retailers! It is available now (for all eReaders) through BookBaby. It will be available through Amazon Kindle mid next week, and the iBookstore in 1 to 2 weeks. Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Copia, Scribd, Baker & Taylor, Gardners, eSentral, Oyster, and Flipkart will carry it in 2-4 weeks. I’ll keep you posted as the links go live. Your reviews are welcome!!
Good morning. I know this announcement is late in coming (my sincere apologies), but I’ve had to delay the book release by about two weeks (hopefully) because of some conversion issues with two special characters used in Japanese words. I’ll keep everyone posted as more info comes in. Sorry for the delay, but I held out until the last minute hoping we could fix this in time. It’s very important to me to salvage the proper spelling and usage of the language, so I hope you don’t mind. Cheers, and thanks for your support!
My apologies for the radio silence of late, but quite a lot has been happening behind the scenes and I’m trying my best to keep on top of everything.
First thing’s first, I’m thrilled to announce that The Butterfly Crest will be at an ebook retailer near you in May. The official publish date is May 16th, but the date could vary depending on the retailer. It will be available through iBooks, Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Copia and a slew of others, so please stay tuned for those updates. The book will also be available on print in the next few months.
If you’d like to stay up to date on the latest news, please join my new mailing list to receive that information via email, as well as exclusive sneak peeks, promotions and bonus materials. You can sign up here. Rest assured, your contact information is safe with me!
If you look around the site, you’ll see a few new additions. The theme this week was ‘social media’. After a little trial and error, I have officially joined Twitter (@EvaVanrell) and started a Facebook Page. I’ve added Follow and Like buttons to the sidebar on the main page, and links to the accounts themselves on the menu above. It goes without saying that your support is greatly appreciated.
The proof for the book arrived mid week and I’ve been knee-deep in review. It’s been a struggle to stop myself from reading the thing word for word, so I handed it over to my husband this morning. As of right now, the format looks amazing and we haven’t seen any major problems.
Book Two is coming along, and I’ve somehow managed to find a little time to write in all the madness (when I’m not woking on social media, streamlining the website, setting up the book promotion, or at my day job). I’m really happy with how the story is developing, and I can’t wait to be able to focus all of my energy on writing (and telling you all about it)!
Today’s image is ‘Peony flower and butterflies’ by Itō Jakuchū, ca. 1757. I would say I chose it, but it was really Mr. Muse while we were on Pinterest two weeks ago. He’s quite fond of butterflies, and it seemed an appropriate image for today’s post.
It has been a very busy past two weeks, and I’m happy to report that I have, after much effort, found a rhythm that works (for now *fingers crossed*). I have been waking up to write at 5:00 a.m. every morning, come rain or shine (or protests from the part of my brain/body that continues to hold out). I get up, make a pot of tea, take a seat in my not-so-comfortable chair, and don’t get back up again until after 7:00 a.m. (when I switch hats to day-job-mode).
Now that I’m getting used to the schedule, everything else is falling into place. Every day it gets easier to get up and slip back into writer-mode. Those first few days were very entertaining (for me, at least), with one foot in book world and the other in the real world. At this point, I’m plotting in my sleep. I got some much-needed research done (on cross-cultural similarities for a certain type of myth), perfected (and outlined) my sub-plot, and got a good amount of writing done.
Contrary to what happened two weeks ago (see previous post), I didn’t have any meltdowns. I’ve tried to write without going back to revise, but it’s just impossible for me. If something isn’t flowing right, it sticks out like a sore thumb and I can’t move forward until I smooth the edges out (to illustrate my point, this post is now going on 25+ revisions and counting). I know the second I read it that something isn’t quite right, but trying to fix the problem can be an odyssey in and of itself. The most recent example of this little quirk is my newest prologue for Book Two, and I say “newest” because it is now in its third iteration (and hopefully its last).
But before I get into that, let me give you a little background.
The prologue for Book One wasn’t “written” until I was finished with the book. I had written a prologue initially, but I always knew it wasn’t going to work. (If you’re curious about the details, check out my previous entries on the subject: here and here). I knew that whatever I would write needed to be abstract, yet somehow capture the essence of the book. It needed to be Magic; to give the reader a glimpse of the world they would be stepping into. It turned out in the end that I had already written the perfect prologue, half way through the book (I just didn’t realize it until the end).
With that in mind, I wanted the prologue for Book Two to tell the same kind of out-of-context, abstract-but-essential story. I don’t know why I tried to write it at the beginning of the process (in spite of previous lessons), but I’m going to chalk it up to the glitches in my brain. For whatever reason, every time I sat down to write I kept going back to the empty space between the prologue and chapter one, and felt the need to fill it.
I had about two false starts.
The first attempt is saved on my computer for future use. The second attempt was far better. I was actually really attached to it, so much so that I forced kept it for months (until last week). I knew from the second I reread it that it wasn’t right, but I was having trouble letting it go. It had everything I wanted (third-person omniscient perspective, the right tone and feel, excellent flow), but it didn’t have that temporal element; that abstract, out-of-context glimpse into the essence of the book. So, what did I do? I ignored the issue. I figured I’d do what I did last time; wait for it to magically appear in the middle of the book.
As tends to be the case with most of my writing process, things didn’t go as planned. The prologue magically appeared some time in the middle of last week. One minute there was nothing, the next a well-formed abstract, out-of-context glimpse. It’s only 622 words long (shorter than this post), but it took me days to get just right. Of course, it came to me just when I’d decided to let the issue go, but I’m glad it did; it has done a lot for me process-wise.
For starters, it reminded me that the writing process is always evolving. What might have worked for me two years ago may not necessarily work for me now. The method will be different for everyone, and it shouldn’t be static. I kept comparing my process now to what it had been then, and got in the way of my own progress. I was also reminded to follow my instinct, especially if that instinct happens to be different the second time around; how else can your process evolve? More importantly, the new prologue gave me something to latch onto as I continue to write, because it gave me an exciting glimpse of the world I would be stepping into (as I hope it will for my readers).
Like I’ve said before, I know where the story begins and where it will end, but I have no idea where the journey in between will take me (true of writing and prologues alike).
Regarding the image above, it is a print of The Heron Maiden by the artist Tsunetomi. The Heron Maiden is a Japenese folk-tale and well known dance role in Kabuki. You can read about the story here. It is the kind of story and imagery that constantly fuels my imagination.
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.
(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 I was, less than two weeks into my apotheosis from lawyer to writer, and all I had was him, Mr. Muse (and believe me when I say, he was fine with it).
My original idea had met an untimely death, forcing its characters into a permanent hiatus (I’m sad to report this is where they remain today). Because of Mr. Muse, I had an inkling of the world we would be dealing with (after all, he’d been around for over a decade), but I had no clue what story to tell. All I knew was that he wouldn’t be the protagonist—he couldn’t be—because certain parts of his charming personality made that impossible.
So I was dressed for the ball, with a (hot) date, and no way of getting there. What now?
When you can’t write, do.
I put on my comfy house clothes, prepared myself my favorite hot tea, found the comfortable corner on our overly large couch and started brainstorming. I needed to think about him and the world he lived in; what I found most fascinating about it, and how I could tie that into a journey a reader, and I as the writer, would love to take.
Several things came together at once. I wanted to write a story that I would read, one I would be obsessive about (and if you knew me, you’d know my obsessions are epic). It would be a fantasy novel (since that’s the world he lived in), and mythology would play a major role (since that was part of his storyline and also one of my epic obsessions). I also knew it needed to take place in the present time.
Now I just needed to fill in the blanks.
For several years, I’d toyed and played with the notion of a spirit/mythical world existing in tandem with our own, inhabited by gods and creatures of every ilk. The world of ancient myth, living and breathing in modern times, not bound by culture or a particular dogma. This world would be the backdrop to my story. (The idea came from something a university professor once told me—the question shouldn’t be whether god exists; the fact that so many people believe and act in his name makes him real. In my brain, that meant: human belief, if strong enough, gives shape to the divine. If you consider that in the context of human history, that’s a heck of a lot of gods).
To make the story authentic, I would need a human protagonist to navigate this world; the juxtaposition of a human against that kind of chaos was too appealing for me to ignore. Of course, the protagonist would have to be a woman (since she would be a nice contrast to him). Cue Elena.
Now the question became (outside of the several days it took me to shape an idea of Elena in my head), what could I use to throw Elena into the chaos? How could I get a human to play a role in a world full of gods? I have to admit, that one came a little easy. Ancient myth is chockfull of stories where humans play a role. If it worked for them, then it would work for me.
There began the long search for the perfect myth, one I could use and make palpable in a modern world. As I worked on that part of the story, I had to also begin to consider the overall setting and the mythologies I wanted to explore.
I’ve always been fascinated by mythology, the similarities between different cultures in particular. I decided I would focus on the Greeks as the main mythology because their culture greatly influenced our world, but there were dozens of others I wanted to share with the reader; one of the major concepts behind choosing mythology as a subject was to educate the reader (to make you all as obsessed with this stuff as I am). I can confidently say that everything contained in the book about the different cultures and their mythology is accurate, and those places where I deviate for purposes of plot are clearly labeled as such.
The mythologies I chose ultimately dictated the supporting cast of characters. The main ones I had already developed over the years, and the new ones took shape as I reached those points in the storyline.
On the topic of setting, once I chose the particular mythologies I would explore (I decided to explore three per book), the settings came naturally; Elena would have to go to the countries that gave birth to those myths. The tricky part came when I started writing and realized there were some I hadn’t been to… but that’s a topic for another time.
You’ve decided to write your first book. You sit down in front of a computer. You have your cup of coffee or tea in hand. Maybe you’re sitting in your favorite chair or that perfect nook you found at your local library or coffee shop.
I’m sure in the back of your mind you have an idea. A plan. Perhaps a semblance of the story you want to tell. It’s taking shape, becoming clearer, even if it’s a little abstract.
You take a deep breath, put your hands on the keyboard… and nothing happens.
You know the story (at least the important points), you know your characters (hopefully), but for some reason, everything escapes you. It all becomes elusive. You had your vision, your goal, but now it’s wandering.
For me, it was a case of a wandering ego.
I knew my story and my characters. I knew the important points and I had a plan! But I sat for a week in front of my computer and nothing of substance came out. I tried visualizing it, massaging it, tempting it, forcing it… but all I got was a three page opener that didn’t do a thing for me. It was anemic. The characters, the context, the location, the scenery—they were all pale, like one-dimensional cutouts. I would sit and stare at the blinking cursor forever, completely annoyed.
There was too much noise in my head. Like any other writer, there were other stories and characters I had written about; so that when I sat down to write, they were the ones that were literally bleeding onto the page. I kept trying to force my muse in another direction—the one I had chosen. My plan had created a box, a road map for a storyline that I refused to deviate from.
My ego got in the way.
I forgot I was the vessel. The story existed somewhere out there in the aether, and as the writer I was just the tool, the instrument that’s supposed to give it life. Sounds cliché, doesn’t it? But it’s true. You hear about it frequently in art (Michelangelo, for example, believed that as a sculptor he merely revealed a figure that already lived, hidden, within the stone) but it applies to all forms of it, even writing.
I was so obsessed with my vision, that I couldn’t see past it. I had married myself to my plan, and I’d be damned if I was going to write something different. So I didn’t write anything at all. I deleted the three pages that had taken me days to write, and nothing else came out.
After days of this kind of self-torture, I confided in a close friend. Her response? It was simple—“Just write about what you love.”
Translation? Be the ball. “Stop thinking…let things happen…and be…the ball.”
Now, I love Caddyshack as much as the next person, but I’m not that enlightened yet. I’m the kind of person who fidgets when I try to meditate. I can’t empty my mind. Just thinking about it makes me want to crawl out of my skin. How in the heck was I supposed to be the ball? Plus, anyone who knows me knows that what I love could be one of a million different things; I’ve been known to be a little obsessive about my interests, and of those there are many. How on earth was I supposed to hone in on the one?
Turns out my friend was right.
After being stubborn and refusing to give in for several days after that, one day I just let go of the plan. I decided to… just write. Stream of consciousness. Whatever decided to come out.
I wrote three paragraphs, three small paragraphs that turned out to be the catalyst for my entire book (never mind they ended up being cut from the final draft).
All three were about him, a character I’d written about for years. I’d worn his skin and explored his world a thousand times—but I’d never considered writing a book around him, not once, because the whole time I’d been “planning” to write about something else. Turns out, of all my characters, I loved channeling him the most.
You hear all the time from writers that their characters have a mind of their own, but you don’t really appreciate the depth of what they’re saying until you experience it yourself; until one of them screams and yells so loud in your head that you can’t ignore it. In my case, he screamed so loud it changed my entire plan.
How much, you ask? The only thing that stayed the same was the genre.
Characters or storyline? The chicken or the egg? Obviously they’re parts of a whole, but for me it was a singular character, and one who isn’t even the protagonist. Once I had that, everything else fell into place.
Stories can’t exist without characters, but the opposite isn’t true. Characters exist independently of a storyline. They are born and grow in your mind, able to live an entire existence without ever making it onto the page.
Have a plan, but always be open to changing it. You would be surprised where it could lead in the end.