Tag Archives: Fiction

On abstract and out-of-context glimpses

The Heron Maiden by Tsunetomi, ca. 1925

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.

 

On completing appendices and hoping for spring

Yoshida_Kameidô3
Drum bridge at Kameidô shrine Tokyo, woodblock print by Yoshida Hiroshi.

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.

On Cataline’s garden, Livia Callas, and the appeal of a finely dressed man

Hiroshige_Pruneraie_à_Kameido
The Plum Garden in Kameido, ukiyo-e print by Hiroshige, part of the series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo”.

(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!)

 

CHAPTER TWO

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.

Continue reading On Cataline’s garden, Livia Callas, and the appeal of a finely dressed man

On returning to Mr. Muse and his sudden rise to stardom

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.

The case of the wandering ego

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.