The Next Big Thing

First of all, a thank you to Lyn Miller-Lachmann for tagging me in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop. You can read all about her awesome new book, Rogue, here.

I was originally going to write about my thesis, Triptych, but then this shiny new idea took over my brain so I’m going to write about that instead. You’ll just have to forgive me 🙂

What is the working title of your book?

La isla de la luna or The Island of the Moon.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

This actually started as a story that the protagonist in Triptych was writing. So it was originally a story within a story. Then it kept getting longer and more complicated and eventually became more interesting than the original novel and seduced me away from it, lol.

What genre does your book fall under?

Spanish-flavored fantasy?

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I have no idea how to answer this. Most of the Spanish actors I know are older than my protagonists. Clearly I need to watch more Spanish films.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A young girl washes up on one of the last floating islands with the power to control the sea and meets the dangerous Crooked Man, a magician who makes her question everything she’s taken for granted: her courtiers and friends, her magic and her past.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Hopefully when I finish this it will be represented by an agent!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’ve only written bits and pieces so far. I’m nowhere near done yet.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This is another hard question. I haven’t seen a whole lot of Spanish-themed fantasy books. I’d say “Pan’s Labyrinth” (even though it’s obviously not a book), but the time period is all wrong.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve been seriously needing to write some self-indulgent fantasy and this story has given me permission to do that. I’ve always been in love with the sea and dreamed of having my own island and being able to do magic. I’m also very fond of tricksy magicians. So this story rose up out of my desire to write about many of the things that excite me as a writer/reader. I actually sat down recently and brainstormed all the exciting things I could put in this book. It made me deliriously happy.

What else about your book might pique the readers interest?

I’m just going to write you a list of awesomeness to entice you. This story contains: the daughter of the sea, a shape shifting magician who collects hearts, a floating island, an Iberian lynx named Fuego, a red fox named Lucifer, a ship wreck, a curse, a troupe of traveling players, masquerade balls, and ships with black sails. Hey, there may even be pirates. We’ll see 😉

And now to tag other writers to share their Next Big Thing…

L. Marie

Sharon Van Zandt

Val Howlett

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In Which I Contemplate The Post-MFA Writing Life And The Difficulties Of Getting Stuck

When I was at VCFA, Tom Green gave a speech at one of the commencements that addressed the problem of MFA students graduating and then not writing again, sometimes for years. He even admitted (bravely!) that this had happened to him after he graduated. I remember, at the time, dismissing the whole thing, thinking, “Come on, that’ll never happen to me. I’m too determined. I’ve got so many ideas. I’m a real writer!” LOL, in other words, I was totally asking for it.

I graduated this summer and it was scary and wonderful and bittersweet. And then I got home and I didn’t feel like writing. But more than that, I suddenly hated writing. The whole process felt like trying to cram my head through the eye of a needle. So I stopped for a month. But I was terrified I would never start again so I forced myself back to work. And writing felt like work. Boring, miserable, “Why am I doing this to myself?” work. And why was I doing this to myself? Why not just quit and join the circus or find myself an actual pirate ship or *gasp* get a normal job like a sensible person? That would be so much easier than writing.

But then I’d come up with a wonderful idea for my WIP and be filled with enough elation to continue writing for a few days, even weeks sometimes. I’d think, “Yes! I’ve figured everything out now. It’ll be fine.” Unfortunately, the doors of apathy would inevitably slam closed again and writing would slip back into feeling like work. So I’d stop writing and start coming up with inane plans. “I need to fill the well,” I would say to myself. So I’d read stacks of books. Or “Short stories, Ray Bradbury says we should all start with short stories, not novels.” So I’d try writing short stories, instead. On and on endlessly, stopping, starting, standing on my head…

And then in December my existential crisis seemed to settle down. I thought about how if I stopped working on this novel and started something else I would probably never finish anything. I began having morbid and dramatic dialogues with myself, such as: “Shawna, if you suddenly get cancer what are you going to regret not having done before you died?” And the answer was always: “Not having finished this %$@%** novel!” I sat down and tried to make reasonable goals for myself and I wrote and I wrote and writing wasn’t hateful. I kept waiting for the crisis to hit again, but it didn’t. It slunk away. And I’m still writing now, albeit very slowly. I haven’t run off to join the nearest circus or commandeer any pirate ships or become a librarian (although it’s very tempting). I’m not writing in a constant state of ecstasy, but that’s to be expected, and writing no longer feels like trying to fit my head through an infinitesimally small space.

What happened? I’m not entirely sure. I suppose maybe I just needed a break or needed to find my way out of the labyrinth. And, of course, I might wake up tomorrow and change my mind about everything all over again. But I do have a few theories as to why these past few months have been such a struggle and I want to take a moment to explore each of them.

I moved to a new state. This is probably the most obvious obstacle. Graduation is always a time of liminality, but add to that moving to a new place and having to start so much of life from scratch is enough to make anyone want to curl up into a tiny mewling ball of despair. When I actually think about everything I’ve done in the past six months, I’m amazed I managed to write anything at all. That said, I honestly think even if I hadn’t moved to a new place after graduation I still would’ve struggled with writing.

Lack of a schedule and deadlines. Okay, so this is the second most obvious issue. I actually wasn’t too worried about having to create my own schedule/deadlines because I’ve always been pretty disciplined. But I suspect there’s always going to be a period of adjustment and one thing I definitely realized is that the MFA level of discipline is not necessarily sustainable. It is a lot of work, and, once again, with moving and job hunting and dealing with so much upheaval it is practically impossible to come up with a schedule and stick to it. I’m still working on figuring that out.

I got burnt out. Did I mention that getting an MFA is a lot of work? Two years of doing little else but writing and reading will burn anyone out. And while I’m grateful that I got to do this program without having to juggle a full-time job, the unfortunate result was that I spent the last two years living like a hermit. Seriously, days would go by without me even leaving the house once. So when I graduated and there were no longer packet deadlines and schedules to follow I wanted nothing more than to let down my hair, kick off my shoes, run wild through the streets and never be disciplined again.

Boredom. I have now been working on this same novel for two years and I have yet to even make it through the middle of a draft. I am so sick of this story! And, oh, the shiny, much more exciting brand new ideas that plague me! This has been really hard for me, trying to reignite my passion for a project that feels interminable while simultaneously resisting the siren-call of fresh story ideas. But reminding myself of all the exciting bits helps, as has remembering that part of the reason this book has taken so long to finish is because I was working on it in school, which meant going through many revisions instead of writing straight through a draft. Right now I’m clinging to the hope that writing through a full draft will be much faster for me in the future. Also, bribery is motivating.

The sudden, dramatic lack of a safety net. There is something odd about getting nearly constant feedback on your writing for two years only to suddenly graduate and be on your own. Don’t get me wrong, I think being on our own as writers is absolutely essential. We have to learn to trust ourselves, not rely entirely on other people, but it is disorienting. Thankfully, graduation does not mean floating off into the ether. I do have a wonderful community of writers now to share feedback with…if I ever manage to finish this novel…

Performance anxiety and the fear of failure.* Hands down, this has been the obstacle that’s startled and dismayed me the most because I never expected it. But first, some explanation. I did a lot of theatre in high school and the thing about acting (and singing!) that always terrified me the most was auditioning. In my mind nothing was scarier than that. Then, while practicing for an audition, my voice teacher at the time revealed to me that her greatest fear was actually getting the role because then you had to worry about going through with the whole thing and not letting everyone down. This was news to me. I understood the terror of auditioning. To me failure was not getting the role. But as soon as she introduced this newer and more terrifying idea I started to feel that sense of performance anxiety. What if I got the role and then messed it up? What if I really wasn’t good enough and everyone regretted casting me?

I never expected to feel this way about writing, but it has been a struggle. Having an MFA degree is like having an enormously high standard to live up to. I feel I should know more, be a better writer, and there is a fear of letting everyone down. What if my advisors hate all the changes I’ve made to my book? What if my beloved Secret Gardeners hate it? The doubts and insecurities can take over my mind. But at the end of the day, I’ve had to learn to just breathe and trust the process and realize I cannot possibly satisfy everyone, even the people I love and admire most. And perhaps most importantly I’ve tried to remind myself of a line from a beautiful drawing of a corvid by Charles van Sandwyk that hangs over my desk: “A word, lovingly written, lives for ever.” If I cannot love what I write then I might as well quit now and do something else, and while I do think it’s important to think about your audience, I really do believe it’s most important to write for oneself, otherwise why go through all that struggle and heartache?

Anyway, this has been my experience of post-MFA life so far. I’m sure it’s been different for all of us. I just wanted to share my own perspective in case anyone else has had similar experiences and also so that you know that getting stuck isn’t permanent or a symptom of some terrible failing. In the end, you might decide you would much rather be a pirate than a person who writes about pirates, but if you find yourself in any of the above states please know it will get better. You will learn things about yourself and possibly forget them again. But if you put one foot in front of the other eventually you will get where you’re going. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself…

* I’m actually glad I went through this particular anxiety because I suspect this is what newly published authors feel in spades. And if I ever do publish a novel at least I’ll know to expect that and recognize it for what it is, which is just fear, plain and simple.

In Which I Return (But Hopefully Not From The Dead)

Whew! I can’t believe it’s been nearly a year since I last posted here. 2012 was a crazy year. I gave a lecture on characterization. I wrote a 75 page creative thesis. I went to Germany for a month. I graduated from my MFA program and I moved to a new city. I think I’m just now starting to get my feet back under me again.

Anyway, I have lots of things I want to talk about like post-MFA life, and what’s going on with my work in progress a.k.a. my thesis, and my dad’s new book that came out in December. So I’m going to try to post something at least once a week. I can do that, right?

Here’s to more regular posting!

Killing Your Darlings Part 1

Okay, okay! So I was supposed to post something once a week. But I had this crazy idea to scrap most of what I had written of my novel and start over again so I’m currently in panic-and-chain-myself-to-the-computer mode. Therefore a real post will have to wait. I will try to actually write something useful when I’m done killing my darlings. I will even try to give you all the gory details so you can gasp in horror with me or something. And I will, of course, try to keep myself from wallowing in despair.

Hasta luego,

Your humble blogger.

The Trouble with Backstory

I spent most of last semester alternating every other chapter of my novel between the past (backstory) and the present (the actual story, I guess) and in the process lost any semblance of logic. Characters would do things for no particular reason I could think of other than that I didn’t know what else to have them do. Or they would become my plot bitches and do really stupid, nonsensical things just to further the plot I wanted the novel to have. I have a problem with that in particular. So I finally decided to put my foot down and rearrange everything in chronological order.

There’s a lot of stuff that happens to my protagonist in the past that affects the present day story and it’s been phenomenally helpful to explore that past, but I think—for me, at least—writing the draft chronologically is the way to go. Otherwise it’s too easy to get lost in chains of events or actions that don’t make sense. What amuses me is that I had to do the same thing with the last novel I was working on. I kept trying to write from whenever the “actual” story was supposed to start and just couldn’t figure out what I was doing, so I ended up writing the protagonists’ stories from their birth to the present day. So maybe this is just my writing process. Maybe I just need to write out my characters’ pasts before I can get anywhere. It does make me wonder about non-linear novels in general, though. Do most people write them chronologically and then make them non-linear in revision? Or do other writers have a greater capacity for organizing things in their heads than I do? I don’t know.

The thing I worry about is (once I have the whole draft written out) trying to figure out how to work that backstory into the rest of the story. Do I tell the whole story in chronological order? But then how would it fit into the genre of YA? Are there any YA books that start with the protagonist as a young child and then work their way up through adolescence? If I don’t keep it in chronological order, then do I go back to alternating every other chapter between the past and the present? Do I alternate in chronological order or mix up the flashbacks so that they come up at relevant times? One of my classmates in my workshop this residency suggested I could use a particular image to tie chapters together. So for example, a key might show up in the flashback and then reappear in the present day scene. I love that idea and I think I’ll definitely have to try it once I have the whole draft written and can reorganize it. But for now I’m trying not to stress out and just focus on writing the draft in whatever way I need to write it. Still, I think it’s interesting to ponder these questions…and perhaps interesting to know that a novel can be written in one way, but ultimately structured in a completely different way.

Back to Work

I have returned at last from the frozen wasteland that is Vermont and its below freezing weather ready to launch into my fourth (and final!) semester at VCFA. *Weeps* I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. Fourth semester is when things get serious. We have to complete a publication worthy manuscript of at least 75 pages and prepare the lecture that we will give our final residency. After hearing the graduating students read their work this january and attending a number of fascinating lectures I’m feeling slightly intimidated. I have never written/given a lecture in my life. I don’t even have a completed draft of a novel (although most of us fourth semesters don’t either, so I really shouldn’t worry about that). Still, I get the sense that I really need to go deeper than I ever have before this semester and I’m excited to see what I come up with.

So with all that said, here is what I’ll be focusing on this semester:

The novel: I’m going to continue working on the novel I’ve been writing the past two semesters and right now I’m trying to cement as much of the backstory as I can. I also plan on drawing maps of all the important locations real and fantastical, a floor plan of the house so I don’t get lost, and descriptions of all the important places events unfold. I think I may even break out my sketchbook and draw *gasp*. I am super excited about this. I’m also going to spend some time focusing on all my main characters so I can get a better sense of who they are and what they want. I really struggle with this sort of thing, so I’ve got a bunch of character worksheet templates I’m going to fill out to get me thinking and I may sit down and interview my characters again.

The reading/research: Since my novel is about a family of Iberian (Spanish) origin and the fantastical elements draw on Spanish folklore (duende) I’m going to focus my reading on the culture and history of Spain. I’ve found very few YA or MG books actually set in Spain or dealing with Spanish American families from Spain so I’m probably going to be reading a number of adult books by Spanish authors. The exciting part of this is that many of these books I can’t find in English so I get to read them in Spanish. Yes, that counts! I’m also going to explore magic realism and other sorts of fantastical genre-bending books. And finally I’m hoping to read more books about non-anglo american characters because I think there are some aspects to the immigrant/“outsider” perspective that are universal.

The lecture: And finally, for my lecture I’ll be doing something on characterization. Right now I’m not sure how broad or narrow my lecture should be because I’m fascinated by the different tools various writers use for characterization (character collages, interviews, worksheets, free writing, etc), but I only have 45 minutes to talk about this and I don’t know if it would be more helpful to give a broad overview of various techniques or just focus on one or two. So I guess we’ll see how that goes.

I’m going to be working with Julie Larios (so exciting!) this semester so I’m hoping I’ll get to do some poetry, too. I’ve been neglecting my poor poetry! As for this blog, I’m going to really try this time to post something once a week, so I’ll probably be going more into depth on some of this stuff in the next few months. That’s all for now. If any one has any book suggestions or character development techniques I’d love to hear them 🙂

Off to Residency and Some Advice From Anne Lamott

Tomorrow I fly off to Vermont for my fourth residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts! I can’t believe it! This will be my last semester and then I graduate in July. And it has gone by so fast! Just a year and a half ago I thought: two years? That’s going to take forever! Apparently time flies when you’re working your butt off and having fun.

I’m also trying to mentally prepare myself for working on my creative thesis (which will probably be the YA novel I’ve been working on the past two semesters) and my graduate lecture (which is very up in the air at the moment but might involve characterization and how writers create compelling characters). In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying lectures and workshops and (maybe?) some snow 🙂 So I will leave you in the capable hands of Anne Lamott who has some pretty clever things to say about finding more time to write:

http://www.sunset.com/travel/anne-lamott-how-to-find-time-00418000067331/