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Monday, April 30, 2012

What I Learned at Retreat


 Fun weekend. Informative weekend. Exhausting weekend. I came home from Mid-Michigan RWA’s Retreat from Harsh Reality and promptly took a nap. My brain was on overload and my body does not like late, late night brainstorming anymore.
Take note that “fun” came first in my description of the weekend. It is always so much fun to get together with fellow writers. Writing is a solitary business. Creating fiction demands a lot of alone time with one’s computer. Contrary to the logo of a television production company, a pair of hands on a typewriter keyboard really doesn’t work. So when writers get a chance to come out of their caves, it’s great to talk with like-minded people. And talk we did. We’re women, what can you expect?
Now, that last comment was not being sexist. Our speaker, the incomparable Eileen Dreyer, did a workshop on the differences between men’s and women’s brains. Women have always known guys think differently and ever since Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus we’ve had validation. Eileen took this further by explaining the hows and the whys of “His Brain/Her Brain”. Very fascinating. Like many generalizations, there are exceptions and I’m proud to say my guy can find the butter in the ‘frig and I can read maps. Believe me when I say lunchtime conversations were very animated. I don’t remember when a topic generated so much talk.
Retreat is not just about workshops, though. The purpose of the weekend was a chance to kick back and recharge our creative batteries. Mine certainly were. I enjoy the camaraderie of friends I’ve known for nearly twenty years and meeting newcomers who are just dipping their toes into the fiction writing pool. We come from all walks of life. We’re from small towns and metro areas. We’re married, single, and divorced. Our ages range from early twenties through seventies. We are newly published, best-selling authors, or just starting our first novel. As different as we are, we have one thing in common. We write.
Since we’re women, we talk. That’s a no-brainer. Eileen told us why. It is how we bond. We share our experiences, our knowledge of the industry. To our competition. Guys, generally, don’t get that. Why do we help each other? Because others have helped us. It’s what women do. Thank goodness for that. There is so much information “out there” it’s difficult to keep up. At conferences, we share what we know and learn from others. How great is that!
I’ve saved the best part of the weekend for last. Every year, Mid-Michigan RWA recognizes one member for outstanding service to the chapter. I am thrilled to be this year’s recipient of MMRWA’s Angel Award. What an honor to be recognized by my peers.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Building a World

            One of the great things about writing space adventures is getting to make up the world my characters inhabit. I create the whole shebang—the physical world (terrain, climate), type of government, culture, history, speech, religion even. I make all the rules. Well, not exactly all. To make the world believable, it all has to make sense. Take rules of physics like gravity, for instance. If the characters walk, what keeps them on the ground? If there is little or no gravity, their body shape would be different from ours. As our astronauts have discovered, in zero gravity they lose bone mass.
            The terrain of a planet often determines the culture. A desolate planet can breed people whose very existence depends on their ability to find water, food, and shelter. They have to be strong (physically and mentally) or they die. They would govern with stern justice. Their deity wouldn't be a kinder, gentler god. On a planet lush with vegetation (moderate climate and adequate rainfall are a given) and plentiful wildlife, the necessities of life are easily attainable. Therefore, the inhabitants have time to develop creative arts, leisure time activities, technology. Those are two extreme. Other planets range somewhere in between. In Switched, I decided the early colonists on Serenia brought the technology to tame the harsh wilderness, including the ability to control weather, from their home planet.
            Worldbuilding, according to Wikipedia, "is the process of constructing an imaginary world..." While much of the article refers to fantasy and science fiction as well as role-playing games, writers of all genres create the world their characters inhabit whether it's a fictional beach town, a Midwest farming community, a metropolis like Seattle, Detroit, or New York City, or a planet in another galaxy.
            Just as some writers plot first, there are those who begin with worldbuilding. Before they put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard), they develop the whole world their characters will inhabit. One of the best guidelines comes from Patricia C. Wrede via Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association. If you Google "worldbuilding questions", you'll find many more sites.
            I've mentioned before that I'm (sort of) a seat-of-the-pants writer. I get an idea and start writing. As I write, the world begins to develop in my mind. The hard part is transferring what's in my imagination to the written page. I have to make the reader "see" my world. Basic writing workshops emphasize using all the senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. Writing about an imaginary place in an imaginary universe can be challenging. You can give "alien" names to foods but use common attributes like sweet, salty, bitter, etc. so the reader can identify with.
            When I began Switched, I had no idea what all was involved in writing an adventure that took place off Earth. I learned in a hurry that I needed to keep track of the details. Just as eventually I have to plot, I had to develop those details in more, well, detail. Wrede's article hadn't been published yet so I was pretty much on my own. I read Stephen Gillett's World-Building and found many scientific details I hadn't thought of. Since hard science is not my thing, I also found a cure for insomnia.
            When I was doing a little research for this post, I discovered so much more that's available for worldbuilding than I ever imagined. Besides questionnaires and checklists, did you know there is worldbuilding software? College courses on worldbuilding, including one from California State University, Los Angeles? A World Building Congress? With the popularity of role-playing games, I shouldn't have been surprised.
            A writer could spend months, years even, building a world. But, of what use is that world without a story? According to Robert McKee in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, story is, well duh, what's important. The devil is in the details. But don't get so bogged down in the details that you forget the story. More importantly, leave the worldbuilding checklists/questions and write the story.
            From my bio, this blog, and Switched, you can tell I'm enamored with Star Trek. I'd love to live in that world. What imaginary world would you like to live in?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Baseball

 
         If you followed this blog last fall, you know I like baseball. This year's season is just getting started and Saturday was the first time I watched a game. Now, the guy I live with thinks watching baseball on TV is like watching paint dry. I admit it is slower than the sports he likes to watch. But, I figure if I have to suffer through endless football (college and pro) and basketball games (March Madness), he can indulge me with a few Saturday afternoon baseball games.

In my mind, baseball equals summer. Since the season has started, summer is just around the corner so we'd better not have any more snow! My favorite team has always been the Tigers. I grew up in a Detroit suburb so how could I not like them. (Second fav team, St. Louis Cardinals—because of my mom who grew up there.) Summers in my teens meant lying in the shade with my little transistor radio tuned to Ernie Harwell for his play-by-plays. When I got older, I went to games in the old Briggs (then Tigers) stadium. I don't pretend to know all the players these days, but I sure knew them way back then. Al Kaline, Norm Cash, and Rocky Colavito. Mickey Lolich, Willie Horton, and Bill Freehan. And who can forget Mark "the Bird" Fidrych and the infamous Denny McLain?

         I've always followed the home teams of wherever I'm living. When we lived near Kansas City, I followed the Kansas City Royals. The year of the I-70 series between the Royals and the Cardinals tested my loyalty, as I'm sure my mom's was tested in the 1968 World Series between the Tigers and the Cardinals. When we lived in Chicago, I rooted for the Cubbies. I'm a sucker for the underdog. Still, the Tigers will always be my favorite team.

         Why I like baseball is complicated. Maybe it's the slower pace that is so refreshing in this hurry-up world. Baseball ranks right up there with Mom and Apple Pie as American staples. Another reason is that I can follow baseball. I know the rules. Plus, baseball reminds me of my mom and her mother. Gram took me to my first major league baseball game in St. Louis. She taught me how to keep score, which came in handy when my son's Little League team needed a scorekeeper.

         So why "muse" about baseball besides just liking it? (As far as I'm concerned that should be enough.) Last week, I wrote about second chances. In baseball, the players get many chances. I have to admire guys who get up to bat again and again, trying to connect with the ball. They don't give up. They strike out, fly out, get tagged out, and keep on trying. A corollary could be drawn between baseball and writing. We keep getting up to bat (sending manuscripts to editors and/or agents). Sometimes, we make it to the farm team (small publishers) and sometimes the majors (NY's big pubs). And many, many times, we don't make it at all. Yet, despite rejections, we suck it up, put our egos on hold, and try again.

       


 In the end, all that matters is we keep getting up to bat.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Writer's Struggle


            I read a blog last Friday that really resonated. Robin LaFevers wrote The Writer’s Life is Full of Second Chances (or: Abandon Despair, All Ye Who Enter Here) on Writer Unboxed (a great blog, BTW). There was one line that made such an impression I had to share it. She said, "Just as we must dance as if no one is watching, we must write as if no one is reading."

            It's about taking chances, writing that novel for yourself, writing what you love (the book of your heart), even if you believe there is no market, that no publisher will ever take a chance on it. So, why did the blog make such an impact on me? I write futuristics. Not hard science fiction, more space adventure. Not a high-volume market. But that isn’t why I felt such a connection to LaFevers’ blog post. It was the part about second chances.

            There was a time when my writing took a back seat to what was happening in my life. Still, I kept at it. Sort of. Then, writing was shoved into the trunk. I carried it around with me, thought about it, but didn’t do much. Then, writing was moved to the garage and finally stuck in the basement. Out of sight, out of mind. I had no energy left to even think about my stories. When “life” returned to normal, I had the time to write and discovered another truism—use it or lose it. I’d lost that creative spirit. The muse said bye-bye and I never noticed. (I guess she got tired of being ignored and went to inspire someone who appreciated her—like Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rolling, or the above-mentioned Robin LaFevers.)

            It took a while but my creative energy came back. I issued an e-version of Switched, finished the sequel (which will be released shortly), wrote a YA futuristic, began a detective series, and I write this blog each week. How did I persuade the muse to return? I told myself to forget the career. I remembered the fun I had writing stories with my best friend in high school. We only shared them with each other. No turning them in for a grade in English class, no sending them to a magazine editor for publication. We wrote because it was fun. So that’s what I did to rediscover my spirit. I wrote for myself. It was very liberating. The enjoyment came back.

            Throughout that difficult time, there must have been a tiny part of me that still hoped I wouldn’t be a one-book wonder. I never completely left the business. I kept up my membership in Romance Writers of America and my local chapter, but I rarely read trade magazines, ignored most of the writer loops, and pretty much went silent on the remaining ones. I hardly ever attended meetings. But when I did, I got kicks in the pants from writer friends about not giving up. Slowly, the desire to share what I wrote returned. Writing what I enjoyed was the key. That and the admonition from Galaxy Quest, “never give up, never surrender”.

            I’m reminded of another movie quote, this time from Field of Dreams. “If you build it, they will come.” It certainly has for Robin LaFevers with her teen assassin nun in Grave Mercy. Doesn't that premise sound intriguing? It's definitely on my to-read list.

            Time will tell if this is my second chance. In the meantime, I’m still writing. I’m still having fun.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Conferences


     Conferences, conventions and trade shows are part of every industry. For a writer, there are so many that it's hard to decide which to attend—if any. Those on the national level, like Romance Writers of America's annual conference each summer, are usually very structured with several workshops scheduled each hour. I went to my first RWA conference in 1994 in New York City. Talk about overwhelming. Most of the time I was agog. OMG, was that Nora Roberts??? I gushed "I love your books" to my favorite authors. I met real, live editors and big name agents. Sheesh, I was so green. I went to every workshop before going into an information coma. There was so much to learn I didn't want to waste a single moment. I had no writing income so I felt like I had to justify the expense of the conference, hotel and airfare. I got smarter with subsequent conferences.

     For many years, I went to a regional conference called Autumn Authors, held in Chicago. It wasn't too far to drive from southwest Michigan, was less expensive than the national conference, and an amazing group of authors presented workshops in a more relaxed atmosphere. There were also opportunities for new authors to present workshops plus time to connect with other writers. I was so sorry when AA ended.

     At the opposite end of the spectrum from the national conference is Mid-Michigan RWA's Retreat from Harsh Reality. Now, that's a laid-back event. One multi-published author (this year, Eileen Dreyer) gives two talks and is available throughout the rest of the weekend. While the national conference is professional attire, the Retreat is T-shirts and blue jeans. It's a time to recharge one's creative batteries, a chance to catch up with friends and meet new ones, and just hang out with about fifty other writers.

     Each type of conference has a purpose, just as writers have different needs at different times in their writing careers. A national conference offers opportunities to meet editors and agents, learn firsthand what's happening in the industry, and (for newbies) learn basics of writing. Regional conferences are smaller in scope but offer some of the same opportunities. A small, intimate retreat can also be an introduction to writer conferences.

     Trade shows, like the American Booksellers Association and its affiliates, like the Great Lakes Booksellers Association, are opportunities for writers to interact with booksellers. Then, there's the RT (Romantic Times) Booklovers Convention, geared toward (you guessed it) readers. I've never been to the last but understand that writers and readers have an amazing time.

     Did you notice that one of the common threads is the opportunity to get together with others? Writing is a solitary profession. We write our stories alone, wherever we can carve out a space (a home office, the kitchen table, a coffee shop). We learn to shut out external sounds—either through strength of will or earplugs—and let our imagination take us to another place, another time. While our characters are very real to us, they exist in our heads. Eventually, we need to interact with real people who do the same things we do, people who really understand us.

     This month, I'm heading to Mid-Michigan's Retreat where I'll get together with like-minded people, have lunch (breakfast or dinner) with the amazing Eileen Dreyer, and get re-energized. All that and an amazing Friday Night Chocolate Fest.

     Do you go to conferences, conventions or trade shows? Why?