Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: writing process (page 1 of 2)

Writing Process Questions

I’m stealing a meme from Carolee.

What are you working on?

I’m close to publishing two short books: Highway Sky, a collection of road poems; and The Corner of Ghost & Hope, a collection of five short stories. Both have been ongoing and then back-burner projects for several years (I first put Highway Sky together in 2009) but this year I decided to commit to finishing both of them. I’m alternating between them, and they are currently in the proof stage. Once published, I plan to start working on another poetry project, not sure what, but I have some ideas I’m kicking around.

How does your work differ from others in the same genre?

This is a really interesting question that I don’t know how to answer without sounding like I’m full of it. I think it’s the type of question writers and other artists probably struggle with answering about their own work. Probably why author bios are written in 3rd person. Having said that, I write about things that interest me. One of the most compelling things to me is the way we interact, live with, and understand our place in nature. I try to let my sense of awe and wonder at the mysteries of the universe come through in my writing. I don’t think any of that necessarily makes my work differ from anyone else’s; plenty do those things and do them better than me. So I have my take on things, my way of seeing the world. As does everyone else. Naturally, I’m forever grateful to those who are interested in and take time to read what I have to write.

Why do you write what you do?

It depends on what I’m writing, whether it be fiction or memoir and what form I’m working in: prose, poetry, small stones… I write to explore, entertain, meditate, pray, discover, remember, understand, honor, educate. As mentioned above, I try to write from a place of curiosity, gratitude, and wonder. I’m reminded of the Grateful Dead song “Lady with a Fan” from Terrapin Station:

The storyteller makes no choice
soon you will not hear his voice
his job is to shed light
and not to master

I’ve always liked those lines, the idea of shedding light and not trying to have all the answers. I try to keep that in mind when I’m writing, that urge to discover and ask rather than answer. I guess I write more what I want to understand than what I already know.

How does your writing process work?

Too many days, I’d say it doesn’t. Sometimes I start with a prompt or an image. I freewrite and then cut away from what I’ve written. Sometimes, a phrase or an idea just comes along and hits me. I wrote this in the comments on Carolee’s blog:

I don’t always know where it comes from, at least not at first. My students ask me these kinds of things all the time when they want to learn more about writing poetry, and I always feel kind of lame when the best I have to offer are answers like “I don’t know” and “It just kind of happens.” I think the best poetry or any writing comes when we’re not setting out to say something but rather to discover something.

Truth is, I really don’t know how I do it. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m the one who wrote something. Which isn’t to say it’s not a lot of work, because it is, especially at the revision stage, but those ideas, that initial surge, just happens. But it only happens when I’m open to it. I have to show up and be there ready to respond. The real work of course, comes later when I have to sit down and turn ideas, scribbles, and drafts into something worth reading.

I’ve recently written two process posts, one about reading and recording other people’s poetry and one about videomaking. So I’ll just end with a quote from the video post that also applies to writing:

[…] maybe this is the main thing I have to say about my creative process: I don’t always intend to write a poem or make a video, but then one thing leads to another: experience, image, something I read, something someone says and then the next thing I know there’s a poem or a video or something waiting to be written or made. I guess it all comes down to being open and willing. And then, as Stephen King says, showing up at the keyboard.

James Dream of the Olympus Mons

Olympus Mons (courtesy NASA via wikipedia)

Olympus Mons (courtesy NASA via wikipedia)

Yesterday, I wrote about the music I’ve been listening to while I work on my science fiction novel and music—a song anyway—is the inspiration for the setting, at least for now. It’s set on Mars at a research station near Olympus Mons, the massive shield volcano at the edge of the Tharsis region.

According to Wikipedia, Olympus Mons stands over 16 miles above the Martian surface and is 342 miles wide, about the size of the state of Missouri.

I don’t know if I’ll keep that site in the final draft, but the choice was inspired by the Pixies tune “Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons,” one of my all-time favorite Pixies songs. Okay, all Pixies songs are pretty much my all-time favorite Pixies songs, but really, I mean a song about a bird dreaming of flying around on another planet?

Did they write the song just for me?

Have a listen.

Writing and Music

My uncle, who is both a writer and a retired writing teacher (and who has read several of my works-in-progress over the years) has commented on occasion that the voice in my work is consistent in such a way that it seems everything is done in one sitting.

I had never thought about it, but I think part of what makes that possible is ritual. During the summer when I have all day everyday it’s not so important; I just sit and write. Doing NaNoWriMo last month forced me to think about how to get into the zone so that the isolated hour here and two hours there could be most productive.

Music is one of the best writing rituals I’ve found. Whenever I work on a novel, I tend to pick one CD (or one artist now that itunes makes it easy to shuffle all of an artist’s work) for that project. In the past I’ve written to And then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out by Yo La Tengo, the hundred or so hours of Dead I’ve got, and Enigma’s MCMXC. For this project, I turned to ( ) by Sigur Rós.

When finding music for writing, I look for work that’s interesting musically, but that can also fade into the background. I like lots of instrumentals and open spaces and maybe even some drone.

Last month, I found ( ) to be perfect for an eerie science fiction piece set at a research base on Mars. Perhaps on some level Sigur Rós appealed because they’re from Iceland, a nation whose landscapes are closer to what exists on Mars than almost anywhere else on Earth. The music is also otherworldly, and the lyrics are not sung in English so they don’t become a distraction.

By listening to ( ) in my car on my way home from work, I found that I would already be in my writing zone by the time I got home. I would brew a cup of tea (another ritual) and sit down to write. While writing at my computer, I used itunes and so could go beyond ( ) to include Takk… and “Sevefn-g-englar,” the epic track from Vanilla Sky that turned me on to Sigur Rós in the first place.

I have an easier time getting started when I’ve pre-focused my mind on the drive home. When I sit down the words come easier, and I’m in the frame of mind for a particular story because I think my subconscious is already tuned to that story’s frequency.

I was finishing some revisions on another novel at the beginning of the month and I found I could easily switch focus between stories by changing the music from Sigur Rós to the Grateful Dead.

What (if anything) do you listen to when you write?

Here’s a video of Sigur Rós performing “Sevefn-g-englar.” You have to love a guy who uses a bow to play his guitar. Enjoy.

I’m Back to Explain My (NaNoWriMo) Experience

I “won” NaNoWriMo, which means that I wrote 50,000 words during the month of November. To be precise, I wrote 50,364. The idea is to write a novel, but that 50K I wrote is more like two-thirds of a novel. A decent start, at any rate.

I figure I’ll finish the first draft in the next two weeks. It feels like it wants to be about 80,000 words or so, but we’ll see. Once that’s done I’ll let it cool for a few months before tackling revisions. Maybe they should call it National Novel Starting Month (NaNoStMo?) since all those first drafts are unlikely to be presentable.

The experience of participating in NaNoWriMo was an enlightening one. For years, I have convinced myself that I can only write novels during summer vacation because there just isn’t time during the school year. I found out I was wrong about that. I lied to myself! I can work on novels anytime, and I discovered some ways to bring focus to the small chunks of time in which I could write.

I used NaNoWriMo to try some new things too. I wrote in the first person, which I’ve only done in short stories, and I’m doing science fiction, which I’ve always wanted to try but hadn’t until now. The go-go-go pace of writing for this challenge doesn’t  leave much room for self-doubt so it’s a great time to try new things and experiment a little bit.

It’s been fun, and I like the characters and the story. I’m surprised by some of what has happened, but that’s part of what makes writing such a thrill.

Starting a New Novel

I’m doing NaNoWriMo. That’s National Novel Writing Month. The idea is to write the first draft of a novel during the month of November. The draft should be 50,000 words.

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo before mainly because I’ve always assumed I can’t write a novel in a month during the school year.  I’ve written first drafts in a month, but only during the summer.

One of my teacher friends mentioned she was doing it and asked if anyone wanted to join her. At first I said no. 50K words in a month? While teaching? Impossible.

Then, I started to wonder if I could do it. I mean, I’ve written three first drafts already so this isn’t new. How does one begin a new writing project? Why, at the beginning, of course.

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books, 1994). In her chapter “Shitty First Drafts,” she uses the metaphor of driving at night to describe first drafts. We can only see as far down the road as the headlights reveal, but eventually we’ll come to a destination.

What’s that destination?

Last a week a character came to mind. A setting. That’s where I start a draft. Just write about the character and the place. Things will present themselves. This is the beautiful serendipity of fiction.

Sure, I will likely cut out most of the opening fourth of the book when I get to revisions, but that opening part is where characters are met and discoveries are made.

I started yesterday and wrote about 3,500 words. I like the narrator, and I like the premise. Toward the end of writing, another character walked up and whispered something in my protagonist’s ear. I was as surprised as him.

Doors begin to open and the world grows. I can’t wait to see what happens today.

That’s the excitement of first drafts. You just write what seems right at the time, taking the words as they come. Don’t worry about plot holes and inconsistencies. So what if your protagonist is 37 on one page and 42 on another. Fix it in post, as they say in the film biz.

That’s where I do research too. Since this is a sci-fi project, I’ll have a lot to do to create the verisimilitude I want, but for now, I intend to tell the story as it unfolds in front of me.

As with football, it’s all about forward progress and at the end of November, I’ll have a first draft to revise and craft into something good. Something beyond a “shitty first draft.”

Working title is A Fire to Be Lighted.

Wish me luck.

First Paragraphs

Now that I’ve finished (and revised and revised and revised) my novel A Short Time to Be There, I’m starting the process of putting together all the things I’ll need as I begin to query agents and publishers. Things like lists of promising agents and publishers, query letters, pitches, long synopsis, short synopsis, author bio in third person. All the fun stuff.

There’s a wealth of info to be found online including a number of blogging agents who give useful advice about how to do these things. One is Nathan Bransford, who is currently running his 3rd Sort-of-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge. Simply post the first paragraph of any work-in-progress in the comments section of the contest post on his blog. So far, there are 1387 entries.

It’s a good exercise because it’s always good to be reminded of the importance of that first paragraph. I always tell my students not to sweat the first paragraph (on a first draft!) because you can always go back and fine-tune it. Or cut it altogether and have the piece start with the 2nd paragraph, which with student papers often works nicely.

I’ve played with A Short Time to Be There‘s first paragraph quite a bit over the past 3 years and will probably wind up fine-tuning it some more. The original 1st paragraph became the 1st paragraph of the 3rd chapter when I made some dramatic changes to the structure. Then it was cut altogether when I eliminated the 3rd chapter during a later round of revisions.

Here’s the first paragraph as it now stands, which is what I entered in Nathan’s contest. From A Short Time to Be There:

Chip clutched the armrests so hard his fingertips had gone numb twenty minutes earlier. He glanced at his knuckles, white and straining against the worn leather of the chair, and wondered if knuckles could burst. How many other condemned men had sat in this very chair while adrenaline and fear coursed through their veins like electricity? At least they hadn’t strapped him in. Yet. Perhaps they should have. He stared past the doctor and out the window at Houston’s shining towers and glass buildings that glittered bright against the May sky. His teeth ached from clenching them together, and he hoped the doctor wouldn’t notice his tightened jaw and throw a tetanus shot at him for good measure.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Northern Cardinal for Now

Not much time for blogging and book writing. Guess what comes first?

So, here, another picture of a bird.

In a free moment at work today, I flipped open Beat Poets and found Kerouac’s advice for writers: “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose.”

Half lunatic love ravings of the self-professed angelic mind (see me vent my inner Jack?) half good advice, half (yeah, 3/2’s) scattered pearls, I found a few ideas I like, especially these:

24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge

29. You’re a Genius all the time

And, now, off to the labors of my genius…

Revising

I’m back in the throws of my novel, A Short Time to Be There after two months off. I’m reading the manuscript. Changing, fixing, deleting, moving, rewriting. Sometimes bits are good enough to make me wonder who wrote it. Lots of it needs lots of work.

I like the characters, but the begining seems a bit off. A bit slow, despite cutting nearly three chapters. Maybe I’m still too close to it. Sometimes I think it might be the screenwriter in me saying that big things have to happen within the first thirty minutes (which is thirty pages of screenplay). I don’t think the big collision has to happen in the first thirty pages of a novel. Page 46 is good too. Maybe I’m obsessing this point.

Either way, blogging takes a back seat for now.

The Accidental Hiatus-ist

We did not wash away in the floods, though I’m still trying to collect two of every greyhound for the ark I’ve been building. Unfortunately, they are each individuals, so I’m only able to find one of each.

Mainly, I hadn’t blogged because I wanted to finish my book. I didn’t want to sit at the computer writing and not be writing that, so blog went by the wayside to meet my self-imposed end of June deadline. I made it with a few days to spare.

The manuscript came in at 249 pages or 66,ooo words. A short novel, called A Short Time to Be There, at least for now. When I went back and looked at the early pages written before I really knew the characters or the pace of the story, I found a few chapters and some scenes that I didn’t really need, so I found myself going with Stephen King’s dictum: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%. When that 10% comes from the front end, things start to move better. Redundancies disappear.

I finished the book last week. The next day R’s grandmother died so we had to go to Orange to help with arrangements before the funeral. She died in her sleep at her home without any illness or hospitalization a few weeks shy of her 87th birthday. It was a tough surprise, but then it’s hard to imagine a better way to go.

On the long drive east to Orange, we saw a coyote standing on the side of the road outside Elgin. He ran when he saw us. We spotted a red-tailed hawk perched on a power line near Houston. A bobcat ran across the road in front of us in Orange. I never see that much wildlife from my car. I had never seen a bobcat before. The weather was weird too. Powerful storms kicking up while we were in church, where she was honored, and also right before the funeral.

My mind kept going back to Caesar: “When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

Of course she wasn’t royalty or even a prince, but she was noble. She would help anyone who needed it. She took in the lost. She never gave up on anybody.

The Lost Book Club: On Writing

I saved Stephen King’s On Writing, which was referenced in the Lost episode “Every Man for Himself” for the end of the season. When school gets out, I’ll start plugging away more seriously on my next novel, and I figured that perhaps King might offer some inspiration if not a swift kick in the proverbial pants.

King begins with a series of snapshots of his childhood and young adulthood leading up to the publication of Carrie. This is the memoir section of the book wherein King relates the tales of his wonder years interspersed with commentary about how these things led him to becoming the writer he became. From there, he shares advice and wisdom gleaned from a lifetime of writing. Some of it useful, some of it entertaining.

The most vivid portion is the end. This is the project he was working on when he was hit by a van while walking along a Maine highway back in 1999. He was very nearly killed and spent months in and out of surgery and in rehab learning to walk again. The end of the book, fittingly titled “On Living,” describes how getting back into writing helped him through that event. It’s powerfully written and terrifying in the way that reality often is.

On the whole, I can’t say I learned much that I didn’t know about the craft – that section of the book is thin and frequently not much more than an arrow pointing to Strunk & White – but what I got was a wide open sense of anything being possible. That kick in the pants to get me going this summer when I will have the time (starting next week) to finish the next book. Indeed, King himself describes the book as a permission slip:

…you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.

Drink and be filled up.

King’s unabashed belief in the literal magic of writing is a sentiment that I share, and probably the one thing, that more than anything else keeps me banging out these words despite the fact that so few wind up reading them. It is still worthwhile and as much my work as the things that pay the bills.

The optimism and inspiration are the best parts of On Writing.

This magic is also where On Writing connects to Lost when King explains what writng is.

Telepathy, of course.

He explains that the writer sends his thoughts out across time and space to readers scattered around the world and existing in different times. King points out that he is writing in 1999, but that the book won’t be released until 2000 so all readers are at least a few years down the timestream from him. Here king gets at the permanence of writing and suggests the great dialogs that have gone on in print for thousands of years much like (I think) Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose who described libararies as great silent conversations.

To illustrate his point, King sets up a little thought experiment and this is where King’s telepathic powers manifest themselves on Lost island:

Look, here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot stub which it is constantly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do.

He then argues that most readers of that paragraph will fixate on the ‘8’ on the rabbit’s back, and it’s this thought that creates the telepathy. It’s this image that the writer has projected into the reader’s mind. I agree; it’s what jumps out and creates the sense of mystery that will keep me wanting more. Aside from the fact that it’s one of the numbers, I want to know why it’s there.

I’m sure Sawyer did too.

In “Every Man for Himself” – an episode that also references Of Mice and Men (“Tell me about the rabbits, George”) much more explicitly than it does On Writing – Ben has Sawyer strapped to a table. He appears to have just come out of surgery. Ben shows him a rabbit in a cage and proceeds to give the cage the kind of shaking that kills babies. The rabbit dies. Ben tells Sawyer that the rabbit had a pacemaker just like the one he’s had implanted in Sawyer, which will explode if Sawyer’s heart rate goes too high as it might if he were to try to escape or sleep with Kate. It’s a clever scene, but what stands out is the blue ‘8’ stenciled on the rabbit’s back. Later, Ben tells Sawyer about the rabbits, or at least rabbit-8 when he confides that there were no pacemakers; instead, it was an elaborate con designed to break Sawyer’s will.

Referencing King’s thoughts about writing and telepathy appears at first to be a clever and subtle reminder of the apparent, though unexplained, role of telepathy on the show. More interesting, though, is the way it begins to lay the groundwork for seeing Lost as a show about time travel, which I think it is. I’m not sure we’ll see characters time traveling as in Back to the Future, but I think we will see (and have already seen) their consciences and thoughts projected through the timestream, which is really what King was talking about so I’m chalking On Writing up to being yet another literary hint about alternate or parallel or shifted timestreams on Lost.

There’s something else, too, aside from the fact that this bit of On Writing is another rabbitcentric literary reference joining Of Mice and Men, Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and Watership Down (all of which makes me wonder when Donnie Darko, a time travel film laden with rabbit symbolism will show up on Lost) and that’s The Stand.

I’ve never read The Stand, and it hasn’t shown up on Lost, but I do know that the show’s creators have said that it is an influence on the show. This is interesting because in On Writing, King devotes some time to describing the problems he had in completing that novel. He said there were too many characters, too many storylines. In the end the solution was to blow a bunch of them up.

Sound familiar? That would resolve many of the storylines and propel the other ones towards conclusion. As season 3 of Lost closes out in tonight’s “Through the Looking Glass” with the survivors hoarding dynamite and making plans to “blow the Others to hell,” I can’t but think that this sounds an awful lot like King’s recollection of how he moved The Stand to conclusion.

I suspect some storylines will end tonight and what remains will be the situation that propels Lost to its ultimate conclusion in 2010. Hell, I’m predicting mass doom.

Be sure to check out:

  • Pearls Before Swan for more thoughts about On Writing. (h/t as well since this is how I learned that rabbit-8 was referencing On Writing)
  • Mark at Scribes & Scoundrels also has a theory about the season finale: mass doom… or mass rescue?

Click here for my Lost Book Club index page.

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