Where I Find Inspiration

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I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking and writing about process, habit, and other parts of my creative life.  Today, I want to take a little time to think and write about inspiration.

First, let’s talk about what I mean by inspiration.  I’m not talking about the motivation to write, or the push to start a project.  I’m talking strictly about the ideas side of things.  Writing, like most art forms, involves a process that gets you to completion, but the creative idea, the inspiration for the story or character, can come from a variety of sources and through a variety of processes.  Said another way, this post is going to be about where my ideas come from, their source if you will, rather than how I get them written down.

There’s a saying that comes up in most writing communities I’ve been in: There are no new stories, just new ways to tell them.  This is to remind you that there are so many stories in the world about so many things, that nothing is truly original anymore, it’s all informed by the stories you’ve been exposed to, but also that this isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t make your story any less worthy of being written.  Only you can tell the story you want in the way you want to tell it.

Most of my examples in this post are going to come from the Western Literary Tradition, because that’s the one I was taught in school and while I’ve branched out to try to read works from other cultures, most of my experience is still with Western stories.  Any story about star-crossed lovers is likely to invoke comparison’s to Romeo and Juliet, anything where a character kills their father will bring up references to Oedipus Rex (with or without the accidentally marrying your mother part).  Even major corporations do this as they’re making new stories.  Take the Lion King movies as examples.  The original is a retelling of Hamlet.  1.5 is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are DeadLion King 2 is Romeo and Juliet.  I’ve definitely done this in the past.  I’ve retold an older story, or at least borrowed heavily from one.  And that’s not a bad thing in and of itself.

The special magic I bring to the equation is how I tell the story differently.  What’s unique about my star-crossed lovers?  How is my retelling of the hero’s journey different from every other hero’s journey before it?  (And let’s be frank, most stories can be boiled down to a hero’s journey.)  That’s where the inspiration comes in.

I draw ideas from all around me.

When I’m creating a character, I may borrow a piece of their description from a favorite character in a book and a piece from someone I know in real life.  I may give them a verbal quirk one of my friends uses, or one of my own.  I may put someone in an outfit I saw while I was out shopping, or one hanging in a store display.

When I’m creating the plot my characters move through, it’s informed by everything I’ve ever watched or read.  I can use the tropes and ideas that are familiar from a star-crossed lovers’ story to set up an expectation that’s how things will end, and then subvert that idea by letting the lovers triumph and find a happy ending together.  When I’m writing an epic fantasy set in a medieval like society, it’s hard not to reference or draw on popular works that have gone before me, like The Lord of the Rings.  Even if I haven’t read the books or watched the movie in years, that series is so foundational to fantasy in the Western Tradition, that I can’t really avoid comparisons or overlap because so many other fantasy stories I’ve read draw on it.  I may not do it intentionally, but there’s going to be something that could be pointed to as similar.

The same is true for how I create my world.  How I decide the magic (or science) of a vampire works in my own fictional world will draw on the original legends, on Dracula, and on a number of different modern vampire novels, stories, and movies I’ve read.  This will extend to role-playing games as well.  I try very hard to mix and match and bring my own original spin to things and make something relatively unique, but there are some things that are going to overlap simply because that’s what is thought of as a vampire.  After all, if they don’t drink blood in some way, are they still a vampire?  How I construct the nature of my world (or my vampires, werecreatures, fae, etc) will have repercussions for the plot as well.  Dracula would have been a very different book if the character hadn’t had some way to mesmerize his victims.

There are a lot of ways that my characters, worlds, and plot lines come together in unconscious ways.  I don’t always realize where the inspiration came from or where I’ve read an idea before.  There are also ways that I do this very consciously.  Many of my stories are a way of sharing something about myself.  A lot of my main characters are women, and a lot of them are white (or would be default read as so in most cases).  This is partially because that’s my identity, and thus the one I feel most comfortable writing about.  I’m not saying that everything my characters go through is based on my own life, but usually at least a few bits and pieces of the problems they encounter, be they external, internal, or interpersonal, are things I’ve experienced or struggled with.

Another way I consciously draw inspiration from the world around me is trying to add diversity to my cast of characters.  In the US at least, most readers will assume a character is white unless there are specific ques in the text telling you they aren’t (like a physical description or a mentioned nationality).  My particular writing style is fairly descriptive.  I know basically every physical characteristic and detail of my characters if they get any substantial amount of page time, and while I don’t tell readers all of it, I do try to give enough to invoke an image that will be at least similar to my own image of the character.  I’m doing to mention hair color and style, eye color, and skin tone.  I’m probably going to tell you about the kind of clothes they wear.  Something I’ve been trying to be much more intentional about since my first book is to make my fictional world better reflect my actual world in the abundance of diversity it contains.  I want there to be a possibility of readers seeing themselves in my books, even if it’s not the main character.

This effort to diversify extends beyond the obvious (in the US) demographic of race (which I need to continue working on).  I want to include diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds, religion, gender identity, sexuality, age, and life experience.  (That isn’t necessarily the full exhaustive list, just the major ones I focus on a lot.)  Sometimes I’m doing this before I even start writing (I tend to have ideas for characters before I have the idea for the plot) and sometimes I look back through a draft and see where I can insert diversity in ways that help give my world more vibrancy.  This can involve quite a bit of subtle tweaking to make the changes fit well into the existing narrative, but that’s work I’m happy to do to improve my story.  And it’s work I know I could get wrong, so it’s something I want to pay a lot of attention to during my editing phase by getting a diverse range of readers to give me feedback on how well I’ve done portraying various characters in ways to look realistic and respectful.

When you boil it all down, I get inspiration from everywhere.  I take inspiration from the world I live in, the stories I’ve read/watched/played, the things I’ve experienced, things others have told me about that they’ve experienced, dreams I’ve had, or artwork I’ve seen.  I have a half-drafted novel that came about entirely due to an image I saw posted online ages and ages ago.  If I ever published that one, I’ll be thanking that artist for the inspiration, even if I can’t find the original image posted anywhere after all these years.

That may have turned into a bit of a ramble, but I hope it at least gives you a sense of where I draw my inspiration from.  Are there specific places you find inspiration or a particularly good story about where you found inspiration for a work?  I’d love to hear about it.

Image Prompt Response 078 – Meeting the Enemy

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I chose the image of the spider as inspiration for today’s 20-minute sprint.  Using characters from the project I started for Camp NaNoWriMo back in April.  For a little context, Hannah is from our modern world and was transported into the fantasy world in the scene below.  I’m trying to leave out most of the world building stuff for this exercise, but hopefully the character and story parts will come through alright.

Title: Meeting the Enemy

After weeks of travel and training with both the locals and her fellow Champions, Hannah was ready to meet this being from another plane to figure out how she could protect this world from it.  She still wasn’t entirely sure she bought into the idea that the only way to do that was to kill the creature.  She also wasn’t entirely sure what the previous Champions described when they defeated their opponents was death.

She’d asked to go alone, since everything she’d learned seemed to indicate that she should be relatively safe but any of the local people could be killed just from getting to near this thing.  She’d been a little surprised when everyone agreed to that plan, but there she was, walking alone down the streets of the empty city.

The buildings weren’t very tall, maxing out at five stories, but they had a certain charm to them.  They all had the kind of embellishments she associated with Victorian era homes, but the architecture she’d expect in an Asian country with the wooden structures, sliding walls, and easy ways to add ventilation.  It was an interesting combination, but she liked it.

She’d been told that the being had arrived a few months ago, and had attacked anyone that came near it, and managed to drive the inhabitants out of the city entirely before taking up residence near the center of town on the central tower.  They’d all said that it was twice the size of the larger animals they used for riding and pulling carriages, which made it about twice the size of an ox.  Hannah held the Scepter loosely in her right hand, and had a slim sword hanging at her side.  She’d enjoyed fencing in College, so she’d kept with it recreationally since.  The locals seemed to like that she had something they saw as martial training.  She still wasn’t used to the weight of the real sword compared to a fencing foil though.

When she came to the end of the road and walked into the main square, she paused and looked around.  The Champions had indicated that she should know the being when she saw it.  There was something about humans like her that could recognize the other-planar beings.

Hannah looked across the paving stones and didn’t see anything.  She did have the strange feeling that she was being watched though.

She examined the fronts of all the buildings, looking for signs that one might be inhabited.  And then she looked up at the tower itself.

The tower was made of a pink stone that glittered slightly in the bright mid-day sun.  Hannah’s eyes tracked upward, admiring the carved ornaments at the corners of each story.  And then she was looking at the top story of the tower.

It was a spider.

That was her first thought.  It was just a spider hanging down between her and the tower.

Hannah shifted to one side, but the spider didn’t move.  It was resting against the tower, it’s black body gleaming in the light and the yellow markings along it’s back and legs seeming to shift and move as she looked at it.

The spider lifted one leg, and Hannah saw the shadow of it move against the tower.

It was a spider.

From front legs to back it was nearly two stories long, which made it about ten meters she guessed.  That made the body itself about ten meters long.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Hannah said out loud.

The spider’s head moved.

You do not run from me.

The voice wasn’t something she’d heard.  It was more like how the previous Champions spoke to her from the Scepter.

“You can hear me?” she asked, curious if it understood her.

They all run from me.

“You tried to eat them, of course they ran from you,” Hannah muttered.

I was not trying to eat them.

“Well, it sure looked like it to them.  And that means you can hear me and understand me.”

Of course.

“So, why are you here and what do you want?” Hannah asked.  If it was intelligent, she might as well ask the questions.

I did not choose to be here.

“That makes two of us.  So what do you want now that you’re here?”

Hannah saw the spider’s head tilt one way and then another.  It was a mannerism more like a dog or a cat, when they were trying to listen to their human talking to them.

What do I want?

“Yeah, what do you want?”  If the answer was to go home, maybe she didn’t have to kill it.  Hannah rather liked spiders most of the time.  They were useful.

Image Prompt Response 077 – Unnatural Fog

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I chose the image of the morning mist and the edge of a wooden dock for my twenty-minute sprint today.

Unnatural Fog:

Riley sat at the edge of the dock, looking out at the morning fog that clung to the river.  It had been three days since he woke up to find the river and their small trading post surrounded by dense fog.  It was as if someone called down a cloud to cover them, and it hadn’t gone away.  Normal fog dissipated over the course of the day, the heat from the sun dispersing it.  Not this fog.

“Whatcha thinking?” his sister Kiley asked as she sat down beside him.  As usual, she’d arrived without a sound or warning.

“This isn’t natural fog,” Riley replied.

“We all know that,” she replied.

“We haven’t seen anything on the river in three days either,” Riley said.  “There should have been a few traders, maybe even an inspector.”  They were actually overdue for a government inspector.  As an official, government-sanctioned trading post, they had to be inspected twice a year to make sure they were storing goods properly, posting information according to regulations, and not letting anything pass through without documentation.  They’d had their yearly audit back in the fall, but it was well into spring now, and usually the inspection of the facilities themselves happened well before summer.

“They might have just missed us and decided to come back on their return trip,” Kiley said.

“But that doesn’t explain seeing nothing on the river for three days,” Riley said.  “Or the fact that you can’t hear things in the fog like normal.”

“The quiet is eerie,” Kiley agreed.

Normally, when there was fog on the water, sound seemed to carry further and louder than usual.  It was impossible not to hear another boat, even if you couldn’t see them properly.  Fog made navigation dangerous, but this fog seemed even worse.  You wouldn’t even hear another boat coming until you were right on top of it.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Kiley added after a while.

“We could,” Riley countered.  Neither of them was much of a magic user on their own, but when they worked together they could accomplish some pretty impressive rituals.  Clearing out the fog with a strong wind or a fire spell was conceivably possible if they worked together.

“You know father would never let us,” Kiley replied.

Their father was a little overprotective and a lot worried they’d be taken away if their abilities with magic were discovered.  Their mother had been conscripted by the government when one of the inspectors found out how good she was with magic.  They hadn’t seen her in ten years.  They got letters occasionally, so they were pretty sure she was still alive, but she wasn’t allowed to come home.

“I just get a really bad feeling about all this fog,” Riley said, pulling his knees up to his chest and hugging them tight.  “It feels wrong.”

“I know,” Kiley replied, shifting closer to wrap and arm around his shoulders.  “It’s not natural and it makes my skin crawl a little.”

“It feels heavy,” Riley said.  “Like if I’m not careful it will smother me entirely.”

“I know what you mean,” Kiley replied, rubbing his arm.  “If we have to do something about it, I think a fire spell out over the water makes the most sense.”

Riley nodded.  A magical water spell, which fog would be, could be negated by a fire spell to a certain extent.

“We should wait until it matters though,” Kiley said.  “If we go a whole week without a boat.”

Riley nodded.  They often went a few days between boats, but a week was unheard of.  It would definitely mean something was wrong.

“And maybe we’ll ask forgiveness instead of permission,” Kiley added.

She was right that their father wouldn’t approve of the idea of them doing a spell to clear the fog.  It would make it too obvious that someone else in the family had a talent for magic.  Riley didn’t want to be taken away from his home, but sometimes he wondered if he’d get to see his mother again if he was conscripted by the government too.  He barely even remembered their mother.  He’d been five and Kiley eight when the official came for her.

On Creation and Completion

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I’ve been thinking a lot about my creative processes and what I get out of them lately, in case the past few regular posts haven’t made that obvious.  My creative process looks a bit different for free-form things like writing than it does more concrete things like sewing or cross-stitch.  These are the three types of creation I’ve been doing the most of lately, so they’re what’s on my mind.

My writing processes are all over the place, but I take more joy in the drafting stage than most other parts of the process, including actually finishing something.  With cross-stitch and sewing it’s a bit different.  I enjoy the process.  The individual steps and seeing the project come together are enjoyable, but seeing the final finished project is a huge rush all by itself, even if the last thing I did was super easy and only took a few minutes.  That act of completion is just so amazing.

So, for my writing, I seem to enjoy the creation itself the most, but for most other crafts, the completion of the project is the most enjoyable part.  I find this interesting.  And I think it might have part to do with the fact that a writing project doesn’t always look or seem either complete or incomplete, especially when it’s just words on a screen, but you can tell with just a glance if a sewing or cross-stitch pattern is complete or not.  A little less so at the end stages when you’re doing finishing work, but certainly during the bulk of the project it’s either in pieces or has big gaping holes with no color or stitches.

All of this got me thinking about why I create.  Why do I want to make things or write stories?  Part of the answer is that I enjoy the act of creation.  I love making things.  Whether it’s new words, a new shirt, a teddy bear for someone, a cross-stitch that makes me smile when I look at it, or a cardboard creation to keep the cats from getting at the cords under my desk.  Believe it or not, that last one brought a lot of satisfaction with it.  I could get at my cords easily, but the cats could no longer walk on the power strip where there’s a switch they could accidentally flip to turn everything off.  It happened once, my cat was not amused by the yelling and cursing that ensued.  We’re both much happier with this new arrangement.

Sometimes I’m really proud of the final products I make, like the Regency gown and Spencer jacket I made so I could fit in with the bridal party at my friend’s Regency themed wedding.  Sometimes, it’s just the satisfaction of making a solution with no extra costs, like that cardboard cord protection.  Sometimes I’m writing a story just for me, and never plan to share it with anyone.  Sometimes I’m writing a story I want everyone to read.  But no matter what the motivation is, I enjoy the creation process.

Taking joy in the process as well as the finished product is one of the best things about making of any kind.  Yes, you have an awesome thing when you’re done, but you also spent time (sometimes a huge amount of it) doing something you enjoy.  Sometimes, when the editing is hard, or the ideas aren’t coming, I need that reminder that the creation isn’t all about the end product.  It’s about the process and the enjoyable time (and sometimes friendships) I make along the way.

I think what I’m trying to say, is don’t forget to take joy in the process, and if the joy is gone from the process, maybe it’s time for a break to make something else for a while.  My writing has been a bit of a struggle lately, but I’m finding a lot of joy (and some peacefulness in my own head) from working on cross-stitch projects (mostly gifts for others).  So, I’m trying not to stress the lack of writing progress right now.  Trying to force it can lead to stress, so doing my one or two sprints in the morning is enough.  And if every few weeks I miss a day entirely, that’s fine too.  There’s only so much creative energy and time, so at least I can spend it on the project that’s giving me joy.

With the state of the everything right now, it’s important to be compassionate with yourself, especially when it comes to your hobbies and the things you’re doing because you want to do them.  If it’s no longer enjoyable, a break might serve you better in the long run.

Image Prompt Response 076 – No Going Back

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I chose the image of the tiny waterfall in the creek for my twenty-minute sprint this time around.  I decided to come back to an earlier image prompt (#22) and explore K and M a little more.  I continued the exercise of not using gendered pronouns that I tried out in that one as well because it’s an interesting exercise.

No Going Back:

K stood looking up along the creek in the early morning light.  K’s parents were still asleep and K had packed up everything they wanted to take with them the night before.  M had promised that everything would be alright once they left this morning and M’s parents would smooth things out with K’s.

Now that it was almost time to leave, K was nervous.  M had always been nice to them, as had M’s parents and siblings, but K spent so many years trying to hide everything and not let anyone know that it seemed strange to have admitted it.  And that was before considering the whole running away thing.

K noticed as soon as M stepped out the back door.  M didn’t say anything, just walked over to stand beside K.

K shifted closer to M.  It had been an enlightening few days talking with M’s family.  After sixteen years believing that none of it was real, that admitting it would lead to either being committed or locked away in some research lab for being a freak, K still wasn’t quite used to the idea that empathy and telepathy were real things that science accepted and understood.

M gently draped an arm around K’s shoulder, pulling K into a half hug.

“Ready to head out?” M asked.

“Nervous,” K replied.  It would be good for M to know that.  K wasn’t sure if M could still pick up on emotions despite the shields K had developed to protect against all the noise from others’ emotions and thoughts.

“I’ve got your back,” M said.  “There might be some tough bits, but we’ll get through alright.”

K nodded.  M believed it.  So did M’s parents.  K believed that M wanted to help, but knowing M’s parents did too gave K more confidence that it was okay to leave with M, which was a bit like running away.

“Come on,” M said, using the arm around K’s shoulders to turn them and head them toward M’s car.  “I grabbed your suitcase and your coat from the rack in the hall,” M said.  “You said that was everything you needed.”

“Yeah,” K agreed.  Enough clothes for about a week and the books K had brought to read while on vacation with the family.  There wasn’t much else K would miss really.  M had offered to drive straight to K’s house so they could get anything they needed, but really K didn’t have anything.  K’s parents didn’t believe in keeping material things.  Clothes were utilitarian and the books they kept were mostly for K’s home schooling.  K didn’t even own any stuffed animals or toys anymore.  The few K had owned were given away years ago.

“Let’s get on the road then,” M encouraged.  “There’s a place about forty minutes away that does great breakfast.  I figured we could stop there for a bit then head to my place.”

M squeezed K’s shoulders before letting go, then opened the passenger side of the tiny sedan.

K slid into the seat, closing the door and buckling in as M walked around the car.  K looked out at the three cabins the family had rented.  It was a new place they hadn’t tried before, but K liked it.  Having three buildings for all fifteen of them had meant it was quieter at night and K slept better.  There were also more places to sneak off to and be alone.

M started the car and carefully turned around in the narrow drive before slowly heading up the gravel driveway to the road.  K didn’t look back.  Looking back wouldn’t help any.  There was no going back now anyway.

Creativity as Process and Pattern

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my creativity and my creative pursuits and how to continue to do them and enjoy them even when I’m not feeling especially inspired or motivated.  I’ve realized that most of the creative things I do follow a type of process, and that I take comfort in that process.

Take sewing for example.  You have a pattern that needs to be cut out of the fabric and then there are steps that need to be done in a certain order to sew everything together and finish all the edges and make it into a complete and finished item.  The same goes for things like cross stitch, crochet and knitting.  There’s a pattern you’re following, even if it’s something as simple as making a row with a few dozen stitches made a few dozen times to make a square.

I find that this applies to my writing as well.  It’s not always quite as obvious, but there are patterns to most writing.  Whether it’s a pattern of rhetorical choices made in a persuasive piece, a pattern of plot in a narrative, or a structural pattern for something descriptive.  There’s always going to be an underlying structure to the final product that shows the pattern I was working from.

With my writing, these patterns are often something invisible, something that only exists in my head, but they’re also a tool I use for revision and improving the piece.  With fiction, I don’t usually write the pattern down in advance, but I do map it out after the first draft.  But that’s just my discovery writing style process, and I have been experimenting with plotting out stories in advance.  That plot outline is the pattern you’re applying to the narrative.  There are all sorts of ways to think about that pattern and how to create it: seven-point plot structure, three act structure, or the snowflake method.  All of those give a sort of template for the process at least if not the actual structure of the plotting pattern itself.

I find patterns comforting.  Humans are a bit hard wired to see patterns (which is why we read so much into what is actually random or coincidental).  I can use that to my advantage when I’m doing something like a sudoku or picture-cross puzzle, where it’s obviously about patterns, but I can also use that pattern recognition tendency in things like my crafting hobbies and my writing.  Almost every sewing pattern I’ve used that has a modern style sleeve has basically the same instructions.  I can use that familiar pattern to help me make a better sleeve next time.

With my writing, the process of it all, the drafting, revising, and editing, helps me keep going even when I’m not feeling particularly motivated.  The habit of doing something every day at the same time helps my brain shift into the familiar pattern of writing work at that time each day.  I find it easier to write during my morning sprints than almost any other time these days.  My brain is so used to getting up, getting ready, and settling down to write before anything else, that it falls into the thought patterns that help me write.

In times like these, when the motivation or inspiration may not always be there, having the process to fall back on is great.  If I can’t think of anything to draft, I can work on revisions I’ve made notes about before, fill in details for a plot, character, or setting I’ve been working on, or copy edit something that’s nearly finished.  I can keep doing the work, even if it’s only for a short time, and that keeps the pattern of my daily writing work happening.

In the end, the process is how you get from an idea to a finished piece.  Whether it’s the process of laying out the colors to go in each square for a cross stitch pattern, making those stitches, following the pattern directions for a sewing project, or following the process of drafting and revision that works for you, it’s all about process.  Despite the romanticized vision of sudden inspiration, creative products don’t just happen.  Someone puts a lot of work into them by following their own personal creative process.

Right now, I’m taking some much-needed joy in appreciating that process for its own sake.

Discipline vs Inspiration: How Habit Keeps Me Going

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Writers, and other creative types, all rely on inspiration for ideas, but over the decades I’ve been writing, I’ve learned that inspiration can only take you so far.  Discipline and habit are needed to get you the rest of the way.

These days, I see writing from two different angles.  There’s the idea creation side of things that encompasses world building, character creation, and plotting (whatever that looks like), and then there’s the physical act of writing, which involves dedicating the time and energy to do the work (be that drafting, revision, copy editing, research, or anything else you need to do to finish the project).  In my early days of writing, I think I bought into the inspiration leads to writing idea a lot more.  I hadn’t learned yet that habit and putting in the time, can get me there even when I’m not feeling inspired.

Take this month as an example.

I started playing with an ide for a new character and world to help meet my April Camp NaNoWriMo goal of writing for at least twenty minutes every day.  I haven’t felt very inspired and some mornings it’s been excruciating trying to make myself write.  But somehow, I’ve done it.  My NaNoWriMo region has been doing early morning sprints together online for a few years now, and it’s become a part of my morning routine.  Even with writing slower and not writing much outside those morning sprints and my one weekly write-in, I have over 25,000 words on this new idea.  It’s a jumbled mess of random scenes, world building notes, and character descriptions, but it’s a lot more than I would have expected given how unmotivated and uninspired I’ve felt all month.

As one of my fellow morning sprinters put it recently “Discipline >> motivation any day.”  The habit I’ve built of writing every day (I’ve only missed two days in April so far) has carried me through when I was struggling to feel creative.

This is part of why I love NaNoWriMo.  While the challenge is ostensibly about writing 50,000 words in a month on a brand-new novel, in spirit, it’s much more about building a daily writing habit.  The ethos of celebrating all new words (or progress of any kind), no matter how few, and every successful effort toward more words, even if the 50k goal is out of reach, is something that I really like.  As a very fast typist who doesn’t usually struggle to get words out, the 50,000 words isn’t the hard part of NaNoWriMo for me personally.  The daily writing habit is my true goal for the challenge these days.  Writing every single day, even over the holidays and busy work times that always come in November, is something I’m really passionate about.

From talking with friends, both local and around the world, I’m not the only one struggling with inspiration these days.  It seemed appropriate to share with the world (or whoever reads this at least) the technique I’ve found to get me through when the inspiration might not be there.  Dedication can get you pretty far all on its own, and it’s more than worth developing good habits of dedication to your writing, or any other creative pursuits.

With that in mind, here’s what’s been working for me:

  1. Dedicate a time every single day to your writing.  This could be as little as five or ten minutes.  Consistency is the key here.  It’s about building up a mental habit which helps with getting into the writing headspace.
  2. If the words aren’t flowing, trying just one sentence.  If that goes well, try for a paragraph.  The physical act of writing (long hand or typing) can help your brain get into the right gear for writing.
  3. If it’s really not working, try changing something.  This could be switching to a different project, moving between drafting, revision, or copyediting, or trying out a different POV.
  4. Don’t berate yourself for working slowly.  Some days it will take 20 minutes to write as little as 200 words.  Some days you might manage two or three times that in 20 minutes.  You should be just as proud of those 200 words as you would be of 600 words.  It’s forward progress.
  5. Remember that revision and copy editing are still writing work.  Just because it might look a little different doesn’t mean you aren’t writing.

Image Prompt Response 075 – Courtyard

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I chose the image of the courtyard on a university campus for my twenty-minutes sprint today.  Just playing around with a couple characters.  I hope you enjoy.

Courtyard:

Valerie checked to make sure she had her ID and her office key on her before stepping out into the cool evening air.  She took a deep breath and walked to the path and slowly down toward the end of the little courtyard.  She’d been in her office all day.  First for office hours and appointments with students, and then working on writing up the results for her dissertation.

This was her last semester and the research was all done, so it was just a matter of getting everything written up, edited, and polished.  She reached the end of the courtyard, rolling her shoulders before turning back to pace the other way.  It was important to take breaks to clear her head and the courtyard was one of her favorite spots for that.

At least, it was during the day.  As she began walking back in the direction of the door she realized just how secluded and dark the place was in the evening.  The sun wasn’t quite set yet, but the courtyard was already in heavy shadow.  There was light from a few classrooms and offices that were still occupied in the evening, but the usually bright and cheery plantings were hulking shadows in the dark.

She patted her pockets, reassured to have her phone with her.  She often forgot and left it on her desk.  Not that she should have anything to be afraid of really.  Campus was a pretty safe place overall and this courtyard wasn’t something most people were aware of, tucked away as it was.  You had to get into the building to get to it and only one of the doors was unlocked after six.  There were only a couple night classes scheduled and everyone else with access with faculty or a graduate student.

Valerie did a few more shoulder stretching moves as she walked back toward the door, which was when she noticed the figure.  They were sitting on the bench nearest the door, their butt near the end of the bench as they leaned back, one leg propped up on the other at the ankle.  Had they been there when she came out?  Her eyes hadn’t been adjusted to the dim lighting then.

“Don’t let me interrupt your walk,” the figure said, their voice a light alto and the pronunciation hinting at another language.

“I’m not used to finding anyone out here,” she replied.  At least not after three in the afternoon.  Students tended to use it as a quiet place to eat or study during the earlier parts of the day, but they were pretty scarce near classroom buildings after midafternoon.

“I like to enjoy a little quiet here in the evenings,” the figure replied.  “It’s my first semester here so I’m still finding all the little quiet places.”

“It is usually quiet in the evening,” Valerie agreed.

“I’ve seen you around the building,” the figure said.  “Are you faculty or a grad student?”

“PhD student,” she replied.  “It’s my last semester.”  It was so easy to fall into the standard conversations about studies and progress, even with a complete stranger.

“I hope it’s going well,” the figure replied.

“So far,” she replied.  “Just finishing up the data analysis and starting to write the results section.”  She’d written the introduction and the procedure as she was getting things set up for data collection.  It was so much easier to write all that while she was actively doing the procedure.  Once she had the results written up she could work on the conclusion, update the introduction, and get the abstract together.

“I’m not sure if I should congratulate you or console you,” the stranger said.  “I’m only two semesters away from mine and I remember everyone having strong opinions about whether the work of the experiment or the writing were the worse part of the process.”

“I like both,” Valerie replied.  “Writing has always been a bit of a hobby, so I don’t mind it as much as a lot of my classmates.”  She loved to write fiction when she could carve out the time.  Writing up her research was different, but not distasteful.

“Sounds like a good place to be,” they replied with a laugh.  “I’m Sam Black, by the way.  They just hired me into the open faculty line in Linguistics.”

“Valerie Carver,” she replied.  “I had to miss all the meet and greets for that because they ended up scheduled during my class or office hours.”  She was in the department, and going to things like that was encouraged for the graduate students.  They actually seemed to care about student opinions when they were hiring.

Experiments in Plotting: Success??

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If you’ve been reading here for a while you may have seen me talk about plotting before and the recent (in terms of my entire writing history) experiments I’ve been doing to try to find a plotting process that works with my drafting process rather than against it.  You can read about how I’ve tried planning back in 2019 and the beginning (or maybe the middle) of the plotting experiments I’ve been doing with the third book in the Sword and Shields series this past year if you’re interested.

For most of the more than twenty years I’ve been writing fiction, I’d been what writing communities often call a pantser or a discovery writer.  I have an idea and some characters, and I start writing.  There’s no plan, no plot, just a vague idea of the inciting incident and the eventual end point.  This works great for things I never finish, or for fanfiction where it doesn’t have to be very polished and can meander and change course and no one minds.  This doesn’t work quite as well when the plan is to publish the book at the end of the process.

Most of my experience with plotting and outlining a book comes in the revision stage.  After I have a big messy draft, I’ll do a brief summary of the scenes and make an outline of what’s there, and then work on adjusting that outline to work better.  For the second and third books in the Swords and Shields series, I completely redrafted from an outline written after the initial draft of the book.  I think this ended up being pretty successful for book two (which is out for another round of beta reading at the moment) and I’m fairly proud of how it’s turned out even if it does still need a bit of work.

I spent part of this week rereading book three, which still isn’t quite finished (as in the ending hasn’t been written yet), but is in a lot better shape than I remembered it being.  I’ve spent somewhere between six months and a year away from the draft working on other projects, and in that time some of the problems I was having with the outline, the scene ordering, and the general pacing of the book seem to have fixed themselves in my head.  I know what to do with the scenes now and how to structure the book in a way to keep reader interest while also laying out the story in a way that’s understandable.  Now I just need to write a few scenes missing from the middle, possibly redraft whole sections of the middle as well, and then finish writing the big climactic ending which should be the fun part.

So I think those two plotting experiments have been successful.  I think I’m beginning to get an idea of how to use plotting strategies and outlines to revise a book I’ve already drafted.

I’ve also recently experimented with some plotting before I started drafting.  This was my NaNo 2020 project, which I started brainstorming, writing, and plotting for in October, wrote a little over 125k on in November, and continued working on well into February.  It started out as one idea, which several story beats planned out, a cast of characters, and no antagonist.  It was supposed to be something relatively light, fluffy, and happy.  A slice-of-life anime style low stakes sort of plot.  This is not what I ended up with.  I now have partial drafts of three novels, totaling about 52k, 38k, and 11k respectively.  The 11k one being the original story idea.

All the planning, prep, and plotting work I’d done in advance did help keep me writing for nearly five months on one project though.  Yes I was bouncing between the three books and a good week of that time was pulling all the scenes out of the massive NaNo 2020 document into their respective books, but the outline wasn’t a stumbling block like I’ve experienced in the past.  That’s a big deal, at least for me personally.  I’ve been avoiding outlines for years (in fiction and non-fiction writing) because I think better as I write and my end products have been better when I draft them, then outline them, then revise them to have a better outline.

I think, this might be a practice thing.  I need to practice writing outlines and then drafting them.  I need to practice revising with outlines.  I need to practice having a more structured writing process.  The reason the drafting method worked so well is because I’d been doing it for more than twenty years.  So plotting and outlining is something I need to keep trying, keep working on, and keep practicing so I can get better at it.  Practice makes you better at almost everything.

While I may not have a completed book based on any of my plotting experiments yet, I do have some very positive forward progress.  I call that a success, or at least a success so far.  I’ll likely still do some discovery writing during my outlining process to get to know my characters and better think through who they are so I can better know how they’ll react in various circumstances in the outline.  I’ll probably deviate from and rewrite my outlines as I go.  I’ll occasionally go completely off the rails and write a completely different book (or two) as I did in November.  But that’s okay.  That’s still practice.

I’m going to keep practicing and keep trying out plotting options and planning tools and seeing how they work for me.  I’ll always keep writing no matter what my process looks like.  With any luck, those two things will eventually turn into new books I can share with everyone.

Image Prompt Response 074 – Red

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I chose the image of the moss-covered, stone stairs leading up a hill for my twenty-minute prompt this time.

Red:

After months cooped up inside her apartment, Kelly was glad to get out of the house for a while.  She’d been doing alright with online meetings for work and seeing her friends in online spaces and doing occasional calls with family and her best friends, but it was getting old staring at the same walls all the time.

So she’d driven up the mountain to find a place to hike for a while.  It was safe enough to be out in nature as long as there weren’t too many people.  It was still early in the season, and the parking lot hadn’t been very full, so she figured she’d be alright.  She kept a mask in her pocket anyway, just in case.

The first part of the trail was a little busy, so she put her mask on and picked her way around people a little off the trail most of the time.  She was an experienced hiker and even had a little climbing experience, so she was willing to go off trail a little, always careful where she stepped to avoid damaging anything, and she managed to get out away from the others by taking the more difficult option when the trail forked.  It wasn’t long before she came to her favorite section of the trail.

There were stones set into the side of the hill to help make a rudimentary set of steps to get higher up the hill.  They were covered in moss and could be very slippery in the wrong conditions, which was part of why this was a harder trail, but it was dry and bright today, so she was able to walk up them quickly to the top of the hill.

There were remains of a railing that hadn’t been kept in good repair.  Back from an older period of trail tending.  These days the goal was to change as little as possible.  The trail was there to keep humans off the rest of the mountain, so they didn’t damage things.  It wasn’t necessarily there to make the climb easier.

When she crested the hill, the light blinded her for a moment.  She held up a hand to shield her eyes and blinked quickly, her eyes actually watering from how bright it was.  She hadn’t been expecting that this early.

When her eyes had adjusted, she was able to lower her hands and gaze out at the mountains spread out before her.  She was so glad she’d moved up here.  So much better than being stifled in the city.

“Haven’t seen you around before,” someone said from her left.

Kelly shifted to her right as she grabbed her mask out of her pocket, slipping it over her mouth and nose and wrapping the elastic over her ears.

“Never got that reaction before either,” the voice said.

Kelly couldn’t see anyone on the trail to her left.  That was weird.

“Down here,” the voice said, so Kelly looked down.

There was a fox sitting just off the path, front legs straight, head held high, tail wrapped around it’s feet.

“You seem surprised,” the fox said.

“That’s because foxes don’t talk,” Kelly replied.  Had she slipped and fallen?  Hit her head?

“Oh, right, you aren’t used to this,” the fox said, looking down at itself.  “Is this better?” it asked before being enveloped in a puff of smoke.

The smoke cleared to reveal a slim figure about four and a half feet tall with fox ears poking out of it’s red hair, amber eyes with vertical pupils, and a bushy fox tail swishing slightly from side to side.

“No less unbelievable, but it’s been a weird year, so what the hell, I’ll roll with it,” Kelly replied to the fox person.

“They said belief was down these days, but I didn’t realize it was this bad,” the fox person said.  “How about we start with names, then?  You can call me Red.”

“Kelly,” she replied.  “Nice to meet you,” she added.  “Do you get human diseases?  We’re dealing with a pandemic, that’s why I put the mask on when I heard you.”

“Oh dear, a plague?” Red asked.

“We’d probably have called it that back in the day,” Kelly said.  “It’s a potentially deadly disease at any rate.”

“It shouldn’t hurt me any,” Red said.  “Never heard of a puka getting a disease before.  Probably because of all the magic.  Keeps us healthy.”

“Magic, right,” Kelly said.  “Is that how you do the fox to mostly human thing?”

“That doesn’t take magic,” Red said, waving one hand in denial.  “That’s just something puka can do.”

“Cool,” Kelly said, carefully taking of her mask.  “So what’s a puka doing here anyway?”  She might as well have a conversation.  It had been a long time since her last face-to-face conversation.  So what if it was probably just a hallucination brought on by a head injury.

“I like to visit and people watch,” Red said.  “Been a while since anyone’s been able to see me.”

“Not everyone can see you?” Kelly asked.

“Only humans with a little magic of their own can see us these days.”