Writing a serial novel is a crazy rollercoaster ride.

Dinoland_Logo_1Chapter 7 of DinoLand is live! It went up yesterday, but I had some obligations and couldn’t post about it here. So I’m posting today

Whew. To tell the truth, I really didn’t think I was going to get the chapter live this month.

Working on a serial novel is insane. It isn’t like writing a novel that will be presented as a whole: I’m not concerned with buffing and polishing the language to a high shine, and I only have a basic idea of what I need to do each month.

I have some very rough drafts and an outline of where I want the story to go, but that’s it. I never know exactly what the next chapter is going to be until two weeks before it goes live. I’m working right up against the edge of my deadline and incorporating what feedback I get (I’m open to feedback guys – email me. Message me. What do you want to see happen?)  It’s an exhilarating way to write, but it’s also exhausting.

Today, I am sitting down and revisiting my outline. I’ve learned that because I’m working serially, my pacing has to be different than it would be if I were working on a traditional novel. For example, I would probably spend two or three chapters on one character if I were writing a regular novel, but because I’m only putting out one chapter a month, I need to focus on one major plot point a month so that the readers don’t forget that certain things are happening.

I also need to repeat myself more: I might have mentioned that a character got her start selling hot dogs in Chapter One, but I need to say it again in Chapter 7 because new readers won’t have read Chapter 1, and readers who’ve been with me might not remember that detail.

I’m also changing some of the future scenes to reflect the work that artist Max Farinato has been doing. He drew this awesome lab last month, with gigantic red tanks. I hadn’t imagined those before, but I loved his idea, so I’m going to work them into the story.

It’s an exciting way of working, but it’s completely new for me.

Head on over to Geek Eccentric and check out Chapter 7.

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Actual, real tips for writing with a baby

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, in which I live-blogged a day of trying to write with a baby. I realized, as I read through the post, that although I complained about not being able to find helpful hints about writing with a young child in the articles I’ve read, I didn’t actually include any of my own.

I mean, I read my “takeaways” again, and “Get a babysitter” is probably the worst advice I’ve ever given.

Anyhow, I’ve had a few restful hours to reflect on yesterday’s experiment and I do have some tips because some of the things I did yesterday worked. So here are a (very) few tips for writing while watching a four-month-old by yourself. What works for me may not work for you, but give these a try:

This thing is worth its weight in gold.

This thing is worth its weight in gold.

The play-yard is your friend. I tried the swing, the crib, the exersaucer and the bassinet. It was the play-yard that helped me the most. (You know, it’s that mat thing with toys hanging off it.) I got most of my writing done while my son was next to me, swatting the dangling toys and listening to music. Sit on the floor or on a big bed and put your baby next to you on the playmat. Then grab your laptop or journal and get to work. Your child will be occupied by the mat and happy to be near you.

Make sure your lunch is easy to assemble. This was just luck on my part. I’d planned to make a sandwich, but found that my husband had made a vat of split pea soup. A bowl of that made for a quick lunch. When you’re watching a kid and trying to write, no one has time for a sandwich.

Have an idea of what you’re going to tackle ahead of time. Knowing what I was working on ahead of time helped me to get something done, even when I was being interrupted often.

In fact, just plan to be interrupted. Probably best not to go into this thinking your kid will nap and you will write a certain number of words. That way lies madness.

Lastly, remember that this is just a writing day. In yesterday’s post, I wondered if the work I did was any good because I was so distracted. But none of that really matters. It’s like any other writing day: you put your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard and you write. Sometimes you write well. Sometimes you don’t. The important thing is that you’re writing, baby or no baby.

Writing with a four-month-old: a live-blogging experiment

I'm sure this will go well.

I’m sure this will go well.

Today I’m trying something new. I am live-blogging my attempt to write while home alone with a baby. I’ve read a few things about tactics for writing with a young child, and those articles were not terribly helpful.  So today is an experiment. I’ve got a baby carrier, a bouncy chair, a play-yard and my laptop. All I need now is luck. Wish me that. I will be updating all day.

11:30 am  – My husband has the dog with him today, so I don’t need to worry about walking her. I’ve done a metric ton of laundry. I’ve nursed the bairn into submission and put him into the crib, so I should be able to start… crap. Diaper change. DSC_0018Oh god, no, I was wrong. It’s a diaper blowout. I’ll be back.

11:48 am – Okay. Baby cleaned and put in the play yard. New laundry started. Surfaces Cloroxed. NOW: It’s been a while since I worked on my novel, and I am a little blocked in places, so thanks to some advice I saw from a friend who was in my MFA program, I’m going to journal about the problem. Maybe that will help me write around the block.

12:16 pm – I’ve got to ditch the internet. It’s distracting me. So I’m logging out of Facebook except on nursing breaks. Despite a diaper change and distractions online, I have been journaling about my novel and I’ve made a little progress with character development issues, but now the baby is fussing. He’s probably hungry. And I just realized something. So am I.

1:20 pm – The baby and I are both fed. I’ve realized that although I’ve made some headway with character development, I cannot find the first copy of my manuscript, which is what I was working from. I am giving myself five minutes to find it and if I can’t, I’m winging it.

1:23 pm – Found it. Baby is in the crib. Let’s do this.

Tire yourself out, my child.

Tire yourself out, my child.

2:01 pm – I’ve done 254 words worth of writing. I’ve also changed a diaper, eaten a plum and wandered around for a few minutes Iike a lost soul. Finally I accepted that if I don’t get the baby into the exersaucer soon, he will never go down for his nap and I have hopes for naptime. They aren’t big hopes, but they are hopes. So that’s where he is right now, bouncing in the saucer. The good thing is, although I’m working in drips and drabs and this pace is frustrating, I am working. I don’t know if I’m producing anything of value, though.

2:45 pm – 300 more words written. That’s more than the 500 a day I used to hold myself to, so I guess, technically I could stop now. But I haven’t written at home in a while, and this is an experiment, so I’m going to continue until my husband returns. FOR SCIENCE. It’s time to feed the baby now, though.

3:39 pm – The baby is fed and changed and it could be that most golden, elusive, glorious time of the day: naptime. My son doesn’t like to nap, but sometimes he does actually go to sleep, despite himself. In the meantime, he might at least be quiet for a little while and I may be able to write some more until backup arrives. I hope.

3:55 pm – Naptime turned into an Olympic gymnastic floor routine, and I spent my writing time alternately trying to prevent head injuries and researching crib bumpers, so that didn’t really work out. Now I’m keeping him next to me in the play-yard on the bed, and he’s practicing his vocal exercises instead. These are as distracting as the gymnastics, but not as alarming. Now, to make one final push at writing.

4:42 pm – Feeding the boy again. Between the feeding and a changing, I’m getting less done than I did this morning. This kid is active. How does one tire out a four-month-old? Is it even possible? I’ve written a few words though.

4:54 pm – The experiment has ended: 781 words, three outfit changes (baby’s, not mine) and one load of laundry later, my husband has returned and I’m shutting it down.And what do you know? The baby is sleeping. Because of course he is.

So, after a day of writing alone with baby, what’s the verdict?
The take-away of this experiment is probably that sensible people get babysitters. Well, no. I think the take-away is actually that I produced more today than I did before I had a baby because I was always pushing to get words on the page before he started to fuss. But quantity is not quality — while I got more written than usual, I do wonder if it’s any good compared to my normal output. I can’t tell, because I’m too tired right now to know good writing from bad.

Also, and this is probably open to interpretation, it’s hard to know if my parenting also suffered because I was trying to do two things at once. I mean, I did all the things I’d normally do on a day home with my son, and he was even by my side more than he usually is, but I was focusing on writing rather than housework or walking him at the park. So was I a worse mom because I was working and watching him? I don’t know. Only he knows for sure, and he doesn’t speak English yet.

Well, it’s been real. I’m going to put this baby down, save my work and find the Pinot Grigio.

Want tips for writing with a baby? Check out my next post.

 

Things I’m learning from my first foray into serial fiction.

I posted a little while ago about DinoLand, my sci-fi novel which will be serialized, starting this Sunday, over at Geek Eccentric.

photo credit: Scott Kinmartin via photopin cc

photo credit: Scott Kinmartin via photopin cc

Well, it’s almost dinosaur time and I’m as nervous as an attorney staring down a T-Rex in the rain. Since this is a brand new  process for me, I thought I’d write a little bit about what I’ve been learning so far.  Here are some of my first take-aways:

 Starting out with a lot of material doesn’t necessarily mean you have less work to do.

I started this project with more than 200 pages of DinoLand, written over a period of two or three National Novel Writing Months, including a ridiculous amount of backstory. When I started importing all that into Scrivener, I realized that unless I write a prequel, I’m not going to use all of this material. Also, the work that I am using needed several rounds of edits. So while I have six months of DinoLand written and outlined, months 3 through 6 still need edits and work. (Chapter 2, for April, is already edited and turned in to the artist.) Speaking of which…

Working with an artist is an incredible experience. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by that.

Working with Max Farinato has been my favorite part of the DinoLand project so far. It’s amazing to watch his sketches develop, and even more amazing is the way I’ve seen the world I invented taking shape in his art. Every time Max sends me a sketch, I gush uncontrollably about how much I love his work, which is true, but maybe not helpful to him.
There should be some sort of guideline for working with an illustrator, because I suspect that I haven’t been easy to work with. For example, I probably should have sent him rough ideas of what my principal characters look like so that the art and my prose will match. I forget that I haven’t described everyone on page one of chapter one. I should probably also ask more often what he needs from me to make his job easier.

Oh my god. The comment section. Oh my god, the comment section.

Despite the fact that I’ve been blogging for a long time, it has somehow just occurred to me that people will be able to comment directly after reading my chapter. It’s not like I haven’t gotten comments on fiction before — short pieces of mine have been published in journals with comment sections — but I think of novels as something that are put out to the public as a whole. If a novel receives criticism, it’s in the form of a review on another site, not in a comment section. So despite the fact that I consider myself a Big Damn Progressive Child of the Internet, I’ve still been thinking about fiction and novels in a very old-fashioned way.

And lastly, Does serial fiction work differently from a novel? I’m not sure.

While comment sections are relatively new, serial fiction is not. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last two years reading novels that were originally published as serial fiction: Anna Karenina, The Count of Montecristo, Bleak House, Great Expectations. I don’t know if anything was changed before they were compiled into novels, but it seems to me that there has to be some repetition if a novel is released serially. If you’re releasing a chapter every week or month, you need to remind your readers of certain things that they can’t just flip back and check if they’re holding the book in their hands. Of course, now we have links – I can just link chapter two to chapter one – it’s the one thing I can do that Dickens could not, Still, every chapter should be able to stand alone, right? That way, if someone stumbles on chapter three before reading one and two, the reader won’t be totally lost. How do comic writers do this? How do television writers do this? Am I overthinking this? I might be overthinking this.

Those are my thoughts so far, at least until Sunday, when the fictional dinosaurs stampede out of the gate at Geek Eccentric. I’m sure I’ll have more to say then.

Writing while pregnant

pregnancy, writing

That’s no moon.

At eight months pregnant, I’m a little nervous about my writing career. Mostly because writing while pregnant has not been easy for me. In fact, it’s been really difficult.

I’ve held off on writing this post because of the inevitable comments of those who will say things like “You think <insert activity> is hard now. What until you have <an infant, a toddler, a child, a teenager, etc.>” but then I realized that those one-uppers will always rear their heads, no matter how old my child is or what stage of life I’m in.

So screw it. I’m writing this now, because I wish I’d known it earlier and maybe someone else needs to read it: writing while pregnant has been a struggle for me. I truly hope that other writers don’t have as rough a time with it as I have, but just in case another pregnant writer is out there, reading this and beating herself up for her lack of productivity, let me say this to you: You’re not alone, lady.

I’ve always assumed I could write no matter what. In fact, I figured that if I ever did get pregnant, I’d go into literary nesting mode, write daily and finish churning out my novel and probably other projects as well. I thought I’d be super-creative.

That didn’t exactly happen. Every pregnancy is different, but a host of physical symptoms kept me from my desk: fatigue, nausea, pain, and now, in the last weeks of my pregnancy, an inability to get myself or my laptop comfortably positioned long enough to write a meaningful sentence. Seriously. I need a floaty Minority Report keyboard and maybe some anti-gravity for an hour or so a day.

The strangest side-effect for me as a writer was probably this: my brain hasn’t worked in quite the same way for the past 30-something weeks.

Let me try to explain what I mean by this: I can do my paid job without a problem. I can edit and revise, and I can outline and organize my projects, and I can even write articles. The problem is creativity:  sitting down to make art became all of a sudden, extremely difficult. (They don’t list that under symptoms in What to Expect When You’re Expecting.)

This is new to me, because I’ve never had trouble being creative. I was the kid who spent second grade staring outside the window daydreaming, and I’ve been the writer who can’t always knuckle down because she’s always distracted by new ideas. My new lack of creativity was a big, unpleasant surprise. Creativity became work, and I started to beat myself up about it: What’s wrong with me that I can’t produce 500 words a day? Why is everything I write awful?

Now that I’ve been living with this change for a while, I do wish I hadn’t been so hard on myself about it — I imagine that any person who undergoes any major physical shift, like injury or illness or chronic pain or a huge lifestyle shift — must go through similar issues. Our brain chemistry is delicate; any change can cause a shift in how we experience life.

It took me months to figure out how to work around the issue effectively, but eventually, (and later in my pregnancy than I like) I started to repeat something I’d heard from Nalini Jones, an MFA teacher I once had a workshop with: “If you can’t create, you can work.”

So now I’m editing a backlog of old work, both for my novel and for my new serial fiction project. I’m also forcing myself to write a little bit of a flash-fiction every week, because I’ve discovered that I can still be creative — it’s just hard now, the way that math was hard for me in grade school. I need to build that muscle just in case things don’t immediately improve when the baby is born.

And I take naps when my schedule allows. I still feel guilty about it, but I do it anyhow.

The Eagle & The Arrow comes out next Tuesday (this year’s launch is waaay different than last year’s.)

Deep breaths. I’m gearing up for The Eagle & The Arrow‘s release next Tuesday.

The build-up to The Eagle & The Arrow’s release date has been so different from last year’s release of Beware the Hawk. I guess that makes sense. I had some time to prepare this year. I knew what worked well last time and what didn’t work so well.

Last year I promoted intensely on this blog and within my MFA community. I emailed a lot of reviewers who didn’t respond to me. I concentrated on a blog tour. There are worse things than doing a book tour in one’s pajamas, but I got the feeling that I was playing it too safe with Beware the Hawk.

This year, I decided to get out of my comfort zone a little. I tried some things I didn’t do last year. In some cases it’s meant reaching out to people and asking them for something. In some cases it’s meant putting money into promo. And in some it’s meant opening myself up for what could be a metric buttload of criticism. At this stage in the game, it’s hard to know what’s working and what’s not, but I am pretty certain that these items are going onto A.J.’s Standard Book Promotion Plan from now on:

  • I reached out on Goodreads by giving away copies of Beware the Hawk. That turned out to be incredible because bonus: a lot of people added my book. I’ve gotten pretty good at international postage in the past three weeks. I’ve sent copies to Serbia, Canada and Bulgaria. Next week, I plan to give away some copies of the Eagle & The Arrow.
  • I asked two authors I know and respect for blurbs for this book. I don’t like bugging people for blurbs but these blurbs helped a lot – I can use them on my promo materials and it’s always awesome when someone you respect writes something nice about your book, especially during a point in the publication process when I tend to doubt myself.
  • I’ve planned a book release party for the end of June, and sent invites to all the people I think might be interested, or who were supportive of the last book. (Ahem – if you’re interested send me a note or comment and I will send you details.) I also sent it out to local media. (Not the media I used to work for – other media that does not know me.) Can’t hurt.
  • I sent out books to reviewers I’ve worked with before and then asked for new reviewers who might be interested in doing reviews to contact me. I got a few answers and met one really cool new reviewer.
  • Lastly, I sent advance reader copies of my e-book to a small group of readers who were supportive of Beware the Hawk. These people were really good to me and my first book, so I figured it was only fair for them to get the first look at the sequel.

This book promo plan is obviously still in process. I want to try some new things. I’ve gotten a couple of interesting suggestions from friends. I belong to two author groups (Sisters in Crime & The New England Horror Writers) and I want to get more active with them. I want to go to Thrillerfest. I want to book some readings at places I have not read before. (I’m also open to any crazy suggestions anyone has for me.)

Mostly, I just want to meet readers. I had some success with that last year and it’s like a drug to meet someone who is excited about your work.

How to force inspiration, kind of. (And how I learned that my shower is NOT actually the Magic Idea Box)

writing in the shower, inspiration

My diving slates.

UPDATE, 2/27/13: I’ve gotten more comments about creativity from readers on my Facebook page, so I’ve added more comments to the bottom of this post. Enjoy!

A few years ago, Wally Lamb spoke at my MFA program. One of the things Lamb mentioned in his keynote was that he got the idea for She’s Come Undone in the shower. If I’m remembering this correctly, it wasn’t an everyday shower; one of his children had just been born and he’d run home to clean up. Shortly after getting into the shower, inspiration sent him running down the hall for pen and paper.

I was so excited to hear this; recently I’d been noticing that my best ideas were emerging in the shower, exactly the time when I was unable to grab a pen and paper to write them down. I’d thought that I was the only one. And so, weird and creepy as it may be to randomly go up to a guy who is a complete stranger and talk about your showering habits, I just couldn’t help myself. I walked up to Lamb after the reading and said “Ohmygod I get my ideas when I’m showering too!” And he gave me the uncomfortable look that pretty much anyone would in the circumstances.

I’ve been thinking of the shower as the Magic Idea Box for a few years now. I never get ideas during morning showers (all they do is wake me up) but I know that if I’m stuck on something, I can take a shower in the middle of the day and the solution will appear within 30 seconds of the water being turned on. I keep diving slates in there so I can scribble the ideas down. I always figured it was the water, or the drumming of the shower on my spine that drew the ideas out. And until Lamb spoke, I thought it was just me.

This is apparently a thing. After reading a recent blog post by another favorite author, Mary Doria Russell, and seeing that she also gets ideas in the shower, I did a quick search for “inspiration in the shower.” It’s more common than I thought it would be. In 2006, Time published an interview with psychologist R. Keith Sawyer, author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. Here’s a quote from that piece:

In creativity research, we refer to the three Bs—for the bathtub, the bed and the bus—places where ideas have famously and suddenly emerged. When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain.

The bathtub, the bed and the bus. That makes sense. Everyone knows the story of the Greek mathematician Archimedes. The principle of the displacement of water came to him in the public bath and then went running out into the streets of Syracuse butt naked, screaming “Eureka!”
This blows a hole through my Magic Idea Box theory; Sawyer goes on to say that the “aha” moment is not a flash of inspiration. It is the end of a process that’s been happening for some time. Your brain has been working on the problem; the mental downtime of a shower or bath, or bus ride or the moments before sleep just kicks your brain into a different gear and that helps your mind solve the problem. But there are, apparently, other ways to force an “aha.”

Collaboration with people in or outside of your field is supposed to help. Here is Felicia Ryan, who commented on my Facebook page when I asked people how they get inspired:

My business partner (who is a visual artist by training) and myself (my training is in Communications) exchange ideas constantly, songs, artwork, books, resources….our exchange is a creative “call and response” conversation. Each of us adds to what the other has said and help to interpret it in a different way. We email, text and call each other and try to follow each creative thread to a conclusion or the next idea. It is like a on ongoing Ping-pong match.

Any kind of mental downtime. According to a recent NPR piece, people who can let their minds wander during breaks from a task are more likely to solve the problem when they return to that problem. As writer Tina DeMarco says, “Mostly [inspiration] comes when I’m busy doing something else!” Here is writer Krista Richards Mann:

I get inspired when it’s quiet. I like to go on a walk or a hike. But, inspiration has been known to nudge me while changing a load of laundry, baking a cake or sweeping the floor as well.

And here is writer Donna Orazio:

For me…it is when I silence the loop of conversation in my head and just listen to the sounds around me. What else is there to hear if I really listen? A new conversation often begins which leads me to unexpected places if I am open to it.

Writing in a blue room. I don’t get this one. Nor do I have a blue room, so I can’t test this theory. But NPR says it’s true, so like a good listener, I believe.

Speaking of NPR. Here’s social media marketer Kate Hutchinson’s strategy for getting ideas:

NPR. I love to listen to it in the car, and half the time I’ll listen to a story about communications between rebel groups in Syria and outside aid groups and suddenly I’ll realize there’s something I can apply to my social media strategy, so I’ll make a voice memo on my iPhone.

Driving/Walking to work. This falls, for me, into mental downtime (unless you’re driving in LA, across the George Washington Bridge or on I-95 in Connecticut) but enough people, like Hutchinson, mentioned getting ideas in the car that I felt it deserved its own category.

From Brian Hendrickson, creator of the web comic Call of Cthulu: The Musical:

From Karen P. Schuh:

I often get ideas when driving or when observing people interacting that causes my creative mind to react and imagine a story.

And from Talking to Walls frontman Brian Kelly:

I find that I write most of my songs at the least convenient times. The best happen when I’m driving or in the shower. If I “sit down to write” it almost never happens. But usually when I can’t get to a guitar or, in the case of a shower, paper, that’s when the muse hits. (I think she just likes watching me in the shower. Kinda creepy…)

Which brings us back to the shower. Here’s a comment from Stephen Schmidt, who has the same problem as Brian:

In the shower of all places – I guess the hot water gets my brain going. A whole new meaning for “go soak your head”. It’s hard to write stuff down though.

Diving slates, Stephen and Brian. Trust me.

How do you get your ideas? Does the blue room thing even work? Comment here or on my Facebook page and I may update with your input.

As for me, I’m headed over to the Magic Idea Box to see if I can harvest some ideas for the next chapter I have to write. Apparently I’m over the weirdness of publicly discussing showers, although I don’t think I’m quite at the Archimedes level of weirdness quite yet.*

*Archimedes was a bit on the odd side. He was killed during the invasion of Syracuse. He was working on an equation at the time. A Roman soldier came to take him prisoner and Archimedes was all “no thank you, kinda busy right now,” and the soldier got mad and killed him. (I imagine things didn’t end all that well for that centurion when his general realized that the greatest genius of their time was murdered in the middle of something brilliant by some kid with an anger management problem.)