This scene is terrible, and I’m not writing it.

fantasy shopping

Wizard shopping. Yaaaaay.

There’s a scene I have to write, but I’ve been dreading it.

It’s the kind of scene I hate reading, but it’s also seemed like the sort of scene I needed to write in order to connect important plot points.
Here’s the breakdown of what needs to happen: It’s a fantasy novel. A character needs warm clothes to go on to his next plot point. So he has to go shopping, but shopping would be a big deal for this particular character, so I have to address this. I can’t just skip it and say “he went shopping.”
But I do not want to write it. I’ve danced around writing it. I’ve brainstormed it. I’ve made little diagrams for it. When I wrote out the story beats for it, I wrote “make this scene FUN!” next to its bullet, as if writing an exclamation point on my outline would make this scene any more interesting. But no, it’s still a stupid scene. Just thinking of writing it makes me tired.

It’s not that I hate shopping. I like shopping. I like it a lot. I went shopping today, in fact. But shopping in fantasy settings? Eh. Those scenes have always seemed stilted and dull to me (yes, even the ones that take place in Diagon Alley).
I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because reading shopping and actually shopping are two very different experiences. Or maybe it’s because in a fantasy world, shopping often looks nothing like shopping in real life, so the author flounders around, trying to make up something plausible; A character walks into a tailor shop (is that even a thing?) and orders robes or is measured for clothes or whatever, and there’s a lot of stilted olde-timey fantasy talk, and if nothing happens to move the plot along, you can skim right over it.
Anyhow, If I’m bored by the very idea of writing this scene, why bother? Won’t the reader be bored by it as well?
So I decided something.

I’m just not going to write it.

My character doesn’t want to go shopping. I don’t want him to go shopping. So he’s not going. He can either freeze for a few chapters or he can steal something to wear and we can all move on with our lives.
It’s fine. He’s fictional. If he freezes, no one will actually get hurt. And even better, no one will be bored.

 

 

photo credit: Cauldrons, All Sizes via photopin (license)

Living from one deadline to the next, and why it’s time for me to start blogging again

A lot’s been going on lately and when I say “a lot,” I mean woah, I’ve had a lot of deadlines lately.

I’ve been quiet over here, mostly because I’ve been writing my words elsewhere. I used to write about pop culture here — now I pitch those ideas to The Mary Sue, The Establishment and whomever else will have me. I used to write about books here  — now I contribute to Book Riot.  I used to write my thoughts here, but now I don’t have as much time as I used to because I’m working a freelance copywriter.

Doing client work on a dank day.

A photo posted by A.J. O'Connell (@annjoc) on

That’s a pretty interesting gig. I work from home and write for a living, about all sorts of things and for several different companies. In some ways, it’s a lot like being a reporter. In others, it’s very very different. That’s probably worth a blog post, because it took me a long time to develop the language I needed to describe the work I was doing.

The upshot of all of this is that my business has been growing, which has been excellent, but I’ve also had less time to write my own fiction, and even less time to blog here, so of course, it’s the blog that’s losing out.

Recently, though, my brain’s been feeling kind of full. Not full of essay material, or fiction, or anything useful. It’s just… full. And I think this might be because I haven’t had time to sit and think, or to journal, about the work I’m doing. I’ve been working, and researching, and writing and momming (that’s another story) but I haven’t taken any time to organize those thoughts. I’ve just been living from one deadline to the next.

I also heard in a podcast (I’ve been listening to lots of these lately) that many authors are turning their blogs into Now sections, or rather sections detailing what those writers are doing right now. Which sounds like journaling to me. And which also brings blogging back to its roots. The earliest blogs were journals.

I’m going to try that here. Journaling and talking about work always helps me to focus. I can’t always be driving myself to work, and sometimes I need to stop and sit and think in order to be productive, but I’m always forgetting that.

So hello again, blog. Let’s do this.

 

My main character swears, and other confessions.

Cursing in fictionIt’s always a little awkward when relatives read my books. A couple of years ago, one of my in-laws bought copies of my books for everyone on that side of the family as Christmas gifts. It was a really wonderful gesture, and I was flattered. I was also terrified because oh my god, my in-laws —  lovely people I share a meal with maybe once a year when we are all dressed up and on best behavior — were going to read a sex scene I wrote. They were going to be exposed to my politics. They were going to read ALL the swears.

I’d been through this with my own family. In fact, I always feel compelled to warn my relatives about my fiction. When I’m writing, I try not to worry about what anyone thinks, because that would cripple the work itself. When I release my work to an editor, I’m ready for the public to read it. Once it’s out, I don’t care so much about what strangers think. But family? I care. Oh god, I care. Because I don’t want them to think that I am my characters.

Take swearing, for example. In life, I don’t swear all that much.
Which is not to say that I don’t swear at all. I do. But our child is learning to talk, so the big curse word in our house right now, when we stub a toe, or drop something, or get an unpleasant email, is “Benedict Cumberbatch.”

But when I’m writing? I swear a lot. Case in point: Beware the Hawk is 48 pages long. You can get through it in one sitting. But if you took a drink every time the main character says “fuck,” you’d be passed out by page 30. That’s just the kind of person that character is. She swears like a Big Lebowski cast member.

That’s who she is. But that’s not who I am.

You see this concern a lot in writing communities: often readers assume that works of fiction are about the author. There’s a little bit of truth in that. My political beliefs do inform my political thrillers. And all authors do put something of themselves into every character they create. But that doesn’t mean the protagonist is always a stand-in for the author. I’ve found that characters have to be built out, so that they make sense, fit into the framework of the story, and interact believably with the other characters.

I can actually think of one author who was writing a biographical novel. The main character was originally an author stand-in, and the novel wasn’t working. One day, the author realized that was because both the story and the protagonist had evolved. The character could no longer continue to parrot the choices the author had made.The character had to be allowed to do what the character would do, not what the author had done. After that, the story worked, but the character was no longer a substitute for the author.

This sort of transformation happens a lot, but readers don’t always know this. I’ve had people think that Beware the Hawk is about me (it’s not) and a even couple of readers think that it’s about them (guys, no.) So naturally I get freaked out when people I want to impress (my in-laws) read it.

Will I ever get over my in-laws reading my fiction? Probably not. Will I be okay with my son reading my books someday? Oh, Benedict Cumberbatch, he will, won’t he? Well, I’ll leap from that bridge when I come to it. Will any of this stop me from writing unlikeable heroines who cuss and fight and make bad choices? Nope. I was born to write fiction, and I believe in writing characters who are hot messes.

Looks like there’s nothing to do but write another chapter, and watch my language at the next family gathering.

 

photo credit: Fuck via photopin (license)

Seven things about my writing that readers might want to know.

So, there’s this status going around writing circles right now on social media: “Seven things about my writing that readers might want to know.” I was tagged by a friend this morning, so I thought I’d do this here, on my blog, instead of Facebook.*

I’m not tagging anyone, but if you want to share your seven things after reading this, please do. Feel free to comment with a link to them, so I can read them. I’m curious.

Here are mine:

  1. It is difficult for me to complete any piece of writing. In fact, I have this irrational belief that it’s impossible for me to finish anything. I think that was one of the reasons I went into a newspaper job where I had to complete at least two stories a day.
  2. I resisted outlining for years, until recently, when I had no choice because I couldn’t afford to sit around waiting for inspiration to strike.
  3. I used to write 500 words of fiction a day. Now I schedule the days I will dedicate to fiction and which I will dedicate to journalism in advance.
  4. I can’t write fiction and non-fiction on the same day. My brain won’t do it without a fight.
  5. you-should-be-writing

    Shut UP.

    I hate it when other artists think they can tell you how to create. If someone tells you “writers write” or “you have to write every single day” or “you should be writing”  they’re probably well-intentionedly repeating their own mantras to you. They probably beat themselves over the head with those mantras, but that doesn’t mean they get to beat YOU over the head. Don’t listen to these people. No one can tell you how to make art.

  6. My fiction is always the richest when nothing exciting is happening in my own life.
  7. My son will probably be hearing the words “Just wait until Mommy finishes her chapter” for the rest of his life.

What are your seven things? Share them in the comments.

*I have strict rules for myself about chain letters and memes. I don’t usually participate and for 20 years, I’ve been guilt-free about ignoring them. Why? Because in my sophomore year of college, someone sent me the anti-chain letter and now, just by virtue of having read it, I am absolved for life of all guilt for not forwarding emails, not scrolling to the bottom of messages, not reposting statuses, not tagging people and not nominating people for online awards just because I was nominated.

On transitions in writing (or, avoiding a case of the “howevers.”)

Hey guys. Just a quick post to let you know that I have an essay up at Spry Literary Journal today as part of their ABCs of Fiction Writing series. My letter was J, so I wrote about junctures: the places where we join the pieces of our prose.

Check it out. And check out Spry. It is a very cool journal devoted to the short form. (One of the stipulations for writing this piece was that it had to come in at 1,000 words or less.)

Writing research, or this week’s list of reasons the NSA is watching me.

SN290019

Behold, the dreaded spife!

Last week I posted a list of the items I researched while working on my latest thriller for The Resistance Cycle. This week, I continued to make slow progress on the manuscript, but once again, I needed to know certain … things. For example, can those lettuce knives you see on late night infomercials kill or maim someone?

Here’s this week’s list of questionable internet searches:

So, about those lettuce knives.
According to wisegeek, lettuce knives can deliver “deliver a nasty nick, although it certainly can’t cause mortal damage.” Boo to that.  And there are some hilarious five-star reviews of a plastic knife on Amazon, billing it as a great first knife for a child. Good-bye, possible plot device!

Okay, but can you really hurt someone with a plastic knife? And don’t give me “you can hurt anyone with anything if you really apply yourself.” I’m looking for a lethal plastic knife.
Yes. After reading many pages of Google results, I now know that apparently you can, if you file a plastic knife down. Or if you 3-D print a dangerous knife. But you really need to a) be up a creek and need protection of any kind to do this, b) really want a plastic knife, c) be a destructive, yet crafty sociopath. (Just imagine the Pinterest board.)

Fine. I need this to be easy for my protagonist. What are some dangerous office supplies?
And that’s when I ended up on the Bloomberg’s How to Weaponize Office Supplies infographic and lost 10 minutes of writing time laughing.

Okay, but seriously, guys.
Scissors, idiot, says the Internet. But this is not really what my character needs, so I’m not satisfied with this. Looks like it’s time for a field trip. If you need me this weekend I will wandering around Staples, taking notes.

The spife photo is by XenoL-Type at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

Things you research while writing a thriller

Because I turn off my internet connection while I’m writing, I keep a written weekly list of the things I have to research for my books. And because I write political thrillers, the things I Google are pretty suspicious. Although, let’s be honest: nothing beats “where do senators park” search I did when I was writing The Eagle & The Arrow. I fully expected men in sunglasses to show up at my door for that one.

Here’s this week’s list of questionable things I’ve Googled while writing books for The Resistance Cycle:

Disposable cell phones – do they have cameras? Yes, they do.

Can you check into a hotel without a credit card? Sort of, depending on the hotel.

Okay then, how about a stolen card? The Internet says no, but I am skeptical because I believe the Internet doesn’t want to give me the tools to be a criminal. Listen, Internet, I already have a mother.

So wait. How do you use a stolen credit card without getting caught anyhow? Apparently it’s pretty labor-intensive. Scratch that plot point.

What are the protesters from Occupy Wall Street doing now? Lots and lots and lots of things. Or nothing. It depends on where you look. Guess I can make some stuff up then.

I’m cheating on my novel with another novel.

cheatingonnovelI started a brand new novel.
Why did I start a brand new novel?

It’s not like I don’t have anything to write. I have three serious fiction projects going on right now. One is my webserial. One is the novel I wrote two drafts of in grad school. And one is the third Beware the Hawk book. People are waiting for all of these. I’m committed to all of them.

Fiction-writing time is precious these days, because I’m working as a freelancer at home, and when I’m not freelancing, I’m taking care of my young son or helping my husband figure out this puzzlebox of an old house we just moved into. (“Why is it 80 degrees in some rooms and 50 degrees in others?” “What does this random knob on the wall do?” “Can you bring the baby monitor into the basement and help me figure out a thing?”)
Despite all of these things that have a claim on my time, I opened up a new document, and started writing a brand new novel last month.

Guess what I’m spending all my fiction-writing time on. I don’t want to do anything but write it. It’s the thing that gets me into my office in the morning and it’s the thing that keeps me from leaving for lunch. I think about the plot and the characters constantly. I write it in my head when I’m shoveling snow and when I’m going to sleep at night. I’m basically having a writing affair with it.

And of course, because it’s an affair, I feel guilt. Guilt, because I have a trilogy to finish, two thirds of which have been published and have actual, honest-to-god readers who occasionally message me on Twitter and ask after my protagonist. (Guys, I love you for that. Just saying.)
Guilt, because the people I went to school with keep asking me when I’m going to finish my drag queen/Shakespeare literary fiction novel and send it out to agents.
Guilt, because I am spending my time writing this manuscript that makes me so, so happy, and it’s a full-fledged swords-and-sorcery fantasy novel, and sci-fi/fantasy has always been my first love, no matter how much Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene charmed me later in life.

But this book I’m working on makes me feel like a kid again. It reminds me of my first glorious unfinished novel, which I wrote when I was fifteen years old. I’d finish my homework and sit in my father’s office, writing this crazy fantasy epic with talking horses and hell-tunnels and not really a coherent plot, on one computer while my dad worked on the other. I’d write until my parents loudly announced that I had to go to bed. I had not developed an inner editor yet, and I never planned to show anyone what I was writing, so I didn’t even care if it was good. It was just for me, and that time I spent writing was my favorite time of the day.

Writing that behemoth was just pure joy, and I never thought I’d feel that again. And maybe I won’t, but this new novel comes close. Maybe it’s because I’m writing fantasy, and I just love fantasy. Or maybe it’s because at this point, this book is just for me. There’s no writing group or editor waiting for this one. I have no grand rewrite plans. I have no commercial plans for it. My ideal reader for this book is me.

I’ve spent my adult life writing things for other people: newspapers, editors, writing groups, teachers, mentors, whoever. It feels like a gift to be able to write something for myself. I just wish it weren’t taking away from the time and energy I should be spending on other projects.

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.