Wednesday, November 21, 2012

My (Unusual?) Writing Process


Nano is only ten short days away from being over, and I've been neck-and-neck with the required word count all month.  

I was initially nervous about writing this novel so quickly, but there's something about hitting the 35K mark that boosts my confidence. If I can get this far, there's no reason I can't finish!

I've always been fascinated by the writing process of other authors. What initially sparked their ideas? Which chapter did they write first? What major changes did they make?

After doing Nano three times and experimenting with different techniques, I've figured out my own writing process. I'm curious as to how many people do it the same way.

First, I make as thorough of an outline as I can. This hopefully includes a chapter-by-chapter summary. Next, I write the first chapter and try to continue chronologically. 

This almost never works.

Why? Because a novel is rarely complete in my head when I first start writing it. (Last year was a glorious exception.) There are always a few holes here and there that I want to skip over.

At the same time, there are certain scenes that jump out at me. They're vivid, insistent, and want to be written right now. So I might be stuck on chapter five while chapter thirty is begging for my attention.

I don't want to leave gaping plot holes in my novel by bouncing back and forth. What do I do?

I realized it's okay to have holes in my novel because I don't have holes in my outline. As long as I follow the outline (while at the same time giving myself freedom to change it), I can write whichever chapter I want.

Every morning I open my outline and skim through it until something jumps out at me. Once something does, I write it down as quickly as I can before the plot bunny goes away. Then I go back to the outline and do it again. 

This way, my novel emerges somewhat like a puzzle. You don't start at one end of a puzzle and work your way to the other; you put together the easiest pieces first. It's sporadic, but you have the cover of the box to guide you, and it all comes together in the end.

What is your writing process?

Monday, November 19, 2012

My 6 Hour Writing Marathon

The people at National Novel Writing Month host a huge 6 hour writing marathon every year in San Francisco. Obviously I can't fly from Mississippi for that. However, some local chapters like to do the same event on their own, and my group in Hattiesburg decided to do the same thing.

I was pretty nervous about this event. Last year I was so on fire that not only did I write all six hours, but I hit 50,000 words and finished the book. This year, my book is much more challenging and I've struggled to keep my word count where it should be. Could I really keep writing from 6:00 pm to midnight?

Last year, five of us met at a late-night cafe and wrote there. Hattiesburg doesn't have a venue like that, but by a huge stroke of luck, one of our Wrimos worked at a hotel and was able to get us a conference room for free.

We made it a potluck and brought a ton of food. This was great because it offered sustenance the whole night. About a dozen people showed up, which was a better turn-out than I had hoped for.

Write-ins are amusing because people always have different ideas about how much talking you can do. One of us wanted complete silence while another one of us wanted to spend ten minutes discussing how "Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo" is a complete sentence.

Personally, I like a little bit of talking because a brief distraction refreshes my mind.

Getting started was difficult. At about 8:00 pm I remember looking at the clock and wondering how I was going to make it another four hours. I decided going home early in shame would be too embarrassing, so I would stare at the screen if I had to.

Whenever I got stuck, I went to the food table to get an extra snack. I eventually got so full I only ate hummus and vegetables because it's lighter. At one point someone thought my frequent trips to the food table was ridiculous and told me I couldn't get another snack until I wrote 2,000 words.

"How about 500 words?" I asked, knowing I would want more hummus before then.

"Nope," he said. "2,000."

Five hundred words later I went back for more hummus and he asked me if I had written 2,000.

"Yup," I said. Then out of guilt, "No, these are forbidden vegetables."

When he left early, I celebrated by treating myself to guilt-free hummus.

At the end of the night, I asked everyone who wrote the most words.

"I wrote 3,000," said someone.

"4,000 for me," said another.

The guy who left early had written 6,000, so I think he won.

"How about you?" someone asked me.

"It looks like I wrote..." I looked at my Nano stats screen. "7,000 words. Wait, that can't be right. I spent the whole night talking and eating hummus."

I was so surprised that I even recounted the words. Sure enough, I had written 7,000!

The moral of the story: if you think you're stuck and can only stare at the computer screen, push through anyway. You might do something amazing.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Finer Things Book Club: The Night Circus

Some friends and I decided to start a book club, and from now on I'm going to post what we do to inspire your own reading groups. I named it after the book club in The Office because they focus on a broad range of art and culture, and I try to encourage my club members to get creative.

This month, we discussed THE NIGHT CIRCUS. (That book is awesome beyond words, by the way.)

I asked everyone in the book group to come wearing black and white with one item of red clothing. The circus had a fan club called the rêveurs who would dress that way.

On Erin Morgenstern's website, she posted a playlist of music that inspired her while writing the book, so I had that playing in the background. I also showed them a fun game online based on the book. 

All the food was in black and white: a white cake decorated with black frosting, white chocolate covered pretzels, and black-and-white cookies. In the future I'm going to ask other people to bring food as well so it's not too much work for the host.

The cake turned out more horrible than I could have imagined. I thought I'd be clever and use a shake-and-squeeze can similar to Cheese Whiz, but it gave me zero control. The frosting came out in large, sporadic chunks. I had to smooth all the lines with my fingers.

Well, you live and learn.

I think it's important for the host to thoroughly research the book; history, the author, details about how the book was written. I was able to tell the guests about how Erin Morgenstern is also a painter and that's why her books are so visual, that it started out as a Nanowrimo book, stuff like that.

We watched the book trailer on Youtube and then watched an interview with the author. Some authors will do Skype for book groups so you can talk to them in person, but Erin is too famous to have time for that.

The discussion questions (which I've pasted below) sparked one of the greatest discussions I've had with a book group. I printed them out for the group so they could read through them, put some thought into them, and look at them while we discussed each one. The club members answered a lot of questions I had and enriched the book for me.

One of my favorite topics was whether or not it was feasible for the rêveurs to be so obsessed with the circus that they'd define their lives by it. We came up with real-life groups of people who are the same: Trekies, Groupies, Whovians.

When it was over we had extra treats, so I sent them home with each person in a bag.

I loved hosting this group and I can't wait to see what we do in January!

If you liked this post and want to see more, tell me in the comments any books you would like to see us do. The club members get the final say, but we're very open to suggestions.

Click below for the discussion questions.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I'm Going to be a Speaker at the Historical Novel Society Conference

I have some pretty super big and incredible news: at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Florida next year, guess who's going to present a panel on Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction? Me!

When I went to the conference in 2011, it changed my career and probably my life. At the time I didn't know much about who I was as a writer or what I wanted to do with my career. I was working on a novel about the Vestal Virgins (which I'm querying right now), but it wasn't until I went to the conference that I realized historical fiction was my genre.

I also realized at the conference that all the books I wanted to write focused on religion or spirituality of some sort: SACRED FIRE is about ancient Roman priestesses, VOODOO QUEEN is about Marie Laveau, JOAN is about Joan of Arc (it's a working title). All my favorite books are spiritual too: Pope Joan, Mother of the Believers, Peony in Love.

It was like a light bulb went on. I thought to myself, Yay, I know who I am now!

I was hesitant to put together the proposal for this panel at first. After all, most of the speakers are fabulous and famous, whereas I haven't published a thing. But I believed in the idea and in my ability to discuss it. 

When I mentioned a panel on religion on the conference's Facebook page, so many people got excited about the idea that I decided to go for it. In the end, I figured if the other speakers were awesome enough and my proposal polished enough, people would gloss over my as-yet-not-awesome status.

The other speakers are Mary Sharratt, author of Illuminations, Kamran Pasha, author of Mother of the Believers, and Stephanie Dray, author of Lily of the Nile.

Needless to say, I'm pretty excited!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Critique Groups are Best When They're in Your Genre

I was on Stephanie Dray's blog the other day (she's the author of Song of the Nile) and read her article If You're Serious About Historical Fiction. She talks about how important it is to have members of your critique group who are familiar with your genre. It got me thinking about my unfortunate experience with cross-genre relationships.

When I was in college, I took a class that was basically a critique group for credit. The students wrote all kinds of things: short stories, YA, sci-fi. It was exciting to learn from such a diverse group of writers. None of them read historical fiction, but I didn't see that as a problem.

Little did I know that when people don't like history, quality writing will not change their minds. My critique group felt swamped by facts and wanted me to slow down and explain everything. I added several unnecessary chapters just to clarify things which I eventually got rid of because they served no purpose.

(I wrote about being upset because I had to cut the first two chapters out of Sacred Fire. They weren't there originally; this group convinced me to add them.)

After I took the time to thoroughly describe everything, they complained about the book being too long and wordy. 

Then the professor kept trying to fact check my work when she know nothing about Roman history. Once she told me to change the high priest's name because it didn't sound Roman, and his character was based on a real person.

It didn't take long for me to get frustrated.

I'm not saying these people were too stupid to like history by any means. Their advice on the writing craft itself was very helpful. However, they were criticizing my genre instead of my book, and because they didn't like my genre, their critiques would always be negative and unhelpful.

When I started to work with other historical fiction writers, their advice changed everything.  Not only did they recognize when something wasn't working; they knew why it wasn't working and how to fix it, and then they gave me examples from other historical fictions they had read.

Granted, I've worked with a few fantastic beta readers outside me genre. I think it's good when your book is more polished to have different kinds of writers read your work to make sure it's accessible to a greater population. Yet my book would not be what it is today (such as it is) without the help I received from hist-fic writers.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

How to Pitch Like a Rockstar Contest

Heather Webb at Between the Sheets is hosting a pitch contest on her blog today. Writers give advice on other people's pitches and then submit them on November 7-20. The prize: a ten-page critique by Michelle Brower, agent at Folio Literary Management. That's too good to pass up!

I had to pull myself out of the Nano trenches to write this, but hopefully it turned out okay. This is for my novel SACRED FIRE:

Tuccia’s life as a Vestal Virgin is upended when the goddess she serves doesn't rescue her best friend from being wrongly executed. When she finds herself in the same situation, she must perform a miracle to prove she’s favored of the gods. Despite her long-held hurt toward Vesta, she will do anything to save her life, even if it means taking a leap of faith.

Critique away!

Friday, November 2, 2012

My Halloween at a Voodoo House

As many of you know, my WIP VOODOO QUEEN is about Marie Laveau, the most famous priestess of voodoo who ever lived. When I heard there would be a voodoo festival on Halloween - the day before Nano when I would start writing the novel - it seemed fitting that I should go. 
Reserved for the ghost

Luckily, the professor I met at the University of Southern Mississippi was game to go with me. He used to live there, so he was a fountain of knowledge. He also knew the best restaurants. We had lunch at Muriel's where I tried turtle soup for the first time, which was surprisingly tasty.

New Orleans is overrun with ghosts and this restaurant has a ghost of its own. They keep a table and chair reserved for him and his guest every day, along with two full glasses of wine. It was my first legit haunted house!

The place holding the festival is called Voodoo Authentica. Everything in the store serves a spiritual purpose, so much so that you can't buy a simple knick-knick or gag gift to take home. They cater to believers, not tourists. 

In the walls are several nooks with altars to the various spirits containing statues, candles, fruit, incense, coins. All the worshipers in the house (aka the employees) wore white dresses and white head wraps. The soul resides mostly in the head and white is the color of purity, so the wraps them spiritually clean.

Mama Lola
The person I wanted to meet more than anyone was Mama Lola, one of the most famous voodoo priestesses in the world. I first saw this aged Creole woman sitting in the back of the shop, looking about a hundred and scowling at nothing. 

The worshipers of the house - her "godchildren" - grasped each of her arms and hefted her to her feet so they could guide her outside. She spoke to them in her thick accent with a mix of adoration and amusing harshness, complete with many kisses on the lips.

To start the festival, Mama Lola opened with a song dedicated to Elegba. A godson placated the spirits by shaking a sacred instrument (its name escapes me right now) and spraying mouthfuls of rum on the doorway. A spectator mumbled something about sanitation. 

When we were all seated to get ready for the first speaker, Mama Lola decided she didn't like where she was placed. "I want to be with my friends," she demanded, pointing to the people she wanted to sit with. There was much to-do as a goddaughter tried to reorganize all the chairs without getting tangled in the chords to the speakers. 

The goddaughter finally said, "That should do it..."

By this time, Mama Lola was tired of the fuss the woman was making. "Thank you, but now you shut up." She affectionately held the woman's face in her hands. "You shut up now."

I thought about getting a reading from Mama Lola. I wasn't sure how I felt about it because I'm not supposed to associate with other religions, but journalist Rod Davis says it's a great way to break the ice and get your foot in the door. Sadly, she was all booked up for the day.

It's just as well. With that accent, I could hardly understand a word she said.

I asked Mama Lola how you can tell if you've been "called by the spirits." She launched into a long story about her spiritual journey and I couldn't follow any of it. I had to ask the professor to retell the it for me, and it went something like this:

She was seven years old when one day, she went missing. The whole town was involved in the search. Her grandfather told the sheriff that if they didn't find her, he would kill everyone. Finally, they found her in a dumpster filled with spit eating cabbage. (We decided "spit" and "cabbage" must be terms for "garbage.") Her mother told her when she was only seven that she had the power and she would be a great priestess someday.

When he saw my bewildered expression, he explained that she was very old.

The second person I most wanted to see was Ina Fandrich. She wrote what is considered one of the best books about Marie Laveau and I was dying to ask her questions. 

Throughout the event, the professor and I tried to figure out which of the spectators she was. One woman looked like she fit the bill - she had a tasteful suit, perfectly groomed hair, and the professional demeanor of a scholar. He guessed it was another woman with an artistic scarf taking copious notes.

When it was Ina's turn to speak, the woman who stood up was the last we would have expected.

"No freakin' way," whispered the professor.

She wore a purple-and-black dress and a huge head wrap tied with a large bow on the side. I couldn't tell if she was a practitioner or if she was wearing a Halloween costume. We discovered she was a believer who could heal and give readings, and she was a member of Mama Lola's house.

I told her about my novel and she said what every scholar I've spoken to has said: that Francine Prose already wrote about Marie Laveau. I've discovered that in the academic world, if someone's already done it you don't pursue it. In the historical fiction world you can tell the same story for as long as it makes money, and when a book goes out of print like Prose's it might as well not exist anymore.

I asked Ina how Marie would have learned her craft: would it have been from a family member since the "power" is inherited, would she have been self-taught because she did what the spirits inspired her to do, or would she have been trained in a voodoo house by a mambo and houngan like in Haiti?

"Yes, yes, and yes," she said. "Actually, we don't really know."

We discussed different styles of voodoo - santeria, Yoruba, hoodoo - and the professor asked what Marie would have practiced. "Neither," she answered. "All Marie's ways are gone now. Her style of voodoo died with her."

"Fantastic," I grumbled. More than anything, Ina showed me how complicated this book will be to write.

I got the chance to talk to two of the godchildren and ask them about the head wraps, the white clothes, the symbols of their jewelry. One of the girls was going to "kanzo" in Haiti, which is how you become an official priestess. Most spirits reside in Haiti, so it's the best place to get initiated.

"Do people treat you differently because you follow voodoo?" I asked.

Their response wasn't what I expected; people recognize they follow voodoo when they wear white head wraps or symbolic necklaces, and instead of being rude or judgmental, they more often ask for spiritual favors!

"How does your family feel about your religion?" I asked them.

"Oh, we're totally going to hell," one of them said with a chuckle.

The festival ended with singing, drumming, and dancing. If I were by myself I would have been up there dancing with them, but I felt self-conscious with the professor nearby and settled with tapping my foot.

I was hoping to see a possession, though I didn't expect to. The voodoos believe that when you worship, a spirit can enter into you and give you a divine experience. (I wish they'd come up with a term less frightening; it's not all that different from the Pentecostal speaking in tongues.) 

You can tell a person is possessed when they seem to lose control and act in ways they wouldn't normally. In fact, you can supposedly tell which spirit has entered into a person by the way they behave. The professor and I were trying to guess if anyone was possessed when we saw one of the spectators dancing by herself in front of the drums. He guessed what was coming and pulled out his video recorder.

The drumming stopped and the woman almost collapsed. Ina ran to wrap her arms around her. The voodoos helped the woman to a chair and started fanning her, putting wet rags on her forehead, and rubbing rum on her face. The woman was shaking and mumbling incoherently. I'd never seen anything like it before. 

The professor and I were confused. Possession is supposed to be a celebratory experience - the highest level of worship - and her situation looked the opposite of pleasant.  

They guided her inside and I asked one of the goddaughters if she was okay.

"Of course," she answered, as if this were the most natural thing in the world.

Ten minutes later the woman came out no longer possessed, looking exhausted and wearing a white head wrap the shop gave her. A man standing next to me shook his head, confused.

"That's my wife," he told me.

"Is she alright? She looked pretty shaken up," I said.

"You should have seen her inside when they were trying to get whatever that was out of her. It was like The Exorcist in there."

This offended a believer close by, who scoffed in disgust and walked away.

"Has this ever happened before?" I asked.

"Never!" He shook his head again. "We aren't even from here. We're visiting from the Bahamas!"

Considering that they were just tourists, I thought he was being a pretty good sport.  If I got possessed, my husband would have reacted very differently.

I still had questions, so I asked Ina if the woman had been possessed by an evil spirit.

"There are no evil spirits. The dichotomy of evil and good is a Christian concept," she explained. "Pagans understand that any spirit can do good things, but any spirit can also get angry."

When it ended and the professor and I got in the car, he said, "Well, I learned a lot."

"Yes," I agreed. "So did I."

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