“Cut a good story anywhere, and it will bleed.”
Anton Chekhov

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

Live From Second Life: The Written Word Writers' Circle
Wed 2009-07-08 15:03:33 (single post)
  • 5,737 wds. long

This is precisely what Second Life does best, in my opinion: brings together a virtual group to do the same sort of stuff you might do with a group in real life, only without the travel expenses, while using the tools of the virtual world viewing application to enhance the group experience. That doesn't mean I don't indulge in casino games or spend spare computing cycles with my avatar in camping chairs, mind you; I'm only human and I like free Linden Dollars as much as the next person. But it's the group activity potential that really gets me excited about virtual worlds in general and Second Life in particular.

My avatar, Kavella Maa, is sitting in the audience at a place called "The waterstage and writers' circle". (For those unfamiliar, that link will take you to a portal web page which prompts you for permission to launch the Second Life world viewer and teleport you there.) There are cushions on the wooden dockside risers that you can click on to make your avatar sit properly (which usually works as advertised but sometimes leaves you facing off to the left so you have to get up and try again).

On stage is a microphone where open mic participants stand to read their works.

When an author mounts the stage, everyone in the audience receives a notecard (a text file object that you can create, save, keep in your inventory, and copy to others' inventories) with the text of their material on it. The authors read their material aloud; little green icons that mean "sound emanating from this point" appear above their heads, denoting that the voice you hear is indeed coming from the person controlling that avatar. If you use your camera controls to zoom in on the author reading, their voice gets louder, mimicking the effect of moving closer to hear better in a face-to-face group. (You can also set your preferences to modulate volume based on your avatar's position rather than your camera's.)

Meanwhile, the audience can comment as freely as they like on Local Chat, or even greet new arrivals with great verbosity, without fear of interrupting; Local Chat is text-only.

Each Wednesday at 2 PM Pacific Time, this Writers' Circle meets, organized by Jilly Kid of the Writers Guild - that's a group you can join - and MC'd by Hastings Bournemouth. Jilly sends out notices reminding the group about the event--and assigning a fun theme which authors may choose to incorporate into their offerings. This week, the theme is "Teddy Bear Picnic Day". Attendees can click on a sign beside the stage to have a free teddy bear T-shirt dropped into their inventory. (I'm wearing mine, of course.) Among the works written specifically for the theme are "Life's No Picnic," a poem by Aribella Lafleur, who wonders how teddy bears can even have picnics, having tummies full of fluff as they do; and "The Homophobic Hunter and the Un-caring Bear," a poem with sly humor and a wonderful rhyme scheme by... oh, dang it! the author didn't include his avatar name in the notecard! Dude, by-lines are important! We're also hearing non-themed excerpts from longer works by Huckleberry Hax and Arkady Poliatevska (whose profile appears strangely devoid of URL today, or else I'd make that a link too.

This is, of course, an incomplete list of authors who read today. I'm not taking minutes here.

There are flaws, of course. A bit of lag here and there, some authors having mic trouble, the odd audience member promoting themselves to co-presenters by commenting over the voice channel at inappropriate times. Y'know. Flaws happen. But, on the whole, the event and venue make me happy. It's a virtual world app doing what it should, and it's doing it about writing. I get to hear the voices of people whole states or even oceans away from me while I sit comfortably in the Seven Cups Tea House in Denver and work on a short story rewrite*. And I'm thinking about what I might share next week, if I get my butt in gear in time.

*Short story rewrite: Took another look at "Lambing Season" before resubmitting it and was unhappy with the blah-ness of the first few paragraphs. Am reframing the entire story via a top-end rewrite. Am hoping I have not killed the poor thing.

Into the Slush: June 2009
Tue 2009-06-30 15:41:38 (single post)

This morning, whilst scribbling today's date in my Morning Pages notebook, I suddenly realized that June in fact only has 30 days in it and not, say, the 42 or so I must have assumed. Plenty of time to get a story ready for its first submission! Or, y'know, not.

But if it's under 500 words long, we're looking at possible, right? And if it's 400 words of a story that's been waiting two years to be submitted, when I originally meant it to go from creation to submission in the space of a week--well, it's about time, right?

Thus ends the editing paralysis surrounding "The Day the Sidewalks Melted".

I went back to the original draft, the one I sent around to friends on the day I first wrote it. Then I read my rewrite, the one John told me died on the page. And he was right. I thought it corrected for clunk? It was the clunk. Comparing the two drafts was like a concise lesson in how less is more: two or three sharp details can do a much better job of painting a picture than can twenty. And when the story is about an event that none of the characters (nor even, quite, the author--shh!) understand, but can only describe by its effects, then two or three sharp details about those effects is what the story needs.

Which isn't even getting into the concision required by the flash format (400 words; each one has to be right), or the different implications of different narrative frames (this is not a scholarly treatise! this is a break-up story).

So I sent it off and soon received Ideomancer's auto-response. I did not seek anyone's comments on the draft, because what I really don't need are another two years of paralysis. John will read it tonight. (I hope he likes it!)

And now I am no longer thinking, every single morning, "I really need to repair and submit 'Sidewalks'". Yay. On to the next thing!

On Residual Income Schemes
Mon 2009-06-29 13:14:40 (single post)

W00t! My first eleven cents from eHow.com! Go me!

...that's all.

On Desired Bookburnings In Wisconsin
Wed 2009-06-17 19:00:57 (single post)

Apparently there's this elderly group of self-described Christians in West Bend, Wisconsin, who feel that the presence of non-anti-homosexual literature in their local library ("Baby Be-Bop, a young adult novel in which a boy, struggling with his homosexuality, is beaten up by a homophobic gang") is damaging their mental and emotional well-being and may in fact be putting lives in jeopardy. They want a lot of money in compensatory damages for being exposed to a book that teaches that beating up gay teens is bad (and that gay-bashers have a tendency to shout homophobic slurs while engaged in gay-bashing). They want, further more, all copies of this book delivered unto their pious, shaking hands, that they may pitch them into a holy bonfire and reduce them to char and ash, for the public's eddification and moral betterment.

Says Neil Gaiman, wise man that he his,

...if their mental and emotional well-being was that damaged by the proximity of a Francesca Lia Block book, I'm just happy they didn't pick up and read the library's copy of American Gods; their eyes would have been fried and their lives put so far in jeopardy that their nearest and dearest would have been ordering caskets before the end of Chapter One.
To which I can only reply, in my best wide-eyed Temeraire-like plaint, "Oh! but can we not? It sounds most satisfying, and would improve Wisconsin to no end."
Null Update: "Oh, Nevermind."
Tue 2009-06-16 10:19:59 (single post)

Back to normal now, with a side-order of "WTF?!". Null has no broken ribs and was probably never blind in the first place. All we know for sure is, he had a scary respiratory attack which responded well to oxygen therapy.

Apparently the vet at Alpine discovered, after allowing Null out of the oxygen cage for good, that he was in no pain at all. Even allowing for the dosage kitty pain-killers he'd been given, there should have been some sort of "owie" response when touching the injured area. Null simply wasn't acting at all consistent with the theory that he had broken bones.

Another look at X-rays revealed that the fractures were old. Apparently he got broken ribs and a fractured sternum some earlier time in his life without our having a clue. Which doesn't make John and I feel like particularly good kitty parents, I can tell you. Maybe he acquired them in the weeks of his kittenhood before we acquired him? Unknown.

The vet at Alpine continued to wonder about his vision. We had seen him staring out car windows on the ride over, but he apparently acted in otherwise in the oxygen cage. But when the vet took him out in the afternoon, she and the nurses tested his responses thoroughly and satisfied themselves that, yes, he could see. Maybe he just reacts oddly while high pain-killers, and ignores visual stimuli very thoroughly when in distress. He's obviously visual now, making eye-contact with me and yowling plaintively for attention.

So now the vet suggests that possible scenarios include an asthma attack, a sudden allergic reaction to catnip, or getting the wind knocked out of him in a fall (which would be consistent with the raised levels of kidney enzyme ALT I think it was). John's worried there may be something neurological going on we don't know about. I'm just very confused. Both of us are worried that it might happen again.

But we're both happy to have our Null-bit back to normal, at least for now, and in no sort of delicate condition. What a relief!

{{Picks Null up and gets face thoroughly licked}}

Null Update, Day 2
Mon 2009-06-15 07:53:48 (single post)

Because Twitter sucks as a medium for Getting The Whole Story.

Day 1, by the way, was spent in barely holding ourselves together. So this is Day 2. And here's the story. It has nothing to do with writing, by the way, except possibly why it may be hard to get much of it done this week.

John and I spent much of yesterday at the Estes Park Wool Market. When we left at 9:00 AM, both cats were fine. When we got home around 4:00 PM, Uno was wandering around like normal but Null was in a terrible state. He was lying on his left side, limp, unresponsive, and clearly having difficulty breathing. It was regular but sounded painful, and made a rasping noise like a purr gone wrong.

Predictive chaos and panic ensue. For future reference, if you keep pets, go to the phone book or internet right now and find the number of the emergency vet nearest you. Put that number in your cell phone. Or tack it up on the wall. Whatever. Make sure it is easily found. Because let me tell you, the phone book is not easy to use while you're conscious of your beloved animal apparently fighting for his life. The brain just shuts down. The name of the emergency clinic goes right out of the head. Go. Do it now. This blog will wait.

Done? Good. Continuing now.

Five minutes later John was walking in at the Boulder Emergency Pet Clinic, bearing Null on the cushion of the armchair on which we found him, while I was finding a parking space. Within a minute after that, they had the poor kitty on oxygen therapy and were running all the likely diagnostics. Meanwhile we were frantically cataloguing the contents of our home, wondering if he'd ingested toxins, chewed on a plant, got strangled, what?

Periodically the doctor would come in and tell us what they'd found now. Vitals good, aside from difficulties breathing. Blood-work normal except for raised levels of an enzyme associated with blunt trauma to the kidney. Oh, by the way, did you know he's blind? No "menace response" (he didn't startle at sudden hand motions very near his face). Pupils dilated, but symmetrical, thank goodness.

Finally the X-rays came out. The right lung looked dented. There's no other way to put it. And the indentation corresponded with about four ribs that weren't lying correctly at all.

This is the point at which everyone on Twitter goes, "How the hell did he break ribs? Why was he blind?" and I tweet over and over, "We don't know. We don't know. We weren't home when it happened." But here's my theory.

Null and Uno "get into it" a lot--one will pick a fight with the other, and they'll chase each other around the house, wrestle, yowl, etc. Typically Uno will get tired of it first. Null, however, will persist, being stubborn and dumb. The typical end of the episode is Uno jumping up onto the kitchen counter, the bedroom dresser, the entertainment center, or another raised surface, often knocking down breakables in the process. (On one memorable occasion he attempted to leap into the glassware cabinet in the kitchen which I'd unfortunately left open.) Null will sometimes try to follow him. If he succeeds, he'll usually be convinced to jump down again in a hurry. But with Uno snapping at his front paws as he tries to scramble up, he'll more often just fall backwards down onto the floor again.

Imagine that happening with, say, the coffee table breaking Null's fall, so that his head thwacked the glass and the edge of the table bashed him in the ribs.

The really heartbreaking thing is imagining him dragging himself, blinded and in pain, to the comfort of his armchair.

So he stayed at the emergency clinic all night, super-oxygenated and doped up on pain-killers. Periodic calls revealed he was becoming more alert, aware, and comfortable as the evening progressed, but he still hadn't regained his sight.

The clinic we chose (due to its proximity and having brought Uno there once for an eye injury) only keeps nights and weekend hours, so we knew we'd have to return in the morning to check him out and either bring him home or transfer him to a conventional vet. (This would be why I'm late getting to the farm this morning.) Well, when we got there, they told us he was much improved. He was walking around, complaining, trying to "ooze" off the exam table, all the normal Null-bit stuff. He was breathing normally, none of that alarming open-mouthed raspy stuff. They told us he'd been purring, in that dumb, touching way that he does, sitting around and purring at mere continuity of existence. And just to top it off, he could see again!

They brought him out to us in one of their carriers. He was pacing inside, yowling now and again, clearly wanting out. When we pet him, he head-butted our hands. His pupils were still alarmingly huge, but not so much as before. No lingering effects of head trauma either. In short, he was acting like himself. Except he wasn't yowling very often, and during his ride over to Alpine Vet Clinic, where he will spend the day being weaned off the oxygen therapy and being closely observed, he stared out the windows of the car, clearly more curious than scared. We suspect that's a combination of him being to some extent conscience of having temporarily lost his sight and regained it, so that he was enjoying the heck out of just having vision; and being high as a kite on pain-killers.

So he'll probably come home tonight around 5 or 5:30, and I'll stay home and watch him carefully, and he'll need to be isolated from Uno and kept from jumping up into high places for about 6 weeks. Which will be a pain in the butt, but obviously totally worth it.

And now you know the rest of the story.

Thanks to everyone for their concern and caring and thoughts and prayers and magical energy and etc. We love you all.

Writing As Work, Writing As Play
Fri 2009-06-12 14:51:23 (single post)

Went to my usual bimonthly writing group Wednesday, and, as sometimes happens when there's no manuscript for critique in a given classtime, the conversation turned from commenting on each other's in-class writing to sharing with each other our writing processes. Specifically, the question was, "Where are you in your writing?"

I both love and hate that question. Love, because I love talking shop. I love talking about myself--why, yes, I've got a bit of an ego, how can you tell?--and I love getting together with other writers and attempting to put our experiences into words. Verbalizing my inner world requires a certain introspective clarity; in trying to find the words, I am forced to look more closely at mental realities I've been taking for granted. It's a process that results in knowing myself better. Which, yay!

But I hate that question, too, mainly because, if I'm going to be truthful, I have to give an answer beginning with, "Still difficult. Writing more now, but every single freakin' day it's a struggle to get past the resistances and fears and feelings of inadequacy that I call WRITER'S BLOCK. Every. Single. Day."

So I started there. But in continuing, I shared with my colleagues the current thing that's been working well for me (for certain definitions of "well"). "I've been letting myself consider writing to be play," I said, "so as to escape the downward spiral of guilt I've been flailing around in for years."

One of my friends said, "It's just the opposite with me. I have to tell myself that writing is my job, or it won't get done."

I am, of course, paraphrasing. But the conversation made me think about that balance between work and play that I think needs to be struck.

So. Writing as play. I've spent far too much time stuck in the idea of "OK, I quit my day job. I owe it to myself and my husband to GET STUFF DONE! Must work! Must turn out new short stories! Must get published! WHAT THE HELL I DIDN'T GET ANY WRITING DONE YESTERDAY I AM WASTING EVERYONE'S TIME I'M A BAD PERSON I SUUUUUUCK."

(The above has been dramatized for your entertainment.)

Obviously there's a problem with that. Well, not for everyone. For me, anyway. My reaction to obligation and guilt is less to get the thing done and more to hide away from the thing, because the thing, whatever it is, gets associated with Reasons To Conclude I'm A Bad Person. Also, the more I don't do, the more there is to do, the more impossible it seems to do. So. I've had ample opportunity to watch myself flail between the twin ouchies of "if you don't do it you're a waste of oxygen" and "you have to do it ALL, today, or yesterday for preference."

Which leads to the changes in my routine, methods, and attitude I've been attempting to effect lately. First, instead of Writing As Obligation, there's Writing As Play-On-The-Page. And second, instead of Get It All Done NOW, there's Just Take A Nibble.

But at the same time, I recognize that, as my friend put it, writing is my job now. It's how I want to make money. It's how I want to spend my working day. I can't just play; I have to produce. There's only so far "I'll take care of the quantity and the Gods will take care of the quality" goes before I realize I do have to get some quality out there if I want to be published.

So it's a balancing act. It's got to be play enough that I want to do it. But it's got to be work enough that I do do it, daily, with the aim of finished drafts I can submit to paying markets.

Recognizing that, I'm not so much changing my current approach as I am my perception of it. I'm working on Writing Is Play, No Pressure because until recently I've had too much weight in the Writing Is My Job half of the scale. It'll be time to shift my focus only when the scales shift.

But in the meantime I can probably risk injecting some direction into my daily "playtime". That means two things: Knowing what finishable, potentially submittable project to work on tomorrow, and knowing which, say, two hours of the day (or so) will be devoted to working on it. Having that in mind the night before allows me to wake up with a sense of purpose, a structure within which to Get Things Done. I'm a very Type-A creature; I thrive on structure.

Doesn't mean I did a good job today, mind. But yesterday I was fairly productive: got to the end of this week's rough draft (never mind that it was last week's rough draft, and that of the week before... anyway, about that, more later), and even uploaded an article to eHow (about what? Three guesses). Go me! {{pats self on back}} But then I woke up today, and dragged about the house until my first externally-enforced obligation. Gah.

Well. I knew consistency was once of my Areas Where Improvement Is Needed.

So. To summarize: A possible balancing point is to consider writing play, but impose a structure of What and When upon it in order to get work done. How well will this work? Find out next time, when I babble some more! Maybe.

Errata
Fri 2009-06-05 08:01:20 (single post)

Of course I meant the Natchez, not the Creole Queen. It's the Natchez has the steam-powered calliope on top.

The Daily Story Idea
Tue 2009-06-02 20:58:07 (single post)

I used to do this in college, every morning:

The exercise I set myself was to write something which filled exactly one page in WordPerfect and had a beginning, middle, and an end. Then I'd revise it just enough to meet the arbitrary length requirement. Most of these vignettes came to about 700 words long. They took about a half-hour to finish (for these standards of "finish"). At the end of the year I'd print them all out and bind them into a chapbook. I'm really proud of those chapbooks.
But, as with all good writing exercises, it's not primarily about having a home-bound chapbook to reread later and say, "See, I used to write some good stuff." The real benefit of a daily process is the process.

I think part of the reason I go through dry spells occasionally is I lose faith in myself, in the process, in writing itself. Sometimes it's more specific than that: Losing faith in my ability to improve a piece of writing, feeling that I've "lost my ear" and can't revise a story without somehow breaking it. Or losing faith in abundance, losing sight of the truth that you can't use it up. That last is what the Daily Story Idea is about.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you that writer's block doesn't exist. It does. I suffer from it constantly. It requires consistent, relentless effort to push through it every day. Rewarding effort, but effort nonetheless. But there's a lot of misconceptions, I think, about what writer's block actually is. It's not lack of ideas or unwillingness to do the work. It isn't sitting around waiting for the Muse to visit. It's not "not feeling like it today." It can cause all of these things, but those things are symptoms. The cause is something else entirely.

The cause is fear.

Irrational, unhappy fear. Frustrating fear. Shameful fear, because there's no shortage of self-proclaimed gurus out there proclaiming that "If you were really a writer, this wouldn't be a problem."

Writer's block isn't about being abandoned by the Muse or running out of inspiration. But it can take the form of a paralyzing, perfectionist fear that convinces you that ideas you're coming up with aren't good enough, worthy enough, imbued with enough potential to be the Next Great Internationally Acclaimed Novel.

Work through the fear, and there are story ideas all around, more than you can ever use in a lifetime. ("The Louisiana Steam Equipment Company. That is totally begging for a steampunk alternate universe story set in New Orleans.")

Writer's block isn't about being unable to turn an idea into a new story. But it can be a fear of failure that paralyzes you from even making the attempt, so that you sit and look at that one sentence you've typed out, and you go blank.

Let yourself play through the fear, and suddenly stories come with ease, spinning out of the barest hint of the idea like Rapunzel spinning a gold thread from the humble piles of chaff at her feet. ("In the steampunk alternate universe version of New Orleans, the same steam that voices the calliope on top Creole Queen would power a clockwork construct that played the calliope. And you'd bring that construct to the Steam Equipment Company for repairs. But it would be sentient, like one of the Girl Genius clanks, and it would in fact be the main character of the story, and...")

So I'm doing this Daily Story Idea for all those reasons. I'm reminding myself that one new story idea every day is easy; ideas are an inexhaustible resource. And instead of just writing down a sentence or two and considering myself done, I'm trying to hold myself to few minutes of playing around with that idea. It's a reassuring thing to look back over the last month and see that I can come up with the bare bones of a new story, poem, or novel every day, and indeed I have.

And though the chapbooks back in college weren't the point, they were nice to have. Just as it's nice to have a month's worth of potential stories sitting on my hard drive. I can look at them and say, "Check out all the stuff I could work on this week!" After all, the next commitment I made was to produce a complete rough draft of something every week, and any of these little weekday vignettes could be a head start on next week's assignment.

So that's what that's all about.

Real-world Applications Of "The Artist's Way"
Mon 2009-06-01 20:53:50 (single post)

I may have mentioned the loveliness that is Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way... oh, maybe a hundred times by now. As it happens, I finished my most recent journey through the 12-week course described there just last month. And on May 4, I began adhering to my "Creativity Contract"--a written declaration that Cameron encourages artists to customize, sign, and stick to for the next 90 days. So here's how that's going.

The "Creativity Contract" starts out with a commitment to continue using the tools introduced in Week One: the daily Morning Pages and the weekly Artist's Date.

Morning Pages are three long-hand pages scribbled without excess thought or planning; just dump the contents of your brain onto the page. Preferably, they take place first thing in the morning. Failing that, they should take place at some point during the daily awake period. The author Kit Whitfield has a great essay on why this is useful, here. (She mentioned Morning Pages in passing at a blog we both frequent, and I pestered her to talk about it more. She is most obliging.)

I've mostly managed to do them every day in May. The "mostly" refers pretty much to the week before I left for Chicago; travel planning tends to hit me hard. Missing morning pages should not be an occasion for self-recrimination, giving up on the whole Creativity Contract idea ("I missed once! Now it's broken! Forever!" ...no), or attempting to make it up by doing twice as many pages tomorrow. At most, I look back and try to determine how/why I didn't manage to get my three pages done, and use that as a signpost for making time for it tomorrow.

On a related note, I try not to say to myself, "Let this be a lesson! Never do X!" but rather, "Let's take this as a signpost against doing X in future." Being kind to oneself is a big lesson in The Artist's Way, and I find I get a lot more work done if I'm not constantly fighting self-inflicted guilt.

The Artist's Date is an amount of time--half an hour, two hours, maybe even a whole day--dedicated toward pampering one's inner child/inner artist/sense of play. It serves the function of making oneself feel loved and happy. At the same time, it helps replenish the well from which one draws inspiration. Sometimes I walk into a stationary store and make a purchase or just enjoy looking at all the pretty paper. Sometimes I go to the library, pick an interest, and visit that section of the non-fiction stacks. Sometimes I just give myself half a day to play Puzzle Pirates without guilt.

I... think I've done this? Every week? Maybe? I have always, throughout my adult life, tended toward giving myself whatever I'm craving. My problem has been feeling guilty for it because I'm procrastinating with it, spending too much money, not spending enough time with various other people because I'm busy doing my own thing, etc. Guilt again! See a pattern? And since rejourneying through The Artist's Way, I've found it hard to say, "Yes, I did my Artist's Date," because I didn't have the specific intent of "doing an Artist's Date" when I did the thing that qualifies as one. Bwah. Well, right now, I'm having that aforementioned Chicago and New Orleans trip, which I think qualifies as a two-week-long Artist's Date. The only real challenge is not feeling guilty for having indulged in it, and not feeling like I'm Wasting My Precious Vacation Time by not doing Worthwhile Enough Things with it. (For crying out loud - guilt again!) My mantra for this week is, "The way I spent my day made me happy. That is enough."

After that, the Creativity Contract prompts the artist to create specific goals for creative output. These are mine:

  • Every weekday, a new story idea - no matter how slight, no matter how stupid.
  • Every week, a new rough draft of something, no matter how short, no matter how rough.
  • Every month, a new submission to a paying market.
So far so good, within reasonable expectations that do not include among them "perfection." But about this, more tomorrow; this has been a fairly long-winded blog entry and I should probably end it here.

email