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>Grave Ruminations

>Hi, I’m Pati Nagle, your alternate Gal Friday. I write mostly fantasy with some science fiction here and there and oh, yeah—historical fiction under my alter ego, P.G. Nagle. It’s an honor to be included in the Mad Genius Club, among such august company. Or should I say October company?

I’m delighted to make my debut on Halloween, as it’s my all-time favorite holiday. Since we’re talking about process here, and in honor of the day, I thought I’d share some pictures from my recent visit to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans. Take a stroll among the tombs with me while I muse about writing and inspiration.

My love of the fantastic goes back to my childhood, and Halloween has always been a big part of it. As a kid I loved planning my costume every year, dressing up and running around the neighborhood, the whisper of snow in the air, the dark shapes of other kids haunting the streets. All that was far better than the candy.

As an adult I love handing out candy to cute kids, seeing their costumes, carving pumpkins and lighting candles, decorating the house, and just reveling in the change of seasons. I also love the traditions of Dia de los Muertos, which is widely celebrated in the Southwest.

In New Orleans, the same celebrations are held under the name of All Saints’ Day. I’ve been to this fascinating city numerous times, for both writing conferences and research for my novels. This trip was for pleasure but inevitably I did things that can be considered research, including taking a graveyard tour. At the moment I’m not working on a specific project involving a cemetery, but who knows? It’s possible that just walking around a place like this will inspire a story.

That’s a fiction writer’s reality. Always soaking up information, never knowing what will bubble up to the surface later and appear in a novel. This is as much a part of the process as sitting down in front of the computer, at least for me.

As I was going through these photos, even though I took them only a couple of weeks ago, I noticed details that I hadn’t registered during the tour. Like the fact that most of the tombs in the first picture above are marble, and most of the tombs in the second one are brick. Other than that, the photos are similar, kind of a nice matched pair. Maybe these two “streets” could be home to two rival clans of vampires.

See what I mean? Anything could come out of this. My answer to people who ask where I get my ideas is, everywhere.

My camera has been my trusty research tool for as long as I’ve been publishing. I never know what I’m going to wish I had recorded later, so I take lots of pictures whenever I’m someplace interesting. (Whoever invented digital photography, bless you.)

As I was walking through the cemetery, listening to the tour guide, my brain was gathering information on a lot of different levels. The camera is the brain’s auxiliary, capturing far more visual detail than I can remember. Consciously, I was mostly grabbing at impressions. Oo, that looks cool—take a picture. Interesting anecdote—take a picture. And while I’m soaking up images, the brain is asking questions.

Which of these two tombs is the real burial place of Marie Leveau—or does it matter? Was she buried somewhere else altogether? Both of these tombs are visited by hundreds of people a year, who mark the tombs with three “x”s and leave offerings to Madame Leveau, hoping she will grant their wishes. She has become a something of a voodoo goddess. Our guide was skeptical about her being in either tomb.

Is there a way to do DNA testing on the tombs’ contents to prove whether she’s there? Probably not, is the answer to that one. The dessication of remains in these tombs is pretty thorough due to the heat of the tropical climate. (Our guide compared it to baking a turkey in a 120 degree oven for a year.) Even if a useful bit of bone were found, it could belong to any of the family members whose remains are in the tomb. The whole process of storing remains in these cemeteries is fascinating (and, as our guide pointed out, environmentally sound—a very efficient system).

There’s one more thing about excursions. Not only do I collect information on them, but I also soak up atmosphere. Even in the daytime, this cemetery has a distinctive feeling. (Note: it’s locked up at night, and it’s dangerous to visit alone, because of predatory criminals. If you visit, go with a tour. You’ll be safer and get a lot more out of it.)

This is a place of reverence and respect for ancestors, but at the same time a place of decay. Tombs with long lists of names carved in marble stand beside tombs where no markings have survived, and whose occupants are no longer known. Remembrance and the forgotten, side by side.

Note the Mardi Gras beads hanging on the ironwork around these tombs. How does that make you react? Does it seem disrespectful, or is it an uplifting expression of joie de vivre in a place of death?

Who might have put those beads there, and why? What would the tombs’ occupants think of such tribute? Here’s where I start thinking about characters, situations, events. These are the bricks (or marble blocks) from which stories are built.

I ask a lot of questions on research excursions, most of which don’t get answered at the time. All of it is fodder for the writing.

—Pati Nagle

>The Writer of Flesh

>Because writing is par-excellence an occupation of the mind, we tend to forget we don’t write with our minds only. Actually, I tend to forget that I’m more than a mind, floating disembodied through space and toying with pretty ideas.

So I don’t understand why I shouldn’t be able to write while I’m ill. Or why after writing a big action scene I feel like I’ve run a hundred miles. Or why sometimes when I force myself to write while out of it, the scene is “okay but lacks strength.”
The truth is – and now there’s research to this effect – that our bodies and minds are more linked than we wish to believe. Thinking about exercising can build muscle, for instance. (Which might explain my being ravenous after battle scenes.) Someone related a writer’s peculiar breathing patterns to the rhythm of her written sentences (no, I don’t remember whom, it was one of the consumptive Victorians, I think.) You can look at the work of some writers at a time when they were known to be sick and see the difference, even if the illness was “very much of the body” like… stomach issues.
In childhood I loved Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo books – in a different way I still do. I find him one of the most perfect writers of short-shorts ever – and I remember in one of the stories there was a sentence that went something like this “But priests are made of more than soul or spirit. They’re made of flesh. And when the priest made of flesh takes the priest made of soul by the scruff of the neck…” You get the idea.
Unfortunately these last two years my writer of flesh keeps grabbing the rest of me by the scruff of the neck and mostly bringing me to an absolute stop for several days or weeks. I hate it. I end with deadlines blown and feeling like I’m being lazy. I should be able to write even while coughing. I should. But writers are not made only of brain and spirit… they’re made of flesh.
Right now this writer of flesh has a horrible head cold and is trying desperately not to force herself to work.
On the good side, heard from fans that Heart And Soul, the third of my Magical British Empire trilogy with Bantam books is arriving from Amazong and at various local bookstores.
More importantly, yesterday I heard from a good writing friend in whose opinion I put a lot of stock, and he’s enjoying reading it. So… head cold notwithstanding, yay.

>Writing is a lot like singing

>People often ask me how my musical life affected my writing, and the answer is, in truth, they’re practically the same. Writing every day feels very much like practicing music, which also has to be done every day. Building a character on the page is precisely like developing a character in an opera. Constructing plot is, for me, the hardest part of writing, and follows the same outlines as a symphony, with main themes, contrasting themes, creation and release of tension, climaxes, codas, and so forth. And probably the best thing about having been a musician, at least for the sort of fiction I write, is having developed an ear.

I always tell my writing students to read their work aloud, and I do it myself, especially in problematic passages. (Catch that? Another musical word.) Prose should have a rhythm that is both varied and appealing. It should be pared down to precisely the number of words needed to create the image, the affect (also a musical word), and impart the information necessary to move the scene forward or deepen the motivation. It should suit the narrative voice–sometimes strong and active, sometimes contemplative, sometimes poetic. I hope my students listen to their work, and begin to hear when a sentence or a phrase works, and when it doesn’t.

Tangentially, and just to answer in advance another question I often get, I’m not a writer who can listen to music as I work. If I put music on that I like, I’m distracted by it. If there’s music playing that I don’t like–and oh, my, is there a lot of that in the world–then I’m irritated. When I listen to music, I listen to music.

Writing, for me, has been so much like singing. It’s performance, and communication. And way too much fun.

>I can’t get by without my Writing Friends

>
Rowena here
ROR photo — Margo Lanagan, Me, Richard Harland, Maxine McArthur, Trent Jamieson and Marianne de Pierres (Tansy Rayner Roberts and Dirk Flinthart absent)

Well, Dave’s done it again — tap danced while dealing out dollops of writing wisdom.

Unlike Dave, who did it all alone, I discovered writing friends early in my adventure. Marianne de Pierres (far right) and I met at the first Vision SF & F meeting. At that point I think I’d sold one children’s book and Marianne was recovering from a devastating critique from an appraiser who used a jack-hammer when a scalpel would have done. We had 9 children between us, 6 of them boys under 8. Aaargh!

But we were both passionate about the craft of writing. We attended workshops together, hung out at festivals and went to Cons. And we wrote in every spare moment, meeting at Scallywags (where our two youngest could play) while we critiqued each other’s work. But we wanted to push ourselves further.

In 2001 we established ROR (wRiters on the Rise), a group of writers dedicated to developing their craft. Together with Maxine, Tansy and Margo we circulated manuscripts a month beforehand, read everyone‘s books and wrote a report on them. Then we escaped from our families for a weekend and spent hours dissecting and rebuilding the books. We LOVED it. Only fellow writers could empathise.

Since then we’ve added three males to ROR, to leaven the mix and we’ve met every year or two. On a professional level we’ve had successes and disappointments. On a personal level we’ve supported each other through family illnesses and dramas. When one of us sells a series or wins an award, all of us cheer. The good thing about a diverse group like ROR is that we read and write across quite a few genres. So, when we put a manuscript in for feedback, if one person doesn’t get something and the rest do, then we can assume most people will.

What is really helpful for a writer to have, is a group of friends who love the genre and the craft, and eager to help the writer make their book the best it can possibly be.

Even with the internet, this is a lonely craft. On the whole, we work alone and it’s very hard to be subjective about the manuscript that we might have lavished a year of our lives on. A trusted critique circle is a rare and wonderful thing.

I’ve just booked for a weekend away next March with the ROR team. It means reading 7 manuscripts beforehand and writing reports, but it is worth it for the intellectual stimulation. I can’t wait.

Am madly scrambling to have my next book ready.

Cheers,

Rowena

>the plantser…

>Dave Freer posting:

I blundered into writing. The bit about fools rushing in: that’s me…. And in retrospect maybe it was a good thing. You see Sarah advised things like seeking out writers and studying writing – well, I did the latter, but only other novels. There was NO money for ‘how to write’ books – we were on the ragged edge of disaster. As for other writers… Let me tell you they’re not thick on the ground in small towns in northern Zululand. Honest. I rattled several bushes and turned over at least three damp rocks. All I found was a slug and a very irate mamba. That was in pre-net days (the net was there I just didn’t have access until after I’d sold my first book)… so it was just me on my tod and a lot of novels – mostly courtesy of second hand book stores and other people’s throw outs.

I had no idea how to write a novel, but I wanted to. (I also had no idea of the obstacles – which can be a good thing too, except I was pretty damn dumb about falling over most of them, unnecessarily.) So I set about looking at the subset I was interested in – Not ‘authors I admire’ but, because I think oddly — first book, good sellers. I looked at murder mysteries, romances, aga-sagas (yes, Maeve Binchy), thrillers, horror… even sf and fantasy. Made notes. Counted words per sentence. Worked out average syllables per word. Up and down peaks (number of pages). Noted character numbers, types, relationships, resolution types etc. Calculated proportions of dialogue. Yes. I am anal and obsessive, now that you mention it.
The one thing I never looked at was plot. All those nice books on plotting, 7 basic plots etc. which had I been in touch with writing books or my peers I would have been influenced by just didn’t come my way. So… as I didn’t know any better, I did my own way. Which, like most things I do is arse-about-face to most people. But it works for me. You see I am neither a plotter nor a pantser. I’m a character plantser, playing a complicated balancing act between situation and character. The end result is my books are usually born out of someone saying ‘you can’t do that!’(whereupon I must. Sorry.) So: I work out how said impossible thing could be done and that forms a core (and often an end) to my book. (“You can’t uplift rats and bats” – their skull capacity is too small – RATS BATS AND VATS. “You can’t be sure of habitable worlds around other stars” – A SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS ) I then write about 5K… introducing my lead characters, setting the scene. Pure pantser. I then sit down and use those characters to derive my plot. I’ve set the scene – (and therefore have some idea of the obstacles – both physical and of character) I probably know the outcome. I now know the character. The point is the plotter has worked out how the character will overcome the obstacles and meet his/her true love and arrive at the end. Join the dots. The pantser waits for the character to tell them how to cope with the obstacle, which they can only do when they get there… which can make a story meander. I sit and game scenarios. Usually in the bath. I even remember to wash sometimes. The result is the obstacles change to fit the character … and sometimes I go back and change the character to fit the obstacle.
The point I am trying to make in my usual circuitous way is no two characters will deal with the same obstacle in the same way. Let us assume a large angry mob crowding a street between our hero and his goal. Benito would go up the side of building and go over them. Marco would attempt to reason with them (and it would then be necessary to put in the mob parents of children he’d helped – modify obstacle) Manfred would simply try brute force and die (hence need to modify obstacle or add force) Erik would pick out the leader of the mob and attempt to draw him into single combat. Cair would throw a thunder flash. Fat Fal would run away shouting ‘there he goes’ and let them run past him. Arial would run up the trousers of the leader and taking strategic hold tell him to take her to where she wants to go. Howard would attempt to reason with them, and die (unless they threatened someone else). Fionn would step into an alley (needs to be an alley) and start a fire, and call them to it. Meb would try to imitate him and set fire to either herself or the entire street, and need rescuing (her talents are wildly out of control). So I will build the story around the character and the obstacles and whatever else they may need….

So… by not knowing how to do this I evolved my own method. It works for me.
And the bathwater gets cold.

>*tap tap* Is this thing working?

>

Hello, I’m Jennifer Stevenson, and I write sexy funny fantasy-slash-romance novels. You can still get THE BRASS BED, THE VELVET CHAIR, and THE BEARSKIN RUG at bookstores everywhere. TRASH SEX MAGIC, a Small Beer Press book, is still available online. If you scrounge around you might find some of my short stories in science fiction and fantasy anthologies from the late eighties and the nineties.

I wanted to write because my whole family was bookish. From birth I was raised to be a writer. Someday. When they thought I was worthy. I did a lot of writing, mind you, but it took me forever to get around to submitting anything. So rule forty-two is, Submit something.

Well, no, rule forty-two is Write something. Oldest rule in the book.

So I wrote something and after a suitable ice age I submitted it and then I thought, well, it’s Wednesday, it can’t possibly get there until Monday, and then give ’em the rest of the week to open the box and read it, and of course they’ll want revisions, so no point in starting something new if I’m gonna get a revision letter any day now, right? After a year or two I would tire of waiting on the rejections for that manuscript. Rinse and repeat.

All you authors can stop laughing.

I had good intentions. Caution and perfectionism held me back. Lack of confidence led me to save ideas until their whiskers whitened. My dear departed mother used to say, “Do as I say, not as I do,” and I can think of no better advice to share.

So the watchword here will be, Write More.

In the interest of getting some pages done today, I close with some messages from my office walls:

“Dare to be bad.” –Bruce Worthel

“I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank page.” –Nora Roberts

“Never save bits. Put ’em in. Make a big mess.” –Gene Wolfe

>Location, location, location.

>

I would like to continue the discussion started by my colleagues on the process of writing. First, I should start by reaffirming that every writer has their own method. The only way to learn to write is to write – and to try to develop your own ‘style’ .

I tend to develop a character first and let them talk to me and tell me their story. Yeah, I know that sounds pretentious or even barmy but it works for me: the plot comes out of the characters rather than the other way round.

Today, though, I would like to focus on something that I think is almost as important – the story location.

My dear old dad was an estate agent. He gave me two important pieces of advice. The first was that I should never borrow money on an endowment mortgage and the second was location, location, location.

American companies have a tendency to buy British TV programmes , not to show, but to relocate to America with a new script and actors. Sometimes this works (for example, how many Americans know that Sanders and Son is actually a British comedy about two London rag and bone men with a horse and cart) but often it doesn’t. Fox bought the 90s hit British urban fantasy drama Ultraviolet, which told the story of the Inquisition’s vampire hunters in London. They changed the location to New York, which meant using American actors and a plot rewrite. Apparently the result was so bad that it has never been screened in public. Ultraviolet was a London story about 1990s Londoners.

Location is a key part of the creative process. It creates the atmosphere for the story. I ask myself what sort of people I would find in this place and how they might interact with my heroes? Why would my POV characters be there? I go to the place, or look up pictures if that isn’t possible. I study the buildings, terrain, climate, vegetation, machines. I try to soak up the colours, the smells, the very taste of the place. I focus on details. That’s where I get ideas for sub plots and twists.

The short story I am currently writing is even named after its primary location.

Location-specific writing works for me. I have no idea whether this technique will work for you, but have a look at the work of Ian Fleming. Go back and read the Bond thrillers and imagine them relocated elsewhere – Casino Royale reset in a Wigan Bingo Hall? – naaagh!

John