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Fiction as Dark Alchemy

“All good books have one thing in common – they are truer than if they had really happened.”  -Ernest Hemingway

 Last night I made an appearance at the Jewish Book Council’s Meet the Author conference.  In part, I talked about the fuzzy no-man’s-land between fiction and fact.  As I see it, fiction is a web of imagined events and people mixed with real memories and emotions, shot through with a creative impulse to create a new story reality.

 LADY LAZARUS pulls much more from history than the other stuff I’ve written up until now.  I’ve mined my family history, Jewish mysticism, and WWII history to create a new world, populated by imaginary characters.  Do you ever worry you are appropriating stories that aren’t “yours” to write?  Picasso reassures us by saying, good artists copy, great artists steal.  But I am sensitive to the charge that I am taking tragic recent history and mining it to weave a new, fantastical history of my family. 

 My answer to this may be self-serving but I believe it nevertheless – though it’s important to be respectful of the experiences and viewpoints of the people in your life, and of people generally, you still can write any damn thing you want to.  That very sensitivity will give you greater insight into your own story and where it veers away from actual experience.  Just be ready to accept the consequences, especially the unintended consequences, of writing honestly and hard about what hurts (to steal from Hemingway here :-)).  Just as you have the right to write whatever you want, your readers can have any reaction they want to what you write.

 What say you?  Do you tread lightly when your writing is informed by the real-life experiences of other people?  Or do you figure that, hidden by the veil of fiction, you can follow the story where it leads you, because the alchemy of fiction itself makes the story yours?


Kid Ninja Redux

Today I have some lovely art to share!  This is a comic strip of KID NINJA that Moviemaker kid and I did on Bitstrips.  I learned about this easy to use comix tool at the site of author Geoffrey W. Cole — it’s a fun way to play with ideas and present them in a graphic form.  My little guy got really excited by the prospect of putting his story into pictures, and started planning some new ideas with the graphics in mind.  Might be a fun way to jumpstart your own ideas, or just to procrastinate 🙂

Have a fabulous week!


A Writer’s Vices

I’ve been working on revisions for DARK VICTORY, and recently I came to a major realization in the midst of berating myself for not “writing right” (breaking one of my own rules – no floggings).  The part of me that follows the rules, the part of me that strives mightily to please my teachers and earn my good grades – that dutiful, sweet, carefully-censored and forcibly civilized me – that me should *never* be in charge of getting the story out of the ground.  And despite all of my posts here and elsewhere that feature helpful tricks and tips, in the end it all comes back to this:

It’s the lazy, stubborn, disgruntled, jealous, vengeful, bitchy, daydreaming, and HONEST me who has the stories to tell.  And the way she goes about telling the stories – at the last minute, in a white-hot blur, with tears and curses and glasses of wine at 3 a.m. – is NOT the way the rule books tell you to go about this whole fiction career thing.  I guess the point of this little rumination is that your goal is not to “write right,” to write dutifully for an hour every day, to write the way the so-called experts – including me! — tell you is the proper way to write.  Don’t write for a pat on the head or for the A+ at the top of the page.  Write because you’ll die if you don’t, write because it’s exhilarating or simply too fun not to do it.  Write because you must get your revenge or your thirst slaked, or write because your heart is full enough to overflow. 

Instead of beating yourself up for your wayward, wicked ways, (like I do!) read the advice that many worthy writers, editors and agents offer you all over the wonderful blogosphere – but alter the directions to suit your writing road, to actual conditions on the ground.  Where good writing is concerned, rules are made to be broken, especially your own.  All that matters is finding the idea and bringing it as whole as possible onto the page.  Don’t you worry how you get it done.  The only thing to remember is what Stephen King says:  do not come lightly to the page.


What’s in a name?

I spent this past weekend at Luncaon and had a blast.  One of my panels was “What’s in a Name.”  In fantasy, magical power is often attached to the name of a person or thing (we talked about Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books as an example). As writers, what names do we choose, and what do those choices reveal about the world we’re writing about?

Here are some thoughts from the panelists, me and Neal Levin, Barc Bilgrey, and Jeff Lyman.  Have a great week!

Character Names
*both first names and last names have meaning
*practical tip: use different-sounding names to delineate characters (for example, how will readers keep Noel, Niall, and Nell apart?  Better to use Noel, Bastien, and Yves)
*baby naming books are good sources for names, their origin, and their meaning
*books and websites about genealogy may reveal information about the meaning and origins of last names
*characters’ nicknames reveal character in a different way
*the names you choose may reflect the kind of story you are telling (romantic names in a romantic book; funny names in a funny book, etc)
*the musicality of a character’s name can resonate or conflict with a name’s meaning or the character’s defining traits
*convey essential information about the work
*just like naming a baby, the title will come easily for some books and take a lot of consideration for others
*in a series, it is important to link one book title to another in some way.  Like a book’s cover, related titles help signal to a potential reader that the books in a series are linked
*don’t get too attached to a book’s title.  Publishers will often change a book’s title before publication; a title is a crucial marketing hook, and signals to readers what kind of story is behind the name.


Kid Ninja

I have three kids: Yoda, the Moviemaker Kid, and the Peanut. Moviemaker Kid (MK) can read, but has a lot of trouble writing at the moment.  He does not let that stop him.

Yesterday, he completed his newest masterpiece, a chapter book called KID NINJA.  Because he cannot write down his work, I am his humble scribe.  Being the Kid Ninja’s assistant has reminded me of many basic truths about writing and creativity; here’s what he taught me as we worked on this awesomely awesome tale of a kid who likes to destroy things:

1.  Get a concept and get excited.  Once MK got the concept in mind — bullied kid becomes a secret ninja and gets his revenge – he knew what he was writing about and he couldn’t wait to follow the main character through the story.

2.  Keep going.  MK wanted to work on KID NINJA every chance he could get.  Little snippets of time, long blocks of time…until the project was complete, he wanted to work on it every chance we got.

3.  Go with what works.  In chapter three, the Kid Ninja goes to a pet store and gets a group of extraordinary pets – a dog that took karate, a cat that was expert in swordplay, a frog scientist, and a hissing cockroach that is also a ninja.  These creatures became central to the story, and I don’t think MK knew they existed until Zach, the hero, went to the pet store.

4.  Do not censor yourself.  The coolest thing I observed in MK’s process was his complete lack of hesitation.  His internal editor doesn’t exist yet, so he just wrote the thing, didn’t stop himself every two minutes to ask, “Where can I place this?  How could I write something so awful/brilliant/clichéd/original/embarrassing? A hissing cockroach?! WTF”  He just. had. FUN.

5.  The perfect is the enemy of the good.  Was KID NINJA perfect when it was done?  Well, no (don’t tell MK I said that, please!).  But did he agonize over the gaps in the plot, the ill-defined villains, or the lack of a love interest?  Hell, no.  He called it good (and it is really, really good) and is now planning a three book series and a spin off series called THE BLACK BLOB.

Sometimes I think becoming a writer means forgetting a lot of what we learn on the rocky road to adulthood.  Thank you, MK, for reminding me why I love this crazy thing called writing so much.

With MK’s permission, I will leave you with a stirring excerpt from the amazing, awesome KID NINJA:

There was a boy that always got bullied but nobody knew he was going to become a ninja.  But, if they ever saw anything on TV with a ninja they would not think it was him.

His name is Zach.  He’s in fourth grade and is ten years old.  And he likes to destroy stuff…..

One day on Friday they went to the pet store.  They got a dog, a cat, a frog, and a hissing cockroach.  But, nobody knew that the cat was a fencer, the dog took karate, the frog was a scientist, and the cockroach was another ninja….


Have a great week, and go forth and conquer, word ninjas!


Get Unstuck

It happens to the best of us.  Despite our best efforts, our noble aspirations, we get derailed from our writing track. 

I’ve got two projects that are going feral on me at the moment.  Part of that is because of deadline-related, contracted work, but I must be honest, dear reader…both these other spec projects are simply stuck.  Stuck!

So what do I do?  I try not to panic, and then I run through my bag of little tricks.  Here are my writer’s tricks designed to get me unstuck:

(1)   No floggings allowed (unless they work).  The first rule is to be kind.  Berating myself, cursing my laziness or my lack of inborn talent – all, alas, useless.  My first step is to get a good meal into me, and at least a couple of decent nights of sleep.  I’d say at least 75% of my stuck-ness in writing has stemmed directly from physical exhaustion, sickness or a lovely combination of the two. 

Only one memorable time did fury work,  to push me through a very difficult scene for a manuscript that was due the next day.  I used all my panic, rage, and fear and hurled it at the page.  The editor liked it – all those nasty emotions blasted through to the page and did a pretty good job.  But this is the exception, not my general rule.

(2)   Start a new project.  I know, I know…the common wisdom is to finish what you start, never abandon work or you will end up as I began, the queen of the 30 page novel.  But rules and tricks evolve over time, and now that I know how to finish things, I use the momentum and enthusiasm I generate at the start of a new story to infuse the stalled out project.  Like a jump from a fresh battery to a dead one.

(3)   Get back inside the story.  When a story goes feral, I mentally cannot enter the country of the story.  The story seems outside, far away, like a newspaper from two months ago that you find stacked up next to the cat box.  Who wants to explore something musty and dusty like that?

I have my methods for re-entering the country of the story and finding the thread again – I interview characters (especially minor characters who sometimes can tell me things about the protagonist that she doesn’t know herself).  I take lots of naps, and when I start to dream about the setting again, I’m good to go.

(4)   Instead of trying to reignite my passion for writing, I go for reigniting my passion for anything and everything.  I read fantastic books by people writing about stuff that fascinates me.  Biographies of fearless, entertaining people.  I eat really, really good chocolate. (Now, I really should list chocolate as a trick all its own …I’ll get back to chocolate in a moment).  I go for long walks alone by the ocean and watch the gulls swooping through the howling winter wind.  And that infusion of life jumpstarts the stalled project – see #2 above.

(5)   Chocolate.  As I mentioned, kindness usually coaxes much more out of me than the harsh lash of discipline.  Bribes work, and they must be liberally administered, before during *and* after the work.  Huge rewards work too, for a job or a story completed.

This is my short list of favorite, all-purpose tricks.  I have specialized ones that pertain to particular projects – I watch movies set in the historical settings I’m working on, for instance.  And I love to write on trains, for some unknown reason, and will travel to write sometimes.  Sometimes it’s the process of trying new tricks itself that gets me jaunty and unstuck again.  Doesn’t matter how you get there, only that you find the way to the story again.

 What do you do when you are stuck?


Story Mapping: How I do It

Today, I want to talk about practical magic — how to make a story come alive.  When I first started out writing, I was the queen of the thirty page dead novel – I’d start writing, and then the story would lose its spark and die on me.  After one too many of these, I read up on story structure, but though my drafts got longer, they stayed incoherent.

Happily, once I learned the trick of what I describe in this post, I started completing what I wrote, and selling it soon after.  And I want to save you the time it took me to learn what I describe here.  Of course, process is different for every writer and every book.  I still will write a short story without any outline at all, and have gotten results that way.  But for novel-length work, this is the default process I use, and it has given me something to lean on when I get confused and lost in the fog  🙂

My process is a weird hybrid of the “plotter” and “pantser” methods of writing a book.  Depending on the book itself, I may improvise more or plan more in advance – whatever the book itself needs from me to come out.  But I have a bunch of different tricks that I use to get to “the end.”

First, let me give you some internet resources:

1.  Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal page:  Jim lays out, in commonsense and no-nonsense fashion, one of the best, most concise distillations of story structure ideas I have ever seen.  His essays on characterization, story arc, and story climaxes brought together a lot of ideas I have encountered in a lot of different places:

Just keep reading and scrolling down back through his story craft series of posts – awesome.

2.  Randy Ingermanson, the Snowflake Guy:  This is the material I found first, and after I started applying his concepts of story-as-fractyl I started selling in short order:

 He has a computer program that helps you to apply the snowflake method to your own projects, but I’ve used the concept w/o the program too.

3. Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet:  The screenwriter Blake Snyder (who, sadly, passed away last year) wrote the fantastic book SAVE THE CAT, a practical and down-to-earth primer on how to construct effective commercial stories.  Though his work focuses on the screenplay form, his ideas translate easily to novels.  I read SAVE THE CAT before I found this tidbit on line, so I’m not sure if it will be of use to you without the foundation of the book as a whole.  But his “beat sheet” is a basic outline of the stations a story will hit on the journey from beginning to end:

There’s a list of tools on this page, including deconstruction of movies using the beat sheet. 

 4.  Holly Lisle:  One Pass Revision

I was very, very lucky to find Holly’s site when I was first starting out.  Tons of articles about writing, the life of writers, and the practical nuts and bolts of writing.  This article is very helpful in the revision stage, but I take the section “Discovery” and do it before I start writing:

How do I use the above resources when working on story structure myself?  Here is my process:

 1.  Idea germination:  I keep a little moleskin journal filled with ideas.  When I read a great poem, have a disturbing dream, get a little snippet of an idea, I write it down in the idea book.  There it may stay for years.

2.  When I decide to take the idea and run with it (or an idea grabs me by the throat and insists I write it *now*), I usually start with settings.  I love big settings, I was a history major in school.  It’s where my ideas start growing into a full-fledged story.  In my mind, the outline/synopsis is my roadmap through the country of the story.

 3.  I do the Snowflake process first, but in a very loose and organic way.  I take maybe a week to expand the story idea from a single, tight sentence to three sentences, a paragraph, four paragraphs, a page plus character interviews.  I also sometimes write up a one page blurb of about 250 words as Holly Lisle suggests in her article.

 4.  At this point, I write a very rough synopsis, often in bullet form.  I use the beat sheet list of 15 story points to work up a storyline that takes me from the beginning to the end.

 5.  Once I have that, I write the first 50 pages.  The synopsis is still very rough, so the writing can be “pantsy” and exploratory.  Sometimes the story will veer off in unexpected directions.  I pay a lot of attention to setting, the main character’s motivation, and the initial set up of the catalyst that sets the story into motion.

 6.  Then I write a synopsis in full sentences, usually ending up with a document between 8-10 pages.  I tweak it and the first fifty pages, and then I send it on to my agent to get feedback. 

 7.  As I write the complete manuscript I sometimes read Jim’s livejournal for inspiration and to help me fill in the gaps in the story that I inevitably discover.

 As I mentioned above, no two books are alike, and no two writers are alike.  See if the tools above help, and if they do, adapt them to your own style of writing and make them your own.  Wishing you all the best as you explore the country of your story!


The Velveteen Writer

Oh, it’s my turn.  Hello, Magic District!  Thank you so much, Founders, for inviting me to join such an amazing, brilliant group of writers. 

I figure for my first turn here I’d start off by introducing myself.  Er, let’s see – my name is Michele Lang, I write a lot of stuff, I have a bunch of kids and husband and stuff.   LADY LAZARUS, a historical urban fantasy, is coming out this fall, the first of a series, and I’m beyond thrilled about it.  And, well. . .blah de blah blah blah. . .

Okay, none of that stuff really matters in the District.  I was well and truly chuffed when the Founders asked me to join, and I will tell you why.  First, the obvious – look at the company I keep here.  Whoa.

But it’s more than the names, the outward lists of accomplishments and books and demographic data.  It’s the fact that I get to join them, and you, in the District.  The name of this place dazzles me, dares me to think of the possibilities.

The Magic District isn’t just the realm where our characters wield their power.  It’s the place where writers go to find their characters, the good stuff, the stories – the basement, the dark place, the Nevernever.  Whatever you call it when, trembling, you sneak off to the blank page, the blinking computer cursor, and you somehow, out of nowhere, find your soul’s true home.

To introduce myself in the District, I have to say something like this:  I have disturbing dreams.  Books I love change something inside of me, like a spiritual alchemy.  When I start revisions of a first draft, the first thing I watch out for is the dreaded “brain on a stick” syndrome – where my characters act and react, but I don’t internalize their feelings enough to give the reader an emotional handle.

These are the passions that infuse my writing, that make me Real – like the Velveteen rabbit, I forget myself and my many limitations (thanks, Kalayna, for getting me thinking and inspiring the title of this intro!).  I am so excited to explore the District, the well-lighted, temperate parts, and the bad neighborhoods, the scary, rat-scuttling, stomach stabbing parts as well.  Writing is not all sweetness and light, as well you know.  That’s part of what makes it so profoundly awesome.

Wild screed over for now.  Have a wonderful week!