Goblins don’t buy groceries

When you cut a deal to get out of goblin jail, sometimes you end up on a secret pumpkin-snatching mission for the manipulative goblin wizard who busted you out. And it can an awkward situation when you’re with a squad of professional pumpkin-snatching goblins, and you’re just sort of… a kid.

This is the third preview of my upcoming middle-grade chapter book Pumpkin Goblins. The clip here is read not by me, but by my spouse (and number two fan*).

A part of this scene stemmed from writing anxiety. There was a self-flagellating voice in my head saying something like: “This story is really stupid. Why can’t you think of stories that aren’t stupid? Why would goblins snatch pumpkins from people’s doorsteps when they could just go to the store and buy a bunch of pumpkins?

Then a more helpful voice said: “Grocery stores don’t accept goblin money.”

And another helpful voice, one that sounded a bit more like a goblin, answered: “Also, we don’t have goblin money.”

I believe in brainstorming rather than waiting for inspiration to hit. When it does hit, it’s almost never out of nowhere. It happens because I’ve been thinking and asking questions, even if sometimes those questions are kind of whiny.

Here’s the transcript:

Korkor turned to Amber. “You’ll be doing my job. Keep the trick-or-treaters away while we take the pumpkins back in several trips.”
“How do I do that?”
“Shouldn’t be too hard. Maybe a bat-nexus grenade followed by a smoke shroud? Or a nice Spook’s Gambit followed by a Kirlik Maneuver?” He made an excited gesture of a swooping owl and handfuls of explosions. ”Do you have your own array of creeper-cell batteries and magic boosters, or do you need to borrow one?”
Amber said nothing in response.
“Here.” Korkor dumped a pile of pocket junk in Amber’s arms.
Torlik made an exasperated noise. “She doesn’t know how to use any of that stuff, and you know it’s not enough for a crowd.”
Amber wanted to help, though she really didn’t know how to use any of that stuff, and she hadn’t understood most of what Korkor had said. “I don’t get why you can’t just grow pumpkins yourselves. Or buy them.”
“Grow them?”
“Now?”
“Takes too long,” said the three goblins in overlapping bites of speech.
“Fine, buy them,” said Amber, suspecting that, somehow, this wouldn’t do either.
“Buy them?” With a dramatic arm thrown across his forehead, Torlik pretended to faint. “From a store?”
But Korkor’s eyes lit like jack-o-lanterns. “A store with aisles and aisles of pumpkins?”
“And a pot of stew?” Falkit added hopefully.
Amber shrugged “A grocery store.”
“Grocery stories don’t accept goblin money,” said Korkor
“Also, we don’t have goblin money,” added Torlik, turning out his pockets.
“Also, goblin money doesn’t exist.” Korkor turned to Torlik, and they nodded rapidly in unison.
There was a pause.
“Could you explain coupons?” asked Falkit.

I had been aiming to publish this on October 15, and I think it will be pushed back by just a few days. When it’s out, I’ll announce it on both this blog and my newsletter.

By the way, I just saw an in-progress version of the cover illustration as the color is being added. It’s going to look cool, and I’m excited to post it sometime next week!


*I may not have a lot of fans, but they are the most organized fans in the world: they numbered themselves.

The Quantum Nature of Blogging, Part I

I set out to troubleshoot my perfectionist blogging process and instead discovered the quantum nature of writing. While I enjoy blogging, I have difficulty posting often. My problem is that blogging is something of a struggle for me, in the way that climbing Mount Doom in a state of extreme dehydration with the weight of intense evil around your neck is something of a struggle. I wanted to figure out a way to minimize the struggle, blog faster, and still enjoy myself.

When I started this blog, I assumed that coming up with ideas would be tough. I bought Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and Rise of the Machines by Kristen Lamb, which both discuss coming up with ideas for blog posts. Both books are helpful, both are written in a friendly manner that makes regular blogging seem less intimidating, and both aided me in coming up with post ideas. But post ideas weren’t what I needed. Turns out, I have no shortage of ideas: there are over four dozen unfinished posts in the Scrivener project for my blog, and that’s not even counting posts still in the idea stage.

"Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your compostion of yourself is at stake." --E. L. Doctorow

Yeah, that’s the problem. That’s perfectionism in a nutshell, but the nutshell also has a fuzzy outer husk of anxiety and the frustrating problem of “I don’t have a nutcracker due to impatience and the wide availability of pre-chopped walnuts.”

Perfectionism is a constant problem for me, but I’m also capable of writing very fast*. What ends up happening is that I’ll get down several hundred words of a blog post in fifteen minutes or so, but then I become mired in doubt while attempting to actually finish it. Or, I might set out to write a quick post about a haircutting youtube video I found helpful, but then I end up writing a treatise on everything I know about haircutting. This is where the Mount Doom analogy comes in. Writers are junkies for analogies about writing. Even that last sentence verged on analogy, because I didn’t mean “junkies” in the literal sense.

Blogging requires the opposite of what I’ve been doing: frequency, speed, and often brevity. If you want your site to have good SEO (search engine optimization), you need to post often. Blogging is fast. A blog post can do the same things any piece of writing can: inform, persuade, entertain, or tell a story. But it can also function as social media, open a dialogue, or pass on something interesting from another site. It’s ok to share something (such as the haircutting video) and start a conversation without making a post an exhaustive monument about everything concerning that topic. I read and enjoy plenty of blogs that do this, and many blog posts tend to be shortish. I do read some blogs with posts regularly going over 1000 (and maybe even 2000 words), but I aim to write 300-700 words because that’s the length I enjoy reading most. It’s short enough to be a quick read, but long enough to expand upon a topic.

I’ve tried a lot of strategies to finish blog posts faster. Timeboxing was one, and I made a flowchart last year to accompany my brand new timeboxed blogging method. After spending an unnecessary amount of time choosing color schemes and type faces for this flowchart, and in the process re-encountering my old nemesis Procrastination (he has a twirly mustache and a fencing sword and a velvet cape as dark as his evil deeds), I ended up failing to use my timeboxes for more than a few weeks. Timeboxing works great for brainstorming and editing, or anything else that doesn’t have a definite end condition. But writing? You can say you’ll spend only 30 minutes drafting an aimed-for 600 word post, but the reality is that you’ll keep writing until you reach the end, whether or not you stayed in the timebox.

It should have been obvious from the beginning that I have a functional process for fiction writing, but not for blogging. After starting, but not finishing, two posts** the other day, some magic combination of unfinished blog posts, funky coffee drinks, and driving a borrowed car that I’ve been fat-shaming***, lead to the lightbulb moment that I don’t finish or revise a blog post the way I would any piece of fiction. I suspect that most other writers and artists geek out**** on this type of helpful self-revelation. So if it seems weird that I was super-excited to get home and construct a new writing process for myself… well, it’s probably still weird, but I’m sure I have a kindred spirit somewhere. (Kindred spirit, if you’re reading, let’s be best friends and trade colored index cards and braid each other’s hair if we even have long enough hair for that, which I don’t.)

Here is what a working fiction-writing process looks like: make an idea-mess, tame it into a summary sentence, expand that sentence into a more useful idea-mess, then write. After that you get to revise, and revision is where you sleight-of-hand your draft so that it looks like you knew what you were doing all along. Not everyone writes that way, but I came by some of my process through the How to Think Sideways writing course (highly recommended, more so than my actual creative writing degree), so I know there are others out there. When I decided to fix my blogging process (which comes down to typing out mental narration), I turned to the How to Think Sideways lessons that had helped me so much.

But I also ended up digging into the nuts and bolts of my own writing process. And after spending a few hours pacing and scribbling diagrams, I discovered the building blocks of all written matter. And that’s what Part II will be about.


*I’ve written over 2000 words per hour in the past. I just didn’t enjoy them.
**One is about my recently-deceased Chevy Prizm and the other is about why the phrase “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a bunch of crap. I try to limit the number of rant-based posts I write, and so the latter may not see the shining light of the internet.
***My recently-deceased Chevy Prizm is smaller than a Subaru Forester, which I accuse of being a fat beast when it won’t go into a parking spot the way I want.
****This is way too many footnotes for one post, let alone one paragraph, and I’m going to have to start using superscript numerals instead of asterisks that, taken in a group of four, make it appear that I have some choice words I’m not using. But, rest assured, I would use them.

Brainstorming Story Conflict

In my last post, I went over some of the issues with trying to plot an entire novel in an hour, when you don’t actually need to. That’s kind of a niche problem to face, but I help run National Novel Writing Month events in my region of Massachusetts, and we have a planning workshop with limited time. While I think the Random Rapid Plotting exercise has its uses, I didn’t want to use it for our NaNoWriMo group’s Novel Planning Workshop a second year in a row.

Last year, I created a second plotting exercise. This one has been a lot more useful to me, and went over well at our group’s Novel Planning Workshop. It also combines three of my favorite things: lists, index cards, and rolling dice. While it is designed to be done in an hour, to fit into the workshop, it’s also a good exercise to pick up during the writing phase to generate more conflict.

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Index cards multiply like gremlins, except that throwing water on them also makes them soggy and useless.

Our group’s twelve-hour Coffee Crawl and Writing Marathon is tomorrow. I need all the conflict I can come up with to get through that, so I’m going through the exercise again in preparation.

The Conflict Brainstorming Exercise is exactly what it sounds like. You quickly write down lists of characters, attributes, places, and events. You brainstorm them if you don’t know them already. Then you roll a die a bunch of times, and do some freewriting about potential conflicts. Some things won’t stick, but it’s still a handy way to find conflict from all areas.

This year, I found out that the Conflict Brainstorming Exercise is also good for finding where you have holes in your story. I’m rewriting my very first NaNoWriMo novel (from 2007!) because I know there’s a story I love buried under a bunch of nonsense with a useless second protagonist who had no business being in the story. Stars Fall Out is now also the backstory of a character I’ve written a lot about elsewhere. That means that the world and the antagonist both changed. Trying to write those lists in three minutes showed me where I needed to do more thought work.

If you want to try your hand at the Conflict Brainstorming Exercise, download it here.

Random Rapid Plotting

Why would I until the end of National Novel Writing Month to share a plotting exercise with you? Mostly because things happened, and I didn’t get around to it earlier. But also because there’s room for plotting and planning towards the middle and end of the month. At the beginning of NaNo, there’s always a lot of talk about planning versus pantsing: do you plan before you write, or do you write by the seat of your pants? Most of us are in between. I like to start off with solid character and setting details, and I can wing it for quite awhile before I have to stop and figure out how things come together.

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Why this picture? Do I need a reason? Can’t we just be happy I didn’t attempt to use it to create an extended metaphor about seeing where your plot is going?

Every November is National Novel Writing Month, a time when thousands of people all over the world challenge themselves to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. If this is the first you’re hearing of it, fear not. There are twelve days left. You can take two days to stock up on index cards and candy bars, one hour to do some Random Rapid Plotting, and ten days to become a writer-hermit.

I created this plotting exercise for my local NaNoWriMo group to use at our Novel Planning Party in October. Since we also go over character and setting, there’s about an hour to do the plotting exercise. The first time we ran this event, we used Holly Lisle’s “Notecarding: Plotting Under Pressure,” which is also found in Mugging the Muse. It’s a lot of fun, and I’ve used it successfully for three of my favorite November novels. When I printed it out for the first time, I realized that the instructions are lengthy, which is tough with the time constraint of the planning party.

The problem with having an hour to plot a novel is that any method comprehensive enough to be good is going to take longer than an hour. And since the event is in mid-October, we all have longer than an hour to spend plotting. So while we need to have a plotting method that can be done in a hour, it’s also unnecessary in the larger scheme of things.

Two years ago was the first time I tried making my own plotting exercise, and this is what I came up with. It basically involves throwing whatever random stuff is on your mind into a chart, linking things together in a more cohesive, scene-based form, and extrapolating from there. Drawing on the chart in colored pencil to make connections was fun, as well as a nice visual change from my normal novel notes. I think it’s a decent enough exercise, and I came up with a fun plot when I did a test drive on it. It was a contemporary fantasy with an electrician-wizard tracking down a spirit in the power lines, but there were also subplots with a sinister pet groomer and delinquent teenagers, which are my favorite type of teenagers.

However, I didn’t actually use it to plot my own novel that year. The thing is that doing a one-hour plotting exercise when you actually have several weeks to work things out at a more reasonable pace feels slapdash. There’s a such thing as overplanning, but if you’re starting plotting with a few weeks before November, there’s time to let plot ideas percolate and come together naturally.

There are two things I think Random Rapid Plotting would be awesome for.

The first, and the reason I still decided to post this so late in the month, is planning middles and ends. Ends are tougher than beginnings. Everything has to come together and make sense at some point. I had interesting results when I tested this with my current work-in-progress. It helped me think of new ways to put my characters in different situations and connect seemingly unrelated events. It’s a nice way to tie in bits and pieces I came up with in the earlier part of the month.

The second is deciding, at the very last minute, that you don’t want to go into NaNoWriMo with zero planning. Maybe it’s 11:00p.m. on October 31, you’re in the middle of a horror movie, and you remember that NaNo is starting in an hour. You don’t want to fly seat-of-your pants, but if you take your time to plan, you’ll be 10,000 words in the hole by the time you start writing.

That’s what I would use it for, anyway. Last minute plotting, and fast. So I guess the name was appropriate.

Download “Random Rapid Plotting” here.

Pumpkin Goblins–Coming Fall 2015

There’s been a glaring omission on my part. Though, it’s not so much glaring as it is a one thousand dollar fireworks display that some guy sets off in his yard at midnight. The omission is a book, one that I’m revising and trying my hardest to publish this fall. I’ve mentioned to it, and alluded to it, and even wrote the blog post “Halloween Profanity—for Children!” about a process I’ve been using in the revision.

I announced it on my mailing list. But I didn’t announce it here, on my blog, as one is supposed to do in this situation.

Pumpkin Goblins is a middle grade chapter book in which a Halloween-deprived child and a squad of pumpkin goblins work to generate Halloween spirit when a mysterious source of summer magic threatens to destroy Halloween for good.

Check out the Pumpkin Goblins page for the full summary.

Scribbled-on manuscript.

My revision manuscript, a survivor of the Traumatizing Coffee Spill of 2015 and also the horrible, disfiguring plague known as My Handwriting.

I’ll be honest. It feels nice to say, “Coming Fall 2015,” but the fact is that I set my deadline for September 20th, and “Coming Fall 2015” is a cheery way to obscure my deadline. September 20th may be slipping out of my grasp. I’m worried that Fall 2015 could slip away as well. But I’m trying. I’ve cut some bad habits as I work to find the remaining revision time I need. Even better, my TV actually broke.

Unfortunately, I can’t quite kick the habit of “having a full time job.” I’ll be cutting my hours in September and October so I can take a course. That’ll net me some Pumpkin Goblins time as well.

Despite all that, I’m ridiculously happy with how the revision is coming along. Every aspect of the story is becoming a story I want to read myself. It’s funnier, scarier, and more goblinish, with stronger characters and better descriptions.

Every now and then, I mention my writing to people. They often say something like, “So, you enjoy writing, huh?” And sometimes, when this happens, it’s a frustrating writing day and I’m irritated with a draft. I’ll shrug and say, “Yeah, I guess,” because at that moment, I can’t muster the enthusiasm.

I think if anyone ever asked, “So, you like revision huh?” my answer would be more excitement than they want to deal with. Like the fireworks of my glaring omission. And that’s how I feel about the Pumpkin Goblins revision: fireworks and excitement, fall leaves and that chill in the wind that makes you feel alive.

Here’s an excerpt of some dialogue I like:

“What’s your name?” asked the first goblin.
“Amber.”
“Ember?”
“We like embers,” said another.
“Because we like fires,” said the third, all of them talking so fast that Amber could hardly tell which one was speaking.
“No, Amber. Like dead bugs that were fossilized a million years ago.”
“Oh.”
“Amber.”
“Like dead bugs.”
“That’s a lovely name for a girl.”

The really cool part is that a friend of mine is doing some illustrations for the cover and the chapter headers.  I’ve improved my drawing a lot in the past few years, and the process no longer seems mystical to me.  But I still can’t do figures well, and I’m always impressed by his characters.  They have an awesome cartoon style, and they really look like they’re moving around on the page.  I’ll definitely post some sketches if he lets me.

Why Tarot Cards are Awesome

For someone who’s decidedly not into New Age* things, or into spending money on anything, ever, I own a lot of freakin’ tarot cards. Three-hundred and twelve, to be exact. Four decks. Why do I own so many tarot cards? Because they are awesome. Here’s why.

Tarot cards are like a right-brain pro-con list!

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Well, tarot cards, when you put it like that, I am NOT sorry for what I did, and I will NEVER apologize for eating the last of the chips.

Usually if I need to make a decision about something, I will make a pro-con list. And I don’t mean just for big decisions like: “should we take that apartment?” and “is it worth the money to buy a new computer?” and “face tattoo?” No, I will even make pro-con lists for things like: “brownies or cookies?” and “play KOTOR or read a Star Wars novel?” and  “draw sketch of face tattoo, or excise the thought from my mind?”

Usually, the pro-con list works for me. When things come out a little too even, sometimes tarot cards can help me make the decision. By throwing out a bunch of cards, all the different images and meanings can give me a new angle on whatever I’m mulling over. It’s like talking to a friend to get a new perspective, only you don’t need to have a friend.

In the same way, if I’m stuck on a piece of writing, tarot cards can throw some new angles into the mix.

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Three interpretations, one card. These are the Two of Swords from the Archeon Tarot, the Steampunk Tarot, and the Dragon Tarot.

A deck of tarot cards contains 78 miniatures pieces of artwork.

I like artwork, and also can’t afford artwork, aside from whatever I’m able to make myself. What fascinates me about collecting different decks is that every deck has the same cards, so it’s interesting to compare different artists’ interpretations. Or even multiple interpretations by the same artist.

Tarot cards are mystical!

Finally, on a good day, I can trick myself into thinking that tarot cards are actually mystical occult tools rather than mass-produced pieces of card stock. I’m a skeptic, but would rather live in a world where ghosts are real, and the mysterious forces of the universe can communicate with me though rectangles of tree pulp.

For maximum tricking, make sure to conduct all your tarot activities atop occult fabric.

 

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It’s ok if your “occult fabric” is actually just some scarf you bought at Target one time. Again, the Steampunk tarot.


 

*In  editing this post, I noticed the typo “Sew Age.”  If you are so inclined, I think this would make an appropriate title for a fanatical magazine on sewing, one that takes the view that the apocalypse is nigh and the age of sewing all our own clothes is upon us.  Features could include the column “Notions on Notions” which discusses the best way to stockpile zippers, and whether two-hole buttons or four-hole buttons are likely to become a valued currency.