Where are the Muses

So, sort of ironically here, I was lacking inspiration on my blog post for this week and saw the The Daily Post’s word of the day. Writers, and other artists, like to talk about the mythical muses quite a bit. Anymore, we tend to use the word as a manifestation of our creative side. Oftentimes, when we can’t manage to find the right words or the motivation to create, we blame the muse for not showing up or for not talking. We impress upon others and ourselves that working on our project would be so much simpler if inspiration would just talk to us!

Unfortunately, the best way to find the muses is to stop waiting for them to show up. There’s a couple of ways to go with that idea. First, you could toss out the need to be inspired all together, but let’s face a fact. It feels great when you have a muse perched on your shoulder. Inspiration makes your mind fly with ideas and for a brief, happy time, your creative work feels completely golden. Those moments in the zone are the moments creatives truly enjoy. The world and its worries are left behind for the glorious joy of making something.

So consider a different mental approach if you’re having trouble finding the muses. The best way to find anything is to lure it out into the open. If muses love creativity, then start up your project and do some work. Draw a line, write a sentence, find a prompt, whatever you need to just begin. Don’t worry about the muse showing up or whether or not inspiration will strike you. The practice of creating will bring them out. You’ll have tiny whispers that blossom into full blown muse-irific tangents if you simply keep working.

That’s not easy advice, especially when you’re struggling. And it’s something you hear a lot–“Just write every day and it’ll happen!” how many of us have read that over and over? Thing is, sometimes that’s all you can do. Butt in the seat, words on the page, pencil marks on the paper, chords on the instrument–somedays that’s all you’re going to have. Keep at it though. My own ability to knit stories together is growing, and I’ve watched friends go from struggling to write a few hundred words to writing a couple thousand in the same amount of time. Practice has made all the difference. Sometimes those muses still elude us, but showing up and getting to work makes it much more likely we’ll find them. Don’t worry. Lay out the bait of some creative thoughts and those muses won’t be able to resist showing up.

Feel free to comment or share your own thoughts about muses!

Dialogue, more than the words characters spit out

In an effort to improve my overall writing, I’ve been doing what every good writing book will tell you–I’ve been reading. And reading. And when I thought I would take a break, I’d crack open another book. Some of it’s been fiction, others have been writing advice. Recently, I read through some of James Scott Bell’s works on the craft. His tips in How to Write Dazzling Dialogue are great, and they’ve helped me catch on to analyzing dialogue in what I’m reading, watching, and writing.

Which is why I’m blown away by Netflix’s Jessica Jones series again. The show is brilliant in so many ways, but the tight dialogue does so much heavy lifting. It carries you forward, makes you care, and provides the actors with fantastic opportunities to play their scenes.

I want to break down a scene here. This is in the third episode (AKA It’s Called Whiskey), and while still moving the action forward, it also provides exposition for us. At this point, we’ve got a pretty good impression of the current way Jessica is–the angry, traumatized woman who is struggling through her day to day, through a case dealing with her former abuser. What we don’t know is much about her past–It’s something Jessica hates talking about, but she and Trish have history, which the writers used to give us details about both their lives.

[After Trish takes off her shirt to reveal bruises covering her arms and shoulders. They head into Trish’s bedroom.]

Jessica: Who’s doing that to you? Is your mom back?

Trish: Just calm down, will you?

Jessica: Okay, is this why you have the video surveillance and the steel-reinforced door?

Trish: And bulletproof windows, a safe room. I made some upgrades.

Jessica: You–What you made is a fortress. Trish, what you afraid of?

[They head into Trish’s training room]

Trish: Not much, anymore. Except clowns. But that’s just common sense.

Jessica: You turned my room into a gym.

Trish: I needed a place to train.

Jessica: By “training,” you mean getting beaten purple.

Trish: [seizes Jessica and easily tosses her to the ground] No one touches me anymore unless I want them to. I let you fight my battles for too long. When you left–

Jessica: [rubbing her sore shoulder] You became a ninja?

Trish: Krav Maga. More brutal.

Jessica: Can you back off? You’re scaring me a little.

Trish: [grinning] I’ll make sandwiches.

This dialogue takes about a minute and a half of the show time. But look at the sheer amount of information here, even without the full visual to go along with it. From Jessica’s initial concerns, we see that she cares deeply about Trish’s well-being, something Jessica hasn’t shown a whole lot of and especially not in such an overt fashion. So far, Jessica has been as mysterious as possible with the other people she talks to, but with Trish, she’s asking the questions and deliberately engaging her when she typically shies away from too much talking.

We learn that Trish was a victim too, and that her mother may or may not be completely out of her life. They talk about their setting, which provides us more details about Trish. She’s confident in her security upgrades and these extra measures are what help her feel safe. In previous scenes, it’s established that she’s a radio talk show host. While we could guess that she’s worried about stalker fans that mean her harm, Jessica’s reveal about Trish’s mother shows us that Trish fears more than the average celebrity problems.

Also of note is the fact that Trish and Jessica aren’t just good friends, they’re former roommates. And this dialogue tells us that Jessica leaving the apartment was a transformation event for Trish. And Trish feels the need to prove her new abilities to Jessica–which we see when she tells Jessica the full details of the upgrades and shows her not just the training room, but some of that training. There’s a need to prove she’s okay if something happens to Jessica.

The fact that Jessica doesn’t know all these details about Trish’s life is another sign. When she needed help, Trish was someone she reached out to, but we can gather from the lack of knowledge that it’s been a while since they’ve talked frequently. Yet, their closeness is obvious. Even though Jessica’s worried, Trish is joking and open. By the end of the scene, Jessica’s initial fears for Trish’s safety are put to rest and they move on to have lunch together. They may have been out of each other’s lives for a while, but they’re obviously falling right back into their tight bond.

And there’s another layer here too. The show’s theme–victims, primarily women, overcoming trauma–comes into play. Jessica has built herself a mental fortress. She lives in a shitty apartment and says shitty things to people instead of showing that she does, in fact, give a damn about what happens to them. Trish has done the opposite, building a physical fortress while maintaining her faith in the general good intentions of other people. They’re both leading isolated lives in response to their fears. Their friendship, shown even in this short scene, is part of what gets them through this.

If you haven’t seen Jessica Jones, I highly recommend it for the dialogue and the amazing storytelling. Take just one episode and comb through it a few times. Every scene is tight with a dedicated purpose to telling a griping story. I know I plan on rewatching a few more time to catch all the great details of craft.

NaNoWriMo Tips

National Novel Writing Month kicks off on November 1st, which is this Sunday!

Okay, for those panicking (much like me), remember that nice deep breaths are your buddy. NaNoWriMo is exciting for sure, but it can be a little overwhelming even if you’ve won challenges in the past. In the last couple of days, my brain’s been running over a series of tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years that will help make my NaNo easier. I thought I’d share a few.

  • Remember, writing is fun!

This can be a hard to remember in the middle of a draft. I get thinking about everything I’ve done, everything left to go, and I lose track of why I sat down at the keyboard in the first place: Because I like it. Because I have fun telling stories and getting words out to share with other people. Sometimes, I need a reminder that, hey, this is supposed to be an awesome experience! Going to write-ins or using the message boards helps me refuel my excitement for my project. Simply knowing that other people are also working their way through the 50k challenge makes me continue pushing for my own word count. I’m able to commiserate for a few minutes (Writing can be hard and solitary) and then find my fun groove again.

  • Planning or Pantsing, anything can work.

More than a lot of hobbies or professions, writing is a lot of trial and error to find the process that works for you. I’ve had a NaNo where I didn’t know much about the book except for the main character and a bit about her world setting. My other NaNo, I knew the cast of characters and the circumstances completely. NaNo is about discovering creativity, about getting that book out of your head and onto the page. And you’ll hear this advice over and over, the writing process has to be tailored to you. I’m sure a lot of people are like me–I’ve discovered that I do best with a mix of plotting and pantsing. My words fly onto the page when I’ve got just enough planned, but not every scene mapped. If you’re feeling anxious about reaching 50k, I recommend doing some plotting. If the thought of knowing too much of the story beforehand frightens you, don’t worry about it. NaNo is all about finding *your* groove.

  • Believe that Writer’s Block is a myth

Since I started working the mantra “there is no such thing as writer’s block” into my writing practice, I’ve had far fewer creative hurdles to jump. Frequently, in the past, when I was ‘blocked,’ it was because I didn’t feel a muse’s divine inspiration, or didn’t know what to do with the characters next. Sometimes–more often than I care to admit–I was blocked because I’d driven my characters into a plot that wasn’t in their personalities. NaNo doesn’t leave time for second-guessing. Never erase during NaNo, never go back and rewrite, but I’ve found it useful to write new scenes as if I’d already fixed the problem. If I feel like the story’s not going anywhere, it’s time to add a new character or to up the tension by having the worse possible thing happen. I think Kirkman, writer of The Walking Dead, likes to joke that if he needs something to happen, he just throws a zombie into the mix. Same can be said of Lost and Battlestar Galactica. If you’re worried about being stuck, get spontaneous. Throw in something you hadn’t considered before, or ask ‘what would make the characters’ lives worse?’ You’re the writer, you’re the god of the story. You get to be Murphy’s Law to their lives. And if that won’t work, find a friend or a forum to start explaining your story. I find myself making connections and new plots constantly when I try to tell someone how the story works. It’s just the little seed I need to keep going.

  • Guard your writing time.

This piece of advice comes up frequently, but I didn’t start taking it seriously until the last couple of months. It seems like such a natural, obvious tidbit: eliminate distractions from writing time and space. I wasn’t really following it though. I started to and my daily word count jumped incredibly. For me, it means getting out of the apartment (away from my television) and getting to a quiet spot in the library, making sure to use a quiet reading room or a study room because frequently other patrons can cause disruptions (the amount of small wailing children in libraries will surprise you. I’m never angry or upset with the parents–small children cry, this is a fact of life. I simply seek the corners where it’s harder for sound to reach). It takes a lot of discipline for me, but I tell myself that I can’t go surfing on the web until it’s break time.

For a lot of others, this means telling your loved ones that when you sit down to write, it’s your time. Don’t feel guilty for carving out time for what you’re doing. You’re finding fun, you’re creating. Guard your time (and creative space like a desk, or the kitchen table while you’re working at it) like Gollum with the One Ring. Keep those sneaky Bagginses away from your Precious. They’ll have their turn with your time later. Getting your family to understand why you’re protecting like this might take a lot of conversation (for at least a year, my mom seemed to have this uncanny ability for calling me while writing, but this doesn’t happen nearly so much lately because we’ve talked about the hours I’m usually at the keyboard), but hopefully they’ll be supportive and understanding in the end.

  • Set-up a rewards system

This is one that can be really tricky for me. I like telling myself “Oh, I won’t do X until I reach the word count!” buuuuuut I often go for “Oh, well, I reached Y. That’s good enough.” This month I plan on sticking to my goals a lot more, especially since I plan on taking so much. For me, it means no catching up on last night’s episodes until I reach word count. Or delaying that bit of desert until after the writing session. I find something to keep me moving during the writing sessions and push until finish.

  • Drink enough water/Have water on hand

Okay, this is a bit of an odd one, and something that might be just me. But when I’m really getting into the groove, I start getting thirsty. In order to eliminate this distraction, I have water near me. Some people prefer their coffees or sodas, but lately, I’ve been trying to keep down the sugars at the keyboard and make sure I have enough water. Plenty of water is supposed to be good, so it’s a win-win.

  • Remember, writing is supposed to be fun!

It’s on here twice because it’s that important. This came back to me full force during the NaNo Meet and Greet the other night. I hadn’t realized that I lost the fun there for a while, but I had. Stress of getting a project done can obscure the reason for getting to the keyboard in the first place. That makes me grumpy and winds up building over time. So, I’m thinking of making it part of my process to take a minute before each writing day to remember why I’m doing this. It’s not just that the story is burning up parts of my brain, begging to be put on the page. It’s not just that these characters want to talk. It’s not just that I feel that I have to. I write because telling stories is fun. Because I like getting something in front of a reader and getting them to laugh with me or curse me as the prose moves them. I write because creating is a joy that I don’t find anywhere else.

So, there it is, my list of small reminders to make my NaNo easier. You might discover that some work for you, you might realize that none of them do. That’s how it should be. Writing is different for everyone who approaches it. You wouldn’t expect two painters to describe the exact same process even if they paint similar pictures. In On Writing, Stephen King talks about filling up your own toolbox. It takes years, and hundreds of thousands of words to find the tools best suited for your approach. I’m still constantly shifting things, picking up new ideas and chucking them when they don’t work. Don’t be fooled, writing is a science like any other art. Trial and error are a big part of the process. Don’t be discouraged by the error parts. Remember, NaNoWriMo is about the fun and joy of creating a story. Deciding to take on the challenge is already a huge accomplishment. Be proud of whatever comes next. I know I can’t wait to see what we write in the next month!

Got any other tips or tricks you want to share? Feel free to comment below! Make sure to sign up for the 50k challenge at nanowrimo.org!

Freezing up the Protagonist, examples in how antagonists make life hard for Nikki Heat

Recently, our PeoWriMo group had a workshop on antagonists. We talked about the antagonist in the fairly abstract quite a bit and primarily used examples from sci-fi and fantasy projects since those are the fields Barb and I write in and pay the most attention to. This week, I’m reading Frozen Heat by Richard Castle (a pseudonym) and as I close in on the final pages, I realize that it has so many different antagonists that it goes through the abstracts we talked about. I’ll break down the different antagonists and how they function in the novel.

A short summary on the book first: Frozen Heat is the fourth Nikki Heat book based off the characters discussed in the television show Castle. For this book’s case, Heat discovers a murdered woman in the suitcase that once belonged to her own mother. The case thaws details on the murder of Nikki’s mother and she investigates both the recent murder and the cold case. The farther she gets, the more obvious the connections between the two cases, but she faces more and more opposition at each step.

The Subordinate/Rival: Sharon Hinesberg. Sharon has been in all the Nikki Heat books so far, but her usual level of incompetence and disrespect has only been an annoyance. In Frozen Heat, Hinesberg moves up from disturbance in the background to obstacle to overcome. Now, I’m not completely done with the book yet, so some of these facts may turn out to be false. Hinesberg creates problems for Heat by being constantly late to work, by showing little to no respect for Heat as lead detective, by questioning Heat’s assignments on occasion, and by having crummy investigation skills–those are the normal Hinesberg traits. In this book, Hinesberg conspires with the captain (who is also her secret boyfriend), she turns off her cellphone over the weekend despite policy stating she always have it on and with her, and Heat believes Hinesberg is leaking important murder case details to the press.

So how does Nikki Heat overcome Sharon Hinesberg? A lot of the behavior Nikki ignores. She adopts a “Hinesberg will never change” mentality and brushes off the minor inconveniences because she has bigger problems on her plate. Often, she’ll give Hinesberg simple follow-up assignments and busywork to keep her out of the main investigation. However, when she suspects a leak in her team and pins it on Hinesberg, she hands out the more secrecy-critical details and assignments in one-on-one fashion or discusses the cases with her squad when Hinesberg is gone. She refrains from putting those details on the murder board. Essentially, Heat does everything she can to cut Hinesberg out. Are these obstacles going to affect the outcome of the novel? I doubt it. Hinesberg has been around for a while, at the most, Hinesberg might finally see reassignment at the end of the novel, but I don’t think Heat will be that lucky.

What does this tell us about Nikki? Hinesberg is a contrast foil. Her laziness, lack of respect, and somewhat indifference remind us that Nikki cares, she’s early if she’s able, and she’s always trying to find the best way to communicate with others. Hinesberg shows us what Nikki could have been, but refuses to be.

The Boss: Captain Irons. This is the second book for Captain Irons. At the end of the last novel, Heat was offered Irons’s job, but she turned down the promotion. This has put a huge kink in an already tense relationship. Irons has a reputation for going after numbers (closure rate, etc.) instead of caring about individual cases. He does the job and looks for a pat on the back while doing it. He’s pretty much everything Heat hates about the upper brass–and he knows it. I’d say from his behavior (and I might be forgetting a detail that actually says it) that he believes Heat sees herself as better than himself. Irons likes to run everything by the book and gives Heat a hard time, even though she rarely goes off book to begin with. Irons impedes Heat’s investigation constantly–though he does so in legitimate ways. He refuses to hand over resources, he ‘takes lead’ during certain points of the investigation, and he forces Heat to go on a suspension and see a therapist after a traumatic event.

So how does Nikki overcome Captain Irons? Well, she doesn’t typically do it alone. The first problem is when Irons won’t allow for the extra overtime or additional resources. Heat explains this frustration to her partner/boyfriend/resident-writer Rook and Rook appeals to Captain Irons’s vanity by saying that this murder case could make a wonderful story piece. So, Rook exploits a personal character flaw of Irons. The second time Nikki needs to deal with a huge roadblock Irons put in, she uses an ally contact at One Police Plaza and goes over Irons’s authority to get what she needs (something that puts her in debt to that ‘ally,’ which is bound to be a problem in another book). So, Nikki exploits the fact that Irons isn’t an absolute authority–that there are people above him in rank. And on a third event, Nikki shows that she knows more about the case when interrogating a ‘suspect.’ She exposes that Irons isn’t that great of an investigator. What will happen with these plot points in the end? I don’t know, but I suspect that Irons will remain the head of the 20th’s homicide division and Heat will have to keep putting up with him. This is a work relationship that is deteriorating before it could form into something productive, but like everyone else, Nikki doesn’t get to choose her boss.

What does this tell us about Nikki? Irons is another foil, as all antagonists are. He has a habit of bringing Nikki’s passions to the surface–making her argue for and have to stand up for what she wants in her investigative trails, though she has to learn not to lose her temper with him (a hard task when she deals with Irons). He also helps her galvanize relationships with her allies–Rook, Raley and Ochoa, and other detectives, as well as One Police Plaza. In doing so, he brings out her support system, which helps us understand how complex and huge Nikki’s world really is.

Opposing Force: Homeland Security. Homeland Security agents keep a close track on Heat and Rook through much of this case. They record conversations and eventually, abduct Heat and Rook in order to ask questions about where their investigation is leading. So far, these agents have been neither bad nor good–the only impediment they’ve been in the investigation has been to detain Heat and Rook for a short while.

How does Nikki overcome them? So far, she hasn’t needed to, but she has been a bit more tight-lipped during the investigation.

What do they tell us about Nikki? Encounters with these two have reinforced Nikki’s determination. They’ve been more plot element than foil.

Antagonistic Family Relationship: Her father. Mr. Heat (for I forgot his first name)  and Cynthia Heat (Nikki’s mom) had divorced at least a couple years before Cynthia’s murder. Nikki and her father haven’t had the greatest relationship, and the passing years haven’t helped. While she loves and respects her father, she has troubles going to him for information, even telling Rick that he would have to be the one to keep the peace if the conversation became too dicey.

This isn’t exactly a relationship to overcome. Mr. Heat doesn’t purposefully block Nikki’s investigations, he’s simply not forthcoming. Their terse relationship doesn’t improve, but it doesn’t grow much worse.

What does this tell us about Nikki? This relationship highlights, and perhaps explains, why Nikki has a hard time emotionally. She has a tendency to lock down and ignore everything, putting up a wall between herself and others who should care about her. With the other cops, this wall’s expected and respected, but Rook calls it into question. The relationship with her father points out painfully that this is a family that doesn’t communicate about emotions, and that’s what stunts Nikki’s personal life.

The Big Bad: No frickin’ clue. I’m nearing page 300 in this book and I can’t pinpoint who the killer is. I could make assumptions and point to evidence, but I don’t have a name to label the clear and present danger. This book is one of those cases where it’s working. There’s so much digging through the past, so many other hurdles in Nikki’s way, and then there are little tidbits here and there. A hitman tries to take Nikki out, one of the evidence pieces goes missing, the toxicology labs are destroyed in accidents, the body is cremated before anyone knows what’s going on–all these incidents are clues, but no name. As soon as Heat discovers a possible line of inquiry, she’s crossing the newest name off the list.

How does Nikki overcome the Big Bad? Well, that’s the whole plot of the book, isn’t it?

What does this say about Nikki? She’s determined with a capital D. Determined and dedicated to finding this killer, Nikki won’t stop until she’s forced to–either by finding the bad guy, or by winding up in a grave herself…

So you can see, there’s a *lot* of problems for Nikki in Frozen Heat. Her way of navigating through the difficulties is what keeps the novel interesting and the suspense of the nameless powerful villain keeps readers on the edge. Every antagonist is different and complex, coming in with their own motivations and goals, which keeps Nikki from responding to them in the same manners. I can’t wait to see how this all finally finishes and discover, alongside Nikki Heat, who the murderer is.