The Idea Aggregator that Produces a Novel – Case Study

My novels apply a filter, sieve, microscope, and paintbrush to my life, with the occasional fun-house mirror or handful of feathers thrown in.

Scar Jewelry evolved through disparate experiences and observations that gradually connected inside my head:

  • When my twins were toddlers, a friend would look to incite reaction in me by stage whispering to them, I know things about your parents.
  • A decade later, I was hanging around with other parents at our kids’ track practice, when one mom came over to introduce herself. Her husband had pointed me out and said, She’s wearing a Billy Zoom t-shirt. Zoom was the guitarist for an obscure but legendary punk band, X, which we had all loved long before. From that point we became friends – and I looked at the other parents differently, wondering who they were before they were parents.
  • We set aside so much of ourselves to become parents. Some of us never regain those set-asides. Most children don’t much care about the non-parent parts of us and can be so dismissive of what matters – or used to matter – to us.
  • As parents, we don’t always appreciate what matters to our children. We make decisions that can dramatically and permanently change their lives, yet we rarely consult them as we decide what’s best for them. Hey, we’re the grown-ups, right?
  • I am adopted. As an adult I was lucky enough to be contacted by my birth family. It turns out that after I got adopted away, my birth parents married each other and had five more children. Meeting them transformed my views on many things and they’ve been a part of my life ever since.

By the way – though it may seem otherwise – nothing I’ve said here gives away Scar Jewelry‘s secrets!

The Resurrection of C.R.I.M.E. Science


Cover art by Lars Huston.

So. I’m a writer who didn’t write for a couple of decades. Life is short and I’ve squandered a lot of it. But let’s just say I went in other directions. I tried other things. Certainly the hiatus was worthwhile. I became the mother of twins and completed graduate school in earthquake science. Bu the reality is that I fashioned a life where writing fiction became well nigh impossible, and for a long time I didn’t even try. At the beginning of that long hiatus – before I admitted defeat and succumbed to all the non-writing demands of my existence – I wrote a novella, envisioned as the first book in a detective series. I wrote it, and I shelved it, and I mostly forgot about it. Rhetorical Q: What kind of writer doesn’t even try to get a book published and/or read?

The thing is that I really liked the characters and they kept poking me for attention. So, now that I have resumed writing, I have also unshelved the first book in the series C.R.I.M.E. Science, about a misfit group of scientists and techno whizzes who solve crimes and right wrongs. As of today, it is available on Smashwords in every common ebook format.  Coming soon to additional venues.

Life with Writer’s Block

It was comforting to read Tennessee Williams’ essay on writer’s block and its sibling, procrastination. (And how wonderful to discover any similarities with his writing!) He talks about stalling daily, about his collection of “the shortest, sharpest pencils” imaginable. Apparently he had the Block throughout his life.

Unfortunately, he didn’t share his techniques for getting around it. Over the years, I have employed several. I’ve self-parented:  not allowed myself to do X, Y, or Z until the day’s writing was done. I’ve reduced self-delusion by setting a daily page quota and keeping an “anti-cheat sheet” where I daily recorded how many pages I had completed. I’ve forbidden myself to change – or even re-read! – the previous day’s writing, and thus eliminated my tendency to rewrite incessantly in order to avoid facing a blank page screen.

My most successful technique was neither controlled nor intentional, however. I developed an overbooked life with only shards of time available in which to write. While I still squander plenty of time, write right now or write not has proved more persuasive than any of my other methods to get the words flowing.

“If you want something done, always ask the busy man.”*

I’m interested to hear how others have dealt with Block — and whether there are any writers out there who never have the problem? It’s a big world so I assume there must be at least a few writers who never experience writer’s block – but I’m guessing they are very much in the minority.

* an observation from Preston Sturges’ master comedy “The Palm Beach Story”.

Download eNovel “Scar Jewelry” for Free until 12-14-2012

Cover for Scar Jewelry

Cover art by Lars Huston.

For the next few days, my recently-completed novel Scar Jewelry is available for free if you go to the Smashwords site and use the coupon code CJ25A. The coupon expires on December 14.

Smashwords is a great thing and it gives you the option of downloading in formats that work with Kindle, Kobo, iBooks, Nook, and more. You can also read it in a browser. If you don’t want the commitment of a complete download, you can opt to start with a sample few chapters.

Scar Jewelry is literary fiction set in southern California in the present day and some 30 years before, in the early days of punk. Here’s the blurb:

What do we really know about our parents or the ways they shape us? For twins Deirdre and Langston, 20, the answer is: not enough. With their father long dead, and their mother now in a coma, they realize they don’t even know whom to notify. In fact, they understand almost nothing about their mother. They dig into her life, and as they do, they uncover secrets that revise the past and transform the future.

In case you are even newer to self-publishing than I am: I’m doing this giveaway in hopes that you will read Scar Jewelry, like it, and tell people about it.

You Can Talk About Writing – Too Much

If I talk about what I am writing – or planning to write – I make the writing more difficult and put the piece at risk of getting set aside, ne’er to be finished. It doesn’t matter what the listener’s reaction is – enthusiasm or boredom, support or disdain – sharing the ideas damages my process of converting ideas to fiction.  After I talk about writing, I simply feel less urgency to get it done.

Seems like it would be fun to brainstorm with other writers or use them as sounding boards. But  I’m not sure I could even talk to the cats without jeopardy. Maybe I could talk to a mirror? Never mind about that. Creepy.

Am I the only one in this situation? That doesn’t seem possible. Other writers, which side of this fence are you on?

You Can Think About Writing – Too Much

I do a lot of planning for every novel. I have the whole thing roughly laid out before I start writing and I decide what I want to accomplish each day before I begin. And yet, I never sit down to think about my writing. All my best ideas come when I am brushing my teeth or weeding the garden. Then, when I do sit down to write, the unplanned, unanticipated bits are so often the best products of any writing session. Furthermore, if I need to solve a particular writing problem, I can’t sit down and stare at the screen or the page.  I have to take a hike instead, or do some housework, or go to sleep.

All of which makes me conclude that my un-, sub-, and super-*conscious brain is a better writer than my conscious one. And I speculate that all the planning and the structure are craft equivalents of brushing my teeth: they give my conscious brain something to do while the rest of my brain gets the real job done.

*Damn, now where did I get that phrasing from? “Un-, sub-, and supernatural forces” I think that is how the original went … something by Stoppard, I believe… Rosencrantz?

Plot: My Gratitude at Being Surprised

When it comes to a plot, like anybody I want a story that hangs together — and for me it is so satisfying to get to the end of the book and find that all of the subplots were intrinsic and pivotal to the main plotline.  However, when it comes to a plot, what I most cherish is surprise. This is a consequence of my many years working as a motion picture story analyst. At the rate of 5 novels or 10 screenplays per week, I read and critiqued materials submitted to movie studios. After several years of this, you’ve seen it all, plot-wise. That was a long time ago, but unfortunately I still anticipate most plot twists. Sometimes I like an otherwise mediocre movie just because it has some story element that I didn’t see coming. I am less charitable with mediocre novels; I suppose that is because my emotional investment in a novel can be so much greater.

One of the (many) things that hooked me on the Potter books was how many surprises J.K. Rowling conjured. I think I was in book 5 before I anticipated a single surprise. Ahhhhhhh.

What I Want in a Character

Sometimes I read non-fiction but it never grabs me. It’s novels that grab and shake and catapult and expand me. I read novels to get immersed in the lives of people I can care about. I don’t have to like them. I hope they will be complicated, not trivial or easy to understand; nothing better than a character who baffles me – so long as I perceive that the author isn’t me, that the mysteries and the discrepancies are resolvable, and that once I spend more time with the character, I will start to understand.

Authors don’t fully understand the characters they “create”, even when they think they do.  There’s a part of me that has the chutzpah to think that I design my characters. There’s another, dazzled part of me that senses them flying in through a door I’ve managed to open, just a crack.

The best characters are like great song lyrics. A few twists of phrase and they change me, profoundly and forever.