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Am I a Plotser?

My favorite jeans. I can no longer wear them outside the house, because of a hole in…the seat of the pants.

There are two terms I’ve encountered in fiction-writing circles: plotter and pantser. A “plotter” is just like it sounds: a writer who composes a story by writing an outline first. A plotter gets the elements of the narrative down in some way, shape, or form—be it index cards, a synopsis, or an old-fashioned Roman-numeral type outline.

A “pantser” is a writer who composes by “the seat of their pants.” No outline or sketch, little to no prep work. A pantser just sits down to write and sees what happens.

In an article I found via Google, the novelist Cindi Myers suggests that there might be some shame in admitting you’re a plotter, because being a pantser could be considered more “artistic.” In it, she goes on to list the benefits of plotting. (Though, this article is housed on a site for an online editing tool called AutoCrit, which I assume has a vested interest in converting more writers into plotters.)

Assessing myself as a fiction writer, I’d say I began as a pantser, but have evolved into a plotter. And I still exhibit traits of both in my day-to-day writing life.

I’m definitely a pantser with these blog posts. Their short length is the reason why I can write them without a plan. If I go off on a tangent, I can afford the time spent on that thread. Because it’s typically portions of an hour, not portions of days or weeks (or months). And even if that thread gets cut, I find the time writing it was usually well spent, because those tangents often help clarify my thoughts.

But, with fiction, I can’t afford to be a pantser. I’ve spent some time in this space bemoaning the breaks I’ve taken from writing. (Some self-induced, others not so much.) It took me six years to get The Incident Under the Overpass to a point ready to publish. I want to be more expeditious with subsequent stories.

Part of the reason my first novel took so long was because I spent the first three years without a plan. I can’t say things got easier once I outlined the story, but I can say my approach to the work improved. I like to think my output improved, too.

I’ve started writing the third and final story featuring Lacey Becnel (the heroine of my first novel.) I outlined it a while ago, and I foresee many changes to that original plot. Also, about nine months ago, I started using some writing software. (I purchased Scrivener—I was sold by numerous testimonials from writers claiming how expeditious it made them).

The point I’m trying to get to is this: in a pantser-ish move, I began to compose the opening to the story before importing/updating that old outline into the program. I was a little surprised to find out that what I wrote hewed pretty close to the outline. So what originally felt like a little pantser rebellion was in truth a loyal plotter move.

Short stories get the same plotter treatment. It’s been about a year since I’ve written one—way longer than I’d like it to be—but I blame Lacey for that. Anyway, it might just be three sentences at the top of a document, outlining the short story arc, but I find it helps tremendously in getting me to the finish line.

Slow and steady, wasn’t it the plodding (plotting?) tortoise who won the race?

Solstice and Solnit

Sunrise / Moonset in San Luis Obispo. Around the time of summer’s end, last year.

Last night at 11:24 pm (Central Time), summer began. It feels a bit ironic that the point when we mark the most daylight in the Northern Hemisphere—the most we’re going to get in 2017—happens in the middle of the night here. I think this has something to do with New Orleans being five hours behind the prime meridian, but I could be wrong.

I wrote a few weeks ago about looking forward to the solstice. I’ve always been a summer person. Maybe the thing I like most about the summer is the sunlight. When things feel uncertain—and so much about everything feels uncertain right now—I’m grateful that abundant daylight can illuminate the shadows.

To mention a few geographically-specific uncertainties: there’s a tropical storm (named Cindy) currently headed for our coast. And one of southern Louisiana’s Congressmen lies in serious condition in a hospital in Washington, DC, after a horrific shooting. These are some bleak shadows. While I don’t need to hope that the sun will come out after this storm (because barring something catastrophic, it will); I am hoping that abundant light and goodwill will help Congressman Scalise to a rapid recovery.

There’s another thing I like about summer. It may be a holdover from my school days, but I still appreciate the freedom summer affords. To learn outside of textbooks or prescribed courses. I write this even though I’ve been out of school a really long time—by now, I’ve been out of school longer than I was ever in school. But I have a mighty long memory.

Speaking of learning and shining a light, an essay from the writer Rebecca Solnit popped up in my social media feeds last week. There’s a specific reason I hold Rebecca Solnit in high regard, but I’ll get to that in a bit. The piece that was making the rounds was a very eloquent essay on our President. Here’s a link to it, but fair warning: if you are pro-this-particular-President, it is not a complimentary assessment.

One of the reasons why I know of Rebecca Solnit: she co-wrote a book titled Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas. I don’t own this book, but I have given it as a gift. But here’s the real source of my admiration: she wrote an essay last fall that I keep (permanently) on my phone’s browser. It’s called: “How to be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit.

I refer to it whenever I need to shine a light on my writing habits. Or just need a little encouragement. Every bit of advice in it is thoughtful, useful, and truthful. I’m hard-pressed to excerpt a “favorite,” but No. 9 feels particularly salient for a little-known writer with earnest intentions (guess who?)

What we call success is very nice and comes with useful byproducts, but success is not love, or at least it is at best the result of love of the work and not of you, so don’t confuse the two. Cultivating love for others and maybe receiving some for yourself is another job and an important one. The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning rather than a consumer of meanings that may be at odds with your soul, your destiny, your humanity, so there’s another kind of success in becoming conscious that matters and that is up to you and nobody else and within your reach.”

Illuminating words, indeed.

My 100th Post!

12 million blogs.* One writer.

The odds are against Anne McClane…

That’s just the way she likes it.

 

Thanks to my Die Hard poster for letting me paraphrase some promotional copy. It seemed an appropriate way to open this most auspicious of posts—WordPress tells me this is #100!

When I began this venture in 2015, I had no idea what would fill this digital space. From then to now, I’ve never worried too much about it. (Any regular visitor here has probably figured that out by now. Bless your heart.) My intention with all this remains the same as it ever was: to give my writing ambitions a public face. And, essentially, to let anyone who may be interested know that I am a fiction writer.

Posting once a week for the past two years, I’m hitting 100 right on pace. While I just wrote that I’ve never worried too much about the content, I’ll admit it hasn’t always been easy to meet my self-imposed weekly Wednesday deadline. There have been times when I’ve concocted something in the wee hours of a Wednesday, or used my phone’s data to post something from an airport. Or written something in a hotel bathroom because I was sharing the room and didn’t want to disturb my sleeping roommate.

Since I haven’t missed a Wednesday yet, I feel inclined to reference another Bruce Willis character, and another great, preposterous, movie: Harry Stamper in Armageddon. In the scene where he’s fighting with Colonel Willie Sharp (played by William Fichtner), trying to get him to turn off a nuclear bomb, this is what Harry Stamper says:

“I have been drilling holes in the earth for 30 years. And I have never, NEVER missed a depth that I have aimed for. And by God, I am not gonna miss this one, I will make 800 feet.”

Okay, so, I haven’t been at this for 30 years, and the fate of the planet definitely does NOT depend on my blog posts. But for those times when I think of skipping, I think of this scene, and it gives me just enough fire to put something together.

In keeping with the number theme and my “come what may” attitude, here are a few stats:

  • Total views over the lifetime of this blog: 7,550
  • Only time I’ve ever topped 100 views in a day: my 2nd post, about a prescient letter my father wrote eighteen years before Katrina hit New Orleans
  • Post where I explained the whole Anne McClane / Die Hard thing: post #3
  • Tags I’ve used the most: Writing (20 times), New Orleans (13 times), paranormal romance (6 times), Star Wars and Lent are tied at 4 times apiece (go figure)

So, there you have it. Post #100. Hopefully I won’t be writing #101 in a bathroom.

*12 million blogs is completely fictitious. I have no idea how many blogs there are in the world.

June in New Orleans

The fountain murmuring of sleep,
A drowsy tune;
The flickering green of leaves that keep
The light of June;
Peace, through a slumbering afternoon,
The peace of June.

 

A waiting ghost, in the blue sky,
The white curved moon;
June, hushed and breathless, waits, and I
Wait too, with June;
Come, through the lingering afternoon,
Soon, love, come soon.

 

–“In Fountain Court” by Arthur Symons

June is a magical time in New Orleans. But the magic is not in the temperature. June is definitely not the best weather month—it’s when the air becomes really laden; June 1 marks the start of hurricane season; and don’t get me started on either the mosquitos or flying cockroaches. (Some call them Palmetto bugs, but I prefer to get straight to the point—these things are giant roaches that fly.)

So maybe part of the magic is this: the promise of something beautiful amidst these more miserable aspects. Arthur Symons wrote about “the flickering green of leaves that keep / The light of June.” For me, the light of June in New Orleans is a big piece of its magic puzzle. Now, Symons was a Welsh poet who died in 1945. I have to guess the light of the Junes he knew was a little different from mine—more northern, I suppose. But I also have to believe that there’s something universal about June in the Northern hemisphere, those days leading up to and away from the summer solstice.

Symons also wrote about waiting. “June, hushed and breathless, waits, and I / Wait too, with June.” Was he referring to something specific, or maybe just the quality of waiting in and of itself? Maybe he was referring to the solstice—the one day a year when light gets the best of darkness.

There’s something about June’s magic that had me set The Incident Under the Overpass during this month. Maybe it was because of the light, or maybe it was because the quality of waiting can help the “build” in a narrative sense. Or maybe it was just because it gave me an excuse to write about Maxfield Parrish skies, and the abundant, colorful, crape myrtle that bloom all throughout New Orleans this time of year.

June is also a challenge—if you haven’t figured it out yet, there’s something about the appeal of this month I find hard to articulate. Thus I explore it in fiction, in a blog post. Maybe if I keep trying, elucidation will come soon, love; come soon.

Alas, I’ve spent what time I had to spare today on those attempted articulations. Sorry for the disjointedness. But since I’ve heard a picture is worth a thousand words, here are some photos I’ve taken over the past four years, all within a month of the summer solstice. All in New Orleans, except the one with the water/beach. That was in Pensacola, which is not so far from here, and less than half a degree north in latitude. 🙂

Oh, also, the picture at the top of this post: if you look closely, it even has “the white curved moon,” like Symons’s poem.

The Spider Queen

There is a theater company here in New Orleans called The NOLA Project. They’ve been around for more than ten years now, so they don’t really qualify as “newcomers.” But I’ve seen many of their productions over the years, and I’m always struck by how they manage to keep things fresh.

Case in point, there’s their annual spring production in the New Orleans Museum of Art’s sculpture garden. A (sort-of) quick aside: the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden is one of my favorite places in the city. There is something transcendent about the way the sculptures are seamlessly woven into the five acre landscape of mature oak and pine.

And an aside to the aside: the name itself features a bit of New Orleans history. Sydney Besthoff was one of the principals in Katz and Besthoff, or K&B—a pharmacy that dominated the New Orleans cityscape for most of the twentieth century. People of a certain age in this city will still describe a particular color as “K&B purple.”

I’m so inspired by the sculpture garden, I set the final scene of The Incident Under the Overpass there. But I guess I’m not the only one inspired by it. I have to believe The NOLA Project’s latest production, The Spider Queen, was at least partially inspired by some of its sculptures. It’s an original play, written by James Bartelle and Alex Martinez Wallace. James Bartelle is the Associate Artistic Director of The NOLA Project.

I saw The Spider Queen with two nieces on Friday. The play was staged on the patch of ground in front of a sculpture called “Spider” by Louise Bourgeois. It’s the one pictured at the top of this post. (That photo was taken about four years ago, during one of the three cold-ish months we have in New Orleans.)

The most remarkable thing about The Spider Queen was, hands-down, the puppets. There was a bird operated by two puppeteers, and a dragon that (I think) had five puppeteers. The ogres had just one puppeteer apiece:

And the production saved the best for last. Here’s the Spider Queen herself. I think she had six puppeteers:

So, back to the original point I was attempting to make, about The NOLA Project keeping things fresh. The spring production in the sculpture garden is an annual thing, and it’s something I’ve done with an assortment of nieces over the years.

For several years in a row, it was Shakespeare in the garden. It was during Much Ado About Nothing, as I recall, when we had messy crepes filled with speculoos and had to fend off a termite swarm. (The two things are not related. Termites swarm in New Orleans every May, regardless of what’s in your crepe. If swearing off speculoos would keep the termites away, I would do it. Reluctantly.)

As timeless as Shakespeare can be, I’m glad The NOLA Project hasn’t felt compelled to stage the Bard every spring in the sculpture garden. While I’m sure some of the universal human foibles that inspired Shakespeare are still around, it was a lot of fun to see a contemporary composition, inspired by one of the very same places that inspires me.

Not to mention, niece Kate can do a spot-on imitation of the ogres. Much better than I bet Shakespeare himself could have done.

Writing Prompts

The very talented Tom put this together.

I’ve been part of a writing group—a writing workshop, I dare to say—since 2013. I count my years-long participation in this group as one of my bona fides as a writer. “Of course I’m a real writer. I meet with other writers regularly in a bar!” You can’t get more legitimate than that.

The group is run by Stephen Rea, author of Finn McCool’s Football Club: The Birth, Death and Resurrection of a Pub Soccer Team in the City of the Dead. (Thank you, Stephen, for helping me meet my word count goal for this post). Stephen runs several different courses of fiction-writing classes at a lovely bar in New Orleans called Treo. If you’re interested, you can find out more about the classes on Facebook here.

The most recent 10-week session for our particular group will conclude tonight. It’s a little bittersweet, because we stumbled upon a bit of alchemy in this last course. We agreed to do a group project, collaborating on two short stories based on a prompt. The prompts were configured as such:

  • Man lying on the ground, woman tapping on both shoulders
  • Woman lying on the ground, man tapping on both shoulders

Everyone committed to writing 1,500 words. Names were drawn each week to determine who would work on which story. I drew the final chapter for the second story—Woman lying on the ground…

The first prompt became “The Fallen Man,” a tale of a woman named Carol escaping men in hazmat suits while trying to protect a young boy named Matt. There’s also the threat of biochemical warfare, an explosion, possible brainwashing, and Atomic Burger.

The second prompt became “Bai Polar,” the story of a woman named Bai Cavallo, who’s either from another planet entirely, or in the midst of a psychotic break. There’s also Glossolalia, cookies and milk, ectrodactyly, and plenty of references to an alien star system.

Brain injury figures into both stories.

There was a fair amount of friendly rivalry as the stories progressed. One group dubbed themselves “Team Awesome,” leaving the other group to dub themselves “Team Awesome-er.” Since I drew the last chapter, several weeks passed before I knew which team I’d wind up on. (It was “Team Awesome-er.”)

I wrote the conclusion to “Bai Polar” on the plane ride back from Europe, and had more fun doing it than I remotely suspected. I got to draw together all the threads sewn by five different writers, and it was a really awesome(er) challenge.

Writing is such a singular occupation, nearly all of the time. I loved this opportunity to be part of team, rallying behind a character and story that we composed together. If this experience is anything like what it is to be part of a “writers’ room” on a television series, then that is an enviable occupation, indeed.

Untethered

Yes, I referred to myself in the third person in the caption on the back. I think I’ve always been afraid I’ll forget who I am.

My father called it “re-entry syndrome.” That period, after a time away, when you get back into the life that was waiting on you while you were somewhere else.

Dad had big-time wanderlust. He would take us on really long vacations in the summer. I remember making our way from southern Louisiana to Glacier National Park in Montana in one three-week road trip. That might have been the summer of ’79, when we traversed a portion of the Lewis and Clark trail.

Back then, all that was waiting on me when we returned were the family pets. (Quat the cat, Rin the dog, and Bunny the bunny. Bunny had several nicknames—actually, all the animals did. “Bunny” was itself a nickname—but I won’t get into that here.) Sometimes there were swim lessons. So I had the pets, some swimming, and a lingering dread of the impending school year. That constituted my re-entry back in the day.

It was a different scenario for my father. He had his job as an Air Traffic Controller, his commission in the National Guard, and seven children to raise. That last bit was by no means his responsibility alone—I have to mention Mom here. She liked to travel, too, and was a gentle and quiet constant on all these “vacations.” But I suspect the marathon-no-frills road trips were purely the brainchild of my father. So he only had himself to blame for whatever re-entry awaited him.

After twelve days in Germany and France, I’ve been feeling a bit untethered. I suppose that’s my version of re-entry syndrome. It feels apropos, since my life, by my choice, is not as heavy as my father’s was. There’s a lot less to burn as I enter the atmosphere.

There are some changes happening at my place of employment that are factoring into the feeling. But the state of my writing life is also contributing in a major way. Two manuscripts are out of my hands, awaiting revisions. Lacey’s first story is with the new publisher, and a draft of Lacey’s second story is with an editor. I plan to take the rest of this month off before I start outlining and composing the third.

Some part of me knows that this untethered time is absolutely necessary. Especially for writing. It will give me needed distance from the material, so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes and renewed vigor.

But I miss the discipline of working on it every day. And what will happen if I let myself get too distant? Will my capacity diminish, along with my prospects? What if a big rogue wave comes up and displaces my little unmoored dinghy somewhere really far away?

Come to think of it, that might make a pretty good story. One person, alone in the ocean in a small boat. Though I think it’s been done a few times before. 😉

 

Paris

Me, Kris and Tamara at les jardins des Moulin Jaune

So, by the time folks in the U.S. are waking up, and may (or may not) see this post in their feeds, I should be somewhere over the Atlantic, returning home to the U.S. after twelve days in Europe.

I spent the last five days with friends in Paris. My friend Tamara has lived in Paris for the past six years; she met me in Geneva last year when I was traveling in Europe for work.

This time, I went to her home after my work was done in Düsseldorf. And as a bonus, two more friends from California came to Paris. The last time we were all together was in 2012, so it turned into a mini reunion of sorts.

Thinking it over, I realized this was my fourth visit to Paris (in the past twenty years). And each time, I’ve become progressively less of a tourist. And the time that I just passed there was exceedingly special, and not just because we had an insider’s tour to the city. Or because I was there when Macron was elected. (Though that was nice news).

A good bit of the reason was because I got to spend time with both Tamara and Kris. The three of us forged an enduring friendship in our youth, when we all lived in Los Angeles. It was one of those things where we found ourselves at similar stages of our lives, and something just clicked.

The three of us are like sisters from different mothers. And it’s a description that’s particularly poignant, since we find ourselves again at similar stages now, in middle age. We’ve all lost our mothers recently—Kris most recently—and there was just something so enriching about spending time with close friends who know you and get you. And still want to spend time with you anyway. 🙂

Tamara lives in the 20th Arrondissement, in a lovely apartment that is amazingly quiet, and within walking distance of Père Lachaise cemetery. We spent the first day walking our way to Père Lachaise, and took a detour through the Petite Ceinture, a railway line that’s no longer in use.

The second day was rainy, and we wandered the Marais, shopped, and ducked into three different churches. None of them the BIG Notre Dame.

On Sunday, the third day, we headed outside the city to Crécy-la-Chapelle, to a special event at Le Moulin Jaune. A man named Slava opens up this property to the public every few months. On this particular Sunday, the gardens were open to wander, and it was a true “through the looking glass” experience. It was raining, and the damp only added to the chill we all felt. But there was borscht and vin chaud at the end, and we all left with some amazing pictures and a true sense memory of a very unique place.

Finally, in the time just passed, I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on my writing life. I’ve been on this writing journey for the past seven years, and was pretty quiet about it for the first five. But Kris and Tamara have known since the early days, probably since Tamara’s going-away-party when she left for Paris.

So it was nice to look down the abandoned underground passages of the Petite Ceinture, and say something about how it made me think of C.H.U.D., and not have my companions blink an eye. Or same thing, when I expressed how a gypsy wagon on the grounds of Le Moulin Jaune haunted me in a downright preternatural way.

My soul’s been enriched and my imagination sparked. Don’t think I could ask for much more.

On the Petite Ceinture. C.H.U.D. might be lurking.
Amazing roses in the Marais
The organ at St. Eustache
Les jardins des Moulin Jaune
The gypsy wagon. And yes, that is a white rabbit in the background.

Düsseldorf

So, I’m in Germany right now—Düsseldorf, to be exact—setting up a trade show. The show opens tomorrow. The heavy lifting (from a marketing perspective) began yesterday and will continue full bore today. The weather has been kind of gray and miserable since Monday, so it hasn’t been so bad being stuck inside Messe Düsseldorf Hall 13.

Airfare and timing wise, it worked out best to arrive over the weekend. Sunday was a bright, cool, glorious spring day, and my friend and colleague, Sherri, and I had the time to check out some of the sights before our work began in earnest.

Herewith some of those sights:

*Rheinturm

Rheinturm, or the Rhine Tower, is this massive concrete structure, and the tallest building in Düsseldorf. Wikipedia tells me it’s a communication tower that holds aerials for directional radio, FM and TV transmitters. I’d imagine all that stuff was a much bigger deal when it was built in 1981, because there didn’t seem to be much hoopla about the communications equipment when we went there. Or maybe there was, but it was all in German. Anyway, we went for the sole purpose of checking out the observation deck that sits 168 meters above the earth.

The picture at the top of this post shows the impressive view from the tower. All those white tents along the right side of the Rhine River were for the Düsseldorf Marathon, which just so happened to be this past Sunday. If you look really closely, you can see the runners.

In this picture, taken from the bridge nearest my hotel, you can see the tower on the right:

*Neuer Zollhof

In nearly every depiction of the Rheinturm I encountered, there were these really cool, curvy buildings featured in the foreground. I got to see them up close before I knew anything about them:

The one I’m standing in front of is covered in these keen reflective stainless steel tiles. Wikipedia tells me the three buildings are known as Neuer Zollhof, were designed by Frank O. Gehry, and completed in 1998. It looked to me like they house offices and restaurants.

Nothing too much more meaningful to share here, except that there was just something Gaudi-esque about those buildings that appealed to me.

Finally, I’ll conclude with Monday. It was gray and rainy, and there wasn’t a whole lot going on—even at the convention center—because of the May Day holiday. The only open restaurant we could find near our hotel was one called “China Town.” (Thank you, China Town, for upholding the old adage.) It was a lovely find, the service was wonderful, and the Chow Mein (I think it’s called something “Nudeln” in German) was delicious.

Auf wiedersehen.

Finished, But Not Abandoned

The Tremors on the PCH?

So, this post is going to be chock full of news (and quotes):

First, I finished Lacey’s second story! When I completed the (then-final) draft of Lacey’s first story, The Incident Under the Overpass, I posted something in these pages attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

The second story is by no means ready to be abandoned yet. It is definitely a first draft, not-yet-ready-for-prime-time. Something I read years ago, in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, has stuck with me:

“You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up.”

Here’s another quote: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” It appears that’s attributed to Jodi Picoult, though Goodreads attributes “You can’t edit a blank page” to Nora Roberts. Either way, in the latest story I wrote, all the characters and the elements of the plot are down. Some might go away, some might get added, but the bones, and a good bit of the musculature, are there. I’m just ecstatic I now have a complete story to revise.

Second, I signed a publishing contract for The Incident Under the Overpass! I signed with After Glows Publishing, a press “that offers page turning romances and urban fantasies that allow readers the escape from real life.” I’m very excited that Lacey will soon be appearing on After Glows’ bookshelf.

So, it turns out, I didn’t abandon Lacey’s first story after all: it will get re-edited, re-designed, and re-released later this year.

And finally, this is my last post from the U.S. for a couple of weeks! I’ll be in Germany for work next week, and then returning home from France the week after that. This upcoming travel was the main reason I was so determined to finish the second story. I knew I wouldn’t be able to devote any real time to it over the first two weeks of May. And I had a good bit of momentum going that would have been lost during that break.

Hopefully, the break will work out for the best, and I’ll be ready to jump into revisions when I get back.

Auf wiedersehen, (and au revoir), for now.