May 26, 2017

Upstate 8 Literary Festival: Keynote (Part 3)

In Part 2 of my keynote speech, I shared my meandering path to becoming an author, from corporate consulting to teaching to moving across the ocean and finally writing in earnest. But like any job, writing is WORK. So, to continue...

Films would have people believe that we writers are reclusive, brooding creatures, feverishly scribbling with ink-stained fingers by candlelight, dashing off masterpieces in a burst of inspiration as our Muse sings softly in one ear and her sister strokes a harp in the other.
I know friends have found my life very Hemingway and romantic, the expat writer crafting stories in foreign cafes when I’m not at my typewriter up in a garret or a turret or something...when, in reality, I’m most often in my flat at the computer, wearing yoga pants—maybe a sock-monkey hat—squished into the tiny second bedroom that also triples as my office and my husband’s closet. Writing is my work, so sometimes I just have to do what it takes to git ’er done. No frills.
Never mind getting published and marketing books after the fact—the writing and revising alone is work. All of it.
And that does psyche a lot of people out. Understandably so! What’s more intimidating than staring down a blank computer screen or sheet of paper?
But whenever I’m asked for advice on how to start writing, my response is pretty basic: “Start writing.” The only way to do it is to, you know, actually do it. You can’t sculpt anything without the clay. There’s nothing to polish and perfect without a first draft. A really rough, rambling, rookie first draft. That’s what you cut your teeth on.
So, just write. Write about everything; write about nothing. Watch people and things; observe behavior and sensory detail. And when you first write something down about it, don’t put the pressure on yourself to make it perfect. That all comes in due time. For now, just let go.

Getting in the habit of writing a little something every day warms you up and gets you into a groove. Stretching and flexing your creative muscles is just like exercising—the more you do it, the more energized you feel and the more you want to do it and inhibitions drop away.
I’ll admit it: My own process isn’t pretty. (Definitely not any prettier than me in a sock-monkey hat.) My creative process is messy and mental and just plain mean to me sometimes. Because all of my stories originate from a very scattered place: my brain. And the only way to get them out of my head is to kick up a windstorm in there and blow the ideas out onto paper.

And I do mean paper. I write my manuscripts on the computer, I do, but they always start as pen-to-paper. I don’t know why, but something about the physical act of handwriting dislodges ideas in a way that typing at the computer does not. And, honestly, I don’t even try to be organized about it—as soon as I have the bud of an idea, I go all-out brainstorming—writing any and all thoughts that come to mind onto any and all scraps of paper I can find—so then I can eventually look back at them from a bird’s-eye view and begin connecting the dots.
From there, I tidy it all into an outline. Granted, nothing neatly divided into tiers of A, B, C, 1, 2, 3 like I used to teach my students for five-paragraph essays. They’re more like back-of-the-envelope bullet points, but guidance nonetheless. Just enough to give me a sense of the story’s shape and direction without confining my creativity.
It’s definitely different for everyone, but I personally need to allow for some organic flow, balancing structure with spontaneity. I wouldn’t enjoy the writing process nearly as much if I plotted everything meticulously in advance. That gives me the breathing room I need to change my mind if I end up wanting to head somewhere else.
It also allows for those odd-and-wonderful moments of pure writing magic, when it’s almost like the characters are whispering the next scenes in your ear. As if the story already exists on some level, independent of you, but you’ve been chosen to tell it. When this happens, it’s a little haunting but so amazing. When, truly and almost inexplicably inspired, you just write without knowing where it’s going and end up creating something better than it ever would’ve been if you’d thought about it too hard.
Those are the moments when writing feels easy. But since you can’t force the magic, you need to enforce the method. 

Ultimately, you need to find the method that works best for you, and surely your process will evolve with experience, just as mine continues to. But even setting our own expectations requires discipline as we make time for our writing and revise it until it becomes the best version of itself.  
I wish I could say that I write every day, but I don’t. At least not creatively. Otherwise, sure, I’m writing. I write emails or text messages or social media posts (or keynote speeches). But creatively, some days I just don’t feel it. The story goes quiet and the characters don’t speak to me.
Those are discouraging times, and I always feel guilty. Because we can’t just sit around and wait for inspiration. We need to try to show up on the page in some way. 

Sometimes I do so by revising what I’ve already written. Or, I take to pen and paper again to brainstorm. Or I don’t write anything at all but still think through my plots and characters away from the computer. I’ve had some great revelations hit me while I’m shampooing my hair in the morning or falling asleep at night. I’ve even gotten pages of material just from walking through the old Victorian cemetery near my flat and reading the gravestones.
So, whatever works. Go for a walk. Ride your bike. Sketch or color some pictures. Just because you’re not literally writing doesn’t mean you aren’t still “writing” in your mind—just as long as you do at some point jot down your thoughts before you forget them. Even writing just five minutes a day is better than none. You wouldn’t train for a marathon by running twenty miles your first day. You start small and do what you can to show up on the page.
Still, at those honest-to-goodness times when I feel too tapped out to create anything—well, then I show up on someone else’s page.
I read.

I sincerely believe we cannot be good writers unless we’re good readers. Every time we read, it’s an investment in our writing. On one level, we can observe how other writers structure and develop their work and craft their language. On another level, we can simply lose ourselves in the experience of someone else’s written world, rediscover the joy to be found in words and imagination to remind us why we’re writing our own pieces and recharge us for when we’re ready to return to them.
Because, why do we write? Why should we? 
I'll explore that next in Part 4 of this keynote series...

May 25, 2017

Upstate 8 Literary Festival: Keynote (Part 2)

In Part 1 of my keynote address, I related my personal history with the Upstate 8 and how my writing life began by entering my elementary school's Young Authors Contest. I learned at an early age that rejection is part of the process, but also that the more I tried, the more I improved. The key was to KEEP WRITING. Yet on that note... 

I wish I had kept writing creatively, but I’d let it lapse awhile during and after college, when I studied finance and became a consultant. In the years to follow, I wrote mainly emails and financial analysis. As all the while, my mother lamented, “Where are my writers? Where is my poet?” since all four of us kids had gone into either accounting or finance.
My brothers are still CPAs, but both my sister and I are now authors—so, Mom? You’re welcome. My sister and I both started out in finance, too, and maybe we weren’t writing fiction then, but we continued to read it as our escape from an everyday existence that paid the bills but didn’t quite make us tick. I don’t regret pursuing a business career—it’s challenging and rewarding in its own way—but during those daily commutes to downtown Chicago, when I was reading a novel when I probably should’ve been keeping up to date with the Wall Street Journal or something, I just knew. I knew I wasn’t long for the business world.
One day, I left the office to visit a bookshop. I was picking out a gift for a niece or nephew, looking through the children’s section when I came across my all-time favorite picture book as a kid: The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but it’s basically about a peaceful bull who loves smelling flowers more than anything. He chooses not to romp around with the other young bulls and won’t fight inside the bullring in Madrid. He simply wants to sit under his favorite cork tree and smell the flowers.

Believe it or not, finding this book in that bookstore on that day was an epiphany for me. Standing between the shelves, flipping through this story that I hadn’t read since childhood, I realized that I didn’t want to fight the corporate bullfight anymore either. It went against my grain, and all I wanted was to find my way of smelling the flowers, too.

Which is when I realized: books. Books are my flowers. They always have been. Reading them, teaching them, now writing and editing them. My life’s been a virtual greenhouse ever since I decided to pull a 180 and leave consulting to study English language and literature instead. I earned my masters in education and became an English teacher, first as a student teacher and long-term substitute at Geneva High School (go, Vikings!) and then as a full-time teacher here at St. Charles North (go, North Stars!). Teaching was by far the toughest job I’ve ever had, but I loved my work here. I loved my students and colleagues and the communities of the Upstate Eight. In my heart, this area will always be my home.
But life does happen. Nearly ten years ago, I got married and moved to London for my husband’s career. I won’t pretend the transition wasn’t difficult, but now I’m a dual American and British citizen, and the UK has become another home, and another inspiration for writing. 

And I’m talking crazy inspirational—I can’t walk a block without stumbling on something of historical or literary significance. I live right down the street from where Beatrix Potter wrote her Peter Rabbit tales. I often stroll through Kensington Gardens, where Peter Pan was inspired, and I’ve explored Shakespeare’s hometown. I’ve seen Charlotte Brontë’s original manuscript for Jane Eyre and stood in Jane Austen’s house (which is pictured here). I’ve hung out at Charles Dickens’ old haunts and met his great-great-great-granddaughter Lucinda Hawksley. I’ve even had one of my manuscript chapters critiqued in person by a descendant of Charles Darwin, the author Emma Darwin.
So, for close to a decade, I’ve been OMG-ing my fool head off over walking in the footsteps of my literary heroes, feeling ever humbled by their talent but ever aspiring to it.  

Yet the fact of the matter is, moving to London did take me away from family, friends, and my teaching career here. That was heartbreaking. And though I started out teaching across the pond as a substitute, until I could find satisfactory full-time work, I blogged for a London relocation agency, writing about life in the UK from my expat perspective. Professional blogging was my first foray into writing at length every day, and I found the process of sharing my written experience very therapeutic. And since I only worked part-time, I finally had the opportunity to try what I’d always wanted to do: write a novel.
Oh, yeah, suuure. Write a novel. Simple.
Right. I had no clue how to come up with an idea that I could run with for the entire length of a book! But what I always consider first as a writer is: What do I enjoy as a reader? Probably the best advice I’ve ever received and could impart to you today is this: Write what you want to read.
Write what you want to read.
For me, that’s fiction with elements of mystery, history, and a touch of the supernatural. Something modern but with a Gothic edge. Having lived in historic buildings in both Chicago and London, I can’t help but think of all the lives that occupy the same spaces over the decades if not centuries. Living and dying there. I look around and imagine what might’ve happened in the rooms where I stand, where I sleep. So, the nature of time and the soul just fascinates me and can be explored through so many dimensions; I don’t think I could ever exhaust all the ways to approach it.
But sometimes even all that possibility is overwhelming—almost scarier than having no clue what to write about. I might feel like my ambition exceeds my talent, and I psyche myself out. Which blocks me from writing.
To overcome a really bad bout of writer’s block that I had on my first book, I turned to short fiction. I cracked open a journal and did freewriting like I used to in high school. I started a personal blog and posted my responses to writing prompts. I also took some of these entries and revised them to submit to flash-fiction sites and short-story contests. And I simultaneously began editing for a small publishing company, which helped me hone my craft by helping others.  
And within a few years of trying, really trying to make space for writing in my life, I got two short stories and two novels published, mostly under the pen name Rumer Haven. 
Both novels are ghost stories of sorts that switch between past and present, and I’m currently wrapping up a 1920s murder mystery. After that, I’m tackling a paranormal book series, if all goes to plan, along with an anthology of supernatural stories. So, for as much as I’ve done, I’ve still got my work cut out for me. 
Because let’s not kid ourselves: Writing is a joy, but writing is also a lot of work.
To be continued in Part 3 of this keynote series...

May 24, 2017

Upstate 8 Literary Festival: Keynote (Part 1)

This past April, I was tremendously honored to deliver the keynote address at the Upstate Eight's 2017 Literary Festival in suburban Chicago, Illinois. I still have a ways to go on my journey as a writer, but what a privilege to share what I've learned so far with the next generation. I'm in awe of the creative students I met that day and can only hope that I encouraged their own journeys in some small way. 
I'd like to finally share this speech with you, too, dear readers. But since I yammered on for at least a half hour, I'll post in installments. Without further ado, here is Part the First...

Good morning, everyone! I can’t even begin to tell you what an honor it is for me to be here with you all today, in the presence of such talented writers, and in the school where I used to teach.
My career path has admittedly been a rather meandering one, but St. Charles North was one of its most important destinations. I owe so much to this place. And to the Upstate Eight overall, as I grew up in Bartlett (go, Hawks!), but since there wasn’t a Bartlett High School back in my day, I received my education at Elgin High School. (Any Maroons here? Go, EHS!). 
I’m an old-fart forty-year-old now, but believe me, I remember being your age…the fun and the uncertainty and the whole career path still ahead, not yet sure where it’ll begin. Maybe you do know what you want to do, or maybe you’re still figuring it out like most folks. Maybe you’ll seek publication one day or maybe writing will remain a happy hobby. 

These days, all of you write for class assignments, but, if you’re here today, you likely also write privately as a creative outlet. Maybe you submit work to your school’s literary magazine, or maybe you write flash fiction or fanfiction online. Or perhaps you just keep it all to yourself in a well-worn and trusted journal. We all write for our own purposes, but the main point is that we all write
When I think about my own writing life, I can’t help but look way back to grade school, to the Young Authors contest at Wayne Elementary. I don’t like to brag, but…I won that contest when I was in sixth grade. I’d written a gripping coming-of-age tale titled The Kid Next Door. I not only wrote the story, I illustrated it. Double threat. And after I won, I did a school-wide publicity tour, visiting different classrooms and reading excerpts. 

But never fear, it didn’t go straight to my head. I didn’t start out on top as an eleven-year-old. That wasn’t my first go at writing and setting myself up for acceptance or rejection. Oh, no. I had first entered that contest in second grade, when I submitted a short story called The Panda’s Lost Mother. It was a dramatic piece about a panda who gets lost in the forest. And I gave it this big twist at the end where the panda gets found. I know. I thought I really had something there.
Needless to say, the story didn’t win. Not even close to a runner-up. Because, big surprise, it was a really terrible story. The dialogue was stiff, it told more than it showed, the conflict was severely underdeveloped—and, quite simply, it didn’t deserve to win. I hadn’t given it much effort.
So, I tried again the next year with a story called The Lost Puppy

That story was about—wait for it—a puppy that gets lost in the forest. I know! This stuff writes itself! I drew pictures for that, too. And though this third-grade effort offered better description and a more heightened sense of tension, it didn’t win either.  
But I would not be deterred.
The next year, I challenged myself in a different genre altogether and decided to write poetry. And I illustrated that as well. Because, apparently that was my thing. And that year, I made it as a runner-up. 

So, my morale was back. Yet I sat out the contest in fifth grade—regrouped, I guess…waited for inspiration. I’m not sure. All I remember is that the following year I wrote The Kid Next Door and tasted greatness.
Okay, so, in retrospect, that story was pretty terrible, too. But that’s not the point. When I wrote The Panda’s Lost Mother, I was a seven-year-old hack. I didn’t want to write that story; I wanted to win the contest. It’s like when I tried out for badminton freshman year at Elgin because I wanted the satin team jacket. And I got rejected for that, too!
But by the time I wrote poetry in fourth grade, I wanted to. I found actual joy in it. And then I didn’t force myself to enter something the next year. I didn’t write another story until one came to me that I actually wanted to write. And I think that’s why, ultimately, the third and fourth times were the charm.
At the time, of course, I was just having fun. I wouldn’t know what an important lesson I had learned until twenty years later when I began writing in earnest. But looking back on it now, I appreciate how every time I wrote and submitted a story to that contest, I made progress. I also failed, but then I tried again and got better. 

I’m no stranger to rejection in my adult life either, but the more I’ve written and submitted my stories, the more rejections have turned into acceptances. It’s a bit of a numbers game, but also a matter of growing in the craft. The greatest acceptance we could ever experience, though, is our own acceptance of our work. We, first and foremost, need to love it and feel proud of it. And if others don’t love it, well then, we have to accept that, too.

I think it took me a while to learn that. As I outgrew my childhood moxy, I became more self-conscious as a writer. As of middle school and high school, I’d stopped entering writing contests, though I’m not sure if it was mostly lack of confidence or motivation. Probably a combination of both. I wasn’t proactive like all of you seated here, contributing your lovely literary work to this festival, which is so admirable. I’m so proud and inspired by what you’re accomplishing today.

What I can at least say for myself at your age is that, insecure as I was, I never stopped loving to write. I mean, yeah, I usually moaned over English assignments like everyone else, but whether it was a poem, short story, or essay, I truly did enjoy the challenge of crafting sentences in a way that would clearly and effectively communicate my message. I enjoyed figuring out what my message was in the first place. And I enjoyed playing with language, experimenting with turns of phrase. English is such a word-rich playground for that.

Which is why I loved, loved when my teachers would assign creative writing. My favorite task was when my sophomore English teacher gave us time in class to conduct freewritings. We had to keep a notebook solely for that, and she would give us something like five minutes to just write without stopping. Without caring about grammar or spelling or how weird our train of thought was getting. We just had to run with it, and it was the most liberating sensation, unlocking parts of my brain I didn’t realize I had.

Twenty-five years later, I still distinctly remember Mrs. Morrison commenting in my notebook, “You have a poet’s instinct for imagery.” That’s stuck with me. As does a professor’s comment on one of my graduate-school essays. He’d said my writing was good, but it could be great if I just relaxed it a little.
And it did need relaxing. I always tried too hard, speaking more from my head than my heart, trying to sound intellectual, and saying in two words what I could’ve said in one. I hope you take your teachers’ feedback to heart like I did, be it their compliments or criticism. Both are invaluable and neither should encourage you to either rest on your laurels or give up. Keep. Writing.   
To be continued in Part 2 of this keynote series...

September 26, 2016

Signing in the Cemetery!

What a haunted hoot I had with fellow paranormal author Shani Struthers last weekend! Saturday was our morbid-yet-merry book-signing at Brompton Cemetery.

One of London's "Magnificent Seven" cemeteries from the Victorian era, Brompton was the birthplace of my novel What the Clocks Know. I stumbled on this graveyard immediately after relocating to London several years ago, and it's been my favorite London location ever since. As Morrissey sings in the Smiths' song "Cemetry Gates":
So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
All those people, all those lives
Where are they now?
With loves and hates
And passions just like mine
They were born
And then they lived
And then they died
That's what I contemplate, too, whenever walking through Brompton. This cemetery has some notable residents resting in peace there, like the renowned suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. But the unknowns also fascinate me as I wonder who they were. Now of very special note to me is one Charlotte Pidgeon, whom I "met" early on during my Brompton strolls and ended up fictionalizing in my story. (Beatrix Potter, too, used to take names for her Peter Rabbit characters from the headstones here.)

So you can imagine my thrill when the lovely Friends of Brompton Cemetery agreed to host this signing, and that joy increased exponentially when Shani Struthers agreed to sign by my side. Shani is the author of Jessamine, the Psychic Surveys series, and the new This Haunted World series (which just launched with book one, the Amazon bestseller The Venetian). Her ghost stories are among my favorites, a wonderful complement to my own paranormal fiction, and fit in perfectly with our unconventional venue. All of our books paired well with wine, too. 😄🍷

Also at Brompton's chapel this month is artist Iluá Hauck da Silva, who gave a talk about her "Minotaurs of the Mind: The Second Coil" exhibition prior to our signing. She and her work are stunning, and I was captivated by her inspirations and process. 

Shani and I originally intended to hold our event inside the chapel, too, but we were graced with lovely weather (something you cannot take for granted in London!) so decided to move the party outside. The sun eventually tucked behind the clouds, but we still enjoyed the fresh air and our view, as well as greeting passersby.

Among our attendees was an actual ghost-hunting team! Does it get better than that??! We are so grateful to Twilight Ghost Hunts for stopping by before their overnight ghost tour of the London Tombs.

Our excitement lasted right to the very end, when we raced against time to pack up and reach the gate before we got locked in the graveyard overnight!! We did make it out, carrying on our supernatural celebration with "spirits" of the cocktail variety at the Troubadour cafe. Here is Shani looking ab fab at our private post-party:

Needless to say, we had a spooky and splendid time on Saturday, and now our souls are restless for more! 👻 👻

September 4, 2016

Madness to the Method, Part 2: The Outline

In my previous post, "Madness to the Method, Part 1: The Brainstorm," I discussed how all of my stories originate from a very sloppy, scattered place: my brain. And the only way to get them out of my head is to kick up a windstorm in there and blow the ideas out onto paper like so much debris. At some point, though, these ideas need to be swept up into a plot pile, which then gets tidied into a story arc.

I've written short stories and vignettes here and there ever since I was a kid, and in crafting those, I usually do just sit and write from start to finish, having a general idea of where I want to go but pretty much making it all up along the way. So when I first took a crack at writing a novel, I automatically assumed I could approach it the same way. Which, when I now think about it, was incredibly naive and insane. Writing a few hundred or thousand words is one thing (don't get me wrong, short stories also benefit from advance planning), but taking on several tens of thousands is quite another. It can become a management nightmare if you just run into such a vast and wild, unexplored frontier with all creative guns blazing and no strategic plan. So as I continued to revise my first manuscript, I had to learn the hard way that backing cohesion and proper pacing into a novel is difficult as hell, and it would have behooved me to have an outline first.

Which is what I did for my second manuscript. I gathered my miscellaneous brainstorming and started to slot it into sections. Still spastic scribblings in my journal, by no means neatly divided into tiers of A, B, C, i, ii, iii, but guidance nonetheless. This bullet-pointed bird's-eye view helped me tremendously by giving a sense of the story's shape and direction without also confining my creativity. I wasn't bound to every idea that I jotted down here, nor were any of them fleshed out enough to dictate every step of the journey. Some writers might prefer a more detailed outline than this, but I've found I personally thrive under this balance between the concrete and the as-yet abstract. The organized and the organic. That gives me the breathing room I need to let myself change my mind if the characters want to head somewhere else, and it allows for those moments of magic when, truly and almost inexplicably inspired, you just write without knowing where it's going and end up creating something better than you could've ever achieved if you'd thought about it too hard.

Giving myself over to the story this way inevitably demands script changes, then, and sometimes I still manage to write myself into a corner. I leave certain aspects open to possibility so reach the inevitable fork in the road where I must commit to one outcome versus another. And I don't always want to go with what I originally planned--or have written myself so far outside that scope that it isn't even an option anymore--at which point I'll sit with pen and paper yet again and hash it out. In the case of both Seven for a Secret and What the Clocks Know, I was closing in on the final chapters when I needed to stop, step back, and brainstorm my way through a State of the Story outline: basically, Here's where my characters are at right now. Is this where I want them to be, and, if so, what are their options from here? It became a decision tree of sorts that ultimately helped me work out the solutions (and bust through my writer's block).

Ultimately, every writer needs to find what method works best for him or her, and surely the process continues to evolve with experience. With only two novel manuscripts down, a third in the works, and a fourth largely in the brainstorm stage, I have personally learned that I will never again attempt one without some semblance of an outline and especially encourage the practice to anyone out there who is writing a novel for the first time. 

August 23, 2016

Madness to the Method, Part 1: The Brainstorm

In a previous post, I shared the random freewriting that planted the seed of a story several years ago. At the time, though, I had no clue what sort of plot I could shape around that and never believed that I'd ever have enough ideas (or time) to seriously write a novel-length fiction. Freely written vignettes were more my thing back then and are still what greatly help dislodge ideas from my scattered brain so I can find some cohesion among them on paper if I can't in my mind.

My brainstorming process isn't pretty. I admit it. But the only way I can write is to write everything down that swarms inside my fool head. I wrote my two manuscripts on the computer, but they both started out as pen-to-paper scraps of ideas, which I wrote on literal scraps as well.

The photo above is where my novel Seven for a Secret was born: character profiles jotted on the back of my husband's resume at Cafe Nero in London, popular 1920s names listed on hotel stationary in Singapore, the catalyst and its ripple effect on different characters scratched onto a torn piece of paper who knows where, and the draft plot outline, key questions, and possible scenarios scribbled into a notebook at a cafe in the French Alps.

Yeah, it probably all sounds very Hemingway and romantic, the expat writer crafting her stories in foreign cafes and hotels when she's not at her typewriter up in a garret, smoking and sipping absinthe all the while, but the reality isn't all that quaint (or substance-abusing). My creative process is messy and mental and just plain mean to me sometimes.

And the lame reason why I ended up alone and able to outline my entire tale in the Alpine village of Val d'Isere is because I don't ski. While everyone else went frolicking into the majestic mountains to flaunt their athletic awesomeness, I needed something to do at loser--I mean, lower elevation. Hot toddies were certainly in order, but my mind was too restless to even read. So, pictured here is the pretty (cheap) lil' journal I bought in a small shop that day, documenting that I outlined my story in early 2011.

And over three years later...huh. Let's just say I've never been so happy that I don't partake in winter sports. :)