Archive for September, 2011

Building the Bridge

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011 | The Writing Life | No Comments

Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression.  The chasm is never completely bridged.  We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper.  ~ Isaac Bashevis Singer

As a writer, I can definitely vouch for the second part of this quote. I do have a lot to say, and not all of it makes it to the page. In many ways, this is a blessing. The Delete Key and the waste basket are two of a writer’s best friends. Though a first draft requires that I turn my inner editor off, the second, third and fourth drafts live for and with that inner editor, making the book better, honing the novel along with my craft.

The first part of this quote is also true. We all cringe at the distance between what we mean to say, and what comes onto the page. There is always more beauty in us than we can express, depths that we can not always reach. But we sit down at the computer anyway, and reach for the best within us. The chasm as Mr. Singer says may never be completely bridged. But that chasm is where the good stuff is. The effort to reach across it, to make my work better than it was yesterday, is part of the reason I stay in the chair. I hope by the end of my life to have built a better bridge between the beauty of a project as I see it in my mind, and the beauty that makes it onto the page. It is a bridge worth building, even if it is never finished.

Our Characters: The Path into the Void

Friday, September 23rd, 2011 | The Writing Life | 4 Comments

Where would we be without our characters? I for one would be nowhere. While I have a lively imagination, I tend to live a quiet life. I have fought in no wars.  I have run from no crazed killers (thank goodness). I have never worked in law enforcement. If I were to turn to my real life for stories to put in my novels, I would have very little to say. So I am lucky that my characters come to me.

I am one of those writers who does not pick up her pen, or turn on her computer, until a character has shown up. They come to me first, and ask, “Would you like to hear my story?” Princess Alais, a quiet girl, emerged from the Void one evening, and asked that simple question. It turned out that there was a great deal more to that character than the quiet voice I first heard or than the history books would suggest. Alais led me, slowly, one step at a time, down the path that was her life. Looking at the wilds of the Plantagenet court from a devout, convent raised girl’s point of view was fascinating, but it was even more fascinating when that quiet girl stepped out of the role that had been proscribed for her to take a chance on building a new life for herself. Whether she failed or not doesn’t matter. The fact that she tried made her 100 times more interesting to me. The Queen’s Pawn would never have been born without Alais’ constant presence and contribution, and for that, I will always be grateful to her.

I know that I sound mad. To any person who is not an artist, the sort of thing I am describing would call for medication and a long rest. 🙂 But as Henry James once wrote, this devotion to people who exist only in the pages of our books is not insanity.  It is the “madness of art.” Other artists will understand what I mean, and our friends, families and readers will smile indulgently.  They have watched this madness take shape in us as we devote ourselves to our work over and over again. Our family and friends wait until we return from the Void with the story we went searching for. Our readers buy the next book, wondering where the Void has taken us this time, and where it might take them.

Without my characters, I would be alone in that Void, and I would bring nothing back. I feel as if I am in partnership with these phantoms of my imagination, with these specters of the past, these people from the land of dreams who have been kind enough to share their stories with me. It is a sacred trust, one that I do not take lightly, whether I am writing a novel about Eleanor of Aquitaine or a Regency romance about people who never existed. The trust is the same. These characters trust me to honor them, and I trust them to show up when I step into the unknown.  I am grateful for every book I have been privileged to write. I am always aware that though it is I who step into the Void, I do not step in alone. I have partners in the dark, helping me to bring their stories to light.

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The Leap into the Void

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 | The Writing Life | 2 Comments

The blank page that lies before us every time we sit down to write is the void. Unformed and unknown, it is a brave new world where we hope to find our characters, our plots, and our ideas waiting for us. Of course, when we write historical fiction, we’ve got a map. The facts as we know them give us an outline for the world we are going to build. But questions remains even then: what facts about our protagonist do we include in this book? What do we leave out? No life has the shape of a narrative arc. Even biographical fiction, like the work I do with Eleanor of Aquitaine, must be shaped and shifted to build an entertaining story.

This search for the things we will need to fill the void is even more profound for a work of pure fiction. When we are building a world literally out of nothing but our own imaginations, we rely on our characters, a plot we’ve developed before we begin,  perhaps an outline, and inspiration. All of these tools, along with our skills as writers and our hope that we will be able to tell a story that others will want to read are our companions as we sit down to begin. The blank page is before us. We are voyagers in the Void. Scary sometimes, often intimidating, the Void is where we writers live. We return from there with our stories in hand, hoping that they will be as meaningful to someone else as they are to us. I for one would not want to live anywhere else.

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Imagination, Trust and the Empty Page

Monday, September 19th, 2011 | The Writing Life | No Comments

As writers sit and contemplate the empty page, we rely on our imaginations to help us fill it. I know this is obvious, but it is so obvious that I rarely think about it anymore. When I was a child, my imagination was as strong as anything else in my life. Sometimes the friends who lived in my imagination were more real that the people I knew at school when I was very small.

As time goes by, we enter deeper into the real world, and we leave part of our imaginations behind. We have to in order to live in the world. We graduate, take jobs, and force our minds to focus on the here and now, on the goals we hope to reach, on the things we mean to build. This is being an adult, and all of this is a good thing.

Until we sit down and stare at a blank page.

For fiction writers, we have to return to our imaginations in order to write a single word. Even historical fiction, which is based on facts as they are remembered by the winners, relies on imagination to bring it to life. As I sit and work on the first draft of my latest work in progress, I find myself once more having to trust the imagination that I took for granted as a child. I rely on it to help bridge the gap between myself and my characters, between my real life and my characters’ lives on the page.

That unknown country, that place of dreams, is something I rarely think about, even while I’m working. As an adult, I take it for granted, that my imagination will be there, ready to open the door for me, ready to help me build a bridge between the blank page and a chapter worth reading. So today I acknowledge the land of dreams. Without it, I would have nothing to say, no worlds to build, no life on the page. For all these things, I am grateful.

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Discipline and the First Draft

Friday, September 16th, 2011 | The Writing Life | 4 Comments

It occurs to me that as I have mused over the pitfalls and joys of first drafts this week that I have not taken into account the thing that actually brings a first draft to completion: discipline.

Discipline is not a sexy word. It is not an exciting concept. It isn’t romantic or swashbuckling or in any way awe inspiring. Which is too bad, because without it, stories of true love, high adventure, and swashbuckling romance would never get written.

Sometimes, writing is a grind. Sometimes, we have to sit at the computer, even on days when it is sunny and beautiful outside, even when the birds are singing and the tennis court, beach, or yoga studio is calling our names. Some days the words do not flow. Some days the characters simply don’t show up. They take holidays, too, it seems, but still, we go to the computer and we sit and we write.

For all those days when it seemed that your draft would never get finished, that you would never make your deadline, whether self imposed or publisher promised, take a moment right now to honor yourself. Because, if you finished your draft, you deserve to reflect on the fact that it was hard, that sometimes it was grueling, that sometimes you wondered if you’d ever actually pull it off.  Take a moment to honor yourself,  the courage and the sacrifice it took to get those words on the page.

Maybe take a day off. Then, with courage renewed and discipline as your companion and keeper, sit down and start the second draft.

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