Why I Wrote Today

Today I’m participating in the Writing Contest: How Writing Has Positively Influenced My Life. Hosted by Positive Writer.

Today I sat down at the computer and opened a new document. I organized the notes I’d made on story, on character, on the history of my world. And I began writing my thirteenth book.

Fourteen years ago I could not even imagine today. Fourteen years ago my doctor handed me a diagnosis I could never have guessed at: bipolar disorder, type II, rapid cycling. None of which made sense to me, except for the fundamental, absurdly dramatic reality that my brain was dealing with a biological illness that was going to affect everything I did from that day forward.

Fourteen years ago I began huddling in on myself, trying to deal with something no one I knew had ever experienced, even at second hand. I became accustomed to being unable to schedule activities more than a few days in advance for fear I wouldn’t be in a condition to meet those obligations. My friendships changed, my hobbies vanished, and all that was left was to hold on and tell myself I’d get everything back someday, because the medications were working, the therapy was working, I wasn’t losing anything I couldn’t recover.

Today I woke up knowing I had a long day of writing to look forward to. Starting a new novel is one of my favorite things in the world. I do a lot of planning before I sit down at my beautiful little keyboard, with its keys that click loudly and make me feel like I’m Hildy Johnson from His Girl Friday, tapping away as the screen fills up with words, then paragraphs, then pages.

Four years ago I woke up feeling as if I were finally coming up for air after ten years of self-imposed solitude. The medication was working. I had my life back. I had a family that loved me. And I’d lost almost everything else. I’d planned to keep up my skills to get a job when my children were old enough; those skills were ten years out of date, I’d lost touch with all my contacts, and worse, I no longer wanted the things I’d thought I did. All that was left was a desperate need to do, to act, to create something that would persist, something I could point to and say “I made this.”

Today I went over my previous project, the one I’d had such hopes for. You love all your babies, and it’s sad when they turn into something you didn’t expect, something out of your control. The reason I started the thirteenth book was that I had to put the twelfth one away for a while. But there’s a beauty in that, too—the beauty of knowing that eventually, you’ll take it out again and see the potential you didn’t the first time. And you’ll find joy in it again.

Two years ago I was in despair over having tried my hand at half a dozen hobbies or jobs and failed at all of them. For different values of “failed,” really; some of them I discovered I didn’t really like, most of them I found I was terrible at, all of them were incapable of satisfying that need that ate at me every day, driving me to try again. But I was getting tired of trying.

Two years ago, on a whim, I started planning a story. It wasn’t much at first, just a character and a city, but it grew, and there came a day when I stood back and looked at it all with a critical eye and thought, “Why not?”

Two years ago today, I sat down at the computer and opened a new document. I organized the notes I’d made on story, on character, on the history of my world. And I began writing my first book.

Today I know what will happen when I start a new project. Two years ago I had no idea how the act of writing would take hold of me, how amazing it feels when the story starts to bloom and you find yourself following threads you never intended to. I didn’t realize what it was like to find myself still writing at 3 a.m. because the images keep unfolding and stopping is unthinkable. After all those years of being lost, writing was a gift. A joy.

Today I write because writing makes me happy. It makes me see the world differently. And it reminds me that some things can’t be lost.

Insert Title Here

lightbulbsI suck at coming up with titles. For EMISSARY, my husband the Plot Whisperer and I went around and around for a couple of days until I came up with the title. Then I went back into the book and changed it to fit the title. That’s how bad I am.

So after writing a couple of books and agonizing over their titles, I decided it was time to take a different route. I’d been reading the book Write Great Fiction: Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and it has a whole chapter on brainstorming and a section on brainstorming titles. This seemed like the answer I was looking for. So I grabbed all the books near my work station, found an online searchable database of Shakespeare’s works, and started scribbling. The idea is to just flip through books or online sources and grab whatever phrases catch your attention. Then change them around. Extrapolate from them. Combine them and see where they go. Most of them don’t work out, or at least didn’t spark any ideas for me, but it was interesting to see what my subconscious came up with.

Here’s a few I don’t plan to use (NOTE: If you want to steal these, feel free, but if you do, and if they become runaway best sellers, please make sure you put some suitably taunting words in your acknowledgments page). From Matthew Arnold’s wonderful poem “Dover Beach” came On a Darkling Plain (which I’m sure has been used before) which turned into Darkling Rover. I wish I could remember the source of Night’s Ignorant Armies, The Melancholy Sea, and Discoverers of the Empty Sea, because it must have been something really interesting.

Then there are the ones I can sort of trace back to their sources. I think I was looking at the bookshelf containing Stella Gibbons and Dorothy Gilman’s books, because I’m pretty sure that’s where The Nightingale Diary and The Tightrope Maze came from. I ended up with three small-print columns of potential titles and a sense of profound satisfaction that I’d accomplished something that day. Some days are like that.

But narrowing it down was more difficult. In the end, I printed up a copy for the Plot Whisperer and one for me and asked him to go through the list and mark 5-10 titles that grabbed his attention. I did the same, hoping there would be some overlap. And, surprisingly, there was. Four of the maybe fifty titles on the list were ones we both liked. I stored those away for future use. (No, I’m not telling.)

There was one last thing. I had a strong preference for which one I wanted to write immediately, but I wanted to see what he thought. So I asked him to choose his favorite. He immediately came up with the same one I’d chosen—and that’s how I came to write THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL. Everything else—the characters, the magic system, the story—all of that came later. The title was first.

Much as I enjoyed the experiment—and the relief of knowing the title problem was sorted from the beginning—I don’t know that it’s the best basis for an entire writing career. But until I find a way to pay someone to write my titles for me, I’ll probably keep coming back to it.

My Library Adventures

bookstackI used to work at the public library. When I told people this, they generally reacted with great enthusiasm, especially the readers, since I think there’s a tiny part of every reader’s soul that’s a librarian—“That would be so great, being surrounded by all those books!” When I explained that my job involved taking carts of books out, putting them back on the shelves, then returning for more carts, they became less enthusiastic. That part of my job was hard and sometimes unpleasant; there’s the problem of making room on the shelves that are already packed full, the problem of never having time to actually read the books you were putting away, the problem of constant sore feet and lower back pain. Having great co-workers was essential, because the job itself was often tedious.

As for the myth of the quiet, peaceful library, come around just before story time and see how quiet forty children are when they’re racing around the shelves while their parents ignore them. This happened ALL THE TIME. I saw moms with their heads bent down over their cell phones while their children were sobbing nearby, unattended. The only thing worse was the parents who told their kids to put books back after they’d yanked them off the shelves. As if three-year-olds remember where they got things or know the alphabet. (Fine. Some kids that age know the alphabet. I did. They still have no idea of shelving conventions.) Every one of the shelvers developed a cringe reaction to those words because the least pleasant job of all was going through the shelves looking for books that were out of place.

The real joy of working in a library is not having access to all those books, though that’s a bonus too. It’s seeing the sheer variety of human beings who come through its doors. No one is turned away. Even the grimy, unwashed man we all knew used the library as a shelter didn’t get worse treatment than being gently told he couldn’t sleep in the chairs. I saw people who came solely to use the Internet and others who bought piles of books from the book sale shelves and people who checked out fifty DVDs at a time as well as those who came for books.

And I got to know them. The young man with mental disabilities who came every Wednesday and checked out exactly five DVDs, then had us circle the date on the library calendar handout that they’d be due. The women who always came for story time on the same day and time with kids we knew were too young to appreciate it, just so they could spend time with other moms. The man in the wheelchair who couldn’t reach the floor outlet, who had the biggest power adapter for his computer I’d ever seen. The three boys who used the computers to play Minecraft together, two of whom tormented the third to tears and made me wish I was there as a mom rather than a library worker. The seventy-year-old man who hit on me as I showed him how to use the computer catalog. (That’s funny in hindsight, but at the time was just seriously awkward.)

But there’s one man I’m never going to forget. This encounter happened when I was putting away books in the middle grade section, which was near one bank of computers. I could clearly hear, but not see, a man having a conversation on his phone. (NOTE: Don’t have loud conversations on your phone in the library! Everyone can hear you! There’s a point at which it’s no longer eavesdropping and more a matter of pretending not to be interested in someone’s prostate problem.) He was talking to a potential employer and sounded enthusiastic and articulate. It became clear over the course of the conversation that this man really needed this job and was willing to put forth whatever effort was necessary to get it. Finally, he thanked the employer and hung up, but remained at the computer chair. I was really curious at this point to see who this guy was, so I hurried to finish my cart and then wheeled it out around the shelves so I’d pass him.

This is where I got a real shock. I’d built up this picture of a young man, not dressed up (the job was some kind of physical labor) but not a slob. And he pretty much matched that description. But he was also covered in tattoos. Both arms, down his neck into his shirt, and up into his scalp and under his hair. Intricate, colorful, beautiful tattoos. He looked like the cover of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. And I immediately felt ashamed of myself for being startled and for having that instant’s reaction that someone who looked like him could sound like the stupid picture I’d built up in my head. My second reaction was Is that employer going to think what I did when he sees him? Is he going to forget about the enthusiastic, genuine guy he spoke to? Because I couldn’t imagine I would be the only one who’d have that reaction. And it made me a little sick to think he might lose out on something important because of that.

I’m not sure there’s a moral to that story, except that it taught me to be a little more careful about what I assumed, and because I wished I could have found out what happened with the job. I saw him again about a month later, at the same computer. This time he was there with his wife. We talked for a bit about children, and they both said how nice it was to have some time away from their young kids. They had a babysitter for about an hour and they spent it at the library. For all libraries these days are shifting focus toward their media collections and free Internet access, the public library never stops being a haven, even for non-readers. I think that’s wonderful. (Except for being hit on by the seventy-year-old man. I am never taking my wedding ring off again.)