Frozen in Place

This is “down time” for instructors — the two weeks between figuring final grades for spring, and the first day of summer classes. It’s also Memorial Day weekend, and I know we’re all supposed to go to the lake and have cookouts and hang out with the family, blah blah blah.

I despise “down time.”

I really do. When it comes to doing nothing, I suck. It’s impossible for me to not do something. I don’t even like sleeping.

Take this week, for example. Since last Monday, I have:  edited an entire book for a friend (due today; 260 pages), rewritten about 50 pages of my own book, signed up for online training that starts in two days (and lasts two weeks), started on the young adult fiction class I start teaching next Monday, worked in my garden, rescued my cat from the neighbor dog (she’s fine, but the dog will die if it comes back), went through intruder-response training (totally rocked it!), read a novel (Sixth Grave From The Edge — you’ve GOT to read Darynda Jones!), and started researching my young adult novel again.

This coming week isn’t any less busy. But it’s just impossible for me to not do something. I can’t sit still, and even when I’m doing one thing, I’m thinking about two or three other things. Like when I go for my walks. I’m taking photos, ruminating about plots and characters, and planning out my day. In the car, I’m listening to NPR and making notes about stories I want to post for my students. I don’t know if all of that is normal or not. Everyone looks at me like I’m crazy, and maybe I am. My family can’t stand it — “why can’t you just relax?” But they don’t understand that what they consider “relaxing,” I consider a waste of time.

My best friend is constantly on me to slow down, enjoy the day, look around. “Simple pleasures,” he always says. Maybe when I get older, I’ll understand that. But for now, I have too much to get done! It’s so hard for me to slow down. Maybe that’s why I like sports cars so much. 🙂 I just can’t see how people can muddle through life by going to work, coming home, plopping down in front of the TV, and going to bed. How is that a life? Get out! Do something! Anything! Get a freaking hobby! Go for a walk! Anything!

Just don’t waste your life. That, at its heart, is the theme of the book I just edited this week. The main character, Kyle, does waste his life playing video games — until things happen that change his entire outlook on life. By the end of the book, having seen the death of his brother and other good friends, his character arc comes full circle, to getting out and living life, and growing up. Does it take death to make us see that? Why can’t we just get out and do something without the morbid wake-up call? Why do so many people spend their lives frozen in place, unable or unwilling to move?

I don’t know. I just know that for me, slowing down isn’t ever going to happen.

Writing Conferences: A Little Rant (and some suggestions)

I just attended a writing conference earlier this month. I’ve been attending it for four years now, and I don’t know if anyone else has similar thoughts about conferences, but these are just a few rants I have to make:

1.) If you’re going to have sessions like a “first page panel” or a “query letter review panel,” make sure ALL your attendees know to submit them, or at least bring them, in advance! Put a link in the schedule telling people what they need to do to submit. This year, I went to a query letter review and only 2 people knew to bring them. TWO! It took all of five minutes to go over them. The panelists were two editors from the same house, and so most of the other 55 minutes was taken up with talking about their imprints. It felt like I’d accidentally stumbled into a timeshare pitch.

2.) Offer something for everyone. I know that can be hard when you have a limited budget and only so many people willing to come in and do sessions, but . . . speaking for myself, I want workshops. I want something different. I want to be able to critique others’ work and have mine critiqued as well. I went with a friend who is just starting out in writing, and she mentioned the same thing — that most workshops didn’t seem geared towards beginners, while I complained that most weren’t geared towards more advanced writers.

3.) Don’t schedule your best sessions on top of each other! YOU know what sessions people will and won’t attend. YOU know that no one is going to attend the poetry session, but everyone wants to attend the “I Made $1 million in Self-Publishing” session. Great. Schedule THOSE two together! Attendees don’t want to pick and choose.

4.) Offer tracks. Advanced and beginner. Fiction/Poetry/Nonfiction. Sci-Fi and Fantasy/Romance/History. Whatever. Have a plan for the conference and the workshops you want to offer. Then go find the right people to lead them, who have a plan and can get the audience engaged and interested.

5) And if you lose a presenter — and it happens — then find someone who can fill the spot well! I went to a session last year where the presenter had gotten sick, and a sub had been found. The presentation given was nothing like it should have been. Not even the same topic. Very annoying and frustrating, and I know I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

6.) If you don’t know what kinds of sessions to offer — ask your attendees. Put it on your website and allow everyone to have a voice, not just the members of your own group that are putting it on. I’d love to have some real history writers give workshops on research and verifying facts and stuff, but no one offers that kind of thing locally. Offer different things. A couple of years ago I went to a conference where there was a “paranormal panel” with ghost hunters, a psychic, and two paranormal authors. Hands down the best session I’ve ever attended.

Anyway, those are my rants and suggestions. I can only imagine what kind of work and planning goes into a conference, but sometimes it feels like I’m going to the same one over and over. Spice it up. Make it work!

POV: Who’s in First? Or Third?

I belong to the Writers’ Water Cooler forum, and over there, a lot of people ask the same question over and over, which goes something like this:  “Is it better to write in first or third person?”

The answers are always the same. “What works best for your novel? That’s the one to go with.” “What are you most comfortable with? Go with that.” “You can do one and then change it later if you want.”

Yeah. I’m finding out that last one is trickier than anyone lets on. It must be some sort of Great Writing Secret. They make it sound so easy. Change the pronouns, and voila! Instant change from first to third! Or third to first. Whichever.

The fact, is everything changes when you change from one to the other.

I just wrote a novel in essentially eight weeks. Not quite as good as NanNoWriMo, but darn close if you ask me. Nineteen drafts, 86,000 words. The first seven chapters were lifted from an existing novel (this is the one I split in two), and the rest was almost totally new. And for some reason, although I’d been writing these books in third person for five years, when I sat down to write this new book, it all came out in first instead. And I found out that my MC, Erin, is just as snarky and sarcastic as I am, and just as unwilling to take crap from anyone.

Which meant that, when I sat down to start rewrites on Book 2 this week, it wasn’t just changing pronouns.

Take this paragraph, for example. This is from the old, third person POV:

She stomped that thought immediately and focused on the task at hand — staying out of the way, staying off camera, and getting a paycheck. She sidled by the cameramen and the hostess, keeping to the shadows, and joined Spencer, Maggie, and a couple of other members of Oxford Paranormal. With them was a thirty-ish man with brown hair and warm brown eyes that Spencer introduced as Nick Kensington. His eyes brightened when Spencer introduced them, and she began to understand why everyone in Oxford Paranormal had reacted as they had.

“Ah, so you’re the one who had the experience last time!” he said, grasping her hand in his for a brief moment. “Let’s hope for that sort of activity tonight, shall we?”

When I rewrote it last night, it turned out like this:

I stomped that thought. I had more important things to do here tonight. Meet this Nick Kensington. Hope he could give me some sort of answers about Rebecca and Seth. And more importantly — I sidestepped a couple of crew members, ducking my head as I passed them — staying off the damn cameras. I kept to the shadows and found Spencer near the altar, with Maggie and a couple of other members of Oxford Paranormal. With them was a thirty-ish man with brown hair and warm brown eyes, like toffee. He glanced at me; then his gaze paused, and his face lit up in a smile.

Suddenly, I knew why everyone in Oxford Paranormal had reacted as they had two weeks earlier, when Spencer said this guy was coming. The whispers, the looks, the dreamy smiles.

“Don’t believe we’ve met,” he said, holding out a hand. “Nick Kensington.”

Perfect? No, not yet. 🙂 But the entire voice is different. Had I simply replaced pronouns, we’d have no sense of Erin’s personality, her observations, her interactions. So if you’re thinking about this — it is not an easy process. Not that I don’t encourage you to do it. I’ve always toyed with the idea of turning this series into first-person POV; in fact, when I get stuck, I often journal from a character’s point of view, letting them tell me what happened, how, and why. Then I covert that into third person, and somehow, that’s easier. Those are the best scenes. Those are the ones that have immediacy and punch. So I already knew I could do first person easily. But now I have an entire book to rewrite like this, and it literally is a process:  copy a few lines or paragraphs into the new document, then retype them entirely, using those as a guideline, but writing in the new voice and style.

Maybe there are easier ways to do it, and if you think of any, let me know! Because this is pretty much going to be my summer. But given how much better it is in first . . . I’m pretty sure I’m sticking with it.

Fascinating and Frustrating: Historical Research

I’ve written before about this nonfiction historical project I’m currently researching in all of my spare time — which isn’t a lot — and how hard it can be to find resources.

A few weeks ago, I found and ordered one set of records from one of the court cases surrounding this topic. It is a long, convoluted, difficult thing to unravel – like yarn in a bucket of cockleburrs – and just when you think you know what it’s about and where it’s going, it totally surprises you and goes in a different direction entirely. At any rate, I received the records on DVD but because I was in the middle of writing and rewriting another book, I put the records away to deal with later.

Last Wednesday became “later.”

There’s something so magical and mysterious about historical research. You think you know all about this person. You’ve read their biographies. Read, maybe, some of their better-known writings. You know what others have said about them and what you think about them. And then . . . you come across something that changes your mind entirely. Take, for example, a biographical paper I wrote about David Rice Atchison. Today, no one knows him. But between 1840 – 1865, he was extremely popular as a Southern supporter and a Missouri senator, as well as one of the leaders of the “Border Ruffians.” He gave speeches in which he said it was okay to kill antislavery people! Not a great guy. Not even a particularly nice guy. But then I got his letters and diaries (the ones that exist, anyway) on microfilm and I was stunned by how different the private person was from the public persona. He was depressed when his daughter went away to college. When he served in the Civil War, he sent his personal servant/slave home to Missouri because he was afraid for his life. He was fiercely devoted to his entire extended family. This was not the firebrand that urged Missouri to attack Kansas and secede from the Union. This was someone else entirely, and because of that, he became so much more real to me.

Back on topic — so I’ve been researching this disappearance and all the resulting court cases. I’ve had to figure out exactly where the money went, and who was suing whom, and when, and how many times those suits were appealed so I can collect all the cases. So far, I’ve got exactly one! In part because the process is so difficult. In these records, for example, is one case that went through the Missouri Court of Appeals. I Googled to see which archives had it, and I think I’ve found it — but the name is different. Is it the same case? I have no idea. I have to go to Kansas City soon and see for myself before I plunk down nearly $100 on the copies.

However. On the website were two photographs that were part of the records.

They can’t be anyone but my guy. They just can’t. Seeing him there in that photograph for the first time — I’ve read descriptions of him, but no photos were ever published in the local papers — was stunning. He was real. He lived. This wasn’t something my local paper made up one day when all the reporters were bored. (Yes, I was starting to suspect that.)

Doing historical research is really like digging a well; you think water’s down there somewhere, but you’re not really sure. It could be ten feet over. Or a mile away. It might not exist at all. It might be in someone’s attic and they don’t even know it. It could be in a library or historical society somewhere, buried in the basements. I’m sure somewhere, someone is looking for the journals of George Manby, an Englishman who worked on a system of rescuing shipwreck victims in the early 1800s. Those are at Wichita State University, if you are. I’ve seen them. I’ve worked with them. They are cool. But why are they there? Why aren’t they in England? That’s the problem. This stuff gets sold at auction, passed down in families without any context, stuffed in attics and garages and forgotten. Meanwhile, there’s a historian out there dying — dying! — to get his or her hands on those resources. And they might never find it. Mice eat things. Things get thrown away, destroyed in fires and floods.

In my urban fantasy series, my main character is a historian — well, she’s a history student — and she is finding all this out firsthand. It’s difficult because in fiction, there should be loose ends tied up in bows and lost documents miraculously found, and I can’t bring myself to pull those kinds of stunts because I know what the reality is. The reality is, it’s a lot of bloody hard work. And it doesn’t always pay off. It is fascinating. But it is frustrating.

Next week, I want to look at this some more, so stay tuned!