Thursday, April 24, 2014

GUEST POST: Dragging Yourself Out of a Creative Dry Spell

Today, I'm thrilled to have Esther Jones over for some demon hunting... or tenth dimensional physics. Whatever she's in the mood for. Esther is part of the writing duo Frog and Esther Jones. Along with their Gift of Grace books (Grace Under Fire and Coup de Grace), they also run the Friday Indie Review. Check all of it out, and check out Esther's tips for getting out of those nasty creativity droughts.

-------------

Voss asked me for a guest post on writing a while back, and since this is something I’ve struggled with recently, I thought it would be a good topic to talk about while it’s still fresh.
As writers, we’ve all had the weeks (or months, sadly sometimes years) where we just don’t feel those creative ideas percolating like they used to.  Personally, I’ve been fighting with a creative dry spell on and off for what feels like, oh let’s say, the last millennia or so.   
Now, I know that’s not factually true, because (for example) I’ve had short stories and a novel come out in the interim. 
But while standing in the middle of my own personal creative famine— where no new ideas for stories are showing themselves— it can be really difficult to remember the times when a story just walked up and walloped me behind the eyes without warning. 
Here’s a secret:   Every writer goes through periods of feast or famine like this.  It’s what you do to drag yourself out of the famine and keep writing that makes the difference.  Or at least that’s how it goes in my (admittedly somewhat limited) experience. 
Unfortunately, I am not one of the characters I write, and there is no summons or plot device that will make the ideas instantly come flocking back—like simply swiping blood across a rune.  But there are things I can do to go back to my roots and remember what inspires me. 
To drag myself out of the hole, I need to remember what I love about writing, and what I am trying to do by telling stories to myself and others. 
Now that last paragraph sounds pretty great in theory.  But what does it mean? 
I’m getting to that, I promise.
First off there are some very simple questions I need to ask myself.
11)      What inspires me and urges me write in the first place? 
For me, it’s always about an idea, and the characters that spring up in my head as a result of that idea… Which means if an idea isn’t coming, then I’m pretty stuck, right?  Well, not necessarily.

22)      Is the reason I’m having trouble writing due to something in my environment? Is it something I can fix?  If it isn’t, what can I do to lessen the impact it’s having on my creative psyche?
Sometimes when I’m having trouble writing, it really is because something in my vicinity is disrupting my focus.  It doesn’t have to be something big either.  It can be subtle.  

For instance, I usually listen to music as I write.  Occasionally, I’ve found my music clashed with the thought those wily and secretive creative-imps were trying put together in my head.  As soon as I turned the music off, the scene actually started behaving and flowing naturally.  
 If you’ve eliminated all the distractions, and you’re still staring at a blank screen, continue on to the next question.

33)      Am I just having general focus/self-confidence issues?  If so, maybe it’s time to go get some love from people who enjoy reading my work. Frog and I have often talked about how it’s necessary to have someone with a critical eye look at your work.  But sometimes it’s just as important to take the time to remember that you don’t suck.  There has to be balance.

44)      What do I love reading?  What do I love writing?
It can also be important to remember what I relish about books.  Sometimes, I’m a little embarrassed to admit my true tastes. They’re not always highbrow, or deep, or as literary as I think they should be.   Am I holding myself back from an idea, because I think other people wouldn’t like it, even though I (secretly) think it’s pretty cool?

Maybe it’s time to get down with writing some pure popcorn fiction, or just allow myself to write something crazy that I don’t think anyone else would ever want to read.  Those are usually the times where I surprise myself. 

Finally, if I still feel like I’m struggling, dehydrated and devoid of hope in the event horizon of a blackhole that (once upon a time) used to be a desert, I ask myself one more question:

55)      Where can I go or who can I enlist who will be willing to creatively engage with me? 
Don’t forget the resource you have in your fellow writers and friends.  No writer is an island; we all stand on the shoulders of the writers who came before us, and the hand-in -hand with the writers we read and interact with.  If I can’t figure out what I should be doing on my own, it’s time to go looking for advice and other authors who have been there and clawed their way out. 

Or I might even just immerse myself in the energy that comes along with being at a writer’s retreat or gathering.   Sometimes it ok to stop freaking out about being in the dry spell and just enjoy my friends and the craft of writing.

It’s always ok to step back and recharge.  Once you’ve done that, go back and start again—at question 1, if you need to. Hopefully you won’t need to.

You can do it. You can make it out of a creative dry spell, no matter how dire it seems.  But you can’t give up, and then you can’t give up some more.  Like everything else in writing, overcoming a slump or lack of ideas relies on your own persistence and will to keep trying to move forward.  

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Pendragon: Revisited

Greetings, greetings! (Also: spoilers contained within. You have been warned.)

So. the Pendragon books. The brainchild of D.J. MacHale. I started reading them when I was ten or eleven, and carried through until the very end. And then, after I graduated, I read them again. Admittedly, I found them somewhat lackluster, by comparison to the first read-through. But I expected that. After all, I know all of the plot twists.

But I got a hankering again, not too long ago, and I dove back in from the very beginning: The Merchant of Death.

Here's what I've found, rereading it the third time, and the first time with an authorial eye.

The plot in these books is excellent. I want to point that out. It's all very solid, even if it doesn't make any sense until the very end of the book. The influence of Saint Dane (the antagonist) is, for the most part, subtle. At least on the grand scale on which these battles are fought. A merchant on Denduron, selling the miners the weapons they need for revolt. A scientist on Cloral, not so innocently making a fertilizer that happens to make crops poisonous. A friendly lounge singer with some very shaky mob ties on First Earth.

However, where I find plot falling apart is in the grander scheme. Not that it's a weak plot, at all. It couldn't be a weak plot, otherwise it wouldn't have carried ten successful books. What I've found is that the tension breaks... awkwardly at the end. There's a black moment, where Bobby sees his home territory of Second Eath destroyed. 70,000 people are sent off to another dimension. Or maybe they were killed. Who can say. In his rage, Bobby kills the man responsible. And Saint Dane tells him that was the final test. And he failed.

Now, through these books, we've been asking the same question as Bobby. Why him? Why any of the people chosen for this insane job of Traveler (those people who fight Saint Dane)? How does any of this work. Well... here's where the plot falters, at least for me. The black moment is the end of book nine, Raven Rise. The answers to our series-long questions come within the first five chapters of book ten, The Soldiers of Halla. For me, as a reader, it feels like a climax. We know. We finally have answers. Which makes it hard to then keep reading. Sure, Saint Dane's not dead and Third Earth still has a chance for survival. But we've hit the climax for the series before the climax for the final book. At least, for me, it was the climax.

All that being said, once you get past that and into the actual plot of The Soldiers of Halla, it's a good plot, too. It's just... overshadowed by the revelation of what are easily the series' biggest secrets.

The characters are just as incredible as the plot would suggest. And, unlike in many books, Bobby, the main character, is actually likable. I find that, in most YA books I read, the main character is tolerable, most of the time, with flashes of likability. Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen stand out as prime examples of this. But Bobby is just some scared kid, whipping through dimensions and watching people get murdered. Get poisoned. Fight to the death as entertainment. And you feel for him, because he's a good guy.

The other characters are just as wonderful, too, but, for the sake of being concise, I'll limit myself to just one more: Saint Dane. The shapeshifting, immortal, genocidal, demon traveler. So yeah, he's pretty good at being bad. But that, to me, is not why he succeeds. In fact, I can pinpoint why he succeeds. It's a precise and brilliant moment. He's talking with Bobby (Saint Dane is a very classic, rug-chewing villain in a a lot of ways. The man likes his speeches) and points out that they both tamper with the way things are on the territories. In fact, for a while, Saint Dane had me convinced that he was in the right. The travelers run around, trying to stop him, while at the same time imposing the morals and ideas from their home territories on these other people. Who knows what effect that could have. Saint Dane can see all time and space. He can pinpoint his changes and direct them. He can go at it with precision instead of the potential toxic leak of the travelers. In fact, we even find out, in book ten, that Saint Dane started out with the noblest of intentions.

Of course, they were skewed. And so was he. But he started with a good plan, and he's so damn charismatic even I believed in him for awhile.

All in all, I recommend these books, especially if you're a young adult or you enjoy young adult sci-fi/fantasy. There's some rough writing in the beginning, but he has all the kinks polished out soon enough.

Definitely still 4 stars, as a series.
Voss