Sunday, March 27, 2016

Where I'll be writing soon.

I was hoping to show y'all a photo this week of the completed spring table topper, but I can't. Oh, I finished all of the gazillions of French knots. But it still needs to be blocked, and now it's packed.

We're moving this coming week, to a bigger apartment in the same high-rise. You would think moving two floors down would be easier than a cross-country move, but you'd be wrong. You still have to sort everything, and pack everything, and get it from here to there. We're still in the sorting-and-packing stage, and it's painful. But the good news is that I'll have a more private place to write, when all is said and done.

That reminded me of a post I did for Indies Unlimited earlier this year about all the different places authors find themselves writing. Here it is, in a slightly edited and updated version. And next week I promise I'll have some very interesting publishing news for you.

Not everybody has a tidy writer's study with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a roaring fireplace…and a cup of tea, or maybe a tot of something stronger… Um, hang on. I'm fantasizing again.

In real life, we all have our preferences for workspaces. Lots of writers like flexibility; they want to be able to work on their WIPs whenever the mood strikes them, or whenever they have ten spare minutes. That's the biggest advantage of using paper and pen for a first draft, I think. You can write anywhere – at the breakfast bar, under a tree outside, at the beach, at a coffee shop, on the Metro, even at an actual desk. Laptop computers are almost as flexible, especially if you're willing to tote around an external battery for a quick recharge. Although I'd be leery of taking a laptop to the beach. I can't imagine sand and salt spray would be good for its innards.

Some people really seem to like writing in public places. J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel at a coffee shop. Others like to commandeer a carrel at a library. I've seen people camp out in Panera’s and other restaurants for the free wi-fi, and I have to believe some writing is going on there. I suspect this setup appeals to less-introverted writers, or those who feel isolated in their day-to-day lives; they’re looking for a way to be out amongst other people while they're cocooning themselves mentally in their private writing worlds. I think this is the impetus, too, behind the social events that NaNoWriMo schedules every November: a write-in at the beginning of the month, and a "thank God November's over" outing at the end of the month. The idea, I suspect, is to make NaNo seem more appealing to extroverts who balk at shutting themselves away from other people for all the hours it takes to write 50,000 words in a month.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the writers who look forward to shutting themselves away to write. These are the folks who believe they cannot write in public, because any sound or movement will pull them out of their writing hypnosis. They're the ones who set up a home office – and when it's time to write, they tell family members not to bother them unless someone's bleeding. Others use music as white noise, or noise-canceling headphones, or both. Some go so far as to build a tiny dwelling – a cabin or shed – in the backyard and kit it out as a writing cave.

Some of us would kill for a writing cave.

This pic is several years old, but the desk hasn't moved. Yet.
But most of us, I suspect, have to make do -- and that's what I've been doing for the past several years. I've been writing on my all-in-one desktop with the 24-inch monitor. My desk is in the living room of my one-bedroom apartment, which isn't a problem unless someone is staying with me – which has been the case for most of the past three years. I can't write with music, because no matter how ambient the sound is intended to be, it still distracts me. Luckily, my daughter Kitty is also a writer, and she doesn't mind wearing headphones to listen to her music while she writes. So we've been making it work: I sit at my desktop behemoth, she sits at her laptop at the dining room table, and it's fine until one of us needs a break and distracts the other one.

But when we move, I'll put my desk in my room, and Kitty will have her own desk in her own room. That should cut down on the distraction factor. But as my younger daughter, Amy, will also be moving in with us, who knows?

Are you a writer? If so, where do you write?

These moments of bloggy location, location, location have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The vernal equinox: halfway to somewhere.

Happy Ostara!

Today is the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, the day on which we supposedly have equal minutes of daylight and darkness. (Although as the Capital Weather Gang explains, that's not strictly true.)

It's also the first day of spring -- or at least, most Americans think so. Meteorologists believe spring began on March 1. And the ancient Celts considered Imbolc, February 1, to be the beginning of spring, based on the lengthening hours of daylight.

I expect it's warmer in February in Ireland and Scotland than it is here in the mid-Atlantic. Even March is feeling a tad chilly; we basked in 70-degree days not long ago, but some parts of our region actually got a dusting of snow last night. This is a lot more like the spring weather we had when I was growing up in northern Indiana.

Regardless, spring is definitely here. Daffodils are shooting up, and the cherry trees in our neighborhood seemed to bloom overnight last week. Which means my favorites -- the redbud trees -- won't be far behind.

I think I've mentioned that I'm in the process of making seasonal table toppers. I settled on the Olympic Forest Baby Blanket pattern for my spring table topper, but of course I couldn't leave well enough alone. Instead of just knitting the trees in a springlike green, I decided to do the picot edging in lavender, and add redbud blooms to the branches by lining them with French knots in the same color.

I'd hoped to have the project done by today, but as you can see in this photo, I'm still working on it. The edging is done (although it's curling under -- I still need to block the project) and I've finished just over half of the French knots. You can see the finished ones on the right side of the photo. The green expanse on the left side is the part I still have to do.

It's taking a long time. Every now and then, I sigh, thinking about how much I still have to do. My daughter Amy told me today that she thought I was a little crazy when I told her I planned to do all these French knots. "I'd almost rather do neeps," she said. Then she explained that a neep involves wrapping your yarn around the needle six times, and then knitting all six wraps together at once.

"Thanks, but no," I told her. "I'll stick to French knots."

But it's a lot of French knots, and I'm a little discouraged right now. It would be easy to stop, in fact, and say I never meant to finish it -- that the all-green side is part of the overall design. No one would know but me. (Well, and you guys, since you're reading this.) Or I could set it aside and work on something else -- something with a more immediate reward. I'm really good about finishing projects. I'm sure I'll come back to this one. Eventually.

You're waiting for my point, aren't you? Well, here it is: In any project, being half-done is the most painful place to be. Starting is easy -- the idea is fresh and you can't wait to get going. And the last bit is also easy -- the finish line is so close you can smell it. But the middle? Ugh. You know exactly how much work you've already put into the thing, and you know you need to do it all again.

It's not just true of knitting, of course. It's true of writing, too, and of every other creative endeavor, as well as some not-so-creative ones. One of my favorite parts of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird is the story that explains the title: her then-ten-year-old brother had put off doing a big school project that required a report on each of several birds. It was the night before the report was due, and he hadn't even begun. And their father put his arm around the boy and said, "Just take it bird by bird."

The boy hadn't yet begun, and I'm halfway through, but the result is the same: letting yourself dread the work ahead isn't going to get it done. So I'm going to keep plugging away at it, French knot by French knot, and eventually it'll be done. (I'll post a photo, I promise.)

Here's a thing that's nearing the finish line: Spider's Lifeline. The final edits are in, and I'm aiming for publication in the last week of March. Keep an eye on your inbox for the date.

These moments of bloggy perseverance have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Paranoia strikes deep.

It seems like I've been taking a lot of breaks from Facebook lately, especially on the weekends.

I was all gung-ho on political posts for awhile there, when our presidential election season was just getting started. This isn't a political blog, so I won't tell you which candidate I'm supporting (although I'm sure you could make a reasonable assumption if I told you that my Facebook profile lists my political stance as "slightly to the left of the Dalai Lama").

But I'm finding more and more that I have to step away. Some of the stuff that's been happening lately transcends politics and heads into the scary zone.

It feels like the '60s again. Except this time, it's not college kids protesting against the government to end an unpopular war -- it's people of all ages protesting against a Presidential candidate. More than once, punches have been thrown. And instead of telling his supporters to simmer down, the candidate in question is continuing to use the same rhetoric that got them riled up in the first place.

It's getting me riled up, too -- but my predominant emotion is anxiety. See, I remember the '60s. I was a kid in August of 1968 -- just ten years old -- but I remember seeing on TV the protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, just sixty miles from where we lived. One candidate that year never made it to the convention; Bobby Kennedy was shot to death in Los Angeles in June. And two months before that, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis.

That was also the year Southern Democrat George Wallace ran on a third-party ticket, hoping to end school desegregation. He didn't like black folks and he didn't like hippies. (He once famously said that the only four-letter words hippies didn't know were work and soap.) He didn't win in '68, but four years later he ran again, this time for the Democratic nomination. And he did pretty well -- until, at a campaign rally in Laurel, Maryland, in May of 1972, he was shot five times. One bullet lodged in his spine, paralyzing him. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

In between, in 1970, four students were shot to death by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio.

Scary times, indeed. And now, almost fifty years later, it feels to me like it's starting again -- the heated rhetoric, the pushing, the punches, the intolerance of other views and other people. The parallels aren't exact, but the feelings are the same: like we're on the verge of tipping into chaos.

This song captures the mood for me. For What It's Worth isn't about the Vietnam War; Stephen Stills, who wrote it, has said it's about the Sunset Strip riots, which were in reaction to a curfew crackdown in Los Angeles in late 1966. Still, fifty years later, the lyrics hit home.

(By the way, "the heat" is slang for the police.)

These moments of chaotic blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Hero's Journey.

I'm crashing on some deadlines this weekend, so I'm recycling a piece about the hero's journey that I wrote a little while ago for Indies Unlimited. I figured the concept was common knowledge, but when the piece ran at IU, I was surprised at the number of authors who said they had never heard of it.

The “hero’s journey" is a story structure used in myths and legends around the world, and explained by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It's used extensively in science fiction and fantasy – Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are prime examples – but it shows up in lots of other types of stories, too. Any time a protagonist goes out to find something and comes back wiser for it (or not), you’re seeing a hero’s journey.

Campbell’s original outline included 17 steps. Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood development executive who has written a story guide for screenwriters, boils it down to a dozen. You can read more about his list, and how it came about, here. But here’s a summary of the steps, so you don’t have to click away.

  1. The Ordinary World: The opening scene gives the reader a sense of where the story starts out. Think Luke Skywalker on the farm with his aunt and uncle; or Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, sitting at his desk with a bottle before Mary Astor walks into his office.
  2. The Call to Adventure: Somebody presents the hero with a reason for breaking out of his or her rut – an intriguing face across a crowded room, or the little droid with a message from Princess Leia.
  3. The Refusal of the Call: The hero balks. Many factors can hold him or her back, with fear of the unknown being paramount. But then something kicks our hero in the butt and makes it impossible for them to refuse the call.
  4. Meeting with the Mentor: Often, that kick in the butt comes from an older, and presumably wiser, figure. King Arthur’s Merlin may be the most recognizable example, but they’re everywhere – from Gandalf in Lord of the Rings to magazine editor Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada.
  5. Crossing the Threshold: Our hero is on his or her way – the internship has begun, the balloon has left Kansas, the hobbits have taken to the road.
  6. Allies, Enemies, and Tests: You might call this the team-building phase. The hero lines up some friends and acquires an enemy or two, and these relationships face initial tests that strengthen them.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: You’re probably familiar with the Greek myth of Demeter, who must descend to the underworld to retrieve her daughter Persephone from Hades. That’s the kind of journey we’re talking about. And it’s as much a psychological journey as a physical one, as our hero must surmount fear, meet unexpected challenges, and think on their feet.
  8. The Ordeal: The hero is put to the supreme test and hits bottom. All their fears and doubts are holding sway, and it looks like the hero might even die – yet they reach deep within themselves to find the strength to prevail. Vogler sums it up: “You’re never more alive than when you think you’re going to die.”
  9. The Reward: Having survived the Ordeal, the hero wins the prize – the Holy Grail, the sword in the stone, the girl (or the boy). But the reward doesn’t have to be a physical thing. Vogler uses the example of Luke Skywalker unmasking Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi: Not only has Luke defeated the dark side, but he’s reconciled with his father at the same time.
  10. The Road Back: Now that the hero has done what they came to do, they have to get out of the place of danger. This is where you see a lot of chase scenes, as the hero and his faithful companions flee from the people who want the prize back.
  11. Resurrection: Often, there’s a final battle or challenge in which the hero undergoes the death-and-rebirth cycle again. At the end of this stage, it’s clear the hero is a different person from when they began the journey; the experience has changed them in some way.
  12. The Return: And so our hero comes back home with the prize – the sword, or the magical elixir, or some hard-fought self-knowledge. Or not. Sometimes the hero of a comedy will return from their journey and do the same boneheaded thing that got them into trouble in the first place.

Vogler advises not to stick too closely to this structure. Feel free to move stages around and put your own stamp on it. Variation, after all, is what keeps storytelling fresh and new.

One of the things I'm crashing on is Spider's Lifeline. I'm aiming for release in just a couple of weeks (aieee...) -- watch your inbox for more info. Wait -- you say you're not signed up for my newsletter? That can be easily remedied. Just click here. And thanks!

These moments of heroic blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.