Creativity Friday: tools for cocooning

Posted on Jan 23, 2015 in creativity, news & muse, the world around me

I’m away through the end of January at a writer’s residency at the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts, where I’ll be hard at work on the Next Novel.  During my absence, I decided to repost some old blog favorites about publishing and the creative process. Enjoy!

psyche the caterpillar

Caterpillars appear to have invaded my neck of Brooklyn this summer. Earlier this week, this little guy (above) was found lazing on the fennel plant in my garden. She remained there for several days—long enough for us to nickname her Psyche—nibbling her way from branch to branch.

Female_Black_Swallowtail_Megan_McCarty08A quick internet search revealed that Psyche was in her last stage of development before she’d retreat to become a Black Swallowtail butterfly. Though we knew it was unlikely, Thea and I hoped she’d build her cocoon where we could see it. Alas, this was not to be: when we returned home after running errands yesterday, Psyche had departed for a presumably more private locale to complete her transformation. Hopefully we’ll see her in a few weeks dressed in her beautiful new finery.

All this is preamble to my topic du jour: As writers and artists, we also need to cocoon to create—to allow ourselves the space to turn our caterpillars into butterflies. In an ideal world, we’d live at writers’ retreats and possess perfect rooms-of-our-own to give birth to our books and paintings. But life simply isn’t like that.

With so many demands and distractions tearing at our attention, how can we build a “creative cocoon” to encourage inspiration to visit? Without further ado, here are some tools and techniques that work for me:

1. Get offline. I’m a big fan of Freedom, a $10 app that limits time online. I set it for two hours to start, which is usually enough time for me to get into the “zone.” If you need to go online for research, try AntiSocial. It’s similar to Mac Freedom except that it blocks Twitter and Facebook while allowing you the rest of the internet. You can customize the app to block email and other sites-of-temptation. (Tom & Lorenzo anyone?)

2. Use your senses. When used in a ritualized manner, tastes, smells, and sounds tell us it’s time to shift gears from everyday life into creative work. You can do something as mundane as setting yourself up with a espresso, or as esoteric as ringing a singing bowl. Don’t underestimate the power of scent: a fragrant candle or aromatherapy spray can send a subliminal message that it’s time to get creative. Whatever you decide to do, be consistent: it’s the repetition of the cue that ties it to your subconscious, thus powering it.

3. Music. This is definitely related to #2. Set up a customized playlist for a project—a fairly easy task on iTunes. Whenever you hear the music, it will shift you into the world of your novel or painting. For myself, in A GATHERING OF SHADOWS, I used a Schubert quintet mentioned in a pivotal scene; in the Next Novel, it’s a Beethoven piano sonata a character plays. But your playlist doesn’t have to include classical music, or even what we traditionally consider music-to-listen-to. For example, one author friend loves to write to film scores; another, ambient sounds.

4. Finally, BICHOK. Or, Butt In Chair, Hands on Keyboard, if you’re a writer. (Or, if you’re an artist, Butt in Chair, Hands on Paper?) When it comes down to encouraging creativity, there’s no substitute for the act of showing up. Close the door. Set a timer. Choose the same time every day to write, no excuses. (When I can, I’m a big fan of putting in two hours first thing in the morning, akin to Julia Cameron’s famed morning pages.) Write one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, one page at a time. And don’t look back.

ETA: This is one of many that we found this morning on the fennel after Psyche’s departure. Butterfly eggs!

butterflyegg

Wordless Wednesday: View from a studio

Posted on Jan 21, 2015 in news & muse, the world around me, Wordless Wednesday

studioview

Photographed in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Not just any studio. My studio.

Publishing Monday: The Second Time

Posted on Jan 19, 2015 in friends and colleagues, news & muse, publishing, the Next Novel

I’m away through the end of January at a writer’s residency at the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts, where I’ll be hard at work on the Next Novel.  During my absence, I decided to repost some old blog favorites about publishing and the creative process. Enjoy!

This week I’m deep in preparation for the Historical Novel Society Conference, which takes place June 21-23 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Besides preparing for the panel I’m moderating on literary versus genre historical fiction, I’ve a Victorian tea gown to alter for the costume pageant (I’ve lost weight since I last wore it), novels to finish beta reading/reviewing for author friends, and even an amber necklace to restring. So, a busy time! Yet I’ve managed to keep moving forward on the Next Novel, even if it’s only 500 words a day with an hour here and there. Below is my novel bible so far. As you can see, it’s already quite overstuffed.

I know I’ve been deliberately withholding information about the Next Novel. The truth is it’s too early—too nascent—to share much without feeling intensely vulnerable. That written, I will reveal I do have a title for it that I think rocks. I’ll also confess that the Next Novel is set four decades earlier than A GATHERING OF SHADOWS, during the mid-nineteenth century. Much of it is written from the point of view of my male protagonist—the first time I’ve done so. On top of this, he’s a photographer specializing in post-mortem portraits, a particularly perculiarly Victorian obsession.

So, mid-Victorian setting+ male point of view + death photography = new things to master.

Even with these new creative challenges, I’ve found my second time writing a novel a far less mysterious proposition than when I first set out to write A GATHERING OF SHADOWS way back when. Since then, I’ve grown much more patient with the process. I understand my first draft is only that—a draft to be shaped as needed as my book develops. I know it will take time for me to know my characters—that they’ll only reveal themselves through process and perseverance. I’ve also spent considerable hours—heck, years—attempting to master the craft of fiction writing. I’ve taken workshops, read books, studied, beta read, and beyond.

All of this makes my experience of writing the Next Novel far less fraught with fear than A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. However, my second time experience led me to wonder whether it was similiar for other authors: Were their second novels easier to write? Harder? Or just different?

To find out, I asked these questions to several authors I know via the Historical Novel Society. To my delight, they were generously forthcoming with their responses.

Donna Russo Morin, author of THE KING’S AGENT: “There is a change with the second, that mental shift between ‘I want to be an author, and I am an author.’ For me, it gave me the courage to take some risks, to take my plot places I may have watered down with the first. There was a confidence that gave my pen greater power.”

Susanne Dunlap, author of THE ACADEMIE: “My second novel ended up being much harder than my first. I think mostly because I was writing to a one-page proposal that my publisher accepted. I kept trying to make the premise work, and it simply wouldn’t. I knew it was crap. Then I finally decided I had to break free of what I told them I would write and just do what worked. I set the novel a year earlier, during the cholera epidemic in Paris, and everything just fell together. It was a lesson for me: write what gets you going, don’t try to write to a brief!”

Anne Easter Smith, author of ROYAL MISTRESS: My first novel was written in stolen moments while holding down three part-time jobs, moving three times to different states and having not a clue how to structure a book. I just wanted to tell Richard III’s real story, and if my husband and children ended up reading it, I would have been thrilled. It was 960 pages long when I came to its end and I was exhilarated that for once in my life I actually finished a project. So when astonishingly, someone wanted to publish it, I found myself facing a two-book deal that was not expected at all. I had no intention of ever writing another book once Richard was down on paper. So the second novel was a bit of a chore–for me the difference between writing your passion and writing as work. However, chore or not, my second protagonist, Margaret of York, ended up one of my favorites through this whole series. The difference between no deadline for the first (took me seven years), and an 18-month deadline for the second.”

Lynn Cullen, author of MRS. POE: “I have come to the conclusion that it never gets easier to start a novel, be it first or fourteenth. The blank page still holds its terror. I think the main difference is that while there is terror, there is not panic. You know that somehow, from some magical place, words will come. I find, too, that books are like your own children in that you love them all equally. It seems impossible when you have that first story/child that you could never love the second as much, but you do. You love each one for what makes them unique. The last thing I have to say is that I am no more organized about writing now than I was for the first novel. I like to tell myself my messiness is part of the creative process. I don’t completely buy that but it sounds good.”

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And there you have it: four multi-published authors on their second time writing a novel. I’m so grateful to Donna, Anne, Susanne, and Lynn for sharing their experiences! Though I’ve listed only their latest novels here, I hope you’ll take a moment to learn about their previous ones—they’re all fabulous.

Creativity Friday: The most beloved painting in Britain? Or, the Lady and I

Posted on Jan 16, 2015 in A Gathering of Shadows/The Lily Maid, creativity, news & muse

I’m away through the end of January at a writer’s residency at the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts, where I’ll be hard at work on the Next Novel.  During my absence, I decided to repost some old blog favorites about publishing and the creative process. Enjoy!

Many of you know that the Waterhouse painting of the Lady of  Shalott (above) served as inspiration for my novel A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. Turns out I’m not alone in my obsession: I’m pleased to report The Lady of Shalott was recently voted the most loved painting in the United Kingdom as part of Art Everywhere’s incentive to celebrate British art.

As such, it will be featured on billboards for the next two weeks, along with 57 other popular British paintings, in what is being billed as the “world’s largest art show.” How cool is that?

Here’s my description of the painting from my novel. It’s written from the point of view of Elizabeth, the young woman who models for it:

 Though The Lady of Shalott clearly wasn’t finished—loose brush strokes indicated much of the composition—I easily recognized myself in it. Gazing at the painting was like looking into a strange mirror reflecting back another time and place. There I was, a fragile-looking young woman on a barge, my sorrow-filled eyes half-shut in anticipation of death. One hand held a lily; the other grasped the side of the boat. My blonde hair was scattered about my shoulders, as it had been that first morning when I’d first posed on my settee. The landscape surrounding the barge was marshy and tangled, threatening and wild. Water lilies past their bloom filled the foreground. The overall sense was one of tragic beauty. Of yearning that extended beyond grief. Lost possibilities. Lost love.

My obsession with the Lady of Shalott goes back years before I ever learned of the Waterhouse painting, or caught a glimpse of the novel that would become A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. My first exposure to her came at the age of six, when a favorite cousin gave me the Golden Book of King Arthur illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. It included a lush painting of the Lady of Shalott, here called Elaine the Lily Maid, that was simply the most stunningly romantic thing I’d ever seen. I must have spent hours staring at it, trying to comprehend her death from heartbreak. I couldn’t—but what child can?

But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”

This was only the beginning of my relationship with the Lady of Shalott. She stayed with me throughout my childhood, this tale of a girl trapped in a tower weaving tapestries of the world forbidden to her; to my mind, her story mirrored my favorite fairy tale of Rapunzel. Later, as a high school senior, I made an illuminated poster retelling the Lady of Shalott—one of my first attempts to integrate art and words as one. A teacher at the time said to me, “I’d be very interested to see you attempt this subject after you go to art school.” Alas, this was not to be, at least in painted form, for it was at the School of Visual Arts I was  introduced to Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott by another art student. How could I attempt to paint her in the wake of such a glorious painting?

Though it’s been some years, I still recall how my fellow student pulled out a much-thumbed postcard from his sketchbook. “It’s a painting of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott,” he said with the hushed tone of a junkie hawking an illicit drug. “It’s on display at the Tate Gallery in London. I returned every day to view it while I was there. I want to go back this summer.” However, that wasn’t all he found at the Tate Gallery: standing beside the famed painting was the young woman he was convinced was meant to be his true love and eternal muse.

I wonder still if they ever reunited. If so, I like the idea that the Lady of Shalott’s tragic love might have inspired someone to a happy ending.

Wordless Wednesday: A song among friends

Posted on Jan 14, 2015 in news & muse, the world around me, Wordless Wednesday

teteatete

Photographed in Brooklyn using a wide angle lens. I like how cozy everything appears!