My grandfather, Louis Williams, passed away peacefully on Saturday August 4th. He was 86 years old. When I got the message on the morning of August 3rd that my grandfather was in hospice care and did I want to come to South Carolina to say goodbye, I didn’t even have to think twice about it.
My grandfather was an artist, a professor, a liberal, and sometimes a cad, but above all, he was the rock that supported my family. He was always there to care for his children and grandchildren whenever the need arose. I can’t remember a time in my life when I couldn’t depend on him for encouragement, guidance and even inspiration. Of course, I had to be there for him in his last moments. And I was, thankfully. Five minutes after I arrived at his bedside, his breathing, which had been difficult and ragged, slowed. And stopped. Silently, he slipped away. And I will always cherish those last minutes I had with him, knowing he held on long enough to say farewell.
Being an artist, he exposed me to music, art, film, books, and even philosophy at a very early age. I remember him studying the I Ching, playing the piano, and painting naked ladies on giant canvases. He played tennis and ping-pong, and made spaghetti. He took me on road trips to college campuses when I was just in elementary school. He fiddled with cameras and processed film in his basement. I can remember the smell of paints, the feel of the soft brushes he used to express his art, the vibrant colors that splattered at his feet when he created abstract works. He listened to jazz in the car, he baked delicious breads, he cooked sausage and bratwurst, he had a cat named LuLu, and another one named Bif. He laughed heartily and often. He griped and often. He loved. Deeply. He was difficult and ornery. He was kind and tough, stubborn. He was laid back and determined. He was, simply, amazing.
I sat in the back of his class one day. I was a teenager and went to school across the street. I was waiting for him to finish teaching so he could drive me home. The auditorium was dark and he stood at the front as slides of artwork flicked upon a white screen behind him. I don’t remember what he was lecturing about. I don’t remember what the images were of. I just remember him. His tall, strong build. His loud, commanding voice. His square jaw and thin lips. His large hands and blue eyes. His hair that was thinning. The button down shirt he wore. And the smile on his face when he saw me afterward and said, “Hey kiddo. Ready to go home?”
Love you, Gramps. Always have. Always will. Say hello to Mom for me.
I’m discussing my creative process and publishing journey at Mimosas at Midnight!
Don’t you just love cracking open a new book? The excitement of delving into a new world filled with interesting characters and fascinating adventures? Taking a peek into someone else’s life, maybe even living vicariously through them? I do. And what I love even more is writing that new book.
The past nine years of my writing career have been largely dedicated to the completion and publication of two books, Hollywood Ending and Picture Perfect. Writing each of them off and on for years, finding my way, learning my craft, studying the publishing industry, all while typing, typing, typing in hopes of one day actually finishing them. It has been a long journey. And now that Picture Perfect is ready for its August 31st release, I’m ridiculously excited to start working on something new.
At first, I wasn’t going to develop a new idea. I had the beginnings of a story I’d started a few years ago, and I thought I would just work on finishing that one. But, I wasn’t inspired by that story or those characters anymore. Instead, the seedlings of a completely different novel began to sprout. To be honest, though, it had been quietly maturing in the back of my mind for a good long time. In fact, the idea itself came from a dream I’d had. It was so vivid and captivating that I woke up in the middle of the night to write down every detail I could remember. And those details have never left, never faded, never given way to other flights of fancy.
So now, having chosen to develop this budding book, I can’t wait to start writing it. But, my years of writing Hollywood Ending taught me something important. They taught me to be patient. To spend a lot of time up front discovering the characters and plotting the story. And even though I could start typing the first chapter right now, I won’t. Because I still have work to do. I have characters to draw, scenes to paint, plot twists to iron out, and oh so much to discover. But that’s the fun part. The time where I just get to play and explore.
I have a system. It’s a simple one. First, I begin with my cast of characters, and literally cast them. I pick film and TV actors that would best embody my characters and build from there. For this book, my lead actors are Amy Adams (as Willa), Jane Levy (as Rachel), Ryan Gosling (as Graham), and Gabriel Macht (as Ted), as well as a spirited Cairn Terrier (the family dog). With my cast assembled, I now create their bios. But this is more than just their education and work history. This is about who they are and who they wish they were. Where they’ve been and where they think they want to go. It’s about details. It’s about knowing why Amy’s character loves Barry Manilow and why Jane’s refuses to open her bank statements. It’s about uncovering secrets and shedding light on desires. It’s almost as much fun as gossiping about your co-workers!
And that’s where I’m at right now. Then, it’s on to the plot. Building the story, paving the way from the beginning to the end. I do it scene by scene. Idea by idea. And I write everything down on index cards. When I have about 150, I go through them, tossing extraneous stuff, and finding the holes, filling the holes. It’s very similar to building a puzzle, one misshapen piece at a time. And only when the pieces are all lined up can I begin to assemble it. Only then do I begin to type. Put words on a page. Because once you start typing, it’s much harder to change a plot point, a character, a setting. But when it’s still floating around on an index card, it’s flexible, mutable. And it’s still only an idea. The page is where it breathes, lives, takes flight. Where it is much harder to bend to your will. Much harder to kill.
I wrapped up my second novel, Picture Perfect, at the end of June. Since then, I’ve been in the writing mode I call “discovery” where I feed my imagination with movies, books, games, conversations, meditation – basically anything and everything. I had in my mind that the next book I’d focus on would be one I started writing about three years ago. Set in Paris around a young and ambitious advertising exec who opens her own boutique agency in the Seventeenth Arrondissement, it had all the makings for a fun and fabulous read. But, after several weeks of pondering Paris and my heroine’s journey, I found that I just wasn’t that excited about writing it. Instead, another story, another cast of characters, kept creeping into my thoughts. They tugged at me when I was sitting at stop lights, brushing my teeth, and making dinner. And as much as I tried to keep my mind trained on France, Beverly Hills continued to beckon.
Writing, just like yoga, requires a bit of flexibility. Many of my yoga students believe they can’t do a certain pose because they aren’t strong enough or bendy enough or fearless enough, or whatever other obstacle they can invent. But the key to progressing in your practice is not in pushing your body beyond its limits, but in expanding your mind to open wider, see further, and (most importantly) take risks. That doesn’t mean I’m going to shove a beginner into an advanced pose. Not hardly! It means that a willingness to discover and explore methods and practices that will eventually take a beginner to an advanced level is required.
I think writing requires that same willingness to explore, to take risks. Sure, I could ignore that story and those characters that continue to invade my thoughts. I could forcibly shove them aside and narrow my gaze on my Paris idea. But why fight it? Obviously, something in me needs to be expressed. And it’s exciting and intimidating at the same time. The Paris storyline is familiar and friendly. This new Beverly Hills one is full of holes. I don’t know who these people are, or what they want. I don’t know why they live in Beverly Hills, as opposed to, say, San Francisco. There is a lot of work to be done if I’m going to follow this story.
Sometimes it’s hard to know if you should indulge those nagging characters, or just focus on the book you’ve already started. And usually, I would advise a writer to stay the course. Not to be dazzled by the shiny object in the corner of her mind. But in this case, I’m injecting a little flexibility into my plans. I’m only about three chapters into this Paris tale. I haven’t visited them in a long while, and in that time, I’ve grown and matured as a writer. I have to honor where I’m at now, not where I was three years ago when this idea first took shape. And honestly, my heart isn’t in Paris (as much as I want it to be), and I’ve always believed in following my heart.
How about you? Are you often battling different storylines in your head? How do you choose which one to focus on?
While I’m finishing up the editing on my second novel, Picture Perfect, I’m also in the midst of developing two new story ideas for future novels. This is actually one of my favorite phases of writing. The discovery phase. This is the stage where I explore, wonder, imagine, question, read, create and do pretty much everything except write. I’ve learned to give myself lots of time to allow my story to unfold in my mind before I ever start typing.
One of the stories I’m developing, I actually started writing a couple years ago, but I set it aside in order to focus on finishing my first novel, Hollywood Ending. This new story is set in Paris, so I’ve been dreaming about Paris, re-visiting memories of my travels there, poring over my pictures of The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and all the other amazing and iconic landmarks a City as ancient and storied as Paris has to offer. Last night I re-watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and I’m looking forward to filling my Blockbuster queue with more fabulous films set in the City of Light. I have Juliette Sobanet’s Kissed in Paris on my Kindle, waiting to be read, and guide books and phrase books at the ready to transport myself six thousand miles. And the best part? It’s all research for my novel.
If I could afford another trip to visit Paris in person, I would do that, too. But, I’m on a budget these days, so I’ll have to make do with my memories, photos, films, and books to help with creating the setting. But when it comes to the story, I like to let that unfold in my head. Despite having started the book a few years ago, the story is still undeveloped. The characters are all there. The premise has been formulated. But I’ve yet to discover the story. The winding tale that will fill three hundred plus pages of prose.
There’s a lot of talk about “pantsing” and “plotting” in the writing world. I consider myself a reformed “pantser.” I used to just sit down at the computer and let the story flow from my fingertips. The problem with that was that I didn’t know what I might be writing one day from the next. I went wherever the story took me. And it often took me to some pretty amazing places. But it also led me down a lot of meandering paths that ultimately went nowhere. As a result, I wasted a lot of creative energy typing when I should have been using my imagination to simply explore.
These days, I let my mind wander for a good long while before I ever write anything down. Oh, I keep notes, mind you. I jot things down in a small notebook. Whatever pops into my head. Sometimes it’s plot-related. Sometimes it’s character-related. Sometimes it gets tossed. Sometimes it gets developed even further. That’s the beauty of the discovery phase. It’s a step in the creative process that allows one to use the most creative energy, simply allowing ideas to blossom and mature without the constraints of a plotline or character arc. Pure creativity. I love this stage.
But it’s easy to let the discovery phase take over. There does come a point when you have to start organizing all those wonderful ideas. And I call that the planning stage. I’ll talk about that more in depth when I get there. For now, I’m just enjoying the freedom that comes with discovery. And the joy of immersing myself in a world of wonder.
Do you have a discovery stage, too? What’s your favorite part of the creative process?
Right now I’m in the midst of editing my second novel, Picture Perfect, and this is really similar to refining one’s yoga practice. The character arcs are all there, the story structure is strong, the plot is compelling, but this is the point where you really scrutinize word choice, analyze the pacing, evaluate the emotional development. Just like in yoga, where once you learn how to do a pose, the challenge comes in perfecting your form and developing your stamina, the editing process is about enriching and polishing.
And it really helps to have someone else’s input during this process. Whether you’re trying to master Eagle pose or making revisions to your latest novel, it benefits you to have a trained eye overseeing your efforts. As a yoga teacher, I can see how a student can make a slight modification, such as moving their foot one inch, in order to achieve better form. The same is true for an editor. The mere fact that someone outside your head is reading your story, can make all the difference.
Sometimes, things like character motivation or scene description is clear as day in the writer’s head, but if it isn’t on the page, it isn’t going to be clear to the reader. And having an outsider with an objective view point overseeing your work will help you smooth out those little hiccups that would otherwise leave readers wondering what just happened or where the story is unfolding.
Luckily, I had a lot of input while writing Picture Perfect, and as a result, I have a wealth of notes to guide me during the editing phase. And it also helps that I’ve spent years studying my craft, so even though the story was created in my head, I’ve gotten pretty good at seeing the gaps where stuff from my mind hasn’t made it onto the page. Putting some distance between you and your novel also serves to create that objective viewpoint. I started working on Picture Perfect about five years ago. So, now that it’s finished, and I’m onto the polishing stage, it’s practically like reading it for the first time. And that allows me the perspective of a new reader.
So, whether you’re working on opening your hips in pigeon or putting the finishing touches on your debut novel, be sure to get the unbiased opinion of a professional to help get you into top form. One way or another, it’s important to get a fresh perspective.
You know that saying, “Do what you love and the money will follow?” Well, I think it’s a nice sentiment, but I also think it does little to truly express what following your dreams is really all about. Are you doing what you love because you want to get paid for it? Because, trust me, there are a lot better ways to make money than to be a singer, dancer, actor, author, artist, insert-your-passion-here. Paying the bills gets a whole lot easier if you have a 9-5 to rely on. Dreams don’t put food on the table. Money does.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do what you love. You should! It also means that you should be willing to keep doing what you love even if the money doesn’t follow. That is, if you really love it.
One of the reasons I have never pursued a full time career as a yoga teacher is that I simply love yoga. Sure, it’s nice to get paid to teach it when I can, but the work that goes into securing enough yoga classes, private students, workshops and retreats to make a living at it is enough to put me off the whole endeavor. I already have a full time job that keeps me plenty busy. I don’t also need to add in all the legwork that goes into a career as a yoga teacher. But whenever I get the opportunity to teach at my favorite yoga studio or to present my Yoga for Writers workshops, I get that warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from doing something you love. So, although I don’t pursue this path with the kind of fervor that would be required to really make money, I keep my toe in. Just to feel that joy of sharing my passion with others.
When it comes to writing, however, I keep chasing the dream at all costs. Even if I never earned another penny from it, I couldn’t stop writing. It’s a part of me that can’t be suppressed. Seriously, I would probably be locked up in a looney bin if I didn’t have a constructive outlet for all the voices in my head. Luckily, I do earn money from writing. Not enough to give up the day job (yet), but it doesn’t matter how much I do or don’t earn. If I were to win the lottery and never had to work another day in my life, I would still write. And I would probably write a lot more because I wouldn’t have that pesky day job to get in the way. Alternatively, I could go on writing for the rest of my life even if I never sold another book again. I know this is true because I have tried to quit writing several times over the years.
Yes, I have given up on my dreams more than once, disheartened by the odds of actually succeeding at it professionally. But I could never keep the stories away for long. They would creep back into my consciousness, very unexpectedly in most instances. And soon I’d be scribbling out a scene or tapping into a character’s inner monologue, driven by the simple need to get that stuff out of my head. And I’d go so far as to say that this has nothing to do with love at all. It’s more of a biological need. If I didn’t have a way to corral the wandering minstrels of my mind, I really do think I would completely crack up. The simple truth is, I can’t stop writing. No matter what.
So, before dreams of fame and fortune set you off on any specific career path, ask yourself if this is something you would do regardless of how much money you earned from it. If it is, go for it! Put your whole heart into it. And perhaps have a backup plan just in case you find that your dreams of singing soprano at the Metropolitan Opera aren’t quite paying the bills.