Artistic chemical reactions

I lived in Berlin a few years ago and visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The first thing you see walking in are the words worked into the iron bars of the front gate:

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“Work makes you free.” A chilling statement at the entrance of a place where thousands of men, women, and children were worked to death, among other atrocities. Standing before that gate and feeling the hollow echoes of horrors past is not an experience easily forgotten.

So when Jennifer Nielsen revealed the cover of her new book, A Night Divided, it hit me hard. The words worked into the barbed wire reminded me starkly of the gate at Sachsenhausen, and it represented beautifully the pain and suffering that lingered on for decades after the war ended with a broken, impoverished land and divided families.

It made me think about art, about what it is that makes pictures or writing or theater or anything come to life. To some extent, it is the artist. It takes talent, hard work, dedication to create something that can touch a person.

But in the end, art is nothing without someone to appreciate it. Art takes on a life of its own when it comes in contact with the rest of the world. It’s like a chemical reaction. You start out with your created work, your masterpiece as you see it. But when it reacts with others’ experiences, memories, hopes, dreams, it bubbles and froths and turns into something beyond what you imagined.

Some are bothered by interpretations of their work that don’t match their own, but that’s the beauty of art. It’s not one set thing. It becomes something completely new every time another person experiences it.

So go forth and create–not just your own art, but your perspectives on others’. Whether you’re writing or reading, performing or watching, painting or admiring, you are a part of the art.

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I need other people’s words.

Sometimes, I get really tired of putting out my own words, and I need other people’s words to build up my store again. So today, instead of trying to be clever and interesting all by myself, I’m letting more brilliant authors take the stage—or, well, the blog. Enjoy!

Crazy people who are judged to be harmless are allowed an enormous amount of freedom ordinary people are denied. (Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson)

I have also heard and read various accounts of why they liked me. My favorites? I wasn’t too good-looking, I walked a little funny, and I was basically kind of average and ordinary.
I guess my lack of perfection turned out to be a winning hand. Let that be a lesson for future generations. (My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business, Dick Van Dyke)

If there be any one grace or loveliness inseparable from that particular period of life, Miss Squeers may be presumed to have been possessed of it, as there is no reason to suppose that she was a solitary exception to a universal rule. (Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens) {Dickens is the master of roundabout insults.}

There are no ‘ifs’ in God’s kingdom. I could hear [Betsie’s] soft voice saying it. His timing is perfect. His will is our hiding place. Lord Jesus, keep me in Your will! Don’t let me go mad by poking about outside it. (The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom)

So Bod picked the red and yellow nasturtiums, and he carried them over to Mother Slaughter’s headstone, so cracked and worn and weathered that all it said now was,
LAUGH
which had puzzled the local historians for over a hundred years. (The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman)

Never Eat Sour Watermelons

I am directionally challenged.

It’s okay, I’ve long ago accepted it. I still get lost sometimes in the town where I grew up. It was close to two months before I would drive anywhere by myself here in Washington. When picturing a map in my head, I’ve got north and south down pat, but I sometimes have to remember to Never Eat Sour Watermelons before I get east and west straightened out.

The problem is not solved in my imagination. When planning a story, I can churn out characters, plotlines, inner struggles, outer struggles, worlds, creatures, whatever you want.

But when you ask me where it all takes place, all action grinds to a halt.

I have to get a paper, pencil, and eraser and work for a good amount of time before I can figure out how my story works geographically. Map the country, map the castle, map the village, map the forest, map the island, then hang all those maps up on the wall and stare at them until the images are burned onto my eyeballs and are hopefully seeping back into my brain, where I can transfer them into the words of the story.

And don’t even get me started on distances traveled. Figuring out how long it takes to get from here to there is one of my biggest headaches in the writing process.

How do you work out the specifics of your story’s geography? Is it something that comes naturally to you, or do you struggle with it?

The Pancake Draft

My dad was the pancake-maker of the house when I was a kid. He had it down to an art, and every pancake turned out just right—except for one.

Without fail, he always tossed the first pancake straight into the trash.

It seemed like an awful waste, especially to a hungry ten-year-old, but he was adamant. The first pancake never turned out right. It was unfit for human consumption.

Well, my friends, it turns out that’s the secret to more than just pancakes.

The first time I finished a complete draft of any novel ever was my freshman year of college. I was thrilled. Like, to the point where I wanted to climb out my window, scale the wall, and do a jig on the snow-covered roof of my apartment building. It was done! Complete! Finished!

And then I reread it.

It was awful.

Totally unfit for human consumption.

I was so demoralized that I put it away and didn’t look at it again until long after I began work on Demon’s Heart. How could I face starting over again from the beginning? I had worked so hard to get that first draft out! There were blood and tears in that ink! I couldn’t just trash it!

But there was no getting around it. That was a pancake draft. It had to go in the trash.

Not literally. Goodness. I had to have something to reference when I started again. But there was literally nothing salvageable from that draft except for the character names, and even some of those had to go. And so I opened a new Word document and started again from the beginning.

I’ve resigned myself to the pancake draft, which makes it a little easier to face starting from the beginning again after writing an entire novel. I’ve also learned a little more about planning and outlining, which makes it so that I don’t have multiple pancake drafts for the same novel. The only thing worse than having to chuck an entire draft of your novel is having to chuck two or three or four entire drafts of your novel.

Do you have a pancake draft? What’s the hardest thing to do once you finish that first draft of your novel?

Go forth and interview!

For those of you just joining us here at BumblesBooks, every Monday I post a writing challenge meant to help you develop different aspects of your story ideas.

I’ve been working on developing several characters lately for various projects, and it’s been a bit of a struggle to get to know them. I’ve been working with the characters in Demon’s Heart for so many years and know them so well that I’m having a hard time breaking through those initial barriers of as-yet-undiscovered character landscapes.

So I’m going to try a tactic I’ve seen here and there, but never tried before. I’m throwing out the challenge for you to try as well:

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Interview one of your characters.

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Bring on the books!

I’ve been poking around Goodreads, Barnes and Noble, and Third Place Books lately for new books to add to my reading list for the year. The list just gets longer and longer, and I want to read them all right now! There are far too many good books out there to be devoured. If you’re interested in seeing what I’m reading in the coming year, you can follow my reviews on Goodreads here. (I think. Let me know if that link doesn’t work.)

One of my favorite things about Goodreads is that you can look back at all the books you’ve read that year. It’s like revisiting dozens of worlds at once. If you’re looking for something new to read, here are some of my highlights from 2014:

Highly anticipated: The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen

Heartwarming: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

Thought-provoking: Wonder by RJ Palacio
Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

Creative world building: Jinx by Sage Blackwood
Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George

School books: The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea

Fabulous debuts: Uncovering Cobbogoth by Hannah L. Clarke
An Uncommon Blue by RC Hancock.

Quirky: The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer
A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty

Nonfiction: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business by Dick Van Dyke

Happy reading, everybody!

The Secret to Finishing a Novel

During my signing at Barnes and Noble, I had a great discussion about books and writing with the fabulous Julia. Somewhere in our conversation, she asked what made the difference for me in going from essentially a hobbyist writer to writing something publishable.

My first thought was my commitment to writing every day, but that wasn’t quite enough. There was a point in my life where I was writing all the time and never getting any closer to that finished manuscript.

The real difference came when I realized that I had been working for a year on the same project and hadn’t gotten past chapter ten. I had written and rewritten those ten chapters a billion and a half times, but the end of the story looked hopelessly out of reach.

What I had to do at that point was one of the most painful things I’ve done in my writing experience:

I banned myself from editing until I had a complete story in front of me.

It was hard, and I slipped more than once. I had to ban myself from even so much as rereading what I had written, and there were times when I literally had to close my eyes and keep working to stop myself from going back and fixing that horribly lame scene I had just written.

But once I hit the end, there were fireworks. I had a full story written out from beginning to end! It was full of holes, it was cliche, it was jumpy and rocky, but it was all laid out in front of me. With a complete, albeit terrible draft laid out before me, I could mold my story as a whole. Before, I was rewriting blindly, with no broader view of the story than the bits at the beginning.

I still struggle with holding off on the editing until I have a complete draft, but I’ve proven to myself again and again that it’s the only way for me to write anything worth reading.

Do you edit as you go or wait until the end of a draft? What kinds of changes have you made to improve your writing quality and efficiency?