April 2017

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I am rather blue and blah at the moment; it is pouring rain outside (at least it's not snow?*) and the wind is howling something fierce. I'm wrapping up my contribution to the B2MeM review award grand prize banners, trying to think of how to represent mithril seasonally, and feeling like wasting some time but not on something completely fruitless. Anyway. There is a rather interesting discussion going on over of Oshun's LiveJournal (it's f-locked, so I won't link) concerning B2MeM, which morphed into the inevitable discussion of format preference that sometimes feels to me like it is one of the great insurmountable dichotomies of our age. Sharks or Jets? Bears or Packers? Grunge or rap? (Yes, I spent my formative adolescent years in the '90s.) New York-style or Chicago-style? Daily prompts or omg-anything-but-daily-prompts-for-the-love-of-god-please?

* Never mind.

What I find interesting about this annual discussion is what it reveals about us as writers. My number-one takeaway from running B2MeM all these years is that 1) the creative process is different for everyone, 2) this tends to be relatively fixed, and 3) people become can very distressed/resentful when asked to step outside this pattern. Perhaps this isn't surprising to many or even most writers. But I'm sort of the swallowtail in the garden who, in terms of method and inspiration, flits from tiger lily to dandelion to lantana whilst chortling "Tra-la-la-la-lally" and ignorant of my apparent weirdness. (This is actually a fair description of me in more ways than just creative method.) But then there are the honeybees of the garden who gather pollen from only clover, and you offer them a bunch of bee balm and they gasp and reply, "How very, VERY dare you?" and I look around and realize that there are far more honeybees than swallowtails.

(Now's a good time to say--because it sadly always has to be said--that I don't find one creative method/approach/whatnot superior to another. My way isn't the "right way"; there is no "right way." When I think back to my own early creative experiences, I realize that my preferred way was fixed pretty early in life, and I can only assume the same of others. That I don't think this is something easily changed is why I stopped looking at "how to write" books by successful authors. I just find it interesting to speculate on these things.)

Anyway, from my swallowtail-eye-view, I rarely meet a fandom challenge I don't get along with. I like daily prompts, signing up for prompts (like this year's B2MeM), fixed prompt challenges (like SWG's or MPTT's), ficswaps, big bangs (even though my grad school schedule prevents me from committing to one), personal challenges/requests from people; I can be inspired by songs, poems, pictures, or quotes. The one thing I don't see myself wanting to do is the role-playing that I see a lot on Tumblr, mostly because I don't prefer to work with other people creatively and much of the purpose appears to be advancing a plot/dialogue with understandably little opportunity to wallow in characterization, world-building, or commentary on theme or the texts, all of which are what I enjoy about writing. The same issues with working collectively (and having to accept other people's characterizations as my own) would probably prevent me from writing in a round-robin.

Yet this shows that even swallowtails won't do it all. And when I think of my own background as a writer, then this makes sense, which is why I tend to think of one's preferences for inspiration and method to be rather fixed, kind of like a creative personality. I cannot remember a time when I didn't invent stories, although I was nearing adolescence before I started writing them down. (The first story I remember writing was called "Desert Challenge," when I was 9 years old.) These stories were carried on in my head or in play with my sister Sharon, who was also my partner in creative crime until well into adulthood. They usually started with a character or the desire to inhabit a world. We purloined characters from books, TV shows, and movies and fit them into worlds of our invention. The character obviously had some appeal to start but, after that, was open to development in whatever direction we chose. It was essentially fanfiction, and anyone who knows anything about my writing in the Tolkien Silmarillion fandom will tell you that I operate in much the same way today. We also invented characters, but these were often created in conjunction with the characters seeded from books and media, even if they eventually took on a life of their own.

As I grew older, I found stories springing from a variety of inspirations. Songs and music are huge for me, and when I was a teenager, Sharon and I were insatiable consumers of music videos. This is when MTV actually played music videos, and my parents' cutting-edge-at-the-time television had a picture-in-picture feature, so we'd watch MTV with VH1 in picture-in-picture (or vice versa), and if a video we liked came on the other channel, we'd switch. I particularly liked the videos that told a story, and I often made up short stories that went along with songs, kind of like mental music videos. My short story Cogs (f-locked; also published in the anthology Magic and Mechanica) was based on a song. Other times, it was lyrics or intense images that inspired me. Certain lines from songs created an instant scene, behind which there seemed to rest a whole world worth exploring. I recently heard "The Sound of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel for the first time in years, and this was one such song for me, and even when I was too young to know what it meant, the images it created were extremely evocative and inspiring for me.

I have written here before about my theory that writers tend to fall into two camps: those who start with people (characters) and those who start with plot. For me, a story starts with people, and the plot unfolds as that unique individual interacts with the world and other people around her/him. For this reason, a variety of prompts and challenges have always had appeal because writing takes the shape of the same sort of hypotheticals that people entertain themselves with all the time. "What would I do in such-and-such situation? What would I do if I had this ability or power? If I lived in this historical period, what would my life be like?" In fiction, we can do that to our characters, and that's part of what I love about it.

Most of my stories these days are done for prompts or challenges. I find it motivating during a time in my life when it is hard to carve out time for writing to commit to something and have a deadline to force me to prioritize my writing in a way that is difficult for me to do otherwise. Once I have a prompt, I need a person. For example, my B2MeM prompt was the song "Autumnal" by Arcana. When I first heard the song, I was struck with strong images, as I always am when listening to evocative music. I saw a woman of a certain bearing in a certain scene that began to crystallize into a coronation. The woman was Indis. I had never written Indis in any serious way, but once I had that piece in the puzzle, images from the story came to me so fast that it blew me away, and I had to figure out what they meant and then connect them. (And since this was right before B2MeM began, I had a boatload of admin tasks and so couldn't write right away, which was difficult to say the least.) Once Indis was in place (and once I'd done my research in the texts to develop her character with confidence), then I could bring in characters familiar from my existing Felakverse (Finwë, Fingolfin, Nerdanel), and as those characters reacted to Indis, something like a plot began to develop. In mind also was what I wanted the story to say. When researching Indis, I was struck how, in the published Silm, she seems without agency; she is someone who is acted upon by others, and even her reaction to those actions is missing. In the HoMe, this is less the case, which got me thinking about historiography and how texts often shape what we come to believe as truth--and how authors with all their human flaws and biases shape those texts*--and this gave me the idea to intersperse "primary sources" throughout a story told from Indis's point of view. From this, Prayers about Rain came into being.

*Case in point, Douglas Charles Kane in Arda Reconstructed documents how Christopher Tolkien, in editing the published Silmarillion, tended to cut characterization and details about women characters, making them less complex and interesting. I don't recall if Indis's story was reduced for this reason or if Tolkien decided to take out the more interesting details about her; in any case, she was reduced and simplified in the published text because of someone's editorial decision that presumably didn't represent the broader reality of her character in JRRT's imagined world.

When I was younger, I used to often pick up those "how to write" books at the bookstore and peruse them, where I encountered insistence from other writers--and writers far more successful than me--that I needed to outline my plot before I began or write early in the morning or force myself to write for 15 minutes a day and so on. At the time, I thought there was something wrong with me as a write that these things seemed so ineffective and unappealing; I know differently now. It is not part of my creative personality to write in this way (it is not part of who I am, period, to do anything by choice early in the morning), and I've accepted that and learned to think about and work with what I have learned does work for me, and I find my writing getting a bit better with each story as a result.

B2MeM is interesting to me because it is a chance to see how other creative personalities work. Some people don't like to work under pressure; others don't like to work off-the-cuff. Some people hate deadlines; others need them to get anything done. Some prefer vague and very open-ended prompts or very specific prompts or hate prompts altogether. Of course, people differ in how much they share of a story and its process at varying stages of its development and how they revise. Some people like to lovingly craft each word of a short story over the course of weeks or months while that drives others mad with boredom and they'd rather have lots of prompts in little time. And of course, I see the character-based writers and the plot-based writers, to say nothing of how comfortable people are straying from what we're told in the texts. It's part of what makes B2MeM so difficult to plan but also so interesting to watch unfold, year after year.
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