Yes, Virginia Woolf, I am an author…

So, I was working on some prep for an upcoming class I have to interpret and I stumbled upon a passage in an essay that not only struck me but absolutely blindsided me in its perfection and appropriateness. In fact, this is going to be my go to now when people ask me what it means to be an author or, in her lovely parlance, a novelist – which sounds far more like the image I have of myself – sequestered in a lovely, seaside town with a leather chair, a fireplace, and my laptop, writing and writing and writing.

Of course, this image flies in the face of my reality – I’m usually on the sofa, holding off anywhere from one to three dogs who DESPERATELY  NEED MY ATTENTION RIGHT NOW and answering questions from my husband while trying to find the right way to describe a creature that heretofore exists only in my mind. That, of course, is luxury; there are also the harried moments of trying to get a sentence typed while simultaneously trying NOT to slide off the seat in a moving bus, or typing out THE BEST DIALOGUE I HAVE EVER CREATED with one hand at whatever desk I can find at work – as the other hand tries not to drop my lunch onto the keyboard.

Anyway, enjoy this passage from “How One Should Read a Book,” by Virginia Woolf. She is, as per usual, spot on. I will have some thoughts to share after you’re done.

The thirty-­‐two chapters of a novel—if we consider how to read a novel first—are an attempt to make something as formed and controlled as a building: but words are more impalpable than bricks; reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing. Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words. Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you—how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking. A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment.

-Virginia Woolf, How Should One Read A Book

Right, so anyone that has written anything will tell you that this is one of the more challenging aspects of the craft – take what you have experienced that inspires you and turn it into words, with all their “dangers and difficulties.”  While I do agree that it is difficult, it occurs to me that I have an advantage that I hadn’t thought about until today – I am fluent in English, but also in American Sign Language (ASL).

I know, it’s a stretch, but stay with me.

ASL, like all other signed languages, is a visual and spatial language – English, and other spoken languages, are more linear in their approach to conveying a message. It is part of the language to describe things, to make the building that Woolf mentions in that passage. You can’t convey the meaning, TREE without conveying what the tree looks like. It is built into the language!

I haven’t gotten to the advantage yet, so if you’re still lost, that’s okay. Here we go.

In order to express TREE in ASL, I have to visualize the tree. Whereas in English I might say “the old oak tree with the outstretched branches” to describe the tree I’m picturing now, I would use one sign in ASL:

As you can see in this image by The Tree House, my arm would be the trunk and my fingers the leaves, so in a way, I’m expressing everything that took me eight words in English with one sign. But in my mind, I am visualizing the tree and hanging onto that visualization because I need it to correctly represent the tree.
That was the advantage – did you miss it? ASL requires me to hold onto images of things that I have seen and subsequently want to talk about later. That is such a useful skill for a writer, especially one like me born without an eidetic memory. Do I capture and store everything that I see/hear/experience? No, my internal hard drive that is my brain is far too limited for that. But part of what I do as an ASL user is to slow down for a second and consider the visual aspects of something that strikes me – and that helps me later describe it, sometimes first in ASL and then in English.
My life is weird – and wonderful, and I hope that this will make me a better interpreter AND novelist.

Well, that escalated quickly.

[Disclaimer: Nothing like that, no books were harmed in the making of this post. It’s just that my nano has taken off again, rather like a house – or, in this case, book – on fire. Book burning is still awful and closed-minded and useless. Don’t do it. Read. There we go.]

So for a few days, I was stuck – horribly stuck – at best, my nano word count was falling behind. At worst, I had lost my voice as a novelist and all of Orana had abandoned me. Same thing, really, if you throw a panic attack in the middle over a poorly elbow in your dominant hand when both of the things that define you (interpreting and writing) involve the pain-free movement of your right hand and arm.

I did what any rational adult in my shoes staring at a blank page would do – I hit the panic button and freaked WAY the heck out for a little while, and then I started thinking about my support system as a writer. You may think that we sit at our IKEA desks all alone in our writing sheds, surrounded by lovely greenery and sipping a mug of tea as the ideas just flow out of our heads into our novels, but I am here to tell you this: if that is the truth, I’m not sure what it is that I am doing because it involves sitting on my worn leather couch, laptop on my knees, wolfhounds clambering about on clobberpaws and crying. Lots of crying. Anyway!

I have recently gotten to know someone that I’m fairly certain I already knew from another time in my life – a fellow novelist who attended the same college I did in the mountains of northern Georgia. So after all the crying and panicking, I sent him a simple text that said that I was struggling to find an antagonist and that my protagonist was stuck, sitting on a horse in the Outlands and watching someone ride toward her. For two days, I literally did not know who it was that was riding toward her. His responses led me to my antagonist, and to the rider who is merely the catalyst for the main story arc. Since then, I have written more than 10,000 words, and even though I am not at my daily wordcount target it is in sight. I still am not sure what the antagonist’s story is, but at least I’m back heading in the right direction.

So writers, lean on each other. It doesn’t mean that you don’t know how to write or that you are a phony (impostor syndrome, anyone?), it means that you are using the community we find among like-minded individuals. You are doing the work, and you do not have to do it alone. Now, get your characters off those lonely roads and into some good plot points!

Well, here we are again.

In my Facebook feed this morning was a list of “memories,” things that I posted on Facebook on November 1st all the way back to 2008. Apparently, since 2010 when I discovered this sickness addiction wonderful program, I have been posting that I’m starting a new project every November first.

Dull FB status. Exciting and potentially life-changing real life. For once I am not working on a revision or sequel or prequel related to the Orana Chronicles or Clobberpaws/Proud Racer. I know that I said that Clobberpaws 2 would be this year’s Nano but I just can’t make it a daily project. Daisy has been gone for almost two years now, but it’s still too raw and the last book had her in it and – you know what? It doesn’t matter why, really. It is happening, and more will happen with it after the first of the year, and that’s what needs to be said about that.

Nope, this year’s Nano is another attempt at something that doesn’t exist in a fantasy world or have talking animals. Boy, that’s one heck of a description of my writing, huh? Nancy Dunne, you say? Oh, yes, she writes about dogs and cats that talk and elves. You know, no big deal.

Boy, I hope no one is really saying that about me as a writer. Anyway, moving on…

This year’s Nano is a crime novel first and foremost. I’ve tried that before and failed miserably. But try, try again, as they say. Because it’s me as a writer, there will be supernatural characters. Because it’s me as a person, it’s set in a theatre and there are both Deaf and hearing characters – though that part may fall through because I’m nervous about portraying genuine Deaf characters. The theatre part will hold, though. It’s going to be a play within a play, like one of my favorite One-Act Plays, The Real Inspector Hound. Watch this space. I’m sure that it will get weird before it’s over.

Slow Gin

My concept drawing of my character, Ginolwenye, from the Nature Walker Trilogy.

[Disclaimer – wannabe authorly post ahead. Read at your own risk.]

It seems that I am constantly in edits. The first part of the Nature Walker Trilogy, Wanderer, took me fourteen years to write. Now, mind you that was not fourteen years of writing every day or anything crazy like that. It was fourteen years of write for a while, put the manuscript away for a while, take it back out and fall back in love with Sath and Gin for a while, rinse, repeat. This face, rendered via Adobe Fuse CC, was always in my mind just like that, with that expectant look on her usually freckled face. She is still in my mind, almost constantly, repeating her mantra:

You aren’t done yet.
Finish my story. 
Get the manuscript back out.
Sath and I miss you.
I always do as she asks, being the ever obedient author and alter ego. Even when I was working on other things (Proud Racer, Clobberpaws, and The Baskervilles-coming soon – just to name a few) or not even close to a Nano month of any sort, she was always there – I don’t want to say nagging, because that’s negative, but yeah, she was nagging. She’s still there, wondering what is taking me so long.
A funny thing happened in the more recent years, though – thanks to a beta reader of mine who carried on his own nagging campaign. He said that he wasn’t buying how I was writing Gin. He said that after everything she had been through, to come out the other side still bowing and scraping and apologizing seemed inconsistent. I raged against that feedback for a long time. Fought it. Ignored it. But he kept on me about it, and as much as I hate to ever admit it, he was right.
I’ve come back to thinking about all of that in light of the recent political climate and the #metoo movement. At first, I was afraid that I should put a trigger warning for domestic abuse on the books because there are bits in there that are tough for ME to read, and I wrote them. No, said my Wise Beta Reader, people need to see that she was in those places and experienced those things and came out of it with her dignity and her mercy still intact. She came out with a better sense of who she was – what is more inspirational than that? She is an example of a woman that was bent to the point of breaking – but who never broke.
That isn’t who she was initially. It was a long time before she stopped quaking in fear at every stern expression or jumping out of her skin at loud noises (like Qatu knuckles cracking). She would burst into tears at the drop of a hat as much as she would the drop of a weapon. Be glad that he convinced me that she needed to show the strength that she had – I’m not sure she would be worth reading otherwise.
More importantly, though, it was through those conversations that I realized it wasn’t only Gin who needed to be stronger, and tougher, and more authentic. That isn’t who I was – or who I am, depending on the day, if I’m honest. But again, without knowing it, Wise Beta Reader was right – Gin is who I want to be, and who I’m sure many others in my situation want to be as well, and I hope she resonates with them as much as she does with me. Everyone’s situation is different, obviously, but if Gin can give someone the strength to just take one step at a time in the direction of safety, then she is doing the work – I am doing the work.
I also hope that this doesn’t make Wise Beta Reader turn into Full Of Himself Beta Reader, but you never know. I suppose he has earned it.