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Choosing the first scene is giving me so much grief I’m wondering if I should just skip it and move on.

The idea from this novel came from an image I had of a woman coming across a dying man on a battlefield. She’s supposed to slay him, but she rescues him instead. And from this single act of defiance, she begins a journey from slavery to freedom, power and forgiveness. It has all the elements I need for PACTS:
P: Heroine
A: Odin, who is present in the mind of the heroine
C: The heroine defies Odin, who demands the warrior’s death
T: In defying him and dishonouring her oaths of service, she finds she is keeping to an older, more sacred oath
S: A battlefield sometime in the last hundred years

For a long time, that scene has been my opening scene. It’s the one I’ve given to others to read and comment, the defining image of my novel. In this scene, unlike any other, I can engage all my senses and stand in the middle of the tale.

In reviewing my WIP, I haven’t lost this scene. I’ve thought about it a couple of times, but it is crucial to the structure of the story and I think it’s actually the turning point or climax of my first act. So this left me with a new opening scene to write.

My main candidate for the opening scene is now a scene that also introduces the heroine and villain and foreshadows the turning point scene.
P: Heroine
A: Ulfhednar descendant (& foreshadows Odin as villain)
C: The ulfhednar misreads the heroine’s motives and fights her; also a conflict between the heroine and the time she lives in
T: The heroine is dedicated to protecting the ulfhednar, but her lack of familiarity with the modern world leads to her motives being misinterpreted
S: A city in the twenty first century

The plan is to start writing this scene this week – hopefully I will be able to stand in the street and watch the action unfold, ready to transcribe 🙂

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Just a quick update before I pack it in for the evening (to re-read the wonderful Bastard’s Grace by Wendy Palmer).

I wish I had revisited the Think Sideways lessons earlier. I know I didn’t always fully understand them on the first read through, but with over sixty thousand words under my belt I have a much better appreciation for the concepts. Tonight I’ve been working on Lesson 8 (scene cards):
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Nineteen scenes so far, nearly all mapped out with the Sentence Lite. Woo hoo! I have got rid of one sub-plot and a lot of backstory, but with these scene cards I can see how to slip the back story in little by little. And while the first half of my WIP was essentially one huge flashback before the action began, I have reduced it to just two shorter ‘candy bar’ flashback scenes.

The last few days have been spent on Lesson 7 (Critical Modules) and these aren’t quite finished yet, but I was so excited with some of the things that I uncovered (thanks Muse) during those modules that I had to start on scene cards. But here is how some of my world-building is looking (setting and mythos):
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How is your writing going?

Still working through the pre-planning Sideways lessons, and today as part of my world-building pre-planning I’ve been doing some dot and line work. The Norse cosmology isn’t visually preserved but there are hints to it in the Eddic poetry and other sources. So today’s short post is my rough map of where key sites lie in relation to one another. (By the way, these are all original Norse names. My tablet-handwriting is pretty atrocious though).

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Character Board

I’m working through Lesson 7 again in How to Think Sideways – the pre-plan module. For the last two days I’ve been working on my character sheets, and as a side project I began assembling a character board on Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/imotherofpearl/character-board/).

My WIP is based on Norse myth, and features Odin, Loki, two Valkyrie warriors and the Viking love interest. The images I’ve been collecting on Pinterest reflect qualities I associate with my characters as well as their physical appearance.

For example, my Odin images include:

  • Dennis Hopper in Waterworld: one eyed, manic, power hungry
  • Sean Connery as Ramirez in Highlander: the wise teacher, played with great humour. Connery is also a fabulous example of an attractive older man, just as my Odin will be.
  • Ming the Merciless: because Odin is the antagonist in my WIP, and the concept of mercy is completely foreign to him
  • Janus: the two faced god of beginnings. Odin is notorious in Norse mythology for being untrustworthy and deceptive. I particularly loved this image because it has a male and female side, and Odin is also infamous in Norse myth for his skills in traditionally female magic (seidr).
  • Sean Bean as Ned Stark in Game of Thrones: The character of Ned Stark is usually associated with honour (try searching for the ‘stupid Ned Stark’ meme and you’ll see what I mean) but in this image I wanted to capture the burden of leadership and the isolation that I associate with my character.

My Valkyrie images include Wonder Woman, Xena, Buffy, and a traditional depiction of Brynhild. My story is told from the point of view of one of the Valkyrie, and these are all female warriors in fiction that I admire.

This is the first time I’ve tried this technique. I’m not normally a visual thinker, but this is definitely helping to refine my characters and bring out some unexpected associations.

Making time

I read Prue’s post this morning about saying no to extra commitments, and commented that I set aside a particular amount of time over the year to commit to my volunteer life,

Her post got me thinking though – is the time I commit realistic? Could I commit more time, should I be less involved, or do I have the balance right?

So – knowing how much I love maps – I made a time map.

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It looks inflexible on paper, but I’m just trying to capture what a typical week looks like. I know that I will probably need to sacrifice some of that writing time to go to a medical appointment or pick up some groceries, or that we’ll go out to dinner one night every few weeks, or I’ll finally get the Battlestar Galactica DVD box set and have to watch back to back episodes for a month. (You will note that with the exception of the movie section, there is no TV on my map. One of the advantages of working part time, studying two accredited courses and having a three year old is that very little of my life is wasted watching TV. The downside is that I don’t read as much as I used to.)

It is a cliche but a true one that there are only 24 hours in a day, it’s what we do with them that count. Looking at my time map, I could see lots of ways I could ‘make’ more time in my day or week or month without sacrificing the things I want or need to do. When I commented on Prue’s post, I said that I could sometimes do volunteer activities that feed the muse, like working at the National Multicultural Festival. I think this is akin to what Julia Cameron calls the ‘artist date’ – so it meets the needs of my writing and my volunteer work. I now realise there are lots more ways I could meet multiple goals at the same time.

Take exercise. I need to exercise, partly as a preventative for chronic back pain, but also to maintain my fitness and energy levels for all the different activities in my life. But I don’t have to dedicate thirty minutes or one hour to exercise alone.

  • I can take my daughter to the park, where I can combine looking after her and a walk / run.
  • I can do an aqua aerobics class with my mum, and maintain the family relationships that are very important to me.
  • I can go for a bike ride, and use the time to ‘call down lightning’ for my work in progress.
  • I can do gardening or housework
  • I can listen to an audiobook (currently Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere)

If I do all those things each week (and the pilates class that keeps me sane), I’ve met most of my exercise goals without eating in to the time available for writing, and I’ve also made extra time for my book by using exercise as thinking and incubation time.

The other area of my life to which I happily dedicate a lot of time is spending time with my daughter. But even this is open to combining activities. She loves to paint, and I want more time in my life for drawing and painting – so we can create art together. I can also feed my muse and spend time with my girl, by visiting a museum or art gallery or the zoo. I’m very fortunate to live in Canberra, which although it is quite a small city (about 350,000 people) it is also the capital of Australia, so we have a lot of national institutions within 30 minutes drive. We began a routine of ‘quiet time’ when she dropped her afternoon nap, so every afternoon she has two hours where I will help her set up an activity and she will play for at least an hour, then is allowed to watch television for up to an hour. This gives me a little bit of time every day to catch up on work and write.

A huge opportunity for making time is travel. I will soon spend up to 90 minutes a day in the car commuting to and from work and doing the school drop off. I’ve come up with a few ideas for reducing this time:

  • Put my uni lectures on the iPhone and listen to them on the way to work. I’m not sure how practical this is with a three year old in the car – but as I study mathematical science, I learn most of the material by reading the text and working through the practice problems. The lectures are just reinforcement. Plus I downloaded an app (SpeedUp TV) that lets me listen to lectures at x2 speed.
  • Combine the work commute and the school drop off: my daughter goes to school about 10 minutes drive from my workplace. I work for a not for profit organisation that is very family friendly, so my boss has agreed I can bring my daughter to work for the first hour, drop her at school then come back (on the understanding I make up the time later). Note: working for a not for profit may not bring in the bucks but it can offer a lot more flexibility, not to mention job satisfaction.
  • Listen to Radio National: I do this anyway and often find story ideas. Sometimes I turn on the radio and listen to the intro to the show, and I’m disappointed because I think the topic sounds really boring. But every time this has happened, I have ended up fascinated by the discussion.
  • Use the after school child care programme for one hour so I can pick up my daughter when I finish work at 1pm.
  • Ask my husband to take our daughter to school on my day off so I don’t lose an hour in travel time (he agreed!)

The last activity I saw soaking up a lot of time on my map was shopping. I shop every day, mainly because I have most of the afternoon free, and I’ve rarely planned for dinner. This costs a fortune and yes, time as well. So I’m going back to online shopping for groceries, which will not just save time and money but means less take out or convenience food, because I’ve planned for our meals.

When I look at my map, I see lots of green (being with my family), orange (writing and art) and pink (studying the subjects that interest me). The blue in my map (work) is spent in paid employment that I’m passionate about. So what does my map tell me?

Life is good.

Reviewing the scenes already written for Last Ride, I’m pretty pleased. Yes, they need mucho polishing, but there is some good raw material there – something I can work with it when it comes to revising the novel. But I can see a big difference between the scenes I wrote that are set during the Dark Ages compared to the scenes that are set in the more-or-less-present time.

The scenes in the Dark Ages pop – they come alive when I read them. But when I read over those scenes set in the contemporary era, I’m stumbling all the time. I can’t suspend my disbelief. And I think the reason I can’t suspend my disbelief is because I haven’t thought through how my main character would respond to the modern world – does she hide from it? Embrace it? How does she get by in the digital age? Is it even relevant, or could I move the action a hundred years forward or back with no difference?

The more I think about it, I’m not even sure why I have her in the modern age. Originally, it was because my initial vision for the story had a Valkyrie rescuing a special forces solider in Afghanistan. But I think this is another of my ‘darlings’ – a concept I have hung on to out of fondness and affection, but one that no longer fits the story I want to tell.

I know more of how the story unfolds now, and I can set it as easily in the fifteenth century as I can in the twenty first. Maybe even more easily, so I’m very tempted to do it. But I wonder if I am just avoiding my own limitations because I’m having trouble creating a believable scene? Time to sleep on it, maybe try a few of those plot techniques!

In the last few blog posts, I’ve been discussing different ways of generating ideas to move the plot forward in the middle of my book. In this post, I’m going to list my top six I-need-ideas-now techniques for writers who are stuck in the middle – these are great techniques for when you need something specific from your muse, like an idea for a scene or how to solve a plot contradiction.

Holly calls it calling down lightning, Robert Moss calls it dream incubation. Whatever it is, it works. I’m a big fan of throwing my problem out to the universe, and then letting my subconscious work with the resulting input and come up with the ideas I need. It’s the best technique for getting ideas when I need something specific, or when I already have a story in progress – because it has never failed me.

I think of free writing and timed writing as very similar techniques. Putting pen to page (not usually fingers to keyboard – the change in writing habit seems to assist the process for me) usually generates something worth considering, even if I often begin with ‘I don’t know what to write’ over and over. Pretty soon, this changes to ‘what if…? and then I’m off and running at last. One of the lessons I’ve learned is not to be satisfied with the first few ‘what if’s, as they are rarely the most original ideas.

Depending on how left brained I’m feeling, a mind map is sometimes helpful. I begin by mapping everything I know about the character or background to the scene, and begin making associations. Reviewing my sweet spot maps before I start can lead to some pretty cool ideas turning up. Strangely, it is my left brain that loves the mind map technique and it’s one I use when I can’t seem to stir the muse from sleep – it’s like it can’t stand to see left brain having all the fun!

The other leading-with-my-left-brain technique I like to use is the character interview. It’s structured and logical enough that I can start it with the left brain, reviewing my notes and preparing a dossier, and then by that time the right brain muse is intrigued enough to come in for the interview.

The last couple of techniques are for the right brain, and they use the same foundation – generating random images or phrases to spark ideas. I get the source material from a variety of places depending on how I’m feeling. I have a big selection of card decks (tarot, dream cards etc) when I want to work with something visual. While I know many people might choose the bible to pick a phrase from, as an atheist that doesn’t quite work for me. So instead I grab my collected works of Shakespeare and try the ‘Shakespeare stab’ – opening it to any page and pointing to a line. I have a volume of collected poetry of Robert Blake that is also a good book for this technique, as his imagery often resonates with me and it’s illustrated with his paintings as well. The third way I get random phrases is by using the Verses poetry app for the iPad – as an example, the last time I used it I generated the phrases ‘cloud owls’ and ‘dark admirers of broken creation’. The second phrase immediately connected with a Last Ride subplot and has helped me to coalesce my thoughts around a particular group of characters in the novel and their twisted perspective on life.