Supplemental Reading: Biomimicry

One thing I love about being an author is that the work encourages you to seek out interesting things, broaden your world, follow questions down the rabbit hole and BE FASCINATED. It’s kind of a free pass to go where the energy takes you because passion feeds passion, and if something you’re experiencing or learning about can funnel into your writing in any way, it is valuable as well as fascinating.

So, when a book outside my regular fiction addiction captures my interest, I give it a look-see. Recently my attention was won by a book on biomimicry, which I was not formerly acquainted with, and seeing the word and wondering what it meant I picked the book up and started reading.

HOLY CRAP YOU GUYS.

Because much of what I learned elicited physical responses from me (see: “WHAT?” “Whooooa…” “Ugh!” etc.), I decided that some of this just had to be shared, even if you, my dear reader, conclude I am an easily-excited nerd. Which I would not deny.

First: Biomimicry is just what it sounds like: design that mimics biological entities and processes.

Now try some of these examples on for size.

1. Past Olympic swimsuits have been modeled after sharkskin, whose grooved overlapping scales (dermal denticles: “little skin teeth”) make water pass more quickly. Speedo says 28 of 33 gold medals won in the 2000 Sydney Olympics were won by swimmers wearing their sharkskin-inspired suits. According to this source, dermal denticle swimsuits are now banned in major competitions.

Other athletic fabric has been inspired by pine cones. Pine cones of all things! Pine cones respond to humidity, opening to release when there is moisture inside and closing when it is out. In fabric, this releases an athlete’s sweat while also keeping them dry from outer elements.

 

2. There’s a technology in the works for an airplane “skin” that repairs itself the way human skin does, similar to clotting blood and the formation of a scab/new skin underneath (the latter highlighting the damage for technicians to more fully address).

“If the technique pans out, then aircraft, wind turbines and perhaps even spaceships of the future may boast embedded circulatory systems with an epoxy resin that can bleed into holes or cracks and then fluoresce under ultraviolet light to mark the damage like a bruise during follow-up inspections.” —NBC

3. The book I read discussed the imitation of gecko spatulae for adhesive used to attach skin grafts, but more recent studies appear to be looking to flesh-grabbing worms and beetle feet for design.

Finally, these little factoids aren’t quite biomimicry, but I encountered them in the same book:

1. Nacre– the iridescent lining of an abalone shell– has a brick-and-mortar style structure that can withstand being run over by a truck. More here.

2. There exists a flower called the CORPSE LILY, named for its odor of rotting flesh. The smell attracts the insects that pollinate it. *Repulsed and grotesquely fascinated* Actually, there’s more than one flower like this:

  • There’s the stinking corpse lily, rafflesia arnoldii, which is also the largest single-bloom flower in the world:
  • And then there’s the corpse flower, amophophallus titanium, which looks more like a calla lily, but is also ungodly large and classified as a carrion flower for its stench of death:

Are you not in awe (if slightly grossed out)?

 

 

Coming soon: Nanowritetips!

As October rolls to a close, many of us are gearing up for Nanowrimo. (Nanowrimo: (n.) the month for which your writer friends transform into coffee-crazed, unwashed trolls in efforts to write 1,667 words a day, or 50,000 words of a novel by the end of November.)

This year, although I won’t be participating myself, I’m excited to announce that one of my projects this month was compiling craft, structural, and speed writing tips, and that for the month of November, I will be posting these tips, one each day, at 5:30pm EST on Twitter and 10:30pm EST on Tumblr. (Note: same tips, just at different times.) At the end of the month I will post the complete list here.

Why Twitter and Tumblr? Because Nanowrimo, for those of us crazy/driven enough to do it, is about the writing. Not the reading about the writing. And I figure that even non-Nano writers might appreciate insights in less than 140 characters. Everybody loves brevity.

I will actually be Tweet/Tumbling the first of these pointers tomorrow, as the first two deal with pre-Nano planning. I’ll also have a few after November to help with post-Nano revisions.

Look for my tips  under the hashtag #nanowritetip—and good luck!

Story ideas: Don’t scrabble for them. Dig.

It’s been a weird month, creatively speaking.

At the end of September, I was in serious doubt about the new book I was outlining. I had planned so much, could see certain scenes so clearly, and was so devilishly excited by them– but I had concerns, too. Big ones. Not only questions of POV and first or third person, but ones like: “Does this too closely resemble X?” and “Does too much of this ride on a hackneyed trope?” Instincts mean a lot in the arts, and these questions were enough to give me pause.

So I decided to let the story go. Or at least put it away for a while.

I went into October, then, with no project in progress– nothing I was actively working on, either writing or putting my head to. It was the first time I’ve experienced that since I started pursuing a career as an author.

It felt like this:

via Emily McDowell. And minus the “genius” part.

It was awful.

I racked my brain. I turned to old documents and file folders for interesting nuggets. I freewrote, made mind maps, compiled lists in search of a spark. I studied concepts, picked up books like Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway, tried to jumpstart my subconscious.  I preoccupied myself, got out and away from the pressure; I deconstructed books hoping to learn something. But I had nothing.

I began to feel bleak, frustrated. Maybe even panicked.

Then, one day near the middle of the month, I had a REALLY COOL IDEA. Boom. Out of nowhere. I spent the morning and afternoon daydreaming about it, letting it run wild, taking notes. It had merit. I had something, and it felt good.

But by the end of the day, I recognized a familiar problem: though the premise was fresh (as far as I knew, anyway), the setup reminded me too much of other books.

I sighed and I put it away.

As a writer, you’re told everything’s been done before. Still, you burn to be original– or at the very least, not derivative (or anything that feels derivative, even if it isn’t). So I kept going.

Another week of creative purgatory– then, without warning, I found myself latched to an old idea I’d scribbled down months, maybe a year ago, but written off as bland, underdeveloped. But this time was different. This time it fused with another idea, and click– there was the spark.

I worked at it; began seeing scenes; connected more dots; loved it; came up against challenges; dealt with them. I WAS MOVING AGAIN. There was one point when I hit a wall (a big picture, scaffolding wall), but I couldn’t let the story go this time. Not this one, which I couldn’t stop thinking about and didn’t remind me of anything else. I told myself there was a solution; I just had to find it.

And after a few more days, I did.

There are two points to this post. First, sparks are unpredictable, but ideas are always work. You never know when you’ll get that flash of something bigger– but when you do, it is merely a matter of digging the story out. And digging can be done. Like solutions, stories are there; they have only to be found.

Second, however hopeless or creatively empty or absolutely, irrevocably certain you feel that you will never have another idea again, there are always ideas to be had. In less than a month I have seriously entertained plans for three entirely different novels (even if I ended up dismissing two). That’s a lot for someone feeling creatively frustrated.

Stories are all around us. Our job, when we catch a wink of one, is to write it down– and then come back with a pickaxe.

 

Chapter Awesome: IN WHICH JULIE GETS AN AGENT

Guys, it’s happened.

I have dreamt of being an author since grade school. For the last two and a half years I have worked at that dream aggressively, every day writing or reading or researching (or all of the above) in efforts to tell a good story, improve my craft, and start a career.

Today I am thrilled to announce that that dream just became part reality: I signed a contract.

I am now officially an agented author, represented by none other than the incredible Susan Hawk of The Bent Agency!

There is still much to be done before I can hold a printed book in my hands—revisions, submissions to publishers, and, if I’m lucky, even more revisions—but that’s okay. Today I am grateful and happy and proud just to have reached this crest in the journey. It may be a long way to the top of the mountain, but the view from here is pretty sweet.

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A Subconscious Exercise

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Haven’t done one of these in a while! Lately I’ve been trying to use more creative exercises (not strictly writing; in fact some that are specifically in other creative areas, like art and music) to better and more fully exercise my subconscious. I feel like much of the work of crafting stories happens off the page, when we are in rumination and our minds may wander and jump and connect. Blackout poetry is one such occasion to do so and, being creatively active, engages the mind differently than running or doing the dishes does. And when you’re done, you have a bit of art to show for it!

Between Books: 7 Ways to Stay Productive When You’re Not Actively Writing

This ties back to some recent writing advice that really resonated with me: that not all of one’s writing efforts need be towards a novel or some quantifiable end. As I am between books right now and in search of the next story I want to pursue, this notion is both highly relevant and influential to me. In the last week, and in the last few days especially, I’ve been thinking a lot on what one can do for one’s book– before one is actively writing it. Or even planning it. Because believe me: as difficult as writing a novel can be, for a writer, not writing one (or rather, not even outlining one because you haven’t found your next true spark yet) is worse!

So here are some ideas for nourishing your next book before it comes into focus:

1. Read. A given for all writers at all stages. Reading improves your writing as well as your storytelling ability while exposing you to the stories/tropes already out there. Plus, it’s FUN!

2. Write every day. This should be another given for writers, but let me go a little further and advise committing to some kind of daily practice, like freewriting for 30 minutes each day. There might be a format that calls to you– letters, sonnets, journaling– but as a writer of fiction, it’s especially helpful to practice crafting scenes propelled by goals and conflict and tension. You can quickly recognize what works and what doesn’t, and you might even find something you want to draw out or use later. (The Brainstormer is one great source for prompts.)

3. Examine books that have resonated with you.  Ask why? Begin to see devices, formats, stylistic choices, outside-the-box thinking you admire. Even if it doesn’t directly feed into your next book, observation will get you thinking about something you might do– or do differently.

4. Create/refer to a list of things that capture your interest. Then pursue items on it through research, mind mapping, free association– and of course good old-fashioned experience (see below)! Try pairing items from the file together. Turning them on their head. Asking what you can do to reimagine or incorporate them into a narrative.

5. Get out. Try something new or go somewhere you’ve never been before. Give yourself more to draw from by broadening your experience in the world. Incidentally: new settings are great places to freewrite!

6. Study concepts. Have you ever coveted another book for its original idea? Writers often hear the term “high concept” to refer to ideas that are easily pitched, and often unique. (Two that I deeply admire: Logan’s Run, where people are only allowed to live to 21, and Delirium, where love is classified as a disease.)  Examining concepts gives one not only an appreciation for what has been done before (as well as a healthy reminder of how hard it can be to do something new), but a sense of the sort of things that might be done, and thus opens the way to broader thinking.

7. Study tropes, archetypes, motivations, etc. Not without significance are the smaller details that make every story what it is. Study the masters. Learn the parts. Then emulate and reinvent. Experiment and improve.

What do you do when not actively writing?

Homemade Calendar – September

calendar - september 2014-2

Here’s September! Man, I wish my scanner could do all those pinks justice.

Focuses for this month will include manuscript revisions, planning for a November #writetip project, and a new approach I’m excited to try towards brainstorming story ideas. I’m also going to try to get into the habit of freewriting daily, even if it’s only for 10 minutes, just to get the creative juices flowing.

Good Writing Advice: Not everything you write has to become a novel

Said another way: Don’t take yourself too seriously.

On Monday I went to see Lauren Oliver. After her reading, Ms. Oliver took questions and talked a bit about her writing process. She mentioned at one point that she is ALWAYS working on something, and that if she finished one book on Tuesday she would start another on Wednesday.

“WHAT?” squeaked my inner editor. “How!”

And so I raised my hand and calmly asked her, “So how much do you have planned going into a new book?”

She answered,  “Nothing.”

Then she laughed and said that wasn’t entirely true; she’d been writing long enough that she always has a steady stream of ideas on backlog to work from.

Still, a principle remained: she always had to be working on something, and as such was willing to write without being secure in the knowledge that what she writing would end up a novel.

“I’m not sure why people think that way,” she said (referring to a writer’s mindset/need to have ALL work end up a book). Earlier that evening she’d mentioned writing 40 pages based on her first core concept for Rooms, and having to put it down for a while because 40 pages in she’d realized she just “hadn’t found the story’s heartbeat.”

So what’s the big stigma with false starts? Why are we (am I) so afraid of them? They’re still writing, aren’t they?– and don’t they allow us to explore possibilities, conduct trials and errors, flex our writing muscles? Are they not still valuable? Do we not learn from them?

Perhaps more importantly: Wouldn’t a mindset of exploration free us from the crippling pressure of writing a book in the first place?