alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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90 Days of Writing Bliss

The Fountain of Love, by François Boucher [1748]

What my life is like now that I’ve discovered The 90-Day-Novel
(The Fountain of Love, François Boucher, 1748)

WARNING: This post contains little to no objectivity.

I am in love. With The 90-Day-Novel by Alan Watt.

Because The 90-Day-Novel loves me just the way I am.

After I came home from Clarion West in 2011, I have been hunched over my desk with a gimlet eye, struggling to improve my writing. I critique my peers, I read the pros, and I work hard to identify my weaknesses, correct or patch them, and produce good stories.

Structure and plot are repeat performers in the parade of Things I Do Wrong. I’m a woolly thinker, the sort of person who has to say something (two or three times, usually) in order to find out what I want to say. That makes crisp plot turns tough.

I’ve tried LOTS of writing books and instructive internet articles. I’ve read about The Snowflake MethodGMC, and 7-point Story Structure. I’ve checked out the examples from popular books and movies and noted how they match the analysis perfectly. It all makes sense. My head nods in understanding. Got it, I think. This time I won’t go down one of those weird rabbit holes my brain is always finding. I’m going to keep it simple, stick to the structure, and just do this.

Cute but dangerous

Cute but dangerous

But what seems so simple when I’m reading about it becomes so impossible, so ineffable, when I try to carry it out. I go back and forth from the examples to my story and don’t understand how I could possibly mess up something so obvious and clear. Am I really this stupid? I think.

I’m forced to conclude that I probably am. And then I don’t feel so good. Because I’m me and pigheaded, I keep writing anyways. Spend days hammering at things that made me feel sick and sinking.

A few weeks back, I started writing a new novel. I wasn’t prepared, but I needed to get started, so I jumped in without a plan. I had a genre, two characters, a setting, and a situation. I figured I would just pants my way through an 80,000 word zero draft and worry about it later. I told myself it was a learning experience–though what I would be learning was unclear.

Someone (sorry, I can’t remember who) mentioned The 90-Day-Novel to me because they liked the questions for pre-writing. I put in a request at the library, but I wasn’t too excited. By now I had learned that anything promising 5 Easy Steps or 7 Essential Rules—basically, anything with a number in the title—was bad news.

My precious

My precious

But it wasn’t. The 90-Day-Novel is the how-to book written Just For Me.

I was two weeks into my draft when I finally got my copy. I read the introduction and did the exercises. Just as, you know, an experiment. When I came out the other side, I had tons of new material. And a realization that I needed more of this. It was an incredibly hard decision to throw away the 10,000 words I had already written and start over. It put my schedule for finishing back by almost a month. And it was the best writing decision I’ve ever made.

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to be working from a plan that works with the way my mind already works instead of against it. Here are some of my favorite themes from the process that I find most restorative:

  • Story isn’t logical.
  • Our idea of the story is not the whole story.
  • The moment we force it, or fear that we’re getting it wrong, we’re out of our story.
  • It is not your job to figure it out. Trust that your subconscious will find a way to resolve it.
  • The story already lives fully and completely within us.

Honestly, working with the 90-Day process, I feel like I could write a novel about anything. Any topic, any structure, no matter how complex or challenging. I can’t wait to finish the current novel and get started finding out what Novel #3 is going to hold. Because with a process like this, it’s going to be good stuff!


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Writers of the Future 2013, Day 3

24-hour story writers arrive at the Frances Howard Goldwyn branch of the Los Angeles Public Library

24-hour story writers arrive at the Frances Howard Goldwyn branch of the Los Angeles Public Library

Wednesday, April 10
Library Day!

As a former librarian, I’m always interested to see what a public library looks like in somebody else’s neck of the woods. We’re supposed to be researching for our 24-hour story (that will begin this afternoon!). I have this idea that I want to pick a specific-yet-random date in history and pluck an event from that day to use as the catalyst for my story. I sit down at one of the computer terminals and call up historical newspaper databases. I make a few notes about “New Smoked Halibut” and “All Prisoners in the Cook County Jail Burned to Death,” but I can’t concentrate–the deadline clock is already ticking too loudly.

In their morning talk, Tim Powers and David Farland suggested that mythology can make a good framework for a story. I head to the stacks and walk along the 200s, snagging a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I grab anything else that catches my eye, hoping that contrast and serendipity will be my friends.

Too many ideas

Too many ideas

I want to jumble things up, but maybe I jumble them too much. I take notes on El Cid, the Spanish Inquisition, the prophylactic virtues of unicorn horn, traumatic insemination in bedbugs, and the first lines from short story collections of several vintages. I am hoping that if I can’t get started, I can use the ‘translation’ method I learned from Bruce Holland Rogers last year.

After lunch it’s time for the third and most-dreaded component of the 24-hour story: Interview a Stranger. I don’t doubt that there are any number of characters along Hollywood Boulevard with whom I could strike up a conversation. But the most important qualification for me is finding an interviewee that will let me end the conversation. And who won’t want to resume when I pass by the next day. I shuffle around, clutching my notebook to my chest, trying to appear bright and open. All of the sane people are–well, sane–and aren’t particularly interested in striking up a conversation with a stranger. I covertly observe a normal-looking young man working at a sunglasses kiosk. He doesn’t have a lot of business, and he looks bored, which means he might be willing to talk. I take the plunge.

Interviewing a stranger

Interviewing a stranger

He tells me how long he has been in the U.S., how beautiful Istanbul is, and that his brother is a policeman. We chat for 20 minutes or so, then his boss arrives, and I say how nice it was talking to him and melt away into the crowd. Success! I scurry down the block to Author Services to meet up with the rest of the class. Marina Lostetter also interviewed a young man from Istanbul working at a sunglasses kiosk. But it’s not the same guy. We are given a final pep talk and released at 4pm and instructed to return at 4pm the next day, with a completed story.

Now it’s time to write.

Catch up with what happened on Day 1 & Day 2. Or read on to Day 4.


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Blackout Poem: The Lost City

I love the idea that stories can be found lurking in unexpected places (like they’re just hanging out, nonchalantly whistling to themselves, thinking they’re getting away with it.)

Even more, I love exercises and prompts that trick me into writing. Combine the two with the formula Newspaper + Marker = Poetry and you get a blackout poem.

Poem-hunting (imagine me in a pith helmet, carrying a Sharpie-tipped spear) was supposed to be my reward for writing a first draft of a new story on Friday, but I didn’t get to it until today, sitting at the kitchen counter keeping an eye on a pot of boiling chick peas. There are worse ways to begin a new year than with the excavation of a previously undiscovered poem.

My poem was unearthed from the bottom half of page A18 of The New York Times, Friday, December 28, 2012.

New York Times, Dec. 28, 2012

The Lost City

In a city of missed connections, consider the map:
Lines stop and hop hopelessly out of view.
Clocks steal a weekday morning,
then back up the staircase to a different city.
Without music worth following, a language comes
Like two animals slinking up the steps, doubled by the wind.

To uncover your own hidden story you will need:

–1 copy of the New York Times or other pre-printed reading material
–1 fat black marker
–1 cup of hot chocolate, coffee, or other warming beverage of your choice

If you find one, send me a link in the comments, please!


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Anglophile Edition: Chatsworth & Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

View of Chatsworth from the River Derwent

View of Chatsworth from the River Derwent
by Tom Herbert, via Flickr

Last spring, on the same trip where I slogged through the rain in the Lake District, I also had a posher interlude. I visited the Chatsworth Estate in the Peak District. (Notice how many Districts they have in England?). This is not normally my cup of tea. (Sigh, puns already.) I *prefer* hiking 15 miles a day through the mud to museums, galleries, plaque-reading & etc. But several years ago, I came across pictures of the estate online and was smitten. Add the fact that Chatsworth was likely the inspiration for Pemberley, that the current Duchess is an actual Mitford sister, and you can actually stay in the Hunting Tower on the estate, and…well. When I found out that it was an easy distance from my in-laws in Yorkshire, I knew we had to go.

Georgiana as Cynthia from The Faerie Queen, by Maria Hadfield Cosway

One of the most well-known residents of Chatsworth was Georgiana, wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire. By the standards of any era, Georgiana was a larger-than-life figure. Like any properly fascinating personality, she was a heady mix of admirable and out-of-control:

Society beauty & fashion trend-setter. She set the fashion for extravagantly high wigs sprouting ostrich feathers. Whatever she wore was reported in the newspapers and copied slavishly.

Compulsive gambler. From the beginning of her marriage, Georgiana could not resist the card table. She repeatedly ran up debts, begged money from friends to pay them off, lied about them to her husband, and ran up more. The outstanding debt upon her death totalled nearly 20,000 pounds. Wikipedia estimates this amount as today’s equivalent of £3,720,000.

Best friend of her husband’s mistress. The Duke, the Duchess, and her friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster  (‘Bess’), lived and traveled as a threesome for 25 years. In 1785, both Georgiana and Bess were pregnant by the Duke at the same time. When Georgiana was in the doghouse with the Duke for her gambling debts or other indiscretions, she appealed to Bess to keep peace in the household.

Political hostess and fundraiser. She worked tirelessly behind the scenes for the Whig party, arranging for rivals to meet, for strategies to arise, and money to flow. She was also the first woman to campaign for a political candidate, in an election in 1784, for which she was castigated and caricatured in the press for her unwomanly-ness.

Unfaithful wife. The Duke was not the only one to find comfort outside their marriage. In 1792, Georgiana gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Eliza Courtney, fathered by future Prime Minister, Charles Grey. The Duchess was forced to give her up to be raised by Grey’s aunt and uncle, though she visited her daughter in secret.

Diarist & writer. She found time to write a novel, ‘The Sylph,’ in 1780. As a close confidante of the Prince of Wales, her diaries were invaluable to modern historians in reconstructing the happenings in the palace during the Regency Crisis & the serial illnesses of King George the III, presented to modern audiences in the fantastic, “The Madness of King George.” What-what?

Rockhound, mineralogist, & amateur chemist. I can’t really get behind her personally with the chemistry, but I think it’s a pretty impressive hobby for an 18th century noblewoman, and I do like a good rock. So did Georgiana. She “endowed Chatsworth with a collection of stones and minerals of museum quality,”* many of which are displayed in the halls of Chatsworth House, near the Faerie Queen portrait.

I leave you with more views of the estate

On the Chatsworth Grounds
by Kevin Smith, via Flickr

Another view of Chatsworth Gardens
by Kevin Smith, via Flickr

Chatsworth Lion
by Hunter333, via Flickr

*Amanda Foreman, The Duchess, p.269


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Picture Thursday: Monsters of the Library of Congress – Part IV, Silly Monsters

After posting on other topics for a few weeks, I am back with the fourth and final installment of “Monsters of the Library of Congress.” This week is silly monsters. These guys just aren’t very scary.

“Les deux ne font qu’un.” Hand-colored etching, France: 1791

Contrary to popular (American) opinion, the French do have a sense of humor. This 18th-century etching shows Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as a two-headed monster pulling in opposite directions. He appears to be a goat, while Marie is a….dog? Her feet definitely have toes. The caption describes her as “Medusa-headed,” but those snakes look more like long-stem roses made out of pipe cleaners. You’d think if you were going to poke fun at your rulers as you worked your way up to killing them, you’d intensify your cause by making your caricatures of them more grotesque, and not quite so toothless. Maybe the French don’t have a sense of humor after all.

“They thought I was one of those fire belching dragons.” Pen and ink, by Daniel Carter Beard [1889?]

This guy reminds me of Sir Didymus from Labyrinth–cute, earnest, hapless, valiant. But with a tail. And a longer nose. And can I tell you that we had free HBO for a while when I was a kid and before it went away I taped Labyrinth and watched it over and over until I wore out the tape? Because monsters! Castles! Cheeky talking snails with Australian accents! Sinister masquerade! The Bog of Eternal Stench! David Bowie in eye-makeup and breeches! Every frame of that movie has been indelibly etched into my head and–<…..Long pause while I dash over to YouTube and waste an hour of my afternoon watching clips of the movie and reliving my dreamy adolescence….Goodness, but the costuming in that movie was gorgeous! Although, I am unsettled to find that a 16-year-old Jennifer Connolly looks disturbingly like Kristin Stewart….>–um, sorry, where was I? Right! Cartoons, monters, Library of Congress. I’m on it!

Nude, hairy monster

Details from “Represantant d’une grande nation,” J. Cooke [1799]

The French are much funnier when it’s the English drawing them. According to the catalog description, the guy on the left is “a grotesque monster, nude and hairy, representing the Constitution of the Year III.” The description also notes that the monster has “upraised hands.” Really–that’s what they noticed sticking up? His hands?

“The sea-serpent season upon us again,” by Frederick Burr Opper. Cover of Puck magazine, July 31, 1895.

My personal favorite. More political cartooning, this time lampooning President Grover Cleveland. The house in the background is  Cleveland’s summer home on Cape Cod, ‘Grey Gables’. I’m just going to state right now that I have never lived in a house that has a name. What is it about this monster that I find so endearing? I think it’s the collar and tie. Also the gap-toothed smile and the one-eye-open, one-eye-closed configuration. This mammoth sea serpent is at least as big as Prez Grovie’s Grey Gables, but I bet if you gave it a corn dog and petted its whiskers, it would totally take you for a ride in the ocean. Of course, since it also looks like it has a brain the size of a dehydrated pea, it might forget about its passenger and do a deep-sea dive, leaving you to freeze in the Atlantic currents, but, hey– you befriends your sea serpents and you takes your chances.

That concludes this offering of ‘Monsters of the Library of Congress’ (Shockingly, all images are courtesy The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs) Missed an installment? Want more? See Part I – Humanoids,  Part II, Beasts, and Part III, Machines.