Between interning for The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, dayjobbing, and writing my own pseudo-Victorian fantasy, I’ve been pulling out my research fu.
I smiled when Pip and Tee asked me to post Victoriana to the Ministry Facebook page. See, after working at Black Creek, writing the Victorian Dark Fantasy, and cramming my last few terms with nineteenth century history, I know where to find Victorian things.
The Internet Archive
Ah, www.archive.org, you are one of my best friends. Sometimes, I think I may even love you. The Internet Archive is a free-access digital library. Because it’s free, it mostly has materials which are long out of copyright.
That means it’s absolutely fantastic for primary sources.
Seriously, you can read whole books online. For free! Admittedly, it can be a bit persnickety with search terms: it’s best to either a) have a hugely wide net, or b) know exactly which title you want. And don’t even bother with the basic search if you’re doing historical research: advanced search is where it’s at.
The McCord Museum/Musée McCord
I’ve used the McCord Museum for the dayjob, the Victorian Dark Fantasy, and for the Ministry. It’s a very well-maintained site—there are all sorts of virtual tours and exhibitions to explore online.
They’ve got an extensive collection of Victoriana, much of which is easily accessed online. Really, it’s one of my main go-to’s for visual references—especially Victorian clothing. (I owe what little fashion vocabulary I have to the McCord Museum)
The Victorian Web
This venerable website (and yes, it does look it—just bear with it) is one of the oldest scholarly/academic sites out there. It has articles on a wide range of Victorian topics, including some really niche ones (stained glass and gaslight, anyone). Plus, it’s a bit like Wikipedia in that you can follow a trail of hyperlinks, drifting from topic to topic…only it’s not a site that anyone can edit, which helps me sleep at night.
But come on, I was a university student in the 2010s. Of course I like Wikipedia.
Although I’ve heard the horror stories of profs purposely inserting false information to show how unreliable Wikipedia is, I maintain that it has its uses. First, it’s a good way to get a general overview of a new subject before diving into more detailed information, avoiding that grasping-at-straws feeling.
Second…Wikipedia is a good place to start your bibliography.
Let’s search…oh, let’s search Victorian Gothic.
Ignore the article itself and scroll down to “Further Reading” and “External Links.”
Aha! A ready-made list of scholarly websites and books! Gothic Revival; The Gothic Revival & American Church Architecture; An Episode in Taste, 1840–1856; Of knights and spires: Gothic revival in France and Germany; the Victoria and Albert Museum Style Guide…
It isn’t a full bibliography, but it’s a good place to start.
Public Library Databases
All history students know that articles take less time to read than books and usually have more specialized information. And thank goodness—you don’t need to be in university to access them!
Most public library websites have a section that says “Research” or “Articles” or something similar. If you’ve got a library card, you can click through until you get to the databases themselves: something like EBSCO or Gale Cengage or Academic OneFile.
Many will also have digital archives. I didn’t even sign into the Toronto Public Library site and found this 1912 picture of the dayjob’s Half Way House:
I credit my high school history teacher for a) getting me interested in history and b) teaching me how to get good at finding stuff. Yes, it’s great for writing—but also, it’s the thrill of the chase.
Which is why I sometimes get sucked down the black hole of Cool Victorian Stuff…but that’s a post for another day.
Criticism is part and parcel of the writing life. It’s funny, though—I always assumed that my general anxiety around evaluations would be my biggest stumbling block as a writer. As I’ve gone along, though, I’m discovering that I’m…ok with criticism.
More than that, actually. Even though I still get nervous as anything, I also crave it. Editorial criticism, anyway. Reviews are a different topic; let’s save them for another day.
I had two larger critiques come in recently: one for the first half of my Interactive Text-Based Online Game (hereinafter codenamed “The Game”) and one for my first Stonecoast packet. By the time this post goes live, I will have already Skyped with my mentor about her comments on said packet.
In both cases, they seemed to approach the topic of criticism quite carefully. Naturally, that set Anxiety screaming, “The other shoe is going to drop! The other shoe is going to drop! Wait for it wait for it wait for it!”
And then it was fine.
By “fine,” I don’t mean, “Everything was sunshine and rainbows and unicorns and fluffy bunnies.” There are things to fix: mostly coding for The Game, mostly the main character in the Victorian Dark Fantasy. So, not necessarily minor things, but still—
That’s it? I’m not missing an extra page of critique? Because really, those are good things to know. Frankly, if an editor ever said that a piece was perfect and there was nothing to change, I’d get very nervous.
There’s always something to change.
Also, it’s never about you.
That’s the piece that I seemed to have learned, almost by accident. It’s that ability to step back and look objectively at a piece and say, “Yes. I see where this doesn’t work. Ok.” No different than someone saying, “Hey, one leg of that chair is a bit longer than the others.” Are you going to sit there on a wobbly chair denying it, or are you going to wobble for a minute, testing it, and then pull out the saw?
Of course, there are times when you whip out the measuring tape and realize, no, you’re right. Sometimes that happens. You just have to be sure.
(For instance, there was a query about fireplaces that sent me on a quest that was really fun – but also took way too long considering that all I did with my diagrams and photos was show them to my roommate.)
Caveat here: I’ve been lucky as a writer, in that all my editors and workshop members have mastered that balance of being respectful and kind and also not pulling punches. Personal attacks in critiques are not ok. I’ve never had that happen, but they kind of defeat the critique’s main purpose: making the work better.
Remember, it’s not about you. That goes both ways.
Like so many things, anticipation is usually worse than the actual event. I wish I could return to my 14-year-old self and say, “Hey, look! It’s going to be fine—honestly, it doesn’t hurt and you actually feel good after!”
Maybe the knee-jerk fear reaction never really goes away, but learning to love the whip makes it a lot easier to manage. As one of my Irish drinking songs says:
What would you do if the kettle boiled over?
What would I do, but to fill it again?
What would you do if the cows ate the clover?
What would I do, only set it again?
I can’t wait to get these pieces polished!
So, my laptop died.
It was never quite the same after I mailed it home from New Zealand. For a while, I had one consistently good USB port, one which was dodgy, and one dead. Then the other day, I noticed that my laptop wasn’t charging…even though it was plugged in.
Unplugging, re-plugging, and all sorts of fiddling did nothing. To make matters even more fun (whee!), I’m currently in Virginia on a three-week interning spin with my dear friends Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. So, a bit far from home.
Fortunately, Pip and Tee are wonderful people. They drove me to Best Buy and waited while the Geek Squad determined that they might be able to ship my laptop back to Canada, where Future Shop might be able to possibly replace the power port to maybe extend my laptop’s life another couple of weeks.
And then they patted my shoulder as I coughed up the money for a new laptop.
There is never a good time, but this could have been better (oh hai, MFA tuition). But the most striking part of this whole experience was transferring the files from the old machine to this new one. The issue wasn’t one of space (again, wonderful friends that Pip and Tee are, I had the use of all the external drives I could ask for).
No, the main issue was time. Once that battery goes, the old machine’s done.
(And yes, I know about pulling hard drives…but I’m in Virginia. I’m not sure how or if I can get the old laptop home.)
So it was like standing in a burning house, wondering, “What do I save? What do I grab first? What can I leave behind?” All the while knowing that every second of indecision brings you closer to that final shutdown.
It’s probably the historian in me, but I like having links to my own past. Detailed records, a personal archive that is there, even if I rarely dip into it. Maybe it’s a security thing, knowing that I can always reconstruct things if necessary.
Obviously, getting the writing to safety is always top priority when things get squirrelly, which is why I’m actually pretty good about backing things up.
Pictures and music vied for second place. A 2011 family trip to Costa Rica, the last we took before my dad died. My New Zealand photos. Even just images for Black Creek and this blog – more a matter of convenience and posterity, but still.
iTunes is fine, so I grabbed whatever extra stock music and sound effects I could. Luckily, I pulled the raw Hapax files ages ago (they were large and numerous), precisely because of this fear of, “What if I need to go back in one day?”
That’s a fear I face now, with the videos. I got the final cuts of all my Black Creek videos, but very little raw footage or sound files. I can’t see why I would ever need to rebuild those videos from scratch, but if ever someone asked, I probably couldn’t. That worries me, even though it’s completely irrational. Again, I blame my historian streak.
But at the end of the day, the important things are really the things that are me. The writing, the music, the photos. Most other things can be found again, edited again. Music is challenging to replace; writing and photos can be almost impossible.
Which is why I will give the customary “Back your stuff up” speech. When my laptop died, I already had the entirety of my fiction backed up elsewhere. I did go back for a few university essays, but the writing was safe.
Most of my photos are on Facebook (though there are always strays). I’ve used Google Drive more and more lately; it holds the music for the kids’ opera, the videos, and a few other random documents. I have my own intern Dropbox now.
It’s easier than ever to protect your data. Yes, emergencies happen. Yes, the unforeseen is…well, unforeseen. But if you can take any steps to mitigate potential disaster (knowing it’s not always possible)…then please, save yourself the heartache later.
Here are some photos that I would have been sad to lose.
I just returned from my first Stonecoast residency. They set an exhausting pace; it was like a cross between Hogwarts, bootcamp, and a ten-day-long con. Now I work with my mentor for six months, until the next residency.
As much as I’m enjoying Stonecoast thus far, I want to think about other ways to learn. After all, Stonecoast is only two years. A writer’s education continues forever.
I was always the weird kid scribbling stories at the back of the classroom, but I was fourteen when I made the conscious decision to write with an eye to making this a career. Not at fourteen: I never wanted to be a teenage author. But eventually, someday.
And so, I learned. First by reading. I read books on how to write a novel. I read books on being a writer and the creative life. I trawled through websites and writing forums. Said is better than declared, intoned, uttered, or (heaven help me), ejaculated. Agents want your manuscript to be done. Conflict, conflict, conflict. You shouldn’t have characters named John and Joan in the same story. A novel is technically 40,000 + words, but realistically, most run 80,000-120,000.
I wrote a detective story set in 1880s Paris:
Amélie released an almost imperceptible sigh and took Philip’s arm. He expected to go down to the basement again, but perhaps mindful of his dislike of the depressing labyrinth, Amélie instead whisked him to a room near the top of the theatre cluttered with junk. “My office,” she said proudly
“Really?” Philip asked, glancing at the piled-up boxes and props
“No, it’s just one of the many deserted and forgotten offices. So,” she sat behind the desk and rested her chin on her hand, “are you going back to London?”
“My dear girl, I should think not!” He bit back a laugh; she bore an uncanny resemblance to Wallace, sitting like that. “Not while there’s work to be done here.”
“Bon.” A warm glow came into her eyes. “Or should I say ‘capital’?
It wasn’t very good, but I finished it. It was 22,000 words.
Then I discovered these new things called podcasts. Something called The Writing Show popped up first. It was all right; it had a lot of the same information as the books and websites. Then I noticed something called I Should Be Writing.
The woman that hosted ISBW had good information too, but she also made me laugh. A lot. And she was a wannabe writer as well! Just like me! Admittedly, Mur was further along than I was, but she was facing a lot of the same challenges. I learned more. You’re allowed to suck. Even if you’re afraid that an idea has been done, you should write it anyway, because your version will be different. Everyone feels imposter syndrome.
I wrote a fantasy novel, in which an aristocratic girl chafing against society’s restrictions teams up with an ostracized selkie to find three artifacts with the potential to upend magic as they know it.
A slap brought him to his senses. Caora leaned over him, hand drawn back to deliver another one. Adek blocked his face, saying, “What did you do that for?”
Caora’s eyes were red and he could feel the heat of her flushed cheeks. “We have to get out of here,” she said.
“The Stone is gone. We’ve got to get out, the ghosts don’t like us.”
“I’ll explain later. Come on, Adek!” She pulled him up and dragged him across the chamber. Golden light filled it, keeping sighing spectres from touching them. For a moment the cries of the gulls overwhelmed Adek, but then he remembered the Divine and forced himself to plod on. If what she and Caora were saying was true, than the man from Pearl River had two out of the three Stones. Adek’s spirit quailed. Unless they found the third Stone in time….
It was a little better, if derivative. It was 65,000 words. More importantly, there were secondary characters who took on lives of their own and some actual history and politics.
I Should Be Writing had commercials. Some were for other podcasts or websites. But some were almost like movie trailers, and they were very exciting. One day, I surrendered and said, “Fine, just what is this Morevi thing?”
And I discovered podcast novels.
They were awesome, because they were like a hybrid of books on tape and radio plays. The guy (T. Morris? He went by his initial, I guessed?) that wrote and read Morevi was a good actor, and I fell in love with the story. Then, listening to his commercials, I learned that the voice actress with the gorgeous accent also wrote! She wrote about Shakespeare, and she had done one of these podcasts, too! And in her podcast, some guy named Holyfield had also done one!
I consumed them. Morevi, Billibub Baddings, Chasing the Bard, Digital Magic, Weather Child, Heaven, Murder at Avedon Hill, Metamor City: Making the Cut, Nina Kimberly The Merciless, Cybrosis, Brave Men Run, Down from Ten, The Antithesis Progression, Ancestor, Seventh Son….
I learned that there are many different forms of storytelling. Social media offers so many opportunities; big and exciting new things are just around the corner. Most of these people go to “cons,” where they party but also work really hard. The writing world is miniscule, so you shouldn’t be a jerk (of course, you shouldn’t be a jerk in general). There are good ways to behave on social media, and there are bad ways. There is a whole community of writers.
I had a rough time in my last year of high school/first year of uni. I did not write.
And then I wrote a fantasy novel about the end of the world.
Praeton hoisted himself up on the window ledge. Something had spattered on the stone directly beneath it, just beyond the reach of his questing arms. He strained to see, balancing on his elbows, the windowsill cutting under his armpits. Then there were hands on his shoulders. He twisted around and found River steadying him. The gesture impressed him. Most grown-ups would’ve hauled him down.
With River holding him, he stretched his arm a little further and brushed the splatter. At first it felt warm, probably from the stones. Then pain erupted through his finger. He gasped, hugged it close to him. The skin flamed red and swollen. And, coating it, ugly red-black ooze.
“What’s wrong?” The urgency in River’s voice surprised him. She had been so calm before.
Suddenly his head felt very light. The corners of the room rushed away, and he sank to the floor, his back against the wall. Slowly, he lifted his finger to his face. The sharp tang of iron stung his nostrils. Blood.
Darkness devoured the edges of his vision. Somewhere, far away, he heard River calling. He wanted to answer, but his tongue flopped, his jaw wouldn’t unhinge. Then a deafening boom, thunder worse than all thunder combined, shattered his consciousness. Before blackness claimed him, a single word exploded in his skull: HAPAX.
It was 84,000 words long: at last, saleable length.
Because I had learned that Twitter is a good thing, I saw a tweet about an open submissions period at Dragon Moon Press—which I knew about from podcasters. I sent in my book, even though I was already podcasting it, because I didn’t expect it to get picked up.
Only then it did.
And so I learned that you should always read the whole email. Publishing takes a long time. Podcasting is a LOT of work, but it is some of the most fun you will ever have. Contracts are terrifying and exciting all at once. Authors need to do a LOT to promote their own work. Book launches are fun, but there is also intense pressure and a slight slump the next day.
I went to cons. There are good ways to behave. There are also bad ways. Some moderators guide panel discussions and ask probing questions, some try to make it all about them. If you ask people very nicely, they may help you out. Help others if you can. Authors, like actors, always say yes. Assume everyone knows everyone. Never assume someone has read your work. If necessary, you can survive off the food in the con-suite.
I wrote another fantasy novel. It didn’t work, so I focused on another.
My eyelids flickered. I tried to open them, but they were too heavy. I didn’t mind, though. I was sinking into the earth, not weighed down, but secured. A cloak of noises wrapped around me. I was a thread in it, too. My breathing and heartbeat, the rustling of my clothes, they were as much a part of Grey Run as the birds’ trilling.
“I’m ready, atu. I want to meet you.”
A twig snapped in the distance. Leaves crunched. The atu had to be here, somewhere. The atu had to be everywhere. There was something at the borders of my mind, something stirring. If I could just get a bit closer….
A harsher, louder snap.
If I could just get a bit closer, I’d see it, feel it.
Leaves rubbing together. Rhythmic sounds on the earth, soft and stealthy.
It was almost within my grasp. I just needed to stretch out my fingertips, just a little bit farther, because I could almost feel the atu, I was sure of it. It was here, and I was almost there with it—
I promise, I’m still working on the other one:
“The gods don’t listen.” The girl’s voice was stone. “Mostly, I don’t think they care.”
The breath fled Serafine’s lungs. No, this couldn’t be what they thought. “I know what it feels like,” she said softly. “I know what it feels like to shout at them, to ache with all your soul and get nothing. But never, ever believe that they don’t care. Not even for a moment. Promise me that, Aislinn.”
“Did they save your family?” It wasn’t asked harshly. No mockery sharpened the question. Aislinn simply stared at her with those wide, child-like eyes.
“No.” Serafine drew her hand back, clutched it close to her. Nervous, for once.
“Did you ask them to?”
Aislinn turned aside. “Then you forgive easier than me.”
From what I’ve seen, Stonecoast will be a great apprenticeship. Something else I’ve learned, though: writers never, ever stop learning. Pay attention. Watch what other people are doing. Watch how they are doing it. Listen to the currents of conversation. Read. Read more.
And also…conflict, conflict, conflict. You’re allowed to suck. There are many different forms of storytelling. Help others if you can.
It’s strange, chatting to the people in various spheres of my life. The verdict on 2013 seemed mostly unanimous: it was a year that knocked a lot of people flat. Sure, there were good moments, but the consensus generally seems to be cautious optimism to embrace the New Year.
I don’t usually do resolutions…but there are a few things to which I’m looking forward, and which I’d like to accomplish this year.
The Book Formerly Known as Strix
This. Book. Oh my God. This book. My frustrations with Strix are infamous. For whatever reason, this book kept kicking my knees in all through 2013. Fortunately, Gabrielle is a wonderful, patient editor who helped me morph it into a new book (albeit one with the same premise).
So far as I’m concerned, Strix is dead. Not every book lives, which is a terrible, hard thing to learn. But! But but but! I’m incredibly excited by this new book. Since there is no longer a strix in it (the adage “murder your darlings” became my personal mantra, chanted as I huddled in the corner of my darkened room), I can’t call it that anymore.
When it comes out depends on how fast I write. Possibly spring 2014? Whether I podcast it depends on too many factors to guess right now.
Victorian Dark Fantasies
I had so much fun writing the VDF. I think it’s a solid book and this year, my goal is to shop it around. We’ll see what happens. And since I realized halfway through that it’s not necessarily a standalone novel, a sequel may be in the cards.
After all, I’d love to send my dynamic duo south. There are more politics and history to explore there, and for one character, that lovely northern accent may start becoming a slight problem….
Back to School
When I graduated last June, I declared that I was taking a break from academia.
Then Stonecoast emailed.
And so in ten short days, I’ll be boarding a plane to Portland, ME, for my first Stonecoast residency. Doing my MFA there definitely falls into the “If You Told Me This Two Years Ago, I Would Have Laughed At You” file. I’m astonished and nervous and ridiculously excited and slightly sick to my stomach all at once.
My goals: learn stuff, write better, keep on top of everything.
God, I miss podcasting. I’m making more time for it in 2014. Mostly, things are in the “Seekrit Projikt,” “vague planning and idea-bouncing” stage, but expect more Canadian accents in your headphones this year.
Friends and Family and Such
At the end of my last grief counselling session, the therapist said, “Well! It sounds like you have some really good people around you.”
“Yes,” I answered, without missing a beat. “I do.”
2013 found me leaning on my friends far more than I’d usually be comfortable with. But they were there. You know who are you are, and I thank you with all my heart.
But being a functional human being and paying some of that kindness back/forward is a major life goal for me this year. For the first time since my dad died, I feel on an even keel. I feel capable of being a good friend and actually contributing to my various relationships again.
My metaphor for 2013 is thus. Imagine coming home and seeing a wrecking ball and gaping muddy pit where your house used to be. You’re shocked and devastated, and can’t conceive how this could happen. As you sort through the ruins, you realize that some things are too broken to save. Others are way stronger than you ever imagined.
Eventually, you clear out most of the wreckage. Then you find someone strengthened your existing foundations and installed some new ones, too. While the loss is heartbreaking, you can build something entirely new and utterly wonderful on top of it.
May 2014 be a year of building. All of my best, to all of you.
It looks like you’re playing Donkey Kong Country 2 for the umpteenth time while listening to opera on low, but you’re actually plotting a novel.
Lying flat on one’s back in the middle of the floor and engaging in long, rambling monologues about magic and theology is not crazy. Just working.
Engaging in long, rambling monologues about non-existent people’s personal problems while in the shower? You guessed it—also work!
When a character informs you that you’ve been spelling her name wrong, you thank her for the correction.
Reading books on the Revelations of Saint John the Divine and string theory for the same project.
The reason your beta reader has yet to respond is because they secretly hated your book. Actually, they probably secretly hate you as well, even though you’ve been friends for years. During periods of anxiety, this makes perfect sense. However, this IS crazy.
Coffee and tea are proof that God exists and wants us to be happy.
Characters have their own opinions on your iPod playlists. Your writing soundtracks, too.
Standing up in the middle of a crowded bar at a convention and declaring, “I need to be alone now.”
When an email from an agent/editor/publisher comes, and all you see is “DEAR AUTHORwordswordswordswordsNOT A FIT FOR US AT THIS TIMEwordswordswordswords.”
Alternatively, “DEAR AUTHORwordswordswordswords PLEASED TO ACCEPT YOUR SUBMISSIONwordswordswordswordswords.”
Meeting someone with the same accent as one of your characters, and listening hyper-intently to everything they say in an attempt to fix their speech patterns in your brain.
The irresistible lure of the conversation at the next table over.
The absolute squee that is fan art:
Having detailed plans to survive the zombie apocalypse. And escape from pirates. And to run away and flee across the country, evading the authorities and news media.
Arguing the semantics of politics/history/theology that you created.
The thrill of finding an image that IS your character/setting/whatever.
Blocked words = existential dread.
The simultaneous need for solitude and heartbreaking yearning for closeness.
“Sorry, mate, can’t make it tonight—I need to write.”
Converting between the Gregorian calendar and your characters’ calendar.
Getting notes: all of the terror and all of the excitement.
Workshopping: see above, except with more anxiety-induced nausea.
The mingled joy and jealousy when you read a book you wish you’d written.
Crying when terrible things happen to characters you like.
Being incredibly pleased when terrible things happen to characters you like.
Listening to the same song over and over, because it makes you feel something that’s the kernel of a story, if you could just put your finger on what that something is….
Spending an awful lot of time worrying about sound laws and vowel shifts.
As crushing as your first rejection was, you’re still proud of it.
Looking like you’re half-asleep on the bus, but really just talking to characters in your head.
Pens are just always there. Like oxygen. Except when they’re not, you panic. Also like oxygen.
Show, don’t tell, except when telling is really just the logical thing to do.
There’s no right way, only the way that’s right for you.
Googling questionable things in the name of research. Goat decapitations, anyone?
Using Google Street View to plot routes in cities you’ll never visit.
Counting people among your good friends when you’ve met them once in real life. Or not at all.
That instant, unmistakeable connection to other writers.
WHAT DOES NOT MAKE SENSE TO (MOST) AUTHORS:
One of my required readings for school this term was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Happily, I had already purchased and read this book some years ago. I reread it, and this time, Lamott’s emphasis on short assignments and the one-inch picture frame struck me.
When everything seems too overwhelming and you don’t know what to write about, you write about as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame (metaphorical or otherwise). At work, there’s a mysterious green bench that appeared on the porch of the big red farmhouse. It’s the green of kids’ green poster paint and my boss exclaimed to me, “It looks like a Christmas bench!”
“The Christmas Bench,” I mused. “It sounds like a kids’ story, where people sit on the bench and learn the true meaning of Christmas and all that stuff. One day, I’ll write it.”
And I kept trying to. I kept scribbling about Christmas and what it means to me, and how it’s changed, but I kept hitting walls and giving up.
Until I remembered the one-inch picture frames.
I’d like to write about Christmas now.
For three Saturdays in December, the pioneer village stays open until 9:30 pm. We do Victorian Christmas things. Oil lamps light the entire village with a soft warm glow (hence, Christmas by Lamplight). Food gets handed out, live music plays, I’m usually down in the brewery slinging beer.
But before all of that, there is dinner.
The table in the middle of our staff room serves as its focal point. Really, they are two long, narrow tables stuck together. They have shiny blue tops and shiny black legs, like the lunch tables you’d find in an elementary school. The chairs have the same shiny black legs and blue seats, but that’s some kind of easily-wiped padding, so they’re not too uncomfortable. Our lunches are split into five separate shifts; there are usually only three to four people around this table at any given time.
Lamplight is different. See, on Saturdays, we close at 4:30. We don’t need to be back out until 5:45. Some people go out. Most people seem to stay. And so, instead of only three or four people, it’s nearly everyone, all brown-bagging their dinner. Although it’s only 4:30, people grab their dinners right away, because there’s always a rush for the microwave. Tupperware and frozen dinners line the counter just in front of it, queuing while their owners claim seats around the table.
It’s always kind of anxiety-inducing when your turn at the microwave comes up, because you’re very conscious of the long line behind you, but at the same time there’s nothing worse than only partially warming your stew and biting into an icy chunk of potato. So you balance and ponder and eventually settle on a time that’s somewhere in the middle, and you probably pull it out halfway through to stir it up and check on it. Inevitably, someone hears the microwave door opening and leaps up. You feel kind of bad that it’s a false alarm, but hey, icy potatoes are gross. And by then, you can usually smell someone else’s dinner, something that smells way better than yours—leftover chicken or pizza or someone else’s stew—and your stomach pinches with hunger.
When your dinner is mostly warmed through, you take it back to the seat that you hopefully saved earlier. There are more people than spaces, so some people are sitting on chairs along the walls with their dinner on their knees, and some are standing by the sink. But maybe you left your reticule, or a water glass, or got someone to guard it for you, so you sink onto your chair. And God help you if your seat is near the back wall or the pop machine because it’s hard to maneuver around all those ballooning hoop skirts.
And then we have dinner together.
Sometimes there are baked goods in the middle for people to share: bread that didn’t sell or cookies that can’t be served to the public, but for the most part, everyone is eating their own meals. And yet, it’s still having dinner together. All of us, at the same time, in one place, talking and laughing and shouting greetings as those coming just for Lamplight sweep down the staircase in their street clothes. A half-dozen conversations fly around the room, and people keep getting up to get more water, or passing coins down the table for pop, or running off to fix their hair or change.
People you never see because they’re not on your shift are there. And people you always see are there. And people you love chatting to but never get to have lunch with are there. It’s near the end of the season, so we’re tired, but we know Lamplight. We’re wrapping things up, both at the village and with each other. Soon, we’ll be scattering for the winter, seeing each other less often, but for right now, we are together. Since it happens every year, I can breathe the sigh of relief that comes with knowing the end of the story.
It warms the cockles of my stony heart. Roughly twenty people who probably would never have met otherwise, melded into one of those strange non-biological family units that we craft from our friends. At Christmas, having everyone together becomes even more poignant because we know that soon we’ll be going our separate ways.
And that’s my one-inch picture frame on Christmas.
No matter what you celebrate, my best to you and those you care about. Stay warm and safe, and have a wonderful time with your friends and family.
It’s a sickening feeling when you realize your book doesn’t work.
Dread lodges in the pit of your stomach like a stone. You can try to deny it, you can try to push onwards, you can rationalize until you’ve nearly convinced yourself, but there’s no escaping the certainty:
The book doesn’t work.
I’ve started Strix for the third time. Third time through, third completely different story. Honestly, this is less rewriting, more throwing the book out and writing a brand-new one with the same premise. I’m finally liking it again, which is a HUGE deal for me. Rewriting was definitely the right choice.
But getting there – oh man, the most painful writing experience I’ve had yet. Though I’m still in the trenches, shell-shocked and clutching my rifle, I think I have a few battle scars. Possibly even a helpful word or two:
You are chained to nothing
Every draft of Strix, from the first half-hearted attempt I started before Hapax even sold, to the draft before this current one, started with the same sentence. Every. Single. Bloody. Time. I was chained to my protagonist, to the idea of what I wanted my protagonist to be, and when it became clear certain elements weren’t working, I shoehorned them in because I thought they “should” be there.
Don’t do this. The thing you most want to keep might be dooming your story over and over and over. “Murder your darlings,” be ruthless, and don’t be afraid to throw the kitchen sink out the window.
Why are you writing this?
That being said, you need to know why you are writing this story. What is the story’s heart, what is its essence that keeps you banging your head against it? That cannot get thrown out. Well, it can, but then you’re writing an entirely different book.
The premise of Strix is the same. The notion of a sweeping soteriological arc through my universe’s entire history is the same. That’s what drew me to it. I needed to keep that.
Nothing is wasted
I’ve lost count of my Strix drafts. I wrote 40,000 words of an early version before Hapax had even sold, then trunked it (even then, clearly, I knew something was wrong). Some elements from the official Strix 1.0 carried to Strix 2.0. Some elements from Strix 2.0 carry to Strix 3.0. Nothing from Strix 1.0 shows up in 3.0.
That’s ok. Because I couldn’t have written 2.0 without 1.0. They were practice drafts.
Think of the people you know. Friends, acquaintances, coworkers, neighbours, dog park pals, whatever. Is there someone who enjoys reading books like the books you write? Is it someone who is clever and insightful, who understands how stories work, who isn’t afraid to be honest, and whose opinion you value?
Approach them very nicely. Ask, very politely, if they will beta read for you.
And if they say yes—oh, it can be such a lovely relationship.
Beta readers catch things you won’t. They’ll read the story as readers, but informed and purposeful readers. I have several friends who are kind enough to read my early drafts and I’m incredibly grateful for them.
Of course, while you need people to ask the hard questions, you also need people who will hold your hand when it’s midnight and you’re sobbing at their kitchen table. Sometimes, if you’re very lucky (and I am), these people are one and the same.
Writing may look like a solitary occupation, but no one’s really alone in this.
Make yourself accountable
Which is what I’m doing right now. Here’s the deal: I leave for my very first Stonecoast residency on January 10th. I am not taking Strix with me. Not going to happen, I need it done before I leave.
Which means I need to reach the end of the story in a little under a month.
End of story.
By writing an average of 3000 words/day, I can make it. In the two nights I’ve been writing Strix 3.0, I’ve reached 6,600 words. So far, I’m on target!
But I am putting it here, on this blog, officially:
Done By Stonecoast
Hold me to this. And if you’ve got a project you need finished, January 10th is as good a deadline as any, right? Join the fun!