Monthly Archives: December 2013
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!