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Critiques: A Writer’s Unlikely Love

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! 😉

-KT

A Writer’s Education

So, Stonecoast:

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’?

(2006)

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…”

“The Stone is gone. We’ve got to get out, the ghosts don’t like us.”

“Ghosts?”

“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….

(2007)

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.

(2010-2011)

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—

“Sleeping, skin-and-bones?”

(2013)

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?”

“Yes.”

Aislinn turned aside. “Then you forgive easier than me.”

(2014)

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.

And write.

-KT

Welcome 2014!

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.

Podcasting

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.”

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.

Arohanui, guys.

And so….

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.

Um…you know I live here, right?

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.

KT

When The Book Doesn’t Work

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.

Maybe not your computer, though….

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.

This is me writing Strix 1.0. This is me writing Strix 1.0 in Dunedin, New Zealand. This is me writing Strix 1.0 in Dunedin in…oh, MAY OF 2012. (Also, look how short my hair is! I may or may not need a haircut….)

Get backup

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!

KT

Fighting Silence

I’ve been trying and failing to write a blog post for weeks. Not because I have nothing to say. I’ve tried to write posts about writing dialects, dipping into new genres, updates on the Victorian Dark Fantasy, the fact that I’m going to Stonecoast, collaboration with other writers, collaboration with other creative-types…

Inevitably, they end in despair and files deleted unsaved. I’ll get to about this point, actually, and then my fingers freeze and my mind races. Who would want to read this? Who wants to read anything I write? I can’t write ads for cereal boxes. Look at me, about to gut Strix and start it over for the third time. My writing sucks, and hey, I could also be a better friend, sister, daughter, employee….

I haven’t deleted this draft yet. This is progress.

Many writers are prone to fits of insecurity and self-doubt. We all know the stereotype: the tortured writer pulling their hair out, utterly convinced they’re nothing more than a hack.

Sometimes, it isn’t about writing.

My paralyzed silence isn’t entirely writing-related. A while back, I was informed that by asking my friends for help following my dad’s death, I was being a self-absorbed burden on the people I loved most.

It still bothers me.

For the past few weeks—about as long as I’ve been struggling to write anything—anxiety over my friends has been tearing me to pieces. Are they sick of me? Why can’t I just be my old self again? I totally am a burden. I’m no fun. Who in their right mind would want to hang out with this sack o’ sad?

And if I had a nickel for every time someone’s said, “That’s ridiculous. We’re your friends,” I could enjoy a lovely early retirement at the age of 22.

Right here, at this point right…now, I really want to give up on this blog post and withdraw back under my covers. Let’s see if we can make it through.

Because here is the connection. I’ve become scared to come out of my shell in real life, for fear that people will just think, “Pfft, KT, still sad over everything. Why can’t she keep her thoughts inside like a big girl?”

What that comment did several months ago was punch every button in my psyche, confirm every whisper that says, “You’re worthless, they don’t like you, they just feel sorry for you, and you’d better watch it because I don’t think you read social cues well enough to tell the difference.

“No one cares.”

And it’s that last one that’s damning for writers in particular. For fiction to work, people have to care. There is no tangible benefit to fiction. Not like there is to something like deck-building. If a deck-builder comes to my house and I pay them money, I get a deck at the end. If I go to a bookstore, buy a book, and read it, I have a book.

But I didn’t pay money for a bundle of processed wood product. Really, I paid for things that don’t exist: characters, places, and events that someone made up. Also a whole bunch of new thoughts, ideas, and feelings…but those only come if I’m willing to invest some part of myself into the figments of someone else’s imagination. Fiction doesn’t work if no one cares.

But if you’ve somehow convinced yourself that no one cares about you, the intrinsic, essential you, then it logically follows that no one would care about the products of your mind.

That “X” button at the top right hand corner looks tempting…but I will finish this.

I’ve been spending a lot of time hiding out in my room because I can’t face imposing myself on my housemates. I’m quiet in choir because it’s easier to stay behind the safety of my walls. My days in the brewery are my saving grace because I’m distracted by things I love, but I can run the historic kitchen on autopilot—and autopilot is dangerous because it lets me spend too much time in my own head.

Silence feels safer. But silence inevitably spirals into nights lost to tears and nightmares. And inevitably reminds me of the Silence:

It’s the same with writing. Not writing feels safer. But none of us got into writing because it seemed safe. We got into writing because there was something we had to say, some story we had to tell.

I have to tell stories about six-winged redheaded goddesses and rural villages hiding dark secrets. I have to talk about my heroes’ endless searches for safe harbours and the terrible costs of my villains’ isolation and rigidity.

And sometimes I just have to say:

I am sad.

– KT

We did it. Thank you for reading.

Pace Yourself

With NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow, word count and pace-of-writing has been on my mind. For those unfamiliar with the term, National Novel Writing Month challenges writers to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s 1667 words per day.

Word count’s a really personal thing. Some people have bigger ones, some have smaller ones, but as long as yours works for you and gets the job done, it’s probably fine.

*Snerk*

(Yes, I’m twelve. Why do you ask?)

I’m a fast writer and I can slog. In my third year of university, I made the wonderful discovery that armed with a decent outline, I could write a paper in a day. A hard, brutal, brain-numbing day, but a single day.

StJohnEssayme

Well, that was fun.

When writing Strix 2.0, I was motivated to push it out very quickly. I rewrote the novel essentially from scratch from late April to late June: 80,000 words in about two months, averaging 2000 words/day.

Then I wrote the Victorian Dark Fantasy. There was no pushing involved with this book. It gushed out (*snerk*) from late July to late September: 100,000 words in about two months, averaging 2000 words/day with a few 5000-7000 word days.

I’m not convinced this way is better.

After all, here we are in late October, and what have I done since then?

Pretty well nothing. I rested for two weeks while my betas read, and then I’ve spent the last two weeks editing. I’ve written a few blog posts and such for the day job. Looking at my Whiteboard of Doom, I see several things due in the next two weeks, all of them hitting just when I’m really, really tired.

This is the thing: writing is draining. Not just in terms of long nights, it’s draining in that you’re pulling out raw emotion, distilling it down, and putting it on paper. For me, this was particularly true of the Victorian Dark Fantasy. In one sense, it was an easy book to write, because the words wouldn’t stop flowing. In another, it was incredibly difficult for precisely the same reason.

When I was a little kid, I ran a lot of cross-country. My strength lay in pacing—I understood that if I went off the start line like gangbusters, I’d be too tired to finish. Far better to take a steady pace and pass the early leads later on.

I don’t seem to be very good at that while writing. I charge out of the gate and sprint the whole way, and I think the only reason I haven’t collapsed so far is that I’m young and spry and excessively caffeinated.

It’s a weird balance, though. On the one hand, yes, I’d love to take things slowly and not feel exhausted by the end of every project. I’m reminded of Spoon Theory: you only have so many spoons, so you need to consciously choose how to spend them. But at the same…there are so many things I want to write. There are so many stories to tell. And frankly, writing’s been pretty important to the ol’ budget this year.

I guess finding the happy balance between WRITING ALL THE THINGS and not dying is another aspect of professionalism. Full time authors can’t burn out, because then their circumstances become very precarious. If you don’t write, you don’t eat—so it’s probably best to ensure you can write consistently for years and years to come. The secret I need to learn is that word count means very little if it kills you.

So to all of you starting NaNo tomorrow: best of luck, have fun, write as much as you are able—and take care of yourselves. We’re all here cheering!

-KT

The music worth 100,000 words

I’ve been editing the Victorian Dark Fantasy all afternoon, headphones in, as per usual. In keeping with the mood of the book, it’s been mostly Celtic music the past few weeks—both pseudo-Celtic-inspired-it-sounds-close-enough music and actual Gaelic-language folksongs.

I love them.

But it’s not just the bouncing fiddles and reels that have me wriggling with joy. See, lots of people know about using images as story prompts. You look at a picture and it triggers a story (or questions that lead to a story) on some visceral level.

Who’s that girl? What’s with her shadow? What does the bear know? (courtesy http://www.emptyspace.thepoolisfull.org)

Honestly, I mostly use music.

I’m not a musician, but music seems to bypass my squirrel-brain and punches me right at the level of emotion. Because I tend to hear everything at once if I’m not careful, it also helps quiet my brain down—the racing thoughts just get drowned out. And, like many writers, I use music to help get into the mood of a story/scene.

But for me, it also triggers stories. And that’s kind of awesome, because I’ll be searching for music to help with one story, and inadvertently stumble across another piece that sparks something else. It exposes me to a lot of cool stuff, both musically and story-wise.

Take the Victorian Dark Fantasy. Early thoughts had been clattering around for a while, but the story really only snapped into place when I found a lovely Scottish tune called “Mari’s  Wedding” (or “Marie’s Wedding,” or “Mairi’s Wedding” or “Mairi Bhan”). Actually, the song only caught my attention because I wondered if it had anything to do with the play “Mary’s Wedding.” It doesn’t seem to. And aside from the fact that someone named Mari/Marie/Mairi is getting married, it has nothing to do with the VDF, either.

Except it does. Because listening to that song, I caught a flash of character—and then I started asking questions. I also started looking for more music, something that could help me enter this emerging world.

Second2

Mairi’s kitchen. 😉

Among others, I found “Mo Ghile Mear,” which has been on repeat for weeks. And then, very recently, I found “Téir Abhaile Riú.”

That’s the one that’s been making me grin like an idiot for the past two days. Because in this song about a young girl wanting to hook up with some sailors in Galway, I hear another conflict in this world. I hear opportunities to make my characters confront some really difficult choices. I hear the beginnings of another story.

After a very rough year, I think I’m finding my passion again. That’s a very, very good thing.

Naturally, I’m getting ahead of myself, still riding the “I FINISHED THE BOOK!” high. I do need to return to Strix. Not to mention a few other projects in the pipe…

But oh man, when I hear that chorus, I just squirm with excitement:

Téir abhaile riú, téir abhaile riú
Téir abhaile riú Mhearai
Téir abhail gus fan sa bhaile
Mar tá do mhargadh déanta…

Yayyyyyy!

KT

Themes

Theme. Now there’s a word that conjures up memories from high school. All those English classes, probing texts, trying to answer the question, “But what are the themes of this work? What is the author saying?

At the time, I think I mostly muttered something about “we murder to dissect” and deconstructed stories with both great efficiency and resentment.

Ah, the arrogance of youth. Although I think my main issue was actually some teachers’ insistence on imposing their interpretation and only their interpretation on the stories. When I’m writing, I do consider theme just as much as pacing, characterization, setting, mood, etc. Stories are always about something. That doesn’t mean that everything is a symbol or metaphor for something. Even the actual, literal narration points to the theme, because the way the story unfolds tells us something about the author’s assumptions.

If the protagonist is brave and loyal and wins out in the end, that tells us something different than if they get the same result by being dishonest and cowardly.

The theme(s) of a book is/are a lot like a thesis in an essay. It’s an argument, a proposition. When I wrote essays in the days of yore, I constantly checked to make sure whatever I’d said hadn’t invalidated my thesis. Same thing with fiction: you’re always testing the narrative against the theme and seeing if it holds. If your theme is “Honesty is the most important” and then your hero saves the day by lying, you may want to take a second look at your story.

Often, I find theme helps with plot. I just finished the Victorian Dark Fantasy. However, unusually for me, I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to end.

So I looked at my themes and asked, “What is the point of this book? What is my protagonist’s arc? How has she changed? What would illustrate those changes/what this story is really about?

Theme is world building. The cool thing about writing is that you are creating your own universe with its own rules. Some of those rules might relate to things like magic, but some of them are more abstract. Take Hapax – hope beats fear. Taking that as something True, it does influence the plot and world itself. It’s like an experiment: in a world where this is A Thing, what happens? Is that wonderful, horrifying, or does it have an effect at all?

But setting out to Write A Message doesn’t end in themes. It ends in morals. Just as plot and character develop naturally out of each other, so too does theme. Sometimes, you have to do what I did in high school: look at the story, its plot and characters, and try to find a theme that fits it all, the same way scientists develop hypotheses to explain the things they see.

And on that note, onwards to edits! 😀

– KT

Burnout and Balance

By the way, I’m twenty-two. It occurs to me that I never did a birthday post. Mostly because…reasons. I don’t know—I was busy with Strix or something.

Speaking of Strix, the manuscript came back to me. Then I fiddled around with it some more, and tossed it back over the wall to my editor. Scripts are off to the actors for Strix-the-Podcast (you knew that was coming, right?). I’ve begun recording my narration and amassing a collection of music and sound effects. I’ve nearly hit ~10,000 words on The Victorian Dark Fantasy. The Secret Kids’ Opera Project got the thumbs-up from the artistic director and the music makes me squee. When The Hero Comes Home Volume II (I’ve got a story in there) comes out soon. I write for two blogs. There are various other projects at the “Hey, KT, wanna do X for me?” stage of things. Also, I have a dayjob, and it is an awesome dayjob.

Somehow, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not doing enough.

Looking at the preceding paragraph, I realize the absurdity of that statement. That’s partly why I wrote everything out. Nevertheless, it’s a very real feeling. There is this nagging sense that I should be doing more. I should have The Victorian Dark Fantasy written already! I should have another podcast! I should blog more! I should be freelancing and writing more short stories!

Part of me says, “Heck yes. I’m young. I can still survive on willpower, day-old pizza, and caffeine. If I’m going to be doing all of this, now is the time to do it.”

The other part of me says, “You know, there might be a reason you’re perpetually ill…”

His mistake was forgetting the pizza. Good protein in the pepperoni.
(courtesy: http://www.thecampuscompanion.com)

 

Burnout is a problem for creative types. And as my long-suffering family can attest, it’s always been a particular problem for me. Not that it’s a problem that I really know how to solve, because the answer I come up with always seems to be, “Do more work!” It’s like running laps in July to forget about thirst.

Of course, it’s also really fun. That’s the trap. The more we enjoy things, the harder it can be to draw the distinction between work and play. At which point, forget about rest. Of course, this backfires eventually….

I suspect it’s also linked to Imposter Syndrome, which is hugely prevalent among writers, actors, artists, musicians, academics, and so forth. If you’re scared that someone’s going to point out what a fraud you are, it makes sense to be trying to churn out as much work as possible. Either something will be good enough that you no longer feel like a fake, or at the very least, everyone will be too distracted to realize your fraudulence.

This isn’t a terribly effective tack, either. It’s hard to create when you’ve tapped the well dry. Really, it comes back to balance. It isn’t all “on” or “off,” “black” or “white,” “all” or “nothing.” It’s quite possible to work hard without working yourself to exhaustion. I realize the irony of me saying this…and I also realize that I’m going to be struggling with this one for a while. But better struggling with it than blithely unaware, eh?

-KT

 

 

A Room of One’s Own

I blame P.C. Haring.

My nemesis (*shakes fist*) was telling me about some upgrades he was planning to make to his studio. Of course, we were Skyping as I sat in a jumble of books, papers, pens, iThings, and headsets. It looked like a bookshop and electronic store had delivered an unholy child on my desk, and then said hybrid had exploded from sheer self-horror.

It was not pretty.

More to the point, I didn’t feel pretty. By which I mean productive, which sometimes feels similar, in a weird sort of way. But books crowded my elbows as I tried to type. Pens eluded me. A tottering pile of books threatened to spill on the floor, and the cords of my various microphones and headsets tangled around my chair.

And in that moment, talking to P.C., I had an epiphany (the last time P.C. inadvertently gave me an epiphany, I ended up podcasting Hapax, so there you go). If I’m a writer and podcaster, that means I spend a lot of time at my desk. Sure, Erik and I invade coffee shops every two weeks or so, but the majority of my work is done in this one small room. If that’s the case, shouldn’t it look like a vaguely-professional space? Or at least, a space in which I can be vaguely professional?

Perhaps I secretly just wanted to procrastinate. Also, it was my off-day from the dayjob. Those never end well.

Whatever the reason, I spent some time this morning cleaning and organizing my room. The desk area was my main focus; I found space for the books, chased down the pens, cleared space for the iThings. Coolest of all, I found some wee hook things, and used them to mount my headsets on the wall (I always think I have too many, until I remember that each one has a discrete purpose).

End result? I feel great. It’s an inviting space, a space that I want to spend hours in. Writers are like opera singers: you ought to be able to practice your art anywhere, in any position (I’m thinking of Tosca and Vissi d’arte here) but some places and positions work better than others.

WritersDesk

Also! Excitement! After mulling it for weeks, I took the plunge and got a new microphone. It’s quite different from my trusty headset, but the more I play with it, the more I like it. Having a radio announcer-style mic apparently makes me more hyperactive and talkative.

Making friends with Nessie (yes, my mic has a name. It is Nessie).

Making friends with Nessie (yes, my mic has a name. It is Nessie).

Sound quality is good (almost too good—it picks up a lot more, which means more night-recording whilst our neighbours renovate) and you can un/mute it by tapping the base, which is cool. Also records differently for voice and music. Most importantly, because it is not a headset, more than one person at a time can use it….

…which may or may not be important, as I return to my spiffy desk to send out some scripts. 😉

– KT