Keeping Score: September 17, 2021

Did I say I’d spend time outlining last weekend? How naive I was! No, last weekend was all house chores, with a single break — a fantastic break — to celebrate a friend’s new job.

So I did the outlining on Monday, and wrote Tuesday, and Wednesday was…a lost day…and went back to writing yesterday. And now it’s Friday, and I’ve only hit half my word count for the week. I’ve got some catching up to do.

And editing — that second flash piece I wrote last month needs another draft — and story submitting. It’s a lot to juggle!

But I’ve got today off, thank goodness, so there’s a good chance I’ll get some of it done before the weekend. And who knows? I might sneak some work in on Saturday or Sunday as well.

Meanwhile, the approach of fall has me feeling the need to be in a class again, leveling up my craft. I recently discovered Cat Rambo’s Academy for Wayward Writers, and its set of self-paced classes looks like just the ticket. I think I’ll start with the one on editing (since knowing when to stop editing is something I struggle with) and go from there.

Keeping Score: September 10, 2021

Steady progress on the novel this week, even though the plot of this section is getting away from me.

I had an outline for this part, I swear. But that outline’s nearly a year old now. The characters have shifted, both in my head and on the page.

As a result, they’re doing and saying things that are blowing holes in my outline large enough for the Ever Given to sail through. A single representative of a merchant guild has become an entire squabbling panel. An orderly interview morphed into an impromptu witch trial. Three characters that were supposed to be at cross-purposes are now joining up to hunt dragons on the sea (!).

I’ve managed to wing it, so far this week. But I’d like to have some time this weekend to rework my outline, and plot out the new sequence of events, given how much has changed.

I could keep winging it, I suppose. But experience has taught me that without an outline, or some kind of guide, this first draft will end up being even rougher than normal. And it’s already going to be intimidating enough to revise a novel this long. I don’t want to be creating more work for myself down the line.

So: an outline there will be, if not this weekend, then first thing next week. After all, you don’t want to go sailing in search of Baltic dragons without a map!

Keeping Score: September 3, 2021

Novel broke through 60,000 words this week!

I’m back to working on it every day, so far. Picked up my brush, so to speak, and went back to filling in different pieces of the section I’m on. I’m still jumping around a lot, as different things occur to me (and as mental blocks come up for any one piece), but that’s just how this book is going, I suppose.

I am starting to get tugs to go work on other stories, though. Had solutions to two big problems with my first novel just drop into my head the other day, which made me want to pick that back up and edit it. Also there’s a short story I’ve been noodling on for several months, that I figured out how to tell just last week.

But I’m trying to hold to the novel for now, at least till this section of it is done. I know if I pull away for too long — longer than two weeks, say — the chances are I won’t come back and finish.

Which doesn’t sound like me, but…it’s just so dang big, this book, both in scope and in final word count, that I’m still intimidated by it. Some days I wonder if it’s worth it to finish, if I have it in me to pull something like this off. Not to mention concerns with getting all these different cultures and time periods right, in terms of representation. I’m far outside my comfort zone, here, and it’s hard not to look back at the cozy interiors of a smaller story and wonder if I should just go back inside.

But not yet. I want — I need — to get this draft done first. I think taking breaks, to work on shorter stuff, is good, and I’ll keep doing it. Work that into my mental schedule, so to speak, so that I let myself work on something else after each big chunk of the book is done.

But I’m going to finish, even if it takes me another year to do it. After all, I’ve got no deadlines, no publisher waiting on this. When am I ever going to get the chance to do something this risky again?

Keeping Score: August 27, 2021

Back to work this week, both day-job and writing. As expected, it’s been hard to get back into the groove, for both; I arrive at the end of each work day ready not to write, but to lay down on the couch and nap. Doesn’t help that I got two story rejections, one after another, this week, both stories and markets I had high hopes for.

That knocked me sideways for a bit. I started to wonder if I should maybe switch to self-publishing, just give up on submitting to markets. Or maybe give up on publishing altogether; just write the things, share them with friends, and that’s it.

But then I read this piece by Tobias S Buckell on the SFWA blog. It’s from 2013 — a blast from a better past? — but it hit home for me yesterday. I urge you to read the whole thing, but this is the passage that struck my heart like a bell:

I’m thinking of this because I recently sold a short story that had been rejected 18 times before. It has been going out for 13 years, making the rounds steadily for all this time. It’s one of three stories that I haven’t trunked b/c I still like them. It still has a spark of something that keeps my belief in it alive.

None of my stories, even the ones I’ve been sending out for a few years, have near that number of rejections yet. And here I am wondering if they’ll ever find a home! But my despair is linked directly to my belief; they still have that “spark of something” he mentions that makes me still like them.

So I’m going to keep sending them out. And as for the two new stories I started earlier this month: I’ve edited one of them, and finished the first draft of the second. They’ll soon join the flock of stories winging their way onto editor’s desks, looking for a home.

Keeping Score: August 13, 2021

Wife and I are doing a bit of stay-cation now that she’s back from Arkansas, and thank goodness. It’s a chance for us to re-connect, but also relax after having to each carry a (separate) household on our own.

And it’s also a chance for me to spend a little more time writing than usual 😀

As a result, I’ve drafted a new short story, gotten mid-way through a first draft of a second, and still written over 600 words on the novel. Both the stories are very short; one’s 800 words — so would qualify as flash in most markets — and the other’s currently at 1,300 words, so will likely finish around 3k. They’re both a little darker than usual (maybe too dark), so I’m not certain they’d be sellable, but they’ve been fun to write, so 🤷‍♂️

They’ve also been a nice break from the novel, which has let my brain go from “I have no idea how to write this section” to “Ok, here’s the map, I’ll make up the rest.” I’ve taken the outline I wrote up last week and started filling it out, using the “dabs of paint” method that has become my go-to for this book.

I’ve always heard from other authors that you have to learn to write each book anew, and in this case it’s true; my only way forward has been to completely change my technique, from one where I write the whole thing through front-to-back, to one where I write little pieces as they come to me, and then slowly fill in all the gaps till everything meets up and the section is done. I end up doing more editing of the draft early on, in order to make everything line up, but doing it this way frees me from worrying too much about getting everything “right” in this first draft (which would be impossible).

What about you? Do you find yourself radically altering your writing process for each book? Or is it more of a slow refinement over time?

Short Book Reviews: July 2021

My wife’s been out of town most of this past month (helping her mother recover from cataract surgery), so I’ve been leaning on books (and friends!) more to keep me sane company.

As ever, I’ve listed the books in reverse order, with the one I read most recently listed first.

The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan

Not what I expected at all. I’d hoped for a thorough, wide-ranging, history of Central Asia. What I got instead was a history of Europe, told from the perspective of how events in Central and East Asia impacted Europeans.

So…not the kind of thing you can really use as research material for a novel set in the Central Asian steppes, as I’d wanted 😬

But once I got over my expectations, I settled in for what turned out to be a very enjoyable, very readable history. It’s lopsided, in that he spends only about 1/3 of the book on the vast majority of human history (everything before 1800, that is), and spends a lot of time in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Even so, it’s a good corrective to our usual look at the past six hundred years. Especially when it comes to the “rise” of Europe, Frankopan deftly illustrates how the real story was the theft of vast sums from the Americas and Africa to Europe, which was then funneled to Asia to obtain spices, silk, paper, etc etc. The “normal” situation for the world is for money to flow East, and the development of China and the various former Soviet Republics in Central Asia is less a revolution than a return to history’s status quo.

Oh, one last thing: This book does a much better job of laying out the perfidy and fickleness of the United States in its dealings with the rest of the world than the next book in my list. Leave the history to the historians, I suppose?

American Rule, by Jared Yates Sexton

I wanted to like this one. I really did. I wholeheartedly support Sexton’s goal here, which is to pierce the myths that we’re frequently taught as American “history.”

The trouble is — and the reason I couldn’t actually finish the book — in order for that kind of argument to be effective, you really have to get your own history right. And Sexton, um, doesn’t.

Here’s a sample paragraph (from page 10):

…England’s monarchy had long been held as unquestionable. This perception of the divine right of kings was forged in the centuries following the fall of Rome as civilization in Western Europe languished in apocalyptic ruin and struggled through the so-called Dark Ages. In this time, the one uniting tether of humanity was religion…

There’s…so much…wrong with that paragraph.

The absolute monarchy he’s talking about was something invented in the early modern period, not the Middle Ages (“Dark Ages”, as any historian worth their salt will tell you, is an offensively wrong term for the period). And the doctrine of absolute monarchy had nothing to do with the fall of Rome (itself a disputed event), and everything to do with the centralizing projects European monarchs embarked on after centuries of conquest and consolidation.

Far from civilization “languishing” in Western Europe for hundreds of years, the Middle Ages saw rapid urbanization, expansion of trade, and the foundation of Europe’s first universities.

And religion being the one unifier? As opposed to any, oh, government? That’s…fuck, that’s just laughable

These are not small mistakes. They’re massive mis-representations of the period and the trends within it. And Sexton makes mistakes like this on every page (nearly every paragraph)!

I couldn’t take it. So I noped out.

The Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King

My second of two (see below) King books this month that don’t read like King books. This is told like a fairy tale, with the same sort of remove and third-person omniscience you’d have in a fairy tale. It’s the same voice King sometimes used in the latter part of the Dark Tower series.

And as far as I know, this is King’s one and only full-blown medieval fantasy book: kings and wizards, magic and dragons. I picked it up because of the connections to his other books — the king’s name is Roland, you see, and the (evil) wizard’s name is Flagg — not expecting too much.

I should have known better. Even in this mode, King is a master storyteller, weaving a tale of family and betrayal and escape that captivated me all the way to the end.

The Running Man, by Stephen King

Ok, technically this is a Richard Bachman book, since that’s the name King released it under originally. But they made a friggin’ Swarzenegger movie out of it, so I’ve got to include it in my reading list, right?

Interestingly enough, I can see why King published this one under a pen name. Because it doesn’t read like a King book at all. There’s no slow build up of tension, no deep dive into the lives of multiple characters before everything goes to hell. It just dives right into the plot, explaining just the bare minimum about the world needed to keep up with what’s going on.

And this thing moves. Each chapter is incredibly short, maybe 3 pages maximum. It’s the “potato chip” technique (keep chapters so small that folks think “I can do one more”), and it works here; I read the entire thing in a single day.

On the downside, it’s incredibly violent, and racist, and sexist, all at once. Granted, the world he’s portraying is very much that, all the way through, but it’s bigoted in a very…old-fashioned way, from the slurs they use, especially. Like 1960s racism ramped up to 11 and then set in the future.

Here’s the kicker, though: King absolutely nailed how misinformation, spread through the media, can keep the people at the bottom of the economy apart, keep them hating each other, when they should be attacking the wealthy. And he portrays our current “meritocratic” caste system perfectly, illustrating how inequality can get so locked in that the only way out for some people is to offer to die on national television. That’s the horrific part of the book, for me, the part the lingered after closing the book.

The White Album, Joan Didion

Didion’s essays covering the Seventies (and part of the later Sixties). I could definitely feel a cynicism creeping in, something present in the first book of hers i read and becoming stronger with each essay here.

But she continues to draw moments in time in vivid colors, and is brutally frank about her experiences with mental health issues during this period. Just…compellingly readable, all the way through.

I’d like to say I wish I could write like her, but then I’m not sure how I would even begin to learn or adopt her techniques. Intimidatingly good.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

Wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. The title is…a bit pretentious, at least to my ears.

But the essays are as unpretentious as they come. Didion, for the most part, refuses to generalize or judge, choosing instead to capture the moment, or series of moments, that she experienced with and around certain people, at certain times.

The result is a bit like a time capsule of the Sixties, or at least, the parts of the Sixties that she experienced in California.

Her writing is a bit hypnotic, in that way. In how she brings you into a moment, even if that moment itself is a composite of other moments, showing you what it felt like, if not what actually occurred. Makes her essays a bit addictive, tbh, each one a hit of experience from another place and time.

The one downside? Because she’s writing so close to her own experience, her version of the Sixties is very…white. And middle class. To the point where, when she talks about the farming communities she grew up in, she doesn’t talk about the actual workers on those farms, who were organizing throughout the Sixties to advocate for better working conditions for the majority-immigrant workforce. Nor does she mention the Civil Rights movements, or the Black Panthers, or…I could go on and on. Suffice to say that her viewpoint is very well detailed, but is very much myopic.

Keeping Score: August 6, 2021

I’ve not written a single word for the novel, this week.

It’s been a mad scramble to get everything lined up at work before I go on vacation for the next two weeks. Plus my wife’s coming home after a month away tomorrow, so I’ve been getting the house back into presentable shape 😅

So this week has been a bad one for words on the page. I haven’t been entirely idle on the writing front, though. Two of the four short stories I wanted to edit are done, and I’ve sent them both out to different markets (one got rejected 48 hours later, so I need to send that one back out, but still). I’ve also stolen some time to plot out the current flashback sequence in the novel, discovering some things along the way about the main character and her experiences.

And I’ve been putting together my short book reviews post for last month. Slowly. But steadily.

I’m hoping to catch up on my actual word count today, as the first day of my PTO. If I can get my chores done first, of course 😬

Keeping Score: July 30, 2021

One short story down, three to go.

I managed to get the final edits done last weekend for one of the four short stories I’m working on. Submitted it to a market, too, who promptly rejected it three days later 😅

So I need to send it on to the next market. And use this weekend to edit the next short story, so I can start sending it out, too.

My goal is to get at least one done every weekend, so by the end of August I’ll have all four circulating to different markets.

Meanwhile, I’ve been pushing the novel forward. Wrapped up the bridging chapter I’ve been working on these past few weeks, and finally started on the second of the three big flashbacks.

The sequence of events for this flashback’s still a little vague in my head. May take some time this weekend to outline it out, try to make it all clearer. Always a bit easier to get through each day’s writing when I know where I’m going!

Keeping Score: July 23, 2021

Novel’s hit 57,665 words!

I’ve finally had a week where I’ve hit my word goal every day (so far). I’ve had to trick myself into doing it — thinking “just write 50 words, and if that’s it, that’s fine” to start — but it’s worked.

I’m wrapping up the “bridging” chapter I’ve been working on, one that advances the main plot while setting up the second of three flashbacks. This chapter started out as just a scattering of dialog, much of it out of order (as it turned out). Over the past few weeks I’ve been layering in blocking, then descriptions, then thoughts, as well as stitching the different pieces together (via more dialog, blocking, etc). I confess I wasn’t sure until yesterday that I could actually get the beginning and the middle conversations to link up, but somehow it’s all come together.

At least, in a first draft sense. This whole thing might have to be trashed and re-done for the second draft, who knows? But I can’t get to that second draft without finishing the first one.

It’s good that I’ve been hitting my word count for the novel already this week, because I need to spend the weekend working on my short stories. I did a count recently and discovered I have four that are just one more draft away from being ready to submit to magazines. Considering I currently I have nothing on submission, it’s time to polish those stories up and start sending them out. Maybe rename one or two (like everything else, my first passes at titles are…terrible). And there’s that previous novel sitting in the corner, waiting for its third draft.

Too much to do. But thank goodness I don’t have any hard deadlines. I’ll get to the stories, and the third novel draft, and finish this current book. All in good time (but seriously I need to wrap these up so I can get to some of the new ideas I’ve been having…)