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…)

Keeping Score: July 16, 2021

I’m back to something of a normal writing schedule, finally. I’m not always getting my writing done in the morning, like I’d prefer. Often having to squeeze it in over my lunch break, or between getting off work and cooking dinner. But I am getting it done, thank goodness.

Weekends are still my best option, though. Having a long block of unbroken time lets me tackle things that require more focus, like editing a short story (which I got done this weekend, and started sending out to beta readers). If only weekends were longer, eh?

The best thing that’s started happening recently, though, is that I’m getting ideas again.

Before the pandemic, I’d stumble across an idea for a story (short or novel) multiple times a week, sometimes multiple times a day. i’d capture it in whatever notes software I was using at the time (I’ve been through several, don’t judge me). Starting a new project was a matter of rifling through those ideas to find the one that resonated with me the most, while telling myself I’d get to the others “someday.”

That all dried up in 2020. It’s like that part of my brain went to sleep, waiting for a time when I wasn’t worried about surviving the week.

It makes sense that it would, but I missed it. Even though I thought I knew why it was gone, I wondered if it would ever come back. If I would ever be an idea-generator again.

But thankfully, it has! Over the last week or so, I’ve been coming up with story ideas — most of them novels — every other day. Bits of dialog come to me, or a scenario that I’d thought about before suddenly clicks with something I read, and the seed of a story is made.

Some of them are about novels I’ve already written. I may have mentioned the four novels I have in draft form (3 first, 1 second), a, um, embarrassing habit of mine that I intend to correct soon. I’d thought that all but the last would end up trunk novels, but lately I’ve been getting ideas on how to tighten up the others, things to trim and change to make them better. And you know what? I might just pull them out of the trunk after all.

I mean, in the end it’s my body of work, and I can do with it what I please, right? Maybe they won’t sell, even if I edit them all, but editing them will be good practice. Especially if I do it deliberately, getting better each time. So eventually I will draft and edit a novel that’ll sell.

…you know, if I can just find the time for all of that 😅

Anyway, I’m happy to be generating ideas again, even if they sometimes distract me from the novel I’m currently drafting. Welcome back, formerly missing part of my brain!

Keeping Score: July 9, 2021

This week has been a bad one for writing.

It started out well enough, mind you. Got a blog post written and some plotting done on Monday, and actual words down on Tuesday.

But the rest of the week has been a wash. Wednesday was a blur, between work, getting the dogs to the boarding people, and prepping the house for having the power shut off on Thursday. Yesterday I got up early, packed, drove out to the hotel I was going to work from, and rushed right back home as soon as the power was off.

And no, spending all day working in a hotel where no one else was masking was not conducive to being creative 😬

So here I am, end of the week arriving and only 271 words written. I’ve got a lot of catch-up to do this weekend.

Wish me luck.

Short Book Reviews: June 2021

The year is already half over? And California’s re-opening while vaccination rates are slowing and the Delta variant is spreading and…

breathes

…and I’ve been fully vaccinated for two months now, but I’m still keeping a low profile, wearing a mask in public, and avoiding crowds as much as possible.

Oh, and reading! Mix of essays and horror and, well, horror hesitates tools? Is that a thing? Because I read one.

As always, the books are in reverse reading order, with the most recent one I plowed through first.

Christine, by Stephen King

Definitely the worst of the King re-reads so far (and also the first one to not be set in Maine, make of that what you will).

I almost put this one down, after the rough opening and dialog that seemed broadcast from a 1940s B-movie. I’m glad I kept going, because the story eventually kicks into King-Dread-Gear and becomes compelling. The dialog never really gets better, and the car scare is just plain weird, but the possession bit was goose-bumps-down-my-neck spooky.

Hood Feminism, by Mikki Kendall

A series of excellently-written, pointed essays that I quickly realized were not aimed at me. Not that everything needs to be, of course!

Still illuminating. Kendall has no trouble stabbing through all the BS we tell ourselves about these issues and calling them out for what they are. Points to a type of feminism concerned less with Leaning In and more with putting food on the table. A critical work on fundamental problems with the way American does and doesn’t work for its people.

Body Trauma, by David W Page

This one was slow going for me. I get squeamish around needles, to the point where I get lightheaded whenever I have blood drawn (I’ve only passed out once, so there). But it was recommended by Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark, and in the book I’m writing (and in short stories I’m working on), I need to be able to portray injuries and recovery accurately. So I pushed through.

And I’m glad I did! I’m sure I’ll need a few re-reads for everything to sink in, but I’ve got a much better sense of how serious certain wounds would be, and how they can be used to raise or lower tension in a story.

wow, no thank you, by Samantha Irby

Went into this one with no idea of what I was getting into, other than the essays were supposed to be funny. And they were, in parts — literally laugh out loud funny, in fact — but above all they’re a master class in writing a revealing, engaging, personal essay. What other writer do you know can make you reflect on your own poverty-filled past while relaying a (funny) story about how they thought their cheap-and-shitty apartment was haunted? Or make you admire them while they constantly put themselves down and refer to themselves as a “trash person”? That’s a magic trick played with words, and Irby pulls it off again and again and again.

Keeping Score: July 2, 2021

Novel’s crossed 54,000 words!

I’m back to writing it in a scatter-shot way. Skipping up and down a chapter, scribbling down dialog or blocking or scene descriptions as they come to me.

The current chapter’s proving particularly difficult to write in anything like a linear fashion. There’s just so much for me to cover, to bridge the time between one lengthy flashback and the next. I’ve got to deepen the two main character’s relationship, continue to express one character’s coming to terms with their recent debilitating injuries, and set things up for the next bridge after the second flashback.

It’s a lot, and as a result, the draft of this chapter is a jumbled mess. I’ve got dialog for one line of conversation scattered across three different scenes, and none of it ties together. Yet.

I keep telling myself the first draft is supposed to be messy, but this is just…the most confused thing I’ve ever written, so far. How am I going to pull together a coherent chapter from this?

Speaking of coherence, I’m also trying to edit the short story I drafted last month. And at some point I do need to start in on a third draft of the novel I was working on most of last year. I’ve not yet gotten a novel through enough drafts to be ready to send it out to agents, and it’s high time I finally did.

But time…time is the problem. If I’m working on the new novel, I’m not editing the short story. If I’m editing the short story, I’m not editing the novel. And if I’m editing the previous novel, I’m not making progress on the current one.

How can I square this circle? How can I find the time to not just work on, but finish, all these projects?

Keeping Score: June 25, 2021

Screw it, I’m putting more magic in my fantasy novel.

Up to this point I’ve been careful to keep it magic-lite. I wanted to make things as close to historical as possible. Did — and continue to do — my research, mixed in my own experiences with the locations involved, and restrained myself to just the one change (dragons!) and nothing else.

But now, 50,000 words in, that’s boring me. So I’m letting it go.

Mind you, I’m not going all-out. I’m not suddenly dropping in some fireball-throwing wizards or wisecracking elves (though fireball-throwing, wisecracking elves does sound like my cup of tea 🤔)

I’m taking the fantastical elements of the book, and strengthening them. Taking what had been a vague psychic connection, and making it both stronger and more specific. Like turning up a dial in the sound mix.

That’ll give it a more prominent role in the story, and provide another tool I can use to complicate things for my characters. rubs hands together It’s going to be fun.

What about you? Have you ever gone into a story with a set of self-imposed constraints, only to shatter them later?

Juneteenth 2021

It is so sadly, quintessentially, American, for every Republican in the Senate to vote for the new federal holiday at the same time that they (and their Democratic allies) block legislation that would secure voting rights for people of color.

And while their fellow party members at the state level move to stifle even the discussion of racism in the classroom.

So rather than the normal Keeping Score post this week, I’m going to link to some Black authors that have inspired me. Great writers that make me want to improve my craft, to make each word sing in the minds of my readers.

Writers like:

What is a Citizen, Anyway?

I’ve recently realized there’s a large gap in my education: I don’t know how to be a citizen.

I know how to be a worker. Long hours spent in school forced to sit still and be quiet at a desk while taking orders from an authority figure prepared me for life in the 21st century economy. Years spent working for minimum wage — as a fast-food cook — or less than minimum wage — as a server — taught me crucial survival skills like Smiling at the Asshole and Let the Boss Be Right. Not to mention first-hand experience with the inherent conflict between workers and owners that lies at the heart of capitalism.

I know how to be a husband. Not always a good one, to be sure, but a husband all the same. Popular culture, family examples, and years of church gave me a plethora of role-models to choose from. There’s the drunken layabout coupled with teary-eyed professions of love (my dad’s preferred mode). There’s the stalwart family patriarch, holding everything — and everyone — in no matter what. There’s the queer model of radical equality, or the jealous hawk, or the laissez-faire bro. Lots of choices, an entire industry of self-help books, all geared around making sure I know how to play that role.

But what about being a citizen?

There was no class for that in my schooling. There’s no section of the bookstore on citizenship to read up on. No MasterClass. I can get courses on being a better cook or learning to play the cello or the exact right way to pose so my Instagram posts go viral. But nothing on how to be a better citizen. There, I’m on my own.

Is it enough to vote? I mean, I do vote, every chance I get. I scour election materials and try to sniff out which candidate is actually going to do some good. But I hear now that “just showing up on Election Day” is not enough, that we need to involved citizens.

Is it voting and protesting, then? I protested the Second Gulf War, Bush’s candidacy in 2004, and Trump’s Inauguration. I’ve marched for Women’s Day, and I’ll march for Black Lives Matter. But that too feels hollow, in a way. Not just because the Second Gulf War went ahead as (not really) planned, or that Bush got re-elected, or that Trump never got removed from office. Participating in those marches felt…good, cathartic, even. But also ephemeral. Nothing was really at risk, for me, in those marches. And nothing permanent came out of it. I came, I marched, I went back to work the next day. So when I hear terms like “performative ally-ship,” they hit very close to home, for me.

Is it being an activist? But — assuming no one can be an activist for every cause, so we should all pick one to pursue — if we all become activists, what distinguishes us from just another series of lobbies or interest groups?

So seriously, now: What does being a citizen (not just a consumer, not just worker) mean?

I suppose it used to mean, and may still mean, participating in civil society. But what’s that? There’s no Chamber of Commerce for me to join, because I work for an international company, not my own business. There’s no union, either, for the same reason. There’s no PTA, because I don’t have kids. The City Council meets behind semi-closed doors in the middle of the afternoon on a week-day, when absolutely no one that works for a living can attend.

I guess that leaves volunteer organizations. Habitat for Humanity. A food bank. The local chapter of a political party, even. Some kind of group with a concrete mission, some change they make in people’s lives, on a daily basis.

Is that it? And, maybe more importantly: Is that enough?

Keeping Score: June 11, 2021

Got another short story rejection today. This one was personal, at least; not a form letter, but a description of an historical error that threw the editor out of the story.

It hurts a little less, I guess? To know I got close enough to being accepted that the magazine’s editor read the story, and rejected it themselves. But it’s also frustrating, to have such high hopes for a story, only to see it constantly fail to get published.

And now, of course, I’m diving into more historical research, and thinking of ways to fix the error they called out, while keeping the heart of the story intact. Yet another revision to make before sending it back out.

Or perhaps it’s time to let this one go. Sometimes I think I need to take these rejections less personally. To treat them as less of a challenge, and more like little slips of paper slipped under my door while I’m working. So long as I’m producing more stories to send out, does it matter that much if one of them doesn’t work as well as I’d like? Or to flip it around: If I’m happy with a story, does it matter so much that any particular editor isn’t?

Of course I’m never completely happy with a story. There’s always something to change, some phrase to tweak or scene to re-think.

That’s the thing: I’m always ready to revise. I crave feedback, and once I get it I honor it by making changes. But is that the best way to improve as a writer? Am I making things better, or just delaying working on something new, something to which I can apply all of my lessons learned afresh?

What about you? When you get a rejection, does it spur you to keeping editing? Or do you march on to the next project?

Keeping Score: June 4, 2021

I finished the eternal section!

Finally laid down all the connective text it needed. Final word count: 34,089 words, for just that one part of the book (!).

It’s a huge milestone. Means not only that I can move on to the next part of the book, a shorter interlude before the next large chunk, but I’m about 1/3 of the way through the book as a whole: 49,594 words. I said this was going to be a door-stopper, right?

I feel like I need to take a moment and look back at where I started. Not to brag, but just to survey the view from this part of the summit, so to speak. Because otherwise the moment’s going to be lost, mixed in with all the others spent putting one word in front of the others, trudging up the slope.

When I started out on this book, last November, I had a plan in a very loose sense of the word. I knew the beats I wanted to hit, and the general shape of the story, but that was it. I didn’t really know who these characters were, or what could motivate them through these events. I also didn’t know if I could even write this kind of historical novel, where I leap from the shores of the Baltic Sea to the Central Asian steppe and back again.

But I have. I can. It might be junk, but the first draft of the steppe sequence is done. I conjured up a whole family from scratch! I worked out how to track a dragon across the plains. And discovered how a pre-teen could summon her inner strength to strike back at that dragon for her father’s death.

That’s not nothing! Again, it’s just the first draft, and I can already see that it’ll need a lot of edits. But after months of grinding away at it, wondering if I’d ever see real progress, wondering if I should just stop and spend my time doing something else, I can take heart in knowing that this piece, at least, is done. And if I can finish one section, I can finish the others. One word at a time.

So take heart, if you’ve been feeling like me! Like the work is never-ending. Afraid that none of it will be worthwhile.

Because eventually you’ll summit that mountain. And you’ll look back at where you started, and wonder how the hell you’ve come so far.