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.