Keeping Score: 1 July 2022

I think my writing brain is telling me to move on from the short stories.

I’ve kept up with the notebook writing this week, jotting down scenes and brainstorming directions for the plots of both short stories (the shorter mystery and the longer sci-fi one). But on Monday my fingers refused to write anything for either story, instead choosing to talk about the summer weather (which became my last blog post). And yesterday, when I reached for my notebook, I had a spark of an idea that turned into a plot for an entire rom-com novel.

It’s like my subconscious is telling me it’s bored of drafting the short stories, and wants to move on, to something different. Before I can do that, though, I need to actually type up what I’ve written freehand, and try to edit it into a coherent piece.

So that’s what I’ll be working on this weekend and next week. Typing, editing, and revising both stories, till the ideas in my notebook have been fitted into place. Hopefully that’ll be enough to keep my writing brain engaged and happy; it’s different work, after all, from drafting, and uses different muscles.

And then…maybe I’ll give this rom-com a shot? Or maybe it’s a thriller. It really depends on the ending, you see, and…

Well. We’ll see.

Keeping Score: 24 June 2022

I’ve been reading Craft in the Real World and The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, two books that both approach the issue of how the traditional writing workshop in the US — silent author, readers and teacher judging the work, comparison to an all-white literary canon — was constructed less to promote healthy writing communities and more to reinforce white supremacy in the States.

I confess it’s been hard reading, sometimes. Being confronted with the way I’ve been taught — and taught to teach others — about writing and being shown its racist underpinnings does not make for comfortable reading. But I’m pushing past that white fragility of mine, and interrogating it, and each time what I find at the root is simply fear. Fear that I’ll be the one erased, in the kind of workshop these authors describe. Fear that I’ll become the marginalized. Because the one thing all white people know, even when we don’t want to admit it, is that being in the minority in the Western caste system sucks.

When I face that fear, and name it, I’m able to move past it, and see the workshops they’re presenting as what they really are: places where everyone can take center stage for a time, where each author is empowered with the tools and the confidence to better their craft. Those tools are there for me, too, if I’m willing to listen, and use them.

So I’m testing them out, so to speak. I don’t have a formal writing workshop to go to, but I am trying a new approach with the feedback I give to the other writers in my writing circle. I’m aiming my feedback less at “I liked this” or “I don’t like this character” and more towards highlighting the choices I see them making. Like asking how scenes might play out differently if X were changed, or querying about the symbolism behind the repetition of a certain element. I don’t know if I’m succeeding, just yet, but I’m striving for the kind of centering of the author as an actively participating artist that Salesses and Chavez encourage.

I’m also borrowing some of their practices for my own writing. For this new short story I’m writing, I’ve taken to writing out the new draft by hand, in a notebook. Chavez says she insists her students write by hand, as a way to silence the inner editor and let the words flow onto the page. And so far, it’s working; writing it out has helped me get out of my own way, and make progress on the draft, when staring at the computer screen would feel like too much pressure. Chavez is right: Something about using hand and pen and paper is liberating, making me feel less like every word needs to be perfect and more like the story in my head needs to be written down right now.

As a result, the new draft is taking shape. It’s going to be longer and more complicated than I originally thought, with POV shifts and an expanded world. The side character that I had in the first draft and then gender-flipped has now become the protagonist (!) with all the changes that entails. But where I initially approached this new draft with trepidation, now I’m excited to see it come together.

What techniques do you use, to quiet your inner editor and feel free to write the stories you most want to tell?

Short Book Reviews: October 2021

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, hasn’t it? checks calendar winces Way too long.

Part of that was the grind of the Book That Wouldn’t End. Not the novel I’m writing, mind you, but the book way down at the end of this list, the one that took me all of August and most of September to finish. And it was good! But very dry and dense in an academic way, and so reading it was like shoving day-old oatmeal into my brain. Healthy, for sure! But not fun.

And part of it has been simply time. I’ve neglected this blog, I feel, mostly because somewhere between July and now everything seemed to speed up, all at once, and I suddenly had no time for anything. It definitely contributed to the writer’s block I’m just now climbing out of. And it meant certain things — like these posts — just got dropped.

But! I’m on the mend, mental-health-wise (I think. I hope), reading again, and writing, so it’s time to pick things back up here.

As always, reviews are posted in reverse chronological order, with the most recent book I finished first.

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

Finally got around to this one. And I can easily see how it could become a TV series; not only is the book very visual and quick-moving (in terms of style), but each section forms its own little “episode” where a different character takes the spotlight and has a supernatural encounter (of various kinds). It all builds to a climax that’s so perfect — and perfectly justified — I’m looking forward to re-reading it just to see all the threads coming together again.

The Likeness, by Tana French

Jesus, this one sucked me in. The Irish lilt to the dialog, the immersive descriptions of the country house where most of the book takes place, the personal history of the characters…Can you want to live inside a murder mystery? Because damned if I didn’t want to spend more time with this one. Expertly done, from start to finish.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

Ok, this one had me with the title alone. I was worried that it couldn’t deliver on that promise, but I needn’t have been. It’s a cross of Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap, mixed with some classic Agatha Christie, topped with a powerful message about forgiveness. I don’t want to say anything more, for fear of spoiling it, but if that sounds like your bag, pick it up; you won’t be disappointed.

Luminferous, by J Dianne Dotson

The finale is here! A series literally decades in the making (the author wrote the first draft of what became the second book in her teens) finally gets the send-off it deserves. I won’t spoil anything here, just to say that this fourth book continues the trend of each one being better than the last.

If you’ve enjoyed the series so far, there’s plenty of twists and turns to keep you hooked. If you haven’t read any of them yet but enjoy old-school sci-fi (think classic Star Trek or Anne McCaffrey) you should check them out!

The Field and the Forge, by John Landers

The book that almost killed me.

It’s a survey — just a survey! — of the kinds of physical restraints an organic economy imposes on technology, culture, and warfare. It’s incredibly eye-opening, and completely ruins any sense of “realism” you might have felt lingered in shows like Game of Thrones.

Also, nothing makes me appreciate modern life more than thinking about how just to transport food (say, grain, or fruit) to a market in pre-industrial times, you were usually transporting by animal, but just to get there you had to bring food along for yourself and for the pack animal, which meant traveling more than a few hours (let alone more than a day) was simply not viable (because at some point the animal is carrying just food that’s going to be consumed along the way, making the trip worthless economically).

There’s some theory packed in there, which Landers is gracious enough to admit is completely bogus but serves to illuminate different aspects of these complex phenomena. The interaction between population, production efficiency, and military size is especially instructive. Ditto the possibility for certain inheritance schemes to lead to a surplus of “second sons” that have nothing and thus no stake in society, causing all kinds of trouble.

Anyway, I’m glad I read it, I might refer to it from time to time, but ye gods I will never be re-reading it.

Keeping Score: October 22, 2021

I’ve finally made it to the other side of my writer’s block. I’m back to working on the novel, hitting my word count every day.

Thank goodness.

It wasn’t any one thing that got me through it, either.

i started reading again, sprinting through two novels that’d been sitting on the To Be Read pile for a good while. They were both excellent, they were both slightly outside my normal genre, and they were both kindling to re-light the writing fire inside me.

I leaned into my schedule disruption, which meant calling a halt to my exercise routine for a week. I know, you’re not supposed to do that; it’s the exact opposite of the advice most folks give about writer’s block (“take a walk”, “clear your head”, etc). But it helped me to relax, to feel like I had all the time in the world to write, which made it that much easier to find my flow.

And I read a few chapters in the new Pocket Workshop book by the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. Specifically, Eileen Gunn’s chapter on writer’s block calmed me down significantly. It reminded me that blockages happen, and pushed me to interrogate it, rather than ignore it.

By forcing me to really look at why I was blocked, to listen to what the block was trying to tell me, I found my way forward. I realized that the novel section I was working on wasn’t working, really, and that’s why I was blocked on it. It was too passive, for one. Where the previous flashback section was very much driven entirely by the narrator’s actions, the current section was one where a lot just happened to her. Or where she stumbled across things, and reacted to them. It wasn’t compelling, and my subconscious knew it, but my conscious mind wanted to carry on like nothing was wrong.

So my subconscious went on strike. Writer’s block.

I spent a few days brainstorming ways to change the section, to make it driven by the narrator. And suddenly my writing brain kicked back into gear, generating conversations and visualizing scenes again. Not all of them lined up, but that’s ok, that’s part of the process.

In the end, I decided to trash the 5,000 words I’d written for the current section of the book. Goodbye, gone.

And started over.

But now, this time, the words are coming much more easily. I can sit down in the morning and get my word count in, without worrying about being blocked, or not knowing where I’m going. The narrator — the protagonist of this section — is back firmly in control of things, and that’s how it should be.

Instead of somehow wandering from Central Asia to Europe, she’s fleeing there, from the consequences of her own actions. Instead of stumbling on a town with a dragon problem, she’s seeking it out, because it’s the only way she can keep a powerful curse at bay.

She still faces constraints, of course. But the way she overcomes her challenges within those constraints is her choice, no one else’s. And that…that makes it a lot easier to write down her story.

What about you? Have you had a period of serious writer’s block, that you then worked through? How did you overcome it?

Keeping Score: October 8, 2021

I’m…well, I’m blocked.

Written perhaps 300 words on the novel in the last two weeks. No work on any short stories, no editing…nothing else.

I did finish the outline of the section I’m working on. It’s just when I sat down to start writing it, I just…didn’t. Couldn’t find my way back into the story.

Part of it is time; my morning schedule’s been chopped to bits, lately, and my afternoon schedule is gone because I’ve been working later (and as soon as I get off work it’s time to start making supper). And at lunch, well…at lunch I just want to turn my brain off for a while.

Part of it, too, is I’m just tired all the time. I wake up tired, I exercise tired, I sleepwalk through making dinner and fall into bed at the end of the day. My jammed finger from August still hasn’t healed — I have to pop it back into place every morning so I can bend it — my right thigh is sore every time I stand, and that foot will just give out without warning, sending me flailing for the nearest chair or counter to grab hold of for support.

Mentally, too, I’m worn out. It’s like the part of me that makes decisions is just done, completely finished, and refuses to make a single new one. Decide what to wear? Nope, grab whatever’s on top of the pile. Decide what to eat? Nope, get the same thing every day. Decide how this scene is going to play out? Nuh-uh, try again. Decide what other writing project to work on to get around the block? Hahaha, not a chance.

What’s really frustrating is that I want to work on the novel. I want to finish editing my short stories, and send them out, and then write the exciting scenes I’ve planned out for the book, and maybe start a new short story, and…so much. But I reach the end of each day, and nope, nothing.

I’m…not used to feeling this way. Used to feeling lost in the book, sure, given my tendency to write my way through it rather than outline. But not used to knowing where I want to go, and how to get there, but not having any fuel in my mental tank to get there.

Not sure how to get that fuel back. Maybe read more? I took a break after reading the last two books, and maybe that was a mistake. Maybe my horror movie binge for October needs to be a horror novel binge? Or something completely different, maybe I need to read nothing but cozy mysteries for a while.

What I fear is that this means I need to put the novel away for a while. I’ve heard of other writers doing that, hitting a blockage and setting the work aside for a year or two, before picking it back up again. I’ve also heard of writers that set something aside and never pick it up. The latter’s what I’m afraid of. I want to finish this book. Finishing things…it’s part of my identity. Letting that go would be very, very hard.

Which is maybe why I’m blocked? Too afraid to let go, but too tired to go on? sighs We’ll see.

Keeping Score: September 24, 2021

Zero words written on the novel this week.

The little parts I was writing last week, based on the outlining I did, ran out of steam. Turns out a single day of outlining isn’t enough for a section that’s probably going to end up being 30,000 words!

So this week I hit pause on drafting. Instead, I’ve spent each day’s writing time on outlining and research, trying to build a path forward.

Eh, that’s not quite right, either…More like, I started out the week with an idea of the beats this part needs to hit. Character X needs to meet Character Y in Town Z. There’s a Guild-sponsored dragon hunt, which both compete in. Something something something, they become friends.

Which is not a lot to go on! So this week I’ve been drilling into the “why” and “how” of things: Why is Character Y in Town Z? Why does anyone in the Town care about dragons? Why this Guild in particular? How does Character X find out about the competition? How do they meet Character Y?

That, in turn, has pushed me to do some more research into the history of the region, looking for answers about government structure, merchant shipping, relations between nobles and peasants, etc etc etc.

And it’s working! I stumbled upon an historic event that fits exactly with my generational timeline, and explains why Character Y is in town (and why they might join in a dragon hunt). It’s settled a lot of other questions I’ve had about the book — like when precisely in history everything is taking place — and even adds extra depth and drama to some later events.

So, am I ready to get back to drafting? Not yet. I’ve only got the first third or so of this section outlined so far. I need to work through the hunt itself, and its consequences, before I’ll feel comfortable putting fingers to keys again.

Hopefully that’ll be sometime next week. Wish me luck!

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 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?