Keeping Score: April 9, 2021

Writing this past week has been…well, difficult is too small a word for it. When my motivation for even getting out of bed has been snuffed out, it’s impossible to convince myself that the words I’m setting down are worth anything.

And yet they must be written. Because who knows how long this funk will last, and in the meantime the novel needs to be completed. Need to get this draft done, this junk draft, so that I’ll have something to edit later. Not that I’m looking forward to later, exactly, but I know it’s coming.

Thank goodness I stopped being an inspiration writer — that is, someone who writes only when inspired to — a good while ago. Because at the moment, inspiration isn’t just hard to summon for me, it’s completely gone. I’m writing like someone re-learning how to walk: laying down one word at a time, till a sentence is formed, and then moving on to the next. Word by word, line by line. Till my daily word count is reached, and I close the laptop.

I’m not blocked. I’m not afraid of the scene I’m working on. I’m just depressed.

I’m trying different things to lighten my mood, of course. I started walking in the mornings again, and I can now vouch for the runner’s high as a way to trick my body’s chemistry into lifting the sadness for a bit. It’s doesn’t last, but for a little while I feel…not normal, but I stop feeling like crying all the time.

Crying is a constant danger at the moment. Anytime I’m left with my thoughts for too long, I start to tear up. Which makes writing dangerous, in a way; I’ve got to think to put these words together, but every time I start to imagine the scene before me, my thoughts will veer into taking an inventory of all the reasons I’m worthless and unneeded, and I break down again. I know it’s my brain inventing reasons for my sadness, but still. It’s surprisingly good at it!

And trying to do the opposite — take inventory of all the things I have to be happy about — doesn’t help, either, because it just gives me a list of reasons I’m an ungrateful wretch for daring to be sad.

There’s no winning here. There’s just endurance, and a hope that it will pass. I’ve had dark moods before — never this bad, but still — and they’ve all come and gone like clouds in a thunderstorm. This one will, too, given time. I hope.

Short Book Reviews: March 2021

Ok, I didn’t get this posted in time for the end of March, but better late then never, eh?

Continuing the theme of posting short reviews of the things I read each month, here’s what I’ve consumed since last time, again in reverse order (so, the most recent book first):

Seven-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M Valente

The first book is also one I couldn’t finish. I love the premise of this book: a Western retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. And Valente is one of my favorite authors! Should have been right up my alley.

But the whole thing is written in dialect, which is annoying for me at the best of times. And when it’s an author from the Northeast trying (emphasis on the trying) to write an entire novella in a Southwestern accent, this Texan just can’t take it.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

This one I enjoyed! Very well-crafted fantasy. Hard to say anything without spoiling the plot, but basically it weaves in themes from Frankenstein, the Wizard of Oz, multiverses, and time travel (of a sort…you’ll see) to construct something wholly original. I’ll be studying this one for pointers on style and craft.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

I didn’t think it was possible to make a compelling single-monster horror. But Jones has done it, and done it with characters and traditions (Blackfeet and Crow) you don’t normally find in American literature. This one was so good I read it all in one gulp, in a single day.

Four Lost Cities, by Annalee Newitz

Another one I wanted to like, but couldn’t get through. It’s supposed to be a survey of four historical cities that, for various reasons, were abandoned, even after long periods of growth and popularity. It promised some insights into the debates we’re starting to have about the sustainability of modern cities, and whether climate change will mean their inevitable decline.

Instead, I kept running into mischaracterizations and outright mistakes. One glaring error is in the location of Pompeii, which the author has right in the text but wrong on the maps. One mischaracterization is the author projecting the myth of the noble savage onto the population of an ancient city, even after they relay an exchange with an expert that lays bare the flaws of their assumption!

I can’t read nonfiction that I can’t trust, so I put this one down.

Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner

Wrote about this one last week. Recommended for anyone that’s even thinking of writing horror.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

King mentions in the intro to this one that he wrote this book partially because he wanted to see if it was possible to wed a literary story about a small Maine town with a Dracula-inspired vampire tale. That duality runs throughout the book, with passages that wouldn’t be out of place in the New Yorker followed by harrowing chapters filled with dread. So in reading it, I felt like I was watching the evolution of King the writer in real time, with his literary aspirations slowly giving way to his mastery of horror techniques.

Oh, and the story absolutely still works, even after all this time!

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Holy shit, this one. Another book that hooked me from the first page, and held me until I’d swallowed it all in a single day. An absolutely brilliant — and ambiguous — take on Lovecraftian horror. I immediately went and ordered more LaValle after finishing it.

Genghis Kahn by Paul Ratchnevsky

Another book I picked up after it was referenced on acoup.blog. Not as readable as The Mongol Art of War, but covers similar ground. Interesting for insights into how Genghis built up his empire, via political manuevering as shrewd policy as much as through battle.

Keeping Score: March 26, 2021

Novel’s at 38,160 words. The snippets I’m working on are starting to spill over into the next chapter; I’m already scoping out the reactions of the characters to the events of the section I’m working on.

Meanwhile, this section is winding down. And I’m getting the feeling that much of it — most of it, even — might be cut in the next draft. I mean, do I really need to describe how a character makes their camp dinner in such detail? And yet, if I don’t do it, I won’t know that they keep flour in this jar over there, and that they constantly gather firewood as they travel, so they have a stock of it ready to go when needed. Details like that would be completely lost, if I didn’t make a hash out of describing every little action right now. So I keep doing it, knowing that what I’m writing now will likely be cut, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be used.

I’m also…well, I’m debating whether to let one of my characters give A Speech at the end of this chapter. They have the words for it — I’ve already written the points they want to hammer home — they have the audience, they have the space and the time. But does the book have the tone for it?

I usually shy away from having characters make big speeches, or monologues. Blame part of it on a Gen-X thing: I treat displays of sincere emotion with suspicion. Blame another part on my preacher of a father, whose pompous, hypocritical sermons turned me off to religion altogether.

So I’m always pushing my characters to speak more naturally, to take any Great Wisdom they want to lay down and either show it through their actions or weave it into their dialog some other way.

But this time…this time I might let them just say what they want to say. Certainly the situation calls for it: a young girl is about to be pushed into an apprenticeship that will change her life, take her away from the family and the place she’s always known and send her criss-crossing the world with her mentor. And all because of a decision she made to pursue vengeance for her father’s death, that led to a near-deadly encounter with a dragon, and now this. Such sweeping changes, they call for a little more weight to the dialog, yes?

Oof, I’m uncertain. I’ll write the speech, I think, and see how it plays. I can always change it later, right?

Short Fiction Review: Apex Magazine Issue 121

Apex Magazine is back!

Apex went on what looked like permanent hiatus while editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore dealt with multiple surgeries for serious health issues (see his editorial in this month’s magazine). But he’s thankfully recovered, and after a successful Kickstarter, he’s re-assembled the Apex editing team, and resurrected the magazine!

Issue 121, then, is their first new issue in almost two years. It’s a double issue, as all of them will be from now on, released every two months. You can grab your own copy here

So let’s dive in! (no spoilers, I promise).

Root Rot, by Fargo Tbakh

Jesus, this story.

Reading it is disorienting at first. There’s a good reason for that, for why the narrator’s voice seems jumbled and confused. But as I read, more and more pieces fell into place, until the very last scene broke my heart.

I wish I could write something this powerful. This moving. An inspiration, and a bar to shoot for.

Your Own Undoing, by P H Lee

Second person, represent!

I usually hate stories told in the second person. All those “You”s feel like commands, and I instinctually kick back against those, and out of the story.

Not so in this case. Lee’s story wove a meta fairy tale around me, a story that was itself an illustration of the conflict at its heart.

If it sounds too clever for its own good, don’t be put off. It’s not. It’s a fantastic story, first and foremost. It’s only afterward, when thinking about it, that its clever structure reveals its shape. Just amazing.

Love, That Hungry Thing, by Cassandra Khaw

This one….this one did feel too clever for its own good, for me.

Not in structure, but in the way it leans so far into the modern (well, post-2004) tendency to leave readers out on a limb. Being confused can work — see the first story, above — for a while, but I (being very careful here, as I know not everyone shares my tastes) tend to get very frustrated if there’s no payoff at the end.

And there’s no payoff in this story, for me. In fact, there’s very little action at all, or even dialog.

A lot of beautiful description, though. Evocative words and phrases that promise glittering insight into this future, but then never cohere into a stable image. Nothing falls into place. It’s an exquisitely described place, though.

Mr Death, by Alix E Harrow

My favorite of the bunch.

I don’t want to say too much, lest I give anything away. Let me just say that this is what I wish the movie Soul had been. Read it. You won’t regret it.

The Niddah, by Elana Gomel

A short story about a global pandemic. Yes, really.

Grey Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts, by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Had an allergic reaction to this one. Something about another story that drops the reader into a confused space, with no explanation, and calls its main environment “The City.”

All I Want for Christmas, by Charles Payseur

Short, powerful flash piece. Made me shudder.

Keeping Score: January 22, 2021

It feels good to have a competent President again. A President with some dignity, who doesn’t spend his time tweeting out misinformation. Whose Press Secretary thanked reporters after her first press briefing, who doesn’t see journalists as the enemy. A President who made news this week because of the raft of actions he took to kick off a national response to the coronavirus pandemic, not the lies he told.

The day after the inauguration, I sat down to write after a long day at work, and when I looked up I’d written twice my daily word count, smooth as butter.

I could get used to this. I want to get used to this. Not in the sense of taking it for granted, but in the sense of it happening, over and over and over again.

There’s much to be done, politically. Too many Americans are locked up in prisons. Too many Americans fear the loss of their job so much they’re willing to endure urinating into bottles and absurdly low wages, while their bosses complain about not knowing how to spend all the money they’re making.

But it’ll be easier, collectively, to tackle such things, if we don’t all have to worry about the President, too, coming after us. If we have the headspace to write, and call, and paint, and march, and sing, and petition, without wondering, every day, which shoe the executive is going to drop on us that day. What painstaking progress the administration rolled back with callous ease this morning.

It’ll be good to feel like we have an ally in the White House. Not perfect, by any means. But not actively trying to set us back.

Novel’s at 24,580 words. More by the end of the day, since I haven’t yet done my daily words. Back to the rhythm of 2,000 words per week.

I’m at the point where I’m stitching together the pieces I’ve written for the current sequence, before pressing on. I’m having to shift some paragraphs around, moving them either earlier in the chapter or later, so I can keep them without interrupting the flow of things.

I can already see parts I’m going to have to revise. Conversations that don’t go anywhere (currently), descriptions of daily life that will need to be rewritten according to the research I’m doing.

I’m…uncertain, whether to fix those, or just press on. The advice I’ve gotten from the Writer’s Coffeehouse says to move on, to just make a note of it, so it’ll be easy to come back to, but to keep forward momentum going. Finish the draft, then go back and patch things up.

And it’s good advice! Only…if I already know how things need to change, shouldn’t I change them? Or worse, if I know things need to change, but I’m not sure exactly how, isn’t it better to find out the more stable form for them now, so I can keep writing the book with that in mind?

I suppose the advice is meant to keep me from getting bogged down in revisions, instead of finishing out the draft. And I definitely do not want to do that. And it’ll probably be easier to make the changes I need once the book’s done, and I can see the whole story, rather than now, when I’m still mapping it out.

So I suppose I will press on. Still going to make notes about revisions to the scenes, though, so I don’t forget them when it’s time to edit.

But to have something to edit, I’ve got to finish this draft.
Onward!

Keeping Score: January 8, 2021

Oof, 2021 started out well, didn’t it?

I mean even with the spike in Covid-19 patients, and the continued lies spread by the President and his allies about the election, I had a feeling on New Year’s Day that we’d escaped the awfulness of 2020. That we’d turned a corner, the case numbers would be coming down soon, President Biden would be in office in just a few weeks, and we could start the work of rebuilding everything the Republican Party has destroyed over the last four years.

Even the Georgia elections (!) gave me hope. My fellow citizens in GA turned out in such numbers that they put the two Dems over the top, putting an end to the use of the Senate as just a roadblock to legislation. Exciting times!

And then came the coup.

I know, I know. Attempted coup. Or riot. Maybe insurrection, if you’re a journalist and you’re feeling spicy.

And suddenly all of the mental habits I’d tried to shed from 2020 were back. Reflexively checking the news every five minutes. Doomscrolling on Twitter. Cognitive dissonance from looking out my window, seeing a bright January day in SoCal, and then hearing reports of shots fired in the Capitol building.

Texting friends living in DC, to see if they’re okay during the madness.

I called my brand-new freshman-clean House Rep yesterday, not just to urge her to impeach Trump, but also to check in and see if they were safe.

What a country.

Difficult to think in such times. Difficult to write.

But so far, I’ve managed to do it. Each day, closed out Twitter, stared at the screen, reading over the previous days’ work until I sink back into the story.

And it is sinking. It is an escape, for me. A needed one, in this case.

So I’ve pushed the novel up to 21,348 words. I’m almost done with the scenes I’ve been working on, patch-work-style. I move up and down the page, writing sections as they come to me, completely out of order. I leave visual gaps in-between them, extra newlines, to show that these are fragments. Then go back in and fill the gaps later, stitching together all the pieces until they read like a continuous whole.

It’s not how I’ve written other novels. Not even how I usually write stories, either. But it’s the only thing that’s working for me, right now. So I’m using it.

Hope wherever you are, that you’re safe, that you can still put yourself in the headspace to write, even if it’s just a few words.

Hang in there.

Keeping Score: January 1, 2021

We made it to a new year!

In the past, I’ve taken that for granted. One year rolled into the next, I got older, and the world kept turning.

Not this year. This year, reaching January feels like an escape, like ducking under a closing door just before it seals itself shut.

So a sincere Happy New Year to us all!

Novel’s at 19,864 words. I’m still butt in chair every morning, forcing myself to stay there until I hit my word count goal. Some mornings it’s easier, some it’s harder, but…I’m always making progress.

I’m actually starting to run out of runway on the research I’ve already done about the setting. Which means I’m having to make more things up out of thin air, and thus getting more things wrong. I’ve already had to revise a few scenes based on new reading I’ve done. That’ll happen more and more, I expect, until I can catch up.

I know that ultimately, I’ll need to do some heavy editing of this draft, once it’s complete. Not just to fix some inconsistencies, but also to ensure the things that are consistent are historically accurate. Or at least, as accurate as a non-specialist like me can get them in a fictional tale.

But since I know I’ll need to do it, it doesn’t scare me to get things wrong now. What’s important now, I think, is to get the emotional beats of the story right. If I can nail down the characters, and how they react to the things that happen to them, I can fix the details later. Even if those details mean I need changes to the events of the plot, that’s fine. So long as the emotional arc of things is right.

That’s my theory, at least.

I want to thank those of those you who’ve been reading me regularly through this hell year. You give me hope that someday, these novels I grind away at will see the light of publication.

And for my fellow writers, I offer a hope and a blessing: May your writing be a joy and comfort to you. May your inner editor take a vacation when you’re drafting. And may all your tales be true.

Onward to 2021!

Keeping Score: December 25, 2020

Happy Holidays!

I’m finally back in my office. All the house work we’ve had done for the last three months — while we lived, worked, ate, and slept sealed-off in the guest room — is over. Taking down the barrier between the guest room and the rest of the house was like opening a huge present; we were grinning like kids the whole time.

And the work all looks fantastic, and a little unreal. Like we’ve stumbled into someone else’s house. But no, it’s ours! And we can once again use it all.

So I’m back to watching the sun come up over the mountains just east of the city, hammering out words before the work of the day begins.

Speaking of which, the novel’s up to 18,000 words. So I’m putting out about 2,000 words a week, which is not bad, but does mean this draft won’t be done until looks away, does mental math sometime in June (?!).

Which is…fine, I suppose. That’s still a novel draft in less than a year. But if I only work on one project at a time, that means it’ll be six months before I get back to editing my last novel. I’ve gotten some excellent feedback from my beta readers, and I’d like to incorporate it all before sending it out to agents.

Maybe I can keep working on the new draft during the week, and edit the other novel on the weekends? That’s technically not taking the weekend off, but it is taking a break from the current draft. And editing’s the kind of work that’s hard for me to track, in the sense of how many words I’ve covered. These editing passes I’ll need to jump around in the narrative, adding a bit of dialog here, changing a description there. It’s not linear work.

What about you? Do you work only one project at a time, even if that delays things? Or do you find a way to juggle multiple pieces at once?

Anyway, as we wind down 2020, I hope you and yours are coming through the pandemic safe. I hope the vaccine gets rolled out to where-ever you are soon, and that enough folks get it for the danger to pass.

Good riddance to 2020. I’ll see you all in 2021!

Keeping Score: December 18, 2020

Novel’s at around 16,400 words. I haven’t done today’s writing session, though, so I should finish out the week closer to 17K.

The deal is working, so far. Holding myself hostage, unable to go for my morning job or take a shower or have breakfast or anything until my writing’s done for the day, has been rather effective.

And I’m looking forward to the weekend again, when I can daydream and doodle and research and not have to worry about hitting a word count. That recharge time is proving important, for my mental health and for my writing.

Funny, I think I started this year by throwing away word count goals and the idea of penalizing myself for not meeting them. Here I am at the end of the year, once again setting daily word count goals and forcing myself to meet them. It seems not only do different techniques work for different people, different things can work for the same person at different times.

What about you? What previous writing habit have you brought back this year, if any? Or maybe there’s an old trick you’ve dropped?

Keeping Score: December 11, 2020

Novel crossed 15,000 words today!

My pace has slowed since NaNoWriMo, but I’m still managing about 2,000 words a week, which is pretty good for me. Puts me on track to finish this draft sometime early next year.

I’ve changed up my writing routine a bit, both to give myself more time to write, and to have a chance to recharge.

So I’ve made a deal with myself: I have to write in the morning, first thing, as soon as I get up. No news, no twitter, no email. Just writing, until the day’s words (at least 250) are done. I can take however long I want to set those 250 words down, but I can’t do anything else until I do.

Most days, I end up going beyond those 250. Once the pump is primed, the words keep flowing.

In exchange for this early-morning discipline, I only have to write on week days. Monday through Friday. Saturday and Sunday are days off, now, just like they would be (I hope) if I were a full-time writer. If I did write full-time, I’d still need vacations. Still need days off. But I’d have no one to tell me when to take them, and I’d probably feel guilty if I did.

So I’ve made this deal. Treat writing like job, get it done first thing in the morning, and in return, I can take the weekends off.

Sunday was the first day I’ve deliberately taken off (from writing) in…months. I still did some research for the current book, digging up images and articles on Swedish manors built or renovated in the 18th century. I sketched some notes for future scenes. But I didn’t write anything, didn’t have to produce any words.

It was…incredibly relaxing. It was glorious.

And I came into Monday’s writing session recharged. Ready and eager to go.

This is the first full week I’ve been working under this self-made bargain. I’m looking forward to the weekend, having met my word count goal every day this week, first thing upon waking.

What about you? Do you ever take days off from writing? Do you feel guilty when you do, and if so, how do you handle it?