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?

Keeping Score: March 12, 2021

I don’t think I’m good at coming up with story titles. Mine tend to end up either very much on the nose — my first published story, “Wishr,” is named for the company at which it takes place — or become horrible puns, like “There Will Be Bugs” (I know).

So in trying to come up with a new title for the story I’ve been editing, I wanted to branch out from my usual process. Started brainstorming, just listing out things as they came into my head.

At first, most of them were more of the same (I really am fond of puns). But then I thought back to short stories I’ve read and liked recently, and their titles, and realized: The ones I liked the best (titles, not stories) were ones that fit the story, but where I didn’t understand how they fit until after I finished reading the piece.

So I shifted my brainstorm, away from trying to convince a reader to read the story (by telling them what’s inside it) and towards giving readers a new insight into the story after it’s been read. And voilà! I found my new title.

I’ve got some beta reader feedback to process (on the story as a whole) this weekend, and then the story will be ready for submission, shiny title and all.

Meanwhile, I keep moving ahead with the novel, which is sitting at 35,380 words. I’m past the big climactic scene, and into the aftermath, where the consequences of the protagonist’s actions come due, and her life changes forever.

This part introduces a new character who becomes a major part of the protag’s life. So after filling in the rest of the climactic scene, I’m back to sketching what comes next, setting down fragments of conversation and description as they come to me.

I’m trying to consciously develop a different voice for this character, a distinct way of looking at the world, so it’s obvious she comes from a different part of it than the protagonist. Which means I’m focusing on dialog first, nailing down the back-and-forth between her and the protag before handling any action.

I’m also getting close to the end of this section of the book. 21,000 words and counting to cover just a few days in the protagonist’s life. Important days, to be sure: You only get one first encounter with a dragon! Even once I read the end of this section, though, I’ve still got some gaps left in the earlier parts of it that I’ll need to close, stitching everything together.

And once that’s done? On to the next big section, which will leap years ahead in time, and thousands of miles across the Earth’s surface. Let’s hope I don’t get lost along the way!

Keeping Score: February 26, 2021

Novel’s up to 32,300 words!

It’s been easier to write this week. My wife’s recovered from her vaccine ordeal, and is well on her way to hitting her two-week full-strength-protection mark. Neither of us have picked up anything in the meantime, so — touches wood — we should be ok to ride out the rest of the pandemic.

I also got back in the habit of writing in the mornings, which seems to help. Something about trying to switch gears one more time, at the end of the day, makes it that much harder to focus on the story. Harder to think about where it’s going, and what I want to describe along the way.

Finally, I think it helps that I’m facing down the two scenes in this sequence that scare me the most to write. They’re both action scenes, which I consider a weakness of mine. And they’re both emotionally fraught for the main character. In one of them, she winds up losing an animal companion she’s had since she was a little girl. In the second, she’s seeking — but not necessarily finding — vengeance for her father’s death.

These are big, tentpole scenes. I need them to move quickly, to feel realistic, and also to hit readers right in the feels. Which means on top of my normal first-draft anxiety, I’m worried about building up to scenes that fall completely flat. Or scenes that are laughably implausible. Or scenes that make it all seem too easy on the protagonist.

Even success, in a sense, is rough. Writing scenes like these — where the emotional stakes are high for the characters, and it can end in a broken heart — are hard on me, too. Because I live through everything they experience; I have to, in order to put it down on the page. So I feel the knot in my chest when their father dies. My own tears well up when they have to put down one of their closest friends.

So I’ve been putting them off. Writing around the scenes, so to speak. And there’s been plenty of other things to cover! But now I’ve got to write them, so I can move ahead with the story.

And somehow, once I’m in the scene, writing it, it becomes easier. Easier to picture what’s happening, and easier to describe it. Easier to say what the impact of it all is. So I end up writing more, and more quickly, than before.

It’s almost like my fear of the thing is worse than the thing itself?

Of course, this is still just the first draft. It might feel easier to write it once I’m in it, but it could still all be terrible writing. I won’t know till it’s done.

How about you? Are there particular types of scenes that you put off writing, for whatever reason? How do you overcome your hesitation?

Keeping Score: February 19, 2021

Writing each day’s words this week has been like extracting teeth using a slippy pair of old tweezers.

I had a…let’s say rough…ending to last week. Several things came together at once to make work stressful, which bled into the early part of this week.

Also my wife got her second vaccine shot, which on the one hand is awesome, but on the other required her to suffer through being harassed by a cop and yelled at (in close proximity) by the staff working there. And a few hours after she got the shot, she came down with alternating chills and sweats, shaking uncontrollably. She didn’t leave the bedroom for three days.

The icing on the stress cake was some maintenance that we needed done on the house, that could only be done by people entering the house. Which meant shutting off the heat, opening all the windows, and locking myself in my office while they were here.

My body, being slightly over four decades old now, doesn’t react well to such compounding stresses. And it’s gotten creative, so the manifestation of the stress differs every time, by type of stress and how much I’m going through.

Big speech coming up? Probably going to break out in fever blisters.

Mother-in-law had a pulmonary embolism requiring you to give up all your pets, sell your car and your house, and move back to Arkansas to take care of her? Prepare for root canal failure.

This time, I started clenching my jaw so tight that I woke myself up with muscle cramps. Felt like someone was reaching from my neck through my jaw to tug at a tooth. I got maybe four hours of sleep over two days.

So…yeah, focusing on the novel’s been difficult.

It’s during times like these that I’m glad I set my writing goal so low. 250 words is something I can hit in about 20 minutes, on a good day. So on days that are not good, I try to give myself an hour to hit it, dropping other housework to carve out the time. And it’s working, so far.

All the same, I hope next week is more relaxing.

Keeping Score: January 29, 2021

‘Tis the season of the writer’s conference.

Had the Apex Magazine 15-minute workshop on Monday, which may have permanently changed the way I approach my writing. I’m on the alert now for some of my bad writing habits, and am currently going through two different stories to eliminate them.

Today, I’m attending Clarion West’s workshop on How to Write Science Fiction in a Post-Colonial World, part of their series of single-day online workshops. Similar to the Apex one, I’m not sure what to expect. I hope it’ll help me with the novel I’m writing right now (and future works), where one of my main characters is from the steppes of Central Asia. I don’t want to appropriate anyone’s culture, but I do want to showcase the diversity of the world, particularly in the time period I’m setting this story (the 18th century), which American writers tend to whitewash.

And I’m considering signing up for the Southern California Writers Conference, which is in two weeks (and also online). It was the first writers conference I attended, back when we could safely congregate inside. I got a lot out of it: I wrote two stories, got tips on plot structure, and met some great people. And now one of my fellow Writers Coffeehouse alumni (Dennis K Crosby) is one of the special guest speakers! I could use that kind of shot in the arm again (vaccine connotation very much intended).

Not that I’m currently having trouble producing, thank goodness. Novel’s at 26,099 words. I’ve patched up the seams in the scenes I’ve written so far, and moved on to the “meat” of the chapter: the POV character’s close encounter with a dragon.

I’m still writing it in bits and pieces, moving up and down the page as ideas come to me and I figure things out. It keeps me from getting hung up on any one part of the book, or worry too much about how I’m going to get from Point A to Point B. I can always make something up 🙂

And after the Apex workshop, and re-examining some of my past short stories, I’m starting to think about the connective tissue between scenes differently. As in, maybe I don’t need it, after all.

That’s not quite right. I think I, the writer, need it. I need to have written it, in order to fully understand my story. But I don’t necessarily need to show that to the reader.

Same thing with exposition. I need to know everything about my world. I need to know what the sunlight looks like in springtime. I need to know how the birds sound in the morning. I need to know which cars are driving by at the end of the day (if this world has cars). So these are all things I need to set down, to fix in my mind by fixing them in text. But I don’t need to relay those details to the reader, unless something stands out to the POV character, and affects their decisions.

It’s advice I’ve heard before, but not really felt in my bones until now. I’d always assumed my readers were lost unless I held their hand, and relied on my brevity to make the explanations palatable.

I think now I can trust the reader more. I still plan to write all the exposition, so I have it straight in my own head. But when editing I’m going to start taking it all out, and only putting things back in if a beta reader complains of being lost. Otherwise, I’m going to lean on actions and dialog to convey everything.

What about you? Is there a piece of classic writing advice that took you a while to fully understand?

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 15, 2021

What a week, eh?

Trump’s been impeached for a second time (finally). The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol are being rounded up (thank goodness). And tech platforms are waking up to their complicity in the planning of the attack, and as a result, dropping right wing extremists so fast it reveals how much they were dragging their feet about it before.

Not that my family back home believes any of that, of course. I mean that quite literally: they don’t think Trump has been impeached, they think “antifa” (insert eyeroll here) caused the riot, they think the First Amendment requires their favorite BBS to let them post anything they want.

It’s…amazing, to me, to see the people that wrap themselves in the flag and “Blue Lives Matter” defend folks that invaded the Capitol with the intent of halting a Constitutional process (and perhaps grabbing a hostage or two) and beat the cops that tried to stop them.

What happened to the party of law and order? The party of civics, of wear-your-tie-to-school and don’t-you-know-how-the-government-works, hippie? Was it always a smokescreen?

So…yeah, I’ve been a little distracted. Writing-wise.

But I’m still hitting my 250-words-a-day target! Not always when I’m supposed to (in the morning), and not always in a single session (10 minutes at lunch, 20 minutes after work, 15 minutes before bed…), but I am getting them done, every day.

Not much more than the minimum, I’m afraid. Which is why the novel’s only at 22,894 words. But it’s progress, all the same.

Taking weekends off is still helping. Relives the pressure for a bit. Lets me do some of the research I need to do to properly write the section I’m on, which can soak up a lot of time (can you believe it’s hard to find an English-language book on 17th-century Central Asian history and culture?). Also gives me a chance to reflect on where things stand so far, and where I’d like to novel to go next.

What about you? How is your writing going, two weeks into the new year?

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!