Keeping Score: 4 November 2022

So I signed up for NaNoWriMo this year.

“But,” I hear you say, “you’re already studying for the TCF in December, trying to put together the last pieces for your permanent residence application, taking three classes from Clarion West online, and supposed to be finishing those short stories you started over the summer. How are you going to also write 50,000 words in a new novel?”

And, well…I have no idea.

But! I want to try, for three reasons:

  1. I’ve noticed lately my writing output has slowed. A lot. Used to be I could crank out 500 words a day, no problem. Now I’m struggling to get even a hundred words down. I need something to kick me back into gear. NaNoWriMo can act as that something.
  2. The short story I’ve been working on — the sci-fi story that started as flash and then grew to 8,000 words in a second draft — has grown even more. I don’t know what the word count is, because I’ve been writing it out by hand. But when I stepped back and wrote up an outline, it looked very much like one of my novels. Not a short story. And if I’m going to be writing a new book anyway to finish this out, what better way to get it started than during NaNoWriMo?
  3. Failure is an option. All of this is voluntary, with the exception of the PR application (fingers crossed I get invited soon, and can get my paperwork together in time). I can drop out of the Clarion West classes without any hassle. And if I don’t hit 50,000 words this month on the novel, so what? So long as I push towards it, spend more time writing, and make progress on a new book, that’s enough.

Number 3 there is really important to me. I don’t want this to become a source of stress. I want it to be motivating; a challenge, not a directive. So I’m letting myself be okay with flubbing the first two days, when I only cranked out 400 or so words. Last night I put in over a thousand, and it felt great (I rewarded myself with some leftover Halloween candy). If I can keep that pace up, and do a little extra on the weekends, I’ll make the goal. And if not? Well, at least I’ll have a solid start to the next book.

If you want to follow along with my stumbling progress, my username is mindbat and my project is here. Hit me up, and let’s be writing buddies!

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 16, 2020

Did I say five new flash stories last week?

At my current pace, I’ll be lucky to finish one.

Apparently, I forgot how hard a first draft can be.

I am working on one, though. It’s a sweet little story about a group of kids who turn cannibal.

…did I not mention it was horror?

I’m sketching it out, 100 words at a time. I say sketching because I’m writing it in patches, jumping from place to place in the narrative instead of writing it straight through. It’s a way for me to get past any block I have writing a certain section. I can skip ahead, or go back to a previous scene, and come back to the part that’s giving me trouble later.

It’s working, because I’m already eight hundred words in. That also means this is likely not going to be a flash piece, unless I trim it way down after. Which is fine, but once again shows I’m not a great judge of how big the story will be based on the idea I have. Maybe that’s something that will develop over time, as I write more pieces of various sizes?

Meanwhile, the novel’s heading out to beta readers. And I’ve got some time now to pay attention to where my short stories are going, and start submitting them again.

Which means I’ll start getting rejections rolling in again. Each one still stings, but…really, there’s no other choice. Write, Finish, Submit: The last step there is as crucial as the others.

Hope where-ever you are, you’re able to keep writing, eight months into this pandemic. Using whatever tricks you can to keep your creativity alive.

Keeping Score: October 9, 2020

It’s done! The edits are done!

Well, this round of edits, anyway…There’ll be more, down the line.

But the third draft of the novel is finished!

This is the first draft that I feel can be seen, so I’m sending it out to beta readers, hoping to get some good (meaning: useful and thorough, not merely positive) feedback.

I’ll also need to send it to sensitivity readers, because some of the characters are from ethnic groups outside my own. I think I’ve done them justice, but I know I’m not the best judge of that. So I’ll ask some friends of mine to be additional readers, letting me know if I’ve messed anything up.

While I wait (and lean into my reading, to unwind a bit), I’m going to work on a short story or three.

Or five.

I found a horror anthology that’s accepting flash fiction on five different subjects through December. The topics are broad enough that I’ve brainstormed a few different story ideas for each.

Since they’re flash pieces, I thought I’d write one up for each topic, and submit them all (which they allow). Five little stories for my brain to chew on while I take a break between editing passes.

What about you? What do you do, between revisions of a longer work? Or do you take any sort of breathing room between them, at all?

Keeping Score: October 2, 2020

I’ve been having incredibly vivid dreams.

Dreams that fade from memory when I wake up.

Parts of them linger, though. An accusation that was hurled at me. A song someone else was singing.

I think it means my unconscious mind is…bored? I haven’t worked on anything new in a while, since I decided to focus on the novel edits. And as I near the end of the novel, those edits are becoming more re-phrasing and less re-writing. Less work for my imagination to do.

So I wonder if that’s why my dreams have suddenly become full-color 3D rousing soundtrack level productions. It’s my unconscious saying “give me something new to work on!” while I keep saying “not yet.”

Because I do lean on my unconscious mind a lot when writing. Drafting or outlining, I’ll often hit a wall, a place in the story where I’m not sure where to go, and I’ll stop there for the day. Literally sleep on the problem, and come back the next day.

Usually, by the time I return to the work, I’ve got a solution. My unconscious has chewed on the problem all night, and delivers it up to me when I need it.

After…well, years…of working together like that, I’m wondering if my unconscious misses it. Even in the midst of a pandemic, even when I think (consciously) that I can’t work on two things at once, it’s saying “let’s give it a shot.”

So I guess I will! I’ll pick up the new story again, wrap up its outline, and start drafting.

Or maybe even just dive into the drafting part, who knows? The outline’s mostly done, and it’s the writing itself that works out my unconscious the most.

What about you? Do you rely on your unconscious mind for help in your writing? Has it ever sent you a message, like it seems to be doing to me?

Keeping Score: September 25, 2020

I can’t believe Breonna Taylor’s killers are going to walk free.

I mean, I can believe it, in the sense that racism is real and cops are killers and they’re killers because they kill and get away with it in this country.

But it’s just…hard to grasp that after all we’ve been through, these United States, in 2020, a group of people could decide it’s just fine to charge into the home of one of their fellow citizens and murder them, so long as the murderers are wearing badges.

It’s also hard for me to wrap my head around the President of the United States saying for months that the only election he could lose is a fraudulent one, and there’s no howls of indignation from his side of the aisle. No Senators lining up to condemn his words and ask that the House open a new impeachment investigation.

Nothing. Not a fucking peep.

Meanwhile in my state, in supposedly progressive California, we still use inmates as firefighters, paying them perhaps a dollar a day, which is slave labor by any other name. And once they’ve served their time, if they happened to have been born somewhere else, we hand them over to ICE for deportation.

Oh, and there’s still a pandemic on, so walking around outside to enjoy the air newly-cleared of smoke and ash means constantly dodging people who aren’t wearing masks.

So it’s all I can do right now, when I’m not doomscrolling, to keep editing the novel. One chapter at a time.

I feel like I should be making more progress. Editing more than one chapter a day. Maybe even racing to the finish line.

Or picking up the story I was outlining a few months ago, and starting to actually put words to paper.

But I can’t.

I just…can’t.

The writing spirit is very willing, but the writing flesh, the meaty brain and hands that would summon words from the void, are quite busy right now.

So I press on, one chapter at a time. I’m not stopping, but I’m not able to move any faster right now.

Because this book’s become even more important to me, lately.

It’s about prisons. It’s about all the different kinds of people that get locked up, and why. It’s about exploitation, and greed, and how it’s all kept going by the people that look the other way. The ones that hold their noses so they can benefit.

It’s also about forgiveness, and change. About making yourself vulnerable again, after holding onto a hurt for so long.

I want to finish it. I need to finish, to have this story told. To share it.

There’s not much else I can do, so I’m doing this.

Voting. Donating. Speaking up.

And writing.

Keeping Score: September 18, 2020

I’m turning the editing corner, into the final third of the book.

I’m a little nervous about this section. The middle edits were smooth sailing, but the closer I get to the end, the more things need to line up perfectly. I need to make sure threads are getting wrapped up, that I haven’t skipped any scenes, that everything makes sense.

I need to keep the whole novel in my head at this point, basically, in order to keep it all consistent through the end.

And the end, of course, is the most complicated part of the book. It’s where the main conflict gets resolved, via multiple timelines and a perspective shift.

I hope it works. I hope I can hold it all together.

Because if I can, if I do, then this round of edits will be finished. And I can start sending it out to beta readers, to finally get feedback from another pair of eyeballs than mine.

And maybe, just maybe, have their reviews back in time to make final adjustments, and have it ready to send to agents by the end of the year.

It is…a tight deadline. But we live in hope, don’t we?

Keeping Score: September 11, 2020

It struck me this morning that the pace at which I come up with new story ideas has slowed down.

Time was I couldn’t go a day without being struck by some story idea, and having to write it down.

These days, I feel like all of my ideas are about the book or the story I’m currently working on. Nothing new, no bolts of lightning, just new ways of looking at the characters or the situation I’m already creating.

And that made me nervous. Like, what if the well’s run dry? What if once I finish these stories, that’s it? Nothing else comes?

To banish those thoughts, I remind myself of two things.

First, it’s a pandemic. Not to mention my state is currently on fire (the evidence of which is clearly visible in the sky outside my window). I’m allowed to feel a bit more stressed, and that means my brain isn’t functioning at 100%.

Second, it’s okay to not be constantly throwing out new ideas. In fact, it’s a good thing. Plowing my creative energy into what I’m working on, rather than dreaming up new work to take on, is exactly what I should be doing. The fact that my brain doesn’t feel the need to go wandering for a new story to work on means this story’s interesting and deep enough to keep it occupied.

It’s a positive sign, not a negative one. And it should be embraced.

As for the novel itself, work continues. I’m still going through a chapter a day, giving myself the time to really look at each scene and fix the things that need fixing. A line of dialog that doesn’t work. Some blocking that no longer makes sense.

Okay, not everything. Some things I’m leaving for another pass.

Like in the last chapter I edited, there’s a shift in one character’s dialog. They go from speaking somewhat formal English to a less-formal syntax. It’s subtle, and it still sounds like the character, but it’s there.

I like the shift, and I think it’s appropriate for the situation in that chapter. But in order to keep it, I need to go through and make sure that shift happens every time that situation comes up, so it feels deliberate, and not like a mistake.

Alternatively, I could go through and make the character’s dialog pattern the same everywhere. That might be easier, but I think there’s something that will be lost if I do that. There’s information encoded in the way they shift their speech according to who they’re speaking to, and I’d hate to lose that.

So yes, even as I go through this pass, I know I’m going to need to do another. But that next pass will be more focused, and thus faster, than this one. At least, that’s the intent.

What about you? When you do your editing, do you tackle everything in each pass? Or do you break it up into different read-throughs?

Keeping Score: September 4, 2020

Is it bad to enjoy reading your own book?

I’m still working on the novel, still plugging away at editing one chapter a day. It’s about all I can do, given my schedule constraints.

And so far, it’s…not that bad?

I mean, I’m probably filling in gaps that are there because I know the characters, I know the setting. But I was trying to write the equivalent of an action movie, and while I think I failed at that (there’s not nearly enough stunts or fights in it to qualify), I think I did manage to produce a fast-paced, sci-fi, thriller.

Each of the chapters are short — the longest is maybe ten pages — which makes them easier to edit, but also easier to read.

And I’ve kept the language pretty tight, as well. Not always tight enough, hence the need for edits. And sometimes I wander off into describing a character’s thoughts from the outside, inside of rendering them from the inside (it’s a shift in point of view that I’m still learning how to handle properly). But overall, each scene starts, flows, and then ends without a lot of fat to trim.

Which worries me, of course. What am I missing? What am I not seeing, that I need to fix?

It reminds me of something the write C Robert Cargill tweets about a lot: That when you look at your work, and hate it, part of it is because of the difference between your skills and your taste. Your taste is likely far more sophisticated than your skills, starting out. You enjoy reading writers far better than you. And that’s good! Your sophisticated taste is what lets you see the problems in your own work, which you can then fix.

So I have to wonder: Has my taste declined? Have I been slacking in feeding it new works, so I can be critical of my own?

Or am I just still too close to this book?

Either way, I’m not upset at these chapters. They’re not so horrible that I wouldn’t want to show them to someone else.

Which perhaps is good? And maybe the point of doing all these editing passes and rewrites. To get the book to a point where I think it’s ready to be seen by other people.

Flawed still, probably, yes. But good enough to go out to beta readers, and eventually (after more edits) agents. That should be the goal, right?

And if I’m getting there, I should feel good about it. Not dread.

Note to self: Stop feeling dread.

Keeping Score: August 28, 2020

Made it through the intro chapters of the novel!

I’m past the inciting event now, and heading into the chapters of the long middle.

Most of the edits for these chapters, so far, have been small things. Removing some extra words here, adjusting the blocking of some characters there. I’m editing more to make things consistent than anything else. Haven’t had to knocks wood do any major re-working of these.

And thank goodness, because just as I turned the corner of the inciting event, I started to only have fifteen minutes a day to work on it.

It’s stress, more than anything else, but I’ve had some schedule shifts as well that have thrown me off. Made it hard to concentrate, to sink into the novel and see what’s missing with what I’ve written.

But the only way out is through, right? So I’m chugging along, working on it when I can, and trying to be patient. The work stress will pass, my schedule will get sorted, and I’ll get back to spending more time on it each day.

That’s the hope, anyway.