Keeping Score: April 16, 2021

I got my second shot!

Wasn’t quite as easy as getting my first. Yesterday was the first day of general vaccine eligibility in California, so even though I got there around 30 minutes early, I spent most of that time waiting in a socially-distanced line. But the folks there were all still friendly and efficient, and I made it through and out without incident.

I could feel a difference in this shot; felt like more material getting pushed into my shoulder. And about ten minutes after I started feeling light-headed. Had to put my head between my knees and breathe till it passed.

It did pass, though, and I went back to work that day. My left arm (where I got the shot) was — and continues to be — basically useless, too sore to raise up higher than mid-line. Other than that, I had the same wave of fatigue hit me as last time, shortly after I wrapped up work yesterday. Which is why I missed my daily word count for the first time in two months 😬

I might be able to make it up today; we’ll see. I feel mostly fine, though I’ve got some of the symptoms of my asthma being triggered: stuffy nose, lungs can’t quite get a full deep breath (it doesn’t hurt exactly, but it definitely feels like something I shouldn’t do too often). I don’t think I have a fever, which is good.

Will probably still spend most of the day in bed, just in case. Better to take it easy, I think. That doesn’t stop my from having my laptop in bed with me, though (as you can see). Hopefully I can get some writing done in-between doses of tea and naps.

I hope that wherever you are, the vaccine rollout continues, and if you haven’t yet been able to get it, that you soon will be. We need to kick this virus, so we can spend more of our time and energy building a better world than the one we lost in the pandemic.

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.

Keeping Score: April 2, 2021

I feel like I’ve been to a horror workshop this past week.

It started with reading Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark, effectively a textbook (complete with exercises!) for writing better horror stories. He breaks down the different sub-genres, he explores what distinguishes horror from other types of fiction, and he pulls back the curtain on different techniques to use in horror to produce different effects.

I’ve read other writing books before — and will read more, I’ll take advice wherever I can find it — and always come away with at least one or two changes to make to the way I write. Writing in the Dark was no different in that respect, but it went one step further: It changed the way I read.

Shortly after finishing it, I picked up a copy of Salem’s Lot. I realized I haven’t been reading much horror lately, so I thought going back to one of the classics would be a good way to dive in.

And I was right, but not in the way I’d intended. Because instead of just noticing things like the parallels in the story to the original Dracula, or getting sucked into the story — both of which happened, it’s still a damn fine book — I started noticing things about the way King wrote it. Places where he was writing in a more literary voice, versus genre. Places where he slowed time down by writing everything out in minute detail, to ramp up tension. Places where he shifted point of view. How in the more “horror” chapters, he wrote in a perspective that clung tightly to one character’s train of thought, to show their reactions to what was happening, which is where dread lives. Often those chapters had very little happen in them at all, but the characters reacted to them as if they were scared out of their wits, and thus carried the reader with them.

It was like Waggoner was standing over my shoulder as I read, pointing to passages and remarking on the techniques being used in each. I could still appreciate the story King was telling, still feel the chill of being hunted by an ancient vampire in a New England fall. But I could also see how he was telling the story, and think about how I could use those techniques in my own fiction.

Next I read Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians, a horror novel which came out just last year. I had the same experience with it, though — at least for me — the seams were less visible in this one. That is, it was harder for me to pull myself out of it, and see how it was built. But it was still possible, and I noticed both some of the same techniques King used and others being brought to bear, techniques more commonly used for monster books, which Jones’ is (and King’s wasn’t).

I’m now reading Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, and having much the same experience. Loving the story, falling into the book, but on the way, paying attention to the way she’s telling the tale, from sentence length to parenthetical remarks to event ordering (no spoilers, you’ll need to pick up a copy and read it). It’s another finely constructed book, and I feel I’m appreciating it on a whole different level (and learning from it).

All of which is to say: I’ve started drafting a new horror story (finally).

It’s the one I’ve been outlining forever, afraid to commit it to (electronic) paper. This week I took the plunge, working on it after my words for the novel were done for the day. I’m drafting it in much the same way as the novel, working scatter-shot, drawing up bits of dialog before anything else, and then stitching it all together.

But this time, I’m consciously thinking about the different horror techniques I’ve seen, and looking for ways to apply them. So after finishing the dialog and blocking for one section, I went back and added in the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions, to pull the perspective tighter in on them. I’m also not shying away from characters in conflict, or physically fighting; taking the time to block the sequences in my head and then setting them down. Because in this story, at least, there will be pain, and there will be blood. And if my protagonist is not going to flinch, neither can I.

It’s still the first draft, so it’s going to need a lot of editing, but I’m already feeling better about it. More confident. Like I’m writing in a more deliberate mode, more aware of what I’m doing, and why. Here’s hoping my confidence is justified, once it’s done.

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 19, 2021

Ye gods, the Daylight Savings Time switch walloped me this week. It’s like I was finally adapting to 2021 — working on the novel, editing short stories, plotting out a new story — and then DST yanks an hour out from under me, robbing me of just enough energy that I’ve been struggling just to hit my daily word count.

I’ve basically been slow-motion jet-lagged all week. I really wish we would stop doing this to ourselves.

The good news is that (thanks to beta readers) I now have not one, but two stories under submission. Just waiting for their little pink slips of rejection to come back 😅

I kid, but really, it feels good to have them out there. Statistically, they will get rejected from each magazine I send them to, which is how I steel myself for it. But I like these stories. I believe in these stories. There’s a market for them, somewhere, and the only way I can find it is by sending them out.

Meanwhile, the novel’s climbed to 36,789 words. I’m starting to connect up the snippets of dialog I’ve written for the ending scenes of this section, which means I’m having to actually worry about things like “How would they have treated this wound in this time period?” and “How badly injured is the protagonist, anyway?”

I am definitely getting some of these details wrong. I do not know enough about wounds, or medical care on the Central Asian steppe in the 18th century, or early modern firearms, or…really, so much. But I know enough to write something down, something I can come back and fix later, so that’s what I’m doing.

It helps for me to think of this not as the first draft, but as the trash draft. The draft I know I’m going to mess up on, and revise extensively later. No one’s going to see this draft but me. I’m going to finish it, and then do the research needed to get each section right. Hell, some of these scenes I’m flubbing might not even be needed, and so they’ll get cut. Which would make taking the time to get them exactly right now a waste.

So it’s onward! Screwing up as I go, laying down the raw material I’ll shape into something better via editing.

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: March 5, 2021

Novel’s still chugging along, currently at 33,884 words. I’ve pushed through the first big scene, and am well into the second.

There’s…well, there’s individual pieces of the sequence that are still missing, some connective tissue that I have yet to write. The technique I’ve been using, of skipping around to write those scenes (or sometimes fragments of scenes) that I feel like adding, has a that cost. Eventually I have to go back and write in everything I skipped.

But for now, it’s all big scene all the time, and no connective tissue…yet.

However, the big news this week is that I’ve finally cracked open a story I’ve been working on for nearly four years now. That one started out as just a character and a situation, a piece of backstory for the novel I wanted to write. But it never worked quite as well as I wanted it to, so I’ve kept tinkering with it (and submitting it while tinkering with it, which is a habit I need to break).

Tim Waggoner, during his 15-minute (!) workshop back in January, pointed me to the central problem that was holding up everything else: the motivation for my main character wasn’t strong enough. So on weekends I’ve been brainstorming different ways to go, different versions of the character that would have a stronger push for their actions.

I finally hit on one this weekend that I liked, and in the process of editing the story to match, everything fell into place. I ended up cutting away about half of the story’s word-count, focusing in on just three scenes. But in those scenes I not only lay out the main character’s motivation, I fill in the secondary characters, giving them more life and depth. And I shifted the ending, so it’s now both more complete (in the sense that the current narrative arc ends) and more open-ended (in that the world’s evolution past the story is implied).

I’m going to do one more editing pass this weekend, to clean up language and make sure it all fits together properly. I’d like to have it ready to submit in time for Nightmare Magazine re-opening to submissions later this month.

I need a new title, though; the old one doesn’t fit anymore. Anyone have any tips or tricks for choosing a title you can share in the comments?

Post-Game: Stephen Blackmoore’s Critiquing 101 Class

So this weekend I attended another online writing class, this one from author Stephen Blackmoore (of the Eric Carter series) on how to give and receive feedback in critiques. I’ve been exchanging feedback with other writers for a while now, but never really had any instruction on how best to do it; my techniques have been cobbled together from blog posts and Litreactor guidelines. I wanted to see if, frankly, I’ve been doing it right, or if I’ve been failing my fellow authors by giving them the wrong type of feedback.

It was Blackmoore’s first time giving the class, so it went a little longer than anticipated: 2.5 hours instead of just 2. But those two-hours-and-change were packed with excellent advice.

Some of it I’d learned the hard way, like focusing on the positive when pointing out problems. Or remembering that at the end of the day, the story belongs to the author, which goes both ways: you don’t have to act on all the feedback you get, and you can’t expect other writers to act on yours, either.

But the vast majority of Blackmoore’s advice were things that I had some sense of, but didn’t have a good way of thinking about. Like how you should treat each work not as good or bad, but as either complete or incomplete. A story that doesn’t seem to be working isn’t garbage, it’s just a piece that needs polishing. The difference between bad and good isn’t necessarily one of value (in the work or the artist), it’s a matter of time and effort.

All in all, I took almost twenty pages (!) of notes. Blackmoore did more than cover general ways to handle feedback, he also did a detailed break down of six different aspects of a story to examine when offering a critique, and ways to identify — and talk about — problems in each one.

In short, it was a fantastic class, and one I wish I’d had years ago, before I tried to offer any other writer feedback on their work. I highly recommend taking it if you can, when he offers it again. And I’m going to start incorporating his advice into how I give critiques to others going forward.

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.