In The Company of Maps!

REMINDER: In the Company of Strangers, my Patreon-exclusive novella, will drop this Tuesday. It’s definitely not too late to subscribe ($5 and up gets the novella!) and get the story!


Here’s a map I drew specifically to make sense of what I was writing for In the Company of Strangers, so I thought I’d share it with you. I love maps, and I tend to sketch them as I go, and then refer to them as I revise to make sure what I’m writing makes sense. It gets really iterative–I end up adding to the map as I revise, too, because there are little details I write in that I’ve forgotten about (like the grain fields).

NaNo 2016 Update #1

nano2016_11_05

Target: 30,000 words
Words written: 2,234
Words left to go: 27,766

The Ballad of Bettie Frass is happening, but it’s happening slowly. I’m already off track–I should have 4,000 words done by now. I wrote every day so far, but my highest word count was 876. I’m hoping to put in some extra writing time today and tomorrow to get closer to on track again.

I am not actually surprised about this. Frankly, I’m just really happy I’ve written consistently four days in a row, even if it’s only been a couple hundred words here and there. I haven’t consistently written since I broke my ankle back in February. Between being laid up with that, where my days had no routine, to being totally overwhelmed by my old job, I’ve had no balance in my life, and thus no energy or space for writing. But I have two (mostly) functioning ankles now, and a job that allows for work/life balance, and NaNo is the perfect time to set up some sustainable writing routines.

I’ve found a great coffee shop for morning writing. Good coffee, good pastries, good tables. It closes at 5pm, though, so it’s not doable for after work writing. But! There is a Starbucks (not great coffee) in the lobby of a building not far from where I work that stays open much later and has good squishy chairs. So I think I have a good place for afternoon writing, too. Check and check.

I can’t write on the bus anymore. My commute changed, and now I take the express buses, and they are often so full it’s standing room only. Not writing compatible, hence the need to show up very early and find An Ideal Writing Spot or stay late and hunker down in A Different Acceptable Writing Spot. I have found that I can’t write at work, because if I am work I will just…keep working. The change of location is key for me to actually switch to writing and away from doing other things. During the week, my time at home is so limited that when I’m home I want to be present and not sequester myself away. During the weekends, it’s a lot easier to lock myself in my room for a couple of hours a day, write, and then clue back into my bustling family life.

The story for Bettie Frass is really just getting started. A lot of what I’ve been doing–and why I’ve written so little so far–has been about stretching atrophied writing muscles. Getting back into the swing of things again. Remembering how and when I work best. I think next week will cover more ground.

Are you all doing NaNo this year? What are you working on? How is it going?

 

#OwnYourOwn: Be Alive, And Be Trans

ownyourown

Read more about #OwnYourOwn here, or read through the hashtag on twitter

It’s hard to be alive sometimes. It’s not easy to be a person. That’s true, I think, across the board. It becomes more horrifically true when you layer on oppression.

It becomes more true when you spend your formative years consuming narrative after narrative telling you that you are most definitely going to have to die at the end of the story. Maybe because your very nature is duplicitous. Maybe so that some cis person can learn about injustice and rail against it. Who the fuck knows.

When I was growing up, all I knew about myself is that I didn’t seem like the other kids. I felt sporadically uncomfortable in my skin, like I wanted to step out of my body and into a new one I’d edited and reformed for myself. Other days were just fine. The dominant trans narrative–I knew I was like this since I was four years old, I have always been a boy trapped in a girl’s body*–that was so different than this nebulous shifting experience of my own physical/emotional give and take that it took decades for me to begin to think of myself that way.

There weren’t stories for me.

There weren’t reflections of people like me in the books I read, in the shows I watched.

And I was poorer for it.

In my own writing, I stick nonbinary and genderqueer people in all the time. I put them in there to show other people that we exist, and that we have entire lives. Families. Hobbies. Minutia. That we survive and thrive.

I put people like me in so that there is a reflection of me out there in the world, just in case there is some kid like me yearning for a mirror that they don’t even know they need yet.

Whatever story is burning in you to get told? Tell it. Whatever story you’ve always wanted to read but have never found? That is the one only you can write because you are the one who has lived it. No one can write it better than you.

Show the world what it’s like to live anyway. Shatter all those stories where you’re supposed to be the sidekick, or the joke, or the sad dead thing in the corner someone better off can pity. Or the villain. You’re none of those things. You’re the hero. Show that part. Show how alive you are now, and how alive you’ll stay, and how much glorious breadth there is in your life every day.

I believe in you.



*My kid, though, fits this narrative precisely.

Where Did All My Words Go?

I’ve written very little in 2016 and the year is nearly halfway over.

I’ve got a story that’s gone nowhere, that I need to raze to the ground and rebuild from scratch. I’ve got a very bloated draft of a book, one that I have started butchering down as a book, and a novella, and at least one standalone short story. And I have a single short story that I have written in its entirety this year from scratch. That’s about 13,000 words not counting blogging and some various edits on other projects. This time last year, for comparison’s sake, I was at 88,875 words.

2001

“Whatcha working on?” “Trashpiles and blank pages”

So where did the words go?

I’m not blocked, exactly. I have a ton of new ideas (there are like five or six notes in my google keep tagged as story ideas right now), and I have a number of projects that are in various stages of edits. My creative juices are there–I’m all itching to do stuff any kind of stuff. I keep having these urges to start a web comic or a new knitting thing or take a pottery class just do creative stuff.

The thing that is all janked up is my routines.

Every since I broke my ankle, my life has been barely controlled chaos where before it was a finely calibrated machine. I did almost all of my writing on the bus on my commute into and out of work. While my ankle slowly recovered these last few months, I first worked from home, then slowly started going into the office again. But I wasn’t taking the bus; one of my partners drove me in and back. No commute=no dedicated writing time. No clear delineation of work/home space=no dedicated writing space. Everything bled into everything else. And! Recovery is really hard! Emotionally and mentally draining. Lack of spoons=no mental energy for writing.

giphy1

that didn’t go as planned. turns out books don’t write themselves.

I can walk now, but only kind of. There’s a definite limp*, and I can’t walk nearly as far as I used to without stopping, so I’ve had to adjust my bus route. Now I’m on the express bus, on a different route, which is shorter, more crowded, and also more interrupted. It’s not as good for writing.

I need to create new routines. No routines=no writing. I’ve got a plan; let’s see if it works. In the mean time, I’m trying real hard to remember that writing is a marathon, not a sprint, and that a four month dry spell is a blip on the radar, not a condemnation of all my abilities.**


*Y’all that ankle was shattered. Twelve pins in that ankle, and they are never coming out.

**THANKS SEVERE ANXIETIY DISORDER, GLAD TO HAVE YOU HERE.

Link

From my Patreon:

giphy7

It’s done! It’s polished; it’s edited! It needs all the finagling and publishing stuff. You know, a cover. Book layouts. Conversions to .mobi, .epub, .pdf. I’ll record an audio version. All of that prepping and production and finagling will probably take a couple of weeks, but I JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW.

Y’all, I really like this one. It’s all political machinations and obliterating self-truth-revelations and unlikely friendships. I hope you like it, too.

It’s titled “The Adviser and the Diplomat”, and it’ll be delivered unto by the end of the month, cross my heart.


B
This story will be accessible to subscribers at all tier levels of my Patreon, starting at $1. For more information about my Patreon tiers and rewards, go here.

#NaNoWriMo: When Murphy’s Law Is Your Friend

TheAnalogSystem_NaNoWriMoCover

current word count: 47, 061

I’ve written before about how I’m more of a character-driven writer than I am a plot-driven writer. I’ve also written before about how my NaNo project is great uncharted territory for me. Part of that is because it’s a plot-driven novel. Not to say characters aren’t core to the plot! They are! But it is definitely a book where characters go and Do Things. Thus, the outlining.

 

I am in the end zone. I am so close to winning NaNoWriMo I can taste it. And I am close to winning because of a two-step process:

  1. scope out my characters’ ideal end zone plan*
  2. break that plan (thereby introducing Compelling Complications)

Part 1: How The Plan Should Have Gone

dragonwalks

In an ideal world, disarming the mad scientists should be a cakewalk.

So, I have to confess in the outline this part was…sketchy at best. I had a sense of where I was going, but it wasn’t that fully fleshed out. It was more like “and then the main character and some other people do some stuff to get rid of the bad dudes and voila! an ending.”

 

This meant I had to stop writing partway through the draft and figure my shit out. What did my characters want? Why did they want that? What would make sense in their context? If I was in their shoes, what kind of plan would I make?

I sketched it out, and that gave me a direction through the end of the book!

Or so I thought.

Part 2: Perfectly Executed Plans Are Boring

bestlaidplans.gif

You have more questions now than you would have if she had just lifted it, right? Now you want to know if she’s ok, what happened to the shoe, etc.

Complications add conflict, and conflict is the lifeblood of any narrative. Yes, it would be satisfying for me if I just wrote my main character’s plan going exactly as she hoped–I like her and want her to succeed!

 

But it would be kind of boring to read, actually.

The thing that keeps me reading a book is when things don’t go according to plan. I want to see how characters will fix a broken plan, what they will do when thrust into situations they aren’t expecting. And also? How often of your mundane, everyday plans are executed exactly as you sketched them out? I was almost late for the movies this morning because my partner ran the gas tank down to E and the dang light was on and then the first pump I was at had a bum card reader, so then I had to go to another one, eating up more precious minutes of possible Hunger Games viewing time. And that was just going to see a movie! So in a life-or-death planning situation, even when you’re super-extra-careful, life still has a way of throwing you curveballs.

I added some curveballs. It’s making this last bit of the book much more satisfying to write.


 

*Many thanks to Shveta Thakrar for enduring gchat brainstorm sessions with me as I worked out this part. ❤ ❤ ❤

Writing Tip: Figure Out Your Comfort Zone And Go From There

comfortzones1

Three domains for awesome reading: good characters, good plot, good prose.

I would contend that truly stellar writing excels in three domains: it has excellent characterization, the plot keeps you coming back for more, and the prose itself is to die for.1

I would also contend that generally writers tend to have a comfort zone–one of these three domains is easier to write and comes more naturally than the others.

When I was just starting to write, I got really hung up on trying to nail all three domains right out of the gate every single time. Because that’s what it took, right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, that what it takes for a finished piece of writing to succeed. But that will pretty much make it impossible for me, personally, to get through a first draft of anything. So, in order to have something to polish, something to finish in the first place, I had to stop overthinking it. I had to get that first draft done, get it out, on paper, all the way through.

The way I see it, you’re not going to get to what I call “optimal writing,” or that primo grade-A book-hangover read-until-way-past-your-bedtime stuff until the polished final draft anyway. By then, you already know what kind of book you’re writing. See how in that graphic up there the optimal writing is buried deep in the center? That’s because it’s hard to get to. You have to chart a path.

My advice is this: in the first draft, play to you strengths and write fast by starting in your comfort zone. In the second draft, when you have a better idea of what you’re actually doing with the piece, fill in the gaps with the thing you’re second best at. Save the hardest for last. That’s the the part you wait until the endgame for. That’s the polish. You do that third, very hard thing while you’ve really nailed down the other two. By then you know the book like the back of your hand. You’ve got the rhythm down, the themes laid out. You know what you’re doing with it. Your writing isn’t exploratory anymore, so with this last piece it’s more targeted revisions.

An Example: How I Wrote Ariah

Start with characters, take a sharp right at plots, just barly squeak into good writing. BAM! That's how I wrote ARIAH.

The B R Sanders: Start with characters, take a sharp right at plots, just barely squeak into good writing. BAM! That’s how I wrote ARIAH.

I’m a very character-driven writer. Virtually all my narratives start first with an idea of a character, then with a complication in the form of a relationship. The cast forms, radiating out from one or two key characters who I understand in minute, intricate detail. I often don’t even have notes about these central characters. I just know them. Ariah, Sorcha, Shayat–I never had to write anything down, or plan anything out, or keep anything straight. I just, weirdly, knew them.

But all the other characters in Ariah had dossiers as I started drafting the book, because they were fuzzier and needed filling in. They were less organically alive, less vibrant (which is maybe why it wasn’t their story) so I made those notes.

I didn’t really get the plot of Ariah right until the second draft. I didn’t really know what the book was about until then, but I sure as hell knew who was in it. I wrote it, let it sit for a while, and re-read it. I made notes to myself on the re-read about plot stuff. Again, it happened naturally–I think of the three domains plot building is my second best. And I outlined a better, stronger plot for the book, which I followed almost to the letter in the revisions.

And then there was description. Not my strong suit. I…punted. I do not consider myself a stylist. I would say I have a sturdy, workable prose style. I tend to read my own writing for grammar and comprehension. I do not fiddle with my sentence. That way, for me, lies madness. They will never be perfect enough. So, I made sure the draft was coherent (in that the action seemed descriptive enough, and the dialogue was easy to follow, as it had tags that told you who was speaking–things that my first draft lacked in places), and subbed the book. My truly excellent editor was wonderful at pointing out which places needed more description and which needed a little less. Where my writing hit the Optimal Writing Zone instead of lingering in the murky green good characterization/satisfying plot wilderness, she probably had a hand in.

Ok, So What Does This Mean For You?

The Raymond Chandler: You start with the plot (a wicked detailed outline, mayhaps?), then branch out into characters. Polish up that prose, then head straight to the promised land.

The Raymond Chandler: You start with the plot (a wicked detailed outline, mayhaps?), then branch out into characters. Polish up that prose, then head straight to the promised land.

But lo! That is just one way to get to the Optimal Writing Promised Land. Your route might be different. The technique–start where it’s easy, and push through to where it’s hardest–might be the same, but your starting point and ending point are likely different than mine. I’ve come up with a couple of alternatives in the graphics here, but really, the possibilities are endless.

The beauty of writing–of any art–is that there’s no one way to do it. There’s as many ways to get the art done as there are artists. But getting started is always hard. Writing a book is a daunting process. Breaking it down into those general steps–First Draft, Second Draft, Polish–makes it more manageable for me. And assigning a general skill to each one to focus on and get right in the draft–Characters, Plot, Description–helps make it even more manageable.

Ar you Anne Rice? You write very long descriptions of furniture before venturing into Prairie of Plot. You edge into Optimal Writing picking up characterization almost by accident.

The Anne Rice: You write very long descriptions of furniture before venturing into Prairie of Plot. You edge into Optimal Writing picking up characterization almost by accident.

It’s made me a better writer in the long run. I trust my characterization more with each first draft I crank out. I know, with certainty, that’s my great strength as a writer. I know I’m getting better at plotting: it’s easier to manage every time I do it. And I’m growing as a stylist, too. I’m getting a knack for knowing what to include and what not to include. I am sometimes impressed by my turns of phrase when I read my own first drafts. The reason I’m improving is because this system helps me write more–get to the finish line and cross it. It exercises all three skills, which means everything gets a little better every time.

~

1Your mileage may vary as to what each of these actually consists of, but good writing generally has all three present for it to work.


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Writing ARIAH: A Closer Look at the Titular Character

Ariah is the pasty one in the center, FYI

Amazon | Goodreads

Given that Ariah hit some new folks radars thanks to spotlights thrown by the wonderful and talented Foz Meadows and Liz Bourke, I thought it might be talented to post some writerly behind-the-scenes type things here on how the book came to be. I haven’t really done that since before its launch, anyway, though if you’re interested, you can find all of those posts here.

Ariah Lirat’Mochai is a funny story. The book wasn’t supposed to be about him. It was supposed to be about his mentor, Dirva. Ariah was supposed to be the reader’s lens into Dirva, the way Nick Carraway narrates The Great Gatsby though the book isn’t actually his story. I maintain that Dirva is an interesting character in and of himself, but Ariah quickly took over the narrative. No passive viewpoint character here, no, Ariah demanded to tell his own story while Dirva’s maudlin arc played out in the shadows, seen sometimes and hidden at other times. I went with it. What else can you do but surrender to a first draft?

I have always loved Ariah’s voice. It came fully formed, of its own accord. He overthinks, he questions and second guesses, he is uncertain, but at his core, Ariah is a man who has a moral center. Not, particularly, a sense of self, but a firm moral center. And this makes him very interesting to write, because for him:

The truth was a slippery thing that, perhaps, did indeed slide between categories.

He spends a lot of time and energy trying to parse what he should say and what he should not, and when, and why. Some of this is to do with his magic–being an shaper, which is somewhat like an empath–he essentially eavesdrops on other people’s emotional states. They may be trying to cover, putting on a game face, that he sees right through without realizing he’s even seeing through it. So, because he’s so accidentally observant, he’s very careful. Ariah tries to weigh everything before he speaks. He doesn’t always get it right, but he tries to, which means there are so many thoughts running through his mind at any given moment as he tries to process everything at once.

On top of this is the complication of his empathic magic, and the way it interacts with his shifting sense of self. Early in the book, it becomes clear that he needs some sense of stability to keep himself together:

Ambivalence tends to drive me to self-sabotage. I do not do well with internal conflict; I do not do well when I am unmoored.

But it also becomes clear that for Ariah, paradoxically, coming to terms with a shifting sense of self provides the greatest sense of stability:

It’s like you’ve got two hearts inside you: yours and theirs. To learn a litany, you have to learn to be yourself and not yourself at the same time.

It’s only by understanding the way he is deeply shaped by the people he is around and loves that he can keep that dangerous ambivalence at bay. The only way Ariah can find to silence that awful internal conflict is, shockingly, but accepting that there is no single ineffable Ariah–there is the Ariah that brought to the surface by Sorcha, and the Ariah that is brought to the surface by Shayat and the Ariah that is brought to the surface by Halaavi, and none is more real or true than the other.

Ariah, like all the characters I’ve written, is deeply similar to me and deeply dissimilar to me. He is like me in that I tend to get immediately and terribly overwhelmed by the information I receive from others. I pay far too much attention by accident to people’s postures, their tone of voice, their word choice, their clothing, everything, and then I have to process it, and it’s exhausting, so very exhausting. He’s unlike me in that he strives for harmony and politeness. I don’t. But this idea of reconciliation between all these different versions of oneself, this idea that all the different sides and presentations of oneself are harmonious, are in sync, are a network of related ‘yous’ all made possible by the strength and depth of your relationships with other people, that is a thought I don’t think I would have had without writing this book. I wouldn’t have made that insight, which I find profoundly uplifting, without having stumbled upon Ariah’s voice and letting him take the story’s direction. I’m glad I did.



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Thanks for the ships, Melville!

click through for source

click through for source

Despite my landlubber life, I’ve always had a fascination with books about the sea. Maybe that’s part of why I love Melville so much.

It’s not surprising, then, that one of the earliest inventions of the world of Aerdh were the pirates. I’m certainly not the first person to write about a spec fic pirate  society, and I won’t be the last. The pirates of Aerdh figure heavily in the plot of The Search, the follow-up to Ariah that I’m currently writing.

For someone who loves worldbuilding, pirates are inherently fascinating. What does it mean to create a society that is inherently a society of outcasts? What sort of mores do they hold? For a society to survive, it has to last more than a generation, which means that children must be born and raised into it. What are the people indigenous to that way of life like? How do they see the world? How do they justify that their culture is, by definition, parasitic–for them to prosper, they must prey on other cultures. And what about the economies that spring up in the pirates’ wake? What are the moral grey zones there?

I’ve written about the pirates before, most notably in Cargo. One of the major secondary characters in The Search is a pirate king–defining the scope of his influence and how he wields it is enlightening. The Search is building out pirate culture above and beyond what was seen in Cargo, and I’m having a wonderful time exploring it.

Beyond the idea of the pirates themselves, with their potential for outlaw justice and redemptive arcs and sanctuary for marginalized individuals, there are the ships. Melville, in his books, used the microcosm that is life on a ship to great effect. I think I was always taken with that, with the way that ship life pens you in with a very limited number of people in a very proscribed amount of space. Ships are truly tiny little worlds of their own drifting through the maw of pure natural force.

Such a strange thing, and such a raw thing, and how could you not then forge such deep relationships with your crew? How could they not become your family? No one ever has neutral feelings about family. You only ever love them dearly or hate the sight of your family. Imagine spending all that time working a ship with someone you can’t stand, who annoys the shit out of you, but you know your life is basically in their hands. It’s maddening. The psychology of ships is insane. So, I keep coming back to them in my writing.

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Advice to New Writers: Remember To Add Conflict!

click through for source

click through for source

The Garden of Eden only got interesting when Eve at that apple.

The Awl recently ran an lovely piece interrogating why utopian novels are, by and large, not all that readable. Noah Berlatsky cites a number of reasons in his analysis, but really it comes down to this: narratives need conflict, and utopias, by definition, don’t have substantial enough conflicts to keep us interested as readers. There are no real problems in these worlds; there is nothing to overcome. And, therefore, there is nothing for the reader to root for or relate to. It’s purely aspirational.

Utopias also echo a common weakness in the stories of new writers. Here’s an example from my own writing: I wrote a story1 where the beats were largely as follows:

  • boy and best friend go to a bar
  • boy watches best friend make his rounds; boy winds up playing bartender
  • boy gets hit on and gently passes on another boy
  • boy goes home alone, feeling fine with his life choices

Ok, in retrospect, that’s…not actually an interesting story. It’s not even a story. There were some nice moments in it, and some good turns of phrase, but on rereading it a year or so later I kept waiting for something to happen. For anything to happen. Like, why was I writing this night of this kid’s life? It was just a night, any night, a purely unremarkable night. There was no conflict. There was nothing driving the story.

This doesn’t mean that your protagonist has to Go On A Quest for there to be conflict. Conflict can be mined from everyday interactions. Here’s another story of mine2, written around the same time, featuring the same character, which actually does have a conflict and a resolution and this is an actual story:

  • girl and boy start hanging out
  • girl likes boy, doesn’t know if boy likes her back
  • girl kisses this boy. He giggles like a mad man. She is embarrassed.
  • boy gets his shit together and writes her a poem because he does actually like her back
  • girl and boy are happily for now

See? It’s not a grand, sweeping, world-altering conflict, but it’s a conflict! She is unsure! She took a risk! She doesn’t know what will happen! There is uncertainty! those are all signs of a conflict.

The truth is that if your story doesn’t have a conflict driving its characters forward, no matter how pretty your language is, your reader will probably disengage. A story without a conflict is essentially a story without a plot.

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1This story will probably never see the light of day, and we’re all better for it, trust me.

2While this story is marginally better than The One With No Conflict, you really don’t want to read this one either.