Writing in seclusion

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a rustic tea-fueled two-person writing retreat

I’m on vacation right now, which I very much needed. I am on vacation visiting a friend whose taste in books is very nearly completely compatible with mine, and who is as much of an introvert as me. Being with her is sublimely restful. She had been considering a trip to a remote cabin in the woods, and I sort of gently invited myself along, which (it turned out) she was sort of hoping I would do. So, I flew out to Chicago, and we rented a little red car, and I drove us to the Wisconsin woods next to the Mississippi River. The cabin was twenty miles away from any cell phone reception and had electricity adequate to power my laptop but no distracting internet connection. We returned to civilization yesterday and are now in a re-entry to society day where we’re pleasantly sitting in her apartment with her cat and watching Foyle’s War and eating oreos. Tomorrow I return to Denver and my family and my job, and I’ll return restored and replenished and feeling more like myself than I have in weeks.

We didn’t do much in the cabin. We sat around drinking coffee and tea with vegan marshmallows in our hot, caffeinated beverages and talked a lot about feelings and parenthood and Supreme Court decisions and The Iliad. At one point we ventured outside to meander up a dry creek bed, but we were both stoned and neither of us navigated the rocks there with any sort of competence, so our excursion was short-lived. Really nothing happened but the tea drinking and the talking and reading and watching fireflies and some writing, but that was perfect, and the Wisconsin woods was a prefect place to be doing that particular kind of nothing.

And the writing–travelling, for some reason, brings a focus to me and makes it extremely easy to write. I rarely find it difficult to write, but there’s something about the solitude of travelling alone and the distance from the every day grind that lets my mind drift into that little writing pocket with virtually no effort. I wrote 2,349 words on the plane on the way to Chicago. I wrote another 8,772 words in the cabin itself. It was effortless writing, and it was an ideal time for some effortless writing because I managed to establish the voices of my POV characters. My friend doesn’t read my writing. She’s generally interested and we talk about writing in the abstract, and we read the same books at the same time(ish) quite frequently, but I’ve never asked her to read anything of mine and she’s never asked to read anything of mine. I think it was better this way. There are times I very much want someone around invested in what I’m writing, pushing me to get it out, wanting to consume it as much as I want to create it. And there are times I want to create things in a private, hidden bubble. I think the lack of expectation involved in writing around a friend who is not a fan of mine helped the writing.

All of this is to say that the writing for A TALE OF REBELLION is clipping along.

PROOF Expansion ready for beta readers!

bigger and better than ever

bigger and better than ever

Holy shit, you guys, I finished expanding “Proof” into a novel! I have tentatively retitled it Resistance as adding 45k words does tend to change the scope and focus of the work a little bit. I’m planning on writing up my process and experience working on a deadline, but for now, I’ll just throw out a call for beta readers!

Resistance has many faces, and one of them is Shandolin’s. When she finds her friend brutally murdered, Shandolin knows that her life as an elf living in the City of Mages under the heel of the Qin is going to get a whole lot harder. Though the Qin have her in their sights and put an assassin on her trail, Shandolin decides to fight instead of run–but her only hope of survival is a takeover of the City government.

Shandolin draws everyone she loves into the fray with her: her assassin lover, Rivna, who would prefer a quiet life; her mentor, Moshel, whose history with the Qin leaves him paralyzed and frightened; and her best friend, Kel, who has too many mouths to feed to play a losing game of politics. Apart, they are weak, but together Shandolin and her friends, lovers and fellows may be just strong enough to save their skins and the skins of the other elves in the City.

Set in the unique and finely realized fantasy universe of Aerdh, RESISTANCE is a completed fantasy novel 52,000 words in length. RESISTANCE is about the big and small ways hunted people fight back, and what it may cost them if they win the fight.

Interested? Let me know!

PROOF Expansion Update

I did not mean to neglect this blog so long, but as you are about to see, I have been hella busy. the expansion of “Proof” into a novel is going really well! I am actually ahead of schedule already. Good job, me. Anyway, I thought I would write up a post that walks you through my process for this blitz writing project step by step, because if there’s one thing the aspiring author blogosphere needs it’s another writing process post!

Step 1: Make a plan of attack

Evernote is awesome because you can stick in to do check boxes, and there's nothing sweeter than checking off a box. I'M DONE, BRO you say to Evernote. And then Evernote buys you flowers.

Evernote is awesome because you can stick in to do check boxes, and there’s nothing sweeter than checking off a box. I’M DONE, BRO you say to Evernote. And then Evernote buys you flowers.

I have a hard deadline for this project–August 1st–so it made sense to me to map backward from the hard deadline to see what needed to be done by when. I know my writing process well enough now to know I would need time for worldbuilding/brainstorming, obviously writing time, and then a little cushion at the end for copyediting. Because, you guys, I am a shit typist, and I don’t catch the terrible typing as I’m writing. Since this is my first project I’m doing ~for realsies!~ like with a really good shot at seeing it published I am kind of nervous. Instead of getting stuck in the self-doubting seventh circle of hell, I’ve built in even more cushion time to get a couple of my very fastest beta readers to look through the manuscript before I send it off (though if they’re like WOW B THIS SUCKS MONKEY BALLS I’m not sure there is functionally enough time to really do anything about that; this is mostly a peace-of-mind thing).

I gave myself a week of worlbuilding/planning time at the start, then two weeks at the end for edits. The time in between is writing time, and I worked out how much I would need to write everyday all of those days in order to hit 60k words by the point at which I need to start editing.

Step 2: The outline to end all outlines
You see the highlighting? The highlighting means I'm taking this seriously.

You see the highlighting? The highlighting means I’m taking this seriously.

I mentioned before that I’m not much of a plotter, but for this project plotting makes sense logistically. I’m pretty sure that was exactly the right call to make, so I wrote up a very extensive outline of what is essentially the original short story but with many more complications and a handful of new characters thrown in for flavor.

The thing is, when I say I don’t plot or plan much for most of my work, I mean that pretty much wholesale. I don’t structure the plot ahead of time, and I certainly don’t pay much attention to the structure of the book itself (chapters, sections, etc). But I did this time. I figured give or take 6k words was about the right length for a chapter which in a 60k draft would mean give or take ten chapters, so I printed out the Massive Outline and broke up the action by chapter, and within chapters broke it into scenes.

Step 3: Structuring the draft in Scrivener

Oh, corkboard feature. What a fool I was to think I'd never use you.

Oh, corkboard feature. What a fool I was to think I’d never use you.

Each scene got its own notecard with the following: a chapter designation, a scene number, a quick and dirty summary of the action this scene pushes forward, and keywords describing the characters present, major plot points, and setting.

The fact that you can mouse over the card in the binder and it displays the summary is super useful while writing–essentially, it lets me write to the next scene so I can keep any foreshadowy bits in mind as I go along.

Step 4: Get your write on

This is the fun part.

This is the fun part.

I’ve set this hard goal of 2200 words per day every day until the book is done. Now, I work 40+ hours a week and parent a toddler and have, like, a life and shit, so 2200 was, I thought, a reach goal. But it’s working.

I write on the bus, basically exclusively on the bus. I have a 40 minute block in the morning where I’m getting out about 1200 words, and I have another 40 minute block on my way home in the afternoon where I usually match or surpass the amount written that morning. The fact that I know the story so well and have hammered out all the actual stuff that happens makes this a bit easier, but by a week in honestly I think the rhythm of writing in two focused blocks helps me get all those words out.

This is not to say there haven’t been surprises along the way. The chapter structure has shifted a little. Characters I definitely did not expect to show up came into the story. Characters I thought I knew quite well showed me a whole different side to them. Despite all that meticulous planning and the rigidity of my writing schedule, the actual writing part of this project still feels very organic, which I think is a good sign.

Step 5: Progress monitoring is key

And we're back to my dear old friend Excel which you may have noticed I use for basically everything.

And we’re back to my dear old friend Excel which you may have noticed I use for basically everything.

I keep a spreadsheet where I track daily writing, log whether it’s writing or planning or blogging or what, and where I track my queries. I also keep a list of books I’ve read in here. Look, I just like lists, ok? That’s not a crime.

Usually I just have this log because I like data, but for this project it’s vital to track and monitor how closely I’m following that week-by-week project plan I’ve got over in Evernote. Doing this showed me that this weekend HOLY SHIT I was actually far enough ahead of schedule that I could take a break from writing. Which was good because I had Proper Adult Things to do this weekend like cook Father’s Day brunch for my partner and organize the hellhole which was once my closet and play with my kid and install a new saddle on my bike. Also somehow I drank an entire jug of orange juice in a single day. That was super important, and frankly, I feel rather accomplished.

This spreadsheet is actually kind of awesome because I have it where it auto-sums the number of words written within the year to date and also it sums the total number of words in a month and takes the average written daily for the month. WHAT I LIKE DATA.

Step 6: Make sure your ducks are in a row

compiling sounds so productive, doesn't it? "Oh, what did you do today?" "I compiled an entire book!" "Wow, look at you go!"

Compiling sounds so productive, doesn’t it? “Oh, what did you do today?” “I compiled an entire book!” “Wow, look at you go!”

I am writing the book according to the specs I’ve set the Scrivener editor to for my own particular preference (12 pt Palatino Linotype, 1.5 spacing in case you’re interested), but lo! The press for whom I’m writing the book has preferences of their own. The mysteries of the human mind. Anyway, they send me a pre-edit checklist and formatting document, and I spent an hour or so tinkering around in Scrivener’s compile settings to work out how best to get Scrivener to export exactly the kind of document they want. I periodically compile a chapter here or there to make sure everything fits their requirements, and then I can just write the damn book without having to scramble at the end to make the formatting work.

So, that’s where I am and what I’ve been doing the last couple of weeks! It’s clipping along at a great place, the nerves about this REALLY BEING A REAL THING are manageable, and I’ve been able to keep my head above water in the other domains of my life. Basically, I feel like this guy:

Well, I feel like this guy if he was, like, wearing clothes.

Well, I feel like this guy if he was, like, wearing clothes.
(image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Expanding PROOF – Week 1

As I mentioned a few days ago, I have switched gears to due an impending and enormously exciting deadline! Since I document everything ever, I figured I’d go ahead and document this process, too.

The gist is in two months I need to take “Proof”, a 6,000 word short story, and expand it into a short novel by adding at least 40,000 words. No small feat, right? Well, luckily, I have a bit of a head start: “Proof”, like the vast majority of my fiction, takes place in Aerdh. And it explores characters in a locale i’ve pretty thoroughly built out worldbuilding-wise. And it dovetails with some characters I’ve written about elsewhere. In short, I have a pretty comprehensive sense of what’s going on in the universe in which the story is set at that particular time in the universe’s history, which makes things a lot easier to work with. Mostly expanding “Proof” means taking the current plot, which is stripped pretty bare, and throwing in a bunch of complications to blow up the scope of the narrative.

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m not much of a plotter. The pace and action of my narratives typically develop organically from exercises in worldbuilding first and then character development. This project is really no different–the characters are definitely my starting place.

"where should i start? I know! A nice orderly table about my characters"

“where should i start? I know! A nice orderly table about my characters”

“Proof”, at its heart, is a love story, and I very much want to keep that element when I expand it to a novel. Specifically, “Proof” describes a relationship between two women that already has a history. Obviously, one direction I could take the project in is to pull back and watch them fall in love. But I like that they’re already together, that they already have a rhythm and a history. My inclination now is to keep it like that and to use the longer format to explore why and how they work (and why and how they don’t work) together. There is a certain kind of playfulness that exists when you’re writing about two people who already know each other and already love each other that is a little different than the sort of playfulness that exists when a relationship is new and still forming. I want the book to be about how they stay in love rather than how they fall in love.

So, since this will be a book so deeply rooted in how these two characters play off of each other, I started with mapping out how they react to each other. With a table. Look, I’m an analyst by training and trade, right, I think in tables.

The other thing I’ve been working on is an extremely rough idea of a plot. Now, the reason I’m doing this instead of just letting it blossom on its own like I usually do is a matter of scope–left to my own devices I will turn this into a 200,000 word epic about the nature of love and loss and shit like that. And it would be good. But this needs to be a quick, swift romp with just enough gravitas, and for that I need to keep my focus. Since I’ve got two months to make it happen, I don’t have time for a sprawling first draft.

EYES ON THE PRIZE, SANDERS

EYES ON THE PRIZE, SANDERS

So I’m brainstorming at lightspeed, figuring out which elements of the current story need elaboration and what the scope of this will be. It’s like a planning blitz, and so far it’s been really useful. I am sort of concurrently working out the roughest outline in the whole wide world.

I’ll keep y’all posted on where it goes from here!

Shifting Gears

we pause our regularly scheduled shit for an exciting new project now on an exciting new deadline

we pause our regularly scheduled shit for an exciting new project now on an exciting new deadline
(image courtesy of wikimedia commons; click through for source)

I had a Back to the Drawing Board post all half-written, but it’s going to have to wait. Not that I haven’t made progress on The Long Road rewrites, because I have*, but because it can be put on hold and something else has to get done by August 1st.

I submitted “Proof” to an open call for an anthology, and it caught the interest of the editors! Alas, it doesn’t look like the anthology is happening, but they have expressed interest in me expanding “Proof” into a short novel! They want the daft by August 1st, and I have full confidence I’ll make that deadline.

*Actually, I made quite a bit of progress The Long Road. I started drafting the rewrite! I am about 5k words in. Yep, the second I finished with all that prewriting and worldbarfing and timelining I have to put the project on hold.

NEW SHORT STORY FOR BETA READERS: Proof

Proof_wordle

Hey y’all! I just finished another short story. The description and info are below; I welcome any and everyone to read it!

When a friend turns up dead, Shandolin suspects her lover, an elvish assassin named Rivna, may be the reason why. Shandolin marshals all her skills to prove Rivna is the killer, while Rivna does all she can to convince Shandolin she’s innocent.

PROOF is a completed short story 5,650 words in length set in the world of Aerdh. PROOF is a glimpse into the chaotic political and personal lives of two strong-willed sharp-tongued young women that will leave you wanting more.

Interested? Let me know!

Writing Snippet: Shandolin

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This is from a brand new story I’m writing!

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it here, but I set a goal for myself that I would finish one piece of fiction every month for the next year. I like finishing things! I am on track to reach that goal — I finished “Crossing the Bridge” in January, Assassins in February, and “Blue Flowers” in March. But I’ve spent all of April mired in the black hole that is rewriting The Long Road.

Now, that’s not a bad thing, but I needed a little variety. My fingers get itchy when they’re not writing narrative pieces after awhile. And I’ve had an idea bouncing around in my head: a set of detective stories featuring two elvish women in an on-again-off-again relationship. One is an assassin. And the other, Shandolin, is a political firebrand.

This story’s about two-thirds of the way through, so stay tuned because I’ll be needing beta readers for it by May 1st!

I’M AN ABNA 2013 SEMI-FINALIST!

HOLY BALLS

HOLY BALLS

ARIAH advanced again! From the last round, the powers that be whittled the 100 quarter finalists in my category down to just five — and I am one of those five! Honestly, given the teeny tiny number of semi-finalists (25 total across all categories from 10,000 entrants) I did not expect to make it this far. I am honored for the recognition and also quite pleased with myself. *pats self decidedly and enthusiastically on the back*

Below is the Publisher’s Weekly review of ARIAH for those interested (it left me beaming!)

 

ABNA Publishers Weekly Reviewer

Set in a beautifully crafted fantasy world where races of elves uneasily coexist, and most are under the dominant hand of the brutal Qin, this poetic coming-of-age saga is focused on relationships and how “all of us exist in a web of other people, tethered to them and pulled by them this way and that.” The elf Ariah is apprenticed in a strange country to teach him control of his two magical gifts: perfect mimicry and the ability to read and shape the emotions of others. He trains with Dirva for several years and is groomed to be a linguist like his teacher. But what could have been a mundane life of good-enough takes a turn toward the extraordinary when Dirva is called back to his home country and Ariah accompanies him. That’s when Ariah’s real journey begins, as his training ends abruptly and he develops the relationships that will become critically important in his life. Moving from obedient and docile to reckless, self-sabotaging and disastrously unformed, Ariah is a marvelous protagonist whose mixed blood sets him apart even in the elvish ghetto. There are bandits and pirates and elven queens and magic; treks across the desert, brutal slavery and racial discrimination. The author’s skill at blending classic elements makes the story fresh and exciting. Splendid prose and an absorbing story are built on realistically complicated, well-developed characters and relationships, and the explorations of pride, vanity, humility, love, philosophy, and sexuality make this vivid tale of Ariah’s journey towards maturity a must-read.

NEW SHORT STORY FOR BETA READERS!!: Blue Flowers

blueflowerswordleHey y’all! I just finished another short story. The description and info are below; I welcome any and everyone to read it!

Pahvo loved Anu before they ever met. Pahvo is a scryer; he sees the future, the past, lives both in a fractured present. When Pahvo first notices Anu across the street, he sees their entire lives together. Anu sees a stranger.

BLUE FLOWERS is a completed short story 4,950 words in length set in the world of Aerdh. BLUE FLOWERS explores the nature of irrevocable and inescapable love.

Interested? Let me know!

Scattered Thoughts On Engels as a Framework for Worldbuilding

Engels: a man with a compelling beard

Engels: a man with a compelling beard

One reason I am drawn to speculative fiction — both reading what others have written and creating it myself — is its potential for radical what ifs. By that, I mean that speculative fiction is uniquely positioned to wonder about and critique the current world in which we live. It offers an alternative to and an escape from existing paradigms. Really good worldbuilding requires a kind of mind that understands how societies are currently structured, how they may be structured elsewhere, and what those structures may evolve into.

I believe I’ve said before that I write fantasy in large part because I love worldbuilding. I like the sandbox quality of spec fic, and specifically fantasy; the possibility of creating a universe from scratch is very exciting to me. But nothing happens in a vacuum. Nothing can ever truly be objective. I see the world through a particular lens, my choices are informed by my experiences and ideas which resonate with me. We all have what I think of as foundational texts — those narratives that define elements of the world to us and can become a lens through which we makes sense of life around us.

I first read Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (click through for full text) when I was 18 years old. Prior to that, I had been reading tons of Marx, tons of Trotsky and Lenin. And I’d been perturbed that Marxist theory never seemed to dig quite deep enough. All oppression is connected — so how do material conditions get elaborated into class structures? And I found this book, devoured it, and it became a primary lens through which I make sense of the world around me.

Engels’ work explores how ecological conditions (scarcity, surplus, the availability of resources) define the social relationships of a group. If there’s not enough to go around, when there’s no surplus, there’s no private property. And when there’s no private property, there’s no inheritance. But when a surplus happens and an inheritance becomes a thing, people want to make sure what they have gets passed to their kids. Now for the one doing the birthing, it’s pretty easy to keep track of who is and is not your kid. For the other parent — the one who supplied sperm and is not directly involved in the whole birth thing — there appears to them to be a reason to control the womb-haver’s body and to make sure their sexuality is kept in check lest all those scraped together resources get passed to kids who are not, in fact, the sperm-haver’s.

The thing that draws me to this line of thought most is how Engels deconstructs biological essentialism. No, women are not just naturally nurturing so they should stay at home with babies. Maybe we say that, but that’s not what’s going on. Engels would say instead perhaps we’re sequestering them so there’s little opportunity for men to be cuckolded. Maybe that’s what’s going on.

When I’m embarking on building a new world, I work actively to a) avoid essentialism and b) build a culture (literally) from the ground up.

Avoiding Essentialism
Essentialism — or the belief that differences between groups of people are fixed and unchanging — is a way to reify the boundaries of one group against another. Gender differences are often explained through biological essentialism (men and women do different things in society because they are just built different). Given that essentialism is so incredibly pervasive in our cultural understanding of the world, it’s not at all shocking that I see a lot of essentialism leak into speculative fiction.

The thing about essentialism, both in terms of fiction and real world thought, is that it is lazy. The human mind and the human experience are incredibly multi-faceted. We are enormously complex beings who live in nearly unimaginable complexity with each other. Nothing about us just is because it is. In worldbuilding especially, essentialism is a mark of an uncommitted writer. It signals to me that an author just checked out of that part of their world. “It just is, ok? Don’t look too close” is what they seem to say.

In my own worldbuilding, I am very much drawn to the margins. I like to write about those on the outskirts of respectability, of society, those who don’t quite fit. But in order to do that well I have to make the story about that individual’s positionality against a larger cultural framework. It’s not that this person is just an inherently amazing person, it’s that this person is forced to navigate choppy cultural waters with a sometimes incompetent boat. The drama is in the tension between that person and the context (or their boat and the ever-changing ocean). And contexts are dynamic. They are anything but stable. Why do they change? How do they change? Who changes them, and do they change back? These are the kinds of questions that often have unsatisfying answers if you are relying on essentialism to explicate your characters’ thoughts and feelings.

From the Ground Up
The other major thing I pay attention to is the ecological material conditions in which a culture exists. Cultures are fascinating because they are, in essence, both a tool to shape the environment around you in a collective way and a collective reaction to the environment. Whenever I am building something out and I’m not sure why/how it came to be, I take it back down to the material context. What is the food like? Is it scarce? How dense is the population? What are the resources available — stone, wood, minerals? Sorting that stuff out often gives me an insight into why a population may have moved from one part of the world to another, or what kind of relationship they have with the natural world down the line.

In the case of one of my cultural groups, it has been useful to understand how their culture and their understanding of their culture has changed due to a vicious and devastating war. With a literal fraction of their people remaining, having been disenfranchised and quite technically blown back to the stone age, how do they deal with, say, abortion? Is it possible that it could have been not a big thing before and is a Huge Deal now? The conditions are different, and cultures either evolve or they die.

Engels and Magic
I would advocate this materially grounded approach to understanding cultural development to basically any writer. Want to write characters from a different positionality than your own? Engels might be able to help. Want to explore a cultural context you did not grow up in? Do a lot of research and think about what questions Engels might ask you to push you deeper.

But I think his approach is especially fruitful in spec fic. In Aerdh, I have essentially a secondary earth but one in a universe where there is an additional natural force of magic. The fabric of reality is, essentially, just a little bit more malleable in certain places, which can be capitalized on by those with certain capabilities. Plugging Engels into this idea forced me to think through things like following:

  • what would make one culture approve of magic and another disapprove? how much of that approval/disapproval is related to the movement or access to resources?
  • how can magic be commodified (or not) as a resource?
  • how does the expression of magical abilities interact with other biological processes to create vulnerabilities for a population? (for example, if magic increases longevity, there may be a concordant reduction in fertility rates to keep populations from exploding. and if that happens, the comparatively smaller number of magical beings might be at risk for colonization by mundane beings).

Do you draw on a particular discourse or framework when you are elbow-deep in crafting a world? What thinkers do you return to again and again for insight? I’d love to here from you in the comments!