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On the Things You Can’t Learn from Books: My Experience at West Coast Falconry

I haven’t done much writing lately.

As my regular blog readers know, I’ve been working on my Big Fat Fantasy Series (with little concrete to show for it) for longer than I’d like to admit. When I read this quote from Pat Rothfuss’s interview with Locus, it definitely resonated with my experience:

“People talk about the trunk novel, writing 10 novels before the 11th or 12th gets published. For me it was just the one book. I worked on this one book for the same amount of time that other writers worked on 11. (In my head I always think of it as ‘‘The Book,’’ like it’s the Platonic form of the book.) So really, I sort of wrote 11 books too – it was just 11 serious different drafts of this same story, constantly refining it.

What I’ve been doing the last few weeks (in between dealing with bouts of nasty Uber-Cold and far too many Real World logistics) doesn’t even count as drafting:  I’m still in outline mode, trying to lighten the burden on my Future Self by figuring out where my story is going before I write myself into too many corners. I’ve spent most of the last 2 months scowling at my third trilogy, which was always the most loosely plotted portion of the story and which is stubbornly refusing to resolve itself into a nice tight arc the way the other two did. I’ve dreamed on more than one occasion of throwing the whole thing in a drawer and letting it simmer for a while. I’ve thought of printing out Elizabeth Bear’s refreshingly honest take on artistic burnout  and tacking it up on my wall. I’ve wondered if any of these books is ever going to see the light of day, or if I should throw in the towel and run off to become a lumberjack.

And it was deep in that mindset, two weeks ago, that I packed a bag for the weekend and drove up into Yolo County, northern California’s agricultural heartland, to a place called West Coast Falconry.

While the substance of my novels’ arc has shifted and changed in a hundred different ways over the years I’ve been working on it, one thing has stayed resolutely the same: my protagonist’s heart and soul are wrapped up with raptors. So I’ve got half a dozen falconry and raptor biology books on my research shelf, and I started working at a local wildlife rehab facility last year in part because it gave me regular opportunities to interact with raptor patients. But for years now, I’ve known that all the text and pictures in the world, and even learning how to safely restrain an injured hawk for an exam (which I’ve now done a few times), wouldn’t give me the kind of detail I needed to make my book work. I needed to see birds that were comfortable around people, and talk with people who spent their days with birds.

West Coast Falconry, run by master falconers Kate Marden and Jana Barkley, bills itself as a way for the general public to learn about raptors and the ancient sport of falconry. I first met Kate and Jana in 2012 when I went to their site for a “Falconry Experience” — the chance to watch their falcons chase the lure, and to call a Harris hawk to my arm. I walked away exhilarated, with pages of notes — but then, bit by bit, the days and the years slipped by. I got caught up in the minutiae of plot and character, of word choice and world-building, not to mention real life, and I felt my story growing stale. I needed an infusion of inspiration.

And so, after hemming and hawing about it for months, I signed up for the three-day Falconry Apprentice Seminar. This course is designed to prepare would-be falconers for taking the California apprenticeship exam, and covers everything from state regulations for obtaining and keeping raptors to building a mews (hawk enclosure), interactions with game wardens and the Department of Fish & Wildlife, trapping and training a wild bird, what to feed your bird (and how to butcher said food), and hunting etiquette. On the final day, we gathered early in the morning, with two Harris hawks, and went hunting rabbits.

While I’d spoken with Jana (a fellow author!) before signing up and gotten her reassurance that I would be welcome in the course, I knew that I wasn’t the target audience, and during the opening ice-breaker, I felt awkward. While the other students spoke confidently about wanting to hunt with a red-tail or a peregrine or an owl, or peppered the facilitators with logistical questions about  building a mews in the suburbs, the best explanation I could come up with for my presence at the table was “…so, I’m writing a book. Not a book I can tell you the plot of, really — not a book that’s close to done — but really, I promise, someday, maybe, there will be a book.”

My nagging sense of imposter-hood lasted for about an hour, as we reviewed the bureaucratic process for becoming an apprentice falconer. But once we got past paperwork and into the meat of the lectures, my doubts disappeared.

Between what we learned in the classroom and what we saw in the field, I walked away with enough material to turn into 8 single-spaced pages of notes when I got home Sunday evening. A lot of it was straight-up prepared material from the curriculum, like these tips:

  • Birds captured from the wild as first-year adults (“passage” birds) are often more pleasant to be around than those hand-raised by people, because they know that they’re birds and will not try to attack their handler for food as they would their parents.
  • The best way to check your bird’s condition is to palpate its breastbone (the keel); although raptors don’t enjoy being touched, the bird can be trained to tolerate this handling, including recognizing the word “keel” as a cue for what’s about to happen.
  • Most of the killing that happens on a hunt will be done by the falconer, not the bird; the bird’s initial attack rarely kills the game animal, and so part of the falconer’s responsibility is to make sure the game is dispatched as quickly and humanely as possible.

As you can see from these examples, the class was pretty comprehensive; in addition to the written material, we learned what it feels like when a bird lands on your glove, got some first-hand experience with operant conditioning, and gutted Coturnix quail as preparation for the hawks’ morning meal. And yet, I think the most valuable things I learned were nothing to do with the prepared curriculum at all.

Over the course of the weekend, I spent two twelve-hour days and a six-hour morning with five falconers. And as I watched them interact with their birds and listened to their stories, I felt my basic background assumptions shifting. Here are some of the myths that were dispelled for me without anyone’s having to say a word:

  • That one can be a “part-time” falconer. If my protagonist keeps a raptor and treats it well, that means he’s taking it hunting for hours at a stretch, at least every few days. I drove away from West Coast Falconry this time pondering which key scenes in my outlines could feasibly take place in a rabbit field.
  • That the glove and gauntlet worn by falconers are only necessary to avoid being “footed” (grabbed) by an angry bird — in a setting with mystical/magical ties between human and animal, the hawk would “just know” to sit lightly. After watching an excited hawk bouncing around on her falconer’s arm, with one foot slipping off the glove onto bare skin, I realized that even an innocent touch is painful. (Also, a hawk would never sit on someone’s shoulder like a parrot — the wingspan’s too large and the bird’s too flighty — and so when it travels on your person, it’s on your fist. Which makes your footprint in a crowd considerably wider).
  • That a hawk could sleep with humans in any old room without needing special accommodations for perching (more complicated than you’d think because for the vast majority of its life, a raptor’s weight is on its feet; wild raptors spend an average of 20 minutes in the air each day, and never lie down unless they’re very ill), casting (undigestable parts of its meal, vomited up some hours after eating) or its mutes (waste, which a hawk typically shoots 4-6 feet away from its body; falcons are more considerate in this regard, muting straight down, but still have the other problems).
  • That a falconer’s bird, sleeping safe in its mews every night, will live to a ripe old age: we heard several stories that made it clear these birds’ lives are far more dangerous than those of your average tame animal. In addition to mundane dangers like disease, they face threats from the game they hunt, the wild predators whose territories they cross, and the environment they race through in pursuit of their quarry. Finally, with the exception of one species, raptors aren’t social: a falconer with multiple birds must consider them all potential threats to one another.
  • That every hunt is successful. We flushed more than half a dozen rabbits in our two hours in the field, with two experienced hawks, and only caught one.
  • That anyone could successfully figure out how to train and handle one of these birds without mentorship, mystical advantages or no.

I walked away from my weekend of falconry with a far better understanding of the commitment — in time, money, love, and tears — this lifestyle requires of those who seek it, especially in any world not inclined to give its people the liberty of days at a time to go hawking. I knew, in a way I hadn’t before, that falconry isn’t a passion I have room for in my daily life, now or probably ever. But I also knew that to write the book I want to write, I will have to take steps to bring more falconers and trained birds into my days. So in the week since, I’ve taken the first steps in that direction and I plan to continue doing so.

Because while I’d never be one to dismiss the power of research (I was too long a student to do that), there are some things a book can’t teach you.

DSC03797

The author with Seabhag (she-VAK), a female Harris Hawk, at West Coast Falconry in 2012.

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Knowing Where You’re Headed: Harry Potter, Star Wars and BSG

I’ve been patently neglectful of this blog for the last few months; didn’t even realize until I logged in a few days ago that my last post was from mid-October. However, there are a few posts I’ve been meaning to get to for some weeks now, so I’m cautiously resolving to undertake a blogging revival in the New Year (we’ll see how long that sticks :)) To jump-start the process, I figured I’d talk about the creative pursuit that’s been consuming my time for the last 3 months: outlining.

If you’re a regular visitor to this space, you know that I’ve been working on the first book in a long series for the last 3 1/2 years (give or take). Last summer, I was still bold enough to say aloud that I was hoping to have my book in a state to be shopped around by the end of 2015 (haha. Ha.); even by the beginning of October, I was feeling cautiously optimistic about getting through a draft by year’s end. And then I hit a block. A scene that I’d thought was plotted solidly enough to write itself completely fell apart. All the plot building blocks that were balanced on the outcome of that scene started to tremble; I saw in a flash that I wasn’t quite sure why those bits of plot were important to my protagonist’s story, or how they were going to play out in the next book and the one after that. Warily, I took a step back and forced myself to take a hard look at the rest of 2015: two lengthy out-of-state trips, three major holidays, and quite a bit of Life Stuff that needed to be cleaned up and organized before the new year. And I decided it was time to shift gears.

So since the end of October, I’ve not added a word to my novel-in-progress. Instead, I’ve been sitting down with the fragments of loosely-plotted notions that gave this series its genesis starting almost a decade ago, and the very vague outline I drafted 3 or 4 years back, and going through the arduous process of trying to make it all fit together in a way that feels right.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve enjoyed every minute of it; in fact, I’m writing this post after a morning banging my head against a map and culture that I’m only now realizing needs a lot more development if I’m actually expecting to set a book in that place. But overall, the process has been extraordinarily rewarding. I’ve always thought of this series as comprising three sequential trilogies; the first two are now plotted and framed in a way that really makes me happy. Each individual book has an arc, framed by a few strong story questions; each trilogy has an overarching question and issue that needs to be resolved; and each piece contributes to the larger journey I want the protagonist to take. After almost 2 years grubbing in the trenches of scene-by-scene minutiae, it’s been a breath of fresh air to step back and look at everything from 10,000 feet up. When I encounter a sticky piece of plot, it’s refreshing beyond words to be able to step back from it and say “hmm… would this work better if I changed something all the way back in Book 4?” Which I can do, without consequence, because Book 4 has not passed under anyone else’s eyes at this point; there are no legions of fans devoted to things having played out in a particular way.

As opposed to, for instance, the fans who heard Leia Organa’s claim to remember her real mother, as “very beautiful, kind, but sad,” despite (as the prequels later established) Padme Amidala’s having died when her children were literally minutes old.

Of course, the media-analysis sites that I entertain myself with have had maybe more than an average amount of conversation around Star Wars continuity in the last few months (on that subject, yes, I’ve seen The Force Awakens; yes, I plan to say something about it here, probably in another couple days). I’ve followed that discussion with particular interest given my own project of the moment, but this isn’t a new issue for me. I think about it every time I consume a new series, as I try to figure out how much the creator(s) planned ahead of time and how much is invented on the road. And thus we come to my examination of the three series mentioned in the title of this post: Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica  (potential spoilers for all three series follow, though not for The Force Awakens).

First things first: I’ve consumed and enjoyed all 3 of these stories, and I fully admit that all of them have their problems. But I also think they serve as an interesting trio to look at when considering the relative virtues of outlining, retconning, and free-floating storytelling.

To all appearances, Harry Potter is on one end of the spectrum as far as planning goes. While not all of the ideas from JK Rowling’s original sketch for the series ended up in the books (see this interview, where she talks about doing a “hostage swap” in deciding which characters wouldn’t survive the series), she does a masterful job of laying out small details that become consequential later. Many people remember the first mention of Sirius Black on Page 14 of Sorcerer’s Stone; for me, the moment that brought home Rowling’s finesse with details was when I went rummaging back through Half-Blood Prince descriptions of the clutter in the Room of Requirement searching for something that might be the Sword of Gryffindor. There are swords, of course, but none of them are Gryffindor’s: however, there’s also this.

Seizing the chipped bust of an ugly old warlock… he stood it on top of the cupboard… [and] perched a dusty old wig and a tarnished tiara on the statue’s head… (P527)

That tiara, of course, is Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem, and one of Voldemort’s horcruxes. Just tossed casually into the mix. The only other series easily brought to my mind that shows this level of forethought is Babylon 5, and that show was explicitly conceived by its creator as a novel for television with a clear beginning, middle and end.

If JK Rowling started out with a destination in mind and stayed more or less on the same path to get herself there, George Lucas seems to have taken a different tack. It’s generally accepted by Star Wars fans that when A New Hope was released in 1977, Lucas had not yet decided that Luke and Leia were siblings or even that Vader was Luke’s father (thus the clumsy ret-conning that has to happen in Return of the Jedi when Obi-Wan explains that his account of Anakin’s fate “was true… from a certain point of view.”) Then, of course, there is the disconnect between the prequels and the original trilogy. While the quote from Leia about remembering her mother is probably the most-often cited example, the one that caught me was in this review by Tor.com’s Ava Jarvis recounting her experience of watching A New Hope for the first time after having seen the prequels:

I definitely believe that the prequels did more damage than not to the original trilogy—and that damage isn’t limited to the sudden appearance of the idea of a mitochondria midi-chlorian driven Force, the wrong most often cited by fans. The cracks go deeper than that—including making the final confrontation between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan feel stilted, in a way it wouldn’t have had there been actual passion and concern and, yes, chemistry between the two.

After watching A New Hope for the first time in a long time, and doing so for the first time with Revenge of the Sith fresh in my brain, I can’t help but agree with her point. Even in their stilted interactions in the prequels, Obi-Wan and Anakin can be believed to have genuine affection for one another, and as far as the audience knows, the last time they saw one another was on Mustafar, after Obi-Wan had cut Anakin down and left him to die. With that reality in mind, seeing them calmly circle each other in the corridor on the Death Star, fighting without so much as a flicker of emotion, feels… well, it feels funny, to say the least.

Obviously, Lucas’s story has been presented to the world over a much longer time frame than Rowling’s (38 years, so far, compared to 8), and serialized stories’ changing their details from one installment to the next is nothing new. But even so, it still seems to me like the better storytelling choice is not to change course mid-stream; once you’ve set a piece of your history in place and shaped other aspects of the tale around it, and gotten readers and viewers invested in that history, that piece ought to stay put. Even if it proves inconvenient for you later.

Of course, there’s another way of dealing with inconvenient plot details, and that’s the strategy employed by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore when he realized he’d misnumbered the humanoid Cylons (with one of the “many copies” models being identified #8, presumably leaving the “final five” as 7, 9, 10, 11, and 12). Moore wrote a few lines into one episode mentioning a 13th model, “Daniel,” that had been scrapped early on in mass production (and thus, viewers were led to assume, was not counted as part of the set), and then was startled when fans leapt on this new character as a source of potential answers to the show’s many unanswered questions. Desperate for some damage control, Moore released an official statement through his podcast saying that “[Daniel] is not part of the plan for the end of the show.”

In the first interview linked above, Moore also notes that he didn’t really start thinking about how he wanted the show to end until he was developing the fourth season. Given that the show introduces its first mysteries in its miniseries, and nearly every over-arching plot (Kara Thrace’s uniqueness, the identity of the “final five” Cylon models, the destiny of Hera Agathon) is embedded in some sort of mystery, this style of plotting seems like a risk, to put it mildly. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many fans rated this ending among the worst in science fiction TV history.

I know that many writers don’t like outlines, and I know that serialized fiction has succeeded for a long time and in many media with writers not worrying too much about an overarching plan for their stories. However, when I write, I try to tell stories that I would enjoy as a reader; and comparing my experience of these three series just leaves me more convinced than ever that I’m taking the right approach. So I may not get back to writing for another couple weeks — but when I do, I will know where my protagonist ends, and how he gets there. And I think I’ll tell a better story because of it.

Elaborating on a Promise: A Tale of Series Fiction and Two Jo(e)s

In the last two months (since early August), I have read and thoroughly enjoyed the first books in two very different trilogies. In both cases, I read the first book in 1 or 2 days, choosing it over socializing and newsfeed-reading and the other things that tend to occupy my non-writing hours. It’s been quite a while (a few months at least) since I’ve had that kind of reaction to a book, so when it happened for the first time, I went out the next day and ordered Books 2 and 3 in that series, happy to know that I would be able to pick them up and devour them at my leisure. With the second series, though, I was more cautious; instead of running to the bookstore, I requested the sequel from the library. As it happened, I liked that book enough that I will probably add it to my permanent collection alongside its predecessor… but I had learned my lesson the first time around. Just because a first book catches your fancy doesn’t mean that the rest of the series will do so.

I’ve blogged here before about the relative joys and tribulations of standalone books and series, but my experience with these two trilogies prompted me to revisit the issue from a slightly different angle. The series I set down unfinished was Joe Abercrombie‘s Shattered Sea trilogy; the one I would endorse in its (admittedly as-yet unfinished) entirety is Jo Walton‘s Thessaly books. Both series are well-written; Goodreads confirms that both have lots of devoted fans. The two series also do some similar things from a craft perspective. Both present a word that is a mix of history and fantasy; both have multiple viewpoint characters; and perhaps most notably, neither author is afraid to make their second (or third) book very different from the first, and trust the readers to decide whether they want to continue along on the ride. Mild-to-moderate spoilers for both series follow.

The Shattered Sea books focus on a culture that bears a more-than-superficial resemblance to (mainstream cultural understandings of) the Vikings; a world where manhood is marked by one’s ability to go raiding, and wealth comes from what you can take when you burn a village. There are a handful of different nations (most notably Vanstermen and Gettlanders) whose cultures seem remarkably similar, and a few others that are more distinctive. Abercrombie also includes some interesting worldbuilding details which I think are invented; while the peoples of the Shattered Sea have distinct roles for men and women, those tasks apportioned to women include most financial and religious duties, and the pantheon includes some interesting reversals from the most traditional stereotypes (Father Peace and Mother War, for starters). In the first book, Half a King, our hero is Yarvi, the younger son of the King of Gettland, who’s been given to the priesthood (in a role relatively rare for a man) because his disabled hand makes him unable to hold a shield and thus unable to fight. In the first chapter of the book, he learns that his father and elder brother have died, and thus he is now King of Gettland; within the first 50 pages, he’s betrayed by his uncle, left for dead, and sold into slavery. The rest of the book is Yarvi’s struggle to set this situation right, and I loved it: he surrounds himself with memorable characters whose exploits I really cared about, a band of unlikely heroes making their way through the wilderness, and their adventures kept me turning pages right up until the end. I liked that Yarvi wasn’t the traditional hero; I liked that his disability was neither his only character trait nor something to be ignored when it became inconvenient, or cured by book’s end; and I liked the plot he found himself in, with a combination of action and character development.

The second book in this series, Half the World, is the tale of a ship making its way from Gettland to the other side of the known world to attempt an alliance with a far-off ruler. The journey has some of the same elements I loved from the first book, but I didn’t enjoy it as much — in large part, I think, because Yarvi is no longer the viewpoint character. Abercrombie trades him in for two new viewpoints, a man and a woman, and while they both had some interesting elements I didn’t feel that either was as distinctive (plus, there’s an awkward YA-style romance between them, with lots of miscommunication before the inevitable getting together). I made it through the book hopeful that the third, Half a War, would feature more screen time for Yarvi; instead, Abercrombie changes viewpoints yet again, bringing in three new protagonists, and sending heroes new and old off to battle. Given the title of the book, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that there was more fighting and less opportunity for character interplay (never my favorite combination), but given how much I’d liked the first book, I kept holding out hope that this one would turn into something closer to what I’d loved in the first book. It didn’t, and I set it down halfway through.

In most ways, Jo Walton’s Thessaly series is as different from The Shattered Sea as it is possible for two books to be while remaining in the same genre (maybe unsurprising given how different Walton’s books and series are from one another). The premise of the first book, The Just City, is that the Greek gods Apollo and Athene have took it upon themselves to test out the model of a city laid out in Plato’s Republic. To do this, they transport a number of Platonic scholars from various points in human history to a remote Greek island in pre-history, and present them with a cadre of “blank slate” pupils — more-or-less contemporary slave children taken from throughout the Mediterranean. The goal is that the children will be raised in line with the Platonic ideals outlined in The Republic; the viewpoint characters include one teacher, one human student, and Apollo, who has elected to take on human form to participate in the experiment directly. Sokrates gets involved; there are robots; and as you might guess, things get complicated quickly. This book is unlike most other things I’ve read, and I loved it; it speaks to the worldbuilder in me, as the protagonists are forced to confront the problems with implementing an untested philosophical system with real people, and to the sociologist who loves stories of utopia and dystopia. I don’t usually like stories focused heavily around ideas, but this book was an exception.

The second Thessaly book, The Philosopher Kings, pushes the plot ahead twenty years: the children from the first book are adults, having children of their own, and the community has spread out beyond a single city and even beyond the small island where Athene originally placed them. Two of the narrators are the same, while a third disappears from the story in the first chapter. Philosopher Kings delves more deeply into theology (specifically issues of incarnation and the rights and obligations of demigods) and the effects of historical meddling, but it remains at its root a book about ideas, with the characters serving mainly as mechanisms to kick those ideas around. It’s not the sort of book I would ordinarily jump at, but I’ve been recommending it to all my fellow “book nerds,” and I expect I will be snapping up the third in the trilogy when it appears sometime next year. Which raises the question — why did I like one series so much and not the other?

I’ve thought about it, and I don’t think it’s specifically because of the changes the authors make between books. Other series, like Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, set their first narrator aside when the first book is done and I go on to enjoy the later books even more; George RR Martin has introduced new settings and characters galore in his later Song of Ice and Fire books and I’ve enjoyed most of them very much. And it’s not as though one series stays truer to its central themes than the other; Shattered Sea has Viking-esque warfare and cultural values throughout, while Thessaly is first and foremost an exploration of what happens when a set of philosophical ideals are implemented in the real world. The difference, I think, is that what I liked in Half a King was something other than Abercrombie’s central theme. I wanted to see more of Yarvi’s story from the inside, not just hear about how he was a great diplomat and priest from the eyes of other characters; Abercrombie wanted to let the world grow bigger, and I wasn’t interested in following along. By contrast, although Walton moved outside the Just City in her second novel, the things I liked about the first one were still central to the story she was telling.

The exercise of comparing the two series has been interesting, particularly since I’ve set myself to writing a set of linked series that will put my protagonist in drastically different circumstances. It’s useful to remember that while contemporary authors are more encouraged than their predecessors to stretch themselves, and new authors in particular are warned to avoid focusing too much on one type of project, every change you make in a sequel will alienate some of your readers. People fall in love with a book for lots of reasons, and not all of those will come with you when you move on in the world.

On the up side, I suppose that even a reader who doesn’t like where a series ended up can still be in love with the first book. I won’t be keeping Half the World or Half a War, but Half a King has earned its place on my bookshelf; and I’ll be ordering Philosopher Kings from my local bookstore at the next opportunity.

On Six Months as a “Real Writer”

Since my last teaching job ended at the end of March, I’ve been self-identifying as “a full-time writer.” In practice, for me, this has meant two things. The first is that I permit myself to consider my novel “work.” The second is that I set myself a goal for a number of hours worked each week, and I track those hours. Since I’m about to reach the six-month mark, I figured it was about time to sit down and reflect on my experiences so far – and to share them, because people always seem to find other people’s writing-process accounts fascinating.

I have definitely noticed a change since I’ve made these changes in practice, not only in my writing process but in my mindset. In fact, although I’ve been writing semi-consistently for most of my life, and almost every day for most of the last nine years, the last six months have seen some revisions to aspects of my routine that have been there for years.

First and foremost, I find that allowing myself to have designated consistent writing time is a godsend. I’ve talked before on this blog about how I typically block off one weekday as “writing time” – no contractor appointments, coffee dates, or house-cleaning obligations, just me and the laptop. In general, I also try to avoid making appointments before 1 PM so that I can have my mornings to work. I’m still not as good about staying out of email and social media distractions as I’d like to be, but I have started setting my phone to do-not-disturb mode for a few hours. It’s not an absolute system – there are certain people, designated as “priority,” whose calls will still get through in case of emergencies – but it’s a bit of ritual that works for me, a “physical” acknowledgment that I am now enclosing myself in the sphere of my book for a limited time. The world will be there when I’m done.

As for the other factor, the hours-per-week – well, it’s had a few effects. The first is psychological. I’ve told myself that I will aim to do twenty hours of work on the book each week: this was also what I aimed for when I was writing my dissertation in 2012 and 2013. That means that when I’m evaluating my admittedly-unstructured week, I find myself making calculations about how to spend my free time. Do I have a busy weekend planned? Then maybe I won’t take that friend up on her Wednesday afternoon coffee date, because I know that I won’t have time to fit in my last few hours at the end of the week. I also find that tracking hours is better for my morale than tracking word count (which I know a lot of people do, including Stephen King) because it allows me to “count” things like going for a walk to untangle a sticky plot knot, or spending a morning outlining a new chapter. I know that sometimes the words will take a while to come, but if I’m ready and waiting for them, I can count the time as writing.

That’s the other thing I’ve found as an effect of my twenty-hour work week – I get less anxious about sticky plot than I used to. Even a few months ago, when a chapter jammed up, I would fret and pace and let it get under my skin, ranting to Husband that “this is clearly the most difficult chapter! It’s just not working! I can’t figure out where it’s supposed to go, I’m not working on it anymore!” Those rants have dramatically decreased in number since I’ve started this new process. I think part of that is that I’m just gaining more experience – putting in more time on the book within a more condensed time frame means that I’m getting accustomed to the ebb and flow of drafting, the fact that almost every chapter will have its sticking points and that after a week or two of frustrating fumbling suddenly the pieces will fit together and I’ll know how to move forward. But I think the other is just having some measure of accountability. Whether the writing is going well or badly, I still expect myself to show up; I still have that record of my time that I log at the end of the week, encouraging me to apply butt to chair (or, at least, brain to problem) and wait for my subconscious to work its magic.

I recognize that I’m privileged to have a schedule that accommodates this level of immersion in a creative project every week, and I also acknowledge that a lot of my tricks are the same ones I used to get myself through the later stages of graduate school. But all the same, my experience has made me a convert to a few tricks of the trade that seem like they’ll work no matter how much time you have to devote to your storytelling:

  1. Take your writing seriously. Allow yourself to make and keep appointments to work on it, just the way you would with work for which you’re accountable to someone else.
  2. Set attainable goals for yourself. Say that you’ll engage with your story for 30 minutes a day, or that you’ll try to get in 2 2-hour sessions over the course of a week.
  3. Don’t get obsessed with word count. I know that NaNoWriMo and other writing contests encourage writers to spew out words and not worry too much about content, and that’s a strategy that works well for many people – but if it doesn’t work for you, or doesn’t always work, find another way to give yourself a sense of forward momentum.
  4. Figure out what times work best for you to write, and don’t be afraid to take advantage of those times.

Maybe most importantly of all, as I’ve noted on this blog before, keep at it. Whatever lets you make progress on your creative goals, if you’re working at them, you’re doing it right.

If You’re Doing It, You’re Doing It Right: The Creative Process

A few months ago, Husband came home from work with a book in hand: “I saw this at the store and thought of you.” The book was Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey; it’s basically the distillation of as many different sources as Currey could find, laying out the creative process for “novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians… who describe how they… get done the work they love to do.”

I suspect that I’m not the only creative type who enjoys hearing about how other people get their creativity flowing, so I was intrigued by this book, but also intimidated. I’m still a little new to this full-time creative life, after all, and also acknowledge my own tendencies to compare myself to others — so when I hear that Stephen King writes 2000 words every day and says that “the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season” (from his book On Writing), I get anxious. The first draft of my current project took almost two years; the second draft is shaping up to encompass another year and a half, if I’m lucky. Hearing about wildly productive and successful authors like King (whose books I faithfully read and generally love) makes me feel like I’m doing it wrong.

Turns out what I may have needed is some perspective.

It took me a while to read Currey’s book, over the course of many, many 5-minutes-before-bed stints. There were moments in my perusal when I felt my old comparison anxiety popping back up, like when I read about how Faulkner “often [completed] three thousand words a day and occasionally twice that amount” — but for every section about wildly prolific authors, there was a passage like the one about John Updike, who said that “I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again.” Joyce Carol Oates said that “Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.” Ayn Rand got through writer’s block (which she called “the squirms”) by playing solitaire without getting up from her desk; Goethe waited for inspiration, saying that “It is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.”

One thing the book makes abundantly clear is that no two creatives have exactly the same process, and that there’s no “right” way to make art. I found it useful to keep this fact in mind last week, when I was trying to decide whether to go back over a chapter that I knew needed more work or to press on to the next one. As someone whose Lawful Good alignment runs deep, I spent a day or two obsessing over which was the “right” way to do it, before finally making my peace with the fact that there was, in fact, no rule to follow here. In the end, I decided to spend a day laying the groundwork for the new chapter and then as long as it took (as it turned out, about 1 week’s/20 hours’ work) to go over the old one and set it right before I lost track of the threads of plot and character motivation that’d come together at the end of a difficult pass through. It involved three days of really frustrating work on the rougher parts before I got to the “easy bit,” but I was left feeling that the chapter was better and also pleased with myself for managing to get it done in a single fairly condensed time frame. And as Husband keeps reminding me, in the end, I’m not Stephen King or William Faulkner, and my book will take as long as it takes.

In the spirit of writerly disclosures, here are a few things that seem to be part of my “best practices,” as they’ve emerged over almost a year of full-time writing:

  • My best work tends to happen in the morning and early afternoon, between about 10 AM-2 PM (a little earlier if the cat cooperates by settling down and not making a pest of himself)
  • I can usually work between 2.5-3 hours at a stretch; if I’m writing new material and the words are coming easily, I may do two sessions of that length in a day with lunch in between.
  • I’m best off working on my manuscript every day, even if just for a half hour, to keep it fresh at the top of my mind
  • To avoid the temptations of social media while I’m working, the deal I make with myself is that I won’t check Facebook or Twitter until I’ve met my minimum writing goals for the day (typically 1500 words and/or about 400 words an hour)
  • I keep track of both words written and hours worked for the week; this allows me to avoid feeling bad about myself in a week that has more planning and less prose production, and also gives me the satisfying feeling of watching the words and the hours pile up.
  • If I’m feeling blocked, it’s usually a sign that I haven’t thought through some element of the plot or character motivation clearly enough. Going for a walk, and/or sitting down with a notebook (away from the temptations of social media) are my best ways of solving that problem

There are still days when I want to throw the whole thing out the window; but for the most part, I continue to feel deeply fortunate that I get to live this life. And I found this book a useful reality check that whatever works for you, however long it takes you to produce your masterpieces, as long as you’re working and someday your work makes it out into the world, what you’re doing is the right way.

History is Written By People: Conclusions on Building Fictional History

I read quite a bit of history, both real and fictional. In the last couple months, the historically oriented books that I’ve read and enjoyed have included (in no particular order) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the edited volume Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse, Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie, N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the fictionalized history text by George RR Martin, Elio M. Garcia Jr. and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire. With all of this stuff floating around my head, and especially after talking about Jemisin and Martin’s work in my book group this weekend, I’ve been reminded of a conclusion that’s good to restate from time to time. That conclusion is this:

History is complicated.

A lot of what I mean by that is encompassed in the expression “history is written by the victors,” that those who come out on top in any conflict usually get the first and/or last say in how that conflict’s framed in official history books. That’s why Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America is still celebrated in much of the United States despite protests that the holiday commemorates genocide, and it’s why children in Vietnam learn that the United States sent colonialist forces to their country in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But there’s more to the matter than that.

Good historians, like all social scientists, try to understand and present the past as completely and accurately as possible. But when we talk about history, we mean more than just the most accurate account of events; history’s a distillation of the stories a culture tells itself about the world. By its very nature as the collected experiences of individuals, set down by individuals, real history is never completely uniform, and it’s never totally complete.

First off, no official history ever goes completely unchallenged. One hundred and fifty years later, people still occasionally refer to the 19th-century conflict between the US and the Confederacy as “the War of Northern Aggression.” More than 45 years after network TV broadcast Neil Armstrong saying “one small step for man,” people still dispute whether there was ever a moon landing. Even the most authoritarian leaders usually can’t suppress opposing views completely – and even the most information-driven societies can’t be absolutely sure of the truth of everything in their archives. Not to mention the fact that the archives never hold everything.

Every historian’s work is based on analysis of data. The two “real” histories on my list from the first paragraph, Nielsen’s and Levine’s, rely heavily on first-person accounts, journals and letters from the time periods they’re interested in. But if a place or a people is destroyed suddenly (as happens sometimes in history, and is particularly prone to happen in genre fiction, where a god or an asteroid might wipe out a whole continent with no warning), there may not be much left in the way of records to consult. In Charles C. Mann’s 1491, distilling the latest theories about pre-contact American societies, the author makes the point that there’s a great deal that will never be known for sure about these peoples just because their destruction by the Europeans (through intentional and unintentional means) was so complete.

Finally, there’s the fact that those who set down the history are human beings, and as I tell my students in Sociological Research Methods, human beings can never be truly objective. Even a historian who had access to all the possible data on their subject, from all the sides of a conflict, would have to pick and choose what to include, and those choices would inevitably be guided by bias. Social researchers can try to be aware of their biases, and to work around them, but they can never escape them completely.

Having said all that about how I believe real history works, it probably comes as no surprise that I like my fictionalized history to follow these same rules.

George RR Martin is a master of this. Whether you believe A World of Ice and Fire is a worthwhile addition to the universe or a concession to fans chomping at the bit for the next book, you’d be hard-pressed to deny that it’s a marvelously complex and human history that’s right in line with the way Martin is telling his story in the novels. Rather than an uncontested “behind-the-scenes” account of the events Martin’s developed for the history of his world, AWoIaF presents a contradictory account by a few well-intentioned maesters, who are drawing on incomplete data and writing in full knowledge that their work will be reviewed by the current rulers, and so they’d better stay clear of politically incendiary rhetoric (the title “Kingslayer,”  for example, appears nowhere in these pages). The book’s gotten some criticism from fans for not being “the official history of Westeros”; I’d argue that it couldn’t be more official, just as it is.

Another series that does this well is Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first one. When we enter the setting, we’re given the official version of its history – once there were three gods, but then one was killed, another enslaved. These are, respectively, the traitor and the fiend, while the remaining god rules alone in the heavens and the family that helped him win the gods’ war rule on the earth with wisdom and justice. Upon encountering this setup, I’d guess that any reader familiar with the concept of “mainstream” and “alternative” history will be suspicious from the word go, and Jemisin is quick to validate those suspicions. In a guest post she wrote for John Scalzi’s blog when her first book came out, she notes that the germ of the idea for the Inheritance books came when she read 1491, which made her think about the idea of “hidden history.”

The world of my novels has all kinds of hidden history. The era my hero lives in is (very roughly) something of a Renaissance period for his culture, the first years of peace and renewal after a long war that basically leveled the previous civilization. When I sat down to flesh out my worldbuilding, one of the first things I had to work out was exactly what happened in that war. So I did, and now I know the whole story – more or less – but as I wrote it out, I found myself taking first one perspective and then another. I told one faction’s version of what happened and then countered it with the other’s; I came up with names for what each group called themselves as well as what they called their enemies. And when I reference the war in the novel, a person’s answer to the question of “what happened” varies dramatically depending on their species, their regional origins, their age and other factors. No one person, no one group, has the whole story. I like it better that way.

There are certainly good books that connect their story’s main events to precise, unambiguous history. But the more I read, the more I’m convinced that if a writer wants their fictional world to have the ring of authenticity, they’d best take a little time to think about how that world views its past. What evidence has been preserved for contemporary people to use in understanding the past? What stories do the people in power want taught and highlighted? Who would have the incentives to counter those stories?

That’s why I read so much history; because the real world is wondrously multifaceted and complex, and the story changes depending on who’s telling it. I think the best fictional worlds are those that have this feeling to them, like Martin’s, like Jemisin’s. That’s what I try to do when I tell stories in my world.

Going to the Stacks: A Plug for Old-Fashioned Research Tools

You may have noticed that my presence on this blog has declined in the last month or so; this has been for a couple of reasons, some of which I’ve already discussed here, but one of the good ones that I haven’t crowed about much is that I’m actually starting to make progress on the book at faster-than-a-snail’s-pace (probably to do with having more focused writing time now that my teaching responsibilities are over for a while). In the last few weeks, my writing has been getting between 2 and 4 hours almost every day. Of course, not all of that time is spent putting words on paper; as I’m sure the other writers out there know, no matter how much research you think you’ve done ahead of time, you’ll inevitably find something that needs to be looked up in-the-moment.

I don’t always drop everything to go research; after a long process of trial and error, I’ve learned better than to dive blindly into the Internet and expect to come up for air before I’ve lost the thread of what I was doing. But sometimes, the question is one that’s actually intrinsic to the scene I’m writing. How might this animal behave under these circumstances? What could you do for a person with these injuries if you didn’t have professional help available? What weapons would these people  most likely be carrying?

For an immediate question like that, I find it works much better for me to go to a physical book to find an answer. The distraction potential is far less (there’s no link to Facebook on my bookshelf, for instance, unless my phone happens to be sitting there); I tend to be more familiar with the layout of the source I’m tapping, letting me quickly find the section I’m looking for; and since I’ve evaluated it before adding it to my library I can be more sure of its accuracy.

Of course, I can never be completely sure what I might need to look up on any given day, but here are a few categories of topic that I’ve found myself accumulating books on, that might be worthy additions to other aspiring fantasists’ reference libraries (you’ll find a partial list of titles at the end of the post):

  • Books with photos and drawings of clothing and weapons. This one was particularly important to me after I resolved that the world of my novels would not have a straightforward “faux-European” flavor. I wanted the cultures to feel more original, and so I wanted to make sure I exposed myself to the way things were done in other places besides medieval Europe. So far, I’ve collected three different books on costuming and body adornment, and two different books on weapons; when I bring a new character onto the page, I can sit down and consider the culture they’re coming out of (are they a pastoralist? a city-dweller? someone from a hot climate? a wet climate?), and quickly look at illustrations from a number of real-world cultures with similar elements.
  • Skill-based books. I have a few small clusters of “skill books” (some on falconry; some on sailing; one written for linguists on how to document an unknown language); more recently, I’ve been gathering books on survival in the wilderness. Because I’ve often got characters roaming through uncharted territory in my books, and it’s useful to have a quick guide to things like how to gut a carcass, sharpen knives, start a fire and transport an injured person — as well as stuff like basic nutrition for people living in a non-industrialized setting.
  • Natural history books. If animals play a major part in your story, it’s probably useful for you to have a few books about those animals (I suspect GRRM might have a wolf text or two in his writing room). Raptors have a pretty substantial role in the story I’m telling, so I have books that discuss their anatomy, behavior, and training, as well as a few big coffee table books just for the pictures.
  • Cultural overview books. These, of course, take all sorts of forms. I’ve got an ever-growing collection of compilations of mythology from around the world; I have a book whose authors went around the world taking photos of families with all their worldly possessions piled up in front of their house, and a whole series of coffee table books offering sweeping historical overviews of different parts of the world, plus the obligatory medieval Europe series and about three years of National Geographic back-issues that I can flip through when I’m feeling stuck for imagery. None of it stands on its own as a world-building tool; all of it informs my thinking.

And that’s just the stuff I’ve accumulated so far.

I know that my library will grow and change as my writing career does, but I don’t think I will ever move to an all-digital research approach. The experience of pulling a familiar book from the shelf and cracking it open to the old familiar pictures is just too powerful for me to let it go.

Reference Books I’ve Found Useful:

For weapons, armor, and general attire (all basically coffee table books):

  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Knives, Daggers & Bayonets (Dr. Tobias Capwell)
  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Swords and Sabres (Harvey J.S. Withers)
  • The Illustrated History of Weaponry: From Flint Axes to Automatic Weapons (Chuck Wills)
  • Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man (R.G. Grant — lots of pictures of weapons and armor from the earliest records to the present day)
  • Costume Worldwide: A Historical Sourcebook (Melissa Leventon, ed — unlike the others, this one draws on paintings as its source material, so may not be quite as accurate, but it’s a good place to start and the broadest book I’ve been able to find so far)

For wilderness/survival skills:

  • SAS Survival Guide (John “Lofty” Wiseman — written by a veteran of the British special forces. Includes everything from how to test the edibility of plants and make your own bow to surviving a shipwreck)
  • Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook (David Werner, Carol Thuman & Jane Maxwell — mainly focuses on disease prevention and treatment in low-technology settings, but there’s some useful first aid and preventative medicine here too)

For raptor natural history info and photos, and falconry basics

  • Understanding the Bird of Prey (Nick Fox — the bible of falconry management, as far as I can tell; out of print and quite expensive to get a copy of, but I’ve found it worth the hefty pricetag. Includes anatomy and physiology, behavior, training, breeding and most anything else you can think of).
  • Falcons of North America (Kate Davis — a natural history text focused on wild birds, with great pictures)
  • A Falconry Manual (Frank L. Beebe — decent photos and brief overviews of the species used for falconry in North America, as well as the basics of training, housing, etc.)

For cultural stuff:

  • Life in a Medieval Castle (Joseph & Frances Gies)
  • Life in a Medieval City (Joseph & Frances Gies)
  • Life in a Medieval Village (Frances & Joseph Gies — if you’re looking to draw on the medieval-Europe model, these three books cover it pretty comprehensively, and also get a thumbs-up from a real-life medieval historian in my social circle as adequately accurate in their summaries)
  • Favorite Folktales from Around the World (Jane Yolen, ed — this book joined my library when I had to write my story’s first folk tale earlier this year; good representation from around the world and a good overview of the most common types of stories.
  • Material World: A Global Family Portrait (Peter Menzel & Charles C. Mann — the coffee table book illustrating the experiences of different families from around the world; a good reminder that even in the same time frame [mid-90s, in this case] people in different places live dramatically differently)

On Resets, Writing, and Life

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper. – E.B. White

This quote, from Day 38 of Barbara Abercrombie’s Year of Writing Dangerously book of meditations, accompanies a mini-essay on the archetypical concept of “ideal conditions,” basically making the point that there is no such thing. Real life will always be seeking to get between an artist and their work, particularly when (like me) your deadlines are flexible and you’re accountable in the end to no one but yourself.

For me, the last few days have been a particularly trying example of this. In a holdover from dissertation discipline, Mondays are my designated writing day, the day on which I schedule no appointments or errands; but yesterday, after a very chaotic two weeks for our family that ended in a rush of late-night Sunday paperwork, I spent half the morning picking up pieces of our orderly household that couldn’t wait any longer (since banks and creditors are not much inclined toward flexible deadlines). When I finally settled in with my chapter, I got far enough along to know that I had the makings of a good writing day ahead of me – and then had to spend half the afternoon running a similarly-urgent-but-ultimately-fruitless errand. I resolved that Tuesday would be a “reset,” and that to make that happen Husband and I would have a relaxing night and go to sleep early… and then, around 9 PM, a beloved local stray cat was hit by a car on our street and killed. So instead of unwinding, we spent the evening grieving with neighbors and digging a grave in the front yard. Now, on Tuesday morning, I’m sleep-deprived, frazzled, and cranky… and yet, more than anything, I want to be in a state of mind to work on my manuscript. So I’m writing this post as part of my reset effort, cleansing myself for writing time.

In introductory sociology, I tell my students about Emile Durkheim’s work on religion, and the distinction he draws between the sacred and the everyday. Sacred objects are set apart, treated with special reverence; sacred places often require their visitors to perform a small ritual when they enter (whether that’s genuflecting to the altar before you sit down in a Catholic church or removing your shoes at the door of a mosque). And sacred time is different from everyday time.

I don’t always have time for a long ritual before I start my morning writing, but there are certain things that are more often than not a part of my routine. I make a cup of tea; I see my cat settled on his window seat next to my writing desk; I read that day’s writing meditation from the Abercrombie book. And then I shut off my wireless adapter, I mark how much time I’m going to work that morning (one hour, or two, or three) and I sit down and see what happens.

My expectations for today aren’t very high. I don’t think I’ll write beautiful prose or solve sticky plot problems: I think it’s more likely I’ll fumble around, add a few words here or there, maybe review a scene I’m already happy with. But regardless, I’m going to do it for an hour and see what happens. Because I might break through and find the focus that I’m hoping for, the focus I had in my sights yesterday – and if that’s the case, it’ll make my day immeasurably better.

The more I do this, the more I realize that half of writing is prioritizing the time; most of the other half is showing up. So today, with all the crises that took my Monday away resolved, I’m going to take a deep breath and see if I can’t find my way back into my scene.

Reset achieved. Wish me luck.

For the Writer’s Toolkit: Scrivener

Note: If you’re interested in taking a look at the writing program Scrivener for yourself, it’s available here.

When I started taking writing classes at the San Francisco Writing Salon several years ago, one of my instructors suggested that her students try out a program called Scrivener. She praised its flexibility and multiple editing modes, and promised that it was reasonably priced and easy to learn, but I was still skeptical, for much the same reason I’m skeptical of any new writing tool. I’ve been writing since I was five years old; for most of that time, I used nothing but a basic word processor or pen and paper. I thought the bells and whistles of a writing-focused program would just be a distraction.

But the program kept skittering across my writer radar, and so just before New Year’s 2013, I took the bait and went to the website for a look. And I’ve never looked back.

At the most basic level, Scrivener functions like a giant virtual binder, giving you the capacity to reference all the parts of your project in one place through folders, subfolders and files. You can import text documents that you’ve composed in other programs; you can also compose directly in Scrivener itself.

What you might see when you opened your Scrivener project, if you were Frances Hodgson Burnett.

What you might see when you opened your Scrivener project, if you were Frances Hodgson Burnett writing A Little Princess.

This is probably a good place to note that because I don’t consider my current project ready for prime time, to illustrate aspects of the program I’m including screen shots from a different text: for those who don’t recognize it straightaway, it’s Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, which I obtained through Project Gutenberg.

In integrating my massive book into Scrivener, I’ve opted to parse things so that each scene is a unique file, grouped together in folders by chapter; but I’ve also sorted my chapters into larger folders encompassing Draft 1 and Draft 2. Within the same document, I also have folders for Book 2 and 3 of my trilogy, with subfolders to break them down by chapter and scene. In practice, this means that when I get a brainstorm about something that won’t happen for 2½ books, I can go to the appropriate place, scrawl it down, and be confident that it’ll sit there until I’m ready to write the relevant scene. And because of the program’s flexibility, I can shift with a click from viewing a single scene to viewing a whole chapter or even the whole book. This, to me, still seems a little bit like magic.

Other aspects of this program that have made it well worth my initial investment:

  • Notes. In essence, the ability to paperclip scribbles to the back of a file. I most often use this to record answers to questions like “what’s the actual plan for this heist before everything goes wrong” or “what’s going on in this  conversation that my character can’t understand a word of.”
Scrivener's Notes feature.

Scrivener’s Notes feature.

  • Snapshots. What my programmer husband would call versioning software. When I’m finished with a scene for the day, I push a button and Scrivener saves a copy of it; the next time I sit down, I can joyfully tear the whole thing out by the roots if I’m so inclined, because anything I might want to retrieve from the dustbin will be sitting quietly in the Snapshot folder waiting to be resurrected.
Scrivener's Snapshot feature

Scrivener’s Snapshot feature

  • Outline Mode. Probably the feature that’s been most useful to me in my efforts to plot this giant series, this option allows me to view chapters and scenes in a clean, bullet-pointed mode. I can fill in a one- or two-sentence synopsis of each scene and chapter. And if I decide I want to change the plot, or shuffle chapters or scenes, all I have to do is click and drag and the associated notes and prose will move to the new location right along with the title.
Scrivener's Outline Mode; also demonstrating Split Screen

Scrivener’s Outline Mode; also demonstrating Split Screen

  • Split Screen Capabilities. Many programs (including MS Word) allow you to have multiple versions of the same document open at once; Scrivener also lets you have two files open simultaneously, so you can cross-reference between scenes or (as I did for two months) have your timeline open on the side while you’re composing the grand history of your setting.
  • Word Count, Project & Session Targets. The word count for the file you’ve selected (whether it’s a scene or the whole book) appears as a default in the footer of the program. You can also set targets for each writing session and for the project overall, and bring both of those up on screen with one keystroke.
  • Manuscript Formatting. When you’re done with your draft (or want to send something to a writing group), select which parts of your document you want to export and the format you want them in, and Scrivener will take care of the rest.

There also are a pile of other small friendly things that make it clear this is a program designed by writers for writers, like the capacity to take your work in progress full-screen with a single keystroke, or to open a long document at the start of your writing day and find yourself in the same paragraph where you left off (in the old days, I would mark my stopping place with “Stopped here” so I could search for that keyword instead of scrolling through 40+ pages).

 Scrivener bills itself as a program for getting the first draft done, but my first draft is in the bag at this point, and I’m still using it. So if you’re a writer of big books looking for a compact, affordable toolkit to streamline your writing process, you might want to check this one out.

Wearing Books Like Hats: On Reading as a Writer

In my continual quest to find new writing companions, I had a coffee date with a new writer last week, another Bay Area part-timer who’s trying to push out a draft of her first book. When she sketched the plot for me — a YA dystopia — my first question was “oh, so how many of the current crop have you read?” As a long-time dystopia fan, I’m used to my favorite subgenre being a few books stuffed in among the SF/F mainstream, and it still doesn’t make intuitive sense to me that The Hunger Games has thrown open the doors for a genre that now has its own section in the Young Adult shelves and what seems like a new movie released every other week. So I was expecting her to mention Divergent, maybe Matched or Uglies or Legend or The Maze Runner (I’ve read at least the first book in the first four series).

Instead, she just tilted her head and gave me a funny look. “I haven’t read any of them. Why?”

I know this new acquaintance isn’t alone in her experience. I’ve met other writers who don’t read at all in their genre, or who stay away from fiction altogether when they’re writing. I’ve heard the excuses, too, that it’ll pollute your vision or depress you or even that you’re opening yourself up to inadvertent plagiarism. But my own experience has put me firmly in the camp of those like Stephen King, who say that writers have to be readers first.

Speaking just for myself, the other way doesn’t make much sense: I definitely took my first step toward a writing life when I found a story I loved. The first book I can remember reading over and over again was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty: I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my first attempt at a novel, the year I turned eleven, was a first-person memoir from the point of view of a horse.

In my experience, that’s the hazard of turning from reading to writing once you’ve fallen in love with a single story. My second try at a novel-length work, started and abandoned in middle school, told the tale of a group of kids from half a dozen different planets who crewed a spaceship. I thought a lot about my characters, and in a move that should’ve given me the hint that sociology was in my future, I spent an enormous amount of time developing my various alien races’ cultures (though I can’t make any claims to high originality: I’m pretty sure there was a cat person and a fish person). But when it came to the details a little further from my geeky worldbuilding heart, like the mechanics of the ship, I borrowed very heavily from the sci-fi story I was most familiar with at the time: Bill Mumy & Peter David’s Space Cases (may it rest in peace).

The same thing happened to me as a college freshman, when I set out to write my very own dystopian novel. I had fairly well-rounded characters and a carefully worked out setting, but when I read the manuscript over now, I can’t see anything but echoes of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Teens being assigned to their jobs by a central council; children being raised in non-biological families so that no one has to actually discuss the messiness of hormonal reproduction (said hormones being conveniently repressed by a chemical); no music, art or poetry. You get the idea.

My current writing project isn’t dystopian, but it is a fictionalized memoir, and a big fat fantasy series, and a story set in a distinctly non-Tolkien world that nonetheless has magic and non-human sentient beings and swordfights. And as I work on it, I’ve increasingly come to believe that reading other books with those qualities — or some of them, or none of them — is an essential part of helping me to make my book better.

In PhD programs, one of the rites of passage that doesn’t get as much press as the thesis defense (with or without snakes) is sitting for qualifying exams. When I was in the Berkeley sociology department, that process typically involved choosing two substantive fields (like sociology of education, sociology of race, sociology of culture) and then sitting down for 6 months to make yourself an expert in those fields, along with the field of sociological theory. Once you felt like you’d reached expert level, you were locked in a room with four faculty members for two hours and forced to answer questions to demonstrate your expertise. The main goal of this exercise was to train you to teach, but it was also framed as being key to your development as an independent scholar. The thinking went that if you didn’t know where your own research fits into the field, you were working with one hand tied behind your back.

Obviously, writing fiction is different than writing sociology (one of the main reasons I’ve opted to do more of the former and less of the latter), but I think the principle stands: even if writing “marketable” fiction is the last thing from your mind, reading other things like the story you’re writing will help you write better. Now that I’ve read bits of a dozen different high fantasy series, when I hit a roadblock in my plotting or worldbuilding I’m less likely to catch myself defaulting to “what would Tolkien do?” And no matter what your final goal is for your work, it’s still useful to know if there are books out there in the world that do what you do. Other people will assume you’ve read them, and if your new idea for a YA dystopia randomly happens to look an awful lot like The Hunger Games, you’ll want to know it sooner rather than later.

There are immediate practical benefits, too. When I finish a book and want to rave about its amazingness (or terribleness), I’m more inclined than I used to be to sit down and figure out why it worked for me, or didn’t. In my reading, I’ve seen dozens of different ways to write action scenes; I’ve learned some of the common pitfalls for dialogue (hint: in most cases, your characters’ spoken words should probably sound different than the narrator’s); I’ve started to get a sense for when a twist is too obvious. Most times, when I’m reading, I’m learning and having fun all at once.

I didn’t tell my new acquaintance that she ought to drop everything and go to the library, but if I end up meeting up with her again, I may do just that. Because when you want to claim membership in a club, whether it’s sociology or authorhood, it seems to me it’ll give you a leg up if you know the senior members’ names.

Or, to put it another way, here’s some advice from one of the greatest members of the Genre Writers’ Club:

“You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” — Ray Bradbury

Sources I’ve used to find Things to Read: