• Shop Indie Bookstores
  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • Categories

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.

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.

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.

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:

Reading Challenge Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things (or: “Write What You Love”)

A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet (#16 on my 2015 Reading Challenge List): The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss

I recently read a book by one of my favorite authors and didn’t like it. And unlike some of the people who’ve written angry reviews of the book on Goodreads, I’m okay with that.

In April of 2014, Pat Rothfuss announced that he would have a new book coming out before the end of the year. After getting out of the way that this book wasn’t The Doors of Stone, the third volume in the Kingkiller Chronicle, he went on to explain that it was a story he’d had “tickling around in [his] head” for a while, about a comparatively minor character from the Kingkiller Chronicle universe, and that after some experimentation and consultation with his editor and others whose opinion he trusted, he had decided this story should be a book of its very own.

Over the course of the next few months, Rothfuss continued to drum up soft publicity for the book on his website. And he also expressed some hesitation that not all his fans would like it. On the publication date, October 28th, he wrote a post wherein he confessed that “When I finished [the book], I honestly expected it to just sit in a trunk for years. I knew I liked it. But I also knew it wasn’t like any sort of fantasy story I’d ever read before. At best it was arty, at worst it was incomprehensible.” The foreword to the book itself begins with the words “You might not want to buy this book.”

Like many of Rothfuss’s fans, I read the post; I read the foreword; and I bought the book anyway. And as I suspected might be the case, I didn’t like it nearly as much as I like his longer novels. Rothfuss is a skilled storyteller, and a solid worldbuilder, but it’s very clear to anyone who reads more than 3 lines of his prose (or any of his blog posts on writing) that one of his most cherished identities is as a wordcrafter. And that’s the side of him that gets let loose to play in Slow Regard of Silent Things. The book’s as much a prose poem as it is a plotted story; the protagonist lives in a mental world full of verbing and nounage, and most of her possessions have names, and a lot of them aren’t given explicit description outside of their names. Add to that the fact that she sees the world differently from most people (the reasons for which haven’t been canonically established in the series yet, but have been implied to do with something that went wrong in her magical studies) and you have a book spanning seven days, where the most plot-driven thing that happens is the main character spending a chapter making soap. She spends time trying to find a gift for her friend; she rearranges things in her home underneath the University so that they’re in their proper places (in a thought process that felt like something between schizophrenia, OCD, and a deep understanding of feng shui); and she hides from the world above. That’s what this book is about.

I finished the book in part because I’m a completist, especially where my favorite authors are concerned, but I don’t think I’ll be reading it again. I’m definitely not the target audience: what hooks me into a book are culture, discussion of interesting ideas, and moments between characters. All of these are qualities Rothfuss’s other books have in common, but they’re not what this book was about. That said, I’m already considering which of my poetry-inclined friends would like it best. And I’m okay with an author writing something that’s not for me.

In the last year or so, I’ve done a lot of reading about creativity and “the artist’s life,” whatever that means. One of the things that’s resonated with me deeply is that in order to maintain their creative well, artists — professional or otherwise — need to be able to follow their muse where it takes them once in a while; to do something fun even if they don’t think it’ll be “profitable” or “mainstream.” I’m also a firm believer in the principle that every well-written work has its audience. Maybe I’m being naive, but I don’t believe that Rothfuss wrote this book because he was getting pressure from his publisher to put out something to keep his name in readers’ minds, or because he wanted the cash; I believe he wrote it because he had a story to tell, and he was lucky enough to have a creative team who could help him get it out to a place where it could find its audience.

I’ve written here before about how firmly I believe in the principle that you should write what you love and trust that people will read it; it’s advice that I’ve heard, among other places, in the 2014 Comic-Con panel where Rothfuss talked about worldbuilding. And I’m glad to see that it seems to be advice that he’s taken for himself.

I hope this book finds its loyal fans. And I hope that if I ever become a famous author someday, I’ll still be able to write the odd little stories that come through my brain from time to time. Because after all, isn’t that what this writing life is about?

Writing Takes Time: On Vanquishing the Demon of “Productivity”

…the fact remains that writing takes time. To write takes dreaming and remembering and thinking and imagining — and very often what feels like wasting time. It takes silence and solitude. It takes being okay with making a huge mess and not knowing what you’re doing. Then it takes rewriting and struggling to find your story and the truth of the story, and then the meaning of the story. It takes being comfortable with your own doubts and fears and questions. And there’s just no fast and easy way around it. — from Meditation #12 of Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement

In the last few weeks, my writing has not been going well.

Part of this is due to what sociologists would call “environmental factors.” Husband and I are always hit hard by the December holidays (which for us encompass 2 different religiousish traditions, 3 different nuclear family branches, travel and/or out-of-town guests [this year featured both!], at least 3 or 4 additional non-familial celebrations and our anniversary). This year, both of us caught the Cold of the Century in the last two weeks of 2014, and I started a new part-time teaching gig at a new institution the first full week of 2015 after not having taught at all for seven months. So there’s been all of that conspiring together to complicate my ability to sit in an upright position in front of my computer for long enough to get into a state of flow. But that’s not all that’s been stymieing me.

When people ask what stage I’m at with my book, I tend to say I’m working on a second draft, which is true insofar as I have a prior version of this story that’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end. But when I sat down to my new draft in June of last year, one of the things I knew was that huge swaths of my plot were going to have to be ripped up and completely rewritten. I knew there was a lot of stuff that didn’t work, motivations that were hazy, scenes that didn’t fit with the overall backbone of the tale I was trying to tell; at that point, I couldn’t even have told you what the central theme of the book was. So in a lot of ways, what I’m working on still has many elements of a first draft; I’m taking the key points of my story, the stuff I know I want to keep, and trying to make them fit together in a more coherent way. Meanwhile, a lot of the rest is being completely thrown out and rewritten — and this section of the novel, the piece of the plot arc I’ve been working on since late September, is particularly full of dross that needs to be winnowed away.

What that means, in practice, is that I spend a lot of my writing time these days asking questions like this: “Where should I start this chapter?” “Why is this character doing this?” “How can I keep this plot revelation and kill the scene it’s a part of?” And more often than not, I don’t get an answer right away. Sometimes, I can go days pounding my head against the keyboard or throwing words down in what I know is the wrong direction before I figure out where the story’s supposed to go.

In my schedule, Mondays are blocked off as “writing days”: I make no appointments, undertake no major home improvement projects, and don’t allow anything on my social calendar until dinnertime. And so, in my results-oriented head, I tend to think a “successful Monday” is a day when I’ve sat at my computer for at least 4 hours (with 6 being preferable) and/or pushed out at least 2000 words. Made the best use of my time, starting first thing in the morning when I’m freshest.

This week didn’t turn out that way. I didn’t sleep well Sunday night; then, because of various unavoidable teaching- and life-related commitments, I didn’t get started with “Writing Monday” until after lunch. And when I finally sat down, staring at the opening lines of a chapter I’ve been hammering away at for two weeks now, nothing happened. In 3 hours, I managed to tug about 600 words from my subconscious, and even as I wrote them, I was pretty sure most of them would be going right back to the scrap pile. By the end of it, I was frustrated, disheartened and feeling like a fraud. This is a state I’ve been in quite a bit in the last few weeks. One of my personal artistic demons is the need to feel “productive,” and if my word count’s going up, I can point to that and say that I’m doing something. If it’s not, I can quickly get to feeling like I’m wasting my time, at which point I turn into the Bad Writing Day monster and stalk around the house terrorizing Husband and the cat.

But today was different. Because as I was about to go off on my usual “this-is-all-garbage” rant, I remembered the writing meditation I’d read this morning, reproduced in part at the top of this post.

I picked up Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously on a whim in a bookstore a few days into the new year, and immediately decided it was coming home with me. It includes 365 one- to two-page reflections on the writing process, and unlike most writing books I’ve seen, it’s not meant to teach you how to write better: it’s focused entirely on encouragement, and I was sold when I saw that Day 1’s meditation ended with this quote:

I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one. — John Steinbeck

Steinbeck, dear readers. The guy whose books are almost-universally regarded as triumphs of literature. He didn’t know how to start his writing sessions, either.

I’m coming to realize that in my writing life, tiny revelations like that are often exactly the kind of reality check I need (I follow many of my favorite authors on Twitter for the same reason). We all need a reminder from time to time that we’re not alone — and for writers, that includes the reminder that on days when the words won’t come, it might not have anything to do with your talent or your legitimacy. It might just mean that your plot’s not done stewing yet.

So yeah, I only wrote 500 words this Monday, and I’m probably going to trash most of them the next time I sit down. But I also figured out what’s wrong with the beginning of this scene, and I know what needs to happen to fix it. I don’t know how to make it happen yet, but I’m confident that’ll come. It might be on a walk, or in the shower, or a Facebook-free pen and paper brainstorming session. Or maybe I’ll just sit down at my computer and make a mess and see what comes out of it — because, as I was reminded today, writing isn’t all about putting words on the page. Sometimes, you just have to give it time.

To Share or Not to Share, or: My Critique Group and Me

Now that I’m more confidently self-identifying as a novelist when people ask what I do with my days, I’m finding myself more often having to answer questions about my process. People want to know how much time I spend writing (answer: a target of 2.5-3 hours every day, with late morning and early afternoon proving to be my most productive time); they want to know if I outline (answer: yes, but always in pencil and leaving room for characters to change their minds); and they often want to know if I let people read my work-in-progress.

The answer to that last one’s a little more complicated.

In an earlier stage of this project, about 2 years ago, I was very into the idea of getting feedback on my work. Since my first draft drew inspiration from a collaborative storytelling effort I’d undertaken with friends over a period of several years, I was reworking a world and a tale that I’d already spent a long time living with, and trying to gauge how much exposition and backfill I needed to make that world and tale accessible to newcomers. I was also struggling through the process of finding my story’s backbone, never an easy process regardless of your inspiration. So I decided to go in search of beta readers, to see if the story I was telling would make a real book. After taking a private writing class, I connected with a few other people who were working on vaguely similar books and shifted into meeting them for a twice-monthly informal critique group. Our rules were loose: each person would submit roughly 25 double-spaced pages roughly once a month, and we’d discuss three submissions in each meeting. For about a year and a half, this group was a major part of my social life; I saw one of the members almost every week, threw plot questions at the others when I bumped into them on Gchat, and marked my progress by my success at producing 25 clean pages for their perusal each month.

And then, in late 2013, things fell apart. I received an email one night unceremoniously informing me that the group didn’t think I was a good fit for them anymore; the person who sent it elaborated, when asked, that my former critique partners felt they no longer knew how to give good feedback on a project that felt “too intimidating” and “too unfocused.” The experience was painful on a number of levels, but my first creative reaction was straight-up anxiety. I wondered how I could continue to make progress on my book without regular, in-depth feedback.

I fretted over that for a week, and then I set to work and finished my first draft in 3 months.

Once I’d completed it, I spent 6 more months patching holes in my worldbuilding; and now, in the last 6 months, I’ve completely rewritten the first quarter of the book, made major changes to the second quarter, and am well on my way to halfway done with a second draft that I know in my gut is more focused than the first. I have a core plot now; I have consistent character motivation; I have a setting that feels rich and deep in a way it didn’t before. And I know, in a way I don’t think has to do with the impulse to seek a silver lining, that I wouldn’t have any of this if I were still in that 25-page-a-month writing group.

When I was taking professionally-led writing classes, my favorite teacher spoke more than once about the fragility of first drafts, and about their inherent messiness. She noted that when you’re writing a first draft, figuring out the story you’re telling, it’s more important to get your ideas down on the page, however that works best for you, than to worry about how they’re going to fit together. And although I didn’t realize it until my critique group disintegrated under me, what I was writing was a first draft. I was shaping a world and a character and a story, adding new elements to the tale I’d been familiar with, and I needed the space to be messy.

When I was obligated to produce prose for others to read, I felt like Dickens writing for the serials: if I decided after-the-fact that a particular plot point didn’t work, changing it required a lot of handwaving and constant reminding thereafter that the events as read didn’t line up with the events as remembered by the characters. Not only that, but I felt the pressure to produce clean prose and integrated exposition. Like those of my colleagues, who were on second or third or fifth drafts, my pages had to be pretty. In those wild three months of finishing the draft, I caught myself over and over again thinking “how can this be so easy?” The answer was that for the first time in two years, I wasn’t writing for anyone but myself.

Looking back, I’m glad that I had the experience of working with a long-term critique group. Critiquing other people’s work helped me get a better sense of how to break down a scene to figure out what’s not working, and gave me practice with brainstorming ways to salvage the best parts of something that’s not doing its job. Hearing critiques of my work gave me insight into my weaknesses as a writer and the particular weaknesses I was prone to with this piece. My main character has a nasty tendency to become passive, especially when there’s Big Plot happening around him; my soft spot for depicting angst and suffering means my action scenes can tend toward melodrama; and I too-often err on the side of showing where I should be telling, which means my prose takes too long to get to the point. These are useful things for me to know and watch for as I cut my first draft to pieces and stitch it back together again; I’m a better writer because I had that year and a half of sustained feedback from people who stuck with my book for 100,000 words. But the biggest thing I learned from my experience is that workshopping isn’t always the answer.

When this book reaches the point of a solid second draft, which I’m hoping will happen by the end of next summer, I’ll certainly be looking for people to read it. I’m already keeping a list of potential beta readers. But in the meantime, I’m keeping it to myself. I need the freedom to play with my story when I need to, to set a troublesome chapter aside and come back to it later, to decide mid-stream that a major character needs to be reworked. As Husband (my one ever-present beta reader) says to me regularly, a reader can encounter something for the first time only once, and I only want this book’s next crop of readers to encounter it once I’m confident about the beginning, the middle and the end.

So, when someone asks if I let people read work in progress, these days, my answer’s always the same. I shake my head, smile, and say “only when it’s done.”