Noveling Day 1

I’ve been thinking about writing this novel for years. I have notes scattered around, snippets written to understand the characters, and the slight beginning of an outline. Today’s the day I officially start. Let’s see how long it takes to a first draft, shall we?

I don’t have the title yet, so I’ve just been calling it “Opera”, as in space opera. I will be taking a short break to revise a novelette after I receive critiques, but otherwise my goal is to plow on to a first draft, at which point I want to set it aside and write a short story I’ve been simmering on as a reward. Fortunately, said short story requires me to do some research, so can get on that, right?

My goal for today: Get everything organized in one Scrivener file so I can see what I’ve got and create a plan for Day 2. I’ve learned I do much better if I end the day knowing where to start the next.

I’m going in! Send the dogs if you don’t hear back in three months.

Grace and Kicks in the Butt

Last Saturday, I got back from the Viable Paradise reunion. Some folks at the reunion asked if the reunion was renewing my commitment to writing. No, I told them. I didn’t need any kicks in the butt about writing. I needed to reaffirm my connection to my tribe and enjoy the magic that is talking to writers about the things only we talk about.

And I told people that I was already committed to writing, and had in fact been thinking about how to get more writing time so I could finish things faster. This has been especially important to me since my next project will (probably) be my first novel.

At one point in the reunion I found myself talking to someone about how I was trying to find more time to write.

Every suggestion she made, I rejected. None of them would work for me.

Last week I read a series of tweets by Gail Simone calling out people who say they “wish they had time to write.” (It seems to be gone now.) Gail, for a long time, worked two jobs, had a family and wrote. Actually I only read part of the series, because it made me uncomfortable. “That doesn’t apply to me,” I told myself. I need to exercise to stay physically and mentally healthy. I need to spend time with my family. I have a fascinating but brain-intensive day job.

Over the next few days, I heard my own voice in the voice of the excuses Gail refuted. I felt, to use a fine Christian term, convicted. Yet, I didn’t know the way forward.

Last night I finally turned to the ultimate source of solution when questioning how to live my life: prayer. I asked God to help me solve this problem, because I didn’t know the answer. And then, around 9:15 (a bit early for me, but not by much), I fell asleep.

I awoke spontaneously at 4 am, perfectly rested and awake. I usually wake up with the alarm at a 5:30 and determinedly press the snooze button once or twice. After considering this odd occurrence, I recognized an answer to my prayer. I got up, had a cup of coffee and wrote.

You may see an active subconscious in this, or you may see the grace of God. Whatever it is, I’m grateful for the reunion, for my friends, for Gail F’in Simone, and for this grace.

Now I’m going to go for a walk.

Fights are boring. Except when they’re not

Last year I noticed that I am by bored by a lot of fight scenes, and their cousins, the chase scene. It started with police procedurals, like Major Crimes. When the cops start chasing a perp, or the perp takes a swing, we pretty much know who will prevail. So, at first, I thought it was just cop show fight scenes that bored me.

But that initial awareness sensitized me and I started to notice boring fight scenes in media other than formulaic weekly television, which, after all, might be excused for being predictable. Watching Star Trek into Darkness,* I was well-engaged until the lengthy fight between Spock and Khan. That scene went on and on, and bored me to fidgets, while also seeming horribly out of character for Spock.

Then I noticed it in books. In fact, in two of the excellent books I read in preparation for Viable Paradise I hit a wall with “action scenes.” In The Price of the Stars it was the last big chase in the book. The chase was well told, fit the plot, and, unlike in TV, the ending was not a foregone conclusion. But I really didn’t care about the mechanics of the chase. I just wanted to know the outcome.

In Jumper, the hero undertakes a series of three increasingly difficult hostage rescues. They are all well told and show his development, both in growing up and in using his teleportation abilities. But by the third one, I didn’t care about the rescue itself, even though it was definitely more complex. I was pretty sure he’d come out alive and unscathed, and I already knew he was both clever and evolving. Now the third rescue did throw me a bone – something the hero did had a graver consequence, so there was some purpose other than “who won, who lost”

I was still trying to figure out what my problem was with fight scenes when I watched the penultimate episode of the television show Burn Notice.

Now, if you don’t know the show, Burn Notice was a show about a defrocked spy and his adventures. He and his ragtag band had various adventures but usually (not always) emerged unscathed. So you would think this show had all the ingredients for fight-scenes-Nadya-finds-boring, right? And maybe in other episodes they did, but not this episode.

In the second-to-last episode of the series, the show’s hero, Michael Weston, and his best friend, Sam Axe, get in a fight. The stakes are high: Michael needs to get away from Sam to do what he think will save his friends’ lives, and Sam needs to stop Michael from doing something he considers suicidal. The stakes are high and these two know each other – they’ve fought side-by-side for years. They know each other’s every move, and you’re not sure if they’re still willing to pull punches or not. I was riveted.

That, mes amis, is a fight I want to watch. One where every move is about the connection between two characters, what they know about each and about what they’re willing to do to each other. I think I actually held my breath at one point, not knowing if someone was going to go too far.

I had the idea for this post in my mind last year, but hadn’t actually written it out for the blog until today. In the meantime, my Viable Paradise classmate Beth Matthews wrote a couple posts on the Paranormal Romantics site about using fight scenes to develop character, and dissects a couple from recent movies to show why they work. These posts are really useful discussions of how to apply this theory I’ve been evolving about fights that aren’t boring.
Dissecting Fight Scenes Part One
Dissecting Fight Scenes Part Two

It reminds me of what Margie Boule taught us about musicals in improv. Each song should move the story and leave it in a different place. A cop chasing a perp down an LA alley doesn’t change the story. Two friends figuring out how far they’ll push to try to save their friend’s life is riveting.

I feel like I’m just starting to peel this back. And I also know that a significant part of this is about what I like, not a general truth. Other people like fight scenes for other reasons – the science, the action, the cool angles. And I will always love some chase scenes for the sheer thrill of them – Bullitt and Ronin come to mind. This post is about what I’m untangling for myself. Feel free to chime in with additions, disagreements, and manifestos in the comments.

* No, I didn’t like the movie, but I didn’t realize that until the next day. That’s another post.

Building Plot from the Ground Up, or The Benefits of General Education Courses

In college I had a liberal arts professor whom I loved and adored and had intellectual (and completely chaste) fantasies about. To paraphrase Spock, I admired his mind.

I took two courses from him, one on the political science of modern Africa and another on the humanities of the Baroque period. In the course on Africa, he insisted that we understand the geography of the continent. He quizzed us on rail lines and ports, lakes and mountains and capitol cities. He showed us how geography influenced choices and options for both native Africans and colonists.

When I took the Baroque class from him, he sent us back to primary sources. Newton’s Principia, slides of art, recordings of music. He showed us how politics, art and science influence each other and you cannot study one completely if you don’t understand the others. For our final paper we had to write about a single year and show how the events of the year were related. In one of the proudest moments of my life, he read my paper to the class and said, “Notice how it all flows together like a silken web.” (And yet even with that encouragement I wouldn’t try to write fiction for another twenty years!)

I am not a writer to whom plot comes easy. It’s definitely not the part of writing I “get for free.” Today, I started back to work on my Viable Paradise story, which takes place on a moon colony. It has plot holes and needs a clearer and more compelling back story to make some of the situations believable, or I need to rewire somethings to change the situations themselves.

So, this morning, I cleaned off on my Big Wall of Plot (i.e. whiteboard), and started listing questions: who went to the moon when, and why? Why did such and such situation change? Who are the major political players? What do they want? As I did this, I started writing sticky notes of things I need to research, and added those to a corner of the Big Wall of Plot. I found a map of the moon showing the Apollo landing sites and printed it. I wondered why we picked those sites.

And then Professor Charles Cutter, with all of his wisdom and intellectual rigor, hit me on the side of the head. If I start with these things – the geography and geology, the science, the politics, I will find the plot.

History is written from the ground up. Sometimes, plot can be too. And that is something, thanks to the general education requirements of San Diego State University, and one very good professor, that I know how to do.

Reading Short Stories: Liu, Haldeman, Sayers and more

I’m trying to read more short stories and really think about about what works and what doesn’t. It’s been interesting how many modern SF short stories I read that leave me flat and how some venues are more to my taste than others. It makes me feel a little better about rejections, since it’s a great example of an editor and I just liking different things.

Here are some brief notes on stories I’ve read recently. I frankly don’t feel comfortable criticizing living authors, so for the ones by living authors that fall short, I’ll be general. These notes aren’t intended to be comprehensive or a true critical review. There short reminders to myself of my observations, blogged because this is where I capture my notes about writing. I’m going to try to do these posts every week or two to keep them shorter.

In no particular order:

A Clockwork Soldier by Ken Liu. Clarkesworld, January 2014.
This story manages to take a well-explored Science Fiction trope, what does it mean for an artificial life to be human, and give it a fresh and moving take. The structure is interesting. It starts with the end, the surprising scene of a bounty hunter letting her captured bounty go. Then we flashback to how the man tells the bounty hunter his story. He creates an interactive game that draws her in and so we have a sort of flashback in flashback but in a much more dynamic way. The story is lovely and brilliant. It was the first thing I ever read by Ken Liu and I’m looking forward to reading more. I understand why he’s so well regarded – the man can write.

Anonymous mid-80’s story
This is the kind of story that is trying very hard to be smart. It is smart, even, and did make me try to sort out the unreliable narrator and the strange possible time travel story. But, ultimately, I felt like the author was fucking with me to prove they could. Plus, it had a bonus of nihilistic violence. It’s the kind of science fiction that made me stop reading new science fiction for fifteen years. (Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog ended the drought.)

Anonymous Anthology Story #1 (By one of those living authors I prefer to let lie.) This story was based on a premise that a reasonably scientific society had never bothered to conduct a basic experiment and so a hero had to show up to bravely discover the truth. While the author had an explanation for why the society had avoided the experiment, I didn’t buy it. Otherwise decent story telling, but left me flat.

Anonymous Anthology Story #2 This story used the stereotype of a greedy corporate society running roughshod over aliens. Kind of like Avatar but the government is perhaps more Southern Baptist. Bored and a little offended.

Manifest Destiny by Joe Haldeman I turned to this reprint in Clarkesworld after some of the above had left bad tastes in my mouth and this story was a great palate cleanser. It’s a reprint from Fantasy & Science Fiction but has only the slightest speculative element. It’s a soldier’s story, set during the Mexican American war. If he were a sailor it would have started, “Now, this is no shit,” like all good sea stories do. Haldeman pulled off a historical shaggy dog story with grace and I enjoyed every minute.

The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head by Dorothy L. Sayers This is a short mystery story featuring Sayers’s popular detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. The heart of the story is really the relationship between Lord Peter and his visiting ten-year-old nephew, known as Gherkins. The first couple scenes establish some facts – Gherkins buys an old book and at a second hand shop, and a man comes to Lord Peter’s flat to try to buy it, which Gherkins declines to do. We know something is up with the book. The third scene starts with breakfast the next day where we see that Gherkins is in a state of bliss at having had a most excellent adventure during the night, and Lord Peter has been elevated from Quite Decent Uncle to that of Glorified Uncle. We then move back to learn what happened during the night.

I stopped to think about why Sayers did this and why it’s so satisfying to me as a reader. I think it has to do with the emotional arc of the story. The mystery itself is just a mystery, but to Lord Peter fans, watching him with his nephew his fascinating. So the breakfast scene heightens the emotional arc and grabs us, even as the mystery is unfolding at a slower pace. If any other Sayers fans out there have other opinions, please do chime in.

The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey by Dorothy L. Sayers Obviously another Lord Peter story. This story crystalized for me what a simple format the short story can be: Present a problem and then solve it. Piece of cake, right?

To break it down a little: in the first act she sets up a sympathetic character, a distinctive atmospheric setting in the Basque mountains, and a problem that at first seems merely sad, but quickly escalates to creepy and mysterious. A brief second act introduces the problem to our detective. In the third act we see him act to resolve it, with the mystery finally revealed on the last page. Nicely done.

The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker by Dorothy L. Sayers Yes, more Lord Peter. I was having a rough week and Lord Peter is my jam. I found a plot hole and am very pleased with myself. A few months ago a critiquer found a pretty decent sized plot hole in one of my stories. Since then I’ve tried to be a much more critical reviewer of my own writing. Spotting a plot hole in a Sayers mystery I was reading just for fun made feel a bit clever.

I Won’t Be a Miserable Writer: A Gift from Viable Paradise

As advertised, Viable Paradise rewired my brain and changed me into a different kind of writer. Jim McDonald says that Viable Paradise teaches us what might otherwise take three or four years to learn. What I wasn’t expecting was that it in one week it also took my soul on a journey, from start to finish.

Prior to VP I didn’t have friends who were writers. Not friends with whom I read, critiqued and hung out talking about writing. I honestly didn’t struggle much with imposter syndrome or its kin. I just enjoyed writing and was starting to learn the benefit of constructive critiques.

Prior to VP I’d never heard someone’s work praised and wondered why mine didn’t garner praise for the same things. I’d never had an excellent professional writer sit down with me and say “I liked your story” and then spend 45 minutes pointing out its valid flaws. I’d never compared a critique of my work with the others’ critiques and tried to tell who was “better.” I’d never read a friend’s story that was so freaking good I felt I would never be as good a writer as they. I’d never been in a room of mostly younger-than-me writers thinking “but they have twenty more years to write than I do!” And I’d abso-ma-fucking-lutely never heard the publishing equivalent of “Let’s do lunch” from someone in the business to a new writer.

Despair, insecurity, jealousy, and general anxiety all dropped in on me during the week. On top of that was piled all my normal “I’m in a group and I will not be OK unless everyone likes me!” angst. Thank God, I already knew, from the painful process called “growing up,” to let my values, not my feelings, dictate my actions. I didn’t let my newfound competitive streak turn me into a jerk and I forced myself not to simply run and hide. But I did spend a lot of the week with difficult emotions simmering, even as I was having one of the absolute best weeks of my life.

Saturday morning around 7 am, I received the gift. The night before someone had been given potentially life-changing praise. I was still dealing with the opposition of happiness for my friend and despair for myself. Then I thought, “Do I want to be happy for my colleague?”

“Yes, absolutely!” said my true self.

“Then if being a writer makes me jealous and miserable I’m not going to write. And I want to write. So stop it!”

The pain in my heart lifted, and I was purely happy. Happy for my friends and all their future success. Happy that I can write and write well and learn to write better. It was a blessing on my tired heart.

Years ago I used to collect a thing. The collecting community for that thing could be rather competitive as there were only so many things and they were sometimes hard to find. I found myself caught up in the swirl and making myself unhappy by worrying about getting the new thing.

I realized quickly that it was insane to have a hobby that makes me miserable. I set myself a rule: “If it’s not fun, I’ll stop collecting.” I happily collected the thing for many more years. Sometimes I missed out on the hot new thing, but sometimes I found one. Either way, I had fun. If the competitive anxiety started, I’d squash it with the stern reminder, “If it’s not fun, I’ll stop.”

Writing is more than a hobby for me. It is something I’ve wanted to do since I was 18, something I was only brave enough to do for the last four years, and something that I give up other fun for. If it’s not fun, I’ll stop. I won’t be a miserable writer. Other people will, inevitably, get something I won’t: a deal, a review, an award, a sales figure. I may not be happy for all of them, but I sure as as hell can’t let it make me miserable. I don’t want to be a writer if I can’t be happy for other writers.

There will be times the misery monster creeps into my heart and taunts me but I will shoo her out. I’ve done it for much less important things and I will do it for this. Feel free to hold me to it.

That perfect clarity, the trip through the valley and back, may end up being the greatest gift I received from Viable Paradise. Without it, I might have had years of pain and foolishness as I moved into the writing community. Instead, I went on a voyage, I crossed the sea, and in one week I was changed.

It’s Work, not Magic

I think I have finally disabused myself of the romantic notion that letting stories “gel” in my “subconscious” will “work out issues” and “develop depth.” Nope – turns out the plot problems are still there, the motivations still fuzzy and the protagonist’s favorite color unknown. Then I sit down to write and discover her name is Genny, she’s afraid of horses and maybe burning down the town is the right idea, after all.

Update and Encouragement

People have not been knocking down my door, missing my blog updates. But it has been nagging at me that I’ve been absent too long – both from the blog and from fiction.

I went back to work full-time in September. It’s a fun job, with lots to learn. I love learning new organizations, systems and processes – it’s like mental candy. I feel like a Pac-Man gobbling up dots. And no ghosts so far!

My goal has been to keep writing, but it’s taken a bit to sort out a new schedule, commute, gym time, Jim time and have brain cells left over. As I suspected it would, though, the writing is sneaking from the back of my brain to the front with increasing frequency. First an idea for a story that is just a tiny bud and needs some work to grow, then an idea for a blog post (a real one, not this one), and then the thought of returning to a short story that might could be a novel.

The very day I went back to work full-time, I received a response on my latest story from a major magazine editor, saying it wasn’t quite right but they’d like to see the next one. It is so encouraging and exciting to hear from someone to whom I’m not related that my writing doesn’t suck. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a “next one” to send.

My goals for this year is to write and submit four new stories. Unless I go back to that novel……