Writing Process Blog Tour

The indomitable, coke-drinking in the morning, snarky Casey Blair, one of my roomies from Viable Paradise, tagged me. How could I say no?

What am I working on?

I’m working on something new. It’s such early days (not even 40k words) that I don’t even know what it is yet, but I’m going with young adult epic science fantasy for right now. Whatever it is, I’m having fun.

My WIP is about a young woman named Kel. She discovers her world is not as egalitarian as she thought it was after she wins a horse race and is fined for racing while female. The penalty is so high, her parents tell her the only way out for everyone is if she becomes a candidate for the Perfectors, a group of women with a special kind of biological augmentation, who serve the emperor directly. Only half of the candidates survive the process. Plus her new bodyguard is an old friend she hadn’t seen in ten years, her best friend leaves the country on a scientific expedition in the jungle and the other Perfector candidates have their own set of problems. Kel tends to leap before she looks when dealing with all these people and it keeps getting her in trouble.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

I really like what Blair MacGregor said about novelty being overrated. I see myself as part of a (really loosely defined) younger generation of writers who are exploring what it means to have a diverse cast of characters, to take fantasy out of pseudo-medieval Europe, to bring science into fantasy and to play with the idea of cultural and technological change. I feel like I owe a lot to writers that have been writing for while, like Martha Wells and Kate Elliott, and newish writers, like Alaya Dawn Johnson, Rae Carson and NK Jemisin, to name just a few. But it’s also the zeitgeist…we’re all a product of our times, and my generation is diverse, is tired of pseudo-Europe (the popularity of Game of Thrones notwithstanding) and is steeped in science and cultural and technological change like no other. This is what our lives are like, and so what we write reflects that.

That said, I could no more write like any of those authors than they could write like me because we all write through a prism of our own personal experience. I like writing about women who are righting wrongs, who are doing things, but not necessarily swinging a sword and killing people, about the places where cultures rub up against each other and about the consequences of violence and imperialism and oppression.

Why do I write what I do?

What I write is a reflection of me and my beliefs about the world. I also write the types of stories I would like to see out in the world. I write what I want to read. But even more, I write because it satisfies a fundamental need, and what bubbles up out of my subconscious often surprises me. That’s where most of the fun is…

How does my writing process work?

Every one of my stories has started from an unconscious amalgamation of things/people/places I’m reading or thinking about or seeing somewhere and my own experiences, which creates the impression of a person in a place. The two are linked and are equally strong and if I have one but not the other I don’t have the beginnings of a story yet. As soon as she entered my mind Kel was Kel, she had always been sneaking into a horse race and had always lived in a semi-arid eastern Mediterranean-like land. I write down that initial sense, sometimes just a line, sometimes an entire scene, and I sit with it. Sometimes I sit with it for a long time. Kel’s been waiting in my head for almost two years while I worked on other things.

Each scene I write leads to something else, though not necessarily in chronological order and not necessarily quickly. At this stage I write morning pages every day and a lot of my ideas for scenes, conflicts, plot and other characters come up organically. Others I work at, writing/asking myself “What happens next? What does it mean that she’s just been sold to the Perfectors? What does her best friend do?” sometimes there are whole weeks that I don’t know what happens next and I have to wait, journaling and reading other things (and watching a lot of TV), until I figure that out, or figure out my subconscious is telling me I did something wrong that I have to go back and fix before I can keep going forward. About the only time I go back and read what I have written is when I have to fix something.

At about the almost halfway point I start to get a glimmering of what the ending is going to be and I consciously start steering towards it. (Usually there is a lot of panic until I figure this out, along the lines of “Is this going to work? Will I figure out a way to end this? Has all of this writing been a waste?” “What kind of writer am I if I don’t know the ending to my own story?”) Once I have a full draft I start putting the pieces together (Scrivener actually makes this pretty easy) and then I revise and revise and revise, 18 or 20 times until I have a book and not a barebones bunch of unconnected scenes. I think of this part as what an oyster does when it creates a pearl—layers and layers of fixes and meaning and improving. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I do the first draft longhand in a notebook. The second draft is when I type it into the computer, fixing and fleshing it out, and I do that as I finish each scene or, more realistically in one long go over the weekend.

When it’s ready I send it out to a few special critique partners who tell me everything that is wrong. Usually I’ve overlooked some ridiculously important plot point, or a character’s reaction to something is totally not in character, and then I have to fix it. Once I agonize and journal and write and rewrite those fixes I send it to a whole bunch of beta readers to get reactions to tweak the story and fix any other problems that come up.

ETA: The wonderful Camille Griep and Debra Jess will be next. I’m waiting to hear who else wants to play.

State of the Writer

Hello! I haven’t been around here much.

I was struggling with my WIP that I’ve been working on, on and off for the last two years. I have a full plot arc for the main characters but the subplot involving a third character just hasn’t been gelling into anything. A few weeks ago, Tam challenged me to write a short story with a writing prompt of strange place names and I wrote the big climax for my WIP in a fit of inspiration. I thought maybe that would get the rest of it going too, but instead I wrote the short story, which turned out to be a chapter of a book I wrote the opening chapter for two years ago.

Since then I haven’t been able to stop writing the shiny new YA biopunk* science fantasy thingy that I started. Words have been coming like they haven’t been coming for months. 1000, 2000 even 3000 at a time, when I’ve been lucky to get 100 lately.

*Apparently this is a thing, but it’s not the thing I mean. I’m thinking more how Kameron Hurley talks about her God’s War books as bugpunk.

I think I’ve been working on the wrong thing. Or the shiny new project has been sitting in the back of my brain for long enough that I’m ready to write it. And the WIP, which I made a lot of progress on before grinding to a halt (like my first car, which leaked oil like a severed artery until it ran out, seized up and blew smoke all over the highway) needs to sit in the back of my brain.

I just hope it’s not for another two years, but I begin to detect a pattern. Two years here, two years there. I fight against it. I don’t want to be a slow writer. I don’t want to wait and flounder around wondering what I should be writing and not writing, which makes my unhappy and cranky. On the other hand, I love the feeling of flow, of the knowing what should be next, without having to strain so much for it. My subconscious has obviously been doing the work while I went about life.

And this one feels different (what a joke, each novel I’ve written or attempted to write has felt different), like it’s less of a rough draft than it usually is, with more of the details there. With maybe, dare I say it? slightly better writing than I usually have at this point in the process.

Everyone says don’t compare yourself to other writers. It’s hard not to when it seems publishing is speeding up exponentially and writers are writing two books (or four) a year (though not necessarily publishing them). But I’d have to say don’t compare yourself to yourself either. Just because the last book was hard doesn’t mean this one will be. Just because the last book was easy doesn’t mean this one will be. And maybe I was reaching too far beyond my capabilities with that WIP and I have to wait to grow into it (which isn’t a bad thing). Sherwood Smith told me once she is still waiting to grow into a story she wants to write and she’s been writing for decades.

Meanwhile, I’ll just chant my litany of other writers who have said they are slow: Franny Billingsley, Libba Bray, or um, that’s the end of my list. Who else has said they’re slow?

And a question: Anyone have a favorite scene from a book or movie where one character threatened another? It’s for the shiny WIP. I’m trying to figure out how I want a scene to go.

I’m back!

And I’m going to do something I’ve never done before: post some of my fiction to the site, specifically the first 250 words of the novel I’m about to send out for it’s next (and hopefully final) beta read.

I spent a lot of the day over on WriteOn Con reading a bunch of beginnings. There is so much good stuff posted from really polished, to really close, to rough around the edges with a lot of promise, to really rough but with at least one unpolished gem of intriguing potential. There are a lot of creative people out there.

So of course I’ve been thinking about beginnings, which are the hardest for most of us, and thought I’d share the different versions stretching back through the several years of this project, latest to earliest.

Current opening:

THE DESERT WALL

Malenie was hiding. The sun burned hot and brilliant on the white plaster and dull adobe houses, banishing the shadows from even so narrow an alley. Sweat prickled along her hairline. She leaned against the wall, its grit rubbing off on her back, and tried to stop panting. Fear and humiliation made a hard fist of her stomach, urging her to run again. Only two streets over, the market hummed with activity, promising safety.

“I hate them,” she whispered soundlessly, though she wanted to shout. She had been careless after almost a moon without trouble, and now here she was, with at least one bully somewhere behind her. But a cactus never has just one spine, and bullies never travel alone. She tucked her black hair behind her ears, pressed herself closer to the house behind her and crept forward. She peeked around the corner, thinking, Please.

The boy was so close she smelled fennel and anise on his breath as they both recoiled. “Told you,” said the tall girl with him, stepping forward and forcing Malenie back into the alley. Malenie’s heartbeat seemed to shake her whole body, demanding that she fight or run. Run or fight. The boy followed half a breath later, straightening his shoulders, trying to look bigger, but the girl didn’t notice. Pursing her lips, she looked Malenie up and down. “Where you going, Red?”

The insult stung and Malenie said, “I don’t want to fight,” knowing it was the wrong thing to say even as she said it.

8/10/13. Almost right, but felt too aggressive.

Malenie was hiding. The sun burned hot and brilliant on the white plaster and dull adobe houses, banishing the shadows from even so narrow an alley. Sweat prickled along her hairline. She leaned against the wall, its grit rubbing off on her back, and tried to stop panting. Fear and humiliation made a hard fist of her stomach, urging her to run again, and two streets over, the market hummed with activity, promising safety.

The boy was so close she smelled fennel and anise on his breath as he recoiled. “Told you,” said the tall girl with him, stepping into the space he’d left. He straightened his shoulders, trying to look bigger, but the girl didn’t notice. She poked Malenie in the chest contemptuously, her fingers finding an old bruise that sung less than what she said next. “Red, where you going?” Pursing her lips, she looked Malenie up and down. “Thought we didn’t know where you were?”

Malenie took a deep breath, letting her humiliation build up into anger. She tucked her black hair behind her ears, pushed off the house and propelled her knee into the girl’s groin, envisioning it going through her target as her friend Nes had taught her. “Rot you!” she screamed in the girl’s face, using the noise as another weapon. Revulsion and bile burnt the back of her throat and her thigh ached from the impact.

The girl seemed to hand on Malenie’s knee and then she wailed, crumpled to the ground and curled into a ball.

Spring 2013: I never really liked this first sentence, but thematically it seemed like a good fit.

Malenie ran. She pelted down the alley and skidded to a stop in its scant shadows. The sun burned overhead, hot and brilliant on the white plaster and dull adobe walls, making it impossible to hide. Sweat prickled along her hairline. For a moment she leaned against the house to stop panting, but fear and humiliation made a hard fist of her stomach, urging her to move. Please, she thought. Cautiously, she stole a look around the corner and lost her breath again. At one end of the narrow street, a girl and a boy strolled into view, and at the other a girl picked at her fingernails, blocking the shortest route to the market, which hummed with activity just out of sight. No one else was around.

“Rot them,” she whispered, though she wanted to shout. “I hate them.” She cursed again, letting her humiliation build up into anger. Only two boys were following her, and that was better odds, even if she had to run away from the safety of the market. She tucked her black hair behind her ears, pushed off the house and raced back the way she’d come.

Malenie burst out of the alleyway, almost colliding with the skinny rooster of a boy who was the worst of the bullies. He flinched back and she dodged around him, rage flaming up at the sight of his three friends. Cowards. He shouted in wordless triumph and they closed in on her. Head down, she charged, as the camels did in the races, hoping they would scatter.

Original opening from 2009 (?)

Malenie leaned against the mud and plaster wall in the shadowed alleyway to catch her breath. The boys were chasing her again, and Malenie, not wanting to fight, had run straight into their trap. Just around the corner three boys loitered in the white-hot street, blocking the route to the main road and the market. They wouldn’t dare bother her there, surrounded by adults, if she could reach it. Rot them, she cursed. I hate them. They made her feel powerless and alone and never let her forget she was different. She cursed again, letting her humiliation build up into anger. Only two boys had been following her, and that was better odds than facing the three ahead of her, even if she had to run away from the safety of the market. She tucked her hair behind her ears, pushed off the house and raced back the way she’d come. She would barrel through them like the camels in the races, knocking aside anyone and anything that got in her way.

She swung around the corner, one hand anchored on the rough wall to make the sharp turn, and blinked in the brilliance of full sun on the sand-colored buildings. Squinting down the street, she spied not two but three backlit figures; the smallest profile that of a skinny little rooster of a boy: the worst of the bullies. Nothing for it. She lowered her head, pumped her arms and picked up more speed. Her heart pounded in her ears and blocked out all other sounds.

So there you have it. Good thing the blood, sweat and tears don’t show, right?

Learning to Write, Again

I’ve heard it said ‘You don’t learn to write; you learn to write each novel.’

I’ve written out of order and re-ordered scenes. I’ve written chronologically. I’ve cut out important secondary characters. I’ve cut the last 30,000 words and rewritten the end; I’ve cut the first 10,000 and rewritten the beginning. I’ve written longhand and on a computer; revised longhand and on a computer.

This is the first time I will change the names of one or both of the main characters when I’ve already written the entire story arc. It’s the first time I’ve decided that I don’t have enough POV scenes of a third character and I’m writing an entire story line to layer in on top of what I’ve already written. It’s the first time I’ve thought so analytically about what that story line has to be, rather than going on instinct and subconscious promptings. It’s the first time I’ve thought, “I want to mess with people’s heads with this one.” It’s the first time I’ve been so ambitious. It’s the first time I’ve really doubted I could do this, that I had the skills to do this—that sounds like I never doubted I could write a novel or never doubted my writing skills. That’s not true. But this is the first time I’ve known the kind of emotional impact I want to achieve and doubted that I could do it. With previous novels I wanted to tell a fun story. I want to do that now, but I want to give the reader a specific taste in their mouths, a flavor of emotion, when they close the book and I don’t have a map for that.

I’ve struggled with this book since its beginning, just a flash of a scene during NANO in 2011 when the book I had set out to write fell flat and short and I doodled to meet the word count to “win.” A boy and a girl, jumping into a canal and breathing water, scared, worried, awed. I was awed that I could write anything at all, after a year of death and worry and a marriage that felt like it was on the rocks and money worries and illness and no writing at all, at all.

It took a long time to figure out what it was about, to figure out the world, to figure out who the characters were and stop them from randomly murdering people I didn’t want them to murder. After Viable Paradise I couldn’t work on it at all, with too much new stuff crammed into my head to think about and work through. I took a six-month break. I rewrote an older MS that I still loved. I came back to the twins book (almost everyone in the MS is a twin—why not? I get to make the rules and it’s a cool idea) and it’s not as bad as I thought. Well, parts of it are soul suckingly awful. But other parts are kind of amazing and I think, “I wrote that??”

So I’m making color-coded index cards and re-arranging them (even though I’m using Scrivener which has color-coded index cards that can be re-arranged) and sometimes just holding them and thinking and procrastinating and panting after a much better shinier idea that will just be so much easier than this…And I’m learning to write this novel.

An update about writing

Hello, interneties!

I haven’t posted often lately, because I’ve been writing! Or rather editing and writing A LOT. I finally rewrote the ending of my novel, after all the dominoes knocked each other down and I had to pick them up one by one and slot them into their spaces. That might be a mixed metaphor, but I have book brain, I can’t help it.

This is a novel I wrote in 2008-9, which I had queried and had rejected. I’d put it away for a while, but after I came back from Viable Paradise 16, I realized how much I loved and believed in the story. And oh yeah, my head was crammed so full of stuff and thinky thoughts that I couldn’t go back to the novel I’d been working on before the workshop. I was a little bit paralyzed by massive information intake. So I picked up my old novel, figuring I had a lot more distance from it and I could play around and try to fix some of the problems my so much wiser and older self was now able to see. And in the process apply some of the stuff I had learned.

I see some of you doing math. Yes, VP is in October, it’s the end of May, and I’ve been working on this for 8 months. I know. I’m slow. But I also DID ALL THE THINGS:

  • Cut 10,000 words from the beginning and rewrote it
  • Tweaked the magic systems (oh, my achey head and the problems that caused)
  • Strengthened conflicts between main characters
  • Aged up my MC slightly to make it more firmly YA
  • Worked on the pacing to make it a little faster
  • Totally re-thought and rewrote the final conflict/resolution/ending
  • Cut another 5,000+ words from all over the place

I still have some polishing to do and I have to look at the beginning and ending together now that I have both, but very, very soon I’ll be sending it out to beta readers to see what they think. I’m so excited!

Inevitable Knots and Despair, Hopefully Followed by Epiphany*

Empress Dowager writing a "great characte...

Empress Dowager writing a “great character”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a long while, I haven’t written anything about my writing here. I’ve been tied up in knots, some of my own making, some from not doing a good job of sorting out the helpful feedback from the not helpful kind. I keep saying I’m going to put together a praise/encouragement file for times like these, but the thing is most times when I’m tied in knots, I don’t realize what I’m doing to myself until I start coming out of it. Usually, sooner or later, I blunder into something that gets through the fog and I start to clear it out.

This time it was:

A series of conversations with Zoe Marriott on Twitter. And two of her posts: A Question of Letting Go and Take A Deep Breath…

A post by Gwenda Bond: Fast Vs. Slow (I admit, I was panicking about how I can be such a slow writer and why was I even working on this project that I had started in 2008 and put away and taken out again).

But most importantly, this post Finding Your Voice and its writing exercise, which I found via DaphneUn when she mentioned Doycet. Yes, give me logic and analysis! I’m so tired of the “you know it when you see it” mantra. (However true it might be, it’s not helpful!)

The post includes a writing prompt and exercise. If you are at all interested in doing it you should go over there now before I spoil it for you. Really. It’s one of those exercises. You only get one chance at it. Ok?

Here’s what I wrote in response to the prompt:

 New Year’s in Chile is in the summer. For a northerner—as in Northern Hemisphere—like me, it’s disorienting, but in a good way. It’s easy to walk around, from bar to bar, in the historic Bella Vista barrio, once home to artists and manual laborers and disenfranchised poets, but now increasingly bourgeois.

I had just pushed into a bar with strobing red and blue lights when there was a general scramble away from the dance floor that left me stranded. Sometimes I’m too contrary for my own good.

A guy sprawled in the middle. He was obviously dead; I was close enough to see that the knife stuck in his chest wasn’t pulsing with the beat of his heart. Never mind why or how I know about that. I did the decent thing and checked his pulse anyway and closed his eyes. By that time the lights were the white florescent kind. I don’t know if the manager—green under their bluish glare—or the dead guy—dead, ditto—looked worse.

I wrote this and thought, I do have a voice! Why am I letting myself be “corrected” out of it?! Jeez and hallelujah.

My answers to the questions after the prompt:

I never manage to follow “the rules”

Strong narrative preference

Preference for character over plot

No dialogue

Mono focus

A little bit elliptical (ok, a lot elliptical and probably too subtle). I always seem to come at things sideways: geography, poets, bourgeoisie, settings). It seems to be hardwired into my writing DNA; that’s ok, but how can I be elliptical and not lose my readers?

Character super important

Weak on conflict, or something I can’t quite put my finger on. Again, coming to the conflict sideways. Indirect conflict. Offstage conflict? (Not sure if this goes to voice or rather an aspect of writing I need to work on)

I LOVE long sentences. But I also love sentence fragments.

Unhealthy addiction to en dashes I blame entirely on an old boss

Setting/place is a character to me

Some descriptions are specific (red and blue strobing lights) but others could use much more specificity (bar, guy, knife, manager), in general, but also depending on which are important

This was all automatic. Very little of what I wrote here was conscious choice after deciding there was no way in hell I could follow the directions on all parts of the writing prompt. (I was sitting in my still-new living room and I did not want to envision a murder there.) What the hell does it mean that everything else was automatic and coming up directly from my subconscious?

More thoughts from comparing with other writing:

Good at analogies/metaphors that are appropriate for the character

Either 1st or 3rd person, but always very tight

Something that might be missing from the project I’m working on: a kind of gallows humor. A little morbid, maybe slightly explicit (is slightly explicit an oxymoron)?

Ok, your turn. Thoughts? Did you do the writing prompt? What was your experience?

*The title comes out of one of the twitter conversations I had with Zoe Marriott. She suggested embroidering it on a pillow, which in a sense I have now done, sans embroidery and pillow.

Three Posts About Gender

 

Age-of-Brass Triumph-of-Womans-Rights 1869

Image via Wikipedia

Malinda Lo on her blog:

But when I began writing a book set in the contemporary USA (Adaptation), I promptly fell into the passive trap. I had never written a novel set in the “real world,” and suddenly I was dealing with all sorts of expectations and traditions about the way girls behave, how they dress, what they do. It was … truly weird. Yes, I found it much weirder to write about contemporary teen girls than magically gifted sages or tomboyish heroines who like to go hunting.

Inspired by this post by Kate Elliott:

I try very hard to write stories in which there are as many female characters as male characters, with as much agency and importance in the plot. Yet I often have consciously to go back through later drafts to make sure that my female leads aren’t being more passive than I actually want them to be, aren’t letting others make decisions for them or devise all the cunning plans (unless there is a specific reason because of experience, competencies, or social roles), are showing leadership, and are present as confident individuals with a strong sense of themselves (as long as that is within character).

Oh, yes! I do that too. (And get really mad at myself in real life when I think I’ve acted too passively, before I shake it off and resolve to do better next time.)

And unrelated except in topic choice, Martha Wells on Laura Anne Gilman’s blog:

One of the elements about Raksuran society that was different, and also fun to write, was the gender role reversal.  The queens are the leaders of the Raksuran courts, and also the most physically powerful.  Female warriors are also bigger and stronger than male warriors. It was very interesting for me to write, because I had to check all my assumptions about physical power and sexual politics at the door, to stay in the viewpoint of my non-human characters.

And one the things that makes the series so fun to read.

Lathe operator machining parts for transport p...

Image via Wikipedia