Monday, February 21, 2011

How many miles to Mordor, again?

My friend Damien recently shared his thoughts on using wordcount to measure writing progress. It's a useful thing to think about, especially if you are just starting out as a writer, and aren't sure how to measure your progress by anything other than the number of words you have written that day. Obviously, wordcount is a way to measure progress, and an important one. If you are trying to write a novel, you had better know what the standard contract length is for the genre you're working in, because you don't have a salable novel until you've hit that point, and you don't have a salable novel if you are too far over it.

(When I first decided I was going to write a novel, I looked to the awards guidelines to see how long a novel was. 40K words or more is officially a novel for those purposes. I'm very glad I learned before I started writing that if I wanted to sell something, it needed 60K more words to be novel-shaped.)

I don't use wordcount as a measure of progress. The biggest reason why is that I handwrite. So while I have a general idea of how many words are on each notebook page, I don't know for sure until I move the words from notebook to computer. But another reason is that, for me, wordcount is a bad way to measure progress.

I've always had a difficult relationship to wordcount. I am naturally a very concise writer. Brevity being the soul of wit and all, my papers in high school and college always came in at the short end of the requirement. Even when I loved the topic, and thought I had a lot to say on it, I'd be on the 7 page end of the 7-10 page spread. I am in a profession where short fiction gets sold by the word, and so wordcount matters. The longest story I've sold so far is 1900 words. In fact, if you add up all the words in all four of the stories I've sold so far, the amount is still under the word limit to be considered one short story in any of the major genre awards (short story being a work of 7500 or fewer words). At some point, I would really like to sell a short story that would be long enough to use in a Clarion application portfolio (I'm still not sure how I managed to write two that were the year I applied.)

But along with my conciseness comes one of the biggest flaws I am aware of in my own writing - I leave too much in my head in first drafts. My polished drafts are never about trimming the excess, but about adding all of the things I didn't put on the page the first time, and so they are generally 20% longer than my draft zeros are. So I tend to measure my progress by "have I solved the current problem?" This means I tend to write short stories in one sitting, and longer projects by scene.

Which is all, I suppose, a rather long-winded (shockingly enough) way of saying, like anything else in writing, figure out a way of measuring your progress that works best for you. Do whatever helps you finish things on the schedule you want them finished by, whether that's counting words, or counting scenes, or not counting anything. 

Write until you get to the end. Then stop.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Not the Boskone write-up post

This was going to be the place where I wrote a bit about going to Boskone on Saturday, and where I talked about how lovely it was to see dear friends, and meet new ones, and maybe talk a bit about some of the interesting panels I saw.

But instead, this has turned in to the post where I wave my hands in the air in a very Grover-like fashion and tell you I sold my story, "The Speaking Bone," to Apex Magazine, and it will appear in the March issue.

I am so, so excited. I love this story. It is, I think, the weirdest thing I have ever written. (When I was house-sitting this summer, I had walking access to an incredibly beautiful beach. The fact that "The Speaking Bone" is a direct result of that will give you a bit of a clue as to how odd my brain is.)

This also marks my third professional fiction sale, thus qualifying me for SFWA membership. I will be filling out my paperwork soon, and with great delight.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Roll away your stone, I'll roll away mine

I think a lot about who I am writing for, when I write. I have my ideal readers, wonderful lovely people, who seem to know what the words on the page were meant to say, even when I haven't quite written them properly. Who see beyond the clumsiness, and into the heart of the story. In a very real sense, everything I have ever written is for them.

Then there are the people whose names would be sung across an acknowledgements page. The ones who spend hours talking through plot difficulties and characters who have, somewhat distressingly, developed minds of their own. (Or who have inconveniently died.) The people who call me to remind me to eat when I am working, or who forgive me, when I must sacrifice our plans on the altar of my story. The one who have always had my back, who are the safety new that allows me to walk the tightrope of the writer's life.

There is also the audience of ghosts. The problem with life is that we eventually die of it, and there are people who will never read my work. My Irish grandmother will never know that her stories are the reason the Celtic haunts my work. The first teacher who taught me to love words and language will never see what I have learned to do with them. The person who helped me begin to put myself back together when I was broken, who named me survivor, not victim, will never know that writing is how I claim my survival.

The audience of ghosts will only grow larger, and it cracks something open inside me to realize that. To realize there isn't time to wait, not really, to tell stories. That if you wait too long, the only story you tell is that of goodbye.

Friday, February 11, 2011


There are some stories that are, for me, the equivalent of the errant grain of sand in an oyster. They sit, tucked away, under my skin, waiting for my words to form layers around them. Or perhaps they are ghosts, haunting me, and haunting my work, showing up in the strange and shadowed corners.

King Arthur. Tam Lin. Orpheus and Eurydice.

I don't just write about these things, I collect versions of them. Any retelling I can get my hands on, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Last night, I listened to Anais Mitchell's Hadestown. This definitely falls into the category of the sublime. It is described on Mitchell's site as "a folk opera based on the Orpheus myth set in a post-apocalyptic American depression," and honestly, the description made me a little leery - I do not like my fantasy in depressed or post-apocalyptic settings, and I tend to prefer my mythos as something other than American. But once I started listening, all thoughts of why this might not be my sort of thing disappeared, because the way the story is told here is amazing.

The music is gorgeous, and the lyrics smart, and Hadestown possesses what I feel is the best quality in a retelling - the ability to reflect new facets of the original story. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What's love got to do with it?

I really wish I liked Valentine's Day more than I do. I mean, I love the idea of it. A day for celebrating love! With roots in medieval literature! And it thrills me to no end that St. Valentine is also the patron saint of beekeepers. Somehow, this fits perfectly with his also being the patron saint of lovers.

I think I would be crazy about Valentine's Day if the tradition were still to exchange love letters. Love is, after all, a big word, and encompasses more than sexual desire. I would be delighted to send and receive letters of love. (And if you are writing to someone you do feel a physical sort of passion for, and you do not know what to say, might I recommend the poetry of Pablo Neruda, a select quotation from the Song of Songs, or the lyrics of Leonard Cohen?)

But the day has become less about the personal, and all about buying something as a sign of affection. And, it seems, the more expensive the something, the greater the affection behind it. (Except, oddly, in chocolates. I have received a truly puzzling number of emails this month advising me on how to buy chocolates for "my man." Apparently, manly chocolate must contain bacon. WTF I don't even...)

The thing is, buying something expensive is easy, relatively speaking. Once you've decided what sort of expensive thing fits into your budget, it's a fairly easy task to order flowers, pick out a shiny piece of jewelry, or procure a truly terrifying and probably uncomfortable set of lingerie that requires a set of instructions and a ladies' maid to get into. None of those things require thought, or consideration, or love.

Don't get me wrong. Those sorts of gifts are nice. I love getting flowers, and if you know me even a little bit, you know I love chocolate. I'm happy to receive something beautiful and frivolous that I would never buy on my own to decorate myself with. But that's not what I think of when I think of love.

A Valentine's gift, a gift between lovers, ought to say something about the people in the relationship. Make something for the other person, give them something only you can. Bake a cake, paint a picture, write a poem. Give a favorite book, with annotations in that show why it's your favorite. Make a mixtape (and yes, I know that actually means burn a CD or email a playlist): what was the song playing when you met, or when you first danced, or the one that always makes you think of the other person. Be more intimate than lingerie. Give love.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Though this be madness, yet there is method in't

The last time, it was the ravens. Every time they showed up in The Novel Formerly Known as Linger, everything went sideways. The problem was, they were important. Really important. On the level of theme, and symbol, and plot. So I couldn't just slice through the Gordian (Corvian? (sorry)) knot with my pen and cut them out of the manuscript.

The thing was, it wasn't really the ravens (collective noun: unkindness) that were the problem. No, it was the places in the book where the ravens (collective noun: storytelling) were showing up. Those were the tricky bits, the places where things started to fall apart, or come together. Places where the center of the story had to hold.

I needed one draft, and one very significant rewrite before I knew what the center was. Once I did, I stopped being haunted by ravens. (collective noun: murder).

This time, it's the Wild Hunt. (I am aware that at this point, those of you well grounded in Celtic mythology, are rolling your eyes, and thinking, well, Kat, what else did you expect, putting such things in your books.) The first time they showed up, I wound up slashing 5K words, and then writing about three times that amount, putting off bringing them back on stage. I've done some fairly unfortunate things to my pov, trying to come up with a way around needing them. (This might be easier if I didn't think the Gabriel Ratchets were just about the cutest things ever, and kind of want one.)

But the Hunt is riding, and I can feel the story running ahead of me, hear its laughter on the storm. I am trying to hang on, and praying I'm not its quarry.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Here, there, and everywhere

At the beginning of my class this semester, I did something new: I announced a social media policy. Perhaps odd for a Chaucer class, though maybe not odd where one of our texts is Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog. The reason behind this was at the end of last semester, a number of my students told me that they had found this blog, or my twitter account, and weren't sure if they were allowed to read or follow, since I hadn't said anything about them in class. My response was along the lines of, "of course - the posts aren't locked," and I was surprised anyone felt the need to ask permission. 

So this semester I began by telling everyone where they could find me if they wanted to, and that I didn't use this space or my twitter stream to give out great literary secrets, that I usually talked about writing.

Of course, that resulted in the "I want to be a writer. Do I need to blog?" question.

The answer is, of course not. If you want to be a writer, you need to write. But the student who asked this looked so disappointed, as if I had failed to pass along the magic key that would unlock Writers' World, so I went in to greater detail.

I've kept this blog for almost two years now, and only once have I gotten a professional, writing-related, communication because of it. It's not designed to be media-bait, or flashy. It's a place where I can talk about things that I'm interested in thinking about, share books I've loved or songs I like or rant about things that really piss me off. This blog - and my twitter account - are professional spaces only in the sense that I try very hard to keep in mind that the internet is forever, and so I try not to post things I might later regret. (I'm sure this will happen, as it seems to be a rule of the internet that everyone does something stupid on it at one time or another.)

My way of doing things is, obviously, not the only way. It's simply the way that works best for me - it lets me feel I'm connected, but on my terms, not ones dictated by some idea of when I should post or what I should write about to maximize hits. I tend to be more active on twitter because it feels more conversational to me (and the thing I like best about social media is its social aspect) but again, I certainly don't think that someone who wants to build a writing career should immediately open a twitter account and post in order to attract a maximum amount of followers.

Blog, or tweet, or whatever because you enjoy it. Because it allows you to meet new people, and learn interesting things, and connect in a way you otherwise wouldn't. It took Geoffrey Chaucer 600 years after he wrote the Canterbury Tales to start blogging, and his career seems to have done just fine.

Friday, February 4, 2011

What else could possibly go wrong?

I know, I know. It's the question we're never supposed to ask. Just whispering the words is the equivalent of asking the universe to smite us please, and vigorously.

I'm not, mind you, asking the question on my behalf. 

Those of you who have spent any time reading the entries on my writing process at all know that I write by my headlights. I don't outline, and for goodness' sake, I even have a "plot is something that happens to other people" label for the entries here. This is not an announcement that anything in my writing process has changed.

But when I feel like I'm starting to run up against the leading edge of those headlights and the only thing stretching out before me is outer darkness and blank pages, I've been looking at what's happened in the draft so far, and then wondering: what else could possibly go wrong? Answering that question usually gets me through the next few scenes, so long as I remember not to look down. So long as I don't let myself worry about how I'm going to tie this all up at the end. (It's only a draft. It's only a draft. It's only a draft.)

It is sort of terrifying to write like this, with things getting worse and worse and worse, but it's also sort of exhilarating. Things are happening! I am learning things about my characters! And things are moving. Which is good, because I am stumbling towards the Dreaded Middle, and I am really hoping the momentum I have here will pull (or push or drag) me far enough through that section that I'll be able to feel my way towards an ending.

Apparently what you do when you can no longer see your headlights, is you blow up the road in front of you, and write by the light of the explosions.

That's fine: fire pretty.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


If you are planning on applying to Clarion this year, you have one month left to turn in your applications. Those of us who are alumni have been asked to answer the #whyclarion question on twitter. Though I am normally a very concise writer (I still have not sold anything long enough to be considered as part of the application portfolio), I wanted to give a longer answer.

Although, here I am, starting with the short version: it will force you to take your writing seriously.

Attending takes a serious commitment of time and money. (Although I will say right now, and I mean this, if the money is the only thing holding you back from applying, apply. Worry about the money when you have to - there are grants and scholarships. Get in first, and then figure out how you will pay for it.) So by applying, and deciding that you would go, if you got in - that you would put all the rest of the parts of your life on hold for six weeks - you have made a decision about how important writing is to you.

Being there is hard work. Ideally, you workshop a story a week, so that you can take advantage of having a critique from each instructor. Writing a new story a week is difficult on its own (if you don't believe me, try it sometime. Take six weeks, and write six short stories.) but you are also critiquing an average of 3-4 stories a day. This is also something that takes a good deal of time and effort, because you try to do a good job on these, to really think about how the pieces of each story do or don't fit together, and to give your classmates useful notes. This may be the first time you've been in a critique group, or the first time you haven't been the best writer in the room. Those things are an adjustment.

Critique sessions ran 3-4 hours in the mornings, and there would sometimes be addition presentations by the instructors in the afternoon. You meet with each instructor for a private conference after your story has been workshopped. Some days there are guest speakers.

Sometimes you eat. Sometimes you sleep. But really, what you do is think about writing.

Not just about how to write, or how to write better, though there is a great deal of that, but about why you, you personally, write. How do you see writing fitting into your life? Do you want to pursue it as a career? What kind of shape do you hope your career has? What kind of thing do you want to write, and why do you want to write it?

And you get to think about these things with a group of other people who care, and passionately, about the same thing you care about. Who are working just as hard as you are, and struggling with the same things. So you take the idea of writing seriously, and you learn the skills and gain the support system to take writing seriously when you reenter the real world.

That's #whyclarion.