Monday, April 30, 2012

There's no place like

When I left Minneapolis two years ago, I was sure I was never going back. Oh, I'd go back and visit - I had friends there, and good ones, after all. But I'd already lived there so much longer than I'd ever planned (in my head, I was supposed to have left after graduating from law school), and I hate the cold and I firmly believe that snow on the ground for six months of the year is an excessive amount.

Gentle reader, you know where this is going: I am moving back.

In, oh, about a month.

I am excited: Part of the reason I am moving back is those previously mentioned really good friends. I'm going to be writing, just writing and jumping into a freelance career is the adventure I've wanted, but it is also very much a jump. So I am also a bit scared. And it's the good kind of scared, not the "Oh dear God, what new Lovecraftian horror lurks in the basement?" sort of scared, but still. 

And in the next thirty days I have to finish teaching my classes (including the grading, speaking of Lovecraftian horrors) and pack up the house, and find a place to rent, and then get on the road and reverse the trip that I made almost exactly two years ago at that point.

It feels, oddly, like going home.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The value in the bad bits

I'm currently in the "typing all the words" stage of the revision. I handwrite, so that means that I'm converting scribbles in two different notebooks to computer file. Sometimes I type as I go, but this time, I was writing through an incredibly busy semester and I decided my time was better used to generate new words than to type ones that already existed. (Also, my internal editor gets a lot meaner when I'm stressed, and I was worried if I took the time to type - thus looking back over what I had written - I'd talk myself out of continuing.) And yes, by the end of things this did mean that sometimes I tucked my notebook in my purse and brought it to the grocery store with me because it's not like I had a back up copy somewhere in the cloud. There was also the time I brought my novel instead of my lecture notes to my graduate seminar. 

Er, moving on.

At this point, I have about seven pages worth of handwritten notes on what I need to think about for the revision. This ranges from things I need to put in or take out, history I need to research, thoughts on characters, notes on soundtrack (I make fairly specific writing playlists) to more serious notes on things like theme and what the book needs to be doing at any given time.

The notes mean that in some cases I have a good idea of the changes I'm making, and some of these changes are big - big enough that I know that certain scenes that I have written aren't going to make it in the next version. And the thing about typing with some distance from the initial writing, is that it also means that there are some scenes that, when I read them, I can tell aren't going in the next version because they're just wrong.

In both of these instances, I'm glad I wrote them. They weren't wasted words, even though they are getting cut. Sometimes you need to write the wrong words to know why they are the wrong ones - you think your character will react a certain way until she does, for example. Sometimes writing a wrong scene helps you think about why the scene is wrong, and then you understand your story more clearly afterward.

And sometimes I just needed to give myself permission to write something - anything! - that would get the words moving that day. Sometimes I recognize those places as I type, but sometimes I don't - there are bits of story there now, bits that actually matter, or I hit the right emotion, even if the event that got me there was wrong. Not always, of course. There are those moments when I shake my head, and draw a line through the page, and feel very glad that the finished version won't include bonus material with deleted scenes.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Be brave enough to make your own monsters

"Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and sieze whatever prey the heart longs for, and have no fear." - W. B. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight

Today, I wrote ENDS on my Very Bad Draft of the current book in progress. Let me assure you it is a very bad draft - it is going immediately (well, immediately post-typing) into revisions, and not to my agent, or to my beta readers, or to anyone. It needs a lot of work.

But there is actually a beginning, a middle, and and end, and they are all in approximately the right places. I don't know how many words there are (see above, re: typing, and how it hasn't happened yet), but my guess is there will be about twice as many when it is done done. I underwrite on my zero drafts.

It was a weird writing experience for me. It's loosely set in a time and place I'm relatively familiar with (England, the late 16th century, which I know some things about due to having specialized in English literature from 1350-1650 for my doctorate), but still required an awful lot of research. And the research was varied - the random grab from the pile of books closest to the desk brought up Grimoires: A History of Magic Books by Owen Davies, and From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll. And oddly, most of the research won't go in until the revision - I just needed to have the thoughts there, in the back of my brain, as I wrote.

It's an alt-history, which means actual people show up. Sometimes, they even behave like their counterparts in our history. But sometimes events - and people - got broken apart and put back together for the sake of story. 

Story got broken apart and put back together - or at least bandaged over - for the sake of story a great deal, too. Whenever I didn't know what happened next, I wrote the worst possible set of circumstances. No one gets out unscathed. Not even the person writing it.

I decided to write this book for a lot of reasons, many of which I'm not quite ready to talk about yet, but one of which was that I didn't think I could do it. But I wanted to try something big and unwieldy, something that would push me out of my comfort zone, and keep me there the entire time I was writing it. Some days, writing like that sucked - I could hear the wind whistling past my ears as I plummeted. But I am proud of this draft, as monstrous and as ugly as it is. And I'm proud of myself for writing it.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Stealing sand from the hourglass

It's one of the things I hear most often from people who think they want to be writers. They say some variation on, "Oh, I could write a book, too. I have this great idea. I just don't have the time." Or the version that makes me regret the fact that my parents raised me to have manners, and behave like a civilized human, and so I do not punch people: "You're a writer? Wow, it must be great to have so much free time to do that."

Free time, yes. That's what it is.

Here is the thing about writing: if you wait until you have free time to do it, you will write very few words. If you want to write, you must steal time from other places of your life, and protect those stolen moments vigorously, because otherwise, things will encroach on them, the time will disappear, and you will still never have written.

How do you steal time? You make sacrifices, you give things up. You get up an hour before the rest of the house, or go to bed after everyone else is asleep. You write on your lunch hour. You don't watch television. You lock yourself out of the internet. 

Those aren't the only ways, of course, and nothing says that you need to do all of those things all of the time and make no compromises and have no fun, but if you look at that list, and think that you could never do any of that, if you look at your life and there's nothing you're willing to give up in order to find time to write, well, I hate to break it to you, but you're probably not a writer. Not a serious one, anyway. Not right now.

Sometimes, though, stealing time isn't enough. Sometimes, it's finding the energy, as this post from writer Theodora Goss discusses. Which again leads to difficult choices, because most of us, and especially writers at the beginning of our careers or writers of primarily short fiction, cannot afford to not have a day job. Because at professional rates of $0.05/ word, you sell your 3000 word story for $150.00. Even novelists, unless they have multiple-book deals, have to write the entire novel before they get paid for it. And the freedom of going freelance can be wonderful, but that comes with its own set of risks. So there is the tendency to work as hard as is physically and mentally possible, and then to try to push beyond that. And not just for financial reasons, but because you love that thing that you are writing, and those characters, and this is your story and you need to tell it, regardless of the cost or consequences. Which can work, if poorly, for a certain amount of time, such as when you're under deadline, but is not a sustainable way of having a life.

These are things I've been thinking a lot lately, as I come to the end of the semester, and the chaos of work that goes with it, as I'm preparing to move, and to restart my life, as I am in revisions on one manuscript, and in progress on another, and have freelance work besides. How can I plan my life to balance time, and energy, and the need for food and shelter, and pug treats for Sam I Am? It's a lot to think about. I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hinges, pivot points, and other metaphors for choice

There are moments in writing when you set down a sentence and suddenly two different stories tell themselves in front of you.

The problem is, of course, that you cannot tell both of those stories. (Well, not unless you're writing a Choose Your Own Adventure, and I already did that.)

It seems like such a little thing to hang a story on, especially a long story (this sentence is in a novel, which is a very long sort of story). One sentence. But lives are changed by single sentences all the time.

And in this instance, better to take the pen, and draw the line through what was written there. Better indeed.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Walk away from all the fears

Today is Easter, and so I think of resurrection. I think of how we celebrate with eggs and bunnies, symbols of transformation and new life, hope and fertility. It is the early days of spring, and even with this year's strange not-winter, there is enough change to appreciate the bright green of buds, the riot of blossoms on trees, the bright flowers uncurling themselves from the ground.

The very earth is resurrecting.

"Resurrection is never easy." It's one of the quotations that means the most to me, from Andrew Greeley's Lord of the Dance. The character who says it, the teenager Noelle, who is beaten, and raped, and tossed aside like garbage, and who resurrects herself from that horror, well, she would know. And I know that sort of resurrection. Too many of us do. I celebrate all of us today.

There are those who know the most literal resurrections. Who, through the miracle of science, and technology, and skilled women and men, have come back from death. Whose hearts have been restarted, whose cancers have been cured. I celebrate them, too.

Today, on Easter, as we celebrate life, and spring, as we celebrate the fact that there is a dawn after darkness, that there is a spring after winter, that what is alive will bloom again, I celebrate the quieter resurrections as well. I celebrate the turning of our faces and our lives toward hope, toward new life, toward growth. I celebrate each choice we make to become reborn, to renew, to pull ourselves out of terror, and death, and to resurrect.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Pour a little salt we were never here

One of my goals for this Spring Break is to get a really large chunk of words down on the current book in progress, enough so that even if I don't have a zero draft by the time classes start up again next week, I'll be close. 

The thing is, I'm crap at first drafts.

That's not false modesty, it's just accurate. It's something I've learned to be okay with. I wasn't always, and believe me, my writing process is a lot more mentally healthy now that I've given myself permission to be rubbish the first time around so that I can get it right later.

I mean, this draft. There's a major plot point, that's been there from the beginning - it's the opening event! - and I've now resolved it, and I still haven't figured out how it happened in the first place. This morning's shower was the first time that I started to have a clue. There's a character who has been written in, and written out, and written back in under a new name, and is now probably going to come back in under his own name and require a double in the other Court. Another character has been waiting just off the page, as have the ceiling crocodiles. Major alliances have changed, and I suspect there is still one more traitor to be found. Because this is alt-history, and alt-history at a pivot point, there are major historical threads I have to decide whether to use or ignore. And once I'm using them, I need to decide exactly how historical to keep them.

I have a lot of bracket notes, my notebooks are swollen with post-its, and there are so many scenes that are simply sketches or conversations in white rooms that I strongly suspect the zero draft (of what is an epic fantasy, mind you) is going to come in at about 50K. Which is approximately the length of one of GRRM's prologues.

I'm oddly fine with this. (Which is one of the ways I know I'm close to having a draft. The voice of the Dreaded Middle -  the one that constantly reminds you that this is flat, and boring, and overdone, and that you should do everyone a favor and stop writing now - has been replaced by the downhill careen of Explosions and Resolutions.) Because while I know I'm not great at writing the zero draft, I am good at thinking it. So I know that the things I couldn't quite get down on paper are actually floating around somewhere in my brain. And I am great at revision.

But you don't get to revise until there are words on the page.