Goal-setting: let’s be reasonable (and baby friendly)

A baby does similar things to your house and your brain; it gleefully, carelessly, adorably takes over everything. When the Lizard is awake, I’m basically 100% in Mum role, which sometimes gets to involve sitting and reading while she plays happily solo, but anything more serious-writing-business than jotting down a few notes is completely out of the  question. Because of this, when she goes down for her nap and I get two hours of baby-free time, I want to switch immediately into Writer role.

…ok, fine, I want to tidy everything up, grab a bite to eat and then switch into Writer role.

But having your brain shunted from side to side like that multiple times a day tends to shake things loose. To keep everything nailed down, I’ve taken to Habitica (again) with a vengeance, and within that I’ve joined up with the splendid Mary Robinette Kowal’s Ink Slingers guild of spec-fic writers.

Mostly, this has been a great move – I’ve got commonality, I’ve got help with goals, I’ve got accountability. They’re splendid people; I’m having fun and feeling engaged.


This month the guild has been having a challenge about weekly goals. I figured this would be great: when I was ramping myself up into full production mode back in 2014, I got great mileage out of setting and checking against weekly goals. When I set this week’s goal, I felt like it was challenging, but achievable if I pushed – and I wanted to push.

What I forgot is that this is 2016 and I have a baby; I cannot do full production mode; I cannot push. There is simply no room in which to push. There is basically no elasticity in my life, nothing I can give up to make room for getting more writing done.

What’s more, not making the goal this week – watching it slip further and further out of reach – has had a tremendously demoralising effect on me. As the week’s progressed, I’ve had less and less energy and will for writing even during those golden nap times. Last night was really low: I felt useless and grumpy and resentful of everyone and everything, especially myself. Which was amazingly unfair because I’d achieved an amazing amount of non-writing stuff and I’d finished my daily writing target.

Fortunately, I woke up this morning realising (with a little help from awesome Twitter friends) that I was being too hard on myself. I simply cannot achieve what I used to achieve pre-baby. One day – probably sooner than I realise – I will be able to. But until then, I really need to be kinder to myself, because failing is very unhelpful.

So I’m making a goal for next week that is better suited to what I can and cannot achieve. Since I can’t control how much time I can give to writing, having an output based goal (“revise 10 scenes”) is asking for panic. Instead, I think I’ll just aim to work on the book – actually on the book, not just those note-jottings – six days out of seven.

After all, baby steps.

If everyone else were jumping off a cliff…

Little Miss Lizard is four-and-a-half months now, which means all of the supporting medical professionals are talking seriously about moving towards “solids” (which as far as I can tell actually means “mush”, but anyway). Baby wisdom is pretty nebulous in general, because unless you’re the Nazis, it’s difficult to get run with babies the sort of tests that get you genuine information about medical and behavioural development. But there’s a lot of “try this” and “think about that” and “oftentimes the other”.

One of the others in this case being that it’s good for the baby to sit up at table with the growed-ups. She sees that people eat, and she becomes interested in doing the same. And they particularly like food that comes off Mum or Dad’s plate. “Similarly,” the nurse noted, “we find that even picky-eating children, when you sit them down at a table of their peers for lunch, will eat when everyone else is eating.”

It reminded me of something we observed with the Lizard. Christmas and New Year’s was, as always, a time of lots of gatherings, and we included bub as much as possible (because she loves people, and people love her). After a party day, when she’d been around lots of people chatting away, she would chatter a lot more, burbling and babbling happy syllables at the ceiling. “She’s learned that this is what our tribe does,” I joked. “We make mouth noises. Better join in!”

But it’s true, isn’t it? Babies learn from us. They copy us so as to become a part of our society. Fitting in is less about fitting in and more about learning how to human.

Succumbing to peer pressure is a biological imperative. Or at least a strong drive.

I just hope I can remember this when she’s a teenager and driving me batty with the need to have, do and be in accordance with her peers. Remember, Evans, it was a developmental requirement. Growing up means overcoming it, but it’s not easy. Have patience!

Baby on board: taking care with language use

Yesterday as I handed the baby over to her father, I said, “Be a good girl for Daddy.”

That pulled me up short, because it so easily translates as, “Be quiet. Be biddable. These things are what makes a girl ‘good’.”

That’s not what I meant, of course. I wasn’t even really talking to her. I was using my voice as an attempt to reassure and soothe her through this transition of cuddles, but my words were directed to Mr Dee. “I hope she won’t kick you or scream in your ear,” I was saying, “but to be honest I’m not hopeful, because she’s quite cranky at the moment.” I was saying, “Thank you for being here to take her, I’m so grateful for the break.” I was saying, “I’m glad you’re with me on this crazy ride.”

But I was tired and frustrated and lazy, so what I said was: “Be a good girl for Daddy.”

I do want my daughter to grow up with an understanding of appropriate behaviour, so that when she screams and kicks it’s not because she doesn’t know better, or can’t control herself, it’s because screaming and kicking is warranted. It’s her choice. But I don’t want her to grow up thinking that “good” girls have to be quiet and biddable, especially for men.

Do I think one stray line from me will make the difference? Of course not. But hundreds of iterations of it from me as she’s growing up, and thousands of variations on it from her relatives, her peers, her teachers, the television, society as a whole… yeah, that’s going to start adding up. The least I can do – in my position of considerable influence – is counteract that pervasive messaging. I want to try not to parent unthinkingly.

Let’s see how I go.

An announcement! (and some querying don’ts)

Now that the dust has settled, the paperwork is signed, my sleep deficit is somewhat reduced and I’ve had a celebratory beer (or, well, a third of a beer, but breastfeeding, y’know) I guess I can announce that I have an agent! I am now represented by Kurestin Armada of P.S. Literary. She is splendid and I am tremendously excited.

I will eventually do a “here’s my full querying story” post, because I read half a hundred of those over the past few years and found them reassuring, inspiring and generally interesting. (EDIT: I haven’t, because so busy, but you can read about my querying process – and read my query – in my QueryTracker success interview!) But for now, a few key lessons from my experience of the past few months:

Don’t get too hung up on formulas or rules. I workshopped my query with a few different audiences, and got a number of varying “a query must have x format” responses. Don’t get me wrong: query structure formulas can be a fantastic place to start understanding the work a query letter has to do so you can put your own together. And you should make your decisions to deviate based on solid reasons for your book. But don’t be afraid to deviate when you have those solid reasons, even if internet wisdom seems to say otherwise.

Don’t be discouraged if your query doesn’t set the world on fire. So many query-to-call stories seem to be full of excitement – oodles of requests and eager agents falling over each other. But to a certain extent, I think it depends on what you’re writing and what’s hot right now. At the moment YA seems to be getting more attention than writing for growed-ups, and of course what you do and how you do it isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes. You really, genuinely, absolutely don’t need every agent you query to request. You only need one. (But I admit, it’s nice to have more.) At the end of the day, I had a 25% request rate on my book, and it happened sloooowly over the course of the months I was querying (until the end, when everything happened in a flurry).

Don’t rush agents if you can help it. After my first offer of rep came through and I started nudging with a need to decide, a number of agents who I would’ve loved the chance to consider (…obviously, or I wouldn’t have queried them) bowed out because they couldn’t review my manuscript before the deadline.

And truly, seriously, desperately, if you can avoid it at alldon’t go into labour the same day you get your first offer of rep. I’m not even kidding, my life has a terrible sense of humour. More about that in due course, though!

Planning from experience

Recently, on one of the fantasy fiction/writing discussion boards I participate in, there was a discussion of how much we all plan before we sit down to write. It’s a misleading question, really, because it draws an artificial boundary around what constitutes writing (isn’t all that planning also part of “writing”?), and perpetuates that distinction between planners and pantsers (whereas I suspect both sides do all the same thinking, it’s just when the thinking is done – before or during – that varies).

In any case, I found myself – as always – more interested in the why and how than the what. Specifically, I realised that what and how I plan now has been heavily influenced by the sorts of things I did in revising two previous novels. Which makes sense: that sort of structural work is something I’ve identified as necessary, and it’s super frustrating to have to do the heavy conceptual earthwork at a point where I’ve already spent weeks and thousands of words in directions that are now being bulldozed. Much more efficient to get that all nailed down first.

The results are undeniable. I had a rough plan for Notorious Sorcerer, and that still led to spending weeks meandering through false starts on some chapters, only to get to the end (eventually, after a year or so) and have to trash whole sections because I needed a different focus. I had a very strict, down-to-scene-level plan for my 2014 NaNoWriMo project, and I banged out the first draft in November. I’ve recently had a first glance at it, and while it needs a lot of polish, I’m not sure it needs much in the way of big-picture lift-and-shift.

Is this because of my planning? Maybe. Is my improved planning because I now have the experience of two other novels behind me? Undeniably. Continue reading Planning from experience

Structural revisions: easier on the floor

I’ve actually been too busy with revisions to blog about them, but as I near the end, I’m finding rumination on theory a useful hamster wheel for my brain’s excess energy. So I thought I’d share the super-hi-tech plot-refining method that I used in preparing for this round of revisions. Continue reading Structural revisions: easier on the floor

So how’s that non-working thing going, Dee?

In summary: not great, but it’s not (quite) my fault.

I had great intentions. I had an amazing week planner with two morning and two afternoon work sessions and plenty of breaks (plottable with post-it notes for the week ahead so I could customise my week depending on circumstances). Despite my husband being bed-ridden post ankle-reconstruction, I managed about half a week of solid, hitting-the-goals work. (It was great: I was getting a scene revised per session, which basically meant I only needed two sessions scheduled a day to hit par and any more was gravy.) I had the week of dinners all planned out in advance, and as a bonus, Mr Dee was finally getting to watch all that television I hadn’t been interested in because ugh middle-aged white guys (like Breaking Bad).

And then, turns out I got pregnant.

Continue reading So how’s that non-working thing going, Dee?

Plunge on in, the water’s fine

I am three weeks away from my last day of work.

I am extremely grateful for the congruence of privileges that means I’m able to do this while we still meet our financial commitments and maintain our standard of living. (Would we be able to afford bigger and better stuff if I kept working? Yes. Is bigger and better stuff more important than doing something I desperately want to do, and also having the time to identify music and museums and things that will make our lives richer and interesting? Hell no.)

So that was making the decision. Next challenge: living la vida non-full-time-paid-working. Continue reading Plunge on in, the water’s fine

The warm glow of completion (onwards and upwards)

Finishing a first draft means:

  • Being able to help more around the house. (“Hey, I could cook one or two nights this week.”)
  • Catching up on media. (“Hey, we should watch the latest season of Game of Thrones.”)
  • Reading over lunch instead of writing.
  • Socialising again. (“Brunch, or are you still writing all the time?”)
  • Epic Neverwinter sessions. (Except I still haven’t managed to score a party who can defeat Valindra, or had a queue pop for Castle Never.)
  • Playing enough to get somewhere in Sunless Sea! (Killed by the largest crab you ever saw. Again.)
  • Getting to tick off huge to-do items in HabitRPG and get metric fucktons of experience (w00t!)
  • Starting to write the next thing…

And the next thing is NaNoWriMo. (Doing it too? Here I am!)

I’m looking forward to this. One of the biggest kicks I got out of Camp NaNo – which started me off on the four-month productivity bender that finished the draft for me – is: permission to not be perfect. Which is a big thing, and such an enabler (I’ll talk more about this soon) but it does mean that I get to the end of a draft and know that so much of it now needs major rewriting. I’m super happy with the shape of the ending, now I just have to realign the rest of the book to meet that ending. Which is all great, but the fly in the ointment is how long it took me to get the first half. It’s aggravating to have spent so long on material that’s going to need major revision.

It seems to me that the best way around this is to stop taking so long with the first draft. If I can’t really know what shape the story should be until I know how it ends in detail (which seems to be how I roll; it’s been the case for both novels I’ve worked on) then either I need to write ending-first (which has worked for short material, but I don’t think I could do for longer pieces: the ending would lack the necessary complexity) OR I write the first draft even rougher and quicker.

I’m trying the latter for NaNo. I’m not aiming for the first 50k of a novel in relatively coherent prose. I am aiming for a 50k epic-rough quasi-summary draft of the entire novel. I’m anticipating chapters that are a patchy collage of prose and summary and notes to self. I’m anticipating covering a chapter a day in this method. And most of all, I’m anticipating needing to do a fuckton of work once I come back to write it properly – but since I know there’s a fuckton of work needing to be done on the first-draft that took me two years to write, that’s no big deal.

P.S. To add another spanner to my bouquet, I received some really thoughtful feedback on Boralos from a marvellous agent – confirming for me how much I’d love to work with her in the future. As always, new input makes my brain spin on old projects (it’s true: the further you get from a project in time, the more leverage you have to tear it apart and put it back together) but obviously any serious consideration of what to rework next will have to wait until after November.