Writing this week: 5th September 2015

This week I… finished my scene outline, as scheduled, all except for the one scene where I got hung up that sent me back to the planning board. I don’t know what it is about this thing that makes it apparently so impossible for me to come up with the details, but it just isn’t coming. I’ve tried edging up on it from all sides. I’ve made lists of considerations and elements. I’ve thrown everything aside, stopped thinking about it, and let my subconscious simmer. But I’ve still got nothing. Time to get out the big guns: discuss it with the Mister.

All the other glitches and problems identified in my planning have been solved and folded back into the scene outline, so once I get this one nailed I feel pretty good about running through a first draft. Which is good, because I’m now on a definite deadline: baby is due 13th October, and that’s if it cares about punctuality. I’m well aware that I could go pop any time. (“Have you packed your hospital bag yet?” the midwives keep asking. “What about now? Pack your damn bag already.”) I’d like to have the first draft of this project more or less done before routine and getting stuff done become the topics of hilarious nostalgia for a while. So with that in mind…

Next week I’m looking to… start writing. I think my ideal pace is going to wind up being two scenes a day (~2000 words) but I’d like to give myself a chance to ease into it this week. Not to mention that Tuesday’s going to be a challenge – I have a double driving lesson, a doctor’s appointment and a childbirth class – and Thursday might be tricky as well, since it’s earmarked for taking care of the last of the baby shopping. I’ll aim for a scene every day except Tuesday, which means by next weekend I should have a chapter done.

Provided, of course, that between us the Mister and I can solve my little details problem. *glares at it*

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

Writing this week: 29th August 2015

This week I… was somewhat interrupted by an unwell Mr Dee, but still managed to get a fair amount done. My goal was to scene-outline Deadlands, and while I’m not quite finished, I’m nearly there.

In the process, I’ve uncovered a few more need-to-solves (which are highlighted for now on the outline) and a few more bumps in my initial chapter-outline that I’ve smoothed over at a scene level. These include places where the flow of story from one chapter to another looked good in brief summary, but once I teased out the details just wasn’t going to work. A few twitches see it put right. Payoffs for getting a little more detailed: now those glitches are solved before I get to the writing – or closer to it, because I’m sure I’ll find more as I write. It’s also been handy to note how often supporting and lesser characters are reoccurring. A brief note of “Events happen” having now been teased out into a more detailed description of what sort of events, and how they happen, I can see that character X and character Y are involved in the story a lot more than I had been expecting. This is good to know from the outset, so I can develop their details and relationship with the protagonist and other characters from early on – the more I do now, the less I have to try and wrangle in during revisions.

Next week I’m looking to… finish the scene outline, and solve the outstanding problems. Update my world-and-plot wiki as needed. In short, make sure I have everything I need to write smoothly once I get going. It’s tempting to push myself to get back to rough-drafting next week, but I want to make sure I don’t skim or skip over the problem-identifying and -solving parts. It’s tempting to do, because that’s the hard stuff and my brain is like water, seeking the path of least resistance. But that’ll just land me back in Stuckville further down the track, so I need to do the hard yards now.

Writing this week: 22nd August 2015

In a bid to both track my work and goals, and keep things ticking over here on the blog, I’m going to start a weekly check-in for how I’ve been going, and what I’m going to try next. (Weekly for now, at least. Everything, of course, is open to renegotiation after the Baby Event takes place and my entire life gets turned on its sticky sleep-deprived ear.)

This week I… largely took a breather. Early on I put in some solid sessions on Notorious Sorcerer to take in some final alterations that had been prompted by discussions with second-round readers, and to smooth out some bad line-by-line habits I’d noticed in my writing, preparatory to sending the manuscript out in response to requests. All the better to engender said requests, I sent out another batch of queries – though of course practically nothing will be happening in spec fic publishing land for this week and probably next, as Sasquan swings into merry and much-watched action. (I’ll be watching the ACO play Mozart and Brahms at Hugos time, which I am absolutely fine with. Especially since every time we go to classical concerts I ponder more on that novel idea I once had with duelling sisters, magic violins and chamber music invocations.)

Having done all that good work, and in the spirit of giving my brain a little time to recover, I largely took the rest of the week off. Off writing, that is. I still had a driving lesson, an antenatal class, an editing workshop class, a date with a double batch of cookies, an appointment to make a will and Friday night drinks-dinner-and-a-movie arrangements. (Gattaca, with a discuss-the-science panel afterwards. Still a great little movie!) But there’s been plenty of time around (and often on the way to and from) those things for napping, reading, pondering, playing and generally letting my brain get its mojo back. So next week, it’s time to have at it.

But have at what? That’s been the other thing I needed to sort out this week: what was I going to be working on next? There’s the YA fantasy with jinni and pirates and craft beer (The House of Truth and Lies) that I rough-drafted for NaNo last year; that needs some major revisions, and plotting for its sequel. I feel pretty good about this one for a lot of reasons, but it’s definitely not a standalone (since it ends on nearly a literal cliffhanger) so I’ve never been sure it’s a sensible thing to work on when I might still be looking at my debut novel. And then there’s the really weird fantasy (Deadlands), with radioactive poisonous magic and a protagonist who’s unapologetic about having been the recently vanquished Evil Overlord’s minion. I was trying to first-draft this for Camp NaNo in July, but various other opportunities delayed my progress, and then I hit a big roadblock in the fourth chapter from having not planned sufficiently beforehand. So I’m currently feeling a little bruised on this one (though I do have a good 12k words already down).

In the end, it came down to timing. Before mid-October (and Baby Event) I can probably manage to finish my planning and get a complete rough draft of Deadlands. Then it’ll go in the drawer anyway, so it won’t matter if I don’t even manage to pick up a pen again until February. But even being optimistic about my working rate, I can’t manage a full round of heavy-lifting revisions on HoT&L before then, and it’ll irritate me no end if I have to start all over again later. And so…

Next week I’m looking to… finish a full scene-by-scene outline for Deadlands. I’ve already got a chapter-level outline, but having already hit one roadblock, that’s obviously not detailed enough, so I’m drilling down another layer of detail. (My scene outline for HoT&L ran to fifteen pages for thirty planned chapters, but it meant I barely paused once in rough-drafting that, and I’d like to avoid my roadblock behaviour – where I flounder around for a few days trying to decide if it might be better to skip this scene and write on in the hopes of figuring out what I need later, but not doing that because I know that’ll just leave me with more holes later. Solve all the problems at the outset, and it’s easier to power through.)

Now, let’s see how I go. :)

Depth and balance in editing

Yesterday, I went to a workshop (“Page-turning Power”) with Margie Lawson, through Writers Victoria. Margie was great fun, chatty and engaging with a whole bunch of fantastic concepts and ways of thinking about the work of writing. As she noted, her advice was an enormous platter of cookies; we could take the ones we liked and leave the ones that weren’t working for our tastes or writing intentions. Some cookies I found particularly to my taste were her endless joy in rhetorical devices and sentence rhythm, and her editing system for analysing scene content and creating balance.

Continue reading Depth and balance in editing

Ave Caesar! (We who are about to query salute you)

As the revised novel awaits the verdict of my unspoiled second readers, I’ve been prepping for querying agents to prevent myself a) chewing my own fingernails off, and b) breathing down the readers’ necks. It’s an interesting business, querying, because it’s so subjective: at the end of the day, the only question is whether a specific individual finds this email interesting enough right now to request more. There are so many elements that are completely out of the author’s control, from whether the agent is having a good morning or a bad, to whether the agent has a hitherto unrevealed great love or pet hate for a key concept of the book. Possibly because it’s so subjective, and authors are so nervous about it, we all strive wildly to find as many objective things we can nail down as possible.

Sometimes, I feel, this maybe gets out of hand.

Continue reading Ave Caesar! (We who are about to query salute you)

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

Reading the Hugos: the short stories

An admission up front: I don’t read short fiction (unless it’s fanfic). I’ve just never found a short piece – even a novella – that I found overall satisfying. If the characters and world are interesting, I want to dig deeper, see more, explore further. If they aren’t, I’m not interested at all. So a strong argument could be made that I just don’t “get” short fiction. But I do get a vote, and all I have to make that vote with is my opinion, so here we go.

  • “On A Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli – I felt like this didn’t really go anywhere or do anything. We’re given the setup, and then that’s what happens, without twist or surprise. Perhaps the point is meant to be the “spiritual” (ho ho?) journey of the narrator-protagonist, but I didn’t really feel like there was much of that either. There could have been. This could have been a confirmation of his faith, or a chance to really explore humanity’s complex and multi-varied relationship with souls, spirits, ghosts and ancestors. But the story didn’t do that. In addition, the style profoundly lacked grace or felicity. I don’t believe this deserves to be in contention for a Hugo.
  • “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C. Wright – Such an amazing yawn that I didn’t even finish it. The world’s a mash – the description of the city rings heavy classical-Roman bells, but later on a horse bitches about Napoleon eating him. Everything is, I assume, supposed to stand in stark allegorical silhouette, but for me that mostly just feels like generic. I’m not a fan of talking animals to start with, so endless paragraphs of them striking heroic poses and woffling with referential verbosity tried my patience beyond what this little black duck will endure from fiction. Obviously, I don’t think this deserves to be in contention.
  • “A Single Samurai” by Steven Diamond – While there’s a nice shape to the plot arc, there’s nothing in terms of character and emotion packing it into place. The little glimpses of personal history here and there are far more interesting than the – sometimes confusing – slogging through “wilderness” in pursuit of a definite but fuzzy goal (kill the kaiju… “somehow”). Things happen to fall out well for our nameless, unknown samurai, and I suppose that’s nice, but it’s not a story that’s going to stay with me.
  • “Totaled” by Kary English – A good story. I liked Maggie, and enjoyed following her inventive exploration and problem-solving, and if the ending made me want to watch Source Code all over again, it was a good similarity. It could have plucked that note of “how much can you ask of me?” a little more fulsomely, and the Algernon-esque decline could have been paced a little more elegantly, but overall, this was a story that delivered in a satisfying manner.
  • “Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa – A sentient spaceship learns to be a cowboy. The unavoidable comparison to the work of Ann Leckie isn’t favourable; this lacks subtlety and ambiguity, and the style is overblown and riddled with human-voiced niggles. Moreover, the inconsistency of numbers as words or numerals gave me the right irrits (not the author’s fault so much as the editor’s). If I’m supposed to be considering this for best short story of the year, I expect better.

Really, now, the only question remaining for me in this category is whether a story deserves to win a Hugo Award just because it doesn’t actively suck. Surely the bar should be a little higher? The competition a little more… well, present?

Reading the Hugos: Goblin Emperor

First up in my reading of the Hugo shortlist is Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. It’s been on my to-read list for ages, and as the only straight-up fantasy on the best novel shortlist, I thought I’d start with something I’m most likely to enjoy. Also, my library had it available.

And enjoy it I did. It’s a very charming, intimate and political story, full of intricate details of society, politics and etiquette and bound very closely around the journey undertaken by the main character. That character – Maia – was the neglected, exiled and disregarded fourth son of a strict monarch, until an airship disaster leaves him the only surviving son and therefore Emperor. From here, the book covers the first fraught months of his reign, as Maia attempts to take on a role he has never been prepared for amidst the machinations of the court.

A highlight, for me, was the social worldbuilding, and the delightful use of language it prompted. The careful use of levels of formality in interaction – and the dance of pronouns – was particularly delicious, and given an extra layer of poignancy through Maia’s previous extreme isolation; as he negotiates society, so he introduces it to us. However, politically, I was a little underwhelmed by proceedings. Things work a little too smoothly for Maia, and a combination of his good intentions shining through, and the fortuitously correct selection of trustworthy assistants, means things never get as twisty, backstabby or ambiguous as I really like in my political fantasy.

But all of that is trumped by Maia’s emotional journey and how strongly connected to him we become through the course of the novel. He is both sincerely earnest, and gently self-mocking, and the combination is so terribly endearing that despite my political druthers, I found myself consistently hoping that everything would turn out well for him, and being delighted when it did. And so the almost fairytale realisation of it all – that the good end well because their goodness prompts and draws goodness in others – somehow works to make the book overall very satisfying.

I gave this four stars on GoodReads (because I enjoyed it a great deal, but didn’t love it outrageously) and I think it’s an extremely well crafted novel with interesting, true things to say about being human.

Reading the Hugos

For the first time ever, I’ve bought myself the right to vote in the Hugos. There have been a variety of reasons why I haven’t previously. For most of my life, lack of money was chief, but also the fact that I generally don’t like sci-fi even slightly, and the Hugos are a very, very sci-fi set of awards. I also don’t much like short fiction – however excellent the story, I always get to the end of it dissatisfied that that’s all there is; I’m a sprawling-novels sort of girl.

But I have enjoyed looking at the Hugo shortlists in previous years to see what interesting things might have slipped under my radar that were making other fans excited, and it makes me sad this year that I cannot trust that the nominations were made in excitement. Also, given the broad, sweeping statements various Puppy-types have been making about what readers of speculative fiction do, don’t, should or shouldn’t want in their fiction (statements completely opposite to what I like in my speculative fiction) and given that I can afford a supporting membership at present, I figured it was time to stand up and be counted.

So here I am, an eligible Hugo voter. Now I have to figure out what to do with this vote.

I must say, it’s very tempting to just read everything not on a Puppy-plate, and draw a No-Award line under that. I don’t like what the slates have done, and I dislike the rhetoric many of the supporters have used loudly, often, and without censure – indeed often with explicit support – from the slatemakers.

But my point here is about what I – a reader and fan of speculative fiction – do and don’t want in my speculative fiction. So to make that point abundantly clear, I’m going to try and read the entire Hugo shortlist. I am going to read, and I am going to blog about it – not necessarily to influence anyone else but to make my thoughts, feelings and reasons explicit and transparent.

Some provisos:

  • I will not be spending money on this. My policy – for reasons of thrift, bookshelf space and self-respect – is that I only buy books that I know I enjoy (i.e. have already read) or that I have a significant belief that I will enjoy (i.e. from a known author, or just looks so damn amazing the dollars won’t stay in my pocket). None of the material on the shortlist fits that criteria (yet) so I will only be able to read material that is in the voting packet, available from my library, or that I can otherwise lay hands on (e.g. loans from friends). When there is a piece that I cannot get hold of in any way, I will make do with evaluating it from available material, and this will most likely mean it doesn’t make it onto my ballot. Them’s the breaks.
  • I will be reading the way I usually do. Those who follow my reading habits (on GoodReads) are probably aware that I am pretty demanding, and have little compunction about putting down a book that is annoying, boring or elsewise aggravating me. Hugo nominations get no greater leniency. If I wouldn’t read a book ordinarily, there are lots and lots of books that I did read and enjoy that I think are more worthy of the award than it is. When I blog about a story I put down, I will be discussing where and why.
  • The one rule of my regular reading habits that I will be bending is the one where I currently don’t even bother picking up a book unless it mentions a female character by name in the jacket copy. For this once, a Hugo nomination enables a bypass. But I have a reason for that rule, and books that don’t meet it are going to be starting with a handicap.
  • Relatedly: I’m a reader reading. I get to have my own opinion on the things I read. (You get to have your own opinion on the things you read.)
  • At the end of the day, I might find there are things on the Puppy-plates that I enjoyed. I will still be measuring whether those things are better than – or at least comparable to – everything I read last year that didn’t make it into the nominations before I consider where to place them on my ballot. Considering some of the amazing things that came out last year, this is going to be a tough one, but that is just what the slates have bought for these stories by raising questions as to the authenticity of their nomination.