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).
I found many things in this to be uncomfortable about, but I was trying to be even-minded in crafting my thoughts about it. After all, this crew has as much right as anyone to write, read and tell people about whatever things they find most delightful in the genre. Now personally – to borrow Brad Torgersen’s lengthy breakfast cereal analogy, from what appears to be a statement of intent about the Sad Puppies list – towards the end of the ’90s and into the ’00s, I was picking up book after book and going, “Ugh, not fucking Nutty Nuggets again. Don’t we have any variants on this recipe?” So to be honest, I am delighted with the wide range of strings fantasy fiction has been adding to its bow in the last fifteen years. More, more, more, I say (with gleeful disregard for the length of my to-read list). But I appreciate how Mr Torgersen might be sad about what he clearly perceives to be a lack of Nutty Nuggets. (I say perceives because, from where I’m sitting, there are still heaps of books of that ilk. I know because I’m picking them up in the bookstore – or getting them out from the library – not finding anything interesting about them, and putting them back.)
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.)
As usual, Goodreads did its “Here’s what you read in 2014!” email and I went, “Not done yet!” and read another couple of books. But now 2014 is definitely, really, seriously done with (and an interesting year it was too – I’ll reflect on writing in 2014 in another post, I think) and here’s some things I really enjoyed reading this year:
Queen’s Thief series: book 3, King of Attolia – I love this series and its easy writing and serrated characters and storylines. Love it so much that I’m doling the books out to myself like rare and prized treats.
Dagger and the Coin: book 3, The Tyrant’s Law – What everyone who likes Game of Thrones should be reading, because it’s amazing fantasy, and actually businesslike about delivering the story.
The Raven Cycle: books 2 and 3, Dream Thieves and Blue Lily, Lily Blue – I don’t read these books, I wallow in them wreathed all over with outrageous delight.
The Craft Sequence: book 2, Two Serpents Rise – Max Gladstone is a genius and I love his brain and all the post-industrial magic-based philosophically bent fantasy it produces.
The Wave Trilogy: book 2, Warring States – This alterni-history fantasy series continues to be sharp and full of the unexpected and very rich in interesting ideas.
Firsts or lone books
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club – Genevieve Valentine retells the Twelve Dancing Princesses as flappers in jazz-age New York and I fall over in delight at the wonderful ladies and their sparse but beautifully depicted relationships. The needlepoint of this book sews itself into your skin.
Vicious – Sociopaths and superheroes; all the ways in which being human is hard and being super human is too hard.
The Dreamhunter Duet – A lavish and mysterious fantasy of a turn-of-the-century alterni-colony, where dreams can be harvested, if you can ignore some dark secrets. A beautiful look at consumerism, privilege, the opiates of the masses.
London Falling – It’s the Bill with vicious hooks and magic. It is serious copper business. It is really quite great, if you’re up for a bit of grit.
So, NaNoWriMo is done. And – surprising myself tremendously – I won, and won doubly over. I had planned to write a complete rubbish-summary-half-assed draft of a novel – and not only did I hit the 50k words (on about day 20, good lord!) I completed the draft (at a slightly meatier 68k words) with a couple of days to spare.
I’m basically flabberghasted. I didn’t even know I had this in me.
Looking at it as I was going, and in the immediate aftermath, my conclusion is that my chief weapons were fear and surprise over-the-top planning, and permission to suck. Continue reading NaNoWroteMo. Yo.→
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.
The splendid Susan Dennard has been hosting a critique partner match-up, which I’ve been calling “writer partner speed dating” when I describe it to my husband (who assures me he’s fully supportive of me dating on the internet…). While I love and would be lost in the wilderness without the Firm (my critique group) I have also been keen to find someone with whom I can have a less structured and more organic and sprawling partnership of creativity with. (And it also helps to have a variety of resources; for instance, in my next project I have a big twist at the end of act 1, and I’ve been brainstorming how to make that work technically and logistically with my husband, so he is now spoiled a million for that twist. I need other readers to let me know how my delivery works.) So I’ve leapt on in to the fray. (And if this sounds good, you should too.)
It’s been a great experience. I’ve touched base with half a dozen other writers who write various kinds of fantasy at various stages in their writing journey, and looked at their opening chapters. Novel opens are possibly one of the most intensive parts of writing – there’s so much you have to think about and get moving, and you can’t rely on the momentum you’ve created because you’re only just starting! So it’s an excellent piece of writing to really dig into. Even when I’m reading a whole story for someone, I’ll tend to leave most comments in the first 10%.
What I hadn’t expected was how much I was going to get from engaging critically with the openings of half a dozen novels in development. Oh, hey, it’s absolutely invigorating and inspiring to get comments and responses back from my prospective critique-partners as well, but I’m also getting a heap of push just from reading. Well, not just from reading: from reading, thinking why isn’t this working for me? and then what’s a fix for that? and then, finally, is this something I should be doing / doing better in my own work?
The answer is almost always: YES YES YES.
Because why wouldn’t you? Stronger sense of who the main character is and what he really, really wants? Yes, sign me up! Rich but tight delivery of world immersion through stripping back to a few strong, evocative details? Sounds ace! Piling more than one layer of awesome into every scene if it can be arranged? I can think of no reason not to! Thinking hard about what I really need to include right now? Can only make things better!
In short: don’t underestimate how much value you get for your writing from thinking critically about other people’s writing. (And maybe hop over to Sooz’s forums and find yourself a CP!)
Rearranging my current work in progress in Scrivener (how you know things are getting serious: when there are enough words to require organisation) I came across my initial character sketches for my core characters.
It’s quite delightful to me how much some of them have changed in the writing. Oh, not changed, but matured. Developed. Settled. A little in the way a haircut settles down once you get it home from the hairdresser and treat it the way you do for a week or so. It loses that sharp-edged unreal glamour, but becomes something natural and comfortable. (Hopefully. There’s just no living with some haircuts.)
For instance, where the original reads Izmir is an unremarkable man, it would be more accurate that every other character who’s run into him in the course of the narrative has remarked on him, and the remarks have demonstrated a considerable reputation for acting out that shows an admirable dedication to the art. Bless his cotton socks (which he leaves on the bedroom floors of the disreputable).
In these sketches, one of my characters isn’t even the younger sister of another – they’re cousins – and I wonder how I ever hadn’t realised how tight and close those two needed to be. (She’s also beautiful – I devote a paragraph to talking about it in the sketch, and remark on how she disdains it. She disdains it so much it hasn’t even come up in any of her viewpoint chapters…)
And my policeman lived in a boarding house – obviously before I realised that if he was doofing a married woman they were going to need somewhere to prosecute said liaison. Actually, from this distance the extent to which he’s based on that appalling agent in Boardwalk Empire is making me side-eye myself a little bit. Really, self? I’m so glad we got over that one.
What delights me the most is that this is really only the halfway point in the development of their stories. They – and I – have so much further still to go.
To follow up on my last post, adding to the wordcount of my current project went rather well, actually. I didn’t actually wind up making the 30k I initially signed up for, but Camp is flexible, and enabled me to twiddle my wordcount up until a few days before the end (I finished on 28k). Which I was grateful for, because I was actually so happy with how the month went that it seemed ridiculous to not “win”.
Some big happy-making stuff for me from this month:
I wrote every day. Even if it was just opening up the file and moving some words around, or pulling faces and redoing my planning notes for the chapter, I was engaging with the project every day. (And face-pulling word-juggling days were actually really rare. Most days had genuine words added.) This is actually huge for me. I used to write every day while at university, but then again, I also stayed up until 2am every night. It’s good to know that constant productivity is not actually one of those university habits that is completely unsustainable in regular adult life.
Writing every day kept me constantly in touch with the project. Increasingly, as the month progressed, there was less and less “getting into the zone” time when addressing myself to the page. The ebb and flow of the project was always present in the recent strata of my mind, all the easier to bring back to the top on command. (Is it like mining, or like image layer editing? The answer lies somewhere between: yes.) Putting together the plot-point notes into easy chapter files a few ahead of where I was meant that I always had where-I’m-going in mind, and could flow more fluently. And this enabled…
I wrote all the time. In prep for the month, I made myself a schedule with two evening sessions, and a short lunchtime session (I even booked out a tiny meeting room and everything). But as the month went on, I also started grabbing time whenever I could. Waiting ten minutes while all my office work is out as queries to people? Flip open the laptop and write two paragraphs. Set up a meeting and now waiting for guests to arrive? Another two paragraphs. Having the project mentally on tap at all times made whittling away at it easy. (And bless Google Docs for making anywhere, anytime possible, even if it occasionally fell off the network and forgot to sync. Including on the second-last day of the month. The words were always there when I came back to that device next.)
The momentum exerts its own gravity. When I hit a problem and go away from the keyboard to sulk/brainsimmer, the habit draws me back and hammers solutions (make-do or otherwise) out of my brain. And even when ten minutes for two paragraphs didn’t manifest, my brain happily stacked sentences and ideas up in a corner, confident that they wouldn’t have atrophied by the time I finally did get to scribbling. (So very often, in the past, I have endlessly brain-crafted a scene, only to never get time to actually commit it, so eventually my brain goes, “well, fine, I’m not thinking about this any more if I can’t move forward” and I can hardly blame it.)
What now? Now I just want to keep going with this. Perhaps not aiming for another 30 or even 28k this month, because there were times in the month where the pressure was making me cranky, and I don’t like being cranky. But I’d like to continue all those happy points. The daily habit. Etc. So here are a few reminders to myself about how I helped myself do this:
I have a complete plotted plan. Admittedly it’s a little thin in places (see the moment last week where I went, “…and?!” at my past self) but it gives me structure.
This enables me to lay out my work for the next couple of days. I set up individual Docs (“TO-DO: Zagiri chapter 13”) and load them up with the plotpoints for this chapter, and the surrounding chapters (for reference), as well as throwing in any important influencing chapters (e.g. the part where the alchemist and his client have to go back and shake down the jinni for further details, I included the references to the first time they visited). This way I can’t put myself off when writing with “oh, I’ll have to look up xyz before I can write this bit la la la” because a) I never have to anyway, I always eventually check it and realise I never specified that so I can make up whatever; and b) this is first draft, just shut up, write what this scene needs and line up the details later.
When I finish one chapter, I immediately go into the next to-do chapter, look at all that reference material, and draft up a dotpoint structure of the chapter. (e.g. A musing history of the revolution; a meeting of revolutionaries who really aren’t very inspiring; Z making a Big Suggestion.) This will almost always change at least once, but it’s good to have a straw man to set on fire and dance around.
Any time I hit a Thing I Need To Check, I just throw it in [brackets] and check it later. (“Oh really,” [whatever her mother’s name is] scolded.) Nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of Progress, yo. Especially not piddly little details like names, hair colour, geography, significant triggering memories and injuries.
I did throw words in throughout the day, which meant that often when I got to my scheduled evening schedules, I’d made half or more of my daily requirement, allowing me to also have some downtime in the evening. Which was just such a bonus, and helped make me not-so-cranky. (That said, there were also evenings where, after dinner, I had to head back to the saltmine while Mr Dee got to watch television, and that’s just the way it is. Helped that he was watching Mad Men, which I have given up on because real life is depressingly congratulatory enough to white men already.)
No, seriously, yay Google Docs. I still love Scrivener, and it is the best collecting and distilling tool, but writing raw into the cloud is enabling me and I’m a fan.
to put the viscera (the guts, the emotion, the details) back in — a little like making sausage, more like finding that devil in the details and making him spin you a tale