fizzle to a bang

The third act. The moment of truth, the home stretch, the part of the book in which I bring the reader to the climax of the story by throwing everything I have at my protagonist so he has no choice but to face his demons and cut them down.

Which is great when your historical timeline fits nicely into a three-act structure but when it doesn’twell.

Most fictional treatments of the Dee/Kelley partnership fudge the timeline, I suspect because thumbnail biographies of Dee imply that he parted ways with Kelley right after they swapped wives–a well timed climax (ha!) if ever there was one.

In reality they–and their wives– limped along in the same house for another year and a half and I really want to milk those 18 months for all the dramatic tension they’re worth. Unfortunately, this is the part of the book where I’m supposed to tie up loose ends and race for the finish.

So I have to either make this drawn out angst into a rollercoaster or cut it completely. If the latter it’ll break my little black heart but I’ll do it in the name of art. Besides, I can write short outtake vignettes if I still feel the need to punish my characters just that little bit more.

How about you? If you write based on real events, how do you work with (or against) the timeline? Or if you’re a reader, how much accuracy do you want in your “based on a true story”s?

just the right amount of fear

I have an uneasy history with horror.

On the one hand it’s unbearable. I hate jumping at every damn thing just because of words on a page. At the same time elegantly creeping horror is impossible for me to put down.

I admire Stephen King – I know it’s cliché but he really is a master of subtle terror. Having said that, I’ve only ever read “Pet Sematary”. Even though it stole two weeks of sleep during my teenage years (with the help of the family cat), I remember renewing my library checkout for it anyway.

Whitley Strieber’s “Communion”, however, casts the longest shadow. Before the first page you’re treated to this:

Painting of gray alien with huge wrap-around eyes an an enigmatic smile from the cover art of
Makes me flinch but I can’t look away. Courtesy Tumblr.

Then the story starts, and though Strieber’s claim that it’s contentious to say the least it’s damn near perfect horror. I started to imagine I’d see one of these every time I turned around, and that they could and would get at me no matter how much security I had or how many friends I surrounded myself with.

That ability to compel someone to keep reading despite their fear is power, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that power for myself. While I don’t necessarily want my readers to lose sleep I’d love it if I can make the hair on the back of their necks stand up when Edward Kelley first hears voices, or look over their shoulders the first time one of his “spirits” materializes.

I’m just afraid it’s over my pay grade, so to speak. And I’m too terrified to do the necessary homework (i.e. read King’s entire back catalog and brave “Communion” again) to learn by observation.

What about you? What books or genres do you find utterly impossible to put down though they make your skin crawl (in fear, disgust, or something else)?

trimming the fat

Update on the writing front:

I’ve managed to trim down the first third of my book to under 100 pages! This is something of an accomplishment, as the first draft weighed in at a hefty 475 pages – long even for historical fiction, and inexcusable for a first time author. I’m currently rewriting the second third–if I can slim it similarly I’m on the right track.

Mr. Incredible measuring his waist and liking what he sees
Getting there. Courtesy Giphy

Cutting has been remarkably easy. Because I wrote the first draft out-of-order many chapters wound up with “last time on [book]”- type introductions. Rewriting in order makes these obvious, and they’re the first to go.

Also: anything that bores me. The first draft adhered too closely to the historical record which includes a lot of pedantic to and fro and preparation. Such interludes hobble the story, and if I’m tuning out I imagine my readers will too.

Speaking of which, the day job and other amusements have impeded my going to my local critique group. As such I joined Scribophile at the recommendation of a HNS acquaintance. I’m getting good feedback, in record time and in the comfort of my own home. Gotta give to get though, and I can only hope I’m as helpful to my fellow writers as they are to me.

I’m not going to have the second draft complete by the HNS conference in late June, but I’m further ahead than I thought I’d be, simply because there’s so much I can get rid of!

How are everyone’s works in progress (writing and not)?

 

the valley of suck

Yea, though I walk through the valley of suck, I will not falter…At least, I hope I won’t.

It’s fair to say that I’m not going to have the second draft done by the HNS conference in June. Well and so–I work with the time I’ve got and while it’s not as fast as I’d like at least it’s steady.

But I’ve run into parts of this book that I…despise is not too strong a word. One section in particular I still hate despite acting on quality feedback, and though I move on to the next part I have to wonder if my second draft isn’t turning into just another, worse, first draft.

My plea to my regional Historical Novel Society chapter resulted in: get more critiques. Which I can’t argue with. Second (and third, and fourth) pairs of eyes catch what I can’t because I’ve been looking at the damn thing too long.

I have a local critique group but can’t always get to physical meetings. I’m checking out Scribophile on the recommendation of another HNS colleague to see if online critique exchanges are equally helpful.

Totally unrelated (or not?): my fencing game has been in the valley of suck as well. New coach, new footwork, so I’ve been clomping all over the strip like an asthmatic elephant for months.

Until this past weekend when some of it finally “clicked”.

back of bronze medal. Reads: Third Place Vet 40=49 NAC Women's Foil North American Cup, Baltimore MD
This is my best ever result in this event.

This is a consistent pattern with my fencing: I have to sweat away in the valley of suck to make a higher (how’s that for a cheesy/tortured metaphor?) I wonder if my writing progress will be the same. I’ve been fencing sixteen years and this pattern remains. I’ve only been writing for four.

Four!  (I started at the cusp of a previous government shutdown, and here I am again).Has it been that long? Or has it been that brief?

trapping the plot bunny

A plot bunny bit me last week.

medieval illustration of rabbit blowing a trumpet
From the 13th century Ashridge Petrus Comestor, Royal 3 D VI in the British Library’s illuminated manuscripts catalogue.

Not the kind of plot bunny I can just scratch a couple of lines and save in my “to write” file either. It’s a really great weird historical/intrusive entity/questionable reality type bunny.

It’s so good I’m loath to share it with anyone for fear of getting scooped (which is silly, but that’s another post). So good, in fact, that I’m tempted to drop the novel-in-progress to plummet down this new research rabbit hole.

But I reined myself in.

Look, I’ve been struggling with rewrites. My schedule is cluttered of late and distractions of every sort compete for my limited time. Research is comparatively easy because I don’t have to invent anything or kludge all the cool stuff into a coherent narrative: all the things I beat my head against with the WIP.

But part of this novel-writing thing is finishing the damn book. That means keeping at it even when it’s not fun or easy.

So I’ve (carefully, lovingly) trapped the plot bunny with a list of sources and ideas and filed it away with the others. Pro: I’ll never run out of ideas. Con: I can only do them one at a time.

 

lemonade out of lemons

A sudden illness laid me low so I don’t have a ton of scintillating prose for you this week. I’ve made good use of the downtime though:

Vintage postcard/image: When I was sick and lay abed, I had two pillows at my head, And all my toys beside me lay, To keep me happy through the day.
From the New York Public Library’s public domain image collection.

Just like the fun stuff, I journal the rough stuff. Given how writers need to torment their characters I chronicle every twinge and ache. I’m currently smacking Edward around in rewrites and a reference file saves time.

I find this works for anger too. Hell, I find arguments easy to write in general, but it clears the mind enough to write it well.

And, of course, reading still feeds the muse even when I don’t have the brain power to create anything.

Illness and other downtime is inevitable. How do you make it work for you?

year in review, year to come

Strange days, the weeks around Christmas and new years. I find it difficult to keep motivated due to the disruption in schedule (and a nice cold I’m working on – achoo!) Certainly not a time to start anything new. So I thought I’d review:

For the coming year:

  • Attend the HNS conference in June
  • Have a proper second draft in time for this conference if it kills me
    • To this end, write a bit every day, even if it kills me
  • Keep meeting with critiquers and critiquing in turn
  • Guest blog post(s?)

And this is just off the top of my stuffy head.

Happy holidays to those that celebrate. Don’t worry, I’ll see you one more time before the new year, with a tidy link dump for next Wednesday.

distraction and derailment

Fall has been a big season of change for me:

  • New day job
  • Studying for new certification for new job
  • No coach (he retired and I’m still looking for a new one)
  • Old friend back in town

Listed they seem trivial but taken together it’s required a realignment of priorities and expectations. Control freak that I am even the good changes have me flailing a bit. But learning a bit of flexibility is never a bad thing, and without the occasional shakeup it’s easy to go stale.

What little writing/editing I’m getting done is more productive. It’s like removing my nose from the grindstone allowed some ideas to free up, and I’m finally resolving some plot holes and character motivations that I’ve been fretting over for months.

Because of changes in commute I’m also forced to brainstorm in new places, and something as small as a change in scenery is enough to jog things loose.

My apologies for brevity, but yesterday was actually my first day of the new job and I’m still kind of cluttered. What have you all been up to?

 

going there – the importance of (quality) sex scenes

When writing about Dee and Kelley’s time together it is impossible to avoid the infamous “crossmatching” incident. The “spirits” hold out the promise of great secrets if they agree to share everything in common – including their wives. After much angsty soul-searching, they agree, and even wrote up a pact outlining their commitment to the act (I could not make this up!)

Sure, it’s attention-getting for salaciousness alone, but in the context of the WIP it’s a major plot point. Are the “spirits” good or evil? How far – and why – are Dee and Kelley willing to go to achieve their ambitions? How far – and why – are Jane Dee and Joanna Kelley willing to compromise themselves for their husbands’ mad schemes? And what are the repercussions?

So of course I have to include it.

I’ve been asked whether I’m really going to “go there”. Wouldn’t a “fade to black” be more tasteful? Don’t you worry about putting off potential readers? Aren’t you afraid of the narrative minefield erotica poses?

No, no, and yes. Which is why I’m taking a class on writing love scenes.

The excellent essay Show Me, Don’t Tell Me – Unless it’s Sex over at Remittance Girl’s blog (which I highly recommend – not safe for work, so be smart) explores some of the reasons why writers shy away from sex scenes: societal hang-ups about sex, the impression that sex scenes are automatically porn, the fear that sex is so commercialized that sex scenes won’t elicit a real response in the reader – just a memory of the latest tv ad.

All of which are valid concerns. But for me, in this case, omission would represent a narrative “flinch” of the kind I’ve always abhorred. Telling the reader about it after the fact would be like telling the aftermath of a fight after putting away the swords: I’d sacrifice all the emotional punch. I also imagine the “pulling back” of telling after a novel of close 3rd person showing would jar the reader right out of the story.

Ultimately good sex scenes aren’t about tab A into slot B but are about emotions, in all their messy glory. I’d cheat my readers if I left out such a rich opportunity for character development.

Will explicit content put off some readers? Yes, most likely, but not all books are for all people and I’m fine with that. However, I don’t want to drown the right readers with purple prose, hence the class.

I’m setting aside rewrites for the next 2 weeks to focus on learning – a break in momentum, but a worthy one.

 

 

why I do the weird stuff

No, not that weird stuff!

I mean my biweekly link dumps of witches, occultists, strange/obscure history, and academic papers. Why do I post these (apart from their vague relevance to the work in progress)?

Well, I was a strange child. And I had help.

I grew up on an irregular diet of “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” and the occasional surprise “In Search Of” when it aired at odd times on TBS. Also one side of my family nurtured an interest in UFOs, ghosts, cryptozoology, and other Forteana/paranormalia: I remember reading my grandmother’s back issues of Fate Magazine from around age 8, and books got passed around through the mail and at holiday get togethers.

I think the cryptozoology thing grew out of the usual childhood fascination with dinosaurs. My interest was intense enough that by elementary school I was making papier-mâché Loch Ness monsters and a faked plaster cast of a Bigfoot footprint for school projects.

I can’t remember my teachers’ reactions.

shelf of books with titles about UFOs, poltergeists, hidden animals, conspiracies
A “shelfie” of my weird collection. The old Fate mags have long since worn out and been thrown away.

Various family members expressed everything from skeptical interest to full on belief – dinner table conversation could go on for hours. As a child I was fairly uncritical about it all; as a teenager I became more skeptical but sought out anything that made my eyebrows jump – conspiracy theories, alien abduction, prank religions – for the sheer WTFery, if nothing else. I can’t remember how many times I checked High Weirdness by Mail out of the library (oh hey, now there’s an online version!).

And yes, in the 1990s I was a dedicated X-Phile. So many of the stories were already familiar, and the writers did a wonderful job with the source material!

As an adult I’m more detached but my interest remains, though I’ve grown so hard-headed it’s difficult to believe in anything I can’t hit with a hammer, so to speak. At the same time I recognize that subjective experience is relevant to the experiencer, objectively provable or not. In the end it’s not about aliens or ghosts or witches, but about people and how they integrate the unexplained into their lives.

Still, my inner curious child still aches to know: what really happened? What did they really see/experience/find? Through writing fiction I can speculate with the luxury of  not having to prove anything, and I have the freedom to make up answers.

I could (maybe I will) do a whole separate post about growing up as a history buff. Suffice it to say I’m not terribly surprised that two lifelong interests collided to have me writing about Elizabethan magicians ~30 years later.

What about you? Do you have any childhood obsessions that still inform your creative pursuits today? Tell me in the comments!