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!

 

 

fencing and writing

This whole “writing a book” thing has a steep learning curve. No matter how much I practice I might not see positive results for years. Even if I do the odds of being able to make a living at it are small. It sounds bleak and I suppose it can be – I can well understand why some people just quit.

Fortunately I have some prior experience stubbornly pursuing uncertain payoffs.

I’m a competitive fencer.

two women fencing, one with the name Thurman on the back of her uniform
Competition photo. Guess which one I am.

I picked up a foil because I needed the exercise and I’ve always thought swords were cool. What started as a less-boring means of keeping in shape became a physical and mental passion, and over the past fifteen years I’ve earned a couple of ratings (kind of like belts in martial arts) and medals along the way.

Please note that “fifteen years” thing. Fencing is about keeping calm and acting correctly in a quickly changing, physically demanding situation. I am neither a natural athlete nor reliably cool-headed and it took every second of those fifteen years to get this far.

Interestingly, the longer I work on the book the more parallels I find between fencing and writing:

  • First efforts suck. Just as the first draft is dreck that needs editing, my first competitions were practice for competing: adapting to the noise, fighting down performance anxiety/”stage fright”. With each event I got a little more confident, and performed a little better.
  • Practice practice practice. As writers must write, so must fencers fence. Damn tiredness, sore feet, writer’s block, or whatever else. Feet on strip = butt in seat.
  • Massive amounts of persistence and patience are required.  I competed for four years before getting my E rating and it took another three to get my D (the highest is A). I hope it won’t take me that long to get published. Even if it doesn’t it may still take years for my books to do well, but that’s ok, because:
  • I don’t have to be perfect to be good. I’ll never be an olympian but I’m not a bad fencer. I’m good enough to win national medals and keep my head above water with scary As and Bs. And while I’ll never be a J. K. Rowling, I hope to tell a story competently enough to entertain readers.
  • Ongoing education. Just as there is no mastery in writing, there is no endpoint at which someone becomes a perfect fencer. High rated fencers still have coaches and do drills and footwork. I expect to read books on craft, take classes, go to conferences, and the like long after I’m published. Speaking of which:
  • I can’t do it alone. Without supportive, enthusiastic club mates and a coach that prevents me giving in to my natural laziness I’d never have done this well! My writing is much the same: I need critique partners, beta readers, editors and other professionals I’m still discovering to make my book as good as it can be.
seventh place medal, USFA National Championships 2014
The result of 13 years of work.

In the next two weeks I’m in one local and one national competition, so wish me luck. If nothing else they’re good persistence/patience exercises I can fold into my writing discipline.

What about you? What “transferrable skills” do you bring to your own writing (or other creative pursuit)?

perfectionism paralysis

scissors going after a single blade of grass
My old first pass rewrite/editing approach. Courtesy theravive.com

Twenty-eight pages.

That’s how many I’ve managed to get through in this first round of edits. Which sounds good until you realize I started rewriting in July.

Ahem.

I do think I’ve figured out what’s slowed me to a snail’s pace – it’s excessive perfectionism. I’m doing sentence-level polishing when I should concern myself with the broader issues of story structure: filling in scene gaps, answering research questions, and pacing.

The root cause isn’t lacking “flow” or time – it’s terror of showing my beta readers something less than perfect. But worrying over every turn of phrase at this stage probably makes nonsensical dialog worse, widens plot holes, takes vague cause/effect into “what was I thinking?” land.

My resolution for March: instead of a scene a week, a scene every 2 days, fixing the big stuff. Let’s see if I can do it.

giving up one thing to get another

I used to be a costumer.

Let me back up. I am a costumer. My love of costume and fashion goes way back, and I started sewing in high school as a means of getting EXACTLY the outfit I imagined. Over the years I’ve turned my hand to everything from modern patterns to science fiction and historical costume, the latter especially a wonderful outlet for my restless need to research.

Fitted Gown
English fitted gown, ca 16th c.
partlet
Elizabethan partlet with blackwork embroidery

I not only enjoy sewing but do it well: I can draft my own patterns and alter existing ones; I’m comfortable dyeing, hand sewing, and even the odd bit of embroidery. Given that my day job has me moving pixels around a screen 40 hours a week it’s a refreshing change to work with something physical.

So you have some idea how big a deal it is for me to set it aside.

Farscape duster
Duster from tv show “Farscape”
Doublet
Sleeveless doublet with trim, ca. 16th c.

Once I got serious about The Book ™ I realized I’d have to stop sewing. Fact: there are only 24 hours in a day. Eight of those I must sleep (and I really must; one of the cruel tricks of being over 35 is that I can’t function on 5 hours a night anymore); another 8 I must work to keep a roof over my head. ~Two days a week I fence and giving it up isn’t an option because I get cranky if I don’t exercise regularly. I also have husband, family, and friends who I enjoy spending time with. Something had to give.

My coach once gave me a valuable piece of advice: you give up one thing to get another. He meant this in the context of fencing: if you go on the offense you give up defense; if you defend one side you automatically leave another open. There is no one perfect act that gives you EVERYTHING, and I’ve found that this holds true for other aspects of my life.

Once the first draft is complete I’ll reward myself with a sewing project even if it’s just garment dyeing or a quick and dirty commercial pattern. Until then all creative energies must go towards the book.

This will be even more true for the next 6 weeks as the HNS conference folks finally got their requirements for cold reads/critiques to me. I need 10 more-or-less finished pages by May 31 to send to my mentor, so even the “pouring sand into the sandbox” of first drafting will be taking a back seat.

Wish me luck.