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?

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?


horny devils: the vejigante of Puerto Rico

I am fresh from a week’s vacation in Puerto Rico! Save some fencing, I did very little save read, rest, and walk around Ponce’s historic downtown. The weather was gloriously warm, the food excellent, the company better, and the rest much-needed.

Needless to say I ran into neither USOs, nor the chupacabras of cryptozoological lore (though there were iguanas, many iguanas) because weird stuff doesn’t happen to me. But I did get a taste of Puerto Rican folklore at the Pan Am Championships’ opening ceremony:

three dancers in brightly colored robes and horned masks in sports stadium
Vejigantes on the piste. Author’s own.

These colorful critters are vejigantes (bay-he-GAHN-tay), a sort of all-purpose demon (or family of demons) that evolved out of the meeting of Spanish, African, and native Taíno cultures.

A quick whip around the web reveals the name comes from “vejiga” (Spanish for cow bladder) and “gigante” (giant) in reference to the dried, seed-filled cow bladders they use as “weapons” at festivals like the annual Carnaval Ponceño.

Most striking are the masks (careta) made of papier-mâché and/or coconut husks. Colors and patterns vary by geography (those above are from Ponce) but bright colors, teeth, and horns seem to be constants. This long-standing folk art is specific to Puerto Rico, and though how-tos (PDF) abound I suspect they don’t stick to traditional methods.

Examples of varying quality were on sale everywhere, in every size from fridge-magnet-small to half my height! I could only get this ~4″ sample home, it’s spiky horns protected inside the hard shell of my fencing mask:

Small black, green, yellow, and red mask with pointed open mouth and five horns
My Ponce souvenir

The man who sold this to me said it represents the wife of the “main” vejigante. I haven’t found any list of characters or their relationships so far and it frustrates me that I’m ignorant of the stories behind the imagery. The temptation to research is great but unavailability of info may be for the best – I have no business doing new research when The Novel is still in progress.

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)?

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.
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”
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.

tighten up

I’ve been writing again for the last few months. Nothing original and nothing great, but I’ve been enjoying it and getting decent feedback.

So I’m thinking it might be worthwhile to get some instruction with an eye towards creating something original instead of playing in others’ sandboxes.

To this end, I’m doing some basic reading on fiction writing and looking for an online creative writing course once Nationals is over.

I don’t have anything I particularly want to share outside it’s relevant ‘verse, but if you’re genuinely curious PM me. I mostly leave this note here so y’all will hold me to account (like bug me at the end of July to make sure I’ve found a class)!