A Good Start

I’m more than 14,000 words into the new book, and I think it’s going well. This method of scene-by-scene outlining seems to be working. I’ve had a couple of cases when it turned out that what I’d planned as two separate scenes morphed into one as some events turned out not to be as big as I’d imagined. I’m sure there will be some tinkering in revision. But otherwise I feel like it’s focused what I’m doing.

Now I’m at the point when I need to do a little more outlining. I’ve got the next few scenes planned, but I need to dig a little deeper into them before I write them. I’ve seem a few different versions of the mental movie and need to pick which one I’m going with. There’s an incident that I keep moving around. I’m not sure if it goes in this scene or a later scene.

I’m at the part where the story really kicks into gear, so it should be fun, if a little trickier, to write. And I’m afraid I’m about to launch into all-or-nothing mode, where I don’t want to take my brain out of this story.

However, as today is Pi Day (3-14), I may have to pause to make a pie. I may see if I can cut a recipe down enough to make a 1-2 serving pie so I won’t have leftovers for days. Cooking is good for thinking.

I also think I’m going to have to pause to draw a couple of maps. I need a good layout for the place I’m trying to create so i can keep it all straight.

Storms and Sirens

The new book is zipping along, and I think I even like it. I might be somewhat less productive today, since a storm came through around 3 a.m. There was thunder and lightning and heavy rain, which sounds really loud on my tile roof. Then the high winds kicked in, howling fiercely. The tornado sirens went off around 5 a.m., really waking me up (I’d been dozing but not really sleeping). The odd thing was, the weather radio never went off.

I keep my tablet near my bed, since I use it as an e-reader, so I picked it up and checked Twitter, where I follow several local TV meteorologists, the National Weather Service, my city, and my city’s police department. It turned out they’d sounded the sirens for high straight-line winds. They’d recorded winds as high as 78 miles per hour at the airport nearby. But by the time they sounded the sirens, the worst of the winds seemed to have passed. Still, the sirens went on for a good 45 minutes.

I probably should have just got up, since there was no sleeping during all that, but I wasn’t entirely awake, either, and ended up falling back asleep and having weird dreams and then sleeping late. Now I’m groggy and behind on the day. Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with the kindergarten choir tonight. At least all that lying semi-awake gave me an opportunity to brainstorm the next scene I need to write.

I don’t seem to have any real damage in my immediate area. The patio fence that tends to fall down is still standing. My patio table is still upright. There were a lot of leaves and twigs on my front porch, but I don’t see any roof tiles on the lawn.

I see a lot of tea in my future today, and possibly a nap.

writing life

The Quest for Hot Tea

I got the first chapter of the new book written yesterday and got so caught up in it that my tea got cold, even though I’d put it in a travel mug. That reminded me of my struggles with tea over the years.

When I first started working at home, I continued my old habit from my office job days of making my morning breakfast tea with a tea bag, then making a mid-morning cup with another tea bag. I got an insulated travel mug when I got tired of my tea getting cold, so that I had to go downstairs to the microwave to reheat it. I used loose tea to make my afternoon tea, probably carrying over the habit from my working days of just making a quick cup in the morning, but then having loose tea as a treat on days when I was home in the afternoon. Eventually, it dawned on me that I could have a pot of proper tea whenever I wanted now, so I started making loose-leaf tea for breakfast. The only problem was keeping a pot of tea hot. Even a tea cozy didn’t do much good.

The solution to that was a large thermos. I brewed my tea and strained it into a thermos so it was hot all day long, and I could top off a cup to warm it up, so I put the travel mug aside (since tea didn’t seem to taste as good from it as from a ceramic mug).

My next struggle was to find a way to carry hot tea with me for cold-weather hikes. First I tried a supposedly leak-proof travel flask. It wasn’t leak-proof, and it didn’t seem to keep anything hot for more than a few minutes. Then a friend gave me a small insulated flask that worked pretty well, but it only kept things hot for a little while and you couldn’t drink directly from it. It’s a pain to have to pour tea into a cup when you’re hiking. I found a small thermos that kept things hot longer, but had the same problem about drinking from it. It did work well for bringing tea with me to church when I had to sing in the early service and wanted tea between services. I finally found the Hydroflask, which keeps things warm a long time and is nicely spillproof. That’s become my go-to for hiking and for bringing tea with me to events. I should probably consider it for long working sessions, as well, now that I think about it.

At this point, I have the big thermos, two small thermoses, two insulated travel mugs and two Hydroflasks, so I’m covered for hot beverage containment. I also have several cups/flasks for keeping cool beverages cool that I use in the summer.

Meanwhile, my tea drinking habits have shifted lately. I don’t drink as much black tea these days. I still like having a hot beverage while I’m writing, but I’m drinking a lot more herbal tea and am building up quite a collection of hibiscus-based teas. What I like to do with herbal tea is to leave the tea bag in the mug and keep topping it off with hot water as the tea gets stronger and colder. But I hated to get out of my writing or reading nest and interrupt the flow to get up and go get more water from the kettle. A couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that I could fill one of the thermoses with hot water from the kettle when I first make the tea and then keep it at my side for topping off my mug. That works wonderfully.

I tried the supposedly leak-proof travel flask yesterday and remembered that it also didn’t keep things warm, so that one may get donated. I’ve seen ads for a bluetooth mug that you can program to keep a beverage a certain temperature, which seems like overkill. There’s also a gadget that’s basically an electric coaster that keeps mugs warm.

I know this seems like a lot of thought and effort being put into having hot tea while I write, but this is the fuel for my creativity. I’ve seen a thing going around about how writers take magic beans and turn them into stories, but since I don’t drink coffee, in my case it’s turning magic leaves (and petals, bark, and fruit bits) into stories.

writing life

Ready to Start!

I believe I’m finally ready to start writing. I have strong mental images of my characters, their homes, their villages and cities, and the way they dress. I haven’t drawn a map, but it may be a couple of days before I get to a point when I need that. I’ve written out my ideas of what the world is and how it works. So, after lunch I will dive in.

It’s fitting that I start with Daylight time because that’s when my body really seems to click into gear. I think my body clock is in that zone. Yesterday, I got up earlier for church than I usually do and actually felt alert instead of groggy and yawning. This morning I woke up earlier by the clock than I have been all winter, though I didn’t get out of bed right away because it turns out that the one clock I forgot to reset was the thermostat, and it doesn’t automatically adjust. It was so warm on Saturday that the house was still warm on Sunday morning, and I didn’t notice it, but this morning was a lot cooler after a cool day, and without the heater kicking on to warm up the house in the morning, the house was awfully chilly. I started to get out of bed and quickly retreated under the covers until the heat finally came on. That clock is now set properly, so tomorrow morning should go better.

The development phase of a book is my favorite part of writing because it feels like play. It’s a big game of what if. The moment I start putting it into words, it becomes more challenging, and that perfect idea in my head becomes an imperfect draft. But as I tell myself, it doesn’t do anyone any good in my head. It has to become a book before it can entertain anyone else or make me any money.

I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself or on this story. I realized that with the last thing I was working on, the book that got shelved, I had this underlying sense that this needed to be the book that would relaunch my career, the book that was Too Good To Ignore that publishers would fight over. I caught myself thinking like that with this book and decided to stop it. I’m going to treat it like I’m writing fan fiction, something I do mostly for myself because it’s fun to make up stories. I’m going to indulge myself and amuse myself and have fun. Then I’ll worry about making it marketable.


Getting Into Specifics

Just as I was ready to start writing yesterday, I realized that I’d hit another issue I tend to struggle with: specificity.

I knew my heroine inside and out, and I’d figured out bits about some of the other characters, but most of the secondary characters my heroine would be interacting with in the opening of the book were shapeless blobs. Even in my mental movie, they were essentially the adults in a Charlie Brown special — offscreen and just making noise. So, I needed to get specific about things I tend to handwave over. I had to name these people, think of what they looked like and what sort of people they were, what their relationship was to the heroine and how they’d be likely to interact.

It’s amazing what I uncovered while doing this. Not only did my mental movie get a lot more sharp and vivid, but I figured out some stuff that may affect the plot and that will definitely add some depth to the story. Now my heroine’s parents aren’t just generic parents. They’re people with personalities and their own goals and beliefs. I also realized I haven’t been entirely concrete about my settings and surroundings. In my mental movie, I see the characters moving through vague settings, and I’m not sure I could put that into words.

I may need to write “be specific!” on the sticky note I have covering my laptop’s camera so I won’t forget. When I’m tempted to just toss something off, I need to force myself to dig into it.

Today’s task is to do some visual world building. I know the history and culture, but I realized I don’t know exactly what it looks like. There may be map drawing.

It is possible that I’m procrastinating on the moment when a potential book has to become a real one by being put into words, but all this stuff is making it so much richer. Yesterday I would have said I was ready to start writing, but what I would have written yesterday morning is so much weaker than what I’d write today, and I suspect that what I write Monday will be so much stronger than what I’d write today if I started writing today. One of my general weaknesses about writing is that I’m impatient. I want to jump right into it and get started, and that means some things aren’t as well developed as they should be. I’m going pretty quickly from the first germ of idea to getting ready to write, and it’s easier to develop all this now and weave it in as I write than it is to try to fit all that in after I’ve written a vague draft.


The Joy of Outlining

I normally consider myself some sort of unholy cross between a “plotter” and a “pantser” when it comes to writing. I can’t seem to start writing a book without at least a bit of a high-level outline — something like the stages on the hero’s journey — but then I never truly know what the book is about until I’ve written it, and then I have to do a lot of rewriting.

For the book I’m developing now, I’m trying something new and doing a scene-by-scene outline, digging into each scene to look at how it progresses the plot, how it affects the protagonist, where the conflict is, what the emotional pivot is, and what the result is. I haven’t started actually writing yet, and I can already tell a difference.

For one thing, there was a scene I envisioned that I thought did a good job of showing what the heroine’s issues were and building toward the decision she ultimately makes. But once I started digging into the scene, I realized I didn’t need it at all. The emotional beats were identical to those in the previous scene, and all this scene did was delay the start of the main action. I think previously I would have written the scene and then agonized over cutting it. This way, while outlining the previous scene I already knew I wouldn’t need the next one, so I didn’t waste a lot of time on it. I’d seen the mental “movie” of it, and I think I got some character insight from it. Some of the bits I like from that scene will probably end up in a later scene that’s more pivotal. The time I spent thinking about it isn’t wasted, but I’ve also saved myself a lot of writing time.

Then there’s something about analyzing a scene this way that forces you to see the nuts and bolts and how they work. One problem I had with a previous project I struggled with and then shelved was that my agent kept telling me my heroine wasn’t proactive enough. She did make decisions about how she reacted to things, but the major turning points in the story were all her reacting to other people’s actions rather than her taking action, and once I’d written the book, it was really hard to fix it without starting from scratch (which is why it’s shelved, at least temporarily).

Once I started digging into my planned scenes, I realized I was doing the same thing all over again. The heroine gets an opportunity to do something, and her parents bring it to the clan leader to decide. The clan leader rules on it, then assigns the heroine to prepare herself for it. After smacking myself on the head when I saw the pattern, I changed it so that the heroine is the one suggesting bringing it to the clan leader for a ruling, then the clan leader leaves the decision up to her, and then the heroine is the one seeking to train to prepare herself. These are minor tweaks to make now, but if I’d already written these scenes when I noticed it, it would have been more difficult. Even if I changed a few sentences to make it her decisions, the emotions and tone wouldn’t have been quite right, and the inner conflict would have been different.

And then after I fixed all that, in a later scene I caught myself setting it up that someone offers her help when really it should have been her asking for help.

Doing this kind of analysis before writing can also help fix those problem scenes — the scenes you need to convey information and set something up but that don’t really have any kind of inherent conflict. By digging into the potential and looking for conflict, I moved the scene to a new setting, made it more active, and added elements from a subplot to it. Now the main plot purpose may be mostly exposition and setup, but there’s stuff going on from a subplot to make it a real scene. I’m not sure I’d have noticed the problem if I’d just written the scene the way I originally thought of it.

Of course, the moment of truth will come when I have to actually start writing and I see if the plans translate well into actual words. That will likely come later today.


Sick Days

Apologies for a few days of silence. I was having some issues with my web hosting service that made updates difficult. I don’t know if all is well, but it looks like it’s working for now.

Meanwhile, I’ve been fighting the aftereffects of a cold. The serious symptoms lasted only a few days, but then bits of it keep lingering, so I’m not really sick, but I’m not entirely well, and I’m fairly exhausted. Fortunately, I’ve been at the phase of the book I’m working on where most of what I was doing was just reading for research. This week, I’ve been doing serious story development. I think maybe I’ll get to actually writing words tomorrow, and I hope by then I’ll have the brainpower for it. The last few days, I’ve been gradually improving, though with the slight problem that the better I feel, the more tired I am — probably my body needing rest after all that fighting it’s been doing. At least I’ve had the appropriate weather for being sick, as it’s been cold.

As I start to get better, I almost feel a little sad about leaving “sick days” behind. I won’t miss the coughing, sneezing, and sore throat, but there’s something rather nice about the suspension of normal operations that comes with being sick. There’s no sense of responsibility, the things you “should” be doing. You can stay in bed all day, guilt-free. When you have a low appetite, you can pretty much eat what you want because you know your body needs energy.

It’s a pity you have to feel bad while you’re enjoying these things. So I think a “sick day” staycation should be a thing, maybe call it a mental health day. Designate a day when you’re not feeling bad but you’re going to act like you are. Stay in your pajamas all day. Lie in bed reading. Watch movies or TV in the daytime. Eat soup and drink tea. For me, this would have to happen on a rainy day because it feels wrong to be sick on a nice, sunny day.

I may have to wait until the fall to really do this, though, because I’ve got work to do to keep me going through the spring, and I’ve had enough real sick days. But the first cool, rainy day of fall, if I don’t have a deadline or some other obligation, I’m totally declaring a mental health day and taking to bed with a stack of books and a pot of tea.


Stories of Russian Winters

In the midst of all the research reading I’ve been doing, I have managed to read a few novels for fun. I read the trilogy by Katherine Arden that began with The Bear and the Nightingale. I’d read that a few years ago when it came out, then somehow missed the second book. The third book came out recently, so I reread the first to refresh myself before reading the whole series.

These are fantasy novels set in medieval Russia, built around some traditional Russian fairy tales and incorporated into bits of actual history. I’ve read some of the tales used in the story, but I’m not familiar enough with them to be able to say how much of these books are a fairy tale retelling and how much they’re something entirely new. At any rate, the result is a fleshed-out world and characters. The look at medieval Russia, which is apparently fairly factual, is almost like seeing something out of another world. It’s a very different place with an unusual (to modern eyes) culture, and their coping mechanisms for winter are interesting. It’s hard for me, a southerner, to imagine a winter so harsh that insulating your home with snow and ice keeps it warmer and the family would sleep on top of the stove. Then imagine traveling in these conditions, and putting coals from the fire in a trench, then building a pallet of branches on top of that to sleep on.

The story follows a girl/young woman growing up in a small village north of Moscow, the daughter of a nobleman. There are stories/rumors about her mother and grandmother and the fact that they might not have been entirely human. Our heroine, Vasya, seems to take after them. She sees all the little spirits who occupy the land and their homes — the ones who care for the oven, for the home, for the stable, the trees, the waterways. But there are darker spirits out there, as well, and they’ve noticed her. Whether she can protect her people from them depends on whether she’ll be allowed to by her stepmother, who’s fallen under the spell of a vain and paranoid priest.

Whether you want to read these in the winter and enjoy the atmosphere as you huddle under a blanket with a warm beverage or in the summer so that the trip to an icy land helps take you away from the heat is up to your own inclinations. I found them the perfect reading for a cold winter day. I put some Rachmaninov on the stereo, made some tea, and settled down for some vicarious traveling.

The pacing of these books is rather leisurely, especially the first one. There’s a lot of time spent establishing the world and the characters and hinting at the looming threat before the action kicks into high gear. I enjoyed playing in that world before the action started, but if you like a fast pace and non-stop action, these might not be to your taste. If you like wallowing in an interesting setting, they may be more to your taste. The later books in the series do kick up the intensity and the stakes. These are definitely recommended to those who want something different from most of what’s been published as mainstream fantasy, or if you liked Spinning Silver and the Russian setting of that.

The Movie in My Head

I was talking yesterday with someone about what goes through my head when I’m working on a book, and I guess it can seem kind of odd to someone who doesn’t live that way.

Strangely, I have both a movie playing in my head and narrative, at the same time, so it’s like a movie that contains voiceover narration that covers everything. I both see the action and hear the words describing the action, though sometimes it varies. Earlier in the process, there may be bits that I see, and then I find the words to describe them. Or I may have just the narration, like in cases where the narrator is talking about thoughts and feelings, and later figure out where these things fit in the action, and then the movie scenes will build.

I never really see a complete “movie” straight through. I see scenes, and not always entirely in order. They may repeat in different ways until I feel like I’m getting them right. I’ve seen some of the opening scenes for the story I’m developing now in multiple ways, sometimes adding stuff and sometimes subtracting stuff as I figure out how they should really go. At times, the “movie” remains the same but the narration changes. That’s when I’m figuring out the exact words.

Not all the scenes in the “movie” make it into the book. Some are backstory that doesn’t need to go in the book but that I need to know. Some are figuring out the characters — again, stuff I need to know but that may not belong in the book. Some are just figuring out the world. Right now, there’s a scene I really like because it says so much about the world and the characters, and it’s just really lovely imagery, but I suspect it won’t go in the book because it’s really just “ordinary world” stuff and doesn’t push the plot forward. It only delays getting to the main action, so it may have to remain a memory for the character that doesn’t play out “on stage,” so to speak.

The other thing that tends to happen to me is that I find myself seeing the world through my main character’s eyes. One of the traits of this heroine is that she’s really good with animals, at a supernatural level. They instinctively like and trust her, and she’s good about sensing what’s going on with them, but she’s not conscious of this as a special gift. It’s just the way she is. Well, yesterday I went to lunch with someone, and while I was waiting for her, I was admiring the aquarium in the restaurant lobby. It was a floor-to-ceiling pillar, and the fish were huge, most of them about the size of my hand. They all rushed over to where I was standing, reminding me of the way dogs act when you visit their home, clustering around you and seeking attention. Some even turned so that their eyes were facing me directly, making eye contact with me. I found myself thinking about how all animals seem to be drawn to me — and then I remembered that was the character, not me. I suspect the fish thought they were about to get fed, so there was no mystical bond happening.

Right now, I have at least bits of “movie” for the first third of the book, and a few random scenes from later in the story. I need to start developing the secondary characters, but otherwise, I think I’m about ready to start writing. It’s a good sign that I find myself thinking so much about these people and their world, but it does make “adulting” hard when I just want to play in my story world. Yesterday was busy, with a business lunch, some errands, and then a meeting in the evening. Today I don’t have to go anywhere, so I can wallow in my imaginary world.

Books, movies

Jane Austen Sick Days

I suppose I should be making some kind of Oscars commentary this morning, but I didn’t watch the ceremony, and I hadn’t seen any of the nominated movies. I think I saw three movies last year. Instead, I was watching the miniseries of War and Peace from a few years ago, mostly to laugh at the costumes (it’s set in the early 1800s in Russia, but a lot of the women’s dresses were more 1930s movie star or 1990s bridesmaid).

I guess I fell into that because I was out of Jane Austen stuff to watch. When you’re sick, as I’ve been for the past few days, Jane Austen is the perfect source for things to read or watch. You don’t have to worry about characters dying, unless it’s a troublesome elderly relative dying offscreen to leave someone a fortune. You don’t have to worry about someone suffering more than a broken heart or the cold they get from getting caught in the rain. If someone we like gets jilted, we can rest assured that the jilter will be smacked upside the head with karma. The people we like and want to end up together will come out well and end up together, while the people we don’t like will get what’s coming to them.

And all of this will happen in lovely dresses on nice, sunny days (unless the weather is needed for a plot point, like that rain to make someone sick). They may talk about needing money, but no one starves, and there are plenty of rich friends and relatives around to help ease the way.

I’m reading a biography of Jane Austen right now, and it seems like a lot of that was wish fulfillment on her part because life was hard and bad things did happen. In her books, she was smoothing over the rough edges, even as she was unleashing the snark and using her pen to create karma that the real world didn’t provide.

Now that I’ve made it through all that Amazon Prime has to offer, I need to get the hoopla app on my Roku up and running because I get that service through my library, and they seem to have the latest Northanger Abbey, which might be even more fun now, since Cathy is played by a young Felicity Jones, and after seeing her in Rogue One, that means I’ll be wanting Cathy to blow stuff up. But that may have to wait until the next time I’m sick. I’m on the mend now and less in need of comfort viewing.

By the way, War and Peace isn’t good comfort viewing if you’re actually paying attention and not just snarking at the clothes or admiring the men’s uniforms. Way too much emotional turmoil, though there is some satisfying karma.