Thoughts Into Words

I’ve been having a weird writing week in which thoughts are flying furiously, but they’re not translating into words. I can see the scenes playing out or feel what’s going on with my characters, but then I sit at the computer and the words don’t come out through my fingers. Maybe this means I need to do brainstorming instead, just capture all those thoughts without trying to put them into narrative.

Unfortunately, this is happening for other writing I need to do, including e-mails. Just trying to translate ideas into words for a blog post has been a challenge. I’m normally a very verbal person. Words are how I express myself, so it’s weird to have all these ideas swirling around in my head and not have a way to get them out.

I think some of it may be a case of spring fever, since we had a weird front come through Sunday and now it feels like spring again. I’m enjoying having the windows open and a cool breeze coming through. It makes me want to read and nap and just listen to the birds singing. I know the summer weather will return eventually, alas.

Thinking really is an important part of writing, so maybe I just need to get all these thoughts processed, and then I can turn them into a story.


Questioning Sense and Sensibility

I recently re-read Sense and Sensibility (I’m in a Jane Austen book club, and that’s our next book), and as much as I love dear Jane, I had some serious issues with this book.

I’ve always kind of thought that Elinor and Colonel Brandon would have been a better match than Brandon and Marianne, but I thought that was mostly because of the movie, since Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman have played a couple elsewhere. I was really surprised on this re-read to find that the impression is even stronger in the book. In fact, I got the impression that Jane (we’re professional peers, so we’re on a first-name basis) kind of felt that way, too.

All the other characters seem to think Col. Brandon and Elinor are an item, especially after the truth comes out about Edward’s engagement. People are always assuming they’ll end up together, and Elinor has to keep correcting them. There’s even this whole bit where Mrs. Jennings overhears part of their conversation about him giving a living to Edward and misinterprets it to think he was proposing to her, with it taking some effort to untangle the confusion. There are far more scenes of Elinor and Brandon interacting than there are of Brandon and Marianne or Elinor and Edward. There’s even a line about how Brandon talks to Elinor and looks at Marianne. Jane really seems to like writing their relationship and their interactions. All the evidence cited for him being in love with Marianne is really just evidence that he’s a good and decent man, not anything specific to his feelings for Marianne. It’s more that their mother thinks he’d be good for Marianne than that there’s any real affinity between them. If I didn’t know the outcome, I would have assumed for much of the book that the happy ending would be Elinor realizing that Edward’s a bit of a twit and Brandon getting over his infatuation with Marianne and realizing that Elinor’s right there and far more stable and sensible.

Which makes me wonder about Jane’s process. Was she a plotter? Did she plan out the book with the outcome she wanted, but then the characters kept trying to go their own way and she fought it through the whole book before forcing them into the outcome she wanted at the end? Or, since she was often a rather caustic satirist, was it all deliberate? Was she making some kind of point rather than being sincere about this being the best outcome for the characters?

And Edward really is a bit of a twit. You don’t notice so much in the movie because he’s Hugh Grant, and Emma Thompson’s screenplay expands his role and makes him far more charming (and in the more recent TV version he’s Dan Stevens, and the screenplay has him doing manly stuff like chopping wood), but he’s a rather dull, lifeless character in the book. Even Jane doesn’t seem that interested in him because she keeps him almost entirely offstage. He’s someone they talk about, but he’s seldom actually there, and even when he is there, he doesn’t do much.

I know the whole deal with his secret engagement is a cultural issue that’s hard for us to understand. In that era, he really would have been considered brave and honorable for sticking to an engagement even after he realized he wasn’t really in love with the woman and even in the face of family disapproval, while we think he’s a wimp for not being able to break it off. But there’s still plenty about his behavior to raise eyebrows about. In the book, when he’s explaining himself to Elinor at the end, he even makes excuses, saying he never would have become engaged if his sister’s brother had given him a job after he finished school and before he went to Oxford because then he’d have been distracted and he’d have forgotten his infatuation. So, it’s someone else’s fault for not giving him a job, rather than his own fault for not finding a job and for taking a gap year to be idle rather than going straight on to Oxford or doing something worthwhile? And then there’s the fact that he’s attentive enough to Elinor that everyone who observes them assumes they’re as good as engaged while he’s actually engaged to someone else. That’s actually worse than Willoughby, who isn’t attached while he’s involved with Marianne. Not to mention that he strung his engagement along for four years rather than facing his mother about it. And this is the guy the heroine ends up with? (In the book, he’s not nearly as attractive as Hugh Grant or Dan Stevens, either.)

That’s what makes me wonder if there’s some satire going on. Are we supposed to think everything worked out right, or are we supposed to be smirking about all the things that are silly about society to lead to this outcome?

This is possibly the least timeless of Austen’s novels because there’s no good way to update the main plot. You can do the flighty emotional sister and the calm, rational one, but the Edward and Elinor plot doesn’t work in a modern setting. The key things are that he’s in a relationship he can’t get out of honorably even though he wishes he could because he’d rather be with Elinor and that this relationship is a secret, so Elinor has to suffer heartbreak in silence while her sister is having histrionics and acting as though she’s the only one ever to have her heart broken. In today’s world, Edward would have just given Lucy the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech and broken up when he wised up. You’d probably have to make them actually be married, so that ending the relationship is much more serious, but then there’s the secret part. You’d have to contrive a reason for them to have to keep their marriage a secret so that Elinor can’t even tell her sister that she’s heartbroken and can never be with the man she loves. If you move it into the modern world, Edward becomes almost as bad a villain as Willoughby since he’s leading on one woman while involved with another woman he has no plans to split up with, and about the only reasons I can think of for him maintaining a relationship he doesn’t want and keeping it secret involve money, which doesn’t make him look good (then again, that’s why he’s keeping it secret in the book, since he knows he’ll be disinherited if his mother knows).

It might be fun to do an update that fixes all these things. Have both Elinor and Brandon wise up and end up together.


A Hard Day’s Work

I’m trying something new with the book I’m working on: present-tense narration. It’s pretty common in YA, and people were talking about that at the conference I went to last month. I thought I’d at least see how it reads that way, and I was surprised by what a difference it made. It made everything a lot more immediate and forced me to tighten up a lot. So I guess that’s how this book is going to be.

It takes some getting used to writing that way. I’m still working on changing the parts that are already written, so I don’t know what it will be like composing. I’ll need to brainstorm the parts that lie ahead because the story seems to be shifting subtly in another direction than I originally planned.

But that’s a good sign because it means the story has almost become a living entity, taking on a life of its own. I’ve also reached the point when I almost resent having to do something else other than work on it.

I will have some research ahead of me, as I need to invent a sport that’s played using unicorns — something like polo but using the unique features of unicorns. I’ve discovered all sorts of interesting events while researching this. There’s polo, of course, which had its origins as a training exercise for cavalry (which is what this sport will be, too). There’s polocrosse, which is lacrosse played on horseback. There’s horseball, which is kind of like basketball played on horseback. And there’s a whole category of events that fit under the umbrella of “tent pegging.” There’s tent pegging itself, in which riders try to spear a small target with a lance while riding at full gallop (supposedly with origins in trying to damage an enemy’s camp while they’re asleep by pulling up their tent pegs, but apparently this is disputed), and then there are variations that resemble jousting training exercises, like spearing a ring with a lance or hitting a target with a lance. I think my sport will involve rings, with both rider and unicorn having to spear rings with lance/horn, or perhaps trying to get a ring around the opponents’ unicorns’ horns.

Sometimes it astonishes me that this is my job. “Whew, it was a hard day at work. I had to make up a unicorn sport.”


Good Omens

My plan to read mostly off my to-be-read pile so I can clear it out might be somewhat thwarted, since I just watched the Amazon series of Good Omens, and now I want to re-read the book (and then rewatch the series). It’s been long enough since I last read it that it wasn’t so familiar that the series clashed with my own mental images, but it’s familiar enough that I recognized certain scenes and even lines.

There were a few things that clashed enough with my mental images to bother me a little (like Anathema being American), but for the most part, it worked for me. They had to update some of it because it was written in the 90s and the world has changed a lot, but those updates made it even more relevant to our world.

Biggest unintentional laugh: Apparently, no one involved with the production has ever seen a US Air Force base. I guess none of the real ones would let them film there and they couldn’t find even a decommissioned one (I’d have thought there might be one or two of those in the UK).

But otherwise, I think it struck a nice balance between being faithful to the book and translating it to a new medium. The casting was excellent. It’s funny and makes you think. (Sometimes I think the funny things are most likely to make you think, even though people often think drama is more serious and thought-provoking.)

I think I may hold off on the re-read/re-watch. Maybe later this summer or early fall. It could be a good reward for finishing a project.

Which means I have to finish a project, I guess. Back to work!


The Leaning Tower of Books

I’ve been working on an ongoing project to get my house in order, and a big part of that is dealing with my books. I have a lot of books. So many books. I purged my bookcases of the books I know I’m not going to want to read again, so there’s a little space there. The real problem is the rather epic To Be Read pile.

Most of these are books I get at conferences. When I first started going to writing conferences, I was so excited to get a bag stuffed with books at registration. Then there were the booksignings where the publishers gave away books. There were books set out on the seats at the banquets and luncheons. Free books!

Except I found I was less likely to read the free books. They weren’t necessarily books I’d have chosen for myself. I did occasionally find a new author and would go on to read the rest of their books (the whole point of them giving away the freebies), but otherwise those books sat there. It didn’t help that most of these were from romance conferences, and I finally admitted to myself that while I like a good love story, I don’t really like romance novels all that much. However, I don’t seem to do much better in other genres. I got an advance copy of A Game of Thrones at, oddly enough, one of the romance conferences and didn’t finish reading it until after the series was on TV. I have books from the Nebulas and the World Fantasy Convention from more than a decade ago that I haven’t gotten around to.

I’ve been purging the TBR stack, getting rid of everything I know I’m not likely to read. I’m trying to focus my reading on these books for the time being, just to get more of them out of the house. If I don’t get into a book, I’m letting myself get rid of it. One thing I’ve done to help matters is devote the small bookcase in my bedroom to the TBR pile. That means the books are right there and visible in the place where I’m likely to be reading, so I’m more likely to choose a book from there.

I did another purge yesterday and have the stash down to the small bookcase plus a few small boxes. As I remove a book from the bookcase, I’ll move one from the boxes.

I did find that there are a few books I bought in all that stash. I’m not sure why I haven’t gotten around to reading them. Some are books written by friends I bought to support them but that I might not have bought otherwise. Some are remainders, so they were cheap books that tempted me. A few seem to be things I bought when I had a bonus coupon at a bookstore or when I needed to buy something else to get free shipping on an order.

If I actually read all these books (rather than getting a few chapters in and deciding they’re not for me), at my current rate of reading I have enough books to last me at least three years — and that’s without getting new books or going to the library. And it doesn’t count the e-books I have on my tablet.

I’m being a lot more selective about the books I take home from conferences now, so the stack shouldn’t get much worse.


Writing as Juggling Act

I spent most of yesterday re-reading what I’d written on the abandoned book, as well as my notes on the project. I found some notes about what I wanted to do in revision that I must have made before I put this project aside, but the weird thing is, I don’t remember making these notes. They’re in my handwriting, so I must have, and they’re even legible, so it’s not as though I was writing in my sleep, or anything like that.

The nice thing is, they’re good ideas. They somewhat alter the plot of the book, but that’s what I need to do right now. When I eliminate all the stuff that has to go, I’ll need more action and conflict to throw in to replace it.

Meanwhile, there are key character traits I seem to have forgotten about. They’re supposed to be a big issue for the heroine, but they fall away after the first chapter.

Sometimes writing is like juggling. You have a lot of balls to keep in the air — character traits, aspects of the world, interpersonal conflicts, big-picture conflicts, and all of that is for multiple characters. Remembering to use all these things can be difficult because when you focus on one thing, you forget that other thing until you get halfway through the book and realize that your heroine’s key character trait hasn’t made an appearance in the last few chapters because she’s been busy dealing with other things.

And then sometimes you surprise yourself and find things that you didn’t plan but that come together. In this book, I seem to have had an unconscious theme of proving yourself. The heroine’s issue is that she wants to prove that she can do something. One of the secondary characters is worried about proving himself worthy. And the villain is trying to show the world what he can do. His intentions aren’t actually evil. He’s just enough of a narcissist that it doesn’t occur to him that the things he’s doing so he’ll look like a great hero will actually harm a lot of innocent people. Now that I’m aware this is there, I can work with it on purpose.


Getting to the Action

I took the week off from blogging last week because there was the holiday and then I went to visit my parents. Now I’m back to a “normal” work schedule, trying to get back to a regular routine after deadlines and travel.

It’s been more than a month since I even looked at the book I was working on before I had to switch gears and work on revisions. That made it pretty obvious the parts I needed to fix. I already had a feeling what the problem would be when I listened to my playlist/soundtrack for this book as I drove back from my parents’ house and realized that the first half of it was songs relating to the opening of the book. It’s nearly a two-hour drive, and I’d barely reached anything representing the main action by the time I got home.

Sure enough, when I was re-reading it this morning I saw that the story didn’t really kick in until about chapter five or six (aside from the inciting incident at the end of chapter one — there was way too much transition from there to the main action). At first, the scenes that seemed unnecessary didn’t look that long, just a few paragraphs, and those also worked for worldbuilding. Then I did a word count and realized that we were talking about a couple of pages each time (for my first draft, I don’t have it set up to show me pages). And the worldbuilding was for the part of the world the heroine’s leaving, so it was all unnecessary for the reader understanding the story.

So, the first thing to do on this round is cut all that stuff. Then I need to figure out what really needs to be happening to move the story forward. I love the part of the world the heroine’s from and I wouldn’t mind living there, but that’s not what the story’s about. It’s about her leaving that comfort zone and going to a place that’s more challenging to her. I can always write short pieces set in her home area later, but that’s not what this book is about.


Series Structure

One of the sessions I went to at last weekend’s conference was on structuring a series. My main takeaway from that is that it’s important to find a good balance between a series being connected enough that people will want to read all the books and there being enough “on ramps” to allow new readers to jump into the series.

There are a lot of different ways to structure a series.

There’s the “one big book broken up into chunks” approach, like The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire, in which there’s an epic story published a bit at a time, and each volume doesn’t really have its own narrative arc. In this case, you’d better hope readers discover that first book because there’s no coming in to it late.

There’s probably the most common format, the “episodic” format, in which there may be some big-picture plot arcs and there are character arcs that stretch over the whole series, but each volume is still its own story with its own narrative arc and beginning, middle, and end. That’s what I’ve been doing with my series. There are shadings within that, with one extreme being a bit closer to the one big book style, like I’m doing with Rebels, where each book has its own narrative arc, but those arcs are part of a big picture arc and lead directly from one to the next. There’s no real jumping in to that series. You pretty much have to read the first book. In the middle would be the romantic mystery series, in which each book is its own distinct case, but the character stories arc through the whole series, usually with a romantic relationship gradually developing between two of the characters. You could pick up any book to read first, but you’ll probably get more out of the character stories if you read them in order. The extreme of “episodic” would probably be the mystery series without real character arcs, where each book is entirely separate and the world more or less resets between books, like the Nancy Drew series. Nothing changes in that world, and you can read the books in any order without it making any difference in the narrative.

Then there’s the “spinoff” format, in which each book in the series is about a different character. The best friend of the main character in book one becomes the main character in book 2, etc. You see a lot of this in romance, where it can be difficult to follow the same characters into more books since each book needs a romantic happy ending. So you’ll get a series about a group of friends, with book one establishing the group and the supporting characters from one book becoming the main characters in later books, with the previous main characters becoming supporting characters so you can see how their lives are going. Each main plot is generally distinct, so you can jump in anywhere, but it will probably make more sense and be more meaningful if you read them in order.

And there’s the “world” format, in which the series is mostly about a particular place, with each book being about a different aspect of that place or different people in that place, with some crossover (characters from one story showing up in another story). The big example would be Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. There are sub-series within the big series that work best if read in order, but you can generally pick a thread and dive in almost anywhere. The more books of the series you’re read, the richer the world feels, and it rewards re-reading after you’ve read more so that you recognize all the people who show up and understand how their stories fit into the big picture.

I’ve been thinking of different kinds of series I might try writing as a way to build an audience. I’ve thought about doing that mystery format, maybe a “strange small town” situation with a case in each book and the amateur sleuth and the pro detective at first clashing and then gradually falling for each other over the course of the series, though I think I would do it more as contemporary fantasy than as mystery, with a variety of cases rather than just murders (does it have to be murder to be a mystery?). I have a hard time suspending disbelief when a small town has a ridiculously high per capita murder rate, and there are a lot of other kinds of cases to solve.

I’ve also thought about trying a “world” series, where I build a fantasy realm and tell a variety of overlapping stories in that realm. That would take some planning to figure out how it all connects, and I’d have to find a way to make it a truly interesting place. I think this is what I might do with that idea of the low-stress escapist fantasy concept and make it be a world people want to visit and enjoy, with the characters having adventures but not necessarily mortal peril.

But first I have to finish revising the book I’m working on, then finish writing a book, then write another book.

First Class

One fun thing about last week’s trip was that I got to sit in first class on the way to LA. I have a ton of frequent flier miles that I haven’t used and don’t have plans for (since I mostly fly on business, and that means it’s a tax deduction, so I want to be spending the money), so I thought I might as well use them to upgrade. But when I called about that, they said there weren’t any upgrades available. They put me on a waiting list, and that was the last I heard. Then when I got the “your flight is ready for check in” e-mail, I noticed that my seat assignment was different, and it was first class.

It was nice, but I’m not sure it’s really worth the cost difference if you’re actually paying for the ticket. You get to board early before there’s a huge crush of people, and they serve you drinks while everyone else is boarding. The seats are a bit wider and there’s more leg room — and I had the bulkhead seat in the front row, so there was even more room. There was actual food instead of a little bag of pretzels. Your bag gets tagged as priority and supposedly comes out first (which did happen in LA, but I noticed on the return flight that it didn’t seem to make any difference). And you don’t get charged extra for the bag.

I did enjoy the extra room. I’m small, so I fit fairly well into regular airplane seats, but on the return trip when I didn’t get the upgrade, I spent most of the flight with the elbow of the woman next to me in my ribs. I think the thing I enjoyed most was the food. It was a flight that spanned lunchtime, and because of the time difference, it would end up being much later to my body by dinnertime. Normally, I’d have snacked on things I brought (peanut butter crackers, a clementine, some nuts), but I got a hot meal, and then later they brought around fresh-baked cookies. There was enough food to work as lunch and hold me over to a fairly late dinner.

If I’m ever rich, first-class travel may be one way I indulge myself because it does seem to make me feel less stressed and tired upon arrival. It’s nice having my personal space bubble intact on an airplane. In the meantime, I have to hope the upgrades come through. I wonder how many people traveling in first class actually bought first-class tickets and how many are upgraded.

writing life

Getting Precious About the Process

One of the panels I went to at the Nebula conference was on productivity tools, but the big takeaway for me wasn’t any specific tool, but rather something that should become my new mantra: Don’t get precious about your process.

I’m really bad about coming up with what feels like a magical formula and then feeling like all is lost if I can’t do it exactly. I’ve determined that I have my most productive days when I get up fairly early, go for a walk either before or after breakfast, then start writing immediately before I break to write my blog post and then finally check e-mail, social media, etc. But if circumstances result in me breaking that pattern, the rest of the day seems to fall apart for no good reason. It’s as though I figure the day’s a loss. And that’s silly because I can reboot at any time of the day and just make the rest of the day go okay.

I’m the same way when I make a schedule for the day. If something unplanned throws me off, instead of just getting back on track, I tend to give up entirely.

The truth is, there is no magical formula. There are ways that tend to work better for me, but if I don’t do the absolute best thing, there’s nothing stopping me from doing a pretty good thing.

I haven’t been able to stick to my process lately because I was having to deal with all the pre-convention stuff, and now the post-convention stuff. I’m going to try to do better today and just pick up where I can in spite of being off schedule because I desperately needed groceries in order to eat lunch today.

It’s not a magical spell, a recipe, or a scientific formula. If something happens out of order or if a step is skipped, the whole thing isn’t ruined.