The absurdity of it all

I’ve reached a point in the first draft of my novel “Absent” where I’ve had to stop and ask myself:  is this absurd, or is it brilliant?

It’s not a question of shitty first drafts, in which you give yourself permission to suck in order to plow ahead and finish the wretched thing.  The quandary I’m talking about is a different animal altogether.  With a shitty first draft, you know the story is a mess.  You recognize its awfulness and choose to ignore it for the time being.  What I’m experiencing is a complete inability to objectively assess whether the story I’m telling is laugh-out-loud ridiculous or utter genius.

In all probability, it’s somewhere in between.  The fact that I’m incapable of determining this, however, makes me nervous.  I’m usually pretty good at working out whether a story has potential or not.  And while I can step back and identify certain structural problems with the unfolding of the narrative, point to places where character development is inconsistent or where plot holes might be forming, I just can’t  suss out if this damn novel works or not.

This has happened to me once before, and looking back I think I’ve nailed down a possible culprit.  In both cases, when I couldn’t determine if the story worked or not, the underlying problem was a scientific improbability I was struggling to make seem plausible.

In the case of “Absent”, the improbability is time travel.  In the other example (a short story still languishing in a file folder) it was near-future space travel.

Speculative fiction is all about creating worlds where the improbable (and often impossible) seem real.  The trick is to avoid obvious hand-waving in making your speculative elements believable.  I think I have a tougher time doing this with sci fi than with fantasy.  Upon reflection, I suspect this is due to a lack of confidence.

Unlike anthropology (a discipline I think lends itself particularly well to the creation of fantasy-based worlds), science has never been my forte.  Even when I engage focused research on a specific scientific topic, I come away feeling tentative and unsure of my efforts to spin it into a believable speculative world.  This insecurity is surely transmitted when I craft the plot and write the story, calling attention to itself like a big red winter nose.

To solve my problem, I know I need to simply keep at it, to dig in harder with my research and read and dissect more science fiction novels to see how they succeed where I fail…assuming, of course, that a lack of confidence and practice are my problems.

As I write this, it strikes me that another element in the mix might be basing a story in the real world and inserting just one speculative element in it (as opposed to creating a largely speculative world).  Getting readers to accept a world just like ours except for this one, single, crazy thing might be much harder than selling them on a completely speculative world.  Perhaps I haven’t yet accrued sufficient writerly skill to pull this off.  In which case, practice and study still seem like the appropriate route forward.

So, has this happened to anyone else?  Have you ever started into a novel or short story only to realize halfway through you’ve got NO IDEA if it’s working or not?  And, if so, why do you think it happens?

Tell me I’m not alone in this…please!


Well.  I was skeptical, but the dire pronouncements of the weatherman appear to have come true.  We woke up this morning to this:


Those bits of dark against the snow across the street are buried cars

The snow is still blowing sideways out there, so I don’t plan to venture out for awhile (especially since, with windchill, it is 7 degrees).  My parents, who were visiting us for the holidays, had their flight canceled yesterday and won’t be able to return to Seattle until Wednesday.

Fortunately, we’re up to our eyeballs in leftover prime rib and sweets.  Its warm and cozy in here and we’ve got a stack of DVD’s from Christmas presents.  I think we’ll be just fine.

Here’s the Overseer’s take on the matter:

"Please do not bother me. I'm melting into the radiator cover here." - Mr. Ramses

(this is his usual take on things, of course)

Given our snowed-in state (even the undauntable subways are barely lumbering along), I may just get a bit of post-Christmas word count in today and start chipping away at those 2011 goals.  How’s that for optimism?

Who else is snowed in?

Dreams of 2011

2011 is staring us down from next weekend, steely-eyed and implacable.  We’ve got less than a week to go until New Year’s and nowhere to hide.  Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic…but what can I say?  I’m coming off a Christmas food coma and waiting for a threatened snowpocalpyse to hit New York.  My husband is already going stir crazy from being off work for 4 days, and his office is closed all next week.  He’s got a wild look in his eyes.  Mr. Ramses has built an impregnable fortress underneath the Christmas tree and keeps launching sneak attacks on passerbys.  Everything seems dramatic right now.

But I digress.

It being New Year’s soon, and in light of the list of 2010 accomplishments (and failures) I posted last week, I thought I’d reflect on some goals for the coming year.  So, here goes:

1. Set more realistic writing deadlines.  Or rather, come to a better understanding of how to balance my writing life with my home and work life.  I tend to set writing goals independent of how much I have to do in other arenas of my life.  Inevitably, I get a massive amount of writing done in a few weeks and then spend an equivalent amount of time burned out and catching up on everything I let slide.  This is exhausting.  So, in 2011 I’m going to strive for more consistency and balance.

2. Increase my output.  I don’t currently have a daily or weekly word count goal, and I think it’s time to start.  I also think this will help me achieve #1.  I wrote about 130,000 words in 2010, so I’ll shoot for 200,000 in 2011.

3. Finish final revisions to “A Blood Red Sun” and start querying it by the end of February, maybe sooner.  Then finish a revised first draft of “Absent” by the end of the year and have the next novel in early draft form.

4. Work on novels one at a time.  Last year (thanks to NaNoWriMo) I decided I could multitask on two novels simultaneously.  The result was a slowdown in productivity on both.  A better formula (for me, at least), is to work on one major project (such as a novel) with short stories and development work on future novels going on the side.

5. Though I consider myself more of a novel writer than a short story writer, I resolve to continue writing (and hopefully) publishing short stories.  Last year I wrote and subbed 4 short stories.  This year I’ll shoot for 6.

6. Attend at least two Cons and continue/increase my in-person and online interactions with other writers.

7. Continue this blog with regular and substantive posts and hopefully widen my readership.

8. Continue exercising regularly (5 days a week), lose 4lbs and then maintain that weight.

9. Be (much) better about practicing my guitar — at least 2x a week outside of my weekly lessons.  At least!

10. What travel time and money I have, I want to use it to see friends.  Trips to Miami and London are particularly overdue.  You guys know who you are, so consider yourselves forewarned 🙂

That seems like a good line-up, so I’ll stop there.  No sense going overboard, eh?

The year in review

It’s a week till Christmas and New Year’s Eve is just around the corner, so I thought I’d take a look back at what I have and have not achieved in 2010.

1. I wrote more than 130,000 words this year (on two novels and 4 short stories)

2. I published my first short story (“The New Arrival” in Electric Spec) – though the story itself was written in 2009.

3. I accrued 33 rejections on 5 short stories (3 written in 2009, 2 written in 2010).

4. I attended one Con – Readercon (in Boston)

5. I completed 53 critiques for my various crit partners

6. I sent out zero agent queries (I’d hoped to have my novel “A Blood Red Sun” completed and ready for querying before the end of this year)

7. I taught 170 students about the mysteries of World Prehistory at Queens College.  This included giving 60  lectures, and grading 1,020 exams and 1,360 quizzes.

8. I traveled to the British Virgin Islands, England, Scotland, and Spain

9. I took up the electric guitar, played in a band, and wrote and performed an original song for the first time (for a good giggle, check it out – I’m in the back, on rhythm guitar).

10. I made plans with my husband to consider buying an apartment and new furniture, but have done neither.

11. I read 62 books

What have you done (and not done) this year?

The year of the e-reader?

I saw this article about an expected holiday rush on e-readers in the New York Times and it got me thinking about my Christmas wish list, which includes about 453 million books.  Yet, as I was assembling this list of holiday desires, it never once crossed my mind to ask for an e-reader.

There are a whole big bunch of new e-readers out there this year.  You can get them in black-and-white or in color, in big sizes and small, with snazzy covers or without.  Booksellers all seem focused on how the rise of e-readers will change the publishing landscape and the monetization of the written word.  It’s a must-discussed, much-debated issue on which I have not yet fully formed an opinion (except this simplistic one: the more people read, in whatever format, the better).

Right now, I’m more concerned with deciding what I think (as a consumer) about the devices themselves.  I see these lovely contraptions everywhere – and especially on the subway.  They seem so light and small and useful–cramming all the books you could ever want in one slim device.  Ingenious!

But I’m still not sure I want one.  It’s partly because I resist change just to be willful (ask my husband, he’ll agree), and partly because I really like the feel of a paperback in my hand.  But the biggest reason I’m reluctant to get an e-reader is that I already spend 99% of my time staring at a screen.  I write, research, draft, and revise on the computer.  I watch television on the computer.  I “relax” by playing video games, wasting time on Twitter and Facebook, or reading news and blogs on the computer.  I prepare and present my lectures for class on the computer.  I make most of my phone calls on the computer via Skype.

Reading a book is one of the few ways I take a break from the bleary-eyed consequences of my computer-focused existence.  It’s not just a form of pleasurable relaxation, it’s a literal rest from technology.

Will I someday buy an e-reader?  Most likely.  Would I turn my nose up at one as a gift?  No chance.  Do I worry about what will happen when I’m never more than 2 feet from an electronic device?  Absolutely.

Overwriting: the curse of academia

Overwriting is in my blood.  If I can use six words rather that two, I’ll do it.  When revising, I sometimes realize entire paragraphs could probably be reduced to a single sentence.  Being an overwriter is burdensome.  I’ve given rather a lot of thought to where the problem came from, and I think I’ve zeroed in on the culprit:  academia.

My background is as an archaeologist.  By and large, this has enriched my writing, especially with respect to world-building.  But overwriting is the dark side to the marriage between academia and fiction.

Drilled into you again and again in academic writing is this:  don’t write for the general case, be specific.  Academia is a little like a shark tank, in which the sharks have been deprived of food for months.  When you throw a new paper in the water, it’s like the most delicious chum ever.  So, as an academic writer, you have to armor your paper with clauses and footnotes and awkward words and phrases that make it SUPER CLEAR that you’re talking about one, tiny, specific thing, and that thing only.

An example from a paper I wrote a few year ago, in which I define the term “ritual”: “I focus on the role of ritual in identity constitution.  Rituals are repetitive practices that, under certain circumstances and in particular contexts, have the power to generate the sentiments of affiliation underlying specific identities.  Rituals are also highly material, and thus archaeologically observable, in that they rely on the bodily movements of a performer, the physical space in which the ritual is conducted, and the objects through which the rituals themselves are enacted.”

Setting aside the special joy of the incredibly long sentences, my personal favorite bit here is “under certain circumstances and in particular contexts”…but, in the end, I include this snippet to illustrate just how much academic writers have to lay out every possible nuance of what they’re talking about.  That may be a necessary evil in academia, but it goes down like malt balls covered with lead in fiction writing.

When writing fiction, less is generally more.  You want to leave the reader room to let their imagination pick up what you’ve written and breathe their own life into it.  If you overwrite and didactically spell out every detail, you take the magic out of your writing (not to mention making the story twice as long and boring).

Of course, overwriting is more than just over-specificity.  There’s all those adverbs and adjectives, redundancy, info-dumping, and plenty more besides.  Not all of these are evils carried over from academic writing, but when you heap the curse of academia on top off the big pile of overwriting no-nos, well…it can become a pretty big mountain to climb.

Of course, knowing you have a problem is half the battle.  Curing yourself is another matter entirely, requiring practice, mindfulness, and the patience of your writing group.  So, while I’m very grateful to my academic background (after all, it gave me incredible experiences, a fabulous husband, a bunch of great friends, and tons of fodder for writing interesting stories), I do sometimes feel it’s set me a nasty handicap.  Guess it’s time to go out and buy the 10% Solution.

What about you?  Do you suffer from the malady of overwriting?  If so, where did yours come from and what methods do you use to eradicate it?

Writer’s Workspace: 12/14

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on: After receiving feedback from my writing group, I zeroed in on three major chunks of revisions to my novel “A Blood Red Sun.”  I finally made it through the second chunk; the third is in my sights (which means the end of revisions is a glimmer on the horizon, too!).

Snippet from the screen: “Kara knew Itzil was coming.  She could feel it in her gut, in the pucker of goose bumps on her skin.  She heard footsteps in the hall.  The heavy wooden bar grated as it was dragged back.  Kara breathed deep and tasted the damp, moldly scent of the cell and the tang of harsh soap still clinging to her skin.”

On my iTunes: Actually, I’ve got Pandora up and running today.  It’s great for listening to all those Christmas tunes you’d really rather not pay for 😉

In my mug: tongue-burninating Dunmore East Irish blend tea

Keeping me company: The Overseer is here on my desk, pestering me with his mournful eyes and sad little chirps: “please play with me!”  Hard to resist the cuteness.

The Overseer waits not-so-patiently for play time.

Out the window: Snow!  We actually got a very pretty dusting of the fluffy white stuff last night 🙂

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: Here’s an interesting history of the elevator pitch over on Wired; your daily giggle from SlushPile Hell; and an interview with fellow VPXIII alum, Ferrett Steinmetz.

That’s all from here, folks!  What are YOU up today?

Unmet goals: friend or foe?

I’ve been thinking a lot about goal-setting lately, and the inevitable side effect of unmet goals.  On the one hand, since newbie writers must self-motivate (lacking book deals and attendant deadlines), goals are essential.  On the other hand, when you miss them, a cycle of emotional distress starts: discouragement, quickly morphing into self-loathing, and then (hopefully) into a stiff determination to amp up productivity.

Goals are funny things.  Without them, we might not get as much done.  With them, we’re guaranteed ennui and semi-regular failure.

Exhibit A: this year I decided to do NaNoWriMo for the first time.  I did not finish the 50,000 words needed to “win,” and therefore fell short of my goal (by around 22,000 words, in fact).  However, I did get almost 30,000 words into a new novel, something that would never have happened if I hadn’t set the goal of 50,000.

Exhibit B: A week or so ago I resolved to practice specific writing skills daily.  Out of seven days, I managed four.  Viewed one way, an epic failure.  But…viewed another, I did at least get down four days of practice as opposed to the zero I would have managed without the goal of seven.

To add a little flesh to Exhibits A and B:  in the same time I set and failed to complete those goals, I also drafted two short stories, revised 1/3 of an already completed novel, and tended to my personal life and day job.

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this.  Am I setting overly ambitious goals given the other commitments in my life, taking on too many projects at once, or awful at meeting goals?  Maybe this is just how things are – maybe my story is your story too, and we’re all perfectly normal?

Or, maybe goals are no different from those mileposts we cling to when out on a run (you know, where we tell ourselves: “just keep going. When you get to that telephone pole at the end of the block, you can stop”; but then, when we finally get to the telephone post, we say: “just a little further…maybe push on to the funny looking tree missing half it’s branches?).  Even though you don’t get it done as quickly as you’d like, you still finish your run, or your novel, or whatever.

So, what do you think?  Is this line of reasoning the sort that paves the way to a hell of justifications, or is it the best way forward through a writer’s life of peaks and valleys?

Eaten alive by my day job

First, an apology for the paucity of posts this week.  My day job has opened it’s maw and swallowed me whole – something it does infrequently but with great skill.  As many of you know, I teach archaeology at Queens College and this week was the last week of classes; next week is finals.  So, it’s been grading, grading, grading, plus some fun exam writing and review session planning on the side.  None of which has left much time for writing, revising, or even thinking about writing.

My day job is just about the best one I can imagine.  It isn’t too time-consuming, yet is (usually) very rewarding.  But…it also has this great ability to storm in and demand I push EVERYTHING else aside.  As it is doing now.

So, I promise to be back with a more substantive post in the next day or two.  In the meantime, enjoy a few cute pictures of Mr. Ramses:


KILL! Mr. Ramses shows his scratching post who's boss


...and now, weary from his exertions.

Writer’s Workspace: 12/8

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on: As we’re in the death throes of the Fall semester, a lot of my time’s been taken up with writing and grading exams for my World Prehistory class.  But, I have managed to squeeze in some writing.  In particular, I’ve been working on “Absent,” the novel I started for NaNoWriMo.  In the section I’m reworking today, one of my protagonists searches for a missing girl in an Ice Age snowstorm.

Snippet from the screen: “Nick braced himself against the slap of the wind and staggered forward.  The trees loomed, ominous shadows in the wintry gale, but his headlamp cast a reassuring glow on the snowdrifts and he felt the firm grip of the climbing rope encircling his waist.”

On my iTunes: Baby Please Come Home (Christmas), by Mariah Carey.  Yes, it’s THAT time of year again.

In my mug: trusty, trusty English Breakfast tea

Keeping me company: with the onset of the cold weather, the Overseer has taken to seeking out unconventional warm nooks and crannies in our apartment.  Exhibit A:


Thanks for heating these up for me! You don't mind if I settle in, do you?

Out my window: It’s gotten downright bone-chilling in New York these last few days.  And, of course, the cranky heating system in our building has been having it’s annual temper tantrum.  Workmen have been tromping in and out all hours of the day and casting a judgmental eye on my stylish work-from-home ensembles….  What?  That sweatshirt looks hot!  Anyway, it’s cold.

Well, that’s all from here folks!  After all, I’ve got writing to do.  But, I’d love to hear what you all are up to…get in the holiday spirit and share, share, share.