August by the numbers

Summer is over.

Record heat. Earthquakes. Hurricanes.  It’s been an eventful few months in New York City.  Despite the excitement, here’s what I managed to accomplish in August, by the numbers:

1 trip (to visit family in Seattle and do research for my next novel)

2 critiques (a short story for one writing group and a novel for another)

3 attempts to overcome an unusual bout with writer’s block (3rd time’s the charm!)

4 new lectures prepared for the class I’m teaching this fall (ANTH 241: Aztec, Maya, and Olmec).  Since the semester consists of close to 30 lectures, I’ve got a loooong way to go on this one 😦

5 chapters written to bring the first rough draft of ABSENT to it’s conclusion


6 books devoured (Deathless by Kat Valente, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, Taking the Fifth by J.A. Jance, Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, Hammered by Kevin Hearne, and Grave Peril by Jim Butcher).

Looking ahead to September, I’ve got some fun travel lined up and lots of teaching to dive back into.  I hope to get a few new short stories going, and after a wee break to let my brain percolate, I intend to dive back into ABSENT and do some major revisions and rewriting.  BLOOD RED SUN is still out to agents (querying is turning up an encouraging number of partial requests and plenty of waiting) and I’d love to get a little outlining done on my next novel.

What big check boxes did you hit in August?  What got left undone?  And what does September hold for you?

Writer’s Workspace: 8/29

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

What I’m working on:  tomorrow is the first day of the semester for me (eek!) and I still have an appalling amount of course prep to do, but I’m trying to sneak a little writing in as well.  I’m working on crafting the final chapters of ABSENT (yay!), which means the draft will soon be done and revisions can begin.

Snippet from the screen:

“Emily glanced down at the old photograph.  It showed five people, all dressed in 1920’s style clothing.  Two men stood against the exposed face of an excavation trench, bands of stratigraphy clear behind them.  Panama hats shaded their faces from the sun and one had a pipe clenched between his teeth.  But Emily’s eyes were drawn to the two women seated on the ground.  One of them was thin and regal and had her head turned away, as if she was looking at something out of frame.  The other stared straight at the photographer.  Emily gasped.  The woman gazing out of the picture looked exactly like her.

     “So you see it, then?” Reid asked.  He sounded relieved.  “It’s not just me?”

     Emily nodded, slowly.  “This woman could be my twin.”

     “And the man, the one standing to the left of the pipe-smoker?” 

     Emily held the photo closer, narrowing her eyes to try and make out more details.  “My god,” she whispered.  “That’s you.”

One the iTunes: I’m chillin’ to the sounds of silence today.

In my mug: Numi Aged Earl Grey, hot and steaming.

Out the window: in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, the Brooklyn streets are slick and filled with debris.  Our neighborhood got a lot of rain and a little wind, but avoided any flooding and downed trees.  After all the build-up and waiting, this felt at once like a let-down and a relief.

Keeping me company: Mr. Ramses enjoyed all the extra attention he got this weekend (some friends who were forced to evacuate stayed with us during the “storm”), but now he has to catch up on his snoozing and loafing about.  No worries, though — he’s a professional loafer.

I’m pretty busy today, so no time for procrastinatory links!  Sorry.  Feel free to share some of your own in the comments, though.  And let me know what you’re up to today.  Writing goals, anyone?

Through the looking glass

So, recently a non-writer friend of mine was kind enough to read the submission draft of my novel BLOOD RED SUN.  After making his way through it, he had a bunch of questions for me.  One of them really threw me for a loop.

Did, I — he wanted to know — base the main character on myself?

My reaction came in two parts.  The first was: Whoa! Heck no.  I was surprised he’d even think that.  After all, the protagonist of BLOOD RED SUN is from a very different time and culture than our own.  As such, she possesses a vastly different world view than I do.  I worked hard to bring this difference out and was worried that perhaps I’d failed in bringing her essential otherness across to the reader.  My second reaction was a sneaking feeling of flattery.  After all, my protagonist a total badass.  Did it seem possible to the reader in question that she was anything like me? [for the record, I am the opposite of a badass].

After these initial reactions passed, though, I began to wonder.  How much of myself, or my subconscious view of myself, ended up slipping into characterizations of my protagonist?  While the situations she faces bear no connection to anything in my life (I can’t remember the last time I faced down the Lords of the Underworld, for instance), her struggle with self-doubt and the determination to overcome it is a familiar one to me.  So is her stubbornness, and her difficulty in relying on others or admitting she needs help (hmmm…did I put all my own bad qualities into this character?).

My friend’s question really got me thinking.  How much of ourselves do we unconsciously invest in the development of our characters?  Is this inevitable or avoidable?  Does it make our writing more authentic (in that we’re writing what we know) or does it serve as a detriment (in that we can end up stuck with a bunch of gag-worthy Mary Sue versions of ourselves)?  I like to think that I’ve done the former – bringing emotions and internal struggles that I’ve grappled with to my fictional character’s development and actions.  I’m self-doubting enough (see!) to worry it’s the latter.

In the end, I have no answers here.   But I’d sure love to hear what you think.  Have you struggled with this issue in your writing?  What are your thoughts on the matter?

Help me, Obiwan, you’re my only hope

Regular readers of my blog will no doubt have picked up on the fact that I’ve hit a bit of a slump with my writing.  I was going guns blazing on the first draft of ABSENT, charging towards the finish line like a bridezilla on the scent of a sample sale, and then…fizzle.  Since I started writing seriously about two years ago, this is my first real encounter with so-called “writer’s block” (yuck…hate that term).

There’s plenty of advice out there about what to do when ennui overcomes a writer at the 60K mark on their first draft of a novel.  I should know.  In my procrastinatory efforts, I read it all.  Sum up all that advice and you have one and only one solution that makes any sense (at least to me):  knuckle it out, bozo.  Doesn’t matter how hard it is, you have to push through.  Write ten words a day.  Hell, write one.  Just keep going.  Find inspiration wherever you can (under the couch, inside a bag of potato chips, whatever), skip ahead if you need to.  Just don’t stop and don’t look back.

Yeah, yeah.  Sounds like good advice.  But when you’re overcome with a burning desire to to be doing ANYTHING other than writing (Hell’s Kitchen, anyone? No? Bachelor Pad?  That’s the ticket!), finding the inspiration and will to soldier on is easier said than done.  What finally helped shake me loose from the grip of my malaise was a little good old fashioned work.  Yeees, folks, I said work.  Practice.  Labor at the ole’ craft-building machine.

In particular, pulling out Donald Maass’ “The Breakout Novel” workbook that I bought six months ago, slid onto my bookshelf, and proceeded to ignore, and doing some of the exercises inside.  What do you know?  These are remarkably helpful.

I had gotten to the point in the ABSENT draft where all the plot threads were about to come together, where the characters were going to have Big Moments where they act on Stuff They Learned, and I suddenly felt that I had no idea who my characters were or why they were doing any of the stuff they were doing.  Where did these people come from?  Did I really make them up?  Not likely, since they now seem like mysterious strangers to me.

Maass’s exercises to the rescue!  I sat down with pen and paper and went through the exercises one-by-one.  Brainstorm 5 ways to deepen their motivations.  Check.  Create contradictions in their nature designed to generate conflict (internal and external).  Check.  Give them backstories that provide juicy overlap with other characters.  Check.

And so on.  In the process I discovered all sorts of amazing things about the characters and came up with new plot twists, sub-plots, and scenes to add complexity and depth to my current manuscript.  Of course, now I have to sit down and actually make those changes…but one step at a time, right?

I found two things to be especially valuable about the exercises.  First, they were a bit like having a reproving schoolmistress looking over my shoulder and tsking at me.  So list-like, so organized.  I felt obligated to do them all, and in their specificity they really forced me to focus in on difficult questions and issues that I’d been skimming past.  Second, each question asks for many possible iterations.  Don’t just find two places in your manuscript to amp up the  tension, find five.  Don’t just come up with a defining quality for your protagonist, come up with two qualities, plus a few contradictory ones, and find four places in the manuscript where you can show them acting on those qualities.  The exercises are, thus, both high level and very specific.

Of all the writing books I’ve bought over the years, this one strikes the best balance between dispensing information about the elements of a story, the process of writing, and the business of writing and offering very concrete ways to actualize the information and advice offered.  Glad I finally pulled it off the shelf ;).

So, has anyone else read or used any of the Donald Maass books?  What did you think?  I know he also runs workshops; are they worth the time and money?  What are your thoughts on his advice and the processes he suggests?

Lessons from Lonesome Dove

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, is probably one of my favorite books of all time.  When I was in high school and college I had an old battered copy that I must have read hundreds of times.  Knowing what was going to happen didn’t lessen the impact, diminish my love for the characters, or stop me from crying every time I read it.

Recently, I decided to re-read it and see if it was really as good as I remembered.  Oh boy.  I had forgotten just enough of the plot to feel the sorrow of every death, to suffer along with the characters as they encountered hardship, and experience and share all of their small joys.  Lonesome Dove isn’t as good as I remembered, it’s better.

Re-reading the book as I struggle towards becoming a writer has also cast its genius in a new light.  Lonesome Dove works not (just) because of the story (rather simply boiled down to: a man leads his friends on an ill-fated cattle drive from Texas to Wyoming), but because of the incredible characters McMurtry creates and because of his unflinching ability to put those characters through hell.

It was a good reminder of an oft-repeated adage in writing:  don’t be afraid to have hard things happen to good people.  That’s real life, after all.  People die who shouldn’t.  Bad apples don’t always get their just rewards.  Accidents befall even the bravest and most competent among us.  Violence, loss, and good fortune call all strike in the blink of an eye.  Watching characters you love deal with these things, rooting for them as they struggle against giving up, as they celebrate, and as they find a way to go on…that’s what makes a book unforgettable.

Re-reading Lonesome Dove makes me realize how much I have to learn as an author, and it inspires me to push myself (and my characters) harder.

So, thanks, Larry.

And the Hugo goes to…

SFWA has just announced the winners of this year’s Hugo awards.

They are:

Novel – Connie Willis “Blackout/All Clear”

Novella – Ted Chiang “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”

Novelette – Allen Steele “The Emperor of Mars” (Asimov’s)

Short story – Mary Robinette Kowal “For Want of a Nail” (Asimov’s)

Best New Writer – Lev Grossman

For the rest of the winners in other categories, and to see the nominees, check out this link to the SFWA page.

Did your favorites win, or were you hoping for a different outcome?

Sleep No More

This week I saw a play that wasn’t really a play.  Actually, “saw” isn’t really the right verb.  More like “experienced” or even “participated in”.  The play was Sleep No More, a immersive, noir twist on Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  The production takes place in an abandoned 1940’s era hotel in Chelsea, the McKittrick Hotel.  Punchdruck Productions has taken over the place and turned it into a somber, creepy, multi-story setting for their “play”.

Here’s how it works.  You sign up for an entry time (the production runs continuously for several hours) and are ushered into a nearly pitch dark lobby where you are quickly stripped of your belongings and sense of security.  Up the stairs, again in the dark, navigating only by the meager light of a few candles, you finally find your way into a 1930’s style bar.  A few expensive drinks later and you’re handed an almost skeletal white mask, a la Eyes Wide Shut, and trundled into a creaky elevator.  Just when you start to feel like you know what to expect, the elevator operator stops suddenly and shoves the poor fool closest to the door out, leaving him alone and separated from his party.  You get to the top, are instructed to never remove your mask or speak, and abandoned in the dusty, slightly smoky, hallways of the McKittrick.

At that point, you are free to wander and explore the hotel, encouraged to touch, pick up, and read anything you please (the place is lovingly and fabulously set, replete with photos, bricabrak, dead birds splayed open for dissection, a thousand playing cards, all Queens, pinned to the wall, police reports, love letters, headless baby dolls hanging from the ceiling, and pretty much every other thing you can imagine).  These props are ostensibly supposed to relate to plot, but to me seemed more keyed into mood and world-building.  In fact, creating a wholly real-feeling word is where Sleep No More knocks it out of the park.

Just when you’re starting to feel comfortable(-ish), an unmasked actor appears – usually with a crowd of creepily masked spectators in tow.  You can follow these actors around and watch them, getting close enough to breathe on the backs of their neck if you like.  If you aren’t careful, though, they might reach out and touch you.  The scenes you bear witness to rapidly become disturbing.  Sleep No More is essentially a series of vignettes featuring sex and violence – and often both at once.  There is full frontal nudity, Bacchnalian orgies, murder, poisoning (most horrifically of a pregnant woman who appears to welcome it), arguments and fights (all done almost in mime), a remarkably realistic hanging, and tons of sex.  You watch it all like a voyeur, standing in the dim, smoky rooms of the hotel just inches from the action in your faceless, anonymous mask.  It feels totally real and completely unreal all at the same time.

Having the audience wear those masks was very, very clever.  What a wonderful way to add a spooky detached feeling to the proceedings, and to un-moor each viewer from their own sense of identity.  Without the masks, I doubt any of the rest of it would have worked very well.

Since audience members are admitted in small, timed groups, and you’re free to wander as you will, no one will see the same “play” or have the same experience.  We went with several friends, from whom we were almost immediately separated (it’s impossible to tell who’s who in those masks), and when we regrouped at the end we found they had witnessed many things we hadn’t, and vice versa.

Of course, I couldn’t help but think of the thing in terms of plot and story.  As you move through the play, you’re seeing only snippets, feeling at the edges of what seems like a larger story.  Why was that woman hiding that photograph?  Why does that pregnant woman seem so eager to drink poison?  The bald naked woman who cut a baby out of another actor during the Bacchnalian orgy keeps showing up, and sometimes dressed and wearing a wig — who is she?  But the more you travel through the hotel and think about what you’re seeing, the clearer it becomes that nothing makes sense, that sex and violence are the story, that you’re meant to be tantalized and titillated, to wonder, to look for connections to the Macbeth story (which are about as loose as Oh Brother Where Art Thou is to the Odyssey), but not to find them.  Or to all find different connections, to come away with your own interpretation of what happened.

In this sense, Sleep No More is the ultimate Choose Your Own Adventure story.

When you emerge, blinking, back into the bar at the end, you feel as if you’ve woken from a very strange dream.  You realize you have fake blood in your hair, and that the rather normal looking actors standing at the bar were, just an hour ago, simulating sex in a blood-filled bathtub.

Should you be ashamed at what you’ve seen, at what you’ve implicitly participated in?  Is it wrong that instead you feel oddly contented?  You aren’t sure.  You have another drink.

You tell your friends to go see Sleep No More.

Writer’s Workspace: 8/17

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

What I’m working on:  I’d love to be able to report that words are flowing from my fingertips like a BP oil spill, but that would be a lie.  With just two weeks until fall classes begin, my focus is on course prep.  I’m teaching a new class this semester (Aztec, Maya, and Olmec) and I’ve got a bazillion lectures to prepare.  I am getting a little writing done each day, but it’s rather slow.  Safest thing to say is that I’m inching my way towards the end of the rough draft of ABSENT.  Not great, but inching is better than flat-out stalled.

Snippet from the screen: “Emily followed Nick down the long slope from the ziggurat to the expedition house.  Dark clouds scudded across the sky, and to the west a streaky sheet of rain could be seen falling on Nasiriyah.  Winter had come to Iraq.”

On the iTunes: just the sweet sounds of silence (broken occasionally by the bus pulling up to the stop out front)

In my mug: Numi Chinese Breakfast tea

Out the window: from my awesome new office, I have a lovely view straight out the window.  There’s a big old Maple tree, snatches of sun and sky, and lots of light.  I love it.

Keeping me company: since the move, Mr. Ramses seems to prefer lounging in the sun by the big bay window in the living room to hanging out at my desk.  He will occasionally come and drape himself across the glass desktop, as if to say ‘never forget, I am King”, but mostly he snoozes on the sofa like a hibernating bear.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: rather than share links with you today, I’m going to ask for your recommendations.  So:  if I only surfed the web following your suggestions, where should I go?  Please share your favorite links in the comments!

On triumphing over evil

I know I’ve got a couple of friends working on these right now, and that they are generally dreaded and universally un-fun to write, so I thought I’d share a useful link from agent Susie Townsend’s blog.

Click on over for tips on how to defeat the evil that is the synopsis.  She offers both general advice – maintaining tension and a sense of conflict, infusing the synopsis with narrative voice, etc. – but also gives some specific examples to clarify her points.  Helpful stuff.

Anybody have other nifty links for help with synopses?  If so, please share them in the comments!

Research under the rainshadow

Yesterday I traveled out to the peninsula to visit the small seaside town of Port Townsend.  In typical western Washington fashion, the sun was shining brightly when we left Vashon Island and it was misting, overcast, and cold by the time we arrived in Port Townsend.  No matter.  This wasn’t a pleasure trip (though it was pleasurable), but a research trip.  I’m considering setting part of my next novel in Port Townsend and I wanted to visit to investigate the place and get a taste of its flavor.

Turns out its flavor is quirky. 

In only a few square miles you have funky waterfront that draws tourists from around the northwest, a stately neighborhood of Victorian homes perched on the bluff above the ocean, a working port full of wooden (and other) boats being repaired on the hard, while hundreds of others bob in the grey sea, and a decomissioned WWI fort turned State Park where old batteries hunker in the brittle grasses and a lonely lighthouse looks out on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Ferries glide in from nearby Whidbey Island, the rolling hills above the bluff host green pastures and orchards, and there are few places in town to escape the shriek of gulls or the smell of saltwater.


The place definitely lived up to my expectations and I about wore myself out wandering around, taking photos and videos, and making notes.  In order to properly appreciate the local atmosphere it was also necessary to eat many crepes, sample root beer floats, and drinks lots of tea and coffee.  The place is perfect for what I have in mind – remote but not somnolent, full of character and life yet quiet and serene.  It will do nicely.

And, though I plan to set the book out on the Olympic Peninsula, no, it will not feature sparkly vampires.  I promise.