Writer’s Workspace: 6/22

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

What I’m working on:  with exactly a week to go before I leave for the field, I’m powering ahead in a last ditch effort to try and finish the first draft of ABSENT before heading south to Honduras.  I estimate I’ve got to write around 5K per day to meet this goal, and, in all likelihood, I will not make it.  Most probably, I will fail spectacularly.  Still, gotta try!

Snippet from the screen:

“Davis smiled at them genially enough, but his curiosity was clear.  His eyes lingered on their jeans and T-shirts.  “Where did you say you were from again?”

“We’re Americans,” Reid said.

“Ah.  Americans!”  Davis nodded as if this explained everything.”

On the iTunes:  at the moment, I’m listening to “Need You Now” by Lady Antebellum.  But 3 minutes and 57 seconds from now, it’s anyone’s guess.

Keeping me company:  Well, my good-for-nothing cat is supposed to be lounging nearby, looking adorable, and occasionally allowing me to pet and feed him…BUT he’s opted instead to snooze on top of the refrigerator and utterly, completely ignore me.  Ungrateful cuss.  I’d include a photo, but since it’d just be of one of his ears barely visible above the cabinet edge, what’s the point?

Out the window:  it’s a beautiful, sunny day in Brooklyn and I’m enjoying the air conditioning while it lasts (it’s 96 degrees and 2,000% humidity in Honduras right now, and the village we live in while excavating is a 100% air conditioning-free zone).

In my mug:  Numi Chinese Breakfast tea

A little procrastination never hurt anyone:  first, you can head over to my archaeology blog and read up on my field project in Honduras.  Then, check out Chuck Wendig’s 25 things to know about writing a novel – funny and true.  And, if that ain’t enough for you, my dear, insatiable reader, mosey on over to Query Shark for a little truth smackdown.

Writer’s Workspace: 6/8

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

What I’m working on:  One word for you all today: NOVEL.  Must finish the first draft.  Now that summer’s rolling along and I no longer have even the minor time pressures of my day job, I’ve decided to enforce a daily word count.  1500 a day and not a word less.  Most days I’ll get more, but if I don’t force myself to do at least this much I might get swallowed whole by the gaping maw of excuses (e.g. “I’ve got all the time in world,” “I’ll start writing after I view every Netflix watch-instantly movie from the 1980’s,” “Maybe I should clean out my closet/bookshelf/pantry/magazine rack again?” “Oh! Is that the ice cream truck I hear?”).  So, the novel and at least 1500 words.  Go.

Snippet from the screen:  “Dinner was a blur; Nick barely knew what he ate.  Music rolled over them in waves, crashing gently across the room.  He drank bourbon.  She had champagne.  They talked, telling each other stories about their lives, sharing secrets, leaning in across the table.”

On the iTunes: Rolling in the Deep, by Adele

Keeping me company: Mr. Ramses has been shunning me lately.  Whenever the hubby is out of town (as he is now), it becomes abundantly clear that Ramses prefers him vastly and actually might even hate me.  He appears only to imperiously demand food and play time (then looks at me disinterestedly once I actually get the toys out), or to bite me.  Good times around here, folks!

In my mug: Ceylon tea, slightly over-steeped and a little bitter.  But who am I kidding?  Of course I’ll drink it all.

Out my window:  95 degrees and sunny, as if God had taken a magnifying glass, held it down towards Brooklyn, and said “ROAST LITTLE PRIMATES, ROAST!”  The window A/C units are gasping like marathon runners in the final mile and it’s only 9am.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: (except, as noted above, me).  But, nevertheless…  Check out Chuck Wendig on when to quit writing over at Terrible Minds.  It seems sleepless nights as a new dad have only spurred him to more humorous heights.  Or, if you prefer something a bit more serious, the lovely Mary Robinette Kowal has joined the team at Writing Excuses; go listen to their latest podcast on creativity.

Better yet, head to the comments and tell me what you’re up to today, what links you’d like share, or how blisteringly hot it is where you are.

Then go write.  Seriously.

Gettin’ in the mood

Whenever I’m working on a novel, I find it helpful to immerse myself in sensory details relating to the project.  Getting into the “mood” of the piece I’m working on definitely influences how I write dialogue and descriptions.  It shapes the pacing and helps me conjure an image in my mind, giving life and color to the world and characters I’m writing.

So far, in my fledgling writing career, I’ve got two main techniques for getting in the mood:  surrounding myself with images and listening to music. (But I’m always looking for new tricks to add to the toolkit – so share your ideas in the comments!)

When I was working on Blood Red Sun I downloaded lots of pics of the desert (and was even lucky enough to take a trip to the desert to snap pics of my own and make notes on the taste, smell, and feel of the place).  I also surrounded myself with drawings and photos of murals, sites, and artifacts from the ancient Aztecs (on who the people in the novel were modeled).  This was all good visual grist for the mill.  From an aural point of view, I created a playlist in iTunes with lots of music from epic film soundtracks (think Braveheart, Lord of the Rings, Stardust, Last of the Mohicans, Dune, and so on).  Much of it wasn’t culturally appropriate, but it captured that sweeping, dramatic feel I was going for.  I’d listen while writing and it really helped me immerse myself and shut out the distractions of the modern world.

My latest novel project is set in three different times and places: modern day New York City, the Ice Age Americas, and a British archaeological expedition in 1925-26 Iraq.  For this latter segment, I’ve had a lot of luck with listening to big band era jazz tunes out of New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and even Britain itself.  I also dug up a bunch of great historical photos from the actual archaeological expedition the fictionalization is based on – their grainy black and white frames show dapper gentlemen in their knickers, suits, and fedoras posing in front of massive, dusty ziggurats.  Beside them stand slim, elegant women in cloche hats and coat frocks, shading their eyes from the sun’s glare.  Scattered across my big glass desk, they smile up and remind me I’m not in Kansas anymore.

What are your tricks for immersing yourself in the worlds you write about?

The long and the short of it

Most writers seem to consider themselves either short story writers or novelists.  Before I knew anything about writing, I always thought the only real difference was length (or, as Elizabeth Bear likes to say: novels are works of fiction, longer than short stories, and flawed).

When people ask me why I write short stories when I seem to prefer (and be more comfortable with) novel-length fiction, I usually say I think writing short stories is good practice for writing novels.  But how true is this?  Short stories require a tight plot and coherent structure, and they need good character development and character arcs.  Developing these skills will improve your writing, regardless of length.  Plus, since it takes much less time to complete a short story, you can practice writing complete works more often than if you were writing only novels (in which you could invest a year before realizing their fundamental flaws).

Despite some overlap, however, short stories and novels make fundamentally different demands on the author, especially with respect to world-building and pacing.  In a short story you have neither the time nor need to create a complete world (though generating the illusion of reality still remains important).  The pacing, too, is totally different.  Even though both short stories and novels need beginnings, middles, and ends, the way you structure and build towards each will be very different.  Finally, with novels you not only have a broader, deeper canvas to work on, but you must fill it with sub-plots and a larger cast of characters.

So, does writing short stories really help you prepare for writing novels, or are the two forms of fiction too different to be truly comparable?

Even if the answer is no, there are still good reasons for novelists to write short stories.  For one thing, many critique groups are less inclined to workshop novels.  If you write short stories, you can remain active in your crit groups and garner valuable feedback from (and interaction with) your peers.  Another advantage I’ve found is that having short stories out to market keeps you feeling engaged while you toil away on novels.  Novels take a lot longer to come to fruition, and its easy to feel as if you’re not making progress.  Completing the occasional short story and submitting it to markets gives me (personally) a feeling of short term accomplishment.  This might seem like a poor reason to take time away from your novel, unless you consider the very real impact your emotional state can have on your writing.  If you’re feeling productive and upbeat, it’s going to be a lot easier to keep that novel draft moving forward.

I know others feel differently, though.  So, tell me, do you consider yourself a novel writer or a short story writer?  Do you write exclusively one length of fiction, or do you do both?  Do you see the necessary skills sets as complementary or divergent?

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!

Those voices in your head

As many of us know, the act of getting a story out of our heads and onto the page requires forcing the two unruly siblings living our in our brains — the uptight, fussy Internal Editor and the wild, emotive, elusive Beast — to work together.

I’ve long known (and squabbled with) my old frenemy, the Internal Editor, but I didn’t have a term for describing the Beast until I went to Viable Paradise and heard Laura Mixon lecture about the ancient, buried part of your brain that plucks patterns from a web of emotions, sensations, and evolutionary cunning.   It is from here that the well of creativity springs to nourish our storytelling.

For me, activating the Internal Editor is a breeze.  In fact, sometimes it’s a bit too easy; before I know it I’m putting off advancing the plot in favor of obsessing over the structure of a single paragraph.  As I’ve already blogged about, this year I’m trying NaNoWriMo for the first time, and the experience has brought the push and pull between the Editor and the Beast into even sharper focus.  After all, the point of NaNo is to shut the Editor up altogether and let the Beast have free reign to drive the story along at top speed.

On the one hand, I’ve found it physically painful not to go back over what I’ve written.  It’s hardwired in my DNA (perhaps a hold-over from grad school days?) to tweak the wording, revise the dialogue, and insert new scenes to shed better light on the characters and their behavior.  Plus, I staunchly maintain there’s solid value in this type of revision — more often than not, editing can help illuminate the path ahead and open doors to new plot developments you wouldn’t have otherwise found.

On the other hand, embracing the NaNo approach (as best I can) has liberated my Beast.  Telling the Editor to shut up and just pour the story onto the page without looking back is thrilling.  And the stuff that comes out is often surprising.  Of course, it can also lead thousands of words in the wrong direction, fingers taping in a frenzy of Beast-driven madness.  When I come back to myself, I find my characters have said stupid things and done even stupider things, and the Internal Editor is waiting, hands on his hips, saying “I told you so.”  Which sucks.

The real trick, I think, is to get your Beast to talk to you while you aren’t writing.  Coaxing him out and encouraging him to whisper yet-unrevealed plot secrets is about as hard as getting a cat to perform tricks.  I find it happens (the coaxing of the Beast, that is, not the cat tricks) most often when I’m in the thick of working on a project but am currently doing something else – especially something requiring minimal active engagement with the world around me.

For instance, in the last week, my Beast has visited me with gifts while I was:

  • sitting on the subway staring at my own reflection in the window against the blackness of the tunnel
  • sitting under a dryer at the hair salon with my head full of color foils (and without my glasses on, rendering me essentially blind)
  • walking outside on a route so familiar I didn’t need to look where I was going

In all three instances, I fell into a sort of trance and followed the Beast down new and deliciously twisty avenues of storytelling in my novel.  When I snapped out of it, for a moment I had forgotten where I was.  It’s possible I was even talking to myself (which on the New York City subway would put me in good company).

Thus far, my Beast flat-out refuses to appear when directly invoked, so, naturally, none of these episodes of Beast-contact were activated on purpose.  Nor did any of them happen when I had a pen and paper convenient to hand.  Thanks a lot, Beast.

Though, I’m finding there are certain activities that will usually lure him from hiding – including long walks and (ugh) trips to the gym.  Washing dishes, folding laundry, and ironing are also good bets.  Maybe the Beast just likes a clean house?

What are your tricks for getting your Beast to communicate with you?

Drafting and Revising: Patience really is a virtue

Congratulations!  You’ve had a genius idea for a story.  You’ve even managed to get it all written down, more or less in order.  You’ve gone over it once or twice, tweaking the wording, deleting pesky adverbs and restructuring awkward paragraphs.  You went so far as to print it out, read it aloud, and fix everything that sounded stupid.

Awesome! You’re ready for feedback.

No, I’m sorry my friend, but you are not.

get out your editor's pen!

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way several times.  It’s natural, of course, to finish up a newly drafted story and want instant feedback.  Or, worse yet, to want to cross “submit to market” off your to-do list.  Natural, but a big mistake.

A better strategy is to set that story aside.  Forget it exists.  Do this for a minimum of a week, two if you can bear it–solitary confinement in the filing cabinet.  Then pull it back out and give it a read.  Chances are the first line will strike you as horrible.  If you make it to the third paragraph you’ll probably have found at least five instances of “that” you can cut.  You may have also realized nothing happens on the entire first page.

Crap.

This is why patience is a virtue.  Draft.  Set aside.  Revise.  Repeat.  Then send it out to your writer’s group.  Only then will your story be at a point where higher level feedback will be valuable.  Plus, your writer’s group will thank you for doing the extra revisions 🙂

This one is always hard for me.  I love my new stories (after all, their newness makes them awesome by default).  They’re like perfect newborn ducks, fluffy and delicate.  I want to send them into the world so that everyone can see how amazing they are, how brilliant.  But I’m too close to them to recognize their awkwardness or see that they aren’t yet capable of swimming, let alone flight.  Maybe, just maybe, if I nurtured and fed them and waited for them to grow a little they might not get eaten by the neighborhood dog.

Just sayin’.