Amazed At The Details

The snowman my kids built with the neighbors is a congealed lump this morning, since the rain is coming down in sheets. Rain, thank goodness, not snow or freezing stuff. I like snow, don’t get me wrong. But the people around here go mad the instant there’s a flake or two on the road, not to mention the fact that I get freaking cold when the mercury drops below zero. Plus I was cranky, cold, and nauseous yesterday. It was only a mild stomach bug, but still. Dry heaving takes an enormous amount of energy out of one.

My semi-hiatus from blogging did me a lot of good. I got a lot of work done and was able to breathe a bit. Now I’m back in the fight, and it’s a good thing too. Under revision for two books, another book boiling in my brain–the creative muscles are totally different than the revision muscles, thank heavens–a Sekrit Project shaping up, review books coming in the mail, all sorts of Neat Stuff is about to happen. Now that I’ve rested a bit, I’m excited instead of terrified.

Well, maybe excited and terrified is a better way to put it.

The current thing taking most of my brain capacity is a read-through on a series to make sure I’ve tied up the loose ends I want to tie up, and left the ends I want dangling, dangling. Whenever I do this, I am amazed at some details. I remember writing certain passages, and others seem like they just fell out of my head. It’s a weird double-or-triple-or-more-vision to see the final form of something I spent so long soaking in and tweaking. Sometimes my notes (because I do take notes every time I’m forced to do a read-through) hold a smiley face, or a “That day was horrid, but I got some good writing in”, or “I REMEMBER THAT, IT HURT”. (That last one happens more often than you’d think.)

So today while the world drowns itself outside, I’ll be making notes on a legal pad and wincing in sympathy with one of my heroines. This will in all likelihood involve gallons of hot tea and several small snacks, some of which will be left uneaten as I wander away from them because I Have An Idea. I suspect watching me work on these sorts of days would provide a lot of amusement. You’ll have to just imagine it, though, since I refuse to install a webcam.

Over and out.

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Boots On, Hood Up, Fists Clenched

I just got one of the Best Presents Ever: a stack of handwritten thank-you notes from my daughter’s English class. They were writing to thank me for coming in to talk to them about being a working writer. Among the highlights was one earnest piece of advice: “If the zombie apocalypse happens I’m going to Costco, you could live FOREVER there.” There was also an anonymous piece of (quite good, certainly memorable) short fiction involving wolves, and certain kid wrote that when I admitted I had trouble with spelling, she realized she could be a writer too. (Which made my Grinch heart swell three sizes.) The notes are absolutely adorable.

I broke down and cried. In a good way. *sniffle*

I also want to point you to Chuck Wendig’s The Writer’s Survival Guide. (Best part: the lava vagina.) He and Stephen Blackmoore talk a little in the comments about viewing writing as a craft; something I wholeheartedly endorse.

One of my writing students asked me recently if one ever gets over the fear of showing my writing to other people. I can’t answer for anyone else. All I can say is that I’ve found different ways of ameliorating the fear slightly so I can cope around it. The fear doesn’t go away, but my strategies for dealing with it are in a constant state of refinement. That’s about the best I can say.

Honestly? At the moment, I’m terrified.

I’m branching out, you see, writing something I’ve never tried before and hoping like hell that I don’t finish and send it to the editor and get a “Well, this is crap, can’t you do better?” in return. My anxiety, always high at this stage in a book’s creation, is given an exponential increase by the fact that I have literally never attempted this sort of book before. I don’t mind admitting this scares the hell out of me. The habit of sitting down and putting my hands on the keyboard is serving me well. The only cure for this anxiety is to just put my head down and go through.

Normally I’d be running to help cope with the strain. Chin-ups and crunches aren’t cutting it, neither is the walking I’m allowed to do until my ankle fully heals. Climbing helps, but only for a few hours. So I’m a spiky ball of restlessness most of the time, but I am not going to quit. I do not like turning away from what scares me. If the beast is coming for me, I want to face it head on, fists up, boots on. The only thing that is going to get this over with is finishing the damn book. In order to finish I need to pull my hood up, stick my hands in my pockets, and just keep slouching toward Bethlehem. (In a manner of speaking, that is.) The important thing is to keep swinging.

*sigh* It’s going to be a long spring…

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Zombie Furniture Moving

It’s Monday again. I am blinking blearily at the clock and wondering why the weekend couldn’t last longer. Of course, I spent the weekend moving furniture and cleaning, and it’s not like I want more of that. But I like the idea of sleeping in some more. That would be okay.

Why was I moving furniture, you ask? First there was the fact that the Princess needed a desk to do her homework at. Things had Reached That Point. Which wasn’t so bad. At least, I could do that during the day. It was hauling furniture around at midnight that–well, let me back up.

The Little Prince saw a video game at a friend’s house. This video game featured zombies. Apparently, while the Prince is cuddled up next to me watching a movie, zombies don’t bother him. But over at his friend’s house, they terrify him and he comes home still scared. The upshot of this is, midnight last night found me dragging his bed away from the window. Because the zombies would “peel the glass off and come in,” otherwise.

Every kid hits that thing they’re scared of when they’re about eight or so. Mine? Clowns. I can’t regard a clown with any equanimity. My response to greasepaint, bright colors, and a wide smile is to run like hell. The seal upon this was Tim Curry’s Pennywise. IT was scary enough when I was eleven; but Curry just blew the doors off in the television series.

So, there I was, moving furniture at midnight because of the zombies. Do other people do this? I’m just wondering. Anyway, there was a limit to what I could do during the night. This morning we finished rearranging his room completely. Now he feels safer.

It’s the little things.

What else, let me see…I may have convention news to report soon. There are a limited number of events/conventions I can do, being a single mother and all, but it’s looking like I’ll make one this year. Further bulletins as soon as everything’s smoothed out and official. Plus, we’re working out an April signing. Again, further bulletins when it’s all official.

The ankle is healing slowly but surely. I went climbing today without a brace for the first time. I’m only allowed one 5.9 per session; the rest of the time it has to be easier climbs. So far, so good–the ankle’s strengthening and stretching nicely. I’m using my arms a little more, but that’s to be expected. The only thing not to like about this is that I still can’t run. I can walk on the treadmill, sure. But no running. Which annoys the hell out of me. I NEED THAT ENDORPHIN RUSH, OKAY?

The strange thing is, top-roping doesn’t bother me at all. But bouldering–easy traverses, never more than a foot or so off the ground–makes my body freak out. My heart starts hammering and my palms slick up, the buzzing starts in my ears again. The body remembers silly things you’ve done to it, and it does its level best to warn you.

Me: Calm down. We’re not even a foot off the ground. We’re not doing any vertical problems. Just traverses. We can’t get hurt doing this, okay?
Me: Cut it out, you’re making this harder!
Me: Look, I’m in charge–
Body: OH YEAH? *stops breathing*
Me: ACK!

Something like that. So the problem becomes gently coaxing the body into seeing that it’s not so bad. I mean, when one’s active, one’s going to get injured occasionally. If I can just reach a detente with my body, we’ll be rocking the vertical problems again. That detente will become easier once my body doesn’t suspect me of lying to it.

That’s all the news that’s fit to report, I guess. Or maybe somewhat more than what’s fit to print.

Over and out.

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Linkage, plus Bannon & Clare

My semi-hiatus from blogging proceeds apace. Here’s a couple links:

* I linked to my “The Hard Sell Doesn’t Work” post on Twitter yesterday, and Becca Fitzpatrick has further thoughts.

* An underground village in France, continuously inhabited for thousands of years.

* The Wishery Snow White remix, just because it’s been too long since I’ve linked to it.

* Larissa Ione on thickening skin and review scars.

I am also breaking the semi-hiatus to announce something. It’s that time. I’ve been given official permission to announce the project I’ll be working on after (sadly) finishing up Jill Kismet, Bannon & Clare:

Emma Bannon, Prime sorceress in the service of Britannia, has a mission: to protect Archibald Clare, a failed, unregistered mentath. His skills of deduction are legendary, and her own sorcery is not inconsiderable. It doesn’t much help that they dislike each other, or that Bannon’s Shield, Mikal, might just be a traitor himself. Or that the conspiracy killing registered mentaths and sorcerers alike will just as likely kill them as seduce them into treachery toward their Queen. In an alternate Londonium where illogical magic has turned the Industrial Revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare now face hostility, treason, cannon fire, black sorcery, and the problem of reliably finding hansom cabs. The game is afoot…

I am so ridiculously excited about this. Clockwork horses. Charm and charter. Gryphons. Cannon fire. Logic engines. GIGANTIC CLOCKWORK MECHA RUN BY LOGIC. *does squealing Kermit arm-wavey dance* This is why I’ve been diving up to my eyeballs into Victoriana. I am having a ball with creating Bannon & Clare’s world, and I can’t wait to invite you, dear Reader, into it.

And now, back I go to the semi-hiatus…

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Carry on.

Ankle: still hurts a little, though the swelling’s gone way down and the bruising is retreating. It’s interesting yellowy-green with livid spots of blue-black now, with maroon shadings. Colorful! I have been climbing easy 5.7s, and doing some bouldering–just traverses, no vertical problems. (Well, one easy-simple vertical problem I knew I could downclimb today.) Other than that, a lot of stretching, icing, and ibuprofen.

Work: my God, two books in revision, a third to get fresh wordcount in on, and several other little bits of things that keep adding themselves to my to-do list. I’ll just be over here in the corner banging my head softly on my desk in between spurts of productivity.

The rest of it: It’s a good thing I like rain, for we’re drenched so far and it’s still coming down. It’s a very good thing I like research, because the sheer amount I’ve got ahead of me is cheerfully obscene. I miss my morning runs, and I miss the resultant endorphin rush even more. So I’m twitchy and cranky.

I am still Mostly On Hiatus here, just checking in. See you in a bit.

Carry on.

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Revising That Fight, Part 2

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames.

My ankle is colorfully bruised and still swollen. I seriously haven’t had bruises this awesome in a long, long time. I can move about on it, and the brace helps, but it looks like I’m not going to get back to running as soon as I thought I was. This makes me somewhat cranky. Anyway.

When I’m questioned about writing combat scenes, I think today’s post is the sort of answer the questioner expects. Unfortunately, to get here, one has to build on everything that’s come before: why you would want to beat the shit out of your characters; reason, stakes, and cost; getting a zero draft; and big-pixel revising. Now we’ve reached the fine-tuning revision, where one breaks down a scene sentence by sentence (not as much fun or as much dreadfulness as it sounds) and polishes it to give the reader the illusion of a (hopefully) seamless combat scene.

Here’s a (not definitive or comprehensive, but hopefully helpful) list of the sorts of things I do when I’ve hit the fine-tune revision of a combat scene:

* Pick the best sensory cues. Remember earlier when you jammed in every sensory cue you could find? Here’s where it pays off–you get to look at each one, and decide which is best. (This is why I save a draft right after the big-pixel revision; sometimes I go back looking for a sensory cue from an earlier draft.) This requires you to be ruthless–sometimes the cue that’s best isn’t the one you like most, and you also have to juggle the scene as a whole and make sure you’re not hitting just one particular sense (say, hearing) over and over again. You want the reader to be pulled in, hopefully with full-body sensations. (Seducing the reader is easier if you make it holographic.) Not only that, but different readers have different sensory needs/preferences. You want to maximize your chances of hitting at least one sense really well for the reader.

Deciding which sensory cue is the best is something that will be different for every writer, and the only way to learn it is by writing–and reading. I’ve written elsewhere about why reading is so important if one wants to write–it will teach you, once you’ve done it often enough, a sense of what works and what doesn’t on the page. A certain Blink-style judgment will result from a critical mass of reading, and the pure practice of revising your own work will help too. There is no easy shortcut.

* Look at sentence length. The gaze moves on the page, commas provide a pause, periods halt the reader’s eyes for a moment. Learn to use sentence length to give the reader cues. Short choppy sentences pass quickly and can give a reader a sense of speed or of jerky motion. Run-ons can be used to drag the reader along breathlessly. “Breathlessly” is a big clue–if you want to work on the pacing of a combat scene, read it out loud. Notice where you take breaths, notice where the natural “breaks” in each sentence are, and think about how you want those breaks to actually run. Reading it out loud is actually one of the best tools for getting to a respectable combat scene.

Don’t be afraid to really get into it. Get histrionic while reading it aloud. The exaggeration will lay bare every place where it’s not as amped as it could be, and every nook where you want the reader to slow down and savor. Getting a reader through a combat scene is kind of like satisfying sex–a balance between breathless urgency and slow savouring. Sometimes you shift the toward one extreme or the other, depending on your mood. Paying attention is mandatory.

Yesterday’s description of how I sprained my ankle used different sentence lengths in different places, from the run-on describing the bouldering route to the short, staccato “I didn’t listen” to the ending broken up into three short words with a period after each to slow the reader down and provide the terminus. I revised it deliberately to be an illustration of this principle. Kudos and extra credit if you broke it down, dear ones.

* Maximum clarity. It should be utterly clear who is doing what to whom, what the stakes are, who has a dog in the fight, what that dog is, and what every dog wants.

* Maximum weight carried. The fine-tune revision is where you ask yourself at every damn point, “Is this sentence necessary? Is it carrying its own weight? Does it advance the action, provide characterization, or give a sensory cue? Can I make it do two of those things at once?” The good news is, once you’ve developed this set of mental muscles, you start asking yourself these questions even while writing, which is nowhere near as panic-inducing as it sounds. It makes your writing better once you’ve gone through a couple fine-tune revisions and start getting a sense of what combing through a scene this thoroughly entails.

Sometimes you may decide that a sentence isn’t necessary, but you want it there to slow the reader down, or it will become important later in the work that you have a detail there. That’s all right–just be prepared for your editor to call you on it. Which brings us to an important point:

* Getting edited is still going to hurt. Even the pickiest fine-tune revision you do on your own work won’t match the brutal objectivity of an editor’s take on it. You are too close to your own work to be that objective. (This is a good thing. Your involvement with your own work is necessary for you to be vulnerable enough to touch the core of human experience and transmit that core.) Your editor’s job is to make the book as awesome as it can be, and it is going to hurt your tender pride. Get over it.[1]

Why bother with this sort of fine-tuning if the editor’s going to catch you anyway? Simple. You are doing a disservice to yourself and your readers if the book is not as strong as you can make it going out the gate; sometimes you can even catch yourself before you commit a boner move in front of your editor when you fine-tune this closely. Every little bit helps.

* Burn any dead wood. Dialogue tags. Passive constructions. Unneeded detail. These things are your enemies in combat scenes. You want punch, you want adrenaline, you want heart in mouth and jaw on floor. If a sentence isn’t pulling its weight, make it do so or kill it. You can always add later at the request of an editor (within reason). Get every single sentence in the scene working as hard as it possibly can.

Yes, I know I just told you above that a sentence might not be “necessary” but you might want it to slow a reader down a fraction. That means it’s functioning deadweight, and you have to be crystal clear about why you want the deadweight in that particular place. I call this the Copyedit Principle–every time I reject a single copyediting change, I am thankful that I have to stop and think about precisely why, and if I do not have a good defensible reason I am not allowed to be a whinypants and scrawl STET. If you want extra weight anywhere in a combat scene, you must justify it satisfactorily.

* The finish line. The closer a combat scene gets to its culmination, the less deadweight you want. Unless you chapter-break in the middle of the scene (you may want to do this for varying reasons, including maximizing tension or because you want the reader to get into the next chapter before they set the book down to go cook dinner or whatnot) you want to get to a white-hot dead gallop by the end. Think of a good car chase scene in the movies–by the end of it, the car should be busted up and everyone else involved should be breathless and possibly bleeding. The last paragraph(s) should tell us if the hero/ine (or anyone else) has got what they wanted out of this interaction, and should also bring the combat scene to a close in a way that allows the reader to feel satisfied. It doesn’t mean you can’t start ramping up the tension again soon, but you do need to give the reader a chance to catch his/her breath and look back over the mountain she’s just climbed with your characters and say “Dayum, that was good.”

* Get rid of repetitions. Repetitions, unless handled very carefully, are deadweight. Sometimes an editor will say “What happened to X? Mention it again, because we forget about it here.” This is probably necessary if they’re asking for it, but during the fine-tune revising, be on the lookout for your particular word-tics and mannerisms. This is difficult and one will never, ever manage to do it perfectly. Still, during the fine-tune revision, spot and kill as many of them as you can. (Beta readers often will catch and highlight these.)

I warned you that this list wouldn’t be exhaustive or definitive, just (hopefully) helpful. Now for the bad news: I’m worn out, so I’m going to take a short hiatus from Friday writing posts-probably two weeks, maybe a month. The good news is that when I come back, I will do a couple catch-up posts of the best questions asked in the comments of this whole combat-post series. So, go ahead and ask. I may not get around to answering every question, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Right.

Until then, dearies, keep writing. Over and out.

[1] I leave out the tricky morass of revenge edits and editor agendas here.

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