AFTERWAR Hangover

Last night I typed “finis” at the end of the Afterwar zero draft. It weighs in at 94K words and will only get longer because most of it is so, so lean. Some scenes are full of dialogue that needs trimming and plenty of physical and action tags put in so the reader can see an approximation of the movie in my head.

It may be a horrid, stupid, ungainly mess, but it is no longer a horrid, stupid, ungainly, unfinished mess. True to form, though, I woke up this morning knowing where at least two more scenes need to be shoehorned in. I’ll write those on a 3×5 card and set them aside, because if I have to look at that book ONE MORE TIME right now I will throw something at my desktop, and that’s not good for anyone.

So I have a massive book hangover today. I honestly thought I’d never finish the damn thing, it would be a millstone around my neck for the rest of my short-uncomfortable life. The fact that early March is full of social obligations (birthdays, family visits, and the like) meant I could feel the book itching to be born, swelling like a giant tumor under the surface of my brain, but I was physically unable to get to the bloody keyboard and get as much typing done as it needed. That required a deathgrip on my temper, too. I am downright cranky when prevented from finishing a story-birth.

But yesterday I coughed up a 5K+ chunk, around the daily round of (almost-adult-but-not-quite) child care and a ticklish, complex, mind-numbing project I wanted to get done at my weekly volunteering. It was kind of a relief to just put my earbuds in and concentrate on something that wasn’t the book begging to be born, but when I finished the glow of satisfied accomplishment was marred by the scratchy-itchy-bugs-under-the-skin of NEEEEEEDING to write.

So, I went home and got to work. Dinner was leftover pizza for the Prince (the Princess was at work) and toast for me. I dove back in…and god damn it, but the book would not die. I stabbed and I stabbed, and when it expired…well, I was surprised, to put it mildly.

I typed finis, centered it, and stared at the screen. And then I burst into tears. The sobbing was mostly relief but partly the rubber-band snap of frustrated rage.

So, long story short, I’m pretty useless today. Book hangover is in full swing. A long run in the sunshine might help; it will at least exhaust me enough to make sure I sleep tonight. My dreams will be full of inchoate anxiety, and I now have two projects hanging fire that I should catch up on since I shifted all my resources to finishing this one.

That’s a battle for another day. Today, I rest. I won’t quite call it good, but I’ll certainly call it done.

Over and out.

Now We’re Here

shehulkicon The zero draft of Harmony is finished! It’s over 100K, easily my longest zero yet. I dislike it, as a book. It’s messy and structurally unsound, and revising it will no doubt be a chore, and I slogged through it for so long I have grown to hate it with the fiery hate of a thousand suns.

All in all, usual for finishing a zero draft. When I go back, I’ll no doubt find passages that maybe aren’t so bad, and ways to fix the structural problems, and and and.

I took yesterday off–for a certain value of “off”, I guess, one that included a doctor’s visit and all the chore backlog from weeks of stabbing the book and hoping it would die. Also as usual: a monstrous headache and the urge to try that tiny bottle of Drambuie I bought to see if I’d like it. Conclusion: It’s not for me, if I want liquorice I’ll go straight for absinthe, thanks.

So today is for a run, and for turning my attention to Afterwar. I meant to use NaNoWriMo to finish the first half of Afterwar, but the last 50K of Harmony intruded. I’ll still aim to use that spur to get me through. My head doesn’t hurt quite as much, and while I’d love to take a week off, I’m already behind and the urgency of writing is poking at my back and pulling my hair.

The funny thing (well, funny-strange, not funny-haha) is, one of the pitches for Afterwar was the simple question: what if Trump won? I’m not sure if my precog ability was working overtime or if it was just the most horrific topical scenario I could come up with to express the alt-historical track I intended the book to take. Of course, now we’re here, and the small hands of the orange demagogue are grasping at corruption riches while his “friends” try to normalize registering people to send them to camps.

The darkest timeline, indeed. And we’re only a few days into the “transition”. Great.

Writing has always been, for me, a scream against the darkness. I suppose now I’ll find out where my courage truly lies, again.

With that ultra-cheerful thought, I’ll sign off. Perhaps I can sweeten the pill by saying this: if you have often wondered, as I have, what you would do in said darkest timeline, well, now’s the chance to find out. Think about it beforehand, so when the bite comes, you’re ready. I have faith (faint and fading, but faith nonetheless) in us.

Over and out.

Story Bones

Skulls 8 - photo by Augusto De Luca Story bones are strange and difficult things. Imagine a skeleton, structure for the dips and curves of the whole body, or a scaffolding to hang a three-dimensional tapestry on. Either way, there are weight-bearing supports in your stories, things that have to be strong enough to keep the whole thing from sliding into a pile.

Sometimes they’re character-driven. If you have a particular character who, say, has a volatile temper, your reader will believe them making bad choices in a fit of anger. Or it can be point-of-view based–a character who appears outwardly calm but is boiling inside, so we can believe it when they erupt. Showing either character’s internal state is a fine point of craft, not necessarily a structural choice. The structure is deeper, in whatever purpose that anger serves in the story.

Some bones are pure plot. These are tricky, because you have to make sure your characters are serving themselves and their own wants instead of said plot. A villain in an action movie has to work harder to avoid being a simple mustache-twirling device. At the same time, to sell a farfetched plot you have to do a lot of heavy lifting and scaffolding in other areas. Ideally, a plot should be inevitable, even its twists, from the very first sentence. Every beginning should carry within itself the seeds of its ending.

Notice I say ideally. It’s something to aim for, a moving target that changes shape, direction, speed, and everything else each time you begin a story.

There are other types of bones–emotional, where your character’s reactions and internal states reflect the motion and disturbance in the story. Or worldbuilding, which requires more than you’d think. Shoddy world building makes for a shaky scaffold, even if all other structural elements are in place. It also hikes the threshold of disbelief to chest-high, if not further.

About a quarter of the structural work in every story I write is what I call “excavation”. I’m not really building a narrative, I’m digging around a patch of disturbed dirt and clearing a submerged shape. Sometimes you only find a cellar down there, but other times you stumble across a palace to be dug out with shovel and toothbrush. There comes a certain point in writing–about a third of the way in, just before the long deadly slog–when I have to sit back and think about the shape that’s forming under my fingertips as I type. I’ve grown much better at seeing the whole thing earlier in the game, so to speak, but there’s still the odd book that will refuse to be seen from above. For those, it becomes a swing from one handhold to the next, with attention to how I’m shifting my weight–now there’s a rock-climbing metaphor, but it’s the closest I can come to the sensation.

Knowing where the bones are can save you a lot of time and trouble, and it helps in the other sixty percent of writing a story, which is–are you ready?

Revision.

Revision is where you see the bones and can wrench them about to make the body take the shape you want. This is not a painless process, for you or for the book/short/novella/whatever. At the same time, it’s so much easier to revise when you have the whole thing on the table and can see both its current shape and the one you want it to take. Sometimes books have a weird butterfly effect going on inside them–one thing changes, and the changes ripple out until all of a sudden the structure clicks into place with a jolt you can almost hear and certainly feel. Other times–let’s be honest, this happens a lot–you’ll be going through and looking at the underpinnings, knowing you have to solve a problem, and the solution will be in a passage you don’t even remember writing, a little gift from the Muse. She anticipates, the bitch; there’s nothing she enjoys more than leading you through the labyrinth and letting you sweat a bit thinking the bull is right behind you and there’s no exit.

I do some revision in my head while zero drafting, of course. I don’t recommend doing much, really, because you can end up grinding the same few chapters over and over instead of finishing the damn thing. This is the seductive trap of mistaking the effort of circling for the effort of writing, which I’ve covered elsewhere. For me, the majority of revision happens between zero draft and the first draft I send to my long-suffering agent. It’s rare that I have to do more than one more pass for an editor after that, but there are exceptions–I think Cormorant Run, in particular, needed more than one revision. After that it’s copyedits, and then proofing.

So how do you know where to set the bones, or where to yank them around? That is a matter of instinct and craft, and you learn as you go along. It helps to be a voracious reader, because you end up absorbing a lot about structure, what works, and what doesn’t, just by the act of reading. There is no magic secret…but if there was one, it would lie in two words: internal consistency.

Characters must be internally consistent. So must the plot, and the worldbuilding. With a story’s beginning, you make choices, and those choices narrow the range of options further and further, all the way down the line to the ending. If you break that chain, you must do it in a way that is consistent with all three: plot, character, world. A deus ex machina at the last minute is lazy storytelling, though there have been geniuses who make an apparent God-in-machine internally consistent, but those are far and few between. If your magic system is built on rocks, all of a sudden having someone use an internal combustion engine for said magic isn’t going to fly. (Wow, that is a weird sentence.) If a character is a rage-filled sociopath, their sudden, unprompted change of heart at the end is likely going to make your reader throw the book across the room.

In revision, one of the hardest questions to ask yourself is about internal consistency. You can fool yourself into thinking it’s just fine because you’re the writer, goddammit, and you are the god of this small world. Sometimes it helps to map a book’s structure out on a roll of butcher paper, or with Post-its or a whiteboard. Sometimes it helps to give it to a beta reader who can pinpoint the weak spots, though you must choose your beta readers with care. When you’re also revising for craft, getting rid of weasel words, layering in more details, and whatnot, adding one more thing to the pile to watch for and manage can be overwhelming. You may even want to break up the revision of a zero draft into two passes: a structural pass, then a detail pass for everything else. And of course the process is never going to be the same twice, each book/story is different and more than likely will demand a different strategy.

And people wonder why writers drink.

I want to say “just pay attention to the bones and everything will work out fine”, but that would be a lie. They are an important, critical component, and not the only one. But that’s (say it with me) a whole ‘nother blog post.

Over and out.

Not Done Yet

Manuscript So yesterday 5K words slid out of my head, whole and bloody, and the zero draft of The Iron Plague (also known as “that trailer-park elf book”) is finished. This is a cause for celebration, yes, because this book has been in my head for years (ever since my writing partner told me about a dream her spouse had) and now it’s out.

But I’m not done yet.

My NaNo goal this year is to get Iron Plague into first-draft shape by December 1. Which means that the manuscript, which currently stands at around 51K, will probably grow to about 60K. I know where most of the growth needs to come in, too. I work fast, loose, and hot on the zero draft, getting the corpse of the story out onto the table and ready to be prettified. It’s very, very rare that I let anyone see a zero draft; the work can still be killed at that point. Which is, incidentally, part of why I don’t work well with others; the chill of another gaze can blast a tender young shoot of a book into a blackened stub. I know it’s probably Preshus and Speshul of me, but it’s how I work.

Anyway, the zero draft has to lie fallow for a little bit now–probably around a week, while I finish copyedits on The Ripper Affair, the third Bannon & Clare. Then it’s back to Jeremy Gallow and Robin Ragged–longtime readers will probably remember early versions of them in the Courts of the Fey anthology–and once that’s a reasonable first draft, I send Iron Plague off to my lovely agent and go straight into revisions for Ruby’s story, the final Tale of Beauty & Madness.

Finishing the damn novel is just the first step. It’s a lulu of a step, don’t get me wrong, and should be celebrated. But afterward another long slog begins.

It makes me tired just thinking about it today, which is why there’s no Friday photo. My brain pretty much feels like it’s been pummeled by a very enthusiastic boxer, and I’m stuck in the “fire bad, tree pretty” phase that happens after I finish a zero draft. So…off I go, to finish the rest of my morning and stretch out my tired fingers. (The new keyboard, by the way, has held up splendidly under these past few days.)

Over and out.

Red Plague Zero

fabbriciuse / Foter

So yesterday, in a blaze of something suspiciously like glory, I finished the zero draft[1] of the next Bannon & Clare, The Red Plague Affair. There are holes and sloppy bits and it needs serious atmosphere poured into the chinks between dialogue and action, but it’s done. It is no longer a terrible unfinished book.

Which means that today will be spent collapsed on the floor and drooling, while my throbbing head (seriously, the zero clocks in at 60K words, 8 of which forced their way through my tender cranium yesterday in a skidding slide for the finish) slowly cools. I may take myself to lunch somewhere, if the annoyance of driving doesn’t seem an insurmountable difficulty. I have to power-wash the inside of my skull today, for tomorrow I go back to line-edits on the all-new YA. I suppose I should talk about that…

…but not quite yet. I have a breakfast to accomplish, a schoolbus to get the Little Prince on, and some drooling to do. Oh, the glory of this writing life.

Over and out.

[1]The “zero draft” is the initial finished corpse of a story. It’s not perfect, it’s messy as hell, but it’s DONE. It gets set aside to rest for two weeks to a month, then I go back and revise it to make it a “first” draft that someone else–my beta or my editor–can read.

From Kickass Un-PreRequisite to Rippling Tweakage

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames, who you should really be reading. Because we’re awesome.

Instead of the Snowpocalypse we feared (and that Seattle is currently suffering under the spike heel of) we’ve got rain. Lots of rain. Well, this is the Pacific Northwest, and I happen to like rain, but I wish the weather would make up its mind. Heavy wet snow yesterday, melt and easily an inch of rain today, branches down everywhere and my morning run more like a swim–oh, I know I could have used the treadmill, but Miss B was inside all day yesterday, which meant it was either get her out for a run or go to the dog park and stand in mud up to my knees. An appetizing choice, indeed.

Plus, the Little Prince became, once more, Sir Pewksalot last night. All of which is a roundabout way of saying my temper and nerves are equally frayed, and I decided on a Three Things post because if I start on a rant or two now there will be nothing but a smoking crater left where my computer used to be. (Expensive.) Not to mention with all the biting and snarling going on all over the Internet about Authors Daring To Speak, so to speak, and a rant doesn’t seem like a good idea. For lo, if I strap on my armor now and go all Don Quixote after Idiot Entitled Jerks On The Internet, I may never stop. And I’ve writing to do, so…yeah. Three things. Let’s see.

* Kickass is not a prerequisite. It’s not even a requisite. I swear to God, someday I am going to write about Milquetoast von Constipated, a potbellied, balding vampire with bowel issues who lives in Minnesota and, whenever there is an incident of violence, he *gasp* alerts the authorities! Together with his werecow buddy, Milton Morton (who is not only vegan but gets tipped every full moon), they do not fight crime willingly. Rather, they sort of bumble through and the police take care of things on their own. (As to why he has bowel issues when he’s on a liquid diet, I’ll just say, have you ever tried to live on protein shakes? HAVE YOU?)

Sounds amusing, doesn’t it? But it’s sparked by a frustration of mine: where is it written that I can’t write anything other than kickass leather-clad wiseacres? I mean, I’m very glad people connect with my kickass heroes and heroines, but that isn’t all I write, it isn’t all I am. It isn’t all the world consists of. I dislike it intensely when I write a character whose strength is internal and am immediately subjected to a “but your fans won’t recognize…” Screw that. They will recognize, and those who send me venomous screeds about how I should just stick to writing kickass chicks even though I don’t do so very well (seriously, it’s like the writers of these things all got together in a room somewhere) can just go…fly kites. Yes. fly kites.

The point of this is: If you’re used to writing one thing, and you want to write another thing, go ahead and do it. You may have to attempt a couple times before you get a salable piece, but it will teach you things about writing that staying in your comfort zone will not. I’m fairly okay at writing angst and violence, but you know what I would really love? I would love to be talented at writing comedy. Comedy is hard effing work, it doesn’t come naturally to me. (Unless it’s bleak black macabre humor. Heh.) It doesn’t stop me from wanting and trying, and from seeking other types of characters and stories to play with. What you’re good at writing and what you want to write may be two different things, but you should try them both.

* The Levenger catalog is pure crack. I mean, their 3X5 cards are incredibly useful while revising or making grocery lists, both things I do at my computer. My bag lust is inflamed every time I see their briefcases. And, oh my God, the desk sets. The desk sets. It’s nice to reward myself with some lovely tools after slogging through a zero draft. I nerd all over their paper, and one day, one day, I will have a Levenger desk. I’ll save my pennies, by God, and I will have it.

Other things I keep within easy reaching distance while I’m writing: a statue of Ganesh writing, some Climb On creme, cell phone, tarot cards (Rider-Waites, for those curious), Moleskine notebook, a couple pads of paper both legal and Levenger, scissors, pens and sharpened pencils, rubber bands, a Keep Calm and Carry On paperweight, two pink plastic flamingos, six dictionaries, two thesauri, two visual dictionaries, assorted other reference works from encyclopedias of military arms to herbals and Jack the Ripper books. Also, two copies of Jane Eyre, plus six or seven DVDs of different treatments of Jane Eyre, and a few Wuthering Heights. (Don’t ask.) Also, tissues, ibuprofen, and Carmex. Because you never can tell.

The flamingos are for practicing dialogue with. (But that’s another blog post.)

* Beware of great ideas. “A million cat clocks! That’s a GREAT idea!” Then some of them started looking a little odd because their tails weren’t moving. And I had to find more batteries. This just goes to show you, great ideas are only great until one gets to the care, feeding, and administrivia involved. (Note: I have six cat clocks, all on my living-room wall. And I want more.)

What does this have to do with writing? Simple. Beware of great ideas. Sometimes they happen halfway through a zero draft, and you either have to go back and alter what you’ve already written to account for the Great Idea, or you just go ahead and write as if the Great Idea has been there all the time, which means the first half of revising the zero draft is likely to send you to the booze cabinet sooner rather than later. Sometimes the Great Ideas happen during revision, and one should be careful because they are like pebbles thrown into a quiet pond. (BOOT TO THE HEAD!) The ripples spread throughout the entire book, which may mean you have to go back and deal with tweaking everything before and after in subtle and overt ways. Rippling tweakage is another thing that will send you to the booze cabinet during revisions. Or to banging your head against a brick wall, whichever is handier. (Also, Rippling Tweakage is my new indie band name.)

Great ideas are great, but there is no Great Idea that fixes everything without a lot of work. If the Idea is Great Enough, the work, while frustrating, is also a process of simplification. If it’s a Mediocre Idea masquerading as Great, or even just a Garden-Variety Idea Of Some Magnitude But Hardly Greatness, well, booze cabinets and brick walls, or whatever coping mechanism works for you, STAT. It doesn’t make the Rippling Tweakage any easier, but it can dull the gnawing pain between your temples somewhat.

…I just looked at that last sentence and cannot believe I typed that. Some days, I really love my job.

Over and out!

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Hello, DAMNATION

Well, I finished the zombies-and-cowboy trunk novel last night. At least the zero draft. It weighs in at 65K, which is a little large for a zero draft, and means it’ll be closer to 80 after I revise it into a reasonable first draft. That’s not going to happen for a while, though, since I’m going right back to proof pages for Bannon & Clare (due the first week of 2012, I weep for my sleep schedule) and another round of revision on the new YA (after the first of the year) plus the drop-dead date for starting the zero draft of the next Bannon & Clare is New Year’s Day. Begin the year as you mean to go on, I guess.

So last night, sweating and excited, I typed finis at the end of DAMNATION. There’s a sheriff with a hidden past, a schoolmarm with a secret, a gold claim, and zombies. Lots of zombies, and some bonus vampire action. I need to go back and layer in a lot of stuff now that I know the shape of the finished work, and it may be a crappy trunk novel nobody will ever buy, but at least it is no longer a crappy unfinished trunk novel nobody will ever buy. Plus, it features a death by skillet and the immortal line “He ain’t gettin any fresher.” Also, horses, and a group of “frails”–saloon whores–who want to learn to read and figure so they can open their own fancy houses OR stop being cheated by the saloon manager.

…Yeah, I had fun.

I am also thinking of getting bids for help in putting some of the SquirrelTerror saga into, say, a nice thin trade paperback. It would need editing and copyediting, and perhaps an index, and I’m sure I would want to add some footnotes. And a map. So editing, CE, and formatting/design. I’m not sure if it would be viable; I’d probably spend more on the editor than I’d ever make on the damn thing, but it would please me. At the moment, it’s just a thought.

I have further decided I’m not going to run until next Monday. I’m told that every once in a while you have to stop beating on the flesh and give it a slight rest so you can shock it more effectively when you restart. I am sure my body will appreciate this, though the rest of me will be cranky.

And that is all the news that is fit for something, I guess, or at least all the news I can give right now. Next year promises to be very exciting. Maybe another trunk novel will fall out of my head?

*shakes Magic 8 Ball*

Ask again later? What kind of crap is that?

Over and out!

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.