Monthly Archives: September 2013

An argument for (or against) writing full-time

I had Friday off this past week, which means (huzzah!) I had a full day of uninterrupted writing.  One of those rare times where I could pretend that I’d quit my day job forever to embrace the life of the contented artist, blissfully typing on the laptop on my back porch, creating high art that will stand the test of time.

At 10:00 a.m. I text husband.

Me: “Oh my god, there are two squirrels doing it up the side of our backyard tree.”
Tim: “That’s nice.  Kinda working here.”
Me: “Seriously, that’s been my day so far: writing, and two squirrels having sex up the side of a tree.  Obviously, I need to be doing this full-time.”
Tim: “Writing, or watching squirrel sex?”
Me: “Writing!  Though I am good at multitasking.”
Tim: “So, how much writing have you actually done?”
Me: “Hey, I’m still hitting my stride.  Plus, those squirrels are LOUD in their passion.”

Portions of that might have been exaggerated.  But those squirrels were really loud and distracting.  The moral of the story is that having more time to write doesn’t actually mean anything unless I take advantage of it.  Yes, I did get some good writing done eventually, but there’s always going to be some excuse you can find to distract yourself from your daily word count.

Like squirrel sex.

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Little Things

One important thing that toiling away in the revision mines has taught me is how lightly our characters are sketched. A line here and there, a word, a description, and the reader starts putting together a chain of clues as to who these people are. What they’re like. What they might do as the plot swirls around them. It’s a fine line, trying to provide enough of these clues to make sure that the reader can see the character clearly in their head, without feeling like they’re being bludgeoned by description.

This is both a blessing and a curse when revising. Right now, I’m trying to work with a couple of my characters, cleaning up their motivations, clarifying what’s driving them. The blessing is that I can do a lot of this with just a few tweaks. Change a sentence here, rewrite a bit of dialogue there, retune that bit of inner monologue. No need to rewrite chapters– well, not all of them at least.

The curse is I have to find all of those clues that I left behind in the earlier draft. Some I remember, but most of them are buried, hiding, interwoven with something else. Little things, just like they should be, and hell if I can remember where I left all of them. So now its reading and hunting, trying to find them all, and then decide what tiny tweak they need to make them line up properly. It’s a lot of fiddling detail, but if I miss any of them, or mess them up, it can throw off the whole story.

Little things are big things, sometimes, and a few hundred words out of a 100 thousand can make all the difference.

No wonder this is taking awhile.

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It’s for research, really

So I’m heading to a “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” retreat this week. I have a friend who’s writing a western and, being a native Chicagoan, wanted some hands-on time with guns and bows and such. So I said I’d do it with her.

This retreat is actually not too far from where I spent my youth. While I grew up around hunters, and I’ve shot a few guns in my time, I’ve never really been comfortable around firearms. Now that I live in a city with some of the most restrictive gun laws and the highest homicide rate in the country, I figured now was as good a time as any to get comfortable with a gun. I’m also learning outdoor photography and first aid.

Am I writing a western (or want to?) No. Am I likely to treat a campfire burn using medicinal plants? Probably not. So how is this research? Simply put, when you’re a writer everything is research. Jumping on opportunities when they present themselves is a great way to gain life experience points. Internalizing those experiences give you novel and story fodder.

When you’re a professional writer, you’re always at work, one way or another.

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What’s on?

One of the things beginning writers hear a lot is “give up television.”

I never found that advice very useful because I don’t watch a lot of tv. It’s hard to give up something you don’t do.

That said, I’ve been watching what seems like a lot to me lately. This summer I watched Whodunnit, an incredibly cheesy mystery reality show. It was so bad that I loved it. This past weekend I finished catching up on Once Upon a Time before the new season starts, so now I need a new show to watch while sewing. And right now (well, right now it’s a commercial) I’m watching Agents of SHIELD, mainly because I feel obligated. Not sure that one will last long for me.

And of course, Friday night is still Star Trek night–we’re on season 4 of DS9.

What are you watching this fall?

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Living in your world

I remember when I was younger, when I first started to make up stories in my head to entertain myself and escape from the real world, I didn’t really have a concept of what world building was.  Certainly not as a writer’s tool.  I just knew I liked to dream up imaginary landscapes and explore there, either on my own or through characters I also dreamed up.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and here I am doing the same thing with my new novel.  Except I’m taking notes this time.  But really, the process and the entertainment value haven’t changed all that much.  I still sit and daydream about those imaginary places, only I’m adding a few technical questions here and there.  Where does the water come from in this place?  How is it lit, and what does the air smell like?  Also, why do I like to hang out here, as opposed to some other imaginary world?  What is it about my creation that’s unique?

I know my readers are going to be asking those same kinds of questions, whether they realize it or not.  My best hope is to create a world that sucks people in and makes them never want to leave, and that as I expand on this process, I’ll be able to create characters that they want to hang out with, flaws and all.  But right now, today, it’s all about the world and living there for a time in my head.  The more I explore in my head, the better I can describe the world as my characters experience it.

So far I think it’s shaping up to be pretty cool.  I hope readers agree.

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I should have posted this earlier, but there were things. Many of them.

Anyway, I am going to be at the Southwestern Wisconsin Festival of Books this weekend. I’m doing a couple of panels, one on science fiction and games, another about short fiction. There’s a lot of other things going on, and a whole bunch of authors hanging out and talking about writing. So if that sounds cool to you, swing by.

If it doesn’t, you probably gave up on this blog awhile ago.

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Prophet of Bones–a book review

Every once in a while I stop writing and critiquing long enough to read a book. Admittedly, it’s not as often as I would like, and also admittedly, I’ve done a lot more of it since I moved to Chicago. It’s hard to turn off the critical writer’s brain when reading a book, but I’m getting better at it. Practice makes perfect and all that.

For those of you who don’t know Ted Kosmatka’s work, he has a knack for making hard science concepts accessible through thoughtful blending with fictional elements. In Prophet of Bones, Kosmatka turns the evolution of man on its head; in this world, carbon dating and the study of DNA have proven the creationists were right and evolutionists such as Darwin were wrong. Science and religion are friends, not enemies. That is, until strange bones are discovered during an archaeological dig on the island of Flores. What are the implication of these strange, almost-human bones? When the bones are stolen and people with the dig start dying, the fearless hero Paul looks for answers on his own.

Admittedly, the book started off a bit slow; while there is plenty of mystery and intrigue early on, the plot didn’t start to really rock and roll until half-way through. However, the slow beginning pays dividends at the end, and its well worth reading. The world Kosmatka creates is thought-provoking, the science is solid (the author includes a reference section in the back for those who want to delve into scientific papers), and the prose is clean and linear and doesn’t have much in the way of description. Fans of science-thrillers shouldn’t miss this book.

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Writing and exercise

Someday I will figure out how to do two things at once. I can think about stories while I jog or swim, but only the sort of nebulous pre-writing kind of thinking. What happens next, maybe this story should actually take place on Venus, that kind of thing.

What I can’t do is work out specific problems, because I need to be able to see the text, and then I’d trip. Or ruin my phone while messing up my swimming stroke. This would be a great use case for google glasses or google swimming goggles. Overlay my document on the bottom of the pool. And somehow use eye tracking and blinking to highlight and mark things I need to change later. They could even make thin gloves that track tiny finger movements as if I’m typing.

Until that’s invented, maybe I could get Siri to do research for me while I jog. “*gasp* How do you *gasp* hide from a tornado *gasp* in the middle of *gasp* the prairie?” Hm, maybe not. It’s hard enough to remember not to talk back to Jared Diamond.

Or, speaking of voice control, I could dictate scenes. But I’ve never been good at writing out loud. My brain works through my fingers.

And for tennis–well, there I give up. I have enough trouble with playing and keeping score at the same time to add another thing to tax my brain.

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Learning the language

I’ve been going through copy edits this week, so I thought I’d do a quick post about that mysterious language of editors: the proofreader’s marks.  On first seeing these strange symbols, you might think that a band of drunken elves wandered into your editor’s office, stole a red pen and doodled some abstract art all over your manuscript during the night, but rest assured, each symbol has a specific meaning, and it’s your job to translate that into revisions to your book.

Over the years, I’ve worked with editors who use proofreader’s marks all the time, and I’ve worked with others who use Track Changes in Microsoft Word, but whatever your editor’s preferred method of communicating corrections, it’s a good idea to have a working knowledge of what these marks look like and what they indicate when they show up peppered all over your manuscript.

I use a few different websites as reference for copy editor’s marks, including Merriam-Webster, but there are quite a few sites out there with depictions of each symbol and what it means.  Some of the most helpful ones show examples of the marks in a selection of text.  Of course, when in doubt about what something means, always ask your editor.

Happy translating!

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Rewrite, Repeat, Release

Revision seems to be the theme of the week here at ARR–well, except for Jaleigh, who’s busy ghostbusting in New Orleans.

So what do I think about revisions?  I do them when I need to. Then I either repeat, take a break, or release that thing into the wild, to live or die on its own. There you go.

Okay, breaking that down a bit. How do I know I need to revise? Well, any first draft I do is going to be a hot mess of varying degrees. So I go over it a couple of times, copy editing and cleaning up anything blatantly stupid. Then I get somebody else to read it. They might point out something I missed, but more often, they will point out the crap that I saw but pretended I didn’t see. Because fixing it would be hard. So then I decide what suggestions I’m going to listen to, based on a combination of oh, that will make it better and crap, I guess I can’t get away with that. Then I revise and read it again.

Is it done? Sometimes. If so, release. If I still like it, but still don’t think it’s ready to go, repeat the above. If I don’t think it’s ready, and I don’t like it anymore, it gets put away. Some other day I’ll haul it out again and see what I think of it.

That’s the big thing, really. That like factor. If I like it, I assume the story has something going for it. A character, a setting, something. And it has my interest, my passion, so I’m going to actually work on it, as opposed to going through the motions. In other words, if I like something I assume that it has potential, and that I’m willing to work to realize that potential.

If I don’t like it… It sits. Waits. Some later day, I may like it again, and that’s when I should be working on it. Or I might finally just gut its carcass and part it out, using whatever good bits I like for other works.

It’s not magic, but it works for me. Which, in my experience, is what most writing process advice breaks down to–

Here’s what I do, it kind of works, YMMV

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