Category Archives: Writing

The Madness Begins. Again.

Aaaand….once again, it’s that time of the year in which I miraculously blog more frequently than is sane because I’m avoiding doing what I’m supposed to actually be doing: working on my current NaNoWriMo project. That’s right, folks! It’s National Novel Writing Month and I’m descending into madness once again.

I’ve got a pretty clear idea of my plot, my characters, my voice, my world…it should be a fun one to write. Space hobbits. (More on that later.) And yet, what I’ve managed to accomplish in my scheduled window of time this afternoon is setting up the Facebook page I’ve been meaning to set up for a year and a half; messing around with Tumblr to once again ponder whether it’s a good social media space for me; and completely reconfiguring my writing tech.

The last one I’m actually excited about. One of my issues with writing and editing is that I work on two different machines. Most of my writing gets done on my PC because I’ve been using specific writing software and because the keyboard is bigger. Most of my computer time, however, ends up being on my work machine, since I work from home some of the time. Which means that if I want to get writing work done, I have to switch machines and deal with the antique slowness of The Beast. Sometimes that’s good, because I can’t do much else but write without crashing the machine so the distractions are minimized, but sometimes I want to be able to just duck into a coffee shop after work for an hour for a quick session, and not being able to access my files slows me down.

Some of you may be eagerly waving your hands in the air shouting, “Google Docs! Google Docs!” I am, however, distrustful of the degree of control Google already has over my content because I’m a paranoid misanthrope who fears the worst of everyone…which I might be able to get past if I had had anything other than trouble with using Docs in offline mode. I need something that’s reliably workable offline, works across incompatible operating systems, and ideally gives me something like version control.

I’ve been afraid to leave my fancy writing software (FWS) behind, but given that I am not willing to pay for two different versions of any of the FWS, I’ve had to strike out and think creatively. And in the process of chewing over this problem, I’ve discovered a tool that is ridiculously more functional than the FWS for world-building and continuity management. Friggin’ databases. I haven’t gotten comfortable enough with the code to be working sans-GUI, but I’ve been loving AirTable. For those of you who do not hover around the edges of the web-building world, this is basically a series of interlinkable spreadsheets. There are volumes upon volumes of words written on structuring data sensibly in order to avoid shooting yourself in the foot, so I’m not going to try to explain that process here, but I will say that this is hands-down the best kind of tool I’ve found for keeping track of crazy things like fictional species traits, con-lang details, character descriptions, etc. Vastly superior to any of the writing software I’ve worked with to-date, especially for series, because you can maintain a single base that works as a little personal wiki for everything in the series without having to flip between book files or worry about data integrity. Solid gold.

Having figured out the general tracking piece for all of the complex world-building stuff, the FWS had two benefits left: note-tracking and place-finding, and the solution to both is currently the same tool that I was just dissing thirty seconds ago…Google Docs. I’ve been finding that the easiest way to organize the multiple edits coming in from various sources has turned out to be a central “punch list.” This is a term from construction referring to a list of all the little fiddly things that have to be dealt with to wrap up a job, but my company uses it for website construction and I find the principle to be sound in book building. Basically, I start with an outline and just keeping adding to it: thoughts on themes I need to hit more intentionally, places I need to fix, facts that need checking, research questions I need to answer, opinions from other people that require some consideration, and so on. Instead of creating this document for the editing phase (which is what I did initially), I’m filling out the outline as I go. Each chapter gets a quick synopsis once it’s written and includes a notes section on things to revisit and comments for thoughts I want to be able to scan. Now, as long as my manuscript is labeled to be consistent with my punch list, I can use the punch list to keep track of what information is where in the book and just use “Find” to pull up the chapter in question.

That functionality removed, literally the only thing I need my actual manuscript-producing software to do is record characters. That means I can use whatever will output a format compatible with two systems: which means either .doc or .txt. Plain text doesn’t use rich text formatting like bold and whatever, but it DOES save html markup, and since I will eventually need to put a bunch of stuff in html anyway in order to format properly for an ebook, I’m really just forcing myself to produce a cleaner copy of the code while I’m writing. Pretty undistracting for me, since I work with html on a regular basis, and pretty learnable at the level I’m talking about for anyone who’s curious.  (Seriously, shoot me an email if you want a list of html codes you’re likely to need and resources for finding the rest. I have this documented for my own sanity and I’m happy to share.)

Yes, I know, moving to plain text means that I’m losing the spelling and grammar check functions, but that’s no big deal. My FWS currently actually stinks at those checks, so I have to run my stuff through Word anyway, which is just as easy. Either that, or I can buy some proprietary review software (which exists, but which I have not tried and therefore remain neutral on at the moment).

The final piece of my tech stack for this project is key for allowing me to work between machines, and it solves another problem that is easy for any writer to accidentally run into, to tragic effect: backups. (PSA: Back it up daily!) By using file-sharing software with version control (i.e., the ability to upload a new version of the file) and syncing enabled, I can keep both of my machines consistent with one another just by saving the file. I was thinking of getting super fancy and setting up a Github repo, but I looked deep inside my soul and realized that I am a remora in the tech world, not a shark, and I don’t quite have the code teeth to set that up. Still, if you can work with Git at all, the version control flexibility has some darn nifty potential, so it might be worth a try for you codeshark-writers out there.

The endless process of decision-making having been described, here’s a summary of my writing tech stack:

  • World-Building: Database GUI (AirTable, for now)
  • General Planning: Cloud-based word processing (Google Docs, for now)
  • Manuscript Writing: Plain text editor (Sublime, JEdit, etc.)
  • Editing/Review: Best tool for the job (Word, for now)
  • Backup/Version Control: File-sharing tool (Dropbox, Box, Github)

Okay. Enough procrastinating. I’ve got space hobbits to annoy.

Autumn’s Sister is live!

Autumn's Sister CoverAt long last, Autumn’s Sister is up and available for purchase! It’s been a slog. I finished the first draft of Autumn’s Sister before I had finished publishing Autumn’s Daughter, and since then, I’ve completed the draft of the final book in the trilogy, Autumn’s Exile; a couple hundred thousand words worth of episodes for a serial science fiction thing; and a novella. I don’t tell you this to brag on my work ethic, but to demonstrate that I’ve gotten some practice and storytelling experience under my belt in between drafting and editing Autumn’s Sister. This increased experience translated to waves of loathing and discouragement that made the editing process difficult to push through: I fully intended to publish this book a year ago, and you can see how well that worked out.

When I published Autumn’s Daughter, I also wrote a bit about my perspective on why self-publishing is worth doing. Two books in and two years later, I’m feeling a little more conflicted. Self-publishing is exhausting and lonely. You have to be a bit mad in the manner of Don Quixote, tilting at the massive indifference of readers with many better-marketed (and many just plain better) books to choose from. I’m not sure if I’m mad enough to keep it up indefinitely, which is why I’m going to be shopping the aforementioned novella–it’s at least worth working through the ropes of the traditional publishing industry to see if there is help and support to be had from more experienced people.

I still stand by the value of self-publishing in democratizing art and making room for more experimental work like this little oddball series. The Sidhe Diaries are a bit weird in general, especially Autumn’s Sister, which is a fantasy book focusing on a character with scant magical abilities living in the real world for most of the story. Where Niamh’s story in Autumn’s Daughter was a more typical “changeling princess” plot, Birdy’s story is about recovering from trauma in solitude. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that my beta readers were not, by and large, pleased with how I chose to wrap up this book. I would bet that most publishing houses wouldn’t be either, and if you read it, you may be upset with me too.

But here’s the thing: I stand by this ending. I won’t explain why here, since not many of you have read it yet, but after feedback from my wonderful beta readers, several rounds of edits, and some deep contemplation…I stand by it. I hope the final book will give clarity to my choice, and in the meantime, I hope you’ll let yourself share in Birdy’s uncomfortably limited knowledge of the sidhe courts and how it frames the mayhem she’s been dragged into.

Requisite “support the author” spiel : )

  • Here’s the link to buy Autumn’s Sister. Reviews (good or bad) are very helpful in improving how Amazon understands my books and are deeply appreciated!
  • If you haven’t read Autumn’s Daughter, here’s the link to buy that one. I’ve dropped the price to $0.99 (as low as Amazon lets me go), and you can add the audiobook for $1.99. Reviews are also deeply appreciated on this one.
  • If you have the interest in being a beta reader or would like to hear about new books and other writing ventures, I’ve got a mailing list for that, and I’d love to include you.

How to Piss Off Your Editor in 3 Easy Steps

Fair warning: I’m feeling a little stabby about “professional” writers at the moment. The language of this post is a mite stronger than usual. Uncensored honesty, and such.

I have more experience as a semi-professional editor than as a paid writer. What I do for work now involves a fair amount of editing work–probably at least as much as it involves writing copy. In college, I interned as an editor’s assistant, served on the editorial board of the school paper, did copyediting for the academic journal, and ran the student literary magazine. In short: I’ve been on both sides of the manuscript, and I promise you, if you love the starving artist mystique and don’t actually want to make a living from your pen, there are three easy things you can do to send your editor into a bloody rage spiral.

1. Miss Deadlines. Repeatedly.

One missed deadline, dying parent, sick kid–it happens. Fine. Two missed deadlines…well, you’ve got a drama-filled life, maybe we’ll try to cut you a break. Three missed deadlines in a row? You’re an inconsiderate asshole. Do you think your piece of writing flutters from your email directly to the printer? Do you think photos done’t need to be sourced, layout doesn’t need to be managed, or that the abundance of typos you created by vomiting out your piece in a last-minute felthesh of desperation are destined to be paradigm changers for the world of literature? When your work is late, you either force nice people into working late and missing time with their sick kids and dying parents or you lower the quality of the publication you’re working for, and by god, if you have an editor who will stand for it, you should fall to your knees and thank the muses who are looking out for your unprofessional self.

2. Ignore Word Count. Astronomically.

If you work for a print publication, you’ve had this lecture. More words means more money for the print job, and that is not going to fly with the publisher, even if you do have the kindest of editors, one who looks upon your egotistical rambling with motherly affection. In the information age, text is cheap, and you probably take that as licence to babble on and on. You might think that the low, low cost of being able to say as much as you want automatically negates the age-old saw that being forced to shorten your work improves your writing. You might think the cheapness of online text means that readers will put up with endless, badly written drivel. Your editor, if you’re working for a respectable publication, has no such illusions. Lengthy text will either force your editor to spend hours doing the thoughtful editing you, dear writer, should have done in the first place, or it will force your editor to bury your not-as-lyrical-as-you-think meandering as the self-indulgent pile of elephant feces it is.

3. Reject Revisions. Gracelessly.

Now I am enough a writer to know that when you’ve opened your veins onto a page, having someone suggest that you might need to bleach out a few of those bloodstains makes you a bit light-headed. Nauseous, even. But the truth is that you don’t end up as an editor if you have a dead ear for language, and, in fact, the very nature of editing means that editors are getting their hands dirty with bleedings of a much wider variety than writers tend to. Editors hear all the time, “I think I know how my blood ought to splatter a lot better than you ever could. Editors are just failed writers, so how right could you possibly be?” What you’re ignoring, to your peril, is that editors have something you can’t have: perspective. They also don’t spend their entire working lives with their heads up their own rumps, as writers, by the very nature of the work, sometimes must. So yes, go ahead and call your editor a burned out, washed up, talentless hack for the sake of preserving the first draft sanctity of your blood-soaked rags. You don’t need publication or a paycheck to validate how much of a literary giant you are, right?

 

Omittable Words

Earlier this year, I was having a chat with my very talented friend Dan Bensen about words that writers would do well to search for and eliminate as often as possible from their manuscripts. I asked if he had a working list, and he was kind enough not only to send me this very useful list, but also give me permission to share it with you. He’ll be talking more about it on his blog, so I’d strongly encourage you to pay attention to his blog/podcast for more interesting and thoughtful tidbits. My commentary is in brackets; note that this is my commentary on a list, not reflective of a conversation.

DB:

I’ve been thinking about that list of omittable words you asked about. How’s this? Can you think of any more?

Good writing (a)omits needless words (b)shows rather than tells (c)is transparent, allowing the reader to effortlessly absorb the events of the story without be distracted by language.

These rules only apply to narrative, not to dialogue.

[Narrative vs. dialogue is a HUGE distinction here. Creating voice forces you to throw these rules out the window almost entirely with some frequency.]

Somewhat, mildly, rather, pretty, kind of, sort of: Can usually be removed without (really) changing the meaning of the sentence.

Very, a little: Can usually be replaced by finding a punchier adjective. The laser was very hot. The laser could melt titanium.

[These two categories want similar fixes. He was mildy upset. He wasn’t furious, but the temperature dropped a few degrees when he turned to look at her.]

Is: Replacing be-verbs with action verbs usually improves writing. Also helps with showing vs. telling. He was stupid. He spent the next several minutes trying to push open a door marked “pull.” 

Removing “is” also helps you limit the use of the passive voice and the continuous aspect, both of which tend to push the reader out of the story. The soldiers were staring at me. The soldiers stared at me. The body was carried out of the room. The porters carried the body out of the room.

Adverbs: Adverbs signify a case of telling, rather than showing. “Leave,” he said angrily./ The stupid, spoiled, brat! Every minute in his company drove Bob that much closer to murder. “Leave,” he said.

[I had fun teaching the adverb point to my writing group by having them act out the same scene from different perspectives and describing one another’s body language.]

Italics and exclamation points: For the same reason readers skim over “say” they skim over italics and exclamation points too. Use sparingly and they will stand out more. Same goes for profanity.

Bookisms like sob slur choke shout when used instead of say. Say is such a common word that the reader usually isn’t conscious of it. That means “say” is a great way to attribute quotations without interfering with the flow of dialogue. If it is really important to focus on the emotions or tone of voice of a character, you can just as effectively show them with description. “Why?” sobbed Amber/ “Why?” Amber could no longer hold back her tears.

Begin, start. Almost always unnecessary. He started to run./He ran.

Then. If you write event after you wrote another, the reader assumes the first one happened first, and then the second one. Using the word “then” is almost always superfluous. The arrow hit her, and then she died./The arrow hit her and she died.

[This is also a peeve of mine in my copyediting work because no one knows how to use commas with “then.”]

Sense words like see, feel, notice, hear. If you’re writing close third person or first person, everything on the page is what the POV character experiences. Saying “She saw” or “he felt” only drags the reader out of the story. He saw a dinosaur behind the bilboard./A dinosaur lifted its head over the edge of the billboard.

[Similarly–think, believe in dialogue or first person. I believe you’re wrong. You’re wrong.]

Suddenly. Very easy to overuse as a way to raise tension.

It and this and that without a following noun. It’s easy for the reader to lose track of what this and it refer to.

Which was, who was, that was. Almost always omitable. The woman, who was his wife, said hello./ The woman, his wife, said hello.

[Omission of excess words that indicate weak writing is best paired with a strong command of punctuation. Perfect comma placement is worth at least two or three words, which adds up. ]

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, Dan! All the rest of you–go buy his book and follow him on Twitter

Synposis – Autumn’s Daughter

I’m working on sending out proposals for my book to agents, and I’ve run into something I should have expected but didn’t: many of them want a synopsis.

Blargh.

Since the point of a synopsis is to demonstrate your skill as a storyteller while communicating the broad strokes of the plot, I drafted out a synopsis as if Niamh (my main character) were writing a letter to the publisher herself, which seems like a clean way to demonstrate the voice of the book. I think it’s a non-standard approach, but then, as it’s been pointed out, so is the tense structure of my book.

I think that’s a good thing?

Anyway, the synopsis contains massive spoilers both for Autumn’s Daughter and the sequels, but if anyone either doesn’t care or has already read a version, I’d love feedback on the synopsis…

Autumn’s Daughter Synopsis

Spoiler Alert

If you are one of the 2.3 people on the planet who doesn’t know the plot of Les Miserables and still hopes to enjoy either the book or movie or a stage production of the musical…don’t read this post.

Les Mis has been in my mind the past few weeks, and if you don’t know why, then this post will probably not be of much interest to you. It’s a story that’s resonated with me for a long time, but what I’ve cared about has changed significantly over the years. The first time I heard the musical I was in seventh grade, and I loved it. I went out and bought a copy of the book…which I failed to read until a friend loaned me an abridged version that got me through the basic plot and gave me a renewed interest in reading the book as a whole, which I last read sometime in high school. What I loved about the story back then was the love story between Marius and Cosette.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to see my high school’s production of the musical (which was amazingly well done) some years after I had graduated and realized that the love story I had cherished as a middle schooler was actually pretty insipid. The relationship between Marius and Cosette is, in the musical (and possibly the book, though I have to reread it before I would assert this with confidence) is the flattest and most ridiculously stupid relationship in the entire book and it feels like an authorial cop out that they get a happy ending when all the people with moral depth die.

Spoiler: Everybody dies.

I think I’ve finally gotten old enough and well-versed enough in storytelling to truly appreciate the central relationship of the story: that of Valjean and Javert. The reformed convict and the convicted reformer, one the spirit and the other the letter of justice. And in this round of ponderings, my mind has been wrestling the the suicide of Javert.

Oh, yeah. Spoiler: Javert kills himself.

Javert’s suicide has always bothered me a bit. He spends half his life pursuing Valjean for skipping parole. On a few occasions, they meet. At one point, Valjean definitively has the upper hand and has the chance to kill Javert, but he chooses instead to set his pursuer free. When next they meet, Valjean is trying to save the life of the boy his adopted daughter has fallen in love with, carrying his badly wounded body through the sewers to safety. Javert confronts Valjean with the intent of capturing him again, but instead chooses to let him go. This act of mercy on his own part is so contrary to everything he has lived and believed that he kills himself.

I have always thought, from a modern and human perspective, that Javert’s death was unnecessary and even cowardly, though the more I grasp just how difficult change can be, the more I think that his death, particularly in a world with entirely different mores from my own, is not  entirely realistic. But even if it would be a waste of human life in reality, thinking about it in terms of literature and what the role literature plays, his death in the context of the story seems crucial. The death of Javert as a private individual isn’t the issue: what Hugo is killing off the the representation of a bad and broken Law. More importantly, he’s having the Law off itself because the Law holds the power and the friends of the ABC are on the wrong side of the power to impact change.

I’m sure that looking at Javert as a representation of an idea is no novel interpretation of the text, but it has got me thinking, as a writer, about this difference between what would be right for an action of a private individual in real life and what is right for the embodiment of a concept in a fictional life. Thoughts?

Dreams Half-Remembered

Dreaming and writing are strangely connected for me. I write  best in the mornings when I’ve woken up from a vivid dream, even if I’m not trying to capture the essence of the dream. I rarely try to capture the essence of a dream, actually. The emotion is so intense and surreal and personal that my efforts inevitably fail, but that moment when you mourn the realization that you don’t live in the dream world is very much what I hope to invoke in my readers.

I didn’t so much dream memorably last night as I do sometimes, but I went to sleep having just finished a fairly excellent post-apocalyptic sci fi. It left my mind dancing  with ideas and handed me a puzzle piece that I needed for my own post-apocalyptic novel…that piece that starts your mind singing and drives the writing forward. Until I find that piece, I always feel like I’m working uphill to build a mountain of dung. It’s the soul of the thing. No matter how carefully crafted a plot or how well-developed the characters, a story without soul isn’t worth reading…and I figured out what that missing soul piece was as I was drifting off contemplating the book I had just finished.

I woke up this morning, charged to get writing, which feels amazing after two or three weeks of feeling dead about the whole writing  thing because my brain has been utterly stressed out by the lack of a definitive answer about whether or not the bank is going to give us the mortgage on this house. (Reason number umpteen to avoid working for giant, asshat corporations: their salary verification processes for lenders suck.) We STILL don’t have an absolute, 100% “yes,” even though our loan officer is still saying we’re probably fine to close on Tuesday, so the stress is still there, but it’s like a breath of fresh air to find this soul-piece of a story to take  my mind elsewhere.

Anyway, I sat down at my computer to get to work and in the process of looking for the files for this story, which I haven’t touched in a while, I ended up going through a few old pieces I’ve either finished or started on. I came across one that took my breath away to leave me incredibly sad, not because it’s a staggering work of genius by any means, but because I got to the end and really wanted to know more. And I realized that I’m the only one who knows what’s supposed to happen next and I DON’T REMEMBER IT AT ALL. I don’t remember writing the beginning, and I don’t remember the general concept for the tale, so I’m left with this fairly intriguing beginning and no clear idea of what to do with it.

This is exactly what happens when you don’t keep on writing when you’ve got the soul of a project in your hand, so I’m going to chase after that story sprite and attempt to capture it before my mind wakes up all the way. And in the meantime, maybe I told someone about this story and maybe that someone reads my blog and remembers what the heck I was thinking about when I wrote this, so here’s the snippet that left  me wishing I remembered how it goes on…

A Shellhead’s Pearls (a working title I threw on there after reading it  this morning, so don’t think there are necessarily any clues in the title)

 

Don’t Write Like a Child, For Mercy’s Sake

I have a bone to pick with all you writers who are out there giving advice about writing like a child. Have any of you ever actually met any children? Do you have kids? Have you studied the way their minds work? Because the trite, surface-level advice that keeps popping up in the blogs I read is making me twitch.

Cultivate your inner innocence. Wonder at the world. Think about things with fresh eyes. Be honest. Stop editing yourself. Listen to the way kids talk. Sure, do all that…if you want your kids to sound like every other kid produced by working the problem from the wrong end.

If you want to grow up and write realistic kids, read about developmental psychology. Choose a mental age for your character (doesn’t have to match their physical age–conflict for kids can often stem from being either too precocious or a bit slow for their age), study up on what kids’ brains are doing at that age, and try to adopt those specific mental frameworks as you think about how your kids will address the challenges you’ve laid out for them.

Kids are wondrous strange creatures, it’s true, but it’s not because they’re magical. It’s because they don’t know anything yet and often don’t have the resources to learn things efficiently on their own. When you’re pre-literate, you can’t pop on the internet to google “how to tie shoelaces,” for example. You have to rely on other people, but even posing questions is a challenge because you don’t have the vocabulary to be specific or standard in your inquiries. If you want to immerse yourself in what it’s like to be a kid, find someone to teach you something completely new, preferably something with a highly technical use of vocabulary that you don’t know.

And as for the “kids are honest,” piece…that’s true. But it’s not a kind or morally-sainted honesty. Kids have an “I have underdeveloped social filters” honesty and it’s as often cruel as it is unintentionally sage or touching. If you want to get it right, try to image how you would respond to the situation, person, environment, etc. if you were the most socially inept person on earth and then tone it down as befits the mental age of your kid.

In general, I’m convinced that thinking about taking a child’s POV from a “writing like a kid” angle is not going to get you very far. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take a kid’s POV. But kids are people. They’re people with specific ranges of mental and physical challenges that many adults don’t deal with on a daily basis, but they’re still people. If you lose sight of that fact, your writing will show it, and probably not for the better.