Tag Archives: work-in-progress

More of What Ends Up In the Book

Once upon a time, I lived near deserts and I loved them. It was natural, then, that deserts became the living and breathing setting for Sand of Bone.

When I was a kid, my grandparents owned a piece of desert property outfitted with a one-room cabin outside Apple Valley, California, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Apple Valley was a little tiny place at the time – less than a tenth of the population it is now – and for a kid raised in the suburbs of Orange County, it was about as middle-of-nowhere as I could imagine.

Our family spent a few weekends every year up there. It being the late 70’s, my parents let me roam the desert at will for hours as long as I promised to never try to catch a snake or explore the abandoned mineshafts.

Continue reading More of What Ends Up In the Book

Festivals of SheyKhala

Now that Serpent Heart is up, my attention turns back to final revisions for Sand of Bone.

Celebrations—when, how, and why—are fantastic worldbuilding tools that can give depth to a culture, move the plot, and reveal character.  The longevity of the celebrations, and how the celebrations have evolved over the years, inform us of the culture’s values.  Whether characters partake in, shun, or are indifferent to the festivals tells us how well characters are integrated into the larger culture.

In the desert and delta of SheyKhala, where the upcoming novel Sand of Bone takes place, festivals mark the turning of seasons primarily through focus on close kin, neighbors, and the greater community.

The year ends and begins with the Feast of Kin — the midwinter festival of family. Though jokes are often made about the different ways one could serve one’s family members at a feast, the festival is critical for maintaining good will among kinship groups as they head into that time of year when close quarters and limited food supplies can raise tensions. For the days leading up to the feast, family members do favors for one another, and the most secret favors are considered to be the ones performed with the deepest love and respect. The feast itself, though, is geared toward indulging the children in all possible ways. Grandparents say the focus on children ensures young adults consider carefully what their nighttime cold-weather activities might engender.

Promise Days happen in the spring, when the seasonal rains provide the low desert just enough moisture to coax short and spiky grass to cover the sands between brush that blooms but once a year. The notion of promise-keeping is incorporated into the river levels as well, since the season’s rains promise to flood the delta once the water rushes down from the high desert. It’s also the time of year consorts decide to make new vows, renew their existing ones, or part ways. It’s one of two festivals that include the ceremony to brand women and men as full Blades in service to the ruling Velshaan. (The other branding takes place during Shades.)

In midsummer, everyone takes part in Givings, which the cold-hearted and tight-fisted call the Mis-givings. Able-bodied folk provide service and work for the neighbors, preferably those less fortunate. (As you can imagine, there can be a snark-fest in determining who among one’s competing ‘friends’ is more or less fortunate.) In larger settlements, Givings is the day set aside for civic duties such as field maintenance, road and wall repair, and sewage care. Moreover, every person must pass their evening meal to someone less fortunate, and will not eat unless someone more fortunate takes pity on them. The two groups most likely to go without an evening meal are the middling poor and the ruling Velshaan bloodkin. In fact, the Velshaan absolutely refuse to eat on Givings Day because they have only the gods above them.  Why the gods don’t provide the Velshaan with their own meals is a subject of speculation only among those who wish to live a life of hard labor in Salt Hold.

Lastly, the welcome cooling of autumn leads up to Shades — three days and nights of honoring and remembering the dead, and (supposedly) spiritual visits from dead ancestors or notable figures. It’s understood ghosts don’t really show up every year to everybody, just like we understand Santa Claus doesn’t really visit every child’s home on Christmas Eve. Shades is instead a time to reflect on past losses. It’s considered wise to think of what you’d say to loved ones if you were a mere ghost able to communicate but once a year, and wiser still to say those things while living. But, as with our Christmas traditions, parents take advantage of the festival to instill behaviors and beliefs in their children. Parents will sometimes leave small notes or symbolic gifts from “ghosts” for children to find, and the final night of Shades is marked by costumed folk going door-to-door masquerading as prominent figures from SheyKhala’s history dispensing advice and warnings.

In addition to the large festivals, smaller celebrations are more often either observed within families or smaller groups, or confined to certain occupations and such. There are feasts on the Dark Moon, when the nightsighted folk see the undimmed beauty of the stars. (It’s a favorite among young people looking for excuses to spend the night away from family.) More ritualistic celebrations occur around the first pressing of olives for oil, the training of horses, the welcoming of new Blades into the ranks, and thanksgivings for salt and iron.

In more recent years, remembrances for the Woes have been added to the festival calendar. Officially, they are held to acknowledge the losses and destruction caused when the Velshaan warred among themselves. But they are really intended to both remind the people of what power the Velshaan can (or, more accurately, could once) wield, and remind the Velshaan bloodkin of what fate they could meet if they stand against the wishes of their family.

How much of this will make it into the final version of Sand of Bone? Only bits and pieces mentioned mostly in passing. Half the story takes place in settings removed from the usual cultural constructs. The sequel, Breath of Stone, more tightly entwines the cycle of celebration and remembrance, and the third (yet unnamed) novel downright depends upon them to trigger… well, to trigger happenings. (Shh, can’t tell!)

But I know the festivals are there — why some people choose to ignore them, why others anticipate them, and why still others will seek ways to use them. It’s another valuable tool in this writer’s Swiss Army Knife.

Treasure In Storage

It sucks knowing you’ve forever lost a beloved story because you didn’t properly back up your work.

Six-ish years ago, about the time life went sideways and put my writing plans on the shelf, my computer did a spectacular crash without warning. I had backs-ups and/or hard copies of all but one novella and one short story. Alas, those were two of my favorite pieces. Lesson learned.

I spent most of last weekend helping my mother sort through and clear out a large storage unit. Amidst stacks and stacks of boxes, we found half a dozen boxes of my things — mostly books, some files over ten years old, Dev’s old toys. But stuffed into a box of books was a stash of spiral notebooks and a large envelope just the right size for a short manuscript. I pulled it out, not at all that interested when it seemed to be nothing but a partial of a story even now sitting on my computer and waiting for attention. But it looked like there was some printing on the other side so I turned it over and…

I jumped up and did a dance of joy. I’d found a full copy of that lost novella!

Second best of all? The story still holds together.

Best of the best of all? I can put back in what I had to cut before, when the only options for publication had firm word-count caps. Clocking in at 23K, the story had all of two professional markets available to it at the time I wrote it, and cutting it down to that length forced me to say goodbye to some depth of worldbuilding and complexity. Now I can flesh it out to the length I want it to be. The additions and subtractions aren’t extensive or lengthy, but will make a difference. Besides, I decided it was best to lay groundwork for future stories should I decide I want to write more about these characters.

So that’s my project for the coming week—and it’s a nice distraction to have while I await beta feedback on Sand of Bone.  With work and cooperation from life’s many demands, I should be able to release it by the end of May.

On Making My Writing Time Matter


Once upon a time, I wrote two to three thousand (sometimes four thousand!) words a day, in four to five hours, routinely. I thought nothing of it. I wanted to write. Stories poured through my thoughts. And my time was severely limited by caring for my infant son, managing the family business, and teaching the occasional class. So when I had a sitter for the afternoon, or an evening free of responsibilities, I wrote like mad.

Somewhere along the way, those thousands of daily words began to sound immense. Part of it was the paralysis of acquired knowledge—that second guessing of every phrase because you’re thinking of what the story ought to look like after it’s been edited and polished rather than thinking of just writing the damned story. Part of it was the internalization of the “appropriate” writing schedule as slow and measured. And part of it was the increasingly complicated life and schedule before me. A thousand words a day? Damn, that became a stretch.

Here is the contradiction I face today: I don’t have time to write slowly—not only because my writing time is slim and often broken, but because I can’t build the career I want on one book every twelve to eighteen months. But unless I quit all other work, including parenting and homeschooling, I couldn’t see how to make that happen. I just couldn’t get any umph in my productivity.

Then I read this post by Rachel Aaron on how she went from struggling with word count to producing anywhere from 2K to 10K words a day. Then I read it again. Then I set it aside and forgot about it because BUSY.

Halfway through revisions for Sand of Bone, after I’d had days of writing time that produced damn near nothing, I sat staring out the window and longing for those days of fingers flying over the keyboard, when life had been simpler and…

Wait a minute: life hadn’t been simpler at all. Different, yes, but still demanding of my time. So what was the difference, and what impact had that made on my writing?

It took a couple cups of coffee, but once I stopped looking at how I was different as a writer and instead looked at what was different about my obligations, it made sense. Before, many of my daily tasks involved work that was physical. Rocking a child to sleep or sealing and stamping tons of envelopes, cleaning the bathroom or sorting papers requires very little concentration, leaving the mind free to work on other things. So I plotted during those working hours, came up with character dialog, imagined settings and a cast of thousands. By the time I sat down to write, there was no staring at a blank page while I figured out what I was going to write. I already knew. I’d danged near memorized paragraphs from my imagination. The words tumbled out with excitement.

These days, I have few obligations that permit my mind to wander. I can’t teach an all-day seminar on classroom management while considering how a group of warriors are going to react to a change in leadership. I can’t run a karate class while figuring out the connection between an historical event and what a character sees in her dreams. I can’t oversee my son’s high school education while at the same time “rehearsing” the dialog I want to insert into a scene. And I cannot, nor do I want to, quit doing those things.

So I’m screwed, right?

That’s when I remembered the methods Rachel Aaron shared:

Here I was, desperate for time, floundering in a scene, and yet I was doing the hardest work of writing (figuring out exactly what needs to happen to move the scene forward in the most dramatic and exciting way) in the most time consuming way possible (ie, in the middle of the writing itself).

What she then shared as her solution was essentially what I’d been doing in those productive years, only I’d been doing it in my head as preparation for my constrained writing time rather than on paper. Once I smacked down my knee-jerk objection (“I can’t take even more time away from getting words down!” “Why not? You’re not being all that productive anyway!”), I set to work making detailed sketches of what I wanted to accomplish that day. The remaining revisions and new writings for Sand of Bone wrapped up rather quickly. Success!

Now I’m facing a complete rewrite/reimaging/slash and burn of what was once two very long novels into a single volume to follow Sand of Bone. (See picture above.) Since Side 1 of Aaron’s diagram seemed to be my personal key to increasing my productivity, I opted to look at how best to personalize her advice to my own method. So in addition to jotting down those points she suggests, I’m adding two elements I’ve discovered are my own stumbling blocks. First, I’ll come up with the chapter’s opening line. It might be the first thing I scribble down, or it might be the last. But that alone will eliminate Blank Page Syndrome.

Second, I’ll use the word “because” when writing down character actions and decisions, and answer that “because.” My poor skill at communicating character motivations is, I think, a very real and potentially fatal flaw in my drafts. I get so caught up in What Happens that I forget the readers aren’t privy to the characters’ Whys. Using “because” forces me to consider it, put it in the forefront of my mind, so I’m not then second-guessing (and thus slowing) myself during the writing process.

I refuse to take eons to finish Breath of Stone, but I’m not setting a firm date until I see how this new method works over the next few weeks. But I’ll whisper to you, my darlings, that I’d like Stone to be drafted and ready for betas by the end of June. Frankly, I’d like it done my Wiscon, but know revisions for Sand will interrupt things mightily.

Today is the start of writing for Stone. I’ve finished the plot overview, then expanded the overview into sixty or so Magic Index Cards. In a few minutes, I’ll pull the first card and set to work handwriting the larger details, the first line, and the because. While Stone will be an imperfect test of the process, it’ll be enough to go on.

Does this writing method match yours? Is it totally different? Have you found something that works well for you?

The Tedious Fun of Revisions

By the time I head off to bed tonight, I’ll have completed upwards of a third of the revisions for Sand of Bone.  Other than a thousand words or so of a new scene I’ve decided to add, the rest of revisions should move more quickly.  Fewer alterations, fewer reorganizations, fewer new elements to entwine.  That’s a symptom of how I wrote this novel: it took me fifty thousand words to figure out why certain pieces of the plot could and should happen the way I wanted them to, so I had to go back through to make the beginning a better set-up for the middle and end.

It’s a tedious process, incorporating all the little pieces I missed the first time around.  Certainly I could just dump in a new scene to introduce and explain most of the pieces I want to slip into place.  But taking plot points and worldbuilding from mere scaffolding to breathing story requires a more holistic approach.  A shift in cultural expectations affects not only the plot, but what idioms characters toss into conversation.  Historical references carry different weight and meaning.  One assumption about another’s motivations will alter every subsequent interaction in ways large and small.

Despite the tediousness (and I’ll spare you the logistical process of making and tracking those changes!), I’m enjoying revisions immensely.  The world and its characters have always felt real to me, but now I can see it gaining substance others can experience.  And as much as I love being a storyteller, I get the biggest kick from knowing my readers are looking forward to turning the next page.

So.  I’ll be wrapping up revisions by Friday, then sending it out to my fabulous beta readers.  We shall see if my opinion of revisions translates into an enjoyable reader experience.  Then I’ll make changes based upon beta feedback, and get the whole thing off to an editor.  Based on the last year’s ups and downs, I’m hesitant to give a definitive publishing date, but I’m shooting for the first week of June.


Wordle Before Revisions

Wordle is fun.  No doubt about it.  Your text-chunk of choice, arranged and colored and sized by most-used words, in a format you can alter and edit and shape to make it most pleasing to your eye.

But it’s also a cool little pre-revision tool.  Here’s why I like it:

First, take a look at the Wordle for Sand of Bone.WorldeSand

Much of the Wordle looks as I’d suspect.  Names of viewpoint characters are prominent: Syrina, Pyrius, Raskah, Shella.  But I didn’t expect secondary characters to show up as such large pieces.  There isn’t anything wrong with that, but it did surprise me.

And that word in the middle–Velshaan–should indeed be as large as it is.  I like that.

So then I look at the other words, and it’s there clues of my writing style–good and bad–expose themselves for interpretation.

The high occurrence of Blade and Blades–no problem.  It’s a title and an occupation at the heart of the story.

But what’s up with one, back, hand and hands?  Just how many ones does a single manuscript require?  And is that back as in the body part, or returning to a former state/location?  As for hand and hands… Let’s lump that together with some slightly smaller words.  Head, feet, eyes, fingers, chest, shoulder.  Smaller still and you’ll find lips, arms, mouth, chest and knees.   Then you can add in words that refer to what all those body parts do: turned, looked, see, smile, nodded, stood, gaze, shook, held.

Am I obsessed with how the reader sees what my characters are doing?  Maybe.  As an actor and director, I learned to convey emotions and thoughts through visual cues.  It’s natural that carries over into my writing.  Is that a bad thing for the reader to experience?  I don’t know.  My readers will have to tell me. 🙂

Then there are words that look suspiciously like fillers: enough, now, around, another.  Those show up with frequency enough (see that?) to merit a word search and replace consideration.

Some words surprise me by not showing up as often as I expected.  Sand and sands are awfully small, considering the location, the beliefs, and the slang.  I honestly thought the words showed up much more often.  Ditto for blood, hopefuls, gods, and Katsa.  I wonder if, out of concern for too obviously pushing an idea, I actually gave each appearance of those terms a weightiness out of proportion with its prevalence.

A few words surprise me by showing up at all.  Really, help?  I can’t even think of where help would often show up a couple times, let alone enough times to be considered a top 200-odd words in a manuscript exceeding 135,000 words.  That’s a problem.  And why is time so large?  I don’t recall considering time to be an element critical enough to merit as much “screen time” as the Wordle implies.

And I find it a tad amusing that Yes shows up often enough to make the Wordle.  It makes me wonder if my characters are asking too many questions everyone else already knows the answer to.  Yet one more thing to keep in mind as I head into revisions.






In Deep

I’m nearly finished with the rewrite of Sand of Bone.

Hmm.  “Rewrite” sounds too small.  It’s turned into more of a total remodeling–the kind that involves stripping off three layers of disgusting wallpaper so the walls can be patched, ripping up tattered carpet so the original wood floors can be restored, replacing the windows, putting on a new roof, and upgrading the plumbing and electrical.  Then I’ll set to revisions–new brass hardware, intricate moldings, so on and so forth.  By the time it’s done, about the only thing I won’t have done is jack the novel from its foundations to put it in a new location.  (Been there, done that, see Sword and Chant.)

This is, frankly, the point I planned to reach about this time last year.  (Never underestimate the power and influence of grieving.)  More than once, I’ve been troubled by my lack of steady–let alone exceptional!–progress over the year.  I’ve decided to let that go.  I’m not under any contractual obligations, just the expectations I set for myself.  And though my lack of new offerings have most certainly hurt sales of Sword and Chant, that novel isn’t going to disappear or go out of print.  Once Sand of Bone and its sequel Breath of Stone go up, Sword and Chant will still be there.

So back I go to rewrites and revisions.  That means I won’t really update anything else online right now.  Other than playing on Twitter–where I can drop in and out of chats when I have the time–I’ve gone a tad quiet.

What’s also quite wonderful is I have in hand a novel written by one of my Viable Paradise classmates.  That means I have the perfect bridge between my own writing sprints!  Nothing spurs me on to write more, and strive to write better, than to read awesome stories by others.

Seeing My Own Bias

If we’re paying attention, what we write tells us a great deal about ourselves.

This little dialogue exchange and I went back and forth for two days:

 “Besides,” Luke said, “I’d hate to tell the Old Man I let you leave town without even getting a little sparring in.”

“Nothing manipulative about that statement,” she muttered, and narrowed her eyes when he gave a guilty shrug.  “First of all, you don’t let me do anything, Sensei Luke.  Second, don’t call him the Old Man anymore.  I don’t like it.  Respect matters.”

She expected him to give the eye-roll of irritation or the cocky grin of indulgence most men would have responded with.  Instead, he offered her a solemn nod and met her gaze.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Text me the address,” Jack said.  “If I’m still in town, I’ll drop by.”

Why was it so troublesome?

I was worried the main character, the woman who goes by Jack, would sound too bitchy.

That’s a problem, really.  My problem.  I don’t much like discovering how deeply certain biases sit in me.  It isn’t comfortable.  But it is real, so there ya go.

There isn’t a thing Jack says to Luke that isn’t true.  Luke is being manipulative, he has no right to imply he has authority over her despite their relative rank in martial arts, and calling a past teacher the “Old Man” does strike Jack as disrespectful.  But she isn’t asking Luke to change, nor is she offering him the chance to realize he ought to change.  She tells him—point blank—what’s wrong with what he is saying.  There is nothing “bitchy” about it.

I say many things like that in real life, but I realized I say them with the notion, “And if you think I’m a bitch for saying so, I don’t care,” in the back of my mind.  That’s a problem as well, but a realistic one.  People–and more often than not, the “people” refers to women–who draw lines and limits without couching them as optional deeds or giving the other person “credit” for acquiescing are often named pushy, humorless, angry, bitchy.

My decision to self-publish was and is driven by many reasons.  But at the core, the decision comes from wanting to tell my stories my way, as professionally as possible, and connect with readers who like them.

Jack is a woman who has decided she will no longer put up with the little falsehoods expected of a woman who gets along by getting along.  She doesn’t want to play nice anymore by couching honest criticism in sweet diplomacy.  She still has plenty of insecurities, faults, and demons from the past, but she’s going to call bullshit when she hears it, and she expects the other person to be adult enough to handle candor.

I’m sure I’ve come across these writerly decisions before, but I can’t remember being quite so aware of it.

Crossroads Finally Makes Sense

Many years ago, I was able to attend the Writers of the Future writing workshop in Los Angeles, taught by K.D. Wentworth and Tim Powers.  K.D. gave me a piece of short story writing advice: Mutilate the cows on the first page.  For me, who had a bad habit of burying the SF element too many words into the story, it was an excellent piece of advice.

But it was Tim whom I got to know quite well during that week, and I had the chance to spend much of a later convention hanging out with him and his wife.  Over coffee, I expressed my huge admiration for the event-puzzles Tim wrote as secret histories, and asked his advice on writing about the weird and wild in present-day settings.  The conversation was fascinating, far-reaching, and made my brain hurt with the effort to keep up.  His process of discovering and connecting historical events with fantastical motivations and influences stuck with me as I plotted out Crossroads of America.

Now, Crossroads is not a complex secret history, though it does draw from real historical reports, regional folklore, and local events.  But the biggest missing piece has always been why the major character–Jack–ends up in a position of such influence, why she is the one who must act, and why her actions might have the power to solve the, um… problems.

Today, while hunting Google for the names of a couple locations in the California wilderness, I came upon this:

“Scientists are puzzled by a mysterious Los Padres National Forest hot spot where 400-degree ground ignited a wildfire.  The hot spot was discovered by fire crews putting out a three-acre fire last summer in the forest’s Dick Smith Wilderness.”

And all of a sudden, Jack has a complex backstory that makes her the inevitable choice for the role she must play, and it’s all based on an actual event!

Now back to adding words to my NaNo count.

Decision Made

So I’m waiting for my parents to arrive, and hoping they either beat the line of icky storms or choose to hang out at a coffee shop until it passes.

In the meantime, I’m tinkering with the NaNo project.  I’ve decided to focus on the urban fantasy–Crossroads of America–because I (a) have the research at my fingertips, and (b) grew more excited the more I thought about it.

I love the characters.  There’s Jacqueline, who prefers to go by Jack–an early-thirties Californian geocaching her way across the country to escape the demons of her past.  There’s Luke–an early-thirties martial arts instructor who hangs out with an informal group of folks interested in and/or with an affinity for supernatural matters.  There’s Wyatt–a farmer and medium–and Carrie–an intuitive who works with the Indiana Geological Survey  And there’s Duncan–Jack’s best friend, who knows the secrets she wants to forget.

On the other side, there’s Mark–a young man who isn’t entirely stable–and the Ditch Devil–who takes full advantage of Mark’s ambition and ego-fueled gullibility.

And I throw all those people into museums, war memorials, old catacombs, and planetariums.  And there might be wolves.

I’ve been in love with this concept for years.  I want to make it happen!

Familial and work obligations will take the first few days of the month, but I have decided it won’t matter if I “finish” NaNo with 50K words.  The who idea of NaNoWriMo is what’s driving me to finally–finally!–give this novel the time it deserves.

Oh yeah… I should probably finish the Sand revisions, too.