Tag Archives: work-in-progress

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.

Taking the Hit

In training for sparring and self-defense, we learn techniques and redundancies to avoid being hit.

In living real life—the work, the play, the relationships, the expectations—emotional hits can’t be avoided.

I had big plans on many fronts for this year.  I’m an ambitious and enthusiastic person, and it seemed many things were falling into place.  Prospects were rich.  Opportunities were within reach.  Time was available, energy was high, and all things seemed possible.

Then came the spring, and the incredible swift decline and death of my best friend and my son’s godmother.  Then came all the stirred-up loss from the death of my late husband two years before.  (It was our second Memorial Weekend spent at a personal memorial service in two years.)   Then came the grieving of others, the struggles of my son, the changes in business relationships, the moving away of all my other family members, a score of other crises…  The year thus far has been a pattern of long periods that drive me to exhaustion, then a short period of recovery followed by a build-up to the next challenge.

Writing fiction requires a state of empathy.  The writer must be open to exploring and understanding emotions.  Over the last year, my own emotions have been so strong and erratic that attempts to write often ended in melancholy that had nothing to do with the project and everything to do with life events and their consequences–and the future those events and consequences had set before me.  Writing was not at all enjoyable.  It became uncomfortable.

Bit by bit, it’s been turning around.  Bit by bit, writing has lost its discomfort.  Bit by bit, it has become a blessing again.

But it has left me with a huge pile of unfinished projects.  Thank goodness the publishing schedule is mine to decide.  Certainly I’ve lost over half a year of writing production.  But I’ve gained experience, was able to be present for family and friends, and learned a great deal about who I truly am and who I want to be.

Today, I’m closing in on the end of revisions for Sand of Bone.  I’ll be jumping into NaNoWriMo in a few days to complete something entirely different.  There is again joy in the creative process, and happy anticipation over the projects on the horizon.

In life, we take the hits.  We fall down.  We bruise and bleed and mourn.  But we also get up.  We heal and we deal, and we take our scars along when we create new possibilities and memories.  Writing is no different.

I’m ready to jump back in to the process of creation.

Honing the Pivotal Scene

I don’t talk about process as much as I think about process, mostly because I’m fairly certain everyone would respond with, “Well, duh, Blair.  We all know that.  Where have you been?”  But now and again, I find writing about process helps me better understand it.  And once it’s written, it seems silly to leave it sitting about with nothing to do.

So.  Here it be.

I’m working on a pivotal chapter near the end of the arc’s Act I.  It’s a point of decision that’s been set up by previous events, the turning point on which the rest of the novel depends, where secrets are revealed, lines drawn, and action chosen.

As is usual with these scenes of mine, it needs a great deal of work.

My pivotal chapters tend to get chatty.  Very chatty.  The characters discuss options and ideas and reasons in detail, debating the sticking points and questioning their predictions.  It took me awhile to realize the characters spent so much time talking things through because I, the writer, was still trying to figure out motives and consequences.  It took me awhile longer to properly edit out (most of) the extraneous conversations because I do love me my dialog.

I’ve also realized my pivotal chapter problems–which I try to solve with dialog–stem from a weak foundation, and that weakness is a byproduct of pantser style coupled with my penchant for writing to That Scene at all costs.  (That Scene being the seed the novel originally grew from.)  Now, in Sand of Bone, I have a better grasp of the story, and new worldbuilding pieces are properly in place.  The pivotal scene no longer needs all the words it currently holds.  What was once required to make the characters’ decisions understandable and acceptable can be set aside, with proper preparation.

Every few paragraphs or so, I find myself flipping back to previous chapters for a spot of editing.  Usually it’s a single line or a quick dialog exchange, defining a small piece of the world or establishing a minor character before I put either one to use in the pivotal chapter.  The purpose of those little tweaks and tightenings is to remove the need to explain reasons and motives during the pivotal scene.  In other words, if I know I’m going to need the rifles to set Act II in motion, I’d best make sure everyone knows where the mantles are and why the rifles are hanging there before we’re praising God and passing out ammunition.

A decision-process is an exchange of information—explanation, consideration, comparison, justification.  It’s tempting to include that in pivotal scenes because the decision is so important, right?  After all, I want the reader to accept the decision.  Not like it or agree with it, but see it as a realistic choice based on available information and character goals.  And no writer wants the reader to toss the book across the room because the character makes consistently inexplicable choices.

But you know what’s worse?  The reader who quietly sets the book aside and forgets about it because the pivotal scene was so filled with stray facts and character asides and tidbits of backstory that it bored them completely.

My revelation is this: the pivotal scene isn’t about the decision.  That’s the job of everything that comes before.  The pivotal scene is the emotion of having decided, the fear of the consequences ahead, the terror of being wrong, the desperation to have others agree.  When we make a big decision in real life, we certainly agonize over it.  But the moment of sharing and acting upon that decision is just as terrifying.  Sometimes, it’s more terrifying.  It’s what happens in those moments, hours, or days that makes or breaks the decision.

That’s the pivotal scene.

So my reminder to myself today is this: new information should rarely—and I do mean rarely—be given to the reader during a pivotal scene.  Characters in the scene can get some new information, but then the exchange is about the impact of the fact not its explanation.

This is not to be confused with climactic revelations of the I-am-your-father type.  But even then, if the temptation arises to explain–right after the revelation–just how that connection could possibly be so, some quite critical pieces of backstory and foreshadowing have been neglected.

The Happy Stage of Arrogant Certainty

I’ve hit the obsessive stage of revisions.  It’s my favorite stage of the process–more enjoyable, even, than that first flush of New Story.  The stage of focused revisions is one of both control and discovery, when all the pieces at last fit together properly and flow with the right balance of surprise and inevitability.

Those worldbuilding changes thrill me.  Everything that didn’t quite fit now snicks into place.  Plot holes are filled.  Motivations are clear.  Stakes are raised.  It works.

Knowing I’ve set myself up to rewrite the last third of the novel is a bit of a drag, but not too much.  I’m excited about it for the same reasons as I’ve stated above.  It all makes sense.  It works.

I’ve been here before.  I’ve learned how to switch the nothing-else-matters focus on and off to take care of life’s responsibilities, and I (mostly) keep the snarls of vexation on the inside when interrupted by mundane things like showing up for the classes I’m supposed to teach, grocery shopping, and answering the phone.

But I’d certainly be much happier if I could, right this minute, hide in a remote cabin until I finished.  Until I finish the last lines while Fanfare for the Common Man plays in the background.

Yes, I do hear that when hit “Save” at the end of revisions.  I hear it because I start singing it.  Badly, but with great enthusiasm.

So… a few weeks from now, when I’m whining about how everything sucks and never works and is nothing but an embarrassment that ought to be burned and shows only how stupid I am, when feedback from beta readers proves beta readers are necessary because I have zero objectivity, when I’m grumping about proofreading and cover design and all that crap, do me a favor: remind me I love this book.

And tell me to play Fanfare for the Common Man.  I promise to snarl only on the inside.

Once More, With…

… with feeling.  Or different feelings.  Or deeper knowledge, or better strategy, or greater confidence.  Or hubris blind to incompetence.  We shall see.

I am inflicting more revisions on Sand of Bone.  Once upon a time, repeated revision rounds felt akin to shaving away words and layers in an attempt to make my novel-peg fit into a proper slot.  But the freedom of how I’ve chosen to present my stories, along with the reading and consideration of reviews given to Sword and Chant, have given me both a positive push and clearer understanding of my goals.  It’s made these last two rounds of revisions exciting and enlivening.

There are a couple big changes, both involving worldbuilding.*  One is the transformation of Exile into Salt.  The same behavior will get you sent to that gods-hated place, but the change of name and purpose fixes plot holes, and allows for all sorts of little one-lines from characters such as the unofficial and sarcastic “motto” of Salt cures.

It also allowed me to burn far too many hours checking out salt flats, and that was much fun.  Quirky and random research topics are one of the reasons I love the work I do.

Also changed is the mortality of the ruling Velshaan.  They’ve always been descendants of the creation gods, and they’ve always aged, been vulnerable to harm, and decidedly mortal.  But now they can die only when one of their own bloodkin kills them.

Think through the consequences of that one, and you can see why I’m excited by the change.  Yes, your own kin will be the cause of your death, but what about times when withholding that death would be worse than causing it?  What rituals would be created to be a psychological buffer?  How would it feel to grow up knowing no one but your family can kill you, and that you must one day kill a parent or grandparent?  What happens when the bloodkin have a really, really big feud?

As you can imagine, those two changes alone create massive ripple effects.  The revisions are line-by-line, word-by-word, with an eye to ensuring every choice, plot point, and character attitude is compatible with the changes.

But the bottom line is I’m so much happier with what the final novel is becoming.  I’m newly excited rather than frustrated.  I’m loving it all over again.

As an added bonus, the changes fit well with a tidbit of advice picked up from Brad Beaulieu’s GenCon seminar this weekend: Plant fear of the solution in the character.

(And if you haven’t read Brad’s work before, I highly recommend it.  Epic fantasy, flying ships, Russian flavor, truly awesome and complicated characters.)

Today, I made it through the first four chapters of changes.  As long as life doesn’t deal me yet another sledgehammer to the gut, I just might get these revisions done by the end of September.  It’s only, y’know, nine months behind schedule.

*For reasons why I’ll blithely alter my worldbuilding, see On Worldbuilding, Changes, and Plot.