Tag Archives: work-in-progress

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.

Plotting Again

I spent last week at karate camp, where much of my time was given to coaching upcoming black belt candidates on kata and self-defense.  (Sparring isn’t part of our testing process.)   Black belt candidates are my favorite group to teach.  Despite the heat and humidity, the week flew by.

An added benefit of karate camp–the hours coaching students on the strategy of defending against multiple attackers, other hours considering the best strategies to communicate with parents, and yet more hours determining what motivates kids to make good choices under tough circumstances–was the ability to see my plotting with a sharper eye.

So why doesn’t Syrina tell her Big Secret to the exiles at the earliest opportunity?

Because I hadn’t thought to do that in the first draft, then just let that choice ride through all subsequent revisions.

Why did I let it ride?

Because I couldn’t figure out and manage the consequences of her revealing the Big Secret.

Then I began to wonder about that last answer. How many stories have a “Why didn’t she just do X?” moment because the writer was unable to think through the consequences of X? Because the writer cannot–due to inexperience–see what would follow said revelation? (And I mention inexperience because I found those at the foundation of my own un-choices.) How much of it is a hesitation to reveal because, in real life, the writer would herself hesitate to face the changes such a revelation would cause?

Or is it just me?

So now I’m on a kick of analyzing my “revelation” choices all over the place–determining if keeping a secret enhances the plot or manipulates it.  Looking at the reasons behind the choices.  Forcing myself to consider if the choices were made for convenience.

In this case, revealing the Big Secret creates a massive ground shift in the motivation and outlook of several characters, and greatly alters the reasons later choices are made. But–as with the worldbuilding changes I made earlier–it doesn’t change the story I wanted to tell.

Oddly enough, I chose to work on Sand of Bone because I thought it would be a relatively simple task to edit. Instead, I’ve opened the Pandora’s Box of revisions.

Inside the Silly Writer’s Head

The conversation that took place in my head during revisions:

Dang it.  I’ve established it’s cold in that stronghold corridor, but Syrina is just standing there.  Yeah, she’s thinking, but she doesn’t even notice the cold.

Maybe she’s distracted from the cold by the talk she’s about to give.

No.  I’ve been cold.  Really cold.  If anything, the cold would distract her from the talk.  And she’s been cold in this place before.  Cold enough to want to avoid it.

Okay, let’s give her a blanket.

That works!  She hugged the blanket over her shoulders…

No, wait a minute.  She can’t walk into this talk wrapped up in an old blanket!  Wouldn’t happen.  Just about any other character in exile could pull it off, but not Syrina.  And she might not care about the looking-silly-in-a-blanket part in another seven or eight chapters, but that isn’t the person she is now.  No blanket.

So maybe she drops it in the corridor before she walks into the dining hall.

Yes!  Wait–  No.  Blankets are too valuable in this quasi-prison.  No one, not even Syrina, would just drop it.

Maybe she could hand it to someone.

No.  That’s a silly bit of business.  I’d have to put a character there and write an exchange just because of a blanket.

Maybe she could—

Okay, Blair, stop right there.  You’re creating a massive problem over a stupid blanket.  Do you really want to waste the reader’s time explaining this whole cold-so-need-blanket thing?

No!  But now that I’ve thought about the cold, I just can’t let it pass.  I wish…

Huh.

Wait, don’t say anything.  I’m thinking.

Okay, I think I’ve solved with less than ten words.

Syrina wished she’d brought down a blanket, but…

Sand of Bone In Progress

Sand of Bone is a different story today than when I first wrote it because I am a different person.  The plot is the same, but it’s shaded and shaped in ways that alter the characters and their culture.  Motivations are, I hope, better layered.  The emotional attachments produce more diverse consequences.  Characters’ decisions make more sense.

I was on the quick path to finishing it up when I got the news about Patricia’s sudden and irreversible decline.  All progress stopped.  I stumbled through writing nearly all the way to the end in June, then determined I needed an index card session to get everything in place.

My index card session involves putting the scene’s viewpoint character, location, and story-day on the top lines of a 3 x 5.  Then I list out the scene’s key plot points, revelations, critical information, and so forth.  Once I have a card for each scene, I spread them out, in order, on my dining table.

And that’s when the fun begins.  I’ll move cards around, play with the order in which key pieces of information are revealed, check my timelines and locations for consistency, and visually “read” through the novel to get a better feel for its flow.  When I’m happy with all of the above, I re-number the scenes, then put notes on the back of the cards on what I need to add, delete, or alter to make the new shape work.

Truly, I’ve tried to do this with electronic tools, but nothing lets me “see” the entire novel so well as my rows and columns of index cards.  Nothing gives me the same creative support as walking around the table and physically manipulating cards.  It’s a quirk, a habit, a gimmick, a whatever.  It works.

Tonight I’ll get the final cards written up.  Tomorrow I’ll cover the table with almost one hundred cards.  I’m hoping to have the shape solidified by the afternoon.  Revisions then become so much simpler for me.

What I wanted to have completed by the end of April will likely be done around the end of July.  Late, yes.  Better, yes.  More of the story I want to tell today than the story I thought of a decade ago, oh yes.

And in the background, bits and pieces have been completed on The Drunkard, I’ve fleshed out pieces of the sequel to Chant so that I have a few complete scenes and (already) lots of index cards, and I’ve nearly finished three different non-fiction pieces that I want to complete and publish all at once in the fall.

But right now I must pick up the pens and the cards and get to work.

(Thankfully, today’s weather is damp so I’m not fretting about the house catching fire as fireworks arc over the fields.  Nice to not have that distraction.)

What’s Up With Sand of Bone

You might be among the small handful of folks who are wondering what happened to the weekly chapters of Sand of Bone.

I stopped for two reasons.

First, as I wrote through the end, I decided to make important structural and worldbuilding changes that will carry back all the way to the novel’s opening chapters.  Continuing to post chapters I know are now “wrong” seemed… well, wrong.

Second, I’m wrestling with time again.  April through June were supposed to be easier on the schedule.  Alas, the death of my dearest friend and my son’s godmother stripped my heart for weeks.  Thus production goals for Sand of Bone are being pushed out.

The good news: Sand of Bone will be the story I want to tell today rather than the story my younger, less experienced self was fumbling toward.  It’ll be a solid fantasy set in the desert–with strong women and strong men on all sides, who have to deal with historical expectations, family dynamics, and ghosts who can’t interfere nearly as much as they’d like.  In the end, people must decide if “doing the right thing” is still the right thing if choosing it results in the death of other people who haven’t the ability to choose.

 

Sand of Bone – Chapter 7

Exiles on the run.  Divine rulers fighting to control the desert’s elements.  Dead people secretly walking the sands in search of redemption…

Sand of Bone is the first of two (maybe three…?) novels set in the desert land of SheyKhala.  A new chapter will be posted every Thursday until the novel’s publication in the summer of 2013.

To start with Chapter 1, click here.

Chapter 7

Shella knew she was still weak from her injuries because it didn’t occur to her to question Syrina’s decision to lock her up.  A Blade who wouldn’t look her in the eye had helped her to limp downstairs, below the stronghold, to a cell scarcely as deep as she was tall.  Then he’d set a lamp on the floor and locked the solid iron door behind her—all before she thought to ask why.  The cell held only a small covered pail in the far corner and a narrow bench that jutted from the wall.  Shella wrinkled her nose at the pail, then straddled the bench and lay back to stare at the low and dark ceiling.  Her hand moved to catch her nonexistent sword, finding nothing but air.  Without the weapon and her leathers, she felt almost naked.

Facing down Syrina had exhausted her as much as her own gall had unnerved her.  But the internal voice that had warned her against accusing Raskah in Court had been silent throughout Syrina’s questioning.  Perhaps the truth had become an intoxication of sorts, robbing her of reason, leaving her to again await the whim of a Velshaan to discover if she would live or die.

Continue reading Sand of Bone – Chapter 7

Sand of Bone — Chapter 6

Exiles on the run.  Divine rulers fighting to control the desert’s elements.  Dead people secretly walking the sands in search of redemption…

Sand of Bone is the first of two (maybe three…?) novels set in the desert world of SheyKhala.  A new chapter will be posted every Thursday until the novel’s publication in the summer of 2013.

To start with Chapter 1, click here.

Chapter 6

Shella surfaced from a pool of fragmented memories.  Scorching heat and biting cold.  An expanse of parched earth as wide as the sky.  Her numb and trembling body always moving onward.  A voice she almost recognized.  Later, a pair of gentle hands and kind voices, a soft place to rest, the marrow-deep ache of exhaustion and healing.

Her vision wavered when she first opened her eyes, but the shifting images slowly coalesced into a single steady one that emerged from the haze.  Dingy curtains around her cot diffused sunlight to a mild glow.  Discovering her confines were cloth instead of iron brought a sigh of relief.  She felt thirsty, hungry, and hurt.  But above all, Shella felt safe.

Continue reading Sand of Bone — Chapter 6