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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

4thewords, Fan Art, and Pride!

For nearly two and a half years now, I’ve been using 4thewords, which is a writing gamification site. You queue up monsters and defeat them by writing — or, if you’re me, by copy-pasting the words I’ve written elsewhere — which gives you XP and various item drops, which you then use to complete quests and progress in the storyline.

I think I’ve mentioned this site here before, but I’m bringing it up again for three reasons:

1) I know a lot of people are having trouble writing right now, and if gamification and pretty graphics are the kind of thing that can motivate you, this might help.

2) The people who run this site (a very small cadre based mostly in Costa Rica) are really good about trying to make things inclusive and welcoming. Case in point: right now we’re in the middle of a 25-day special Pride event, amped up from the usual 10 days because so many in-person Pride events have been canceled. There is all kinds of related gear to customize your avatar with, including no less than fifteen palette swaps to represent a bunch of different Pride flags — not just the most well-known rainbow but flags for bisexual, non-binary, polyamorous, and other identities. This year they also wrote code for a virtual Pride parade, which you can choose to have your avatar march in; mine is there, decked out in straight ally gear (and a giant feather butt fan I picked up during the Carnival event a while back).

3) AND THEY GAVE ME AND ALYC ROOK AND ROSE FAN ART

Ahem. What I mean to say is, they’ve also responded to the pandemic by helping to support site users whose book releases may be affected. I tossed my name into the hat back when I thought The Mask of Mirrors was going to be coming out in November, so this is now more in advance of the release than I expected it to be, but . . .

4thewords promotional image

They made a wardrobe item that’s inspired by a mask in the novel!

That is our first public piece of fan art for this series. And the Festival of Reading is going to continue for 44 days (not counting the eight teaser days they had in the weeks preceding the Festival itself), each of which comes with its own special reward.

So basically, it’s a really wonderful and supportive community, and a fun way to motivate yourself for writing, with a story about questing to save the world from a corrupting Dust. It says quite a bit that I’ve stayed active there for two and a half years, alternating between normal quests and the regularly-scheduled special events. I would link you to neat features like the Pride parade, but I think you have to be a subscriber to see those; however, the subscription cost isn’t very high, and there’s even a community pool where people who can manage a little extra donate subscription time to be distributed to users who might not otherwise be able to afford it. If it’s something that might be useful to you, I encourage you to check it out.

Deferred rewards

One of the things that makes a writing career difficult is that all your payoffs are deferred.

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. Each day, or whatever schedule you work on, you add some more to the pile of words. Go you! But if you’re not someone who lets people read the draft in progress (I’m usually not, though there have been exceptions), then you do that work in a void. And it’s a long, long road to having a completed draft, so you’re in that void for quite a while.

Then you finish your draft. Go you! Now maybe you let somebody read it. But you know, in your heart of hearts, that this isn’t the end of anything; it’s just an intermediate stage. There’s revision, and that’s before the novel even heads out into the wide wide world.

Ah, but surely you get payoff when you sell the novel, right? Go you! Except . . . what “selling a novel” actually looks like is generally that your agent sends you an email saying “here’s what they’re offering,” and you say “that sounds great, let’s do it!” Whereupon your agent haggles for a while, because that’s their job. Or maybe this is the next book in a multi-book contract you already signed, at which point this stage doesn’t even really happen, because it happened years ago.

Assuming it’s a new deal, eventually somebody sends you a contract to sign. This comes probably weeks after the offer you said yes to, if not months. Is this the payoff? It doesn’t feel much like a payoff. On the one hand, you kinda sorta sold the book a while ago; on the other hand, you haven’t been paid yet, much less seen your book in print.

Some number of days or weeks after you signed the contract, money shows up. This used to be in the form of an actual check, but these days lots of people use direct deposit instead. So instead of a Real Live Check, you get an email saying “hey, we’ve deposited this money in your account.” Is that the payoff? Literally, yes; emotionally, no.

Edits.

Copy-edits.

Page proofs.

Somewhere in here, you get a cover. Awesome! It mostly has nothing to do with you, since at best you got to offer some ideas that your publisher may or may not have listened to, but at least it’s shiny! Meanwhile you’re busy with something else.

And then, one day, FINALLY, months after you got paid, months after you sold it, months or maybe even years after you wrote the book . . . it’s on the shelves! Everybody is so excited!

Except for you. I mean, sure, you’re happy. I’m not trying to say that it isn’t cool to hold your very own book in your hands and see your name on the cover. But . . . as a payoff for the long marathon of writing the thing, it isn’t much, because it comes way too late. By the time it arrives, you’re already doing something else. You’re in the void of a different book, probably, and when people talk about “your new book,” you have to remind yourself which one they’re talking about. To them, the one that matters is the one they can buy. But that’s not the one eating your time and attention anymore. And psychologically speaking, a reward that’s massively deferred from the behavior that earned it is pretty much useless.

This is why I’m coming around to the opinion that it is hugely important to set up some kind of ritual for yourself — in whatever form works for you — that celebrates the milestones. Two years may go by between finishing the rough draft and seeing the result on a shelf, but if you’ve done something meaningful to mark the achievement of that draft, or the other landmarks along the way, then you won’t run as much risk of the job starting to feel meaningless. If the way the circumstances work isn’t going to reward you in a timely manner, then you’ve got to do it yourself.

Things they never teach you

Writing advice books tend to go into great detail on things like how to structure your plot, or develop character, or describe things, or whatever.

They do not — in my limited experience; hence this post — bother to say much about how to decide where to break chapters, scenes, or paragraphs, apart from telling you to start a new paragraph if you’re switching speakers in dialogue. Maybe a vague nod at “cliffhangers are exciting!,” but that’s about it. You’re just supposed to figure that stuff out as you go, apparently. Or else (and this is entirely possible) it never occurred to the writer of the writing advice book that there’s an actual skill buried in there.

But I haven’t read a huge number of writing advice books, so I’m perfectly willing to believe that someone out there has at some point unpacked this stuff for the reader. Any recs? Because it’s one of those things that I do instinctively, without much ability to articulate how the decision-making process goes — and since I enjoy teaching writing, being able to articulate it would be useful.

I return to the teaching fold!

Temporarily, at least. 🙂

I’m currently slated to do two teaching stints in 2020. The first is coming up soon: Pen, Paper, Action!, a one-day workshop at Clarion West in Seattle on February 8th. There I’ll be covering not just fight scenes in specific, but action more generally.

The second is later this year, during the Sirens Studio that takes place before the main conference. I’ll be teaching a writing intensive on creating religions for fantasy worlds — going beyond deciding who the gods are, and delving into how beliefs can be integrated into the daily lives of the characters. Sirens is a beautiful event focusing on women in fantasy; I haven’t been to the Studio before, but I was one of the Guests of Honor at the conference in its second year, and had an amazing time.

Registration for both of these things is limited, so if you’re interested, sign up soon!

A different short fiction resolution

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times here, in both 2018 and 2019 I set myself the goal of writing six short stories. I came up one short in 2018, and then in 2019 succeeded despite making a mess of that count with flash fiction and a novelette that wasn’t intended for the submission treadmill and etc. etc. etc.

I’ve decided to change my goal for 2020.

My reasons are threefold: First, I have quite a lot of novel work pending for this year, which is going to eat a fair bit of my time and energy. Second, I rather expect politics will send me into at least a few mental tailspins before we ring in 2021, and allowing some slack for that seems like a good idea. And third, the best way to head my overachiever tendencies off at the pass before they can tell me I Have to Write Even More Than Last Year is to deliberately aim lower.

So my goal for 2020 is actually just three stories — but three specific(-ish) stories. See, a few years back I sorted my short fiction into groupings based on subgenre, and discovered that basically every grouping was either in the range of 30-40K words, or could reach that easily if I got off my duff and wrote some of the ideas that had been hanging around unwritten for years. Three of those — Maps to Nowhere for secondary-world fantasy, Ars Historica for historical fantasy, and The Nine Lands for stories in that setting — are out now. A fourth, the urban fantasy collection, is on the road to publication later this year. (Monstrous Beauty and Never After are a different ballgame, being micro-collections rather than novella-sized.)

That leaves me with three within striking distance of completion: one for folksong retellings, one for stories inspired by other kinds of folklore and mythology, and (in a surprise speed-run) another secondary-world collection, because I’ve accumulated nearly enough since publishing Maps to Nowhere in 2017 to hit that topic again. All of these are still pending the sale of multiple stories — with the exception of Never After, which was a special case, I’m only collecting reprints — but more to the point, they also each need me to write one more story for them to be complete.

Ergo, that’s what I’m going to focus on this year. My goal is not merely to write three stories, but to write stories that fit the following parameters:

1) One story based on a folksong. I have a song in mind; I just need my subconscious to cough up some interesting answers to the questions the song leaves me with. Technically I only need this to be 620 words long to get myself across the self-imposed 30K bottom limit, but I’d like a full-length story, since there are already two flash pieces in here (and those are why, despite writing two new pieces, this collection still isn’t complete). Given the song in question, though, and what I feel like the story it produces might be, I don’t think that will be a problem.

2) One based on Near Eastern mythology. This technically isn’t necessary, since the collection’s currently at 33K. But the story I unexpectedly wrote before Christmas left me in a situation where the regional groupings within the collection have four stories each, with the exception of the Near Eastern one, which has only three. So dangit, I want one more. Not sure what, though — so hey, if there are any Near Eastern myths or bits of folklore you think are crying out for poking at in fiction, feel free to suggest them in the comments!

3) One secondary-world. This is wide open; it could be anything, as long as it’s at least 3700 words long. (Which usually isn’t a problem for anything that requires me to do worldbuilding.) I have an idea I originally thought might go here, but further thought made it apparent to me that it’s going to be at least a novelette and maybe a novella, so . . . probably not? Because my imagination is fun of playing annoying and self-inflicted games, my inclination is to not have the additional story be a repeat in any of the settings currently slated for the collection, even though I have multiple ideas in that direction. I might take a crack at the story that’s the sequel to “Love, Cayce,” but that presumes I can figure out a way to write it without the sequel-ness being an obvious barrier to entry. But on my way to bed last night I realized I could take the opening incident of a potential future novel that currently has nothing but an opening incident and turn that into a stand-alone story — what I think of as a “proof of concept” story, poking at a setting and a character in short form before attempting a novel — so despite being a brand-new concept, right now that’s leading the pack.

Those are my goal. Let’s see if I can make ’em happen.

If You Ain’t Got That Zing

There are a lot of TV shows I try and just sort of drift away from, because they aren’t doing enough to hold my attention. The latest in this series is Black Lightning, which surprised me, because there are a number of things I like about its characters and its story. But in the end, its dialogue doesn’t have much of a particular element for which I can find no better term than “zing.”

Thanks, brain. “Zing.” That’s a real helpful way of describing it. >_<

Zing is not the same thing as witty banter — though many shows have mistaken the one for the other, and fill their scripts with dialogue that’s absolutely leaden in its attempt to be light. You can have zing in a deadly serious conversation (as Game of Thrones has proved). It’s a cousin, I think, of Mark Twain’s comment about the difference between the right word and the almost-right word being the difference between lightning and a lightning bug: it’s the lightning lines, the ones that leap off the page or the screen, the ones that don’t just get you from Narrative Point A to Narrative Point B but make the journey between them memorable. You see it in The Lion in Winter, which along with Twelve Angry Men made me wonder if this is a quality especially possessed by older stage plays — I haven’t seen enough older stage plays to be sure. At its apex, it’s the feeling that no line has been wasted or allowed to do the bare minimum of work. Think of The Princess Bride, and how many lines from that movie are quotable. It isn’t just because the lines themselves are good; it’s because there’s almost no flab in the script, every word simultaneously developing character and furthering the plot while also being entertaining.

Zing gets my attention, in a TV show or a movie or a book. Without it, my attention wanders a bit; I scrape a general sense of the story out of the mass of words used to tell it, but don’t engage on a moment-to-moment level. With it, I lose track of the world around me because I don’t want to miss anything in the tale. Zing makes me decide, before I’m two scenes into the first episode of a show, that I’ll give the second one a shot. Zing is what makes me plow through thousands of pages of Neal Stephenson making an utter hash of his plot, because he can describe a room in above a tavern on the seventeenth-century London Bridge in such riveting terms that I wind up reading it out loud twice, once to my husband and once to my sister.

I think this is what some people, when teaching the craft of writing, describe as “voice.” I’ve been known to rant about how I find that term completely unhelpful . . . but, well, here I am talking about “zing,” because my alternative is to wave my hands around in the air and make inarticulate noises. That thing. Over there. Do you see?

These days I’m reaching for it more in my own work, especially in one of the things I’m noodling around with right now. A character is hiding in a palace full of baroque decorations and complaining about the discomfort. There’s something jabbing into my back. No. There’s a carving jabbing into my back. No. There’s a gilded carving grinding into my kidney. Better. There’s a gilded figure of the South Wind imprinting itself on my left kidney. Better still.

Doing that for every sentence is exhausting. I have no idea how Stephenson keeps it up, especially while writing books that could double as foundation stones. But I suspect that, like many things in writing, after you’ve pushed at it for a while some parts of it just settle in as habit. I hope so, anyway, because I’m going to keep trying.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

When writers talk about questions they get asked too often, “Where do you get your ideas?” is often high on the list.

Which is odd to me, because I’ve rarely been asked that.

“Where did you get the idea for this book?,” sure. Got that one a lot with A Natural History of Dragons and the Memoirs of Lady Trent in general. But as a broad inquiry into my work as a writer, no. Still, it seems that other people do get asked about it frequently, so lately I’ve been pondering it, that I might be prepared when the question comes my way.

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Concentration

I’ve lost my ability to concentrate.

I think a lot of us have. We live with countless electronic devices that are constantly demanding our attention, beeping alerts and notifications and even without that there’s a little niggling part of our minds that wonders if we have any new email or anybody has posted something to that forum or surely we ought to take a look at Twitter, don’t pay attention to that thing, pay attention to me. But only in bite-size doses, because there are a hundred other things you could be checking and probably should.

Even without that, we’ve got a society that encourages multi-tasking — despite the mounting pile of evidence that it isn’t good. Multi-tasking does not, contrary to what we’ve been told, make us more productive. It makes us less so, because we’re devoting less of our attention to each thing, and we pay a cognitive cost every time we switch our focus. And part of that cognitive cost is that not switching gets harder, even as it drains us.

(True fact: just now, my phone rang a soft little alert. It’s taking effort not to look and see what that was for.)

I can tell this is taking a toll on me because I can feel it in my work. Writing is not, in its ideal conditions, something you do for five minutes here and ten minutes there. It benefits from sustained attention, from getting myself into the state psychologists refer to as “flow,” where I stop thinking about the world around me and instead sink into the zone for an extended period of time. I can’t get there if I’m tabbing over to look at my email every time I pause to consider my next sentence, if I’m keeping a portion of my mind attached to the discussion I’m having on a forum or whatever and breaking away to update that. It’s an exaggeration to say I’ve lost my ability to concentrate . . . but I know it has declined, and substantially so.

That’s why I’m taking steps to fix it.

My steps are twofold, at least so far. The first is to get back to meditating: I got into the habit of doing that for a while in 2015 (true fact again: I made myself just drop some square brackets there and check the year after I finished typing this post, because I needed to check my email to find out which year it was, and that threatened to distract me from this), but I fell out of it after a while, and now I’m working to make it regular practice again. Meditation, mindfulness, learning to let go of all the little dancing monkey thoughts that want my attention NOW NOW NOW — that helps.

The other, weirdly, is to watch TV.

TV as a tool of concentration? Yes — when you put it in the context of what I was doing before. See, I’ve gotten into the bad habit of only really listening to TV, while I play solitaire or sudoku or something on my tablet. The result is that I only give the show maybe half my attention.

But when I started watching the Chinese drama Nirvana in Fire, the combination of subtitles + intricate politics meant I couldn’t get away with that. If I tried to focus on something else at the same time, glancing up to catch the subtitles as they skittered past, I wound up not even knowing who half the people were and what was going on. The only way to understand that show, let alone appreciate it, was to put things down and devote my full attention to the screen.

Subtitled shows are great for this, but I’m managing to extend that habit to English-language TV, as well. And you know what?

I’m enjoying it more.

And it’s getting easier to leave the tablet closed.

What other tricks do you all have for encouraging yourself to pay attention to one thing at a time? What helps you keep your ability to concentrate? I know some people shut down their internet connection entirely while writing, and there are lots of programs out there which exist to block other programs so you can work, but I’m also interested in the non-technological tricks — the things that are just about structuring your life in ways that help you focus.

my publications in 2017

A fairly busy year for me, all things considered. And a reminder that I need to go through my bibliography page and clean up all the things that still say “forthcoming” when they’re already out.

Novels

Novellas

Short stories

Collections

Nonfiction

Gaming fiction

The world’s most scattershot progress

I haven’t said much here about my work on the current novel — the one that’s a followup to the Memoirs — in part because it is so unlike the process of writing any other novel so far, I’m too busy figuring out what I’m doing to spare much attention for reporting in.

But hey, it’s useful to talk about what happens when you write a Totally Different Kind of Book. So here goes.

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