Tag Archives: WIP

Grab Bag

As the title suggests, this is going to be a bit of a grab-bag of thoughts I’ve had while getting back to work on the current WIP. (Which still lacks an actual title. Hmm.) I was going to follow on from writing a bit about the TV adaptation of American Gods last week by writing about the TV Handmaid’s Tale this week, but I’m not the best person to talk about it and I’m not sure that I have anything especially noteworthy to say at this point anyway. Except I guess that if you haven’t been watching it, you should a) brace yourself and b) go watch it, because it’s quite well done.

I am, as summer reluctantly comes to my part of the world, trying to get back at working on my current project somewhat systematically, with the aim (still?) being to have a complete first draft done by the fall. Part of what I’m trying to figure out is how I can make writing a scheduled part of my routine. I do much better with a lot of stuff when I have a plan to always do it at X time on whatever days of the week than when I just try to figure out when it gets done on the fly. This isn’t just the case for writing, it’s how I get myself to the gym and get my running done and a lot of other stuff. If I leave the time for things vague, they live in an eternal ‘later’, never getting actually taken care of. If I have in my mind that I do this (say) every morning starting at 9, then something takes place.

I don’t at all suggest that this is some iron rule for how to Be an Effective Writer, because that would be advice, and mostly I think everyone needs to figure out their own methods and process that works for them anyway. Some people probably do need to write every day, some people work well with specific word targets per week, some people need to Go To A Place and Work There. Despite (although also in some part because of) all the earnestly written declarations on how to Do Authoring, I think there’s no universal formula and you just gotta figure out what leads to you getting words on the page and then unapologetically do that. Of course that’s not an easy thing to figure out, but neither is trying to contort yourself to fit someone else’s process. I think I have a ‘morning writing’ thing going on now and we’ll see how that works.

Part of what caused me some difficulty recently (along with all kinds of Real Life stuff, and then also just being very tired) was the disappearance of a deadline. I’ve mentioned before that I work very well when I have a deadline (I do not miss deadlines) and that part of the adjustment from being a student to being basically employed by me post-education is not having deadlines imposed on me. Again, that eternal ‘not now, but soon’ becomes very attractive. I’m getting better at working without deadlines but if I’m being honest what I also do is seize on things that I can use as a deadline to restore that familiar motivation.

For this WIP, I had decided that I wanted to have it ready to pitch to the agent Guest of Honour that will be coming to this year’s Can*Con SFF conference in Ottawa, which seemed a solid idea. (Brief aside – I am on the programming team for Can*Con, we’ve got some very exciting stuff planned for this October, and you should definitely come if you can. All the details are not ready to release yet, but you can check out a lot about us here.) Unfortunately, I did the required research and found that she doesn’t rep the kind of thing that I’m working on. Which is of course fine, and of course she’s still an amazing Guest of Honour for Can*Con to have, but her usefulness to me as a deadline suddenly dematerialized, and not a lot got written for a while.

I really need to break myself of this deadline habit.

As I’m writing at the moment, I’m also reading, of course, and right now I’m reading the John Le CarrĂ© autobiography I mentioned a while back, and re-reading some William Gibson. They are, I guess obviously, very different writers, but to me they are also similar in that I deeply admire the way they craft with words. They’re both (to me) quite demanding writers, in that their writing requires your attention. Both can get a lot out of a little, conveying things of tremendous importance with a perfectly-chosen word or two, so you really can’t miss anything.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a long time, you’ll remember that there was a time when I tried, very hard, to write like William Gibson, and that it didn’t go very well. I don’t do that any more, but I find reading both him and Le CarrĂ© inspirational in the sense of reminding me what is possible to do with words when you put them together right, and to try to push myself to achieve something at least somewhat similar. This isn’t to say that other styles of writing can’t also be effective, can’t also be fun to read, and can’t also be artistic. But I guess the arguably subtler or more intricate mode of operation twangs something inside me just that little bit more, and is the style that I would be most content if I could produce something like. I’m not sure that I’m anywhere in that quadrant of the galaxy, but (all my wittering about struggles with the WIP notwithstanding) I am enjoying the effort.

One of the decisions I made in writing this current WIP was to write it just as I wanted to, to just really let myself use exactly the words I wanted to. I was going to thoroughly ignore the questions of ‘is this the right voice?’ and ‘what kind of audience does this appeal to’? I was just going to write something that pleased me, do it as well as I could, and then see what people thought of it. The basic idea is/was kind of crazy anyway, so if it ended up something that appealed to no-one else but me it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world. Fortunately for me, what I’ve heard back from the Eager Volunteers and my writers’ circle has so far been very kind and very encouraging, which of course makes me more confident to go on doing things this way. Again, I’m not suggesting this is always the right way to do things, but at the moment it’s having good results for me.

Anyway. I’ve got a little over 30,000 words (much of it non-sequential, of course) written, and if I can get down to this over the summer I should be able to finish my story in time for the autumn. Then I will begin a whole new set of challenges, but that’s something to worry about another day. That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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Dialogue

I have recently been struggling a bit with the current WIP (which, yes, still lacks much in the way of a title), to the extent that I described myself as ‘mired’ to a friend the other day. After some thought – along with certain other things – I decided to go back to one of the things that had gotten me excited to write a story set in Victorian London to begin with: the TV Series Ripper Street. I admit to approaching Ripper Street a bit dubiously, and I’m not sure that it’s an immortal achievement, but I do like a lot about it.

One of the things I like very much is the dialogue. The writers for the show have a very clever turn of phrase and obviously love their words. Basically all of the characters speak in these very elaborate, eloquent, complex sentences which I enjoy very much. (My love of a long twisty sentence is something any of my editors or Eager Volunteers can attest to) Now, I also doubt very much that real Victorians spoke this way, and doubt even more that the residents of impoverished Whitechapel spoke this way, but Ripper Street’s heavily embroidered dialogue nevertheless somehow, for some reason, works (at least for me), both because I enjoy the word craft and also because it somehow conveys a sense of the different mannerisms and etiquette of the late 19th century. Or so I reason, because even though it probably doesn’t make any sense, I still sit there thinking ‘this is awesome’ rather than ‘well, this is probably overdone’.

It’s a similar situation to another show I loved a while ago, the rather-more-famous Deadwood, which also put amazingly ornate dialogue in the mouths of characters who would certainly not have spoken that way. It worked, both because it was a joy to listen to and (I think) because the eloquence was a contrast to the gritty, brutal setting of the frontier town and the gritty, brutal people who inhabited it.

Anyway in the short term, watching Ripper Street worked pretty well and I’ve been back plugging away at the WIP. I also tackled a scene that I’ve been struggling to figure out how to make work for what feels like roughly forever. I’m not sure it’s exactly good, but it is written and I can move on from it. (This kind of loops back to earlier blogs in that I need to remember that not every scene needs to be the best scene I’ve ever written. Sometimes, there just needs to be a god damned scene.)

In the somewhat longer term, this all got me thinking about dialogue and how it works. It isn’t, of course, quite as simple as fancy dialogue always being better. There are plenty of times when ‘less is more’, and another of my favourite TV shows frequently serves up great examples of that. The Americans is, I think, genuinely one of the best shows on television and one of my favourites of all time, and they really know how to write over there.

One of my favourite moments was from Season 3. Philip, deep cover KGB agent resident in the U.S., spent most of that season doing increasingly awful things (which, if you’ve seen the show you will remember, and if you haven’t, I’m not going to tell you about because you should go watch it) and eventually, he’s talking to one of his assets and breaks off in the middle of trying to justify everything they’ve been doing. All he says is “I feel like shit all the time”, and you absolutely understand the amount of pain he’s in, and the toll everything is taking on him. Similarly, last episode (minor spoiler here, but whatever) Philip and his wife Elizabeth discover they killed someone who was completely innocent; Philip is once again devastated (Keri Russel’s Elizabeth has thicker skin about these things, apparently) and Elizabeth offers to leave him out of future missions that may require killing. Philip replies with “No, no. It’s us. It’s us.” Again, you completely understand that even though he hates what he’s doing, he can’t contemplate making his wife do it by herself.

Now, a lot of the effectiveness of both those scenes (and, a lot of what works on The Americans, and indeed any TV show or film) has to do with the delivery and performance from the actor. Matthew Rhys sells both those scenes tremendously. However, he’s working with what he’s been given and somehow that extremely minimal dialogue conveys a tremendous amount, in context.

So in trying to think about this in terms of ‘what makes good dialogue’, I’m not immediately left with anything too useful. Sometimes, arguably over-written dialogue is great. Sometimes, extremely minimalist dialogue is great. I suppose one might argue that context is, as usual, king in all this: some settings and characters call for one, and some for the other. Probably in some or even many cases, you don’t want to be on either extreme, but something in the middle.

The thing is that I imagine it depends very much on the author in question, as well. Some authors know how to write in the style for Deadwood. Others know how to make less words say more. I would guess that trying to do one when you’re really good at the other doesn’t produce good results.

Unfortunately what I think I’m coming away with, having spent the last couple of days thinking about dialogue, basically comes down to two things. One, that having excellent dialogue can absolutely make a piece of writing just as much as bad stuff can kill it. Two, there probably isn’t

And isn’t that insightful.

It has given me something to consider as I continue work on the WIP; I need to choose my characters’ words, and the style of those words, very carefully indeed. Since I do tend towards long, complicated sentences, I’m probably likely to stray more towards the Ripper Street end of things, but it’s valuable to remember that in some circumstances, a very few properly chosen words can say a ton.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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In Praise of Readers

Late last week I sent out another (by which I really mean ‘the second’) chunk of the current WIP to some Eager Volunteers to see what they thought. I’ve been finding the writing hard going of late and I hoped this might help.

It did.

The Volunteers emailed back almost right away, one having read the piece while plagued by insomnia (which is a decision that’s possible to read in a couple ways, but never mind) and sent back their usual thoughtful response, which included some useful criticism, some questions, and some compliments.

On some level the praise is most obviously useful to me in my current situation. Everyone likes a pat on the head and having someone whose opinion I respect say that they’re enjoying what I’m working on will probably always feel good. So that’s a nice shot of positivity to encourage me to keep working away. It also helps to hear that someone wants to learn more about a particular character, or to know what’s going to happen; I guess obviously a writer is always hoping to generate interest and it’s both pleasing and a relief to know that in at least a couple of cases, I’m setting the hook okay.

The criticism is very nearly as useful, though, because concrete areas where the story needs work are better than a sense of generalized unease where I know there are things that aren’t right but not exactly what they are, much less how to fix them. It’s always easier to have something like a bullet list (har) of things that need to be taken care of than a vague idea that Stuff needs to be Fixed. Having people where there’s a strong enough trust that they tell me what they really think, and they know that I really do want to know what they really think, and not just get a pat on the head, is (as I am discovering) both rare and incredibly valuable.

The questions never cease to fascinate me, because the things readers are intrigued by and want to know more about seem always to include things that I never anticipated. I wrote a while ago about how a character in The King in Darkness that I didn’t think anyone would have any particular interest in ended up getting a scene added to the final draft to finish their story, because readers kept asking about it. So it already is with this piece, and what it mostly does is make me happy that what I’m writing can be interpreted and understood in a variety of ways (because if a reader understood it exactly the same way as I do, writing it, they wouldn’t have some of these questions), which is something I always enjoy when I’m reading and very much want to create when I’m writing. It also gives me ideas for things to do next, which is also very valuable.

All of which to say that the responses I get from my Eager Volunteers is a treasure to me as a writer, and makes my task in creating the story so much easier and the final project immeasurably better. I have had a good number of genuinely well-meaning people offer to take on the task and had it not work out (which I completely understand – if nothing else, it’s not easy to devote some of one’s precious store of free time to reading something they may not even like), so that makes the people who are willing to put in the time struggling through a rough-hewn story and then also take the time to share their responses and reactions to it with me a very special breed.

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank them once again, because I appreciate what they do more than I can say. Perhaps I’ll pay my debt some day. Thank you very much indeed.

I am also aware that I owe a similar debt to each and every one of my readers, without whom my stories would be silent words on the page and none of my characters, who I love very much, would ever have a chance to live. If you’ve read one of my stories, and thereby given some of my made-up people a home in your imagination, at least for a while, I thank you as well.

It is, of course, a truism that without readers there are really no writers in a meaningful sense, but sometimes it’s the obviously true facts that need to be acknowledged. I’m grateful to everyone who has ever taken the time to read one of my stories; I can think of few better compliments for a writer than ‘I would like to spend some time with your imagination’. I am especially grateful to the readers who let me know what they thought about what they read. A lot of it makes me better, and all of it helps me want to write more. Without writers, people have nothing to read, and without readers, it would be the next thing to impossible to call oneself a writer.

So once again, I thank my readers.

Now to try to do some more of my half of the bargain.

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The Year Ahead

It’s going to be a bit of a short entry this week – I’m a bit under the weather and also gearing up for the start of winter term teaching, so I’m not entirely sure what to do with this entry. It’s also the time of year when lots of places are doing 2016 retrospectives, but I think I already spend more than enough time chewing over the past. There were things that made me very happy and others that were very difficult and I think it’s best to leave it there.

In part, I think it’s good to do that because my energy needs to be on the time ahead. I also don’t do New Year’s resolutions anymore; I think sometimes those turn into a way to set ourselves up for disappointment in the same way that the ‘you must write every day or you’re not a real writer’ mantra can end up sabotaging writers. It is a new year and a chance to do things differently, but it’s also easy to set ourselves up for disappointment by Resolving to do things that aren’t possible, or at least not realistic.

As an example, when I first started distance running (yes, another running analogy, sorry) I knew I wanted to try it and headed out on a run with the idea that I was going to run for about an hour and see where it went from there. (I know, I know) I made for I think ten minutes. I felt awful. I hadn’t even come close to what I set out to do. Now, in truth what I had done was set a goal that was in no way realistic (and didn’t at that point even know what a realistic goal would be) and so not achieving it didn’t mean anything other than I needed to set better goals, and it was good that I had made a start Actually Running rather than thinking about starting running. However, in that moment my goal (ill conceived as it was) was something to feel bad about, and I think a lot of probably well-intentioned Resolutions to make huge changes in our lives just end up being sticks to beat ourselves with in the end.

I’m not saying everyone who does New Year’s Resolutions is unrealistic or doomed to failure, but I don’t think the practice is an especially helpful one (for me, at minimum) and so I don’t make them. I do have a very general idea of what I want to do with the year ahead, though.

First and foremost is to finish writing Easter Pinkerton’s story, my current WIP (that still needs a proper title). I’ve run into a little bit of sand on it the past while due to the end of fall term and the holidays, and I need to get back at it. I think I can still achieve my aim of having a complete draft by springtime, spend the summer editing, and then perhaps be able to start looking for a home for the book in the fall.

I am going to see if I can successfully multi-task my writing projects a bit in the months ahead, though, which is something I haven’t really done to this point. I tend to work on one project exclusively, laying other work aside until one piece of writing is done. This makes it (relatively) easy to keep a solid momentum behind whatever I’m working on, and, to the extend that I can really control these things, keep my creative energy directed where I want it. However, I realize this probably makes me less productive than I might otherwise be – can’t write this other thing because Not Done with thing #1 – and I’m going to have to try changing it this year. I have some new opportunities (which I can’t give details on, yet) that are very exciting but also won’t wait while I write the new book. So I shall have to discover if Easter can play well with other imaginary people.

I suppose that’s the biggest thing that I want to accomplish with the year ahead. I’ve just started to get my feet a tiny bit wet with building a network as a writer and to start to take my craft something approaching seriously, rather than as a hobby. I’ve already made what I think are some potentially important steps, and I want to continue the process in the months ahead. A lot of this involves doing things that are contrary to my nature (like going up and introducing myself to strangers, oh dear) but as I increasingly come to think of myself as a writer who teaches to pay the bills rather than a teacher who happens to write, this is something I’m going to need to do. It may be that writing will never be a bigger part of my life than it is right now, but I’d like to see if it can be.

That’s going to involve all sorts of work, some of which I probably don’t even know about yet, but it’s a project that, in some ways, I have been wanting to do since I was in the second grade and not doing my math lessons so I could write more stories. So we’re gonna see. I’m not setting myself any particular goal here because I don’t even really know what’s possible to achieve. However, to make another running analogy, this is perhaps like when I first started to get into distance running. I got out on the road and gave it a go. The rest of it – what I could do, what specific goals I might have in terms of distance and time, the tools I was going to need – all of that flowed from getting out on the road.

So that’s as much of a 2017 resolution as you’ll see from me. I will be out on the road, and I hope yours is smooth and takes you to glorious places.

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Directions

I don’t have any Big Ideas for this week’s entry, so I suppose I’ll just start off with an update (which was, after all, the original purpose of this thing) – work continues on the new WIP (which I am not being intentionally cryptic about, I just don’t have a title I love for it yet) and it’s going all right. The story is starting to unspool itself, which is cool, although it’s also true that it keeps veering off in some unanticipated directions.

By this I mean that as I start to write certain scenes, I’m deciding that they don’t work quite the way I thought they would, and so I change them around. Scenes that I hadn’t originally considered are shouldering their way in. The order that events are going to happen in keeps getting reshuffled because of both these things. Because (as I’ve discussed) I tend to write things out of order, there are some scenes that I quite like that I’m no longer sure how I’m going to get to, now. I don’t want them to end up becoming lost little spare parts of story, but I also don’t want to force them in if they don’t work anymore. (I can probably repurpose them for something else)

This links back to my topic from a few entries back, because some of this doesn’t feel like it’s entirely under my control. As I’ve said, I don’t always understand exactly where the ideas come from, even though I know it’s ultimately all ‘from me’. So it can feel as though the story I’m telling is a little bit out of control as well, and I’m writing furiously trying to keep up with these new directions it’s deciding to go in. It’s exciting most of the time, and a little frustrating some of the time as well, when I thought I had a really solid idea of how the plot was going to unfold and then I have to reassess the whole thing once I actually get to writing.

Although I will be a little disappointed to have to put aside some of the material I thought I’d use in this story, and I’m still working hard trying to figure out how to keep some of it, I’d rather make the changes than not. The reason the story is going in a different direction than I thought is that I have new ideas that I’m excited about. It doesn’t seem like it can possibly be the right call to ignore those in favour of something I scrawled on the back of a postcard two months or so ago. I know I write better when I’m writing about things that I’m enthusiastic about, so the best thing is to accept the differences and follow the path these decisions are opening up.

In some ways, writing a story is like anything else, I find – you have a plan for how things are going to go, and then due to all sorts of factors, some under your control and some not, things probably don’t work out exactly how you planned, and it’s often better to go with it rather than trying too hard to force things to be the way you originally envisioned. Everything is constantly being shaped and reshaped by decisions we all make, and a lot of times we can’t see all the consequences of something we decide, and most times we can’t take it back once we make one. We all adapt and rewrite as we see how things unfold.

I guess along those lines, I will say (for what it’s worth) that if you happen to be reading this in the United States on the day it goes up, you’ve got a pretty big decision in front of you. I’m sure you’ve had more than enough of people telling you which way to go (and if you’ve read much of this blog, you probably know what I think about it) so I’m just going to say that I really hope you’ll be an active part of that decision, and go and vote. It’s easy to be cynical about the process, but you don’t get asked what you think very often. Now’s your chance to take part in deciding, and I think you’ll regret not doing it.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

——

I did a little reno on parts of the blog. There is now a list of some Links that I think you might enjoy.

I will shamelessly remind you that my second novel, Bonhomme Sept-Heures, is now available. The glitch where you couldn’t get the paperback edition from Amazon.ca has been resolved, so you should be able to get it in whatever manifestation would bring you the most enjoyment. If you’d like to try before you buy, there’s now an excerpt from the story added on to the Books section. Enjoy.

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After hitting Send

At the end of last week, I sent out the first significant piece of the new WIP to my Eager Volunteers to get some early feedback. And then started waiting.

I should make very clear that I totally expected to – among other things, it was a holiday weekend here in Canada, so the Volunteers had better things to do, I sent them a fairly sizable chunk of stuff to get through, and it’s extraordinarily generous of these wonderful people to give me their time to help make my writing better to begin with. I appreciate the heck out of it and it takes however long it takes.

However, that period from when I hit ‘Send’ until I first hear back is always a bit difficult. Time passes, for all the understandable reasons I just finished going through, and I start to wonder what the readers have thought of it. Because, as we’ve discussed, I am just a wee bit prone to self-criticize, and left alone to imagine what people may be thinking about what they’re reading, I tend to start to fill in a bunch of negative stuff. At this point I’m still quite excited about the project, but as soon as I submit even a part of my work for someone’s consideration, I do start to imagine just a bit too much about what the potential reaction is going to be.

I guess this may have gotten slightly worse after shopping King in Darkness to agents while I was trying to get it published – I sent it (or, at least, a pitch of it) out to a people and waited to hear if they liked it enough to work with it. I may have refreshed my Inbox a ridiculous number of times. In all those cases, when I heard back, it was in the negative. Some of them were encouraging negatives, but still, no-one wanted to say yes. Even prepared for it, that was difficult. I mean, you know this is how it works, everyone gets rejections, but they still sting a bit, or they did me, anyway. When I pitched the book to publishers at Can*Con, there was that moment between when I finished talking before anyone said anything where I sat and thought ‘That was awful, and they’re going to tell me to leave now’. Fortunately, one of those publishers decided they did want the book, but I’ll never forget that moment.

This even sort of happens with the writing circle I take part in – every session I read a little bit of what I’m working on, and when I finish there’s those few seconds before anyone says anything. Those seconds are, apparently, where all my doubts live. Oh god they hated it. They can’t believe I wrote that and they’re not sure how to say it.

It’s a wonderful gift, sharing my writing with people, it really is, and I don’t want to create the impression otherwise. I love to write and writing is so much better when people read it and tell me what they think. I imagine that’s true for most artists – there’s satisfaction in creation, but then also in sharing what you did with an audience. However, at the same time, it makes you vulnerable, because you put so much of yourself into your creation that you know it’s going to sting a bit if the audience – in my case, the readers – don’t appreciate it or think it’s good. And the thing is, of course people are entitled to react however they react and like what they like. I don’t hold any ill will towards the agents who passed on my book – they didn’t think they could do anything with it, and said so. But as with a lot of things, there is a difference between what you know and what you feel, at times. I would obviously love it if everyone who ever read my writing thought it was the best stuff ever. It will never happen. I suppose trying to get there is one motivation to keep working on my craft.

At least in some of these cases I do get to hear what the readers think of my work. There are really a lot of people, now, who have read King in Darkness that I have never heard from and I have no idea if they loved my book, or hated it. I hope they felt like it was at least worth their time to read it. I know for most of them I’ll never know what they thought, but when I think about that it’s at least a little frustrating. Was it good? Did you hate it?

Of course there’s no way to improve as a writer or grow as an author without sharing my work, and I don’t think I would want to anyway. It’s just that time after I hit ‘Send’, when my doubts can be particularly loud. So I’m always very grateful when i do get feedback, whether it’s the detailed, insightful stuff I get from my Eager Volunteers, or just ‘it was cool’. I appreciate that more the more I do this.

So if you’ve ever taken the time to let me know what you thought of something I wrote, if you wrote a review or rated King in Darkness on Goodreads or Amazon or where ever, thank you. And, you know, if you have a chance to let any artist whose work you’ve appreciated know, I imagine they’d be just as grateful.

[In the interests of full disclosure, the first of the Eager Volunteers sent me a response and it was, as usual, extremely helpful. They’re awesome.]

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