February 22nd, 2016
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That’s iced tea not beer. Though if I drank beer, I totally could have used one.

It has been moons, fair readers. Like, a ridiculously long time. But I am sure you are all dying to know how The Ghost Story novel is coming along. Good news: IT’S COMING ALONG.

In November I took a class on revision at The Writer’s Loft in Sherborn, hosted by the delightful and talented Erin Dionne. I had grand plans to dive right into the revision process but that didn’t really work out. In all honesty, I barely did any real writing at all at the end of 2015… I read through my draft, made notes, did research, twiddled with outlines, notecards, and all the various tools Erin walked us through. I was scared, intimidated, and frankly, tired. A lot. And so, I didn’t get cracking on actual revision until January 2016.

The first week was wonderful and terrible. It felt good to be writing but I kept having existential moments of GAH WHAT IS THIS and HOW DO I FIX and OH THE FUTILITY. It took me two weeks to get through most of Chapter 1 and I thought: This will take forever. I have at least twenty-two chapters to go through. And this is just draft two. But I realized I just had to sharpen my scalpel. I have to be unforgiving and relentless with the writing, but forgiving and patient with myself. And that revising can contain just as much writing as it does cutting.

Authors have consistently said at events I’ve run/attended: “Oh yes, I had to cut the first 100 pages of my first draft” and it always made me blanch. How? Really? Impossible! Well…

For the numbers people, as of 2/18/16:
Number of writing days since revision began: 20
Chapters Revised: 6.5 (mostly)
Word Count (New Material): ~16,000 words (50 pg)
Word Count (Revised + new material): ~25,700 words (85 pg)
Word Count (Cut from 1st Draft): ~24,500 words (80 pg)
Current goal for 2nd Draft Completion: April 30, 2016 (then a month of “polishing” before off to beta readers)
Cups of tea consumed: Countless

Want to know what has needed the most revising?

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September 30th, 2015

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What you see there is 327 pages worth of words, my friend. 327 PAGES. My kiddo helped me pick the attractive lime-green binder. I bought new colorful pens, index cards, and post-it flags. This is all supposed to make me feel confident about editing and revising.

Right.

Truthfully, I feel daunted. What if I have to re-write all 327 pages? What if I get halfway through and realize the book is hopelessly, irrevocably unsalvageable? What if my first-person protagonist is boring? What if I’m boring? What if I just don’t know enough to write this book yet.

{I know the answer: write the next one.}

I’m not afraid of work. I’m afraid of time. I’m afraid of gnawing at this project for years and years and not moving forward, of not knowing when to push harder and when to back away slowly.

Books don’t get written and shared by authors who were too afraid to do them justice. I know this. It’s just… it’s a really big binder. And there’s a lot that needs work in there. Right now it’s a foreboding mass of pages and words and way, WAY too many characters (anytime I hit a plot snag, I added a character…oops). I won’t know what (else) needs fixing, really, until I read it from the beginning to The End.

Wish me luck!

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September 24th, 2015

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On Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, I completed the first draft of The Ghost Story novel. I COMPLETED THE FIRST DRAFT OF A NOVEL YOU GUYS!

Also, I turn 31 today. Happy birthday to me!

**fireworks to the tune of the 1812 Overture**

So how does it feel? Exciting + anti-climactic. I’m not super pleased with the ending, not to mention the last, oh, third of the book (Ch. 19 excepted). When I got to the last lines my first thought was “Really? This is it? This is how you end it?” But heck, I WROTE A NOVEL. It’s 120k words closer to something I can be really proud of. That much closer to sharing a remarkable with you: a story, a vision taken out of my brain and put into yours.

For those following along at home:

  • According to Scrivener, I wrote a 123, 670 word manuscript, which comes to 383 printed pages, or ~313 pages in a paperback book.
  • I began the draft in earnest on Sept. 1, 2014, so it took me 386 days to complete.
  • That means I averaged something like 380 words a day for a little over a year. More accurately, since I mostly just write three days a week the averages comes out to ~750 words/writing day.
  • If you just include the chronological chapters and not the folder of documents I’ve entitled “Scenes That Need Chapter Homes” etc. the actually manuscript comes is closer to 97k words and around 300 pages
  • If you count all the words I’ve written in Scrivener, including: brainstorming documents, outlines, research, character sketches, freewrites, notes, and the occasional old draft, the total word count comes to 182, 603
  • The book has a prologue, epilogue, three Parts, twenty-one chapters, and about a dozen “interludes” or mini-chapter/flashbacks.
  • The most I ever wrote on a given day (since Jan. 1) was on Sept. 2nd when I plowed through to the end of Chapter 19 with 2143 words in about 3 hours (that chapter’s a doozy, let me tell you)

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Most of you are asking: What’s next? When will I see it on the shelf? while I appreciate your enthusiasm and faith in my abilities, the truth of the matter is this is Step 1, Phase 1. First step: writing a novel! CHECK! Now I need to make it the best possible novel it can be. And let me tell you, iy will need to go through several rounds of revision before it even makes it in front of beta readers, then another round or two before it gets to the point where I can start querying Literary Agents (as I plan to go the traditional publishing route to start).

Let’s put it this way: If I managed to revise everything perfectly on the first go, then queried agents and got the very first one I queried, then they pitched the book to editors and the first one of THOSE bit, and they put it on a rush schedule to publication with no edits… it would still be at least two years from now before I’d be announcing a publication date. That’s just how the industry rolls.

For now I have two major plans:

  1. Begin a 6-week class on Revision this evening at The Writer’s Loft
  2. Read & Research: issues of gender and race, the transmigration of technology and ideas, PTSD, the psychological implications of grief, river ways, how dams work, ley lines, mourning practices, political history, and all KINDS of other things.

So while I’m classing it up, I’ll be reading it up too and spending lots of time in the library and on the internet diving down the rabbit holes of these topics. So come November I can really jump into MASSIVE REVISING TIME and have a bunch of fresh ideas and strategies to tackle it. Hi-yah!

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July 16th, 2015

Allison PH flyer final

  1. What are you up to? First off, I want to let you all know that I am giving a presentation. on marketing books to bookstores. Yes! Me! Being knowledgable on a topic in front of a large group of people! It’s on July 22nd at The Writer’s Loft in Sherborn, MA. There will be snacks, a powerpoint, and yours truly. I know I’m looking forward to it and I hope you are too. Apologies if you feel bombarded about this through my social media but I know there are many things that vie for our attention these days.
  2. I haven’t used Powerpoint to make a presentation in over a decade. So this should be interesting.
  3. NicolaThis past weekend I attended my first ever fan convention in the form of Readercon. It was fascinating. I have things to say but that is another post entirely. In summary: books are wonderful. So is writing inclusive + informed narratives and Nicola Griffith (who is even more wonderful in person than on the page, if that’s possible).
  4. How’s the writing going? You may recall that I had given myself the arbitrary deadline of May 31st to be done with Draft #1 of The Ghost Story. Alas, while I am only 3,800 words away from my 100k word count goal, I am about seven chapters, or approximately 30 – 35k words away from the actual end of the book. I know this because last week I had a “hot coal” moment and outlined the last third of the book. This is fairly remarkable because I’ve considered myself what is known as a “pantser” or a writer who “flies by the seat of her pants” but it seems my pants have flown away and left me with some semblance of a plot so there you go. My new goal is to be done with draft one by the end of the summer.
  5. How does that feel? I’m okay with the continued work and with the first draft wrapping up at 135,000 words. There are chapters-worth of words I already know will be cut. My writing/logic process re: plotting (with or without pants): “How can I make xyz happen here? Oh well, it’d be so much easier if Character already knew about abc. OH OH OH, if I just re-write chapters 4 and 5 then chapter 14 will work!” No idea if this proper form or if it will come back to bite me in subsequent drafts, but it’s sort of working so damn it, someone hand me a chocolate bar.
  6. What’s taking you so long? Well, well, impatient aren’t we! I’ve been somewhat stymied in my fervent attempts to write because an old RSI (repetitive stress injury) in my wrist has flared up again making extended time at the keyboard incredibly frustrating and painful. There’s also been Family and Travel and whatnot so summertime has been a slow time for writing.
  7. What have you been reading? Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble; Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy; Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist; Mary Roach’s Spook (which I am totally counting as research)
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May 6th, 2015

I attended my first writer’s conference last Saturday: The Muse & The Marketplace hosted by Grub Street Inc. a non-profit creative writing center in Boston (the same folks I took a class with earlier this spring). It was really cool to be surrounded by other writers of various stripes, to be exposed to a lot of fresh ideas about craft, and to meet-up with writer friends. There’s a huge component of The Muse that’s focused on publishing, including sessions and lunches where you can meet agents and editors, but I skipped those this year and focused on craft-based sessions. Click on the courses below for some of my take-aways:


["Timing is Everything: Negotiating Past & Present in Fiction"]

taught by Maya Lang

This workshop was fantastic and I wasn’t the only one discouraged by the blaring fire alarm that interrupted our session. Dr. Lang had a smooth, calm voice and made the concepts we covered – the position of your character in time and how that relates to the narrative of your story – seem approachable, achievable. She also talked about the way readers experience time: “Some stories make time disappear,” she said, “others make time slow down.” Like devouring a meal versus savoring an 11-course tasting menu. “Sometimes it’s worth dwelling.”

Notes:

  • META narrators are positioned away from the dramatic action, but the story brings them back through time to focus/reflect on that action. These narrators utilize: hindsight, regret, justification, self-awareness. The change in emotional state between then and now adds to the sense of emotional stakes – why the narrator is looking back.
  • IMMERSED narrators are present in the dramatic action of the story. These narrators utilize: immediacy, high stakes, likeability, more detail, no safety net, no pre-knowledge of the outcome. “You have to watch the pace of the unspooling” of the narrative.
  • Seamless flashbacks are woven into the narrative and flow of thought – they don’t disrupt the story. They are always “triggered” by a thought or sensory experience in the story.
  • Demarcated flashbacks are often longer and there is some sort of indicator (paragraph break, chapter break) indicating a movement in time. These tend to be fuller and richer than seamless flashbacks.

Reflections: This session was perfect for me because in The Ghost Story I am doing all four of these things – meta narration in the form of demarcated flashbacks alternating with live-action immersive narration with the occasional seamless flashback. I asked Dr. Lang if that was allowed, if I could do all of these things in one novel. That I didn’t want to do everything half-assed instead of one thing well. “Don’t think about what you ought to do in the first draft. Just write.” A lot of the temporal position questions can be resolved once you have the whole picture, she assured me, once you yourself can reflect back on the work.

Maya Lang: "Time is a tool at your disposal"

Maya Lang: “Time is a tool at your disposal”

["Dramatis Personae or What Are All These Characters Doing in Your Story"]

taught by Lynne Barrett

Twitterfbc7013Another fantastic session. Barrett dove right into characters from a theatrical point of view: their roles on stage, their exits and entrances, the dynamics of different numbers of characters interacting with different levels of knowledge. “A story has a cast with roles,” she explained, “And those roles and relationships can change shape and shift.” It was fascinating to think about making effective use of “stage time” for characters and developing triangles of tension between them. “Good books have lots of triangles in them,” she joked as she outlined the dynamics between characters in The Great Gatsby.

Notes:

  • The protagonist is important, but the story really starts with the entrance of the deuteragonist (2nd character) who may or may not be the antagonist. The introduction of a tritagonist (3rd character) allows for more variation – the deuteragonist can then take on more of a confidante role. But all of these roles can transform by the end of the story.
  • Aristole’s Poetics, Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, and the Comedia dell’Arte all have examples of different kinds of roles that are useful in interpreting your characters. Doubling up on roles can really add drama through bonds of love/hate. E.g. Breaking Bad where the anti-hero and his antagonist are brothers-in-law –more dramatic than if they weren’t related.
  • There are viewpoint characters like Watson who relate the story/serve as a lens versus focal characters like Sherlock Holmes who are the main drivers of a story.
  • How do you make things happen in a story about internal struggle? Character “rifts” – Characters that enact internal struggle/conflict with strong actions that are contradictory serve the story  best. Continual contradiction creates character. Characters that say one thing but do another, who are consistently inconsistent create action and movement.
  • Ways to think about your characters and story design. Try making a character map or list outlining the breakdown of your characters by: class, territory, genealogy, order of appearance. Entrance order in Shakespeare’s plays made clear the balance of power to an audience without a program. What does your characters’ order of appearance say about the balances within your story?

Reflections: Yes, a thousand times yes. My story is bloating outward with characters; everytime I fact a conflict or am not sure which way a story should go, I add more characters. “Every character should really contribute to the outcome of the novel,” Barrett warned, “Always try to think about who can serve more roles.” I really appreciate being told to think about the roles my characters play and how those interact. Whose story is it? Who’s telling it? Who contributes to that story and how? Also love the character “rift” point, that contradiction is the strength of good characters.

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Lynne Barrett: “Good books have a lot of triangles in them.” Connections of marriage, lust, power, and money in Gatsby.

["'A Woman Wouldn't Say That'- Gendering Characters Without Bending to Stereotype"]

taught by Dawn Dorland Perry

A gentle conversation about how to develop characters that don’t conform to gender stereotypes. “In the absence of information in a story, a reader will make an assumption, likely fueled by a stereotype,” Perry said. We discussed techniques of characterization and what some of our own stereotypes are about men and women. “Stereotypes eat our writing from the inside out,” Perry warned, and urged us to think deeply about the context and point-of-view of stereotypes creeping into our own work. Perry did an excellent job of making the material accessible and comfortable, though I wish we had had the time to dig a little deeper into how gender shapes the choices we make about our characters. We did some reading and writing exercises that were very fruitful.

Exercise: Step 1: Call to mind someone you know Spend three minutes list the salient traits of this character, inventing and embellishing wherever you like. PAUSE. Step 2: Flip the gender of your character. Take a moment to adjust to this new reality. Then for five minutes write a passage rendering a scene from this new characters point-of-view, either in third or first person.

Reflections: Doing the gender-flip exercise was great and I loved the discussion it generated… I almost wish we had done that earlier in the workshop! This is a topic I think a lot about because my novel’s protagonist, while female, often passes for a boy and is fairly non-conformist. Its important to me not to fall into the traps of my own bias, especially when I’m creating an entire world to populate. It got me thinking about: what are the stereotypes in the world I am creating? How do my characters break not only the stereotypes of our world, but of theirs?

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Dawn Dorland Perry: “Stereotypes eat our writing from the inside out.”

["One Thing You Should Always Do Before You Write"]

taught by  Nadine Kenney Johnstone

Not too many notes on this because we spent most of the session doing a visualization exercise. Johnstone was very down-to-earth and organized, even with the cerebral nature of the exercise. Writing without developing a scene in your mind is like moving into a house with not plan for unpacking, layout, and design she explained. She walked us through a piece of writing, having us call out the d

WP_20150502_15_17_26_Proetails of scene and character that stuck with us. Then she led us in visualization exercise. First we jotted down a few notes about a day-in-the-life of our character and had us think about one thing that might be different on this day.  Then we closed our eyes and she had us picture the scene, first from a birds-eye view with natural elements, time of day/year, etc. Then she had us zoom in on the space our character occupied and examine it through the senses, then through the furnishings and objects around the character, then examining the character herself and those around her. Finally we focused on action in the scene and that subtle shift – who or what has changed at the end? What won’t be the same anymore?

Reflections: I liked this exercise, though I don’t think I did it right – I started my character in her bedroom in the morning, after first waking up before I realized we were sort of supposed to start them in the moment in change. But when I asked Johnstone about it she said “If you started in her room, there was a creative reason for it.” I think this is a great exercise for really diving deep into sensory details. It’s something I do in a smaller way on a regular basis since descriptive detail is my jam. But I liked the idea of “what is different about today?” and that it could be as small as waking up in a different mood. I had a mini “ah hah” moment during the exercise, so that was fruitful.

A hook to get me into a fresh scene for my novel...

A hook to get me into a fresh scene for my novel…

["Star Literary Idol"]

Pieces read by Steve Almond, judged by Stephen McCauley, Anita Shreve, Elinor Lipman, and Mameve Medwed

Imagine having your first page read aloud in the dulcet tones of writer Steve Almond and judged by four brilliant authors? Yup, that’s “Star” Literary Idol. Almond read the pieces aloud and if one of the judges hears a line that would prompt them to stop reading, they would raise their hand. Once two hands were raised, Almond would stop reading and the judges would critique the piece.

The first piece read aloud was a darkly funny piece about a man struggling with obesity, attending over-eaters anonymous with a bunch of skinny women. The judges loved it and wanted more. The second piece they read was MINE. Almond read it beautifully, I’m sure, but I only heard half of it because my heart was literally beating so hard and loud it felt like my entire rib cage would split open. But… no one raised a hand. My first 250 words made it through strict judgement! They were intrigued. Anita Shreve was worried that it would be grim, but was interested in hearing what happened next. They all liked the imagery (even Elinor Lipman who said “I don’t usually go for descriptions of leaves and things…”) and the unexpected line “the trees rattle and cough with hundreds of birds.” And then they were on to the next piece and my hands were shaking and I could breathe again.

Reflections: Terror! Now the rest of my novel has to live up to the first 250 words! Which was always the case, but some piece of me wants to believe that if I fix the beginning enough, the whole thing will be fixed – NOT TRUE. As for the rest of the pieces read and analyzed during the Idol session, about a quarter to a third of them were stopped mid-read, usually due to confusion, boredom, or cliché. There was a large swath that made it all the way through, but where the feedback was really mixed – the usual comment was “The first part was slow/clichéd/confusing, but it really started for me with your second-to-last line…” There were a handful that the judges had only positive feedback on, and a teeny tiny number that the judges loved.

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Mameve Medwed: “Dialogue should be the cream that rises to the top.”

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May 1st, 2015

Yesterday I hit 80,000 words in The Ghost Story project! **fireworks**

So I thought I would update you on my “process”:

  1. Next time I write a novel I want to have more of a plan. Maybe that’s not my true process but being 80,000 words in, a plan would feel really good right about now. This last week has mostly been hyper-productive because I know I have to get my characters from point A to point B and I’ve just been bullheadedly pushing them there.
  2. Revision will either be the life or death of me. There is so much that needs to be fixed, dear readers, and I’m not just talking about the errant cliché (I actually used the phrase “every fiber of my being” and thought I might keel over right then).  I’m talking about referencing stuff in later chapters that never even happened in earlier chapters. I’ve changed people’s personalities and abandoned secondary plots. I don’t know if that means they are better off abandoned or if I’ve shed all extra weight just to get the buoyancy to finish. But I have a document called “Weak Spots” that I’m filling with notes like: Make sure lead up info/backstory is given BEFORE critical scene, not after and Establish conflict and Why would he even DO this?
  3. I’ve upped my daily word count goals. I boosted it from 850 to 1300 last month because needs must. But I’ve found that I can hit that now. If I focus, if I have some specific scenes to work on during a writing session, then I can get there.
  4. Reading backwards. I have to go back and read the last chapter or two before I continue. I usually do some tightening and tidying as a I go, but try not to wallow there too long. Sometimes I go back and read Chapter 1 because that’s where the tone I want lives, in those early pages.
  5. Still aiming for May 31st but… in all honesty, even if I make it to 100,000 words (which would be more like 1,500 words/writing day), I don’t think the story will be finished. It feels like I’m 50 – 60% complete, not 80%. This is where the plan would be really useful. Based on my sort-of plan, there’s a whole additional country to visit (possibly two) and another antagonist to encounter. I think. It feels kind of ridiculous.
  6. I’m still figuring out the shape of this project. What’s the real mystery/mission at the heart of this story? When I go back to revise, I think the focus will be the world, the characters and the questions: What is grief and how do we grieve? How do we live in the face of death? If death and the afterlife were a known quantity, would that make life easier or harder and how? If reincarnation were the cycle of the world, how would that impact the choices people make? What would that kind of world look like? Oh, and making sure it all makes sense.

This weekend is Grub Street’s The Muse & The Marketplace. This is my first writer’s conference and my writing buddy and I are attending all day tomorrow. The workshops I plan to attend include ones on writing through time, handling large casts of characters, writing gender, and creativity exercises. I’m also going to “Star Literary Idol” where there’s a chance that Steve Almond (!) may read the first 250 words of my manuscript to a panel of authors to be Judged. I’ll do an extensive write-up once I’ve processed everything and let you know what I’ve learned. I’m hoping it’ll make this crazy “I don’t know what I’m doing!” feeling a little less “ahhhhh!” and a little more “ahhhh…” or even, possibly “ah HA!”

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April 21st, 2015

I may not like packing for vacations – it always takes me forever and I always forget something critical like sunscreen or socks – but I do like carefully curating my Books To Read on Vacation selections. I have to assess how many free hours I will have to read; determine the proper balance of genres; evaluate which books are too heavy to travel; decide which books hit the right tone for my destination.

The last vacation I went on was to sunny Florida. I spent several wonderful days desperately trying to soak in as much warmth and Vitamin D to make up for the years and years I’ve been snow- and cold-bound this winter. And reading. In the sun. With a glass of iced tea. Slice of heaven.

The books I selected to bring were: The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi (realistic YA), A Visit from the Goon Squad (literary adult), The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (classic sci-fi), and Snuff by Terry Pratchett (satirical fantasy). You can see what I did there – a smorgasbord of stories, nothing too dark but works with some meat and interest. Alas, I didn’t get to Snuff this time around but I did get to read the other three.

This is part of a series of 100 Word Book Reviews.

chance you won't returnThe Chance You Won’t Return
by Annie Cardi
Published by Candlewick
received as a galley
Read in March 2015
Target Audience: Young Adult

Full-disclosure: Annie and I were actually suitemates/classmates at Young Writers Workshop at UVA in 2001 and only recently rediscovered each other. We’ve since met for coffee and conversation and she is a lovely (and highly entertaining) person. I assure you none of this has anything to do with my assessment of her book. But frankly, her book is as lovely as she is.

On the surface, Alex’s problems seem typical: drivers ed and a new love interest. Instead, she’s hiding the secret of her mother’s dissolution into an alternate identity: Amelia Earhart. The story is tightly written with carefully, emerging tension: we follow Alex as her fraught relationship with her mother twists into something both distancing and tender. I found it especially refreshing that the romance in the story was an added layer of conflict, but not the focus. Cardi writes with humor and a light touch, even when the topic is serious and destructive for the main character.

Should I read it? Yes. Annie Cardi has a way with characters that will draw you in. They are complex and interesting and most of all, heartfelt. I am looking forward to her next work!

9780307477477A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan
Published by Knopf (Random House)
passed along from my mother
Read in March 2015
Target Audience: Adult

My mother described this book as “weird” with a wrinkle of her nose but it’s the kind of weird I love. Each chapter closely follows a different character’s story. Sometimes they seem barely connected, but ultimately they spiral and build on one another. The characters revolve around the double helix of music and time, examining the rise and fall of the music industry. Egan’s writing is dark and tongue-in-cheek, as are her characters. She paints them brilliantly in just a few strokes and makes you care, even as she eases you out of one life and into the next.

Should I read it? Definitely. It’s not for everyone, but there’s a reason it won the Pulitzer. I love books that break the novel form open to see what hatches. In this case, something beautiful and wonderous.

starsmydestinationThe Stars My Destination
by Alfred Bester
Published by Vintage (Random House)
purchased – Wellesley Free Library book sale
Read in April 2015
Target Audience: Adult

Alfred Bester is a classic science fiction author and this book had been on my to-read list for a long time. It’s the story of Gully Foyle, a brute of a man wronged by fate and turned viciously vengeful. It had strong tones of Philip K. Dick – psychics, telepathic teleportation, grand conspiracy, and elaborate and fanciful tech. The book explores the darkness of human nature, both physically and psychically. It wasn’t totally my cup of tea – aside from Gully, the characters felt flat and the ending “twist” felt muddy – but it was interesting to see the root of so many SF tropes

Should I read it? Meh. If you enjoy classic SF from the 1950’s or are rounding out your reading in science fiction canon, then reading Bester is a must, though I might go with The Demolished Man.

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February 26th, 2015

This is how I feel about plotting a novel. Like Maniac Magee pulling apart Cobble’s Knot. I just want to find the end, to see the whole thing unravel and make sense. Not there yet.

To the ordinary person, Cobble’s Knot was about
as friendly as a nest of yellow jackets. Besides the
tangle itself, there was the weathering of that first year,
when the Knot hung outside and became hard as a
rock. You could barely make out the individual
strands. It was grimy, moldy, crusted over. Here and
there a loop stuck out, maybe big enough to stick
your pinky finger through, pitiful testimony to the
challengers who had tried and failed.

And there stood Maniac, turning the Knot, check-
ing it out. Some say there was a faint grin on his face,
kind of playful, as though the Knot wasn’t his enemy
at all, but an old pal just playing a little trick on him.
Others say his mouth was more grim than grin, that
his eyes lit up like flashbulbs, because he knew he
was finally facing a knot that would stand up and fight,
a worthy opponent.

He lifted it in his hands to feel the weight of it. He
touched it here and touched it there, gently, daintily.
He scraped a patch of crust off with his fingernail. He
laid his fingertips on it, as though feeling for a pulse.
Only a few people were watching at first, and half
of them were Heck’s Angels, a roving tricycle gang
of four and five year olds. Most of them had had
sneaker lace or yo yo knots untied by Maniac, and
they expected this would only take a couple of seconds
longer. When the seconds became minutes, they
started to get antsy, and before ten minutes had
passed, they were zooming off in search of somebody
to terrorize.

The rest of the spectators watched Maniac poke
and tug and pick at the knot. Never a big pull or yank,
just his fingertips touching and grazing and peck
pecking away, like some little bird.
“What’s he doin’?” somebody said.
“What’s taking so long?”
“He gonna do it or not?”

After an hour, except for a few more finger size
loops, all Maniac had to show for his trouble were
the flakes of knot crust that covered the table.
“He ain’t even found the end of the string yet,
somebody grumbled, and almost everybody but
Amanda took off.

Maniac never noticed. He just went on working.
By lunchtime they were all back, and more kept
coming. Not only kids, but grownups, too, black and
white, because Cobble’s Corner was on Hector, and
word was racing through the neighborhoods on both
the east and west sides of the street.

What people saw they didn’t believe.

The knot had grown, swelled, exploded. It was a
frizzy globe, the newspaper the next day described
it as a “gigantic hairball.” Now, except for a packed
in clump at the center, it was practically all loops. You
could look through it and see Maniac calmly working
on the other side.

“He found the end!” somebody gasped, and the
corner burst into applause.

Meanwhile, inside, Cobble’s was selling pizza left
and right, not to mention zeps (a Two Mills type of
hoagie), steak sandwiches, strombolis, and gallons of
soda. Mr. Cobble himself came out to offer Maniac
some pizza, which Maniac of course politely turned
down. He did accept an orange soda, though, and then
a little kid, whose sneaker laces Maniac had untied
many a time, handed up to him a three pack of
Tastykake butterscotch Krimpets.

After polishing off the Krimpets, Maniac did the
last thing anybody expected: he lay down and took a
nap right there on the table, the knot hanging above
him like a small hairy planet, the mob buzzing all
around him. Maniac knew what the rest of them
didn’t: the hardest part was yet to come. He had to
find the right routes to untangle the mess, or it would
just close up again like a rock and probably stay that
way forever. He would need the touch of a surgeon,
the alertness of an owl, the cunning of three foxes,
and the foresight of a grand master in chess. To ac-
complish that, he needed to clear his head, to flush
away all distraction, especially the memory of the but-
terscotch Krimpets, which had already hooked him.
In exactly fifteen minutes, he woke up and started
back in.

Like some fairy tale tailor, he threaded the end
through the maze, dipping and doodling through
openings the way he squiggled a football through a
defense. As the long August afternoon boiled along,
the exploded knot hairball would cave in here, cave
in there. It got lumpy, out of shape, saggy. The Times
photographer made starbursts with his camera. The
people munched on Cobble’s pizza and spilled across
Hector from sidewalk to sidewalk and said “Ouuuu!”
and Ahhhh!”

And then, around dinnertime, a huge roar went up,
a volcano of cheers. Cobble’s Knot was dead. Undone.
Gone. It was nothing but string.

— from Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

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Tags: , | Posted in Quotations |
February 26th, 2015

Yesterday I had what I call a “hot coal” writing session. A hot coal moment is when you’re creating something so good and crucial to your art that you almost can’t touch it. But you must and you do because what makes it burn is it’s beauty and potential to change your work for the better. Doesn’t mean it still won’t hurt like hell.

I was in the zone, that feeling that you’re so immersed in the work and creative generation that you forget about time and word count and deadlines and that inner voice that says “Really, you think you can write anything original?” I knew the scene I was writing was a good one and suddenly the ideas were coming faster than I could write them. It was like I was tossing a hot coal back and forth between my hands while trying to write at the same time. A word here a word there. I had to roll my eyes, murmur to myself, and make lots of strange hand gestures. I’m sure my café compatriots thought I was having some sort of fit. It was an uncomfortable state to be in but at the same time I knew I was on to something. I wrote 900 words in about an hour which WOW is sometimes the amount I churn out in a day.

I don’t know if it was the scene itself or the loud music in the café, the sun streaming in the windows or having just come from writing class feeling plugged in. I hope it’s something I can recreate for myself.

Ever had a hot coal moment yourself? What was it like?

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February 23rd, 2015
emotional stages of writing a novel

From terribleminds.com.
Yup, I’m somewhere between “Old man lost at the mall” and “Destroy Boredom with a Hammer”…

So right around Valentine’s Day, I hit 50,000 words on The Ghost Story! **confetti cannon**

This is a big deal to me because:

  1. It means that in theory I am half-way through the novel, according to my word count goal. 
  2. 50,000 words is also the word count goal for National Novel Writing Month, something I’ve attempted several times and never completed. So even though this was more like National Four-and-a-Half-Months-Of-Writing-Half-a-Novel, I still won.
  3. It means I’m in it to win it. In other words, I can’t back out now.

And ooooh boy do I sometimes want to back out. Like, right now.

As I mentioned in my last post, plotting is not my strong suit. The thing about getting to the middle when I don’t know how the story ends is that I feel like I’m trying to push through one of these six foot snow banks in my front yard. Nothing but cold, cold resistance. I have a vague, half-formed plan. And I feel like every scene I write that moves the story forward, requires all manner of revisions to things I’ve already written. Sometimes I go back and make those revisions. But generally I try to just keep writing and tell myself “No! MUST PLOW ONWARD!” And grind my way through another chapter.

What I’m finding is that I can’t wait to be finished. Not just so I can say “I wrote a novel!” but also so I can go back and fix the damn thing. I need the whole picture and I’m just not there yet. There’s at least another 50,000 words to go. I want to finish so that I can go back and fix it so it’s less of a hot mess. Then I can give it to a few beta readers who can ask me pointed questions so I can fix it again.

Case in point: The first line of my novel (as it stands) is “The trucks arrived at dusk, as usual, bearing the Dead.” Just last week someone in my Novel in Progress class asked “What do the trucks run on?” and I thought Yes! That is a hugely important question. It seems so simple because readers bring to it so many assumptions that you wouldn’t think it needed explaining, but when you’re building an alternate world something like a truck can either feel natural or anachronistic. It’s really easy to drill down into the details too much but it’s right there in the first line. The trucks better be friggin’ important and I need to know everything about them if they’re going to be there right out of the gate. There are tons of basic things like this that need fixing, I know this already, even as I write something and think huh, that sounds good, I better figure out what it means. But I need to be done to ask those questions effectively. So that in answering them I can make sure all the puzzle-box pieces of story slide seamlessly together.

I’ve been asked how I can write a story not knowing how it ends and honestly, I don’t know. So far I’ve been muddling my way through with a scrappy, unconvincing list of plot points. Mostly, I just try to muster confidence in my storytelling abilities, that enough reading + thinking = writing. That something alchemical occurs between the ideas and thoughts combining and recombining in my imagination and the words I put to paper.

I did put together my W-plot, for anyone who’s reading along. It was mostly “I know all these things happen… (downward slope, beginning of first upward slope) and then here are a series of other things that will happen, maybe in this order.” Mostly I got a sense of the emotional trajectory of the novel, which is helpful. Now I just need to figure out what my characters do to get there.

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