I am thinking of my dear Aunt C a great deal today. I wrote two poems about the pomegranates that grow at her house, and I’m sharing them while I ruminate on the beauty, and darkness, that we find in October, that most brilliant of months.
I walk the stony path from the flagstones to the garden,
Passing the cacti and succulents, the departed wisteria hanging
Like fuzzy green caterpillars over the veranda.
There are a thousand, thousand living plants here still,
The protea. Queen Victoria’s agave.
Their little lettered placards are fewer every year and so I forget.
Then I see the pomegranate trees.
I do not know their names, but I know them each—as I do my children.
The right hand is the denser plant, with smaller, redder
fruit, nestled among the rosemary.
The left hand is the wider plant, with bigger, rounder
fruit, so often pillaged by the birds and the ants.
I visit the right most first, and reach between the
netting to grasp the ready fruit.
It departs the bush with a soft snap and I
shake free the temporary inhabitants.
When the basket is full, I return to the white kitchen and
with her sharpest knives I score them and drown them
and free the inner flesh.
All beauty lives in the whorls of the pomegranate fruit.
The supple skin, those jeweled walls,
Bursting forth with a certain bloody, impossible plumpness.
In the sunshine the pomegranate glistens, while trails
Of deep carmine trickle through my fingers into
the basin, staining the counters.
I am at home with the pomegranate.
Her roundness. Her complexity.
When I smooth my thumb across her skin,
still warm from the autumn sun,
I sigh, reminded of passions. Of that
taste, ripe and tart and unexpected.
An indelible and ancient surprise.
I bite down on those
sourest seeds, feel the juice between my teeth
The cookbooks all have their ways
with her. Slice here, hit there. Sever and
break and tease out the juice.
I drown her, and slice her, and twist the
seeds in a clean old tea towel,
smell the tannic clarity she expresses,
dapple my fingers and forearms with her
One sip and I see why this fruit,
so hard won, has been so treasured.
How Eve could have been tempted.
But no. Eve would have understood.
have waited and teased the knowledge from
those deep, crimson seeds, and
Adam would have bitten straight in.
Glassmere marks my second real foray into a planned novel. The outline isn’t terribly strict, and it’s always changing and morphing. But it’s like this bright backbone I’m building around. For a seasoned pantser, this is a huge departure.
What I like most about the outline, though, is that it’s not as rigid as I thought it’d be. Sure, there are some writers who do a far more strict version than I do, where every scene and beat is painstakingly draw out in detail. Others use a detailed synopsis. Just different strokes, y’know? But for me, having this backbone means that, even in times of crunch (which, let’s be honest, feels like every day these days) I have a blueprint. I have somewhere to go.
It doesn’t mean that the words flow like water (or wine), though. There have been many days where I’m perfectly aware of what I’m supposed to be writing next, it just doesn’t happen. And I’m totally cool with that. The last two years I’ve finally managed a kind of writing pace zen, and it’s not about getting 3,000 words written in a day every day. It’s usually between 200 and 1500.
What it does mean, though, is that I have access to two really important tools I didn’t have before. Focus and flexibility of structure and scene.
Focus is the fairly obvious one. I have a chapter and I know what it’s roughly going to be about. I don’t have to sit and wonder. Right now, Eleanor is fighting for her life against a many-eyed horror emerging out of the sea and trying to eat Mr. Greenbank. That’s not the focus of the chapter. The focus of the chapter is arrival in the Other Country and her meeting with the Elephant Queen. (Yes, I realize writing all of this down is a little… well, it sounds crazier when it’s out of context.) Initially, the meeting with the Elephant Queen was going to be low key, a kind of “outsiders washed up on the strange shores and rescued by the locals” kind of vibe.
But then came the monster.
This is where the flexibility of structure and scene came in. The important part here is the word flexibility. It means that it can bend and twist, that it can change its shape but not its overall form. The focus, that form, remains the same. But when the creature emerged from the sea and snaked its long tendrils up Eleanor’s leg, the structure and scene shifted considerably. Motive changes. Character moves in ways I hadn’t anticipated before.
My outline, then, becomes a bit like a mansion of many apartments (to steal from Keats). In this case, I know the doors very well — even the hallways sometimes. I know where the characters are going in, and where they’re going out. But inside, it’s darkness. Inside, I have to light candles and pull back curtains and look under beds.
And that is really, really fun.
One of my biggest fears about writing outlines had to do with rigidity. That I wouldn’t have room for creativity. That I wouldn’t be able to excavate the way I love so much.
But just the opposite has happened. Because there is a backbone, I have more time to add to the details. I have more time for little pockets of discovery because I don’t have to worry about the big beats.
I know, it’s hard to change the way you write. But I encourage you, if you’re a writer and a pantser and struggling, to consider even the most rudimentary outline.
You need a map, after all. Even if not all the islands are discovered yet. No sailor would unlikely go to sea without the stars and a compass to guide them, right?
Featured image: J. M. W. Turner [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Now that the office is finally set up in the new house, writing has begun again on Glassmere. Frustrating to take a break from something I’m enjoying so much, but there’re lessons to be learned there, too. The older I get, the more I realize that writing is… well, it’s about the writing. The other extraneous chaff is part of it (the publishing, reception, etc.) — but on the most simple level, the most selfish level, I suppose, there is just the writing. And me. And I need it, and it makes me who I am. And I’m getting better at it every time I sit down to write because that’s my focus and not everything else.
It’ll take a little to get adjusted to the new corner. The new house has a built-in office, and I can’t tell you the last time I had a corner to call my own. We scored this gorgeous Midcentury Modern desk on Craigslist (pictured above), and I’m a bit giddy with the way it looks. The print over the desk is from the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Robert Hughes, and it used to hang in my daughter’s room, but I felt it was a good point of focus for me while she gets to now choose what goes in her room, being three and full of opinions.
Maybe I need the fancy of a three-year-old right now. I think I do.
If you follow me on social media, or anywhere really, you’ll note that I’m currently writing a magical realism novel called Glassmere. The elevator pitch is that it’s Downton Abbey meets Narnia. It’s set in the spring and summer 1914, and is the story of two generations of sisters (Eleanor and Julia who are in their late teens, and Alice and Lucy who are in their late seventies) and their connection to a place called the Other Country. If you want an aesthetic feel, my Pinterest board on the subject is quite comprehensive.
Typically when I’m writing it’s behind very closed doors. Once the whole thing is written, taken apart, put back together, and edited, I share it with beta readers. Simple as that.
But Glassmere is different. It’s a novel I’ve been working on, on and off, for more than four years. It’s rather well outlined, if I may say so myself. Everything about the project simply feels different. So yes. Different. It’s a word I’m using a lot here.
And it’s not just that the novel is different. I am different, too.
I am working. A lot. My children are growing up but also demanding more of my time. And it occurred to me, after thinking a bit about Mary Robinette Kowal’s approach, that alpha readers might just be the way for me to go. Like Mary, I’m a theatre geek, and much of my book is — in my mind, anyway — rather performative. But I also think that a more thorough alpha read will mean less of a beta read later on, and result in a stronger first draft than in previous works.
It’s also inspired by the collaborative novel I’ve been writing with Jonathan Wood. He just asks the best questions. He has the best insights. And they happen right in the middle of the process rather than after the fact. Those questions often open up doors I never realized were closed in the first place, and I don’t want to miss out on that opportunity here.
If there’s anything that the last six year of writing professionally have taught me is that the process is always changing… because my own life is always changing. And I am changing. So rather than step aside from it, I’m going to embrace it and try something new.
What will it require? I’m not asking for line edits or typo awareness. But to swipe directly from Mary, this is what I’m looking for:
So I ask my readers to tell me:
What bores you
What confuses you
What don’t you believe
What’s cool? (So I don’t accidentally “fix” it.)
I enjoy stream-of-conciousness reactions as well, because that tells me how the story is playing. Talking to me about sentence level stuff at this point is like going to a rehearsal and saying, “Your actors aren’t in costume.” I know that.
So — do you want to be my alpha reader? Let me know!
With a whirlwind trip to California (that included the worst airline experience to date, thanks United Airlines!) and the snowpocalypse in NC, I totally forgot to share this bit! I met Lawrence at Illogicon last year, and through the magic of Tsu (really, this isn’t a joke) he asked me to write for his blog series Eating Authors. Pretty much up my alley, as you might expect. (And oh yeah, you might have noticed Mr. Shoen was just nominated for a Nebula. Pretty darn sweet! Also thrilled to see Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation up, as well, one of the best books I’ve read in… um, a long, long time.)
I talk about my greatest food experience at a place called The Dragon Restaurant in Pittsfield, MA.
LMS: Welcome, Natania. What’s your most memorable meal?
NB: Food is part of what makes us human. Like any other art — and I do believe it to be an art — it inspires us, transports us, and challenges us. Truly great food makes you stop, gives you pause, insists that you stop and experience the flavors, textures, and scents of faraway, unexpected places. Meaningful food experiences steer you to remarkable mindfulness, no matter the quantity, and quite literally can transport you from the mundane to the sublime.
Timehop is a fabulous app. It’s really built on one hook: you want to see what you were up to in the past. So every morning, I open my app up and get windows into what I was doing one, two, three years ago. You get the drift. It’s often awash with cute pictures of my kids, plates of food, and lots of updates on writing.
This morning marked a year to the date I finished Watcher of the Skies. After starting a new job and having a very tumultuous year with our son (we were in the process of getting his IEP, I believe) the accomplishment was huge. To date, it’s one of the longest, most complex books I’ve written. And so much love and thought went into it. Often, when I write books I feel as if they give me something — with Watcher I feel as if something of me was lost. Not in a bad way, but in a way that’s essential to growing. A part of me, my heart, my purpose here on earth…
Anyway. As it’s been asked, no… I have no ETA on when Joss’s story will come to light. Publishing, as it is, is a complex wheel. Updates when, as if, I have them.
Collaboration isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a messy process. You can’t have a big ego, and you can’t be a control freak. Thankfully I’ve known Jonathan since early 2008, and we’ve been part of a writers group that’s sometimes just a place to bullshit or talk about RPGs or whatever, since about that time. He was one of my first Twitter friends. Back then, neither of us had written a novel, though I admired him hugely because he’d published short stories and I was still wallowing in unpublished-dom.
Anyway, after the 60,000 we managed for NaNoWriMo, the book has taken on a very different feeling. We’ve gone through our Act II and written collaboratively, mostly using an agreed upon outline (and massive caveats that sometimes I just have no control over what’s going on and I apologize).
As a result, I’m changing the way I think about all my future projects. I’d never had the discipline (it’s what it is — I could say patience or “it’s just not my style” but I’ve come to believe it’s just a matter of practice) to stick to an outline. But I think I was doing it wrong. Entirely wrong. I wasn’t detailed enough in some places, and I always felt as if I had to micromanage my characters thoughts and feelings and experiences. But this way is different, because that’s not the case. It’s about tension. Pulling and pushing. Points of pressure, not necessarily the exact feeling or emotion from a given character.
But now it’s my turn to take control of process. Control is the wrong word. Leadership. We have the 7 point plot for the whole thing, but Act III we haven’t done an extensive outline.
And we’re switching POVs.
That is, up until this point I’ve been writing the male protagonist, Zolin. And Jonathan has been writing the female protagonist, Ashellen. They’re shoved out of their world into an alien landscape, and now they’ve had some cruel tricks played on them by the antagonist of the book.
And they’re going on a scavenger hunt for body parts.
Is there a right way to write a novel? Is there a wrong way? No. I don’t think so. Certainly when you’re collaborating, it’s anyone’s game. But I’ve got to say that at this point, I’ve learned so much more during the process than any other time I’ve written a novel. Because I’m accountable. Because there’s no ego. Because there’s no control.
If you’re struggling writing the way you used to, remember… you change. Your process can change. Your life certainly changes. Be open to the possibility that you can change you might be surprised.
If I’ve taken my own advice to heart and grown as much as a writer in a year as I have since this last Timehop — publishing or not — I’ll consider myself a lucky woman, indeed.
Ever since I read Stephen King’s On Writing twelve years ago, I’ve been acutely aware of my biggest fault as a writer: my inability to achieve distance from my own writing. King talks about finishing a manuscript and then putting it away for a few weeks, letting it mellow a bit, in order to return to it with fresh eyes.
But fresh eyes, man. That’s the rub right there.
I have written many novels. And I have edited them, too. But when it comes to actually being able to see beyond my work in progress, to be able to step away far enough that it no longer feels familiar… that’s been a big challenge for me.
I’ve written about my struggles with rejection before. And while I think I’ve improved in some ways, I still have a very difficult time moving past initial rejection.
Yes, trunk novels are a thing. I have trunk novels.
But I don’t think Queen of None is a trunk novel. Over the holiday I decided to take a peek at the book. Since I’m currently co-writing Cry Blood in the Silent City with Jonathan, and we’re at the point where we swap chapters, I needed a project that wouldn’t be too involved. (No, I don’t know what the scoop is with the Pilgrim of the Sky sequel. I’ve got some thinking to do in 2015 about that.)
I was expecting to see Queen of None in the same way I’d seen it before. A book with potential, but something missing that I couldn’t put my finger on.
But now, suddenly, I can put my finger on it. And out of the ashes, my Arthurian tale has potential. I can see what wasn’t working, and I can see the possibilities for making it better.
This is weirdly exhilarating.
I had some pretty big goals when writing Queen of None, but I think I may have lacked the skills to bring it altogether. Here’s some of what the thought process was and what I’m fixing this time around:
Write an Arthurian tale about Anna Pendragon (i.e. what I’d write my Masters thesis on if it could have been fiction).Anna was Arthur’s sister, and appears in some of the early texts about him, and is the mother of Sir Gawain. Then she’s quickly supplanted by Morgaine, Morgause, Elaine, etc. The cool thing? She’s Arthur’s full sister. The child of Uther Pendragon and Igraine. I saw her as a person detached, a woman as close to the most powerful man in the realm as anyone but without any of his inheritance.
Anna is the narrator of the novel. And I wanted her to be unreliable. But while it’s done well in some parts, there are areas that need help. Most importantly is her relationship with Sir Bedevere — who is the love of her life even if she won’t admit it. I have a habit of dropping him from the scene altogether, but he needs to show up even when she’s trying to avoid him. Which is why tension is so important. I need to think of every chapter as pulling the threads tighter.
Also? A total aside, but I realized that it reads far better with fewer contractions. Lots of apostrophe destruction has ensued.
Write Camelot the way the Pre-Raphaelites saw it. From an aesthetic perspective, this was my guiding star. But it also bled into my decision to write an Arthurian tale without Christianity. The first go round I felt this was absolutely the right choice to make, that it set this apart from other retellings. But reading through it now it seems more of a missed opportunity, another chance for tension. It gives me the chance to play with the idea of magic and belief, and not just wave it off. It also helps the next point considerably.
Write the story of Arthur from inside Camelot. Or, Carelon as it’s called in the book. But Anna isn’t a knight. She isn’t a warrior princess. She starts the book as a widowed mother of three, relinquishing the crown of Orkney to her brother, and consigning herself to a life lived within the walls of the kingdom. In the novel she travels a single time, to visit Viviane (the Lady of the Lake) and that is only a few hours’ journey.
So much of the Arthurian saga is about adventures, leaving. But the women are always like weird accessories — hanging out in lakes, woods, carrying swords, that sort of thing. I wanted to tell a closer tale, something that shows how much machination can happen within the confines of a castle. Anna is trapped, but she’s not powerful.
I noticed this time how little Carelon seems a character. And it really needs to be. It starts out that way, as that’s where Anna grows up and she has a habit for running away and hiding in cupboards. Her success in the story has to do with her ability to navigate Carelon like no one else can — not even her brother. In a way, it’s her greatest weapon. She may not have Excalibur, but she has the greatest castle in all of Braetan.
Write a story about the women of Arthuriana. With only one exception (Morgause) the women of Queen of None are complex and faulted and interesting. Anna has her prejudices, but as the story unfolds, her understanding of the women around her — many of whom she views as enemies or competition — changes significantly. She gets older, her sisters and friends get older, Carelon starts to fall apart. Their relationships are absolutely central to the story — especially the connection Anna has to her half sisters. Anna may not be afforded adventures in foreign lands or be capable of slaying dragons, but she is capable of changing history with the help of the women around her.
There’s a lot to do. But for the first time, reading this manuscript doesn’t feel like a burden. It feels like a great chance to tell this tale.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in this crazy attempt at a writing career, it’s that every journey is different. Not just for every writer (hence why I don’t give writing advice any longer) but for every story you tell. Some writers create stories very strategically. Books are process, planned, unsurprising. But every book I write means something different to me, and while some of them certainly fall in the the planned and plotted category, not all of them are. Queen of None is a great example of having the right ideas at the wrong time — not being quite capable of the execution, but knowing the big picture. It’s just part of a longer journey than I first imagined.
And so it goes. My editing method this time around is very different. First, I am just reading and commenting. Then I’m going to take the whole damned thing apart and examine it. Novel dissection. Only then will I be able to pull taught all those strings and make the whole thing sing.
So even though I haven’t been posting here as much as I ought, I did post a series of meanderings over at Writer’s Digest over the NaNoWriMo insanity. The last post I somehow missed, but it’s live right here. You can click through all the other bits I shared from that final post, but I wanted to share the post here because it’s important.
So, read away, losers.
So here’s the thing. If you’re being technical, Jonathan and I didn’t win NaNoWriMo. Neither of us hit 50,000 words.
But I’m not upset in the least.
Why? Because NaNoWriMo isn’t just about “winning” really. Sure, you get a nice little badge and you can share an icon on your blog and social media. But at the end of the day sometimes (and this has happened to me) what you end up with is more work than what you started with.
From the outset, Jonathan and I wanted to use NaNoWriMo as a tool. Not an event. The focus, for us, was kindling a fire, carving out some time in our equally hectic lives to do a project that neither of us could manage alone. Did we do that? Hell yes we did. To the tune of around 70,000 words, we’re more than halfway through the book, and getting into the nitty gritty now. The deep collaboration. We had no way of knowing, starting out, where that would take us, where we’d end up. But once I hit about 35,000 words on my part of the story it became clear that we had to work more closely—and more slowly—to get the rest of the book right.
The most amazing part of the whole process has been sharing a brain. Well, not exactly. A space. That’s why we called our blog Two Brain Space—instead of going it alone, Jonathan and I have been able to bandy about when we’re stuck for ideas. And going back and reading what he’s written always inspires me to tweak and improve, and sometimes figure out entire sections of the book. It’s a thrilling, wonderful process to share an imagined world with someone who isn’t you. Like playing pretend all over again. But, in our case, with more spiders.
Defining your own success is a totally hackneyed concept, sure. But if you lost NaNoWriMo this year, don’t despair. You’ve started something amazing. Something no one else could do the way you’ve done it. You’re not a loser.
Stephen King’s On Writing was a big influence on my process early on as a writer. And he’s the one that’s forever lodged the concept of excavation to me—that we’re not so much writing books as we are excavating them, like archaeologists. Not every writer has the same experience or the same tools.
And NaNoWriMo is just one of those tools. What matters is that you become familiar with the habit of writing. That even when November is over, you’re finding those whispers at the back of your mind telling you to dig a little more. You’re out there finding new tools to help you dig out that dragon skeleton. Or maybe it’s a cavern to another world. Or an old spaceship. But you’re the only one that can do it, the only one that can find it.
So NaNo losers, let’s celebrate! So long as you’ve honed your skills and fine-tuned your approach, you’ve won.
Then there was a thing! A thing I won! With words! My lovely friend Jaym Gates roped me in to this flash fiction contest, and somehow I managed to edge out some pretty amazing writers and get crowned Winner of the Flashy Things (that’s not the official title, but I’m going with it… so there). You can read the winning piece here–called “The Argent”–right here. It was inspired by Russian research on silver foxes, and sort of built from there.
The best/worst part? The story won’t leave me alone. I’m supposed to be fleshing out Bone Dust. But the characters of “The Argent” keep finding their way into my brain. I haven’t written anything, but the world keeps opening up, and no matter how many times I tell it to away… it doesn’t listen. I get snippets of conversations every now and again, and so help me, I even named the three main characters (May, Kai, and Em). And it’s science fiction fantasy. It takes place with technology and craziness, and I’m helpless but to follow its dim light somewhere.
Novella? Novel? Novelette? Even though I’m trying my damnedest to stick to a process, there’s nothing process like about this book. So I’m hoping to take it out for a test drive and just see what happens.
Oh, there’s lots of other stuff going on, too. But time is few and far between these days, and if you’re not tuned in on Twitter you’ve probably missed all the good food I’ve cooked and posted and all the bottles of wine I’ve had. 😛 Your loss!
Oh! Right. And additionally, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you can catch me (mostly) every week over at my YouTube channel.