(That title will inevitably make some of you imagine me engaged in an epic struggle against these guys. In fact, it’s such an amusing image, I almost want to leave it at that — perhaps with an apology for putting that song in your head. It should only last month or two, until you happen to see a big red car somewhere.)
Back when I was in college, I read an essay by Daniel Pinkwater about his writing process. He used the “Butt in Chair” method: you park your butt in a chair and you don’t let yourself get up until a certain amount of time has passed. You will get so bored, just sitting there, that eventually you’ll start writing just to break the tedium.
That essay was written before the internet. If you’re using a computer to write – and most of us are, anymore – there is always something else to do besides work, no matter how long you park your butt in that chair.
Here’s what I’m slowly learning to appreciate: it’s actually more useful to pry yourself out of the chair at regular intervals.
If I sit in front of the screen too long doing one thing, I get wiggly – both physically and mentally. I need to get up and move around, or I need to find something else to think about for a little while. Moving around easily turns into running errands and doing housework; thinking about something else becomes surfing the internet before I know it. Both these things equal “Rachel isn’t getting her work done.”
Writing is my job now. If I let myself be overtaken by wiggles, I don’t get my job done.
So here’s my current strategy: I schedule my wiggles. I work for 30-45 minutes, and then I wiggle for 5-15 minutes. I use a timer, so there’s no losing track. Acceptable wiggles include: exercise, housework, snack, quick e-mails.
It is possible that my day was breaking down into about this proportion of work to wiggling anyway (although possibly not, because the internet does occasionally sink its claws in me), but the other advantage is that I can easily and accurately keep track of how much time I’ve spent working. Word count isn’t always the best measure of a day, as I’ve discovered. It’s nice to have a tangible measure because there are plenty of days where I work very hard and feel like I’ve almost nothing to show for it by the end.
And there’s my timer! Wiggle time!
I don’t know what it is, but November always wipes me out. Every year.
It’s a hard time of year for me. The rains set in in earnest (which is serious, here in Vancouver); everything feels like an uphill slog. If I were astrologically inclined – which I am not – I’d have some theory about Scorpio being out to get me with pincers and stinger, and then old Sagittarius finishing off what’s left of me with his bow. In the absence of hocus-pokery, I guess I have to assume it’s some kind of tedious daylight-length sensitivity, or the fact that here in Canada our Thanksgiving is much earlier, leaving us no holiday to break up the intractable gloom between Halloween and Christmas.
(Yes, yes, there is Remembrance Day. That doesn’t really dispel the gloom, though, does it.)
Whatever the case may be, November is a time of year where I have to be extra kind to myself. One of the ways I do that is to uncork some bottled sunlight in the form of music. It’s time for the old favourites – just like Christmas is for some people (why do the depths of winter weigh less upon my heart? I do not know). Here’s what I’ve been listening to this month:
Ancient Airs and Dances, by Respighi
Fish Out of Water, Chris Squire
Foxtrot and Trespass, Genesis
Mariners, Tri Yann
And the grande olde favourite, the song I always end up at, no matter where I begin: “A Nest of Stars“, by Iarla Ó Lionáird. I should write a whole post about that song. Another day, perhaps, when I’m not still fending off November with a pitchfork.
But look! Here comes December, before the week is out. And the sun is out today, which is a nice change. Whatever its other shortcomings, November does end, and usually on time.
With the release of Breaking Dawn (the film), strong feelings about the Twilight series have once again risen back to the fore on blogs and discussion forums. Now, though, there’s a backlash against the backlash. A metabacklash, if you will. The inimitable Holly Black has her finger on the pulse of an interesting argument, as always.
This got me thinking, as appears to be inevitable. I’ve had a Twilight post fermenting in my brain for some time, and while it’s only tangentially related to Black’s post, now seems as good a time as any to write about it.
For those with short attention spans, or who fake a migraine any time I talk about art, I’ll cut right to the thesis: I don’t like Twilight, but I still think Twilight is art, maybe even good art. Unfeminist or not, modelling bad relationships or not, it has its place and it isn’t going to ruin kids who read it.
All righty then! Those of you intrepid enough to follow me into my Labyrinth of Argument, I’ll meet you under the fold!
From Amazon.co.uk — it’s kind of awesome!
Just so we’re all completely clear: the US/Canadian cover will be nothing like this. I am not at liberty yet to say what it will be like, unfortunately. Still, this is very exciting for me.
Thanks to my husband for noticing it was up!
* I dreamed that I’d written the sequel in Persian up to the halfway point, and was terribly stuck as a result. I couldn’t even go back and read what I’d written, because it was all in Persian. I finally found someone who could translate it, but then the alarm went off before she was three sentences in.
* Now I’ll never know what happened, which is too bad. It looked much more exciting in Persian, but then, maybe everything does.
* Did anyone catch the Simpsons on Sunday? It was so much like my life that I was falling off the couch, laughing and weeping. Lisa, in particular. She was writing a novel and her procrastination techniques were just epic. EPIC. Toward the end, she said, “A hard deadline will really help me focus!” and I completely lost it.
* I have concluded from this that I would make much faster progress if only I had Neil Gaiman here to bring me beer and tase me. Surely that could be arranged? Don’t tell me he’s busy. I watched the show. We all know better. “British Fonzie”, ha ha ha.
* In other news: my agent and editor surprised me by getting Christopher Paolini to read my book. He has written me a nice blurb, in fact, to go with my collection of blurbs from Tamora Pierce, Ellen Kushner, Naomi Novak, and Alison Goodman. What a nice surprise! I’ll have to put it up on the front page with all the blurbage.
* Five blurbs is, I believe, enough to make a hand in Blurb Poker.
(This post is a continuation of this and this and this.) (Also: sorry it’s taken me forever to put this up. It’s been a really rough week on the writing front, as other problems have brought themselves to my attention. But as I always say – and as my friend Arwen had to remind me that I always say – writing is never wasted.)
I have a head full of humans.
I feel I’ve known some of them forever. In rewriting Seraphina so many times over the course of eight years, it’s like I’m a director who’s been fortunate enough to keep working with the same actors. I know them all very well. I know what they’re capable of, and I know when they haven’t bothered showing up for work (looking at YOU in that section I just ripped out, Lucian Kiggs!).
They aren’t real people, of course. I understand that. But I think there is more to each of them than I’ve consciously put there. I think each one acts as a conduit for something my subconscious is working on – not always, but often, especially when I’m just getting to know them.
The subconscious is a slippery subject. I’m not a psychologist; I have no training in this area. All I have is my own experience and observations of my mind at work. I think of my subconscious as a deep-sea diver, plumbing my cold, unknowable unconscious and bringing up grotesque treasures in a bucket. The diver can’t talk, and the imagery she brings back doesn’t always make sense at first (although sometimes it makes shockingly clear sense). She’s always working, quietly and unseen. This is where strange connections and leaps of intuition happen. This is the part of my brain I’m talking about when I say, “Sometimes my brain is smarter than I am.”
It’s a hard-working part of my brain, but it doesn’t have much access to language in the usual sense. It has to make do with symbols. I make a study of my own symbols and try to work out what I mean. It sounds ridiculous, but I find it really fun.
So whenever one of these humans in my head starts acting up, I can usually be sure there’s something my non-verbal brain is trying to get across. This was the case with Abdo, who was mad at me for most of October.
* Hello, darlings! I have returned from my weekend away, only to find that the world did not have the good grace to pause in my absence. Silly world! When will you ever learn? Rachel on vacation means you should definitely take a break as well, and not accumulate more things for me to do.
* I am working up my final knee-jerk blog post, but it is long and time is short. It will be up tomorrow, I hope. Edited to add: erm. Nope. Thursday or Friday. I overbooked today, and something had to give.
* I am bending NaNo to my will, using an algorithm of my own devising to convert “Time Spent Working” into “Fake Word Count”. That way, I can still see my progress on the handy graph, even as I go in and condense, weed, and improve all the crap I just wrote.
* Because seriously, I just wrote fifty pages where Prince Lucian Kiggs was there, but not there. He’d been replaced with Folger’s Crystals, or something — but I DID notice! I just didn’t know where the hell he had gone or how to get him back. I found him again (in my head!) over the weekend, so that was nice. He’s good people, is Kiggs; robot Kiggs just wasn’t cutting it.
* But that’s what the relentless page count was driving me to. That, and ZOMG adverbs! And redundancies of all kinds! And… and an obsession with Porphyrian plumbing!
* Er. With regard to that latter: my plumbing fixation is well-documented. The only time I have ever felt I may have lived a past life was when I visited Housesteads Fort on Hadrian’s Wall and found the Roman latrines utterly engrossing. Was I once a plumber for the Empire? Oh gods, I hope so.
* Until tomorrow, friends. Writing this doesn’t count toward my word-count algorithm, alas.
So! At it eleven days now, I’ve got more than 16K words written. This has been an interesting experiment, and I can’t deny it’s great to be as far into the book as I now am.
This is not the way I write. I can only go so far forward before I have to go back and make things better. I get unhappy, otherwise. I start dragging my feet. The book is on to the next thing, but my brain is all I’m not done back there.
I see the point of turning off the “internal editor” if it’s a cruel obstructionist who tells you everything you do is no good, but I don’t really have one of those.
For me, it’s more the case that I just don’t work in a straight line. I layer. When I write a scene, the previous scene suddenly looks different to me, so I have to go back and put another layer of meaning or characterization over it, which in turn enables me to sketch out a subsequent scene, which teaches me something I didn’t understand about the beginning, which reminds me of something I meant to do over here…
And round and round, building everything up slowly. It’s like those Renaissance paintings where they layered on glazes of almost transparent colour, building up subtle gradations. It takes a lot of patience, but it’s my process.
I am going to take a few days off — completely off — and let my poor brain bounce After that, my “NaNo” may in fact consist of something slightly different than the rules. I shall take the emphasis off word-count, maybe spend a week doing a comb-over of what’s already there, and then proceed in my own way.
I’ll keep the emphasis on progress, but remind myself gently that in my process, progress can occur in a variety of directions.
For your amusement while I’m offline, here’s William Shatner, being way too William Shatner for words:
So. Last time I said I had been particularly moved by that post at Seeking Avalon. I’d already read Elizabeth Bear’s “Writing the Other” post, and I’d read meta-posts about the whole RaceFail scenario, so I thought I knew what to expect from Avalon’s Willow. I expected strong words and anger; I expected to see Bear taken to task for being smug and patronizing.
I didn’t expect to see Willow’s broken heart laid out so clearly.
Her list is just relentless. Time and again, a Character of Colour is set up and knocked down, is subordinate to a white character, is furniture to decorate a scene with, is an exotic sideshow. I’m not familiar with all the examples she gave – there are big gaps in my SF/F knowledge – but I am a diehard Trekkie, so I knew this one:
It’s about Geordi being blind. It’s about Worf being, time and time again, a tragic mulatto. It’s about holding on to Benjamin & Jake Sisko with finger nails and eye teeth.
This made me think. About The Worf Effect. About Worf Is Always Wrong (not a TV Trope, just something I’d noticed: any time there’s a brainstorming session, Worf’s suggested solution is rejected). About Geordi Never Gets Any (again, just something I noticed: as a fellow nerd, I felt for him). And I thought about the number of times Troi is nothing but Cleavage On the Bridge (love me, love my invented trope names), or The Empath (most ineffectual power evar!), and how much it sucks when all the characters who are ostensibly like you are set dressing or ineffectual noodle people.
Extrapolate from there how much more it sucks to see this around you in all media all the time.
But the thing that REALLY struck me was her mention of Ben and Jake Sisko. I have a deep fondness for those two (for all of DS9, really, which is head and shoulders above any other Trek, IMO). What a realistic and moving relationship they had! I confess that they made me cry more than once. Now that I’m a parent myself it strikes me as even more poignant: Ben’s transparent affection for (and occasional exasperation with) his son, Jake pushing him away and clinging to him by turns, the whole dance of learning to differentiate yourselves and yet still stay friends. They’re the best father-son pair I’ve ever seen depicted on TV. (I qualify this by saying I’ve watched less TV than most people, but STILL. They were just lovely.)
As I was thinking about Ben and Jake Sisko, my subconscious mind (which is sometimes smarter than I am) suddenly dredged up a story a friend had told me. When Canada first legalized same-sex marriage, my friend and her partner came up from Seattle to get married here. They approached the marriage licence clerk with a certain amount of trepidation, bracing themselves for the funny look or the intrusive question or the exaggerated show of support, but none of that materialized.
The clerk yawned; he thought they were boring. And my friend was struck by how wonderful it was to bore someone.
My subconscious is like a cat, leaving things like this on my doorstep without explaining why. In this case, I think I know why. Ben and Jake Sisko are, in many ways, a very ordinary father and son. The fact that such an ordinary pair should be so extraordinary among the characters in Willow’s list is… well, it’s heartbreaking. Not being exotic, not being stared at, not being an ambassador for “your people” all the time, being as boring as you want to be — these are luxuries.
Hold that thought a moment, because there’s one more strand I have to tease out before I braid everything back together. I turn back to Avalon’s Willow:
It’s about the fact that you and writers like you don’t have to think about this stuff. That you have the ready made excuse that it all‘serves the story’ and that said character was written intelligently and as a well rounded individual with wants and needs of his own; with plots even.
This got me thinking, too, and not just “about this stuff” (and my privileged ability to stop thinking about it, if I wanted to). It was the phrase “serves the story” that got my attention.
(I have written and rewritten this part about twenty times now, trying to counterbalance feeling with tact, and I’m having a devil of a time. I’m just going to have to say it as plainly as possible and ask everyone’s forgiveness after.)
I believe that there are as many ways to make art as there are artists, that there is no one right way to do it. As much as I may dislike certain books (I throw out Twilight as my standard example), I will defend them as art.
That said, I think the claim that something – anything – had to be present in a book because it “serves the story” is kind of a bullshit excuse. First of all, everything in a finished story serves the story; that’s so obvious it doesn’t need saying. What’s not obvious, however, is that until the story is finished – and by finished, I mean out in print, where it can no longer be tinkered with – anything can still be changed. Especially plot.
The unhealthy relationship in the published novel Twilight serves the story, sure. If it weren’t there, Twilight wouldn’t be Twilight. Twilight’ would be some other story. Maybe a better story, maybe not, but different.
To defend a problematic part of a novel by saying it “serves the story” is to imply that there was only one story that could have been told, and it’s this one, Twilight as-is, not Twilight’. It implies inevitability.
Nothing is inevitable. Plot is not some juggernaut, chugging along, running people over, unsteerable and unstoppable. That is a bossy, bullying plot, to my mind. It turns characters into pawns, civilizations into stage-dressing, emotions into devices. It says things can only happen one way. It is a knee-jerk reactive plot.
I say again: it can be reactive and still be art. Clearly (hi, Twilight!) it can sell well too. For my own part, I’m not a big fan of my own jerking knee. I’ve seen the harm it can do. I believe I can do better than that.
The key, I think, is to keep asking questions (I know I have the privilege to stop, but I like asking questions. If I’m not asking these specific questions, I’m asking other questions. It’s what I do). The inevitable will insist that it can’t be questioned; it’s going to happen whether you like it or not. Asking questions is the way to poke it in the eye.
Nothing is inevitable in fiction. Everything can be questioned, everything changed.
It’s all well and good to have imaginary fist-fights in my head where I hash out my own theories of art and inevitability, but theories are no good to me if I don’t put them to work. I’m an experimentalist at heart, not a theorist (which is why I’m worried that I’ve laid this all out inadequately). “Ask questions of your plots!” I announce, ex cathedra, but the point really is that I have begun asking questions of my work-in-progress. Different questions than usual, I mean. Questions pertaining to privilege and fairness and – because we’ve been in Porphyry for about 90 pages now – race.
The very first question was: who gets to be boring?
OK! *gasp!* That’s more than plenty for today! Tune in next time (or the time after; I think I have to catch my breath, here) when I actively apply all this thinking to what I’m doing! I’ll probably talk about art some more! Consider yourself warned.
The sequel to “Wrestling the Knee Jerk” is turning out to be kind of long, as the wise among us probably predicted. It looks like I won’t get it up until tomorrow or Wednesday, since I got behind on NaNo over the weekend and need to catch up.
It’s funny: over at the NaNo site they were all like, “It’s the weekend! Time to really start chugging ahead!” Except that no, the weekend is harder for me. I have this family, see, and I like to spend time with them.
I have a small amount of news. I’ve put up a “Buy” tab (see top of page) because Seraphina is already available for pre-order some places. There’s still no cover, but don’t let that deter you! There’s bound to be a cover someday.
Someday, too, I will have to tell you about the long cover Odyssey we’ve been on (parts of it, anyway). I had NO IDEA approving the cover was going to involve so much drama and heartbreak. I will never look at covers the same way again.
I leave you with a song that’s been going through my head lately, by one of the old prog-rock greats, Genesis. Here, for your listening (and young-Peter-Gabriel-watching) pleasure, I present “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” —
Someday I intend to write a scholarly paper in which I compare this song with Rush’s “The Trees” — two narrative ballads about plants! Either that or put them in a cage together and watch them fight, except I’m pretty sure Hogweed would win. The Hogweed is invincible, after all.