In the Serpent’s Wake

Titles are hard. Only one title ever came to me before I even started outlining the story to go with it, and that was my third book, Tess in Boots.

That’s the title that sparked the writing, anyway. You observant readers may have noticed it’s not the title the book ended up with. Tess in Boots, alas, was simultaneously too young-sounding — evoking Puss in Boots — and too “adult” sounding, as it were. It’s a rare title that can span that gap. Fortunately, this was not my first novel and I had a back-up title up my sleeve, Tess of the Road. Even more fortunately, the publishers liked it.

Tess of the Sea seemed the natural successor to Tess of the Road, considering that the first book had ended with our Tess boarding a ship. My husband, an incorrigible smarty-pants, suggested that a better title might be Tess in Boats, and I admit that will always be the secret beloved title of my heart. If it makes me laugh, it wins.

However, publishers have their own metrics for what makes for good titles. There were many suggestions, but in the end we managed to agree on In the Serpent’s Wake. It’s arresting enough to keep them happy, and has just enough hint of double-meaning to appeal to me. Wake is a lovely word, and carries weight in the text.

The book comes out February 1st, 2022. Please click here for more information, including pre-order options.

Addressing the elephant

So if you Google “second book syndrome“, a friend pointed out to me on Monday, quite a number of hits come up. Apparently the second book, just by virtue of being second, presents challenges that the first did not.

Sometimes “second book syndrome” is going to refer to the middle book of a trilogy, of course. That’s a structure issue, in part, particular to trilogies. I’m not writing a trilogy. I’m just trying to write a sequel that doesn’t make everyone who read the first book say, “Gee, she had so much potential. I guess we were wrong.”

I don’t know whether this happens to everyone, but it’s happened to me and I’ve seen it happen to my son. You happily go on a carnival ride – a rollercoaster, say – not really knowing what you’re in for. You live through it, obviously. Even so, even though you now know for sure that it’s not going to kill you, you’re too scared to get back on it again. You’re MORE scared than before you ever went on it.

That’s a bit what writing the second book is like. I was too ignorant to be scared the first time around. I didn’t understand all there was to lose, or how painful the process could be.

There is also significant pressure that wasn’t there before. The pressure to write something as good as the first one. The pressure to get it done quickly so that your demanding readers (and I already have some! And I’m not sorry I do!) can be satisfied sooner. The pressure to not let everyone down — and “everyone” is so much bigger than it used to be! It used to be if I choked I let down myself, and maybe my sisters (including Josh) who were getting a chapter each month. Now everyone is a large publishing house, librarians, bookstore owners, readers… everyone is potentially EVERYONE. How scary is that?

I might even let myself down. Somehow even that is more daunting than it used to be.

So that’s the elephant I’ve been carrying on my marathon. But you know what? It is an entirely self-generated elephant. I really do have the option – now that I see it, now that I’ve identified it – of putting it down and stepping away.  I did  that this weekend, in fact, without really meaning to. I was exhausted. I said, “Bite me, book!” and I slept in, played D&D with friends, and generally ignored all of it for a while.

And as I was walking to the post office one afternoon, I had a… a vision. I don’t know what else to call it. But it was like the clouds (of my mind) parted and I saw the promised land (of my book) spread out before me. A golden thread wound through it all, holding everything together, and I realized that the book was possible. All right, I realize that sounds goofy, but I saw it for one shining moment and felt my faith restored.

Faith is an interesting thing. I am not a religious person, not by a long shot, but boy do I need to believe. For a glorious instant, I believed in this book. The vision evaporated, as they do, and the next day I was back to banging my head on the keyboard in frustration. But I know, from experience, that if I’ve seen it once, I will see it again and all the more clearly.

The book is possible. I am setting down the elephant. Everything is going to be okay.

Laying down layers

Some days the best analogy I can come up with for my writing process is that it’s like the formation of sedimentary rock. I put down layers over a long period of time and they slowly harden into stone.

That’s the time-scale: geologic time. Don’t think in years, think in epochs. I find this discouraging sometimes.

I just joined a choir, in an effort to get back at the world. Er, I mean, because I wanted some very different art to practice regularly without the kind of (geologic) pressure writing involves these days. Last night was the first session and I really enjoyed it, even though I suspect I sometimes sounded like a confused cow.

Anyway, I was driving home with one of my writing buddies (who also just joined – so she’s a singing buddy now too). I was telling her I had a pretty good time writing the last couple weeks, but especially yesterday. “I suddenly realized they could have a conversation about ethics,” I said. “Just a little overlay of philosophy on this scene.”

“See?” she said.

I didn’t see.

“Layers,” she said. “Like we talked about. You write in layers. It’s like oil painting, where you have to block all the major shapes and the lights and darks, and then you start to go through and start putting down other layers that you find more interesting. Right now you’re at the philo-sopho-layer…” She made a circular motion with her hand, which was probably supposed to mime painting, but instead reminded me of making pizza.

“Philoso-sauce,” I suggested. “Then I can sprinkle on the philoso-sausage.”

“Exactly!” she said, and we laughed about that for a good long time.

Pizza is certainly a tastier image than sandstone or oil paintings, and still pretty apropos. I’ve got my crust, certainly, and the sauce is mostly down (I just scraped it off one quarter and have to spread it round again). And no, I am never happy with cheese pizza. There always has to be more than that: Canadian bacon and caramelized onions and delicious chunks of eggplant (the eggplant is the theme, of course; it pops up when you least expect it and makes you WEEP). One final pass with the Oregano of Elegant Writing, and then I can pass it off to my editor.

Who will tell me it’s half-baked, ha ha ha. Or else he’ll find a big old hair in the sauce. Erg.

At least this analogy gets me off of that geologic time-scale, which I was seriously bumming me out.

Where do you get your ideas? (Part 2)

I’ll tell you where: in the shower.

If the world ever gets to the point where we can no longer take showers, due to water shortages or zombie apocalypse or whatever, that’s the end of my career. For serious.

I don’t know what it is, but in the shower my brain just opens up and all the ideas fall out (this is why it would be a bad idea for me to take one during the zombie apocalypse, see. The rest of the time my brain is protected by my very thick skull).

Various friends have suggested a diving slate for writing the ideas on, but I have a feeling that wouldn’t help. It’s not like I get out of the shower and forget all the ideas. I think if I could physically write IN the shower – with a waterproof laptop, say – then the shower would no longer be magical. It would be just like sitting in front of the computer, doing the work, except wet. I think I have to be completely unable to work in order for my brain to cut loose like that, that it’s my brain’s own special way of thumbing its nose at me.

And hey, you want to thumb your nose at me, Brain, be my guest. Whatever keeps you jolly.

Meanwhile, here’s a paean to my shower, from the Pirates of Penzance. It starts at about 1:40. (And yes, that is Kevin Kline, all dashingly mustachio’d.)

You may be having trouble understanding what they’re saying. Here are the lyrics:

Hail, Shower-head! O gurg’ling muse
Thou giv’st writers the power to chuse!
Hail, flowing font of good ideas!
All hail, all hail! Now let’s go eat some cheese!

WHAT. Stop looking at me like that. Sometimes even W. S. Gilbert had a tough time finding a rhyme.

Now entering the cruellest month

So I’m revising the sequel. I have this plan whereby I will revise it really, really hard all month and then hand it over to The Amazing Editorman at the end of April.


No, really, I can do this. It does mean I’m going to be neglecting you a bit, but that seems a small price to pay for good sequel. I do regret that my fabulous YES sandwich post is still just half a sandwich, but this is the price we pay for having a mere 24 hours in a day. Something has to give, always.

The sequel is at that stage I think of as the Terrible Twos. I pushed through painfully to the end, which was a bit like giving birth, and now the manuscript is teething and screaming and pulling my hair. It has full-body tantrums daily and will not, under any circumstances, take its nap.

What makes it harder, weirdly, is that I have a very selective memory regarding its older sister. I remember that book being a joy to write. A joy! It always said “please” and it never dumped its dinner off the side of the high chair and its diapers were filled with FRESH-CUT FLOWERS, damnit. Not at all like the little devil-spawn I somehow popped out this time.

I look at this book and say, “Why can’t you be like your older sister?” And then it pukes on me.

But of course, I’m misremembering. The first one had its long stretches of misery too. It never ate or slept; it was so ugly we had to stick a really big sunbonnet on it when we went out. It did grow up, slowly — and now I’m remembering its adolescence and feeling a little bit queasy. There’s still so much fun in store. I can’t wait.

To those of you now thinking, “Gee, writing sounds like the most miserable profession in the world!” I would like to just say: it is. And, rather like parenting, it is also the best. When it is good, it is very very good. When it is bad… AHAHAHAHAHA.

But you see, counter-intuitive as it may sound, writing this made me laugh, and laughing gives me hope. I’m actually looking forward to getting down to work and civilizing that beastie just a bit more today.

Back to work

My boy returns to school today after a long and eventful spring break. This means I’m back to work on the sequel, spurred on by the enthusiasm I picked up in New York. It’s contagious, apparently. Blogging will be light this week as a result.

The other reason blogging will be light is that I’m working on a massive post wherein I compare YES to a sandwich. I know that sounds like I should be able to do it in just a few lines – “YES is like a sandwich where Jon Anderson is the turkey and Chris Squire is the cheese. Rick Wakeman is pimiento spread.” – but you know me, I have to go and make it all complicated. Because that’s what I do.

Anyway, to tide you over, here’s some music I love: Mille Regretz, by Josquin des Prez. This was one of the first Renaissance pieces I ever encountered as a young person; I encountered it again as a young adult when my sister took a class on early music and reintroduced me to the piece. It was excellent timing, because I was just beginning comics and it inspired me to return to my first genre love, Medieval fantasy. In a very real way, a whole world was sparked by this piece. Enjoy!

What do you mean it’s not Monday?

I know, I know, I wasn’t going to post again until then, but something happened yesterday that I just want to jot down quickly before I forget.

I travelled in the morning, arrived in KY in the early afternoon, and took a nap. After my nap, I was the only one home for some reason, and the phone rang. Figuring it was for Dad or Marvis, I didn’t answer it, but I was close enough to the answering machine that I heard someone start to leave a message: “This is Mrs. Chamberlain. Rachel, your dad just told me your book is coming out soon, and I wanted to tell you…”

Mrs. Chamberlain. My sixth grade teacher. I lunged for the phone.

It turned out she had, indeed, run into Dad out at the arboretum, and he’d told her I was passing through to pick up my son on the way back from New York. “I found the listing for your book on Amazon,” she said, “and then I just really wanted to hear your voice.”

It was so nice to talk to her. She told me how much she always enjoyed my enthusiasm and imagination, and I told her (and almost made her cry, she said) that she was the very first teacher who noticed I was good at and enjoyed creative writing, and that she had encouraged me in that direction more than anyone else.

And then I realized that while I was in New York, I’d only told half a story.

Because someone (was it the photographer?) had asked me how I got started writing. And I told him that when I was eleven (6th grade) a boy in my class had boasted that he was writing a novel, and I’d thought to myself, Jonathan’s writing? How dare he! That’s MY thing! I competitively started writing a novel of my own, a straight-up LotR knock-off, longhand in spiral notebooks.

But here’s the part of the story I didn’t tell, because I hadn’t realized the truth of it: Mrs. Chamberlain was the reason writing was my thing, before I got all competitive with that boy. She had been so encouraging that year that I had taken it deeply to heart. I WAS a writer, down to my toes. She told me so, and I believed her. I gained an identity in sixth grade.

So there you go. Teachers really do shape lives. I feel so very fortunate that I got to thank her yesterday.

More ways writing is like fighting. Also: like igniting.

So today I flushed about 25 pages.

It’s not like I didn’t see this coming (see previous post), but I had some merry notion it was just the one scene and that I could leave it and Captain Editorpants would make me cut it later. But no, I realized last night that I was hating the whole book pretty hard and I needed to sort out why because I could no longer push forward.

I generally find that when I’ve been heading the wrong direction, it’s like wading deeper and deeper into quicksand, or a brambly thicket. It gets harder and harder to move forward, until I’m completely immobilized.

Now hold on! you’re saying. What about the scaffolding? The place to stand? I liked that metaphor!

Yes… that’s the trouble with metaphors. They’re apt until they aren’t. Unfortunately, in art, nothing is ever just one thing. The scenes can resemble scaffolding AND quicksand — unlike real scaffolding and quicksand, which tend to be nothing alike.

And the scaffolding still stands (haha). I don’t know if it’s like this for other writers, but sometimes I really can’t figure out the right way to go until I’ve gone the wrong way. I learned a lot about some new characters, about their home city, about their goals, assumptions, and beliefs. As frustrating as the last week has been, as heartbreaking as it is to have to throw away 6K+ words, this wasn’t a waste of time.

Writing is never wasted. I believe that with everything I have. It is an article of faith; it is the only way I get through this stuff without falling into depression or just plain quitting. That credo is the result of years of experience, getting it wrong and getting back up again.

I can’t pretend it doesn’t hurt, though. Hm. I think I wrote a post about that recently, too. October has been a rough month!

But you see, this is where the years of experience come into play. I know what happens after I prune off a big chunk of text. I get an idea that sets my head on fire. I’ve already had it, this morning while walking the dog. I know what to do, and I’m ready to get back in the ring.

Notes to a young writer

I was recently asked how one balances writing with the rest of one’s life. It’s a great question, and something I don’t always feel I do well. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there were a few things I wish I’d known and put into practice early on. Here, then, is my advice:

* Figure out what time of day you do your best work, and cordon it off with velvet ropes.

* Go for walks. Other exercise is good too, and important, but walks are special. Walking makes your brain go.

* Feed yourself. Not just food, although that’s important, but whatever you need to keep your mind and spirit full. Books, music, conversation, landscapes, friends, experiences. Laughter. Art. That’s the well you have to draw from. It’s deep, but it needs to be refilled occasionally.

* Get enough sleep.

* Get enough silence.

It all kind of boils down to “take care of yourself”, I guess. That seems obvious, but it’s always the first thing to go when the going gets stressful.

On art

A friend recently mentioned my “Epic Fail” post on a Metafilter comment thread. I’ve been checking back periodically to see whether the arguments are still going or if they’ve died down. I am intrigued to note that the discussion seems to have veered away from feminism and toward art (well, some of it has. The part I find most interesting).

I really like talking about art. I am tempted to make myself a Metafilter account and leap right in, but I don’t have the time and besides, if I want to spread my crackpot ideas around the  internets, I have my very own space right here.

I think about art a lot because art is what I do. Honestly, the only reason I write (as opposed to sing) is because I have some native ability there. If I could dance or cook or paint or build gigantic bizarre installations at anything like the same skill level, I might be doing that instead. I’m not fussed about the medium; I just want to get out there and art it up.

I sometimes think art should be a verb: the impulse to art, the tendency to art, quick get me a bucket I’m gonna ART…

I don’t like definitions of art (the noun) because people  insist upon quibbling about the borderlines – X is art, Y is not – and I find that tedious (also, I get silly and end up talking about toilets, and who needs that?). Art has no borders that can’t be redrawn. Some artists spend their entire careers just stretching those borders. That’s what they find exciting, and more power to them. That’s not a question that moves me, particularly.

Here’s what does move me: subjective experience. That’s what I look for in art. The artist is a lens held up to the face of the world, showing everything from an unaccustomed angle, revealing what is hidden, making the old look new. Art (to me) is a burning need to share the subjective, to say, “Here’s what I’ve seen, what I’ve felt and thought and tasted, loved and wondered and fought. This is what it was to be me.”

That may sound like egotism, and I admit it’s a fine line. But egotism says, “Look at me!” whereas art, I believe, says, “Look through me, because the world is fascinating (or other adjective of choice) and I want to show it to you.”

The things we often take for art – virtuosity and technical skill – I would call craft. Good craft can make the lens less obvious (and poor craft can do quite the opposite), but it’s always there, and you can always see it if you know how to look. Sometimes you have to deduce its dimensions from the negative spaces around it. Me, I like seeing the lens. I tend to think the lens is the entire point, rather than what is shown on the other side.

My favourite authors tend to be the ones I recognize as kindred minds, as my people – Terry Pratchett, Lois McMaster Bujold, George Eliot. I read their work and see a person who has suffered what I’ve suffered, loved where I’ve loved, been through the same fires and come out the other side. But they are not me. They come to different conclusions, try different solutions, broaden my conceptions of what’s possible, and give me a new angle on my own challenges. They don’t have answers; they have experiences.

And this, I think, is what art is for. It’s a signpost on the road, saying, “Humans have been here before. It’s a rough road ahead, but you do not walk it alone.”