Archive for June, 2011

Inside Writing Jokes (and the Importance of New Eyes Periodically)

I have the privilege of belonging to a close-knit writing community.  This is awesome.  I suggest you find a writing community and join it too, because they are invaluable in many ways.

What I have found, though, is sometimes things can get too familiar.  We’ll be celebrating our fifth anniversary in a few months, and in that time period many of us have worked on and off on the same novels, completing new drafts and critiquing drafts for others, and it’s gotten to the point where I know some of my fellow writers’ stories almost as well as I know my own.

As such, we’ve developed a thoroughly ridiculous number of in-jokes – about different stories, characters, and the community at large.  And sometimes, when things are so comfortable for us, it’s hard to remember that we’re not writing for just ourselves.

A good reader is priceless, but sometimes, when one person has looked at different drafts of the same story over and over, they can get as bogged down in it as the author does, with vague memories of scenes from past versions and characters that have since been written out.  This is not to say that it’s bad to have the same person read different drafts, because they can let you know if the story is becoming more solid and that you’re heading in the right direction.

If you bring in a new reader periodically, someone who has never seen your story before, it’ll give you an idea what someone picking your book up from the shelf in a bookstore might think.  A repeat reader will say “Your plot is much tighter, and I really enjoyed this scene in the forest.  Also, have you thought about adding in more foreshadowing earlier in the story?”  A new reader will have a much more instinctual reaction to the story, since they’re unfamiliar with its twists and turns.

Both types of readers are excellent and provide different sorts of feedback.  Plus, it’s nice to have someone familiar enough with your story to bounce story fixes off of.

Luckily, our community gains new people periodically, giving me, thus far, a self-replicating collection of possible readers to foist things upon.  Bwha.

What do you look for in a reader?  How many do you prefer, and what ratio do you like for second+ drafts?


Writing Serially

I belong to a prompt community.  I joined, oh, four years ago or so with the idea that I’d be able to use the prompts to stir the creative juices.  It hasn’t really worked out.  Oh, it’s not the community’s fault.  They are awesome, talented writers and the prompts are usually very interesting.  Something about the medium just doesn’t work for me.

Oh, sure, sometimes a prompt jolts something out of the creative centers of my brain.  When I joined originally, you had to post once every three months to stay a member, and I could usually manage something in that time frame.  But a few years ago they changed the requirement to once a month, and I knew the likelihood of ye olde brain coming up with something purely prompt based that often was pushing it.

(This is not to say that I have problems with ideas.  If anything, there are too many ideas floating around.  They just tend to be novel-shaped.)

So I decided to work on a serial novel, with a new part going up every month (or more often if I got around to it).  I’d already completed Hidden Worlds serially, so I knew it was something that I could do.

Two years later, I’m still working on that story.  I use the prompts to direct the next part, and feedback has generally been very good.

I outline very vaguely so this works well for me.

What does writing serially do for you?  I use it as a side project which helps me get through harder sections of my main projects.  It also allows you to work on something a relaxed pace and gain readers over time.

Things you should note about serial writing:

1.  Do it consistently.
I put up a new section every month.  This means my readers can expect a new section on a regular basis, that I know when it’s due so I’m thinking about/working on it when I should be, and that it doesn’t get eaten by other projects/life.

2.  Outline, at least a little.
The thing with writing serially is that you need to have an idea where the story is going to go, what kind of story it is, what promises you want to make to your readers.  What do you do if you get 25K in and realize you’ve written yourself in to a corner?  Alternately, if you make it three-fourths of the way into the story and do a genre change out of right field, people will not be happy.

3.  Reread the last few sections before picking back up.
This helps you remember where you are, what you named your characters, and what you were thinking when you left off.

Some publications are taking serial stories on now.  If you’d like to try for one of those, you need to have the entire story at least outlined before submitting.  They will not be as lenient as my prompt community if something goes off-kilter.

What about you, Squiders?  Ever write something serially?  What have your experiences been?

Subgenre Study: Alternative History

My mother recently read Leviathan and Behemoth (books 1 and 2 of the Leviathan Trilogy) by Scott Westerfeld.  For those who haven’t read them (and you should) they are kind of an odd mix of steampunk and alternative history.  But she liked them and asked for recommendations of other books similar to them.

“The steampunk part or the alternative history part?” I asked.

“I don’t understand why people change history,” my mother replied.

I recommended His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik to her.

As I attempted to explain to my mother, alternative history is a way to answer the question “What if…?”  What if Germany had won the second world war?  What if the Napoleonic Wars were fought with dragons?  What if some deity decided the fate of the battle before it started – would it still be worth fighting?

Alt. History is an odd subgenre, one of the ones that spans both science fiction and fantasy but technically belongs to neither.  A book like His Majesty’s Dragon technically is fantasy, because of said dragons, but what about a story like the one mentioned above, where Germany won WWII?  It probably falls closer to science fiction, since it’s working on speculative events, even if said events take place in today’s past.

“I just don’t understand why people mess with history,” my mother said.

The short answer is that writers mess with everything so something as large as the History of the Human Race is certainly not exempt.  It provides a huge amount of fodder, even if you just change or exaggerate events a little.  It provides an almost irresistible pull to twist one fragment of time and watch the ripples move through everything that came after it.  What if Columbus had never discovered the New World?  What if Napoleon had been able to invade and subdue Russia?  What if the Cold War hadn’t been so cold?  Some things in history happened out of sheer, dumb luck – but what if that luck hadn’t held?  What new and differing technology would have to be available for some things to happen, or to not happen?  Really, the possibilities are endless.

Alternative history allows us to see the world as it might have been, for better or worse, and that’s a lot of power.

So, Squiders, what are your favorite alternative history books/stories?

Australian Interlude

Can’t talk, have Australians.

(I love to say this, people’s first reaction is almost always complete befuddlement.)

Blogging shall resume with Friday’s post, but to tie you over, here’s a picture of a landsquid and a turtleduck.


Revisiting Short Stories

Early on in this blog, I wrote a post wondering what the deal was with short stories, why everyone insisted on telling you to write them when they do not prepare you for novel-writing (and vice versa), and whether or not there was any sort of point.

Well, I figured it out.

Life’s been weird this year.  I haven’t really been able to work on my novel projects (for a variety of reasons), but I have been able to write and edit several short stories.

No, they don’t help you hone your novel-writing skills.  But they give you a chance to experiment, a chance to get things done and out, and a chance to see some growth.

Let’s face it.  Novels take time.  Even the speediest of writers still takes about a month per first draft and the rest of us, well.  Then there are edits and rewrites, critiques and yet more edits.  Then you’ve got to write a query and a synopsis, research agents (assuming you don’t have one), and then submission can take years before you get a bite, assuming you ever do.

It’s a lot of work and success is long in coming.

I admittedly turned to the short stories because I was going insane not getting things done, and depending on length I can turn one out in a few hours to a few days.  But it’s been so freeing.  When you submit a short story somewhere, you don’t need to write a query, you just tell the publisher your title, genre, and word count, and you’re good to go.  Responses come more often, and it’s easier to have multiple projects out.  And best of all, I’m getting more encouraging responses than I ever have in my on/off year of novel submission.

So, no, they don’t help with the novels.  But they help you feel like you’re doing something, that your writing actually does not suck, and that maybe, one day, you will get this.  And we each of us need that boost from time to time.

100th Post Celebration

Tada!  100 posts!  Not too shabby for me and the Landsquid.  In celebration, I give you the top 5 posts thus far:

Collaborative Writing – Characters
Writing with a Partner – Collaborative Editing
What Would You Put on a List of the 100 Best Scifi/Fantasy Books?
Of Sleep Deprivation and Haiku

Give me some feedback, Squiders.  Would you like me to post more often?  Less often?  (Currently I’m on a MWF schedule.)  Topics you’d like me to cover?  Topics you’d like me not to cover?  How do you like the drawings?





Summer Slump

Ah, summer.  I love it yet I hate it, because I don’t really function above 85 degrees and I burn easily, but I love the blue skies and the flowers and the afternoon thunderstorms (provided I am not out in them).

But I find it hard to get anything creative done.  It’s like the sunshine saps my creativity.  I go to work and then I come home and I work in my garden or I go for a walk or I write inane blog posts and feed Cheez-Its to the Landsquid, and by the time I get to writing (or thinking about writing) I’m exhausted.

And I worry that this is becoming a new trend.  I no longer have breaks that I can use to get some writing done at work, and the new house and yard take more work than I’m used to.

But then, I think, perhaps, I’m normally not terribly productive in the summer in general anyway.  I’m distracted by socializing and usually between projects.  But I can’t guarantee that.  I would need more data to know if it were true.

Do other people find summer drains them of their motivation?  Is it the heat?  And if it’s the lifestyle changes, what’s the best way to deal with them?  Any tips?

Til then, I shall just sit here and sip my lemonade.

Kit Campbell and Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

You know how sometimes you watch some sort of movie (or read a book) and things just keep going wrong, and you think “This would never happen in real life.”


Normally I don’t like to deviate from reading/writing/landsquids, but this is fairly epic and I feel the need to share.

So yesterday was supposed to be somewhat awesome.  I was to take an early flight to California, sit in on a meeting, and then have dinner/writing with my dear friend Ian (of Alpaca fame).  Afterwards I would sleep and fly back this morning, arriving, in, oh, 15 minutes or so.

Seeing how I am sitting here blogging instead of being on said return flight, we can guess how this is going to go.  My trip never made it off the ground, quite literally.

I got out of the house a little late yesterday morning, but made it through parking my car and security without issue.  When I arrived at the gate, I was one of the last people on the plane, and they asked that I gate check one of my carry-ons.  I agreed, since I had given myself a four hour buffer and would be able to wait at the onerously slow baggage claim at SFO without worrying about missing my meeting.  So I got onboard, sat down, opened the book I brought along, and all seemed fine.

We pushed off from the gate about twenty minutes late, taxied to what I swear was the furthest runway from the terminal, went to accelerate into take-off, and…the plane broke.  Something with the left engine.  So we turned around and taxied all the way back to the terminal.

People are starting to get antsy about connecting flights (our plane was going to continue on to Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City), but hey, I had buffer!  Although I am about 80 pages into my book at this point and am wondering if I should have brought more.

They identified a broken part, replaced it, and around an hour and a half after the plane was supposed to leave, we push back from the gate, taxi allllll the way to Furthest Runway Ever, go to take off, and…the plane breaks again.

At this point I don’t really want to take this particular aircraft anywhere.

So we taxi back to the gate, except we no longer have a gate, since we were supposed to leave two hours previously, so we have to sit and look at the terminal for half an hour until we get a gate, and, then, we sit there for another 15 minutes until they essentially tell us they don’t know what’s wrong with the plane, so we can get off and try to get other flights, they’ll offload the luggage, and, uh, good luck getting another flight to San Francisco today, because they’re booked full.

So it’s ~11:30 about now, and I realize that there is no physical way for me to fly to California at this point (even if there were seats) and make my meeting on time.  Plus this was a completely full 767 and the line to talk to Customer Service stretches all the way down the concourse and Hell, I’m not standing in that.

At this point, things are sad but not terribly bad.  Mechanical problems happen, and I would rather they happen on the ground than over Utah airspace.  So.  I am extremely disappointed about not being able to see Ian (and eat sushi), but I go about fixing things.  I call my boss and leave her a message explaining the situation and telling her I would be coming in and supporting the meeting remotely.  I text Ian to let him know I am not coming.  I call my company’s travel service and ask them to cancel the trip.  I call the person running said meeting to let him know I will be supporting remotely.

Here’s where things start to get a bit hairy.  I abandon my fellow passengers to their giant line of doom and retreat to baggage claim, where I inquire after the bags they claimed would be offloaded from my flight.  They have not been.  They were apparently not planning on it despite telling us they would.  Apparently, they were just going to load the luggage on the next flight to San Francisco and let it go, despite the fact that the likelihood of more than a handful of people from that flight getting to San Francisco that day was crap.  The woman at the baggage counter explains that she will put in a call for someone to bring up my luggage, but it will be at least an hour.

I look at my watch.  I’ve got less than two hours to this meeting now.  I inform her that sooner will be better and go off to grab lunch from the limited selection since I am outside security at this point.  I have Taco Bell.  It is unsatisfying.

I’ve been waiting for my baggage ~45 minutes when the travel company calls me to inform me that they’ve been on hold with the airline this whole time, and the only way they will refund my money is if I talk to someone at the airport and get them to “uncheck” me in.  “Luckily, I am still at the airport,” I tell her.  She is surprised.  “So am I,”  I say.  “So am I.”

I go upstairs and manage to find a nice man who does whatever is necessary and gets me my refund while apologizing profusely for my inconvenience.

Then I go back in search of my bag, cursing that I let them gatecheck it.

My boss calls, worried because it’s been an hour and half since I called her and I hadn’t shown up yet.  I explain the situation.  She wishes me luck and leaves me to waste away next to the baggage carousel.

The baggage carousel turns on, but it is someone else’s bag.  I track down another baggage person and inquire if there’s a way to check on the status of my bag.

It goes downhill from here.  He looks it up, and tells me that, despite the fact that I have been waiting for an hour and a half and will definitely be late for my meeting now, that no one has gone to get my bag, and that no one will.  It’s inside a canister on the plane and they won’t open the canisters until the flight is cancelled or has arrived at its destination despite the fact that my bag should be RIGHT ON TOP because I gate checked it and was one of the last people on the plane.  I explain that it has medication and electronics in it because it was supposed to be a carry-on, but no go.  I put in a claim for lost luggage and leave the airport, seven hours after I stepped foot in it and having accomplished nothing except feeding my bag to the underbelly of a 767, perhaps never to be seen again.

I call the person running the meeting on the shuttlebus to the parking lot to get the call-in number for the meeting.  The act of doing so somehow causes me to lose my claim ticket for parking, which I discover after I have been dropped off.

I manage to retrieve my car.  I call into the meeting from my cell phone as I rush down the highway and can hear nothing because of road noise, but I did carve 15 minutes off the normal time the trip takes.

I finally get to work and support the meeting until 6:45 PM.

At this point I just want to go home and hide under the covers for the rest of the day.  But oh no, we are not done.  The highway is at a stand still, so I have to find a backway home.  I call my husband to find that he hasn’t had time to make dinner like he promised and, beyond that, has gone out for the evening, since he made plans when he thought I would be out of town.  I call my mom and sister, hoping for someone to spill my woes to, but they are unavailable.  I finally call my dad, who tells me he is in India, but consents to talk.  After fifteen minutes he tells me “this call will cost you about $30” and is gone.  Thanks, Dad.

I go and get dinner at Tokyo Joe’s.  They mess up my order.

When I get home, I discover my side of the garage covered in boxes, and so I have to park on the driveway.

Luckily, that is where the madness ends.  I ate my dinner, cuddled with my cat, and watched Unsolved Mysteries and How I Met Your Mother until emotional balance was reattained.

My husband later informed me that my plane eventually left – six and a half hours after it was supposed to.

Also, my bag is still lost to time and space.  I got a call last night that it was en route and would get back to Denver about ~1:40 AM and they’d call me today about it, but I have yet to hear anything from that department.   Also, they called about 9, so I have to wonder where my bag went, because SFO is not that far away.

Well, I’m off to call my doctor for emergency meds.  Here’s hoping your day’s better than my yesterday was.

Following the White Rabbit

Let’s say you’re walking along, minding your own business, when BAM a story idea waylays you.  It’s interesting, it’s fun, it has all the information you need to sit down and get going.

Let us also assume that you are in a place where you can pick up a new project.

The problem?  It’s not your genre.  Or it’s not your age range.  Or it’s a new style, an unfamiliar POV, an uncomfortable narrator.  Something about it doesn’t fit in your writing niche.

What would you do?  (Or what have you done in the past?)  Do you let the story idea move on, looking for its next victim?  Or do you give it a try anyway, knowing that you have no experience in this area and may never write another book like it in your life?  Do you have limits (i.e. is something out of character okay for a short story, but not for a novel)?

(On a related note, anyone have any good examples of fantasy novels for 6-9 year olds?)

Using Mythology in Science Fiction/Fantasy

(Random aside – I put this down for a potential blog topic in December, and all I wrote next to it was “IT’S AWESOME.”  Good job, Kit.)

So, I went and saw Thor tonight.  (When you read this on Monday, I mean Sunday night.)  Admittedly I am a bit behind the movie times, and I know it is based off the comic book character, but still my point stands.

I think the very coolest thing an author can do is wrap their story around some mythology.  Sometimes this does always go well – things can be too blatant, too predictable – but when done right, it adds a depth to the story that is a beautiful thing.

It gives you a lattice to build off of that, at times, has been in the human consciousness for thousands of years.

Another example that’s recently been pointed my way – I am reading a book on alchemy for story research.  I don’t think it’s going to work out – definitely leaning towards straight magic at this point – but it’s been interesting, and the author makes a rather decent argument that the Harry Potter books are built on the alchemical process.  I don’t know if it is or not – I was in the HP fandom long enough to hear and read many many theories – but if it’s not intentional, that almost makes it more awesome.  To match something that people have been working on and believing for thousands of years without even meaning to.  Aha, brilliant.

I like the idea of there being some sort of greater consciousness, some sort of universal truth, that we all as humans can tap into.  And I love the idea of there being something bigger than us, something we can aspire to.

Let’s face it – in a lot of cases, mythologies resonate with us on some level.  Even in today’s modern society where, as some people say, “God is dead.”  Where Science rules all, and we’re more worried about who’s going to win American Idol than our spiritual wellbeing.

Jung would say something profound about archetypes.

How do you feel about using mythology as a base?  Any mythologies that stand out as your favorite?