The State of My Writing: Slowly, Slowly

In May I wrote my first ‘State of My Writing’ post, which is really a sort of check-in with myself on how I’m doing with my work-in-progress. Since then—by my rough count—I’ve banged out about 53,000 words in my newest WIP, which means I’ve fit one NaNaWriMo into five months.

In some ways, 50K words is awesome—no matter what. Writing a book is an incredible feat of discipline and determination for anyone who has a full-time job. If you’re a moonlighting novelist, give yourself a pat on the back. Really whack that shoulder blade…leave a mark! For the last few months, I’ve sacrificed whole chunks of my life to writing. I’ve fallen off the face of Facebook, and vanished from the Twitterverse. I’ve spent months’ worth of lunch hours typing with my laptop pressed awkwardly to my steering wheel. (I hate writing in a parked car. Not an environment that’s conducive to creativity.) My Netflix queue is overflowing. I’ve been playing Bioshock Infinite for five months. At this rate, Booker DeWitt is never getting his ass off that floating city!

Which brings me to the depressing part of all that toil: I’m not really that close to being done! My hope was that by December, I could have a rough draft of this Idyll sequel nailed down, an estimated total of 80K words. Then I’d dive back into my first Idyll book and edit it with some new insights into where the characters end up in book 2. I’d release Idyll and Turning (my other novel), and already be percolating on a second draft to my sequel.

I’m really excited at the idea of going from a unpublished nobody to a nobody with three novels on my Amazon Author Page. And I’m excited at the idea of releasing those books in fairly close succession, so that the excitement (hopefully) of one book can build off the excitement (fingers crossed!) of the others. Ah, the freedom of being a independent author, of choosing the shape of your own obscurity.

In addition to writing, I’ve been swamping my head with self-publishing advice. I read ‘Write, Publish, Repeat,’ which has some great advice in it, but is also a little insane (these guys write like a dozen books a year, and they recommend you try to match them). I’ve also been listening to the ‘Write, Publish, Repeat’ authors’ podcast, and the Rocking Self Publishing Podcast, which I’ve really enjoyed. I’m letting this swamp of advice soak in (see the way I brought back that earlier metaphor?), absorbing these insights like a sponge (OK, I’ll drop it now), and I think I’ll write another post on where I net out on all of it.

My biggest bit of wisdom, right now? As a fiction author, your primary marketing pieces are your book. Edit them, get a great cover, and make them available to readers as soon as possible. Because books are like a Twitter account or a blog site…it takes them a while to find an audience. And you can’t find an audience at all until you’ve put something out there.This is kind of a direct contradiction of my ‘hoard three books and release them in close succession’ strategy. But I think it makes sense. And I’ve heard the advice ‘publish your first book as soon as it’s ready’ from multiple sources. I shouldn’t expect an immediate splash of accolades and sales from my first launch as an author. Even if the launch involves two or three books. It’s not going to happen.

So does it make sense for me to stop writing on this sequel and focus on my other books that are closer to being ready? I’m not sure it’s ever a good idea to stop mid-stride on a book if you have momentum going. Hmmm, I’ll have to think on this…

The Pulchritude Award: Alacrity

The Pulchritude Award goes to words that don’t sound anything like what they mean. Today’s winner is ‘alacrity.’
Alas. Alack. Alacrity. It certainly doesn’t sound like a happy word. But that’s exactly what it is. Alacrity (n): brisk and cheerful readiness. It comes from the Latin root, ‘alacer,’ which is also the root for ‘allegro’ (which just sounds so much prettier). Anyway, if you ever feel tempted to use this word, I suggest you move with alacrity to a thesaurus and pick an alternative. How about ‘vim,’ ‘vigor,’ ‘zeal,’ ‘glee,’ ’enthusiasm?’

I Just Read: Kushiel’s Dart

kushiels dartThe word ‘phallus.’ Tramp stamps. These are examples of things that people try to use to be sexy, but that just don’t hit the ‘marque.’

Ah-ha! That last bit there was a little “Kushiel’s Dart” pun. You see, in author Jacqueline Carey’s fantasy world, marques are that elaborate, large tattoos that concubines get on their backs to track their progress in the spiritual sex-trade. The story follows one such concubine, who has been blessed by her freaky-deaky deities to be the freaky-deakiest of S&M subs. Sounds like we’re headed for a sword-and-sorcery version of 50 Shades of Grey, right? ‘Christian gets even MORE Medieval.’ Well, for 200 pages you’d be kind of right.

Then the story swerves into court intrigues and international politics, and our horny heroine becomes more of a Renaissance-era CIA officer. She’s gathering intel, delivering messages, and forging alliances. There are still sex scenes, if you can call them that. Most of them briefly mentioned transactions, or they’re out-and-out rapes.

Hmm. How to describe this book. I guess I’d say it’s not for everyone. If you’re a fan of “Lord of the Rings” style treks and sieges, 600 pages of this book will disappoint you. If you’re hoping for an erotic thriller, a different 600 pages of the book will disappoint you. And yet, the book still held my interest. I kept reading through it, all 900 pages.

I guess I was intrigued by the role the heroine plays as the fantasy version of Mata Hari. She doesn’t carry a sword; she doesn’t know any magic spells. Just her wits and her feminine wiles. And I liked the religion that Carey creates, which is based on angels and disciples of a vaguely Christian faith. And I think of all the fantasy books I’ve read, this one probably comes closest to Game of Thrones, in that it weaves together a dozen intricate plots, and warring factions. Most of the characters are morally ambiguous characters. No one’s purely evil, and there’s only a handful of characters purely good. So that’s a great thing that the book has going for it. It looks like one of the ‘Kushiel’ sequels explores a Persian or Turkish setting, so I may check that out as well.

Once-a-Book Word: Sanguine

Like Mr. Miyagi teaching ‘the crane’ to Daniel-san, I will now teach you your own ‘special move’—a once-a-book word that will awe and befuddle your readers. I beg of you: Use it sparingly!

Sanguine: You have to love this adjective. Depending on your context, it can mean either cheerful or murderous. Who among us hasn’t been to a family reunion that starts off sanguine and ends up sanguine?

I Just Read: Station Eleven

station-elevenI’ve read a few looong books lately, books that are parts of even looooonger trilogies. So it’s nice to get to the end of a book and actually be sorry it’s over. Ahh, the sprightliness of upmarket speculative fiction. Not only is it worded so prettily, but it’s plotted and edited for brevity.

Station Eleven is an upmarket post-apocalyptic novel written by Emily St. John Mandel. In this book, the end of the world is brought on by an extremely deadly flu, and the story flits back and forth in time—before, during, and after the outbreak. The narration follows five main characters, and a series of coincidences links these characters’ lives, both pre and post pandemic, and before and after death. The co-inky-dinks only become more prevalent as the character’s figurative ‘small world’ becomes a literally decimated small world. I don’t think the author was trying to create a sort of apocalyptic, mystical force of ‘Fate’ (although a lot of post-apocalyptic books tend to go that way: The Stand, The Passage, Swan’s Song). Instead, Mandel’s serendipity is an echo of art, of stories that outlive their authors, of actors whose fame outstrips their personal lives. In this post-apocalypse, ideas from Shakespeare, Star Trek, and the glossy photos of tabloid magazines keep the survivors inspired and illuminated, long after the loss of electricity and air-travel.

Most of the unlikely connections in Station Eleven stem from a comic book that was published at a vanity press (only ten copies were ever made) by an unknown author who may or may not have died twenty years ago. If, like myself, you’re aspiring to be an independently published author, this idea will probably strike you as particularly sad. And the book does often strike a melancholy mood. Even before the plague: these characters are haunted by divorce, dysfunctional families, and dissociation from their own lives. And Station Eleven doesn’t offer much in the way of easy answers, or chances at redemption. But it is sparkling with hope.

Words that mean the opposite of what they mean

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Come on English! Get your crap together! You’ve got antonyms and synonyms and homonyms—even capitonyms (that’s words that change meaning based on whether or not they’re capitalized: ‘Polish’ vs. ‘polish.’) But what are writers supposed to do with words that, depending on how you use them, can convey meanings that are diametrically opposed? Let’s take a look at a few of these two-faced words:

Fearful: Full or fear? Or causing fear? I vote we keep the second meaning, because it gave us the badass phrase ‘Fearful Symmetry.” Actually, William Blake gave us that phrase, and it’s been used in a hella bunch of media since then.

Dubious: Full of doubt? Or causing doubt? The words ‘suspicious’ and ‘doubtful’ have this same kind of shenanigans going on. There’s no way that this sentence should be allowed to make sense: “Anne was suspicious of the suspicious stranger.” Shouldn’t Anne and the stranger be commiserating on their mutual suspiciousness?

Nonplussed: I always assumed this meant ‘unperturbed.’ I guess that proves I’m an informal American; because in standard English (as in dictionaries or across the pond) the word means ‘surprised and confused.’

Cleave: And I guess I don’t have much in the way of literary inclinations, because I think of ‘cleave’ as meaning ‘to split or sever.’ For hoity-toities, ‘cleave’ means ‘to cling or adhere.’

As I wind up this post (Wait… do I mean ‘wind up’ like a toy or ‘wind up’ like some yarn, because those are opposites too!), I’ll ask you… what two-faced words drive you crazy?

A Writing Tip That Ruined Me: Prologues

prologue_114378562What do agents and editors have against prologues? Several times, at conferences or online, I’ve heard publishing experts recommend against starting your novel with a prologue. Also here. And here. And here. The prevailing wisdom seems to be this: “If your prologue is important enough to be in the book, make it your first chapter. If not, then cut it.”

I guess if I were filtering through a slush pile of 100 submissions a day, and a mere 10% of them began with prologues, I’d get pretty sick of them too. But if I analyzed that irritability, I think I’d draw the conclusion that the slush-pile/submission process is stupid, not prologues.

I think I read a LOT of books, for the average person—which is to say maybe 30 books a year. In the last year, have I read a book that begins with a character waking up? Not that I can remember. And if I did, would I have rolled my eyes and immediately judged the book to be not worthy of my time? Absolutely not. But according to industry wisdom, that’s another one of the unforgivable cliches that should never open a book:

- The main character waking up
– The main character dying (then coming back in subsequent chapters as a ghost, or in flashbacks)
– The main character looking in a mirror

Does anyone outside the established publishing industry care or notice if a book starts in one of these ways? I don’t think so. Just jaded, bleary-eyed slush-pile readers.

As a casual reader, I love prologues. They create an air of mystery. The add suspense, or foreshadowing. They can lay groundwork for the themes or the character arc of the book. They’re typeset in all italics! What’s not to love? I recently read a book, Blue Remembered Earth, that began with an all-italics, nearly incomprehensible frontispiece, and followed that with an eight-page prologue. And I loved both of them. And then the all-italics tone reappeared at the end of the book, creating a perfect wrap-up. Voila! Great!

In fact I’d probably read a book that was all prologues, kind of like how Kentucky Fried Movie was mostly movie trailers.