Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won't do…

August 3, 2015

Progress report – The whooshing sound they make

Filed under: books of 2015,books read,Uncategorized — Tags: — lexifab @ 2:27 pm

Per Douglas Adams’ famous observation “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by,” I have predictably failed to type THE END on the A Flash of Black Wings manuscript before my self-imposed target date of the end of July. C’est la vie. To be fair to myself, I did pass the 75,000 word mark with a day or two to spare. It’s just that the story isn’t quite done yet. I estimate it will probably be closer to 90 to 95 K to get to the planned conclusion. So I am not as bad at keeping to a writing schedule as I am of estimating a project’s scope (or controlling scope creep, which I think is the likeliest culprit in this case).

So I will continue to plug away with a revised estimated completion date of the end of August. That’s a pretty good target to aim for, since I will be travelling overseas for work (briefly) at the start of September. I’d like that to be a nice clean transition point between this writing project and the next [1].

Forget about that, I’m going to talk about what I’m reading:

I have a stack of physical books next to my bed and a (much larger) stack of ebooks which is, um, also next to my bed, on the kindle. Feeling the tremendous shame of having a tendency for impulse purchasing that far exceeds my reading time, I have decided to concentrate on at least knocking off all the books by Australian writers in the TBR pile before the end of the year. I also have a vague plan to review all or most of them, but that will definitely have to wait until after I’m done with the novel. (My traditional Month of Relentless Positivity daily blogging project in October may well be a succession of book reviews and not much else).

So far I’ve knocked off works by Andrea Höst, Andrew Macrae and Alis Franklin, as well as a couple of issues of Aurealis and some anthologies.

(No, I’m not working through the list in alphabetical order).

I expect to be done with that before summer, after which I’m planning to embark on a Reading Project.

The next reading project (help wanted)

Paying attention to various podcasts and other discussions on the history of science fiction and fantasy, it has become appearent to me just how wide the gaps are in my reading of “the classics”. I’ve read, for example, bugger-all Heinlein (probably because the Heinlein I have read is from his baffling later years). I’ve not read Bester. I’ve not read Samuel Delaney or Octavia Butler or Joanna Russ or Poul Anderson or Frederick Pohl or James Tiptree – well, you name someone outside the biggest names in genre, and I probably haven’t read much of their stuff.

I plan to fix that by going back and investigating some of the great classic works of science fiction. Twelve of them to start with – perhaps one a month, but more likely I will binge – and exclusively skiffy for the first round (I’m better read in fantasy, although I’ll probably undertake an equivalent project there as well). But because I am a proud desktop social justice warrior, I have no intention of allowing the content of my reading to be dominated by dead white guys, so I am going to attempt (to the greatest extent possible) to include non-white and non-male authors in the mix. Since I have to cherry-pick what constitutes a classic anyway (because it’s impossible to read everything) I figure I might as well read as broadly as possible.

Thus far I have determined that I will include Dhalgren by Chip Delaney (which I tried to read in high school but gave up on for whatever reason), at least one of the C J Cherryh Alliance-Union books (probably Downbelow Station, but I’ll see what I can find), The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, something by Joanna Russ (probably The Female Man), something by Octavia Butler (not sure what yet), something by James Tiptree Jr aka Alice Sheldon (son’t know what yet), something by Alfred Bester (probably The Stars My Destination, but maybe The Demolished Man, and no, I haven’t read either of those) and something by Robert Heinlein that isn’t Stranger in a Strange Land or The Number of the Beast (because fuck The Number of the Beast sideways; what a shitty book that was).

I’ve set some rules for this project:

  • I can’t have read it before (I’ll give a pass to Dhalgren because I know I didn’t finish it, and because it was the book that prompted this line of thinking)
  • Only one book by any given author
  • Novels only (I do read a lot of short stories, but for this particular project I am shoring up my novel background)
  • Science fiction only – I’ll do fantasy classics later
  • Only books published pre-1985 (arbitrarily picking the publication of Neuromancer as the point at which I started reading science fiction semi-widely, and 30 years seems like a reasonable period to establish a work’s classic-ness)
  • I am seeking parity between male and female authors (counting Tiptree as female for the binary purposes of this exercise)
  • I am seeking parity between white and POC authors.

I have a feeling that last criteria will be hard to live up to but I will do my best.

So, I’m after suggestions: given the criteria above, what do you recommend I add to my reading pile of the classics of science fiction? What do you think are the landmark works of great science fiction that I should have absorbed into my brain-meats before now? 

(Doctor Clam, I feel quite sure you have something to contribute here!)

[Edited later]

Here’s the list as I settle on it (not yet in a particular order):

  • Samuel R Delaney – Dhalgren
  • Ursula K Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Alfred Bester – The Stars My Destination
  • C J Cherryh – Downbelow Station
  • Frederick Pohl – Gateway

[1] The next writing project will be the small to medium-sized stack of short story ideas that have accumulated in my notebooks since I started the novel manuscript. It will be at least three new stories, plus two revisions, before I go back to revise the novel.

July 13, 2015

Progress report – Bad ideas abound

In retrospect I should have realised that aiming to finish my novel in July would be a terrible idea. That’s the time of the year when I have to manage my abnormally complex tax affairs. Work’s never busier than around the end of financial year. There’s school holidays. I’m the treasurer of a club with non-trivial membership and assets. And – oh shit, I completely forgot that the Ashes are being played in the UK at relatively viewable times of the evening.

Thinking about that now, and making the observation – obvious with hindsight – that I tend to approach complex jobs (like writing a novel) with a foot-dragging air of desperate procrastination, I probably could have planned this better. As I should have expected, I’ve left myself with a fifteen to twenty-thousand word sprint to complete in the next two-and-change weeks.

That would be challenging enough, but on top of that the process of writing the novel has (also predictably) caused me to depart from my original outline in fairly significant ways. So now instead of racing towards the finish line on a well-mapped track with safety rails, I’m rallying about in the dark with dodgy headlights and a drunk navigator. I could still cross the finish line on time, but it’s difficult to see how it might happen on purpose.

Still, it is do-able, and I have something that at least resembles a plan. I will allocate at least part of every day – typically lunchtimes – to rebuilding the outline. That will help to make sure that when I sit down to write each session, I won’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about what the  scene will be about etc. And because the act of writing invariably steers me off-course with respect to the outline, I need to make sure that the re-outlining process occurs as regularly (or almost so) as the writing sessions themselves.

Currently I am writing at a rate of about 5000 words a week (on the novel). To get to where I want to be that number will have to rise to about 8000 a week.

I can do that.

 

In other news

I am currently reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty for a couple of reasons: one, because the library sent me a recommendation to do so; two, because I know enough about economics to know what an economic illiterate I am and I do like to have a better grasp of why the world works as it does; and three, because I have let my non-fiction reading skills atrophy over the last few years and this looks like a serious workout in that respect. So far I am following it pretty well – Piketty takes the time to explain his terms and then remind the reader what they meant, but otherwise does not refrain from diving into fairly complex matters. It also helps that I am at least passingly familiar with the last three hundred years of European history, so I understand the basic context that he is examining. I’ll get back with a proper book report after I’m finished.

I know eight chords on the tenor ukelele now. Not all of them are single-finger chords. (Two of them are). While I can feel myself making good progress, I haven’t advanced to the point of trying to work out how to play an actual song yet. STILL I am being a musician again for the first time in more than ten years. Assuming it continues to feel good, at some point I will promote myself to learning to play the bass guitar (ie an instrument that does not sound terrible to play).

I devoted four late nights to the cricketing debacle in Cardiff last week (and would have thrown last night’s sleep into the mix as well had the Australian capitulation not be so complete). Even though the prospects are grim of a reversal of fortunes for the Lord’s Test starting on Thursday, I will be doing to same again this week. I fear that if even the lumbering doldrums displayed by the likes of Watson and Haddin cannot break my addiction to watching cricket, then my condition must be both acute and incurable.

July 6, 2015

Progress report – June was a stumbling block

Filed under: news of the day,wordsmithery — Tags: , , , — lexifab @ 3:57 pm

A quick update on the novel – progress was slow. I added about 10,000 words altogether for the entire month of June to the novel manuscript. By contrast, in the less-than-a-week since then, I’ve added about 5000 words. So it’s been a bit of a drag and a trample, but I feel like it won’t be impossible to climb back up on the horse.

I also finished a new short story – or rather an old one that I’ve been kicking back and forth for more than a year, drafting and redrafting. With the benefit of a couple of weeks’ distance, I’m quite proud of the story. I think it definitely represents a leveling up of my short story craft. I’m still well short of what I expect professional-quality writing to look like, but I’m confident that I’m inching closer to it.

As we’ve passed the halfway point for the year – which by the way, where the hell did those months go? – I decided to look in on the various writing goals I set for myself back in January and see how I’m going:

Short stories – I said I wanted to have ten stories in circulation. I currently have nine, though one is perilously close to retirement. I’m going to stay focused on getting the current draft of the novel completed as my first priority, but after that I intend to churn through a few of the short story ideas I’ve been putting together in the meantime. I thought back in January that the short story goal was a little unambitious. I’ll revise what I think is a more challenging goal after the novel draft is done.

Novel – The goal was to have an 80K novel written by the end of July. Right now the manuscript is a tad shy of 60,ooo words and I have 25 days to get to the goal. To be honest, I doubt I will quite make it, but if not I won’t be so far away that I end up disappointed in myself. A bit less than a thousand words a day is certainly doable, but it’s right near the upper end of my current productivity rates, so I am not going to beat myself up with unrealistic expectations.

Especially not when I have reached a point where I no longer know quite where this draft is going to end. I’ve gone off the reservation a bit in terms of my outline, and stuff is now happening that appears nowhere in my planning. I’ve yet to figure out whether I need to correct course and get back to what I was aiming at, or run with the new direction. I suspect the answer will be somewhere in the middle wearing a “Fix it in rewrites!” T-shirt. We’ll see.

Community stuff – I have to write a CSFG treasurer manual. I still haven’t done it, but to be honest it’s not that big a task. Now that the end of financial year has arrived, the first order of business is settling the accounts and getting them audited (well, that will be the second order of business after I do my own family taxes, which are a hefty job of work in themselves). I have a bit of a deadline around some upcoming holidays, so I will probably need to cram a lot of this into a short space of time. All the more reason to get the novel draft finished. But the auditing process will fill in a lot of the gaps in my knowledge on being a treasurer, so I expect to be in a good mental space for instruction manual writing as part of that.

Blogging – I am building the new writer website. It’s not done yet. I don’t regard it as a huge priority, what with having no particular work to promote, but the job hasn’t fallen off the list.

 

So that’s not too bad. I’m tracking pretty well against some admittedly modest goals, with some bursts of productivity needed in the near future. I can do that.

June 25, 2015

Progress report – Little to no progress to report

Filed under: geekery,wordsmithery — Tags: , , , , — lexifab @ 1:27 pm

In a shameless attempt to make sure that the entire month of June doesn’t pass without a blog entry, I will crank out a short progress report which only lightly touches on the status of the novel manuscript.

Because reasons, that’s why.

Status of the novel manuscript – It’s still going, albeit slowly. I’ve stalled a bit at the 50,000 word mark, having reached the point where the decision not to do any serious worldbuilding before I started has run aground on the lack of world. Er, so to speak. The external world, being little-defined, is exerting a sad lack of pressure on my isolated team of characters, which means I’m filling out an awful lot of word count with exposition and somewhat artificial interpersonal conflict. I have a suspicion that whole chapters in this area may disappear in the editing process. But not until after I finish the draft, dammit!

Short stories – Out of frustration with the slow progress on the novel, I’ve gone back to a couple of short stories to finish them off. “Burn the Future”, my “Hogwarts versus Aliens” story (not my description, but embarrassingly apt when someone proposed it) is now done and off on submission. “Unacceptable Losses” (aka “Golems versus Werewolves”, which *is* my shorthand description) was part-written in March when I dropped everything to start work on the novel. It has about another 1000 words left to be written, so I figured I would just knock them off as fast as possible so I can get to editing the piece.

Rejectomancy – So with the submission of BtF yesterday, I’m up to 31 submissions for the year with zero (I counted twice) acceptances. Ho hum. A couple of the pieces are on second readings at their respective venues, so they may well be in with a chance. And I have had some very encouraging “Good but not right for us” – type rejection letters, which is better than nothing.

One piece which has now gone out 21 times altogether is pretty much on its last possible sub, in that I’ve really just run out of markets to try to sell a 9000-word fantasy story to.  If it gets rejected again, which I’m expecting, I’ll reluctantly retire it and plonk it up here so everyone can point and laugh and wonder what got into me. Or I’ll add another seventy thousand words to it and convert it to a novel, maybe.

 

And in other news, I saw Inside Out, the new Pixar movie yesterday, about which I have two observations:

1) I reckon I learned more about neurosychology in that ninety minutes than I got in an entire year of first-year Psych at uni; and

2) I do a lot of quiet sobbing in Pixar movies.

It’s good. You should go sob – I mean, see it.

May 26, 2015

Hey woo anniversary!

Filed under: news of the day,workin for the man — lexifab @ 4:23 pm

I just realised that today is the one-year anniversary of my last day as a permanent public servant.

Sadly, I was only reminded of that when a particular piece of policy work, into which I had some input in my final few days of employment, has apparently still not been finalised. Simple, uncontroversial and mandatory, but still not finalised.

:/

May 25, 2015

Smashing dolls together

Filed under: books of 2015,geekery — Tags: , , , — lexifab @ 3:46 pm

The big summer comics crossover events have been a bit odd this year. (Let’s ignore the fact that I’m in the southern hemisphere and so crawling into a deep freeze during these so-called summer events). The similarities are baffling, and they all seem to involve the publishing equivalent of an eight-year-old smashing together all of their super hero toys for eight to ten weeks straight and charging a couple of hundred bucks for it.

They all seem to be running on variations of the same premise: Universes collide. Epic hilarity ensues.

In the case of Marvel’s Secret Wars event, this is literally the premise: all of the various universes and timelines in the extended Marvel multiverse (where they keep their spinoff continuities, aborted timelines, alternate realities and so forth) have been colliding over the past few years like a Newton’s Cradles on the Beyonder’s office desk, until the two popular ones are all that’s left. So they fight.

At the same time, DC is two very similar events more or less in parallel. The first, of less relevance here, is Grant Morrison’s Multiversity, which in typical Morrison-esque batshit craziness attempts to pit every obscure character ever included in a DC comic, including multiple versions of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and so on, into the same cross-reality showdown with a weird ontological conspiracy that threatens to infect all reality including the one occupied by the readers of Multiversity. The series is also a magic ritual designed to make itself  happen, or something. (Don’t ask – it’s metacommentary piled on top of metacommentary piled on top of all the drugs Morrison consumed in the nineties.) It’s cool, and so Morrison that you’ll either embrace it with all your heart or shy away like Dracula from crossed garlic presses.

DC’s second event is called Convergence, in which cackling-evil-genius Braniac conspires to bring back all the old DC continuities that they wiped out a few years ago in the just-awful Flashpoint event, in order to have them fight one another. First of all, it’s an odd sort of decision for DC to make to be running two more or less completely independent and incompatible cross-multiverse events at the same time, but at this point in the post-New 52 DC I just have to kind of shrug. I can’t pretend to understand what’s going on over there these days. The premise of Convergence is a thinly-disguised excuse to reunite some of DC’s greatest creative teams with the titles that made them famous (Greg Rucka writing Renee Montoya as the Question is exciting, though I haven’t seen much else that I care about) as all the old continuities crawl from the woodwork.

But something about it has left a bad taste in my mouth – or rather, nothing about it has removed the bad taste in my mouth that started with the New 52 and drove me firmly into the Marvel camp. So screw Braniac’s ridiculous plot involving bottle cities. Let’s talk Secret Wars.

Marvel’s original Secret Wars series in the 1980’s was one of the early examples of the big summer event. In it, a godlike being called the Beyonder summoned a bunch of heroes and villains to his arena-planet called Battleworld to fight. Everybody obligingly fought, except Doctor Doom who took the opportunity (correctly) to overthrow the Beyonder, steal all his power and rule as Doom Omniscient. Which was pretty awesome if you were a teenager when you read it, as I was.

That Secret Wars series was dumb but fun. (The less said about the sequel series Secret Wars II, in which the Beyonder comes to Earth to learn what it is to be human, the better. Except you should know that it was very fucking awful and don’t make the mistake of reading it because ugh).

Which brings us to this year’s Secret Wars, in which Marvel blows up all its toys.

 

(SPOILERS FOLLOW for a series of comics you are very likely not planning to read)

 

The backstory: Ever since crazed philosopher-architect Johnathan Hickman started writing the Avengers a couple of years ago, the writing has been on the wall for the Marvel universe(s). Due to some great cosmic misalignment, that probably has something to do with all the time travelling that the X-Men do all the time, universes have been bonking together in pendulous mutual annihilation. “Adjacent” Earth’s have been forced to occupy the same position, such that if one or the other is not destroyed inside an eight-hour window, both are destroyed. So far, so apocalyptic. The Avengers and the big brains like Reed Richards and Tony Stark and T’Challa have spent the last couple of years running around trying to find a cure, but so far no dice.

Now, only the official Marvel Universe (designated the “Earth-616” continuity) and the Ultimates Universe (“Earth-1610”, home of the post-millenial hard-edged reboot of Marvel’s most popular characters, which among other benefits originally gave us the Samuel L. Jackson version of Nick Fury) remain. And as Secret Wars #1 begins, they merge.

Recsue plans are enacted. Evil schemes are initiated. Various heroes make “it’s us or them” calls and launch attacks to destroy one Earth or the other.

Nope.

Boom!

Everything dies (!)

…except that Secret Wars is an eight-issue mini-series with about forty or fifty related titles, so what’s going on?

So it turns out that Doctor Doom has once again stepped up to the plate. Through some insane sorcery-science machinations I don’t plan to investigate, which probably relates all the way back to the eighties when he briefly possessed the power of the Beyonder, Doom has created a new Battleworld, a cobbled-up eggshell of a reality held together by force of Doom’s will alone.

Doom is the All-Father now, bizzatches. Pay fealty or he’ll kick your arse into the zombie-zone. Doom’s will is enforced by an army of Thors (aw yeah). Doom’s laws are administered by Sherrif (formerly Doctor) Strange. Doom brooks no insurrection, scheming or likewise bullshit.

Battleworld is divided into conveniently isolated zones (like World-of-Hulks, or  fake-mythic Britain, or This-is-where-all-the-Spider-characters-are Island) and ruled over highly-recognisable Barons who pay fealty to Doom. Captain Britain is the boss of the Avalon area. Tony Stark runs Technopolis and a different version of Tony Stark runs The Warzone, where the Civil War event never ended. Mister Sinister runs a creepy zone full of clones of various Summers brothers and multiple Misters Sinister.

Yeah, maybe don’t visit those last couple of places.

Delightfully, She-Hulk is the Baron of Arcadia, which looks like Brooklyn by way of Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island, where female super-heroes protect ordinary citizens from (apparently) horrible dinosaur-sharks. (That one comes from G. Willow Wilson’s A-Force mini-series, which I can honestly recommend as great fun).

Each of the zones in battleworld corresponds with some event from Marvel’s past continuity. For example there are various zones tied up with X-men events of the past, like Age of Apocalypse, House of M, Inferno, E is for Extinction etc). Without looking, I’m guessing there’ll be a version of Wolverine in each one, even though he was already dead by the time the main Earth-616 continuity ended.

At the edges of the world, Doom’s put up a big wall to keep out the denizens of various less-salubrious Marvel continuities, like the one full of zombies and another one full of Sentinels hunting mutants in the future.

On this Shield, exiles and insurgents are banished to stand as protectors for the rest of reality. No, no, it’s totally different from The Wall in Game of Thrones. Honestly I have no idea where you got that idea.

(My head canon for this is that Doom was a huge Westeros fan before everything went belly-up, which honestly is just one more reason for George R R Martin to hurry up and finish the series. You don’t want to keep the God-Messiah Doom hanging, do you?)

So, having blathered about it for some time, what’s the verdict?

Secret Wars Issue one is a big, continuity-dependent free-for-all with helicarriers smashing into buildings, heroes and villains you may or may not recognise being heroic and/or getting killed off, and various geniuses putting desperate schemes into last-minute action. Taken by itself, it’s a dog’s breakfast that is barely comprehensible. But of course it’s not meant to be, since it’s the culmination or four or five years worth of interwoven plots from across two separate publication lines. Frankly, understanding everything that’s going on without a doctorate in Marvel continuity is probably out of the question. That said, it’s easy enough to pick up the gist – the stakes are as high as stakes go, not everyone is going to make it, and shit is, like, super-real.

Issue Two, on the other hand, is a work of insane genius. The army of Thors. The court of Doomstadt. Mister Sinister vs Captain Britain. Some weird stuff where evidence of the previous universes, which contradicts the doctrine of Doom as absolute divine author, is discovered and covered up.

It’s all great. I’m on board for the rest of the run. Even though I think it’s very likely that the series will end with a disappointing just-one-universe reboot (as the great DC universe-consolidation event of the early 80’s, Crisis on Infinite Earths, did), the sheer weirdness of the way Marvel has completely upended 50+ years of continuous storytelling is quite breathtaking.

Convergence can go jump. Sorry DC.

I’m in for the glorious, delirious, smash-those-dolls-together insanity of Marvel’s Secret Wars.

 

May 11, 2015

Progress Report – The sticky middle

Filed under: Uncategorized,wordsmithery — Tags: , , , — lexifab @ 12:18 pm

I’m a writer. I am, really.

Only, I’ve barely written a word in the last fortnight. Since Easter weekend – a month ago – I’ve written maybe five thousand words on A Flash of Black Wings. But really, if I were to look at my spreadsheet, I would probably be forced to acknowledge that it’s not even that much.

I put the intial problem down to bad timing. The expected disruption over Easter coincided with the part of my outline that has the vaguest plot points (“there’s an attack by mysterious people”, “our heroes go from here to there, encountering difficulties”). Up until that point in the writing process, I had a pretty firm idea of what was going on, even as my plot-as-written was becoming more complicated than the outline-as-planned.

Then I had to make some decisions. Uh oh. Decisions are NOT my strong point. I am an Olympic-level indecisionist.

I’m stalled on a plot point, being roughly “how do I move the characters from their current predicament through an exciting and essential action scene to the next phase of the story without completely breaking my own suspension of disbelief?” I need them to be somewhere else, but I’ve trapped them in a situation that it makes no sense to escape.

Agh. Structure is hard.

The solution, as far as I can see through the fog of self-doubt, is to just hammer out the scenes I need. Regardless of whether the scenes are justified by or even follow logically from what’s gone before, I need a complete draft. Once I’m finished, I will have something to edit.

That’s the lesson that this novel is teaching me all over again – finish the thing first, edit the thing later. Don’t edit it while you’re writing it.

My own process baffles me sometimes. A big part of the whinging I do on this blog is just trying to figure out how my own brain works and why I keep getting in my own way. And hopefully using the latest insights as a launchpad for resketching my internal road map (to mix my metaphors into a grotesque and unpalatable word-gruel).

So, a plan:

1) Keep writing. I need to get my streak back, because the write-every-day model is one that clealrly works for me. But on the other hand I also need to lower my expectations of my own productivity. When I was at full flight, I was writing an average of 750 words a day. Until I get back into the habit of daily writing, I should accept that 400-500 (a bit over a half-hour’s work for me, typically) is more reasonable.

2) Rework my outline. This is the job I’ve been putting off and putting off (see indecisiveness above) but I really can’t avoid it. My outline doesn’t work any more and I really don’t think I can end the novel where I was planning to. Too many characters have developed in directions that pull against the ending I’ve been aiming at, and I doubt I can get them back there without breaking them. So I need to redraw the map and see where I’m going (or if I need to kill someone I wasn’t planning to kill)

2) Mix it up. I have that half-edited short story (formerly known as “School Hall”) I was talking about above, plus another one that’s about a thousand words from a complete draft, plus another one that needs a rewrite, plus another one that’s been outlined in detail, not to mention a couple of others that are ready to start writing. Except for the “School Hall” edits, I was pretty determined to put off everything else until I finished my novel draft. But I think now that it would help if I have another project or two in my back pocket, for the (inevitable) times when I get really stuck and/or disillusioned with A Flash of Black wings. It’s bound to happen again, and better that I be working on something that wallowing in self-doubt and indecision for the better part of a month.

And with that, I’ll go back to the draft and hammer that bastard into submission.

May 2, 2015

Review – Seeing Red (Ambassador #1) by Patty Jansen

I haven’t actually formally signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015, but I am still trying to include as many Australian writers in my reading diet as possible. To that end I’m going to try to review at least one Australian writer (or editor/anthologist) a month in 2015 (yes, yes, I’m behind on that), keeping an eye on the gender balance as I go. To start with, here’s what I thought about the first volume of Patty Jansen’s Ambassador series of SF diplomacy.

***

Seeing Red is the first volume of Patty Jansen’s Ambassador series, featuring Cory Wilson, Earth’s brash neophyte representative to an alien coalition called the gamra. About equal parts science fiction mystery and conspiracy thriller, with romance and social commentary subplots thrown in for good measure, Seeing Red is a delicious meal.

On the eve of his appointment as the ambassador of Nations of Earth to the alien gamra, an explosive assassination attempt propels Cory Wilson from Earth to the alien city of Barresh where he must prevent an interstellar war, solve a murder and figure out which of several alien factions is behind it all. Wilson is behind the eight-ball almost the whole time: separated from his alien partner and his fiance, his resources cut off by a suspicious Earth, and caught between the interests of bickering alien governments.

Wilson’s a fun character – overconfident and arrogant, but resourceful and more dedicated to his job than anyone around seems to give him credit for. But the real entertainment value of Seeing Red comes from his navigation of the complicated politics of gamra, the alien organisation that runs the star-travel network known as the Exchange. Gamra is like a cross between Dune’s monopolistic Spacing Guild and a United Nations Security Council where everyone is expecting war to break out. By comparison, Nation of Earth is also like the UN, except that it occasionally behaves with the sophistication of an unruly local council Chamber of Commerce.

There are a few nice action set-pieces keeping the debates and conspiracy-hunting from slowing things down, and the linked central mysteries are well-constructed and satisfying. I found the ultimate villain of the piece was not too difficult to identify, but saying that there are plenty of surprises to be had. In terms of Wilson’s very complicated romantic life, I felt he was sometimes a bit improbably dense or in borderline-cruel denial, but it resolved well and I certainly never felt it got in the way of the intrigue or the shooting.

Seeing Red is an excellent thriller, with what seemed to me to be solid science underpinning the intrigue and action. I’m planning to read the sequels.

April 12, 2015

Progress report – The streak is dead. Long live the streak.

Filed under: fitter/happier,wordsmithery — Tags: , , — lexifab @ 12:12 pm

My writing streak is broken. I didn’t write a word over the Easter long weekend.

I don’t regret that one bit. I had a lovely relaxing weekend in the company of good friends and loud children, eating ridiculously delicious food and playing games. I finished reading a book that I liked and admired (Andrea K Höst’s The Pyramids of London – review incoming).

Then on Wednesday I had my very first ever migraine, which was – well, let’s just say that I know a few chronic migraine sufferers and I have a newfound respect for their ability to function at all. It’s five days after my attack and I still feel like warmed-over garbage.

However, that’s by the wayside (I hope). It seems a good time to review where I’m at with the novel, now that I’ve completed a distinct block of work.

Up until the 2nd of April, the A Flash of Black Wings manuscript was sitting on 31500 words or so. I’ve managed another couple of quick sessions since then that have dragged it up to nearly 33K. The writing streak that produced that wordcount took place over 43 days, at an average of 730-odd words per day.

I’m fairly satisfied with that as an overall result, although I am conscious that I can easily produce about 400 words in a half-hour block, which points to the fact that I am not exactly putting in stellar hours to get the project finished. I try not to beat myself up about the numbers, but the time could definitely stand to do some work.

What have I learned so far?

1) Working from a loose outline definitely helps to improve my productivity. Even though I am continuously stopping to think about how the characters should respond to situations, to make up some new bit of setting detail to dress a scene and to craft halfway decent dialogue, it helps to know where I have to start and end with a chapter.

2) Having an outline is no protection against meandering. I still write a lot of unnecessary fluff. In the middle of scenes I have often found, as mentioned above, that I need to make up some detail in order to give a scene a sense of place or to address some plot point or give context to a line of dialogue. I usually respond to this by writing a paragraph or two of info-dump setting material that has no useful function in the scene I’m writing. It’s stuff that’s necessary for me to understand my own world and characters, but it drags the hell out of the scene in play. In the editing phase I’m going to be needing to lift a lot of chunks of text like this out and either discard them or find a more appropriate home for them. I guess I could address a lot of this by doing better planning up front, but that’s a lesson for the next book, not this one.

3) Having an outline is no protection against rampant imagination. One of the big complaints you hear a lot from born pantsers (like me) is that writing the whole story out ahead of time kills the creative process. That knowing where the story is going and how it will end takes all the fun out of the journey. That was one of the things I was quietly experimenting with on this project – whether working from a detailed outline would leave me feeling bored or uninspired.

It turns out that during the writing process an entire new plot thread has emerged which completely changes the context of the characters and the situation. This plot thread was not in any way a part of the original outline. It just came out as part of giving a minor character a bit of background depth, and evolved into a core part of the situation. It’s too compelling not to use, even though it ramps up the complexity of the story in ways I haven’t quite figured out how to deal with yet.

4) Outlining is an iterative process. With the new plotline insinuating itself into my otherwise simple survival-chase romp adventure, I probably have to go back to my outline and do some more work to figure out how it all fits together now. I am tempted to run with the change in direction for a little while to see where it’s heading, but there’s a danger of chasing the new plot down a rabbit hole and having to throw away large chunks of work (which I am utterly loathe to do). So I think that for the next week my aim will be to complete the scenes I am writing now, and take a fresh pass through the outline to rework the structure and see whether it will survive the invasion of the alien plot [1].

 

[1] Plot does not contain actual aliens, depending on your definition.

March 20, 2015

Progress report – A month of novelling

Filed under: wordsmithery — Tags: , — lexifab @ 11:40 am

So today marks four weeks since I started work on my novel. Things are going pretty well so far – I passed the 20,000 word mark a couple of days ago, averaging a touch over 700 words a day. I’ve written every day, a minimum of 500 words. Only once in all that time have I achieved four figues in a single writing day, and I’m pretty sure (without having my spreadsheet to hand) that I managed that on a weekend across about three writing sessions. Mostly the writing does not start until after the kids are in bed, so 8:30 pm at the earliest. I’d love to be a first-thing-in-the-morning writer, but it would probably require getting up at 4:30 or so to fit in with the rest of the house’s schedule, and I can’t bring myself to start down that road just yet.

Once again, the writing streak is working for me. I’ve written every day, without fail. Last night, I procrastinated and dithered until well past the point where it became silly (it was very hot and stuffy in Canberra and I was really feeling it), but fear and disdain for breaking my writing streak meant that I eventually sat down and cranked out the words. I wrote exactly 500 words of story, as well as some notes for my next writing session.

Often I need to remind myself that it actually feels good to write once I get started. I’m a dreadful procrastinator (I may have discussed this at length in the past). I’ll make cups of tea, pay bills, burn CDs – anything to get out of starting work. If you see me tweeting up a storm of an evening, you can be pretty confident that I’m sitting in front of the computer with a Scrivener tab open (and pushed to the back).

Anyway – where’s the novel at? I’ve got through four chapters of about 5000 words each and closed out what I think of as the first act (although structurally that might not be quite right). My main character is starting to firm up in my head, and the secondary characters are coming to the fore in lots of intriguing and unexpected ways. An interesting subplot has emerged that was not present in the original outline, one that may need careful management or reining in because it’s probably a bit of a post-apocalyptic YA cliche (and the novel itself is a post-apocalyptic YA story, though not necessarily in the sense that the term is usually used).

A problem is looming in that my primary antagonist is only just coming forward in what is the start of the second act, which is probably too late for her to make the required impact (I’ll know for sure soon, because the next scene I will write is the first confrontation between my POV character and her nemesis-to-be). I suspect that I will need to rewrite the first couple of chapters to establish a couple of characters early, so that when they are off-stage for a few chapters their presence will still be felt. I should have known all this befiore I started, but sometimes strucutral weaknesses only emerge in the construction phase.

(Architecture is not my core competency, obviously).

At some point fairly soon I expect to have to revisit my outline and rework the latter chapters. It’s looking a lot like I’ve distributed the story load a bit unevenly (architecture!) and may have put too much of the action at the start and end. The middle is looking – not boring, exactly, but perhaps the stakes are a little too low and inconsequential considering what comes befoer and after. It’s also possible that the end point I have been working towards is not the right one for this book (which is the first volume in a trilogy).

 

Oh, the the thing I discovered is that I can’t count. 500 words a day for 90 days does not, as it turns out, add up to 75,000 words. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking when I did my first estimates. It’s going to take four months to get this done, not three – although at the current rate of output, it should not be any longer than that.

As long as I don’t break my streak, that is.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress