SEA – 184, and light at the end of the tunnel

Oh, god, am I tired. Touched base with the story, but not much more. We met another main character for the first time. Maybe it’s all the years of dealing with certain family members with a penchant for mild racism, but I am a little too good at writing subtly (or not so subtly) prejudiced characters. It’s something of a guilty pleasure, as well, to say all the rude things we all think at times (oh, come on, admit it) through a character who thinks these are the only correct views. I may not admire her attitude, but she’s very easy to write. Started hinting at some of the big background conflicts my world is facing too.

Also, I have a possible lead on the Sunday column issue. Clearly, there won’t be one today and there mightn’t be one next Sunday either, while I get things planned out. But I feel like there is a strong chance this idea will pan out. The only problem I have: I think it’s going to turn into a novel on me. This fills me with dread. I am trying to think of a way to structure it like a season of a television show. Each episode, a complete story, collectively building the larger narrative of the season. This is more ambitious than I can bear to think about. So I think I’ll go to sleep and think about it tomorrow.

Weekend – nearly over

Not much to say, for which I’m grateful. The horse show is going well. We need to win the jumper classes tomorrow to keep up with our friendly rival for end of the year points. I’ve spent the evening playing Ragnarok Online, despite a lagging internet connection, blissfully pounding on monsters with a new character.

Will return tomorrow evening, hopefully with words. Shows aren’t great places to get writing done, though I did the first draft edits for “Roll Up” at one. For now, it’s back to hunting in the Payon Caves. Nothing like killing the undead after a long day.

Weekend and a quagmire

My official weekend is going to be Friday and Saturday. In part, I am doing this to keep pace with Holly over at WABWM while I am participating in that. In part, I just like it. I don’t much care for Sundays, so I might as well work on them.

Unfortunately, this plan does not mesh too well with what I have to get done this weekend. We’ve got a horse show (I can’t seem to get a break from them…) Saturday and Sunday. Early mornings and long, tedious hours times two. As fall wears on, we’ll start into the year-end finals. From last year to this year, we retired our old show horse, so now our up-and-coming mare has to do it all. Should be exciting, if not necessarily successful.

I keep promising a Sunday column and I swear, it will happen. But I can’t seem to get a grip on the idea. It keeps drifting off the focus that I want. I’m going for food, I’m going for romance, I’m going for small cast, I’m going for slice of life drama or comedy, basically in that order of importance.

But fantasy keeps hanging me up. I know myself and I know that there is a good chance that I will not enjoy playing in a world with no fantasy element. But every time I try to figure out what would work with the rest of my goals, I get derailed. I had an idea to do something with hungry ghosts. It came to a whole lot of nothing. I have vague notions of doing something inspired by Brian Jacques’ Redwall and the Chronicles of Narnia (I have been on a children’s literature kick for a month or two). But not for the Sunday column.

The whole concept seems to just drift away from me every time. I am beginning to think that the core idea is flawed. I want to do a serial fiction column. (I would dearly love to one day be listed on the Web Fiction Guide.)  I would like it to be linked short stories, rather than a novel in pieces, so that I can edit each story to stand on its own. Having written, if not truly completed, novels, I know how much the story ends up changing as I write it. I can’t abide the notion of putting out parts of a novel while it is still being written. Short stories seem the solution. And the food link, which I like in and of itself, would be a way of making them feel like parts of a whole.

Maybe three’s company and I have to toss the fantasy or the food. Maybe I’m nervous to try something so new and ambitious (for me, at any rate) and am unconsciously sabotaging the idea. Maybe I’m a great, yowling hack.

This, I suppose, is what weekends are for. I’ll figure something out.

SEA – 533, and personal issues

Finally got something from S.E.A. that I liked, that I felt did some sort of justice to the idea I was attempting to capture. Have a snippet. As a note, the Far Shore is what our world is called by the denizens of the magical territory in the story. Ours is the world of the mundane, the material, the quantifiable. Theirs is the world of the mystical, the spiritual, the unknowable. And Teg is the codename for the female character around whom the secondary plot revolves. She can summon water and is using it to travel from the shore to a passing freighter ship.

Dark, many-tentacled things drifted almost out of sight in the murky water. The Far Shore had driven away the sea monsters and the dragons and the wishing fish. They came here instead. The deeper the water Teg swam in, the more dangerous it became. She broke the surface and skimmed the water long enough to take a breath. As she did, she checked the course of the ship and adjusted her own. Back underwater, she scattered a school of rainbow-scaled somethings that emitted mournful hoots and coos.

Another jump, another breath, another correction.

Then she gets attacked by a baby kraken. :)

The scene I had planned revolved mainly around her misgivings about leaving home to seek her fortune and a little demonstration with my world-building. I thought it would be fun, but not twisty at all. What I got instead was a nice little adventure, some great use of my world-building, and an opportunity to make her circumstances even more unpleasant than they had been. Which was just what I needed.

I had a pointlessly hideous day. And I was going to write this whole long post about the crushing weight of my mother’s legacy, as imagined by other people. About my love and respect for and friendship with her as a person and my hatred and terror of her as a mythic hero in the horse world as we know it. About the constant pressure to follow in her footsteps and the constant reminders that I could never possibly live up to her near-magical ability with horses (which is a load of shit anyway; a life of hard work and intelligent attention should not be confused with magic).

Then I realized it just does not matter. In trying to make it as a professional writer, I’ve got her to back my play. The people who actually matter to me do not expect me to do anything with my life but write. I’ve got the means, slim though they may be, to pursue that dream. And if I help with the horses, that’s cool too. It doesn’t have to mean anything more significant than that.

So I deleted the whole thing and spent an hour lost in my writing. So never mind.

To quote Monty Python: sorry; this isn’t a very good announcement. Sorry.

Working Review: Wake up at 3 AM

The first book I will be reviewing here is Brian Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany. The book includes 201 exercises, plus a great deal of extra material in the chapter introductions, exercise explanations, and appendices of articles. The chapters cover storytelling topics (such as POV, time, description), language topics (your own sentences, other writers’ sentences), and content topics (childhood, work, travel).

Kiteley’s background is in teaching and the exercises were originally directed at his students at the University of Denver. Some of the material in here is very, very literary. By that, I mean that it is focused on the artistry of language more than plot, on internal states more than external action. I am normally far more concerned with which words I need to get the plot out than with which ones will sound prettiest.

The first exercise I am going to do is from the POV chapter and it is called “Imperative.” It calls for a short “fragment” of a story, composed entirely of command forms: (you) do something.

When I was in college, my first short story class read one of Lorrie Moore’s stories– referenced in 3 AM— and I wrote an imitation of it then as well. At the time, I found it difficult to make it a true imperative. I kept slipping into a present tense, second person narrative (you go here and there, even if I did not command it), which isn’t really the same. Despite the difficulty, I found it a strangely satisfying exercise then; there was more emotional depth than I expected from a frivolous, diet book sort of style. Neil Gaiman has a poem in Fragile Things, “Instructions,” that uses the same idea.

For exercises in style, rather than subject, my difficulty always lies is choosing a topic. Writers are, at their core, incredibly bossy people. We make our living ordering around fictional people– their unwillingness to go along with us notwithstanding. But we temper this with ideas about motivation and consequences and theme, as though we have no direct hand in what actions they undertake. And outside of writing, ordering people about tends to be frowned on. This exercise, then, is distinctly uncomfortable for me. Who may I order around? What may I force others to do?

Well, I’ll admit, it may be uncomfortable, but it’s also pleasurable. With fairytales in mind from Gaiman’s poem, I think I will order around Sleeping Beauty or a similar princess-in-trouble.

Save Yourself

When the village priest tells your parents you were born under an unlucky star, do not despair. Grow up: pretty, but never beautiful; clever, but never genius; hard-working, but never adept. Your parents will try to keep you inside, where it is safe. Do not let them.

When you are four, play in the little pond behind the house. Though you fall in, you will not drown. When you are six, befriend a stray dog. Though it growls, you will not be bitten. When you are eight, walk to the village square alone. Though you get lost, you will come to no harm.

When you are ten, try to sneak outside before supper. Get caught. Your nanny will give you a biscuit and tell you to be a good girl. Do not listen. Try again.

When you are outside, do not follow the fence– they are looking for you. Walk down the hill instead. Follow the field mouse into the forest. When you catch him, do not harm him. If he speaks to you– I have no doubt he will– offer him the biscuit. He will show you somewhere warm and dry to sleep. Though you are hungry, do not go home.

In the morning, search for something to eat. Find a wildcat instead. Do not scream! When she tells you that she serves the lady of the wood, ask to go with her to the lady’s house. You will not find it otherwise. It lies in deeper forests than any man living has seen or even heard of.

Thank the wildcat. Let her enter first. Do not show her your back.

Ask the witch– for the lady is a witch, make no mistake– to teach you her craft. Ask three times. Do not leave when she refuses. If she needs the jar just out of reach, hand it to her. If she needs water from the well, fetch it for her. If she hands you a mortar full of woody herbs, smelling of pepper and pine, grind them for her. When night falls, take supper with her at the scarred and bleached table. Sleep by the fire, wrapped in the blanket she sets out for no one in particular. Never ask her why she let you stay.

Work harder than you ever imagined it was possible to work. You have only yourself to rely on. Study the witch’s ancient books. Talk to oak and ash trees and listen to their secret tree-words, the shish-shish and plushaplush of wind in leaves and sap in trunks. Hibernate for a winter to understand bear magic and sleep magic and death magic. Get news from passing starlings. Learn the movements of planets and the patterns of stars. Cast your own star chart and see what the village priest saw when you were born.

Go outside on a cold and cloudless night. Climb to the roof of the witch’s house and look up through the trees. Find the star that spells your doom– white and red and yellow against thick purple. Fall asleep. Watch it in your dreams.

Wake up cold and stiff. Look out into the forest from your high perch. Spy a man. It will perhaps be your sixteenth birthday, for strange things happen on such a day. He will be lost. Cursed, too. Show him the way out of the forest. Fall in love, just a little, when he tells you he seeks to break his curse, no matter the danger. Do not forget him.

From a flock of starlings and the field mice and the skulking raccoon, discover that a great calamity threatens your family and your village. Tell the witch you are leaving. She may give you a charm or a weapon or a farewell kiss. Leave the forest. Return to the village. Be a stranger.

Seek out your parents, grown sallow and old with sorrow in your absence. They will not know you but they will let you lodge with them. Watch them grow lively again. Give them what comfort you can spare.

Speak to the village priest: it is a star which falls towards the village. It is your doom star, the eye of your constellation, which breaks loose of the sky. Find the cursed man there as well. He seeks the priest’s guidance, but will receive none while the star still hangs its fire over the heads of the villagers.

When the star falls, catch it. It takes no magic. It takes much more. You must have the suppleness of saplings. You must know how to die without dying, as a bear does. You must know that a star burns without flame and travels without movement. You must know what you are capable of.

Catch it. Save yourself. Live under a no-star, a fateless sky, a cheated doom.

Save yourself.

Catch it.

Leave the village behind. Go home. Let the cursed man follow you as far as the forest. Say nothing. Refuse to teach him when he asks. If he still follows, take him home. Teach him. Let him save himself.

Whew. I went well over the suggested word count (500), but I wanted a complete arc of narrative to make up for the weirdness of the exercise. Once again, I found this to be a delight to write. I ran into the same problem as the first time I did this, slipping into second person present. I tried to combat it by making it into a future tense instead. It seemed to mesh with the commands better by sort of ordering around possible events. I tried, as much as possible while remaining coherent, to just write commands. I sketched out the plot I wanted to have before I tried to write. Of course, this was composed of smaller commands (go into forest, learn magic, and so on), so I really did the exercise twice.

What I found most interesting was the way that command forms created a sort of plot outline for me. I could see the shape of a larger story as I created it in miniature. I am quite tempted to try the exercise the next time I need to work out the plot for a larger project. I could run each of my main characters through it, sketching out their personal plot arcs. Because while the result can have details and lyrical moments– can be a finished product in itself– it is largely comprised of broad strokes and covers as much ground as possible in a small space.

An imperative piece is largely an oddity. No one would read a novel written entirely in this form (no one I have met, at any rate). But it does such interesting things to the brain and makes you think of plot in a unique and excellent way.

It is a common problem for writers, myself very much included, to let things happen to your characters. In the desire to heap problems on them and have nice juicy conflict, it is tempting to let them just sit back and be buffeted by this sea of troubles. No good. This exercise can only work if the “you” in question becomes the agent of actions. (Well, you could cheat and just use forms of to be. Be kidnapped. Be sad. Be a helpless twit.) This makes for delicious, consequence-riddled fiction. I really recommend trying it.