All posts by Annaka

I am a software engineer, YA fantasy writer, and gardener.

The Finger of Blame

Who is to blame? This is an interesting question, because it is asking more than “who caused this?” – it is asking “who is at fault for this?”

It is interesting from a writing standpoint because blame very often has a load of anger attached, and the finger of blame is not always reasonable in selecting a target. In other words, it is a prime way of adding conflict to a story.

Have something unfortunate happen. Have one character blame another for it. Good – conflict!

Have one character blame another for it unfairly. Better – more conflict!

Not only can it add conflict, it can also expose information about the characters involved: how the culprit is determined, how the wronged party behaves towards the culprit, and how the culprit responds – all great stuff!

 

This came to mind because of an incident last night.

Rob and I had a dinner gathering for the first time in our new/old house. We have had a few people swing by, but this was the first time we were trying to feed multiple people at the same time, and in style. All rather stressful to start with, since we don’t have a lot of practice entertaining.

 

So I was in the kitchen, trying to get the last few things ready. Rob was showing most of the guests around outside, and I was chatting with one guest while I worked.

Through the kitchen window I saw a dog streak by. Rather worrisome, because one of my cats was outside, and we don’t usually get dogs.

I commented on it, and the guest said “Oh, that’s Tim’s dog.”

One of the guests had brought a dog? News to me.

 

The crew stayed out an unexpectedly long time, and when at length they came in my sneaking fears were realized: the dog had treed my cat.

Well and thoroughly.

Forty feet up a Douglas Fir.

I was not happy.

I didn’t do anything regrettable, but I left Rob to keep everyone entertained while I went out to see whether I could lure Avanti down.

Already, the finger of blame was looking for a target, never mind that I wasn’t about to give voice to it.

The obvious person to blame was the guest in question, the “gentleman friend” of one of our friends. He seemed like a prime candidate, because it was his dog, and he might or might not be around for the long term.

Note that it is very convenient to blame someone if there isn’t a major cost to blaming them.

 

Avanti came down by a couple branches in response to my calling, but didn’t make it any further. Rob brought the ladder and helped me put it up in the fading light, but it was a good ten feet short. I reluctantly went back in, since there was nothing I could constructively do.

 

As it turned out, Avanti made it down just fine all on her own, after I “abandoned” her. This story has a happy ending, so there is no need for me to pin blame on anyone. Note how the lack of consequence lightens the load of blame to almost nothing.

 

But what if she had fallen? Been seriously injured? Killed?

 

Then the finger of blame would anxiously seek out a victim.

It is interesting to look at this as an example, and consider different interpretations – and who might pick one or another.

 

Here are the prime candidates:

  • The dog. He treed the cat. But that’s pretty much what dogs do, so most people wouldn’t be inclined to lay blame there.
  • Avanti. She ran. The dog followed. But running from dogs is pretty much what cats do, so most people wouldn’t be inclined to lay blame there.
  • The guest who had brought the dog. It was his dog, so he was clearly responsible.
  • Rob. Rob had given the guest permission to let the dog out. He did not know Avanti was out, but he didn’t double-check. On the other hand, the guest assured him that the dog did not chase things when he was around. Which turned out not to be true. So maybe the guest was to blame, after all.
  • Me me me. I hadn’t seen that there was a dog, because I was busy getting final touches together, but if I had actually looked out properly I would have seen it in time to forestall a problem.

 

This is where it gets interesting, because there isn’t necessarily a right answer. There are more and less rational answers, but there is some basis for any of these interpretations.

And this is where a writer can have some fun, depending on the desired level of conflict and/or character exposure desired.

 

Rational:

Rob is to blame. He gave permission for the guest to let the dog out, without first checking on the situation. Yes, the guest indicated that the dog didn’t chase things, but almost any dog will chase a critter that runs from it.

In this particular case this interpretation would also have had all sorts of potential for relationship friction. Great potential for a story that focuses on relationships!

 

Conflict-avoiding:

I am to blame. I should have seen the situation and prevented it from happening. This is probably how I would have played it if something dire had happened, because I have a lot of trouble blaming other people if they blame themselves (which Rob would have done). From a writer’s standpoint, this is probably the least satisfactory, since most of the conflict would be internal. It could be useful from the point of view of exposing character, but that’s about it.

 

Simple:

The dog is to blame. In this case the dog was just doing what dogs do, but then a dog that gets in and kills chickens or somesuch is still doing what critters do, and it doesn’t necessarily prevent the humans from holding the critters accountable.

This doesn’t have direct conflict potential, but it has excellent indirect conflict potential. If the “wronged” party holds the critter accountable, and demands that the critter itself suffer for it – be put down, in an extreme case – that will then give rise to all sorts of conflict with the owner or defender of the critter.

All of this can be interesting, but I think the majority of readers would view this interpretation as unreasonable, at least in a case like this.

 

Blame the victim:

Avanti is to blame. She shouldn’t have run. The fact that she ran triggered the whole incident.

This is a good choice if you want to say something very specific about the character involved. It takes a certain sort of person to blame the victim – although more people are likely to do so if they are the obvious alternate culprit.

 

Direct:

The guest is to blame. It was his dog. Yes, Rob gave him permission, but the guest said that the dog didn’t chase things. He was mistaken.

This is a nicely defensible position, and in this case it also has the benefit of blaming the outsider in the group. Always a favorite!

This has conflict potential either if there is a nice blow-up at the party, or if the guest actually stays in the story. It could become a nice point of friction with the friend who brought the gentleman-friend in the first place.

 

With all of this, there are a few key points: who is blamed, how much emotion is behind the blame (which is likely to influence how reasonable the blame is), how the emotion is acted on, and how the blamed party responds.

This can get especially dramatic if it is a group of people (ethnic, cultural, political) that is blamed instead of an individual.

All sorts of fun things to play with – and a potentially valuable exercise for my own writing, since I’ll be working on upping the conflict level in Joining the Draken over the next couple months.

Hmm. What can I come up with that will cause a nice storm of blame?

 

Spring is Springing!

Happy first day of spring!

I like all the seasons, but I especially love the burgeoning life of spring.

Those first dainty crocuses and daffodils are as welcome to me as a garden full of roses.

Spring is actually well underway – unseasonably so – here in Port Angeles.

Our plum trees are all in bloom, and the cherries will be joining in the fun within the next week or two.

plum_blossoms

I have been hard at work getting a garden set up, since this is our first spring in our new/old house.

There was a garden here before. We started out by digging flagstones out of their layering of sod. A previous owner had used them to divide the flower beds, and we decided they were far too good to just bury with the load of topsoil we had ordered — and so the hard labor began!

And then the bulbs started coming up, the last remnant of the old garden that had survived a decade or more of neglect and mowing.

Irises, daffodils, and grape hyacinths – and of course I had to save a selection, in case there was anything special!

 

I get carried away with such projects, but I find it very therapeutic working outside, grubbing in the dirt.

It has been a welcome therapy, since work has been crazy, compounded by wedding planning and other adult pressures. Ah, tax season!

 

This last week or so the garden has really started coming together. The first bed is pretty well done, and I have been planting seeds like mad.

When I went through this process in Seattle, I stuck in a bunch of perennials right away, but without time to plan. This time around I think I’ll go primarily with annuals the first year, to give myself a chance to plan out the garden a little more thoroughly – while still having color this summer!

I find the nursery seed section far too seductive. At this point we have about two dozen packets of seeds, which in combination would probably cover 10,000 square feet of garden.

But how can I resist them?

The packets are lovely, the plants they will grow are lovely, and when else can you put a funny-shaped rock into the ground and expect a green thing to sprout? Magic!

seed_packets

Birthday Ruminations

I am 36 today.

It has me in a thoughtful mood, because I am now the age my mother was when she had me.

It is a milestone, but not one of the loaded decade milestones.

My life is in a good place right now. I like my job and where I live. I’m engaged and will be getting married in September. Things are crazy now, but in a couple weeks when things get back to normal I’ll have time for writing and gardening.

I’m in a good place, and it is the first time in a while that I have been able to look forward a couple/few years and have some sense of where I will be.

And where I want to be.

 

So, here goes.

 

In five years, I want to be happily settled with Rob, with one or two too many projects percolating.

I want to be writing regularly, and submitting regularly. I would like to have been published – ideally a novel, but I’ll take some short stories!

I want to have a garden, but have it set up so that it doesn’t eat all my free time in the summer.

I want to travel a couple times a year, but do it little enough that it’s still fun.

I want to continue to balance my day job with writing and my hobbies. It is stimulating and interesting, and I think my life would be less without it.

 

There are some major things I’m not sure about.

My mom had me at 36. At this point it is highly unlikely that I’ll have a kid at 36. Will I have kids at all? I’m ambivalent. I think I could be very happy with kids, or very happy without kids. I’m not sure how that will fall out yet.

Regardless, I hope that the next thirty-six years will be as interesting and generally happy as my first thirty-six – and that even if I don’t have children, I will have something to show for my time when I’m seventy-two.

Fun with Plumber’s Tape

I am an inveterate note jotter. I keep a big stack of scratch paper by my desk, and the heap of notes slowly grows next to my keyboard.

I prefer physical notes to an electronic list – except that organization is a problem.

Here is what my desk looked like last week:

IMG_6865

I like the idea of bulletin boards, but they take up a lot of real estate. I wanted something long and narrow.

Not too long ago, I was playing around with rare earth magnets and established that I could stick them to the nails in the wall studs. Ooh! A possible organization method! Not enough studs around my desk, though, and I wasn’t sure that the connection would be strong enough for a wad of notes.

So I looked up metal strapping online . . . and discovered the joy that is plumber’s tape!

It is cheap, it is readily available, it’s kinda pretty (it has a series of holes punched into it), and it works with magnets!

A bit of paint and a few screws later, and here is my new bulletin board:

IMG_6869

It could use a bit of prettying up, and it isn’t fully loaded yet, but I’m pretty excited about it.

Perhaps my days of desperately shuffling through my stack of notes is over!

A girl can hope.

What My Viable Paradise Cohort is Doing!

Life has been decidedly nuts of late: long hours for my day job, lots to do on the house, and a wedding to plan! I have been taking a little break from writing while I try to cope with all of that. I’m hoping to resume in March, but in the meantime my Viable Paradise cohort has been writing some nifty things:

  • Lauren Roy – not part of my cohort but one of the invaluable sanity support members for VP – has a new book out! Check out Grave Matters at your friendly neighborhood bookstore!
  • Shveta Thakrar wrote a very touching essay about what it was like to grow up feeling like a changeling: a child of non-European cultural background in small-town America. I just want to go back and give her teenaged self a hug!
  • Fonda Lee wrote a great short story involving irresponsible friends and 3D printers for Crossed Genres.
  • KJ Kabza has a piece in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Issue 168 is not available on-line quite yet, but I’ll update the link when it is!
  • Ben Kinney wrote a couple nice blog posts, one involving flaming bears in Judaism, and one comparing Chosen One plots to the Power of Love plots.

Nice job, everyone! It is inspiring having friends doing so many nifty things!

Fun with Cyanotypes (aka Sun Prints)

I am subject to enthusiasms, especially when it comes to making things.

The most recent bee in my bonnet was making cyanotypes. Many people know them as sun prints: you get (or make) special paper, expose it to the sun masked with something interesting, and get a beautiful blue and white print.

blackberry_loop

This enthusiasm started with wedding research. I’m getting married in September, and a recently married cousin gave me a ridiculous stack of Martha Stewart wedding magazines. Although very pretty, they yielded surprisingly few ideas.

One idea that did appeal was cyanotype place cards, done up with ferns and whatnot.

I did a bit of research, and established that although pre-treated cyanotype paper ran roughly a buck per sheet, there were lots of great how-tos on-line explaining how to do it yourself.

I ordered the chemicals . . . and then we bought a house and moved and six months went by.

That may not sound like the proper course of an enthusiasm, but I’m not quite that obsessive.

Rob and I finally got around to mixing the chemicals up a couple weeks ago. There are two separate chemicals involved, green ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. Mixed separately with distilled water, they are fairly stable. Once combined, they become UV sensitive, and should be used to treat your paper or fabric reasonably promptly.

I’m not going to go into the details here – we followed the excellent how-to on instructables.

There are a bunch of other how-tos on line.

We used rice paper instead of watercolor paper. It took the solution beautifully, but was somewhat delicate when it came to rinsing the completed prints.

First we treated the paper, then dried it. Apparently you can do the prints on a wet medium, but that has complications.

We then locked the paper away in a light-safe box (cardboard box wrapped in a trash bag, stored in the basement) and waited for a sunny day.

That could have been a long wait in Washington in winter, but we got lucky.

We got a sunny two-hour slice, and made the most of it.

We started by printing a test strip that indicated that the best exposures would be between five and ten minutes, depending on the desired shade of blue.

Then it was off to the races!

We printed some ferns:

fern_printing

fern_washing

completed_fern

completed_ferns

We printed a couple photographs, printed out on transparencies:

plum_photo

We printed some blackberries:

blackberries

For the natural-object prints, it was important to pin the materials down with a piece of glass. Even so, you can clearly see where the leaves and stems were not pressed down firmly.

That could either be a bug or a feature, depending on your outlook. We chose to consider it a feature!

The hardest part was rinsing the prints. As mentioned above, we used rice paper, which has many advantages but is rather delicate when wet.

I rigged a wash basin with a laundry basket and a hand-held shower nozzle. It worked pretty well, although if we left prints in too long they formed some signs of wear.

The whole thing was a blast, and offers lots of options for further fun.

You can print on fabric as well as paper, and it is color-fast (although you have to be careful about what detergent you use).

There is a great book on the subject:

Blueprints on Fabric by Barbara Hewitt

My enthusiasm has temporarily run its course, although this summer I’ll probably do some fabric.

I would recommend cyanotypes to any craft-minded person. It would be great fun with kids, too!

 

Terrible Things Happen – Should We Write Them?

This week’s shooting of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill got me thinking about just how many terrible things happen in the world, and the degree to which that should – or should not – be included in a work of fiction.

So far 2015 has seen mass killings; people killed or brutalized by police; people killed or brutalized by terrorists and extremists; and the standard run of murder and assault. And those are just the headline-worthy woes. If you get into the weeds of day-to-day prejudice and violence . . . well, why get out of bed in the morning?

I don’t think I’m the only one who finds it soul-crushing.

And yet it is happening, it is real, and ignoring it does not seem to be the answer.

 

Should We Include Such Things in Fiction?

I have mixed feelings on this.

Depicting hate-driven violence can help acknowledge that it is a real problem in our society. Such depictions can also be sickening and pointless. Of course, that is part of the point, but if I had run across the Chapel Hill shooting in a work of fiction – three nice young Muslims, two of them newly wed, gunned down by a hate-filled white atheist – I would have wondered why the author had chosen to include such a pointless horror.

However, we live in a world where such things are, horribly, a reality, and completely ignoring them does not seem to be the answer.

 

What to Include and in What Degree?

In a way “should we include it” boils down to two separate questions. What should we include, and how much of it should we include?

For example, if a work depicts prejudice, is it going to focus on the subtle day-to-day prejudice that is so insidious, or is it going to depict an all-out hate attack?

I think the “what” depends somewhat on the type of story, but humans being humans there is almost always some sort of prejudice available for consideration. I think it is a valuable thing to address in some form, whether it is class-based, age-based, race-based, gender-based, or something else. Really, “what” to include comes down to thinking through the dominant groups in a work, and how they would rub along together.

The “how much” can be a little trickier, and is likely to be more dependent on the type of story. If a religious war is central to the plot, then terrorist attacks are perfectly appropriate.

In a character-driven story where prejudice is a background element, rather than a major part of the plot, I think that keeping it to a background noise level is appropriate. It still acknowledges the problem. And really, that is the degree of problem that can realistically be addressed.

I think the truly horrific attacks grow out of the fertile soil provided by general prejudice. If the general prejudice were not there, these attacks might not occur, or might manifest in a different way.

I think it is very important to acknowledge the existence of prejudice, and to consider the impact it has on various members of a story.

I don’t think that the prejudice ever needs to escalate for its inclusion to be valuable.

 

Back Handed Inclusion

Many of us are uncomfortable with discussions of prejudice. Racism, religious prejudice, sexism – they are all loaded.

One thing that science fiction and fantasy bring to the table is the ability to mirror our world at safe remove.

For example, I’ve always found it interesting when a work of sci fi replaced inter-human racism with xenophobia against aliens.

It is sad that we have to go to an alternate reality to have a proper discussion about our irrational fears and biases, but at least we can take advantage of that safe space!

 

Thoughts on the subject? Please comment!

Writing and Feedback

This last week I stiffened my spine and sent my YA fantasy book out to beta readers. It got me thinking about the problem of writers and feedback at different stages of the writing process, and different levels of experience.

Feedback is both important and pitfall-ridden.

There may be the occasional writer (Kafka?) who can write amazing stories with no feedback. Most of us need someone else to help figure out what’s working and what isn’t.

The sad irony is that the less experienced a writer is, the more important feedback can be – and the harder it can be to get.

 

The Problem of Feedback

Feedback is vital, but sadly there is no guarantee that it will be good or appropriate.

Bad or inappropriate feedback can be extremely destructive, especially to a beginning writer who doesn’t have much perspective.

My brother was hot to write after college. He made a good go at it, writing daily and treating it as a job. He got the draft of a fantasy novel together, and handed it out to friends and family for feedback.

Among others, he gave the novel to our high school English teacher – a teacher who had done an excellent job of teaching us to analyze literary works. She also happened to favor literary fiction.

She . . . was not impressed.

Fair enough.

The problem was that my brother valued her opinion very highly, and the way she stated the problem was not “you need lots of practice” or anything more concrete; it was “you need to experience life before you try to write.”

It is true that life experience helps in writing, but unfortunately the teacher’s feedback caused my brother to simply stop writing.

Many very successful authors wind up trunking their first four or five or eight novels. Had my brother kept going, he might well be published long since.

The thing that I find most striking about this is that the feedback was given with the earnest desire to be helpful. And it stopped my brother cold.

How destructive, then, is malicious feedback? Wrongheaded feedback? Feedback that is trying to convert a story from one species to another?

This is all marginally less problematic for a more experienced writer with more perspective, but from all I’ve heard, the doubts never go away completely.

So, what to do?

 

Safe Feedback

There are a lot of potential sources of feedback out there. They vary significantly in risk.

I think that a beginning writer – or an especially insecure writer – should stick with the safest of these.

Indirect Feedback

Bad direct feedback can be extremely destructive.

Fortunately there are ways to get information about writing and editing that don’t involve exposing your precious work to the withering scorn of others.

The most effective of these is to let someone else expose themselves instead, and then look for useful information in the feedback.

The “Share Your Work” forum on AbsoluteWrite is a great place to do that.

You do have to be signed up officially, but aside from that you can hop on immediately.

Hopeful writers will post chunks of work, usually first chapters or short stories.

Anyone on the forum who is interested can then comment.

Some of the comments are impressions, some are line edits. Some are excellent, some are largely useless.

These critiques provide three valuable things:

  • Information on mistakes that you may well have in your own work.
  • A view into the range of opinion – there are often completely contradictory pieces of feedback.
  • A way to improve your “eye” – and then apply it to your own work.

It is a fine crash course in basic editing, and it provides no risk to the observer.

Safe Feedback

The ideal is to get feedback from a known safe source – someone who will give useful information, and isn’t at risk of crushing you.

This is the ideal. I don’t know how you could find such a source without risk – but if you have a source of safe and effective feedback, value it!

Usually the best you can do is to get feedback in a safe environment. When I attended Viable Paradise, they made it very clear that the critiques should be honest but gentle. If you are considering a workshop or course, try to find out about the flavor of the critiques.

There are some groups that seem to pride themselves on being harsh – apparently equating quality with toughness, and toughness with brutality.

Avoid these!

Write Write Write!

The last safe approach – the one I used for the first couple years – was to simply write. A lot.

Although guided and conscious practice is ideal, any practice is good.

There are many ways to improve the efficacy, including looking at books on writing and editing. I found “Self Editing for Fiction Writers” especially helpful, since it gave concrete examples out of well-known fiction.

Dangerous but Potentially Effective

There are many sources of feedback that can be risky but may have a significant payoff in terms of helpful information. In seeking these out, honestly consider how thick your skin is and how committed you are.

If they say you stink in the harshest way possible, will you be able to keep going?

If so, go for it!

Writing Groups

Many of my fellow students at Viable Paradise had had excellent experiences with writing groups. If you can find a group of like-minded writers, it can be a good source of feedback, while also giving you the benefit of thinking critically about other writers’ work.

There are three major potential problems with a writing group:

  • You’re all beginning writers. This doesn’t render it useless – chances are that you’re all rabid readers, which means you’ll have at least some useful opinions on each others’ work. However, you won’t come along as quickly as if you have a more experienced source of advice. It is a somewhat bigger problem if you are intermediate or advanced, and everyone else is beginning. Then you’re at risk of becoming the teacher. Gratifying, but not as helpful to you.
  • They’re mean. Usually it isn’t everyone who is mean, but all it takes is one brutal person.
  • They don’t read your kind of stories. Writing is writing up to a point, but if you write fantasy and your writing group is made up of literary fiction writers – or vice versa – you won’t be able to effectively evaluate the quality of the story, or give good advice.

Beta Readers

This is where I am!

The risk level varies quite a bit. I minimized it by drawing many of my beta readers from my Viable Paradise cohort – so I know that they at least have some background in kind but useful critiques. I also supplied the first couple chapters to help verify that they were a good match with the story. I want to make my story the best it can be – not change what kind of story it is. So it helps if they like the type of story it is!

So. Fellow writers – good, especially if you have some sense of their likely style.

Friends. Well . . . risky.

It helps if you know they like the type of story you wrote. Even then, think through what will happen if they never give you feedback, or if they give you terrible feedback.

I gave my first completed/edited (now trunk) novel to my then-boyfriend to beta.

He never told me what he thought. I suspect he only got a few chapters in.

It probably wasn’t very good – it’s a trunk novel now – but that silence was almost as damaging as a brutal critique. Maybe more so, since it just left me hanging.

It isn’t a coincidence that I stopped writing for a year or two.

Fortunately I moved on!

Workshops/Conferences/Etc.

My critique experiences at Viable Paradise were very helpful.

Depending on the workshop, it can be a very beneficial experience.

Just do your homework. Most workshops – standalone or associated with a conference – have been around for a while, and will have a known personality.

The participants vary from year to year, so it is always possible a bad egg will sneak in, but this is a comparatively safe resource since there is usually some sort of moderator.

Online Critiques

After you’ve gotten indirect feedback for a while by observing or providing critiques online, you can give it a whirl yourself.

There are a number of online critique forums, including AbsoluteWrite and Critters.

The biggest risk with these is that someone can be brutal – it’s somewhat luck of the draw – but they are usually somewhat regulated, and try to promote playing nicely.

I had very good luck when I submitted things to AbsoluteWrite. I would recommend it – but it is likely to be most helpful once you have the fundamentals down and are trying to refine your craft.

 

Actually, that goes for pretty much all of these except the indirect feedback method.

 

Other Opinions?

These thoughts on feedback and where to get it are drawn from my own experience, direct and otherwise.

Thoughts or opinions? Please share!

Writing and Life

One of the challenges of being a writer is integrating writing into day-to-day life. The vast majority of writers – aspiring and published alike – have a day job, a family, hobbies, and chores.

And, sadly, they still need to sleep. I think that is a great oversight on someone’s part.

I have no idea how people manage to have a day job, children, and a writing career. In my case, it’s a somewhat simpler question of balancing a job, writing, and the rest of life.

Even so, it isn’t easy.

No Time to Write!

I think the most important realization is that it isn’t a question of time.

It is a question of priorities.

I think I first heard that observation on Writing Excuses. I find it valuable because it re-frames the question. Instead of asking “however can I get more than the standard 24 hours per day that everyone is allotted,” it urges the would-be writer to take a look at their priorities, and consider where writing fits in the stack.

It is a useful exercise to consider both your real priorities and your wished-for priorities.

For example, maybe you want your priorities to be:

  • Work
  • Writing
  • Family
  • Chores
  • TV

But looking at your use of time, your priorities are actually:

  • Work
  • TV
  • Chores
  • Family
  • Writing

This is not a happy thing, but until you recognize it, you won’t do anything about it. You’re most likely to just keep thinking wistfully that it would be really nice to write, if only you had time.

You do! You just have to give up TV (or games or gardening or books or whatever-hobby) in order to get it.

Are you willing to do that?

It is ok to say no.

It is your life, and if you want to place a hobby above writing, that’s fine.

If you want to place your family above writing, that’s probably healthy from many standpoints.

If you want to place your day job above writing, that’s good for your financial well-being.

But don’t say you don’t have time.

Acknowledge your priorities. Own them. And if you don’t like them – well, change them!

That easy, right? Um. Yeah.

The Writing Habit

There exist binge writers, who spill out a book in a month or two, and then don’t write again for a year. Recognize NaNoWriMo?

Don’t get me wrong, I think NaNo is great – it gets people to really try writing out – but after my first NaNoWriMo in 2007, I didn’t write again for months.

There are a few rare writers who can actually operate this way, but if you’re playing the odds, it is much better to build writing into your daily life as a habit.

My first successful run at the writing habit was to do half an hour a day, every day. If I missed a day, I had to make it up. It actually worked pretty well; it got me a full, edited novel. A trunk novel, yes, but a novel nonetheless.

The big benefit of that kind of system is there isn’t any question of whether you’ll write.

There is no, “Hmm, do I feel like writing today? Nah.”

It’s “Dang, I don’t really feel like writing, but I’ll put in my half hour.”

And the amazing thing? Even if you don’t much feel like writing, you can still wind up with quite a good session. For me, about 90% of the time when I don’t feel like writing, if I just sit down and do it, it will go fine.

The big disadvantage of that particular system is that it’s easy to watch the clock. There were times when it was going pretty well, but I would hit time and stop because there were books to read and gardening to do and dinner to cook and . . . !

I wish I could give a variant of this that worked for everyone (or even for me all the time). My best suggestion is to try different approaches.

I have been doing editing for the last few months, so I barely remember what my last successful approach was, but it boils down to something like this:

  • Write or edit every day.
  • Put in a minimum (minimum, or great shame!) of 15 minutes. Target forty-five minutes to an hour, more if on a roll.
  • If it’s a poor session, try to make it up the next day.
  • If it’s a really good session, sock up the extra time. Note that I don’t usually “use” the saved up time, unless I’m purposefully “saving up” because of a known lull in writing (a work trip, vacation, holidays). But I can feel all virtuous and happy about all that extra time.

There are all sorts of ways to play with this.

  • Minimum word count instead of minimum time (although that risks the writing of crap).
  • Minimum time for the week, allowing fewer but longer blocks of time (although that’s harder to establish as a habit).

The big thing is to observe how you’re doing with the goals, and whether they’re working.

  • Do you question your writing time?
  • Do you feel guilty if you don’t write?
  • Do you write before you settle in to <perform random unwinding hobby>?
  • Are you getting your writing time in?
  • Are you happy with how your empirical priorities are stacking up?

These last two are the most important. For me, the first three are good, because those regulate whether I’m actually doing my writing – but everyone is different. Plenty of crazy night owls wait and do their writing after the family is in bed.

They’re nuts, but whatever works.

Life Happens

The other important thing with a well-maintained writing habit is to acknowledge that life happens.

You will get sick. Work will go crazy. There will be a family emergency. You will go on vacation.

There is a threshold where your priorities will change, and you may not get your writing in.

That’s ok.

The important thing is to recognize what’s going on, and try to manage it.

For me, it’s important to not slide into it. A crazy week at work? Fine, I’ll still do my writing.

A crazy month at work, plus sick? Well, maybe it’s time for a break – with a date to resume.

What I don’t want to do is skip writing once or twice a week . . . and then two or three times a week . . . and then most days . . . and then wake up to realize I haven’t worked on a story in six months.

If I skip a couple days, I take a hard look at what’s going on in my life, and either buckle down and get back to writing anyway, or allow myself to take a break.

This last summer, for example, I bought a house with my fiancé, cleared out my house in Seattle, got renters, and moved out to our new home in Port Angeles.

Did I write during the nuttiness?

I took a 3 month break.

But it was conscious, and when the dust cleared it was lovely to get back to writing. It felt like I was getting back to my “normal” life.

There is risk to stopping, but I think that if it is deliberate and controlled, the chances of starting again are much greater.

Balance

The thing that has worked well for me, and many of the writers I know, is to find a writing schedule that can integrate into day-to-day life. You’re in this for the long haul, and it’s best to keep that in mind.

When reviewing your priorities, try to keep in mind that it’s not an all-or-nothing thing.

Writing is important to me.

I have cut into my reading time in order to pursue it.

I could write more if I didn’t read at all.

I could write more if I never watched movies.

I could write more if I quit gardening.

I could write more if I made Rob do all the chores.

I could write more if I reduced my day job hours.

I am not going to do any of that, though, because in the long term it would shake my balance, and I might get knocked out of my writing habit in the resulting correction.

Better slow and steady and consistent.

Other Opinions?

These thoughts on writing/life balance are drawn from my own experience.

It is something that I think all writers struggle with. Have thoughts or opinions? Please share!

Temporal Descriptors in Fantasy

It is easy to take time for granted.

We live in a world where we are very conscious of the time. We have accurate time at our fingertips. We use time at a minute level on a regular basis, and we can get the time at a second and millisecond level quite readily.

Time can easily be one of those things that a fantasy writer throws around without really considering. I certainly did.

“I waited a few seconds.”

“Give me five minutes.”

“I was due to meet him at 3 o’clock.”

“It had been seven hours.”

All of these are the sorts of phrases that drop into the text without really thinking about it. They are commonly used in our culture, and to not use them requires a conscious decision.

As part of my large-scale world-building review, I have been thinking a lot about time. What degree of granularity is appropriate for my story? How do they measure time? How conscious are they of time?

In deciding how to handle time in a story, there are two major factors: how much does time matter in the story’s context, and what are their options for measuring time?

As part of figuring this out, it is helpful to know a little bit about how temporal descriptors developed in our world, and what timekeeping devices have been like throughout history. Stealing like a thief is always a fine option in world building!

How Long is an Hour? 

Things like hours have not always been considered constant. Because an hour is made up of 60 minutes in my world, it is easy to assume that a standard of unit of time is, of necessity, going to be constant.

Not so.

Depending on how you measure time, an hour can vary. For example, if you get an “hour” by evenly dividing the daylight time, an “hour” will be much shorter in the winter than it is in the summer.

As odd as it seems to us, that was quite standard in many parts of the world – including Medieval Europe. In fact, they had two different sorts of time. Solar time, which varied, and time “of the clock”, which didn’t.

I find this notion of parallel – and differing – temporal metrics quite amazing. Of course, once you know that temporal measures don’t have to be constant, you have to decide whether you want them to be constant in your world.

Hours/Minutes/Seconds

So how did we wind up with hours, minutes, and seconds anyway?

Two ancient civilizations are at fault.

The Egyptians first divided the day into two twelve-hour chunks. That’s the duodecimal component. They primarily used sundials, so they were one of those temporally-variable cultures noted above. It was actually the Greeks who came up with the idea of fixing the duration of an hour, to make certain calculations easier. You can thank Hipparchus for our current 24-hour system. But I digress.

The Sumerians were the brilliant folk who did sexagesimal calculations, giving us the base-60 calculations for minutes and seconds. The Babylonians adopted the system, and gifted it to the Greeks.

Of course, minutes and seconds were not in common use for many centuries. Whether to have seconds at all is a question every fantasy author should consider.

When I was thinking about this question myself, I became preoccupied with the terminology. Where did minute and second come from, anyway?

It turns out that it was originally:

  • First minute (60 seconds)
  • Second minute (1 second)
  • Third minute (1/60 second)
  • Fourth minute (1/1/60 second)

The last two were only ever of interest to a slice of European scientists, in the time period before the milliseconds and nanoseconds took over.

Ways of Timekeeping

A society’s options for time keeping is going to have implications for what temporal granularity makes sense for that culture. It may also influence the most appropriate jargon.

Here are a few examples:

  • Sun and stars
  • Water clocks
  • Sand timers
  • Candle clocks
  • Mechanical clocks

The next thing to consider is whether there is accurate time but at a large scale (e.g. a town clock); globally accessible but inaccurate time (the sun); personal but relative timekeeping (e.g. a sand timer); or accurate personal timekeeping (a pocketwatch, etc. – which is extremely new-fangled in the larger scheme of things!).

To some extent you can mix and match these options.

How they keep time is going to have ramifications.

For example, accurate and compact timekeeping is necessary for measuring longitude accurately.

Case Study

 My novel is set in a society with roughly 16th century technology. Town clocks seemed reasonable, as did small but inaccurate devices such as sand timers or candles. I went with sand timers – although it’s worth noting that sand timers imply a degree of sophistication when working with glass.

Which verbiage to keep?

I decided to change hour to bell, since the bells are how everyone hears the time. I might still change it back to hour, since most people will consider “hour” invisible, and “bell” makes itself felt.

I tried to get rid of “minutes” for a while, but frankly minutes are really hard to eradicate. I eventually decided that at their level of sophistication – and regimentation – it was reasonable to have something more fine-grained. I may change my mind about it, but I feel that any alternative would be so obtrusive as to be problematic.

I did get rid of seconds. I really don’t think seconds have any place in a pre-industrial society, unless there are scientists involved. Fortunately it’s relatively easy to swap out “seconds” with “breaths” or “moments”, depending on context. Most of the time “seconds” aren’t actually being used as a strict temporal measure – they’re being used to give the sense that a small amount of time has passed.

Resources

Most of my information came from Google, thanks especially to:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/experts-time-division-days-hours-minutes/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_timekeeping_devices