Saturday, June 4, 2011


My main non-writing hobby is fiber arts. I spin yarn, dye fiber, weave, and knit. Like writing, these activities tend to go in spates. I won't spin for weeks, and then I'll have a month or so where I spin for at least an hour every day. Likewise with knitting. One minute I might feel like perhaps I should sell all my yarn, and the next I hear the siren call of my stash and have to start new projects and try things out.

One thing I've noticed lately about my fiber projects is that I'm pretty forgiving of imperfections. Sure, I like it when things are perfect, but I also know that some kinds of mistakes will not really affect the finished product. Each stitch is only one of many stitches. Each thread is only one of many threads. I do my best, but I also know that I can end up with a lovely finished object even with some small errors along the way.

Some might call this laziness, but when I look at the number of fiber projects I have completed, and that I am totally happy with and proud of, I don't think that's accurate. It has more to do with striking a reasonable and realistic balance between my desire for perfection and my enjoyment of my work. True success comes from productivity. Productivity comes from enjoyment. Enjoyment comes from relaxation. Relaxation comes from not pressuring myself to be perfect.

I have resolved to apply this philosophy to my writing. I have a lot of writing projects that are stalled or that I haven't shared with others because I can see their flaws. However, I need to admit that my assessment of these flaws may be overly harsh. I need to stop letting my desire for perfection get in the way of my relaxation, enjoyment, and productivity.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Morality: The Key to the Climax?

I've been stuck for some time on the climactic scene of the Airship novel. My characters are in the right place, about to uncover the big reveal and have the final showdown with the opposition. But...something just doesn't feel right. I don't know what should happen. I had an idea as I was working up to this point, but once I reached it, none of my plans seemed right. The meeting with the big bad didn't feel right. The big reveal didn't seem big enough.

So today I went through my usual process of asking myself questions about the story. I do this in Freemind. For each question I ask, I try to come up with several possible answers and follow their implications. One of the big unanswered questions in my story is how Elsie was separated from her parents as a child. The big reveal is the moment when Elsie discovers what her lost father was working on and, maybe, what happened to him. Since I was having trouble with the big reveal, I was hoping that drilling down on Elsie's parents and their motivations would get me somewhere.

So I asked, "Who were Elsie's parents?" I already knew a lot about Elsie's parents, of course; what I really wanted to get to was their motivations. The answers I started with:
  • Good people
  • Bad people
I looked at these answers for a moment and thought about how to proceed. Then I remembered a passage in 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald B. Tobias. In his chapter on Deep Structure Tobias says "the central concept of deep structure is morality." So I wrote down "What's the morality of this book?"

This turned out to be a key question that unlocked some incredibly productive trains of thought. I listed several options for the overall moral position that the book could take, ranging from idealistic to nihilistic to purely selfish:

  1. It's OK to desire power, as long as you are benevolent.
  2. Power is evil by nature.
  3. Wealth is the primary objective.
  4. Power is morally neutral; large-scale domination is a necessary prerequisite of civilization.
  5. Regrettably, some must suffer to serve the greater good.
  6. The desire for power is not compatible with benevolence. One must work first and foremost for good.
As I came up with these, I found myself thinking about characters that appeared in the story. Different characters seemed to embody different viewpoints. Once I noticed this, I realized that the whole conflict of the story was nothing more nor less than the clash of these different viewpoints. It was then clear where my MC would start out on this spectrum, where she would end up, and how she had to get there.

This exercise took me a long way from my original question about the motivations of Elsie's parents, but it did answer that question, and many other unexpected ones. For example, I know that Elsie starts out at moral position number 5: some must suffer to serve the greater good. But in looking at this, I realized that the greater good wasn't really good enough, so Elsie's complacency made her unsympathetic and shallow. This gave me some ideas for changes to the setting and even some new characters. This in turn led to more revelations, until finally I knew what the climactic moment would be, where it would be, and who had to be there...all of which were totally different from my original conception.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lo, the time is passing. Did I mention that the Airship Novel is based on a short story? I'm going to submit that story to Writers of the Future this quarter.

Writing has suffered a bit due to the fact that I am doing some paid work for my old company. But it's still going on. I started an "Idea Board"; it's a bulletin board where I put up a notecard for each idea that I have for a story. The idea is to give me something to turn to whenever I need a break from a project or feel uninspired. A nice side effect is that it gives me a constant visual reminder that I do, in fact, have ideas. It also gives me a reason to hang onto those ideas and not let them slip away.

I had the startling realization the other day that I want to write some historical fiction, or maybe even some contemporary-but-extracultural fiction. I find these ideas really exciting, but also intimidating. I wish I could take a class purely on researching for fiction. One idea is set in modern Afghanistan, another in ancient Egypt, and still another in a New York City tenement circa 1900. The Afghanistan one scares me the most, but it also feels like the most important story to tell. I did a google search for "how to write a historical novel" and came upon the wonderful Historical Novelists Center, which, despite some web design issues, looks like an incredibly useful resource for all kinds of writing.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Blurb

Here's my pitch for the airship novel:

Ambitious Elsie Harrosk has run away from the lone smuggler who raised her to become an airship pilot with the all-powerful Air Alliance. The flying life is everything she dreamed until a clue about her forgotten past jeopardizes her career. Now, with the help of an escaped prisoner, she must run the gauntlet between two powerful industrial dynasties to discover the secret of her lost heritage and learn where her true allegiance lies.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

On Openings

NaNoWriMo finished in semi-good order, with my novel at about 39,000 words. Since then I've been adding to it much more slowly (having done basically nothing for all of December), and now we're at 42,652, a total that I'm not too thrilled about.

Continuing this story feels like swimming through cold molasses. What I'm coming up against, I think, is the lack of a firm foundation. I need to do a lot of background development in order to keep going. My protagonist, in particular, has lost a lot of her oomph. I've realized I don't know nearly enough about her or what her motivations are.

Reading over my story from the beginning, I noticed a particular weak point: the opening. The opening is when we need to learn about the character. Not every detail of her past, but at least her temperament, and why we should care about her. Looking for some inspiration in this department, I turned to my old stand-by, The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley. The book opens with the protagonist, Harry Crewe (she's female: Harry is short for Angharad) "scowling" at her glass of orange juice. Why is she scowling? The narration immediately proceeds to tell us. Here is what we learn about Harry within the first three pages of this book:

  • she is pragmatic ("eager to be delighted" with her new home)
  • she is "empty of purpose", which causes her insomnia
  • she is eccentric in her society (rising early, dressing herself)
  • she was raised privileged and is now impoverished and dependent
  • she wants to fit in
  • she has an energetic spirit, but tries to be good
  • she is orphaned
  • she dislikes being dependent on anyone
  • she is "a penniless blueblood of no particular beauty"
  • there is a little scandal in her family background, but she doesn't know the specifics
  • she does not care for society, nor it for her.
We also learn about the general setting, and about Harry's relationships to her brother, her late parents, and her new adoptive guardians, Charles and Amelia. By the end of chapter 1, we also know that Harry likes to read, is stubborn, is a tomboy, likes horses, has always been restless, has always longed for adventure, and is taller than all the women and most of the men around her. We learn that she was frightened but excited about her new home, and that she was sincerely interested in learning all about it when she arrived. We learn that, although she does not think of herself as attractive, a couple of her brother's soldier friends are secretly falling in love with her. We get the idea that people like her more than she gives them credit for.

So that's the opening. It is presented partly through present-time action, partly through summary, and partly through flashbacks. It's beautifully written, evocative, and engaging. Reading it now, I realize how much of the emotional impact of what follows (the arrival of the native king, Corlath, and his subsequent kidnapping of Harry) depends on what is laid out here. Right off the bat, Harry is appealing: smart, interesting, strong but vulnerable, and fundamentally incomplete. The perfect sympathetic character. You love her right away.

When I first read this book in 7th grade, I remember thinking the opening was slow, and indeed it does flout much of the conventional wisdom about how to open a narrative. There's lots of backstory, and nothing really "happens" until page 11, when Sir Charles and Jack Dedham reveal that they have been up since the wee hours in response to the news that King Corlath plans to visit them that very day. But reading it now, as an adult, I find the opening delightful. It is rich with detail and emotion. If I can come up with something half so elegant, I will be very pleased.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

NaNoWriMo Day 27: Behind!

Wordcount: 39167

I'm not only behind on this blog, I'm also behind on my novel! Not in too terrible a way, only 6,000 words or so. But look! Word Clouds!

Wordle: Pillars on the Deep

It's written in the first person, so the main character, Elsie, is not very prominent. Carwyn is the sidekick/love interest. Here's a version without him:

Wordle: Pillars II

I like that Elsie is about the same size as her two main enemies, Mr. Caspar and the Danwood family. I notice that the other major words are rather epistemic in nature. Hmm.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

NaNoWriMo Day 3: doubts

Wordcount: 5493

Today's words were a little slower and harder to come by. I worry that I'm losing the thread of the this character's voice. As the novel is written in the first person, it's tricky to achieve all the needed exposition. I need to work out to whom this story is being told.

The love interest/spy has been introduced. Exciting!