500 Days of Writing

As of today I have written at least a sentence every single day for the last 500 days.

I first realized how motivating it was for me to try not to break a streak like that when using Duolingo (I’m at 531 days with that now). Obviously neither I nor Duolingo are the first to do this, but it’s how I got into it. I don’t know how many words I’ve done in that time because I stopped tracking that (I’ll be starting up again with NaNoWriMo next month). I needed a bit of a break from judging my progress that way.

I know some people don’t like the common advice to write every day, and I don’t like people who are too insistent about it either, but I’ve found that it works for me. I tell myself I just have to do my sentence for the day and it’s such a small thing that it helps me get past that initial laziness that sometimes keeps me from getting started. Sometimes that’s all I have the energy for but most of the time I end up wanting to do more than that once I get going and I’m into the story again.

I wonder how long I’ll be able to keep this up.

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Monday Muse: Kay Sage

This week I’m returning to my beloved surrealists with Kay Sage, an American artist who was born in Albany, NY, which is near where I live so that was fun to find out.

Many of her paintings have a very desolate feeling to them, with solitary figures and dramatic lighting that I find very evocative. That lighting and her common focus on architecture kind of remind me of de Chirico at times, though her paintings are darker and greyer.

Here are some of my favorite paintings of hers.

The Hidden Letter (1943)

The Hidden Letter 1943 1a

 

I Saw Three Cities (1944)

I saw Three Cities, 1944 1a

 

The Fourteen Daggers (1944)

The Fourteen Daggers, 1944 1a

 

Small Portrait (1950)

Small Portrait, 1950 1a

 

Tomorrow Is Never (1955)

Tomorrow_is_Never

 

Le Passage (1956)

Le Passage, 1956 1a

POVs in Outlining

I was having some trouble planning my current project so the other day I sat down and wrote down what the story looks like from each major character’s point of view. That way I made sure to think about what the characters are doing while they’re offscreen. I like to keep my worlds from revolving entirely around the main character. Just because they’re the most important person in the story doesn’t mean they’re the most important person in the story’s universe, so the other characters have lives of their own that I need to keep track of. I especially don’t want to have that problem where the villain’s plan only makes sense if you don’t think about what they’re spending all their time doing. I don’t always have a villain so it’s not something I always need to worry about, but this one is a murder mystery and the murderer will be reacting to the attempts to catch them, and I need to make sure the initial plan makes sense for them.

I think one of the most important parts of writing a mystery is keeping track of who knows what and how that information gets around. A lot of the characters will have things they want to hide, even if they aren’t the culprit, and they’ll make themselves look guilty while trying to hide those things. On the other hand, the protagonist will be trying to solve the mystery and that will involve figuring things out from the half-truths they hear, as well as getting information from sources of varying trustworthiness. So while looking at what each character is doing during the story, I also noted what information they have for my narrator and what will motivate them to share it.

It also helped me figure out more about some characters that I knew I needed but hadn’t fleshed out yet. There was one in particular who is an obvious suspect for the characters to investigate but I knew hardly anything about him. I still have some character-building work to do, but I’ve made a lot of progress.

All of this comes just before I take a break from the project for a month to have fun with NaNoWriMo. Oh well. My notes will be waiting for me in December.

Monday Muse: Amedeo Modigliani

I’m getting back on schedule today as we take a look at Amedeo Modigliani. He was a painter and sculptor who was born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Italy. His style is a bit hard to categorize. He worked around the same time as Picasso and other cubists and I think that shows in some ways though his work isn’t as abstract. I love his portraits because, like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s (one of his influences), I see a lot of personality in them. I also love more stylized representations of people like in his paintings. So let’s look at some of those portraits.

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Trying Pinterest

I resisted Pinterest for a while because the format always kind of bugged me. It feels like it dumps a pile of stuff on top of me that I have to sift through rather than giving me a nice, orderly list. And there’s a place for that feeling in my life. I purposefully keep my books un-ordered because ordering them makes it feel like there are less of them while keeping them more chaotic makes me feel like I’m surrounded by neverending rows of books. Though I do have the one section that’s organized by color in rainbow order, and I wish it was bigger but too many of my books are either neutral colors or too multicolored to fit smoothly into the rainbow scheme.

Oh wait, I was talking about Pinterest.

The other day I decided to create a couple boards for my chosen NaNoWriMo stories. At the early stages of planning, collections of images like that often help me wrap my head around the story. I pick out any images from my collection that feel like they could be related to my ideas and then just kind of let them mix together and simmer for a bit while I consider the directions I could go in.

I’m sure I’ll come back to these boards and look at several of the pins and think “how did I think this would fit in??” but that’s part of the fun. It happens to me a lot with bizarre notes and lists of potential sources of inspiration I put together. I don’t worry too much about vague thoughts that didn’t make enough sense for me to understand later. Eventually stronger ones coalesce into something useful.

Right now the boards are named after the main character of each because I still need to come up with titles. I don’t even have working titles. And the characters’ names will probably change too because for me names are temporary things that I’m never fully satisfied with.

I wonder if I’ll actually go back to look at them.

Weird Wednesday: Severance by Robert Olen Butler

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This week we’re looking at Robert Olen Butler’s Severance, a book of very short stories all narrated by people (and a couple creatures) who have just been decapitated. It opens with two quotes:

“After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation.” – Dr. Dassy D’Estaing, 1883

“In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute.” – Dr. Emily Reasoner, A Sourcebook of Speech, 1975

Butler put these two ideas together and wrote this book of stories that are each 240 words. The last words each of these people thought after losing their head.

Most of the narrators are real people and the stories are arranged chronologically. The ones in the beginning are often based on myths. The first is a prehistoric man dated to around 40,000 B.C. who was decapitated by a sabre-toothed tiger. The second one is Medusa, which is one of my favorites in the collection. Other mythological figures include The Lady of the Lake from Arthurian myth and a dragon that was beheaded by Saint George.

The historical figures include the two of Henry VIII’s wives he had executed, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Then there are the victims of the guillotine during the French Revolution, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette among them, along with Maximilien Robespierre.

A couple other favorites of mine are Brita Gullsmed, a Swedish woman who was killed for witchcraft, and Alwi Shah, an executioner in Yemen who was sentenced to death for a crime himself.

Not all of them are executions. Many of them are accidents. These include Vera Jayne Palmer who was better known as Jayne Mansfield and died in a car crash as well as more than one elevator accident.

One of the oddest is narrated by a chicken that was beheaded before being cooked for dinner. I appreciate the way it ends:

“a great wide road is suddenly before me and she is beyond and I cross”

The last story is narrated by the author himself, imagining himself beheaded. He reflects on writing and on several of the methods of decapitation featured in the book.

As you may expect from the conceit, the writing is mostly stream-of-consciousness, all beginning mid-sentence and continuing in one long sentence, one thought flowing right into the next. I get the same enjoyment from the language as I do from poetry. There are many beautiful turns of phrase to be enjoyed if you aren’t put off by the style.

Here’s where you can find the book at Barnes & Noble and at Better World Books.

NaNoWriMo 2018

NaNoWriMo season is upon us. The site has performed its yearly wipe and my fellow Wrimos are talking about their plans.

My first NaNoWriMo was in 2007. To this day I don’t really know why I signed up. I had never written anything other than the odd page of quickly abandoned fanfiction and it wasn’t something I aspired to either. But for some reason it sounded fun when I found my way to the site about a week before the event began. It was a close thing but I managed to get to 50k and finish my story by the end of November (with two hours to spare!) and I was so proud of myself.

For several years after that, my writing was shaped by my introduction to it. I didn’t care about producing brilliant art. It was pure fun. Something I did for myself with no plans of ever sharing my work with anyone else. That isn’t to say that I don’t like what I produced then. I’ve always enjoyed rereading those stories, even though the main point for me was the experience of writing them.

It was only a few years ago that my attitude shifted and I started thinking that I might like to share my work after all. Thanks to my anxiety, that shift has been much more difficult than I expected. I knew it would be hard but I underestimated it. My productivity plummeted because I completely froze up. I’m still not nearly as productive as I’d like to be because I still can’t shake the pressure that I’ve allowed to settle on my shoulders.

So my main goal this November is to recapture the sense of fun I used to have.

One way I’m doing that is to try to recreate how immense the goal felt that first year. Right now the plan is to aim to finish two novels in November. I have my two picked out and I’m slowly working on outlining and worldbuilding and everything while I continue my current project.

This will also be the first time I’ll be doing it while working rather than while in school. That could be part of making it more like my first time again or it could make things difficult in a bad way. I guess I’ll find out.

Weird Wednesday: If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

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This week we’re looking at one of my favorite books: Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. It’s the sort of thing that is often dismissed as a mere gimmick because much of it is told in 2nd person, but I’m not one to dismiss books that way.

It begins with you going to the bookstore to buy Italo Calvino’s newest book and then sitting down to read it. Then it switches to the first chapter of that book. But there’s a problem: the book is defective. That first chapter is simply repeated over and over. So back to the bookstore you go, only to find out that this book isn’t even If on a winter’s night a traveler but a different book with the wrong cover. You have the choice of buying that book or getting a proper copy of the book you accidentally started reading.

This sort of thing happens many times over the course of the book. Every time you think you’ve tracked down the book you’re looking for, it turns out to be a whole new book that you now want to read the rest of. Along the way you meet the Other Reader, a woman who is in the same situation and accompanies you in your search.

This is one of those books that I not only enjoy but that I admire as a writer. Calvino had a very tricky line to walk. He was creating the same frustration in us, the real world readers, that his in-universe reader feels by constantly denying us the next part of each story, but he couldn’t let that frustration get bad enough that we would stop reading.

Before that balancing act begins, there’s the wonderful opening chapter that is a love letter to books and readers. I especially adore the description of walking through a bookstore and seeing all the different categories of books:

“Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:

“the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.

“Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.

“With a zigzag dash you shake them off and leap straight into the citadel of the New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You. Even inside this stronghold you can make some breaches in the ranks of the defenders, dividing them into New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Not New (for you or in general) and New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you), and defining the attraction they have for you on the basis of your desires and needs for the new and the not new (for the new you seek in the not new and for the not new you seek in the new).

[…]

“You cast another bewildered look at the books around you (or, rather: it was the books that looked at you, with the bewildered gaze of dogs who, from their cages in the city pound, see a former companion go off on the leash of his master, come to rescue him), and out you went.”

I never get tired of that passage.

I know some people get frustrated by 2nd person because they can’t help constantly thinking “but I wouldn’t do that”. For me, this book’s narrator exists in a sort of Schrodinger situation, where he both is and isn’t me. When I can relate to him then I’m happy to accept all the “you”s in that spirit, and when I can’t then it’s simply the way the protagonist is being referred to in this book.

Each chapter is succeeded by an excerpt from the latest book you’ve found. Not exactly an except though. It’s a very interesting style of narration that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in another book. Each of these sections has a first person narrator but it also continues giving your impressions as you read:

“Where would I go out to? The city outside there has no name yet, we don’t know if it will remain outside the novel or whether the whole story will be contained within its inky blackness. I know only that this first chapter is taking a while to break free of the station and the bar: it is not wise for me to move away from here where they might still come looking for me, or for me to be seen by other people with this burdensome suitcase.”

I’d like to read the rest of some of these fictional books. Sometimes I even think about writing my own version of them. I doubt I could replicate the style of some of them but it would be fun to borrow some of the plot details, just for my own amusement.

If you’re interested in seeing how this nameless Reader’s search plays out, you can find the book at Barnes & Noble and Better World Books.

Fantasy Friday: Taltos by Steven Brust

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Steven Brust’s Dragaera is one of my favorite fantasy worlds. I wanted to pick one book in this world to focus on and I’ve chosen Taltos because I also love underworlds and other lands of the dead. I’ve written several myself.

Taltos, as the title suggests, is part of the Vlad Taltos series. He is a human assassin in a land ruled by tall long-lived beings called Dragaerans. However the Dragaerans consider themselves humans and call Vlad’s people Easterners. I like seeing a world where humans are a minority and I love that they fight over the label itself.

It’s fun seeing how the Dragaerans think differently because of how much longer they live. When given an order by Vlad, his assistant Kragar asks “How many years do you want me to put in on this?” Being human, Vlad says, “Three days”.

The series isn’t told entirely in order, so even though this was the fourth book published in the series, it’s the earliest chronologically. That means it shows how he met some of the characters that show up throughout the series, something I always enjoy seeing.

This book also has more of Vlad’s past than others as it keeps cutting between the main story and the story of how he came to his work as an assassin. One of the most interesting things to me is the different ways that he, his father, and his grandfather all reacted to being immigrant Easterners among the Dragaerans. His grandfather stayed with the other immigrants in their ghetto and did his best to pass on their culture to Vlad. His father tried to assimilate as much as possible because he internalized a lot of their ideas about the superiority of Dragaerans. Vlad responded by fearing them because of the way they would abuse their power over him and that fear turned to hate.

I like that there’s different kinds of magic that are cultural. Dragaerans mostly use sorcery and Easterners mostly use witchcraft, but they can each use both if they learn how. It’s not innate to each race but it still forms part of their identities. Some fantasy races feel like too much of them is determined by biology or something else intrinsic. I like seeing the interaction of different cultures here. One of the characters introduced in this volume is a Dragaeran named Morrolan who is unusual because he’s spent time in the East and learned witchcraft.

Some of the descriptions of witchcraft remind me of how I sometimes approach writing.

“I began laying out what I would need for the spell. I concentrated only on my goal and tried not to think about how silly it was to arrange tools, objects, and artifacts before I had any idea how I intended to use any of them. I lt my hands pull from the pack various and sundry items and arrange them as they would.”

“I wondered what I’d do with them.”

“I discovered I was sitting cross-legged before the sorcery rune I’d drawn. I still had no idea why I’d drawn it in the first place, but it felt right.”

I can’t help thinking of times when I grab a bunch of tropes and character traits and whatever else interests me and pile them all together in my mind before trying to figure out how I can put them together in a story. And also other times while at the actual writing part when something will suddenly occur to me and it will just feel right to add it in at that point and I have a vague sense of how it will be woven into the rest of what I already had planned.

As I mentioned earlier, the plot of this book eventually leads Vlad to the land of the dead. He’s not actually supposed to be there because apparently this is the land of the dead for Dragaerans, so he’s accompanied by Morrolan who knows more about it but who expects to be stuck there once they complete their task. In this world you get to the Paths of the Dead by going over Deathgate Falls and then the journey on those Paths can last forever.

I love places like this where you can’t depend on anything being the way you’re used to it. Sorcery doesn’t work there. When they talk their voices sound oddly muffled and they’re surrounded by swirling fog with no wind to make it swirl. Then there are all kinds of fun illusions (fun for us, not for them). And then this happens:

“Our path led directly under the arch.
As we walked through it, Morrolan said, ‘The land of the dead.’
I said, ‘I thought that’s where we’ve been all along.’
‘No. That was the outlying area. Now things are likely to get strange.'”

One of the strange things they come across is a dragon, which in this world is enormous and “has tentaclelike things all around its head”. So apparently a dragon here is some kind of eldritch abomination.

Their task requires talking to the gods. I like the gods. I’m not fond of gods that might as well just be powerful people. (I wonder if that’s where my irritation at people referring to the Christian god as an “old man in the sky” comes from. I don’t mind any other dismissive thing like “sky fairy” or whatever, it’s just that one that bugs me and I’ve never been quite sure why,) I want fantasy gods to evoke a sense of otherworldliness. The ones in this world are at least a bit different. One appears to be covered in green scales and another seems to be dressed in fire.

I’ll leave it there so I don’t reveal too much. You can find the book at Barnes & Noble and at Better World Books.

In defense of romance novels

I hate when people are snobbish about books. I hate when entire categories of books are dismissed. I’m an adult who reads young adult and children’s fiction. I read bestsellers and genre books as well as things considered highbrow literature or derided as only fit for the pretentious. If you made lists of books considered the trashiest and those considered the most dry and abstruse, I’d bet there would be plenty of books I’ve read on both lists. But until last year I had never read any romance novels. I hated the way they were dismissed though, especially the sexism often expressed by arguments about how these books are garbage for silly women. So I basically tried reading some out of spite. However that spite was soon replaced with sincere enthusiasm. My best friend could testify to how much time I’ve spent gushing about the romance novels I’ve read since then.

The main reason they appeal to me so much is that almost all the ones I’ve come across are told from multiple points of view. I love subjectivity. I love seeing deep into characters’ perceptions and biases and how they clash with those of the other characters. Sometimes they even jump into another POV besides the two love interests and I enjoy seeing how the relationship looks from the outside too.

I think everyone is familiar with the cliche of the contrived misunderstanding that keeps the designated couple apart that shows up in romantic arcs of all different kinds of stories. But the deep POV in a lot of these romance novels makes a good vehicle for doing misunderstandings well when it’s consistent with the characters’ world views shown through the rest of the story and we can understand how the characters came to look at the situation the way they did.

I also like that we know the couple will get together by the end and that’s okay. There’s no pretense that knowing that one bit means the whole thing is ruined and there’s no point in reading (at least not among fans). I’m really not a fan of a Will They or Won’t They storyline. They frustrate me. I much prefer established couples. But that frustration is mitigated when I know from the start that They Will. Some of my favorite romances actually begin with the wedding. The story isn’t about them getting together but about figuring out how to make it work since it’s a foregone conclusion. I wonder if this is also why I’m such a huge fan of the fake relationship plot. Maybe the two of them acting like a couple satisfies me until they get it together and figure out their feelings. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I never considered that aspect before.

I also love series where you get to see the couples from past books in the background. However I’m also often disappointed on this front. I often like the first couple the best and then I get my hopes up that I’ll see glimpses of them through the rest of the series but, oops, the next book is set in another city and then the next one in a different country. I still usually enjoy the later stories though. I also have fun guessing who the other characters will eventually be paired up with while I’m reading the earlier books.

I’d like to see some more appreciation for these books.

Monday Muse: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Today we’re looking at the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He was a French post-impressionist painter who focused on people and was very talented at depicting them all as individuals even in crowd scenes. He was also disabled, something I like to note because I like recognizing the accomplishments of people with disabilities. He had a disorder that weakened his bones and after he broke both his femurs, his legs stopped growing. His devotion to his art is partly attributed to his difficulties in physical activities and fitting into society with his short stature.

Often the paintings that catch my imagination are ones where I feel there’s a story to be filled in behind them. Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings are in that category. There’s so much personality in the faces of the people. It’s often not a pleasant-seeming personality, but it’s very evocative and I like imagining the minds that exist behind the expressions.

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Fantasy terminology

Sometimes I worry about terminology in my fantasy being too cheesy or precious. I think we’ve all heard the jokes about capitalization in fantasy, something I tend to avoid. I usually prefer to treat magic as just another part of life in the worlds I create, but it can be hard to convey that when most of the words we have for it are meant to express something, well, magical.

My current project caused some trouble for me because it’s a magic system where each person develops a magical power that’s somehow a natural extension of some aspect of their identity. I wasn’t sure what to call these powers. I had originally landed on “gifts” with the society viewing them as something the gods had endowed them with. I wasn’t quite happy with the general feel of this. Though I did glance at Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland to see what the view of the term was there and it wasn’t too bad:

“GIFTS is another word for TALENTS. It is used by people who feel reverent about MAGIC.”

That actually did fit what I wanted in terms of the religious view in the world I’m making, but something about it was still bothering me. I just had a hard time imagining all different people with different attitudes using it.

Then I decided that this society was going through a sort of Enlightenment period. People are beginning to question the dominant religion and many of them are changing to more neutral terminology like “ability”. So people still use the term “gift” but now it says something about them and their beliefs. Or not. In my main character’s case, she’s not particularly religious but she sticks with the traditional term out of convenience—usually avoiding arguments with more religious relatives—and because it’s just the term most people grow up using, the same way atheists in our world often still say “oh my god”.

I think I’m satisfied with it now.

Weird Wednesday: Kangaroo Notebook

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I’m kicking off Weird Wednesday with one of my favorite strange authors, Kobo Abe. The book I’m featuring is Kangaroo Notebook. I knew I would enjoy it when I read this section of the back cover copy:

“The narrator of Kangaroo Notebook wakes one morning to discover that his legs are growing radish sprouts, an ailment that repulses his doctor but provides the patient with the unusual ability to snack on himself. In short order, Kobo Abe’s unraveling protagonist finds himself hurtling in a hospital bed to the very shores of hell. He encounters an officious child demon, a hairy American martial arts expert, and a sexy nurse who is trying to collect enough blood to win the ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ medal.”

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