I must have repressed the memory of this stage of writing Ryswyck; in fact I know I did, because I blithely assured myself it wouldn’t take so long to write the second book in this ‘verse now that the ‘verse itself was properly realized. And that’s true so far as it goes. But I forgot about the transitional stage of plotting, where you move from needing to know what happens to needing to know why.
There’s just no rushing this stage, and I hate that. It bears such an aggravating resemblance to nothing being done at all. Since I’ve been obsessed recently with the volcano eruption on La Palma in the Canary Islands, lava metaphors are coming to mind: you hope a lava stream will traverse the topography in a way that is most expedient and least destructive, but of course what the lava is looking for is the path of least resistance.
It’s in this frame of mind that I said to Erica this week:
Me: still tearing my figurative hair out over plot lines in TLT Me: currently Speir is Miles Vorkosiganing her way through Bernhelm Palace and I am half minded to let her Her: lol Me: it’s more entertaining to me right now than the Berenian conspirators are being
Since Speir is the protagonist of all matters happening on the Bernhelm side of the strait, this is hardly surprising. But following this little meander has yielded some cascading insights into other parts of the plot, and so I’m not only not sorry I indulged it, I’ll probably use most of it.
Incidentally, Miles makes a handy metaphor for some of the things I intend for Speir — they’re quite different characters and I wasn’t particularly thinking of Miles when I developed Speir, but as an online acquaintance once said, “Plot doesn’t happen to Miles; Miles happens to plots,” and that’s the kind of person Speir is growing to be. The events of Ryswyck stifled her energies in certain ways, or at least forced her to direct them inward; that dynamic is in a process of change. And like Miles, Speir is having to find workarounds for disability and disadvantage, mostly via trial and error. Sometimes a lot of error.
In any event, aggravatingly slow as it is, this stage of the project is still engaging and holds promise for more velocity in the future, which is the encouragement I need at the moment.
One day soon I will make a Lenten-themed post, but today is not that day.
I braved the deep freeze last week to get my annual physical and purchase a new phone, as my old one’s memory was stuffed too full to function after five years. The new device, being well-designed in the much more recent past, has a camera that doesn’t suck.
Also, I can get a text from someone that downloads itself and doesn’t take ten minutes to do so, so there’s that.
On the TLT front: I finished the aforementioned chapter and have started on another. This one has been a bit of a slog, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s my mood or the deep freeze or the laborious transition to more promising dialogue, but there it is.
Stitching the plots of my two arenas together is becoming less frustrating as I start to actually do it. I just have to remember to put in all the little touches I thought of to set this or that up.
Since for the most part I’m away up in my little nest, working and cooking and taking random photographs and texting my sibling in Austin to make sure they’re okay, I feel somewhat like my view is telescoped in repeated refracted colors, like a kaleidoscope. It may or may not be good for creating art, but to be honest? I don’t want to leave it.
Perhaps when spring gets here, I’ll feel differently. But for now, it’s just me and the cat and the open Word document. And that’s just fine.
It is very cold and a very fine snow is misting down, and that is just as it should be. Some notes from the home front:
While my tea is steeping, I’ve taken to picking up the camera and practicing shots on whatever I find marginally interesting in my flat. It is not yet light enough in the mornings to tempt me outside, but I take the camera with me when I put the trash out, and got some fine shots of a winter world this morning.
2. I lack half of one scene and the tail end of another to complete a chapter of TLT — I spent all my energy on a grocery trip on Saturday, but put down 1670 words on Sunday, which I call satisfactory.
3. My chromebook charger finally bit the dust last night, so I ordered a replacement and will have to make do with ye olde work computer until tomorrow.
4. A fellow community member said that thanks to C.’s rec she picked up Ryswyck and wound up reading it all in one sitting! — thereby confirming further that once a reader gets to a certain early point in the characters’ trajectory, the momentum takes care of itself. Gratifying.
5. I have named some characters from the diplomatic delegation of the Southern Consortium and made a start building up the part of the world where they enter. This also involves building up some of the world of Berenia, but that is less complicated: just think of the world’s most disadvantageous game of Settlers of Catan.
Things to be done:
I have promised myself to make no promises to keep up the habit of taking morning shots.
Keep going, of course. What else?
One of these days I will need to get a more comprehensive laptop, but I’m allergic to spending large sums of money, so I expect it to be a while before I actually do any such thing.
I really need to find someone with a good signal-boost radius willing to read and rec Ryswyck far and wide. Like, how do you ask someone to do this??
What I’d really like is to have a conversation with someone who actually knows at least one region of Africa well and can speculate on the nuances of a secondary-world Global South empire. Quite apart from authorial primary research, it’d be an interesting conversation! Must gird myself to forage on Twitter, I suppose.
And that’s the state of the state. Now back to work.
It’s a thoroughly rainy Saturday: perfect for writing.
To be honest, it hasn’t been one of those dancing-through-meadows-of-daisies kinds of months, at least as far as writing mojo is concerned. Nevertheless, I did complete the chapter I started before the whole “white nationalist attempted coup” thing, sent it to beta, and started storyboarding for the next.
There’s a way in which storyboarding is a glorified means of procrastination for me, but the glorified part is useful: ordinary procrastination is about the paralysis of perfectionism, but storyboarding gives me something to do while I negotiate myself an acceptable level of not-perfect to get started with.
And it often turns out to be useful! In this case, I had some things to figure out to illuminate the immediate path forward. Like whose POV to introduce where and at what vantage point; what’s happening in one location while X is happening in the other; what tempo to start with so that it accelerates in the right place; trajectories for characters I’m just getting to know…
My usual MO is, as I’ve said, pretty analog — index cards and notepad scratches and sticky-notes with quotations and bits of dialogue jotted for later reference. But this week I also made a personal Miro account to keep track of the larger items. I’d been using it for a rolling workflow project at work; while their templates are attractive and (probably) useful, what I like is just having a virtual whiteboard for keeping sticky-notes in color-coded order, and drawing my own lines between text elements. I want to design it myself, dammit — which is the main reason I couldn’t get along with my trial of Scrivener. I will decide how section breaks and chapters are to be designed, thank you very much.
I hear that Scrivener also has a character naming function that you can use for minor characters and extras, which sounds cool when you’ve been faffing about on Behind the Name for an hour or two, but I suspect there’s a similar options funnel, and just, no. Sadly, though, BTN is rather thin on African names (like, hey, it’s a Really Big Continent, right?), so I’ve had to extrapolate somewhat to name a couple of Southern Consortium characters. Coding a more-developed quasi-empire to the Global South should be an interesting endeavor, to say the least. But what’s the fun in setting oneself an easy task?
Today, I’ve put in some satisfying work: finished a scene introducing a character POV, copied in a scene-plug from my greenhouse and cleaned it up, and sketched plans for the transitional material between the two. Not bad for a rainy Saturday.
Now to figure out what I’m going to have for dinner.
Remember when I advised you, dear readers, to BURY THEM in votes? Well, just imagine if we hadn’t!
I have for some reason not added to the 900 words I wrote on TLT last week.
From the people who brought you fifty billion hearings on Benghazi, we are suddenly hearing a newfound devotion to the principle of fireside kum-bah-yah unity.
I have family bunkered down right now with COVID, why? Because when there’s no structural support, it’s impossible for individuals to take enough care to avoid community saturation, even when they do things right.
My world is a 400 sq ft flat at present, so I am dreaming of having a garden.
Things to be done:
That part is done, thankfully. Now to get the abuser out of our house.
I’m gathering so much useful material for TLT right now. But to be honest, I’d rather be using my imagination…
Newsflash, unity is already happening over here. If you’re not in sympathy with cupcake coupsters and well-heeled fascists, get with the program. Otherwise, get stuffed.
If there were something I could do about this, I fucking would.
Something to look into when we get some distance on this pandemic. Meanwhile, am practicing hospitality toward myself by making my morning tea in a cat-shaped pot and cooking breakfast.
So we are well away into the New Year, and I have sat down with The Lantern Tower again, determined to make the most of my favorite season for writing in. As usual I had bogged down right about the point where I’d be starting to build connective tissue between the first section and the second — fascia rather than plot; I know what happens at the end of Chapter Six, that part’s not a mystery. I’ll go back and fill that in much like I did the last couple chapters of Act One in Ryswyck.
So here I’m starting again at the beginning of the second section, writing scenes I know, planting out scene plugs I’ve got socked away in Google docs (gardening metaphors are rising to mind just now; I’ve been watching a lot of Monty Don specials and really wish I had some unshaded gardening space).
Besides the propagated sceneage, also already there are fascinating decisions to make. Like in what manner I should alternate locations for the action in Bernhelm and at Ryswyck Academy. If this were a film by Greta Gerwig I might dare to interleave by scene or section, without keying first to the objective chronology: but a book is not a film, so if I want a similar effect I will want to use tools of the written art. But which ones? That is a fun mystery, running one’s mental fingers over rows of smooth-worn tool handles.
Too, I have discovered a tension that is the mirror reverse to a tension I had to manage in the first book. In that book, though I consider Speir and Douglas to be co-equal protagonists, there was a point at which the action, the momentum and moral thrust of the story belonged to Douglas. I concerned myself intensely with the art of putting Speir on a sideline without sidelining her. Here, the opposite tension is in effect; and in this case I’m wrangling not only the balance of Speir as emerging primary agent with Douglas as subordinate agent, but also the residual sexism of fearing that as a wrongness. Once I identified the tension, however, I felt a small sense of relief: oh, I see, it isn’t wrong.
So that’s the state of things in the word trenches greenhouse at the moment.
Meanwhile, I had forgotten to add a music post to my blog hiatus list, partly because I’ll run across music, think “oh, that would be good to add to my collection of Ryswyckian atmospherics,” and then promptly lose track of it because I haven’t done anything practical like make a playlist or something that neurotypicals are likely to do as a matter of course. Anyway, here are two shots of Ryswyckian atmosphere for your Monday: one a tune by Penguin Café called “Protection” (I listened to several versions and preferred the most acoustic possible one, so you get the Tiny Desk Concert here); and a traditional waulking song from Mary Jane Lomond. It would be great to get some French/Alsace-based country songs to build atmosphere for the Bernhelm sequences in TLT; will have to keep my eye out, but if you know of any, link me!
With this site back online and transitioning to a more robust server, I’m getting back into the swing of blogging with a dispatch update on the word trenches along this front. Regrettably, it turns out Pandemic Brain is not terribly conducive to writerly output. Fortunately, the solstice is approaching, and I’ve made use of some of this year, if not to put pixels on the page, at least to make notes on structure and dialogue.
And, I have put a few pixels on the page — in the form of a couple loose scenes out of order which I will either use when I get there or cannibalize for other uses.
Plus there have been some very useful meta conversations with my betas the past several months, which I may attempt to synthesize in future posts; for the moment, here’s a snippet.
Me: Meanwhile I've found my metaphor for the plot of TLT
Me: it's a textile one
Me: everyone has vital information that can darn the fabric of peace, and Speir is elected to be the needle
Me: but she has to figure that out first
Me: I think I'm going to indulge nearly all of my crackalicious ideas, too
Erica: I mean why not
Then follows some of the crackalicious ideas, which I won’t spoil here, except to say that it involves all hell breaking loose in a ballroom, and this anticipated bit of dialogue:
"Speir, don't -- Speir! Sacred fucking lights," said Selkirk.
(The good thing about conducting most interactions with my betas over IM is that I have a record of things I am otherwise likely to forget. This pandemic situation has left me with the memory of a goddamn goldfish.)
All in all, I did what I could with a difficult year, and not only did I get Household Lights out, I got a few other things done as well. Next goal: get back on track marketing-wise. If there are opps for virtual interviews or panels, I want to find them.
The new leaves are out and making a deep susurrus when the wind gusts. Spring is no longer a matter of anticipation.
So this morning I took my elevenses out on my balcony, to get my share of the sunlight before the shadow of the roof sliced it off.
Clearing off my deck from the dormant dullness of the winter months gave me a pleasant little breath of normalcy, although I should long since have started this year’s garden. I’ve no idea what I’ll plant; every year I have to start over completely except for the spider plant and the snake plants which have lived up to their hardy reputation under my care.
Last week I did what I nearly always do sooner or later, and stepped out of chronology to write a scene further ahead in The Lantern Tower. I would complain about the pandemic eating up my spring creativity, but I’m much too grateful that those 1500 words were there for me to write. Small victories is the watchword of the day.
I’m mostly finished with edits to Household Lights; the rest is project management. I hope to have a release date nailed down soon.
I’m going to talk about this one today because just now I’m finding it hard. For those of you following the home team, I’ve been blogging from time to time in response to Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, a book which is 30 years old but which still offers a cogent, pithy critical approach to literature. Alter asserts that literary art is indeed art, with particular skills and functions, rather than a serendipitous mumbling of the zeitgeist produced by hapless writers pretending to say something real on purpose.
Honestly, half the fun of this little series is name-checking a respected critic, who is willing and able to make such assertions without being accused of special pleading, as a writer would be. Of course we think we are making meaningful things with words on purpose. To be sure, the meanings we intend are not the only meanings we produce, but character and perspective, style and structure — these are real tools that have real effects depending on how we use them.
In fact, I think a large factor in the problems we have responding to narrative art in public venues now is just this: we think of narrative art as special pleading run amok. To tell a story at all is to demand attention. It is to make a bid to charge your reader or viewer or hearer with the energy of your artistic force, to overcome whatever resistance there may be to the moral imperative of your story, and to do that with the “high fun” of every skill at your disposal. Writers are not disinterested people. We only pretend that disinterestedness is a desirable quality in writing when we want an upstart to shut up.
The tools and skills of a writer, however, don’t care who it is that’s using them. We may wish that such tools would leap in protest out of the hands of, say, Leni Riefenstahl — but they don’t.
Where was I? Oh, yes, structure and pacing.
A story’s structure, after its characters, is probably the most reactive element of a text. Which is odd because it’s not really the first thing you think of when you think about what goes into a good story. It’s the matrix for all the meaning that the text contains, and for that reason it is subject to a lot of expectations from both writers and readers, for good and ill.
But a storyteller can turn those expectations to account. I saw the new film version of Little Women last week, and enjoyed it immensely. But it is not at all structured in the same way as the book. The movie is intensely interleaved, cutting scenes together not by their chronology but by their contrast. For instance, in the story there are two sequences where Beth becomes ill; one has a happy outcome and one does not. The film puts side by side each stage of the sequence, and each stage comments on the other, future commenting on past and past on future. In part, Greta Gerwig’s film can get away with this because the story itself is already so familiar; and yet subverting the expectations of that familiar story, having the past and the future comment on one another — sunny, happy tones set against grey, grieving ones — magnifies the pathos of the story no matter how familiar we are with it. I thought it was utterly masterful.
As a writer, then, how does one know what structural technique will produce the strongest effect? How does one know when to subvert expectations and when to justify them? And how does one deal with the uneasy awareness that to choose one thing is to not choose another? There is no single approach to any of these questions, much as people will try to sell you a formula that works every time.
The challenges I had with writing Ryswyck are very different from the challenges I’m facing with The Lantern Tower. With Ryswyck, I started out knowing a couple of things: I wanted the style and pacing to evoke a cinematic feel; I wanted my two main characters to reflect on Ryswyck after leaving its context; I wanted Barklay’s philosophy to be put to the test in war conditions; and I wanted the climactic note to be one of supreme vulnerability for nearly all the characters. This unfocused list of beats gradually resolved itself into a three-act structure set up like a trebuchet: a slow winding up of tension; then a few ratchets more in the second act — and then chop the rope — KAPWINNNG!
But because I had chosen that structure, there were things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t interpolate any scenes with du Rau in the first two acts, for two reasons: I did not want to diffuse any tension “onstage” by reminding readers he was there; and there were no scenes I could add that had any load-bearing content in terms of his character and situation. All I could do was introduce him as a future POV character in the prologue, alert the reader to his offscreen machinations, and then pick him up again in Act Three with as much continuity as I could gesture in.
Similarly with Inslee, whose POV scenes appear only in Act Two. I so much wanted to write a scene about the decision point where Inslee and his beleaguered senior staff realize they can’t destroy the GT lines and still have time to evacuate the island. Inslee says, evenly: “Then we don’t evac.” But the structure I had chosen simply would not admit such a scene, no matter how much I wanted to do justice to Inslee’s unembroidered heroism.
Now, if Ryswyck were an actual film instead of a novel with cinematic elements, I could and would structure the action differently. A film’s prologue, instead of establishing the POV characters for future context, could center on the past events of Solham Fray — which would add dark tones to the first view of Ryswyck Academy with minimal storytelling effort. I’d probably have to cut a good deal of the community-building sequences in Act One and find some other way to highlight Ahrens as an important character for later on. And instead of trying to hold out for a big surprise at the end of Act Two, I’d probably cut in some scenes with du Rau, Fortinbras-like, approaching the gates with stealth, and I’d probably use that sequence with Inslee instead of letting it languish on the cutting-room floor.
Why didn’t I do these things for Ryswyck as a novel? Well, because it’s a novel, first of all, and beats hit differently in a literary medium than in a visual one. Because the cumulative community-building of the first two acts was three quarters of the point I wanted to make. And because, goddammit, setting up a trebuchet is fun.
There is, alas, no trebuchet to set up in The Lantern Tower. The action is equally divided between two locations, so the challenge there will be to interleave sequences in a way that makes them interdependent and mutually interpreting. The pacing of the action in one place will need to complement, not overbalance, the other. The catastrophe (and the eucatastrophe) will be visible, hidden in plain sight as it were. The fun here will be building my ship in a bottle and then raising the masts at the end with one slow pull of a cord.
But in either case, my objective is to write a story whose plot and structure stand unaffected by spoilers. I mean, for the truly spoiler-phobic, the above would be terribly spoilery (sorry). But it’s one thing to know what happens; it’s another thing to care about how it gets there.
And that’s the significance of structure that I aim for.
Meanwhile, watch this space for a more detailed review of Little Women. After, that is, I go watch it again and reread the book.
Writers, what mad skills of other writers make you stand back and admire?
I’m not talking about the obvious stuff; I’m talking about the kinds of things you know are tricky from trying to do them, and leave you dumbstruck when you see them done well.
This question occurred to me by way of plotting for The Lantern Tower. Now that I’ve got down three opening chapters, I have a better handle on the problem that was holding me up while storyboarding. The emerging answer was one I had already gestured at in the outline, but I had been rather timid about raising the stakes in order to do it. As soon as I thought that, Sensible Me said, “Well, why?” Indeed, Sensible Me. I should listen to you more often. So I opened a chat window to a friend and nattered at her for half an hour, and found myself remarking: “This is the part where I really envy Julia Spencer Fleming her seemingly limitless capacity for orchestrating the psychological movements of a large cast.”
It’s been a while since I thought about JSF and her books, but damn. Yeah. The more characters you constellate in a situation, the more complex the emotional movements and realities grow, reflecting in counterpoint and building toward either disaster — or eucatastrophe. Keeping track of that many internal realities, timing climactic urges, making sure every beat strikes a realistic emotional note: this is not freaking easy. Rocket science is easier, sometimes. This is especially true when, as JSF often does, you’re writing a story with multiple POVs.
Now, this skill can’t carry a book all by itself. One of this series — I think it was To Darkness and to Death — focused on psychological orchestration to the exclusion of all else, and I got bored and asked S to spoil me so I could read the next one. But if a story needs this skill, and it isn’t there…well. The fact that JSF can create, maintain, and drive stories with a community full of breathing internal realities makes the series as a whole one of my benchmarks for writing a large cast.
So if you stand in awe of a mad skill of some fellow writer, I want to hear about it. I need some new recs anyway.
(And speaking of recs, have you read Ryswyck? Did you like it? By all means hit it up with a review! Let the good folks at Amazon know what they’ve got.)
Meanwhile, I am still basking in the afterness of a good day of goodness, having done my first (small) fencing tournament last weekend. I fenced to my standard, which is to get on the board in any bout and win as many winnable ones as I can, learned a lot about procedure, fenced some new and very interesting fencers, and picked up some new music from the fencing buddy I rode up to Des Moines with. All in all, a good time was had by me, 10/10 would fence a tournament again.