In the word mines: the open sea, with some charts, and the firmament

Well, I seem to have got off my blogging regimen just a little bit, after a brief spate. But I’m not all that sorry, because I have been writing. The odometer on “Household Lights” just clicked over 30,000 words, and I feel pretty good about them.

And naturally, there was a good reason why I was stymied several days earlier. Several of the elements I had envisioned for the story, when brought together, had a chemical reaction I hadn’t prepared for, and the anticipation of the decisions I would have to make had slowed my roll. But, after some chat with a couple of betas, and an exciting new idea, I started to write my way into the new reality.

I remarked to Erica afterwards that I didn’t often write to find out what happens, but that I was definitely doing so in this case, and she said, “Oh god, I write to find out what happens all the time.” It’s interesting to me how different people’s processes can be: I dream and mentally storyboard nearly everything before ever putting down a word — and usually the first thing I write isn’t the first thing, it’s a thread of conversation I found to pull in service of some character interaction or plot turn. I amass a clutch of jotted passages, some of which are barely-scaffolded strings of dialogue and some of which are fully-blocked scenes, and then at some point I take the plunge and start writing the opening. Usually, when I get to the already-written material, it fits in well as-is. Sometimes it needs tweaking. Rarely do I have to throw away any pre-written scenes, but it has been known to happen.

For “Household Lights” I have three pre-written passages to work into the remaining sequences, and (by current count) seven sequences left to write. That will probably work out to about 20k more words, now that I’ve charted my new territory somewhat.

What’s interesting about the developments of this story is the knock-on effects it will have on what I’m still calling Book 2. (That makes “Household Lights,” like, what, 1.5 or something? I haven’t decided. I think Ann Leckie — or at least, Goodreads — did something similar with her short, um, ancillary material to her Ancillary Justice trilogy, and there’s a good story you should definitely read. And you can tell just how effectively she interrogated the domination system from the inside by how livid it made worshippers of domination. I could only aspire to that kind of effectiveness; but I digress.) Some themes I had planned to address in Book 2 demanded to be treated in this story, which on the one hand may alter some of my pre-written scenes for it, but on the other, may clear a lot of ground ahead of time and save me some wordage down the line. So as Bob Ross says, we don’t make mistakes in our world; we just have happy accidents.

So, it’s back to work with me. Tea, sunrise, a dusting of snow outside, and an open document in here. Heigh-ho.

Best of Blog: friendship essays

Back when I started the project that became Ryswyck, I felt pretty lonely talking about friendship as a driving moral imperative in stories. Now, though, my friends link me to Twitter discussions of friendship as an Actual Love, and big-name bloggers are tagging friendship as the stuff to give the troops, as Bertie Wooster would say.

So I decided to file some of my past posts on the subject as Best of Blog articles on this site. (The Writer and Eucatastrophe also technically counts as a best of blog article, but since it’s as close to a manifesto for this site as I’m ever going to write, it gets its own menu link.) Eventually I’ll probably add more posts from the ol’ catacombs, but this is obviously the most pressing and relevant topic, so here they are:

Let the Circle Be Unbroken: Friendship and eros in stories, originally published 12/31/13

and its later sequel

Friendship, Eros, and some notes on the Queen’s Thief series, originally published 5/24/17.

(I note that the tone of these articles, especially the first, is rather defensive; years in fandom has exposed me to a lot of shipping drama, and if you’re going to come out and say you prefer gen stories rather than erotic ones, you have to hedge it all around with assurances that you’re not some kind of purity freak, or outright homophobe for that matter. Let’s just say for the record that the Nutrition Facts on this site do not include either purity freakage or homophobia.)

By the way, if you have not yet discovered Megan Whalen Turner‘s Queen’s Thief books, you are so in for a treat. I can’t even remember who put me on to these books (probably R.J. Anderson, but it’s lost in the mists of time), but they are fabulous, clever, innovative, compelling, and witty and you should go read them right now (while you’re waiting for Ryswyck to come out).

There, I think that will do it for today.

Joules burn

It’s one of those “writing is haaarrrrd” days. So I’ll blog a little.

The Interstitial Novella, which is approaching 20k words and probably has about 20k more to go, has reached the plow point — the point where the run-up momentum has spent itself and you now have to work out the work: the mass and the gravity and the height of all the scenes remaining to get on paper or in pixels. But it’s now substantial enough that I’m going to start calling it by its working title, “Household Lights.”

Everybody does craft differently, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. Hell, I do craft differently with every project I do. But there are some basic features to my process that I’ve become familiar with.

“Household Lights” started life as the opening sequence to the second book in the series. I saw it as an interlude of recovery and refreshment for my characters before I threw more shit at them; because although I fully deserve my Evil Author badge, I also like my characters and want them to be happy. Mostly.

But then I started outlining the stages and acts of Book Two, sketching scenes and jotting down convos, and one of these things was definitely not like the others. Not only that, but the number of scenes I had conceived for the interlude promised to make it quite long. I’m unrepentant about introducing my ‘verse in a long-ass book, but for the second book? — there’s long, and then there’s long and also not tight.

So: short story, novella, whatever. I had some scenes sketched on the page, and some sketched in my head, so I got started. But then of course some of the elements that were already there started taking shape as external plot points. Apparently this isn’t just going to be a story about the inward lives of my characters, a meditation on the transition from one sphere of action to the next. Nope. Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who in your great mercy allows shit to happen.

So, I’ve made a list of all the scenes I know remain to be written. Some of these already have dialogue jotted down for them; some have been furniture in my head so long that if they were actual furniture, they would be lumpy from being jumped on by my brainchildren for so long. But, when one looks at a list of scenes and sees how much longer it is than the scenes one has written so far, and one tries to bestir oneself to pick at the next one on the list: that is the plow point, when one says, “Writing is haaaarrrd.”

But, a day like this is way better than days when I just don’t even know how to want to write or what to tackle or how to even think about what I want to see written or wordsauce wordsauce wordsauce. No, days like this are pretty good.

Now excuse me while I stare at the snow and try to squeeze out another word or ten.

I gotta skip my prayer meeting

Snow ice cream wants just eagle brand
And I’ve got eagle brand on hand
And I’d rather not walk to the store
Bringing tracks from my boots on the floor
There’s an 8-inch cake of snow on my car
(And my right windshield wiper blade won’t come about)
And things being how they are,
The morning church service is OUT!
So it’s sticking around on the spot:
But tea, loungewear, and ice cream I’ve got!

My filking muscles are atrophied; I’m not sure what else Nathan Detroit would make of my snow holiday. I do, however, know what I am making of my snow holiday: I’m writing. My aftermathy novella is coming along, though I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that it’s developing a crunchier plot than I prepared myself for. Still, writing is writing, and I think I’ve nearly reached the halfway mark of the piece.

Of course, one can’t spend a snow holiday entirely buried in one’s laptop screen; like everybody else in the city, I had to get out and take pictures and put them on Facebook (obnoxious as it is; note to self — look into getting an Instagram account). People become like small children again, studying the details of the transformed outdoors with earnest enjoyment, shyly waiting till others were out of direct sight to take pictures with their phones.

The gloves I put on for my walk, in a happy serendipity, had a hole in the seam of the right forefinger, and I used it to stir the screen of my phone to take photos, snow lighting wetly on the lighted surface. I took shaky video, too, of drooping branches dotted with berries, of the shifting crunch of my boots as I made my way among the laden branches on the neighborhood sidewalks.

Why? Is it that we can’t help knowing that snow is transient, and therefore want to capture the experience of seeing it, hearing it, being out in it? The way it transforms the everyday look of things and makes them new? My footprints on this walk are visible in the snow — I can see exactly where I’ve come and what my steps look like getting here — but on any other day, I can’t see them. The silence, maybe: the way the snow-filled air wraps one around in a strange acoustic warmth. Maybe those things together make for the urge to reach out — not in the moment, that’s too much a treasure — but right after. On my walk, I met some people and left them to their privacy as I valued mine, but others looked up and smiled, and I greeted them back. I stopped at the entrance to the park to watch families sledding and making snow angels. I almost wanted to take a picture of that too. A picture of the beauty and hardship and holiday and inconvenience that is all so obviously shared by everyone present — a situation — a scene.

Like that old canard about how, when the talk turns to politics or other contentious things, someone suggests: “Let’s talk about the weather.”

Well, why not?

The grimdark/hopepunk gestalt, and other sandtraps

It’s so hard to get on Twitter without being overwhelmed by Appalling Things, but I do wind up picking at the margins of current topics when my friends talk about them, and then they get into the bloodstream of my thoughts and I wind up producing a personal podcast (like a personal pan pizza, consumed by one’s self only) on my commute. Which I was doing this evening, only then the thought occurred to me: Isn’t this why you have a fucking blog? (It’s my commute, so f-bombs are a feature of the landscape.)

Why yes, yes it is.

The new generations of writers and readers have been coming up with — I suppose they’re not genres, really, but descriptive modes for stories, and the one that’s come up on my radar recently is hopepunk. At first glance it seems like it’d be right up my street, hopepunk — coined, as far as I can tell, as a counter to grimdark, which I’ve already got a canned rant about. The short version is, for the last hundred years or so, a defining feature of Serious Literature has been grimness and darkness — dis-integration of people and relationships and situations, fragmentation of narratives. Meaning reduced to incoherence as a statement of truth, co-inherence mocked and flouted by assiduously unhappy endings. Thus not only do Serious People want to make you read stories about disaster and incoherence, they also want to scold you for wanting the opposite. And who needs it, really?

So hopepunk, yeah, sounds great, let’s have some! Only…what is it?

From my perspective on the fringes of the discussion, it looks like people have a hard time identifying what is a proper example of hopepunk, one that can be agreed upon by all parties. In fact, what some people see as hopepunk, others noped out of as the epitome of grimdark. And vice versa. It’s like “postmodern,” which is, well, you know, something…a little bit more modern than modern, right? No matter how clearly set out the concept is to start with, it runs afoul in practice of a sort of subjective gestalt.

And part of the problem is that people want stories to bear witness to their pain and difficulty and disaster; and to speak too quickly of hope is to betray their testimony to a final rebuttal. To say, “but that’s not what hope means,” and try to back-and-fill the concept, just clouds the issue further.

Which is why I still prefer Tolkien’s word eucatastrophe as a descriptive mode for the stories I want. We all know what catastrophe is: everything I said about Serious Literature above. So then what is the good catastrophe? It’s a story that specifically invokes that witness to pain and difficulty and disaster, so that it can bring forth the integrated meaning and co-inherence and renewal and reversal that every situation can potentially produce. Eucatastrophe does not betray by a clap-back from outside the situation: it restores things from within the structure of its own landscape of meaning. It makes the tellers of such stories agents in their own rescue; it puts others in potential touch with a wild and painful joy. You can want it or not want it, but it’s a definite thing. You can say, “This story has a payoff, but getting there might not be worth it to you.” Or you can say, “This story doesn’t have enough of a payoff to justify the misery.” Eucatastrophe as a concept lets you say definite things about actual stories, and have a, well, coherent conversation about them. In fact, so long as the concept is in place, you hardly have to use Tolkien’s 25-cent word at all.

A word you don’t actually have to say to use: now that’s a useful word.

Merry Christmas, and an Angry New Year

Apparently Sunday blogging didn’t happen yesterday. Instead, I had some needed downtime, in which the most strenuous thing I did was to draft a map of the island country featured in Ryswyck, to show to an artist I would commission to draw it properly for the book. I would show it here, but a) there’s a reason why I’m hiring someone else to draw the map and b) I digitized and edited it at its full size to retain the details, and this post wouldn’t support an image that size.

Meanwhile, the items on my production schedule for the book are slowly coming together, though we’re still in the stage where things happen discretely instead of in linked chains of tasks. I expect it to pick up as spring comes on. Currently on my writer’s easel is a novella-sized treatment of the aftermath of the book, which if it edits well will serve as a sampler of the ‘verse and an intro to the second book in the series, which has been storyboarded and a few scenes sketched in. I’m doing my best to take advantage of the post-winter-solstice surge that is part of my creative rhythm.

It’s only in recent years that I have noticed that pattern enough to take advantage of it; for a long time I was too relieved that the torturous contraction of autumn was over to realize that it had an effect on my writing too. Not just the amounts of production, but the qualities of it change: less maudlin, more driven.

Which brings me to today’s subject. For Christmas, I gave my closest friends a copy of Rebecca Traister’s new book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. It’s a short, trenchant treatment of the current situation we find ourselves in, and the attempts our society makes to obscure the power of anger in women by belittling or demonizing it. Just days ago I woke from a vivid dream about a fascist corporate takeover in which propaganda was spread printed on women’s shopping bags — seemingly friendly advice crowded in little text boxes and meme-sized photos: “Remember, if you start to feel angry, just remember that you’re a bad person, and the feelings will subside.” This morning I woke from a dream in which I went to a guru’s office in part to report that someone had rifled my briefcase bag and taken valuables from it, only to receive a bulletin later that I was banned from the building because being angry over the theft had made me dangerous and disruptive.

I used to have the luxury of thinking dreams like this were due to the idiosyncrasies of my brain and my life experiences. That’s a luxury that’s long gone for everyone.

The funny thing is, if you can get over the bone-deep suspicion that your anger is a sign of depravity, you can get a lot done. When I conceived Ryswyck six years ago, its dangers were all hypothetical, its moral imperative the stuff of parable. I worked on it slowly, stymied at times by mental and emotional obstacles. Then suddenly, there was nothing hypothetical at all about a post-post-apocalyptic tale in which the principle of courtesy becomes the last hope of people mired in a dehumanizing war. I was galvanized into action and wrote the last two-thirds of the story in a fever of fury. Then followed, of course, the long process of beta reading and editing and market research. Pressing to find the place of velocity.

We think that anger is no more than a feeling, an outrage inflicted upon us by the people or the situation that is making us angry. It’s that, to be sure. But finding something to do — not about it, but with it, in it — transforms it, transubstantiates it into something life-giving, even joyful. It becomes something we want to offer to the highest.

What we choose for our highest is the next perilous point.

So, for the New Year I wish you the anger to offer and the best place for offering it, and in those in-between times, a means of cheer and relief. I’ll be on the fencing strip, myself. Cheers!

Catgut my tongue

One of these days, I keep thinking, I’m going to write one of my snarky posts for this blog; I mean, it’s not like I don’t have anything to be salty about. But today is not that day.

The approach of Christmas is always one of those prismatic times, where we touch the meridians of previous experience and feel them thrum. I wound up plucking and strumming a lot of my own inward strings this week, some for the sake of sermon composition and some because, well, because it’s just the nadir of the year and I wind up doing that in the holy dark. So for my post this week I will just share two of the things in the cedar box of my heart and let them stand as commentary on the whole.

The first is a poem I wrote several years ago, as a response and counterpoint to Psalm 80. That psalm is one of the readings for this day, and while I was working on my sermon I remembered that I had written the poem, remembered the inward aridity that had begged for expression; and so afterward I dug the poem out and reproduce it here.

Flower Cross (Psalm 80)
The real problem with determinism
Is the hardening of allegory into concrete.
All those lessons I failed to learn,
All those unhappy endings that meant even less
Than I thought, all the glacial grooves of pathology
That started before me and will not end with me,
And which I fought so feebly and uselessly,
Become the antarctic mutterings
Of ice shelves scouring themselves
Over and over. In heat or in cold
The aridity is all.


I could crumble to dust where I stand.
At one time I could taste the hot salt
Of my own tears; then I could taste
Only the memory; then nothing at all.


Oh, look at me, look at me,
Let your face open to me in recognition
Like the doors that do not exist
For me to beat my fists on.
If you know me, tendrils will rise
And curl over the dust, running
With warm green sap, twining about me,
Threading below my fingers and over the palms
Of my open hands outstretched, dripping
In pale green finials of blossoming filigree,
Heavy with nectar, ringing with scent
Like the cicada’s song from where I stand
To the sun-sparked newborn shore.


Like new evening and new morning I would be
In the moment you saw me.

Yet even in such a time, one can be shaken into real tears without warning: I remember during that same period, one morning close to Christmas, I was driving alone on a country road eastward into the rising sun, and NPR was interviewing Eric Whitacre about his virtual choir. Then they played the piece he had written for it, and all of a sudden I was shedding uncontrollable tears, the gold-white light flaring as I wept and listened.

This kind of thing is so not like me. I am contained whether I want to be or not, my emotional reaction time slow, my sense of awe or worship or grief always slightly out of orb with my surroundings. Even music, which often reaches me uninhibited, doesn’t unhasp my control. Except, obviously, for a very few pieces. I don’t know what it is about this piece that does it to me, but it nearly always does. I get the sense sometimes, when people talk about this piece, that it fails to be truly highbrow in some unspoken way — a little embarrassing, maybe, a little overearnest. That could all be true. But it will never matter, not to my guts and tear ducts.

May the light break over you, like the songs of the morning stars, this holiday.

Of arts and crafts

Once, watching a friend create a delicious meal in her kitchen, I observed a distinction that I had often had in mind about creative endeavors: that there is a difference between a person’s art and their craft. Craft, as I feign it, is a thing you can learn, become enthusiastic about, even take to a satisfying level of mastery. But art is more than that. It’s the ability to take that endeavor’s internal rules and see how to bend them, even break or replace them, to make something unscripted, something previously unimagined — by one’s self at least.

For my friend in the kitchen, cooking was her art: she could follow a recipe, but she could also reverse-engineer one. She could take what she had mastered about cooking food and do something new with it; she could create, with joy and (sometimes only medieval words will do) maistrie in her own domain.

Cooking is not my art. I have managed to develop some craft, but the kitchen is not what I would call my natural domain.

All the same, it’s stimulating and salutary to take up crafts from time to time, new and old. I immersed myself in two crafts this weekend, and it was a great deal of fun. I joined my friends and their baroque jam band for a Beatles-themed Christmas concert; and while I was at it, I borrowed a friend’s camera and practiced composing shots of my friends playing while the chorus (me) was resting.

Neither music nor photography is my art. I’ve been a player of flute and piccolo, an ensemble singer, a self-appointed rhythm section in church (friends don’t let friends clap on 1 and 3!), but despite all those years of practice and effort and enjoyment, I don’t have the ability to intuit a musical situation and jump into it the way my musician friends do. My musician friends don’t go off-piste: the piste is wherever they say it is. And it sounds wonderful.

I’m not a photographer either. But recently I’ve been so sick of my crappy phone camera that my friend (possibly to stem the tide of recreational complaining) lent me his camera to practice taking shots with. I got a few good ones and probably a large number of unremarkable ones; photography as a craft, for me, is pretty satisfying.

Writing is what I consider to be my art. I work at craft, refine it, revamp it, but in the domain of words, the piste is wherever I say it is. Of course, unlike with music and photography and the visual arts, everybody speaks a language — and everybody has an internal world that they believe contributes to the sum total of positive meaning in the universe. Which it does. So to jump into the situation and start articulating what it means, besides being a creative enterprise, is a very brash act.

I’m not a particularly humble person, but there’s a point where ego simply gets left behind and what remains is a realm of divine stubbornness. I think every person who has discovered that divine stubbornness has found their art: regardless of whether they achieve recognition or confirmation of their quality. The rest, as the poet says, is not our business.

People look east

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

Even though I’ve been blogging on various platforms on and off for close to twenty years, it’s been a while since I made a regular practice of it. After all, it’s not one of those things one has to do. And twenty years ago I had a lot of youthful assumptions about the significance of my chronicles of daily life that I don’t have now. Now, of course, people upload pictures of their meals to Facebook — including me, sometimes — and microblogging is now a thing. Long-form blogging has sort of taken on a sepia tinge.

But now that I have my own space for it, I’m taking it up again. Because it’s not so much the chronicle as the gestalt that seems significant to me now, and the less pixellated the better.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent, a season I have loved since I first came to know it, in part because it speaks to our true condition at this time of year. Advent doesn’t pressure us to be merry. It doesn’t center itself on consumer connectedness, and if it plucks at the elbows of our priorities at all, it is to draw our attention to what’s outside the stream rather than plunge us more deeply in it. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, it gives full weight and acknowledgment to the narrowing range of sunlight as winter solstice approaches. It’s the cool, crisp shadow to the frenetic joy of the holiday season.

Every people who experiences this contraction of daylight has a tradition like Advent, that braids together a thrumming sense of anticipation with the recognition of darkness. And my characters, I reasoned, would be no different. So I fashioned for them the solstice holiday of Lightfall, complete with chant and bonfire and the Midnight Reel. And a bawdy songbook. And a cadenza in the darkness, sung in each community by a chosen voice:

This was the hour, she sang, when darkness seemed to have mastered all. When all that had been home was a country of forgetting. When the air was a burden and the ground an uneasy resting place. An hour when even the balefires were dimmed to ashes, swallowed in the wake of the poisonous inferno.

The bad times had made it so that the only possible worship was to make a virtue of loss: in the long generations since, every people had crept their way out of darkness little by little, but no one ever forgot that the love of wisdom was found in making offering. And there was always something one could give over. To make an offering, even of defeat and loss, was to kindle a light. All darkness apprehends its own ending.

From that moment of offering in the darkness, the light opens out again, little by little: both literally, in the reel of the earth’s axis, and figuratively, as we find our way and recover our lives, our breath, our joy. In Ryswyck, events drive on and the light contracts to its deepest dark; and from that moment hope and possibility widen out again, invisible at first but gathering its strength.¬†

It’s the days after winter solstice that I find my creative resurgence, after the losses of the fall. And this is the sort of image I steel myself with when reading the news headlines, when workday business closes after sunset, when I contemplate the uncertainties of my own life and the lives of my communities and the fruits of my daily efforts.

All darkness apprehends its own ending.

Hey, what’s the big idea?

So, I appear to have a new author website: a genuwyne, public-facing, on-purpose address on these here Internets. Because I also appear to have gone into business for myself, as a purveyor of words that I wrote.

Writers, as a rule, aren’t inherently attracted to public-facing, on-purpose entrepreneurship, especially when it comes to words they’ve written. But there does come a point at which one has to spit on one’s hands and tackle the learning curve: and so here I am, climbing gear and all.

Because even if writers aren’t natural entrepreneurs, most of us are seized with the conviction that we have meaning to offer the world through our words: and I am no exception.

For the past six years I have struggled mightily to bring forth a project that, like all worthwhile projects, nearly defeated me more than once. I’ll be saying more about that project, and its sequels, in future posts, and as the release date draws near. For now, I will only say that the world in which I conceived this story of courtesy in desperate times, and the world in which we live now, are so widely different that the story has been thrown into sharp and urgent relevance, as if laid over with a differently-vivid color frame.

It’s a frame and a story that I am eager to share.

This blog will be my regular outlet for topics related to writing, reading, craft, narrative, and fun, with a dash of recreational complaining added for flavor. Check out the manifesto on the top menu for a taste.

Meanwhile, here’s a link to a site I am happy to toss money to every year: the best ambient noise generator site on the planet. I’ve returned to this site again and again for inspiration, and since the hardworking proprietor has recently gifted us with the ability to combine stems for unique sounds, I made a generator to evoke the sentinel comm tower at Ryswyck, the titular school of my forthcoming novel.

Enjoy, and see you again soon!

L.