Rec me, Amadeus! or, the Author on sabbath

Well, I’m back.

Once a year the religious community I belong to gets together for an annual meeting, in which business is accomplished, Eucharists are celebrated, songs are sung, and wine corks are popped. This year we were at the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet retreat center in St. Louis. The century-plus-old monastery is right on the river, and of course at the moment it’s even more right on the river than usual: all the rivers in the broad vicinity are vast expanses of opaque and purling water, draining as best it can toward the distant Gulf of Mexico. I had booked a train trip out there, but due to diverted freight traffic Amtrak was forced to bus us to and from our destinations: cue me making a face. I’ve actually seriously considered abandoning my usual stance of recreational complaining and writing a Strongly Worded Letter lamenting our collective priorities when it comes to infrastructure. Of course, I can do both.

Disappointing non-train trips aside, it was great to reconnect with my companions, to breathe back life into the round of daily prayers, to sit and talk late into the evening with popcorn and snacks and wine, and to remember what is so valuable about holding our lives in common. Our collective charism is an undergirding to what we do in the places where we are, and we all wish for more than one chance a year to refresh that knowledge.

Now I’m back at my desk and back to work, and making my plans for the next months. Launching Ryswyck was six months of really hard work, and slowly but surely it is paying off; but I’m definitely ready to recharge.

So I think I’m going to put aside the ‘verse for a month — not do any writing, or any stewing about not writing — and read. When writers who are just starting out ask me for advice about how to develop their writing, I agree with all the authors who say: read. Read a lot or read a little, read good books or read bad ones, read people you know and people you don’t know (and that goes for both authors and POV characters), read in familiar genres and in genres you’ve never touched.

I believe in this advice wholeheartedly: more than half of what I know about writing comes from studying my favorite books — or any books — and working out how the authors did it. (The other half comes from failing again and failing better, because you have to do that too.) But. While I am in the actual act and process of writing, I just can’t spare much headspace for consuming new books. While I am writing, most of my reading consists of making dinner and then opening a Vorkosigan omnibus to a random page, or something similar.

So when I’ve finished a project, or a stage in a project, I’ve started taking reading sabbaticals, seeking out books I haven’t read a billion times and opening new thought-territory. Plus, it pays to keep up with one’s field.

While I was on the road for work, I read the first book and half the second of the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein, and have been enjoying that very much. So I’ll get back to those. And then there are always the monthly reads for my book club, which always comprehend a great variety.

But I want recs. What are you reading right now? I’d like to read something new, or something old brought back from the margins. Something a middle-aging white Midwesterner might not run across on her own; something that has a damn good story to it. Or: something you want to read but haven’t got to yet.

That sort of thing. Or as my sister likes to say: Okay, recs, go.

Decisions, decisions

So! As predicted, I have received two notes from friends saying they got their paperback copy of Ryswyck in one day — one text even came with a picture — and my author copies have yet to even ship. So if you were hanging fire about ordering your paperback, let the fire land by all means, and order.

Meanwhile, I am percolating tomorrow’s sermon, which bears a very strong resemblance to procrastinating, because that is how I roll. So while I’m doing that, I shall post a list of prospective blog topics, for general amusement. And for my own reference, because while some of these topics have patiently resided on the Excel spreadsheet I made for the purpose, I do have to remember to open the file and update it…which, I, um, didn’t. Well, I’ve been busy.

Canned rants

  • Aspiring megachurches with ridiculous non-cross logos
  • People who drive slowly in the left lane
  • Serious Literature: why does it have to be so fucking depressing?
  • And more!

Cinematography and cinematographic writing

  • Writing for the eye and for the mind’s eye
  • Can a book be written like a movie?
  • (Spoiler: probably not, but some conventions are analogous)

Robert Alter and narratology

  • POV trends (or, are we off the present-tense tight-third bender yet?)
  • Robert Alter and “perspective”; the writer’s tool box

Spoilers and plot structure

  • or, why I’m not fussed if people find out what happens in my stories
  • committing to a structure with its strengths and limitations

Bowen family systems theory and Ryswyck

  • or, can you count the triangles in this drawing?

And now, back to John Marsh’s commentary on the Fourth Gospel. Or tacos.

The Peanut Gallery is open!

Postscript from the John Spencer files

Further to my last, I heard back from the SET Game customer service. It turns out they have decided to remove QRE from the dictionary of valid words altogether. So the change is not arbitrary, and I’m not crazy thinking it’s not really a word.

Meanwhile, I have given up recreational complaining for Lent. It’s amazing how when you give something up for a time, you realize just how much you were doing it. It turns out rants are a significant part of my day, go fig. I’ll have to provide genuwyne quality content without!

And finally, I am getting close to a cover reveal! I have seen a draft of the cover for Ryswyck and it’s going to be awesome. Watch this space!

They hang up every time

It’s part of my morning routine to play the daily puzzles on the Set Game website, and naturally the Quiddler puzzle is my favorite. (Though the new Karma one is growing on me.) The goal is to use every one of the cards laid out in the puzzle to make words of at least two letters, and I usually set myself the additional goal of equaling the bonus achieved by the high scorers. The following day they post the words played by the highest scorer, and I’ve picked up a lot of valid words that way.

But this morning, one of the words I had picked up and even used from time to time was rejected. What! What do you mean, “qre” is not a valid word?? I used it two days ago!

It burnished a suspicion I’ve had that the funky tricky little words in this puzzle aren’t consistently accepted or rejected. For a while I thought I just had a bad memory for what worked and what didn’t. But if the puzzle makers really are excluding words from the valid list from one puzzle to another, that’s. . .not a word game at all.

So I used the contact form to write a comment to deplore the arbitrariness of accepting a word one day and rejecting it the next. I don’t really care whether it’s one thing or the other, just so it’s consistent. I mean, do you know what qre means? Don’t tell me if you do.

I swear I turn more into John Spencer with every passing day.

By the numbers: end of January outlook

  • 38,000 — words written on “Household Lights”
  • 4 — sequences left to write on my list
  • enough to stuff a cushion — number of tissues applied to my massive sinus infection
  • 5 — approximate number of Very Important pieces of mail I need to unearth for adult things like getting my car tags done
  • 0 — number of fucks I am able to spare for that right now
  • -2 — the anticipated low for tonight’s weather conditions
  • 7 — number of swords I own, in case any Upper Plains person laughs at this
  • 2 — Lindor truffles on my desk…oops

And so on, and so forth, &c. &c. In other words, I aten’t dead. Barely.

Edited to add: I recounted my swords. I have one (1) rapier; one (1) practice foil; one (1) sport saber; and five (not 4) épées. So I have 8 swords, not 7.

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.

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.