Trying a novel: Watching a deadline float by

While I’m not usually the kind of person who does things at the absolute last stay-up-until-4 a.m. minute, I have to admit that I usually work well with deadlines. They give me a goal and an endpoint. They keep me on track. And, for the most part, I usually make them.

Fresco from Pompeii, Naples National Archaeological Museum
Credit: Carole Raddato

So it pains me to admit that I didn’t make this one.

I had a deadline of today — Thursday — to have a reasonable chunk of novel ready for the Starry Coast workshop that I’ll be attending next month. The idea is that each person attending the workshop should have a manuscript (or, at least, a reasonable piece of it) ready so that two of the other attendees can have enough time to read and critique it.

Three weeks ago, I thought: I can do this. I’ll work hard, I’ll push through, and I’ll get at least 50,000 words in a reasonable condition so that I can send it in.

Two weeks ago, I thought: Well, maybe I’ll settle for 30,000 words. In decent shape.

One week ago, I thought: Yeah, right. I’ve got about 30,000 words, but there’s no way I’m going to show this to anybody. Decent shape? Yeah, tell me another one.

The problem is that I — like many writers, I think — am extremely critical of my own work. And while I have approximately what I think of as a beginning of a piece of work, as soon as I started reading it over I saw that it was barely a beginning — certainly not anything I’d want anybody else to read. The characters aren’t well laid out; the dialogue is awkward; the environments aren’t well described or thought out…

This, I thought, is not enough. The people reading this first draft should at least have some idea what the storyline is. I don’t mind hard critiques — I’ve spent my life attending a variety of classes and writers groups — but I visualized instead a puzzled silence. As in, “Um — who are these people and what is going on here, anyway?”

I started editing and rewriting — and realized a couple of days ago that I just wasn’t going to make it. It was just going too slowly. So I found myself typing out a pitiful plea to the two people who are going to critique my work, asking for at least a weekend to do another edit.

They, generous souls that they are, said that there was no problem. So deadline’s passed, and I’m going to try to make the secondary deadline and at least get the first 30,000 words out — in a reasonably coherent form.

And I’m also going to keep hoping that this will all be worth it, and for the first time in my life, I’ll finally be able to finish a single story that is over 5,000 words.

Trying a novel: An outline? I don’t need no stinkin’…. Yes, I do.

I just realized something about this novel that I’m supposedly writing.

I need an outline.

A woman writesThis evening, I went to the Word bookstore in Brooklyn to hear N.K. Jemisin read from her latest novel The Fifth Season, the first book of her new Broken Earth trilogy. The reading was wonderful (not surprisingly; since she is high on my list of the best specfic writers around today), and I enjoyed it thoroughly. But what struck me was something that was said during the Q&A session, when Nora mentioned that she had started with one outline and eventually realized she needed to drastically change it. All the long-form writers in the room nodded knowingly.

And I thought to myself, “Oh, hell. I need an outline, don’t I?”

Now, you have to understand that I’ve never worked with an outline before. When I write a short story, I usually do one of two things: I either start writing and wait to find out where it’s going to take me, or I start with an ending in mind and build the story to reach that ending. Very often, the story that develops has little to do with what I started with — but if I’m satisfied with it, that’s fine.

Now, however, I’ve realized that I may have been doing the whole novel-writing thing all wrong. I’ve been approaching it as if it’s a short story: Begin at the beginning with a general idea of where it’s going and then start writing. If I hit a wall, move to a different part of the story and write that, and then see how (or if) I can connect the two.

But that won’t work in the long form. For example, if I create a character in the third chapter that will disappear until the 15th chapter, I’d better damn well track what that character’s name is and what they’ve been doing in the meantime. And there’s the whole world-building thing; if I’ve established a society that’s just discovered the combustable engine, I can’t have somebody pull out a smartphone four chapters later. And by the way — if characters change by the end of the novel, shouldn’t I figure out how and why?

In fact, it may be a good idea to have a vague idea of where I intend to end up — especially if I’m going to have a workshop full of writers reading (and critiquing) it.

So, despite my increasing desperation about getting this thing actually done — or, rather, getting enough of it done — I’m going to have to take at least an evening or two and make myself an outline; some kind of textual map of where I’m going with this. I may end up going totally off that map, but at least I can pretend I have some idea what I’m doing.

A short story writer tries to get the long form habit

I’ve never succeeded in writing a long-form story. Oh, I’ve got several unfinished might-have-been novels sitting in file folders — some old enough that we’re talking about real, cardboard file folders — but I’ve never actually been able to finish one.

Woman writingAnd I’ve been very resistant to even trying one. More than once, I’ve been told that a short story was actually not finished, that it was only the beginning, that it should be pulled into a novel. My reaction was always, “No, that’s the end. It’s done. Time to go on to the next thing.”

I’m not sure why. I’ve joked that I simply don’t have the attention span to finish a novel; and that may not be far from the truth. Or it could be that, as an editor, I am simply too picky to be able to complete a long first draft. Or I’m just so damned insecure about my own work that I can’t write for more than about 4,000 words without giving up on the whole thing, and so I simply limit it to that.

Or whatever.

Well, I’ve made what may be a very good move — or may be a huge mistake. I’ve committed myself to a week-long workshop this coming September in which several writers will be getting together to work on and critique novel-length works. And as a result, I’ve got to have something novel-length — or, at least, something partially novel length — to offer up for critique.

So I’m forcing myself to learn to write quickly. Without going back as I write and tweaking each phrase, each paragraph, and then going back again. Without telling myself every other sentence, “God, this is awful; I’d better start over — no, this isn’t working — that is so incredibly miserable;  try again — oh, hell, she wouldn’t do that, delete that… Maybe I should try this other story instead…?”

Because I’ve got a deadline. I’ve got to get a lot of coherent words down on the page. And if I keep stopping and trying again, it will never happen. And I’ll end up sitting in a workshop where several other people have managed to put together manuscripts made up of several thousand words and will have expected me to do the same — and feeling like a complete and utter twit.

Wish me good luck. I think I’m gonna need it.

54 Below Sings Starmites

What with a full-time job, an attempt to keep my writing up and other obligations, I haven’t done a lot of “going out” lately. So it was really nice to to be able to treat ourselves to 54 Below Sings Starmites, a cabaret-type performance of a 1980s comic-book musical called, yes, Starmites. It was directed by Pat Cerasaro & Barry Keating; Keating wrote the music and lyrics; he also wrote the book along with Stuart Ross.

Starmites

54 Below is a nightclub in the lower level of what was, of course, the former and notorious Club 54 (the upper level is now a theatre owned by the Roundabout). We had a somewhat expensive but extremely yummy dinner; then an enthusiastic and very talented cast and band performed the musical numbers on a dangerously small stage while the story (such as it was) was narrated by Liz Larsen, a member of the original cast.

It was a huge amount of fun. The whole cast was great (and negotiated their way through a few mistakes and glitches with professionalism and humor). I was especially impressed by Cheryl Freeman, who belted out a song called Hard To Be Diva with incredible energy, and Brian Charles Rooney, who played the bad guy with relish and sang The Cruelty Stomp wonderfully, throwing in some jazzy riffs that that directly referenced Cab Calloway, among others.

Many thanks to Sheri Lane and Barry Keating for helping us discover this event.

Mythic Delirium 2.1 — with my story “Sophia’s Legacy — is now available

The latest issue of Mythic Delirium is now on sale with, as editor Mike Allen says, “three tales of magical protagonists haunted by past events” — including my story “Sophia’s Legacy,” which is based (extremely loosely) on a story my grandmother once told me about her mother.

Mythic_Delirium_1_4_coverHere’s the description as found on the website:

We join a vampire moving in the worlds of high fashion and higher powers; a sea witch crashing a royal wedding with a (familial) blood score to settle; an enchanted chess game with life-and-death consequences, with the opponents separated by a century.

Our poems in this issue add new chapters to the tales of Oz and The Tempest, grant new coats to villains and secret lives to cabinets, discover new senses and damaged but working hearts.

The stories come courtesy of Sara M. Harvey, Cassandra Khaw and Barbara Krasnoff, while Jane Yolen, Sandi Leibowitz, Shira Lipkin, Hannah Strom-Martin, Anne Carly Abad and Alicia Cole provide the poetry. Our spectacular cover art, inspired by Cassandra’s story, comes from Paula Arwen Owen.

The print publication is available now through Amazon or Weightless Books. My story will be available online in September (although Sara Harvey’s story and two of the poems are available now). Enjoy!

My Readercon Schedule

Readercon is in a very few days and I’m very much looking forward to it. Folks who may want to say hi will be able to find me either lurking in the halls, making notes in the audience, or part of the following panels/readings:

Thursday July 09

9:00 PM    ENL    How to Write for a Living When You Can’t Live Off Your Fiction.  Leah Bobet, John Crowley, Michael Dirda, Barbara Krasnoff (leader).You’ve just been laid off from your staff job, you can’t live on the royalties from your fiction writing, and your significant other has taken a cut in pay. How do you pay the rent? Well, you can find freelance work writing articles, white papers, reviews, blogs, and other non-SFnal stuff. Despite today’s lean journalistic market, it’s still possible to make a living writing, editing, and/or publishing. Let’s talk about where and how you can sell yourself as a professional writer, whether blogging can be done for a living, and how else you can use your talent to keep the wolf from the door. Bring whatever ideas, sources, and contacts you have.

Friday July 10

1:00 PM    ENL    The Works of Joanna Russ. Gwynne Garfinkle, David G. Hartwell, Barbara Krasnoff (moderator), Scott Lynch. Joanna Russ (1937–2011) was, arguably, the most influential writer of feminist science fiction the field has ever seen. In addition to her classic The Female Man (1975), her novels include Picnic on Paradise (1968), We Who are About to… (1977), and The Two Of Them (1978). Her short fiction is collected in The Adventures of Alyx(1976), The Zanzibar Cat (1983), (Extra)Ordinary People (1984), and The Hidden Side of the Moon (1987). She was also a distinguished critic of science fiction; her books include The Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews (2007). Of her works outside the SF field, she is perhaps best known forHow to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983). Join us to discuss her works.

3:00 PM    G    Women of Technology. Karen Burnham, Barbara Krasnoff (moderator), Shariann Lewitt, B Diane Martin, Fran Wilde. Current technology is the handmaiden of hard science fiction. What can SF literature learn from the women who have made a difference in tech today? What have been their challenges, experiences, and frustrations? How can we use them as prototypes for the inhabitants of our imagined futures? And from the point of view of women in scientific and technical fields, what science fiction works have succeeded (or failed) in extrapolating not only future technology but the role of women within it?

8:00 PM    CO    Dealing with Discouragement. Susan Bigelow, Michael J. Daley, Scott Edelman, Barbara Krasnoff (leader), Shariann Lewitt. As writers, we learn very early on to handle rejection, but how do you handle it when a story you’re sure is good is rejected by 20 different publications? Or when your carefully crafted novel is shrugged off by five different agents? Or your self-published novella is bought by only 25 people, all of them friends and relatives? Or your fantasy novel disappears from public view after a couple of weeks? We’ll explore personal strategies to deal with disappointments, rejection, and other setbacks.

Saturday July 11

9:00 AM    F    The Author’s Voice. Barbara Krasnoff (leader), Kate Marayuma, Tom Purdom, Paul Tremblay, Gregory Wilson. An old writing advice chestnut is that you should read your work aloud; supposedly this will help you notice awkward phrasing. Let’s dig a little further: when, how, and why do writers do this, if at all? How has it helped—and has it ever hindered? Do authors who are performers have the opposite problem, where their ability to make something come alive in a reading obscures the fact that it’s a bit dead on the page? How does reading aloud square with things like footnotes, parentheticals, illustrations, digressions, or visual representations of dialects? Is anyone emphatically against the practice of reading aloud as an element of process?

10:00 AM    EM    Tabula Rasa. Jen Brissett, Barbara Krasnoff, Terence Taylor. Tabula Rasa Group Reading

Sunday July 12

9:30 AM    ENV    Reading

Didja know that women were closer to the primitive than men? Didja? Hah?

Sometimes, it’s fun — and occasionally necessary — to see where we came from so that we can have some perspective on today’s battles. Just by chance, browsing through a table of free used books, I picked up a science fiction novel called Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair, copyright 1963. I don’t remember ever reading one of her works (although I read so much science fiction/fantasy when I was a teenager that I may simply not remember the book). But besides the interest of reading something new that was published back then, I knew I immediately had to take the book when I turned it over and looked at the blurb on the back cover.

And had to show it off. This was considered a positive way to market a skiffy book by somebody who was female and actually admitted to it by not changing her name or using initials. Women are writing science fiction! Really! And because they are closer to the primitive than men, they possess a buried memory of humankind’s past! So this has gotta be a great book!

(Actually, this is apparently one of the earliest uses of Wiccan themes in a speculative fiction novel, so the marketing is understandable. But still…)

I bring you, ladies and gentlebeings, 1963:

"Women are closer to the primitive than men."
“Women are closer to the primitive than men.”