Failure is Sometimes an Option

lightbulbsFrom May of 2013 to the end of August 2015, I completed thirteen books. It wasn’t so much that I had a system, or anything like that; I just had plenty of time on my hands and a burning drive to use that time for writing. The point here is not to brag, because fast writing is not a guarantee of quality writing. The point is I had reached a state where I was confident in my ability to finish what I started.

Then things changed. In August of 2015, I was having trouble with the middle of the Willow North novel (which will probably be a trilogy, in the end), so I decided to work on something else for a while. I’ve done that before, writing an entire novel while giving my subconscious time to work out problems with a different one. And I’d had plenty of people ask me what happened to Zara after the end of Servant of the Crown. So I thought it would be interesting to tell that story. I worked out the bones of a plot, created a new culture for the continent south of Tremontane, and dug in.

It fought me the whole way. I made it to about 85,000 words before realizing it was a really stupid book. There were some great characters, but Zara herself was dull. My husband insisted that she didn’t read like an 86-year-old woman, which I think now is true–at the time I resisted that feedback because I couldn’t face the fact that the problem was with the whole book. But the 85K mark represents the point where, having written the same chapter three different ways, I realized the book was a dud. That none of the endings I’d forced into existence–and it took force–had any resonance.

Thirteen novels is enough to make you feel invincible. I was incredibly demoralized by this setback, not least because I had no idea what had gone wrong. Later analysis suggested that I’d written myself into a corner and that Jacob was right about Zara not behaving like an old woman, but at the time it was just frustrating. And I admit to being prideful. Most authors have at least one trunk novel–the kind you finish and lock away in a trunk because for whatever reason, it’s not good enough to see the light of day–and there was no reason I should be different. So I locked Voyager of the Crown in its own file (I am too superstitious to just delete it) and went on to write the four interrelated short stories that became Exile of the Crown.

But I couldn’t get the idea of a Zara novel out of my head. Willow was still giving me trouble, the only other idea I had was stalled out, and I got to a point where I hadn’t written anything in weeks, which was a nightmare. So in January of 2016 I started planning a new book. It was an exciting opportunity to explore Veribold and to finally allow Zara to reunite with her family, and I was looking forward to it.

It was worse than the first one. At 47,000 words I had to admit it was another failure. Once again Zara didn’t behave like an old woman, and the plot was just stupid. This time I was quicker to realize the problem, but it was every bit as demoralizing. I wanted to tell this story and it was clear it wasn’t working out.

At this point, there should probably be some kind of revelation. After all, if I wanted it badly enough, I should be able to figure out the problem, right? Problems are just opportunities in disguise, right?

In this case–no.

For someone who depends heavily on outlines, I’m also remarkably dependent on instinct. I can feel when the shape of a story is working and when it isn’t. And I could tell these were not books I was going to be able to save, no matter how much I wanted to, because they were fundamentally broken. I had to admit to failure. And then I had to move on.

So what makes the difference between a total loss and a temporary setback? I’m still not sure. Wondering Sight, my alternate-Regency-era fantasy with psionics, had a very rocky start where I was working with the wrong plot, but I fixed that and the book turned out fine. Willow North’s book, which I’m currently working on, turned out to have trouble related to the balance between the three plotlines–also fixable. So it’s not as if a problem with writing is always a sign that you should give up. With Zara’s books, I eventually realized that a major part of the problem was that Zara was never intended to be a POV character. When I created her, I was experimenting with ways to make side characters powerful, and part of that experiment was not letting any of the story be told from her perspective. The final story in Servant of the Crown, “Long Live the Queen,” was a departure from that, as were the stories in Exile of the Crown, but Zara was not meant to carry the weight of a novel.

The other problem was that much as I liked Zara, I didn’t actually want to write her story. I was doing it because I felt it would be popular. And that’s not the best reason for writing–trying to game the system. There’s a fine line between having an audience in mind when you write and writing not because you love something, but because you think it will sell. The latter is perfectly acceptable if you’re that kind of writer. Turns out I’m not.

Nobody sets out to fail. I’d rather either one of those books had worked out. But if the alternative was ending up with an awful but completed book, I’d rather take the failure.

Nobody likes a critic…

…especially writers who are, as I was yesterday, facing one final round of line edits on a manuscript that’s been through four beta readers and two line edits by different people. Taking criticism is hard, which is why I rarely read my own reviews. Reviews are for readers, not authors, and a reader’s criticism comes too late to make a change to the book. I find that deeply frustrating, hence the policy.

But criticism in the early, pre-publication stages is essential, and it’s not something you should simply ignore. The problem is finding critical readers who share your vision. There’s a sometimes fine line between someone who points out flaws in what you’ve done and someone who wishes you’d told a different story and gives you feedback accordingly. Having a thick skin when it comes to listening to criticism is key to telling the difference. It’s also important how someone gives criticism. In one of my previous critique groups, there was a person who positively delighted in telling people what they’d done wrong, laughing like it was funny that they’d made mistakes. It never mattered whether that person’s points were correct; the net effect was humiliating to the writer on the receiving end. Some beta readers do the same thing, but in a vicious, cruel way, trying to tear you down. Neither of these are worth wasting time on. The critique process ought to be uplifting, centered not only on making a manuscript better, but on helping a writer learn and improve her craft.

My own problem with criticism isn’t taking it so much as taking it too well. I have a very bad habit of, when presented with a correction to the text, immediately rethinking everything surrounding that part of the story and believing that the correction is right just because someone else thought so. Not all corrections are good ones. Not all changes are an improvement. Whether because a reader missed something elsewhere, or didn’t understand what you were doing, or simply didn’t know enough about the historical background of the book, corrections can be wrong. While it’s important not to reject comments out of hand, it’s also important to remember that this is your book and you’re the one who’s going to live or die by whatever’s in its pages. Sometimes you really do know best.

I have between four and five beta readers, each of whom brings a different viewpoint to the manuscript. These are people I trust to be both clear and accurate in their comments, even when they’re telling me things I don’t like. I don’t take all their suggestions, though I do consider every one of them. Sometimes a comment on a specific passage leads me to consider the issue more globally; sometimes I can tell one of my readers missed something important and I go back and fix the other thing instead. But I think I’ve been lucky in never having had a beta reader who was a clear mismatch for my book, or who didn’t understand what exactly a beta reader’s supposed to do.

Line edits are different. In the case of the manuscript I was working on yesterday, the two line editors were assigned by my publisher. I’ve met one of them online; I have no idea who the second one was. And I immediately saw a difference between the two. The first could tell what I wanted for this book and was very good about suggesting changes that brought it closer to that ideal. She lacked a knowledge of the historical period I’m writing in, but was aware of her lack of knowledge. In fact, that made the book stronger because she asked questions that someone not familiar with the English Regency period would ask, pointing out places where the story would be opaque to such readers. And she made a lot of changes that made me squirm, but I was forced to admit she was right.

The second one wasn’t nearly so pleasant. Some of his or her changes were good, and one change in particular made me look at the manuscript differently. Unfortunately, this person also introduced errors into the text, made corrections that showed they didn’t know much about the time period, and had a very strange theory of paragraphing. I found myself feeling very hostile toward this unknown person, angry over the errors, angrier (because I have contrarian tendencies) when they were right about something or made a change that was better than what I’d come up with.

I have sole control over the final version. It would have been easy to just reject every one of those edits on the grounds that some of them were bad and I was angry over this person’s presumption. But this is part of criticism too–not letting personal irritation get in the way of making the book better. So I groused a lot about it to my husband, and I accepted the places where that reader was right, and rejected the things that were wrong. And then I moved on.

Write. But don’t write in a vacuum. Someone is going to criticize your writing. It’s so much better to receive that criticism when you’re still in a position to do something about it.

When writer’s block isn’t

I had writer’s block yesterday. For some reason writers talk about writer’s block as if it’s a disease, some illness you can contract. And everyone has their own way of treating that disease. Special foods. Mindless television. Going for a run. Doing the dishes. Staring at the screen wondering if you will ever, ever write again, because obviously your store of words has permanently run dry. It’s unpleasant, no matter how you try to deal with it, and it’s always a huge relief when it passes.

For me, writer’s block is different. I have bipolar disorder that’s more or less kept in check by medication and behavioral modification. And some days I’m just depressed enough that I can’t write. If I force myself to, whatever goes on the page gets deleted by the end of the day because it’s awful, not just to my depressed brain but to any objective reader. But I’m not so depressed that I’m incapable of getting out of bed (though I do tend to spend the day in my pajamas, but that’s just an indulgence), which means I haven’t lost the drive to write. This is hell.

In a moment of synchronicity, my husband sent me a wonderful blog post by Mary Robinette Kowal, detailing her own journey through depression and how that relates to writer’s block. I repost it here because it’s uncannily like my own, though unlike her I was thrilled to have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and was eager to be treated; I had been suffering for so long thinking I was weak and stupid it was wonderful to have a name to put to my condition. But the essence is the same; you don’t have to let depression rule your life, and there are ways to deal with it. Kowal lists some great coping techniques for dealing with writer’s block that arises from depression, but I think they’re excellent suggestions for anyone struggling with depression, period. And if this is a struggle you recognize within yourself, for your own sake, get help, whatever that means for you. Don’t let the stigma of mental illness keep you from getting well.

I’m still staring at the screen, waiting for this to pass. I’m grateful to know it will.

Writing What You Don’t Know

Here’s a not so secret fact: I have virtually no sense of smell. I can only smell the strongest, closest odors, and since the strongest odors are usually the most unpleasant (gasoline, ammonia, the baby who’s just filled her diaper) I tend to think of my sense of smell as an enemy. What’s more, my brain often translates what I do smell into other smells, or sends me phantom scents that no one else can perceive. All perfume smells the same to me. All flowers smell the same. That aforementioned diaper, about half the time, smells like peanut butter. (The reverse is thankfully not true.)

This affects my sense of taste, too. There are a lot of flavors that other people love that to me are just—empty. They taste like a cup of hot water. That means I like strong, spicy flavors like chipotle, or bittersweet like dark chocolate. Even more do I like lots of flavors mingled together, so if one is missing, I don’t notice it. My favorite dessert is English trifle, chocolate and custard and berries all mixed together…and now I’m hungry.

So what does this have to do with writing? In my book The Smoke-Scented Girl, the senses of smell and taste are essential to the story. Taste, because one of the side effects of each magic spell is a phantom flavor; immobilizing someone is like biting an ice cube, clairvoyance tastes like strawberries. Smell, because the spell Evon creates to track Kerensa enhances his sense of smell. And about half the things they smell and taste in that book, I have no personal experience of. I had to be able to write convincingly about those things because my readers would know what charred toast smells like.

Probably the most famous piece of writing advice is “write what you know.” I’ve always thought that was both true and incredibly limiting. On the one hand, if you write about things you don’t know anything about, you’re going to sound like an idiot to the people who do know about them. On the other hand, our experiences in living don’t allow us to know and feel and do absolutely everything in the world. That’s one of the reasons for literature: books give us a window on other lives and encourage us to understand, even in our limited way, what other places and people and times are like. If writers take that advice in the strictest sense, we might as well give up on writing anything that doesn’t reflect our own narrow experience. For those of us who write speculative or historical fiction (or in my case, speculative historical fiction), it might as well say “don’t bother.”

But I think “write what you know” contains a wealth of advice beyond the obvious, and advice that broadens the possibilities of writing rather than shutting them down.

  • Research, study, learn. There’s nothing that says you can’t expand what you know and then write about it. Thanks to the Internet, research is easier than ever before (though also more perilous when it comes to establishing the veracity of a source). Libraries that participate in interlibrary loan are an author’s friend. I spent three weeks collecting information on the Bow Street Runners before I came across a book via interlibrary loan that had everything I’d struggled to learn, plus about a hundred more things I never thought to investigate. These days, you can become an expert on virtually anything if you’re willing to take the time.
  • Talk to experts. This isn’t just a variation on the above. People who are experienced in the things you want to write about can not only give you knowledge, but also a sense of what it feels like to have that knowledge. They live what you’re writing about and you owe it to them to do your best to reflect that experience in your writing.
  • Expand your own knowledge. Everyone has things they’re good at; getting better at those things gives you more material.
  • Talk to people. Writing what you know isn’t just about facts, it’s about people—about how they think and feel. Learn what motivates others, what they love and hate. Getting to know others makes for better characterization and a solid emotional basis for your story.
  • Read for pleasure, both inside and outside your genre. Share the experiences of other writers. Explore character motivations. Look for ideas you might want to pursue. And above all, remind yourself why you got into this field in the first place.
  • Be consistent. If you’re making up a world, you know everything about it—make your readers believe you’re writing what you know by keeping the rules logical and consistent. And if they’re not logical and consistent, have a reason for that, too.
  • Learn to fake it. Some things you’re never going to be able to experience. That’s where everything above comes into play. Compassion, empathy, imagination—all of that bridges the gap between what you know and what you can only guess. Then get your writing into the hands of someone who knows, and see what they think.

I will never be a secret agent, a warrior woman, or an ageless, deathless queen. I don’t have any personal knowledge of what those lives are like. In that sense, I can’t write what I know. But with some study, empathy, and a lot of imagination, I can write what I don’t know. And that opens up far more worlds than my limited one.

Insert Title Here

lightbulbsI suck at coming up with titles. For EMISSARY, my husband the Plot Whisperer and I went around and around for a couple of days until I came up with the title. Then I went back into the book and changed it to fit the title. That’s how bad I am.

So after writing a couple of books and agonizing over their titles, I decided it was time to take a different route. I’d been reading the book Write Great Fiction: Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and it has a whole chapter on brainstorming and a section on brainstorming titles. This seemed like the answer I was looking for. So I grabbed all the books near my work station, found an online searchable database of Shakespeare’s works, and started scribbling. The idea is to just flip through books or online sources and grab whatever phrases catch your attention. Then change them around. Extrapolate from them. Combine them and see where they go. Most of them don’t work out, or at least didn’t spark any ideas for me, but it was interesting to see what my subconscious came up with.

Here’s a few I don’t plan to use (NOTE: If you want to steal these, feel free, but if you do, and if they become runaway best sellers, please make sure you put some suitably taunting words in your acknowledgments page). From Matthew Arnold’s wonderful poem “Dover Beach” came On a Darkling Plain (which I’m sure has been used before) which turned into Darkling Rover. I wish I could remember the source of Night’s Ignorant Armies, The Melancholy Sea, and Discoverers of the Empty Sea, because it must have been something really interesting.

Then there are the ones I can sort of trace back to their sources. I think I was looking at the bookshelf containing Stella Gibbons and Dorothy Gilman’s books, because I’m pretty sure that’s where The Nightingale Diary and The Tightrope Maze came from. I ended up with three small-print columns of potential titles and a sense of profound satisfaction that I’d accomplished something that day. Some days are like that.

But narrowing it down was more difficult. In the end, I printed up a copy for the Plot Whisperer and one for me and asked him to go through the list and mark 5-10 titles that grabbed his attention. I did the same, hoping there would be some overlap. And, surprisingly, there was. Four of the maybe fifty titles on the list were ones we both liked. I stored those away for future use. (No, I’m not telling.)

There was one last thing. I had a strong preference for which one I wanted to write immediately, but I wanted to see what he thought. So I asked him to choose his favorite. He immediately came up with the same one I’d chosen—and that’s how I came to write THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL. Everything else—the characters, the magic system, the story—all of that came later. The title was first.

Much as I enjoyed the experiment—and the relief of knowing the title problem was sorted from the beginning—I don’t know that it’s the best basis for an entire writing career. But until I find a way to pay someone to write my titles for me, I’ll probably keep coming back to it.

The 140-character Pitch

Bunch of pencils

About a month ago I participated in a couple of Twitter events for writers, #pitmad and #carinapitch. These are Twitter things where for twelve hours or so, you can pitch your book in nice bite-sized 140-character elevator pitches for agents and editors to look at; the first was general, the second for Carina Press. I was encouraged in this by the Partner in Crime, who is a Twitter veteran and has done this before. The conversation went like this:

PIC: I think you should do this Twitter thing.
Me: I’m barely capable of tweeting. I’m not even sure that’s what you call it.
PIC: It’s fun, and besides, it’s good to see what people are interested in.
Me: But I’m not sure I want to be published traditionally.
PIC: Just do it already and stop whining.
Me: Okay.
PIC: (shines I Participated! badge)

So I did. And it was fun. First of all, it turns out to be REALLY HARD to condense a 110K-word book into fewer than 140 characters (since you also have to include the hashtags so people can find it). It was a real challenge, and that alone was worth entering. Knowing what to include, how to structure it so it draws attention—it’s a good skill to develop and is useful in other things, like writing cover copy and blurbs.

It was also fun to see what books other people were writing, and also what books the editors and agents were interested in. If someone (not an agent) liked your pitch, they’d retweet it; if an agent liked it, she’d mark it as favorite. I pitched my historical fantasy series and had two responses from publishers and a bunch of people liking it. That was nice too, a kind of validation that what you’re writing does, in fact, have appeal beyond your immediate family and the beta reader who’s very patient in telling you when you suck. I also found a bunch of really funny, creative people, and maybe even some new books to try. Mostly, it was an interesting challenge, and one I might try again—or at the very least peek in on the next time it happens.

Forget About the Rope

ropeSeveral years ago I was in a writing group with a bunch of friends. We’d take turns bringing stuff we’d written and having everyone else critique it. One of mine was a chapter from a young adult fantasy novel I was writing (that will never see the light of day). In that chapter, the two protagonists stop at an inn for the night. I described it as something like “not very high-class, but better than sleeping on a rope.” This was a detail I’d read somewhere about old flophouses and it amused me, so I thought I’d use it as a throwaway line.

Not one person believed it.

Everyone in the group said it was impossible. I repeated that I’d read this in an historical context and no, I wasn’t making it up: in some really cheap lodgings, people would sleep either by sitting on a bench and leaning against a rope strung across the room, or simply hanging on it in flophouses when the beds were all full. They accused me of either misremembering or, yes, making it all up. I gave up and just took the detail out. It annoyed me, because I knew it was clever and interesting and I of course knew better than they did, but I took it out.

Weeks later I got a phone call from one of the people in the group, who was very excited. “We saw it,” she said. “The rope. It was in a movie and people were sleeping on it. You were right.” I forbore gloating. Much.

Now, just because something’s in a movie doesn’t mean you can count on it to be true—often it’s the exact opposite. And the truth about the rope story, historically, is more complicated. Some of the records about it can’t be sourced. Some people who refer to it, like George Orwell who in Down and Out in Paris and London reported this as one of the cheapest lodgings in London (the “Twopenny Hangover”) never actually saw it. I’ve seen a picture of men sitting on benches, leaning up against a rope, dating from the 1930s, and I’ve found a song by Paul Graney called “Tuppence on the Rope” that refers to the practice, and that’s pretty much it. So would I go to the mattresses for this particular detail? Not really. But that’s not the point of the story. The point is that in historical fiction writing, I’ve found that sometimes I have to forget about the rope.

It’s kind of a hard call to make. At one extreme, it implies that you can never, ever write something true that someone without a lot of knowledge about your historical era might not believe. And there’s always going to be someone whose knowledge ends just where your obscure fact begins. This is where good beta readers come in. In researching my Regency fantasy adventure series, I came up with some historical facts I thought were cool that my beta reader said “That sounds too modern. No one will believe you didn’t just screw up.” And she was right. Real experts on the Regency period might know the truth, but the average reader would just believe I was wrong. And I didn’t need those details. So I forgot about the rope.

But that’s not really the point of this story either. It’s not about trying to game the system, working out whether something you’ve written will throw certain readers. What really happened was that I came up hard against the reality that there were some details I was including simply because I was showing off what I’d learned. I wasn’t writing for my readers; I was writing for the experts who would know I’d done my research and, I don’t know, pat me on the head and give me a cookie for Getting It Right. And that’s bad writing no matter how accurate your facts are. It’s one thing to have a visitor to Almack’s in 1812 make a comment about how no one’s going to introduce a new dance there in her lifetime as an Easter egg for those who know the quadrille and the waltz are coming along soon. It’s another to put Captain Gronow in your story solely to establish when that happens. For me, forgetting about the rope is all about examining my own motives. Am I doing it to look cool, or am I doing it to write the best story I can?

The writing group is long gone, but I still have those friends. They haven’t forgotten the story of the rope. For different reasons, neither have I.

Worldbuilding: The Gods of EMISSARY

Emissary

For my novel EMISSARY, the Pantheon was the first thing I created. I already had the idea of a woman who served the god of Death, and that this would be difficult because so many people feared that god, so I decided I needed other powers to balance against him. My husband (who is a long-suffering man who lets me bounce ideas off him) suggested that maybe these gods could come in pairs, one good, one evil. I liked the idea of pairs, but not of good versus evil because as far as anyone in that world was concerned, the god of Death was “evil” enough for any religion.

So I went with the concept of dualities instead: light and dark, creation and destruction, home and travel. There might still be “good” and “bad” paired with each other, but the idea was to show that each god was important and not necessarily harmful to humanity; destruction, for example, brings about new creation. I ended up with six dualities: sun/moon, sky/storm (this turned out far more complicated than I imagined), luck/fate, travel/hearth, forge/fire, creativity/madness.That gave me twelve gods, six male and six female. I deliberately didn’t make each pairing male/female, because I didn’t want the potential for one or the other sex to be identified with all the negative traits. This is how Kalindi, chief goddess of the Pantheon and goddess of the sun, is associated with her sister Kandra, goddess of the moon (and a whole lot of other things I’d love to explore in a later book).

Next I made notes about what each of these gods might be responsible for, other than the obvious. This led to the concept of people putting the sign of a god on their home or business, not just to proclaim their allegiance, but to invoke the good will of that god—which meant considering further about what that good will would look like. Nacalia’s supervisor’s “luck-eye” was a result of that thinking. It also meant working out what the worship of each god might look like. What would a mad god like Sukman want from his worshipers? Well, those worshipers probably would try to avert his attention by doing things that made them look already insane, so Sukman wouldn’t think they needed his attention. The theloi of Sintha, goddess of luck, put boxes full of tokens for people to take to see what their luck might be that day. Each god ended up with a longer list of things that someone might reasonably worship him or her for. (This resulted also in the creation of the twin gods, Hanu and Kanu, who are worshiped interchangeably because you can’t tell which you’re praying to until it’s too late. This is another thing I’d like to explore someday.)

Having established what the “portfolio” of each god was, I set about naming them. Some of the names, like Sukman, just came off the top of my head, but most of them were created with the help of the Baby Name Finder at www.babycenter.com. This is totally true. A good baby name generator is a writer’s best friend, because not only do you get names and meanings, you get countries of origin and alternate spellings and all manner of useful information. In this case, I typed in words like “home” or “destruction” and saw what names came up with related meanings. Then I took the ones I liked best and altered them a little, changing them until they sounded right. Some of them didn’t get changed much: “Chandra” (pronounced with a ‘k’ sound) turned into “Kandra” with just a spelling shift. “Ailausa,” goddess of destruction, was altered so much I can’t even remember what name it started as. Because symbols are important in EMISSARY, at this point I also came up with a symbol for each god. This was hard, because they had to be different from each other while still being related to the god they represent, and I’d already established some of the generic symbols Zerafine uses in her consolations. Sukman’s spiral ended up being more important than I’d first imagined, so I ended up glad that I’d put in that effort.

The last thing I did was just for fun: because I’d ended up with twelve gods, I figured I could map each god onto a month of the year, with five days left over for Atenas’s High Holy Days. It wasn’t relevant to the story except for a couple of comments Zerafine makes about the month of Ailausor (August) being so draining, but it was something I had fun with, and I’ve found I’ve never regretted being a little over-prepared. Again, it might come in handy in another book.

Having done all of this, I discovered that I had a very good sense of the world Zerafine inhabits—it wasn’t enough for a truly solid world, but it gave me a framework to hang things like government and architecture and social classes on. When I had to make later decisions about the world, I could refer back to the Pantheon and decide what would make the most sense in a world in which these particular gods governed much of human activity. Best of all, building the Pantheon was fun—and I’m strongly in favor of writing being as much fun as you can make it.