Studying the Masters

With the conclusion of my official education in financial planning, I found myself purposeless. I’m one of those nerds who revels in studying, who grins at the idea of intellectual challenge, who laments the fact that I cannot know all the things I know I do not know, but dang it I’m going to try. So, with studies finished and my time no longer devoured by incessant nosing-to-textbook, the Question became evident: what next?

My interests vary like the paint chips in a home store. As with paint chips in a home store, I struggle to commit myself to a favorite. My solution has been to liberalize my love and dabble in a series of unrelated interests, filling my time with sundry learning experiences, anything from violin lessons to historical biographical studies to a college statistics course. I have begun in the last several weeks delving into fantasy writing podcasts, trying to glean any advantage by paying attention to the suggestions of people already established in the field.

In one podcast, one of my favorite fantasy authors, Scott Lynch (of The Gentlemen Bastards fame) was interviewed. When asked how he developed his “literary” style of prose, he revealed that he had spent six years reading and studying major science fiction and fantasy award winners—those who took home Hugos, Nebulas, and other renowned commendations.

Because I’m me, I took this not only as great advice, but as a challenge. Spending dedicated time with the masters of the craft—observing how they smith their words to greatest potential and appeal—is one of the best practices I can undertake to improve my own writing. That, and actually applying what I learn to my writing (and failing, and rewriting, and failing, and rewriting). It’s an obvious step to take, but, well, power of suggestion and all that silliness.

Going through the list will make me no Lynch, and reading all of those books, even just finding them all, is going to take a while. Completion may take me many more years to accomplish than I anticipate. And ultimately, I’m not angling for a Hugo or any other award—I’m going to drop a cliché on you now and say that the writing itself is the best reward. But The Demolished Man is at my side as I write this, and I have the next ten Hugo winners lined up and ready to reinforce what I already know and to teach me what I don’t. My strategy for achievement is complete; I just need to stick to it.

As I go through the books, I’ll post significant lessons I derive from them—if I’m not too thick to derive anything. I suspect my observations will form with greater conclusiveness as I read more of the books and identify patterns of style, technique, and strategy. Feel free to chime in if you have anything to add about them, too.

Happy reading and writing (and studying), everyone!

[Short Story] The Long Shadow

I hesitated for months about posting this because I want to do something with the concept and didn’t want to ruin my chances for publication… until I realized I am more interested in self-publication for short stories and this particular iteration needs a lot of work before I get even to that point. If it hadn’t been written for a contest, this story would have been about three times its current length. Even after writing it with the 2500-word limit in mind, I had to chop off 400 words. I have my opinions concerning its quality, but I’ll let you decide. 

The Long Shadow

Samarkin raised a fist, squinting through his blackout goggles at the dust cloud hanging off his stern over the Uzur Desert. His first mate Sitara shut off the ship’s thruster and bowsed up its single sail against the howling gusts, casting the vessel into mechanical silence. The winds of a coming storm screamed over the dunes, punctuated by the metallic clinks of the rig resting its tired parts.

“See a sail yet?” Samarkin asked.

“Should soon, Sir, according to the heat index,” Sitara said in her robotic monotone, rolling over the deck on her treads. Continue reading

March Update

And . . . she’s back! I know I’ve been MIA for the last several months; I promise this is not because I lost steam or “got distracted” in an unintentional sense of the term. I finished the latest draft of Cursed in early February, then put the kibosh on all other writing endeavors—all other creative endeavors, in fact—in favor of throwing myself into the Tartarean pit that is academic study. Perhaps that’s an unfair evaluation of the matter, as I enjoyed it. I was so engrossed in the information, however, I would dream about my notes.

This story has a happy ending: I passed the certification exam, I no longer have to lose myself in studying, and I’m now clawing my way back up out of that chasm and into the more varied routine of daily life. I feel a burst of creative inspiration because I’ve kept it bottled for so long, and I’m now working on harnessing that energy to dedicate to a particular task or tasks.

On the docket for this month, at least as far as writing is concerned, is to get back to writing 250 words a day. I’m going to try my hand again at writing short stories, since I consider them to be my weakest writing skill. In the meantime, I’m glossing over Cursed to refresh my memory on the details of the story, write notes in the margins, and otherwise prepare for the first post-rewrite edit.

Having restricted myself from doing very little else creative beyond playing piano for about twenty minutes every other day or so for the last two months, I’m brimming with ideas that range from the literary to the entrepreneurial to the adventurous. I’ll be adding more relevant posts than this in the near future!

2016: Statistics

Sorry–final post about 2016. While it was not a million-word year, I’m still pleased with the statistical outcome. This year also saw the developmental progression of what started as a mid-grade fantasy, veered into YA, returned to MG, and is solidified for the (hopefully) last time as a YA. I didn’t fully finish any draft of the novel in 2016, but I came close three times, and this last attempt is truly the final one for this “first” draft.

2016 Overview

Total Words Written: 655,507

Most Prolific Month: November (104,327 words)

Most Prolific Non-NaNo Month: February (72,878 words)

Worst Month: October (24,821 words)

Most Words in a Day: 7,042 (November 1)

Most Words in a Non-NaNo Day: 6,391 (February 7)

Fewest Words in a Day: 500 words (October 27)

Days I Didn’t Write: 11

Started Projects: 16

Finished Projects: 6 (2 novels, 4 short stories)

So far, 2017 has brought a lot of other obligations to the forefront, most notably of which is my studying. My test is in March, and the more I study (and the more I talk to experienced test-takers), the more I discover it’s going to be a challenge. Happily, I love challenges, so we’ll see where this one and all others take me.

Setting Description in Writing

As I remodel my room at the glacial pace of an AOL dial-up, examining closet doors, crown molding, and the proper plywood to build bookcases from scratch (I’m so excited for this last), I’ve been thinking a lot about description in stories, and how one balances narrative with exposition.

Today’s Daily Post prompt, interior, is related, for in many cases I’m describing the interior of a building. Only so many ways exist to explain what a window looks like or the general configuration of a room or that the ceilings are vaulted before those summaries become white noise in the background of the general plot. I’m in favor of arranging description so that the reader is lost in the action of the story, sucking in visual clues without thinking about them, but unless those descriptions are embedded in the action, they can easily become the focus of a reader’s attention–and therefore lose the reader’s attention.

Writing is a lot like Latin grammar: the exception is the rule. But in my case, unless my purpose is to explore the setting for my own, non-readership use, spending more than a couple of paragraphs detailing a scene–and especially when I’m only detailing a scene–isn’t necessary unless the setting is important to the plot narrative. That can mean that it influences how the characters act, i.e. when my rustic MC enters the Versailles-like royal palace, she is not only awed, but has to overcome a base urge to pocket a gold-gilt clock. The clock isn’t just sitting on a table in the hallway, it’s evoking a response in the MC, one that reveals her inner character, upbringing, or experience.

I tend, however, to get too detail-oriented with my descriptions. I won’t stop with a quick sketch or impression of a setting. Before I know it, I’m explaining the crown molding is as wide as a tree, hand-carved into friezes depicting scenes from the kingdom’s prevailing religion, and brushed along the edges with gold, and then, in a series of several more paragraphs, describing in magnified detail everything else in the room, from the bust of an old diplomat carved from marble to the hand-purled rug imported from the country in the north threatening war, et cetera, et cetera.

These details, couched in narrative (i.e. I picked up a blue-veined marble bust of an indubitably important nobleman with the facial hairstyle of my grandfather and shook it like a discipline stick at Louis. “Don’t get any ideas.”) can work to great effect in evincing a more holistic cultural experience of the story and its environment. Characters should not just move through the story in empty space, but should interact with their surroundings, so that their surroundings become part of the story, or are at least portrayed as being a natural extension of the action. The reader gets a picture in his head without it being included in the wordsketch of a still-life.

But listed as part of a series of articles, one static and generic prop among many others, the details become boring to read about. This, I think, is where point of view comes into play. A reader should experience the setting as a character does. My MC is not going to mentally catalogue every luxurious thing she sees in the palace–that is, unless her intent is to capture the picture as a painting or to spell out the decadence of the place to her less fortunate best friend. If this isn’t immediately noted–and I don’t think even in those cases that we as readers need to know every little piece–I stop paying attention and start scanning for the next dialogue quotation marks.

I have a long way to go before I’ve balanced the pacing of my description, action, and character reflection, but my hope is that identifying my weak areas will save me the trouble of struggling through them too long before I catch them. How do you balance action with description, or narrative with exposition?

Year

It was her first year.

Granted, it was her thirtieth first year. Every such year was new and exciting, a change from the last, an adventure to be experienced, a open invitation to travel the realms of life. Her favorite places to visit were Metropportunity  and the Steppes of New Skills, but she veered toward the Old Friends Crossroads as if it were her home in Tradition.

Like every new year, she, too, was new, built by self-reflection, the wisdom of past experience, the advice of static and passing acquaintances. It was inevitable that she would spend a breath or two upon the Setback Plateaus, but only a breath, for spreading out before her, glimmering in the sun of Hope, was the great Ocean of Possibility. And every year the journey was different, and she began as someone else: someone braver, someone better, someone filled with renewed determination and every potentiality imaginable.

Because this was her year, like every year was her year: a gift, a promise, a blessing.

via Daily Prompt: Year

Hopeful

Happy New Year, everyone!

After a year of incredible volatility and change in so many facets of life, 2016 is coming to an “explosive” (if the pyrotechnical tendencies of my neighbors are to be considered) close.

For me, 2017 offers a continuation of a great many opportunities that came to me in 2016. I’ve outlined several of them already, so you will see a little redundancy, but, more for my own use than for anyone else’s, I thought I would be unique* on this of all nights and list them comprehensively here. It’s always entertaining to compare new year goals to what I have accomplished throughout that year, and while I’m not a “New Year’s Resolutionist,” I do enjoy using this time as an excuse to regroup and reevaluate where I’m at. I’m not going to beat myself up over failing to achieve any of them. Things always happen for a reason, and while I’m not going to let 2017 run me over, I’m also going to be adaptable where necessary.

*/sarc

Things I would like to accomplish this year, AKA my annual bucket list:

  1. Pass my certification exam for financial planning (already discussed)
  2. Finish current draft of, edit, beta-read test, and polish Cursed (AD)
  3. Lose final ten pounds, eat for nutrition, and exercise four times a week (AD)
  4. Read a chapter of the Bible every day
  5. Pray for ten minutes (five in the morning, five at night) every day
  6. Journal once a week
  7. Go to bed by 10:30PM every night
  8. Finish remodeling my room
  9. Begin and finish curb appeal project
  10. Take self-defense classes
  11. Buy a violin/take violin lessons
  12. Double my current savings rate
  13. Travel somewhere I have never been
  14. Read one nonfiction book per month
  15. Read one fiction book per month

My best to all in your sundry endeavors this year. Remain ever hopeful, remain ever strong, remain ever visionary, remain ever determined. Own your actions. Own your words. Own your life. God bless!

 

via Daily Prompt: Hopeful

2016 Reflections

A festive evergreen-and-cinnamon simmer pot bubbles quietly on the stove, spreading the scent of home and good cheer. The tree is dressed, surrounded by an audience of enthusiastic presents, while the stereo casts out the lilting strains of a haunting Christmas melody. In the kitchen, pies bake. Last-minute arrangements are made to impress visiting relatives with over-cleaned floors and counters. Cookies are snagged as mid-afternoon treats, and in the evenings crystalline lights along the roof edges twinkle in the darkness.

Merry Christmas, all!

While 2016 has thus far offered, as everyone knows, more content for assessment than is the scope of this blog to cover, I’m going to concentrate less on the external and more on the internal.

When first I conceived the notion for 2016’s personal challenges (writing 2000 words per day, reading for 15 minutes per day, and editing for 15 minutes per day), I knew I was setting a high standard. For those unaware, during the course of 2016 I worked full time, went to school part time, and took on freelance jobs here and there. During 2015, I struggled with the challenge of writing 2000 words per day, without any other specific goals or challenges claiming my time—at least in any official capacity—and without the urgent demands of schooling. My reasoning for increasing my challenge goals for 2016 after a year of (successful) struggling was the refusal to step backwards. I already knew I could write 2000 words a day. I wanted to see if I could do more.

But each year comes with its own costs, distractions, and idiosyncrasies, and I was faced with several expected, unexpected, and should-have-been-expected stakes on my limited schedule. I struggled. I really struggled. I gave myself a few days off twice this year for fear of burnout. I took days off work for the express purpose of reordering my routine to better equip myself moving forward. And, as long as I was moving forward, I was okay with lowering my goal from 2000 words to 500 in July and scrapping (after an obsessive reading binge at the beginning of the year) my editing and reading goals.

I’ve related some of my struggles on this blog already, and some of my successes, too, so I’m not going to waste time and space reiterating them. Each year, however, I consider a one-word holistic theme that describes the year. In 2013, that theme was endurance. In 2014, it was patience. 2015’s theme was learning.

I bandied about several ideas for 2016, depending on how I felt at a given moment. Stress was on the list for a while, but I thought it tended too much toward the negative, and I don’t like basing anything on emotion. A leader for a long time was organization.

But I think the word that best sums up the year is prioritization. I had my hubris handed back to me on a brass platter (the situations weren’t elegant enough to justify silver) on several different occasions. My moments of idleness became not just moments of weakness, but moments of destruction. In my mad rush to do the things I needed to do after having procrastinated, I split my concentration between too many tasks, which left me not only exhausted and frustrated, but confused, defeated, and compromised. My studies suffered. My writing suffered. What energy I had I poured into work, as it was there my contractual obligation lie.

Don’t misconstrue my words; I enjoyed 2016. I cannot pick any event out about which I can complain except those I brought on myself, and on those instances I lose any right to gripe. I love where I work. I had my ups and downs with my stories, but I would wager significantly fewer downs than in previous years. While I didn’t improve as much this year as I would have wanted, I know I did improve. I’m content with that.

The trick for me this year has been to establish the priorities of my life and learn how to balance them. For the longest time, I ran off of a list of daily to-dos, most of which were impossibilities no matter how conscientious I was with my time. Then I would grow annoyed because I had “failed” to finish my list. Somehow, I always placed the blame on my liberal lack of discipline, or the distractions of a hundred other tasks. That’s not to say that discipline wouldn’t have solved the issues at hand, but lack of discipline, I have discovered, is really just a symptom of a larger weakness: lack of focus.

And so I look toward 2017. I fix my gaze on a more realistic prize, one still measured by numbers (500 words per day, continued), but measured, more importantly, by consistent balance. Following the guidance of various advisers, I have narrowed my concentration to three priorities:

  • Finish draft of, edit, beta-reader test, and polish Cursed
  • Take and pass the financial planning exam and, once passed, climb the hierarchy of Bloom’s Taxonomy through real-life and simulated application
  • Improve health by losing final ten pounds alternating a regimen of cardio, weightlifting, and stretching; maintaining a healthy diet; and retiring to sleep before 10PM

Broken down even more, they come to three active verbs: write, study, condition.

Of course, I still have other adventures I want to go on and tasks I want to finish and skills I want to learn. There will still be times when distraction or tiredness reigns. But I’m going to do my best to keep those goal-killers at bay. Instead of waiting until the end of 2017 to affix a theme to the year, I’m starting off with a theme I choose in foresight, not one I merely find in hindsight. It is an attribute that stands not only as a generic theme, but as a goal, a reminder, an admonition, an encouragement: focus.

A Book You Want to Read

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” –Toni Morrison

Have you ever just really wanted to read a certain book, but it doesn’t exist?

One of the driving forces behind my writing is the fact that my stories intrigue me. I don’t mean just interest me, the way that watching an aerial show or listening to Christmas music during the holidays (and at other times) do. I mean they are ideas that compel me to search online and in bookstores for a version already committed to paper, colored by the ideas and experiences of another author.

Sometimes I find something similar enough to take the edge off my impatience. But sometimes, even if I find something similar, I don’t care for the execution of it, or I would do it differently. Other times, I can’t find anything close enough to temper my desire for such a story.

I’ve discovered that there are a lot of “books” I want to read that don’t exist yet. It’s up to me to write them myself, if I want them to see the light of the world. That’s one of the reasons I’m a huge proponent of the idea of writing for yourself. You have to enjoy your own work before anyone else can (though I can admit, as an artist, I always find room for improvement and am never 100% satisfied with my work). Part of this is innate joy in the subject matter, but sometimes it’s mind-trickery: keeping yourself interested in your own work by adding certain aspects to it or developing characters and plot elements that you know you enjoy.

Some ways that I have accomplished this in the past:

  • Make a list of the things you love. They don’t have to be things you know, things you’ve experienced, or even things you expect in or relate to literature. My list includes mountains, sailing, bicycles, noblesse oblige, myth and mythology, and the click of heels on tile.
  • Inhabit the shoes of your characters. Many readers use fiction as a vehicle for vicarious experiences, and to maintain their interest, a writer should make a character relatable and enjoyable to be around, even when that character is not Miss Sunshine. If you can enjoy living the story with the character, chances are, readers will, too.
  • In a similar vein, give your characters unique–but not annoying–voices. Readers (I’m speaking as one) will love you for it. Become friends with the people populating your story, and readers will follow suit. Take fanfiction, for example: Readers have become attached to the characters and develop more adventures to enjoy with them.
  • Make the story uniquely yours. I have always loved the story of Cinderella. As a reader, this is great. As a writer, this can pose a problem. A story can only be told so many ways, right? Wrong! Make it yours and own it. Feeling a sense of possession and pride in your own idea can help you to focus on the story at hand and enjoy the spin you put on the basic conflict-resolution arc.

The only downside to this, for me, is being inclined to read what I’ve written of the story already just for fun, which precludes further development!

What are some of your favorite elements of a story? How have you made them yours?