shit got real

Last month I read a selection from the novel in progress to an audience.

Understand: it was not my first time public speaking (much as I avoid it) or a large crowd (mostly friends/family of my critique group). Even so, those 4 minutes felt seismic.

Suddenly this “writing a book” thing became vividly real.

Somehow reading a scene of my own work in public threw obligation into my lap like a lead weight. Afterwards my subconscious screamed can I do it? Can I really do it?

Despite the week of shakes and self-doubt afterwards, I am still plugging away. I will finish this thing.

plot vs. fact

History does not fit into a tidy 3 act story structure.

Or 7 part or 9 part, for that matter. In lieu of writing tons of irrelevant junk I’ve been trying my hand at the dreaded outline, and it’s not going well. Indeed, I would say it’s the hardest and most frustrating part of this whole “I wanna write a novel” process.

Proper plots go like those above: problem, complication, midpoint, darkness before the dawn, dawn, resolution. Or some such.

Mine goes more like:

Bad thing happens to kick things off

Protagonist straggles up a notch and thinks he’s got everything under control until he abruptly doesn’t.

Then stuff gets exhausting and weird…but he gains an ally.

Then things get worse and weirder…but he gains a patron.

Then his personal relationships go to hell…but his professional efforts are spot on.

In the end he must choose between insane love or material success with uncertain personal happiness.

There are no simple troughs and peaks, which seems to be traditional story structures demand. Nor is there a single antagonist. Also there isn’t a simple One Problem(TM) – there are a couple of lies he believes that have to get resolved by different truths.

So I’m at a loss as to what to do. I’m already cutting characters and excursions that prevent the story moving forward, and I might be able to keep things on track by speeding up some episodes and stretching out others, but then my character motives don’t make sense.

I’ve signed up for an online plotting course in November, and struggling to keep my writing mojo going in the face of this frustration.

I suspect may be time for me to find a proper writing coach.

critique week

I’ve hit a roadblock.

The mood and emotions in my latest section keep eluding me. I’m still hammering out 200+ words a day, but none make me happy and I’m falling into another editing tail-chasing cycle trying to get it just so.

I could continue this flailing or get feedback, painful though that might be.

I’m a member of two critique groups: one local and one online, and I don’t take advantage of either as often as I should. Part of it is nerves, certainly: good test readers don’t sugar-coat their criticism, and will likely advocate killing darlings I’ve sweated over for weeks.

But more than anything else it’s my stubborn “if you want it done right do it yourself” urge to work alone. Once I get deep into a particular thing I forget that the writing process isn’t inherently solitary. In fact, I need to share with others to improve, or at least figure out if I’m on the right track.

As both groups require reciprocation I’ll be critiquing more than writing this week, but that’s ok. I’m not making much progress and I don’t see this changing without a swift kick in the pants. Besides, sometimes it’s good to just walk away for a bit.

drinking from the firehose

Research for the Great Work (TM) includes a wide variety of subjects to get the details of sixteenth century life in a gentry household just right. My grip on the architecture, food, household economics, technology, and day-to-day life is firm enough to get the story moving. However, a magical household isn’t ordinary. I’ve run into a topic that is impossible to crash-course: Enochian magic.

Dee and Kelley invented (or channeled, take your pick) an entire magical system during their years together. “Enochian” includes:

Prophetic and apocalyptic visions are sprinkled in throughout, and don’t get me started on the ritual furnishings…

I’m never going to get my head around this material. There’s so damn much of it, and I lack the necessary background in Renaissance occultism and numerology/mathematics to appreciate its context. As such I’m confining myself to identifying the different parts, creating a timeline of their delivery, and figuring out their supposed functions.

When were they building furniture? Would a certain table lend itself better to Kelley faking it, or being possessed as the angels speak through him? Which visions made the biggest impressions? What did they expect to accomplish with all this stuff? These are the narrative questions I need to answer even if I never understand how the system works.

I’d love to be able to describe spoken Enochian as dramatic and musical, but I can’t. Recordings of the calls [YouTube] sound so ridiculous I have no problem believing Kelley generated the language while speaking in tongues. My dreams of writing Kelley weaving elegant angelic poetry are dashed!

So I plow onwards through waking dreams, countless tables of strange characters and names I suspect no one can pronounce. It’s interesting but brain-breaking, so I’m rereading the Dresden Files as a well-deserved break.

Four questions for writers

This is my reply for the “four questions for writers” meme that’s been floating around. Heather Rose Jones was kind enough to tag me when she posted her answers, and I’m tagging Shawn Humphrey and Day Al-Mohammed.

What are you currently working on?

A historical fiction novel about the adventures of the Renaissance mathematician/magus John Dee, his medium Edward Kelley, and their wives.

How does your work differ from others in the genre?

I’ll let you know when I figure out my genre! It’s largely historical fiction but includes a love story and elements of fantasy and gothic horror.

It’s different from other fiction about Dee and Kelley because everything else seems to paint Dee as a deluded genius and Kelley as a callous fraud. Dee’s surviving diaries suggest their personalities and collaboration were far more complicated.

Also, I’ve not seen much written from the perspective of their wives. I can’t help imagining they had difficult and confusing lives.

Why do you write what you do?

I’ve always been interested in both history and the weird/occult. The ways people deal with strange experiences and the subjectivity of reality intrigues me, and the odder corners of history are ripe for speculation and invention.

How does your writing process work?

I’m still on a massive learning curve. I research and write at the same time, so I start with what doesn’t need much historical input, often dialogue. As I get a grip on the time and place I add setting details and description. I take extensive notes and comment my first draft in an effort not to constantly rewrite (though that still happens).

I write scenes out-of-order and keep each in a separate file in Scrivener, so I can move them around as needed and keep track of the whole thing.

Aeon Timeline software is invaluable for keeping track of what happened when – I think it would be impossible to track their activities over 7 years and as many countries otherwise!

I have a full time day job so my progress is slow, but I get up early to write. I try to do at least 200 words a day every day, and more when I can. I figure I need this kind of self-discipline both to practice my writing and to finish this beast!

distillation

In the past few weeks I’ve attended several writing-related activities: a book festival/local historical writers meet up, a sci-fi con with a quality writing track, and my monthly critique group. I’ve immersed myself in discussions of writing process, self-promotion strategies, and how and when to edit.

It has been fabulous – I’ve received some good advice and feedback, and have some useful plans for the future. But all the advice comes down to the same thing:

Finish the book.

There’s nothing to promote without a completed book; there’s not even anything to edit without a first draft (my tendency to tail-chase notwithstanding). And I do tend to wallow in the research because it’s comfortingly familiar in the way that a blank page is not.

As such, I may be scarce around here as I make a concerted effort to get things done.

 

I attended a local class on historical fiction last weekend. It covered challenges specific to the genre (time/time frame, historical figures vs. fictional characters, POV) but the most useful discussion regarded the balance of documentable fact vs. creative license.

I approach my historical fiction the way I approach historical costume: there’s room for a spectrum of accuracy long as I know where and how I’m cutting corners. So far my inner history nerd has adhered closely to the timeline of Dee’s diaries. After discussing my approach with the instructor, she suggested I may be limiting myself out of fear of writing actual fiction.

The short version: she suggested that Jane Dee, not Edward Kelley, should be my protagonist.

I am not convinced she is wrong.

When I start I wanted Jane to be my central character because I imagine her life with two occultists as a strange and stressful one seldom (never?) examined fictionally. Then I had difficulty finding an obvious story arc for her and my research led me down the rabbit hole of Kelley’s motives so I abandoned the idea.

The instructor pointed out that Jane Dee’s lower profile in the diaries is a perfect excuse to make things up. There’s more freedom to create a story that isn’t slavishly locked into Dee’s day-by-day spirit diaries. The possibility that a female protagonist might sell better to a readership that is mostly women is a nice bonus.

This is exhilarating and scary at the same time, and I’ve spent the last week in a shaky creative exhale. I still need a story arc, so I’m playing with the seven point outline and identifying gaps where Jane might be acting without Dee’s knowledge. I’ve not abandoned the story of Edward Kelley’s descent into madness, but I’m experimenting with him visiting Jane’s world rather than the other way around.

Essentially I’m writing two books at once, and trusting that the protagonist will reveal themselves in rewrites.

reboot