The Golden Hour

The Obliteration Room by Yayoi Kusama

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Way back in 2011, when Paolo Bacigalupi was my pro at ArmadilloCon, I mentioned that I was worried about keeping up with my blog. He said, “Don’t worry about your blog, you’re a writer not a blogger, right?” This is seriously good advice, and it’s only taken me four years to begin following it.

I have had a productive spring, and find myself with over a dozen stories in submission – more than ever. The more stories I write, the more I value my fiction writing time. That said, I still need a place to park my random musings, so this blog isn’t going away. But, I will be updating less frequently.


Even letting my blog slide, it’s a daily a struggle to carve out writing time. Anyone who’s tried to fit their creative endeavors around the beautiful chaos that is life knows that some days (or weeks or months) this harder to accomplish than others. When I get busy, I fall back on what I’ve come to think of as my “golden hour.”

In medicine, the term refers to the first hour after a trauma or medical emergency. The theory is that if the patient receives treatment within that hour, their chances of survival are significantly increased. A neglected story is like a casualty laying on the side of the road, vitality ebbing, waiting for the ambulance to come roaring up.

If I get caught up in the day-to-day and ignore my current story for too long, it dies a kind of slow death. When I come back to it, I have to backtrack, retrace my steps, rereading until I can revive it. This is time that would be better spent on the next story. Also, Something important happens when I touch the work daily. A story in progress is a living thing inside my head, and I need to keep the characters, the tone and emotion present.

I’ve found that one hour a day is enough to keep a story vital, present and workable. Luckily, since no lives are actually at stake here, I’m free break this hour up any number of ways. I’ll jump in for 30 minutes in the morning and grab another 30 while my kids watch videos in the afternoon. I’ve done four 15-minute chunks of revising. I plunge into the work quickly and immerse myself for however many minutes I have. 

During busy times, my golden hour is the lifeline that will keep my story alive – one hour at a time. 

Illustration from Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid

BTW: My dark mermaid story, The Gyre, was mentioned on K.Tempest Bradford’s column on io9 alongside two other fantastic stories – one written by the award-winning Ken Liu! So, that is thrilling and an honor!

The New Novel Plan or I’m Making This Up as I Go Along.

U of Louisville puts entropy to work…
How do you plan a novel? I wish I knew; yet I keep trying. A plan is a comfort even when I know that it is no more than a container. A vessel that I fill with both my dreams and my commitment to chase them, a fragile clay pot to stand against the universe’s inevitable urge to entropy and all the myriad ways that manifests in my everyday life. For more on that go read Pamela Zoline’s Heat Death of the Universe (PDF). 
I was all set to blast through this novel in about three months. The outlining is finished, and I’ve been drafting the new first chapters to work with the material I’d already written. Then, a couple weeks ago I got word that I’ve been invited to attend the Turkey City Writers’Workshop later this fall. I’m thrilled, and I really want to write a shiny new story for it, so that I can get the most out of the workshop.
Yet, I don’t want to completely abandon my novel, so I’m changing my plan. Instead of drafting it at white-hot speed, I’m going to work on it super slowly. I’m going to use the “Don’t Break the Chain” method and write at least 25 minutes – and no more than one hour – a day, every day. This will probably get me about 350-500 words a day. At this pace, I should have a finished draft in about six and a half months. Of course when I get to the other side of this workshop, I’ll decide if I want to change my plan again.

Writing Flash with Cat Rambo!

Since Armadillocon I’ve had a hard time TAKING time to write (I so want to say “finding” the time to write, but there’s no such thing as finding time, you can only take it).

I won’t roll through all the usual excuses, let’s just say summer is awesome when it comes to trips and out-of-town visitors and camps and camping and swimming, but much more challenging when it comes to finding the peace and quiet I need to lay words down on the page. I can’t wait for the first day of school and the return of our more established schedule.

I’ve got plenty of story ideas bouncing around but with less time to develop them, most days I resort to writing exercises to get keep myself in fighting shape, and that’s fine except that they tend to generate MORE ideas which  cry for even more attention…

I am still working on my process for getting stories from idea and draft to revised, focused and finished works. It’s a lot of steps to juggle, but I guess I’ll just keep juggling and hope that one day I’ll figure out how to stop dropping the balls.

I signed up for a tutorial with Cat Rambo to work on writing in general and flash in particular. Cat was one of my pros at the ArmadilloCon Writers’ Workshop and we got to visit a little bit at the con. I think she’ll be a great teacher, and I love that she offers a variety of classes online.

If I had six weeks to burn I would apply to go to Clarion or Odyssey. I don’t think I’ll even be able to get a single week for Viable Paradise or NASA’s Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in the next couple years (maybe someday). But that’s okay because as much as I kvetch about squeezing writing into my life things are pretty awesome with my little bug-loving garden gnomes.

So, Cat’s class is a great fit. And now that she’s a World Fantasy Award nominee I feel like I got in on the ground floor!

Carried on this wave of frustration-driven enthusiasm, I am beefing up my commitment to wild, possibly irresponsible, creation and am signing on for the September Story A Day marathon.

I hope by the end of September to have 30 flash fiction stories. If even a fraction of them are decent then I’ll consider it a roaring success. I promise to post at least a couple here next month. Wish me luck!

Story as Gift

My patron

Today’s title is not a metaphor. My daughter has commissioned a story for her 7th birthday. She would like a story about dragons -from space. Nice.

Every successful creative person creates with an audience of one in mind. That’s the secret of artistic unity.     ~ Kurt Vonnegut, The Independent, 1977

I’m finding that it’s one thing to imagine, as an actor might, your ideal reader and something completely different to write a story for someone in particular. And the stakes are high. Sylvia is a discerning reader. She has to read eight books (or chapters) a week for school, so we get a pile of books from the library every week. After reading this one she tossed it aside with the critique that:

“Nothing happened, he just goes to the Aquarium.”
I said, “Did he at least see a shark?”
“Yes,” she said, “but there should be a problem for it to be a story.”

She’s already nailed the most basic element of storytelling. So, dragons from space with a problem, check. I’m on a tight deadline, her birthday is March 17, so I’m using this story to practice writing my first drafts more quickly. I’m finding that drafting by hand might be my best method. I type faster but have a harder time turning off my inner-editor when I’m composing on screen. So, this story is getting put down on a yellow legal pad first.

I decided to use the Hero’s Journey as a framework for my outline (I am SO an outliner, but let’s talk about that in another post). I haven’t explicitly done a Hero’s Journey type story, and this one seemed like a good opportunity. That said, there’s a lot of truth in FILM CRIT HULK’S great response to the Hero’s Journey model. It’s worth reading for some balance and because HULK WRITE MANY GOOD ESSAYS! Who knew?

I’ve been wrestling with theme and character, dragons and princesses for a week now and there’s still much to do. Writing is hard work. It’s serious fun.  I’m beginning to believe that no story worth its salt gets to the page without a fight, but it’s worth it. I’m learning a lot, not the least of which is that every story is a gift.

I found this awesome picture here.

Saying No

image by Wayne White

“It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much.” 

 –Steve Jobs BusinessWeek Online, Oct. 12, 2004

This one’s going to be short as I’ve got a draft and a couple revisions going this week. Yet, sadly I’m not even saying NO to my weekly blog, but neither am I saying YES. I guess in my half assery I should more accurately title this one “Saying Maybe.”

I have always been interested in just about everything. I love embarking on that long, gently sloping learning curve of a new craft/foreign language/art form/scientific discovery — I could go on. I truly enjoy being a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none. This unbiased curiosity is well suited to the writing life where half the fun is imagining characters, their loves, their jobs, and the worlds they live in.

But it’s dangerous when combined with the ubiquitous encouragement that many of us have heard, also known as “The American Dream.” It goes like this: “You can be anything you want to be.” Great, right? What a world we live in. And we do, and you can, but you have to understand about “anything” because that kind of freedom can be a real albatross around your neck. I think it would be better to say, “You can be any ONE thing you want to be.”

Okay maybe two. I think I can say that I can be both a mom and a writer. And it’s my daughters who can take the credit for helping me figure this one out. When you first have a baby they take pretty close to ALL your time away. And while children are amazing, and the time freely given, it’s hard. Saying yes to my girls means showing up as a parent. Being there for them. And with every step towards independence they take, I get another ten minutes back to do ANYTHING with. This time I’m on to you “anything,” and the one thing I choose to do is to write. So, no to the half knitted second sock, no to learning Russian, no to yoga (though yes to commuting on my bike).

In the end, of course, it’s more complicated than just saying no. It’s a constant balancing act, a dance with yes, maybe and later, but that’s a post for another day.

In the Middle of It

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

 I’m in the middle of it in more ways than one. This week my word count(s) are way down due to a certain member of the clan…

Leo: back on his feet

All I’m gonna say is that abscesses are pretty disgusting and expensive, but we are all glad that Leo is feeling better even if he must bear the “cone of shame” for another week. Hopefully, we can all get back to our regularly scheduled programming now.

So, every day I’m in the middle of it making dental appointments, overseeing middle school applications, sitting in the vet’s waiting room. Soon it will be time to get everyone signed up for summer camps and swim lessons. It’s pretty much that middle panel of Bosch’s triptych: everything all the time, perhaps with slightly less nakedness.

I am also in the middle of two stories. One is technically a revision. Formerly a thousand-word flash piece, I’m expanding it to a 5,000 to 6,000 word short story. The other is my “January” story. The first brand new one of the twelve I promised to write this year.

I usually have no problem beginning a story. I have all sorts of ideas, themes, characters, vignettes stored away in my journal, on sticky notes stuck to my journal, or just floating around in my head. I generally start out with a strong opening, interesting character or two, and at least some idea of where the story is headed. I do sketch out a soft outline with scenes and ideas for scenes to get me through the middle, but I really don’t have the middles down to a science yet. Just like Dante:

In the middle of the journey of life, I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard it is to tell of that wood, savage and harsh and dense, the thought of which renews my fear.

~Dante Alighieri, The Inferno

 Getting through the middles of my stories usually looks a lot like Bosch’s middle panel again. There are so many choices, so many ways things could play out. So many earthly delights of which to partake. I really like to keep a little play in the narrative as I’m working through a story in the hopes that I’ll discover something wonderful, and sometimes I do. When I get the middle right (and by right I mean mostly right) the ending almost always clicks into place.

More often making my way through the middle feels like walking through a dark wood full of invisible creatures rustling around and calling to each other. Discussing in their animal language their plans to devour me.  I know if I just keep going, pausing to adjust my outline then moving on, I’ll come out at the other end with a complete draft.

When Beat writer William Burroughs said, “Everything is permitted,” it’s easy to think he’s simply talking about that middle panel alone, without the reward and punishment panels that flank it. But read some of Burroughs’ work and it’s clear that everything isn’t as fun as it looks and it sure isn’t easy.

I think Mr. Burroughs means that when so much is available to us, our lives and our stories are defined by the choices we make. The only way to confront the “everything” of everyday, of each story’s middle, of that dark wood, is one choice at a time until you find you’ve made it safely through.