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.


THE GOLDEN HOUR

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!

I Write About Gigantic Sequins at The Review Review.

I continue my forays into the world of literary fiction with a review of a nifty little journal called Gigantic Sequins over at The Review Review.  I quite enjoyed this one. You can read my review here.

I have been enjoying my forays into literary fiction, and it got me to thinking about the importance of reading around. If literary isn’t your genre* that’s cool, the important thing is to seek out and read a few things that you normally wouldn’t. Writers should do this for the same reason that everyone should travel. Visiting a foreign place expands your understanding of the world, and forces you to examine your usual assumptions and beliefs. The gift of travel is that when you return, you see all the familiar aspects of your home life with new eyes.

This holds true when we read outside our normal preferences. Sometimes it’s difficult going or uncomfortable, other times its surprising and brilliant. For me, it’s always worth the effort because, when I return to my usual reading, I see it anew. I also bring this broader understanding to my writing.

So, pack an overnight bag, get out there and read around.
 

Check out more of Tom Gauld’s cartoons!

* Literary writing is a style, with the word “literary” being appended to another genre as in, Cormac McCarthy writes literary westerns. It is also considered its own genre, usually contrasted with genre writing, called “Lit Fic.”

Loving the One You’re With

Check out more of Erik Johansson’s surrealist pictures!

And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey

Love the one you’re with.

~Stephen Stills

Oh, I want to write all the stories. I want to write them all the time and all at once! In December, I took stock of all my open projects. I’ve blogged about how important it is to finish. I believe that it is one of the keys to improving as a writer. Good stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end – and the process of creating a story has the same components.

Yet over last twelve months I managed to accrue several unfinished* projects.

When I get stuck, or my current draft starts feeling like a slog, that’s when one of my other unfinished stories starts to look oh so much more appealing. Writing a good story isn’t just mentally difficult, it’s emotionally challenging. I believe writing a good story, one that’s at the top of my game, should scare me. It’s natural when things get tough for that little voice to start saying that maybe I should jump ship.


This is the danger of multiple projects. I’m certainly not going to say you shouldn’t have a few irons in the fire. There are solid, legitimate reasons to let a certain piece of writing marinate for a time and that time can be spent on another project. But, it’s important to examine your reasons when the going gets tough, because that’s when you’ll hear the siren call of an unfinished project. I know, that other project looks amazing! And suddenly you’ve got so many great ideas for it. That’s what your journal is for, scribble down those ideas and get back to the project at hand; because it is crucial to commit emotionally to the story you’re writing. It’s scary. As a writer you know that it will cost something, but that’s your job – to give a little piece of your heart away with every story.

The good news is that all those other stories vamping around in the unfinished pile will wait until you get to them – and when you do you will be fully present when it’s their turn.

* I have finished things! I currently have ten stories in various slush piles, just no publication announcements yet. So the grind goes. The cure is to keep writing more and better material and to keep launching it out there.

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.

Words Fail Me: Writing the Impossible

Ernest Hemingway said good stories should be like icebergs.

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit the things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

Earnest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon

His theory of omission kicked off an era of minimalism that was a mixed blessing because achieving what he’s talking about takes a level of mastery that few writers attain – not that we shouldn’t try. His instinct to have the heart of the meaning express itself in the unwritten warp and weft of a story has without a doubt enriched modern literature.

Hemingway didn’t say that it was impossible to render the entire iceberg, only that it was better not to. Implicit in this quote is the idea that it’s a writer’s job to take in the whole iceberg. I agree we must try to embrace the entire experience of what we are attempting to write about. In fantasy and science fiction this may mean hours spent building alien worlds, cultures, politics, or magic systems from the ground up before writing. Always, it means being alive to everything and everyone around us.

Despite our best efforts, we are all doomed to failure. We never grasp the entirety of any experience, the layers of nuance, the shades of meaning, the unknown histories. Worse, there is no way to hold onto the fragility of a fleeting moment without etherizing it like a butterfly and pinning it to a display case. A dead butterfly is still a butterfly, but it’s not the same thing that fluttered over the sun-splashed meadow.

Some things are omitted because there is just no way to articulate them. Karen Russell acknowledges this in this gorgeous quote from her wonderful novella * about a strange plague of insomnia so severe that sufferers eventually die:

“Then I wish for whatever is flowing between us to remain unnamed, formless, unmeted into story or ever “experienced” in the past tense, and so concluded; I don’t want to say it, I don’t even want to try to understand it, and so begin to mistake it for something else, and something else after that, paling shadows of this original feeling, something inaudibly delicate that would not survive the passage into speech.”

From Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

Writing is a way to plumb the depths of the unfathomable experience of our existence, and in the end, though we dive deep, it is impossible to know every contour of the submerged iceberg. And as Russell says, some things you can bring back from your journey of exploration and others you cannot.

* You can listen to Russell talk about Sleep Donation on Fresh Air, though I would recommend reading it first.

Productivity v. Creativity

Man Strolling in a Wooded Landscape by A. A. Mills
(That’s rich, me writing about productivity when I haven’t posted in two weeks, amiright?! Outlining the novel and the last blast of summer before school kind of swallowed me whole there for a bit – but I’m back!)
I’ve been thinking about the push and pull between the time it takes to bring a piece of writing to completion and the drive to produce more material. This pressure is both internal and external. Internally, I have lots of ideas for stories that are lined up waiting to get onto the page. Externally, between all the publishing options and social media, the impression is that the world is the writer’s oyster if he or she can just chuck enough words out there. How many novels can you write in a year? One? Three? More?
I’m writing my first novel; certainly I don’t want it to be my last. Now that I’m happy with the outline,* I’m writing through it scene-by-scene. I do want to write this draft as quickly as I can, so that I can maintain story momentum. I have to do a certain amount of work every day to stay in that story’s “head space.” I am hoping to have a fairly clean draft of this novel by the end of the year, but, honestly, I don’t know how long it will take.
In the past I’ve written short stories that took months to get right. It can be frustrating when it takes so many missteps and revisions to get to the final product, but I’ve come to see that everyone is going to have their own personal balance between productivity and the kind of work they want to produce. This will even change from project to project. One short story might be reeled off in an evening, polished and done the next day. Another one, where I’m striving for an ephemeral precision with each sentence reaching for a gem-like perfection, will take months.
Every day I try to create a balance between productivity and my ability to create the very best work that I am capable of today.
So, don’t just think about how many words you want to write or how many pages you want to fill, think about what you want to accomplish as a writer. How does your work feed you? What do you want to give your readers in exchange for their time?
To keep myself focused on the work, I’ve come up with a little mantra, which of course is in the form of a list (I love lists):
  1. Do the best work you can – always write at the limits of your current abilities.
  2. Work a little every day.
  3. Be patient with yourself if projects take longer than expected (see number 2).
  4. Finish things and let them go. **


* What I’ve been doing these past two weeks.
** More about putting your work out there next week.

Dream Ursula K. LeGuin Dispenses Inspiration in a Red Swamp Thing Diving Suit


I had a vivid and wonderful dream last night.

I am visiting beautiful, but empty country home. Like Town & Country beautiful, Martha Stewart beautiful.

I walk through the house admiring the impeccable if completely predictable interior design. Outside the windows, I glimpse the beautifully kept grounds that surround the house. Immaculate, bright green lawns lead to copses of young trees then to shaded woodland beyond. There are also ponds and rustic outbuildings.

Standing at the back door, a wood-framed screen door, naturally. I see a large shed, perhaps some kind of workshop. A sign by the screen door says, “The dog and pail are to remain on the property in memory of Lou Reed.” * I look again and a tri-color hunting dog sits next to a metal pail by the shed. The dog trots toward me, and I walk out to greet him. He was smaller than I thought he would be – as if he’d stayed the size he was when I’d spotted him in the middle distance. He leads me back to the shed, which is now mostly submerged in one of the lovely clear ponds – as if it had always been so. Only the roof and the tops of the windows are above the surface of the water, still as glass. The dog sits back down next to the pail, which is now in the grass at the edge of the water.  

Next, I’m swimming under the water, following the bright red legs and fins of a diver that leading me deeper into the cool darkness. The diver disappears through a black basement entrance and I follow. Together we swim up alongside cellar stairs to emerge at the first floor. Inside the shed is dry, watertight. Through the windows the bright sunshine and beautiful green lawns are impossibly lovely, jewel-like when seen through the prismatic lens of the crystal clear water.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin

I turn back to the diver. Her bright red diving suit is designed to look like the Swamp Thing with delicate scales stamped into the material. There are no air tanks or hoses. Decorative fins sprout from the sides of her helmet, and opaque eyeshapes are worked into the visor. ** She takes the helmet off and it’s Ursula K. Le Guin! This is her house and her shed (but I knew that already). We sit on tatty ottomans facing each other, both looking around at the fascinating clutter of knickknacks and curios that fill the bare-floored room.

She says, “You see? This is where all the best story material is.”

Submerged.

Of course.

My subconscious recruited one of my literary heroes to remind me, in its own lovely and bizarre way, that the best things are waiting to be discovered – just below the surface. ***

* I have no idea how the dog, the pail, and Lou Reed figure into this, but they were a lovely detail.

** Last night, I finished reading All You Need is Kill, where the female protagonist wears a bright red armored suit, and over dinner we had a lively discussion with the girls about the Swamp Thing!

*** As captivating as all the curious objects inside were, I was also fascinated by how strange the world above appeared when viewed through that limpid water.