Healer’s Daughter [Absolute Write March blog chain]

This month’s theme for the Absolute Write blog chain is “St. Patrick’s Day and/or anything Irish”. Archaeology buff that I am, I decided to go into the distant past.

The Céide Fields are an archaeological site in the north part of County Mayo. Under the huge Glenmoy blanket bog, beneath a layer of 2.5-4 meters of peat, lies an extensive network of drystone field walls, built by Neolithic farmers some 5-6000 years ago. Because the British Isles area has been so intensively settled over the years, this is the earliest (only?) site of this nature, an intact snapshot of a Neolithic settlement from before the Bronze Age. This was long before the Celts; we don’t know who these people were or what their language might have sounded like (though it’s likely that at least some of some of the people who live in the area today are their descendants). It’s right up there with Orkney as far as a cool archaeological site I would love to see someday, particularly since the bog is located at the top of a very striking cliff.

Poking about online, researching the likely lifestyle of the Neolithic Céide Fields inhabitants, I came across another gloriously weird thing from that same stretch of cliffy coastland: Dún Briste, a sea stack that used to be connected to the mainland until the 14th century.

dun-briste-5[2]

Check out this thing. (Click for bigger.)

The best part is that people used to live out there, on this narrow and wild strip of cliffland. The Internet claims that, after the collapse of the connection to the mainland, they had to be rescued with “ship ropes” (this is completely unsourced and vaguely suspect, since the Internet also claims that no one was even sure whether people lived there or when the island was separated from the mainland until archaeologists took a helicopter to it in the 1980s). Regardless of the veracity of the details, though, people did live on it, and quite possibly might have done so in Neolithic times as well.

So that’s the setting of the following: the Céide Fields area in the 4th millennium BC, in its original semi-wild state, with Neolithic farmers clearing away the forests at the cliff top to graze their cattle and farm their wheat and barley there.


dun-briste-4[2]

The Healer’s Daughter and the Hermit

The old man had lived on the headland since Gull could remember.

She’d never thought to ask why. He was simply there, a part of the landscape. Gull and her brothers used to try to sneak a look at him while they were supposed to be gathering hickory nuts or hunting rabbits around the drystone walls that bounded the fields. Sometimes they would take handfuls of raspberries from the bushes draped over the wall around his cow pasture, or play at being cattle thieves. The old hermit called them nasty names and threw stones to drive them off.

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What I’m Writing: Chicago Steampunk

You know, at the end of last year, I remember thinking: I’m going to use this blog more. In the new year, I’m going to write more, hermit less, and simply DO more.

The “write more” part is working out decently. I’ve been attempting to write 10K per week, and while I haven’t hit the goal every week, I think I’m starting to establish a decent writing schedule for myself. It remains to be seen how this will work out in the future, since I’ve only been reliable about it since the start of February, but one of my Things To Do in 2015 is to take my writing much more seriously, and that I’ve been doing.

As for the other part, though …. HAHAHAHA. 2015 might as well be called the Year of the Hermit. It’s terrible. And it’s not just online: I haven’t been talking on the phone. I haven’t been seeing people. I’ve been doing a bit on Twitter and Livejournal, but for the most part I’ve simply withdrawn into my shell and I seem to be waiting for spring to come along and hatch me.

(This time of year is always the hardest to get through. By the end of February, we have about 5 months of winter down and another 1-2 months to go. This is the part of the marathon when you’re just slogging up the last hill toward the finish line, going slower and slower …)

I have been writing, though! Over the last three years I’ve written five novels. One of them, Held For Ransom, a contemporary romance with no spec-fic elements, came out last year from Dreamspinner Press. All the others — two urban fantasy, two alternate-history steampunk — are presently in various stages of revision.

I have an almost obsessive fear about not talking about my projects while I’m working on them. It’s mostly because my projects have a tendency to twist around on me. Characters change, plots change; fantasy becomes science fiction; two projects merge into one, or divide into two; things move constantly on and off the front burner. I worry that discussing a project while I’m still developing it will petrify it at an early level of development, freezing characters and plots in their early stages without leaving myself the mental flexibility to keep developing as I move forward. Or what if I get readers interested in something and then disappoint them when I drop it and move on to something else? Or what if talking about it sucks out some vital energy from the creation process and makes me lose interest? It doesn’t help that nearly everything I’ve talked about extensively online actually did get dropped; I’ve gotten better at recognizing viable projects now that I’ve written more, but I still struggle with a mayfly attention span and a tendency to flit from one project to another, working on one until it loses its shiny and then bouncing to the next bright thing. I’m working hard on combating that tendency — trying to approach writing as a career path rather than a series of new toys, while not losing the sense of play — but I am only beginning to understand how my own creative process works. What does make me interested in something? What makes me lose interest? I truly don’t know, and because it sometimes feels like trying to paddle a leaky dinghy, I don’t want to risk doing anything I’m afraid might overbalance it and send all my good ideas spilling over the side. Okay, that metaphor got away from me a bit … but the big problem is that I still don’t understand what makes shiny ideas turn to coal in my hands, and while I’m still cultivating my own creative efforts, I’m nervous about causing problems for myself by discussing them too much.

But I’ve also realized, from reading authors’ blogs, that I really love reading authors talking about the projects they’re working on, and it does whet my appetite for their next thing to hear them ramble about the construction process. And I figure that once I’ve got the rough drafts down, even if I’m still revising it, then I’m probably not going to up and change the thing completely, am I?

Okay, so: as mentioned earlier, I have two main projects right now. The urban fantasy I’ll discuss at a later date (baby steps, baby steps!). The steampunk novels are based off a story I wrote a couple of years ago, for the Layla M. Wier alias, that was published in Dreamspinner Press’s Steamed Up steampunk romance anthology. Called “Untouchable”, it was set in 1930 and was a pastiche of The Untouchables and other ’30s noir, about two Prohibition agents, one of whom had a clockwork heart. More dieselpunk than steampunk, really, though I’m going to persist in calling it steampunk until someone makes me stop. I had enough fun with it that I thought I’d like to write more about the characters, Agents Rawson and Aldis. I also had been wanting to try my hand at writing a murder mystery, since I like reading them.

And that’s actually what I spent most of last year doing. I didn’t write a lot last year, but I did go through what amounted to a self-inflicted beginner-to-intermediate class in writing murder mysteries. By the end of it, I had two murder mysteries in rough draft, and I think I’m starting to get a general idea of how to write them. (On top of that, I have general ideas for a few more in the series, as well as another murder mystery/suspense series I’ve been wanting to write, completely unrelated to this one, set in Gold Rush-era Fairbanks. I think I can keep going for some time …) And, okay, I realize that I’ve spent 90% of this post talking about anything other than the project I’m supposedly writing the post about, but, hey, baby steps, right …? Now that I’ve introduced the Steampunk Chicago project, I’m going to try to stop hermiting quite so much and discuss the revision process as I work through it.

*crosses fingers that I haven’t just jinxed myself …*

Singing Each to Each [Absolute Write February Blog Chain]

I joined the February blog chain at the Absolute Write forums: 1000 words or less for a monthly prompt, which this month is “Valentine’s Day”. Stuck for ideas, I asked a friend. Katherine suggested hipster mermaids. Therefore I blame her for this.

Mermaid wtf (Your guess is as good as mine what the hell is going on in the picture at left; from Wikipedia’s mermaid entry.)

 

Singing Each to Each

Gray clouds scudded across the harbor, driven before harsh winds whipping the sea to a churning froth. Along the boardwalk, most of the shops were closed. On a nice day the seawall would be dotted with young couples enjoying the view, but on a bitter February day like this, only the most hardy ventured into the stinging spray.

One vendor had obstinately stayed open all day, his souvenir booth decked with teddy bears, pink balloons and boxes of chocolate, but now even he had decided to pack it in. He was wrestling with a bunch of balloons — the wind kept trying to snatch them away — when a young woman bundled in a slicker came down the boardwalk. She had heavy skirts and walked a bit oddly as the wind kept trying to pull her sideways.

“Sir, sir!” she cried. “Are you the seller of Valentines?”

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Booktalk: Interview with Melissa Jensen

Toymaker cover

This week I have an interview with Melissa Jensen, author of The Toymaker, a middle-grade fantasy novel. Take it away, Melissa!

So first of all, tell us about The Toymaker. What’s it about?

The Toymaker is the story of Ashima, a ten year old girl bound and determined to find her parents. And the man who helps her, Ren, who has an amazing ability in which he can bring inanimate objects to life.

Ashima’s world has nearly modern technology — cars, electricity — but it also has magic (of a sort) and fantastic creatures like goblins and intelligent wild beasts. What made you decide to do something a little different than a typical fantasy world? What are your favorite aspects of the world you’ve created, or perhaps the parts you would most like to tell readers about?

One thing I love about fantasy in general is that it offers so many possibilities to explore so much. I love the challenge of coming up with ideas that at first may seem strange and ridiculous, but after some mental tinkering end up being a ton of fun to create. The Toymaker, for example, was inspired by the movie 9 and the idea of living beings made of bits and pieces of everyday objects, which I really adored. I began tinkering with the concept of living toys, as well as various myths and legends of inanimate objects brought to life (specifically the story of the golem), and from there The Toymaker eventually evolved. Continue reading

Flash Fiction – Mission Savepoint Beta

There’s a weekly flashfic challenge at Chuck Wendig’s blog. This week’s was too entertaining to resist: randomly generated high-concept mashups:

As I have noted in the past, I love that some writers describe their stories — usually in an elevator pitch or to sell the story to an agent, editor or reader — as “THIS STORY meets THAT STORY.” Right? “Oh,” the writer says, “It’s like CATCHER IN THE RYE meets SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS.” And you’re like, whoa, what the fuck does that even mean.

So I tried it and discovered that I had to write something like … Top Gun meets Super Mario Brothers.

I have to admit that my first, second, even third thought was “Help! Do-over!” but then I thought, no, I can do this! So I wrote a thing. And I even did an illustration.

mushroom forest

Mission: Savepoint Beta

When the dropship hit the atmosphere, the jolt rattled Birgit’s teeth even through the shock-gel cushioning her in the pilot’s seat of the M32. It was the only way she could guess what was happening outside the ship. They were still in upper-atmosphere communications blackout, so her screens were blank, trapping her in a tiny padded cave with nothing to keep her company but the dim red glow of the cockpit lighting, designed not to wash out the instruments’ glow.

Birgit kept a running count in her head. Four minutes from blackout to clamp release. She’d reached a hundred and twelve when another shock rattled the ship. Stratospheric turbulence, she hoped. Well, if they got blown out of the air, at least it would be over fast. And Mom would have two kids to bury rather than one — but, no. She slammed the door on that line of thinking. Kersti had earned her wings, same as the rest of them. Continue reading

Booktalk: Revision

So far, I’ve spent most of January (and a not-so-inconsiderable chunk of December) revising two novels. To my shock and amazement, by this point I’ve actually revised enough novella-length or novel-length projects that I finally have an established system for it. You have no idea how big a deal this is for me! Revision is a writing skill that I’ve only been picking up with a great deal of work and difficulty. For me, writing is … well, certainly not easy, but it’s the part that flows. The more detail-oriented stuff — outlining, revising, and so forth — is the part I struggle with.

But I’ve finally got a process for revising something large.

While I’m writing the initial draft, I keep notes about things I know I’m going to need to deal with at the revision stage. I used to do a lot of editing while I wrote, but I’ve moved away from that, mostly due to my growing tendency to change plot elements on the fly, and therefore I used to end up having to go back and fix everything prior to the chapter in which I decided to, say, make the sister into a brother, or retroactively move a murder three chapters earlier. Now I just put in a note along the lines of [will have to change X to Y in previous chapters] and move on. (All my notes are in the text itself, in brackets, like the example in the previous sentence, so I can find stray notes later with a find-replace.)

Consequently my rough drafts are a mess, strewn with continuity errors and bracket notes about things I need to go back and fix later. I also keep a running, bullet-point list of notes at the top of the document to avoid forgetting assorted things I don’t want to stop to deal with while I’m in full writing flow but will need to do eventually. This includes details I need to research, items to double-check when revising (hypothetical example: “make sure all references to the sister now refer to a brother & use male pronouns”), characterization notes (“make X’s PTSD more obvious & remember that his triggers are Y and Z”), and so forth.

(I should note that my revision process on short-story-sized projects is a less detailed/organized version of this, mostly focused on sentence- or paragraph-level edits since my smaller projects usually doesn’t need as much structural reworking.)

Anyway, I always let a rough draft sit for weeks or months after I finish it — mostly because I’m completely sick of its FACE by that point — and when I pick it back up again to revise, here’s the process I go through:

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Interview with SL Huang

I’m delighted to have SL Huang here today to talk about her new suspense/sci-fi thriller Half Life. I absolutely loved the first book in the series, Zero Sum Game, and now mercenary-turned-reluctant-hero Cas Russell and her friends are back … and back in trouble!

Half Life cover

Tell us about the new book, Half Life! What can fans of the previous book look forward to? What might be enticing for new readers?

Kittens! And robots! I promise both.

More seriously: I think prior fans will enjoy Cas’s continued, stumbling journey into trying to build relationships with people. She’s trying, but she’s still really, really bad at it.

And I’m pretty excited about the cast in this one. I’ve enjoyed expanding Cas’s circle of acquaintances to include even more people who can snark right back at her.

Where did the idea for the Russell’s Attic series come from? Did you realize in the beginning it was going to be a series, or did it grow when you started planning it out?

Being a math person, for the longest time I’ve thought being able to do math REALLY, REALLY fast would be the coolest superpower in the world. Because what COULDN’T you do?

So I’d be learning a new sport and thinking, “Man, I can do all the math here — why doesn’t that help me catch the ball!” And meanwhile, I’ve always loved superhero stories, but the worldbuilding tends to drive me nuts. What POSSIBLE science randomly allows for superpowers that violate the laws of physics? I’d always wanted to write something just a little bit closer to reality, something just on the other side of believable.

I tried probably a dozen different versions of the “math as a superpower” idea before hitting on one that worked. Incidentally, it happened while I was contemplating how fun it would be to write a fun, action-packed open-ended series and it occurred to me to mesh the two ideas. I wrote the first few scenes, and it took off from there. Continue reading

Diana Wynne Jones, growing up, and unreliable narrators

Let the Monday “Booktalk” posts commence! :D

I’ve been on a Diana Wynne Jones rereading kick lately. It started with Hexwood and proceeded to the Chrestomanci books, of which The Lives of Christopher Chant is my favorite by far, and one of my favorites of all of her books — mainly because I think the things I like most about her books are more clearly on display in this one than in many of her others.

I didn’t start reading DWJ ’til I was an adult. I expect I would have liked her books as a kid, but I think I might’ve appreciated them in a different way — more seduced by the sense of wonder, less distracted by how the plots go (or don’t go). As an adult reading her books, I sometimes find the plots very hit-or-miss, and in particular the endings frequently leave me feeling let down or simply frustrated. She has a meandering approach to plot that breaks just about all of the standard plotting rules at one point or another — important characters fail to appear until halfway through her books, critically important plot elements may be held back until the very end, Chekhov’s Gun may or may not fire, etc. It’s a style that feels much more like an oral storytelling tradition — someone telling you a story — than a lot of fiction tends to, and sometimes I really appreciate it for its lack of artificiality, but sometimes it just completely misses the boat for me.

But the thing I love most about her books, that keeps me coming back to them, is the layered-ness of the characters, and in particular the way the characters are presented to the reader. One thing that frustrates me about a lot of fiction aimed at kids is the flatness of the character presentation. Good people and bad people are evident at first glance; they wear their goodness or badness on the outside. (Good people pretty, bad people ugly….) And certainly they don’t do both good and bad things at once, so you can’t even tell how you’re supposed to feel about them …

But DWJ’s characters are complicated and surprising. Her hapless protagonists have to guess, like everyone in the real world, about who the good and bad people are: who to believe, who to trust. And often they guess wrong (frequently misjudging other characters based on superficial attributes), only to figure things out over the course of the book.

Many of her books deal with a particularly challenging aspect of growing up — the way that your perspective on other people, and yourself, tilts as you mature and begin to recognize your own humanity in other people, and become aware of the flaws in yourself.

I enjoy all of the Chrestomanci books to one degree or another — I’m currently reading The Pinhoe Egg, which doesn’t seem at all familiar, so it’s possible I’ve actually never read it before — but The Lives of Christopher Chant has always been the book in the series that stood out the most to me.

(Spoilers follow.)

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