A Different Approach

This month, I have two unrelated special opportunities to submit a complete manuscript to a publisher. I just mailed Rabbit and Cougar to Karen Lotz of Candlewich Press (who generously offered to read the manuscripts of all the people whose pitches she missed at the James River Writers conference due to her being sick), and I will send Dragons Over London to a contest by Random House as soon as I’ve finished editing the last few chapters. This is especially exciting because because Dragons Over London, which I love but have hesitated to submit places because of its novella-category length, is just the right length to fit the requirements.

Both “submitting directly to publisher” and the “submitting full manuscript” are unusual to me. I’ve done each of them before in various situations, but most of my submissions are queries, sometimes with synopses and/or sample chapters, and most go to agents.

So that’s what I’m up to right now. I’ve also been doing some worldbuilding research, reading books about the Renaissance and the Elizabethan era. The more I read about that time, the more I realize that the average person’s life was quite similar to the life s/he might have led during the Middle Ages. Perhaps this is not *Jedi hands* the historical period of basis I was looking for.

Still, while you’re here, Interesting Renaissance Fact: in 1500, each of the three most populous cities in Europe had about 150,000 people. London, the largest city in England, had only 50,000.

In Which I Am a Writing Nerd

. . . who’da thunk?

Before I get into my Nerdy Writing Project, I have to mention that the James River Writers’ Writing Show last night was great. The theme was “Where the Wild Things Are: The Irrational World of Children’s Literature,” and the panel featured three children’s book authors and a librarian who sits on the 2009 Caldecott committee. Happily for me, at least two of those authors write in middle-grade and young-adult, one of them in fantasy. Also, I bought a book: The Eternal Hourglass, which is Book One of a new series by Erica Kirov, one of the speakers. When I was checking the panelists out online, I saw the book (sadly, I can’t now find the site where I originally saw it, which made it look even more awesome). I thought it looked really neat. Then, at the Writing Show, I saw the actual book and was kind of stunned by how, um, gorgeous it is. I feel sheepish about being swayed by the literal book’s cover, but what the heck. I’d already thought it was cool, and the JRW events are served by a small local bookseller, so I feel good about buying there and spending more than I would on, say, Amazon.

Right! On to my Nerdy and Threatening-to-be-Endless Project: Scene Analysis. I got the idea from a Writer’s Digest article that suggested going through books you like and noting how scenes of tension are often interspersed with catch-your-breath scenes that move the plot in ways that are perhaps less intense. While that was the inspiration for my project, I admit I’ve gone quite a bit further. Objective observations have always appealed to me, and I was curious as to whether splitting books into different kinds of scenes would yield results (say, for the sake of argument, in pie-chart form) that supported my subjective thoughts on various books, particularly in terms of pacing.

So I made an Excel spreadsheet. Well, actually, I’ve made five so far. I decided that the first fifty pages was enough of a book to analyze – a conclusion supported by the similarity, in the one book I analyzed all the way through, between the overall results and the first-fifty-pages results. Each book has its own chart, and each chart records the following for every scene:

Section Type. I’m dividing each book into four types of sections. I call them Scene, Scene* (“scene-star”), Summary, and Summary*. “Scene” means a section that takes place entirely in the moment – dialogue, a blow-by-blow description of action, even a character’s thoughts – basically, anything that isn’t summarized. “Summary,” conversely, is stuff that doesn’t tell you exactly what’s happening right now. I found the two most common uses to be description and to note time passing. “Scene*” is any section that, overall, is definitely in the moment, but includes a non-negligible element of summary – say, several sentences of description, or a introduction that describes time having passed. “Summary*” is any section mostly not grounded in the moment, but with a smattering of lines that are, often a brief exchange of dialogue. Generally speaking, “Scene” and “Summary” correspond to the “Show” and “Tell” of writing. Not every book has all four section types. Howl’s Moving Castle, for example, had no Scene* at all.

Length. Length in pages, in increments of 0.5. Sometimes something that should have been a section would be only a paragraph or so; if it seemed to really merit sectionhood, I rounded up, and otherwise just incorporated it into one of the neighboring sections (accounting, in some situations, for those sections going from Scene to Scene* or Summary to Summary*). It’s not a perfect system, but it’s difficult to measure pages to increments of less than one half, and I think the Scene* and Summary* labels help maintain the overall sense of what kinds of sections we’re looking at.

Story Time. Length of story time represented by the section. Generally, these were Minutes, Hours, Days, Weeks, Months, Years, or Explanation (the last used for sections of Summary that are all description, and take no time in the story).

Intro. Here I recorded the introductory sentence, or part of it, or occasionally more than one sentence; as much as seemed relevant. This took by far the most space on the charts, but I found it worthwhile for the interesting discoveries. I’ve had trouble integrating the passing of time into my stories, and many Summary sections do that, often in the first sentence or so. Check out a few of these from Summary bits of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:

“Nearly ten years had passed since . . .”

“On Saturday morning, things began to get out of hand.”

“Perhaps it was because he was now so busy, what with Quidditch practice three evenings a week on top of all his homework, but Harry could hardly believe it when he realized that he’d already been at Hogwarts two months.”

“Quirrell, however, must have been braver than they’d thought. In the weeks that followed, he seemed to be getting paler and thinner . . .”

“In years to come, Harry would never quite remember how he got through his exams when he half expected Voldemort to come bursting through the door at any moment. Yet the days crept by . . .”

(All copyrights, etc., of course, belonging to J. K. Rowling.)

Synopsis. A very brief description of what happens in the section.

Having done that, I made a small graph at the bottom of each worksheet totalling the number of pages written in each section type, then used that graph to make a pie chart displaying percentages.

The pie charts show some fascinating trends. “Scene” is the big winner in terms of volume, in part because dialogue sections are so long in pages, and I have no practical way of counting words or otherwise being more precise about length. Other than that, though, there is surprising variation. The five books I’ve analyzed so far are Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, and Terry Pratchett’s Mort. Keeping in mind that this process, while as objective as I could make it, is hardly perfect science, a few statistics are as follows:

Most Scene: Howl’s Moving Castle, 84%
Least Scene: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, 52% (Twilight a relatively close second at 59%)
Most Summary: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, 24%, more than double that of any other book
Least Summary: Howl’s Moving Castle, 2%
Most combined Scene and Scene*: Mort, 94%
Most combined Summary and Summary*: Twilight, 25%

Parts of this startled me. Terry Pratchett’s books seem to include endless detached description, valuable because of its humor, but long nonetheless. I was startled at how little Summary I found in Mort. On the other hand, it had more Scene* (24%) than any other book, indicating the presence of many short but non-negligible Summary pieces. Another interesting discovery: amount of Scene versus Summary – similar though it is to Showing versus Telling – has less bearing than I had theorized on how fast the pacing seems to be. Of course, none of the books I’ve analyzed so far threatens whiplash, pace-wise. I plan to soon add Artemis Fowl and Mister Monday, both much faster-paced, to the list and see what that does to my conclusions.

Also: Like many writers, I’ve heard time and again that one should “show” and not “tell.” Having looked at both in some detail now, I would say that there are definite benefits to both. It would be very difficult for J. K. Rowling to make a whole school year (not to mention ten years of growing) pass for Harry in one book without sentences like those above. If you’re not doing it often – say, if it were only the one ten-year jump – it’s fine to just leap ahead and make it apparent that the time has passed, but that can work less well with smaller time blocks and can be disorienting for readers.

I recommend this exercise to anyone who is interested in writing and has the time to spend on it. I wouldn’t do this to a book I was reading for the first time, but it’s less distracting than you might think, so I can enjoy a rereading while taking these notes. Alternately, if done without really reading the text (but on a book I know fairly well or have recently read), it’s very quick to analyze the first fifty pages. A worthwhile project to help one really grasp the differences between, and implications of, showing versus telling.

Then Again, Bath is a Real Place

A combination of things – among them unreliable Internet access – has prevented me from updating much recently. I’m not sure I can still in good conscience call this a “weekly” blog. But I’m back! I have sent a few agent queries out for Rabbit and Cougar, and plan to send more this week. In the meantime, I have something else to talk about.

Recently, a friend and I were talking about worldbuilding, and then the other day we went to Bath. These things are related because I find Bath to be a good visual metaphor of one thing we’d been discussing: keeping a consistent feel in the world you’ve created. Bath feels like a world of its own because of the Bath sandstone. For anyone who’s never been there, the whole city is a historical site, and virtually every building is at least paneled in sandstone of the same color. It’s as if the whole city were carved out of one big rock, or all splashed by the same (pale yellowish) paint. This is despite its having Burger Kings and Indian restaurants packed in with art galleries, modern and classical, tourist shops, the Baths once frequented by Romans and the Assembly Rooms visited by Jane Austen.

Naturally, any well-crafted fictional culture – or even any single city – is likely to have diverse populations and institutions and remnants of various historical periods. This can add richness, but the culture does need to be drawn together by common elements or risk seeming random and poorly-conceived. If, for example, a fantasy world contains characters named Aletha and Hedric and also characters named Terry and Doug, supposedly from the same place and with similar backgrounds, the world will seem inconsistent. (This is worse when half of the characters in one culture have generic old British names such as Will and half have names the author made up that are filled with Xs and cannot be pronounced without years of training and possibly a second tongue. Do not speak to me about apostrophes.)

This is a funny problem because, as often happens when fiction imitates real life, the fiction must make sense in a way that reality sometimes doesn’t. Obviously, most people do not have to be convinced that something could work in an unlikely way if they actually see it working that way. A real-life culture that seems to lack coherence is not seen as “unrealistic.” Still, that doesn’t mean you can get away with it in your worldbuilding.

So, how to do this? A lot of generic medievalesque fantasy writers do it without much difficulty simply by basing their worlds on Britain at a certain time period. There’s nothing wrong with that, assuming the story, characters, and writing are good. One of the continents in my fantasy world was created basically that way. Things can be more difficult when basing a culture on another real-life country just because it’s done less, so people are less sure how to take it. You don’t want to create a race or civilization that seems like an offensive stereotype of a real people – think of some of the criticisms of certain Star Wars aliens.

Naturally, you want to do as much creation as possible going forwards rather than backwards – that is, thinking, “What would logically proceed from this?” rather than, “How can I make this thing happen?” You can certainly work with the latter if you have one or a few important traits you want in your culture and are flexible on the rest. For example, if you want to write a fantasy plot that involves a lot of sea travel, then you must create at least one civilization that possesses ocean-going ships or other means of transport. This is not a problem. If, say, you’re also determined that this civilization lack a technology common to the rest of your world, then you have to account for why travelers and traders using their port have not introduced this technology. Things become more complicated. If you put too many demands on a civilization before you create it, you can build yourself into a corner. If, on the other hand, you simply start with what the people would have had (say, a coastal area at the mouth of a river in a warm climate, with rich soil), then you can make your culture from there in a way that makes sense. Depending on how you do it, this can mean a lot of research, but you can borrow from existent (or historic) cultures that shared similar features – your civilization might do things in a different style, but is likely to develop similar kinds of technology, practical clothing, and so on. You do have to be careful that you don’t borrow something that in reality was caused by a factor your world doesn’t have: Religion will trip you up here, because it is behind so many traditions and may not be the same as the beliefs in your world. You also have to keep in mind things that your world has and reality doesn’t that could have affected the culture’s development. If there is magic, for example, or if multiple intelligent species coexist, that should be accounted for.

If you’re not writing fantasy or science fiction, you may have an easier time because a civilization more similar to reality will have more things you can just assume. If you are writing fantasy or sci-fi, here are a few things you might consider to keep each culture you write consistent.

1. Names. This does not have to be a pitfall – it can be an opportunity. Names can be a great way to establish differences between cultures – you just want to be consistent within each culture. One way to do this is to adapt (or blatantly steal) names from different languages. It’s a silly example, but if you have characters named Marcus and Furianus who meet someone named Elizabeth, the names will draw a stark cultural line between the two groups. Obviously, a fantasy world could be a place where a civilization exists that encompasses both names, but it would be hard to do something like this well. Similarly, if you make up all of your names, try to make them sound consistent – you might want to think a little about the sounds of the languages your people speak.

2. Dress. What is the climate of this civilization like? What are common occupations? What materials and dyes are available? Do certain colors have religious or societal significance? Maybe only mages wear red, only royalty wear white, or purple is worn only in mourning. Remember also that people in different places may come up with different ways to solve the same problem due to their varying resources and beliefs.

3. Speech. If you have a character who is not speaking his/her first language, how might that affect word choice and order? Even if everyone speaks the same language well enough for it not to matter, some people may have traditions of speech – being more formal, for example. Consider also things that go along with speech: accents, hand movements, and possibly other gestures such as bowing.

4. Supernatural Elements. If your world has magic, it may not be the same kind all over. Even if it is, it may not be regarded the same way everywhere. Like technology, certain kinds of magic may be more advanced in places where they are more practical: Agricultural magic in a farming area, for example. Magical creatures, too, may be approached differently by different societies. Maybe one culture reveres dragons, another hates and fears them, and another has never heard of them.

You can add to the coherence of your fantasy civilization through many other elements – architecture, manners, traditions, beliefs – but the above are ones that seem especially likely to come up and may involve less research than some others. Not everyone wants to think about things like architecture. Consistency is important even if only one culture appears in your story, and it is sometimes easy to slip. Still, it can be very rewarding to build a culture in detail, and it may lead to more story ideas!

England, Writing, and the Combination Thereof

England, as it turns out, is excellent for getting editing done. By this I mean that the tiny and adorable town of Starcross, Devon has no wireless Internet, no library, and generally little to do, and my friends and I do not yet have jobs here. (Don’t worry – we did find a library, and have cards for it. It just isn’t in Starcross.)

My editing of Rabbit and Cougar has been going quite well, though I sometimes get bogged down in rewrites of certain scenes. I’d rather hoped to be line editing by now, and largely I am, but some scenes just need more work than that. The main thing I’ve been doing, though, is to move the word “said” (or the occasional “shouted” or similar) from after the speaking characters’ names to before them. For some reason, when I last edited this draft, I thought one had to write “Dexy said” all the time, when I really prefer “said Dexy.” I had also not yet experienced the marvelous revelation that a new speaker does not always mean having to start a new paragraph with that piece of dialogue. I was under this impression for years. It led not only to many unecessary whacks of the “return” key, but also to some lack of clarity with regards to who spoke when. This mostly had to be cleared up via extra speech tags, which I’m now able to delete. Honestly, the dialogue in this draft cleans up very nicely when I just correct the wrong assumptions I had before. 😛

The one writing-relevant experience I’ve had here so far is a visit to Totnes Castle, my first castle of this trip. It’s a Norman one, and now consists of a small, well-preserved round bailey which once held a wooden tower, all surrounded by modern reconstructions of the one-time castle walls. It was an interesting look at a sort of castle you don’t often see – more of a guard tower, really, without grandeur or living quarters. (There were living quarters inside the walls in a sort of tiny town, but no actual castle building in which people lived.) Helpful signs described how the site would have looked, including the fact that the building, like many castles, would have been whitewashed. People often overlook that, don’t they? Castles in fantasy fiction are rarely white – more commonly, they are plain stone. In a way, they resemble the ruins of castles that survive now more than the castles as they were when they were used. It’s as if people drew dinosaurs without skin because their fossils don’t have any.

Seeing the castle also made me think of one of the pitfalls of writing set in any past time period: underestimating the ability and drive of people to make lives for themselves. I don’t mean just to survive, but to make their lives comfortable and interesting. Think about cave paintings. The people who created them lived in terrible hardship and danger, but they still made an effort to created something more than just a continued existence. This is often neglected in medieval settings – in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a satire on generic fantasy, Diana Wynne Jones points out that peasants always live in “squalid huts,” being apparently unable to clean them. Obviously, some people work harder than others to improve their lives, people’s priorities differ, and some people are in such dire straits that they can do little more than survive. Still, it’s easy to look, as I did, at the rough, uneven stone floor of a ruined castle and wonder how people were ever comfortable here. Was this floor smooth and flat once, enough to walk on without tripping? More than that – it was very likely plastered. Maybe carpeted. Humans have a genius for altering our environment; a good thing for a writer to remember.

Beyond that, work continues on the grad school applications. I feel better than I ever have before about the beginning of Rabbit and Cougar, though, so I’m happy that I’ll be using that as my writing sample.

I Should Practice Calling It “Research” . . .

. . . because someday, I could get school funding to do things like this! 😉

On Tuesday, I got a chance to do the most interesting thing I’ve ever been able to call research. This seems appropriate to mention, since I talked about research last week.

My research opportunity was a trip to Biltmore House in North Carolina. A few weeks ago, wanting to design a mansion that appears in The Dogwatchers, I searched online for mansion floor plans. Most that I found were, strangely, too practical. They had a few rooms unusual in less-expensive houses (game rooms, indoor pools, etc.), but mostly, I saw conventional rooms in larger sizes. There were certainly no corridors.

Biltmore House, finished for the Vanderbilts in 1895, has forty-three bathrooms. Towers. Twenty-one bedrooms just for servants. A bedroom with gilded walls. An entire room devoted to showcasing a model of the Biltmore House. Not to mention hundreds of paintings, prints, friezes, sculptures, fountains, figurines, ornate furniture, tapestries, and decorations that simply would not have occurred to me (see above, “gilded walls”). I even got a brochure that showed me the floor plans!

Touring the Biltmore helped me in two unexpected places. First, though I had hoped to find floor plans for a mansion in The Dogwatchers, it ended up being more applicable to a totally different mansion that appears in Rabbit and Cougar. Then, too, I found something even more exciting than floor plans: a real sense of an extravagant mansion as a home. In Rabbit and Cougar, one important character was raised in such a place. Walking through that amazing house helped me know him better. It was particularly interesting to think of how the two homes in my novels would each differ from the Biltmore based on their inhabitants, their surrounding areas, and so on.

Beyond that, I’ve continued to edit. One thing I’ve found helpful in this process is to keep a chapter-by-chapter log of events, recording in a separate document a list of chapters, each with a note for every important happening therein. It’s a sort of retroactive outline. This is great to keep track of plot-related events, even small ones (“First mention of . . .”), but also because it helps me recognize things I need to cut. I keep running across things that, when I condense them to a sentence for my outline, are clearly unimportant to the story – even boring. I’ve never planned chapters this way in advance; with Lord of the Dark Downs, I kept track of events in this way as I wrote them, but that was to remember whose POV described each event. (That novel had a lot of POV-switching.) I don’t know that I could do this in advance. I usually know, while writing, what will happen in the rest of my current chapter, but not after that.

A friend recently expressed trepidation about a class requiring the writing of a novel. (You know who you are. 🙂 ) I suppose it isn’t for everyone, but I recommend that anyone who likes writing try it out. NaNoWriMo might be a good introduction for people who don’t have class deadlines; it provides an online environment of sympathetic companions to the process. It’s also excellent in helping people restrain their editing impulses while working on the first draft. I enjoyed NaNo 2006, when I wrote Dragons Over London. As to the nature of novel-writing, it allows for an expansion of plot and character development that I absolutely love. It also lets you unpack slowly, if you will: for example, my funny short stories are much more laugh-a-minute than are my novels, though I consider them humorous as well. Furthermore, the structure of chapters differs a lot from that of short stories. I actually like novel-writing much more. True, I sometimes get ideas that demand short-story form, and I’m more than happy to write them, but novels are my passion. I wish my friend the best of luck, and encourage everyone who writes fiction to try at least one!

Building a . . . Fantasy

This week, I’d like to talk about world-building. I’ve done quite a bit of it this week in addition to, and in conjunction with, editing Rabbit and Cougar. It’s a big topic in fantasy writing, so I won’t tackle everything, but here are a few points.

Fantasy worldbuilding is about much more than the fantastical. To make a world real, you must consider logic. Consider it early and often. Any fantastical assumptions you make must be followed by the proper logical progressions. This is a major factor with things like magic, especially because it can be difficult to think of everything that might follow a certain development, but it is also important to the economy, politics, social relations (including those between different intelligent species, if your world has more than one), and even ecology of your fantasy world.

This applies to non-fantasy as well. Let’s say you’re writing a non-fantasy book (for some reason ;P) set in Virginia, and you decide to make up a town because you don’t want to deal with making mistakes about real places or getting sued by anyone. If setting is going to be any non-negligible part of your story, you need to have some idea of the reason your town exists and how it works: What are major employers? Is it a college town? A farming area? Historical site? What is there to do? If you want your setting to be a city of 80,000 people, then make sure they have a reason to be there. Conversely, if your town has a population of 5,000, you may not want to give it a major shopping center or university. Make your setting make sense.

Medievalesque fantasy, my main writing area, has some special challenges. In a town, city, or other settlement: What is the main water source? People will not usually settle in a place without readily available drinking water – unless you have designed a species that doesn’t need it. Where do the inhabitants get food, and what kind? Clothes? What do they do for entertainment? With whom do they trade, and for what? I recently had issues when I realized that a character owned a frying pan whose society had virtually no way to obtain metal. That had to be reworked, and my understanding of the character’s society deepened as I actually decided how they would use other materials in situations when we might use metal. Indeed, it led to a convenient plot point.

Ecology, too, can be a real issue in fantasy. Many fantasy writers seem tempted to throw a whole bunch of apex predators into a world which otherwise, it seems, contains mostly the same animals we have on Earth. What, one wonders, do their dragons eat? And sphinxes, leviathans, chimeras (chimerae?), basilisks, and so on? Do any of them compete with predators we would recognize? (I once saw a program in which a dragon and a tiger fought out a territorial dispute.) How many of these creatures – and the answer is often “all of them” – eat people? Can they survive on people alone, or do they also eat livestock and large wild animals (buffalo, deer, whales, or things that in this world are top-tier predators, such as bears).

(As an interesting point, it seems that humans reached their current evolutionary stage on Earth starting as prey animals. With our intelligence and tool-making abilities, we turned the tables on our predators, many of which are now endangered. Keep in mind, if your fantasy world lasts for vast periods of time – say, several generations of long-lived dragons or elves – that humans will have had all this time to find ways to defeat, or at least deflect, their predators. They may even have magic in addition to tools, depending on your world.)

In my worldbuilding this week, I found a wonderful ally in a humble little book called The Audubon Society Nature Guide to Eastern Forests. I was, at the time, trying to get a feel for what it would be like to tramp through an oak forest; we have none in my immediate area, and my characters were walking around in one. It outlined different types of forests, explaining where each was found and why: the environmental factors, from temperature to soil content, that caused certain plants to grow, and how those plants plus weather, altitude, etc. affected the animals living there. I discovered that what I really wanted was an oak-hickory forest, and was immediately furnished with a long list of species found there.

The point I mean to make here is that ecology, like all of the various worldbuilding factors, can be done right or wrong even when no fantastical elements are involved. If you have a vast tundra with no wildlife except for the occasional snowshoe hare and large packs of wolves, then you have apparently invented wolves which feed on snow. As such, they should be little danger to travelers. And in a fantasy world, if you provide no reason why a thing should be different from our world, people assume it is not. (Think of gravity: unless you say otherwise, readers will assume that your characters walk on the ground and that dropped objects fall down.) This means that there are aspects of the world where you can make mistakes based on non-fantasy things. (This is common with horses. I have read many commentaries on the lack of realism associated with horses in some medievalesque fantasy. Do not let this happen to you.) Even in a world with magic, snakes cannot wink unless you expressly provide a reason why your world’s snakes have eyelids when Earth’s do not. This is a reason to research anything “real” that you plan to include and with which you are not already quite familiar – even if only very few readers, those who are experts in the area, catch an error, wouldn’t you rather not have that error? Besides, sometimes you come up with fun new facts, some of which you might use. I researched foxes over the past few days because a fox figures prominently in Rabbit and Cougar. I learned that foxes wag their tails when happy and that their “happy sounds” include clucks, whines, and what sound like human screams. I even read – though I need to check this – that they lack the facial muscles to bare their teeth. How interesting is that?

(Well, a lot, if you’re writing about a fox.)

Even if you don’t include everything – and please, don’t include everything – that you know, it’s usually better to know more. For example, the fact that my oak-hickory forest even has foxes implies that it has things they can eat – and I know what they are. That the forest contains mice, rabbits, insects, and berries (and oh yes, I do have specific species) may not come up, but knowing this will keep me from being inconsistent (for example, having the character who lives in this forest see a mouse and say “whoah, what’s that?”).

Research and good world-building makes the writing easier and more satisfying. It gives the story a deeper and more thought-out feel and allows you to confidently and correctly use specific examples. (I now know, for instance, what undergrowth grows in oak-hickory forests.) Your readers will appreciate it. And it’s loads of fun – win-win!

Notes from the Week

I approved my edits and got my contract from Reynard’s Menagerie! I have filled it out, and will send it soon. Exciting!

Yesterday, I visited a place most conducive to writerly thinking: a cemetery. That may sound morbid or disrespectful – I don’t mean it either way. Holly-Wood Cemetery, located in Richmond, is a quiet and beautiful place. Because of its beauty, and because I have no relatives or friends buried there, it didn’t seem as somber as I expected. It was more like a sweeping park, with trees, hedges, and magnificent statuary doing honor to the memories of thousands.

I think that what makes a cemetery writerly is that, like a book, it is a suggestion of so much more than what you see. When you read a story, even one with intense detail, much of the world is left to your imagination. If you see a character mentioned once, you must realize that so much else must exist in that book’s world: the character’s past, thoughts, hopes, favorite foods, memories, friends, inspirations, possessions, and ancestry. A web of fictional existence centers on that character, stretching in every direction beyond the scope of the book. (I concede that not all characters have all of these things, but most have at least some of them.)

A grave is the same way. It is a name for which you must assume a family, a mind, a life – an entire story. The best books, I think, give you the impression that even a character who appears only briefly has a story, just as every person you see in a crowd or driving on the road is the center of his or her own life. A cemetery is a place where this is not just a hoped-for suggestion but the truth. Sometimes, a grave even hints at the story, whether by an inscription, recent flowers, or even just a level of carving that obviously cost money. In the same way that a sentence can outline a minor character in a book, people in the cemetery were marked with brief descriptions: “Mother” or “Father” (in one heartrending case, “Daddy”), or a military rank. Sometimes, they had quirks: one stone bore a beautifully engraved and totally unexplained raccoon.

It is also worth noting, of course, that one can find excellent names in a cemetery.

This actually inspired me to possibly include a trip to the cemetery for the protagonists of The Dogwatchers. It would be a highly convenient way to come across a particular plot point, and I can think of a reason they would go. I think I will do it, though I’ll have to mull it over a bit for two reasons. First, I tend to want to include anything which interested me in recent life in my writing, and it is sometimes not relevant. (Sort of like when you watch Lassie and decide you want a collie.) Secondly, I would have to be sure that the cemetery didn’t take the story to a dark place that I don’t mean it to. Holly-Wood Cemetery gave me just the feeling I’d like my protagonists to have and for my readers to get from reading the scene; if I can recreate that, I will be quite happy.

Write-Minded Anonymous

I’ve been thinking about inspiration lately. It seems almost like meta-thinking, to think about something which already occurs pretty much inside one’s head, but I feel it’s worthwhile largely because inspiration of the writerly variety has, in the past few years, completely altered how I look at life.

To put it mildly, I’m inspired a lot. My mind has some variation of the words “I should write about that” on standby at all times. I think this is partly because I’m so enthusiastic about communication. I talk a lot. I also, of course, write a lot. One of the things that impresses me in the writing of others is when something – some description, particularly, though it may be of anything from a place to an emotion – really comes across to me. If I’ve been in a similar situation, I want to think, “Yes, that is how that is!” Or, alternately, “Yes, that is how that would be for that character!” If I’ve never been in that situation, I want to be put there. Thus, when I walk through real life – maybe I should say live through real life, since it’s certainly not always a walking experience – I am constantly bombarded by the wish to express things to people. Maybe it’s because I have a keen interest in . . . well, most things. Yesterday, for example, it snowed. I could not get enough of the snow. When I went outside, I put my head way back and watched it come down; it really shows you how dizzying far up the sky is. Though snow isn’t all that crazy an occurrence, it does put writing thoughts in my head – but then again, everything does now.

It’s true. I keep a file of ideas on my computer, separated into Characters, Places, Things, and Miscellaneous; I call it the Plot Bunny Hutch, and I add to and draw from it all the time. While I am inspired at random times – often while walking, even more often while on an elliptical trainer at the gym (brain is getting oxygen and has little else to do, I suppose), I now seek out situations in hopes of learning about things which will help my writing. I take classes here at my college because I think their topics – “Ooh, Japanese architecture!” – will contribute to my world-building. In my job at the library back home, I would spend free time looking up topics like ancient coins and minting; at home, I dug out books on medicinal plants. I’m following in the academic footsteps of my father, an artist who has researched fossils for a series of paintings of trilobites, snakes while doing a poster for the play “Oedipus Rex,” and a series of house fires in his hometown when he painted those. Just as his fossil research led him to many more paintings of different fossils – from ichthyosaurs to sabre-toothed cats – some of my paths lead to ridiculous amounts of interest, excitement, and writing.

And some don’t. It concerns me a little to consider the flip-side of my interest in all things which might contribute to my writing: because nearly all of what I care to write takes place in one world which I am always polishing (in a few places, I admit, the scaffolding is still up for serious building), there are subjects which simply are not relevant. Some of these subjects are huge. Almost all history since the invention of the gun, for example. Most or all religion. What alarms me is that I occasionally find myself – not quite dismissing, but certainly being less-than-enthusiastic about – an opportunity to learn about a topic that I know I can’t build into my world. Is this simply a preference for knowledge that comes with a built-in extra function, one near and dear to my heart? Is this my subconscious’ awareness of the fact that it would be hard to actively pursue knowledge of everything? Regardless, isn’t it a spectacularly bad idea to ignore knowledge that is highly applicable in our real, current world in favor of, say, castle construction? It is, and I try not to do it, while being aware that there are only so many hours in the day, and I want my writing to be its best.

So there is my issue: Inspiration, almost addictive, leads to an active search for further inspiration. This search becomes so extensive that I feel sometimes that I have no time for “irrelevant” topics, such as the core belief systems of other people about whom I care very much. I like to think I can make myself learn enough about these things to function – to be sensitive to others’ beliefs and hold intelligent conversations. After all, I made myself learn Multivariable Calculus. I suppose my aim, then, is to become a somewhat quirky person who has passing knowledge of current events and topics but is a veritable trove of trivia in other areas. I feel lucky to be, one might say, a victim of an overactive muse. Still, the consequences bear thinking about.

On the other hand, do feel free to ask me about drawbridges. Please.