Framing and Finishing: Of Housebuilding and Writing.

Saturday morning at a few minutes past midnight, I completed my work-in-progress, Empire’s Heir. Or at least, the first draft. The first draft of a book is like a house under construction: the foundation is poured, the framing’s done, the walls and windows and doors are in, and the roof. (And you hope it doesn’t leak.)

But inside, it’s a mess. The detritus left by the workers is scattered all over. The floors are plywood; the walls not yet wallboarded, the wiring and plumbing roughed in.  There is a lot of work left to do.

And so it is with a manuscript. It’s as messy and incomplete as the house. The garbage needs removing: the scenes that don’t add to the story, the plot line that complicates or goes nowhere, the characters who add nothing.

Walk through the house with a critical eye. Maybe a framed wall is in the wrong place; maybe you want a window where there isn’t one. Changes can still be made, although they’ll add time and take work. Better now than later, though. Later is much harder (ask anyone who’s renovated: a house or a book.)

Then it’s time to complete the plumbing and wiring, the connectors that link themes and plot and story together, often mostly unseen, and get the wallboard up.  Inspectors – or structural editors – are a good idea at this point. (Actually, the inspectors are almost certainly legally required, the structural editor isn’t – the analogy’s not perfect. But you get my drift.)

And then it’s time for the finishing. The painters and carpet layers, the cabinet makers, the tile installers, making sure the colours blend or contrast, the fine carpentry is precise, the transitions from room to room, carpet to hardwood to tile, are smooth. Another place a designer, or friends with good eyes and aesthetic sense, can help. Maybe your first choices are too trendy, too minimalist, too overblown. Is every space used well, not too crowded, not too empty? In the manuscript, I – or my beta readers, or my editor, or all of the above – are checking description, dialogue, and the cadence and flow of language, looking for monotony, purple prose, repetition, and a host of other things that affect the story.

Now the finishers are gone. Time for a thorough cleaning: they’ve been careful, but they can’t help leaving some mess. Sawdust in a corner; carpet threads; a dropped finishing nail or two. Time to sweep, to vacuum, to wash all the counters and floors. Time for the proof reading, and like sweeping and vacuuming and washing, use more than one technique: hire someone, listen to your book, change fonts. (There will still be one or two nails on the floor, or a drop of paint somewhere: it’s inevitable, just like the typos that slip through.)

And now the house – and the book – are done. While the finishing’s been happening, so has the exterior. You know your neighbourhood: what works?  Brick? Siding? Shingle? Stucco?  Same with the cover. Neighbourhoods and genres have their conventions, and you probably want to fit in without looking identical to every house on the street, or book on the bookstore shelf.

Right now, what I have is that mess: something that looks like a book, but inside is an unfinished jumble. There’s a lot of work to do before Empire’s Heir is a book someone will want to live inside. I’m letting it settle, and then I’ll start.

A Changed World

A year plus 10 days ago, I was in Rome, experiencing the feel of the city and visiting locations that would be settings in Empire’s Heir: the Imperial Palace, the Baths of Caracalla, others. The virus was a problem further north in Italy, but I had no worries about going to Rome. The world changed rapidly after that – we flew home to Canada from England a month later from an eerily empty airport, on a half-full flight, to restrictions that have fluctuated in gravity, but never gone away.

I hadn’t started Empire’s Heir yet: I had a general idea of the story, but little else. After I started writing it, it became quickly evident there were themes of loss and uncertainty I hadn’t planned, of separation and restrictions, and the meaning of space as something both necessary and isolating.

In my first trilogy, Empire’s Legacy, we were introduced to my protagonist Lena. Eighteen, facing war and hardships, she remains remarkably resilient – although not unscarred – throughout the three books. At the beginning of Empire’s Heir, she is forty. Mourning the sudden death of her third, unexpected child, she’s trying to make sense of her life.  Events set in motion at the birth of her oldest child, Gwenna, are shaping affairs both political and personal. She’s floundering, trying to reclaim some control of her own destiny – and she’s lost some of the resilience she had as a younger woman.

Cillian, thirty-three when we first meet him in Empire’s Hostage, is fifty-three. In a 7th century world, he’s far from young, and he’s coming to terms with the restrictions and losses of age.

I was growing old, and age brought loss, of things small and great: the acuity of hearing, the rapidity of thought… I had thought I accepted this decline; that my injuries had taught me to live with things lost.

The subplot of trying to live with loss, to rebuild lives shaken by uncertainty and unexpected change and its aftershocks, runs through the story, shaping it as I write. I can immerse myself in history and my faux-7th-century world. But the real world intrudes, influences, insists on inclusion, if in subtle and hidden ways; some, I may not even realize. Is this the book I would have written had there been no pandemic?  I doubt it.

Featured Image: The Aurelian Walls, Rome: Lalupa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Switching Brains

In last week’s post about the key lessons I’ve learned from years of project-based work, one raised questions in several readers’ minds:

Don’t wait for inspiration. Do whatever rituals you need to get yourself out of one space and back into the new one (for me it’s a 10 minute break to do a chore or two, then coffee and a read-through of the last thing I did on the project) and get to work. It may not be the best work you’ve done, but it will be a foundation, and, as the saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.

People were curious about the concept of rituals to prepare the mind for a new task. There are two ideas from educational theory and psychology embedded here, so let’s look at them one at a time.

In a 2017 article, Alison Wood Brooks, the O’Brien Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, studied the effect of a series of planned behaviours (a ritual) on the performance of people facing a stressful task. Her findings indicated ‘performing a ritual before entering a stressful situation can reduce feelings of anxiety and improve performance.’ Add to that the idea of giving your mind a bit of time to move from one area of focus to another, plus the benefits of movement on creativity (for more detail, read this paper by Stanford University researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz), and you have some of the science behind the idea of the planned transition from one task to the other. (If you think back to your high school days, this is pretty much what the break between classes was for: move a bit, go to you locker, switch textbooks/notebooks – telling your brain that chemistry is done, now it’s time for history.)

The second part of this is ‘activating prior knowledge’. There are a lot of ways for a writer to use this concept of building on what you already know, but in this specific example, it’s again part of the transition. Once the transition activities (the ritual) are done, you bring yourself back into the work by reading the last 500 words you wrote, or your notes, or your outline. This is pretty much the writing equivalent of the recap scenes at the beginning of some television series. (Those of us who don’t binge watch are very appreciative of these. After a week away from a show, I need those reminders!)  

In my house, we use the shorthand ‘switching brains’. Time to write the weekly grocery list just after I’ve finished an editing session? ‘Wait till I switch brains’, I’ll say to my husband. Then I walk around a bit, stretch, water plants, pick up the cat – that sort of thing – before I look at the menu board, and the whiteboard that has all the things we’ve scrawled down that we need during the week (activating prior knowledge again), find paper and pen, and begin the list with a mind ready to focus on it, and not wondering if that last paragraph still needs refining.

These are some of the things that keep my ADHD brain, which is easily overwhelmed by cognitive load, productive. They won’t work for everyone, and like all habits, they take time and commitment to develop. What techniques do you use to help with balance and focus when juggling a multitude of tasks?

Coffee Cup image by Pexels from Pixabay 

Featured image:  Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

10 Things I Learned from Project-Based Work

A writing friend, who will remain unnamed (but he knows who he is) suggested the idea of an anthology of novellas the other day, an idea which immediately intrigued me. But I have a book to finish, and a lot of other projects and responsibilities: editing for a client, reading for blog tours and a review site, marketing (my own books plus our press’s), research, the community newsletter for which I’m the chair, a local writers’ group, and then all those things that are not work but life. How do I fit in a novella?

Most of the work I did in my previous professional lives, which spanned roughly thirty-five years, was project based. As a research associate, I juggled lab and field research for several professors and graduate students. As a special education consultant for our school district, I was responsible for special education services to 15 schools, K – 12; two teams of itinerant teachers, and the entire design and implementation of assistive technology services and training for the whole district, as well as many other required responsibilities. I had to visit my schools regularly, consult with and train teachers and educational assistants, liaise with parents….the list was endless. And yet, somehow, it all got done.

Reflecting on all those years of project-based work, what did I learn that now helps me? 

  1. Taking time to plan is a necessity. Not only that, plan backwards from hard deadlines. If I must have X ready on Feb 28th, what do I need to do to be there?  How much time do I need to do it? Schedule that time plus 10%. Plan yearly, monthly and weekly, and revisit your plans every morning to tweak as necessary.
  2. Be firm with yourself. If you schedule 2 hours to work on something, give it the two hours. At 1 hr 45, stop. Write the notes you need to pick up on it again, but that’s it. Move on to the next thing.
  3. Have a system for notes, so when an idea for project X pops into your head when you’re working on Y, record it, in whatever way works for you, and go back to project X.
  4. Don’t wait for inspiration. Do whatever rituals you need to get yourself out of one space and back into the new one (for me it’s a 10 minute break to do a chore or two, then coffee and a read-through of the last thing I did on the project) and get to work. It may not be the best work you’ve done, but it will be a foundation, and, as the saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.
  5. Schedule down time, when your brain can just ponder on things. In my scientist days, that was either the walk between home and the university, which took about forty minutes each way, or the time spent driving out to research plots.  In my special ed days, the schools I was responsible for were anywhere from a half hour to an hour’s drive from my office. (I drove a lot.) Good mulling-over time.  Now it’s my daily walk, or my weekly get-out-of-the-city drive, or just my armchair in the late evening with a whisky and music.
  6. Do what’s most important first. I write between 8 and 10 in the morning: I may write more, but I get those two hours in at least 5 days a week. Then I work on other things scheduled by deadlines and importance. And don’t forget to schedule exercise and meals!!! (For a more detailed look at this, see this earlier post.)
  7. Be realistic, and do not spread yourself too thin – that way lies burnout. Say no to things, both to things your own writer’s brain offers you, and external things. Do they fit right now?  If marketing and branding matter to you, do they increase your exposure and promote your brand to the right market?  If they fit, but you don’t have time for them, take an hour, write some notes, and file it for when you’re finished what you’re doing now.
  8. Know when you need a break. For those of us who work full time from home, either as a result of COVID or because that’s what you always did, it’s really easy for the days to just blur and to work every single one of them. I mentioned my get-out-of-the city drives; I do these alone, with a packed lunch and a thermos of coffee in these COVID days, and I’m gone for 4 – 6 hours. Just me, the road, and music. If I don’t do this, I get very, very grumpy.
  9. Ask for help. No one else can write for you, but can they take something else off your plate to give you a little more time? Or give you feedback on a plot point or structure?  I’m blessed with a husband who’ll do all these things. If the project is externally driven, ask for extensions, or submit drafts for feedback before you get too far into it.
  10. Build in time for emergencies. This was the best piece of advice anyone ever gave me. They will happen, whether it’s as simple as a jammed printer or as serious as a visit to the emergency room. Nothing ever goes as planned. Equipment breaks, someone phones, a child or pet is sick, you’re unwell. Effectively, this means I leave one full day in my week unscheduled (separate from my driving day) – a catch up day if I need it, a day to do what I want if I don’t.

Gods, you may be thinking, I just like to write. What I’m reading here feels like a JOB. I write when I can, or when inspiration strikes, and I’m happy with that. If you are, that is wonderful, and I mean that wholeheartedly. I know my situation – my time is my own, without pressing family responsibilities just now – isn’t everyone’s. But if you’re struggling a bit with getting everything done, perhaps what I gleaned from decades in project-based work can help.

The Birth of a World

Yesterday, I was tidying shelves in my study. I found a spiral-bound notebook, a multiple-subject one with interior dividers, rather old and battered. For some reason, I leafed through it, checking to see if it was unused, I think.

Most of it was. But in the third section, there were a few pages of notes. The date on the top of the page was December 22, 1997. Twenty-three years ago, plus a few days. The first part of the entry was banal, comments on the weather (cold). But then:

The idea of an alternate world, a separate reality, similar to those of LeGuin in the EarthSea trilogy or Lynn, in the Dancers of Arun trilogy, is appealing. Into this world I could fit not only Lena, but Widowmaker, and, in a different form than first envisaged, even the story of my Norfolk family – all but the murder mystery, which is an entirely different genre.

Sometime over the holiday I hope to sketch the world, clearly Europe but modified – and perhaps do a rough timeline.

I just stared at it for a minute. I was 39 when I wrote those words; I’m 62 now. In that brief paragraph is the genesis of the world and characters that have lived in my mind for over two decades, and an acknowledgment of the two major influences in my world-building, Ursula LaGuin and Elizabeth A. Lynn. I felt like a historian of my own mind.

Several reactions occurred. (One of which was ‘good gods, my handwriting was nearly legible back then’.) Surprise was dominant: surprise that Lena – my MC of the Empire’s Legacy trilogy – had a name, a presence, as early as 1997. There must have been some work done, some notes or early paragraphs, because I’d treated Lena as a title, underlining it as academia taught me to (a habit I’ve never broken.) Another surprise was that my decision to create an alternate world, my analogue post-Roman northern Europe, was a conscious choice: I thought it had just emerged as I’d written.

And then there was the mystery: what was Widowmaker? Again, underlined, so a title. Of what? I had no memory at all of it…but as the afternoon progressed, and I thought about the word’s connotations for me (not the gun, nor the video-game character): a storm and fishing fleets, I remembered. At the time of Kenneth McAlpine, king of the Scots in the mid 9th century, the Picts ‘disappear’ from history. A theory proposed was the loss of most of their men in a ‘widowmaking’ storm while they were out fishing, leaving the women to be subsumed into the Gaelic culture. Clearly, I’d meant to do something with this concept.

Which, I believe, I did, because Empire’s Daughter opens with Lena, in her fishing boat, returning to a village devoid of men. For very different reasons…but was that seed of the idea that grew into my gender-divided world? I can’t know, so many years later. But I suspect so.

Then, of course, I spent some time leafing through other partly-filled notebooks, looking for more entries like this one, but without success. They must have existed, but in one bout of tidying up or another, they’ve been lost. Not that it matters: none would hold the wonder for me this one did, this glimpse into the birth of the alternate reality that I live in for at least part of each and every day.

The Drove Dogs

We halted at mid-day for a little food. The pony, which carried my shearer’s tools and our other supplies, browsed for grass. We sat on stones that marked the meeting place of the track from the torp we had left this morning and a broad valley running roughly north to south. We’d come up this valley, a week or so earlier.

I unwrapped the offal I’d boiled the night before and tipped it onto the ground, giving the dog permission to eat. She swallowed the meal before looking up at me for its next command. “Down,” I told her. “It’s time,” I said to Bjørn.

He nodded, and crouched to hug the dog, his arms circling its throat. He would miss her, I knew, but we couldn’t take her with us.

When he had let the dog go, I spoke. “Nell. Go home.” She stood, the breeze ruffling her black and white coat. “Home,” I said again. She turned and began to trot north, along the valley floor and the ancient droveway, the wide paths along which sheep and cattle had been moved for generations beyond count.

Bjørn watched her for a minute, his eyes dry. “Will she really find her way home?” he asked. “It’s a long way.”

“She’s done it several times,” I told him. “That’s why Harr Dugar chose her to accompany us. The torps will feed her, don’t worry.” I pulled up the pony’s head. “Do you want to ride?”

Empire’s Reckoning

Many years ago, long before I envisioned the world I write about in my Empire series – an analogue of Britain and northern Europe after the decline of Rome – I read a book called The Drove Roads of Scotland, by A.R.B. Haldane. (Landscape history, if you’re new to my blog, is an avocation of mine.)  I don’t remember a lot of it, but in a footnote, he made this observation:

‘Some years ago the late Miss Stewart Mackenzie of Brahan, Ross-shire, informed a friend that in the course of journeys by coach in the late autumn from Brahan to the South during her childhood about the year 1840 she used frequently to see collie dogs making their way north unaccompanied. On inquiring of her parents why these dogs were alone, [she] was informed that these were dogs belonging to drovers who had taken cattle to England and that when the droving was finished the drovers returned by boat to Scotland. To save the trouble and expense of their transport, the dogs were turned loose to find their own way north. It was explained that the dogs followed the route taken on the southward journey being fed at Inns or farms where the drove had ‘stanced’ and that in the following year when the drovers were again on the way south, they paid for the food given to the dogs…’

That passage stayed in my mind, in part because I immediately associated it with a classic book of my childhood, Lassie Come-Home, by Erik Knight, in which a collie, sold from necessity and taken to a remote part of Scotland, still finds her way home. Written in 1940, it predates Haldane’s book. Had Knight heard stories of the drove collies?  Perhaps; I can’t prove it: in fact, I can’t prove this story of the drove dogs sent home by themselves at all. Every source I’ve found simply links back to Haldane’s footnote.

But it’s a good story, one that fit into Empire’s Reckoning (even though it’s set a thousand or so years earlier), because my main character was travelling south with a sheepdog in the role of an itinerant sheep-shearer. But that’s not what he really is, and so the borrowed dog will need to be sent home. Does she make it?  Here’s a tiny excerpt from the work-in-progress, Empire’s Heir, set four years later.

Bjørn’s gaze swept the room, stopping at Druise. “Bjørn,” Sorley said, as the two men regarded each other, “if you for a moment doubt Druisius’s loyalty, I’ll regret having sent the dog back north, and not you.”

A bark of laughter. “I was pleased when you wrote to tell me she was safely home,” he said. “It still surprises me that a sheepdog can do that journey across all that wild land on its own.”

Empire’s Heir

And if you know of any reliable sources other than Haldane for this practice, please let me know!

The Well of Creativity

I used to work with a man who had all his best ideas in the shower. Others find running sparks creativity. For me, it’s driving. Not city driving, or bumper-to-bumper freeway driving, but long, mostly empty back roads (Blue highways, William Least-Heat Moon called them in his book about travel and place and belonging).

I was stuck, in my current work-in-progress, with a plot not complex enough for characters who are diplomats, subtle and devious. I needed a central conflict to have more layers to disguise a character’s behaviour. Pacing around the house didn’t help. So this morning, I went driving.

I’d gone perhaps 10 kilometers when something began to take shape, an idea rooted in a past book in the series and paralleling another subplot. Hmmm, I thought, this has potential. So what if…?  By 30 km from the house, I had the outline. At about 50 km, I pulled over into a church parking lot in a tiny village, took my notebook out of my bag, and wrote notes for twenty minutes.

What is it about easy driving (or showering, or running)? I think it’s the repetitious, known activity that frees part of your mind to wander; the motor function taking its needed neurons, and leaving the rest to be creative. (And for me, at least, I can talk aloud to myself when driving, and that seems to help.)

This has, I think, roots in my childhood, when we’d drive to see an aunt a few hours away, or even into the city to shop, a shorter trip. I couldn’t read in the car; it made me carsick, so I’d look out the windows and make up things about what I saw: if this were my farm, I’d paint the fences white, and have ponies. Maybe that road leads to an abandoned village, the houses still standing. I’ll bet owls live in that old barn. Daydreams, but also stories.

I wish cleaning shook loose creativity in the same way; then I’d be doing something else useful at the same time. But sadly it doesn’t. I need a passing landscape: flying doesn’t have the same effect, nor does night driving. Trains are wonderful, but I haven’t much call to take trains in Canada. And the car does need to be taken out occasionally.

The results of today’s drive will keep my work-in-progress focused for some time. But sooner or later I’ll bump up against another problem that will need solving, and off I’ll go.

How do you find your well of creativity?

Landscape and Memory

Dawn at Wood Buffalo National Park comes at about 4:30 am in mid-July, and with birdsong resounding through the trees, sleep is over. “Pure sweet Canada-Canada-Canada,” the white-throated sparrows sing, over and over.

It’s 1993, and we’re two weeks into the longest road trip we’ll ever do: 71 days across Canada in a Ford Escort, with a tent, a portable barbecue, and not much else. I love road trips: of all the things I can’t do because of the pandemic, this is probably the one I’m feeling the most. We’ve done endless trips – all 50 states, many several times (we drove to California from Ontario three times); all Canadian provinces and two of the three territories (Nunavut didn’t exist when we did the big cross-Canada trip.) Most of Australia. All of New Zealand. England, Scotland, Wales. Costa Rica, Belize, Japan, Taiwan, too many Caribbean islands to count. Mostly the two of us together, but I’ve gone on my own, too.

The mosquitoes are horrendous, which is why we’re the only people in the campsite at Wood Buffalo, maybe the only people camping in a park the size of Switzerland. We run from the tent to the lake to swim (it’s COLD) and back to the tent to dry off. Later this day we’ll walk for hours, plagued by flies, following wolf tracks and buffalo hoofprints in the dried mud of the trail.

But this isn’t a travel memoir. I wasn’t writing my series yet: that would begin a few years later. But so much of this trip is in my books, even though I was traveling in North America in the last decade of the 20th century, and my characters are in a fictional 7th century analogue European world. The memory of that plunge, naked (there was no one around, after all) into the lake at Wood Buffalo became a lake in a plain in Empire’s Exile. The flies are in the same book. So, too, is the experience of standing on a ridge in the Richardson Mountains in Yukon, and looking east, and seeing nothing but endless peaks and valleys, snowcapped even in July, hearing the whistles of marmots and the cries of golden eagles. If we’d travelled east through that wilderness, were it possible, the first significant population centre we would have come to would be Trondheim, Norway.

Dempsterhighway.jpg
Richardson Mountains from the Dempster Highway. Wikipedia, public domain.

That memory became the Durrains, the mountain range thought uncrossable that divides Lena’s land from whatever lies east, and that she and Cillian must attempt to cross, or die trying. But not just the physical geography, but the sense of a vast expanse of unknown territory, unknown people, unknown dangers…and somewhere, very far to the east, perhaps civilization.

The books are full of these landscape and place memories: someday perhaps I’ll go through and annotate them, just for fun. I have a strong suspicion that almost nothing in the landscape of my world is invented; I think they’re all just taken from one trip or another; in mountains or on coasts, the sounds of fishing villages, the crowds of a city, the ice on the wash water in the morning at a campsite.

Write what you know. So I write what I’ve experienced; weaving together memories from a thousand times and places; remembering the smells, the feel of the breeze, the flies and the birdsong – and how I felt: joy, exhaustion, irritation, fear. The blisters, the aching shoulders; thirst, hunger, desire. I give all those to my characters: my experiences become theirs.

But there is something I think is key to this: I was in those moments. I wasn’t photographing, or texting, or videoing; I wasn’t digitizing them or filtering them for someone’s consumption. I was there, fully. I was paying attention. Not because I knew I wanted them for a book, later – because that too is a filter. I was – on that trip and many others – simply experiencing the world I was in at that moment, creating memories that transfer themselves to words thirty years or more later almost effortlessly. So I guess that’s the answer – or one of them – to the question I’m asked most frequently: how do I build a world that feels so real?  By remembering it.

(With apologies to Simon Schama for borrowing the title of his marvellous 1996 book.)

Featured image: White Throated Sparrow by Becky Matsubara: Flickr. CC 2.0 licenses

The Dreaded Author Interview

Being interviewed as an author is one of those love/hate situations. We’d probably all be happy to talk about our books and characters – but not about ourselves! But we also know we shouldn’t turn down the chance to promote our work.

Here’s my latest author interview, from A Muse Bouche, an Ottawa-based writing site:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUFOo1wpNOZVKbvHfXdJdmg

Camera image by StockSnap from Pixabay; Frightened girl by Pezibear from Pixabay

Children: Out and Proud (A Re-post).

This isn’t exactly a guest post, but Bjørn Larssen’s newest post on his blog is the best (and funniest) description of how it feels to have a new book published and out in the world to be read (or not read) and reviewed I’ve ever seen. So follow this link! You won’t be disappointed.