the action or process of adapting or being adapted.
a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment.
I’ve been thinking a lot about adaptation recently, from three viewpoints: that of one of my characters; that of our lives under COVID, and that of the lives of all living beings on this planet in the face of ecological change. (The latter came about from my last birding column – I write one monthly for a small community publication- where I looked at the spread of turkey vultures into Canada in the last 50 years, and the reasons for it.)
My character, who is physically disabled as a result of war wounds, is also aging. His eyesight is beginning to fail, and he’s a teacher, a reader and a writer. As my books are set in early medieval times, there are a limited number of solutions. A long follower of Stoic philosophy, he’ll approach this with the same calm exterior as he has his physical limitations, although interior frustrations exist.
Write what you know. I’ve experienced a period in my life where medical treatments made a few things in my life physically impossible or limited my ability to be active. I’m pulling on how that felt; I’m also conscious of my own poorer eyesight, and the limits it’s already forcing. I use an big external screen, and my magnification in Word is set at 140%. But right now, what I use the most in thinking about his frustrations are my frustrations at the changes COVID has imposed on my writing life.
Full disclosure : what I’m whining about here is incredibly minor. It’s ridiculous to even complain. But we feel what we feel, sometimes, regardless of what Stoic philosophy or any other belief system tells us. I miss, sometimes horribly, the ability to write outside my home. I used to write, for part of my day, in coffee shops and the university library. Coffee shops when I needed the buzz of conversation, the supply of good coffee, and the occasional cookie – and almost always a writing friend to chat to about our respective work for a few minutes. The university library when I needed silence and access to books for research. (There was also our Monday morning writing group, three hours of coffee-and-tea fueled silent writing in a bar space above our town’s indie bookstore, followed by a two-hour writing-and-book-discussion lunch at the adjoining café.)
Plus I’d bike or walk downtown, and back, unless the weather was really horrible. So my days had their exercise built in. There’s a big hill between me and downtown, so walking was only an 8 km round trip, but biking needed an extended trip that gave me about 15 km of riding. I’m 62: I have arthritis in both my upper and lower spine; I have Dupuytren’s contracture in both hands, which makes my fingers ache after a while (thanks, Viking ancestor.) Posterior vitreous detachment has left me with more floaters than clarity in my left eye, and the right one’s not great either. All these aggravations of aging mean that taking lots of breaks, and changing my writing position during the day, are beneficial. Writing downtown meant that happened more or less naturally.
But this is all at a standstill. Now I write for two hours at my desk (and get up frequently to make coffee, eat breakfast, feed the cat, during that time) and then I go biking or walking for 90 minutes, come home, shower, and it’s just about time for lunch. That’s the morning taken care of. Afternoons – when I’m still on the computer, but doing other tasks – editing, beta reading, writing articles or blog posts, marketing – are not so well disciplined. I miss my in-the-flesh writing friends, but I’ve made several good virtual friends via Twitter, and we spend time chatting back and forth. A much needed and appreciated interaction, but I’m still at the computer. My phone timer goes off every 45 minutes, reminding me to get up. I clean the house 15 minutes at a time, to make myself move. I do floor exercises. I do laundry. I water our pots of tomatoes and peppers. I walk to the mailbox. I’m adapting my behaviour, because changes in our ecology – the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – has forced me to.
I consider myself lucky that I have somewhere to channel these feelings, into the frustrations felt by my characters as their own lives are constrained by circumstance. Not just the one character’s physical limitations, but others, too: my characters all regret, for various reasons, their distance from family; the inability to hug or kiss many of those they love; the constraints on travel. They too are privileged, within their society; they too have adapted. But I’m guessing the book I’m writing, and the books still to be written, will be subtly different than they would have been if COVID hadn’t come. Adapted, you might say.
Why is music so important in my books? I’m not a musician; I can’t play an instrument, carry a tune, or even keep time. Write what you know, right? You wouldn’t think I’d write about music.
But one of the themes of my books is language, and what it can and can’t do: in my protagonist Lena’s words, they are in part
about language, and meaning, and if all concepts were universal, and could be translated. About the gap between intent and comprehension, between what was meant and what was understood, and the assumptions and shared experience encompassed—or not—in any exchange.
Music, in my books, is another form of language, a way to communicate that goes beyond words to invoke memory and emotion. I introduce this in the very first book, Empire’s Daughter, when the character Tice teaches Lena a song about exile and lost love (introducing another major theme of the series). In book 2, Empire’s Hostage, Lena learns that in Linrathe, the country north of the Wall, song is used to teach history – and more than history, in truth – a sense of national identity.
Song weaves its way through the next book, Empire’s Exile, too: its role in entertainment, in ritual, in status among a group of warriors. It communicates regret, love, loss – and is a vehicle to bring two people together.
But it’s in the two books that the musician Sorley narrates: Oraiáphon and Empire’s Reckoning, that music takes centre stage. Its role in Oraiáphon is pivotal to the story – without giving away the plot, I’ll just say that Oraiáphon is my world’s equivalent of classical mythology’s Orpheus.
Music is central to Sorley’s identity, and as the author I take advantage of that. Music highlights the differences between him and the two men in his life: with pragmatic Druisius, the instruments they play are similar, but the tunings are different, and to Druisius, all Sorley’s songs are sad. With Cillian, whose use of language is precise and subtle, honed by his years as a diplomat, Sorley’s contrasting use of song to influence through emotion reflects their characters:
“Stories told by you, with all your scáeli’s skills?” Cillian asked. “A tale spun to coerce and convince, my lord Sorley?”
Of all the books in the series, Empire’s Reckoning focuses most on the influence and limitations of language: of oaths made and broken, of the power of words spoken and unspoken – and the role of music in conveying what words cannot. That’s why I, a weaver of words, write about music.
You can hear Sorley sing his beautiful Paths Untroddenhere.
I had begun to write Empire’s Heir, the book I thought would be the next in my series, set about 18 years after the end of Empire’s Exile. The narrator was Gwenna, daughter to two of the main characters in the previous series. Early on, she was mentally describing another character, Sorley, and in that unfiltered flow that happens sometimes, from subconscious brain to keyboard, she told me something about him that made me stop and say “What? How? When?”
So then I had to tell his story, because it was important.
But because I hadn’t known I was going to, so I hadn’t thought about this story at all, it took a long time to take shape. I scrapped the first draft at 80,000 words and started again. At 130,000 words, I excised 40K to become the novella Oraiáphon. I wrote a bunch more, revised, cut, trimmed….and it still wasn’t right. Then one day I wrote one paragraph…and suddenly it WAS right.
It went out to beta readers and my developmental editor. Beta readers loved it, with some wise suggestions. The developmental editor did not, for both structural and story reasons. I listened, accepted some structural revisions, ignored the story reasons – because what he hated was the thing I hadn’t known, the thing the character Gwenna had told me way back when. (He still doesn’t like it, but we’re agreeing to disagree.)
So today the book that nearly wasn’t is out in the world, and some people will agree with my beta readers, and some with my developmental editor, and some will be in-between. That’s ok, because no book is right for everyone.
A deep breath, a few weeks to relax, and I’ll start (again) on Empire’s Heir.
You can read the first chapter of Empire’s Reckoning here…and hear Paths Untrodden, Sorley’s song for Cillian.
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“Show, don’t tell.” Every writer has heard this axiom. But there are times when telling is appropriate, briefly – and times when too much definitely gets in the way of a compelling story. In my work with developing writers, I ask them to analyze their manuscripts for two types of telling: exposition, and telling within conversation. Both can be problematic, when they occur in large clumps.
In this screenshot of part of a manuscript, red is expositional telling, and blue is conversational telling. By looking at his work in this way, the author could see two problematic areas: first, the large section of red (exposition) in the first eight pages of the story, and then the three-and-a half pages of conversational telling in the last row. (A closer look also shows us that in the first 10 pages, there’s a lot of conversational telling too, especially when considered alongside the exposition. This is the classic mistake of a huge info-dump in the first pages of a book.)
I find that by having a writer identify this on their own, it’s less threatening, less of a style critique and more of an impersonal analysis. We’d had some solid discussions about what telling looks like, and what are alternatives, before he began this. He’s learned to recognize both forms of telling, and is better placed to judge his own use.
Colour-coding has other applications, too. Right now this same author and I are working through his stories to see if he’s included all the 12 steps of the hero’s journey. (Do you have to include them all? That’s a discussion for another day.)
Another version of colour-coding is using the Find & Replace function to colour words. (Instructions below.) Here’s an example. Using the Advanced feature of Find & Replace, I asked Word to make every ‘was’ in my most recent manuscript red.
It’s a quick visual to show me which pages to analyze, without having to read the entire book again. (Plus, I tend to get lost in my own story when I do that, and miss what I’m there to edit!)
How do you use colour-coding? I’d love to hear your ideas!
Here are the screenshots showing you how to use Find & Replace to colour words:
From the pulldown menu, choose Advanced Find.
Then, enter ‘was’ in both the find and replace boxes. Click in the Replace box, and then go to the Format button on the lower left. Choose the settings illustrated, and then choose Replace All in the first dialogue box.
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In Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing, the one that has always resonated with me is this one: “Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
The tendency to keep refining my work is there. I can agonize over ever word, moving them around, adding, subtracting, to see if my intent is better expressed, if the emotion is stronger, the scene more intense. But if I do that, my books will never see the light of day. And I have more writing to do.
Empire’s Reckoning is done. It’s been structurally-edited, line-edited, revised, copy-edited, beta-read, sensitivity read, revised again, and the first ARCs are out. Twenty-two months of the most difficult writing I’ve done. I threw out the first draft almost completely and began again after 80,000 words. I excised 45K to become the novella Oraiáphon. I had difficulty finding my protagonist’s voice; I had difficulty with the two-timeline structure. And I had difficulty telling the story, because to tell my characters’ stories honestly and authentically, I challenge perceptions and presumptions about them. Not all my readers will be comfortable with how the story unfolds, I think, and that too was another difficulty.
“Move on, and write the next thing,” Mr. Gaiman says, but I can’t, not yet. I need time to let these characters who have lived so intensely in my mind for up to twenty years step back. They’re not disappearing, but they are giving way to the next generation; they will become secondary characters over the next two books in the series. I need time to get to know my new protagonist as an adult, to hear her voice clearly. I know the major story arcs of the next book, political and personal – or at least I think I do – but she needs to be living those conflicts, not being a puppet I move around within them.
I’ve lived, over the past almost-two years, a period of about eighteen months in my characters’ lives, a period for them of intense emotion, political intrigue, and personal growth. When I see them again, they’ll all be four years older, my original main characters feeling the aches – physical and spiritual – of middle age; the young ones the challenges and frustrations that come with taking their places in the world. It’ll be a bit like visiting friends or family you only see once or twice a decade, and get holiday and birthday cards from, but not much else: there will be a lot of catching up to do.
Sometime in the next week or two, I’ll clean up my study. I’ll take down the pictures of the actors that represent my characters at the stage of life they were at in Reckoning, and the pictures of northern Scotland and Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall and the Caledonian Forest that have kept me in the landscape of my book. The mindmaps and charts and even the song lyrics that line my study wall will go in a banker’s box and be relegated to the basement. I’ll back up all the files.
And then, in a few weeks, I’ll start replacing them: I’ll find pictures of my new protagonist as a young woman, not the girl she is in Reckoning. I’ll find the pictures of Rome that will inform the streets of Casil, its analogue city in my series and where most of the story of Empire’s Heir will take place. Empire’s Reckoning will be out in the world, for better or worse, and it will really be time to move on. Knowing that, following one more of Neil Gaiman’s rules, I’ve written my story as it needed to be written, honestly, and as best I can.
…And the wind lifting the song, and interrupting it, Tossing it up under the clouds.
And all this comes to an end, And is not again to be met with…
Exile’s Letter, by Li Po ( c.760 AD), translation by Ezra Pound
I’ve been thinking, perhaps not surprisingly in a life where we are all estranged from normalcy just now, about the concept of exile. It is the dominant theme in my series Empire’s Legacy, although it is explored most strongly in the last book, Empire’s Exile. I read a number of poems and stories about exile while I was writing Empire’s Exile; about physical banishment, but also about spiritual and psychological exile, because the book isn’t just about being physically outcast. Some of those expressions of exile stayed with me more than others, no more so than a small excerpt from the Chinese poet Li Po’s greatest poem: the idea of a random wind, a random act, (a random virus?) interrupting an idea or a life, ending joy. Very close to the end of my book, I echoed his thoughts in these lines:
A gust of wind rattled the grasses. If he replied, I did not hear the words. I raised my head for one last, long kiss, and then he stood, holding out his hand.
“Time does not stop,” he said, “for all we wish it might.”
Homage to a great poet, but also a purposeful echo. Not one I expect one reader in a thousand to hear, but that’s all right. Sometimes the influences are more obvious; sometimes they’re subtle.
In my upcoming release, Empire’s Reckoning, there is a stronger echo of a classic tale of exile, purposely done. I was acknowledging the importance of a certain – what? – story, mythology, archetype? – in my soul, when I chose to do this. In this case – and I’m not going to tell you what it is – it influenced both how the plot develops and a specific setting in the story. Some readers will see it. Some with recognize a familiarity but won’t quite identify its source. Some may do neither. All of this is, again, all right. Books speak to us on different levels, and writers write on different levels, too, and sometimes we don’t fully know what those are. But it too is about exile.
Edward Said, in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, wrote
“exile is…the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement.”
“Homesickness swept through me, a wave of longing: cianalas, in my tongue,” my narrator Sorley tells us in Empire’s Reckoning. The crippling sorrow of estrangement; the unhealable rift that only compromise and perhaps a reluctant acceptance can even begin to bridge.
I didn’t know I’d be releasing this book into a world forced into involuntary separation and distance. We are all homesick now, longing for the world we had. In Li Po’s translated words, again:
If you ask how I regret that parting?
It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end,
Confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking? And there is no end of talking—
I used to work in a job so multi-faceted and complex that when I left, I was replaced by two people. I had dozens of projects on the go, several teams of people to oversee, and a huge budget to manage. There is no doubt I worked too hard and too long, and I left burnt out, but I also learned some very valuable lessons in managing time and projects that I still use today in my third career as a writer, editor and the coordinator of a small indie collective press.
I’ll throw in my usual caveats here: I’m in my 60s; no children, and this is what I do full time. I’m not balancing another job, children, elderly parents, house renovations, commuting…life. (I did, though, minus the children, and that’s why my first book took 12 years to write.)
I recognized my lack of organizational skills somewhere in grad school. I have ADHD, which has both its own challenges and its own rewards, the ability to hyperfocus for long periods of time on certain things being the most obvious positive feature (for me). But I needed processes to replace my poor executive function, because without them, it was and is all too easy to be overwhelmed with the amount of work in front of me. And if I get overwhelmed, I simply do nothing.
I won’t bore you with a list of the books I read and the methods I tried. Most didn’t work; they required too much time and focus. But I took bits from most of them, and now I have a system that works fairly well. It’s quick and it’s visual, both requirements for me.
As you can see, I use a series of checklists, and a forward-projection of the dates on which each project needs to be completed. This allows me to then subdivide the project into chunks, and schedule those, as well, working backwards from the completion date.
Then I use a daily planner. I know I’m most productive in the mornings, so between 8:30 and 11:30 is my intensive work time. That’s my time to work on my own book, when I have one in progress – and when I am actively writing, it’s nearly every day. I don’t wait for creativity to strike: most of the time, once I start, the words will flow. Perhaps not as well as I’d like, but as the saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.
When I’m not actively writing, this is the time I use to learn something new or do in-depth research: whatever the big tasks are that the board shows me I need to complete. I take a couple of breaks, for movement and coffee, usually sneaking in a load of laundry or some other household chore.
After lunch I’ll generally check emails & social media, deal with anything important (or amusing) and then work on non-writing projects (that includes editing other people’s work or doing video meetings with other writers) for an hour or two. Exercise next, a walk or cycling for at least an hour and then another hour or so on ‘little’ things, tasks that don’t take a lot of creativity, such as updating websites, checking analytics, filling out forms, sending information out. But even most of those – barring an urgent response – have been scheduled, again to prevent me from feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. Then I settle down with a cup of tea and read – books for review and/or pleasure – for 15 minutes to half an hour.
A few nights a week I work between about 10 and midnight: that’s a different sort of creative time for me, the time I write scenes that never make it into the book, but teach me about my characters and their responses; the time I do mindmaps of the major themes and conflicts of the story, the free-flowing ‘right brain’ associations and lateral thinking taking over. I’m about half-way between the poles of pantser and plotter, and this time is completely necessary to my writing process, and very different from the task-oriented approach I use the rest of the time. I’ll likely have music on, songs that relate to my work-in-progress in some manner. I might read poetry, looking for epigraphs or just for the expression of emotion I too am looking to convey.
Of course, life gets in the way of any schedule. One of the best pieces of advice I ever read was to not overschedule your day, so that there is room for the interruptions and minor ‘emergencies’. Friday afternoons are unscheduled, for catch-up, and my weekends look different from Monday to Friday: I may work for myself, but I still get weekends! Groceries and cleaning and movie matinees and dinners with friends (well, not the two last ones just now, in the middle of COVID-19 social distancing) are all part of the week too.
Does it work perfectly? Of course not. I have days when I’m just too scattered, and that’s likely a day I choose to do something that I know I will hyperfocus on – designing ads, doing layout, or very detailed editing on my own work – and sometimes I just need to walk away from everything. But when I come back, the structure is there to guide me as to priorities: I don’t have to reinvent them. It keeps my mind calmer, and when my mind is calm, I’m productive.
Oh, and I have one other necessary ingredient in all this: coffee!
When I tell other writers that my critique partner is also my life partner, reactions tend to fall into two categories: ‘how wonderful’, or, ‘OMG, that would split us up!’. It works well for us, but why?
Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s the definition of a critique partner that I’m using here: A critique partner is a fellow writer with whom you exchange critiques of your manuscripts. In the marvellous article by K.M. Weiland that I borrowed this definition from, she goes on to list and discuss the qualities a writer should look for in choosing a critique partner. I’m not going to reiterate them – you can read the article! Instead, I’m going to look at what matters in the relationship between critique partners, and how we’ve developed these.
Brian and I are both writers, in different stages of our profession. But our respect for each other’s abilities goes way beyond writing. We’ve been together for 42 years; we met in university. We both did advanced degrees in related subjects, and worked together on research, even co-authoring research articles. My expertise there was more technical; his was more theoretical. We complemented each other. Our next careers, both in education, were again different but complementary. Finally, we share a major hobby: birding. Again, we know our skills support each other. Seeing a bird in flight, I can identify bird families easily; given that, he can narrow down species faster than I can, usually.
Important in this was watching each other (and helping each other) learn, as scientists and teachers and birders. We have confidence in each other’s ability to grow in a field, to take theoretical knowledge and translate it to action. So as we learn and develop as writers, together and separately, we strengthen each other’s writing. For example, he’s a much better plotter than I am, and quick to point out where my plot is weak or inconsistent. I’m a better stylist, hearing the cadence and flow of words better than he can.
Respect for differing skills is an advantage I’ve heard from other writers, too. At Maple Mystery Games, co-creators Jan and her husband John work together. John is best at plot twists, while she is the detail person. “I tend to brainstorm ideas with hubby at the start of writing a murder mystery game and also when I first work on creating characters. His brain works in a different way to mine,” Jan said.
We’re not competing. I write adult alternate-world historical fiction, character-driven books focused on personal choices in difficult times. He writes plot-driven young adult fantasy. But we are both committed to helping each other write the best books we can, and we know how to separate the building blocks of craft from the emotional attachment to the stories we are writing.
An advantage of your life partner as your critique partner is that in the middle of brushing your teeth you can say to them, ‘Do you think Character A would react in this way?’ (While our books aren’t the only subject of conversation between us, it does sometimes sound that way.) We know each other’s world and characters very, very well, but without the same degree of emotional attachment. So when Brian told me a while back that in my latest book (where the previous MC is now a supporting character) that he didn’t like how I was portraying her, I knew he had a valid point. When I told him I thought a supporting character in his series needed a larger role (and why) he agreed, after consideration.
This advantage can also be a disadvantage. Sometimes we’ve had enough of each other’s world and characters, especially if we’re working on a tough plot point, or an external worry or commitment has to take priority – or we just want to shut up and watch television. Trust here means knowing the other one will get back to that question, just not right now.
This is not always easy! I am the world’s worst verbal communicator, especially off-the-cuff, and on top of that, much of what I know about writing – especially style – is instinctive. Often, I don’t know how to explain my suggestions. Add to that my tendency to pick up terms and jargon quickly, and my explanations to Brian are often sources of frustration. He is much more precise. We can both be very blunt.
But we listen to each other, even when the instinctive reaction is ‘no’. Sometimes the first reaction is right, but most of the time the other person’s opinion needs serious consideration. Mostly we discuss the differing viewpoints, searching out the reasons behind the suggestions and critiques.
Is there a down side? Only, I think, that by the time the work-in-progress reaches the end of the first draft, we each know plot twists and reveals so well it’s hard to read with fresh eyes. But even then, Brian’s read-through of the latest version of Empire’s Reckoning, my WIP, resulted in thoughtful, appropriate and necessary criticisms, which I am in the process of addressing. Then it’ll be on to the beta-readers.
When both writing and travel are important, how do you balance the two? I’m on the road far too often to not write while travelling, or I’d never get my books finished. Over the years they’ve been written at picnic tables in campsites and parks all over North America; in cafes across the world; in planes and trains and ships; and in tents in Mongolia and cottages in England.
There are three major considerations to writing while travelling: teaching yourself to write anywhere; keeping your work safe, and managing the technology. I didn’t used to be able to write unless I had complete privacy. Some of that was the beginner writer’s desire for secrecy, the reluctance to reveal to the world what I was doing. As I became more confident, and as I had deadlines to meet, that reluctance dissolved. The deeper I am into a story, the easier it is for me to write absolutely anywhere.
If noise distracts you, consider earplugs or listening to music. Or start with planning, writing character sketches, descriptions: background information you’ll need, if you can’t get into your story in a public place. I do better with dialogue; often I’ll fill in the description and actions afterwards, but I can almost always ‘hear’ the discussion between my characters, wherever I am.
Several years ago, just before a 9-week, 4-country, 27-flights trip, I bought a tiny laptop: not a netbook, because I am almost always places without internet. It fits neatly into my backpack, cost me $300 Canadian, and it has SD-card storage, as well as USB. Several points here: if I lose the laptop, or it’s stolen, or broken, it was cheap. Secondly, the removable storage was important. My work is not on the hard drive. It’s saved to the SD card, and to a flash drive, and those two things are kept (separately) on my body with my passport and wallet. Plus, I back up to cloud storage whenever and wherever possible, so my work is as secure as I can make it. It’s easy to get sloppy about doing this, but so far I’ve maintained the discipline…and when my laptop stopped working in Fiji (it didn’t like the 100% humidity) I could relax, knowing I wasn’t losing work. (It began working again back in drier, air-conditioned Canada, and has kept on working ever since.)
Managing the technology is again mostly a matter of discipline. Charge the laptop whenever you can: this means ensuring you have adaptor plugs. Carry a spare charge cord – unlike iPhone charge cords, which I’ve been able to buy everywhere in the world except Antarctica, it’s not easy to get a replacement laptop cord. Because my husband and I have identical laptops, we always have two charging cords. If access to electricity is rare, run your laptop on airplane mode, with the Wifi search off too – it will save power. Dim your screen. Turn it OFF, not to sleep. And of course, carry notebooks and pens or pencils. Writing doesn’t require a laptop – I just prefer it.
Finally, don’t leave your laptop at security after it’s been x-rayed. That may sound self-evident – but for all my experience, I’ve done it twice, in busy airports where security was busy and crowded. Luckily both times we were called back!
What are your tips for writing when traveling? Please share!