I will often get to the very last sentence of a nonfiction piece and find myself stymied. It is as though I can hear the tone of the thing, the notes I want to hit, but am waiting on lyrics.
When this happens, it usually plays out like this: I’ll polish up the article. Then I will spend ten or twenty minutes rearranging the few sentences before the yet-to-be-written ending. This can be followed by a denial phase. Maybe now that I have prettied that up, I can just stop. Damn! No! What if I rearrange thusly?
Eventually I buckle down and just grind out an approximation of whatever it is I’m trying to say, and then buff that from nonsense into coherence. Sometimes I give myself an extra public pants kick by tweetin’ about how I got those last line blues again. This triggers many helpful* suggestions on Facebook (“Write THE END”). Other times I whine via email to Snuffy, and then try to have something before she gets back to me.
This syndrome doesn’t manifest quite the same way with fiction. If I am writing a story, I will often end a session mere paragraphs from the end. Somehow, that feels okay, like waiting for a first layer of paint to dry. There are even times when the end comes early, and just waits for me to ravel together the beginning-middle-crisis.
The current story, tentatively titled “Among the Silvering Herd” has been weirdly recalcitrant, though, my writerbrain refusing to choke up a last line… until today. I am so happy that I finally have it. I am not such a one as enjoys thrashing with the same 250 words for two frickin’ weeks.
*By which I mean “helpful.” As in, with air quotes.
When I sat down to write this post, it occurred to me that I’d written Faces of Gemini after I started blogging, so I went digging in my old Livejournal entries and found this:
Sept 16, 2003 … the current story, provisionally entitled “Shards.” It’s completed–the first draft was 3,400 words and now after a couple revisions it’s up to 51K. By the time I’ve fleshed out the setting and converted some of the dialogue to narrative (it’s a bit too talky) it’ll probably hit 6K.
Do I care how long it ends up being? No, not really. But I’m interested in the way that my last two drafts have been extremely spare, with much adding in subsequent drafts. It’s a technique I want to play with. Where’s the line between spare draft and ornate outline? Can I find it? Do I want to?
And then on September 29th – I got a story off to market today. It’s called “Faces of Gemini,” it’s 7K words long, and it was originally drafted only two and a half weeks ago.
What I remember about this story is that it was one of two that came up suddenly, under almost exactly the same circumstances. Emily Pohl-Weary was working on the book that became Girls Who Bite Back: Witches, Mutants, Slayers and Freaks, and she had heard that I was a feminist comics nerd (though she put it more tactfully than that) and asked if I wanted in.
I love writing for theme anthologies. For me, a bit of a restriction on what I can write poses a fundamentally sexy challenge. I start with ‘what would fit here?’ and usually slide pretty quickly into ‘what can I get away with?”*
The idea I came up with in this case was very much a prose version of a four-color hero team comic, your X-Men, Justice League of America type of book, one whose founders were falling apart. I remember outlining it in detail, really planning every little shift and revelation. Time was short, and I didn’t want to find myself wandering down any interesting ten thousand word side streets. The outline developed from a group of sticky notes on a wall into a series of twenty sentences, each of which laid out what I wanted to achieve. I then fleshed them out, in record time.
I did almost exactly the same thing with Origin of Species, but I haven’t pulled it off in quite the same way since, despite some attempts. The particular mixture: short deadline, limited space, specific antho requirements, had some kind of alchemical effect that hasn’t come together again. The crucible may have been stress: I wrote both stories at an emotionally challenging point in the life of me.
*Walter Jon Williams, I’ve heard, works from the proposition: What will everyone else do, and how can I go 180 degrees in the other direction?
“The Children of Port Allain” is the example I pull out when someone asks me where I get my ideas… because I happen to remember exactly.
The story is a distorted vision of life on the rainy, forestry-dependent West Coast of B.C., this place:
It was back in the days when I still followed current events, which would put it before 2001. I would usually have CBC Radio One on for an hour or two when I was cooking or playing Asheron’s Call, and in that time I might catch the local news twice, as well as a national or international broadcast.
On one such occasion, the B.C. news had two stories back to back. The first was about a Vancouver Island town whose core employer, a pulp mill, was closing down. The town council was, therefore, wooing a medicinal marijuana operation to come in and set up shop, the idea being that the government-anointed pot growers would replace the lost jobs.
The second story was about a newly paroled pedophile who was getting hounded from town to town. He’d settle somewhere, there’d be an outcry, and eventually he’d try somewhere else.
“Where should these people go?” the interviewer asked one of the most recent hounders in this story.
“What do we care as long as it’s not here?” was the reply.
What happened, naturally, was my writerbrain came up with a mashup: the same desperate pulp-mill town, working up a scheme to create jobs by becoming a haven for paroled child molesters.
“The Children of Port Allain” is a prickly, uncomfortable story. There’s no overt violence in it, but it’s unsavory by design: if it was something you found in the back of your fridge, you’d imagine you could still smell it weeks later, even after giving your kitchen a nice bleach flambe. It’s about how kids live where their parents do, whether it’s next to a toxin-emitting mill or a prison; it’s not a great conspiracy, just a fact of life. It’s about the idea one hears lofted, sometimes, that anything is okay as long as one’s creating jobs. It wasn’t much of a surprise, once it was written, to find I had a little trouble finding it a home. But then I found myself at Norwescon on a panel where someone asked where my inspiration came from. I told the above anecdote and my friend, Derryl Murphy, who happened to be in the audience, said I should send it to On Spec.
“It’s too long,” I replied automatically. (Their word limit, then as now, is 6000 words.)
“Tell ’em I said it was okay,” Derryl said, and the eventual result was that the story appeared in their Summer 2003 issue.
First, an exciting contest announcement: Favorite Thing Ever is giving away a copy of Indigo Springs. Entering is easy: surf here, leave a comment, and you’ll be in the running to win. No skill testing questions are involved.
Speaking of skill-testing, I am embarking on a new novel this morning.
I had been thinking to write a couple more squid stories, to go with the three already published and the two that are about to hit the market. However, after a couple of weeks of thrashing around the Battle of Las Vegas, I’ve conclusively determined that my head’s not currently in the Proxy War. So, as an experiment, I switched over to detailed planning on THE RAIN GARDEN, my next mystery project. Things clicked immediately. Presto, plotto, kazam!–I have an outline.
My plan as of two weeks ago had been to blast through a very rough draft of this book in November, as a Nanowrimo thing. Barring fire, flood and the common cold, I find that two thousand words a day for thirty days (less a couple days off) is a pretty sustainable pace for me. But since I’m ready now I’m darnwell gonna start now, keeping the end-of-November finish date but moving at more of a 900-word daily target. That will leave time for days off, a visit to Alberta, and Orycon.
I like the sustained push-push-focus of Nanowrimo, but it does tend to leave me bug-eyed and gibbering well into December. And there’s no reason to hold off if I’m ready to write the book now.
So, hey! What are all of you working on this autumn?
“What Song the Sirens Sang” was commissioned by Xtra West, Vancouver’s queer newspaper, a couple of years ago. The paper was doing a special issue on the future of the local community and the Davie Village, which is where most of the local bars, Little Sisters bookstore, and the paper itself are based. As they were planning, someone asked: what if we get an SF writer to do a story? So the paper’s editor, Robin Perelle, reached out, and we agreed I’d write them a piece.
During the time prior to all this, there had been a couple gatherings–birthday parties, mostly–where the idea of a small group of friends potlucking its way through a disaster had been bandied about. All in fun, you understand. Nobody took it seriously, nobody built a bunker or hoarded food or actually tried to plan. It was one of those in-jokes that come up: Muffy will figure out how to sterilize water, Buffy will run the goat farm, Tuffy will learn to make brick walls, and so on. For this story, I imagined a global-climate-change-meets-falling-human-fertility type of eco-disaster, and then elevated the Potluck of the Apocalypse from a joke into a necessity-mothered creation. In this story, the world we know lives on only in remnants, and one of those is this thriving community of tough old queers from my age cohort.
I further imagined that this queer community, despite the ongoing need to put survival first, would maintain some of our important cultural traditions, even as it continued to embrace people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or genetic mutation.
When I write about activist communities, I tend to celebrate what I like best in them: the way people can act in solidarity, the way these actions sometimes bring victory. I skip the endless tedious meetings, the drama, the arguing over semantics, the people who threaten to quit whenever something doesn’t go their way, the exhaustion, the burnout, and the soul-crushing defeats. “What Song the Sirens Sang,” (much like my more recent story, “The Cage“) is a rose-colored view of a complex and often fractious group process. It is grassroots activism dressed in its holiday best. These stories are about the times when everyone shows up, pulls together, and where–collectively and as individuals–we really are the people we imagine ourselves to be.