“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
Mark Twain

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

speaking of floral f-bombs
Wed 2014-07-02 23:18:27 (single post)
  • 51,730 wds. long
  • 5,984 wds. long

Yesterday's successful last-minute completion of "Caroline's Wake" and submission of same to its very first market (which has now sent me an receipt acknowledgement email of the "We look forward to reading it" variety, which I believe means I no longer need fear that it will be deleted unread due to various infractions of the... idiosyncratic guidelines) has led to the usual feeling of "now what?"

The pressure's off. The deadline's past. The battle's been fought and won. So... "Now what am I supposed to do?"

This should not be a hard question. There's always the next story in the revision queue. There's always content writing for fun and small amounts of profit. And there's always the novel I'm supposed to be working on every day but, well, haven't.

"The" novel. Honestly, that's more like the twelve or fourteen or so novel drafts that have been accumulating since I first discovered the existence of National Novel Writing Month. But my serious efforts this year have been on behalf of Iron Wheels (working title, naturally), the YA urban fantasy teen romance roller derby novel that I tried to write last November.

I've started poking at it again, picking up where I left off re-envisioning its eagle's-eye-view outline with Randy Ingermanson's "Snowflake Method" for novel-writing. One of the steps in this Snowflake Method is to write a synopsis of the story from the point of view of each character. It's actually a lot of fun, and a useful reminder that every character is the protagonist in their own autobiography. When the "real" protagonist is being heroic out in the forest approaching the castle, the evil overlord isn't just sitting up in the high tower playing solitaire and twiddling his or her thumbs. The evil overlord is living that story, too, and from his or her point of view, they're the main character and the hero.

What I'm mostly uncovering is the fact that I don't actually know what the evil overlord--which is to say, the Faerie Queen--I don't actually know what her story looks like. I know its general arc, from wanting to having to losing to desperately trying to regain to finally resigning herself to loss in the end--the story arc of an antagonist is often tragic--but not its details. So I keep poking away at it, hoping details will fall out of it like candy.

By the way, did you know Shakespeare never actually named the flower that Oberon and Puck use to restore everyone to normal at the end of "A Midsummer's Night Dream"? The love spell flower, the one that causes all the ruckus in the first place, that one he names. Heck, he even gives that flower an origin myth (apparently Cupid is a bad shot with that bow of his). But despite what my big book of illustrated retold Shakespeare stories for young readers led me to believe, the flower that cures everyone has no name or reference other than "Dian's bud," which has greater power than "Cupid's flower" and thus can nullify love spells.

("Dian" of course is "Diana," also known as Artemis, the chaste Goddess of the Hunt and of the Wild. I have opinions about this whole "pristine wilderness = celibate woman" thing. My own personal theory is, it got thought up by men who considered women's only roles in sex to be "witholder of" or "endurer of." If you consider that there's another role, "enthusiastic participant," then you start wondering why Diana/Artemis wasn't allowed to enjoy any of what Her forest critters were getting plenty of.)

(Oddly, there is a plant called Artemisia that sounds like, via Artemis, it ought have something to do with this "Dian's bud" business, but no, it's thought to be the bitter "wormwood" Hamlet namedrops.)

Anyway, I'm kind of relieved. I wanted to reference the Shakespearan herbs by name when that very same type of love spell gets cast and later broken in my novel (and I'm still having thoughts about that), but damned if I was going to refer to any herb as "Sweet Normality" with a straight face.

Not, mind you, that "Love-in-idleness" is any easier to take seriously.

multitasking does not come with an OFF switch
Tue 2014-06-17 23:35:35 (single post)
  • 6,434 wds. long

I printed out the story, all 28 pages of it in standard manuscript format. (How did it get to be 28 pages long? How did it reach 6,500 words?) I always self-edit better from paper than from the computer screen. It's how I read others' manuscripts for critique, too. Put a double-spaced, 12-point story in front of me and a brightly colored pen in my hand, and it's like flipping the "editor" switch on in my head. The manuscript will be full of scribbles by the time I'm done. (I always worry that the sheer number of scribbles will alarm the author whose manuscript I just defaced. I have thoughts, I think them on the page, I think them in quantity and with great verbosity.) It doesn't matter if the story is mine or someone else's; the resulting forest of scribble is just as profuse.

Trying to take my own advice, I went into tonight's read-through trying to focus on one thing only, and nothing but that one thing. On this pass, that thing was making the house more of a quasi-sentient character. Basically, there's a bit at the beginning of the wake scene, where Demi remembers someone commenting...

that the house was "too big," that two women and one small child rattled around in it like the last three beans in the bin. Demi had protested mildly and with perfect accuracy, "It's everything we need."

Which, in my head, meant that the house provides everything they need, up to and including extra rooms for parties or a nursery for when Caroline is newborn. The house is almost a fourth Deity in this small, self-contained pantheon. But I never really followed through on that thought in this draft, other than having the fire in the fireplace responding to Demi's moods--and that could just be part of the way the weather outside responds to the fact that she's grieving Caroline's death. (Or it could be mistaken for a rip-off of Howl's Moving Castle, which would be unfortunate.)

So I went through today intending only to look for places where I could mention the house's supernatural responsiveness: the refrigerator always having the ingredients Demi wants to cook with, the wine cellar never being too small for Bobbi Mae's growing collection of home brewed beverages, the door reluctant to open when bad news comes knocking. My hope is that this sort of helps move the narrative into Mythology Headspace.

But the editor in my head cannot stand to let a thought go unscribbled. There is no way to get her to understand that, yes, that phrase there may well need tightening up, the stage blocking here does need to be simplified, the story needs to be shortened by about 750 words, yes, this is all true, but we'll talk about that later, OK? We are only concentrating on one thing today, right? Right? Hey, come back here! Where do you think you're going with that pen?

This is why the read-through took about two hours. And why the first round of revision type-ins can wait for tomorrow.

this is not the permanence i requested
Tue 2014-06-10 21:58:13 (single post)
  • 4,325 wds. long

I don't like how long it's taking me to finish this story.

Well, I don't like how long it takes me to finish any story, but--one thing at a time.

I'm poking at this story at a rate of a half hour here, an hour there, measuring my progress by the clock rather than by completion, checking off the ticky-box for "Yes, I beat my head against a brick wall for the prescribed amount of time today" and getting very little for my pain. Something has got to change.

By the way, if this dissatisfaction in the face of my slow pace now sounds contradictory to my stoic resignation to said slow pace then, well, then, I contradict myself. I am vast; I contain multitudes. It is a human being's 100% prerogative to change one's mind, and I am changing mine about this.

Here's the thing that occurred to me: Practice makes permanent. You've heard that before, right? It's a thing my guitar teacher used to say back when I took lessons during my high school years. "Practice makes permanent. Not perfect. Permanent." Meaning, the outcome of your practice depends on what you practice, and how. You can erase your mistakes or you can entrench them. I fear that right now I am entrenching the frustrating and entirely unhelpful mistake of not finishing the damn story. I would very much like to practice finishing stories, please and thank you.

I'm going to lay it on the line here: This draft will be done, and ready to email to friends offering critiques, by the weekend. That's my goal, that's my intention, and that's my solemn promise that I'm making to myself. It's a scary promise to make, because what if I fail? But I don't think I will fail. It seems like an eminently reasonable goal. Hell, if I can't finish a draft in a week, what am I doing with my time? Seriously.

I'm not sure what that means on a day-to-day basis other than a lot of stress on Friday. But it'll come to me. Something'll come to me, anyway.

I hope it will be a useful and encouraging something.

maybe it really is that simple
Wed 2014-05-21 23:05:53 (single post)

Today I am all about libraries. I have one book checked out from the Boulder Public Library (Riggs, Ransom, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children), several from the Longmont Public Library (including the Riggs sequel, Hollow City), a couple of paperbacks bought for 50 cents each off the Longmont "Friends of the Library" book sale shelf (Cornelia Funke's Inkheart and Tamora Pierce's Magic Steps), and three more books I'm requesting holds for so I can pick them up at the brand new NoBo (North Boulder) Corner Library and hopefully read them in time to cast an informed vote for the Best Novel Hugo (the Stross, Leckie, and Grant. No, I have no interest in Larry "Sad Puppy" Correia or The Wheel Of Time: A Novel In 14 Parts. But thanks for asking!).

Me and libraries. We're like this, y'all. I wuv me some library.

I also get writing done at libraries, it would appear. And also at lunch. And also early enough in the morning that I'm still squinting. And sometimes even late at night after derby, in between mouthfuls of "hey, this is carbs too, right? So it's OK if I eat it? How about this?" (Did you know that a suggested serving of Haribo "Happy Cola" contains 3 grams of protein and 30 grams carbohydrates? That totally makes it a derby recovery snack.)

I am not sure exactly how today went better than yesterday in terms of Getting The Work Done, or honestly why I'm sure it did go better than yesterday. Seems like I did about the same amount of writing tasks and had the same amount of interruptions keeping me from them. But I feel a lot better about today than yesterday.

I'm not sure the answer is roller derby, since I was feeling pretty good about the day well before I went to practice. But it didn't hurt. Had a fantastic last team practice before the bout (y'all are gonna come watch us play Saturday, right?). We did a ton of drills that reminded us of all the awesome and absurdly effective tools that we've got in our toolbox. Also, it was New Recruit Night. Knowing that a handful of potential new derby skaters on the couches in the corner were watching us practice, it kind of put me in happy cheerful show-off mode. I want those gals to go home saying, "I got to watch the Bombshells practice! It was amazing! I want to learn how to do all the fantastic things they were doing!"

Definitely, roller derby helped. And going to Longmont early to visit the library, check out books, and write for another hour, that helped too. Also the bit about not having the painting project hanging over my head all day, that was nice.

But I think what really set the tone was--surprise!--getting up on time. Last night's hypothesis was, "In case of not enough time, add hours." So I did. I added about two of 'em. I got out of bed when John did (he has a daily 8:30 AM telemeeting with his geographically diverse coworkers) rather than sleeping in. And dang if I didn't use those hours for all sorts of shit. Grocery run, McGuckin's (hardware and housewares) run, going out to lunch with John and taking our time in leisurely conversation before settling down to our respective work-a-day tasks, taking my Wednesday volunteer reading at an unhurried pace and playing Puzzle Pirates while I recorded it... And, um, writing. I think I really will hit the 5-hour mark today. It's amazing how adding two more hours in the morning can add stretch to the whole day!

Note to self: Sleeping late is almost never as rewarding as adding two more hours to my morning is. Can we do more of this? I want to do more of this.

avoidance! it's what's for dinner (too bad i'm not hungry)
Fri 2014-05-16 23:55:30 (single post)
  • 3,078 wds. long

For the second time I've missed a Sword and Sorceress submissions deadline. It's already 11:30 as I begin writing this blog post. There is no way I'm finishing the story and preparing it for submission in under half an hour.

I just left it too late, is all.

For one thing, I left almost the entirety of the second scene and the rest of the story after for today. That was pretty dubious from the start. Then I woke up with a headache, and that headache refused to shift itself all day. I didn't really feel able to work on it until the headache finally faded around 7:30 or 8:00 tonight. That was what sealed my defeat.

Nevertheless, I sat down to work on it, thinking, "Hey, it's still possible! And even if it isn't, it'll be time well spent." And it was time well spent. I just wish I'd spent the time last Tuesday.

I can get really pathological about deadlines. The closer they get, the less time I have to finish, the more resistance builds up around the project, making it even harder to use what time remains. It's not that illogical, really--it's just that the project gets scarier the closer the deadline gets, so I panic, and in my panic I avoid the project really hard.

The good news is, I've finished the second scene, the one with all the moving pieces and bit-part characters. I probably need to go over it again and smear a light glaze of "other people in the room" over the top of it, just to more convincingly texture it as a crowded party setting. And I probably need to massage the pacing a little, give more of an impression of the hours passing until the scene culminates at drunk-o-clock. (These are more reasons why a story shouldn't still be in incomplete rough draft form on deadline day.) But the basic building blocks of the scene are all there, and it reads fairly smoothly.

Getting it even this far is an accomplishment that did not at all look feasible last night or this morning. It's amazing how suddenly the writing looks possible when you just sit down and make yourself start writing, isn't it? *shakes head, sighs, feels stupid*

The next scene is easy. There are only two people in it, and despite it representing the emotional climax of the piece, the actual action is minimal. The real challenge is in making the dialogue natural and not clunky, given the job it's going to have to do, the things that have to get said and reacted to. But since dialogue is typically something I find easy and fun, it'll probably be OK.

I should not find myself avoiding it, is what I'm saying.

So I can't submit it to Sword and Sorceress 29. But I can think of several places it might be a good fit for, and I'm looking forward to sending it to one of them.

Meanwhile, I get a weekend.

the stories pile up
Tue 2014-04-22 23:46:02 (single post)
  • 3,400 wds. long

Today's writing went well. It was a productive day on all counts, so I'm pleased. Nevertheless, today's freewriting session caused me a certain amount of that mild distress that the practice, despite my defense of it, does sometimes cause.

Well, two mild distresses. But the first doesn't count. The first is the same mild distress I get from pretty much doing anything other than jumping right into the long-term project I'm sick of not having finished, Gods, why can't I get it finished, why can't I jump into it now rather than mucking about with Morning Pages and freewriting and brushing my teeth and watering the plants and taking a shower and putting clothes on, time's a-wasting, let's get on with it!

No, that distress doesn't deserve attention. For one thing, it's just another manifestation of the typical background low-level anxiety that attends any task that goes unfinished for any length of time. For another, that gung-ho "times' a wasting, let's get on with it!" urge mysteriously vanishes the moment I get to that point in my day when it's time, indeed, to get on with it.

So I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about this:

Today's freewriting blossomed out of the most recent of Gay Degani's "string of 10" prompts posted at the Flash Fiction Chronicles Facebook page. (Post should be visible even if you don't have a Facebook account to log into.) Do not ask me why, maybe it was the combination of "LEGACY" and "EAR," I don't know, what is my brain, but I found myself noodling up some epic worldbuilding involving an empire whose different dynasties were iconified by specific musical styles which informed the fashions and etiquette and mores of the court and the upper class, and then a sort of love triangle romance/coming of age story in which the three teenagers are involved across class lines, and also the philosophical idea that it's hard to be the person you really are when your society denies you the very words with which to express that, and...

And, oh crud, I appear to have come up with yet another novel. Or three. And when will I have the time to work on it? I still haven't finished rewriting the current short story in progress!

So I marked the document with the "Brainstorming" label and the "To-Do" status. If there ever comes a day when I simply have no idea what to write, I will do a search on the "To-Do" status in the Daily Idea Scrivener project, and I will be swamped in story ideas I've determined I need to revisit later.

Meanwhile, I have my assignment: finish revising "The Impact of Snowflakes" and start submitting that sucker. And while I work on that assignment, faithfully, doggedly, I exercise extreme self-restraint, and I do not go haring off after the latest intriguing story idea that turned up during recent freewriting sessions. Not the one about the musical dynasties, not the one about the Goddess in disguise as a golden carp in the aquarium at the restaurant, not the one about the hotel in the desert whose room 307B is a pivot point between the dimensions that occasionally eats its tenants, none of them.

I know that each one of these story ideas will benefit from the enforced inactivity. When I come back to them, the time they will have spent composting in the back of my head will have enriched their soil with the nutrients they'll need to blossom into the fantastic fully formed stories they want to be.

But in the meantime, it does cause me a mild distress.

when does the work week start again
Mon 2014-04-21 23:08:52 (single post)

It's Monday! That's great. I've been looking forward to Monday. This is the weird but logical outcome of formalizing a weekday writing schedule and then using HabitRPG to incentivize it. Stuff comes up Friday evening that makes me eager to get back to business, but if I want to count it toward my "5 hours of writing on weekdays" daily, I need to do it on an actual weekday. (Another side-effect: Guilt-free weekends!)

Except, it's Monday. That means farm work! I spent the morning prepping and planting 30+ trays of various melon varieties, then hacking with shovels and rakes (and implements of destruction) at a surface that needed leveling.

And it's also this particular Monday, which means leading Phase 1 roller derby practice. We had a great time, too. Everyone's energy and enthusiasm was just through the roof. This group of skaters were intent on ferreting out the secrets of every skill on tonight's agenda, and they were tireless in this pursuit. This meant I had to reverse engineer my own performance in order to come up with answers to pertinent questions. And that meant that I got a lot of practice on plow stops, skating backwards, and improving one's derby stance, just to grab some examples out of a helmet. Which is awesome for my own improvement. My knees are all the best kind of sore right now.

All this together means, in terms of logging Friday's story rejection and resubmitting that same story somewhere else and also working on the ongoing revision of the other story, I'm actually looking forward to Tuesday.

Tuesday's tomorrow! That's great!

deadlifting 25 minutes of words every morning
Fri 2014-04-18 23:49:02 (single post)

Freewriting! With the timer and the prompts and the stuff! Like morning pages, it's one of my daily processes that I sometimes feel the need to defend. Although less so, since the link between freewriting and Actual Finished Publishable Work is a lot more obvious. Still, on days when I have this short story to work on that should have been finished ages ago and no end is anywhere in sight, I sometimes wonder whether it would be more productive to just skip the timed writing and get straight to the grind.

No. It would not. Or, well, maybe it would be more productive, short-term, but I think there's long-term value I'd be missing out on.

Thoughts! I have them. Today they are numbered.

  1. Freewriting is where the stories come from. Story ideas come from everywhere: dreams, prompts, what-ifs, misheard lyrics, misread words, stray thoughts juxtaposed with other stray thoughts. Problem is, they never come complete with story attached. And thinking about it only takes an idea part of the way to its story. The rest of the way has to be traveled on the page.
  2. Freewriting is where stuck becomes unstuck. Whether I'm stuck on turning an idea into a story, or stuck on turning a story draft into a final draft, things often get unstuck if I set a timer and noodle to myself about the bottleneck. The timer is important here. Without it, I'd stop the noodling at the first impression of being out of ideas. But since I have to keep going until the timer dings, I end up pushing myself past "out of ideas" and into the territory known as "Where did that come from? What is my brain? Am I complaining? No."
  3. Freewriting is exercise. Exercise builds endurance. Endurance makes things look possible. I've been rereading Dorothea Brande's 1934 classic Becoming a Writer, which is one of the most compassionate books for writers you can lay your eyeballs upon. It aims not to teach writers the nuts and bolts of the craft, but rather those skills that the writer must assimilate before the nuts and bolts will be of any use to her. One of those skills is the capacity to write for extended periods of time without suffering fatigue of the body1 or the mind. She teaches that skill by basically assigning the student a freewriting session every morning, first thing upon waking, and gradually pushing the time spent in this pursuit until "the actual labor of writing no longer seems arduous or dull."
  4. Freewriting brings home the limitlessness of ideas. My freewriting file is called "Daily Ideas" after the crisis I was facing at the time I started it. I was beginning to feel like I had no other stories in me than the handful I was currently avoiding revising, and those were becoming poisoned by the weight of procrastination and dread I'd invested them with by avoiding them so long. So I began my Daily Ideas file in order to argue myself back into believing that I can come up with endless story ideas. I asked myself for no more than one a day, no matter how brief, stupid, petty or incomplete. It could be two sentences. It could be two pages. But it had to be a new (to me) idea. Adding the 25-minute freewriting component came later... and had the unexpected and sometimes daunting effect of turning those two sentences into a viable rough draft. Oh, no: Another story for me to avoid revising. But set that aside for now. The result was feeling once more rich in raw material, supplied with more story ideas than I could possibly work to completion in my lifetime. And that's OK. It's surplus we're going for here, and daily freewriting achieves it.

So that's my defense of daily freewriting, and why I stole a precious half hour of my day to do it when a story rewrite was begging for completion.

Sadly, the current stuckiness of the rewrite doesn't lend itself well to freewriting. It's not that I don't know what needs to go there; it's that I can't seem to make it not sound stupid. So I keep writing and rewriting and tweaking and erasing and rewriting yet again the end of the scene. Maybe next freewriting session will be a series of rewriting that bit over and over and over again without deleting each attempt. Sounds boring, but something might break through. We'll see.

1"The typewriter has made the author's way more rocky than it was in the old days of quill and pen. However convenient the machine may be, there is no doubt about the muscular strain involved in typewriting; let any author tell you of rising stiff and aching from a long session. Moreover, there is the distraction set up by the little clatter of keys, and there is the strain of seeing the shafts continually dancing against the platen." (back)

the problem of Mondays
Mon 2014-04-14 23:25:19 (single post)

Today was a big day! Today was my first Monday back at McCauley Family Farm for the 2014 season.

For several years now, for a value of "several" I can't precisely pinpoint anymore, Monday mornings have meant several hours of volunteer farm work in Longmont. That can mean many things. I do whatever they need extra hands on doing: planting seeds, thinning seedlings, transplanting seedlings, weeding furrows, harvesting and processing vegetables, harvesting and processing seeds, spreading compost, moving irrigation pipe, whatever. It tends to mean one other thing for sure: I come home sometime between 1:00 and 2:00 PM simultaneously ravenous and exhausted.

So today I got home, made soup, ate vast quantities of said soup, and collapsed in bed. (I also met the technician from Glass America who fixed a chip in our windshield. The car got a rock in the face on the way to the VNV Nation concert.) It's questionable whether collapsing in bed was precisely necessary when the only physically taxing things I did today were (1) dropping tiny seeds into seedling trays, and (2) trying to ignore how freakin' cold it was (come on, Colorado, I know April is your snowiest month, but that's no excuse). However, I can confidently say that staying in bed until darn near 8:00 PM was a tad excessive.

Reconciling farm-work Mondays with my new ambitious writing schedule this year is going to be tricky. On the one hand, days like today make me feel guilty for using "I went to the farm today" as an excuse to sleep all afternoon and into the evening. On the other, I know there will be days when the farm work will genuinely leave me done in for the day. I suspect I won't be able to apply a single overarching expectation, even as simple an expectation as "at least one hour's solid writing, OK?"

I know this, though: The uncertainty of Mondays points to the absolute necessity of sticking to my writing schedule Tuesdays through Fridays. Not just because I have one less day to get things done in a week, either. I do actually hope to get something done on Monday afternoons. And good writing habits when I'm tired from some amount of farm work won't happen unless I solidify good writing habits when I've got nothing else to do but write.

For now, my Monday intention will be to keep up the morning pages and the evening blogging at the very least. (If I have no writing progress to blog about, hell, I'll blog about the day at the farm.) The rest will have to be a work in progress. We'll find out how it goes together.

papier et plume in less than ideal combination
Tue 2014-04-08 10:48:43 (single post)

And now for a brief public service announcement:

Recycled paper notebooks and fountain pens do not go together. Yes, recycled paper is ecologically sound, pleasant to the touch, and often results in a cheaper notebook. But writing three pages of a recycled paper notebook with a fountain pen means A) using up half your ink cartridge B) while only being able to write on one side of each page C) because the results look like you did your Morning Pages with a Sharpie or a Marks-a-lot.

And now you know.

(And for my next trick, fountain pen on recycled paper on a moving train...)