“I find having a mortgage to be a great motivator to keep on working.”
Mo Willems

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

revision versus avoidance behaviors; also karaoke and a surprise DNS outage
Thu 2014-07-10 23:59:59 (single post)
  • 6,515 wds. long

Tonight I'm writing this from Hurricane's Sports Bar in Metairie, on Vets not far from Bonnabel. My brother tends bar most nights there, so hanging out at the bar means hanging out with him, which is nice. Hurricane's is on Facebook. You may like them if you're so inclined. I quite like them myself, and not just because my brother likes to cover my beers.

It took me a minute to figure out what their event schedule for the weekend was, because rather than hosting an itemized calendar or using FB's event pages interface, they simply take a photo of their calendar and make it their cover image. Once I figured that out, I saw that Thursdays were "Rock the Mic: Live Band Karaoke," and I thought, huh, that's different, and also I like karaoke. I should go. And so I did. And it was joyous. They had one of my standby tunes in their list, and they played it, and I sang it, and they sang backup, and a good time was had by all. It was unlike any karaoke experience I have ever had, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Rock the Mic is also on Facebook, and you may like them if you are so inclined. I like them.

This afternoon I took my short story revision time to the CC's coffee house on Vets at Division. (I had unearthed a decade-old gift card for use there. Alas, its balance turned out to be zero.) I am trying to be virtuous despite being "on vacation," so I am continuing to push my dogged way through the lumps in the draft-in-progress. There are, however, moments when I ask myself, am I actually doing a revision here, or am I just pushing prepositions around in a bid to avoid finishing the damn thing? This is a thing we are sometimes prone to: getting stuck in the mid-book or halfway through a story, and going back to the beginning and endlessly tweaking rather than pushing through the stuckness. I worry that I'm doing that...

...right up until my slow pass through the draft brings me a perfect opportunity to plant a little foreshadowing, based on something I just figured out about how the story needs to end. Then I stop worrying, because obviously revision is getting done here.

Up with foreshadowing! Down with worrying! I like giving myself reasons to stop worrying.

And now, a deep sigh for the frailties of internet. The internet went down at the bar, so I ran along home to upload this, but the internet was down there too, and also for my parents' desktop computer. "DNS server cannot be reached." Ain't no amount of rebooting the router going to fix it when Cox Cable appears to have DNS trouble. I really need to commit some alternate DNS addresses to memory for times like this.

(Oddly, popping in Google's DNS addresses didn't help, nor did it hurt the next morning when service had resumed. I wonder if yet something else was going on. Cox is not saying.)

In any case, this post won't get uploaded until Friday, but it will be backdated for Thursday, just to be confusing. Also I shall be restoring my HabitRPG streaks because I did all the things, I just couldn't click on all the things. Phooey.

from the slim and hypothetical wedge of wifi between trains
Tue 2014-07-08 14:21:24 (single post)
  • 6,344 wds. long

If I get this posted, it'll be from Chicago, but I'm not certain I'll be able to upload it at all.

I had been planning to spend my layover time in the library, uploading work, downloading more work, recording my Wednesday show for AINC. I'd been planning to skate to the library, in fact, having taken a few minutes while still on the train to put my outdoor wheels on my skates.

But the train's almost four hours behind schedule. It only left Ottumwa, Iowa just before 1 PM. At this rate, we might not arrive in Chicago before 7:00. I'll probably still manage to board the City of New Orleans for 8 PM as planned, but the likelihood for pratical internet time between trains is decreasing by the hour.

Still, here's a blog post. I remain optimistic.

It's been so many weeks since I left off revising "The Impact of Snowflakes" that I couldn't remember where I'd left off. So I spent a few minutes rereading the version in progress. It's rough, y'all. It's lumpy and awkward and overwritten and wordy. I suppose it addresses the problems unearthed by the last round of critique, but there's new text-level problems like woah.

Which is OK, I guess. Once I get to the end of the version in progress, I can print it out and fill its margin with performative scribbles that will hopefully restore it to a state of approximate gracefulness.

But first I have to get to the end of the version in progress. And that's going to be a trick, considering that I left off right around where I'd placed a mental marker saying NEW AND IMPROVED ENDING BEGINS HERE.

New and improved ending. Right. OK. This is a thing that's going to happen.

Any minute now.

Here we go.

and i say this as a fan of Concrete Blonde
Tue 2014-07-01 23:59:00 (single post)
  • 5,984 wds. long

Well, that took longer than expected. "What took longer than expected?" Oh, everything. But it's OK. I got the story submitted just under the wire--or if not just under the wire, than within a minute of the wire. Look, if they refuse to read it because it came in at 00:00 on July 2 rather than 23:59 on July 1, well, there's other markets.

And the story has cleaned up mighty fine.

(I just checked my email. My submission has neither bounced nor triggered an automatic reply. OK then.)

Have I mentioned that writing this story has resulted in me having this song stuck in my head? For weeks? I finally dug up the album so I could play it and exorcise the earworm. Unh-uh. That's not how it works. At least, not if you're me. No, now I have the whole album stuck in my head, one song after another.

It's a pretty good album, though.

In which we avail ourselves of all the options
Fri 2014-06-27 19:31:24 (single post)
  • 6,291 wds. long

Today it's back to the print-out and the scribbling. Just the scribbling for now--no need for a rush job. The call for submissions ends July 1, Tuesday as it turns out, so I can finish up the revision Tuesday morning and email it then.

See, it's not that I'm putting things off until the last minute. It's that I'm taking advantage of all the time that remains. That sounds plausible, doesn't it?

Things I need to fix in the current draft include...

  1. Overuse of the words "sudden" and "suddenly." There are other ways to communicate this adverbial property. Try a few.
  2. Overuse of throat-clearing constructions: "begins to," "manages to," "allows [her/him]self to." Make each instance justify its existence, then cut it out anyway until each only happens once in the story.
  3. Dilution of key plot elements and themes.

That last is tricky. I was looking for opportunities to make it more clear that the object in the wooden box is actually, literally Caroline's heart, because this is a thing that needs to be known throughout the story rather than alluded to obliquely until revealed dramatically. So of course I started noticing the word "heart" popping up everywhere. Hearts breaking, the heart of the matter, heart-stopping shocks. Too many heart metaphors, too many metaphorical references to Demi's heart, and I run the risk of diluting the actual plot element I'm trying to work with. So I crossed them out when I found them and scribbled alternate phrasings.

Which led to noticing other dilutions. Like, an unnecessary reference to Diana the Huntress, muddying the waters in which I want the Demeter/Persephone theme to shine clear. Like too many gun-related turns of phrase that aren't consciously put there to echo the gunshot that kicked off the plot. And then there's mentions of fire/heat/warmth/flames, which need to point clearly at either the literal fire in the hearth and the *ahem* fire down below, and not get thrown in every time the English language tries to build a fire metaphor. And now I'm looking askance at the multiple incidences of breaking glass...

It's possible I'm taking this "don't dilute stuff" thing a little too far. (Maybe both incidences of breaking glass can point profitably at each other.) Argh.

Good thing I've got all weekend. Well, not really--I've got the roller derby bout on Saturday and the WFTDA reassessments on Sunday. And Monday-farm-day doesn't generally make a good work day.

Well.

Good thing I've still got Tuesday morning.

In which we take a step back from the trees, thus to view the forest
Thu 2014-06-26 23:47:49 (single post)
  • 6,291 wds. long

Oh hey there. Blog white-outs are fun, aren't they? Apparently my code isn't quite PHP 5.4 ready, so I've scrolled things back to PHP 5.3 for now. If you can read this, it probably worked. (It's also possible that you're a visitor from far in the future, that being when I'll likely next have the time and patience to try to update my blog code. How are things? Who's president, and have we got flying cars yet?)

I got some feedback on my story today, and it got me thinking not just about this story but also about my writing tendencies in general. That's the best kind of feedback--the kind that doesn't just address the work at hand but also makes me a better writer. Or at least provides me with the opportunity to become a better writer. If I fail to avail myself of that opportunity, it isn't the critiquer's fault. He tried!

The thought goes something like this.

There's a "rule" in writing speculative fiction--and I use scare-quotes advisedly here--that you can get away with one, and only one, impossible thing. Two things and you lose the reader's suspension of disbelief. Now, this is a ridiculously simplistic "rule," but, like most "rules' of writing, it points in the direction of a truth: You have to earn and keep the reader's trust. The reader will trust you when you give them impossible things to believe if, and only if, you continue to be trustworthy when it comes to things they actually have experience with. Your characters have to behave like real people. Your portrait of a real life city needs to ring true for someone who's been there or lives there. Your portrayal of specialized areas of knowledge--guns, archery, horses, astronomy, whatever--needs to withstand at least a cursory fact-check. Basically, "this is a fantasy novel" can account for the flight of dragons that strafes Shreveport, Louisiana, but it can't account for the dragons having set aflame the county clerk & recorder's office in that town (given that Louisiana doesn't have counties), nor the crescent moon on the eastern horizon as the sun sets over the destruction (given that a crescent moon rises around dawn). And if you then have your main characters stand there looking up information about dragons on their smartphones when there are people trapped in the burning building across the street, either you've just lost your reader's patience and good will entirely, or you're one of the authors of the Left Behind novels. Neither is a situation worth celebrating.

Anyway. "You get one impossible thing." And I think there is another "rule" in the same vein, which goes like this: "You get one dramatic reveal."

Again, simplistic, but it points in a direction I apparently need to aim my mind. Because I seem to err on the side of the coy and the subtle these days, understating all the unusual or fantastical things that are going on in the story. This is possibly because my point-of-view character knows all those things quite well, and so it would be out of character for them to narrate about them too explicitly. Still, the result is undesirable. If everything is held close to the chest and revealed only subtly or at the end of the story, the reader has no certainty to stand on.

So I sort of have to decide which one of my unusual facts is the one to be revealed only at the climax of the story. The rest should be stated in a more up-front way, thus to do the work of world-building, scene-setting, and attention-grabbing.

As with the other rule, "one" is a simplistic way to put it. Sometimes "one" means "this handful of things that are all related." The main gist is, the reader has to be able to cling to something in order to make it to the end for the dramatic reveal. That is why not everything can be the dramatic reveal. Choose your dramatic reveal carefully, and put everything else in service to getting the reader there.

And now I am going to lose consciousness in 0.2 seconds, because I am that tired. Zonk

In which we investigate other baskets suitable for egg storage
Wed 2014-06-25 15:38:13 (single post)
  • 6,291 wds. long

And yet more biking! This is getting to be a regular habit. It helps that today was Bike to Work Day. It was a warm ride from home to downtown, but I stopped frequently to sample the snacks and drinks offered at the various breakfast stations. Now if I can just avoid getting rained on while I bike home, I'll be in good shape... to go to roller derby tonight and really work out.

I tweaked the story a little more today (yes, after refreshing my memory concerning "The Red-Head Song"--Bobbie Mae might now be plausibly considered to be singing it to meter, if not on key). Mostly I'm just poking at it. A weekend away from it has not created sufficient distance across which to look at it with fresh eyes, alas, but at least I'm catching the odd clunky turn of phrase.

It's OK though. The heavy lifting happened in the previous weeks. All I really ask right now is that what I submit on Friday be a better manuscript than what I've got Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. I think that's reasonable.

I've begun expanding my day-to-day content writing options again. I mean, the ones that actually pay something vaguely reasonable. I have a lot of fun with Examiner, but "fun" is mostly all it is. I'd like to be able to make at least a little regular and reliable income, fiction sales being neither. So. Demand Media Studios, where in the past I've been able to earn between $15 and $30 for a 500-word article, is oddly devoid of titles in my approved channel at this moment, so there goes that idea. I'm investigating what it would take to apply for another. In the meantime, there's Textbroker, which doesn't pay a hell of a lot but is easy--most of its clients want blog posts written around random phrases they got off Quora.

If I exerted a little more effort I could probably find freelance assignments that pay better and might even be a credit to my byline, but I'm wary of putting too much focus in that direction. I'm very protective of my fiction-writing time right now. Getting to the point of actually finishing and submitting stories regularly, and staying there, has taken no small amount of effort. I'm not eager to make it harder on myself. (On that note--the space glue apocalypse story came back from its latest outing, bearing a form rejection letter. I shooed it out the door again.)

So... that's the state of the Niki, I guess. Um. How are you?

select all, copy, paste, send
Fri 2014-06-20 23:45:13 (single post)
  • 6,270 wds. long

So, this story. This story that I began trying to write seriously since at least midway through 2011. This story that began with a dream from some undocumented time long before that, at least as early as May 2004. (At least, that's the date on the story's oldest draft.) This story that has been through multiple false starts and aborted attempts over the years to achieve a publishable revision of that original dream-scribble. This Gods-damned story.

It's finally finished.

That is, a respectable draft of sufficient quality to put before other readers' eyes--in this case, a small handful of friends who have been kind enough to volunteer to read it--is finished and has been sent off for their critique.

I will probably have another "Oh my Gods it's finally done!" moment when I finish the (probably post-critique) draft and submit the story to a market, mind you. (And that will probably be next week.) But just getting it to this point is huge. Once a story reaches the critique-ready stage, anything is possible.

(Just shut up about all the stories that have been through one or more critiques and still haven't reached the submittable stage. I'm getting to those, OK?)

So, huzzah and hallelujah! Io evohe and stuff! And also thunk. (That's the sound of me falling over in triumphant exhaustion. But you knew that.)

See you after the weekend.

keyboard shortcuts of my better nature
Thu 2014-06-19 22:24:47 (single post)
  • 6,222 wds. long

The revision is going pretty well. I'm actually enjoying it. Shock! Apparently, once I have a print-out with scribbles on it, I lose that aimless and panicky feeling of Oh crap now what do I do and I just start following the instructions on the page. Doesn't matter that I'm the one who wrote the instructions. I just follow them. It's like magic. "Rephrase this as a statement." You mean like this? This is what you mean. "Make his voice more casual, distinct from that of the narrator." Sure thing, yup. "Simplify stage blocking in this passage." OK. "Omit this bit; it's redundant." Zap

I guess the workaround for my revisophobia is just that simple. Print it out and I can't help scribbling on it; scribble on it and I can't help doing what the scribbles say. That just leaves the first problem: Getting me to sit down to a revision session in the first place. I have no simple magic solutions to that one, although starting the timer on Focusbooster helps. Timer's running--better get to work.

I'm pleased that this draft is going to wrap up soon. An even more perfect market for the story than Sword & Sorceress has turned up, that being the sequel to an anthology I was bummed to have missed the first time around, that being Athena's Daughters II. The deadline for the submissions call is July 1. The maximum word count is 6,000, which conveniently aligns with my intention to reduce the story's word count by about ten percent.

And while I can't reasonably expect any of my critique friends to have time to read it--I mean, I can ask, but this is super short notice to request a critique--I can make the story the best I can, submit it, and either apply the results of friends' critiques to a revision before its next outing should the story get rejected, or to a post-acceptance edit should the story get accepted. In any case, the story will be A. better than it was, and B. finished. And it's about time.

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.

the hula hoe does not come with an UNDO function
Mon 2014-06-16 22:22:56 (single post)
  • 6,434 wds. long

Today I got to wield the hula hoe for my first time this season. Yay?

*pant* *pant* *wheeze*

The hula hoe invariably goes with hot, sunny weather. It comes out when the weeds pop up and the ground is dry and flaky. For me, it also usually means an aching back and blistered fingers, because I still haven't gotten this right. I must be getting better at it, though, because each year the back aches less and there are fewer blisters.

And fewer unfortunate casualties on the field.

To reiterate: The business end of a hula hoe is a sharp loop of steel that slices just beneath the soil through the roots of weeds both seen and unseen. It lets you deal with weeds faster than if you were picking them by hand. It won't help you with the weeds that are using the wanted crop as a sort of human shield, so to speak, but you can get very close to the line of the crop without missing a beat. If you're clever, that is. And strong. And skilled at maneuvering the tool through the dirt.

There are so many failure modes with this thing. You can be careless at recognizing which plant is the plant you want to keep, and scythe right through friend and foe alike. It's an easy mistake to make if the crop is very young and hard to spot, like just-sprouted onions, shallots, or other alliums. It's also easy if the plant you're trying to keep (burdock) looks, at least from one's standing-up vantage point, remarkably like the weeds you're trying to knock back (lamb's quarter). Then you can be clumsy with the hoe itself and let it slip into the crop line while giving it a particularly vigorous tug--this happens more often than not because I've given it a particularly vigorous tug, possibly because I'm fighting with the tool instead of working with it or because I'm trying to go too deep and I'm meeting too much soil resistance. Or maybe it's because I've just hit a rock.

Or it could be because I'm getting tired and hot and thirsty, and suddenly a five-foot pole with a piece of steel on the end feels terribly heavy, and both my back and my thighs are killing me so there's really no ideal posture left for the job anymore.

Yes, yes. Whine, whine, whine. Actually, today was not so bad. It was murderously hot and sunny, but I was wearing my Full Armor of Sun Protection while hydrating faithfully. And I wasn't at it for more than an hour at a time--an hour before lunch and an hour after. Behold! In the remainder of my day there was knitting, and bicycling, and going out with new friends, and no napping at all! Pretty good considering I didn't sleep well last night and then got up at 6:30. So despite my whining, the physical labor did not in fact kill me for the afternoon.

But even with as many seasons under my belt as I've got, I still get very insecure. I mean, at any moment the hoe could slip and I could kill a significant sample of the crop population! And I know I severed at least one burdock seedling today. Realistically, one is a fairly acceptable margin of error, but it's always sobering when it happens.

Look out, here comes your writing metaphor for the week.

Similarly, despite long experience with writing and revising, I still get scared I'm going to kill the story I'm rewriting. I'll go into the editing process certain that the thing I think needs to go was in fact the story's saving grace, or that in the process of tightening things up I'll remove everything that made the prose live on the page. Even now, I find I don't wholly trust my ear for Story. I don't entirely credit myself with the ability to tell the manuscript's good from bad. If improving a piece requires the fiction-writing equivalent of a sense of pitch, on some level, I'm sure I'm actually tone deaf.

This is very timely, because revising a draft is what I'm going to be doing this week. And I know that even a very clumsy, ham-handed draft has the potential to be killed on the page.

I have to keep reminding myself, "You've been doing this for years. You've sold stories for publication! Give yourself credit for learning a thing or two. If nothing else, give the editors who bought your stories credit for knowing good stuff when they read it." Or even, "Well, regardless, you have to try, because the thing isn't publishable in its current form."

When I start feeling insecure about my ability to wield the hula hoe without causing collateral damage, I don't just put down the tool and run away. What do I do? I guess I slow down. I slow way down. I make shorter strokes and shallower ones, so that I'm more in control of where the sharp end of the tool goes. Sometimes, if I'm not sure I've spotted the crop among the weeds, I do put the tool down--but only for the time it takes me to kneel in the dirt and pull out some bindweed by hand.

There's a parallel for that in writing. Go slower. Take a closer look at particular aspects of the story. Make a bunch of smaller changes rather than one big sweeping one. If my confidence in my "sense of pitch" is low, I can remind myself that I am capable of recognizing a tune sung on key--I can go re-read a favorite book, noting as I do those elements that make it work so well. (Or go re-read a fun but flawed book, noting the blunders and missed opportunities.) When it's someone else's writing that I'm reading, I never lose faith in my ability to tell writing I like from writing I don't like. I can use the act of analyzing others' writing as a sort of jump-start.

At least my editing mistakes are more reversible than my farming ones. There is no CTRL-Z for a severed seedling.

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