late fruitcake preparations for a quiet winter solstice
So I'm baking a fruitcake today.
I almost didn't bother. It's less than a week until Winter Solstice, so it won't really be ready to open up at the annual all-nighter Winter Solstice vigil and open house. It won't have had time to soak up enough booze. Besides, I don't even have the wherewithal to host the all-nighter this year anyway, so why bother with a fruitcake?
And then I thought, screw it. I like fruitcake. I like mailing slices to long-distance friends. And Dad's going to be in town shortly after Christmas, and he likes fruitcake. So let's do this thing.
But let's also be kind to myself about it, all right?
So when I browsed Whole Food's bulk section for dried fruits, I prioritized stuff that didn't need chopping up. I got raisins, both golden and Thompson. I got currants. I got blueberries, sour cherries, and cranberries. The only things I got that needed chopping up were the dates and the prunes. Why prunes? Prunes are tasty. Also they are easier to chop up than dried figs.
Then I forgot about "be kind to myself" long enough to pick up a Buddha's Hand Citron and make plans to candy it. Which I finally got around to doing last night.
Want to play along at home? Here's the recipe I used.
So his ingredients list includes weights for everything except the citrons themselves. Two citrons, the recipe calls for. But in the introductory blurb, the author refers to "one 8 ounce (240g) fresh citron", so I assumed the recipe called for 480 grams of chopped up citron. I also assumed from "cut them up into 1/2-inch cubes" that including the pith of the citron was OK. Thank goodness. I hadn't been looking forward to carefully peeling the zest off a fruit so inconveniently shaped for applying a peeler. I wound up with about 375 grams of citron and adjusted the other two ingredient quantities accordingly.
The bit where you're supposed to "blanch the citron pieces in barely simmering water for 30 to 40 minutes, until translucent" was a lie. Some 75% of the fruit was nicely transparent by minute 45; the remaining 25% only got part of the way there over an additional 45 minutes. This seems extreme even given how widely my citron pieces varied from the prescribed 1/2" cube. The next step took forever too. You'd think at a high altitude it would take less time to boil off sufficient water to result in 230-degree syrup, but my candy thermometer didn't reach the magic number for at least an hour. It was 1:00 am by then, so instead of leaving the citron to sit in the syrup for an hour and then straining it, I left it to soak overnight. I went to bed.
In the morning, the pot contained a block of something that was too soft to be called "citron brittle" but certainly too solid to pour. So I stuck that pot inside another pot to heat it in a water bath until it did pour. I poured it into a strainer and left it there as I went about my morning. When I came back, what remained in the strainer was more or less one solid mass again, so I rinsed it with boiling water (I'd have to rinse it for the fruitcake recipe anyway) until I had individual pieces which I could scatter on parchment paper to dry.
This was not what was meant by "being kind to myself." But I've been snacking on candied citron all morning, which is by no means a bad thing. And I'm kind of eager to do it again, knowing what I know now. For instance:
- The recipe told me to use the coarsest sugar I could find. The coarsest I had on hand was raw turbinado, which has a molasses component that I probably could have done without. This made the syrup much darker than in the recipe's photos. It also probably made it stickier.
- I'd probably skip step 4 and proceed directly from "we have reached 230 degrees" to "Strain."
- I might try doing it with just the zest. I'd hate to lose the slight bitter note from the pith which compliments the sweetness so well, but it might make blanching the fruit take a lot less time.
- The reason I did this at all was Whole Foods being out of candied ginger when I went fruitcake shopping. Maybe next year I'll candy my own ginger. I'll be able to cut fresh ginger into the long, thin shapes I prefer, rather than trying to cut up already candied ginger cubes. Fresh ginger is much easier than sticky candied ginger is to cut.
- And I'll darn well start earlier than 9:30 at night!
So now all that remains is to actually bake the fruitcake later this afternoon or evening. That's the easy part.
As for Winter Solstice itself, while I'm not going to announce to every social circle that I'm holding party space open all night long, I'm still going to hold vigil, keeping a fire lit the whole night through and waiting for the return of the sun. That part of the ritual is my own personal Pagan religious observation. I'll always do that, party or no party. And I'll probably still cook all the things I usually cook, because when else do I get to drink home-made eggnog and eat medieval midwinter pie?
And I'll probably spend a good part of the night writing like it's the first few hours of NaNoWriMo. Or the last. If any friends in the area want to join me in writing or crafting, or reading stories aloud, or reciting poetry, or other such quiet celebrations of creativity, my door will be open to you from sundown on Saturday night to sunrise on Saturday morning.
And the fruitcake won't really be ready by then, but we can give it a taste.
developing the means to turn my thoughts around
- 1,487 words (if poetry, lines) long
So I learned some things about myself and my workflow this past November. To start with, I learned that I very rarely manage to fulfill all my goals for a given day. Doesn't matter whether it's a kind and even coddling low-bar list, or a ludicrously over-ambitious goal that is sure to end in failure and self-loathing. Be it ever so reasonable, I'm not going to get through it. Some imp of the perverse, an attack of inexplicable fatigue, or just the usual cocktail of anxiety and avoidance, will waylay me between the start of a checklist and its finish. I'll try! I'll try really hard! And I'll tell myself, "Hey, self, if you're any good at all, you'll do this." And then I don't, so I come away feeling like I am in fact no good at all.
But I will try. The fear of feeling like I'm a no-good horrible lazy-ass hopeless case will provide enough motivation at the beginning to get me moving, and then I'll keep going on that momentum for a bit before the self-loathing kicks in, and I accept that I suck, and I shut down.
OK, it's not always as dire as that. Some days things are a lot more positive! The excitement about getting all this stuff done will kick me off, and the happy feeling of accomplishment over the first tasks will keep me going... and then exhaustion will kick in, or the sudden realization that I am TOTALLY OUT OF TIME, and I'll come to a halt while two or three items remain undone.
Either way, I'll generally get about two-thirds of the way through my agenda for the day.
So here's the epiphany: Over-ambitious goals don't have to end in failure and self-loathing. If I make myself a list that's about 130% as long as a list of reasonable length, I can trick myself into getting the reasonable portion done. And if I set my mind right at the beginning of the day, I can forgive myself the undone portion of the list as having been intended as bonus items anyway.
Brains are weird! If explicitly tell myself "These last few items are just lagniappe," I'd expect to completely fail to take those items seriously at all. I'd expect to ignore them, treat the rest of the list like the "real" list, and then only get about two thirds of the way through that. And yet I do find myself trying really hard to get to those bonus items. In video games, I have a completist mind set; this may be the brain-glitch I'm taking advantage of. Still, that being the case, I'd expect to experience a lot more crushing disappointment in myself when I don't complete the list. But somehow the message from that morning lingers: "If you get to these, awesome, but no big deal if not."
It all feels very contradictory. It's certainly not a strategy I deliberately set out to try. I more or less stumbled into it during the latter half of November, when I got really determined to finish and upload all those overdue Friday Fictionettes. I missed some days' revision and submission sessions, but dang I wrote some flash fiction on hyperdrive! And I felt good about it.
Speaking of which: The Friday Fictionette for November 15 just went up yesterday. It's called "The Story Master" (ebook, audio, blame the southern accent on a conversation we had over dinner Tuesday night) and it's based on a recurring family bullying incident, only replace "older cousins and sadistic uncle" with "horrible, sadistic ghost." Also, replace "Stephen King novels" with "graphic tales of violence and abuse, some possibly perpetrated by the ghost when he was alive." The graphic tales are only alluded to, not spelled out on the page, so I don't think any content warnings are called for here. The only one getting triggered here is me; for the rest of the afternoon, my brain kept reliving and futilely reinventing all the greatest and most toxic hits of that era. An overactive imagination can be a terrible thing, y'all. Anyway, I hope to release the November 22 Fictionette by the end of the weekend.
Back to the daily grind. The lesson I've taken away from all this is,
- When setting my day's agenda, consciously distinguish between "must do" and "nice to have".
- Put the "must do" components first, the "nice to haves" later.
- When I complete a task, take a moment to just bask in the happy of it before going on to the next.
- When ending for the day, consciously congratulate myself on how much I got done. Remember and relive the post-task happy. Refuse to scold myself over incomplete items.
As alluded to above, my brain is very good at reliving past trauma. It will do it on autopilot and it will do it on infinite loop. But it seems like I ought to be able to put that facility to use in positive ways.
When I was in college, I worked my first regular "real job" at the dorm cafeteria. The length of the shift looming ahead of me seemed terribly daunting. To encourage the hours to pass more quickly, I'd imagine listening to an album I knew and loved. I'd get it started by visualizing an audio cassette tape player's capstans turning while the first song "played." After that, the whole album would run through in my head, one song after the other, and it would almost be like really listening to it on the stereo. It wasn't quite on the level of true auditory hallucinations, but it was the next best thing.
So if my brain can do that, then it can certainly go and sit inside another good memory of my choosing. So that's what I'm going to practice, going forward.
instant blogger, just add kimchi jjigae
- 46 words (if poetry, lines) long
- 6,000 words (if poetry, lines) long
- 1,263 words (if poetry, lines) long
Hello blog! Long time, no write. I've been getting a lot done--November kept me super busy!--but blogging keeps falling to the bottom of the priority list. Which is a shame, because there's some good news I'm way overdue to report.
Third, a reminder that you should keep an eye on the podcast Tales To Terrify, as the episode featuring my short story "Lambing Season" is imminent. It's supposed to go up by the end of the year, and, well, there's only four Fridays left in 2019. So. Imminent.
Lastly, a new poem of mine has just been accepted for publication! More details when it goes live, which should be more or less on the Winter Solstice.
So how was your November, friends? Mine was busy. I didn't participate in National Novel Writing Month, but I spent much of the month in the online company of those who were, which is to say, with other users of 4thewords and other members of my Habitica guilds. So I joined in the fun and set myself a modest goal for November. It was simply this: to not miss a single day, from November 1 to November 30, in doing my daily freewriting. And I did it! There are 30 files in the November folder in my Daily Idea scrivener project, and two of those files turned into poems that have gone on to be submitted. One of them is still out, awaiting a decision; the other is the one that just got accepted today.
I also haven't missed a daily freewriting session in December so far. Only two days in, of course, but it feels like November did a good job cementing the habit down hard. The idea of skipping a day, even on a weekend, just doesn't feel right anymore. Let's see how long I can hold onto that.
I also set myself the less modest goal of catching the hell up on everything Friday Fictionette. Unfortunately, I'm still about three weeks behind on the every first through fourth Friday release schedule, but I'm hoping to get back on track very soon. I just uploaded the November 8 offering this afternoon ("Two Weeks By Daylight", ebook here, audiobook here, it's about a werewolf on the moon) and have high hopes for pushing the November 15 fictionette live tomorrow evening. The November 2018 Fictionette Artifact hits the mail tomorrow (yes, I'm a year behind on those--huge apologies to my $5 Patrons) and all the monthly Fictionette Freebies I ought to have unlocked by now will be unlocked by the end of the week because why the hell not? It's not like it involves much more than editing the post and changing the status from "Patrons Only" to "Public"! *Sigh.*
Anyway, the above is probably why I never managed to blog at all for the entirety of November. Wait, let me check... Yep, my last blog post was on October 28. Oddly enough, there was leftover kimchi jjigae in my refrigerator then, and, since I cooked some yesterday, there is leftover kimchi jjigae in my refrigerator now. Apparently, if we want me to blog, we have to feed me kimchi stew. I mean, I'm not complaining...
what i talk about when i talk about homemade kimchi stew
I'm still getting over the gluey aftermath of the week-long cold that hit me upon my return to the Denver area. I'm very, very sore from yesterday's yoga-for-derby-skaters session, which, possibly because the yoga instructor knew her audience, turned out to be more of a two-hour conditioning session masquerading as a yoga session. Also there is a lot of snow outside.
Good thing I have a ton of leftover kimchi-jjigae in my refrigerator.
This is a statement requiring several caveats. Or possibly one big caveat, from which all the other caveats flow, which is to say, I made the stuff, so don't expect a high level of fidelity to the recipe as written.
I use Maangchi's recipe, which is a good place to start. Possibly the best place to start. Maanchi's blog is my absolute go-to for all Korean cuisine. Read it, love it, bookmark it, eat it, order the cookbooks, watch all the videos. She's wonderful, and she makes a point to lead her non-Korean fans gently by the hand through the maze of unfamiliar cultural touchstones and unfamiliar ingredients labeled in an unfamiliar language. Her recipes are great, is what I'm saying.
It's when the recipe falls into my hands that all the trouble starts.
First off, I don't pay much attention to ingredient proportions. I mean, it's soup. Stew, actually, not that this changes much. I approach kimchi-jjigae with the same mindset as I approach all soup recipes, which is this: It's soup. It is not baking. It does not rely on precise chemistry. It will tolerate variation and substitution. In fact, this is how I approach a lot of recipes that aren't soup. I've substituted yellow squash for carrots in tomato soup because I had squash and not carrots in the house at the time and the whole thing was going through the blender anyway. I substitute parsley for cilantro in any recipe calling for cilantro because I don't like cilantro, and I will substitute carrot greens for parsley if I have the one on hand but not the other. I'll typically double any recipe's call for garlic or green onions, because there's nothing in my opinion that can't be improved thereby. There are things I won't bother measuring because life's too short. It all turns out fine, but it's worth knowing, if you're ever in a position to eat stuff I cook, that this is how I cook.
So my kimchi-jjigae wound up with a full package of tofu rather than half a package, because I don't do tofu by the half package. It also wound up with two and a quarter pounds of pork belly rather than a half pound, because after defrosting the slab of meat I'd rather not put myself on the "use the rest before it goes bad" doomsday countdown. Besides, I like pork belly. I also like green onions quite a bit, as mentioned above, so I put most of a bunch in the pot where the recipe called for two, and most of the rest of the bunch in at the end where the recipe called for one. And then I'm not sure how close I got to the recommended pound of kimchi plus quarter cup kimchi brine, because I didn't bother weighing, draining, or otherwise measuring the contents of the two jars of kimchi I had in the fridge before I dumped it all in.
Those two jars consisted of one (1) jar of McCauley Family Farm's "radish root chi" and one (1) jar of Farm Hand's Organic Spicy Napa Kimchi. Neither of these contains fish sauce, so I glugged a generous glug of fish sauce into the pot. Neither is as spicy as I really want, either, so where the recipe called for two teaspoons hot pepper flakes I used two tablespoons. I'm not even sure how much gochujang I used; I carved out, with difficulty, a big lump of what was in the very outdated tub in the fridge, and figured it would dissolve eventually like bouillon. (Look, how bad can outdated gochujang go? It is made of hot pepper! Over time it stops being a paste and starts being a sort of sticky lava rock, but, hey, no big deal, I just start using a knife on it instead of a spoon.) The results still weren't hot enough for me, so there may be more of each added during subsequent stovetop reheats.
Oh! About that pork belly. It came from 63rd Street Farm. They do meat shares, and then any pork not already earmarked for meat shares gets sold to general CSA members on share pick-up day. I bought some. 63rd Street Farm also provided the daikon radishes, two of which I added in an attempt to approximate the anchovy stock flavor without actually making the anchovy stock featured in Maangchi's kimchi-jjigae recipe. (I also added about a teaspoon anchovy paste. Someone commented in asking Maangchi about substituting anchovy paste for dried anchovies. Maangchi said no. If you can't get dried anchovies, better to just skip the anchovy stock entirely and use beef or chicken stock instead. My answer to that was, I'M USING ANCHOVY PASTE AND YOU CAN'T STOP ME. But I did also toss in a big lump of Better Than Bouillon roasted beef base, just to hedge my bets.) I'll probably pickle the rest of the daikon radish I got from my CSA share according to this other recipe from Maangchi; it actually calls for Korean radish rather than daikon but I'm willing to take my chances.
In defrosting and slicing up that pork belly, I learned a thing! This has been your random biological fact of the day.
Anyway, point is: When I say I'm making kimchi-jjigae, this is a random example of how the process might go. Having been warned, if you're still interested in having any, come on over. But do it soon if you're doing it because it might all be gone by tomorrow evening.
(I'm not opposed to making more, mind you. It's not like it's going to get any less winter outside for the next few months.)
trick or treat, you get a new poem, it's over there
It's very nearly Halloween, which means it's also very nearly RELEASE DAY for the inaugural issue of The Macabre Museum, "a quarterly horror literary journal and online gallery featuring fiction, poetry, and art." You can pre-order the issue for Kindle on Amazon, but if you're a supporter of the Macabre Museum's Patreon, you can get the digital issue into your hot little hands (so to speak) right now this minute as well as snag yourself exclusive access to the online gallery.
The reason I'm bothering telling you so is not just because horror poetry is a pretty cool thing which you should support and read and enjoy, but also because this issue features one of my poems: "Your Disembodied Friends Would Like to Remind You". (This is one of the poetry sales I somewhat coyly announced late in the summer. The other is still waiting on its contract and publication date; stay tuned.) The poem is--well, I've been calling it an interrupted sonnet, but apparently that term is already taken, so let's try this: It is a blank-verse sonnet with lines of free verse interspersed throughout. The sonnet describes an everyday scene of a father and son talking over breakfast; the free verse lines describe something altogether more horrific. Think of it as a cold open for a sort of CSI/X-Files crossover TV show.
Content warning, if you wind up reading it, for harm to a child and for graphic description of a dismembered body. Just so we're clear. This is supernatural horror with a heavier emphasis on the horror part than is my usual.
In other news:
I just got a full-length short story back from my writing group with a pretty clear roadmap for revision. That's exciting. It's been a while since I had a new full-length short story to shop around. This one started as a response to a submission prompt for The First Line, and that was its first slush outing, but, as expected, it came home with a rejection letter. It was still very rough at the time. Also it's SF-horror in the Lovecraftian mode, and, word is, The First Line doesn't typically accept speculative fiction at all. Not that I'm going to stop trying them, mind you--their prompts generally turn into stories worth polishing up and sending out. Like this one.
I'm also about to throw a new flash piece into the slush arena, a trick-or-treat story in the tradition of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Its first incarnation was an attempt at Reedsy's weekly flash fiction contest, back before they started grabbing up the first publication rights of every entrant and not just the winner of the $50 prize. (I recommend subscribing to Reedsy's weekly writing prompts email. I recommend absolutely nothing else about Reedsy.) Later, I chopped the story down to 500 words and entered it into a Codex contest. The feedback it got served as guidance for yesterday's revision, in which I expanded it back up to about 850 words. And today--today it hits the slush!
I'm almost caught up with the Friday Fictionette release schedule. All the posts still overdue had October 2019 release dates, and look! it is still October 2019. That's as hopeful as things have been for months. Getting caught up there gives me a little breathing room to start moving hard on all those overdue Fictionette Artifacts. I miss my typewriter, y'all!
And then there's NaNoWriMo. I intend to commemorate NaNoWriMo in some way or another; I just haven't decided precisely how. I just might write a brand new novel draft from scratch. *gasp!*
There's also this convention I just went to--but that's definitely a story for another day.
dispatches from the rails
Guess where I'm blogging from!? I'm blogging from the train! In COACH! ...Apparently trains get more civilized east of the Mississippi. Or maybe there's just fewer dead zones so that it seems worth getting a hotspot up and running. In any case, I'm on the Cardinal, having boarded at its originating station in Chicago and staying right on to its last stop of New York City. And there is wifi.
I'm heading to Montreal for Scintillation 2019. Everything sounds like a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to author readings, outings for dim sum and tea tastings, walking tours of various bits of town, tabletop games, and of course all sorts of panels. But I have to get there first.
It has been an adventure. I knew it would be an adventure going into this. I bought the fare reassuring the ticketing agent on the phone, "Yes, I know. Three nights on board. That's fine. I like trains." And I do! But, let me tell you, I have never been more glad of an impending twelve hour overnight layover than I am now.
My layover between Denver and Chicago was only to be three hours, which felt uncomfortably lean. Look, you take the California Zephyr with any regularity, you know there's a lot of potential for mishap and slowdowns between San Francisco and Chicago. And indeed the train was two hours late into Chicago, just late enough to keep me from relaxing. I spent the hour between trains walking one big and slow clockwise circle from track 26, around the track area, into the main terminal, over to gate C, into the line for boarding (pause for half an hour because boarding started late), then shuffling slowly in that line from gate C over to track 28. You will notice the proximity of 26 to 28, yes? Well. When my shuffling, shambling queue came alongside Train 50, I couldn't help but notice that proximity, either. Physically, mechanically, I could have stepped off Train 6, crossed the platform, and boarded Train 50 in under 5 minutes. Unfortunately, Amtrak connections don't work like that unless you're so desperately super-late that they're actually holding up the departure of the train just for you. And thankfully things weren't that desperate.
So, OK, I got my steps in for the day, as the kids with the FitBits do say.
Those two hours of late, by the way? There was this one half hour in there that was absolutely fascinating. Apparently Amtrak had left a car to be repaired somewhere east of, oh, Osceola, Iowa? Maybe? And it had been repaired. So our crew was tasked with picking it up and dragging it into Chicago. Like, "Oh, hey, while you're out, could you pick up some milk and a dozen eggs?" Only instead of groceries it was an Amtrak passenger car. So I was that passenger, the one who runs off to the back of the last coach to watch the goings-on over the engineers' shoulders. I was on my best behavior, though! I kept my mouth shut and did not bother them with questions. Some of the crew got out to manually throw (or shove) the switches that directly and visibly switched the lie of the tracks so that we could back onto the spur where the car for pick up was. The engineer on board kept saying into the walkie talkie, "Give me three more cars. Give me about a car and a half more. Twenty feet, nice and easy." And thus we backed, ever so gently, right into the orphaned car. Then they did a bunch of stuff I couldn't see to attach the car, then we waited a while, and then we went on our way, one car longer.
Anyway. Train 50, the Cardinal, has a single-decker coach with modern, comfy seats and, by Amtrak standards, very little leg-room. For comparison, in the upper level of the double-decker coach on the California Zephyr, I'd had so much room for my short little legs that I couldn't reach the footrest attached to the seat-back in front of me. The fold-down desk was just useable if I extended my seat's leg rest and sat on that rather than on the seat itself. Not complaining! It was spacious. It was comfy. Just, it was a bit of a surprise to be get on the Cardinal and be reminded of an airplane. First class in an airplane, maybe, but still.
And this worried me because I was going to be in that coach car for twenty-eight hours. (Twenty-eight! Haha ahaha ha. But see below.) Fortunately, I didn't have a next-seat neighbor until sometime past noon the next day, so I was able to curl up on my pair of seats and sleep cozily enough, at least until my knees started complaining about having been too long in a bent position. (Aging! I'm telling you.)
Did I write? Why yes I wrote. I have been writing. I have been doing all the writing every day on every train. I did some freewriting that turned into a flash fiction piece that has muscled its way onto the revision workbench despite said workbench already being occupied. I made some progress on the latest overdue Friday Fictionette. Also I battled 4thewords monsters and submitted a manuscript because, as stated above, there is wifi on this train, so I could do those things.
OK, well, much of West Virginia was dead zone. But then much of West Virginia was too beautiful for gluing eyes to the laptop screen anyway, so.
But here's the thing: Throughout today, this train has been getting more and more behind schedule. It had picked up a forty-five minute delay overnight, and this steadily increased to an hour and a half by the time we got to Charlottesville. Then we hit Washington D.C., where I gawked out the window at the Iconic Architectural Features of America's Capitol, like you do. (I saw the Washington Monument and I think I saw the back end of the White House. It was hard to be sure. It was dark out, and the big double rectangle between me and the recognizable dome could have been just a bigger version of any random IT office back in east Boulder.) And we came to the station, and we stopped, and we stayed there a long, long time.
They had to change off the diesel engine for electric, to start. That was planned. Then they had to do something arcane with the brakes, which was not planned. Then the other passengers in coach started shouting at the Amtrak crew like spoiled children, and I upped stakes and departed for the lounge car where it was quiet.
And then. And then and then and then. Just before the stop in Wilmington, Delaware, there is drama. There is a man who has been in the bathroom a long, long time and is not responding to the crew. I mean, he's not in medical distress, as far as they can tell, but he refuses to come out. And other passengers indicate that earlier conversations with said gentleman made them think he might be doing drugs in there. OR SOMETHING. And the coach attendant is all, "That's going to slow us down some more, because we're going to have to call the police to deal with him." Cue the shouting and the wails of despair and "Please, Lord, just let us reach Philadelphia!" I'd just returned to my seat toward the front of coach. I turned right around and parked myself in the last seat in coach, as far from the shouting and wailing as I could get. Because I've got a sleepless night in NYC ahead of me, and I need a nap.
The stop at Wilmington wasn't actually all that long. As we pulled away, I saw the aforementioned gentleman being questioned on the platform by three police officers. I suppose extracting him didn't turn out to be all that difficult.
So. I'm going to be at least two and a half hours late into New York Penn Station. Which is fine. Once I get there, I have until around 8:00 AM to board my next train. My only regret is, we're going to get in after all the groceries close, and I had wanted to pick up a few things. Well. One of them opens again at 5:00 AM, so maybe I'll get to do my shopping after all.
Meanwhile, you know what's open all night long in New York City? This Korean BBQ place. So it doesn't matter how late I get in, I'm still getting my order of kimchi kalguksu or maybe galbitang or, I dunno, something delicious. Also I have not counted the number of karaoke bars in the neighborhood but a glance at Google Maps tells me that number is upward of A LOT. So it'll be fine.
But I should probably take that nap now.
ah that new writing group smell
It would appear I am in a writing group again. An honest-to-gosh manuscript-exchange-and-critique group! We have had ONE MEETING so far and I am EXCITE.
This one came about because a colleague on Codex who is also soon to be a fellow Viable Paradise alum decided they strongly enough wanted a writing group to be willing to do the heavy lifting required to set one up. Which is to say: recruiting for it, organizing it, making executive decisions where necessary, and facilitating more consensual decisions where feasible. Also being willing to play the role of Heavy-handed Moderator should that turn out to be a Thing.
This is the sort of heavy lifting I personally have not had the wherewithal to even consider doing lately, and I'm grateful they took it on. And I'm grateful I was active in one of the online communities where they were recruiting. Because I miss being in a writing group and now I am in one. Hooray!
I haven't been in writing group since, oh, 2011? 2012? Not regularly, in any case. I tried! But mostly all I did was collect a series of less-than-ideal experiences with writing-related MeetUp groups that turned out to be, as the typical rejection letter puts it, not a good fit for our needs at this time.
In one case, the group fizzled soon after our first manuscript exchange. I think we must have had wildly different expectations regarding critiques.
In another, the critique process was, on a purely mechanistic level, and in my not-so-humble opinion, doomed. There were two hours during which some thirty-five members were each to take their turn commenting, at length, on a full-length short story, which the author had read aloud earlier in the meeting. And this was supposed to happen twice in those two hours. Just, how?
In yet another, I was one of the very few speculative fiction authors in a group mostly dedicated to literary fiction, creative non-fiction, and journaling. Complete mismatch of goals, yes, but also complete mismatch of reading protocols, which is guaranteed to get in the way of giving each other helpful critiques.
And then there was that one group where the facilitator brought in all these exciting guest speakers! Authors of popular self-published books! Who gave us really questionable publishing advice and held terribly hostile opinions of "traditional publishing." Y'all, I had not signed up for two hours of correcting misconceptions and defending friends and colleagues in the publishing industry.
(In later years I found out, via the magic of Facebook birthday fundraisers, that the facilitator of one of these not-for-me groups was a confirmed anti-vaxxer. This rather saddened me and confirmed my reluctance to take their advice on anything at all, be it medical, literary, or other.)
This new group is a much better fit. Its founder was deliberate about where they solicited members. We are a group of seven spec-fic neo-pros looking to improve our craft and publish more fiction at paying markets, fully in the spirit of the Viable Paradise Oath. We had our first online meeting via a Discord channel on Tuesday. During that hour and a half, we hashed out critique format, decided on a preliminary schedule, shared our goals, and talked a little shop. I'm looking forward to sharing with them the story I'm currently revising, whenever the draft-in-progress is complete and polished up. In a month, maybe? Hopefully? If the inch or two I moved it along today is not indicative of the next few weeks? Please?
Anyway. Writing group! I am excite.
but the demons thing i only figured out just now
I'm nearing the end of today's writing tasks, and it's not even 8:30 PM. What the crud am I gonna do with myself for the rest of the night? Answer: Probably replay PixelJunk Eden until either my eyes fall out or my thumbs fall off, whichever comes first. Then go to bed early. LUXURY.
During today's short story revision session, I finally moved out of the babble stage and into the drafting process. This shift got me thinking about how I revise stuff. Like I said before, some stories are more fun to revise than others (which isn't the same as being easier or taking less time) and some revision strategies seem more appropriate to some stories than others. But I'm starting to realize that every story I revise requires all my revision strategies, though not all in the same proportion. Which is to say, each time I produce a new version of any given story, the process moves through (loosely speaking) three phases, remaining in each phase for whatever period of time is required and revisiting those phases as necessary.
And I'm gonna blog about those phases, because 1. someone reading this might find such a blog post useful or at least interesting, and 2. blogging about this sort of stuff forces me to think about it closely and concretely terms, and that usually helps to refine and improve my process.
So. Here are the three (loosely speaking) phases of revision I wind up spending time in:
Identifying problems. I wouldn't be revising the story in the first place if it didn't have problems. So the first step of any revision is to identify those problems. This may involve my printing out the existing draft and scribbling on it a bunch, then translating those scribbles into a neat and orderly list. Sometimes the list isn't so neat and orderly. Usually neatness and order break down several items as I discover that the problems are fractal--every problem contains a multitude of sub-problems, each of which contain sub-sub-problems, and so forth down through the layers of the onion whose core is made up of DESPAIR.
I'm finding the DESPAIR quotient non-negotiable. There is always at least one hot second, usually more, during which I just know the story is worthless, nothing will make it better, there is no justifying the time and effort I've spent on it thus far, and shame on me for even thinking I might submit it in any form to professional paying markets. Lately I've been dealing with DESPAIR by simply writing that down on my list: "Problem #92: Story is garbage and should be buried in the compost under the used tea bags and moldy zucchini peelings." And then I just keep going.
It's sort of like rock climbing that way. Several years' practice at the climbing gym didn't "cure" my gut-level fear of heights; instead, it taught me how to keep climbing through an attack of acrophobia rather than freezing up and hanging there trembling until I came off the wall. It's also sort of like the meditation ideal of acknowledging the negative thought in a neutral way. Yep, that's a thought I'm having. Next?
Finding Solutions. This is where I spent the first week I had the current story on the metaphorical workbench. It was fun! Basically, for each listed problem, I opened up a new document and babbled to myself about it, restating the problem, brainstorming possible solutions, and pouncing on new ideas as they arose.This process spawned new documents and more enthusiastic babbling as other facets of worldbuilding or character creation or backstory came to light.
And just as the problem-identification phase has its demon DESPAIR, the problem-solving phase has its own demon: DEPRECATION. "Yeah, you're having fun babbling, sure, but are all these hundreds of words actually getting you closer to a new draft? No. They are not. Basically you are wasting your time. You are pretending to get work done when you actually aren't working at all. That's why you're having fun. If you were actually doing anything worthwhile, it would not be fun." That's what the demon says. I'm working on responding to the demon with "Yep, you're totally right" in my most neutral and boring interior voice while I continue babbling away uninterrupted.
That demon actually means well, but it's laboring under a big misconception. It thinks that finding a solution and implementing it should happen simultaneously. And, well, maybe another writer can go right from "here is the problem" to perfectly polished final draft words all in one go; I, at this time, cannot. I need to give myself room to just talk out a problem with myself in a process- rather than results-oriented way. Once I realized this, life at the metaphorical workbench got a lot more liveable.
Implementing the solutions. This is the phase where I start drafting the new version of the story. I decide to begin doing that today not because I thought I'd successfully addressed every single problem I'd identified thus far, but rather because I'd addressed those problems relevant to the first couple pages of the story. Also I suspected that I'd gotten to the point where the solutions I'd come up with so far would obviate some of the problems still waiting to be addressed. And so they have.
The demon hiding in this phase is PERFECTIONISM, and I have to ignore it. I'm still not trying for perfectly polished prose at this stage. I'm just writing a new draft that implements the solutions to the previous draft's problems. If the protagonist has new and better reasons for their actions, if I've chosen to include a more appropriate memory from their backstory than the one I had before, if the facts of the case are now altered to close the previous draft's plot holes, if each paragraph of the new draft serves a valid story purpose, then the draft is a success.
After all the problems are solved and a new draft is in front of me, then I can worry about polishing the prose to a fine shine. But that's line edits, which I don't really consider part of the revision/rewriting process. Until the revision is complete and every line on the page can justify its existence in the story, there's no point editing those lines for style, spelling, grammar, and flow. They might still get replaced, after all.
I expect I won't make it out of revision and into line edits without having to revisit every phase a couple times. I'll hit a place in the draft where I can't continue without brainstorming some more. I'll probably identify more problems whose solutions will require rewriting bits of story I already rewrote. The three phases are very fluid and lead into each other in unpredictable ways. But if I can tell myself which of the three phases I'm currently working in at any given moment, that helps keep me from trying to do all of it at once, and that in turn keeps things possible.
All the above requires the usual caveat, which is: Different writers do things differently. The above strategies are mine (all mine!). They may not be yours nor that of another favorite author. All strategies are valid to the extent that some writer somewhere finds them effective. And which strategies a writer finds effective will change over time--one's best process is an evolving rather than static thing.
Main thing is, it's not wrong if it works.
from the end of a pretty darn good week you get a pretty darn good view
- 1,164 words (if poetry, lines) long
- 1,009 words (if poetry, lines) long
As promised, the Friday Fictionettes for Week 1 of both August and September are up. They didn't go up on Friday, but given the overdue I'm overcoming, Saturday in the early afternoon is practically on time. So here they are:
- August 2, 2019: "Eyes in the Rain" (etext, audio) - "I first saw those eyes in the cafeteria, looking at me through the rain. It was raining everywhere in those days. Nothing could keep it out. The rain passed through roofs the way that elementary particles pass through the largely empty space of a living body. It passed through our clothes and glazed our living bodies like a second skin. It joined us for lunch, it slept in our beds, and it threatened to wash everyone’s sanity away."
- September 6, 2019: "The Best Revenge" (etext, audio) - "I’d never personally witnessed a deathbed curse, let alone been the subject of one. They tend to be something that happens to a friend of a cousin’s daughter’s classmate’s uncle’s co-worker. You never hear about it from the people who get cursed. I found out why. You mention that you’ve been cursed, people start to look at you funny. They start wondering if maybe you deserved it."
It's been a good week, writing-wise. There were no dud days. Even the day I spent biking most of the way across south Longmont, all the way from County Line to Hover and back again, while the Chevy Volt was getting serviced at the dealership from 8:30 AM until 6:00 in the afternoon, I still got all the things done: Submission procedures and short story revision at the Java Stop (highly recommended; a more comfortable space I haven't been in since that late night computer and video game cafe that used to be on The Hill closed), freewriting over a chicken sandwich at 300 Suns (they have a full kitchen now and a new menu, y'all!), and fictionette work and blogging back home late in the evening.
It's amazing--not surprising, exactly but still amazing--the difference a week like this makes in my overall outlook. Weeks where I barely eke out two good days between days of I can't even leave me feeling scared and despondent about everything that still needs to get done. I look back at how little I accomplished in the previous seven days, and I despair of what remains on my plate. But a week like this one, a week in which every day I hit every assigned task--except blogging, and that's kind of sort of optional anyway--I look back on this week and get a generous impression of how much I can get done in a week. Which makes the stuff currently on my plate look like an ordinary meal.
(Pardon the food metaphors. John and I just had an amazing dinner. I put together some caprese, he baked butter fan rolls to serve with spaghetti, and we made apple fritters as a dessert experiment. Talk about a lot on our plates. There are most certainly leftovers. John's probably gonna put up a photo on twitter, but he hasn't yet.)
Anyway, I'm optimistic about my short story revisions and oddly excited about getting the Friday Fictionettes Project all caught up by the end of the month. Like, 1. it's going to happen, and 2. it'll be awesome. Happy weekend, y'all!
things that make rewrites hard (a non-exhaustive list)
- 1,633 words (if poetry, lines) long
Over the month of August, and not counting those stories that just needed a quick once-over before being submitted, I successfully revised to completion (as defined by "I'm willing to submit it to all the top pro markets") one story. That's it! One. One measley flash-length short story.
Revision is hard.
One thing that made the task so hard to complete was skipping a bunch of the days I was supposed to work on it. And not always because I was busy driving to Kansas, cheering for and hanging out with my Boulder County Bombers peeps, and recovering from all of the above (hi! I'm a lifelong introvert! Unusually high levels of peopling will require unusually long levels of downtime afterward!) But sometimes it was just because I know revision is hard, so I run away.
This may be a bit of a catch-22.
But I'm discovering that it's really only some rewrites that are hard.
The aforementioned quick once-over before manuscript submission is relatively easy and--well, I wouldn't call it fun, not when I'm stressing out over "I should have had this submitted by now, this is taking up a lot more time than I budgeted for, whyyyyyy" while I white-knuckle my way through the piece line-by-line. But it's oddly compelling. Unless midway through I decide the piece isn't actually going to be submittable, I'm going to do it and I'm going to finish it so that I darn well can submit it. So. Not fun, but easy, for certain values of "easy."
There's also the revision process that's more like a controlled demolition of the existing draft so that the components can be used to build a new story. That one actually is fun. So while it's not easy or quick to complete, it's easy to return to it day after day.
The revisions that suck like supermassive black holes are somewhere in between. That's when a story is mostly there, but it needs fixing on a deeper than line-by-line level. But I can't see how to do it. Sometimes I can't even describe the problem(s) in a useful way. And I can't make myself feel, on a gut-instinct solid-knowledge level, that any amount of pushing words around will improve matters. I start to feel like any changes I make will only break those few things that actually work.
That's what it was like revising last month's story.
But I got it done on time and I submitted it to Uncanny Magazine with two hours to spare before deadline and got to log the rejection 3 days later so YAY! And I mean YAY because, YAY, moving closer to 100 rejections in 2019, but also YAY, one more story I can submit to all the usual places!
And the fact that the next three places I sent it rejected it in under 24 hours just means three more rejections toward target 100 and also three more steps closer to finding the editor who will love it. And those three places are in fact well known among working short story writers for preternaturally speedy rejections. We all send our new stuff there first because 1. hey, they might say yes, and 2. if they say no, they'll do it quickly, so you can send it to the next place sooner. Their slush pile is big, and they publish only a very small percentage of it, and they would even if they only published stories found in the slush pile, which they don't. But we jump in that slush pile anyway, because that's the only way to give them the chance to tell us yes.
Those are the things I tell myself, consciously and repeatedly and determinedly, because they are true. And I need to focus hard on their truth whenever that sadistic little voice in my head pipes up saying "This piece got four rejections in four days; shouldn't you take the hint and accept that you wasted all that effort last month producing GARBAGE?!" Because that little voice totally lies.
(And that's something else that makes revisions hard.)