“It's such a miracle if you get the lines halfway right.”
Robert Lowell

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

Is it funny enough to be in here? Only one way to find out.
not quite ready for carnegie hall
Mon 2014-03-24 21:14:13 (single post)
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I'm switching gears for a moment. At the rate I'm poking at "Snowflakes," it won't be done by March 31 of next year. And it would be unfortunate if I missed a chance to submit the snow-glue-from-space story to UFO3 because of that. So I got to work on that rewrite today.

Here's the thing: I'm not entirely certain that it's funny. It has its funny moments, but I don't think you'd quite shelve this sucker under "Humor." Humor is hard to do. I'm not sure I've got the knack.

At best, what I've got here is a "science-fiction-flavored horror story with moments of comic relief." I've got "grimly slapstick pair of bad guys." I have an Arthur Dentish character reacting Arthur Dentishly to inexplicable things that seem determined to happen to him despite his not having really given them his approval.

But what I don't got is "funny science fiction."

Maybe by the end of the revision (end of day tomorrow?) it will have recategorized itself. Whether it'll be funny enough for UFO3, only Alex Shvartsman will be able to say for sure. One way or another, though, it'll be a story. And I will submit it.

Then maybe I'll be able to come back to "Snowflakes" with a bit more fuel in the jet-pack.

drabbling
Fri 2014-03-21 23:11:02 (single post)

I have begun composing drabbles during my daily freewriting time. Drabbles are stories that are exactly 100 words long. Apparently there are a handful of online markets, some as blogs and some as podcasts, that publish them. So it's a multiply useful venture.

Drabbles, like certain forms of poetry, impose rules and restrictions. Restrictions make for very effective writing exercises. They exert a pressure under which the writer discovers what she's really capable of.

If nothing else, you learn to be very choosy about the right word in the right place. You only get one hundred of 'em, after all.

agency is for other people's characters
Wed 2014-03-19 23:42:56 (single post)
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I'm a lot better at spotting mistakes in others' fiction than in my own. That's why I participate in critique workshops. It means that while I'm pointing out the motes in my colleagues' eyes, I'm putting the ginormous vision-occluding planks of my own right where they can see 'em and tell me about 'em.

None of this should be a surprise. And yet.

I remember once telling a fellow workshop member that his story didn't ultimately work for me because his protagonist's emotionally satisfying ending came at the cost of the supporting character's agency. "I don't buy that she just accepts what he did to her and falls into his arms like that. I'd expect her to be angry. The romantic moment you're aiming for doesn't strike me as earned."

That critique session predated the first draft of "The Impact of Snowflakes."

You would think--well, I would think--that, having spotted in another author's manuscript this de-agentifying of a supporting female character to provide a touching denouement for a male protagonist--that having discussed it not only in terms of his story but also that of the larger unfortunate media trends it slots neatly into--well. I'd have expected myself to be alert to this sort of thing when writing stories of my own.

But what happens in my story? The female protagonists slowly learns the true situation (which is not a good one), comes to realize it was either caused by or at least known about far in advance by the male supporting character, and reacts to this realization by saying, and I quote, "The last man alive in my world is coming to meet me... I think I'd like to meet him halfway."

A close friend and one of my story's recent workshop critics gently pointed out that the ending was, well, kind of more gendered than what she'd come to expect of me. And also she wanted to know if the last woman alive in this world had a name?

I had not even given the protagonist a name, y'all. All the *facepalm.*

OK, so, now it goes like this. Her name is Ashley. She's been isolated much of her life because the male supporting character has been subtly and with the best of intentions manipulating her since her early years. By the end of the story she knows this, and she's kind of pissed off.

(She is also, seriously, I promise you, not into him that way. But that's the jumping-off point for a whole separate rant which I will save for later. Later!)

three pages of longhand navel-gazing with a fountain pen: totally worth it
Tue 2014-03-18 23:31:33 (single post)

So what's the point of doing something called "morning pages" when it's nine o'clock at night, anyway? This is something I ask myself when I have days like yesterday. I also periodically ask myself why I still do Morning Pages at all. It's good to reevaluate a long-standing daily ritual, the way you might reevaluate whether some keepsake still belongs on the mantelpiece after all these years. Is it still there for a reason, or is it just there because no one's taken it down? Is this habit still useful, or am I just doing it because I've always done it?

A quick review: Morning Pages is a practice popularized by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist's Way. The book is a twelve-week course in creativity and identity. As the reader works their way through the chapters, they gradually build a new toolbox full of tips, tricks, exercises and inspiration. Morning Pages is the very first tool that Cameron puts in the reader's hand.

Simply put, it's three pages of longhand writing which you do all at once, without pausing for interruption or thought. You just splat your brain down on the page. Whatever thought crosses your mind, deep or petty, banal or beautiful, you write it down from beginning to end. Then you move on to the next thought.

Cameron has a particular warning for writers: Don't "write" your Morning Pages. Just do them. This is not meant to be an act of deathless or even competent prose.

When my kind and generous husband first agreed that I could leave the nine-to-five world and take my writing full time, I made gleeful plans for what my writing day would look like. I would start with Morning Pages, of course. I would then do timed writing exercises, at least three sessions of fifteen minutes each, to really get the juices flowing for the day. And then--

"And how much of your day will be left after you've done all this noodling around?" said one of the self-assigned gurus in the online writing community I frequented at that time. "My advice to you is, don't waste your time. Just write."

This was ten years ago. I was, well, younger and more impressionable and more easily made to feel ashamed then than I am now. Admittedly, we're not talking "college freshman" levels of young and impressionable--I quit my full time job just before my 28th birthday--but "young and impressionable" comes in waves. It's amazing how easy it can be to poison someone else's innocent enthusiasm, no matter what their age.

So I bowed to my unasked-for advisor's wisdom and did the newsgroup version of shuffling my feet in embarrassment, and I shut my mouth. And I abandoned for a while the activities that he disparaged, because every time I thought about doing them, I heard his words in my head again: "How much of your time are you willing to waste with these things?" For months I couldn't even pick up Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones without feeling ashamed.

Oddly enough, the daily routine my correspondent shamed me into abandoning then is very similar to the one I try to adhere to now. I begin with Morning Pages, and I try to include a 25-minute freewriting session early in the working day. These two things combined take up about an hour, tops, and it's an hour well-spent.

More about freewriting another time, I think. Suffice it to say that my unasked-for advisor might as usefully have told a pianist not to waste her precious time with scales and arpeggios, or a roller derby player not to waste her time warming up and stretching.

"My advice to you is, just play."

How about no?

Anyway. One reason I still do Morning Pages is because they help me focus my mind on the day ahead. I tend to describe to myself what I want to do with my writing time. I also mention other to-do items I don't want to forget. It helps me keep from floating passively from whim to whim. It gives me direction.

More generally, Morning Pages is where I meet myself on the page. I take stock of what's in my head. Maybe I don't want to actually face everything that's in my head, maybe I'm not going to write the crappy stuff down, maybe I'm just going to say, "There's a thing that came up yesterday that I don't want to think about and so I'm not gonna," but even that much is more "facing it" than I'd do without the pen moving across the page.

If I've got a story revision in progress, I sometimes end up brainstorming on it during Morning Pages. "Brainstorming" might be overstating things. I talk to myself on the page. I ask myself questions. I don't always have answers, but it helps to know what the questions are. As previously observed, "How do I find space to include Backstory Point A in this scene?" is much more useful than "How do I get started when rewrites are clearly IMPOSSIBLE?"

Midway through Morning Pages, I sometimes surprise myself by remembering a piece of the previous night's dream. When that happens, I'll pause whatever thought I'm on, maybe start a new paragraph or make a free-floating text block off to the side, and I'll write down whatever dream memory just occurred to me. Then I'll draw a little crescent moon in the margin so I can find it later when I've got a moment to put it into my dream journal.

Morning Pages is where I practice my handwriting. I would like to have nice handwriting.

Morning Pages is a chance to play with fountain pens filled with ink in fun colors. I like Sheaffer pens with fine-tipped nibs and refillable converters. I like saffron orange, peacock blue, foggy gray, purple. Sometimes the ink gets all over my fingers, an indelible reminder all the rest of that day that I Am A Writer.

Morning Pages, even when I don't get to them until nine o'clock at night, is a task I know I can accomplish. There is no question of not being able to finish. And on a day when I get nothing done until that late at night, I need to experience achievement. I need to remind myself that I am capable of finishing a thing I start. You know how one of the benefits of short story writing is that it lets you practice story endings more frequently than novel writing does? Morning Pages lets me practice feeling accomplished.

In the end, there's a sort of faithfulness that happens in Morning Pages. That rendezvous with myself on the page is a matter of trust and self-care. Doing it every day, no matter how late, is a way of reinforcing the assertion that I'm worth trusting, I'm worth treating well, I'm not a lost cause to give up on. (These are assertions I need reaffirmed from time to time. I sometimes catch myself doubting them.) Also that my brain's a worthwhile place to spend time in.

Doing Morning Pages even when it's gone nine o'clock at night is a way of holding that faith up against all the disparagements of the world, the rejection letters we all must face and the dismissiveness we shouldn't have to, all the naysaying, all the temptation to hopelessness, and saying, "No. It's never too late to begin."

So that's why I still do it after all these years.

the cure for the imperfection blues
Mon 2014-03-17 23:54:58 (single post)
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A little while ago, I found that my use of Habit RPG was exacerbating the imperfection blues. Improvising upon them, you might say. Writing new verses. Singing them incessantly. Giving me, in fact, an earworm.

The imperfection blues is that self-defeating feeling that if you can't be perfect then why even try at all? If you were to give them lyrics and sing them over a three-chord progression, they might go something like this:

I got so much stuff to do today. But I can't get past thing one.
Oh lord, I got stuff to do today. And I can't get past thing one.
I done failed at thing number one, so I know I ain't gonna get nothing done.

But today, oddly enough, Habit RPG cured those blues. Temporary cure? Permanent? I don't know and I don't care. It got me through the day.

The cure for the imperfection blues might be lyricized like this:

So sometimes you can't do it all
And that can make you sad.
But I bet you can still do this!
So it ain't all that bad.

This bit of hopeful doggerel, like so many other song lyrics and most Emily Dickinson poems, employs common meter and thus may be sung to the tune of "Amazing Grace." Sorry about that.

The real-world application of this was to realize I could still do my morning pages even though it was nine o'clock at night. I could still earn the right to check the little checkbox and get rewards for my little 8-bit avatar. And then I could go ahead and submit the phantom phone story to WOMEN DESTROY FANTASY! and check off that box (and get rewarded for it). And then I could check off the "1 hour of writing" sub-item under the "5 hours of writing" daily item and thus minimize the overnight hit point loss.

By rewarding me in-game for doing individual tasks, Habit RPG encourages me to appreciate my accomplishments, however small, and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And even though there are days when I can't seem to summon any emotional buy-in for that appreciation, the game mechanic serves as a sort of "fake it 'til you make it" device.

It's really kind of genius, this game.

And now I'm going to check off the "post to 'actually writing blog'" item. Maybe I'll get a random drop! I hope it's cotton candy. My pet wolf cub is hungry!

march's overflowing plate of doom
Fri 2014-03-14 23:45:28 (single post)
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OK, so I mentioned in a previous post that "My plate is already full to overflowing for the month of March." Tomorrow is when that plate's contents start slopping over onto the carpet, making a huge mess under the dining room table, and generally becoming impossible to ignore.

Tomorrow is March 15, which is when the two-week (ish) submissions periods for Women Destroy Fantasy! and Women Destroy Horror! begin. Those periods end on March 31. I've got my submission for Fantasy! ready to go: the phantom phone story currently titled "It's For You" was declined by the last place I sent it to, so it's available and ready to hit the slush. But my hopeful for Horror!, the snow apocalypse in June story currently titled "The Impact of Snowflakes," is in the process of revision and is really digging its heels in about it.

Also this past week has been depressingly unproductive. Put it this way: I've lost an embarrassing amount of hit points over on Habit RPG. Today's especially gonna hurt; I spent most of the day running around trying to figure out how to make the best of bad skates while my good skates are unusable thanks to broken plates and the new plates don't arrive until Monday. Also cleaning bearings. Very old-school bearings, with solid cases and no way to expose the interior. Very filthy old-school bearings. Oh, roller derby, you eat up so much of my life, with your constant demands for time, attention, energy, and functional equipment.

And that's before we talk about yet another submissions period I want to get in on. I should very much like to send my funny snow-glue apocalypse story, currently titled "Anything For A Laugh," to Unidentified Funny Objects #3 before their March 31 deadline. And I haven't even begun the revision process on that sucker. I have a rough intuitive sense that it will be less harrowing than that required by "The Impact of Snowflakes," but I'm not optimistic about the accuracy of this non-observation.

(A friend who critiqued both "Snowflakes" and "Laugh," noticing the similarity in theme, asked me, "What's up with you and snow?" Without missing a beat, I answered, "I don't like it." Which is roughly true. But I had entirely failed to notice that I was building a sort of track record with snow apocalypses.)

Next week is a whole new week. This is what I keep telling myself. And it's true! The sun'll come up tomorrow, and all that. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there aren't a lot of whole new weeks left March.

So now you know what I'll be working on next week. And why the whole "doom" thing above. Although it must be said, everything's better with doom. Or chainsaws. It depends on your aesthetic.

stuff of mine that you can read right now this second
Thu 2014-03-13 23:35:24 (single post)
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We interrupt this week of (non)productivity reports to bring you more news from the realms of publication, those fabled fields to which we make far too few visits and to which we always strive to arrive with more frequency. That news is this:

You can now buy and download the e-book version of NAMELESS Digest Issue #3, in which appears my story "Lambing Season". If you like physical copies, especially great big hefty ones that look more like an anthology than a magazine, you can buy that here.

One- and two-year subscriptions are also available. People who produce magazines love it when people subscribe.

Editor Jason V Brock, accompanied by a Liz (a Lizard of Some Distinction), will give you a five-minute video tour of the table of contents. I watched the video last night at the kitchen table where John and I were working. John looked up from his computer and made happy-hands gestures when Jason namechecked me.

(Just so's y'all know, though, it really is actually "Luh-BUFF". At conventions, I hand out little home-printed business cards that say "It ryhmes with 'I write stuff'". That tends to get a chuckle, and also to be memorable.)

If you're interested in a very wide range of what might be considered "horror", head on over and get yourself a copy. As for me, I'm watching my mail like the proverbial hawk, because there will be a contributor copy in the box any day now. And with it a contributor's check. This will be my second sale ever to a professional-rate market; finally having the print and spendable evidence of it in my hands will go a long way towards reassuring me that my first such sale wasn't a fluke.

the day that wasn't.
Wed 2014-03-12 22:15:07 (single post)

Writing did not happen today.

You know what did happen? TAX PREPARATION.

So now you know.

the hoped-for thing occurs in the space one makes for it
Tue 2014-03-11 21:59:51 (single post)
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I have good news! I have sold a story! For publication! Where you can see it--or, at least, hear it! Not yet, but soon!

That's the short story. Now, clear the way, 'cause here comes the long version.

This year I set out to be a more reliably productive writer. I set myself daily goals both in terms of a checklist of particular writing projects and hours spent writing at all. Thus far, at least overall, I've succeeded.

Now, success for a working writer can be tricky to measure. The stuff that's visible to people who aren't me tends to be beyond my control. Getting a story published, for instance, requires the cooperation of an editor who wants to pay me for the rights to print my story. And then there's the matter of my improvement as a writer, which is totally within my control but, to a large extent, not really mine to judge. Not reliably, anyway. Not objectively. So I have to measure my success in terms of those things I can both control and objectively measure: time spent writing, projects in which I make tangible progress, pieces finished and ready to send out into the world.

One of the items that's on my daily checklist and which counts towards hours spent on the clock is submissions procedures--activities surrounding what might be termed the "business end" of this gig. Sending a piece to a market, for instance, or logging a market's response to the submission. Rediscovering something of mine published during college and considering whether it has reprint potential, and, if so, where at. Something along those lines needs to happen every day.

This has resulted in greater success than I've enjoyed for some years now in terms of a particular objective metric: the number of individual pieces of short fiction that are out on submission, i.e. in slush, a.k.a. marked "Pending Response" over at the Submissions Grinder, at a single time. At one point that number was seven. That's small beans compared with some writers, but for me it's personal high.

The amount of stories I currently have out on submission is a number I can control. The amount of stories I have sold for publication is not. But these two numbers are not without causal connection. Even the most cynical writer must agree that your chances at publication go up based on your frequency of manuscript submissions--well, assuming a certain base-level quality of manuscript, of course, and a certain amount of common sense in deciding where to submit what.

Which is taking the long way around to announcing that, attributable at least in part to being determined this year to increase the number and frequency of my manuscript submissions, I've made my first sale of 2014. My sad, sisterly science fiction short-short story "Other Theories of Relativity" will be read aloud during an upcoming episode of Tina Connolly's podcast Toasted Cake.

I'm just tickled all rose-hued about it. I've never had a story of mine podcast before. I've never had a story of mine read aloud to the public by anyone other than myself. I'm excited and also, truth by told, kind of scared about it. There is no rational reason for being scared about it, but I am, a little. It's related to the same mild terror I experience from the time a send a story out to be workshopped right up until the moment I get the critiques back. And, just like I do after I've heard all the critiques, I know I'll feel all glowy and happy after I've finally heard the podcast with my story in it. So I guess what I'm mainly looking forward to is that moment after hearing it for the first time.

I'm also excited because this is my first sale of a Weekend Warrior (WW) story. WW is one of the annual contests hosted in the private online writers' community Codex (which you should check out--if you qualify, if you even think you qualify, do not hesitate to apply, because Codex is awesome). The contest lasts for five weeks. Each Friday, a handful of prompts is posted. You spend the weekend writing a short story from one of those prompts. It must be no longer than 750 words. Winners are determined by averaging all of the contest participants' ratings of each others' stories. Participants also give mini-critiques of each story. (Participation is anonymous until The Big Reveal after the contest is over.)

Between the half-formed stories that came from noodling around on the prompts and the actual stories I ended up submitting, there's a wealth of material from my participation in WW 2012. "Other Theories of Relativity" and, in a roundabout way, "When the Bottom Dropped Out of the Soul Market" are the only pieces from that supply that I have submitted anywhere. (On the same day Tina got back to me offering to buy "Other Theories," I also got the form rejection from the Flash Fiction Chronicles contest for "Soul Market"--not one of the finalists, alas.) There is a hell of a lot more story potential waiting for me in that same pocket of my hard drive. All I have to do is dig it up, revise it, polish it, and send it out.

I hope to have happy reports along those lines later on in the year. Later in the year. My plate is already full to overflowing for the month of March. About that, more later. Probably tomorrow.

but setting up the dominoes is haaaaaaard
Fri 2014-03-07 22:56:28 (single post)
  • 3,400 words (if poetry, lines) long

I've been avoiding my short story rewrite of late. That is because short story rewrites tend to terrify me. They loom like giants, towering with the hugeness of the work to be done. But at the same time, they are nebulous, ill-defined. You can't stick a sword in 'em anymore than you can in a cloud. You can't see through 'em, either. Basically, it's a huge mass of blinding, suffocating fog.

My emotional reaction tends to go something like this: "Oh, Gods, there is so much work to do to make this story into a real and functioning story, and I don't have a clue what that work is going to look like, how do I even start?"

As always, the only way out is through. Through the fog, through the cloud, out to the other side. It's rough going, but if you keep putting one foot in front of the other you get somewhere. It might not be the final somewhere, but it will at least be a somewhere from which you can aim yourself at the next somewhere.

I know this stuff. But it's very easy to forget that I know it when I'm facing an impenetrable fog giant.

Yesterday, happily, I was forced to rediscover it.

You know how writers talk about setting a timer for a period during which you can either stare at the page or type on it, one or the other? And eventually you do the latter because the former is boring? That's kind of the position I put myself in last night. I sat myself down in that restaurant booth, and I told myself, "You don't leave here until you've completed your day's writing. Yes, that means revising 'Snowflakes'." And I opened the project file, and I read and reread and re-reread the first scene and all the notes accompanying it, and eventually that got boring, so I started typing just to give myself something else to read.

By the end of the night, the fog had begun to coalesce into a recognizable shape. Instead of just sitting there wibbling, I was asking myself, "How do I get this scene to convey all this information (which I've listed in this handy linked note over here) without making things awkward and clunky?"

I didn't have answers yet, but at least I finally had an answerable question.

My job today was to try to answer that question. I think I might even have done so. But again, it required me to stop simply dreading it and just effin' do it.

If I can only convince myself to sit down and stick my eyeballs on the story that needs revising, revising becomes... well, not easy, definitely not easy. It becomes, I suppose, inevitable. Kind of like if you just push the little train to the top of that first hill, it becomes inevitable that it'll travel through the rest of the roller coaster ride. Like that, only not all at once. Bit by bit, each day. But it's the same principle. You only have to make the decision to knock over the first domino. The rest happens more or less on its own. At least, it does if you've set the dominoes up correctly. If you haven't, at least now you can see what needs fixing.

So that's where I'm at: kind of between dominoes three and four, wondering what it will take to get dominoes five, six, seven & etc. to follow. Hopefully my backbrain will be able to munch away at things over the weekend so that they'll flow more smoothly on Monday.

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