“Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.”
Teresa Nielsen Hayden

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

This bit right here? This is the hardest bit.
the purpose of tuesday
Tue 2014-05-20 21:59:00 (single post)
  • 3,071 words (if poetry, lines) long

Tonight there was progress towards our goal to Paint All The Unpainted Bits. We completed what conceivably was and will be the most difficult part of the project, ever: The Nexus.

That's what I'm going to call it. It's that squarish piece of the house, three of whose walls are doors into bedrooms or the bathroom, and whose fourth side is partially enclosed by the short end of the living room closet. Where that wall ends is the opening into the living room. In most homes, the passageway that functions as a place to keep all the bedroom doors would be called a "hallway." In this home, it's just not big enough. So I'm going to call it The Nexus.

Because it is a Nexus and not a hallway, there is not a lot of room between the various doors. Masking off the doorjambs was a titchy business. Painting in between the doorjambs was even titchier, especially when we got down to the floor. This is what made it the most difficult, nastiest, least enjoyable part of the house painting project.

I recommend always starting with the worst part of any particular task. I painting the tiny, detail-oriented, brain-melting bits that required the little hand brush first. That way I could finish on the high note of "Yayyyyy! Free of corners! No more fiddly bits! Paint roller! Wheeeeee!" Always try to finish on a high note. If nothing else, it makes it easier to bring oneself to start the next similar project.

As for writing... well. I started with such good intentions! And then somehow my half-hour email break turned into hours of taking care of every piece of household administration and maintenance imaginable.

Around 2:00 I finally broke away for lunch, over which I managed about 40 minutes working on "Caroline's Wake." Those 40 minutes were spent converting the first scene from past tense to present tense, then whittling away at the first two scenes with a meticulousness that, even in the midst of doing it, I recognized as avoidance behavior. Editing existing draft in order to avoid writing more first draft. I suppose I rationalized it as "I'll continue working on this after lunch." But I did not. Other things snapped up my attention and monopolized my sense of obligation.

Moral of the story? There are several:

  1. Get up earlier so that there's time in a day to absorb set-backs like these.
  2. Set a timer when email-and-housework break begins. Go back to writing when the timer goes off. If tasks remain, rejoice! Take a second email-and-housework break later. Time it, too.
  3. Sometimes the purpose of Tuesday is simply to teach lessons by which Wednesday may profit.

Also, that 40-minute revision was by no means wasted time. It was a damn fine revision. I expect when I finally start drafting the third scene (tomorrow! For reals!), it will be all the better for having a more solid first and second scene to emerge from.

may the fork be with you
Mon 2014-05-19 23:55:56 (single post)

Today's farm work involved pitchforks.

Pitchforks are tall and rather heavy. They are slightly unwieldy if you're not used to them and/or if one of your wrists is going through a phase of is-it-or-is-it-not-sprained.

Pitchforks are also very sharp at the end that's worryingly close to your toes. Pitchforks mean we are not farming barefoot today.

Similar to last time, we were working with a bed to be planted. But last time we were working the earth in preparation for the tractor to come through. This time, we were post-tractor but pre-planting. So it was less about going deep to partially break things up and more about staying shallow and breaking things up very thoroughly.

The farmer came by and corrected our technique. "It doesn't need to be that deep. Just use the fork, see? Use the fork." He jabbed half the fork's length into the earth at a 45-degree angle, twisted it a little, and then stabbed a few more times until there were no big clumps left. Then he handed the fork back to me. I swiftly came to the conclusion that the farmer has a back of iron and arms of steel. Just use the fork. Ha.

But, you know, if I have to drive the fork with my foot because I have insufficient upper body strength to imitate the farmer precisely, well, that just means my foot is never under the tines when I take a stab at things. This is a feature. However, that twisting motion? That is why my left wrist is having sprained-type thoughts now. Ow.

Sometimes it's best to find your own way to do things. As long as you arrive at the desired goal, hey, that's cool, right?

That's about all I've got for a farm-to-writing metaphor today. That, and I guess also reiterating how very satisfying it is to look back on the results of finished work. We started at the east end of the bed; when we reached the west end and looked along its length and saw how lush and soft and ready for planting that bed looked, we felt entirely justified in heading up to the office for lunch.

I've heard people speak disparagingly of writers who are happier with "having written" than with "writing." And I think such people are unmitigated puritans. Because, oddly enough, I'm also happier with "having turned a bed by hand with a pitchfork" than I am with "turning a bed by hand with a pitchfork." It's this weird thing about work--it's work, isn't it? It's worth doing, sure, and when the work is writing it includes unexpected moments of delight, certainly, and I don't tend to sprain my wrist doing it. But there's no denying that it's so much more uncomplicatedly satisfying to look back on a finished work and say, "I did that."

avoidance! it's what's for dinner (too bad i'm not hungry)
Fri 2014-05-16 23:55:30 (single post)
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For the second time I've missed a Sword and Sorceress submissions deadline. It's already 11:30 as I begin writing this blog post. There is no way I'm finishing the story and preparing it for submission in under half an hour.

I just left it too late, is all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, I get a weekend.

i am processing my junk folder, it's a thing i do
Thu 2014-05-15 23:54:39 (single post)
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Spam! What's it good for? Character name generation! In my Junk folder during tonight's ritual scanning for false positives before deletion:

Hedwig Sorenson (who wants to share some diabetes healing secrets)
Janice Bauer (who wants me to give my lungs a fighting chance and try e-cigs)
Jennifer Rodman (ditto--look, people, I don't even smoke)
Kurt Rambis (a cash offer? for me? darling, you shouldn't have)
Kyle St. John (who thinks my family might be disappointed when they find out... something)
Mike Ward (China is dumping their gold fast! You have to! See why!)

When I try to think up character names, if I don't have something already predisposing me in a particular direction (like, say, "Caroline" as an oblique phonetic nod to "Kore"), sometimes my brain just cycles through the same five or six suggestions. The contents of my junk folder are not subject to the limits of that cycle. Honestly, I would never have thought up the last names St. John or Rambis without external prompting. Maybe that's what I'll name the very nice lady at the wake who knew Caroline the last time she was day-care-attending age.

What I really miss is when Baysian filtering was kinda sorta the new big thing in anti-spam manuevers, and spammers were embedding their links in a wall of random, computer-generated text to try to avoid matching the filter's patterns. This resulted in surprisingly good freewriting prompts. I used to keep a file of the best ones, but then I deleted it under the assumption that the next day's email would infallibly bring more. Sadly, this no longer seems to be the case.

But we'll always have Hedwig Sorenson and her encyclopedia of diabetes healing secrets, I suppose. Someday it will be possible to name a character in an English-language short story "Hedwig" without putting everyone in mind of owls, right?

these are things that would have happened anyway
Wed 2014-05-14 22:42:23 (single post)
  • 1,234 words (if poetry, lines) long

Once upon a long, long time ago, like... oh, say, 1992? Anyway, I wrote a story. And no, you cannot read it, because it was embarrassingly full of the Mary Sue.

Surely you've met the Mary Sue? Oh, Mary Sue is wonderful! She's perfect! She's sexy and adorable and everyone loves her. And yet they can never really know her, not truly, not in all her mystical, magical splendor. She is not from this world, you see, she was always destined to leave it and go home again...

In short, it was one of those stories that teenagers write about the storybook character they kind of sort of wish they could be. And also nobody understands them.

Hey, I have a lot of compassion for Teenage Me. But at the same time, I have to admit, she was not immune to the allure of the cuckoo child story: "Their parents are not their parents. Their lives are not their lives. They are princesses. Lost princesses from distant lands. And one day, the King and Queen, their real parents, will take them back to their land, and then they'll be happy for ever and ever."

But, being a teenager, I lacked sufficient awareness to prevent me from showing this story to Mom. This story in which a much misunderstood woman went back to her real home and her real parents. I kind of wish I could go back in time and slap myself. "Hey! Hey, you! You do not put this story in front of your adoptive parents. What exactly are they going to think you think of them, huh?"

But, happily, Mom didn't pick up on the vibe of "You're not my REAL mommy!" Or if she did, she never mentioned it. No, what stuck with her was the very dramatic conclusion of the story in which the protagonist's return to her home world also had something to do with Lake Pontchartrain leaping its levee boundaries and flooding the city.

Something like the following year or maybe the year after that, New Orleans had a particularly nasty brush with Maybe This One's Gonna Be the Big One. There was a heck of a lot of flash flooding. (This was at least ten years before Hurricane Katrina.) And Mom said to me, only half joking, "Niki, you write things and they come true! Stop it!"

Well. About that.

These days I find myself writing a lot of stories about snow. And they are not happy winter wonderland stories. There's the one about the midsummer week snowstorm that turns out to precursor Ragnarok. There's the one about the snow-glue disaster from outer space. And now there's "Caroline's Wake," a reimagining of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, in which of course the death of the Persephone character ushers in a particularly vicious snowstorm.

You might think it's an obsession or something. But, look, I live in Colorado right now. It snows here.

Anyway, that's what I'm working on when TWO FRICKIN' INCHES OF SNOW DUMP ON THE FRONT RANGE IN THE SECOND WEEKEND OF MAY.

And I can hear my mother saying, "Stop writing about things that come true!"

If I still had that overinflated teenage opinion of myself, I might get worried about this sort of thing. But, really, think about it--if there's a writer out there who's making things happen by writing about it (and I have a novel that I drafted about that, by the way), why would it be me? Why wouldn't it be a much better writer, someone much farther along their path to greatness, someone who's got lots of stuff published and a shelf full of awards? Why, to be precise, didn't Connie Willis usher in the snowpocalypse with her novella "Just Like the Ones We Used to Know"? That would have been just fine. Her snowpocalypse was temporary, lasting just long enough to catalyze a sense of, depending on the character, wonder or forgiveness or love rekindled.

Guess what? Connie Willis is in Colorado too! Where, as I mentioned, it snows.

Writers are not unaware of the world around them. When they live places where hurricanes and flooding are a yearly danger, they think about floodtastrophes. When they live where the winter gets snowy and they don't like it much, thank you, they write about snowpocalypses. And if it snows in May in Boulder or flash-floods in August in Metairie, well, are you surprised? We all know that stuff happens. We know it's a hazard of our territory. It's on our minds.

And stuff that's on writers' minds tends to show up in writers' fiction. That's pretty much it.

So if it snows again in two weeks DON'T BLAME ME, OK?! I'm not predicting, I'm just complaining.

the art of knowing the things you already know
Tue 2014-05-13 22:49:27 (single post)
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OK, so, that feeling? That awful "I have no idea how to write the next scene" feeling? The one that doesn't get better even after hours of preparatory freewriting? That feeling is not a valid reason not to write the next scene.

In fact, that feeling is a clear signal that it's time to write the next scene.

Seriously, feeling like "I don't know how to write it" doesn't get better by not writing. It doesn't turn into certainty and optimism just by thinking about the scene some more. It's a sign that I've hit the end of the usefulness of thinking, and I need to put words on the page to find out what the words are.

One of these days, I'll start remembering that right from the start. And the sooner the better. Because this painful process that involves several weeks of "I don't know how to write the next bit" followed by a day where I finally take a stab at writing it and arrive at epiphany thereby, well, it could stand to lose a few weeks off the front.

In other news, jigsaw sudoku is evil and should not be contemplated until after the work day is over.

how to kick off the week with that glowing, accomplished feeling
Mon 2014-05-12 21:09:35 (single post)

You might think a freakish May snow storm would preclude much farm work. This is not the case. We just moved the farm work inside. Seedling thinning continued from last week, only the thinning party (or thinning bee, if you will) took place inside the greenhouse, where it was hot enough to make me regret my extra layers of clothing.

Plants I worked with today: Lettuce, fennel, marjoram, sage, several varieties of tobacco, and, very briefly, more peppers.

My favorite of the above was the fennel. Some people hate all things licorice-flavored; I love them. Fennel, anise, ouzo, absinthe, black jelly beans and Jujyfruits, Good & Plenty, Allsorts, salted, even Twizzlers if you must. Thinning fennel was like kicking back with a freshly opened bag of Haribo licorice wheels. Every third or fourth stalk that I snipped went into my mouth.

Eventually, later on this summer, the fennel will be all grown up and harvested and ready to eat. At that time, my favorite thing is to quarter the stalks, salt them and pepper them, sautee them in butter, and coat them in Parmesan cheese. Goes well with potatoes or a really flavorful rice.

I did not come home and nap. I came home and got stuff done. I did all my household accounting chores as well as a few more tasks that have been languishing. I even popped the bearings out of my outdoor wheels and cleaned them. I should have done that Saturday evening immediately after all that skate-dancing around at the New Brew Fest and, more to the point, walking through wet grass between the dance floor and the Boulder County Bombers promotional booth. Hopefully the three-day wait won't result in noticeable rust spots.

And now, having been virtuously productive all afternoon, I'm just hanging out at home having a relaxing evening. I have a lot of work to do tomorrow, writing-wise, but I'll worry about that when tomorrow gets here.

everybody's workin' for the weekend
Fri 2014-05-09 22:45:21 (single post)
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You know what I just realized? About March 16? It's in one week. And I'm still stuck freewriting my way into the scene with the titular wake. Like, "Who's there, what sounds do you hear, what stories are they telling about the deceased? 25 minutes. Go."

I may end up having to put in some Saturday hours.

i wrote you this contest entry but the time zone difference ated it
Wed 2014-05-07 22:59:31 (single post)

Argh, damn and blast. I temporarily delayed work on other things in order to enter Shock Totem's flash fiction contest for May. They released the photo prompt on May 2 and we had until midnight the night of May 7 to submit an entry. Well, I procrastinated all week, and I procrastinated all day, and I finally finished it at 10:15 or so here in Mountain time--

--and the dang contest closed at midnight Eastern time. Argh.

So here I have this creepy horror story, about 1,000 words in length, which very, very obviously stars this creepy wasp nest statue thing as its featured creature... what the crud am I supposed to do with it?

Argh.

I supposed I'd be asking this same question if I'd managed to enter on time but didn't end up winning.

Usually when I write to a specific prompt--say, for an open anthology call or a themed magazine issue--I wait a few months after it's rejected to try to send it elsewhere. And I usually massage it a bit to disguise its origins and/or make it more accessible to the world outside of the original market's theme.

But this one, this one here, the contest said that the prompt had to be so integral to the story that it would simply fall apart without it. And so it is. And it's such a recognizable prompt, what with the photo going viral and all.

Arrrrrrgh.

Here's to better luck and more productive work tomorrow. On stories viable in more than one market.

a pot of tea please and the extinctinction of all other life forms
Tue 2014-05-06 23:54:34 (single post)
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Today I rediscovered Ku Cha as a place to get writing done. Ku Cha bills itself as a traditional Chinese tea house. While I have never set foot in a tea house in China and cannot therefore verify this claim, I'm reasonably convinced. They have oodles of teas in all the colors teas can be. Then they flavor some of them with stuff, and there are even more colors. And scents. And flavors.

Generally I go there for the greens, oolongs and pu-erhs. I go there to buy them by the ounce, or I go there to enjoy multiple steepings of them in Ku Cha's elegant, quiet, and entirely wi-fi-less tea room where I can write the afternoon away without interruption or distraction.

As y'all know, I've been a member of Fuse Coworking for some time now, and a full-time all-hours-access member since late October. I love the community, and I'm excited about what they are doing with the historic Riverside building. But I find I don't actually work there more than once or twice a week, so it's not really economical for me to carry a full-time membership--especially considering that, if all goes well, we'll be looking at paying double our current mortgage payment each month. Thus, as of May first I've demoted myself from full-time member to pay-as-you-go drop-in.

There are several reasons I haven't been working there more often. Some days I'm bouncing between writing work and household tasks all day, so I need to stay home. Some days I'm not able to get my work started on time, whether because certain drop-dead tasks claimed my attention or because I just slept late; on those days I don't want to delay things even further with transit, parking, and "settling in." If I go by car, parking is expensive. If I go by bike or bus, I'd better count on good weather--and extra time in transit. And then there's Wednesday and Thursday, when I have roller derby in the evenings and volunteer reading in the mornings. Sometimes going to the coworking office means less time actually working.

And then there's the painful reason I don't really know how to talk about with anyone, or even whether I should: I can't always get work done there at all.

It's sad! I feel like a traitor even admitting it. But coworking communities each have their own "flavor," their own styles of interactions, their own particular atmospheres... and the Fuse atmosphere is too often too noisy for me. Not always! Not every minute of the day. But any minute of the day could be a problem. Sure, there are specific times designated as "social hours," and I don't expect peace and quiet during those. I join in on the beer and chit-chat happily. But I'd have thought that, this being a co-working office, the default would be quiet time. Turns out, it just ain't so. There is no protected quiet time or quiet space. Rather, the atmosphere is one of jocular camaraderie, where everyone's encouraged to give voice to whatever's on their mind, at any time, in any corner of the Commons or the cafe, at any volume that feels natural. Or, at least, so it has seemed to me.

It is an exceedingly extroverted atmosphere. And I am a vehement introvert with the occasional capacity for out-and-out misanthropy. Basically, we're talking about a personality clash. Nobody's fault! No one's to blame! It's just an unfortunate thing that happens.

For some people, the way Fuse works is probably ideal for them. Most people I see there seem to enjoy it. They seem to thrive where there's always someone nearby to bounce an idea off of or just to strike up small chat with, and where their impulses aren't constrained by "quiet time" rules. But me, though--oh, how I fervently, desperately wish for more formal constraint! Something along the lines of "People are working hard all around you, so please take your phone calls and conversations outside where you won't disrupt them." But for the kind of co-worker for whom Fuse is absolutely perfect, that would no doubt be stifling.

I respect that. And that's why I haven't really said much about it--I recognize that Fuse's atmosphere has evolved out of deliberate choices in its community. And if at any moment I might be rendered absolutely incapable of writing, all my verbal circuits completely overwhelmed by a loud conversation less than ten feet away, it's not because anyone's doing anything wrong. It's just that my needs are a mismatch for the nature of the space.

So I'm now a drop-in member, paying by the day instead of by the month. That means I can reserve Fuse for those days when my workload isn't incompatible with an unpredictably raucous atmosphere, or for when they have special community events I wouldn't mind interrupting my work for. And that means I'll be a much happier person to be around when I am there, so I won't be a drag on the community. Hooray for not being a drag on the community!

Today was the kind of day when I knew I'd need quiet. But at the same time, I wanted to get out of the house. For the first time in several months, I had no disincentive against going somewhere other than Fuse to work.

The reasoning behind the disincentive goes like this: "Well, I could go to the tea house, I could go to a cafe. But then I'd be spending extra money there only to waste the money I already paid for a full membership at Fuse."

Today's reasoning went instead like this: "I need to work on three different short stories, one of which is in heavy revision mode. If I go to Fuse, and a spontaneous karaoke party breaks out in the Commons, I will not get anything done and that will make me unhappy. Instead, I could go to Ku Cha, where there's an aggressive 'no cell phones or loud conversations' policy in the tea room. Also a peaceful fountain, like I used to enjoy when Tea Spot was open. (Ah, Tea Spot.) Ooh! And I won't need to bring my own tea ware to keep myself in quality tea all day long. And I'm biking; carrying my tea ware around on my bike is awkward. That settles it! Ku Cha today, Fuse on Friday. And I'll make sure I have things to do Friday that can get done during spontaneous karaoke parties. Win-win!"

My reasoning is wordy like that.

The tea was Bi Luo Chun. Ku Cha was featuring it at the free tasting station. I had some and liked it well enough to want more. I spent about two hours there. I spent a little time freewriting on "Caroline's Wake" and on the prompt for Shock Totem's flash fiction contest. Then I threw myself against the mud wall that is the "Impact of Snowflakes" rewrite. Mud walls, unlike brick walls, do move, but it takes a ridiculous amount of effort to budge them even an inch. But that's all right; I was able to make that effort, sipping my tea and listening to the fountain.

And by the time the noisy pair of college dudes came in, laughing, bouncing on the cushions, and striking sudden poses, well, I was mostly done by then anyway.

Turns out, no place that has other people in it is perfect. Who'd have thought?

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