On turning 75, NaNoWriMo and Day of the Dead

On turning 75, NaNoWriMo and Day of the Dead

Tomorrow I turn 75. That will certainly be a milestone.

Which of course made me curious about the word milestone. As with nearly all historical explorations, it proved to be exceptionally interesting.

Milestones were originally stone obelisks – made from granite, marble, or whatever local stone was available – and later concrete posts. They were widely used by Roman Empire road builders and were an important part of any Roman road network: the distance travelled per day was only a few miles in some cases. — Wikipedia

One of the main characters of my WIP goes on a journey overland to London, following ancient Roman roads. Might she see a milestone? But of course.

NaNoWriMo

Yesterday was another milestone of sorts: I began a NaNoWriMo push to (try to) write 2000 words a day. Day one: check. Day two: check. (With only a little cheating.) Tomorrow will no doubt be more challenging, but that’s allowed on the day one turns—OMG—75!

Along with writing, I invariably get lost in research. Delving into the Tudors is just a bit crazy-making! At every turn, there’s a fascinating story, at every turn, a mystery to solve—mainly, of late, trying to figure out Queen Elizabeth I’s exceptionally complex family tree. Here’s a crude and over-simplified “chart” that took hours to make.

I’ve been scrambling a bit, trying to sort out my system—and naturally returning to a system I’ve often used before. I record the day, time and word count in a notebook first thing, along with the word count I must meet that day.

At the end of the day, I write the word count met, along with the appropriate smiley or frowny face. For some reason, I find this system motivating. Approaching the end of the workday, I will calculate how many words I have yet to go, and then I go for it—crash, bang, come hell or high! 

Mid-day I realized that the notebook I was using was too small so I went looking for a better one. I found one that had only been used a bit four years ago while working on a revision of The Game of Hope. It was moving seeing my scribbled notes. it feels like a decade ago to me now.

Meanwhile, Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead is a delight in Mexico, a beautiful tradition. Here are a few photos from Halloween, when people all over town were getting made up in fanciful ways.

 

On outlining and constructing a timeline/calendar

On outlining and constructing a timeline/calendar

In preparation for NaNoWriMo‘s blast-through-a-first draft-November, I’m following K.M. Weiland’s roadmap on constructing an outline. I’ve outlined my last three novels, but each time it’s like starting from scratch. In any case, I like learning something new.

I began last winter with Weiland’s software, Outlining Your Novel, which is the computer version of her workbook by that name.

I didn’t like it initially, but I dug it out recently, and I’m finding it useful this time around. I’m pairing it with Weiland’s (free) Scrivener template, which in turn is paired with her book:

Children's Publishing Blogs - How To blog posts .

All this to say that reading her book this morning, she mentions using old calendars to establish a timeline for a novel. I’ve been working all month on a detailed timeline on Scrivener, but using printout calendars is an excellent idea. Ms know-it-all Google directed me to this useful site, and I now have color-coded printouts of the years 1549 to 1559 with the significant events highlighted. I especially like that I will be able to know the phases of the moon since this was all-important pre-electricity.


Four other blog posts on outlining that may be of interest:

The advantages of phase or scene outlining

The joy of being at the beginning of writing a novel

How to begin to write a book

A writer’s routine: on resisting an outline

On beginning (again) with Sarah Waters

On beginning (again) with Sarah Waters

In Canada, I have a tall narrow bookcase of books—one of many I have in our house. This one includes poetry, novels I’m either reading or would like to read, and an embarrassing number of books on writing. I am a collector, apparently, a collector of books on writing.

This morning, as I was drinking my delicious mug of decaf, I took three black binders down from the top shelf. I was curious: what were they?

One was a collection of printouts of writing exercises by the New York agent Donald Maass. Another, a thick, heavy binder, was labelled Truby. In it were printouts from master story guru John Truby. I have a lot of Truby—including a series of tapes and his book The Anatomy of Story (which overwhelms me at the first chapter every time I open it). I recalled that at one time Truby offered interactive story analysis on his website; I think it was free, an amazing offering. All the printouts were from his website.

The third binder, labelled Story Tools, was of a middling size. The first page was a list of Sarah Waters’ instructions on how to write a historical novel. Her wise words are no longer online—at least not that I can find—so here it is, my gift to you. (Click here to see the full pdf.)

In the corner I had written: 6 mos min to write 180,000 words.

I wondered when I had written that note. The second page in the binder gave a clue.

Notes before putting away.

I must have written this after I’d been offered a contract to write the Josephine B. Trilogy. Several months before I had finally completed an acceptable draft of The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., the first novel in the Trilogy. While my agent was looking for a publisher, I had started work on what was to become, nearly two decades later, Mistress of the Sun. On signing a contract for a trilogy, I reluctantly put the project away.

So: all this was Very Long Ago, as I was setting out on this 32-years-and-counting writing adventure.

Sarah Waters’ advice on how to write a historical novel is a treasure. I’ll be returning to it.


The photo at top is of Sarah Waters, 2010, by Sam Jones, as seen in the article in the Guardian on Sarah Waters’ 10 rules for writers (rules which are, of course, spot on).

A Practical Handbook for … writers?

A Practical Handbook for … writers?

One of the books I have in San Miguel is A Practical Handbook for the Actor, by Bruder, Cohn, Olnek and Pollack. It was a useful book to consult when writing about actors in The Shadow Queen, but it’s now and again also mentioned as a useful book for writers. This morning, I scanned through it, before returning it to the shelf.

It’s true that many of the passages are relevant to writing. I especially like this one, for example:

The only talent you need to act is a talent for working—in other words, the ability to apply yourself in learning the skills that make up the craft of acting.

With writing in mind, it becomes: The only talent you need to write is a talent for working—in other words, the ability to apply yourself in learning the skills that make up the craft of writing.

So true!

Here are some others:

You must understand that acting, like carpentry, is a craft with a definite set of skills and tools. By assiduously applying your will to the acquiring of those skills and tools, you will eventually make them habitual.

It’s as if I …

I found Chapter 2, on Analyzing a Scene, particularly useful. As writers, we “experience” the scene we’re creating. These craft tools for actors are useful for writers as well:

  1. What is the character literally doing? (i.e. Tackling a man.)
  2. What is the essential action of what the character is doing in the scene? (The “essential” action is the purpose behind the literal actions, i. e. Physically stopping a horrendous thing from happening.)
  3. What is that action like to me? It’s as if … (For example, “It’s as if I were trying to stop my baby from being killed.” This third one is key to being able to put yourself emotionally into the character.)

The second step of defining the essential action can have a number of possible answers, and each one will require a different response to the third.

For example, it could go like this:

  1. What is the character literally doing? (i.e. Tackling a man.)
  2. What is the essential action of what the character is doing in the scene? (Hoping to get a promotion by proving herself the hero of the hour.)
  3. What is that action like to me? It’s as if … (“It’s as if I would be fired if I didn’t prove I could do a man’s job.)

Just tell the story!

Here’s another sweet spot:

The crucial thing to remember is that the actor is not on-stage to have an experience or to expose himself to the audience, but to help tell a story.

Converting this to writing: The crucial thing to remember is that the writer is not writing in order to have an experience or to expose himself to the readers, but to help tell a story.

Another bit of advice I like is:

Choose something that makes you really want to act the action you have chosen for the scene. … The better your as-if, the stronger your action, and thus the full strength of your humanity will be brought to the work.

The through-line

The through-line is the one action that all the individual actions serve.

You must decide what your ultimate goal is and then construct each individual action to bring you a step closer to achieving that goal.

That through-line is often difficult to discern when it comes to writing a novel. Margaret Atwood once described it as the skewer running through the meat and veggies that make up a shish kebab. That’s a very useful image to keep top of mind.

Where have I been?

Where have I been?

Where have I been?

When we arrived in San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) over five months ago, I went on a blogging spree. I was inspired, in part, by the refreshing wonder of fast internet. A month later, I stopped writing blog posts, getting down to the business of writing the keynote speech I was to give at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference mid-February.

As well, The Shadow Queen had been chosen as the Conference’s “Big Read” and an event was organized presenting it to book clubs. The event ended up including a video interview of me on writing The Shadow Queen, two lively short lectures by experts on the historical period, and a dramatic performance from the novel—plus champagne and authentic French beignets.

Being an all-or-nothing sort of person, I got very involved in scripting the film, which you can see here. Denis Lanson, the film-maker, did a wonderful job.

The short dramatic performance was my suggestion (in lieu of a reading). I discovered that it was quite a challenge to write. Wonderful actor friends Marilyn Bullivant and Rick Davey performed it. We went through several rehearsals (necessitating rewrites) together with Karen Kinney, head of the committee (a creative committee from heaven, IMO).

In short, a good part of December, January and early February was entirely taken up with writing the keynote, preparing readings for several Conference panels, and scripting the film interview and dramatic presentation of The Shadow Queen. All very exciting!

On stage before my keynote.

The Conference went wonderfully well. I still glow thinking of the reception to my keynote—a standing ovation from an audience of about five hundred—this in addition to the thrill of so many people reading The Shadow QueenIt was a highlight of my life as a writer.

In the weeks that followed, I struggled to get back to work on the WIP, an increasingly curious little novel about a young falconer in Elizabethan England. I went through all the stages of the writing process, including the requisite, “This is garbage, I should just retire” phase. (“What! You’re on Chapter Four already?” one writer’s husband would say whenever she voiced that thought.)

I made a self-appointed deadline mid-April to deliver an outline and character “bible” to Allison McCabe, the wonderful editor of historical fiction who worked with me on The Game of Hope. I delivered it Saturday morning, then celebrated with a lunch margarita at Casa Blanca, one of our favourite restaurants in San Miguel this year.

The working title of the WIP is now Raptor Wild, which I rather like. The “outline” is a mix of bare-bone scenes (mostly dialogue) and narrative plot points, weighing in at a hefty 14,392 words. The character “bible” is simply a page or two on each of the thirteen main characters, including a gyrfalcon and an elderly English Water Spaniel. A significant number of the characters die or are killed off rather early on in the story—somewhat too grim for a YA, I suspect.

falcon

“Beauty,” one of the WIP characters.

Although this was only an outline, I developed all the usual symptoms of being in final draft mode. Invariably, at that stage, I become obsessed. I get little sleep, cancel all activities that are not work-related, and become convinced I have a fatal illness. That’s when I think: Ah, almost there. How wonderful to send files off and experience a miraculous cure!

Now that Raptor Wild has been wrapped up (for now), it’s time to prepare to leave San Miguel—never easy. I love getting back home to Canada, but I hate leaving Mexico, too. We’ve had a wonderful winter here this year.

Next up, the paperback release of The Game of Hope, all gussied up in a beautiful new cover!