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Wave from wherever I am

If it’s Thursday this must be… some hotel room.

Last week was talking about science in Georgia, at my favorite annual science conference.

This week is training sessions for field sampling. Once in a great while I get lucky and get to send a national crew out to do my work for me. Sort of: it isn’t my work exactly, but I was involved in designing the national sampling protocol, and I will be analyzing and writing up certain sections of the results.

I will shortly have to pack up and check out before the last day of training, but I have just a couple minutes to check in.

So what’s on my list after that? Not so much travel, but plenty to do.

Pack up a bunch of Stringpage orders. This has been the busiest-ever week for number of orders, and I’m out of town. (I clearly state several places on the page that I may take up to a week to ship, two weeks if you’re ordering things that must be dyed.)

Work exciting new research material into novel. I’ve known where the plot goes for a long time, but have been flailing on some other aspects. Solution seems to have been to step back, think through the worldbuilding again, do some extra research. I’ll know when I start rewriting. I’d like to use this one for my Viable Paradise application, so I want it to be right.

Put together my next Science in My Fiction post, for April 23.

Finish the new short story.

Send previous short story back out. (Finally completed the revisions!)

Pin down plans for trip to Albuquerque in July. I’m teaching at a weaving conference. And also, work on my class.

Make up my mind on World Fantasy Con in Columbus in October. It’s within driving distance, and would be a good thing for me to do.

Plus, you know, day job and house stuff and yard work. Cat snuggling. The usual. Right now, I’ve got to get going. Long day of standing in cow pastures ahead.

The thing about November

November is NaNoWriMo, and that’s a good thing. Taking up that challenge in 2005 was was got me back into writing fiction. But that level of intensity in November just isn’t possible for me most years. It’s no longer an incredibly busy time at work thanks to some agency-wide reorganization, but I’m still personally very busy. Even if not travelling for Thanksgiving, like this year, I run a weekend-long textile symposium, and it takes a lot of time, effort and mental energy to pull together. This year I was also head cook for the entire weekend. Yikes!

But I made a NaNoResolution anyway: write some fiction every day, on a particular new project. No expectation of 50k, just writing something every day. My target was 250 words a day. I’m working here on establishing a routine, rather than trying to get a vast word count. 250 words is a full page in manuscript format, and something that I can do fairly rapidly, while getting myself back in practice. The NaNoResolution included specific dispensation for missing days related to the textile event. No sense in making myself even more frantic than I was already going to be.

I’m pleased to note that I had a couple of good writing days earlier in the month, and hit the 250-word 30-day total on November 15. Not that that lets me out of writing for the rest of the month. Routine. Every day. I did miss four days for the symposium, but will pick it back up today.

Unlike NaNoWriMo, where I keel over at the end of the month, I intend to keep writing every day, into December and beyond. 250 words isn’t much, but adds up into a novel in a year, roughly. And there’s nothing wrong with an author who writes a novel a year.

I posted “Horn” on the Online Writing Workshop for critique, and have now gotten four really good reviews. I thought it was a pretty good story; now I see how to make it a whole lot better. I intend to tackle revisions over the long weekend, then send it back out into the world. I have a couple more stories just about ready to submit for critique. The only way to get better is to keep doing it. I’m going to take another stab at Viable Paradise next year, and need to put some serious effort into revision there as well. OWW has already been an excellent learning experience, and I should be able to apply what I’ve come up with to other projects.

I had the perfect title, but forgot it

Dear World,

I haven’t written a word of fiction since the beginning of September. Lots of thinking about fiction, planning of fiction, research and note-taking, but the butt has not been in the chair. In my ideal world, I would be writing every day. But I don’t live in my ideal world, unfortunately, and I must recognize that the demands of the various things I do will ebb and flow. This has been a very busy time for my main job – you know, the one that pays the mortgage – and I’ve been reorganizing some of the weaving stuff. That leaves precious little time, and more importantly braincycles, for fiction.

But at the same time, I have to recognize that I will never have any more time than I do now, and that if I’m not writing now, then I’ll never be writing. If I want to do it, I will find the time. Just not every day, or even every week. Sometimes day-job work will eat my brain, sometimes I’ll be able to take vacation time to devote to other things

It will all work out, as long as I’m mindful of how I spend my time, and work to maintain the balance between my various obligations. Mindfulness is very important to me right now. What am I doing at this moment? Is it what I should be doing? If so, then do that thing, without worrying about any of the other myriad things begging for my attention. If it isn’t, then stop doing it. I can only do one major thing at a time, and so it must be the right one.

I think I’m not going to do NaNoWriMo this year. If you’ve missed it, it’s the communal attempt to write an entire novel in the month of November. It’s fun, but I think for me it’s counterproductive. NaNoing puts the focus entirely on wordcount and pushing for more and more, where I need to work on improving the balancing act that allows me to meet all my goals and obligations. The NaNo-push forces me to ignore other obligations, so when December 1 rolls around, I quit writing to tend to them. Not good. I will write more fiction in November, but will not push for the 50k wordcount.

Viable Paradise was last week. I didn’t get to go this year, though I plan to apply again, but I thought it would be a good time to do something else writerly. Elizabeth Bear had mentioned the Online Writing Workshop, a SF/F/H critique group, and it sounded potentially very useful. A writing group of some sort would help me to not push fiction all the way to the bottom of the pile – external motivation can be very helpful – and help me refine some of the areas I’m having trouble with.

OWW has a free month trial period, and after that is a small annual fee. The setup is simple: after your first submission, you need to provide substantive critiques of others’ works to earn enough points to submit more of your own work. Like any such group, there’s a wide range of experience and aptitude, both for writing and for critiquing. I was thrilled to discover that my technical editing skills can work for fiction as well, with only a slight shift in perspective. At least, I think so – I haven’t discussed them with the recipients of those critiques. I’ve only submitted one piece for review so far, but have gotten some useful feedback. I don’t have a regular writing group, so this could be very helpful.

Talking to Myself

Dear Self,

I know you’re excited, enthusiastic, a bit manic even. I understand that you want to drop everything to tackle this new project. I’m sure it’s the best idea ever, far exceeding sliced bread and possibly even better than the fresh garden salsa we made today.

But Self, and I know you realize this and just need to be reminded now and then, you may not abandon projects in progress any time you get a new idea. We’d never get anything done. Some of those projects pay the bills, you know, and if the electricity were to be turned off that would be a disaster. You know we’d explode without the Internet.

And besides, you want to be a writer. That’s a perfectly acceptable ambition, at least around here. But to be anything more than a poseur with a blog who sits in the coffee shop with a laptop, you, well, need to finish things. And submit them. And get published.

So, Self, I know you really love this new idea. But you can’t start it until you finish a manuscript for work. And also those short stories, you know the ones. The ones that are just a final edit away from being done? I’ll let you off the hook on the novel word count this time, but no new projects until those stories have been submitted.

If the new idea loves you, it will be waiting when you come back for it.


First Lines

I caught the first lines meme from Elizabeth Bear, and thought it would be a good impetus to locate and organize all of my works-in-progress. It took me a remarkably long time to find the 12,000 word novel fragment that I like but haven’t touched in three years. Obviously I need a better organizational system for my computer files, but that’s no surprise. I finally have a hard drive big enough to hold everything but right now it comprises stacks of folders from different computers, flash drives, and other storage media, many of which are partial duplicates, or contain files of the same name but different ages. Anyone know of a clever solution to finding and removing duplicated files and folders?

I also found a story fragment: opening scene for something that I’d entirely forgotten. I’ve also forgotten what happens next, or ever. Not just file organization, idea organization!

Anyway, first lines. When I listed mine all out, I discovered that I have a lot of fiction in progress. I also discovered that I like most of Bear’s more than mine. No surprise there, but it does give me something to work towards.


When the Crows Leave: “Not _that_ tree, silly. The gnomes live in this one.”

After the Dawn: The world exploded.

Railroad: Everyone thinks vampires are a big-city problem, at least everyone who bothers to think about them at all.

Paper Magic: “Lucas, do you know that there’s a young man lurking in your street?”


Crossing Water: The gooey strip that used to be Interstate 75 stopped at the water’s edge

The Future of Cosmetic Surgery: The old pulps portrayed women ravished by tentacled green monsters, or virile spacemen putting the moves on mammalian alien babes. They got it wrong.

The Bone Flute: Fog lay in the valley, softening the outlines of the trees in the hedgerows and the cows in the farther field.

Lucky Egg: Reet strummed across the warps on the upright loom, loosening and separating the shed.

I also have a couple of non-fiction non-work projects in progress, but those opening lines aren’t nearly as much fun. And the work writing, also not fun.

Doing the impossible

Every so often you run into a project that is just horrible, stressful all out of proportion to its actual importance (usually); something that must be done, but you just can’t do. Here’s my strategy for tacking intractable problems, for what it’s worth:

1. Get out a pen and paper.
2. Title at top: To-Do List
3. Add first item: make to-do list. (DON’T skip this step!)
4. Break the horrid worrisome task into its smallest possible component pieces. I’m serious – if the very first step is “Move books from floor to desk” then write that down. Don’t think big, think small. Don’t ever put something down like, “Do the research for this paper”. The list should all be easily-achievable tasks, like “Look for relevant quotes in chapter 2 of this book”.
5. Continue until you’ve made a decent list.
6. Cross off the first item, since you’ve now done it. See? You’ve already accomplished your first task of the day, which is getting organized.

If it’s a really awful task, the kind that keeps you up at night and you can’t bear to even think about, you might need to break it into even tinier tasks, with time limits. This is a good trick too. Something like “Spend 10 minutes listing all the files for the project” or whatever. Put a small time limit on it – not what it will take to finish the project, but enough to make a start. You can do anything for 10 minutes, right? Set a timer, and when it goes off stand up, stretch, get a drink of water, then tackle the next 10-minute chunk. (I would say coffee, but overuse of this trick can lead to excessive caffeination!)

If it’s a really, REALLY overwhelming project, make sure also to put things on your to-do list that are easy. “Take tea break”, “Go to lunch”, “Water plants” – whatever. In extra-bad cases, I even add a few things I’ve already done, just so there can be some crossed-off items on the page (besides the crucial #1): “Come to work”, perhaps.

A linking we will go…

Catch-up on a few things I’ve collected:

The business of writing essays for other people. For them to learn from, of course: no one would actually turn these in under a false name. Right? Right.

Citizen science: how interested amateurs can contribute to scientific understanding. Think of it as distributed science – a whole bunch of people doing a little bit can add up to big payoffs. The National Phenology Networkand Project Budburst are tracking the growth stages of particular species of plants, and could use your help.

CPSC guide to the new standards for lead in children’s items discussed here previously.

What’s a heuristic, anyway? And why call your blog such a weird word? Here’s one explanation, from Steve Pavlina, nicely tied into some suggestions for productivity. This is more or less what I had in mind when I titled the blog.

Comics and creativity

I’m reading through the FreakAngels back issues right now. Damn. How did I miss this, and what am I going to do when I’m caught up and forced to wait a whole week for the next issue just like everyone else?

[And incidentally, this sort of thing is exactly why I needed to start a new blog. Talk about FreakAngels on Stringpage? With mild profanity? Um, no.]

Warren Ellis said something very interesting about the source of ideas in one of the interlude pages.

Here’s the deal. I flood my poor ageing head with information. Any information. Lots of it. And I let it all slosh around in the back of my brain, in the part normal people use for remembering bills, thinking about sex and making appointments to wash the dishes.

Eventually, you get a critical mass of information. Datum 1 plugs into Datum 2 which connects to Datum 3 and Data 4 and 5 stick to it and you’ve got a chain reaction. A bunch of stuff knits together and lights up and you’ve got what’s called “an idea”.

I’ve never understood the question, actually. It wasn’t until I saw so many authors and creative people talk about being asked where their ideas come from, a lot, that I realized that it was a serious question. I can see inquiring about a particular idea, but ideas-at-large? Poor impoverished brains these querents must have. Many authors seem to have a flip response, and many of those are quite entertaining, but Warren Ellis did a good job of expounding on how (I think) it works.

You need raw material. Lots and lots. Good, bad, indifferent. Written, drawn, heard, seen, tasted, smelled. Let all of that simmer together, tucked away in a corner somewhere, and eventually something might pop out of the primordial ooze, or at least coalesce into a proto-idea. Those then slosh around for a while, and maybe eventually evolve into proper ideas that might be good for something. Primordial ooze might be something like sourdough starter (only in odder colors): it must be fed regularly to keep it happy and bubbling.

But you never know what those proto-ideas will stick to, so you need to keep throwing lots of new materials into the mix. You also need to give the ooze time to simmer and slosh, quiet time, creative time. In the shower is good, or walking the dog.

Humans have been stringing together words and pictures and ideas for an awfully long time. There aren’t any new ideas, but there are still plenty of interesting uses for old ideas, combinations of old ideas, fascinating stories to tell, pictures to paint, music to compose. It isn’t usually the ideas, but rather having the skills and perseverance (especially the perseverance) to make the ideas into something good.

And still… are there really people who don’t have a continual stream of bubbles rising to the top of the primordial ooze? Even if they never do anything with them? Maybe, as Ellis suggests, most people use that chunk of their brain for storing more useful things. Me, I like the primordial ooze.