From Tree to Table

I like growing and processing my own food on site. I can’t do it as much as I’d like to, and I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be, but there’s still something really satisfying about a salad that grew in your own weedy yard, or an omelet from your own sassy birds. I’m limited on what I can do here, both by the climate and by neighborhood covenants and by my own black thumb, but I do what I can and I love it.

One of the recent additions to my wanna-be homesteading repertoire (along with the beekeeping I talked about a couple weeks ago) is syrup making. Our climate is too cold for maple trees to survive, but if you’re stubborn and not afraid to steam the paint off your walls, you can boil down birch sap and make syrup.

The process of making birch syrup is the same as that for making maple syrup, but a bit… tricksier, let’s say. Birch sap has a lower sugar concentration, so it takes twice as much sap to make the same amount of syrup. Birch sap is also very perishable and must be processed or frozen quickly. Unfortunately, the sugars in the sap also scorch more easily than maple sugars do.

But the trees make up for their lame sap by giving you tons of it. Birch syrup making therefore takes a lot of boiling. We had only three trees tapped and we couldn’t even fit all the sap in our gigantic canner. We were getting sap faster than we could boil it down, the stove was on constantly, and our poor ceiling started dripping like it was raining in the kitchen. We gathered hundreds of liters of sap, and all of it boiled down to a just couple pints of sap. (Yes, I used liters and pints in the same sentence. I’m bilingual!)

Truth be told, syrup making and story writing are both total pains. They take up a ton of time and energy with little to show for it at the end. And honestly, I might not think it was worth it if I was only concerned with the results. A tiny bottle of syrup might not be enough to entice me through the whole process. But fortunately, the process itself is part of the fun. Let’s take a look!

Sap Flow I can’t really lay a lot of claim to this part of the process. Sap flow happens, whether I collect it or not. Likewise, story inspiration is out there, whether I’m paying attention to it or not. But if I know it’s happening, I can take steps to collect and process the flow. When I set the taps in the tree, that’s like starting to pay attention to all these amazing story ideas all around me.

Sap Collecting A single birch tree during peak flow can give as much as three gallons of sap from a single tap. For this part, simply drill a hole, set a tap, and let it dribble into a bucket. Then all you have to do is fetch a bucket of birch water once a day, easy peasy. For me, nothing about the writing process is easier than the giddy headlong rush through a first draft. When I’m in Go Mode, I can crank out up to 80k words in a month. Granted, I’m not usually moving that fast, but when the story’s fun, it just flows.

Hard Boiling Birch sap is about 99% water, so you can really boil the heck out of it when you first start processing it. It is insane how much boiling sap takes and it is insane how much editing an all-over-the-place garbage fest of a first draft needs. Especially when it’s my first draft. This is the longest part of the process and can sometimes take days for sap—or years for books.

Final Boiling Nine times out of ten, when you’re making syrup, this is the point at which things go irreversibly and horribly wrong. If you’re not watching that pot like a hawk to pull it at the right time, you can end up with syrup that is watery and not concentrated enough (and will inevitably spoil), or too concentrated and the consistency of wood-flavored taffy, or scorched, or any of a dozen other problems. Fortunately, your final draft is only mildly like this stage in syrup-making. If you take out too much, you can simply put it back in. If you don’t cut enough, you can go back and pull more. And the nasty burnt bits can be swapped out for something sweeter. All is not lost. (At least, so long as the end does eventually roll around. Endless editing is its own kind of story death.)

Bottling The final step is to bottle your beautiful dark syrup in a hot water bath and pop it in the pantry. It almost feels anticlimactic. Likewise, it can feel a little strange to finally be done with a story after working on it for so long. But syrup, like stories, is sweetest when shared with others. Opening up your work for the scrutiny of others can be a bit scary, but it is very rewarding to have something you poured so much work into bring a smile to someone else’s face.

I’ve mentioned my Star Daughter series here a few times. It’s a good example of this process. That story has gone through over twelve drafts (at which point I stopped counting) and over a million words, every single one haphazardly added, cut, rewritten, revised, rearranged, culled, and fleshed out. It took me yeeeeears to boil all those ideas down to the heart of the story I wanted to tell. Of course, this process doesn’t have to take years. (It probably shouldn’t, really.) But it’s a process that needs to happen for every story we write.

So what part of this process am I in right now? Ugh, good question. I’ve been hopping around between projects a bit, which is a thing I personally should never ever do. But I decided this morning that I want to pop out a couple shorts before the end of the month, new ideas from start to finish. So I’ll be getting going on that in the morning. I’ve been feeling a bit blah on writing lately (and about a lot of things), so I’m hoping that this gets the story sap flowing a bit more.

I’ll let you know how it’s going next week. Until then, happy writing!

Craftsmanship: Building Your Skills as an Artist

Remember when you were a kid and you drew that first picture that you were really proud of? Like when you were five or eight and actually worked really hard to make something beautiful for your mom or teacher or whoever?

As for me, I drew all the time as a kid, but the first time I remember being really proud of myself was when I was twelve years old and I drew a picture of a horse running through a fenced pasture, a lush forest just outside the fence. I drew every blade of grass, every scattered wildflower. My mother, who loves horses, raved about this beautiful drawing.

Objectively speaking, that picture was garbage. I’m sorry, but it was.

I look at it now and I see all the weird little mistakes. (How many joints does a horse’s back leg have?) It was great for a twelve-year-old, and I worked my little fingers off for a week, but if I still drew like that, I certainly wouldn’t be parading it around to all my aunties and displaying it prominently in my home. It was good for then, but I had to keep building on those skills to keep them good in the now.

Maybe you don’t draw. Maybe your hobby is soccer. Or ice carving. Or cricket breeding. Your interest was piqued and then you started dabbling in it a bit, and a bit more the next week, slowly building up your skills until you were willing to be seen in public with it. Or maybe you’re not quite that far. Maybe you’re still building.

So how does one build a skill, and writing in particular? (I assume that’s why you’re here anyway.) Here are four tips for honing your craft.

Practice You can’t become a skilled violinist without ever picking up a bow, and the same is true for writing. First drafts are pretty much all rubbish anyway, but you’ll find that your drafts will get higher and higher quality the more you produce. Write in long form and short, write under deadlines and without- just write.

Critique Go through your past work and learn from your mistakes. Don’t be cruel to yourself (and don’t put up with beta readers who are) but recognize the places where you have room to improve. Likewise, critiquing for other writers will also hone your skills and give you insights into the writing process itself.

Edit Don’t be a one draft wonder. There is no first draft so genius that it can’t be improved with careful editing. And with every edit, you teach yourself how to be a better writer, which will come out in later writing as well. Even stories that get scrapped altogether are never wasted.

Study Check out the masters at work. Read widely in a varied diet of genres, even if you don’t ever plan on writing in them. Make note (mental or otherwise) of the things that you admire and think about how you can emulate those traits. (That’s emulate, not copy. Plagiarism isn’t cool.) Also study the basics- get a good grammar book and check yourself. Find a craft book to inspire and guide you. (I really enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I have a list of craft book recommendations here!) Don’t let yourself get complacent and think you have nothing more to learn!

These four practices will help you build your skills. They’ll help you recognize when you’re using the passive voice, when your word choice is weak or your phrases clichéd, when you’re showing instead of telling, when you’re maybe leaning a little too heavily on adverbs (ha). Looking back on my early writing drafts, I can easily spot where I was getting bogged down in purple prose. But at the time, those were some of my favorite passages. It took years of reading and writing and building my craft to realize they were a problem. And only years of reading and writing and building my craft will give me the skills to realize the other problems I have that I don’t even know about yet.

Have more tips for improving at writing? Let me know in the comments below! And until next week, happy writing!

Winding Down and Gearing Up

So, I mentioned it a few times throughout the last several months, but this has been a tough year as far as goal achievement goes. Now’s the moment you’ve been waiting for—just how badly did I flop on my face?

Well… it’s not great. Let’s do the numbers.

Reading Goals I had planned to read twenty-four books: half fiction, half nonfiction; at least six would be about experiences outside my own, and at least three would be Own Voices; and eight fiction from my genre, with four classics and four newbs. I didn’t quite make all that, but I got close-ish. I read twenty-four books, but half of them were not nonfiction. Eight were about experiences outside my own and five of them were Own Voices. Most of them were not from my genre, however. I read no classics, and only two in speculative fiction. Not bad, really, but not quite what I was aiming for.

Writing and Editing Goals I had planned to edit three drafts and write one first draft, as well as an unspecified number of short stories. I actually did… okay? ish? I did two quick and dirty edits on a pair of ugly first drafts (Box of Bones and A Cinder’s Tale) and wrote a first draft of another book in the Star Daughter series, an in-betweener focusing on one of the side characters that was kind of a pain to write. (Good side characters do not necessarily make good main characters.) I wrote a grand total of two short stories over the entire year, and honestly, that was probably pretty good, all things considered.

Rejections Goals Just like last year, I had planned to earn myself forty-eight rejections. Haha, yeah, that did not happen. Not even close. Remember back in August when I only had fifteen rejections? Yeah. It’s still fifteen. I completely checked out on that one.

But I have excuses! So, so many excuses. 😦

Writing Jobs I did quite a bit more freelancing this year than I have in years past, and that meant less time for my own writing. It’s success, in a way, although it doesn’t feed my soul as well as writing things that I love.

Animal Woes Between the staggering number of untimely poultry deaths we had this spring and summer, and the loss of our disgusting but strangely loveable dog Jasper, we had a lot of animal stresses to contend with in the early half of the year.

Multiple Medical Emergencies In addition to my own ongoing chronic health issues, I had family members with their own problems. My eight-year-old was attacked by a dog, and the lacerations became infected, which endangered his eye as well; it was several weeks before I didn’t feel the need to check his temperature and breathing throughout the night and he’ll bear those scars on his face the rest of his life. Stressful. Shortly thereafter, my husband hyperextended his knee and was unable to use his leg regularly for months, during which time he started having heart problems. He’s now seeing a cardiologist in an effort to not die. Also stressful.

Foster Care I mentioned this once before, but somehow in the midst of all our other madness, my family is currently fostering a very good kid dealing with some very heavy things. Just getting him to all his appointments throughout the week means at minimum four hours of phone time and five hours of out-and-about time, and he needs a lot of individual attention just to keep him from going to pieces at the drop of a hat (or a bagel). I knew foster kids took a lot of time/energy/attention, but holy Cheez Whiz, I had no idea.

All in all, it’s been a busy year. The animal woes have ceased (for now) and the medical emergencies have stabilized, but we’re still not sure about my husband’s health, and we’re still fostering. The timelines both of those adventures have big question marks at the end of them. With that in mind, I think that I need to lighten up on myself a bit for next year’s goals, which I will tell you all about next week. (You know, after I figure out what they are.) I have a lot going on, and it is all worthy of my attention.

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m a big proponent of writing daily, of having goals, of working hard to keep the writing career moving forward. I am in no way dropping this part of my life. But I cannot sacrifice the well-being of children for this. I can’t sacrifice supporting my husband. I can’t sacrifice my flock of birds to starve out in the cold. And so these last few months have been pretty detrimental to my writing stuff. I did all three sessions of NaNo (November and the two camp sessions) and have kept the blog updated, but have otherwise largely stopped writing work since last spring.

Guys, it is seriously crushing my soul. So I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to figure out a new balance. I’m excited to share my conclusions with you next week. Thanks for sticking with me! Until next week, happy writing, and happy New Year to everyone on the Gregorian calendar! Whee!

All the Recaps

Hello, friends! I’ve got about three ultra-mini posts here, so I decided to mash them all together so that I don’t have to drag any of it out for you. I’m sure you all have better things to do. So here are a few recaps of the things I’ve been working on lately, and a sneak peak of what’s to come.

Writers Conference This last weekend was the annual Alaska Writers Guild fall conference and I gleefully attended. As always, I had a great time, got great info, and chatted with great people! The speakers were all excellent, plus I got to relive my younger years by holding a friend’s sleeping two-month-old in one arm while drafting on my knee with the other. Plus, I had the luxury of flying down to Anchorage this year. (Eight hours of driving distilled into a forty-minute flight. SO LUXURIOUS.) I’ll be posting some of my conference lessons and stories in the weeks to come.

Grant Review Board Related to the conference, I was on a small board reviewing grant proposals over the last couple weeks. We had quite a few more proposals than we had in previous years. There were so many strong submissions and it was a tough time winnowing it down to just two. I hope this year’s winners can do amazing things with their funds!

Snow White Deadline This Blood and Ebony deadline has been breathing down my neck for the last few weeks and so I am pleased and relieved to let you know that I met it juuuuust in time. Therefore, I was able to get the olive oil of my homeland and not have to watch any doofy song-and-dance nonsense. Huzzah! Blood and Ebony went out to alpha readers Friday night and I’m hoping to have it out to beta readers before the end of the year. Except maybe this time, I’ll manage my time in such a way that it doesn’t arrive in their inboxes in the wee hours of morning smelling like panic and poor life choices.

Gals Read The fall session of Gals Read is officially upon me. I’ve been prepping for the last few weeks and today marked the start of training week. Hooray! After training ends, I’ll spend my days reading Space Boy and Anne of Green Gables to the fantastic fourth grade girls of Fairbanks. The program has grown again this year, and we are now in every public elementary school in the district. That is awesome! I can’t think of a better use of my time than turning impressionable children into desperate book addicts who stay up way after bedtime with flashlights. *hero pose*

Also on the radar is NaNoWriMo, which is working hard to sneak up on me, but not this year, NaNo! This week is going to be crazy, like the one before it, but once I claw my way through Gals Read and out the other side, I’ll start thinking about what I want to draft out for this session and post a project soon. As I mentioned in the halfway check-in on my annual goals, this session is basically my last chance for the year to get my one first draft in. I don’t plan to squander it (yet).

How about you fine folks? What bookish pursuits have you been up to lately? Any exciting projects in the works? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

Talking Heads in Space

As mentioned, I’m working through an editing pass on Blood and Ebony, my Snow White retelling. It’s mostly solid at this point. (This is why I have to let drafts rest for a while before I start editing. I always set them aside convinced they’re utter rubbish and then when I look at them again, I’m surprised at how not-horrifyingly-embarrassing they are. It’s a nice surprise.)

There is, however, one thing that keeps cropping up, over and over again, a little problem I like to call Talking Heads in Space.

I’m sure you’ve seen these kinds of scenes before (especially if you’re one of my beta readers). The scene opens and two characters are having a conversation. And… that is all. There is no sense of the setting, or what is going on around them. There are no other people in this closed universe in which they chat. They aren’t doing anything. Heck, the only actions we have are nodding and sighing and laughing and eye rolling. All head stuff. They are two heads, talking in the blank vacuum of space.

And Blood and Ebony is, unfortunately, full of them. The book has a lot of interrogations in it, which tend to seem less like interrogations and more like boring, vaguely frustrating conversations between two people who don’t really like each other and can’t seem to get to the point.

This is a problem.

Talking heads in space is boring. In a lot of ways, it’s a glorified info dump in chit-chat form, disconnected from the rest of the plot. And that is lame-sauce. A lot of my edits for this book have focused on these scenes.

So how does one fix up a Talking Heads in Space scene?

Scenery These characters are talking somewhere, right? Even if you’re writing a space opera and these characters are legit chatting in the vacuum of space, the vacuum is not empty—far from it. So build up the scenery a bit. Where is this conversation taking place? What’s happening around them? If this scene was in a movie, what would the props guy put up around them. Be the props guy!

Consequences from the Past Character conversations must be informed by what the character has already experienced. So think about what has already happened in the book and how it would carry consequences into this scene. Maybe the characters were arguing the last time they spoke and so now they’re sulking. Maybe Character A ruptured a bursa earlier in the story and she spends the scene crankily massaging her still-sore knee. Maybe she’s worried about revealing too much information because she saw Character B talking to Character C and is worried that B is a traitor. Maybe she should be thinking about these things throughout the conversation. *strokes chin thoughtfully* Maybe.

Consequences for the Future Much like consequences from the past, make sure that each conversation knits into the rest of the story. No conversation should be there just because you really wanted a tense scene, or a funny scene, or a whatever scene. Every scene needs to have consequences for the future of the book. It must move the plot forward in meaningful ways.

Sensory Details This is closely related to adding scenery, but specifically from the perspective of the point of view character and going a little deeper than you would in a movie scene. What smells does the character pick up? What colors are there and what do they remind the character of? Any distracting background noises? Any tastes? Textures of the seats? Blisters in the shoes? The waistband feeling a little tighter than it used to? Adding these details will change the perspective of the reader from outsider-looking-in to benign-undetectable-brain-parasite-looking out.

Inner Workings Another detail that will help your reader inhabit the characters’ worlds and minds is a glimpse of the characters’ inner workings. What is your character thinking throughout the scene? How are they processing their verbal combatant’s quips and insults? How do they handle a confession of love? How hard is it to stifle their desperate hunger and have a coherent conversation when they haven’t eaten in two days and can’t stop smelling the burger joint next door? Let readers know the innermost thoughts and emotions of your characters to help shift us from a talking head to a working whole.

Adding details like these grabs those talking heads right out of space and puts them on top of bodies which are a part of the world around them. It plops those conversations in the midst of a time-space continuum between the past and the future, where the characters were and where they’re going.

So now that I’ve worked out what needs doing, I’d better get to doing it. Blood and Ebony is due to readers this weekend and if I don’t finish on time—*gulp*—musicals. I’ll let you know how it shakes out next week. Until then, happy writing!

Obey or Be Destroyed: A Guide to Bending Yourself to Your Will

Last week, I was chatting with some friends and lamenting my lack of progress on my latest edits for Blood and Ebony, my Snow White retelling. I had a self-imposed deadline for it that was coming up fast, but I wasn’t getting much closer to being done. I was frustrated with myself because I’m normally pretty good about making myself keep my own deadlines.

And then it hit me: the reason I wasn’t feeling any motivation on this project. I’d given myself a deadline, but I hadn’t affixed a punishment to it. I hadn’t assigned myself a consequence.

It can be hard sometimes to feel like a professional in this trade, especially if you’re not making a working wage and claiming tax exemptions and putting out a new book every two months. Any given project is less likely to make me a dollar than it is to make me yell at my kids because, oh my giddy aunt, how can they always tell when I’m trying to work and know the perfect way to ruin it? *clears throat* Anyway, if the rest of the world isn’t treating you like a professional, it can be hard to think of yourself that way as well. But that kind of thinking can easily nudge writing a little lower on the pecking order of what gets our time and attention and before you know it, you’ve blown half of your project time and aren’t any closer to your goal.

There are lots of ways to combat this struggle. For me, I respond unfortunately well to looming punishment. I assign myself terrible consequences and—here’s the important part—I follow through on them. I once confidently told my friends that I would have a story to them by a certain date and declared that I would run a mile for each day I was late. Yeah. I was eleven days late. I hauled my non-runner-rear down to the track and ran eleven miles in one go, fueled entirely by determination and high fructose corn syrup. It hurt so badly I worried I’d damaged something, and I was wincing and limping for days. But I haven’t missed a deadline since.

Now I’m not suggesting you immolate yourself in retribution for dropping the ball once in a while. (Seriously. Please don’t damage yourself.) But I am suggesting you find the things that motivate you. By leaning into the things that you love/hate, you can amp up the motivation to do a thing that maybe isn’t quiiiite as high on the to-do list as it should be all by itself.

So if this sounds like something that might help you hit those goals a little harder, here are a few ideas for coming up with your own system of rewards and/or punishments.

What is your goal?We’ve talked about making smart goals here before, but just for a very brief recap, make sure your goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound (aka- has a deadline). Maybe you want to finish an editing pass, or write a single chapter, or enter a short story in a contest. Knowing exactly what you want to do and how you’re going to do it is the first step. Always have a goal. (And when you attain it, make another one! Onward and upward!)

What do you love? These things make excellent rewards. Pick a thing that you really want, or that you really want to happen, that you won’t just go out and get/do for yourself regardless of whether you hit the goal. Just make sure that it fits the size of your goal. Promising yourself a vacation to the Caribbean every time you draft a new scene isn’t very sustainable.

What do you hate? These things make excellent punishments. Pick a thing you don’t want to happen, and that is an appropriate punishment for the crime, but is still mild enough that you’ll actually go through with it. Maybe do a hard workout, or pledge a small donation to a political party you despise, or go sing on karaoke night, or whatever you wouldn’t normally do. But if you won’t hold yourself to it, don’t assign it. Make yourself miserable, but not so miserable that you flake out.

What is a reasonable deadline? As Goldilocks would surely tell us, you don’t want a deadline that’s so ambitious that you have to stop feeding your dependents to achieve it, or so lame-sauce that you won’t have to worry about actually working on it until it’s time to retire. Instead, pick a deadline that’s juuuust right: challenging, but possible if you put in a balanced amount of work.

Who can help you stick to it? Not everyone needs this part. Some people have all the grit ‘n’ gumption they need to make it happen no matter who is or isn’t watching. But then again, not everybody can just will themselves to follow through with their rewards or punishments. If you’re one of those people, grab a buddy! Writing pals, parents, partners, whoever—let them know of your task, your deadline, and what they’re to pressure you into doing at the end of it all.

Once you answer these questions, bring all the elements together into A Plan. Your plan, and those looming consequences shadowing it, will give you that extra burst of motivation to hit that goal out of the park. I know it works for me every time.

After pinpointing my lack of consequences, and therefore lack of motivation, my friends stepped in to help. In short order, they had assigned me a nightmarish punishment (they will deprive me of my ancestral right to piri piri sauce and high quality olive oil and instead make me watch a musical—a musical, people *shudders*) and then—poof!—just like magic, I suddenly had all the motivation in the world.

Killing Your Darlings: When A Character You Love No Longer Exists

I’ve had a character on my mind a lot lately. She’s this super cool, hyper-intelligent mermaid excavating ancient underwater libraries and toppling on-land monarchies. The victim of a generations long curse, she’s just become free and isn’t taking anyone’s trash one second longer. She’s fierce and clever and the undisputed leader of her shoal. She’s also like thirteen. The girl is totally boss.

She also doesn’t exist. Like, super doesn’t exist, even more than most fictional characters. This character and her entire arc were cut from a book that had too many side stories. She was on the page only long enough for me to fall in love, and then she was gone.

I tend to produce hefty drafts that are waaaay too big for their genres. Even epic fantasy (from which this particular character hailed) doesn’t usually leave enough room for me to squeeze in everything I want to. So when it comes time for editing, I have to be pretty aggressive about what gets trimmed. You can only tighten the wordcount so far by changing ‘have to’ to ‘must’ and ‘is not’ to ‘isn’t’.

When I edit, I try to use this as my rule of thumb—does it further my core story? I like a side quest as much as the next guy, but if it doesn’t tie back into the heart of the story I’m trying to tell, it stands great risk of getting axed. Especially if the word count is already nearly 40k above industry standards. *coughs*

They say no word is ever wasted, and I believe that. But cutting still hurts, especially when I have to cut something or someone that I adore. So as I’m slash-and-burning my way through a sloppy first draft, here are three tactics that I employ to help me through the carnage.

Meld your characters. Combine your favorite aspects of the character-to-be-cut into a more meh character who’s sticking around for the long haul. Or replace the meh character entirely, but keep that character’s role and scope. This can be a little dissatisfying, since you know the character has so much more in them, but sometimes it can be enough for you to just know that they are awesome and move on. (Besides, you can always dream of wild literary success and then you can create entire spin-offs of whatever the heck you want, no matter how ridiculous. I’m looking at you, Bree Tanner. *glares*)

Move the character to a different book. Set aside the character and maybe even their entire storyline to be picked up in a later book. Maybe this is a series and the arc can be used to tighten up a sagging middle on a later book. Maybe their delayed quest can even become the key arc of its own book. Or maybe this character is so boss that they can move into an entirely different world and still rock it.

Chalk it up to practice. Professional athletes don’t just show up on game day, stretch out, and play the match of their lives. They practice for hours, days, years, leading up to it, and writing is the same. Sometimes the words you write are simply to help you clarify what you actually should write, or to work on improving your language, or, heck, just to become a faster typist. Practice is what takes you from novice to grandmaster. Not all practice is pay dirt that will be cashed in some day. Sometimes it’s just dirt that you have to move out of the way to get to the gold underneath.

Right now, I think my mermaid friend is destined for Door Number Two. I tried to just cut her and forget her, but that was like eight years ago and she’s still haunting me, leaving cold puddles at my bedside and tipping over cups of water. It may be best to just indulge her. She’s the stubborn type.

How about you fine readers? Do you have any beloved characters/places/mechanics/etc. that you’ve had to cut? How do you deal with it? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!