Ghosts of the Old City

Mood, Music

I don’t really understand why the question is so common, but writers are repeatedly asked what (if any) music they listen to while writing. It comes up in the #NaNoWriMo Twitter conversations. It comes up in blog posts (like this one yesterday from Austin local and WordPress/NaNo stalwart Jackie Dana), in author interviews, and almost any occasion a writer fields questions.

Generally, I’m in the “sometimes listen to music before writing, but rarely while writing” camp. I spent most of my adult life studying music, and even the wallpaper Baroque and early classical performances that so many people use as writing or study music can distract me. (Or just annoy me. There’s a reason I specialized in 20th-century avant-garde music.) There are exceptions, though. When working on a scene from Ghosts of the Old City that I’ve since discarded, I put on György Ligeti’s Atmospheres. It’s dissonant atonal stuff, heavy on strings and built around texture. It was the right music for the scene in question.

And that’s my cue to pivot. I’ve spent the first part of Camp NaNoWriMo cleaning up my outline. (I’ve historically been a pantser, but the middle chunk of Ghosts was a horrible soup until I set aside the time to give it structure.) I was surprised to find myself mentally scoring the scenes to help pin down their content. My thoughts about the scenes’ moods were more musical than verbal.

I started grad school as a composer. I started as a composer because I dug music. And largely, I dug non-pop music because of film scores. I spent a lot of my undergraduate years composing pieces with explicit or implicit narratives. I also spent a lot of time thinking about music and text and how they worked differently for telling stories.

The upshot of this is that my ideas of textual structure are thoroughly tangled with my ideas of musical structure. When I think about pacing, I imagine a conductor’s gestures. I think about conflict in terms of crescendoes and cadences and shifts in orchestration. Back when I composed long pieces, I’d get one or two pieces of 11″x17″ paper and sketch out the shape of the piece. Sometimes I’d do that with a carefully-measured timeline across the top of the pages, others I’d just be roughing it out—“trumpet solo here,” “percussion cacophony,” “pianissimo strings…”. I’d draw shapes and small pictures on the page. I don’t do that with my stories, but my longhand outlines sometimes get close as visualization exercises.

Music plays out in time. In a live performance, at least, you can’t flip back to check if the theme you’re hearing now is related to the one you heard two minutes in. (You can do it with recordings, but unless you’re a music student, I think it’s pretty rare.) It’s the composer’s and performer’s job to make those connections clear, to hold the listener’s attention. You get one shot at structure, start to finish. You can use inherited forms, many of which are based on returning material and/or harmonic progressions, or you can make your own structure. Either way, the structure is experienced linearly.

Books don’t have that limitation. You can read them by flipping around. You can read the end first. You can go back and remind yourself what happened in the first chapter. Despite that difference in the medium, structure in fiction works an awful lot like musical structure. Even if you break up your plot, reveal it in out of sequence bits and pieces, it has to be compelling as it unfolds for the reader. You have to bring them with you through the story. The crescendoes have to get them excited. If you change keys for the bridge, you’d better have a good reason (and probably ought to consider bringing some of the bridge material back to prove its relevance).

A novel isn’t a symphony. The concepts and themes to balance are different. The techniques are different. For me, though, it seems more and more like the principles are the same. Whether you’re writing a story or a string quartet, you’re giving shape to chaos. You’re making the inchoate intelligible. Words or notes, you’re paving a path for your audience.

Long story short, there’s a lot of music involved with my writing even when my speakers aren’t making a sound.


NaNoWriMo, Camp Style

November was National Novel Writing Month. I was a bit skeptical going in, as I wrote before the month began. I also “won” NaNo—I got my 50,000 words despite presenting at a conference and missing the first weekend. I met some fun people in the Austin area. As the month wound to a close, we were abuzz with the desire to start writing groups and workshop the manuscripts we’d piled up (some more neatly than others). It faded relatively quickly amidst the clamor of the holidays and what passes for winter here in Texas.

Earlier this month, the Austin NaNo Facebook group slowly rumbled back to life. also sponsors “Camp NaNoWriMo,” a more open-ended pair of virtual camps in April and June. (This is exactly what I needed back when my Novembers were full of academics, incidentally.) A good chunk of the Austinite NaNo crowd was signing up. Some of us are still working on our NaNo projects: editing, adding the missing bits, or otherwise trying to turn our word piles into entities with literary architecture.

I signed up. I want to finish.

When I committed to the “proper” NaNoWriMo, post-relocation life was still unsettled. It had been about three months since the move. My partner was only just starting a new job. I was still applying for writing jobs willy-nilly and substitute teaching on occasion, but with my partner working, I went back to being the stay-at-home parent. (Substitute teaching did not pay enough to justify paying for daycare for our pre-K daughter.) That’s changed somewhat. My sister-in-law watches the kids after school when I’m working…and I’m working a steady 40 hours each week at my long-term substitute gig for most of April. This weekend I even had to take some time to do grading and a dash of course prep. I will have considerably less energy and rather less time to throw at my novel than I did in November.

That’s really why I’m doing it—because I don’t have the time. I want a draft. Correction: I want a finished manuscript. I can’t have that without a draft. I can’t complete a draft without doing the writing. NaNo’s a good incentive for that: I take lizard-brain pleasure in watching a bar graph (or in this case, a bullseye graphic) improve. I also get something out of the mild competitiveness of the wordcount race. These nudges will, I hope, be enough to help me cram writing back into my day.

Oh, there’s writing in my day. Blog posts. Still a bit of online game writing (though I’ve dialed that back). I’ve been pecking at my novel intermittently. What has been lacking is sustained pressure. I wrote last week that I’m afraid of quitting my novel, that it would be easy to leave it where it’s at. That’s true. The fear of quitting is also a much more familiar one: the fear of failure. I’m okay with being a “failed” academic, mostly because I happily slap those quotes on it. Being a failed novelist wouldn’t come with the scare quotes. I am in this for serious.

 Not everybody who does NaNo is. I think that’s where many of the anti-NaNoWriMo posts miss the point. Many people do this for fun, and only for fun. They do it because they like hanging out with other writers, virtually or physically. They do it because they enjoy the process. If they crash and burn in November, it’s no skin off their nose. If they write 70,000 words that nobody else will ever read, that’s okay with them. We do NaNo because we love to write.

This seems to be even truer of Camp NaNoWriMo. Its format is open-ended, allowing users to set their targets and describe their projects any way they want. In my virtual cabin, I’ve got two people who are enthusiastically writing fanfic (Harry Potter and Dr. Who, if you’re keeping track). Some people are writing histories. Others are writing poetry. Camp NaNo is an excuse to revisit November’s camaraderie for a while, to borrow a bit of its structure and manic energy without being swamped by it. Or it’s a chance to dip a toe in those waters before diving in in the autumn. The key is this: we bring in the goals we want.

To my fellow campers and fellow writers: best of luck achieving them.

Quitting Not Quitting

“Winners never quit and quitters never win.” —Vince Lombardi

This gentleman has little nice to say about quitters.

This gentleman had nothing nice to say about quitters.

A caveat: What follows is a messier intersection of thoughts on writing and thoughts on postac than I usually feature here. Since making a tacit commitment to be more upfront with my thoughts on #postac a few weeks ago, my posts have generally stuck with writing or postac. This one is both. It might be a miraculous chocolate plus peanut butter moment. It might just be as opaque as the title.

Technically, I didn’t quit. Sometimes I remind myself of that as a bit of self-boosterism: I finished my damn doctorate. I earned that title. Sometimes it’s self-castigation: why didn’t I just quit when I finished my coursework and school stopped being fun? I’d be several years farther down the road to whatever “what’s next” I’m currently fumbling toward. But I didn’t quit. I finished.

I’ve been a quitter twice. In high school, I quit the track team for a few weeks my junior year of high school. Abruptly. I was freaking out about my solo for district solo and ensemble and generally being an overstressed, depressed teenager. (I went back before the season was done after profuse apologies to the coaches.) The second time was a similar whirlpool of overcommitment and depression, and came my freshman year of college. After a ridiculously easy fall semester, spring semester turned out to be, well, college. I was still trying to treat it like high school, where I’d done everything. By February, I had simply run out of time and energy. I quit the school weekly and scaled back my participation in several of the organizations I was part of. That time, I didn’t go back. I had been doing too much. Quitting was the right call.

Even a year out from my decision, I’m not sure whether my departure from the Academy counts as quitting. In some ways, it feels like I just never properly started. I spent one year seriously pursuing the job market. When the time came to fish or cut bait with the secondary market in the spring, I cut bait. That doesn’t negate the adjunct jobs I had while ABD, but the decision to leave is still one I’ll only ever be 95% sure about. Maybe the secondary market would have been the kind of stepping stone it’s marketed as…but that’s a skinny maybe.

I’m pretty sure imaginary Vince Lombardi would call it quitting. It was my dream or a close facsimile thereof, and I stopped chasing it. I stopped chasing it because I woke up, but quitting for a good reason is still quitting.

Quitting has been on my mind because I’m a little terrified of doing it again. I have two thirds of a novel written. I’m a few pieces of plot from being able to write the rest of it. This is an easy place to quit, a point where rationalizations come quickly. I hit a similar point with my dissertation. I hit it with just about every academic paper I ever wrote: “I know how it goes. I could finish it if I want to.”

That “if” works better as the German “wenn,” which has a bit of “if” and a bit of “whenever.” I could finish whenever I wanted to, you know, if I wanted to, and if I had the time. It would be automatic. With academic papers, I resented having to actually write out the remaining parts once I had figured out the line of the argument and structure of the paper. With my dissertation, I felt like most of the work had been done and the only reason there was still stuff left to do was that I’d picked a project that was too big. In both cases, the problem is that the exciting bit is done. What’s left is mostly work. I’d have the feeling that I had proven to myself that I could do what I set out to do and the rest was just window dressing. Window dressing is trivial. Something you take care of “whenever.” If you want to. Like washing the last few dishes.

And this “whenever” is where I am at with my novel, only I have not been able to make the time lately. Part of that is the stickiness of the last two plot bits. More relates to a string of work and family obligations. I’m working five days a week. With responsibility for lesson plans and assessments, I use my planning/conference period for…work. There was a wedding. There was the Baha’i month of fasting. The “whenever” has seemed much more like “if.”

Combine that with the pseudo-accomplishment of being “mostly” done, and quitting starts to look easy. A novel isn’t like an academic paper, either. I don’t get to just hand it off and stop thinking about it. It will need the unflinching eye of an editor. It will need revision. It will need, eventually, publishing and promotion. No matter how mostly done I am, that is still work, and work fraught with chances for rejection. I like my draft a lot. There are problems with it, some of which I recognize. There will be others that I don’t and will happily fix. There will be still others, though, that are in the troublesome category of things-I-think-are-cool-and-how-could-you-possibly-call-that-a-problem.

When I hit this point with my dissertation, I had already turned the corner from “make it awesome” to “get the committee to sign.” (That was a kind of quitting in itself, but I haven’t met many PhDs who haven’t made that capitulation at some point late in the dissertating process.) I also had a quirk of scheduling that gave me the two months before my defense “off,” which allowed me to focus on loose ends.

My hope is that I don’t get similar time off this go-round. There’s no substitute teaching work in the summer, but I expect to have at least a medium-term plan in operation by then. I’d rather have income than open-ended time to write. (Never mind that I’d rather have income from writing, and never mind that the summer will involve full time parenting if I’m not working.) What I am working on instead is carving out the time around my other obligations, trying to push Ghosts of the Old City toward completion.

Quitting would be easy. If nothing else, though, graduate school proved that I’m bad at quitting…or maybe just bad at easy.

Where the Word Things Are

Way back when, roughly a thousand internet years ago (last September), I mentioned that I missed being asked about my research. Now, I get asked about my writing. It’s happened more than once, and sometimes happens even with relative strangers. It’s one of the dubious perks of being a writer. Theoretically, I’m always working on something. Sometimes I’m actually working pretty hard and I can answer with a smile. Other times it feels more like being buttonholed by my advisor in a hallway with questions about my dissertation progress.

With the exception of NaNo, when I was able to twist the contours of my life to make a bar graph go up, I’ve never been especially good at steady, smooth progress. I tend to keep plinking away at a project bit by bit, then claim a day or two for it and make substantial progress. Editing is more variable. Figuring out what’s broken and managing sentence or paragraph level fixes is fast work for me. (I credit my time with student papers for some of that.) Fixing large-scale problems is almost always slower, in part because I’m no better than most at killing my darlings. I also generally try and work my fixes out completely in my head rather than in intermediate, less-broken-but-not-fixed drafts.

At any rate, I haven’t written much lately about what I’m writing. Art is like a gas: it expands to spill the available space. Deadlines that don’t have a paycheck attached to them are easy to push back in favor of spending time with the partner, the kids, or, you know, sleeping. Here, though, are updates on my two current projects, with some brief excerpts.

The Dinadan Novellas

I wrote these over the course of several years for RetroMUD. I have a whole post about writing “inside” game worlds that will double as the prologue to an ebook collection of three novellas featuring Dinadan Whistler, a satyr bard. The first, Homecoming, is at its heart a father-son story, though it’s got its share of action and innuendo. The third, Dinadan Noir, is, as the title suggests, a detective story. It also involves shoes.

The second, Something Fishy, was originally written on a strict, self-imposed timetable. I produced two posts (of six hundred to a thousand words) each week until it was done. I managed that part of the goal. The problem was that I began without a solid outline, changed my mind about the plot several times while writing, and ended up with a lot of crap. It was, in miniature, an example of the kind of trainwreck NaNo can sometimes produce. I’ve blown up the middle third of the story, re-conceived the ending, and am slogging through the work of actually re-writing it all.

From Homecoming:

Dinadan finished replaying the fight in his head. “Nope. He couldn’t have been after me. In fact, I don’t think he even expected me to be here.” He looked hard at his father. “If I hadn’t been there, you’d probably be dead. I was sitting between you and the door, and he had to take a few swings at me before he even got to you. By then, I was able to hit him with some spells, and Lackhorn got his hammer out. Plus, the uruk didn’t follow when I ducked out of the way.

“So here’s the question, dad: why would the Unseelie be after you?”

Glim sighed. It was apparently contagious. “Honestly, Dina, I dunno. I was never more than a lady’s doorwarden, and I can’t on me life figure out why she’d send someone after me. Especially an Unseelie.”

The young bard did a double take. “Wait. You were a guard? For a Seelie lady?”

“Aye. Proud member of the Fighter’s Guild, too. Ye don’t think they just let Gifted ones in, do ye? No guild’d ever fill their ranks if they made queer souls a joining mark. Did ye think I’d been a woodcarver all my years?”

“Well,” Dinadan stammered, “yeah. I did. It’s not like you ever mentioned it.”

Glim shook his head and smiled proudly. “I didn’t get these muscles wielding a chisel, boyo.” The smile fell away. “But I retired near 80 years gone.”

From Dinadan Noir (where I’ve shifted to first person narration):

Playing the bravo is good fun. Bards don’t often get to throw their weight around—not that I’m heavy, mind. Whip-thin and resilient, that’s me. Anyway. There’s something entertaining about staring down bruisers who, if they stopped to think about it, could pound you flat in a fistfight, about making a hard line of your mouth and steel of your eyes when—inside—you’re laughing at the gulls. If push came to shove, of course, I’d be chucking spells, not knives. And part of the reason I could pull off the bluff was that it wasn’t really a bluff.

Digression is a professional hazard.

I put on my swagger suit and willed myself to Igneous. If you’ve never been there, keep it that way. The place is all twisted windows, crooked walls, and the muted stink of death. And chilly. I half-think that’s why so many undead call the place home. It’s always cool in Igneous, not quite cold, but cool enough to slow down rot. Never mind that the place is crawling with necromancers who’ll patch up your lifeless husk to your exact specifications. I drew plenty of stares just for being on the living side of the grave. I stared right back, a hairsbreadth grin letting them know I meant business.

Igneous is an easy place to get jumped, and a hard place to get found. It took me the better part of an hour just to pick the right bar, and I dropped two cutpurses and a gorgon mugger in that span. All, might I add, without recourse to a single blast of sound. I might not have been a brilliant swordsman, but I was good enough to take down gutter trash. The fellows in the Worm’s Abode were a step above gutter trash, though, and I made sure I picked out all the exits when I walked into the place.

The goal is to have the collection (which will also include some songs I wrote “as” Dinadan) available in early February.

Ghosts of the Old City

My NaNo project. I have fixed some of the continuity problems in the opening chapters, and cleaned up some speed-induced wordiness. There are more tweaks to make, and probably some more substantive problems that I’m in too close to see. I hope to have a six-chapter segment (about 22,000 words) out to my alpha readers in the next two or three weeks. To whet your appetite, here’s the first part of the prologue:

Maedoc was beginning to lose count of his new starts. The first ones had been his father’s, really: the grand tour of the Cliff States, the ill-fated attempt to buy a title in the merchant city of Mors, the ultimately futile effort to reconcile with Parukhi aristocracy after the Fairworth Treason. By then, Maedoc had begun to make his own new starts: the belated apprenticeship, the brief stint in politics, the gambling in Varna, the pitchforks in Dobrukh, the cattle herd in Ambhol, the second round of gambling in Varna…the terrible, terrible year he’d spent as a junior officer in the Three Rivers War…the third and presumably final round of gambling in Varna, in which he’d only just kept his hands attached at the wrists. And now Maedoc was on a train to Sakurdrilen for yet another attempt at pushing his life into some sort of recognizable shape.

The coach was noisy, but it was far better than steerage. Maedoc was grateful his accent and a few choice words had won him free of that smell. Here amongst the petit-bourgeois, he was instead intensely conscious of his jacket’s threadbare elbows and his boots’ eroded heels. The services of a barber would not have gone amiss either. Still, he put on his best smile, nodded politely at the few other passengers who made eye contact, and tried to get some sense of the place he might someday manage to call home.

Maedoc had never been this far north. He’d seen Shehru territory during the war, of course, but that had been in the hill country. Technically, this broken valley was part of the Republic now, but it still seemed…foreign. The farmsteads were low and stone-walled; the small villages the train sped by seemed too quiet and dark. The fields were small and, though green, did not sing lush songs. Aside from the painted doors, the buildings were as dark as the expanses of bare stone visible here and there. The Heron sometimes disappeared into crevasses, emerging a few furlongs away in angry waterfalls as it leapt and plunged toward the distant bay. Perhaps in the sun, Maedoc thought, it will look less dreary.

Here and there—and more often as the train approached Sakurdrilen—Maedoc spotted newer farmholds. Parukhi farmholds with wooden fences and long-haired sheep in the yards. Children in loose trousers and jackets watched the sheep. Their fathers watched from porches, unsmiling. How many are veterans given a piece of Shehru as a discharge payment? Land was a powerful incentive for soldiers, he knew, but he also guessed that ‘retirement’ was not always as pleasant as it sounded when the enemy was shooting at you. There would be more former soldiers in Sakurdilen. Active duty ones, too. Six years was not all that long for a war to be over.