Mission Improbable: from idea to first draft

Hello again world! I promise not to angry vent this time, despite the deep everything-ness of everything. That way lies madness. This way? Just a simple blogpost about writing, attempting to demystify the process.

Last month I was talking to Cathi (Celtic Duchess) on Twitter, and she asked me how I start in on writing a book—whether I outline or just hit the ground running. I’ve wanted to go into my process for a bit just because a lot of starting writers I talk to seem intimidated by the steps, so Cathi gave me a great excuse to get on that. (One might say… a great excuse to write it down? 😉) Here goes nothing!

A good first draft is like this triumphant, oddly shaped carrot: technically complete, but it needs more time to reach its full potential.

I think most people have some loose ideas that, when put together, might make for a decent book. I talked about where ideas come from in a March episode of The Beans, and the main thrust was this: ideas are cheap. It’s putting time and effort into them that makes them worthwhile and transforms them into stories. When I look at my body of work, I don’t think the ideas I chose to spend time on are super unique or interesting. They just reflect thoughts and feelings I was having at one point in time—things I liked and things I didn’t like and things I wanted to address. Images that just happened, that I grabbed onto as worthwhile. For our study of ‘idea to draft’ I’ll use an old story I’ll probably never rewrite to discuss particulars. The story was called ‘Trespass’ and I wrote 50,000+ words of it in 2011 for NaNoWriMo then stuck it in a drawer. Without further ado: the process.

1) Inception

The first step is just having an idea, and then turning it into a bigger idea. The story I’m using as a case study here came about from listening to ‘Close to Me’ by the Cure on repeat. The line “if only I was sure that my head on the door was a dream” made me imagine someone in a half-dream state leaning against a door. (I know. This is… really very basic. I told you I was demystifying stuff.)

The image unfolded in my head. The person is confused (why are they there?) and barefoot. They’ve sleepwalked somewhere—where?

It becomes something of a fill-in-the-blank exercise. Maybe thanks to Robert Smith, I imagine the person is a man. The setting fills itself in as fantasy because that’s what I wrote at the time. Through the door is a library, and inside that library is a fellow student doing a spell (this story is now set at mage school, keep up…) for peace and tranquility. The main character wandered there in his sleep out of a need for peace/comfort/presence of mind because…

…because he is doing a multi-day spell/ritual that puts his sanity at risk. What’s that dangerous, sanity-challenging spell? I continue filling in the blanks according to my preferences and whims:

The dangerous spell is a ritual to resurrect someone. Who? Naturally: his dead twin brother, who wasn’t a mage and died in a hunting accident. The spell will pull his brother’s soul into his own body so he can talk to him again.

WOMP! There’s the snowball rolling downhill. You start with a song lyric, or a thought, or an anything, and you let it sit in your head. Images form. Maybe you start from the other end, and think “I want to write a story about a haunted castle in Scotland”. It’s a different start point, but the same principle. You fill in the blanks until stuff starts falling into place in a way you like. Anyway: now I have a story about a young man resurrecting his prematurely deceased brother. At a glance, it will involve:

  • a focus on platonic love
  • ghosts / soul magic
  • a plot that somehow interacts with the main character’s predicament – ie, a plot where a body housing two souls will be important

2) Planning/outlining

Back in the day I probably would have just started writing and hoped the answers would come to me. I did everything by feel, although I realize now that the framework was my intrinsic understanding of storytelling. I’m pretty sure everyone who likes and engages with fiction has this sense, but relying on that alone was slow and got me stuck a lot. I still write slowly and get stuck a lot, but I know better how to un-stick myself and push through. Un-sticking includes going back to this planning/outlining phase occasionally.

So: I’ve had an idea. I want to write it out. First I might sit down with a notebook and have a brainstorming session on characters and plot, answering several questions:

    • what’s the MC’s backstory?
    • who are the other important characters? (brother, mentor, maybe a love interest or rival?)
    • what will the general thrust of the story be?

You might notice the third bullet-point is an impossibly broad question, but I can narrow it down for myself. What do I want for this story? I know I don’t want the MC or his brother to be villains. I want the resurrection to ‘work’, and to play with what it means to have two souls inhabiting a body. I want banter and a shared goal for the main character and his brother. Because I’m not making the conflict about the resurrection itself, it needs to be adjacent: something related, where the MC’s predicament is relevant but not the whole story. This means other forces have to be at work. It’s easy to make this soul-related by having it pertain to other mages also doing resurrecty things, but being evil about it. I acquire my villain: some nebulous group of mages is using soul magic to [DO SOMETHING EVIL] and the main character must find out what/why/how they are doing it. In the process, he will learn [SOMETHING ELSE]. He will have to face what he is doing and possibly give up on resurrecting his brother fully to stop [EVIL THING].

I would then take a stab at outlining. At the very least I’d put my broad idea here into an outline format. The book ‘Save the Cat Writes a Novel’ by Jessica Brody has a fantastic guide on story arcs, and I might reference that. My writing partner Ash helpfully excised the information as a fill-in-the-blank worksheet for us to use. The most useful part for me is asking the following questions:

  • What is your MC’s problem, or a flaw of theirs that needs fixing?
  • What does your character want/what goal are they pursuing?
  • What does your character actually need? (What lesson will they learn in the end, through exposure to the story?)

I also write down some cookies. Cookies are scenes and concepts that make you want to write. In the case of my mage story, I loved the thought of the nerdy mage brother being judged by his more active, athletic twin for not looking after his body. The twin brother making the MC exercise would be a cookie for me.

So there’s my messy process. Inevitably, I will fill in half an outline, get enough of an idea for the story’s broad strokes to get going, and then… get going. I’ll pull out the outline and add to it when I’m stuck, but that’s it.

3) Writing

This is the part of the process that’s just like exercise or cleaning the toilet or washing your hair. Hopefully it’s more fun than that, but by and large you just do it. My mage story started with my main character walking through the door set down by Robert Smith and being confronted by the other student doing the spell that made him sleep-walk there. They had a confrontational conversation where little bits of the set-up were explored. Every scene you ask “where am I going next?” and then go there. It can be really fun and really arduous, sometimes at the same time.

4) Losing your way and then finding it again

Writing tens of thousands of words isn’t easy, at least not if the words are meant to make sense in order. Looking at how far you have to go before a draft is done can feel incredibly overwhelming. I’ve been trying to think of analogies for non-writers, and the following is a stupid analogy but it was the best I could think of. Here goes: the losing-your-way part of writing a book is like living in a world where worn-down shoes are a valuable asset you can sell, and you look down at your almost-new shoes (an investment) and think of how much more you’re going to have to walk in them to wear them down properly, and you have a moment of doubt. The shoes are no longer new to you so you know all the places they rub, and maybe they don’t look as good away from the shop as you thought they would, and will anyone really want to buy these shoes at the end, when you’re finally done with them?

The analogy is really, really stupid. I should stick to fiction. But anyway: it’s hard. I sometimes think it gets easier with each book, but it remains hard. It might be easier if you pick a format and stick to it, but I haven’t done that and so I continue to punish myself. When I lose my way, I first ask myself if there’s a problem in the plot or tone or character interactions that I need to fix. Often there is. If there’s not, I remind myself of a few things:

  • my specific cookies for the project
  • that I’m tired of the book because I’m spending so much time on it every day, not because it’s a steaming pile of shit
  • if I keep going the book will eventually be finished and I may learn to like it again
  • there are solutions to plot problems and saggy pacing bits that I won’t be able to see until I’ve finished the draft and gotten some distance from it; nothing is unfixable

If none of this works, I may set the draft aside for a bit and focus on other things. If it does work—great! Back to step 3. Eventually step 4 stops kicking you back to step 3 and you make it to 5.

5) Bathe in the sweet glory of finishing a first draft

There’s really no rule for how to celebrate this sort of thing, but I think it helps to have a treat planned. Conspire with your loved ones to make this a special moment for you, or conspire with yourself to open a bottle of prosecco and watch something you love. Just make it nice for yourself so you don’t fall into a deep depression of “what now?”


And that’s it! There really is no magic formula. It’s just staying in touch with yourself and your process, making the time, and keeping going. A first draft isn’t the finish line, but it means you have something to work with. If I’ve made all of this sound super unmagical, devoid of muses and all the things that make creators seem fancy, I’m very sorry! There are lots of special moments, but you can’t plan them in. You just make space for them and hope they come. I hope this is helpful or at least interesting to someone out there… and happy writing!

Noise on busy streets

A while ago I was doing research on online movements and my friend Elaine (wonderful writer & person) described posting on social media as shouting things on a busy high street. There might be a sense that you’re talking to like-minded people, but a passerby could hear and take issue. Maybe the street will suddenly fall silent and the whole city will hear you. You never know which of the things you shout will be taken out of context, and it could be anything. AKA: proceed with extreme caution.

That description is true (way too true) for people with small followings, but famous people know they’ll be heard. Every time they tweet, they know thousands of people will read what they have to say. When JK Rowling took issue with the phrase “people who menstruate” earlier this year and rolled like a stone downhill into transphobic territory most of us already knew to be her stomping grounds, I—like many of my friends—muted her and attempted to divorce the famous person from the franchise that brought so much joy. This post is not about JK Rowling so much as the noise around her. Plenty of others have spent their time dissecting her arguments and knee-jerk defensiveness over deeply discriminatory views. I liked the brevity of Daniel Radcliffe’s response, but tried not to focus on the social media cycle. As far as you can banish a famous person with huge influence from your own head, I’ve banished JK Rowling.

Apparently today is her birthday. Apparently it was necessary for a Scottish author/broadcaster/journalist many good people follow to tweet her support for JK Rowling, calling her one of the most caring and generous people out there. This author with 39.9k followers noted she’ll probably become the target of a twitter mob (“Yes, I know what happens next in my mentions. I don’t care,”). And I wonder… what’s the point?

Twitter: the public forum. The busy street. This person wants everyone to know (perhaps especially the people who have accused her friend of callousness!) that actually, her friend is all these positive adjectives. Such a brave show of support! Such kindness! I’m glad billionaire JK Rowling has been publicly wished a happy birthday as opposed to… oh, I don’t know. Getting a phone call. Being privately congratulated in a way that doesn’t tell thousands of trans people that the way they were hurt doesn’t matter—that in fact, the person inciting abuse against them is principled, generous, etc etc.

I’m so tired of the noise. Our world is so glaringly unequal, and what do most people do once they acquire an unfair share of it? They form ranks. They punch down. Over and over. I know power tends to corrupt—there are so many sayings about it, not to mention the entire superhero genre—but do we have to watch it happen? These famous people decry being ‘cancelled’, but the irony of the situation is that JK Rowling can’t be cancelled. She has too much influence; she keeps getting renewed. The seasons of “JK Rowling and cronies continue to incite abuse against people I care about then act the victim” surpass even Supernatural‘s endless run.

I want to change the channel, but more than that I want a time machine. I want to meet today’s rich and famous—the self-made, at least—before their break and ask them: what would you do? What would you accomplish with money and power? Do you lift people up, or tear them down? Do you help people with beginnings like yours, or fear them? Would you even dream of using your influence the way your future self uses it?

And then I’ll go back into my time machine and turn the dial all the way to the Jurassic period. Breathe some fresh air at last. Probably get eaten by a dinosaur. And as that hypothetical dinosaur tears my steaming guts from my still-living body, thrashing its head left and right to cut through my intestines, you know what? That dinosaur will still be less of an asshole than the average celebrity.

So thank you, hypothetical dinosaur. You are a beautiful departure from the overall online landscape, and I appreciate you. Thanks for keeping it real.

Falling into our verjaardagskalender

Shady and I had an adventure with some very good friends from the Netherlands towards the end of 2019. We visited Dumbarton Castle and Auchentoshan Distillery, and at dinner they gave us a ‘verjaardagskalender’—a birthday calendar. They laughingly explained the rather Dutch gift to my American husband:

“You write the birthdays of all your friends in and hang it in the guest toilet, and whenever people go to the toilet at your house they sit on the pot and check to see if they made it into your calendar. So when we visit your house we’ll check if our birthdays are there.”

Shady hung up the calendar as instructed, and he fills out each month as we get to it. May’s picture is of a place I’ve never been: a terrace in Museumdorp Orvelte, in the province of Drenthe.

Loved ones with May birthdays: our apologies, we haven’t gotten round to filling May out.

The thing is, I have been there. Not that specific location, but that sunny afternoon. The cobbled terrace outside a beautiful old building, the bicycles going by, the sound of women gossiping in fluent Dutch. It makes me homesick for a place I haven’t lived in over a decade. Self-isolation makes me long for places less than three miles away—let me walk down a busy street in town! let me sit in a bustling café!—but the curious mix of nostalgia and longing I get when I look at that picture hits like a freight train.

It’s no surprise. The ongoing isolation heightens emotions I’d know how to handle at other times. The whole thing feels like being a teenager again, with that sense that something is fighting to the surface of you and your body isn’t big enough to hold it. Just like back then, it has nowhere to go; there’s just a morass of uncertainty. What will the future hold? It can’t be predicted—not because you don’t know the world, this time, but because the world is changing too drastically for your past experiences to help you.

As if being a teenager once wasn’t enough!

I’m continuing to reach out to people, and my daily life isn’t that different from before. My musician dad does wonderful livestreams on Facebook every Sunday. My grandad sings “we’ll meet again” in the background of my phone calls with granny. I’m grateful for all the ways this isn’t affecting me—but sometimes I sit on the toilet for longer than I need to, and fall into a picture of a sunny terrace in the Netherlands.

Pre-Eurovision last year, on my friend’s back porch in Leiden. We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…

Writing Solo

I’ve wanted to do a blogpost about how Ash and I collaborate for ages. HOWEVER, we sent in the latest draft of our book last month, and it’s left us at loose ends. We’ve worked a little on our book 2 outline, but neither of us want to get really stuck into anything big while we wait for edits. As a result, for the first time in a while, I’m writing a new project (a short story) solo.

Unlike the triumphant song I just linked you mainly because it has the word ‘solo’ in it and I like it, going solo for me has been hard. Did you know that when you write alone, you have to write everything yourself? Did you know you have to ask other people for help when you need it, rather than having the help supplied without your asking? Did you know I’ve forgotten how to do all that?

There we were, happily doing stuff together…
And then, there we weren’t!

Sometimes when collaborating, it sucks. Bad moods happen, and sometimes you get tired of having to communicate well. Both of us are needy for praise from the other, and when there’s no immediate positive response, feelings get hurt. That’s basically the worst part, and I say that as a person who used to HATE group projects.

So read that again: sometimes, in the process of writing hundreds of thousands of words together, Ash and I hurt each other’s feelings without meaning to. In terms of crosses to bear? That is a feather-light cross made of soft, foamy material.

Contrast with the positives. They’re too numerous to count. Built-in discussion partner who is exactly as invested as I am: check. We can joke and laugh about the characters, come up with silly scenarios (that sometimes make it into the book), and whenever one of us feels insecure, there’s a person who can provide immediate reassurance. No, the scene you just wrote doesn’t suck. Here are all the things I liked about it! Yes, this concern you have is valid… I have some ideas on how to fix it.

Do I sound nostalgic? I’m nostalgic. The short story I’m writing is cute, with swashbuckling and magic talents, but motivating myself is hard. I’m no longer used to building momentum alone. I get so tired of my own writing voice, and how often my characters fall into introspection I have to delete later.  I can do it—it’s just less fun. Even with Ash reading it and encouraging me, it’s not the same.

I’ll get the A to my V back one day…*

I don’t want to lose the ability to write alone. That’s how most people write, and it’s good exercise for my brain. At least some of my reluctance is laziness. It’s hard being alone with your thoughts and wrestling with yourself without someone there to help—but it’s important too. To an extent.

To all you writers doing this solo: I have more respect for you than ever. Well done! To my future self NOT doing stuff solo: you lucky dog. Send me some of your energy; I need it.

* They haven’t gone anywhere I’m just being dramatic.

Grief for the past, hope for the future

Today is a bad day.

Lots of days are bad days. If I measured my moods by my grief and panic over political events—not to mention ecological ones—I don’t think I’d have a good day in my life. Constant sadness isn’t an option, but on the day the UK formally leaves the EU I think I can allow myself to feel it. I am what smug twitter commenters with the overall demeanour of Nelson from the Simpsons call a Remoaner. They tell us to face facts: we lost. The people voted. Men without compassion or integrity won—and now I have to see their glowing, victorious faces everywhere.

I’m not sure how I’d feel about Brexit if its proponents were less smug. If I felt this vote represented some true desire Brits had for a better, more unified country, maybe it would be easier to take—but I suspect it wouldn’t. It’s too personal. My childhood was a bona fide manifestation of the European dream. In this dream, my Scottish parents moved to the Netherlands, learned the language while having my brother and me, and I grew up with two home countries instead of one. It was an enormous privilege. The fact that my passport said ‘United Kingdom’ didn’t matter. UK meant EU. Maybe I was odd, not-quite-Dutch and not-quite-Scottish, but it’s an oddness that enriched my life rather than detracting from it. Sometimes I’m jealous of people with deep roots in one single place, who can answer “where’s home?” without stumbling through the answer, but that doesn’t mean I’d change anything. My odd upbringing, as well as the seven years in the USA after, mean no one can tell where I’m from by my accent—but I know where I’ve been. I’m grateful for the opportunities my family and I were given.

I want others to have them too.

Fast-forward through my years in America. I moved to Dundee in late 2014: not in time for Scotland’s vote on Independence, but in plenty of time to vote Remain in the EU referendum. Boris Johnson is selective in choosing when Scotland’s votes matter. They matter when Scottish people vote to stay in the UK—under threat that leaving the UK will force them out of the EU—but they don’t matter when Scottish people vote overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. It’s almost like he doesn’t give a shit about Scotland.

(Spoiler alert: he doesn’t give a shit about Scotland.)

In the interest of full disclosure—despite what my pro-Indie family might think of me for admitting this!—I wasn’t convinced on Independence when I moved to Scotland. Some part of me was glad I didn’t get a vote. I didn’t know the situation, and sentimental feelings inspired by folk songs and tragic stories of oppression don’t add up to a functioning government. Now I’ve lived here, and it’s a different story. I’ve seen clearly how the Scottish government shields us, at least in part, from England’s endless appetite for privatisation. The people in charge of England want their country to be just like America, where the environment and poor people’s lives come second to companies turning a profit. Makes sense for Tory politicians; they’re rich. They’ll never have to live in places like Grenfell Tower, and they don’t have to face the negative consequences of their policies. They don’t even have to face the consequences of lying to voters. It’s harrowing, and my heart hurts for all the people in England anticipating more of the same austerity that has already claimed too many lives—but I believe better is possible for Scotland. I see the work the people around me are doing, whether they were born here or simply adopted the country as their own. They’re working to get better pay for teachers, or to protect the environment, or to shine light on the horrific imprisonment of immigrants at Dungavel. I see them caring deeply about their communities and the public good. These are the people who deserve to inherit the Earth, not slogan-slinging hypocrites who confuse politeness with morality.

Regardless, I’m getting off track. This was meant to be about the EU, and it’s becoming about Scottish Independence. The thing is, I trust Brussels over Westminster when it comes to human rights. I even trust Brussels over Westminster when it comes to caring about Scotland. You’d have to walk around Scotland with blinders on not to see all the roads, parks, and organisations that have been supported by the EU. The fact that some EU rules don’t have their intended effect and ought to be reconsidered is par for the course; that’s how governments work. It’s an EU rule that stopped businesses from dumping their waste into our waterways. I’m sure that was extremely inconvenient at the time, but is anyone going to argue we’d be better off with polluted rivers?

Never mind—I’m sure someone would argue that. Letting businesses pollute your country is great for economic growth, after all.

I’m disappointed. I grieve for a thing I thought I couldn’t lose. Growing up I thought progress was inevitable, that society would always improve on itself until we built a world so great it was boring. I thought that when we saw injustice, we’d fix it—not capitalise on it. How ignorant was I?

Instead the reality is this, and I suspect many people born with less privilege knew it all along: movement towards a more equal society is driven by good people fighting for their rights and the rights of others. Women weren’t given the vote. African Americans weren’t given freedom. Not much is changing on this day—not in any physical sense—but something good is slipping further from our grasp. The EU’s founding values are human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. Things worth fighting for, and things worth holding the European Union accountable for when it falls short. I don’t want to leave. A majority of Scotland’s people don’t want to leave.

I don’t intend to go quietly. My friends and I will organise and whinge and protest. ‘Remoaner’ is right. Screw every disingenuous, rich prick who pushed us into this mess. They deserve to live the lives they consign others to.

Happy Friday. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

An update is never late. It arrives exactly when it means to.

Hello friends!

Despite the title, this blog post is long overdue. If we’ve caught up recently you already know, but it finally happened: Ash and I found our agent! We’d just begun sending out queries for another project, and all of a sudden we got a response on the full manuscript request we’d dismissed as a rejection months ago. The day after the call where this agent offered us rep, we got two full manuscript requests for the other project. I’m glad I wasn’t documenting any of this at the time as my posts would have been just confused, high-pitched screaming. Is this real life? Why is it all happening at once?

The agent was Bobby O’Neil at FinePrint Literary, and we were half in love with him from the get-go—not the least because he liked what we’d begun to refer to as “our problem child”. Aka, book one of a space opera where flashy heroes do spear combat in vacuum with creepy alien parasites who call themselves Shepherds. This is the same book I talk about here in my long post about getting treatment for depression. It’s also not the same book, because we made so many changes, but that’s not relevant here. What’s relevant is that we learned and grew through this book, and generally had a beautiful but hard time with it, and someone came along who appreciated it. (Actually multiple someones—we apparently had a champion at the agency to whom we owe our eternal thanks.) I thought Ash might die when Bobby quoted a line from one of their sections of the book during the call; it was so weird for them to hear their lines read back by someone other than our inner circle.

After the call we had to let all agents with our manuscripts/queries/etc still in their inboxes know about the offer and wait two weeks to see if they’d throw their hat in the ring. It should have been a happy time—we had an offer!—but instead we were both impatient and antsy to sign with the person we felt such a preference for. Waiting turned out not to be our strong suit when something was actually happening.

That was months ago though. Well, two months. It feels like an eternity now. Since then, we’ve revamped the book and sent it back off for Bobby’s approval. I’m really proud of the changes we’ve made, and I think it’s a better book than before—and I liked it before! But I am biased, so maybe I can’t be trusted.

Anyway, that’s the update. I’m not sure about the next step—work on smaller stuff or edit our other project?—but I can’t wait to dig back into the space opera when we get comments back. Wish me luck having patience this time!

Out of Time

At long last, it happened!

What happened?

I finished reading I Capture The Castle.

“Why would you frame such a non-event like there’s actual news?”

My reason is simple: “because”! Writing/publishing updates seem less interesting than reading updates. The querying process for book one of my space opera with Ash continues to be a waiting game, and we’re working on other things in the meantime. There are thousands of advice posts that can tell you about querying in general, so it feels boring for me to rehash it, even though I’m sure it’s at least mildly interesting for non-writers. The short version is: we’ve had lots of rejections and a few full & partial requests, but waiting on an answer is like waiting for a warm, non-windy day in Scotland. Suffice to say I’m not holding my breath.

This is where anyone reading with a focus on my career should stop reading, as no more progress-relevant details will be discussed from this point onward. My computer scientist husband beta-read this post and said that, while he enjoyed it (which I think he was telling the truth about), it’s ‘definitely a ramble’.

So here’s the actual subject of the post: the concept of being out of your time. Beyond your time. (Not to be confused with the platitude “ahead of their time”.) Does that make sense? You’re right, it doesn’t. Let me try to explain:

I’ve always loved stories about loneliness brought on by displacement. Being alive and a human being is hard, and in fiction—especially science fiction and fantasy—we can see characters we love struggle through a landscape that makes this struggle more literal. A character can leave their home, their loved ones… but they can also leave the time they know, whether they spend years in stasis or walk into a mushroom circle to be transported three-hundred years into the future. That’s what I mean by “out of time”: a character leaves behind the world they know, and suddenly they’re somewhere temporally separated from all the things they care about. You can get a sense of the past that birthed them reaching for them, but that time will never reach them again. The people who were important then may have thought of the character, may have wished to speak to the character again, but those people are only memories now. And in the present, the character may long for those people—but can’t return.

It’s grief and change and the march of time we all experience put in more obvious terms, and no mushroom circles are needed in reality—but SFF dealing with characters “out of their time” gives a vivid illustration of something I know to be true:

You can’t go back.

The trope reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, from The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams:

I didn’t go to the moon. I went much further—for time is the longest distance between places.

It’s simple truth, but I love seeing it written into the plot of a story. One story I love that dealt with a character out of her time is Medair, by Andrea K. Höst, which involves a champion who goes to find a mythical weapon that will turn the tide of the war destroying her empire—only to return, weapon in hand, centuries too late. Then there’s Horizon Zero Dawn, a video game, where an outcast in a post-post-apocalyptic world goes in search of her mother and the truth of her society. She becomes a force to be reckoned with in the present, gaining recognition she would have longed for when she was an outcast child, but the search for truth leads her again and again into the distant past, to people she can’t possibly gain recognition from. She can’t punish those who did wrong; she can’t reassure those who hoped they did right. She’s a witness to a story that’s already unfolded, and it’s heartbreaking as well as hopeful as she’s forced to do what she can in the present.

Thousands of non-genre novels deal with the same theme. Characters try to connect with their ancestors and draw meaning from history—but I’m a shallow person who enjoys the shininess of fantasy and science fiction, where this quandary can be brought to the fore in especially beautiful ways.

Anyway, I digress. The nature of reaching for the past and falling just short of it brings us—at last!—to I Capture The Castle and the reason for this rambling post. This classic novel by Dodie Smith isn’t fantasy or science fiction, and doesn’t deal with any sort of time travel. It was just written in the past, which is the relevant point for me today. Smarter and more literary people than me can explain the book better I’m sure, but it’s an exploration of a girl’s adolescence as set down in her journals. She’s imaginative, introspective, given to flights of fancy and melodrama—and in her extremely sincere attempts to get to the heart of what this whole “being alive” thing is about, she has reminded generations of readers of their own adolescence, when they were experiencing things for the first time and filled with their own questions and musings.

Original cover of "I Capture the Castle".
The original cover of “I Capture the Castle”.

And so: a book written in the past, depicting an imagined past inspired by the real past, sends readers back to their pasts. Then we come to what inspired this ramble. After the ending, I leafed back to a random page of the introduction to skim, and read the line “by her death in 1990—” about the author’s life and legacy.

I’ve looked it up: Dodie Smith died towards the end of November in 1990, about 3 months before I was born. There’s always something strange about people whose lifetimes didn’t quite overlap with yours. If I reached out towards the very start of my life, and she reached out to the very end of hers, our fingertips would almost—but not quite—touch. Yet the girl, time, and place she depicted in I Capture the Castle long ago connects with the me existing now and the imagined me I remember from my own adolescence.

The whole time connect/disconnect is a fanciful study in contrasts Cassandra Mortmain, main character and dreamer, would probably like. And the image excites me for all the intersections of past, present and future we get to experience just by being alive and interacting with our environment. Perhaps more importantly for me as a writer, it excites me for the way fiction allows us to connect beyond gaps that seem unbridgeable. Time is the longest distance, and anyway, I don’t want to brush shoulders (or fingertips!) with all the authors whose work I admire even if they happen to be alive today; meeting heroes can be disappointing. Still, it seems like a huge privilege that we get to share these experiences, whether the distance between author and reader is temporal or simply the distance between two squishy, differently wired brains.

Sometimes I look at the length of my to-read list and see it as a chore to be managed instead of an opportunity for the kind of connection that makes art seem worthwhile and life worth living, but I prefer it when it feels like this. All sparkly and full of opportunity.

It makes me want to write.

Environmental details

Memories of my early writing days are patchy, but I still remember bits and pieces—and one thing I remember, quite fondly, is how I used to think I had to describe everything.

Imagine this: you are thirteen. You are a reader and a writer. The stories closest to your heart are the ones vivid with colour and meaning, so what do you do when you write? Well, that’s obvious: you try to do the same! Your unsuspecting characters (who have probably been described in excruciating detail) wander the world noting carpet colours and types of trees and what everyone is wearing, and you think you’re doing a good job because your readers will know exactly what to imagine.

It’s cute! It’s really cute. I love growth trajectories. My favourite parts of movies and TV shows and even books are often the training montages. Mulan going from trainwreck recruit to superstar in the Chinese army, the girl in the Grisha series learning how to use her magic at the academy, Kageyama Shigeo working his little heart out in the body improvement club to go from 0 stamina to 0.3 stamina…

Incidentally I’m also at the start of my T-shirt designing montage.

You get the gist. That moment before you knew better is just the jumping off point. The twelve year-old girl who thought it was important to mention the carpet colour, dimensions, and smell of a room that was entered once in chapter three then never again is gone, because she learned better. But deciding what descriptions to keep and what to leave out is still a form of art, and I love to hear opinions from people as readers more so than writers. What descriptions are important to create a vibrant world in a reader’s mind, and which ones are duds that just slow the whole thing down to a crawl?

It’s an ongoing question for me. Sometimes I choose not to add environmental details, trusting readers to know their own minds—until I reread my work and realise the characters are floating in a jelly-like mass of nothing. Other times, I won’t shut up about the angle of light slanting in through a window. There’s a balance to be struck, and every day of writing is an effort in finding it.

What do you think as a reader? How much is too much? Can you read Lord of the Rings without skimming? Do you wish Brandon Sanderson novels were longer?

This wonderful post by Patricia C. Wrede (author of the fantastic Enchanted Forest Chronicle series & enchanted chocolate pot fame) is an interesting view of the subject. I don’t totally agree—I have friends who love reading who have read nothing but fanfiction for years because they enjoy the slower pace and the way fanfic can linger on details without caring too much about plot—but there are published novels and saga-length fanfictions that lost me as a reader because they refused to get to the point. There’s beauty in brevity:

Patricia C. Wrede on leaving things out.

Tastes differ. There’s no “right” way—but if you’re in a talky mood today as you read this post, I’d love to hear your opinion on what descriptions catch you. What books strike you as particularly vivid? When have you been annoyed by a lack of description, if ever?

I might know now that rooms entered once but never again should be described sparingly, but there’s plenty left to learn. If I think of authors whose descriptions have enchanted me in the details and phrasing, the first one I think of is Juliet Marillier, who writes lush historical fantasy romances. She cheats by being an author I read as a teen, but that’s not her fault. My quotes page bears the following passage from Child of the Prophecy, and I haven’t stopped loving it since I first read it a decade and a half ago:

It was a night of restless dreams, and I awoke before dawn, shivering under my woollen blanket, hearing the howl of the wind and the roar of the sea as it pounded the rocks of the Honeycomb. Not a good day to be abroad. Perhaps Dan Walker and his folk would decide to stay a little longer. But it never did happen that way. They were as true to their time as birds flying away for the winter, their arrivals and departures as precise as the movement of shadows in a sacred circle. You could count your year by them. The golden times. The gray times. It seemed to me the voice of the wind had words in it. I will sweep you bare… bare… I will take all… all… And the sea responded in kind. I am hungry… give me… give…

Child of the prophecy by juliet Marillier

Are you shivering? I’m shivering. I’m transported to beneath a woollen blanket, with the sea and the wind raging. Of course, a science fiction author writing about ship-based life (me) might envy Marillier for getting to harness these powerful natural images while they—poor SF authors that they are—deal with life aboard a dinky spaceship… but that’s all right. Even when I don’t get to play with certain images as a writer, getting to experience someone else’s talent as a reader is pretty awesome. It just makes me excited for other projects, where I will get to play with those things.

SO! I’m ready for homework, if you have homework to give. I refer to the questions above. You’re not required to answer—but I’d love to hear from people reading this. What descriptions have you enjoyed, and what details complete a book for you?

We could all stand to push our limits here and there.

Writing with and without depression

Today my husband told me he was tired of seeing the otter on my front page. Putting aside the fact that people should never be tired of seeing cute otters, he did have a point: this blog has been gathering dust for a while. Well, let’s change that.

Lee Pace gifs: a fresh new feature of my blog.

2018 was an incredibly uncomfortable year for me—and also a plain incredible one. It started, as all calendar years do, in winter. I had a good, consistent exercise routine, I endeavoured to eat healthy and write a lot, I was surrounded by people I loved and talked to them regularly… and I was miserable. At the time I put this down to Seasonal Affective Disorder, which didn’t make a huge deal of sense as I’d just spent almost three weeks in Florida celebrating Christmas and New Year with my family, but it turns out that feeling miserable all the time doesn’t leave you a lot of energy for accurate self-reflection.

Thankfully, it wasn’t just me seeing me. My misery was closely tied to my writing, and 2017 had seen me try something entirely new: co-writing a book. My co-author was Ash, a friend I’d met in fandom, and we had no idea what we were doing—but we did it anyway. We raced our way through NaNoWriMo, and then Ash kept going and I stalled out.

It wasn’t writing I hated—I still loved writing fanfiction—but I hated producing original content. It made me feel vulnerable, unqualified, forced to make decisions I didn’t want to make. (This post from July 10 2017 seems, in hindsight, a fairly obvious attempt to conquer those feelings; it didn’t work.) Ash and I had poured ourselves into this book we both loved, with characters we both loved, and I couldn’t stand to work on it. Needless to say, Ash had a few questions… and a few theories.

Eventually, I accepted the idea that I might need help. This became another problem, as my denial turned out to be the only thing keeping me afloat. Once I stopped denying how I felt—and how I’d been feeling for a long time—I became terrified that I’d visit my GP and he’d tell me I was fine. Worse: that this was just how I was going to feel for the rest of my life.

I went to my GP, and he didn’t tell me I was fine. He told me that, given my lifestyle (ie: doing ‘everything right’ yet still depressed), I was a good candidate for antidepressants. An uncomfortable adjustment period followed. The nausea was no joke, but over the course of about a month I started feeling different. It was REALLY odd. Music brought on a storm of emotions. I got angry sometimes, instead of feeling resigned. Colours seemed more vibrant.

Me after a month of meds.

Anyway, the ins and outs are too many and too legion to properly discuss in a blogpost that’s meant to be about writing. Suffice to say that, once I had Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors on my side, I had the energy and the capacity to make changes. It’s amazing what a brain can do when it’s not waging war with itself; knots years in the making began to untangle, and my relationship with myself improved. Finally I could relax—and once I could relax I could have fun.

It took time, but original writing became something I loved again, the way I loved it as a teenager before it ever occurred to me to doubt myself. I’ve had more joy in original writing the past year than I did in the five years previous. Being a ‘tortured artist’ helped me about as much in my writing career as repeatedly stubbing my toe would have.

Antidepressants aren’t the solution for every depressed person, but my experiences have given me some insight. I have no patience for people who see antidepressants as a quick fix or a band-aid. For one thing, it wasn’t quick. Every week I stumbled over a new stupid thing I had to change about myself to be happier. For another, so what if people need chemical help to feel happy? Sadness is not inherently more authentic than happiness. It’s just sadness. It feels bad and it drains your energy. It stops you from being able to fix the things that make you unhappy, then calls you lazy to boot.

I’m calling it: you can’t “mind over matter” when your mind doesn’t have the right matter. I’ve spent the past year unlearning all the unhealthy coping mechanisms I picked up in half a decade of struggling to overcome depression without medication; I ought to know. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe The Good Place actress Kristen Bell. She speaks openly about her mental health struggles, and hearing this from people like her—who seem bubbly and successful and like they couldn’t possibly struggle with anything more laborious than picking out cute outfits—should help people realise this isn’t about trying, or weakness, or a person’s community being unsupportive. The worst thing about going on meds for me was the sense that I had all the tools to be happy and yet somehow failed. I’d failed my family and my friends and myself. I’d taken all the love people around me gave, and I’d squandered it by letting myself fall into this pit.

Screw that outlook. Sometimes love isn’t enough. It doesn’t cure Alzheimer’s, and it doesn’t cure cancer, and it doesn’t cure depression. How lucky we are, then, that we live in a world where people are learning to treat these diseases.

I love writing again. I love coming up with characters and pelting them with problems. I love messaging Ash about what would happen if we stuck our characters in a supernatural novel instead of a science fiction one. At the most basic level, I love forming sentences in aesthetically pleasing ways, and letting an image take shape. I love this skill I have that, by my fifth year post-university, I’d learned to resent.

Some things don’t change with the right amount of serotonin. Rejection still sucks. Putting myself out there is still hard—but I’m lucky. I am so, so lucky. And thanks to modern medicine, the NHS, and the people around me, I can finally feel the truth of that statement.

It feels good.