The Faroe Islands Part 1

I’ve been dragging my feet writing posts about my travel, because I often find travel narratives, especially by non-travel writers like myself to be very dull: I went here, saw this. I went there, saw that. (Of course, I love this travel writing.)

The travel books I like tend to either be about cold places, like The Magnetic North by Sarah Wheeler, or books about very entertaining people traveling, like In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson, or the best of both worlds, Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. Well, the Faroes are in the far north, but while I hope to be an entertaining writer, I’m not sure I am entertaining as a person.

But I shall try. I wanted to go to the Faroe Islands because I have some action in The Sea Queen set there, and it’s always better to see a place in person.

The Faroe Islands are north of the United Kingdom. If you sailed in, for instance, a viking ship, from Bergen, Norway, to Iceland, you would run smack into the Faroe Islands. Today they are an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. Like the Scottish Isles and Iceland, Irish monks were some of their earliest settlers before more settlers came from Norway during the Viking Age. There is also some evidence of settlement beyond the Irish monks from 400-600 AD. The Faroese language is similar to other Scandinavian languages, but it contains many more words borrowed from Gaelic, and its pronunciation rules are very different.

Side note: When I was in the National Museum in Iceland, I overheard some academics, historians of Icelandic Sagas, and a computational linguist, sort of smirking about how one of their friends had to have “viking” put in the title of his book, even though it’s actually about early medieval Scandinavians. To which I say Thhhhhbbbbpppttt. (It’s a technical term.) The Viking Age is defined as the years between 794, when vikings attacked the monastery at Lindesfarne, and 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. During that time, Scandinavian sailors, as well as sailors from the Baltic, expanded out from their homelands. Many were farmers. Some were chieftains or kings. They traded or raided, depending on what seemed more profitable. They started to wage longer wars and settle in some places. These people are known to us as vikings. There is no sharp delineation between who was a viking and who wasn’t–in fact, aside from knowing that “vik” means “bay” or creek, the etymology of the word viking is a bit hazy. There’s really no problem with calling early medieval Scandinavians vikings as a shorthand, as far as I’m concerned. Especially if you want your book to sell outside of academic circles.


We arrived in the Faroe Islands just a few days after midsummer, and they are far enough North that it never gets dark. The sun doesn’t even dip below the horizon until just before midnight, and it’s up and shining again by 3am. Even when it’s down, the sky stays blue and orange.

We used AirBnB to stay in an 19th century house in historical Torshavn with a lovely hostess. On our first full day, we took a helicopter ride to Suderoy, the southernmost island, flying over and landing on other islands on the way. The smallest, Litlá Dímun, is uninhabited, and the second-smallest, Stóra Dímun, only has one family living on it. The weather patterns mean that it rains almost every day. The islands gather clouds to them that sit on the crests like a grey felt cap. Deep fjords cut through the islands, and down the fjord walls cascade more waterfalls than I’ve ever seen in one place before.

As we were flying over the islands, we saw a lake sitting on top of a cliff, like this one. (I did not take this picture.)

On Suderoy, we went for a 6 mile hike through some fields full of sheep to a hidden lake. I have never seen more sheep in one place than in the Faroe Islands, and I have been to Ireland, Iceland, and New Zealand. Also, wonderfully, at least half of them were black or brown sheep. None of them wanted us in their fields, and complained bitterly, in a hilariously passive aggressive tone. (Or maybe I’m projecting.)

The Faroese notion of “an obvious path” is somewhat different from mine, even having grown up in the middle of the woods, following deer trails from a young age. So we lost the path a bit, but luckily we had a pretty good description of the path, and knew generally where we were going. And since the Faroe Islands have no trees, it’s hard to get lost. At all the points when we didn’t know where we were going, we could look back and see the town we needed to get back to at the end of the hike.

When we were finished with the hike, we took the 2 hour ferry back to Torshavn, and watched the cloud-capped islands go by, as the ferry went through water black as ink.

And I guess I’ll save the rest of the Faroe Islands for following post. Next: I find out what seagull tastes like.

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Movie Rec: Spotlight

I just got back from a two week research trip to Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and I will have some posts to make about that, but I still need to gather my thoughts.

When I got back on Friday, I wasn’t that tired, but I wasn’t up to tackling my editing yet. I hadn’t really consumed much media for 2 weeks. We were living out of a tiny camper van, and it was cold enough in Iceland that I wanted to be out touring all day rather than sitting around a camp site reading and trying to stay warm.

When I got back, I decided to finally watch Spotlight, which won the best picture Oscar this past year. I often avoid prestige pictures because they can feel weighed down by their self-importance, but I was very curious about this one and it did not disappoint. Spotlight is the story of the Spotlight investigative reporting team at The Boston Globe, which investigated and then revealed the Catholic Church’s conspiracy of protecting and transferring abusive priests around parishes rather than keeping them from hurting any more children.

It’s a very businesslike movie in many ways. It revolves around our characters at work, and has few personal moments, or moments of overt drama. At one point, one of the key reporters played by Mark Ruffalo gets to make a passionate speech, but it does not have the effect he wants it to, at least not immediately. By being so relentlessly focused on the mechanics and legwork of bringing this story to the public, rather than hitting the usual narrative beats, the film feels fresh and interesting

One of the things that really elevated the film, I thought, was showing every character’s complicity in covering up the story, while making none of the on-screen players a real villain or a pure hero. Even a lawyer who seems to be profiting from helping the church settle and cover up these cases did try to get the press to investigate it, and another lawyer who helped cover it up eventually becomes a key player confirming the story. The film also illustrates how easy it is to go along to get along, even when that covers up something of this magnitude.

Another thing I really liked was how the film handled the testimony by the victims. It worked very hard to make the characters who do tell their stories into individuals, frustrated, angry and hurt, and show how the abuse affected them without being lurid about it. Sexual violence does not need to be shown on screen for viewers to feel its impact, and perhaps it’s better for films that want to engage with the issue honestly not to show it.

The Globe released a book that rounds up some of the 600 articles that they did on this subject, and I plan to read it after this. It’s hard not to want to delve deeper into some of the individual stories they only touch on.

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My First Spartan Race

This weekend I did my first Spartan Race, which was billed as a “Sprint” but ended up being 3 hours (3:00:55 exactly), 5.2 miles, up and down a ski-resort mountain 5 times, with 21 obstacles, including my least favorite: getting under about 200 yards of barbed wire strung at 18″ off the ground. The best way to do it: roll. Uphill. On an elbow that I had already fallen on twice. I have deep bruises on my hip, butt, and elbow, and a peppering of little bruises everywhere else. I was so wiped out afterward that it took me 3 hours to eat the dinner I’d ordered when I got home.

It was pretty great.

Why am I smiling in this picture? What sorcery is this?
Why am I smiling in this picture? What sorcery is this?

The last 3 years or so I’ve been training Strongman and competing in Strongman competitions pretty exclusively, and this summer I decided to expand my fitness pursuits a bit to obstacle racing. I had planned to wait until later in the summer, but a friend of mine was doing this one, and I thought it would be an “easy” way to check out the sport.

(I won’t say I couldn’t have done it without him, but he stuck with me the whole time, cheered and encouraged me, and never once made me feel worried about my speed–it was really fun to do it with a buddy. I can’t wait to be someone else’s buddy on another race in the future.)

I’m pretty athletic these days–I lift weights or do Strongman for 90 minutes 4 times a week, and run 10 miles a week. I can do 8 strict pull-ups in a row, dead-lift over 300 pounds, and run for 60 minutes without stopping. I’ve won local Strongman competitions and I qualified for and competed at Strongman Nationals last year.

But this was still a serious challenge. Unlike a Strongman competition where each event never takes more than 90 seconds, this took a long time, and my strength was never the issue. By the second half of the race, I would have done any number of obstacles rather than go up another hill. I would take ten steps up a 50% grade slope, and then have to stop and catch my breath.

Not sure what's happening here, but it looks like action, right?
Not sure what’s happening here, but it looks like action, right?

The first 75 minutes of the race I felt great. I jogged a bit up and down some of the hills, even on rough terrain. My partner and I helped each other out getting over the taller walls–even being able to do pullups, it’s good to have a push to get from a chin over the wall to shoulders over the wall. Then we had that 200yd barbed wire roll, and my energy level plummeted. No more glycogen in my legs, every uphill step made me breathe hard.

It was harder than I expected, but I also did as well as I hoped, and as well as I expected. I expected to hit a wall at some point, though I was hoping it would be further along. I expected to cry at some point, and I did when I fell off a rig with very slippery rings and landed on my elbow, which I’d already deeply bruised earlier in the race. I go into this sort of stuff for the challenge, though. There was still 2.5 miles more racing to do after I fell, and it was rewarding to pick myself up and go on.

All these smiles! It’s like I was having a good time or something!

I hoped to do the rope climb successfully, and I did, carefully, and with perfect form. I had such a good leg wrap that I could sit on the rope and rest my hands. I heard someone from below tell her friend to “look what she’s doing–that’s how you climb a rope”. I hoped to do the monkey bars successfully, and I did, even though it was after I hit the wall. The bars were at least 2 feet apart, and some were higher and lower than others, but again, I did it carefully, and made it across.

I never even considered quitting, which is good–and it helped to have a partner there for that.

The last obstacle was a very low fire to jump over.

In some ways, it was easier than a Strongman competition, though. Aside from the bruises, it didn’t make me sore. I didn’t have the intense nerves I have to manage in Strongman, or the intense disappointment when I don’t perform as well as I’d like. In this case, my overall goal was to keep moving and finish the race. I knew I might have to face some challenges to get there, but that, barring major injury, I would. I loved being outside in the woods for so long. At one moment when we were going downhill, the view opened up in front of us, green trees on valleys and hills as far as we could see. I get that so rarely living in New York City.

I do hope to do another obstacle race in the future And what I need to do to prepare is greatly increase my running endurance, and do more hill climbing. The obstacles are not a big problem, and are not my limiting factor at this point. 3 hours of exertion, dehydrated and underfed–that’s what I need to manage next time.

Those are dehydration crazy-eyes.
Those are dehydration crazy-eyes.
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Gods and Themes

Last night I finished reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades, the second book in Divine Cities series. This, along with the previous book, are some of most interesting, sophisticated fantasy novels I have read in the last few years. Speculative fiction (and historical fiction too, really)  is at its best when it uses its fantastical or otherworldly elements to explore a real world problem. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite examples of this. Vampires, magic, curses all serve different purposes, but, especially in the first three seasons, they always explored the problems of growing up. Buffy’s status as a Slayer stood in well for a teenager discovering that she’s not who she’s always tried to be, who her mother and her peers want her to be. When Angel’s curse makes him turn evil after they sleep together, that is a heightening of the more prosaic drama that many teenage couples enact.

Bennet’s series proposes a world that used to have gods in it, but doesn’t anymore. An oppressed, enslaved people threw off the yoke of their oppressors, and in the war, killed the gods that kept their oppressors in power. In the first book, Bennet used the death of the gods, and the artifacts they left behind to explore the uses and abuses of religion. He tackles the problem that an involved, powerful deity can’t escape being a villain, at least to someone. If a god helps your sports team win, then he’s helped someone else’s fail. A god that does not fall into this trap has to cease to be a god entirely.

In the second book, Bennet explores war and violence through the aftermath of the death of the goddess of war. Different characters approach the uses and necessities of violence, what justifies it, if anything, and how civilized societies can and should use it. This exploration is very powerful–perhaps even more so than the first book, because our protagonist is a retired general who has committed atrocities in her past, and who can hardly live with those memories. She embodies one aspect of the cost of violence, as other characters do in different ways.

Mike Carey’s Lucifer series of graphic novels is one of my other top fantasy “novels.” In this series, the titular character, Lucifer, has abandoned hell, and is forging his own path. He is an uncompromising and mostly, but not entirely, inhuman character. The books explore Judeo-Christian and other mythologies, and invent new ones, while Lucifer rails against a problem that even a being as powerful as him cannot escape: a person cannot be his own creator. Lucifer cannot stand the fact that God created him and gave him a purpose. He cannot stand the idea that everything he is comes from his creator.

This is a totally different, yet still incredibly fruitful way of using the idea of gods and an all-powerful creator God to tackle the central problem of growing up and establishing one’s self as an adult. If Lucifer cannot escape his creator, who can? Sometimes I look at my life and the ways that I am like my parents, shaped by the things they showed me as a child, and think that I have not fallen very far from the tree, though I went farther and deeper with the ideas they gave me than they ever could have imagined. Who knew that D’Aulaire’s book of Norse mythology would take such root?

At the same time, it explores the question of whether a literal, all-powerful God can exist and not be a villain (theodicy) in a very different way from Bennett’s work. Lucifer shows, more than once, what happens when a creator gets too involved with their own creation–it is even more dangerous and destructive than not getting involved at all, and so an all-powerful God must be very remote.

Chuck Wendig is one of my favorite (and one of the most profane) writers on writing, and I very much agree with his statement that theme is what gives a work of fiction staying power. I agree with his definition too, that theme is the book’s central statement. What it is trying to say. City of Blades says, explicitly and implicitly, that the only just way to use violence, to be a soldier, is to use it in the service of greater good and expect no great rewards in return. To be a servant, who does the terrible things that are necessary sometimes to protect. Lucifer says that no one can be their own creator–and no one can escape their origins entirely.

If theme is well-realized, it grounds every conflict in a piece of work, whether the conflict is specifically about that theme, as most of them are, or serves to illustrate, in this case, the cost of violence, the cost of making a stand on one side or another of the argument.

I also agree with what Wendig says about theme being a statement, not a question. So far I’ve begun my works with a question, but by the end of this trilogy I will have answered it. (No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. Either it will come through or it won’t.) Theme can be hit too hard, but a work without a theme, or with disorganized approach to its theme will not come together. Speculative fiction gives writers the opportunity to explore themes in a more literal way than the internal struggles of real-world fiction do. I hope one day to write speculative fiction and try my hand at it as well.

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I went to Ireland!

The last time I was in Ireland was 11 years ago. In Ireland, my now-husband (hereafter known as the Wanderer) proposed to me, as we were walking back over the Rock of Cashel to get lunch at a pub. This was after I had made innumerable “Welcome to The Rock” jokes in a bad Sean Connery accent, because I am a KEEPER, y’all.

Now that I am setting my own schedule, when I found out the Wanderer planned to attend a conference in Ireland, I thought I’d tag along and get some research done. THE SEA QUEEN, the sequel I am currently writing, has some scenes set in Viking-Age Dublin, and there’s no substitute for seeing a place in person, even after 1200 years have passed.

I also wanted to see The Book of Kells at Trinity College, which historians think was probably created in Iona, a Scottish island, at a monastery founded by an Irish saint, and then moved to Kells to protect it from Vikings.

I had one full day in Dublin, so I went to see The Book of Kells first, and also got to experience the wonder of the “Long Room”, the Ur-Library, the library of which all others are poor copies.


Next I visited the Museum of Archaeology and History, which is full of Irish treasures from the Neolithic Age through to the Medieval period. The Bronze Age material impressed me most. Ireland was one of the wealthiest areas in Europe at that time, and the weapons and decorative arts reflect that. The museum also contains several of the famous bog bodies, Bronze and Iron Age corpses discovered in Irish bogs in the 19th and 20th centuries, preserved by the bogs so that archaeologists can learn about what food the people ate, and what injuries they suffered before they died.  The Bronze Age Irish practiced human sacrifice, especially of their kings. One body had its nipples mutilated, which was done, apparently, to disqualify the man from kingship. Because suckling at a Bronze Age king’s nipples was a common way for his subjects to show submission. Such a weird and fascinating detail! Almost too weird to put in a novel, if I ever write something set in Bronze Age Ireland. But too interesting to forget.


After a mediocre lunch (don’t order a burger in the British Isles unless you like them burnt), I went to Dublinia, a somewhat kitchy but still worthwhile tour through Dublin history from the Viking Age through the Norman invasion. Dublinia contains computer simulations of the layout of Viking-Age Dublin which will be very helpful for writing about it. Also recreations of the inside of Dublin Viking houses, which were probably smaller than the high-born houses I am familiar with in Norway and Denmark.

After that I relaxed on the grounds of a church and listened to the bells while reading In Search of Ancient Ireland: The Origins of the Irish from Neolithic Times to the Coming of the English by Carmel McCaffrey. All of this makes me want to re-read Morgan Llywelyn’s retellings of Irish myths, which I haven’t read since high school–she does a nice job of bringing reality to the magical tales of Cuchulain and Finn Mac Cool.

The next day we took a bus to Cork and spent a few days there in the slightly more modern world, including visiting the Cork Butter Museum, which, sadly, contains no butter sculptures. I really wanted to quote this exchange from The West Wing. (I did anyway.)

It’s fun to travel with a research agenda–it gives focus to my touring, the same way reading with a research agenda gives me (some!) focus in a book store or library. Later in the summer, the Wanderer and I are going to Iceland and the Faroe Islands for more research

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When is it time for a rough draft to be done?

13312635_1273576682683214_2794031860917880762_nOn Friday morning, I decided that, at 110,000 words, and about 80% of the chapters written, it was time to go back to the beginning of my rough draft of THE SEA QUEEN, the sequel to THE HALF-DROWNED KING. I’m a big believer in working straight forward on the first draft of a novel, using a rough outline. If I run into a snag where I realize I need to set something up that I didn’t, I usually make notes about it, write down some To Dos to handle in the next draft, and keep moving forward.

Eventually that stops working, though. In the last few chapters of a novel, all of the threads need to come together. The details that I’ve been putting off for later become too important to ignore. For instance, this book contains a blood feud between some secondary characters which needs to erupt out into the main story-line in the last five chapters. I have some pieces of that feud written, but not enough to know where all the players are when it all comes to a head, and in order to write the last pieces, I need to know those details.

Also, when I’m writing a rough draft, I tend to skimp on description in favor of dialogue and action. It’s necessary to keep moving at a good pace, but it grows tedious for me. I love writing description–good description reveals character, sets a mood, and plants thematic seeds that can develop later in the novel. I’m missing most of that right now, and therefore missing a lot of the fun of writing.

Any writing process, including banging out a rough draft as quickly as possible, should be used in the service of getting the thing written, polished, and ready to be seen by others. So while discipline is important, so is deviating from the process when it ceases to be useful.

I’ve also found this to be a pattern with my writing now–this is my third “completed” rough draft, and with each one, I’ve felt compelled to start re-writing from the beginning when I finish 70-80% of the total planned chapters.

A rough draft is all potential, sometimes a bit too much. A first editing pass can be even more exciting, though, with its balance of constraint and freedom. For instance, in the current draft, my first chapter is from the point of view of a less compelling character. I played with the idea of changing the POV, but I can also choose to make this character an interesting person. It is more work, but probably the right call. It’s not too late to make those changes. On the other hand, I know the shape of the whole story, and most of the plots, subplots, and arcs, which I didn’t when starting the rough draft. This gives me a structure to work within.

At this point, at the beginning of turning the rough draft into a real first draft, I am doing the following things:

  • Re-assessing each of the characters: summarizing their arcs, major plot points, and making sure I know the answers to these questions:
    • What do they want?
    • What stands in the way of getting what they want? What is their major malfunction?
    • What is their character arc? Where do they start, where are they in the middle, and where do they end?
    • What is the arc of their major relationships?
  • Re-assessing each of the chapters, and making sure I know the answer to these questions:
    • Who is in the chapter?
    • What are the major beats or scenes?
    • What is the central conflict?
    • What decisions do the characters make in this chapter? Ideally, the POV character should be making at least one decision, or they probably shouldn’t be the POV character for that chapter.
    • What is the chapter’s purpose for the plot?
    • What is the chapter’s purpose for the characters?
    • What is the chapter’s purpose for the theme?

This is the point at which I need to make sure I know the answers to those questions, rather than writing and seeing what happens. Sometimes I don’t know, and then I write about the problems longhand in a notebook, or I try writing a scene to see if it works, and if I like it, and feel like it’s working, make sure I know all of the necessary answers about it.

I predict this phase will take a couple of months. Then I will leave it alone for a month, and come back and do a final pass on it before showing it to anyone else. Or I will need to do more than one pass. I’m still learning this as I go along, but each time I do it, I know a little more, or at least I have more different ways to try solving a problem.


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Why I Think Crossfit Is Important (Even Though I Don’t Do It Much Anymore)

Viking_PressOne morning, four and a half years ago, I went to my first Crossfit class, and I hated it and it made me cry and feel like a failure. I swore I’d never do it again. But that evening I signed up for a monthly membership, and I started going. And I cried in other classes, and I dropped a barbell on my leg.

It took me 13 months to be able to do a full, un-assisted pull-up. Now I can do  7 in a row. I went to Strongman Nationals last year.

But by the time I started Crossfit, I’d already started doing some work to learn that failure is okay; in fact, it’s the only way you get to success. I’d been learning that in my writing, and Crossfit reinforced it.

The other amazing thing about Crossfit is that it takes everyone seriously as an athlete. If you have barely risen from your couch in five years, and you go to a Crossfit class, you will be taken seriously as an athlete. The coaches will find a way for you to participate in the workout, and the next time you do it, you’ll be a little better, and a little better the time after that.

Crossfit takes everyone seriously and meets them where they are.

I think those are good lessons for anything you really want to do. Start where you are, and take yourself seriously. Taking yourself seriously doesn’t mean not having a sense of humor, it means believing that it is worth your time and energy to do the thing you’ve committed to. Whether that’s learning to cook, or exercise, or write a novel. I think we often don’t take ourselves seriously because then if we fail, or worse, if we give up, we haven’t really put ourselves on the line.

But if you don’t take yourself seriously, and put yourself on the line, how can you succeed?

I’d never found anything fitness related before that began with the idea that each person is an athlete, capable and willing to improve–and every fitness endeavor should.

I don’t do Crossfit much anymore because I’ve found some other fitness things to take seriously, and which I find more fun. I like Strongman more. I like getting stronger infinitely more than I like doing burpees. But that focused seriousness of purpose will go with me for the rest of my life.

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Needed: A Thousand Inspirations

Lightbulb photo by Richard Rutter

Here is a conversation all writers end up in, and we all dread:

Someone: I have this idea for a novel. How about you write it, and we split the profits?

Writer: Nope.

Inspiration is easy, execution is not. I have 3 more novels partially written, which I hope to complete someday, not even counting the sequels to THE HALF-DROWNED KING I am contracted to write. I have 3 or 4 more ideas that are really fleshed out in my mind, some even to the point of having outlines written. Completing those may take another 10 years of my writing life. 6 or 7 ideas isn’t very many, but I still don’t need any more right now.

Also, that first inspiration is only one of hundreds needed to complete a novel, and the others only show up with hard work. One of the reasons I try to write on my novel every day is that when my head is really in it, everything I encounter out in the world feeds into the novel.

Yesterday I was walking home from work and listening to an episode of The Rachel Maddow Show. She was talking about the ad below, in which a Republican actor talks about why he will be voting for LBJ rather than Barry Goldwater. It is a moving ad, and then Rachel had the actor from the ad on her show, and I choked up a bit.

Part of writing is paying attention to these moments. I paused the podcast and asked myself why I was choked up. It was because this man had been true to himself and his beliefs, rather than tribal loyalty, and had made a moving, honest ad about it that may have cost him in his personal life. He went against his habits and his family, and he displayed thoughtfulness, emotion, and integrity in the service of a greater good. Roger Ebert said that we are often moved less when people are sad than when they are good.

So I was moved because this man was good, and he was standing up for his principles. It ways gets me–A Man For All Seasons is one of my favorite plays, even though I know the historical Thomas More had English Protestants tortured for heresy. It is moving when people rise above themselves, when people find their truth.

I turned off the podcast, and asked myself how can I let my readers experience this emotion. My main character will probably not be in a position to make a sacrifice like this for many reasons of plot and temperament, but I can give this journey to a secondary character, and my main character can watch. He can be moved and envious of the purity of the secondary character’s convictions, and also his sacrifice.

Those are generalities though. Then I needed to figure out how each character would get there, what plot and character levers need to be pulled to make it happen. And the trajectory I decided upon links several plot elements which until now had been mostly independent of one another.

When I’m really immersed in writing, this happens frequently. Sometimes I find a motivation for a big plot element, sometimes it’s just a snippet of conversation. Last week I found it in the season finale of Veronica Mars, Season 1, which never fails to move me, and which I’ve seen many times. This time, I found an idea in it. If I watch it in 3 years, when I’m writing something else, I will probably find something different in it.

I wouldn’t be open to those moments of inspiration if I wasn’t working on the novel every day, my mind always aware of its thousands of problems even when I’m not thinking about it consciously. Inspiration doesn’t strike from nowhere. This is what people mean when they say that inspiration follows the work. That if you sit down every day to write, the inspiration will come. It comes because you’re in the habit of looking for it.

For me, it’s noticing when I am moved by something, and tracing the emotion back to the things that caused it, the universals within the specifics, which I can then make specific again for my own work.


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Outlining and Re-Outlining

Outlining on the floor.

There are a huge number of books and even more blog posts about the process of writing a novel, and processes that you can use to write your novel, and they are all very helpful even when they contradict each other, and they all have the potential to be deeply unhelpful as well.

I don’t think I learned any of the below in my MFA program–that was helpful for other things, but was more focused on writing as art than as craft, and the work of planning and outlining, I think, is largely in the craft arena. I learned what I know by going through several NaNoWriMos, by reading Chuck Wendig and Film Crit Hulk, as well as too many other writing books to name, and by trying things, and when they stopped working, trying something else.

Mixed metaphor alert! Writing a novel is somewhere between turning a block of marble into a sculpture and untangling a giant snarl of many threads into a beautiful tapestry. Sometimes you’re chiseling away, sometimes you’re breaking things, sometimes you’re untangling, and sometimes you’re weaving. And that’s just the rough draft. In the next draft, the scissors and the hammer come out and it all starts again.

When I am writing a rough draft, I have four guiding principles:

  1. Begin with the end in mind.
  2. Try to write 2000 words every day making forward motion, and never fewer than 500.
  3. Do not go back and edit earlier chapters. If you have ideas for how they should change, write them down as notes, pretend you already did them, and go forward.
  4. Try to end each writing day with an idea of what to write the next day

In order to accomplish that when writing THE SEA QUEEN, the sequel to THE HALF-DROWNED KING, I started with a high level idea of where I wanted each of the next two books to end, the major historical events that needed to occur, and the major plot beats other than historical events that my characters needed to go through. I expanded this into a table that described of what was going on with my main characters through both of the next two books. This was 8 pages long, and pretty high level.

I copied the beats and their descriptions from that document into the note card view of Scrivener. (Scrivener is the application I use to write. It has some planning functions, like the ability to look at all the chapters or scenes as note cards, and it makes it very easy to rearrange things.)

Then I got writing. Occasionally I ran into snags, and went to my longhand journal to write about the problems until I had a solution. I often came up with new subplots that needed to be added back into earlier chapters, so I started a chapter summary, that listed all the chapters with a description of what happens in them and a to do list of things I need to add to them in the next draft. And I changed my mind from the original outline, and made notes about what had changed.

It’s been going pretty smoothly so far. I’ve been writing quickly, which is easy to do with good planning, and years of research behind it. But I’ve written about 85,000 words now on THE SEA QUEEN and I’ve run out of the stuff I had planned relatively thoroughly, and gotten into murkier territory, so it was time to do some serious planning. My philosophy about planning and outlining is:

  1. Don’t do much more than is necessary to get moving again.
  2. The use of planning and outlining is in that moment. The act of planning is the important thing, not as much the plan that comes out of it which will always change. I will play with the outline, and have new ideas, and re-outline at least into the third draft.

I think the problem that a lot of writers have with outlining is that it feels like a straitjacket, like all of the fun of discovery has gone out of the process. To bring in yet another metaphor, I view the outline or any planning document as a map for a hike in unfamiliar woods. It doesn’t mean you can’t wander, poke into things, follow a stream for a while instead of the path, but it tells you what is there broadly, and where you want to go.

So Sunday I decided that I needed to know what all my major characters were up to at all moments in the plot. I wrote out all of my characters’ names and arranged them vertically on the floor. Then I printed out my chapter summaries and arranged them horizontally. This is when it really became clear that aside from the ending and a few major beats, I really have no idea what’s happening in the back half of the novel.

I started working on a few story lines, sketching them out in a notebook, but the mess on the floor looked untenable–this was going to take more than an afternoon, and the apartment is too small for many bits of paper on the floor to be undisturbed for longer than that. So that’s when when I started looking for outlining software. And after testing and discarding 5 different timeline/post-it tools, I discovered Aeon Timeline which integrates with Scrivener, and lets you assign an Arc, Characters, and Places to each timeline event, then view the timeline by those things. So I’ll be able to see what all my characters are up to at any given time.

Some outlining and long hand writing on the table as well.

Sunday and Monday I spent time writing out story problems longhand in my notebook, and then translating them into timeline elements, which I then checked to make sure everyone is in the right place at the right time. I have any number of characters who all need to be present at the final battle (or dead by then, in which case their deaths need to have the right drama, witnesses, fallout), and each of whom need to get to the final battle for their own reasons and following their own paths. Which, in a novel with many characters doing many different things at cross purposes all over Norway, is challenging enough.

However, the biggest challenge is figuring out what needs to happen to put my characters through beats that are entertaining to a reader, important to their growth, and illustrative of the novel’s themes. That work is not done on the floor, or in the right software, but in thinking and writing, and making sure I really understand my characters, who they are, and how to push them. This is all logistics. The fun, and far more challenging part, is making sure that everything that happens feels organic to the characters, surprising, and yet inevitable. Hopefully this planning will help get me there.

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Author Photo!!!

Last Friday, I packed up a bag of clothes, washed and dried my hair, and went over to the studio of Nina Subin, who I engaged to take my author photo. This was something I had to do, rather than the publisher, because this photo will be used by my international publishers as well, and all promotion material.

She brought in a hair and makeup artist, so the first 45 minutes was doing that, and then we spent almost four hours with me in different outfits, poses, and backgrounds, to try to get a nice professional photo, and here it is:


Ooops, nope, that is me, and I am writing, but it’s not serious enough. Here it is:


Hahah, no, that’s not it either. It would probably be better if the photo conveyed some life experience. Seriously this time, here is the photo we chose:


But wouldn’t it be awesome if I could use one of the baby ones?

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