It’s NaNo and I’m Rough Drafting Again

A found object sculpture.

I’ve never “won” NaNoWriMo, though I have written 50,000 words in November before, but I think “winning” NaNo is actually completing a novel. Anyway, 50,000 words is a pretty short novel–The Half-Drowned King was somewhere around 145,000 words, and The Sea Queen is 157,000 as it heads for copy editing. (I find word-count a much better way to count progress than pages. Pages are quite variable.)

My other trouble with NaNo, personally, is that I have a strong contradictory streak, and the moment someone tells me to do something, I want to do the opposite. But I think NaNo is a great way to get into a regular writing practice. When I was writing and had a 50-hour-a-week job, I committed to writing a minimum of 500 words a day, 6 days a week, and tried to write 2000 words a day. I found that a helpful way to establish my practice, since 500 words doesn’t take very long, but kept my head in the game.

Now that The Sea Queen is headed for copy-editing, I’ve gotten back into The Golden Wolf, the final book of Ragnvald and Svanhild’s story. I had been having a good time with the rough draft before I had to leave it to edit The Sea Queen, but it’s amazing how quickly it fell out of my head.

Still, I believe in rough drafting as quickly as possible, so I didn’t want to review everything. I did a few days of interviews with myself where I wrote down my understanding of the arcs of the main characters, and major events, and made sure they still tallied with my timeline. I came up with solutions to a few plot problems that had been troubling me, and then I dived back into rough drafting.

I’m finding my rough drafts are getting rougher and rougher as I write more novels. I do have is a good idea of all the events that need to happen before I start rough drafting, but this is different than knowing all the scenes. As I’m going along through my outline, I’m thinking of the scenes I’ll need, and writing them down as quickly as possible. Sometimes just snippets. Sometimes I’ll put a lot of backstory in a scene, or a lot of explanatory text, knowing that later I will have to turn that into another scene, or cut it.

The key with a rough draft is to keep going–write the things that are exciting to me. The moment a scene gets boring, I cut it off, or change it midstream. I quit each day with some ideas of what I’m going to dive into the next day.

My general plan with this book, and what worked for The Sea Queen as well is:

  1. Extremely rough draft–in some ways this is/will be a 120,000 word outline. I write all the scenes that I think need to be written, but no connective tissue, and those scenes may not even be complete. They are mostly written in order, but they are sketches. I have about 90,000 words of this written now.
  2. First draft: in this draft, I go back through and connect everything, make the scenes into chapters, make the plot all connect. When this draft is complete, I should have something readable, with a coherent plot, and no major unresolved questions.
  3. Full read through: this is the first time I am doing an end to end read through without trying to change things as I go. This was super painful for The Sea Queen, but at this point the novel was pretty fixable.
  4. 2nd & 3rd drafts: these are passes I will do on my own, getting the novel into as good shape as possible before showing it to anyone else.
  5. Then I will show it to my agent, editor, and the editing passes with someone else begin. With this counting scheme The Sea Queen went through 8 drafts, with 6 readers.

I’m letting myself be even rougher with The Golden Wolf because I know that the first draft, that second step, is where it really all comes together. To use a sculpting metaphor, I feel like right now I’m gathering big mounds of clay, or maybe a bunch of found objects, and laying them out in a vague order of how I’m going to apply them to the finished thing, but they are just rough objects right now. But I also know that once I have those objects, then I can begin the real work.

So as this year’s NaNoWriMo starts, consider making your NaNo draft a fast and dirty rough draft. Consider not worrying if scenes begin or end, or if you’re writing them in the right order. It is almost guaranteed that your first draft will not be a publishable novel. It may not even be particularly coherent, and that’s fine. Think of it as the raw material you need to craft something.

Continue Reading

On Critique and Criticism

One of my favorite podcasts is I Don’t Even Own A Television, a podcast about bad books. I was the kid whose parents literally did not own a television when I was growing up (ask me about 80s TV! I have no idea! I’m like an alien who arrived in pop culture in 1994!), so I love the title. Even more, I love the criticism; it’s a funny, snarky podcast about bad books. The hosts are hilarious and well-read, and approach the subject with positivity, wit, and joy.

Recently a question came up on the IDEOTV message boards for authors: how would you feel if they did an episode on your book?

Oh, dear readers, I would not feel good. They can and should approach whatever books they want, and I’m sure they would do a wonderful job, but sharing fiction with the world makes me feel more vulnerable and exposed than if I walked down the street naked. I would not listen to that episode and would avoid learning anything about it.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There is a difference between critique and criticism. Critique is feedback aimed at making my work better, and at making me a better writer. Criticism is for other readers. Perhaps it would be helpful to see a pattern in criticism of my work and try to address my deficiencies in the next novel, but ultimately, criticism is for readers deciding whether to read my books, and how they might think about them when they do.

I’m not sure I need to learn to feel good about bad reviews. But I did need to learn to take critique and turn it into self-improvement. Before I got my MFA, I took some writing classes with Gotham Writers Workshop, which was a fantastic way to get my feet wet and get used to receiving critique on my writing. The first story I wrote touched on a very painful friend breakup I had experienced. After turning it in for workshop, I got sick to my stomach and couldn’t hold down solid food for a week. True story.

It got easier over time, but I am not a thick-skinned person for whom taking critique came easily. I would like to be perfect. A part of me believes that if I make any mistake, the earth should probably open up and swallow me so that I am no longer a blemish upon its surface. I want to curl up, cease to exist, fling myself into the sun, hide in a closet, run away and change my name so none will ever know my shame…

So much of advice about taking critique is about not getting defensive and angry, about being open to other people’s perspectives. I envy people whose first instinct is defensiveness and not self-abnegation. The most important journey of my adult life has been learning how to live with mistakes and failure without feeling like they are existential threats.

Another thing that helped was doing some freelance writing for an ad agency. I wrote 1000-word case studies about marketing analytics software. My soul and id is in my novels, but not in that copy. When I was learning the style that the agency wanted, I had to do five drafts of the first case study. It wasn’t great for my ego, and I still felt badly about not getting it right on the first try, but it wasn’t as though they were criticizing my inner self. Taking that critique and using it to improve the advertising pieces made it easier to be a bit more businesslike about my creative writing.

There are differences as well, though. When you’re a freelance writer, writing for a customer, the customer is right, and has the final say. When you’re doing creative writing, you are the final arbiter, and the work’s fidelity to your vision is what success should be measured against. Critique in a workshop also has its challenges. It is different and, to me, better to be taking critique from people invested in selling my books. But no matter what, the steps I go through in taking critique are as follows:

  1. Don’t react externally to critique, especially right away. Don’t justify or apologize. They’re both useless. Thank the person for the critique, and plan to spend some time with it.
  2. Feel your feelings. You’ll probably have lots of feelings. Some of them may be intense. For me it’s self-pity and worthlessness; for you it might be anger and denial. They’re your feelings. They’re okay. They won’t last forever. You’ll probably not want to share them too much except with trusted friends. Don’t vent on the internet. I like to set aside a day or two to sit with critique before taking any action on it.
  3. If you don’t understand the critique, ask questions about it.
  4. Measure the suggestions against your own barometer of what the work should be, but remember that a new reader will see things you have not. I love suggestions for how I should change something. Often I change the thing in a different way, but seeing the way a reader wants something changed points out to me what they snagged on. I might not agree with their solution, but it’a always good to know what tripped them up.
  5. Get ready for the next round.

Critique is a gift, but don’t be ashamed if it’s challenging to process, and requires practice and self-knowledge. If I didn’t feel anything when I received critique, if I were 100% thick-skinned and could shrug it off, I wonder if I’d have enough emotional investment in my work.

Continue Reading

Should you get an MFA?

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve done a blog update. I’ve been working on edits to The Sea Queen from my editor at HarperCollins–all done now! I’ve also written some essays that my publicist and I are trying to get placed in various publications to promote The Half-Drowned King.

Recently, I’ve been reconnecting with some friends from my MFA program. Also, one of my cousins is considering going for an MFA, and it seemed worthwhile to write about my experience for anyone who googles “Should I Get An MFA” as I frequently did when making that decision. When I was about 30, I was working at an internet startup that I was not particularly excited about. I had gone through several years of therapy to help with cycles of depression and anxiety that made my life rather unpleasant. I was starting to feel like I was not, actually, one mistake away from utter ruin, and that I could try different things with my life and it would be okay. At the same time, I was considering my career path, and where I might find meaning in my life. I loved writing and wrote whenever I had free time, but didn’t feel like it was a serious enough pursuit, or that I was good enough at it, to commit to it.

I was considering going back to school, possibly to get an MBA so I could be better at helping run internet startups. Maybe if I threw myself into that, I thought, it would start to feel fulfilling. I was ruminating on that possibility on a now defunct journalling platform. One of my online friends, who had seen me start and stop many writing projects, including what would grow into The Half-Drowned King, wrote, “You shouldn’t get an MBA, you should get an MFA.”

It was exactly the right thing to say to me. I thought: yes, I should get an MFA. But before committing the time and money, I wanted to make sure it was the right choice. I signed up for a Gotham Writers Workshop’s Intro to Creative Writing Class with Evan Rehill and then took several iterations of Gotham’s Novel-Writing Workshop with Diana Spechler.

I loved both of those classes, but eventually I found that wanted more than they offered: to study with students who were perhaps more committed to their craft (though I worked with many very serious writers at Gotham), to read and learn from published literature with my fellow writers, and most of all, I wanted to make a commitment to myself about writing. By the time I began my MFA program at NYU, I had finished writing a few drafts of The Half-Drowned King, and had representation for it, but I wanted to learn more, and continue down the path of becoming a more skilled and interesting writer.

It was the right choice for me. I had savings so I wouldn’t need to go into debt. I had an established career I could go back to. I had confidence in my writing, along with a desire to learn and change. I don’t think these are prerequisites for anyone doing an MFA, but they were for me.

Things to know about MFA programs:

  1. They do not guarantee a writing or teaching career, but they can help An MFA is a degree that qualifies its bearers to teach Creative Writing. Many programs help writers meet agents. But teaching jobs can be scarce, and agents accept plenty of writers who don’t have MFAs.
  2. Workshops are both good and bad. I plan to write a whole separate post about this, but they are not the be-all, end-all of learning to write. I think, at their best, they reflect your writing back to you, so you can see if it had the effect you wanted.
  3. It’s a Masters of Fine Arts, with the emphasis on arts. I view writing as both craft and art, and like to make sure my craft is solid, while art comes like grace. Some of the works we studied felt to me like diving in at the deep end of the pool, looking at novels and stories that broke every rule and still succeeded before learning how and why the rules exist in the first place.

Things I loved about getting an MFA:

  1. Spending so much time with other writers. We’re an awkward, introverted, vain bunch, infuriating and wonderful at the same time. Most of us see our own foibles and each other’s far too clearly for comfort, but there’s something wonderful about that as well, like being with family. I don’t always love the workshop format, but some of my best workshops were great because of my fellow students at least as much because of the faculty.
  2. Reading, reading, reading. My dearest hope going into an MFA program was to get to read things I would not otherwise read, and expand my horizons that way, and I did, in many wonderful classes, and then I filled notebooks with lists of books I should read in addition to those.
  3. Devoting the time and mental energy to writing. For two years, my whole life was about reading and writing. When I graduated, I did get a full time job again, but I knew writing was my most important pursuit and chose my job accordingly.

So should you get an MFA? Yes, if you want to, and:

  • You can afford it
  • You’re serious about writing and want to spend 2 or more years thinking about writing
  • You’re open to growing and changing as a writer
  • But also have a clear vision of and commitment to who you are as a writer. I was very glad I took a number of writing classes before getting an MFA, was practiced at taking critique, and had some experience sorting helpful critique from unhelpful.

Getting an MFA was the right choice for me, that continues to pay wonderful dividends in my creative life, but it is not the only choice for writers.

Continue Reading

I started book 3, and other news

Have a picture of a shaggy seal in the Orkney Islands! Book 3 will have quite a bit of action set here.

The Half-Drowned King is in Goodreads!


I added some blurbs and praise to my Books page. Check it out to read what authors Paula McClain and Madeline Miller have said, as well as Luit van der Tuuk, the Conservator of the Dorestad Museum in the Netherlands.


A few weeks ago I started working on Book 3, The Golden Wolf, which I think is going to be harder than Book 2–it covers more time, and has two separate climaxes. The beginning is certainly hard. I haven’t settled into a routine yet. I have some new POV characters and I’m not sure what’s going on with them. My previous POV characters are older and more settled but they still need to grow and change. It’s taking a little longer to get into this book than the last one…I think. I’m not sure. It’s hard to compare.

This time my process for getting it off the ground is:

  1. Put all the major historical and narratively necessary events/proposed chapters into Aeon Timeline. So far that’s 25 items. The previous two books have 39 and 38 chapters, so I know there will be more, stemming from various subplots. Create those chapters in Scrivener as well. (Aeon and Scrivener work very well together.)
  2. Start writing 500 words a day. This is a pretty small number of daily words. The main point is to put my mind in the world and characters; it is not as much about making forward progress.
  3. Do a lot of longhand writing in my notebook to ask myself questions about plot and characters and answering them. I find this incredibly helpful at any stage in the process. Whenever I feel slightly stuck or blah about characters or story lines, I write to myself about them longhand. I will write down, “Why am I bored of character X’s story line?” and then write down anything that comes to mind as an answer. I can’t recommend doing this enough.
  4. Recently I upped my daily word-count goal to 1000 words a day. This is still pretty small, but it’s important to me to end each writing day with a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the next day, and that means stopping well before I’m written-out. I think next week I will up it to 1500 words. I max out at 2000 or so.
  5. At this stage I’m still working on whatever story lines and POVs that seem the most fun, to keep my momentum going. At some point I will end up working more linearly. Still, the previous book, the first chapters were some of the most vague, written later, rearranged frequently.

It all feels like pulling teeth right now, and I’m just trying to trust that it will come together and gain momentum like the last book, that the more I work on it the more clear it will be and the more my brain will solve plot problems without me consciously thinking about it.

Continue Reading

Engaging Honestly

Or, Why Captain America: Civil War did not work and Rogue One did. Spoilers for both.

I did not like Civil War. There were enjoyable parts of it (Spiderman), but mostly I couldn’t stand it, and the thing that bugged me the most is that the script refused to engage honestly with the central problem: should superheroes have to be registered and overseen by some kind of representative government?

I only read some of the Civil War comics, since they are spread over almost every character in the pantheon, often imposed on the storyline in a way that feels inorganic, and tend to derail the arc of each character when it intersected with the Civil War story. And since the “event” was so clearly a ploy to try to get you to read other comic lines that you might not be in, it was annoying, as blatant cash-grabs often are.

But at least in the comics Tony/Iron Man has legitimate reasons to be in favor of superhero registration, versus Steve/Captain America, who is against it as registration as its enforcement becomes more and more draconian and fascist. Registration is anti-freedom, as far as he is concerned, more about who the superheroes are than what they do. Steve and Tony both come at a difficult question from different perspectives, and address it in ways that are more or less true to their characters.

In the Civil War movie, the conflict is much more one sided. After several horrific missteps and attempted genocides by people with superpowers, the government wants some oversight. After The Age of Ultron, in which several of the characters are walking weapons with nuclear-bomb-level destructive capacity, it seems like they should not simply be independent actors who get involved with global conflicts whenever they feel like it. And in the movie, Captain America is against having oversight because governments want to bring Bucky Barnes, who has murdered a lot of people, in for questioning.

Captain America is proved right through the laziest storytelling possible: the government is both corrupt and being suborned by this Zemo character, so it actually is better for the world, and more fair to Bucky, for Captain America to win. But he “wins” because the story entirely undercuts his character and the central conflict. It’s a narrative cheat. In an internally consistent world, with the conflicts set up by previous movies, some civilian, government-driven oversight of superpowered individuals would be highly preferable to superpowered vigilantes and terrorists who rarely think through the consequences of their actions, even if they intend good. Heck, maybe just coordinate with local medical facilities if you’re going to risk injuring people. Governments aren’t always right, but at least in theory, they represent the interests of the social contract and hopefully the majority of their citizens.

A more interesting conflict would have been if Tony wanted full out registration and control of superheroes, and Captain America wanted consequences only if superheroes violated laws. Perhaps control versus cooperation and guidance. Or a question of whether governments should care about who people are or what they do.

If you want to tell a story about corrupt governments, that’s fine, but that is not the story Civil War set up; the corruption was tacked on to stack the deck for Captain America’s side. Winter Soldier was a much better telling of basically the same story: the helicarriers’ mission was wrong because that much government intrusion and targeting people because of who they are or who they have the potential to be is inherently wrong–made worse when it’s controlled by Hydra, but wrong in and of itself.

Engaging honestly with a premise is one of the reasons that I thought Rogue One worked, even after with any number of storytelling missteps and missing scenes. Most of the characters were paper thin and hard to connect with, but the movie engaged honestly with both the idea of war and what it requires of individuals, as well as the consequences of going up against a bigger and stronger foe.

The reason people are saying that it’s the first Star Wars story that felt like a war story is because it is the first one that acknowledged that even if you’re on the moral side of a war, it will still exact a terrible price from you. Cassian Andor has murdered for the Rebellion and hates himself for it. The Rebellion may be right, but his actions eat away at him. He is the cost and consequence of war writ small. (Saw Guerrera is possibly supposed to be another example of that, but he had way too little screen time.)

And the end, in which everyone dies, engages more honestly with the premise of the final act than I’ve ever seen in a blockbuster movie before. I was sure that at least Jyn and Cassian would be saved, but no. They went up against impossible odds and they died. We’re so used to seeing suicide missions where side characters die, maybe even beloved side characters, to make it feel “real”, but by the conventions of blockbuster storytelling, our heroes will never die. So endings lack punch and real stakes. Rogue One never pulled any narrative punches. People die in war; not just the plucky comic relief, or the guy who’s already lost his whole family so has nothing to lose. Many people die. Good and bad people. Doing the right thing is its own reward, not something that earns a happy ending with the romantic partner of the character’s choice. The fact that Rogue One killed off all of its main characters shows astonishing narrative honesty, and elevates this film far above any of its problems.

Continue Reading

Draken Harald Harfagre Part 1

The author, wearing a very appropriate shirt to tour the Draken Harald Harfagre. #vikings #vikingship #drakenharaldhårfagre

A photo posted by Linnea Hartsuyker (@linneaharts) on

In September, the replica Viking Ship Draken Harald Harfager came to Manhattan. I went out to meet it when it came in, and later got to walk around the deck. The Draken Harald Harfager is a re-creation of a viking war ship (“draken”), and was the first re-creation made and designed by traditional boat-builders rather than archaeologists.

The crew on board all had interesting things to say about what it was like to crew the ship. Many were from Norway and other Scandinavian countries, but a few were from the US and other countries. I learned that it took all hands to raise the sail and took twenty minutes, for without pulleys, the crew have very little mechanical advantage. The sail, which was silk, plus the yard, weigh over 2 tons.

Here are pictures from my tour of the deck. As soon as I got home I bought the official book about the making of the Draken Harald Harfager, which was fascinating, and which I will review in more detail in my next post later in the week.

Continue Reading

Andre Dubus III Master Class on Character

One of the perqs of being an alumna of the NYU Creative Writing MFA program is invitations to the master classes given by visiting writers in the afternoons during the school year. When I was working full time, I didn’t take advantage of any of them, but yesterday I attended my first, a master class on “Writing With Character” led by Andre Dubus III, writer of The House of Sand and Fog and Townie among other excellent books. He was an extremely generous speaker, making a point to learn all of our names and appreciate the little bits of writing and personality that the attendees could share in a 2-hour session. The session itself was inspirational, and I agreed with a lot of what he had to say, though I am also going to quibble with it a bit.

The purpose of the workshop was to talk about writing character, which is one of the hardest parts of writing fiction, and the most rewarding for a writer and a reader. People have said that there are only a few basic plots, but it’s characters that give books and stories their infinite variety. I don’t entirely agree with that, but I do believe that in the best literature, the plots seem to arise inevitably out of how the very specific characters act and react to the situations they are in, and in so doing create new situations.

He had us do three writing exercises during the class:

  1. Describe 10 people who are close to you, using only the sense of smell.
  2. Pick 5 of those people and describe how they are illuminated–the lights that shine on them.
  3. Pick 3 of those people and describe the sounds around them.

I picked several people, but the one I am most pleased with is my mom:

My mother’s sweat smells the same as mine.

Her sewing machine–with a long arm for quilting–has a light in it that shines white on her hands as she works. Outside, the overcast sky reflects on the lake, sending cool gray light in through the window.

With her is always the sound of small machines–the sewing machine, of course. Mixer, bread-maker. The fan of the convection oven. Before she retired: the centrifuge, the agitation bath, the inhale of the fume hood, the exhale of the sterile hood, and in the background the clicking of the Geiger counter I used to pretend was a microphone when I visited her in the lab.

(My mom will tell you that her sewing machine is not a long-arm. And probably also that she mostly used a sterile hood, not a fume hood.)

One of the interesting things about writing characters in historical fiction is how few of the signifiers that you find in my paragraphs above about my mom, are available to me. In this modern world, we make hundreds of choices about what to wear and how to spend our time that illustrate who we are. Those choices are extremely different in a historical setting, and have different meanings. In some ways that means painting with broader strokes. In some ways, that means putting my characters in more extreme situations where we can see their characters emerge from how they react to battle, death, illness. It also requires showing what signifiers mean in my historical context: the choice of sword, spindle, arm-bands should mean more to you after you read my novels than it did before.

Andre talked about how authors, including himself, have taken images like the above, followed them, expanded them, until a story grows from them. He talked about the growth of The House of Sand and Fog from following one of the main characters through her morning. He talked about the difference between “imagining” and “making stuff up”, where imagining is following an image, expanding it to all sense, seeing it, exploring it, going where it leads. And making stuff up is forcing it, making it happen.

He was also opposed to outlining, which he thought was part of working mechanically, rather than letting go.

I think the way he talked about discovery and imagining is a wonderful way of thinking about that dream state of creation. I have some stories and ideas that have evolved from one image like that. In the case of The Half-Drowned King and its sequels, I knew I wanted to write about Harald Fairhair and the founding of Norway, but it wasn’t until I realized he wasn’t my main character, but instead that was his right hand man Ragnvald, and saw a pivotal scene between them in my mind, how fraught it was and everything it meant to them, that I could begin writing this trilogy.

That scene won’t even happen until the third book. I’ve worked backward from history and character and imagination into the characters who we meet in the beginning of The Half-Drowned King. So I think that image exploration can go backward and forwards.

I also do believe in outlining, but as a tool, a map, a guide for the imagination. I still imagine and explore and record what I see there. I outline at the beginning when I am imagining too fast to write the novel’s prose. I outline when I’m stuck, to create more of the map that lets me imagine further. In the case of historical fiction, I am working with various battles and events that have to happen, but those helped me create the characters that I continually imagine and explore. But the outline is never more important than the novel’s truth.

Andre also talked about an author needing a good bullshit detector for their own work, an ability to know when something is wrong or not truthful. I think it comes in many different forms, but one of the ways I know mine is going off is when I’m not interested in a part of the story. That means it’s not truthful or it doesn’t belong. Another way is when every time I think about or read a part of my novel I feel a slight discomfort, and that usually means I’ve taken the easy way out, rather than, again, being truthful.

Continue Reading

My Second Novel!!!

Today I sent a draft of The Sea Queen to my agent. It is 193,000 words long or 650 double spaced 12pt Times New Roman pages in MS Word. I love reading long novels, so it’s not surprising I would like to write them too, but DANG. That is long.

This is a huge milestone because this is only the second novel I’ve ever finished to the point where I am willing to let someone else read it from beginning to end.

Steps so far:

  • Very rough outline
  • Write 70% of the rough draft (120,000 words)
  • Re-outline with much more detail
  • Re-write/write first draft (170,000 words)
  • Let sit for 2 weeks
  • Read quickly, make notes about overall structure
  • Do slow, detailed edit from beginning (193,000 words)
  • Do quicker read-through for typos and infelicitous sentences
  • Send to agent!

It is due July 2017 to my editor at HarperCollins. At that point it might still need a few edits but it should be mostly ready for copy-editing. The Sea Queen will probably be released in Summer 2018. My next steps, I hope:

  • Agent reads it and gives me big picture feedback
  • I make changes based on that feedback
  • Repeat these steps as necessary
  • Send to editor
  • Editor reads it and gives me big picture feedback
  • I make changes based on that feedback
  • Repeat these steps as necessary

I probably won’t get feedback on The Sea Queen for several weeks, so I’m going to take a few days off, then maybe do a rough outline of the final book, The Golden Wolf, and then maybe dive into a novel I have mostly complete that is not part of this trilogy. I don’t want to do too much work on the third book when plot aspects of book 2 may change a lot.

Continue Reading

Dangerous Metaphors

Colorful Kites by John Vetterli
Colorful Kites by John Vetterli

A book is not a baby.

People like to employ many different metaphors to describe books and writing. Some of them are helpful, and some of them are not. They all have certain implications, and add up to the story people tell themselves about the work and their lives.

I encountered the book=baby metaphor again recently. It likened the publication process to trying in vitro fertilization. There are many ways this metaphor doesn’t work for me, but one of the main ones is that if IVF fails, you don’t have a baby. If whatever path to publication you’re trying fails, you still have a book and nothing can take that away from you. Mistaking publication for the book is like mistaking graduation for the learning, the wedding for the marriage, the promotion announcement for the job. It has value, but it is the sign, not the signified.

A book is not a baby, as KJ Charles explains:

I don’t put my baby up for sale on Amazon; I don’t think a poorly baby can be made better by cutting 20% of its length; it is not good practice to put a misbehaving baby in a drawer and forget about it for six months.

The book=baby metaphor also supposes that the pregnancy is the hard part, not the child-rearing, that you are never done with a book, that how much other people like your baby is the real measure of success…. She goes on to look at the metaphor from the point of view of not getting freaked out about bad reviews, (which are for other readers, not the writer) but the metaphor is wrong on so many levels, I wish it would entirely go away. It is flawed to the point of being useless.

I’ve used metaphors like:

  • a book is a sculpture, except the rough draft phase is like making the the clay, and the subsequent draft phases are shaping it;
  • writing is like lifting weights: some days are better than others, progress is infinitesimal sometimes, but after a while you have a baby novel/400lb dead-lift (one day, I hope)–of course this metaphor falls apart quickly, since a novel is finished, and getting stronger never is. Maybe getting better as a writer is more like this.

Today I encountered one that I really liked from Chuck Wendig: submitting a novel is like flying a kite. And I think that metaphor can go further. Writing the novel is making the kite. Submitting it is putting it up into the wind. You may not have much wind. You may have designed a really bad kite. You may have a great kite, but it’s too fragile for the winds you have, or too heavy for the winds, or not able to recover from gusts. It might be a great kite but while you were good at making it, you’re not great at flying it. Many kites can fly, but not all of them, and it needs the right wind, the right launch, hands on the controls that can guide it well. Those winds are the mood of the market, the agents and editors who see it, the market they envision for it. The hands are the author’s and other people who get involved along the way. You can even fix a kite and maybe it will fly better next time, or maybe it’s a more of a bowling ball than a kite, and it is never going to get off the ground.

Of course, every metaphor is wrong in some way. The important thing for me is to tell myself stories and use metaphors that keep writing rewarding. Any metaphor that forgets that, and pushes me to interpret the time I’ve spent writing as something that can be wasted, or something that can fail, is not useful. Extrinsic rewards are great, but the real reward is writing things that I want to read and write. Extrinsic rewards don’t change anything about the novel I wrote, or my worth as a person. They both exist, and have a right to exist, independently of that.

Continue Reading

Edit all the things!

From Hyperbole and a Half:
From Hyperbole and a Half: Why I’ll Nver Be An Adult

I have a lot going on right now. On Friday I received copy edits from HarperCollins on The Half-Drowned King and spent all weekend checking them, accepting most, rejecting few, learning that I never use the word “farther”, and have instead, incorrectly, been using “further” for everything. Pro tip: farther is for physical distance, further is for metaphorical distance. At least I know the difference between “less” and “fewer”, and both the noun and verb uses of “affect” and “effect”. SO THERE.

Sidebar: I always see these blog posts for beginning writers entreating them to check their ego when they get feedback, and don’t immediately reject it and think “THIS PERSON JUST DOESN’T UNDERSTAND MY GENIUS”. If you are someone who feels that way, I am in awe of the strength of your ego. My first reaction to criticism, even on the comma level, is to want to dig a hole and hide in it until the SHAME that I have brought down upon myself and my FAMILY is forgotten. It gets very House of Atreus up in here, but with less cannibalism. Getting an MFA and polishing a novel until it is publishable have helped me get better at taking the extremely necessary and very helpful criticism that is part of being a writer, but nothing will ever get rid of that first uncomfortable feeling.

So I spent all weekend in silly little agonies over some infelicitous word choices in HDK, and some minor mistakes, like farther/further that I made over and over again. I returned that to my publisher, and got back into editing The Sea Queen. It’s great, though, that I am doing both of these at the same time, because the copy editing showed me more things I should be looking for in The Sea Queen, so hopefully it will be better right out of the gate.

I’m also engaged in some back and forth about my US cover–the problem right now seems to be too many good ideas, not too few, which is a nice problem to have. No matter what, I know the end result will be amazing.

And the Draken Harald Harfagre is in town. I watched it arrive in New York on Saturday, and today I am going to take a tour.

Continue Reading