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[writing|process] Once more with the diving board

I’ve commented before that for me, writing often feels like jumping off a high diving board and filling the pool on the way down. The more substantial the project, the more I tend to experience this sensation. Which means sometimes there’s a pause for breath before I step off the edge into space.

I’d committed to myself to start writing Original Destiny, Manifest Sin this month. That’s my Old West alternate history fantasy. So what did I do Monday? Two hours of critique, batting clean-up on the recent Writer’s Digest University online workshop in which I participated. What did I do on Tuesday? Spent ninety minutes reading first drafts of some of the stories for METAtropolis 3: Green Space, the audiobook project I am co-editing with [info]kenscholes for Audible.com. Both of these were necessary and timely Writing Related Program Activities which resulted in zero effort being put in on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin.

(In case you’re wondering what I did with the rest of my time these past two days, recall that I have a full-time job, a teenager in the house, and late stage metastatic colon cancer. I keep busy.)

So today I am stepping off the board. As almost 100 pages of Original Destiny, Manifest Sin exists from my first, aborted effort to write the book most of a decade ago, I’m going to start by re-reading that. I need the characters and more importantly the setting to reinhabit my head.

One of the real challenges of this novel is that it is driven by plot and setting. There are multiple viewpoints with no strong central protagonist. That undermines opportunities for reader identification and can cause problems with the through-line. I think I know how to resolve this, based on input from Howard Waldrop and Maureen McHugh at Rio Hondo a few years back.

And, well, if I’m ever going to write it, now would be the time. I expect to be seriously ill with cancer treatments again in either June or August, and I don’t expect to ever recover from that once I go down that road again. Essentially, unless I get unexpectedly lucky along the way, I have one last time window in which to write this novel. Or any novel.

So once more with the diving board. Today, I jump. Likely no word count today, as reading and making notes will almost certainly occupy as much time as I have available (if not more). Still, I am stepping back into my own personal once upon a time in the West.

[cancer|writing] The road goes on forever, and the party never ends

I have very mixed feelings about my weekend at ICFA. Not at the professional level, wherein I had a gloriously fine time at the conference. Nor at the social level, see above. But at the level of internal reflection and how I experience things through the cancer lens.

I still haven’t sorted out what I thought and felt while there. It’s complicated. So, in no particular order…

Meeting and talking to a lot of students, facing a lot of life choices, reminded me that so many of my own choices are shutting down or being cut off due to my mortality. This really isn’t a feeling I have experienced prior to the cancer. Even as I’ve aged (relatively speaking, I’m only 48), I’ve always seen myself as having copious professional and personal choices. Not so much, now, not with the commitments I have. Some of those commitments are joyous, being parent to [info]the_child, for example; and some of those commitments are reasonable, such as my Day Jobbe career. But mostly I’m committed to this path of mortality which already restricts the kinds of plans I can make and dreams I can work on, and promises to soon restrict those much more tightly, until eventually they contract into the narrow point of my death.

Likewise, seeing a number of old friends and making some new ones in the process kept reinforcing my sense of being on a Farewell Tour. As I said the other day, while this might well be true, it’s not a helpful mindset. Yet there I was. Melancholy set in pretty hard.

My tolerance for social static and disruption is leaching away. Likewise my patience. I do not like these trends in myself. I’ve always aspired to be a good listener, a good friend, understanding about the challenges of human nature. As my illness evolves, I become more and more inwardly focused, which makes me less and less of those things.

I gave away or ditched most of my free books from the conference. I found myself explicitly thinking, “No, I cannot have more stuff at home.” I’m giving things away, not taking them in. Given my lifelong natural tendencies to be a hoarder, this is another dying kind of thought. My joy in stuff has almost vanished, taking with it much of my desire. These days when I look at books, one of my key thoughts is, “Will I live long enough to read it?” That’s not me, that kind of thought. Except now it is.

Meanwhile, cool things keep happening. I signed a nice little subsidiary rights contract yesterday which I’ll be able to announce soon. There’s various other bits of good news coming down the pike in my writing life shortly. I’m about to start writing Original Destiny, Manifest Sin. That online course I’m teaching starts today, and I’m giving a science lecture tonight. Friendships and loves bubble along, I still put my own socks on every day. There’s plenty to live for on a day-to-day basis. But the sadness keeps creeping in.

The road may go on forever, but I can see the end of the party from here.

[writing] Current and future projects

State of the writing life, reduced chemo edition:

Just sold, and got paid for, a Cthulhu short for a forthcoming anthology. “Monsters in the Mountains at the Edge of the World”, set in Samarkand ca. 2nd century A.D. at a historic meeting of the Roman and Chinese empires.

Just finished a first draft spec novella, “Hook Agonistes”, which I will shelve until April then rewrite before market shopping with it.

Currently working on a collaboration with [info]the_child, working title “In the Land of Glass”. I expect this to be a short, or possibly a novelette, when finished.

Currently working on a requested short for a charity anthology edited by [info]takelyn. No title yet.

Next project is an 8,000 word nonfiction commission from a prestigious publisher. I’ll say more when I’ve been cleared to do so, but I’m pretty excited about that. This is due in late March.

At the end of March, I’ll be writing two requested short stories for two fiction markets.

The stories for METAtropolis 3: Green Space are due at the end of March. I am editing this volume along with [info]kenscholes.

In April, barring someone else throwing money at me for something, I’ll be working on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin, my magical Old West novel that I stopped writing some years ago because it got too complex for me at that stage of my craft development. This one has always deserved my very best attention. If I only have time to write one more book, this is the one I want to write. Note that I’ve published a handful of short stories in this continuity, including “The Dying Dream of Water”, “Jefferson’s West” and “The Hangman Isn’t Hanging”.

And so I will go until my disease sucks me back into full treatment, probably some time later this year.

[writing|process] On writing and finishing a story

Yesterday, I finished the first draft of my spec novella, “Hook Agonistes”, at 18,100 words. This is the second story I’ve written since Fred woke up post-chemo around the middle of last month.

My reaction was pretty funny. I spent much of the morning in a mild but noticeable euphoric mania. I’m pretty sure I was rather a trial to Lisa Costello‘s legendary tolerance. Envision if you will me in a state of bouncy, happy, babbling squee. Because I’d finished something important to me.

At this point, I have no idea if the novella is any good. I never do right after I’m done. Muddle in the middle was particularly strong in this one. I went through the usual emotional stages while writing this, sort of Kubler-Ross for authors:

1. Excitement – “Yay! I can has writing!”
2. Dedication – “Must keep going, must be a good writer.”
3. Doubt – “Oh, man, this thing is sucking wind. No one will ever buy it or read it.”
4. Denial – “What, me? What story? Nope, no draft here. Just some fooling around. Never mind.”
5. Acceptance – “Yay! I can has writing!”

But I’m done. And that’s important, regardless of whether or how the novella pays off commercially and critically. I climbed the same hill I climb with every piece, even after drafting twenty novels and at least six hundred short stories. I learned the same lessons I have to re-learn every time. And it felt good. Because doing these things has gotten harder as I’ve grown progressively more ill with cancer. At a time in my professional life where I should finally be glimpsing some mastery of my craft, every word written is both a battle and a victory.

Did I mention that I had finished a story?

[child|writing] Collaborating with my kid

After a tentative start last week, last night [info]the_child and I began efforts in earnest to write a collaborative story. It’s an idea she had a while back, and a darned good one. At the time I told her I wished I’d thought of it, because I could easily get a novel out of the concept.

We’re working together literally line-by-line. That’s not my usual modus operandi on collaborative work, but it allows us to sit side by side and discuss story, writing process and line level language. So it’s a good bonding experience for the both of us, and hopefully a good fiction writing tutorial for her. So far we’ve discussed the structure and pacing of plot reveals, the technical merits of first person versus third person, and a number of finicky language issues. Plus the composition of pennies.

Interestingly, writing is such a solitary act (even most forms of collaboration are serial solitary acts combined, like having sex by postcard), yet this is a profoundly mutual experience. I hope we can shepherd this piece to completion and find a publication home for it. Whether or not we succeed, this is a lot of fun for both us. I love my kid, and I love writing. What’s not to like?

[writing] Closing in on “Rock of Ages”

This story keeps getting longer. My original estimate of 14,000 words has been blown wide open, given that I’m at 20,200 now, and probably going land somewhere between 22,000 and 24,000. That’s okay. This piece is contracted but not to tight length. With luck, I’ll finish the first draft sometime today.

A funny thing happened this writing week. Around the midpoint of the story there’s an extended scene that really bothered me when I wrote it. Something was wrong with the motivations of the secondary characters in the scene, and my protagonist essentially got away with something important in a manner which didn’t make sense either within the story’s internal narrative continuity or from an external plot-and-structure perspective. I flagged it for attention on rewrite, and even remarked upon the problem to several people.

Well, a day or two ago, while writing, five or six thousand words deeper into the manuscript, the reason for the problem in the earlier scene presented itself in a manner which also tied up some threads from the previous two METAtropolis. Everything made sense in retrospect. What had felt like a pushover at the time turned out to be a set-up, and well justified in terms of the larger story arc. Fred, my writing mind, had been way the heck ahead me of the whole time.

I love moments like that.

From a purely craft perspective, writing on chemo is always strange. My writing brain is asleep at least half the time, if not more. That means when I pick up the draft again, I’m not in the straight through flow state I often achieve when writing short fiction. It makes the project more like a novel, from a craft point of view, in that the writing process is more interrupted and acontinuous. I have to rely heavily on written notes and rereading earlier sections to make sure I’ve got the voice right, the information reveals going on in the right order, a decent amount of character continuity, and so forth. More work spread out over less time plays merry hell with my productivity.

I am sad that this is probably the last piece of fiction I’ll write before next May or June at the earliest. I may sneak in one or two much shorter stories before my brain evaporates, but I’m damned close now. And there might be a window of opportunity in January around my surgery break, depending on quickly and how well I bounce back from the chemo.

For now, I’m fairly pleased with this one.

Meanwhile, a little bit of WIP:

“Nice view, huh?” said Bibendum, his voice crackling over a dedicated suit-to-suit channel as he towed the both of them through empty space with a little powered sled to which the suits were closely tethered.

“You’re orbit-born, aren’t you?” Bashar asked, confirming an earlier thought. How had he gone all his life without ever seeing this view in person?

The kid replied in a disgusted tone. “You think they’d bother to lift someone like me out of the gravity well?”

“Is everyone up here like you?”

“No.” Then reluctantly: “I have Yonami syndrome. It’s a genetic disorder that’s unrelated to being conceived or gestated in orbit. One or more of my grandparents got into some pretty toxic stuff. I also have friable bones, from growing up here. I can never go down the gravity well. Not if I want to keep on living.” That sounded like a rehearsed speech.

Bashar could almost feel sorry for the kid. At least, he would have if Bibendum weren’t neck deep in trying to murder a million people on Bashar’s own home turf.

[awards|writing] The Audie Award arrives at Neuvo Rancho Lake

Yesterday, my friend and editor/publisher Steve Feldberg of Audible.com sent me this:

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As some of you may remember, METAtropolis: Cascadia won the Audie award last spring for Best Original Work. The follow-on volume to the John Scalzi-edited METAtropolis, this was edited by me, and contains the warm prose stylings of Elizabeth Bear, Tobias Buckell, Mary Robinette Kowal, Ken Scholes, and Karl Schroeder, as well as myself.

So this is pretty darned neat. I hadn’t realized I’d eventually be getting a gorgeous doodad for my brag shelf. And such a gorgeous doodad it is, albeit hard to photograph. Also a nice little bit of ego boo, as well as additional incentive to finish the first draft of “Rock of Ages”, my METAtropolis: Green Space story in progress. (Which, yes, I should be able to put the wrap on this coming week.)

This also makes me reflective. Thanks to my illness, my career as it has been constituted is effectively over. None of my books ever caught fire enough to keep me on the upward growth trajectory required to maintain shelf space in trade publishing these days. Cancer has kept me too sick to do a redirect in a timely fashion. My ability to write more books — in any genre or sub-genre ‐ is significantly at risk, given my treatment courses and life expectancy. More to the point, my ability to deliver them in a contracted, timely fashion is significantly at risk.

At this point, unless I make a full recovery from cancer and can take half a dozen years to make a serious run at a restart, the writing career I’d dreamed of and was at least somewhat on track for a serious attempt at is gone. I’m not finished, not by any stretch. I’ll continue to at least produce short fiction until I’m too sick to do even that. I have books in my head, some of which may get written collaboratively. And I’ve already done a hell of a lot. Six novels from Tor, four independent novels, more short stories than I can count, dozens of Year’s Best appearances. Won the Campbell Award. Won the Audie Award. Been nominated for a boatload of stuff from the topline down. Hosted both the Hugo Awards and the World Fantasy Awards. (If I could toastmaster the Nebulas, that would be the trifecta.)

It’s really hard to complain. I regret nothing, except for the future that is being stolen from me week by week, month by month, cell by cell.

I want to live. I want to watch my daughter grow up. I want to write more and be read. Those things are slowly becoming too much to ask.

Still, I am proud of myself and what I’ve accomplished. Thank you, Steve Feldberg and Audible.com, for sending me this bit of memory.


Photo © 2012, Joseph E. Lake, Jr.

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[writing] Pleasing progress on several fronts

An unexpected foreign rights check in the mail this week, as well as an expected-but-no-idea-when contract and a hoped-for-but-unexpected contract. This business is so weird. I made more writing money in three days than I’ve made in months. In order, Mainspring earned out in Germany in its first reporting period (or first year, I’m actually not completely clear on this) and paid a decent royalty besides, I got the METAtropolis: Green Space contract, and the Green novelette I just wrote, “A Stranger Comes to Kalimpura”, was accepted. I’ll formally announce the market for that acceptance when the editor blesses me to do so.

Pleased writer is pleased.

Speaking of METAtropolis: Green Space, yesterday I wrote 2,800 more words on “Rock of Ages” yesterday, to 14,000 words. I’d originally estimated this at 15-18,000 words, but the shape of the plot is heading more to 20-24,000 words. It’s unusual for me to be this uncertain of length, but some of my best work has come out this way, so I’m not going to complain.

I’m glad to have been writing. Chemo will shut me down today, and I won’t write again for at least a week, maybe longer. I really hope to finish this novella in my next cycle, because I’m not too far from the long-term dissolution of my writing brain as a chemo side effect. Once that grinds to a halt, based on prior experience, I won’t lay down new wordage until May or June of next year.

Some WIP:

He wound up seated – with a strap to keep him there against microgravity – in a semicircle of chairs facing a large virteo monitor in a small and otherwise featureless room. The woman who’d met him was there, along with a hard-bitten, whipcord thin Asian man who could almost have been Bashar’s age, and a much younger and doughier man with pink eyes and brittle hair who seemed to be suffering from a metabolic disorder.

“I’m Cherie,” said his host. “That’s Lu,” she pointed at the Asian man, “and Bibendum.”

“I’m Credence,” Bashar said. It was the name he’d used to get into Schaadt’s Shack, and thus – at least in a sense – was a verifiable identity. These people might be strangely naïve about physical security, but he’d bet every Euro he’d ever had that they were at the razor’s edge on data security.

“Where’s Feeney?”

“Dead.” His voice freighted with the conviction of a truly bald-faced lie, Bashar went on. “Killed in a dope grower’s cross-fire two days ago. I knew he had the meet up at Schaadt’s Shack, and so I went to keep it.”

“Hmm.” She glanced at Lu and Bibendum, then back at Bashar. “You got the maps?”

“Depends. Which maps do you need?”

“We can handle the blast distribution and hydrological calculations. We need the locations.”

[books|writing] The Sekrit Project Uncloaks: METAtroplis 3: Green Space

Now it can be told. Audible.com is acquiring a third volume in the Hugo Award nominated and Audie Award winning series of original audiobook fiction, METAtropolis. The new volume, METAtropolis: Green Space, is mostly set in around the turn 22nd century and explores the long term consequences of the issues and trends raised in the first two books. This new audiobook will be edited by me and Ken Scholes, and include series alumni Elizabeth Bear, Tobias Buckell, Mary Robinette Kowal and Karl Schroeder, as well as adding Seanan McGuire. Ken and I will also have stories in the new book.

The first volume, 2009’s METAtropolis was edited by John Scalzi. 2010’s METAtropolis: Cascadia was edited by Jay Lake.

And for my own part, here’s a little bit of WIP from the initial draft of my piece.

Turning around, Bashar set the lettermail opener back down on the assistant’s desk. He smiled again, ignoring the panicked reek of sweat and urine. Exasperation was long gone from the twit’s face. “My apologies, son. I didn’t get the memo about which way the wind is blowing.” He gave the assistant a sharp nod. “Let me know if you need the name of a good dry cleaner.”

The security squad let him walk out of the office uncontested. Bashar was pretty sure this was against the new orders. He’d take his courtesies where he found them, however. His accesses hadn’t been shut off yet, because he passed through two staffed checkpoints and three automated ones without further challenge.

Bashar didn’t start breathing easily again until he was outside under an overcast Seattle sky. As easily as he ever breathed these days. His skin warmed quickly even with the cloud cover – the UV filter tattoos covering most of his body were doing their work, converting waste energy to radiant heat, much of which was being trapped by the thermal battery fibers in his clothing. Who needed an ozone layer when you had tattoo guns and micron-scale engineering embedded in your transparent ink?

[writing] “A Stranger Comes to Kalimpura” off to market

Spent about two and half hours revising my Green novelette “A Stranger Comes to Kalimpura”. Oddly enough, I landed at 14,900 words, out of an originally targeted 15,000 words. Funny how that works out.

I treated this short piece like I treat novel revisions these days, with multiple reading and editing passes, as well as an audio pass. That is very much worth the trouble, though the final rounds of changes tend to be fairly subtle.

It was an interesting story to work on in other ways. For one thing, it’s about an outside context problem. Admittedly, having Green resolve this is a bit of a cheat, since by definition, outside context problems can’t be solved within the cultural framework in which they occur. On the other hand, since her very beginnings as a short story in Aeon magazine, long before there were three novels and half a dozen pieces of short fiction about her, Green has been a master recontextualizer.

For another thing, it’s about Green at around thirty years of age. I had originally stated her age at twenty-five, but that created continuity conflicts with the final scenes of Kalimpura. The age of thirty nicely puts her daughter Marya at the same age as Green herself in the events of Endurance and Kalimpura, creating some strong implied conflict that I touch on only briefly in the course of “A Stranger Comes to Kalimpura”, but that I might profitably revisit in future projects. Not to mention the whole “What is this ageing that steals upon me like a sunset shadow” thing that people start to go through when they begin to viscerally comprehend that they’re not going to be young and beautiful forever.

Mostly, though, it was fun to finish a piece. Now “A Stranger Comes to Kalimpura” is off to market. We’ll see what the editor thinks.

Next up, a Sekrit Projekt novella for which there has been substantial pre-gaming with the writing team involved. I’ll announce when I can, but it’s cool as hell, and getting cooler. I probably won’t start laying down new prose today, as I have to do 60,000 or 70,000 words of background reading to refresh continuity before I begin writing, but I’ll get all my pins set. When I emerge from the fog of this coming Friday’s chemo session, I hope to write like a demon.